Interview with Guillermo Cano, detained leader of Astracatol
“They are engaged in persecution against our peasant labor organization”
We recently spoke with comrade Guillermo Antonio Cano Borja, a veteran of Colombian agrarian Rights struggles, human rights coordinator for Astracatol (Tolima Farmworkers Association), and member of the executive board of Fensuagro. A survivor of the assault on the Patriotic Union, he presently is active with the Patriotic March. We could have spoken with him for hours about the social and political course he has followed, as well as all he has been involved with over many decades of unbreakable commitment.
Nevertheless, we refer here only to the most recent chapter in the life history of this fighter for social rights. That would be from the formation of Astracatol, which from the start has endured persecution and official repression, to his victimization recently through having been seized and subjected to house arrest. On May 8 he was captured, together with seven other Astracatol peasants (Ramiro Bazurdo Gonzalez, Floricel Buitrago Cangrejo, Norberto García García, Gonzalo Ernesto Pastor Mora, Constantino Mayorga García, José Guillermo Pacheco Cruz, and Edilberto Mayorga García), as part of an inflated military operation that all the media transmitted far and wide. He is supposed to have been associated with the 25th front of the FARC-EP through having provided assistance and funds. The accusation is full of contradictions. . For one thing, according to the Army a couple of years ago this guerrilla front has been taken down. For another, the prosecutor was incapable of defending the evidence they offered up to sustain the accusation, although, as is well known, it would originate from those presented as demobilized guerrillas and who are being paid.. Be that as it may, families of campesino prisoners from La Marina (Chaparral, Tolima) who are also affiliated with Astracatol have entered a denunciation before the Unit of False Witnesses of the Attorney – General’s office of the Republic. They say a “group of witnesses” exists that the Prosecutor in Tolima uses to bring organized Tolima peasants to trial and to persecute them.
One must emphasize that Astracatol is a farm workers’ labor organization, set up to advance peasants’ right to land and to fight for the material and moral well-being of peasant communities. Nevertheless, as under worse tyrannies, this organization’s biggest struggle has been for its right to exist. That’s why support for each one of the Astracatol prisoners represents a demand for their freedom and for the right to organize ourselves, to think, and to fight – a right that every day is denied to the Colombian people.
We now let Guillermo Cano speak in his own words so we all know no one is alone and nobody is forgotten.
1. Tell us about the process by which Astracatol was founded.
Sure, this organization is made up primarily of small farmers. It was formed in October, 2007. To be specific, it came about through our big mobilization of 20,000 peasants that went to Ibagué, the capital of Tolima Department. We were more than 20,000 peasants in struggle there and were reclaiming our rights. We were defending human rights that for peasants repressive forces of the state violate all the time. The organization sprang up as a necessary means for defending life, the right to life, health care, education, things that are consecrated in the Constitution but are not respected.
2. Has there been repression against Astratacol from the beginning, or is this a recent problem?
When Astracatol was born we were mobilizing ourselves precisely on account of constant violation of the right to life. And after the organization was established and we were doing what we should do as directors, it turned out that repression against Astracatol leaders intensified throughout the department. We’ve had deaths. The most recent is Héctor Orozco, vice president in the Marina section in Chaparral municipality. Currently there is this prisoner Saan Maceto, part of the leadership of this section, also in Marina. And there are other comrades in that locality who are also prisoners. We say there are launched on persecuting our organization
- What were the circumstances of your arrest?
I want to make it clear primarily that I have been putting up with political persecution for many years on account of my defending human rights and workers and the working class. It’s on that account that I am being subjected to that persecution in the Vegas del Café district of Dolores municipality where I took up residence 12 years ago. I am on the board of directors of Astracatol and belong also to the executive board of Fensuagro. That’s why they have been threatening me over many years.
Already in the beginning of May, on May 9, troops of the national army were harassing me. They invade the place where I live. They take me away. Then a helicopter arrives with the judiciary system police and they put me on the floor. They checked out my whole house – and didn’t find any documents that would incriminate me. They only found things belonging to Patriotic March and to Astracatol. They took away none of these documents but they sure did study all of them. And it was then that they read an order of arrest against me from the court in Purificación. They had ordered my arrest as someone associated with rebellion.
They transferred from there to the La Chica settlement in Prado municipality, because there’s been a military base there for some ten years. That’s where they brought the eight of us who were arrested together before taking us to the prosecutor around eight o’clock in the evening. We were in a bus and soldiers and judicial police accompanied us. They take us to the police inspector in Purificación and the next day we are taken to the prosecutor where the process of making our capture legal begins. The prosecutor asks for imprisonment as a measure for assurance. But the initial judge decides upon house arrest. Then we are taken on Friday the 10th to the prison in Purificación and then the next day they took us to register with INPEC. From then on we are under house arrest and we are under INPEC’s control. Even to obtain medical assistance we have to do what INPEC in Purificación says. It’s a very complicated situation. On May 11 we arrive back at our houses on our own, because they were certainly not going to mount that great operation they used to take us away in order to bring us back to our homes.
It’s unheard of that in our nation, when we speak of peace, they put on such a display of force, one that must have cost, according to our calculations, more that one hundred million pesos (39,500 Euros) in order to take eight peasants off for prosecution. It’s outrageous to make a public display, with the army, helicopters, and all that paraphernalia, in order to catch eight peasants. Even when the same authority has known us in our places of residence for a long time, they still put on such a performance in order to show us off as criminals.
4. A week prior to this you had participated in the Political Participation Forum sponsored by the United Nations Development Program as part of the current peace process, correct?
Sure, I was a delegate of this region for Astracatol and participated in the Forum that took place in Bogota on April 28, 29, and 30th, that was put together by the UN and the National University as part of the agreement that had been reached on March 25th in La Habana between the government and delegates of the FARC. That forum took place with the participation of more than 1500 delegates from different parts of the country and we were all in agreement that at these moments the path is to contribute towards the peace process. And now they do this.
5. Do you think that your situation reflects a more general problem, which is the lack of safety for those who dedicate themselves, as part of societal organizations, to participate in the peace process?
This is a persecution, because the government speaks of peace but at the same time it is bombing. We thus don’t know what its proposal is. As the civilian population and its labor and farmworker organizations start uniting in favor of this very important process for us who live in the fields and who experience the severity of this conflict, now the intelligence services of the military begin to harass and follow the leaders in order to make it seem to the world that the government, according to it, has the desire for peace while it fights the insurgency’s structures… this is all a farce, since they capture us on May 9th and right after this, on May 10th, a general along with the defense minister Juan Carlos Pinzon arrive in the department of Tolima. They came here to notify us that they had destroyed structures of the guerrilla movement. Then the intelligence services, in order to demonstrate positive results to its superiors, create these false positives against the leaders that defend the rights of the population.
6. What is it like to live under the militarization of the Dolores municipality?
Here the entire zone of the municipality of Dolores continues to be militarized, also that of Prade, Purificacion, the high part of Cunday, Icononzo and also the department of Huila… let’s just say that in the entire area of the Eastern Mountain Range people are living under severe repression, for several years now. This began in 2003, when several massive detentions began occurring. Here we had 23 farmworkers who were detained in a raid in 2003; then two young men were assassinated in this region, farmworkers, just regular young men and nothing else, which caused the population to mobilize against the urban center of Dolores. In 2004 there was another massive detention, this time I myself was detained for 22 days. From them on this state terrorism has continued in these communities, in these municipalities…this is constant and we are constantly making formal complaints of what is occurring in this region. It has been several years, 7 or 8, of permanent persecution against the farmworkers.
7. What is the motive that is given to justify this militarization?
Initially they say that it is because this is a guerrilla zone, supposedly one of those that are labeled “red zones”, but there are other major objectives. Like in all parts of the country, here there are great natural riches, and now that the government is speaking of locomotives, they are seeking mining deposits and other riches that do exist in this region, and that also contain great hydroelectric sources. We, as an organization, attribute what is really happening to a policy of the State to generate the displacement of farmworkers from the zones where these riches exist and enable the handing over of the resources belonging to Colombians to transnational which are very interested in the riches of the southeastern part of Tolima.
Also in the south, in Rioblanco, in Chaparral, we have a situation where hydroelectrics are being constructed and that is why they harass farmworkers there. More concretely, in Dolores we have petroleum deposits discovered only recently and they harass us because we as organized communities have resisted the exploitation of these resources because they affect us as farmworkers that produce nourishment… In reality they militarize because they are after the acquisition of the mineral riches and the hydroelectric sources.
8. They keep justifying the militarization then with the argument that the presence of the insurgency, despite the same military claiming for years that it has destroyed the 25th Front of the FARC-EP. They even accuse you of pertaining to that Front that according to them no longer exists…how is that? The guerrilla then exists or disappears when it’s to their convenience?
Precisely, look, what I just told you is pretty clear: here the great militarization is initiated with the intent of destroying a guerrilla front, but that front according to their same version, not of the farmworkers, but of the State, no longer exists. They accuse us of auxiliaries of that front, but they have been saying for over five years that this front has been destroyed. But even though it has been five years since they have been saying this, they nonetheless keep the militarization, and continue sending more troops and repression the farmworkers, because since there are no longer any armed guerrilla fighters, then it is us the workers that must pay the consequences of this corrupt policy. The issue is not, neither before nor now, whether there has been guerrilla or not, it’s because there are immense resources in the zone that they want to hand over to the transnationals and we come out it and get in its path…because we do defend the life and natural resources, and we will continue to defend them despite the repression and violence against us.
9. Recently there was a mass mobilization in Ibague against mega-mining, represented by the La Colosa project, of AngloGold Ashanti, which is planned for the Tolima municipality of Cajamarca . There are even those then that speak about the possibility of a department-wide civic strike or stoppage. What do you think of this struggle which is closely related to your struggle?
Just two months ago there was a dialogue/conference for the Environmental Defense of Cajamarca, where La Colosa is located… I participated on that occasion as a farmworker in defense of the resources that they want to steal from us and leave us only destruction. From all of the corners of Tolima, we continue to be mobilized against this exploitation, because of this project continues to develop, it would be the deathknell, they would destroy 70% of the agriculture of the deparment, of its hydroelectric resources, it would be an unimaginable destruction. This continues, that struggle is going to be long-term, and from here we condemn this project that doesn’t take into account the farmworkers, the real necessities of the country and of the future generations, and we will fight so that this exploitation does not take place. See, two weeks ago the company’s boss resigned that was in charge of that gold mine and the controversy persists, because fortunately the director of Cortolima and even the governor have come out in favor of the farmworkers and their protest…even the authorities support us, not only in Cajamarca but also in all of the neighboring municipalities. Therefore we will continue to resist against this mining transnational, because that is a genocide that they want to carry out against our humanity in Tolima.
10. Thank you very much for your time. Are there any last words?
Through this medium and all other national international media, I would like to tell the societal organizations and defenders of human rights to make a real and sincere proclamation in favor of the popular forces that are reclaiming our rights. I hope this echo is heard in all of the corners of this world and that hopefully you will accompany is in this peace process and in our struggle in Tolima for life. Thank you very much.
For more information about the case of Guillermo Cano please refer to the following videos made by International Action for Peace
1. Interview with attorney Gustavo Gallardo of Fundacion Lazos de Dignidad
2. Interview with community and labor union leaders of the neighborhood Vegas del Café, in the minicipality of Dolores (Tolima). Part I: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQDzItZT7Kk and Part II: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzrVF7kmurw