Five Years After Colombian Massacre, Justice Is Still Elusive
February 21 marks the 5-year anniversary of a brutal massacre of eight people, including three children, from the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia. Horror about the crime -- in which bodies were beheaded, and others cut into pieces before being thrown into a common grave -- resulted in a six-month suspension of U.S. military aid to Colombia and the de-vetting of the 17th Brigade, which had been receiving U.S. military aid before being implicated in the crime. Ample evidence points to military-paramilitary collaboration in the crime, yet five years later, not a single individual has been punished.
Civilian killings during Colombia’s decades-old internal conflict have not received much attention, but the 2005 Peace Community massacre generated enough notice and outrage to suspend U.S. military aid in large part due to the Community’s courageous stance of neutrality. In 1997 residents of San José de Apartadó declared themselves a Peace Community, insisting on their rights as civilians to be left out of Colombia's internal conflict and refusing to cooperate with any of the armed factions -- guerrillas, paramilitaries or military -- in an attempt to safeguard themselves from the threat of massacres, displacement, disappearances and the destruction of their crops. As the 2005 massacre and other attacks against the community demonstrate, this strategy doesn’t always work because the armed actors -- including the military -- see it as a threat to their power in the region. Nonetheless, the members of the Peace Community believe that pacifism and communal work are the best way to keep their dignity and integrity and continue to live on their land.
The 2005 massacre case is emblematic not just as an example of the brutality suffered by civilians at the hands of the Colombian military and paramilitaries, but also of the Colombian state's efforts to maintain impunity in such cases. While the Peace Community always insisted that the army and paramilitaries committed the crime, the Colombian government tried to place blame squarely on the victimized community itself. Shortly after the massacre, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe publicly accused the community of guerrilla collaboration, backing up army officials who claimed the FARC had committed the massacre to punish the community for collaboration gone awry. It has since been proved that army officials paid false witnesses to testify that the FARC committed the massacre.
Several former paramilitaries have since admitted their participation in the massacre and described the military’s role. After being implicated, Captain Guillermo Gordillo, who commanded one of the companies involved in the military operation that led to the massacre, pled guilty to a lesser charge. As a result of these testimonies, 10 low-ranking soldiers have been charged with collaboration in the massacre. However, more than 100 soldiers who participated in the operation and their superiors who ordered the operation have never had to answer for it.
Despite the damning evidence against them, the accused soldiers maintain that the paramilitaries secretly infiltrated the army and committed the massacre without the soldiers’ knowledge -- a claim that is hard to believe when Captain Gordillo and two paramilitaries testified that the army and paramilitary guides camped together for three nights before the massacre. As the victims’ lawyer Jorge Molano says, "You don’t spend three nights with someone and not know he’s there."
At the most recent hearing, which I attended, the public held its breath as paramilitary José Joel Vargas described how he killed the two youngest children. Though they have not yet taken the stand, three paramilitaries who participated in the operation have testified in written statements that it was Captain Gordillo himself who ordered the paramilitaries to murder the two youngest children, who were just 18 months and 6 years old. One of the paramilitaries, Rober Darío Muñoz, says he offered to leave the children with a family member or at a nearby house, but "the army man said to another commander that that wasn’t acceptable because the girl was old enough to realize what had happened [to her parents].”
Of course, military operations don’t take place without an order from ranking officers. On February 4, the first day of the most recent hearing in the case, Captain Gordillo confirmed the participation of General Mario Montoya in the planning of the operation and in ordering non-military guides. At the time, General Montoya commanded the army’s 7th Division, of which the 17th Brigade is a part.
General Montoya was later promoted to commander of the Armed Forces, and it was largely under his watch that the army committed what has become known as "false positives," in which members of the Colombian army kidnapped and killed young men from poor neighborhoods and then dressed them up as guerrillas killed in combat in order to earn rewards like days off. Since this so-called “false positives” scandal broke in late 2008, the Prosecutor General’s office has opened nearly 1,500 investigations into such crimes. In the wake of the scandal General Montoya resigned, but was later appointed ambassador to the Dominican Republic.
In 2009, Colombia’s Defense Minister admitted that the practice of false positives continues. Just after the New Year the army changed its practices so that days off are no longer rewarded for deaths in combat; instead, such rewards are now bestowed for captures or demobilizations. However, according to a government investigator who requested anonymity, it appears that false positives continue. Instead of killing the young men they kidnap, members of the army are presenting them as demobilized combatants.
The case against 10 of the soldiers involved in the operation that led to the Peace Community massacre is a first step in a long journey toward justice. In order for such brutal practices to end, however, high-ranking officials like General Montoya and General Fandiño, who commanded the 17th Brigade at the time, must be tried and punished so that the message is sent loud and clear that such behavior is not acceptable.