Chronicle of a Massacre Foretold
By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
CHENGUE, Colombia -- In the cool hours before sunrise on Jan. 17, 50
members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia marched into this
avocado farmers. Only the barking of dogs, unaccustomed to the blackness brought by a rare power outage, disturbed the mountain silence.
For an hour, under the direction of a woman known as Comandante Beatriz,
the paramilitary troops pulled men from their homes, starting with 37-year-old
Merino and his three field workers. They assembled them into two groups above the main square and across from the rudimentary health center. Then, one by one,
they killed the men by crushing their heads with heavy stones and a sledgehammer. When it was over, 24 men lay dead in pools of blood. Two more were found later
in shallow graves. As the troops left, they set fire to the village.
The growing power and brutality of Colombia's paramilitary forces have
become the chief concern of international human rights groups and, increasingly,
and U.S. officials who say the 8,000-member private army might pose the biggest obstacle to peace in the country's decades-old civil conflict.
This massacre, the largest of 23 mass killings attributed to the paramilitaries
this month, comes as international human rights groups push for the suspension
aid to the Colombian armed forces until the military shows progress on human rights. The armed forces, the chief beneficiary of the $1.3 billion U.S. anti-drug
assistance package known as Plan Colombia, deny using the paramilitaries as a shadow army against leftist guerrillas, turning a blind eye to their crimes or supporting
them with equipment, intelligence and troops.
But in Chengue (CHEN-gay), more than two dozen residents interviewed
in their burned-out homes and temporary shelters said they believe the
helped carry out the massacre.
In dozens of interviews, conducted in small groups and individually
over three days, survivors said military aircraft undertook surveillance
of the village in the days
preceding the massacre and in the hour immediately following it. The military, according to these accounts, provided safe passage to the paramilitary column and
effectively sealed off the area by conducting what villagers described as a mock daylong battle with leftist guerrillas who dominate the area.
"There were no guerrillas," said one resident, who has also told his
story to two investigators from the Colombian prosecutor general's human
rights office. "Their
motive was to keep us from leaving and anyone else from coming in until it was all clear. We hadn't seen guerrillas for weeks."
A 'Dirty War'
The rutted mountain track to Chengue provides a vivid passage into the
conflict consuming Colombia. Chengue and hundreds of villages like it are
the neglected and
forgotten arenas where illegal armed forces of the right and left, driven by a national tradition of settling political differences with violence, conduct what Colombians
call their "dirty war."
Despite peace talks between the government and the country's largest
guerrilla insurgency, more than 25,600 Colombians died violently last year.
Of those, 1,226
civilians -- a third more than the previous year -- died in 205 mass killings that have come to define the war. Leftist guerrillas killed 164 civilians last year in mass
killings, according to government figures, compared with 507 civilians killed in paramilitary massacres. More than 2 million Colombians have fled their homes to
escape the violence.
In this northern coastal mountain range, strategic for its proximity
to major transportation routes, all of Colombia's armed actors are present.
Two fronts of the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's oldest and largest leftist guerrilla insurgency with about 17,000 armed members, control the lush
hills they use to hide stolen cattle and victims of kidnappings-for-profit.
The privately funded United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by
the initials AUC in Spanish, patrols the rolling pastures and menaces the
provide the FARC with supplies. Paramilitary groups across Colombia have grown in political popularity and military strength in recent years as a counterweight to
the guerrillas, and obtain much of their funding from relations with drug traffickers. Here in Sucre province, ranchers who are the targets of the kidnappings and cattle
theft allegedly finance the paramilitary operations. AUC commander Carlos Castano, who has condemned the massacre here and plans his own investigation, lives a
few hours away in neighboring Cordoba province.
The armed forces, who are outnumbered by the leftist guerrillas in a
security zone that covers 9,000 square miles and includes more than 200
villages, are responsible
for confronting both armed groups. Col. Alejandro Parra, head of the navy's 1st Brigade, with responsibility for much of Colombia's northern coast, said the military
would need at least 1,000 more troops to effectively control the zone.
The military has prepared its own account of the events surrounding
the massacre at Chengue, which emptied this village of all but 100 of its
1,200 residents. Parra
confirmed elements of survivor accounts, but denied that military aircraft were in the area before or immediately after the killings. He said his troops' quick response
may have averted a broader massacre involving neighboring villages.
"They must have been confused about the time" the first helicopters
arrived, Parra said. "If there were any helicopters there that soon after
the massacre, they weren't
Three families have flourished in Chengue for generations, tending small
orchards of avocados renowned for their size and sweetness. The only residents
to the Oviedo, Lopez or Merino families are the farm workers who travel the lone dirt road that dips through town. The longest trip most inhabitants ever make is the
two-hour drive by jeep to Ovejas, the local government seat.
But in recent years the village, set in the Montes de Maria range, has
become a target on battle maps because of its strategic perch between the
Caribbean Sea and
the Magdalena River. Whoever controls the mountains also threatens the most important transportation routes in the north.
Villagers say FARC guerrillas frequently pass through seeking supplies.
Any support, many villagers say, is given mostly out of fear. As one 34-year-old
survived the massacre by scrambling out his back window said, "When a man with a gun knocks on your door at 11 at night wanting food and a place to sleep, he
becomes your landlord."
The AUC's Heroes of the Montes de Maria Front announced its arrival
in Chengue last spring with pamphlets and word-of-mouth warnings of a pending
paramilitaries apparently identified Chengue as a guerrilla stronghold -- a town to be emptied. The AUC's local commander, Beatriz, was once a member of the
FARC's 35th Front, which operates in the zone, military officials said. Ten months ago she quarreled with the FARC leadership for allegedly mishandling the group's
finances and defected to the AUC for protection and perhaps a measure of revenge.
In April, community leaders in Chengue and 20 other villages sent President
Andres Pastrana and the regional military command a letter outlining the
threat. "We have
nothing to do with this conflict," they wrote in asking for protection.
The letter was sent two months after the massacre of 36 civilians in
El Salado, a village about 30 miles southeast of here in Bolivar province
that is patrolled by the
same military command and paramilitary forces. But according to villagers and municipal officials in Ovejas, the request for help brought no response from the central
government or the navy's 1st Brigade, which is based in the city of Sincelejo 25 miles south of here.
In October, the villagers repeated their call for help in another letter
to Pastrana, regional military leaders, international human rights groups
and others. Municipal
officials met with members of the 1st Brigade in November, but said no increased military presence materialized. In fact, municipal officials said, the 5th Marine
Infantry Battalion seemed to stop patrolling the village.
Six Chengue residents who signed the letter died in the massacre. Col.
Parra said the requests for help were among dozens received at brigade
headquarters in the
past year, but that manpower shortages made it impossible to respond to every one.
"What is clear is that the government and [the military] knew about
the evidence of a possible massacre and did nothing," said a municipal
official in Ovejas, who like
many interviewed in the aftermath of the slaughter requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. "The military seemed to clear out of the zone."
After weeks of not seeing any sign of the military, villagers said a
small, white propeller plane swooped low over the village on Jan. 14, three
days before the
massacre. They identified the aircraft as the same plane used to drop anti-guerrilla pamphlets three months earlier -- a "psychological operation," Parra confirmed,
although he denied knowledge of this particular flight. The low-altitude pass left the farmers uneasy.
Over the next two nights, as darkness fell on the village, residents
said two green military helicopters passed over in slow circles. "They
are the same ones I'd seen
pass by before, but just coming and going, not circling," said a young mother. "We didn't know what they were doing."
Seven hours after the helicopters left the second time, the power went
out in Chengue, Salitral and a series of neighboring villages that had
warned of a pending
paramilitary attack. Villagers noted the time somewhere between 1:30 and 2 a.m. because, as one woman remembered, "the dogs started barking when the house
lights went out." Some villagers lit candles. Most remained asleep.
In the blackness, the paramilitary column dressed in Colombian army
uniforms moved along the dirt road from the west, arriving between 4 and
4:30 a.m., villagers
said. The column was led by Beatriz, whom military officials said is a nurse by training; witnesses said the men in her command addressed her as "doctora."
The column stopped at the gray concrete home of Jaime Merino, the first
on the road, and kicked in the door. They seized him and three workers,
Miguel Romero, who picked avocados to pay for medical treatment for his infant daughter.
They were led down the steep dirt road into the village, past the church
and school, and to a small terrace above the square where they waited.
Three brothers from
the green house on the square, a father and two sons from the sky blue house across the square, and Nestor Merino, a mentally ill man who hadn't left his home in
four months, all joined them in the flickering darkness.
When the men arrived for Rusbel Oviedo Barreto, 23, his father blocked the door.
"They pushed me away," said Enrique al Alberto Oviedo Merino, 68. "I
was yelling not to take him, and they were saying 'we'll check the computer.'
There was no
computer. They were mocking us. They took my identification card and said they would know me the next time."
Cesar Merino awoke on his farm above the village, and peering down,
saw the town below lit by candles. His neighbors, 19-year-old Juan Carlos
and his younger brother Elkin, were also awake. The three men, who worked the same avocado farm, walked down the hillside into town. Elkin, 15, was the
youngest to die.
On the far side of town, where the road bends up and out toward Ovejas,
the paramilitaries gathered Cesar Merino's cousin, Andres Merino, and his
son, Cristobal. One of them, father or son, watched the other die before his own execution.
Human rights workers and survivors speculated that the paramilitaries,
who were armed with automatic rifles, used stones to kill the men to heighten
the horror of the
message to surrounding villages and to maintain a measure of silence in a guerrilla zone.
The work was over within an hour and a half. As the column prepared
to leave, according to several witnesses, one militiaman used a portable
radio to make a call.
No transmission was intercepted that morning by military officials, although their log of the proceeding weeks showed numerous intercepts of FARC radio traffic.
Then the men smashed the town's only telephone and set the village on fire.
The hillside was full of hiding villagers, many of whom say that between
15 and 30 minutes later two military helicopters arrived overhead and circled
minutes. The sun was beginning to rise.
"They would have been able to see [the paramilitaries] clearly at that hour," said one survivor, who has fled to Ovejas. "Why didn't they catch anyone?"
Human rights officials say the described events resemble those surrounding
the massacre last year in El Salado. Gen. Rodrigo Quinones was the officer
in charge of
the security zone for Chengue and El Salado at that time, and remained in that post in the months leading up to the Chengue massacre. He left the navy's 1st Brigade
last month to run a special investigation at the Atlantic Command in Cartagena, from where military flights in the zone are directed.
In a report issued this month, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch
and the Washington Office on Latin America called specifically for Quinones's
As a regional head of naval intelligence in the early 1990s, Quinones was linked to the killings of 57 trade unionists, human rights workers and activists. He was
acquitted by a military court. According to the human rights report, a civilian judge who reviewed the case was "perplexed" by the verdict, saying he found the
evidence of Quinones's guilt "irrefutable."
El Salado survivors said a military plane and helicopter flew over the
village the day of the massacre, and that at least one wounded militiaman
was transported from
the site by military helicopter. Soldiers under Quinones's command sealed the village for days, barring even Red Cross workers from entering.
"We are very worried and very suspicious about the coincidences," said
Anders Kompass, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights representative
Colombia. "This involves the same officer in charge, the same kind of military activity before and after the massacre, and the same lack of military presence while it
was going on."
'There Is a Terror Here'
During the two hours following the killings, survivors emerged from
hiding and into the shambles of their village. Eliecer Lopez Oviedo, a
66-year-old Chengue native,
said his son arrived at his small farm at 9 a.m.
"He told me they had burned Chengue, killed my brothers, my sister and
my niece," he said. "I arrived there to find that they hadn't killed the
women. But my three
brothers were above the square, dead."
What Oviedo and others found were two piles of bodies -- 17 on the dirt
terrace above the square, seven in front of the health center. Cristobal
hat, torn and bloody, lay near his body. The rocks used in the killings remained where they were dropped. The bodies of Videncio Quintana Barreto and Pedro
Arias Barreto, killed along with fathers and brothers, were found later in shallow graves.
Ash from more than 20 burning houses floated in the hot, still air.
Graffiti declaring "Get Out Marxist Communist Guerrillas," "AUC" and "Beatriz"
across the walls of vacant houses. "The bodies were all right there for us to see, and I knew all of them," said a 56-year Chengue resident whose brother and
brother-in-law were among the dead. "Now there is a terror here."
Officials at the 1st Brigade said they were alerted at 8:45 a.m. when
the National Police chief for Sucre reported a possible paramilitary "incursion"
According to a military log, Parra dispatched two helicopters to the village at 9:30 a.m. and the Dragon company of 80 infantry soldiers based in nearby Pijiguay five
minutes later. Villagers said the troops did not arrive for at least another two hours.
When they did arrive, according to logs and soldiers present that day,
a gun battle erupted with guerrillas from the FARC's 35th Front. Parra
said he sealed the roads
into the zone "to prevent the paramilitaries from escaping." The battle lasted all day -- the air force sent in one Arpia and three Black Hawk helicopters at 2:10 p.m.,
according to the military -- and village residents waved homemade white flags urging the military to stop shooting. No casualties were reported on either side. No
paramilitary troops were captured.
Three days later, the 1st Brigade announced the arrest of eight people
in connection with the killings. They were apprehended in San Onofre, a
town 15 miles from
Chengue known for a small paramilitary camp that patrols nearby ranches. Villagers say that, though they didn't see faces that morning because of the darkness, these
"old names" are scapegoats and not the men who killed their families.
A steady flow of traffic now moves toward Ovejas, jeeps stuffed with
everything from refrigerators to pool cues to family pictures. The marines
have set up two base
camps in Chengue -- one under a large shade tree behind the village, the other in the vacant school. The remaining residents do not mix with the soldiers.
"We have taken back this town," said Maj. Alvaro Jimenez, standing in
the square two days after the massacre. "We are telling people we are here,
that it is time to
reclaim their village."
No one plans to. Marlena Lopez, 52, lost three brothers, a nephew, a
brother-in-law and her pink house. Her brother, Cesar Lopez, was the town
operator. He fled, she said, "with nothing but his pants."
In the ashes of her home, she weeps about the pain she can't manage. "We are humble people," she said. "Why in the world are we paying for this?"