Meet The Matriarch Who Lost 14 Family Members In Colombia's Civil War

Carmen Tulia Ortega recently came face-to-face with a former paramilitary chief responsible for some of the deaths of her loved ones. No, she did not forgive him.

Carmen Tulia Ortega
Carmen Tulia Ortega
María Camila Rincon Ortega

BOGOTA — Little by little, one killing after another, Colombia's long entrenched civil conflict cost Carmen Tulia Ortega most of her family, leaving her with nothing but the brave face she somehow manages to still put forth.

Between 1997 and 2007, rightwing paramilitaries murdered 14 of her family members. The bodies of some of the victims have yet to be found. It is a bloodbath she refuses to forget, even if, at age 78, she is a bit fuzzy on some of the dates and places.

A few weeks ago Ortega, who most call "Carmen Tulia," came face-to-face with one of the people responsible for the killings: former paramilitary chief Arnubio Triana Mahecha, aka Botalón. The meeting took place in one of the Justice and Peace courts Colombian authorities set up to implement a 2005 initiative known as the Justice and Peace Law, which was designed to facilitate the demobilization of right-wing paramilitaries involved in mass murders in the 1990s and beyond.

During the encounter, Botalón asked her to forgive him for killing one of her nephews. Enraged, she refused. "There are things one can forgive. Many things," she says. "But what they did to us, no ... I would rather die. Or they can shoot me. Those who say they can forgive haven't experienced what I've had to live through."

Two of Carmen Tulia’s three sons also fell victim to the half-century-old internal war. For eight years, she looked out of the window, waiting for Luis Ángel, a police sergeant, and Luis Fernando, a dentist, to return to the family home in La Dorada, in north-central Colombia. They were kidnapped in 2001. She found out they had died from their murderer, Alejandro Manzano, or Chaqui, who tortured them for three days before burning, dismembering and throwing their bodies into a river. Through a screen, he told Carmen Tulia there was no way her sons could ever be found now.

She says people can get over the death of a parent, or a sibling. "But of a child? Impossible. And I say that as a Catholic." Carmen Tulia thanks the Virgin Mary that she at least knows what happened to her sons. She had been praying incessantly to the Virgin when state prosecutors called her. "I thought they would tell me where they were, because for me they were still alive. That is when this Chaqui man told me all the atrocious things he had done to them. I shouted at him every foul, horrible thing you can imagine," she says.

Taken away one at a time

For Carmen Tulia, the war began years earlier, when leftist guerrillas killed her father. She dismisses that loss with a gesture, because of how long ago it took place. At the forefront of her mind are more recent events, a heart-breaking saga that began on Aug. 24, 1997, when her only brother, José Alberto Ortega, was shot in the head three times outside a church in Norcasia, Caldas. The next year one of her in-laws was murdered in the district of Marquetalia.

The worst was yet to come. On Aug. 22, 2001, Luis Ángel and Luis Fernando, disappeared. The latter ran a rural spa in Los Barrancos, 20 minutes from La Dorada. Six men "armed to the teeth" went to the spa to take Luis Fernando away. Unable to find him, the men began to ask around. "That's when another man, a sneak, told them Luis Fernando wasn't there but that his brother was." Luis Ángel was eating breakfast when the armed men found him and hauled him away.

Shortly afterwards, when Luis Fernando learned about what happened, he went home to his mother and asked for some money she had won in a lottery. He asked her several times to pray. He then went looking for the paramilitaries of the Omar Isaza Front, which was then terrorizing six districts of the Caldas and Tolima departments. The group was led by Wálter Ochoa Guisao, aka El Gurre.

The criminals demanded 25 million pesos (the equivalent today of approximately $12,000) to free Luis Ángel. In reality, the whole thing was a trap — a punishment for not having paid protection money. For three days, her sons were tortured on an estate known as El Japón, a 600-hectare property owned by a drug dealer named Jairo Correa Alzate, the cousin of the then mayor of La Dorada, César Alzate.

After three days, Carmen Tulia sought out the mayor, who spent 12 hours trying to determine had happened. When she spoke to him later, however, the mayor offered her a boat and fuel to "go find them down the river," she says. "He already knew they were dead."

"Tulia the Brave"

She took the boat but found nothing. Afterwards she began to receive threats. "They phoned me but nobody spoke," she says. She later went to the judiciary, but three men stopped her on the street. They called her "an old whore" and said that if she kept "gossiping" she would get the same treatment as her sons. Eventually took her two grandsons and one remaining son and left town, moving to Manizales.

In February 2002, Carmen Tulia went to Bogota, where she began to recycle trash alongside other Colombians displaced by the conflict. She aged because of that work, she says. In August that year another in-law, a man named Faber Zea Quintero, "was taken out of bed at six in the morning." He hasn't been seen or heard from ever since. Four months later a nephew was murdered.

A paramilitary known as Roque ordered that killing, apparently because the nephew had repaired cars belonging to leftist guerrillas. Roque told the nephew not to enter Norcasia. The nephew ignored that instruction and was soon afterwards gunned down in front of his wife. On Feb. 17, 2003, paramilitaries murdered another nephew, John Ortega. That was the crime for which Botalón recently apologized to Carmen Tulia, saying he had been told the target was "with the guerrillas." Two more in-laws, then an uncle of one of the nephews, a butcher, were killed that year. And in 2006, a distant relative, Jorge Santamaría, disappeared "and is still missing," she says.

Carmen Tulia struggles with details and even whole chunks of these 14 tragic stories. Her fear today is for her 12 grandchildren. "In the last court session Botalón asked me if my grandchildren were grown up. I said yes but they don't live here. Like I was going to tell the shameless bandit where they are so he could go and kill them."

She spends her days in the Justice and Peace court, facing down paramilitaries. She keeps busy by studying, taking whatever kinds of classes she can find. "Either that or I'll go crazy ... thinking about my sons all day." No amount of pain has bent her upright demeanor, and she proudly explains the nickname people have given her: Tulia the Brave. One has to be, to speak up in Colombia.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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