The massacre of eight members of the San Jose Peace Community on 21st February generated a wave of shock and outrage when news first reached us around a month ago. After all, Luis Eduardo, one of those murdered, was a well-known and respected figure, who had represented his community in meetings with the Colombian state and had made trips abroad to speak of the persecution suffered by his community at the hands of the Colombian armed forces and their paramilitary colleagues.
There has been a vast international response to this atrocity – the slaying and mutilation of five adults and three children, with an eyewitness testimony naming the perpetrators as members of the Colombian army. In a bizarre but strangely predictable twist however, victims have become aggressors as the war of words over communities’ rights to declare themselves as neutral zones in Colombia’s conflict rages in the press.
In the aftermath of the massacre, Colombian government statements have sought to portray members of the San Jose Peace Community as guerrilla collaborators. President Uribe has gone on to attack the whole concept of peace communities, repeatedly declaring that the armed forces can and will enter any part of Colombian national territory that they see fit – an act that could be seen as grossly insensitive, coming as it does in the midst of funerals and mourning in the tiny village of San Jose.
The San Jose Peace Community sent out a communique on April 1st, informing the world that a large number of armed Colombian police had arrived at the vilage, to set up a permanent camp there. The community’s response has been to displace, seeking refuge from an unwanted military intervention which they see as anathema to the vision of an alternative peaceful future which they have been engaged in building since 1997. A further communique followed on 4th April, telling how members of the police force have begun to illegally occupy the homes of the members of the peace community who have fled the village.
A few days earlier, on March 29th, a death threat was received at the offices of Justice and Peace (Justicia y Paz), a well-known Colombian NGO engaged in accompanying other peace communities in the region. It labelled members of the organisation as guerrilla subversives, and carried the name of Danilo Rueda, a prominent Justice and Peace activist, beneath a large black cross and the letters “RIP”. On Friday 31st March, 5 members of Justice and Peace were disappeared from the villages where they were working, in the river basin of Jiguamiando. They were apparently taken away by armed men who identified themselves as members of the FARC guerrillas, and nothing has been heard of them since then, despite desperate searches and appeals.
Both of these events occur only days after Justice and Peace’s involvevment in taking a high-profile case connected to human rights abuses to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The case is related to the forced displacement of hundreds of peasant families from their collectively-titled lands by members of the Colombian army and paramilitary forces. Parts of these lands are now illegaly sown with African palm trees – used to produce palm oil, and offering big profits to their owners. The identity of the armed men who abducted the five activists is by no means certain…
There is deep concern that these incidents form part of a concerted campaign to attack and ultimately destroy Colombian peace communities, their accompaniers and their attempts to fight for justice, truth and reparation. The events in San Jose would seem to be intrinsically linked to the death threats and disappearances directed against Justice and Peace, and the peace communities they accompany. If these communities and their pioneering attempts to resist a conflict that threatens to engulf them should be destroyed, it will be a loss not only to Colombia, but to the whole world.
Amnesty International has issued Urgent Actions regarding the San Jose massacre and the death threat received by Justice and Peace, and there are various communiques available in Spanish (from the Comunidad de Paz de San Jose de Apartado and from Justicia y Paz).