December 2009 Newsletter

December 8, 2009

Action Alert: Community Lawyer Under Threat on Eve of Massacre Trial

Jorge Molano

Jorge Molano, who serves as the lawyer representing victims of massacres such as the 2005 Peace Community massacre, works tirelessly to end the impunity of human rights abuses by the Colombian army. He has had to take his children out of the country due to fears for their safety, and in recent days he and his partner have been the subject of vigilance by suspicious characters. The trial of army officers charged with the San José massacre takes place December 14-16 in Medellín.

Please take action by writing to Colombian officials urging them to protect Jorge and his family!

Human Rights First Action Alert
Frontline Action Alert
Article in Colombian newspaper (spanish)


I Would Sing A Thousand Years: A Report from the Vigil at Fort Benning

Photo: Al Viola

By Liza Smith

Hear KPFA's interview with Liza here.

Ana Gabriela, an eighth grader in Oakland, made meticulous paper dolls, the most beautiful of the bunch. Each doll that she carefully crafted represented a thousand people in Colombia who have been forced to flee their homes by the conflict. She was part of an effort that FOR led in the spring of 2009 to make 4,000 paper dolls representing the four million displaced people in Colombia. Her teacher decided to make it a class project and students cut out and decorated as many paper dolls as they could manage -- each one included a fact about displacement and how it had impacted afro-Colombians, women and children.

After months of doll making throughout the Bay Area, I had piles of them in my room, stuffed into shopping bags. Ana's dolls arrived folded and tucked into a white envelope. A few days before our protest, I camped out in the parking lot across the street from my house and with the help of friends, strung thousands of them together. On April 20, we marched down the streets of San Francisco, Colombian and US activists together, and presented them to Nancy Pelosi's office with a message that US military aid to Colombia makes us complicit in the displacement of so many people. Afterwards, we saved the dolls for future actions and lobbying, but special care was taken with Ana's -- they couldn't be thrown away or even crushed.

Months later, Bob Nixon (a Bay Area activist who has worked to close the School of the America's and originally brought the doll making idea to this eighth grade class) told Ana's teacher and the other students that he planned to go to the yearly School of the Americas protest. He would walk in the solemn procession and place their hand made dolls on the fence at the gates of Ft. Benning as part of a collective memorial to protest the training that Latin American military officials receive there. Ana's mom came up to him with tears in her eyes -- she said initially she didn't know why Ana spent so much time on this school project. Then she realized the significance of it all: it was not only about Colombian people displaced from their lands and country just like she and her family were forced to leave theirs; it was about human rights abuses in Latin America and how the US was implicated in those abuses; and it was about the School of the Americas -- the very school that had trained the soldiers who had killed her husband's family in El Salvador. This was full circle: her daughter's meticulously painted paper dolls would be hung on the fence where soldiers had been trained who participated in the assassination of her husband's family over twenty years before.

Bob told me the story of Ana's family while we stood at the FOR table on Saturday at the protest -- a story that represents how interconnected our struggles are and one that reminded me of time. And of the time it takes. This November was the 20th anniversary of the killing of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador, which is commemorated by the vigil at the gates of Ft. Benning. Twenty years, which is nothing in comparison to the hundreds of years that indigenous communities have been fighting colonialism or Afro-descendent people have been fighting racism. It is little compared to the decades that Colombian human rights defenders and communities in resistance have struggled to change their country's reality. But for someone like me, just a baby in this movement, twenty years is a long time! In my life I only know half of twenty: I look back and reflect on the ten years that I have been protesting Plan Colombia. I look forward and see another ten years protesting the agreement between the US and Colombia for the use of seven military bases.

This year, my protest was from the stage and through song. During two hours, we spoke and sang aloud hundreds of names; we raised our voices hundreds of times with the word "presente" for each stolen life; we saw thousands of people walk by the stage and towards the gates, making memory. At moments, familiar names were spoken: Luis Eduardo Guerra and his son, Yolanda Ceron, Orlando Valencia. Hearing their names made my stomach turn and my voice waiver. They brought stories to mind.

Singers at Ft. Benning

Luis Eduardo, a peasant farmer working to support other peace community families and members as they return to lands that had been stolen from them. He was killed in a massacre with his companion and child in 2005. Yolanda, a nun assassinated in 2001 for speaking out against military-paramilitary collusion and African palm oil plantations in southern Colombia. Orlando, an Afro-Colombian leader, denied a visa to the US to participate in a conference, was on his way home when he was taken away on a motorcycle by armed gunmen in October 2005. Ten days later his body was found washed up in a river. Amidst the familiar names and the hundreds of unfamiliar ones, I saw faces I knew too: Colombian compañeros who had traveled to the US to join our protest and activist friends from the US with whom I've shared in these struggles for a few years now...

Even after only ten years, there are days I feel tired. In my office in California, far away from the gritty reality of what is really going on in the streets and in the world, I ask myself if so many emails and telephone conference calls really will make a difference. But from the stage at the gates of the School of Assassins, I knew: I would sing a thousand times for its closure, I would sing a thousand times the names of the dead and another a thousand times songs for the living, I would sing forever along side all those who continue to struggle with the hope that someday we will see some of the change we search for.

See pictures from the vigil, listen to Liza's song at the gates or browse FOR's information about the agreement to allow the US access to seven military bases in Colombia.


Where Does US Military 'Aid' to Colombia Go?

By John Lindsay-Poland

The United States continues to assist Colombian military units that have reportedly violated human rights, a review of recently released State Department documents shows. FOR obtained the list of 353 Colombian military and police units that the United States approved for aid in 2008-09 and 2009-10. US law requires the State Department to review all foreign military units proposed for assistance and exclude those with histories of gross human rights abuses.

According to US officials who spoke to FOR, military aid this year is concentrated in three geographic "bands": in a long band across southern Colombia, from Meta, Tolima and Huila departments -- where the Army-FARC war is focused -- west to Buenaventura on the Pacific coast; in the southwestern state of Nariño; and in the northern Montes de Maria area.

The United States continues to fund military units reported to have committed large numbers of civilian killings, including the macabre practice known as "false positives," in which civilians executed by the army are reported as guerrillas killed in combat. This includes the Codazzi Engineering Battalion of the 3rd Brigade, which operates in Valle and Cauca states and reportedly killed 12 civilians in 2007 and 2008. The battalion's commander during this period was Coronel Elmer Peña Pedraza, a graduate of the School of the Americas (SOA). The Colombian Prosecutor General is investigating nearly 2,000 cases of extrajudicial killings reportedly committed by the army since 2002.

A good deal of current assistance is to increase Colombian military training capacity. Twenty different military training centers and schools, for everything from infantry and special operations to aviation and officer training, are approved for US assistance this year, as well as two police training centers. Colombian officials have stated that the military base agreement signed with the United States on October 30 will strengthen Colombia's military training program and help it to sell training to other nations, despite the Colombian military's history of systematic human rights violations.

The United States is also assisting Colombian intelligence units. For the fourth year in a row, three regional army intelligence units in Medellín, Bogotá and Villavicencio have been approved for assistance, despite histories of abuse and scandal. The 6th and 7th Regional Military Intelligence Units have produced specious reports accusing human rights defenders, university professors, and community leaders in Medellín and in the southern department of Caquetá of being members of the FARC guerrillas. On December 3, FOR and Human Rights First wrote a letter to Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela urging suspension of US assistance to these units.

The concentration of US aid in Nariño and Cauca is of special concern, given the escalation of violence and reports of military-paramilitary collaboration in the area. In those two states, the United States supports the 19th Mobile Brigade, 23rd Brigade, 6th Mobile Brigade, and battalions in the 29th and 3rd Brigades, as well as police units from both states and Barbosa municipality. On August 26, armed men killed 12 A'wa indigenous people in a remote settlement of Tumaco, Nariño in the jurisdiction of the 23rd Brigade. Human Rights Watch wrote that "initial reports suggest that members of the Army may have massacred these people." The commander of the US-assisted 23rd Brigade, two-time SOA graduate Colonel Joaquín Hernández, said his troops did not participate in the massacre.

The United States is also funding units that operate in the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, specifically the 11th Mobile Brigade and its counter-guerrilla battalions. US officials have long asserted that the 17th Brigade, which has nominal jurisdiction in San José de Apartadó, does not receive funding, in part because of its history of violations against members of the community. However, in the last year a new task force that combines army units has been formed to patrol an area that includes San José. The 11th Mobile Brigade is reportedly part of the task force.

The United States no longer vets assistance to a number of brigades in the oil-rich areas bordering Venezuela, which had been a focus of assistance from 2002 to 2007. The 30th Brigade in Norte de Santander was implicated in the most prominent cases of "false positives," by which poor young men in Bogotá barrios were recruited for work and claimed shortly after as guerrillas killed in combat in Norte de Santander. The 18th Brigade in Arauca and 16th Brigade in Casanare received training and other assistance especially as part of an oil pipeline protection initiative, which has apparently expired. But the US still assists the 5th Mobile Brigade, which operates in Arauca and to which eight extrajudicial killings have been attributed, according to the Colombia Human Rights Coordination.

In addition, the United States finally suspended assistance to the Pigoanza and Magdalena battalions in the Ninth Brigade, operating in Huila state, with among the worst records for killing civilians in Colombia. In 2007 and 2008 alone, the two units reportedly committed 51 extrajudicial killings. US aid flowed to the two battalions in 2005, 2006, and 2007. However, the United States continues to assist the Ninth Brigade's support battalion and its command staff, to whom the two battalions report. A Colombian court ruled recently that commanders are responsible for abuses committed by their subordinates. And judicial investigations into most of the killings reportedly committed by the two US-assisted battalions have not advanced.

In Meta, the state with one of the worst problems of "false positives" in 2006 and 2007, the United States supports the 28th Brigade, 4th Mobile Brigade, and the 9th Mobile Brigade, and has for most years since 2000. In fact, the United States supports most of the army's mobile brigades, which have been a focus for the counterinsurgency war.

The United States also approves aid to all six Colombian regional air bases, including the base in Palanquero where the United States will be increasing its presence, despite base personnel's involvement in the 1998 attack in Santo Domingo, Arauca, in which 17 adults and children were killed by cluster bombs.

The US Congress reduced funds for the Colombian military in 2007, and the response appears to be to suspend aid to many of the worst units. But aid is still flowing to many military units with histories of abuse, and there is to date no accountability for US complicity in violations committed by units that were formerly trained by the United States.


Who Decides You're a Peace Community

Campesinos watch as a soldier passes by the entrance to La Holandita.

By Moira Birss

The Peace Community of San José de Apartadó has long used principles of civilian neutrality under international humanitarian law in order to protect its members, declaring the various settlements of the Community throughout the rural area of San José as neutral, safe spaces for civilians.

Both to enforce that neutrality and to protect its members, one of the Community's basic tenets denies access to Community settlements to any armed actor, legal or illegal. Not only does international humanitarian law prohibit the presence of armed actors in civilian spaces like schools or health centers, but local evidence demonstrates the risk to civilians of proximity of armed actors. In the village center of San José, for example, the police post has attracted guerrilla attacks, putting nearby civilians in grave danger. Unsurprisingly, the Colombian army doesn't like this idea, arguing that no area of the country is off-limits to the army in its duty to protect Colombians.

Despite the armed forces' resistance to respecting the Community's civilian neutrality, advocacy by FOR and other accompaniment organizations has, in the past few years, succeeded in garnering a measure of respect for the Community's settlements. In the past, Community leaders accompanied by FOR have asked soldiers to leave the Community settlement in La Unión and the soldiers have complied.

Recently, however, the army seems to have changed its tack. On September 28, a troop of soldiers from the 17th Brigade entered La Union's village center, where FOR has our permanent presence. FOR volunteers accompanied Community leaders as they went to ask the soldiers to leave the village center, which is clearly marked by signs and fences. When FOR contacted commanding officers about this presence, they laughed and said we were mistaken, claiming that soldiers didn't have to leave because the only area belonging to the Community is La Holandita.

La Holandita is the Community settlement closest to the village center of San José, and is built on land donated by the Dutch government. Many Community members displaced to the settlement after the government installed a police post in the village of San José in 2005.

In subsequent meetings with FOR, army and state officials have defended this refusal to acknowledge any other Peace Community settlement except La Holandita. Not only is this a drastic change in policy, but it ignores the protective measures issued by the Inter-American Human Rights Court, which order the Colombian state to protect members of the Peace Community, wherever they may be, not just specific territories. The measures also dictate that the "protective measures be mutually agreed by the State and the Community members." The Community has always insisted that, given the long and bloody history of army aggressions, the armed forces maintain a reasonable distance from Community settlements. These measures were then upheld by the Colombian Constitutional Court in 2007 (read the decision here).

Control of territory is inextricably intertwined with the conflict in Colombia, and is at the root of much of the violence against civilians and displacement (see Moira's "Colombia's War: He's giving our country away"). Through the presidential social aid program called Acción Social (Social Action) and the state land agency INCODER, the state has begun a program of gifting land titles in the San José region, including plots very close to Peace Community settlements, according to community leaders. Some of the plots of land that the state is giving away, however, used to belong to campesinos that displaced from the area due to past violence, the community says.

Given the constant struggle over land both in the San José area and throughout the country, one can infer that the army's new discourse is a strategy to use land-control practices to undermine the strength of the Community's presence in the region and chip away at the respect it has won for neutral civilian spaces. FOR remains very concerned about this apparent strategy and has been conducting meetings with the diplomatic corps to insist upon protection for all Community members, whether they live in La Holandita or not, and respect for Community principles of civilian neutrality.


Open Letter to the Colombian Foreign Ministry

The popular Puerto Rican hip hop artist Calle Trece traveled to Colombia in October to perform and to receive several Latin Grammy Awards. When he went to receive the award, on international television, he wore a T-shirt: "Uribe Para Bases Militares," which can be translated either as "Uribe For Military Bases" or "Uribe Stop Military Bases." The Colombian government protested. Here is Calle Trece leader René Pérez's response.

October 19, 2009, San Juan, Puerto Rico

By means of this letter I am telling you what I feel from the depth of my heart.

I love Colombia, and so I am concerned about foreign military bases in the country. As a Puerto Rican, I have lived that in my flesh and bones and I don't want your country to go through what mine did.

According to your press release, I insulted your president with the words on my T-shirt.

On the shirt there is a play on words, they have a double meaning. One reads in it what you want. At least I read it clearly: "Uribe Para Bases Militares." A direct and clear message.

The concept for my shirts was created by the people themselves through "Twitter." The Colombia shirt was made by a Colombian, the Venezuela one by a Venezuelan, and so on. One was made for each country.

The idea of the shirts was to give voice to people, to people who in general are without and don't get heard. Instead of putting on a beautiful tie I chose to send a message. A message not made up in my head but from someone who breathes the same air breathed in Colombia every day. My struggle is not against the president, but against all that promotes war as military bases do. The text of the T-shirt also conveys a feeling of many young people in your country, which like any human being with feelings, I share totally.

It can't be that in this century there are still people without the ability to understand the right we have as artists to express what we feel at all levels. The censure should not come from the government. Those who don't want to hear me, just don't come to the concert. That would be most valid and legitimate way to censure me. With all due respect to Mr. Uribe, the president of Colombia is not Colombia. As Rubén Blades says, "the country is not defined by those who repress the people."

With these words I say good-bye, but not without sending a kiss to all those places I have visited in Colombia, the Sierra Nevada in Santa Marta, Palenque, San Jacinto, Maicao, Cali, Medellín, Bogotá, Valledupar, Cúcuta, Bucaramanga, Barranquilla, Cartagena and all those places that I still have to go.

Rene Pérez Joglar


Next FOR Colombia Team Training

Interested in serving on an amazing human rights team in Colombia? Consider applying to the FOR Colombia Peace Presence. The next volunteer training will occur in the San Francisco Bay Area, May 10-15, 2010.

More information and how to apply.