Tensions Are High in Arauca and Tolima
Ground Zero for the US/Colombian War on Farmers
By James Jordan
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
April 6, 2010
The United States continues to fund and direct a war for Colombia’s natural resources that has become nothing less than a war against the nation’s farmers for their land. It is a war that wreaks havoc and terror throughout the countryside as whole communities are threatened, attacked and displaced. There are five million persons in Colombia who have been displaced mainly because of military and paramilitary violence. Sixty percent of those are farmers and farm workers. At this point in time, rural populations in the departments of Tolima and Arauca appear to be specially slated for repression and forced relocation.
In Colombia, where more unionists are murdered each year than in the rest of the world combined, no one labor federation is harder hit than FENSUAGRO (United Federation of National Agricultural Unions). For FENSUAGRO, no one member union is more affected by assassinations than the Arauca Campesino Association (ACA). On March 10th, ACA member Israel Verona was assassinated in his home in the municipality of Saravena, Arauca at 7am. The following is from an ACA statement announcing the news:
“Since its [ACA’s] formation 10 years ago, year after year the list of assassinations, incarcerations and displacements grows in a frightening manner. Only in November of 2009 our Association lost fifteen comrades murdered by gunmen under the protection of State Forces. They committed these crimes with the most absolute impunity. [Note: According to Jeff Vogt, Global Economic Policy Specialist for the AFL-CIO there were 48 known assassinations of unionists in Colombia in 2009, with at least 515 murdered since Colombian Pres. Álvaro Uribe took office in 2002. More than 95% of those who commit murders of unionists and other acts of political violence are never convicted for their crimes.]
The 10th of March, 2010, we received sad news…another companion from the Arauca Campesino Association was murdered….ISRAEL VERONA, well known rural leader…recognized for his indestructible happiness, his unbreakable constancy and his commitment to the service of the Araucan campesinos….
Israel, who was affectionately known as the “Burro”….was proud of this nickname…and had a long list of the good things that characterize said animal, besides maintaining that the burro, to the contrary of what many think, is a very intelligent animal….
Israel suffered every form of repression utilized by the Colombian state against the social and campesino leaders in order to quiet their just complaints, including forced displacement, persecution and death threats. He was also arrested in the year 2009, accused, like everyone else, by paid informants with the charge of Rebellion…remaining six months in the jail, which he left in January, 2010, absolved of all culpability.” [Note: There have been more than 8,000 provably arbitrary arrests in Colombia since 2002 that were later thrown out of court for lack of evidence. Between 1992 and 2002, there were just 2,000. Arrests are made on the basis of judicial frame ups and paid informers—with one out of every 20 Colombians acting as an informer for the state, according to Gen. Freddy Padilla de León, Commander of the Colombian Armed Forces. The subsequent assassination of falsely arrested political prisoners is all too common an occurrence following their releases from jail.]
In the Department of Tolima, there have been several serious threats and human rights abuses by the Colombian military in recent days against members of ASTRACATOL (Arauca Campesino Workers Association), also a FENSUAGRO affiliate, and against members of the Community Action Councils of the villages of El Piñal, Palmira, Vegas del Café and Café las Pavas. Within the past two years at least two union members have been assassinated and several have been arbitrarily detained.
According to a statement released by FENSUAGRO,
“The communities…declare once again an urgent alert due to the new…outrages and threats exercised against the civilian population by troops of the national army belonging to the 21st Mobile Brigade, which has been present in the zone for two years, bringing with them destructive consequences and dangers….From the moment that they initiated military operations, they provoked damages in the aquaducts that supply water to the populations, damages to the forests that protect the small springs of water that flow into the aquaducts, polluting the same with trash…around the sources of water that the communities consume. This situation is worrisome since the population cannot make any complaint, since whoever complains is immediately threatened with the paramilitaries or categorized as a guerrilla or militia member….
It is well known by all the competent authorities that due to these outrages and murders committed by the troops of the army, the population has twice been displaced and has returned because of pacts agreed to between the communities and the authorities…. However, these said accords have not been fulfilled and taking into account the latest events that have occurred, the situation has become much more dangerous….”
The “latest events” referred to above have included the following.
- On March 26th, Units of the 21st Mobile Brigade arrived at the house of a couple working at the farm of Mr. Luis Torres of the village of Vegas del Café. There they accosted Mrs. Marilín Ramírez and her husband for two hours threatening them and saying things such as, “You seem like guerrillas”.
- The 29th of March, some 15 to 20 soldiers, at five in the morning, assaulted the Ramírez brothers in their house where they were sleeping, beating their rifles against the windows, pounding on the door and shooting two times into the house, while shouting for the brothers to “exit the house so we can fill you with lead!”. This went on about an hour. When the three brothers (Carlos and José Yesid Ramírez Romero and Darwin Vanegas) went to complain to the military, they were again threatened that they would be “filled with lead at any moment”. An hour after this, José Yesid, an adolescent, on his way to work was again threatened by one of the troops that had attacked his house. He was detained again and told that “one of these days we will take you and fill your body with lead.”
- Also on March 29th…. at six in the evening, army units detained the youth Darío Ortigoza Mayorga, 16 years of age. They tied his arms with a rope and threatened to kill him, accusing him of being a guerrilla and took his identification card. An hour later they set him free, without returning the identification card. On March 30th, in the morning hours, Mr. Nelson Ortigoza found a black bag in a well with the younger Ortigoza’s (Darío) identification card, accompanied by a note that said, “Hello, son of a Whore. I saved you from death because I know you are a guerrilla. Here are your papers, you son of a whore. Listen, son of a whore—the next time you will not be saved. The National Army.” It was signed with an illegible signature. Members of the community were reminded of similar events in 2005 and 2006 that culminated with the deaths of the youths Mario Guerrero and Héctor Yate, murdered by soldiers from the Colombian armed forces. Community members have declared that they will engage in civil disobedience before allowing more deaths at the hands of the military.
What is at stake in both Arauca and Tolima are natural resources coveted by transnational corporations. Tolima is itself a major producer of rice, cotton and coffee, containing vast arrays of desirable farmland, and it has important gold deposits. The mountain municipality of Dolores, where the villages of El Piñal, Palmira, Vegas del Café and Café las Pavas are located, is one of the department’s most important producers of coffee. It is also the site of recently discovered oil deposits, the quantities of which have not yet been fully ascertained.
In November, 2008, ASTRACATOL and a number of leading labor and human rights organizations, signed a statement detailing a long list of abuses by the Army’s 21st Mobile Brigade, including ongoing contamination and disruption of the water supply and threats and arbitrary detentions against community members spuriously accused of being members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The local school that served the villages was closed when its one teacher was kidnapped and tortured and forced to abandon the region. The school was vandalized with graffiti saying, “You guerrilla dogs are going to die”. Inside, “21st Mobile Brigade” had been cut into several desks and tables.
The Departments of Arauca and neighboring Casanare contain the bulk of Colombia’s known oil reserves, and Arauca itself accounts for 30% of the country’s entire oil output. In December, 2006, meeting in Saravena, the Preliminary Hearing for the People’s Permanent Tribunal on Petroleum in Colombia issued a report stating that, “The gigantic investments of transnational capital, principally on the part of Occidental Petroleum Company, British Petroleum, Amoco and REPSOL, and the need to guarantee the exploitation of the natural resource, have been the principal motives behind the militarization and have put in march the policy of Democratic Security in departments such as Arauca, Boyacá, North Santander and Casanare.” [NOTE: Democratic Security is a policy adopted by the administration of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe that, in the name of security, seeks a military only solution to the nation’s conflicts, rather than a process for dialogue and peace negotiations. Also, a number of corporations, including Occidental, have been directly linked to paying paramilitaries for services such as, in Occidental’s case, guarding pipelines.]
We must consider the threats and assassinations in Tolima and Arauca in light of ongoing scandals involving the Colombian military. Even more important is that we bear in mind the culpability of the US government, which has given over $7 billion dollars in military and related aid to Colombia over the past 10 years and which trains, advises, accompanies and directs the Colombian military in the prosecution of this War on Colombia’s Farmers.
In August, 2009, I was traveling in Colombia leading a delegation for the Alliance for Global Justice. Earlier that year, the “false positive” scandal broke, incriminating some 30 members of the Colombian military, including three generals and the Commander of the Colombian Army. This scandal revealed as many as 2,000 civilians known to have been murdered and afterwards dressed in guerrilla clothing and claimed as enemy combatants. Most of those arrested for this crime have since been let out of jail on technicalities. During the delegation, we saw footage taken after the Colombian military had killed two teenagers in their home in the community of Corinto, Cauca. The local population had surrounded the site, videotaped it, and would not allow the military personnel to leave until the scene had been investigated. Eventually, the military was found responsible for the murders, but no one was actually arrested or sentenced. [NOTE: The Alliance for Global Justice is planning another delegation to Colombia August 1-11, to investigate conditions for farmers. For more information write firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Now a new scandal is developing regarding the discovery in late January of a mass grave in La Macarena, in the Department of Meta. The grave was dug by the Colombian military and contains some 2,000 corpses. The military (again) claims these are the bodies of guerrillas killed in battle. However, they were buried with no attempts to identify the remains and out of compliance with all proper protocols. The grave was discovered as a result of children becoming sick after drinking run-off from a stream located by the site.
One thing we can be certain of is that we only know the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the level of violence by paramilitary and military forces in Colombia—which together are responsible for 70 to 80% of political violence any given year. For instance, in addition to confirmed deaths, since 1980 to the present, some 25,000 to 35,000 persons have been “disappeared”. According to Jairo Ramirez, Executive Secretary for Colombia’s Permanent Committee on Human Rights, “The majority of those killed are buried in 3,500 unmarked graves or cremated to remove all traces.” Ramirez told our delegation that the paramilitary commander Salvatore Mancuso, who was extradited to the United States, had claimed that Colombian “…generals had suggested cremation to the paramilitaries to keep reports of numbers down. Another way to remove traces is to cut bodies into pieces and throw them into rivers.”
What we can see from these three examples—the false positive scandal, the unidentified bodies dumped in the La Macarena grave site, and the collusion of the military and paramilitaries in hiding the remains of the “disappeared”—is that allegations of guerrilla activity by the Colombian government and military simply cannot be accepted at face value. The justification given for the occupation of these villages in Tolima is that the forces are there to battle the guerrillas. And the charges that villagers are guerrillas is the justification for the arbitrary detentions, abuses and attacks of civilians. Likewise, it is in the name of fighting the insurgents that farmers are being assassinated in Arauca.
Right now, tensions are high in Tolima and Arauca. Villagers in Dolores are afraid that murder and displacement are to follow and ASTRACATOL and FENSUAGRO have felt the necessity of alerting the international community. In Arauca, ACA members find themselves in the most targeted union not only in Colombia, but in the world.
There is much that the people of the Unites States can do to help this situation. One place to start is by contacting the Colombian Embassy, the White House and our Senators and Representatives and telling them something like this:
“I demand that the threats and acts of violence against farmers in Tolima and Arauca be brought to an end. Last year, 15 members of the Association of Campesinos in Arauca were murdered by members of paramilitaries and the Colombian military.
In the municipality of Dolores, Tolima, there have been repeated assaults against members of the farmers’ union, ASTRACATOL, by the Colombian Army’s 21st Mobile Brigade. Twice the people of the affected villages there have been forced to leave their homes and twice they have come back after making agreements with the military and government officials guaranteeing their security—but the threats continue. In both cases—in Tolima and Arauca—rural populations are terrorized where there are oil, mining and farming resources coveted by foreign, transnational interests.
I demand that the Colombian authorities act to end paramilitary and military violence against these communities and that all perpetrators be brought to justice.
I demand that our elected officials in the United States end all aid to Colombia, especially military aid, until that government has stopped abuses of farmers and union members. I further demand the US support dialogue and negotiations for a just peace in Colombia rather than sponsoring this devastating and failed war.”
To Contact the Colombian Embassy:
To contact the White House:
To Contact the US House of Representatives:
To Contact the US Senate:
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