From May 29 to June 2, the Fellowship of Reconciliation led a delegation of NGO representatives and congressional staffers concerned about the peace community of San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³, in the UrabÃ¡ region of northern Colombia. While relatively small in population â€“ approximately 1,000 people, the majority of them children â€“ the San JosÃ© peace community has suffered a disproportionate number of attacks because of its outspoken refusal to let armed actors into their community, as well as its criticism of the Colombian armed forcesâ€™ links with paramilitary groups in the region.
Most recently, on February 21, two community leaders, along with their families, were brutally killed; several witnesses allege that members of the Colombian Armyâ€™s 17th Brigade were responsible. Eight people, including three children, were killed.
The delegation was organized to visit the community and inquire about the state of the investigations. The case has gained a particularly high international profile because of the coincidence of the massacre with the annual State Department human-rights certification, required by law for the release of 12.5% of funds for assistance to the Colombian Armed Forces. The law requires that the State Department certify, among other things, that the Commander-General of the Armed Forces is suspending officials who have been credibly alleged to have committed human rights violations, the government is vigorously investigating and prosecuting such personnel. The February 21 massacre is one of four cases that have delayed the State Department certification since early March.
San Jose in the Eye of the Hurricane
The Peace Community of San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³ emerged as a response to the massive displacements generated by paramilitary violence in UrabÃ¡ in the mid-1990s. Supported by a number of groups, including the Diocese of ApartadÃ³, the Jesuit Center for Research and Grassroots Education (CINEP), and the Inter-Congregational Commission of Justice and Peace, the community declared itself a â€œpeace communityâ€ on March 23, 1997. According to the rules they established, members must participate in communal work, may not directly participate in the war or carry arms, nor may they deliver information to either side. From the beginning, the community garnered significant international support, including accompaniment by Peace Brigades International, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, humanitarian agencies and European embassies.
The â€œurban centerâ€ of San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³ â€“ really a few dirt streets lined with adobe houses â€“ is located 12 kilometers from the municipal capital ApartadÃ³, but is a world and almost an hour away on nearly impassable dirt roads. This region, at the foothills of the SerranÃa de Abibe overlooking the fertile banana fields of UrabÃ¡, has a long history as an extremely conflictive zone. A historic guerrilla presence, primarily the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) after the majority of the Popular Liberation Army (ELP) laid down their arms in 1991, was disputed by a paramilitary offensive in the mid-1990s that forced thousands to flee their lands. Today, the FARC and paramilitary forces still wrestle for control.
The paramilitary demobilizations, negotiated between paramilitary leaders and the Colombian government in neighboring CÃ³rdoba, have been a recent destabilizing force. Last November, 447 members of the most active paramilitary group in the region, the Bananero Bloc under the control of still-active paramilitary commander HernÃ¡n HernÃ¡ndez, demobilized in Turbo, a 45-minute drive from ApartadÃ³. Paramilitary activity in the region has not diminished, however. The â€œHÃ©roes del TolovÃ¡â€ Bloc, under the control of now-demobilized drug trafficker and paramilitary commander Diego Murillo (â€œDon Bernaâ€) has moved into the area. The Americano Bloc, under the control of â€œEl AlemÃ¡n,â€ who is not participating in the demobilization talks, has also been active in the area. FARC presence in the region is reportedly also on the rise. Shifting political alliances and efforts to consolidate territorial control further endanger the civilian communities caught in the crossfire.
Since their founding as a peace community, San JosÃ© residents have experienced little peace. Since 1997, over 130 community members have been killed, approximately 20 by the FARC and the rest by paramilitary groups allegedly working with military forces in the region. The community considers the paramilitary and military so closely linked that in their denuncias, the military and paramilitary are listed as a single force. In addition to these killings, the community has suffered from threats, violent incursions in which houses have been burned, theft of market goods and communal property, and the murders of public transportation drivers who travel the road to the community.
The communityâ€™s most controversial stand has been their refusal to allow members of the security forces into their community, considering them to be a party in the conflict through their direct collaboration with paramilitary forces, rather than a fulfilling a protective role. The community in turn has been continually criticized by Colombian military officials and politicians, who accuse it of sheltering the FARC. Ãlvaro Uribe, first in his position as governor of Antioquia (1996-2000) and now as president, has been one of the communityâ€™s fiercest critics. As governor, he argued that neutrality in the conflict meant directly supporting the Colombian armed forces, and according to community residents, offered to provide the community arms and training to become a Convivir, or rural security cooperative â€“ structures that were later linked with the expansion of paramilitary activity in the region. As president, Uribe has repeated allegations that community members maintain links with the FARC.
Events of the massacre
News of the massacre first reached international accompaniers on Wednesday, February 23. The next day, more than one hundred community members, along with members of the FOR and PBI teams and staff from Concern America, walked more than seven hours to reach the shallow graves of Alonso BolÃvar, his wife, six year old daughter and 18-month old son, and a neighbor. Later exhumations revealed that the bodies had been dismembered. Less than an hourâ€™s walk away, the tortured and dismembered bodies of Luis Eduardo Guerra, his common-law wife and son were found alongside the river.
Authorities continue to dispute responsibility for the massacre. The community blames members of the 17th Brigade for the killings. Witnesses from the community reported military presence in the area, including soldiers threatening community members; Luis Eduardo and his family were last seen alive detained by uniformed soldiers on February 21. Witnesses from the community also report evidence linking two crime scenes. Members of the community that went to find the bodies saw soldiers tampering with evidence. A Colombian journalist and international observers saw military personnel erasing military-themed graffiti from houses. The Colombian government claims that the massacre was committed by the FARC, angered because of Luis Eduardo and Alonsoâ€™s intention to leave the peace community.
The massacre has had a devastating impact on the peace community because of the important leadership role played by Alonso BolÃvar and especially Luis Eduardo. One of the founding members of the community, Luis Eduardo was the public face and community spokesman in meetings with the Colombian government and the international community. In November 2002, he traveled to the United States on a speaking tour, speaking against U.S. military aid for the Colombian armed forces at the School of the Americas Watch protest at Fort Benning. Alonso was active in organizing efforts to expand the peace-community presence into the surrounding sparsely populated rural areas through the establishment of humanitarian zones, where civilians could take refuge and seek protection during combat or attacks.
Certification and Investigation
Although community leaders have met with foreign embassies in Colombia, including the U.S. ambassador, and members of international delegations, they refuse to testify before the FiscalÃa, Colombiaâ€™s Attorney Generalâ€™s Office. Community leaders point to the FiscalÃaâ€™s failure to investigate the hundreds of attacks they have suffered in the past eight years. In particular, they highlight the failed efforts of a special investigative commission that was formed to investigate the June 8, 2000 massacre of six community members in La UniÃ³n (part of the larger peace community of San JosÃ©), allegedly by members of the 17th Brigade. The commission gathered more than 100 witness testimonies, but no one was ever charged for the crimes and the case was closed. Witnesses in this and other cases who provided testimony to the FiscalÃa faced severe reprisals, including threats and in some cases assassination. According to the FiscalÃa, the testimony offered by witnesses had little value as evidence, consisting mainly of hearsay.
The community leaders have listed among their demands an evaluation commission to study why there has been no forward motion on these cases, particularly the 2000 La UniÃ³n massacre. Witnesses to the February 21 massacre will not testify until these conditions are met, including action on past cases. The FiscalÃa claims to have advanced as much as possible in the collection of forensic and other physical evidence, and to have suffered attacks themselves during the course of the investigation. On March 2, a commission from the FiscalÃa traveling to San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³ was attacked. Several investigators were wounded and one policeman killed.
On February 22, the day after the massacre, the U.S. State Department held a consultation with human rights groups in Washington, as required by the human-rights certification legislation at least 10 days before issuing the certification. Since then, they have not issued the certification, in part because of concern about the possible role of the Colombian military in the murders. According to U.S. Ambassador William Wood, they are â€œagonizingâ€ over the decision.
The Police Post and Displacement
Controversy over the case has grown. Prior to the massacre, community leaders, among them Luis Eduardo, and the Colombian government, including the Vice Presidentâ€™s human rights program, had been meeting to improve the relationship between the community and the government, and to address community concerns. In part, these meetings were the result of recommendations from the Inter-American Court, a human rights body of the Organization of American States, which had ordered protection measures for the community and people working directly with them following previous attacks.
The government plan to locate a police post in the urban center of San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³ was among the most controversial issues during these meetings. According to the government, the police post was needed to guarantee security for both community members and the inhabitants of ApartadÃ³, who feared FARC presence in the region. Community leaders rejected this plan, however, because it violated their stated refusal to allow armed people within their community, and because they feared it would make the community a military target of the FARC. They suggested that the police presence be located around the perimeter of the community and along the road from San Jose to ApartadÃ³, where many of the most violent attacks against community members had occurred. They also repeatedly asked for an increased presence of civilian state officials in the community, including a representative of the national DefensorÃa del Pueblo (Human Rights Ombudsman).
Community leaders suspended their meetings with government representatives immediately following the massacre. Seven weeks later, the government established a police post in the center of town. In response to this violation of their principles, the entire community of San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³ abandoned their homes, and settled a few kilometers down the road on land previously donated to the community by the Dutch government.
According to the Colombian government, the police post is staffed by specially trained community police, who carry pistols rather than machine guns, and are carefully monitored by civilian oversight agencies. Community members claim that having such a post in the center of their town makes them a military target for the FARC, and fear devastating attacks such as that of Bojaya (when a FARC cylinder bomb hit a church and killed 119 people during combat with paramilitaries) and ToribÃo (when a FARC attack killed three people after the police had set up trenches and sandbags around local houses). They also claim that the police post is being used by members of the military. International accompaniers have seen soldiers from the 17th Brigade gathered with police outside the school. According to one of the UNHCR staff in the area, the police post is used to garrison counter-guerrilla forces at night.
In response to the police-post presence in San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³, the community immediately displaced to a nearby farm known as La Holandita, in honor of the Dutch government who gave the land. As private property, the government cannot build a police post on the land.
In only a little more than two months, the community has made an impressive display of building new homes from the ground up. With some material support from Oxfam, and the collective labor of community members not just from San JosÃ© but from surrounding hamlets as well, the community now includes a large open air kiosk for public meetings, and several long rows of attached single room houses. During our visit, men were busy digging trenches alongside the houses, while women washed clothes and young children in the small stream that winds between the houses and the main road to ApartadÃ³.
Life in La Holandita, now also known as San Josesito, is extremely hard, however. The community lacks basic services, including water and sanitation. The stream is the only source of water, and the only bathroom for the entire community is a small black plastic hut perched downstream of the community. (International agencies have promised to supply collective latrines). The lack of electricity and phone service is both a nuisance and a serious danger, as the community remains cut off and in the dark. Apart from periodic visits from Doctors Without Borders, the community has no health services, and there are no schools.
The police post in San JosÃ© was inaugurated with a circus sponsored by the police, and community members have reported that the mayor of ApartadÃ³ has offered hand-outs of supplies for families that have resettled in San JosÃ©, whether from ApartadÃ³ and other towns, or returned there from San Josesito. Many families that originally displaced from San JosÃ© have chosen to return out of concern for the health and education of their children. Those that remain in San Josesito face serious deprivations in their new homes, and worry over the fate of their abandoned property.
During our interview, Ambassador Wood concluded that â€œSan JosÃ© has not been a success story. People have died.â€ He went on, â€œIt has been a source of political controversy and turmoil, more than any other random town of your choosing.â€
On one level, this assessment is impossible to dispute: far too many people have died, and the experience of this small community that has attempted to carve out a space for non-violent existence in the midst of one of the most violent corners of Colombia has generated both controversy and turmoil. The Colombians and the international community that work the closest with the people of the peace community of San Jose, however, do not define their journey as a failure.
Of the numerous small peace communities that began with the support of the Diocese of ApartadÃ³ and other organizations eight years ago, San JosÃ© is only one of two remaining peace communities. In villages and hamlets throughout Colombia, peasants face in silence and without support the same kinds of attacks by armed actors. Even as the current political and humanitarian crisis facing San JosÃ© is one of the most intense in recent years, their collective survival, as a community dedicated to living a peaceful way in a violent land, and their refusal to remain silent, are testimony to their success.