If youâ€™re still not angry yet about the incredibly lenient deal that Colombiaâ€™s paramilitaries are getting from the so-called â€œJustice and Peaceâ€ law passed two months ago, read the following story about the aftermath of the 2001 Chengue massacre, published eight days ago in Colombiaâ€™s most-circulated newsmagazine, Semana. (For more about this massacre, read Scott Wilsonâ€™s chilling coverage of it in the Washington Post shortly after it happened.) Every member of the U.S. Congress should be required to read this article before they vote on any request to aid the paramilitary process.
Actually, this article is required reading even if you are already angry about the â€œJustice and Peaceâ€ law. As you read it, keep in mind that massacres nearly on this scale are still commonplace in Colombia. Just last week in Puerto Valdivia, Antioquia â€“ about 150 miles south of Chengue â€“ the FARCâ€™s 36th Front killed fourteen coca growers, shooting them at pointblank range. The guerrillas who planned and executed that crime must be pleased to know that, thanks to the current law, after some future peace process they need only spend a maximum of eight years â€“ minus time spent negotiating â€“ in comfortable jails. And that punishment wonâ€™t increase, no matter how many more massacres they carry out between now and then.
Hereâ€™s a translation of the article. Emphases are ours.
It was 3:00 on the morning of January 17, 2001 when the residents of Chengue heard the noise of people rushing around. Eighty members of the AUC had entered the small village nestled in the Montes de MarÃa in Sucre. Kicking in doors, they removed the men from each house and gathered them in the plaza. Margarita Romero, who was 15 years old at the time, heard the noise and looked out her window. She immediately understood that the paras had come to keep the promise that had been heard so many times as a rumor: they came to put an end to the town.
Terrified, she sat and awaited her turn. Minutes later, two men entered her house and brought her to the plaza. There, 23 men of Chengue were lying face-down on the ground. They were the husbands, brothers, fathers of more than 50 women, all gathered before them. One by one the paramilitaries called them, made them walk to a street behind the plaza, supposedly to verify their names on a computer. But the silence of the night revealed what was happening. â€œThe machete could hardly be heard,â€ said Margarita. Each man went to the execution site. They killed them with â€œla mona,â€ a club made to break stones. One clean blow was enough. There were no shots.
When dawn broke, the paramilitaries had almost finished their labors. They confined the women and set fire to everything they could. 25 houses in all. â€œEven that of don Evelio LÃ³pez, which was the prettiest, with a little lamp outside. They killed one of his sons, who was mentally disabled,â€ said one of the women.
The paramilitaries left with no trouble, taking the road to Macayepo, Chinulito, toward the El Palmar farm in San Onofre, where this horrendous crime was planned. Chengue died on that day.
Today, four years and five months later, of the 327 houses in that corregimiento [township] of Ovejas municipality, only ruins remain, and of the 120 families â€“ almost all of them somehow related â€“ only seven returned, because they could no longer stand the indigent conditions they were forced to endure in Sincelejo [the departmental capital] or Cartagena. The abandoned houses, the farms overrun with weeds, and a desolate road are the vestiges of a town that had dreamed of prosperity. â€œEvery afternoon, when I sit with the guys in the corridor, I think of when Chengue was Chengue. When they had horseraces, when the bands came to play music. I remember each and every person that died,â€ says Margarita.
The paramilitaries who perpetrated the massacre laid down their arms last month. The majority are in their homes, with no legal charges against them. Only nine are in Santa Fe de Ralito awaiting implementation of the Justice and Peace Law, the legal framework for judging those who committed atrocities like the Chengue massacre.
The challenges that confront the government as it puts this controversial law into practice are immense. The Chengue case is a paradigmatic example of what truth, justice and reparation must mean for all of this crimeâ€™s victims.
The judicial truth
Days after the massacre, on February 9, Elkin Valdiris Tirado, a 19-year-old paramilitary who participated in the massacre, felt overwhelmed by the phantoms of death and turned himself in to the authorities. His story laid the groundwork for the subsequent investigation. Valdiris testified that the massacre had been planned by Rodrigo Peluffo, â€œCadena,â€ a man born in Macayepo, a town neighboring Chengue, known to everyone there. â€œHe would come to buy avocados. He was a butcher,â€ said Juan Carlos, a farmer who also escaped the massacre. Valdiris said the group that did the killing was headed by a woman: Ãngrid Guerra Soler, known as â€œBeatriz.â€ The massacre â€“ according to his testimony â€“ was made possible by the complicity of members of the Navy. Valdiris accused Sergeant Euclides Rafael Bossa of having received money from â€œCadena,â€ in exchange for weapons and munitions.
In the Chengue case file, which consists of 7,500 bound volumes, it has been established that â€œCadenaâ€ ordered the massacre and that Carlos CastaÃ±o, at the time the AUCâ€™s chief, was one of the intellectual authors. However, many questions still persist: Why was this massacre committed? Who were the other intellectual authors and accomplices? Which members of the AUC participated? How did they manage to pass so easily through the Police and Navy roadblocks? Were the armed forces complicit?
The unsworn confession that â€œCadenaâ€ will give to investigators from the Justice and Peace Unit [of the Attorney-Generalâ€™s office] in the coming months should clear up these questions. While the paramilitaries who committed serious crimes are not legally obligated to confess to all of their deeds, the quantity of evidence in this case makes it unlikely that â€œCadenaâ€ will deny his participation in the Chengue massacre.
After this unsworn confession, the prosecutors have 36 hours to decide whether to open an investigation â€“ something that, in the case of Chengue, will be unnecessary because a case has already been opened. Beginning at that moment, a special group of prosecutors will have 60 days to investigate the case and accuse â€œCadena.â€
As the attorney-general, Mario IguarÃ¡n, told Semana, the Attorney-Generalâ€™s office is already building a database of all cases against the paramilitaries, in order to access this information when needed. However, given that the office of the High Commissioner for Peace [the governmentâ€™s negotiator] has not sent them the list of those who will be covered by the law, they are currently gathering information only about the most serious cases.
Nobody has any illusions that the prosecutors will learn anything new about this massacre during these two months. Over these past four years, its investigation has been frustrated by the murders of two prosecutors assigned to the case, and of two technicians from the Technical Investigations Unit [CTI, detectives from the Attorney-Generalâ€™s office]. The two months will be merely a process of verifying what the accused have already confessed.
Upon the investigationâ€™s completion, an expedited trial will begin, at which victims may attend to supply information and evidence. This hearing for conciliation with victims could make the biggest difference, at least in terms of knowing the truth, but unless a large institutional effort is made, it is bound to fail.
For example, under the circumstances it is almost impossible for Chengueâ€™s victims to participate in the process. Their whereabouts are mostly unknown: not even the seven families who now live in Chengue know where their neighbors are, because the massacre was so brutal that entire families disintegrated.
No effort to teach about the law has begun in that region. â€œAs far as one understands, it is a way to defend them,â€ one of Chengueâ€™s victims, who had learned of the law on television, said to Semana. And it is possible that even if they do learn about the law, many of these victims, who have devoted their energy to extensive declarations that never lead to justice being done, doubt that this time their â€œtruthâ€ will have much influence on the process. The distrust of the state is total. With bitterness, a resident of Chengue says: â€œWhile they throw us in jail, they take good care of those who did the massacre.â€ The reference is to three victims of Chengue who had returned, and last year were arrested by the Navy, judged and convicted of rebellion â€“ unfairly, they argue. But the swiftness of justice in that case must be recognized.
There is also skepticism that the paramilitaries are really dismantling their criminal structures. In addition, they distrust the armed forces. â€œWe donâ€™t feel protected. When the Marines pass through here, nobody leaves their houses to work. They have stolen our hens and turkeys,â€ said one of the women of Chengue. If the lawâ€™s implementation is really going to depend on the victimsâ€™ participation, and especially if the investigations are to be carried out in the zone where the crimes where committed and where today the demobilized paramilitaries are hanging around, the government will have to guarantee better protection [for victims who wish to provide evidence]. It is still uncertain where the money to do that will come from.
The few residents left in Chengue look at each other and smile when the Semana reporters talk to them of justice. One by one, those implicated in the massacre have been exonerated. Of the nine investigated, only three still face charges: â€œCadena,â€ Carlos CastaÃ±o and Ãšber Enrique Banquez, alias â€œJuancho.â€ â€œBeatrizâ€ and the Navy Sergeants RubÃ©n DarÃo Rojas and Euclides Bossa were absolved. The only person convicted is Valdiris, who received a reduced sentence of 45 months and 24 days for his cooperation.
Supposing that the Justice and Peace Unit of the Attorney-Generalâ€™s office convicts â€œCadenaâ€ for the Chengue massacre, he will get a maximum of eight yearsâ€™ confinement. If he accepts having also committed the El Salado, Macayepo and PichilÃn massacres, of which he is also accused, he will receive only the maximum penalty of eight years, since the law says they cannot accumulate as they do in the United States. And he will get credit for the time he spends in Ralito. According to an intelligence report, â€œCadenaâ€ lives today with his family in the corregimiento of El Caramelo, â€œand constantly receives visits from Sucre politicians, residents and close collaborators.â€
The country already knows this. But if â€œCadenaâ€ eventually decides to name accomplices in his unsworn confession, it is still unclear whether they will be tried under the Justice and Peace law. Semana had a list of questions delivered to the paramilitary chief in order to know his position on the Chengue massacre and the Justice and Peace law, but at the close of this edition he had not answered it.
Nor is it known how it can be guaranteed that the other 80 paramilitaries who participated in the massacre will be tried. Last month, when the group to which â€œCadenaâ€ belonged (the so-called â€œHeroes of Montes de MarÃaâ€) demobilized, only nine members â€“ including chiefs â€œCadena,â€ â€œJuanchoâ€ and Diego Vecino â€“ were determined to face charges for unpardonable crimes, and went to Ralito to await the lawâ€™s implementation. Or that is what is believed. When Semana called to request an interview with the latter, the response received was that Vecino wasnâ€™t in the zone.
It was also impossible to get a response on this issue from the high commissioner for peace, Luis Carlos Restrepo, even though Semana sought him for eight days.
It is possible that other members of the bloc that committed the Chengue massacre have also perpetrated unpardonable crimes, but that they have nonetheless preferred to return to their homes, trusting in the system being too inefficient ever to arrest them. To gather in Ralito is today an option that the paramilitaries choose in order to protect themselves from arrest, not a requirement demanded by the government, as the country has been led to believe.
If the armed forcesâ€™ complicity in the massacre â€“ denounced by many of the victims â€“ is proved, what will happen to them? The police, for example, were never investigated. But assuming that, for example, the unsworn confession of â€œCadenaâ€ or â€œJuanchoâ€ implicates some police agents, these could end up paying sentences three or four times longer than those of the paramilitary chiefs. They would not be able to benefit from the Justice and Peace law, which only covers paramilitaries and guerrillas. Something similar to what might happen to General [Jaime] UscÃ¡tegui for the MapiripÃ¡n massacre. While the paramilitaries who killed 47 people could receive the benefits of the â€œalternative penalty,â€ the general, who is being tried for omission of responsibility, could receive more than 30 years in jail. Something similar will happen to the politicians, government employees and sponsors who, based on the paramilitary chiefsâ€™ confessions, could end up being investigated by the regular criminal-justice system.
It is difficult to accept that men like those responsible for Chengue, who are accused of hundreds of deaths with extreme cruelty (the Attorney-Generalâ€™s office has found the bodies of their victims cut into pieces), will receive at most eight years in jail in an â€œaustere and secure establishment,â€ as the law says, which could well be the farms where they currently live. But the governmentâ€™s bet is that public opinion will accept this in exchange for generous reparations to victims and a genuine dismantlement of their criminal structure. Nonetheless, it is still not known how reparations will function, and no dismantlement has been seen. According to the authorities, the paramilitariesâ€™ businesses in Sincelejo are still booming, and the politicians elected thanks to their armed pressure are still governing.
The law guarantees the victims the right to complete reparation. On paper. In practice, the challenge is daunting. After the massacre, Chengue disappeared. The 120 families who lived there, plus those in neighboring corregimientos, fled toward Sincelejo, Cartagena and Ovejas. There, the International Committee of the Red Cross gave them emergency aid for three months. To those who requested it, the Social Solidarity Network [of the Colombian government] gave them support for six months. Afterward, they were abandoned. Many old people began to die of sadness. â€œMy mother couldnâ€™t bear life in Sincelejo and the pain of her brother having been killed,â€ says Omaira. â€œIn total, 32 of the displaced have died since the massacre,â€ adds Ramiro, another resident, who decided to return to Chengue due to the hunger his family suffered in Sincelejo. Others have had worse luck. Isbelia returned two years ago, and a week later an armed group came to her farm and shot her husband, leaving him near death. They had to displace themselves a second time.
The town of Chengue was never rebuilt. It is a monument to terror. Everything there recalls the night that changed its history forever. The presence of the government seems like a bad joke. Two years ago, those who returned managed to have a teacher assigned for the townâ€™s 25 children. This year the teacher failed the Education Ministryâ€™s quality test, and the post remained vacant for four months. In July, two residents of Chengue went to Ovejas to ask that a new teacher be named and, instead of getting a response, they were detained for several hours and interrogated by the police, due to the mere suspicion that falls on those who come from Chengue, which is still under guerrilla influence. That is why, when they are asked what they have received as reparation during the past few years, they reply, â€œthe stigma.â€
Will it be different this time? Everything depends on the Reparations Commission created by the law, which still has not had regulations written to govern it. There are many doubts. To establish something that sounds as simple as the number of victims to receive reparations will be a very difficult task. 1,300 people lived in Chengue. Do they all qualify for reparations? Should the relatives of the 23 people who died â€“ who possibly didnâ€™t even live in Chengue â€“ also get reparations? Supposing that each victim gets a million pesos [US$400] (a fraction of the eight million that demobilized paramilitaries are receiving), merely the individual reparations in Chengue will cost more than 1.3 billion pesos [US$520,000]. But if it is done well, it will cost much more. The law requires complete reparations, which implies psychological assistance, rebuilding of the town, symbolic events and a guarantee that it will never happen again.
From where will the money come to comply with the lawâ€™s promises? It is supposed that the Reparations Fund will be fed by the goods that the paramilitaries turn over, plus international donations and the governmentâ€™s budget. As a matter of common sense, the millionaire paramilitary chiefs have few properties in their own names, and have no incentive to turn in assets, especially when the law doesnâ€™t penalize them for hiding properties. The most that they can hope for is that they return the lands that they shamelessly stole from the victims. The money from narcotrafficking, extortion and legal businesses, many created to launder illicit money, is very difficult to detect. The Fund will have to sustain itself from the existing national budget or from international donations, which will be difficult to obtain because there is a great deal of skepticism about the law.
Demobilized paramilitaries have had better luck. Despite the problems of the Reinsertion Program, they have a yearâ€™s minimum salary guaranteed, eight million pesos for a productive project, there are reference centers offering training, psychological treatment, affiliation with the social security system and legal advice. In addition, there are agricultural mega-projects supported by private businessmen to guarantee them a job. All of which is good, because it is the only way to keep them from returning to war.
But it is morally inconceivable that while the victimizers have better opportunities for the future, their victims have nothing assured. They expect so little of the government that the only thing they ask as reparations is that â€œthe government leaves us alone,â€ as one of them said to Semana.
The debate about whether or not the law is the most appropriate is now closed. What is crucial is that its implementation guarantees that it will bring Justice and Peace. This demands an institutional, budgetary and political-will effort which, although the law passed two months ago already, still has not gotten underway. If the government and the judicial system do not take on this issue as a priority, the cost â€“ in terms of human suffering and in money through lawsuits against the government â€“ will be incalculable.