Saturday, December 19, 2009

Pink dolphins, palo de sangre and caipirinhas, oh my!

Having spent a year living in one part of the Colombian campo, I can't help but make comparisons when I visit other parts of rural Colombia, even when those parts are in the Amazon, where I was just on a little vacation.

As we trudged through muddy jungle paths, I mentally checked off the trees I recognized (plantain, lulo, chontaduro) and those I didn't (açaí, palo de sangre). The mud was still pretty much the same as in the northern Colombian campo, as was the resulting need to wear knee-high rubber boots when traipsing through it. They eat a lot of friend food here as well, especially patacones (friend plaintains), but I was not used to, and happily devoured, the multitudes of fish that abound. Words for some things are also different. Here they refer to as peruches the homemade popsicles that in the "interior" (read: every other part of Colombia) they call bolis.

One principal difference is the strong indigenous presence. A big chunk of this section of the Amazonas department is part of resguardos, which are much like Native American reservations in the U.S. Such a strong indigenous influence is not typical in most parts of Colombia, but here it is quite evident: in the faces of the people, or in the Ticuna and Yegua words one sees on school walls.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Human rights lawyer under threat

Jorge is a friend who, as the lawyer representing victims of massacres such as the 2005 Peace Community massacre, works tirelessly to end the impunity of human rights abuses by the Colombian army. He has had to take his children out of the country due to fears for their safety, and in recent days he and his partner have been the subject of vigilance by suspicious characters. Not only is the recent surveillance concerning for the safety of Jorge and his family, but also puts into jeopardy the possibilities for justice in the 2005 massacre case and Jorge's other cases. The following is an urgent action alert that I translated. Please take action by writing to Colombian officials urging them to protect Jorge and his family! Letter writing instructions here


The organizations listed below urgently contact inter-governmental human rights organizations, international organizations and the general public in order to inform about the security situation of the human rights lawyer JORGE ELIECER MOLANO RODRIGUEZ, who during the last few days has experienced increased persecution, including the harassment of his family.

The lawyer Molano Rodriguez represents the family members of the victims of the Palace of Justice massacre; the February 21st, 2001 massacre against the Peace Community of San José de Apartado; espionage by the Administrative Security Department (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad – DAS) of organizations, human rights defenders and magistrates; the extrajudicial executions of Jhonny Silva Arangueren and Alejandro Uribe Chacón; Operation Dragón; false positives in San José del Guaviare, Sur de Bolívar and Sur del Cesar; and the legal proceedings against Fernando Londoño Hoyos, Germán Vargas Lleras and Francisco Santos Calderón. The following individuals, among others, are implicated in these cases:

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Crossing the line: Joe DeRaymond and the SOA

I neglected to post a tribute when one of FOR's first volunteers in Colombia, Joe DeRaymond, died in September. I had met Joe several times in his capacity as a member of the program's Colombia Committee when I worked in the San Francisco, CA office before coming to Colombia. I then had the privilege, just the month before he died, of leading the delegation in August in which Joe made his last visit to the Peace Community. Despite the pain and difficulty of the advanced stage of his brain cancer, his joy at visiting the Community one last time was palpable. I am honored to have shared that with Joe, who was not only a former FOR accompanier but also an assiduous advocate for human rights and the end to impunity in Latin America. As people gather in Fort Benning, Georgia for the annual SOA protest/vigil, I post this email appeal, sent today, for support for the Joe DeRaymond Memorial Accompaniment Fund, in memory of an inspiring man and tireless activist. ~Moira

In 2006, Joe DeRaymond served a three-month sentence for "crossing the line" at Fort Benning, Georgia, where the School of the Americas (SOA, now called WHINSEC) is located. Joe spoke about going again this year to the annual SOA vigil, which occurs this weekend. Though his passing last month obviously changed that plan, his ashes will be spread at the vigil in accordance with his wish. He actively participated in the movement to close the school, through lobbying, educating his community, and protests.

We are gratified by the generosity of those of you who have contributed to
Joe DeRaymond Memorial Accompaniment Fund, which has now received more than $3,200 - including from the owner of a local landfill that Joe organized to clean up!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Bases deal signed, but what are the real intentions?

November 16 update: Another version has been published on under the title “Obama Signs Military Basing Deal with Colombia -- Could Set Stage for Expeditionary Warfare.”
November 11 update: A version of this piece has been published on under the title "Signing of Colombia Bases Deal Could Set the Stage for 'Expeditionary Warfare'".

After several months of secrecy and controversy, on October 28th the US and Colombia signed an agreement to allow the US military extensive access to seven Colombian bases, notwithstanding serious concerns about true intentions and eventual consequences.

Despite pledges by Colombian and U.S. governments about the limitations of the agreement, the agreement text and U.S. military documents contradict such assurances. One of the principal concerns raised by regional governments after news was leaked of the pending agreement has been the possibility of the bases’ use for aggressions against neighboring countries. In an interview Sunday with the Colombian daily El Tiempo, Ambassador Brownfield claimed that joint operations aren’t planned outside of Colombia, and that Article IV of the agreement expressly forbids such operations. In fact, a careful review of the text of the agreement reveals no such prohibition.

Not only that, but similar assurances by Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva that the agreement "has no geopolitical or strategic connotation, other than being more effective in the fight against drug trafficking" are even more hard to believe after reading a recently-uncovered Pentagon budget document that expresses clear regional intentions for the Palanquero base. The document describes the U.S. presence in Palanquero as an “opportunity for conducting full spectrum operations throughout South America,” and confirms the fears of Colombia’s neighbors when it discusses the possibility of using the base to confront the "threat" of what it calls "anti-US governments." The most chilling phrase, however, is the discussion of the potential use of Palanquero to “expand expeditionary warfare capability.”

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The cumbia of the disconnected

Marches in Colombia are often colorful and vibrant, and the Carnival March for Life, Dignity and Popular Identity in Medellin on October 9th was no exception. Drummers, clowns on stilts, clowns in tutus made up the parade, and a band played the “Cumbia of the Disconnected”:

I had a full salary
I had many dreams
I paid all the utilities
And nothing was left for food
Nothing was left for food

If you paid the utilities
And want to go grocery shopping
Don’t come with that story
You only have enough to pay on credit
You only have enough to pay on credit

Doña Luz was already blind
From saving money
But nonetheless
The bill always went up
The bill always went up

The phone in my house
Answering it is always a problem
Because calls appear
To Holland and Cartagena
To Holland and Cartagena

The march, which I accompanied at the petition of our partner organization the Medellin Youth Network (Red Juvenil), was the symbolic closing of the Medellin Social Forum, in the tradition of the now-geographically-dispersed World Social Forum. The Forum, held October 2-11, brought together communities and organizations from Medellin, the region and other regions of Colombia to, as the website explained, “address the problems caused by neoliberalism, authoritarianism y privatization, with the aim of creating alternatives and proposals to transform the situation of poverty and social exclusion in the city of Medellin, Antioquia and Colombia.”

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Colombia’s War: “He’s giving our country away”

Check out my newest article, published on a great international women's journalism site, The WIP.

The sparse media coverage of Colombia tends only to give vague descriptions of a violent country with a thriving drug trade. But I’ve come to understand in my 15 months living and working here as a human rights observer and accompanier, that, like many armed conflicts in the world, the war continues because it serves the interests of the rich and powerful, from the Uribe administration to multinational corporations.

Despite its claims to the contrary, the Colombian government’s policies do little to end the violence. Spanning over nearly five decades and multiple administrations, the internal conflict has resulted in countless deaths and over 4 million internally displaced Colombians.

Read the rest of the article

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Mini culture shocks

I recently returned from my second visit to the Peace Community after officially having left in June. My first visit, at the end of August, was a quick two-day thing with the delegation I was leading, so there was little time for hanging out or reflecting. This last visit, however, was a tad longer and less frenzied.

With that extra bit of reflection and personal space, I realized that I was experiencing a bit of double-reverse culture shock. As I described when I first arrived in Bogotá, I had a hard time adjusting to the big, bad city after a year in the deep campo (to which, of course, I had had to adjust when I arrived there in June of last year). Going back last week, even for just five days, was bit of a shock to the system, as was turning quickly around and heading back to the city. Bursts of mini culture shocks, as it were.

Besides getting the hang again of properly adjusting a mosquito net and using the formal usted verb form, I was struck on my second day by how living outside of a direct conflict zone has dulled some of the senses I had honed while living in the Peace Community. That morning, as a helicopter flew extremely low over the village, folks ran out of their houses and kids out of their classrooms to follow its trajectory. Standing there watching with Community members, I was reminded of the close proximity of the conflict and the way that it is integrated into daily life there. Such a sense has slipped from my consciousness since being in Bogota. Seldom now do I even note the passing of a helicopter, though I have to admit that at times I do still catch myself looking out the window when one passes, trying to ascertain its route as we do while accompanying in the Community.

Now I'm back in Bogotá, and pretty relieved to be after two weeks of work travel. I guess the place must be growing on me...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Counter-tourism, international campaign & letter to Obama

While the Colombian Government has launched a public relations campaign, "Discover Colombia Through Its Heart," complete with enormous heart sculptures placed in downtown D.C., a group of activists has responded with its own "counter-tourism" campaign. Offering "exploitation opportunities and luxuriously abusive vacation packages," the campaign's site describes how "as a visitor to Colombia, you will be overwhelmed by legendary Colombian hospitality. You may even be fortunate enough to receive the same 'red carpet treatment' given to some Colombian citizens by the army -- literally rolled up in a red carpet and shipped across the country! These no-cost excursions start with kidnapping, continue with being trucked hundreds of miles to a more violent frontier region and end with extrajudicial execution and a press conference announcing 'positive' kills of guerrilla fighters." The website and various direct actions are part of a larger counter-campaign, No More Broken Hearts.

Love it!

Also launched this week is an international campaign to defend the right to defend human rights in Colombia. Coinciding with the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, the campaign launched yesterday at an event in downtown Bogotá. "In Colombia, being a human rights defender is a dangerous, often deadly job," says the campaign website. "And things are getting worse."

Lastly, we are asking folks in the U.S. to urge their representatives to sign a letter to President Obama. The letter expresses concern about the plan for 7 U.S. military installations in Colombia. Please take action!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

US & Colombia Rush Negotiations For Seven Military Bases As Dissent Grows

You live in a nice house in a tense neighborhood. Your neighbors haven’t been too pleased with you lately, and you have a terrible roach infestation running havoc in your house. But perhaps there’s hope. A big, strong guy lives down the street, and is offering to help out. He has big guns and says he has just the spray to get rid of those pesky roaches if you just let him crash at your place.

I’m not the first to have used the tough-neighbor analogy when discussing a current p
roposal for seven US military bases in Colombia, but others have failed to mention all the problematic side effects of inviting the neighbor to stay. This neighbor has a very sketchy reputation and just may try to take advantage of your sister, not to mention raid your fridge and clog up your toilet. His presence will really upset your neighbors, even the ones with whom you have been friendly. Though he says he’s only staying at your house to help with the roaches and maybe intimidate the troublesome folks next door a bit, he always seems to get involved in other things: he traipses around in the neighbors’ gardens and hassles his host’s family members. Besides, his record in getting rid of the roaches isn’t all that exemplary. Is it really worth it?

Perhaps this analogy simplifies matters too much, but I’m not the only one playing with rhetoric. Obama continues to defend the bases proposal, arguing that the U.S. is not establishing bases in Colombia but simply extending existing agreements with the country. Under U.S. military terminology – using euphemisms that call to mind Bush's "Clear Skies Initiative" - the proposals for Colombia would not be bases because they would not be property of the U.S, but instead be called Forward Operating Locations or Cooperative Security Locations. Nonetheless the U.S. would still have control over what happens in those installations, as it does in bases, and is insisting on immunity for its personnel under Colombian law. Argentine president Cristina Kirchner said it well when she joked to Uribe last week, “Come on, nowhere in the world is a General Fernandez going to give orders to a General Johnson!”

Monday, August 10, 2009

"Witness" paid to testify against Peace Community

Last week the demobilized paramilitary known as "HH" testified that he gave money to the Colombia army to in order to bride demobilized guerrillas into claiming that the FARC was responsible for the February 2005 massacre in which eight members of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó were brutally murdered.

From the moment Peace Community members learned of the massacre, in which 8 Community members, including a 21-month-old baby, were killed and dismembered, they attributed the crime to the Colombian military in cooperation with paramilitaries. The government and the army’s 17th Brigade, which operates in the region of Apartadó, were quick to refute the denouncement, instead accusing the Community of collaborating with the FARC and attributing the crime to the very same guerrillas. It was not until 2008, when paramilitaries and subsequently army officials started confessing their role in the massacre that the government began to admit that perhaps the guerrillas weren't responsible after all.

The testimony of HH, whose real name is Ever Velosa García, however, is key because it not only reconfirms the role of the military and paramilitaries but also demonstrates the lengths that military officials have and will go to cover up their crimes and discredit those who oppose them. In his testimony HH describes how he was asked for money by then-coronel Néstor Iván Duque López to pay demobilized FARC guerrillas: “On that occasion, he went with a bunch of papers and told me that he was defending himself from some denouncements from San José de Apartadó and asked me to give him 2 million pesos [about a thousand dollars at current exchange rates] to give to some witness who were going to testify about the massacre of San José de Apartadó,” Velosa testified to Colombia’s Attorney General’s office.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Just Economies and Societies on an Unjust Planet

The Peace Community isn't the only positive alternative to violence, greed and exploitation that I have had the opportunity to work with. Before coming to Colombia I worked with Other Worlds, an organizing collaborative that compiles and brings to light economic, cultural, and social alternatives that are flourishing throughout the world, and inspires and helps the public open up new pathways to adapt and replicate them.

Other Worlds recently published two reports and an article highlighting some of these exciting alternatives, several of which I helped research, write, and edit. Please read, distribute, and enjoy!

Who Says You Can’t Change the World? Just Economies and Societies on an Unjust Planet

Who Says You Can’t Change the World” is a groundbreaking report from Other Worlds that introduces nine grassroots alternatives to the current economic and environmental (dis)order, and gives examples of real communities and movements who are living those alternatives every day. The report touches on alternative education, water struggles, the right to health care, environmental justice, and solidarity economies, among other topics, and highlights organizing taking place on five continents and in countless communities. Also included are lists of resources for more information and contact info for organizations working on similar issues in the US. I helped write the sections on solidarity economies and worker cooperatives!

Mali's Gift Economy

Next is this article I helped research and edit about the gift economy in Mali. One of my favorite quotes from one of the Malian women: “Life is a cord. We make the cord between ourselves, and you have to hold on to it. One should not drop the cord.”

Changing the Flow: Water Struggles in Latin America

This 56 page booklet was produced by Food and Water Watch, Red Vida, Transnational Institute,The RPR Network and Other Worlds. It contains a dozen interviews of cutting-edge water warriors from the region, and documentation and analysis of the many exciting ways in which citizens' movements are safeguarding their waters - both so that all may have access, and so that this precious resource is protected. The report also offers insight into the role of gender, in its relationship both to public control of water and to water movements.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

5 new US military bases in Colombia is hardly a move to the left

The Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady never ceases to give me fodder for blog posts! In Monday’s edition, she claims that the Obama administration's Latin America policy is being pulled to the left by White House Counsel Greg Craig. It’s no secret that I am much farther left on the political spectrum than O’Grady, so am probably biased, but I can't help but be befuddled by her assertion.

O'Grady bases her claim largely on the fact that the Obama administration has called for the reinstatement of ousted Honduran President Manual Zelaya, who was overthrown while purportedly trying to change the constitution to allow him to stay in office longer. Hmm, remind you of a leader a bit farther south, in, say, Colombia? But if a coup overthrew Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, who has also been trying to change the constitution to stay in office longer, O’Grady would be up in arms to restore him. Besides, Obama isn't actually too firm in his support of Zelaya.

Putting aside that double standard, however, it’s clear O’Grady hasn’t been keeping up to date with current events. If she had, she would have heard about negotiations underway between the U.S. and Colombia to establish at least 5 U.S. military bases in Colombia. Last I heard, folks on the left tend to oppose increased militarization; it's tough to see 5 new military bases as a move to the left.

Why is the administration pushing for these bases? The stated goal of the military facilities is "filling the gaps left by the eventual cutting of [military] aid in Plan Colombia," according to sources in Washington and Bogotá cited by an article published July 1 in the Colombian weekly news magazine Cambio.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

State policy of spying and persecution of Peace Community and prestigious human rights defenders revealed

In mid February the weekly news magazine Semana revealed that the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS), Colombia’s domestic intelligence agency that answers directly to the president’s office, had for many year conducted (and perhaps still conducts) illegal surveillance of Supreme Court judges, opposition politicians, prosecutors, human rights defenders, and journalists. When the scandal broke, the government tried to claim that a few “bad apples” conducted the spying.

Just after the Semana story broke, subsequent news reports revealed that many files, computer hard drives, and recordings had been destroyed. In response to the reports, the Cuerpo Técnico de Investigaciones (CTI), the Attorney General's Office's judicial police, began an investigation into DAS operations. Despite the destruction of much of the evidence, documents that remained, which covered the years 2004-2005, revealed that a secret group within the DAS – known as the G3 – was responsible for carrying out a systematic policy of political surveillance and even sabotage against dozens of groups and individuals not in complete agreement with the government’s policies.

So far, the public has only had access to the index of the files, but even the index demonstrates the astonishing scope of such operations. According to CTI report, missions of the G3 included surveillance of “people and organizations opposing government policies in order to restrict or neutralize their activities”. The report clearly shows that (a) totally legitimate activities were targeted and, (b) the purpose of the surveillance went much further than information gathering; it was intended to sabotage and criminalize legitimate activities.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Finally, after delaying my departure date several times and having survived long set of bus trips, I find myself in Bogotá, Colombia's capital city. I am now officially part of FOR Colombia's Bogotá team, and will be working and living here for the next six months. My job will include responding to emergencies in the Peace Community and making sure our team there stays safe, meeting with foreign embassy and Colombian government officials, organizing and leading delegations, and periodically accompanying organizations like the Peasant Farmers Association of Antioquia and the Youth Network of Medellín.

The change has been a shock to my body and soul: to go from living in a tiny village in the middle of mountainous jungle to a chilly city of 6.7 million people is not easy. My eyes smart from the pollution, I shiver all the time from the cold (I know, I'm a wus, but after year of an average 28 degrees centigrade, 15 degrees feels quite cold!), I marvel at my ability to pop down to the corner store, I pine for the vast greenness of the mountains of Urabá. And 9-5 working hours! I am definitely having trouble adjusting to that schedule, and it doesn't help that I arrived just as a scandal errupted about the government illegal spying on members of the poitical opposition, including the Peace Community, in order to sabotage their work, giving us plenty of work to do. I will write more about that scandal very soon, but in the meantime, some photos of my apartment so you have a sense of where I am.

Monday, June 1, 2009

A stranger in our midst

The arrival the other day of a stranger to the caserío of La Unión reminded me of how much this conflict distorts human relations and making people suspicious and fearful of each other.

As usual, those of us in the FOR house (read: the gringos) hadn’t even noticed that a stranger had been hanging around since 10am until two of the community’s internal council members came to the house in the afternoon requesting accompaniment to go speak with the man. (Our obliviousness was likely due to two things: we don’t know each and every family member or long-lost neighbor in this area, so it’s not uncommon for someone who is a stranger to us to pass through, and, despite our training as accompaniers, we aren’t as finely attuned to the subtle daily changes around here.)

Around here, everyone pretty much knows everyone, and this isn’t exactly and easily accessible place (see my post on my commute!), so strangers don’t just tend to wander by. The stranger’s presence here soon raised alarm bells, and a few particularly threatened individuals event went so far as to hide in their beds under the blankets. By the afternoon when he still hadn’t left – in fact, he had been wandering around a bit, raising even more suspicion – the council members asked us to accompany them to talk to him in the kiosko (central community meeting space, covered by a round palm-thatched roof), where he had been hanging out for the previous hour or so. The community members with whom we discussed the incident before heading to the kiosko were quite worried and very visibly shaken up.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Using my privilege: Clarifications & additional thoughts

I’ve been doing some more reflecting on my last post about exploiting my privilege in my work as a human rights accompanier, and I realized that I oversimplified things quite a bit and perhaps left readers with an incorrect picture of how human rights accompaniment works. In that post I equated the treatment I receive from low-level Colombian functionaries based upon how I look with my effectiveness as a human rights accompanier in preventing harm to the members of the Peace Community. In fact, the power of accompaniment does not lie in the fact that I have blond hair and green eyes, and is only partially due to my U.S. passport (my possession of which one might guess at, but not be sure of, just by looking at me). The majority of our power is based upon all the work we do behind the scenes: meetings with local, regional and national civilian and military officials; the political lobbying and other kinds of political pressure that FOR does in the U.S.; the media coverage we generate. True, my passport gives me greater access to the offices of many Colombian officials (and of course the U.S. embassy) than most Colombians have. But without all of the work we do to open communication channels and demonstrate our ability to exert political pressure, that passport would not allow me, for example, to call up the cell phone of the general who commands the brigade that operates in this region when a combat breaks out nearby or a particular community member is threatened.

That is not to say that accompaniers of color (FOR is unique among accompaniment organizations in Colombia in that it has had several Latinos – and a Sri Lankan-American who looks Latino – serve as accompaniers) don’t have different experiences in certain situations than I do. Several years ago, for example, the road between San José and Apartadó had a paramilitary checkpoint – or at least that’s what FOR heard, because every time accompaniers traveled on the road, the checkpoint was nowhere to be found. Then one day the aforementioned Sri Lankan-American was traveling on the road without his FOR t-shirt on, and the jeep on which he was riding was stopped at the paramilitary checkpoint. Clearly, my blond hair and green eyes do have an effect on the armed actors here, but are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions to be an effective accompanier.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Using my privilege, for better or worse

Before I left for Colombia I wrote a question-and-answer post about what I would be doing in Colombia and why. At the time, I wrote:
I fully acknowledge that accompaniment presents a bit of a paradox: my privilege, based on a system of racial and cultural hierarchy that I disavow, helps keep me safe, even while I am taking on a role of solidarity. I do wrestle with this contradiction, and will like write more about it as I carry out my work in Colombia. For the time being, I will say that the role of the accompanier is not to enter people’s lives with an agenda – a way to change, educate, or “help” the community. We come with humility; the community members are the ones who are doing something amazing and we are there simply to support them in their project.

The other day I had an experience that reminded me of my promise to reflect and write about my role as a foreigner here. One of my friends in the community asked me to do a favor for her; she needed someone to pick up a couple of different official forms so she could register her son for his first year of high school (the Peace Community doesn’t have a high school, so kids have to go study in a city, usually Apartadó). She couldn’t go both because the jeep ride to and from town is relatively expensive, and because she had a big corn harvest to attend to. I was going to town anyway, so I agreed to help out.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

See first-hand what I write about: August delegation to Colombia

Visit the Peace Community and other organizations working to peacefully end the armed conflict in Colombia, and hang out with me! I'll be helping lead this delegation, so can promise that it will be fantastic.

August 15-29, 2009
Delegation to San José Peace Community, Medellín and Eastern Antioquia

Witness the incredible commitment and experience of the Peace Community of San José and other Colombian grassroots initiatives. $1500 from Bogotá. For information contact John Lindsay-Poland, To download an application, please click here.

2009 FOR Delegation to Colombia Program Highlights:

  • Travel to the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó
  • Meet with people whose family members have been killed by the US-funded Colombian army and are non-violently working for justice for these crimes.
  • Meet grassroots activists who courageously and creatively advocate for truth, justice and integral reparations.
  • Experience unparalleled access to understand both impunity and advances to justice for a massacre in San José that shocked the international community.
  • Understand the U.S. media blanket on Colombia and get a glimpse of the side of Colombian life that rarely arrives to the U.S.

Witness the incredible commitment and experience of the Peace Community of San José and other Colombian grassroots initiatives. $1500 from Bogotá. For information contact John Lindsay-Poland, To download an application, please click
click here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Living simply

“What parts of the simplicity of life here will you take with you when you go back to the States?” my teammate Peter asked me the other day.

Peter is new to the work, the team, the community, and life in the campo (countryside), and therefore is still adjusting to many of the big lifestyle changes one must make in order to (happily) live here. During our time in the Peace Community, us gringos (originally a term referring to folks from the U.S. but around here used to refer to all foreigners) don’t have many of the things that we’re used to from what I tend call our “normal life” back in our home countries: we don’t have the luxury of a refrigerator, microwave, oven, dishwasher, washing machine, nor a clothes dryer. Our house (pictured at left) is made of wood slats with a corrugated tin roof, each room lit by a single naked bulb. Any groceries, household items, office supplies – anything we buy – we have to carry up the mountain.

Despite all the things we don’t have, we arguably have the best house in the village, and count on many comforts our neighbors don’t have: a seat on the toilet (that’s not to say that the flush system functions, however), a computer, two tanks to collect the water piped in from mountain rivers as opposed to just one tank in most houses (see photo at right of our clothes-washing sink and drinking water filter system), a back porch overlooking the garden, a gas cooking range (nearly everyone else cooks with firewood, though a few have electric ranges). Luxury is relative.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Twelve years of being the change

On March 23rd the Peace Community celebrated twelve years of existence and resistance with a small ceremony and a brief march to the cemetery in village center of San Jose where many of the Community’s dead are buried. Those present honored, with two minutes of silence, the memory of the 184 Peace Community members killed in the last twelve years, and reaffirmed their resistance against a litany of state crimes: massacres, forced displacement, rapes, extrajudicial executions, food blockades, house burnings, robberies, and threats.
According to the state, however, the Peace Community just needs to get over the past. In a recent meeting, an army official complained to us that the Peace Community is always harping on the past, and that they should move on and think about the future. “Things are different now,” he said. “We train the soldiers in human rights. In fact, the army has declared 2009 ‘the year of human rights’.”

If I myself, an outside observer, can’t forget the brutal history of the Peace Community, how can those who’ve actually suffered it actually forget a past that includes, just 4 years ago, the massacre and dismemberment of 5 adults and 3 children, committed by the army in collaboration with paramilitaries? The state wants to wipe the slate clean, and so condemns the Community for conserving the memories and demanding and end to impunity.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Accumulation by dispossession

I frequently get asked by friends and family outside of Colombia about the hows and the whys of the armed conflict here. Most folks outsiders have heard that there’s some sort of war here, and know that drugs is somehow related, but that tends to be the extent of their knowledge.

What I’ve come to understand more deeply since being here is that – like most armed conflicts in the world – the Colombian conflict continues because it serves the interests of the rich and powerful (Iraq, anyone?). The government does not, in fact, really try that hard to end the violence. Instead, it exploits the conflict, using it to further its desires to enrich its land-holding and multinational corporation-owning friends. President Uribe, himself the owner of vast expanses of land in the Urabá region, has been particularly interested in and efficient at such enrichment for himself and his cronies. I think it’s safe to say that the government isn’t even really that interested in completely getting rid of the guerrillas, because they serve the role as the enemy that justifies the war. At the same time, the guerrillas and narco-paramilitaries themselves are often happy to push people off their land in order to cultivate coca and generally control territory.

War is profitable and beneficial in obvious ways for the military-industrial complex: in generates income and employment for the arms manufacturers, the military and police, intelligence agencies and the companies that supply such equipment, etc. In the case of Colombia, though, it also provides a way gain control of another source of vast riches: the incredibly fertile Colombian land and the natural resources – copper, oil, carbon, emeralds etc. – that abound. Displacement (see previous post for more on displacement) of the rural population from its land as a result of the violence is not just an unfortunate accident of the violence. Uruguayan journalist Raúl Zibechi calls it “accumulation by dispossession.”

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A quick visit to Ecuador

Last week I returned from a much-needed vacation to Ecuador. I say much-needed because given the nature of this work, I am always working: always on call, always a little tense, always anticipating the next crisis. For this vacation I really wanted to leave the country, because even when I'm in some other part of Colombia my phone is still on, Colombian news still reaches my eyes and ears, and I can't really turn off the tension. Luckily, the perfect opportunity fell into my lap: a friend traveling in Ecuador and a cheap plane ticket.

The highlight of the trip was a visit to Otovalo, a pueblo about two hours north of Quito. Otovalo is known for its Saturday crafts market, in which indigenous weavers and artisans come down from the mountains with their wares. The place is PACKED with bags, shawls, scarves, sweaters, necklaces, tableclothes... basically anything woven you could ever want. And yes, I did make a few purchases, in preparation for my upcoming move to chilly Bogota.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Who isn't the government illegally tapping?

I recently returned from vacation, hence the lack of blog posts. I therefore post below a note from FOR's most recent Colombia newsletter about the latest intelligence scandal in Colombia. My addition is the too-unbelievable-for-fiction fact that Uribe government officials, rather than calling for a full investigation, have insinuated that because Semana, a widely-regarding news magazine, uncovered the story, it has ties to the guerrillas.

Less than two months after the interception of FOR's email - along with other 150 email accounts - was revealed, a new scandal of spying on opposition emerged during the last weekend of February. The weekly magazine Semana uncovered a massive wiretap operation carried out by the Department of Administrative Security (DAS), the Colombian secret police that answers directly to the President.

The targets this time included Supreme Court Justices who are investigating members of Congress close to President Uribe, including his cousin Mario Uribe. The Uribe government have fiercely attacked several of those justices, accusing them of "engaging in witness trafficking" and political persecution. Over the past 18 months, the justices and their families have also been targeted for harassment, including one whose home was broken into with just a laptop stolen.

Ivan Velásquez, the justice handling the parapolitica investigation, reportedly had more than 1,900 phone calls intercepted in a three-month period and has been subject to a "man to man" surveillance. In October 20007, "Tasmania," a right wing paramilitary leader, was reportedly bribed to falsely accuse Velásquez of manipulating testimony. No one has been charged for any of the attacks on the justices.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Indigenous massacre demonstrates cycle of violence

On February 4th, 17 members of the Awá indigenous group, including women and children, were massacred on their reservation (resguardo) in the southwestern Colombian state of Nariño. A week later, on February 11th, 10 more Awá were killed. Families throughout the resguardos have been displacing since the massacres occurred, out of fear of further attacks.

As the news arrived here to the Peace Community, shock and sadness were accompanied by doubt about the media and government’s attribution of the crime to the FARC. Several community members commented that they figured the Uribe administration wanted to accuse the FARC in order to stymie calls for the negotiation of a humanitarian accord after the recent unilateral release of 6 hostages held by the FARC. Such doubt is not just general skepticism about the government’s constant quickness to blame the FARC for nearly any and all crimes committed in the country. When the Peace Community suffered it’s own massacre of 8 community members in 2005, the Uribe administration immediately blamed the FARC. The community maintained that paramilitaries in collaboration with the army were the perpetrators, and finally, years later, soldiers and paramilitaries are confessing their responsibility for the crime.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

My commute

Since I arrived in the Peace Community, I've wanted to post about my commute - to demonstrate with photos just what it means for me to get home from the nearest town. So, the other day my new teammate Peter and I took photos as we hiked home, lugging backpacks filled with the week's groceries. Take note that by "nearest town" I'm not talking any kind of metropolis - if i want internet access and an actual restaurant, I have to take a 45 minute jeep ride on a dirt road in addition to this hike!

minute 2: just outside of town, crossing a little creek

minute 14: carefully balancing on a log-crossing

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A real-life legal thriller, gone bad

For the Peace Community, threats and dangers don’t always come in the form of massacres and extrajudicial executions. The international attention and outcry that recent massacres and killings have generated isn’t all that convenient, so the army and the state have had to look elsewhere for ways to attack the Community’s stance of neutrality and non-cooperation with armed actors. In looking elsewhere, the “testimony” – often coerced or purchased – of demobilized armed actors has come in quite handy. The state has used these montajes (false evidence) to launch investigations into Community leaders for things like “rebellion”, murder, and other preposterous claims.

The Peace Community’s most recent comunicado (Community bulletins denouncing actions against them) describes what it fears to be the state’s most recent efforts at using legal means to discredit and weaken the Community. In early December 2008, a former commander (he had just been demoted) of the FARC’s 5th front (one of the two fronts that operates in the region near the Peace Community) turned himself in to the army’s 17th Brigade. Usually when a guerrilla turns him or herself in, the military shouts it from the rooftops (or at least broadcasts it via the major news outlets) as a demonstration of their presumed success in combating the guerrilla groups.

This time, however, there was no news broadcast – only the initial rumors that alias “Samir” had turned himself in, then whispered warnings about Samir and the 17th Brigade planning something against the Peace Community and some of its Colombian supporters. Concern and suspicion continued when it became clear that even as the weeks passed, the Brigade had not handed Samir over to the Fiscalía (Colombia’s equivalent of the U.S.’s Justice Department) as is required for the demobilization process for armed actors who turn themselves in. The Peace Community continues to worry that montajes will be launched based on “testimony” from Samir – likely either under intense pressure, threats, or offers of cash – for use against Community leaders. Recent phone calls from someone claiming to be a colonel in the 17th Brigade offering upwards of 2 million pesos (just under a thousand US dollars) to a community member in exchange for collaborating to destroy the Community confirm many the Community’s fears and suspicions.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The "body count syndrome"

In October I posted an action alert from FOR that referred to a scandal unearthed that month about extrajudicial executions – euphemized here in Colombia as “false positives” (falsos positivos) committed by Colombia´s army. It was revealed that month that 11 young men of meager means from Soacha, small city outside of Bogota, were disappeared (kidnapped, in other words) from Bogota, taken to another departamento (department, like states in the U.S.), killed, dressed in fatigues, then reported as guerrillas killed in combat. In other words, in this and other cases publicized as the scandal erupted, the soldiers used innocent lives to improve statistics and perhaps to get an extra day or two off.

The scandal did not, in my opinion, get nearly enough news coverage, particularly in comparison to the amount of coverage given to the pyramid scheme chaos that also erupted at about the same time. Extrajudicial executions are back in the news, however, with the release last week, by the National Security Archive, of declassified documents from the CIA and US Embassy in Colombia.

The documents record that the US government was aware of cases of extrajudicial executions as early as 1994, and that the first case that the US government documented dates back to 1990. In the documents, US officials describe a “body count syndrome” that "tends to fuel human rights abuses by well-meaning soldiers trying to get their quota to impress superiors". Reports from then also linked Colombian army and paramilitaries in case of extrajudicial executions as well as other kinds of human rights abuses, and attribute the steep rise in paramilitarism in the last decade in part to the “body count syndrome”.

If anything, the practice of extrajudicial executions has increased in the past few years: recent research by the Colombian Commission of Jurists has shown that in the 12-month periods from July 2007 through June 2008, extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances for which the armed forces were responsible rose from 218 in 2004-05, to 267 in 2005-06, to 287 in 2006-07. In the five-year period from June 2002 to June 2007, extrajudicial executions rose 65%, to 955 total for the 5-year period, from the previous five years.