Colombia this Week -- May 4, 2004

Fri 23 – Two more trade unionists reported dead; confusion and rumours re Castaño.

· Amnesty International reports that Colombia is the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist, with at least 80 trade unionists killed or "disappeared" in 2003. Amnesty also reports that on 20 April 2004, unidentified gunmen killed Gabriel Remolina, the President of the Bucaramanga branch of SINALTRAINAL and his partner, Fanny Robles. Amnesty International is also concerned because the Colombian Government has failed to ensure substantive improvement in the security situation faced by trade unionists, as shown not only by these latest killings, but by the on-going failure to bring to justice those who kill and threaten trade unionists.

· According to an interview in El Colombiano, paramilitary commander Salvatore Mancuso "believes" Castaño is alive, and had either wanted to step out of the limelight or had gone to cut a deal with U.S. authorities. U.S. Ambassador William Wood said U.S. officials have had no contact with Castaño. But with more than a week having passed with no sign of him, many observers increasingly feel he may be dead. Castaño disappeared during a gun battle at a ranch in northwest Colombia where he was hiding out. One of his wounded bodyguards told authorities that at least six other bodyguards were shot dead.


Sat 24 – Drug traffickers continue to gain control in Colombia's paramilitary peace process.

· The disappearance of Colombia's most influential paramilitary leader has left the paramilitary militias even more in the hands of drug traffickers, who have shown they won't hesitate to kill to protect their lucrative business, former paramilitary leader Rodrigo Franco reports. He also says that Castaño was killed by Diego Fernando Murillo, one of the most feared paramilitary leaders implicated in drug trafficking, and by Castaño's own brother Vicente. They ordered Castaño killed because they feared he was going to finger them to U.S. authorities for drug trafficking, Franco told the Associated Press. "With the death of Carlos, the drug traffickers have won and Colombia has lost the possibility that Castaño could have contributed ... to the demobilisation process", Franco said. More than a year ago, Carlos Castaño initiated peace talks with the government after publicly condemning militia members who continued to traffic in drugs. This may have been his undoing.


Sun 25 – Peace award for Padre Javier Giraldo: "Uribe is paramilitarising Colombian society".

· In an interview in the Spanish newspaper El Pais, Father Javier Giraldo of the Inter-Ecclesiastical Commission for Justice and Peace reports that President Uribe Velez is "paramilitarising" Colombian society through Democratic Security policies and by involving civilians in the network of informers. Mr. Giraldo has been awarded the Basque decoration "Juan Maria Bandres Peace Prize" for his work on human rights with victims of violence in Colombia.

· The disappearance of Castaño, the best-known paramilitary figure, will likely throw the peace talks into disarray, says military analyst Alfredo Rangel. "A single negotiating table is not viable, because between the groups there are enormous differences of regional origin, dynamics, support from society and sources of financing," Rangel said in a telephone interview. "There are some very involved in drug trafficking and others that have no link to drugs."


Mon 26 – U.S. emits extradition warrant to FARC commander; "3 Irishmen" cleared of charges.

· Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio reports he has signed the extradition order against FARC Commander Jorge Briceño Suarez, the first member of the FARC Secretariat to be requested by the US, El Tiempo reports.

· A judge acquits three Irishmen suspected of training Colombian insurgents in explosives, but convicted them of the lesser charge of passport fraud. The verdicts came nearly three years after James Monaghan, Niall Connolly and Martin McCauley were arrested after leaving a FARC stronghold deep in Colombia. Authorities argued the three had previous links to rebels. Colombia's Attorney Generals office promised to appeal the acquittals. Gerry Adams, leader of the Sinn Fein party, welcomed the verdicts but expressed anger that the trial had taken so long, Associated Press reports.

· The Inter-Ecclesiastical Commission for Justice and Peace reports the killing of a member of the communal council from the Jiguamiando communities (in Choco) by members of the FARC militias operating in the area. In a public document, they denounce the killing of Jose Luis Calaigua near the community of Nueva Esperanza and report the fighting of armed groups near the civilian population, calling upon all armed groups to respect the will and freedom of the communities and international humanitarian law.

· An article in Miami Herald reports how Juan Carlos Cano, a young Colombian taxi driver has been in hiding for the last year and is now a key witness in the case against the authorities involved in "Operation Orion" in the Comuna 13 in Medellin. He recently showed his face to the entire nation, telling the Colombian Congress that he witnessed two investigators for the Colombian Attorney General's Office help to murder and mutilate people suspected of being leftist guerrillas. According to Cano, the investigators helped the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) to ``disappear people'' after the army and police swept into his guerrilla-dominated neighbourhood in late 2002. At least 45 of his neighbours have not been seen since.


Tues 27 – Arauca rights group denounces killings; Prosecutor: officials charged over coercion.

· The Arauca Regional Committee of Human Rights Joel Sierra denounces that more than 15 deaths have occurred in the course of one month in the department of Arauca, leaving the community devastated. According to the Committee, these acts are taking place since the military and civil authorities started to question the recent report of Amnesty International concerning Arauca, confirming that this report on human rights violations in Arauca is well founded. They call upon the Colombian office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights to carry out an on-going evaluation of the human rights crisis happening in the region.

Inspector General (Procurador) Edgardo Maya Villazon's office files charges against two agents of the nation's anti-kidnapping force, (Gaula), and one agent of the Attorney General's office for their alleged coercion of witnesses in a case accusing 17 people of rebellion in the central province of Tolima. The office said the agents intimidated the witnesses, who are former guerrillas, and offered them bribes and other rewards in return for accusing the 17 of collaborating with a branch of the National Liberation Army (ELN). In Tolima, the Inspector General's office also said the agents employed extraneous intelligence briefs against the 17, who included José Luis Serna Alzate, a former Roman Catholic bishop cleared of charges, Colombia Week reports.

After receiving the Foreign Minister, Carolina Barco, and signing a bilateral agreement on customs duties, Russian counterpart Serguei Lavrov announces clear support for the policies used by the Uribe administration "to combat narcotrafficking, terrorism and organised crime". The Minister also announces that Russia has requested more oil fields for the Russian-based oil group Rosneft, in exchange for military aid, AFP reports.


Weds 28 –ICBF denounces increased sexual exploitation of children; 21 children killed in Bogota.

Lilia Florez, Coordinator of the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare reports that about 35,000 children are victims of sexual exploitation, denouncing an increase in the tourist areas of Valle del Cauca and the northern Caribbean coast. She also acknowledges that there is a lack of data in this research area, and suggests that unemployment, poverty and violence have worsened the conditions of this vulnerable group, El Tiempo reports.

21 children and two adults are killed when a digger slid down a hillside and crushed a school bus in Bogota. The 45-ton earthmover rolled off the twisting road 70 feet above the bus when the brakes apparently failed. The tragedy left 36 people injured. The bus driver survived. Police had to keep back panicking parents as rescuers struggled to reach the trapped children, aged seven to 12, El Espectador reports.

The three Irishmen acquitted of training Colombian rebels refuse to leave prison for fear they may be targeted by death squads. Niall Connolly, James Monaghan and Martin McCauley said they wouldn't leave until the Colombian Government guaranteed their safety from reprisal killings by paramilitary groups, El Tiempo reports.

Under pressure for results in the peace process with paramilitary groups and the increasing opposition to a re-election campaign vote in Congress, President Uribe Velez reports that four years are not "enough time" to change Colombia, contradicting his message in the electoral campaign two years ago. He also concluded that in Colombia, "for better or worse, there will be peace". Despite some support by columnists, the Colombia media reports doubts of the timing and opportunity of this measure, fearing that the next presidential campaign would start as soon as Congress passes the bill.


Thurs 29 –US general requests more troops from Congress; UNICEF: 11,000 children fighting.

Gen. James Hill, Commander of U.S. troops in Colombia, reports that there are not enough U.S. troops to support Colombian forces. The U.S. Congress has stipulated a maximum of 400 troops in Colombia. President George W. Bush has asked Congress to allow up to 800 U.S. military personnel and 600 civilian contractors in Colombia. U.S. Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman, also on a visit to Colombia, made clear at the joint news conference that the Bush administration is not seeking to lift a congressional ban on U.S. forces participating in offensive operations, Washington Post reports.

The number of minors involved in illegal military activities led by right wing paramilitaries and guerrilla groups in Colombia is rising and spreading to the nearby nations, UNICEF warned. According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), militant groups are increasingly drafting children from across the region as soldiers, encouraged by lack of punishment for recruiting minors. All in all, the UN agency's main concern is the situation in Colombia, where 11,000 children are fighting the 40-year long civil war between Marxist rebel groups, right-wing paramilitaries and the military. According to UNICEF officials, Colombian militants are recruiting children from nearby nations such as Ecuador to fight for them.

The United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) commanders deny involvement in what the government describes as a plot to kill President Uribe, saying that they wish to pursue struggling peace talks with the government. The AUC made this comment in response to a government threat to "annihilate" it and other paramilitary groups unless they moved towards disarmament. The government on Tuesday accused paramilitaries of plotting to kill Uribe, of violating a cease-fire and of links to cocaine traffickers. "We affirm categorically before Colombia and the world that the AUC have never taken any decisions which would affect the well-being of the president," the AUC said.

Foreign Minister Carolina Barco reports "Colombia would like help from the European Union to lend transparency to its attempts to get far-right paramilitaries to demobilise". Talking to Reuters in Stockholm after meeting the Swedish Foreign Minister, Barco said her government was still committed to the peace process, which required "patience and lots of interest from both sides". "In this visit I have called for more international presence in what we believe must be an open and transparent process," she said. "We would like support with verification and we would like to invite the European Union and individual countries to help verify the ceasefire and the move to concentration zones."

The Colombian Government begins firing oil workers for taking part in a strike organised by the CUT workers union in the city of Barrancabermeja. Although the Catholic Church has attempted to facilitate negotiations for weeks, the government declared the strike illegal and is using emergency plans to continue the work of oil plants across the country, SNE reports.


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