Hernán Darío Velásquez, better known as ‘El Paisa,’ was a top former leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and his exact whereabouts are currently unknown after he expressed disagreements with the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement with the Colombian government.
In July 2018, accompanied by alias Iván Márquez, he left the Territorial Training and Reincorporation Space (ETCR) of Miravalle, in San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá, where he was staying along with 100 other ex-combatants. It is currently believed that El Paisa has left Caquetá for Venezuela and is currently protected by a heavy security detail somewhere around the Orinoco River basin.
In April 2019, frustrated at his lack of cooperation with the peace process, Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz – JEP) reactivated arrest warrants against El Paisa and a reward of up to 3 billion pesos ($920,000) for information leading to his capture.
Velásquez is a native of Remedios, Antioquia, but was raised in Medellín. There he became close to Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellín Cartel, and learned about weapons and drugs trafficking, as well as planning criminal operations in urban areas.
He was captured in 1989 during the famous ‘Operation Jamaica,’ in the possession of 1,000 rifles and 250 mortars, an arms shipment which had been paid for with cocaine. It is uncertain how he regained his freedom, although there are rumors he escaped from prison. In 1993, he joined up with the FARC’s Eastern Bloc and was in command of the newly created Teófilo Forero Mobile Column, known as ‘El Teófilo’, an elite group formed to protect the FARC’s Secretariat.
With the backing of ‘Mono Jojoy,’ the then commander of the Eastern Bloc, El Paisa worked his way through the FARC ranks.
The FARC, which by early 1990 had not yet consolidated its presence in Colombian cities, took advantage of Velásquez’s network of contacts to settle in these areas.
Velásquez, had served as a hitman and urban commander in the Medellín Cartel, which brought him into close contract with drug trafficking and criminal networks. The skills acquired during this time were attractive to the FARC.
His penchant for violence also helped El Paisa lead the new Teófilo troops, among whom he developed a reputation as being fearless.
As dialogue began between the FARC and the government of Andrés Pastrana and the guerrilla, the column focused its sphere of influence and action in the department of Huila, in the municipality of Algeciras, passing through San Vicente del Caguán (where the zone of distención), El Doncello and Puerto Rico. After that, the structure remained there, settling in the eastern mountain range.
El Paisa’s importance within the FARC ranks also came at a time of the group boosting its military strength, especially in the Eastern and Southern Blocs. The first was headed up by his mentor, Mono Jojoy, while the second was where El Paisa thrived, handpicking elite men to serve under him.
But El Paisa also commanded some of the bloodiest actions perpetrated by the FARC in this chapter of the Colombian conflict, starting with the murder of Diego Turbay Cote and his family in 2000. This was followed by the famous takeover of the Miraflores building, the attack on Club El Nogal in Bogotá in 2003 and the kidnapping of from 12 deputies of Valle del Cauca.
After the death of ‘El Mono Jojoy’ and ‘Alfonso Cano’ in 2010 and 2011 respectively, the FARC’s Plan Renacer (Rebirth Plan) sought to counteract the devastation of these casualties. At this time, the Teófilo Forero Mobile Column grew in importance within the FARC, being seen as a guerrilla unit of high strategic and military value.
As a result, in 2013, the government founded the Jupiter Task Force exclusively to combat El Paisa and its structure, which included some of the best fighters from the 13th, 14th, 15th and the 49th Fronts.
El Paisa then was named to the FARC’s General Staff (Estado Mayor Central) just as negotiations with the government became more tangible. However, awareness of Velásquez’s reservations about this process soon circulated, spreading doubts within the FARC’s Secretariat. However, in April 2016, El Paisa joined the FARC peace delegation in Havana, denying his opposition to the peace process.
At the signing and implementation of the peace agreement, El Paisa was based at the ETCR of Miravalle in Caquetá. Today, his whereabouts are unknown and his refusal to appear before the JEP have added another element of risk to the peace process, leading to an arrest warrant being reactivated.
El Paisa’s criminal activities were intrinsically linked to certain phases of drug trafficking, including weighing, protecting illicit crops and providing security for cocaine shipments. However, regular confrontations with Colombian security forces made it increasingly difficult for the Teófilo Forero Mobile Column to control this criminal economy.
Thus, this guerrilla structure also counted on important resources from extortion and kidnapping, which eventually became their main sources of income. In its area of control, El Teófilo maintained a system of taxation levied on individual farmsteads of communities, depending on their earnings.
For several years, El Paisa managed to collect up to 2 billion pesos ($615,000) but in 2016, this had dropped to around 200 million pesos ($61,500).
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 fiefdom stretched across the municipalities of San Vicente del Caguán, Puerto Rico, Algeciras, Campoalegre, Neiva, La Uribe, Baraya, Colombia, Mesetas and San Juan de Arama until he moved to Havana in 2016.
After the peace process, he was back in familiar territory, based at the Miravelle ETCR in San Vicente del Caguán. However, the capture of Zeuxis Pausias Hernández Solarte, alias ‘Jesús Santrich,’ saw Velásquez leave the camp and vanish into the jungle without a trace, stating only that the peace process offered no real guarantees for him and his brothers-in-arms. Nowadays it is believed that he moves between Venezuela and Arauca, backed by a strong security force.
Allies and Enemies
During his time in the guerrilla, Velásquez established a very close relationship with ‘El Mono Jojoy,’ commander of the FARC’s Eastern Bloc who rewarded El Paisa for his courage in battle. He also became very close to Manuel Marulanda, alias ‘Tiro Fijo,’ who was the guerrilla’s top security chief.
Today, his closest relationship is with Luciano Marín, better known as ‘Iván Márquez.’ They departed the Miravalle ETCR and are thought to have remained together. Neither of them has appeared before the JEP.
Faced with this situation, the government of Iván Duque has framed El Paisa as having returned to a criminal way of life. However, no information has been obtained to date, showing that Velásquez might be cooperating with dissident groups.
The disappearance of El Paisa, in the company of Iván Márquez and ‘Romaña,’ has been one of the biggest obstacles to the implementation of the peace agreement. The importance of Velásquez in finding out the truth of what happened during years of conflict is crucial to the legitimacy of the JEP.
Although El Paisa was repeatedly asked to return to the peace process, he failed to do so, leading to his inclusion on Colombia’s most wanted list in April 2019.