A debt of gratitude Re-capping yesterday in Colombia
May 152007

Colombia’s most-circulated newsweekly, Semana, published an explosive cover story Sunday. The magazine got its hands on recordings of some of the telephone conversations that mid-level paramilitary leaders in the Itagüí prison near Medellín have been having with their associates “on the outside.” The recordings reveal that these individuals – the right-hand men of several of the top paramilitary leaders – are continuing to traffic drugs, order assassinations, and manage arms caches, even while supposedly in maximum-security confinement.

If this is true – and if the paramilitaries’ maximum leaders know about these activities, as is likely – then the Colombian government’s talks with the paramilitaries are in very serious trouble. It would mean:

  1. President Uribe’s decision to send fifty paramilitaries to the Itagüí jail had no effect on their ability to continue their criminal activities.
  2. The mere fact that these criminal activities continue would mean that the paramilitary leaders are in clear violation of the “Justice and Peace” law, and thus subject to 40-year jail sentences.
  3. If they lose the protection of the “Justice and Peace” law, paramilitary leaders would likely face extradition to the United States.

Here are some translated excerpts from the Semana story (thanks to CIP intern Gareth Smail).

Semana has obtained dozens of recordings from the latest four months in which various paramilitaries held in the Itagüí prison’s Cell Block 1 coordinate all kinds of illegal dealings over their cell phones and email. The voices identified in the conversations are the right-hand men of some of the principal leaders of the demobilized AUC, like Salvatore Mancuso; Ramiro Vanoy, aka “Cuco;” and Fredy Rendón, aka “El Alemán.”


There are some, like “El Flaco,” a member of the old Catatumbo Bloc commanded by Salvatore Mancuso, who order their men outside of jail to buy and sell large loads of cocaine. “Everybody knows that the guy that doesn’t sell the white merchandise at 22 (2,200,000 pesos, $950 USD) is in trouble. You know how it is, they are targets and targets understand each other.” Others, like “Goyo,” of the Elmer Cardenas Front lead by Fredy Rendón, aka “El Alemán,” order their men to uncover the guns they did not hand over when they demobilized, and tell them to continue dominating communities and towns that they do not wish to lose. “You know that we have some repeating shotguns there. I took a risk to put them there, and I have to have them guarded.” He also asked them to continue extorting wealthy people for financing. “We need to get back all the business in San Cristóbal so that they support us again, because we have to give something to the boys.” Most frightening is that using cell phones, they calmly speak of the murders and tortures they continue committing, like in the conversation of “El Mosco,” of the demobilized Bloque Mineros lead by Ramiro Vanoy, aka “Cuco,” with one of his men who reports his crime. “Let’s just say nobody missed this son of a bitch. You know sir that what we do, we do with your permission, and what you say, goes” says one of his lieutenants.

In the majority of the recordings obtained by Semana, the 17 highest bosses of the demobilized AUC chat about personal issues, legal proceedings, and the difficulties of the Peace and Justice process. On repeated occasions they have insisted that they cannot be held responsible for the illegal activities that their demobilized men continue carry out. Nevertheless, it is hard to believe that they are not informed of what the 25 men that accompany them in the cell block do. In the end, they are more than just their right-hand men of the past few years; they now spend 24 hours a day just a few meters from them.


In one of the most revealing recordings, everything that happens in the jail, the lack of control, disorganization, and above all corruption, reflects in the voice of who up until just a few weeks ago was the prison’s director.

The testimony of Yolanda Rodríguez is the most impressive diagnosis of what happened there. “Every day this is getting worse. Here, they change my orders every day. When I say ‘no’ they call the general director [of prisons], the high commissioner [for peace], the minister [of interior], and if still no, the president himself.” This past April 10, this official’s disappointment brought her to tell these and other grievances to her friend, the director of the Picota jail, Imelda López. Rodriguez was so disillusioned that she asked to be transferred to any other jail in the country.

5 Responses to ““What we do, we do with your permission””

  1. rainercale Says:

    In the heated exchange between Senator Petro and the Vice-president today (the 15th) in Congress Petro put forward what seems to me like a very plausible theory given Mancuso’s testimony a short time beforehand.

    Since Mancuso had information which implicates the Vice President, the Defense Minister, four generals, as well as a few other prominent figures including Cesar Gaviria (this is starting to make the Montoya scandal look like child’s play), one or more of these high-ranking officials–indeed, Petro was suggesting that it was the Vicepresident himself–decided to order the tapping of paramilitary phone calls from Itagui prison so that they would have a way to blackmail the paramilitaries and thereby prevent them from confessing the information that reveals ties between the highest-ranking officials in the government and the paramilitaries. Since Mancuso has broken that tacit agreement by talking today, the group of high-ranking officials led by the Vicepresident leaked the Itagui phone conversations, thereby jeopardizing the Itagui paramilitaries’ right to reduced sentences and other benefits under the Justice and Peace Law.

    It is indeed conspicuous, to say the least, that the release of the tapped phone conversations and Mancuso’s testimony coincide so closely.

    Anyways regardless of the background machinations behind these events, the result for Uribe’s campaign to exonerate his administration from paramilitary ties is a catastrophe on top of a catastrophe. Mancuso’s testimony has brought the scandal right up through the Vicepresident’s office, which means it now cannot go any higher without touching the President himself. The indignant cries of “calumnias!” ring hollower and hollower.

    And Mancuso’s testimony continues tomorrow, of course….

  2. rainercale Says:

    Sorry, the exchange in the Senate was between Petro and the Defense Minister, not the Vicepresident. I got my “Santos” mixed up.

  3. rainercale Says:

    Oh, and by the way, all of what I’ve just said can be read in El Tiempo. But I do have one thing to add that cannot be read in El Tiempo. Mancuso today accused the two Santos’, i.e. the current Vice-president and Defense Minister, of forming the paramilitary “Capital Block” near Bogota in order to eventually effect a coup d’etat of the Samper administration. That may sound rather outlandish, but several months ago I had the opportunity to talk with a demobilized ex-paramilitary commander who had been an officer in the Army during the Samper administration (before becoming a paramilitary). Somehow we ended up talking about those army days and he mentioned that he had participated in special training courses designed by the Army itself for a coup d’etat operation against Samper. He also mentioned that US military personnel were involved in these special training courses.

    The Democrats are going to need a tough stomach, because the deeper you dig, the uglier it gets.

  4. Camilo Wilson Says:

    Petro’s analysis would be at one with a long-standing arrangement whereby the country’s political and economic elites have allowed and helped the paramilitaries to engage in drug trafficking and land-grabbing (not to mention the massacre of thousands of innocent peasants, or those of the lower classes) in exchange for their help in fighting rebels and defending the unequal status that benefits those elites. I think the U.S. has, both wittingly and unwittingly, supported this pact with the Devil.

    Mancuso testified that the AUC used manuals prepared by the Colombian Army and that gave operational instructions to the paramilitaries. According to Iván Cepeda (a human-rights activist whose father was a Patriotic Union Senator murdered by the paramilitaries), who heard the testimony: “These manuals characterized the civilian population as the enemy, as a civilian insurgency; they contained precise orders on how to organize paramilitary groups like the self-defense juntas, squadrons of armed civilians…” Mancuso further said that the Army helped them with training and logistics; indeed, the two engaged in join actions.

    It’s hard to believe that the U.S., especially the Pentagon (the U.S. Southern Command), and perhaps the C.I.A., did not know of these military-paramilitary links and of this pact with the Devil. Yes, Rainercale, the Democrats, and those (few) Republicans who might be concerned, will have a lot to dig into. I hope they do indeed have the stomach to do so, for they won’t have to dig far to find some of their own who have supported these tenebrous arrangements. Let’s not forget that the U.S. aid package to Plan Colombia in 2000 emerged during the Clinton Administration (albeit with a Republican-controlled Congress) and had the support of numerous Democrats (some clearly trying to preempt the opposition) as well as of Republicans.

    I recall a meeting I once had with a high-ranking U.S. Embassy official in Bogotá during Uribe’s first administration. I had just visited the Colombian-Venezuelan border (entering from the Venezuelan side) at several points to gather information on Colombia’s armed conflict and how it played out in the borderlands. After being told time and again by Colombian refugees and others–not only in the borderlands of Venezuela but in those of the Darien and of Ecuador as well–of soldiers and paramilitaries working together, even of known soldiers donning paramilitary attire for operations. In one still-vivid instance, the FARC had clashed with and killed several Colombian soldiers, and had invited local residents to see the bodies and the AUC armbands that formed part of the soldiers’ kit. The Embassy official met my accounts of this with skepticism and the frequent condescension of one whose “expertise” rests on position and power rather than on reliable knowledge. As for the AUC armbands, those were surely a deception of the insurgents…

  5. jcg Says:

    rainercale: For a hypothesis, it still sounds rather outlandish, even if it’s not impossible.

    It does require more information and, importantly, corroboration.

    Just because the theory sounds plausible on paper doesn’t mean it’s necessarily correct in all respects.

    So forgive me if I don’t immediately take Mancuso’s words as entirely reliable facts at this point in time.

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