Colombia’s Great Survivor: Victor Carranza

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“Emerald Czar” Victor Carranza is Colombia’s Teflon man, having survived various attempts to assassinate and prosecute him over a 30-year period. Now he must beat back a new set of damning accusations, after former top paramilitary leaders have testified that he was a key ally.

The 77-year-old Carranza is one of Colombia’s big landowners, with 27 properties reportedly registered in his name or in that of his family. At age 11, he began working in the emerald mining industry, and is now one of the world’s top traders in the precious stones.

The powerful business “empresario” is dogged by accusations that in the early 1990s, he was a key backer of the People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar (PEPES), an armed group that later formed the basis for Colombia’s coalition of paramilitaries, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). But charges have never stuck to him and he was only convicted and imprisoned once in 1998 on charges of drug trafficking and supporting a paramilitary army. He was absolved and released in 2001. When he survived two assassination attempts by the neo-paramilitary group of the ERPAC between 2009 and 2010, it raised further questions about his relationship with Colombia’s new generation of criminal gangs. 

However, Carranza may soon face a new legal battle ahead of him. At least eight of Colombia’s most important paramilitary leaders have now testified that the “Emerald Czar” was a key financier and backer of paramilitaries in one of the country’s most conflicted regions, the Eastern Plains. In February, the Prosecutor General’s Office approved a preliminary investigation into his paramilitary ties.

The warlords who have directly implicated Carranza were once among the AUC’s top command. In their testimony, Carranza is frequently accused of having funded his own paramilitary group, known as the “Carranceros,” in the oil-rich departments of Meta and Vichada. He is described as meeting with the AUC top leadership and expressing his support for them. He is accused of providing private flights for the AUC when needed, and allowing some paramilitary groups to use his property as training, rest, and recuperation areas.

The AUC’s former second-in-command, Salvatore Mancuso, who was extradited to the US in 2008, testified that Carranza attended at least one meeting with the AUC in 1996 and 1997, during which the paramilitaries planned their incursion into the Eastern Plains. This region was a traditional stronghold of the AUC’s primary enemy, rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). When the AUC began planning their strategy to take the Eastern Plains, Carranza already employed two private armies: the Carranceros, made up of some 80 men, in Meta and Vichada departments, and another group in an emerald mining region in Boyaca, Mancuso said.

Other AUC leaders who implicated Carranza led the paramilitary bloc which later formed the basis of one of Colombia’s most powerful new-generation criminal groups, the Urabeños. This includes AUC commander Freddy Rendon Herrera, who told Semana magazine that in 2001, Carranza asked the AUC to send reinforcements to protect his emerald mines in Boyaca. Herrera’s brother, Daniel, who was previously based in the Eastern Plains, said that Carranza’s private army, the Carranceros, later formed part of the AUC, calling themselves the Self-Defense Forces of Meta and Vichada.

Carranza is also accused of aiding other AUC blocs. One demobilized commander said that Carranza’s aircraft evacuated several wounded AUC soldiers after a bloody battle with the FARC in 1997. Others have said that the AUC used Carranza’s rural estates as training grounds. His role as a “founding father” of the AUC was such that he deserves to be called the “Czar of paramilitarism,” one demobilized paramilitary stated last month in court.

Most of the paramilitaries have testified under Colombia’s Justice and Peace process, in which demobilized AUC members may be granted reduced sentences in return for testimony. Carranza’s defense team has said that the former paramilitaries are “mudslinging,” and that there are some who have testified under oath to buying witnesses.

Also helping Carranza’s case is the testimony of the AUC commander who led the Self-Defense Forces of Meta and Vichada, the paramilitary group which Carranza supposedly helped establish. “I don’t understand why they’re saying that the Carranceros was Victor Carranza’s group,” the bloc commander, José Baldomero Linares, testified earlier this year. “I never paid attention to him, nor had any relationship with him. We never told him about the operations we were going to do. I created the group November 18, 1994.”

Carranza’s team will likely use Linares’ account as a core part of their defense, should the investigation against the “Emerald Czar” move forward. Also working in Carranza’s favor is his extensive political connections and personal wealth. 

For now, the AUC testimony against Carranza is telling a familiar story of his alleged ties to paramilitary interests. But it is unclear whether this time, there will be a different ending from the usual one, in which Carranza gets away clean.

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