Arauca ? Laboratory of War Print
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Bulletin archive - Issue10 - April - June 2003
Tuesday, 01 April 2003 01:00

Activists and trade unionists from around the world responded to the CUT’s call for international solidarity with the Colombian Oil Workers Union USO. Despite a campaign to undermine support for USO, delegates from five countries visited Arauca, as part of February’s solidarity mission.

Arauca is one of Colombia’s two foremost oil producing regions. Last September it was declared a “zone of consolidation and rehabilitation,” bringing the department under direct military rule. Recent articles in the mainstream Colombian media have reported Arauca’s “recapture” by the forces of the state. The Interior Minister himself has labelled Arauca as the “Laboratory of War”, and the national press are full of praise for the actions that they say have returned peace and stability to this troubled area, and liberated its residents from the grip of the guerrilla. We discovered a very different reality.

The history of Arauca is one of governmental neglect. Even after the discovery of oil, the vacuum created by the complete lack of government presence and investment has left Colombia’s rebel armies as the main providers of the area’s sparse public services. Community leaders reject the repeated claims of the oil companies (US Occidental Petroleum “Oxy” and Spanish company Repsol operate in Arauca) that oil production brings investment and development to the area. When villagers in Caño Limon, next to the country’s largest oil field, asked Oxy for assistance in building the region’s first school, they received just 50 bags of cement. The regalias, royalties paid from oil profits to the regions of production were traditionally squandered on prestige projects or stolen by corrupt officials, leaving next to nothing for social investment. Central government has now stopped the payment of regalias completely, saying that they are stolen by the FARC and ELN. Skeleton state services have been left with no funding at all.

Emergency measures introduced as part of the declaration of the special zones have given the military civil powers over the population. On arriving at the airport, along with all arrivals resident or otherwise, we were filmed, photographed and questioned by the security forces. Colombia’s Constitutional Court has ruled these procedures illegal but the army has been reluctant to abandon their new powers. In a subsequent meeting with the regional Procurador, these illegal army activities were dismissed as military over exuberance. Meetings with the regional authorities, whether military, police or civil judicial were largely unproductive, all showed a united front in denying the existence of paramilitary groups in the area and refused to answer questions about human rights violations by the armed forces. The Governor (a military appointee) the Prosecutor and the Chief of Police had all been appointed by central government since the declaration of the special zone and seemed well trained in dealing with human rights delegations.

Regional trade unions and social groups told an entirely different story from the government’s and press’ established truth. Representatives of teachers union ASEDAR, described a systematic attack against their members by paramilitary groups which had begun arriving in Arauca the previous year. 3 teachers were assassinated in 2002, and a further 96 were forcibly displaced. We heard stories of some schools without teachers and other schools without students, due to massive forced displacements. Students in several schools had been accused of being guerrillas and subsequently murdered.

Health workers union, ANTHOC, and municipal services workers union, SINTRAEMSERPA, told us of similar persecution against their members. Workers from these unions, who due to the nature of their work have to travel extensively in rural areas had been publicly labelled as subversives by high ranking army officials. 5 health workers have since been assassinated. Gustavo Minera of ANTHOC claimed that health workers were targeted if they treated people who were accused of being guerrillas. Threats and arbitrary detentions of municipal services workers have decimated union membership, leaving no one left to protect public services from privatisation. Union President Luis Roja, was particularly concerned that the increase in paramilitary activity targeted against public services workers coincided exactly with the increased presence of the army in the zone.

Campesino organisations ACA and FENSUAGRO, and indigenous organisation, CRIA, testified to the huge increase in military and paramilitary violence in rural areas since the declaration of the zone of consolidation. We were told of close collaboration between the army and paras, joint roadblocks and patrols, and joint operations that had resulted in several massacres. Neither the police nor the army had shown any interest in investigating these events. Campesinos are further affected by the curfews and travel restrictions that prevent them from taking their produce to market, leading to food shortages throughout the department.

Large-scale displacement had led to severe health problems and malnutrition for those forced into urban slums. 10 members of one campesino organisation had been massacred in the village of Rosario. Estella Rodriguez of ACA claimed that it was impossible to know the true extent of human rights violations and massacres due to the travel restrictions and curfews which left many communitie completely cut off from the outside world, and particularly vulnerable to attack. Journalists, human rights defenders and investigators are unable to reach isolated areas.

Perhaps the most worrying of our meetings was with representatives of the regional press. All articles for publication in newspapers and on radio have to be cleared by the military. It is impossible to publish anything vaguely controversial. One senior military official accused the press of being terrorists. 2 local journalists were assassinated in 2002, and 2 others fled the department following death threats. All the journalists whom we met spoke of their absolute fear of the authorities, and their inability to exercise their duty as journalists. Bernardo Salas, a journalist from the local paper in Arauca told us, “there is no press freedom here.”

The Oil Workers Union, USO, is the largest and most influential union in the region. Their representatives told us of persecution against their members that had led to a number of assassinations and imprisonments of union officials. The situation for the union was further complicated by the heavy militarisation of all oil installations. Oxy provide landing strips within oil installations for US spy planes working in counter insurgency actions, and combined with a heavy army presence in all workplaces, the oil installations have become a principal target for the guerrilla. According to Luis Alvares, president of the USO in Arauca, workers are forced to continue working in what sometimes descends into all out war, with insurgents firing rockets and mortars into the installations, and the army inside responding with tanks. When workers complained, and the union requested that the army bases should be moved to outside the work plants, management accused the union of being guerrillas.

This stigmatisation of the union was repeated at the highest level of Oxy management, when they accused union members of blowing up the oil wells. This of course has led to increased persecution of the union by both the army and paras. Oil workers at Oxy have a special dispensation which obliges them to travel during curfew hours, a time that is considered too dangerous for normal movement. One bus carrying workers was subsequently shot at by an army helicopter, and another was blown up by paramilitaries, killing 3 workers and injuring 12 more. Members of USO were also very worried by the environmental impact of the Oxy operation. Water in the area has been drying up at an alarming rate, leading many people to speak of the “desertification” of the land and river systems. It is well known that Oxy pumps river water into their wells to increase pressure for oil extraction, but no one really knows what effect this is having on local water levels. So far Oxy has refused union demands for an in depth environmental study of local water resources and the impact of oil production.

Due to travel restrictions and curfews imposed by the army, we were unable to travel much within Arauca. We did however visit Saravena and met with trade union and social organisations. Saravena is home to the infamous 18th Brigade of the army, and to US troops who supposedly arrived in January 2003 to train the Colombian army in protecting the oil pipeline. According to sources we met, including the Mayor of Saravena, the US troops have been in the area since September 2002, and far from being restricted to a training role, are regularly seen patrolling the area during counter insurgency operations. Understandably the local population is very worried that this is the first step in a huge US military build up. Everyone wonders how the US will respond if one of these troops is killed or captured by the guerrilla.

The social movement in Saravena told us of their persecution at the hands of the army. In November, 3,000 townspeople were rounded up at gunpoint and herded into the sports stadium. Here, the security services photographed, filmed, questioned and finger printed everyone before marking each person with indelible ink. Most people were released the following day, although 43 people from the town remain in prison on charges of rebellion.

The majority are trade union leaders, with teachers and health workers the worst affected. Another great source of worry was the creation of the informers network. Local people told of serious abuses of this system, with the army bribing children with sweets, money and trips in tanks to inform on their parents, and adults falsely informing on others to settle scores. Trust and the very social fabric of the community were quickly being replaced by suspicion and fear. According to Orlando Pais of the CUT in Arauca, “all inhabitants are treated as guerrillas, all us Araucans are considered enemies of the state.” We were also told of how 12 self-confessed paramilitaries have been incorporated into Uribe’s campesino soldier network with the full knowledge of local authorities.

All social organisations and representatives of civil society with whom we met agreed that, contrary to national press reports, violence and human rights violations have increased dramatically in Arauca since the declaration of the special zones, and that despite the greatly increased army presence, paramilitary violence have reached unprecedented levels. All groups, even local civil authorities, mentioned two main obstacles to solving the social and armed conflict in Arauca. The first is the lack of will from central government for peace. A recent United Nations proposal for regional dialogue between armed actors and civil society in Arauca has unfortunately been dismissed out of hand by the Uribe government. The second main obstacle is the massive investment in the military solution that not only inflames the conflict but diverts much needed funds away from social investment, services without which there will never be justice and peace.

David Rhys-Jones