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.

Not only did the police´s hurried clean-up of the graffiti raise a few questions, but the utter absence of the police and military from the streets on the afternoon of the paro was rather suspicious. Equally questionable was the government’s response to the paro, especially after it was revealed that the paro didn’t just happen in the couple of cities near where I live, but in multiple municipalities in 4 departments (or states). Essentially, the initial statement from the Casa de Nariño (Colombia’s White House) was that they would have to wait and see who this group was and what they wanted, and that it was important not to take rash action. 

In contrast, they very same day Uribe made statements regarding peaceful indigenous protests in another region of the country, calling the protestors “vandals” and “terrorists.” A few days later, soldiers shot into a crowd of these protestors, killing two (article in Spanish) and injuring many. (See this article in English by Mario Murillo for more, and take action to support the protestors). 

Now, the government is contending that the AGCs aren’t paramilitary at all, but rather a front for the narcotrafficking group led by the notorious Don Mario. According to the government’s story, (article in Spanish) Don Mario’s gang has mounted this front in order to distract attention from their trafficking and potentially set themselves up for government benefits if they later demobilize (for more on how this process works see my post on the Justice and Peace law.

While it’s likely true that the group(s) behind the paro armado and the presence in the rural areas are involved in drug trafficking, there is no rational argument to be made that they’re not paramilitaries. For years paramilitaries (like their guerilla counterparts) have trafficked drugs; it’s common knowledge that this civil conflict has largely been financed by drugs in recent decades, and one can look at all the paramilitary leaders extradited to the US on drug charges for evidence. Besides, if these narco-paras, or para-narcos, are making threats to civilians, how is that not clear evidence of paramilitarism? Uribe may want to hide proof of paramilitary rearmament because it shows the failure of his demobilization plan and contradicts his claims that the armed conflict has ended, but the evidence is clear: there is still an armed conflict in Colombia, and it still threatens civilians.

As we continue to analyze the situation, we’ve had to reflect on what tools do we have at our disposal with which to respond. We are accompaniers, so we have, of course, accompaniment. It’s true that we are always accompanying, since our principal role is to stay in La Unión, as that has historically been a very threatened part of the Community.  

However, as I have described here before, we also go on accompaniment trips to outlying areas of the Community. These trips are not just to show our physical presence in the areas, but also to provide visibility to the situation in those areas (including through this blog!) and to put political pressure on various authorities to properly deal with the security situation. That political pressure includes cartas de aviso (advisory letters) to everyone from the US Embassy to the Minister of the Interior to the General of the 17th Brigade (the army unit that operates in this region) every time we visit somewhere. These cartas are then backed up with periodic meetings and phone calls to both build relationships and apply more pressure.  

So if the paramilitaries attack civilians in (God forbid) La Esperanza, for example, the authorities can’t say “oh, we had no idea paramilitaries were threatening the Community there,” because we have been telling them all along, and going to see and document the evidence for ourselves. Our visits also serve to give moral and emotional support to the Community members in those areas, because they know we are paying attention and working on their behalf.

Therefore, as more pressure is being put on the Peace Community and other civilians, we are pushing back with more accompaniments, more meetings, more of our political pressure. So, expect more stories of me traipsing through mud and almost – but not quite, luckily – getting carried away by rivers!

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