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Chasing El Paisa

Why Did This FARC Commander Abandon the Colombian Peace Process?

By Juan P.

Hernán Darío Velásquez.

The wet rainforests of Colombian Caquetá have been hiding secrets of this country for decades. From the 32 departments in which Colombia is divided, Caquetá is one of the most abandoned by its state, and has also been attacked, bombarded and militarized numerous times over the last 50 years. Here lied some of the strongest FARC guerrilla pillboxes.

Said pillboxes, even forts, were never stationary in just one Caquetá location during the Colombian war (that recently “ended” with a Peace Process), and its members delivered reckless blows to the Colombian Army and the country's political class. This is how their legend grew.

Caquetá was inhabited by some of the most feared and battle-hardened guerilla fighters of FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), and was one of the places where, more than 50 years ago, this Marxist-Leninist movement was born.

One of the names that was most mentioned in Colombian military intelligence rooms, before the signing of the peace accords in 2016, was the Teofilo Forero mobile column (FARC used to be divided in fronts and columns).

Teofilo Forero was a guerilla group in charge of strategic blows in all Colombian territory, and of being the bodyguards of some of the highest ranking FARC commanders.

Although men and women of Teofilo Forero column did not stay in just one place, as guerrilla fighters don't often do, they were settled in Caquetá like the roots of a tree.

According to a couple of army soldiers that guard Miravalle, the place in Caquetá where former guerrilla fighters live now in peace, Teofilo Forero guerrilla fighters were ones that no one in the Colombian government was able to beat for as long as the FARC conflict lasted.

“This isn’t the ‘deep Colombia’ just yet”, says a former Teofilo Forero column member in Miravalle. “The ‘deep Colombia’ is the jungle inside the jungle”.

The commander of this Teofilo Forero column was Hernán Darío Velásquez, more often known by his nom de guerre: “El Paisa”.

This man, who some have insisted doesn't feel fear at all, and who has even sent his own men to the firing squad, became one of the most feared guerrilla fighters in FARC history. Aside from his brief participation in the Peace Process, Velasquez has never been tracked or captured since he was in charge of the Teofilo Forero.

El Paisa.

In 2018, with the Peace Accords already signed and the weapons turned over by former FARC guerrilla members, El Paisa was in his residence located on the top of a mountain in Miravalle. Velásquez, according to some farmers that also live in the surroundings of this place, was dedicated to helping new sustainable economies grow for former guerrilla members and farmers from the area. This was one of the pillars of the Peace Process. These projects in Miravalle, coordinated by El Paisa, were even funded by the Norwegian government.

El Paisa, photographed with a police officer after the Peace Process was signed.

But next thing Colombia knew, El Paisa was missing from Caquetá. He had gone to war again and joined a new group of guerrilla fighters along with his former FARC companions “Jesus Santrich” and “Ivan Marquez”.

According to eight testimonies gathered from Miravalle, on a certain night in mid 2018, a paramilitary group entered the zone on a dump truck to kill El Paisa.

He was already gone.

One of the testimonies claims to have recognized a single voice of the men on the dump truck: “I knew his voice. He is an army member”.

The War for El Yarí

Fighting in Caquetá. (Photo: Colombian Army.)

Even today, with the signing of the Peace Process, Caqueta’s town San Vicente del Caguan and its surroundings (including Miravalle) are a dangerous place to be in Colombia. Although inside Miravalle there is rafting and other competitive sports in Pato River, just outside, the military personnel guarding the entrance dare to say things like “If you go right, you will be in danger. If you go left, you will also be.”

FARC guerrilla used to control a territory in south Colombia known as the Yarí savannas, a land that expands over the departments of Putumayo, Amazonas and Caquetá. According to multiple analysts of the Colombian conflict, one of the biggest problems with the implementations of the Peace Accords is that Colombian state has been refusing to occupy the territories that were once controlled by FARC.

It's hard to find a paved road in this part of Caquetá. “If you get sick here”, says a man inside a little wooden food barn along the road, “it would take you two hours to get to the nearest hospital." (Photo: Juan P.)

No roads, no hospitals, no schools and no job offers aside from illicit armed groups (nonpolitical ones) which entered these still abandoned zones to impose new laws through extortion. The inhabitants, according to their own words, just went from being under the control of one armed group to being under the control of one even worse.

In this part of Colombia, in spite of a Peace Process, there’s still war.

Florencia (Caquetá capital) to San Vicente del Caguan is about three hours by car. On the way, you get to see at least four army tanks and military checkpoints every fifteen minutes. “Please show me your ID and explain to me your reasons to be here”, says an army lieutenant on one of the checkpoints. He does the same with everyone that goes on that road.

Then, from San Vicente to Miravalle, there's three more hours on a dirt road that walks in between pear-green looking mountains. This is the place where, in February 2002, former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt was kidnapped by FARC guerrillas.

Here, there is this dream vision of rural Colombia with mountain ranges, rich jungles and the singing of the birds. Also, there is the surreal vision of endless coca fields and war sites.

This place, as beautiful and thumping as it is, was the scene of airplanes, bombs, snipers, trenches, landmines, ambushes, helicopters and bullets in the Colombian conflict.

Colombian soldiers during the war in Caquetá.

Before the signing of the Peace Accords in 2016, the tropical jungle was the main battlefield for the war in Caquetá, which helped FARC guerrilla tactics as some kind of “home advantage”. This, however, didn't save them from receiving carpet bombing attacks. However, it wasn’t only FARC that inhabited Caquetá, so we know now that a lot of those bombs landed on and killed innocent Colombian civilians.

“I remember Christmas on those days”, tells another former Teofilo Forero member. “We had permission to play music loud and make parties. But if the sentinels gave notice of a nearby army plane or helicopter, we had to turn the things off and be prepared for anything. After the planes passed, we played the music again”.

Despite the efforts of the army, Teofilo Forero column occupied Caquetá and Huila departments without any real weakening military response.

“This column (Teofilo Forero) is the face of FARC terror”, said Emiro Barrios in 2013, Colombian general in command of “Fuerza Jupiter”, the army unit in charge of hunting the Teofilo Forero and El Paisa. At this time, the force had no less than 12.000 men committed to the mission, but Barrios never dared to say that they were even close to defeating them or capturing El Paisa.

At a certain point, El Paisa’s head was worth 2,5 billion Colombian pesos (a small fortune in Colombia), and Fuerza Jupiter just wasn't enough to fight the war against him. “Black Hawk helicopters, the best special forces members and snipers on land for military operations on Meta and Huila, places where El Paisa and Teofilo Forero column have more power”, says an army press report from 2013.

If we go back 20 years, president Andrés Pastrana cleared -literally- 42.000 kilometers (some 26.000 miles) in Caquetá so that FARC could regroup and finish a peace process that never really started. No army member was around this place until 2002, when Alvaro Uribe became president and “recaptured” the area. FARC, however, remained dug well deep.

Who is El Paisa?

Hernán Darío Velásquez Saldarriaga was born in Medellin, Colombia, 53 years ago. It is said that El Paisa dropped school at age 14, started growing cannabis to sell, then joined FARC when he was about 18.

He was captured in 1989 by Colombian authorities, carrying 1000 assault rifles and 250 mortars. He was imprisoned in La Modelo jail in Bogotá but escaped shortly after.

By 1993, his name was already recognized in Colombian military intelligence as the Teofilo Forero column commander, responsible for collecting money for FARC, and also for being the architect of operations such as conquering remote villages by killing or capturing all the army and police in them, or by kidnapping political deputies.

A photo of El Paisa while he was in La Modelo jail.

Intelligence officers also knew that El Paisa had to give FARC guerrillas more than 2 billion Colombian pesos each year, money that came from kidnappings and extortions. They also knew that he shot some men in his own private security detail, fearing that they were infiltrated by the Colombian Army.

Teofilo Forero FARC column captured Senator Jorge Gechem in 2002, while he was on a plane. This was orchestrated by El Paisa.

The biggest hit that El Paisa took was the death of Mary Capera, known as La Pilosa, who died after an army bombing of a guerrilla camp in Caquetá. In addition to being in charge of the communications of said camp, Capera was El Paisa’s partner.

The moment of an army bombing of a FARC camp. In this attack, El Paisa’s partner was killed. (Photo: Colombian Army)

Velásquez was one of the last FARC guerrilla members to adhere to the Colombian Peace Process, and even when he did he kept this in secret and was not interviewed.

However, the community of Miravalle coincides in that he was living in peace, dedicated to making the economic projects for former guerrilla members work effectively. Miravalle now has a hydro turbine that uses the force of the Pato River to produce energy for all inhabitants of the area (not just former guerillas). El Paisa coordinated this.

So, Why Did He Leave?

The testimonies obtained speak about a group of 10 to 20 armed men that arrived in the vicinity of Miravalle (which only has one entrance that is guarded by the army) one night at 2 a.m. These men put hoods on and paid a local dump truck driver to get them into Miravalle while hidden onboard his vehicle.

The driver said that they had Galil assault rifles and other equipment used by the Colombian military. He also overheard them talking about an economic reward that each of them would have for killing El Paisa.

Another witness, who saw the armed men entering the dump truck, says that he was able to recognize one of them by his voice, and immediately recalled him as an army member who worked in that zone.

The testimonies continue to the dump truck arriving at El Paisa’s house. However, he had time to run because he was alerted of the men’s presence even before they entered Miravalle.

This is how a night in Miravalle, rural Colombia, looks like. (Photo: Juan P.)

The armed men left Miravalle fast when they found out their objective wasn't there.

Another testimony, this one from a former Teofilo Forero column member, says that they identified the hooded men as “members of military intelligence” of the Colombian Army. “There's more to this”, he says, “but we will keep quiet, because no one will accept what they did because of who we are.”

“Nobody likes hooded men to come home at 2 a.m. in the morning without announcement”, stated Jorge Torres “Pablo Catatumbo”, former FARC commander and now Colombian senator thanks to the Peace Accords.

This presumed attack took place in mid 2018, the same time that former FARC member Jesus Santrich was accused and imprisoned for drug trafficking (charges that are being studied right now) and when Ivan Marquez, another former FARC commander, decided not to assume office as senator.

A few months later, the Colombian Army insisted that their new intelligence pointed to El Paisa being in Venezuela, corroborated by 90 men.

The last statement from El Paisa before he ran away from Miravalle to the jungle was that he would be willing to return to the Peace Process if Jesus Santrich was liberated, but given the juridical condition of El Paisa in Colombia, this would now be unviable and Velásquez would have to be legally captured.

In this statement, he also denounced army planes flying over Miravalle. “This fact revives war environments that we believed were overcome”, said El Paisa. In August 2018, FARC stated to the press that El Paisa and Ivan Marquez were somewhere near Pato River, in a location not even made known to the top brass.

We asked Colombian defense and interior ministries (the public entities in charge of the security and army in Colombia) about the flying planes and the presumed attack against El Paisa. Their answer was that there are ongoing military operations taking place in Caquetá, and because of this any information must be classified.

In the chronology of this story, the next development was Jesus Santrich’s escape from custody and his joining of El Paisa and Ivan Marquez. The three of them appeared on a video saying they were founding “The New Marquetalia”, a new armed group.

New War Fronts

Ivan Marquez (left), El Paisa (left center) and Jesus Santrich (right center) founded a new armed group called “La Nueva (Segunda) Marquetalia”.

As if this man was a ghost, the last news about El Paisa places him founding a new guerrilla front in Nariño Department, that he took control of drug trafficking routes, and that he returned to San Vicente del Caguan at some point, where nothing happens without El Paisa knowing about it.

El Paisa has 35 current capture orders in Colombia.

“La Nueva Marquetalia” has not entered a large-scale conflict and, apart from a threat to president Ivan Duque, hasn't been too active in the media. However, there have been many reports across Colombia which state that this group is already fighting other dissident FARC groups who refuse to join Ivan Marquez and El Paisa.

The next months will show us if El Paisa left the Peace Process to form a new revolutionary struggle or if he left because, being in peace, he was set-up to be murdered in his home.

(Update: El Paisa was killed in Apure, Venezuela in early December 2021)


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