Former paramilitary leader John Jairo ‘Betun’ Rentería Zuñiga, of the Sur del Putumayo paramilitary group has told prosecutors that there are allegedly 800 bodies of those murdered by the group buried in a mass grave on a farm in the area.
The remains of the victims supposedly can be found on the Villa Sandra estate, donated by the head of the ACCU for the paramilitaries to set up a base of operations in southern Colombia in January 1998. The group was formed by a merging of the Bananero Bloc and the ACCU (Autodefensas Campesinas of Cordoba and Uraba) by order of paramilitary commander Carlos Castaño Gil, also known as ‘Rafa Putumayo’.
“On this farm there was a permanent group of us, and our urban division would bring people there to be killed. They would leave [the people on the farm] and they would be executed and buried. There are many people in the mass grave, I think maybe 800,” Zuñiga said. He was part of the ACCU between 1997 and 2004, when he demobilized with the Bananero Bloc, reported paramilitary news site Verdad Abierta.
When asked why the bodies were buried on the farm, Zuñiga said that it was suggested by the police of Puerto Asis: “They asked us not to kill any more people in the town and they were having problems, so they gave the order that everyone who was to be killed should be brought to the farm and buried there.”
Dozens of people killed by the paramilitaries were identified as FARC militants or informants for local business owners. “They knew where we lived and had our phone numbers. They called us every now and then to tell us that there were rebels in the village, so we caught them and brought them to Villa Sandra. The majority of people who died in Puerto Asis were [informed on] by the town’s merchants.”
The paramilitaries without debate fulfilled the order that they dismember their victims. “Fist we cut off their hand and feet, the head last. Often this was done with people who were still alive. No one could be buried whole,” Zuñiga said. Paramilitaries were taught to dismember during their initial training period. “Everyone who joined the group had to learn how to do that,” he confirmed.
In his confession to the Justice and Peace Unit, Zuñiga confirmed that along with Villa Sandra, bodies were buried at the San Isidro hill, in the municipality of La Hormiga, and in site known as El Cilindro, near the hamlet of La Dorada.
According to calculations by the Prosecutor General’s Office, it is estimated that the department of Putumayo has mass graves containing the remains of 3,000 people killed by paramilitaries since January 1998.
Zuñiga explained the mentality of the paramilitary leadership in the region: “The Putumayo department has many municipalities, and the idea of commander Rafa was that we have a presence in all municipalities. First we got Puerto Asis, and then when we gathered more force we went to other villages, La Hormiga, Orito, Puerto Caicedo.” He added, “it [was] urgent to move men and resources for the mission. That is where the subversive [movement] has created a parallel government highly dangerous to the nation.”
According to demobilized paramilitaries, Colombia’s security forces helped expand the Putumayo front with the argument that “had the same cause.”
Zuñiga also testified that the Army provided weapons, ammunition and uniforms in exchange for cocaine.
The Justice and Peace Unit will investigate to determine the veracity of the claims.