Four soldiers convicted in massacre of San Josè de Apartadò

The Superior Court of Antioquia convicted four soldiers in the massacre of San Josè de Apartadò, perpetrated by the AUC. Human rights advocates, feeling that justice has still not been carried out, will bring the case to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

In front of the Justice Building in Medellín, a banner honors the victims of crimes committed by the AUC.  

On Aug. 4, 2010, the Second Criminal Court of the Specialized Circuit of Antioquia acquitted 10 soldiers in a massacre carried out in February 2005 by the Bloque Hèroes de Tolovà of the AUC, during a joint patrol with army troops in which 8 people of the town of San Josè de Apartadò were murdered, including three children.  

Luis Eduardo Guerra, Sandra Milena Muñoz, Alejandro Pèrez, Bellanira Areiza and Alfonso Bolívar Tuberquia were murdered along with 11-year-old Deiner Andrés Guerra, 5-year-old Natalia Tuberquia and 21-month-old Santiago Tuberquia.  

The 10 soldiers were initially acquitted, according to the court, because the prosecution failed to establish the existence of a conspiracy between army troops and paramilitaries, as well as any responsibility of the troops in the crimes committed by the paramilitaries.

The Public Prosecutor and Attorney General appealed the decision. After reviewing the case, the Superior Court of Antioquia overturned the acquittal in the case of four higher-ranking soldiers, and affirmed the original acquittal of the other six.

In its 106-page opinion, the Court declared first-lieutenant Alejandro Jaramillo Giraldo, sargeant Darìo José Brango Agamez and second-lieutenants Jorge Humberto Milanes Vega and Édgar García Estupiñán guilty of homicide and aggravated conspiracy.

The Second Specialized Court had said originally that “the fact that these two organizations, one lawful and the other unlawful, had patrolled together is unusual, but insufficient to establish the existence of a criminal agreement. Therefore, the accused did not have the knowledge of the possible commission of conduct punishable by law.”

For the Superior Court, however, “when members of the National Army accepted to patrol with members of the illegal group, it constituted the crime of conspiracy.” During the judicial process, a former paramilitary member said that on occasion paramilitary groups and soldiers would march interspersed, while other times they would advance 10 to 20 minutes apart.

For this reason the Court sentenced the four soldiers to 34 years in prison, disqualified them from holding public office for 15 years and fined them 18,666 times the 2005 minimum wage.

The Court confirmed the acquittal of sergeant Henry Agudelo Cuasmayan, Corporal Sabarín Cruz Reina, lieutenant Orlando Espinosa Beltrán and major José Fernando Castaño López.

“The commanders of these respective groups were responsible, because they had the voice of authority and could have avoided the joint patrol,” the Court said, adding that the others could not have opposed the rest of their peers and the paramilitaries.

The appeal also requested that the trial include the testimony of extradited paramilitary boss Diego Fernando Murillo (alias `Don Berna`), but the Court agreed with the original ruling discarding it.

For the Court, “this testimony … is surprising to the defense and above all violates its right of contradiction. The trial began Sept. 14, 2006, and the document containing the statement was received Jan. 7, 2010, after three hearings had occurred.”

Former captain Guillermo Gordillo Sánchez, who admitted to his participation in the events and accepted a plea bargain, was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Initially following the massacre, then-president Álvaro Uribe pointed to Frente 5 of the FARC as culpable, but after testimony of former paramilitary members of Bloque Héroes of Tolová, it became clear that it was carried out by various paramilitary groups, in collusion with members of the Army.    

One of these men was José Luis Salgado David (alias `Kiko`), who described how the children had been murdered: “they were under the bed. The girl was very nice, five or six years old, and the little boy was also curious. We proposed to the bosses to leave them in a neighboring house, but they said that they were a risk, that in the future they would become guerrillas.”

Paramilitary members Adriano José Cano Arteaga (alias `Melaza`) and Joel José Vargas (alias ´Pirulo´) admitted to their responsibility in the crimes before judicial authorities.

These confessions allowed the prosecution to issue a warrant for the arrest of former captain Gordillo Sánchez and open an investigation into 66 soldiers from the Seventeenth Army Brigade based in Carepa.

Human rights defense organizations have also denounced the participation of generals Mario Montoya, Jamie Fandiño and Luis Alfonso Zapata, in addition to colonels Néstor Iván Duque and Orlando Espinosa.

For this reason, lawyer Jorge Molano, who represents the civil side of the process, said that despite the conviction of four soldiers, “it indicates the impunity of these superiors. For this reason, it is necessary to ask the ICC to investigate the case of Colombia and these generals and colonels, given the crimes against humanity in San José de Apartadó.”