Ten years ago: the Mapiripán massacre Poll numbers show big shifts in Colombian popular opinion
Jul 162007

Don BernaDiego Fernando Murillo (”Don Berna”), the dominant paramilitary leader in Medellín, is to begin his confession before Colombian prosecutors today, as required by the “Justice and Peace” law. A remarkable 13,000 victims have registered to view Don Berna’s testimony on closed-circuit television.

Though he has been in prison for two years, Don Berna is considered one of the most powerful people in Medellín. Whether he has truly demobilized is far from clear.

El Tiempo reports this morning:

“Don Berna’s” multiple dead, displaced and disappeared may not tangle him up as much as his risky past in [Colombia's narco-] mafia.

During the 1980s he belonged to the Moncada and Galeano clan, which did business with the Medellín cartel. Later, he joined forces with the narcos of Valle del Cauca in the “Pepes” [People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar] to combat Pablo Escobar.

The United States has asked for his extradition on narcotrafficking charges.

These unholy relationships continued until 1997, when he began to become part of the AUC and rose to the rank of inspector general.

He was the first of the big chiefs to go to the Itagüí maximum-security prison. “Don Berna” has remained silent and enigmatic.

Many still attribute to him an immense amount of power in the Antioquian capital [Medellín], and although the mayor’s office dislikes these claims, academic researchers insist that the city’s current calm owes in part to the former “para” leader having ordered his gangs to cease their violence.

In two critical moments for “Don Berna,” Medellín was mysteriously paralyzed. [This is apparently a reference to citywide shutdowns of bus and other public transportation, allegedly on Don Berna's orders.]

Intelligence agencies affirm that, from his cell, he continues to manage the “Envigado Office” network of hitmen-for-hire, whose leader on the outside is alias “Rogelio.”

Medellín’s ombudsman has registered 2,100 intra-urban displacements since [Don Berna's] Cacique Nutibara bloc demobilized [in November 2003], and 64 percent of them said that those who made them leave were “paras” or demobilized paramilitaries.

If these allegations are correct, and Don Berna is still controlling criminal and narco activity in Medellín, he should not be entitled to a light jail sentence under the “Justice and Peace” law – and indeed should be subject to extradition to the United States. That decision will be up to the prosecutors who will begin considering his case today.

Like other paramilitary leaders, Don Berna appears to be preparing to accompany his confession with a less-than-spontaneous show of support on the streets outside. Semana magazine reported yesterday on the pressure that “former” paramilitaries exerted on a charter high school in the slums of western Medellín.

Last Wednesday afternoon, a group of demobilized members of the Cacique Nutibara bloc arrived at the CEDEPRO educational institution in Medellín’s Alta Vista neighborhood. They confronted the directors with the peremptory order to fill two buses with students on Monday, and to send them to the prosecutor’s office building to support Don Berna’s hearing. The directors refused to do that, and the men immediately insulted them. They told them that by saying no, they were proving what “the boss” had said about them. That those from CEDEPRO were the only ones who wouldn’t collaborate, while the rest of the sector’s institutions, they said, had already obeyed.

This act demonstrates, once again, what has been happening with the paramilitary leaders’ confessions: they are becoming a circus spectacle in which the victims are hit the hardest.

According to initial reports, Don Berna’s victims and supporters turned out this morning in large, vocal numbers outside the Medellín prosecutor’s office.

4 Responses to ““Don Berna” to testify”

  1. A.M. Mora y Leon Says:

    He certainly sounds like a thug. Looks like one, too.

    But in light of that, why should anything he says be believed? He’s got his rear-end in jail, he knows he’s guilty, he’s probably as bitter as they come about the game being up, he’s all washed up – why wouldn’t he be likely to lie about the government in order to take a few of them down with him? Why is what he says supposedly believable? How do they ascertain whether or not it is? I need to understand what his motive might be for telling the truth, I can already see one for him taking his jailers down with him. What do you think?

  2. jcg Says:

    A thug he certainly is…but even thugs are known to reveal a few nuggets of truth, even amidst lies. The problem will be identifying which is which.

    As for Don Berna himself…personally speaking, I do hope that, if he is indeed controlling the underworld’s criminal and drug activity, then by all means someone should extradite and/or condemn the man to a reasonably long sentence. Hopefully there is enough judicial will and evidence to do that, sooner or later.

    Also…yes, there are still more attempts at shameful paramilitary demonstrations, apparently, but at least the victims also came out in force this time.

  3. Adam Isacson Says:

    Everything hinges on whether Don Berna is truly “washed up” or not, doesn’t it? What happens if – as is likely – he lies in his testimony, either by commission or omission?

    If he’s a has-been, he will rot in jail for 40 years for violating the terms of the “Justice and Peace” law. His lying – and apparent ongoing criminal activity – will be challenged by the authorities, and Berna could find himself on a plane to Miami.

    But if he’s not washed up, things look very different.

    The above-cited El Tiempo piece, and many other sources, tell us that Don Berna continues to pull many of Medellín’s strings of power from his jail cell. Many, many people continue to be very scared of him.

    I don’t think Berna believes his “game is up.” And if he is still as feared and powerful as many believe he is, there is a very real probability that his lies and omissions may go unchallenged – and that he’ll be out of jail in eight years or less.

    (Incidentally, I heard something recently that I didn’t know. At the Itagüí maximum-security prison, Don Berna is apparently not being held in the same cell block as the other paramilitary leaders. He is reportedly occupying the space vacated by freed ELN leader / negotiator Francisco Galán. Berna shares that space – and apparently many meals and some free time – with two guerrilla leaders. They are Francisco Caraballo, a leader of the Maoist EPL guerrillas, and Juan Carlos Cuéllar, a jailed ELN member who has been taking part in negotiations. I wonder what they talk about all day…)

    (Meanwhile, the news is showing that Berna today named Monsignor Isaías Duarte, the archbishop of Cali murdered in 2001, as a top sponsor of paramilitarism. No idea what to make of that.)

  4. Forrest Hylton Says:


    Right you are. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that Don Berna is washed up, although he may be delegating authority and franchising certain areas or sectors of organized crime out to gangs (Los de la 45) and mid-level commanders looking to move up.

    The head of the Conflicto y Territorio Research Group at the U. de Antioquia, who is among the most skeptical of observers regarding the extent of Don Berna’s reach, is certain that his power within the AUC leadership has grown considerably in the past few months. Which would explain the silence all the comandantes (Jorge 40, Macaco, El Aleman, Don Berna) have adopted after Mancuso got the ball rolling.

    Finally, at Semana’s website today, there is a 5-part series on Don Berna by the Instituto Popular de Capacitacion in Medellin, which leaves little doubt about his *ongoing* influence.

    Groups like Amnesty and the International Crisis Group, not to mention CIP itself, rarely get it wrong, because they do their homework before going on record. They are understandably wary of getting burned by going beyond what the evidence warrants, because that would dramatically undermine their legitimacy as serious interlocutors. Their credibility hinges on getting the facts right, not falling for flimsy stories. Their work should never be dismissed by those looking for reliable sources.

    Also, one must read what Don Berna says very carefully.

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