Former paramilitary commander testifies to peace court about state role in massacres and abuses

The Colombian military and police colluded with paramilitaries to carry out atrocities including massacres and the forced displacement of thousands of people, according to testimony from a former commander in what was once Colombia’s largest paramilitary federation, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).

Over four days, Salvatore Mancuso, who was once the AUC’s second-in-command, appeared via video in front of judges at the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the transitional justice court created in the 2016 peace agreement to investigate and prosecute major human rights violations committed during the armed conflict. The proceedings were conducted for judges to determine whether Mancuso can provide new and concrete evidence to the JEP, thereby permitting him to formally enter its jurisdiction. This would make him eligible to receive a reduced sentence in return for shedding light on AUC activities.

From its founding in 1997 to its official disbandment in 2006, the AUC was responsible for many of the worst atrocities committed during the conflict’s most violent period, often in tandem with state security forces. It routinely targeted peasant farmers, activists and trade unionists, with research having found that the AUC and affiliated paramilitary groups were behind the majority of human rights violations, including massacres, forced disappearances, torture and forced displacement, particularly in its northern Colombia stronghold. While the AUC claimed to be targeting the FARC and other guerrilla organisations, its operations were primarily conducted against civilians.

Mancuso has revealed several harrowing details about the AUC’s years of operations. Victims were disposed of in secret crematoriums, thrown in rivers or buried in unmarked graves in neighbouring Venezuela. ‘We weren’t told just to kill. We were told to hide the bodies and ensure they were never found,’ he told the JEP. In a report published last year, Colombia’s Truth Commission found that over 110,000 people were forcibly disappeared during the armed conflict, more than the combined official tallies of the Southern Cone dictatorships of the 1970s-80s.

The former AUC commander also gave information about the backing the AUC received from security forces, including the army, police and the now-defunct intelligence services, the Department of Administrative Security (DAS), which was broken up in 2011 following multiple scandals over human rights abuses and illegal spying on politicians and civilians. According to Mancuso, security personnel provided lists of names of people to be targeted. He said one of the listed names was the country’s current president Gustavo Petro, then a congressional politician. ‘In my capacity as a link between security forces and self-defence groups [the term paramilitaries use to describe themselves], I ordered the murders of hundreds of people,’ he told the JEP.

Mancuso’s testimony was divided into four core areas: first, the role of ‘Convivir’ citizen brigades, legal entities that received financing from businesses but which were closely meshed with paramilitaries; second, paramilitary operations undertaken with the involvement of state security forces; third, alliances between the AUC and state officials, civilians and military officials; and fourth, the obtaining of information from the DAS which was used to target civilians. Mancuso has previously admitted during the demobilisation process carried out in the mid-2000s to participating in human rights abuses.

While the AUC officially disbanded in 2006, a large number of its estimated 20,000 members are believed to have moved into the ranks of paramilitary-successor groups. In 2008, the then-government of Álvaro Uribe extradited Mancuso and other AUC leaders to the United States. Human rights groups raised concerns over the extradition process for its denial of justice to victims who would be unable to face their repressors in a Colombian court, amid suspicions that the decision was taken to silence AUC leaders over their collaboration with state officials and politicians. Mancuso was released from prison in 2020, having served 12 years.

Mancuso told the JEP that the AUC worked to get Uribe elected in 2002, as well as his predecessor Andrés Pastrana four years earlier. Both have denied involvement with paramilitaries, with Pastrana calling on Mancuso to produce evidence to back his claims. Uribe has long been suspected of colluding with paramilitaries during the 1990s when he was governor of the department of Antioquia.

Human rights groups and conflict victims hope that Mancuso will provide fresh insight into the AUC’s links to politicians, the military and businesses, including multinational corporations. However, with a lack of names and other concrete details in Mancuso’s testimony, some observers are questioning whether he will be admitted to the JEP. It falls to the judges to make that decision. Among the criteria they consider is the extent to which his testimony can contribute to establishing truth, whether it contains previously unknown information and whether Mancuso is willing to undergo a judicial process in the JEP. The court’s judges previously rejected the application by another notorious paramilitary commander, Jorge 40.

It remains to be seen if Mancuso’s testimony can contribute to ending the impunity that is a barrier to justice and reconciliation, amid the strong likelihood that influential figures are determined to hide their involvement in paramilitary atrocities. Judges will soon release their decision as to whether the man behind the deaths of so many people can help bring the truth to light.