Gen. Mario Montoya, the head of Colombiaâ€™s army, continues to face questions of alleged links to paramilitary groups. These allegations, first published by the Los Angeles Times in March, are among the reasons why, according to Sen. Patrick Leahyâ€™s staff, the senator decided this week to â€œre-freezeâ€ $55 million in military aid to Colombia. (That aid had been held up by a law requiring the State Department to certify that the Colombian militaryâ€™s human-rights record is improving; that certification was issued on April 4.)
The allegations about Gen. Montoya center on â€œOperation Orion,â€ a late 2002 military offensive in MedellÃnâ€™s western slums that was seen as one of the first tests of President Ãlvaro Uribeâ€™s â€œDemocratic Securityâ€ policy. The Colombian Armyâ€™s 4th Brigade, then headed by Gen. Montoya, carried out several weeks of house-to-house fighting. When â€œOperation Orionâ€ ended, leftist guerrilla militias had been expelled from MedellÃnâ€™s Comuna 13 neighborhood â€“ but the paramilitary presence remained.
More evidence is emerging about the role that paramilitaries played during the â€œOperation Orionâ€ offensive that Gen. Montoya led. A disturbing new contribution appeared on Sunday in Colombiaâ€™s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo. Here, thanks to CIP Intern Alessandra Miraglia, is a translation of testimony from one of the paramilitariesâ€™ victims during the offensive.
â€œI saw my grave being dugâ€
Carlos Cano managed to escape from the paramilitaries, with three shots in his body, as they were about to put him in a grave. He currently lives outside the country. He is a witness to what happened in Comuna 13 after the military operation â€˜OriÃ³n.â€™
â€œFor 10 or 15 seconds I thought I was dead. I had a shot in my throat and another one in my left hand. I was bleeding a lot. One of the paramilitaries moved me with his foot and said to me: â€œSay something, talk faggot!â€
Juan Carlos Cano Giraldo, a 25-year-old taxi driver, escaped death on November 30, 2002, fifteen days after the government officially concluded the much-spoken-of military operation known as â€˜OriÃ³nâ€™.
The operationâ€™s goal was to re-conquer MedellÃnâ€™s Comuna 13, which was dominated by both guerrilla fighters and paramilitaries. In charge of this task were 1,500 members of both the army and the police, supported by both secret police (DAS) and the attorney-generalâ€™s armed investigative force (CTI).
Five years later, U.S. journalists are pursuing Cano â€“ currently in exile â€“ in order to add depth to a story revived twenty days ago by the Los Angeles Times, based on a CIA intelligence report indicating that the Army received support from men linked to the paramilitary leader â€˜Don Bernaâ€™ to implement the operation. The U.S. government later apologized to its Colombian counterpart because, it said, the report had not been verified.
â€œBefore and after OriÃ³n â€“ explained Cano to El Tiempo â€“ two young men, with firearms and in plainclothes, asked me for my documents, supposedly to investigate me: they told me not to worry. They belonged to the paramilitary bloc â€˜Metro,â€™ well-known in the Comuna.â€
[The Metro Bloc, headed by â€œRodrigo 00,â€ later feuded with the Nutibara Bloc, headed by â€œDon Berna.â€ The Nutibara Bloc won the internal battle; â€œRodrigo 00â€ was killed in 2004 while â€œDon Bernaâ€ is in prison but believed to control much criminality in MedellÃn. By many accounts â€“ none of them definitive â€“ the Nutibara Bloc during this period had close relations to the MedellÃn police, while the Metro Bloc was aligned with the Armyâ€™s 4th Brigade.]
â€œIn the past, people from the Army had done the same thing to me; they brought many boys to the CTI, located in the Santiago neighborhood. They accused me of carrying a weapon, but 15 days later they released me and told me that it was a mistake.â€
â€œOn November 30, after 8.00 p.m., the same AUC guys arrived in the Comuna. One asked me to accompany him and made me get into a Mazda 323 cab.â€
Cano says that, several times, he had been obliged to give rides to the guerrilla militias who controlled the area, but he denies any direct link with the guerrillas.
â€œThey brought me to a place where there were other four men; one of them was wearing a CTI bullet-proof-vest, while the others had AUC armbands. They forced us â€“ another two guys who arrived in a Chevette taxi and me â€“ to get into a dark blue Toyota Hilux.â€
There, they aimed a gun at Canoâ€™s testicles and later in his mouth, yelled â€˜dirty littleâ€¦guerrilla son of a bitchâ€™ and punched him in the face.
â€œWhen we were almost arriving at the â€˜La Lomaâ€™ terminal, one of the AUC guys told another one: â€˜Brother, when the corporal told me to take off my uniform and wear civilian clothes, I thought it was meant to gather intelligence, I did not think it was to come here and join with you.â€™ The other guy laughed. Immediately, a police patrol passed by the truck they were carrying us in but did not do anything, although they had seen that in the bed of the truck, which was uncovered, there were six paramilitaries with rifles and both CTI and AUC distinctive marks.â€
Cano says that he never knew whether the person who was talking about the corporal was a military or a police officer, but he now assures that also an Army patrol passed by but did not arrest them (the paramilitaries).
â€œWhen they (the paramilitaries) met the Army and the Police, I thought that a gunfight would ensue and I ducked in the truck, but nothing happened.â€
â€œThey kept going towards an inhabited area in the La Loma de San CristÃ³bal sector, at the summit of Comuna 13.
With a knife
â€œWhen we arrived up there, they made us get off the truck. Then, they told a group of nearby construction workers to dig our three graves and another six for more who were on their way.â€
â€œI do not know the names of the two boys who were with me, but one was a baker who was still wearing his apron, while the other was an employee for an arepa factory. They told us, â€œhold your hands and walk in a row because this is hard to take.â€ They showed us some mounds of dirt and they told us â€œlook there, there are your friends.â€
According to Cano, the baker tried to escape: â€œthey grabbed him by his apron and killed him. Later, they were frustrated because they did not have a machete and they started cutting him into pieces with a dagger or a pocketknife, I do not know. And that is when I saw them going up to dig my grave.â€
â€œThen, they put a rifle close to my ear and shot me, and they shot me again in my left hand (â€¦)â€
Cano says that he gathered strength, he does not know from where; stood up and threw himself against the boy who was keeping an eye on him, launching himself down a slope.
â€œAs I was falling, they shot me in the hip, I tumbled over a hillside and hid between bushes and a mud pit. One of the paramilitaries yelled at me: â€œJuancho, come out, nothing is going to happen.â€ I remained silent and I waited for them to go away. Then, I began to walk but my left side began to feel paralyzed.â€
Around midnight, with the help of several people, he was admitted to the Intermediate Health Unit in Castilla.
Map of the graves
After leaving the hospital, and realizing that the paramilitaries were looking for him, he decided to tell everything to the Ombudsmanâ€™s office, which sent him immediately to BogotÃ¡ â€“ and to the human rights offices of both the Minister of Internal Affairs and the Vice Presidency.
How credible is his version? El Tiempo obtained a copy of his medical history which makes evident that he reached the hospital with three rifle and gunshot wounds in his neck, left hand and hip, and that he presented hipovolemia (lack of blood) and tinnitus, as well as a buzzing in his ears which still accompanies him.
Furthermore, he showed a map he had made, with the location of where the incidents occurred: there, the District attorney’s Office found 20 bodies in graves. â€œI only hope to come back to tell this, and many other things, to the country. What happened to me happened also to many innocent people who were not so lucky to come out alive.â€
Meanwhile, 36 investigations of â€˜OriÃ³nâ€™ in the Inspector-Generalâ€™s office (ProcuradurÃa) were closed. The authorities have always denied any link with the paramilitaries in this operation.
36 cases on operation ‘OriÃ³n’ were closed in 2005
The Inspector-General’s office (ProcuradurÃa) began 36 disciplinary investigations shortly after â€˜Operation OriÃ³nâ€™ culminated. And although some of them deserved the opening of a formal investigation, all cases ended up being closed in 2005 for lack of merit or because the complainants never came to provide evidence. According to El Tiempo, three of the cases were remitted to the internal affairs bodies of the armed forces that participated in â€˜OriÃ³n,â€™ in order to take measures against those implicated. The Military Justice System closed the cases. On the part of the Attorney-Generalâ€™s office (FiscalÃa), â€˜Don Bernaâ€™ and some of his men are under investigation for deaths and disappearances. But no charges appear against members of the security forces.