Last weekend, Colombiaâ€™s principal indigenous organizations announced that Monday the 15th would be a day of protest. Thousands of indigenous people and allied organizations were to gather at a â€œNational Summit of Social Organizations.â€ Participants were to protest the free-trade agreement that Colombia has signed with the United States, and to demand that the Colombian government comply with previous commitments regarding land and indigenous rights.
Over 10,000 indigenous activists met at the La MarÃa de PiendamÃ³ reservation, along the Pan-American Highway in Cauca department, north of PopayÃ¡n. Their demonstration, while largely non-violent, did include a blockade of the highway, stopping traffic along southwestern Colombiaâ€™s principal artery.
In a communiquÃ© posted two days before the protest, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) had issued the following warning.
We call on national and international human rights organizations to remain alert against any reprisal that the government might take against these national demonstrations, as it is public knowledge that when the people take part in peaceful protests, the government uses its elite anti-disturbance commandos to repress and to attack the free use of our right to demonstrate publicly and peacefully.
The groups were not exaggerating. The Colombian government chose not to negotiate with the protesters in Cauca. Instead, the Armyâ€™s Third Brigade, the National Policeâ€™s Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squad (ESMAD), and other units did not hesitate to use force, wielding clubs, tear gas, and rubber bullets â€“ some fired from helicopters â€“ and possibly other, more lethal means, such as whatever killed Nasa indigenous leader Pedro CoscuÃ© in Mondayâ€™s disturbances.
On Tuesday, the protesters cleared one lane of traffic on the highway in anticipation of the promised arrival of a team of government negotiators, which was understood to include the ministers of Interior and Agriculture. The protestâ€™s leaders gathered in PiendamÃ³ to receive the government representatives, who were to arrive at 1:00 that afternoon, an arrival that was postponed until 3:00.
They government team did not show up. Instead, at 2:30, the demonstrators and their would-be negotiators were met by another assault from 300 ESMAD commandos. Two of the indigenous leaders who had come to negotiate were arrested. The ONIC and ACIN (the indigenous organization in northern Cauca) condemned this operation as a government â€œlieâ€ and a â€œtrap.â€
In all, the toll from two days in Cauca included one dead, over fifty wounded (including about twenty-three police), thirty-six arrested, and three police being held by the indigenous protesters. Meanwhile, about 150 miles south in NariÃ±o department, the Colombian government also used force against a gathering of about 5,000 farmers, many from indigenous groups, protesting aerial herbicide fumigation of coca. Though reporting is still sketchy, the NariÃ±o human rights ombudsmanâ€™s office claims that at least two protesters have been killed. The situation in both areas remains tense, and information is still emerging.
While this weekâ€™s protesters were mainly non-violent, there were exceptions. Colombian media reports told of protesters throwing rocks, attempting to burn a truck, and taking police hostage. In a statement condemning the Cauca and NariÃ±o violence, the BogotÃ¡ office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had words for all sides, including the protesters: â€œThe Office also reminds the members of the indigenous, afro-descendant, and campesino communities, and other sectors participating in the demonstrations, that the pursuit of their aspirations or interests does not justify, in any case, the use of violence.â€
The government response, however, has been heavy-handed and disproportionate. It has been accompanied by accusations â€“ from Cauca governor Juan JosÃ© Chaux, from Police Director Gen. Jorge Daniel Castro, from Interior-Justice Minister Sabas Pretelt â€“ that the protests were in fact encouraged and sponsored by the FARC guerrillas. According to Chaux, the guerrillas â€œobligated the campesinos, almost with a gun at their backs, to go out and take over the Pan-American highway.â€ These officials presented no proof, other than a reference to intercepted guerrilla communications.
The Colombian human rights group CODHES responded well to these dangerous accusations: â€œTo try to confuse social protest with terrorism is not just irresponsible, but it endangers the lives and safety of those who participate in the mobilization.â€
Meanwhile, this weekâ€™s violence places front-and-center the role of the ESMAD, the Colombian Police anti-riot unit, which has been building an alarming record for brutality. (Recent examples of people killed or abused by the ESMAD have been denounced here, here, here, here and here.) This unit clearly has some serious problems, and it is frequently being deployed as the governmentâ€™s front line for dealing with citizens who take to the streets to make demands. (CIP has no data right now indicating whether the ESMAD receives U.S. assistance, but we will be trying to find out.)
The picture gets worse, however. The violence that met the â€œNational Summit of Social Organizationsâ€ is just the latest of several recent indicators of a rapidly worsening human rights climate in Colombia. Two reports released in the past week by Colombian human rights groups make clear that we should be worried.
First, the Consultancy for Human Rights and Development (CODHES) released its latest annual report on forced internal displacement in Colombia. In 2005, CODHES found, 318,387 people were forced to leave their homes and relocate, the third year in a row in which the groupâ€™s estimate of newly displaced people increased. (CODHESâ€™ figure for 2004 was 287,500 people.)
CODHES counts 1.069 million Colombians displaced between August 2002, when President Ãlvaro Uribe was inaugurated, and December 2005 â€“ a horrifying figure indicating one in every forty Colombians, but about 100,000 lower than what was measured at a similar point in the presidency of Uribeâ€™s predecessor, AndrÃ©s Pastrana.
Second, the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination group (CCEEU) released a very troubling report on the sharply worsening environment for Colombiaâ€™s non-governmental human rights defenders. (The report has not been posted to the groupâ€™s website yet, but is available here as a PDF file.) It cites the following recent examples of aggression against Colombiaâ€™s human rights community, among a few dozen others:
- An e-mail sent to several groups last week, claiming to be from a group of former paramilitaries, threatening them for continuing to oppose President Uribeâ€™s security policies.
- Recent robberies of computers, hard drives and information from computers at five non-governmental organizationsâ€™ offices or employeesâ€™ homes.
- A video from a group calling itself the â€œSocial Front for Peaceâ€ accusing television reporter Hollman Morris and activists Gloria Curtas and Javier Giraldo of being FARC spokespeople.
- The March disappearance and murder of Jaime GÃ³mez, an aide to leftist Liberal Party senator Piedad CÃ³rdoba.
- The April assassination of Higinio Baquero, a former member of the nearly exterminated Patriotic Union party, who was working as a bodyguard for Jahel Quiroga, head of the human rights group REINICIAR.
- Continued statements by President Uribe linking his critics to terrorism. Speaking at BogotÃ¡â€™s Javeriana University on May 5, the president/candidate warned, â€œmany boastful voices appear criticizing Democratic Security [Uribeâ€™s brand name for his set of security policies] and behaving apathetically toward terrorism. Much strength in mistreating Democratic Security, but total weakness in condemning terrorism. â€¦ That is why the country will have to choose now whether we are going to continue with the improvement of Democratic Security as a road to peace, or whether we are going to move backward so that â€˜disguised communismâ€™ may deliver the fatherland to the FARC.â€
Critics dismissed as â€œdisguised communistsâ€ helping the guerrillas? Increasing threats, intimidation and attacks? Demonstrations met with official violence? Is this what awaits Colombia in Uribeâ€™s likely next term? Is Colombia about to undergo another mean season, another closure of space for peaceful opposition and criticism?
We hope not, but the worsening climate â€“ which has corresponded with Colombiaâ€™s presidential election campaign â€“ offers much cause for worry. Even the possibility that things will get worse requires the following actions of the U.S. government.
- Continue supporting the BogotÃ¡ office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Uribe government has hinted that it may seek to reduce this officeâ€™s mandate when it is renewed in October â€“ for instance prohibiting it from issuing public reports critical of the government â€“ and U.S. funding for its activities must be renewed every year. The High Commissionerâ€™s office is a badly needed independent voice whose role will become even more important if the human-rights situation worsens. This is absolutely not the right time to reduce its mandate or its funding.
- In top-level communications with the Colombian government, make very clear that the United States is gravely concerned about all of these recent events.
- Recognize that now is not the time to certify that Colombiaâ€™s human-rights performance is improving, as U.S. foreign aid law requires must be done in order to free up some of Colombiaâ€™s military aid. As long as there is little progress toward investigating and prosecuting abuses by units like the ESMAD, abuses that are already layered on a series of other grave cases of violations, it is impossible to issue an honest certification. In effect, the U.S. government would be certifying that the human-rights situation is getting better, when in fact events on the ground indicate everything moving in the wrong direction. That would send a terrible message.