Colombia This Week -- May 17, 2004

Fri 07- Patriot Plan, Patriotic doubts; PBI raise concerns for the safety of CAVIDA members.

An editorial in El Tiempo comments on the Patriot Plan announced by the government this week. According to the government, a major offensive has been launched in the south of the country, targeting long-term guerrilla strongholds in Caqueta and Meta with the presence of hundreds of soldiers. The editorial criticises the "exclusively military nature" of the offensive, and the lack of planning "to win the hearts and minds" of the inhabitants, abandoned for more than 40 years by the Colombian state. So far, 1,500 people have been displaced in the municipality of Cartegena del Chaira due to the presence of the armed forces in the area.

The Colombia Project of Peace Brigades International (PBI) reports the intimidation of members of CAVIDA, (the Community of Self-Determination, Life and Dignity) during the election process for the legal representative of the High Council of Cacarica. According to reports, some 150 people who have never lived in the communal territories of Cacarica entered the settlement, protesting and waving banners against the presence of foreigners. According to the NGO Justice and Peace, among the demonstrators were soldiers of the 17th Brigade of the Colombian army.

A strike by workers for Ecopetrol,- the state-owned oil company whose refinery is now guarded by troops and police-, has entered its third week and become a test of will between Colombia's biggest union and President Uribe Velez. The union says it staged the strike because it feels the company doesn't protect workers from redundancy and because it believes the government is planning to privatise Ecopetrol, allowing foreign oil firms to reap inflated profits. The government oil firm has fired another 34 employees, raising the total to 88 in the two week strike, New York Times reports.

The Colombian leftist party Democratic Independent Pole announces it will join the Socialist International, the worldwide organisation of socialist, social democratic and labour parties, according to El Tiempo.


Sat 08 – Girl killed in grenade attack; Colombian army blame FARC for displacement in Caqueta.

Unknown people launch a grenade attack on a house in Puerto Rico, (Caqueta) killing a minor and injuring her parents. According to the authorities the attack was reportedly targeting a local councillor who left the premises shortly before the explosion, El Espectador reports.

After the deployment of hundreds of troops into the area, officials from the Colombian army blame FARC for a mass displacement in the rural areas of Caqueta. According to the media, more than 1,500 people have been internally displaced because of the presence of the army on a government offensive in the southern province of Caqueta, El Colombiano reports.

The Colombian Attorney General's Office appeals against the acquittal of three Irishmen, who will not be allowed to leave Colombia until the appeals process has run its course, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office said. Legal experts say that if the case reaches the Supreme Court this could take as long as five years, Reuters reports.

Medellin-based NGO Corporation for Judicial Liberty (CJL) reports arbitrary detentions and abuses against members of the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado by members of the armed forces, calling on the commander of the XII Brigade of the Colombian army to abide by the recent sentence of the Constitutional Court that orders the protection of the members of this peace community, who are also beneficiaries of the provisional measures of the Inter American Court of Human Rights.


Sun 09 – Colombian paramilitaries arrested in Caracas; ex-minister Londoño criticises UN role.

Venezuelan authorities arrest at least 80 people they accuse of being Colombian right-wing paramilitaries plotting to join Venezuelan dissidents in a bid to overthrow left-wing President Hugo Chavez. Officials said they captured 56 paramilitaries on a farm on the outskirts of Caracas early on Sunday, and later caught another 24, some reportedly wearing Venezuelan military uniforms, after they escaped to a mountainous region south of the capital. Miguel Rodriguez Torres, chief of the police intelligence service, said the group, which he said totalled 130, had been training on the farm for a month. "Their intentions were to organise with people from Plaza Altamira to mount a coup," Rodriguez Torres told the official Venezuelan Television channel (VTV), referring to a Caracas square where Chavez opponents, including military officers, have protested.

In an editorial in El Colombiano, ex-Justice and Interior minister Fernando Londoño accuses the UN system and its representatives in Colombia of interfering in the demobilisation process with the paramilitaries by setting up international humanitarian law hurdles in the process.

A year after the "Guardabosques programme" started in Putumayo, peasants in the area of Orito in Putumayo report how the US-sponsored fumigation is still killing forests and food crops in their territories despite clearing all the illegal crops a year ago. Eugenia Victoria Restrepo, Director of the Alternative Development Programme, blames the anti-narcotic police squad for fumigating indiscriminately, El Tiempo reports.

Colombian state oil company Ecopetrol signs a preliminary agreement with US ExxonMobil and Brazilian Petrobras to explore for oil and natural gas off the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The statement said the three companies would explore the Tayrona Block, an area of 18,000 square miles extending from Colombia's historic port of Cartagena east to the Venezuelan border. Petrobras said drilling in the block could go as deep as 5,000 feet under the surface of the Caribbean Sea.


Mon 10 – UN envoy: Colombia is humanitarian catastrophe; Mancuso rejects accusations.

While visiting a shantytown in Cartagena, Jan Egeland, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs reports that in the last year, "the number of kidnappings and assassinations has gone down, but the humanitarian situation in Colombia is worsening because poor Colombians are being attacked by armed groups and are forced to flee their homes". According to the UN figures over the last four years, the number of people forced to flee their homes has increased by about 1 million and Colombia now has the third-largest number of displaced people in the world — behind Congo and Sudan, he said. "Colombia is therefore by far the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of the Western hemisphere," Egeland told a news conference.

Leader of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), Salvatore Mancuso denies that any of its forces have infiltrated Venezuela. "We reject the accusations that are being made by Venezuela's leaders&ldots; only sick people with messianic delusions of staying in power by the force of dictatorship can put forth stories so far from reality," he told Colombia's RCN television.


Tues 11- Chiquita Co. hired armed groups in Colombia; grenade kills five prisoners in Cali prison.

The U.S. government is investigating Chiquita Brands Inc. for making "protection" payments to certain Colombian armed groups. Chiquita Chief Executive Fernando Aguirre reports that the company is taking the investigation "very seriously", acknowledging that the company in Colombia had in the past been forced to make "protection payments", reportedly to paramilitary groups that control the Uraba region, AP reports.

A grenade reportedly smuggled into a Colombia prison inside a woman's body explodes, killing five inmates. The device went off after it was brought into the Villa Hermosa jail in Cali. Prison officials said inmates were handling the grenade when it exploded. Three died instantly - two later in hospital - and 20 were wounded, Reuters reports.


Weds 12 – Army admits ex-soldiers are among detainees; dramatic cut in funding for hospitals.

Colombian army chief, General Martin Orlando Carreño, says 26 out of 90 people arrested in raids near Caracas have been identified as former members of the Colombian armed forces. The Venezuelan vice-president, Jose Vicente Rangel, has hinted Gen. Carreño himself was involved, saying the general met members of the Venezuelan opposition in Cucuta (Norte Santander). Gen Carreño denied that he had met Venezuelan "politicians", but acknowledged meeting Venezuelan "associates" two months ago to discuss "border problems, kidnappings and extortion" carried out by leftwing Colombian rebels operating along the frontier. The admission will further test relations between two South American neighbours who habitually trade accusations over supposedly destabilising activities across their mutual border, the Guardian reports.

After the government severely reduced the budgets for the Colombian Social Security system, doctors and nurses report that hospitals have already introduced reductions in the services and imposed quotas on some treatments in response to budget cuts, El Tiempo reports.

After meeting with Uribe Velez, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland calls on all sides in the Colombian conflict to develop a humanitarian agreement, as the UN system and the international community is convinced that the only solution to this conflict is a negotiated one, SNE reports.

Colombian officials announce they will close a gold mine located near Puerto Salgar, in a ranch once owned by Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, a Medellin cocaine cartel leader killed by police in 1989. According to reports, around 300 people are illegally mining the premises but the government have confiscated the 3,000-acre Hope Ranch last year after a change in the law allowing such seizures soon after taking office in 2002, Associated Press reports.


Thurs 13- AUC commanders agree safe area move for 6 months; 43 people detained near Bogota.

Colombia's main paramilitary commanders agree to move into a 230-square-mile safe haven in Santa Fe de Ralito while they negotiate eventual demobilisation. Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo signed the pact with 10 commanders of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, (AUC), in the paramilitary stronghold. The commanders inside the haven will keep their weapons, and arrest warrants for any fighters located there will be suspended, he said. Under the agreement the paramilitary groups do not need to concentrate their troops in a designated area. "This is an accord that we have been working toward for a long time," Santos told RCN radio.

Troops and police captured 43 suspected FARC members armed with explosives and shotguns as they allegedly prepared for terrorist attacks in the capital. The suspects were captured in various operations in the Sumapaz area, near Bogota, Gen. Hernando Alonso Ortiz of the Army's 5th division told reporters: "With these arrests, we're neutralising future terrorist activities that were planned for the capital," El Tiempo reports.

Three people suspected of an alleged paramilitary plot to topple President Hugo Chavez were arrested at a Venezuelan billionaire's coffee farm. The arrests bring the total number of people in custody to more than 100. The defence minister, Jorge Carneiro, said documents were found during more than 20 raids implicating "important people in Venezuelan public life, including businessmen and media owners" in the plot to mount a coup,. AP reports.

U.S. Secret Service agents and Colombian police seized US $4 million in counterfeit American currency, breaking up a network capable of printing $1 million in fake bills every month, the judicial police said. Authorities arrested 15 suspects during the dawn raid on a clandestine printing workshop in Cali. Authorities also confiscated 50 plates used to print the cash. The group had connections in Miami, New York, Peru and Ecuador, Reuters reports.


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