Salvatore Mancuso, one of the best known and most feared of Colombia’s paramilitary leaders, has become the first top-level leader to testify about his crimes. Over four days between December 19 and Tuesday of this week, he has begun to give his "versión libre" – a confession of his past crimes – as part of the deal which gives leaders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) vastly reduced prison sentences.
In a room on the fourth floor of Medellín’s main courthouse, victims of the paramilitaries – those who can prove their status as victims, anyway – are able to watch, on closed-circuit television, the proceedings taking place on the twentieth floor. They get a view of the 48-year-old, impeccably dressed warlord and cattle rancher, impassively reading his crimes off the screen of a laptop computer, as prosecutors take notes and occasionally ask questions. (At this stage – the "versión libre" – Mancuso has the floor and may confess as he sees fit. The real questioning from prosecutors is to come later.)
Reporters are not allowed to view the proceedings, so what we know about the confession so far is second-hand, based on accounts from those allowed to view the television feed. The Colombian media reports, however, that so far Mancuso has admitted to ordering the killing or kidnapping of 336 people. So far.
Much of his testimony has been vague and raised many questions, particularly since most of the collaborators he has named are either dead, in exile, or already in prison. Nonetheless, it has covered many high-profile cases, and offered some new information. Here are some of the key revelations.
- The El Aro massacre. During almost an entire week in October 1997, about 150 paramilitaries took over the village of El Aro, in Ituango, Antioquia. With lists of names in hand, they killed fifteen people while townsfolk hid in their houses.
Mancuso said that he planned this "antisubversive operation" in the Medellín headquarters of the Colombian Army’s 4th Brigade. In 1996, he met personally with Gen. Alfonso Manosalva, then the head of that brigade. Manosalva, who died in early 2006, has an army battalion named after him in Chocó department.
Mancuso is the second top paramilitary leader to finger the deceased general. When he demobilized in February 2006, Ramón Isaza of the Middle Magdalena paramilitary bloc mentioned in his "farewell" speech Gen. Manosalva’s sponsorship of a 1996 massacre of 17 people in La Esperanza, Antioquia. At the time, Isaza’s reference to Gen. Manosalva was viewed as a veiled threat against President Álvaro Uribe, who was governor of Antoquia department at the time, and worked closely with the general.
"The general enjoyed great esteem from the then-governor of Antioqua and now president of the republic, Alvaro Uribe," retired Gen. Harold Bedoya, who commanded the armed forces at the time, told Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper. "I can say that he was his right-hand man."
In his confession, Medellín’s El Colombiano reports, Mancuso claimed that the El Aro victims "died during combat with the AUC, as they were guerrillas who were later presented as peasants." This statement – which contradicts Mancuso’s conviction in absentia for the massacre, which cites signs that the victims were tortured – led to "a cry of indignation" in the room where victims were viewing the proceedings.
- The El Salado massacre. Mancuso admitted planning the February 2000 massacre of 38 people in the village of El Salado, in El Carmen de Bolívar, Bolívar department. He claimed that a "General Quiñones" played a leading role in this atrocity. This may be a reference to Vice-Admiral Rodrigo Quiñónez, who commanded the Marine brigade in charge of the region at the time. Quiñónez, who is now retired, has been widely accused – but never convicted – of working closely with paramilitaries.
- The Mapiripán massacre. Mancuso admitted to planning the 1997 massacre of nearly fifty people in the town of Mapiripán, Meta. The paramilitaries’ first big atrocity in southern Colombia, Mapiripán was an especially brazen act, as the dozens of paramilitaries who carried it out had to travel by air, then river, from northern Colombia. Mancuso’s testimony implicated Army Col. Lino Sánchez as a collaborator in this operation. Col. Sánchez had already been convicted to a forty-year jail sentence for Mapiripán. (A Colombian military officer told me that Col. Sánchez died in prison sometime during the past year or two, but I haven’t been able to verify that.)
Mancuso did not name Gen. Jaime Uscátegui, the commander of the Army’s 7th Brigade at the time; Gen. Uscátegui’s long-running trial continues, with no indication of when a verdict might be expected.
- Security forces on the payroll. Mancuso said that, by the time he demobilized in December 2004, his "Catatumbo Bloc" in northeastern Colombia was paying 1 billion pesos per month (roughly US$250,000) to the local police and army, while his units in Córdoba department in northwestern Colombia paid a monthly outlay of 800 million pesos (roughly US$200,000). In return, the security forces allowed them to operate unhindered.
Once, Mancuso said, police actually captured him at a roadblock in La Guajira department in northeastern Colombia. He was released after a police colonel facilitated the payment of about 50 million pesos (US$20,000) in bribes.
- Danilo González. That colonel was Danilo González, whom Mancuso said was the main link between the Colombian security forces and longtime AUC leader Carlos Castaño. Col. González, who was killed by a hitman in March 2004, was a highly decorated police intelligence officer and close collaborator with U.S. counter-drug agents. By the time of his death, however, Col. González was indicted in the United States for collaborating with drug cartels. (Read Danilo González’s sordid story in an excellent January 2005 piece by St. Petersburg Times reporter David Adams.)
- Army Major Wálter Fratinni, another deceased military officer, was also named by Mancuso as a frequent collaborator in joint operations with the paramilitaries.
- The Norte de Santander Attorney-General’s Office. Mancuso cited the collaboration of Ana María Flórez, who until 2003 was the chief prosecutor in the office of the attorney-general (Fiscalía) in the department of Norte de Santander, where Mancuso’s Catatumbo Bloc operated. Mancuso testified that Ms. Flórez gave his group the names of colleagues who, in her judgment, supported the guerrillas. "Everyone she mentioned was assasinated," he said. Ms. Flórez now resides in Canada.
- Interfering in elections. Mancuso declared that his men ordered citizens to vote for Liberal Party candidate Horacio Serpa in the first round of 1998 presidential elections, and for Álvaro Uribe in the 2002 presidential elections. Serpa, a losing candidate in 1998, 2002 and 2006, responded quickly, telling reporters that Mancuso’s statements were a "joke": "That is a story that Mancuso is telling in order to try to show that everyone was involved and thus nobody is guilty, and to protect the Uribe government, because Mancuso depends on Uribe, because they supported him in 2002 and 2006."
- The attempt to kill Wilson Borja. Labor-union leader Wilson Borja, now a two-term congressman, was nearly killed in a December 2000 assassination attempt on a Bogotá street. Mancuso claimed responsibility for the attempt.
Borja’s reaction, recorded in El Colombiano, was angry.
"’I think that what is being arranged here is impunity, not truth. He does not appear in the attorney-general’s investigation of my case – [fugitive, powerful paramilitary leader] Vicente Castaño does. I think he is saying this so that Major (Cesar Alonso) Maldonado (condemned to 27 years in prison for the case, who escaped from a military brig in 2004) benefits.’
In the document Mancuso gave to the prosecutors, Borja’s was a ‘military operation against a union leader who, according to intelligence reports, was infiltrated by the guerrillas.’
According to Borja, Mancuso seeks to cover up for ‘three army generals who were behind’ this act.
‘He wants to take advantage of a very well-known case, like mine, to say that he is telling the truth. The reality is that the military organized everything and asked the paramilitaries for help.’"
- Murder of Kimy Pernía Domicó. Pernía, a leader of the Embera-Katío indigenous nation in Córdoba department, disappeared in June 2001. Mancuso claimed responsibility, adding that after investigators came close to discovering the whereabouts of the indigenous leader’s remains, Pernía’s body was exhumed and thrown in the Sinú River.
In his confession, Mancuso called Pernía’s murder "a military operation against a subversive infiltrator in the indigenous communities." Luis Evelis Andrade, president of The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, rejected that charge. "He was not from the FARC, he had problems with that group too because he always rejected the use of arms."
- Murders of labor leaders. Mancuso claimed responsibility for the 2000 murder of Aury Sara Marrugo, the president of the Cartagena chapter of the USO (oil workers’ union). Her body showed signs of torture.
He also admitted to the 2001 murder of Luis Orozco Serrano, head of the health workers’ union (ANTHOC) in Barranquilla. Another paramilitary leader, Rodrigo Tovar ("Jorge 40") had already been indicted for this crime. Mancuso said that Orozco was killed not for his leftist views, but because he was going to go public with information about Caribbean coast mayors’ payments to paramilitaries from money skimmed from the national healthcare system.
- Murders of mayors and municipal officials. Mancuso admitted to ordering the murders of Henry Tafur, mayor of San Martín de Loba, Bolívar; Carlos Quiroz, mayor of San Jacinto, Bolivar; Pauselino Camargo, mayor of Cúcuta, Norte de Santander; Héctor Acosta, mayor of Tierradentro, Córdoba; and town councilman Bernabé Sánchez of Tibú, Norte de Santander.
He also included on his list of victims Tirso Vélez, a popular local poet and politician who was the overwhelming favorite to be elected governor of Norte de Santander department in 2003.
Where is this headed? Will we learn more as the "versión libre" continues, and as prosecutors begin to ask questions? Will the names of living and active military officers begin to come to light? It is impossible to know: the precedent is being set right now.
Mancuso’s confession will continue next Thursday, January 25th, when he is to talk about his involvement in narcotrafficking and organized crime. The U.S. government requested Mancuso’s extradition in 2002 for his role in sending tons of cocaine to the United States. Colombian courts approved the extradition, and Mancuso remains in Colombia only because President Uribe has refused to send him northward as long as he is "cooperating" with the demobilization process.
And what do the victims make of Mancuso’s performance so far? Here is an impression recorded in Wednesday’s El Colombiano.
The Hoyos Guerra family’s farm measured a little more than 400 hectares (1,000 acres). On that piece of land, in different houses, lived the parents and 14 children with all of their descendants.
In 1994, the then-head of the Catatumbo Bloc of the United Self-Defense forces of Colombia (AUC), Salvatore Mancuso, sought to buy their land. [Correction: while Mancuso was a powerful paramilitary leader in 1994, the Catatumbo Bloc probably didn't exist yet.] When his intermediary did not convince Zolio Bautista Hoyos, the head of the family, to sell the land, Mancuso ordered the murder of two of his sons.
His men committed the crime "accompanied by the army," according to the family, on July 10, 1995. Never Fray and Luis Edelberto, the oldest son, died while working on the farm. Camilo Fajardo and Francisco Rozo, workers on the farm, were also killed.
A month later, according to the registry signed in the First Notary of Montería, the sale was recorded.
Mancuso paid 19 million pesos (at the time, about US$15,000) for that land. He delivered 10 million in cash, and left a check for the rest, which the bank returned three times [for insufficient funds], until the family members were convinced that there was no way to collect. …
The Hoyos Guerra family, as well as other victims and relatives of victims who have attended the testimony, believe little of what the demobilized leader says.
According to them, Mancuso’s tone is haughty and arrogant, "even aggressive," when he addresses the prosecutor.
He shows no repentance, they affirmed, and he presents things as though they were unavoidable actions, ordered by people who already died, "as if he were washing his hands."