Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Leaders of the Buenaventura Civic Strike Threatened

Photo source:comité paro civico Buenaventura facebook

International news about Colombia depicts a similar narrative: a picture of a Colombia that, after more than 50 years of civil war, has become the model of peace, making it a safe place for tourists to visit and for international businesses to investment. They cite the Peace Accords that were signed by the Colombian government and the FARC in 2016. What international discourse fails to address, however, is the reality faced by many human rights activists in the country today. The organization Somos Defensores cited that aggressions against social activists increased by 6% since last year.

We fear every day for the safety of our partners and the community leaders we accompany, as they experience a number of threats while doing their work. Right now, we are especially concerned for the safety of the leaders of the civic strike in Buenaventura. “Human rights work has become a very delicate matter,” said a member of the Civic Strike Committee (Comité del Paro Cívico), “women leaders have disproportionally faced harassment,” she added. The Buenaventura Civic Strike, which took place this past May was a three-week long strike in which the residents of Buenaventura peacefully protested the State’s historic neglect of the city. Rather than addressing the people’s concerns, the government responded by sending the National Police and Mobile Anti-Riot Squad (ESMAD) to suppress the protest. The ESMAD attacked the peaceful protesters using U.S. made munition. The civic strike ended when the Colombian government agreed to negotiate with the people of Buenaventura. Since this negotiation, the leaders responsible for organizing the strike have become targets to those who find their leadership threatening to the status quo. The threats come in different forms: intimidating phone calls, suspicious men in motorcycle following them home. There have even been cases in which the brakes of the vehicles of the civic strike leaders have been tampered with. Many of the leaders have had to change their phone numbers in an attempt to suppress the harassment and threats. Many are afraid to report the threats to the ombudsman’s office because of fear that denouncing will only make them a more visible target. The National Protection Unit has been distributing bulletproof vest and phones as one strategy for protection. However, the leaders don’t feel that this is enough, and many, in fact, feel that it only makes them more visible to those who wish to harm them.
These social leaders along with many other leaders in Colombia face danger for taking the position of defending civilians, their lands, and the right to a dignified life. Ensuring the safety of social leaders is crucial for a sustainable peace. These leaders see beyond themselves and their own comfort. They continue to work despite the threats. It is important that the international community understand that, despite the Peace Accords, social leaders continue to be persecuted, yet their presence is crucial for building a durable peace in Colombia. We urge the officials within the US State Department and congressional leadership to pressure the Colombian government into taking the necessary measures to better protect social leaders in Buenaventura and in the rest of the country. Finally,  U.S. aid to ESMAD used to violently repress civilians must stop!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

U.S. Pressure for Forcible Eradication a Factor in Tragic event in Tumaco, Colombia

Photo source: El Espectador

The deaths of at least 6 rural farmers in Tumaco, Colombia on Thursday, October 5th showed yet again the high cost in human lives and human rights of the "War on Drugs" and its militarized approach. More than 200 rural farmers, or campesinos, were gathered to impede forcible eradication of the coca plants when the National police shot at the large crowd wounding a reported 20 people and killing at least 6, very possibly more. Due to lack of a distribution infrastructure for other crops and absence of the rule of law, coca is the local population's only realistic option for making a living. Accounts by the Colombian authorities claim that police and soldiers opened fire after FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) dissidents launched cylinder bombs at the crowd. However, first-hand accounts by the community indicate that the Colombian National Police opened fire indiscriminately into the crowd. The Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, supports the claims made by the security forces, despite evidence and local sources accounts.

The National Police’s actions were brought into question again for shooting at human rights defenders and tampering with evidence from the incident. As part of a verification mission on Sunday, October 8th, a brigade of national and international human rights organizations including Justapaz, Justicia y Paz, the UN, and OAS gathered in Tandil, a place near where the massacre had taken place. According to a denouncement by Justapaz, when members of the delegation approached the area where a possible cadaver laid from the incident, they were shot at by the National Police. Vice President and former National Police head Naranjo has said publically that the police acted improperly, and four police members have been suspended because of their role in the massacre. Also, the local commander apologized  for the attack on the verification commission.

Acute confrontation persists as the police continue to forcibly eradicate the coca plant. Paradoxically, voluntary substitution of coca with licit crops is a cornerstone of the internationally acclaimed peace accords between the government of Colombia and the now demobilized guerrilla army of the FARC, which has had a strong presence precisely in Tumaco.
So why is the central government of Colombia willing to order forcible eradication? One significant factor is the pressure the U.S. government is exerting for short-term "results," defined as acreage of coca eradicated. Voluntary substitution takes time and intentionally planned support in order to succeed. Although, forcible eradication can happen comparatively quickly it has not succeeded. At most it suppresses coca cultivation. Truly changing the panorama requires a longer term approach that provides genuine alternatives to the small growers. This event is proof that the Colombian government is willing to do anything, even violate human rights, to show eradication results to the pressuring U.S. government. We urge the U.S. government to support voluntary substitution in the framework of the Peace Accords and to help fund rural development in coca-growing areas.