Reports from the South

by Richard Vélez

The author worked for more than 12 years as a professional cameraman with a prominent Colombian newscast. In July 1998 he was granted political asylum in the United States.

That day I got up earlier, we had received a call from the organizing committee of the peasant marchers, who were quartered in Morelia. It had rained all night and the camp of marchers was attacked by the army at dawn. The water invaded the tents and packs of the almost 30,000 peasants who were staying there and who hoped to cross the bridge over the Bodequero river to reach Florencia, but the electrical fence covering the bridge and the various Cascabel tanks blocked the way.

When I reached Morelia on that August 29 (1996), there was total confusion. At first the peasants tried to attack us; they didn't understand that we wanted to help out by showing what was happening there.

I reached the camp where the children were crying from hunger, as the heavy rains, still coming down, made it impossible to heat the agua de panela; because of the flooding they had been unable to sleep the night before.

As the water covered their tents at dawn, they wanted to go out to the highway, but perhaps the group of soldiers on guard duty that night thought they were preparing to cross the bridge, and began to shoot tear-gas, not withstanding the cries of the children, and the difficulties the elderly were having breathing. And so the battle began, an unequal battle; sticks and stones against smoke bombs, bullets, and tanks.

But that was not the first or only confrontation. In mid-July (1996) more than 150,000 peasants from the south of Colombia--Caquetá, Guaviare, and Putumayo--decided to march to the capital cities of their provinces: Florencia, San José del Guaviare, and Mocoa, respectively. They took along their children, their chickens, cassava, a pot, and they took off. Along the way they joined up with others. They left their small plots for the nearest hamlet. The only road became a voluminous human river. The point was to go to the capital to tell the government not to carry out aerial spraying of the coca leaf plantations, as it was their only means of making a living; to implement the plan for alternative crops; to protest the lack of health centers and schools for their children, as well as the lack of roads to bring to market the food crops that are also cultivated in these zones, but lost due to lack of market outlets.

They came from all directions: from San Vicente, Cartagena del Chaira, San Pedro, Santuario, Curillo, Miraflores, Belén de los Andaquies, to name a few. Their first contact with the government was at El Amparo, a small hamlet in Guaviare, before coming to Miraflores. The "representatives of the government" had gone there. More than 1,000 soldiers and 500 police who, armed with shields, police sticks, tear-gas grenades, rifles, and even tanks, as if it were a war, had the order to stop the marchers. That was the first battle.

The TV audience must still recall the image of that peasant who fell to the ground with his stomach in his hands after taking a shot that destroyed vital organs. I was there with my camera, aiming at what the government would later claim in its press releases to be confrontations between the FARC guerrillas and the army.

The confrontations were practically daily: at El Amparo, at Miraflores, and now in Caquetá. The peasants did not lose faith that they would reach the capital, and never ceded, despite the dead and the hundreds of peasants wounded, despite the hunger and fatigue.

I recall the first day that I reached Florencia, after 20 days in Guaviare, accompanying the marches and showing the other face of a reality of which the country was ignorant. That day General Ramírez, commander of the 17th Army brigade, invited the press to his office to a meeting and to welcome them to Florencia. When I entered the general's office, he was showing the other members of the press a bad copy of the video I had made in the confrontations at El Amparo, and I recall him showing them and describing: "Here you can see that this guerrilla has a weapon and is the one who shot the person who is falling here." As I still had the original cassette of that day in my briefcase, and as I was the one to tape it, I told the general: "I'm sorry General, but I have the original of that take and I was the one who taped it, and I can assure you that the what the man has in his hand is not a weapon but a placard." The general abruptly ended the meeting. For the next several days in Florencia there was a curfew; I was the only reporter not given a pass to circulate at night. Yet no one was able to prevent us from showing the various facets of this conflict.

We learned of the issue of the aerial fumigations and their repercussions on the health of the population and the ecosystem. We learned about it up close: the peasant has to grow the coca leaf, since it is more profitable than planting a hectare of cassava, and considering they don't have a health center, and medical care is often provided by the veterinarian.

While the organizing committee for the march negotiated with the government delegates in the offices of the Governor of Caquetá, the population of Florencia shut down their businesses in solidarity with the marchers, who confronted the Army and Police in the center of the city, with two persons killed by bullets, 50 wounded, and the destruction of supermarkets and the public library. That day, the Police irresponsibly used an ambulance with red cross markings to transport bombs used against the population.

My work came to an end abruptly, when without wanting to I became the protagonist in the news story. That rainy morning in Morelia I situated myself in a privileged position to capture with my camera the faces of those two parts of the people in confrontation: young newly-inducted soldiers brought from various cities of the country, and a group of peasants, who were raspachines, or coca-leaf growers. The gases no longer had the same effect on the faces of those peasants who learned that by putting lard on their faces they could eliminate the burning of the tear gas on the skin. I saw when a soldier tried to throw a hand grenade yet it exploded, rending his arm. This was like an order to fire, and the troops began to fire on the peasants, who began running helter-skelter. Several were shot in the back, others were wounded with machetes.

I saw this group of soldiers, shooting their rifles, approaching from ahead, and as they passed in front of me they began to beat me with the butts of their weapons and the tips of their boots while they shouted at me "suelte el hijueputa cassete" ("cough up the fucking tape"). I held tight to my camera, still running, until the blow from a rifle butt broke the camera gear, but I heard the voice of someone who said "they got that guy and they're beating him up!" I recall that a soldier with his gas mask on picked me up and a colleague from another news program came up to me; I gave him the tape and told him, "save the material my friend." That night everyone saw those images, while I recovered in a hospital with a perforated liver and my testicles destroyed by the blows.

One year later I was seeking political asylum in the United States due to the threats.

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