The Army Operation Stained with Civilian Blood
Vorágine, in alliance with Cambio and El Espectador, was in the village in Putumayo where the Colombian security forces carried out an operation that ended in a massacre. There are photos that indicate that the Colombian Army moved bodies at the scene before the Technical Investigative Corps (CTI) arrived.
The journalists from Vorágine, El Espectador and Revista Cambio who went to the scene of the events agreed that the story we were trying to reconstruct was bigger and more important than our individual capacities as reporters and should be above any spirit of competition in this profession. For this reason, and because the country has the right to know as completely as possible what happened on the 28th of March in Puerto Leguízamo, we decided to act as if we were an investigative unit and compile as much material as possible in the short time we had, to share it later. The result is a collective work that gathered about 30 testimonies, videos, and photographs, which each journalist used to narrate the story in their own way.
This journalistic work was the winner of the Simón Bolívar Journalism Award in the News (text) category in 2022.
Written by: José Guarnizo, village of Remanso, Putumayo.
Illustrations: Angie Pik
Video: Bibiana Bello
Translation: Tatiana Quintero and Zsófia Kelemen*
Ana María Sarrias would last an hour and a half bleeding to death and waiting for first aid that the army never provided, not even out of simple humanity.
They did not help her even though the same soldiers were firing at the moment she felt the shot in her leg. They did not help her even though Ana María was a 24-year-old woman, two months pregnant, who had nothing to do with the conflict. She bled for an hour and a half.
El Pájaro, as one of her neighbours is called, did what he could to help her. He grabbed her by the arms, dragged her about ten metres to the bank of the Putumayo River and dived in with her in search of a boat. He did so because Divier Hernández, Ana María’s husband and president of the Communal Action Board (Junta de Acción Comunal) of the Alto Remanso village, begged him to try to save her.
- Pájaro, help me, take my wife with you, have the keys to the boat,” said Divier.
The problem was that the bullets were raining down all around and it was not clear where they were coming from. Women, children, men, everyone was running from one side to the other trying to take shelter. Divier himself had been hiding with Ana Maria behind a huge palm tree when the bullet hit her. It was then that El Pájaro carried Ana María to the riverbank.
Before he fell dead with a bullet in his head, Divier may have caught a glimpse of his wife limping away, clutching her neighbour. Maybe not. The fact is that the president of the Communal Action Board was left lying on his back, his face destroyed, his arms spread wide, his dark blue T-shirt covering his sturdy body, with his jeans under his rubber boots, as can be seen in a photograph in the case file.
It was Monday, 28th of March. “Sunday to the dawn of Monday”, says El Pájaro five days later, looking at the river that rushes darkly down towards Puerto Leguízamo. He tells this in a low voice, with watery eyes, as if ridding himself of a sting that visits him at night and prevents him from sleeping.
That 28th of March, at 4:35 in the afternoon, Defence Minister Diego Molano gave an account of what had happened. In a tweet, he said that thanks to offensive operations by the security forces, which continued to be carried out against FARC dissidents, they had “neutralised nine criminals and captured four more in Puerto Leguízamo”. He added: “#WithAllOurForces protect Colombia from these #SymbolsOfEvil”. Hours later, the minister said that eleven dissidents had been killed.
Even President Iván Duque tweeted that all the dead were dissidents: “The #WithoutTruce offensive continues against narcoterrorist structures in all regions of the country. In operations by our security forces, the neutralisation of 11 members of FARC dissidents was achieved and four more criminals were captured in Puerto Leguízamo”.
Divier and Ana María were civilians, they were not armed, as can be seen in the photos of their bodies that were left for the investigation, which are in the hands of the Prosecutor’s Office. They are images that, due to their crudeness, are not suitable for publication in this article. But they exist, they are there. We saw them.
Besides, they were not part of any illegal armed group. They were in Alto Remanso in a bazaar that lasted three days and attracted peasants, indigenous people, and Afro-Colombians from the surrounding villages, including towns from Ecuador and Peru that are located on the other side of the river.
Nor was it true that there were four arrests. Nine days later, the Prosecutor’s Office acknowledged in a communiqué that the army had not carried out such a procedure. Four injured people, including a minor, had been taken to hospitals, but none of them were brought before a judge or charged.
So who were the other dead people?
-Well, Pájaro, what do we do? — said Ana María in those first few minutes as they were about to get into the boat. The blood was still gushing from her wounded leg. A military helicopter flew over the village.
“We were about to get on the boat when they were shooting and shooting at us. We turned around and went down. We hid behind a chipa bush, in a root,” continues El Pájaro.
-Do something for me, I don’t want to die. — she said, perhaps already knowing that Divier had died.
-I can’t Ana, because they will kill us. — Replied El Pájaro, grabbing her by the waist so she wouldn’t drown. They stood motionless and crouched behind the bushes that grew at the river’s edge.
The army has defended the operation as legitimate. So far, the state has not acknowledged, at least not publicly, that civilians were killed. The official version indicates that on the 28th of March a joint action was carried out by the army, navy, and air force to locate Carlos Emilio Loaiza Quiñonez, alias ‘Bruno’, and another man known as ‘Managua’, leaders of the 48th Front of the dissidents, who are also called the Border Commandos (Comandos de la Frontera). This is a group of dissidents mixed with ex-paramilitaries who are involved in drug trafficking and who are fighting for the control of the lower and middle Putumayo river with the Carolina Ramírez front, who are also FARC dissidents. A report from the Prosecutor’s Office states that the operation initially involved ten soldiers, including a sniper, and that later, by air and river, they received the support of 40 more soldiers.
General Juan Carlos Correa Consuegra, commander of the National Army’s Air Assault Aviation Division, said that the operation had begun ten days earlier and that it had unfolded in the midst of heavy fighting. He also assured that the procedure was framed within the principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and that it complied with the protocols required for military operations, both legally and doctrinally.
The entire official establishment has closed ranks around the fact that armed dissidents were present who repelled the advance of the troops, and that an evidence of this is the testimony of a soldier who was wounded in the operation.
What really happened? Is the army telling the whole truth?
Five days after the operation, an on-and-off drizzle falls in the village of Alto Remanso. The boat ride from Puerto Asís took about four and a half hours. We just got off a boat, two journalists from El Espectador, two from Cambio magazine, and two from Vorágine. On the ground, there is a mission from the Putumayo Territorial Roundtable of Guarantees (Mesa Territorial de Garantías del Putumayo), which includes more than ten human rights organisations.
Officials from the Prosecutor’s Office are collecting statements from the community as part of their investigation. Some residents of Alto Remanso complain about their late arrival: they showed up only four days later. Other people in the village also say they are afraid to speak in the presence of so many soldiers: how can they testify freely when the military are surrounding the community, with their rifles, guns, and watchful gaze. The soldiers have been here since the events took place. They never left to give way to other authorities who could take evidence independently. They were practically alone, as a large part of the community fled the day of the operation out of physical fear and only returned today. Out of the 250 inhabitants registered in the Communal Action Board, only 20 remained the day after the events.
A few metres from where the dead fell there are three high-ranking army officers: Brigadier General Óscar Alexander Tobar, head of the army’s integral legal department, and Major General Paulina Leguizamón, legal deputy chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces. They take notes, and walk around the village observing the work of the Prosecutor’s Office’s investigators. When we approached them, they said they were not authorised to give statements. The third general who is in Alto Remanso is Juan Carlos Correa, commander of the Army’s Aviation and Air Assault Division. The latter is in charge of security in the area. And the first two are in charge of legally shielding the case in favour of the army.
There are no cordoned-off areas at the crime scene. The scene of the events is contaminated, says David Melo, the lawyer representing the victims. The officials of the Ombudsman’s Office are probably in Bogotá or Puerto Leguízamo in their offices, because there are none here.
Among the journalists we have just decided to share all the information we have collected, bearing in mind the magnitude of what is in front of us. Standing on the same field where shots were fired on the 28th of March, we divided the reporting work by zones, by victims. The story is more important than us, than the media we work for, than the bosses, we tell each other.
Alto Remanso is nothing more than a concrete field around which there is a community house, a few houses, and a brothel they call El Chongo. The rest of the houses are scattered along the trails and small roads. They are all wooden structures. The river flows on one side, the mountain looks on from the other. Behind it are vast areas of coca leaf plantations, they say. There are no shops, no commerce. The state usually comes to this village with soldiers and oblivion. Not much else. Middle Putumayo is a region cut off from the world.
Twenty minutes away by boat, says El Pájaro, is Divier and Ana María’s house. You can also walk through a forest where wild pigs, lowland pacas, parrots, macaws, trumpeters, and curassows can be spotted. There are also many banana and cassava plants. Alto Remanso is located at a kind of intersection where the borders between Colombia, Peru, and Ecuador meet. The three countries are united by the Amazon rainforest and the presence of indigenous communities for whom homelands are blurred. For thousands of years the Murui, Muinane, Kichwa, Siona and Coreguaje people have lived in this territory.
On the side of the mountain, there is a hut with a dirt floor that is now littered with twisted beer cans, used plastic plates, and a few empty Buchanans bottles. These are the remains of the bazaar that ended in a massacre, according to the community, or that led to the triumph of institutionalism, if by the military forces. Eighteen little pink flags can be seen around the site, which were nailed to specific points by the investigators of the Prosecutor’s Office. Eleven of them indicate the location of a dead body. The rest refer to some other evidentiary material. There are so many people in the village today that it is common to see someone stepping on them.
There are at least four key questions that the Prosecutor General’s Office will have to resolve. The first is whether at the time of the operation in the village there were armed men from the dissidents commanded by alias ‘Bruno’. The second will be to determine whether there were civilians in the crossfire. The third is to know who fired the first shot that unleashed the combat. And fourth, whether the army manipulated the scene of events once the operation was over.
Several testimonies we gathered in the area indicate that there were at least five armed men from the FARC dissidents in the bazaar, mixed with the community. This is the landscape of countless corners of the country where there is no state and where communities have historically lived at the mercy of illegal armed groups. If a man with a rifle slung across his back comes to ask for food or drink, you have to give him. Or what choice does an unarmed civilian have?
Were there civilians when the shooting broke out? A large number of women, men, and children were there that day. It is difficult for the army to refute this theory, as there are photos and hundreds of testimonies to support it. It was the third day of the festival. The purpose of the bazaar was to raise funds to build a 2.5-kilometre paved road to connect the village with farms in the area. Divier, as president of the Communal Action Board, was in charge of receiving the money from each plate of food sold.
On Saturday there was roast beef from a steer that was slaughtered. On Sunday they offered chicken stew, bone broth with rice, cooked cassava, and salad. The women spent eight-hour shifts in the kitchen on all three days. There seemed to be no end to the beer.
By dawn on Monday, just before the army arrived, many of the diners were drunk, others asleep at the tables of the community house. A few more were still standing. Some locals were leaving their homes, thinking about enjoying the last day of the event.
Divier was tired from being out till late, he had no one to relieve him in his important mission of being responsible for the food sales. Ana Maria, his wife, gave him a hand in the kitchen. A woman who worked long hours in the kitchen recalls that the president of the Board was happy, that he was telling everyone that they had already collected 11 million pesos and there was still Monday to continue selling empanadas.
Between 6:30 and 7:00 in the morning, Divier was explaining to a new group of women where the food was, what was left to sell, what was left to prepare, and what had to be done. And the first shot rang out from the mountain, just behind the kitchen.
“I ducked down and Divier burst out laughing. ‘You look silly, someone must be throwing firecrackers over there,’ he told me. And she continues: “When the second shot rang out, I went to the room to look for my 9-year-old boy to see if he was still there.” And a shooting started that could have lasted between an hour and an hour and a half, according to several witnesses.
And this is where the neuralgic knots of this story begins. This was not a guerrilla camp, even though at least five armed dissidents were there. The army operation took place at the end of a party where there were neighbours from neighbouring villages with their children. How many children were there? “Between the ages of 5 and 10, there were ten minors. And five newborns,” says another woman who helped prepare food during the night.
Lawyer Antonio Varón Mejía, an IHL expert and professor at the Universidad del Rosario, says that given the size of the bazaar, the army should have weighed the principle of humanity against the military principle, especially if they were only targeting two leaders. “The principle of proportionality is not clear because there was a high level of human activity and they should have limited the operation. The chances of it turning into a direct attack on civilians were very high”.
Minister Molano said, however, that the operation had not been against peasants, but against FARC dissidents. “It was not against innocent indigenous people, but against narco-coca farmers. It was not in a bazaar, but against criminals who attacked soldiers. We defend the Colombians’’.
There are two conflicting versions about who fired first. The military have implied that in the operation in search of alias ‘Bruno’, whom they never found, they were attacked by armed dissidents who were in the event and that the troops acted under the principle of legitimate self-defence.
But on the other hand, there are many testimonies in the community that claim that the first soldiers who arrived in the village presented themselves as guerrillas from the Carolina Ramírez front of the FARC dissidents. The accounts say that these soldiers were disguised as insurgents with black T-shirts and hoods and that they were careful not to shoot at the helicopter.
“One who was supposedly from FARC approached the helicopter and was handed a bag (…) and a uniform, and he put it on over his other clothes. They whisper there, and we realised it was a set-up”, says another woman.
This version of several of the village inhabitants indicates that the army would have used this strategy to introduce a combat scenario so that the soldiers could then defend themselves and activate their weapons. In a video recorded from inside one of the houses in the village, two men can be seen in a crawling position, firing rifles, dressed in the way the community describes the alleged soldiers dressed as guerrillas. The Prosecutor’s Office will have to assess the veracity of this evidence.
Video 2 -se puede descargar del artículo
What happened during the hour and a half that the fighting went on seemed like something out of a horror movie. Yes, it is commonplace to call it this way. But there is no other way to explain the moment when the indigenous governor Pablo Panduro tried to run and fell wounded just two steps into the concrete field, the very place where he used to have fun playing football on weekends. The sun was beginning to rise. In the moments when the bullets died down and the village fell silent, they say that the 49-year-old man’s cries for help could be heard. They were cries that went nowhere because no one dared approach for fear of being shot by the sniper. One of his friends tried, but Panduro himself told him to run away because he could be killed. “When I saw that my compadre had fallen, I tried to help him but if I went near him, it was his life or mine.”
Panduro bled to death without receiving first aid. He was a leader of the Kichwa people. When an indigenous authority dies, centuries of ancestral knowledge go with them, because indigenous wisdom is not recorded in books, but in oral tradition. Panduro taught the children Quechua, his mother tongue. It will be difficult for the army to pass Panduro off as a guerrilla. The governor never wielded a weapon, and there are countless testimonies to this.
In a video recorded hours after the army operation, one can see how the villagers demand that the soldiers allow them to identify the bodies of their relatives. The images show a woman writhing on the ground, disconsolate because she was not allowed to say goodbye to her loved one. And that’s when someone says: “We civilians don’t have weapons, why are they doing this to us? The most horrifying thing is that they placed guns besides them. The man you staged as having a gun is a governor accredited by the mayor’s office. He was an unarmed person.”
Video 3 -se puede descargar del artículo
While Governor Panduro was dying, in another part of the village, a minor named Brayan Santiago Pama was killed. He was 16 years old. Several witnesses agree that the boy tried to help a wounded man when he received the first shot. He collapsed near the river bank. It will be impossible for people to forget the moment when Rodolfo Pama, Brayan Santiago’s father, ran to where his son’s body was lying and began to tell him, in desperation, “open your eyes, papito, get up”.
There are indications that the army may have tampered with Brayan Santiago’s body. We have seen three photographs of Brayan Santiago’s body moments after his death. The images raise several questions, considering that in one of them the boy appears unarmed, lying face up. In another, he is seen inside a navy boat. And in one more, which also corresponds to the same boat, the body has a rifle on his chest which was not there before. In the last two photos, Brayan Santiago is next to another corpse. Why in one photo does the body appear with a rifle and in the other two not?
The photos, which are part of the investigation file and which we do not publish because they are extremely sensitive images (see illustrations that reproduce them reliably), were analysed by a forensic expert. His assessment is that Brayan Santiago’s shirt was pulled. He assures that the weapons seen on the boat were planted. “The first photo is of the boat. (…) There are traces of grass in the blood stains. (The impacts) were not rifle shots. The bodies were taken onto the boat after they were killed. On the right side there are marks of dragging”.
About the photo of Brayan Santiago’s body facing up on the ground, the coroner says: “Dirt in the folds of the shirt. He could have fallen head on. They dragged him, turned him over. Signs of dragging. The dragging of the lower part of the right arm is when he was still alive. (The wound) on the left arm looks like it is from a sharp weapon. No haematic ake on the ground. The photos are of a recently dead, because of the gleam in the eyes. In less than two hours.”
The above would mean that Brayan Santiago’s body was possibly moved before the research agents arrived on the scene to carry out the urgent actions, called as such because they are designed to collect evidence as quickly as possible, before it is tampered with or disappeared. According to what the army said at a press conference, the officers who removed the bodies arrived at 11:50 in the morning of March 28. However, a report from the Prosecutor’s Office to which we had access says that the officials who were to carry out the technical inspection of the bodies were only informed of the facts at 2:20 in the afternoon, that is, almost five hours after the operation. After finding out, they had to go to the 27th Artillery battalion in Mocoa, and only then did they board a helicopter that would eventually take them to Alto Remanso.
What did the soldiers do during those five hours in Alto Remanso? Once the shooting was over, the soldiers forced all the villagers out of their houses. They led them to the field and ordered them to turn their backs to the area where the dead were. Several people report that children, women and men — some carrying their grief — had to stay in the sunlight for nearly four hours, barely allowed to go to the toilet when they were in the custody of armed soldiers. A photograph was left as a testimony of this moment.
The 11 million pesos that Divier had collected from the sale of the food were taken by the military. Some residents we spoke with told us that they also took mobile phones and liquor left over from the party. They say they were also insulted. “They treated us badly, they told us, ‘this is all your fault, do you want to keep dancing? Go, there’s still some beer left’,” says one woman.
One of the sex workers in El Chongo told neighbours that a soldier put a foot on her head and took her mobile phone without giving her any explanation. Another resident of the village said that a friend of his, whose name has been withheld for security reasons, was robbed by the soldiers of a briefcase containing 36 million pesos from the sale of a farm. “When that fucking shooting happened, he threw himself into the ravine and they told him, ‘come out of there with your hands up’. He arrives and takes out his briefcase and they search it. They tell him that with that amount of money they can take him to jail. They give him the option of walking straight ahead without looking back. And when he turned around, there was no briefcase and no soldiers.” After the operation, the army reported that money was allegedly seized, but they never specified how much it was.
There is one issue that little or nothing has been said about following the operation, and it has to do with the people the community reports as missing. They say they do not know the whereabouts of five people they know: Diego Delgado Hernández, Brayan Stiven Salazar Rodríguez, Andrés Felipe Chalarca, Juan Antonio Rebolledo and his 8-year-old son. These disappearances have been denounced at the Prosecutor’s Office.
A book could be written with the number of testimonies collected in the village. One woman claims to have heard the moment when the military apparently gave the order to kill Divier, the president of the Junta de Acción Comunal, Ana María’s husband.
“I heard clearly when a man called a certain Chacal, who I was told is the sniper. I’m afraid to talk about this (pauses). And he said, ‘kill that son of a bitch, the one hiding behind the palm tree’. And it was him (Divier) because when we went outside, he was the one behind the palm tree, the deceased. He was shot in the forehead,” she says.
Ana María and El Pájaro stayed hidden in the river for more than an hour and a half, only showing their heads from time to time. When they saw the navy boats arriving, they thought they would be rescued. After all, El Pájaro and Ana María were civilians in the middle of a battle between the army and an armed group. But the boats went straight ahead and Ana Maria continued to bleed to death.
-Pájaro, I’m going to die, I can’t stand it any more, such sadness, Divier is dead. I saw when they shot him, the father of my children is dead, I can’t leave them alone. — she said.
She was referring to Dainara Hernandez Sarrias, 6 years old. And Kaleth Hernandez Sarrias, two years old.
“All of a sudden I looked at Ana Maria and she gave a single sigh,” recalls El Pájaro. She died in his arms. Her struggle in the water and the insufferable moments of anguish were worthless. Ana María died tormented.
“She was heavy. I had to struggle to get her out. From there I left her alone. I hid higher up, until the army arrived. I thought they were going to help us. But no, the army was even tougher with us. ‘If you move, we’ll kill you’, they told me. What did I do? I threw myself to the ground,” says El Pájaro.
Two days after the army operation, we spoke to Jhonier, Divier’s brother, to ask him what had happened to the children, Divier and Ana María’s children. That day he told us that they were in the care of their grandparents. And that Kaleth, as young as he still is, did nothing but ask about his mom.
*Translators note: In Colombia, the duties of the State regarding the security, life, and dignity of peasants, indigenous peoples, Afro-descendant communities, and other vulnerable populations in the peripheral regions of the country have not only been omitted but also violated by the institutional forces. Since Here We Draw the Line is committed to building collective memory and to amplifying the voices of those who call for peace, social justice, and the protection of human rights in Colombia, we present a translation of Vorágine’s article: The Army Operation Stained with Civilian Blood, about the massacre of Puerto Leguízamo, Putumayo, that was committed on the 28th of March, 2022. Our goal is to raise awareness and remember that almost nine months have passed since these horrific events where civilians were killed and stigmatized as criminals to justify an irregular army operation and that Colombian society still has not received any answers.
- This work was made possible thanks to the support of Open Society Foundations.
- If you want to read how Cambio Magazine told this story go to this link:
Anatomy of a massacre
- If you want to read how El Espectador told this story go to this link:
The inconsistencies of the military operation in Putumayo that took the lives of civilians