Published — July 28, 1997 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Mapiripan: A shortcut to hell


BOGOTA, July 28, 1997 — A paramilitary incursion from July 14 to 20 this year by private armed groups that combat guerrilla forces has made this municipality in the Colombia Plains Region into a mere ghost town though it was once a center of subversive influence of the FARC ( “The Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces”), that country’s oldest guerrilla group. Fear runs so rampant in this little village that even the special Prosecutors sent to investigate the massacre have felt its sting, as evidenced by their managing to take testimony in a record five (5) hours without once venturing forth from the Mayor’s Offices. According to a military source, the Army received information on the presence of paramilitary groups in the region on July 14, the very same day that 120 or 150 armed men marched into the town of Mapiripan. The town’s penal municipal judge, Leonardo Iván Cortés-Novoa, called the Army battalion commander in charge of the area eight (8) times to ask for assistance. Nevertheless, the army waited until July 21 to send in troops, after 25 of the townspeople had been torn limb from limb while still alive, according to Cortés and other residents who saw the victims forced into the town’s slaughterhouse. Those present claim that members of the par amilitary groups savagely dismembered their friends with knives and machetes, throwing the severed arms and legs into the turbulent waters of the Guaviare River, which borders the town.

Now, some four (4) months after the massacre, there are even more questions about what really happened in Mapiripan. Colombia’s Civil Aeronautics Board confirms that on July 12, an Aerolinea Selva aircraft (Reg. No. HK-4009) and another private plane (Reg. No. HK-3993) left Los Cedros Airport in the northeastern part of Colombia en route to San Jose del Guaviare in the country’s southeastern region, near the town of Mapiripan. All indications show that these planes were carrying the very paramilitary forces that reaped the bloody harvest in the little town. The planes later landed at Capt. Jorge Enrique Gonzcalez Airport in San Jose del Guaviare, where the National Army is responsible for monitoring the arrival and departure of all passengers. The strange thing is that although people entering the terminal must be cleared by a military inspection post and are required to leave personal data registered there, according to the authorities interviewed, the passengers on the HK-4009 were not recorded in the book. Another responsibility on entering that airport is for the Antinarcotics Police to frisk all arriving passengers. It seems that the travelers on these flights, however, were never checked because they were allowed through with arms and other gear. An act of omission or complicity?

Main Story

(BOGOTA, Colombia, July 28 and Nov. 3, 1997) — There is a vulture perched on every post of the barbed-wire fence enclosing the dis cemetery of Mapiripan (Meta, Colombia), a little town set in the Colombian plains on left bank of the Guaviare River. At 2:30 on a sweltering afternoon, five (5) men in black overalls pull out an improvised grave marker in the form of a rustic wooden cross begin to dig up a grave, their hands and clothes covered with the loamy earth. Sweaty and tired, the men complain that the body was buried too deep. Because the stench is getting stronger as they work scooping out the earth with pickaxes and shovels, the men soon ask for some gasoline to pour on the grave in hopes of scaring away the vultures and insects. “Now you can start to see it…. Well, there’s the body…. But I don’t see the head anywhere,” exclaims one of the overall-clad men.

On this spot about 18 hours off the beaten path from Villavicencio, the capital of the Department or Province of Meta, the air is thick with tension and humidity. Men from the Technical Investigation Corps of the special Prosecutor’s Office try to determine the cause of death of Ronald Valencia, the ticket-taker at the so-called landing strip, which is really nothing more than a muddy field. For a while, the only sound to be heard is the clanking of the shovels against the rocks. Finally, the silence is broken by a military officer, who walks over to the grave and exclaims, “He must have been decapitated.” Ronald was a popular figure in Mapiripan because “he was so obliging, so helpful.” He is survived by six (6) children, the youngest still a babe in arms.

In the early morning hours of Sunday, July 20, a farm hand named Aldinever was walking along a trail that leads to the airstrip, when he saw Ronald’s head propped up against a dip in the hillside. “What are you doing here?”, he asked, thinking that his friend was just sleeping off a drunk. Yet once he got a little closer, Aldinever realized that he was talking to a bloody head and that the rest of the body was some ten (1 0) meters (approx. 33 ft.) away. Terrified, Aldinever ran to the town as fast as he could to tell others what he had seen. Dozens of the townspeople of Mapiripan then filed up to the field with trepidation, to see with their own eyes that the story was true. That done, they all ran off in terror, stopping only for a change of clothes as they high-tailed it out of town by whatever means they could find, be it land or water.

That same Sunday, another man was found near the docks; his throat had been cut and he was hanging from a stake that was still blood-stained despite the heavy rains that had fallen in the three (3) days since the massacre. Scattered near the site were cut pieces of the green rope that had been used to tie up the body. Priest Vinicio Pérez says that the deceased, who hailed from the town of Tulua in the Cauca Valley, had arrived with his wife and son looking for work a month and a half earlier. Witnesses comment that this person, who is today simply listed as “N.N.” (“No-Name”) “because no one knew his name”, ran into trouble because he refused to show his identification papers to the “ paras” (as the paramilitary forces are called). The victim claimed to be a member of the army reserves, and that was why he was hanged.

Almost at the same time, an old man happened upon the body of Sinai Blanco, a fifty something boatman. “This man was so courteous and considerate to his neighbors that everyone now feels as if a family member-has been murdered,” says one of the townspeople, who gives his name as Antonio. Another neighbor, however, clarifies in a whisper, “Don’t be surprised if people around here give you a different name every time you ask them.”

The paramilitary groups are private armies organized to fight guerrilla forces and led by the Castaño brothers, Fidel and Carlos, ever since members of subversive groups kidnapped and murdered their father. They accused Sinai of aiding and abetting the 44th Front of the FARC (“The Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces”), a guerrilla group created some 30 years ago which operates in the area. Days after the massacre, each of the survivors of Mapiripan had his or her own nightmare to tell, though most of them prefer not to open their mouths at all. “If you talk here, you don’t last long,” says one laborer, who has decided to run the risk of being killed while toiling over his three (3) hectares (approx. 7.4 acres) of cassava and plantain crops, rather than run off and leave the fruit of his labors to “a bunch of delinquents”.

This reporter spent a night in the town, which “surprised a lot of people” because, as they see it, most journalists run in and out, taking off on the same plane that brought them in after firing off a couple of questions in about the same number of minutes.” Only after this show of seriousness on our part were some of the neighbors of the Mapiripan slaughterhouse willing to talk about the horrible cries that they heard night after night. “They were screaming for help, but no one dared go to their aid. It’s that they were dismembering them alive, only to throw their limbs into the river later,” says an imposing olive-skinned youth, with tears “of anger” streaming down his cheeks.

Anne-Sylvie Linder, a Swiss delegate of the International Red Cross, arrived on Sunday, July 20, after having received a fax that claimed that “really ugly goings on” were still happening in Mapiripan, which gets its name from the “mapiri”, a special woven bag used by the indigenous people to strain out the poison from the cassava root when they make it into bread (or “pan”, in Spanish). When Linder arrived, she saw mothers desperately hurling their children onto the small planes with a panic so real, it made her own hair stand on end. Everyone feared the return of the paramilitary group that had terrorized the town for five (5) interminable days and nights from July 15 to 20.

A woman who gave her name simply as Blanca related her tale of the time that those “fiendish men” were here, everything seemed fairly normal until 8:00 at night, when the men ordered them to turn off the electric energy plant, which was when the terror began in this town in the southeastern part of the Colombian province of Meta. Mapiripan covers a scant 1 1,000 sq. kilometers (approx. 4,250 sq. miles) and offers shelter to the Macuare, Caño Jabon, Laguna, Araguato and Caho Ovejas indigenous reservations. Though the townspeople shut themselves up in their houses on that first hellish night, no one could sleep because wherever there was a knock on the door, someone from the household disappeared.

The intruders who imposed this macabre nocturnal ceremony on the town, were for the most part men who spoke in the Coastal dialect and who were armed to the teeth. Leonardo Iván Cortés-Novoa, who was then the municipal judge-of Mapiripan, says-that-since he lived only a block away from the municipal slaughterhouse, he watched the goings on in terror every night, hiding behind the curtain of a darkened window. “At a little past 7:30 each night,” Cortés states, “they would march them in there, two by two, each pair gagged and with their hands tied behind their backs. They killed them all, after torturing them.”

With a somber faraway expression on his face, the judge went on to day that he would sneak off to his office each morning to write another emergency report, pounding out the words hurriedly and nervously on an old manual typewriter. Each chronicle was marked by terrifying descriptions of the town’s tragedy. “Every evening,” he wrote, “they murder groups of five (5) or six (6) defenseless people, who they cruelly and monstrously massacre after subjecting them to unspeakable torture. It is unbearable to hear the screams of these humble souls, crying and pleading for help.” While recording these chilling facts, an idea began to hammer away at Cortés’ brain, pounding with the same beat as the cricket’s nighttime song. “I wanted to keep a written record of everything,” he now says, “just in case they killed me too. I didn’t want this to be left unpunished.”

Now, months after the killing spree, Judge Cortés-Novoa remains in hiding at a refuge that is supposedly secret, though sometimes when he answers the phone he hears an echo of that first terror, in the form of warnings like, “Don’t sweat it, you’re not getting out of this one alive.” Threatened and defenseless, this 33-year-old lawyer clings to the photocopies of each of the bloody reports that he stealthily sent to the Red Cross and to his supervisor, Fausto Rubén Díaz, the Chairman of the Villavicencio Superior Court.

Although the repeated and ultimately fruitless telephone calls for help that he made to then-acting Commander of the Joaquín París Battalion in San Juan del Guaviare, Major Hernán Orozco, are etched indelibly into Cortés memory, the judge prefers to resume his story from the warm dawn of July 15, when two (2) armed men broke down the door to his home. At first, they ordered him to go with them, but then they decided to search the inside of the house-supposedly for weapons, finally taking the keys to the courthouse away from Cortés. “We’ve got to cut off communications to this town,” they grunted. In Mapiripan, there are only eight (8) telephone lines, and the intruders intended to block them all.

The paramilitary forces that barged into the judge’s home were part of the group of mysterious armed travelers that landed at the airport in San Jose del Guaviare in the Selva Airlines plane (Reg. No. HK-4009) that had flown out of Uraba. Later, they traveled by truck to the town of Charras, only 20 minutes by river to Mapiripan.

So it was that the paramilitary fighters, which have now adopted the name United Self Defense Leagues of Colombia (“Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia” or AUC) after joining different groups from various areas of the country, got to the remote and misty village of Mapiripan on the banks of the Guaviare River on the night of July 14. Fittingly enough, they were decked out in camouflage army fatigues and leather boots, with the glint of steel from the FAL, and AK 47 rifles they -slung over their shoulders. Arbey Ríos the owner of the Monserrate Hotel, the only one still in service after the massacre, tells of how these fighters appeared at his place of business on July 15 at around 6:00 AM, demanding to know where the Catumare residence was. Later, Ríos found out that they had gone there for Antonio María Calle (nicknamed Catumare), one of the town’s founders and, according to neighbors, a militant from the Union Patriotica, a political party created by the Colombian left.

At 9:30 on that fateful morning, Judge Cortés also learned that a few of the townspeople had been detained, among them, Catumare. After finding out that they were locked up in a house near the Mayor’s Office, Cortés decided to go over there with the pretext o wanting to buy a chicken from the owners of the house. When Catumare heard the judge’s voice, he began to yell repeatedly from inside the bowels of the building, “You Honor, are they going to do something to me?” The judge had to bite his tongue because he did not have the heart to answer his neighbor’s question, knowing full WIBI that if Catumare was there it was because they had already condemned the “poor old man” to death. “Another strange fact: The Mayor and the Deputy are miraculously never around when this type of thing happens. And the priest and the inspector are afraid to talk on behalf of their fellow man,” comments Cortés.

When he realized that no one in the town was about to do anything, the judge decided t intercede for the prisoners with one of the apparent leaders of the group, a black ma some two (2) meters (approx. 6’7”) tall, with an accent that betrayed his origins on the Colombian Coast and who the children had christened “King Kong”. “The only thing he said was, ‘Go talk to Aguila (“Eagle”] 4’. And they sent me to about five (5) different groups, each one with 12 to 15 members.” recalls Cortés. The errand pr oved to be productive one. Although the paramilitary fighters questioned his defense of the prisoners, he responded with a philosophical argument, “I maintained that I didn’t believe in the death penalty.” Ignoring the disgusted reaction of the “paras”,Cortés-Novoa insisted that they could not kill people based only on rumors or because some envious neighbor had “fingered them” (i.e., accused them of collaborating with guerrilla groups). With an almost desperate determination, the judge told each group of paramilita combatants that although he had only been in town for ten (10) months, he had never seen the individuals that had been detained dressed as guerrilla group members o armed, nor had he seen them collaborating with those groups. The judge claims that his efforts gained freedom for three (3) of the prisoners.

Encouraged by this small measure of success, Cortés decided to send out warning flares to announce the hellish situation that Mapiripan was going through. The judge decided to take advantage of the lethargic stupor of the afternoon “siesta” at noon on July 16 to sneak into the courthouse (because he had kept a duplicate copy of his key). The purpose of this mission was to write a report on what was happening and send it by fax to the Villavicencio Superior Court, even though he had just been in touch with Major Hernán Orozco of Joaquín París Battalion the day before.

The Major was actually the one who made the first call to Cortés-Novoa at the Monserrate Hotel to find out about a popular revolutionary trial of the town’s public officials that the guerrilla, groups had held on May 18. At that time, the judge did tell the Major that he had seen armed men in to n, but he did not enter into a lot of detail because, he thought-that it could be a trick set for him by the Self Defense Leagues. Only after Cortés-Novoa was able to verify the phone number that the Major had given him for the Battalion did he continue to maintain contact with him twice daily. The judge called the Major at least eight (8) times to tell him of “the atrocities that were happening and to plead anxiously with him for help.”

The judge got into the habit of calling the military officer secretly each morning and afternoon. As far as he can recall, Major Orozco told him that he was sorry but he could not help because the helicopters were all in Caqueta on an anti-guerrilla operation. Since General Jaime Humberto Uscategui, the Commander of the VII Brigade, had taken over, Major Orozco claimed to be “waiting for instructions and logistical support to go to Mapiripan.”

In the meantime, according to area residents, around 120 or 150 paramilitary members made the rounds in Mapiripan on foot and on motorcycles that they had forcibly “borrowed”. Rifles shouldered, they barged into almost every place of business in the town and, by some accounts, told merchants that from that moment on the “tax” that they had been paying the guerrilla forces would now have to be paid to the paramilitary group.

Lost in thought and somewhat depressed, the judge says that he was looking for some way to stop the wave of terror, yet when he would call Orozco, the Major limited himself to repeating time and time again that his men were in combat and that he could not abandon the base because it might be seized, which would be worse for everyone. Orozco insisted that the solution was in General Uscategui’s hands. All the while, the level of dread rose in Mapiripan. The judge closes his eyes and says, “Catumare was hung from a meat hook, and his limbs were torn off. They threw the pieces of the old man’s body into the river.”

From his cramped hiding place surrounded by law books, this judge who had to dedicate nine and a half years of his life to be able to be graduated as a lawyer due to economic problems, states that on July 17 he told the major that 16 people had already died. According to the judge, Orozco responded, “But what happened? Did they all go crazy? Have they all started doing drugs or what?” According to Cortés, the Major asked for a suggested course of action, and the judge asked the military officer to send helicopters to see if the noise would scare the “paras” off. Nevertheless, the Major later said repeatedly that though the situation seemed very serious to him, he was sorry that he could do nothing to help.

On July 19, after yet another sleepless night, thanks to witnessing yet another parade of gagged individuals pushed by the paramilitary fighters towards the slaughterhouse, Cortés-Novoa once again dialed the Battalion’s number. “Major,” he said, “I appeal to your military honor for you to do something to prevent them from continuing to massacre us in this way.” The Major answered that the Commander had returned to the base, “[Orozco] talked to someone over the radio and received the following order, ‘Tell that guy that if he: has nothing to do with what’s going on there, he has nothing to worry about and nothing is going to happen to him.’”

On July 20, the same day that the decapitated corpse of Ronald Valencia, the ticket-taker at the landing field, turned up, hysteria finally broke out in Mapiripan. Townspeople told the judge and his family that they should get out of town immediately because the “paras” had discovered that Cortés had been the informant to the military forces. ‘So, I called the Major,” says the judge. “He offered to send a helicopter to get my family out, but I couldn’t accept that because my neighbors also needed help. I knew that it wouldn’t sit well at all for me to go running off in a military helicopter from his area under guerrilla influence…I kept insisting that he send in the troops. The Major repeated that the General hadn’t answered him, so I hung up depressed, because that one of the Army’s Generals was content to allow us to be killed off that way.

His heart in his throat, the judge took his family to the landing field and begged a pilot there to take them on credit because otherwise they were going to be massacred. -There was a plane about to take off for Villavicencio, the capital of the Province of Meta, but he was only able to find space for two (2) of his children. With tears in his eyes because he was not certain he would see them again, he gave his children money and instructed them to take a taxi to the house of some acquaintances when they arrived in the city. The judge was able to get on another flight for San Jose del Guaviare with his other two (2) children and his young wife, Rosario, who was terrified and from whom he had hardly ever been apart during their fourteen (14) years of marriage.

Once in San Jose, the judge met Major Orozco at a restaurant, where the military officer had invited him and his family to dinner. “He seemed like a decent man,” said Cortés, “but I think he was under a lot of pressure from his commanding officers. He complained about how they couldn’t contradict orders received from their superiors. He repeated to me that he had sent a report in the hope of garnishing military and logistical support as well as orders from General Uscategui, but that the latter had never answered.”

When this reporter called Major Hernan Orozco from Bogota, the capital of Colombia, he agreed to grant an interview at Battalion Headquarters in San Jose del Guaviare, at which time he would also provide documents. Nevertheless, at the entrance to the Joaquín París Battalion, the Commander himself, Colonel Gustavo Sánchez-Gutiérrez, demanded to know why we were there, asked us to wait and then went off to speak to the Major. Twenty (20) minutes later, when we were finally allowed into the Major’s office, he told us that he could not speak to the press, and that he would speak only to the Office of the Attorney General.

When the Mayor tried to dismiss the journalists, he was unable to hide how nervous he was on hearing that we already had the full testimony of Mapiripan’s judge, Iván Cortés. He asked us where the judge was and what he had said. He confirmed that he had had al least eight (8) conversations with Cortés-Novoa while the members of the Self Defense Leagues were in Mapiripan. During the three (3) hours that we were at the Battalion, the officer-went in and-out-of his office five (5) times to consult with others.

Speaking in choppy sentences, the Major said, “My conscience is clean. What had to be done was done. I hope that the Attorney General’s Office is wise enough to define the things that it should define. With what I have to say, that Office will have the basis for making its decision in order to understand my extent of responsibility in these matters and what sanction I deserve.”

With each passing minute, the military official got more nervous. After having a glass water and showing us a photo of his young wife with their firstborn in her arms, the said that when the judge informed him that there were “paramilitary elements” Mapiripan, the Major -got his military intelligence personnel together to analyze situation. He admitted to speaking to the judge on a daily basis. He did say that it was not until Sunday, July 20, that the judge sounded truly terrified, however. Up until time, Cortés had seemed extremely calm, and Orozco never noticed the anxiety in judge’s voice that he would expect from someone who had home witness to a t death. “It wasn’t until that Sunday that there was no longer any doubt in my mind there had been casualties.”

At around 5:00 PM, the military officer confessed that he feared for the future of military career because “it’s always the big fish that swallows the minnow”. At that time the Major asked his assistants for the folder that he was preparing to take to the Attorney General’s Office. While he read from the report in a low voice, Orozco pointed out the Battalion’s jurisdiction covered an area of 100,000 square kilometers (approx. 38.610 sq. miles) and that they did not have a single helicopter. He added that the Joaquín París Battalion has about 216 kilometers (approx. 130.5 miles) that have to controlled and patrolled by one (1) man by himself.

The Major suddenly interrupted his recounting of figures and areas to ask how it was the Mayor of Mapiripan (Jaime Calderón), “in the midst of a situation as inconceivable horrific as the one that they say is going on there now, that he has done absolute nothing to help his people.” With that, he left his office once more and returned with Decree No. 2615 issued in November 1991, which stipulated as one of the attributes the Municipal Mayor that of conserving law and order. At around 6:30 PM and only when we were practically outside of his office altogether, the Major added, “it isn’t true what the judge says about my having informed General Uscategui about things and his not responding. Instructions were given.” Though the Major refused to say what they were “Unfortunately,” he went on, “we are an army of which a lot is asked but which has neither the human resources nor the material goods it needs to fulfill its duties.”

In view of the contradictions between the judge’s testimony and that of Major Orozco, it was important to travel to the city of Villavicencio, the headquarters of the VIl Brigade of the Armed Forces, to talk to General Uscategui. After waiting for four and a half hours, due to the fact that they were preparing for the visit of US anti-drug czar Barry McCaffrey to the Joaquín París Battalion and the Police Force’s Antinarcotics Base in San Jose del -. Guaviare Uscategui assured us that he found out about the massacre in Mapiripan on July 20, when tie was called by a journalist. This version does not coincide with the judge’s retelling.

Among other things, the General asked why the President of the Villavicencio Justice Tribunal did not inform him of the situation in Mapiripan if that organization did indeed receive a fax message form the judge on July 16 alerting them to precisely the gravity of that situation. The President of that Court’s reply to this matter was that it was “for obvious reasons”, because rumors to the effect that there are ties between the military officials and the paramilitary forces have long made the rounds in Colombia. Uscategui also questioned why the Red Cross did not send on the fax it received from the judge on July 18. Linder) the Red Cross delegate, stated that this was “due to confidentiality”. Uscategui adds that if the situation were really so terrible, why did the judge neglect to inform the Governor or why did he not just send a fax to the Brigade. He also asked why the people of Mapiripan themselves didn’t send out their own SOS message.

The military official, who was by now more than a little hot under the collar, also asked this journalist why she had so many questions about Mapiripan. For Uscategui, nothing strange at all had taken place in Mapiripan up to the day of the massacre. “It was known that the town was under FARC control, but they were left to their own devices out there, and we prefer to work with more concrete proof.” The General stressed that additionally, in order to mobilize troops, more than one (1) source is needed and that in no event is the phone call of a single man enough, in this case, referring to the judge.

Did no one else call the Battalion to give warning? Isabel Moreno, the secretary of the Transportation Credit Union of San Juan del Guaviare, maintains that she called the Joaquín París Battalion to report a huge armed operation underway in Charras. “I talked to the Major in charge of the Battalion and told him that they had stopped transit along the river for three (3) days…. His only reply was that he had no people there and that we should go check it out ourselves,” elaborated Moreno.

Gustavo Hincapié, the river transportation inspector, reports that he went personally to the Battalion and spoke with the Assistant to the Commander about the operations that were going on in Charras. “Because the boatmen that were sent back the way they came were sure that the blockade was set up by the Army, I went off to the Battalion to see what they would tell me.”

Others also noticed unusual happenings in the area. On July 15, the pilot of a small plane, who prefers not to divulge his identity told members of the Police Force’s Antinarcotics Unit in San Jose del Guaviare that armed men had forced two (2) of his passengers off the plane in Mapiripan. On July 17, that testimony was sent to the Office of the Director of the Antinarcotics Police in Bogota. Nevertheless, Colonel Fernando Saavedra, San Jose del Guaviare’s Police Chief, confirmed that it was not until July 26 that he received an order from the Antinarcotics Central Directoes Office to open up an investigation.

Why did eleven (11) days elapse between the receipt of the testimonial and the dispatch of the order to the Commander? Colonel Leonardo Gallego, Director of the Antinarcotics Policer, “explained that at any time that, report; was made, he himself was in the Caqueta area and did not return to his office until- July 21. He added that it was only then that he looked at his correspondence and found the report of the pilot’s declaration. He then immediately processed it to the upper-level leadership of the organization.

Gallego adds that the pilot did not go to the Antinarcotics Base to ask that his declaration be taken down regarding what had happened in Mapiripan. The Colonel claims that what really happened was that the small plane was being inspected when the pilot made his comments about the two passengers who had been forced off the aircraft in Mapiripan. Finally, according to Gallego, the antinarcotics patrolman who was on duty at the airport at the time asked the pilot to submit a complaint. The pilot refused because he was afraid of the consequences, at which point he was asked to present a declaration to the antinarcotics patrolman.

So it is that surrounding the tragic story of the massacre in Mapiripan there is no shortage of conflicting versions of the events. In fact, rumors that the massacre itself never happened have been woven out of whole cloth, as was to have been expected. Colonel Saavedra, the Guaviare Police Captain, repeats his view that he does not think that there was a real massacre in Mapiripan. The reason he gives for his skepticism is that when he went there, there were not even three dead people. “There was a paramilitary incursion, but the people disappeared out of fear.”

From his offices, which are adorned with photos of the region’s sunsets, the Commander concludes that the Red Cross has exaggerated its accounts of what happened. “No one found anything at all there, no one found a leg. The Red Cross told people they should make more of the problem so that it would have repercussions. The Red Cross is mixed up in all of this … They have to justify their presence there because where are all the dead bodies?”

What does the Red Cross have to say to all that? Anne-Sylvie Linder, the International Red Cross Delegate who arrived in Mapiripan on July 20, states that if the Colombian police have any doubts, she is more than available to clarify them.

Regarding Saavedra’s allusions to the absence of dead bodies, Judge Cortés- Novoa wrote the following in his report to the Villavicencio Tribunal on July 21. “They were throwing the cadavers into the river. When they would wash back up to shore, they would once again throw the bodies back in as far as they could, as if they were dealing with stray dogs… Up to yesterday, I had witnessed 26 murders.”

From his cramped temporary refuge, a building with a facade only three meters wide, the court officer stated that he also called the Red Cross Delegates inVillavicencio and begged them to get there as quickly as possible. I sent them a fax as early as July 18. “They got there too late, explaining that they had been forced to travel by land. They are supposed to be there to protect the civilian society in time,” he added bitterly. Linder answered these accusations by saying that they had done all they could with the means at their disposal, especially since she herself was responsible for verifying the information because it is not unusual for the different parties involved to try to manipulate the organization. She added that in order to mobilize personnel to this type of areas, two Red Cross Delegates for the region must go, but that her co-worker was in the middle of a visit to another town in their jurisdiction when the judge called.

This Red Cross Delegate of Swiss extraction, a petite blond with light- colored eyes, also stressed that once they arrived at Mapiripan, in view of the general panic, the Red Cross decided to hire two DC-3 Planes to transport the townspeople to Villavicencio, the closest city. Even the dogs tried to get on the planes, only to be forced off later amid whines and whimpers. Now, most of the little wooden huts of the town are closed up with padlocks on the doors. In fact, Mapiripan was the site of the largest mobilization of displaced people that has ever been carried out in Columbia, with international support and by air. “Granted, displacing people is not the ideal solution, but an empty town is a lot better than a town full of cadavers,” says Anne-Sylvie. Both she and another delegate repeat that they had never been to any other country where the people were so scared to talk and were so terrified in general. They say this despite the fact that they have worked in Croatia, Azerbaijan and the West Bank.

The level of terror in Mapiripan is such that, according to the towns- people, trucks with supplies could not get into the town for a few weeks. The pilot who flew in the journalists from this magazine on July 23 got upset when he saw men dressed in camouflage gear with rifles on their shoulders alongside the runway. “Do you think those are the ‘paras’? You guys get out quickly and I’ll continue on because this really does scare me,” he said.

Now, most of the front doors of most of the deserted tumbledown wooden shacks on Mapiripan’s main street are padlocked shut. Alongside each entrance, you can see the only remaining residents, the skinny mutts that still do their jobs as watchdogs, barking loud and long in warning at anyone who tries to get anywhere near their property.

The few families that have stayed in Mapiripan are forced to read and reread the slogans that the paramilitary forces have scrawled on the walls of the town. Underneath the sign for Las Brisas Ice Cream Shop, for example, they wrote, “Guerrilla forces out of Meta… If you desert now with your rifle, you will get two million pesos (approx. $2,000 US) and your life and family members will be spared.” On another wall, another graffiti has been quickly and jerkily written in a twisted script, complete with poorly spelled words and red paint, “We came, and we won’t be going until we wipe owt [sic] the guerrillas…”

During the time they spent in this now almost deserted town, the “paras” handed out dozens of pamphlets announcing the creation of the Guaviare Front of the United Self Defense Leagues of Colombia (“Auto Defensas Unidas de Colombia” or AUC). Their self-proclaimed mission is to recover this territory that guerrilla groups have made into “a strategic spot for recruiting, indoctrination and concentration of its members, and from where they go off to wreak havoc in other areas, always coming back to the town to regroup and find shelter.” In their fliers, the paramilitary group warns that any of the residents fraternizing with members of the FARC or ELN guerrilla groups will be severely tried and punished, even if this costs us an immediate price in terms of unpopularity.”

To the surprise of the authorities, these pamphlets handed out by the paramilitary forces do not limit their threats to the guerrillas operating in these colonization zones and their collaborators, but also target narcotraffickers who maintain relations with guerrilla groups. “They had better repent and end their criminal activity because they have been designated as a military objective of our organization,” warns the AUC. This is the first time that Self Defense Leagues have explicitly named the Mafia as one of their military targets. Up to now, the relations between paramilitary fighters and the narcotics trade was one of complicity not confrontation, as was already proven in Uraba (on the Panamanian border).

The few children and youths who have not fled the town of Mapiripan cannot seem to stop talking about those intruders who arrived dressed in camouflage gear calling themselves the Self Defense League. One of the boys, who gave his name as Horacio, claimed that they all looked like they had “stepped right out of a horror movie.” Another 12-year-old, who refused to divulge his name, talks about a gigantic black man who arrived with the “paras” and who the boy and his friends nicknamed “King-Kong”. According to accounts, this man kept a knife in his belt that he sharpened all the time. “This guy told one of my friends, ‘Hey! That little head, that tiny neck, they’re perfect for zzzt!”, says the boy, as he mimics slitting his own throat. He says that the other “paras” called that man “Deshuesador” (literally, “the one who removes bones or fillets”).

Martín, another of Mapiripan’s young people, points out as he reads one of the fliers, that it is just not true that most of the members of the Guaviare Front of the paramilitary group are from the area. “Most of them are darker-skinned or even black,” he claims. The only person neighbors were able to recognize was a man named Alvaro, who had studied at the public school in town. All of the rest, according to the townspeople and the Delegate from the Red Cross, who happened to run into them as she was on her way to Mapiripan, had accents from Colombia’s coastal region.

Who finances “operations” like the one that took place in Mapiripan? Carlos Castaño, one of the leaders of the AUC, maintains the group’s activities are funded through contributions from people who have tired of having to put up with guerrilla-group tactics such as extortion, kidnapping and the like. While having a beer at their places of business, five people from Mapiripan claim that members of the self- defense group said that they were sponsored by the Government itself and the rich people of the region. Others point-out that according to the paramilitary fighters, because there is all this talk about a peace process, the “paras” had to get rid of some degree of public support for the guerrilla groups so that the subversives would be willing to negotiate. The only comment that Luis Manuel Lazo, Delegate to the President’s Advisory Board on Human Rights, was willing to make about all this was, “This is a very sensitive issue, very sensitive.” Lazo visited Mapiripan for a few hours in the company of a Commission from the Prosecutors Office.

The anonymous prosecutor’s were in town from 1 1:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Wednesday, July 23, after which time, according to Lazo, they reported that they had taken all of the steps necessary for the investigation. If this is to be believed, the prosecutors were somehow able to perform the full investigation into this tragedy in a scant five hours, though they did not leave the Mayor’s Offices. even once during that time. The Prosecutor General for the Nation, Alfonso Gómez- Méndez, later explained that the prosecutors hadn’t stayed in Mapiripan longer because they wanted to avoid the fate suffered by another Commission from the Prosecutors Office in the town of La Rochela in the northeastern part of Colombia. There, all of the members of the group responsible for investigating a case of human rights violation were massacred.

Despite the fact that many of the people native to Mapiripan haven’t even finished secondary school, they are very aware of everything that has to do with their town. They are disgusted with “that guy Bonett” (Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, Manuel José Bonett), because “from the very start, he said that this thing with Mapiripan was nothing more than a quarrel between narcotraffickers… You expect a little more seriousness from a General… especially when there are so many good families caught in the middle.” León Cardoso, a 70-year-old grandfather who first arrived in the municipality when there was only one house built, says that there were deals in marijuana many years ago in this area, followed by a period when cocaine was common. Nevertheless, perhaps because “they used to catch two fellows a day in that trade,” today most farmers are dedicated to legal crops, such as cassava, corn and plantain, though it is difficult to get the crop to the market because there is no road. Seven calls were made to General Bonett’s offices in order to get his statement on the complaints of the people of Mapiripan, but he was too busy due to the fact that he had just been promoted to Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.

At around noon on the Wednesday after the massacre, a youth around 20 years old comes and says “hi” to his friends in the middle of the street. When I introduce myself as a journalist, he says, “Man, I should have believed them.” Only when we guarantee that we will not print his name is he willing to explain, albeit in fits and starts, what he is talking about. He says that less than a month ago, a “warrior” — a Commander from the FARC named Alexander — brought all of the town’s residents together in Mapiripan’s central plaza, announcing over a “gossip horn” (i.e., a loud speaker) that the paramilitary forces were on their way to the region and that the town was filling up with enemy intelligence. Few people paid any attention to the warning, especially when they realized that that same commander had deserted the guerrilla movement after stealing some 40 million Colombian pesos ($40,000 US).

The same witness tells how in March, the guerrilla forces arrived in town to carry out a popular revolutionary trial of all Municipal employees. They asked if the town had any complaints about taking measures. There were complaints about certain officials, such as the Mayor, but he was not in town that day. “This is a town that has no law. The guerilla groups are the ones who punish those who steal. That’s why you hardly ever lose anything that way here,” says Bernardo, a youth from Mapiripan. In this municipality, there once was a police barracks, but the guerrillas seized it in January 1995 after killing three policemen and leaving another 20 agents in their underwear. Today, the former police station is in ruins, with weeds growing more than a meter high inside the offices. If you look hard enough at the gnawed-at walls of these offices, you can still see the marks -left by the bullets that flew that day.

Before July 14, it was common to hear people in this town playing guitars and “cuatros” (the smaller Colombian cousin of the guitar, like a ukelele), singing the traditional “joropo” music of the plains region on the sultry nights, drinking beer and the local fire water, “aguardiente”. Today, no one sings anymore. In the midst of the chaos, many have no idea where their family members are. There are only four telephones or Telecom Offices (the official company that handles long-distance communication), which announce the calls over loudspeakers. Many people these days spend their days, “checking out the speaker”; they have not yet lost hope of receiving some word from those who have disappeared.

No one knows exactly how many people are gone. There were some 3,000 inhabitants of the town itself, but at a meeting that was held last Wednesday night, only 250 attended. Before the paramilitary incursion, there were 692 children who attended the Jorge Eliécer Gaitán School; yet, according to the Red Cross, the week after the massacre only 61 children went to class. What about trade? Marta Salazar, who is the owner of a variety shop called “La Peluda”, says that she used to sell up to 200,000 pesos a day ($200), whereas now after the “mess”, she only takes in between 5,000 and 10,000 pesos ($5 to $10).

León Cardoso, a peasant with a machete at his belt and traditional sandals called “alpargatas” on his feet, says that many people have left Mapiripan because “we don’t all have the same capacity to think… Many just left to go beg on the street in the cities, to have to stand the hunger and the cold.” At present in Colombia, there are close to a million and a half people who have been displaced due to violence. Don León points out that the reason he went to Mapiripan in the first place was because he wanted to put the horror of Colombia’s difficult “La Violencia” out of his mind, that period in the 1950’s when the members of the traditional political parties, Liberals and Conservatives, were engaged in a battle to the death. He wanted to forget the dump trucks filled with heads without bodies that were dumped out onto the town square in his native village of Ceilan in Colombia’s Cauca Valley. “Unfortunately, history repeats itself.”

The war is getting worse each day, as if it were the macabre fate of this South American country and its recurring violence. On August 9, in retribution for what happened in Mapiripan, an armed front from the FARC attacked a center of self defense leagues in the Eastern Plains region in the northern part of the province of Meta, by order of guerrilla leader Jorge Suárez-Briceño, alias Mono Jojoy. “We can’t just sit around catching flies, doing nothing. We must attack the enemy. We have to put everyone on guard so that they don’t let themselves be mowed down with chain-saws and machetes,” the guerrilla leader ordered, according to a communique intercepted by the Army after the massacre.

According to information from the security organizations, fighting between paramilitary and guerrilla forces recorded in the area of Puerto Gaitan shortly after the Mapiripan massacre lasted over five days and left casualties of 12 paramilitary fighters and 17 guerrillas. Some of the people from the area counted over 100 wounded. Carlos Castaño, the leader of the AUC, touts different statistics, however. According to his account in the largest Colombian national newspaper, El Tiempo, 49 guerrillas died in combat as compared to 12 “paras”.

Consequently, guerrilla groups have put themselves on red alert and are taking the paramilitary incursions into their zones of influence very seriously. This is due to the fact that in the middle of this year at an organized meeting in the province of Cordoba, at least 5,000 militants from private justice organizations pledged to recover “the plains and the jungles of the eastern part of Colombia, where the guerrillas have settled in” (an area that represents about half of Colombia’s geographic territory). They have promised to achieve their goal no matter what it takes, by “blood and fire, by hook or by crook”, just as they claim to have done in Uraba and the Middle Magdalena region. The Self Defense Organization justified its aggressive strategies at the meeting by pointing out that the FARC has 27 of its 60 guerrilla fronts in this part of the country, to say nothing of the nine new ELN fronts there. According to the AUC, these armed delinquents have been able to keep the region’s oil production in check and also control the narcotraffickers whose livelihood depends on the 40,000 hectares of coca plantations located there.

In view of the foregoing and of the atrocity of the attack on Mapiripan, it is feared that there are dark days ahead for this area. For their part, the Secretariat of the FARC organized a summit meeting to agree on armed actions to counteract the new offensive announced by the paramilitary groups. Currently, throughout the expansive plains and jungles of the Colombian southeast, messages of war can be heard from the different forces in conflict. In another of Mono Jojoy’s intercepted communiques, he says, “When the army patrols appear, people should take the necessary safety measures to avoid being fooled into thinking they are paramilitary groups… We have to encourage people’s courage so that they can organize and arm themselves to face this army disguised as the paramilitary, who are really financed by the big money.”

The confrontations have continued. Mapiripan’s parish priest, Vinicio Pereacutz, tells of how on a Tuesday night two months ago, guerrillas took over the town’s central square, despite the fact that the Army was stationed on the outskirts of the town. “At around 8:30 PM, a battle began that lasted 12 hours. It still gives me the shakes… The soldiers and the guerrillas were shooting at each other, throwing grenades. Oh sweet Jesus! I crammed myself under the mattress in the Sacristy, any which way. Some others ran off to hide in the hospital. You see the Church and the hospital are the only brick constructions in this town. The others are all made of wood.”

Why did the AUC choose Mapiripan to launch their incursions into the Eastern Plains? “The group’s leader” Castaño has said in press releases that most of the cocaine handled by the FARC goes through the town of San Jose del Guaviare, near Mapiripan. “A little further down from there, there is a small settlement called Charras which also happens to be the busiest port on the Guaviare River. A little further south, you come to Caño Jabon, the last port on the River and the departure point for 10, 12 or 13 planes loaded with coke. Caño Jabon is also where the FARC receive huge sums of money for grass. By attacking [Mapiripan], we cut off the whole pipeline.” In addition, he stated that since this was a sentence they were executing, “there are a whole lot more people in Mapiripan.”

Attitudes like these make it likely that the war in Colombia will be long and hard. José Miguel Vivanco, Director of Human Rights Watch, says that his group is following the investigations closely so that those responsible can be captured. “Apparently, several officials had prior knowledge of the presence of paramilitary forces and did nothing about it.” Vivanco underscored his condemnation of these figures, saying, “They could have avoided this atrocious crime.”

In the meantime, four (4) months after the horrible events, there are even more unanswered questions than before. The Colombian Civil Aeronautics Board’s confirmation that on 12:48 PM on July 12 an Aerolinea Selva plane (Reg. No. HK-4009) left the Los Cedros Airport in Uraba for San Jose del Guaviare further fanned the already hot fires of curiosity. The aircraft was an Antonov that had been chartered in Bogota for five million pesos and which landed in Guaviare with some 50 passengers on board. That same day, another plane, this time a private DC-3 (Reg. No. HK-3993) left from the same terminal and with the same destination.

All investigations indicate that the same members of the AUC who inflicted days and nights of terror in Mapiripan flew on those planes. Paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño has already admitted that he mobilized his forces from Uraba and Cordoba to Mapiripan. “That was our confrontational front, 70 men there were. And they were the ones who fought. They will be there until December,” he specified, adding that at the time of the incursion, there was already a self-defense group with 30 members in the Eastern Plains region.

The Civil Aeronautics Board also confirmed that the HK-4009and HK-3993 aircraft did in fact land at the Capt. Jorge Endque González-Torres Airport in the town of San Jose del Guaviare. The strange thing is that the arrival and departure of passengers is the responsibility of the Joaquín París Battalion of the National Army. Thus, all people arriving at the terminal must be cleared by a military inspection post and must also leave their personal data registered. Yet, according to the authorities interviewed, the passengers on the HK-4009 were not recorded in the official arrival book. When asked what exceptions are normally allowed for this requirement, the answer given by Police Sergeant Oscar Martínez was, “Well, the most normal thing is not to register the Police or the Army in that book”.

In addition, at the Jorge González-Torres Airport, all travelers are searched carefully by members of the Antinarcotics Police. It seems that the travelers on these two flights, however, were never frisked at all because they were allowed through with arms and other gear, according to the authorities interviewed. Colonel Luis Fernando Saavedra Bautista, the Provincial Police Chief in Guaviare, feels that the account by which the plane carrying members of the AUC landed at the Official San Jose Military Airport, where there are controls in place by both the Army and the Police, just is not possible.

What is true is that there is a shroud of mystery surrounding these flights. The name of the person who chartered the HK-4009 at the Bogota offices of Selva Airlines does not correspond to the national I.D. No. given by that individual. Furthermore, Selva Airlines does not even appear in the city’s telephone book. According to Alvaro Fuentes, the company’s manager, the only ones who have the telephone number of the Bogota office are the company’s clients. Fuentes got angry when people started calling him on his direct line. He was only willing to give information on the flight in question in exchange for the name of the person who had given out his private number. When that request was refused, he exploded, saying that everything about that case is “confidential information from the brief”, and that he would authorize this journalist to print only that last comment.

Yet there is already undeniable evidence that the paramilitary forces that attacked Mapiripan did arrive in the area by air and that on the next day, July 13, a group of members of the Self Defense Leagues got to the small village of Charras by truck. There, the “paras” blocked all transit on the Guaviare River, effectively cutting the region off. They then took a few boats to the docks of Mapiripan, a town that is only a 20 minute ride by river from Charras.

The Police Inspector of Charras, José Alejandro Guerra-Peña, states that when the armed men arrived there, they identified themselves as members of the Self Defense Leagues. They then proceeded to line up all of the town’s residents and ask them for their National I.D. Cards. “The only thing they actually did here was write down data,” says Guerra, a 56-year-old Peruvian. He went on to say that he was not able to talk to the Secretary of the Provincial Government, Eduardo Brand, until July 18. According to the Inspector, the Secretary told him, “There’s nothing to worry about now, ecause if they’ve already gone, then there was nothing that needed doing there.” Brand is currently under investigation by the Attorney General’s Office.

On the morning of November 6, after part of the information on the alleged collaboration between paramilitary and military forces was published in the Colombian weekly news magazine, Cambio 16, Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch met in Washington with General Barry McCaffrey, the US’s “Drug Czar”. At that time, the Director of HRW spoke of the seriousness of the events reported concerning the Mapiripan massacre. McCaffrey said that he was “shocked” and that he would follow up on the matter personally and in detail. When their meeting ended, Vivanco stressed that the General was “extremely concerned” by the human rights violations in an area that receives U.S. military aid.

Only two weeks prior to that meeting, during a brief and controversial visit to Colombia by General McCaffrey (which coincided with U.S. President Bill Clinton’s visit to other Latin American countries), McCaffrey had recommended that Colombian Generals combat paramilitary influences with the same dedication they use to fight guerrilla forces. In a speech made, coincidentally, in the town of San Jose del Guaviare, McCaffrey told the generals his view of the Self Defense Leagues, saying, “They are nothing more than criminal bands that make money off of the narcotics trade while they endanger Colombia’s democracy.” The czar warned the generals that if they did not start to fight this cancer in time, irregular paramilitary groups could turn Colombia into another Bosnia. McCaffrey then pointed out as a sign of this phenomenon the fact that these criminal organizations are responsible for massacres and kidnappings that undermine the forces of justice.

What McCaffrey said to the Director of HRW was that if human rights violations by units in the position to receive U.S. military aid should be legally proven, such aid could not be transferred and would have to be transferred. A spokesperson from McCaffrey’s office confirmed that if there were credible evidence of violations committed by an official of any unit receiving aid and the Colombian Government did not investigate, “it could be that we would cut off aid. For now, General McCaffrey does not want to make any comment on the investigations underway, other than “it is important to see what comes out of those investigations.”

Vivanco feels that the Colombian Offices of the Attorney General and the Prosecutor General should make this case one of their highest priorities. “The judge in Mapiripan went to a military base for protection and did not receive any help, with the upshot being that we are now regretting a massacre that could have been avoided,” he said. Vivanco went on to stress, “The matter of the airplane is one of extraordinary seriousness. If it is confirmed, it will prove that there were not only acts of omission and negligence, but that there were also direct complicity regarding the commission of these reprehensible acts.”

How is the investigation into the case proceeding? Attorney General Jaime Bemal-Cuéllar took on the investigation into Mapiripan because it is felt that, at least in principle, there may be certain actions projected towards the Commander of the VII Brigade, General Jaime Humberto Uscategui. Officials from the Prosecutor General’s Office as well as the Attorney General’s Office have stated that their sources have confirmed that the members of the AUC arrived on the two planes with Reg. Nos. HK-4009 and HK3993 and later attacked Mapiripan, just as the Colombian weekly news magazine had published.

At the same time, General Agustín Ardila, Commander of the Fourth Division of the Army and Uscategui’s Superior Officer, proposed that “the Armed Forces Inspectors open up an investigation in any case of genocide…. The judge’s allegations do not surprise me because the institution had been besmirched time and time again. But I am not in a position to pre-judge the matter.” In view of the controversy generated by the whole affair, Minister of Defense Gilberto Echevérry noted that “many things can happen when there are 250,000 members of all of the combined forces, yet these are actions of individuals, not of the institution itself.” Uscategui’s comments on the matter were, “I cannot accept any of those ideas. What I can say is that nothing is being covered up here; no one is covering for anyone.”

With respect to McCaffrey’s proposals that military aid be called into question if there is proof of complicity on the part of officials in the Mapiripan massacre, Minister of offense Echevérry said, “That would be a unilateral act on the part of the United States. According to our agreement, human rights cases are subject to resolution under Colombian law. It would be impossible to terminate the agreement unilaterally unless there were credible evidence of the participation of an official in these violations and, even then, only if the corresponding investigation into the matter made no progress.” The Minister maintains that the amount of aid at risk here is somewhere on the order of the 30 billion pesos ($30 million) that were announced for 1997.

As a result of Judge Cortés-Novoa’s public complaints, Colombia’s Prosecutor General, Alfonso Gómez-Méndez has issued instructions to ensure the young lawyers safety. The office of a high-level UN Commission for Human Rights inColombia has also issued a communiqué “denouncing the massacre committed by paramilitary forces in Mapiripan”. This release calls for a full investi- gation of the facts, condemning the masterminds behind the atrocities as well as those who actually carried them out.” The Attorney General’s Office has already, opened up an investigation into the allegedly negligent behavior of four Army and Police officers as well as against five civilian officials who failed to report what was going on in Mapiripan.

Unfortunately, the presence of paramilitary groups in Mapiripan cannot be viewed as an isolated problem of a single city. On the contrary, the trend seems to be on the rise, as evidenced by eight additional similar massacres in diverse parts of the country since Mapiripan, killings that have left a civilian death tall of 80. Figures published by a Colombian Human Rights NGO CINEP support this conclusion as well. There are now paramilitary organizations in 32 of Colombia’s Departments or Provinces, With 353 casualties among the military, police, guerrillas and self-defense groups, from January to March of this year as the result of violent confrontations. Amazingly, there were even more civilian deaths for the same brief period, 366. The situation is so severe that on December 1, Colombia’s Minister of Defense, Gilberto Echevérry, denounced the bloodiest wave of killing in the nation’s history,

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