Hernán Darío Velásquez Saldarriaga, alias ‘El Paisa’

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Hernán Darío Velásquez, better known as “El Paisa,” is a former guerrilla commander who had gone missing for more than a year until reappearing in a video announcing a new dissident force composed of ex-leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).

Though he took part in the 2016 peace negotiations between the FARC and the government, El Paisa had always viewed the process with suspicion and later criticized its implementation. In 2018, he fled a reintegration camp in Caquetá, where he was staying along with other ex-combatants.

El Paisa was not seen again until August 2019, when he appeared in the video alongside guerilla commander Luciano Marín, alias “Iván Márquez,” that announced their return to war.

A hardened leader who formerly was in charge of the FARC’s special forces unit, El Paisa was behind some of the most notorious and bloody operations during the half a century of civil conflict. He stands to play a key role in developing the new force’s military strategy, along with bringing former fighters back into the field.

It is currently believed that El Paisa is holed up in Venezuela, somewhere in the Orinoco River basin, where he is protected by a heavy security detail.

History

A native of Remedios, Antioquia, El Paisa was raised in Medellín, where some say he came under the tutelage of Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel, acting as a “sicario,” or contract killer,” while also learning about arms and drugs trafficking.

At just 19 years old, he had a number of warrants out for his arrest, and he partnered with the FARC, because he thought the guerrillas would provide him with protection. He was imprisoned in 1989 after he was caught in Jamaica conducting an arms trafficking deal to trade cocaine for 1,000 rifles and 250 mortars. Upon his release, he joined up with the FARC’s Eastern Bloc, led by Victor Julio Suarez, alias “Mono Jojoy.” El Paisa terrorized the department of Antioquia, placing checkpoints on roads and demanding drivers pay a tax to let their vehicles pass.

In 1993, he was placed in command of the newly created Teófilo Forero Mobile Column. Known as “La Teófilo,” the elite group of fighters was created to protect the FARC’s top leadership, known collectively as the Secretariat.

The late FARC leader Mono Jojoy, then the commander of the Eastern Bloc, took an interest in El Paisa, who had a penchant for violence and brought a number of skills from his time with the Medellín Cartel, including urban warfare tactics.

As dialogue began between the FARC and the government of President Andrés Pastrana in 1998, the Teófilo column focused its sphere of influence and action in the southwest department of Huila.

El Paisa’s stature within the FARC grew as the rebel force built its military capacity, especially in the Eastern and Southern Blocs. The Eastern Bloc was headed by Mono Jojoy, while El Paisa served in the Southern Bloc, where he handpicked the men serving under him.

El Paisa led some of the bloodiest actions perpetrated by the FARC during this chapter of the Colombian conflict, starting with the murder of Diego Turbay Cote and his family in 2000 and the infamous takeover of the Miraflores building in 2001, which marked the first massive kidnapping.

In 2002, he effectively ended peace talks with former President Pastrana when his Teófilo unit hijacked a commercial aircraft carrying political opponent Jorge Gechem. This was followed by the car bombing of Club El Nogal in Bogotá in 2003 and the kidnapping of 12 deputies from Valle del Cauca in 2007.

After the deaths of FARC leaders Mono Jojoy and Guillermo Leon Saenz, alias “Alfonso Cano,” in 2010 and 2011 respectively, the FARC needed to regroup and restructure. It did so through what was called Plan Renacer, or “Rebirth Plan,” which counted on El Paisa and his Teófilo Column, now the guerrilla’s special forces unit.

By 2013, El Paisa and the Teófilo column had inflicted such damage that the government founded the Jupiter Task Force, a unit devoted exclusively to combatting him and his fighters.

As the first overtures between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC  were made, El Paisa was named to the FARC’s General Staff. El Paisa made his reservations about the negotiations known. Yet in April 2016, he joined the FARC peace delegation in Havana, denying he was opposed to the peace process.

At the signing and implementation of the peace agreement, El Paisa was put in charge of the Territorial ​​Training and Reincorporation Space (ETCR) of Miravalle in Caquetá. In 2018, he was joined there by Márquez, who had refused his senate seat in Bogotá after the arrest of former commander Seuxis Pausías Hernández Solarte, alias “Jesús Santrich,” on drug charges. Around April 2018, El Paisa fled the ETCR for Venezuela.

El Paisa’s disappearance was a blow to the already fraught peace process, as he was considered crucial to learning the truth of what happened during decades of conflict.

He was repeatedly asked to return to the peace process. His failure to do so led the government to issue a warrant for his arrest in April 2019.

Criminal Activity

El Paisa provided the manpower behind the FARC’s cocaine business, protecting coca crops and providing security for drug shipments. However, regular confrontations with Colombian security forces made it increasingly difficult for his Teófilo Forero Mobile Column to stay under the radar.

His unit also counted on resources from extortion and kidnapping, which eventually became their main sources of income. In areas under its control, the Teófilo column maintained a system of taxes on farms and passing vehicles. For several years, El Paisa managed to collect up to 2 billion pesos ($615,000) in this way.

Geography

During his time in the guerrilla, El Paisa settled in the territory that runs from Caquetá to Huila, along the Eastern Cordillera of the Andes. His zone of control stretched across the municipalities of San Vicente del Caguán, Puerto Rico, Algeciras, Campoalegre, Neiva, La Uribe, Baraya, Colombia, Mesetas and San Juan de Arama.

During the peace process, he was back in familiar territory, at the Miravelle ETCR in San Vicente del Caguán, until his escape from the reintegration camp. Now, he is believed to move between Venezuela and Arauca in Colombia, backed by a strong security force.

Allies and Enemies

During his time in the guerrilla, Velásquez established close ties with Mono Jojoy, commander of the FARC’s Eastern Bloc. He also allied himself with Manuel Marulanda, alias “Tirofijo,” the guerrilla group’s head of security.

El Paisa and his Teófiló column were under constant pursuit by a special police unit called “Los Lobos,” or “The Wolves,” and the Jupiter Unit.  But he eluded them, always moving with a dozen bodyguards and employing a ring of 80 fighters who stayed on alert for any movement by armed forces.

Today Iván Márquez is his closest ally. It’s likely for this reason that Márquez chose to join him in Miravalle ETCR, from which both men fled.

Prospects

In the August 2019 video where Marquez calls on demobilized FARC guerrillas to return to war, El Paisa stands beside him, in camouflage and holding an M4 rifle.

Like the other former FARC leaders in the video, a 3 billion-peso bounty (about $885,000) has been offered for any information leading to his arrest.

Thanks to his experience as the head of the Teófilo column, El Paisa provides unmatched military prowess and leadership.

He stands to bring many former fighters into the new force and could help to reunify the FARC, given his deep knowledge of drug trafficking operations and cocaine production.

His primary role, however, will likely be to strategize and launch the group’s new armed offensive.

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