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Colombia in 2004


Part 2 / Part 3

“President Alvaro Uribe badly wanted to show Colombians his only recent success: Bush’s re-election. But the US President had only three hours to visit the only supporter of his strategic project in South America.”  – Colombian economist Hector Mondragon, on Bush’s quick visit to Colombia in November 2004.

The image of Bush breezing through Colombia for three hours, treating the place like an afterthought, given the utter military, political, and economic dominance over that country, is telling. No one in Colombia, indeed no one anywhere, can afford to think so little about the US. But Bush’s underestimation of Colombia is a mistake, not least because of what Hector Mondragon points out: Colombia is certainly the most enthusiastic supporter of Bush’s strategic project in South America. The battle for Colombia’s future, a battle between Uribe, Colombia’s elite, and the US on the one side, and Colombia’s multifaceted and remarkable movements on the other, is one with consequences for the Americas and the world. 2004 was an important year for that battle.

The end of the year 2003 was an eventful time for Colombia. On October 25, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez put a complex referendum with proposals for constitutional change before the people of the country. It proposed IMF-imposed structural adjustment, ‘anti-terrorism’ ‘reforms’, and a drastic withdrawal of basic rights and protections for citizens against government and private abuses enshrined at least nominally in the constitution. These would empower Uribe for further neoliberal reforms in bilateral free trade talks with the United States, and to strengthen his powers to fight the civil war, a war ostensibly against the guerrillas but whose principal victims have and continue to be civilians and social movement leaders. Under the constitution Colombian presidents are limited to a single term: he also sought to change this to allow his own re-election.

Uribe had staked a great deal of political capital on the referendum. The Colombian media were full of extravagant claims of a purported 80% approval rating for the president. The campaigning was heavy. The democratic opposition launched an abstention campaign. The strategic reasoning: Uribe needed 6 million plus votes, more than 25% of the electorate, for the referendum to be valid. The safest approach would be abstention. This would make it more difficult for the government to manipulate the results and avoid the risk of a disciplined vote from the right defeating the ‘No’ voters.  The government’s campaign had both overt and dirty components. The Colombian government and military has extensively documented links with right-wing, narco-trafficking, paramilitary death squads who carry out massacres in the countryside and murder of unionists, social activists, and poor and destitute people in the cities and towns. Human rights activists in the rural areas reported that the paramilitaries were doing some of their own campaigning. With military support, paramilitaries control many areas of the country outright, using terror. In these areas the paramilitaries threatened people with death for abstention or voting ‘No’ or campaigning for abstention or for the ‘No’ side.

The abstention side had numerous advantages, however. Parts of Uribe’s own Liberal party rejected the referendum. The social movements urged a boycott: according to the constitution, a referendum needed at least 25% of the electorate to vote in order to be legitimate. If most of the electorate refused to participate at all, the ‘No’ side would win by default, and Uribe’s constitutional reforms would be defeated. This is precisely what occurred. Those who would attribute this to mere apathy or a ‘silent majority’ in favour of Uribe, however, would have a hard time explaining what happened the day after the referendum: on October 26, Colombia had municipal and departmental-level elections. In these elections, leftist social movement candidates won many unexpected victories, including the mayor’s office of Bogota and the governorship of the important department of Valle del Cauca. They won these victories thanks to a large increase in participation: 5 million more people voted on October 26 than did on October 25. The repudiation of Uribe could not have been clearer.

For a moment there seemed to be even the possibility that Uribe’s government could fall. For close to two weeks this President, normally in the media several times every day, was silent and remained unseen. His superstar Minister of Justice and the Interior, Fernando Londono, the architect of the referendum, was taped telling the leaders of the Conservative Party that Uribe would have to resign if they withdrew their unconditional support. Londono, a lawyer for multinational corporations, has been implicated in some high-level corruption scandals. When the speech leaked, Uribe forced his resignation, keeping him in the Cabinet as a Minister without portfolio, and denied the tape’s veracity. Some social movement leaders feared the kind of ‘self-coup’ (‘auto-golpe’) that President Fujimori had enacted in Peru. But Uribe’s regime proved to be more resilient. The opposition leaders, surprised by their own success, were unable to mobilize quickly enough to remove the government.

Paramilitary reprisals for the loss of the referendum began immediately. The Colombian worker’s union central, CUT, registered death threats against their leaders beginning on October 30: “YOU WILL PAY WITH YOUR LIFE FOR THE LOSS OF THE REFERENDUM”, said a phone message to CUT’s human rights director Domingo Tovar Arrieta. The CUT reported assassinations against unionists on November 3, November 5, November 12, November 14, Novemer 16, in different parts of the country. In addition to reprisal, paramilitaries continued their campaigns to displace campesinos and indigenous peoples from their lands through violence and massacre, with the indifference and complicity of the Colombian government and military. The Kankuamo indigenous of the Sierra Nevada began to try to raise attention of the forcible displacement, attacks, and pressure they were facing from paramlitaries working for various parties with interests in megaprojects in their territories, particularly oil and gas. The ‘Peace Community’ of San Jose de Apartado, for example, was under constant paramilitary pressure, and continues to be. Likewise the Embera Katio indigenous people, engaged in a political battle against the government and multinational corporate project (Urra) that is building a second dam on their rivers (the Sinu and Verde) – in addition to the one that is already devastating their lives and livelihoods – reported a constant paramilitary presence and threat. The Organizacion Feminina Popular, the women’s organization strongest in the largely paramilitary-controlled oil town of Barrancabermeja, made a report at the end of 2003 of 120 murders and 61 disappearances in that year. A month after their November communique, another unionist, Jesus Rojas Castaneda, was murdered by paramilitaries in front of his pregnant wife on December 5.

The Colombian government uses paramilitaries in order to maintain some semblance of plausible deniability in its war against the social movements. In late 2003 and throughout 2004, a reversal of this trend began, as the Colombian army itself began to commit crimes directly and with impunity. Immediately after the referendum the national army committed various arbitrary raids, arrests, and detentions. Quoting from one report by the Joel Sierra Human Rights organization: “On 5 November 2003, at approximately 2am, a unit of the national army in a black Toyota 4.5 van belonging to a wealthy farmer from the village La Victoria, entered the villages of Oasis and Islandia and raided three houses without a warrant. In the first house raided in the village of Islandia, they entered shouting at the residents. Señor CIRO ANTONIO SUAREZ was sleeping in a hammock in the living room when they came and punched him out of the hammock and threw him onto the floor. They continued abusing him physically and verbally, accusing him of being a guerrilla. Then they dragged his wife from the house and, in front of her children, they punched her and pushed her about and then took her off into the mountains so that she would tell them where there was supposedly a hidden store. The soldiers stole clothes and money from the Association of Parents of Families for the village school. In addition they kidnapped a little girl of only 11 years old, YOLEIDA ARISTIZABAL, until her father presented himself to them. Ten hours later she was released.” The report describes similar incidents in other areas, as other reports do about other areas. The Ruta Pacifica de Mujeres, a women’s peace organization, reported at the end of December 2003 that five armed men had raided their offices and carried off their computers.

While the military and paramilitaries were engaging in repression, Uribe’s regime was engaging in the theatrics of ‘peace negotiations’, to provide people with something to think about besides his resounding referendum defeat. The universally known fact that Colombia’s military and paramilitary are two branches of the same organization, working for the same ends, for the same interests, and increasingly using the same means, did not stop the government from engaging in ‘peace negotiations’ with the paramilitaries. Nor did it stop the Colombian or international media from reporting these negotiations with great fanfare. On November 25, the Bloque Cacique Nutibara held a televised ceremony in which 855 handed over 112 weapons. The well-known paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso provided a statement by video.

Nobody was fooled. Some commentators noted the paucity and poor quality of the weapons handed over by the notoriously well-supplied paramilitaries. Others noted the very low-level of the operatives who had come out. For the ‘peace process’ to have had a shred of legitimacy, it would have to have been fundamentally different. First, the facts would have to be acknowledged. Among them, a central fact noted in a report by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (CIDH) in December: the paramilitaries were not formed in opposition to the government, but were formed by the government, initially even given legal status along with open collaboration with the military. Today, though they are nominally illegal, they enjoy the same open collaboration with military and government officials. Second, according to the Americas charter of the OAS, a legitimate peace process requires indemnization, restoration, rehabilitation of the victims, truth, justice, and a third-party observed dismantling of the forces. Instead, Colombians were treated to spectacles of small numbers of paramilitaries handing over small amounts of goods to the state who they had always worked for, then getting back to business immediately. The paramilitaries from the Bloc that demobilized on November 25, for example, killed a municipal councillor, Juan Camilo Cardona, on December 14.

Uribe himself, now fully recovered from the referendum blip, drove home the point that there would be no peace or putting the days of atrocity behind for Colombians, in a speech to the army on December 5. “There should be no moment without combat,” he told the graduating class at the military academy. “Instead of consenting to the terrorists, combat them to extermination like the plague” He exhorted soldiers to calculate less and risk more. He wanted “every citizen civilian to support the armed forces”. The day before, the United States Congress and Senate had approved a plan for the Colombian government to engage in aerial fumigation in Colombia’s national parks, spraying herbicides on some of the most biodiverse and fragile ecosystems on the planet in order to ‘fight drugs’. The Army did not, at any rate, need Uribe’s prompting to get the message. The military that had named an anti-guerrilla operation ‘Operation Holocaust’ (The operation, in September 2003 in Catatumbo on the Venzuelan border, left 24 ‘guerrillas’ and 8 soldiers dead according to El Tiempo) followed Uribe’s speech up by posting a poll on their website asking readers whether they believed that the director of Human Rights Watch, Jose Miguel Vivanco, was ‘helping terrorism’ or whether he ‘was right’ in his criticism of the army’s appalling human rights record. Those polled didn’t give the answers the army wanted: the army ended the embarrassing incident by removing the poll. This didn’t stop Colombia’s military commander from adding bluster of his own: General Martin Orlando Carreno swore on December 20 that he would either catch or kill FARC’s commander or resign within the year. (Note: December 20, 2004 has come and gone). Uribe could also take comfort in the Senate’s approval of the anti-terrorist statute, enabling the government to allow things that were already happening: intercepting telecommunications, raids and detentions without warrant, lasting 4 years with possibility of extension.

The president’s aggressive intentions were checked, however, at a meeting in Cauca on ‘regional security’. Seeking an endorsement for his policy of ‘democratic security’ (summarized by his comments on ‘extermination’ and the need for civilians to put themselves at the army’s disposal), Uribe was surprised to be rebuffed by the indigenous authorities of Northern Cauca. He had convened what he called an ‘indigenous security council’. The agenda was set by the government so that the indigenous leaders would speak for the initial 20 minutes (providing a good picture for the cameras) and then Armed Forces and himself would speak for the rest of the day. Instead of putting themselves at his disposal, the indigenous leaders arrived at the scene, read a letter to the President rejecting his council and his ‘democratic security’ policies, and holding him directly responsible for any abuses by armed forces or paramilitaries that would occur in their territories and to their people. After reading the letter and delivering it in person to the President, they left the room and the President and Armed Forces commanders to talk amongst themselves. Leaving a furious Uribe behind, they promised him they would convene their own, genuine ‘democratic security’ meeting in their territory, with their own agenda, if the necessary conditions of respect and security were guaranteed. To the press, the indigenous leaders denounced the presence and abuses of the military in their territory and announced that they did not want to share their territory with any armed actors – not the guerrillas, not the paramilitaries, and not the army or police either. They had their own ideas about how to protect their security, their own organization, and at the end of the day, one of them told the national newspaper El Tiempo on December 15, they had resisted for 500 years Their right to resist would not be co-opted by a government with blood on its hands. Another unexpected blow came from the Congress. Alex Lopez, a union activist from Cali who had become a member of Congress, brought charges against the President for irregularities in his, Uribe’s, rapid privatization of the state telephone company, TELECOM. Uribe didn’t take this last gracefully. He reverted to type and accused Lopez of terrorism: “Let the people compare the contribution of my [Uribe’s] accuser [Lopez] to EMCALI [the public utilities company of the city of Cali] and my [Uribe’s] own contribution as President.  If they must, I [Uribe] would prefer that they do their subversion with these parliamentary calumnies instead of bloodthirsty terrorism.” In the Colombian context, such an utterance could be intepreted as a threat – or an invitation to paramilitaries to attack Lopez as a ‘terrorist’.

At the same time the paramilitary organizations were beginning to turn against each other over the spoils of mass murder. Reported by El Tiempo on December 11 as “combat between the army and paramilitaries” in which the noble armed forces were engaging in armed combat with those criminals (who had weeks before been courageous people who were demobilizing in favour of peace, and would return to that role immediately afterwards) who were preying on the people, the ‘combats’ left 24 ‘paramilitaries’ dead and 61 captured in Arauca and Cundinamarca. In reality these were fights between different paramilitary factions over resource-rich strategic corridors. The army intervened on behalf of one faction, and the media obliged in the story of the ‘combats’.

At the very end of the year there were other combats as well. In March 2003, the first clashes between the Venezuelan military and the Colombian army and paramilitaries took place on the Colombia-Venezuela border. The symbolism was striking: Venezuela’s President, Hugo Chavez, was at the head of a country trying to make a ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, strengthening the public sector, social programs, independent political organizations, and a foreign policy independent from the United States. Alvaro Uribe Velez, meanwhile, was the candidate of Colombia’s traditional landowning elite, military, and big business interests tied to the United States. Uribe had asked the US, without any irony, to do to Colombia what they were doing in Iraq. Chavez had gone on Venezuelan television and shown photos of the civilian victims of US aerial bomardment in Afghanistan. For their ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, Venezuelans were punished with a coup attempt in April 2002 and a ‘National Strike’ that devastated their economy. Now the Colombian military was being used against them, an attempt to start a war between Colombia and Venezuela that would be destructive of the aspirations of the people of both countries. The clashes continued in December 2003, as members of the Venezuelan National Guard were killed by Colombian paramilitaries in repeated incursions into Venezuelan territory.

The FARC reminded the country that Uribe’s bluster had not stopped them. On December 16, they had bombed a number of department stores in Barranquilla, killing one woman and injuring dozens of others. New Year’s Eve 2003, they ambushed and killed around 40 paramilitaries, according to El Tiempo.

The Associated Press summarized 2003 as a success for Uribe: homicide was down 20% and kidnapping 32% (2043, down from 2986) from the previous year – with only 22,969 murders, Colombia had its lowest murder rate since 1987. Only 850 terrorist attacks, compared to 1645 such attacks in 2002. The AP report also noted that mass detentions were up 85% in 2003 (7,000 had been detained in this way by the military). Other notes in the ‘success’ ledger: 900 ‘suspected’ paramilitaries and 1,919 ‘suspected’ guerrillas killed directly by the security forces – both significant improvements on previous years. The idea that these might be human rights violations, the possibility that these might be counted in the ‘murder’ category given the ease with which someone can be called a ‘paramilitary’ or a ‘guerrilla’ after he or she is killed, seemed to have escaped the AP (it is not clear, for example, that the at least 72 unionists who the union central CUT reports were killed in 2003, or the 30 political activists who the political party Union Patriotica reports were killed in the same period, fall under ‘suspected guerrillas’ killed and thus are considered by the AP to be an improvement for Uribe). 

The Council on Foreign Affairs, a mainstream foreign policy group in the United States, was not so sangiune. In a report that advocated free trade and neoliberalism, the Council nevertheless criticized the US emphasis on punitive approaches and military solutions in its ‘war on drugs’. The CIA shared some of the Council’s doubts, as a Freedom of Information Act document from 2000 released early in 2004 showed. The CIA’s analysis of ‘Plan Colombia’, a multi-billion dollar plan (mostly Colombian taxpayers’ money but some of it American taxpayers’) to buy US military helicopters and fumigate large tracts of highly productive agricultural land and ecologically sensitive territories, would not fulfill its promise of ‘stopping drugs’. Instead, the CIA warned, Plan Colombia would only cause the decentralization and proliferation of the illicit cultivation and the illicit narcotics industry. The US Ambassador admitted in 2004 that Plan Colombia had had a negligible impact on cocaine supply.

The year 2004 opened with a murder that would haunt the Colombian military.

It was one of those acts of violence against the indigenous peoples that normally happens with impunity. On New Year’s Day 2004, two young indigenous men, Olmedo Ul and Edinson Conda, were riding on a motorcycle in Northern Cauca late at night. They passed a number of parked non-military trucks filled with soldiers. Men in uniforms (later found to be government soldiers, though witnesses could not see that that night) signalled to them to stop as they passed. Then they shot them in the back. Olmedo Ul was killed. Edinson Conda was wounded, but survived. The indigenous of Cauca, who had told Uribe at his failed ‘indigenous security council’ months before that they would not tolerate armed actors violating their autonomy, were shown dramatically that they had been right. In 2004, they would fight hard to ensure Olmedo Ul had not died in vain.

Guerrilla leader ‘Simon Trinidad’, who had participated in negotiations with the government in the late 1990s, was captured in the first days of the year. He surprised the authorities when he refused to answer any questions on the grounds that he did not recognize the legitimacy of the Colombian state. In May, he was sentenced to 35 years. On the last day of 2004 he was extradited to the United States – in a surreal twist – to face drug and kidnapping charges. Extradition to the US has long been seen – even for right-wing factions in Colombia – as a line that the Colombian government should not dare to cross. Trinidad’s extradition, reported blandly in the North American press, could prove a fateful decision.

At least he was a member of the guerrillas. Though he was the only one extradited, he was not the only one detained: the tactic of mass detention continued to be used in an escalating manner by the state, who rounded up 90 people in various municipalities in the department of Valle del Cauca in January. These were held in harsh conditions in prison cells without trial or due process. The new tactic of mass detention was used alongside the old tactic of savage massacre. The Colombia Support Network reported two massacres in the first weeks of January, one in Antioquia and another in Catatumbo. The first massacre was described as follows: “On Saturday January 10 in the neighborhood of El Porvenir in the municipality of Remedios, Antioquia State,  more than 200 armed men appeared at 10 a.m.. According to witnesses they were members from the Tacines and the Palagua Army battalions accompanied by paramilitary hit men. The peasants Caifas N. and Juan Carlos N. were assassinated.  Then German Gil a 60 year old peasant had his beard shaved,  was tortured and assassinated. All  of his properties were stolen including 70 heads of cattle. The peasant woman Odilia Ochoa was brutally tortured and her properties stolen. The men also stole all the mules,chicken and domestic animals they found on their path. Ten days before, on January 2 there were combats between paramilitaries and members of the guerrilla groups FARC and ELN. It is assumed that this excursion is a retaliation against the civilian population. The rural areas of Remedios and Segovia live in a time of crisis. Although the Army and the police control the area, the paramilitaries blockade food and medical supplies. 80% of the population has been displaced to Medellin and Barrancabermeja. There are no schools, no teachers and no health services.”

Elsewhere, the army was disappearing people. The Jose Alvear Restrepo human rights organization republished a report by a local organization on the actions of the army in the municipalities of Norosi and Tiquisio in the department of sur de Bolivar. On January 26, the army kidnapped a woman and her daughter, forced the mother to wear a military uniform and a ski mask, and marched her around town with the army unit before releasing her. The next day, members of the Narino Battalion detained miners Giovanny Vega Atencio, Jairo Villalba, Nolberto Campuzano Zuleta and 13-year old Josneider Solano Zuleta. The areas from which these people were detained were bombed and shelled on the 28 and 29.  On the 30th and the 31st, members of their families confronted army Captain Espitia who eventually told them that the three adults were guerrillas who had been killed in battle and offered no information about the child, Josnedier. The families got no answers from the national government either. The exact same tactic was used in Putumayo at around the same time: two peasants (Marco Antonio Agredo Plaza and Jarvi Payaguaje) and an indigenous child (Santiago Chasoy) were apprehended by the army on January 15. Their families were told days later that they were guerrillas who had been killed in combat, according to the family’s own report. Yet another mass detention took place on January 29: A woman from the Tacueyo reserve explained how on January 29, 2004, her husband was pointed out by someone wearing a ski mask and taken to Popayan by a group of heavily armed police and military personnel.  Hugo Prado Orozco, a marble mine worker, well known to the entire community as someone with no links to the guerrillas, was then put on national television along with 7 others from the community and weapons none of them had ever seen before, while the Army claimed to have won a major victory against the guerrillas, capturing high-level commanders.  According to Colombia’s anti-terrorist laws, these people, now in jail in Popayan, the capital of Cauca, have no rights to face their accuser; no rights to see the evidence against them; no rights to a jury trial.  Instead, their fate will be decided by the state prosecutor’s office, in private. 

The assault on the public sector and public sector unions continued as well.

One union that had been particularly successful in resisting privatization of a public sector company was SINTRAEMCALI, the union of workers of EMCALI, the public utility company for the city of Cali (Colombia’s second city). By making an alliance with the public, recipients of the utility’s services, SINTRAEMCALI made the case that affordable utilities were only possible if they were public utilities. In 2003, they had used high-profile tactics like occupation of municipal buildings in Cali to stop privatizations – and would do so again. As elsewhere, the government and paramilitary assassins made them pay a terrible price. Ricardo Varragan, a SINTRAEMCALI unionist, was assassinated in a drive-by motorcycle shooting on January 16. SINTRAEMCALI bodyguard Deyton Banguera was assassinated on January 18. On February 6, a man was caught planting an exposive device at the entrance door to the SINTRAEMCALI union. He told authorities that “some men in a taxi threatened to kill him if he did not place it.” SINTRAEMCALI leaders had just – hours before – met with European Union, Colombian government, and Colombian military officials about questions of security and human rights.

On January 27 the Minister of Mines and Energy Luis Castro passed a resolution liquidating the state mining company MINERCOL. The mining union, SINTRAMINERCOL, pointed out the connections: “The process of liquidating MINERCOL is being accompanied by the growth in military and paramilitary operations in mineral rich areas, among them La Gabarra in the north of Santander and la Serrania de San Lucas in the south of Bolivar (municipalities of Norosí (Casa de Barro, Aguas Frías, Mina Seca) San Pablo (Vallecito, San Juan Alto), and Simití (El Paraíso)), places where the farming and mining population is restricted in its movements and the victim of continuous bombardments, machine-gun attacks, burning of farmhouses, and the denial of access to foodstuffs and medicines, which is a way of suggesting that they belong to, or are collaborating with, insurgent groups.”

Part 2 / Part 3

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