Killing peace in Colombia Print
Luis Eduardo Guerra, 35, his wife and son and five others were murdered by Colombian soldiers on Feb. 21. He had been bringing down some cocoa on horseback from his farm in the hills above San Jos? when they got him.

Wracked by four decades of civil war, Colombia has long been one of the world's most violent countries. But in the mid-1990s, right-wing paramilitaries began an offensive in the country's northwest that shocked even war-weary Colombians. In five years, the paras killed thousands they accused of ties with guerrillas. Tens of thousands of peasants fled ahead of their ruthless advance.

San Jos? sits in the Andean foothills, below a mountain corridor linking the country's interior to the banana and jungle land of the Pacific northwest. Peasants from small farms came down to San Jos? during the '90s. But rather than moving out of the region, the community decided to make a stand together and resist.

With the support of the Catholic Church, statutes were drawn up prohibiting any contact with the army and region's combatants and, on Mar. 23, 1997, San Jos? declared itself Colombia's first "community of peace."

But in the brutal logic of Colombia's guerrilla war, there is no place for neutrality. Peasants who live where there are guerrillas are killed or displaced.

"The community was established on Palm Sunday and on Thursday the attacks by the army began," recalls Father Javier Giraldo. "Entire families were dismembered; people we found with their fingers cut off or their insides cut open."

In three years, San Jos? lost more than 80 members to massacres and assassinations.

Paramilitary roadblocks were set up and residents were pulled off buses and killed. The electricity would go off at night and, in darkness, paramilitary soldiers dragged people out of their houses and shot them. When the town denounced the slaughter, it was labeled a guerrilla town. When leaders like Eduardo spoke out, they were labelled guerrillas.

Giraldo, a Jesuit priest and internationally renowned human rights activist, has accompanied the people of San Jos? since the beginning. He has also methodically documented the crimes committed against them.

Giraldo's San Jos? list is chilling, including more than 300 cases of torture and beatings, the indiscriminate burning of farms and bombing of civilians, disappearances, threats and assassinations. But in spite of his meticulous accounting of crimes and dozens of sworn declarations to judicial authorities, Giraldo says no one has been arrested or jailed.

In mid-January, Giraldo alerted Colombian President Alvaro Uribe once again to the critical situation facing San Jos? and urged him to adopt immediate measures to protect its members. It was the ninth such appeal for protection to the president in 18 months.

I spent an afternoon with Eduardo a couple of years ago in Bogota. Solidarity groups were organizing tours for him in Europe and the U.S. and he had begun speaking publicly around the country. He said the hardest thing for people to understand was how much sacrifice is involved for a community that wants to stay out of the conflict in Colombia.

He was always passionate when he spoke, but the strain of constant threats was taking its toll. In July, 2004, at a forum in Quito, he brought mayors and municipal officials from around Ecuador to their feet as he spoke of San Jos?'s struggle. Then, suddenly, with tears in his eyes, he asked "But why so many meetings, so many experts and so much talk? Why all this when what we need most is for them to stop killing us!" While he was out of the country, a grenade left by soldiers in San Jos? exploded, killing a local woman and injuring his young son.

Three hundred people, a quarter of San Jos?'s population, went into the hills to bring back Eduardo, his family and the other dead. Eight years and 152 unpunished killings have not broken their resolve. They were buried in San Jos? on Feb. 28.

Daniel Bland is a Canadian journalist and human rights researcher who lived and worked in Colombia during most of the 1990s.