BOGOTA, Colombia — The bodies of seven civilians were dumped in shallow graves and strewn by a riverbank in northern Colombia five years ago. Most had been disemboweled and sliced with a machete. Four were children.
The brutality of the massacre shocked even a war-weary country accustomed to atrocities. The victims were members of San Jose de Apartado, a self-declared “peace community.” Not wanting to be a military target, the community had tried to establish neutrality by refusing entry to all armed groups, including guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary forces and the Colombian military.
Now 15 army officers are charged with murder and a trial for 10 of them is set to resume today. At stake is blame for the gruesome massacre and accountability for the army in a country where military crimes are often met with impunity and many killings go unpunished. U.S. interest in the trials also runs high — the U.S. has given more than $6 billion in military aid to Colombia since 2000, including to units implicated in the massacre.
While the trial attempts to bring a measure of justice for the killings, much remains hidden behind conflicting stories and efforts to deflect blame. In a two-part series, GlobalPost explores how the massacre unfolded and the involvement of the highest ranks of the Colombian army and the cover-up that followed.
GlobalPost obtained court testimonies of military officers and paramilitary soldiers who are under investigation, spoke with investigators familiar with the case and interviewed four colonels and a general who denied their alleged involvement. This part parses the accounts of the fateful day, while the next part probes the most contentious questions about who made crucial operations decisions and who knew about the military’s role.
A pile of stones lies in the center of the village of San Jose de Apartado. Each time a community member is murdered, their name is painted on a stone and added to the mound. There are more than 160 stones.
The community was founded in 1997 by Luis Eduardo Guerra, an internationally known peace activist. On Feb. 21, 2005, the 35-year-old Guerra was returning home from harvesting cocoa, residents told human rights groups and investigators. At his side were his 17-year-old companion Beyanira Areiza and his 11-year-old son Deiner.
As Guerra and his family walked along the Mulatos River, they came across armed men who proceeded to interrogate them, testified commander Uber Dario Yanez of the paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
The paramilitary fighters were patrolling with army soldiers as part of a joint operation to go after rebels from the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the Marxist insurgency that has been fighting the Colombian government since the mid-1960s. The army had hired the paramilitary fighters to guide them in unfamiliar territory — despite the fact that the AUC was an illegal armed group listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.
Dario Yanez said army Capt. Guillermo Gordillo and four AUC commanders decided they "had to finish them off or kill these people because supposedly they were informants of the guerrilla.”
In the days following the disappearance of Guerra and his family, more than 100 community members embarked on a journey by foot and mule to find them. They discovered the boy's skull and vertebrae cast aside on the riverbank away from the rest of his body. Areiza’s green sweatpants were pulled down to her knees and her body slung over those of Guerra and his son. There was not much left of their bodies, wrote Jesus Abad, a photographer from El Tiempo newspaper who accompanied the group. A machete lay among weeds.
Community members watched over the bodies, throwing rocks at vultures throughout the night and the following day to prevent them from further devouring the bodies until a helicopter with army and police officers arrived.
Later on the day of the murders, military and AUC fighters opened fire on a house they believed to have FARC members inside, according to court documents. It was the home of Alfonso Tuberquia, another community leader. A grenade thrown in the attack killed his wife. A guerrilla fighter died nearby in the shoot-out.
When Tuberquia’s two children, Nathalie, 5, and Santiago, shy of 2 years old, emerged alive, paramilitary commanders and Gordillo discussed what to do with them, AUC fighters told investigators. They “reached the conclusion that these kids would be a threat in the future … that they would grow up and become guerrilla,” said paramilitary fighter Jorge Salgado.
AUC fighter Joel Vargas told prosecutors that one of his commanders sent the order over the radio: "Assassinate the kids, but silently." Testimonies from three paramilitary fighters say Gordillo issued the same order as he stood by the house, a claim the ex-captain denies. Gordillo declined to be interviewed for this article.
At that moment, a man appeared. It was Tuberquia.
AUC members present described to investigators a heart-breaking scene. “Papa!” the kids screamed as they ran to him. His hands behind his neck, Tuberquia assured them nothing would happen. Tuberquia “begged our commanders to please not kill the kids, that if they wanted to, kill him but leave the kids alive,” Salgado said.
The paramilitary commanders and Gordillo discussed what they were about to do, according to testimonies from paramilitary soldiers. “We made a verbal pact, on the part of the military and on the part of the personnel that I had, that we wouldn’t say anything,” Vargas said.
Tuberquia, seemingly aware of their unfolding fate, told his children they were going to take a long trip and they might not return. Nathalie put some clothes for her baby brother in a cloth bag and waved goodbye, Salgado said.
He said he saw his colleague kick Tuberquia to the ground, point a gun to his head and tell him he and his family would have to be executed for collaborating with guerrillas.
Salgado picked up Nathalie, who was separated from her brother. “During those moments, I had the opportunity to carry the girl and give her a can of sausages that I had in my pocket of my fatigues,” he said.
After dropping her off with other paramilitary soldiers, he watched from a distance: “I saw how ‘Cobra’ held the girl with one hand … took her by the hair and took the machete to her throat, let her go and she dropped to the ground.” Days later, community members would find the bodies of the adults dismembered down to their torsos and the stomachs of the two children cut open.
Later that afternoon, Col. Orlando Espinosa said Gordillo reported to the battalion over the radio that there had been a shootout but it was unknown who was involved. A few hours later Espinosa heard from the captain again, he recalled in an interview. Gordillo’s report: “Nothing out of the ordinary.”
Members of the army's 17th brigade had been looking for FARC guerrillas when they stumbled upon Guerra and his family. Two weeks earlier the FARC had killed 19 soldiers in the Antioquia state. A major blow to the military, it required a response. Operation Fenix was born, with the goal of going after the guerrillas behind the attack, according to court testimonies from army officers.
The army decided battalions not familiar with the area would use local guides — a practice that was legal as long as the guides were unarmed civilians or demobilized combatants. That decision, which would prove deadly, is now at the center of the investigation into who was to blame for the massacre. Rather than hiring civilians, the army is accused of turning to the AUC paramilitary forces, which had murdered and displaced thousands of alleged guerrilla sympathizers.
Gordillo, the captain who led several army units, took a plea bargain and is the only officer to accept any responsibility for the killings. He told prosecutors that the guides were members of the AUC death squads. Court documents show that military officers and AUC commanders decided paramilitary fighters would lead the way with army troops closely behind them. Gordillo told investigators that more than 100 military personnel patrolled with 50-plus paramilitary soldiers.
As the trial resumes today, much hinges on whether army officers knew about the guides and tried to hide their involvement.
Read on to find out how the military is accused of trying to cover up its role in the massacre.