Luz Almanza, Jaime Peña and Rocio Campos have more in common than living around the same football field, the site of one of Colombia’s most horrific massacres. On 16 May 1998, all three lost a family member. Their organizing in search of the disappeared and defiance of state impunity is what binds them.
In a little over an hour, in the southeastern Comuna 7 of Barrancabermeja, forty armed men — a mix of right wing paramilitary, police, state intelligence (DAS) and military personnel — killed seven persons and disappeared twenty-five. The United Self-Defense Forces of Santander and Cesar (Autodefensas Unidas de Santander y Cesar -AUSAC) a regional paramilitary group conducted a coordinated massacre to purge the city of guerillas and their sympathizers, in what marked the beginning of the paramilitary takeover of the oil capital.
All three recount feeling less anxiety when they saw state armed forces. They assumed it was a search operation, a common occurrence in a neighborhood controlled by left-wing guerrillas at the time. Almanza recalls calling out to an officer wearing a DAS vest and arm band when she saw them roughing up a man, “Sir, why are you abusing the community?” Turning around he responded, “Go back before something happens,” leaving her in a state of complete surprise.
“I never imagined this would happen in the company of the armed forces,” she says, obviously still shaken after twenty years.
Almanza was at a fundraiser bazaar, located at the northern corner of the football field. The armed men surrounded the field at 9:20 p.m. and began pulling people out onto the field from the surrounding shops and stalls. Mario Jaimes Mejía, a paramilitary commander, also known as “El Panadero,” stood in the middle of the field and began shouting, “Depart guerillas, sons of bitches! Today you all die! The war has come to you!”
He then ordered approximately 100 people to lie face down as masked men began identifying alleged guerilla members and loading them onto one of the two trucks. Pedro Julio Rendón refused to cooperate. His throat was slit on the spot.
Witnessing this brutality, Almanza recalls, “I got scared. The police are killing us — the army is killing us.”
She began to lead people to shelter in her house nearby and kept thinking to herself, “This was my peace, that [my husband] was not here. My family and brothers had not come to the bazaar.” Just as she got home, she was told that the paramilitary group had taken her husband, Ricky Nelson García, from his motorcycle workshop.
“My God, hopefully nothing bad is going to happen,” she thought, as she ran by the truck being loaded with people near the workshop.
Around the corner, Jaime Peña had just gone to bed after watching a telenovela with his family. His son, Jaime Yesid Peña, 16, was in the front yard with his friends when a barking dog awakened him. “I was shocked by the way he barked,” the father recalls. “I got up and from the door I saw my son being taken away. There was a guy behind him pointing a rifle at his back. I shouted, ‘Hey Yesid, what’s going on?’ He tried to answer me, but the guy did not allow him. He pushed the rifle deeper into his back and pushed him.”
The commander from the local military base, Nueva Granada, had issued Order No. 100 — a command to install a military checkpoint a few blocks away at “El Reten.” The order was based on intelligence that a threat of a paramilitary incursion was imminent. The checkpoint was installed at 6:00 a.m. on the 16th of May and was supposed to be maintained for twenty-four hours. During the day the police and military patrolled the area regularly. Without known reason, the checkpoint was removed at 9:00 p.m. and the paramilitary incursion began at 9:30 p.m. In later legal testimony, it was discovered that the police had allowed for the massacre to take place under condition that AUSAC leave no bodies behind.
“I thought at the time that it was the armed forces because there was movement all day,” remembers Peña.
“I’m going to the football field to bring him back,” he thought. “They’re asking for papers. My son is a minor and a student.”
As Peña began running to the football field, he saw the truck and armed men, and one of them had the letters “DAS” inscribed on the back of his vest. “This reassured me that it was the armed forces,” he recalls. He overheard that someone had been beheaded, and that the armed men were the Masetos, a paramilitary group from the region, also known as AUSAC.
“I thought, hopefully it’s not my son,” Peña says.“When I reach the place where the boy was beheaded, I bent over to take a look. He was not my son.”
As he ran back to wake up his wife, he heard a burst of gunfire in the distance while a neighbor shouted over at him, “They beat up your son to force him into the truck.”
A block away from the gunfire, Daniel Campos was getting ready to teach waltz lessons for a quinceañera party and had gone into a neighbor’s billiards parlor to use the their cassette player. Rocio Campos, his sister, was a couple houses down the street when she heard her brother shout, “Why are you pushing me? Don’t push me, I haven’t done anything. Look, I have my papers here!”
Campos was confused. She saw an armed person wearing a DAS vest when her brother-in-law slammed the doors and windows shut.
She shouted at him, “Why are you closing it? That’s Daniel’s voice!”
“No, do not go out!” he said. “Do not go out! Some of those strange guys are out there. It might be Daniel, but we’re not sure.”
She managed to shout through the window, “Let him go, bastard!” At that moment, Daniel’s captor hit him with the butt of the gun on the back of his neck, knocking him to the ground. This was the “worst pain” to see him “get hit unjustly,” and hear her brother say, “Do not hit me. I haven’t done anything!”
The billiards parlor owner, had tried to hide Daniel but was himself forced to his knees with the tip of the rifle stuck in his mouth.
These were the last moments Luz Almanza, Jaime Peña and Rocio Campos saw their husband, son and brother.
By 10:20 p.m. the armed men had left, and the families of the victims began their search. Peña went to the police station. As he began recounting the incident, the phone rang. The officer answered, “Yes commander, everything’s under control. There’s no news … We left because there was nothing to do.”
Almanza took a motorbike and went to one of the two military bases, 150 meters away, asking for help. She says, “The soldier told me they didn’t have authorization to leave [their base to help].”
Campos, along with her mother, went to the police station, where they were told, “Ma’am, no one has been brought here. Better wait till tomorrow morning for fresh meat at the Foronda.” The Foronda was a popular funeral home because it served everyone, even the most poor.
In the wake of the massacre, Barrancabermeja changed. Thousands of people poured out onto the streets to demand that the twenty-five disappeared persons be returned. The Oil Workers Union (USO), Coordinadora Popular and other human rights organizations, shut the city down, forcing the government to respond to the demands of the public. The shutting down of Ecopetrol, the country’s largest oil refinery, nearly brought the country to a standstill.
Witness and judicial testimony indicate the massacre took place between two military bases with the planning and support of the police, military and DAS. “The material authors are imprisoned, but the intellectual authors, where are they?,” asked Peña. “The paramilitaries held meetings in the neighborhood of Rosario inside Ecopetrol where several of the city’s main businessmen paid a monthly quota to the paramilitaries for the maintenance of the project.”
Challenging state impunity has been costly. Almanza wanted nothing to do with the conflict. “I held back a lot and did not want to go anywhere,” she says. “Those who went out to the marches and the protests were my father-in-law and sisters-in-law.” Two years later, her father-in-law was assassinated. He told her, “Dear daughter, if something happens to me, fight to find my son. Don’t leave him where they dumped him. Fight to find him!”
Demanding answers for Campos cost her a partnership — a phenomenon of injustice often forced upon human rights defenders, that of having to choose between family and the struggle. “He [my ex-husband] told me that I had to choose between my home and my brother,” Campos says. “I told him, ‘No. I’m sorry, but I met my brother first. He is my blood. If it’s going to be this way, I’d prefer to be alone because I have the support of my family.”
“It’s a very big price, but I have never regretted it,” Campos reflects. “I always ask God to be able to find a little bone. Even if it is the little one, that is the smallest, but at least that is going to be part of my healing and my repair.”
Peña lives with state-issued protective measures. On his way to Havana, Cuba, to represent the victims of the armed conflict during the peace negotiations between the FARC-EP and the government, he received threatening phone calls in his hotel room, even though supposedly no one knew where he was staying. He went on to testify, “I was not a victim of the FARC. I am a victim of state crimes.”
The massacre marked the beginning the paramilitary takeover of Barrancabermeja. With subsequent massacres in 1999 and 2000, by the end of the year they had complete control of the city. The brutality of the massacre was designed both to guarantee territorial and resource control and to, break down the social fabric and highly organized popular sectors of the city through terror.
Even though the Interamerican Court for Human Rights held the state responsible as one of the primary actors in the massacre — which they called a “Crime Against Humanity” — according to the Rome Statute of Internal Criminal Court the victims’ families still have not received justice.
The remains of Ricky Nelson García were found in an exhumation conducted by the Attorney General’s office in 2008 and returned to Almanza.
“I speak with anger and resentment,” says Almanza. “When they talk to me about ‘reconciliation,’ I still do not relate to the word reconcile. Until we know the truth from the perpetrators, and we have justice, I cannot talk about reconciliation and forgiveness.”
“We are fighting against the biggest monster that is the government,” she says. “The state has so much power it can assassinate anyone at anytime. It can take away life.”
Seventeen persons are still missing. Jaime Yesid Peña and Daniel Campos are among them.