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As the Mystery Around Paciolla’s Death in Colombia Deepens, the UN Remains Silent

Those who knew the 33-year-old UN volunteer, including the Colombian journalist Claudia Julieta Duque, are skeptical about the suicide theory.

Mario Paciolla, 1987-2020 (Illustration by Antonella Martino)

In Italian

The lifeless body of Mario Paciolla, the United Nations volunteer found dead on July 15 at his home in San Vicente de Caguán (Colombia), was brought back to Italy last Friday, July 24. However, it is still unclear what happened to the 33-year-old Neapolitan UN monitor. Those who knew him well immediately ruled out the suicide theory initially claimed by local authorities. As the circumstances surrounding Mr. Paciolla’s death are still literally shrouded by mystery, that theory appears to be contradicted by more than one detail.

Mario Paciolla.

Colombian investigative journalist Claudia Julieta Duque, who also happened to be friends with Mario, shed some light on Paciolla’s last days and his troubled relationship with some of his colleagues from the UN Verification Mission. Ms. Duque is well-known in Colombia for her thorough investigations into corruption, espionage and criminal alliances between State agents and paramilitary groups, a fearless work that earned her countless attacks and persecutions. In a letter to her deceased friend published in El Espectador, Ms. Duque points out how Paciolla was found dead less than 24 hours after the release of the latest UN Mission report, that was supposed to “gather your comments as a volunteer in the Caquetá region.” However, she underlines, “just as it happened with your death,” the UN “has remained silent.”

According to Duque’s account, the 33-year-old volunteer had criticized the UN over some of its methods in supervising the implementation of the 2016 peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

“The suicide hypothesis is implausible for those of us who know your spirit, your smile, and even your criticism of the Mission, when a colleague fell ill with dengue and time passed without him being transferred to another city to receive adequate medical care. You wondered what would have happened if a snake had bitten you or if you had fallen seriously ill in San Vicente. You already knew where you would have sought help if something like this had happened: It wouldn’t have been from someone inside the UN, because you worried that the pachydermic bureaucracy would have left you even more exposed to accidents and illnesses.”

Shortly before his death, Duque reports, Mario allegedly had “unlocked the padlock that secured the fence of the roof” in the small building where he used to live, “just to be safe.” Was that the place where “they found him?” she asks.

“Although your contract with the Mission was set to end on August 20, something happened on July 10. That day, you got into a heated argument with your bosses, as you would explain the following day to Anna Motta, your mother. You also told her your intention to anticipate your flight [to Italy]. You felt disgusted.

 

Over the last few days, you insisted that it was no longer safe for you to stay in Colombia working in the Mission. That’s why you decided to unlock that padlock and prepare for your departure. On Wednesday 15, you should have traveled to Bogotá. You had to apply for a permit to travel on the July 20 humanitarian flight, a simple arrangement for an international civil servant to attend to.”

According to Duque, Mario was also accused of “being a spy” by a colleague from the UN Mission. It reportedly happened during an “informal meeting in Florencia” in the third week of June.

“You recounted what had happened to you with a smile because you always used to make fun of the nonsense. Today, with your smile extinguished by your violent and sudden passing, I wonder if that was a first sign of the danger you were facing. What happened that day, who accused you with such heavy tones, what steps did Sergio Pirabal, head of the Regional Office, and my former colleague in the Commission for Truth in Guatemala, take?

 

You also commented with a smile on the rebuke you had recently received from the UN, because you had expressed your disagreement about the way—discriminatory in your view—in which the Mission was managing the pandemic. While other officials were offered travel and smart working, the norm for volunteers was solitude and isolation.”

Ms. Duque reiterates her skepticism about the suicide thesis.

“I don’t believe in the thesis of suicide for loneliness and depression that several of your friends would like to embrace to make sense of their pain. And I don’t think it takes 10 or 20 days to perform an autopsy. Perhaps toxicological report takes time, but forensic examinations should be ready and made public by the National Institute of Legal Medicine.

 

I am aware of your discontent with an organization that in 2019 dedicated only a six-line paragraph in its report to the military bombing in which 18 boys and girls recruited by the FARC dissidents died […], an event that led to the resignation of the then Minister of Defense, Guillermo Botero.

 

I know you have documented other such cases, for example when the families of the children killed were forcibly displaced, and other people’s murders. I know you were bothered by the UN reports’ lightness of tone, the complex relationship between some members of the Mission with the local army and the police, the bargaining of civilians who had worked for the military, the passivity of the organization in the face of bombings against civilians in the south of Meta, and the increase in selective murders of former FARC fighters.”

Maurizio Salvi, an ANSA reporter in Buenos Aires, also raised some doubts on Paciolla’s case. “Mario Paciolla’s body was transferred from Colombia to Italy in absolute secrecy. Why?” he asked on Twitter. He wondered, “Did they try and make us forget about his death, knowing that the truth about it will never be told?”  Then, in response to a user who had asked for further clarification, he accused governments of having a “deal to prevent media from accessing the documentation on Mario’s death.” He revealed, “I experienced it myself. Silence from the UN, silence from the Prosecutor’s Office, silence from the embassy and therefore induced silence from Italian and Colombian media.”

Last week, the UN Verification Mission in Colombia informed us that it was cooperating with Colombian authorities’ investigations, and, in an official note, clarified that it had also started an internal investigation.

In light of the new details recently emerged, during the daily press briefing with the UN Secretary-General’s Spokesman, we insistently asked what information the United Nations Headquarters currently has, and what stance Mr. Guterres has taken on the case. To date, they provided us with vague answers. “We were informed by the Mission on July 15 of the death of the UN volunteer, Mr. Mario Paciolla,” Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General Farhan Haq told us, adding that the Mission itself has sent its condolences to Mario’s family. Mr. Haq confirmed that the Mission is carrying out an internal investigation, and is collaborating with the one conducted by local authorities.

The UN provided no information at all about the autopsy. Moreover, as we are writing this article, the UN Verification Mission in Colombia has not yet responded to our request for comment on Claudia Julieta Duque’s account.

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