Colombia calling

LONDON Freelance Branch has contributed to supporting Caleb Harris's trip to do trade union solidarity work in Colombia, where journalists and trades unionists face frequent death threats. Here's a report from him...

I'VE BEEN GETTING to know the political terrain here in Colombia, making contacts in a wide variety of trade unions and social organisations, and improving my Spanish.

In September I went to San Jose de Apartado in the north-western region of Uraba, near the border with Panama, for a national meeting of the Network of Communities in Resistance (Recorre). This is a network includes campesino (peasant farmer), indigenous, black and other communities who have opted for "active neutrality" as a way to meet the challenge of living in some of the most war-torn regions of the country.

San Jose de Apartado, established in 1997, is the oldest of these, and has had around 160 members assassinated by the military, paramilitaries or guerrillas since its inception.

Neutrality is a dangerous option in a country where those who live in the "red zones" of intense conflict are usually forced to either support one of the armed groups, which is usually ultimately fatal, or to join the country's massive population of internally displaced refugees. The peace community seeks to find an alternative to this by barring all actors from their communities, and by publicly committing themselves to giving no information, food, supplies, shelter or any other support to any armed group. The complex military, political and commercial interests operating in the areas around the peace communities have met this stance with a long and brutal series of murders, massacres, threats and disappearances.

The latest atrocity in San Jose de Apartado, in February this year, saw eight members of the community, including three children hacked to death with machetes, allegedly by soldiers from the Colombian army's 17th Brigade. The brigade is currently being investigated by the attorney general's department over the massacre.

Incidents like this have fuelled a campaign in the UK for the government to withdraw its controversial military aid to Colombia.

At the meeting I attended, over a hundred people from around the country and abroad discussed ways to take their movement forward and took part in plenaries on topics such as Colombia's controversial Justice and Peace Law, which many international human rights organisations say fails to deliver either. The law governs paramilitary demobilisation, reconciliation and reparation, and is particularly pertinent in places where atrocities are regularly committed, such as San Jose.

The most memorable and moving experience of the week was a trip to the outlying hamlet of Mulatos, where the February massacre occurred. We trekked for seven hours through jungle to the isolated spot where community leader Luis Eduardo Guerra  was murdered during the massacre.

We stayed overnight in the volatile area, and the next day we split into two groups to exhume the remains of two assassinated community members, to return them to the community.

The first person exhumed was killed by paramilitary soldiers who burned down his store, killed his animals and shot him in front of his family. This type of execution is seen as a deliberate tactic to drive campesinos off their land, which is sought by various interests. The man was buried by his family who were later forced to displace by further violence. No-one lives in the area now, and the family wanted to bring him back to the heart of their community, where a permanent memorial is being constructed to the community's assassinated members.

The other victim was a woman of about 25 named Aleyda Areiza, who was executed three years ago by the guerrilla and buried in a shallow grave in the jungle, with no ceremony.

Watching the community honour their dead in this way, and refusing to forget what happened to them, was very moving.

From San Jose I came to Medellin, which is one of the most paramilitarised places in the country, according to locals I have spoken to. They say it's one of the best places to get a feel for the way the paramilitary mafia gradually take over a community, eventually controlling much of an area's business, social life and politics. Many of the city's trade unions, community and social organisations are active in resisting this phenomenon.

On October 12 I witnessed Medellin's trade unionists and other social activists participating in a national strike and demonstration, an event which typifies this resistance. Half a million people nationwide went on strike and marched in protest against the Free Trade Agreement being negotiated between the USA and Colombia, the possibility of President Alvaro Uribe's re-election, and the state's mistreatment of Colombia's indigenous communities.

In the weeks leading up to the march the climate of repression against any type of dissent, which is the norm in Colombia, saw an escalation of assassinations, disappearances and arrests of activists and leaders. On the day of the strike, two indigenous leaders were killed when the police attacked a road occupation with tear gas and live ammunition.

In Medellin, more than 10,000 people marched through the city before filling Parque Berrio, the "town square", during two separate marches. Many teachers, university staff and students and public sector workers joined the national strike.

The first march left the Teachers Association of Antioquia (Adida) at 10am, and saw around 8000 people including workers, pensioners, university students and secondary school pupils throng some of the city's main arteries. The crowd's many vivid banners unequivocally rejected the Free Trade Agreement, Uribe's re-election campaign, which has since been cleared by the constitutional court, and the marginalisation suffered by indigenous people.

All three protest themes carried a particular poignancy on this date, as it was the 513th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's landing in the Americas. The crowd's chants and banners drew parallels between the neo-colonialism of the FTA, the violation of democratic process in the re-election campaign, and the last half-a-millennium of genocide, discrimination and marginalisation suffered by the nation's indigenous people. "Globalise resistance, not capital," was one of the chants.

More than 300 riot police failed to dampen the crowd's festive mood. A massive group of students from the University of Antioquia and the Medellin campus of the National University brought up the rear of the demonstration.

In the day's other march, at least 2,500 people left from outside the Teatro Pablo Tobon Uribe at 5pm and also made their way to Parque Berrio. The mood was again festive, with marchers dancing, singing and chanting: "It's coming down... it's coming down... this corrupt system's coming down".

At one point along the route heavily armed, masked and body-armoured riot police emerged and surrounded the student group, most of whom were wearing masks to protect their identity and who were spearheaded by a huge "Stars and Stripes" with skulls in place of the stars and the message: "Imperialism OUT of Iraq, Colombia and the whole world".

Just before reaching Parque Berrio the students burned another large Stars and Stripes, this one with swastikas in place of the stars. The riot squad focussed their attentions on the students for the rest of the march, but the event passed without any violence. However, at least one marcher, Carlos Eduardo Arroyave, was taken away by police.

A marcher from the Sinaltrainal trade union, who asked not to be named, said the march was so that the world would know that working Colombians rejected the FTA, as it would destroy livelihoods: "This agreement is in the interests of the USA and multinational companies, but it will be terrible for ordinary workers here. The FTA is just the latest in the long history of US imperialism in Latin America."

A piece of history was also made at the event when SINTRAONG, Colombia's brand-new trade union for workers in NGOs, made its first-ever appearance in a demonstration.

Indigenous dancers who entertained marchers arriving in Parque Berrio underlined the message of leaders from the Indigenous Organisation of Antioquia, who told the crowd: "This is our land and always has been, and we will not be intimidated into silence."

Some other memorable experiences:

  • I did some work with a researcher at the public University of Antioquia on her documentary film about demobilised female guerrillas. This involved proofing and correcting the final translation for the English subtitles for the film.
  • I've met some of the staff at the city's national school of trade unionism, and hope to research the work of the school more for subsequent reports.
  • Early in October I travelled to Cali, nine hours south of Medellin, to witness the peaceful occupation of a landmark church in the city by a group of university students. They were protesting the killing of a fellow student, Jhony Silva Aranjuren, aged 21. He was shot by riot police after they illegally entered the campus of the University of Valle, according to witnesses. He was not involved in the student protest taking place at the time, and was unable to run away from the riot squad due to a disability.
  • The killing caused an outcry around Colombia, including here in Medellin, and abroad, and I went to the church occupation to get an insight into the way Colombian university students find themselves not only at the vanguard of community protest against violent state repression, but also bearing the brunt of that repression.
  • Recently I met and interviewed a group of campesinos who have been displaced to Medellin by BP's controversial oil pipeline near Zaragoza, 12 hours' drive from here. I'm working on a feature story about their situation, living in some of the poorest, most dangerous and most highly paramilitarised barrios (poor neighbourhoods) of the city after losing their farms and livelihoods due to the pipeline.
  • Last weekend I met with and interviewed members of a community organisation called Convivamos, in barrio Guadalupe, one of the poor suburbs high on the hills above the city centre. Despite paramilitary intimidation, including death threats to leaders, this group has thrived and has built a strong, active culture of self-help. Children and adults learn trades and life-skills and receive personal formation in areas such as self-esteem, decision-making, dealing with conflict and loss, all of which carry a particular weight in an area where paramilitary groups recruit and arm children as young as 13, and where a culture of death and violence was, for many years, entrenched.
  • This week I attended a demonstration in the city's main square by a coalition of the city's women's organisations, calling for an end to violence against women, especially in the context of the war.

I'll be returning to Bogota in the next week or so. I will be working there until January with a group called the Network of Fraternity and Solidarity with Colombia, which provides accompaniment and support to trade unionists and other community groups in some of the country's most oppressed communities. I also aim to work with the Foundation for Press Liberty and the International Federation of Journalists' Centre for Solidarity, which are two Bogota-based groups providing support and solidarity to the country's media workers.

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