<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Al Giordano

Opening Statement, April 18, 2000
¡Bienvenidos en Español!
Bem Vindos em Português!

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The Unforgivable

As Colombia’s Uribe Lobbies the U.S. Congress for a Free Trade Agreement, Attacks on Human Rights Defenders and Rural Communities Are Increasing

By Laura Del Castillo
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

November 19, 2007

On November 10, Hillary Clinton expressed her opposition to the U.S. signing a Free Trade Agreement with Colombia, because, she said, the history of violence against union leaders in that country concerns her.

Yolanda Becerra, director of the Popular Feminine Organization
Poto: D.R. 2007 Caleb Harris
Immediately, President Uribe threw a fit in front of the media, saying that Clinton’s statements represented “an unforgivable lack of understanding toward Colombia.” Uribe was convinced that he had the Democratic party nearly in the palm of his hand after several of its members were so delighted by the latest fantasy tour through Colombia that the president (along with U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutiérrez) had organized for them, to demonstrate the “progress” the government has made on reducing violence.

To Uribe, just as unforgivable as Clinton’s words are the unionists who keep holding their firm position against the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), and the non-governmental organizations and human rights activists who dare to denounce the crimes committed by the military and financed by Plan Colombia, or the farce of the paramilitary “demobilization.”

Of course, a government that seems stuck in the middle ages, led by a president that treats the country as his own personal fiefdom, has the luxury of turning a blind eye when those “unforgivable” people are threatened, attacked or murdered (unless they can somehow be silenced, as in the case of the leaders of the Peasant-Farmer Association of the Cimitarra River Valley, or ACVC, who are currently imprisoned).

The developments described below show that the efforts to show a better image of the country – where “violence has been reduced and human rights are respected” – seem to go hand in hand with impunity.

The Internal Enemies

Just earlier this month, unidentified men entered the offices of the human rights group Reiniciar (Spanish for “starting over”). Once inside, they removed information from the computers, stole money and took a case file for a forced disappearance the organization was working on.

Reiniciar is an organization that works mostly through the legal system, and since 1993 has been working the case of the infamous “genocide” of the Patriotic Union. More than 5,000 members and supports of that left-wing party (which came out of the 1984 peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the government) were assassinated throughout the country beginning in 1986. Virtually the entire party was wiped out, and during Uribe’s two terms the survivors and families of the victims that Reiniciar and other groups support have been targeted as well.

These crimes – murder, forced disappearance, torture, displacement and threats – were orchestrated from the highest circles of the country’s political elite, and carried out by members of the Colombian Army working with rightwing paramilitary groups. For that reason, Reiniciar has denounced the Colombian state for its responsibility in this massacre to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Since 1997, when the case was heard, the IACHR has demanded that Colombia’s government recognize its responsibility in these crimes, provide reparation to their victims, and, of course, punish their authors.

Because of this work, the organization has been a victim of constant threats and attacks from paramilitary groups, which enjoy support from certain sectors of the army and police, since its founding. Reports of these attacks presented along with overwhelming evidence led the IACHR to demand that the Colombian government provide Reiniciar with heightened levels of protection. But given these latest events, it would seem that this government-provided protection is ineffective and merely a distraction.

In fact, Yolanda Becerra, director of the Popular Feminine Organization (OFP in its Spanish initials), an organization that also counts with these “protective measures” provided by the state, can attest to their effectiveness. In the same week as the violent incursion into Reiniciar’s offices, two men forced their way into her apartment. “Hijoeputa,” (“child of a whore”), they yelled at her while holding her at gunpoint in her own home. “The story’s over for you, you have 48 hours to leave. If you don’t we’re going to wipe out your family. You’re not getting away from us.”

The OFP is a human rights organization based in the northeastern city of Barrancabermeja, which has specialized for 35 years in helping women victims of human rights violations from communities of the country’s surrounding Middle Magdalena region. Just like Reiniciar, it has denounced numerous cases of assassinations, disappearances, threats and other crimes committed by soldiers and paramilitaries. This part of the country has been one of the great epicenters of far-right paramilitarism.

Added to all this are complaints by Diana Teresa Sierra, a lawyer for the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission, that unknown men were following her in Bogotá. Sierra represents the Afro-Colombian communities of Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó, in the Chocó department, who are suing soldiers and paramilitaries for human rights violations, forced displacement, conspiracy and environmental crimes. She is also working to resolve the murder of Afro-Colombian leader Orlando Valencia, and is taking on the defense of leaders from these communities who have been jailed on rebellion charges.

The “Cleansing” of the Armed Forces

Jahel Quiroga, director of Reiniciar, did not hesitate to say that sectors of the police and the military could be behind the robbery of the group’s office. She pointed out that the stolen file implicates high-ranking military officers in the case of a “forced disappearance” of a prominent Patriotic Union member, and that in recent days the Fiscalía – Colombia’s justice department – announced that it will re-open several of the most exemplary cases of the “genocide” that have been, until now, filed away.

Jahel Quiroga, Director of Reiniciar
Foto: D.R. 2007 Corporación Reiniciar
“I believe that there is a kind of caution on the part of both paramilitaries and state agents who are connected to the Patriotic Union genocide,” said Quiroga to Narco News. “What I see is that the decisions that the Inter-American Commission and Inter-American Court on Human Rights are making have allowed cases to be re-opened that in Colombia were already closed. The Inter-American Court is re-opening these cases and beginning to link these state agents – who were absolved by the Colombian justice system – to their crimes. And they are frightened of that. Those who are legal [the military officers] seem to me to be more concerned than those who are illegal [the paramilitaries].”

Also, both Reiniciar and the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission are part of the “Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination,” a coalition of human rights groups (also victims of all kinds of attacks). This coalition presented a report one month ago to the IACHR titled “Extrajudicial Executions Directly Attributable to the Public Forces,” which rigorously reports the details a number of “false positives” that took place between June, 2006 and July, 2007.

For those unfamiliar with Colombian military jargon, the killing of a guerrilla in combat is known as a “positive.” And as you must know, the more kills a soldier achieves in combat, the more promotions, recognitions and decorations he receives. Throughout the history of Colombia’s civil war, it has always been that way.

But in the fairytale of President Uribe’s “democratic security” policy, the old ways have their own new peculiarities. President Uribe, in his rush to demonstrate his government’s supposed effectiveness on security to the public, has put pressure on the military to produce results, which has ended up creating a new method of combat in the dirty war going on in the country’s rural areas: killing, disappearing and torturing civilians, and then dressing them in guerrilla uniforms in order to present them as “subversives killed in combat.”

This practice has showed itself since the president’s “democratic security” policy began in 2002, the year he came to power. But, according to the report, between June, 2006 and July or this year, the trend intensified such that in that period there were 236 total cases registered. The president’s home department of Antioquia was one of the regions that saw the most such killings.

Why this increase? An international delegation that visited the country in early October and interviewed a number of soldiers noted that the government came up with the brilliant idea of awarding “economic bonuses” and “rest leave” to soldiers who kill guerrillas. And, as facing the guerrillas is not so easy, any defenseless peasant can become appetizing prey.

The report had not even been published yet when the president – ironically enough, during a ceremony commemorating two years of the “justice and peace” law that demobilized the major paramilitary armies – broke out the big verbal guns to attack the organizations that had been reporting these crimes for months.

“Now the guerrillas have a new strategy,” he said. “Every time a guerrilla goes down, they immediately mobilize their spokespeople here and overseas to say that it was an extra-judicial execution. But the Armed Forces have taken every precaution to not give others the opportunity to portray their members as working in collusion with paramilitary groups.”

To this unsupported accusation of guerrilla collaboration must be added one that several organizations in Barrancabermeja received in a printed, unsigned text on October 18: “We remind you that the little priest of the Roux [referring to Jesuit priest Francisco De La Roux, who leads the Program for Development and Peace in the Middle Magdalena] and the guerrilla Yolanda Becerra used their influence in Bogotá to remove an Army major and a captain of the Nueva Granada battalion from their posts, for having made public the arrest warrants for leaders of the ACVC, those bandits and narco-guerrillas who were captured last month in Barranca.” (In a public communiqué, the OFP insists that Becerra simply made one call to a government human rights office to ask where the ACVC leaders were being held).

This all shows that the president and his supporters have more than enough reasons to be furious with these organizations, as they are publicizing the abuses committed by Uribe’s most prized treasure: his military. And at risk is the biggest prize that the United States has every given this country: Plan Colombia.

In fact, one of the recommendations of the International Observation Mission on Extrajudicial Executions to the international community was to freeze military aid to Colombia as long as these attacks against the civilian population keep occurring.

No wonder the president and his friends have now truly lost their temper.

The Motives of the “Paras”

It should be remembered that Reiniciar also accompanies indigenous and rural communities whose members have been victims of human rights abuses by paramilitaries, often backed by members the army. These communities include the Emberá-Chamí of the Caldas department, and the Wayuú community in La Guajira, in the extreme north of the country.

Reiniciar represents a great number of members of these ethnic groups in their claims before the IACHR, and has requested protection for them from the threats they face, especially from paramilitaries. They have also accompanied specific members of these communities, who have courageously decided to confront the big paramilitary bosses to demand the return of their lands, as well as explanations for their missing or killed family members.

So it is very possible that behind these recent events could be demobilized paramilitaries who have come to form part of the new groups that are being called “emergent gangs,” who are so open-minded that they allow drug traffickers and common criminals among their ranks.

And as it has been well proven that the paramilitary bosses continue directing things from prison, it could well be that they have charged their “boys” with intimidating victims who might have evidence against them, as well as organizations that support them. The Popular Feminine Organization’s Ana Teresa Rueda suspects such “boys” of being behind the attack on Yolanda Becerra in her house.

“We couldn’t say exactly who the authors of this crime were,” said Rueda, “but here in Barranca, the armed presence is that of the demobilized paramilitaries and the public forces, to none of whom it is convenient that an organization like ours, constantly denouncing their crimes, exists.”

And it wouldn’t be surprising, considering that during a hunt for common graves where several people the paramilitaries had killed in the rural areas around Barrancabermeja were supposed to be buried, a former paramilitary commander told government officials and reporters that the enemies of the “justice and peace” process were “those hijoeputas Yolanda Becerra and David Ravelo.” (Ravelo is the general secretary of the prominent local human rights group CREDHOS).

Immediately after this, the OFP sent a request to Vice President Francisco Santos (whose office handles human rights issues) to ask him to increase government protection for Yolanda Becerra, as she had been personally fingered by a paramilitary commander. But Rueda says that the group has still not gotten a response.

And one doesn’t need to be a chronic pessimist to realize that, unfortunately, nothing will happen now either, and that the state won’t respond to these new incidents, because at heart it knows that this is a good strategy to shut up those who tarnish the good image of this wonderland, or those who dare to show what is there is behind the mirror.

And that is simply unforgivable, kind readers, here, in this country where the paramilitary bosses, backed by the “justice and peace” law, dare to lecture their victims on the importance of forgiving and forgetting.

Originally published November 16 in Spanish

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