Murder Training: Colombian Death Squad Used Live Hostages

by El Tiempo

April 29, 2007

El Tiempo, Bogota -- "Proof of courage": that is how the how the paramilitaries would term the training they imparted to their recruits so that they learnt how to carve up people while they were still alive.

Initially, the authorities rejected this version of the farmers who reported the practice... but when the combatants themselves started to admit to it in their testimonies before the prosecutors, the myth became a harsh crime against humanity.

Francisco Enrique Villalba Hernández (alias Cristian Barreto), one of the perpetrators of the massacre at El Aro in Ituango, Antioquia, received this type of training in the same place where he learnt to handle arms and manufacture home-made bombs. Today, a prisoner at La Picota in Bogota, Villalba has described in details during lengthy testimonies how he applied the learning.

"Towards the middle of 1994, I was ordered to a course... in El Tomate, Antioquia, where the training camp was located," he says in his testimony. There, his working day started at 5 in the morning and the instructions were received directly from the top commanders such as ˜Double Zero' (Carlos Garcia, since assassinated by another paramilitary group).

Villalba claims that in order to learn how to dismember people they would use farmers they gathered together in the course of taking neighbouring settlements. As he describes it, "they were aged people whom we brought in trucks, alive and bound up". The victims arrived at the ranch in covered trucks. They were lowered from the vehicle with their hands tied and taken to a room. There they were locked up for days in the hope that the training would start.

"The instruction of courage" would start later: the people would be divided up in four or five groups "and there they dismembered them", says Villalba in his testimony. "The instructor would say to each of them: ˜You stand there, so-and-so over there and provide security to him who is doing the dismembering'. Every time that a settlement is taken and someone is going to be dismembered, security has to be offered to those doing the job".

The women and men were taken out in their underwear from the rooms where they had been locked up. Still with their hands bound, they took them to the place where the instructor was waiting to start the first lessons: "The instructions were to chop off their arms, the head, to dismember them alive. They were usually crying and asked us not to do anything to them, that they had families."

Villalba describes the process: "They were opened up from the chest to the belly and the intestines, the remains, taken out. The feet, arms and head were removed. It was done with machetes or with knives. The rest, the remains, was done by hand. Those of us in training took out the intestines." The training demanded it, according to him, to "prove the courage and to learn how to make people disappear".

During the month and a half that Francisco Villaba says he stayed in the course, he thrice saw the instructions in dismemberment. "I myself cut off the arm of a girl. Her head and a foot had already been cut off. She had asked that they not do it, that she had two brothers". The bodies were carried to graves there itself... where it is calculated that more than 400 people are buried.

Towards the end of last year, an informant contacted a group of investigators to tell them how before the Law of Justice and Peace was approved, heads of the paramilitaries in Cordoba and Sucre (Colombian provinces) had started to make, in some of the farms, artificial lakes for fish farming. According to the informant, people in the area had warned him that engineers who were constructing these were contributing to hiding the graves. "There are only signs," says an investigator, "but we have to dry up a pair of these to see what we find". He added that that would explain why in farms like El Palmar – paramilitary killing field in Sucre – there were caymans and crocodiles. While on the subject, Ivan Cepeda, investigator of human rights violations, says witnesses have shown to him a submission that many of the bodies were eaten up by caymans. (Abridged version of a report in El Tiempo, Bogota, April 24, 2007)


Update: El Tiempo reports (April 27, 2007) that Villalba could be freed for his "valuable contribution" to the justice system. "He has collaborated a lot with us in finding graves to which we would never have had access," a high-ranking source told El Tiempo. It would also count, said the source that it was done voluntarily as he was tormented by the memories of the faces of his victims night after night. Villalba was sentenced to 33 years and 4 months in prison in 2003.

Villalba was a friend of one of the cruellest hit men of Pablo Esobar (drug lord, dead for several years now) РDandenis Mu̱oz Moscera, now serving several life terms in the United States. Villalba participated in the massacres of Coloso and Pichilin (16 victims), Segovia (41) and Pueblo Bello (43) as well as El Aro (15, including many children and women), where he insists on having seen a yellow helicopter hovering overhead while the farmers were being killed.

Translated from Spanish by Supriyo Chatterjee. El Tiempo, Bogota, is chronicling the massacres of the death squads.

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