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Social justice activists face grave risks in Colombia, considered to have one of the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere

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OSCAR LEÓN, TRNN PRODUCER: In Colombia, the 21-days national strike, which enjoyed broad support, was a victory for the farmers’ movement. After 12 deaths, four disappearances, and 485 injured, they got a law to control seeds suspended, along with subsidies to gas and supplies, to compensate the farmers for their losses, competing with international multinationals brought in the country by free-market treaties.

The government and the strike board are currently negotiating new farming and mining laws, along with a revision of ten free market treaties, trying to compensate or reduce the losses of farmers and miners. In the cities, while the solidarity with the farmers were the spark for the protests, the privatization of health care and education brought even more people to the streets.

Facing police repression, and despite the threat of paramilitary violence, they got a political victory, paralyzing the country while President Santos saw his popularity fall to an all-time low of 24 percent.

But even after such demonstration for farmers to oppose mining and oil projects can be a very dangerous activity, “Julio”, farmer and human rights defender from Guayabero, has received death threats. He believes not only him but everyone else in town is also in danger:

“JULIO”, FARMER AND HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDER FROM GUAYABERO (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): There are about 20,000 farmers near the Guayabero River, and now all we’ve got is the fight for our rights as Colombians. All these people are suffering the scourge of war; we have been living that for 30 years, being systematically attacked by the Colombian state, by the police and the army, which almost every day they bully us and call us insurgents or guerrilla members. We are honest and humble farmers who want to keep our lands, but all we can do is hope things will get better.

LEÓN: Adelinda Gomez Gaviria was gunned down, reportedly, by two right-wing paramilitaries on September 30 when she was returning home from an activists meeting accompanied with her 16-year-old son, who was injured but survived.

Adelinda Gomez was a vocal environment advocate. She was a leader of the group called Proceso de Mujeres del Macizo Colombiano del CIMA, a farmers women group that had organized an Environmental and Mining Forum, to which 1,500 indigenous and farmers participated. Adelinda received threatening phone calls warning her to stay off mining or she would get killed. And she’s not the only one. Genaro Graciano from Movimiento Rios Vivos, which means movement for living rivers, had a bomb thrown outside his house at 10:30 pm on October 17. There where no casualties.

Precisely in the town of Las Acacias, where The Real News recently reported on a local effort against an oil company in the defense of their water resources; a crime occurred on October 10, one that sent a ripple of fear across the villagers from all the area. Ricardo Rodriguez Cajamarca, a local human rights monitor, was murdered by two hit men, who gunned him down around noon, opening fire from a motorcycle while he was driving his car. Rodriguez was well known for defending farmers and indigenous from state abuse.

Amnesty International has long reported how an unknown number of farmers and indigenous leaders have been murdered because of their opposition to mega mining and oil drilling, choosing to preserve natural resources instead of supporting industrial development.

Rural communities, students, and intellectuals had lost their voice amid extreme violence by both sides of a conflict that lasts over 60 years now and very often kept the communities paralyzed with gruesome crimes. On December 2012, Telesur reported 600 farmers leaders murdered since 2005.

ABILIO PEÑA, CHURCH PEACE AND JUSTICE COMMISSION (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): All these crimes against farmer leaders are related to specific claims made by farming communities against businessmen who took over their lands.

LEÓN: Under Álvaro Uribe’s government on 2007, 31,671 members of Autodefensas Unidas Colombianas (AUC), a paramilitary Group that, according to Semana magazine, “in the early 2000s grew to be the most powerful armed force in the country and is responsible for a great number of crimes” were demobilized. Fourteen of their leaders have been extradited to U.S. under drug trafficking charges.

But the paramilitaries didn’t go away. Nowadays there are four right-wing paramilitary armies: ERPAC, for Anti Communist Popular Army; Los Rastrojos; Los Urabeños; and the main one, Agulas Negras, or Black Eagles.

A video emerged on the news and on YouTube on which we see the last moments of a group of farmers whose lands where stolen by alleged paramilitary men. They where filming with their phone before they got shot dead by the armed men.

UNIDENTIFIED (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Call the police! They are shooting at us! The have automatic guns and they are shooting it us.

LEÓN: Speaking for HispanTV, “Caliche”, a paramilitary member, describes their mindset:

“CALICHE”, PARAMILITARY COMMANDER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): If we must respect someone’s life, we will; but if not, we will kill him,
because we do not share many leftist ideals, which are to blame for the way things are in Colombia now.

Two or three guys invented some leftist crap, and that is how a gunmen war started. That is why we hunt down union leaders, because they are pimps for a lot of bad people here in our town. They are pimps for all those farmers who are guerrilla fighters who then turn around and say they that are farmers displaced by war, helping NGO’s collect money from international governments so they can then live the good life.

LEÓN: Farmers’ protest movements are closely linked with victims of forced land displacement and war violence, also organizations of people defending their land from contamination or appropriation by private interest.

Teofilo Acuña, a farmers leader, was also threaten by paramilitary men. In behalf, he believes of a transnational corporation called Pacific Rubiales Energy:

TEOFILO ACUÑA, FARMER’S MOVEMENT LEADER AND HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDER: In my case, the threats came as an internet pamphlet and a note saying they will kill me.

LEÓN: He describes a relation between state and private interest:

ACUÑA: We know the state is involved with private interest on this, because the state had a project to bring transnational corporations to the region. And we mention the state because we have observed that where there are mining interest is precisely where there have been more human rights violations. How else can you understand that in a region so militarized and controlled, threats, murders, and disappearances can happen so easily?

On the south of the Bolivar regions, we know that between 2003 and 2007 there have been around 700 disappeared and murdered people. So we believe the multinationals are fully supported by the state.

LEÓN: While covering the March for Peace on 2012, I spoke to many farmers displaced from their lands. “Yupanqui”, one of them, describes how does it feel being trapped on a crossfire.

“YUPANQUI”, FARMER, WAR REFUGEE (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): If the army gets to the village, they claim we are all infiltrated guerrillas. If the guerrilla gets there, they claim we work for the army. Any armed faction that gets to the village, we don’t know what to do or what to say. Many times they made direct threats to our life.

LEÓN: It is important to remember that the paramilitary armies were created as a counterpart for the FARC and ELN, leftist guerrillas that have also committed atrocities against civilians. In everyone’s memory are the hundreds of kidnapped and the “collar bombs”, a terrifying device to used to ask for ransom. The guerrillas have also been accused by the state of acting as security forces for narco cartels.

The army has also been involved in a case called “False Positives”, where many officials have been formally accused of murdering people and then claim that they were guerrilla fighters fallen in combat, not only remaining immune of prosecution for those crimes, but also buffing up the count of dead enemies.

This video was allegedly shot by a farmer using his phone camera in 2008 and recently resurfaced from a criminal case being filed by the farmers, accusing the soldiers to not only murder the farmers, but also trying to steal the bodies to later claim them as dead “enemy combatants” or “falsos positivos”.

According to a well-known human rights defender, winner of 2007’s Roger Baldwin Freedom Medal and Representative for Bogotá district, Ivan Cepeda, this association of state and paramilitary violence reached its climax under Álvaro Uribe’s presidency.

IVAN CEPEDA, REPRESENTATIVE FOR BOGOTÁ DISTRICT (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Uribe’s eight years in power were fatal for Colombia. The paramilitary got their people elected for Congress. All kinds of crimes were perpetrated, like the infamous “falsos positivos” cases–young people were assassinated by the army to be presented before TV cameras as if they were terrorist. Also, there was espionage on the political opposition, using the executive power’s secret police. So there is a very long list of human rights violations committed during Álvaro Uribe’s administration.

LEÓN: Defying fear and possible retaliations, on October 11 many students protested Álvaro Uribe’s visit to Santo Tomas University.

STUDENT WEARING A URIBE MASK (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): I am here before you to declare that I am involved on crimes against humanity.

LEÓN: “Diego” says that they are here to make a statement against a political project of state violence:

“DIEGO”, STUDENT: We are against the “paramilitary political project” that Álvaro Uribe represents, one which continues under the current government by making military targets of human rights defenders and student movement leaders.

We are a bit afraid to do this, yet here we are to denounce him for what he is and to defend our right to protest, which is the only way to get change, as it has been proven this year by the farmers’ and student’s strike.

LEÓN: Both Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos, current president of Colombia, have accused the farmers’ movement of being manipulated by Marcha Patriotica, a leftist political organization whom they both accuse of having ties with the FARC, the leftist guerrilla.

Ivan Cepeda remembers what happened to the last leftist social movement that was accused of similar charges back in the ’80s:

CEPEDA: In Colombia were committed an untold number of war crimes, one of which was precisely the destruction of a whole political movement, a real genocide against the Patriotic Union movement. Today we are here in the rise of a new movement, the Patriotic March. I hope the future of this movement is full of light and not a blood bath like the one that ended Patriotic Union.

LEÓN: Nancy Vargas and Milciades Cano, two survivors of the extermination of Union Patriotica, were murdered on October 6 at 5pm when they where returning home precisely from a meeting of Marcha Patriotica the movement that wants to bring the left back to Colombia and was founded in memory of Union Patriotica, the original movement.

Among all this violence, there are still people willing to stand up to mining and oil projects to defend the water, their lands, labor and human rights. However, they do so knowing they don’t have the support of the Colombian state. As “Tomas”, from Farmers’ Union from Cauca, explains:

“TOMAS”, FARMERS’ UNION FROM CAUCA: These regimes have always been about defending their own personal interest and those of the multinational corporations.

We worry when the president goes to Europe and offers supposed “opportunities for investment in Colombia.” He then surrenders for cheap our farming lands, those of the indigenous communities and our national parks.

LEÓN: While neoliberal policies and income inequality will continue putting pressure in the social struggle, Colombia’s polarization and long history of violence makes it that much harder for social movements and farmers to vindicate their grievances.

Reporting for The Real News, this is Oscar León.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Oscar León is an experienced international press correspondent and documentary filmmaker based in Arizona. His work has reached continental TV broadcast in many occasions on Telesur, ECTV, Ecuavisa, Radio Canada, Canal Uno and even Fox Sports Latin America and El Garaje TV; he has been a TRNN correspondent since 2010. Oscar has reported from as many as 9 countries and more than 12 cities in US; his coverage includes TV reports, special reports and TV specials, not only covering social movements, politics and economics but environmental issues, culture and sports as well. This includes the series "Reportero del Sur", "Occupy USA - El Otoño Americano", "Habia una vez en Arizona", "Motor X" all TV mini series broadcasted to all Americas and "Once upon a time in Arizona" finalist in Radio Canada's "Migration" 2010 contest.