Henry Castellanos Garzón, alias “Romaña,” was the commander of the 53rd Front of the now-defunct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) and is currently a leading figure within the Segunda Marquetalia dissident group.
Romaña is also known for his participation in well-known attacks, such as the 1998 seizure of Mitú, and for joining the Eastern Bloc of the guerrilla’s Greater Central State (Estado Mayor Central – EMC). He was also part of the 2014 delegation sent to advance the peace talks in Cuba between the national government and the guerrillas.
He later defected from the FARC’s demobilization camps and reappeared in a video in which he announced the creation of a new dissident group made up of former guerrilla leaders.
On more than one occasion, authorities wrote Romaña off as dead, further boosting his image and the image he wished to create within the ex-FARC.
Henry Castellanos Garzón, alias “Romaña,” was born on March 20, 1965 in the municipality of El Castillo, in the Meta department. There are various versions of the story of his early life. According to the most likely of these stories, he only studied up until the fourth grade and spent his youth in Bogotá, where he joined the Communist Youths (Juventudes Comunistas - Juco).
In Bogotá, his activity with the Juco took place in the neighborhoods located to the south of the city. Under investigation by authorities, and faced with imminent capture, Romaña joined the FARC, where he stood out for his ability to create explosive devices.
Jorge Briceño, alias ‘Mono Jojoy,’ was Romaña’s mentor within the insurgency. He also met Manuel Marulanda Vélez, commander in chief of the guerrilla. It is said that he was one of Marulanda’s star students within the special command trainings, and according to witness testimonies, they worked very well together.
Romaña’s first court records date back to 1982, when he led the FARC’s 11th Front and ordered the murder of some one hundred people in the Río Guaguaquí region bordering the departments of Cundinamarca and Boyacá.
He was later transferred to the 53rd Front. The Front started to become important in 1993 as a result of the attacks they conducted on the route connecting Bogotá and Villavicencio. Within one year, Romaña rose through the ranks to become commander of the entire front.
His Front’s activity along this route was based on illegal check points, murders, kidnappings of police and military officers and multiple robberies.
In one of the most well-known instances, the 53rd Front, under Romaña’s command, killed two people and kidnapped another 32 along the route. Among those kidnapped were an Italian and four North Americans, three of whom were executed after being accused of espionage. In response, the US government asked for the extradition of the guerrilla commandant.
These kidnappings started to become known as “pescas milagrosas,” or “miracle fishing,” due to the random selection of victims. These kidnappings became a lucrative source of funding for the FARC.
Romaña’s newfound recognition earned him roles in important FARC operations, such as the seizure of Mitú, the capital of the Vaupés department, where the guerrilla attacked the city, killing 16 police officers, 14 military officers and 11 civilians, and kidnapping 61 police officers.
Romaña was later appointed as head of security of the buffer zone during the 1998 peace talks between the government and guerrilla group delegates.
There is little information about Romaña’s activities from this moment up until 2010. In fact, it was believed that he had died in an operation along with Mono Jojoy. However, further information later ruled out the possibility of his alleged death.
Romaña then joined the Eastern Bloc of the guerrilla’s EMC and became a member of the delegation sent to Cuba in 2014 to promote the peace talks between the national government and the guerilla. In Colombia, he led the demobilization efforts in Tumaco, in the department of Nariño, where there was no state presence during the conflict.
In March 2019, he failed to appear before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz - JEP). Romaña’s whereabouts were unknown from this moment on, until he appeared in a video on August 29, 2019, alongside Luciano Marín Arango, alias ‘Iván Márquez,’ Hernán Darío Velásquez, alias ‘El Paisa,’ and Seuxis Pausias Hernández, alias ‘Jesús Santrich,’ announcing their return to arms.
As the architect of the FARC’s ‘pescas milagrosas’ kidnappings, which became an important criminal economy for the guerrilla, and due to his key role in operations such as the takeover of Mitú, Romaña holds significant weight within the group.
Romaña has also participated in the FARC’s drug trafficking activities since the mid-1980s, as well as in the production, fabrication and distribution of hundreds of tons of cocaine sent to the United States and around the world.
Before joining the 53rd Front, Romaña transferred through the 26th, 27th, 40th and 51st Fronts, which operated in the Meta department and the southeastern part of Cundinamarca. The 53rd Front started to gain notorious force when he joined, due to its attacks on the routes connecting the cities of Bogotá and Villavicencio.
Just like that, he became the second in command of a mixed structure made up of the 31st, 51st, 53rd, 54th, and 55th Fronts, as well as the Che Guevara Mobile Column, responsible for kidnappings and extortions in Cundinamarca.
After his disappearance in 2018, authorities began to identify real estate belonging to Romaña, including 8 rural properties, located in Mesetas and La Uribe, in the Meta department, and 7 more located in the urban centers of Villavicencio and Fusagasugá, in the department of Cundinamarca. It was determined that the properties were all acquired by front men, and were the product of criminal activities related to drug trafficking, extortion and displacement.
In January 2018, 50 rural farmers from the Ativa countryside of La Julia, in Meta, reported that Romaña had taken possession of the lands on which they lived.
When he abandoned the peace process, sometime around September 2018, FARC members provided information locating him somewhere between Arauca and Norte de Santander, allegedly accompanied by some 80 men. However, as this was not the region where he had the greatest influence, there were doubts about why he would be there.
Allies and Enemies
In the process of joining the FARC, Romaña formed relationships with guerrilla leaders like Pedro Antonio Marín Marín, better known by his alias, ‘Manuel Marulanda Vélez’ or ‘Tirofijo’ and Víctor Julio Suárez Rojas, alias ‘Jorge Briceño Suárez’ or ‘Mono Jojoy.’ He was also close to Carlos Arturo Osorio Velásquez, alias “Marco Aurelio Buendía,” member of the Greater Central State, and with his brother, Luis Alexis Castellanos Garzón, alias “Manguera,” commandant of the Manuela Beltrán Mobile Column, who was killed in 2003.
In 2018, there were rumors of ties between Romaña and the Mora Urrea brothers, who for years were responsible for collecting and administering money for the FARC’s 53rd Front. According to the Attorney General’s Office, Romaña sent the money collected from extortions and kidnappings so that it could be legalized through commercial establishments.
When he was in the Transitional Rural Normalization Zone (Zona Veredal Transitoria de Normalización - ZVTN) in Tumaco during the peace accords, Romaña took on the crisis of insubordinate mid-level commanders that wanted to continue their drug trafficking operations. He expelled 73 of these youths, all whom had contacts with Mexican drug traffickers and the Clan del Golfo. One of these young men was Patricio Arizala, alias “Guacho.”
For one year, Guacho did as he pleased and seized territory, cornering even Romaña himself and threatening him. As a result, Romaña asked the government for special protection and abandoned the ZVTN.
Romaña’s most important ally at the moment is Luciano Marín Arango, alias “Iván Márquez,” with whom he appeared in the video announcing the FARC’s return to arms, and with Jose Manuel Sierra, alias “Zarco Aldinever,” who committed crimes in various regions under Romaña’s control and joined several of the same Fronts, including the 53rd.
At one point, Romaña represented a constant source of fear for those within and outside of the FARC. For Colombians, he represented the indiscriminate offenses committed by the FARC and the creation of a devastating method for financing the group. However, Colombia’s kidnapping boom is now over, so it is not clear whether his experience with this practice is going to play a fundamental role in the activities of the group that returned to arms.
On the other hand, he has extensive knowledge of the regions in the center of the country, particularly in the departments of Cundinamarca and Meta, as the person in charge of a route as important as that connecting Bogotá and Villavicencio, which could become key for the criminal operations of the group led by Iván Márquez and Santrich.
For this reason, it is likely that Romaña will lead advances by the new ex-FARC group in the center-west region of the country, along the borders between Cundinamarca, Meta, Huila and Tolima.