The desecration

[NOTE: I make no claim to the veracity of the narration below. This was conveyed to us during our visit.]

Our destination that day was the small village of Chámeza. This was the biggest of the small caserios (no more than a cross roads) that comprise the urban portion of the municipality of Chámeza.  At one time this hamlet had had a population of a couple of thousand people and included a church, a Telecom[1] a municipal building and a hotel.  It had served as the congregation center on Sundays for the dirt farmers and cattlemen of the Region.

While guerrilla activity had occurred for some time, both the government forces and the guerrilla had held an informal truce at the hamlet. Both sides had realized that terra franca in such isolated place would be of benefit to both sides. The local farmers that did not have a cause with either side had welcomed this agreement as beneficial to the social, civic and economic life of the area. The leftist guerrillas tolerated a church and the government offices and the government did not arrest the circumspect opponents that would arrive from the bush to buy food and other supplies. In short, it was an oasis of peace in a desert of discord and violence.

No one can really explain what happened but on a cruel Saturday, a drunken soldier had shot the son of a guerrilla cadre in a personal confrontation, and the young man had died in the street while the population in the hamlet hid in inaction. The garrison commander arrested the soldier and made a big production of condemning the action publicly, to no avail….

The next day while most residents were in church, a guerrilla force assaulted the government garrison. In quick succession they executed the soldier that had killed the son of the guerrilla cadre. They offered the enlisted men the option of joining their group and summarily executed the ones that didn’t.

Upon hearing of these acts, the hamlet residents that were not in the church building quickly retreated there. Probably believing in the “law of sanctuary” so prevalent in catholic countries, they assumed that the guerrillas would leave them be after exacting their revenge from the government troops.  The doors of the church were locked and the people decided to wait it out.

The guerrilla leader arrived at the church and when not able to enter went into a fit or rage.  He demanded access to the church, but the people inside, believing that allowing access would relinquish any leverage they had, refused to open the doors. He went into a fit of rage and gathered those from the garrison that had joined his ranks. He asked them to influence their friends inside to open the door and leave the building. After a short time, half a dozen people were allowed to leave the building, but the doors were again locked. For the next 45 minutes, while their leader was having some liquid refreshment and pondering what to do next, the crowd outside continued in an effort to get those inside to allow access to the guerrillas.

Losing patience, the guerrilla leader finally ordered his men to break down the door.  His men while imbibing large amounts of home made liquor (chicha and guarapo), finally brought back a team of mules that were promptly attached to ropes that were in turn tied to eye brackets that had been threaded to the outside of the door.  After a couple of tries one of the doors splintered enough to provide some leverage for the crow bars that had been liberated from one of the retail establishments. As one of the doors finally gave way, the semi drunk mob started to push through it, while cursing and whooping.

As the first group got to the church goers, some of them took a defensive stance covering their loved ones.  This was the wrong thing to do in front of the invaders that in the push and shove of trying to fit through the door, had lost any semblance of common purpose and organization.  Soon a few machetes made their presence felt and a free for all ensue, with the advantage going to the invaders, since many of the church goers had left their working/self defense utensils home.

There is no official recollection of the episode and it is impossible to determine how many persons may have died and whether a massacre took place. The goriest tales claim that all those present in the church seeking asylum were killed, men, women and children. These tales also indicate that people were literally taken apart by the machete yielding mob, and that some of the limbs of those killed ended up adorning some of the religious statues in the church.  The legend goes on to say that after a few more hours of celebration the guerrilla force left the town, and that only a few persons remained in it.

[1]At the time of this narration, the Colombian government owned all communications media.  An effort had been made to give all populated areas of the country at least the basic form of communications, which in most cases was a telegraph station.