|Tension Over Massacre Mounts|
BOGOTA, Mar 7 (IPS) - The tension between the Colombian government and the small San Jos? de Apartad? Peace Community, in that country's northwestern banana-producing region, continues to mount.
The people of the peace community say army troops were staked out in their village last week after killing eight local residents, including three children and two women, on Feb. 21.
But the villagers have refused to give their testimony on the massacre to prosecutors, because they do not trust the justice system.
More than 146 members of the peace community have been slain since 1997, and not a single case has ever been clarified. In addition, many witnesses who testified in the past have been killed.
"We have a right not to live with the victimisers. We need the army to leave San Jos?. Now they are around our houses, our schools, our children," says a communique released Friday by the community, which is home to around 1,300 campesinos (peasant farmers).
The peace community, created by 350 campesinos in March 1997 with the backing of the Catholic Church, declares itself neutral in Colombia's armed conflict, and bars the presence of any armed factions or weapons.
The community accuses the army of the Feb. 21 massacre in which eight people were killed, one of whom was the leader of San Jos? de Apartad?.
"We are urging the Colombian state to maintain no armed presence in our settlements and our places of work. This situation puts us at extreme risk because it turns us into military targets," adds the statement.
The community asks the same of the other factions -- the right-wing Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary umbrella and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) -- fighting for control over the conflict-torn region of Urab?, which borders Panama.
The community added that if the Colombian state persists in its harassment, the residents would be forced to flee, joining the roughly three million Colombians who have been forcibly displaced by the country's four-decade armed conflict.
On Feb. 21, the community's 35-year-old leader Luis Eduardo Guerra was tortured and killed, along with his young wife and his 11-year-old-son. Another family was also killed, including the two children, aged five years and 18 months. A campesino who happened to be passing by was shot and killed as well. Several of the bodies had been hacked to pieces with a machete.
Guerra represented the peace community in contacts with the government and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which in October 2000 ordered that precautionary measures be taken to protect the community.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which also forms part of the Organisation of American States (OAS) system, had also called for precautionary measures, in December 1997.
Guerra had met three times with Vice-President Francisco Santos, who personally promised to ensure that measures were taken to guarantee the security of the peace community.
In a hearing before the Inter-American Court, to take place Mar. 14 in the capital of Costa Rica, the Colombian government will be asked to demonstrate what actions it has taken to ensure the safety and lives of the residents of San Jos? de Apartad?.
The report produced by a fact-finding commission consisting of 100 villagers, which was set up by the peace community to investigate the Feb. 21 massacre, blamed the killings on the army's 17th Brigade.
Several officials have denied that the army was involved, or that it was even present in the area. Others have said they will await the results of the legal inquiry.
But the state prosecutors sent in to investigate the murders came up against two walls.
One was built by the local residents, brick by brick, and bears the names of each of the 146 villagers killed since March 1997, when the area was declared neutral in the civil war.
The other was a wall of silence.
The community is standing by a position it took publicly last year -- to break off all ties with the legal system, since none of the 146 murders have been clarified, and no one has been brought to justice.
When the prosecutors demanded their testimony, the campesinos responded that they would only speak before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
The community condemned an attack last week on the investigators and prosecutors, apparently carried out by FARC, along the road that links the village of San Jos? and the town of Apartad?, 12 km away. One of the police officers guarding the convoy was killed in the ambush.
"The human rights prosecutor in Bogot? called me and told me I should be in his office right now. I told him no, that I am conscientiously objecting and will not go," said Gloria Cuartas, who was mayor of Apartad? at the time the peace community was created.
"The community of San Jos? has already said it will not testify anymore in a country where testimony is manipulated, witnesses are bought, people are paid to talk about others, and evidence is obstructed," she told IPS.
After Cuartas accompanied the community's fact-finding commission to the areas where the bodies were found, she received death threats by telephone.
A driver who agreed to transport the bodies on Feb. 26 from the Apartad? cemetery to San Jos?, where a wake was held, was also threatened.
Summoned to testify by the public prosecutor's offices of Apartad? and Medell?n (the capital of Antioquia, the province where the peace community is located), Cuartas responded: "I will not give any statement to any member of this country's legal system."
"Experience has shown that during eight years of denunciations, the testimony of the victims was always sought, but not that of the victimisers. And in all of the legal complaints we filed, those who did testify were threatened or killed," she said.
"On Mar. 9, 2004, after we provided 220 pieces of evidence and testimony implicating General Rito Alejo del R?o (former commander of the 17th Brigade), the investigation was brought to a halt. Many of the people who spoke out against the general were killed," said Cuartas.
The villagers met last Wednesday with a United Nations delegation that visited the site of the murders, which included the head of the Colombian office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Roberto Meier, and Am?rigo Incalcaterra, assistant director of the local office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
With the help of Catholic priests, the peace community has documented in detail and publicly denounced all human rights violations of which its members have been the targets.
The community pointed to that thick file in response to the accusation, made by President Alvaro Uribe himself in May 2004, that it was "obstructing justice".
"Uribe is present in the origins of the history of the peace community," Jesuit priest Javier Giraldo, who was assigned by his order to work closely with the people of San Jos? de Apartad?, told IPS.
The right-wing Uribe, in office since August 2002, served as governor of Antioquia from 1995 to 1997.
"When people began talking about resisting and creating neutral communities, Uribe suddenly showed up at a meeting and started to talk about 'active neutrality' as he understood it: forging an alliance with the army to keep the guerrillas out of the local communities," he recalled.
"His proposal was so far off from what was being discussed that Bishop Tulio Duque, who was bishop of Apartad? at the time, told him 'Mr. governor, your proposal is not the same as ours', and Uribe angrily stormed out," said Giraldo.
"The governor was seeking to co-opt the language of neutrality, which is why the community did not use the word 'neutral' in its name, but 'peace community' instead," said the priest.
As president-elect, during a tour of Europe, Uribe announced that the army would be brought into San Jos? and other peace communities that had followed its example, said Giraldo.
Uribe, the closest ally of U.S. President George W. Bush in Latin America, does not acknowledge that Colombia is in the grip of an armed conflict, but merely talks about a "terrorist threat" against democracy, and says all civilians must take sides.
"We have constantly asked the Colombian state for the presence of civilian bodies like the offices of the public prosecutor and the ombudsman. But we will not accept the presence of military forces" in our villages, says the peace community statement.
Since its creation, the peace community has been frequently attacked by the AUC paramilitary militias and the army, which act in coordination, according to the rural activists as well as leading human rights watchdogs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. It has also been the target of guerrilla violence. (END/2005)
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