Mounting Evidence of President’s Involvement in Massacre

News from Colombia | on: Sunday, 27 April 2008

Sworn testimony from one of the participants, a beeper message sent from one paramilitary death squad member to another, and the participation of his official helicopter, all indicate that the former Governor of the Colombian department of Antioquia was involved in the notorious 1997 'El Aro' massacre of 15 civilians by a paramilitary death squad. But of more interest today is that the then Governor of Antioquia, is now the President of Colombia – Alvaro Uribe.

Evidence of Uribe's involvement in the massacre is mounting rapidly with the latest development being the sworn testimony of former paramilitary fighter Francisco Enrique Villalba. He has testified under oath to the Prosecutor General's office that he saw then Governor Uribe at a meeting with paramilitary commanders and Army officers where the massacre was planned and then at a subsequent meeting days after the killing spree where Uribe thanked those who had taken part for a successful mission.

Opposition Senator Gustavo Petro has also asked why then Governor Uribe's personal helicopter was allegedly used to transport the paramilitaries to the site of the massacre. Other evidence has come to light showing that during the massacre one paramilitary sent a beeper message to another asking him to "call the Governor".

The Inter-American Human Rights Court has already condemned the Colombian Government for their involvement in the massacre, citing proof that the Army collaborated with the paramilitaries. But their sentence also mentions the fact that when Governor Uribe was told that a paramilitary massacre in the village of 'El Aro' was imminent, he refused to act to protect residents.

Here, using Villalba's testimony and other sources, JFC has attempted to put together the whole story of what happened before, during and after the massacre at 'El Aro' – a story that may have enormous consequences for Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

'El Aro', Alvaro Uribe's Massacre?

• On 22nd October 1997, according to testimony from Mr Villalba, Governor Alvaro Uribe, accompanied by his brother Santiago, attended a meeting at a ranch in the La Caucana area of Antioquia department. Also present at the meeting were several senior military officers from the 4th Brigade of the Colombian Army (including General Carlos Ospina, the commander of the Brigade) and a group of paramilitary death squad commanders. These commanders included Carlos Castano, the then national leader of the paramilitaries, and his deputy Salvatore Mancuso. Also present was a man named Jose Ardila, a senior leader of the private vigilante groups known as CONVIVIR that legally operated in Antioquia at that time after Governor Uribe had promoted their formation.

At the meeting the men planned an operation to attack the village of El Aro in the north of Antioquia department. Residents of the village were allegedly sympathetic to a local leftwing guerrilla unit and, most importantly for those present, and especially for the Uribe brothers, the guerrillas were thought to be holding eight wealthy ranchers nearby that they had kidnapped for ransom. Agreements were also reached that the Army would remove their checkpoints and roadblocks from the region on the day of the attack.

At the meeting Santiago Uribe, who was at the time (according to Villalba and several other sources) managing his own paramilitary death squad, committed 20 of his own men to participate in the El Aro operation. Governor Alvaro Uribe told those assembled to "do whatever you have to do".

• Human Rights Watch has documented what happened three days later:

"While soldiers maintained a perimeter around El Aro, an estimated 25 paramilitaries entered the village, rounded up the residents and executed four people in the village plaza...Storeowner Aurelio Areiza and his family were told to slaughter a steer and prepare food from their shelves to feed the paramilitaries on October 25.... The next day, Areiza was taken to a nearby house, tied to a tree, tortured and killed. Witnesses say the paramilitaries gouged out his eyes and cut off his tongue and testicles...Over the five days they remained in El Aro, the paramilitaries executed at least eleven people, including three children, burned forty-seven of the sixty-eight houses, including a pharmacy, a church, and the telephone exchange, looted stores, destroyed the pipes that fed the homes potable water, and forced most of the residents to flee. When they left on October 30, the paramilitaries took with them over 1,000 head of cattle along with goods looted from homes and stores. Afterwards, thirty other people were reported to be forcibly disappeared."

Subsequent investigations have found that in fact well over 100 paramilitaries were involved in the operation, that in total 15 people were murdered, and that female residents were raped.

Colombian Senator Gustavo Petro has also alleged that the paramilitaries were actually transported to El Aro by Governor Uribe's own helicopter. Separately Mr Villalba has alleged that at least 800 of the stolen cattle ended up at a ranch owned by Mr Mancuso, the paramilitary commander mentioned above.

• A few days after the massacre, according to Villalba, Uribe and his brother returned to the La Caucana ranch to congratulate the paramilitaries for carrying out the operation successfully as well as for their successful rescue, conducted alongside of the massacre, of the eight wealthy ranchers. Uribe was accompanied by a bodyguard with the surname Serna.

Note: When asked by the prosecutors whether he had ever seen either of the Uribe brothers on previous occasions Mr Villalba replied that he had never met Alvaro before the first meeting, but that Santiago was well known to the paramilitaries as he commanded his own death squad at the time. Villalba added that he only realised that Alvaro was the Governor at the second meeting.

• In the months and years that followed, government agencies as well as human rights organisations opened investigations into the massacre at El Aro. However, in 1999 the government investigators that were involved in this work were themselves all murdered. The highest profile human rights defender in Antioquia at that time, Jesus Maria Valle Jaramillo, publicly stated that the Army and paramilitaries had collaborated on the massacre and questioned why Governor Uribe had ignored the plea for help from residents in the period immediately preceding the attack. Uribe responded by accusing Mr Valle Jaramillo of being an "enemy of the armed forces". Then in February 1999, he too was assassinated.

• Some time afterwards Jose Ardila, the CONVIVIR representative who had attended the first meeting at the ranch with the Uribe brothers, had a falling out with Uribe. He was subsequently sentenced to a 60-year prison term but shortly afterwards was taken out of jail. He has never been seen since.

• Since going public with his testimony, Mr Villalba, who himself is in jail, has been the victim of three assassination attempts.

Endnote: As mentioned above, in July 2006, the Inter American Court Human Rights Court found the Colombian Government guilty of involvement in the massacre, citing proof of army involvement in the operation. The court ordered that the Colombian State pay $30,000 US dollars to each victims family – this, they instructed, should be split with 50% going to the partner of the victim with the other half being shared in equal quantities between parents, siblings and children of the victims. According to Victoria Fallon, the lawyer representing the families of the dead, not a penny has yet reached any of the families involved.



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