The Inter-Press Service news agency leans to the left, but is usually unimpeachably accurate. Yesterday, IPS published a plausible reconstruction, based on several sources, of the mid-June incident that caused the deaths of eleven state legislators whom the FARC had been holding hostage since 2002.
According to IPS reporter Constanza Vieira, the eleven were likely killed in the crossfire during a days-long battle between a guerrilla column and Colombian Police Jungla commandos on the Cajambre River, inland from the Pacific coast port of Buenaventura. The guerrilla column was transporting the eleven hostages by boat when the Junglas engaged them. The commandos were soon joined by other military units.
The motorboat pulled up to the bank to join the FARC land unit, and “two or three” military helicopters immediately brought in troops who joined the fighting.
“The shooting went on for three days, and the bodies were left on the boat,” said the source.
After three days, the Jungla commando and the guerrillas both took shelter on the steep hills of the Andean valley that the river runs through.
“The bodies were left there for another three days” before the guerrillas “returned to see what was left.” They were incommunicado, having lost their radio telephones, the source added.
The guerrillas were moving their captives to a new location, IPS reports, because some of those assigned to guard them had suspiciously deserted. The deserters – who may have even been infiltrated members of the security forces – likely informed the Junglas about the hostages’ presence.
The leader of the guerrilla unit, Milton Sierra or “J.J.,” was killed in the fighting. The Colombian Navy noted this on its website, says IPS:
A report on the Colombian navyâ€™s web site dated Jun. 15 states that “in a joint operation between the army, the navy and the air force, the guerrilla leaderâ€¦.alias â€˜J.J.â€™ was killed in combat while riding in a vessel on the Cajambre river, upriver from the town of Barco, in the department of Valle del Cauca.”
(See a similar June 15 report on the Colombian Presidency’s website. Also see this May 1 comment posted to the forums on the website of Cali’s El PaÃs newspaper, which reads, “Attention seÃ±ores from the security forces: two hours from Buenaventura, passing by Punta Soldado, is a river called Cajambre. Upriver is a big FARC encampment, there are laboratories and coca fields. Alisa JJ has been seen there, so there may be kidnap victims. You should arrive by air and exterminate them.”)
While we still don’t completely know for sure, IPS may indeed have discovered how the eleven hostages were murdered.
If they got it right, however, the consequences would be serious. It would mean that the Colombian government has been lying.
The FARC’s June 28 communiquÃ© about the incident only referred to a firefight with “a still unidentified military group.” The Colombian government then denied that its forces had been involved in any combat with guerrillas anywhere nearby at the time of the incident.
Yet IPS claims that there was in fact intense combat on the Cajambre River, during which the hostages were killed. If the IPS version is accurate, this may be the most disturbing part of its story:
According to Colombiaâ€™s intelligence chief, Andres PeÃ±ate, the hostages’ deaths were the result of an accidental clash between rebel units.
President Ãlvaro Uribe himself denied any military attempt to rescue the hostages by force. He also denied that there had been any fighting in the departments of Valle del Cauca and Cauca, further south, on Jun. 17, 18 or 19.
The death of J.J. was reported by Vice Admiral Edgar Celi NÃºÃ±ez, head of naval operations, on Jun. 15. The guerrilla leaderâ€™s body was not shown to the press.
The entry for the week of Jun. 16-22 in the military actions logbook of the Observatory of the Presidential Programme for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Rights, maintained by the vice presidentâ€™s office, has been altered, eliminating the report of the combat originally entered as having taken place on Jun. 15 in Barco.
The original version on the web site, which was downloaded by IPS on Jul. 16, said: “In Barco, in the district of Cajambre and the jurisdiction of Buenaventura (Valle), fighting broke out between the navy and subversives of the Manuel Cepeda Vargas Front of the FARC, in which Milton Sierra GÃ³mez, alias â€˜J.J.â€™, the leader of this Front, was killed. In the same action, two of the guerrilla camps were dismantled. Source: El PaÃs,” the main regional newspaper.
The following note appears next, in blue typeface: “However, according to information from the navy, this event happened in the same way and place described, on Wednesday Jun. 6, 2007.”
Did the hostages in fact die in a botched rescue attempt, which the Colombian government has since sought to cover up?
UPDATE as of 12:00 PM August 24:
IPS journalist Constanza Vieira (see her blog here) offers the following “precisiones” (my translation):
- I don’t dismiss the possibility that the hostages were executed by their captors, even in a scenario in which the guerrillas themselves were killed.
- Nor do I dismiss – but I didn’t follow this thread – the possible participation of foreign mercenaries. This topic has been investigated by Gonzalo GuillÃ©n of El Nuevo Herald, a great journalist with good sources for this issue.
- I have been careful not to specify a date [for the incident]. I believe that everyone is lying, except for the community [a nearby Afro-Colombian community that issued a statement, cited in Vieira's article, about the humanitarian crisis the Cajambre River combat was causing]. That’s why I simply wrote that the legislators died “in the wee hours one night in June.”