World News

In Colombian Death-Ranch Case, Some Fear Prosecution Will Be Buried

Posted July 8, 2018 8:21 p.m. EDT

SANTA ROSA DE LOS OSOS, Colombia — One witness told prosecutors about the corpses floating in a river on the ranch.

Another, a ranch hand, described a death squad boss roaming the property freely on horseback.

A third, a cleaning woman, told investigators about the deaths of her two young nephews. Just after midnight, she said, they were snatched by armed men, tied up and executed.

“Who gave orders?” asked a prosecutor.

“It was Santiago,” the ranch hand replied.

The tales might have been lost among the countless episodes of cruelty in Colombia’s long civil war were it not for one thing: “Santiago,” the ranch owner, was Santiago Uribe.

His brother Álvaro Uribe, Colombia’s former president, has long been the country’s most influential politician and has just re-emerged as its kingmaker after his hand-picked candidate won the presidential election in June.

Santiago Uribe is awaiting trial on charges that he commanded a death squad called the Twelve Apostles that is suspected in the murder of hundreds during the nation’s long civil war. And Álvaro Uribe is being investigated by the Supreme Court for witness tampering in a case involving allegations that he ran a paramilitary group of his own.

But with the return to power of Álvaro Uribe, some Colombians wonder whether either case will really be pursued.

Jaime Granados Peña, a lawyer for Santiago and Álvaro Uribe, declined to be interviewed, but issued a written statement June 18 saying the accusations were part of a long-standing political attack against the brothers. He said the testimony had not been entered into evidence yet in cases against the Uribe family.

The ranch, Granados wrote, “has been a property exclusively for agricultural activity” and “has never been used for the realization or planning of any crime.”

But the statements by witnesses, contained in prosecutors’ files about the Twelve Apostles that were reviewed by The New York Times, offer firsthand accounts of killings that ravaged the ranch and the surrounding area in the 1990s. The files contain audio recordings in which his workers left little doubt over who was in charge of the killers. “Did anyone else give orders besides Mr. Santiago?” asks the prosecutor.

“No,” says the ranch hand, whose name, like those of other witnesses cited in this article, has been withheld by The Times for his safety.

— ‘A Good Dead Man’ Last month, Álvaro Uribe’s hand-picked candidate for the presidency, Iván Duque, won the election by a large margin. Uribe is expected to dominate the incoming legislature through his seat in the Senate, where the party he founded, Democratic Center, won the most seats.

Both Duque and Uribe have proposed restructuring the justice system to replace the three top courts with just one. That would eliminate the Supreme Court, the body that is handling the Twelve Apostles case.

“There seems little doubt that Uribe’s desire is to weaken or scuttle the rather serious investigations being brought against him and his family,” said Michael L. Evans of the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research group in Washington that has published documents on the links between politicians and paramilitary groups. The organization reviewed the files seen by The Times. The investigations have proved to be a challenge for the Colombian justice system for other reasons. Some witnesses have been killed, while others have recanted their testimony. Some said they had been offered money to provide evidence for or against the Uribe brothers.

One of the witnesses who was killed was Carlos Enrique Areiza Arango, a former paramilitary operative. On April 14, he was shot by unknown gunmen near Medellín.

Areiza Arango was one of several witnesses for whom the Supreme Court ordered state protection. He had been expected to testify in a witness-tampering case involving the Uribe brothers and paramilitary groups.

After the killing, Álvaro Uribe published a message on Twitter calling Areiza Arango “a bandit” and saying he was now “a good dead man.” After criticism, he said that the message had been written by someone else and that he did not celebrate the death of others.

— ‘I’ll Take Care of Myself’ La Carolina Ranch sits in the rolling hills of Colombia’s Antioquia province, a four-hour drive from the regional capital, Medellín, past pine forests and vistas overlooking the Andes. In the 1990s it was known for raising bulls bred for the country’s bullfights and for pastures where cows produced milk sent to nearby towns.

But the pastoral setting masked a sinister conflict.

Colombia’s civil war was raging and leftist rebels roamed the countryside, committing massacres and extorting money from local ranch hands. In 1983, the conflict hit home for the Uribe brothers: Their father was killed by rebels during a kidnapping attempt on the family ranch. Álvaro Uribe found the body.

By the mid-1990s, Álvaro Uribe had risen to become Antioquia’s governor. In that role, he promoted armed neighborhood watch groups that were later accused of massacring rebels and civilians alike. Uribe has said he disbanded the groups when the allegations emerged.

At Santiago Uribe’s ranch, a similar pattern of violence was said to emerge.

Wealthy businessmen in the area, tired of paying extortion money to the rebels, formed an organization known as the Twelve Apostles, according to residents and prosecutors. The group — it got its name because a local priest was one of the leaders — worked closely with local police officers who acted as both informants and hit men, residents said.

“They kept lists of who was next to be killed, and we were all considered rebels just for being peasants in the countryside,” said one former resident, Fernando Barrientos. His brother, Camilo, was killed by the Twelve Apostles in 1994, he said. Barrientos has filed a criminal case against Santiago Uribe for the death. Uribe was jailed after his arrest in 2016 and then released to await trial. On a recent day, Barrientos sat in a small one-story home and recalled the day his brother died. He received a panicked call from a local priest saying that the Twelve Apostles were looking for Camilo, he said, and that he should urge him to hide.

But Camilo refused. He was driving a local bus when two men boarded it and shot him, Barrientos said.

“He told me before he left on the bus, ‘I’ll take care of myself,'” he said.

The testimony reviewed by The Times centers on a fugitive paramilitary commander, José Alberto Osorio Rojas, who prosecutors say was a top leader of the Twelve Apostles and went by the nicknames Rodrigo and El Mono. According to a summary of the case, prosecutors were investigating Osorio Rojas when they stumbled onto testimony linking him to Santiago Uribe.

In addition to Osorio Rojas, a paramilitary hit man named Pelusa was also frequently mentioned by the workers. They said both men had worked for Uribe. Osorio Rojas was often seen on horseback with Uribe, looking at the bullfighting studs; it was unclear what Pelusa’s job was.

“What did they call them?” a prosecutor asked one witness.

“Paracos,” said the witness, a ranch hand who worked at La Carolina in 1995, using a common term for paramilitaries. “Because they were murderers. They were cleaning up around there.”

The witness, who worked wrangling cattle among other jobs, recalled finding the bodies of three people one day in a river near where he worked on the ranch. He said they had been killed by Osorio Rojas and Pelusa in a nearby town and then thrown in the water. The case appears never to have been solved. On another instance, the witness said, Pelusa, drunk, killed a man at a nearby ranch after he challenged the Paracos.

“The man started to scream,” the witness said. “The man went out, and — boom — all of a sudden, shot in the head. He was left right there. An old man.”

Other workers testified that Uribe was close to the hit men, particularly Osorio Rojas. “They were very intimate, the two,” recalled one worker, who said he had been on the ranch more than 20 years starting in 1985.

The same worker told prosecutors about the constant presence of police officers and soldiers on the ranch. The Twelve Apostles are said to have ties not only to Uribe but also to the security forces in the province where his brother was governor.

“They went for meetings with Mr. Santiago,” the worker said, referring to the military.

He said police would often arrive and ask Uribe to sign papers that were “proof that they were working there.”

The cleaning woman who said her nephews had been killed told investigators they had died at the hands of an armed group. The men found one of her nephews at the home of his parents in a nearby village, while the other was captured in a building at the ranch.

The witness recalled the screams of the mother as the armed men dragged her son away, and the mother being told to not tell anyone or she, too, would be killed.

“They worked there, they worked for so many years, two brothers,” she said of her nephews. “They found them on Tuesday with their arms tied behind their back.” — ‘Clean Up the Town’

In the hillside ranching towns, an hour’s drive from the ranch, the memories of the Twelve Apostles are still fresh.

Jhon Jairo Álvarez, a human rights worker for the government during the era of the massacres, recalled in a telephone interview how one night in October 1996 the paramilitary group arrived in the town of Campamento with 80 armed men and ordered townspeople into a plaza.

“They said they came with orders to clean up the town and kill the guerrilla collaborators,” he said.

A young man was taken in front of the crowd and shot with assault rifles and pistols as entire families looked on in fear, Álvarez said.

The death squad, he said, came in trucks marked with the insignia of the provincial government of Antioquia. That made him wonder what role Álvaro Uribe, who was governor at the time and would have controlled the vehicles, might have played.

But Fernando Barrientos, whose sibling was killed in 1994, said it was the other Uribe brother, the ranch owner, whom he most feared during the era. Shortly after Camilo died, Fernando fled the town and never returned.

“They always said: ‘Watch out for Santiago,'” he recalled. “'Because he is the one in charge of the Twelve Apostles.'”