An Elusive Justice

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 25, 2008

CHENGUE, Colombia -- 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.

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 Gonzalez, 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."

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