Ten Colombian soldiers have been acquitted of the 2005 murder of eight people, including three children, from the San Jose de Apartado peace community.
The soldiers, of whom the highest ranking is Lieutenant Colonel Orlando Espinosa Beltran, were accused of the murder of protected persons, acts of barbarism, and conspiracy.
Residents of San Jose de Apartado, Antioquia, in north-west Colombia, declared themselves a “peace community” in 1997 in an attempt to resist being drawn into Colombia’s armed conflict. They were placed under the protection of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. On 21 February, 2005, eight members of the community were brutally slaughtered and dismembered. The dead included children of 2, 6 and 11 years old.
Five paramilitaries and one army captain have already been convicted for the massacre. Captain Guillermo Gordillo is serving 20 years in prison, while members of the Uraba and Heroes de Tolova blocs of the AUC face up to 40 years. Gordillo pleaded guilty to the killings, and testified that more than 100 Colombian soldiers were accompanying around 50 members of AUC on a patrol when the massacre took place.
But in Friday’s ruling the court found that, while the army was patrolling with the paramilitaries, the paramilitaries took a different route and committed the massacre, which the army only found out about after it had taken place.
“This creates in me a feeling of deep sadness, after all that fighting to have justice,” said Gloria Cuartas, former mayor of Apartado, reports El Tiempo.
Cuartas said that the sentence is inexplicable, given that there are soldiers and paramilitaries who have already admitted their guilt in the massacre.
The lawyer for one of the accused expressed his satisfaction at the decision, praising the court for overcoming the “political pressure” and “media war” to convict.
During the trial, the court heard that the Colombian army had hired paramilitaries as guides to lead soldiers to a FARC settlement, but the paramilitaries had instead gone to the homes of members of the local peace community. The soldiers entered the houses and tortured and killed the inhabitants.
Colombian authorities initially blamed the FARC for the massacre, and claimed that the 17th Brigade was not in the area at the time. Allegations surfaced last year that the army bribed witnesses to accuse the guerrillas of the crime.
Demobilized paramilitaries have accused the army of being complicit in the massacre and of helping to cover it up, and identified Captain Gordillo and members of his 17th Brigade as having being involved.
The acquittal can be appealed.