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DIRTY WAR IN BOLIVAR DEPARTMENT

by ANNCOIL Saturday, May. 11, 2002 at 9:39 AM
redaccion@anncol.com

"If the people of the US knew what their government was really doing here in Colombia there would be outrage," says a veteran human rights worker from Bolivar department in an exclusive interview with ANNCOL.

08.05.2002 (Alfredo Castro, ANNCOL Colombia) Due to the fact that paramilitary forces in Colombia have assassinated hundreds of human rights workers in recent years this courageous activist's real name cannot be used. Suffice it to say that Gloria has worked in the many regions of Bolivar department over a long period of time and intends to continue trying to do so for the foreseeable future.

ANNCOL: Can you give us a little background first and tell us why there are so many problems in the department and what the main types of human rights abuses are?

Gloria: Well, we have all sorts of abuses in Bolivar including massacres, assassinations, disappearances, rapes and kidnapping. There are also abuses of another sort in that people are illegally evicted from their land and have their homes and possessions taken.

The history of these abuses and the reasons for them are more complicated but I will try and give you a brief background.

For many years most of the regions in the south and centre of Bolivar, which is where I have worked mostly and which is a rural and mountainous region, were to a great extent peaceful places where the civilian population could get on with their lives without fear of any of the things that I just mentioned. There were guerrillas about but they didn't bother anyone and their relationship with local people was always quite good.

Then in the early 1990s the paramilitaries started appearing in certain areas in the south of Bolivar. Many of them had crossed over the river Magdalena from the city of Barrancabermeja where they were working with the military in trying to gain control of the city from the guerrillas who at that time almost controlled the whole place.

By 1999 they were strong enough to launch a full scale offensive into southern Bolivar and from the start this was coordinated with the army. I guess the paramilitaries had about a thousand fighters for the push into Bolivar at this time and this was partly through recruiting poor kids in Barrancabermeja, because unlike the guerrillas who pay no salary to their members the paramilitaries pay a lot of money if you join them, but also because they were keen to prevent the establishment of a peace talks zone for the ELN in the south which was being talked about at that time.

Anyway when it started it was awful. The paramilitaries first went into the region around San Pablo and Simiti where they and the army killed hundreds of people, burnt down homes and forced thousands to leave. They said that everybody was a guerrilla and if you complained you were shot.

This carried on throughout 2000 and they moved into more and more communities. The advance was a shock to everyone as although the guerrillas did try to fight them off the army gave them such a lot of support that the guerrillas were forced to head into the mountains. By 2001 they were all over the south of Bolivar except for in a few communities in the mountains where the guerrillas remain.

Once they had control the paramilitaries did two things. Firstly they set up front organisations like ASOCIPAZ and Movimiento No al Despeja that they used to campaign against the proposed peace zone. People were told that if they didn't participate in anti-peace zone demonstrations then they'd be killed and although the TV showed a lot about the protests they never told the truth about why the people were there.

The other thing that they did was to start pushing the small miners and farmers out of areas that the multinationals wanted. Then those great companies came in and now there are only a few jobs left for miserable wages. Before many families lived here and survived off the land but now the multinationals take all the materials and the profits for themselves so this too forces others to leave. And this is still going on. Just a few weeks ago the army forced hundreds of people to leave a group of communities around Tiquisio.

ANNCOL: I heard you mention Barrancabermeja briefly and I know that the city has suffered from horrendous violations the past couple of years. Can you give a brief update of what has been going on there more recently?

Gloria: Although Barrancabermeja is near to Bolivar it is not actually in this department - it is in neighbouring Santander. I myself have not been in the city recently as it is really very dangerous although I have many colleagues there and know that they have been having problems in recent weeks. Just last month for example the remarkable community leader Manuel Navarro was taken away by the death squads and we have heard nothing from him since.

To give you an idea of the gravity of the crises in Barrancabermeja, last year, in a city of 200,000, around 600 people were assassinated or disappeared and a further 1,400 forced to leave their homes in the city after being threatened and then refused protection by the security forces. It is also, and I believe that this is no coincidence, the most heavily militarised city in Colombia and is home to three army battalions plus a naval base.

Paramilitary death squads, that moved in with help from the army in the early 1990s, circulate openly in Barrancabermeja and work especially closely with the Nueva Grenada Battalion that is based there. They are also able to set up roadblocks and detain people in the city and have several important and well-known bases within the city limits including at Miraflores and Punta del Palo.

For some time now then the human rights situation in the city has been really very bad and to give you just one example of how bad in 1998 paramilitaries and troops from the Grenada Battalion murdered 36 civilians from a poor neighbourhood in just one night whilst other military units and the police did nothing.

Last year after much international pressure the government agreed to send 150 elite Special Forces troops into Barrancabermeja to stop the killings. But they got worse. The new troops simply joined with those already stationed there and the paramilitaries and continued to attack people. In the weeks after the new arrivals CREDHOS, OFP, the Social Solidarity Network and ASFADDES, all of which are good human rights and social organisations were all threatened and harassed and within a few days of the new forces beginning their patrols 20 people were assassinated. The new forces did nothing despite pleas from these people to help and it seems that it was all a propaganda exercise to show that the government was doing something.

More recently, on February 20th this year, paramilitaries, despite the many police and army patrolling the streets, were able to force many residents of one neighbourhood to assemble on a local games field where they were told that the paramilitaries are soon to launch a series of attacks against important social and union leaders in the city. One person named was Francisco Campos the director of CREDHOS which is the most important human rights organisation in the whole region and which has numerous international contacts.

CREDHOS, which has constantly denounced paramilitary crimes against the civilian population and against other NGOs and human rights defenders in Barrancabermeja and the entire region, has already suffered the assassination of seven of its leaders and another 19 of its activists have been forced to leave the area. I fear that with the latest paramilitary announcement we may soon see more bloodshed. And the security forces will do nothing - senior officers of the Neuva Grenada Battalion have also directly threatened CREDHOS workers.

ANNCOL: Earlier you mentioned the relationship of the multinationals to displacement. Can you tell me a little more about the displacement of civilians in general and specifically the connections with the multinationals?

Gloria: We have been really hit hard by forced displacement in Bolivar and although it is extremely difficult to give exact figures because many people move away to live with family in other regions or go to find work in the capital rather than go to the displaced communities where they can be easily counted I can tell you that during every year recently displacement in the department can be counted in the tens of thousands.

There are various ways that the paramilitaries will displace people. Firstly is through fear. Maybe they will come to a community and kill a few people to show that they are serious and then tell the others that they will return in a few days and kill the rest. This obviously forces people to leave and when this happens over and over again in different communities in a region it will in many cases provoke mass fear and subsequent mass displacement.

Another way is that they will prevent supplies of food and medicine from entering certain communities whilst at the same time preventing peasants in those areas from leaving to sell their produce. They also destroy harvests and kill livestock. Essentially what they are doing is starving the communities off their land. Both this phenomenon and the mass fear method were utilized widely in 2000 and 2001 in the south of Bolivar in particular and they continue to be used today in certain regions such as the Cimitarra Valley and in other departments such as Norte de Santander, Choco, Cauca and Valle de Cauca.

ANNCOL: And the relationship that multinational corporations have with the displacement?

Gloria: Yes, as there is lots of gold, oil, marble and other raw materials here in Bolivar the land is obviously very valuable in some places. Before the multinationals can get their hands on what is in the land they need to own the land itself and this becomes very expensive if they have to buy it from all the individual small farming families. It is cheaper, and therefore the end profits for the people in New York, Washington and places like that are greater, to just expel the people from the land and then take it for themselves.

Therefore the paramilitaries force thousands from their land and the multinationals then take possession of it. We have companies from Spain, Canada, the US and Britain among others that have all benefited from this method - the mining companies are probably the worst culprits here although various oil companies also have very bad records.

The fact that the paramilitaries also target the people who represent the communities also benefits the multinationals, as when all the leaders and peasant associations are gone there will be nobody left to represent the people and help them fight for their rights. Then it will be even easier for the multinationals to grab the land, force people to work for low wages, etc.

ANNCOL: You keep mentioning the paramilitaries. Are they responsible for all of the abuses or do the guerrillas also commit human rights violations?

Gloria: I don't know about the rest of the country but where I work in Bolivar over 99% of all the violations are carried out by the paramilitaries, many times working with the army. Most abuses are simply ignored by the press as they do not like to report negatively about the paramilitaries although sometimes they and the authorities will blame the guerrillas if they feel that it is beneficial. However, upon further investigation we find that the accusations are almost always false and were made for propaganda purposes.

There are many examples of this but the one I remember best was in February last year when the paramilitaries massacred seven people in La Cristalina and it was blamed on the ELN. ASOCIPAZ, the paramilitary front group that I mentioned earlier, even put out a press release denouncing the ELN for their violating of human rights yet when human rights groups looked at it closely we found that it had in fact been a paramilitary crime.

What the guerrillas do is kidnap people and that is an attack against people's liberty and I believe it is wrong. Again though in many cases the government will blame the guerrillas for a kidnapping when it isn't actually them. In other cases when the guerrillas take a paramilitary away the authorities will claim that he is a civilian.

In mid-January this year for example the paramilitaries kidnapped a woman from the town of Calamar and the authorities blamed the FARC even though everyone knew it had been the paramilitaries. When six men went looking for her on the paramilitaries got them too and shot them all in the heads and again the authorities blamed the guerrillas. But if you go to Codazzi, or ask one of the human rights groups that document these things, and ask what happened to Carlos Bermejo, Jair Robles Mendez, Luis Sanchez, Deivis Martinez, Ricardo Arias and Julio Yobaldis they will all tell you it was the paramilitaries.

The truth is that the guerrillas obviously target wealthy people for kidnapping as that is who can pay the ransoms but here in Bolivar we don't have that many rich people, we are mainly peasants.

But to answer your question, here in Bolivar, it is the paramilitaries that assassinate people, displace hundreds of families and go into towns and massacre civilians. The people that the guerrillas kidnap come from the small percentage of wealthy people that we have, including drug traffickers. I myself do not know of any cases where the guerrillas have actually massacred civilians in Bolivar.

ANNCOL: Can you explain what the paramilitaries do when they enter a town?

Gloria: Let me tell you about what happened in February 2000 in a small town called El Salado that is in northern part of Bolivar. It will give you an idea of how the paramilitaries operate.

For some days the marines and the army had been patrolling in and around the town and then suddenly one evening they all withdrew. Then, the following morning, I think it was a Friday, the people awoke to find the town surrounded by about 300 paramilitaries who then came down into the central square and rounded up all the residents. The boss then sat at a table and chair in the basketball court that was in the square and began to call out names from a list that he had.

Some people stepped forward but others, who had stayed in their homes out of fear were not present and so some of the paramilitaries went searching for them house to house before dragging them out of their homes to the square. Other paramilitaries ordered restaurants and cafes in the town to bring all their whiskey and rum as well as their radios for music to the square and local musicians were made to play their instruments.

The paramilitaries held a party and then the killing started. People were tortured, killed and raped whilst the paramilitaries were dancing and singing. People were sliced up with machetes, had their throats and stomachs cut open and others were beheaded or strangled with metal wires whilst being tortured.

A young waitress from a caf on the square was ordered to serve the liquor and when they became drunk they repeatedly raped her along with various other women. They also took one person into the town church and murdered him in there after having tortured him on the table at the basketball court.

Of course by this time people in other towns in the area had heard what was going on and they went to the army and the police and asked them to intervene. They were ignored and told not to worry as it was only the guerrillas and the paramilitaries fighting high up in the hills. There were police and soldiers only a few miles from the town and they could easily have stopped it but they did nothing.

Later it was agreed to send in human rights workers and relief groups to try and rescue the residents although the police and army set up roadblocks and prevented them from entering the region. They still claimed it was combat between guerrillas and paramilitaries and that they could do nothing.

All day Saturday was the same with people being tortured and killed. Some were shot after being tortured, others were stabbed, beaten or strangled to death and all the time music was playing and the paramilitaries were having a party.

The paramilitaries left on Sunday afternoon by which time they had killed about 50 innocent civilians people including young children and old people.

After the massacre nearly 3,000 residents fled the area, including about 1,500 people from El Salado itself, to camps and shantytowns in the cities. When human rights groups went to talk to witnesses many of the people who spoke to them were later killed or disappeared by the same group of paramilitaries. Now people are too scared to talk about it at all.

What happened in El Salado is typical of their behaviour. They are animals with no respect for human life although if you read the media here you wouldn't know it. El Tiempo, our biggest newspaper here in Colombia, reported on what happened in El Salado. They claimed that local people had invited the paramilitaries to come in and they implied that those killed were guerrillas!

The press here normally ignore paramilitary massacres and I have heard that it is because the families that own all the media, people like the Santos and Santo Domigo families, actually make financial donations to Carlos Castano who is the head of the death squads.

ANNCOL: Do the paramilitaries target everyone or specific people?

Gloria: It is a hard question as they always go for people like community leaders, unionists and human rights activists but they also sometimes seem to kill randomly. On many occasions, like in El Salado, they will come with a list of who to kill but then someone else will catch their eye for whatever reason and they will murder him or her too with apparently no reason.

The paramilitaries claim that their victims are guerrilla supporters but many of the people they kill are really actually apolitical. A lot of people in Bolivar do support the guerrillas, especially the ELN, but they are still civilians and ought to be able to support whom they want. The bottom line is that they themselves are not involved in violence so why should they suffer.

ANNCOL: You keep mentioning the cooperation between the armed forces and the death squads what evidence do you and your colleagues have that shows these links?

Gloria: I have already spoken about the case of Barrancabermeja but let me give you some more specific examples here in Bolivar. First El Salado, which we already talked about, and where the armed forces were deeply involved although in this case it was specifically the marines.

As I said the army and police there refused to intervene during a three day long massacre despite the pleas of local people and relatives of those actually inside the town. To add to this the security forces then prevented humanitarian organisations from entering the area where the massacre was taking place. They claimed all along that in fact what was going on was combat between guerrillas and paramilitaries and that those who were claiming it was a massacre were being coerced by the guerrillas into saying so. In fact they were obviously covering up for the paramilitaries and the whole incident had been planned in advance as the withdrawal of troops from the town the previous day and the subsequent roadblocks demonstrate.

We also know exactly who was responsible for this coordination with the paramilitaries. Firstly is Colonel Harold Mantilla who at the time was commander of the 5th Marine Battalion and who had a base full of troops within an hour of El Salado but who refused to help. And, secondly, Colonel Rodrigo Quinonez Cardenas the commander of the 1st Navy Brigade and who in February 2000 had direct responsibility for defending the area from such attacks.

We know that it was Colonel Quinonez that liased with the paramilitaries yet when a witness was found who was willing to testify the government placed him in a maximum security prison where he was assassinated.

The government know all about this as not only have Colombian human rights organisations told them but international groups too have put pressure on them to punish Colonel Quinonez. Yet what did they do? Four months after the massacre they promoted the Colonel and made him General Rodrigo Quinonez Cardenas in charge of naval aviation in the city of Cartagena, which has aerial responsibility for the whole region.

And General Quinonez can not only be linked to the massacre at El Salado but also to one in Chengue the month before where over 34 innocent civilians were killed when the paramilitaries smashed their heads open with sledgehammers and chopped them up with chainsaws. The paramilitaries decapitated one victim there and played football with his head so as to warn the survivors what would happen to them if they didn't give support to the paramilitaries. Quinonez could have stopped this too but didn't.

There is also evidence that both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have brought to the attention of the US and Colombian governments that General Quinonez, whilst based in Barrancabermeja earlier in his carrer, worked closely with local death squads to selectively assassinate 57 individual trade unionists, human rights workers and community activists in that city. Yet he was still promoted over and over again and is currently a serving general.

The second example I want to give you of the cooperation is here in the south of Bolivar, rather than in the north where El Salado is, with what has been going on in the Cimitarra Valley in the past year or so. In this Valley, which is right near the southern border of Bolivar with Antioquia department, there has been a long running series of joint army/death squad operations.

In late 2000 there was a huge increase in paramilitary activity in the Valley and large numbers of people were being displaced from their land. The paramilitaries were targeting especially members of the Cimitarra River Valley Peasant Farmers' Association, who the army have labelled as subversives, and I remember that around the middle of December a big group of paramilitaries raided more than 10 villages in the valley whilst army helicopters, together with a paramilitary helicopter, kept watch for any guerrilla units that might try to intervene.

Soon after this the military bombed 4 villages in the valley killing various civilians and when they had finished the paramilitaries moved into the settlements and made everyone else leave and disappeared those who resisted. The idea was to destroy the civilian support network that both the FARC and the ELN enjoyed in that region.

By the end of the year both the army and the paramilitaries were firmly established in the area and both had checkpoints and bases and were terrorising the people. I remember that on December 30th or 31st they had a joint roadblock at a place known as La Rompida where they tortured and murdered Libardo Taburete for no reason at all.

Then in January the FARC and ELN launched a huge joint attack on the five main paramilitary bases in the Cimitarra Valley and killed hundreds of paramilitaries - the people still talk about it. During the attack an army helicopter came to aid the paramilitaries and we know that the same helicopter had been supplying those bases with food and equipment. We also know that some of the people killed in those camps during the guerrilla attack were regular army troops.

After the fighting had ended the paramilitaries that survived moved to a place known as Cuartro Bocas where the army had a heavy presence and by February 2001 they had a base there under the protection of units of the 4th Brigade of the army. Again the two forces engaged in attacks against both the guerrillas and the civilian population and in late February the military launched heavy bombing in the area that killed and displaced many people.

I can't remember the names of the individual army officers who were coordinating all this but various human rights organisations could give you the information and anyone in the Cimitarra Valley would be able to tell you because those officers are still there and are still doing these kinds of things.

One whose name I do remember is Colonel Juan Bautista of the 45th Battalion of the army who was seen meeting openly with a group of paramilitaries last year in May just before they went into the community of El Paraiso near San Pablo and set fire to 26 homes and displaced 1,500 people.

More recently, in January of this year in the Villanueva region of Bolivar, paramilitaries that were operating out of two nearby military bases and wearing army-issue uniforms assassinated at least six people whilst military spotter planes circled above keeping watch for guerrilla units. It is General Martin Orlando Carreno of the 2nd Division of the army who is responsible for this.

Peasant groups in the area have repeatedly appealed to General Carreno to intervene when there are warnings of death squads approaching and he has always ignored their pleas. And when human rights groups have requested that he order his troops to act against two well known paramilitary bases near the towns of Monterrey and San Blas, which are both in the south of Bolivar, he has also refused us. In fact, those two bases are still there today as we are talking.

And there are many more examples like this and not just here in Bolivar. All over Colombia you can go into towns and see local paramilitaries drinking in bars with the police, living in military bases and manning joint roadblocks with soldiers. I've only told you a little about the areas that I am familiar with in Bolivar and it is just the tip of the ice-burg.

ANNCOL: Why do you think that the armed forces engage in this cooperation?

Gloria: The government knows all about the links between the paramilitaries and the army as not only have Colombian human rights groups told them but people like Human Rights Watch have also said it. The problem is that the paramilitaries are part of a state policy to keep the people down.

For many years a small group of families, we call them the oligarchy, have controlled Colombia and these people are desperate to defend their privileges. They do not want to share any of Colombia's wealth with the Colombian people and as a result of this attitude they have had willing collaboration from the multinationals and in turn the US government. This is why the US gives the military so much aid despite of the human rights abuses - to defend the interests of the multinational corporations.

The main function of the army is to defend the elite and their interests and if that means that they have to work with the death squads then that is a price worth paying so far as the wealthy elite, the multinationals, the military high command and the US government are concerned. Again of course, as I think I mentioned before, the mass media are complicit in this and that is why the fact that the paramilitaries and army are the real violators here is hidden.

ANNCOL: What contact have you had with the government authorities to try and lessen the human rights crises in Bolivar and have they been helpful?

Gloria: For the reasons I have just mentioned the government in general are not interested in defending the human rights of the vast majority of Colombian citizens. Unless they are willing to reform the security forces and put an end to their relationship with the paramilitaries there is very little they can do to improve the situation.

Here in Bolivar in August last year when the International Caravan for Life came to the south of Bolivar to express solidarity with the peasant communities they were threatened not just by paramilitary front organisations like ASOCIPAZ and Movimiento No al Despeja which set up roadblocks near San Pablo to prevent them from visiting the communities and seeing the truth, but also by the local authorities who called them "terrorist guerrilla supporters".

A group of international volunteers who were supported by both the United Nations and the Red Cross and who should have been welcomed by the local mayors and other dignitaries were instead called terrorists by those people!

ANNCOL: Have you ever met with the paramilitaries or the guerrillas to talk about human rights?

Gloria: Human rights workers can never meet with the paramilitaries. They are always trying to kill us and we'd make it too easy for them if we went to them.

The guerrillas are a bit different and most human rights activists have had some contact with them as part of their work. Many of us for example have enquired after kidnap victims and I know that other people have been invited to guerrilla camps to give talks on human rights principles and similar questions. Pastor Alape and Commander Bertulfo, two FARC commanders in this region have both issued invitations for various people to go and talk to them about their human rights concerns although I have no specific information about that.

In the past there was a lot more contact with the guerrillas as they used to be all over the south of Bolivar in particular. They used to call the community together and discuss issues of how to improve living standards and such and they used to have rules about not hitting your wife, not littering and helping older people who lived alone in the communities.

The ELN especially was very involved with many activists through their environmental protection program in the south of Bolivar and although this was mostly environmental and land reform activists the human rights groups also had some input.

Now though, since the army and paramilitaries have come, this has all changed as the guerrillas are up in the mountains and quite far away so there is less contact. The environmental policies are gone too.

ANNCOL: With regards to human rights in the rest of Colombia how bad is the situation compared to Bolivar department?

Gloria: Colombia as a whole certainly has the worst human rights record in the Western hemisphere and easily one of the worst in the world. Last year we had around 75 violent deaths a day nationally and I am sorry to say that in some places in the country the local situation is even worse than here in Bolivar.

I've already mentioned Barrancabermeja which is horrendous although the departments of Antioquia and those on the Pacific coast are suffering enormously too - probably worse than here right now.

The departments to the east of Bolivar too have been having problems. What the paramilitaries are doing in Norte de Santander has been quite well reported on but Magdalena and Cesar departments are also suffering and this is being ignored. Only last month the paramilitaries killed four peasants in the community of Llerasca in in Cesar and in Magdalena there was a massacre of eight people who were all shot outside of a restaurant by the paramilitaries in the town of Aracatac at the beginning of February. None of this was reported on and in Arauca it is even worse and nothing has been said about that yet either.

ANNCOL: Thank-you for taking the time to do this interview. Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Gloria: There are two brief things that I would like to say. One is an appeal and the other an aspiration, though it is an aspiration not just of mine but of the Colombian people too.

Firstly we are in desperate need of international solidarity in Colombia. In the field not just of human rights but also in the trade union movement, the student movement, the land reform and community organisations and all the other popular sectors that the state is trying to destroy. We need people to support our struggles. We need people to come here and see for themselves what is really going on. I believe, that with the US in particular, that if their people knew what their government was really doing here in Colombia that there would be outrage and it would be much more difficult for the US to give our military, and therefore the paramilitaries too, all this military aid. It is aid that is harming the people and only with the support of international solidarity organisations will we be able to put an end to it. Whatever they say in the US government it is simply impossible to believe that more guns, helicopters, bullets and bombs will lead to peace in Colombia.

The aspiration that I have, and that as I said I believe most Colombian's have, is that of peace, but not just peace on its own where there continues to be unemployment, poverty and discrimination. What we want and need is peace with social justice. And that, ultimately, is what we in the popular organisations are all fighting for here in Colombia.





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