Christian Aid backs personal quest for justice in Colombia

By agency reporter
May 28, 2008

Ten years on from a terrible act of violence in conflict-torn Colombia, the UK-based international development agency Christian Aid is supporting the victims' families in their quest for justice.

The paramilitaries had been following the man involved for a few days before a reliable source gave him the message: "We’re going to kill David Ravelo".

This was in February 2008, and it was not the first time that David Ravelo Crespo had been threatened. For 10 years his organisation Credhos, which is supported by church and civil society groups, has been demanding answers in the case of a horrific massacre in the northern Colombian town of Barrancabermeja - a campaign that has made David a target of the gunmen.

In May 1998, 50 heavily armed men went through the town killing seven people and taking away 25 more at gunpoint. They claimed they were taking people who supported the anti-government guerrillas, but in reality it was arbitrary. Some were still schoolchildren.

Ten years on, the families still don’t know what happened to their children, or why some of their relatives were killed. The bodies of the disappeared have never been found and none of the people who ordered the killings have answered for their actions.

It is unlikely that the paramilitary group could have carried out the massacre without the knowledge or support of the state’s armed forces, or at best without them turning a blind eye.

On top of the pain of seeing a loved one killed, or the agony of not knowing for sure what has happened to them, these families face the fear and danger of threats and violence. Two of the key witnesses were assassinated in the aftermath of the massacre. Three of the families have had to leave the town, for their own safety.

This year, as they campaign with Credhos for truth, justice and compensation on the tenth anniversary of the atrocity, they still live in fear of reprisals, says Christian Aid.

But according to the government there are no paramilitaries anymore. In theory, none of the threats and harassment should be happening.

Over the last few years, paramilitary groups in the area have laid down their guns as part of a government scheme. While victims and their relatives receive no compensation, paramilitaries are offered 18 months pay at the minimum wage, and a chance to start again with a clean slate.

A Christian Aid spokesperson commented: "The Barrancabermeja case is by no means unique in Colombia and Credhos is not the only human rights organisation that we support. These groups are doing vital work in standing up to human rights abuses.

"But so long as the government gives people the clear message that you can kill indiscriminately, and still get away with it, we ask the question: how can there be any peace or resolution?"

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