August 2008 FOR Colombia Peace Presence Update
In this Update:
- Letter from the Field: Flowers and Bananas
- The Army Did It
- Killing Metrics: State Department 'Certifies' Colombian Human Rights
- Seeking the Truth: An Interview with Guillermo Mateus
Letter from the Field: Flowers and Bananas
by Zara Zimbardo
Zara Zimbardo is a member of the National Council of FOR, an independent media producer, and teaches classes on critical media literacy and the politics of representation. She participated in the FOR delegation to Colombia in August that focused on impunity and the struggles to overcome it.
We are exploring many interconnected facets of impunity and strategies of nonviolent resistance. Deepening understanding of the tremendous power and bleakness of the forces that create and maintain impunity is overwhelming, and in this context the spaces of hope, courage, persistence, solidarity, inspiration and community shine all the more brightly. As U.S. citizens we are keeping an eye on the role of the U.S. in the Colombian conflict, and two examples in particular struck me - the flower and banana trades.
Two products that for me have connotations of friendliness, comfort, beauty, innocence, expressions of love - unlike resources like oil and diamonds which the public knows are implicated in horrifying systems of violence. It was devastating to learn about how companies like Chiquita are intimately linked to state violence and paramilitary terror: a paramilitary leader boasted that a major victory was to get arms shipments through the private port of Chiquita, massive violence is used to forcibly displace communities to make way for plantations, and the mechanisms to hold a company like Chiquita accountable and demand justice and reparation are ineffective and offensive at best. The peace community of San Jose has been affected by banana-trade violence and is working in collaboration with other organizations to challenge the company.
While I was familiar with the hideousness of the history of fruit trade in Central and South America, it was new to learn about the flower industry. We heard from a spokesperson from CACTUS, an organization that provides legal support to women workers in the flower industry, which is a case study in unjust trade policies and lived practices. (Neo)colonial patterns of undermining native economic security and food sovereignty by forcing the creation of export-only mono-crop plantations of commercial luxury items to pay off external debt. Not a new story, but I am seeing it with new eyes in a new context. In this case flowers (shipped to the U.S. and Europe, with the highest demand of course for Valentines Day) are part of the commercial component of the "war on drugs," "replacing" illicit crops. While this succeeds as an economic model it fails as a development model, and women bear the worst brunt - entering the labor market they are discriminated within it, not allowed to organize, denied workers rights, unable to obtain medical aid for work-related disabilities from cutting flowers and being exposed to pesticides. They are demanding trade with justice, and dignity and visibility as workers in this industry.
Which products do we think deeply about as consumers in the U.S.? While supporting fair trade coffee and chocolate are on the collective radar, it seems that bananas and especially flowers are not understood as emblematic of unjust trade that affects thousands of lives. How do we allow ourselves to be shocked by the familiar? How might flower-flooded holidays like Valentines be a reminder to broaden our vision and compassion and solidarity? The name CACTUS signifies that while a rose cannot be a rose without its thorns, so a cactus always blooms with a flower of hope.
Ever since the February 2005 massacre, in which members of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, including three children were brutally killed, the Peace Community has signaled the Army’s 17th Brigade as responsible. All along, Colombian officials, including President Uribe, then- Defense Minister Jorge Uribe-Echavarria and the head of the Armed Forces General Ospina vehemently denied the army’s responsibility in the massacre and instead said that FARC guerrillas were responsible. To prove such an assertion, the Colombian state produced false witnesses, maps of military operations and slandered the memory of Peace Community leader Luis Eduardo Guerra by accusing him of being a guerrilla who planned to desert. (They presented this as a motive for the guerrillas ordering Luis Eduardo’s killing.)
17th Brigade Chief Implicated in Massacre
Now, more than three years after the massacre, the criminal investigation is showing that the Peace Community was right. Brigade Captain Guillermo Gordillo has accepted responsibility for the massacre and entered in a plea bargain with the attorney’s general office.
Captain Gordillo has also implicated General Jaime Fandiño – commander of the 17th Brigade at the time of the massacre- as having authorized the so-called “Operation Fenix”, a military operation carried out jointly by the Army and Heroes of Tolova paramilitaries troops under the command of Diego Murillo, alias Don Berna.
General Fandiño apparently not only participated in the massacre, but also tried to cover up the truth. Last fall, a paramilitary known as “Melaza” began telling the prosecutors about army and paramilitary responsibility for the massacre. In November, according to Gordillo, General Fandiño called him and ordered him to keep quiet about participation of paramilitary troops in the operation. “He told me under no circumstances should I say that there were armed civilians guiding nor any other personnel but the soldiers,” Gordillo said. The general said “that there were already testimonies of two informants, of two guerrillas, saying that those people had been killed by the [58th Front of] FARC”. Capitan Gordillo also accused Lieutenant Colonel Espinosa of trying to keep Gordillo quiet.
Demobilized paramilitaries also involved in massacre
Before being extradited to the United States, “Don Berna” confessed to prosecutors that his men participated in the February 2005 massacre, despite the fact that at the time, he and his Heroes of Tolova paramilitary troops had officially “demobilized” three months before. This shows the failure of the so-called demobilization process: after laying down their arms, paramilitaries engaged in an atrocity such as this massacre. Yet the demobilization process is hailed by both the Colombian and US governments as a reason to continue military aid and ratify the Free Trade Agreement between the two countries.
Chiquita case and massacres against the Peace Community
Another paramilitary leader, Hebert Veloza –alias H.H.- has began to shed light on the ties between the Army –particularly the 17th Brigade-, the banana companies operating in Urabá, including Chiquita Brands, and the atrocities committed by paramilitaries in Urabá. Veloza is in line to be extradited to the United States to face drug-related charges. In a long interview with Colombian daily El Espectador, Veloza explained how the banana companies funded and benefited from killings by paramilitaries. Veloza indicated than when “Heroes de Tolova” demobilized, they turned over some of the weapons given by Chiquita, but not all. That means that weapons that Chiquita purchased and shipped to Urabá were being used by the “Heroes de Tolova” at the time of the 2005 massacre.
Further strong ties between right-wing death squads and the banana industry have begun to surface after the arrest of banana executive and demobilized paramilitary leader Raul Hasbun, who has admitted to coordinating payments by banana companies to paramilitaries. He indicated that part of the strategy included killings of Peace Community members. Chiquita Brands, Del Monte and Dole appear among the banana companies involved in funding the right-wing death squads.
By John Lindsay-Poland
The Bush administration certified on July 29 that the Colombian government of Alvaro Uribe “has undertaken profound changes to its justice system; military doctrine and practices; and government institutions,” and by certifying released more than $180 million in military assistance to the Colombian armed forces.
The funds, to be used for helicopters, training and other aid, correspond to 18 months of funding that is subject to human rights conditions, including effective prosecution of soldiers for human rights abuses and cutting ties between military and paramilitary forces. During the same 18-month period, the Army reportedly murdered more than 400 Colombians outside of combat, according to data compiled by Colombian human rights groups, including a report presented to the State Department less than a week before the certification was issued.
The 130-page certification document reports progress in investigations and preventive detentions of soldiers for many human rights crimes committed in the last decade. The pace of investigations has been quickened by the addition of 900 prosecutors and investigators, which augurs well for the struggle against impunity.
The question is: Given the nearly total impunity with which soldiers have committed their crimes, what level of effective prosecution for those crimes justifies sending hundreds of millions of dollars worth of lethal assistance? Is impunity for every other killing acceptable? Impunity for three out of four killings? For nine out of ten killings?
For the five-year period ending in mid-2007, human rights groups documented 955 extrajudicial killings by Colombia’s armed forces (nearly all by the army) – for which only two cases involving seven victims had resulted in a conviction and sentence, as of last October. There has indeed been progress: the State Department documents criminal convictions and sentences in an additional seven cases of army killings of civilians that occurred during the same period, involving 10 victims. Although soldiers have been detained or suspended in many other cases, and administrative action has been taken against hundreds of soldiers, the total sum of criminal prosecutions and sentences accounts for 17 out of 955 Colombians killed by the army. In other words, the rate of impunity had been reduced from 99.2% to 98.2%. If that rate of improvement holds steady, impunity for Colombian army killing of civilians will end by 2086.
In addition to certification, legislation known as the “Leahy Amendment” prohibits US assistance to foreign military units that have committed gross human rights abuses. So, could it be that those killings are being committed by parts of the Colombian army that don’t receive US aid?
That’s not the case. Where the responsible was unit was identified, army units financed by the United States in 2006 and/or 2007committed at least 47% of extrajudicial killings in 2007, according to an analysis we conducted, using data from the State Department and the Colombian Human Rights Observatory.
The State Department insists that the Colombian military leadership has changed its policies, and no longer measures its success by the number of insurgents killed. Yet, in a remarkable 10-page section on Colombian “operations to restore civilian government authority” required by US law conditioning assistance, the State Department recounts dozens of military operations, highlighting in each the number of “terrorists killed. ” For State Department officials, apparently, the metrics of killing are still very much the standard for success.
We have another idea. Instead of twisting logic to conform to the desire to continue supporting the Uribe government, the new administration in Washington in January should fully embrace respect for human rights in deed as well as word, and end US aid to the Colombian army.
FOR has awarded its Pfeffer Peace Prize to Guillermo Mateus Corredor, an attorney in the Colombian Inspector General’s Special Investigations Unit. The unit is charged with investigating human rights violations committed by members of the Colombian Armed Forces and other public officials. The work carried out by Guillermo Mateus and other investigators at the Inspector General’s office has demonstrated that, contrary to what the government has long claimed, the February 2005 massacre in San José de Apartadó was part of a military operation carried out by the Army and right-wing paramilitaries, and had been planned several days in advance.
The other recipients of this year’s Pfeffer Prize are the Colombian Mennonite leader Ricardo Esquivia, and Service for Peace and Justice (SERPAJ) in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The prize will be awarded on Sunday, September 14 at the FOR Festival of Peace, in Nyack, NY, where Mateus, Esquiva and Pietro Ameglio of SERPAJ-Cuernavaca will be present. FOR spoke with Mateus in Bogotá.
FOR: What motivates to you to do the work that you do?
Guillermo Mateus: Several things. First, to contribute to society through the administration of justice. Second, to give confidence to the victims that through my work, I’ll do everything in my power to find the truth, and to find what happened with their loved ones that were disappeared or murdered.
FOR: How do you go about your work?
Mateus: Sometimes I hear about a crime in the news, sometimes from the victim. In either case, I give it the same importance. I look at the facts and find something that doesn’t fit, either in the victim’s version of the facts, or the armed forces’ version, or in the crime scene itself. That is how we create several hypotheses of what might have happened.
The most important thing in seeking the truth is the knowledge you get through work experience. In a similar manner, as the methods to commit crimes evolve, so does the way to do forensic investigation. For instance, some time ago, the army used to kill peasants and dress them in fatigues after killing them – to pass them off as guerrillas killed in combat. But you could easily find out the truth, because there were no bullet holes in the clothing. You no longer see that.
To me, it doesn’t matter the victim’s condition: whether the person was a guerilla, a paramilitary, or a peasant. The armed forces often use such conditions as excuses, in cases of extrajudicial executions.
My time in the army helps me in my work, as I am able [now] to understand the context of what the army tells me. [Ed.: Military service is mandatory for all Colombian male adults.]
FOR: How did you get into this work?
Mateus: I started in 1991 as a driver in the Special Investigations Unit. For my work, I had to travel throughout Colombia, for instance seeking Alirio de Jesus Pedraza, a human rights defender that was purportedly disappeared by DAS [the secret police]. He disappeared outside Bogotá. Years later, the Colombian state was found responsible for his disappearance.
In 1993, I became “special agent” at the unit, collecting evidence. I was trained in how to conduct crime scene investigations by U.S. officials, and I then taught the attorney general’s office how to operate some of the equipment. At that time, I was alternating as a special agent and chief of the unit director’s bodyguards. In 1999, I started going to law school and went from just collecting evidence to instructing the investigations. I also participated in an inter-institutional criminal judicial police training.
FOR: How do you approach people in your work?
Mateus: There are ways to reach all types of different people. First, never lie to them. Be honest regarding what can you do and what may happen. As a rule, I never promise something I can’t deliver. Some of the people are outlaws while others are innocent; I treat them the same in my process.
FOR: What has been the hardest part of your work?
Mateus: The toughest part is that an investigator, to get results, might interview someone and have the experience of that person getting killed. [Ed.: The work of human rights investigators is extremely difficult due to efforts to silence witnesses, and the culture of impunity that exists.]
FOR: Can you share with us an important achievement?
Mateus: One of the most important moments in my career came with the case of the El Chengue massacre, in which several navy officials were found responsible and fired, including one general, a colonel, one major, and two non-commissioned officers.
In El Chengue, paramilitaries arrived into the town at 4 a.m., while people were sleeping. The paramilitaries separated men from women, and took all the men to one side of the road. They sat them down and then killed them, by hitting them with mallets. They did this because they considered the entire town of being collaborators with the guerrillas. In total, 28 people were killed. Their houses were also burned.
Later on, the attorney investigating the massacre, Yolanda Patermina, was killed. Some of my colleagues working on the investigation from the attorney general’s Technical Investigation Team were also murdered. When we wanted to go to the site, no one would take us there; we had to go in an ambulance, with the mayor of Ovejas (Sucre). When we left, people were hanging from the ambulance, begging us to take them out of there.
My biggest satisfaction has been to show that at the Inspector General’s office we investigate human rights violations. The country needs to know that there are currently more than 3,000 investigations for forced disappearance being done. My dream is that one day there will be more people investigating such cases. Unfortunately, so many cases remain in impunity. How many more investigations do we have to undertake so the country realizes that indeed there are extrajudicial executions?
A human rights investigator is not born, [she] is made: by going on foot, riding a mule, traveling in the rain forest, and working under extreme climate and among vultures.