25 Years Later, US Evidence on Caloto Massacre Still Under Wraps
Today, Colombians mark 25 years of impunity for members of the police implicated in the December 16, 1991, killing of 20 members of the Colombian Nasa-Paez indigenous group in the Caloto, Cauca, massacre. With Colombia now poised to enter a long period of transitional justice, cases like Caloto are emblematic of how Colombian courts have largely failed to bring members of the Colombian security forces to justice even in cases where they have succeeded in putting away their civilian collaborators.
Civilian judicial proceedings against two Cali police officials long suspected of helping narcotraffickers carry out the massacre only began in February 2015, more than 23 years after the killings and over 15 years after a military tribunal absolved the officers of any responsibility in February 1999. This is despite the fact that Colombian President Ernesto Samper formally recognized the state’s responsibility for the killings in 1995. The officers, Gen. Fabio Alejandro Castañeda Mateus and Maj. Jorge Enrique Durán Arguelles, were ordered to be re-tried in civilian court after Colombia’s Supreme Court of Justice found that the military prosecution “had as its sole purpose to render ineffective the accusation against Castañeda and Durán and to facilitate the cessation of proceedings for such grave violations of human rights.”
The details surrounding the case are both chilling and emblematic of wider problems in Colombia. A March 1993 cable from the embassy of US Ambassador Morris Busby considered the Caloto massacre in light of the impact that the surge of narco-paramilitary influence in the region had on traditional conflicts over land and landownership.
More than a year earlier, another US Embassy cable had reported that one of the owners of the “El Nilo” ranch where the massacre occurred, Luis Alberto Bernal Seijas, was “in DEA’s files,” meaning the US Drug Enforcement Administration. The Embassy said that Colombian authorities had issued arrest warrants for a lawyer and two employees of the Cali-based real estate firm owned by Bernal Seijas and his brother Jose Antonio, Sociedad Inversiones Piedras Blancas.
Luis Alberto Bernal Seijas was later convicted as an intellectual author of the crime in 1996, but spent more than five years evading justice before he was arrested for an immigration violation in Panama in 2001.
US intelligence records on his arrest depict him as a longtime drug trafficker with criminal associations going back as far as the Medellin drug cartel. The US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), for example, identified Bernal as a “Panama-based Colombian drug trafficker,” a “former pilot for the infamous drug trafficker Gonzalo Rodriguez-Gacha” and “the individual in charge of finances and logistics in Panama for the Colombian United Self-Defense Groups (AUC),” which was designated a Foreign Terrorist Orgnization by the US State Department later that year. The DIA added that Bernal’s Panama-based aviation company, which owned six planes, “was probably involved in the transhipment of large quantities of cocaine from Colombia through Panama.”
The declassified paragraphs of a subsequent Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report, titled, “Narcotics: [deleted] Information on Individuals, Properties, and Compaines Associated with Expelled Colombian Narcotics Trafficker and United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia Collaborator Luis Bernal Seijas,” echo the earlier DIA analysis. Bernal Seijas had used the alias “Nicolas Bedoya Herrera” while on the run in Panama and had purchased “a sizable amount of property” and ran “several businesses” there. One of these was a “general aviation company [redacted] believed to have been used by Bernal for the transport of arms and drugs to and from Colombia.”
Twenty-five years later, nearly three entire pages of the a six-page CIA report on the intellectual author of the Caloto massacre remain classified. What might these redacted pages tell us about the police officials now being re-tried in civilian court? What will those proceedings tell us about collusion between narcotraffickers and government security forces in a deadly campaign against indigenous groups with territorial claims? Most importantly, will Colombia finally convict a member of the security forces in the 25-year-old Caloto massacre? Time will tell.