Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

COLOMBIA: New Jobs for Paramilitaries

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Apr 10 2006 (IPS) - A new species can be found in the Magdalena Medio region in central Colombia: men who dress in black from head to toe, despite the tropical heat. Because they carry cell-phones, the local campesinos have nicknamed them “telefonos”. And they can be lethal.

The telefonos – also referred to as “black eagles” – emerged from the recent process of disarmament of the extreme-right paramilitary groups in the Magdalena Medio region, an area that has long been under paramilitary control.

They form part of the network of civilian informants created by the government, or of private security firms known as “security cooperatives”, which have absorbed many paramilitaries who have laid down their arms since the 2003 start of the demobilisation process that arose from controversial negotiations with the right-wing government of President Álvaro Uribe.

Human rights groups like the Colombian Ecumenical Network have warned that the disarmament process has failed to dismantle the paramilitary structures, which continue to commit serious human rights violations.

The collaboration between the paramilitaries – which are blamed by the United Nations and leading human rights watchdogs for at least 80 percent of the atrocities committed in Colombia’s civil war – and the armed forces has been amply documented by the U.S. State Department and United Nations bodies.

In a September 2005 report, “The Paramilitaries in Medellín: Demobilisation or Legalisation?”, Amnesty International expressed its concern over the paramilitary disarmament process, stating that “there are no guarantees to ensure that demobilised paramilitaries who might be responsible for serious human rights violations are not being ‘recycled’ into the conflict by being integrated into security-related employment, including private security firms”.

The London-based human rights group said that in the city of Medellín, at least, the disarmament process amounted to a “legitimisation phase” for the paramilitary militias, “which includes the transformation of paramilitary forces into private security or civilian informer structures”.

When Uribe took office in August 2002, he promised to create a million-strong network of civilian informers, who would compile and pass on intelligence information on illegal armed groups to the security forces.

“However, there are no guarantees in place to ensure that this ‘information network’ has not and is not being used by the demobilised paramilitaries as a mechanism to gather intelligence on local human rights defenders and community activists,” warned Amnesty.

But not all of the telefonos are former paramilitary fighters. Others are people recruited by them as civilian informers, to report on any “suspicious” activity.

However, some refuse. Just how dangerous that can be was discovered by Henry Murillo, a 29-year-old teacher who was shot by a young “sicario” (hired killer) in late March, while taking part in a workshop offered by the European Union Peace Laboratory’s regional education project.

Although Murillo survived his six bullet wounds, he is likely to be left paraplegic.

The attempt on his life occurred after he refused to become a telefono.

“The attack took place in Genezareth, a spiritual retreat centre run by the diocese of (the oil port city of) Barrancabermeja,” reported Jesuit priest Francisco de Roux, director of the Magdalena Medio Programme for Development and Peace (PDPMM) and former director of the Centre for Popular Research and Education (CINEP).

When the telefonos asked him to join their ranks, “Henry and the entire team of teachers working in CINEP’s schools (in the region) said no, we will not agree to carry telephones, we will not agree to carry radios, we are citizens and we believe that we do not have to inform on anyone,” de Roux said recently in a meeting in Bogota to which IPS was invited.

The Peace Laboratory supports the work of the PDPMM in human rights and sustainable development in the Magdalena Medio region, which is home to some 800,000 people and covers four provinces along the Magdalena River, Colombia’s biggest river.

De Roux created the PDPMM in 1995 to back the local population in their refusal to allow the violence to force them to flee their homes.

“Not one more man or woman is leaving Magdalena Medio,” the local residents grouped in the PDPMM announced in 2001 when they visited the capital to receive the National Peace Prize. “The paramilitaries and guerrillas will have to learn to live with us.” (Up to three million Colombians have been displaced from their homes in Colombia’s four-decade civil war).

The Magdalena Medio region is rich in oil and minerals, as well as fertile land coveted by drug traffickers and ranchers. It is also the home of the powerful Unión Sindical Obrera (USO) trade union.

It was in that region that the first paramilitary group emerged in 1983, organised by members of the army. At that time, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which took up arms in 1964, financed itself by kidnapping landowners and their family members, and charging farmers – even small farmers – “taxes”.

“The mentality of (the local residents) is: don’t make us part of any war strategy, we do not want any part of that,” said de Roux, explaining that local residents see themselves as neutral in the armed conflict, and want that neutrality to be respected by all sides.

When he was pressed to become a telefono, Murillo argued that “We trust each other, and if at any time something has to be reported to the authorities, then we do so.”

Murillo is one of the founders of the local PDPMM group in Bajo Simacota, 50 km south of Barrancabermeja.

There he accumulated the experience that made him “a citizen leader, an unarmed fighter for peace, who took a strong stance in the face of the guerrillas and the paramilitaries in defending the autonomy and rights of this community, in an area where the paramilitaries killed our compañera Beatriz Monsalve” when the programme was just getting underway, as de Roux reported in his newsletter, “Pertinentes del Magdalena Medio”.

He announced that the PDPMM is preparing to file a lawsuit to seek justice in the case of Murillo’s shooting.

Fighting between the army and the FARC is now raging like never before in the Serranía de San Lucas, a mountain range in the northwest of Magdalena Medio.

No civilians have been killed yet in the combat, even though it is taking place in heavily populated areas, where the PDPMM has created neutral “humanitarian zones” whose local residents defend their right to remain on their land and in their villages.

Local associations of campesinos and miners argue that the civilian population must be allowed to lead the process to a peaceful solution.

The humanitarian zone in the community of San Pablo, in the central part of the region, successfully pressed for the release of several campesinos who were kidnapped by the guerrillas in mid-March. The farmers were taking part in the government’s Forest Ranger Family programme.

But the insurgents are still holding two professors from the PDPMM’s University of Peace.

After the highly publicised demobilisation of several of the groups comprising the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC – the paramilitary umbrella organisation), the telefonos established a base in the town of Santa Rosa, west of the Magdalena River. But they can also be seen in other villages and towns in the region.

They not only carry cell-phones, but also radios and weapons, and they report to the police and the army on anything that might be considered a threat to the peace. But they also hire sicarios and “demobilised” young paramilitaries to do their “dirty work..”

The telefonos seem to believe that anyone who does not agree to join them is “dangerous” and must be “taken care of” if necessary.

The attempt on Murillo’s life came just after the Mar. 22 murder of 26-year-old Yamile Agudelo. The activist, who left behind an eight-year-old daughter, was a member of the Organización Femenina Popular (OFP), a women’s peace group based in Barrancabermeja.

Agudelo, whose mother is also a member of the OFP, “was brutally tortured, raped and murdered, and her body was found in a garbage dump,” says a communiqué distributed by the organisation.

“We denounce the actions of the paramilitaries, which continue despite the supposed demobilisation of their military structures. We reject the social, political and economic control that they achieve through intimidation, threats, forced disappearance, torture and murder in Barrancabermeja and Magdalena Medio,” adds the statement.

The OFP also reported that Claudia Pinto, a 27-year-old university student and mother of three, was recently “burnt on her face and chest, apparently by acid, by two men on a motorcycle.” Pinto’s mother is a member of the OFP.

In its message, the organisation warns that “the decline in crime rates reflected by government statistics has not reduced the control that the illegal forces exercise over the civilian population by force.”

In early March, President Uribe presided over a security council in Barrancabermeja. In the meeting, ranchers from the department of Cesar, in the northeastern part of the region, told the president that 500 of them have created a security association that will work with the army.

Although they are pleased that the military will provide them with weapons, they are asking the Defence Ministry to sell them guns at reduced prices.

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