If peace ever comes to Colombia after decades of civil war, it will come too late for three citizens of the oil-rich north-east region of Arauca, on the border with Venezuela. They were murdered by the army on August 5. The men were all trade unionists, and their killings bring to 30 the number of unionists killed in Arauca so far this year.
I met the men on a recent visit to Saravena, a town in Arauca at the epicentre of the government’s security policies. Armed soldiers stood on every street corner. At a packed meeting, they and other trade unionists described the conditions they had struggled with after the President Alvaro Uribe designated their area a special security zone. Armoured cars cruised past the building, as though warning those inside that we were all being watched.
The stories they told were of mass arrests, kidnappings, intimidation and murder. On one occasion, in November 2002, more than 2,000 people were rounded up at gunpoint and taken to the sports stadium where they were interrogated, photographed and marked with indelible ink. Hooded informers pointed out individuals, who were then arrested. The codename for this mass abuse of civil rights was Heroic Operation.
Heroic Operation was an army undertaking, but civilian authorities cooperated: officials from the attorney general’s office issued arrest warrants on the spot, on the word of the informers rather than any judicial investigation. Of the 2,000 rounded up, 85 were arrested. They were taken into detention, during which some were told they would be released if they agreed to become informers. Months later, 35 had been released for lack of evidence. When they finally returned home, many faced death threats from paramilitary groups. About 40 of the 50 who remained in detention were trade unionists.
The returnees talked of the harassment they endured and the alarming death rate among civilians in Arauca who assumed any position of leadership. Teachers, health workers and union activists were being killed in appalling numbers. The latest three victims were prominent local union officials. The government claims they were guerrillas, but two had been under the special protection of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Why has Arauca been singled out for “enhanced” security? One answer is oil. It is home to the CaÃ±o LimÃ³n oilfield, which accounts for 30% of Colombia’s oil production. The oil is pumped to the Caribbean through a pipeline that has been a major target for guerrilla forces. Now a complex mosaic of armed groups – rightwing paramilitaries and the army, often working closely together, and leftwing guerrillas – struggle for control of the lucrative pipeline and cocaine routes.
The civil war is decades old but has grown more complex in recent years. Uribe was elected on a promise of security. The civilians of Arauca – farmers, oil workers, health workers and their families – bear the brunt of the conflict and need peace more than anybody, but for them Uribe’s promises have proved hollow. The reality of the security zones poses the question of whose security they are designed to enhance.
There are seven municipalities in the department of Arauca, but the special security zone was only imposed in the three northern municipalities where the oil pipeline runs. The four municipalities to the south are dominated by illegal far-right paramilitary groups, notorious for their abuses of the civilian population – but they were excluded. The supreme court ruled the security zones unconstitutional because of the extraordinary powers they gave to the security forces, but that did little to change the facts on the ground. Now they are designated rehabilitation and consolidation zones – little more than a change in name.
These are tough times in Colombia and the government argues that tough measures are necessary. But key officials who look at whether these measures work point out that they are counterproductive. The Colombian human rights ombudsman and the procurator general reported that not only did human rights abuses increase, but the security situation in Arauca deteriorated after the special security zone was set up. There was a documented increase in abuses by the army and paramilitary groups, with no decrease in the danger to civilians posed by the guerrillas.
The procurator general’s report on Arauca said: “Neither the increase in military personnel, the strategy of informers or that of peasant soldiers has had the expected results. On the contrary, they have led to other difficulties [such as] the exposure of the civilian population to greater risk.”
It may be a different matter, of course, for an oil company. Occidental Petroleum, which operates in Arauca, has funded the army’s controversial 18th Brigade, the main army force in the department. The US government also funds the 18th Brigade, apparently unconcerned that it has been accused of abuses against civilians and of cooperation with paramilitaries.
Last year, the US gave Colombia $99m to protect the pipeline, to be split between the 18th Brigade and a new mobile unit. President Bush also sent 60 US special forces personnel to Arauca to train the brigade. Given this involvement of the oil companies and the US government in the brigade’s activities, perhaps they can explain something the Colombian government does not care to: how does it enhance the security of the people of Arauca when the army, directly or through its collaboration with paramilitary groups, targets health workers, trade unionists, teachers, journalists and human rights defenders and forcibly displaces indigenous and peasant communities who lived near the pipeline?
A year ago, in a meeting in London, Colombia’s vice- president signed a commitment to implement a long list of recommendations from the UN Human Rights Commission. Twelve months on, the UN reports that there has been almost no progress on most of the recommendations, and on others Colombia has moved backwards. The Colombian government claims that the vice-president’s signature did not commit the country to anything – an approach to commitments that Colombia’s partners might care to bear in mind in future dealings with the Uribe government.
Uribe denounces the UN view as foreign interference in Colombia’s affairs. Human rights organisations – including Amnesty International – that protest against army abuses are labelled terrorist sympathisers by the president himself. At the same time, Colombia hopes for other kinds of foreign interference – the kind that pours money into military coffers (as Britain does through bilateral military aid) and no-questions-asked funding and investment. The people of Colombia need investment, but more urgently they need a security policy that genuinely enhances their security.