Colombia: wave of violence and threats against popular leaders

“Post-conflict” is a buzz-word these days in Colombia. Since the demobilization of 30,000 paramilitaries, Colombian officials celebrate the country’s “transition”; many Washington policymakers are convinced Colombia is now on the right track. In this phase, there are only “emerging criminal networks.” Officials say these networks are not the same paramilitaries who terrorized the civilian population for many years. But the Fellowship of Reconciliation Colombia Program points out that September brought further evidence that politically motivated threats and violence still abound.

Cauca: indigenous governor assassinated
On Sept. 28, Raul Mendoza, indigenous governor of the cabildo (indigenous municipality) Pe帽贸n, former member of the council of elders of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, and ex-president of the Association of Cabildos of Tierradentro, Nasa Uus, was assassinated as he was in his home in the city of Popay谩n, Cauca. The indigenous governor was a leader of the campaign for the Liberation of Mother Earth, in the Los Naranjos estate, located in the municipality of Sotar谩, which had been claimed by the displaced Nasa community. He had made repeated pronouncements to the authorities about threats being made against him. (CRIC, Sept. 28)

Medell铆n: woman anti-militarist leader massacred with family
On Sept. 24, Olga Marina Vergara, a member of the Peaceful Path of Women, was assassinated in Medell铆n. She was a feminist and peace leader, known for her work defending women in the violence-torn capital of Antioquia department. She was killed together with her son, daughter-in-law and grandson in her own house, in El Prado, a district in the city center.

“The Peaceful Path of Women, a political feminist collective which works to make visible the effects of war on women’s lives, categorically rejects these events that show once again the degradation of war and society,” said Marina Gallego Zapata, national coordinator of the Peaceful Path of Women. (Ruta Pacifica de las Mujeres, Sept. 25)

Choc贸: peace observers abducted, threatened
On Sept. 3, Yimi Armando Jansasoy, a member of Inter-Church Commission Justice and Peace who accompanies threatened campesino and Afro-Colombian leaders in the autonomous “humanitarian zone” of Curvarad贸, Choc贸, was abducted and forced into a truck. Four armed men then threatened him and his family and demanded the names of everybody who is part of the Curvarad贸 humanitarian zone. He was released after an hour and a quarter of intimidation and threats. On Sept. 7, members of Justice and Peace received their seventh telephoned death threat, and on Sept. 18, these human rights defenders were being followed in Bogot谩 and told of plans to assassinate members of their organization. These events are considered to be part of the Aguilas Negras‘ paramilitary strategy to control the region of Curvarad贸 and displace the community members from their lands, which have been illegally planted with palm oil. (Comisi贸n Intereclesial Justica y Paz, Sept. 3)

Barrancabermeja: Youth Collective receives threat
The Youth Collective of Barrancabermeja, an organization that defends the rights of conscientious objectors, received a written death threat the last week of September signed by the Aguilas Negras. The paramilitaries described the youth group’s “petty cultural activities,” accusing them of trying to camouflage marijuana smokers, drug addicts, alcoholics, gays, prostitutes and thieves as youth leaders, and accused them of hiding “who they really are, which is unordered guerrillas against freedom and the good functioning of the city.” The note concludes: “In the absence of the state and the increase in drug users, alcoholics, places that sell hallucinogenic drugs and businesses where the music is too loud until the late hours of the night, we will carry forth the activities of private justice for a free and tidy community.”

The youth group responds to these accusations in a statement describing themselves and the risks they face: “In this situation [of armed conflict] a group of young people with dreams and hopes lives with the certainty that ideas are more powerful than weapons and that no army can defend peace. This group cries out, ‘we don’t want to be part of this absurd war in which people kill each other who don鈥檛 know each other, for the benefit of those who don鈥檛 kill each other and do know one another.'”

They go on to say, “active non-violence and young people’s work to build peace is at risk and has been threatened by the intolerance…of those who have weapons and hide behind the name Aguilas Negras. This group sows fear, targets us as guerrillas, stigmatizes sexual freedom and the freedom to express our personalities, accusing us of being drug addicts and thieves.”

(The Aguilas Negras also threatened the Medell铆n Youth Network, or Red Juvenil, which similarly supports local conscientious objectors, earlier this year.)

“Civil Resistance” advocate Hector Mondrag贸n guerilla-baited
On Aug. 29 El Tiempo, Colombia’s national newspaper, claimed that an e-mail to Hector Mondrag贸n, Colombian activist and economist, was found on the laptop of FARC guerrilla leader Ra煤l Reyes, who was killed by the Colombian government in March. This assertion put Hector’s own life and the communities with whom he works at risk. He wrote a response explaining his own commitment to non-violence titled “On My Choice of Civil Resistance.” (This is the latest development in the Colombian state’s so-called farcpol铆tica strategy against the civil left opposition.)

San Jos茅 de Apartad贸 Peace Community: judicial advances, paramilitary threats
FOR is encouraged by actions to hold military officials accountable for the February 2005 massacre at the Peace Community of San Jos茅 de Apartad贸, and for the army cover-up that followed. In early September, Lt. Col. Orlando Espinoza and Major Jos茅 Fernando Casta帽o were arrested for their participation in the massacre. Based on testimony of Cpt. Guillermo Gordillo, who plead guilty to charges that he participated, an investigation may be opened into Gen. Jaime Fandi帽o, then commander of the Army’s 17th Brigade, for telling the captain not to testify about the presence of paramilitaries in his unit.

However, paramilitary and army threats to Peace Community members and other peasant farmers in the area have escalated in recent weeks. On Sept. 25, according to community leaders, 200 heavily armed paramilitaries in camouflage with insignias marked AUC鈥攖he initials for the supposedly demobilized national paramilitary army鈥攕topped at a school in the settlement of Porvenir, close to La Uni贸n, a Peace Community settlement where the FOR accompaniment team lives. The men reportedly told a family they were looking for guerillas and everyone who helps them, in order to kill them.

The same afternoon, other paramilitaries killed a man in Mangolo, a community between San Jos茅 and the town of Apartad贸 (the municipal seat), and left his body on the street, the Peace Community said.

The following day, back in Porvenir, paramilitaries blocked paths for local peasants, saying they had to leave the land, which now belongs to the paramilitaries, and that the Peace Community had to be eliminated, community leaders reported.

Three weeks before, on Aug. 30, hundreds of paramilitaries battled guerillas in Playa Larga, less than an hour’s walk from a Peace Community settlement and adjacent to Porvenir, leaving dead on both sides. The FOR team in La Uni贸n spoke with community members who heard further combat on several days following the Aug. 30 battle. (San Jos茅 Peace Community, Sept. 4)

Other sources, including the army, have confirmed the presence of 200 to 300 paramilitary troops in the area. One source reports that paramilitaries in the area are using armbands with FCU, for the Urab谩 Central Front. These paramilitaries are also go by the name of Aguilas Negras, the new national paramilitary network.

The presence in the outlying mountain settlements of between 200 and 300 paramilitaries has not been seen for years in San Jos茅. The confirmed presence of so many paramilitary soldiers raises the question鈥攚hat is the army doing to address this threat? How were paramilitaries able to reorganize in an area that has been heavily militarized since the AUC’s demobilization in 2005?

But the army has presented threats as well. On Sept. 15, army soldiers detained Uberto Higuita in the school in Resbalosa settlement鈥攏ot far from where the February 2005 massacre took place. The soldiers reportedly threatened Higuita with decapitation, and warned him that all Peace Community members could meet the same fate.

While FOR is gratified that Colombian authorities are pursuing prosecution of army officers involved in the February 2005 massacre, it is difficult to celebrate fully when the community continues to be terrorized by army and paramilitary gunmen鈥攁nd while impunity persists in the cases of 160 other community residents murdered by the army, paramilitaries and guerrillas.

Extradition: shipping out the truth with Colombia’s paramilitary leaders
Hebert Veloza AKA “H.H.”, one of the most infamous paramilitary leaders and a key witness in at least three massacres in the San Jos茅 Peace Community, is currently waiting to be extradited to the United States. He is the next on the list of paramilitary leaders that will have to face charges鈥攁nd probably serve sentences鈥攊n the United States for drug trafficking, production, and/or money laundering.

However, with the extradition of these paramilitary leaders, they will leave unfinished business that was mandated through the Justice and Peace Law of 2005, the act regulating the paramilitaries’ demobilization. Their extradition interrupts the full public disclosure and restitution that these paramilitary leaders were required to make on all the crimes and rights violations that they are responsible for. In an Aug. 2 interview with the daily El Espectador regarding the Justice and Peace Process and his much discussed extradition, H.H declared that he has only shared “fifty percent of the truth” about his crimes. When asked, “And the other fifty percent of the truth will leave for the United States?” his response was, “Well, as soon as I am extradited, yes.”

On May 14, the US Department of Justice and the Colombian government successfully completed the extradition of 14 top paramilitary chiefs鈥15 with Salvatore Mancuso, who was extradited weeks before them. These individuals constitute almost the whole leadership of the AUC, which was the paramilitaries’ command structure, responsible for terrorizing an entire country, who actively promoted, organized and executed crimes against humanity on scales far larger than that of any drug trafficking shipment made to the US.

While the notorious Salvatore Mancuso, Diego Fernando Murillo, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, Francisco Javier Zuluaga, Guillermo P茅rez Alzate, Mart铆n Pe帽aranda Osorio, Manuel Enrique Torregrosa, Hen谩n Giraldo Serna, Edwin Mauricio G贸mez, Diego Alberto Ruiz, Juan Carlos Sierra, Nodier Giraldo Giraldo, and Eduardo Enrique Vengoechea are being prosecuted in New York, Texas, Washington DC, and Florida, there are victims waiting for justice and reparation throughout the Colombian countryside, particularly in the departments of Antioquia, Valle del Cauca, Cesar, Arauca, Nari帽o, C贸rdoba and the entire region of Urab谩.

President Uribe said that a primary reason for approving the extradition of the 15 paramilitaries was that these leaders continued to run criminal networks while in prison and thereby lost the protection against extradition granted to them by the Justice and Peace Law. The same day the paramilitaries were extradited, President Uribe explained at a press conference: “Some of them continued to commit crimes after their incorporation to the Justice and Peace Law, others failed to adequately cooperate with the justice system and all of them failed to give reparations to the victims, since they have not returned the goods and wealth in their possession and/or have been stalling the reparation process.”

But we should ask, why didn’t the paramilitaries lose other the benefits granted to them by Law 975 of 2005鈥攕uch as the maximum eight years in prison? Why did they only lose their immunity against extradition to the United States鈥攚hich leaves as “unfinished business” the judicial process in their own country? (Mayra Sofia Moreno for FOR Colombia Program)

See our last post on paramilitary terror in Colombia.