PUERTO RICO, Colombia — It’s a sweltering afternoon and two young women cool off with a juice at a bright green-painted store and watering hole as a few mules relax in the shade. The peaceful scene typical of any tropical village in Colombia makes it hard to imagine this as the site of one of the most-remembered massacres in the country’s bloody civil conflict.
At around 2:40 p.m. on May 24, 2005, members of an elite guerrilla platoon swept silently into town by boat, hopped on the back of a red pickup truck and drove a few blocks through a small police barrier to a house where a town hall meeting was taking place. They burst in with a machine gun spraying bullets and in less than 10 minutes killed seven people, including four city council members.
“They entered without God or law and started firing in every direction,” remembers Maria Luisa Celis, who survived the attack on her fellow council members by hiding in the kitchen.
As President Juan Manuel Santos prepares to sign a historic peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, those who for years who were besieged by guerrillas operating nearby are uneasy about the future. While opinion is divided in this town ahead of an Oct. 2 referendum on the accord, even supporters resent seeing guerrilla commanders who terrorized their town for years now touting themselves as peacemakers and being rewarded with a political future.
FARC leaders on Friday gave their unanimous support to the peace agreement at their final conference as a guerrilla army, taking place in a vast savannah one town away.
“The war is over,” said rebel leader known by his alias Ivan Marquez.
“Tell Mauricio Babilonia that he can let loose the yellow butterflies,” said Marquez, referring to a fictional character in Nobel prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “100 Hundred Years of Solitude.”
The FARC has apologized and met with victims of other emblematic killings, but has never said it’s sorry or explained its motives for the attack in the town of Puerto Rico. But local residents believe it may have had to do with the community’s close association with the Turbay family, a local political dynasty whose prominent members were all wiped out by the guerrillas.
“The FARC wanted to annihilate the Turbay family,” said Wilmar Castro, an official who now works for the city council.
The province of Caqueta, where Puerto Rico is located, has long been a FARC stronghold. Marquez, the chief rebel negotiator, was born in Caqueta. Two of his comrades on the seven-member secretariat, the group’s top decision-making body, have deep roots in the province.
It’s also the base of operations for one of the FARC’s most-violent units, the Teofilo Forero mobile column, which carried out the attack on Puerto Rico as well as the kidnapping of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and the bombing of an elite social club in Bogota that left 36 dead.
The 2005 massacre was neither the town’s first nor its last brush with political violence. Two other council members had been killed earlier in 2005 and the remaining seven, including Celis, fled the town with their families after the attack. Some 200 residents reportedly took up exile in Canada. Three of the town’s mayors were also killed by the FARC between 2001 and 2009.
The number of violent attacks on the town has declined in recent years as the U.S.-backed military offensive over the past decade pushed the rebels deeper into the jungle. Residents say they’re no longer afraid to speak freely against the warlords and the last major security incident, when police found a vehicle carrying almost a ton of explosives near the town, occurred over a year ago.
But the FARC’s presence is still felt. Castro, who arrived in the town in 2008, says that a few weeks ago guerrillas told shopkeepers in a rural area that they needed to fork up cash to the FARC in the form of “peace contributions.” In July, the FARC’s maximum commander, alias Timochenko, ordered his troops to stop extorting all businesses in areas where it is dominant.
“Even those selling hot dogs had to pay vaccines,” Castro said, using a popular slang term to describe extortion payments collected by the FARC. “The guerrillas are used to mocking the state and society.”
Resentment is also directed toward the government. Celis said she’s seen no assistance despite having to uproot her family. She and others have sued the state for neglecting its duty to provide protection for city officials.
On the day of the attack, there was no sign of police even though because of security concerns the town hall meeting had been moved a block away from the police station to the house that is now being used as a store. The government agency that attends to needs of the conflict’s millions of victims did not immediately return a request for comment.
Whether or not the town endorses the peace deal in the referendum, residents say they don’t believe the FARC will change.
Gildardo Martinez, a barber and brother of a council member killed before the 2005 attack, said he still doesn’t know how he’ll vote.
“God says we have to forgive and I’m very faithful,” said Martinez during a short conversation between two haircuts. “But I’ll never forget how they assassinated my sister.”
AP Writer Libardo Cardona contributed to this report from Bogota, Colombia.