|Colombian 'Peace Community' in Name Only|
SAN JOSE DE APARTADO, COLUMBIA -- Sausalito resident Sarah Weintraub spent the days following the massacre of eight villagers near this remote mountain village working the phones and talking to lawyers and human rights groups.
"It's very clear that this is a civilian population trying to make a life for themselves in an area that is very strategic and very desired by all sides, " said the 23-year-old volunteer of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith group with members from 40 countries. "They have a right under international humanitarian law to exempt themselves from the armed conflict," Weintraub said, referring to ongoing political violence that claims more than 3,000 lives in Colombia annually.
San Jose de Apartado is Colombia's oldest and largest "peace community." In 1997, its 2,000 inhabitants, who were weary of the deadly repercussions of taking sides in the nation's 41-year-old armed conflict, asked the army, leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary militias to stay out of their village. Since then, more than 50 other communities aided by human rights and church groups have followed, refusing to sell food and give information to any armed group.
Even though the villages' neutrality has been recognized by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, the army and paramilitary groups have killed 138 peace community members, while the country's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has killed 20 since 1997, community leaders and human rights groups say.
San Jose residents and international observers contend the Colombian military killed eight villagers in February in retaliation for a FARC ambush that killed 17 soldiers earlier that month. The government, however, says the victims were FARC collaborators who were killed for trying to leave the group.
The San Jose murders could affect future U.S. aid to Colombia, which is earmarked for anti-narcotics efforts and the military's war with two rebel groups. Government officials were expected to discuss with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is on a four-day Latin American tour, their request for funds to build a new anti-narcotics airfield that would serve as a base for planes to spray herbicides over coca fields in the southwest, where production of the raw ingredient of cocaine is on the rise.
Early this month, nine foreign diplomats -- including a representative of the U.S. Embassy -- went to San Jose to investigate the Feb. 21 killings.
"There are reasons to be concerned that the army did this," said Tim Rieser, an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who sponsored legislation requiring U.S. State Department certification on human rights progress in Colombia before military aid can be released.
Since 2000, the United States has given Colombia more than $3 billion in anti-narcotics and military aid. Nearly $40 million is on hold, pending certification. Last year, certification was held up until three soldiers were arrested for slaying three labor union members.
"If there's reason to believe that some stonewalling (on the San Jose investigation) is going on ... there's no politically viable way that they (United States) can certify," said Adam Isacson, a senior analyst at the Center for International Policy in Washington.
In addition to the February killings, other crimes have been committed against peace community residents. A paramilitary fighter received 5 1/2 years in prison in 2001 for burning 11 homes in San Jose, while another was sentenced to six years for murdering a village leader in 2001, according to the attorney general's office.
The army denies involvement in the deaths of the eight villagers. "No army troops were closer than two days' distance from the sites" of the killings, a Defense Ministry statement said.
Yet several witnesses say the army's 17th Brigade was in the area that day, detaining families in their homes, including community leader Luis Eduardo Guerra, who had represented the peace village in talks with the government. He was killed, as were his partner and their 11-year-old son. "We watched them pull out the disemboweled torsos of two adults with their heads, arms and legs chopped off" by machetes, said Patricia Abbott, a Fellowship of Reconciliation volunteer from Britain whose group has provided international observers in San Jose, along with the London-based Peace Brigades International, for the past three years.
Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe insists government security forces must be stationed in peace communities and elsewhere to protect residents from guerrillas and paramilitaries. But San Jose's leaders remain adamant about keeping government troops out of their village.
"To combat guerrillas, security forces need to be where the rebels are, not here inside San Jose de Apartado," said community leader Wilson David, as he stood beside a monument of rocks emblazoned with the names of the 158 victims of the civil war.
Such talk rankles President Alvaro Uribe, who recently said the peace communities "are not areas forbidden to public forces." He also accused San Jose villagers of "using the community to aid this terrorist organization," referring to FARC. In recent years, several peace community leaders have been charged with supporting the guerrillas, but all have been released for lack of evidence.
Late last month, police officers arrived in San Jose with a bus filled with clowns doling out candy -- a mission intended to calm jittery nerves.
Their presence, however, accomplished the opposite.
Some 400 families immediately moved to makeshift shelters 15 minutes down the main road from San Jose. And just last week, villagers said the police have already threatened to bring in residents from the nearby town of Apartado to occupy their homes unless they return within 15 days.
"Our desire is to keep our principles intact, but we do not know how long we will be able to resist," said a recent statement by village leaders.
? 2005 San Francisco Chronicle
5525 Illinois Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20011