This Week I Visited Monteria

News from Colombia | on: Monday, 5 May 2008

The leader of Colombia's National Movement of Victims, himself the son of an assassinated politician, has written the below piece for the Colombian press. In it Ivan Cepeda talks about a visit he carried out to the city of Monteria, the capital of Cordoba department in northwest Colombia. The region has long been the headquarters of Colombia's paramilitary death squads. Mr Cepeda's piece first appeared in Spanish in the Colombian newspaper El Espectador on May 3rd and was subsequently posted in English on the website of the Washington DC-based Center for International Policy.

This Week I Visited Monteria,

by Ivan Cepeda

This week I visited Monteria for the first time. I did so by invitation of the Union of University Workers and Employees, SINTRAUNICOL. The airport is near the city and adjoins the "El Uberrimo" ranch, which is the property of President Alvaro Uribe.

My companions spoke to me of the lawyer Jose Corena, who has been in charge of the President's land business, and that of his cousin Mario Uribe [a Senator, now in jail awaiting trial for collaboration with rightwing paramilitary death squads]. In the same region the Castanos, Mancuso and alias "Don Berna" [the principle paramilitary commanders] have lands. A few kilometres away are the sumptuous neighbourhoods of the region's cattlemen and large landowners: El Recreo and La Castellana. In the latter, the Mancuso family has a large mansion. In the city are commercial properties which, everyone knows, belong to the paramilitary chief [Salvatore Mancuso is the national paramilitary commander].

When I ask whether any authority has ordered the seizure of these lands and businesses, those accompanying me laugh. In that same zone are the social club and the open-air restaurants where the local high society meets. They tell me that at the parties one would frequently see the former prosecutor-general, Luis Camlio Osorio. We passed by the La Vittoriana restaurant, property of the brothers Jaime and José Maroso, partners and testaferros [property-holding front men] of Mancuso. This government named José to two diplomatic posts: one in Italy, the other in Switzerland. Now the paramilitary groups are led by Domenico Mancuso, cousin of Salvatore.

In the shadow of the bridge that President Uribe ordered to be built, and which goes to his ranch, on the banks of the Sinu River, thousands of displaced people live in misery. They come from places like Tierralta and Valencia. The Civil Victims' Committee of the department of Córdoba, Comfavic, is made up of 7,800 families. Many have more than one member murdered or disappeared by the paramilitaries. It is obvious that for anyone who lives in, or visits, the city or its nearby ranches, it must be impossible to ignore the reality of these crimes. How can they not know that thousands of killings are being perpetrated, or not see the displaced people? How can they ignore who Mancuso and the Castano clan were in a city in which everything is known and is commented on in whispers?

Finally, we arrived at the University of Cordoba. The employees and students have begun a movement to demand the resignation of the current president, Claudio Sanchez Parra. They also demand truth and justice. Since 1995, 19 people belonging to the university have been murdered. On February 18, 2003, Mancuso called professors and employees to Santa Fe de Ralito [where the paramilitary leaders were gathered for talks with the government], and warned them that if they did not attend they should be prepared for the consequences. Present at the meeting was a delegate from the government, Felix Manssur Jattin. After reading the CVs of the professors, which had been taken from the University's files, Mancuso introduced them to Sanchez Parra and said to them, "This person here by my side is my friend, and in the University I must have men that I trust." The new university president put Mancuso's relatives in posts in the University leadership. Even though the Prosecutor-General's Office and the Attorney-General's office are carrying out investigations against him, he remains in the presidency. This week the Victims' Movement will lead a petition of the government and will carry out an international campaign calling for his immediate firing.

Perhaps there are photos, witnesses or recordings of the meetings of the landholders, politicians and soldiers with Mancuso, while thousands of people were being killed or displaced. But beyond these elements of hard evidence, the whole social order, the nearness of the large ranches and the centres of Montería's high society show the reality of a criminal power: the city itself is the proof.

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