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Colombia militia leader confesses to milking public treasuries

Right-wing paramilitary commander details extortion of money from hospital and municipal officials, who could be killed for resisting.

February 19, 2009|Chris Kraul

BARRANQUILLA, COLOMBIA — Having gotten 602 killings off his chest, paramilitary leader Edgar Ignacio Fierro has moved on to dollars and cents: how he and other leaders looted municipal treasuries, hospitals and even schools to finance their armies and enrich themselves.

Like thousands of other leaders of the right-wing militias, Fierro is testifying in compliance with a 2005 disarmament accord under which the commanders were promised light sentences in exchange for their surrender, full confessions and a promise not to return to a life of war and terrorism.

Fierro spent his first days on the stand last year meticulously reviewing hundreds of killings, a litany that included university professors, union leaders, peasants accused of giving aid and comfort to leftist guerrillas. Family members of victims, many of them in tears, watched via closed-circuit video.

Now the former Colombian army captain is just as scrupulously detailing how paramilitaries bled dry not just businesses and landowners, large and small, but public officials who either turned over chunks of their government budgets and revenue or were killed.

"They justify it by saying they were defending the fatherland, but most of these people ended up behaving like any other common criminal," said one prosecutor, who like other officials interviewed for this story spoke anonymously for fear of reprisal.

The wrenching confessions by Fierro and 3,200 other militia leaders, being made one by one in highly guarded rooms in this city's civic center and in Medellin and Bogota, the capital, shine a light on a sordid chapter in Colombia's 4-decade-long civil war.

"What the government is trying to do is reconstruct the truth," said a university researcher. "With that, it can dispense justice and finally order reparations to the victims. But it's all a gamble. The versions so far are incomplete and don't always coincide."

From 2003 to '06, Fierro was in charge of this city and most of Atlantico state as a sectional leader of the Northern Block paramilitary army. He answered to the block's supreme commander, Rodrigo Tovar, who last May was extradited to the United States to face drug and terrorism charges.

In a recent interview in this city's Modelo prison, where he has been an inmate for two years, Fierro said his troops and other militias took the fight to the leftist guerrillas because the central government was incapable of doing so.

"Businessmen had had enough of rebels threatening them and kidnapping their children with impunity and saw us as a means of ending that," Fierro said. "We can't deny that some were pressured to help, but the majority of those who contributed identified with us ideologically."

All businesses, landowners and local governments, large and small, were expected to help finance that fight against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and other rebel groups.

"Their contributions depended on the size of their business," said Fierro, whose haircut and bearing hint at his military past. "A small store might give $50 a month, a landowner a couple of dollars per acre per month."

Foreign multinational companies apparently weren't exempt from paying the "war tax." Jose Gregorio Mangones Lugo, a leader of a neighboring paramilitary group, testified last year that both Chiquita Brands International Inc. and Dole Food Co. paid a 3-cents-per-50-pound tax on bananas shipped through Caribbean ports.

In 2007, Chiquita pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court in Washington and paid a $25-million fine in connection with charges that it made illegal payments to "terrorist" paramilitary groups in the region.

But more shocking to some was how Fierro and other commanders extorted money from government entities. About 100 municipalities in the northern coastal area paid a 10% kickback on every public contract's cost to the militias' "construction committee." Paramilitaries also raked 10% off the top of annual budgets.

The towns of Tolu and Covenas, coastal cities southwest of here on an oil pipeline route, had to turn over "the greater part" of the $6 million in annual royalties paid by oil firms from 1998 to 2005, prosecutors said.

Officials who resisted paid with their lives. Tolu Mayor Jairo Romero Bonilla was killed in 1999 by leaders of a neighboring paramilitary front, as was the town's previous mayor, Tulio Villalobos, two years earlier.

"After that, the paramilitaries took everything by force," one government investigator said. "In Covenas, you see the effects. The schools, health system and roads that would have received the money are all terrible."

Regional hospitals and government-funded health plans apparently were irresistible sources of plunder. The Maternity and Children's Hospital of Soledad, in a booming suburb of Barranquilla, was looted of nearly $1 million during Fierro's three years of command after he forced the hospital director to resign.

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