EL ESPECTADOR, March 24, 2024

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

The Supreme Pontiff was speaking of this Community, which decades ago declared itself impartial in the midst of the conflict. In spite of the fact that since 1997 they have avoided confrontations and any connections the armed groups, this week two of their members were murdered. One of them was a 14-year-old child.

“I am expressing my closeness to the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, in Colombia. A few days ago, a young woman and a child were murdered.” The phrase comes from no less than Pope Francis, who from St. Peter’s Square in Rome, during the Palm Sunday mass, sent a message to these people in the Urabá part of Antioquia. The events that the Supreme Pontiff recalled took place last March 19 after the Community itself had filed complaints that several weeks before, they had been threatened by armed men who belonged to the Clan del Golfo.

The words of Pope Francis permit us to recall the history of this Community that for decades has been trying to avoid having the war continue to take their lives, while they are determined to remain on the land that belongs to them. It all began on March 23, 1997, when a group of campesinos from the District (Corregimiento) of San José de Apartadó, with the helping hand of Fr. Javier Giraldo, declared themselves to be neutral in the conflict. They had decided not to cooperate, directly or indirectly, with guerrillas or paramilitaries, and not with the Colombian Army, either.

The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó was born with that political position toward the conflict. With its own government and autonomy for making decisions, the declaration of neutrality gained them a few years of tranquility, while the countryside continued to be submerged in a bloody war between guerrilla fighters and paramilitaries. That ended on February 21, 2005, when armed men entered the Community and in cold blood, murdered four adults, a teenager, and three young children, a five-year-old girl and a toddler of two years old, in the towns of Mulatos Alto and La Resbalosa.

Those events came to be known as the massacre of San José de Apartadó, and the legal system was able to prove that those responsible were members of the Colombian Army, allied with the Héroes de Tolová paramilitary bloc, commanded by Uber Darío Yánez, one of the men closest to Alias Don Berna. After the massacre took place, the administration at that time, headed by Álvaro Uribe Vélez, criticized the Community and questioned why they were opposed to the presence of the Colombian Army in the area. However, shortly after that, it was learned that it was Uribe’s own men who had shot at these civilians.

The operation that ended up in the massacre of San José de Apartadó

In February of 2005, the 17th Brigade of the Colombian Army undertook the tactical mission Phoenix to “protect” the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó in the Urabá part of Antioquia. Retired Lieutenant Colonel Orlando Espinosa Beltrán ordered four squads to patrol the area. However, they ended up joining forces with paramilitaries from the Héroes de Tolová Bloc. Their purpose was to find alleged subversive encampments. What happened was entirely the opposite. They killed Luis Eduardo Guerra with a machete, as well as his 11-year-old son, and his wife. The victims were detained, interrogated, and tortured near the Mulatos River.

“At about midday on February 21 of 2005, the paramilitaries were in a house that they thought was occupied by guerrillas, and they attacked them with their guns. In that action, Alejandro and Sandra Milena Muñoz were killed. After the attack, they searched the house, and they found the two children still alive, Natalia (five years old) and Santiago Tuberquia Muñoz (two years). The children’s father, Alfonso Tuberquia, arrived moments later, and tried to protect his children’s lives, but the paramilitaries ignored his cries and executed him, together with his daughter and his son, using knives.

None of the soldiers reported the killing of the members of the Community, and, on the contrary, they continued patrolling as if nothing had happened. It wasn’t until 2019 that the Supreme Court of Justice convicted six soldiers for their part in the murders. Those responsible were: Retired Colonel Orlando Espinosa Beltrán; Retired Major José Fernando Castaño López; Retired Sergeants Henry Agudelo Cuasmayán Ortega and Ángel María Padilla Petro; and Corporals Ricardo Bastidas Candía and Sabaraín Cruz Reina.

“The members of the Héroes de Tolová Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) murdered eight civilians, with the pretext that they were guerrilla fighters, and they buried some of the victims in common graves, while they left the other bodies hidden in the weeds. The soldiers who were willing to patrol the region simultaneously with the members of the AUC were near the sites where the murders they committed took place, and even when they found out what the illegals had done, they didn’t report the deaths that had occurred,” explained the Supreme Court in its decision.

A crime against humanity

When the Special Jurisdiction for Peace undertook its labors after the signing of the Peace Agreement in 2016, hundreds of members of the Armed Forces knocked on that door, hoping to obtain its benefits and get out of the ordinary criminal justice system. For many of them, in practical terms, entering that system could mean remaining at liberty. That was the case with a number of soldiers who were being prosecuted for their responsibility in the massacre at San José de Apartadó.

One of those was Retired Lieutenant Colonel Espinosa Beltrán, who asked the JEP to order him released, not only because he considered that the statute of limitations had run for the events for which he had been investigated, tried, and convicted in the ordinary criminal justice system, but because the benefits ought to be available to him in return for his telling the whole truth about what had happened. However, the JEP not only denied his petition, but also elevated the nature of his crime to a crime against humanity, for which statutes of limitations do not apply and governments are required to investigate such crimes without any time limit.

The Retired Lieutenant Colonel took his case to the JEP in 2019. It permitted him to substitute confinement in a military garrison for prison. At the beginning of 2021, he made the calculations as set forth in the rules of the Criminal Code, and he argued that, as ten years had already passed since he had been charged, he ought to be released because the statute of limitations had run on the crimes he was charged with. However, the JEP’s Definition of Juridical Situations Branch denied his petition. The Appeals Section reached the same conclusion, and elevated the crimes being investigated to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

“Human dignity, life itself, their integrity and peaceful sociability were gravely damaged through political motives that annulled the human condition of the victims. Because of that, they constitute a demonstration of the radical evil that injured the humanity represented by the people of San José de Apartadó in 2005. Under that interpretive framework, the actions imputed to Sr. Espinosa Beltrán must be declared to be war crimes and crimes against humanity, and thus are not covered by statutes of limitations,” stated the JEP’s Appellate Section

In making its decision, the JEP held that the Community in San José de Apartadó had been violated historically by the Colombian government’s security forces. In 2000, for example, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported at least 47 murders under conditions the same as those in the massacre of 2005. The prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (CPI) established in 2012 that there was a “course of conduct” after it found that there were different events of murder, torture, and forced disappearance.

Relentless threats

Fr. Javier Giraldo, human rights organizations, and social leaders have been complaining ever since 2005 that the violence against the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó has never stopped. The authorities don’t have consolidated statistics, but since that time, they have registered displacements, threats, homicides, and several cases of sexual violence. All of the events are known, not only to the Colombian legal system, but also to the International System of Human Rights, but the anxiety in the Community is permanent.

The situation has reached critical moments once again, because of the high presence of the Clan del Golfo in the area. For at least three years, the Community has been complaining about the fact that this group, originated by paramilitaries, has launched a campaign that they call “No More Peace Community”. Its objective is to carry out frame-ups against the principal leaders of the Community, besides just finishing it off completely. As part of that, even a contractor with the Mayor’s Office is going around looking for testimonies that would incriminate its members as being part of groups of guerrilla fighters.

Along with that, illegal organizations are also buying properties near the Community and carrying out patrols “without being bothered by anybody”. The most recent case was the murder that took place this week. The authorities have now identified the victims: Nallely Sepúlveda and Edison David. The crime was at the same time as the visit to the area by President Gustavo Petro and several delegates from his administration. However, the Community has complained that the government waited more than 17 hours before arriving to carry out legal procedures in connection with the lifeless bodies of the victims.

“Two days ago, the whole government was here in Apartadó, and we met with members of the Community in the Popular Assembly. When we left, they murdered two members of the Community. Dark forces are trying to reproduce paramilitarism in the northwestern part of this country,” President Petro declared. While the investigation was being carried out, the first hypothesis points to the responsibility of the Clan del Golfo, the same group that asked the Petro administration to put together peace negotiations for them.

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