Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Day in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico

My name is Dunya Cope and I am a former member of the Witness for Peace Mexico International Team currently living in El Paso, Texas, just a few blocks away from what seems to be the epicenter of drug violence in Mexico. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has acknowledged the demand for drugs in the United States and weapons illegally trafficked from the U.S. to Mexico as causes of the continued violence. U.S. military aid to Mexico through the Mérida Initiative has done nothing to calm the situation. Instead, military “solutions” to the war on drugs have exacerbated the violence.

I went to Juárez to hear some stories. On my way to lunch with a nun, a priest and the director of a Catholic workers’ legal aid center, I saw my first dead body.

We were walking down Avenida Juárez, “the Strip” adjacent to the international bridge connecting two downtowns. Avenida Juárez had been a buzzing hotspot for many years, but numerous establishments have closed in the years since the Mérida Initiative was established. There are few areas of Ciudad. Juárez that bustle like they used to. The economic effects of the violence on the city are apparent. People are fleeing the city, people who stay can’t find jobs, and people with jobs still can’t afford to live. I see this reality in abandoned houses, barred up convenience stores, demolished restaurants: the ruins of a once-lively city.

On this day though, there were people in the streets, much more than usual. The labor center director told us she had heard shots just a minute before. Then, across the street, I saw a body lying on the sidewalk, partially blocked by an SUV, and a police officer picking up shell casings in the street.

I don’t know who the victim was. I don’t know if the media was portraying him as involved in cartel or narco activity. I know that most murders aren’t investigated in Juárez so there is no way to know the number of innocent people killed. The Associated Press reported on April 9 that the war for control of the drug trade in Juárez was “over.” But a friend who lives with her boyfriend in Juárez told me that there were still 8 murders the next day.

Regardless of who controls the drug trade in Juárez, regardless of whether murders have decreased from 300 a month to 200 a month, Juárez remains a desperately poor city. The Association of Maquilas reported over 80,000 job losses, about one third of jobs in the maquila sector, between January 2008 and June 2009.

Mexican politicians promise funds for development during campaigns, but nothing changes. The U.S. government is now including anti-poverty funds as part of our strategy for combating narcotrafficking But this aid is a drop in the bucket compared to the money being pooled to Mexican militias. And is violence really what it’s going to take to end the war on drugs?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Human Face of Coal

Jairo Fuentes Epaiyu poses in front of the Salem Harbor Station,
which burns coal from Colombia.

Check out this recent column from Lynn Nadeau in Marblehead, MA. She's been hosting Jairo Fuentes Epaiyu, a Colombian man from a coal mining community called Tomaquito, during his speaking tour "to tell us — the people who use the coal buried beneath his village — about how his ancestral home has been destroyed by the owners of the largest open-pit coal mine in the world."

The column states that:

"The removal of topsoil and enormous excavations deep into the earth have destroyed the land and rivers on which [Jairo's community] farmed and fished for generations. The mining operation polluted their water and made the villagers’ life unsustainable. There is coal dust everywhere, especially in their lungs. Before the mine was built, Jairo and his neighbors in Tamaquito depended on the nearby village of Tabaco for services such as health care, schooling and mail delivery. Then, tragically, the multinational corporation took over the mine and bulldozed Tabaco, scattering its inhabitants in diaspora. Now Jairo’s villagers must travel great distances for these vital services and connection to the outside world. Their simple dwellings form a small island in a wasteland. Their social fabric has been ripped apart; their livelihood has disappeared."

This July, Witness for Peace is organizing a delegation to two regions devastated by coal mining: one in Appalachia and one in northern Colombia near Jairo's hometown.

For information about joining the "Behind the Coal" delegation please click here.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

"Tell Everyone What You Witnessed Here"

Within the United States, the struggle in Colombia is too often brushed over or misunderstood. If the Colombian conflict is mentioned at all, news media often associates the war with issues of drug trafficking, guerrilla warfare, and paramilitary violence. In our classes, analysis and understanding of the Colombian conflict is limited to discussions of U.S. policy, through references to trade between the two countries or Plan Colombia. While academia may improve our factual knowledge of Colombia, such an atmosphere lacks a certain element of humanity.

This, in part, is why we chose to lead a delegation of American University students to Urabá, a subregion of the Chocó Department in northwestern Colombia, to meet with displaced Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities this past March.

In a class, we discussed the plight of the internally displaced for hours without fully realizing the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis currently happening in Colombia. For decades the Colombian conflict has been characterized as a war with some of the highest levels of violence in the Western hemisphere. Nearly five million people have been displaced as a result of this violence and in our trip; we visited numerous humanitarian zones, comprised of courageous communities committed to peacefully reclaiming their lands. Their level of organization, grassroots leadership and advocacy, and unending enthusiasm renewed our faith in the power of the individual. We were continuously awestruck by their ability to remain optimistic about the possibility of a brighter, more equitable future in the face of such violence, persecution, and governmental silence.

When asked what we could do for them, community leaders continuously urged us to “tell everyone what you witnessed here,” “talk to anyone who will listen,” and to “carry our stories with you.” In Colombia, we and our fellow students found human faces living the realities of what we had studied. With our participation in campaigns such as Witness for Peace’s Days of Prayer & Action for Colombia, we hope to bring others in our classes, communities, and social circles face-to-face with the people we encountered on our delegation.

Displaced Colombians tell American University students their powerful stories through an on-campus "Face the Displaced" display on Monday, April 19th. The display was organized by AU students who recently traveled with Witness for Peace to Colombia.

You can read about suffering and injustice and simply close the book at the end, but personal interactions make this pain a reality. They motivate us to move beyond thought and theory to action and advocacy. It is time that we all understood the human cost of U.S. policy in Colombia.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Seattle Faces the Displaced

Witness for Peace Northwest kicked off its first “Face the Displaced” event of April at Meaningful Movies in the basement of Keystone Congregational United Church of Christ. I was surprised to see how many people were in attendance at this event. After all, who would want to trudge out in the cold Seattle rain on a Friday night? In spite of the dismal weather, the evening proved to be very productive in raising awareness about Colombia.

The first event of the night included an introduction by Regional Organizer, Colette Cosner. Many in the audience were shocked to hear that Colombia has the second worst humanitarian crisis in the world. A perceptible gasp filled the room when this comment was made. This introduction was followed by the showing of Shoveling Water, a Witness for Peace documentary detailing aerial fumigations conducted by the U.S. in the “War on Drugs.” The image that affected me the most was that of emaciated children whose families make their living off of farming coca. Most people think of rich drug lords when they think of the drug trade, few realize the meager existence coca farmers and even fewer how US policy contributes to that existence.

Witness for Peace Colombia delegates shared their personal stories after this showing. You could tell how much visiting Colombia had impacted them, especially as tears welled up in the eyes of one of the delegates. The transformative power of travel was evident throughout the presentation.

The second part of the night involved audience members breaking off into smaller groups to make portraits of displaced Colombians and to discuss what they had just seen in the documentaries. The audience was made up of a variety of people including Meaningful Movies regulars, students, Witness for Peace delegates, immigrants to the U.S., and different social justice advocates. The diversity produced varying reactions during the small group activities. Some groups were busily working away to finish their portraits while others had placed their portrait materials aside to discuss displacement and US foreign policy. I heard individuals discuss other options to solve the War on Drugs other than aerial spraying. A couple from Colombia challenged what they had been shown in the documentaries and were not sure that the entire story was being presented. Some people, including other Colombian immigrants, reacted to this statement and disagreed with the claim.

This night demonstrated the fact that a story is never really one-sided and multiple views can exist over the unfolding of a single event. The case of Colombia, in particular, needs to be examined from multiple angles. There are many different issues and perspectives that need to be taken into account. They key to resolving any conflict is to consider multiple opinions and viewpoints in order to reach the truth of the matter. Discussion, even if it represents contentious views, is what brings important issues into light. One of the problems in regard to U.S. policies toward Colombia has been the lack of any sort of dialogue and, consequently, the lack of any significant attention toward events transpiring there.

Witness for Peace Northwest’s kickoff for National Days of Action for Colombia revealed the importance of local community dialogue for effective global justice initiatives. Although the simple construction of a “Face the Displaced” portrait may not seem like a huge effort toward resolving Colombia’s problems, it represents the surfacing of a crisis that has been mostly hidden.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

We Will Not Be Silenced: In Defense of Life and Territory in Uraba, Colombia

By Melissa Cox,
Witness for Peace International Team -Colombia

Here in Uraba it is quiet; quiet enough to hear the rustle of the plantain leaves, the song of the birds, and the faint laughter of children in the distance. The ground is soft and the intensity of the sun warms my skin. There is a peacefulness that lingers in the air and would rejuvenate my spirit—that is, if I didn’t know the story of these lands.

Enrique Petro, a community leader says that “before 1997 I lived a very happy life. I had all of my family here, a good life, and my work.” But in 1997, Operation Genesis, a brutal joint Colombian military and paramilitary attack led by a School of the Americas graduate General Rito Alejo del Rio Rojas, changed everything for Enrique. “I had 110 cows, I lost them, they stole them from me,” Enrique narrates. “I had twenty sheep and I lost all of this. I lost my two sons, they killed them.”

During the attack, innocent civilians were tortured, dismembered and in some cases, their heads used as soccer balls by the armed groups. Horrified by the nightmare that unfolded around them, hundreds of terrorized farmers ran for their lives. They were able to escape with their lives, but were forced to leave behind their family members, friends, customs, traditions, land, home... everything they had ever known.

What awaited them was a fate experienced by millions of internally displaced Colombians: poverty, desperation and deplorable living conditions while seeking refuge in nearby towns.

In 2000, some community members from Uraba decided to return to their homes. Upon arrival to their native lands they did not find abandoned houses or forsaken land. Instead, their homes and traditional crops of yuca, plantains, rice, corn and bananas had been replaced with massive palm oil crop projects set up by large agribusinesses for the production of exportable bio-fuels.

“They deceived us when they threw us out of here because it was to take our land,” indicates Guillermo Diaz, a community leader from Uraba.

Colombia’s U.S.-backed economic development plan relies heavily on foreign investment by multinational corporations to translate the rich natural resources of the country into exports.

Marginalized farmers all over the country have been systematically and violently forced from their homes to make way for multinational corporations engaged in mining, oil production, logging, hydro-electric dams, cattle ranching and palm oil. These corporations operate on land that Colombian law recognizes as legally and collectively belonging to the Afro-Colombian, indigenous and mixed race farmers. Community leaders and human rights defenders who report on the illegal practices of these corporations and stand up for their rights have been threatened, kidnapped and murdered by both the Colombian military and illegal armed groups. In the words of community leader Estaquio Polo, “they can kill you for telling the truth.”

Despite the terror tactics used by armed groups to stop communities from returning to their land, many community members are determined to reclaim their life and land. In the Bajo Atrato region of Uraba, communities have begun their journey home through the creation of Humanitarian and Bio-Diversity Zones protected by the Inter-American Court. These areas are enclaves of peaceful civil resistance and environmental preservation.

Unfortunately, there is great risk of retaliation against the communities for taking back their land. Therefore, Witness for Peace began accompanying these communities three years ago. Just two months ago, for example, a Witness for Peace delegation of students from American University accompanied the construction of a new Humanitarian Zone in Curvaradó.

The presence of the international students gave the community members the protection that they needed to finally declare their land a Humanitarian Zone. As personal connections were made and stories were shared, the communities shared about how the passing of the U.S. free trade agreement would devastate small-scale farmers in Colombia as NAFTA has in Mexico. They also spoke about how the installation of seven U.S. military bases would be disastrous in their lives.

“The seven military bases the U.S. plans to set up in Colombia, will bring war,” said Eustaquio Polo. “They will bring more displacement to Colombia.”

Despite the specter of ongoing war, multinational corporations appropriating their land and death threats for resisting the takeover, community leaders like Enrique Petro are not backing down. In fact, just this month a plot to kill Petro, in which paramilitary groups were reportedly paid $15,000 by local elites for his murder, was uncovered.

As he wipes his sweat from his brow, Enrique tells me that, even if they try to kill him, he will not stop working to ensure the community members will be able to pass their land down to their children. “This is our dream.”

And their dream lives on.

To watch a slideshow about Uraba, click here.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Children in Bogota Take Part in the National Days of Action for Colombia

Last Wednesday, at the Moment for Peace in a Mennonite Church in Bogota, several dozen displaced people and others gathered for a “Face the Displaced” gathering. The action is part of the annual National Days of Action for Colombia, through which tens of thousands of people in Colombia and the United States are calling attention to the hemisphere’s largest internal displacement crisis and U.S. military support for the war.

It was incredibly moving to see folks—from children to the elderly—using the “faces” to share their stories and feelings through words and drawings. The scrawled messages to President Obama, calling for an end to military aid. And to people in the U.S., asking for support (see the pictures below).

Throughout the month, activists across the United States are displaying these poignant portraits at public vigils, galleries, churches and demonstrations. The campaign will culminate next month with a massive display of the portraits in Washington and meetings with governmental representatives. The displays created here in Bogota will be part of those events.

This weekend other churches and groups of displaced people had gatherings in Bogota to share their stories and messages through the “faces”.

I cannot wait to see the pictures of these “faces”, along with those being created by thousands across the United States, displayed in May. More importantly, I cannot wait to show those pictures to the people who last week created these presentations here in Bogota.

Do you or anyone else in your community have plans to participate in the National Days of Action for Colombia? We’d love to hear about your actions!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Martha Giraldo speaks out about the extrajudicial killing of her father

On March 6th, International Team Member Diego Benitez accompanied Martha Giraldo, a victim whose father was murdered in an extrajudicial killing, at an event in Cali organized by the National Movement of victims of State Crimes (MOVICE in Spanish). The public event was a call to action for the many victims of state crimes in Colombia that remain helpless while the memory of their loved ones, and the horrific circumstances surrounding their deaths, is lost in delayed court cases, government indifference, or sadly, is forced into silence by unknown armed actors. Event participants included families of victims, human rights organizations, community leaders, NGO’s, and average citizens who are concerned that their country still suffers from a longstanding and complex internal conflict. Witness for Peace was the only international organization providing protective accompaniment for the at-risk protestors.

As an organizer and spokeswoman for MOVICE’s Cali chapter, Martha has asked Witness for Peace to publish quotes from an official statement that was read publicly on stage during the event:

"Today the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes is the main tool we have to boost the actions of the victims as protagonists in the fight against impunity…We must move forward in building an organizational process that guarantees victims the right to know the truth, to gain justice, and have access to reparation and guarantees… “

“We are horrified that the soldiers involved in the crimes against our families, of indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombians, rural farmers, and marginalized people throughout Colombia, which (after assassination) are falsely presented as criminals, are free and not behind bars”.

Highlighting the extrajudicial cases throughout the country, the statement goes on to say that:

“The so-called ‘false positives’ carried out by the Colombian State, are undertaken in a systematic and widespread manner, and continue with impunity. Meanwhile the families of the victims have to endure, aside from the loss of their loved ones, the lack of legal guarantees and protection from the state. Systematized in this way, the victims suffer a double victimization where they must not only overcome the many obstacles to arrive at the truth through the legal system, but also endure the abusive trials that instead of clarifying the facts, contribute to the concealment of crimes.”

MOVICE has declared March 6th as the national day to gather and reaffirm the victims’ right to “Truth, Justice and Comprehensive Reparations”. Witness for Peace is committed to continuing its accompaniment of Martha Giraldo and the many other victims who have suffered the terrible circumstances of violence, indifference, and forced silence.

To learn more about Martha, her case and extrajudicial executions in Colombia, watch a short video here.