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.

Background: Paramilitary Resurgence in Northwestern Colombia

Young men fanned out through the towns along what is known as the "banana axis" of Urabá on the evening of October 14, telling local businesses to shut down the following day. The men distributed leaflets announcing the continuation of the "anti-subversive struggle" in light of "the guerrillas' advance" and what the group described the government's non-fulfillment of promises made in the paramilitary demobilization. Spray-painted graffiti with the initials of the group- AGC, Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia were seen on various shops and city walls. The action shut down public transport, retail businesses and banana plantations throughout the region. Many students didn't go to school, and some humanitarian groups suspended visits to communities.

Armed forces chief General Freddy Padilla dismissed concerns about the strike, saying curiously that it was not a paramilitary rearmament, but an act of terrorism, implying that paramilitaries do not practice terrorism. Seventeenth Brigade commander General Héctor Peña Porras claimed there was no armed strike, because no one was armed, but reliable sources informed FOR that armed men were present in neighborhoods between Apartadó and San José.

President Alvaro Uribe, with support from the United States, insists that paramilitaries no longer exist in Colombia. But for the San José Peace Community, the paramilitary action was simply the announcement of an already-existing reality. The Peace Community has for months been reporting the presence of increasingly large groups of armed men in the area, who apparently belong to non-demobilized groups. On October 30, paramilitaries threatened to kill six members of the Community and to commit another massacre in the area if members of the community did not leave the area. The Community declared that on 29 September "more than 100 paramilitaries arrived in the area of La Unión armed with assault weapons, bearing AUC armbands and presented themselves as Self-Defense Forces" and proceeded to threaten Peace Community members, saying that they had over "200 paramilitaries were present in the Playa Larga area, 20 minutes from la Esperanza, detaining two farmers (…) and accusing them of being guerrillas." On 14 and 15 August, 60 presumed paramilitaries, originating from the Nueva Antioquia area, dressed in camouflage combat gear and carrying assault weapons, were present in the areas of Playa Larga and la Esperanza. The Peace Community reports that in La Esperanza these armed men arrived at houses of Peace Community members and threatened them if they refused to collaborate in ridding the area of guerrillas. One source reports that paramilitaries in the area are also using armbands with FCU, for the Urabá Central Front.

On August 31, fighting took place between the insurgency and presumed paramilitaries in Playa Larga, close to the settlement of La Esperanza . Several reports indicate the existence of a paramilitary base in Nueva Antioquia where the army and police exercise strict control of all those entering the settlement and whilst inside Nueva Antioquia, "The paramilitaries (…) control the food, charge taxes on the products the small farmers bring there to sell, all this in full public view of the army and police."

How does this state of affairs occur in such an extremely militarized area? What allows the alleged paramilitary base in Nueva Antioquia to exist in close proximity to Army and police checkpoints?

Please write to United States Ambassador William Brownfield, and request that he urge the Colombian government to:

  1. Recognize and denounce the problem of paramilitary remobilization throughout Urabá.
  2. Suspend all military and police officers who reportedly have turned a blind eye to the paramilitary groups, their presence and threats; and
  3. Aggressively pursue arrest and prosecution of all members of illegal armed groups operating in the region, and government officials who have facilitated their actions.

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