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A massacre explored: murder in the jungle

Part 1: How seven members of a Colombian peace community were brutally murdered.

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. Fifteen military officers are facing charges for the 2005 massacre of seven members of the community. (Courtesy John Lindsay-Poland)

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.

The massacre

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.