Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Suarez: an Afro Colombian Community in Resistance

By Diego Benitez, Colombia International Team

In January, I co-facilitated a delegation organized by Gail Phares to Suarez, Cauca, in southern Colombia. The delegation arrived at a critical moment. The community in Suarez is struggling to hold on to their land and maintain independence from multinational corporations that are looking to mine vast gold deposits in the area.

These corporations have been threatening the communities’ well being and have worked in various ways to divide the community and break the social bonds that have taken centuries to build. It is not uncommon to hear of massacres and disappearances throughout the region.

In April, a horrible massacre took place where eight people were gunned down by unidentified assailants.

As part of our solidarity with the community, two Witness for Peace International Team members, Melissa Cox, and I traveled to the region. An inter-ethnic meeting was held where members of indigenous communities and Afro-Colombian communities worked together to identify ways to resist the violence and influx of multinational corporations by building upon their social and traditional bonds.

During our visit we accompanied community leaders at a meeting where the Mayor and Ombudsman of Suarez were present. A representative of the Organization of American States was also there. As a result of the contentious issues discussed, many of the leaders we accompanied have received death threats from right-wing paramilitary groups. Some community members insist that the multinational corporations operating in the region are behind the threats, offering incentives for paramilitary groups operating in the region and using them to scare away all opposition. Yet to date there is no definitive proof to identify who these illegal armed groups are working for.

On May 20th I received a call from Licifrey Ararat, one of the threatened community leaders we accompany. He shared with me the terrible news that there are orders to forcibly remove the residents of the region in the town La Toma. At least 1300 families comprised of 6000 people are at risk.

Licifrey suggested the community is willing to die before they are removed from their ancestral land.It has become a worrying situation and we are nervously waiting to receive updates as the events unfold.

Because the U.S. Agency for International Development is funding community projects in the area, the U.S. government has the responsibility to speak out against this attempt to displace the community.

Please write to our embassy in Colombia at to express your concern for the forced displacement of thousands of Afro Colombians from their ancestral lands.

Please also consider contacting your congressional representative and ask them to support House Resolution 1224 on displaced Afro-Colombians and indigenous.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Obama and Calderón’s Washington Meeting Points to Need for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, Nonviolent Solutions to Drug Trafficking

By the Mexico International Team

At last week’s state meeting between Presidents Felipe Calderón and Barack Obama, the Mexican leader found himself having to answer to growing concerns about high-profile violence in Mexico. First, there was the disappearance of former PAN (National Action Party, to which Calderón also belongs) leader Diego Fernandez last week. Media reports are uncertain, but many think he has been kidnapped or murdered. Then there was the murder of mayoral candidate Jose Maria Guajardo, also of the PAN party, in the state of Tamaulipas, which media sources refer to as a “drug-plagued region”. These more recent incidents, in addition with general reports of violence along the border, leave Calderón with the duty of addressing the violence in Mexico as necessitating aid from the U.S, while assuring that the situation can be controlled and the aid will not go to waste.

Early on, Calderón attacked the Arizona immigration law, arguing that the law is discriminatory. President Obama agreed that the law “has the potential of being applied in a discriminatory fashion” and stated that it is currently under review by the Justice Department. John McCain, Republican senator from Arizona, later stated that it was “unfortunate and disappointing” that Calderón chose to comment on this particular item of policy during this state visit.

President Obama took this opportunity to address general immigration reform, saying that "the Arizona law expresses some of the frustrations the American people have had in not fixing a broken immigration system." He called upon Congress, saying that he needs 60 more votes in the Senate. However, the need for immigration reform was illustrated much more poignantly by a little girl in Maryland, whose school was visited by First Ladies Michelle Obama and Margarita Zavala on May 19th. The girl asked if Barack Obama was really “taking away” undocumented immigrants, adding that her mother “doesn’t have papers.” Michelle Obama also called upon Congress in fielding the question, stating that “everybody’s got to work together on that in Congress.”

During his address of a joint session of Congress, Calderón referred to the record number of extraditions of high-level traffickers to the United States as proof that Mexico is taking the drug war seriously. With funds provided by the U.S. through the Mérida Initiative, Calderón has carried out an intensive military strategy to deal with the drug violence. However, during this visit, President Obama took some responsibility for the role of the U.S. has played in creating this problem: both drug demand and arms imported from the U.S. fuel drug trafficking and ensuing violence in Mexico.

In the face of increasing violence, it is clear that the Mérida Initiative’s emphasis on police and military funding is ineffective. Even record numbers of extraditions have done little to quell drug trafficking. The violence does, however, force many people to seek work and homes elsewhere, and many choose to migrate to the U.S, where they often face discrimination.

Ironically, President Calderón, said that “the time has come to reduce the causes of migration and turn this into a legal, orderly and secure flow of workers and visitors,” when it is so often policies created collaboratively by the U.S. and Mexican governments that are at the roots of migration. As long as policies putting free trade and militarism over people continue, people have no choice but to leave their homes.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Oaxaca Attack Exposes Repression of Social Movements

On April 27th, a caravan of people intending to enter San Juan Copala was attacked by an armed group.

Residents of San Juan Copala had declared their autonomy in January 2007 from their municipality in the Mixtec region of Oaxaca. This was in response to recent violence by paramilitary groups fighting for control in the region, but it was also a reaction to the annexation and subsequent fragmentation of Triqui communities. (The Triqui are a large indigenous group in Oaxaca.) This divided the community into many groups, some aligned with the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), and some supporting the autonomous movement. Some of these evolved into armed paramilitary groups. Conflict has erupted several times in the history of the region, and many people have been killed, including two female journalists from the autonomous community radio station in April 2008.

The caravan fired upon last month included members of local and international human rights organizations and the teacher’s union, as well as journalists. They were to take water and provisions, as well as supervise the re-entry of teachers into the town. This was in response to the state of siege enforced by armed groups that has kept water, food, and teachers out of the town for months. The caravan, consisting of about 37 people in several vehicles, departed from a nearby town and stated in their press release that, should anything happen to them, local government officials should be held responsible. In their demands, they included the participation of alleged PRI-aligned paramilitary groups in peace negotiations in the Triqui region.

The caravan was attacked
. Two activists, a Oaxacan named Bety Cariño and a Finnish national named Jyri Antero Jaakola, were killed. Many others were hurt, and some were interrogated. Family members begged the state government to send in police to rescue the people who were wounded and trapped in the town, but the government said the conditions were not safe enough. When the family members started planning their own caravan of journalists to find the missing members of the caravan, the government finally managed to mount a police intervention and enter the town--two days after the attack.

The attack and murder of human rights activists bringing provisions into San Juan Copala is alarming. There are some important questions raised by this attack and the aftermath.

Does the local government’s reluctance to send police into town suggest government complicity with the group that attacked the caravan? Will this incident lead to further repression of the autonomous movement not by the paramilitary groups, but by an increased military and police presence in the region as the eventual response by the government to the violence there?

The 2006 conflict in Oaxaca taught us that the government will not hesitate to use great force to repress social movements, and to maintain control. Furthermore, in an interview, paramilitary group leader Antonio Cruz García, agreed that was the right government response. In stating that his group is currently congregating the elders of the communities that sympathize with the paramilitary groups to find a solution for peace in their region, Cruz says “we think that police and military presence are necessary to guarantee the rule of law.”

We already know that Mérida Initiative funding is being used to train Mexican soldiers and police. There are several instances where the very same police and military forces that receive the training and equipment have been enforcing a policy of criminalization of social protest, including in Oaxaca and Atenco in 2006. We have seen a six-fold increase in human rights violations committed by soldiers since 2006. The new Mérida appropriations for 2011 call for a cut to military funding, but also call for an increase in police funding. As long as the US continues funding the use of violence to create an image of security in Mexico through the Mérida Initiative, the human rights abuse will continue.