The Story of Gilberto Torres
Gilberto Torres, regional leader of USO oil workers union, and social activist in Casanare, was kidnapped by paramilitaries in February as he left the OCENSA pipeline that transports BP’s oil across Colombia. After six gruelling weeks, he became only the second trade unionist to survive kidnap and imprisonment by the paramilitaries, and was handed over to representatives of the Red Cross. Gilberto, now living in exile in Spain, visited Britain in July. He spoke at several meetings across the country, including an address to the 5,000 trade unionists at the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival in Dorset. Here, in his own words, he retells his experiences at the hands of the AUC.
On Monday 25 February 2002, after finishing a union meeting with the workers at the Porvenir pumping station, I left for my home in Monterey at about 7.15pm. During the journey, the car of OCENSA’s head of security passed me, then turned around and started to follow me. Five minutes later I was intercepted by another vehicle. Two armed men got out and identified themselves as AUC. They forced me out of my car, handcuffed me, blindfolded me and put me in the back of their truck. After about 15 minutes we arrived at a small farm where there were about 20 armed paramilitaries. They took my possessions and locked me in a room with two guards, where I passed my first night in captivity.
The next morning, still tied and blindfolded, I was taken to another farm, where Comandante H.K. the paramilitary chief who had ordered my kidnap, was waiting to interrogate me.
Truthfully, I told him that I had worked as an operator for ECOPETROL for 13 years and that I was also a leader of USO. H.K. accused USO of being the political wing of the guerrilla, and me of being a guerrilla comandante. He said I was behind the attacks on the oil pipeline and accused me of embezzling money. I denied these allegations, telling him USO had no links with the guerrilla.
Afterwards, I was handed over to a group of five assassins. We moved throughout the area, changing location and guards every three or four days.
After three weeks we arrived at an isolated farm, where I was handed over to a group who were to guard me for the rest of my captivity. The following day, they dug a large hole, 2m deep and 1.5m wide. I thought this would be my tomb, but they put me in it alive. I was blindfolded, chained by my ankles and wrists and the hole was covered over with barbed wire.
The first two days were the hardest. Ants and other jungle insects started to eat me alive. I couldn’t even move to scratch myself. The chains lacerated my wrists and legs, opening deep wounds which the insects fed on. After two days of this agony, it started to rain and the hole began to fill with water. Worried that I would drown, the guards moved me inside at night.
Every so often, the paramilitary commander would arrive. “Where’s the pig?” he would ask. “In the hole,” the guards would reply. Then they’d interrogate me again. They told me that if I admitted to my and USO’s role in the guerrilla, they would let me go; if not, they’d keep me in the hole for months or torture me.
When Easter week came, visitors of the family started arriving, so the paras took me to another place. This second farm was even worse, as there were many children there. I was kept tied up inside the house most of the time. One day, an old lady who lived there came up to me and gave me a rosary, saying, “take it, son, its blessed.” I thought of my wife and child and, for the first time, allowed myself to cry.
A couple of days later, we moved again. We went deep into the jungle and eventually arrived at an abandoned house, with no electricity or water. After a few days the comandante arrived. He said the military command of the AUC had ordered the capture of my wife and child. He said that my son was very ill and that my wife was begging for me to collaborate to ensure his release, but I had nothing to answer their allegations.
On 7 April, the comandante arrived early in the morning and ordered the guards to “wash the bull, we’re taking it to market.” I was taken to a river to wash, then put in the back of a truck, accompanied by another comandante, who told me I was to be released. He was dressed in a Colombian army uniform, and I could tell by his insignia that he held high rank, perhaps colonel. At about 11am we arrived at a farm where we were met by a commission from the International Red Cross. I was handed over, and the paras read out a statement, reiterating that I was a guerrilla commander. I was to leave the region immediately, on pain of death.
Three days after being reunited with my family, we moved to Bogotá. However, we received intelligence that a paramilitary commando was preparing to execute me. With the help of the union and comrades in exile, I was able to take my family to Spain and escape the fate that has befallen so many workers in Colombia.
People now ask me, what factors contributed to my release. My life was saved by the actions of my comrades at USO, by the national and international trade union movement. I was kidnapped shortly after the murder of another USO leader Aury Sara Marrugo , and, a few days into my ordeal, another was killed, comrade Rafael Jaimes Torra. USO called a national stoppage, which they maintained for more than a month. Towns were running out of petrol, production and refining were at a standstill. Demonstrations were organised by trade unionists and human rights defenders across the country and the international movement exerted all the pressure they could to secure my release.
I thank everyone who was involved, who helped save my life.
Viva la gloriosa y siempre combativa Union Sindical Obrera!
Long live the glorious and forever combative United Workers Union!