Cause of death: violence
Mario Paciolla went to Colombia to support the peace process as a United Nations operator. Then, he was found dead. His friends say: somebody killed him.
San Vicente del Caguán, a city located in southern Colombia, is almost 700 kilometers distant from the capital Bogotà, 288 kilometers as the crow flies. In Caguán, face masks are part of everyday life, as are military uniforms and rubber boots. The world is currently facing a pandemic. The violence in Caguán, however, has always been there. It is endemic, historical.
Mario Paciolla tried to curb this violence when he was serving the United Nations. On July 15, he was found hanged with his wrists ripped open at his house in San Vicente del Caguán. Cause of death according to the death certificate: "Violence". Local police said it was suicide, but many observers doubt it: the well-known Colombian investigative journalist Claudia Julieta Duque, after analyzing the case, wrote on Twitter: "Mario was not dead, Mario was killed". Paciolla was an Italian citizen. Therefore, the case is now source of international complications.
The silence of the UN
People who are committed to peace have been killed in Colombia for many years. The number of murders is still on the rise and the killers almost always go unpunished. Now, for the first time in Colombian history, a UN employee has been murdered. Although the circumstances have not yet been clarified, this episode once again shows how fragile the peace process in Colombia is, especially in light of the fact that United Nations have released no comment on the death of their employee. Political analyst Giacomo Finzi states that the UN silence testifies to his "failure" to accompany the peace process.
Paciolla has worked for the United Nations Verification Mission (UNVMC) in the Caguán region, which belongs to the Caquetá department, since 2018. The UNVMC's task is to oversee the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement between FARC guerrillas (Forces Revolutionary Armies of Colombia) and the Colombian government. Paciolla knew that area well, having previously worked for two years in Colombia as a volunteer for the NGO Peace Brigades International (PBI). Now the organizations he collaborated with to defend the human rights of activists, are calling for justice.
Paciolla's friends describe him as an idealist. His mother Anna Motta defines him as a "brilliant world traveler". The 33-year-old spent his last Christmas together with his parents and sisters in Naples, his hometown, and then left for Colombia. His departure for Italy was planned on July 20: Paciolla had bought a plane ticket for that date, apparently because he was fearing for his safety. His mother told the Italian newspaper "La Repubblica" that "Mario was calm when he left Naples, but when he returned to San Vicente del Caguán, he came in contact with people and circumstances that unfortunately he did not specify, and that was the beginning of his agony".
Motta reported to the newspaper that his son had entered a state of great anguish since 10 July. In several Skype conversations, he seemed very nervous and said he was very afraid. When, a few days before her death, Mario informed her that he had managed to book one of the few tickets available for a humanitarian return flight, Motta felt relieved. On July 15 Paciolla should have left San Vicente del Caguán to go to Bogotá and there he would have to wait for his flight to Italy to depart. Instead, July 15 was the day he was found dead.
The house where he lived in San Vicente is located a few blocks away from the police station. As shown in the pictures, it is a simple two-story building with a white facade and decorative barred windows, located on an undeveloped land with veranda that extends up to the street.
The walls of the house, however, seem to be thin, as Mario's landlord and neighbor reported to the Colombian newspaper "El Tiempo" that Paciolla had a phone conversation with someone on July 14, the night before his departure for Bogotà. This call apparently occurred between 10 and 11pm and he was speaking out loud in Italian, with an "agitated" tone. Claudia Julieta Duque wrote in an article for the Colombian newspaper "El Espectador" that Mario last connected on WhatsApp at 10.45 pm on July 14. According to the death certificate, his death occurred on July 15 around 2 am. However, nobody noticed anything until the next morning, when a white SUV with a UN symbol stopped in front of Paciolla's house to pick him up and travel to Bogota.
"Mario did not open the door, so we asked his landlord to open it for us. When we found him dead, we immediately called the police," an eyewitness tells El Tiempo. Local police report that the phone call occurred around nine in the morning. Other Colombian newspapers report that Paciolla's body was found "hanged, with cuts on his hands". The weekly Semana writes instead of "several stab wounds".
The forensics of Fiscalía, the Colombian general prosecutorial office, immediately took charge of the case. Since then, government agencies have remained silent. The United Nations mission expressed dismay at Paciolla's death as well as willingness to conduct an internal investigation. A spokeswoman for the UNVMC told ZEIT ONLINE that UN will work closely with the Colombian authorities and the Italian embassy to resolve this case. The United Nations have not issued any other statements.
Despite more than two weeks have gone by since the murder, the autopsy results have yet to be released. The authorities apologized fpr the delay, saying that it depends not only on the difficult situation due to the coronavirus, but also on diplomatic complications, which arose because the family insisted on the presence of an Italian forensic scientist. The case is currently being dealt with by a special department of the Colombian institutions, whose main function is to investigate cases of deaths of officials, diplomats and human rights defenders.
The bombing of the army
The peace in Colombia is fragile. According to the NGO Indepaz, since the 2016 peace agreement more than 200 ex-guerrillas and nearly 1,000 activists have been murdered. Caguán, the region where Paciolla was working, is one of the most dangerous areas: historically it has been dominated by guerrillas, who used it for drug cultivation and transport routes. Today several guerrilla groups, who have stepped back from the peace agreement, are fighting for the control of the area.
In San Vicente nobody wants to talk about Paciolla's death. A local expert, who asks to remain anonymous, suspects that it has to do with the alleged involvement of ex-guerrillas in a new illegal activity and that Paciolla may have come to know about it. However, this hypothesis has been contested by other experts and has no empiric fundament. United Nations, which accompany ex-guerrillas on their way to civilian life, do not comment on the topic.
Paciolla's acquaintances say that he has repeatedly expressed his disapproval about a troublesome issue: the forced recruitment of minors, which is still a common practice in Colombia, especially in regions accustomed to the conflict such as Caguán.
An event remained etched in the mind of the Italian UN agent occurred at the end of August 2019, when the Colombian army bombed a camp of dissidents in the Llanos de Yarí, about 80 kilometers southeast of San Vicente del Caguán, where children were military trained and then forcibly recruited. Various sources indicate that from 8 to 18 children died on that occasion. According to the witnesses, some of the wounded and unarmed children who survived the bombings were executed by the army, who arrived shortly after. The journalist Claudia Julieta Duque, also a friend of Paciolla, describes in the article published for "El Espectador" how horrified he was by the reticent attitude which UN displayed in that episode. Paciolla documented also other events linked to the bombing, such as the displacement of the victims' families and the murder of their relatives. Following the incident, the then Colombian defense minister was forced to resign. However, the United Nations devoted only a short paragraph to that tragic event in their quarterly report, merely calling it a "controversial air raid".
As reported by "La Repubblica", in one of the last phone calls Paciolla told his mother about a discussion with his superior. He said he got into trouble. "Mom, I have to go back to Naples, I feel dirty, I absolutely have to go take a bath in the sea of Naples." The UN do not comment on this either.
Journalist Duque suspects that the discussion between Paciolla and his bosses could have triggered his "simulated suicide". Two other experts, who also demanded anonymity, believe that Paciolla's research about the bombing and forced recruitment of children may have put him in a difficult situation. His mother says:"They killed him."
A public memorial to raise awareness
Paciolla's death is causing great indignation and sadness in Italy, especially on social media.
In the Italian Parliament an "urgent interrogation" on this case has been submitted to the Italian government. Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio has announced that he will do his utmost to shed light on this episode. In Naples, demonstrators unrolled a banner with the photo of Paciolla on the town hall balcony. Mayor Luigi de Magistris, a former anti-corruption prosecutor and a former European parliamentarian, demanded "Truth for Mario".
Paciolla's friends are trying to further increase the political pressure. They want the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to personally investigate the circumstances of his death. 60,000 people have already signed a petition. A public memorial is scheduled for the evening of July 30 in one of the parks of Naples. Paciolla's friends expect up to 1,300 participants to join the event and demand truth and justice.