Colombia in 2004
Colombia in 2004
Uribe returned to Europe - to Spain - at the end of May. As every tin-pot repressive politician in the world had tried to exploit 9/11 to crack down on political activity, so Uribe was hoping to exploit 3/11 - the terrorist attack in Madrid that left nearly 200 dead - to win international support for his 'anti-terrorist' crusade. But like his mentor and arms dealer Jose Maria Aznar, his attempt failed. Vigorous protests took place at his planned speech on May 23. What Uribe hoped would be a solemn moment ripe for political posturing turned into a disgraceful episode in which members of his entourage screamed at the people of the country hosting him that they, the Spanish who protested Uribe, were "narcoterrorists". Uribe left the scene in a hurry.
The protesters probably did not even have the latest information on the most recent massacre, perpetrated directly by the military, just before Uribeâ€™s trip to Spain began. On Friday May 21st a group of 200 heavily armed men entered the communities of Flor Amarillo and Cravo Charo in the Colombian department of Arauca and perpetrated a massacre. According to witnesses the men were a mixed group of paramilitaries and Colombian soldiers from the following army units: 5th Mobile Brigade, 43rd Counter-guerrilla Battalion of the 18th Brigade and the â€˜Narvas Pardoâ€™ Battalion also of the 18th Brigade. Upon arriving the men took away 13 local residents including Julio Vega, a local community leader and regional organiser in the agricultural workersâ€™ trade union. On Saturday May 22nd 11 of the victims were found dead with signs of torture on their bodies outside the nearby village of Pinalito. The Colombian NGO Corporacion Reinciar had written to the Colombian Government on May 20th asking that they protect the communities. According to the NGO, the paramilitaries were threatening people and looting shops and homes, accusing residents of sympathising with FARC guerrillas. The Government did not respond. An anonymous source, a communique from "social organizations who will not leave the shadows" pointed out a coincidence -- that the very day of the massacre (May 20), the commander of the armed forces Martin Orlando Carreno made a visit to the military base of Pueblo Nuevo. Pueblo Nuevo is a 30 minute car ride from the site of the massacre (Pinalito and Flor Amarillo of the Tame Municipality). Later, on October 7, paramilitaries would murder unionist Pedro Mosquera, Vice-President of the agricultural workerâ€™s union FENSUAGRO, in the same region of Arauca.
At this time the Cali public sector union SINTRAEMCALI took another desperate action. Vicious repression might be a useful tool in the hands of the Colombian regime, but that regime has learned that repression alone does not work. In Cali, the workers had repeatedly forced the government into agreements and compromises. In between rounds of repression and action, the governmentâ€™s goals remained the same: to hand the resources of the country and the public sector over to private and multinational interests. While the SINTRAEMCALI occupations of municipal buildings in 2003 forced the government to negotiate a deal, the government retained its power to appoint managers to the public utilities company EMCALI. The government appointed a man named Carlos Alfonso Potes, who, the unionâ€™s researchers discovered, was a shareholder in a private utilities company and who, according to the regional prosecutor, had been found guilty of corruption â€“ which ought to have disqualified him from the post. These procedures were overridden by executive order. So the union moved to direct action again â€“ 1600 people occupied the same municipal building, the Central Administrative Building (the CAM Tower), demanding that Alfonso Potes be removed from his post according to legal procedure, an affirmation of EMCALIâ€™s status as a public enterprise, and various guarantees for the lives and human rights of the activists. After four days, the activists themselves decided to come out without their demands met and without being forcibly evicted, in exchange for some promises of dialogue. A week later, the reprisals began â€“ on the morning of June 7, two SINTRAEMCALI workers were badly injured (one lost an eye and a hand) by a letter bomb at their work site, a water and sewerage plant.
Uribe was relatively silent on all this. He did make a bold statement against pacifists and international human rights observers, however. On May 27, he was quoted in the papers saying: "I reiterate to the police: if these [foreign human rights observers] continue to obstruct justice, put them in prison. If they have to be deported, deport them." As usual, when Uribe talked, the Army moved â€“ making an incursion in the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado, a community that declares itself autonomous from all armed actors, days after Uribeâ€™s speech. They checked the documents of the foreign observers, filmed members of the community, asked people detailed questions about themselves and their neighbours, and then just occupied the town center. Apartado had been hit repeatedly for its stance, and was to be hit again. On October 2, paramilitaries disappeared and killed 27-year old Yorbeli Amparo Restrepo, taking her off a bus with impunity in this constantly military-patrolled community.
Another major massacre, attributed to FARC, took place at La Gabarra in mid-June, of 34 peasants in the Colombian department of Norte de Santander. The peasants were apparently 'raspachines', those campesinos who occupy the lowest rung of the agricultural economy, harvesting coca leaf for small wages. They were doing this harvesting in a paramilitary-controlled zone. Survivors, quoted in El Tiempo, say it was done by the 33rd front of FARC. If the incident took place the way the papers descrie, FARC would have been following the strategy of the war, increasingly adopted by the FARC, to kill civilian 'supporters' or 'sympathizers' rather than combatants -- in this case, as Wilson Borja (a very decent member of the Colombian Congress) said, they killed poor peasants who were victims of the whole system long before they were killed -- in his words, "those who benefit least from the illicit business".
Borjaâ€™s lament expressed a sentiment different from the statements many politicians made about La Gabarra, in which the FARC were denounced for doing things that paramilitaries did daily without drawing any such criticism. But before long it was not FARC but Venezuela that was again in Uribeâ€™s cross-hairs. The 46 AMX-30 battle tanks from Spain that Colombia was in the process of acquiring were suddenly back in the news, only now, no one was claiming they were for â€˜counter-narcoticsâ€™ or â€˜counter-guerrillaâ€™ operations. El Tiempo instead blandly reported on June 18 that the tanks were to be deployed to the Venezuelan border, along with four battalions and a Special Forces group. This new border Brigade was to be in charge of defending the border and protecting the Wayuu indigenous people â€“ who had been displaced by massacres from the paramilitaries and the army, the very army that was now supposed to protect them from Venezuela, where the Wayuu had fled for safety. The tanks were to arrive in August â€“ right in time for the Venezuelan referendum that would decide whether Venezuelaâ€™s popular President Hugo Chavez would stay in power or not. Few believed it was coincidence.
Ten days later (June 29), however, another surprise came. The tanks were not coming after all. Suddenly, the border brigade was history. Venezuelan diplomacy had worked: the deal for the tanks had, after all, been signed by Spanish Prime Minister Aznar, who had lost elections shortly afterwards in the wake of the terrorist bombing in Madrid. The new Prime Minister, Zapatero, was left-leaning and saw no reason to honour Aznarâ€™s belligerent arms deals. Thus Spanish weapons were denied Americaâ€™s Andes war as Spanish troops were denied Americaâ€™s Iraq war.
Uribe was suspiciously gracious in defeat. So gracious, in fact, that two weeks later, in mid-July, he went to Venezuela to meet Chavez, be photographed hugging Chavez, and make some bizarre jokes. The main item on the agenda was a $98 million, 205km natural gas pipeline to cross both countries to export natural gas through Central America. Perhaps Uribe and his American backers hoped to use megaprojects to win from Venezuela what they couldnâ€™t win by aggression â€“ namely, control of the resources and the economy. That strategy may yet work. To wash down the megaprojects, Uribe came with a healthy dose of flattery for Chavez: "Any work we can think of doing today was already been done by the Liberator (Bolivar)... today, 200 years later, we are trying to make these things happen, so that history doesn't pass us by." He apparently said it was time to leave rhetoric behind and said Chavez was "talking and doing, taking advantage of his vigor and dynamism." He also had fun at his own expense on the tanks issue: "I don't want the tanks any more; I hope that with the government of President Zapatero we can make a deal where, instead of selling us these tanks, they can sell us something more usefulâ€¦ The only thing I deplore is that I've lost the chance to have President Chavez as my teacher. How many tanks will you loan me, President Chavez? Please loan me some tanquecitos!" That was not to be the final word, however. Just days after Chavez won the referendum on August 15, there was another raid in the border region and 12 Venezuelans were killed by Colombian paramilitaries. In November, there were rumours that Colombia was planning to purchase combat aircraft for the Venezuelan border.
If the rumours turned out to be true, those aircraft would become a burden on a devastated economy. In the wake of Uribeâ€™s referendum defeat in October 2003, the British journal the Economist gave Uribe advice. His governmentâ€™s task, the Economist said, was â€œto shepherd unpopular tax increases through Congressâ€¦ the referendum had included cuts in wages, pensions and the bureaucracy, aimed at saving around $1.1 billion (or 1.2% of GDP) per year. Instead, the government is now seeking to raise an extra $1 billion in taxes next year, by raising income tax, eliminating VAT exemptions, and levying a tax on pensions. That risks damping down a promising economic recovery. But it is essential to control the fiscal deficit, and to gainsay speculation that Colombia might default on its debt.â€
That is precisely what occurred, as Uribe proceeded to get from Congress everything that he had lost in the referendum. As the Economist predicted, the economic recovery was damped. But more importantly, the fruits of recovery were distributed so that inequalties deepened and most never saw recovery at all. Colombiaâ€™s biggest firms reported increases in profits, but consumption of basic foods per capita had decreased. Throughout 2004, Colombia, like Peru and Ecuador, were negotiating bilateral free trade agreements with the United States. The US demanded everything â€“ an end to any pretense of protecting Colombiaâ€™s agricultural economy, which meant an end to Colombiaâ€™s agricultural economy altogether. That fragile economy, in which 12 million of Colombiaâ€™s 44 million live, 85% of whom live in poverty, was already in a deep crisis because of land concentration. Small farms of less than 5 ha were 3.5% of the land and 68% of rural households. Meanwhile the top 1% held 42% of the land. Since the first neoliberal â€˜openingâ€™ in 1989/90, there were 700,000 ha less under agricultural cultivation, and Colombia now imported 7 million tons of agricultural products annually. As prices of agricultural commodities collapsed, many farmers â€“ though by no means a majority â€“ were forced to turn to coca leaf cultivation on some 120-180 000 ha, and on which 300,000 peasants depended. But US demands at the free trade talks had the potential to derail Uribeâ€™s whole project. Colombian Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo published a column on December 23 in which he confirmed that Colombiaâ€™s agricultural economy was on the chopping block. US agricultural subsidies were not in the bilateral agreement. But Colombiaâ€™s remaining protections and quotas were to be removed, according to the portfolio published by Colombiaâ€™s representative at the free-trade talks, Felipe Jaramillo.
Colombian economist Hector Mondragon suggested during George W. Bushâ€™s 3-hour visit to Colombia in November that the Uribe-Bush marriage is a troubled one. Uribeâ€™s political base is the large landowners who want US help to liquidate peasant populations who stand in the way of lucrative speculation and megaprojects. Bushâ€™s economic base are the oil companies, but no less the agricultural multinationals, who see in South America gigantic captive markets if only local agricultures can be wiped out. Even if Uribe and Bush agree that war is the answer to everything, Uribeâ€™s landowner constituency stands to lose control of the basis of their wealth if â€˜free tradeâ€™ goes the way the US wants. Furthermore, Bushâ€™s war priorities are not the same as Uribeâ€™s: Even if the US Congress had voted in mid-October to double the number of US troops in Colombia from 400 to 800 and private contractors from 400 to 600, the fact remains that the Bush people are obsessed with West Asia. Colombia, to them, is an afterthought.
As the year came to an end Uribe had more than just a troubled marriage with Bush. He had something close to an uprising to contend with. As in February, the Nasa pointed the way. They spent the year preparing for a major political action against the government. Their platform was simpleTheir platform was simple: respect for life on the planet â€“ at risk in their view, for the autonomy of all peoples and consequent rejection of the militarization and paramilitarization of their territories; rejection of the â€˜constitutional reformsâ€™ that Uribe was putting through Congress despite the populaceâ€™s rejection of them in the referendum; and a rejection of the â€˜free tradeâ€™ agreement â€“ the Nasa, who had resisted armed colonization for hundreds of years, had no desire to be wiped out by free trade economics. Against all this they counterposed their â€˜Indigenous and Popular Mandate for Lifeâ€™, to build institutions to respond to the emergency: an indigenous popular congress, a permanent tribunal of the peoples (a kind of popular truth commission), an autonomous system of communication and exchange, and a â€˜solidarity economyâ€™. It was a break with the organizing of the past, in which the indigenous would make demands of the government. This march was not to make demands, but to put forth a proposal for change, directly to the country, and begin to make it happen.
The march took place in September, bringing tens of thousands of indigenous and others in a long march from Santander de Quilichao to Cali. In the weeks leading up to the march the Nasa were hit with blow after blow. On August 22, 2004, a commission of leaders left the indigenous community of Toribio, part of the municipality of Toribio in the Department of Cauca, Colombia, to go to a community called Alta Mira in the municipality of San Vicente del Caguan, in the Department of Caqueta (part of the zone ceded to the FARC during the peace dialogues of 1998).. The commission was led by the mayor of the municipality of Toribio, Arquimedes Vitonas, and included Plinio Trochez, an indigenous governor of Toribio, Gilberto Munoz, coordinator of the indigenous university CECIDIC and former mayor of Toribio, Ruben Dario, deputy governor of the reserve of San Francisco, and Erminson Velasco, who was driving the car. Everyone in the car was kidnapped. Initially the government, who had every reason to attack the indigenous leadership to try to derail the march, was suspected. It turned out that the FARC were the kidnappers. But when Alcibiades Escue, another important indigenous leader, was essentially kidnapped from his office in Popayan, it was by police â€“ who took him to jail, on absurd charges of paramilitarism.
The Nasa communities, devastated for a moment, mobilized quickly. A rescue mission of 400 â€˜indigeous guardsâ€™ traveled to Caguan and, eventually, successfully rescued the entire group. And at the end of the march in Cali, another large delegation of indigenous guards traveled to the prison where Alcibiades Escue was being held â€“ the government announced that the charges against him had been dropped, and he was released to his community.
Neither the kidnapping of Arquimedes Vitonas nor the detention of Alcibiades Escue â€“ both of which were reversed - were able to derail the indigenous march. If the â€˜Indigenous and Popular Mandateâ€™ succeeds in its goals and brings a referendum on â€˜free tradeâ€™, Uribeâ€™s whole project â€“ and, indeed, the US project for the region â€“ could fall. This was shown the more true because not only the march, but a general strike on October 12, which saw 700,000 stop work and 1 million demonstrate in the streets against the â€˜free tradeâ€™ agreement, proved that the indigenous were not alone. The campaign against the free trade agreement led by Recalca, Salvacion Agropecuaria, MOIR, senator Robledo and many others brought the negotiations out of secrecy into the public light and mobilized large forces against the theft of resources and territory by US and corporate interests. The agreement, set to be signed in early January, has been delayed until March and may yet be derailed.
But if the movements were able to succeed in spite of repression, repression was able to continue despite their success. In the same days as the march, professor Alfredo Correa, a researcher on displacement, was assassinated on September 17 in Barranquilla (Colombiaâ€™s fourth city). On October 6, womenâ€™s activist Teresa Yarce was assassinated in Medellin. On October 16, uniformed police took and killed two youths, 16-year old Jonathan Jimenez and 17-year old Ancizar Castro, in Ciudad Bolivar. They were taken by police, then delivered to a hospital, where they died â€“ the police then claimed they had died in â€˜gang violenceâ€™. Ciudad Bolivar is one of the urban centres were a large number of internally displaced peasants (displaced by paramilitary massacres) end up. Some 55% of these are youth under the age of 18. These police murders were part of a more widespread campaign of harassment and violence against young displaced people in the city, and in Colombiaâ€™s urban centres more generally. In another region, Calamar, a street vendor named Eldevier Morales was detained on December 16, released several days later, and assassinated within hours of his release. The next day authorities did yet another trademark mass detention of 17 people, mostly human rights activists of one kind or another, holding them for days and then releasing them, according to the NGO â€˜Corporacion Reiniciarâ€™.
The department of Arauca continued to be attacked savagely. Justice for Colombia reported that Jose Joaquin Cubides, General Secretary of the agricultural workers union in the department of Arauca, was shot and killed on November 7 in the city of Fortul, Arauca. The Colombian army, specifically members of the 49th â€˜Heroes de Tarazaâ€™ Counterinsurgency Battalion, had raided his house only three days before. The battalion is known to work with a local paramilitary death squad and is part of the 18th Brigade of the Colombian Army. On the same day commander of the â€˜Navas Pardoâ€™ battalion, which had just occupied the community of Corocito in the same Department, told a member of the community that if they did not hand over guerrillas, they would receive a â€œsurpriseâ€. The community, hardly in a position to apprehend and hand over guerrillas, worried â€“ since 8 people had recently been disappeared by the military in the region. The next day, around the municipality of Fortul in Arauca, troops of the 5th Mobile Brigade of the Colombian Army used the civilian population as human shields while fighting with the guerrillas. The guerrillas themselves assassinated Mariano Suarez, a 70 year old indigenous elder from Chinchorro, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, according to the authorities as quoted in a communiquÃ© by ACIN.
On Christmas, paramilitaries under the control of Salvatore Mancuso committed a series of murders in Catatumbo. They installed a checkpoint on December 23, and kidnapped and killed two men. According to a report from the Colombia Support Network, â€œOn the morning of December 25, the paramilitaries entered the town of Santa Ines and brought together all of the townspeople. After haranguing them for a while, they separated 6 town residents from the others, blindfolded them, and then murdered them. The identities of 4 of the persons killed are known â€¹Leonel Bayona Cabrales, Samuel Perez Abril, Custodio Melo, and William Montano. Bayona was sadistically stoned by paramilitary soldiers who laughed as they threw stones at him, then beat him to death with a club. The paramilitaries also kidnapped Daniel Abril, who has mental problems, and a peasant named Justo Aguilar, and tortured them for several hours. They also stole 15 head of cattle, money and clothing from the town residents. According to reports from the town of Convencion, the paramilitaries on December 25 also kidnapped and killed two adult men, whose identity is still not known, between Convencion and the city of Ocana. The paramilitaries have also displaced residents of other towns near Convencion, preventing the displaced people from seeking refuge in the towns. These displaced people, who number nearly 1,000, lack food and medical attention.â€
Mancusoâ€™s paramilitaries are currently in â€˜negotiationsâ€™ with the government and under â€˜ceasefireâ€™. Reuters published a story on December 13 about how these paramilitaries had handed over a number of ranches, houses, businesses, and boats to the government right in Catatumbo, on the Venezuelan border. 1400 fighters from the group had handed over their weapons days before the Christmas massacres in the region. In total, the paramilitaries handed over 6000 ha of land before going off to massacre peasants. Over the past 25 years, land transfer from the poor to the rich due to paramilitary massacre has been to the tune of 20 million ha. The â€˜peace processâ€™ with the paramilitaries has enabled 3 of every 10,000 internally displaced people to return to their homes (usually to await another paramilitary attack). A human rights group (CODHES) published a study at the end of the year (reported in El Tiempo on December 21) based on a survey of 1200 forcibly displaced families that 225,000 more people had been forcibly displaced in 2004. 50% of these had been displaced from zones totally controlled by the paramilitaries, 20% from zones in conflict between paramilitaries and guerrillas. The most telling figure in the study, however, was that between 1997-2003, paramilitaries acquired 5 million ha of land through violence. Handing miniscule amounts of that land back to the very state in whose service the violence was done makes little difference. The shell game continued with the lands of narcotraffickers as well: 200 families received lands from convicted narcotraffickers. In the same year 20,000 families had been displaced. Of the 4 million ha in the hands of the narcotraffickers, the government has promised to distribute 160 000 ha and has actually distributed less than 10% of that 4%.
The last word of 2004 was not given by the paramilitaries or by Uribe, however, but by the indigenous again. Six years after the territories of the Embera Katio of the Alto Sinu and Verde rivers were inundated by the hydroelectric dam of Urra SA corporation, they fought on against the megaproject that had undermined their livelihoods and destroyed so many of their lives (In 2001, Embera leader Kimy Pernia Domico was disappeared by paramilitaries for leading the fight against the Urra dam). The Colombian constitution had obliged a much more comprehensive review and consultation with the Embera before such a project: this gave the indigenous legal grounds on which to fight. In October, they occupied one of Urraâ€™s office buildings, demanding a full review and ultimately a revocation of Urraâ€™s license. Over 400 gathered in front of Urraâ€™s offices in Monteria. After 15 days the government agreed to enter a negotiating process with them. As with the public sector union in Cali, so with the Embera â€“ the government dragged out the negotiations while trying to undermine them in practice. Thus Christmas found the Embera in â€˜Permanent Assemblyâ€™ once again, first in front of the offices of the Environment Ministry in Bogota and then, once the riot police attacked, in front of the offices of the indigenous organization ONIC. 372 people, among them 185 children, were out on the street, surrounded by menacing armed authorities, demanding their rights, refusing to be silenced.
This is not a bad place to end a story of Colombia for now. The system wonâ€™t abandon its machinery of death without a fight. There are more battles ahead. And there are people ready to fight them. Whether they can win or not depends on them, but hopefully not on them alone.
A note on sources
My sources are predominantly human rights reports and alerts by various Colombian organizations and support organizations; the Colombian press, specifically El Tiempo; and interviews and discussions with Colombian activists and analysts in and outside Colombia. I rely on the English-language press and the alternative English-language press for secondary sources and analysis. Write me if you have questions or comments.