Colombia’s Supreme Court of Justice has declared that three paramilitary massacres committed between 1996 and 1998 were ‘crimes of lesser humanity’, the equivalent of crimes against humanity. Additionally, the court gave the same status to the 1998 murder of lawyer Jesús María Valle, who had denounced the expansion of paramilitary networks in Antioquia, where the massacres occurred.
The categorisation as crimes of lesser humanity means that investigations will remain open and be treated as priority cases. The Supreme Court decision comes as investigations continue into alleged links between paramilitary groups and the former president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, who at the time of the massacres was the governor of Antioquia. Imprisoned paramilitary leaders involved in the crimes have said that Uribe was closely involved in the formation of their organisations.
Jesús María Valle was murdered in February 1998 while working with other human rights lawyers to oppose the spread of paramilitary violence in Antioquia. According to Valle, a ‘tacit agreement’ existed between Governor Uribe, senior military and police officials and paramilitary commanders to support and conduct paramilitary operations in the region. According to paramilitary leader Don Berna, Pedro Moreno ordered the lawyer’s murder. Moreno died in an air accident in 2006.
In 2006, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the Colombian state was responsible for the massacres. On 22 October 1997, around 150 paramilitaries entered the community of El Aro, where over several days they executed at least 17 people. One victim was publically tied to a tree and brutally tortured before being killed, according to Colombia’s Centre of Historical Memory. The paramilitaries also burnt 42 of the 60 houses, stole more than 1,000 heads of cattle and forcibly displaced over 700 residents.
According to paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso, who in 2008 was extradited to the United States, a government helicopter hovered over the zone while the killings were being carried out. Mancuso also alleges that Uribe’s secretary, Pedro Moreno, was aware of the paramilitary raid in advance. Another paramilitary leader, Francisco Enrique Villalba, said that Uribe and his brother Santiago both knew of the plans to commit the massacre.
The Supreme Court ruling stipulates that the moral and physical authors of the massacre must be investigated to establish the truth over what happened and to compensate victims.
On 11 June 1996, paramilitaries killed at least five residents of the town of La Granja after accusing them of guerrilla sympathies. The victims were tortured and killed in front of their families. The Colombian Attorney General later found that the victims were peasant farmers and had no links to guerrilla movements. in 2015, a Colombian judge ruled that Uribe must be investigated over the massacre.