Colombian warlord: Release of death squad boss 'El Mono' from U.S. prison has Canadian victims seeking truth

When Salvatore Mancuso was shipped from Colombia to a U.S. cell, he said, ‘they extradited the truth.’ But his sentence ends today and he has secrets to tell

For weeks, locals had been quietly fleeing the northern Colombian town of El Salado. They were afraid, they told neighbours, of the arrival of the AUC, a death squad led in their region by a tall, imposing figure named Salvatore Mancuso, known as “El Mono.”
By the year 2000, El Salado, a farming community nestled in Colombia’s Montes de María mountains, had become a coveted target in a brutal conflict between two irregular armies. On one side were the Marxist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who had been at war with the Colombian state since 1964. On the other was Mancuso’s United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary death squad that colluded with corrupt elements of the Colombian military and did their dirty work.
As it did for the FARC, Colombia’s cocaine trade bankrolled the AUC. And to move AUC drugs from Colombia’s interior to the Caribbean coast — for export onward to North America — Mancuso needed to clear a path north through El Salado and across the Montes de María. On Mancuso’s orders, Rodrigo Mercado Peluffo, a fearsome AUC boss known as “Chain,” planned an attack on El Salado using five FARC deserters — handed over to him by the Colombian army — to guide the way.
By Feb. 16, 2000, for anyone who hadn’t fled, it was too late. Four hundred AUC soldiers began garrotting peasants, slowly encircling the town. When they reached El Salado’s main square, the AUC produced a list upon which were scrawled the names of suspected FARC operatives, or locals felt to be helping them. Mancuso would later call what followed an “anti-subversive” operation. In reality, it was killing for sport. Over a weekend on a concrete soccer field, at least 40 men, women and children were stabbed, bashed and shot dead. Using instruments pillaged from El Salado’s cultural centre, the killers gave each victim a musical sendoff.
The Colombian army, despite frantic calls from locals to the nearest base, was nowhere to be found.
“They pulled my daughter away,” one survivor told Human Rights Watch seven years later. “She called to me, ‘mommy,’ and they shot her in the head. She had been celebrating her 20th birthday that day. They killed my cousin, they scalped her, tied her up … they strangled her and finally, they cut her head off.”
The mother thought another of her daughters, a seven-year-old, had lived. Three days later she found her body. “They put a plastic bag over her head and she died, suffocated … on the top of a hill.”

This March 27, Salvatore Mancuso, now 55, will end his sentence at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta, GA, having served just under 12 years in prison. One of 14 AUC leaders extradited from Colombia to the U.S. in May, 2008, Mancuso wasn’t jailed in America for the many massacres he has admitted to during the AUC’s reign of terror, which lasted from 1997 until the group was demobilized by the Colombian government in 2006. Instead, Mancuso did his time for drug trafficking, and his extensive cooperation with U.S. prosecutors secured what critics call his grossly inadequate sentence.
They pulled my daughter away. She called to me, ‘mommy,’ and they shot her in the head
After a period in U.S. immigration detention, Mancuso is expected to head to Medellín, Colombia, after a Colombian judge ruled that he must live in that city and not return to his old stomping grounds in the country’s north. But under the terms of an amnesty agreement between the Colombian government and the AUC, Mancuso may never have to return to prison in that country.
Since the FARC first took up arms against the state in the 1960s, Colombia’s multi-sided war has displaced seven million people and claimed more than 260,000 lives. Canada has taken countless refugees from Colombia in recent decades, many fleeing FARC violence but thousands, too, fleeing AUC terror.
For AUC victims in Canada, Mancuso’s case is but another example of the impunity that has long plagued the Andean nation. Still, they have hope. Despite the injustice of his sentence and the fear his name provokes, Mancuso offers one final shot at making sense of a senseless conflict. For he has indicated he would be willing, upon his return, to tell more about what he says are the AUC’s links to drug trafficking, to military commanders — and to the highest levels of Colombian political power.
Colombians, both at home and in Canada, are very interested in what “El Mono” has to say.
Members of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) raise their rifles on June 14, 2001 in the mountains of Santander, Colombia on the border with Venezuela. EFRAIN PATINO/AFP via Getty Images
Colombia is divided into 32 departments, similar to America’s states or Canada’s provinces. Salvatore Mancuso was born in Montería, in the northern department of Córdoba. His father, an Italian immigrant, hailed from Sapri, a coastal town on the “foot” of that boot-shaped country. Fluent in Italian, young Salvatore attended, for a time, the University of Pittsburgh, where proceeds from his father’s farm and auto-repair business let him spend a semester adding English to his repertoire.
In the early 1990s, Mancuso’s father’s farm became a target of the leftist FARC rebels. Mancuso — who had flirted with engineering but preferred ranching — used connections at a Córdoba military battalion to arm local farmers. He would take the fight to the guerrillas.
At around the same time, in the same region, the psychopathic Castaño brothers, whose father had been killed by the FARC, were similarly occupied, training men at their ranch, Las Tangas. Led by their older brother Fidel, a drug trafficker known locally as “Rambo,” Carlos and Vicente Castaño would play a key part in the 1993 fall of Pablo Escobar, who was once their ally. By 1994, Fidel would be killed, but Carlos and Vicente went on to set up the paramilitary Peasant Self-Defence Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU). Mancuso would join them.
The AUC’s Salvatore Mancuso (right) and Vicente Castano (left) talk during the inauguration of Villa de la Esperanza in Copacabana Antioquia, Colombia, 13 July, 2006. GERARDO GOMEZ/AFP via Getty Images
By 1997, Colombia was dotted with similar paramilitary groups. They banded together to become the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC). Led by the Castaños, Mancuso and a few others, the AUC had 30,000 troops at its apex, divided into regional blocs. Mancuso took command of much of the country’s north. On paper, the FARC and smaller left-wing rebel groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) were their foes. In reality, with backing from shadowy elements within Colombian military, political and business circles, the AUC forcibly rigged elections and wiped out civilians who sometimes had vague links to the FARC, but mostly none at all.
As the FARC grew rich from kidnapping and later from the cocaine trade, the AUC did likewise. They shipped cocaine to North America and Europe, taxed those who grew the coca leaves used to make it, and also set its prices. Among their major clients? The ‘Ndrangheta crime syndicate of Italy, Mancuso’s ancestral home. They took land from small farmers which would later be given at knockdown prices to their ranching and business allies. They even worked security for multinationals based in Colombia. In one famous case, Chiquita Brands International was forced to pay $25 million in a U.S. court in 2007 for handing $1.7 million in protection money to the AUC between 1997 and 2004.
By September, 2001, the AUC was killing peasants faster than it could incinerate them in its ovens, and was designated by then-U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell as a foreign terror outfit. Álvaro Uribe took office as Colombian president in August the following year. To calm the Americans, who were funnelling hundreds of millions of dollars to Colombia to fight the FARC and the drug trade, Uribe started in late 2002 what came to be known as the Justice and Peace process. To demobilize the AUC’s fighters, they were offered amnesty. The leaders were given a maximum of eight years in prison, as long as they made full confessions, surrendered ill-gained assets and compensated their victims.
U.S. President George W. Bush (R) drives in his pick-up truck as he takes Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to his house on his “Prairie Chapel” ranch on Aug. 4, 2005, in Crawford, Texas. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
Knowing he had been indicted in the U.S. on drugs charges, and fearing extradition,  Mancuso led the surrender of more than 1,400 of his fighters in a made-for-cameras ceremony in Córdoba in December, 2004. The men handed in their weapons and Mancuso went into detention.
But in a surprise move, on May 13, 2008, Uribe sent Mancuso and 13 other AUC leaders to the U.S. anyway. Officially, Uribe punished them because even from prison, they were acting on behalf of the AUC. But in the minds of many Colombians, the extraditions allowed Uribe to silence paramilitaries who had begun, as they confessed their crimes, to implicate powerful people, many of them allies of the president.
Mancuso, as far back as 2002, had boasted that the paramilitaries controlled 35 per cent of Colombia’s congress. After the AUC demobilized, their confessions, coupled with other discoveries, set off a scandal dubbed “parapolitics,” which resulted in the arrests of dozens of elected representatives. In January, 2007, in Medellín, Mancuso alleged shocking levels of AUC, army and political collaboration. Though his cooperation with the process has continued sporadically from the United States, AUC victims say he was only getting started. The Colombian justice system should have been allowed to fully deal with him, they say.
Former paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso speaks at Itagui prison, Antioquia on Monday, Oct. 1, 2007. AP Photo/Luis Benavides
Former president Uribe, now a Colombian senator, remains a hugely polarizing figure in Colombia, and is seen as a political father figure to current president Iván Duque. Praised by many Colombians for crippling the FARC during his 2002-2010 reign, Uribe has also long been accused of paramilitary ties and has faced high-profile investigations. He has vehemently denied the accusations and has never been convicted of any such offences. But his brother, Santiago Uribe, is at present on trial on charges that he used his family ranch to set up a paramilitary death squad called the Twelve Apostles, which is accused of killing hundreds.
Before he was sent to the U.S., Mancuso had outlined meetings he had with Mario Uribe, a former senator and second cousin of the former president. In 2011, as Mancuso sat in his U.S. jail cell, Mario Uribe was sentenced to seven and a half years in Colombia for having ties to the AUC.
When the Colombian and American governments collaborated to extradite him, Mancuso said, “they extradited the truth.”
Colombia’s Supreme Court judges Yesid Ramirez, left, and Sigifredo Espinoza, listen to former paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso during a hearing in Bogota, Monday, Oct. 29, 2007. AP Photo/William Fernando Martinez
Fear from afar
In Canada, finding the victims of the AUC and then getting them to speak to a reporter is like trying to pick up mercury with a fork.
Over weeks and months, calls are made to lawyers, NGOs and community organizers. Most are not returned. Meetings are arranged and no one shows. “The fear remains,” one contact emails, as the trail falls silent. Legal officials who have dealt with AUC cases are extremely reluctant to comment. Everyone is fearful.
Eventually, a man we will call Ernesto, picks up the phone, willing to tell his story if his real name, and other identifying details, are not revealed. He was kidnapped by the AUC and accused of being a guerrilla collaborator. He met its leaders face-to-face and somehow lived to tell the tale before escaping to Canada.
In the late 1990s, Ernesto worked for a Colombian human rights NGO. “We were trying to connect human rights violations with some politicians and also with some big industries,” he says, and soon, “we found some interesting things. We were trying to analyse why, in some regions, there were peasant massacres and a lot of displacement. We found links between (the violence) and economic projects, but we could not finish the whole investigation because of what happened later on.”
We thought that we were going to get killed right away
What happened was that one day in 1999, Ernesto and others at his NGO were kidnapped at gunpoint by a gang contracted by the AUC. “We are the ones you’ve been calling right-wing extremists,” he was told. “We thought that we were going to get killed right away,” he recalls.
Eventually flown hundreds of kilometres by helicopter to what he now knows was Córdoba, the northern heartland of the AUC, he was detained under guard for weeks at a local farmhouse. Then, one night, he was roused in the middle of the night and taken, hooded, on “a big trip, some (parts) by car, some by horse.” As dawn neared, Ernesto says, he and a co-captive heard horses coming up a country road to meet their own.
“Sorry about all this,” a man said, and when he ordered that the captives’ hoods be removed, Ernesto discovered that it was the supreme leader of the AUC: Carlos Castaño. At a house nearby, Castaño ordered his soldiers to serve the hostages tinto, the bitter, cheap Colombian coffee given in small cups.
Feared AUC boss Carlos Castaño, who was killed in 2004. Washington Post photo by Scott Wilson
“First, he said sorry about the way he had to do things, but we had to realize that we’re in a war, and war is hard,” Ernesto recalls. “He asked us about the type of work we did at our NGO. We told him about our work on conflict resolution in small communities, and he said the AUC was trying to do things like that in the areas where they worked. At that moment, the conversation was nice, no bad words, no loudness, nothing.”
Then everything changed.
“In one moment, he says: ‘Ok, we know you are guerrilla collaborators and we’re going to put you on trial.’”
Ernesto knows that very few people have heard similar words from Castaño and lived to talk about it. “We were thinking, this guy is going to kill us at any moment.”
Sent back to the farmhouse, the captives sweated over Castaño’s accusation for five days. Incredibly, they were released. In the face of outside pressure, Castaño told them that the “proof” against them wasn’t that strong, so they would be freed — as long as they told the public that the AUC was interested in peace.
Ernesto stayed just a few more days in Colombia before fleeing to Europe, where he remained for a year and a half. In his absence, the NGO was bombed. After a brief return to Colombia, in late 2000 he came to Canada.
“The crime they were judged for in the U.S. is narco-trafficking,” Ernesto says of the extradited AUC bosses. But in his mind, Mancuso, Castaño (who would be killed in 2004) and the other paramilitaries are, “War criminals, to be precise, under international law.”
Commandant Mauricio (centre) trains his AUC troops on Jan. 29, 2000, in the mountains near Catatumbo, northwest of Bogotá. CARLOS GARCIA/AFP via Getty Images
Mancuso speaks 
In a Medellín courtroom in January, 2007, Salvatore Mancuso began his long-awaited confession in earnest, having been detained since surrendering in late 2004. He outlined AUC killing sprees that he commanded at El Salado and many other towns and villages. He used PowerPoint to describe his role, naming victims as he went through 87 slides. In total, Colombian prosecutors would say, he oversaw 139 massacres that killed 837 people.
And then, after a few more appearances, he was gone, sent to the U.S. for smuggling AUC cocaine between Colombia, the Caribbean, and Mobile, Alabama. After mostly secretive proceedings — reams and reams of court documents from his case file are still sealed — Mancuso was given 15 years and 10 months by Judge Ellen S. Huvelle in D.C.
And on Friday, March 27,  2020 — having served less than 12 years — his time is up.
These people were just trying to make a deal, and they became the opportunistic criminals they always were
Most AUC men had limited dealings with the Colombian justice system once they were put on the plane north; by that point, it was the Americans that wanted their secrets and who could make them the best offers. Some, such as Mancuso’s co-accused Juan Carlos “El Tuso” Sierra, a renowned drug trafficker, have even won asylum in the U.S. after convincing authorities they would be in danger if they went back to Colombia.
“These people were just trying to make a deal and they became the opportunistic criminals they always were,” says one U.S. legal official who dealt closely with the AUC cases. “Everybody stands to win and that’s what makes it continue. The DEA wins because they get the bad guy. The prosecutor wins because he got the bad guy, too. The bad guy wins because he gets a good sentence and the lawyers win because they get their money,” says the official, who didn’t want his name revealed.
“When I watch Narcos,” he says of the hit Netflix show, in which the Castaños are played by actors, “it’s such tacky bullsh*t. Everybody thinks they’re going to meet Marlon Brando in The Godfather, people with a ‘code.’ But they’re not … I mean, these people are killers.”
In this Tuesday, May 13, 2008 file photo, Colombian paramilitary warlord Salvatore Mancuso, centre, is escorted by U.S. DEA agents upon his arrival in Opa-locka, Florida. AP Photo/Alan Diaz
‘These people’
Jesus Antonio Criado is one of “these people.” It’s October, 2012, and the AUC man known as “the Mechanic” is sitting in a pew in a Bogotá courthouse. He leans forward, almost whispering, his face twitching. He’s dressed casually, in blue jeans, a yellow sports jacket and Adidas sneakers. There are only a handful of people in the room, including a heavily armed guard.
“I have confessed, more or less, to 82 charges between killings, kidnapping and extortion,” Criado says, after the guard is persuaded to let him talk. “When I began, almost a year into my time with the paramilitaries, I saw and learned some things that I didn’t want to. These were very strong things, but it was very difficult to get out of the group. From that day, I had two options — death or jail.”
Criado, looking at the guard, then at us, says he demobilized from the AUC as part of Uribe’s Justice and Peace agreement; in court that day he was admitting to some of his crimes. For outlining his role in the AUC — he had left out aggravated murder, displacement and forced disappearance — he was looking at the maximum eight-year sentence.
A member of the so-called Banana Bloc of the Colombian United Self-Defence Forces (AUC) guards weapons at a storage on Nov. 24, 2004 in the Turbo municipality, Antioquia. GERARDO GOMEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Criado worked for an AUC commander in the city of Ocaña, in the Norte de Santander department. The local AUC men, he says, began to trust him because he fixed their cars, earning him his nickname. Starting as a low-level snitch, he rose to become a financial boss of his AUC bloc.
He tells a familiar tale. “I was a victim from the violence from before I was even born,” he says. “My father was disappeared by the ELN guerrillas and I began my involvement in violent actions when I was very young. When I had the opportunity to get involved with paramilitary groups I began to help them — first just as an informant and then (it was) an organic kind of thing.
“Fortunately, I am in jail now. I feel fortunate because a lot of my companions weren’t so lucky. They got killed or were disappeared. I’m trying to make amends for what I did, but I realize I should never have begun with the group.”
In Medellín, Juan Camilo Hernandez says he began with the paramilitaries in the mid-1990s, aged 13.
Like Criado, he chose one side over the other, heading to Medellín after being displaced by the conflicts in the banana-growing region of Urabá. He says the AUC told him that training would be so difficult the war would feel like a rest. Readying for combat in the Antioquia department, they trained with live rounds in their guns.
“If you couldn’t pass the training, the organization would kill you themselves,” he says. “Physically and mentally, they prepare you for war. It comes to a point you don’t care about anyone.
“They valued life more than us,” Hernandez says of the Colombian army. “We went in and cleaned everything out. The AUC had the mountains; the military had the towns. Massacres occurred when the army couldn’t do it, because they’d have blood on their hands.”
“The money,” he says. “It talks. A soldier could earn very little for what they do, and for people to come and offer five times what they’re earning? That’s a big motivation to close your eyes, to shut your ears.”
This picture taken on July 13, 2006, in Villa de la Esperanza,,400 kilometres northeast of Bogotá, shows members of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC). Seated from left to right are Salvatore Mancuso, Ramon Isaza, Ignacio Roldan, and Vicente Castano. GERARDO GOMEZ/AFP via Getty Images
The truth
Tim Horton’s coffee cups dot the office furniture, as close to 25 Colombians gather in a meeting room in Toronto on a rainy February evening. The group is talking about how, from afar, they can play a part in their home country’s future.
In 2016, Colombia signed an historic peace deal with the AUC’s longtime enemy, the Marxist FARC rebels, an agreement that won former president Juan Manuel Santos the Nobel Peace Prize. Although the deal has since been plagued by the return to war of FARC fighters, the process contains three core branches: The Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition Commission aims to uncover the truths behind the 50-year conflict; the Unit for the Search for Persons Presumed Disappeared aims to find Colombia’s hidden dead; and the Special Jurisdiction for Peace covers transitional justice for crimes committed on all sides.
As part of the truth commission, survivors and perpetrators, often in exile, are interviewed by independent experts. The testimony is not usable in criminal proceedings, but it is hoped their contributions will help answer why Colombia’s wars happened, and how to stop them from happening again.
On this night, participants offer suggestions on how to boost participation in Toronto and other Canadian cities. The organizers, hailing from a broad network of advocacy groups, wonder aloud why more people have not shown up. As a presentation is made, one woman finally remarks, “now we are talking about the elephant in the room.” What she means is, not all Colombians fled from the same thing, they’re not all of the same political persuasion, and many war victims are not officially classified as protected refugees, while others are. There’s an unspoken awkwardness.
As the night ends and the crowd filters out, Luis Mata, who works with Toronto’s FCJ Refugee Centre, introduces himself to a reporter. In the days that follow, he will tell the story of his best friend, who was murdered on Salvatore Mancuso’s orders. Luis wants answers, too.
Luis grew up in a farming family in the northeastern Norte de Santander department. Seeing farmers struggle daily, he says, made him passionate about land issues. In 1992, the 500-year anniversary of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, he attended student protests and began work with leftist youth movements. Two years later, he was working as a peace counsellor in the troubled Valle del Cauca region, in western Colombia. Mediating between agitating peasants and the government, he was vocal about the influence of the paramilitaries and their allies in armed cooperatives called Convivir, which had recently been legalized by the government.
MEDELLEN, COLOMBIA: United Self Defense Force (AUC) soldier patrols a walkway in the barrio San Javier in the city of Medellin, Colombia, 08 July 2002 as the AUC continues to invade and attack several parts of the country. The guerrilla groups, including Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), have continued to forcefully gain control of areas in Colombia. President-elect Alvaro Uribe has promised to seek UN-led mediation with both the FARC — the country’s oldest and largest rebel group — and the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). AFP PHOTO/Fernando VERGARA (Photo credit should read FERNANDO VERGARA/AFP via Getty Images) AUC Colombia feature FERNANDO VERGARA/AFP via Getty Images
In his line of work Luis knew this was dangerous. By 1995, Uribe, who would later be president, was serving as governor of the Antioquia department. When a political ally of Uribe came to the city of Cali, and Luis declared the man unwelcome, he encountered “huge problems.” He received threats and his vehicle and house were shot at. At one point, he helped to arrange a memorial for a priest who had been dismembered by the paramilitaries. “After that,” he says, “a man called me, asking ‘what is your problem?’ I was vocal, saying the killings were the responsibility of corrupt politicians and the paramilitary groups. That was the wrong thing for me to say.”
With his world closing in, Luis was given 14 months of safe haven by a group in Spain. Foolishly, he says, he returned to Colombia briefly to continue his work. The threats resumed. “Friends that I was working with were disappeared, were killed,” he says.
After a final, seven-hour detention by the army, and with his books on Colombia’s conflict denounced as leftist propaganda, Luis fled. He has the date and time of day, burned into his mind: “We landed in Canada at 7.20 p.m. on Dec. 16, 2002,” he says. “I was watching the snow, with so much uncertainty.”
He arrived in Toronto with a wife, four-year-old son and the idea of staying for six months. “While I was here some friends were killed, and some massacres happened in areas I used to work, so we decided to make a refugee claim.”
Among those killed was Tirso Velez. A leftist politician and one-time mayor of the municipality of Tibú, Norte de Santander, Velez was gunned down in a killing plotted by the AUC boss Jorge Iván Laverde, as a political favour to Mancuso. Mancuso would later claim, without any evidence, that Velez was a guerrilla collaborator.
When the AUC killed Velez, it hit Luis hard. He became ill, suffering from night terrors, plagued by the guilt that conflict survivors feel when they leave their friends behind.
“For many months I was seeing Tirso in my dreams,” Luis says. “It was so hard. I could have a family and peace, but others could not.”
Members of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) listen to their group’s anthem at the Camp Two base camp in Tibú, 600 kilometres northeast of Bogota, in the department of Norte de Santander, Dec. 10, 2004. LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images
Free man 
A spokesperson for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told the National Post that it cannot comment on how long Mancuso may spend in immigration detention or whether he has applied for asylum in the U.S. It is understood that in the near term, the COVID-19 outbreak will hold up his release. Calls to a lawyer known to have represented Mancuso were not returned. If he returns to Colombia, he will have to meet the requirements of the Justice and Peace law, which includes continued cooperation for the next four years.
“After these four years, Salvatore Mancuso may request the total termination of his process,” his lawyer told Colombia’s Semana magazine in November. It is probable that Mancuso’s time spent in U.S. prisons will be counted in full towards his eight-year Justice and Peace sentence, but not guaranteed, and he may face “preventative detention” upon landing over a separate money-laundering charge. He has applied to join a new process, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which was set up during the 2016 peace deal with the FARC. Demobilized paramilitaries, its literature says, “are not investigated or prosecuted by the JEP. Exceptionally, they may be able to submit to the JEP when they can make an extraordinary contribution to the truth.”
He couldn't have just been riding on other paramilitaries to get the kind of sentence reduction that he got
If accepted, Mancuso has indicated he would start by talking about former president Uribe and a host of other politicians. Many are wondering about Mancuso’s ability to stay alive, because his confessions have put him in peril. The massacre at El Salado, in which he claimed army backing, was not an isolated event.
In July, 1997, in a six-day AUC bloodbath in Mapiripán, on the edge of Colombia’s eastern plains, at least 49 were killed with chainsaws. Again, calls to an army base went ignored. Mancuso claimed he rigged things with the Colombian air force, so that flight paths into the area would be cleared for the AUC.
At El Aro, Antioquia, in October, 1997, the AUC murdered at least 15. Mancuso told the courts that he met with an army commander to gather intelligence so the AUC could prepare the assault.
Mancuso has made claims about Colombian army and police payments, rigged elections, prosecutors on the take. But in many instances, he has implicated dead people. What he later said to the Americans, only they know for sure.
“Mancuso no doubt gave valuable information to the DEA and to U.S. prosecutors about people at the highest echelons of the Colombian government, and some for their involvement in narco-trafficking,” says Adam Isacson, a Colombia expert with the Washington Office on Latin America.
“He couldn’t have just been riding on other paramilitaries to get the kind of sentence reduction that he got. It had to be talking about where the networks really led to, to power structures in Colombia.”
One source in Bogotá told the National Post: “A lot of big shots, local and regional politicians, must be really, really angry. Dozens of people are in jail, or were, because of his declarations.”
An AUC mass grave is examined by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Luis Moreno Ocampo (centre, in black shirt), Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon (in pink) and Colombian Attorney General Mario Iguaran (centre, in white) on August 26, 2008, in Las Casas, Antioquia. The remains were located after the confession of former paramilitary leader Ever Veloza, alias H.H. RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP via Getty Images
“Something happened in Colombia… I would like to understand it,” Luis Mata says. “I will celebrate if Mancuso goes back to Colombia, and the state can protect him enough for him to speak out.
“Because maybe he has many things to say about his relationships with politicians, with industrial and rich people that benefitted from this storm of violence that paramilitary groups created.”
Luis has never returned to Colombia since he fled, and says the hope he felt, after the signing of former president Santos’s 2016 peace pact with the FARC, is fading. A total 107 Colombian human rights defenders were killed in 2019, according to the United Nations, and a large portion of the 12,000 FARC who laid down their guns have returned to the jungle. Meanwhile, new paramilitary groups, now operating more like mafias than butchers, dominate Colombia’s criminal underworld. Many of them are ex-AUC.
Yet for Luis, the chance to be involved in the truth commission offers one last shot for the victims of his generation; something perhaps, for his friend Tirso.
“That supposed peace agreement with Uribe and his government and the paramilitary groups? That was a total joke. They never stopped. They never stopped,” he says.
“But the truth commission is something amazing, something meaningful. Because sometime, in the future, we will be able to look at each other face to face, without having these dark shadows in between.”
Twitter: @BrianFitz_



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