On the road outside Puerto AsÃs. (I don’t have a Villa Sandra picture.)
The following two paragraphs come from a report (PDF) we published following a 2006 visit to the department of Putumayo, in southern Colombia.
A few miles north of Puerto AsÃs, close to the large military base in the crossroads town of Santana, sits â€œVilla Sandra,â€ a large compound with a big house, a pond and recreational facilities. Six years ago, during the paramilitariesâ€™ bloody takeover of Putumayoâ€™s town centers, and then during the beginning of Plan Colombiaâ€™s execution, Villa Sandra was the paramilitariesâ€™ center of operations. Everyone in Puerto AsÃs â€“ except, apparently, the military and police â€“ knew that the paras were headquartered there, and that many who were forcibly brought there never left the premises.
During our 2001 visit to Putumayo, Villa Sandra was very much in use. When we returned in 2004, it was abandoned, and remains so now, its facilities in evident disrepair behind a high chain-link fence. Many in Putumayo believe that an inspection of the compoundâ€™s grounds would reveal much about the paramilitariesâ€™ activities in the zone â€“ including, in some likelihood, mass graves. That Villa Sandra remains untouched and uninvestigated is eloquent evidence of the paramilitariesâ€™ continued influence over Putumayo, despite the recent demobilizations.
The existence of the “Villa Sandra” paramilitary base, right on the main road outside Putumayo’s largest city, was no secret in 2000-2001. At that time, the AUC paramilitaries were in the midst of a horrifying string of massacres of the civilian population in Putumayo, with no opposition from Colombia’s security forces.
Also at that time, the United States was just getting started with “Plan Colombia,” at the time a campaign of military and police assistance, purportedly for counternarcotics, whose “ground zero” in this initial phase was Putumayo.
As U.S. military money poured into Putumayo, groups like ours loudly denounced the local armed forces and police units’ quite open collaboration with the paramilitaries, even as the AUC carried out a bloodbath in the zone.
- Human Rights Watch published an extensive investigation into paramilitary ties to Putumayo’s security forces, which mentioned Villa Sandra, the paramilitary base, by name.
- We denounced the presence of Villa Sandra in two reports and in all interactions with U.S. government officials.
- The BBC reported on how one could easily arrive at the base just by hailing a taxi in Puerto AsÃs.
- Amnesty International mentioned Villa Sandra in testimony before a U.S. congressional committee.
- On the floor of the Senate in October 2001, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota) demanded, “Close Hacienda Villa Sandra, a base about one mile north of Puerto AsÃs, the largest town in Putumayo. Is this too much to ask?”
None of these efforts made a difference. U.S. military and police funding continued to pour into Putumayo, supporting a Joint Task Force headed by the highly questioned Gen. Mario Montoya in what the Clinton administration’s drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, called “The Push Into Southern Colombia.” The paramilitary campaign of terror proceeded apace, killing thousands, displacing tens of thousands, and – if the strength of FARC fronts operating in Putumayo today is any indication – doing little to weaken the guerrillas. And Villa Sandra remained open for business.
Last Wednesday, the “Verdad Abierta” website, a collaboration between Semana magazine and several think-tanks and international donor agencies, posted an article about Villa Sandra. Citing testimony from a demobilized paramilitary member, it confirms the worst about how the base was used, the number of bodies that are probably buried there, and the level of collaboration the paramilitaries received from the local military and police.
As you read these translated excerpts below, keep in mind that all of this was happening while a specially vetted Colombian Army Counter-Narcotics Battalion, set up in 1999-2000 entirely with U.S. funds, was operating at a base perhaps half a mile away.
Villa Sandra offers eloquent testimony to why assurances from the U.S. and Colombian governments that human rights protections are in place, and that the situation is improving, simply can’t be taken at face value. Such official claims must always be carefully and independently verified. Villa Sandra also reminds us that the victims of what happened during Plan Colombia’s first phase in Putumayo need far more truth, justice, reparations and protection than they are currently getting.
Verdad Abierta, October 21, 2009
On a farm in Puerto AsÃs, Putumayo, the paramilitaries apparently buried more than 800 people who were killed by the Southern Front of Putumayo.
The victims’ remains may be found at a farm called Villa Sandra, where the paramilitaries installed one of their bases of operations during their consolidation process in southern Colombia in January 1998.
This is according to testimony given to prosecutors of the Justice and Peace Unit [of the Prosecutor-General's Office] in MedellÃn by John Jairo RenterÃa ZÃºÃ±iga, alias “BetÃºn,” who was part of the Southern Front of Putumayo created in 1998 with members of the Bananero Bloc of the Campesino Self-Defense Forces of CÃ³rdoba and UrabÃ¡ (ACCU) at the orders of paramilitary chief Carlos CastaÃ±o, and commanded by alias “Rafa Putumayo.”
“At that farm we had a permanent group, and that is where those from town brought the people they were going to kill, they handed them over, they executed them and they buried them over there. There are a lot of people in graves, I believe some 800 people,” said alias “BetÃºn”…
According to the ex-paramilitary, this land was donated to the ACCU by its owner, so that they could install their base of operations there. Asked why they chose to bury their victims there, “BetÃºn” explained that it owed to a suggestion from the Puerto AsÃs police: “They asked us the favor of not killing any more people in town, because it created problems for them, so they gave the order that anyone they wanted to kill should be brought to the farm and buried there.”
Dozens of victims who were killed at the paramilitaries’ hands were accused of being presumed FARC militia members or informants by the business owners of Puerto AsÃs: “They knew where we lived and they had our telephone numbers. They called us every so often to inform us that there were militias in town, so we captured them and brought them to Villa Sandra. The majority of the people who died in Puerto AsÃs were because of the local businesspeople.”
One of this paramilitary front’s most macabre actions was its compliance, without discussion, of orders to cut their victims up into pieces. “We had to dismember the people. First we chopped their hands off, later their feet and finally the head. Many times this was done while people were still alive. Nobody could be buried whole,” according to the former ACCU patroller. …
According to calculations from the Prosecutor-General’s Office, it is estimated that more than 3,000 people are buried in mass graves in Putumayo. …
The expansion of the Southern Front of Putumayo, according to RenterÃa ZÃºÃ±iga’s testimony, had the help of the security forces based in the department. According to the demobilized paramilitary member, the police, the army and the navy involved themselves for several years with the paramilitaries, with the argument that “they shared the same cause.” …
“So we decided to coordinate with them. Initially, they told us to stay on the edge of town, later they told us that we could stay in the town, and we came in uniform. Also, they came to our base and rode in our cars, and we rode in their cars too,” explained the defendant, who insisted during his testimony that he did not remember names of officers or sub-officers, or of battalions or military units.
During their operations, he said, the army’s roadblocks were raised so that they could transit with no problems, and “When we needed some support, they were there, and when they needed support they’d ask it of us. Meetings were held with their commanders and our commanders, and we had our radio frequencies coordinated.”
The demobilized paramilitary fighter spoke of two helicopters, apparently from the Army, which several times supplied them with weapons, ammunition and uniforms in exchange for cocaine.