This is the second and concluding part of the remarkable report of the International Caravan For Life, which last August entered into areas of South Bolivar that have been overrun by the military and paramilitaries.
Part I of the report was published in Colombia Solidarity Bulletin No 3, it reports on the social and humanitarian situation of the civilian population. Part II explains how the paramilitary seige operates, and gives recommendations for action.
E. The Operative Mechanisms of the Siege
The national police maintain a constant presence in main municipal centres, from where they exercise control over the port zone along the Magdalena River if towns are located on the banks; the army maintains their presence in rural areas and carries out intensive patrolling along the river in conjunction with the navy, and occasionally takes up positions in municipal centres.
Paramilitary organisations locate their checkpoints inside the main municipal centres, or close to them, and concentrate their operations on controlling the transportation of goods and people along the river and on the access roads into mountainous regions, maintaining a visible presence in the ports. Hundreds of the inhabitants of the besieged zones have been robbed, killed or disappeared at these checkpoints, which thus constitute the principal mechanism for the operation of the siege.
Guerrilla presence is in evidence in the mountainous regions, where their control posts can be observed, manned by armed, uniformed personnel and providing warnings about mine fields.
According to social and human rights organisations in the Magdalena Medio region, paramilitarism is encouraging a social movement, ostensibly in opposition to displacement, but whose role centres on providing a legal front from behind which to exert pressure on local administration and authorities of all kinds and on heading a campaign designed to discredit the peasant and mining communities, in order to legitimise the aggression and siege conditions which the paramilitaries submit them to.
E1. The Victims
Victims are selected on no other criteria than that of inhabiting a zone considered to be under guerrilla influence. Those assassinated and disappeared include transport workers, traders, mule drivers, fishermen, miners, leaders and members of community councils, raspachines and traders in coca paste.
According to testimonies given by members of these communities, counter-insurgent operatives are active within joint military and paramilitary forces, and inhabitants of the zone further affirm that these operatives even wear the armbands of both forces, or form part of a mixed group; on some occasions members of the army simply change armbands, or travel through communities displaying no distinguishing bands whatsoever, in order to mask their identity.
Victims are forcibly removed from their homes or from public places and executed on the spot or taken to be killed in other places, including urban areas which have a strong military or police presence. In some cases, people are summoned to paramilitary bases or to public locations in the main towns; it is also common for victims to be taken from checkpoints, or villages while they are going about their own business.
Actions against the population almost always involve atrocities such as decapitation, mutilation or acid burns; disfiguring the bodies is common, in order to make identification difficult, as are slow killing methods which prolong the suffering of the victims. The most frequent practise is to throw bodies into the river, and it has even been reported that one person was dropped from a helicopter. In many cases, bodies are buried by their attackers in graves which the inhabitants of the communities are forced to dig. In others, victims’ bodies are disposed of at other locations with orders that they may not be removed or buried, accompanied by death threats to dissuade family members from disobeying orders or reporting the case.
The destruction and theft of crops and livestock forms another arm of the attacks against the population; animals are stolen and consumed or even slaughtered en masse when forces withdraw from an area. Where there is danger from guerrilla mines, aggressors force peasants and their mules to explore the area in all possible directions, and when counter-insurgency forces enter a danger zone they make groups of peasants walk ahead of them, using them as a human shield.
E.3 The Response of the Authorities
In cases where victims or members of their families have sought support from the authorities, the response has either been evasive or involved intimidation, and the authorities have almost always shown themselves to be either powerless in confronting the problem, or acting as intermediaries or messengers for the criminals.
In several cases family members have to collect their dead from isolated spots or riverbanks and transport them, sometimes from one town to another, while burial is carried out without any official removal of the body, legal medical report or the registration of the death at civil level. Specifically, it is known that there are bends in the river where bodies and body parts of victims collect, and from where relatives retrieve their dead without any supervision by the authorities being possible.
F. Assessment and Conclusions
We came to the zone to ascertain with our own eyes the level of humanitarian crisis which had been presented to us; we must now confirm that what is happening here can indeed be classified a humanitarian disaster, given that whole communities and villages find their very existence threatened. The gravity of the situation urgently demands the attention of the international community.
We can verify from our own experience the existence of a siege which is constituted of three parts;
- Military siege: carried out by paramilitary groups in coexistence with and tolerated by the armed forces.
- Political siege: the main mechanism of which is exercised by government bodies and the municipal and regional administration which has ruled out any type of political participation and even the most limited social investment.
- Information siege: which consists of preventing the voice of these communities being heard in the public arena and, which on the contrary, portrays all the inhabitants of the region as being active members of the guerrilla movement.
We believe that the humanitarian disaster these peasant and mining communities are suffering is not the result of chance, but a matter of active policy and planned strategy.
The IMPUNITY which exists in this area of the country has several different faces. On one side there is the impunity which allows those who commit crimes against humanity to go unpunished, and on the other impunity for those responsible for social neglect which contributes to generating the conditions of extreme poverty in which these communities live.
Faced with this situation of political neglect, communities have turned to negotiations with the national government, signing agreements and presenting projects for the development of the region. Among these are the agreements made in 1998 and gathered together under the Plan Integral para el Desarollo del Magdalena Medio (The Integrated Plan for the Development of Magdalena Medio) which were never put into action. In fact, on the contrary, several leaders of communities have since been assassinated. We confirm that the communities have demonstrated their willingness to act, and made proposals which have been received by the national government with a total lack of attention and commitment.
G. We Call Upon:
The Peasant and Mining Communities of South Bolívar
To continue the fight for their independence and to maintain the struggle for an autonomous model of organisation and development; the same fight which they have been waging for decades against the most varied acts of war, and economic and political aggression. Their struggle stands as an example to the ideals of democracy, human rights, and in short, freedom. The tremendous difficulties they face make their task even more heroic. They should know that every day their resistance is increasingly heard about, disseminated and supported by those many thousands of kilometres away. Their will is an example to many other groups of men and women around the world who share their anxiety about liberty and democracy.
To wholeheartedly support humanitarianism in the most critical cases, of which the situation in South Bolívar, and the Colombian conflict in general, constitute an extreme example. Humanitarian law must be made fundamentally complementary to classical humanitarianism in stimulating policies and actions for the structural resolution of the situation. This is made particularly visible in situations like that of Colombian, where the distribution of material humanitarian aid is scarcely operable under conditions of military siege, institutional neglect and the constant violation of international humanitarian law.
The Colombian State
To carry out their duty. Nothing more. To comply with the mandates of their constitution, for all those rights and freedoms of which they should be both servant and guarantor; beginning with the Right to Life. Their legitimacy lies in this, and in nothing more. The constant neglect of this right constitutes a grave weakness in their legitimacy, for which the state itself and its administrators will be held entirely responsible.
The European Union and International Organisations
Human rights have been the theoretical framework for the formation of international society. It is impossible to advance the democratic shaping of society without constant vigilance of the observance and guarantee of these rights by the different states and international bodies. We call your attention to the crisis in fundamental human rights in South Bolívar. This situation is critical in regard to the most elemental of human rights, simply the Right to Life. We urge politicians not to support any project which promotes the continual and structural violation of the said right, creating a militarization of conflict as is the case in Plan Colombia, which has already been condemned by the European Parliament. On the contrary, we call for the instigation of policies of social investment as essential, paying special attention to the bodies charged with receiving, investing and administrating such resources. This is especially so in our case, where it is obvious that specific local authorities lack the slightest ill to attend to the basic needs of the inhabitants of the region subjected to the siege.
Finally, the task of continual observation in respect to the situation of human rights is vital, accompanied by an intensification of efforts, already begun, to ensure the activating of proposals and negotiations aimed at finding a way out of military conflict.
The Government of The United States
We wish to convey to you the reality which we have verified during our stay in South Bolívar. It is evident that the peasant communities have been forced to sow coca crops, motivated by the necessity to survive, and that they are in no way responsible for the traffic in cocaine to the United States. For this reason they should not be made to suffer the consequences of the war financed by a Plan Colombia, oriented towards strengthening the military component.
The indiscriminate spraying of lethal poisons is wholly unjustifiable, given that proposals for the manual eradication of coca and crop substitution are in existence. For this reason we demand the cessation of spraying and the initiation of the necessary negotiations with affected communities in the interests of achieving a satisfactory solution. Once and for all we demand the suspension of investment in war, in a region where the people are crying out for investment in peace and development…
Bogotá, 20th August, 2001
The Caravanistas have pledged their continuing support for the affected communities and to disseminate the reality observed during their visit to the zone. They can be contacted via Comité Daniel Gillard (email@example.com).