|Police in, population out after Colombian massacre|
SAN JOSE DE APARTADO, Colombia, May 10 (Reuters) - Except for the stubborn few who refuse to leave and the police recently assigned to protect them, this town is abandoned.
The 100 families of the "peace community" of San Jose de Apartado, which eight years ago declared itself neutral in Colombia's guerrilla war, are down to about five.
The rest are nailing together new homes at a spot 15-minute down the muddy road by mule. They moved to get away from law enforcement officers who arrived after three children and five adults from the community were hacked to death by machete in February.
The crime has focused attention on the Colombian government's commitment to human rights and, once the identity of the killers is known, could have implications for foreign aid for President Alvaro Uribe's hard-line security policies.
But, as is often the case in this complicated conflict, discerning the truth won't be easy.
People here say the army carried out the killings with help from far-right paramilitary criminals. They last saw some of the victims being led away by soldiers.
But investigators have a problem. Witnesses refuse to cooperate with state prosecutors because they say this would violate their autonomy as a gun-free zone set up by poor farmers in 1997.
They are so determined to shun authorities that they are moving their whole town because police established a presence in the original town since February. This could expose residents to attacks by Marxist rebels, said community member Gildardo Tuberquia, 29.
"When the guerrillas attack they leave a certain number of innocent people dead. We can't accept that," he said.
An initial state prosecution service investigation concluded the San Jose massacre could have been carried out by paramilitary outlaws or leftist rebels vying for control of this banana-growing territory near Panama, or by the army.
The military, which suspects the people of San Jose of cooperating with rebels either willingly or due to coercion, denies involvement.
AID LINKED TO HUMAN RIGHTS
U.S. programs which have supplied $3 billion in mainly military aid to Colombia since 2000 are conditioned on respect for human rights. So the government will have to show it is thoroughly investigating the February killings.
But Uribe usually has little difficulty winning favors from the United States. Washington likes his aggressive stance against Marxist rebels, who have been targeted with mass arrests and attacks guided by an informer program.
Bogota's problem will likely come elsewhere. The San Jose probe's outcome will be closely watched in Europe, where governments dislike what they see as Uribe's heavy-handedness and suspect he has failed to break ties between the army and paramilitaries.
European opinion matters because Colombia wants European nations to provide hundreds of millions of dollars to retrain former militia fighters, a key part of Uribe's peace plan.
Government advisors admit they have an image problem in Europe, where media often portray Uribe as a hard-right ogre, despite the president's 70-percent approval rating at home, driven by a sharp fall in violence during his government.
In the confusion of Colombia's conflict, the United States exaggerates Uribe's virtues while Europe exaggerates his weaknesses, said Alfredo Rangel of thinktank Seguridad y Democracia.
"They look at him through a different lens and both have a distorted vision," he said.
Human rights researcher Robin Kirk, author of "More Terrible Than Death -- Massacres, Drugs and America's War in Colombia," acknowledged Uribe's humanitarian and crime-fighting efforts.
But, she said: "He's treating the symptoms rather than the causes of violence in Colombia, including the links between the army and the paramilitaries and impunity for the crimes that have been committed."
Aware of the political sensitivity of the massacre case, the government decided it could no longer accept the community's refusal to allow in police. But, when it installed officers, it ordered them to tread lightly.
Milton Lopez, police chief in the virtual ghost town of old San Jose, says local distrust of him is "understandable."
"We must win them over slowly," the 32-year-old said.
"They don't let us enter the community that is now being built but at least they answer us when we walk by and say hello. That is a big gain for us," said Lopez, his manner more that of a public relations executive than a frontier lawman.
But distrust persists. Tuberquia said 154 residents have been killed here since 1997, most by paramilitaries, illegal groups formed in the 1980s to help the army fight the rebels. The state has never punished anyone for the killings, he said.
Community members say they still occasionally see soldiers chatting with paramilitaries at the army checkpoints.
"The state security forces are constitutionally legal, but for us they are not. They should be protecting civilians but they mistreat and displace us," he said.
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