Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: When Terror Wears a Uniform

Constanza Vieira

SOACHA, Colombia, Nov 21 2008 (IPS) - Herminia Lizarazo did not know what to respond when her seven-year-old grandson told her "Grandma, I want to know what the army is for." The boy, whose two uncles belong to the army in Colombia, wanted to wear a military costume for Halloween.

Senate human rights hearing in Soacha. Credit: Amalia Carrillo/IPS

Senate human rights hearing in Soacha. Credit: Amalia Carrillo/IPS

"My uncles dress like that, and they look really good," he commented to her, arguing in favour of the costume he had chosen for the Oct. 31 holiday, which originated in the United States and has spread to many Latin American countries.

Lizarazo gave a brief personal account of her life, which she called "a mother’s story," at a special hearing on human rights in Ciudad Bolívar, Altos de Cazucá and Soacha – vast slum neighbourhoods that line the hills on the southern edge of Bogotá – held Thursday by the Senate Human Rights Commission.

In 1984, she fled the southern department (province) of Huila because of the leftist guerrillas. "I had four little ones, and we came to Bogotá to try our luck," she said. "But four months later, my husband died, and I became a widow."

She said that although her family was very poor, "I gave my kids strength." Lizarazo said she knows all about the difficulties faced by those who are forcibly "displaced, and about suffering hunger with your children, and I know the courage you have to have as a mother, as a person."

Her son-in-law, 27-year-old smelting company worker Joaquín Castro, went missing from Altos de Cazucá on Jan. 13, and two days later the military turned his body in to the morgue in the remote town of Ocaña, 700 km northeast of Bogotá. He was reported as a battlefield casualty in Colombia’s decades-old civil war.

Castro was one of the dozens of young men whose cases sparked a scandal over extrajudicial executions by the army, when the discovery of their bodies was reported by the press in late September.

The victims, some of whom were lured away from their homes with false promises of a job, were reported as fighters killed in combat.

In Colombia they are known as "false positives", a term that refers to the corpses of civilians presented by the Colombian military as guerrillas or paramilitaries killed in action, as part of a system that rewards soldiers and officers for showing "results," in terms of battlefield casualties in the counterinsurgency fight.

So far, the scandal has led to the removal of 27 military officers – including three generals – and noncommissioned officers, as well as the resignation of army chief General Mario Montoya.

Castro had married Lizarazo’s daughter when he was 17 and she was 15. They had four children.

"All of a sudden I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a grandmother, once again with four children, this time four grandchildren, and I don’t know what to do with them. The only one working there was their father," said Lizarazo, a community leader.

In the Senate hearing she asked for economic and psychological aid for Castro’s parents, to help them escape the dire poverty and the depression in which they are steeped, and for the children, "because the bitterness in the hearts of the children is terrible."

She denied the allegations that Castro was a member of the Black Eagles, a far-right group that emerged in 2006 following the partial demobilisation of the counterinsurgent paramilitary commandos that worked in collusion with the security forces.

Despite everything, Lizarazo is proud of her military sons. General Luis Eduardo Pérez, commander of the 13th army brigade, told IPS that he would meet with her, and with another woman who lost one of her loved ones in the scandal, and who also has family members in the army.

"Not to apologise," he clarified, "but to see how we can help them."

General Pérez said he did not speak at the hearing out of respect for the victims. "The army is the protector of the people. Today we have 83 percent credibility ratings" in opinion polls, he said, before adding that "but we have people who have made mistakes."

After the scandal broke out, the government ordered tighter internal controls and human rights training for the security forces to stem such abuses, because part of the U.S. military aid to Colombia – the world’s third-largest recipient of such aid – is on the rocks as a result of human rights violations.

The general said he was prepared "to take the necessary measures, in order to eradicate these problems that we have within our institution."

After announcing civil-military operations in Soacha, he added that he would "process" the testimony given in the hearing by the mothers and siblings of five young men who were killed like Castro.

One of the people who testified at the hearing was José García, who was displaced from his land in his home province of Huila when he was just a boy. For the first time, he revealed the name of the lieutenant, of the Tenerife Battalion, who killed his father – a leader of the left-wing Patriotic Union party, which was wiped out when thousands of its politicians and members were killed one by one – in 1987.

Around 1,000 of the participants in an ongoing indigenous protest – the National Minga of Indigenous and Popular Resistance ("minga" is a terms referring to a traditional collective indigenous activity) – listened to the testimony given at the Senate hearing Thursday.

Only "a committee took part, because we didn’t all fit," Darío Tote, of the powerful Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC), told IPS.

The rest of the protesters, who number around 16,000, walked the 14 kilometres from Soacha to Bogotá Thursday morning, where they stayed overnight at the campus of the National University of Colombia, whose rector, Moisés Wassermann, had initially refused to allow them to camp there.

After four days of negotiations with the government of Bogotá, which is in the hands of the left-wing Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA), Wassermann finally gave in, but said he would only allow them to stay until Sunday.

Demanding respect for human rights, the native protesters, who began their demonstration 41 days ago, set out Nov. 9 on the 535-km march to Bogotá from the La María indigenous reservation in the southwestern province of Cauca.

Fifty shamans from different indigenous groups are taking part in the Minga, to stress that "the power of the word is accompanied by spirituality," as the press office of the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC) said in a statement.

"And throughout Colombia, we have the backing of the wise men, curacas, jaibanás and mamos," it added, listing the terms by which the religious authorities of different indigenous cultures are known.

"We are going to gather their testimony," CRIC leader Feliciano Valencia told IPS on his way out of the Senate hearing in Soacha. "Along with several organisations, we have worked out procedures for following up on this situation.

"We share the pain of the families of the victims, we express our solidarity with them, we take note of their pain, and we are going to carry it with us throughout the rest of the national territory," as the Minga continues on its way, said Valencia.

Killings by the army are nothing new for indigenous people, peasant farmers and human rights defenders. As Valencia said, "we ourselves have experienced these things in our territories."

According to ONIC leader Luis Evelis Andrade, 1,200 of the 1,500 indigenous people killed in the past few years were the victims of extrajudicial killings.

"We have watched with horror the transformation of the forces of law and order under the Democratic Security policies" of the administration of Álvaro Uribe, Valencia said at the Senate hearing, referring to the counterinsurgency policy implemented by the right-wing president since he first took office in 2002.

"We no longer only feel terror when we see the armed groups in our territory," he said, referring to the paramilitaries and the leftist guerrillas. "We are also frightened when we see soldiers, police or a security forces post."

Fernando Escobar, the Soacha municipal delegate of the public prosecutor’s office, received a death threat two weeks ago.

He was the one who spoke out publicly about the murder of Joaquín Castro and the other young men who went missing from Soacha and whose bodies were found in a morgue or mass graves hundreds of kilometres away.

As the municipal representative in charge of receiving citizen complaints on human rights abuses, until the Senate hearing he was the only official, at any level of government, to listen to and work with the families, as several mothers whose sons were killed by the army told the hearing.

The threat signed by supposed paramilitaries "said that if I don’t quit, I’ll be a victim of an attempt on my life," Escobar told IPS.

"We have come to say that the only thing that motivates us in this matter is our commitment to human rights and the defence of the rule of law," he added.

The authorities have provided Escobar with two bodyguards and an armour-plated vehicle.

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