The brutal massacre that took the lives of eight civilians, including three children on February 21, 2005 in the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartadó, has become an emblematic case of government impunity and injustice. In the wake of these events, former President Álvaro Uribe publicly insinuated collaborative ties between the community’s population and guerrillas, accusations that would continue to threaten and endanger civilian lives:
In this community […] there are good people, but some of their leaders, patrons and defenders, are seriously marked by people who have resided there as having helped the FARC, and wanted to utilize this community to protect this terrorist organization.
The effects of these statements had even further implications, leading to a continuing fracture between the Peace Community and government agencies, deepening the rupture between the two.
In July 2012 came a renewed hope, revitalized by the release of Constitutional Court decision 164, which outlined five steps toward reparations, requiring state compliance under conditions negotiated between the Peace Community and the Colombian Interior Ministry. Initiating the process, an official retraction would occur in Bogota on May 29, 2013 that would officially retract the statements made by the Colombian government over nine years ago. The Peace Community requested that President Juan Manuel Santos make the retraction in person and, under this understanding, 32 Peace Community members arrived in Bogota on the eve of the event.
But on the morning of the 29th, as Colombia’s philharmonic orchestra opened the ceremony with the national anthem, the void was evident: 32 empty chairs remained untouched. President Santos would not be attending. The ceremony, full of media cameras and black suits and ties, continued as planned. Fernando Carrillo, Colombian Interior Minister, stepped in for the president and presented on behalf of the state, opening with a scripted salute to the “members of the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado present here today.”
As planned, and required by the Constitutional Court, Carrillo officially retracted the 2005 accusations made against the Peace Community:
…not only in compliance with a judicial order, but because of the firm belief of the National Government to the right to a good name and for the honor and right to defend and promote human rights […] in the name of the National Government and the President of the Republic, I want to rectify and correct affirmations and accusations generated by my predecessor […] and exalt the pro-peace labors of the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado. […] This retraction is an invitation [for them] to continue working for peace …
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights representative Todd Howland followed, stressing the importance of the event. Addressing the audience, he recognized the absence of the Peace Community members, upholding the significance of their decision: the long-standing difference of opinion between the Peace Community and the government, the difficulties in restoring the loss of trust generated during 50 years of civil war, and the significance of the retraction. Rather than an end, he emphasized, the retraction should become an initiative, a necessary element in the path towards the reestablishment of trust.
Simultaneously, at a small press conference down the street, the Peace Community responded, defending their refusal to attend the event:
Since the first contact with the Interior Ministry, the Community expressed, with absolute clarity and conviction, that the retraction would only be considered valid with a clear declaration made by the President of the Republic; as it was this high-ranking representative that committed these grave, false accusations, that have brought hundreds of fatal consequences, resulting in a chain of humanitarian crimes over the past nine years.
And with this formal rejection, 32 members of the Peace Community returned to San Jose de Apartado the following day, summarizing the event as “another aggression of high government,” and even, a “new insult.”
Reflecting on his public statements over nine years ago, ex-President Alvaro Uribe responded on Twitter, upholding his claim, and reaffirming “the utilization by terrorist FARC and some foreigners in peace communities.”
In the wake of the events on May 29, there are four other points from the high court’s ruling that still remain to be carried out, one of which is already in motion. An evaluation commission of justice is expected to meticulously analyze almost 500 cases of violations against the Community, and take months to complete.
Emily Schmitz is a member of the FOR Colombia accompaniment team, currently based in Bogotá.