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Document Friday: The Mapiripán Massacre “Cover-up”

July 13, 2012

Hernán Orozco now works as a security guard at a Miami gated community (Photo courtesy of Semana.com)

The Colombian military falsely blamed a junior officer for complicity in a 1997 paramilitary massacre “as part an effort to confuse and cover up the responsibility of others,” according to a 2003 State Department letter, which we’re featuring here today as our Document Friday selection.

This posting kicks off the Archive’s commemoration of the 15th anniversary of the Mapiripán massacre, one of the most infamous and emblematic acts of violence of Colombia’s decades-old conflict. A forthcoming Electronic Briefing Book now being prepared for the Archive’s Web site will highlight new revelations from a highly anticipated set of declassified diplomatic cables on Mapiripán released earlier today by the State Department’s Appeals Review Panel.

The State Department wrote the letter on behalf of Hernán Orozco, a former Colombian army colonel who cooperated with prosecutors during the investigation of his commanding officer, Gen. Jaime Uscategui, the first Colombian general to be sentenced in a major human rights case. The letter and other declassified documents published here today show that the State Department harbored serious concerns that the “whistle-blower” junior officer Orozco was being unfairly persecuted in Colombia for testifying against a senior military commander.

Orozco was the victim of a Colombian military “cover up,” according to the State Dept’s letter

Two of Colombia’s top paramilitary figures, Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso, masterminded the Mapiripán massacre, flying more than 100 of their men into the region from Urabá, a longtime paramilitary stronghold. Arriving at a joint military/police airfield, the paras traveled by truck and by river to Mapiripán, passing several military checkpoints along the way. Dozens of suspected guerrilla collaborators were killed in the days that followed. A local magistrate—who each night “heard the screams of people who were being tortured and murdered” by Castaño’s men, made urgent pleas to Orozco, commander of the local army brigade, to step in and end the slaughter.

The crux of the case against Orozco and Uscategui is what happened next. Orozco says that he sent an urgent message to Uscategui on July 15, requesting action, but that the general later pressured him to change the contents of the letter to omit the portions warning of the impending paramilitary attack. The country’s civilian prosecutor was on his way toward dropping the charges against Orozco when the military judiciary stepped in and took control of the cases, arguing that the alleged crimes were related to their military duties. Both officers were convicted by a military tribunal in 2001 for failing to stop the killing – crimes of “omission” – and received relatively short sentences of 38 months (Orozco) and 40 months (Uscategui).

At the time of the 2003 letter, Orozco had fled Colombia and was seeking employment in Florida with the Wackenhut Corporation, a private security company. His association with Mapiripán raised red flags during the company’s background check, prompting the letter, in which Robert Jackson of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, explained that Orozco and his family had been granted refugee status in the U.S. due to a “well founded fear of persecution” in Colombia, including death threats. Orozco was an “exemplary officer” and “totally clean,” according to Jackson, and had “comported himself with great courage and honor under constant threat of death for his principled actions.” Orozco had taken “all possible steps, at considerable personal risk” to prevent the Mapiripán massacre, Jackson wrote, but “all evidence indicates he was blocked in doing so by his chain of command.”

The State Department’s sympathetic view of Orozco may have helped him get into the U.S. and obtain the Wackenhut job, but apparently did not resonate with the Colombian government or its prosecutor general, Luis Camilo Osorio. In July 2003, his office filed new, more serious, charges—including homicide, conspiracy and kidnapping—against both officers, just six months after Orozco arrived in the U.S. as a refugee.

The decision provoked a sharp response from the State Department. In a 2004 report to Congress, the agency said it was “pleased that trial proceedings continue against General Jaime Uscategui” but “concerned” about the indictment of Orozco, who was “widely considered to have been the ‘whistle-blower’ in this incident.”

One of the top State Department officials took the opportunity to express concern about the Orozco case to Colombian President Álvaro Uribe. In a September 2004 meeting, Under Secretary of State Marc Grossman told Uribe that the U.S. was concerned about the prosecution of Orozco and even handed Uribe “a chronology of events” to explain the U.S. position.

In 2007, a Colombian court nevertheless convicted Orozco, in absentia, of murder charges related to his alleged inaction, while at the same time acquitting Uscategui of all charges. It would be two more years before the Colombian state, after an appeal, won the conviction of the former 7th Brigade commander. Both received 40-year sentences.

Presently there is a movement is afoot in Colombia to bring Orozco back home to serve his sentence. Relatives of Uscategui have made a public plea for the extradition of Orozco, believing that he has crucial information that could exonerate the former general. Late last year, U.S. Ambassador Michael McKinley said that the State Department was studying the issue of whether to extradite Orozco, but a final decision is still pending.

Fifteen years later, and after multiple trials in civilian, military, and international courts, critical aspects of the Mapiripán case remain unresolved. Among them is the fate of Hernán Orozco, who still works as a Wackenhut security guard at a gated community in Miami, Florida. Will the United States agree to send Orozco back to Colombia to serve his 40-year sentence, despite the previously “well founded fear” of persecution in his home country? Will the State Department allow Orozco to serve time in Colombia despite the earlier finding that he was the victim of a military cover-up?

Stay tuned for more revelations from the State Department’s Mapiripán file in the days to come.

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