Progress Article: Ellie Reeves Recalls Visits to Colombia

Justice For Colombia News | | credit: Progress Online on: Monday, 16 April 2012
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Justice for Colombia

By Ellie Reeves

I first visited Colombia five years ago. It was a harrowing experience which will remain with me for the rest of my life.

I was shocked and appalled by the stories of human rights abuses. The women health workers who told us they had been threatened and forced to leave their homes for going on strike when they were not paid for a month.

The mother who told us that her son had disappeared from their rural village. He was found a few days later, tortured then shot by the military. They dressed him in a guerrilla outfit and said he died in combat. Only his body was riddled with bullets, while the outfit had no marks.

And the daughter living in a shanty town who told us how her mum had been shot dead by the police. They’d come for her brother but he was not at home. They opened fire anyway and the woman was killed. The officer was never brought to justice.

Since that trip five years ago, Colombia has elected President Santos, who talks with great skill about improving human rights in the country. Halfway into his term I was keen to go back to Colombia to see if things really have changed. I was saddened to see that they had not.

Colombia still has by far the worst human rights record in the western hemisphere with extrajudicial executions, forced displacement and disappearances, torture and assassinations. It remains the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist.

At a meeting with the Movement for Victims we heard from peasant farmers who had been forced off their land because large companies wanted it. One man told us that when he tried to resist he was tortured by paramilitaries. He held out his hand with fingers missing to show us what had been done to him.

Another told us how he has been forced off land that had been in his family for generations. He is fighting to get it back, but the authorities have produced paperwork allegedly showing that the land was signed over freely by his father. He told us that the whole thing was a sham – his father had passed away before the date on the papers.

In Puerto Asiz, a heavily militarised town in the south, people travelled from miles away to give testimony about the human rights abuses they had suffered. Among them were indigenous people who explained that their entire community had been forced off their land.

President Santos has passed a land and victims law. It has been hailed in Colombia and abroad as a groundbreaking piece of legislation that provides millions of victims of displacement with the legal means to get their land back. But the reality is very different.

None of the victims or victims’ groups were consulted before the law was passed, and had no input into how it would work. The law doesn’t even apply to those displaced before 1991 and contains no provisions for prosecuting those that stole the land in the first place.

The law only deals with restoring land, and not the goods or infrastructure that was lost when the victim was forced to move. And land considered to be of economic interest will not be returned.

The government’s aim is to return 2,100 plots of land during 2012. At that rate, with the somewhat conservative estimate of 360,000 plots in total, it will take 50 years before all of the land is returned.

Another human rights travesty is the false positives scandal. In 2005, the Ministry of Defence issued a directive giving financial incentives to soldiers who killed guerrillas. Rewards ranged from payments to time off and promotions. A short while afterwards, Santos became minister for defence.

After the rewards scheme was implemented human rights organisations reported an upsurge in extrajudicial killings. Santos denounced the reports as ‘a pantomime with clear political intentions’.

While in Colombia we met with the Mothers of Soacha, whose children had been victims of the false positives scandal. Soacha is a poor suburb of Bogota, where 23 young men went missing. The mothers we met with explained how their sons had all been lured away by the promise of work, too good an opportunity to pass up in an area with high unemployment. One of the men had a mental age of just nine, another was only 17.

All of the men were all later found dead, miles away from home, dressed in guerilla uniforms – killed by the military so that the soldiers could claim their rewards.

The men had walked into a death trap.

Their mothers have been campaigning for years to get the perpetrators tried for these crimes. Yet many of the cases are not being actively pursued by the authorities, others have been trapped in a judicial system which offers little hope to victims.

One thing is clear though: despite these atrocities taking place under Santos’ watch, there is no political will on the part of the Colombian government to provide justice to the Mothers of Soacha.

One bit of hope came from a visit to the university in Bogota. The police and military are not allowed in to the university and it is a place where students can make expressions of freedom which simply would not be possible outside. The walls of the building, both inside and out, are covered in graffiti of freedom slogans and solidarity messages. The wall by the entrance to the law faculty has a huge picture of Che Guevara painted by the students, more iconic pictures of him cover the lecture theatre walls. Our host for the visit was Gloria (not her real name), a young physics student. Gloria is a student leader and she told us that sometimes the police tried to storm the campus, the university security are often former paramilitaries, and recently a medical student taking part in a protest was killed. She showed us a plaque to commemorate student activists who had been murdered.

I asked Gloria what her hopes were for Colombia. She told me that she hoped for a Colombia that was democratic and free from oppression. She wanted a country where there was fairness and equality. She wanted freedom in education and to live without fear.

I asked her if she thought that would be possible. She paused and reflected for a while then responded that she thought it would be difficult but that if everyone put in their one grain of sand, little by little it could be achieved.

I was moved by her courage and determination in the face of adversity.

But her words and her hope is why international solidarity and organisations like Justice for Colombia are so important. If everyone in the trade union and labour movement put in their grain of sand – by lobbying their MP or writing to the Colombian ambassador in the UK, by making it clear that the world is watching and that the international community will not accept the killings and the human rights abuses – then little by little you can help make a difference in Colombia.

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