The former paramilitary chief Salvatore Mancuso and former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe engaged in mutual accusations after the former accused the then governor of the Antioquia region of being aware of the extreme right-wing illegal armed group’s plans to cause the El Aro massacre in 1997.
The incident took place 26 years ago, on October 22, in the El Aro district, in the municipality of Ituango, Antioquia department. It was perpetrated by the Mineros block of the now-defunct United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), an organization led by Carlos Castaño, in which Mancuso held a leadership position. Seventeen peasants lost their lives in the incident, and more than 1,500 were dispossessed of their belongings and forced to flee; most of them never returned to their homes or lands.
The former paramilitary leader had accused the late General Alfonso Manosalva of having knowledge of that criminal operation. Manosalva had been previously incriminated, accused of involvement in crimes carried out by alleged paramilitary operations.
Salvatore Mancuso before the JEP
Salvatore Mancuso, now 59 years old, was a leader and one of the main spokespersons of the AUC during the demobilization process of this illegal armed group in 2005. He left behind a record of over 300 murders, participation in various massacres between 1997 and 2000, and involvement in drug trafficking. The accusations against him reached up to 75,000 crimes in which he allegedly participated.
Initially, Mancuso submitted himself to the Justice and Peace tribunal, created in 2005 to deal with demobilized paramilitaries and facilitate their reintegration into civilian life. However, shortly after, during President Uribe’s government (2002-2010), it decided to extradite him to the United States in 2008, accusing him of not cooperating with the special justice system. He served his sentence in a prison in Atlanta, Georgia, until 2020.
Last May, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a transitional justice mechanism based on the peace agreements of Havana (2016) signed between the Colombian state and the now-defunct FARC, accepted Mancuso’s participation to clarify some cases of violence that shook the country over 25 years ago.
In what was his last opportunity to enter transitional justice, the Juridical Situations Definition Chamber exceptionally accepted Mancuso’s submission as someone incorporated into the public force. However, the benefits will not come to him automatically.
Thus, it was ordered to lift the confidentiality of some of the statements he gave to the peace tribunal in the confidential meetings during the May hearing of this year. Details of these statements have begun to emerge, such as Mancuso’s assertion that former President Alvaro Uribe, when he was governor of Antioquia, was fully aware of the AUC operation that resulted in the El Aro massacre in 1997.
Direct accusations against Alvaro Uribe and generals
In this regard, Mancuso stated that the El Aro massacre began to be planned in 1996 and that he was sent by General Ivan Ramírez to “coordinate everything” at the request of Pedro Juan Moreno, whom he said was a mere messenger of Governor Uribe: “He came on behalf of Uribe,” he claimed. He also claimed to have met with the then-governor of Antioquia and later president at his estate, El Ubérrimo, through the mediation of Raúl Suárez, then commander of the police in the department of Córdoba.
“It was Iván Ramírez who sent me to organize and coordinate the operation requested by Pedro Juan Moreno, and Pedro Juan Moreno came on behalf of Uribe. Uribe has met with me, and I met with Colonel Raúl Suárez, commander of the Police of Córdoba, who took me to Uribe’s farm to meet then-governor Uribe, and Uribe was always aware of the Aro operation,” Mancuso expressed before the JEP, as reported on W Radio.
“Commander Carlos Castaño (referring to the top paramilitary leader in 1996) tells me to organize that situation. I contacted General Iván Ramírez and asked him to contact the commander of the Fourth Brigade to execute the operation. When I went there, I even met General Ramírez in that office with General Manosalva, and there with Manosalva, we exchanged intelligence information. He showed me the location, handed over detailed orders, camp information, support, mobility corridors, explained everything to me,” Mancuso recounted to the JEP.
Similarly, Mancuso also claimed that after General Manosalva’s death (April 1997), “a general with the last name Ospina” was responsible for continuing with the planning of the massacre. The successor to Manosalva as commander of the Fourth Brigade was General Carlos Ospina Ovalle.
Uribe counterattacks against Mancuso and the JEP
For his part, former President Uribe, referenced in Mancuso’s statements before the JEP, which were recently revealed, has accused the former paramilitary chief of being a “bandit.” The former president and leader of the conservative Democratic Center challenged Mancuso to “prove that I knew about El Aro. I repeat, he never met with me at El Ubérrimo, we never spoke, we only exchanged greetings due to my connection to Montería and without knowing that he was a bandit,” said Álvaro Uribe, referring to the allegations made by the former paramilitary leader about meetings at the former president’s estate, El Ubérrimo.
Additionally, the former president took the opportunity to once again question the role of the JEP. “Achievements of the deceitful hinge theory of the JEP-FARC,” concluded Uribe, who has always criticized the operation of the transitional justice tribunal in which various witnesses have incriminated him for participating or having knowledge of the dirty war against the insurgency during his presidency.
Mancuso’s legal situation
In the context of Salvatore Mancuso’s collaboration with the JEP, the judges handling the case explained that the former paramilitary leader will maintain his guarantees of freedom but only for acts committed as part of the public force. Therefore, the JEP has no jurisdiction over decisions related to crimes committed during his time as a paramilitary, as those will be judged by the Justice and Peace tribunal, created in 2005 for the demobilization of the AUC.
“In this regard, it is important to note that some of his restrictions on freedom are derived from his status as a paramilitary, so the JEP has no jurisdiction, only rights regarding his status as incorporated into the public force,” stated Magistrate Heidi Baldosea.
“If the process continues here in the JEP regarding his contributions to the truth and his future submission, any eventual responsibilities or situations that compromise his freedom must be guaranteed by the benefits of the JEP because he entered and submitted himself for those macro cases and from the position recognized by the sub-chamber and the chamber of definition of legal situations at this moment,” assured Magistrate Pedro Díaz from the JEP.