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Did the Colombian military massacre eight people last week in Urabá, including a founder of the San José de Apartadó 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 – but until we have a better idea, the State Department must not certify the Colombian military’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 José de Apartadó Peace Community in Apartadó, Antioquia, part of the Urabá 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 – guerrillas, paramilitaries and the state security forces. (In this sense it bears a passing resemblance to the Popular Resistance Communities – CPRs – that sought to provide safe havens from Guatemala’s civil war.)

Excluding armed groups has not been easy: about 130 of the community’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 José 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 José town center.

The two army brigades in the area, both of them signaled by different witnesses, have less-than-stellar human rights records.

  • The Carepa, Antioqua-based 17th Brigade gained notoriety for its role in the brutal paramilitary takeover of Urabá, which had long been a guerrilla-held banana and cattle zone, in the mid-1990s. Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, the head of the 17th Brigade 1996-97, became known on Colombia’s right as “the pacifier of Urabá.” Several witnesses – including Col. Carlos Alfonso Velásquez, Gen. Alejo’s chief of staff – testified that the general maintained contact with paramilitaries and ordered troops to cooperate with them while carrying out an antiguerrilla offensive, “Operation Genesis.” Gen. Alejo was kicked out of the army in 1999. (Shortly afterward, Álvaro Uribe, who had been governor of Antioquia at the time Gen. Alejo ran the 17th Brigade, was the keynote speaker at a Bogotá dinner held in the general’s honor.)

  • The 11th Brigade, meanwhile, is based in the city of Montería, the capital of Córdoba department, which has basically been an independent paramilitary republic since the rise of Carlos Castaño’s United Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU) a decade ago. The Brigade’s area of operations comprises the Santa Fe de Ralito demilitarized zone where negotiations with paramilitary groups are taking place. One of Montería’s most prominent citizens is Salvatore Mancuso. Except for a 2001 raid on Mancuso’s wife’s house – which caused such a stir that it helped force Carlos Castaño to resign from the AUC’s top leadership – the 11th Brigade has somehow proven unable to find or combat any paramilitaries. (Read the State Department’s human rights certifications CIP has posted [(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)], in which U.S. diplomats must endeavor to find examples of military action against paramilitaries; Córdoba never comes up in the context of an Army action.) Unable to find paramilitaries in Córdoba? Call it the “Mr. Magoo” brigade.

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 Army’s 11th Brigade, which is based in Montería, Córdoba (San José lies near the border between Antioquia and Córdoba). However, other witnesses indicated that the army’s 17th Brigade – based in nearby Carepa, Antioquia – had been carrying out operations in the Mulatos area. According to Amnesty International, “Soldiers 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 ‘dead guerrillas’ (‘puro guerrillero muerto’).”

The detainees were taken to the farm of Alfonso Bolívar Tuberquia, whom Peace Brigades identifies as “a member of the Peace Council of the hamlet of Mulatos.” 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, Corporación Jurídica Libertad, Justicia y Paz) point to the military, as does the community’s own statement.

Colombia’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 Ministry’s latest declaration emphatically makes this point, and then makes some dangerous accusations of its own. Citing “a series of suspicious coincidences,” the document suggests that the Peace Community itself, acting in league with the FARC, had the eight people killed.

The ministry asks how a communiqué 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 communiqué 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 Apartadó community.

In addition, Mr. Alejandro Pérez, alias ‘Cristo de Palo,’ the head of guerrilla militias of the Cristalina region, who was also killed, had expressed his desire to enter the government’s demobilization and reinsertion program and had begun the process.

Meanwhile Mr. Alfonso Bolívar 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 ‘Macho Rusio,’ the head of militias for the FARC’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 – an allegation voiced by Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora, at the time the head of Colombia’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 “obstructing justice.”

Unfortunately, the Colombian military’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 NGOs’ claims that the civilians were murdered. The killings, however, complicated the U.S. government’s plans: within a few weeks, the State Department had hoped to free up military aid by certifying to Congress that the armed forces’ human-rights record was improving. Under this urgent pressure, the cover-up ended, the ministry’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 José de Apartadó 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 “internationally recognized human rights groups” 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 week’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 week’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 José de Apartadó.

4 Responses to “San José de Apartadó and the U.S. human rights certification”

  1. David Holiday Says:

    You gotta know that, whenever you mention Central America, you might expect me to pipe up!

    The CPRs, actually, do not bear much of a resemblance to this Colombian community, from your description. Although it wasn’t fashionable at the time to discuss it, they were quite clearly the civilian base of the guerrillas. I would compare the CPRs to the refugee camps for the Salvadorans in Honduras, except that they were inside Guatemalan territory. Thus, although civilian population, guerrillas recruited out of the CPRs, and sought logistical support and general R&R there.

    I can give you much more information, and I wouldn’t expect you or anyone else to really know this, but I’m quite prepared to confirm in greater detail….

  2. jcg Says:

    “Though it is entirely possible that the military did not commit last week’s massacre, it is impossible even to contemplate certifying military aid to Colombia until we know more.”

    True enough…especially while almost all the circumstancial (and not so) evidence points to members of either of those military brigades most likely being behind this, but that doesn’t automatically mean that that’s the only possibility.

    The civilian investigation has apparently already begun (curiously, apparently the comission came under fire from, allegedly, the FARC or some other armed group operating in the area), but it’ll probably be weeks or a couple of months before any concrete judicial actions can show up.

  3. Adam Isacson Says:

    David, Can you recommend any reading about the CPRs’ links to the guerrillas? The information revealed by a Google search for “resistance communities guatemala” (including docs from the IAHRC and Peace Brigades) does little to back that claim. Remember “Cerca del Cielo,” the hidden village at the end of John Sayles’ mid-1990s movie Men with Guns? That’s pretty much the gauzy image of the CPRs that still predominates among those of us who don’t follow Guatemala closely enough: a place where people hid from the men with guns. Another source would be welcome.

    JCG, I agree that the civilian investigation may take a while, though again the human rights conditions in the U.S. aid law may speed things up. The law says that State must certify that the Colombian military is collaborating with civilian investigators. So if the military stonewalls or covers up, they may end up jeopardizing up to $70-80 million in aid (that is, 25% of the aid to the armed forces, not the police, that goes through the foreign aid bill, not the defense budget).

  4. David Holiday Says:

    I’m not sure there is anything, although there might be some mention in Yvon LeBot’s book on Guatemala, available only in French or Spanish as far as I know. The general gist of their relationship with the g’s is something that was known but not spoken at the time, and unfortunately Guatemala — somewhat unlike El Salvador, I would say — is a place where a lot of people don’t like to go back and come clean about previous guerrilla strategies. I’m sure some people reading these comments might think I’m somehow endangering people’s lives by even talking about this, so many years later. (Sounds absurd out of context — maybe I’m exaggerating.)

    In the case of El Salvador, I had FMLN comandantes confirm and claim credit for the repopulation strategy in El Salvador, arguing for its strategic importance in the war, shortly after the war ended. Ricardo Falla’s book about the CPR’s was translated by EPICA. If you read it closely (although I’m not sure about this), you might find some inkling of this. (My name’s there, btw, as I was one of the first international visitors in 1991, while working for HRW.) But if you run across Falla sometime at LASA, ask him about it, and you can expect him to be very straight with you.

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