Colombian Ironies: Political Prisoner Andrés Gil Unable to Attend Human Rights Forum
Government Continues its Legal Assault on a Key Rural Social Organization
Observatorio Internacional de Paz (IPO)
When the European Commission invited veteran Colombian social fighter Andrés Gil Gutierrez to an annual human rights forum in Lisbon last week, the representative who sent the invitation was apparently one of the few who still hadn’t heard: Gil isn’t going to any such events for a long time. Since the first days of October he has been an inmate at the Modelo prison on Bucaramanga, northwest Colombia. Gil, and two of his fellow leaders of the Peasant-Farmer Association of the Cimitarra River Valley (along with one other member of the association), were arrested as the army and intelligence police raided a small village where they were meeting with townspeople, as well as the association’s office in the city of Barrancabermeja. (See a previous report here.)
The association, known by its Spanish initials ACVC, is one of Colombia’s most influential campesino organizations, working for the last 11 years in the conflictive Middle Magdalena region of the country and part of a national rural social movement fighting for better land and opportunities for the country’s rural poor. The ACVC has reported human rights violations and killings by the Colombian army, and is vocally opposed to the U.S.-imposed drug war policies of toxic crop fumigations that destroy farmers’ livelihoods and the surrounding environment.
The symbolism of this situation – where Colombia’s most important human rights defenders are being locked up or otherwise forced to suspend their work faster than international groups can keep track – will be lost on no one, and least of all Gil himself.
In a telephone interview from the Modelo prison, Gil said that he felt extremely frustrated that he would be unable to go. “There are so many things the association needs to say, so many things we need to denounce, so much information and facts that we need to clarify for all the participants of this important human rights forum in Lisbon. It is a space that we feel is very important to develop, as the Colombian state wants to silence the voices of the excluded, of the marginalized, of the persecuted, and here we have no spaces to be heard.”
Another ACVC member, also wanted by the Colombian justice system, spoke to Narco News as well in recent days. Their testimonies give a picture of a government unable to deal with challenges from civil society other than to arbitrarily lock up social leaders. While Colombian president Uribe’s allies in the Bush administration have spent the last few months gushing over the country’s improved security in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to get a Colombia-U.S. free trade deal signed this year, opposition activists around the country have complained that government persecution of their activities has stepped up dramatically under the current administration.
The European Union’s Ninth NGO Forum on Human Rights is scheduled for December 6-7 in Lisbon. The commission sent Gil his invitation on November 8, more than a month after his September 29 arrest.
Gil described his arrest, speaking to Narco News through a fellow inmate’s cell phone. He explained that he, fellow ACVC founder Oscar Duque and member Evaristo Mena were in the village of El Cagüí that day speaking to the community about a new project they were organizing to identify the most pressing problems facing the Cimitarra River Valley and the Middle Magdalena (a large region between where Magdalena River, Colombia’s biggest, is born high up in the Andes and where it empties into the Caribbean sea). They were speaking with a large group of peasant farmers about the defense of their territory, and about one of the organization’s central demands: the creation of a special area there called a Zona de Reserva Campesina – a rural agricultural reserve – where their way of life would be protected from the various interests that look to take over or exploit their land. (The government initially agreed to the Zona but has been stalling for years now in actually implementing it).
“We were holding the meeting there in the village,” he said, “…when DAS agents and the army raided us, surrounded the village center where we were, and asked for identification from everyone there. They then showed us an arrest warrant… The community began to protest, and there was a lot of tension between the people and these state agents, who fired shots against the action of the people.”
The bullets were warning shots and no one was injured in the raid.
“I am still surprised that there was a whole military deployment, with the presence of more than 100 army troops. They came in two navy corvettes and six Piranha gunboats. These are war vessels, which are designed for chase and combat operations… In just the previous few days, we were making public appearances at the office in Barrancabermeja, where we even have government-provided security at our office, so we don’t understand why, when we are constantly meeting with the government, we saw this veery aggressive operation, with a disproportionate use of force and psychological pressure on us and on the community.”
Colombian prosecutors, in fact, do not have a case ready against the ACVC leaders. According to Yenly Angélica, their lawyer and a member of the human rights organization Humanidad Vigente, the four men were denied bail last month and must wait as long as six months while prosecutors continue to gather evidence to support their charge of rebellion and collaboration with an armed rebel group. Even if they are found innocent, they could easily each spend two years in jail as their cases are resolved.
And many more farmers, organizers and community activists are in the government’s sights. After the raids, the Fiscalía, Colombia’s justice department, told the press it had 18 more warrants and there could be more raids and arrests.
Cesar Jerez is another board member of the ACVC, and is also the founder of the press agency Prensa Rural, which serves as an online press outlet for several rural organizations. Jerez lives most of the time in Barcelona now, gathering European support for the ACVC. He recently found out that a warrant is out for his arrest also, and had to be very careful the last time he visited Bogotá.
Jerez explained that both he and the ACVC leaders already in jail were able to see copies of their files, and realized that the government has been gathering evidence against them since 2002. The files include information from at least 18 informants accusing the association of both using international aid to get money and equipment to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla rebels, and of being involved in cocaine trafficking.
The ACVC says the informants are lying and paid by the army to do so. They say that among the case files they have seen are notes from prosecutors observing that several the army’s “informants” had slips of paper in their pockets that they referred to when giving testimony, as they could not remember the names of the people they were supposedly bearing witness against.
“They hope to make it look like the money that we handle from international assistance programs is for the guerrillas. The informants repeat that over and over. These are projects we have managed to implement there with great effort, but they say it is the guerrillas that administer them directly. It’s a very serious issue, because it is an attack not just against us but against the whole model of international cooperation. Because they informants go so far as to claim that the Peace and Development program and its director know about all of it. It is an indirect accusation against the most important aid institution in Middle Magdelena.”
Jerez said that in the last 10 years, the ACVC has received nearly $1 million to develop its projects, but that there is strict oversight for the use of those funds and that many people have seen the association using them firsthand. Other accusations from the informants that he saw in the files bordered on the ridiculous: one claimed the Red Cross was using its medical missions into Colombia’s conflict zones to bring the FARC weapons.
“We have always stated clearly and publicly that we need to have dialog with the different parties in the conflict in order to fight for human rights and development in the middle of a war,” said Jerez. “We have always said that we meet and speak with both the Colombian state and the guerrillas that are present in our area. Why is this necessary? Because the war affects the civilian population very seriously. The guerrillas in that area are a reference point of power, of control, and often even territorial administration. So it would be ridiculous to try to do what we do without having any contact with them.”
Perhaps even more serious were repeated allegations in the files, according to Jerez, of the ACVC participating in and profiting from the trafficking of cocaine produced in its areas. So far no drug-related charges have been filed, but Jerez says “the fact that the informants have repeated so much that we buy and sell coca, what they are looking to do is, in the medium term, introduce drug trafficking charges, as has happened with other organizations and other jailed social leaders.”
Far from being drug traffickers, organizations like the ACVC have been among the leaders in proposing alternatives to the coca economy that has come to rule the most isolated regions of the Colombian countryside. “What we say to the farmers is, look, we can keep using a rural economy and resist on this land. It isn’t strictly necessary to plant coca, although obviously coca continues to be the only alternative right now for them. No other crop is profitable, because of the situation in the area. There are no roads, no infrastructure, and the Colombian establishment has not given the campesinos any choices. That is why coca continues to be a basic activity in the regional economy.”
The way the process works, all of these political prisoners are essentially guilty until proven innocent. Especially with the many informants lined up to testify against them, it falls on the ACVC to prove that they haven’t been working as a “political wing” of the FARC rebels. But at this point, the prisoners and their lawyers expect to win, even if waiting out the long process in jail is inevitable. It wouldn’t be the first time the state arrested a leading activist knowing full well it had no case, just to get him or her out of action for a while.
The public prosecutor in Barrancabermeja in charge of the case could not be reached for comment.
The support from abroad, said Jerez, has been “enormous, it’s impressive. We ourselves are very surprised. From statements by grassroots organizations in different parts of the world, to congressmen, parties, unions, social organizations. It gives us a lot of confidence and morale, to know that we are right and that after this process we will come out stronger, even though our compañeros may spend a considerable amount of time in prison.”
In the meantime, Gil and his colleagues are still doing what they do best: organizing. In prison, he said, “we have found many campesinos with incredible stories. Particularly, we are talking about campesinos who had the bad luck to find themselves in places where army and police operations were being carried out, at moments in which the public forces needed to show results. They have been taken into custody despite being widely known as regular farmers in the region. There are even some old men here, accused by the police and the army of being insurgents, guerrillas. They have no way of defending themselves, so we have said that if we are being defended, then they should be too. So we are looking into how we can all defend ourselves, together.”