By Edinson Bolaño, RevistaRAYA, January 25, 2023
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The campesinos point to a big landholder in southern Cesar Department as the one who planned the murder of two of their leaders; the AGC are saying that they have contracts with the Mayor’s Office in Barrancabermeja; and the Iron Force Battalion in southern Bolívar is accused of allowing the paramilitaries to camp within the city limits of the San Pablo Municipality. These are some of the complaints that the RAYA news magazine collected during the campesino strike in Magdalena Medio. It has now completed three days of blocking the road between Barrancabermeja and Bucaramanga.
The advancing paramilitaries are most recently using a new message that some campesinos are calling “pulling a fast one”, pretending to be retelling a political story and not using a scorched earth strategy as in the past. But it’s the same paramilitarism that tries to make nice with the civilian population, offering Christmas presents for the children or a cow for a New Year’s festival. After they make that progress, we get the accusation, the identification, and the threats against the leaders that don’t ally with them, and the murders of people that are trying to get the return of their land stolen by the big landholders and get it titled. Now the big landholders are big businesses, big economies, planting palm trees, raising buffalos, and with extensive cattle ranches.
This apparent new generation is the self-proclaimed Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC). Last Monday, January 24, they distributed pamphlets and put graffiti on walls and doors in different parts of the country, including in Magdalena Medio, which includes southern Cesar, southern Bolívar, southern Magdalena, northeast Santander, some municipalities in northern Boyacá, Caldas, Cundinamara and Southeast Antioquia. The pamphlets and painted signs commemorate the 120 years of the most popular leftist leader in the 20th century: Jorge Elíecer Gaitán. They even usurp his slogan to make it look as if their ideology has actually changed: “I’m not a man, I’m a people” or “The man is superior to his leaders,” was printed in the pamphlets.
At the same time, last Monday the campesinos from the Magdalena region also went out on the road that connects Barrancabermeja with Bucaramanga to declare an indefinite strike because of the rearming of the paramilitaries who are overwhelming them in the countryside. In the first half of last year, three of the most important leaders of this region were murdered. They were leading the claims for recovery of 500 hectares of land in one of the biggest swampy complexes in Latin America: the Zapatosa in southern Cesar. Teófilo Acuña, Jorge Tafur, and José Quiñonez were being harassed and threatened by a big landholder in the area, Wilmer Díaz, by the Police Commander Joner Alvis, and by the Mayor of San Martín, in Cesar, Leusman Guerra Rico, according to the complaint filed by the AgroMining Federation of southern Bolívar.
That organization, which Acuña led for several years, claimed that on January 7 of 2022, Acuña’s wife received the death sentence: “Tell him to go and hide, because they’re going to kill him,” the hit men told her. On January 9 they were trying to get into his house in Aguachica, Cesar, and later they were following him in SUV’s with tinted windows. That was why on January 12, Acuña requested the government to supply urgent protection measures.
A month later, on February 16, the campesinos from Matecaña and Gallúa in the swampy complex of the Lebrija River in San Martín, in Cesar, were attacked with gunfire by the big landholder Wilmer Díaz. He seriously injured the campesino Rafael Centeno with a shot in the head, according to the new complaint filed by the social organizations of National Agrarian Coordinator (CAN) who spoke to the RAYA news magazine.
On February 18, Díaz was harassing the campesinos who were working in the swamp again; this time he was accompanied by Leusman Guerra Rico, the Mayor of San Martín, who called the campesinos “guerrillas”; by Joner Alvis, the Police Commander, and by soldiers from the Colombian Army’s Fifth Brigade, who also accompanied the big landholder, Díaz. Ten minutes before he was killed, Acuña made a complaint about the serious situation at the Third Canal.
Testimony from campesino leaders, collected by this news magazine during the strike that’s going on in Magdalena Medio, mention that the perpetrators were paramilitaries from the Juancho Pada group and the Díaz family. The first, the creator of the paramilitary front Héctor Julio Peinado Becerra, responsible for a dozen massacres in San Martín, Aguachica, Gamarra, Tamalameque, La Gloria and Pelaya, all of them in the early days of the land titling that Incora (Colombian Institute for Rural Reform) had promised the landless campesinos during the unsuccessful agrarian reform
Last year, at a public hearing in San Martín, Cesar, the campesinos complained about the murders and were insisting on the titling of that land that was still in litigation. Five days later, the Gustavo Petro administration authorized ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron) to move out the campesinos who had been in possession of the swampland properties for four years. The authorization took place in connection with the speeches by Vice President Francia Márquez and Defense Minister Iván Velásquez, saying that the administration was opposed to land “invasions”. At the same moment, the cattle ranchers at Plato, Magdalena Department, paraded in white SUV’s that carried armed men (apparently from the Colombian Army) on highways that had been opened to echo the call by the President of Fedegan, the ranchers’ trade association, José Felix Lafaurie, who had invited them, considering what he called land “invasion”, to act in solidarity with the private security used in the region.
This context of violence provides a tiny vision of what the campesinos are experiencing in the Magdalena Medio region. At the end of last year, it was Santa Rosa’s and San Pablo’s turn, in southern Bolivar. According to the campesinos’ testimony, committed to the strike, the marriage between the big landholders and the paramilitaries of the AGC is evident in this region. Faced with the complicity of the men of the Colombian Army, members of the Iron Force Battalion, the campesinos complain of the modus operandi by which the illegal group is occupying the countryside.
“The Army came to the area, secured the surroundings, and two days later came the paramilitaries and they’re still here today. The Army has even come in to support them with helicopters. And AGC checkpoints are a constant in spite of the fact that there is a military checkpoint 15 minutes beyond theirs,” said one of the leaders at San Pablo.
According to another one of the leaders of that municipality, “in a neighborhood known as The Blue Well, the AGC also have control with checkpoints because they have a base located within the city limits and the Army doesn’t do anything, they respect their territory.” Until December of 2021, The Blue Well neighborhood was a tourist area where people used to go out on New Year’s Eve. However, at the end of 2022, it was a different thing; the AGC forbade coming in and walking around in the sector, while some community action boards co-opted by the criminal organization issued licenses.
Last Tuesday, the campesino organizations called a press conference to complain about the situation and to insist on the necessity for the Petro administration to listen to them.
The news magazine RAYA examined the complaints and found out that there were other cases very close to the place where the demonstrators were gathered. For an example, Barrancabermeja is located an hour from the area of the strike. It’s the oil capital of Colombia, where last year the victims marched on behalf of the Petroleum Industry Workers Union (USO). Their leaders were threatened right in the midst of the union elections. Many of them now have armed bodyguards and armored cars.
In fact, in October of 2022, a video circulated in Barrancabermeja, showing several men in ski masks and camouflage, delivering a message to their alleged liaisons with the authorities in that municipality. “We are indeed here in the city and we are carrying out social cleansing. Our struggle is not against the Armed Forces, but as the Colonels have broken our regional agreements and are attacking us, after we reached agreements in Barranca with the Mayor, and in Yondó with the Inspector, we are declaring “plan pistola” against the officials that have thwarted us,” said one of the spokesmen who identified themselves as members of the AGC.
At the end of last year, the authorities in Medellín captured Jhon Jairo Fernández, alias “Marihuano”, the paramilitary who became a chieftain after belonging to the Central Bloc of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) until 2005, when he demobilized from that illegal group. Later on, in 2010, he commanded the “Los Rastrojos” gang, and according to judicial authorities, since 2016 he has been dedicated to trafficking and distributing drugs in Barrancabermeja. He was accused of homicide, extortion, forced displacement of campesinos, and drug trafficking. After his capture, he was transferred to Barrancabermeja and later to Bogotá. However, “Marihuano”s organization reappeared this Monday with graffiti alluding to the AGC in the municipality known as “Puerto Petrolero”.
Last January 15, a new AGC pamphlet was directed against 21 leaders of Magdalena Medio, accusing them of creating anxiety and chaos in the community because of the strike carried out at the Oponcito crossing going into Yarima. According to the document they circulated, the paramilitaries had gotten together with members of the companies and transportation businesses in Barrancabermeja “who have decided to take action against the demonstrators in the strike . . . We are declaring those people to be military objectives because they don’t follow the warning. We won’t say anything, just wait and see what happens. AGC, the Convivir for living better (Private security organization)”, they wrote. In September of last year, the labor leader Sibaris Lamprea Vargas was murdered by hit men.
The San Lucas Serranía (Hills)
In that part of northeast Antioquia and southern Bolívar, the problem is the mining. The Hills of San Lucas are gridded with assigned mining titles that have to do with the formalization of mining. The leaders in the region who attended the strike said the campesinos oppose this situation and complain that the multinationals use their affiliates as a façade. “Armed men with the combined Army-paramilitary troops are present in Caño Horqueta; in the same way others appear concentrated in the road that leads to the Municipality of Bagre (Antioquia Department) in the place known as Diamante,” the Jesús María Valle Human Rights Corporation complained at the beginning of 2022.
On this route the paramilitaries showed their new modus operandi. According to the complaint, the paramilitaries demanded that the residents of every house had to host a person from the armed group so that they would live in these campesino and miner houses, or if they refused, they would be declared a military objective.
Ever since 2020, after the FARC abandoned these territories because of the peace process with the government, the AGC have been taking up positions in the San Lucas Hills. According to a complaint by a leader, Gerardo Amador, the campesinos have complained about the veiled complicity of the Armed Forces with the AGC. Also about the fact that this has permitted their considerable advance toward the strategic region of mining and drug trafficking. “It’s easy for the self-defense forces to move around these territories with 200 armed men and nothing will happen. For example, we can see how this advance has not bothered the big mining companies, and on the contrary, in their advance they are always tearing the social fabric in every territory,” emphasized Amador.
“It’s because these complaints have not gone anywhere that we are peacefully protesting on this road, because we can’t stay here under these conditions, under the boots of the military and the paramilitaries,” the social leader stressed.
For now, the serious humanitarian situation seems no closer to a solution. The administration has suggested that “total peace” would be the strategy to combat the paramilitaries, but the complaints of the campesinos say that, while they act as if they were peaceful, they keep on reorganizing and rearming, and therefore, there is a lot of doubt about this organization’s willingness to make peace. For the future, the social organizations suggest a direct dialog with the administration to end the strike that has now lasted three days on the main road that joins Barrancabermeja with Bucaramanga, and thus put an end to the worry of some Colombians that live in these outlying and forgotten regions.
What the campesino community is hoping for
Even though what’s needed right now is to overcome the humanitarian emergency that is overwhelming the campesinos, Magdalena Media hopes to build a countryside with food crop sovereignty, where life will be in harmony with Mother Earth. For this purpose, and for a way to survive, “it’s necessary to halt the “extractivism” of cattle ranching and large scale mining. That has been exhausted and, on the contrary, is really destroying the territory. According to the leaders, that kind of life is based on a deadly plan and it will be very difficult to go forward. But they will not march backward, as the years have gone by and up to now it’s been hard, because of the violence. The easy path would be just to join with the traditional economy, but if we are able to make progress with this administration, that would be a triumph. If not, these communities have said they will just keep on going.