President Uribe Threatens San Jose de Apartado Following Massacre
by Virginia McGlone
After eight years of existence, the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado in Antioquia, Colombia, continues to stand strong in the midst of a war that they do not want to be part of. But in the wake of the Feb. 21 massacre of community leader Luis Eduardo Guerra together with his eleven-year-old son and six close friends and relatives, the community faces the gravest crisis of its history.
Guerra and his comrades were massacred on their way to his cocoa grove, near Mulatos, one of the outlying settlements that dot the hills around San Jose de Apartado. An outspoken leader of the community who had traveled to participate in international human rights forums, Guerra had been receiving death threats for a year. In December, he was detained at a local army checkpoint and briefly interrogated by troops of the 11th Brigade. In August, his wife and young daughter were killed by a grenade left behind by the Army’s 11th Brigade following a battle with guerillas in their settlement of La Union. Over the summer, two local campesinos at San Jose, Leonel Sánchez Ospina and Joaquin Rodríguez David, were assassinated by paramilitary gunmen who operate on village lands with the connivance of the army.
For months before the massacre, campesinos traveling from San Jose Peace Community settlements towards Apartado, the municipal seat some 20 kilometers away, were routinely harassed by soldiers, held at roadblocks and interrogated about their supposed support of the FARC guerillas. After denying any knowledge, they were accused of covering for the guerrillas, then sent back with a warning to the rest of the Peace Community threatening reprisals for guerilla collaboration.
In the days following the massacre, San Jose’s settlements of Bella Vista, Alto Bonito and Buenos Aries came under indiscriminate machine-gun fire and bombardment by military helicopters, forcing some 200 campesinos to abandon their homes and groves.
Things have only deteriorated since then. An April 1 statement from the Peace Community reported a "massive displacement" of residents from various settlements as well as San Jose’s central village towards the hamlet of La Holandita, where a refugee camp has been established. The mass flight, both from sporadic aerial bombardments and the military occupation of the villages, has prompted the attention of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which has sent a team to San Jose.
The Peace Community had planned to celebrate its eighth year on March 22 by officially declaring seven of the settlements as Peace Zones, and demanding recognition by the government, paramilitaries and guerillas alike as communities of conscientious objection. Instead, they are alerting international human rights organizations of the dire emergency they face. The community’s March 22 statement said that the government has made clear its "plans to do away with the Peace Community."
On March 15, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, meeting in Costa Rica, issued an urgent statement calling upon the Colombian government to comply with earlier orders to assure the safety of San Jose de Apartado’s communities.
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s response was to accuse the Peace Community of collaborating with guerrilla forces. In a speech delivered March 20, following a meeting of his Security Council in Carepa, Antioquia, Uribe said: "The peace communities have the right to establish themselves in Colombia thanks to our regime of liberties. But they cannot, as is practiced in San Jose de Apartado, obstruct justice, reject the Public Force… In this community of San Jose de Apartado there are good people, but some of their leaders, sponsors and defenders are seriously signaled by people who reside there as auxiliaries of the FARC, and they want to use the community to protect this terrorist organization."
Rights groups protest that Uribe’s statement puts the community of San Jose at risk of another massacre by the army or paramilitaries. Uribe also criticized Peace Community members for their unwillingness to collaborate with the military investigation into the massacre. Peace Community leaders counter that they have every reason to mistrust the military. They point to the experience in 2000, when a similar massacre occurred at the settlement of La Union; when residents testified to authorities about the involvement of the military, many were threatened and some others were assassinated.
The Peace Community maintains that the government is working in bad faith as long as their village and settlements remain under military occupation. The community’s March 22 statement cited the Colombian constitution’s guarantee to self-determination and international law in support of their right to non-involvement in the war.
Meanwhile, human rights organizations within Colombia and around the world are waiting for Uribe to issue a formal reply to the demands of the Inter-American Court for Human Rights. Stateside peace groups which support the community, such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, are struggling to give a public voice to San Jose de Apartado as the world’s attention is elsewhere.
See also WW4 REPORT #107
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, April 10, 2005 Reprinting permissible with attribution