“What the peace community lived through in those first months was terrible”

During the 20th anniversary of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, PBI spoke with Father Javier Giraldo, a Jesuit priest with a conviction to support the rural communities that have been forgotten in the midst of the violence of the internal armed conflict. Father Giraldo has walked side by side with the Peace Community since its creation on Palm Sunday in 1997.

He remembers the day of the founding of the Peace Community; but he also remembers the brutal cycle of violence against the leaders of the community, the way they organised the resistance to such violence, the hunger that they suffered as a consequence of the massacring of storekeepers and the economic blockade that was forced upon them.

Listen to the interview with Father Giraldo (in Spanish only)

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“In 1996 I was coordinating the Inter-Congregational Commission of Peace and Justice and one of the activities that the we undertook was to accompany groups of displaced people.  At the end of 1996 we had finished an accompaniment that we were carrying out in Barrancabermeja because there were a lot of NGOs that were doing the same work but in the region of Urabá there were lots of communities being displaced and no one to accompany them.

5e Anniversaire du massacre de San Jose Apartado
Father Javier Giraldo

So, we organised a team to be based in Turbo and to accompany the displaced communities that were arriving from the department of Chocó. It was at this point, when the Bishop of Apartadó asked us if we could give some advice to a group of peasant farmers from San José de Apartadó who wanted to publicly declare themselves a neutral community in the armed conflict.  This was a proposal that the Bishop Duarte Cancino had made to them, he was subsequently assassinated in Cali.  We started to organise workshops with this group of peasant farmers in the town of San José de Apartadó. The workshops touched on topics such as International Humanitarian Law and the plan was to prepare them for their declaration as a Neutral Community.

Then, the Bishop who replaced Monseñor Duarte Cancino was Monseñor Tulio Duque, and he decided to get in contact with some indigenous and peasant farmer communities who were also thinking about declaring themselves neutral because the levels of violence in the region were terrifying. The ideas were based around how to exit the war and how to claim the rights of the civilian population in the midst of a conflict and how to state publicly that these indigenous and peasant farmer communities did not form part of this conflict and therefore they should have their rights respected.

The first community that was created was the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, on the 23rd of March 1997.

So, the first community that was created was the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, on the 23rd of March 1997. That day was Palm Sunday and the Bishop decided that it was an appropriate day to inaugurate the Peace Community because it just so happened that there was a group of Dutch MPs from the European Parliament making a visit to the region, they therefore became witnesses to the event. Accordingly, the Bishop carried out the ceremony, the MPs were present, the proclamation of the Peace Community was made public and the peasant farmers signed the Act. But that same week, which of course was holy week, a brutal attack against the community leaders who had signed the act began. The paramilitaries began to visit the small hamlets in the area to force the peasant farmers to abandon their lands. They told them that they had maximum four or five days to leave their homes, if not, they would be killed.  And, in fact they did kill a lot of peasant farmers just to prove that they were being serious. This was a bloody week; it was terrible, everyone decided to leave, well not everyone, some people in about four or five hamlets stayed, but everyone else left, some people went really far away in order to escape the violence.  However, there were some people, above all those that didn’t want to abandon their land forever, who congregated in the main town of the rural area, San José de Apartadó. The people who lived in the town who had also signed the declaration had left because they were scared to death.

Therefore, the town was practically empty and each house accommodated about ten or 15 families in terrible living conditions, but it was there, in these conditions, that a pact of resistance was formed. I believe it was between eight hundred and a thousand peasant farmers who said: We choose to no let them take our land away from us and we are going to organise ourselves in order to resist. This is despite the fact that Gloria Cuartas, the mayor of Apartadó at the time, was offering trucks to take the people away.  They said no, they didn’t want to leave their land.

San Jose Apartado
One of the most impactful incidents of violence faced by the Community was the massacre that took place 21 February 2005. Photo: Damien Fellous

So, a week later I went up there with some members of the Commission, and what we saw was shocking. Due to the stress, the majority of the people were sick, they had malaria, the children were sick, there was nothing to eat. We had to bring the little food we could and the people organised community kitchens that still couldn’t feed all the mouths that they needed to. First the children were fed, many of the adults were left without food, there was only enough for one meal a day and there was a lot of fear because the paramilitaries were still camped around the town, and constantly threatening to kill all of them.

What they lived through in those first months was terrible. I remember after that first week when I went up, a group of leaders surrounded me next to the chapel and they said to me: We appreciate everything that the Commission has done for us, helping us to prepare the declaration and everything else.  But it isn’t enough, we need accompaniment 24 hours a day, if we don’t get this accompaniment the majority of the people will leave. I was fearful because at that moment to enter into San José de Apartadó was to risk your life.  There were constant armed confrontations, you heard gunshots coming from all around you, the threats were permanent and the conditions that people lived in were very unstable.

I went back to the team that the Commission had in Turbo, and I explained the situation to the group of religious and secular missionaries that formed part of the organisation at that moment. I said to them that anyone who feels that they want to undertake this accompaniment should think about it very hard because it means seriously risking your life. That same night Eduard Lancheros, who had recently left the Salesian community, said to me: I am going up there. I said to him, that he should think it over better, don’t tell me tonight, tell me tomorrow morning, but he said: I have already taken the decision. And the next day three people from the team came with me to San Jose de Apartadó: A woman of faith from Spain, Eduard and an ex-religious Colombian lady who had just retired from her community. We began to accompany the Peace Community 24 hours a day. This experience was really hard, because the paramilitaries really did surround the small town where we were living, and there was no food.

graffiti CDP SJA threat
One of the central concerns today is the strengthening of illegal armed groups that emerged in the region after the demobilisation of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) between 2003 and 2006.

Then a group of twenty, thirty people started going go to the closest farms and harvest crops if they had managed to sow something, some corn, beans, the necessary just to prepare some food.  But they had to go out joined by the hand, all as one, because the paramilitaries surrounded the road, pointing their weapons. And in the afternoon, they returned in the same way that they left, very afraid, to cook the small quantities of food that they had managed to get hold of.

And during those days, well, there were a lot of deaths, it almost became a daily chore collecting the bodies that were left nearby. When the chiveros (jeeps used as public transport in the region) went down to Apartadó there was always a roadblock leaving the city in a place that we call Tierra Amarilla and it was there that the paramilitaries stopped them on the way back. They had a list of people to kill, they asked for the documents of the passengers and if someone was on the list they were made to get down from the chivero and they shot them there in the road or they took them a bit further behind a hill and then killed them there.  It was a terrifying situation, that was lived for months, I would say that it actually lasted for years.

Comunidad de Paz, foto de Alex

It was in this moment that the Commission entered in alliance with this project.  Eduard who in this moment represented the Commission with his other colleagues was key in managing this difficult situation. He helped them to organise themselves into small groups, groups of families, to create norms to help them live in the middle of a war and these norms were created article by article with the participation of all the families, they took the decision that children from the age of twelve could also participate in the decision-making process. And each one of these articles of regulatory norms was passed around several times so that the outcome was something very constitutional to the community.

And this is how the regulations were created, it was not only to protect themselves from the death that was always stalking them, it was also that they were discovering that there they could build a different type of community where the sense of belonging to that community was very strong. There were community work programs and they began to think as the land as a property of the community.  So, in the end an alternative community began to grow bit by bit, and it was then when they started thinking about how they were going to recover the land that they had been expelled from by the bombing campaigns and due to the paramilitaries.

And a year later, on the 23rd of March in 1998 the Peace Community organised themselves to return for the first time to the small settlement of La Union. Many families took part in the return and they did so with a lot of accompaniment.  There are some images of this event, this was definitely an event that began to generate optimism in the Peace Community, and it helped them to be confident in themselves and what they were doing, in resistance.

Obviously, the community of La Unión had to displace about three or four times because the paramilitaries were threatening them, and on the 8th of July 2000 they carried out a terrible massacre killing six leaders in the middle of the settlement. Because of this violence on several occasions the people had to flee. But they always returned.

And afterwards the community returned to other settlements such as Arenas Altas, and La Esperanza. They started to recover the lands from which they were forced from, however the massacre of the members of the Peace Community carried on for several years.  From 2001 until 2003, more or less, there was an attempt to displace them or annihilate them by hunger, with a food blockade. They started by killing four of the chivero drivers, with the intention that none of the other drivers dare to bring food up to San José. And they managed it, because afterwards no chivero driver dared to go back.

Afterwards they assassinated four people who had shops in the small town. It was a massacre of shopkeepers, one night in 1999 I think it was, well obviously, these shops had to close. And after that they began to assassinate anyone who sold any type of food or soft drinks or even water on the 12km road between San José and Apartadó. These people were killed and the result was a serious hunger situation, a terrible famine.

This is when the new Bishop of Apartadó arrived and listened to the information about the famine that was going on. He decided that he wanted to check the situation out personally and he went on foot from Apartadó, seeing if it was possible to buy food, and he saw for himself that it was impossible.  So, he filled a truck with humanitarian aid from the Red Cross and other entities, a food truck basically, and he sent it up to San Jose.


Instead of leaving the Peace Community decided to take on the challenge. The food blockade made them think about what other dimensions their community project could take, and they arrived at the idea of food sovereignty. They started to sow crops near the town. They focused on the most important crops necessary for an adequate diet. They chose four basic foodstuffs, corn, rice, beans and sugar cane and they started to cultivate them. They had previously grown corn and beans but they had no experience in the other crops. However, the first crops were successful.

Therefore, they were able to maintain a basic diet and sometimes they had enough food left over to sell, so they would leave in groups with international accompaniment, to avoid being assassinated on the way, and they would go and sell their crops in Apartadó.

This whole experience was a learning process for the Peace Community and it helped them build bit by bit a model of alternative community. But it was a gradual process.  I think that Eduard was the person who was behind a lot of this process, and they identified him as a leader and an advisor to them. He was there for 15 years and during that time we registered 28 attempts to assassinate him, but the Peace Community would always protect him, they would hide him or take him out via the back roads.  After all that he eventually ended up dying of cancer, that was five years ago.

And this was how the Peace Community grew, not just with an idea of community work. However, there were also setbacks, because in the first few years we believed in justice, and we believed if we brought these cases to the justice institutions they would be able to stop these crimes that were being committed against the Peace community. But this experience, that of trying to access the justice system, trying to bring witnesses to testify, showed us that the justice system was incredibly corrupt and that it was at the service of the powers of impunity. So, that is when we broke of relations with the Ministry of Justice.

Afterwards, we still maintained relations with other institutions of the Colombian state, mainly due to pressure from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights who always asked us to dialogue with these institutions so we could find ways to protect the Peace Community. But these dialogues fizzled out, every two months we would have meetings with a number of big institutions, Ministries, the Security Forces, other Organs of Control, but this did not result in anything that could help us in terms of protection.

So therefore, there was a breaking off of relations with the institutions of the Colombian state. This became especially poignant after the massacre of San Jose de Apartadó in 2005. I think it was that massacre that caused one of the most painful and traumatic moments for the community. Because it was then when they assassinated one of the most historical leaders and founders of the community, Luis Eduardo Guerra. I think he was the person who the members of the Peace Community most confided in. They killed him with his wife and one of his children, as well as another family, also members of the Peace Community, in La Resbalosa. This was the massacre that marked the point of no return for the Peace Community. It made them think:  We have already paid an excessive price in blood and we are not going back.”

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