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.' "

Q: Did Santiago Uribe pay you for collaborating with paramilitary groups?

A: "When my captain puts me in touch with him, he tells me each month you'll get some money, and at that time it was 1,500,000 pesos [less than $2,000], which at that time was a lot of money."

Q: And you took the money without qualms?

A: "Santiago tells me, 'Look, lieutenant, I am going to give you this monthly, and you should know that your commanders, the commanders in the police force in Antioquia, know all about it. So whether you receive it or not we're going to keep going because we have the support.' So that stops you and you say: If that's how things are done what can you do?"

Q: Investigators say that among the killers in Yarumal was a police officer, Alexander de Jesús Amaya. Tell me about him.

A: "The police confided a lot in him. He was a police hit man. I understand that they transferred him so he could act against the guerrillas, killing people. He had worked in the southeast of Antioquia where he had killed a lot and later they sent him to Yarumal."

Q: You've said there was a room that was rented, right next to the Yarumal police headquarters, to store gear the paramilitaries used?

A: "They stored their clothes, the camouflage, the caps, boots, knapsacks, tents."

Q: Other witnesses have, in years past, provided much of the same information you are now providing. But their identities are unknown. Who are they?

A: "They knew about the relations between the police and the group. They talk about the meetings I had with Santiago on the farm. They knew I received money from Santiago. That is how I get linked up with all this."

Q: When you and other policemen were investigated in the past, why did you not open up about what you knew about Santiago Uribe?

A: "We never considered mentioning him because if you do that then you would have to talk about everything -- how the murders took place -- and so you would incriminate yourself."

Q: You said you felt you were going to be killed, so you decided to leave the country and talk. Why now?

A: "The tension I had in Colombia was unbearable. I preferred to talk, and not be in Colombia where I could be murdered. That is why I made the decision to tell the truth."

Q: You seem to justify paramilitary groups by saying they were formed to fight guerrilla atrocities, but did you not kill lots of innocent people?

A: "I believe that there also were innocent people. But even so, innocent or not, I think that they should not have been murdered. I carry that weight on my conscience and that remorse also weighs on me, and leads me to talk about all this."

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