SOA graduate commands accused brigade
"We have always said, and in that we are clear, that until this very day we are resisting. And our work is to continue resisting and defending our rights. We don't know until when, because the truth we've lived in our story is this: today we are here talking; tomorrow we may be dead. Today we are here in San Jose de Apartado; tomorrow the majority of people here could be displaced because of a massacre." -- Luis Eduardo Guerra, in an interview on January 15 of this year, 37 days before he was assassinated by the Colombian military
On February 21-22, 2005, eight members of the San Jose de Apartado Peace Community in Uraba, Colombia -including three young children, were brutally massacred. Witnesses identified the killers as members of the Colombian military, and peace community members saw the army's 17th and 11th Brigades in the area around the time of the murders.
Among those killed was Luis Eduardo Guerra, an internationally recognized peace activist and a co-founder of the Peace Community. In November 2002, Luis travelled from Colombia to Fort Benning, Georgia to speak out against the School of the Americas and to give a first hand testimony about the brutal impact that SOA training and US foreign policy have on the dire situation in Colombia.
General Hector Jaime Fandino Rincon is the commander of the 17th Brigade of the Colombian army. Like Luis Eduardo, Fandino Rincon also travelled to the School of the Americas -- not to speak out for justice and peace like Luis, but to attend the "Small-Unit Infantry Tactics" course in order to become "familiar with small-unit operational concepts and principles at the squad and platoon level, [to] receive training in planning and conducting small-unit tactical operations." Fandino Rincon is a 1976 graduate of the notorious School of the Americas. In December of 2004 he was promoted to the rank of Brigadier General.
Since the massacre, the Colombian administration of Alvaro Uribe has done little to investigate the murders. No investigation into the military or the 17th or 11th Brigade has begun. All the focus now of the government agencies intervening in the situation is to force the community members to testify at risk of their lives' instead of focusing on the military that was in the area at the time of the murders.
Police and military forces have flooded San Jose against the wishes of the Peace Community, which has taken a fundamental stance against any and all armed actors. Since the massacre, all but five of the 100 families that formed the Peace Community have been forced to leave their homes and land.
Those killed on February 21 and 22 included Luis Eduardo, his partner Bellanira and their son, Deiner, 11. Also massacred were Alejandro Perez, Alfonso Bolivar Tuberquia Graciano, his partner, Sandra Milena Munoz Pozo and their young children, Santiago, 18 months, and Natalia, 6 years old. (Click here for more background information).
The Peace Community sent a delegation to locate and identify their bodies. They found a gruesome scene, with Alejandro, Alfonso, Sandra, Santiago and Natalia in a communal grave. They had all been killed with machetes, with their heads and extremities severed. The community found Luis, Bellanira and Deiner's bodies thrown near a river. They had been beaten badly and had their throats cut.
The community writes:
"The military presence in the zone before, during and after the massacre points clearly to the Colombian Army as being responsible for this latest attack on the civilian population. We are facing a new humanitarian crisis in the zone and the death of our friends and of Luis Eduardo, leader of the community, is a sure signal. We know that the whole strategy of terror and impunity is going to continue. Soldiers have threatened a number of families and warned them that if they don't leave, the same thing is going to happen to them. They are also looking for the surviving witnesses of the massacre who are terrified at the danger their lives are in."The Colombian military, paramilitary units and guerrilla forces have targeted this community, founded an attempt to created a space free of weapons and independent of any armed actors, since its inception in 1996. One hundred fifty two members of the community have been killed in eight years, and not a single perpetrator has been brought to justice, even though the Colombian justice system has gathered the testimonies of hundreds of people identifying those responsible.
For years, official reports from the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and even the State Department have established the collusion and collaboration between the U.S.-trained Colombian army and right-wing paramilitaries forces in many war-torn regions of the country. With military support, the paramilitaries are operating as surrogate death squads and thugs. A United Nations report confirmed this trend, stating that "Members of the military participated in massacres, organized paramilitary groups, and spread death threats. The security forces also failed to take action, and this undoubtedly enabled the paramilitary groups to achieve their exterminating objectives."
The Peace Community writes:
"In this context, it is important to understand the Army-paramilitary strategy to clear villages and take control of the land. First come the indiscriminate bombings and then the operations in which they eliminate everything they come across: animals, crops, homes and, as the most recent events show, entire families. But there is no doubt that the strategy is working: just two weeks ago we pointed out that as a result of these operations in Mulatos and Resbalosa, only 10 families remained, and now nine of them have been displaced to San Jose."Many of the Colombian officers cited as responsible for massacres and other human rights abuses graduated from the SOA, and the strategy of using paramilitary groups for the military's dirty work is nothing new for SOA/ WHINSEC students. Roberto D'Aubussoin established the Death Squads that were responsible for much of the violence in El Salvador in the 1980's, and Benedicto Lucas Garcia masterminded the creation of the Civil Defense Patrols in Guatemala. Mexico's Jose Ruben Rivas Pena, who took the SOA's elite Command and Staff Course, called for the "training and support for self-defence forces or other paramilitary organizations in Chiapas."
The story of the San Jose de Apartado Peace Community, while appalling, is all too common in Colombia. And yet stories of Colombia's ongoing war recognized by the United Nations as "the world's greatest humanitarian disaster after Congo and Darfur" are absent from much mainstream media coverage.
Since 2000, the U.S. has sent $3.3 billion to Colombia in aid - making it the world's top recipient after Israel and Egypt. The aid is mostly military, and the Pentagon also has troops on the ground (officially barred from combat). In October, Congress approved doubling the U.S. troop presence in Colombia to 800. The cap on the number of U.S. civilian contract agents, pilots, intelligence analysts, and security personnel was also raised, from 400 to 600. The measure came as a little-noticed part of the 2005 Defense Department authorization act, and was a defeat for human rights groups, which had been pushing for a lower cap. The new 800/600 cap is exactly what the White House asked for.
The Colombian conflict is rooted in social inequalities. Between 60 and 68 percent of the population are currently living at or below the poverty line. The Bush administration's military approach has remained at the forefront of their failing strategy to "solve" the problem. The SOA-style repression that is killing thousands every year is supposed to maintain the status quo - to keep the rich powerful and the poor silent.
It is up to us to change the political climate by working towards a culture of justice and peace and by defying the systems of violence and domination. History is made by movements, mass movements of people who organize themselves to struggle collectively for a better world.
"The ideas of Luis Eduardo, his thoughts and his arguments will continue inside us with more strength than ever. He believed the civilian population had the right to live with dignity. We also believe this and will carry on defending this principal even if it costs us our lives." - San Jose de Apartado Peace Community, March 2005
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