Ex-paramilitary leader testifies about assassinations in Colombia

Salvatore Mancuso, former commander of right-wing paramilitary groups, has offered four days of tribunal testimony.

Bogotá, Colombia – A former strongman has wrapped up testimony before Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) tribunal this week, offering a harrowing look into paramilitary assassination programmes orchestrated during the country’s decades-long internal conflict.

Salvatore Mancuso, who used the nom de guerre “Triple Zero”, was one of the primary leaders of paramilitary forces in the country in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

Over four days of testimony, ending Tuesday, Mancuso offered insight into groups that Colombia’s Peace Commission has since described as “death squads”.

As the erstwhile commander of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a coalition of right-wing paramilitary groups, Mancuso described the murder and forced disappearances of political activists and other individuals seen as sympathetic to left-wing groups and causes.

“These were assassinations,” he said on the first day of testimony, May 10. “There is no other word for it.”

Former paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso gives testimony though live video screen to the country's truth commission as Francisco de Roux, President of the Truth Commission, looks on
Salvatore Mancuso has previously offered testimony before Colombia’s Truth Commission, as the country contends with the legacy of a nearly 60-year-long internal conflict [File: Nathalia Angarita/Reuters]

Mancuso has previously admitted to thousands of counts of various crimes before the JEP, in an attempt to earn leniency and avoid further legal proceedings in Colombia. He gave this week’s testimony by video from the United States, where he previously served 12 years on drug trafficking charges.

“We weren’t told just to kill. We were told to hide the bodies and ensure they were never found,” Mancuso said from a screen before the court.

To cover up their crimes, Mancuso explained his forces built crematoriums to burn the bodies of those killed. Other victims were disposed of in the Catatumbo River, which separates Colombia and Venezuela in the Catatumbo region.

His testimony also corroborated longstanding accusations that paramilitary groups planned their attacks in direct coordination with the Colombian government, as well as the private sector.

A man wearing military fatigues reaches over a pile of firearms to shake hands with another man garbed in military gear, holding two notebooks. Other paramilitary members look on from across the table with the firearms.
Salvatore Mancuso, left, shakes hands with members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia as they hand in their weapons in 2004, in advance of their demobilisation [File: Albeiro Lopera/Reuters]

A child of state ‘parapolitics’

Mancuso has claimed he worked directly with the Colombian army and police, as well as with the Administrative Security Department (DAS), the country’s disgraced former intelligence agency.

The DAS was disbanded in 2011 amid accusations of human rights violations and the wiretapping of journalists and judges.

Together with the paramilitary forces, those agencies coordinated “kill lists” identifying individuals the government wanted silenced, Mancuso alleged.

“In my capacity as a hinge between public forces and self-defence groups, I ordered the assassination of hundreds of people. I’m a legitimate child of state ‘parapolitics’,” he said on Tuesday, using a term for the intersection of “paramilitary” and “politics”.

According to Mancuso, one of the targets that DAS ordered for assassination was Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s current president and a former rebel fighter who was, at the time, a congressman.

A man dressed in a suit and tie gestures broadly from behind an official government podium in Bogota, Colombia
Salvatore Mancuso has alleged that Colombian President Gustavo Petro, pictured here in Bogotá in May 2023, was once a target for assassination [File: Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters]

Mancuso also indicated that major private companies helped finance the paramilitary operations through a programme called “Convivir”, in part to protect their domestic infrastructure. The JEP tribunal, however, has yet to verify the claims made in Mancuso’s testimony.

Mancuso left his position as commander in 2005 as part of a controversial peace process with Colombia’s paramilitary forces.

Critics divided over testimony

Observers were split over the revelations from Mancuso’s testimony this week — and how much they would help advance JEP’s mission to investigate the crimes and abuses committed over Colombia’s nearly six-decade-long internal conflict.

Claudia Julieta Duque, a journalist who had been tortured by the DAS, was less than impressed by the four-day judicial hearing.

It was a “victimiser reaffirming what victims have been saying for more than 20 years”, she told Al Jazeera. “He said many things that were already known.”

Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior policy analyst in Colombia for the International Crisis Group, was nevertheless intrigued by some of the insight Mancuso offered.

“One of the most striking and new points of the testimony was Mancuso’s discussion of a period in the late ‘90s when Colombia was receiving increased scrutiny in over rising civilian casualties,” she said.

“And the order, in response, from security forces to the paramilitaries was: Keep doing what you’re doing with these scorched-earth tactics. But instead of leaving evidence of this violence, you need to start disappearing people.”

She said it was “shockingly nefarious” that the government’s response was to allegedly double down on state-sponsored violence rather than re-evaluate its actions.

People gather around a set of TV screens in an indoor setting, where speakers can be seen.
Members of the public listen to video testimony from former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel leader Rodrigo Londono and former paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso in 2021 [File: Nathalia Angarita/Reuters]

What’s next for Colombia’s peace process?

When asked what Mancuso’s testimony means for the present day, Dickinson explained that the phenomenon of paying criminal groups for protection — whether willingly or through coercion — is an “ongoing” problem in Colombia.

“The JEP is looking specifically for more information about this. That’s why Mancuso is testifying,” she said. Colombia’s Peace Commission has repeatedly stated that impunity for crimes committed during the internal conflict is a barrier to contemporary peace-building.

Ginna Morelo, an investigative reporter, has written a book, The Voice of the Pencils, that describes an assault that paramilitary forces launched on Colombia’s University of Cordoba — an attack Mancuso addressed in his testimony this week.

She explained that his testimony “contributes to the reconstruction of the truth. Although it hurts so much time has passed without knowing the truth.”

She told Al Jazeera that several victims had told her afterwards that “they had never heard that the DAS was behind the crimes inflicted on them”.

She hoped new information could bring closure to those who suffered during the civil war. The victims, she said, “live in an endless transition in search of clarification and reconciliation that has so far been elusive”.

Source: Al Jazeera