The interviewee, known here as Jorge, requested that his true identity be not be revealed for fear that he would be targeted as a result of the information that he provided – including the names of local death squad commanders and the military officers that collaborate with them.
Justice for Colombia: Can you tell us a little about Meta department?
Jorge: Meta is one of Colombia’s largest provinces – to give you an idea; it is a little bigger than the country of Austria. It is located, more or less, in the centre of Colombia and has a variety of climates and geography. In the west are the mountains of the Andes and to the centre and east of the department are the big plains known as the ‘llanos’ where there is a lot of cattle farming as well as large plantations of crops such as African Palm. In the south of the department the jungles begin and so the jungle and the Andes ensured that for many years Meta was a relatively remote region. Later people came here in the hope of colonising new lands and starting new lives. But even now the population of the entire region is only about three quarters of a million, and nearly half of them live in the capital city Villavicencio.
How has the Colombian conflict affected the region?
There has been violence in Meta for many years although the nature of the violence has changed. In the 1980s for example, there were many selective assassinations of people on the left and social activists; members of the political opposition, trade unionists, community leaders, human rights defenders, etc. These killings were mainly concentrated in the north west of Meta and especially in the capital Villavicencio. However, at that time, and for much of the 1990s, the department was relatively quite in terms of fighting. This was because the north of the region was firmly under the control of the State whilst the south and west of Meta was virtually entirely under the control of the FARC guerrillas. So whilst there was sometimes combat it was normally only a small ambush or fire fight, and it wasn’t very regular – with one or two exceptions, for example the assault on La Uribe [when the Colombian military attempted to capture the FARC’s central command camp in the mountainous municipality of La Uribe in western Meta], both sides basically stayed in their own territories. This changed in 1997 with the Mapiripan massacre which signified the beginning of the intense and widespread conflict in Meta that continues to this day.
Can you tell us about what happened at Mapiripan?
It was in July 1997 and it was the first time that the paramilitaries made a large-scale incursion into the region. Mapiripan is a small municipal town in the south of the department and was, and to some extent still is, a stronghold of the FARC. What happened was that two aeroplanes carrying a large number of heavily armed paramilitaries arrived at the airport in San Jose del Guaviare where the police and army allowed them to land. The men, around 200 of them, then travelled through several Army checkpoints before arriving at the town two days later. They then spent five days in the town torturing and murdering the residents. They used chainsaws and machetes and carried out the cruelest acts imaginable including beheadings and torturing men and women to death in front of their families. Despite desperate calls from people to the authorities, the army – General Uscategui was the man responsible – refused to allow any help to be sent into the area and ordered all local military units to stay away from the town. The local magistrate in Mapiripan telephoned the head of the local army battalion eight times during the massacre but he too refused to send help. The paramilitaries threw many of the bodies into the river so the has never been an exact number put on how many were killed but it was around 50 people including most of the community leaders and those who had organised the peasant protest marches in 1996.
What happened afterwards?
Mapiripan was the start of the paramilitary onslaught into Meta which, like the massacre itself, was carried out in complete coordination with the Army. Over the next decade the death squads were allowed free reign and they killed many hundreds, probably thousands, of civilians around Meta. Many of them were trade unionists, human rights activists, community leaders of members of the political opposition, but probably the majority were simple peasant farmers. The paramilitaries and the Army accuse the peasants of supporting the FARC guerrillas so they target them which has led many to flee the region entirely to the shanty towns or displaced camps.
So are the killings and massacres aimed at guerrilla sympathisers or supporters?
It is more complicated. They do try to clear civilians out of regions where FARC units operate as a counter-insurgency tactic – if there are no civilians the guerrillas find it harder to operate. However, there is another motive too. If the people are gone, and the guerrillas too, it allows the land to be taken over by either the paramilitaries or business interests which have a close relationship to the Army and the political elite in Bogota. Much, probably most, of the land in Meta is now owned either by businessmen or by paramilitaries or their front companies. The peasants are being gradually forced to flee.
Are the FARC and the paramilitaries still both present in the region?
Yes, both are still here. The FARC are mainly in the mountains in the west and the jungles in the south, whilst the paramilitaries, along with the Army, are in the centre and the north of the department. The Army is making some progress in pushing the guerrillas back and the paramilitaries come in behind them and take control over the territory that the Army has won back from the guerrillas. The fighting between the Army and the FARC has been intense in the past three years in Meta and many have been killed on both sides.
What has been the situation this year?
The most intense violence has occurred in and around the municipality of El Castillo which is on the front line between the two sides. The Army has pushed the FARC up into the mountains and the paramilitaries, employing the standard strategy, have been operating behind the lines terrorising the civilian population. In these regions the civilian authorities have no power whatsoever, everything is handled by the military and they and the paramilitaries do whatever they want.
What is the aim of this strategy and who exactly is behind it?
They are taking control of the area politically, economically and socially and exterminating anyone who stands in their way. Community leaders, local teachers and trade unionists have been especially hard hit and this year there were numerous selective assassinations. Many others were forced to flee their homes after being threatened by either the soldiers or the paramilitaries, or sometimes by both. Over 350 families have been forced to leave El Castillo and farms and homes are regularly pillaged. Those that leave sometimes have to walk for days to reach safety. They have to sleep by the side of the road and depend on the kindness of strangers for food and other basics. Most of them usually end up in one of the displaced camps or the shanty towns in either Villavecencio or Bogota where conditions are extreme. Their lives are ruined but they cannot return or they will be killed. And the threats are very serious. Earlier this year Efrain Caro Ansola, a human rights activist working in El Castillo fled after soldiers told him that they would chop off his head if he did not leave. And just last month two more local people, Aladino Alvarez Calvo and Jose Rengifo, both fled after troops of the ‘Vargas’ Battalion began showing people a death list that included their names on it. The soldiers were telling everyone that many people were shortly going to be killed. The strategy is to clear the region of people so that the land can be taken and the guerrillas cleared out. As to those responsible I can give you the names.
In El Castillo it is the 21st ‘Vargas’ Battalion of the Colombian Army who is responsible. They have their base in the nearby town of Granada and their commander is Lieutenant Colonel Mauricio Monsalve Duarte who openly works with the paramilitaries. In May a humanitarian mission including both Colombians and foreigners came to the region and part of their visit included a meeting with local residents that was held in the school in the village of La Esmeralda – which is in a rural part of El Castillo municipality. The Lieutenant Colonel arrived in a jeep belonging to the paramilitaries and was accompanied by a group of soldiers as well as an armed paramilitary. Those on the mission asked him to leave as they wanted to talk to the residents without the Army being there and he did, but the presence of the paramilitary with him really scared people and many were afraid to speak after they saw that man. Afterwards, when the mission had left, troops of the ‘Vargas’ Battalion returned and carried out raids on homes and told people that they were arranging for the paramilitaries to come and finish them off. Many residents left, especially after the soldiers showed a list of names of those that would be targeted. The list included the members of the local trade union SINTRAGRIM.
Not long after, the paramilitaries themselves appeared and were patrolling in a red truck with the license plate GGZ 026, and they had the same list of names. In the nearby village of Puerto Esperanza, Lieutenant Marin, who is also from the ‘Vargas’ Battalion, is even worse. He has basically established his own little death squad that patrols the area. The men are soldiers but they wear other uniforms and go out looking for people at night that are on their list. Nelson Palomino, a well known peasant farmer in Puerto Esperanza, was targeted by them – men in balaclavas went to his house in the middle of the night – and he and his wife both had to flee their home. But sometimes it is the other way round. ‘Sergeant Soreya’ who is supposedly a member of the ‘Vargas’ Battalion who operates in El Castillo is in fact a low level paramilitary commander who used to be known as ‘El Capitan’ when he operated in the municipality of Lejanias. People from there recognise him but he is now apparently a soldier.
The ‘Vargas’ Battalion is basically interchangeable with the local paramilitaries. In May the paramilitaries established a check point next to the school in the village of La Floresta. The ‘Vargas’ soldiers had their check point 200 meters away but did nothing to disturb their friends just up the road. You can also regularly see the same two military trucks transporting a joint group of soldiers and paramilitaries around El Castillo municipality.
The Colombian Government says that they have demobilised the paramilitaries and jailed their leaders. Have you seen any evidence of this in Meta?
Yes, but only on the surface. There is a former paramilitary boss from the region who is known as ‘Julian’ who is now in jail but he continues to command his men from there. Earlier this year he ordered that Jose Wilfredo Henao by murdered – he ordered it from his prison and the job was given to ‘Caregarra’ a paramilitary who is based in El Castillo. Jose is the son of Maria Lucero Henao and the brother of Yamid Daniel. They were both assassinated four years ago after she had denounced the arrival of paramilitaries in the region and refused to leave her land. Now they want to kill the remaining son so that he cannot give testimony as to what happened to his mother and brother. The ‘demobilisation’ of the paramilitaries is nothing more than a farce. A few have been jailed, and they continue to operate from prison, but the vast majority are free and thousands, all over Colombia, continue to operate and continue to murder, torture, threaten and massacre people.
Is El Castillo the only place where the abuses are happening and where this sort of collaboration between the Army and the death squads is occurring in Meta?
No, of course not. At the start of this month [December 2008] around 500 paramilitaries arrived in the municipality of Vista Hermosa. They have a checkpoint near the town of Pinalito and on the road to the villages of Santo Domingo and La Cooperativa. Their main camp is just outside of the village of Alto Canaguay and they are constantly patrolling on motorbikes and in jeeps. They have been forcing the residents of the area to attend meetings where people are told that all coca [the raw material used to produce cocaine which is widely cultivated in Meta] must be sold to them.
They tell people that if the coca is sold to anyone else then the people will be killed and they have threatened several other people and forced them to flee the region. In two communities, El Tigre and La Gorgona, they have threatened everyone and all the residents have now fled leaving them like ghost towns. Anyone who stands up to them is accused of being a guerrilla and targeted. The Army do nothing about it and allow the paramilitaries to act with impunity. They are completely aware of where the paramilitaries have their check points and camps but they do nothing.
Do you also know who is responsible for this?
Yes, in this case the paramilitary commander in charge of the 500 men is Eduardo Hernandez Leiton who goes by the alias ‘El Tino’. He is working with troops of the 12th Mobile Brigade of the Army, in particular members of the 83rd Counter-Guerrilla Battalion who are coordinating their operations with him.
What good does complaining or denouncing these crimes do?
In Colombia it does not do very much. The Government almost never responds when we denounce what is happening and, if they do, it is normally some months or even years later so the paramilitaries have moved on and the Army units or their personnel are operating in a different place. Those responsible are rarely punished so 99% of the crimes are committed with impunity. The biggest problem that we face is that witnesses or human rights activists who document the murders, the threats, the massacres, are themselves targeted. We’ve seen many human rights defenders killed in Meta and many others who have complained or given testimony have either been assassinated or disappeared. This makes people scared and therefore justice is even more difficult to attain. To give an example, when Alba Nelly, who was the president of the local community action council in La Esmeralda, made a formal complaint earlier this year about the ‘Vargas’ Battalion and the paramilitaries working together in El Castillo, soldiers came looking for her.
Protection was requested but not provided so she had to flee her home. As she is no longer present, her complaint – which documented numerous cases of collaboration – has been archived and may never be investigated. In another case, in the village of Puerto Esperanza, which is also in El Castillo municipality, soldiers were terrorising the local residents and accusing them of having links to the FARC. Aldemar Lozano, a human rights activist and member of the political opposition, denounced this but then got so seriously threatened that he had to leave to live in Bogota. His wife, Rocio, who stayed, then spoke out and the soldiers came after her. However, while it seems to some extent pointless to complain, to denounce, to tell the truth about what is really happening here, this place is our home, where our families live and where we have been for all of our lives.
We cannot just ignore what is happening; we need to document it for the future so that, hopefully, one day justice can be done. So that all those who have been forced to flee, can eventually return to their homes and those responsible be investigated and punished. We also hope that by telling the international community what is going on in Meta, that they may intervene in some way to assist us. It is clear to us here that our Government, the regime of Alvaro Uribe Velez, is following fascist policies – that is to say policies that do not respect the fundamental rights of human beings, policies to destroy any organisations that the poor, the peasants or the working classes establish, policies that stifle debate and silence critics with violence.
Hopefully, when people really understand what is happening here in Colombia they will see through the charade of Uribe, his dictatorship dressed up as a democracy.
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This post was written by Justice For Colombia