By James Jordan, National Co-Coordinator
Alliance for Global Justice delegations center around making connections, gathering and disseminating important new information and, above all, training, inspiring and empowering delegates to return home and get active. We don’t do political tourism. We do go to pains to find partners who are involved in crucial struggles, but who have not been receiving adequate support and attention, and we try to put them in touch with US progressives.
This approach can be seen in our Colombia solidarity projects and it was reason enough for National Lawyers Guild members to contact us about joining as partners for a delegation in late May and early June. For several years now AFGJ has been working closely with FENSUAGRO, the National Federation of Peasant Unions and Associations, and with Lazos de Dignidad (Links of Dignity). Lazos advocates for the human rights of political prisoners, including their liberty. We also have connections to a number of other organizations in Colombia, including the Committee in Defense of Human Rights (CPDH) who, along with Lazos, acted as our hosts.
Participants arriving on May 27th did not have a lot of time to rest before our adventures began. After an evening of orientation, the next day we split into two groups, one going to the Southern Tolima, the other heading to Putumayo along the border with Ecuador. Farming and indigenous communities in these areas have been the victims of repeated abuses at the hands of the Colombian Armed Forces and paramilitaries. AFGJ has been following Fensuagro-associated unions in these departments for years and has published a number of related alerts and articles. For this reason, it was especially meaningful to visit villages and meet people personally who had been the subjects of some of our efforts. If I had to choose only one thing to communicate to supporters upon our return, it is this: YES, these alerts really matter and they help save lives and win struggles! We heard and we saw evidence again-and-again that international solidarity has been absolutely key for those in Colombia living under the threat of repression and war.
Perhaps the attention we received during our visits was a testament to our effectiveness. In Tolima, in both communities we visited members of the military stationed themselves outside while public testimony was being given. In one village soldiers said they were looking for insurgents hiding in the town, but when asked to provide names they had none. And in both villages residents refused to be silent.This was an act of courage, certainly, but it also was a recognition that by speaking out and having their messages carried to the world, they not only get some protection, but their struggles are closer to victory.
In Tolima and Putumayo our delegations were stopped at military checkpoints, which is not unusual in those parts. What was unusual was that in violation of the constitution, soldiers tried to record the names and addresses and passport numbers of delegates. Our Colombian partners urged us to stand firm and explained that this was part of an ongoing escalation they have seen aimed at squelching international solidarity. Our partners were able to secure the intervention of progressive members of the Colombian Congress and we were allowed to pass through without the information being recorded. In Putumayo, indigenous communities quickly gathered around and turned the whole event into an impromptu protest against military harassment.
Our groups were repeatedly exhorted to return to the United States and do all we could to stop the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia. This FTA is bad on many levels, but it is especially devastating to peasant farmers. More than 60% of those displaced by war in Colombia are family farmers, farmers unions are historically the most targeted for labor assassinations, and 5,000 of Colombia’s 7,500 political prisoners are small, family farmers. Why? Because big land-owners, agribusinesses and transnational corporations want access to the land and its resources. What Colombian farmers need is infrastructure development and land reform, not land-theft.
We also heard that, contrary to what we are being told in the US, human rights have not improved. Last year murders of unionists were higher than the two previous years, with 51 leaders killed, and impunity for political assassinations rose unbelievably to over 99%. With political arrests and displacement continuing unabated, those who speak of significant human rights improvements in Colombia are either woefully ill-informed, delusional or are lying.
After three days of these rural visits, we returned to Bogotá, where we met with a variety of labor unions, student groups, human rights defenders, journalists and members of the political opposition. We were especially focused on building solidarity with political prisoners. We heard that in Colombia advocacy for political prisoners is not just a matter of concern for human rights in the jails but an integral component for a peace process. It is widely held that resolving the cases of political prisoners as well as a humanitarian exchange of prisoners of war would be a first step toward the political solution.
Even before the delegation had begun former Senator Píedad Córdoba asked to meet with us to discuss her concerns about the peace process and for both Colombian guerrillas and paramilitary prisoners being held in US prisons. Sen. Córdoba is the founder and director of Colombianas y Colombianos por la Paz (Colombian Women and Men for Peace) and she has been the primary negotiator in arranging for the unilateral releases of prisoners being held by the FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). We were privileged to enjoy the company of Sen. Córdoba several times during our visit.
Senator Gloria Ines Ramirez and Representative Hernando Hernandez arranged for us to participate in a televised meeting at the Colombian Congress building that included my co-leader, Mark Burton, and myself, as well as Sen. Ramirez, Rep. Hernandez and members of Lazos de Dignidad and the PCDH.
Some of us were able to visit Liliany Obando in the Buen Pastor Womens Penitentiary. Over the years, Lily has become a close friend and her tireless advocacy for a just peace and for her fellow prisoners is inspiring. She spoke to us in great detail about hopes for freedom, peace and justice–and how key international solidarity and the work of the AFGJ is to all of these.
However, while we had registered to visit at La Picota prison in Bogotá, we were denied access there for the stated reason that it was “for our protection”. We thus became the second international human rights delegation in recent years denied entry into a Colombian prison. La Picota is one of several Colombian prisons that has received funding and advice from USAID and the US Bureau of Prisons as part of the Program for the Improvement of the Colombian Prison System (PICPS). These prisons have been built coinciding with a huge increase in political arrests as well as detentions of all kinds. Several of them have also become notorious for harsh jail conditions that have, if anything, worsened rather than improved.
With the support of our friends from Lazos and CPDH, we arranged a meeting with INPEC (the Colombian Bureau of Prisons). We were there to discuss several things, but also to complain about the denial of our visit to La Picota. Because of this meeting and the intervention of Colombian Rep. Iván Cepeda, we were able to arrange a tour of the first of the prisons built with US funding, the Maximum Security Penitentiary of Valledupar, aka La Tramacúa. Participants came from AFGJ, Britain’s Peace and Justice in Colombia, members of Lazos de Dignidad and Rep. Cepeda and his staff. There we were able to confirm bad conditions including the severe restriction of inmates’ access to running water for only ten minutes a day. The visitors also heard testimonies from prisoners who had been subjected to a brutal mass attack just two days earlier by prison guards. Those granted access to the prisoners heard stories of prisoners being dropped to the floor from balconies as high as four and five floors up. Other told of being stripped naked and shot in the genitals with tear gas canisters.
On the final two days of our group’s visit, AFGJ and the NLG participated in a two-day conference about Colombia’s political prisoners. AFGJ was invited to address the combined audience in recognition of our record of solidarity. This conference was a historic event bringing together national and international advocates for political prisoners for the first time in such an event.
The conference was a bitter-sweet occasion in that it was preceded by several reports that were both positive and negative for the political prisoners. There were several massive transfers of prisoners, in most cases far from family and even from their court processes. There were also reports of beatings and crack downs, justified by the claim that political prisoners were preparing to commit acts of violence to coincide with the conference. The truth was that prisoners were preparing cultural and socials events. The newspaper El Tiempo, which is owned by the family of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, printed a story claiming the conference and parallel events in the prisons were being planned by current and ex-guerrillas. The next day the paper had to retract the story, citing that it had been repeating, without question, information provided by INPEC.
We were all thrilled to hear that Professor Miguel Angel Beltrán would be released from prison because the Colombian Supreme Court had thrown out the evidence against him as not credible–“evidence” taken from a computer belonging to FARC Commandante Raul Reyes which had shown many signs of manipulation by authorities. Inexplicably, however, we received news that Lily’s case was moving forward, even though she had been arrested on the basis of this same “evidence.” Before and during the conference, we also received the news of several other releases of political prisoners.
Throughout the delegation, we heard repeated references to a National Meeting of Indigenous, Afro-Colombian and Peasant Communities for the Land and for Peace that is happening in mid-August. This meeting is being supported by both the Colombian Vice President’s office and by major unions and virtually every organization on the Left that we encountered. Taking place within a context of backdoor meetings between guerrillas and the Santos Administration, there is great hope that this meeting could help pave the way for a legitimate and inclusive peace process.
Our partners were quite cognizant of the fact that, in the past, when Colombians have started moving toward peace, the US government and the Pentagon have more often than not acted to sabotage it. The hope for peace and justice in Colombia is very real but also very fragile. Colombians asked us to work in the US to support a political solution in Colombia. There message was simple: change US policies of military adventurism and corporate theft in Colombia. If we can take care of that, then the people of Colombia will be well equipped to take care of building a lasting peace.