By Eunice Gibson
I thought I’d heard everything on my so-far 12 trips to Colombia, but this is the first time that, in less than two weeks, we met with six different people who are under active death threats. We even saw a professionally printed death threat on letterhead stationery!! What’s going on?
On February 14, 2018 the respected Bogotá newspaper El Espectador headlined “Violence against political and social leaders has shot up in this election season”. But the violence against political and social leaders increased right after the peace agreements were signed. When we visited the headquarters of Jesuit-sponsored CINEP (Center for Investigation and Public Education) on November 15, 2017, we were told that the number of murders of community and social leaders has actually increased, and the guerrillas can no longer be blamed, because they have turned over their weapons.
The article in El Espectador reports a total of 273 attacks on political, social and community leaders during 2017. Peace Brigades International reports that 205 community leaders have been killed since the beginning of implementation of the Peace Agreements. But that number changes every week.
The province of Antioquia, where the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó is located, reports the highest number of attacks. The Peace Community (see www.cdpsanjose.org) has received death threats for years, but when we visited the Peace Community on November 8, 2017, community leader Germán Graciano assured us that those threats had intensified, with armed paramilitaries going from town to town carrying lists of members they plan to kill.
Just about seven weeks after our visit to the Peace Community, on December 29, 2017, paramilitaries actually barged into the Peace Community, armed with guns and knives, and tried to kill some members who were in a meeting. Only by quick action were the unarmed campesinos able to fight off the attackers and capture two of them. (See https://peacebrigades.org.uk/news/2018-02-02/international-community-responds-attacks-against-peace-community-san-jose-de-apartado)
Right after our meeting with Germán Graciano on November 8, 2017, we had an appointment with Colonel Dangond, Commander of the Colombian Army’s 17th Brigade, responsible for the safety of the residents of the area. The meeting was extremely disappointing. Naturally, we expressed our concern about the threats, about the fact that armed paramilitaries were going around asking citizens to tell them where Peace Community leaders were, so that they could go and kill them.
But the Colonel told us, in so many words, that we didn’t know what we were talking about. He laid out two huge 3-ring books where he said he had recorded every single complaint from the Peace Community, had investigated, and determined that each and every complaint was a lie! Of course we were not allowed to examine those books.
And the next day we met with Oscar Castaño, an investigative journalist who told us that he had received several death threats related to a report he had published on sex trafficking, a major problem in Colombia. He had asked the government for protection but so far had received no response.
On November 14, 2017, we met with Attorney Francisco Ramírez, a labor lawyer who has visited Madison several times. Labor lawyers have never been popular in Colombia and by 2015 there had already been eight actual attempts on his life. (See www.industriall-union.org/es/colombia-protejan-la-vida-del-activista-sindical-francisco-ramirez-cuellar) He’s so dangerous because he sometimes wins cases against multinationals who cheat workers. When a multinational succeeded in overturning a regulation that helped workers with work injuries, Ramírez filed suit and won. The regulation was re-imposed. When laws drafted by multinationals are adopted, he has been able to get them overturned. Now he is working on election fraud. So the death threats continue.
On that same November 14, we were lucky to be able to spend some time with Fr. Javier Giraldo, the Jesuit who helped organize the Peace Community and continues to support it. Once back in 2010, I was walking on a street near our hotel in Bogotá when I saw a huge billboard with the message “Muerte al cura comunista!” (“Death to the communist priest”) That was nothing new for Fr. Giraldo. The threats continue. He told us he had spent half of last year in the area surrounding the Peace Community and he was not able to perceive any control of the many paramilitaries in the area. He says they use informants and they have moved into campesino organizations. He is concerned that the government is not fulfilling important parts of the peace agreement and is not supporting efforts to promote democracy. Instead, community leaders are being murdered.
On the next day, November 15, we met Attorney Jahel Quiroga. She runs a human rights law firm and she represents families and survivors of the Patriotic Union genocide. In 1984-1985, the Colombian government made peace with one group of guerrillas. The agreement allowed them to take part in politics, and they formed a movement they called the Unión Patriotica (UP). Very soon they began to win local offices. Then the killing began and more than 3,000 of them were murdered. Attorney Quiroga warns that that could happen again if attacks on community leaders cannot be controlled. “Then,” she said, “the guerrillas might return to the jungle.”
Attorney Quiroga showed us the letter she received, neatly typed on AGC (Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces) stationery. The letter demands that she and others stop any kind of “leftist” activity. If they don’t, the letter says, they need to shop for a funeral home.
This wording is interesting, because the Colombian government continues to insist that the “criminal gangs” like the AGC are just apolitical narcos. But this printed death threat is clearly political.
Finally, we met with Marylen Serna. Marylen is a founder of the campesino organization Movimiento Campesino de Cajibio (MCC) and is also the national spokesperson for the Congreso de los Pueblos and helped organize the Marcha Patriotica. She has been in Madison to report on her organizing work. We had read press reports about a terrible kidnapping, torture and sexual assault against a close associate of hers. The perpetrators made clear that they intended the violence as a threat against Marylen. She told us that new threats are being made all the time, but she keeps on.
Quite recently the Colombian government has indicated that it intends to do more to protect human rights defenders, but every week or so, there are new murders. It was disappointing when on December 16, 2017, Colombia’s Minister of Defense told a radio interviewer that the murders are not systematic or organized and that the “great majority” of the murders are ”because of boundary disputes or “skirt-chasing”.
As we ended our meeting with Germán Graciano in the Peace Community, we asked him, “What can we do to be of help?” He replied instantly, “Keep coming.” So that’s what we plan to do and we hope that Colombia Support Network members and friends will want to come along with us.