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Tom Power, current FORPP accompanier, shares his impressions of the accompaniment on one of the first commemorations of the massacres of Trujillo, solicited by the Interchurch Commission of Justice and Peace.
Adults sheparding confused children into order, people trying to arrange who will stand where, posters and signs being handed out- getting ready for a march is always the same. The signs being handed out in this particular march were the emblematic orange “sin olvido” (never forget) signs of the Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz (Interchurch Commission of Justice and Peace). The Commission has helped me understand, memory isn’t past- it’s present. On April 10th 2016, the Commission marched with community members from the municipality of Trujillo to one of their hamlets La Sonora, so they could remember the series of massacres suffered from 1988-1992.
Trujillo, located on the border of Valle del Cauca and Chocó, on the river Cauca, is a strategic location for drug trafficking and movement throughout the region. In the middle of the 1980’s, the influential pastor Tiberio Fernandez helped organize small-scale farmers into campesino collectivos (subsistence farmers coops) to help themselves strengthen economically- seen as a threat to large business interests. They were also seen by the armed forces as an influence of the guerrilla group ELN, who had been steadily strengthening throughout the mid-80’s. As a reaction, paramilitaries and drug traffickers working in collaboration with the armed forces began making violent incursions into Trujillo towards the end of the decade to secure the area from the perceived subversive threat.
This series of massacres, known as the Massacre of Trujillo, resulted in over 340 victims of homicides and forced disappearances. The violence climaxed in March and April of 1990, including the murder and dismemberment of Pastor Fernandez as well as the massacre of La Sonora in which 11 people were forcibly disappeared and dismembered during the night of March 31st 1990.
Over 20 years later, the solemn march made its way through the sunny Valle del Cauca countryside to La Sonora. Upon arriving we found the community had hung signs from the doors and windows listing the names and birth and death dates of some of the victims. After the massacres, Trujillo remained under paramilitary control, and this was one of the first opportunities the community had to openly remember the victims.
They held a service to honor the victims where community members, local government, and researchers from a university all spoke. Even the children participated, performing a short skit reenacting the massacre. All those children had been born after the massacre, but by participating in the remembrance, the massacre of Trujillo is as much a part of their history as of their parents. Memory isn’t past- it’s present.
In 1996 President Samper recognized the state’s responsibility for 34 cases of forced disappearance in Trujillo. The Commission, in collaboration with the Collective of Lawyers of Alvear Restrepo (CAJAR), have taken the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights so that the Colombian state will recognize the other victims.
On April 6th 2016, the Commission, CAJAR, and the Court reached a “friendly agreement” which included the state taking responsibility for 75 cases of forced disappearance and making a public petition of forgiveness later that month. It also included a collective reparation for victims not included in 1996, a guarantee of truth for the victims, and a guarantee of no-repetition.
The guarantee of truth and no-repetition deepen in meaning when one realizes that it was in Trujillo that the dismemberment of victims alive by chainsaw was used for the first time. As found in the report published by the Center of National Memory, in Trujillo a new level of professionalized torture was reached. Such expert torture would eventually lead to “schools of death”. And from there the Colombian conflict would further deteriorate to modes of violence one could never dream of, such as the chop up houses in Buenaventura.
An integral part of reconciliation and transitional justice is the acknowledgement of truth. It’s a first step that the state has recognized its part in 34 victims in 1996, augmented to 76 victims this year with a commitment to give integral reparations. But some sources say there were 200 victims, others more than 300. And many of the perpetrators stay in impunity. As Colombia is on the point of negotiating peace with the FARC, and entering in negotiations with ELN, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves- if truth and reparation is so difficult in Trujillo, how big is the challenge for the whole nation?
However, the friendly agreement was important, emphasized by one member of the Commission when during the ceremony he repeated the motto used by the community since 1995- it’s “a drop of hope in a sea of impunity.”