Olimpo de Jesús Sánchez Caro

08.05.2016 ( Last modified: 07.06.2016 )
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facts

Olimpo de Jesús Sánchez Caro, also known as Cristobal, Chucho, Roble, Matacuras, and El Viejo, fought with armed guerilla forces in Colombia against the government of the Republic of Colombia from 1986-2008.

Sánchez Caro is most notorious for his role as the leader of the Guevara Revolutionary Army (“Ejército Revolucionario Guevarista”, ERG), an armed guerilla group that he co-founded along with his brothers, Ephraim Sánchez Caro and Lizardo Sánchez Caro, in 1993.

In his capacity as Commander of the ERG, Sánchez Caro was reportedly responsible for over 400 war crimes and crimes against humanity including numerous murders, kidnappings, forced displacements, forced disappearances, recruitment of child soldiers, and gender crimes, including forced abortions.

Before establishing the ERG, Sánchez Caro and his brothers were affiliated with the Ernesto Che Guevara Front of the National Liberation Army (“Ejército de Liberación Nacional”, ELN), an armed guerilla group opposing the Colombian government. Sánchez Caro acted as the military leader of the group. Following alleged rifts with the ELN over the group’s direction, Sánchez Caro, his two brothers, and 17 additional ELN guerrillas separated from the ELN and formed their own guerilla group, the ERG, on 18 October 1993. Most of the original ERG members were Sánchez Caro family members or friends of the Sánchez Caro family. Olimpo Sánchez Caro ascended as the leader and commander of the new group.

Under Sánchez Caro’s command, the ERG swelled from its original 20 members to somewhere between 120 and 200 at the height of its power. The ERG reportedly engaged in numerous violent acts that constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes during its war with the Colombian government from 1993 – 2008. The ERG operated primarily in the Antioquia, Chocó, Valle de Cauca, Risaralda, Caldas, and Tolima departments.

Some of the atrocities allegedly committed by the ERG include, but are not limited to, the following:

–          The murder of five policeman in Bagadó, Chocó in 2000;

–          The kidnapping of a Doctors Without Borders physician in July 2001;

–          The kidnapping of four Swiss citizens in August 2001;

–          The murder of four farmers in Tado in 2001;

–          The kidnapping of a Colombian man in 2002 who was eventually killed after a ransom was not paid;

–          The detonation of a bomb in the village of Guaduas that killed four soldiers and one civilian;

–          The kidnapping and subsequent killing of a woman named Luz Amparo Velez and her nephew, a child,  from Ciudad Bolívar, Antioquia as well as three other persons from nearby areas during 2004;

–          The murder of 18 policeman in 2005; and

–          17 forced abortions within the ranks of the ERG.

Additionally, Sánchez Caro reportedly personally ordered the killing of five of his own ERG fighters, including a 14-year-old pregnant girl, for alleged disciplinary offences.

The ERG, still led by Sánchez Caro, surrendered to Colombian government forces and laid down their arms on 21 August 2008 after eight months of negotiation. The Peace and Justice Law, Colombian legislation designed to demobilise paramilitaries by offering amnesty for most surrendering guerilla fighters, made the surrender possible.

Under the provisions of the Peace and Justice Law, Sánchez Caro and the entire ERG fighting force, which had dwindled to just 45 members, surrendered to the Colombian government and turned in 31 assault rifles, an M60 machine gun, a mortar, an MGL grenade launcher, two 9mm pistols, ten communication radios, two anti-personnel mines, 22 grenades, a computer, and 5,981 rounds of ammunition.

Sánchez Caro voluntarily accepted responsibility for numerous crimes as part of the surrender deal and subjected himself to prosecution by the Colombian National Prosecution Unit for Justice and Peace.

legal procedure

Sánchez Caro voluntarily accepted responsibility for numerous crimes as part of the surrender deal and subjected himself to prosecution by the Colombian National Prosecution Unit for Justice and Peace.

After his surrender in August 2008, Sánchez Caro faced numerous charges arising out of his actions as commander of the ERG. He was charged with 242 cases of forced displacement, 41 cases of forced disappearance, 90 kidnappings, eight cases of gender violence, and 21 other crimes. The Colombian National Prosecution Unit for Justice and Peace sought to impose the maximum sentence possible under the Justice and Peace Law for Sánchez Caro. His trial was scheduled for 3 to 6 December 2013.

Separately, on 28 June 2010 Sánchez Caro pled guilty before a Prosecutor of the National Unit for Justice and Peace to 50 crimes including homicides, kidnappings, recruitment of minors, and forced disappearances. During this pleading, Sánchez Caro admitted to, among other things, ordering the killing of five of his ERG fighters, including a 14-year-old pregnant girl. He reported that he had ordered the killings as punishment for unspecified disciplinary infractions. He also admitted to the kidnapping of a Doctors without Borders physician and four Swiss persons from the physician’s family during July 2001 and August 2001 respectively.

On 29 July 2011 Sánchez Caro along with other ERG members pled guilty to at least 44 kidnappings committed in south-western Antioquia and Choco between 1997 and 2004. During this plea hearing, Sánchez Caro also accepted responsibility for four murders including that of Luz Amparo Velez for whom the ERG continued to accept ransom payments for even after her killing her.

On 7 July 2012, Sánchez Caro pled guilty to aggravated forced disappearances, murder of protected persons including children, illegal recruitment of children some as young as 13 years old, and forced displacements. Sánchez Caro received a sentence of 20 years in prison at the Itagui Prison in Antioquia for these crimes.

Sánchez Caro, apparently as part of one of his plea deals, at an unidentified time provided Colombian authorities with the location of the skeletal remains of a farmer whom the ERG had kidnapped, tortured, killed, and buried in the in the Chocó department some years ago. On 18 March 2014 Colombian authorities exhumed the remains.

spotlight

The ERG was the first group to surrender wholesale under the terms of the Peace and Justice Law. The Colombian government hopes to use the ERG success as a model to eventually enable to surrender of larger groups.

context

From 1948 to 1953, Colombia experienced a civil war of rare intensity. Known as “La Violencia”, the conflict opposed the Catholic conservative party with the liberal party, radicalised following the assassination of their leader, Jorge Eliécer Gaitan. This conflict is at the origin of the creation of liberals and communist guerrilla movements and of the emergence of self-defense militias of farmers, created in response to abuses committed by the military and the conservative armed groups. They thus gave rise among others, to the creation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which emerged as a military wing of the Colombian Communist Party, and the National Liberation Army (ELN) a Castroist group. In the beginning these groups received strong support from the rural population especially during the period of the National Front (1958-1978) the Conservatives and Liberals agreed to alternately hold power, leaving no possible alternative political representation. This negation of democracy by a ruling elite created great frustration resulting in violent confrontations between the guerrilla movements and the government.

In the 1980s, the conflict took another dimension with the rise of drug trafficking and the emergence of the first paramilitary groups funded by drug traffickers’ production of cocaine to protect themselves from the guerrillas attacks. In 1984, a ceasefire was declared between the guerrillas and the government but only the FARC made any attempt to comply. They thus formed a political party in 1985, the Patriotic Union (“La Unión Patriótica). However, this party was eventually decimated by paramilitaries and security forces. The FARC resumed the armed struggle in 1987. After an unsuccessful attempt to coordinate some guerrilla movements and peace agreements with the government, the only active guerillas that remained were the FARC, ELN and to a lesser extent the EPL, which had emerged out of a Maoist branch of the Communist Party of Colombia.

In December 1991, the weakening of the Communist Party and the taking by the army of the FARC secretariat headquarter in La Uribe, a town in the center of the country in the Meta Department forced FARC leaders to change their operating mode. They adopted a military strategy, particularly between 1993 and 1998 with the taking of several villages and military bases during operations involving several hundreds of freedom fighters. The conflict then moved to a phase of warfare in which the government armed forces no longer seemed to be able to control the guerrillas who started to conduct roadblocks, kidnappings, sabotage etc.

Faced with the ineffectiveness of the army, paramilitary militias were constituted with the creation in 1997 of the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) under the leadership of Carlos Castaño. Various vigilante groups were also created, and one of their operating modes was to kill civilians in villages who were believed to be favorable to guerrilla movements, as happened during the Mapiripan massacre.

In 1998, President Andrés Pastrana arrived to power and opted for a new strategy. He created a demilitarized zone in order to promote peace talks and to exchange prisoners. Unfortunately, while it has led to some beneficial developments, it has also been used as a way for the FARC to demand ransoms or to recruit new soldiers. The area was finally declared again under government control in February 2002.

President Alvaro Uribe was elected in 2002. Under his mandate in July 2005 the Justice and Peace Law (Ley de Justicia y Paz), which purported to provide a legal framework for the demobilisation of the guerrilla fighters, was adopted. Under the already existing legislation, that of law 418, all fighters participating in the demobilisation were granted amnesty from criminal investigation and prosecution. Only those who had committed the most serious crimes, including acts of barbarism, terrorism, kidnapping, genocide, and killing civilians, were excluded from the amnesty. The Justice and Peace Law was adopted to deal specifically with those fighters who fell outside the scope of the existing amnesty law. According to the new framework, they could still benefit from judicial benefits if they contribute to the justice and reparation process. Therefore, in exchange for truth telling and a promise not to return to lawlessness, the demobilised fighters could obtain sentence reductions. Soon after its adoption, this law was highly criticised as the narrowness of its scope largely hampered its objectives of peace and justice. Indeed, of the more than 30’000 fighters who demobilised between 2003 and 2006, fewer than 10% fell within the purview of the Justice and Peace Law, the rest qualifying for the amnesty under law 418 which did not require any truth telling.

From 2002 to 2010, during his two terms in office, President Uribe adopted a policy of “democratic security”, and implemented “Plan Colombia”. Uribe decided to increase drastically the military response to the guerrillas with the objective of restoring the presence of the state throughout Colombian territory. The army’s budget was raised and this new operational capacity combined with a strong offensive against the FARC by the AUC before their demobilization in 2006, lead to a significant reduction in the number of FARC forces. Here again, while  “the democratic security” strategy adopted by Uribe had some success, it also had limitations. The guerrilla movements intensified; they were fewer but were more mobile than ever before. They continued to inflict severe losses to Colombian government’s forces. In addition, cocaine production still provided large funding to guerrilla movements.

In 2010, the mandate of Juan Manuel Santos began with an upsurge in attacks by the FARC. The government replied with violent counter offensives including that of 23 September 20110, Operation Sodom, which dealt a major blow to the FARC. The FARC military chief Jorge Briceño Suarez was killed in the operation, as well as a significant number of members. After many arrests, the government considered in early 2011 that the FARC were decreasing in size and operations and set the priority to the fight against the heirs of paramilitaries and criminal gangs.

On 27 August 2012, President Santos confirmed that he would meet with the FARC in order to begin peace talks and try to end the conflict. Although controversial, dialogues were conducted during ceasefires, also thanks to the mediation of Hugo Chavez requested by Santos. The peace talks have so far helped to reach an agreement on land reform as well as on political participation and representation of the opposition in the Colombian parliament. The next priority in these dialogues concerns drug trafficking as well as the possible allocation of funds previously associated with the defense budget for the victims in a post conflict Colombia.

Although officially still ongoing, major advances have been made in the Colombian conflict during recent years. So far, the conflict has generated a large number of victims: approximately 180,000 civilians killed, 40,000 combatants killed, 25,000 missing persons and more than 4.7 million displaced. This context of generalized violence has mainly affected the civilian population. Massacres, killings, enforced disappearances, kidnappings have been the everyday life of tens for thousands of people during the conflict.