Confessions from a businessman turned paramilitary commander
Raúl Hasbún has revealed secrets from a macabre chapter of the history of Colombia’s banana growing region.
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The day that Raúl Hasbún arrived at the office of Pedro Juan Moreno, government secretary of the then governor of Antioquia, Álvaro Uribe, he received a big surprise. The banana magnate shared with Moreno the interest that several plantation owners in Urabá had of forming a security cooperative that would become known as the Convivir. But Moreno told him not to set up just one but rather a dozen. Within a few months Urabá indeed had 12 of these organizations, served by 150 people who had 800 radios, cars and weapons, at their complete disposal.
If in the mid-1990s the Convivir had the go-ahead of the national government, the problem is that Hasbún was not only a banana plantation owner and rancher, but also that he had been for quite a while a commander, alias “Pedro Ponte,” of the paramilitary organization the Autodefensas Campesinas of Córdoba and Urabá (Peasant self defense forces on Córdoba and Urabá).
In his testimony before the Fiscalía, the general prosecutor’s office, Hasbún didn’t hesitate to admit that he was the one who gave the order to assassinate anybody who “smelled like a guerrilla.” Without blinking, he confessed to the massacre in San José de Apartadó of 1998. He said that he ordered the killing because that village was very far away and the logistics of going there were so difficult that it did not justify making the incursion just to kill one or two people. So, to take advantage of the trip, they killed as many supposed collaborators of the FARC guerrillas they could.
How did this owner of 4,000 hectares of some of the best land in Colombia become a criminal? According to him, at one point he tried to sell a farm, but nobody wanted to purchase it because there were a lot of guerrillas in Urabá. Disappointed because his assets were losing value, and because he felt like he was being extorted, he sought a contact to meet with paramilitary leader Fidel Castaño who already had formed a paramilitary group in Urabá. Castaño offered him his support. Shortly afterwards they invited him to a farm where he met the other two historical leaders of that organization: Fidel’s brothers, Carlos and Vicente Castaño. From that moment on he became a collaborator with the “self-defense forces.” Then in 1996 they put him in charge of a group of 40 armed men who would be at his command.
Without losing the facade of an upper class businessman, he became a bloodthirsty and ambitious paramilitary leader like no other, under the guidance of Vicente Castaño. For his activities he used information from the then legal Convivir. Hasbún says that the 12 Convivir groups that were started in Urabá worked together as a network. He received information directly from the Convivir as a paramilitary leader, as did the military and the police. It was the paramilitaries who generally undertook security operations because they had better resources. “On one occasion the Convivir gave the precise location of some guerrillas. When the Army went to take action, the two trucks that they had were out of gas and one was without a battery. When they finally left, they didn’t even have radios. Finally they decided against the operation,” he told the Fiscalía. Hasbún says that the Convivir of Urabá paid for the gasoline ofthe Army, the National Police and the DAS (national intelligence service); loaned them cars and even radios, says Hasbún. When the intelligence agencies could not arrest someone, that information was sent to the paramilitaries who immediately would kill them, according to Hasbún’s testimony.
That was possible thanks to the system that the paramilitaries had set up which made millions for the Convivir. “An enormous fortune came into our hands. Millions and millions of pesos,” he says. Hasbún also fulfilled the order that was given to him by Vincente Castaño: to guarantee that every person in Urabá would provide money either the Convivir or to the paramilitaries. Carlos Castaño himself had several meetings with banana plantation owners and heads of export business in which a payment of three cents of dollar for every box of bananas exported would be paid to the Convivir Papagayo, which was administrated by Arnulfo Peñuela, who is now under arrest. The payments continued until 2003 at companies such as Chiquita Brands. This mutltinational has admitted that they financed the paramilitaries this way. Although Hasbún denies it, other paramilitary chiefs say that one cent of the three were given directly to the paramilitaries.
Hasbún insists that just a few banana plantation owners knew of his two hats: paramilitary leader and respected businessman. But people who lived in the area at the time say that everybody knew. The partner and owner of at least five farms, and who was the legal representative of several Convivir, was the same “Pedro Ponte” commander of the paramilitaries who ordered assassinations and massacres that made Urabá the most violent region in the country.
What the former paramilitary does say is that the money that was paid by ranchers- $10,000 COP per hectare per year- went directly to the coffers of the paramilitaries and helped to finance the rural paramilitary army. Business owners and other businesses in the area paid the paramilitaries who operated in urban zones. A special case in his testimony was that of Colombian soft-drink giant Postobón. Hasbún confirmed what Salvatore Mancuso, one of the main leaders of the paramilitaries, had said: that soft drink company paid extortion money to the paramilitaries. He explained that the company refused to pay them initially, but then the paramilitaries kidnapped their drivers and confiscated their cars. This led Postobón to finally send its head of security to speak directly with Carlos Castaño. They made a deal to pay 10 million COP (about $5,000 USD) each month for each of the country’s departments, according to Hasbún. Postobón declined comments.
Although Hasbún at one time said the Coca-Cola also paid an installment, he later corrected himself and said that he was confused. However, he admitted that three union members of that company were killed by his men. These have put Coca-Cola on the list of businesses questioned by international human rights NGOs.
The Convivir collected so much money, that they built at least two main roads with their own machinery and in agreement with the military objectives of the paramilitaries. Paramilitary chief Vincente Castaño’s expansion plan towards Urabá in the Chocó department ran into a big obstacle: there was no road available for the arrival of provisions of food and ammunition. So they decided to build one. The Convivir solicited money from farm owners from Belén de Bajirá and from the city government of Riosucio and even from the Army. The Convivir took care of the machinery and materials for the road construction. “The highway, which was a necessity for the self-defense forces, was sold to the community as a project with social benefits,” says the former paramilitary.
Vicente Castaño ordered that all illegal drugs that left from the port of Turbo was to be controlled. For each kilo of cocaine that left the port, the paramilitaries charged $50 USD. Half of the money was sent to Castaño. The connection between the paramilitaries and drug trafficking was a man known as Mateo Rey, who a few months ago was assassinated in the town of San Pedro de los Milagros (Antioquia).
Such was the control that the paramilitaries had in Urabá that on several occasions they closed five kilometers of the Panamerican Highway, in an area that was flat and wide, so that small planes, loaded with weapons and ammunition, could land and later take off loaded with cocaine.
Testimonies of Raúl Hasbún, like those of Hebert Veloza, also known as “H.H,” and of Freddy Rendón, alias “El Alemán,” show that in Urabá there was a paramilitary presence that had tentacles in all fields and sectors. That challenges the idea that peace was brought to the region by civilian and military authorities. Given the recently revealed facts, perhaps this model should not be emulated.