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STATE OF SEIGE IN ARAUCA: Indigenous Peoples, Civil Society Under Attack in Colombia's Oil Zone

by Bill Weinberg

"When there was no petroleum, there was no war," says Dario Tulivila, a traditional Guahibo Indian leader from Colombia's bloodily conflicted department of Arauca. "When the oil came, the war came. Before that, we had a digified life here. Our council of cabildos does not permit them to take the blood from the earth in our territories. The wealth goes to other countries, and only brings war to us Colombians."

Tulivila is president of the Association of Cabildos and Traditional Indigenous Authorities of the Department of Arauca (ASCATIDAR), which was officially launched in June 2003 to promote the local autonomy of the department's Guahibo and Uwa Indian peoples. This autonomy is ostensibly protected by provisions of Colombia's 1991 constitution--but, ironically, since that constitution was enacted the threats to indigenous self-rule in Arauca have grown at a terrifying pace.

We are speaking at the ASCATIDAR offices in Saravena, a once-quiet farm town where now helmeted army troops lugging M-16s control the streets in intimidating numbers, routinely stopping pedestrians for searches, endlessly circling blocks in convoys of motorcycles--or, less often, rumbling through in columns of huge, gun-turreted tanks. In the surrounding countryside, leftist guerillas of the loosely-allied Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) operate with a freer hand than almost anywhere else in Colombia, and attacks even within Saravena's urban center are frequent.

Saravena is situated at the northwestern corner of Arauca, just south of the Rio Arauca, a tributary of the Orinoco that forms the border with Venezuela. The town is just east of where the forested mountains of the Cordillera Oriental slope down to the broad savannas of the Orinoco basin, once viewed by Colombia's ruling elites as a solution to the crisis of landlessness in the cordillera. Saravena sprang up over the past 40 years, as the region was opened to peasant colonization with the official encouragement of Colombia's government. The Uwa, who inhabit the mountain cloud forests, and the Guahibo, the indigenous people of the Orinoco plains, have learned to live with their campesino settler neighbors, even if on reduced lands. But over those same years, this land once seen as an expendable fronteir has become a top priority for the national government--as it has been targetted by both armed guerilla groups and multinational oil companies.

"Unity, territory, autonomy and culture--if we don't have this, we don't have anything," Tulivila outlines the priorities of the contested zone's indigenous peoples. "We have been maintaining our traditions for over 500 yrs. We are not with the guerillas, nor the army, nor the paramilitaries. We are our own authorities."

However, making that authority real has never been more of a challenge, as the army, National Police and the officially illegal paramilitary groups with which they seem to closely coordinate now charge nearly every organization of civil society with being a guerilla front.

Army-Paramilitary Impunity on Indigenous Land

In the latest of several round-ups of community leaders in Saravena, on Aug. 21, army troops and agents of the Administrative Security Department carried out a series of raids on homes and workplaces in the town, arresting 26 on the usual charge of "rebellion"--specifically, collaborating with the ELN guerillas, as widely reported in the Colombian press. Ismael Uncacia, a traditional Uwa leader from the resguardo (reservation) of Sinciga (actually in the moutains, in nearby Norte de Santander department), was among those apparently taregtted for arrest. Soldiers and agents showed up at the ASCATIDAR office demanding to know his whereabouts. Uncacia, former president of ASCATIDAR's predecessor organization, the Regional Indigenous Council of Arauca, wasn't at the office that day, and remains at large.

But the greater terror comes from the completely unaccountable forces of the paramilitary groups, who operate in a shadowy network of groups with names like the Vencedores de Arauca, and seem to overlap with the official security forces in Arauca with greater bltancy than elsewhere in Colombia.

At the Guahibo resguardo of Parreros, about an hour southeast of Saravena in Tame municipality, an April 2-3 attack by paras left three dead--including a pregnant woman. Several other were raped. Most of community--some 400--fled, as well as 300 more local mestizo campesinos from the nearby village of Betoyes. The refugees mostly made for Saravena, where they were put up in town's Cathlic Church. They only returned to their villages in mid-August, with army accompaniment and security guarantees negotiated by church leaders.

The attack fit the para model. The gunmen arrived at dawn on April 2, rounded up the residents at rifle-point, carried out the atrocities, and sacked the village schoolhouse, leaving paramilitary graffiti scrawled all over the chalkboard. Adding to the chaos, guerillas attacked later that day, apparently aware that the paras had seized the village. The guerilla presence, in turn, brought in the army. Military aircraft bombed the resguardo, destroying forest and yucca and platano crops. The following day, another man was taken from from nearby Betoyes by the paras. His mutilated body was found April 8 in Puerto Rondon, one municipality to the east.

There were plenty of warning signs that such atrocities were coming. On March 30, days before the attack, armed men had detained and roughed up local mestizo residents at Betoyes, accusing them of being guerilla collaborators. Witnesses were not even sure if these gunmen were army or paramilitary.

The pregnant woman who was killed, Omaira Fernandez, also had reason to believe she was targetted. Her husband, Nilson Delgado Lopez, had been killed in a similar attack in Betoyes Dec. 31, 2002.

Survivors of the April atrocities reported to ASCATIDAR and the Saravena-based Joel Sierra Regional Human Rights Committee that they recognized soldiers from Arauca's 18th Batallion waering para armbands in the attack. The 18th Batallion's Col. Montoya Sanchez later told Arauca's Radio Caracol that the refugees had fled under orders from the ELN, and that the claims of a paramilitary attack were a "manipulation of the NGO Joel Sierra."

Oil and the Geography of Terror

Until a few months ago, Saravena and much of the rest of Arauca were a "Zone of Rehabiliation and Consolidation," or ZRC, declared by President Alvaro Uribe, granting the army extraordinary powers. The ZRC allowed detentions and searches without judicial orders, and required foreigners to get special permission from the military to visit the zone. The zones were the subject of much controversy in Colombia, and technically no longer exist. But Juan Carlos Torregroza of the Joel Sierra committee (which is named for a young local leader of the National Association of Campesino Land Users who was killed by the army in 1989) says, "Nothing has really changed here. The zones were only abolished on paper."

The ZRCs were established following Uribe's immediate post-election Decree 18-37 of Aug. 11, 2002, declaring a state of "internal commotion" in Colombia. The decree was approved by Colombia's congress, allowing Uribe's Sept. 9 declaration of the ZRCs--requiring only the signatures of his cabinet members. On Nov. 27, following a required judicial review of the extraordinary measures, the Constitutional Court, Colombia's highest, overturned the most onerous provisions of the ZRCs--although certain provisions were left standing, such as military restrictions on the sale of gasoline. Human rights organizations throughout Colombia filed briefs opposing the zones.

The ZRCs geographically followed the Cano-Limon pipeline that links Occidental Petroleum's Cano-Limon oilfields in central Arauca with the Caribbean port of Covenas in the department of Sucre. In Arauca, the ZRC covered the municipalities of Arauca and Arauquita (which the Cano-Limon field straddles) and Saravena (which the pipeline crosses). A second ZRC was declared in a cluster of municipalities straddling the borders of Sucre and Bolivar departments also traversed by the pipeline. The pipeline is a favorite target of the guerillas, who have repeatedly blown it up, spilling oil into the fields and forests. On Sept. 1, when I was in Saravena, guerillas blew up a power line tower just outside the Cano-Limon complex, leaving the complex as well as the towns of Arauca (the departmental capital) and Arauquita--125,000 residents--without electricity.

Last year, a contingent of US Special Forces troops arrived in Arauca to train units of the 18th Battalion in "counter-terrorism" to protect local oil infrastructure. The Mechanized Group Rebeiz Pizarro, based in Saravena (and named for a former defense minister), is also being trained by the gringos.

In April, the ZRCs were allowed to sunset altogether. But the de facto state of siege in Arauca was in place before Uribe's official declaration, and persists since its demise. In 2001, Arauca's popular governor Hector Federico Gallardo, elected on the ticket of the local grassroots Communal and Communitarian Movement, was removed from office by the national Council of State after only six months in power--on the technicality that he had briefly served as interim governor six months earlier (a constitutional violation). Interim governors and mayors frequently find themselves in power in Arauca, as elected officials are forced to flee to Bogota or elsewhere under threat from either the paramilitaries or guerillas (or both). Gallardo was replaced by a presidentially-appointed interim governor--a recently retired army colonel. The former colonel was followed by a string of more presidentially-appointed interim governors. Even elected officials of the left-wing Patriotic Union (UP) have been forced to resign under death threats from the FARC--as was Arauquita's UP mayor Orlando Ardila in November 2002. The interim mayor named by the interim govenror to rule in his place was, once again, a retired army colonel.

This period of interim rule has seen a wave of nightmarish bloodshed in Arauca. The Nov. 20, 1998 massacre of five residents by paramilitaries at the mestizo village of La Cabuya, in Tame municipality, was less notable for the level of violence than for the fact that it was actually followed by arrests. Several members of army are now in prison in connection with the attack at La Cabuya, including majors and lieutenants. Last year, more than 500 were killed in Tame municipality. Jose Rusbel Lara, a member of the Joel Sierra board and author of a 2002 human rights report on Arauca published by the Bogota-based legal collective Humanidad Vigente, was gunned down in Tame town in broad daylight on Nov. 8. He had recently petititioned Inter-American Commission of Human Rights to pressure the Colombian government for protection of Joel Sierra leaders. There have been no arrests in his case.

On June 28, 2002, reporter and director Efrain Varela of Meridiano 70 radio in Arauca town was assassinated by unknown gunmen on the road between Arauca and Cano-Limon. A former mayor of Saravena and former president of the Arauca department peace commission, he had been vocally critical of both the paramilitaries and guerillas. Numerous other reporters in Arauca--especially at the community-run station Radio DIC--have been threatened by the paramilitaries.

In November 2002, Saravena's interim mayor Crispulo Cacares killed by unknown gunmen. The elected mayor, Jose Trinidad Sierra, was in Bogota, having left Arauca following threats from the FARC.

In 15 days in February 2003, twenty were killed at various places around Saravena. One police officer is in prison in Bogota in connection with the murders, and four civilians are also facing charges.

From Community Control to Corporate-Military Occupation

The decline of legitimate government in Arauca reflects a generalized attack on the local institutions of civil society. The 26 arrested in the August sweep include representatives of the CUT trade union federation; members of the local construction, education and municipal workers unions; a worker from the Colombian agrarian reform institute; nurses from the Saravena hospital; a reporter from community-run Radio DIH; promoters of a project to develop a local university for Saravena; the director of Saravena's Casa de Cultura commuity center; three workers from the mayor's office; and a taxi driver. Jose Murrillo, president of the Joel Sierra Regional Human Rights Committee, was detained in a local barrio, where he was meeting with the family of another man who had just been detained. Another Joel Sierra official, Ismael Pabon, and three more CUT officials remain at large, apprently under arrest orders. Those arrested are now awaiting trial in a Bogota prison.

The previous sweep was even more harsh. Last Nov. 12, in the midst of Saravena's annual country fair, members of the 18th Battalion and National Police rounded up several hundred people from their residences and workplaces at dawn. They were held for several hours in the local sports stadium, and interrogated. 43 social leaders among the detainees were arrested, including three women. They are still being held in Bogota on "rebellion" charges--allegeldy, once again, collaborating with the ELN. Local peasant leader Juan Evangelista Rocha of the National Association of Campesino Land Users is among the imprisoned. The army dubbed the sweep "Operation Heroica."

Also arrested in both sweeps--five in November and four in August--were members of the Communitarian Aqueduct and Sewer Corporation of Saravena, or ECASS. "The story of ECASS is very beautiful," says Juan Guerra, ECAAS chief of internal control, who is openly proud of the organization. ECASS, which now supplies water throughout Saravena's urban center, began as a local self-help project in the 1970s, when residents came together to built an aqueduct to bring water to the young town from the Rio Sataca, several kilometers to the south.

Aracua was at this time conceived as a "campesino zone," with a 50-hectare limit on family holdings titled by Colombia's agrarian reform bureuacracy as campesinos settled the region from the Cordillera Oriental. The region's economy was based on local consumption of locally-gown rice, yucca, beef, platano and maize. The settlers were largely left to their own devices. "There was no state presence," says Guerra. "The local population built the sewers by their own means. It all changed with the oil boom in the 1980s, when the Cano-Limon pipeline was built."

ECASS remains true to its roots, maintaining a grassroots-democratic structure. The local Junta de Accion Comunal in each of Saravena's 37 barrios has two delegates to an Assembly of Delegates, which in turn elects seven representatives to the ECASS Junta Directiva, which also includes members from CUT, the National Association of Campesino Land Users and the Chamber of Commerce. A portion of the profits go to community aid, and the rest is re-invested. Three simialr such community water corporations also exist in rural areas of the municipality.

In July, ECASS worker Uriel Ortiz Coronado was killed in Saravena while eating at a local comedor (family-run food stall). Three others who were with him were also killed. Witnesses said two men in civilian clothes shot them with pistols--mere moments after they had been accosted by the National Police. There have been no arrests in the case.

Other ECASS members and employees have been threatened by phone. The army has detained employees at roadblocks, and accused them of giving ECASS money to the guerillas. The Fiscalia, the national government's criminal investigative arm, is is said to be probing ECASS president Luciano Pinto for suspected links to the guerillas.

ECASS worker Rito Hernandez Porras says that in mid-August, men in civilian clothes stopped him in the streets, threatened him with death, and showed him list of ECASS workers and others targetted for death as guerilla collaborators. Another time he was detained by police, who threatened to bring in paras to kill him.

Guerra denies that ECASS has any links to the guerillas, but acknowledges that ECASS equipment is sometimes commandeered by the FARC. He says that two ECASS vehicles have been stolen by FARC guerillas at gunpoint in the field over past two years.

"This is a dirty war," he says. "The state is incapable of defeating the guerillas, so they attack the people."

On the night of August 31, despite (or perhaps because of) the massive army presence in Saravena's streets, paramilitary graffiti appeared on walls throughout the town. Most read ACC-AUC HAS ARRIVED--an apparent reference to the para group Campesino Self-Defense of Casanare (the department immediately to the south of Arauca) and the notorious United Colombian Self-Defense Forces, grandfather of the paramilitary movement. Another graffito read DEATH TO TOADS, MILITIAS AND COLLABORATORS--toads apparently being para slang for guerilla informants. Among the buildings prominently marked with graffiti were the Joel Sierra offices, the ECASS building and (unnervingly, but probably coincidentally) the hotel where I was staying with my photographer. The graffito on the ECASS building read: FINAL SENTENCE: DEATH TO ECASS COLLABORATORS.

Fast Bucks vs. "Millennial Law"

In addittion to the Occidental oilfields at Cano-Limon (in which the Colombian state company Ecopetrol is a 50% partner), the Spanish company Respol also has an exploration block in nearby Capachos. "Oxy" also had exploration blocks on Uwa traditional lands to the west in the Cordillera Oriental of Norte de Santander department, and faced roadblocks and other organized resistance from local Uwa communities seeking to halt expansion of the oil industry from the plains to the mountains. Occidental recently abandoned the test block, citing unpromising finds. The Uwa and their international supporters in groups such as Amazon Watch claim popular pressure prompted the company to pull out.

ASCATIDAR president Dario Tulivila notes that the oil development continues to take a toll on indigenous lands and lives in Arauca, even as the war grinds on. "Cano-Limon was our territory," he says. "We had big fish there--now there are no fish. The oil has destroyed all the flora and fauna. The rivers are all contaminated. The forests where we gathered our medicinal plants are all gone. The rivers are all contaminated. If I cut myself and my blood flows out, I will die. It is the same with the earth."

Even on the Arauca plains, where oil is already big business, indigenous peoples are struggling to halt expansion of the infrastructure--especially a new highway linking Arauca town and the Cano-Limon fields to the main Saravena-Bogota road. To connect with Venezuelan highways to Caracas, the project has been dubbed the "Ruta de los Libertadores" because it follows Simon Bolivar's 1819 march from Venezuela to Colombia. The Ruta is to cut through the Guahibo resguardo of Betoyes. "We will struggle to the finish to stop the highway," says Tulivila.

In contrast to the new paved Ruta, on which construction has just started, the road we take south from Saravena to the recently-built Uwa community center on the resguardo of Playas del Bojaba is rocky and poorly maintained. We pass campesinos heroically struggling on bicycles over the rocks and ruts. The landscape slowly changes from pasture and cropland to forest as we approach the mist-shrouded mountains.

Uwa leader and ASCATIDAR vice president Jose Perico Salon tells us that the campesino holdings we pass, full of grazing cattle and banana trees, were favorite Uwa hunting grounds. Just a little more than a generation ago, Uwa ventured down to these lands from their mountain resguardos to hunt deer and other "carne de monte" with traps and bows and arrows. He says that this land was titled to the Uwa by Simon Bolivar when he passed through in the liberation campaign of 1819, and that title was reconfirmed by the Colombian government with Law 89 of 1890. A bridge over the Rio Satoca also takes us over the subterranean Cano-Limon pipeline.

Perico Salon also complains of army and paramilitary incursions onto local indigenous lands. "They can't enter our resguardo without the permission of the community. But they persist in entering. They threaten us, accuse us of collaborating with the guerillas, threaten to kill us. We don't let the guerilla enter wither, But they also come, and have threatened us at times, accuse us of talking to the soldiers. This is the problem throughout the department of Arauca."

"We always say supposed paramiliaty groups," adds Victor Chivaraquia, an Uwa elder and ASCATIDAR member. "They don't really exist. They are a creation of the military."

At the school at the Uwa community center, the kids gather around us, smiling and eager for an impromptu English lesson. The building's roof is of thatch in the traditional choza style, but the walls are concrete and solid. The center was recently built with aid from the Arauca departmental government. The school has five teachers, of whom two are Uwa. Education is bi-lingual, in Uwa and Spanish.

Tulivila sees this as a model for Arauca's 28 resguardos. "We want teachers in our communities," he says. "Professionally trained, but of our own people--not strangers." He sees ASCATIDAR's work as to ready Arauca's indigenous communities for the 21st century while keeping centuries-old cultural traditions intact. ASCATIDAR is largely made up of "cabildos" from Arauca's resguardos--the leaders traditionally charged with representing the communities to the outside world. The "capitanes" and "caciques," the leaders responsible for mainting internal peace in the communities, rarely leave the resguardos, he says.

Victor Chivaraquia is insistent that if my photographer and I visit the Uwa center that his words reach our readers. He makes me take notes as he speaks, and read what I have written back to him for his approval.

"Do you know what millennial law means?" Victor asks. "It means it has no beginning, and no end. It was given to us by Sira. What is the word for God in your language? We Uwa say Sira."

"The ideology of the rich is destroying the world," Victor dictates. "Who authorized the multinationals to be the owners of the black gold on indigenous land? Did Sira, Dios, give them that right? If the multinationals like Oxy, Ecopetrol and Shell keep exploiting the black gold, the earth won't be able to produce for us. The ideology of the Uwa is that every tree is our brother. The water is our brother. The rocks are our brothers. This is our millenial law. Because it is a chain of life, and we cannot live without every part of the chain. The police and army say that the indigenous, the protectors of the mountain, are protecting the guerilla. But we are just carrying out the responsibility that Sira gave us. The governments cannot give us another world to live in."

(Sept. 4, 2003)

BARRANCABERMEJA: Paramilitary Terror and the Struggle for Colombia's Oil,8/27

BETWEEN DYNCORP AND THE A.U.C:Glyphosate and Paramilitary Terror in Colombia's Cimitarra Valley, 8/27

NONVIOLENCE IN COLOMBIA: A Growing Anti-Militarist Movement Demands Right to "Active Neutrality" in Armed Conflict

URIBE: "FUMIGATIONS WILL CONTINUE" :Despite Court Ruling and Peasant Protest

Reprinting permissible with attribution.