Colombian army captain charged in Peace Community massacre

Colombian prosecutors on Nov. 22 ordered the detention of an army captain, Guillermo Gordillo, for participating with paramilitary killers in the massacre of eight civilians, including three children, in San JosĂ© de ApartadĂł in February 2005. (Fiscalia press release, Nov, 22) “The community was right,” read the Semana headline about Gordillo’s detention Nov. 24. The case led to the suspension of more than $70 million in US military aid that year. The prosecutors’ move acknowledges what Peace Community leaders said from the beginning, but was categorically denied by Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos (nominally designated as the Colombian state’s human rights representative) and high military officials.

On Nov. 23, the morning after the announcement, army soldiers in San JosĂ© detained 10-year-old community member Efren Espinoza Goes and beat him up for more than 15 minutes, according to the community, threatening to kill him and running a machete over his fingers, saying they would cut them off so he couldn’t use them to fire a weapon. (Peace Community statement, Nov. 27) One community member informed FOR that he came upon another community member detained by soldiers, who asked the man why he was afraid if he had not done anything.

Captain Gordillo is being held in a military barracks, accused by several demobilized paramilitaries from the group “Heroes of Tolová.” According to one of the paramilitaries, knowns as “Melaza,” a paramilitary troop operated with some 50 soldiers commanded by Gordillo, who “secured the terrain” while the paras went ahead to commit the crime. The men beheaded several of their victims, including the children of 11, 5, and 2 years of age. According to Melaza, Gordillo reportedly told another paramilitary that they had “screwed up” by killing the people, who by order of the Inter-American Human Rights Court, the army was supposed to protect.

Semana suggested that the compelling evidence of army participation in the massacre raises two questions: about the military’s stigmatization of the Peace Community and of similar initiatives, and about mechanisms for addressing military abuses, including a history of collaboration between the Army’s 17th Brigade—to which Gordillo belonged—and paramilitary death squads. In fact, according to Amnesty International, Gordillo’s commander, Col. Ivan Duque, who has apparently not been accused, has been transferred to the army’s 12th Brigade, where an increase in abuses has reportedly led to a suspension of US assistance to the unit.

We suggest a third question that is at least as important: about the military and State’s cover-up of army involvement in this brutal massacre. The Ministry of Defense, eight days after the killings, published maps of the purported locations of 17th Brigade troops when the massacre occurred, alleging that the troops were three or four days, and even seven or eight days away from the events. But according to the military’s own reports, troops had killed a guerilla fighter in a settlement only three hours walk from one of the sites. And when community members arrived at the scene together with FOR and other international observers, army soldiers, including Gordillo, were already there. Vice President Santos also quickly denied army involvement in the massacre, and called on judicial agencies to come to a rapid conclusion, effectively pressuring prosecutors to accuse guerrillas of the crime, as he did. Moreover, the Defense Ministry posted on its web site a spurious interview with a purported FARC deserter, alleging that Luis Eduardo Guerra was a guerrilla killed because he planned to leave the Peace Community.

Meanwhile, Peace Community members plan to return next February to live and work in the settlement where Luis Eduardo Guerra, his companion and his son were killed in the massacre. But paramilitary men, armed with long guns, are threatening others in the area, saying they have killed four people in the last two weeks, and that another massacre is on its way.

As many Colombians have written in on-line comments about the news, Gordillo and his paramilitary cohorts should be prosecuted for their crimes. But justice also requires that those with greater power, who used that power to cover for the killers, must also be exposed and held accountable for their actions.

“Parapolitica” scandal reaches more Colombian officers

Colombian Attorney General Mario Iguarán announced that he is re-opening investigation of retired General Rito Alejo del Rio‘s collaboration with paramilitaries in the Urabá region from 1995 to 1997. Del Rio commanded the Army’s 17th Brigade, which has jurisdiction in San JosĂ© de ApartadĂł and in Afro-Colombian communities of the lower Atrato region, which suffered massive killing and displacement by paramilitary forces during Rito de Alejo’s command.

Two paramilitary commanders have publicly accused Del Rio of working with them. Ever Veloza, commander of the paramilitary “Banana Block” that committed multiple massacres of civilians in the Urabá region, said he twice witnessed Del Rio meeting with paramilitary commander Carlos Castaño. Salvatore Mancuso, who succeeded Castaño as national commander of the paramilitaries, testified that Del Rio met with him and other commanders to coordinate the paramilitaries’ expansion throughout northern Colombia.

“With the investigation of Del Rio,” wrote the weekly magazine Semana Nov. 3, “a process similar to the ‘parapolitica’ [scandal] begins, but surely with greater magnitude. While many of the para-politicians are accused of benefiting electorally from the ‘self-defense groups,’ in the case of the military, there are massacres, disappearances, murders and many other atrocious crimes involved, for which the country has already been condemned by internationa judicial bodies.”

The para commanders also accused other military officers—most of them retired or dead—of supporting their scorched earth atrocities. Veloza said that Bayron Carvajal—imprisoned for leading the killing last year of ten elite anti-drug policemen on behalf of drug mafia—had introduced himself in 1995 in Turbo (town in the 17th Brigade’s and Banana Block’s zone of control), and the two carried out operations. (Semana, Aug. 6). Carvajal studied at the US Army School of the Americas, according to the database compiled by School of the Americas Watch.

Iguarán also announced investigations into military officers responsible for the death of Colombia’s entire Supreme Court in 1985, because of excessive use of force in re-taking the Palace of Justice, taken by M-19 guerrillas on November 6 of that year. The disastrous outcome of the event traumatized many Colombians, and the events—including the disappearance of 11 cafeteria workers—were never clarified.

The Army continued its pattern of extrajudicial executions of civilians who are later passed off as guerrillas. The commander and six other members of an elite anti-kidnapping unit, GAULA, were accused earlier this month of kidnapping a businessman on July 27 from a cybercafe. (AFP, Nov. 3) They later claimed he was a guerilla killed in combat. The commander of the unit, Gustavo Soto, studied at the US Army School of the Americas in 1993.

The recent pattern of corruption and abuse by the Army is documented in detail from public sources by Colombia Support Network, in “Terrorism, Thievery, Bungling and Massacres,” available in English to download at:

John Lindsay-Poland for the FOR Colombia Program, November 2007

See our last posts on Colombia and San José de Apartadó.