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

RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: Paramilitarism Alive and Well

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Apr 1 2008 (IPS) - “If their slogan was land, dignity and peace, this time it will be terror, murder and hell,” said a threat sent to human rights defenders and trade unionists who took part in a Mar. 6 march in homage to the victims of Colombia’s far-right paramilitary groups.

Since the march, four of the organisers have been murdered and another survived an attempt on her life. In addition, more than 50 people and organisations have been named in written threats distributed by a group calling themselves the “Black Eagles”, who say they will be “implacable” with those who organised the demonstration.

The Mar. 6 protest was convened by the Movement of Victims of Crimes of the State (MOVICE), made up of hundreds of associations, and was backed by trade union federations and a number of other social movements.

“Land, dignity and peace” was the theme of a two-day march by people displaced by Colombia’s four-decade civil war, who reached Bogotá to take part in the larger Mar. 6 demonstration.

Vigils, demonstrations and marches were held that day in 78 cities around the world and 24 in Colombia, in honour of the victims of the paramilitaries, which partially demobilised as a result of negotiations with the rightwing government of Álvaro Uribe.

But the event went unreported by the mainstream media, by contrast with the heavy international coverage of the global Feb. 4 march against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.

The Mar. 6 demonstrators were also calling for an agreement between the government and the FARC for the release of hostages held by the guerrilla group, like former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, in exchange for imprisoned insurgents. Last week, the government said it was willing to exchange imprisoned guerrillas for Betancourt, who is reportedly gravely ill, suffering from hepatitis B, leishmaniasis, and malaria.

The threats from the “Black Eagles” said that the individuals and groups listed “took part in the march against us,” and are all “big FARC collaborators.”

“I’m a capitalist. I like capitalism. I’m an independent citizen. But I can’t stand it anymore,” a 45-year-old man told IPS in the Mar. 6 demonstration. “You journalists never say what you are seeing. That’s why I came here, to see. Look at this. Look at this sea of victims,” he said, spreading his arms wide a few metres from the Plaza de Bolívar, a square in the Colombian capital, where some 300,000 demonstrators were gathered, according to the organisers’ estimates.

“None of my loved ones have been murdered, but I always criticise the paramilitaries. Our political leaders are setting a bad example for my children. My kids already lie,” he said.

The leaders of the paramilitary militias, some of whom have submitted themselves to trial as a result of the disarmament agreement with the government, have been given “five years in prison for 500 murders, after which they’ll come out and enjoy their money,” he complained, referring to the fact that most of the paramilitary chiefs are involved in the drug trade.

The paramilitaries, whose modern version emerged in 1982 to fight the leftist insurgents, have concentrated their attacks on civilians whom they deem guerrilla sympathisers. Between three and four million Colombians have been displaced from their rural homes by the violence, and much of their land has ended up in the hands of paramilitary leaders.

The ties between the paramilitaries and the security forces have been amply documented.

On Mar. 26, the Attorney General’s Office issued an arrest warrant for 15 noncommissioned officers for the 2005 murder of 11 members of the San José de Apartadó Peace Community in northwestern Colombia. The victims included three children.

A former paramilitary, Jorge Luis Salgado, told prosecutors that the killings were committed by the army in conjunction with the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).

The slayings took place after the AUC had declared a unilateral ceasefire to pave the way for the demobilisation talks with the government.

Uribe had publicly stated at the time that the members of the peace community, which had declared itself neutral in the armed conflict, were “collaborators” of the FARC, who the president describes as “terrorists.”

“You are either with Colombia or with terrorism”: this recent statement by Uribe that has been put up on billboards in Bogotá and other cities defines the government’s view with respect to neutrality in the armed conflict.

Complicity between paramilitaries, the security forces and other authorities has been established in 10 sentences handed down by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights that have held the Colombian state responsible for human rights violations.

But the government argues that such incidents are “isolated cases,” and maintains that no crimes of the state have been committed.

And when paramilitaries confessed to murders, as part of the demobilisation process, the killers justified the slayings by saying the victims were guerrillas.

The march in homage to the victims of the paramilitaries came under attack from the government. Starting on Feb. 10, top presidential adviser José Obdulio Gaviria stated on several occasions that the demonstration was “convened by the FARC.”

Gaviria’s verbal attacks on the organisers of the march were immediately echoed by paramilitary chiefs serving light sentences in prison, and those who took part in the demonstration were declared a “military objective” as “enemies of the fatherland.”

Referring to the threats and the murders of four organisers of the march, MOVICE stated in a recent message to Uribe that the “violent reaction is a response to the massive public repudiation of which (the paramilitaries) were the target on Mar. 6.”

The organisation also said the remarks by Gaviria, who specifically focused some of his attacks on MOVICE spokesman Iván Cepeda, “generated a climate conducive to violence.”

The group said it would take legal action against Gaviria, and called for Uribe to dismiss him. “Inciting violence is a grave crime,” the letter added.

Although in the government’s official view, the paramilitary groups no longer exist, they actually only partially disbanded in the disarmament process that ended in 2006.

The groups that never disappeared or have re-emerged under new names like “Black Eagles” are referred to by the government as “criminal gangs.”

According to a source with an international body, who asked not to be identified, the demobilised paramilitaries were called to take up their weapons again late last year in Urabá and Chocó in the northwest, and Cesar in the northeast, along the Venezuelan border, as well as in “many other regions.”

That situation, observed on the ground by the international body, is in keeping with the threats, which announced the “total rearmament of the paramilitary forces.”

The phenomenon is also mentioned by 22 U.S. human rights organisations in a joint letter sent to Uribe on Mar. 26.

“This string of threats and attacks calls directly into question the effectiveness of the paramilitary demobilisation process,” said the groups, which included Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights), Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA, Refugees International, the Washington Office on Latin America and the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Centre for Human Rights.

Referring to Gaviria’s remarks, the letter says that “Baseless comments such as these are profoundly damaging to Colombian democracy and human rights, and place those against whom they are made in direct danger of violence.

“These statements stigmatise the legitimate work of thousands of human rights defenders, trade unionists, and victims, and can have a chilling effect on the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and free association. And in a country like Colombia, with its record of political violence, statements like these only contribute to a climate of political intolerance that fosters violence.

“Indeed, on February 11, the day after Mr. Gaviria first made the comments, the supposedly demobilised AUC paramilitary group released a statement on its website echoing Mr. Gaviria’s attacks on Mr. Cepeda and the victims’ movement,” the letter added.

The groups also pointed to two presidential directives, adopted by the administration of Uribe’s predecessor, Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002), that order public servants “to abstain from questioning the legitimacy of” human rights defenders “and from making false imputations or accusations that compromise their security, honour and good name” or “affirmations that disqualify, harass or incite harassment” of non-governmental organisations or stigmatise their work.

In another message, which was sent to Uribe last Friday, some 20 members of the European Parliament said the situation corroborated reports indicating that the phenomenon of paramilitarism is not a thing of the past in Colombia, and that the groups maintain their capacity for criminal action at a national level.

The European parliamentarians urged Uribe to pronounce himself on these developments and give clear support to the work of human rights defenders.

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