In early December, shortly after President Álvaro Uribe confined most of Colombia’s paramilitary leadership in a maximum-security prison, an article in El Tiempo, the country’s most-circulated newspaper, contended that the paramilitaries had one "secret weapon" left. If they felt they were getting a bad deal out of the negotiation process, they could always reveal the truth about who in Colombia’s "legitimate" society – businessmen, landowners, military officers, politicians – had founded, financed and supported them.
During the past two months, however, persons unknown appear to have launched a concerted effort to keep them from playing that card and revealing what they know. The paramilitary leaders – for years, some of the most feared people in Colombia – are now themselves quite threatened.
December saw the murders of several mid-level paramilitary leaders, including some who appeared willing to talk about who had helped them. As one top paramilitary leader began his confession to prosecutors – required by law as a condition for a lighter jail sentence – his family was threatened and his right-hand-man was murdered.
It’s still not clear who is ordering these killings. Is it the jailed paramilitary leaders themselves, in the midst of a mafia turf-war or "code of silence" enforcement? Or is it some "higher," even more powerful actor who, amid a growing scandal about politicians’ ties to the illegal groups, has a strong interest in keeping the paramilitary leaders silent about their past relationships?
The answer, for now, is anyone’s guess. But consider this recent timeline.
- November 19: Assassins kill Jefferson Enrique Martínez, alias "Omega," a mid-level paramilitary figure who was close to two top paramilitary leaders, Salvatore Mancuso and especially Rodrigo Tovar ("Jorge 40").
- November 24: Nineteen top paramilitary leaders, concentrated in a former recreation center in La Ceja, near Medellín, issue a statement indicating their willingness to talk about who funded and supported their past actions. "We publicly ask that those who were our co-founders, collaborators and direct beneficiaries, businesspeople, industrialists, political and economic bosses, government functionaries, regional and local leaders, members of the security forces, among others, that they accompany us in this task without fear or apprehension."
- November 25: Daniel Mejía, alias "Danielito," disappears and is presumed killed. As head of Medellín’s feared "Envigado Office," Mejía was the right-hand man of paramilitary leader Diego Fernando Murillo or "Don Berna," running much of his drug-trafficking network. Mejía had been released from the La Ceja facility two and a half weeks earlier, because the attorney-general’s office (Fiscalía) had no outstanding arrest warrants against him.
- December 1: The paramilitary leaders concentrated in La Ceja – all fifty-seven of them – are moved to the Itagüí maximum-security prison south of Medellín.
- Mid-December: Another Mancuso henchman, alias "Capulina," is murdered. Several mid-level leaders of the "Heroes of Granada" bloc, formerly commanded by "Don Berna," are also killed in December.
- December 17: Leftist Senator Gustavo Petro, who has frequently denounced paramilitary infiltration of government institutions on the floor of Colombia’s Congress, tells El Tiempo that Salvatore Mancuso asked to meet with him, presumably to give him information.
- December 19: Salvatore Mancuso becomes the first top leader to testify to prosecutors about his past crimes, as required by the "Justice and Peace" law governing the paramilitary demobilization process. In his first two days of appearances before the process breaks for Christmas, Mancuso reveals very little. "Mancuso entered into a general truth, but he must quickly enter into details," warned Colombian government Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo.
- December 27: Assassins in a Medellín restaurant kill Jairo Andrés Angarita, "Comandante Andrés," a one-time Air Force captain who had become Salvatore Mancuso’s right-hand man. Angarita, noted the Colombian newsweekly Semana, "was one of the people who had the most information about the armed forces’ links to paramilitary groups," as well as paramilitaries’ links to politicians. "I think that the time to tell the whole truth has arrived," he had told a newspaper in Córdoba department on December 8, "because [the government] is not keeping its promises [to the ex-paramilitaries]." Before his murder, reports Semana, "several comandantes in Itagüí had called him to order and told him he should talk only at the most opportune moment."
An hour later, an assailant kills a high-ranking commander in the organization of powerful paramilitary leader "Macaco" (Carlos Mario Jiménez).
- December 28: Interior and Justice Minister Carlos Holguín speculates that the wave of killings of mid-level paramilitary leaders may owe to an effort to silence the demobilized fighters.
- December 30: Paramilitary leaders at the Itagüí prison issue a statement denouncing a "systematic campaign of annihilation against the demobilized population," and call on the government to provide more security. The statement notes the "significant connotations" of Angarita having been killed in Medellín shortly after having declared his wilingness to "contribute the historical truth."
- January 4: Semana notes that nearly a hundred members of Mancuso’s old Catatumbo Bloc have been killed since its late 2004 demobilization, adding, "Some analysts believe that this series of acts owes to the anger of a paramilitary sector that suspects Mancuso is negotiating with U.S. authorities, particularly the DEA."
- January 7: The Colombian newsmagazine Cambio reports, "According to statistics from the police and the DAS [secret police], 146 demobilized paramilitaries have been killed between February 2006 and the present. … [I]n 51 of these cases, the authorities have found strong support for the hypothesis that the victims had agreed to confess their own crimes, and had said they were willing to reveal those that their bosses had ordered and carried out."
- January 9: Corporal Daniel Ruiz Bedoya, a guard in the cell block of Itagüí prison where top paramilitary leaders are being kept, is killed while waiting for a bus on his way to work.
- January 10: Ana Teresa Bernal, a member of the National Commission on Reparations and Reconciliation, tells Cali’s El País newspaper that recent disappearances of demobilized paramilitaries are happening because "surely what they are trying to impede is that the truth be known."
El Tiempo: Why is it that detained paramilitary leaders are now turning to you?
Petro: The paramilitaries have simply been employees of this mafioso reign. They are their hitmen, but make no mistake: they were not, and are not, the leaders.
El Tiempo: But why are they going to you?
Petro: Because, as happens in any kind of mafia, when they announce that they are going to talk, they are threatened. It was Mancuso who called us, because he understood that his family was threatened. All we did was denounce that. We would have done that for anyone, regardless of who he was.
This grim chronology leads us to a recommendation that we never thought we’d have to make. But here it is: the Colombian government must provide necessary security to paramilitary leaders. They may be murderous, drug-dealing thugs, but they are also repositories of information that is desperately needed if Colombia is to know the truth about what happened during the past decades of violence, and if it is to turn back the creeping narco-right-wing-mafia influence over its own institutions.
Just as more must be done to protect the victims who dare to come forward and testify, more must also be done, ironically, to protect the victimizers.