A Colombian Community that Knows No Peace

(International Relations and Security Network, 29/07/2005)

With Michael Shoemaker in Bogota


Near a cacao orchard in the Uraba region of northwestern Colombia, a bloody trail marked with a child's footprints led the way to five bodies. Three adults had been murdered, their bodies dismembered and disemboweled; nearby were the mutilated corpses of two children - a 20-month-old boy and a six-year-old girl - and an abandoned boot. Further down the path, a large delegation of worried friends and family had come upon the decapitated head of another child, this one 11 years old. His body was found 15 minutes later near the decomposing remains of a young woman and a man named Luis Eduardo Guerra, whose head reportedly showed signs of torture.


Luis Eduardo had been a founding leader of San José de Apartadó, a peace community with under 1,500 people that since its founding in 1997 has lost 153 members to senseless brutality at the hands of revolutionary, paramilitary, and - allegedly - military soldiers.


Although independently founded as a peace community, San José de Apartadó is also a designated humanitarian zone, protected by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Peace community members swear neutrality, do not hold weapons, and will not participate in fights between factions, which includes passing along information from one to another. They are dedicated to peace in a region ravaged by conflict, and their neutral position often frustrates Colombia's warring parties, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), and the Colombian Military.


Along with other humanitarian zones in Colombia, San José is intended to be a sanctuary where internally displaced Colombians can find refuge. "Their purpose is to serve as safe zones for temporary, local displacement for area citizens during heavy violence and threats," a member of the Colombian nongovernmental Fellowship of Reconciliation, who has lived in San José, told ISN Security Watch.


Still, the community has been unable to escape the seemingly endless violence.


"[When we found out about Luis Eduardo's death] we were all in shock. We were crying, but despite the sadness and pain the general feeling seemed to be that it was just another massacre," she said, adding, "people were saying things like, 'It reminds me about the time my son was killed; he was cut into pieces'."


Luis Eduardo began receiving death threats from the FARC as early as 2000, at which time he decided to move to Bogota to continue fighting for Colombia's peace communities in relative safety. He had been back in the community for only a year when he decided to visit his long-abandoned farm with his common-law wife and son in Mulatos Medios in late February, some seven hours from San José de Apartadó by foot.


On 20 February, one day before Luis Eduardo's murder, members of the community heard attack helicopters flying over head. On Monday, they heard what sounded like gun fire coming from helicopters in the distance. The situation was worrisome and some community members considered leaving the area.


But it wasn't until Wednesday that a report arrived informing the community that Luis Eduardo, his wife, Vellanyra, and son, Diener Andres, had been detained by army troops on their way back from Mulatos Medios. Fearing the worst, community members alerted national and international authorities. A delegation of over 100 members and friends of the peace community was convened and set out early on Friday, 25 February, for Mulatos Medios to accompany and oversee the attorney general's investigation.


Led by the persistence of the delegation, the investigation would turn up a total of eight bodies, three of them children, by late Friday evening in the area around Mulatos Medios. Apart from the three bodies belonging to Luis Eduardo and his family, the other remains would be identified as Alfonso Bolívar, his wife, two children, and a neighbor.


Like Luis Eduardo, Alfonso Bolívar had been actively working to construct a network of humanitarian zones throughout the region to provide safe areas for rural Colombians seeking to escape the violence that raged around them. It is possible, then, that the assassinations of Luis Eduardo, Alfonso Bolívar, and their family members was an effort to derail this process of spreading peace and safety in a region where conflict is the norm.


As the search delegation worked to exhume the bodies, members of the Army's 17th Brigade who had escorted the attorney general's unit against the community's request, made victory signs, laughed, and took photos, according to eye witness reports.


In one such report, published in the Colombian daily El Tiempo, a woman from the community where the bodies were found revealed that ten years ago some 200 families lived in the area. "There were community stores, a school, a health center, and now only ruins remain," she said.


Because of so many battles in the region and the deaths of many rural Colombians, the number of families has been reduced to 90 by last year's count. With the presence of the paramilitaries and the army in the region, there are now around 16 families left. "Now, [since the massacre], who knows how many will remain," the woman said.


The neutrality challenge


The increasing displacement from the area is evidence of the incredible difficulty of appearing truly neutral in the middle of a highly contested region - a task that all peace communities like San José face. "The biggest challenge [to peace communities] is the existence of armed groups - military, paramilitary, guerillas - that don't want them to exist outside of the conflict [because] they view them with suspicion of their motives," Eric Olsen, Amnesty International's Advocacy Director for the Americas, told ISN Security Watch.


To these groups, anyone who doesn't join up is perceived as an enemy. "Often times [the paramilitaries] operate under the nose of military operations, and when they are discovered the military just shrugs it off," Olsen said, adding, "[This] is something that is recognized by the US State Department and grudgingly recognized by the Colombian government, and it is something easily visible to the casual observer."


Dominant actors, particularly, tend to view the communities' position as unacceptable, and as regional dynamics change, so do the culprits.


Uruba, the region where San José de Apartadó is located, was for many years controlled by the FARC. Many of San José's earlier killings were also allegedly carried out by members of that group; up to 20, according to the Washington DC-based Center for International Policy.


However, as the region has become increasingly "paramilitarized", killings have been more frequently attributed to members of the AUC and the Colombian military, who have accused peace community members of supporting the guerillas. Now, the government's stance that no area in Colombia can be off-limits to the public force has further compounded the struggle of these communities.


"San José de Apartadó is an incredibly rich area that has taken a position very contrary to those of new regional and national powers that have arisen in the past ten years," one prominent follower of the community told ISN Security Watch. "As long as I have known the community, I have only seen the hostility of state and irregular actors toward the community increase; I can't say the massacre was unexpected."


"There is always fear in the air," Julia, a foreign national who spent some time living in San José, told ISN Security Watch. "It's peaceful [in San José], like the calm before a storm, and the storm always comes," she said, adding, "People talk and laugh together, but you look into their eyes and you see their sadness because of what's happened and you see the fear of what's to come."


The terror-induced fear that wracked San José de Apartadó in late February did not end with the killings. Two other missing families were found near the community, alive but frightened and desperately seeking to be safely displaced. They had been chased from their homes by armed and masked men; one family forced to spend ten days hiding in the jungle without food.


Also, on 27 February, members of the search delegation encountered more Colombian Army soldiers in the area. One of them wore official insignia of the 33rd Battalion; the rest wore none. One of the remaining family members in the area told members of the search delegation that the soldiers had been there since 21 February, and had not let them leave the immediate area to return home to their families. The soldiers reportedly told the family members that they were there to cleanse the area of guerillas, including those that lived in the peace community. Since their arrival, they had threatened to cut off the heads of local children and dug many holes looking for buried weapons.


There were no eyewitnesses to the 21 February assassination of eight Colombian citizens. Reports made from individuals who accompanied the search committee that traveled to Mulatos Medios indicate that the paramilitaries, the Colombian military, or both were involved. Fielding these charges, the Colombian government denied having been in the area, but reiterated its claim that guerillas were operating within the San José de Apartadó community.


Today it is the community's word against that of the Colombian government's, a democratically elected body sworn to uphold a social contract between citizen and state.


As long as the violent confrontations continue between the FARC, the AUC, and the Colombian military, the war that devastates Colombia's countryside will not end. Innocent women, men, and children will continue to die.


"The war is never against those who are armed; it is against the people," a 65-year-old San José elder once said - and the latest massacre in Uraba just adds one more example.

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