by James Jordan, Alliance for Global Justice
[Scroll to the end of this article to read the solidarity letter sent by Workers Uniting, the global union that includes North America’s United Steelworkers]
On the night of May 16th, the people in the Cofaina section of the town of Jardines de Sucumbíos, in the Colombian Department of Nariño, had gone to sleep after a day of preparations for the community’s Mothers Day events. Deivi Lopez Ortega, Brayan Yatacue Secue, José Antonio Acanamejoy and José Yiner Esterilla had been up late getting things ready for the festival and decided to sleep at the farm of Leonardo Obando that night rather than go to their own homes. Obando had turned over the first floor of his house to his guests while his family stayed on the second floor.
About 4am, Obando and his family awoke to the sounds of an explosion and a hail of gunshots. His children began crying and the family dropped to the floor to seek protection. Members of the Colombian military had forcibly entered his home. When they found Obando, the soldiers gave him the choice of turning the house over to them as a base of operations or being taken prisoner. As Obando and his family were leaving the house, he saw four dead
bodies and recognized them as his overnight guests: Ortega, Secue, Acanamejoy and Esterilla, each one unarmed, each one slain by the soldiers’ bullets. The four men were the latest victims of extrajudicial execution by the Colombian military. (There were 232 extrajudicial executions by the US funded Colombian military in 2013, according to the Center for Research and Popular Education.) Like Obando, they were all members of Fensuagro, Colombia’s federation of agricultural workers unions.
Who were these four union men and family farmers? Deivi Lopez Ortega was himself only just coming of age to be called a young man. He was a 15 year old youth who was living at home with his parents, helping work the farm. He was affiliated with his village’s Community Action Council. BrayanYatacue Secue was an indigenous member of the Nasa people, living and doing farm work in the village with his uncle. José Antonio Acanamejoy was also part of the Community Action Council. He worked his farm with his two brothers. José Yiner Esterilla was the father of a four year old daughter. He was a member of the area’s Afro-Colombian community and belonged to the New Hope Community Council. The had all been members of Fundaprogreso, the local Fensuagro affiliate.
The situation encountered in Sucumbíos is all too familiar. It is a place of peasant farms trying to coexist with petroleum industry development. Sucumbíos hosts three operating oil wells. The town is also home to some 7,000 persons and is part of the Municipality of Ipiales. (In Colombia, a municipality is akin to a county in the United States, refering to both the county seat and the larger surrounding area.) Sucumbíos is also home to a significant Afro-Colombian community and indigenous populations from the Nasa, Pastos, Awa and Kofanes nations.
When oil production was begun in Sucumbíos, many promises were made that the state would invest in community needs and infrastructure development. But accords signed in October, 2009 between the government and the community have remained unfulfilled, resulting in a series of protests and nonviolent actions by local residents. In 2010, there was a prolonged action by the community to block the area’s oil wells, halting production. Their goal was to force action on the accords. Community spokesperson Martin Santacruz denounced the failure to meet the agreements on the part of federal, departmental and municipal governments. He maintained that the government had promised to build schools and good roads, and to bring in doctors, nurses and an ambulance to the area, but “of these, very little has been complied with. They even committed to bring shoes for the students with few resources, but we have seen nothing.” Instead, according to Santacruz, the town and surrounding villages host a population that suffers from poverty and illiteracy and the water has been polluted and is not fit for human consumption. Recently, Sucumbíos had been taking steps to break off from Ipiales to form its own municipality. The response of the Colombian government has been military attack, extrajudicial execution and forced displacement rather than honoring its commitments to the people of Sucumbíos.
The events of May 16 and 17 at the Obando family farm were preceded by raids on the four murdered unionists’ home village of Vereda Alto Amarredero, on the outskirts of Sucumbíos. At 1:30 the morning of the 17th, the inhabitants had awoken to helicopters flying overhead. The Mobile Brigade Number 13 and the Energy and Road Battalion Number Nine “General José María Gaitán”, assigned to Division VI of the Colombian Army, had invaded the hamlet. Soldiers forcibly entered the home of Maria Dolores Acanamejoy where they verbally assaulted and threatened the women, children and elderly persons and demanded their cell phones. The only one who did not hand over a cell phone was Acanamejoy, who was able to alert Fundaprogreso leaders about what was transpiring. This scene was being repeated in home after home, with cell phones confiscated and families forced to leave their houses. These raids were carried out without any kind of judicial order nor the presence of judicial police, which would have at least allowed the home raids to be legally registered.
The military units involved in this attack have a history of such abuses. For instance, a United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights report notes the killing of three civilians by the 13th Mobile Brigade on September 9, 2007. In 2012, the Colombian based Permanent Committee on Human Rights (CPDH) reported a raid on the home of María Lilian Gutierrez Nopía by Mobile Unite 13. The CPDH maintains the unit “…had searched, seized and occupied the dwelling without any judicial order, and in addition had detained 8 men who were being questioned about the whereabouts of the union leader.” These units are recipients of part of the more than $8 billion in US funding provided via Plan Colombia.
The murders and massive detentions of these agricultural workers and unionists comes within a context of an alarming rise in repression throughout Colombia. Specially targeted are farmers, Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, unionists and members of the political opposition. Over the past three years, there have been large increases in forced displacement and assaults on human rights workers throughout the country. Given the progress being made by the peace process between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), these negative trends at least in part reflect the desires and activities of the extreme right wing to derail negotiations. This is further evidenced by scandals of spying on both government and FARC negotiators that have implicated President Álvaro Uribe and his handpicked candidate for the presidency, Óscar Iván Zuluaga.
The attack in Sucumbíos is just the latest in a series of threats and violence against Fensuagro and the Marcha Patriótica (Patriotic March), Colombia’s leading popular movement advocating for a just peace and popular participation in the peace process. Fensuagro is one of the largest organizations within the Marcha Patriótica. Since a series of strikes by coffee workers and farmers in the Catatumbo region which in turn led to two national agrarian strikes, the government has been cracking down in retaliation against peasant organizations. Fensuagro has been hard hit by detentions of its leaders and members throughout Colombia, including massive detentions in the departments of Tolima, Huila, Nariño and elsewhere. A very difficult blow was the arrest on charges of rebellion of Hubert Ballesteros. Ballesteros is Vice President of Fensuagro, one of the leaders of last year’s national agrarian strike, as well as a member of the coordinating committees of both the Marcha Patriótica and the Unitary Workers Center (CUT), Colombia’s largest labor federation.
During the first weeks of May, Alirio Garcia, Executive Secretary of Fensuagro, and his wife Rosalba Gaviria, also a Fensuagro leader, have been followed and threatened on several occasions. The entire national leadership of Fensuagro has received death threats from the Rastrojos paramilitary group. During its 37 years of existence, more than 1,500 Fensuagro members have been murdered and the federation has suffered increased political arrests and forced displacement. Almost two thirds of Colombia’s forcibly displaced are from rural areas such as those represented by the union.
Violence against leadership of the Marcha Patriótica has been particularly troublesome for supporters of Colombia’s peace process. It was revealed in April, 2014 that over the past two years since the inauguration of the Marcha Patriótica, 30 of its leaders had been assassinated. By May 20, 2014, the Center for Reserach and Popular Education announced that 48 Marcha Patriótica leaders had been killed. The peace process of the 80s and 90s was derailed when paramilitary and military assassins killed an estimated 5,000 candidates and elected officials of the Unión Patriótica (Patriotic Union), a Left political party that provided space for FARC members to legally enter the electoral process. There is widespread concern that the killings of Marcha Patriótica leaders and Fensuagro members are a sign that there are those prepared to repeat this legacy of genocide in the event of a peace accord. Those opposed to the peace process are motivated by a desire to keep all Colombia’s resources open for transnational corporations, big landowners and narcotraffickers. They oppose any land reform that would limit such access and they fear giving legal space to political movements that could turn Colombia in a leftward direction.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to Colombia reaching an enduring and viable peace is the lack of international awareness and solidarity. The campaign of violence against the Unión Patriótica was carried out within a vacuum of insufficient international awareness and action. There is a steady stream coming out of Colombia of calls for the people of the world to support the peace process. It is up to the rest of the planet to respond positively. For those of us in the United States, at this critical juncture in Colombian history, the best show of solidarity we can possibly give is to demand that our own government stop funding war and repression in Colombia and, instead, give its clear and unequivocal support to the peace negotiations underway in Havana, Cuba between the FARC and the Colombian government.
WORKERS UNITING LETTER IN SUPPORT OF VICTIMS OF THE ATTACK IN SUCUMBÍOS AND THE FENSUAGRO AGRICULTURAL WORKERS UNION
May 21, 2014
Francisco Javier Echeverri Lara
Director of International Relations
Fiscalia de la Nación
Diagonal 22B No. 52‐01 (Ciudad Salitre)
Dear Mr. Echeverri,
We are writing on behalf of the international trade union organisation, Workers Uniting, which is formed by the largest union in Great Britain and Ireland, Unite the Union, and the United Steelworkers, the largest private sector union in North America, and represents more than 2 million workers in Britain, Ireland, USA, and Canada. Workers Uniting has had a partnership agreement with the agricultural workers’ union, FENSUAGRO, for several years and as part of that agreement we are committed to work in all of our respective countries to ensure that there is justice in any case of abuse committed against members of FENSUAGRO.
We are writing today to express our sadness and concern that four civilians have been reportedly killed in the Department of Nariño in the village of Alto Amarradero, Ipiales, on Saturday 17 May 2014. According to reports from local organisations, Deivi López Ortega, José Antonio Acanamejoy, Brayan Yatacue Secue and José Yiner Esterilla were all killed by troops from the VI Division of the Colombian Army. One of those killed was just 15 years old. We have further concerns at a statement released by the VI Division of the Army in which it stated that the four people killed were members of the FARC.
It is worth noting that when soldiers arrived to the village where the killings took place, firstly at close to 1.00 a.m. and then again at 4.00 a.m. no arrest warrants of any kind are reported to have been shown. We ask that these killings are investigated fully and public statements are made to ensure the integrity of the four victims and their families are fully respected. The community where the four victims lived is affiliated to an organisation called Fundaprogreso which is itself affiliated to FENSUAGRO. We will as such be paying very special attention to any advances made in this case and we will be working with our colleagues inside our different parliamentary bodies.
In July 2013, representatives from the different organisations that form Workers Uniting travelled to Colombia to speak with trade unionists, human rights lawyers, as well as government officials and whilst we were shocked at the continuing levels of abuses committed by state security forces against civilians, and the overriding impunity for those crimes, we were at the same time hopeful that some of the positive rhetoric from certain officials would begin to translate into concrete gains for the civilian population.
We are committed to continue working with our politicians in our respective countries
and with yourselves to ensure that all reported human rights abuses and contraventions of international humanitarian law are fully investigated and those responsible brought to justice. We look forward to hearing about any investigations being made into this case.
Leo W. Gerard
United Steelworkers UNITE the Union
International President General Secretary
FENSUAGRO, firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com
Red de Derechos Humanos, firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com
Iain Gill, Second Secretary Chancery, British Embassy, Bogotá, firstname.lastname@example.org
Jamie Oarton, Colombia Desk Officer, FCO Jamie.Oarton@fco.gov.uk
Ian McKinley, Counsellor (Political), Canadian Embassy
Colombian Embassy in the United Kingdom, email@example.com
Juan Carlos Pinzón, Minister of Defence, firstname.lastname@example.org
Rafael Blanco Lozano, Director of International Relations,
UK Foreign Secretary Rt Hon William Hague MP email@example.com
Minister for Foreign Affairs & Trade Eamon Gilmore TD, Republic of Ireland
Kevin Whitaker – U.S. Ambassador to Colombia AmbassadorB@state.gov
US Secretary of State John Kerry fax: 1 (202) 647-8947