In a recent testimony before the Colombian transitional justice system, one of the most important commanders of the AUC outlined the former paramilitary group's ties to high-profile politicians, businesses, and military commanders.
Salvatore Mancuso Gómez, a former commander of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC), gave testimony via video call before the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz - JEP) between May 11 and 16. The JEP investigates human rights violations during Colombia’s armed conflict, in which the AUC played a leading and violent role.
Mancuso was behind the expansion of paramilitary groups into northern Colombia between 1994 and 2004, and led several AUC blocs in the departments of Córdoba and Norte de Santander. In the early 2000s, the AUC reached a peace agreement with the Colombian government, although many refused to demobilize and formed new criminal groups. Mancuso was extradited along with other paramilitary leaders to the United States in 2008, where he was sentenced to nearly 16 years in prison for drug trafficking.
SEE ALSO: AUC Profile
Mancuso was released from prison in 2020 and remains in the US. He is now seeking a reduced sentence in Colombia, where he is accused of 5,200 violent crimes, including homicide, forced disappearance, and gender-based violence, among others. The current hearings represent his last chance for a commuted sentence through the JEP, if he can demonstrate, with new information, his role as a linchpin between state agents and paramilitary groups.
Below, InSight Crime presents the main elements of Mancuso’s account of the AUC’s expansive criminal network and its exponential growth in the early 2000s. If corroborated, the claims would illustrate the paramilitaries’ degree of influence and political connections.
The Political Strength of the AUC
During the hearings, Mancuso claimed that the AUC directly intervened in Colombia’s 1998 and 2002 presidential elections.
“There was support in elections, for example, for [Senator] Horacio Serpa, for President [Andrés] Pastrana himself, and for [Álvaro] Uribe,” Mancuso told the JEP. He did not provide many details and asked to elaborate on this issue in a more restricted hearing for security reasons.
Mancuso also claimed that former Vice President Francisco Santos (2002-2010) asked him to form the AUC’s Capital Bloc to fight left-wing guerrillas’ presence in urban areas following the advance of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) into Bogota.
In response, former President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) accused Mancuso of false testimony and filed a complaint with the Colombian Attorney General’s Office for slander and libel. Álvaro Uribe, who was president from 2002 to 2010, published a statement denying that he received help from paramilitaries during his campaign.
The paramilitaries’ political links are well established. More than 250 political leaders, among them 72 congressmen and 15 governors, have been convicted for links to the AUC, in a scandal known as “parapolitics.”
“We set up networks that allowed us to legitimize the political movement, the political discourse, the actions of the self-defense forces,” Mancuso told the JEP.
Paramilitary Cemeteries in Venezuela
Mancuso, who led the Catatumbo bloc in Norte de Santander on Colombia’s northeastern border, said that the bloc buried its victims of forced disappearance in mass graves in Venezuela, with the knowledge of Venezuelan and Colombian armed forces.
"There are self-defense groups’ grave sites there -- more than 200 dead bodies of people in San Cristóbal, in Ureña, in San Antonio, in La Fría and in Boca de Grita," he said.
Forced disappearances were ordered by high-ranking Colombian military commanders, according to Mancuso, who explained that clandestine graves in Venezuela were used to keep the number of known victims in Colombia low.
InSight Crime recently visited Norte de Santander, where expert human rights sources who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed that forced disappearances by armed groups in the area continue.
Officially, one faction of the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación - EPL) guerrillas in northwestern Urabá demobilized in 1996. But, according to Mancuso, most of the weapons and men from this process ended up in the ranks of the AUC, and the Colombian government knew.
"We exchanged some weapons, we kept the best weapons that the EPL had, and we gave them the oldest weapons of the self-defense groups," said Mancuso. "This demobilization took place with a semblance of legality, but what was really done was to transfer the EPL guerrillas to the self-defense forces.”
Mancuso outlined the case of Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias "Otoniel." Until his capture in October 2021, Otoniel was the main leader of the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia - AGC), also known as the Urabeños. Otoniel and his brother, Juan de Dios Úsuga, alias "Giovanny," were part of the EPL in the 1990s, and after the demobilization process, joined the ranks of the self-defense groups.
Like Mancuso, Otoniel appeared before the JEP to testify about his criminal history. He also confirmed that former guerrillas joined paramilitary groups following the EPL’s demobilization.
Private companies have played a large role in financing and expanding paramilitarism in Colombia. Soft drink giant Postobón has been accused of supporting paramilitarism with monthly payments or contributions through national distribution networks by several former paramilitary leaders, including Mancuso, who repeated the claims in the recent hearings. He also mentioned payments by the Bogotá-based brewery, Bavaria, and that three banana companies, including multinational Chiquita, paid 3 cents on the dollar for each box of bananas exported. These profits were distributed among paramilitaries, the vigilante cooperatives known as Convivir, and military commanders.
Mancuso also claimed that Colombia’s state-owned oil company, Ecopetrol, allowed paramilitaries to steal fuel from feeder pipes, even sharing pumping schedules with them. The fuel was then sold at service stations in territories under paramilitary control.
The multinational coal company, Drummond, which has been investigated in the past for alleged links to paramilitarism, also came up in the hearings. Mancuso said that Drummond’s head of security gave paramilitaries lists of names of union members who were then killed by the AUC.
In April, former paramilitary member Jairo de Jesús Charris also testified about this issue to the JEP. In response, Drummond published a statement denying any ties to illegal groups and insisting that there is a cartel of false witnesses against the company.
To date, none of the companies have responded to Mancuso's recent claims.