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Colombia’s Rural Social Movement Defies Government Intimidation and Comes Out to March
The Peasant-Farmer and Indigenous Mobilizations that Have Shaken the Country Since Yesterday Faced Intense Legal and Military Repression Before they Even Started
Dan Feder, Laura del Castillo / Thursday 11 October 2007 / Español

In today’s zombie Colombia, made up of President Uribe’s friends and allies, everything seems to be right on track. It is a country of opportunities, where the government’s policy of “Democratic Security” has led to a time when there is no “armed conflict,” just a struggle against “terrorism.” Where there is nothing but smooth sailing ahead for the economy thanks to the high presence of foreign corporations. Where the country is free of paramilitaries because they have all demobilized and the drug war is hitting the traffickers where it hurts.

Nevertheless, on the other side – in that country that doesn’t figure among the pink-colored fantasies of Uribe’s activists – things are different, especially in rural areas. Most of the land is concentrated in the hands of big landowners, killings of rural leaders are again on the rise, the fumigations of illicit crops are destroying the food crops of the poor and affecting entire communities’ health, healthcare services are essentially privatized, and the “demobilized” paramilitaries have allied themselves with common criminals and now call themselves “Black Eagles” to sew terror in the most marginalized parts of the country. As they say, everything rises in that other part of the country: the cost of food, the cost of utilities, and, of course, the repression, because in a perfect country, no one contradicts the established order and protesting means committing a crime.

But a large part of that “other side” of the country is not staying silent. It is outraged and tired of enduring more than five years of attacks, humiliation and exclusion. That is why several diverse rural, indigenous, labor and student organizations in the country – who have come together to form the National Coordination of Agrarian and Popular Organizations of Colombia – began their National Agrarian and Popular Mobilization yesterday, with protest actions throughout the country. Marches, road blockades, office takeovers and land occupations are being carried out in villages, towns and cities.

During the weeks preceding the protest, the government unleashed an unprecedented wave of repression. Yes, that same democratic government (which supposedly respects the right to protest), amid its constant paranoia, has declared war on the mobilization. It has used many different strategies to demoralize the mobilization’s leaders and participants, including defamation, stigmatization, threats, unjustified arrests and murder. These attacks have made it clear that in Colombia, respect for differences and social protest is little more than a joke.

Protesting as a Crime

Since the first rumblings of the mobilization began to be heard, the government has waged a quiet war on the organizations involved. Organizers tried to keep plans secret for as long as possible, meeting infrequently in sites announced at the last minute. But by mid-September, the cat was out of the bag. On September 19, soldiers began distributing flyers and dropping them from the sky onto rural villages in Planadas, Tolima, about 200 miles southeast of Bogotá.

“Don’t participate in acts of terrorism,” the flyers read. “Don’t let them keep using you as cannon-fodder. Don’t go to the mobilization that the FARC is going to hold. Don’t become an accomplice to terrorists and murderers.”

Around the same time, say organizers, men identifying themselves as “Black Eagles” (the mysterious new extreme right-wing armed group that seems to be picking up where the now-demobilized United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, left off) began appearing around the department, threatening punishment upon anyone who joined the planned protests.

But the first major blow came 10 days later, when agents of the DAS secret police, accompanied by dozens of armed soldiers, raided the offices of the Peasant Farmer Association of the Cimitarra River Valley (ACVC) and imprisoned three of its leaders. The ACVC is one of the most dynamic and powerful peasant organizations in the country. It has in the past rarely worked together with the National Federation of Agricultural Farming Unions (FENSUAGRO), the agrarian workers’ union responsible for much of the mobilization’s organizing, and their collaboration on this has been something of a breakthrough for the rural social movement.

After the arrests, army chief General Mario Montoya Uribe appeared on television and spoke to local newspaper Vanguardia Liberal, announcing that the arrested men were FARC operatives and that he had 18 more similar warrants to serve. “We are investigating the behavior and conduct of many people,” he told the newspaper, “so there may be more people captured.” In the following days, residents of the nearby village of Yondó, Antioquia, reported the army was threatening to burn the houses of farmers who participated in the mobilization.

On October 2, in Cauca department – long a hotbed of indigenous and rural resistance – the local government declared that “in northern Cauca, the FARC have declared an armed stoppage, and those who participate in the mobilization will do so side-by-side with the Jacobo Arenas Mobile Column of the FARC.” Three days later, unidentified armed men took El Caraqueño village president Carlos Alberto Urbano off a bus and shot him in front of all the other passengers, including his wife and son.

Urbano died several days later while being transported to another hospital. Oscar Salazar, a community leader from La Vega, Cauca, and one of the national mobilization’s organizers, called him one of the mobilization’s “first victims” and saw the assassination as a clear paramilitary attack on the protest.

“We are social organizations, popular organizations, who are using our constitutional right to protest,” said Salazar. “But as it is a protest criticizing the Uribe regime, this is the way that they attack us, creating the conditions to annihilate the leaders and strike hard at the organizations and communities.”

The next day, back in Planadas, Tolima, soldiers detained community leader Ernesto Soto. According Alirio Garcia, a FENSUAGRO leader who spoke by phone from Tolima, Soto was arrested simply for carrying posters for the mobilization.

Since then, he said, the army has made it nearly impossible to get to the departmental capital of Ibaque, where many activities are planned. “Cars have been blocked by the army… in San Antonio, the people are there in the municipality, they were going move in these last few days and couldn’t. The state forces were letting any vehicle pass except those headed toward the mobilization… We have a quite delicate situation because they have the people blockaded in all the different municipalities, confiscating their food and supplies.”

After Soto’s arrest, the army began detaining young peasant and indigenous men at roadblocks to draft them into the military. Though military service is obligatory, many rural Colombians do not serve. Garcia called this “practically kidnapping by the military authorities,” though there are now reports that several of the young men have been released on the condition that they not attend the mobilization.

Nevertheless, Garcia said on Tuesday night that some 4,000 peasant farmers had reached Ibague by Tuesday and today have participated in various protest actions.

In the southern department of Putumayo, along the Ecuadorian border, social protests got a head start last week when a large group of peasant farmers took over a main road in Orito municipality, denouncing the crisis that stepped-up coca eradication has produced there since January. Putumayo has always been an epicenter of the drug war here, but 2007 seems to have been worse than ever.

On the morning of October 8, two days before the oficial start of the national mobilization, the mayor of Orito told the protesters that she was “receiving pressure to forcibly remove the peaceful concentration of peasant farmers.” That same afternoon, anti-narcotics and riot police along with counterinsurgency forces attacked, firing – according to organizers – tear-gas, rubber bullets and live rounds, and leaving a still-unknown number of people injured.

Nilia Quintero, an organizer from Putumayo working with the national mobilization, said by phone from the departmental capital of Mocoa on October 9 that “we have concentrated some 400 peasant farmers here, and we are awaiting the arrival of more tomorrow. Now we are calling on the departmental government to name a commission to investigate and resolve this.”

But despite all the repression from a government that has shown itself to be deeply afraid of its opponents, there is truly an explosion of both social protest occurring now all across this vast country. It is revealing not just the insatisfaction with the President Uribe, but just how united the rural social movement has become on a national level.

Stay tuned, because we will soon bring you updates on this peaceful uprising.