Paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso did not reveal too much during his first day of testimony before special investigators yesterday, but his declaration is expected to take several more days.
The â€œJustice and Peaceâ€ law does not require Mancuso to talk about who supported him and his men, but only the crimes in which he himself was involved. Nonetheless, many prominent people from the regions he dominated are worried that his testimony may finger them as supporters of paramilitarism, which could lead to possible criminal charges.
Landholders in the cattle-ranching sector, particularly in northern Colombia, are widely seen as loyal supporters of paramilitary groups. Indeed 10,000 people from Caucasia, a longtime paramilitary stronghold in the cattle country of northern Antioquia department, signed a document last week admitting their role in supporting Mancuso’s and other groups, arguing that they had no choice in the face of guerrilla aggression and state abandonment.
But most ranchers still remain silent about their past ties. For instance, note this passage deep within El Tiempo’s coverage Tuesday morning of Mancuso’s imminent testimony.
And where is Jorge Visbal Martelo?
In spite of the statements made by the president of the National Cattlemen’s Federation (FEDEGAN), JosÃ© FÃ©lix Lafaurie – who yesterday not only repeated that they had supported the ‘paras,’ but also said that they did not regret having done so – nothing has been heard from Jorge Visbal Martelo, who presided over the federation during the self-defense groups’ zenith and greatest period of growth.
Even open confessions from the cattlemen of CÃ³rdoba department and the bajo Cauca region of Antioquia [Caucasia and its environs] appear to have motivated him to break his silence. His closest friends have not been able to account for him.
This is a name I had not heard for a while. I first met Jorge Visbal in 1999, when we took a U.S. congressional delegation (one member and several staff) to the FEDEGAN headquarters in BogotÃ¡. (We always try to ensure that all political perspectives are represented on trips like these.) Visbal spoke at length about the threats that cattlemen face at the hands of guerrillas, asked the delegates to support more aid for the Colombian military, and criticized President AndrÃ©s Pastrana for being too soft in his negotiations with the FARC guerrillas.
All of this standard for Colombia’s right wing, but near the end of the meeting Visbal said something remarkable. The subject of military collaboration with paramilitary groups came up. After affirming that paramilitarism was illegal and must be combated, the FEDEGAN president not only denied that military-paramilitary collaboration was common, but went on to contend that the paramilitaries did not even abuse human rights very often.
I wasn’t sure if I had heard him right. I asked how he explained the reports of massacres in the media, and the statistics from human-rights groups crediting the AUC with the majority of killings and disappearances. Visbal responded that while mistakes and excesses happened, most of the reports of massacres were false or exaggerated, and that the statistics were distorted by guerrilla misinformation. The paramilitaries, he argued, were usually careful not to harm innocent civilians.
Recall this was 1999, when Carlos CastaÃ±o’s AUC was rapidly expanding its territorial reach by massacring people throughout the country – in UrabÃ¡, Catatumbo, Putumayo, southern BolÃvar, and many more regions. That year, three generals were fired under heavy U.S. and international pressure for allowing the carnage to happen.
Hearing someone defend the paramilitaries’ human rights record in this context was jarring. It soon became clear, though, that it was pointless even to try to argue with him on this subject – sort of like debating the Holocaust with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Visbal – need we say it? – was an ardent backer of President Uribe in the 2002 elections. He went on to serve as the Colombian government’s ambassador in Canada from 2004 to 2006. He left for Ottawa, abandoning the FEDEGAN presidency, not long after a rocket-propelled grenade, likely fired by guerrillas, narrowly missed killing him outside the group’s BogotÃ¡ headquarters in 2003.
(Footnote: Just to prove that everything in Colombia is more complicated than it seems, it’s unfair to end this by caricaturing Jorge Visbal as a total villain. Though an extreme hard-liner, he did frequently represent the FEDEGAN in civil-society peace efforts. He was even among a group of civil-society leaders that met in Germany with the ELN in July 1998, signing an agreement laying out a proposed process for an ELN peace negotiation.
Visbal also traveled to Costa Rica in October 2000 for the remarkable (though inconclusive) â€œPaz Colombiaâ€ gathering, which brought ELN and Colombian government representatives together with NGOs and the â€œinternational community.â€
At one point during this event, while I was talking on a pay-phone outside the meeting space, I noticed that Visbal was standing not far from me. Before long, ELN guerrilla leader Francisco GalÃ¡n entered my field of view and briskly approached Visbal. â€œThis will be interesting,â€ I thought to myself. But to my utter surprise – I even lost track of my phone conversation – the two men embraced like old friends. I think it was at that point that I gave up even trying to understand Colombia.)