Here is a translation of a column, published last weekend by the Colombian daily El Espectador, by noted author and essayist HÃ©ctor Abad Faciolince. Abad, a native of MedellÃn, reacts to Friday’s arrest of retired Colombian Army Gen. Rito Alejo del RÃo.
Gen. del RÃo headed the 17th Brigade, in the UrabÃ¡ region of Antioquia, the department of which MedellÃn is the capital, from 1995 to 1997. During this period, UrabÃ¡ suffered a horrific wave of paramilitary violence against civilians, widely alleged to have been aided and abetted by army units under Gen. del RÃo’s command. During this period, Colombian President Ãlvaro Uribe was Antioquia’s governor.
By HÃ©ctor Abad Faciolince
El Espectador (Colombia), posted September 5, 2008, 10:45 PM
During 1996-1997, the Secretary of Government [sort of "vice-governor" or cabinet chief] of Antioquia, Pedro Juan Moreno, on several occasions accused the El Colombiano newspaper of being an ally, or at least a useful idiot, of the FARC subversives.
The motive was the following: when this daily’s journalists traveled by land in Antioquia’s part of UrabÃ¡, they noted with astonishment, and published in the newspaper, that the paramilitary groups’ illegal roadblocks were located only a very few kilometers away from the Army’s legal roadblocks.
The strangest thing was the following: these “paraco” roadblocks were not mobile, but fixed, yet the Brigade appeared to be doing nothing to pursue them. During those years, the 17th Brigade was commanded by General Rito Alejo del RÃo. When told of these roadblocks’ existence, Gen. del RÃo denied it vehemently. But the journalists saw them.
After the military deployments that were known as “Operation Genesis,” the campesinos in that zone near the border of ChocÃ³ and Antioquia denounced, in shaky voices, in the presence of Gen. Rito Alejo del RÃo, that several boats had gone up the Atrato River loaded with paramilitary troops, and that they had passed, like Pedro in his own house, right past several military detachments. Shouting, and in front of the interior minister, who at the time was [top Liberal Party politician] Horacio Serpa, Gen. del RÃo denied it. He also denied having carried out indiscriminate bombings in which civilians had been killed. The journalists from El Colombiano took photos of the bomb craters, which were as big as houses.
Gen. Rito Alejo has testified in his defense several times, as proof that he did pursue paramilitary groups, the fact that he detained the paramilitaries who committed the Aracatazo massacre. This is true. What is curious is that in declarations also given to journalists from El Colombiano, [now-deceased top paramilitary leader] Carlos CastaÃ±o said that he himself had called (as an anonymous citizen) the 17th Brigade, to denounce the paramilitaries’ excesses in Aracatazo. CastaÃ±o believed himself to have “purified” from his group some of its most savage members, those who played soccer with the heads of the dead, or those who killed the wrong targets.
The Catholic Church of ChocÃ³ denounced, at the time, the free passage on the Atrato River given to the paramilitaries who supported “Operation Genesis” by land. With rage, Gen. del RÃo denied these accusations, as well as those of the zone’s human-rights ombudsman. Colombian justice believed neither the campesinos who were the victims of these deeds, nor the Church, nor the human-rights ombudsman.Â Or at least it believed them for a little while, until Prosecutor-General [Luis Camilo] Osorio dropped all the investigations against this general [in mid-2001, shortly after Osorio was inaugurated]. Those who did believe the campesinos and the Church were the officials from the State Department, who abruptly canceled the general’s visa, without regard to the fact that they had trained him themselves.
In a ritual of making amends, the defenders of Gen. Del RÃo’s actions (Fernando LondoÃ±o Hoyos [President Uribe's first interior-justice minister], Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza [a far-right-wing writer], President Uribe himself) carried out an homage to the retired officer in one of the ballrooms at the Hotel Tequendama [in downtown BogotÃ¡, in May 1999]. The so-called “Pacifier of UrabÃ¡” was acclaimed as a hero. To them, this brigadier-general had simply opposed with courage the FARC guerrillas in that zone of the country, and was a victim of the NGOs’ idiocies. Nobody denied that the Army could and should, now as then, take the fight to the subversives.
What cannot be done now, as could not have been then, is to ally with the country’s bloodiest warriors (the so-called “self-defense groups”) to massacre campesinos. Some of them, in effect, were guerrillas, but they cannot be killed outside of combat, much less those who had nothing to do with the armed groups. Even supposing that all the campesinos were guerrillas, there still remain those children younger than 10 years old, who also died, and whom it would be difficult to accuse of being allies of subversion.
The Prosecutor-General’s office has once again arrested General del RÃo, because several demobilized paramilitaries, in particular [Salvatore] Mancuso and “H. H.” [Ã‰ver Veloza, who headed the UrabÃ¡ paramilitaries at the time], have indicated that he was their ally in UrabÃ¡. It will be the justice system that must determine whether the deeds of which he is accused are true, or whether they are simply idiocies invented by wicked people, by NGOs and by reporters allied with, or at least useful idiots of, the FARC.