By Camilo Pardo Quintero, EL ESPECTADOR, March 28, 2022

(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)

Two campesinos in the Municipality of Vista Hermosa were arrested last March 11, accused of deforestation and of occupying protected park land. Other complaints from the town (vereda) of Las Delicias are also pointing to extortion by armed groups that demand money from the people living there in exchange for being allowed to remain.

Up until March 10, 2022, life in the town (vereda) of El Laurel, in the rural part of Vista Hermosa (Meta Department), was peaceful, and there wasn’t much to talk about. The community was made up of twenty families and their day-to-day life was working the land under the sun. They raised potatoes, corn, yuca, bananas and fodder. The neighbors that had a little more money, like Luciano Lesmes, raised cattle, along with hogs, chickens, and horses. Their needs were evident, but no neighbor would leave another to the mercy of the market. The houses on the small farms were made of wood, with a canvas tarp or zinc. You don’t need much money, say the neighbors; you can build everything with dignity and that’s enough. But to their sorrow, everything changed the next morning.

At 5:55 a.m. on March 11, a group of 15 soldiers from the Colombian Army’s 7th Brigade, and a judicial police officer from the Sijín came to El Laurel looking for two men, Samuel Fonseca and Luciano Lesmes, a grower of root vegetables and a cattle man, respectively.

First it was for Samuel, who was without the company of his wife and four children on that morning. The operatives woke him up, got him out of the house, and the first thing that Steven Pedraza, an agent of the judicial police who headed up the squad, told him was that they had to take him away; he was accused of damaging the environment by deforestation and invasion of a natural reserve.

“They didn’t say hardly anything. They read me a document that they never even let me touch and they put me into a helicopter. Not content with that, they burned down my house, my motorcycle, and the houses of six more of the neighbors. They acted like a gang of criminals, but they justified their actions by saying that this was a new phase of Operation Artemis. Maybe they were looking for Luciano and me because our houses were the closest to the highway, so we were the prisoners easiest for them to grab; they wouldn’t have to go on the trails in order to find us. They don’t know that we’re just poor campesinos and life has not smiled on us very much. I was so scared, I don’t remember very clearly what happened after they dragged me out of the house, burned down my farm, and took me into the helicopter. I just know that was the start of a very complicated 36 hours for me,” said Fonseca to Colombia+20.

Around 6:25 a.m. of that same Friday, the soldiers and the policeman Pedraza arrived at the Finca El Progreso, the home of Luciano Lesmes and his family. The procedure for the cattle man was similar to that of Fonseca. They read him a search warrant, dragged him out of his house, set fire to the house, and put him in the helicopter that was headed for the Army battalion in Puerto Rico (Meta Department).

The neighbors of Fonseca and Lesmes tried to talk with the members of the Armed Forces, but it was no use. They told them that they were doing an injustice and they couldn’t just take two people who worked as farmers away, and at least they could have waited until the end of the week. None of that worked and the men were taken away, looking down from the air to see how the town of El Laurel was left, mostly in ashes. “I could see my house burning; it was the first time I could see my world coming to an end,” added Fonseca.

“They read us a search warrant, but none of them had an arrest warrant. From the first moment they treated us like criminals. Some of them even accused us of collaborating with the illegal groups that continue to be present in this region, like the dissidents, but none of that is true and their accusations were baseless from beginning to end. When we got to Puerto Rico, we didn’t know what would happen to us. Our great sin was living on some land that had been abandoned by everybody, that, according to the authorities, were only protected parks when it suited them and they wanted to scare us,” commented Luciano Lesmes.

When we got to the military base in Puerto Rico not much happened. It was hours of waiting to figure out the legal situation, and time to contact our families to tell them that we were OK; not sure about anything, but with our blood cooling off a little bit.

In the morning of Saturday March 12, Samuel Fonseca and Luciano Lesmes were put into an Army helicopter again, headed for San José de Guaviare. What awaited them there was a preliminary hearing, to decide if there was enough evidence to file charges.

Nohora Agudelo was the public defender assigned to the two campesinos for their hearing. In the few minutes it took to let the case soak in, it was easy for her to establish a defense. “We allege the existence of an illegal capture. There is no reason for a search warrant to end up in a situation like this, and the judge agreed with her interpretation. “What is definitely true is that what happened here is one more example of the acts of stigmatization, where they are trying to criminalize any person that has their profile, making it look as if they’re criminals or are dangerous. They were trying to make us into judicial false positives,” argued Samuel and his defense attorney.

Both Fonseca and Lesmes are still part of the case, as their release was conditional. At the end of their hearing, Saturday at 12, they had no choice but to put some money together with the help of people they knew in San José de Guaviare, so that they could get back to Vista Hermosa.

Confusion during the operation

Jorge Iván Sánchez, the town clerk in Vista Hermosa, was among the last authorities in the municipality to find out about this episode in Operation Artemis. He had barely heard about it when the two cattlemen were going to San José de Guaviare and he found out because some of the neighbors contacted him. His communication with the Army or the Police had been nonexistent before the events of March 11.

“I was able to talk with the Army, but it was because I got in touch with  them. They told me from Laurel that they had burned some houses and some other of the campesinos’ belongings, and there would have to be an investigation. Those arrests were not reported to me, and, even though I have no idea of the reasons for the arrests, I don’t like the secrecy they’re using to manage everything here in Vista Hermosa,” town clerk Sánchez said.

This newspaper was able to confirm that the only authority for defense or oversight that was notified about the operation in El Laurel was the Regional Public Defender in Guaviare. And that information had barely arrived when the preliminary hearing was already over.

It had not been possible to demonstrate that either the use of the land or the activities of Samuel Fonseca or Luciano Lesmes violated the law applicable to protected areas and land use. That being the case, the means of reparation for the people in El Laurel will have to be evaluated by the competent authorities.

The current campaign is the 14th phase of Operation Artemis. In the previous stage, completed in November of 2021, the government reduced deforestation in the southeastern part of the country by 34%, but the statistics in the data bases of the Defense Ministry and the Justice Ministry don’t seem to agree on the number of people accused of committing that type of environmental crime, whether in Meta, Guaviare, Caquetá or Vaupes, around the Chiribiquete, La Macarena, and Tinigua parks, central areas for those efforts.

Agencies like the World Resources Institute have said that this type of  campaign, even though successful, cannot be understood as a green light for arbitrary arrests. That’s what the Institute explains in a document in 2019. “Even though Colombia has 30% of its territory as protected areas, and has lost more than 12 million hectares in recent years, that can’t be translated into deliberate campaigns for the hasty presentation of results by the Armed Forces.”

Last March 10, Colombia’s Inspector General opened preliminary investigations against some of the military and the police involved in the disappearance of five indigenous people in San Vicente del Caguán. They had been in the town of El Triunfo, resisting the burning down of their houses. No one has been able to locate the whereabouts of those people, but the operation was defended by the commander of the Omega Joint Task Force by saying that “we were the targets of a violent riot because we were fighting against crimes of invasion of areas of special ecological importance.”

“We are going to sue the government for the damage that was caused. They and their families suffered psychological traumas. . .what pains us is that the Army has now been involved in more recent cases involving human rights violations, targeting vulnerable populations like campesinos and indigenous people,” reiterated the defense attorney for Fonseca and Lesmes.

The campesinos in Vista Hermosa have other complaints

Johana* is a housewife and campesina in the town of Las Delicias, in the jurisdiction of Vista Hermosa. All through last month, she’s been getting calls on her cell phone from somebody who identifies himself as Ricardo Montenegro, supposedly a member of the AGC. His purpose is extortion, and according to the complainant, the person threatening her says he supports Operation Artemis at whatever cost. “They’re asking me for from two to five million pesos (roughly USD $530 to roughly USD $1,300) for my life, or to protect my house in the countryside. I talked with an agent from TAFUR (Gaula Special Forces) in Meta, and he told me that in one of the investigations he had done, it looked as if it was a person calling from the prison in Villvicencio, an ally of members of the dissidents in Macarena,” he explained.

Some of the other neighbors, who like Johana prefer not to reveal their identity, have received messages and voicemails via Whatsapp with death threats “if you keep on with deforestation” or “help the guerrillas.”

“It would be presumptuous and mistaken to attribute this to any specific person, but we don’t think it’s an accident after what happened during Artemis with Samuel and the other gentleman that they seized and took away, without any evidence,” concluded the campesina.

On the date of publication of this article, only one of these complaints had been validated by the Attorney General’s Office. The victims have kept the rest of them anonymous, for fear of reprisals by the people that made the threats.

*The name of the person interviewed has been changed, at the express request of the source.

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