Colombia shaken as paramilitary leaders testify

They left a trail of death and had ties to the government. They talk under a peace deal.

Published June 18, 2007

TURBO, Colombia - The men of Uraba began to disappear in 1996 just about the time El Aleman showed up.

His real name was Fredy Rendon, though the campesinos knew him only as "the German" because in this region of mostly dark-skinned farmers, he looked more like a northern European.

There was no mystery about his job: Rendon was one of the top commanders of an illegal paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC. At the head of an army of 1,500 ruthless soldiers, Rendon, 45, and his men terrorized a swath of northwestern Colombia for a decade.

He extorted money, drove families from their farms, and, under the guise of combating left-wing guerrillas, murdered men by the score. One morning a man would leave for the banana fields or to cut timber and that would be the last his family would ever see of him.

"We want to know what happened to our loved ones and where they are buried," said Maria de Jesus Moreno, whose 24-year-old son was "disappeared" by suspected paramilitaries in 1997.

A decade after his bloody arrival, Rendon is in custody.

As part of a negotiated peace deal under which 32,000 irregular soldiers have turned in their rifles and uniforms, Rendon and other AUC commanders are obliged to make full confessions, as well as pay reparations to their victims. If the courts rule their confessions to be truthful, they will be eligible for reduced prison sentences, from 40 years to a maximum of eight.

The Colombian public has learned a great deal from months of unprecedented testimony by the warlords, namely that the paramilitaries had ties with politicians at the highest levels of the government, a scandal that might ultimately implicate the president himself and jeopardize billions in U.S. aid.

But for the relatives of the murdered, the simplest questions of all -- like where is the body of Maria de Jesus Moreno's son -- are proving much harder to answer.

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Last week, Moreno and about 40 other widows boarded a bus for a nine-hour journey to the Palace of Justice in Medellin where Rendon was scheduled to testify. Barred from the courtroom, they watched on closed-circuit television in a room reserved for victims and their advocates.

Rendon, dressed casual-but-smart in a jacket and blue jeans, with his hair pulled tightly back in a pony tail, opened his confession by quoting St. Francis:

"Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,

"Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

"Where there is injury, pardon ..."

"My mouth went dry, my throat was stuck, and I could hardly breathe," said Marciris Fernandez, 34, whose husband was shot dead on his way to work in 1996. "For someone who caused as much harm as he did to appeal to God shows he has no heart."

To make matters worse, outside the justice building more than 300 banner-waving Rendon supporters arrived in buses, complete with musicians and dancers to hail the man they call El Lider, the leader.

At one point Rendon appeared at a sixth floor window to salute them and shake his hips to the music below.

In the courtroom Rendon sarcastically referred to the widows as "the invisible friends," noting that they could see him, but he couldn't see them.

He refused to describe those he had killed or their families as "victims." He also spoke of enemies who had to be "neutralized" in the course of combat, rather than referring to cold-blooded executions.

When Rendon left the building in a police sport utility vehicle with heavily tinted windows, his fans showered the vehicle with blue and yellow confetti.

Other paramilitary commanders have been equally stubborn in denying their involvement in crimes such as drug trafficking, extortion, kidnappings and death-squad style massacres.

One senior commander, Ramon Isaza, admitted to as many as 300 killings, but said he could not recall details. He blamed his poor memory on the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. He asked the relatives of his victims to come forward to help refresh his memory.

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Colombia's northwest experienced some of the worst violence during the last decade as left-wing guerrillas and the paramilitaries fought for control. The center of Colombia's banana industry, a region that stretches around the strategic Gulf of Uraba, is a notorious drug trafficking route for boats laden with U.S.-bound cocaine.

For many years the area was as undisputed guerrilla bastion. The guerrillas extorted what they called war taxes -- cash or goods such as boots and cooking utensils -- from residents.

The appearance in 1996 of Rendon, a former truck driver who left school after sixth grade, changed the region overnight.

"They arrived with blood and fire, eliminating community leaders and anyone who got in their way," said Bayron Gongora, a lawyer with the Juridical Freedom Corporation, a Medellin-based human rights group.

Rendon's men executed community leaders, allegedly using chain saws in some cases. Victims were thrown in the river. In one notorious case, they played soccer with the head of a victim.

"There were so many dead, so much blood," said Fernandez. "They killed people like they were animals."

No one knows exactly how many people died. Human rights groups put the number of Rendon's victims as high as 2,000, including dead, disappeared, and people forced off their land.

The Diocesan Sharing Foundation, a church-based group that runs nine centers for war widows and orphans in Uraba, lists 1, 700 widows and 5, 600 fatherless children on its books. While the majority lost family members to paramilitary violence, others were victims of the guerrillas as well as the Colombian military.

Elizabeth Calderon, a 38-year-old mother of three, recalls being summoned to identify the decapitated and mutilated body of her husband in May 1999, after suspected paramilitaries attacked the farm where he was working, cutting wood in Rio Sucio.

"I looked at what was left of his body, and I knew it was him," she said. A telltale mark on his shoulder was what convinced her. "These are things you can never take out of your head," she said.

In court, Rendon admitted only to ordering the assassination of a local mayor whom he accused of collaborating with the guerrillas. He also admitted to kidnapping and murdering four peasant leaders in Rio Sucio in late 1996.

Other than that he was vague on details. "You can be certain that they are dead," he told the court. "What I can't be precise about is with how many bullets, two, or three or five."

He assured the court all his victims received a Christian burial.

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A dozen members of Congress and one of the country's intelligence chiefs have already been jailed this year for paramilitary ties. Colombia's foreign secretary was forced to resign.

After demobilization of paramilitaries, the paramilitary violence has greatly diminished, but the scandal is not over. It threatens to deeply embarrass the government of President Alvaro Uribe, jeopardizing congressional support in the United States for continued economic assistance to Colombia.

For this reason, many Colombians doubt the government's readiness to hold the paramilitaries feet to the fire if their confessions are incomplete.

In a country famous for impunity, many expect the wily and well-connected paramilitaries to get away with murder as usual.

The government insists it is doing its best to balance the demands of justice and peace.

"We invented our own model after studying others around the world," said Carlos Franco, the government's top human rights official and a 16-year guerrilla commander who demobilized in the early 1990s. "It's not a perfect solution but we are trying to advance as pragmatically as we can."

A political solution is the only option, according to Alfredo Rangel, one of Colombia's top security analysts. "It's not easy to transition from war to peace. In Colombia we have a saying, 'It's like swallowing toads,' " he said.

"We won't get all the truth and there won't be full justice, but some truth, some justice and some reparation ought to be enough."

After a day and a half of hearings last week, the Uraba widows decided they couldn't take any more. Indignant, they walked out of the justice building to catch a bus for the nine-hour ride back home. But they weren't throwing in the towel. Before they left, they handed prosecutors a list of 50 questions for Rendon to answer about the fate of their husbands.

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sptimes.com.


Forces led by 'El Aleman'

Fredy Rendon, 45, head of the "Elmer Cardenas Bloc" of the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, was one of the last paramilitary leaders to sign a peace deal with the government. When he surrendered in August with his remaining troops, he listed 1,448 men under his command. As a group they turned in 966 guns and 4,000 brand new uniforms.