di Gianpaolo Contestabile e Simone Scaffidi da Il Manifesto Global
Two months have passed since the death of Mario Paciolla, the Italian volunteer who worked for the UN Verification Mission to monitor the peace agreements in San Vicente del Caguán, Colombia.
The results of the autopsy, while still partial, indicate an attempt at a cover-up orchestrated by the killers, who tried to make Mario’s murder look like a suicide. The reconstruction by the Colombian police makes an airtight case: some of the key items from the crime scene are missing, the mark on the neck that caused him to suffocate doesn’t seem to match the noose made from a sheet with which he was found hanged, and the traces of blood found in the room don’t fit with the cuts found on his arms.
The silence of the Colombian political institutions continues, despite the investigation by Claudia Duque, a journalist and friend of Mario Paciolla, which was published on the front pages of the main national newspaper, El Espectador, and linked the murder of the UN volunteer with the scandal around the resignation of the former Minister of Defense from Ivan Duque’s government.
The UN continues to maintain the line of confidentiality and silence, including with regard to the connections between the Verification Mission and the Colombian military apparatus. In Italy, after the promises made during the first few weeks, the government has not yet been able to obtain any concrete responses, either from the Colombian diplomatic authorities or from the United Nations.
While the institutional silence doesn’t help in getting the investigation moving, the efforts of the family and the upswell of solidarity at the grassroots level are focused on trying to use every means available to keep the public’s attention on the case and demand justice on both sides of the ocean.
The organization Pueblos en Caminos, a network that connects different struggle movements for autonomy and the defense of the territory in Colombia and other parts of the continent, was one of the first institutions to express its sorrow at Mario’s death and reject the hypothesis that he had committed suicide. On September 2, they published a new press release in which they wrote “Viva Mario… Mario Lives! The uncomfortable truths are sprouting up,” dedicating to him some verses from the Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf’s poem, “The key that no one has lost.” Nadia is a researcher engaged in the defense of the local territory of Caquetá, the region in which the municipality of San Vicente is located, and this is how she remembers Mario: “He was one of our best contacts, he was very dedicated to his work, he was already in his second tour with the Verification Mission and had strong values that made him fully committed to his work.”
Nadia has collected positive feedback about the work of the Mission and the reports compiled by UN operators, including Mario Paciolla, but rumors about the professional profile of the security manager, Christian Thompson, a former military and energy security agent, made her concerned: “One hopes that the UN would hire people and companies that are not controversial, but this cannot be guaranteed when hiring people who work in providing security for oil and mining companies.”
Simone Ferrari, an Italian researcher who was recently in San Vicente, says that the UN headquarters there is still in operation, although when he showed up to ask to speak with the members of the Mission, a security guard told him that “they were in a meeting with either the police or the army.” Ferrari then went to the local police headquarters, where he verified that they were not there, and came to the conclusion that they were at the “military battalion.
Julio is an activist from San Vicente who works to defend the rights of farmers, women and children in the area. According to Julio, the UN has been the leading light for human rights organizations in the region, training social leaders, protecting victims of violence and guaranteeing protection for activists, but he admits that “after the murder of Mario Paciolla, new doubts have arisen about what is happening inside the UN, because it is normal for reservations to arise after such a crime.” Julio also spoke of the presence of military bases of the U.S. Army that are committing abuses against the population with total impunity.
The influence of the United States on Colombian politics and its military presence within the borders of the state is an inescapable historical reality. In 1999, with the entry into force of Plan Colombia, collaboration between the Colombian and U.S. military forces was established for the purpose of ensuring the economic development of the country and suppressing drug trafficking and guerrilla movements. After two decades of war that generated thousands of civilian deaths and allowed new criminal organizations to take root, and during which the preexisting ties between the Colombian state and paramilitary and drug trafficking groups came to light, President Duque announced the new Colombia Grows Initiative on August 18, with which the United States is renewing its commitment in the war against criminal organizations on Colombian soil.
In addition to the U.S. military, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which also employed Thompson, is likewise present in San Vicente, responsible for land management and environmental conservation together with other NGOs. San Vicente is located on the outskirts of the Amazon rainforest, and many territories have been transformed into natural parks, where communities are now living in a state of legal precariousness that favors abuse and repression by law enforcement agencies. The municipality of San Vicente also hosts the only functioning oil well in the region, as well as 21 others that are not yet active.
Behind all the talk about development, cooperation, the promotion of peace and ecology, there are several actors who are competing for the control of an area with strong economic interests, leaving less and less room for the self-determination of local communities that claim the land as their own.
Cristina Batista is a Colombian activist who had to leave her country because of threats and is now living in exile in Italy. She is part of a group of other Colombian exiles in Europe, and people sympathetic to their cause, who have decided to organize a virtual conference on Wednesday, October 7, with the aim of creating a platform that will put pressure on the European institutions to ensure a transparent and independent investigation.
In their press release, they write: “We ask the international community, European society, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, the European Parliament and the Italian Parliament to request the Colombian government to carry out the judicial investigations and to identify not only the perpetrators of the murder of UN volunteer Mario Paciolla, but also those intellectual and material responsible for the dozens of killings of human rights defenders in Colombia.”
These words echo those of the Colombian doctor and activist Manuel Rozental, who said: “Is it enough to find out who killed Mario Paciolla? Is it enough to find out why they killed him and how? No. This will be just the beginning. It is necessary to shed light on what was planned in Caquetá with the signing of the Peace Agreements. It is necessary to know the interests that are active in that territory and how the different actors are competing for the profits, the territories, the trade routes and the lives and deaths of the people.”