Testimony | 3/24/2009 12:00:00 AM
“I handed over more than 30 young men as ‘false positives’”
This is the testimony of the man who handed over to some Colombian Army members the young men from Soacha, a city outside of Bogotá, who were assassinated last year in the city of Ocaña in the Norte de Santander province and were presented as combat deaths. He is now a key witness.
With his skeletal face and his dark and penetrating look, he coldly tells how the death machine worked on the inside, a revelation that shook the country last year when the “false positives” scandal broke out. This young man admits that he participated in the deaths of at least 30 victims. He is an exceptional witness who was able to survive his own delinquent network for which he worked and whose testimony today is a central piece of the investigation that the Fiscalía (the prosecutor general’s office) and the Procuraduría (the solicitor general’s office) are undertaking against the 27 officials – including three generals and four colonels – who were dismissed by the government in October.
“It’s a long story,” he says and begins his more than three hour long narration. This witness, today carefully protected by the Fiscalía, says that he left school in eighth grade because he got hooked on video games and since then his life was reduced to bad company and traveling the streets of Ocaña from top to bottom trying to create a life for himself as a moto-taxi driver. He made around 20,000 pesos ($8.30 USD) each day, “ half for me and half for the motorcycle owner,” making his ambitions unreachable.
But in 2006 his daily life took a turn when Fabio Sanjuán Santiago, a former soldier who had served in the department of Arauca and a known drug dealer in the city, began to contract him to make drug deliveries. The pay was very good. “When someone is ambitious and has a way to make easy money, you end up taking any business that gives you profits. But at some point you hit a limit, either because of the weight of your conscience or out of fear that you will end up being murdered by your partners,” he recognizes.
The young man rapidly gained the trust of Sanjuán, who opened more doors for him in his shady businesses. Not only in the dealing of drugs in bars and on street corners, but also as an informer for the Army. Sanjuán had strong connections with the military in the area, who would instantly pay attention to him when he would call them or when he reported the presence of suspicious or unknown people in the underground of bars and brothels. In a few months, Sanjuán entrusted the young man, who is now a protected witness, with enough drugs so that he himself would distribute them, and he put him in touch with trusted low-ranking military officials.
At the end of 2006, Sanjuán called him so that together they would transport two kids who had just arrived in Ocaña. The four men had a few beers in a bar and hours later left on motorbikes on the road towards the town of Convención. Approximately ten kilometers on the road there was a military checkpoint. Sanjuán stopped and he got off of his bike and spoke privately with the military officer who was in charge. Afterwards he told the two young men from Soacha, “You stay here, they will tell you what happens next.” Without knowing, the witness had his first participation in a “false positive.”
A frightening scene
The witness and Sanjuán returned to Ocaña immediately. The next day the witness heard with worry on the local radio station the news of a supposed combat on the outskirts of Convención where the Army had killed two guerrillas. Later Sanjuán arrived and he gave him 300,000 pesos ($126 USD), and he warned him that if he kept his trips with him in absolute silence he would be paid well. “I had never received so much money at once for doing nothing,” says the witness. He didn’t care about the fate of the young men who died. That day his homicidal career began, and his ambition grew.
Since then the “deliveries,” as among themselves they would call the movement of people who would be assassinated, became a weekly routine. The witness states that on several opportunities he accompanied Sanjuán to pick up kids at the bus terminal in Ocaña. They came from the whole country attracted by the dream of joining paramiltary groups or becoming security guards. Sanjuán brought them to his home or to the home of a corporal named Gutiérrez, who supposedly belonged to the 15th Mobile Brigade. “I understood that the less I knew the more I would live,” explains the witness. At that time, he knew without a doubt that his work was to bring the victims to their deaths, to be assassinated by the military. And for that they paid him well.
Despite his coldness, during the first week of January 2007, a frightening scene made him tremble. It happened in the Culebritas neighborhood in a rural area of Convención. He went there with Sanjuán at ten at night. “All of the deliveries were done at night,” he says. On that occasion, the victims were three young men between the ages of 23 and 27 who had been convinced that they were going to become paramilitaries.
They were waiting for two hours for the military to come. At around midnight, Sanjuán received a call in which he was told that there were no troops available to pick up the men, but he told him that he couldn’t return with them. After commenting to the witness about the situation in a hushed tone, Sanjuán brought the three men slyly to the edge of a ditch, took out his gun and, from the back gave each one of them several shots to the head and thorax. After making sure that they were all dead, they covered them with underbrush and returned to Ocaña. “The only thing that he said to me was ‘when you have to do it like this, you have to do it,’” he remembers. Two years later the witness tried to find, together with a group from the CTI, a criminal investigation group of the Fiscalía, the place where the bodies were. But the task has yet to be accomplished as on that occasion the police prohibited the entry of the group because the area was mined by guerrillas.
This triple assassination stuck in his mind and he understood that he could end up like those three guys. So he decided to distance himself from everything by signing up with the Army. But shortly thereafter, he deserted. He was in Cúcuta for a couple of months and, later, when the fear had subsided with time, he returned to Ocaña and to his criminal doings with Sanjuán.
“After the Ocaña carnival in January 2008, Fabio [Sanjuán] told me to accompany him to Bogotá on business. We were there for two days and we spent the time drinking in a store in Soacha where we stayed. He spoke with a guy called Álex, who was also a soldier and then we went back.”
It seems that during that chat, the recruitment of young men from the south of Bogotá was decided. They would be fooled to go to Ocaña. That is how the executions of “rolos,” people from Bogotá, would begin. Although he doesn’t exactly remember the dates, he says that the last week of January last year the first three men arrived, who thought that they were going to work as bodyguards in the business of a drug dealer. “I’m sure that one of them was called César.” Apparently that was Julio César Mesa, who, according to his family, disappeared from Soacha on January 26th.
The witness tells that the men stayed two days with him. At night they took them out partying in the bars and gave them all the alcohol and drugs that they wanted “as they waited for them to call for them.” Finally, Sanjuán told him he had to take two of them to Aguas Claras, a place on the Las Chircas road, a neighborhood bordering Ocaña. “We set off and the same thing: a military checkpoint, the guys stayed there and we went back.” The next day, at 11 p.m., it was the turn of the third man of that group. We turned him over in a taxi, on the road towards the town of La Playa. “For those three, Fabio gave me almost a million pesos ($419 USD).”
The “deliveries” began to multiply as well as the money that the witness received. He remembers, for example, two other young men who arrived in Ocaña early in the morning one day who were “delivered” that very night. They weren’t at the bar drinking beer even an hour before instructions were received to bring them to a checkpoint on the road that goes to the town of Teorama. A few days later they handed over two more on the road towards Convención.
The scandal begins
One of the Ocaña “false positives” investigators told SEMANA that they have verified the events and times described by the witness and that they coincide with the claims of the impoverished families of the 11 young disappeared men from Soacha. The witness notes that the victims were generally unemployed, some with addiction problems and a record of misdemeanors. “They chose vagrants, who were willing to leave in order to make a lot of money in odd jobs,” he says.
In connection with the “false positives,” other businesses sprung up in which they made some money. One of them was the purchase of revolvers, pistols and old weapons in the underworld in order to sell them to the 15th Mobile Brigade. They would later use them in order to “legalize” the executions and show the victims as dangerous and armed criminals. The witness says that he received between 100 and 200,000 pesos (between $42 and $84 USD) for each weapon they would turn over to the Ocaña Intelligence Group (CIOCA) that was part of the Santander Battalion, where he came and went on several occasions despite having deserted that very garrison.
The other additional money earner ended up being the increase in drug sales in bars where soldiers went to “drink and get high” to celebrate days off and the bonuses that they got for the results they presented.
But in August last year, the witness as well as Sanjuán began to receive threats from the military. The “false positives” scandal was brewing. The coroner’s office and other authorities had begun to cross information in order to identify the dozens of young men who had been buried as “N.N.,” or “no-names,” in graves in Ocaña. They found that almost all of them had been reported as combat deaths. The tension in the 15th Mobile Brigade and in the Santander Battalion was high.
Fabio Sanjuán knew that he had to leave Ocaña. “He told me that they were looking for us to kill us, that he was going to sell some weapons and he would disappear. But he didn’t succeed. On the next day, on August 13th, they killed him in the El Peñón neighborhood.”
The witness fled to Cúcuta. But in mid-October, he returned to Ocaña. He immediately began to receive threatening phone calls and to be hounded by suspicious vehicles that drove around his house. At that time, the “false positives” scandal had already taken off and the whole country was outraged and demanding justice. The witness felt cornered and decided to turn himself over to the Fiscalía in Ocaña to “confess who I was and what I had done.”
He told a high-level group from the Fiscalía Human Rights Unit all that he knew. He pointed out places, people and the modus operandi of the criminal network that had made a business out of the executions. He became a protected witness. Five months later he is complaining. “They promised me that if I collaborated, I would be in a safe place together with my family and they haven’t fulfilled their end of the deal.” The Witness Protection Program, however, has issued warnings to him because he is not following the norms that the program requires.
This young man, who in the past two years brought at least 30 young men like him to their deaths, today fears the same fate. But although he has been saved from his enemies, many years in prison surely await. Even though he has cooperated with justice, he is also being prosecuted for those atrocious crimes that became one of the greatest shames of Colombia’s Armed Forces. It is a deplorable episode that a few rotten apples in the Army committed, but unfortunately tarnishes the entire institution. Paradoxically, it was during this same time that the institution had some of its greatest military successes in history.