Friday links, increasing violence edition Follow-up on Soacha post
Oct 262009
On the road outside Puerto Asís. (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 Asís, close to the large military base in the crossroads town of Santana, sits “Villa Sandra,” a large compound with a big house, a pond and recreational facilities. Six years ago, during the paramilitaries’ bloody takeover of Putumayo’s town centers, and then during the beginning of Plan Colombia’s execution, Villa Sandra was the paramilitaries’ center of operations. Everyone in Puerto Asís – except, apparently, the military and police – 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 compound’s grounds would reveal much about the paramilitaries’ activities in the zone – including, in some likelihood, mass graves. That Villa Sandra remains untouched and uninvestigated is eloquent evidence of the paramilitaries’ 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 Asís.
  • 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 Asís, 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.

Investigation of possible mass grave with 800 cadavers in Puerto Asís

Verdad Abierta, October 21, 2009

On a farm in Puerto Asís, 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 Medellín by John Jairo Rentería Zúñiga, alias “Betún,” 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 Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU) at the orders of paramilitary chief Carlos Castaño, 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 “Betún”…

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, “Betún” explained that it owed to a suggestion from the Puerto Asís 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 Asís: “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 Asís 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 Rentería Zúñiga’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.

10 Responses to ““Villa Sandra”: a mass grave in Putumayo recalls Plan Colombia’s beginnings”

  1. Kyle Says:

    Adam, good coverage. I read the Verdad Abierta piece the other day as well. And regarding a photo of Villa Sandra. At a reten in front of the military base in Santana in 2007, I looked around and tried to take photos of what could be hacienda Villa Sandra. The military actually stopped me because they didn’t want me taking photos so close to the base.

  2. Adam Isacson Says:

    I don’t think VS was in line-of-sight distance from the base, I remember you had to drive a minute or two. It was surrounded by a high chain-link fence and had a pond on one side, and what looked like a swimming pool on the other.

  3. Kyle Says:

    At the time, I couldn’t remember off the top of my head where it was. So I have like 200 photos of Santana, inside and around. But no idea if I got a photo of it – and i lost some of those anyways. Either way, it is quite surprising that it still hasn’t been opened up yet for something. Though I’m sure many in Putumayo don’t want it open, and many do as well. I do remember, from other reports, that from a corner of the base you could almost see it – so I used a long distance lens. Either way, it’s essential the opening and investigating the hacienda.

  4. Camilo Wilson Says:

    This is an excellent summary of documents pertaining to the inception of Plan Colombia in Putumayo in the year 2000. The article cited in “Verdad Abierta” speaks eloquently to the savagery of the country’s armed conflict. Then as now, that conflict knows no saints, only demons, national and international. And some of those demons don the garb of self-righteousness and parade about as saints. They did so then, they do so now. A Colombia le falta un Lazarillo de Tormes.

  5. lfm Says:

    I have a question for Adam, Kyle or whoever else has knowledge on the ground about this. I usually operate under the notion that paramilitary violence is a very effective tool to “cleanse” an area from guerrilla presence. In the 80s we got a sense of that in Uraba, then in the 90s in Barrancabermeja, Antioquia may also fit the bill and so on. But then there seem to be places like Putumayo where the paramilitary, no matter how brutal they become, do not “get the job done.” Is there any sense of why is that? Is that related to the fact that Putumayo is important for drug trading (and growing)? If I’m right, my argument would go something like this: in a place like Barrancabermeja, if you want to get the guerrilla out, you target and kill their civilian support and they are left without any political presence in the region. Instead, in the case of Putumayo, the FARC will be there with or without political muscle because it’s important for their military strategy. (In fact, I’ve heard that in Putumayo the FARC occasionally cooperate with the paramilitary for the drug trade.) In those cases, they are simply not going to leave, period. Is this the beginning of an argument? Or am I at a loss here? Any help will be appreciated.

  6. Camilo Wilson Says:

    Having worked in Putumayo sporadically from the early 1990s forward, I would argue that the FARC are there—and have historically been there—because of the remoteness of the department, its hilly terrain of dense jungle (where it hasn’t been felled for cattle, a scourge on the land) densely laced by rivers and streams that complicate regular military operations, and its proximity to the border, the Ecuadorian side of which has the same characteristics of remoteness and terrain. (Putumayo is thus quite unlike Barrancabermeja or Antioquia.)

    Putumayo also has a large settler population, rural in its origins, that forms a natural constituency for the FARC, who share those origins and the bulk of whose members come from that population and many of whom are from Putumayo.

    Paramilitaries began to come in toward the late 1980s and early 1990s, working for narcos. When I travelled over the Department in the early 1990s, the FARC were very present, as also were paramilitary groups— “Los Combos” and “Los Masetos”—which were funded by narcos who had fled other parts of Colombia. Colombia’s security forces collaborated with those paras in combating the insurgency and in repressing the civilian population—and were often involved in the lucrative drugs trade. (I don’t think these paras were linked to paras in other parts of the country at this time.)

    Both paramilitaries and the FARC have also remained in Putumayo because characteristics of the Department lend themselves to the drugs trade.

  7. Nell Says:

    Excellent post, Adam. Now for defenders of human rights and democracy in the hemisphere to stop the trimming and triangulation, to stop pretending that support for military escalation can be “mitigated” or “improved” with fakery like human rights certifications, which the U.S. government will always make no matter what actual conditions are, if that’s what it takes to keep the money flowing.

  8. lfm Says:

    Thanks Camilo Wilson. Your answer, though, leads me to ask some more questions. The modus operandi of the paramilitary that you describe in Putumayo is similar to the one other paramilitary groups have used in other regions. But then the puzzle remains as to why is it that in those other places the terror campaign “worked” while in Putumayo the FARC seem to be still going strong. I agree that geography, especially the proximity to Ecuador, plays a role. This makes me wonder about Arauca; it seems to me, from a distance, that the FARC have held their ground there as well. Am I right? The common pattern would be, then, that if the insurgency can retreat into a neighboring country, it can regroup and recharge. (Incidentally, this is the logic that led Nixon to bomb Cambodia with the results that we all know…)

    The other point you mention also makes me wonder. Sure, Putumayo has a settler population, similar in background to the FARC. But you could say something similar about Meta and my understanding is that the paramilitary were able to evict the FARC from large parts of Meta after a vicious terror campaign. (Again, correct me if I’m wrong.)

    Basically, I’m trying to piece together a “theory” of the FARC, one that explains patterns of resilience and defeat. In that sense, Putumayo seems an important case. There the COIN has used every trick in the playbook and still fail. If people in this blog can help me with this, it will be very useful especially because then we can start parsing things out by region.

  9. Kyle Says:

    Really quickly I would point out that the people of Puerto Asis were able to kick out Las Macetas in 1998. While the AUC returned less than a year later, the population was not too keen about the paras anyways. The FARC also had hit the paras hard in the mid to late 90s, which may have won them some hearts of many in Putumayo. I’ll add some more later, this just comes off the top my head, first thought.

  10. Camilo Wilson Says:

    Compañero IFM: A document by the Comisión Andina de Juristas (Comisión Andina de Juristas, 1993, “Informe Regional de Derechos Humanos: Putumayo.” Bogotá) speaks of paramilitaries, Los Combos and Los Masetos [sic], and insurgents in Putumayo at this early time. This is an informative document and a good read if you have access to it.

    With regard to your central concern, I’m not sure I can shed much light. Both Putumayo and Arauca afford rebel retreat into neighboring countries. Meta does not, of course, but again, don’t exaggerate the effectiveness of paramilitary assaults in any of these places. There’s plenty of space in which to move, to retreat, and the FARC have used this well, only to reemerge later. The FARC are by tradition a conservative guerrilla, and tend not to expose their operatives needlessly. Toward the late 1990s, with a series of spectacular rebel defeats of the Colombian Army and awash in funds from the narcotics trade to expand and buy arms, the FARC departed from this tradition and became over-confident and reckless. And they later suffered for it, for they couldn’t sustain the new momentum. With the government’s increasingly sophisticated (i.e., electronic and human intelligence) military campaigns in recent years, the FARC have returned to a traditional conservatism and are today more like they were on the eve of their expansion.

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