The end of the paramilitary negotiations? The 109th Congress heads for the exits
Dec 072006

Iván Cepeda is the son of Colombian Senator Manuel Cepeda, who was killed in 1994 while in his car on a Bogotá street. Senator Cepeda was the last surviving legislator from the Unión Patriótica, a leftist political party started during a 1980s peace process with the FARC. As many as 3,000 of that party’s leaders and members were systematically assassinated during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Iván now directs a non-governmental organization that bears his father’s name. He is also a leading figure in the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes in Colombia, a group that formed during the negotiations with paramilitaries to advocate for their victims’ rights. You may also know Iván from his regular column in Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper, or remember him being escorted out of Colombia’s Congress in July 2005, after he interrupted an address by paramilitary leaders by standing up in the gallery and holding aloft a photo of his murdered father.

Iván and his compañera, Claudia Girón, get threatened pretty frequently, and they have a government-provided bodyguard and armored car. A more serious episode occurred about two weeks ago. Here is a translated excerpt of a recent alert.

Last Friday, November 24, at approximately 9:00 at night, men carrying long weapons, identifying themselves as members of police intelligence – the SIJIN – blocked the path of the vehicle assigned for the security of the "Manuel Cepeda Vargas Foundation," which usually carries its leaders, Iván Cepeda Castro and Claudia Girón Ortiz, who are also members of the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes, who had left the vehicle minutes earlier.

The men pointed their weapons at the driver and proceeded to verify the presence of any others inside the vehicle, asking the driver if he was traveling alone. Then, before the driver could show them his identification card from the Administrative Security Department – DAS [the presidential intelligence service] – they fled, visibly nervous.

According to police authorities, the SIJIN had no operations in the zone that day, which indicates the seriousness of this incident, especially taking into account that it happened one day before several members of the National Victims’ Movement were to travel to the municipality of San Onofre, Sucre department. They were traveling there to carry out, together with the Senate Human Rights Committee, a public hearing to listen to the clear denunciations from the community of residents of that zone about ties to paramilitarism, including those of that municipality’s mayor, Jorge Blanco.

San Onofre.

The San Onofre hearing, which took place on November 27, was by most accounts a success. San Onofre, Sucre, a county on the Caribbean coast in a region called the Montes de María, was under brutal paramilitary domination from the mid-1990s until a couple of years ago, when the local paramilitary chief, known as "Cadena," mysteriously disappeared. The marine officer in charge of security for the zone from 2004 to 2006 actively opposed paramilitarism (his brother had reportedly been killed by paramilitaries), which created space for witnesses to come forward and report on the existence of mass graves that held the bodies of their loved ones. The Colombian and U.S. media have since reported widely on forensic anthropologists’ grim work in the mass graves of San Onofre. Though fear of the paramilitaries has still silenced most, a few witnesses have also come forward with information about the paramilitaries’ close relations with Sucre’s politicians; their testimony helped to spark the current growing national scandal about legislators’ links to paramilitarism.

Hundreds of San Onofre residents filled the town’s stadium for the public hearing on November 27, among them the questioned mayor and several military and police officials. Unfortunately, the only members of the Colombian Senate’s Human Rights Committee to attend were members of the opposition Democratic Pole party, Sen. Alexánder López and Rep. Wilson Borja.

Here are excerpts from the statement given at that hearing by Iván Cepeda and the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes. It concisely tells the story about what happened in San Onofre. Similar stories can be told in dozens of other parts of Colombia.

As a result of their persistence, San Onofre’s principal community leaders have been threatened and harassed. There exists a list announcing the coming assassinations of 26 people, of whom nine have already been victims. For that reason we ask members of Congress to take up our demand that the national and local executive-branch authorities protect the lives and security of the community of San Onofre. The OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission recently made this request to the national government, and demanded that urgent precautionary measures be taken to protect 17 members of the Movement of Victims of Sucre and the communities of this zone of the country. On November 23, 2006, Juvenal Escudero, a victim of paramilitarism, was the target of an assassination attempt and gravely wounded. We also know that several people have been threatened in the days before this hearing. We call for solidarity with this population and hold the authorities responsible for their security once this public event ends.

All of these acts clearly indicate that paramilitary structures continue to operate in this region, and that, as in so many other parts of the country, the demobilization ceremonies have been a hoax. We have testimonies from witnesses indicating that, at the beginning of October of this year, about 300 armed men from Córdoba have arrived in the department of Bolívar and are operating in the municipalities of Arjona, Turbana and María la Baja [adjacent to San Onofre].

Today, we want you to hear testimonies and reports from the people themselves about what they have lived through here. But before doing so, we want to remind you about the most important events that have marked this history, and present before you the demmands that the community itself is making.

Between 1994 and 1997 the Convivir associations [local self-defense groups started with government support between 1994 and 1998, when they were declared illegal] were developed in the department. In the municipality of San Onofre, they arrived with the administration of Mayor Yamil Blanco. "Danilo" (alias), who was a well-known head of the Victor Carranza organization [Carranza, a powerful warlord in Colombia's emerald-producing zone, helped form paramilitary groups in the 1990s], put into practice the paramilitaries’ experiences in the country’s interior. At this point, the killing began to spread.

Among the first assassins was a prosperous butcher from the district of Macayepo, Rodrigo Mercado Pelufo, alias "Cadena." He started organizing a group of hitmen who operated in the Montes de Maria. As one who knew the zone well, he was recommended by the cattle ranchers, for whom he worked eliminating the campesinos. They joined with the B2 [military intelligence] to carry out actvities against trade-union and campesino leaders. Afterward, Cadena organized, in the Carare hacienda, property of Miguel Nule, located in the district of Macayepo, the group of men that carried out several massacres. Cadena was rapidly recommended by Commander Eduard Cobo (alias "Diego Vecino," [one of the most senior paramilitary leaders]), before the AUC high command to be the head of the paramilitaries in Sucre. In this way, Cadena remained under the command of "Vecino," administrator of the Las Melenas hacienda.

From this moment the department of Sucre, and in particular the municipality of San Onofre and its districts, have been scenes of multiple violence that, without doubt, can be catalogued as crimes against humanity. Among these can be counted massive forced disappearances and the assassination of at least 3,000 people, 75 massacres from 1999 to 2000 which left 329 victims, the hiding of hundreds of bodies in mass graves, the forced displacement of 70,000 people in Sucre and 2,162 from San Onofre, according to the data of the muncipal ombudsman, the regular practice of torture and of inhumane and degrading treatment, the extermination of 90 members of the Unión Patriótica, the annihilation of agrarian organizations like the ANUC, the usurping of land and goods from the population, submission to forms of slavery and political control, and the looting of public goods and resources. A 2005 study by the United Nations Development Program, UNDP, reports that the paramilitaries exercise control over 90% of the territory in San Onofre.

The main parties responsible for these acts are high-ranking politicians from the region who today have begun to be processed by the justice system: the congressmen Álvaro García, Muriel Benito Rebollo, Jairo Enrique Merlano, Eric Morris Taboada, the ex-Governor Salvador Arana, the ex-Commander of the Police Norman León Arango – who still has not been processed -, and the ex-Governor Miguel Àngel Nule Amín. These sinister characters had paramilitary groups at their disposal to order forced disappearings and massacres, to gather votes, to rob public money, to get rid of their opponents and political enemies, and to make personal fortunes.

Like the cattle ranchers, the politicians also used the criminal services of the paramilitary leader "Cadena" and his lieutenants Marco Tulio Pérez Guzmán, alias "El Oso" and Uber Banquéz alias "Juancho Dique." Starting in 1998, the "Heroes of Montes de María" bloc imposed a regime of terror. They perpetrated massacres like Chengue, Macayepo, Chinulito, Pigiguay, Coloso and El Salado. Community campesino organizations were shut down, everybody had to pay protection money, the central plaza of San Onofre was used only to hear the paramilitary leaders’ orders. The municipality and its districts became a concentration camp. A curfew was decreed, and from 6 PM nobody could use the roads or go fishing, because that was the time when the criminals activated their maritime narco-trafficking route. They perpetrated sexual abuses against women and they executed people in the public plaza. The authorities arbitrarily detained citizens and turned them into the paramilitaries so that they would be executed. In the department’s other municipalities, just like in San Onofre, state functionaries had to give a contribution from their salary to maintain the AUC’s troops. In sum, political corruption, paramilitarism, and narco-trafficking became three faces of the same reality.

Cadena converted several farms in the region into centers of torture and extermination, among which is the sadly famous El Palmar plantation. There exists a rubber tree where the detained were tied up, a torture chamber, a range where they were shot, and a cell called "the last tear" (the room in which the final hour was awaited with anguish). In other parts of El Palmar, they burned the bodies. In the pastures of this and many other estates exist common graves that were usually dug by the the condemned themselves.

And while these episodes of extreme violence ocurred, the hacienda was at the same time a social center. "Cadena" organized banquets for the local politicians and gave them fine horses as gifts. In those cookouts and parties were seen Commander Arango of the Police (named by President Uribe as Military Attache at the Colombian embasssy in France) and ex-Governor Salvador Arana (accused of being the intellecual author of the assassination of the Mayor of El Roble, Eudaldo Tito Díaz, and who was named by the President ambassador to Chile). El Palmar was equally the site where narco-trafficking business was planned, and where they organized beauty pageants like "Miss Flirt International" y "Miss Thong." The then-Congresswoman Muriel Benito Rebollo, intimate friend of paramilitary leader "Diego Vecino" (alias), was a judge in these competitions. To the corrupt politicians it was not enough that their executions got rid of their opposition. Their parties took place amid the graves left by the human butchery.

During the electoral campaign of 2002, "Cadena" gathered the population, and put in a bag the names of the town councilmen, taking out two of them. He stated that if the candidate [Muriel] Benito Rebollo was not elected, he would kill the two councilmen and other people in the community designated at random. No authority could be appealed to, because all of them benefited from the system of corruption. When the officials did not want to give them public money, they were killed. This is what happened with the Mayor of El Roble [a member of the leftist Democratic Pole party]. On the road to Sincelejo [the departmental capital], he was detained, taken to El Palmar, tied to a rubber tree and later disappeared for refusing to give them money being transferred from the central government to the municipality.

At the moment when he suspiciously disappeared, "Cadena" was the owner of various shopping malls in Sincelejo, controlled the public market, and he was owner of several gas stations. He also dominated the motorcycle taxi business.

The establishment’s responsibility for this arbitrary empire in Sucre reaches the highest levels. It is hard to believe that all of this occurred wihout the national authorities’ awareness. As has been said, the President of the Republic distinguished many of the implicated officials with diplomatic positions. The most bloody periods of the process of violence correspond with Sucre’s declaration as part of an "area of consolidation and rehabilitation" and the self-defense groups’ declaration of a cease-fire [at the beginning of President Uribe's term in late 2002 and early 2003]. The military authorities, with the exception of Colonel Rafael Colón and Colonel Carlos Arturo Millán, were complicit in everything that happened.

After murdering and disappearing thousands of people, the paramilitaries and their allies proceeded to loot the surviving families’ lands, obliging them to transfer the deeds of ownership and later force them into displacement. The La Setenta farm, which is located outside the town center of San Onofre, is an example of this process. After looting the lands from their legitimate owners, through intermediaries, the new owners proceeded to increase their ownership from 70 to 300 hectares, while the invasion of the adjoining land displaced entire families. Juvenal Escudero, victim of an assassination attempt a few days before this hearing, was one of those affected by this strategy of violently usurping land. The attack against him took place shortly after, accompanied by the Movement of Victims, he demanded his right to recover his land.

There are solidly documented reports about the ficticious character of the demobilization. Before the Córdoba Bloc and the so-called "Heroes of Montes de Maria" publicly turned in their weapons, the forced recruitment of young people with few paramilitary ties was evident in vulnerable neighborhoods in southern Sincelejo like Villa Mady, Nueva Esperanza, Puerto Arturo and in the north in the neighborhoods of Altos del Rosario, Villa Orieta II, and El Salvador, among others. In addition, new developments in paramilitarism are appearing. In schools in Sincelejo we hear warnings about the recruitment of youth. Students are being invited to go south to care for coca crops in the department of Córdoba.

A first-order responsibility that has been exposed here is that of the current Mayor of San Onofre, Mr. Jorge Blanco Fuentes, who still has not renounced his post, but who should do it immediately for ethical, penal, and political reasons.

Mr. Blanco was the only candidate for the mayorship [in October 2003 elections] because of the pressure exercised by "Cadena." His candidacy was launched at a public event in mid-2002, organized by this paramilitary leader at the "March 29" cockfighting pit in Verrugas. Cadena’s crimes were clearly known by Mr. Blanco, since before he became mayor, at the apogee of the regime of terror, he was the municipal treasurer. Mr. Blanco also participated in other public events with the paramilitaries. His first decision as mayor was to fire, illegally, all the municipal government’s career administrative officials, and to replace them with the paramilitaries’ political appointees, while the paramilitaries also controlled the municipal council. Those dismissed could not claim their benefits and were compelled to sign resignation letters and acknowledgements of termination pay that they never received. Something similar happened to the personnel at the municipal hospital. Mr. Blanco attended a meeting on July 16, 2006 in which paramilitary leader Diego Vecino, various councilmen, and the ex-Congresswoman Muriel Benito Rebollo also participated, with the goal of finding ways to pressure the population to guarantee that the ex-congresswoman’s brother, Edgar Benito Rebollo, would be the municipality’s next mayor. The meeting took place in the house of Mrs. Estefanía Balseiro, mother of the ex-congresswoman.

While these acts of corruption occur, the victims of forced displacement live in the misery of neighborhoods like El Porvenir. In many areas of the department, their houses consist of some large planks for walls, a dirt floor, and a precarious zinc roof. In contrast, the demobilized paramilitaries have integral aid programs. Many of them work as auxiliary community and transit police. They have been given land so that they can advance with productive projects, they are helped with training from the SENA [the government job-training program], and with programs of psychological treatment. Nonetheless, in San Onofre they have set up the business of "pagadiario," which consists of lending money and charging interest every day with extortive terms.

In other areas, such as Marialabaja, after the demobilization the returning displaced population was required to care for African palm plantations, whether as cultivators in their own land or as day laborers. They are paid with 150,000-peso [about $70] bonds, which can be exchanged for goods only at the plantation owner’s stores. This shows, then, that the processes of return which are presented as happening in parallel with the so-called demobilizations have, in fact, sought to convert the displaced population into the social base of the paramilitary negotiation process.

The community of San Onofre has waged an exemplary fight about what it means to seek truth, justice, and reparation in Colombia. It is thanks to them, not to the Justice and Peace Law and its related governmental agencies, that the masks covering the faces of the political criminals are falling. Today, we ask you, senators, that in your capacity as legislators and charged with political oversight, you take up all actions necessary for this historic struggle to continues to progress, so that it may soon make irreversible gains towards democracy and justice.

One Response to “The victims’ movement and the view from San Onofre, Sucre”

  1. jcg Says:

    I sincerely respect the existence of the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes in Colombia, and as such the work of Mr. Cepeda is warranted and necessary, despite the multiple threats that he has received. I do read his column in El Espectador fairly regularly, though I do find myself somewhat in disagreement with some of his positions.

    For example, I find it unfortunate that a truly “national victims movement”, representing not just a specific segment of victims but the entire whole, does not yet exist. Without such a movement, the different victims groups will likely tend to become implicitly or explicitly quarreling factions, each seeking to do its own valuable work but not seeing the size of the entire forest. It’s possible that each side will want to magnify its own importance and try to dismiss “the other”.

    Clearly, the victims of state crimes deserve justice for their misfortunes, many of which are definitely the direct or indirect responsibility of the Colombian state and/or security forces (in some specific cases, that could be debated, yet in most that’s probably a fair description). But what about the victims of “non-state crimes”? Or the victims that have been victimized by more than one side, not just by the state? These and other issues deserve to be addressed, sooner or later, if a truly national victims movement is to exist and actually represent the entire tragedy of Colombia’s violence. In short, I believe that all forms of repression and of aggression eventually need to be considered.

    The San Onofre hearing shows what is definitely a grave story of tragedy, intolerance, violence and the community’s struggle against impunity. However, it is one part of a complex reality, and that doesn’t mean that all the conclusions reached by this hearing are complete. I do believe that it’s a bit inaccurate to forget that, beyond the important credit that the people of San Onofre and those that directly support them deserve, there are other factors at work.

    For better or for worse, and as flawed as the paramilitary negotiation and demobilization process has been, I find it unlikely that it and at least some of the government’s efforts played no part in at least making it easier for the victims to do their work, even if that wasn’t the active intention and even if violence still continues, albeit perhaps at a reduced level.

    The “fictitious character of the demobilization” may be true on some level, but without knowing the specifics, it’s debatable whether it was totally or only partially fictitious. The mere persistence of paramilitary activities doesn’t answer the question.

    That doesn’t intend to reduce the importance of the struggle of the people of San Onofre, most of which has been done independently and with very little government aid, but it also doesn’t intend to reduce the complexity of a situation that most likely isn’t one-sided.

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