by Juan Ricardo Aparicio Cuervo
We finally made it. In February 2008, after almost two days of long hours climbing the steep, muddy paths of the Serranía de Abibe mountain range, we got there at last. Together with almost a hundred people from national and international organizations, we had come to the Urabá region in the northwest corner of Colombia, historically known as “the best corner of South America” for its advantageous geographical position and abundant natural resources. Indeed, the desirability of this land made it the stage for an 18th-century imperial dispute, and to the present day the Urabá region continues to be associated with political and structural violence as an area on the periphery, far from the centers of power of the nation-state.
We unpacked and set up our tents in a clearing next to a small chapel hastily put together on February 21, 2005, in the place where the body of Luis Eduardo Guerra, one of the leaders of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó (CPSJA), was discovered. He had been brutally assasinated, together with his common-law wife and 11-year-old son. These remains and the bodies of other people were found by a CPSJA search party. Blood-stained machetes, which very well could have been used to carry out the horible massacre, were lying on the ground. Soldiers from the 17th Military Brigade were at the site. Human rights activists and solidarity groups spread the news of the killings throughout the world.
Three years after the massacre, we returned to the exact spot where the killings had taken place. The small chapel was filled with photos of Luis Eduardo taken at the many international meetings he had attended. The photos, a small altar with candles and a Catholic cross, and some flags from PACE, an Italian anti-globalization non-governmental organization (NGO), were the only decorations in the chapel. Many of the people who gathered around the altar came from Italian and Spanish cities that had funded CPSJA and wanted to let their countries know about the Community’s desperate situation. Others were members of permanent monitoring organizations such as Peace Brigades International (PBI) and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). The German organization Chefs without Borders and some Germans who lived in Portugal rounded out the group. Father Javier Giraldo, a leading Colombian human rights activist, explained to the group what had led up to the massacre.
The Community, he told us, had long been under siege by all of Colombia’s armed actors, guerrillas, army and paramilitary groups. Father Giraldo recalled that, according to some survivors, the day Luis Eduardo was killed, the area was occupied by heavily armed men and there was a tense feeling in the air. Just before an armed group was about to stop Luis Eduardo, who was walking with a group of peasants, he got a group member to run to inform their families about the presence of armed men in the area, and most of the others managed to escape to a nearby village. That day, the 21st of February, was the last time the peasants saw Luis Eduardo and his family. Hours later, the same armed men arrived at the village. In an interview a few days before his murder, Luis Eduardo had predicted, “Today we are talking, tomorrow we could be dead.”
I’d visited CPSJA over the years, but I’d never ventured far into the Serranía. The 2008 expedition was not only to commemorate the massacre but to accompany ten displaced families finally returning to their abandoned homes. About ten years earlier, they escaped the fighting there and settled in San José de Apartadó. With their return, which CPSJA had been working on for almost six months, they proclaimed they did not intend to remain among the more than three million internally displaced Colombians who had been fleeing their homes since 1985.
Five years later, on February 8, 2013, in this very same place, on my fifth pilgrimage toward the hamlet of Mulatos in the Serranía de Abibe, I found a sign that read: “Welcome to the village of Peace Luis Eduardo Guerra. A Neutral Zone.” This time I found a cleared pasture land with several wooden buildings, including some houses, a school, a community kitchen and a library, where CPSJA housed publications about its history and development. It was such a contrast from my previous trip, in which the lone chapel stood surrounded by a forest that was beginning to be cut down, but still invaded the houses that had been abandoned in 2000. This place of devastation and death was returning to life. The altar commemorating the deaths seemed to be a central axis from which new life projects were being started, projects that had been interupted by the violence. Nevertheless, while we were talking with some of the local peasants in information sessions after the ceremony celebrating the return of the displaced families, strange new groups began to appear in the zone. And there were new threats—even today when Colombia is celebrating the ceasefire between the government and guerilla groups. The reports of paramilitary threats against the Peace Community and its leaders still continue.
This lived experience and many more I have seen in my close work with the CPSJA, together with the vast phenomenon of displaced Colombians, have inspired my research agenda in recent years. I wanted to understand how two very different but related developments had been able to come to fruition: the approval of the 1997 Law 387, which created a normative and legal framework to protect internally displaced Colombians, and the creation of the CPSJA on March 23, 1997. My aim was to grasp the specific context of a situation, a point in time and place, which contained the multiple and complex conditions that made these two events possible. The first event, the law and the treatment of displaced people, exists within the wider context of human rights, humanitarianism and the rights of refugees that have led to the founding of the Red Cross in the 19th century, the Nuremburg Trials in the 20th century and the creation of institutions such as the UN High Commission for Refugees (ACNUR) after World War II. The second case, the emergence of CPSJA, is connected to a long tradition of peasant groups in Colombia, struggling to obtain their territories and autonomy, influenced by radical religious strategies and development projects as well as wide networks of international solidarity.
Thanks to the confluence of diverse factors, on March 23, 1997, some 400 displaced families gathered together in the school in San José de Apartadó to form a “peace community” that defended the right of the civilian population to opt out of “a war that belongs to others.” The families signed a declaration that spelled out the rules of conduct for people joining the community. In a rebellious and antagonistic spirit, the community rejected the government’s paternalistic right to administer and regulate these marginal populations; they said no to central control exercised through various initiatives in contemporary Colombia, such as passing laws, establishing parks and memory commissions, making plans for land consolidation, and efforts to transform the victim into a useful and productive subject. But in rejecting these well-meaning government initiatives the community members also rejected leaving their homes to later find themselves displaced and wandering in the labyrinths of humanitarian bureaucracy in the big cities. They stressed the classic distinction between combatants and non-combatants, so fundamental to modern legal rights in war zones, and they also determined the kind of economic, political and social organization that would govern life in the CPSJA. In other words, they articulated a hybrid conception of humanitarian law and the moral worlds of the peasant.
Today, in San José(cito) or Little San José, located less than a mile from San José de Apartadó, the place where the Peace Community moved to after the 2005 massacre when it rejected the presence of a police station in the town, large, highly visible posters inform visitors that they are about to enter “private property.” These posters also proclaim some of the founding principles of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, including the group’s ban on giving any information to any armed actors. The signs also inform about collective work groups and communitarian days, and define the settlement as a “non-combatant peasant population.” A rustic gate and these posters clearly separate CPSJA from “the outside world” and constitute a “different space.” From the hallways of some of the houses in San Jose(cito) closest to the highway that leads to San José, one can see curious folk looking at the posters and the flags, the white jeeps and the two tall blond volunteers who live just inside the gates. Some armed actors suspect that the separation is for the purpose of concealing something, maybe arms or even soldiers from one side or another. Various government commissions have refused to enter the settlement without armed bodyguards because they fear what might happen there.
Without a doubt, the development projects initiated as a result of the approval of Law 387, together with the humanitarian aid offered to the displaced populations, contrast jarringly with the attitude of people who return to their communities on their own and the “communitarian economies” set up through work groups, communitarian days and the collective benefits of the CPSJA. The tension between the offers of help and preference for self-help brings up several questions. How can we evaluate the CPSJA’s refusal to have people flee to cities and wait in line for humanitarian kits? How do we assess the fact that some peasants in “the best corner of South America” have set up a space of their own through creative connections and widespread networks that support the existence of a “non-combatant peasant community” in the midst of an armed conflict? What should we think about the community’s unwillingness to form part of the “administrative consensus” of a probable post-conflict scenario in Colombia?
I’d say that it was fitting that precisely here, in the “best corner of South America,” a complex arrangement arose in stark contrast to the treatment of internally displaced people under the 1997 Law 387. That is, the experience of San José de Apartado gives us an example of a complex and multidimensional variety of solutions that go beyond the framework established by “a good government” and “state responsibility” that controls, directs and designs a great portion of the humanitarian and human rights operations in Colombia. The CPSJA, although it continues to interact with the state bureaucracy, is generating alternatives to serve “the suffering stranger,” in accordance with the Geneva Convention, liberation theology and the traditional peasant struggle in Colombia. In a complex environment filled with friction and tensions, the Community has been able to construct an autonomous space, always threatened, that confronts the desires of the state and the (para)states to either massacre, displace or help the population. At the same time, through great effort, the Community is building “a communitarian economy” with the benefits fairly distributed among its people. The CPSJA is bravely affirming a space of difference derived from a particular conception of what it means to be “human,” a difference that springs from the way people relate to one another, a way in which the dead like Luis Eduardo Guerra do not disappear from their lives after burial, but continue to participate in daily life and with great models for mobilization.
Juan Ricardo Aparicio is an associate professor in the Department of Languages and Culture and the director of Cultural Studies at the Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá. He received his master’s and doctorate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was in the first cohort of graduates with a specialization in Cultural Studies at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, Bogotá. He is a member of the editorial committee of the Journal of Cultural Studies and of a series of essays on Cultural Theory of the Iberoamericana-Vervuert.
This article contains fragments previously published in Juan Ricardo Aparicio’s 2012 Rumores, residuos y Estado en ‘la mejor esquina de Sudamérica’: una cartografía de lo humanitario en Colombia, and the author’s 2015 article “El Retorno a Mulatos y la Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó.” Antípoda, No. 21, pp. 73-95.