Colombia must guarantee truth and justice for Mario Paciolla
On 15 July 2020, Mario Paciolla was found dead at his house in San Vicente de Caguán, in the southern department of Caguetá, Colombia. Mario was found by a friend and colleague who went to look for him that morning when Mario did not show up at the office, nor seemed to have checked his Whatsapp account since the previous night. Mario Paciolla was only 33 years old.
San Vicente de Caguán is located near the southern jungle of Colombia, long used as a strategic rearguard for illegal armed groups and drug traffickers. Citizens are often trapped in the middle of intense dailiy conflicts. Some dissident ex-FARC militants remain very active in the region and engaged in armed clashes with other paramilitary groups over territorial control. The government's response has mainly consisted of the deployment of heavy military forces, which have resulted in a number of additional human rights violations.
An Italian national, Mario Paciolla had been working with the United Nations Mission on the verification of the Peace Accords since August 2018. Previously, from 2016 to 2018, he volunteered and worked in Colombia with Peace Brigades International, an organisation working for the protection of human rights defenders in the country.
UN officials told local police that they had found Mario Paciolla’s body. Hours later, it was reported and suggested by local police and local media that Mario could have committed suicide1. The hypothesis of suicide was immediately discarded by those who knew Mario and the difficult context in which he was working.
Mario’s contract with the United Nations would have expired on August 20, but he had mentioned to friends and family that he had decided to return to Italy and end his contract early. According to them, Mario was planning to travel to Bogota on 15 July, to arrange paperwork for his travel back to his hometown, Naples. In an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Anna Motta, Paciolla’s mother, stated that her son “was scared, very scared” and that during his last days, Paciolla had been worried about “something he had seen”. In addition, Paciolla’s mother recalled that on July 10, her son mentioned feeling disgusted and unsafe, after an argument with his bosses.
Claudia Julieta Duque, a Colombian journalist and human rights defender who knew Paciolla since 2016, when he was first volunteering for Peace Brigades International, wrote an open letter published in El Espectador that the hypothesis of suicide is unlikely and that his love for life contradicts the idea that he may have chosen to take his life in a place so far from friends, family, and Naples, the land of his soul. According to her article, Paciolla had also recently strengthened security measures in his place of residence.
In a letter shared with Front Line Defenders, Claudia remembers her friend:
“Mario was passionate about salsa music, classic movies, poetry, soccer, and sensitive people. A curious man, a restless investigator, a dreamer who believed in a possible peace. It was that dream that brought him to Colombia as a companion for Peace Brigades International (PBI) and took him to the United Nations Verification Mission. And it was that dream that cost him his life”.
“Mario is the face of hundreds of accompanying men and women who expose their lives in Colombia to save ours. Mario did not die; Mario was killed. His crime represents a before and an after, and leaves those, like him, who come to Colombia as volunteers and observers in a terrible condition of vulnerability. My commitment to Mario, to everyone, is to seek the truth and achieve justice”.
In Italy, civil society and Paciolla’s family and friends are also calling for justice and truth. In a petition on Change.org his friends have collected almost 60,000 signatures, while another appeal – launched by the European network Europaz – has been signed by many politicians and public figures. The investigation of Mario Paciolla’s death is now coordinated in Colombia by the Deputy General Attorney Martha Janeth Mancera, who publicly stated that the judicial branch is "exploring all the hypotheses" and giving the highest priority to Mario’s case. In parallel, the United Nations has also started its own internal investigation, in close collaboration with the Colombian Prosecutor's Office and the Italian Embassy in Bogota.
The results of the two autopsies, the one carried out by the Colombian police and one executed by the Italian police, are yet to be made public.
Front Line Defenders expresses its deepest condolences to Mario’s family, friends and colleagues and joins the call for justice, to determine the truth behind his death. The death of Mario, as well as of the hundreds of human rights defenders who have been killed in their attempts to defend peace, leaves a hopeless message that life in Colombia is very fragile. Front Line Defenders urges the Colombian authorities to carry out an immediate, transparent, exhaustive and impartial investigation into the death of Mario Paciolla.
Front Line Defenders expresses additional concern at the weak implementation of the peace agreement and reinforces the need for attention to the exacerbation of violence against human rights defenders in Colombia. The state must guarantee in all circumstances that human rights defenders can carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisal and free of any restrictions.
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1Initial reports mentioned he had been found hanged and with stab wounds in various parts of his body, suggesting suicide.