Paramilitary Victims Look for Justice in Colombia
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
If Castro seems like a relic of the cold war, consider this: communist guerillas have operated for decades in Colombia, and Colombian right-wing paramilitary groups have massacred villagers and stole land in a dirty war against the left.
Since 2003, though, more than 30,000 paramilitaries have demobilized. Villagers are fearful because bands of paramilitaries continue to kill. But the victims are speaking out and demanding justice, and Colombia's government is scrambling to provide it.
NPR's Juan Forero reports.
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JUAN FORERO: On the mighty Magdalena River, people lull and listen to sappy songs of heartache at a honky tonk on the edge of a ferry landing. They await boats to take them home from this gritty city, better known as Barranca.
Here in the northern half of a vast country in a sweltering and listless, a day when you could forget Colombia has been enmeshed in 42 years of civil conflict.
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FORERO: The thumping of helicopter blades, heavily armed Black Hawks returning from a mission, is a stark reminder that a murky war involving rebels, paramilitaries and the state is far from over. It's a war that has hit this city particularly hard.
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FORERO: President Alvaro Uribe's government, with billions in aide from the United States, continues to fight one big Marxist rebel group that wants to take power. For years, rogue army units had help from the paramilitaries. But now the government is heralding their removal from the fighting.
Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: The families of the victims are not celebrating. They say they are still threatened, but they are tired of being forgotten. Carrying torches, they fill the streets of Barranca one recent night. These people want the commanders to pay for their crimes.
Unidentified Group: (Spanish spoken)
FORERO: Women, hoisting a banner that features the image of an assault rifle crossed out, chant that there is no right to wage war. David Dravello(ph) is a leading human rights activist. His family fled the violence in Barranca. As he marches along the city's narrow streets, he explains that the victims are incensed. He says the paramilitary commanders have won generous benefits from the government in exchange for disbanding.
Mr. DAVID DRAVELLO (Human Rights Activist): (Through translator) We're demanding the Columbian state provide the objective truth, say who benefited from the atrocities and that there be real justice. We will continue to insist on a complete reparation.
FORERO: The government now says it will try commanders in special courts. They will have to account for their crimes and compensate the families of victims. But human rights groups say the government is ill prepared. The state has only 20 prosecutors to investigate nearly 2,700 commanders believed to have committed atrocities. And they say the government has no way to determine what the paramilitaries own, which is key for the reparations process to work.
The government says that under its justice and peace law, paramilitary commanders must cooperate with state investigations. If not, they lose benefits that would keep them out of Columbia's tough prisons.
Still, while paramilitary fighters disarmed the last three years, some commanders formed powerful criminal organizations. They still assassinate. They traffic cocaine. The challenges seem to have overwhelmed the government.
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FORERO: Barranca is an oil town. Smoke and flames billow from venting towers in a vast refinery. With its oil unions, it has long been a center of protest and social activism. Some say that brought guerillas, and in their wake, murderous death squads.
The paramilitaries came to neighborhoods like Gambine(ph) in Barranca's southern fringe. Here their homes are small and well kept. Fruit trees stand out front. Children play in the streets. Birds flutter about. It seems peaceful, even idyllic.
But one day in 1998, the gunmen rounded up more than 30 people. Some were taken from their homes. Most were never seen again. Jaime Pena(ph) lost his 16-year- old son, Jaime Eucin(ph).
Mr. JAIME PENA: (Through translator) Through this window, I saw two guys take my son out. One of them had his face covered and was pointing a gun at my son's back. In that moment, I didn't even think of the magnitude of the tragedy that was coming.
FORERO: His wife, Maline Rodriguez(ph), takes a moment from cooking in the kitchen. She says she wants to know what happened.
Ms. MALINE RODRIGUEZ: (Through translator) I think the most just and humane thing is that the truth be known. He was a good boy, and it was a huge injustice.
FORERO: She says she doesn't think they can repair that damage with anything.
Juan Forero, NPR News, Barrancabermeja, Columbia.
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