Who killed the Italian Mario Paciolla? Reportage from violent Colombia, between Farc and Narcos
“Here people have always lived in fear, they have always kept their heads down. You look out the window in the morning and see the guerrillas. The paramilitaries pass at noon. In the evening the army. Mario was too honest, he wanted to do things well. For this reason he often clashed with his managers”. This is the way in which the local activist Gabriela (invented name) recalls Mario Paciolla, the Italian UN operator found dead in his residence in San Vicente del Caguán (Colombia) on July 15, 2020.
Mario had plans to travel to Bogotá on that day. The following week he would leave for Italy on one of the few humanitarian flights which allow European citizens to go back home in these times of pandemic. On July 10, he had a tough discussion with his superiors. Then the feeling of imminent danger, the strengthening of home security measures and the choice to anticipate the return to Naples.
The last connection to WhatsApp was on July 14 at 10.45 pm. The next morning, his lifeless body was found by his colleagues. His body has already been transported to Italy, where the autopsy will reveal the possible validity of the suicide thesis, which appeared immediately not very credible.
The reasons behind the sudden decision to abandon the UN mission have not been determined yet. The Colombian journalist Claudia Julieta Duque, a close friend of Paciolla, raised some doubts in her article appeared in the Columbian newspaper El Espectador. But in order to understand them, it is necessary to analyse the intricate social dynamics in which UN operators move in Caquetá, south-eastern Colombia. This area is a minefield where guerrilla groups, local mafias and international drug trafficking networks compete for the enormous interests at stake in the territory: production and export of cocaine, massive deforestation and oil licenses.
What Paciolla was doing in Colombia
Mario Paciolla and his colleagues were in charge of observing and evaluating the respect of the peace agreements between Colombian government and FARC, ratified at the end of 2016. The UN verification mission, which covered the area of San Vicente del Caguán (Caquetá), started in September 2017. Paciolla joined almost one year later, in August 2018.
In San Vicente del Caguán the implementation of the peace agreements is a very delicate task, because since long time it is having disturbing implications. In fact, the assassination of Paciolla seems to be part of a much broader strategy of terror implemented by armed groups who have long competed for control of the region. A strategy that, apparently, has been able to circumvent the very strict UN security protocols for its employees in high-risk areas. The protection guaranteed to international officials seems to have mysteriously disappeared in the case of the Italian agent. How is it possible? Why did Paciolla feel in danger in the days before his death?
San Vicente del Caguán: violence in times of peace
Gabriela calls me with an untraceable sim card, whenever she has news about Mario's story. She is afraid of being intercepted. In San Vicente del Caguán nobody believes the suicide version, but almost everyone is afraid to speak. The halo of silence that surrounds the town hall finds easy explanations in the systematic violence that local human rights defenders are suffering.
In the last four years in Colombia about 500 social leaders have been murdered and since 2018 San Vicente has been permanently on the list of the ten national municipalities with the highest concentration of activist murders. One of them, Oscar (another invented name), tells me that in San Vicente "those who defend human rights have become a trophy for armed groups".
Behind the persecutions of human rights defenders lies the macabre reconfiguration of the geographies of the conflict. After the signing of the 2016 peace agreements, the dissident sections of the FARC (America's longest-running and most structured guerrilla group) have formed nebulous alliances with the so-called BACRIM (Bandas Criminales), criminal organizations dedicated to drug trafficking and extortion. Some BACRIM are in turn affiliated to the major continental mafias: the presence of the Sinaloa Cartel in the region has long been reported to manage the production and export of cocaine to Mexico and the United States.
At the same time, the ex-guerrillas who have decided to lay down their weapons have undergone regular persecution since 2016, whose perpetrators are easily identifiable in the historical enemies of the FARC in the territory: the paramilitary groups that arose from the dissolution of the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) in 2006. Armed gangs affiliated to the far right, protected by the army and financed by drug trafficking, whose main activity is the violent repression of any political actor considered socially troublesome.
The stable presence of armed actors in San Vicente del Caguán is certainly not something new. The town hall has been since long time neglected by the institutions. We are in the northern part of the Caquetá Department, the gateway to the Colombian Amazon. In recent decades, the territory has been one of the major epicenters of the country's great outbreaks of violence. A poorly accessible rural region (according to a UNODC study, 72% of inhabited centers can only be reached by river) and in large parts lacking basic services for the farmers and breeders who populate it.
Between FARC, paramilitaries and drug traffickers
The poor accessibility of the Department, distributed between the Eastern Cordillera and the first expanses of the Amazon forest, facilitated its military occupation by various armed groups. The FARC occupied the region in 1964, taking advantage of the absence of the State to establish military training areas for their members and to take control of several municipalities. In parallel, starting from the 70s, Caquetá became one of the main areas of coca cultivation and cocaine production.
The FARC progressively intervene in the relationship between drug traffickers and the community, first asking farmers for a fee (el gramaje), and then expanding the same requests to drug buyers, owners of cocaine laboratories and managers of flights directed to the seaports of the country.
Since 1997, the Bloque Central Bolivar, a local section of the paramilitary structure of the AUC, intervenes in the dispute for the territorial control and cocaine traffic. Armed clashes with the FARC have been plaguing the peasant communities in the region for decades. In the same years, the historic peace negotiations between the FARC and Andrés Pastrana's government (1999-2002) began in San Vicente del Caguán. However, they ended in a stalemate.
During the presidency of Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) and with the support of the United States, the territory of Caquetá had been militarized with 18 thousand armed men. The FARC, in numerical inferiority, renounced the gunfights with the army, adopting new strategies of terror to impose their dominion: massacres of civilians, torture, political killings. The paramilitaries responded in the same way.
Despite the large military state intervention, the area is still an epicenter of violence and illegality. In 2013 ten thousand kilos of cocaine were seized. The San Vicente del Caguán-La Macarena and San Vicente del Caguán-Neiva arteries establish themselves as the two central routes for the trade of cocaine.
The dismantling of armed organizations will become one of the central points of the peace agreements signed in 2016. However, the activist Oscar points out that the events will take a different turn: “The signing of the peace agreement has generated many hopes and expectations for those who suffered the conflict firsthand. It allowed us to dream, not only of peace, but also of the birth of a new society, in which farmers would play a dignified role. As the peace process progressed, however, we feel that our hopes have been betrayed. We feel like heading towards a precipice".
The UN mission and Paciolla's activity
"We have lost a fundamental figure for a country in search of peace". With these words Herson Lugo, councilor for Peace and Reconciliation of the Caquetá department, refers to the death of Mario Paciolla (Ansa Latina).
The oversight of the 2016 agreements by the UN verification mission had immediately proved to be a difficult task. The agrarian reforms aimed to protect peasants, which were promised by the signatory government did not appear in the political agenda of the conservative President Ivan Duque, elected in 2018. The reintegration of FARC ex-fighters was more problematic than expected: the state did not guarantee the necessary protection to many members of the guerrilla group and murdered many of them as soon as they layed their weapons down.
The replacement of coca crops is proceeding too slowly. San Vicente del Caguán is continuing to be a central route in the transport of cocaine to the seaports of Buenaventura, on the Pacific coast, and Cartagena, on the Atlantic side. Furthermore, the failure of the peace agreements has led many ex-guerrillas to take up arms again. This led to a further fragmenting of the distribution of the armed groups and the economic and social interests of the territory.
In an increasingly complex situation, all the interviewed members of the San Vicente community agree on one fact: the work of Mario Paciolla in Caquetá had been commendable. He was working mainly in Miravalle, where a FARC camp had been converted into an area of social reintegration.
In 2019 Paciolla carried out a reintegration project of ex-FARC members through rowing sports, with extraordinary results: at the rafting world championships in Australia of the same year, the Colombian national team was represented by five ex-guerrillas and three peasants from San Vicente del Caguán. Paciolla accomplished numerous reintegration processes and wrote also several reports in which he denounced crimes perpetuated by the national army against vulnerable populations in the territory.
Public force operatives intensified with the return to arms of some great FARC leaders (El Paisa, Santrich and Iván Márquez), announced on August 29, 2019 following the failure of the government led by Iván Duque to respect the peace agreements. The designation of the neighboring Meta region as the "Future Zone" (space for forced eradication of illicit economies) was a further detonant for the exponential increase in military operations, the victims of which were often civilians.
This is the case, for example, of the bombing of military forces directed to an encampment of the FARC of Puerto Rico, a neighboring municipality in San Vicente del Caguán. The attack killed 8 minors. A tragic episode that, in November 2019, caused the resignation of Guillermo Botero, the former minister of defense.
Paciolla, an uncomfortable figure
Paciolla had personally dealt with the defense of the rights of the killed teenagers' families. His integrity was probably troublesome even for his leaders, to whom Paciolla criticized ambiguous ties with the army and a certain superficiality concerning the relations with the UN headquarters in New York.
Colombian journalist Claudia Julieta Duque, a dear friend of Paciolla, reports some concerns about his death. In a moving open letter published in the newspaper El Espectador, Duque reveals that Mario often communicated his incompliance with the UN operating methods in the territory, at the cost of finding himself in a troublesome position.
In an informal meeting held in Florencia, the capital of Caquetá and the regional headquarters of the verification mission, Paciolla was accused by a colleague of being "a spy". A few days later he reported the grotesque accusation to his friend, "because he was always joking about absurdities".
This is not the time to make assumptions, and it will certainly not be easy to know what Mario Paciolla had discovered and was worried about. What is certain is that the UN Italian agent tried to ensure the compliance with peace agreements and to defend human rights, in a municipality where the huge economic interests at stake have never stopped causing civilian casualties.
The last ones in chronological order were Eilcerio Mendosa (December 2019), human rights activist, and Holman Fabio Montés (February 2020), ex-FARC guerrilla. Both were murdered in San Vicente del Caguán and both crimes went unpunished.
A war without rules: activists targeted
The armed groups of the region still operate through massacres, extortion, illicit trafficking. New dissensions of the FARC, criminal gangs, paramilitary groups and the national army fight for the control of the territory. Their entrance into the Sinaloa Cartel region has further spread killings and several executions were methodically carried out by crime professionals.
A war without faces or rules, which highlights the great fragility of the peace agreements. In this macabre scenario, even international agents seem to have lost their untouchability, status which characterized the UN's activity in high-risk areas of Colombia.
As early as 2017, a United Nations official operating in Guaviare (Amazonian region bordering Caquetá) had been kidnapped by alleged FARC dissidents, and released after two months in captivity. He was in charge of supervising the replacement process of coca crops.
In January 2018, FARC's dissidences Frente 62's members intercept and capture a UN vehicle in transit to San Vicente del Caguán. The vehicle will be recovered by the army only several months later: it had been used by the dissidencies to transport cocaine and explosives.
During 2020, leaflets signed by various armed groups appear in San Vicente, asking for the immediate release of any international entity from the region.
Oscar, an activist who has been threatened for some time for his battles in defense of the farmers' right to peace in San Vicente del Caguán, rhetorically asks me: “Do you believe that these groups are pleased that a person with a straight back controls their actions?". And he adds: “We community activists have never been protected, our life is always at risk. But for a UN official it is different, it is known that attacking them implies a real investigation as well as international attention. It's not like killing a local activist. The problem is that armed conflict has become wild, they no longer make distinctions. Before there was terror, but at least there was a verticality of names and hierarchies. Now we don't even know who they are anymore. "
A dark spiral of violence that continues to overwhelm those who, like Mario Paciolla, could not accept compromises in his battle for justice and peace for the Colombian people.