25 April 2008
COLOMBIA UPDATE: March 2008
As of 31 March, thirty murders had been reported in the city of Barrancabermeja (Barranca) in 2008. At the national level, as of 9 April, twenty five percent (51) of the members of Colombia's Congress elected in 2006 either had been convicted and imprisoned (4), were in jail pending trial (25) or were under investigation (22) on charges related to involvement with paramilitary groups. All those involved were part of a political coalition that supports the president Alvaro Uribe Velez.
On team during March were Michele Braley, Nils Dybvig, Duane Ediger, Jim Fitz, Carol Rose, Pierre Shantz, Jonathan Stucky, and Stewart Vriesinga.
Saturday 1 March
Braley and Vriesinga attended a workshop led by the Colombian organization AVRE on identifying secondary trauma and understanding psychosocial implications when victimizers receive impunity. AVRE is an organization that focuses on helping victims of socio-political violence.
Wednesday 5 March
An Opón resident reported that Colombian Army soldiers had set up camp in their yard the night before, and had brought a list of alleged guerrilla collaborators. "I told them, `I've sold them eggs,'" said the resident. "'As long as they're willing to pay and I have it for sale I'll sell it.' What am I supposed to do when armed people come wanting to buy stuff? That doesn't make me a guerrilla collaborator. "
Thursday 6 March
In the wake of well-attended, government-supported marches against the FARC guerrillas nationwide on 4 February, citizens and organizations carried out marches in support of victims of state-sponsored violence (some participants expressed support for victims of all violence). CPT accompanied the Barrancabermeja march as observers.
David Ravelo, former President of the Regional Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights (CREDHOS) and a Barrancabermeja-based human rights activist for twenty years, fled under an intensifying series of threats. While threats were not new to him, they had never before led to his forced displacement. His family had left earlier.
Members of the Women's Popular Organization (OFP) reported being followed on their way to one of their neighborhood meal program sites. They locked themselves in and observed the man watching the house. Responding to a request from the OFP, the team divided and visited three OFP meal sites for lunch. OFP members were hanging posters for international women's day and felt particularly vulnerable. On 8 March, Rose and Shantz accompanied an OFP leader to Yondo (across the Magdalena River from Barranca) for an International Women's Day event.
Stewart Vriesinga and Jim Fitz traveled to Paraiso and Alto Cañabraval, Simiti, Bolivar as members of a commission investigating human rights infractions. See <http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Stewart_in_Colombia/message/23>.
Complaints they recorded included soldiers on coca plant eradication missions also burning down houses; FARC guerrillas planting land mines on paths and in fields, which denied residents freedom to work and move; military-paramilitary collaboration (Army: "We won't hurt you but the paramilitaries soon to follow will"); soldiers avoiding accountability by wearing t-shirts with no insignia and refusing to identify their unit; soldiers bribing children with candy for information; soldiers using civilians as human shields, holding camp for days at a time in their hamlets, and Army and guerrilla proximity to civilians, producing close-range combat resulting in civilian trauma and displacement. The following day, CPT learned that the army burnt more houses down in el Paraiso.
Barrancabermeja: Fitz and Stucky attended the School for Biblical Training for Peace, which meets about monthly. Topics, including church-state relations and Christian involvement in social issues, engaged approximately thirty participants. CEDECOL, the Evangelical Church council of Colombia, sponsors the school.
A Spanish language Holy Week delegation of seven Colombians and two foreign church workers arrived in Barrancabermeja to visit the region and get to know CPT's work and the realities of the conflict in the region.
The delegation visited El Garzal. Residents of this rural community in Southern Bolivar province have been living and working on the land, some for up to four decades, and (struggling for land titles since 1990. See <http://www.cpt.org/cptnet/2008/04/02/colombia-garzal-and-nueva-esperanza-communities-resist-displacement-despite-collab >. A Chilean delegate led an impromptu workshop for the youth who had gathered to meet with them. One resident said, "As women, we don't just work in the kitchen anymore. We're organizing as well."
In Barrancabermeja, the delegation hung heron (garza) cutouts and a colorful sign from trees outside the government land-titling office. A liturgy, the group read paired words from El Garzal's residents with biblical texts (e.g. "We have this small piece of land so we can feed our children, not to accumulate riches," and "Everyone will sit one under their own vine and their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid.") Aware that the office would be closed, the group wrote a letter for later delivery with photos of the action. Fitz and a delegate also shared written information about Garzal and the community's pastor-leader with local pastors.
On Wednesday 26 March, Ediger and Vriesinga traveled to Santa Rosa, heart of the southern Bolivar small-scale mining zone, and on Thursday accompanied members of the Southern Bolivar Agricultural-Mining Federation to Tiquisio municipality for their annual assembly. Less than a year earlier, Federation President Teofilo Acuna had been arrested <http://www.cpt.org/cptnet/2007/04/28/colombia-miners039-federation-president-arrested> on a false accusation of subversion, held for ten days, and released for lack of evidence. On the 28th, the first day of meetings, six police officers entered the meeting grounds. Negotiations involving Federation members and national and international observers led to an agreement for the police to remain outside the premises. Later that same morning, the accuser in Acuna's 2007 arrest attempted to enter premises accompanied by a police officer. In the evening, police were overheard inquiring among themselves to identify Acuna. Fearing for his personal safety, Acuna left Tiquisio.
On 29 March the Assembly continued, with more reports, analysis, and preparations for 1 April meeting with government officials. Sergeant Rojas of the Army's Nariño Battalion, armed and in uniform, entered the assembly site, asking for a list of leaders' names. For about thirty minutes, he asserted his right to attend the meeting on a number of grounds, all refuted by a circle of fifteen or so Federation members and accompaniers, including one with a video camera. "There are times and places for meetings involving both civilian and government or military representatives, but this is a private, civilian forum," said a lawyer for the Federation. Sergeant Rojas requested a document signed by those in charge stating their refusal to let him participate in the meeting, which Federation members diplomatically denied.
Someone called a federal official, resulting in a call to Rojas, and he left the assembly site. On 30 March, at the close of the Assembly, via cell phone through the PA system, Acuna invoked the memory of deceased Federation member Alejandro Uribe, killed September 19, 2006 <http://www.cpt.org/cptnet/2006/09/29/colombia-cpters-accompany-mining-region-residents-who-demand-justice-after-assassi> by soldiers of the Army's Nueva Granada Battalion. He also spoke of the communities' forty-five-day long gathering of 1300 people immediately after the assassination to demand security as they struggled to live, mine, and farm on lands coveted by multinational mining company AngloGold Ashanti.
CPT received confirmed reports that in eastern Antioquia province, Campesino leader Gerardo Antonio Ciro was found assassinated See, <http://www.justiceforcolombia.org/?link=newsPage&story=245 > shortly after a joint patrol of soldiers and paramilitaries had made repeated inquiries as to his whereabouts.
Monday 31 March
Barrancabermeja: Some eighty displaced residents of eastern Antioquia and southern Bolivar provinces, who had spent the last month encamped at a facility of the oil workers labor union (Union Sindical Obrera, USO), occupied Barranca´s public university campus, preventing classes from convening, to amplify their demands for conditions that would allow them to return home. Shantz and Stucky went to the university to accompany the displaced people as riot police came to the site. After negotiations with the university, the Dean allowed the displaced people to remain. The university, called Universidad de la Paz (Peace University), has had a long history of solidarity with social movements in the region. CPT Colombia accompanied on several occasions the refugees who came to Barrancabermeja to protest the militarization of their communities and the assassination of several members of their community by the military.