Colombia This Week -- January 12, 2004

Fri 02 –Lucho Garzon takes over as mayor of Bogota; Venezuela protests over soldiers' killings.

·	Luis Eduardo Garzon takes over as mayor of Bogota, becoming the first leftist to hold the position. Pledging to combat hunger and poverty, the former Communist trade union leader promised to defend his comrades and help the city's poor. Other mayors and state governors around the country also took office today.

·	Venezuela urges Colombia to tighten security along the frontier between the two nations after Caracas blames Colombian paramilitaries for killing seven of its National Guard troops. Foreign Minister Roy Chaderton reports that "apart from caution in Colombia's response, we would welcome more cooperation from the Colombian authorities on their part of the border, because Colombia really could do more on the frontier", Reuters reports.

·	Washington Post reports that, on 30th December 2003, more than 500 FARC and ELN members attacked a village controlled by paramilitary forces in Bolivar, killing 40 of them. The assault took place in Pozo Azul municipality, (Bolivar) and one civilian was also killed. Rebels also attacked the villages of Monterrey and Pueblo in the area.

·	El Espectador reports that on 31st December Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio announced that seven police officers in Medellín were members of a dismantled kidnapping band. Two of the officers are in custody. The group, accused of the 2001 abduction of Japanese businessman Chikao Muramatsu, allegedly delivered him to the FARC, who killed him in November..

·	According to the Colombian Ministry of Defence, 2,539 people participated in the demobilisation programme for Colombian armed actors last year. The report says that 1,367 were from the FARC group, 410 from the ELN, 697 from the paramilitaries and 64 from other groups.

·	Adam Isaacson from the US-based Centre for International Policy (CIP) reports on the demobilisation process of the paramilitary militias in Medellin, concluding that some of the most prominent Colombian narcotraffickers are negotiating a path to amnesty, legitimacy and power within the Uribe administration and suggesting that the US administration should publicly veto such an outcome.


Sat 03 – 16 Colombian troops held over drug operation; FARC commander captured in Ecuador.

·	Sixteen Colombian soldiers from the Military Police are arrested in connection with the illegal seizure of a tonne of cocaine, which they are suspected of planning to sell. The soldiers, led by Major Mauricio Llorente Chavez, are accused of conducting an illegal search in southern Bogota, where traffickers were moving drugs. Major Llorente is already under investigation by the authorities in connection with massacres conducted in the eastern provinces of the country, BBC reports.

·	The Colombian army announces the capture of a senior FARC commander in Quito (Ecuador). Simon Trinidad, whose real name is Ricardo Ovidio Palmera, was a former rebel negotiator in the failed talks with the government of President Pastrana. Army officials said Trinidad, a former banker from a wealthy family, would be flown to Bogota. The capture of Trinidad is a boost for the military, which has been criticised for failing to capture or kill rebel leaders, AP reports.

·	In its bulletin "Pertinentes", the Peace and Development Programme for the Magdalena Medio region (PDPMM) announces the opening of the cultural and educational centre "Paloka" in Barrancabermeja. They also report the celebration of the "Assembly of Microahumado", in Bolivar, in which the community declared this municipality to be a peace laboratory, asking the armed groups to respect the will of the people.

·	AP reports that Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio's office announced on 19th December that it had charged three air force helicopter crewmembers with involuntary manslaughter after they bombed the village of Santo Domingo on 13th December 1998. The attack killed at least 17 civilians, including 7 children, and wounded 25. Pressure from the U.S. Embassy and human rights organisations, as well as investigations by the Los Angeles Times and the FBI, led to the case's transfer from the military court system to a civilian court last February..


Sun 04 – Referendum vote failure confirmed; Colombian Auditor warns of risk of moratorium.

·	Colombian electoral authorities confirm that voters backed only one out of the 15 reforms proposed by the government in the referendum last year. The measure approved is a ban on politicians convicted of corruption from standing again. Despite governmental pressure regarding the revision of the electoral census in order to pass some other reforms, the National Electoral Council declared the others invalid. President Uribe, although still popular personally, has lost influence in Congress and now faces an emboldened opposition, BBC reports.

·	In an interview in El Tiempo, Colombian General Auditor (Contralor) Antonio Hernandez Gamarra warns that if the Colombian State does not control public expenditure, the country risks a moratorium and there will be no money to pay public employees this year. He also says that the fiscal deficit for this year is predicted at 15 billion pesos underlining that the actual external debt is around US $23 billion.

·	Bishop Luis Augusto Castro and the Rev. Dario Echeverri meet FARC spokesperson Raul Reyes in an undisclosed location to try to negotiate an agreement to release the hostages held by FARC, Caracol reports.

·	The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Bogota issues a statement condemning the attack on the Colombian NGO Corporacion Casa de la Mujer carried out on 19th December by a group of unidentified armed men who broke in and stole computer files and documents. The NGO works closely with UNHCR in helping internally displaced women and their families. The break-in was the latest in a series of incidents involving individuals and groups involved in human rights work for Colombia's internally displaced people (IDPs), particularly women.

·	Regional Ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo) for the Magdalena Medio Region, Jorge Lizarazo reports that the human rights situation in the city of Barrancabermeja is critical, according to the figures for 2003. 150 people were killed, 80 were disappeared and more than 800 forcibly displaced from the city because of death threats. According to the Ombudsman, the city is still under the control of paramilitary forces despite the massive presence of police and armed forces in the city, Vanguardia Liberal reports.


Mon 05 – 12 soldiers injured in Tunja in accident; Colombia: inflation rate of 6.49% in 2003.

An accidental explosion leaves 12 soldiers injured in a military compound near Tunja (Boyaca). According to the authorities, five of the soldiers are in a critical condition, El Tiempo reports.

Colombian consumer prices rose by 6.49 percent in 2003, down from inflation of 6.99 percent the previous year but slightly above a Central Bank target, according to government data. Colombia had agreed to an inflation target of 5.5 percent for 2003 with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), although the accord allowed the country to record inflation either 2 percentage points higher or lower than that figure.

Spokesperson for the FARC, Commander Raul Reyes reports that Simon Trinidad, detained in Quito (Ecuador) this week he is not a member of the "Secretariat", (FARC's governing group) but a negotiator of the group. Authorities say that he is the key person in the FARC's financial structure, El Tiempo reports.

In an interview published in El Espectador, ELN military leader, Nicolas Rodríguez Bautista reports that this group sees no possibility of dialogue with the government of Uribe Velez. "We are faced with a government that is pursuing a strategy of war, not a strategy of peace," Rodríguez said, noting that Uribe is "trying to build an authoritarian regime that believes a military triumph is viable."


Tues 06 – MoD reports drop in kidnappings & killings; Demobilised commander killed in Medellin

The number of kidnappings, homicides and attacks by Marxist rebels fell in 2003, the Defence Ministry says. There were 2,043 abductions in Colombia, the world's kidnap capital, in 2003, down from 2,986 cases in 2002, according to a government report. The number of homicides, including politically related murders, dipped to 22,969, down from 28,837, the report said. And "acts of terror," which include guerrilla attacks, fell to 846 in 2003 from 1,645 in 2002. Defence Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe, also claimed that in 2003 Colombia destroyed 132,817 hectares (328,100 acres) of coca -- the raw material for cocaine.

Former paramilitary commander of the Bloque Nutibara, Guillermo Echavarría is killed in Medellin weeks after demobilising. Members of this group said at the funeral that this killing would not stop the process, El Colombiano reports.

Colombian NGO National Union School (ENS) reports that assassins killed at least 62 Colombian unionists between January 1 and November 30, 2003. That figure marks an improvement over 2002, when 189 unionists were assassinated, but Colombia remains the world leader in human rights violations against trade unionists. The reports also underlines that increasingly the attacks are targeting the unionists' family members, like the son of Limberto Carranza, a leader of the National Food Industry Workers Union (Sinaltrainal). The boy was kidnapped and tortured in September as the union pushed for an international boycott of Coca-Cola products.


Weds 07 – RWB: 4 journalists killed in 2003 in Colombia; US suspended interdiction Programme.

According to the NGO Reporters Without Borders (RWB), 11 journalists were killed in Colombia during 2003. The report also says that in the departments of Arauca, Nariño and Santander the population have no access to free and independent information, El Espectador reports.

The US interdiction programme to shoot down airplanes in Latin America that are suspected of ferrying drugs was reportedly suspended for a second time in September, after the Colombian military forced down a plane and then strafed it without US States approval, New York Times reports.

The Colombian government announces that gasoline subsidies will now be phased out completely by the end of the year, as opposed to earlier plans to end subsidies by the end of June. Thousands of truckers went on nationwide strike last month to protest rising fuel costs related to the subsidy-reduction programme that President Uribe began 16 months ago. Gasoline prices rose 22% last year.


Thurs 08 – 18 people killed in three massacres; NGO alerts re paramilitary incursion in Bolivar

According to El Tiempo, 18 people have been killed in three different massacres committed by Colombian armed groups. In the rural area of Pensilvania (Caldas) 8 people, including a child, from two families were killed by suspected FARC members. The second mass killing happened in El Salado, where paramilitaries killed 7 people near the border with Venezuela, in the municipality of El Tarra (Norte de Santander). In a separate incident, unknown gunmen killed three people in a bar at Sincelejo, the capital of Sucre department.

UK-based Colombia Solidarity Campaign reports that a group of between 500 and 800 armed paramilitaries from the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia have been entering several villages in Arenal municipality, (Bolívar). According to the reports two people have been killed, several villagers have been beaten and there have been several disappearances, although again the precise number and names are not known at present. Human rights groups are urging the Colombian authorities to protect the civilians from these armed groups.

Colombian Senator Edgar Artunduaga says that the detention of FARC commander Simon Trinidad diminishes the possibilities of a humanitarian agreement between this group and the Colombian Government. He also says that if this armed group includes Simon Trinidad in the list of "exchangeables", the possibility of reaching a humanitarian agreement would disappear altogether, El Colombiano reports.


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