Saturday, February 13, 2010

Five years after massacre, real justice still distant

February 20th update: A version of this was published on, under the title “Five Years After Colombian Massacre, Justice Is Still Elusive.” Check it out!

February 21st marks 5 years since 8 people, including 3 children, from the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia, were brutally massacred. Horror about the crime – in which some of the bodies were beheaded, and the rest cut into pieces before being thrown into a common grave – led to a six-month suspension of U.S. military aid because the 17th Brigade, implicated in the crime, received U.S. assistance at the time. Ample evidence points to military-paramilitary collaboration in the crime, yet five years later, not a single individual has been punished for the crime.

This 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, particularly for those high in the chain of command. While the Peace Community always insisted that the army and paramilitaries committed the crime, the Colombian government tried to place blame on the Community itself. Shortly after the massacre, President Uribe publicly accused the Community of guerrilla collaboration, backing up Army officials who claimed that 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 admitted their participation in the massacre and described the military’s role. After being implicated by these testimonies, Captain Guillermo Gordillo, who commanded one of the companies involved in the military operation during which the massacre took place, pled guilty in exchange for a lesser charge. As a result of these testimonies, ten low-ranking soldiers have been charged with collaboration in the massacre. Nonetheless, there are over a hundred soldiers who participated in the operation, not to mention the superiors who ordered or had knowledge of it. 

The evidence is quite damning against all of them, however. Seven former paramilitaries and Captain Guillermo Gordillo have confessed to planning and participating in the operation. The accused soldiers, however, maintain that the paramilitaries secretly infiltrated the army and committed the massacre without the soldiers’ knowledge – a claim that is hard to believe when, at the most recent hearing in the case, Gordillo and two paramilitaries testified that the army and paramilitary guides camped out together for three nights before the massacre. As the victims’ lawyer Jorge Molano said to me, “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 killing 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 of the two youngest children, who were just 18 months and 5 years old. One of the paramilitaries, Rober Darío Muñoz, says that he offered to a family member or a nearby house at which to leave the children, but that “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 4th, 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 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 late 2008 it was revealed that the Colombian army had long been involved in the practice of kidnapping young men from poor neighborhoods, killing them, then dressing them up as guerrillas killed in combat in order to earn rewards like days off. Since this so-called “false positives” scandal broke, the Prosecutor General’s office has opened nearly 1500 investigations into such crimes. In the wake of the scandal General Montoya resigned, but was later appointed ambassador to the Dominican Republic.

A year later, the Defense Minister admitted that the practice continues. Just after the New Year the Army changed its rewards practices so that deaths in combat no longer result in days off; instead, rewards are now bestowed for captures or demobilizations. However, 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 ten of the soldiers involved in the operation that led the Peace Community massacre is a good first step. However, in order for such brutal practices to end, high-ranking officials like General Montoya need to be tried and punished so that the message is sent loud and clear that such behavior is not acceptable.


Sara Koopman said...

well done Moira, great post. thanks for sitting through that harrowing testimony.

Elisabeth said...

Hello Moira,

I am Elisabeth, Belgian and loving that beer too. I would like to get in touch but cannot find your email address. I am working on conflict issues and I am currently in Colombia for some research. I like what you are doing, would like to know more and if you agree make an interview. I think my email appears but if not let me know on your blog please do not post this comment publicly
Looking forward to have some news.
All the best

Moira said...

hi Elisabeth,

Thanks for your comment. I wasn´t able to find your email address, so you can email me at moira.birss(at)