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Issue Date:  March 3, 2006

-- Reuters/Albeiro Lopera
A Colombian boy displaced by violence uses a palm branch to help make his new home in San José de Apartadó, April 20, 2006.
Investigation of killings at standstill


A year after eight members of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia, were murdered, no one has been charged with the crime, and progress into the investigation is at a standstill.

The Peace Community of San José encompasses three villages and is one of several peace communities in Colombia that seek to establish havens for civilians trying to escape Colombia’s 40-year civil war. Between 3,000 and 4,000 civilians are killed each year by the war that is waged between the government and paramilitary forces sympathetic to it and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.

Among the eight who were murdered Feb. 21 and 22, 2005, were Luis Eduardo Guerra, a leader of the peace community, and three children.

Guerra and his partner, Deyanira Areiza, and his son, Deiner, were detained by Colombian army soldiers Feb. 21. Their dismembered bodies were discovered the following day. Also discovered at a different site on the farm of Alfonso Bolívar Tuberquia were the bodies of Tuberquia, Sandra Milena Muñoz, their two children, 6 years old and 18 months old, and another adult, Alejandro Pérez. A man who was with Guerra when he and his family were detained by soldiers escaped.

According to news reports, the Peace Community of San José is the oldest peace community in Colombia. Founded in 1997, it was sponsored by the then-bishop of Apartadó diocese and a Catholic peace group, Justicia Paz. Since then, dozens of peace communities have been established in the country.

The murders of the eight members of the peace community in San José de Apartadó, located in northwest Colombia, are not the first. According to Brad Grabs, an American who spent six months in San José as a member of the U.S.-based Fellowship of Reconciliation team, the San José community of about 1,500 people has lost over 130 people since it was founded. “None has been adequately investigated and certainly no one has been held responsible,” Grabs said of the deaths of community members. “That’s why FOR asked our State Department to get to the bottom of this.”

The Fellowship of Reconciliation is a pacifist nongovernmental organization that has had a continuous presence in Colombia since 2002. John Lindsay-Poland, director of the organization’s Colombia peace program, said FOR has continued to maintain a presence in San José de Apartadó despite the murders.

“It makes it even more critical that international groups that can have an impact be there as witnesses and as deterrents to further violence,” Lindsay-Poland said.

Grabs, who knew Guerra, said Guerra and others had been threatened by paramilitaries who accused them of being guerrilla sympathizers. The peace community was on the verge of extending its boundaries when the murders occurred, and Grabs said he believed it was likely the murders were meant to deter the community from expanding. No arms are allowed inside the community, which tries to take a neutral role in the conflict. Grabs said the peace community in San José has suffered at the hands of both the government and the guerrilla forces.

The region of Urabá, where the peace community is located, has been the scene of extensive conflict. The Colombian government is currently in the process of demobilizing paramilitary forces.

The United States gives a little more than $1.5 million a day to Colombia, which is among the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid. Every six months the State Department certifies the condition of human rights in Colombia prior to the delivery of aid.

According to a statement issued shortly after the murders by the Colombian Ministry of Defense, no military unit was less than two days’ distance from the murder site. Though an antiguerrilla battalion was posted only five miles away, the ministry said because of land mines and difficult mountainous terrain, military units cannot mobilize easily.

Following the murders, the Colombia government posted police in the middle of the San José community, which in protest moved to a new location a 15-minute walk away.

Lindsay-Poland said a police post in the center of town alarmed peace community members because the police themselves have been a repressive force in the area and because the people committing violence are not in the town center but come from outside. In the past, guerrillas have attacked police posts, often with civilian casualties. The community asked that the police move to the perimeter of the community.

Though the government has exhumed the bodies of the murder victims, Lindsay-Poland said progress on the investigation is stalled. “The Colombian government has shown no political will to identify and hold responsible the perpetrators of this massacre,” he said.

“Initially, the army and vice president said that evidence pointed to the FARC having committed it, but no such evidence has been disclosed. On the contrary, the evidence still points to the army and/or paramilitary.

“They [officials] are saying that they need to talk to the witnesses who live in the community and the witnesses who live in the community say they are too afraid to come forward. There have been in the past people who came forward as witnesses who were harassed and even killed.”

Lindsay-Poland said Fellowship of Reconciliation found some contradictions in the Colombian army’s account of where soldiers were and pointed these out to the State Department.

The Ministry of Defense early on attributed the murders to the FARC on the basis of a FARC deserter who was not in the area at the time but speculated that the FARC had committed them.

A spokesman for the Fiscalia, the district attorney, said the zone in which the murders occurred is controlled by the FARC, and that the investigation has been impeded because of the reluctance of community members to talk to the government about the murders.

Last November, Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Operations subcommittee, condemned the failure to clarify responsibility for the February 2005 massacre and said the government’s investigation had been inadequate and misguided.

“This case presents the Bush administration with an important challenge,” Leahy said. “It shows that despite billions of dollars from the United States and lofty rhetoric about human rights, the Colombian government’s initial reaction to this despicable crime was not appreciably different from what we saw years ago. They circled the wagons, denied responsibility and blamed the victims even before an investigation began. The investigators have reportedly not even interviewed the most obvious witnesses. If a crime so outrageous and horrifying is handled this way, it seems that everything we have invested to help end impunity in Colombia has accomplished little.”

In February Reps. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) and James McGovern (D-Mass.) made specific note of the murders at San José de Apartadó in a Congressional letter they sent to their colleagues and to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asking that the United States withhold human rights certification -- and aid -- from Colombia pending an improvement in the country’s human rights record. In addition to the eight murdered a year ago, the letter noted that two other murders in the peace community took place in November and January. Arlen Salas David was killed on Nov. 17, 2005, and Edilberto Vásquez Cardona was killed Jan. 12 this year. Peace community members claim Colombian soldiers were responsible for both murders.

Margot Patterson is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, March 3, 2006

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