Four police officers from San Vincente de Caguán Criminal Investigation Section (SIJIN) are under investigation and charged with obstruction of justice with regard to UN volunteer Mario Paciolla’s mysterious death in Colombia, investigative journalist Claudia Julieta Duque wrote in El Espectador. The officers reportedly allowed members from the UN Verification Mission in Colombia to collect Mr. Paciolla’s personal belongings, the day after the 33-year-old Italian volunteer was found dead at his house in San Vincente de Caguán.
Last week, in an article published in this newspaper, we reported on Ms. Duque’s accurate investigation into her friend and colleague’s death, which was initially referred to as suicide by local authorities. However, Paciolla’s family and friends were immediately skeptical that he had killed himself, as he was preparing to leave Colombia and return to Italy soon. In her investigation, Duque recounted Paciolla’s troubled relationship with some of his bosses and colleagues from the UN Verification Mission, a circumstance that was reportedly causing concerns to the Neapolitan UN monitor in Colombia.
According to Duque, Mario had criticized the Mission for its pachydermic bureaucracy that, in his view, was leaving his employees scarcely protected. He also felt “disgusted,” Duque claimed, after a heated argument with his bosses on July 10, and was accused of being “a spy” by a colleague during an informal meeting in Florencia. Moreover, Mario considered the UN’s handling of the pandemic “discriminatory,” and was troubled by the scarce attention paid by the Organization, in its 2019 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.” The UN Verification Mission in Colombia has never responded to our request for comment on Duque’s account.
Over the last few days, new, relevant elements have cast a shadow on the UN Mission’s moves right before and after the discovery of Paciolla’s body. According to Ms. Duque, Jaime Hernán Pedraza Liévano, head of the UN Mission medical unit, attended the autopsy conducted by the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Caquetá capital. Paciolla’s family signed the authorization after Mr. Pedraza Liévano had been incorrectly identified as a medical examiner assigned to the case by the Italian embassy in Colombia.
On July 24, the UN Mission reportedly sent an unsigned inventory of Paciolla’s personal belongings, while Mario’s family was informed that the Mission’s digital equipment assigned to Mario was stuck in Colombia by order of the Prosecutor (then revoked on July 30). According to the inventory, in Mario’s apartment the Mission’s employees found over 7 million pesos in cash, credit cards, his passports, a Canon EOS700D camera with its case and an SD card, a mouse, a pen drive, an MP3, various diaries, notebooks, receipts and printed photographs, his clothes, and other personal effects. According to Paciolla family’s lawyer Germán Romero, by doing so the UN Mission in Colombia violated the volunteer’s right to privacy and his family’s access to justice.
Duque also reported that the UN Mission had frequently called its employees for confidentiality, urging them to not release interviews and statements to the press. Finally, the Colombian investigative journalist reported that on July 14 at 10 pm, Mario had reached out to the Verification Mission emergency contact in San Vincente, Mr. Christian Thompson, virtually activating the UN alert protocol for emergencies.
During the August 3 noon press briefing, while answering our questions, the UN Secretary-General’s deputy spokesman Farhan Haq reiterated that the UN “is cooperating fully with the Colombian authorities responsible for determining the cause of death, and we’ve been providing all necessary information and support, both from our Verification Mission in Colombia and from UN Headquarters.”
Mr. Haq also underlined that the UN is “in close communication with the Government of Italy, both through the Italian embassy in Bogota and its representation here in New York.” “We have assured the Government of Italy of the UN’s cooperation with any requests arising from investigations that could be undertaken by Italy,” he pointed out. A few days ago, Italy’s Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio had warned that what happened “cannot leave us indifferent,” adding that “the least we can do, now, is to work tirelessly to pursue truth and justice. I promised it to his family and I will do everything in my power to have it.”
After our questions (video above, starting minute 14:16), the Secretary General’s deputy spokesman shared with us an official note summarizing the UN position on the case, later extended to all UN correspondents:
“In response to questions asked at the noon briefing, the Spokesperson has the following to say:
We are deeply saddened by the death of our colleague in Colombia, Mr. Mario Paciolla, and we reiterate the expressions of condolences that have been extended to his family and the Government of Italy, as well as our gratitude for his service to the Verification Mission and the cause of peace in Colombia.
We reaffirm that the United Nations is cooperating fully with the Colombian authorities responsible for determining with certainty the cause of death. The Verification Mission, with all necessary support from UN Headquarters, has responded to all requests for assistance. This has included the lifting of immunities to permit interviews with colleagues of Mr. Paciolla and through facilitating all requests to review personal effects and work equipment as part of the investigation.
We have also been in close communication with the Government of Italy, through its Embassy in Bogota and its representation at the United Nations in New York. We have coordinated on matters including the discrete transfer of Mr. Paciolla’s remains to Italy in respect of the wishes of the family, and the delivery of his personal effects. The United Nations has also assured the Government of Italy of the UN’s cooperation with requests arising from investigations that may be undertaken by Italian authorities.
It is through this cooperation with the relevant investigations that the UN can best contribute to what all concerned wish to see, that the circumstances of Mario Paciolla’s death are fully clarified. While awaiting the results of those investigations and cooperating fully with them, we do not intend to comment about details of the case or speculate about the outcome of the investigations as it would be inappropriate to do so.”
Yesterday, we also reached out to the Italian Foreign Ministry, asking for a first assessment on the UN’s and Colombian authorities’ response to Mario Paciolla’s death. We also requested updated news on the two autopsies reportedly conducted by Colombian and Italian authorities on Paciolla’s body. As we are writing this story, we are still waiting for a response.
Updating: Tuesday, August 4th, 12:30 pm.
During the August 4th noon press briefing, before answering our questions, the UN Secretary-General’s deputy spokesman Farhan Haq reiterated:
“In a note we issued yesterday, we reaffirmed that the United Nations is cooperating fully with the Colombian authorities responsible for determining with certainty the cause of death of Mario Paciolla.
The Verification Mission, with all necessary support from UN Headquarters, has responded to all requests for assistance. This has included the lifting of immunities to permit interviews with colleagues of Mr. Paciolla and through facilitating all requests to review personal effects and work equipment as part of the investigation.
We have also been in close communication with the Government of Italy, through its Embassy in Bogota and its representation at the United Nations in New York.
It is through this cooperation with the relevant investigations that the UN can best contribute to what all concerned wish to see, that the circumstances of Mario Paciolla’s death are fully clarified. While awaiting the results of those investigations and cooperating fully with them, we do not intend to comment about details of the case or speculate about the outcome of the investigations as it would be inappropriate to do so:.
Then he answered our questions (below the UN trascript)
Stefano Vaccara, you have a question?
Question: Yes. Thank you, Farhan. I actually have two questions. One is about, again, about the UN volunteer in Colombia, Paciolla. Thank you for the statement you released yesterday, you sent. I have a question about that. When… when you specified that there has been the release of diplomatic immunity, no, on the… on certain people in the Mission… of the UN Mission in Colombia so they can answer questions, there is… this is… you mean like the question of the police, for the police investigation. Right?
Spokesman: Yeah. Well, regarding that, the basic point is, the lifting of immunity applies to a small number of colleagues that the Colombian authorities wish to interview. So, for… in order to allow those interviews to take place, we lifted immunity, like I said, to a small number of colleagues who are on the ground in Colombia.
Question: On that, I have question. Because through the story from his mother, from his… some colleagues, we find out that Mario Paciolla was worried for his relationship with certain colleagues, and he said at one point that he… one of them call him a spy.
So, I’m asking you, did the UN find out who is this particular member of the Mission in Colombia, who called few… I assume few days before his death, the member… I mean Mario Paciolla’s a spy? Did you find out?
Spokesman: Well, I think the note we put out yesterday puts it well in terms of the fact that we have provided the necessary cooperation, including to the Colombian authorities, but we’re not going to speculate or offer any comment on the substance of the investigation as it proceeds.
I personally don’t want to do anything that would hinder the investigation, and I don’t think putting speculation out there will be helpful to the conduct of this. We’ll see what the authorities come out with once they’ve completed their work. They’ve certainly received the information that we can provide, and we’ll see where they go with that.