A dead person and many questions
In mid-July an employee of the UN mission, which was ensuring the compliance of the peace agreements between the Colombian government and the former Farc guerrillas, was found dead in his apartment. The police initially labeled the case as suicide, but several inconsistencies have been found.
Aguas Claras is an invisible place which lies deep in the Colombian Amazon basin.
On August 29, 2019, eight Farc minors, forcibly recruited by former guerrilla dissidents, died here during a camp bombing. After that several investigations were led by local journalists, it was found out that Colombian army had subsequently murdered also other young people, whose death represents now also in Italy a political concern. In Naples, Paciolla’s family are mourning the loss of their son. On July 15 he was found dead, hanged on a bed sheet with cuts on his wrists, in his apartment in San Vicente del Caguán, a small city located in the Caquetá region about 80 kilometers away from Aguas Claras. Since then, the story of the 33-year-old Italian’s death, who was an employee of the UN Verification Mission in Colombia (UNVMC), is becoming more and more popular. The UNVMC was founded as a result of the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC. Almost 400 civil and military employees are checking the political, economic and social reintegration of more than 13,000 former guerrillas as well as providing them, their families and communities with a safe environment. Paciolla had been working for the UNVMC since August 2018. He had previously worked as a volunteer for the NGO Peace Brigades International (PBI). When he started to cooperate with PBI in Colombia in March 2016, he and the author of this article met for the first time. Mario was the newcomer whereas the writer of this article a former PBI member, who sometimes was coming to pay a visit to the PBI’s team house in Bogotá. Paciolla was an experienced humanitarian worker and knew Colombia very well. His mother describes him in the Italian newspaper “La Repubblica” as a "brilliant world traveler". His friends describe him, in a similar report, as an idealist.
"He was not speaking much about his work", explained his cousin Emanuela to the Italian press. Paciolla's friends also confirm that he was very reluctant to do so. He never let out the dangers of the activities he was doing on field and never said a word "about the thousand problems of this kind of life or about his loneliness". This loneliness depended mainly on the strict UN protocol regime. The local journalist and director of a digital channel in San Vicente, William González, says:"UN operators here in the village are very reserved and the contact with them is minimal."
On the morning of July 15, González was on air when he received the news that a UN agent had hanged himself just three blocks from his studio. He took advantage of the commercial break to send his assistant to take some shots of Paciolla's house exteriors. On the shaky camera images a group of about ten men in front of the entrance of one simple, two-story building can be seen. The veranda extends to the street and the land is vacant on both sides. A little apart from the group there are two young women and a tall man with umbrellas in the gray drizzle: Paciolla's colleagues. The tall man onstentatiously turns his back to the camera. Although he tries to hide his group from the view of the camera with the black umbrella, this was not enough to hide the dismay on their faces.
For the UN mission, Paciolla's death is a disaster. In fact, since journalists took up the case, a diplomatic controversy was born and is currently ongoing and numerous discrepancies are emerging. Colombian police initially labeled the case as suicide. Nobody in San Vicente doubted this version until numerous articles in Italy and Colombia formulated the hypothesis that he may instead have been murdered. Paciolla was not feeling safe in Colombia for some time. He was afraid of being spied on and had recently ceased to trust some of his closest colleagues. Shortly prior to his death, he wrote to an Italian confidant: “I want to forget Colombia forever. Some time ago I asked the UN for a transfer and they did not approve it. I want a new life away from everything”.
According to his mother, he called her on July 10th and told her literally:"Mom, I must come back to Naples, I feel dirty, I have to come back and bathe in the waters of Naples". Apparently on that same day he told her that he had had an argument with his superiors and “got into trouble".
Paciolla anticipated his return flight to Italy, scheduled for August 20, to a month earlier. He decided to go back on July 15th, day in which two colleagues should have come to pick him up at home around eight in the morning to take him to the capital Bogota, which was 700 kilometers away from San Vicente. He died in the night of that same day, just few hours earlier of his planned departure. According to his death certificate, the time of death is two o'clock in the morning. The forensic scientist nearby Florencia, the regional capital of Caquetá, identified "violence" as the possible cause of death. In Colombia this includes both suicide and murder. However, his mother is convinced that "Mario has been killed". Paciolla’s mother reports that UN treated the family with disapproval and aloofness since the very beginning. A UN lawyer called the family around eleven in the morning, Colombian time. The lawyer hesitantly announced that Paciolla had committed suicide and asked if the family wanted his body to be returned. While Paciolla's body was still on its way to the Florencia morgue, the UNVMC published a brief mourning note in Bogotá announcing the death of "a volunteer". A day later, the mission's official Twitter account posted an offensive statement mentioning Paciolla's name. The account of UNVMC leader Carlos Ruiz Massieu still had not published anything about the case, but a few days later he mourned the death of some soldiers in an accident with a military helicopter. The UNVMC paid Paciolla respect and a minute of silence at a ceremony in Bogotá three weeks after his death and still answers to the written inquiries by journalists about the case with the same press release:
"While we are waiting for the results of the investigation and cooperating fully with the authorities, we will not comment on any details about the case."
In the eyes of many observers, the UN mission handled Paciolla's death case in a disastrous way. Colombian and international press reports created the image of an organization that has something to hide and, above all, has a communication problem. The autopsy of Paciolla's body was performed on July 17th. The head of the UNVMC's medical department, Jaime Hernán Pedraza, was also present when the autopsy was performed. Paciolla's family had authorized him to do so. However, the family had been told that Pedraza belonged to the Italian embassy in Bogotá and was an appointed forensic doctor. Pedraza, instead, is not a forensic doctor and - according to a Colombian forensic scientist - it is completely unusual that a non-institutional person is present at an autopsy. This issue fueled further doubts and questions in the eyes of many observers. The Italian embassy in Bogotá, if some journalists call them and mention the name “Paciolla”, hangs up the phone in utter silence. The main actors who are keeping the case alive are the whistleblowers. The UN mission chooses instead to hide behind the protocols and constantly reminds their workforce, as shown in some leaked e-mails, that “employees are not allowed to give any explanations to the press”.
On September 17, an Italian journalist at the daily UN press conference in New York City confronted the spokesman of UN Secretary General António Guterres, Stéphane Dujarric, about speculations by journalists in Colombia, according to which the dismissal of some UNVMC employees is to be expected. Dujarric evaded the question and was visibly uncomfortable. After the journalist asked whether he thought these speculations were true or not, Dujarric straightened his tie and replied, "I'm not saying they...I don't comment on that".
A controversial airstrike
The investigative journalist Claudia Julieta Duque associates Paciolla's death with the bombing of the FARC dissidents camp in Aguas Claras. She was Paciolla’s friend. According to her investigation, largely based on statements coming from whistleblowers, senior UN officials have passed the report written by Paciolla regarding the bombing and murder of forced recruited FARC minors to the opposition politician Roy Barreras. This was used as a political weapon to force the then Defense Minister Guillermo Botero to resignation, which occurred on 6 November 2019. The day before, Barreras had shown documents in a Senate hearing which prove the age of the minors killed. However, Barreras did not provide any sources other than forensic medicine documents, as it can be seen from the meeting recording. There is nothing to suggest that this has anything to do with UN. Even if it is conceivable that leaked documents pass from hand to hand between UN, militaries and politicians, the thesis that Botero's resignation had something to do with Paciolla's death is very weak.
Paciolla dealt with the issue of the forced recruitment of minors. A friend of his from San Vicente said that Paciolla had spoken about it several times. After his death, Duque published an open letter to the deceased in the Colombian newspaper “El Espectador”. In this letter she mentioned Paciolla's "inner discomfort" at the UNVMC, which in its three-month report devoted only a short paragraph to the "controversy over the airstrike". The three-month reports are the means through which the head of UNVMC Ruiz Massieu informs the UN Security Council about the activities of the Mission. It is not clear whether Paciolla was ever involved in any report on the bombing. Basically, the UNVMC does not necessarily investigate such episodes. But Herner Carreño, the municipal ombudsman of the Puerto Rico municipality in Caquetá, confirmed that UNVMC volunteers have also "conducted researches about public safety issues in the region". He spoke personally to two female UNVMC volunteers about the bombing and similar cases - but not with Paciolla. Such discussions are common with many NGOs in Colombia in order to prepare risk analysis and to ensure the safety of the volunteers in the region. The monthly reports from the UNVMC volunteers are usually included into the three-month reports published on the website of the UNVMC. The bombing of August 29, 2019 is not mentioned in the quarterly report from July to September of that year. Carreño says that he “publicly denounced it in the regional media, and told them that three girls, which were forcefully recruited, died in the bombing«.
Supraregional media became however only interested in the bombing issue when the Botero scandal occurred and he was forced to resign. It is unclear whether all of this is has something to do with Paciolla's death. But there are several reasons to doubt the theory that Paciolla has committed suicide. At the beginning of September, a part of the confidential interrogation made by Paciolla's ex-girlfriend has been leaked by the Colombian prosecutor. She, who is currently also working for the UNVMC, said to be the "only person Paciolla was trusting", especially in the days before his death. She has described how his psychological condition deteriorated over those five days, largely due to fears about the consequences of a "possible and unspecified internal UN investigation, of which Paciolla believed to be the subject". Such internal investigations are not uncommon, as it is shown in the three-month reports. The Mission's “behavior and discipline team” seems to have issued warnings even in the case of minor violations. It is also known that the UNVMC interprets the UN protocols relatively in a strict way. As a result, many volunteers, especially in remote regions, are living isolated. In a promotional video for the Mission, one of Paciolla’s colleague says:“Separating work and private life in such a small team is one of the greatest challenges. Everyone has to create his own space. "
Lonely and isolated
In regard to Paciolla's death, the media repeatedly mentioned a working meeting on July 10 at the UNVMC regional office in Florencia. It appears that at this meeting there had been a fight between Paciolla and his superiors. On the one hand, this is indicated by the statements made by Paciolla's mother. On the other, Duque also mentions, in her open letter, that Paciolla said that his apparently internal UN résumé was accompanied by an addendum about his contrary opinion about the mission's handling of the covid-19 pandemic. The journalist writes:"While other employees were allowed to travel and work from the home office, the volunteers were forced by rules to live in loneliness and isolation". In the quarterly reports, the topic of health protection had been hardly dealt with until the outbreak of the pandemic. Only from that moment onward the UNVMC started to speak about wanting to undertake "diverse efforts" to ensure the health of its employees.
A report states:“The Mission has set up a task force and has started to implement alternative working methods in all offices. All non-essential travels have been canceled or postponed, and trips within the Mission area, according to their importance, have been limited. “This means that the corona-related protocol had been tightened and the volunteers started to live even more isolated than before”.
The Italian journalist Simone Ferrari went in September to San Vicente del Caguan, shortly after the quarantine was lifted, in order to further investigate on the case. The owner of the apartment where Paciolla had been living for the last 15 months before his death told Ferrari that Paciolla received no visit neither before nor during the pandemic. Paciolla’s landlord and his wife slept in a room which was located directly below Paciolla's room. A neighbour told the journalist that Paciolla once got upset because a party had been held during the quarantine. He seemed to respect the UN protocols, although he had apparently criticized them in a discussion with his superiors. His family in Italy also reports that "Mario was working in the home office and was almost always at home". Paciolla's landlord also told Ferrari he would have woken up if there had been a fight or an argument in the apartment above his. The building next door, about 20 meters away from Paciolla's house, was still under construction in July. That's why a security guard stayed there at night. From the second floor he could see the street, the neighboring properties, and the entrance to Paciolla's apartment. According to the security man it is highly unlikely that anyone could have approached the house without being noticed. So it is very unlikable that someone was there when Paciolla died. But that doesn't mean that no one is responsible for his death. In the last few days before he died, Paciolla called his family several times, which is something he had never done before. According to his mother, during these calls Paciolla seemed shocked "about something he had seen, understood or intuitively grasped". She says:“The truth about his death lies in his relationships with the work colleagues and in his activities for the UN”. Paciolla also spoke a lot with his ex-girlfriend in those days. In the leaked interrogation protocol, she stated that the last calls before his death were repeatedly interrupted by Paciolla's "crying and screaming". He said that "he no longer wanted to live". The landlord heard Paciolla speaking at the phone loudly in Italian on the night of July 15th. The guard last saw him walking around outside at 10:15 p.m., smoking and talking a little psyched out on the phone. The last phone call with his ex-girlfriend started on July 14 at 11pm and finished at 11:23 pm. According to her statement, Paciolla seemed a bit "more relaxed" during this call.
According to a report by Duque, the regional UN security officer Christian Thompson called Paciolla around 10 p.m. That call looks suspicious, especially in view of the fact that it has been the security officer himself to find Paciolla’s dead body the following morning together with a colleague. Thompson removed cell phones, laptops, cameras, notebooks, and much more evidence from the apartment. It seems understandable that a UN security officer protects sensitive data from unauthorized access, especially in Colombia, where state actors are repeatedly involved in crimes and espionage against national and international NGOs. However, the suspicions about the security officer intensify in light of the fact that, according to witnesses, he had the crime scene cleaned thoroughly a short time later and disposed of a few other items from the apartment. After the corpse has been repatriated, the Italian authorities ordered a second autopsy. According to the Italian forensic experts, the body had not been well embalmed and was in very poor conditions. Nonetheless, the autopsy managed to provide the strongest evidence that Paciolla may have been murdered. According to the leaked details, the wounds on Paciolla's neck could not have been caused by hanging with a bed sheet. In addition, the amount of blood found at the crime scene seems too large to have come from the cuts on the arms. The Italian public prosecutor's office has now started the proceedings to investigate for murder. The investigation is being conducted by an Italian special unit that deals with organized crime and terrorism. Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio made a phone call to UN General Secretary Guterres about the issue. The content of the phone call is still not known - like many other things about Mario Paciolla’s death case.
By Stephan Kroener
Source: Jungle World