Senator Leahy’s Statement on San Jose Massacre

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy
Massacre at San Jose de Apartadó

MR. LEAHY.  I want to speak about a matter that I suspect few Senators are aware of, but which should concern each of us. 

On February 21, 2005, in the small Colombian community of San Jose de Apartadó, 8 people, including 3 children, were brutally murdered.  Several of the bodies were mutilated and left to be eaten by wild animals. 

This, unfortunately, was not unusual, as some 150 people, overwhelmingly civilians caught in the midst of Colombia’s conflict, have been killed by paramilitaries, rebels, and Colombian soldiers in that same community since 1997.  None of those crimes has resulted in effective investigations or prosecutions.  No one has been punished.

That is an astonishing fact.  Think of 150 murders, including massacres of groups of people, in a single rural community, and no one punished.

This latest atrocity occurred in a remote area frequented by rebels and paramilitaries.  As a result, the presence of the Colombian army has also grown significantly there.  Yet the army, which was sent to that area to protect civilians from attacks by illegal armed groups, is now suspected by some of having committed this massacre.

Residents of San Jose de Apartadó have blamed the army, and international observers who went with community members to locate the bodies witnessed disturbing behavior by soldiers who reportedly laughed while body parts were being exhumed, who took pictures of themselves making victory signs, and who mishandled evidence from the massacre sites.  There is also the possibility that paramilitaries acted in collusion with the army.  And some have speculated that there were two separate groups of perpetrators, perhaps including the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s oldest rebel group.

Even before an investigation began, top Colombian officials publicly declared that the FARC was responsible.  The Minister of Defense, who has since resigned, insisted that the army could not have done this because on February 21 they were more than two days’ walking distance from the crime scene.  It was soon determined, however, that there were soldiers only half a day’s walk away, and army helicopters had recently been seen in the vicinity.

While it has not been proven who is responsible for this horrific crime, the government’s rush to judgment was only its first mistake.  That was quickly followed by the decision, against the wishes of the community, to send armed police officers into their midst. While I do not doubt the authority of Colombian police to enter that territory, it caused the majority of its inhabitants to flee their homes out of fear that the police would become a target of illegal groups and that the villagers could once again be harmed. 

In fact, such an attack took place on June 26, when three policemen were wounded in an attack by the FARC and community members were caught in the crossfire.  Later, on July 18, an old man was found beaten to death.  There were two more killings by the FARC, one in August and another in September, and verbal threats and acts of intimidation by soldiers and police officers towards members of the community have reportedly steadily increased.  Then last month, there were three incidents in which armed paramilitaries and soldiers reportedly threatened members of the community and destroyed property.  It appears that the community may be no safer today than it was on February 21.

One of the consequences of the government’s tactless approach to this and previous cases is that several witnesses from the community have refused to come forward and give testimony, and this has hindered the investigation.  After a massacre of 6 members of this same community five years ago when over 100 people gave testimony to judicial authorities, no one was convicted and no report on the investigation was ever issued.  Convincing witnesses to come forward this time will require a degree of sensitivity by the government that has, to date, been sorely lacking.     

We are told by the Colombian Government that an investigation of the massacre is ongoing.  That, unfortunately, is the story of most heinous crimes in Colombia.  Investigations often continue without end, and often the perpetrators avoid punishment.  I am concerned that this case may be no different.

According to information I have received, neither the soldiers who were in the area at the time of the February 21 killings, nor hospital workers who treated a girl who was wounded by soldiers there the previous day, have been interviewed by investigators.  I find this hard to believe, but if it is correct the government has much to answer for.

For five years, the United States has provided significant military aid to Colombia despite ongoing concerns about human rights.  Several months ago, the Secretary of State certified that the Colombian Government had met the human rights conditions in our law, and recommended the release of additional military aid.  However, the report accompanying her certification also noted that “[w]hile the human rights performance of many of the Army’s units is improving, an exception is evidenced by continued accusations of human rights violations and collusion with paramilitaries against the Army’s 17th Brigade, which operates in northern Colombia.  These reportedly include some 200 allegations involving the peace community of San Jose de Apartadó in 2000-2001 and, most recently, of involvement in the killings near San Jose de Apartadó in February 2005. . . As a result of these allegations, the United States has informed the Government of Colombia that it will not consider providing assistance to the 17th Brigade until all significant human rights allegations involving the unit have been credibly addressed.” 

While I might differ with the Secretary’s decision to make the certification at the time she did, which coincidently occurred just hours before President Uribe’s arrival at President Bush’s ranch in Texas, I commend her decision to withhold aid to the 17th Brigade.  It is noteworthy, however, that concerns about the 17th Brigade had been conveyed to the State Department well before this incident, including reports that its members were openly colluding with paramilitaries.  Yet there is reason to believe that U.S. aid continued despite those reports.

This case presents the Bush Administration with an important challenge.  It shows that despite billions of dollars from the United States and lofty rhetoric about human rights, the Colombian government’s initial reaction to this despicable crime was not appreciably different from what we saw years ago.  They denied responsibility and blamed the victims even before an investigation began, and some of the key witnesses may not even have been interviewed eight months later. 

This is unfortunate because there has been progress on human rights under President Uribe’s government.  Parts of the country are noticeably safer.  The government reports a significant decline in violent crime.  But labor leaders and human rights defenders are still threatened and killed, the judicial system remains sluggish, and impunity is more the rule than the exception.  Clearly, much more needs to be done to protect human rights.

This case also presents a challenge for the Colombian government to demonstrate, albeit belatedly, that it can respond with sympathy, with impartiality, and effectively to bring justice to the victims of a crime that epitomizes the worst of Colombia’s conflict.

I am also told that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights conducted its own investigation of the massacre, but that the Colombian Government has not requested a copy of the report of that investigation.  If this is correct I urge the Government to do so immediately and to release as much of the report to the public as possible without compromising the investigation.
This conflict has brought nothing but suffering to the Colombian people.  It has caused the deaths of countless innocent civilians, uprooted millions from their homes, and perpetuated the trade in illegal drugs that has corrupted many sectors of society.  The people of San Jose de Apartadó, with the conflict raging around them, sought to insolate themselves from this danger by declaring themselves a peace community.  That strategy failed, as one after another of their members was brutally murdered. 

Before February 21, I was not aware of the many tragedies this community had already suffered.  While I do know, as a former prosecutor, that some crimes are harder to solve than others, in Colombia, as in so many countries, political will is often what really matters.  It is imperative that this case not be added to the long list of unsolved, unpunished crimes in San Jose de Apartadó, or become part of the history of impunity in Colombia.  Who ever was responsible must be brought to justice.

Mr. President, I also want to mention the demobilization of paramilitaries that is underway in Colombia.  We all want these narco-terrorist organizations to be dismantled, their commanders punished, their illegally acquired assets seized, and their victims compensated.  The Colombian Government is asking the United States for millions of dollars to help finance the demobilization, and we want to help. 

I am concerned, however, because if the demobilization of the paramilitary unit located in the area of San Jose de Apartadó is indicative of the way this process is unfolding, there are serious problems that need to be addressed.  According to reports I have received, paramilitaries are engaging in the same threatening and violent behavior, they continue to collude with the army, and some have joined the army.  Little has changed for the people in that area who continue to live in fear of losing their property and their lives.  I hope the Colombian authorities who have been touting the success of the demobilization process will investigate these reports.

I yield the floor.

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