Below is a translation of a month-old memo from the Colombian human-rights group MINGA. It details the February 16 murder of JosÃ© Hurtado, a shopkeeper in La Dorada, the â€œcounty seatâ€ of San Miguel municipality in Putumayo department, just across the border from Ecuador. In late January, Mr. Hurtado dared to organize a protest against the paramilitaries who have dominated the town since about 2000. He was killed three weeks later.
CIP joins MINGA and other Colombian groups in condemning this murder, demanding that its perpetrators be brought to justice, and calling on Colombiaâ€™s government to protect other participants in the January protest. In addition, though, we wish to draw attention to two important points about Mr. Hurtadoâ€™s murder.
First, it shows that paramilitaries still enjoy great power and freedom to operate in a region that was the original target of Plan Colombia back in 2000. La Dorada lies amid one of Colombiaâ€™s densest coca-cultivation zones. It made the news in Colombia in September 2000 â€“ just as Plan Colombia, and the first wave of herbicide fumigation â€“ was about to get underway. That month La Dorada, which had spent years under FARC control, became the latest stop in the paramilitariesâ€™ swift takeover of all of Putumayoâ€™s town centers, an offensive that claimed hundreds of civilian lives and clearly took place with the security forcesâ€™ support. With massacres of civilians and pitched battles against guerrillas in the middle of town, the newly arrived paramilitaries managed to push the guerrillas to the outskirts and the countryside. The FARC responded by calling an â€œarmed stoppageâ€ that brought Putumayoâ€™s road travel to a total standstill for three months.
â€œPutumayo is a poster child for why you need Plan Colombia,â€ Clinton administration Pentagon official Brian Sheridan told The St. Petersburg Times back in the fall of 2000. â€œThe FARC and the paramilitaries are running roughshod all over the Putumayo right now, killing each other, blockading roads, holding villages hostage â€¦ and the military and the police are nowhere to be found.â€
Nearly five years later, that description of Putumayo still fits. The paramilitaries still dominate town centers and operate openly (I had no problem finding some on an April 2004 visit). The guerrillas still operate freely in rural areas. Competition over control of coca revenue continues, though reports of the two sides doing business with each other are growing more frequent. Guerrillas continue to destroy infrastructure with remarkable frequency: attacks continue against bridges, power pylons, and the Transandino Pipeline that flows out of Ecuador on its way to Colombiaâ€™s Pacific port of Tumaco (guerrilla attacks on the Transandino have risen since about mid-2003). Extrajudicial killings committed by all sides are very common. Citing government data, Colombiaâ€™s Security and Democracy Foundation documented [PDF format] a 19 percent rise in murders in Putumayo in 2004.
Putumayo is still extremely insecure and ungoverned, even after years of heavy U.S. investment in Colombian military and police units based there. The Army Counternarcotics Brigade founded with Plan Colombia funds began its operations in Putumayo. The existing 27th Brigade (which replaced the old 24th) has been expanded with the addition of new counter-guerrilla and infrastructure-protection units. A Marine Riverine Brigade was established with U.S. funds and has its headquarters in Puerto LeguÃzamo. The presence of police, both narcotics and regular, has expanded in part with U.S. funds. â€œCampesino Soldiersâ€ â€“ recruits who receive a few monthsâ€™ training and live in their hometowns â€“ have been introduced in many parts of Putumayo. Despite all of this, it is still unsafe even to hold a protest against paramilitaries in La Dorada, Putumayo.
Second, as the memo below notes, JosÃ© Hurtado was murdered by a group that pledged more than two years ago to observe a cease-fire. Upon taking office, President Uribe made clear that, unlike his predecessor, he would only negotiate with armed groups that first declare a unilateral cease-fire. The guerrillas refused, but the paramilitaries accepted, allowing talks to begin in December 2002. Though they promised to silence their weapons, the paramilitaries have not stopped killing people. Estimates of the number of non-combatants killed or disappeared by the AUC since the cease-fire began run well into the hundreds, or even as high as 2,000. JosÃ© Hurtadoâ€™s murder is another entry on this long and growing list. Yet neither the Uribe government nor the OAS mission charged with verifying the cease-fire is doing much to press the paramilitaries to honor their commitment.
MINGAâ€™s memo about JosÃ© Hurtadoâ€™s killing follows.
Paramilitaries murder leader in La Dorada (Putumayo, Colombia) and threaten merchants
The Association for Alternative Social Promotion, MINGA, denounces before the national and international communities the persistence of paramilitary criminal acts against the civilian population in Putumayo, and warns of a possible wider attack against other social and business leaders in the region.
On Wednesday, February 16, at 1:00 PM, two men driving a pickup truck from the state oil company ECOPETROL, wearing uniforms from the same company, arrived at the house of Mr. JOSÃ‰ HURTADO â€“ an Ecuadorian citizen â€“ whom they killed in front of his wife and children, after threatening and throwing to the ground the auxiliary policeman who was assigned to guard him. Afterward they went to the house of JOSÃ‰ GUSTAVO ÃLVAREZ, the vice-president of the municipal council, who saved himself by not being at home.
Mr. JOSÃ‰ HURTADO was a merchant who lived in La Dorada municipality for twenty years. On January 28, 2005, he led a demonstration against paramilitary groups, in protest of their kidnapping of another merchant on January 27.
This demonstration denounced the presence of paramilitaries in the town center [of La Dorada], the extortion of merchants, the killings and disappearances of campesinos in the town center in broad daylight, and the likely existence of mass graves in the zone. This protest march ended with formal complaints issued by Mr. HURTADO and forty others to the security forces, local authorities, and the Attorney-Generalâ€™s office in La Hormiga. This led to the arrest of some presumed paramilitaries and steps toward the expulsion of this armed group from the town center.
According to testimonies from local residents, after these complaints were filed, Mr. HURTADO accompanied the Police and Army to help them locate places where the paramilitaries were to be found, in order to ensure that the complaints would have a real effect.
The risk that Mr. JOSÃ‰ HURTADO and the leaders of the demonstration have since faced was denounced repeatedly by the municipal authorities and the PersonerÃa [the local human rights ombudsman]. As a result, the issue of protections and guarantees for the threatened merchants and leaders was of central importance in various security meetings with officials. Similar efforts were made before the offices of the national ombudsman [DefensorÃa] and the attorney-general in Mocoa [the capital of Putumayo]. The response to these calls was to assign an auxiliary policeman to act as a bodyguard.
On February 8, the situation of risk worsened for Mr. JOSÃ‰ HURTADO and other leaders and merchants who had participated in the protest. That night, they received threatening telephone calls to their homes. In response, another security meeting with officials was to be convened on February 10 to discuss protections and guarantees, but was inexplicably canceled. The community now demands investigation and clarity about this act, which demonstrates the alarming impunity with which paramilitary groups operate.
In addition, concerns continue for the security of Mr. HURTADOâ€™s family; the vice-president of the municipal council, GUSTAVO ÃLVAREZ; his family; and forty more merchants who took part in the mobilization and denunciations against the paramilitary group. In response to threats, many have already displaced themselves elsewhere.
We therefore demand:
1. That the Attorney-General and Internal Affairs office [ProcuradurÃa] begin the corresponding penal and disciplinary investigations for the crimes denounced herein;
2. That the national government protect the lives of the leaders and merchants threatened in the municipality of San Miguel (La Dorada), and bring an end to the openly criminal activity that the paramilitary groups carry out in the municipality.
3. That Dr. SERGIO CARAMAGNA, the director of the OAS mission accompanying the negotiation process between the national government and the paramilitaries, immediately verify whether the paramilitaries are respecting the cease-fire in Putumayo department.
BogotÃ¡, February 18, 2005