On Wednesday, July 15, Mario Paciolla was found hanged in his house in San Vicente de Caguán, a Colombian town just outside the Amazon forest, in the Caquetá region.
Paciolla was in San Vicente as a collaborator of the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia, on account of the presence in this municipality of one of the 24 Territorial Training and Reincorporation Spaces (ETCR) provided for in the Peace Agreements signed by the FARC-EP and the Colombian government in 2016.
In these areas, designed to promote the disarmament and reintegration into society of former guerrillas, the UN is carrying out the mandate of monitoring and verifying the ceasefire and ensuring that human rights are safeguarded.
Paciolla’s body was found with signs of lacerations, and while at first the Colombian authorities called it a suicide, the statements of Anna Motta, Paciolla’s mother, put this version of events into question right from the start.
Motta said that her son had booked a flight back to Italy on July 20, and that he had confided in her that he had got himself into “trouble,” that he “felt dirty” and that he couldn’t wait to dive back “into the waters of Naples.” In addition to his mother, other people close to Paciolla have also said a suicide scenario was implausible, and the Colombian authorities have finally opened a murder investigation.
According to his friend Claudia Julieta Duque, a journalist and human rights activist, in June Paciolla had had a conflict with the United Nations Verification Mission that was employing him, and on that occasion a colleague had accused him of being a spy; moreover, he had received a formal warning from his superiors for having expressed his disagreement with what he considered to be discriminatory management of the COVID-19 emergency by the UN.
Paciolla’s murder cannot be considered something that came out of the blue, but is part and parcel of the climate of structural violence that runs through the country and the failure of the peace process that has not brought benefits to the Colombian population.
Since the signing of the 2016 peace agreement in Havana under the Santos government, more than 135 former guerrillas and 970 social leaders and human rights activists have been murdered. The reintegration of ex-fighters into society, first through the system of Transitory Normalization Zones of Transformation (ZVTN), transformed from Aug. 15, 2017 into Territorial Training and Reincorporation Spaces (ECTR), has failed.
A year after the Agreements, the ambiguity of the government’s programs and the distrust of the former officers among the ex-fighters were already evident, the latter denouncing a fundamental absence on the part of the institutions and showing great concern about their own security and about the fact that they were exposed to attacks by paramilitary groups.
The administration of the current president, Ivan Duque, widely considered to be a puppet of the power group of Álvaro Uribe—the former extreme right-wing president opposed to the Peace Agreements—has been the protagonist of several scandals as it implemented hardline, iron-fist policies.
During these months marked by the COVID-19 emergency, the president has rejected the bilateral ceasefire proposal put forward by the other historic Colombian guerrilla group, the ELN.
The military scandals have brought into view the darker side of the current president’s intransigent policy, as for example in the case of the bombing of a dissident FARC cell on Aug. 30 in San Vincente del Caguán, which caused the death of at least eight children, and to which one must add the cases of kidnapping and rape of indigenous girls by Colombian soldiers.
The corruption of the current government has been highlighted by its ties with the drug trafficker Josè Guillermo Hernandèz aka Ñeñe, killed in Brazil in 2019, who appears in several photos with the higher-ups of the Colombian police, army and administration under Duque, of which he was one of the main financial backers and—according to wiretaps—to whose electoral victory he contributed by buying and selling votes and deploying the influence of illicit capital.
Duque’s administration is a model of corrupt and authoritarian government that shows itself to be in full continuity with his “godfather,” Alvaro Uribe, not by chance nicknamed Il Matarife (The Butcher), from the title of a web series that accused him of genocide and exposed his connections with Colombian narco-paramilitary groups.
Uribe’s warmongering policy started the Democratic Security program that has promoted the systematic assassination of guerrillas and generated the phenomenon of “falsos positivos,” a practice by the Colombian army that involves the kidnapping of civilians from marginal areas, dressing them up in military clothes, killing them and claiming they were guerilla combatants in order to collect government rewards.
It seems that the Colombian state, bound to the power centers of drug trafficking, paramilitarism and multinationals, has an interest in perpetuating the climate of violence and conflict against the dissident FARC cells and the ELN guerrilla group. This type of policy, involving military action—both legal and illegal—fuels the systematic violation of human rights and the suspension of the constitutional guarantees of protection and security.
The proof can be seen in the killing of hundreds of social leaders, the violence against indigenous peoples, the repression of dissent and the implementation of major mining projects without prior local consultation.
San Vincente del Caguán, which was the seat of the failed peace negotiations between 1999 and 2002, is in fact at the center of the interests of the oil industry that is transporting barrels of crude oil every day under the supervision and protection of the army.
The militarization of the territories foments conflict, destroys the social fabric and forces entire communities to displace themselves against their will by facilitating the incursion of mining multinationals that are encountering no resistance to their projects.
Last autumn, hundreds of thousands of people across the country joined the general strike called by dozens of trade unions, student movements, indigenous organizations and LGBTQIA+ collectives, with the slogan, “They even stole our fear.”
Although the mobilizations began peacefully, the state’s response was brutal: the militarization of cities, curfews, the killing of protesters and the criminalization of the protests in the mainstream media. With the arrival of the pandemic, the protests stopped, but the violence against community activists defending the local territories continued. 95 activists have been murdered since the beginning of the pandemic crisis in Colombia.
The tangle of economic, criminal and political interests that support Duque’s weak leadership have every interest in keeping tensions high and continuing the militarization of the country—the main ally of the US in the region—to ensure the continued exploitation of raw materials and to suppress dissent.
As in the case of Giulio Regeni, the murder of Mario Paciolla is part of a spatial and temporal context in which murder, enforced disappearance and torture used against social dissent are daily practices of repression.
The activists with whom Paciolla has collaborated in recent years, working to pressure the authorities in order to avoid the most dire consequences, are well aware of the risks they are exposing themselves to in opposing the power groups that control the Colombian territory.
One of the reasons why Paciolla was in Colombia was to help social movements and the civilian population with his work in order to limit the risk of violent attacks.
We don’t know what “dirty things” Paciolla came into contact with, nor what were the reasons behind the conflict with his superiors in the United Nations that preceded his death, but it is certainly the case that the violence suffered by Paciolla’s body must be contextualized in a climate of war and terror that is affecting an entire country and has its roots in the interest groups that are governing it. Paciolla was murdered as a Colombian activist.
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