Colombia Field Report: Visit to Valledupar, a Paramilitary Stronghold

May 7, 2010 | Oriana Zill de Granados

The latest field report from Women, War & Peace producer Oriana Zill de Granados:

A banner in Valledupar reads, "Alvaro Araujo is innocent," a reference to the former Colombian senator who is suspected of having ties to paramilitary leaders.

On April 22 our Wide Angle documentary team traveled to Valledupar, Colombia, a quaint colonial city that is also a paramilitary stronghold.

Valledupar’s streets wrap around a large central square and an impressive Catholic church. Pedestrians fill the busy markets and stores that line its streets. When resident Edinson Ibarra gave us a tour, he pointed out a home near the central square that belongs to former Colombian senator Alvaro Araujo, who was convicted in March of having ties to paramilitary leaders. A large banner hung on the front of his house read, “Alvaro Araujo is innocent.” Many residents here support paramilitary groups because they provide protection against incursions by leftist guerrillas.

As we left the square and drove through an upscale neighborhood, Ibarra pointed out the family home of “Jorge 40,” a former top paramilitary leader in northern Colombia. He warned us not to stop and film the house, as two armed bodyguards with intimidating faces stood watch outside. “Jorge 40” is an alias for Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, who turned himself in to Colombian authorities in 2006 as part of a negotiated “Justice and Peace” process in which paramilitary leaders who confessed their crimes received reduced jail terms. He was extradited to the United States in 2008 to face cocaine trafficking charges. His parents still live here in Valledupar. His wife and children, we learned, have fled to Europe.

A flyer offers reward money for information about the disappearance of Carlos Ibarra and his six co-workers in March 2000.

Ibarra then stopped outside the home of his mother, Matilde Bernal Arenas. She agreed to be interviewed for Wide Angle about how her son, Carlos Ibarra, and six other men were disappeared while working for local Colombian federal investigators. The next day, Arenas and family members of several of the victims each told us a similar story: In March of 2000, these men were sent to exhume a body in a remote area controlled by paramilitaries. They never returned, and their bodies and their vehicles have never been found.

Ten years later, the suffering of the family members is still so tangible that the women cry often when discussing their loss. While one never gets over the death of a family member, they explain, a disappearance is twice as difficult, because you always hope your loved one will walk in the door some day, the victim of memory loss…a prisoner…a kidnapping…anything that could explain their absence.

Frustrated by the lack of progress on the case, this group of women banned together and began their own investigation. They traveled to the town where the men were last seen, interviewed witnesses and followed leads. The women also talked to everyone they could in Valledupar who knew the paramilitary leaders in order to try to find out what happened to their loved ones.

One of the women, Olga Martinez Ovalle, was actually a neighbor of Jorge 40 while she was growing up and she knew him fairly well. At first she was afraid to contact him, but eventually got in touch after he turned himself in. She went to visit him in the Valledupar jail, she told us, and confronted him about her brother. He told her, “He is in the place of the lost ones, with the people who are lost,” an opaque way of saying that he was dead.

Edinson Ibarra sits with Olga Martinez Ovalle. His brother and her husband were disappeared by paramilitary soldiers. Family members of the victims have become close friends.

Ovalle and the other women were crushed to hear this, but they were hopeful when Jorge 40 promised to try to find out where the bodies were buried. That is what they now want most — to find the remains of their loved ones and give them a Christian burial.  “He told us he would let us know where they are,” Ovalle said, “but that was four years ago and we are still waiting.” They also want answers. None of the women are sure why their sons and husbands, fathers and brothers, were killed by the paramilitary, though they suspect they stumbled across a dumping ground for murder victims.

The women had hoped to hear Jorge 40 admit his participation in the murders during a hearing before victims and authorities as part of the Justice and Peace process. But before this happened he was one of a dozen paramilitary leaders extradited to the United States to face drug charges. When I asked one young wife what she would say to the U.S. prosecutors now holding Jorge 40, her face hardened in pain. “I would ask him,” she said, “do you have children?  Do you know what it is like to watch your children waiting for a father who never comes home? We simply want to know the truth.”