War drives the clashing factions insane

Two paramilitary factions, supposedly created to combat guerrillas, killed each other for control of drug trafficking, oil royalties and thousands of hectares of land in Casanare in a paranoiac, hellish war that left thousands of victims – a war still very much kept secret in Colombia.

In little more than a few months between late 2003 and early 2004, about 3,000 people, including civilians and combatants were killed in Casanare, a department in eastern Colombia rich with oilfields across rolling plains.

According to VerdadAbierta.com, which consisted of analysis of information that came to light recently during the Peace and Justice Law process, and interviews with survivors of the war themselves, the conflict was a chilling war of deceit, paranoia and greed – and even children paid the ultimate price.

Martin Llanos’ war in los llanos (plains) of Casanare

Very little is known of the war the country in Casanare. There were several different factions of paramilitaries clashing not only with FARC rebels, but among themselves.

Many of the paramilitaries who committed crimes in this department never joined the demobilization of the AUC process, and the main protagonists have either died, or are fugitives from justice.

Drug boss and paramilitary chief Hector Buitrago, alias “Martin Llanos” refused to demobilize and is still wanted in connection with crimes attributed to his group. Miguel Arroyave alias ‘Archangel’ was killed by his own men, and Pedro Oliverio Guerrero Castillo, alias ‘Knife’, also fled.

However, the inhabitants of the plain Casanareño witnessed a massacre which will be recorded in the recent history of armed conflict, in which children were killed, and in which hundreds of civilians and paramilitaries clashed with each other, VerdadAbierto reported.

It is from testimony from another ex-paramilitary chief that has brought much information about the war. Daniel Rendón Herrera, alias ‘Don Mario’, said in testimony as part of the Peace and Justice Law since November 2009, said the man responsible for the war was emerald trader Victor Carranza.

‘Don Mario’ said Carranza sowed discord between the two former paramilitary leaders, telling each that the other wanted to kill the other.

“Carranza spoke with Miguel (Arroyave) on Martin (Llanos), and from there I realized that he was using Miguel to alienate Martin. I think he did the same with Martin,” said Don Mario, the former paramilitary and drug trafficker.

The war was intense, not only for the populations it ravaged, but also on the pocketbooks of the combating parties. According to ‘Don Mario,’ within a month the Centaurs Bloc of the AUC spent about US$7 million for the war. On one day of fighting, his men used 100,000 rounds of ammunition at a cost of US$200,000 said the former paramilitary, who was chief financial officer of that block until mid-2004.

Another combatant said the war with Llanos made Arroyave distrust everyone, even his own men. Many were killed on “suspicion” alone.

There are few in this region who dare speak about the massacre. What is agreed is that for decades the illegal armed groups fought for a slice of the pie: oil, timber, agriculture, and illicit coca crops. VerdadAbierta.com spoke to witnesses of the war, demobilized combatants, government officials and relatives of the fighters, “and rebuilt this chapter of paramilitary history, which stained with blood these rich lands.”

Casanare: A war story

The war in Casanare began about mid-1986, when Hector Buitrago, organized a paramilitary group known in the region as “the Buitragueños” to fight guerrillas. The group landed in Casanare, Meta and part of Ariari subregion, which irked Pirabán Manuel de Jesus, aka ‘Pirate’, and Pedro Oliverio Guerrero, alias “Cuchillo” of the Centaurs Bloc.

One villager knowledgeable of the Buitragueños expansion, said that Buitrago joined with the Ramirez and Feliciano families, both owners of large tracts of land, began setting up cocaine processing labs in Monterrey and Tauramena Aguazul. But they also began murdering people by the. At that time cattle ranchers, large supporters of the AUC for protection of their grazing lands, gave the paramilitaries ranches from which to mount military operations.

But more than engage in counterinsurgency against the guerrillas, the Buitrago fighters intimidated and forced entire villages complicit to cover up drug trafficking activities.

“They collected people in the parks, locked down students in their classes, and told people not to leave their houses because of alleged danger and subversive guerrilla activity, but the fact is they wanted people ‘locked away’ so they wouldn’t see truckloads loaded with paramilitaries or with chemicals to process cocaine. It was all a big lie because the guerrilla presence wasn’t seen in Monterrey,” said a former Casanare municipal official.

The Buitragueños did not limit themselves to fabricating guerrilla threats. After 1995 they began a systematic campaign to seize land with oil fields or to evict farmers from areas in exploration areas.

“From Monterrey to Tauramena and Aguazul, they came to farms and cattle ranches, once with scripture references and names of others. ‘Sign or die’, they said to landowners regarding deeds and titles. Threats, or worse, were also offered to girls who did not succumb to advances. they were raped or banished if they did not sleep with them,”says a person who lived in the area.

At the time, the prosecution and the judges of Villavicencio launched a conspiracy investigation against Buitrago, resulting in his incarceration. He later escaped from prison.

While Martin Llanos (Buitrago) consolidated power in the south and the north of Casanare with the Autodefensas Campesinas del Casanare (ACC), paramilitaries aligned with Carlos Castaño began to move into part of the Guaviare, Meta, Casanare and Araca.

Castaño, a founder and former leader of the AUC who was later killed by his own men, along with Salvatore Mancuso and supported by members of the security forces came to the Casanare with members of the Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá (ACCU) and killed over 50 people near Meta in 1997.

The slaughter was supported by the Self-Defense of Casanare. But soon a feud developed between the Martin Llanos group and the Casanare paramilitaries. This was deepened with the slaughter of 11 members of a judicial commission who were investigating a land dispute in October 1997.

The massacre, ordered by Martin Llanos offended Carlos Castaño.

By this time, Castaño forces pushed into Casanare and Arauca, and clashes resulted with FARC and ELN guerrillas.

The arrival of Castano’s men also produced divisions within the ACC amongst its southern and northern factions, the latter commanded by Luis Eduardo Ramirez Vargas, alias ‘HK’, who was later killed by police in Bogotá in December 2005.

With Castanos entrance into the area, Llanos began to feel threatened.

Ex fighters said Martín Llanos began to step up extortion, kill farmers to seize land, and exert political pressure remain in control of Casanare.

“Llanos was going crazy. He did not allow anyone to within 30 feet of him, and if he suspected someone would turn him, they would be tortured and later assassinated. Several youths were killed and returned to their families in black plastic bags. Dozens of his men were executed like this in Puerto Lopez, on mere suspicion,” said residents of Puerto Lopez, who saw the corpses.

Llanos’ paranoia drove him to kill people close to him, such as Victor Feliciano Alfonso along with his wife Martha Nelly Chavez, and Juan Manuel Feliciano Chaves and four others in February, 2000. Only Victor Francisco Feliciano was left alive, who denied family ties to drug trafficking.

Llanos began to lose control of the northern department, especially Yopal, where the population was caught in the midst of war.

An all-out war without truce ensued in April, 2001 which drew about 15,000 people out to protest about the lapse in security. That day traders, farmers, civilians and politicians shook their fear and called for and end to violence under banners saying: “Our silence is filling the graves of the plains of Casanareño.

The fighting intensified and to the point that 10 people per week were killed. However the police recorded that, in the first quarter of 2001, there were only 85 murders. Official statistics showed deep differences with the reports of the Ombudsman, according to whom, between 1997 and the first three months of 2001, there were 31 massacres, of which 12 were in Yopal during the first months of 2001.

In 2001, 2,404 farmers were displaced. Still, authorities described Casanare as “a haven of peace.”

In April 2001 Llanos also called forced meetings of ordinary citizens,from taxi drivers to teachers, to use them for his own gains. In one meeting 200 teachers arrived near Monterey, where the paramilitary leader declared: “Those who vote for the Democratic candidate or for Horacio Serpa, should assume the consequences,” said a teacher who attended the meeting and is now a refugee in Villavicencio.

“He came in a small helicopter they called the wasp, greeted former classmates of the Normal Joint Monterrey, recalled days as students and even became remorseful. He made a speech about 15 minutes and turned then left,”said the teacher.

Amid this backdrop, Miguel Arroyave shared the Centaurs Bloc with Carlos and Vicente Castaño in early 2002, the same time that  Miguel Angel and Victor Manuel Mejia Munera, shared power in the Arauca Vencedores Bloc, organizations, inevitably forming an alliance against “Martin Llanos” in Meta, Casanare and Arauca.

The beginning of the end

While ‘Llanos’ opened war fronts throughout his zones of influence, in Mapiripán his men began feeling the pinch that paramilitaries were lauanching by Castano’s men.

However, Castano’s forces did not know the terrain and at first took a beating by Martin Llanos’men.

Videos circulating in Monterrey, recorded by members of the Acc in the area, gave accounts of the fighting between the two sides in rural areas of Mapiripan.

The images revealed decaying bodies, abandoned military equipment and machine gun crossfire between ragtag groups of  terrified youths of African descent, in panicked flight, not knowing where to go. To ‘Llanos’ this hollow victory and a omen of what was to come later.

After the initial defeat, Castano sent reinforcements of the Centaurs, Central Bolívar (BCB) and St. Martin blocs, which very quickly showed numerical superiority.

Then, the fighting increased in cruelty. Llanos’ forces were reduced to 300. After cornering Llanos’ forces, Castano’s men pushed north of Casanare.

According to some Monterrey survivors, the Colombian Air Force participated in some battles in the form of bombing raids. According to testimony from a former commander of Centaurs, this came about because Miguel Arroyave asked senior air force officer to help stop Llanos.

Surrounded by his enemies and demoralized, “Martin Llanos” dug in near El Tropezón, a few miles from Puerto Lopez. From there his forces moved until the air force bombings.

With few men, Llanos began recruitment in the capital districts of Ciudad Bolivar, Soacha, Kennedy, Bosa and Suba. Also in the Morichal district of Villavicencio, where they took by force 30 children.

“Many people had to leave the sidewalks Caribayona and El Pinal, because they tricked or forced children as young as 12 years into the ranks,” complained the mother of one of those children, who laterrescued him from the mountains and fled to another city.

Many a teenager came to know the horrors inside the ACC

“Those caught crying were killed in front of others. And if someone fell asleep on watch, a worse fate fell upon them,” said the family of another minor who was arrested during a military action and sent to the reform institution Bienestar Familiar.

Skirmishes lasted until early 2004, which was definitive for the two paramilitary factions. One of those battles began in February and lasted for five days at the site known as Caribayona, near the municipality of Villanueva.

During those days more than 140 paramilitaries from both sides were killed in the fighting and about 20 farmer soldiers were killed near Villanueva during Arroyave’s retreat to rural Upía Canyon.

But there was still more to happen in this absurd and delusional war:
“In the combat zone, superiors asked their troops, some of them children, if they were tired. If they responded affirmatively, they were shot. So were the wounded who arrived in Puerto Lopez and Monterrey. They asked the nurses which paramilitaries had serious wounds. They were rounded up in a single place and then a fighter would toss in a grenade, or they were simply shot,” an eyewitnesses told VerdadAbierta.com.

The fighting continued sporadically in the savannas between Villanueva, Monterrey and Tauramena.

“At that time the Urabeños (Castanos men) retook the at the same time as the fighters loyal to Martín Llanos, whom many said had surely made a pact with the devil. Prisoners were shoved a corral, were given only one meal a day, and every week one was beheaded. They were guys who painted their nails black and lined up to drink the blood of the victims,” said another woman whose daughter, lived for a time with one Llanos’ men.

In July, 2004 the war did not stop. While the army secured El Tropezón and captured ACC fighters, on the outskirts of Monterrey, the crows became fat on those who fell in battle.

In a single day in Puerto Lopez 30 child soldiers died and in Tauramena 20 others were killed during fighting near La Candelaria. Their bodies were pulled by tractors and cast into the river Metada with their stomachs cut open so they would sink.

Fighting led to displacement in Las Delicias, El Yari, El Retorno, El Tranquero, and almost everywhere that the forces of Llanos and Castano met. About 30,000 people were forced to leave La Tronca de la Selva, Many protested because the Army did nothing against Miguel Arroyave’s overwhelming war machine.

When the end was near, Martín Llanos took refuge with a guard of 10 men and 70 children — recruited in Bogotá, Villavicencio and the region — who were used as human shields to cover the paramilitary leader’s flighr to flee.

Days later, on 26 September, the government said in a statement that the 79 men of the ACC were killed. Many of the fighters surrendered and others were captured, while Llanos, wounded, fled to Ecuador. He then moved to Brazil and later to the border between Colombia and Venezuela, where he still sends threats and warnings of revenge to enemies in Monterrey.

Although hundreds of paramilitary units of the Casanare Centaurs demobilized, there is a legend in the region that Martin Llanos’ shadow lurks among the plains, waiting to regain political and military power, while at the same time asking for inclusion in Justice and Peace Law.

A shadow that lingers still, sowing terror throughout the plains of Casanare.

Traducido por Colombia Reports