By Constanza Vieira, special correspondent
( Translated by Nancy Beiter, a CSN volunteer translator )
FLORENCIA, COLOMBIA, May 12 (IPS) – In the middle of civil war and repression against the communities of Caguán, in the south of Colombia, the citizens are protesting human rights abuses. Why?
The answer was given by two leaders of the region, who did not confer before speaking with us. They said. "Either they make us disappear and/or they kill us, as they are doing. Or they put us in jail, as they have done”.
Prison is the probable destination for 96 of the inhabitants of Caguán, many of them local leaders, according to a recently leaked military intelligence report that accuses them of working for the guerrillas.
“In the end, you will learn to respect us.” When that phrase was directed at a military official, a smile erupted on the happy face of Feliciano Sánchez, displaced in 2004 from his home in Peñas Coloradas, a town on the river Caguán in the southern department of Caqueta. Beside him sat Yezid José Doncel, 58, who is among the 96 individuals named in the intelligence report.
Sánchez and Doncel described identical responses when, each in different places, but at the same time, they had been asked by a military officer why they persisted in looking for trouble by organizing forums and humanitarian missions that collect and disseminate testimonies of victims of abuses in this war zone.
The two activists belong to Asojuntas, a community organization in the municipality of Cartagena del Chaira.
"Ninety percent of the people of Cartagena del Chaira between the ages of 14 and 90 belong to Asojuntas”, said its president, Doncel. There are about 25,000 members organized into 187 Juntas de Acción Comunal (JAC) (Community Action Groups). There is one for each village, or rural neighborhood in this town of 13,622 square kilometers north of Florence, the departmental capital.
The JACs, recognized by law throughout the country, provide services in the valley of Caguán that are provided elsewhere by the authorities such as organizing schools, building or repairing roads and bridges, generating revenue, resolving conflicts, among other tasks in the area, where the state is absent.
Asojuntas is allied with the non-governmental Corporación por la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos Caguán Vive (Caguán Vive)(Corporation for the Defense of Human Rights of Caguán), among others, in an effort to convene the First Public Hearing for Truth in the Department of Caqueta, which met on Saturday in Florencia.
Caguán Vive is a chapter of the Movimiento de Víctimas de Crímenes de Estado (Movice) (Movement of the Victims of State Crimes).
Its founder, Joel Perez, disappeared on March 8 last year. His body was found in December, still smoking after being burned, stabbed, and decapitated, with two bullets in his skull, and fractured legs, a few kilometers from San Vicente del Caguán on the road linking this town with the neighboring town of Puerto Rico, in a stretch that has 15 military checkpoints.
Due to the slowness of the authorities, the remains of Perez, who was also a city councilman, remain buried without an identity as (NN) in the cemetery of San Vicente. He was also chairman of the JAC-Baja-Pata Vegas, founder and president of the Environmental Association of Baja-Pata and a member of the Municipal Committee of Cattlemen.
In 10 hearings in different parts of this Andean country since December 2006, Movice has facilitated the disclosure of over 1,000 testimonies from victims of state forces in the intractable Colombian conflict.
Movice promotes these hearings "in the hope that the direct involvement of victims will provide essential evidence for the identification of those responsible for planning and executing crimes of the state,” a category of crime that the government rejects.
According to the rules of each hearing, when victims go up to the podium to describe their drama it is forbidden to take pictures and all cameras are excluded, except for one that records the events and delivers the material to a committee of parliament.
Then, some parliamentarians, who have until recently comprised the opposition, are responsible for presenting criminal complaints before the Office of the Attorney General or bring cases to the Procuraduría General, a disciplinary body.
Few victims dare to speak in public. At the hearing in Florencia, there were 23 witnesses, several of whom were weeping. But 62 additional complaints were recorded at the same time outside of the auditorium of Amazonia University, which hosted the meeting.
Those who take these reports spend an average of 45 minutes talking with the person who is giving testimony.
"The important thing is not the formality of the proceeding," Oscar Gómez of the Corporation AVRE told IPS. AVRE is a humanitarian organization that provides psychological assistance to victims before and during the hearing as well as follow-up counseling.
In the last four hearings, Movice and AVRE have provided psychosocial support. Each organizations serves as a protective environment for the victim, allowing the person to dare to speak, and most importantly, enabling the victim can find the conditions to take a step beyond the tears in order to claim justice, Gomez said.
One characteristic of the hearing in Florence was that it emphasized that the Colombian conflict has cut across several generations. There was an old woman whose mother was a victim of the war of the 40’s and 50’s, known as La Violencia, and who, at the same time, told of the murder of her son.
The children of this history of violence are the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) which emerged in 1964. This town of El Pato, partly within the jurisdiction of San Vincente, was just one of their cribs. Born the same year was the National Liberation Army (ELN), influenced by the Cuban Revolution.
The warm earth, fertile, humid and still largely jungle, in the northwest corner of the Amazon, is breathtakingly beautiful. But the world does not know the Caguán.
This region was the site of three years of talks between the government of Andres Pastrana (1998-2002) and the FARC.
Pastrana demilitarized 42000 square kilometers around Caguán, but there was never a truce in the country.
The FARC took the time to become stronger, some say. The government meanwhile negotiated U.S. intervention in the conflict, emphasize others.
The most obvious result was Plan Colombia, a strategy designed, funded and overseen by Washington, with the primary goal of to attack the coca – the raw material for cocaine – to "take the fish out of the water”, the guerrilla being the fish and the water, the people forced to live with them in these neglected areas.
Since 2000 $5.179 million have financed this war via Plan Colombia.
Last week the U.S. president, Barack Obama, expressed interest in continuing Plan Colombia, and suggested, for 2010, a plan of military and police assistance of around $268 million, according to Adam Isacson, of the U.S. Center for International Policy, based in Washington.
The amount for this support will gradually be reduced, as planned by the government of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush (2001-2009).
Plan Colombia was launched in Putumayo, the department adjacent to the south of Caquetá.
The Brazilian system of satellite monitoring of forest fires in the Amazon at the end of February 2002, showed hundreds of red dots around the Caquetá, and some large spots of the same color to the west of the seat of the talks.
The cause was a series of massive bombings raids that followed the breakdown of the negotiations at Caguán which heralded the entrance of the Plan Colombia in Caqueta.
After the bombing, came the army’s 12th Brigade, based in Florencia, and led by Guillermo Quinonez, who later became chief of that force.
Quinonez was promoted to general a month before being suddenly relieved of his post on December 20, 2008, amid strong international pressure to investigate and punish innumerable executions of civilians around the country, which had been reported by the military as guerrilla casualties suffered in combat.
After the "softening" practiced by Quinonez, as it was described in laudatory terms by the Bogota newspaper, El Tiempo, was coupled with intensive aerial spraying of the coca zones with a mixture of the herbicide glyphosate, the special forces arrived from the army.
In April 2003, the FARC uncovered the beginning of Plan Patriota, a vast military offensive which later changed its name to Plan Consolidation, with U.S. funding.
According Caguán Vive in Caqueta and the neighboring department of Guaviare there are a total of 35,000 soldiers operating.
In turn, the guerrillas hinder or prohibit the entry of medical missions to Caguán. This is not to mention the many attacks and threats against politicians who oppose their plans, in other areas of Caqueta.
Since 1980, the coca boom has brought lots of money and an abundance of fortune seekers to the region, but since the crackdown, many people have left.
Of the 450,000 people who lived in Caquetá earlier this century, 145,660 are displaced, an equivalent of 32 percent or “almost the population of Chairá and San Vicente del Caguán,” said Senator Gloria Inés Ramírez of the Communist Party, a member of the Peace Commission of the Senate, and the only parliamentary representative at Truth Hearings.
At the hearing it was alleged that the army subjected the population to health and economic blockades, rationing both food and medicine.
“The military launched massive and arbitrary detentions, handcuffed women and men in front of their children”, said Nubia Perdomo, president of the Asociación de Comerciantes de Remolino del Caguán, who was captured in this village along with 24 other people on May 11, 2008.
One after another, visibly shaken mothers reported the executions of their sons, who were then represented by the army to be guerrillas who were killed in combat.
On Monday, all of the Asojuntas delegates of Bajo y Medio Caguán who attended the hearing, including Doncel and Sanchez, succeeded in getting the Departmental Assembly to agree to a June 18 debate on the human rights situation in the area. All of the social organizations in Caqueta that are known to IPS will take part.
In addition, Senator Ramírez undertook to convene a parliamentary debate over forcing the relevant authorities to accept responsibility for their actions and omissions in the region.