Mario Paciolla went to Colombia to support the peace process as a UN employee. Then he was found dead. Friends say: Someone killed him.
288 kilometers as the crow flies, but almost 700 kilometers of road separate San Vicente del Caguán, located in southern Colombia, from the capital, Bogotá. Mouth-nose masks are just as much a part of everyday life in Caguán as fleece camo and rubber boots. The world is currently fighting a pandemic – but the violence in Caguán has always been there. It is endemic, historical.
Mario Paciolla tried to contain this violence in the service of the United Nations. On July 15, he was found hanged and with his wrists cut open in his home in San Vicente del Caguán. The cause of death according to the death certificate: “Violence”. Local police say it was a suicide, but many observers doubt it. Well-known Colombian investigative journalist Claudia Julieta Duque, who has looked into the case, writes on Twitter: “Mario didn’t die, Mario was killed.” Paciolla was an Italian citizen. Therefore, the case now leads to international complications.
Colombia has been killing people committed to peace for years – the number of murders is increasing and the perpetrators are almost never punished. Now, for the first time, a UN employee has been killed in the country. Even if the background of the case has not yet been clarified, it shows once again how fragile the peace process is, above all because the United Nations makes virtually no comment on the death of its employee. Political analyst Giacomo Finzi says her silence testifies to her “failure” to accompany the peace process.
Paciolla has worked for the UN Verification Mission (UNVMC) in the Caguán region of Caquetá since 2018. The UNVMC’s mandate is to oversee the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement between the Farc guerrillas and the Colombian government. Paciolla knew the country well: He had previously worked as a volunteer for the NGO Peace Brigades International (pbi) in Colombia for two years. Now the organizations whose human rights defenders he campaigned for are demanding justice for him.
His friends describe Paciolla as an idealist. His mother Anna Motta calls him a “brilliant world traveler”. The 33-year-old had said goodbye to parents and sisters in his hometown of Naples shortly after Christmas last year in order to set off again for Colombia. He was due to return on July 20 – Paciolla had brought his flight forward to this date, apparently out of concern for his safety. “Mario was calm when he left,” quotes the daily The Republic his mother, but in San Vicente del Caguán, “in contact with people and circumstances, which he unfortunately did not specify”, would have started “his torment”.
Motta told the newspaper that her son had been very concerned about July 10th. In several Skype conversations, he sounded very tense and said he was very afraid. She was therefore glad when he informed her a few days before his death that he had received one of the few tickets for a humanitarian return flight. On July 15, Paciolla was due to travel the long and time-consuming route to Bogotá, also due to the pandemic restrictions, to wait for his flight. But it was the day he was found dead.
Two o’clock in the morning
The house he lived in San Vicente is just a few blocks from the police station. The photos show a simple, two-story building with a white facade and decorative barred windows. The veranda extends to the street, the plots on both sides are undeveloped.
But the walls of the house must be thin, because the landlord and neighbor reported to the Colombian daily TimePaciolla had made loud and “somewhat excited” calls to someone in Italian the night before his planned departure between around ten and eleven in the evening. Claudia Julieta Duque writes in an article in The viewerthat Mario was last online on WhatsApp at a quarter to eleven. According to the death certificate, his death occurred around two in the morning. Nobody noticed anything until a white SUV with a UN emblem pulled up in the morning to pick up Paciolla.
“He didn’t open, so we asked his landlord. When we found him dead, we immediately called the police,” an eyewitness reports in Time. According to the local police, the call came in around nine in the morning. Other Colombian newspapers report that Paciolla’s body was found “with cuts to the hands and hanged”, the weekly magazine Week writes of “multiple stab wounds”.
The evidence from the Fiscalía, the Colombian Prosecutor General, took over the case immediately. Since then, government agencies have been silent. The UN mission expressed dismay at Paciolla’s death and announced an internal investigation. One works closely with the Colombian authorities and the Italian embassy, a UNVMC spokeswoman told ZEIT ONLINE in writing on request. There is nothing more to be learned from the United Nations.
The results of the autopsy have not yet been published more than two weeks after the fact. The authorities apologize for this by referring to the difficult situation due to the pandemic, but also due to diplomatic complications, since the family insisted on the presence of an Italian forensic scientist. The case currently lies with a special unit of the Colombian law enforcement authorities, which investigates primarily in the case of deaths of officials, diplomatic personnel or human rights defenders.
Colombia’s peace is fragile. According to the NGO Indepaz, more than 200 former guerrillas and almost 1,000 activists have been murdered since the 2016 peace agreement. The Caguán, where Paciolla was used, is one of the particularly dangerous regions: Historically, it was the spoils of war of the guerrillas, who built up drug cultivation areas and transport routes there. Today, several guerrilla groups that have renounced the peace agreement are fighting for the area.
In San Vicente, nobody wants to talk about Paciolla’s death. An expert who knows the region and asks for anonymity suspects a connection to the alleged involvement of former guerrillas in renewed illegal business – which, however, is disputed by other experts and is nowhere empirically proven. Paciolla may have heard about it, he says. The United Nations, which accompanies former fighters on their way to civilian life, does not comment on the topic.
Acquaintances from Paciolla say that he has expressed his discomfort several times over a particularly difficult topic: the forced recruitment of minors, which is still common in Colombia and especially in conflict-prone regions like the Caguán, despite the peace process.
One event had special significance for Paciolla: At the end of August 2019, the Colombian army bombed a dissident camp in the Llanos de Yarí, about 80 kilometers southeast of San Vicente del Caguán, in which compulsorily recruited children were trained. At least eight, some sources speak of up to 18 adolescents, died. According to testimony, some of the injured and unarmed children who survived the bombing were executed by the military who arrived shortly afterwards.
The journalist Claudia Julieta Duque, who also knew Paciolla personally, describes in Colombian The viewerhow appalled he was at the reluctance of the UN in this case. Paciolla has documented other events related to the attack, such as the displacement of the victims’ families and the murder of relatives. The Colombian Defense Minister had to resign because of the bombing. However, the UN devoted only a short paragraph in its three-month report to the case it described as a “controversial air raid”.
How The Republic reports, Paciolla told his mother in a recent phone call about an argument with his manager. He said he thought he was in big trouble. “Mom, I have to go back to Naples, I feel dirty, I absolutely have to go back and bathe in the water of Naples.” The UNVMC does not comment on this either.
Journalist Duque suspects that the conversation with his bosses triggered Paciolla’s “simulated suicide”. Two other experts, who would also like to remain anonymous, also believe that Paciolla’s research into the bombardment and forced recruitment may have put him under pressure. At home in Naples, his mother says: “You killed him.”
Public remembrance for education
Paciolla’s death causes great indignation and sadness in Italy, especially on social media. The Parliament in Rome convened an “urgent Question Time”. Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio has announced that he will work to clarify the case. In Naples, demonstrators unrolled a banner with Paciolla’s photo on the balcony of the town hall. Mayor Luigi de Magistris, former prosecutor for anti-corruption and former member of the European Parliament, asked for “Truth for Mario”.
Paciolla’s friends are trying to further increase political pressure. They want the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to investigate the circumstances of the death itself. 60,000 people have already signed a petition. A public commemoration is planned for Thursday evening in the city park of Naples. Paciolla’s friends are expecting up to 1,300 participants to demand clarification and justice.