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Monday, July 05, 2004

Colombia's human rights activists

Greetings from Colombia, dear reader. You find me on an international solidarity delegation (called "The Caravan") to this fine and bloody country, blissfully unaware of any news from home. David Blunkett could have been caught cottaging but I neither know nor care at this moment in time.

The only television I have seen is the England results. Consequently, the only Spanish phrases I have learned are "David Beckham es un tronco pirobo" ("David Beckham is a fucking donkey") and "Celebremos que al menos Francia perdio" ("Cheer up, at least the French have lost").

In truth, I did take the precaution of learning one other phrase before I left for Colombia. Because I am travelling with a very large friend, I memorised "Dispara al gordo primero" ("Shoot the fat one first").

My friend Carlos told me a very famous Colombian football story. In Cacarica, near the border with Panama, there was a football match between the Colombian army, under the command of General Rito Alejo del Rio, and the right-wing paramilitaries.

That the paras and the army can play a friendly game of football shows the level of collaboration between the two forces.

All the local inhabitants were forced to watch this sporting fixture, where the head of the community leader, Marino Lopez, was used as the ball, having been removed from his torso by means of a chainsaw.

As if that were not enough, Lopez's family had to join the game and kick their dead father's head around the pitch. The entire community was then displaced and, staying with the sporting theme, forced to live in a basketball stadium for three years, from 1996-99.

According to the US administration of George W Bush, Colombia's human rights record is improving thanks to the country's president, Alvaro Uribe Velez. Surprisingly, many people here do not share that view.

Halfway through this trip, in a telephone interview with RTE in Ireland, a journalist asked me if I had "uncovered any human rights abuse". The question is absurd. It's like asking: "On your trip to Berlin in 1939, did you uncover any Nazis?"

In hot, fan-less trade union halls up and down the country, hundreds of people have queued up to give their testimony to The Caravan, which waits patiently to hear their stories of horror.

Some read dispassionately from prepared texts talking of disappearances and murder. Some hold back tears. Some don't. Some read with a calm fury. The atmosphere is a mixture of desperation and defiance.

Roughly 4,000 trade unionists have been assassinated by Colombia's right-wing paramilitaries since 1987. Now President Uribe points out that the murder rate for this year so far is down on the previous one. As if he has somehow moved the paras from piece rates to a fixed quota system.

In Bucaramanga, north of Bogota, EfraIn Guerrero, a prominent member of the food and drinks workers' union Sinaltrainal and an employee of Coca-Cola (Femsa), has witnessed this "improvement" in human rights at first hand. On 20 April, his sister-in-law and her entire family were shot by the paras as they slept. Their ten-year-old daughter survived by hiding under her bed. Just days before we arrived in Cali, on 22 June, a bodyguard for the metalworkers' union Sintrametal, Hugo Fernando Castillo Sanchez, and his wife, Diana Ximena Zuniga, were murdered in front of their four-year-old son at a fast-food drive-through - again, by paras.

None of these killings of family members, bodyguards and friends appears in the statistics. Neither do the mass arrests of trade unionists, nor the brutal attacks carried out by the police during the current oil workers' strike.

The human rights abuse seems about to increase as Uribe's neoliberal reforms privatise the entire country: neither he nor his forces will brook any dissent to this process.

Civil movements are as much a target as the unions. Student organisers are assassinated. Campaigners for the disappeared are disappeared. Even rappers singing songs of peace get death threats. And the anti-terror law has given the army more official powers than the US marines in Iraq.

The Colombian president's intentions are clearly seen in the amnesty he is offering the paras. On 1 July, he began a dialogue with them, commonly referred to as the "monologue". There are to be no trials for the beheaders, rapists, torturers and murderers. Instead, Uribe will officially forgive and forget. Yet there is no dialogue or forgiveness for the guerrillas (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army).

Heads might not be kicked around in public any more, but Colombia's violence against the poor is at crisis point.


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