Colombia in 2004
Colombia in 2004
Mass arrests by the army, paramilitary massacres and assassinations were among the ongoing effects of Uribe's 'democratic security' policy. Even as the sham 'negotiations' for the 'demobilization' of the paramilitaries continued (simultaneously with the massacres by the same 'demobilizing' paras) paramilitarism was being given an official boost of massive size in the form of one of Uribe's 2002 election promises. Uribe had promised to build a network of 'civilian informers' to help the army and police 'fight terrorism'. The number of these informers was now in the tens of thousands. Uribe's dream was for a million of them. The prestige of paramilitaries took a blow, however, at the end of January when Italian police raids captured over 100 important mafia figures along with tons of cocaine. The arrests revealed extensive links between the narcotrafficking organizations of the Italian mafia and the Colombian paramilitaries, by way of the paramilitary leader who had made a televised address to the nation just months before, Salvatore Mancuso.
Late January also brought a bigger killer of Colombians than the paramilitaries and guerrillas combined to the fore: preventable disease. With 8 people killed in a few weeks, an outbreak of yellow fever sent the government scrambling for vaccines. Venezuela sent 500,000 units of vaccine. Brazil sent 1,250,000. Colombian analysts from the social movements pointed out that, for all the publicity surrounding the yellow fever outbreak, malaria - also transmitted by mosquitos - kills several thousand Colombians a year. The Colombian government once had public health and rural preventive care programs in the 1960s that helped the fight against malaria: these fell victim to neoliberal economics. With peasants being thrown off of their lands because of paramilitary massacre and aerial fumigation, they move deeper into the jungle, encountering mosquitos and contracting malaria. Between the reduction of preventive care and treatment and an increase in displacement (Colombia has well over 3 million internally displaced people today) malaria is a major killer. Hector Mondragon wrote: "Little by little in Colombia and other South American countries the conditions for new epidemics of yellow fever are being created. International organizations have recommended the vaccination of all children older than one year in order to prevent urban epidemics. Colombia is not among the few countries that have followed this advice. In Colombia, mass vaccination only occurs in municipalities where cases have occurred, and their neighbors." The immediate crisis passed, but the underlying causes, as Mondragon points out, remain.
By the beginning of February, the Nasa indigenous people of Cauca were preparing political action against those responsible for the murder of Olmedo Ul by the army on New Year's day. On February 10 the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, ACIN, announced their intention to try the 'intellectual and material authors' of the murder of Olmedo Ul. They notified the commander of the local battalion (the 8th battalion â€˜Pichinchaâ€™), Juan Vicente Trujillo, and told him to be there for the public trial on February 19. Their action had a constitutional justification: the 1991 constitution allows indigenous peoples to enact traditional justice in indigenous territory. Since Olmedo Ul was murdered in indigenous territory, they had solid grounds on which to try the perpetrators, and starting with commander Trujillo, perhaps they would find the very President of the Republic carried some responsibility for the crime(s) committed there? The Nasa, the people organizing the trial, have a system of justice based on resolution of conflict in public assemblies, acknowledgement of whatever crime or transgression was committed, and restitution. Along with restitution, however, there is symbolic punishment with a stick called the 'fuete'. In calling the army to account, ACIN was well aware that they were taking a risk, and acknowledged it in their communique. Indigenous people in Colombia knew what they risked. The Kankuamo, in a different part of Colombia (Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta) were receiving a humanitarian commission to their territory in those days. While that commission was at large, the army picked up Juan Daza Carrillo in front of his children. They told the media that Daza was a guerrilla who they had captured. Later they changed the story and said that Daza was a guerrilla who they had killed in combat.
ACIN's announcement came at the same time as Uribe was preparing his visit to Europe. European aid, european investment, and above all, political support for his project was at stake in the visit. While the United States would provide helicopters and counterinsurgency advice, Uribe hoped that European countries could give his government some international legitimacy. Unfortunately, the Italian police raids against the mafia that had just taken place, revealing a whole web of connections with the Colombian paramilitaries, didn't help Uribe's case in Europe. Indeed, Silvio Berlusconi, who shares a great deal with Uribe politically and in terms of style, was too embarrassed by the mafia incident to receive him in Italy. His speech at the European Parliament was no success, as Member of European Parliament Richard Howitt reported: "The protest against Uribe in the European Parliament has gone off successfully today. White 'Peace in Colombia' scarves distributed by the Belgian NGO co-ordination were worn by around one-third of MEPs, who walked out of Parliament's Chamber as Uribe was called to speak. Put together with those who chose not to attend, there were only about one-quarter of MEPs left to hear his speech. Uribe was clearly rattled by this demonstration." Uribe had, however, made an important deal with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, in which Colombia was to purchase dozens of tanks for deployment on the border with Venezuela. Raul Baduel, a Venezuelan Army commander, commented on the deal with great concern in an interview in March. The evidence was mounting that a war between Colombia and Venezuela, to try to derail Venezuela's 'Bolivarian Revolution', was being prepared. The purchase of the AMX-30 battle tanks only increased Venezuela's worries.
Uribe had hardly returned when ACIN's February 19 assembly put the military on trial. Thousands of indigenous people and all the national press were in attendance. Conspicuously absent, however, was battalion commander Trujillo, who had given his word that he would attend and face justice. The evening news were dominated by the story. As reporters canvassed the country's highest level military commanders on their reactions to the trial, none of them said a word about the guilt or innocence of the army in violating human rights in Nasa territory. Instead they denied that indigenous people had jurisdiction to try military officers in indigenous courts. If the idea was to delegitimize the Nasa politically, however, it failed. The very day of the trial the Nasa were receiving the international acclaim that had eluded Uribe: their participatory municipal development planning process had won a United Nations Development Programme sustainable development prize, the Equatorial Initiative of the UNDP. The prize was granted to 'Proyecto Nasa', the project of the municipality of Toribio. Toribio is the centre of the indigenous movement in Northern Cauca. A generation of leaders of that movement have received their education at CECIDIC, the indigenous university there. Proyecto Nasa is the name of the development plan (Or Life Plan as the Nasa call it) the municipality, a plan that uses the same types of decentralized participatory planning methodologies applied in the better-known 'participatory budgeting' exercises of the Worker's Party in Porto Alegre, Brazil, when they held that municipality. Two of the leaders of the movement in Northern Cauca were in Malaysia receiving the UNDP prize when the trial of the army took place. There were celebrations in Toribio on their return. The mayor of Toribio, Arquimedes Vitonas, one of the young generation of Nasa leaders, expressed some of the spirit of that moment at the celebration party when he said that the Nasa had to "take advantage of these moments. Because moments pass, and don't return."
The Nasa had struck a symbolic blow against the abuses of militarism and paramilitarism. Colombia's unionists launched another battle in their struggle with the Coca-Cola corporation, whose Colombian bottling operations use paramilitaries to break unions by killing the unionists (8 were killed in this way since 1996). On March 15, Coca-Cola workers from the SINALTRAINAL foodworkers' union began a hunger strike in eight major Colombian cities. The vice president of one of the local unions marked the severity of the occasion with the comment: "If we lose the fight against Coca-Cola, we will first lose our union, next our jobs and then our lives." The hunger strike was a response to a change in the Coca-Cola corporation's tactics in Colombia. If before the bottlers were using paramilitary murder to break the unions, in 2003 they decided simply to close up. In September 2003 the decision was announced to close 11 of the company's 16 Colombian bottling plants, pressuring workers into voluntarily resigning and releasing the company from its contractual obligations to relocate the workers in other jobs. Relocation for the workers was the demand of the hunger strikers. Over the next few days workers reported the kind of low-level intimidation that usually precedes paramilitary attacks - surveillance, phoned threats. An open, signed threat from the paramilitary organization arrived on March 19. The company waited 11 days, after which the health of some of the strikers had deteriorated significantly, before agreeing to a meeting. The workers stopped the hunger strike in exchange for dialogue on relocation and a public announcement by the company that their demands had been legitimate (this latter to prevent paramilitary retaliation). It did not work. The paras would not let a success against the corporation go unpunished. SINALTRAINAL reported on April 20th that: "At 7 am on April 20, 2004, various armed men with machine guns entered the home of the brother of Coca-Cola union leader Efrain Guerrero's wife in Bucaramanga, and fired indiscriminately at the family, killing Efrain's brother-in-law, Gabriel Remolina, his wife Fanny and wounding three of their children. One of these children, Robinson Remolina, is in grave condition in the hospital."
If the indigenous and the unionists sought to press their political and ethical advantage, the Colombian government and its paramilitary auxiliaries kept up the repressive onslaught. Paramilitaries committed assassinations - a political activist in Putumayo on March 1, a peasant leader in Tolima on March 3 - while the army kept up its strategy of individual and mass detentions. Families of men detained in Popayan's San Isidiro prison reported on March 1 that there were at least 45 such political detainees inside. But this number was as a grain of sand compared with the sheer scale of mass detentions under Uribe's 'democratic security'. The Jose Alvear Restrepo human rights collective published figures that in Uribe's first year of office 125,778 people had been detained - a rate of 334 a day or 14 per hour.
A peculiar tactic by the Colombian establishment is to 'reveal' things that everyone already knows in high-profile mainstream outlets. Shortly after these 'revelations' - or preferably simultaneously with them - people are supposed to forget that they have been 'revealed'. The obvious connections between what has been 'revealed' and the other events in the public sphere are never made. This was the case for some of the 'revelations' of links between the army and paramilitaries that surfaced in 2004. The mainstream magazine Cambio, for example, published a major revalation from Army General Uscategui, who stood accused of helping paramilitaries coordinate a major massacre years before in Mapiripan. Uscategui ensured the Colombian public that he had no intention of being the fall guy for the military: if his head rolled, so would others. "A trial would be glorious for me," he was quoted in Cambio as saying. "It is very serious, because it involves a matter that we have spent our life denying, which is the link between the military and the paramilitaries." Uscategui discusses the existence of a whole set of documents decisively implicating the military: "The Prosecutor's office got a computer in a raid. There were 58 disks and not a lot of value. But office wasn't foolish and they sent the computer and the disks to the American embassy, to Anne Patterson, who sent the computer to Miami. There a systems specialist decoded the data and found 300 documents that are a bomb. I have copies because I was there when they were produced and I can publish them: the pamphlets the paramilitaries took to the Mapiripan massacre are sitting there on the Paris Battalion's computer... the rules of engagement for Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (the paramilitary organization) were prepared on that computer. For example they took a document on Disciplinary Regime for the Armed Forces, changed where it said 'Armed Forces', and handed it out to members of the AUC... there are the accounting documents for monthly payment including names for the whole Guaviare front of AUC, 93 men and women with their aliases, positions..." There were similar 'revelations' about another General, Rito Alejo, who was responsible for another massacre (Bijao del Cacarica), in 1997, but the process of justice was stopped before it could really get going by the Prosecutor General. None of the revelation that the military and paramilitaries were one and the same seemed to affect stories of the phony 'negotiations' between the government and the paras, however. Neither did the strange incident at Guaitarilla in the department of Narino on March 19, when army soldiers ambushed and massacred a convoy of national police. The police cars had cocaine in them. A lot of cocaine. Was this another turf war over spoils, the way the 'army-paramilitary' combats were?
Certainly the army's massacre of a peasant family in Cajamarca in the department of Tolima on April 10, including a six-month old baby, two 17-year olds, a 14-year old, and a 24 year old, was no turf war. The army had prepared a checkpoint, ostensibly to intercept a FARC unit in the area, and opened fire on the first people who came along, according to the 'Corporacion Reiniciar', a human rights group based in Bogota. No shockwaves from that 'revelation' either. Nor from the capture of a major assassin, an employee of a major narcotrafficker named 'Don Diego' out of a junior officers' (as in military officers) club along with 20 cellphones, 2 guns, 4 cars, and some $10,000 USD in cash. El Tiempo reported the arrest without fanfare, without following up on the obvious question - what was he doing there? Another revelation came still later: in May, Chiquita Banana company revealed that it had paid protection money to paramilitaries 'organizations in Colombia to protect its employees there and voluntarily reported this to the U.S. Justice Department a year ago,' the Wall Street Journal reported on May 11.
More odd evidence of some kind of split within paramilitary ranks kept piling up. The overall commander of the national paramilitary organization (AUC), Carlos Castano, a man who had confessed in an autobiography to responsibility for hundreds of killings and for narcotrafficking, who had spent his life building the paramilitaries into the right-wing killing machine they had become, disappeared. His wife gave an interview to El Tiempo on April 20 in which she described an attack on Castano in which some of his men had been killed. Her story was that Castano had been ambushed while checking his email. El Tiempo proceeded to inquire after the health of this mass murderer in rather tender terms. "Is he alive or is there a possibility that something has happend to him?" "Are you sure?" This touching concern was echoed by the catholic church, which was moderating the 'negotiations' betwen the government and the paramilitaries. The Bishop of Monteria, Julio Cesar Vidal, warned that the church would drop the negotiations if they did not receive some clarification of Castano's whereabouts and well-being. Conflicting reports continued to come out. One of Castano's scouts said he had been wounded in the fighting. Salvatore Mancuso, the other major paramilitary chief, stated that there had been no attempt on Castano, only some scattered and accidental crossfire. Shortly afterwards, the Israeli press published a note in which Israeli officials denied that Castano was in Israel, where he had, according to his autobiography, learned much about fighting terrorism at a young age. Such unsolicited denials could only suggest that Castano was, indeed, in Israel.
That wasn't the kind of 'foreign training' the Colombian government was interested in. The government had arrested three Irish men in August 2001 on charges of training FARC, claiming that Niall Connolly, Martin McCauley and James Monaghan were IRA militants. They were held for years, but the charges against them collapsed at trial and the men, known as the "Colombia Three" in Ireland, were acquitted of the terrorism charges.
In the midst of these strange happenings that ought to have cast tremendous doubt on the integrity of the Colombian government's ability to keep its people safe, Uribe launched another bold plan called 'Plan Patriota' to 'change the balance of power' with the FARC, on April 25. The idea was for a major military offensive of 14-15000 men in the south of the country. In the event, the FARC weren't dislodged and the plan amounted to more of the same. In Arauca the Joel Sierra human rights group communicated the names and circumstances of the murders and disappearances of a dozen people in that month alone for that region. A Nasa leader, Pablo Andres Tenorio, was arrested on phony charges on April 30 - the community immediately mobilized and prevented his disappearance into the system of jails or extrajudicial executions that was marked for him, physically taking him out of custody. Unfortunately they were not able to prevent the death of Aparicio Nuscue, victim of an attack on April 5 by the Army. He died in hospital a month later.
The Wayuu indigenous people, who live on the border between Venezuela and Colombia, in the La Guajira region, suffered from the brewing conflict and the presence of paramilitaries. The paramilitaries attacked in late April, arriving in the community of bahia Portete on April 18. The community gave the names of 12 murdered. They stated that 30 more had been disappeared. They told stories of rape and torture. More details only emerged a monthl later, as the refugees in Venezuela began to talk to the press about the murders. The massacre had its desired effect: the Wayuu fled some of their ancestral lands - many of them fled across the border to Venezuela. The community circulated its report in early May. On May 9, 56 Colombian paramilitaries were arrested in Venezuela. Some of the Colombians told the press that they were part of a terrorist plot to commit sabotage and assassination, the vanguard of a larger force. For their part, the Wayuu, a people who were never conquered and who are clear about their rejection of paramilitaries, the army, and the FARC in their territories, vowed to launch war against the Colombian government and the paramilitaries. Three of the paramilitaries involved in the massacre were killed soon after the massacre. Days later several dozen families of another indigenous people, the Wiwa, were forcibly displaced in the same region (La Guajira).
At the same time the Union Sindical Obrera (USO), the oil-workers' union that had been hit so hard (having had 89 of its members murdered since 1988) in the city of Barrancabermeja, was staging a desperate struggle against the privatization of the state oil company ECOPETROL - itself created by a long struggle of workers in 1948. 3600 workers had gone out on strike on April 22 after 18 months of negotiations to try to stop privatization. The government claimed, as privatizers do, that the operation was ineffiicient. The workers showed how the government had already given away massive concessions to multinationals like Occidental Petroleum and ChevronTexaco, costing the company tens of millions. Their strike was immediately declared illegal. Sympathetic actions broke in various parts of the country and the strikers stayed out. The government sent troops to the oilfields. Legal repression was swift - USO workers were immediately locked out, 1000 workers were 'disciplined'. 93 were fired. In the end they went back to work in exchange for some protections for the workers who had gone on strike. Without massive support, USO could not have succeeded against the government in such a key strategic sector.
Some discussion of Colombian oil is warranted. According to a report by the IPS's Constanza Vieira published May 10, The country produces some 520,000 barrels of crude a day. This is 40% lower than the level of production in 1999, before 'Plan Colombia' brought all its security improvements. Despite this, the increase in prices due to the Iraq war would have more than compensated for the decreased volume in bringing revenues to the company - 1/3 of whose profits become state revenues. Colombia's reserves are estimated at 1.6 million barrels - but could be far higher. In May, Garry Leech wrote about the political economy of oil in Putumayo, one of the areas of the country hardest hit by 'Plan Colombia': "At the outset of Plan Colombia, oil production in this remote Amazon region had been declining for 20 years after reaching a high of some 80,000 barrels a day in 1980. And while production still remained at the relatively anemic level of 9,626 barrels a day in 2003, a slew of new contracts signed between multinational companies and the Colombian government over the past two years promise dramatic increases. The remote municipality of Orito, where four oil pipelines interconnect, is the hub of Putumayo's oil operations. Two pipelines carry oil from nearby fields currently being exploited by the state oil company Ecopetrol, U.S.-based Argosy Energy and Petrominerales, a subsidiary of Canada's Petrobank. Another pipeline brings oil from the Ecuadoran Amazon where U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum and Canada's EnCana have operations. The fourth is the Transandino pipeline, which transports oil from the other pipelines across the Andes to the port of Tumaco on Colombia's Pacific coast." Leech's research shows that the multinational interests have been receiving the lion's share of the benefits: "Colombian law stipulates that these royalties are supposed to be used for social and economic programs. Under the terms of an incremental production contract it signed in 2002, Petrobank has the rights to 79% of all the oil produced in the Orito field above a baseline production level of 3,200 barrels a day, which it currently exceeds by 1,400 barrels a day. Its partner Ecopetrol receives the remaining 21% of the oil. With Colombia's sliding royalty scale, Petrobank pays 8% of the value of its 79% share to the national government, which turns over 9% of the royalty payment to the departmental government. Orito municipality then gets 31% of that 9%..
"...In 2003, Petrobank invested $50 million in its Putumayo oil operations. If Ecopetrol had used an equivalent amount from Colombia's $2.1 billion IMF loan to fund the exploration and production itself, it could have retained all the oil instead of turning over 79% of it to a foreign company. The sale of this oil abroad would have covered operation costs, allowed Colombia to pay back the loan and provided the government with much needed revenue. Such an oil policy implemented throughout the country using IMF loan money to cover start up costs would allow Colombia to control its own valuable resources as do other countries with state oil companies such as Mexico, Venezuela and the world's largest producer, Saudi Arabia. Clearly though, the IMF's goal is not to support nationally focused economic projects. ."
Leech also pointed out that in 2001 the Colombian government waived previous regulations that foreign companies had to enter into 50-50 production partnership with Ecopetrol. Now the multinationals can keep 70% in new fields and more in existing fields. New regulations extended the length of production rights and lowered royalties. ECOPETROL was then restructured in 2003, split into three companies - one to negotiate contracts, one to handle duties, and a rump ECOPETROL as oil producer and refiner. In March 2004, Energy Minister announced in Texas that foreign companies could negotiate contracts without entering into partnerships with ECOPETROL. The state oil company remains the purchaser of most of the Colombian oil produced by the foreign companies. It's a process designed to deny Colombians any benefit from their resources: the government gives the multinationals the concessions. The multinationals take the oil from the ground - and sell it back to ECOPETROL at global market prices, which then either sells it for domestic consumption or exports it at very little profit. This encapsulates the whole project of Uribe: to deliver the country's resources to multinationals and destroy the opposition. USOâ€™s strike, after 35 days, won a temporary respite: the government agreed not to privatize ECOPETROL, but the workers paid the price â€“ 248 of the workers who had been fired for striking were not restored to their jobs.