Last July, two armed men in uniform identifying themselves as “Black Eagle” paramilitaries stopped a vehicle traveling to the small town of San José de Apartadó in northwest Colombia. They forced Dairo Torres from the car at gunpoint and told the driver to be on his way. Minutes later another car passed and discovered Torres’ lifeless body in the mud. He had been shot at close range.
Torre was a leader of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, which is made up of several hundred families who have been forced to flee their lands. When it was founded in 1997, the Peace Community declared its active neutrality in Colombia’s long-running internal conflict. This means the entry of armed actors to the community, including the state security forces, is forbidden. Another key principle is that community members refuse any direct or indirect assistance to the armed groups.
In recent years, the Peace Community, now numbering almost 1,300 people, has been actively organizing to recover lands its members were forced to leave in the past decade. With a return by community members to the hamlet of Mulatos planned for February 21, paramilitaries are once again on the rampage, while the army and police continue abetting the repression—in many cases, as active participants.
Torre was the fourth leader of the community killed in the last two years. In recent months, two sympathetic neighbors of the community were also murdered—one by the army and the other by paramilitaries, according to a statement released by the community.
On its ten-year anniversary, campesinos and supporters gather to honor those assassinated. (Credit: www.cdpsanjose.org)
One of the most recent deaths was Héctor Jaime Orozco, killed by paramilitaries. I traveled with one of the Peace Community’s leaders to meet with his widow. After speaking with the leader, she silently climbed into a jeep headed to the municipal capital to identify his body. She had her five children in tow, all of them with confused looks on their faces—the oldest was ten. The Peace Community helped their mother get in touch with the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations so her husband could be buried in a proper coffin.
On December 23, Margarita Giraldo, a 48-year-old mother of three was tending to her yucca field. Soldiers arrived and detained her. They unloaded their machine guns against her house. Two of her daughters managed to escape into the jungle. The next day the army delivered her body to the local morgue, saying she was a guerrilla downed in combat.
A recent legal study published by the Law School of the Autonomous University of Colombia found that in its ten-year history not one of the more than 600 crimes registered against the community—including 168 murders or disappearances—have ended in a conviction. In fact, few have even gone to trial.
“You come face to face with the perversity of justice in this country, because the mechanisms of impunity operate in both directions: they not only declare the guilty innocent, but they also declare the innocent guilty,” says community leader Milton Barrera.∗
Indeed, the government often accuses the community of harboring guerrilla sympathies and even of being a guerrilla hotbed, despite the fact that out of the 169 violent deaths endured by the community about 25 were at the hands of guerrillas. The legal study attributes the remainder to paramilitaries and the military. Human rights groups have denounced these accusations as demonstrably false and as open invitations for paramilitary reprisals.
The Pacification of Urabá
San José is situated along the lush banks of the Apartadó River in the region of Urabá near the Panamanian border. Urabá has a long history of guerrilla activity, dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, when insurgents first arrived attracted by the growing banana workers’ unions, a total lack of official state presence, and the thick jungle cover perfectly suited for guerrilla warfare. The state response to the growing power of the rebels was fierce, and by the 1980s Urabá became known as one of the most violent areas of the country.
A leftist political party called the Unión Patriótica (UP) emerged in 1985 out of ultimately failed peace negotiations between the government and the largest guerrilla group, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). The UP was made up of unionists, campesinos, and leftist social organizations of all kinds that sought to integrate the guerrillas into a legal, non-violent political movement. The party became a formidable political force throughout Urabá, and San José was a bastion of UP support until the late 1980s, when the party came to a tragic end. The party dissolved after state security forces and paramilitaries assassinated or disappeared more than 3,000 of its members, including two presidential candidates.
Since San José de Apartado had been a stronghold of the UP, the right-wing paramilitaries, or “paras” as they are known locally, came down like a hammer on the small town. “San José became the final trophy of the paramilitaries. They left it for last, as a symbol of paramilitarism’s total victory in Urabá,” remembers community member Henry Acosta.
From 1994 to 1998, paramilitaries backed by the military initiated an ultra-violent campaign to “cleanse” Urabá of guerrillas. But much of the violence was directed at non-violent, social organizations deemed “subversive”—namely, unions, left-leaning political movements, farmers’ organizations, and even clergy members. The military and paramilitaries proudly refer to this process as the “pacification of Urabá.”
“The Peace community was born out of this context of confrontation and extermination that social organizations suffered at the hands of the state and the paramiltaries,” says Pedro Rodríguez, a community leader. “As the exterminations began to increase, we started thinking about a neutral community.”
“Declaring our neutrality was basically like declaring a war on the war, and from its birth, there was an attempt to drown that idea in blood, the idea of a neutral community,” adds Barrera.
Building Community, Recovering Lands
The community fiercely protects its neutrality from the state and the other armed actors. In 2004, the government had proposed to install a police outpost within the limits of San José in direct violation of the community’s rules of non-participation in the conflict. At first, the government seemed receptive to the community’s counterproposal of a peripheral police presence, but deadlines on decisions set by the talks continued to pass without results.
Then came the massacre of eight community members in February 2005. Eyewitness accounts and human rights reports implicate the Army’s 17th Brigade and paramilitaries in the massacre. The government used the massacre, which it falsely blamed on guerrillas, as an excuse to station the police within San José, illegally occupying the house of a community resident.
Homemade sign stating the Peace Community's principals. (Credit: colombiasolidarity.blog spot.com)
In response, the entire Peace Community left San José en masse and reestablished itself a few miles down the road, naming the new settlement San Josecito, or little San José. San Josecito is the new headquarters of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. The move marked another of at least ten mass displacements community members have been forced to endure by the armed actors. The February massacre also incited the community’s official break with the Colombian justice system.
But as Rodríguez notes, “One of the community’s objectives is the return of our lands, so all the true owners eventually get their lands back.” Over the years, community members have progressively resettled land they were once forced to flee—in many cases, carrying “nothing more than the clothes on our back.”
“Returns,” as the resettlements are called, are complicated and dangerous endeavors that are meticulously planned. In other parts of Urabá and throughout Colombia the government has sanctioned and administered returns, but as one community member mentioned, “We don’t believe in the returns done by the state. We do ours autonomously.”
It’s not hard to understand why: on the trail between the different hamlets of the Peace Community there are a group of one-room brick shacks built by the government for one of its sponsored returns. The community says they were built for a photo-op during the visit of an international diplomatic delegation. The huts remain unoccupied.
The community devised what could be called a “lily pad strategy” in which the closest areas to San Josecito are resettled first, from which they can then “leap-frog” to more distant resettlements at a later point. La Unión in 1998 was the first resettlement and is nearest to San Josecito, followed by Arenas Altas in 2000. The most recent return was to La Esperanza in late 2006.
The return process takes months to complete. The community first starts by surveying the area with scouts to determine the security situation and to find out what infrastructure remains. Usually, next to nothing is left since these are areas that were subject to bombings and scorched earth tactics by the military and paramilitaries; the voracious jungle vegetation takes care of the rest. The next step is planting crops and building rudimentary structures, all of which is done intensively as quickly as possible by collective work groups. Finally, when the crops are ready for their first harvest a huge contingent of the community will accompany the first pioneer families out to the resettlement and help them get situated. The return to La Esperanza in October 2006 began with five pioneering families, but the community now has a total of 32 families.
Either too afraid or too traumatized, not everyone who left these areas wants to return. An older woman from La Unión that was forced to leave ten years ago says, “The paras burned everything: crops, houses, even clothes; they made big piles and burned them. They killed my son up there. He was a councilor in the committee, so, no, I don’t want to go back there. The paras also killed my husband in 2002.”
Mulatos and Memory
The next return is to Mulatos, which is particularly symbolic, painful, and dangerous, because Mulatos was the site of the February 2005 massacre. It was in this area that eight people, including founding leader of the community Luis Eduardo Guerra and his family, were hacked to death with machetes. A demobilized paramilitary known as “Melaza” confessed that his paramilitary squad led 50 army soldiers commanded by captain Guillermo Gordillo to Mulatos. After the army had “secured the terrain,” Melaza testified, the paramilitaries killed the Peace Community members.
When news of the killings arrived, a 100-person search party left San José with the hope of at least recovering the bodies. Guerra was facedown in the mud with his 17-year-old partner, Beyarina Areiza, next to him. She had been cut in half. Next to her was Deiner, Guerra’s 11-year-old son. His barren skull lay a few feet away next to the river.
Thirty minutes walk from this macabre scene, the community found a mass grave with the bodies of the other five campesinos: a field worker, a couple, and their two children—Santiago was not even two-years-old; Natalia was six. As the bodies—or what was left of them—were pulled out of the mass grave, members of the 17th Brigade stood nearby laughing, and were seen washing off a blood-soaked machete they had found on the scene. “It was used to slit throats,” explained the soldier. After the killings, 120 families decided to leave Mulatos.
In February 2007, a full two years after this atrocity, the attorney general’s office called 69 members of the 17th Brigade in for questioning. (The army’s 17th Brigade is one of the few army units that have actually been decertified by the U.S. government for human rights abuses. This means it is supposedly cut off from receiving U.S. military assistance through Plan Colombia.) To date, no formal charges have been filed, but the government finally arrested army captain, Guillermo Gordillo, last November for the massacre.
“We’ll make an initial return with eight families to Mulatos. And we’ll be holding our heads high because we won’t allow our lands to be stolen,” says Acosta. The return is planned for February 21, the second anniversary of the massacre. One community member adds, “We’ve always had one thing clear: at any moment we might die. That’s our reality. We know we’re going to a complicated area.”
Verbal threats from so-called “Black Eagle” paramilitaries have increased recently, particularly around the more isolated hamlets. Their methods have changed, but the threat remains: “The paramilitaries have a presence in every municipality of Urabá. They no longer enter a town in huge blocs. Instead, they do it in groups, small groups. And they still do constant and permanent roadblocks and kidnappings. That’s how they control the area, economically, socially, and physically.” Rodríguez observes.
But the community remains hopeful, says Rodríguez. “We’re a strong community. In ten years of struggling, not the guerrillas or even the state has been able to finish us off.”
*All the names of community members quoted in this report have been changed for their safety.
Teo Ballvé is NACLA’s Web editor. A journalist based in Colombia, he edited, with Vijay Prashad, Dispatches From Latin America: On the Frontlines Against Neoliberalism (South End Press, 2006). Juan Ricardo Aparicio contributed reporting to this article. A shorter version of this report was originally published in the February issue of Z Magazine.