Mario Paciolla's last hours described by the people close to him: reportage from San Vicente del Caguan
The testimonies of two witnesses of the night of July 14th. Memories of the community where Paciolla worked for a peace project. The umpteenth ambiguities in the behavior of the UN. Our trip to the Colombian town hall where Mario was found lifeless opens new doubts about his mysterious disappearance
"Mario had a noble heart and an enormous ambition: to ensure that the people of Caquetá could enjoy the peace". Ángela (invented name) struggles to hold back tears, recalling the "silent and analytical" spirit of Mario Paciolla. A former FARC guerrilla, now Ángela manages a project of social reintegration of former combatants in Miravalle, San Vicente del Caguán: rafting, tourism, organic farming. All activities that Paciolla had been supervising, as part of the UN mission in which he was involved. Two months after his death, the community still seems unable to accept a story full of inconsistencies.
The route to San Vicente del Caguán is stormy. The pandemic and the avalanches that have plagued the region since the beginning of September have further isolated the Department of Caquetá, which is already hard to access even in normal weather conditions. In the three-hour journey that divides San Vicente del Caguán from Florencia, the regional capital, there are about ten army checkpoints. The military presence diminishes during the last kilometers of the journey, where the dirty road is brimmed with farmers walking with their cattle and peasants looking for a passage to the city center.
San Vicente del Caguán is a town of 40,000 people, in addition to the 30,000 inhabitants of the extensive rural area of the municipality. There, beyond Mario Paciolla, several civilians were also murdered and some members of the judicial police were injured, in crimes presumably related to the presence of the FARC dissident groups led by Gentil Duarte.
Mario: the memory of San Vicente del Caguán
Mario Paciolla was living in the Villa Ferro neighborhood of San Vicente del Caguán, on a street with little traffic, a few blocks away from the center and the United Nations office. The UN protocols require the operators in the area to limit contact with the local population, which is the reason why Paciolla frequented only few people outside his circle of colleagues. The usual dinners in Arepería, the soccer matches with some neighbors, swimming in the swimming pool of the Hotel Amazonia Real were basically Paciolla's only moments of contact with the local community. The relationship of the Italian UN field officer with peasant leaders and human rights activists was however much stronger. One of them, Edilma Cruz, had developed a close friendship with Paciolla. She said:
“As soon as he arrived in San Vicente he contacted me. He wanted to fully understand the urgencies of the area. Over the years we have become great friends. Every time I passed by his office we talked for three or four hours, behind closed doors. We spoke about the war and how to help the people of San Vicente del Caguán. Sometimes the UN workers neglect the population. But not him. He was different. He was courageous, he had the desire and the competence to help”.
Similarly, the ex-guerrilla Ángela tells about Paciolla's willingness to assist with the problems of the reincorporation space: "He was always available, even during the weekend. Due to the pandemic, the UN has no longer come to visit us since March 2020. But Mario, instead, wrote to me often. Every time we had some trouble, he would discuss about it with the army and solve it".
Paciolla's concerns in the days before to death
All those who met Paciolla remember his affability and punctuality. Yet, on the day before his death, Mario did not show up on an appointment with the activist Edilma Cruz, without giving any justification for his absence.
“On Friday 10th July he called me. He told me he needed to speak to me urgently about a personal issue. We had set an appointment for Tuesday, July 14, in my office. He didn't show up, without warning. It had never happened with him, and we met regularly. I was busy until late on that afternoon, and I did not have the time to contact him. The following day I came to know about his death. I think he took a secret with him to his grave”.
The owners of the house where Paciolla was staying confirm that they noticed a sudden change in Paciolla’s behavior, who was living in the upper floor of the same building.
Diego, owner of the property, commented:
"Usually, when I was coming home from work I would find Mario looking out the window. We were used to greet each other and have a chat. We talked about soccer, he was a great fan of Napoli, whereas I liked Rome. In the last few days, however, he had a changed in his attitude: he had lost all of his friendliness, did not respond to greetings and was grumpy. He was also visibly pale, worried. After his death, no one was willing to live on the second floor anymore, which we usually rented to cover our expenses. Back in the days, on several occasions we invited him to dinner or to our children's birthday parties, but he always declined. He was a very private man. In over a year he has never invited people home. He probably had to abide by protocols. When we had no guests, he would happily stop and have a chat with us. With the start of the quarantine in March, however, we reduced our contacts".
The vigilante and Mario's phone call
A three-story building is located few tens of meters away from Paciolla's house. In July it was still under construction. Enrique (invented name), Diego's cousin, worked as a night security guard on the construction site. He is probably the last person to have seen the Italian alive.
At 10.15 pm on the evening of July 14, Enrique was on the terrace on the top floor of the building and saw Mario nervously walking down the street, while talking on the phone:
"He was very nervous. I watched that street every night and I had never seen him go out at night. It seemed very strange to me. I know it was 10:15 pm because I was talking to my wife on the phone and I checked the time of the call. He left the house and sat on a bench outside. He was talking on the phone. Occasionally, he would get up and pace nervously back and forth. Because of the distance, I couldn't understand whether he was speaking in Spanish or in another language".
The ambiguities of the UN: the hypotheses on conflicts within the mission
Many doubts remain about the behaviour of the UN, which maintained possession of Paciolla’s apartment keys for the whole day of July 17, day in which Paciolla's apartment was cleaned and the material evidence that could lead to understand the reasons of the Italian agent’s anxiety were carried away: computer and mobile phone, but also the notebook that Mario always had with him, on which he wrote down every detail about what was happening at work.
Enrique reports:"The day of his death the UN staff prevented us from getting into his house. The police gave us permission to go inside to see what happened, but Thompson got upset and stopped us. 'It's a private matter,' he told us".
If the reconstruction of Paciolla's last hours is still poorly defined, the major pitfalls of the investigation lie in the triggering reason for the discussion between Paciolla and his colleagues occurred on 10 July. The UN office in San Vicente del Caguán, contrary to what has been reported, has not been dismantled: it is still active and all of Mario's colleagues at the moment are working there. None of them wanted to make any statements.
In addition to Mario’s distrust of Thompson, some sources report also of a problematic relationship between Paciolla and two mission operators: the manager Lina Antara and her colleague Silvia Arjona. This issue is now object of an internal investigation. The grotesque silence of the United Nations, who are in possession of the only evidence that would allow to spot the cause of Mario's concerns, remains the greatest obstacle to investigations.
In a recent article for El Espectador, the journalist Claudia Julieta Duque revealed the details of an episode dating back to November 2019: information filtered by Paciolla's investigation into a national army bombing in Caquetá put the Italian operator’s life at serious risk. After a trip in Italy, however, Paciolla returned to Colombia before the end of the year, probably thinking that there were still the appropriate conditions to continue the collaboration with the UN mission.
It is therefore likely that the reasons for Paciolla's concerns of the last few days were different. Many operators in the area report the difficulties due to the collaboration of certain UN members with the national army, which was probably favoring dangerous and constant leaks of information. The reason for these ties can be found in the profile of some members of the Mission, which were army officers in their countries and were therefore probably inclined to form ambiguous relationships with the Colombian military forces.
The UN security system is also under accusation: in such a delicate area of Colombia, why the Mission staff do not have the possibility to sleep in a common space, in which physical protection and psychological assistance are guaranteed also during the night?
“Peace cannot be obtained through violence”, says one of the murals that color the road to San Vicente del Caguán. The apparent obviousness of the message clashes with the reality of a land where peace missions seem to have failed, once again. Mario Paciolla’s death and the persistent silence of the UN are the emblems of this failure.