Armed Attacks and Rural Communities under Fire

Armed Attacks and Rural Communities under Fire in El Tambo and Cajibío, Cauca (Colombia)
by Patricia Rodriguez
Colombia Support Network – Central New York
Even the midst of media reports about the Obama administration’s announcement of their satisfaction with the full compliance by the Colombian government to the Action Plan that encompasses labor reforms that supposedly would prevent labor violations and violence toward labor leaders, we continue to hear about blatant violations of human rights, in cities and factories, but also principally in rural areas. Some of the most recent violence has occurred in the department of Cauca, in the municipalities of El Tambo and Cajibío.
El Tambo: forced eradication
The people from the Corregimiento of Playa Rica (municipality of El Tambo) have lots of problems, like lack of access by roads, lack of potable water and electricity, and lack of government resources for education, health, and sanitation. Much of what exists there has been built by the community itself, collectively, without government help. As such, they face major survival issues, and some time ago have turned to growing coca because of the lack of alternatives, as other crops do not grow as well in the region, and can hardly be transported to be sold in the main towns like El Tambo; it takes a long and expensive six hours by mule and then three hours by bus to get there.
Since (at least) 2008, the community has made concerted efforts to reach accords with government authorities for electricity access, road improvement, infrastructural investments for health and education centers, and for government support for substitution of illicit crops. They recognize the harm and danger of coca, and want to contribute to a more healthy society.  Their costly and time-consuming efforts have gone in vain, though several times they have gotten the government to commit to assisting the community. In a letter dated June 1 2008, a representative of the Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry of Colombia, tells the community that help can be had through the Presidential Program against Illicit Crops and the Agro Ingreso Seguro program that provides credit to campesinos for the production of coffee, avocado, banana and other crops. Yet they have received very little of what is promised, such that community leaders decided to mobilize a march to present a project to government authorities on December 1, 2009, in Popayán, the capital of the Cauca department. Their efforts received some national attention then: communiques from a House representative and a Senator following the intense meetings in Popayán reveal that the national government agreed to take seriously into account the proposals and the input from the communities in the drafting of eradication programs in 2010. The government also agreed to deliver funds for the improvement of roads and provide seeds to the 450 families that compose the Corregimiento. Yet again, what followed were a series of meetings with Acción Social (Social Action program) and other local, regional and national government entities to arrive at a solid compromise to substitute the illicit crops, but no follow-through.
Then on May 19, 2011, 100 erradicators entered Playa Rica along with nearly 300 members of the National Army and the ESMAD (Mobile Antidisturbance Squad) and began forcible eradication. Community leaders that were present were fired upon, at their feet, forcing more than 300 community members from Playa Rica to flee and camp out in the central plaza of the town of El Tambo. They have been there since then, and have been joined by dozens of community leaders and members from nearby Corregimientos of Huicitó and Los Andes. Both of these communities suffered similar violence in 2010, under government eradication plans, and have similar socio-economic problems as in Playa Rica.
In the ensuing days, ESMAD forces continued to attack those community members who had remained in Playa Rica and in the nearby vereda (township) of Gavilanes. Those who stayed behind had organized a march for peace, which had been accompanied by a humanitarian delegation from the CUT-Valle del Cauca (Unified Labor Confederation), the local Ombudsman, and four local journalists that had traveled to the region on May 23 and 24th. They tried to dialogue with the military but confrontations ensued nevertheless, and two campesinos were injured (one with a bullet in the face, another with a broken arm). The gathering was dissolved, and more people displaced to El Tambo. Vandalism and even an attempt to burn a house were reported by members of the community.
Gathered in El Tambo’s main plaza, the displaced began to mobilize to receive support from local and national human rights organizations. Together, they have frantically tried to contact government, army and international organization officials to demand that the attacks stop, that guarantees are made for the safety of campesinos in the region, and that a negotiating table is formed with significant presence of officials so as to guarantee resolution to conflicts and socio-economic demands. A mission of verification was put together with members from human rights organizations, which was to leave on June 15, 2011 to verify and report on the occurrences, even though the government had refused to give any guarantees. Their report was to be presented to authorities in Popayán on June 17, when a march from El Tambo to Popayan will occur. The mission was called off, as they received notice of intense confrontations between FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and military forces. The people are desperate: “the only response we have from our government is forced displacement. We want peace, and to go back to our communities,” says one leader. One significant problem is that the conflict is no longer over coca, but over territory; this means that the military may well stay and take over their lands, which of course just happens to be rich in minerals like gold.
Cajibio: militarization of daily life
Another nearby municipality suffering tremendously from conflict is Cajibío, also located in central Cauca. Here, the community leaders and members underwent strong repression from police and government forces under the Uribe administration (2002-2010), and one of the major problems in the communities now is the heavy militarization of the region, which purpose is largely to displace people from their lands so that it can be used for capitalist development ventures. Recently, the Movimiento Campesino de Cajibio organized the Caravan for Life and for Permanence in the Territory (June 9-10, 2011) to call attention to the daily problems and threats confronting the communities. The caravan visited the communities of Carmelo and La Capilla, gathering testimonies from locals about their living conditions.
Though the testimonies made it more real as to how much people live in fear, it is not hard to miss. In both locations, the local school and other community centers were surrounded by armed soldiers; in fact, the army and police headquarters are located right in the center of the community, and soldiers roam around freely, looking around, asking questions, and always armed. The biggest fear is perhaps the presence of armed actors near children, as  confrontations between military and guerrilla forces from the FARC often occur when children are in school, sending their mothers in a risky mission to claim them in the middle of battles. In addition, there have been cases of sexual abuse of girls and also of women. Several people have been killed by bombs or just public shootings in the middle of the day, and investigations hardly are undertaken. Army soldiers go into farms to make use, for instance, of people’s electricity poles to charge their phones, while they wait around with their rifles, as children play in their own backyard.
It is clear that people fear talking about it. In one community, it was a young student at the local school that finally gathered courage to step up to the microphone and to ask the Regional Ombudsman and local and international human rights organizations’ representatives that accompanied the caravan whether it was right to have the military in the middle of the community. Students feel very impacted by this, and note the increase in drug use and prostitution. Similarly, educators are worried, as they do not want to see a repeat of what happened at the height of conflict in 1999, when the local school was left with only 35 children due to displacement. They now have 500, but many fear that this will soon change.
On top of that, these communities are confronting desperate economic troubles, though here they have not grown coca. Many families do not have land; indeed 70% of the land in Cauca is owned by less than 5% of the population. One of the major problems has been the increased buying and takeover of lands by paper company Carton de Colombia, a subsidiary of Irish-Belgian conglomerate Smurfit Kappa. Here, as in El Tambo, the communities have solid proposals to counteract the difficulties, and to adopt “life plans” (planes de vida) that promote sustainable and participatory alternative development approaches that are the complete opposite of the vast destruction and divisiveness caused by Smurfit Kappa’s bulldozers and extensive pine and eucalyptus plantations.
They also propose dialogue with local, regional, and national officials to bring an end to military and other armed actors’ presence in the heart of communities. But they need guarantees that this dialogue can happen without violent repercussions and with real attention paid to the communities’ views. This request for dialogue also desperately needs the support and continued monitoring by international humanitarian, human rights, and social justice organizations, advocates and activists, and principally by the U.S. government that has had such powerful and erroneous policy approach to the real problems at hand in Colombia. Drug wars, militarization of the region, and free trade agreements that threaten the ability of communities to thrive are not what it takes. It takes solutions that truly respect the life, dignity, and desire of the people to stay in their own lands.

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