Twenty-one years later, it has been revealed that a paramilitary figure led Operation Orion, the bloodiest urban military incursion in Colombia’s history. This is affirmed by an independent journalistic investigation, which provides additional information confirming the involvement of paramilitary forces in the military operation.
On October 16, 2002, just two months after former President Alvaro Uribe took office, a military incursion in the Comuna 13 neighborhood of Medellín resulted in a bloodbath, arbitrary detentions, and disappearances. This marked the beginning of the so-called “false positives,” a stain that would haunt the Uribe administration until 2008.
In an iconic image of that operation captured by photographer Jesús Abad Colorado, a man with his face concealed behind a ski mask can be seen directing the operation. Now, more than two decades later, it has been revealed that the person in that photograph is paramilitary figure Marlon Andrés Castañeda Higuita, alias Gomelo. This revelation comes from the independent media outlet Voragine, which also reminded readers that Castañeda was part of the Cacique Nutibara group, a paramilitary organization allegedly supporting the actions of the Army.
The publication states that, according to judicial documents, Gomelo was killed by his own comrades.
Investigating a Sinister Image
Vorágine, an independent media outlet established in mid-2020, managed to secure an interview with the former paramilitary commander known as alias Móvil 8, who was part of the military operation named “Operation Orion.” According to information provided by Móvil 8, Marlon Andrés Castañeda was a paramilitary member who was imprisoned at that time and was released by the Attorney General’s Office to lead the military operation.
These are serious accusations, as they implicate not only military leaders and the government of that time but also judicial authorities. Vorágine also highlights that President Uribe had previously acknowledged that he had authorized the operation, albeit under the pretext of combating both guerrilla groups and paramilitaries that had infiltrated that area of Medellín.
Two Days of Terror in Comuna 13
On October 16 and 17, 2002, the military incursion in Comuna 13, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Medellín, left its residents caught in the crossfire from both ground and air, resulting in forced displacement, disappearances, and murders.
The operation, which continued through November and December, was an initiative of the Colombian government at the time and involved the Army, the DAS (intelligence services), the Police, and special military forces with tanks and the support of armed helicopters. A total of 1,500 personnel participated in the operation, including individuals with their faces covered.
Based on statements made 15 years ago by former paramilitary leader alias Don Berna, who led the Cacique Nutibara paramilitary group, the involvement of paramilitaries in the operation had been known for some time. They reportedly conducted prior intelligence work, accompanied the military, and actively participated in the operations on the ground.
The objective was to apprehend alleged guerrilla collaborators. The operation resulted in 576 arbitrary detentions, 6 disappearances, and 10 deaths during the attacks.
Paramilitaries Acknowledge Involvement
Diego Fernando Murillo, alias Don Berna, is a former demobilized paramilitary leader and drug trafficker who was extradited to the United States in 2008, where he is serving a 31-year prison sentence until 2040. In statements by the former paramilitary, “Cacique Nutibara conducted intelligence, located guerrillas, infiltrated the civilian population, and provided all this information to the Armed Forces.”
Don Berna added that “several of our men went there; many of them wore masks, identified several people…. some were killed, others were captured and later disappeared.”
Today, these allegations are joined by statements that, for the first time, name the masked figure in Abad Caballero’s ominous photograph. According to the witness’s account to Vorágine, Gomelo was responsible for identifying houses and alleged members of the FARC guerrillas.
Indeed, according to Colombian intelligence documents from the now-defunct DAS, Castañeda had cooperated in at least two military operations in Medellín: Operation Saturno II and Operation Orion. In the first operation, he reportedly provided names of former FARC comrades from prison before being released to participate personally in Operation Orion.
During a demonstration in Medellín in which a group of young people accused former President Uribe of being behind the massacre that occurred in October, the former president acknowledged having personally authorized Operation Orion. He stated that it was a response to both guerrillas and paramilitaries who had taken control of Comuna 13 in the Antioquia capital. However, what happened 21 years ago was the dismantling of guerrilla groups, leaving Comuna 13 in the hands of the Cacique Nutibara paramilitary group, which gained criminal dominance in the area.
This was affirmed by the Corporación Jurídica Libertad (CJL), a non-governmental organization in Medellín dedicated to defending human rights in the departments of Antioquia and Chocó. The CJL’s report was supported by the Truth Commission. “After Operation Orion, the Cacique Nutibara Bloc entered and became hegemonic in Comuna 13. The dominance of the Cacique Nutibara Bloc was followed by expulsions, forced displacements, and forced disappearances from late 2002 and throughout 2003,” states a ruling from the Superior Court of Medellín.