Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: 15 Soldiers to Be Arrested for Massacre

Gloria Helena Rey

BOGOTA, Mar 28 2008 (IPS) - Authorities in Colombia have ordered the arrest of three army officers and 12 non-commissioned officers accused of killing eight adults and three children in the banana-growing region of Urabá on the border with Panama.

The rightwing government of Álvaro Uribe had blamed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for the 2005 killings of the 11 members of the San José de Apartadó Peace Community, created in 1997 by families displaced by Colombia’s four-decade civil war.

In a letter addressed to army chief General Mario Montoya, Colombian Attorney General Mario Iguarán requested on Thursday the arrest of the 15 members of the army.

Peace communities are rural villages that have declared themselves neutral territory in the armed conflict, in which civilians are frequently killed by the leftist rebels, the far-right paramilitaries or government forces.

Since 1997, at least 170 members of the San José de Apartadó Peace Community, which is located in a conflict zone in northwestern Colombia , have been killed, even though the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered precautionary measures for their protection, and the Constitutional Court likewise sought safeguards for the community in March 2004.

A former paramilitary, Jorge Luis Salgado, told prosecutors that the Feb. 21, 2005 killings were committed by the army in conjunction with the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).

According to Salgado’s testimony, segments of which were published by the local press, “The children were under the bed…We suggested to the officers that they be left in a nearby house, but they said they were a threat, that they would become guerrillas in the future…’Cobra’ grabbed the (five or six-year-old) girl by the hair and cut her throat with a machete.”

The mutilated, decapitated bodies were dumped in the jungle, or left in shallow common graves.

Salgado’s description of the killings shook public opinion in Colombia, where the mainstream press does not generally report detailed accounts of atrocities by the paramilitaries, whose ties with the security forces have been amply documented by leading international human rights groups.

Referring to Salgado’s testimony, the local newspaper El Tiempo said this was the first time that one of the killers publicly gave such a graphic first-hand account of a massacre.

The paramilitaries have been blamed by United Nations officials for at least 80 percent of the human rights crimes committed in Colombia’s armed conflict.

Although witness testimony indicated from the start that the killings were perpetrated by the 17th army brigade and by paramilitaries commanded by Diego Murillo, known as “Don Berna”, the government had consistently blamed the massacre on the FARC.

Since late 2006, the Uribe administration has been caught up in the so-called “parapolitics” scandal, in which some 75 legislators and other politicians allied with the president have been arrested or are under investigation for their ties with the paramilitaries.

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