Colombia: Arauca Hopes for a New Dawn

June 12, 2006

By Sherry Harbert

One woman helps set in motion a movement that may change the desperate lives of many Colombians in the midst of the war between paramilitaries and government forces.

An hour before Yaneth Perez spoke to a small Portland audience in April, she sat quietly in a chair with her back to the entrance of the room. Besides the apparent exhaustion from her month-long speaking tour through the Pacific Northwest, Perez seemed untroubled by another speaking engagement. Back in her home town of Saravena, Colombia, Perez faces a daunting struggle to gain basic services and survive in one of the most dangerous places in the world.

Saravena is a city of about 31,000 people, nestled along the Northwest border of Arauca and Venezuela. It’s scenic beauty masks the insecurity and violence Perez and her community face everyday. Guns are everywhere. There are Colombian army personal patrolling the streets in full combat gear, while armed paramilitaries come out at night. The violence comes from all sides, leaving the citizens of Saravena to contend with harassment, threats, disappearances and death, besides a dismal lack of basic services. There is no safe side for Saravena. Its citizens are caught between rival paramilitary factions, drug traffickers and government military with its paramilitary supporters. Add to that hired personal to protect an oil pipeline and a picture of utter helplessness emerges. The fighting in Colombia has gone on for decades, but dramatically increased in the Arauca department in the mid 1980s with the discovery and construction of the Cano-Limon oil fields and pipeline, operated by the U.S. Occidental Oil company.

In September, 2002, the same year the U.S. government increased military aid to $99 million in equipment and training for two fiscal years in Arauca alone, 700 Colombian soldiers from the Colombian 18th Army Brigade surrounded Perez’ city. The tactic to shut off any escape route allowed the army and police to raid homes and round up more than 2,000 people that Amnesty International called a mass detention. The Colombian government named the action Operation Heroic, to round up alleged members of the leftist paramilitaries. They photographed, interrogated and threatened union members, teachers, medical workers and other townspeople before releasing most of them. Perez said some of the town’s leaders are still in prison in what she referred to as the government’s selective detentions.

Operation Heroic was but a single incident in Saravena. For Perez, violence is a daily occurrence. That is why it was so striking to see Perez with her back to the entrance in the meeting room at St. Micheal’s and All Angels Episcopal Church in Portland several months ago. Anyone who lives under the constant threat of violence never places themselves in such a vulnerable position. Such conditions mandate a complete awareness of one’s surroundings. And so for Perez, that moment to simply rest must have been a cherished.

Perez is anything but unaware of her surroundings. She said the psychological war is as bad as the physical one in Arauca. “Women are the most affected,” she said. “They kill our husbands, then go to the schools dressed as clowns to invite the children to become informants.” Amnesty and other human rights organizations confirm such tactics. “Women leaders in prison are raped, oppressed and killed by soldiers,” Perez told the audience, stating that most of those events happen on the military installations. One of the largest in the area is located just outside Saravena. It was built and equipped mostly with U.S. tax dollars as part of the U.S. government’s dual strategy to eradicate drugs and provide security for the Cano-Limon pipeline. A 2005 U.S. General Accounting Office report finds that the civilian population is caught between the security forces and the paramilitaries who often strike at the pipeline and the town.

Perez has conquered an enormous fear of retribution to organize her community. She formed the Dawn of Women for Arauca in 2004 with only four members. “We saw a lot of problems,” Perez said. “We saw we could organize ourselves, so we learned about our rights and invited more women to join.” One year later, Perez’ organization became official and Perez was elected as its first president. Now with almost 40 members, the Dawn of Women are slowly creating their own grass roots community based on democratic ideals.

For Perez, the movement is much more than survival. It is to build a better future. “We are aware and believe in the union of people, to defend our territory” said Perez. “We want to build a balance with nature and leave future generations a life.” Perez believes it is possible to stop the war and have negotiated solutions with social justice.

Her war resembles some of the similarities to what is happening in Darfur, Sudan, and the numbers are also eerily similar. The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees lists Colombia as having the largest internally-displaced (IDP) population outside of Darfur, Sudan, ranging between two and three million people. Those numbers only reflect the living. The murders and disappearances have devastated every community in the country.

What is different from the situation in Sudan is the huge amount of U.S. money flowing into the country. Reports by the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO), the Energy Information Administration (EIA) and U.S. Department of State all recognize the intense danger faced by Colombians. But, the U.S. has had other plans for Colombia. It began as the “War on Drugs,” but has ballooned into the “War on Terror” with its Plan Colombia Since 2000, the U.S. has funneled more than $4 billion into the country. Colombia now ranks only third behind Israel and Egypt for the most U.S. aid.

With such huge amounts of money going into the country, it would seem that much more information would come out. But, as Perez has learned, it is the very lack of concern and accountability that has created one of the world’s greatest human rights’ disasters in her country. Her purpose for traveling around the Pacific Northwest earlier this year was to bring awareness to the problem so often ignored by the rest of the world. Except for international human rights groups, think tanks and the United Nations, there would be little if any information emerging from the country. For most Americans, Colombia represents coffee and drugs.

Perez said one of the most important things NGOs and individuals can do for her country is to simply be there. She said accompaniment, the act of international visitors providing a physical presence in the area, is one way that keeps her efforts going and keeps her safe. So far, she has not been jailed, but she continues to be harassed for her actions.

One organization that is helping Perez is the Montana Human Rights Network (MHRN). They joined with Portland’s Witness for Peace Northwest and others to bring Perez to the U.S. to tell her story. Scott Nicholson of MHRN has been travelling to Colombia each summer for the past five years to provide accompaniment. In an email, Nicholson said he “wanted to see for myself the impact of our tax dollars in Colombia.” He takes a leave of absence from his job and pays his own way to stand up for the human rights’ violations in the country. Nicholson has learned much from his visits and was a perfect match to translate for Perez when she was in Portland. He said that accompaniments like his make the paramilitaries less likely to follow through on their threats in the presence of an international witness.

A Democratic Plan?

The May 28 election in Colombia was hailed as positive progress for the country’s hard-line direction by most of the world’s major media outlets. Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe Velez won his second term in what most media reports call a landslide. Indeed, 62 percent was a significant number for the leader who changed Colombia’s constitution to allow a second term for president. Images of cheering voters lining the streets of Bogota were played on television, the internet and in newspapers. “It is almost impossible to get information out about the social injustices in Colombia,” said Perez. For the few brave journalists that try, they are threatened or killed. Amnesty, along with media watchdog groups, issues dozens of warnings regarding journalists fates each year. And during the election, Uribe denounced media outlets for investigating any corruption inside the government. In Colombia, Uribe words create deadly consequences for journalists who are then targeted by the pro-army insurgents in the country.

Most media reports lauded the lack of violence during the last elections as a show of success for Uribe’s policies. But the massively militarized state kept many people away from the polls. Only about a quarter of the population (11.6 million) voted. Bloomberg reported that almost a quarter of a million security forces were deployed. With threats from most of the paramilitaries, much of the population stayed home. Largely ignored with the other infrastructure attacks, mostly on power plants and water systems. Saravena lost all its drinking water to an attack on its aqueduct during the elections of the legislature held two weeks earlier.

As long as the democratic process produced what the Bush Administration wanted, Uribe’s re-election was hailed as a victory. Besides the huge military operations in the country, Colombia represents something far greater for the U.S.—oil. At least half a dozen U.S. oil companies have some interest in the country. Business in good and the administration sees it expanding even more with their latest push for a free trade agreement. The administration is pressing for an agreement under the Andean Trade Preference Act (ATPA) which will open even more trade for multinational corporations doing business in Colombia. Warnings from most NGOs that the free trade agreement will effectively eradicate much of the farming in the country goes unheeded. The office of the U.S. Trade Representative notes that Colombia is the second largest agricultural market for the U.S. It’s good for U.S. wheat, cotton and soybean farmers here, but bad for Colombian farmers. They are caught in a no-win situation. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has suggested Colombia coca farmers take up cotton farming or their crops will be destroyed. Now with the U.S. opening the way for U.S. cotton in the country, the farmers could be wiped out from competition with Wal-Mart, Liz Claiborne and the National Cotton Council (all which have signed their support for the free trade agreement).

Colombia’s only profitable crop is coca. Even its coffee crops have long been depleted with markets opening in dozens of countries around the world. Colombia is the largest producer of coca in the world. It is why the U.S. has for decades been busy in the country to stem its growth. The U.S. policy has largely been to eradicate it through spraying and military force, threatening farmers if they do not switch crops.

It is a dilemma that is being played out in Afghanistan. Again the U.S. recommends farmers switch from growing poppies to much less marketable crops. Most farmers in both countries revert back to the drug crops to avoid starvation, even risking being sprayed by U.S. gunship helicopters with chemicals that put many of them in the hospital. Nicholson said that the Colombian trade agreement may only work for farmers in niche markets, like tropical fruits. But he senses when the agreement is implemented, (slated to go into effect in 2007 after both countries ratify the agreement), it will have devastating results on most farmers and sees them turning to coca as an only means of survival.

In Congressional hearings several weeks ago, Anne Patterson, the former U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, now the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics, told the House International Relations Committee a much more upbeat scenario, “nowhere has the progress been more pronounced than in Colombia.” Her lengthy statement set out to continue the large funding for Colombia in the 2007 budget through the military and the “War on Terror.” She claimed there was a “renewed self-confidence in the country...and public safety has improved.”

Not everyone in Congress is convinced of the “progress” made in Colombia. On March 1, 2006, 56 members including Oregon Representatives Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio, signed a letter urging Secretary Rice to stop military funding to Colombia until human rights violations stop. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) and the Center for International Policy (CIP), both non-partisan research NGOs in Washington, D.C., counter that the U.S. drug war has been successful. Both NGOs claim it an abysmal failure that further exasperates the war between the government and paramilitaries. CIP stated that Arauca is the focus of a $99 million plan to protect the Cano-Limon pipeline alone. That kind of money buys big in the impoverished region.

Oil Speaks Louder than Guns

In September, 2005, the U.S. GAO issued a report on the efforts to secure the Cano-Limon pipeline and how U.S. funds have been used. The Cano-Limon pipeline is nearly 500 miles long, originating in Arauca. Operated by the U.S. Occidental Oil company, it generates 20 percent of Colombia’s oil each year. Because of its ties to the Colombian and U.S. governments it has been a prime target for paramilitaries. The largest amount of attacks were in 2001, with 170 separate incidences. But those attacks have drastically dropped with U.S. intervention and money. The GAO report states that the $99 million has been spent in three years since 2002 just for equipment and training for the Colombian army. It was in 2002 when the military was strong enough to surround Saravena and incarcerate several thousand people. One of the main uses of the money was to build an army base just outside Saravena. The report even includes photos of the base and details the equipment and helicopters. Now that all the major paramilitaries are classified as terrorist groups, the U.S. and Colombian government can fight them at all costs. The GAO said the infusion of U.S. money and technology is so sophisticated that if the pipeline is attacked, monitoring devices are sensitive enough to pick up an immediate drop in pressure and signal almost instant military response.

Perez said that since the pipeline was opened, the violence has increased. The GAO warned of another phase of war in Colombia. Occidental has stated that without more exploration, the Cano-Limon oil fields will eventually run out. The company says its best prospects are located in areas where coca is grown and controlled by the paramilitaries. With the massive amount of military in the region, the GAO said “security concerns no longer outweigh profit possibilities in the country.”

From Perez’ perspective, the citizens of Arauca see U.S. military help as a further device to increase violence and human rights’ violations. Perez said it began under the Clinton Administration, but has been “prolonged and worsened” under the Bush administration. “That is why 1995 changed everything,” said Perez. “Activists and unions changed from fighting for social issues to human rights’ issues.”

Perez said human rights’ violations come in many forms. Violence is one factor, but there is also an environmental crisis growing. “This war on terror is destroying our environment,” she said. “The oil and coal run into our waters. We want them to be responsible for the environmental degradation.”

One of the Dawn of Women for Arauca’s missions is to protect the environment and teach others to respect it for future generations. Her organization forms community councils from neighborhoods to form networks that request help from the government. The networks can include community activists, farmers, ranchers, building cooperatives and union members. The Colombian government has usually been unresponsive to the requests of its citizens outside the main metropolitan areas of Bogota and Caracas. In the 1970s  the peasants began to organize and strike for better working conditions and trade issues. Now, there are a myriad of grass roots organizations that have created is their own infrastructure.

Perez said she was speaking on behalf of all the organizations, including the indigenous communities in Arauca, to get their message out. The community networks have established water cooperatives to bring clean drinking water to the community and are working on organic farming practices to protect the land. Perez described a chocolate factory that is completely organic. They have also created educational cooperatives to teach others basic trades, environmental farming and human rights. One of their broadest goals is to establish an intercultural university to teach journalism, environmental studies and biological engineering. But, they lack teachers.

Such community efforts would be celebrated in the U.S., but for the citizens of Arauca it is a different matter. Perez told the audience that the government does not community organizing. She said the more the people organize, the government becomes more repressive. One of greatest factors for the governments stance it wants to open the land to multinational corporations. With between two to three million Colombians displaced within their own country, the government looks like its getting what it wants at the expense of its own people.

The Justice and Peace Law

According to Nicholson and numerous human rights organizations like Amnesty International, there is a stark difference to what was shown after the election and what is really happening in the country. “The sense I get is that a second term of Uribe will be worse,” said Nicholson. “There will be more direct and increased repression.” Nicholson said the repression of people has become institutionalized.

According to the International Crisis Group, a non-partisan research NGO, Uribe’s strategy to reinsert more than 35,000 paramilitaries into the population must be balanced with the rights of the citizens, especially in the rural areas. ICG recommends a Rural Governance and a Regional/Municipal Development strategy to reduce poverty and increase development. It also recommends Uribe adhere to the 2005 Peace and Justice Law, which offers amnesty to paramilitaries who renounce their violence and give up their guns. But the law is extremely controversial. Human rights’ organizations say the law effectively allows those who commit atrocities to walk away with almost no repercussions. A maximum of eight years is all any paramilitary, including the most brutal, would ever face. The JPL also won’t adhere to international requests, except from the U.S. And no option is granted for the International Criminal Court, even though Colombia is a member of the ICC.

COHA has blasted the JPL as a mockery of justice for the victims. In April, 2006, COHA issued a report that faults many of the tenants of the JPL, including its prescribed immunity for demobilized paramilitaries from extradition and prosecution from the ICC. When Under Secretary Patterson cited 134 Colombians extradited to the U.S. to face drug tafficking charges in 2005, there was no mention that the JPL would effectively nullify such extraditions in the future, especially for any pro-government paramilitaries. When Colombia was writing the law, the U.S. was most effective in persuading the Colombian government to avoid international standards, which triggered a sharp rebuke from the UN.

A 2003 Human Rights Watch report on Colombia may reveal why. The report states in that in 2002, “The United States also pressed Colombia to sign a ‘non-extradition” agreement that would prohibit the extradition of U.S. and Colombian servicemen to stand trial before the ICC. Colombia complied, in large part because the U.S. threatened to prevent countries that were signatories to the Rome Statute and who had not signed the immunity pledge from receiving U.S. military aid.” With almost a doubling of U.S. aid in 2002 from previous years, data from CIP would appear a convenient quid pro quo.

Most of the paramilitaries that have been demobilized were affiliated with the United Self-Defense Forces (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC), which shared a rather cozy relationship with the Colombian Army. The government has yet to seriously indict any of the demobilized AUC members. The Colombian government is more inclined to go after those in the leftist paramilitary groups, namely the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). While each group has committed massive human rights violations, the government was quick to hand over 50 paramilitaries to the U.S. government for drug trafficking in 2006.

There is no shortage in calls for the Colombian government to put real justice into the JPL. But without comprehensive support for the victims, in compensation, protection from retribution and feasible means to form a rural governance structure, little will be accomplished by the JPL.

It is why many human rights and research NGOs stress the critical importance of U.S. foreign policy. Dozens of organizations have announced their support for stopping all U.S. military aid (which makes up about 80 percent of all aid each year) until transparent conditions are met. For Nicholson and the MHRN that means a guide to what should happen, but the reality is far different.

Through stays with host families during his summer visits, Nicholson has formed more than personal connections. Those connections led him to Perez. “I had heard about Perez and her organizing during my stay last year,” he said. “But I didn’t actually meet her until the very last.” Nicholson’s work in the country is one of the reasons the MHRN has taken on Colombia as one of their causes and has now established a sister relationship with the Dawn of Women for Arauca.

But Nicholson notes there is much more work to be done. He reiterated the need for the U.S. government to stop supporting the Colombian military as a step to pressure the Uribe’s government to seek a negotiated resolution with the people most affected in the war—the Colombian citizens. The number of alerts issued by human rights’ organizations for hundreds of union leaders, medical workers, teachers, journalists, community activists, farmers and ordinary citizens is mind-boggling. The violence and corruption has penetrated the very core of Colombia that only strong and decisive pressure from the U.S. government can counter the decades-old destruction of so many innocent lives. What is astounding is the continued strength that motivates Perez and others to continue their fight for survival and a future. Perez still believes “it is possible to work to stop the war and to have negotiated solutions with social justice.” It is up to the U.S. to make that happen before her name is added to the latest list of alerts.

© 2006 Foreign Interest. All rights reserved.

For more information:

Montana Human Rights Network

Amnesty International

Center for International Policy

International Crisis Group

Human Rights Watch

Council on Hemispheric Affairs


AIDS in Africa and A Foreign Idea artwork by Jacelen Pete,

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