Colombian government continues attack on rights defenders

Jesús Caballero is one of the latest trade union leaders to be assassinated in Colombia. A labor unionist with the State Training Institute in the Caribbean town of Sabanalarga, Caballero disappeared on April 16 and his body was found two days later, with signs of torture. He was also one of the organizers of the March 6 international demonstrations against state-sponsored and paramilitary violence and in solidarity with all victims. That made him the sixth person involved in the March 6 mobilization to be murdered. Such frontal targeting of the March 6 organizers has been linked to remarks made by President Alvaro Uribe’s advisor José Obdulio Gaviria in Colombian media that protest organizers were guerrillas. [Semana, April 23]

In response to the remarks and subsequent attacks, 63 members of [US] Congress told President Uribe in an April 14 letter: “We respectfully ask that you personally reiterate the prohibition on public servants making disparaging remarks about human right defenders… [W]e urge you to publicly reject Gaviria’s statements and reaffirm your
government’s commitment to the protection of human rights defenders.”

So far, the request seems to have fallen in deaf ears. Instead of showing signs of support for labor and human rights work, Uribe’s government went into attack mode. On April 18, as Vice President Francisco Santos was touring the US in a desperate attempt to save the Colombia-US Free Trade Agreement, he complained that the Congressional letter was part of a defamation campaign mounted by human rights organizations and labor to sink the FTA. Vice President Santos went on: “The Congress members are lied to. They don’t know. We are investigating the murders and there will be a response to the letter. [The killings] were not related to the mobilization nor with what they claimed happened. They are using [presidential advisor] José Obdulio’s statements to make a bigger fuss.” His comments were made the same day that Jesús Caballero’s body was found. [El Tiempo, April 18]

President Uribe himself accused human rights defenders of inciting attacks against his family. [RCN radio link, April 24] His accusations referred to a highly embarrassing episode in which the president’s cousin and close political ally, Mario Uribe, tried to avoid arrest by requesting political asylum at the Costa Rican Embassy in Bogota. Uribe is the most influential politician under criminal investigation for links to right-wing dead squads, in what is known as the “para-politics” scandal. [AFP, April 22]

Soon after the word got out that Uribe was requesting asylum to avoid arrest, dozens of human rights defenders and members of the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes assembled in front of the Costa Rican Embassy—bringing pictures of well-known and less known persons killed by the paramilitaries, a coffin, and even a mariachi band. They demanded that Uribe turn himself in to the Colombian courts and respond to the crimes for which he is being investigated.

In the end, the Costa Rican government denied Uribe’s asylum request and he was arrested, a victory for all those who seek justice for the atrocities committed by the paramilitaries. Some media falsely reported that protesters had thrown bricks at the car in which Uribe was driven from the embassy. But President Uribe’s claim that he feels threatened by human defenders is as credible as Mario Uribe’s argument of that he is a victim of political persecution under his cousin’s government.

The role of the powerful playing the victim seems to be a theme for President Uribe’s government. On April 24, Ferney Suaza, a demobilized paramilitary leader, claimed that an international non governmental organization attempted to bribe him “with money and promise of asylum” to incriminate President Uribe of having links to paramilitary armies in the Urabá region. The next day, he said the offer did not [come] from organizations at all. Hopefully, a criminal investigation will determine the accuracy of Suaza’s accusations. [El Tiempo, April 25]

A little letter creates a big flurry
Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter in response to attacks on labor and human rights activists and statements by presidential advisor José Obdulio Gaviria saying that organizers of the March 6 protests were FARC guerrillas. FOR and others issued action alerts, and nationwide grassroots efforts resulted in 63 members signing the letter which was sent to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe on April 14 to express “grave concern regarding threats and attacks against human rights defenders preceding and following the March 6, 2008 nationwide rally against paramilitary and other forms of violence.’ Although no major media in the US gave attention to the Congressional letter, it created quite a media flurry in Colombia, where all the main newspapers, some regional ones and a variety of radio stations covered the letter and responses to it.

Government spokespersons said that Carolina Barco, Colombia’s Ambassador to the US, would
officially respond with a diplomatic letter sometime next week. Uribe himself said “José Obdulio will respond to this little letter [using the Spanish diminuative cartita] with another letter.” But he was criticized for having minimized the importance of the letter by using such language.

In response, US Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield advised that the letter be taken very seriously. “A letter signed by 63 US Congressional representatives is very important. I think we should take it seriously. I take it seriously because it represents the opinion of many of my congressional reps.” Hopefully the letter and the flurry will also lead to real results—and Colombian officials will think twice before making these kinds of accusatory and dangerous remarks about respected human rights defenders.

Take positive action:
Members of Congress rarely hear from constituents about things they’ve done right. If your Representative signed the letter to President Uribe, please (a) thank her or him, and (b) urge him/her to actively oppose further US military aid to Colombia. A government whose leadership can’t distinguish between guerrillas and civilians shouldn’t be armed for counterinsurgency with your tax dollars. See the list of Representatives who signed the letter and how you can call them.

From the FOR Colombia Program, May 2008

See our last posts on Colombia, and the paramilitary scandal.