Critical Situation in Cali, Valle del Cauca: Interview with CSPP


The Colombia Human Rights Committee interviewed Marta Ascuntar and Fernando Sanchez from the Cali branch of the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners (CSPP) about the situation of human rights in the Valle del Cauca department. Valle del Cauca is one of Colombia's southern regions that has been particularly affected by the armed conflict in the last year as paramilitary forces opened new fronts in this department.

The Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners is Colombia's oldest human rights non-governmental organization; it provides legal counsel and defense work for prisoners who are social activists or members of guerrilla groups, while promoting and protecting the rights of political prisoners.


CHRC: How has the situation in Valle del Cauca changed in the last four months?

MA: In the last month, the situation has worsened, mostly because of the intensification of paramilitary attacks. This began with the formation of the AUC's Calima Bloc in late 1998, and through the course of 1999, five different paramilitary fronts were created in Valle del Cauca.

Their presence has made the situation of internal displacement and massacres, which at one time was limited to the center and north of the department, spread to the entire Valle del Cauca, and even intensified in the south since last May. Currently, paramilitaries are permanently present on the border between Valle del Cauca and Cauca and have a strong presence in the Farallones Mountains and the Pacific Coast.

FS: The human rights situation in Valle del Cauca has worsened immensely. Although the actual number of deaths from killings and massacres that occurred in this past year has decreased slightly, there are new worrisome trends ni the conduct of the paramilitary groups, which Marta has already mentioned. Specifically, these trends are the paramilitary's new strategies of control and territorial power in Valle del Cauca's rural areas in the southern, Farallones, and Pacific coastal regions.


CHRC: From your point of view, what are the primary factors that have contributed to this change?

MA: Various conditions have built up to this point. The principal element is, of course, the growing presence of the paramilitary group and its direct implications. But the worsening of Cali's situation is not due to the paramilitary presence alone. For example, the social crisis facing Cali in terms of mounting unemployment, which has increased about 40% this year alone, is not necessarily because of paramilitary actions.

One must first understand why paramilitary groups exist in Valle del Cauca. Their presence can be attributed primarily to the support they receive from members of the Colombian military. This support has peaked because of incidents such as "La María" Church kidnapping two years ago in 1998 xx(may 30, 1999) and the Kilometer 18 kidnapping late last year. xx(which year) These two events triggered strengthened relations between the army and the paramilitary, and thus the massive presence of these paramilitary groups.

Not only has the direct collaboration between paramilitaries and the military been a deteriorating factor. One must also consider the tacit approval of certain sectors of Valle's civil society. These sectors accept the paramilitary presence and do not take a stance against the paramilitaries' killings and massacres of peasants and other marginal groups.

Other conditions also contribute to the presence of paramilitary groups. Valle del Cauca is a very industrial region, including many megaprojects with foreign investment. These projects are linked to the interests of landowners, which leads to the violent expropriation of land and so to many of the crimes against peasants.

FS: The paramilitary phenomenon, very subtly supported by certain civil and governmental sectors, is largely driven by economic interests of these groups. This is especially evident when one sees the connection between paramilitary presence and megaprojects. The inhabitants of the areas being designated for these megaprojects are threatened by paramilitary groups, and peasants are either killed or displaced. Development and modernization take place because of bloodshed. Those peasants who remain are threatened and harassed, until they too are forced to leave or succumb through the pressure from paramilitary groups to collaborate with them by terrorizing the population, blocking their roads, or other means. This occurs especially in the southern Valle municipalities, by the border with Cauca.

The government has also fostered conditions for an intensified paramilitary presence. The media portrays the armed forces as heroic and in control, exemplified by the cases of the two massive kidnappings, which is aimed at keeping the population from seeing their negative side. Consequently, members of the armed forces will not be questioned about their direct or indirect support to paramilitary groups. Accordingly, whoever questions the armed forces and their support for the paramilitaries--including union leaders, social activists, and human rights defenders--are immediately categorized as being against the control and order imposed by the armed forces and the state.

Cali's middle- and upper-class population, supported by the business elite, the Catholic Church and the local authorities, are factors for an increased paramilitary presence, as they protest and hold demonstrations against guerrilla acts, but never once denounce the massacres perpetrated by paramilitaries. They go so far as to place banners in various places of the city where they praise the members of the military, criticize the peace process and condemn the guerrilla groups, all the while never mentioning the paramilitaries. These sectors also control the media, where they disseminate similar views.


CHRC: In a nutshell, what are the critical current events in Valle del Cauca?

MA: Well, all attacks and incidents that stem from paramilitary presence are critical. Yet, to me what is critical in most cases is that there are no hard-hitting actions by the armed forces or police that indicate they are fighting the paramilitaries. In fact, it seems that these paramilitary attacks stem from inside the armed forces.

I find particularly worrisome the continual killings and massacres currently taking place in the Farallones; along the border between Valle del Cauca and Cauca, especially in the municipalities of Timba, Buenos Aires, and Santander in Cauca, which borders southern Valle; and along the main roads of Valle. Many killings occur on the different roads, no exact casualty figures are given, because there is often no precise way to track these deaths.

An especially worrisome trend is the many threats against union leaders. The AUC has threatened the lives of all of the CUT's main representatives in Valle del Cauca. Other unions have been pinpointed by the paramilitaries and are also under threat. On January 14, a unionized worker in the public utilities sector was killed, creating an environment of tension and despair.

There have also been many other incidents, but there is another one which I find particularly worrisome, a disappearance last month. In December, a lawyer for political prisoners, Fernando Cruz Peña, was disappeared, apparently by police members of the SIJIN [police intelligence]. xx() We still have no word as to his whereabouts.

Finally, I must mention the prison situation, as this is the setting where the Committee works. There have been many confrontations between common criminals and inmates who belong to paramilitary factions and those who are members of guerrilla groups. This has made our work very difficult. On December 2, 2000, two political prisoners were killed by paramilitaries in the prisons; they order execution-style killings, and many others are threatened.


CHRC: What measures are human rights defenders and social activists taking to address this situation?

MA: As I mentioned earlier, there is really a very strong sense of tension and despair. Most people have responded by leaving Cali, especially the union leaders. There really has not been an opportunity to develop a strategy with the unions, as they had to cease all their activities completely. This month [January 2001] people are starting to begin their work again, but accompanied, of course, by great fear.

FS: Human rights defenders and social activists lodge formal complaints with government authorities about the threats against them. We are trying to obtain protection from the Colombian government, as well as from international organizations such as the OAS. Yet there is still a high degree of impunity for paramilitary acts, and not much done to protect us.

As if this was not enough, we cannot make our situation public through demonstrations or protests because of legal repression exercised by the security forces. If we were to publicly protest our situation, we'd risk being arrested.


CHRC: What has been the reaction of local and departmental authorities to the situation faced by human rights defenders and social activists?

MA: There has no reaction whatsoever. For the governing authorities in Valle del Cauca, human rights defenders and union leaders are equal to guerrilla members. This has actually been said publicly to our faces. The authorities have not even limited themselves to merely making some sort of verbal commitment to us – they really are not at all willing to acknowledge the seriousness of the human rights situation in Valle del Cauca.

FS: The current positions being taken publicly by the government with the support of the upper class and the Church suggest that next year there will be many acts of the dirty war on a scale not yet seen in Valle. We know that they will attack and eliminate anyone they consider an enemy of the order they have imposed. In fact, a new military commander of the Third Brigade actually stated that they will fight what he called "the human rights lie that the subversive groups produce to lower the army's morale".

MA: We are asking the Ministry of Interior and the government to fulfill the promises their representatives have previously made to us in regarding protection. Even so, the Ministry has not yet implemented its agreements with us, in particular with the union leaders. And as for the Committee, the only thing the Ministry of Interior has done for our protection is to provide one cellular phone and money for a personal transportation system that never comes when scheduled.


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