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COLOMBIA: Speaking Out Against Paramilitaries – Before Fleeing Again

Constanza Vieira

PAJONAL, Colombia, Dec 11 2006 (IPS) - Even his elderly aunt Jacinta, who raised him, is urging him to leave town. This will be the second time Santander Blanco has had to flee for his life. The first time he was forced to leave after refusing to vote for the candidates to the Colombian legislature imposed by the ultra-rightwing paramilitary militias.

That time, he spent three years hiding out in the Caribbean port city of Cartagena in northern Colombia, two hours away by road, and lost everything he had gained in his years of work as a civil servant. But he returned home.

Now he will escape once again to save his life. But this time he decided to speak out before leaving.

He did so before 1,300 people in a public hearing that the Senate human rights committee convened in late November in the municipal capital, San Onofre, in the northwestern Caribbean coastal province of Sucre.

During the hearing, he accused Mayor Jorge Blanco (no relation) of paramilitary ties, in front of the provincial police chiefs. The mayor had won the elections in which he was the only candidate. The regional legislators were arrested in mid-November on orders of the Supreme Court, accused of forming part of paramilitary bands.

So Santander Blanco will once again leave Pajonal, with its streets of yellow sand, as a new member of the non-governmental programme of protection for human rights defenders, basically financed with European funds and by the U.S. Ford Foundation.

The testimony given by Santander Blanco and two other local residents forms part of the evidence that led the Supreme Court to issue arrest warrants for the ruling party legislators.

“They offered us 300,000 pesos (140 dollars) a month, from November to January, and from then on, a post in the public administration, if we would go back on our words,” said Blanco. But none of the three accepted the offer.

The hearing was requested by the National Movement of Victims of Crimes of the State (MNVCE), founded in mid-2005 with the support of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The aim was to hear the accounts of survivors of human rights abuses.

The terror inflicted by paramilitary militias, and the resultant silence on the part of victims and survivors, have reigned in this municipality of 45,000 people for years.

Iván Cepeda, one of the MNVCE spokespersons, described the situation in the area: “Widespread forced disappearances and the murders of at least 3,000 people, 75 massacres that claimed 329 victims in 1999 and 2000, the concealment of bodies in hundreds of common graves, and the forced displacement of 70,000 people in Sucre and 2,162 families from San Onofre.”

He continued: “The regular practice of torture and inhumane or degrading treatment, the extermination of 90 members of the Patriotic Union (a leftist party that emerged in 1985 from peace accords with the communist guerrillas), and the annihilation of rural organisations like ANUC (National Association of Campesino Farmers),” which was very active in the region in the 1970s or 1980s.

Cepeda himself was orphaned by the four-decade civil war. His father was a Patriotic Union senator.

The activist also referred to “the usurpation of land and assets from the local populace, forms of slavery and political control, the plundering of public goods and resources,” and crimes against humanity, the great majority of which have gone unpunished.

According to rightwing President Álvaro Uribe, these phenomena are coming to light thanks to the demobilisation of the paramilitary groups achieved through negotiations during his first term (2002-2006).

But in the words of Cepeda, it is a result of “the exemplary struggle by the community of San Onofre for truth, justice and reparations.”

“The bloodiest periods of the violence occurred after Sucre was declared a ‘zone of consolidation and rehabilitation’ (a militarised area) by the government, and a ceasefire was announced” by the paramilitaries when they began to negotiate their demobilisation in December 2002, he said.

The MNVCE spokesman also said “we have testimonies that indicate that in early October of this year, around 300 armed men from the neighbouring province of Córdoba came to the province of Bolívar (of which Cartagena is the capital) and are operating” in three municipalities, one of which is less than an hour’s drive from San Onofre.

The paramilitary death squads were created by drug traffickers in 1982 to fight the leftist guerrillas. But high-level army officers realised that they could serve as a tool in the counterinsurgency struggle, to do their dirty work, and in many regions encouraged their actions, according to a number of reports.

In Colombia’s civil war, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) attempt to sabotage production and the overall functioning of the country. The insurgent group controls as much as 35 percent of the national territory, mainly in sparsely populated rural areas in the south, where there is no state presence, and where coca – the raw material for cocaine – is produced. The rebels charge the producers of cocaine “taxes”.

The paramilitary umbrella group, AUC, meanwhile, gained control of strategic regions with better infrastructure, such as the area along the Caribbean coast, from which a large part of the cocaine exported by Colombia is shipped out. The paramilitary militias themselves have admitted that most of their financing comes from the drug trade. Colombia is the world’s top producer of cocaine.

In 2005, 90 percent of the territory in San Onofre was controlled by the paramilitaries, according to a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report, Cepeda said.

In the pink-walled living room of his house in Pajonal, Blanco told IPS that in the 2002 elections he refused to obey the paramilitary leader who tried to force him to vote for their candidates: Jairo Merlano for the Senate and Muriel Benito for the lower house, both of whom are now under arrest.

“I’m a grown man,” Blanco replied twice to Marco Tulio Pérez, alias “El Oso” (The Bear), one of the paramilitary leaders in San Onofre, when he accused Santander of being a guerrilla and gave him 24 hours to leave town if he didn’t want “a bullet in his mouth.”

“El Oso”, who is now in prison, and who reportedly used to boast that he could not go a single day without seeing blood shed, wanted to kill Santander because he was the only person in Pajonal who did not show up at the small square, one block from his house, for the “discussion” on the elections.

In the square, under the almond and ficus trees, “El Oso”, armed to the teeth, was “instructing” local residents on how to vote, following orders from Merlano and Benito, according to the Supreme Court. Both of them, followers of then presidential candidate Uribe, were – not surprisingly – elected.

“Check and you will see that in San Onofre there was no voter abstention,” said a salesman of home appliances who will remain anonymous. “They forced everyone here to vote for them,” he told IPS.

In Pajonal, a town of 1,000, the two candidates each took more than 600 votes.

Merlano, Benito and other well-known figures in Sucre are currently under investigation because “they used paramilitary groups to order forced disappearances and massacres, obtain votes, steal public funds, get rid of their opponents and political enemies and amass personal fortunes,” said Cepeda. Blanco decided to speak out because four days before the hearing, his close friend Juvenal Escudero was shot and killed, with four bullets in his back.

Escudero, a campesino, had demanded in an interview on a Caracol TV station news programme that he and his neighbours be given back their land, which had been “sold” at ridiculously low prices to the paramilitary groups under pressure. In many cases, entire families were forcibly displaced.

The “sicarios” (hired killers) sent Blanco the message that he would be next. They also said anyone who attended the hearing convened by the Senate would be killed. Nevertheless, the stadium in San Onofre was packed for the hearing.

The municipal government receives enormous oil industry royalties because the pipeline that runs from the other side of the country, in Caño Limón on the Venezuelan border, ends in Coveñas, in this municipality.

Nevertheless, “In Sucre, child malnutrition (as measured by weight for height) is over 40 percent,” Alfredo Sarmiento, director of the National Human Development Programme, told IPS, based on figures from the Social Protection Ministry.

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