Sunday, November 16, 2008

Please act now to stem paramilitary threats to the peace community

Below is an alert FOR issued in response to increasing paramilitary threats (that I mentioned in a recent post) and the resultant displacement of civilians from their homes in the past week. Please take action!

Paramilitary forces are making increasingly violent threats against members of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó and other peasant families in the area, with no apparent action by the Colombian government. Immediate action is needed by US Ambassador William Brownfield to leverage Washington's enormous influence and prevent further violence against the community and area's civilian population.

On the morning of November 7, in the Playa Larga vereda (settlement) of San José, some 50 rifle-wielding paramilitaries in camouflage gear and identifying armbands detained resident Jairo Berrio Arango, according to a community statement. He was forced to undress as the gunmen held a rifle to his head and threatened to kill him on the spot. When his father arrived on the scene and pleaded with them, they said they wouldn't kill him now-but that they had six San José community members targeted for death, and that they should flee immediately to avoid being killed. They said the army was cooperating with them. On November 7, five families fled the vereda of La Esperanza, where Berrio Arango's family is from, and local sources reported to FOR that between nine and 30 families had displaced from La Esperanza and Playa Larga as of November 10.

On November 1, the Peace Community's legal representative, Jesús Emilio Tuberquia, was threatened at gunpoint at an Internet café in the town of Apartadó, the local municipal seat,the community reported. Two known paramilitaries surrounded him at the café, while one held a pistol to his head and said, "I'm going to kill you." He pushed the man's arm away, fled into the café and was able to flee unharmed, though the gunmen grabbed his bag, which had fallen in the scuffle.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Interviewed on KPFA radio

Yesterday, KPFA radio in Berkeley aired a phone interview with me about my work in Colombia and the pilgrimage I accompanied in early October. My piece starts at minute 70:30. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Paramilitary resurgence demonstrates that the conflict continues

On October 15th, all the FOR Colombia staff had settled into our seats for a long-awaited full-program retreat to discuss all the ins-and-outs of our work in Colombia. We had gotten maybe an hour into our packed agenda when the phone rang to inform us that paramilitaries had launched a paro armado, effectively shut down several cities in Urabá, the region where we work. That included Apartadó, the nearest (albeit quite small) city to the Peace Community, and through which one must travel in order to get to the Community.  

After phone calls to other organizations and contacts, we learned that the previous night a warning to not open businesses nor run public transit had been spread throughout the area, propaganda leaflets had been distributed and all kinds of surfaces spray-painted with the initials AGC, for the name the group was using to refer to itself. The name – Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – was clearly a reference to the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, the large and ruthless paramilitary organization that operated in Colombia for years. The Gaitanista addition was a bit puzzling, though, since Gaitán was a presidential candidate from the Liberal Party who was assassinated in 1948, and the paramilitaries have tended to align with conservativism. 

In any case, the next day as we traveled through Apartadó on our way back to the Community, we could hardly tell that anything had happened; shops all seemed open, people seemed to be running their usual errands. Most of the graffiti, even, had been painted over already, apparently by police who had gone out with paint and brushes the very afternoon of the paro

Plenty of fear was still lingering, of course, and lots of questions. For us and the Community, the main questions were (and still are) how to analyze the situation and how to respond. Our analysis has had to recognize that this wasn’t just an isolated incident. In the last several months there has been an alarmingly large increase in paramilitary forces in the rural areas of the region, moving in numbers not seen in years. Unlike the AGC’s who staged the paro and whose statement of purpose in the distributed leaflets was quite general, these paramilitaries in the rural areas, who refer to themselves under the old and fear-inducing moniker AUC, have directly threatened the Peace Community.