Did the Colombian military massacre eight people last week in UrabÃ¡, including a founder of the San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³ peace community? If not, who did? And why is Colombia’s Defense Ministry trying to blame the crime on the community members themselves?
Nobody knows â€“ but until we have a better idea, the State Department must not certify the Colombian militaryâ€™s human-rights performance, a step that the law requires in order to free up 25 percent of U.S. military aid.
Statements about the massacre
Here is what witnesses claim happened.
Luis Eduardo Guerra was a leader of the San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³ Peace Community in ApartadÃ³, Antioquia, part of the UrabÃ¡ region near Panama. Founded in March 1997, the Peace Community was set up by citizens who sought to separate themselves from the conflict by refusing entry to all armed groups â€“ guerrillas, paramilitaries and the state security forces. (In this sense it bears a passing resemblance to the Popular Resistance Communities â€“ CPRs â€“ that sought to provide safe havens from Guatemalaâ€™s civil war.)
Excluding armed groups has not been easy: about 130 of the communityâ€™s members have been killed by the FARC, the paramilitaries, and the security forces. Even though the community has suffered guerrilla attacks, the armed forces consider its members to be subversive sympathizers. Constant threats, followed by a grenade explosion that killed his wife, forced community leader Luis Guerra to leave the town for two years. According to Peace Brigades International, none of these murders, threats or attacks has ever been solved or punished.
Unlike the Guatemalan CPRs, the San JosÃ© community has sought and received accompaniment from outside groups, who have embraced it as a model of non-violent resistance to war. Peace Brigades and the Fellowship of Reconciliation have maintained a volunteer presence for years. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) has visited the remote town. Leaders like Luis Guerra have toured the United States and Europe, educating grassroots groups. The Peace Community has received provisional protection from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Just over a week ago, between February 21 and 22, a group of armed men detained Luis Guerra, his son, his partner and another person near the Mulatos river, several miles from the San JosÃ© town center.
The two army brigades in the area, both of them signaled by different witnesses, have less-than-stellar human rights records.
To the best of our knowledge, neither brigade receives any U.S. assistance, though some individuals may be admitted to training courses.
According to an eyewitness who was detained and escaped, the armed men identified themselves as members of the Colombian Armyâ€™s 11th Brigade, which is based in MonterÃa, CÃ³rdoba (San JosÃ© lies near the border between Antioquia and CÃ³rdoba). However, other witnesses indicated that the armyâ€™s 17th Brigade â€“ based in nearby Carepa, Antioquia â€“ had been carrying out operations in the Mulatos area. According to Amnesty International, â€œSoldiers in the area have reportedly told local inhabitants that if the killings had not been reported, they would have killed more civilians. The soldiers have allegedly referred to the eight victims as â€˜dead guerrillasâ€™ (â€˜puro guerrillero muertoâ€™).â€
The detainees were taken to the farm of Alfonso BolÃvar Tuberquia, whom Peace Brigades identifies as â€œa member of the Peace Council of the hamlet of Mulatos.â€ Neither the detainees, their families, nor Tuberquia was ever seen again. An investigative commission that traveled to the zone on the 25th found recently-dug graves with the bodies of five adults and three children, aged two, six and eleven. Among the bodies was that of Luis Eduardo Guerra, showing signs of torture.
While we do not know for sure who is responsible, the accounts of witnesses and accompaniment groups (PBI, FOR, CorporaciÃ³n JurÃdica Libertad, Justicia y Paz) point to the military, as does the communityâ€™s own statement.
Colombiaâ€™s military, however, angrily denies any involvement in the massacre, stating that none of its units were in the zone at the time. The Defense Ministryâ€™s latest declaration emphatically makes this point, and then makes some dangerous accusations of its own. Citing â€œa series of suspicious coincidences,â€ the document suggests that the Peace Community itself, acting in league with the FARC, had the eight people killed.
The ministry asks how a communiquÃ© from the Peace Community dated February 23rd could have detailed information about the condition of bodies that were not exhumed until the 25th. (We have not seen the communiquÃ© in question.) But the document goes further with the following allegations:
Witnesses exist who affirm that Mr. Luis Eduardo Guerra, who was murdered, had expressed his intention to leave the ApartadÃ³ community.
In addition, Mr. Alejandro PÃ©rez, alias â€˜Cristo de Palo,â€™ the head of guerrilla militias of the Cristalina region, who was also killed, had expressed his desire to enter the governmentâ€™s demobilization and reinsertion program and had begun the process.
Meanwhile Mr. Alfonso BolÃvar Tuberquia was being accused by the FARC of having served as an informant to troops in an earlier case in which a dangerous bandit named â€˜Macho Rusio,â€™ the head of militias for the FARCâ€™s Fifth Front, was killed.
The armed forces apparently continue to hold to the thesis that the Peace Community is some sort of guerrilla concentration camp from which citizens are forbidden to leave â€“ an allegation voiced by Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora, at the time the head of Colombiaâ€™s army, in August 2003. In May 2004, President Uribe fueled these allegations by warning foreigners accompanying the community that they could be jailed or deported for â€œobstructing justice.â€
Unfortunately, the Colombian militaryâ€™s initial denials of involvement in abuses cannot always be taken at face value. Last August, when military personnel killed three union organizers in Saravena, Arauca, the Defense Ministry insisted that the victims had fired on troops who had found them meeting with ELN members, and hotly denied NGOsâ€™ claims that the civilians were murdered. The killings, however, complicated the U.S. governmentâ€™s plans: within a few weeks, the State Department had hoped to free up military aid by certifying to Congress that the armed forcesâ€™ human-rights record was improving. Under this urgent pressure, the cover-up ended, the ministryâ€™s story changed, soldiers were arrested, and investigations began.
In that case, the much-derided human-rights conditions proved useful in stopping an abuse from going uninvestigated and unpunished. This legal tool could again make a big difference in the San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³ case.
Last week, before details of the massacre emerged, the State Department held its consultation with human-rights groups for its next certification. (The law requires State to consult with â€œinternationally recognized human rights groupsâ€ at least ten days before making its twice-yearly decision to certify that Colombia is doing more to cooperate with human rights investigators, suspend and dismiss violators, and fight paramilitaries. Each certification frees up 12.5 percent of military aid destined for Colombia.)
During last weekâ€™s hour-and-a-half-long meeting, at which CIP was present, State Department officials indicated that they had yet to decide whether they could certify any improvements. Now that the consultation has taken place, however, the next certification can happen at any time.
Though it is entirely possible that the military did not commit last weekâ€™s massacre, it is impossible even to contemplate certifying military aid to Colombia until we know more. Civilian Colombian government authorities must first carry out a thorough investigation that takes into account testimony from witnesses and community members. If this investigation finds that soldiers took part, arrests and prosecutions must follow.
For now, any certification should remain on hold: it may offer the best hope for clearing up what actually happened last week in San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³.