Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: In the Territory of Plan Patriot

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Jul 16 2004 (IPS) - The scenario of peace talks for three years and now the focus of the main military offensive against the guerrillas, the southern Colombian province of Caquetá is the scene of an appalling humanitarian crisis that has received virtually no media coverage.

Two recent reports once again demonstrate that the armed groups involved in this South American country’s four-decade civil war ignore the difference between combatant and civilian, one of the basic concepts of international humanitarian law.

Describing atrocities committed by the army and its right-wing paramilitary allies on the one hand, and by the leftist insurgents on the other, the two reports agree that the media have failed to show the true impact of the war in Caquetá.

"There is a news black-out on the events occurring in this region," says a Jul. 9 article datelined Caquetá that was distributed by the Ila-Kol news service on Colombia produced by ILA (Informationsstelle Lateinamerika), a German magazine.

The article, which was backed up Wednesday by a leading German cooperation agency that preferred not to give its name, said the Llanos del Yarí, around the town of Caguán, is currently the area most heavily affected by military operations in Colombia.

"It is as if there were an inter-institutional agreement to keep silent about the events and phenomena occurring among the local inhabitants of the region,” says another report, released by the Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), a local human rights group.

The ombudsperson’s office and the municipal human rights ombudspersons have expressed ”surprise”, because when they report denunciations of military abuses that they have received, the armed forces ”almost immediately complain angrily because they received and reported the accusations,” says the CODHES report.

"The media do not inform public opinion proportionally on the situation," which contributes to keeping it "invisible", CODHES adds.

A reporter from Florencia, the capital of Caquetá, who will remain anonymous, was able to get past a military checkpoint in the area and told his colleagues in the organisation Media for Peace (MPP) that "he couldn’t believe the number of bodies he saw. He estimated the number of corpses in the area off-limits to the press at around 700," journalist Arturo Guerrero told IPS.

The government does not appear to be very willing "to prevent and address the impact of these policies on the civilian population that is affected" by the military campaigns, says CODHES.

In an effort to weaken the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), right-wing President Alvaro Uribe launched Plan Patriot in that southern region, which for decades has been dominated by the powerful rebel group that first rose up in arms in 1964.

The military offensive is targeting a large area in Caquetá, around the town of Caguán, which from January 1999 to February 2002 hosted the failed peace talks between the government of Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) and FARC.

According to the army, FARC has 16,000 combatants, although independent sources put the total closer to 25,000.

But a spokesman for the clandestine Bolivarian Movement (MB), the insurgent group’s political arm, told IPS that FARC is made up of 30,000 combatants, backed up by 10,000 civilian militia-members, 60,000 members of the MB, and around two million sympathisers, 30 percent of whom are located in urban areas in this country of 44 million.

Press reports say some 17,000 troops are participating in Plan Patriot, which was carried out in total silence until it was revealed to the public by FARC in April.

The United States is financing the operation, and providing it with logistical support and military advisers.

"The difficult thing is not to remove FARC from the towns, but from the heads of local residents" in regions like Caquetá, where the guerrillas "have basically been the state for decades," said Guerrero.

Through his "democratic security" policy, Uribe is seeking to break that link by drafting civilians into networks of army informers and recruiting campesinos (peasant farmers) as soldiers, basically making them enemies of their neighbours.

"The security forces are focusing their pressure on the civilian population, who they see as supporters and collaborators of the guerrillas," says CODHES.

That has led to mass arrests of local campesinos and indigenous people, "which are not reported to the media in order to avoid criticism from certain sectors of public opinion," because that practice tends to culminate months later in "the release of the detainees due to lack of evidence and flawed legal procedures," the report adds.

"Reporters hardly visit the area anymore, and when some kind of report or information is obtained, it is published days after the event, and in marginal spaces," like at the back of newspapers, says CODHES.

Guerrero visited Florencia over the weekend of Jul. 10-11 to take part in a workshop attended by around 30 local journalists and organised by Media for Peace, a group of reporters advocating responsible, accurate coverage of Colombia’s armed conflict.

The participants in the workshop said the ban on moving about after 18:00, enforced for years by the guerrillas, is now applied by the army.

For the past two months, media workers have not gotten news out to Bogota because the military keep them from entering war zones.

Nor does FARC allow civilians to remain neutral, says the CODHES report. The rebels prohibit "new people" from entering areas under their control, register the local residents, and restrict movement and traffic, prohibiting people from being absent for over a month, and only authorising them to travel outside of the area once every six months.

The security forces also register local residents, a practice that will only become legal if a new anti-terrorism statute is upheld by the Constitutional Court.

CODHES reports that to the south of Florencia, there has been "a strategic spreading out of the paramilitary groups, which have reinforced their ranks with around 1,000 men and launched a new campaign to intimidate the civilian population through massacres, selective killings, disappearances, displacement and extortion."

The Ila-Kol article reported that the guerrillas and the army have both used the school in the town of San Juan del Losada as temporary housing, while the children continue to attend class every day.

And during combat, "several bullets hit the school (in the village of La Tunia), putting the children at risk," said the article.

The CODHES and Ila-Kol reports both cite bombing and fighting in inhabited areas of Caquetá, as well as heavy use of land-mines and other explosives.

Ila-Kol also said FARC has returned to the forced recruitment of minors, "as well as murders of people who refuse to support" the rebel group.

Meanwhile, "The army has blocked the passage of food and fuel supplies for the civilian population, on the pretext that they could reach the hands of the guerrillas," while FARC has blocked all land and river transport since May 31 in the municipality of Solano, where the biggest military base in southern Colombia (Tres Esquinas) is located, according to Ila-Kol.

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