The Alto Naya Massacre: Another Paramilitary Outrage
The district of Alto Naya on the border of the southwestern Colombian departments of Cauca and Valle experienced a savage three day paramilitary onslaught between April 10 and 13 leaving an estimated 120 people dead and more than 4,000 displaced. The episode has once again exposed not only the inhuman brutality of the paramilitary death squads (witnessed on an almost daily basis), but also the complicity of the Colombian Armed Forces and the negligence of the Colombia State with regards to adequately defending the basic human rights of its citizens.
“The remains of a woman were exhumed. Her abdomen was cut open with a chainsaw. A 17-year-old girl had her throat cut and both hands also amputated.”
Eduardo Cifuentes, National Ombudsman
Paramilitary activity in the area began on April 10 when peasants sighted a group of 90 men who were later confirmed, by both local guerrilla units and other peasants, to be part of a much larger paramilitary unit consisting of over 400 men in one large and two smaller contingents. Eyewitness Delio Chate said that the killing began on April 11 when death-squads entered his village, as well as the villages of El Ceral, La Silvia, La Mina, El Playa, Alto Seco and Palo Grande among others. According to Chate, the paramilitaries dragged people accused of being guerrilla sympathizers into the street and killed them.
In the tiny village of Patiobonito the death squads killed 7, including a local shopkeeper accused of selling food and supplies to the guerrillas and an indigenous council worker, Cayetano Pilcue, who was murdered for possessing a mobile phone. The other five victims were all members of the same indigenous family: Daniel Suarez, his wife Flor Dizut and their 3 nephews; William, Fredy and Gonzalo Osorio Lopez.
On April 12 residents who had managed to escape the area raised the alarm and the departmental authorities began to take an interest. Peasants fleeing the region that evening testified that the paramilitaries had killed at least 23 people and were giving all the other residents five hours to pack up and leave the district. By midnight on April 12 approximately 170 families had fled.
Also on the April 12, witnesses reported seeing a joint force of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation army (ELN) guerrillas moving into the region, apparently with the intent of confronting the paramilitaries and preventing further deaths. The military later claimed, and indeed still does, that the majority of the deaths in Alto Naya resulted from subsequent confrontations between this guerrilla force and the death squads. However, every other source denies the military’s account of the massacre.
By the morning of April 13 it had become clear that there was a large-scale massacre going on and the Cauca People’s Defender, Victor Javier Melendez, requested that the military intervene. He received no response. In the early evening there were reports that Luis Ipia, Humberto Arias Agudelo, Manuel Tiguana, Esteban Delgado, Luis Omar Aponza, Wilson Casos and Guillermo Trujillo, all from in and around the village of Patiobonito, had been killed and by late evening the departmental authorities were confirming that there were at least 29 dead.
By April 14, 3,000 displaced people, mainly from the many Afro-Colombian and Paez indigenous communities in Alto Naya, had arrived in the nearby towns of Timba, (Cauca department) and Jamundi (Valle department). It is believed that on this date a further 4,000 people were trapped in the area by paramilitary roadblocks that were preventing anyone from entering or leaving the region. Consequently, the Attorney General, Alfonso Gomez, claimed it was difficult to quantify the exact number of dead and displaced “because we [hadn't] been able to reach the area.”
However, with investigations under way, the number of dead continued to increase and on May 2 the Attorney General’s investigators discovered another 20 bodies. Although total figures are still unknown, the Spanish-based Nizkor International Human Rights Team believes some 130 people had been assassinated during the 3-day rampage.
As pointed out by human rights investigators in the area, the task of giving exact numbers is an extremely difficult one because of the brutal methods deployed by the paramilitaries who severely mutilated and then hid the corpses of many of their victims. The National Ombudsman, Eduardo Cifuentes, described the remains of a 17-year-old girl who “had her throat cut and both hands also amputated,” and of another who had been decapitated. Many body parts were subsequently spread around the region and hidden in different locations, making identification and the counting of victims difficult.
“Now, of course, the army is there or is trying to get there, but they left us out there alone.”
Delio Chate, eyewitness
The paramilitary death squad that committed the Alto Naya massacre arrived in the region shortly after soldiers from the Colombian Army’s Third Brigade had left the area and not long after the paramilitaries had publicly threatened residents of the region. Armando Borrero, a former national security adviser, explains that this is a repetitive pattern, “The massacre is announced. There is information. But at the moment it occurs, apparently no [troops] are in the area where the danger was the greatest. Excuses are then made to explain the lack of presence.”
This analysis corresponds with the military’s reaction in Alto Naya with the army claiming that climatic conditions made it difficult to intervene. However the tone of General Francisco Pedraza, commander of the Third Brigade and himself strongly implicated in supporting paramilitary death squads, clearly illustrates the army’s indifference to the plight of Colombian civilians: “‘In Colombia, there are thousands of threats every day, when everything is urgent, nothing is urgent.” He added that suggestions of army complicity in the paramilitary attack were stories created by enemies of the army and the state.
Despite 15-days of warnings of an imminent paramilitary assault on Alto Naya and pleas from both area residents and international organizations for security units to be sent to the area, a military spokesman, Luis Enrique Hernandez, claimed the army had no prior knowledge of the attack and that army units in the area were too over-stretched to respond. It is interesting to note that when the FARC attacked the town of Funes in neighbouring Nariño department on April 13, as the massacre in Alto Naya was in full swing, the “over-stretched” Third Brigade, backed by helicopter gunships, responded within three hours.
Many observers believe Alto Naya was targeted because of the coca fields in the area and for its strategic location on a river used by guerrillas for transporting troops and arms. It is also claimed that the ELN hides kidnap victims in the region’s dense jungle. However, there is also speculation that the massacres and subsequent massive displacements could have been motivated by the large local deposits of natural resources, such as gold and precious woods, which are of interest to multinational companies. On a series of maps produced by mineworkers union, SINTRAMINERCOL, there appears an almost perfect correlation between paramilitary forced displacement and the existence of natural resources.
Even with the late arrival of the army in Alto Naya former residents are still afraid to return to their homes, believing that the army will not protect them should the death squads return. “I have no guarantees that I or my four sons will be safe if I go back,” explained farmer Luis Alberto Ganas, who had fled from the hamlet of La Paz. This fear proved to be well justified as less than 10 ten days after Alto Naya, paramilitaries murdered six members of the same family, including two children, in the La Cuchilla area, just 20 miles from the scene of the Alto Naya massacres.