Despite agreement on return, paramilitary offensive continues in Southern Bolívar and Barrancabermeja

In early October, the government signed an agreement with peasants displaced by paramilitary violence from the south of Bolívar to Barrancabermeja and other near-by areas to allow for their return to their villages. Yet when the return began, three of the peasant leaders who negotiated the agreement were killed in the ongoing violence. The following is from information received from the Project Counselling Service, the Permanent Assembly of Civil Society, and the Red de Hermandad y Solidaridad Colombo-Ecuatoriana. Urgent action appeals are requested.


Displaced peasants begin return to Southern Bolívar

On October 4, after six weeks of negotiations, the Colombian government and displaced peasants from the south of Bolívar and the Cimitarra valley reached what is being hailed as an historic agreement. The displaced peasants agreed to return to their communities of origin after the government promised to deploy a special unit to combat paramilitary groups in the region and to provide emergency assistance to displaced families until they are able to reactivate their production projects. President Pastrana put in a personal appearance to sign the accords. The text of the agreement contains a public declaration by the national government together with a series of commitments in three chapters. That same week, the first groups of returnees began their homeward journey with few expectations, given that the first public report issued by the Verification Commission was not very encouraging.

In the declaration, the Colombian government rejects all acts perpetrated by paramilitary groups that violate the human rights of the civilian population in the Magdalena Medio region and reaffirms that police and military units have an obligation to actively control these groups. The government reiterates its willingness to pursue an official policy to curb paramilitarism -- an effort led by vice-president Gustavo Bell Lemus -- and to repeal the laws that permitted the creation of the rural self-defense cooperatives known as Convivir, which have been responsible for numerous human rights violations. The government has agreed to form a special Search Unit to root out paramilitary groups operating in the Magdalena Medio region, with operational jurisdiction in the departments of Antioquia, Boyaca, Bolívar, Cesar, Santander, and Sucre. The government also promised to send a special team from the Public Prosecutor's Office to the Magdalena Medio region and to establish a permanent early warning and communications system covering the areas of Yondó, Remedios, Cantagallo, Simití, Montecristo, San Pablo, and Tiquisio.

As part of the accords, a Commission has been created with representatives of the Procuraduría (Internal Review) and the Fiscalía (Public Prosecutor's Office), as well as peasant and NGO representatives who have accompanied the process, to verify implementation. The Commission will be based in Barrancabermeja and will issue quarterly progress reports, to be made public, on the implementation of the agreement and the general situation in the region.

Although leaders of the peasant exodus, NGOs, and political analysts have welcomed the agreements as a positive step forward, all have expressed grave concerns: The critical lack of security, frequent clashes between the guerrillas and the paramilitary groups, and the inaction of the Armed Forces are all casting a shadow over the return of the 14,000 displaced peasants sheltering in Barrancabermeja, San Pablo, and Bogotá.

On November 19, an urgent action was circulated by the Permanent Assembly of Civil Society entitled "Tragedy in the South of Bolívar: A Paramilitary Massacre Foretold," which reported that in the previous week, according to sources in the region, the following events had unfolded: Hundreds of men, women, and children in southern Bolívar and Magdalena Medio have been attacked and many of them assassinated by a paramilitary group operating with the support of three helicopters, in the face of the indifference of the national government and the armed forces.

This population, which had previously been threatened, fled to Barrancabermeja and Bogotá. The national government has failed to carry out the agreement reached last month in the formal negotiations with the displaced in Barrancabermeja, to immediately establish a search unit to pursue the paramilitary groups; the torture, assassination, pillage, and burning of their homes continues. These peasants are members of the Permanent Assembly of Civil Society for Peace, and requested the support and accompaniment of the Colombian people and the international community so that their lives, integrity, and property be respected by the paramilitary groups.

An early December account of the situation in southern Bolívar after the return includes the following information: "The war over the exploitation and control of the natural resources [of the region] is destroying the social fabric and stands in the way of any type of community life (convivencia). Gold, precious stones, oil, a wide variety and wealth of animal and plant species are found in and on these lands; they constitute a natural resource that to date has been maintained by the communities themselves. As a result of the failure of the state to provide services, coca-leaf production, and cocaine production and trafficking, have been on the rise in the last decade."

A document prepared by peasants, miners, and workers of southern Bolívar during their August 1998 exodus placed the violence in the following context: "Southern Bolívar produces half the country's gold, and gold that is among the best quality in Latin America, therefore some transnational corporations have been interested in exploiting it, but they have always thought of stealing this resource, bribing high-level government officials and leaving us the misery and hunger they always leave throughout Colombia, where they carry out these mega-projects."

The document continues, describing the announcement by paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño last August of an offensive in the region, and the recent arrival of 240 men by air, river, and land in the municipality of Simití, San Blas, the valley of the Cimitarra river, and the Serranía de San Lucas: "In their path they have destroyed villages, set ablaze and pillaged homes, massacred families and dismembered corpses, decapitated children and elderly, they have raped women and caused displacement. In this way they punish the communities that had allegedly been areas through which the guerrillas passed, and they're preparing the ground for investment by large national and international capital." As of this early December communication, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had not been able to enter the area because of the lack of guarantees it needs to carry out its humanitarian work.

Please send communications to the Colombian authorities listed at the bottom of the page for all urgent actions, and to the minister of defense, urging that the October 4 agreement be implemented, that the government provide the guarantees necessary for humanitarian organizations such as the ICRC to do their work, and that the many acts of violence perpetrated in this series of events be investigated and those responsible brought to justice.

Rodrigo Lloreda
Ministro de Defensa
Av. del Dorado con Kra. 52
Bogotá, Colombia
Fax: 011 57 1 222-1874