The 12 Apostles were a far-right paramilitary group that was active in the early 1990s in Antioquia, a province in the northwest of Colombia. The group was allegedly founded by Santiago Uribe.
The death squad was designated to engage in so-called “social cleansing,” or the executing of alleged criminals, alleged drug users, as well as alleged guerrilla collaborators.
The foundation of the 12 Apostles coincided with the creation of scores of other “self-defense” groups formed by ranchers and drug traffickers to protect themselves and their property from attacks by guerrilla groups like the FARC and ELN.
Back in the early 1990s, the rebels were on a winning streak, and kidnapping and extorting people in the countryside on a daily basis.
According to the prosecution, Uribe teamed up with local restaurant owner Alvaro Vasquez and the local priest, Gonzalo Javier Palacio, in 1992 to form the group that — in collusion with the local police department — planned and executed 164 crimes, including homicides, from Uribe’s farm.
The investigation against Uribe and the paramilitary group he allegedly led was opened in 1997 and originally dropped in 1999 due to lack of evidence, but reopened in 2012 after several new witnesses offered to collaborate with justice.
While seven of the witnesses of Uribe’s alleged involvement in the group have died, a number of 12 Apostles associates and witnesses are still alive and collaborating with justice.
The principal witness in the case is retired Yarumal police chief Major Juan Carlos Meneses, who fled to Argentina to avoid assassination.
Meneses became the head of police in the town of Yarumal in 1994, and allegedly received monthly payments from the 12 Apostles to look the other way as it murdered around 50 alleged drug users, thieves and cattle rustlers in the area.
According to Meneses and Uribe’s former farmhand, the cattle rancher ran the death squad from La Carolina using short-wave radios, and that they saw uniformed paramilitaries with R-15 and AK-47 rifles at the ranch doing physical training on an obstacle course.
The Clan of the 12 Apostles, a book published by Colombian journalist Olga Behar in 2011, focuses on the period of 1992-1994 when the group was active.
The book draws predominantly from interviews with the former police chief.
Meneses relayed to Behar how Uribe would often order the police to retreat from their area of operation by one or two miles in order for a massacre conducted by his gang to take place.
When reports would come through to the police, they would be too far away to arrive at the scene in time to detain the perpetrators. For these services, Uribe allegedly paid Meneses personally $2,000 per month.
Meneses remains the star witness and is the backbone of the case against Uribe, but he is not alone.
A testimony from former paramilitary chief Salvatore Mancuso, who is currently serving a lengthy prison term in the US, has also boosted the case against Santiago Uribe.
Mancuso confirmed in his one of his many appearances before a Colombian court that Santiago Uribe was the head of ‘The 12 Apostles’ and that the group was characterized by its constant “social cleansing” of Yarumal.
The testimony of laborer Eunisio Alfonso Pineda also adds to the accusations against the 12 Apostles.
Pineda’s testimony was taken in the Colombian Consulate in Santiago, Chile, three years after Meneses gave his testimony in Argentina. Pineda said that seeing Meneses deliver his accusations against Uribe on television spurred him on to testify.
In his testimony, reported by newspaper El Espectador, Pineda claimed that he arrived in Yarumal in 1993 to work on the farm of Alvaro Vasquez, another alleged leader of the 12 Apostles. He reportedly told prosecutors that he would wake up early, milk the cows and feed the pigs, then pass by La Carolina.
Pineda has testified that he saw armed men entering and exiting La Carolina dressed in military uniforms and bearing the armband of the AUC – the ruthless paramilitary group that ostensibly demobilized in 2006. The former laborer alleged that Uribe would be referred to as “The Grandfather” while Vasquez was called “The Uncle.”
“I saw him with my own eyes, carrying weapons and carrying radios, Santiago Uribe, with my own eyes,” said the farmhand to TV news program Noticias Uno.
Pineda said that in 1994 he fled Yarumal and reported the paramilitaries to the National Army’s 4th Brigade in Medellin, before travelling to Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast to go into hiding.
In August 2013 he travelled to Chile to give his testimony. He was required to give characteristics of the farms of Uribe and Vasquez, but failed to recognize 10 of the workers at Finca Carolina. Something that Uribe’s lawyer, Jaime Granados, said was suspicious.
Additionally, the AUC wasn’t formed until 1997, three years after Pineda said he fled Yarumal, raising doubts about the veracity of the witness’ claims.
Alvaro Uribe himself has consistently denied any involvement with the AUC or other paramilitary groups and has equally consistently claimed that the stacking number of criminal convictions of allies are part of a “criminal conspiracy” to discredit his political reputation and legacy by the administration of his successor, current President Juan Manuel Santos.
Colombia Reports | by Stephen Gill