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Updates from the field - Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado, Colombia

sue | 06.04.2005 19:19 | Anti-militarism | Repression | Social Struggles

Read what's been happening on the ground in the Peace Community of San Jose - update from FOR, an international accompaniment group, with testimony from a Spanish aid worker.
Read San Jose's news direct -

Fellowship of Reconciliation
Task Force on Latin America
and the Caribbean

Colombia Peace Presence Update

March 2005, Special San José de Apartadó Edition

In this Update:

 Further aggressions against the Peace Community
 Out of Indignation
 Letter from the field: Eight Years of Struggle
 Responses and Grassroots Mobilizations

Further aggressions against the Peace Community

Most of you received our Update in February, in which we reported about the massacre of Luis Eduardo Guerra, his son Deiner Guerra, Bellanira Areiza, Alfonso Bolívar, Sandra Milena Muñoz, Alfonso and Sandra's children Natalia Andrea Tuberquia and Santiago Tuberquia Muñoz, and Alejandro Pérez. You also received the Alerts we sent out asking you to take action in support of the rights of the civilian population of San José de Apartadó. Many of you responded and that has been extremely important for the community and for the demand that the US State Department withhold certification of military aid to Colombia. Unfortunately the aggressions against the community have not stopped.

According to a statement by the community from April 1, the Colombian police entered the village on March 30 "with psychologists, sociologists, people filming us, and handing out flyers proposing that the community work together with the police and saying that we had agreed to this." The flyers also announced that the police would carry out "educational work with the children, conflict resolution, and social work." On March 31, "two people in civilian clothes carrying guns arrived at the entrance of the village; later the police priest came announcing with a megaphone the arrival of the police." They sent in the clowns. Clowns and other performers entered "inviting the community to work with the police and filming the village and its residents. Various kids and the community rejected the gifts and sweets they were handing out. Upon hearing this, various police officers and the priest got angry telling us that we would pay a heavy price."

At this moment the families of the Peace Community are displacing to a nearby farm on the Peace Community's land.

Already in December of 2004, they responded to the Colombian Government: "For many years we have complained to the Presidency and to the State Control Agencies about attacks by members of the police against members of the Peace Community and people in the region, and specifically about the police's close relationship with the paramilitary structures of the region. Š Police officers have facilitated and protected the circulation of paramilitaries when they were committing their crimes against the Peace Community; they operate in coordination with them, and have shown their complicity. In regions of police control, such as the Apartadó bus terminal, paramilitaries operate at their will; they threaten members of the community, announce and execute blockades; rob and kidnap members of the community, many times before disappearing and killing them. Š It is difficult to understand how a State agency [the police is part the Colombian Armed Forces] that includes those who until now have tried to destroy the Peace Community now proposes a protective presence with no explication, sanctions, corrections or reparations for the crimes and without any convincing gestures that would generate credibility Š.

We are extremely worried about the fact that the presence of the public forces close to the community will attract insurgent groups wanting to attack them, placing the civilian population in the crossfire of two armed actors that interpret any distancing from them to be a collaboration with their opponent."

In their statement from April 1 they write: "It is truly outrageous what the government is doing. The army has massacred eight people, among them a leader of the community, and as a response they send the police to supposedly solve our problems and carry out social work, forgetting the four meetings we had with the Vice-president about the supposed agreement about the installation of a police post. (The last meeting took place in the last week of January with the presence of Luis Eduardo, the now assassinated leader). ŠFor two years we have met periodically with his delegates Š and all we see is an increase in the aggressions and the quest to destroy our process." Now, "we will only maintain permanent communication with the people's ombudsman and the inspector general's office so that our houses will be respected as our private property. ŠWe also hope that they will not be taken by paramilitaries as has happened in so many places in the country." The community states that the displacement was a collective decision and demand respect by the armed actors "for our process, the humanitarian zones and those families that decided to stay in the village of San José." The human rights organization Corporación Jurídica Libertad in its alert states that "the parcel where the refugee camp has been established is property of the Peace Community; so we hope that the Public Forces under no circumstances invade or arbitrarily penetrate it with the purpose to further harass and persecute the people who have sought refuge there."

Out of Indignation
By María José Rodríguez Hernández, Translated from Spanish

"We know that a hundred or a thousand deaths are just a statistic, the kind that numbs the pain. To humanize the story, to put the skin back on our task, so that every reader can preserve that sensibility which makes him worthy of being called human."
-Patricia Verdugo, Chilean Journalist

From a place of outrage and sorrow I write this open letter, as a testament with which I want to dignify the person and the life of Luis Eduardo Guerra and the cause for which he struggled. Though our sorrow cannot be consoled, to those of us who have worked in Urabá these last five years, it is no surprise that the army would murder him so brutally. Luis Eduardo was a natural leader, intelligent, honorable; a man of faith who believed in and struggled for a beautiful Peace process built from below.

As I write these words, pain and rage consume me, seeing the assault of insidious lies about him and his community. So the least I can do is give my testimony, to show the credibility of Luis Eduardo and of the Process of the Peace Community of San José in the face of the falsehood and duplicity by those who constantly accuse and attack the process with endless lies and confusion.

So that I may not be accused of subjectivity and of slanting reality in favor of the Peace Community's Process, I will tell you that I am just a worker from Spain, and that during the long time I spent in Urabá, Colombia (January 2000 - December 2004) I worked on a variety of projects that the New Future Association of Navarra had in the region. I worked with displaced people, including those from San José (which had nothing to do with political processes, only with the consequences of the conflict) in areas such as education, food supply, agricultural production, housing, etc.

The latest events and the accumulation of lies made me decide to contribute to clarification of the facts and to throw a little light on so much intentionally planned obscurity.

Of all the outrages suffered by the Community, by luck or misfortune I have been present and witness to many of them and I myself have suffered many of them. I will say briefly that I have been a victim of persecutions by certain individuals while I was carrying on my work in the city of Apartadó, particularly while helping members of the Community deal with banks. I have also experienced surveillance by the police and DAS (Colombian national security police) from cars parked outside my residence. There have been innumerable problems of getting transportation due to threats made to drivers. I have been followed by men on motorbikes while carrying construction materials to San José. In May 2004, during the crisis of [President] Uribe's accusations against the NGOs working in San José, my telephone communication to the outside world was cut off.

I have also lived through the incessant actions of economic blockades against the community, such as the murder of contractors, transporters, and shopkeepers of San José, and the theft of money earned from the sale of cacao and raw materials, all of which has happened on the San José - Apartadó road where there is a strong military presence. The most recent blockade actions are alive in my memory because of the titanic efforts needed to move the cacao harvest, which had been warehoused from November 2003 to February 2004, with the consequential economic losses. Likewise, from September to November 2004 the Community was subjected to a food blockade. The murder of and threats to shopkeepers and contractors brought the Community to the brink of starvation in those two months. The creative actions of the Community and the help of NGOs allowed a return to normality. The Community called it the "Caravan for Life", in which more than 1000 people from all the rural areas walked, in a symbolic act, from the district of San José to the marketplace of Apartadó to peacefully buy their food.

The NGOs that work with the Peace Community clearly noticed the persecution to which we were subjected, a situation that made us fear for our own security.

Luis Eduardo was accused of participation in the bombing in Apartadó, at a time when he wasn't even living in the Community, but was a refugee in Bogotá. Luis Eduardo and his family have been direct victims of the terrorist actions of the army. In August 2004 his wife Luzelein and a girl were killed by an army grenade. His son Deiner, who has now been murdered by the army, was seriously wounded at that time. On that occasion I also witnessed in the Antonio Roldan Hospital in Apartadó how the army, the prosecutor's office, and the DAS prevented the wounded from being immediately airlifted to Medellín. The lack of adequate medical care caused the death of his wife and the girl, eliminating two of the main witnesses.

The judicial setups, planting of evidence, false testimony, torture, illegal detentions, etc., have been innumerable during the time I spent with the Community. A few days before I left for Spain, Col. Duque of the 17th Army Brigade made statements on a local radio station in which he showed satisfaction with the Community, saying "thanks to the information given by the Community and the NGOs who work with it, many guerrilleros have been detained." For us it was clear that he intended to destabilize things by involving us in the conflict as informers and thus making us targets for the guerrillas. For them everything is useful in their dirty war.

On the morning of December 13, 2004, I came down from San José for the last time. I had said my good-byes to the Community and I was on my way to the airport accompanied by Luis Eduardo and other members of the Community, ending five years of intense fieldwork in Urabá. The commander of the military checkpoint permanently located on the road between San José and Apartadó at the place called La Balsa, abusively and angrily asked Luis Eduardo for identification. The official in turn refused to identify himself and did not display the regulation ID on his uniform. The tense situation planted fears in my heart, suspicions of the terrible crime that has now been committed against Luis Eduardo.

Luis Eduardo leaves behind four children under the age of ten, who now swell the long list of orphans of San José and Urabá. His murderers have not been satisfied with his physical elimination; the ferocity of the slaughter also seeks to terrorize, to leave people in the most absolute political and human apathy, to dirty his dignity and to advance the extermination of their organizational process by using lies to create confusion. For some cynics "the end justifies the means." His death is part of "the cost of Peace," as his refusal to accept the State (a State that massacres) would also be.

Those who are silent in the face of this barbarity are also responsible, not just for what has happened, but for what will happen.

My letter is an act of solidarity. With my testimony I want to make it clear that the institutions of the State and the national press are lying, that I am certain that the Peace Community is not the guerrilla, that they only wish to live on their land with dignity, and that those who lie have a purpose - to dismantle the Peace Community Process.

This communication simply wants to denounce the lies and to defend justice above political ideologies.

To his family and children I say that Luis Eduardo has been an example that the atrocity of the murderers cannot erase.

To the murderers I say that with their criminal act they have achieved a contrary effect to what they wished; by making a martyr of one of the Community's members they have strengthened the ties of solidarity.

To the armed, social, and political factions I say that societies should never ground themselves on the sacrifice and oppression of men, not even if these measures are presented as temporary historical necessities for a future utopia.

We will know that "another world is possible" only if we have faith and that this other world can be better if we ALL build it.

The greatness of San José resides in its faith and its struggle; that is the shape of its resistance, because faith without struggle is nothing.

Life is struggle and the end of struggle is death. They know it well, and thus ALL believe in their plan and struggle furiously for it. This is why it is a living plan, with a future.

Their struggle is not only in their talk but in action, as they have so well shown.

San José is a gift for a world where it seems that we have all lost faith and the capacity to create. Overcoming again and again, they rise like the phoenix, once and a thousand times, from their ashes.

Letter from the field: Eight Years of Struggle
By Trish Abbott, FOR Colombia Peace Presence volunteer

"If the police come, we will displace and leave San José a ghost town"
Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, March 2005

On the morning of Tuesday 21st March, the FOR team accompanied about 100 campesinos along with a handful of journalists and representatives of NGOs on a journey through the three hamlets that make up the Peace Community of San Jose. This was the first of two journeys through the San Jose area that the community had planned in order to celebrate its 8th anniversary.

La Union, the hamlet where our team lives, was one of the places the group walked to. The night before this visit the people of La Union had met in order to plan for the day and the celebratory lunch that they were hosting. Groups were created who would kill a pig and roast it, others who would collect lemons to make juice and those famed with the best cooking skills were drafted to make sancocho [traditional Colombian dish]. The rest of the community would participate in the walk.

After the groups had been made and all the necessary plans set down, the nuns who live in the community took over the meeting and everyone fell silent. In addition to this being the eve of their anniversary, it was also exactly one month since the massacre of community leader Luis Eduardo Guerra, and seven other civilians, including three children.

Like many of the people sitting around me I had not realized this until that moment. As I listened to the service of remembrance unfold and the various community members speak of how the loss had affected them, I starting thinking about that day, one month earlier, when myself and my team mates had been sitting on the back porch of our house watching the sun go down and laughing about a story we had heard, when two community leaders came in and told us that Luis Eduardo had been killed. I thought about the days following when we accompanied another group of 100 people from the area to the site of the massacre. I thought about how we had marveled at the strength of these people as they hiked for hours through incredibly difficult terrain without resting in order to reach the site, then watched their vulnerability as they saw for themselves the mutilated remains of their loved ones and knew deep down that it could have been any one of them. I thought about sitting with a family member of three of the victims a few days after it happened as he tried to piece together how a fellow human being could have murdered his great nephew of less than two years old, alongside his big sister and mother.

But along with these thoughts came the realization of what I hadn¹t known then, but which the events of the last month demonstrated so clearly to me: that the massacre was just the first attack the community would have to face in the coming weeks. In those days of much activity after the massacre I was upset and confused, but I was also still naïve enough to believe that the death of these people would lead to prosecutions. That the evidence we saw so clearly would have to count for something. I had read about Colombian impunity but was in no way prepared to see the well-oiled wheels of this machine grind into action and I certainly was not prepared to witness the transformation of victims into criminals that the Colombian media, military and government were about to perform.

While the community prepared to celebrate its anniversary it was simultaneously preparing for the very real possibility that it would be forced to displace. That day was a day of rest from constructing houses on a new site, dubbed by some members as San Josito, where they will move to, leaving behind a large part of the land they have lost over 130 people to trying to protect it. The reason for this possible displacement is that in the wake of the massacre the government has declared that the community can no longer be without the presence of armed state actors and they are in the process of forcing a permanent police post on the community. This directly breaks the founding principles of the Peace Community, which state that no armed actors are to be present on their land. As it is the Colombian Public Forces themselves who are most heavily implicated as authors of this latest massacre, the reasons why the community feels safer without them are clear and the timing of the governments actions are all the more insulting.

Furthermore, just days before the anniversary, President Uribe made his first public statement regarding the massacre. In place of words of sympathy and outrage, he chose to accuse the leaders of the community of having links with the guerrillas and give his support to the plan to militarize the area. Human rights groups have been unanimous in their condemnation of this statement, but there is a very real fear that one day soon community leaders will be taken from their homes and arrested.

The culmination of the anniversary celebrations was a sunset service at the site where the community is building the homes it will live in if it displaces. [Families are moving there at the time of publication]. We stood in a circle around eight rocks that have been placed there, each one painted with the name of one of the victims. In the service the community members spoke of their sadness and anger, but also their determination and defiance. The united non-violent stance they have taken together over the last eight years has thus far allowed them to stay on their land whilst they have watched the communities around them be displaced. It has allowed them to keep control over their crops and how they manage them and it has brought the struggles of the people in this area firmly into the international conscience. The message of this celebration was clear: the members of Peace Community of San Jose de Apartadó are not going to accept the militarization of their area, nor the criminalization of their leaders and their organisational process. Facing all of these threats and so much uncertainty, they are determined that their incredible process of non-violent resistance will not become a footnote in the history of this conflict.

The four of us who work with the FOR project in Colombia have been much affected by the events here in the last month. This letter has focused upon the negativity of the reaction from inside Colombia because this is what we see everyday when we open the newspapers and watch the television. We wanted to end this letter, however, by thanking each of you who are part of the FOR support network and our own personal support networks for all the work you have been doing on behalf of this community. The response has been incredible and allows us to demonstrate to the community members we live with that they truly do have an amazing degree of international solidarity and that people whom they have never met are working incredibly hard to make sure that this community and its process survives. Thanks.

Responses and Grassroots Mobilizations
These are only a few of the numerous actions Trish mentions at the end of her letter, taken in different places and countries in response to the massacre and in support of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. These actions speak to the desire of so many of us to seek peaceful and just solutions to conflict and to support those who under the most difficult circumstances maintain their nonviolent resistance to injustice.

 A Congressional Dear Colleague letter was signed by 32 US Representatives and sent to President Uribe on March 8. An even stronger letter went to Condoleezza Rice on March 17 signed by 27 leaders of religious and human rights organizations. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights and European parliamentarians issued letters calling for a transparent investigation and for protection measures in consultation with the community.

 Witness For Peace sponsored a vigil outside the U.S. State Department on March 23, the 8th anniversary of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. Chicagoans for a Peaceful Colombia also held a vigil at the Colombian Consulate, as did a group of Colombian activists in San Francisco.

 With the help of Peace Brigades International's Colombia Project representative in Washington, Renata Rendón, an FOR volunteer who accompanied the commission to exhume the bodies after the massacre, gave a number of presentations to Congressional Staff in Washington. Renata also spoke at an opening of the FOR's Colombia Photo Exhibition at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York and at a gathering of Colombian activists at Amnesty International.

 A letter of solidarity signed by 50 people who have either accompanied, visited or otherwise have a personal connection to the people in San José de Apartadó was sent to the Peace Community for their 8th anniversary.

 Numerous letters have been sent to President Uribe. Representatives of the provincial government of Valencia, Spain demanded an exhaustive investigation and the "elaboration of a plan of action that places human rights at its center," and the recognition that "peace is not possible without the full respect of human rights and the elimination of impunity." Another strong letter about this and other cases was signed by over thirty academics, jurists, artists, writers, theologians, and religious leaders from Europe, Latin America and the US, among them Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel.

 San Jose de Apartadó's Italian sister municipality Narni organized a demonstration in front of the Colombian Embassy in Rome on March 21st. The press release announcing the demonstration was signed by 7 regional and local governments including the municipality of Rome, as well as 5 non-governmental organizations, including the Italian FOR.

 The Swedish FOR, aside from various grassroots actions involving their members, met with the Swedish embassy in Bogota and with the Colombian embassy in Stockholm to express their repudiation of the massacre and demanding an investigation.

 In Bristol, during a visit of the Colombian Vice-President to the Bristol University, members of the "Solidarity with Colombia Campaign" staged a visual representation of the bodies of the civilians killed. "Our goal was to respectfully remember the victims of the violence that continues in Colombia, in which the complicity of the Colombian government has been proved repeatedly."

 Currently the Fellowship of Reconciliation is organizing a special delegation of Congressional members and staff, as well religious and human rights leaders to meet with the leaders of the Peace Community and officials in Colombia.

We dedicate this Update to the families who lost their lives in the most recent atrocity, but also to the families who continue their struggle in San José de Apartadó and who are now facing further militarization of their community and with that the forced displacement from their homes.

In Peace

Jutta Meier-Wiedenbach
Colombia program coordinator

Fellowship of Reconciliation
Task Force on Latin America and the Caribbean
2017 Mission St. #305
San Francisco, CA 94110
phone: (415) 495-6334, fax: (415) 495-5628


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