It was ten years ago Wednesday that paramilitary hitmen murdered JesÃºs MarÃa Valle Jaramillo, one of Colombia’s most prominent human-rights defenders, in broad daylight in his MedellÃn office.
Where he most worked to pursue his humanist ideas and carry out his defense of the weakest was in the Antioquia section of the Committee in Defense of Human Rights, which he joined in 1978, the year it was founded, and which he presided since 1987, when he replaced HÃ©ctor Abad GÃ³mez, who was murdered on August 25th of that year.
From the Committee, JesÃºs MarÃa Valle was one of the first to warn of the terrible effects of paramilitarism in the department, above all in the rural zones, where the consequences of their armed actions were devastating: mass murders, tearing of the social fabric among the campesino communities, forced displacements, destruction of the local economy and deepening of poverty.
In all his letters to the Antioquia governor’s office, at that moment headed by Ãlvaro Uribe VÃ©lez, now president of the republic, and to the military and police authorities, he expressed his concern about the constant killings of campesinos, who were accused of being guerrillas, members of their support networks, or sympathizers.
At the moment of his death, Valle Jaramillo served as president of what was then called the MedellÃn Human Rights Committee. It was from that post that he denounced how a group of men from the now-defunct Peasant Self-Defense Forces of CÃ³rdoba and UrabÃ¡ (ACCU), commanded by Salvatore Mancuso and supported by troops from the Army’s MedellÃn-based 4th Brigade, carried out incursions in the towns of El Aro and La Granja in Ituango municipality in 1996 and 1997, causing the death of at least 19 farmworkers and the total destruction of both town centers.
In his denunciations he warned of the complicity of the general who then headed the Army’s 4th Brigade, Carlos Ospina Ovalle [who went on to be chief of the Colombian armed forces between 2003 and 2006], along with Mancuso’s men. This led the high military official to seek his prosecution for slander. Valle’s complaints were also directed at then-governor of Antioquia Ãlvaro Uribe VÃ©lez and his principal minister [secretario de Gobierno], Pedro Juan Moreno (R.I.P.), who downplayed the situation in the municipality, as Valle said to a regional prosecutor in a February 6, 1998 sworn statement.
“In a timely manner, I asked Dr. Ãlvaro Uribe VÃ©lez for protection. I did so as a councilman from Ituango municipality, and as
a member of the Human Rights Committee, but I was never heard. Until the El Aro massacre took place, where fourteen campesinos were murdered, some tortured and all houses in El Aro burned down,” his declaration reads.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the Colombian government guilty for El Aro, considering it “responsible by omission” and sentencing it to provide justice, punish those responsible and pay damages of about US$1.5 million to the victims’ relatives.
A similar verdict could be repeated this year, precisely in the case of JesÃºs MarÃa Valle, as the Colombian Commission of Jurists and the Interdisciplinary Human Rights Group presented the court with a suit against the Colombian government, claiming the state’s responsibility, by action or omission, for the human-rights activist’s death.
JesÃºs MarÃa Valle focused his denunciations on the collaboration between the paramilitaries and the security forces, both military and police. His evidence, obtained from the inhabitants of Ituango and neighboring localities, was compelling, and making them public bothered both the governor of Antioquia and the commander of the 4th Brigade, Gen. Carlos Alberto Ospina Ovalle. Instead of attending his call to protect the campesina population, both attacked the human rights defender, denying any relation with paramilitarism.
The climate around JesÃºs MarÃa Valle grew steadily tenser, and both relatives and close friends feared for his life. Nonetheless, he persisted in his denunciations, demanding a stronger, more effective response from the army, the police, and the state in defense of the campesinos. But each of his pronouncements was met with an attack from the authorities. Even Uribe VÃ©lez, in declarations broadcast on the radio, went so far as to say that JesÃºs MarÃa Valle’s disdain for the army was well-known throughout Colombia – a statement intended to undermine the credibility of his denunciations.
For insisting on his accusations, JesÃºs MarÃa Valle faced criminal charges of slander from the army’s 4th Brigade, via a soldier delegated by the military unit’s command. In order to respond to the charges, he went to [the local judicial unit handling such cases] on Thursday, February 26, 1998. During the hearing, he repeated his accusations and alleged that he had not committed any crime, since his reports of collaboration between paramilitaries and members of the army and police had been confirmed by international human rights organizations. Years later his allegations were ratified even by paramilitary commanders and ex-combatants.
The hearing began at 2:30 on that Thursday afternoon. Exactly 24 hours later, in his office in the ColÃ³n building … two men and a woman came in and shot him three times, twice in the head and once in the chest, which took his life instantly.
Two days later, his body was taken to the Church of Santa Gema for a heartfelt farewell to who, for more than 20 years, had dedicated himself to seeking truth and justice. After the homily from Father Vargas, a friend of JesÃºs MarÃa Valle summarized, with immense pain and in a very quiet voice, the tragedy of this crime: “In this country, differing positions – those clearly stated, with solid arguments, speaking of the anguish of a people forced to submit to a conflict that has taken all of their dignity – are silenced, because – as some say – they are at the service of one of the armed groups. We are still at this point where there are no such thing as people who disagree, only enemies who must be immediately eliminated.”