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Peasant-Farmer Activists Imprisoned in Colombia
Rural Social Movement’s Headquarters Raided, Leaders Arrested
Dan Feder / Sunday 30 September 2007 / Español / italiano

Around 5pm yesterday afternoon, police raided the headquarters of the Peasant-Farmer Association of the Cimitarra River Valley (ACVC) in the city of Barrancabermeja. Simultaneously, security agents arrested ACVC members Andrés Gil, Oscar Duque, Evaristo Mena (all three far away at a meeting in the village of El Cagüí) and Mario Martínez (at home in the city). All but Mena serve on the ACVC board of directors.

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Oscar Duque. Photo: D.R. 2007 International Peace Observatory

The Colombian state’s intimidation machine was in full effect for this huge “security” operation. The Administrative Security Department (DAS, Colombia’s equivalent to the FBI – see this Narco News report) carried out the raid and arrests. According to a communiqué last night from the ACVC, around 50 soldiers accompanied the DAS agents for their raid on the 10-person, downtown office. Facing objections when they arrived to arrest the three leaders in El Cagüí, “the agents fired into the air.”

A DAS spokesperson in Bucaramanga, where the four are currently being held, would not answer questions or reveal what charges the men were facing. The public prosecutor’s office was not answering calls. It should be no mystery why the DAS chose Saturday night for the raid, with most government offices closed until Monday morning.

The ACVC is among the most well-organized and powerful rural associations in Colombia. Now 11 years old, it is comprised of rural communities throughout the region known as the “Middle Magdalena,” an enormous valley system in the country’s northeast, between where the Magdalena River (Colombia’s Mississippi) is born in the Andes and where it empties out into the Caribbean. When Colombia’s departments were being defined this culturally united area was to become one of them, but economic interests instead carved it up between neighboring Santander, Bolívar and Antioquita.

It is a region that has seen some of the worst of Colombia’s conflict – from being one of the birthplaces of the paramilitary phenomenon in the 1980s to a major target for aerial herbicide fumigations since the beginning of Plan Colombia. Barrancabermeja, the country’s oil capital and Middle Magdalena’s largest city, was long a left-wing stronghold. But paramilitary massacres around the city beginning in 1998 led the way in 2001 to a full-scale, block-by-block invasion by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), simultaneously expelling guerrillas and setting up a short-lived but effective reign of terror against the city’s nonviolent, progressive organizations and political parties. Thousands of peasant farmers were forced form their homes in the regions where the ACVC was strongest.

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Andrés Gil. Photo: D.R. 2007 International Peace Observatory

But the ACVC has survived all this, growing and affiliating more and more communities, organizing mobilizations and actions of resistance and building what they call a socialist economy within the region. In 1998, ACVC communities, protesting the humanitarian crisis in rural areas, led an “exodus” into Barrancabermeja, where they camped out for months. Eventually, then-president Andres Pastrana negotiated directly with the ACVC, recognized its complaints and made the communities the guarantees they demanded in order to return home. But the ACVC claims these guarantees were never really fulfilled. And since President Álvaro Uribe took office in 2002, he has repeatedly accused organizations like the ACVC of being “mouthpieces for terrorism” and the “political wings” of guerrilla groups.

But Gil, Mena and Duque are organizers, not guerrillas. The raid and the three leaders’ arrests represent a major blow to the nation’s democratic social movements.

Left-wing rural leaders in Colombia are frequently targeted for arrest under charges of either terrorism or rebellion. The charges rarely stick, but when such an arrest comes with an “order of capture” warrant signed by the country’s justice department, it can often lead to years in jail while the case makes its way through the legal system and is resolved.

Andrés Gil, who is known personally to this correspondent, is a dynamic, veteran organizer. He is one of the driving forces behind the ACVC’s unique focus on communication (most evident in the innovative press agency established by ACVC members and allies, Prensa Rural). This is not the first time he has faced such legal harassment. In 2002, he learned of another “order of capture” that had been signed for him and went underground for three years, hiding in the mountains. Nevertheless, he continued working with communities in the Middle Magdalena and participating as a board member of the ACVC, and eventually the warrant was overturned due to a statute of limitations.

Oscar Duque has also had his share of legal troubles, having been arrested in October 2006. However, he was arrested illegally, without a warrant, and after an outcry from national and international supporters, he was released within days.

This time, authorities seem to have learned from their mistakes – the warrants were written and police arrested the activists before word of the warrants got out.

The raid and arrests come just two weeks from a planned massive nonviolent mobilization of peasant-farmers across the country against the Uribe administration and its economic and military policies. In offices, apartments, houses and farms around the country, where social leaders, unionists, lawyers and everyday farmers and workers fight against a narco-state and its drug-warrior patrons in Washington, tensions are rising and everyone wonders who is next.