by Gail Phares, WFP Southeast Regional Organizer
On January 22nd, I returned from a ten-day visit to Colombia. Our Witness for Peace delegation visited an Afro-Colombian community called La Toma as well as two indigenous communities, Honduras Reserve and Cerro Tijeras. They asked us to come and listen to their stories. All of these communities live high in the Andes Mountains and have been threatened by paramilitary death squads that are closely tied to multi-national corporations. Their land contains gold, emeralds and other metals.
We met courageous and organized people, many of whom live under death threat. In the Cerro Tijeras community ten indigenous leaders were assassinated in December and January. A number of indigenous leaders in the Reserve Honduras have been killed in recent months and many more live under threat. Jose Goyes – former Governor of the Honduras Reserve survived an attempt on his life and now lives with his family on the edge of Bogotá. The paramilitaries burned down his home. The people told us that they believe that large multi-national corporations want both the Afro-Colombian and indigenous lands for mining. They told us powerful stories and asked us to return home to tell our members of Congress of the threats they are enduring. We were told that there is total impunity in Colombia.
The Indigenous Guard who protects their communities through nonviolent tactics carrying a staff accompanied us. We had 30 indigenous guards accompany us up to Cerro Tijeras as a means of offering us protection.
We met with a number of women who are victims of State Sponsored Violence. Their husbands or brothers were taken by the military, killed and then dressed in guerrilla uniforms. They call these cases false/positive. There is almost total impunity for both Colombian military and paramilitary accused of serious crimes. Our last day in Cali, we attended a trial of one of the officers accused of state sponsored murder in order to show solidarity and support to these women. Dozens of soldiers armed with Uzi’s streamed out of the courthouse while we stood there. Witnesses in these trials are often threatened with death.
Two human rights workers we met, Alberto Bejarano and Juan Pablo Ochoa, are being accused of sabotage and conspiracy even though there is no evidence against them. They supported sugar cane workers during a 2008 strike in Valle de Cauca. They told us,” To accompany workers in their struggle is not a crime.” In late January they were scheduled to go on trial.
Finally, on our last day in Colombia, we had a powerful meeting at the US Embassy in Bogotá. We told the human rights officer and a U.S. AID worker of the human rights violations we had observed and of the threats that both Afro-Colombian and Indigenous leaders are enduring.
People in Colombia are alarmed at the announcement that the US will be building seven military bases there. We were told that this violates Colombia’s sovereignty and is seen as a threat to Colombia’s neighbors. At the U.S. Embassy we said that we had hoped the Obama Administration would refocus U.S. Latin American policy. We stated that even before President Obama named an Ambassador or Assistant Secretary of State for Western Affairs, the ten-year contract for seven bases was announced. What a disappointment! It is time to change US policy toward Latin America.
I do not know when I felt that our presence as Witnesses for Peace was more needed and appreciated. I hope that our voice will be heard and that we will be able to provide solidarity and support to these courageous people. I left Colombia – inspired by these brave and organized people but worried about the future and troubled by current US Colombian policy. I believe that we should support the victims not the warriors in Colombia. The people told us, “Tell President Obama that we have social problems. We need development programs not support for Colombia’s military.”