Colombia may be ready to account for one of its darkest chapters. The country's attorney general issued arrest warrants last month for two retired army colonels and eight additional members of the security forces for their alleged involvement in a wave of political killings between 1988 and 1994. This is a big step. Whether it brings the killers to justice and changes Colombia's record on human rights remains to be seen.
As St. Petersburg Times Latin America correspondent David Adams reported this week from Trujillo, the 342 killings forever scarred that town in western Colombia. Anyone suspected of having leftist sympathies — from politicians to peasants — was at risk of being targeted, kidnapped, tortured and killed. Headless bodies cut up by chain saws would wash up on the banks of the Cauca River. The most gruesome was the murder of a Jesuit priest. He was snatched on his way to Mass and beheaded. The killings were traced to right-wing paramilitary groups that landowners fielded against left-wing guerillas. While the government accepted state responsibility for the crimes, no one was prosecuted.
But this year, Adams reports, the Trujillo killings were reopened after an independent report by a distinguished group of researchers. An analyst at the National Security Archive at George Washington University (www.gwu.edu), which publishes the Colombia Documentation Project, said reopening the case "is a very hopeful sign that the veil of impunity is being lifted."
The question is whether this new attention to the case will translate into an effort to find and prosecute the murderers. Declassified U.S. government documents reveal that American officials were worried that the Colombian military had "whitewashed" and "perverted" the investigation. Colombia rebuffed U.S. pressure to prosecute the case despite having evidence, key testimony and more than a dozen corroborating witnesses.
But the government's fresh interest in the Trujillo killings may be part of a larger effort to change Colombia's image on human rights. U.S.-based human rights groups are pressuring the government of President Alvaro Uribe to stamp out rights abuses by the security forces. There has been some progress, at least on the surface. Last week, two dozen officers and soldiers, including three generals and 11 colonels, were fired for their alleged role in a scandal over the execution of civilians. The growing furor led to the resignation last week of Colombia's army chief.
Uribe has promised a full investigation, but Washington needs to keep up the pressure. The goal here is not to prosecute one massacre at a time, but to change the human rights practices of the security forces. The surest way to dampen support for the leftist rebels is for the government to both respect human rights and hold those who abuse them accountable.