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Former paramilitary leader returns to Colombia after 16 years in prison in the US

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Former paramilitary leader returns to Colombia after 16 years in prison in the US

Bogota. Former Colombian paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso has returned to Colombia after serving a 16-year prison sentence for drug trafficking in the United States. Colombia had his extradition requested.

Mancuso is considered one of the bloodiest leaders of the so-called United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which for more than two decades massacred farming communities accused of supporting left-wing guerrillas. His former accomplices now fear possible revelations: high-ranking military officials, political figures, businessmen who financed him, departmental governors and then-President Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

After his arrival in Colombia, Mancuso announced that he would reveal the origins of paramilitarism before the transitional justice system developed from the 2016 peace agreement and dedicate himself to the tasks of a “peace broker”. He was appointed to this role by President Gustavo Petro three months ago.

Mancuso was demobilized with the Catatumbo bloc in 2004. In 2008 he was extradited to the USA on drug trafficking charges and was imprisoned in the state of Georgia. From there he has already made statements that are intended to prove the close cooperation between paramilitaries and security forces as well as the involvement of politicians and business people in the spread of paramilitarism.

In order to achieve “total peace” in Colombia and to gain further information about paramilitarism, the country’s president appointed Mancuso as a “peace broker” ( Amerika21 reported). This status had previously only been granted to members of FARC dissidents and other groups with a political character.

His involvement in the peace process should help to finally clarify the relationship between the paramilitary structures and Uribe’s government. The ex-paramilitary could play a key role in ending the cycle of violence, explained Petro.

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Even before his return, the former death squad chief statedthat Uribe held numerous meetings at his country estate on the Caribbean coast at which paramilitaries, high-ranking army officers and regional rulers planned military actions against ordinary, unarmed farmers whom they accused of being collaborators with the insurgent forces.

According to Mancuso, the killings and massacres were not only aimed at instilling fear in the villagers, but also followed the old “fishing the fish” concept used by the United States in Vietnam.

Salvatore Mancuso was born in 1964 as the son of Italian immigrants from Naples in the northern cattle-breeding town of Montería, where the land-owning local bigwigs ruled everything as feudal lords until the early 1970s. Then the guerrilla fronts of the National Liberation Army ELN, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia FARC and the People’s Liberation Army entered the region.

Mancuso is said to have joined the AUC in the late 1990s and was already one of its leading figures at the beginning of the new century. In 2000, he led the invasion of the Catatumbo region on the border with Venezuela, carried out with more than 300 paramilitaries and with the apparent complicity of the armed forces.

The occupation of Catatumbo is known as one of the bloodiest paramilitary raids in Colombia’s recent history, with 13 massacres and at least 200 farmers killed. An investigation by the Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica reported that “the entire population of Catatumbo was declared enemies and military targets.”

In 2022, during a virtual hearing in the United States, the former head of the paramilitary gave the coordinates of several locations on the border where mass graves were located. He revealed also that most of the AUC’s dead had been burned in crematorium ovens.

Mancuso’s arrival in the country coincided with the news that more than two thousand bodies were found in plastic bags in the cemetery of Cúcuta, the main border city with Venezuela, near the Catatumbo region, which had been illegally buried years ago.

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Initial investigations by the Missing Persons Search Unit (UBPD) indicate that at least 211 of the bodies are missing persons. This number could rise significantly as 4,000 missing people were reported in the region in the first decade of the 2000s.

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