This is a translation I have done from verdadabierta.com that tells the story of Yolanda Paternina, a member of the fiscalía (district attorney’s office) in Colombia who was assassinated while investigating members of Colombia state security. Below you will find the link to the original article in Spanish.
The Investigation. Yolanda Paternina gave her life for justice
“I believe she was the only honest person in the Sincelejo district attorney’s office. She was the only person the people trusted… But honesty in the midst of so much corruption is very dangerous.”
Yolanda Paternina was the honest and brave director of the Sincelejo regional district attorney’s office. A young public prosecutor named Monica Gaitán was sent from Bogotá to work alongside Yolanda to investigate the massacre in Chengue, and Monica quickly learned of the precariousness of Yolanda´s situation.
Being only thirty years old, Gaitán was young to direct an investigation as horrific and complicated as that of Chengue. However, she had already spent six years working in a group of regional public prosecutors to curb growing paramilitary power in the department of Valle del Cauca, a region dominated by one of the most powerful drug cartels. The atmosphere of Sincelejo wasn’t new for Mónica- she was used to it after Valle del Cauca. She didn’t need to be warned to take care of what she said in front of Paternina’s collegues.
Monica had experience working in small towns. The type of people she would have to work with- judges, public notaries, mayors, at times other public defenders, other district attorneys- they were all corrupt. “It’s unreal how the corruption and violence had infiltrated everything, even my own institution,” she said, adding, “But at the same time I realized I was getting to know the real Colombia. The violence and corruption, the murderers’ indifference, the ease with which they kill people, destroy towns- this was Colombia’s reality.”
Yolanda Paternina was the first person on the scene in Chengue on January 17. She wanted to investigate the scene of the massacre before the police arrived and trampled all the evidence. She took photos, gathered evidence, supervised the raising of the bodies. She spoke with the people, police, and also members of the first infantry brigade when they finally arrived and deployed around the town. She spoke at length with the young police commander of the municipality of San Onfre, Lieutenant Jami Gutiérrez Muñoz, who had tried to alert military commanders close to Chengue that paramilitaries were entering the town. Most importantly she spoke with the survivors. She wanted to find out exactly what happened, why they thought it happened, why they suspected military participation. What she took away from those conversations made the foundation of her investigation.
Five days later she had the exact location of the paramilitaries, including a paramilitary operating under the alias “Cadena”, believed to have committed the massacre. They were resting nearby in a safe-house identified as “El Cerro”. She asked marine captain Camilo Martinez to support her with his men while she took the house and arrested Cadena. Martinez refused, saying he didn’t have the authority to arrest Cadena and would need authorization from his commander, rear-admiral Quinoñez. The rear-admiral’s exact location was unknown and waiting for a response would delay pursuit of the paramilitaries. There was a heated discussion between him and Yolanda, but the captain insisted he couldn’t and wouldn’t go. It came as no surprise that when they went to the safe-house the following day Cadena and his men had fled. An opportunity to capture one of the cruelest members of the AUC was sabotaged by a state official charged with finding him.
Yolanda made the initial investigations alone, searching nearby farms and plantations owned by wealthy ranchers and landowners who were known to support paramilitaries and provide possible safe-havens. Mónica Gaitán arrived two months after the massacre and began to take testimony with the information Yolanda had gathered.
“The first time I came I took declarations from the victims in Chengue and also from the Armada, from the police, and above all from the officials who commanded the camps of the Armada closest to Chengue. I also took testimony from Lieutenant Gutiérrez of the Police… After he gave me his testimony they sent him out of the area to a very dangerous town.”
Mónica traveled from Bogotá to Sincelejo twice to work with Yolanda. Years later she recalls the devastating meetings she had in Chengue with the widows, mothers, and children of the surviving victims. “I will never forget the look in their eyes,” she said. “They were dead. They had no future. I will never forget the emptiness in their eyes.” She took statements from military personnel who were in the town, from police, and from military commanders in surrounding bases.
Up to then, the investigation had been pretty routine. Mónica and Yolanda worked together, collecting and analyzing available information. The biggest mystery of the case was the most important actor of that tragic night: the first infantry brigade of the armada. The brigade had been in the right place at the right time; they had a clear mandate to protect civilians; they had all the necessary equipment- helicopters, trucks, weapons, ammunition, fuel; they had all the best intelligence. That same night, they had been alerted by police to the presence of three trucks full of armed paramilitaries moving towards towns they had been charged with protecting. Despite all this, they hadn’t acted. There was no rational argument as to why they never mobilized, not before, not during, not immediately after the massacre. The passivity made no sense. They didn’t understand it.
When all of a sudden everything changed.
Days after Mónica returned to Bogotá the telephone rang in her office. A co-worker from the regional office of Córdoba was calling to tell her a young paramilitary from the neighboring department of Sucre was in his office claiming to have participated in the massacre at Chengue. He wanted to hand himself over to the D.A. running the case because he had “sensitive information”.
Elkin Valdris was a nineteen-year old recruit of the north bloc, which included Catatumbo and Córdoba. The northern bloc was commanded by Salvatore Mancuso and he had sent a group of twenty men to Sucre to support Cadena, who was supposedly preparing for a big operation against the FARC. When Elkin realized that instead of combating guerrillas they were killing the elderly, that they were beating to death men and women who had nothing to do with the FARC, he felt sick and betrayed. Instead of returning to his house in Córdoba, Elkin searched for the regional district attorney´s office and became an informant.
“Elkin’s testimony was the key for our investigation,” Mónica said. “He made the connection with the armada and solved the mystery for us. Then we knew the paramilitaries weren’t acting alone. We transported him from Córdoba to Bogotá and put him in a bunker at the D.A.’s office for his security. We didn’t dare put him in a public prison; we knew he would be killed there.”
QUESTION: Say to the dispatch- did any members of the AUC who participated in the massacre at Chengue have any confrontation with state security organisms?
RESPONSE (Elkin Valdiris): ” The marines knew we were in the town. Everything had been coordinated a few days before, everything was a farce. Any communication that said there was fighting between paramilitaries and state security was a lie- not a single confrontation occurred with any member of state security because everything had been planned a few days before. It had been set up to give us time to leave before the marines entered Chengue.”
Elkin told Mónica that on the morning of January 16th, a day before the massacre, two sergeants of the armada arrived and met with Rodrigo Mercado Pelufo (alias Cadena) and Juancho Dique. He saw the sergeants give Cadena radios, cell phones, marine uniforms, and ammunition and Cadena give “a wad of bills” to one of the Sergeants named “Bossa.” Furthermore, during the massacre, Elkin said he saw paramilitaries speaking to the armada by radio.
Elkin drew Mónica the interior of El Palmer to show her where they could find uniforms, radios, and cell phones to confirm his story.
Chengue was no longer a story of paramilitaries killing and displacing campesinos. Now it was about paramilitaries and the state acting together to commit atrocities. And now the D.A.’s objective wasn’t only Cadena- himself a psychopathic thug- but also the first brigade of the armada, lead by a high profile commander who had many reports of human rights abuses. From one moment to another the stakes had risen dramatically. And so had the danger.
Yolanda began to investigate. Using Elkin’s information she requisitioned El Palmar and found the uniforms, cell phones, radios, and ammunition exactly where he said they would be. She found the serial numbers of the radios and cell phones and obtained access to the brigade’s accounts through the telephone companies Comcel, Telecom, Bellsouth, Telefónica, and Celcaribe. By comparing the accounts against the cell phone numbers she was able to make a record of the hour and destination of all the telephone calls made from the phones of the paramilitaries the night of the massacre. Now she could prove what Elkin told Mónica about the paramilitaries communicating with officials of the armada during the massacre was true: that they spoke with members of the armada during the night of the massacre. She also established that there had been calls made to Cartagena during the same time period. However, she still didn’t have proof of ownership of the radios of El Palmar. And there was only one way to find out. Each radio had a distinct number. The D.A. would have to access all the inventory documents in the storehouses of the First Infantry Brigade’s headquarters to physically compare the numbers in the inventory against that of the record Yolanda made of those found in El Palmar. Later they would need to requisition the storehouses of the battalion to confirm if the radios brought by Sergeant Bossa to El Palmar were in the inventory of if they were missing.
Mónica’s trip to requisition the battalion’s storehouses at the First Infantry Brigade’s base would be her last time in Sincelejo. “It was terrible. They didn’t want us there and were furious we had arrived without permission… they were hiding everything… ‘the person who knows about supplies is on vacation’… ‘the person there doesn’t know anything’… ‘the documents are in a different building’. I stayed there three days and all I could do was tell Bogotá were I was… I told the brigade that they were in charge of my security. But it was horrible- I couldn’t sleep- I was afraid they would kidnap me. When we went to the airport I insisted they escort us to the last minute. I told them, “if something happens to me, you are responsible.”
An investigator from the procuraduría who was doing an investigation parallel to Mónica’s on the massacre came with her. They spent many tedious hours looking among the supplies and comparing the inventory against their list. As each radio had its own number, and the radios Yolanda had registered in El Palmar were on their list but were missing from the inventory, they could confirm the testimony of Elkin Valdiris- that the radios used by the paramilitaries to communicate during the massacre belonged to the First Infantry Brigade of the Marines.
When Mónica returned to her office in Bogotá she brought the evidence to her immediate superior Pedro Diaz, director of the human rights department, to show him the strength of her case. She would need his advice and support because it was going to be problematic politically. He told her they would have to draw up charges against the rear-admiral and those under his command and told her to go to the District Attorney General, Alfonso Gómez Méndez, and show him the evidence. They needed his support, and when Mónica showed the evidence to Méndez he gave it. Next Diaz told her to order notarized copies so that the district attorney’s representative before the supreme court could investigate the rear-admiral.
It was now clear that Mónica couldn’t return to Sincelejo. She and Yolanda would have to work via telephone and e-mail. A second ex paramilitary came forward, now a bodyguard of one of the wealthiest supporters of paramilitaries in Sincelejo, but said he would need to leave Sucre before he could talk. Yolanda and Mónica brought him to Bogotá where Mónica took his testimony and made arrangements to put him in a witness protection program for him and his family. Later, he fled the country.
Jairo Castillo Peralta, alias Pitirri, knew all the people who were in contact with paramilitaries in Sucre, from the ranchers and businessmen to the most powerful politicians. Mónica spent two days taking his testimony. “He had their confidence because he was a paramilitary. He had taken note of their conversations in a small notebook. He knew how much money they had given Cadena. He knew their telephones, their bank accounts- he even had a copy of a check. He gave the license plate numbers of politicians who had attended meetings. He could testify against Governor Arana… and he could confirm almost everything.”
On June 5 2001 attorney general Alfonso Gómez Méndez made a historical decision: for not having acted, and in consequence facilitating the massacre of 27 people in the town of Chengue by paramilitary forces, he initiated criminal proceedings against rear-admiral Rodrigo Quiñonez Cárdenas, commander of the first infantry brigade of the armada as well as nine other officials of the counterinsurgency unit.
Mónica Gaitán sent documents of her case against the rear-admiral to the district attorney delegate before the supreme court as they were the only entity with legal authority to arraign a general. The remaining processes stayed in her power.
In Sincelejo and Bogotá an unpredictable chain of events would put everything Mónica and Yolanda had achieved at risk. And their anonymous informants- who had risked their lives to shed light on the criminal reality of Sucre- they were also about to see their dreams of justice destroyed. Now that the investigation was public there was nothing Yolanda or Mónica could do to protect themselves or their collaborators.
Violence began to engulf the investigation in Sincelejo. Pedro Díaz sent two young investigators of the CTI to support Yolanda and to confirm information provided by Pitirri. On May 27th, only a week and a half after their arrival in Sincelejo, both young investigators disappeared.
Yolanda continued to work alone. She was investigating some of the politicians from Pitirri’s testimony, and continued to get closer to Cadena. The more she followed information given to her by trusted sources, the more she was dragged into the darkness of Sucre’s corruption- and she would pay with her life. She knew she was in trouble. She knew someone in her office was passing information to Cadena. One day a large portion of evidence disappeared from her desk. The threats turned uglier. She began to fear for her life. Yolanda had two children in school and didn’t have the luxury of giving up. In July she wrote to Bogotá explaining her situation, asking for more and better protection, or relocation to a new city. She wrote several letters during the month of August, each one with greater desperation and urgency.
On the day she died she was with her 18-year-old son.
“I was the last person who spoke to my mother the day they killed her. She sensed something was wrong. She had told me that neither her security nor car had appeared, that the colonel of the police wasn’t answer his cellular, and that the director of the CTI wasn’t answering his… I don’t remember very well. I told her to stay in her office, to lock herself in and not leave… and with the saddest tone in her voice she told me to trust no one, to be strong, that the only person I could trust was her and that if she wasn’t there to trust no one. She told me she loved me. I felt like she was saying goodbye…”
“Cadena’s lawyer was named Oswaldo García Ochoa (they already killed him in Bogotá). He was in my mother’s office a few days before they killed her, maybe between the 25th and 28th of August 2001. She told me the lawyer had proposed that she work for them, but she refused. The lawyer told her, ‘Doctor, give my regards to San Pedro.’ The offer had been withdrawn.”
When Yolanda arrived at her house with her son the night of August 29, 2001 and was putting the key in her door, two men approached her from behind and shot her. Her bodyguards had been out sick. Her driver hadn’t been at the office to bring her home. When she tried for help to get a safe vehicle to bring her home, neither the chief of police Colonel Norman Arango nor the investigative director of the CTI in the D.A’s office returned her calls.
Mónica Gaitán said, “I remember the last conversation I had with her before they killed her. She called my office asking for my help, ‘please help me. I feel surrounded by people trying to kill me… I’m followed when I leave.’ I knew it could have just as easily been me. Pedro Diez, my chief in Bogotá, told me that if I went to Sincelejo again they would kill me… and I knew I couldn’t help Yolanda. I told her, ‘Send me a letter! Now! To help I need a letter!’ and she said, ‘I’ve sent so many letters.’ I did nothing, and two days later I received a call saying they had killed her.”
“One thinks that the time heals all wounds, but it doesn’t. Because it’s life and death, isn’t it?”
Copies of the letters from Yolanda to the district attorney’s office were found in an envelope in her apartment after her death.
The Road to Exile
Another reason Yolanda Paternina had been abandoned when she turned to the D.A.’s office for help was the replacement of Alfonso Gómez Méndez, whose term as attorney general ended on August 1, by Luis Camilo Osorio. Osorio purged investigators and D.A.s working on cases of atrocities by paramilitaries and crimes against humanity, even when it resulted in disruptions in the department. Within 48 hours of Osorio assuming office, the two highest ranking attorneys investigating crimes against human rights- Pedro Díaz, director of the human rights unit, and Pablo Elías González, deputy attorney general- were forced out of office (see Reporte de Human Rights Watch sobre esta actuación del fiscal: Un giro erróneo. Osorio responded to this report by saying that as few as four public servants were dismissed from office, and that they were dismissed because “at least half were seriously inept at what they were sworn to do and were disloyal to the justice.” See Tomates al fiscal)
When Luis Camilo Osorio assumed office, Mónica said she asked for an appointment to bring him up to speed on the Chengue case, including proof against the Admiral Quiñonez and various colonels of the first brigade of the Armada. The new attorney general told her he couldn’t pursue cases against personal of the Armada as they would be a political issue, to which Mónica responded she would only defend justice and victims of the case. This made Osorio very angry and he told her to wait for the coordinator of the Human Rights Unit, Alejandro Ramelli, who had a lot of experience in human rights cases.
A few days later Mónica was removed from the investigation. The case was given to a public prosecutor who was now in charge of both the case against the rear-admiral and against the colonels and officials of the Armada, cases Mónica had been leading in the human rights unit. The prosecutor paralyzed the case by wasting four months without ordering a single piece of evidence. In December, as the case faced risk of expiration, the investigation returned to Mónica’s hands. A resolution was obtained to indite all those linked to the case.
After a brief vacation, Mónica returned to find she had been once again removed from the case.
As a result of the change in prosecutor of the Chengue case, a scandal broke in the media claiming possible mismanagement of the investigation, saying that the change in prosecutors was way to shield personnel of the Armada. Mónica was called to the office of the chief of the unit, Alejandro Ramelli, so that she could speak with a journalist over the phone and deny reports of corruption. When Mónica refused to deny allegations, Ramelli was infuriated and ordered her to speak in favor or the justice department, saying it was her duty.
Hours later, staff from the press office arrived in Mónica’s office with a letter addressed to the media, saying that she was handing over the case because she was sick. José Miguel Vivanco, director of Human Rights Watch, had offered to help Mónica in case she was at risk or if his advice was needed in the case against the admiral, and had given her his cellular number. Mónica refused to sign the letter and called Vivanca to ask his advice. He asked her to send him a letter by fax, with which he immediately sent to president Andrés Pastrana so he could give an explanation of what was happening in the attorney general’s office.
Ramelli summoned Mónica to his office and in a threatening tone told her he was going to have her investigated. A few days later however, Ramelli left the district attorney’s office.
After Ramelli left, Luis Camilo Osorio held a meeting with Mónica’s staff in the Human Rights unit. According to Mónica, this meeting turned into Osorio publicly attacking Mónica. He accused her of not being patriotic or loyal for criticizing the government. He discredited her and the reputation of her staff in front of the international human rights community.
Having been made into a pariah, there was no future for Mónica in the district attorney’s office. “When I realized I didn’t have support inside the justice department, I left. I felt like my worst enemies were inside the institution. Everyone knows who the enemies are outside- it’s clear. I was more afraid of the people around me.” Despite having so many illusions of working for justice, for the victims of the war, for her country, Mónica Gaitáin was left with no other option but to give up her place in the justice department. After leaving the death threats got worse. This coincided with Osorio withdrawing office protection and armored car, forcing Monica to flee Colombia in March 2002 with her husband and two sons. With the help of Human Rights Watch and the ambassador of the United States, she escaped to the United States, which gave her asylum.
“I left for asylum in a new country. I felt as though I had lost my identity. I lost my family. My profession. After twelve years, I still feel lost. When that happened, I feel like I lost faith in people, in justice… in my passion for justice. My hunger and thirst for justice.
In 2013, after almost 12 years in exile, the Olaya Gaitán family returned to Colombia where Mónica once again works with victims of the war. She and her husband accompany the displaced and survivors of massacres, helping them to resolve immense difficulties as they fight to return to their lands in the face of terror threats. “Perhaps,” she says, “this time could be different… that’s why I have returned.”