Who is behind the murder of 2 peasants from the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó?

By Daniel Rivera Marin

Originally published in Spanish in El Colombiano

The construction of an “illegal” highway– which may have the Clan del Golfo behind it and which passes through private property– may be the reason for a wave of threats and violence that for months has been unleashed in San José de Apartadó. Nobody knows who murdered Nallely Sepúlveda, 30 years old, and her little brother-in-law Edinson David Higuita, 14 years old. The only thing that is clear is that their bodies, which were left lying in a house in the village of La Esperanza in San José de Apartadó, were not recovered neither by the Attorney General’s Office nor by the police. Members of the Peace Community themselves rescued them, walking four hours away and returning with the bodies wrapped in sheets, passing through rough rivers and trails in which they were sometimes up to their knees in water and mud.

Once they arrived at the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó – that large territory that has existed for 27 years and has declared itself to be neutral in the face of the armed conflict – they unloaded the bodies which officials from the CTI of the Attorney General’s Office inspected. It is strange, but the CTI still does not know what type of weapon was used to kill Nallely and Edinson. However, the peasants themselves assured that they were shot in the head.

They were farmers. Since she was a child, Nallely was a member of the Peace Community and lived in what they called community spaces. She dedicated herself to planting vegetables, grains and cocoa, and regularly attended the academic and discussion activities of the organization. Like everyone else, she opposed the construction of a road that some other peasants linked to the Community Action Board (Junta Acción Comunal, JAC) had built, which even passed through private land that no one had bought.

Nallely and Edinson were murdered on Tuesday, March 19 at noon, the news reached Apartadó around 6 p.m., and the bodies were picked up 24 hours later. No one had listened to the warnings or cries for help. Just eight days before they were killed, members of the Peace Community, the Community Action Board, lawyers, public officials and Gloria Cuartas – director of the Implementation Unit of the Final Peace Accord – met in the Mayor of Apartadó’s Office. It was Cuartas herself who spoke of the threats experienced by the peasants of the Community, assuring that people were under threat due to an “illegal” rural road.

At that meeting there was great controversy because of what Cuartas said, who framed the threats, intimidations and fights between the Community and some peasants of the Community Action Board (Junta de Acción Comunal, JAC) as a consequence of the armed conflict. At that meeting lawyer Alex Morales, a human rights defender and member of the Sinergia movement who in Medellín had been the spokesperson for the criminal gang Pachelly, was the representative of the JAC. Morales said, “This is not a problem of conflict, of paramilitaries, of guerrillas, no gentlemen. This is a problem of a community, of a community with a piece of land and private property. What is being fought over is an easement.”

Although it appeared to be all about a border, eight days later those “paramilitaries” referred to by lawyers and the Community, who are none other than the Clan del Golfo (also known as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, AGC), murdered Nallely and her brother-in-law Edinson. Some, including municipal authorities, have said that it was a crime of passion. However, they left out that the family living in that house in the village of La Esperanza had been threatened for several months.

“Who were they? That’s easy to say. Here in the zone there is a paramilitary presence that has controlled the entire population; they are the ones who decide how the population moves, how the population works; whoever is not with them is against them, and many of these paramilitaries are part of the Community Action Boards. We aren’t saying the Boards are paramilitaries, at any time, but they have been infiltrated to control the population. The State has done nothing to counteract this violence,” said one of the farmers from the Peace Community. The truth is that for several months there has been a dispute between the two civil organizations. The community prevents them from using their lands, and those who are building the road have been tearing down fences, burning wood, cutting wires, and not respecting any private property. Gloria Cuartas pointed out that this is a problem of the armed conflict for a basic reason: border disputes in rural Urabá are often “solved” by the men of the Clan del Golfo. This group stigmatizes the peasants of the Peace Community as guerrillas which has generated an almost xenophobic hatred of the Community. Arley Tuberquia, a farmer from the village, said, “Some people in the region have allowed themselves to be instrumentalized by petty interests that have generated xenophobia. They go and destroy our gates and fences and then later through different networks come accusations that we are guerrillas founded by the FARC, but we are a community that has had more than 400 deaths”.

President Gustavo Petro himself, who decided not to negotiate peace with the Clan del Golfo, denounced the murder of Nallely and Edinson, and lamented the persecution of the Community They have always been stigmatized for alleged alliances with the fifth front of the FARC, however only one truth remains: the guerrillas are gone and stopped their violence, the Community survives to this day, and tomorrow March 23 they celebrate 27 years of existence. The struggle for land in the area of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó is not new.

For several years, leaders have denounced that dark forces are behind Puerto Antioquia who are buying lots and opening “illegal” roads. Proof of this are satellite images showing more than 1,600 hectares of land in strategic corridors that has been deforested according to sources from the Personería de Apartadó. Carlos Montoya, delegate for Antioquia of the Implementation Unit of the Final Peace Agreement and who has more than ten years of work with land claims in Urabá, wrote in his X account that those who are building the illegal road are putting at risk the water supply in Apartadó; he also revealed that there is a mining title that overlaps with lands of the Peace Community, information confirmed by officials of the Mayor’s Office, as there would be a fairly large coal deposit there. The tensions are not made up nor gossip. Local media and social media have published disputes between members of the JAC de la Esperanza and the Peace Community; some videos show how the JAC damaged the gates of the Peace Community’s property. The JAC justifies this by saying the Peace Community is located on an easement on the land; they even advocate that the peasants should be dispossessed of their land.

One of the biggest fights has been with César Jaramillo, president of the JAC, who has called for de facto means to dispossess the Peace Community and assured that the Community does not have land deed. This is untrue, because the Peace Community owns the property Las Delicias with real estate registration number 008-33122 and departmental cadastre: 0452004000002500046. Furthermore, Jaramillo has not been prudent and has also claimed, “The Peace Community was created by the FARC guerrilla, just like another organization, Acasa”.

Tempers are running high. Before the murder, members of the JAC denounced an attack with stones on a young man who was riding a motorcycle on the road; and a woman was verbally assaulted. A source said, “The Peace Community has not stopped harassing the peasants who are outside their properties”. Lawyer Alex Morales said: “The peasants who pass through this area need to get their crops to market and similar activities that require a road. This problem is not part of an armed conflict, it is a problem between individuals that should have been resolved at the Police Inspectorate.

Curiously and wrongly, Dr. Gloria Cuartas stigmatizes the population living in that area in her assessment. Placing them in the conflict is a mistake that cannot be made”. On the murder of these two peasants there is not a single comment from Mayor Hector Rangel, to whom yesterday we made more than 8 calls and sent Whatsapp messages. The authorities seem to continue to ignore a problem that has been going on for several months in an area where massacres, kidnappings and selective assassinations were common twenty years ago.

Coda: In addition to planting cocoa and caring for her crops, Nallely was also dedicated to caring for the environment. Yesterday, Carlos Montoya himself published a photo of this 30-year-old woman writing on the gate of a farm with black paint the following phrase: “Mining kills the earth. We have the right to protect nature”. It is not for nothing that Colombia is the most dangerous country for environmental leaders.

Peace Community was formed in 1997

The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó is recognized worldwide because it has not ceased its resistance and its work for peace and human rights, despite having lived through the horror of war.

After suffering two massacres, the inhabitants of San José de Apartadó decided to declare themselves a peace community on March 23, 1997. At that time, the town center of the village was empty because most of the families had been displaced. With the declaration, they hoped that their human rights would be respected, but they had to live through many deaths, massacres, displacements and other violations to their individual and collective integrity. However, the slogan was always clear: to resist in peace. According to their own account, this Community has suffered massacres, such as the one in April 1999, when three of its members were killed; the one in February 2000, when five members were killed; the one that occurred in the hamlet of La Unión, where six people were killed, several of them community leaders; and another one remembered on February 21, 2005, when Luis Eduardo Guerra, one of the historical leaders, was killed along with part of his family. In October 2022, the Community received the Peace Award, presented by the United Nations Association (UNA).

Clan del golfo says yes to peace talks

Following President Gustavo Petro’s proposal to negotiate peace, the top commanders of the Gulf Clan stated that they were willing to negotiate. The president made the offer last Monday during his visit to Apartadó. He said he would be willing to hold new negotiations only if the members of this organization were willing to stop all activities from which they obtain criminal income. “Despite the fact that he does not know our identity and calls us by another name, we would like to communicate that we accept the invitation made by the President to sit down and negotiate the political conditions that will allow the social transformations that we all want for the regions where we are present,” said the Clan del Golfo in a statement.