More Than 10 Years of Impunity

(Translated by Rolf Schoeneborn, a CSN volunteer translator)

In October of 2007 a demobilized member of the one-time ‘Autodefensas Unidas de Santander y el Cesar’ (AUSA – United Self-Defense Forces of Santander and Cesar), tempted by the reward offered by the government, offered to reveal the location where bodies of some of the disappeared of the May 16 assault could be found.  The Attorney General’s office succeeded in recovering the remains of six bodies in the area indicated.  Fourteen months later the Attorney General’s office announced that DNA-testing had provided sufficient proof of kinship and that five of the corpses had indeed been identified as those of the forced disappeared of the May 16, 1998 assault.


On May 16, 1998 at 8:30pm three trucks entered Barrancameja [municipality in northeastern Colombia’s Santander department] from the Northeast. They stopped at the bar ‘La Tora’ manhandled two men and made them get into one of the trucks. They drove north toward a soccer field, where a bazaar was taking place at the time. The three were made to lie face down on the ground, being called guerilleros.

Some people present were forced to get into the trucks, and one of them, who resisted had his throat cut in front of all the rest. After that the intruders moved to the ‘barrio 9 de Abril’, entered a pool hall and made three persons leave with them. While walking about the neighborhood, they approached a group of people playing horseshoes. One of them tried to flee but was gunned down. The remaining three were also made to get aboard the trucks. The paramilitaries blocked the main road of the neighborhood and proceeded to shoot in the direction of a small wooded area, where a number of people had sought refuge. It needs to be pointed out that the shots could be heard at the military post called ‘Pozo Siete’, and that the barricade put up by the paramilitaries could be seen from another military post which is to guard a thermoelectric plant located there. But inspite of the military being present, nothing was done and as a result the paramilitaries were not prevented from killing seven persons and abducting twenty-five.


The one-time head of the paramiltary ‘Bloque Central Bolívar’, Rodrigo Pérez Alzate, also known as ‘Julián Bolívar’, who is in prison in Itagüi at the present time and has qualified for the ‘Justice and Peace’ law in accordance with proceedings called ‘versión libre’ (literally: free version)(which requires the accused to confess his crimes) acknowledged that the killing of those seven persons and the disappearance of the twenty-five others had been a grave error because all of them had been innocent. He also said that the then comandante ‘Camilo Morales’ had been responsible for this and as a result ‘Carlos Castano had codemned him to death.

Pastoral Social (a Catholic Human Rights Organization) of the diocese Barrancabermeja suggests that this massacre took place for the following reasons: the efforts to privatize Ecopetrol(the Colombian state oil company), to get ahead with planting palm and rubber trees on thousands of acres, to suppress the demand for fundamental rights, to implement mega-projects in connection with the Sogamoso hydroelectric plant, and in order to prospect for gold and coal, and drill for oil in the Magdalena Medio region. ‘It’s for these reasons that they were murdered.’


The May 16 massacre has shown itself to be emblematic for Colombia’s recent history. Barrancabermeja was completely shaken up by public disorder caused by administrative corruption, by the absence of any kind of politics to overcome poverty, by the ever-increasing exploitation of natural resources, by the creation and maintenance of destructive social networks, and by the significant presence of insurgent groups in the urban and rural areas. The may 16 massacre signals the paramilitary takeover by ‘fire and sword’ of the entire city with the connivance of the state security forces. A new era had begun. The era of illegality, that is to say the paramount role of the paramilitary forces takes concrete shape with the takeover of the political and judicial domains.

The presence of these new actors contributed to the rise of corruption, plunder, held back lawful social dynamics, and the statstics concerning human rights violations have been worsening.  It can be shown that as a result of the presence of the paramilitary in Barranabermeja the death penalty was legalized, Ecopetrol was sold to private interests, the municipal budget has been misused or traded away, the theft of gasoline,drug trafficking has increased, and social control of streets and all parts of the city has been usurped by private security companies run by the paramilitary. Threats, blackmail, the dispacement and forced disappearance of people has become the order of the day, and political power has been handed over to the reigning warlords.

The state of Colombia has systematically and continually committed Human Rights volations in the city ever since with the connivance of and protection by the paramlitaries, not only on May 16 but also thereafter. We consider Human Rights to be attributes, prerogoatives, and integral aspects of human freedom and as such are essenntial so that we may consider ourselves human beings and live a life of dignity. Without Human Rights there can be no civilized progress of individuals nor of nations in which civil liberties, the regard for the rights of others, justice, equality, tolerance, and solidarity may prevail. The perpretators of these excesses mentioned have to be held responsible and made to pay for the damages done. We are determined, the families of the victims of the May 16 massacre are determined, and the various social and Human Rights organizations are determined to fight back. We know the truth, and the perpetrators need to be punished, the victims need to be compensated, and there need be guarantees that these monstrous crimes will not be committed again. With their call and struggle for Human Rights the relatives of the May 16 victims have been a model for the world, a model of dignity and have dignified their loved ones with and in their struggle because they know that such dignity is the wellspring of all Human Rights.


The organization of the disenfranchised communities which are extremely vulnerable, yet dare ask that their Rights be respected is not possible unless the application of all norms, ways, and means that guarantee truth, justice , and compensation becomes a reality. One example of the struggle against impunity in Colombia is the successful suit which was filed by the relatives of the victims and other democratic oranizations to have ‘the forced disappearance of a person’ be classified as a crime. This particular crime was not considered to be punishable by law in the past and thus did not get incorporated into the Colombian Penal Code until the year 2000, which of course means now that impunity for the perpetrators is no longer guaranteed. Other legal provisions have also been put on the books such as ‘busqueda urgente’ (lit: ‘immediate search’)and the law that calls for the ‘protection of the possession of the disappeared’.


As a result of the undue length of the different criminal and disciplinary investigations and the belief that impunity constitutes a fundamental obstacle to the enforcement of individual and national Human Rights, more than 300 organizations and relatives of the victims called for a national and international campaign to generate an awareness of the massacre and an awareness of the critical Human Rights situation in Colombia.

As a result the ‘Tribunal Internacional de Opinión’ (TIO) was convened in Barrancabermeja on May 14, 15, and 16 1999.  The central task was to determine whether the provisions of Human Right Law guarantee the Human Rights of indigenous peoples and the International Law of Human Rights. It was to ascertain whether the May 16 incident violated these rights and if so the reasons for such violations and to name and shame the material and intellectual perpetrators and thus sway national and international opinion. There were two more tribunals in Canada in support of the campaign ‘Barranca demands Justice’: one in Toronto and the other one in Montreal, the main task of which was to determine whether the state of Colombia had committed either ‘sins’ or rather acts of ommission or commission and thus should be held responsible for these crimes.

This tribunal discussed above belongs to the category of Tribunal of Opinion. This type of tribunal has nothing to do with th state and state powers but rather with the ethics and conscience of mankind, represented by public personalities from different sectors of society such as the sciences, the arts, religion, and poltics, etc. There is no binding power involved but rather ethical judgments vis-à-vis those responsible and at a given moment not only contribute to the search for truth but also may exert international pressure so that the states in question take the necessary measures to ensure justice and compensation.

The tribunals formulated their findings in rather blunt terms, "the state of Colombia is to be held responsible for acts of ommission and commission in connection with the massacre of seven persons and for at least twenty-five forced disappearences in the barrio of Mariaeugenia of the municipality of Barrancabermeja, Colombia, which took place May 16 1998."

Given that the legal options in Colombia itself are frustrated or exhausted because of impunity, it was decided to present the case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States and it is expected that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights will ultimately charge the Colombian state for being responsible for those crimes.


The May 16 massacres have brought about more violence because the relatives of the victims had to pay their quest for the truth with their lives. We remember Elizabeth Canas Cano, mother of Giovanni Herrera Cano and sister of José Milton Canas, who founded the Association of Relatives of the Disappeared and was a witness before the tribunals of opinion in Colombia and Canada. Elzabeth was murdered by the paramilitary within the city limits of Barrancabermeja on July 11 2000. Five more relatives, a father and four brothers of the victims have also been murdered because they ‘reminded’ the justice system to live up to its constitutional rsponsibilities.

On the 23 of January of this year the remains of the following victims of the May 16 1998 massacre were released for burial: Ricky Nelson García Amador, Wilson Pacheco Qurioz, Ender Gonzáles Baena, Oswaldo Enrique Vásquez Quinones, and Oscar Leonel Barrera Santa. On January 24 all those organizations that took part in the funeral rites received death threats from the Àguilas Negras (Black Eagles), which said, "ALL THOSE WHO KEEP DOING STUPID THINGS WILL SUFFER THE SAME FATE… WE WILL KILL THOSE SONS OF BITCHES…"

This tale of pain and sorrow has left enormous cracks and tears in our hearts which will never disappear. But there is a legacy, though at a terrible price, which will help us in the construction of our present and future society. Our history of pain and sorrow that begaan with the May 16 terror acts has taught us….

– that dignity is a value not to be given up, which all of us have to pay tribute to
– that memories constitute the power that makes us face the truth
– that forgetting the victims means betraying the victims
– that organizing and enforcing our rights are paths toward justice
– that by seeing us as victims we make Peace possible
– that solidarity can be seen as peoples’ tenderness and affection
– that we do not bury our dead but rather sow them in the fertile earth of hope, not because hope is lost last, but because hope helps us to continue marching, so that we may dry our tears and overcome our pain.

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