María Teresa Ronderos: Why history was divided in two Good message, unusual messenger
Jul 162008

Congratulations are due to the group of Colombian non-governmental organizations that published a report last week on an April 2008 mission to the department of Putumayo in southern Colombia. The report [PDF available on the website of the human-rights group MINGA] details the human-rights situation in this conflictive zone, based on “open dialogue between people, communities, organizations and local authorities, in meetings with approximately 400 people.”

Understanding what happened in Putumayo is critical for a full appreciation of the lessons of Plan Colombia. It was in Putumayo, during the 2000-2003 period, that Plan Colombia basically got underway, as U.S. funding underwrote a mostly military “Push into Southern Colombia” in the department, a major coca-cultivation zone along the border with Ecuador. Just as the U.S. effort was getting underway, paramilitaries were pouring into Putumayo’s main towns, massacring hundreds, with no opposition from the U.S.-supported security forces. The true extent of the human-rights disaster that took place during this period – which also involved increased guerrilla abuses – is still unknown because the guerrillas and paramilitaries still dominant in the zone deal harshly with those who denounce past violations.

This report takes a big step toward learning the truth about what happened in Putumayo. It is highly recommended. Here is a translation of the executive summary.

Report on the Observer Mission of the Human Rights Situation in Bajo Putumayo [PDF]
Bogotá, June 2008
Texts compiled by Marcela Ceballos and Carlos Duarte
Final text edited by Marcela Cebalos, María Isabel Casas and Carolina Rojas

This report indicates the main current risk factors for the inhabitants of the department of Putumayo, and concludes by identifying three different types of factors: (1) An absence of guarantees of legal security, for a dignified existence, for the exercise of individual liberties and the defense of human rights; (2) Impediments to communities’ ability to remain in their territories; (3) Direct persecution of residents and community leaders, and the “invisibilization” of the armed conflict’s victims.

In the first aspect we found a situation of generalized fear. The majority of victims of sociopolitical violence, and of inhabitants in general, abstain from making public denunciations for fear of possible retaliations from the victimizers. This fear is mediated by distrust of institutions that have been under pressure from, and in some cases infiltrated by, members of illegal armed groups. This situation reaches critical levels in San Miguel municipality [in Putumayo's southwest corner, across the river from Ecuador], and results in a context of impunity and precariousness of the protection of fundamental rights. The presence of illegal armed groups – guerrillas and paramilitaries – worsens the situation. The national government’s Democratic Consolidation policy, based on the Integrated Action Doctrine and implemented through the Strategy of Social Recovery of Territory, increased the civilian population’s risk levels, since it dilutes the distinction between civilians and combatants. In addition, it is concentrating state intervention and humanitarian aid within the armed forces, weakening local governance and militarizing relations between the state and civil society.

In the second aspect, forced displacement and the militarization of indigenous reservations and protected areas, as well as regions with abundant exploitable resources, favor unregulated economic intervention in the department. The presence of oil companies that have been granted concessions, as well as the campesinos’ incorporation in the productive chain, have deepened without any corresponding investment in social needs or infrastructure. Nor does it respect the principle of previous consultation, and goes against the “life plans” of the social organizations and indigenous peoples that inhabit this territory. THe absence of alternatives either to this development model or to coca-growing affects the ability of towns, communities, families and inhabitants in general to survive with dignity. This situation presents itself from the towns of Teteyé to Puerto Vega (in the rural zone of Puerto Asís municipality) and in indigenous territories (the Siona people’s Buenavista reservation and others, such as Santa Rosa del Guamuéz, that make up the Cofán people’s “Permanent Table”). Intense fumigation and forced manual eradication are affecting health, the environment and food security for the population in general, without mechanisms of compensation or reparation for damages caused by this strategy’s indiscriminate effects. Women are victims of diverse strategies of the armed groups, who convert their bodies into a “spoil of war” and a “resource for war.” Young people find themselves amid multiple pressures and before the absence of opportunities to develop their life projects; their futures are uncertain.

In the third aspect, we find a situation of permanent stigmatization of leaders who oppose the models of economic and military intervention described above; to guerrilla pressures for recruitment and the incorporation of young people in their ranks; to threats and murders by groups that, it appears, are in a process of rearmament in the zone around San Miguel municipality and some areas of Valle del Guamuez municipality. These factors impede the “visilibization” of the armed conflict’s victims, while the government’s reparations policy, though it has not yet established itself, proposes an economic dimension – a small one – but not a clarification of what happened nor any advance in justice. In this sense, the existence of a large number of mass graves in the department, without a process of identification of remains or identification of those responsible, shows the need to consider this dimension to be part of a policy of strengthening justice in Colombia.

Despite all of this, the organizations we interviewed insist on resisting their disappearance and their forced displacement. They have decided to remain in the territory that belongs to them and they have chosen civility and the peaceful way to resolve their conflicts, even though they find themselves in a context in which war is habitual. They have build life plans and projects that aim for integral and human development (Cofán people’s Life Plan, Integral Plan for Campesino Development of the Departmental Table of Social Organizations, Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Plan of ACSOMAYO, among other initiatives). They continue defending autonomy and liberty as bases for the building of conditions for a dignified life, and they persist in a dialogue with the national government, although in their relationships with institutions, on occasion, they have been stigmatized, silenced, ignored and even harassed. We dedicate this document to them and manifest our admiration. We hope that the international community’s support will also take into account this universe, because from below and from civil society are built the bases of democracy and peace, as well as the long-lasting conditions for human rights protection.

3 Responses to “Grim update on Putumayo”

  1. c Says:

    I don’t suppose Ms. O’Grady is likely to publish an apology to the good men and women of human rights NGOs after the shameless Colombian security force use of the Red Cross emblem. Uribe’s assertion that a highly trained member of the security forces made a unilateral decision out of fear is absurd. Endangering the legitimacy of the Red Cross in its humanitarian work world-wide is inexcusable.

    Before this information was revealed I posted a comment on the WSJ in response to Ms. O’Grady’s article explaining the difference between human rights NGOs and humanitarian NGOs. The WSJ says that comments will be posted after approval by an administrator…my comment was never approved…

  2. Randy Paul Says:


    I e-mailed her indicating that she needed to make a clarification. Dead silence on her part.

  3. Plan Colombia and Beyond: Grim update on Putumayo at karmalised Says:

    [...] Plan Colombia and Beyond 16 July 2008 [...]

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