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by ANNCOL Friday, Mar. 08, 2002 at 6:45 AM

Counterinsurgency troops of the 7th Brigade of the Colombian army have been coordinating their operations with local paramilitary forces, leading to the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl among others. Regrettably this is only the tip of the iceberg for 2002 and the abuses are ongoing


Counterinsurgency troops of the 7th Brigade of the Colombian army have been coordinating their operations with local paramilitary forces, leading to the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl among others. Regrettably this is only the tip of the iceberg for 2002 and the abuses are ongoing.

07.03.2002 (By Alfredo Castro, ANNCOL Colombia) According to the most recent figures from the Colombian Commission of Jurists, the military and paramilitary forces are responsible for some 84% of all human rights abuses perpetrated against civilians in Colombia each year.

The close links between the paramilitary death squads and the official Colombian armed forces are well documented and many human rights groups and Colombian citizens now refer to the paramilitaries as the "Sixth Division" - the Colombian armed forces have only five divisions.

Unfortunately nothing has been done to effectively reduce these links and in the first months of 2002 the violations committed by this military-paramilitary partnership have been massive and bloody.

In Meta department counterinsurgency troops of the 7th Brigade of the Colombian army (which is cleared to receive US military aid and has received visits from mobile US Special Forces training units) have been coordinating their operations with local paramilitary forces, leading to the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl among others. Another army-allied paramilitary unit in the departmental capital of Villavicencio has been killing and threatening local members of the displaced community.

Regrettably this is only the tip of the iceberg for 2002 and the abuses are ongoing. In future articles ANNCOL correspondents in Colombia will investigate the situation in the departments of Arauca, Cauca, Nario, Norte de Santander and Valle del Cauca among others.

It is worth remembering that the forces that are carrying out these atrocities are backed by large amounts of US military aid and that many of those involved - both the soldiers and the paramilitary killers themselves - have either been trained in the United States or received training from US military personnel in Colombia. One should also note that so far in 2002 neither the Colombian nor the United States government have condemned any of these paramilitary/army attacks on the civilian population.

Joint operations against the civilian population

In early January 2002 the Alban Battalion of the 7th Brigade of the Colombian army began so-called 'counter-guerrilla' operations in the Alto Ariari region of Meta department. Given the history of collaboration between the 7th Brigade and paramilitary death squads what subsequently happened was not to be unexpected.

The first problems began soon after the army had arrived in the area when a paramilitary unit set up camp near the road running south from the municipality of Cubarral to the neighbouring municipality of El Castillo and proceeded to install an illegal roadblock on that route.

By January 11th paramilitaries at this roadblock were stopping and questioning everyone who arrived and were preventing, with practically no exceptions, food deliveries from passing through into El Castillo. The paramilitaries declared that the communities further down the road were sympathetic to the guerrillas and that food going into the area was destined for FARC rebels rather than the civilian inhabitants of the region.

Due to the fact that FARC rebels do operate in this region, the 7th Brigade of the army also set up a temporary base not far from the paramilitary roadblock thus enabling troops to rescue the paramilitary force should a guerrilla unit attack it - a common occurrence. Witnesses report that this military base - which is still there and is located near the town of Cubarral in the municipality of the same name - is within walking distance of where the paramilitaries were camping.

Also on January 11th the 7th Brigade were conducting their own operations against the civilian population of the area and early that morning a large number of troops passed through the paramilitary roadblock and proceeded along the road into the small town of El Castillo, the capital of the municipality of the same name. Upon arrival at approximately 10.30am the road entering the town was closed by troops and the main force continued into the community.

Upon arriving in the town the soldiers verbally abused the residents and accused them of being guerrillas, went from house to house taking down names of all residents and proceeded to gather together the town's children and ask them who was and was not a friend of the guerrillas. Local human rights workers, community leaders and other witnesses report that some of these troops were not wearing normal army uniforms and it is suspected that the soldiers may have been accompanied by paramilitaries - thus providing the paramilitaries with valuable intelligence for a future death squad incursion.

At around midday the main unit of troops joined those that had kept the road shut and they began to withdraw from the community, leaving in the direction of the local cemetery. Half an hour later bursts of gunfire rang out and it became apparent that the community was being fired upon from the direction of the cemetery. Although there were no serious injuries homes and other buildings were hit and a small child was nearly killed after a bullet scraped past her head. The gunfire lasted for about 15 minutes before it stopped and the troops were seen withdrawing into the distance.

Less than a week later both the 7th Brigade troops and the paramilitaries were still in the same area when the Alban Battalion installed their own roadblock at a place known as Aguas Zarcas, near the town of El Dorado, also in El Castillo municipality - only a short distance from the block that the death squads still maintained in the same municipality. At around 11.45am on January 18th soldiers manning the new roadblock stopped a small local number 27 bus that was coming from the city of Villavicencio, the departmental capital.

The soldiers then proceeded to drag two teenagers, a boy and a girl, from the bus and detained them at the roadblock. At around 4pm the soldiers told the two terrified youngsters that they could leave on foot. According to other people detained at the same roadblock almost immediately upon leaving, a four-doored red car pulled up beside the two teenagers and the occupants attempted to force them into the vehicle. Although the boy managed to struggle free the girl, 16-year-old Johana Vargas Bustos, was taken away in the vehicle in the direction of the town of Cubarral where the paramilitaries still had their camp and separate roadblock of their own. Soldiers at the army roadblock, who could see exactly what was going on, did nothing to intervene.

According to an urgent action released on January 28th by the Association of the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared of Colombia (ASFADDES), Vargas, who lives with her family in the community of Macarena, also in the municipality of El Castillo, has not been seen since and is feared dead.

Two days after the disappearance, in the early morning of January 20th, the paramilitaries moved their camp and roadblock from the Cubarral-El Castillo road to the road between Cubarral and the city of Villavicencio thus cutting off the food supply for the two municipalities rather than one.

The guerrillas respond

By this time local FARC guerrilla units were preparing to counterattack both the army and the paramilitaries in the region so as, in the words of local FARC commander Julian, "to give the people a break and let them live without the fear that the state tries to impose on them - at least for a time".

Just over a week later the guerrillas responded to the continuing attacks in the area by ambushing and killing 31 soldiers from the units that had been working with the death squads in the region. The ambush, in the form of an explosion, took place in the rural area of La Esperanza only a few miles away from the town of El Dorado where Johana Vargas Bustos had been disappeared.

It is also believed that in separate attacks the FARC killed a number of members of the paramilitary unit responsible for the Cubarral/El Castillo crisis although as of writing this still has not been independently confirmed.

Meanwhile approximately 40km away from the region, in the city of Villavicencio, other paramilitary forces working with a separate unit of the 7th Brigade (whose headquarters are in Villavicencio) were also targeting civilians. The victims this time were the displaced community of La Reliquia and in particular the group, Associacion de Ocupantes de Hecho de La Reliquia (ASPROVIVIR), that the community itself had organised to represent their needs.

According to an Amnesty International Urgent Action dated February 15th, "La Reliquia is a camp of approximately 3500 internally displaced families [nearly 20,000 people] in the city of Villavicencio. Displaced communities frequently suffer serious human rights violations at the hands of the security forces and their paramilitary allies, who try to silence them and prevent them from bringing their plight to international attention. In October 2000, paramilitary forces reportedly killed at least four displaced people, who had sought shelter in Villavicencio. In August 2001 the displaced community in La Reliquia camp was shaken when six of its members were killed in several attacks."

And in February this year things began to get worse. At 7.30pm on February 5th Luis Castro, an ASPROVIVIR activist, community organiser and human rights campaigner in La Reliquia and Villavicencio, was fatally shot by paramilitary assassins. Castro had been lobbying the local Attorney General's office to investigate the murder of Evert Encizo Sandoval, a local peace campaigner who had been killed by paramilitaries in August 2001. Two other people helping him with this were Marley Coronado and Luz Edelmira Rodriguez who were both witnesses in the investigation and also La Reliquia community activists.

The morning after Luis Castro was murdered paramilitaries in Villavicencio released a death list that including the names of Castro and 11 other ASPROVIVIR community activists in La Reliquia (eight other men and three women, including both Marley Coronado and Luz Edelmira Rodriguez) announcing that all the people named would soon be assassinated. According to the Amnesty International document, "Forcibly displaced people are often labelled as guerrilla sympathizers or collaborators, thereby providing the security forces and their paramilitary allies with an excuse for targeting them."

And it isn't just the community activists working with ASPROVIVIR that have been targeted. Organisations working to help displaced communities in Meta have also recently been threatened by the paramilitaries and according to Amnesty, "human rights defenders in Villavicencio have also received death threats. In the last few days three human rights defenders were forced to flee the area in fear for their safety."

Although ultimately the responsibility for the continuing violations of human rights in Meta, and indeed in the rest of Colombia, lies with the Colombian state and their financial and political backers in Washington one must not forget the role played by the Colombian military high command and in particular that of the senior officers in command in regions such as Meta.

The 7th Brigade of the army, which as we have seen have worked closely with the paramilitaries in recent months, was, until mid-January 2002, commanded by Brigadier General Hernando Alonso Ortiz. Ortiz has a long, long history of targeting innocent civilians and it is no surprise that he promoted links with paramilitary death squads during his time in command of the unit.

Some years back for example, Ortiz, who was then a Lieutenant Colonel in the army, was personally charged with involvement in a massacre of unarmed civilians on January 3rd 1994 in the town of Puerto Lleras, Arauca department. According to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, soldiers, some of who were under his command, opened fired indiscriminately on a large group of unarmed civilians killing eight of them and injuring others.

The troops then forced local people out of their homes and made them lie down on a nearby riverbank whilst some troops conducted mock executions and others ransacked the houses of the residents stealing and destroying much property. The following day, after hearing that guerrilla forces were moving into the area in an effort to help the civilian population, senior officers, including presumably Ortiz, ordered their men to use the town's inhabitants as a human shield - a clear violation of humanitarian law.

Yet despite his past record Ortiz was continuously promoted and on January 11th this year was elevated from being commander of the 7th Brigade to leading the Colombian army's elite Mobile Brigade - another unit that has recently been involved in human rights violations. And it appears that Ortiz's replacement at the 7th Brigade, Brigadier General Carlos Ovidio Saavedara Saenz, who took over just as the incidents described in this article began occurring, is just as tolerating of his men working with the paramilitaries.

Only when people such as Ortiz and Ovidio are brought to justice for their crimes against Colombia's civilian population will the process of peace with social justice that Colombia so desperately needs be truly underway.

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