The people affected by one of the bloodiest raids perpetrated by the now defunct FARC guerrillas are asking for transitional justice to reach Vaupés and bring those who suffered kidnapping to justice. Their wounds remain open and although some have managed to rebuild their lives, others are in precarious situations. One question is troubling them: how can they be repaired?
The native Tucano language does not have the word “kidnapping”. Because of this, Leovigildo Portura was unsure of how to inform his mother that Adriano Alonso, the second of nine siblings, had been abducted by the FARC on November 1, 1998, while he was working as a police auxiliary in the town of Mitú, the administrative center of the Vaupés department.
“I, at least, remember this as if it happened yesterday,” adds Leovigildo, who served a year before the now-defunct FARC terrorists’ 72-hour siege of Mitú that claimed 55 lives and seized 61 officers. He laments, “The whole family missed my brother.”
There was little information provided on Adriano’s family’s experiences during those years of captivity. Leovigildo has attempted to “forget about the situation, to say ‘well, this happened, but let’s not remember this anymore’ and try to recover his daily life” which is why he finds it difficult to discuss what happened. However, it has not been simple to carry on because Vaupés’ residents and towns are not just plagued by hardship due to the war.
The foundation of an incomplete bridge in the middle of Mitú’s metropolitan center serves as a reminder of state incompetence. It is viewed by many as a sculpture representing corruption. The locals congregate at the market a short distance away to purchase fariña, cassava, and other items needed for daily subsistence. As a result of the high cost of living in this region of the Amazon, where many items in the family basket can only be reached by air or boat, only a small number of families with political clout can live comfortably.
Some of the abduction victims and their families are also establishing lives in Mitú, where reparations were never given and where the wounds of kidnapping could not be healed. Others, like police officer César Augusto Lasso (r), live outside. He regrets that the victims of the seizure of the capital of Vaupes have not yet been able to achieve the desired tranquilly but has managed to forgive after more than 13 years in captivity and recognizes that it is necessary to “swallow your pride” to achieve greater well-being with the Peace Agreement signed between the Colombian State and the extinct FARC.
When the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) opened Case 01 to try the final seven members of the extinct FARC Secretariat for the “taking of hostages, serious deprivation of liberty, and other concurrent crimes,” Sergeant (r) Lasso was one of the few captives who had the chance to express his suffering and demand justice. This hearing took place in June 2022 in Bogotá.
Months after the hearing, the officer (r) believes that some former FARC leadership members accepted responsibility for their actions, while others continued to believe that war was a sad, inhumane thing. I don’t think much about it, he says, “in order not to grow bitter.” (Read more in The Truth about kidnapping, a long way to Go)
However, due to poor connectivity to the Internet and a lack of knowledge about this transitional justice process, dozens of survivors of the guerrilla takeover of Mitú who still reside in that area were unable to witness the top leaders of the extinct guerrilla accepting responsibility, contributing to the truth, and requesting forgiveness.
The only reason Leovigildo and his family are aware of transitional justice is that their attorney, Yury Flórez, has accompanied them and kept them updated on its status. She is a member of the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ) and represents several Mitú victims. She responds that the JEP has struggled to provide attention in situations where there are multiple approaches (gender, ethnic, territorial, life course, handicap, etc.).
“At the hearing, we demanded a transfer or the fundamental guarantee that they could visit it; nevertheless, the JEP’s suggested solutions don’t take into account the circumstances of Vaupés. They claimed that they provided money so that the victims could recharge their internet, but without a smartphone, they were unable to use the volunteer versions”, the attorney explained.
Few people in the area are aware of the JEP’s purpose. One of the cops abducted in the guerilla takeover, César Augusto Diaz Braga, said, “We really need to visit the provinces and socialize more.” He complains that “we were not taken into account at all, and we did not feel included” while speaking with a journalistic crew from this portal in Mitú’s main square.
When the case before the JEP moves forward and, finally, individuals responsible for the Eastern Bloc and Front 1 are called to testify, victims like Leovigildo and his family have the highest hopes: “I think it’s excellent that they recognize the atrocities they carried out. We recognize that this is a procedure. Although we understand that they are calling for a hearing, we would prefer that it be soon because we are unsure of what will transpire in the long run. Although we are aware that this is a national process, we urge them to give Mitú top priority.”
Most of the victims and their families in Vaupés agree that a space in which middle and lower commanders would recognize their responsibility in this and other guerrilla takeovers would be reparative, but there is a sense of attrition.
“The wounds are still there. They have not healed because more than one of us has a grudge against everything: against the State, against the guerrillas, against the paramilitaries, against the justice system,” laments Luis Sepúlveda, another of the police auxiliaries whose freedom was taken away from him by the war for almost three years.
24 years after the capture
The extinct FARC was to be resolved through negotiation when President Andrés Pastrana took office on August 7, 1998, but two months before the negotiating table was set up in the Caquetá municipality of San Vicente del Caguán, a sizable contingent of the guerrillas captured Mitú.
On November 1, 1998, early in the morning, the armed group launched Operation Marquetalia. A significant portion of the Vaupes capital’s center was reportedly destroyed by roughly 1,500 rebels from the Eastern and Southern Blocs employing rifle fire, grenade launchers, and explosive pipes.
Several locals said, “It was a takeover foretold,” as rumors of the now-extinct FARC entering the capital of this Amazonian department had been circulating for a month. In Mitú at the time, there were 120 police officers, including 30 young auxiliaries.
16 police officers, 24 military troops, and 11 civilians were killed as a result of the operation. In addition, 61 security personnel were abducted with the intention of exchanging them for guerrilla fighters held in the nation’s various jails, and five people vanished.
“When the Birds Didn’t Sing” (Cuando los pájaros no cantaban) has a testimonial gathered by the Commission for the Clarification of the Truth (CEV) that illustrates how carelessly the authorities assessed the warnings of a potential military incursion: “And even though we were aware that the guerrillas were about to enter, Bogota’s answer had been to settle down and assume that nothing would happen, and they had sent us a reinforcement of 20 police officers a month before. The tragedy then occurred.”
The Military Forces initiated Operation Angel’s Flight, which tried to reclaim the Vaupes city, one day after the brutal guerilla assault. A portion of the forces entered through Brazil after receiving the necessary authorizations due to the operating restrictions and access challenges.
It wasn’t simple to drive the guerrillas out of Mitú. After bombing numerous sites where the insurgents were thought to be, it took the state forces three days to approach the urban core. In this context, some of the villagers interviewed by CEV investigators said that the bombings during the retaking were indiscriminate and affected rural areas. Because of this, everyone who was a resident of Mitú at the time remembers the war’s brutality with sadness.
The terrible and barbaric treatment that the captives endured was also documented in the testimonial volume of the Final Report provided by the CEV: “I remember the commander who treated us most severely, who once brought us rice with glass. We refused to eat it, so in retribution, we were refused to bathe for a week.”
The leadership of the now-defunct FARC and the administration of President Pastrana struck a humanitarian deal on June 2, 2001, almost three years later. This resulted in the release of imprisoned insurgents and kidnapped troops. As a result, between June 5 and June 30 of that year, 359 security personnel and 14 insurgents were freed.
All those consulted at the time of writing concurred that they had not received a copy of the CEV’s Final Report. Leovigildo and other victims hope that the JEP process does not end up being like the Final Report in which transitional justice is overlooked and no lessons are learned.
Leovigildo, being one of the 3,410 victims accredited in Case 01 along with the rest of his family, has been asking himself since the transitional justice tribunal began to operate: “What role do we victims play?”
The Final Agreement between the Colombian State and the former FARC, signed on November 24, 2016, established the Integral System for Peace, which consists of the JEP, the Truth Commission—whose work is complete—and the Unit for the Search for Missing Persons. In the case of Vaupés, it must be taken into account that it is one of the departments with the highest percentage of an indigenous population to ensure that individuals like Leovigildo and his family are at the center of the process.
According to the 2005 Colombian Census conducted by DANE, the closest one to the guerrilla takeover, 63.5 percent of the population in Mitú self-identified as indigenous.
Marks left by the chains
In addition to a spinal injury and many scars on his left foot brought on by leishmaniasis sores he developed while in captivity by the FARC in the jungle, Luis Sepúlveda’s wounds from the kidnapping were left on his skin. In addition, he spent around 20 days in a mental hospital after being released on bail on June 28, 2001. He suffered from nightmares for a very long period.
“Throughout the first six months, they provided us with a sort of accompaniment. After that, we were abandoned”, says Óscar Monroy, a police auxiliary who was taken hostage during the raid. He feels that it is still difficult for him to have harmonious relationships with people, even as he approaches the age of 45. He also experiences memory loss and insomnia. He acknowledges, “All these memories come back to you when the conflict in the country gets worse”.
He experienced stigmatization from his coworkers and superiors during his remaining five years in the National Police, and he believed that the state institutions overreacted in their handling of the kidnapped agents. Monroy laments that “they took the easy way out” by pensioning us off. In 2006, he retired and received a pension.
Overcoming these side effects, he started working in the food service at the patrolmen’s schools’ canteens. He eventually got married, had two kids, and earned a business administration degree. Additionally, he was able to receive a 20-million-peso payout in 2012 when the administration of former President Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) was compensating conflict victims, which allowed him to expand his economy. He currently resides in Manizales and feels generally content with his life. Other Mitú takeover victims are unable to make this claim.
“My financial position is quite dire right now”, the former agent Sepúlveda claims, “I haven’t been able to financially recover”. Additionally, he left the police department, and after three years of pleading his case in several courts, he was finally successful in receiving 75% of his pension. Given his lack of options, he chose to work in a rural area.
César Augusto Díaz Braga, another policeman kidnapped during the guerrilla takeover of Mitú, is in a similar situation. After his release on June 28, 2001, he continued with his course at the officers’ school with financial help from politicians from Vaupés, but then he could not continue because his family could not support his expenses.
Up until three years ago, César alternated between Mitú and Bogotá. Villavicencio was his last permanent residence. The ex-cop laments, “I’ve been out of work for 11 months,” in an interview with this portal, that his contract with the Unit for the Attention and Integral Reparation of Victims expired due to changes in the political priorities of the department.
The family, also kidnapped
Leovigildo’s brother started to look at everything after the kidnapping with a cloud of disdain. He once said to his family with a tone of anger, “While I was suffering, you were living well.” The family believes that Adriano’s greatest wound is the fact that he was never informed of his father’s passing in any of the letters the family sent to him while he was imprisoned in the jungle.
The Portura went through a variety of hardships, one of which was due to their inability to afford to travel to San Vicente del Caguán in Caquetá, where the kidnapped were allegedly imprisoned, or where there were gatherings of family members looking for their missing loved ones.
As happened with the family of the then-uniformed officer César Augusto Diaz Braga, whom today values the networks built with other victims, these pilgrimages brought hope to the families of the kidnapped victims. “Sheyla Andrea, my sister, was very active. She continued taking all those city strolls. She made friends and got to know all the victims’ families,” he claims.
According to Sepúlveda, at other times, parent-child relationships were impacted. His parents are from Valledupar, and when he was 24 years old and well-established in his career as a uniformed officer. He headed to Mitú because they needed men. In the capital of Cesar, he started dating a woman, and by 1998, she was pregnant.
“The age of my oldest daughter is currently 23. She was born on January 31, 1999, while I was still being held captive”, he regrets. “I was abducted on November 1, 1998”. He felt the baby had rejected him when he got his freedom back and came home since the infant was screaming more at night than usual. He was eventually able to mend the relationship he believed had been ruined.
Furthermore, his family suffered from violence two years ago when one of his brothers was killed by the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC). Three days later, the authorities apprehended two men whom the Sepúlveda family alleges were responsible for the death, but they had to free them since the arrest warrant was invalid.
Today there is no trace of the two alleged murderers and Sepúlveda and his family had to flee their farm in Pueblo Bello, Cesar, and lose their crops and animals for fear of reprisals.
“One tries to be strong, and sometimes one succeeds, but there are times when one feels like one finds those feelings, and no matter how much it is, it impacts. I see my mother and feel her far away, and I have frequently found her crying. This grief is present right now… ” he claims in between extended pauses where he withheld speaking to prevent crying, “… The pain is immense and one feels chained, helpless to do anything.”
The Monroy family likewise experienced misfortune twice; their trials occurred in 1998 and 1999 respectively, just like the Sepúlveda family. In the first year, the youngest son, Oscar Iván, was taken hostage during the takeover of Mitú; the following year, José Medardo, his older brother, was killed by paramilitaries working in Villavicencio, Meta, who were part of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
The Monroys attribute their father’s health problems to the war. “My father couldn’t take it. When I was released, he died within a month,” said Óscar.
The truth behind missing persons
One block separated the Calderón family from the Mitú police station. Patrolman Freddy Orlando Ortiz put a mattress inside the house when the seizure started to shield his wife, who was seven months pregnant. He instructed her to remain still and promised to return. Yudy Calderón, who was only 17 at the time and was pregnant, never saw him again.
Lists of abducted and killed people circulated as the army regained control of Mitú. “My spouse was never listed among the men who were taken hostage. Some claimed to have seen him, but others denied it. From there, the search started”, according to Yudy.
“Despite the passage of time, the pain persists.” Rubi Figueredo, sister of Fredy Figueredo, another officer who vanished during the Mitú siege, added that “it hurts a lot. According to the accounts of the police officers who are still alive, they screamed to one another to check on one another and could hear Freddy till noon on November 1.”
Because his older brother was also a police officer who “unfortunately also died in a paramilitary ambush,” Rubi laments, Figueredo became a police officer. “I frequently remark, ‘How the hell did Freddy get into the police force?’ He always resisted my attempts to convince him that there were other chances in life. ‘I’m going to join the police,’ he declared, ‘to help my mother.'”
Six policemen—Hernán Darío Dinas Peña, Freddy Figueredo Piñeros, Freddy Orlando Ortiz, Raul Hernán Osorio Ochoa, Abed Daly Barrera Gil, and Germán Moreno Ávila—were reported missing during the excursion of the now-extinct Farc.
The Calderón family lost four members in the seizure of Mitú, in addition to Freddy Ortiz’s disappearance. She and Yudy’s mother, an indigenous Tucano woman, were both from that city, so they gave up their property and never went back. To start over, they travelled to the Vichada and Meta departments.
Everyone grieved, each in their way. The family was urged not to linger on the past by Yudy’s grandfather, a strong presence in the home. The query “What happened to my husband?” began to grab her once more when she learned about the JEP. “When Mitú was captured, my uncles passed away and were buried, but my husband… I don’t know anything about him, I told my grandfather one day. To learn what happened and where the body is, I wish to inquire.”
It was difficult for her and her son because she had to spend five months in a mental health facility and take medication to treat her depression as a result of her spouse going missing. And for many years, her son questioned why she had grown distant and why he had grown up without his father.
“We, the relatives, are a little happy that the former FARC secretariat members recognize how negatively they impacted us. But they don’t have a response for us,” Yudy laments, echoing the sentiments of the many families of the missing who reside in Villavicencio. “I am awaiting responses in the hopes that they would at once confirm that they abducted my husband and that his remains are located somewhere. We won’t find them alive, of that, I am already a little more certain.”
On September 6, 2018, a reparation incident hearing was held within the Justice and Peace transitional process – initially created to judge the demobilized members of the AUC and grant alternative sentences to those who told the truth about their crimes and made reparations to their victims, but which included guerrillas who voluntarily laid down their arms – because, by that date, 14 rebels of the former FARC were defining their judicial situation before those courts.
The family of the missing were there when they heard a heartbreaking account that would finally provide them with an explanation: numerous cops who had been reported missing had been charred to death by cylinder bombs detonated by Eastern Bloc guerrillas who were then under the direction of “Mono Jojoy.” They anticipate learning what transpired in greater detail at the JEP and learning what ultimately happened to their loved ones.
They expect more clarity
According to CCJ attorney Flórez, “those responsible in the process have contributed very little.” “There has only ever been one version of a person involved with the hostages in Mitú during the four years that the JEP has been in operation.”
The Eastern Bloc admitted its responsibility for the kidnapping voluntarily in 2019, and mid-level guerrilla commanders acknowledged the brutal treatment the kidnap victims endured in March 2021. Marco Elvis Patio, also known as “Efrén” or “Patequeso”, who served as the jailer of the police officers detained following the seizure of Mitú for a while, was one of the witnesses.
According to Flórez, the collective version had little impact and served merely as a useful tool for understanding how the guerilla bloc operated. The contribution of “Patequeso” was significant because of the acknowledgement of the treatment of the hostages, but the lawyer claimed that “when asked about the progression of the seizure of Mitú, he said he had not been there.”
There are still many details missing about what occurred and who was in charge of it. It is challenging to provide this clarification in light of the risks that the former combatants who are assisting the process face and the desertions, such as that of Henry Castellanos Garzón, alias “Romaña,” a former commander of the Eastern Bloc and a dissident of that guerrilla group who was killed on December 5, 2021.
Additionally, some victims are reluctant to speak up. One of the abducted policemen, who still resides in Mitú and wished to remain anonymous, spoke with VerdadAbierta.com. Although there was some tranquilly in the municipality following the signing of the peace agreement with the now-defunct FAR insurgents in November 2016, he added that in recent years, strange persons have appeared who give him anxiety.
The CCJ attorney cautions: “If the State does not have a presence in Mitú, it is a favorable scenario for the guerrilla groups to continue to grow and for the victims to stop wanting to take part in the process.”
“What is expected,” he continues, “is that there will be significant progress in May of this year in concentrated hearings of all the Eastern Bloc members who will give voluntary version hearings and where it is expected that this issue will be discussed in depth, that responsibility will be assumed, and that there will be TOARS (Works, Works and Activities with Restorative-Restorative Content) initiatives in Mitú.
A long road to reconciliation
One of the things spoken to the kidnapped ex-policemen from the seizure of Mitú is, “Heal your heart, see that they are no longer guerrillas.” Many people respond, “I don’t want to,” often feeling guilty for not healing the wounds they never fully addressed.
Many of the former police officers this portal spoke with acknowledge that they are baffled by the encounters Sergeant (r) Lasso has had with former insurgents ever since the Peace Accord was signed. These activities are carried out on behalf of “Agape para Colombia”, a project of exiled Colombians in Canada.
Lasso, who was abducted during the capture of Mitú and released on April 2, 2012, losing 13 years, 5 months, and one day of his life, says that “we have worked to create spaces where victims and offenders can talk to each other and ask for forgiveness voluntarily if they so choose.”
The prospect of one day having a conversation with a former member of the Eastern Bloc in a setting mediated by the JEP excites Yudy. She wants the signatories to understand the hurt her husband’s departure caused her as well as how she restored her life by giving herself the chance to remarry and have three more children. She also wants people to understand how painful it is for kids who were raised without parents and who, like her son, do not harbor resentment.
“I know a God who has taught me to forgive, and I believe that we, Fredy’s family, have already forgiven,” adds Rubi, who is also eager to speak with some of the guerrillas who took part in the seizure to learn more about what took place.
Óscar Monroy has even developed more sympathetic thoughts: “It doesn’t matter to me any longer if they plead for pardon. From a human perspective, we are all ‘victims’ in this situation. They, the ex-FARC rebels, and we, the people who lost their homes after Mitú was taken, right? They also abandoned their families, whom they later lost. We were held captive for three years, but the war also captured those who looked after us”, he remarked bluntly.
VerdadAbierta.com questioned the JEP about its territorial efforts in Mitú, how it ensured the involvement of victims who reside in areas with inadequate connectivity, and how far the ex-guerrillas stories of the seizure of Mitú had advanced.
According to the response, “the Executive Secretariat has implemented both virtual and face-to-face strategies to ensure that victims obtain the necessary information to participate in the transitional justice mechanisms offered by the JEP, as a result of which face-to-face outreach sessions have been held for the members of the Municipal Roundtable for the effective participation of Mitú victims and spaces for interaction with the Departmental Victims Liaison of Vaupés”.
To achieve the “effective participation of the victims,” it carried out 20 activities of relationship-building and coordination with state institutions. It also conducted two accreditation workshops, one of which was held in Mitú, with 10 participants, and “provided guidance and psycho-legal accompaniment in the process of requesting accreditation for 2 victims of Case 01.”
However, the JEP’s response does not clarify whether hearings will ever be scheduled in Mitú (Read the full response here).
Agape aims to host regional gatherings of victims with former soldiers in those regions as the JEP continues to investigate the kidnapping macro-case. Lasso adds, “And hopefully go beyond that to engage in initiatives that improve their lives, their wellbeing.” This is an important point to make because many of the people who were abducted during the seizure of Mitú were not even paid or given pensions by the police.
Many of the victims feel that employment should be the first aspect of compensation for the families harmed by the kidnapping. “It shouldn’t only be about the resources. The resource runs out, but the harm endures in each family’s memory who experienced this kidnapped”, Leovigildo muses.
The Portura, Díaz, Figueredo, and numerous other families are still holding out hope that the JEP will include them more in the process and conduct more in-person work in locations as remote as Mitú. They also believe that the sentence that will be handed down by its magistrates will open the door for the State, with all of its institutionalism, to pay off its obligation to a division that it had doomed to extinction and left to its fate.