By James Jordan
Alliance for Global Justice
Former President Uribe is doing all he can to mobilize the extreme right against the peace accords. Meanwhile, paramilitary threats and aggressions have been increasing.
Amid hopes and expectations of a successful completion of peace negotiations this month, Colombia has experienced a wave of paramilitary and military assaults. These have occurred while the leader of Colombia’s far right, former President Álvaro Uribe, has called for an April 2 march against the negotiations. As these extremists prepare to protest legally, their ideological compatriots are taking to the streets with guns in hand. Both share the same goal: stop the peace accords.
On March 6 Klaus Zapata, a 21-year-old activist, was shot down after playing a soccer game. The assassin, an unknown man who had stood on the sidelines watching while the youth played, walked up behind Klaus after the match was over, shot him two times in the back, and then fled. Klaus was a spokesperson for JUCO (the Communist Youth) in Soacha. JUCO is one of the founding organizations in the Marcha Patriótica (Patriotic March), a broad, mass political movement for a just peace. Soacha is an impoverished suburb of Bogotá. Zapata had also been active in the community’s Itinerant School of Human Rights. In February he had written a communique denouncing labor violations at a business in the nearby municipality of Silbaté.
The morning of the day he was killed, Zapata had helped organize a march against mining developments. Klaus resided in a neighborhood that is home to several paramilitary and narcotrafficking organizations. Soacha gained worldwide attention in 2008, when the bodies of 22 of the town’s young men were found in a mass grave hundreds of miles away. They had been recruited with promises of jobs, but instead were murdered and then claimed as enemy combatants killed in action. This led to investigations that have revealed thousands of similar “false positives,” murdered youth falsely presented as guerrillas.
This murder happened within a context of increased threats and assaults toward activists in the Bogota area, many of these focused against young people. Just hours before Klaus was assassinated, Rigoberto Abello and William Sánchez were seized and tortured by the police. They were both members of Juventud en Marcha, a wing of the Marcha Patriótica, and the Coordinadora Antifascista Bogota (Bogota Anti-fascist Coordination). They were detained the night of March 5, 2016, subjected to electric shocks and beatings. They were transported to a holding cell, forced to strip, where they were doused with cold water and beaten repeatedly to the point that they lost consciousness. This went on until 8am, without them ever receiving medical attention.
One day later, March 7, 2016, in the municipality of El Bagre, Antioquia, William Castillo Chima was assassinated at a public establishment in the barrio of Villa Echeverry. Castillo had been the treasurer for AHERIMIGUA (the Guamocó Association of Agro-ecological and Mining Brotherhoods) as well as a member of the Marcha Patriótica and CONAP (the National Coordination of Agrarian and Popular Organizations). The previous day Maria Dania Arrieta Perez, his colleague at AHERIMIGUA, had received several death threats in the form of text messages to her cell phone.
Both this murder and the assaults on the youth of Bogotá and Soacha are among the latest examples of repression aimed against the Marcha Patriótica. In May 2014 it was revealed that at least 48 members of the Marcha Patriótica had been assassinated, and Piedad Córdoba, the movement’s leader, said she believed the number to be as high as 60. Over 9,000 Marcha Patriótica members have been detained at various times since their formation in 2012.
Castillo’s home town of El Bagre has suffered a rash of political violence over recent months, mostly at the hands of the Autodefensas Gaitanistas paramilitary group. At least five persons have been killed or disappeared since November 2015. The paramilitaries accuse the community of collaboration with guerrillas.
On the morning of February 12, 2016, four armed men on motorcycles initiated an attack on artisanal miners (independent, informal mines) only 100 meters from a mine owned by the Colombian company Mineros S.A. Mineros S.A. is guarded by the Colombian Armed Forces. The armed assailants were wearing hoods that were marked Batallón Energético Vial #5 (Energy Batallion, Road #5), a division of the Armed Forces operating in El Bagre. The motorcyclists entered a stretch of land where several artisanal miners were operating, two motorcyclists on either end, firing their guns indiscriminately. As the miners fled, the attackers directed their fire towards a small group, including Jorge Luis Sánchez. On higher ground, soldiers at a military post overlooking the area returned fire until they realized that they were battling fellow soldiers. When the gunfire ceased, community members saw that Sánchez had been gravely wounded. The soldiers on the motorcycles abandoned the area. Community members approached other military personnel begging that Sánchez be carried to a military medical clinic. They refused until one of the miners offered to drive Sánchez, to which they finally assented. Sánchez had to be further transported to another place for better care where he died in the presence of his son, himself a soldier who was stationed in another part of the country.
Cauca has been one of the departments that has suffered most from more than five decades of Colombia’s Civil War. The current period is no exception. On February 28, 2015, Maricela Tombe was assassinated in the city center of El Tambo. Tombe was the Secretary of the Rural Action Board (Junta de Acción Campesina) for the village of Brisas. She had previously served as President of the Rural Ecological Association of Playa Rica (Asociación Ambiental de Playa Rica), an affiliate of the National Unitary Federation of Agricultural Unions (FENSUAGRO, Federación Nacional Unitaria Agropecuaria). FENSUAGRO is one of the most repressed labor organizations in Colombia, having seen more than 1,500 of its members killed in political violence since its founding in 1976. It is also the largest labor organization in the Marcha Patriótica.
Just three days later, Alexander Oime was shot down in the city center of Popayán, Cauca. Oime was the Governor of the Rio Blanco indigenous protection zone and an outspoken opponent of illegal mining. Cauca is home to Colombia’s second largest indigenous population, making up just under 20 percent of the department’s inhabitants.
The timing of these assaults is significant and must not be overlooked. March is the target date for the completion of negotiations and the adoption of a draft peace accord. The process for final approval and signing of the accord is hoped to be finished by mid-June. Former President Uribe is doing all he can to mobilize the extreme right against the peace accords, including the national march planned for April 2. Simultaneously, paramilitary threats and aggressions have been increasing.
The concentration of so many recent assaults in Antioquia is unnerving. Uribe served as governor of Antioquia from 1995 to 1997. Before that, he had been listed in 1991 as one of Colombia’s “most important narco-traffickers” by the United States Defense Intelligence Agency. Uribe was a major proponent of the CONVIVIR program to give government licenses to private security services. The CONVIVIR’s were greatly utilized and flourished while he was governor. When the CONVIVIR program was officially dismantled, it opened the way for the formation of a new era of paramilitarism. Since that time, many links between paramilitaries and Uribe, his family, and his presidential administration have been made. He is regarded by many as the father of the modern paramilitary movement.
Colombia’s popular movements and supporters of the peace process have reason to be concerned. None can forget how the peace process of the 1980s and 90s was sabotaged by right wing-violence against the left. There is reason to fear that this could happen again. The Colombian organization Somos Defensores (We Are Defenders) reports that between 2010 and 2015, there were 1,687 threats against human rights workers, including 346 assassinations, 206 assassination attempts, 131 arbitrary detentions and 16 disappearances. This period covers the election of President Juan Manuel Santos and the beginning of the peace process in 2012. At least 54 human rights defenders were murdered in 2015. According to Somos Defensores, 72 percent of attacks on human rights workers were by paramilitary groups, 19 percent by unknown assailants, 7 percent by the Colombian Armed Forces, and only 1.5 percent attributed to leftist insurgents.
There are troubling indications as well in other sectors. Between the beginning of 2011 and April 2015, 105 unionists were killed, 596 injured and 1,337 threatened with death. Unionists still are being arrested for political and labor activities. The number of unionists killed has gone down considerably since the heyday of anti-labor violence, but Colombia remains the country where a unionist is most likely to be murdered for their activities. Colombia also has one of the world’s lowest rates of union representation, with just 4 percent of the workforce unionized, a rate on par with and often even lower than in countries where unions are illegal.
Forced displacement also continues to grow. There is hope that new accords will provide new protections. Measures have been adopted that would address displacement, including land reforms that would return many to their former homes and farms. But measures have been adopted before. Will they be implemented? If accords protecting labor rights are any indication, there is reason for cynicism. A Labor Action Plan was adopted as part of the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, but since that time, murders and arrests of unionists continue at high rates and labor organizers still toil in fear of repression.
Colombia also remains one of the world’s most dangerous places to be an environmental defender. Both in the number and per capita rate of such murders, Colombia is ranked number two, according to an April 2015 report by Global Witness. (By sheer number, Brazil is first and Honduras leads the world in the rate of such killings per capita.)
Impunity rates for political murders remain steady at 97-99 percent.
What does all this mean for peace in Colombia? Is it in jeopardy? Will the peace be just and durable? Without doubt there are worrisome signs. The importance of this present moment is tremendous. The victories won and lost will set standards for what kind of peace this will be and whether or not human rights, labor rights, and political rights will be honored and respected. One thing is clear – that international solidarity and accompaniment will play an important role. People of the United States have a double role to play. Besides internationalist vigilance, U.S. citizens have the responsibility of challenging and changing our own policies that have turned Colombia into a virtual colony of the U.S. The civil war in Colombia was instigated in response to pressure from the Pentagon to wage a campaign of “terror” against peasant populations, unionists, student activists and members of the political opposition. That was two years before the civil war began. The US has spent over $12 billion in support of war and repression in Colombia. The US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement, which only benefits the US and Colombian oligarchy, is wielded as an instrument of exploitation against workers, farmers and the environment.
Hubert Ballesteros is a unionist and political prisoner who, at the time of his arrest, was on the executive councils of both FENSUAGRO and of the Unitary Workers Federation (Central Unitaria de Trabajadores), the country’s largest general labor federation. He was serving as a spokesman for the National Agrarian Strike of 2013 when he was detained in August, 2013 on trumped up charges. Hubert talked to the US based Alliance for Global Justice (AfGJ) in January, 2016, expressing hopes, concerns and a need for worldwide solidarity. He said:
“International solidarity will play a supremely important role in maintaining the peace and in guaranteeing respect for the rights of Colombians and in particular for those who form the opposition in Colombia. The North American labor movement, the collectives that have formed on U.S. soil and that support the cause for peace in Colombia and the world have the very important task of exercising watchfulness and vigilance not only towards the intervention of your own government but towards the Colombian government. It must comply with all that it has agreed to so that the Colombian conflict will not be repeated, but will end precisely because the accords are fulfilled.”
AfGJ is one of a number of groups organizing accompaniment delegations, including one in late May to threatened areas in the Departments of La Guajira, Tolima and Huila. The delegation will be hosted by Fensuagro and the human rights organization Lazos de Dignidad (Links of Dignity).
Peace in Colombia is an international affair for other reasons as well. Colombia is a bridge between South America and Central America, with coasts on the Pacific and the Caribbean. The nation is rich in natural resources, including mineral and oil deposits, fresh water and fertile farmland, and is vital to the regional economy. Colombia has an especially close military relationship with the United States, not only hosting U.S. bases, but also participating in joint ventures with the Pentagon that range from Central and South America to Western Africa to the Middle East and Central Asia. Peace in Colombia with safety and tolerance for a powerful political opposition could bring about changes within that could in turn impact all the Americas and the world.
In short, peace in Colombia is not just for Colombians, but for everyone.