July 31, 1999, the date is remembered because it marked the official presentation of the paramilitaries of the Calima Bloc of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, better known as the AUC, to the department of Cauca’s Valley. In the documentary Memoria y Dignidad Campesina (Memory and Peasant Dignity), peasants of the township La Moralia remember that 31 July.
“After we were held here in the park, some people came, they were hooded and started pulling people from this group and took them to Monteloro path where they took Mr. Oliver Urrea, Mr. Orlando Urrea and his daughter Sandra,” recalls Pedro Pablo Castañeda, a farmer from La Moralia.
Death and desolation brought the Calima Block from the first foray into this district of the municipality of Tulua, where Sandra and Orlando Urrea were massacred when they celebrated the festival of the Virgin of Carmen. Only Oliver Urrea survived, but the same fate did not accompany thousands of farmers in this region.
For nearly five years, until their demobilization, paramilitaries killed in the Valley more than 2,300 people and disappeared some four hundred, forcibly displaced their inhabitants and committed crimes of sexual violence. However, the population ensures that military and State security forces did not fight the paramilitaries while they were carrying out massacres and displacement.
And if the Colombian government did not fight the paramilitaries, then who fought them? To solve this question we traveled to Havana (Cuba) and talked with the peace delegation of the FARC, a guerrilla organization currently holding talks with the Colombian government to end a conflict of over five decades. We spoke with Pablo Catatumbo, member of the Secretariat of the FARC, and this was what he told us.
“I remember with regret and sadness the lack of collaboration from the State. Neither the army nor the police nor the mayor nor the governors acted in favour of the civilian population. It was the guerrilla which defended them… And thanks to the guerrillas the Barragan peasants, St. Lucia, La Moralia, Monteloro, Venus, Diadem, Piedritas, all these regions, La Rioloro Mesa, have land today”.
But this is not all Pablo Catatumbo had to say. The guerrilla leader ensures he held talks with leaders of that region.
“I called the Governor personally, I called the mayor of that time. I called the mayor of Buga, I called the mayor of Tulua to update him with this situation. I held personal conversations with them, asking them to do something, as what was going on was in fact a genocide. And nobody did anything”.
As a curiosity, and leaving as witness journalist Norbey Palace Tulua, Catatumbo also states that he informed senior military officers, remembered for acting in complicity with the paramlitarism.
“I called General Pedraza in the presence of a journalist, Norbey Palacio -I think he belonged at the time to RCN or Caracol-, and in the midst of the combat we were fighting with paramilitaries in Barragan, I called him. And I said: ‘General, here is a group of paramilitaries who murdered 14 people in a coward way, and we´ve been fighting with them for over four hours, but the army does nothing. Why are you allowing people to be killed? Do something!´ I identified myself to General Pedraza when he asked ´who´s speaking?´, and I said, ´Pablo Catatumbo´ then all he did was to insult me”.
Of the more than 2,300 people killed by paramilitaries, many were from the center of Valle del Cauca. Catatumbo affirms that they could have been many more.
“And so I can tell you that the more than four hundred people killed in Barragan, Santa Lucia, La Moralia, La Marina, Alto Italy, all those regions, could have been more if it had not been because the FARC and the guerrillas Jaime Batteman Cayon, who faced these paramilitaries”.
Finally, the guerrilla commander argues that without the courage and commitment of the peasant movement in the region the paramilitaries would not have been defeated.
“The social movement recovered and finally begun the fight for defense of their territory. And thanks to that fight it was possible to defeat paramilitarism. But, I repeat, very few regions can proudly say that the paramilitary project was defeated like in Barragan, Santa Lucia, like in this part of the Valley”.
And as Pablo Catatumbo states, the peasants of Valle del Cauca defeated the paramilitaries. And each 31st July they commemorate that struggle remembering the date as the Day of Memory and peasant dignity.