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Colombia confronts the sword: paramilitarism prompts appeals to church and peace groups.

Paramilitarism prompts appeals to church and peace groups

SAN VICENTE DE CHUCURI, Colombia -- When Luisa Fernanda Bustamante saw visitors approaching her tiny cocoa bean farm in Colombia's lush Santander department Jan. 25, she thought paramilitary gunmen had come to get her and her 12-year-old son.

Within minutes, however, Bustamante (not her real name) realized the visitors were friendly. They were Canadians from the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America who had come to her her story.

But Bustamante, a local peasant leader, immediately explained there was no time to talk: These foreigners were, perhaps, her last hope to escape being murdered by right-wing paramilitary squads who had already given her warnings and blocked her transit from the zone. Bustamante said she decided to take advantage of the foreigners' presence. She quickly packed her meager belongins into plastic bags, left a message for her husband and began an exodus with her son and the family mascot, a scrawny, black puppy.

Paramilitary republic

Bustamante is just one of thousands of peasants from the region of San Vicente de Chucuri whose lives are being threatened by a right-wing paramilitary strategy supported by the Colombian armed forces.

Paramilitary groups have already taken control of the neighboring zone of Carmen del Chucuri, killing hundreds of peasants and displacing thousands, nearly one-third of the population, as part of a counterinsurgency war against left-wing guerrillas.

Despite continuous denunciations from Colombia's Intercongregational Commission for Justice and Peace about paramilitary actions in El Carmen, little action has been taken by civilian authorities to stop their march forward. And now these civilian death squads are moving into San Vicente del Chucuri, the cocoa bean capital of Colombia.

ICCHRLA team members Lee Ann Purchase, from the Canadian Presbyterian Church; Bill Fairbain, director; Jim Hodgson, from the Canadian Council of Churches; and Blessed Virgin Mary Sister Doryne Kirby, representing the Canadian Council of Religious, visited the region in late January to document human rights abuses and to spark an international campaign they say may help stop the blood dance of the death squads.

Said Purchase, "To go to the region, to hear the stories directly, to watch the fear in people's eyes -- that changes your life. You cannot walk away. In a sense, this has been an apocalyptic moment. For me, God pulled back the drape a little bit more."

"Your visit is practically the only alternative for my region," a young Christian base community leader and human rights activist who fled San Vicente in December told the ICCHRLA team.

"There is nothing else that can be done. The zone is desolate. The peasants from my land have been killed in heaps. The people are persecuted, tortured. They are like the people of Israel; they are trying to resist a project of egotism and death that contradicts the project of life that Jesus Christ had in mind."

Subverting subversion

"Oh, and I have bad news for you," the young woman said, smiling mischievously. "In my region, where you are about to visit, anyone who says they stand for human rights is considered a subversive!"

Indeed, there are subversives in the zone. The National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas both have important fronts operating in the region.

But, say sources, the majority of killings canb be traced to the army's counterinsurgency campaign and the paramilitary strategy that, in the name of fighting leftists, takes aim at unarmed peasants, civic leaders, human rights activists, members of Christian base communities and townspeople.

"The army's actions against the guerrillas in this region turn into abusive actions against the peasants. People's rights are not respected," said Bishop Juan Francisco Sarasti of the Barrancabermeja diocese, which includes the San Vicente region.

The paramilitary strategy is the most brutal aspect of the counterinsurgency scheme. Under the paramilitary policy, no neutrality is permitted, peasants from the region explained. Anyone who does not want to cooperate with the paramilitary, or so-called "self-defense" groups, is considered a subversive -- a title that practically connotes a death sentence.

In some cases, peasants are also threatened by the left-wing guerrillas if they are thought to be collaborating with the paramilitary squads. But all of the peasants consulted said the guerrillas never force them to take up arms.

San Vincente residents said the paramilitary advance has accelerated since President Cesar Gaviria Trujillo declared a state of emergency and an all-out offensive against Colombia's left-wing guerillas in November. In the case of El Carmen, many peasants decided to go along with the paramilitary squads because they did not want to lose their land. Today, the army boasts that the people of El Carmen said not to the left-wing guerillas.

Damned if you do

But denunciations from San Vicente, where the paramilitary strategy is in its early stage, show that peasants are forced to support the so-called self-defense plan against the rebels.

"The paramilitary leaders say that if we don't cooperated and come to their meetings, they will kill us," a member of a delegation of peasants representing 40 families said. "We don't want those people around here. Our parents always taught us that the most important thing in life was to work our land."

Led by parish priest Carlos Valencia, another group of 350 peasants from the hamlet of Yarima recently wrote a letter to the regional army commander, publicly opposing the paramilitary presence in their zone.

Forcing people to join the paralimitary strategy -- or forcing them into exile if they do not -- violates the peasant's internationally recognized rights as noncombatants who live in areas of armed conflict to be protected and remain neutral.

Moreover, other serious human rights violations like disappearances and assassinations have accelerated in some hamlets of San Vicente in recent months, the peasant delegation explained, and many farmers have already fled the zone in fear.

"Each day, more and more peasants are leaving their land. This means they cannot grow crops anymore, and without this production, the country will only experience more misery," an elderly peasant said.

The paramilitary gunmen, locally known as masetos, also roam freely in the town square of San Vicente. In late December, they assassinated a transit employee who was standing under the atrium of the local cathedral.

Despite showers of denunciations claiming the army works hand in hand with the paramilitary groups, the local military commander, Lt. Col. Javier Calderon Realpe, claims such reports are part of misinformation campaigns.

"The guerrillas train the peasants to make such denunciations. And our troops have never committed excesses or abuses of human rights," he said. Calderon insisted that left-wing guerrillas had forced peasants to present denunciations to the Canadian human rights delegation.

But according to Sarasti, "These paramilitary or self-defense groups are directly backed by the army under the pretext of combating the guerrillas. The army denies this completely. And when I try to discuss this issue with the military, it is like holding a conversation with the deaf."

Shades of Salvador

Paramilitary violence is not a phenomenon isolated in the Santander region. Paramilitary groups have been used in Colombia as countersurgency and low-intensity warfare tools since the early 1980s: Linked closely, in most cases, to the police and army, they operate a lot like the death squads that have terrorized Guatemala and El Salvador for years.

Elected local government officials from Colombia's San Vicente region have recently been pegged as guerrillas because they disagree with the paramilitary model. Mayor Saul Pico, for example, has received threats. Shortly after the members of the ICCHRLA commission left the zone, the young personero, or government ombudsman who receives complaints of human rights abuses, was forced to flee the town. Once in Bogota, the young man, who had served as an escort to the Canadians, explained why he had to leave.

"You see, the day you left, I received a little note," he said somberly. He reached into a manila envelope and pulled out a funeral announcement bearing his own name.

Meanwhile, people who are being forced into exodus have little hope of finding a land of milk and honey in Colombia's larger cities.

Explained Franciscan Father Ricardo Mateus, who lives in a poor barrio of Barrancabermeja, the city where many Santander seek refuge: "When people flee to the city, they end up living in misery. Mothers become washerwomen to feed their children. These people cannot return to the countryside, because they will be assassinated.

"The kids, especially the youth, are bitter, malnourished, and they are extremely affected by the violence. Many of them end up getting involved in common crime or in a guerilla organization."

Poorpeasants used to be able to live temporarily, at least until they found work, in a refugee center in Barrancabermeja. But military repression and paramilitary attacks against the center prompted its closure last year. Oneof the purposes of the Canadian delegation's visit was to help set up the groundwork for the reopening of the Barrancabermeja refugee center.


Colombian human rights groups have requested that delegations from the International Peace Brigades, a program similar to the Witness for Peace organization that established a permanent, foreign presencein border zones of Nicaragua during the 1980s, come andlive in the peasant hostel to provide a safety buffer for families displaced by violence.

The Canadian delegation's visit also coincided with the publication of the English-language version of an extensive report on the zone, which was first put out by Colombia's Intercongregational Commission for Justice and Peace (see accompanying story).

The report, "The Paramilitary Strategy Imposed on Colombia's Chucuri Region," is a detailed account of how officially backed paramilitary squads took over the municipality of El Carmen, which is adjacent to San Vicente, committing hundreds of crimes against humanity. These death squads are the same ones that have begun to move into the San Vicente region.
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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Wirpsa, Leslie
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Apr 9, 1993
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