By FOR Peace Presence Accompanier Julia Schutt
Since its formation in 1997, the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó has lived through a steady stream of trials, tribulations, and tragedies. Today marks the ten-year anniversary of one of the Community’s darkest chapters. On February 21 and 22, 2005, in collaboration with paramilitaries, the Colombian military brutally massacred eight people in the Peace Community’s hamlets of Mulatos and La Resbalosa. Among the dead were Community co-founder and leader Luis Eduardo Guerra and three young children.
After the massacre, the military denied involvement, presented false testimony, and publicly derided the Peace Community’s integrity. Equally disturbing was the attitude displayed by then President Álvaro Uribe, who stood behind the Army and claimed that the Community and its defenders were linked to the FARC. Shortly thereafter, ignoring the 2000 Inter-American Court Protective Measures and their requirement for Community consensus, a police station was installed within the boundaries of the San José Peace Community. This is a station that had previously been opposed by murdered spokesperson Luis Eduardo Guerra. As a result of the killings and the government’s cynical response, the San José Peace Community entered into ‘rupture’ with the state, formally breaking ties and communication. The resolution of this rupture is contingent on the meeting of four conditions, of which—ten years later—only one has been met.
The conditions for renewed relations with the state, as laid out by the Community following the massacre, were: revocation of the newly instated police post in the urban center of San José de Apartadó; rectification of the defamation against the Peace Community; recognition of humanitarian zones proposed by the Community; and construction of a Justice Evaluation Commission to investigate the crimes perpetrated against the San José Peace Community and its fellow small-scale farming neighbors.
In 2012, the Colombian Constitutional Court issued a ruling (Auto No. 164/12) endorsing the Community’s demand for a retraction of Uribe´s slanderous statements, and laying out a series of requirements for the respect and protection of the San José Peace Community’s integrity and security. In December 2013, President Juan Manual Santos formally apologized for the government’s previous defamation of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó—holding it up as a brave example of resistance to violence. The other stipulations outlined by the Court, however, remain unfulfilled.
While the Mulatos massacre has been investigated, virtually all of the crimes committed against the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó have been left in impunity. Two years after the killings, Captain Guillermo Gordillo of the 17th Brigade was arrested: he eventually accepted responsibility for the massacre and was sentenced to 20 years. During his trial, Gordillo admitted that the massacre had been a joint military and paramilitary operation, and implicated higher-level army officials in the planning – yet, the Attorney General did not advance investigations into the higher-ups’ involvement. Don Berna, a former paramilitary leader, confessed that his Heroes de Telová were the group acting alongside the military, but was extradited to the United States on other charges before his testimony was elaborated. In 2010, a Medellin judge released 10 soldiers being held for participation in the massacre—essentially dismissing the illegality of collaboration with paramilitaries. In 2012, four soldiers were sentenced for co-authorship in homicides of protected persons and aggravated conspiracy; however, as a totality, the investigations and convictions regarding the case have so far fallen painfully short of its real depths.
In the decade since the 2005 massacre, many things have changed in San José de Apartadó and in Colombia. More striking are the things that remain the same. While some of the threats faced by the San José Peace Community have shifted in form, their essence remains unchanged. The state continues to sideline the Community’s grievances and undermine its very existence. Actions representing disregard for the San Jose Peace Community’s autonomy and discrediting the Community and its members’ reputation continue. Paramilitaries threaten local campesinos and are buying up lands their lands and building roads. Impunity still reigns. In our 13 years living and working alongside the San José Peace Community, FOR Peace Presence has born direct witness to this reality.
While negotiations proceed in Havana, Colombian farming communities continue with their lives, bearing the burden of the conflict on their backs everyday. A true commitment to building peace from the state will involve facing the many atrocities it has committed during this half century of internal warfare. The government and the guerrilla will be wrestling with many issues to reach an agreement; among these issues must be reconciliation with chronically victimized populations and dealing with the country´s entrenched paramilitarism. Santos’ apology to the San José Peace Community was a step in the right direction, but reconciliation requires more than an occasional gesture of goodwill.
The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó has been waiting ten years for the government to meet the conditions for ending the rupture. They and other famers should be able to live without constant interference by paramilitaries. As we question what peace will look like in Colombia, let us look to the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. Will the state and its institutions be able to provide the necessary conditions for this community to work its lands with dignity and without violence? And, if not, what sort of peace awaits the country?
For the ten-year anniversary, FOR Peace Presence is physically accompanying the Peace Community in Mulatos and La Resbalosa, standing beside them for their commemoration of the 2005 massacre. We also stand in solidarity with the Community in their demands for justice and respect from the state. We are concerned about the ongoing dangers of paramilitarism in the region. Let us hope that an accord between the national government and the guerrilla does not just bring another decade where the more things change the more they remain the same.