BOGOTA, Colombia, AP
Just days ahead of a visit by U.S. President George W. Bush, Colombia’s government said it was investigating 69 soldiers for a two-year-old massacre that drew worldwide attention to the South American nation’s grim human rights record. While Democrats in the U.S. Congress called the move a sign of progress on the human rights front, surviving peasants said it was merely a gesture aimed at avoiding losing U.S. aid. Authorities are looking into whether the soldiers — among them 11 officers and noncommissioned officers — were involved in killing of eight peasants, including three children, from an unarmed “peace community” in Colombia’s malarial northwest jungle that has reported a total of 180 apparently political killings over the past decade. Most of the victims of the February 2005 massacre were hacked to death with machetes. “We don’t have any faith in this investigation because it has been the Colombian state that has been attacking us and has shown no interest in stopping the attacks or investigating who is responsible,” community leader Jesus Emilio Tuberquia said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday. Bush is to visit Colombia on March 11 to discuss continuing aid to Colombia, the largest recipient of U.S. help outside the Middle East with around US$700 million (euro530 million) a year. Amnesty International praised the opening of the formal investigation, as did Patrick Leahy, chairman of the U.S. Senate subcommittee that oversees aid to Colombia. He called the killings one of the “most horrific atrocities of the Colombian conflict.” “That members of the army have been called to testify is encouraging because it suggests that there is progress in the investigation,” he said in a statement. But the opportune timing of the investigation was not lost on the people of San Jose de Apartado. “The government is worried that it may lose its military aid if it doesn’t make a show of looking like it’s investigating,” said Tuberquia. The self-styled “peace community” in San Jose de Apartado, located 450 kilometers (280 miles) northwest of Bogota, forbids anyone to enter armed, be they rebel, paramilitary, soldiers or police Residents of the impoverished community have counted more than 600 human rights violations against their members — from death threats to sexual assaults to killings — in the decade since the settlement’s founding at the end of a dirt track in the jungle. More than 180 of the roughly 1,500 villagers have been killed. Villagers blame most of the killings on the army and far-right paramilitaries, but say some of the attacks come from the leftist rebels. No one has been convicted for those killings. Some analysts say the villagers’ insistence on neutrality irritates all sides in the civil war. “All of the armed actors don’t like it when civilians in a strategic location say to these groups ‘you don’t control us”’ said John Lindsay-Poland of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a U.S.-based interfaith peace-activist organization. The bloodshed in the village is one reason why some US$70 million (euro53 million) in U.S. aid remains suspended to the Colombian military. A letter signed by 59 members of the U.S. Congress was sent to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in March 2006 which dwelt the “deplorable” record of persecution of the peace community by the army’s 17th Brigade — the unit now accused by prosecutors off having committed the 2005 massacre. “We believe that in the absence of any charges against those responsible, further violence against members of the peace community ensued,” the letter said. From the day in February 2005 that they found the two piles of bodies hacked to pieces, the villagers blamed the army because a witness saw some of the victims being taken away by soldiers. The authorities accused rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The army at first denied being in the zone when the killings took place, something that was later proved untrue — as Leahy noted in his statement. President Alvaro Uribe, who has boosted the size of the security forces to tackle Colombia’s insurgency, even alleged villagers were members of the FARC. “In this community of San Jose de Apartado there are good people, but there are some leaders, backers and defenders who have been named by people who have lived there as belonging to the FARC and who want to use the community to protect this terrorist organization,” Uribe said less than a month after the massacre while visiting the headquarters of the army’s 17th brigade, which is now accused of carrying out the killings. The brigade had no comment. Memories of the dead hang over the peace village as it prepares for its 10th anniversary in March. “Here we’ve all been victims of this terror against us; there’s no one who hasn’t been touched by the violence,” said Tuberquia.