Q & A with Juan Carlos Meneses, retired major in Colombia's National Police

Monday, May 24, 2010

Juan Carlos Meneses, 42, a retired major in Colombia's National Police, has decided to speak out about how he collaborated with a paramilitary group in the small northern town of Yarumal. The group, he now says, was organized and led by Santiago Uribe, President Álvaro Uribe's brother.

The allegations could revive an investigation that prosecutors had shelved against Santiago Uribe in the 1990s. Meneses's public allegations about the inner workings of Yarumal's 12 Apostles paramilitary gang are the most extensive ever offered by an officer of Colombia's security services, which have long been linked to the illegal militias that spread terror until a government-run demobilization ended in 2006. Fearing he would be killed for knowing too much, Meneses fled the country and went public with his story, first to a group of respected Argentine human rights activists. He spoke to The Washington Post's Juan Forero on May 12.

Q: Why did paramilitary groups form in Yarumal?

A: "The guerrilla scourge was what was happening at that time, because the guerrillas had taken over the zone, carrying out kidnappings, extorting the ranchers and farmers."

Q: You've said Santiago Uribe led those paramilitaries. What did he do?

A: "Santiago's role was to lead a group of cattlemen. He organized them to put together a group to protect themselves against guerrilla actions. So his role is to call them and say, 'We're going to start up a self-defense group.' "

Q: Had you ever seen this kind of group before your arrival in Yarumal in early 1994?

A: "You already saw a certain resistance of cattlemen, among those people who had money. Still, I was a bit surprised to see what was happening because I had not seen it anywhere else where I had been as a sublieutenant and lieutenant -- to see people of a certain importance and reputation, hacienda owners and cattlemen, uniting like this."

Q: What was the role of Álvaro Uribe, a rising politician and senator with an eye on national office, as all this was going on in Yarumal?

A: "What I knew about Álvaro is what Santiago told me. In that time, he said to me, 'Don't worry, lieutenant. My brother, Álvaro, knows all about this."

Q: When authorities began to investigate you and another police commander for paramilitary crimes, did the Uribe family intercede on your behalf?

A: "We went to an office Santiago had on the 13th or 14th floor of the Coffee Building, which is near Berrio Park in Medellin. He received us, and my captain and I tell him, 'Look, they're investigating the 12 Apostles -- we need you to help.' And he said, 'Don't you worry because Álvaro has very good friends in the attorney general's office, he has very good friends in politics in Bogota, and we're going to try to see that the case is shelved.' "

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