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For Colombian village, an elusive justice

Seven years after a massacre in a Colombian village, truth of paramilitary attack remains hazy.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The ceremony to remember Chengue's dead included a puppet show for children, free groceries and bagpipes wailing "Amazing Grace," all courtesy of Colombia's military.

And then Adm. Edgar Cely, the navy's operations chief, lamented how paramilitary fighters roared into this town seven years ago and, wielding truncheons, split open the heads of 27 villagers in one of the more egregious displays of depravity in Colombia's long civil conflict. "We want punishment for those criminals," Cely told families of the victims.

Luis Barreto, who lost six relatives in that pre-dawn attack, could only shake his head at Cely's words. In his view, justice is still glaringly absent in Chengue -- as is the truth about the government's culpability in a crime that made this northern hamlet a monument to terror.

"So many of us say they should be punished, but nothing happens," said Barreto, 54, one of the few villagers who returned after the massacre displaced Chengue's 500 residents. "How much more proof do you need? Everybody knows what happened."

The truth, as villagers see it, is that the paramilitary commanders who carried out the killings received uniforms and armaments from the military, and passed unmolested through this region, which was controlled by the navy. Once inside Chengue, the paramilitary fighters went about killing villagers they had branded rebel sympathizers.

In the aftermath, only one paramilitary member was convicted, a low-level fighter who confessed after nightmares spurred by memories of the massacre haunted his sleep. Authorities implicated several officials from the navy, but none was ever convicted.

Bloodcurdling testimonies
Indeed, justice has been as elusive here as in the rest of Colombia, even after the official disarmament in 2006 of a powerful paramilitary army, the United Self-Defense Forces, opened the door to an extraordinary judicial process designed to catalogue paramilitary violence, punish those responsible and force them to pay reparations to victims' families.

The cornerstone of that process has been a series of special judicial hearings in which 3,300 top and mid-level commanders have been required to admit their roles in atrocities, or face penalties for omission. Since the hearings began in November 2006, two dozen of the most feared paramilitary commanders have begun to testify, as have 1,200 underlings, said Luis Gonz¿lez, who leads a team from the attorney general's office that is investigating paramilitary crimes.

To be sure, some of the information provided in the "free versions," as the testimony in the closed-door hearings is called, has been bloodcurdling.

One commander, Ivan Laverde Zapata, known as the Iguana, said he was responsible for 2,000 murders in the northeastern Catatumbo region. Another, Ever Veloza, better known as H.H., described how his fighters in the banana-growing north would force their victims into a four-by-four vehicle, which was dubbed the Road to Heaven. Sometimes they would abduct 20 people a night -- victims who never came out alive. Other lower-level fighters spoke of academies where they learned to dismember victims, the better to hide evidence of their crimes.

The testimonies of a handful of commanders have helped forensics teams exhume 1,300 bodies from mass graves.

"They've announced that they would confess to 15,000 crimes, and they have already confessed 4,000," said Gonz¿lez, of the attorney general's office. "Now they're providing the names and circumstances and the manner in which things happened, some 4,000 crimes that were in total impunity."

Rights groups press Uribe
The Bush administration, which has provided billions of dollars in aid to Colombia, has hailed President ¿lvaro Uribe for his efforts to dismantle paramilitary groups.

But human rights groups are pressing Uribe's government to do more to hold old commanders to account and have called on U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who arrived in Colombia on Thursday night for a one-day visit, to deliver that message.

Rights advocates who have been closely tracking the free versions, or testimonies, say that the attorney general's office has failed to adequately turn up evidence against hundreds of paramilitary fighters, some of whom committed widespread atrocities. That has prompted those fighters, facing the questions of prosecutors, to be less than forthcoming in hearings.

"Most interviews are going nowhere," said Jos¿ Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch. "In many cases, interviews last just long enough for paramilitaries to withdraw from the process and refuse to recognize responsibility for any crimes."

Gustavo Gall¿n, director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, a human rights group, and an observer at the hearings, said fewer than 100 of the free versions have been substantive. "There are hearings where the paramilitary dedicates himself to justifying his crimes and the prosecutor permits it," Gall¿n said. "There are hearings where the paramilitary denies everything, he's silent. And there are hearings, very few, where the paramilitary has confessed."

Gonz¿lez acknowledged the slow pace but explained that it has taken time for his staff to fan out across the country and document crimes, many of which took place many years ago and had never before been investigated.

He said the pace will pick up now that the government has authorized his unit to hire 440 more investigators, adding to the 150 currently on his staff, while increasing the number of prosecutors from 20 to 200.

'We want truth, justice and reparations'
Here in Chengue, the truth remains hazy. What is known, based on the testimony of some paramilitary fighters and an official investigation, is that the orders to kill came from Carlos Casta¿o, then the leader of the United Self-Defense Forces, and that the massacre was carried out by a local paramilitary commander, Rodrigo Mercado Pelufo, known as Chain.

Investigators believe navy sergeants provided uniforms and guns to the death squads at a paramilitary farm called El Palmar, which later became notorious for the mass graves discovered there. As paramilitary units headed for Chengue, the navy's marine units stood aside, Huber Enrique Banquez, a local commander, said late last year in his free version.

"The navy knew, and they didn't do anything to stop it, even though they had people in that whole area," police Capt. Jaime Guti¿rrez, who commanded a local garrison and later testified against naval officers, said in an interview. "I told them this was a chronicle of a death foretold."

Since the massacre, the Defense Ministry has removed tainted naval officers and replaced them with hard-charging commanders who have won praise from residents for pursuing paramilitary units as well as the guerrillas those units long hunted.

Still, Chengue remains haunted by the slayings, with only 20 families settling here, down from 104 before the massacre. Those who stay, scratching out a living growing corn and avocados, remain bitter.

"We want truth, justice and reparations," said Julia Meri¿o, who lost three close relatives. "Perhaps with the truth we can then pardon."