The following excerpt is from a letter to Colombian President Pastrana, sent in June 1999 by a group of peasants from the Catatumbo region of northeast Colombia, describing the paramilitary onslaught in that region as of late May. They write from Cúcuta, after having been returned to Colombia from Venezuela, where they had initially fled for safety.After a one-hour flight to San Vicente del Caguán (population about 14,000), the largest town in the demilitarized zone, the group drove two hours down a dirt road to the hamlet of La Machaca, where the meeting took place. With the exception of several FARC roadblocks, often run by very young-looking but well-equipped guerrillas, life in the zone appeared rather normal from the windows of the group's vehicles. The town of San Vicente was busy, with all stores and saloons open for business, and the countryside B nearly all of it cleared for cattle pasture B seemed peaceful.
The peasant farmers and inhabitants of Catatumbo housed in the Secondary Civic Center and in the Displaced Persons Camp in the city of Cúcuta address this correspondence to you as Head of State so that you may attend to our requests and take urgent measures and actions pertinent to the critical situation that we are enduring and guarantee protection for our lives and the return to lands that we work.
Since late May we have been victims of actions of terror and death carried out by paramilitary groups, leaving a tragic balance of assassinations and disappearances of the defenseless civilian population. This grave situation coupled with the threat of massacres against various communities of the region triggered the massive displacement of the population to other places in the department; and 3,000 of us had to search for refuge and protection in the neighboring country of Venezuela, to save our lives. Unfortunately, Mr. President, we had to ask for help from the Venezuelan authorities, because at no time did we sense any effort to take action by Colombian public law enforcement authorities to prevent the raids by these groups and their attacks on the abandoned civilian population. To the contrary, eyewitnesses who suffered the attacks and saw with their own eyes how they [the paramilitaries] assassinated, detained, and disappeared the people at the paramilitary roadblock on May 29, can't explain how these groups operated without the authorities doing anything to stop them. Also, the communities can't explain how the paramilitary groups mobilized throughout the area in trucks and moved around as though they were right at home through areas where military and police roadblocks are permanently located, and how not even preventive measures were taken by the army or police when paramilitary commander Carlos Castaño had announced long ago that Catatumbo would be taken by whatever means necessary. Nor do we find any explanation as to how it was that although these grave acts are a matter of public knowledge, nothing has been done to prevent the groups from continuing to carry out raids in the regions, nor have they done anything to prevent the installation of paramilitary bases in the rural area of Betas, barely 14 kilometers from La Gabarra, where, according to accounts by local residents, the paramilitaries occupied a house and remain there, with no action being taken against them.
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