Colombia This Week -- March 1, 2004

Fri 20 - Union Leader detained in Bogota; Colombian NGOs supported by US Congressmen.

· The "Joel Sierra Regional Human Rights Committee" from Arauca reports that trade union leader Luz Perly Cordoba has been detained by DAS secret police in Bogotá. Luz is the leader of the Arauca Peasant Association (ACA). Authorities also raided the organisation's offices in Arauquita. Additionally, Luz's bodyguard Enrique Amarillo has been detained by DAS. Luz's incarceration brings to 75 the number of trade unionists from the agricultural sectors that are currently being held in jail.

· In a press conference held in Bogotá, US Rep. Jim McGovern releases to the press a bipartisan letter from 74 members of the U.S. House of Representatives to Colombian President Uribe Velez. The letter voices congressional concern for members of Colombian human rights and civil society groups who are at great risk because of their work, for which they are intimidated, threatened, exiled and even killed. The signatories urge President Uribe to "take actions that will underscore the legitimacy of human rights defenders and other civil society actors and enable them to continue in safety". Rep. McGovern traveled to Colombia as part of a delegation arranged by the Washington Office on Latin America.

· The UN-sponsored Equator Prize 2004 Jury selects the Nasa project as one of this year' winners. This project takes is rooted in a community of Colombia's indigenous Paez people. Together, they sustainably manage a territory of 49,000 hectares, partially located within the Nevada del Huila Biosphere Reserve on the Colombia-Ecuador border. Activities include environmental education and the promotion of traditional medicinal and agro forestry techniques. "Nasa", a Paez word meaning 'living being', also describes the language of the people.

· Spanish police reports the arrest of an alleged member of Colombia's defunct Cali cartel wanted by the US for money laundering. A police spokesperson said Fernando Antonio G.C., had been in charge of a financial network that laundered a trillion dollars for the Cali cartel between 1982 and 1995, AP reports.


Sat 21 – Freedom call for Ingrid Betancourt; NGO reports 7 children killed each day in conflict.

· Marking the two-year anniversary of her abduction by FARC, supporters of presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt prayed for her release in an emotional ceremony in Bogota. Relatives demanded a prisoner swap with the rebels, criticizing the government for inaction. Hundreds of supporters -- including Rome's mayor Walter Veltroni - left a painted star on a Bogota sidewalk in Betancourt's honour. In Paris, a giant portrait of Betancourt was draped down the facade of city hall. Supporters planned a Sunday march in her honour.

· According to a report released by Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, children caught up in Colombia's armed conflict are dying violently at a rate of about seven per day. "We are outraged that the international community is standing by so silently," said Watchlist Coordinator Julia Freedson. "Countless children are losing their families, their homes, their communities, and even their lives to the ongoing conflict," she said adding that the network of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is urging the 15-member UN Security Council to include the Colombian conflict on its agenda. The network includes Care International, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children Alliance, World Vision and the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.

· A study published by El Tiempo reports that there are three million people living below the poverty line in Bogota, many of them as a result of the internal displacement caused by armed groups and the conflict. The study also reports that the wealthiest people in the capital earn 56 times more money than poorest people.


Sun 22 – Clashes leave 17 FARC members killed; Pais Libre: six people kidnapped everyday.

· BBC's Jeremy McDermott reports that the Colombian army has launched a new offence against the FARC as President Alvaro Uribe seeks to reassure Colombians that he is winning the 40-year civil conflict. According to the authorities 17 fighters from the FARC group were killed in clashes near Llano Grande, (Antioquia). Four soldiers were injured in those clashes El Colombiano reports.

· The number of abductions in Colombia fell to 2,201 in 2003, down by 785 from 2002, but the country retains the dubious distinction of being the world's kidnapping capital. The report by the Bogotá-based foundation Pais Libre said that, of last year's kidnapping victims, 922 were freed after ransom was paid and 587 people remain in captivity. According to the report, the State security forces rescued 400 kidnapping victims. Seventy-one kidnapped people died in captivity, and 37 escaped. The rest were unaccounted for, El Tiempo reports.

· Omar Lopez Robayo, founder of Colombia's Centauros soccer team and former mayor of the city of Villavicencio, (Meta) is shot and killed while watching a soccer game, police report. His bodyguard and a security guard at the stadium in Villavicencio were also killed. There was no immediate indication of why Lopez was killed or who was behind the attack, CNN reports.


Mon 23 – Army: 66 killed in Colombian military offensive; Spain to sell tanks to Colombian army.

· At least 66 people have been killed in Colombia as the military launched a new offensive against armed groups. Soldiers killed 22 members of a faction of the United Self-Defence Forces, (AUC) near Villanueva (Casanare) said Gen. Martin Orlando Carreño, preventing this armed group from carrying out a massacre in a village that had allegedly been cooperating with a rival paramilitary group "The village had been sacked and its residents were about to be massacred, but we arrived in time". He also reports that 10 soldiers also died in the fighting. In a separate offensive another eight rebels from the ELN, one FARC and one paramilitary fighter were also killed in gunfights in various locations around the country over the weekend, El Tiempo reports

· Colombian Defence Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe confirms that Colombia will buy "between 32 and 46" AMX-30 artillery tanks from Spain in a deal worth around US $6 million. According to the reports, the Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar made the agreement during a weekend visit. Uribe denied rumours that the tanks would be deployed to boost security along Colombia's border with Venezuela, saying they will be used to "safeguard highways from guerrilla attacks" the government reports.


Tues 24- Indigenous court charges army officer; US report: failure of coca fumigation strategy.

6000 Nasas (Cauca's largest indigenous group, known in Spanish as the Paez) holds an assembly in Caloto (Cauca) to demand justice in indigenous law for the murder of a member of their indigenous community. Col. José Vicente Trujillo, commander of the 8th Infantry Battalion, is accused of the fatal shooting of Olmedo Ul Secué, a resident of a Nasa reservation, in a roadblock near his community on 31st December last year .The defendant was found guilty in absentia. Nasa members demand that all of the armed parties in the country's conflict respect indigenous territory and culture, Actualidad Etnica reports.

The Washington-based Latin America Working Group (LAWG) releases a report analysing the Andean Counterdrug Initiative. The report identifies human and environmental effects of aerial sprying, the increase of coca cultivation in other regions and the failure of the policy to meet its main stated goal: reducing cocaine availability in the US. The report also reveals an anti-democratic trend in Colombian governance associated with the spraying program, strongly criticising the new plans to fumigate Colombia's National Parks, US newswire reports.

In its bulletin "Pertinentes" the Peace Programme for the Magdalena Medio region (PDPMM) reports that members of the FARC retained a member of this organisation working in the area of Alto Cañaveral (Bolivar). He was released two days later after protests from the communities and talks with the director of the programme. The bulletin also denounces the blockade made by paramilitaries in the municipality of San Pablo, affecting the communities living in the Serrania San Lucas; it calls on all armed groups in the region to respect the rights of civilians.

Bancolombia reports its net profits soar 123% during 2003 to 469bn pesos (US$174n), the Colombian bank said in a statement. Net profits in the fourth quarter of last year were up 24% at 146bn pesos.


Weds 25 - FARC attack Neiva: 12 soldiers killed and four kidnapped; Bomb kills soldier in Ipiales.

FARC members attack the town of Santa Maria, (Huila). At least twelve soldiers and four guerrillas were killed in the fighting, which began late Tuesday. On the same day, police foil an attempted mass kidnapping by suspected FARC rebels disguised as army commandos in the nearby city of Neiva, (Huila), police said. The rebels raided an upscale apartment building with plans to abduct up to 20 residents, but only made off with four after being spotted by a police patrol. As they fled, the rebels tossed a grenade at the patrol, injuring two officers and a civilian, BBC reports.

Authorities report one soldier killed and other injured in Ipiales (Nariño) after a bomb exploded near a military base, El Tiempo reports.

Colombian government reports the first payment of 627 m pesos (US$ 237,392) to 753 families working under the Familia Guardabosques programme. The families were authorised by the UN office against drugs based in Colombia, and the government want to expand the programme to other regions in the country, SNE reports.

Responding to an article published in the Wall Street Journal by US journalist Mary O'Grady, the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ) denounces the article for reporting falsehoods and exaggerations in reference to the work of Colombian NGOs who criticise the government of Uribe Velez for arbitrary mass detentions of civilians. The letter notes that the Colombian government's own Inspector General objects to the mass detentions. "The least we can ask," it adds, "is that you publish these corrections to partially reduce the harm these unbalanced insinuations may cause those who work for human rights in Colombia". The Journal has not published the letter.


Thurs 26 - Uribe sacks officers after FARC attack in Neiva; French journalist kidnapped by paras.

President Uribe Velez sacks six army and secret police officers after rebels kill 12 soldiers and kidnap four civilians. The announcement follows an emergency meeting of the government's security council prompted by a battle with FARC in the Huila department. Twelve soldiers from the 9th Brigade and four guerrillas died in fighting in Santa Maria, (Huila). In nearby Neiva, rebels blew up an apartment building entrance and kidnap four businessmen, AFP reports.

Members of the paramilitary group AUC have kidnapped French citizen, Julien Fouchet, who reportedly went missing in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta on 15th January. France Press reports that he was working freelance for a French radio station, trying to make contact with members of the guerrilla group National Liberation Army (ELN) when members of the Self-Defence forces of Colombia, -currently under negotiations with the Colombian government- kidnapped him, El Espectador reports.

In a statement published in their website, the Central Bolivar Bloc -a paramilitary faction currently under peace negotiations with the government- strongly denounces the Bishop of Barrancabermeja, Mon. Jaime Prieto for criticising the peace process with these groups, accusing the Bishop of favouring contact with other armed groups and calling him for a "meeting" to discuss their differences, El Colombiano reports.

Colombia's Occidental, a unit of Los Angeles-based oil and gas production company Occidental Petroleum Corp. reports its 2003 net profits were 250.40 billion pesos, up 15.5 percent from 2002. Profits in 2002 were 216.76 billion pesos, it said. Occidental Colombia operates the Cano Limon oil field in Arauca, Reuters reports.



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