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’s lifeless body. He had been shot at close range.
Torres was a leader of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, which is made up of several hundred families who were forced to flee their lands. When it was founded in 1997, the Peace Community declared its neutrality in Colombia’s long-running internal conflict. This meant that the entry of armed actors into the community, including the state security forces, was forbidden. Another key principle was 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 organizing to recover lands its members were forced to leave. With a return by community members to the hamlet of Mulatos planned for February 2008, para- militaries are once again on the rampage, while the army and police continue abetting the repression—in many cases, as active participants.
Torres was the fourth leader of the community killed in the last two years. In one month alone, 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.
A recent legal study published by the Law School of the Autonomous University of Colombia found that in its 10-year history not one of the more than 600 crimes registered—including murders or disappearances— has 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 168 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.
The Pacification of Urabá
San José is situated along the 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 guerrillas 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 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 UP became a formidable political force throughout Urabá and San José was a bastion of UP support until the late 1980s when 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 UP stronghold, the right-wing paramilitaries, or “paras” as they are known locally, came down like a hammer on the small town. From 1994 to 1998, paramilitaries, backed by the military, initiated a 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 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 lead- er. “When the exterminations began to increase is when we started thinking about a neutral community.”
The community fiercely protects its neutrality from the state and the other armed actors. In 2004 the government proposed to install a police outpost in San José in direct violation of the community’s rules. At first, the government seemed receptive to the community’s counter-proposal 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 in the massacre. The government used the massacre, which it falsely blamed on the FARC, as an excuse to station the police within San José, illegally occupying the house of a community resident.
In response, the entire Peace Community left San José and reestablished itself a few miles down the road, naming the new settlement San Josecito, or little San José. San Josecito became the new headquarters of the Peace Community. The move marked another of at least ten mass displacements community members had been forced to endure by the armed actors.
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. 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 and La Esperanza in 2006.
The return process takes months to complete. The Community starts by surveying the area 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 next step is planting crops and building rudimentary structures, all of which is done 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 to the resettlement and help them get situated.
Mulatos and Memory
The next return will be 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 a founding leader of the community, Luis Eduardo Guerra, and his family were hacked to death by machetes.
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 found 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.
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 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.
Two years after this atrocity, the attorney general’s office called 69 members of the 17th Brigade in for questioning. To date, no formal charges have been filed. (The army’s 17th Brigade is one of the few army units that had been decertified by the U.S. government for human rights abuses. This means it is officially cut off from receiving U.S. military assistance through Plan Colombia.)
“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 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 Peace Community remains hopeful. Says Rodríguez, “We’re a strong community. In ten years of struggling, not the guerrillas or the state has been able to finish us off.”
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