November 2008 Colombia Peace Update
3 November 2008
- The Drop Beats Not Bombs Tour Hits the Road!
- Take Action Now: Indigenous Protesters and Striking Workers are Under Attack by the Colombian Government
- Army commanders fired for killings received U.S. training and assistance
- Paramilitary Resurgence in Northwestern Colombia
- Letter from the Field: Will Walk for Peace
The Drop Beats Not Bombs Tour Hits the Road!!
"[Conscientious objection] questions the role of any army in society, rejects youth recruitment no matter where it comes from, rejects militarism, the use of violence and armed confrontation as a tool which is used to impose social projects and to defend certain ideas or elite interests." — Paula Galeano, Colombian conscientious objector from the Red Juvenil and key note speaker on the Fall 08 Drop Beats Not Bombs tour.
The Drop Beats Not Bombs workshop and hip hop tour put on by The Nonviolent Youth Collective, in collaboration with the Not Your Solider Project and the Fellowship of Reconciliation's Colombia program is launching a 6-state tour on November 5th that will visit Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York.
The purpose of the tour is to train and empower youth to support each other in resisting militarism through creative action, including building the conscientious objector movement in the U.S. and Colombia. The tour is traveling caravan-style across the U.S. with a Conscientious Objector to the U.S. military Isaac Martin, Colombian Conscientious Objector Paula Galeano from the Red Juvenil, a couple of Fellowship of Reconciliation staff, and Invincible, a hip hop artist from the Detriot. Talib Kweli says "Invincible is one of the most talented emcees I've ever heard black or white, male or female..."
Click here to read the tour blog. • Click here to see the itinerary and event details.
Take Action Now: Indigenous Protesters and Striking Workers are Under Attack by the Colombian Government
From Witness for Peace
Reports indicate 19 indigenous people killed in the past month while striking sugarcane workers face repression. Colombian President Álvaro Uribe declared a "State of Internal Commotion" to deal with protests and strikes.
Indigenous communities in northern Cauca and the sugarcane workers on strike in the neighboring province of Valle de Cauca are asking for an honest dialogue with the Colombian government to address the serious social problems they face. Rather than listening to the concerns of these marginalized communities, the Colombian government-backed by U.S. military funding-responds with repressive force. Please act now to stand with these activists! Contact William Brownfield, the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, asking him to demand that the Colombian government respect human rights. Click here to send Ambassador Brownfield an email message.
Since October 12, indigenous and other social organizations in southwestern Colombia, have been protesting the militarization of their lands, the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and the failure of the government of President Álvaro Uribe to comply with agreements relating to indigenous land, education, and healthcare. See an account of the mass indigenous meeting with President Uribe on Sunday here. Over 12,000 indigenous activists and other social justice activists are congregated on the Territory of Peace and Coexistence in La Maria Piendamo, in Cauca, resisting the hostile and massive presence of state security forces who have been ordered to remove them. On Monday, the communities participating in the indigenous protest blocked a portion of the Pan American Highway in Cauca, in an act of civil disobedience meant to force the government to meet with them to discuss their demands. Rather than respond to their calls for negotiation, over the last four days violence has broken out between elite police units and the assembled communities, with at least two people killed and over 50 indigenous activists severely wounded mostly by bullets, one possibly fatally, in the ensuing clashes. These unfolding developments come just days after two other Nasa Indians— Nicolas Valencia Lemus and Celestino Rivera — were assassinated by unidentified gunmen over the weekend, just a few hours before the start of the mobilization. The National Organization of Colombia's Indigenous (ONIC) report that in the past two weeks at least 19 indigenous leaders have been killed across the country. This only adds to the alarming human rights situation in indigenous communities in Colombia. ONIC reports that between 2002 and 2006, 1,226 indigenous people have been killed, 300 have been disappeared and 1,660 have been jailed.
Thousands of Colombian sugarcane workers in Valle de Cauca have been on strike since September 15, calling for basic improvements to their labor conditions. Sadly, the sugarcane companies and the Colombian government refuse to negotiate and have instead responded with violence and tear gas. These state forces, who are attacking the workers and their families, reportedly receive U.S. funding. Additionally, partners report that three international observers have been deported by the Colombian government. Another is currently being detained and none have been granted their right to a phone call or access to a lawyer. This appears to be an attempt to keep the international community unaware of the grave human rights abuses being committed by the Colombian government. The sugarcane workers are in an ever more critical situation— after completing a month of the strike, these workers who receive poverty wages to begin with, are facing a hunger crisis in their households due to a lack of pay. There is also concern that the repression is continuing: the municipality of Candelaria has called a curfew and one worker from an indigenous reserve in Pradera was reported disappeared on Tuesday. Click here to read more about the sugarcane workers and watch a video describing their situation.
STATE OF INTERNAL COMMOTION
Last month, President Uribe declared a "state of internal commotion", alarming many activists and human rights defenders. As stipulated in the 1991 Constitution, the "state of internal commotion" allows the president to govern without the oversight of the legislature, giving the President unprecedented powers, particularly in the area of security and "public order." Many constitutional scholars have criticized the measure as unnecessary, if not undemocratic. President Uribe justified this frighteningly authoritarian approach to domestic affairs, pointing a 42-day judicial workers strike that has clogged the judicial system. Now that the government and the judicial workers union, ASONAL, reached a tentative deal on a new contract that ended the strike today, the big question is whether or not the President will reverse the measure.
Your support is needed today to protect indigenous communities and striking workers facing repression. Please contact William Brownfield, the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia immediately, calling on him to demand that the Colombian government respect the rights to assemble, the right to protest and the right to unionize. Click here to act now.
Army commanders fired for killings received U.S. training and assistance
By John Lindsay-Poland
Colombian Army commander Mario Montoya resigned today, in the wake of a scandal over army killings of civilians that a United Nations official on Saturday called " systematic and widespread." A protégé of the United States, Montoya was an architect of the "body count" counterinsurgency strategy that many analysts believe led to the systematic civilian killings.
Colombian President Álvaro Uribe announced the dismissal of 27 military officers on October 29, including three generals and 11 colonels and lieutenant colonels, for human rights abuses. The abuses include involvement in the killings of dozens of youths who were recruited in Bogotá slums and shortly after were reported as killed in combat by the army, hundreds of miles away.
The dismissal is a positive action, which we applaud. Officers responsible for killing civilians must face consequences, or the killing will continue.
Human rights organizations have documented more than 500 reported extrajudicial killings by the army since the beginning of last year. This week, Amnesty International issued a scathing report on worsening conditions in Colombia, including massive displacement of internal refugees, increased extrajudicial killings, and attacks on human rights defenders. A New York Times front-page story on October 30 also highlighted the problem, and cited FOR's research on extrajudicial executions, as did a Los Angeles Times story.
But it was the report that poor Bogota youths whose families said they had disappeared, had been recruited by the army or others, then reported as dead in combat, that detonated the issue. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos admitted that the army still harbors "holdouts who are demanding bodies for results."
The dismissal of officers also demonstrates extensive U.S. complicity with the abuses. The United States gave military training directly or assisted the units of nearly all of the officers implicated in the killings. At least eleven of the officers, including Brigadier Generals Paulino Coronado Gamez and José Cortes Franco, were trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas, and Cortes even served as an instructor at the school in 1994. Most of the officers commanded units that had been 'vetted' by U.S. officials for human rights abuses and approved to receive assistance in 2008, or received training for some officers, in spite of extensive reports that their units had carried out murders of civilians.
Yet the dismissal, which focuses on officers operating in a northeastern region of Colombia where the disappeared youths were found, addresses only a small number of the army units responsible for civilian killings. In the oil-rich Casanare and Arauca departments, the U.S.-trained 16th and 18th Brigades have reportedly committed dozens of killings, as has the U.S.-supported 9th Brigade in the coffee-growing department of Huila. In southeastern Valle and Cauca, the Third Brigade's Codazzi Batallion receives U.S. support and reportedly committed at least nine killings of civilians last year, as may be implicated in firing on peaceful indigenous protesters this month. In southern Meta and Guaviare departments, the United States supports multiple mobile brigades in areas where the army has committed a large number of civilian killings.
Army chief Montoya is replaced by Major General Gilberto Rocha Ayala. In 2003-04, Rocha commanded the army's Second Brigade in northeastern Colombia. Under his command, Colonel Hernán Mejia, then commander of the La Popa Battalion, is under investigation by the Colombian Prosecutor General for reportedly engineering the killing of paramilitaries and passing them off as guerrillas. Rocha also commanded the army's Ninth Brigade in 2002-03, with jurisdiction in Huila province, where human rights groups report some six extrajudicial executions occurring during his command. Rocha Ayala was an instructor at the School of the Americas in 1995.
In addition, most of the army's current leadership — including 17 of 24 brigade commanders — were trained by the United States at the School of the Americas, on top of U.S. training provided to Colombian officers at dozens of other military schools and in Colombia. Washington is involved in the army's human rights problem through and through, and journalists, activists, and Congressional staff ought to ask when the United States will stop financing such murderous criminal operations. We believe the time is now.
Paramilitary Resurgence in Northwestern Colombia
Young men fanned out through the towns along what is known as the "banana axis" of Urabá on Tuesday evening, October 14, telling local businesses to shut down the following day. The men distributed leaflets announcing the continuation of the "anti-subversive struggle" in light of "the guerrillas' advance" and what the group described the government's non-fulfillment of promises made to AUC in paramilitary demobilization, and they spray-painted the initials of the group on city walls — AGC, Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. The action shut down public transport, retail businesses and banana plantations throughout the region. Many students didn't go to school, and some humanitarian groups suspended visits to communities.
Armed forces chief General Freddy Padilla dismissed concerns about the strike, saying curiously that it was not a paramilitary rearmament, but an act of terrorism, implying that paramilitaries do not practice terrorism. Seventeenth Brigade commander General Héctor Peña Porras claimed there was no armed strike, because no one was armed, although reliable sources told FOR that armed men were present in neighborhoods between Apartadó and San José. Apartadó mayor Oswaldo Cuadrado stated that authorities should address the AGC armed strike and address why disarmed paramilitaries were acting. The reaction contrasted sharply with the government's response to the indigenous mobilization the very same day in Cauca, where police used guns and tear gas to answer indigenous protests.
For the San José Peace Community, the paramilitary action was simply the announcement of an already-existing reality. On November 1, a paramilitary gunman approached the community's legal representative, Jesús Emilio Tuberquia, in Apartadó, put a pistol to his head and said, "I'm going to kill you," the community reported. Tuberquia fled unharmed, though lost a bag with community documents and funds. On October 30, paramilitaries threatened to kill six members of the Community and to commit another massacre in the area if members this community did not leave the area. The Community declared that on 29 September "more than 100 paramilitaries arrived in the area of La Unión armed with assault weapons, bearing AUC armbands and presented themselves as Self-Defense Forces" and proceeded to threaten Peace Community members, saying that they had come "to once and for all finish off the community." This followed reports that on 30 August over "200 paramilitaries were present in the Playa Larga area, 20 minutes from la Esperanza, detaining two farmers (—) and accusing them of being guerrillas" and that on 14 and 15 August 60 presumed paramilitaries, originating from the Nueva Antioquia area, dressed in camouflage combat gear and carrying assault weapons, were present in the areas of Playa Larga and la Esperanza. The Peace Community reports that in la Esperanza these armed men arrived at houses of Peace Community members and threatened them if they refused to collaborate in ridding the area of guerrillas. One source reports that paramilitaries in the area are also using armbands with FCU, for the Urabá Central Front.
On August 31, fighting took place between the insurgency and presumed paramilitaries in Playa Larga, close to La Esperanza settlement. The Peace Community has for months been reporting the presence of increasingly large groups of armed men in the area, who apparently belong to non-demobilized groups. The most recent outbreaks of combat are a result of this state of affairs. Several reports indicate the existence of a paramilitary base in Nueva Antioquia where the army exercises strict control of all those entering the settlement and whilst inside Nueva Antioquia, "The paramilitaries (—) control the food, charge taxes on the products the small farmers bring there to sell, all this in full public view of the army and police."
How does this state of affairs occur in such an extremely militarized area? What allows the alleged paramilitary base in Nueva Antioquia to exist in close proximity to Army and police checkpoints?
Letter from the Field: Will Walk for Peace
By Moira Birss
I recently returned from six days of hiking through piles of mud and up mountains, accompanying a pilgrimage of almost 200 Peace Community members, members of Tamera, an intentional community in Portugal, representatives of various indigenous communities around Colombia, and other friends and supporters of the Peace Community from various regions and countries. It was, needless to say, an adventure.
The Peace Community and Tamera organized this pilgrimage, as it was called, in order to visit and honor different sites pertaining to the Peace Community that are significant both historically and currently, as well as to demonstrate the strong presence and support of internationals for the Community. Over the six days my teammate Julia and I accompanied the participants as they prayed and sang near the headquarters of the 17th Brigade (the army unit that operates in this area and that has participated in many of the deaths of Community members); hiked eleven hours to Mulatos, the site of the February 2005 massacre (normally, the hike takes 4-5 hours, but with that many people, many of whom are unaccustomed to walking in these conditions, it took waaay longer); hiked to La Esperanza, another area where many community members used to live and are just now returning to after having been displaced for several years; swam in the rapids of a river that traverses the region; and hiked back to La Union (where FOR has our house) to dance the night away.
From the faces, comments, and bandage-wrapped feet of the visiting internationals, I know that the pilgrimage was both emotionally and physically grueling for them. They considered this a true pilgrimage, a "long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance".
The journey was certainly long — the 11-hour hike through mud, rain, raging rivers and jungle to Mulatos is a prime example — and Padre Javier Gildardo, a Jesuit priest who has been a supporter and advisor for the Peace Community since it founded in 1997, helped participants focus on the moral significance of our journey. Before we left Mulatos early in the morning on the third day, Padre Javier led us in a prayer service at the site where Luis Eduardo, Bellanira and Deiner were killed on February 21, 2005, three of the eight victims of a paramilitary-military massacre committed against the Community.
While I too found myself with blisters by the end of the six days, I did not find the experience nearly as exhausting as most of the visitors. For one, I'm used to hiking in these mountains, so still had plenty of energy to dance nearly every dance when we arrived in La Unión at the end of day six (I'm sure it helped that I got to throw my backpack on a bestia — horse or mule — rather than have to carry it. I rode a bestia for about a third of the trip back to LU because I was feeling a bit sick.)
I also have spent the last four months steeped in the faces and voices of the Peace Community members and their often heart-wrenching stories — not to mention climbed the mountains a few times. That doesn't mean I wasn't touched by the experience, however. In fact, I ended the trip more in love with the community and my life/work here than ever. Moments like almost getting swept away by the rushing river as a community member tried to help me across in the pitch dark; laughing (in retrospect) about my teammate Julia's temporarily lost backpack (the bestia it was riding on disappeared one night!); or searching out orange trees with the kids have solidified my relationships with community members (and my teammate Julia), and I now know parts of the community terrain I had before only heard about in stories.
After the pilgrimage was complete, related activities continued. Most participants in the pilgrimage, plus many other Colombians from other communities, participated in the Universidad de Resistencia (University of Resistance). Several years ago, the Peace Community and other comunidades en resistencia (communities in resistance) formed this educational program to share knowledge and practical expertise on topics such as nutritional self-sustainability, alternative health, law and rights, and alternative education. The folks from Tamera also participated, and workshops were held on medicinal plants, solar ovens, alternative education in practice, and more. The shame about being an accompanier is it's not my job to participate! But I observed as much as possible. ;)
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