Past military operations in the Comuna 13 of Colombia’s second city Medellin have constituted grave violations of human rights and must be investigated, a local NGO said Monday.
“As representatives of the victims of Comuna 13, we are looking for significant advances in the theme of justice and clarification,” lawyer Adriana Arboleda of the Corporacion Juridica Libertad (Corporation for Judicial Freedom) told Colombia Reports.
Medellin last Tuesday commemorated the 10th anniversary of Operation Orion, a military offensive in 2002 in the western Comuna 13 that successfully removed left-wing rebels, but ended up installing paramilitary groups that today are still terrorizing the area.
In agreement with the testimonies received during the commemoration of victims and representatives of the organizations in control, the public forces used tanks and artillery helicopters to realize indiscriminate shootings that provoked damages, injuries (including children) and terror in the town, putting into question the legitimacy and legality of the actions.
“It is very important that it is known with clarity that the military operations were not processed and did not permit the pacification of Comuna 13, but by the contrary, constituted grave violations of human rights and ignorance of the constitutional norms that were obligated to fulfill by the military here in the country,” said Arboleda.
The acts of forced disappearance, executions, torture, harassment, and arbitrary detentions that were committed question the legitimacy of the use of the public forces in their conformation to the constitutional standards and international human rights, and seriously questions the official argument about the planning and conduct of Operation Orion, which had included an indiscriminate armed attack against a community life center.
“That which interests us is the joined performance of the public force with members of paramilitary groups…It is necessary that a process of trial investigation is advanced and a sanction of the crimes committed in the commune…there are high military of the army and of the police that were involved in these acts.”
The Comuna 13 zone has been notorious for its high levels of violence since 1999 when paramilitary groups began to take control of the neighborhood. The area is considered to be of strategic importance for drug traffickers given its access to the highways to the Caribbean.
According to the International Commission of Clarification, even 10 years down the road from Operation Orion, broad acts of police-military territorial deployment still persist, as do actions by various groups including paramilitary and criminal bands.
Inhabitants still don’t know why they were put in the middle of a battlefield, what happened to the people who disappeared since the four-day siege, and why paramilitary groups — and not the state forces — used the siege to consolidate disputed territory and imposed a terror the community had never before seen.
“There are many victims of forced disappearance that even today they have not advanced in their search, and obviously not in their finding,” said Arboleda.
“From the moment authorities were aware of the acts, from the prosecution, to the Inspector General’s Office and to other distinct entities, up to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights they have knowledge of the acts, what they have lacked is a political and judicial will, to really know what happened and be able to advance in the investigations.”
During the public audience to address victims of Comuna 13 on the 16, 17, and 18 of October, there were testimonies, documents and complaints about the appearance of mutilated and decapitated bodies, which speaks of the practice of torture previous to the extrajudicial execution; about the existence of clandestine pits to hide dead bodies; about destruction and burning of houses and the forced displacement of their residents; as well as forced recruitment, mostly among youth. All of these activities had the effect of destroying the social body of the community that was pre-existent in Comuna 13.
The commission also expressed their concern for the absence of procedural advancements in the criminal investigations that were denounced by the victims and their families, for whom the memories of horror are still present.
According to the Corporacion Juridica Libertad, some 140 people disappeared from the neighborhood between November 2002 and February 2003. Some media have claimed more than 300 people have disappeared from the Comuna 13 since Don Berna, leader of Medellin’s criminal gang Oficina de Envigado, took control.
The excessive homicide rate that spurred Orion returned after Don Berna’s extradition in 2008. Warring factions of the Oficina de Envigado, later joined by neo-paramilitary group the Urabeños, secured that by 2011 the Comuna 13’s homicide rate was higher than before the arrival of the paramilitaries.
“Comuna 13 continues being a scene of dispute between illegal actors of paramilitary structures that look to take territorial and social-economic control of the zone. As of now, there are clashes between the Urabeños and the Oficina de Envigado. Historically, the Oficina de Envigado controlled Comuna 13, however, the entrance of the Urabeños in the whole department and here in the city has created strong disputes in who has the zone in their control in the drive of the illegal economy,” said Arboleda.
Just on Sunday, a shooting between gang members and police in Comuna 13 left two policemen and one civilian dead.
In response to the acts of Sunday, Arboleda commented that now “there is a new victimization, Comuna 13 in the last years, 10 years after the military operations of 2002…there maintains clashes and the population continues being victims of aggression, of assassins, of forced displacement and threats….this prevents citizens from complaining of fear that is generated by the criminal structures in the zone.”