The Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado was born twenty years ago in the midst of violence, forced displacement and the murders of its leaders. The result of these twenty years of violence is overwhelming: 320 people murdered, 350 death threats, 100 acts of torture, 50 displacements.
The farming community of San Jose de Apartado has lived for decades amidst the armed conflict. The economic interests operating in Uraba (Northeastern Colombia) and its geostrategic location converged to make this region one of the hardest hit by the armed conflict. Since the seventies, the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have been present here. Incursions by paramilitary groups from 1996 onwards marked an escalation in the conflict between the armed actors, which mainly resulted in attacks against the civilian population.
But instead of joining the thousands of displaced people in the country, in 1997 this farming community created a pioneering initiative in Colombia: the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado, a community that declared itself neutral in the armed conflict and rejected the presence of all the armed groups in its territory. In the same week it was created, a brutal backlash was unleashed against the Community.
“What the peace community lived through in those first months was terrible. The paramilitaries visited the hamlets and forced the farmers to leave their land, telling them that they had four or five days to leave, and if they didn’t they would kill them” Father Javier Giraldo.
In those years the armed groups repeatedly set up checkpoints along the paths and imposed economic blockades, forbidding the transport of food or any merchandise under the threat of death. Between 2001 and 2002 one of the worst blockades took place, for months they forbade food from being transported on the road between Apartado and San Jose.
“no-one could go to town to shop because they wouldn’t be allowed to pass with their food” Roviro Lopez, a member of the Peace Community.
During those times hundreds of people who took the risk of buying food were murdered. There was a lot of hunger. The Community increasingly realised how important it was to get organised and grow their own food so they could be self-sufficient, and that is how they started created community work groups.
One of the events that had the greatest impact on the Peace Community was the massacre of 21 February 2005. That day, eight people were murdered near the hamlets of Mulatos and La Resbalosa, seven of them members of the Peace Community, including three children and the Community’s leader, Luis Eduardo Guerra. Because of his role in the killings, in March 2010 Guillermo Gordillo, a retired Army captain, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for aggravated homicide, acts of barbarity, and conspiracy to commit a crime. In June 2012 four other soldiers were convicted for their role in the massacre, on charges of homicide of a protected person and aggravated conspiracy to commit a crime.
“Twelve years after the massacre, what can we say? Approximately thirty paramilitaries have been convicted, but none of the paramilitary leaders have. To date, Don Berna has given no explanation to the judicial authorities about these events. Approximately three hundred and fifty members of the Security Forces took part in the massacre, but only four of them have been convicted. So the impunity in the case of the San Jose de Apartado massacre, in terms of the involvement of State agents, is for about 99.4% of the perpetrators.” Jorge Molano, lawyer
On the twentieth anniversary of its resistance in 2017, the Peace Community counted 326 of its members murdered, and more than 4,000 human rights violations committed against them. To date, most of the human rights violations have gone unpunished.
“It is only in the case of the massacre of 21 February 2005 and a second incident, that there have been any results in terms of progress in the investigations” Lawyer Jorge Molano
Since the massacre of Mulatos and La Resbalosa, the Peace Community has not engaged with Colombian State institutions because it considers that justice has not been done. The only contact by the Community has been with the Constitutional Court, which issued three judgements in its favour. The most important of those was Sentence 1025 of 2007 which ordered the Colombian Government to provide the names of the members of the Security Forces who were present in the area at the time of the 2005 massacre. In 2012, the Constitutional Court called an evaluation session with Government institutions, resulting in Order 164 which included five orders. Amongst them was an order for the members of the Government to retract the defamatory statements they had made against the Community, an order to create a commission to evaluate justice for over three hundred murders, and to respect the humanitarian zones where the civilian population can seek refuge, amongst others. According to Father Javier Giraldo, the State has tried to comply with some of the orders, but has never ensured complete compliance, which is why he considers that the Court’s judgement has not been complied with.
After the demobilisation of the paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) between 2003 and 2006, new illegal armed groups emerged. According to the Imminent Risk Report 031-16 by the Human Rights Ombudsman, published in September 2016: "communities in the hamlets “have been visited by men who identify themselves as members of the AGC (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia), demanding collaboration and support from the civilian population to consolidate their presence in the area, and they threaten to kill anyone who refuses”. Since the signature of the Peace Agreement in 2016 and the demobilisation of the FARC in 2017, the AGC’s presence is increasingly visible, and they are taking over the areas formerly controlled by the FARC.
Even if smears, threats and defamation continue to take place against the Peace Community, it has succeeded in establishing a degree of dissuasion against the armed actors thanks to its legitimacy with the international community. In 2014, German Graciano Posso, the Peace Community’s legal representative since 2013, was chosen by the UN to be part of the delegation of victims which travelled to Havana to take part in the peace negotiations between the government and the FARC guerrillas. On 23 March 2017, the Community celebrated 20 years of peaceful resistance and continues to be an inspiring and alternative role model of community living.