On Thanksgiving Day in the USA, Nov.23, 2006, I traveled to Bogota,Colombia, in order to attend an International Tribunal on Impunity. My friend Patricia Dahl had agreed to be one of the judges on this Tribunal, and I decided that this would be an important event for me to witness.
We took three planes that day to get there, but we arrived safely and were met at the airport by persons from the organizing group, Justicia y Vida (Justice and Life). We were brought to the apartment of the main organizer of the Tribunal, Prof. Lilia Solano, of the National University of Colombia in Bogota. The following morning we went as a group to the Senate of the Republic of Colombia. The other organizer, Senator Alejandro Lopez, had arranged for use of Senate chambers for an official hearing on Impunity. Over the course of the next two days judges from all over Europe and North America heard testimony by the relatives of victims who had been assassinated by paramilitaries in two specific neighborhoods of Bogota: Ciudad Bolivar and Cazuca.
In Colombia, I have been told, only three out of every one hundred murders lead to governmental prosecution. It is a country where one can obviously get away with murder, and many, many do. This is what impunity is all about. The president of Colombia arranged for members of paramilitary death squads to be demobilized last year, if only they would confess to their crimes and get a light sentence. Many of these paramilitaries have gotten off and have regrouped in new death squads and continue their murderous activities. In Ciudad Bolivar and Cazuca, over one hundred and fifty young men have been assassinated over the past two years. Their offenses? They did not want to become members of the paramilitaries. They just wanted to be left alone to go to school or to work. Following the Bush Doctrine:¨You are either with us or you are against us!¨, the paramilitaries killed them.
It was painful to watch as family member after familly testified as to how their son or their brother was assassinated on the streets of their poor barrios. In Colombia, if you stand up and denounce the government or the military or the paramilitaries you stand a chance of being killed yourself. So it was amazing to see how many brave people came into the Senate chamber and publicly testified. Some chose not to speak in public, and spoke from behind a wall into a microphone so that all of the people in the hall could hear what they had to say, but could not see them. At the end of the second day, the judges met and pronounced judgement: the Colombia government had allowed the existence of paramilitary death squads and had been complicit in the deaths of these young men. Not only that, but the US government had also been complicit in aiding and abetting the Colombian government by providing arms to the Colombian military which then turned them over to the paramilitaries. The entire judgement should be available by now on the Colombian website, which I believe is www.justiciayvida.org. I can provide additional information regarding this matter at a later date.
The day after the Tribunal ended a woman from Jusiticia y Vida brought us to the areas where the murders had taken place, Ciudad Bolivar and Cazuca, the paramilitary stronghold. In this area the dominant industry is the manufacture of cement and most of the community life is centered around the huge area where cement is made on the side of a mountain quarry. There is housing built by the company in the valley for thousands of people, and it actually looks decent. There is also a shopping mall(!!) where families take their children for amusement rides, food,etc. I was surprised to see how nice the mall was. Far different from the squallor in the hills surrounding the valley. Thousand more live in shacks on the side of a mountain where there is one dirt road in and out. There are no sidestreets. People have to walk down the side of the mountain to go anywhere, and, of course, walk or climb back up. Their houses houses are tin shacks for the most part. There is no running water. I was told by my guide that the families were allowed a gallon of fresh water a week!
There was plenty of beer and Coca Cola. If you live in the ¨Heights,¨ on the side of the mountain, you do not go outside at night. The paramilitaries will kill you if you do not obey their curfew. If you look at them the wrong way they will kill you. I had heard testimony to that effect over the last two days and they were not kidding. This is what impunity means in Colombia: the lack of a government which has respect for law and order; state terrorism.
The remarkable thing is that women like the one who guided us around worked in that community and tried to teach the children and educate their parents about the need for human rights. When I return to Bogota in about ten days I hope to video this woman and her struggle to empower the members of this community. Colombia is a country where many people are struggling to end the violence of the past century, and she is one of the extraordinary people I have met in my travels there.
The next day, Monday, Nov.27, 2006, my delegation traveled for another hearing under the auspices of the Senate of the Republic of Colombia. I was flown to the town of San Onofre, not far from Cartagena, in the northwest part of the country. I was actually flown in an airplane owned by the military, out of a military base and into a military base, and from there by bus for another hour. We were protected by dozens of soldiers on motorcyles to and from the town of San Onofre.
This public hearing was attended by about a thousand local residents in a sports stadium. This event was co-sponsored by another organization representing the families of victims of the violence in Colombia. We spent hours listening to people testify as to how their relatives were either assassinated on the street or brought to a concentration camp called Palmar to be tortured and killed.
Over the last ten years the paramilitaries in this area have killed more than three thousand people. Over six hundred bodies have been found on the hacienda of Palmar. There has been so much corruption in this area that several weeks ago the Supreme Court of Colombia arrested three of the state Senators from this area. This has been a great scandal in Colombia, and there have been rumors that many in the Urribe administration may follow with prosecutions in the coming months. President Urribe has been implicated in the past for being involved with not only paramilitaries, but with drug trafficking in Antioquia, the region where he formerly served as Governor. (The area to which I will be flying tomorrow, by the way).
So, what do these tribunals and public showings accomplish? One could be cynical and say nothing. But, I think not. I think that the issue of impunity has for a long time been one of a taboo in Colombia, and now people are finally getting up the nerve to talk about it openly and trying to end it. People have had enough. ¡Ya Basta! Enough is enough! Only time will tell what significance these events will have for Colombia. But, I can tell you that I am glad to have witnessed the uprising of the poor people in this country and their cries for justice.
Writing from Caracas,Venezuela, in the heart of the Bolivarian Revolution (more to come about this in part two).