The Massacre at La Rochela, 23 years later

Last week I found myself on a ten hour bus trip from Bogotá, accompanying a bus full of passengers, whose family members were murdered by paramilitaries, to attend a commemoration event at the site of the massacre. During the trip I spent most of my time with Doña Lucia[1], who was already a grandmother when her husband was murdered.

Doña Lucia´s husband and other judicial officials formed part of a truth commission that was investigating the paramilitary activity in Santander that led to the disappearance and massacre on October 6, 1987 of 19 merchants who were accused of collaborating with guerrillas and later turned up missing, murdered and thrown into the Ermitaño River.  On January 18, 1989 he and eleven of his colleagues, including a pregnant woman, were murdered execution-style in the village of La Rochela by the paramilitary group “Los Masetos”. Three men survived by playing dead, one of whom currently lives in exile in Canada for fear that what he knows may get him killed.

What followed was the long, painful journey of the family members to try to get the Colombian judicial system to investigate the crimes, while protecting themselves from retaliatory actions by those who want this crime to stay in the past, without punishing the murderers. Some of the family members took an active role in pushing for the investigation of this crime and now have to live under constant security provided by the Colombian State because of the threats they have received for speaking out about the massacre.

The human rights organization Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers´Collective provided lawyers who assisted the victims in bringing their case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San Jose, Costa Rica on March 10, 2006, and on May 11, 2007 the Court found the Colombian State responsible for the massacre committed at La Rochela nearly two decades earlier. Part of the reparation package that the Court ordered demands that the Colombian State investigate, prosecute and penalize the perpetrators of this crime. In 2009 the Attorney General’s office began official investigations into the crime, but to this day no one has been accused nor convicted for perpetrating the massacre.

When we arrived at the site of the massacre, the family members were presented with a monument dedicated in honor of their lost loved ones. We then marched the path from the monument back to the highway, passing the scene of the crime along the way. I stayed along the sidelines, not participating but accompanying the peaceful assembly of friends and strangers trying to build a Colombia without violence.

Along the way I met a girl from Cañaveral in Antioquia. She did not know anyone killed that day, nor did she know the family members, but she too came from a place that has suffered various massacres and her community traveled that day to march in solidarity with those affected, to speak of their experiences without fear, all with the hopes of seeing an end to this conflict. There was a supportive energy during the event that gave the family members energy and strength to continue on, and they were surprised by the amount of unknown people who came from far away to show them that their loved ones were not forgotten.

But for some of the family members, that support did not mean they would put themselves in the public eye and risk their lives. The march ended with a rally, and when Doña Lucia was expected to show up on stage she refused. “Oh how I would like to talk!” she exclaimed, “But people die for talking. You’ve seen some of the other family members, they have received death threats and have to be protected by armed guards. To talk is to be imprudent.”

The commemoration event at La Rochela was not just about that one massacre, it was about what that massacre represented for the attendees – the pain of being caught in the middle of an armed conflict with no sure end, and a dark past that has cast shadows on the present. When they are alone or in small groups they are afraid to speak about human rights violations, but being together gives them the strength to overcome that fear and make public what many people know but are afraid to say aloud: that this armed conflict continues, it affects their lives in a real way, and the Colombian government has not done enough to protect them from the constant violence in their communities.

Doña Lucia sat next to me during the bus ride home. She told me that she spent many wonderful years with her husband, and what they took away from her was her chance to grow old with him, to enjoy the man she had built her whole life with.  She cried and acknowledged it’s a strange feeling to imagine a place in your nightmares for 23 years, to see a sketch pieced together by forensic photos and newspaper articles, and then to visit it for the first time and know what has happened there and how it has affected you ever since.

It helps her to know that the monument in her husband’s honor means that people will not forget what happened that fateful day in 1989. But the men who killed her husband are still free, and for her this lack of closure has prevented her wounds from healing. Her pain has not subsided because there has been no justice. For the sake of the friends and family members who cannot move on until they resolve this case, I hope that they bring the perpetrators of this crime to justice soon.


[1] The name was changed to protect the person interviewed.

3 thoughts on “The Massacre at La Rochela, 23 years later”

  1. Wow. This story brought tears to my eyes. Some of the quotes about not talking because of fear are really powerful. I am so glad that this information is becoming public.

  2. Вuenas!
    Reconozco que hasta hace poco no me molaba muchho elsitio, pero ultimamente estoy vieitandolo mas a menuɗo y esta mejorando.

    A seguir igual!

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