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COLOMBIA: Death Threats for Tracing Paramilitary Expansion

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Sep 10 2007 (IPS) - Death threats have been received by members of a think tank in the Colombian capital that published a new book describing the expansion of ultra-rightwing paramilitary militias in several provinces of Colombia and their alliance with local politicians.

“I never threw stones. I’m no good at that at all,” said Laura Bonilla, director of the Armed Conflict Observatory of the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, which published the study in Spanish, titled “Parapolitics: The Route of Paramilitary Expansion and Political Accords”.

“Your writings are very deep, you piece of scum,” says the latest death threat received at Bonilla’s work email address, which also accuses her of having been a rebellious “stone-throwing” student. The message is dated Sept. 6, the day the book was released.

The return address is: The AUC (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia) is the paramilitary umbrella group that completed a partial demobilisation process last year, as a result of controversial negotiations with the rightwing government of Álvaro Uribe. But the “Bloque Capital” faction continues to operate in Bogotá.

The AUC, many of whose leaders are drug lords, supports the armed forces, with which it has well-documented ties.

Bonilla, 25, who holds a political science degree from Colombia’s public National University, believes “the threats are personal; they are directed to me as an individual.”

Around 10 days earlier, she received another threat over her mother’s cell-phone, which followed several previous ones.

She told IPS that the threats were in response to “several public statements I made, in which I talked about the ties between the paramilitaries and candidates” running in the Oct. 28 local and regional elections.

With regard to the proximity of the elections, she said, “We do not see this as a coincidence. The book’s focus is going to raise a lot of hackles.”

The 396-page study was carried out between late 2004 and mid-2006 with the support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

The book “describes the paramilitary territorial expansion in several selected regions, and how that expansion gave rise to an alliance between the paramilitaries and politicians at the regional level,” said Bonilla.

The researchers taking part in the study produced papers showing how the different AUC fronts achieved “dominance and influence” in Medellín, Colombia’s second-biggest city; Bogotá; the central provinces of Cundinamarca and Meta; the northern coastal provinces of Córdoba, Sucre and Magdalena Grande; the eastern provinces of Casanare and Norte de Santander; and the western province of Valle del Cauca.

The study also has a special chapter on the effects of AUC violence on indigenous people.

The ombudsman’s office’s early warning system sent out an alert in July that 42 percent of the country’s municipalities are at “electoral risk” and that nearly two-thirds of these are at “high electoral risk”.

“Electoral risk” refers to factors that affect the elections and lead to exceptionally strong performance by a specific party; an unusually large number of blank ballots; unusually high or low turn-out; political violence; threats; or murders of candidates.

Supporters of the AUC – 25 percent of the population of this South American country of 43 million, according to a survey published by Semana magazine – argue that the militias emerged to protect landowners and others from the leftist guerrilla groups that took up arms in the 1960s, given the state’s inability to provide protection.

But the so-called “parapolitics” scandal that broke out last year has revealed an intricate web of relations between powerful politicians and drug lords, involving the forced displacement of rural populations and occupation of property throughout the country.

During the paramilitary expansion that has occurred since the 1980s, 4.5 million hectares of prime land in Colombia has violently changed hands, leading to the displacement of between three and four million people.

This was not “a conspiracy among a group of criminals It was a social and political mobilisation of the country in 12 departments (provinces), which changed the political map,” León Valencia, director of the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, said at the book launch.

“And they had a decisive influence in many other departments as well. They contributed 1.75 million votes in the 2002 presidential elections, and 1.85 million in 2006,” he said.

The paramilitary militias back Uribe and in certain regions forced entire communities to vote for him, although the president would probably have been elected in 2002 and re-elected in 2006 without that support.

The Nuevo Arco Iris study began to be conducted long before the “parapolitics” scandal triggered an investigation and the arrest of a number of politicians.

The attorney-general’s office and the Supreme Court have investigated 113 regional and national politicians. Of that total, 51 parliamentarians are in prison, have been called to testify, or are mentioned in court documents relating to the scandal.

“We documented 83: 33 senators and 50 members of the lower house of Congress,” said Valencia, who believes that even more might actually be involved.

Paramilitary chiefs who have demobilised have stated that their representatives held 35 percent of the seats in Congress in the 2002-2006 legislative term.

“It was an alliance of convenience,” said Valencia, who added that the study shows “how and why it was in the interest of the regional elites to become allies of the paramilitaries.”

But “despite everything, I believe that we should not lose hope,” National Registrar Juan Carlos Galindo said at the book’s presentation.

“Colombian society is in danger, and each and every one of us is called on to fulfil a series of duties and commitments to the country that we will leave to our children,” he said.

The registrar, who is in charge of the national registry and the administration of electoral processes, said he saw the Nuevo Arco Iris study as “essential, because it helps us realistically assess what is occurring, to be able to take measures.”

The attempts to intimidate Bonilla and other members of Nuevo Arco Iris come from “those who are opposed to the free exercise of democracy, critical thinking, and social research,” said a statement released by the think tank last Friday.

Nuevo Arco Iris “urges the state security bodies to take the necessary measures to guarantee the free exercise” of democracy in the elections.

It also told those responsible for the pressure that they are “repudiated by all of us who firmly believe in the route of democracy and peace as the only way to achieve national reconciliation.”

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