El Espectador, July 1, 2019

By Colombia2020

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

In the municipality in the south of Córdoba, where they murdered the community leader María del Pilar Hurtado, people complain that the paramilitaries are now going around in uniforms and carrying long guns. They complain that “parapolitica” (paramilitaries joining with politicians) still exists and that the published statistics about the war are inaccurate because nobody dares to make a complaint.

The streets bordering the main park in Tierralta used to be crowded with people. Some of them you couldn’t even cross, because of the crowd. Now the businesses, the park, and the streets are empty and, especially, the community is empty. Yes, you can see some men going around and around on their motorcycles. When a photographer from El Espectador started to close his camera in front of the City Hall, two people with their faces covered were standing there. When the team of journalists went to the house where María del Pilar Hurtado, the community leader who was murdered in front of one of her children last June 21, had lived, the two men were there again. In Tierralta everybody knows who they are, because they go from business to business collecting extortions, because they prowl around the streets, and because they kill in bright daylight. But nobody makes a complaint, because they have shown now that the only thing that happens if you make a complaint is that you will be killed too.

Colombia2020 travelled to this municipality in the south of Córdoba and talked with several social leaders. “The paramilitaries have always been here and they have never left any of the municipalities in the south of Córdoba”, “The paramilitaries are still in command here,” are some of the phrases that came out in the conversations. They mean that for everything you do or want to do, first you have to consult the only illegal armed group that is known in Tierralta: the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC in Spanish). You pay them and you file complaints with them. That is to say, they are the authorities.

From Bajo Cauca to the South of Córdoba

In the second half of 2018, several leaders in the south of Córdoba started to hear about the war that was going on in Bajo Cauca in Antioquia. One campesino leader from San José de Uré told how in the Territorial Roundtable for Protection of Leaders and Human Rights Defenders he made the complaint “In that roundtable I said: we have a conflict in Bajo Cauca that is heading for the south of Córdoba. San José de Uré is at risk for that. And pretty soon the Public Defender published an Early Alert. So that’s what happened and nobody paid any attention.”

He was referring to Early Alert 083 that was issued on November 25, 2018, covering the municipalities of Tierralta, Montelíbano, and Puerto Libertador. It exposed how the risky scenario was increasing because of the presence in Tierralta of the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia and in Montelíbano and Puerto Libertador also Los Caparrapos (who also call themselves the Virgilio Peralta Arenas Bloc). Nobody did anything. In fact, this alert is still in force; the risk is continuing to be the same and still nothing happened. In Tierralta the leaders say that, if it had not been for the horrifying video in which the young son of María del Pilar Hurtado cries and screams beside the dead body of his mother, everything would have gone on as usual, in silence. And even though nothing has changed, at least now there is a national alert.

The Colombian Senate’s Peace Committee went to the municipality to have a meeting with the leaders and hear what was going on in their own words. It was a tense meeting, because the defenders of human rights did not want the Democratic Center Senators Paloma Valencia and Ruby Chagüí to be present. They had to leave and, outside, there was a group of around 30 people screaming for them to open the meeting or they would drag the leaders out, for their kind of meeting. A number of the leaders who had talked with Colombia2020 were in the meeting. They say that most of those people were municipal officials and that they can’t understand how it is possible that the people who were screaming outside were opposed to what the leaders were requesting: an explanation of the events that surrounded the murder of Maria del Pilar Hurtado and the general situation of threats and insecurity that people are suffering every day. We found out about several of the complaints that the leaders made and they add up to an alarming panorama.   

What is this all about?

Nobody can remember a moment in the last 30 years in which the territory was free of armed actors. Tierralta is located in the south of Córdoba and borders on Montería, the capital of the province, and with the municipalities of Planeta Rica, Montelíbano and Valencia. In addition, it borders Urabá in Antioquia, next to the municipalities of Mutatá, Chigorodó, Carepa, Apartadó and is very close to Turbo.

In its territory, being the widest municipality in Córdoba, it houses part of the Nudo de Paramillo and the Paramillo National Nature Park. There are also indigenous reservations for Emberá, Katío, and Zenú and a legally constituted community council that owns 25 hectares of land. Tierralta is definitely a strategic site. “Whoever controls that corridor, controls the war,” said one of the leaders. He meant that weapons, drugs, and people can be moved through that area without being seen by authorities; it connects Antioquia with the rivers of Córdoba; the Sinú flows into the Caribbean and the San Jorge river flows into the Magdalena River.

And the armed actors have taken advantage of that for many years. In fact, this area was widely occupied by the FARC guerrillas, specifically by Fronts 5, 18, and 58 of the northwest bloc, controlling the south of Córdoba and Urabá in Antioquia.

Already in the ‘80’s the paramilitaries came in, headed by Fidel Castaño, committing massacres and displacing the population. In fact, the first paramilitary massacres, of those that are known, took place in this area in 1988:  Mejor Esquina (Vuenavista), El toomate (Canalete) and the battle of Saiza, which is a district (corregimiento) of Tierralta. The paramilitaries took over this area to the extent that it was here, in the rural area of Tierralta where the Ralito Pact was signed. That was the agreement between the politicians and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia in which they tried to “recast the country”, and it was in the same Santa Fe de Ralito where they agreed on the demobilization of this group in the Álvaro Uribe Vélez administration.

All the armed actors converged in Tierralta. They installed “parapolitica” and they displaced thousands of people.  After the demobilization of the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia), this territory was still full of different armed groups: Los Rastrojos (Stubble), Los Paisas (Homeboys), Águilas Negras (Black Eagles) and others.  Because the problem is the land; it’s about who controls this strategic corridor for the war. In fact, according to Inspector General’s Office statistics, between June of 2011 and April of 2018, seven people who were reclaiming their land were murdered.

Today it’s undisputed. “There is only evidence of the AGC (Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) in the territory. They are the ones who are dominating the area.”The armed actions and actions against the leaders are assumed to be committed by them,” said the Córdoba Regional Public Defender, Ana Carolina Sánchez. They are threatening and killing the community leaders (The authorities give a figure of 12, but the organizations say that it could be much higher.) and they are imposing punishments and exercising such power that they have the nerve to dress up in uniforms.

Armies in Uniform

Leaving the meeting with the leaders, already in Montería, Senator Iván Cepeda said, “They told us about a group of 60 men all dressed in camouflage who they say belong to the Clan del Golfo in Saiza. They told us that they are afraid for their lives. We are leaving, very worried about the people here.”

In fact, at the beginning of this year we learned of a group of uniformed men with long guns walking around the streets of San José de Uré, intimidating the people. A leader who works in the district (corregimiento) of Tierralta confirmed that. “At first they dressed in civilian clothes and you can identify them because most of them carry out the function of mailmen, and now in Crucito, Gallo, Nudo de Paramillo, how there are armed actors wearing uniforms.”

The people are wondering where the Armed Forces are, because there was an announcement some days ago that 300 police officers would be coming to reinforce security in the municipality. However, the people complain that this doesn’t work.  One woman leader explained that on several occasions when they called the police to resolve problems in some towns (veredas) the answer that they get is that they can’t come that far because there are armed actors.

Besides that, the leaders complain that, in spite of the demobilization of the AUC, the parapolitical structure remained intact, accommodating itself to the actors that exist in the territories. “After the demobilization of the AUC, their policy remained  encrusted in the city administrations. They were still in control. They always had a counterpart, and that was the FARC. Now is when they are controlling the rural areas, because they always had the municipalities,” complained one leader.

Senator Antonio Sanguino also had a comment about this. “We are seeing a new version of “parapolitica”, which is the mixture of illegal markets, criminal structures, and political actors. And that places an enormous risk to the social fabric and to the social and community leadership.”

Sexual violence

Before we came into the territory, we found out about an audio in which a man who identified himself as a member of the AGC, talking with filthy language, said than any little girl who would be outdoors at night they would rape and murder. Nobody knows they are really the ones speaking or if the threats would be carried out, but no one feels safe. And, because of that, girls and young women are terrified and constrained.

A woman who defends the rights of women explained that the panorama equals or exceeds what the alleged armed actor was saying in the audio. “We women don’t have the freedom to travel in the territories, or in the districts (corregimientos) and in the towns (veredas). We have to ask permission from the illegal groups in order to be able to move about. They minimize the women and don’t let them participate because they have a relative in their homes who also coerces them. Besides that, they are being cannon fodder. Because of the persecution against them, the women are the ones that they use to collect the “taxes” and extortion payments, go to the jail to deliver drugs, smuggle weapons, carry information, and make posters.”  That is to say, we are seeing sexual violence associated with the use of women in the war.

This is the result of falling in love with the idea of using them for their businesses, even sexual assaults.  “We have learned that there are young girls who have committed murder in Canalete, where three women were killed when they were coming and going. They fall in love with soldiers and police to get information and they end up in the middle. And they are not allowed to dress the way they like.”

They have also found out about cases of forced nudity. “We have the case in El Cocuelo (Valencia) where a girl was unfaithful to her partner and the punishment imposed was that she was forced to go about sweeping the streets in the town while she was naked. They are exercising “governmental” functions.”

However, the authorities don’t know about these cases, for several reasons. First, the women are afraid to complain because they might be killed, and they know that the legal system won’t do anything. Second, when they do complain, they are revictimized. Third, for a medical-legal (forensic) examination, you have to go to Montería, because of economic limitations.

The threats are continuing

The leaders who were consulted for this article have, all of them, been threatened. And they don’t see how this can be stopped. At the end of the meeting that they had with the Peace Committee, Senator Ruby Chagüí said that from the government’s perspective, all the murders should be condemned, and that they would report all the information to the authorities. Senator Antonio Sanguino, for his part, said what all of the leaders were hoping for. “Here it isn’t just important to know who is doing the shooting, but rather, who is ordering the shooting and the killing.”

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