EL ESPECTADOR, January 10, 2022
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
They killed Húber Velásquez in the doorway of his house with one rifle shot.
It happened last December 17 in La Batea, which is what they call a curve in the road just two kilometers from Apartadó (Antioquia), the road that toward the District (corregimiento) of San José de Apartadó. According to witnesses, a group of men with long guns came looking for him a little after six in the afternoon.
“He refused to be kidnapped, so they fired the shot to kill,” says Andrés* one of the leaders of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. “Some people came by in cars right then; they were the ones that reported it, because the people living around there were hiding.”
On that same day, at 7:19 in the evening, the Peace Community confirmed the murder on its social networks, although without giving the name of the victim. It was the consummation of the recent barrage of threats against the Community, a social project that has resisted all of the armed actors in the region, legal or illegal, since 1997.
The threats started November 19 in the town (vereda) of Mulatos Medio, where the paramilitaries of the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) or the Clan del Golfo called a meeting of the Community Action Boards to announce to the population that there would be strict control on cutting wood in the region, with reprisals for anyone failing to obey their orders.
Later, on December 6, a campesino, who sold hogs, was murdered in the town of El Guineo, and two days later, eight men from the AGC went to the town of La Unión, where there is a military contingent from the 17th Brigade doing humanitarian land mine removal work.
According to the Community, the paramilitaries “are planning strategies for getting into their settlement at San Josecito to steal documents, money, and information, and kill members of the Community, making it look like a robbery by common criminals.” They made a complaint about that in a public statement issued December 20.
The plans came to a head with the murder of Húber, a merchant and a friend of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. His brother Iván Velásquez had also been murdered at the same place by paramilitaries in 2002, when they burned down his house and his store in reprisal for selling food to the campesinos. Húber was also a monitor of the project for paving the road between Apartadó and San José, and he had filed a complaint against the Mayor, Felipe Benicio Cañizales for alleged irregularities in the contract.
This work is part of the Development Programs with a Territorial Focus (PDET), coordinated by the national government in Apartadó with the communities’ approval. In total there are 8,510 meters of road, of which two kilometers have been paved up to now. The project is to have an investment of more than 5,000 million pesos (about USD $1,235,000), and is planned to benefit 5,380 people. On November 18 of last year, members of the national government visited the road, and some of the people that live along the road, Húber among them, complained that the construction was damaging some houses.
“He and his wife complained forcefully about the various mechanisms of corruption, such as using the wrong materials, and doing a bad job on the whole thing,” explained the priest, Fr. Javier Giraldo, a human rights defender who has accompanied the Peace Community ever since its beginning. “They killed him because he made those complaints, which were also supported by an Antioquia Deputy and furnished them to the news media. The fear in this region is terrifying; nobody dares to complain or do anything. This is revealing a new situation, extreme in a way, of manipulation and threats. There is a desire to dominate the whole region through terror,” says the priest.
Several leaders of the Community believe that the only thing the departure of Otoniel from the scene of confrontation has done is to precipitate a process that has already been going on for a while. “This isn’t just now starting; it’s a plan for executions using the paramilitaries,” says Andrés. “You can be very sure of that because the murders have been systematic and coordinated, even though over an extended period of time.”
A nun who has worked in the area confirmed that the members of the AGC have been calling meetings in all of the towns in the district, except La Unión. Those meetings usually take place in bright daylight in schools, and they fine you as much as 500,000 pesos (roughly USD $120) if you don’t attend.
There were meetings on September 28 in the town of La Cristalina and on the 30th of that same month in La Linda. In the meetings they pressure the presidents of the Community Action Boards to include in their lists of residents the “puntos” (“informants”), which is what they call them in Urabá, members of the AGC that move into a neighborhood permanently, with a radio-telephone and a pistol to guarantee territorial control.
Some of these meetings have even taken place in the neighborhood of San José itself, where there is a Police bunker and a military base on the outskirts, The residents complain that a man known as “Christian”, a mid-level AGC commander, hangs out there with his bodyguards. Sometimes he calls together some people he meets with for a whole hour and nobody objects; other times he loads them into SUV’s and they head for Apartadó.
The message, according to Andrés, is that “either people work with us or they have to get out, because we won’t take responsibility . . . we kill them.” A list with 15 names of those they have sentenced to death has already circulated in the region. Five of the names on the list are active members of the Peace Community. Andrés clears up the matter with an explanation of the cause: “They are all profiles of people that have opposed the paramilitaries’ projects. Of the nine killings between 2017 and 2021, all of them have the same profile: they don’t want to submit to the paramilitaries,” he insists.
The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó was founded on March 23, 1997, when the people of the district and its town signed a declaration that identified them as neutral actors that reject all of the actors in the armed conflict. From the beginning they have had accompaniment from the Church and from human rights organizations. Also from the beginning, there have been attacks on them.
Just a few days after that declaration, the Colombian Army killed several campesinos from the Community, later presenting them as “kills in combat.” That is just one of the episodes of false positives documented in the history of this country. Since then, armed groups have murdered more than 300 members of the Peace Community. The great majority of the crimes are attributed to the paramilitaries and the Armed Forces, but there are also some cases where the killers were the now-defunct FARC.
A painful milestone of the armed conflict was the massacre of four campesinos and four children from the Community on the trails to Mulatos and La Resbalosa, between February 21 and 22 of 2005. Several soldiers from the Army’s 17th Brigade who acted in close coordination with the paramilitaries have been convicted and sentenced to prison for that. That event is part of territorial case 04, about the territorial situation in Urabá, in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), the Court that last January 7 declared that massacre to be a crime against humanity.
On December 23 of last year, the Peace Community held a march to protest the murder of Húber Velásquez. They walked to La Batea, at the exact location of the murder, accompanied by the priest, Javier Giraldo. “The absence of Otoniel makes his presence more intense, said one of the signs that the marchers carried. That day a man on a motorcycle passed close to the march and exhibited a pistol. Later, in the afternoon, six paramilitaries broke into San José and had to flee when a multitude of people from the community ran out to surround them.
“We don’t have weapons; only our words and our bodies,” says Andrés, recalling that moment and adding that they are afraid, but that has never stopped them: “Death is painful when you die for no reason, but when it’s for a just cause, we believe that death does not hurt.”
In San José de Apartadó there is a monument made of stones painted in colors. The Community has been building it throughout the last 25 years. They add a new stone for every one of their members who is murdered. “We already have the stone with Húber’s name,” says Andrés before he says good-bye, “but we want this to stop. We don’t want another stone.” *Andrés is not the speaker’s name. His real name is kept confidential for his safety.