When Hugo Albeiro Quintero, the so-called “boss of Bello,” decided to build a mansion in this small village a few years ago, the 15 families that lived in El Tapial believed it was the best thing that had ever happened to them. Quintero, who now sits in prison as an accused paramilitary, is only 40
but for two decades he was the transportation czar in the Aburra Valley, with 370 buses and 1,000 employees.
In Bello, a bustling industrial and commercial municipality of 500,000 people adjacent to Medellin, Quintero pulled the strings and turned his economic power into political influence. He is a key supporter of Senator Oscar Suarez Mira, who is under investigation as part of the ongoing para-politics scandal. Mira was elected in 2006 with 70,000 votes, one of the highest vote tallies among senate candidates.
In the run-up to elections, dozens of political candidates would make the pilgrimage to the office of Quintero’s Bellanita Transportation office to request buses to bring voters to the ballot boxes. It was also Quintero who loaned buses to the Army’s Fourth Brigade to bring throngs of people to the Comuna 13 slum in Medellin to support Mario Montoya a few days after a Los Angeles Times article, citing a CIA document, linked the Army general to paramilitaries.
For residents of El Tapial, it seemed at first like a good thing to have such a powerful figure in their midst. Quintero paved roads and passed out fistfuls of cash to the needy. But the people didn’t realize was that Quintero’s links to the underworld would turn him into a dangerous and delirious figure, one who saw traitors all around him and would eventually bring tragedy to their village.
The 15 houses that form El Tapial are home to poor farm families who still speak of Quintero with a mix of respect and fear. But ever since he was arrested last September, they have begun to open up and reveal the terror that they suffered at the hands of Quintero.
One of the most outrageous cases involved Flor Restrepo, a young woman from the village who was shot six times and lived to tell the tale. Five years ago, the 18-year-old was on her way to Medellin where she worked as a housekeeper. But two men pulled her off a bus and forced her into a taxi cab. The gunmen took her into the countryside and fired at her 10 times. One bullet hit her in the face while five pierced her hands and legs. The gunmen believed she was dead but Flor, who blacked out, later managed to crawl to a nearby house for help.
One of Quintero’s bodyguards who is testifying against him confirmed Restrepo’s account and said that she was targeted because “Albeiro was paranoid and believed that she was friends with the guerrillas.” Ironically, Flor’s father, who had no idea that of Quintero’s alleged role in the crime, asked him for help. “Immediately, Albeiro gave him more than 2 million pesos in cash from Bellanita Transportation,” the witness said.
There are other accusations against Quintero. Alias Gallo, or “Rooster,” a man who was a close aide to Quintero for the past 11 years, guided forensic experts from the Attorney General’s office to El Tapial to exhume seven bodies which he said had been buried on the outskirts of the village. But when they arrived, they found that the soil had been disrupted and that the bodies had been removed.
Gallo also claims that his boss ordered the killing of Uber Martinez, the village onion seller, because he once approached Quintero to protest the murder of one of his neighbors, a man named Wilmar. After Wilmar was killed on December 30, 2005, the killers dressed him in camouflage, placed a gun in his hands then presented him to the Pedro Nel Ospina Army Battallion as a dead guerrilla.
Gallo also tells about how at least 10 of Quintero’s 40 bodyguards – men who were licensed by the Superintendent of Security – are either dead or disappeared. “The last one who was killed was Jesus Emilio Marulanda and that caused several of us to turn on” Quintero.
But what makes Quintero’s neighbors and close aides believe that he was behind all these crimes? Like the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Quintero had two contrasting personalities. He was both a successful business man who passed out money to the poor and a feared criminal who operated in the murky criminal underworld. For that reason, he obsessed about his security and apparently became delirious, believing that he was constantly being pursued.
According to Quintero’s testimony, he acquired his first weapons to defend himself from Pablo Escobar, who supposedly wanted to kill him when he was still just a youth. After he survived an attack in 2007, he bought a white Lexus pickup truck in which he installed combat-ready armor plating. The bullet-proof windows were 52 millimeters thick while the doors and roof were reinforced with steel plates. The vehicle was so heave – 1,300 kilograms – that Quintero soon had to replace the suspension, brakes and tires.
His El Tapial mansion, equipped with a heliport and six guard houses, was even more extravagant. Built into the mountainside to provide natural camouflage, the structure was impossible to identify from the air. His underground bedroom was protected by a steel door and he always kept a gun and a briefcase with 10 bullet clips underneath his bed in case anyone tried to kill him in the middle of the night.
Shortly before he was captured Quintero was becoming more and more paranoid. He no longer spoke on his cell phone and he rarely ventured into the village. The only place he felt safe was in his bedroom. Yet his elaborate security system failed to prevent his capture last September by 50 agents from the Attorney General’s office who stormed into his supposedly safe haven.
Today, Quintero is being held in the maximum security prison in Valledupar. Although several witnesses have testified against him, homicide charges were dropped due to procedural errors. The only remaining charges are conspiracy to commit crimes. Detained paramilitaries, like “H.H.” claim that Quintero trafficked arms and was a close confidant of Vicente Castano. They say he even helped Castano escape after he pulled out of the peace process. But in the end, Quintero may never be held responsible for the deaths and disappearances in El Tapial and the courage of village residents may once again turn into fear.