July 2006 Peace Presence Update

In this Update:

European Jurists Investigate Crimes in San José de Apartadó

On June 23, a commission of international jurists released a 91-page investigative report entitled “The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó: The Facts of February 2005,” on the massacre in which eight members of the Peace Community were murdered. The commission was led by Spanish magistrates Juan José Romeo Laguna and Luis Fernando Martíez Zapater, both members of European Judges for Democracy and Freedom.

The lack of justice within the Colombian legal system regarding the many violations perpetrated against the Peace Community led to the formation of the ad-hoc commission: since the community organized itself nine years ago, there have been over 500 acts of aggression, including 150 people murdered, several collective forced displacements, multiple cases of torture, illegal arrests, and thefts.

Although the bulk of the commission’s work focuses on responsibility for the February 2005 massacre, the justices also addressed the question of how justice has been applied to the Peace Community. In the commission’s view, what happened in February 2005 was only one example, though an especially significant one, of the attacks against members of the Peace Community and the complete lack of progress in the investigation of these crimes.

Two opposing versions regarding who is responsible for the February 2005 massacre have circulated. The Colombian government — including the Army — since the days immediately after the massacre, has asserted that FARC guerrillas were responsible, while the Peace Community states that the massacre was carried out by Colombian army soldiers, possibly with members of paramilitary groups. In its investigation, the commission met with officials from the Colombian army, the police, the prosecutor’s office, examined statements made by President Uribe and other government officials immediately after the massacre, and interviewed several members of the Peace Community who, directly or indirectly, were witnesses to the crimes.

The commission concluded that there is evidence that suggests that members of the army as well as paramilitaries participated in the events. There are also several pieces of evidence suggesting participation of army personnel in hiding and tampering with material evidence in the massacre and other serious crimes that took place in the Peace Community around the same time.

The prosecutor’s office has asserted that the refusal of a key witness to give testimony is the reason why the investigation is stalled. The commission concurred that there are key witnesses who have refused to give testimony to prosecutors, but noted that this is because of the risks to their lives that such testimony might bring. Furthermore, the jurists noted that, in their view, there is no evidence that authorities have offered security measures to ensure that they can give the testimony without risking their lives.

Referring to the systemic nature of the violations against the community, commission members noted that they can neither discard the possibility nor attest to the existence of a deliberate plan to exterminate the community. They said Colombian authorities should investigate this possibility.

The commission also addressed the controversial installation of a police post in the town of San José de Apartadó shortly after the massacre. The community strongly opposed the location chosen for the police post, asserting that having the police post within the town made the community a target for guerrilla attack. The commission concluded that the police post constitutes a violation of the obligations dictated by the Inter-American Court, which explicitly mandate the Colombian state to allow the community’s participation in the implementation of protective measures.

The commission pointed out that the Inter-American Commission, when setting the basis for the subsequent adoption of the Court measures, stated any security measures implemented by the Colombian government must be compatible with the nature of peace community, “given that the armed protection of these people might jeopardize the community’s principle of collective neutrality and humanitarian zone, which are essential to them, and provoke violent responses from the region’s armed groups.” The commission added that such unilateral action had the additional effect of breaking the dialogue between the community and the Colombian government. The Commission pointed out that the “Colombian state has sovereignty to decide the location of its security forces within its national territory, but is also subject of international law, and under the international treaties to which it is party must carry out the resolutions issued by Inter-American Human Rights Court.”

Finally, on the rampant impunity and lack of justice for the violations and attacks on the community, the commission reiterated that it comes from the intrinsic problems in Colombian judicial system (including the lack of independence for prosecutors and judges). A good start for addressing this would be to carry out the recent recommendations issued by United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner.

The full report, in Spanish, can be downloaded at: http://www.cdpsanjose.org/article.php3?id_article=238.

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FARC Announces Intention to Negotiate with Government

Guerrillas of Colombia’s largest guerrilla group are prepared to negotiate the release of people it has kidnapped, the group’s second-in-command, Raul Reyes, announced on June 24. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) commander told TeleSUR, the pan-Latin American television network initiated last year by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, that the FARC "is fully available and willing" to reach a humanitarian deal regarding hostages, "but that requires real political will from the government."

Until now, the FARC has refused to engage in dialogue with the government of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, despite government efforts to discuss the release of the hostages. In the wake of Uribe’s election to a second four-year term, their staunch position has changed. Vice President Francisco Santos spoke to the delicacy needed for such negotiations by saying, "first and foremost one has to be cautious — a process like this is not best handled in front of microphones."

The FARC has proposed an exchange of 58 kidnapping victims for 500 jailed FARC guerrillas. Hostages held by the FARC include Ingrid Betancourt — a former Colombian presidential candidate kidnapped in 2002 — three American defense contractors, and several Colombian police officers and politicians abducted over the past six years.

Under a plan suggested by France, Spain, and Switzerland for negotiations between the government and rebels, a swap would be carried out in the country's southwest with no presence of Colombian forces or FARC rebels.

Reyes told TeleSUR that a potential dialogue with Uribe's government "would have to start with the demilitarization of the Caqueta and Putumayo departments at a minimum." This type of military pullout is something Uribe has firmly opposed. In a statement subsequently released over the internet, the FARC "ratified" the proposal announced by Reyes, announcing that by seeking negotiations, it hoped to find a political exit to the internal armed conflict.

Sources: BBC.com, AP 6/24/06.

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Letter from the Field: "A Predictable Outcome"

By Gilberto Villaseñor

Personal accounts of the unique experience of being part of the FOR CPP team are invaluable. But it's hard to avoid discussing the recent Colombian presidential elections, because they serve as an opportunity to reflect on the past four years of presidency of the now re-elected Álvaro Uribe. Being here in the Peace Community gave me an interesting perch from which to view these elections. I also followed U.S. and international media coverage, and I find it striking to see the way that the elections have been portrayed.

In the past 12 months there have been several important presidential elections throughout Latin America, in particular Bolivia, Chile, and last week, Mexico. Most have been framed as a referendum on free-market capitalist policies that the U.S. has alternately promoted and forced on other countries. One of the things I've often heard in the media coverage surrounding the re-election of Uribe is that he is referred to as the "strongest ally in the region" of President Bush and the United States (always one and the same). This phrase is constantly repeated, but offers little contextual background for a very loaded concept. When I read such things I have to ask myself: what the heck does that mean?

I'm happy to report that the Sunday of the elections everything came off rather smoothly and quietly around here. In prior years, the election season has been a time of heightened tension. In the Peace Community, some people were a little on edge about whether any of the armed groups would use the elections as an excuse to commit acts of violence against the community. Guerrillas have committed acts of aggression against civilians in the past in the name of disrupting elections, as has the military in the name of providing "security." In the four months that I'd spent in the Peace Community, there was little discussion about the presidential candidates themselves or the elections in general. However, on election day it was clearly weighing on many community members' minds. Some people went down to San José to vote in the town center from which Peace Community members displaced after the installation last year of a police post.

One community member told me that there was some fear that if the community came out to vote in force for candidates it supported, it would be even more stigmatized than it already is — along with candidates it supported. This is related to the fact that a political party, the Unión Patriótica, which was once strong in San José and represented an attempt by the Left, campesinos, and other marginalized people to participate in Colombian politics, was completely annihilated between the mid-'80s and early '90s. This painful experience has been a cautionary tale for Peace Community members who consider participating in elections, campaigns, or voting. This and other concerns lead the Peace Community to refrain from officially supporting any candidate. At the end of the day, Álvaro Uribe was re-elected. Turn-out was not particularly high, with 45% of Colombia's 26.7 million eligible voters coming out to vote. But of those who did come out on election day, 62% voted for Uribe.

Uribe's re-election is likely to mean more of the same. And if the past is any indication, the immediate future looks grim. At least 14 deaths of Peace Community members have been directly attributed to the military in the four years of Uribe's first presidential term. Little has been done to bring the perpetrators of those murders to justice. But perhaps what separates Uribe's government from previous administrations has been the way he has consistently stigmatized the Peace Community and the internationals who accompany it — people like me — as being supporters of the guerrillas. Uribe's comments after the massacre of eight community members — including three children — offered little in the way of condolences and did much to add to the negative stigmatization already surrounding the community.

The decision to put a police post in San José has also been symbolic of the ways in which Uribe has drawn the civilian population into Colombia's civil war. The act itself was brazen enough. It's as if the Los Angeles police department had been accused of brutally executing eight people and then decided to setup a police post in the same area in response to the crimes they had committed. Now when I walk through San José, I see children playing with policemen in full uniform with guns in their holsters, during school hours, as teachers stand by and watch.

The police and the military work closely together here — they even look similar. And we know that the police don’t play with children just for fun. Instead, they use play as an opportunity to earn their trust in order to better carry out counter-insurgency activities. When I met with the head of the police, he told me that placing Colombia’s armed forces in such close proximity to the civilian population is a deliberate policy of Uribe’s government.

Uribe’s re-election had become accepted fact long before the results came in. The reaction of most people in the Peace Community seemed to be the same, a collective shrug of the shoulders and a vow to continue working and struggling. "La lucha continua."

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We offer many thanks to all those who have supported the Colombia Peace Presence with funds, action and encouragement. We especially thank the Fund for Nonviolence, the Appleton Foundation, and the A. J. Muste Memorial Institute, which have recently awarded generous grants to the Colombia Peace Presence. We also thank departing FOR staff and interns: Jennifer Hyman, Yvonne Royster, Ibrahim Ramey, Barbara George, Nico Amador, and many others who have collaborated in making this work effective and true. You rock!