archivos de los protestos globales Plan Colombia & FTAA Quebec
Fri, 16 Feb 2001

Colombia, on the road to Quebec City

On their way to a meeting in Quebec City about "free" trade, "democracy", "rule of law", . . . and all that, the Colombian government- and Army-linked paramilitary forces carry out massacres and other acts of repression . . .

Will the situation in Colombia — endemic economic, political and social rights violations (ie, poverty); forced displacements, repression and terror (violations of political and civil rights and humanitarian law) — be discussed at the "Free Trade" Summit meeting in Quebec City?

Will officials and delegates in Quebec City say that what is happening in Colombia has nothing to do with the country's political and economic systems?

Below, you will find:

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Army-backed paramilitaries have declared Peace Brigades International -PBI- a "military target" after threatening one of its members and a women's organization that PBI accompanies in Barrancabermeja, Colombia.
The following information was prepared by Amnesty International.

For more information on PBI:

February 9, 2001

Army-backed paramilitaries have declared Peace Brigades International a "military target" after threatening both one of its members and a women's grassroots organization it accompanies in Barrancabermeja, Colombia.

In the early morning of 8 February, two armed men, who said they belonged to the paramilitary group United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia, came to a women's community center run by the Organización Femenina Popular (OFP), Popular Women's Organization, in the city of Barrancabermeja. They men went straight to an international observer from the non-governmental organization Peace Brigades International (PBI), who are accompanying OFP members in immediate danger, and ordered him to hand over his official papers and mobile phone. When he refused, the paramilitaries threatened him with a gun. He and Jackeline Rojas, an OFP activist, therefore handed over their papers and mobile phones. When leaving the center, the paramilitary gunmen threatened the international observer, declaring PBI a "military target"

Since 1994, PBI has maintained a team of international observers in Barrancabermeja. The organization protects human rights activists by physically accompanying those at risk. PBI accompanies the OFP, an internationally backed organization working with displaced communities in the Magdalena Medio region, which came under paramilitary threat in January.

Amnesty International is concerned that despite a heavy security force presence in Barrancabermeja, where a special forces unit was deployed in January, paramilitary forces have apparently been able to operate unhindered. One paramilitary, who was arrested for threatening workers at the OFP centre on 27 January, was released only two days later. Also, the paramilitaries are reported to have set up checkpoints and to have killed several people in recent weeks. Although the precise location of these checkpoints have been reported to the security forces, they have taken no action to confront the paramilitaries.

The security forces and their paramilitary allies have a policy of labeling human rights activists as guerilla collaborators or supporters, so they can present them as legitimate targets in the counter-insurgency war. Human rights activists in Barrancabermeja and the Magdalena Medio region have suffered continuous threats and harassment for carrying out their legitimate work to promote and protect internationally recognized human rights. In the past they have been the subject of death threats, killings and disappearances at the hands of the security forces and their paramilitary allies. Many have been killed and others have been forced to leave the region in fear for their lives. The Colombian authorities have so far failed to take action against paramilitary groups operating in the region.

Recommended Action

Please call the US State Department, the US Embassy in Colombia, Canadian External Affairs, and the Canadian Embassy in Colombia, to express your concern for the safety of human rights defenders in Barranca, and for the safety of international human rights monitors like Peace Brigades International.

In the US, call the human rights staffers at the DC offices of your three Members of Congress. Ask them to call the State Department Colombia desk officer (Alex Lee 202.647.4173) and the human rights officer of the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá (Mari Dieterich 011.571.315.2130). Request that the U.S. Embassy make a public pronouncement of concern about this situation, urging the Colombian authorities to take concrete action against paramilitary groups in Barranca.

"Chronicle of a Massacre Foretold"

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post, January 28, 2001; P 1

CHENGUE, Colombia — In the cool hours before sunrise on Jan. 17, 50 members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia marched into this village of avocado farmers. Only the barking of dogs, unaccustomed to the blackness brought by a rare power outage, disturbed the mountain silence.

For an hour, under the direction of a woman known as Comandante Beatriz, the paramilitary troops pulled men from their homes, starting with 37-year-old Jaime Merino and his three field workers. They assembled them into two groups above the main square and across from the rudimentary health center.

Then, one by one, they killed the men by crushing their heads with heavy stones and a sledgehammer. When it was over, 24 men lay dead in pools of blood. Two more were found later in shallow graves. As the troops left, they set fire to the village.

The growing power and brutality of Colombia's paramilitary forces have become the chief concern of international human rights groups and, increasingly, Colombian and U.S. officials who say the 8,000-member private army might pose the biggest obstacle to peace in the country's decades-old civil conflict.

This massacre, the largest of 23 mass killings attributed to the paramilitaries this month, comes as international human rights groups push for the suspension of U.S. aid to the Colombian armed forces until the military shows progress on human rights. The armed forces, the chief beneficiary of the $1.3 billion U.S. anti-drug assistance package known as Plan Colombia, deny using the paramilitaries as a shadow army against leftist guerillas, turning a blind eye to their crimes or supporting them with equipment, intelligence and troops.

But in Chengue (CHEN-gay), more than two dozen residents interviewed in their burned-out homes and temporary shelters said they believe the Colombian military helped carry out the massacre.

In dozens of interviews, conducted in small groups and individually over three days, survivors said military aircraft undertook surveillance of the village in the days preceding the massacre and in the hour immediately following it. The military, according to these accounts, provided safe passage to the paramilitary column and effectively sealed off the area by conducting what villagers described as a mock daylong battle with leftist guerillas who dominate the area.

"There were no guerillas," said one resident, who has also told his story to two investigators from the Colombian prosecutor general's human rights office. "Their motive was to keep us from leaving and anyone else from coming in until it was all clear. We hadn't seen guerillas for weeks."

A 'Dirty War'

The rutted mountain track to Chengue provides a vivid passage into the conflict consuming Colombia. Chengue, and hundreds of villages like it, are the neglected and forgotten arenas where illegal armed forces of the right and left, driven by a national tradition of settling political differences with violence, conduct what Colombians call their "dirty war."

Despite peace talks between the government and the country's largest guerilla insurgency, more than 25,600 Colombians died violently last year. Of those, 1,226 civilians — a third more than the previous year — died in 205 mass killings that have come to define the war. Leftist guerillas killed 164 civilians last year in mass killings, according to government figures, compared with 507 civilians killed in paramilitary massacres. More than 2 million Colombians have fled their homes to escape the violence.

In this northern coastal mountain range, strategic for its proximity to major transportation routes, all of Colombia's armed actors are present. Two fronts of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's oldest and largest leftist guerilla insurgency with about 17,000 armed members, control the lush hills they use to hide stolen cattle and victims of kidnappings-for-profit.

The privately funded United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known by the initials AUC in Spanish, patrols the rolling pastures and menaces the villages that provide the FARC with supplies. Paramilitary groups across Colombia have grown in political popularity and military strength in recent years as a counterweight to the guerillas, and obtain much of their funding from relations with drug traffickers. Here in Sucre province, ranchers who are the targets of the kidnappings and cattle theft allegedly finance the paramilitary operations.

AUC commander Carlos Castano, who has condemned the massacre here and plans his own investigation, lives a few hours away in neighboring Cordoba province.

The armed forces, who are outnumbered by the leftist guerillas in a security zone that covers 9,000 square miles and includes more than 200 villages, are responsible for confronting both armed groups. Col. Alejandro Parra, head of the navy's 1st Brigade, with responsibility for much of Colombia's northern coast, said the military would need at least 1,000 more troops to effectively control the zone.

The military has prepared its own account of the events surrounding the massacre at Chengue, which emptied this village of all but 100 of its 1,200 residents. Parra confirmed elements of survivor accounts, but denied that military aircraft were in the area before or immediately after the killings. He said his troops' quick response may have averted a broader massacre involving neighboring villages.

"They must have been confused about the time" the first helicopters arrived, Parra said. "If there were any helicopters there that soon after the massacre, they weren't ours."

Strategic Location

Three families have flourished in Chengue for generations, tending small orchards of avocados renowned for their size and sweetness. The only residents not related to the Oviedo, Lopez or Merino families are the farm workers who travel the lone dirt road that dips through town. The longest trip most inhabitants ever make is the two-hour drive by jeep to Ovejas, the local government seat.

But in recent years the village, set in the Montes de Maria range, has become a target on battle maps because of its strategic perch between the Caribbean Sea and the Magdalena River. Whoever controls the mountains also threatens the most important transportation routes in the north.

Villagers say FARC guerillas frequently pass through seeking supplies. Any support, many villagers say, is given mostly out of fear. As one 34-year-old farmer who survived the massacre by scrambling out his back window said, "When a man with a gun knocks on your door at 11 at night wanting food and a place to sleep, he becomes your landlord."

The AUC's Heroes of the Montes de Maria Front announced its arrival in Chengue last spring with pamphlets and word-of-mouth warnings of a pending strike. The paramilitaries apparently identified Chengue as a guerilla stronghold — a town to be emptied. The AUC's local commander, Beatriz, was once a member of the FARC's 35th Front, which operates in the zone, military officials said. Ten months ago she quarreled with the FARC leadership for allegedly mishandling the group's finances and defected to the AUC for protection and perhaps a measure of revenge.

In April, community leaders in Chengue and 20 other villages sent President Andres Pastrana and the regional military command a letter outlining the threat. "We have nothing to do with this conflict," they wrote in asking for protection.

The letter was sent two months after the massacre of 36 civilians in El Salado, a village about 30 miles southeast of here in Bolivar province that is patrolled by the same military command and paramilitary forces. But according to villagers and municipal officials in Ovejas, the request for help brought no response from the central government or the navy's 1st Brigade, which is based in the city of Sincelejo 25 miles south of here.

In October, the villagers repeated their call for help in another letter to Pastrana, regional military leaders, international human rights groups and others. Municipal officials met with members of the 1st Brigade in November, but said no increased military presence materialized. In fact, municipal officials said, the 5th Marine Infantry Battalion seemed to stop patrolling the village.

Six Chengue residents who signed the letter died in the massacre. Col. Parra said the requests for help were among dozens received at brigade headquarters in the past year, but that manpower shortages made it impossible to respond to every one.

"What is clear is that the government and [the military] knew about the evidence of a possible massacre and did nothing," said a municipal official in Ovejas, who like many interviewed in the aftermath of the slaughter requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. "The military seemed to clear out of the zone."

After weeks of not seeing any sign of the military, villagers said a small, white propeller plane swooped low over the village on Jan. 14, three days before the massacre. They identified the aircraft as the same plane used to drop anti-guerilla pamphlets three months earlier - a "psychological operation," Parra confirmed, although he denied knowledge of this particular flight. The low-altitude pass left the farmers uneasy.

Over the next two nights, as darkness fell on the village, residents said two green military helicopters passed over in slow circles. "They are the same ones I'd seen pass by before, but just coming and going, not circling," said a young mother. "We didn't know what they were doing."

Seven hours after the helicopters left the second time, the power went out in Chengue, Salitral and a series of neighboring villages that had warned of a pending paramilitary attack. Villagers noted the time somewhere between 1:30 and 2 a.m. because, as one woman remembered, "the dogs started barking when the house lights went out." Some villagers lit candles. Most remained asleep.

In the blackness, the paramilitary column dressed in Colombian army uniforms moved along the dirt road from the west, arriving between 4 and 4:30 a.m., villagers said. The column was led by Beatriz, whom military officials said is a nurse by training; witnesses said the men in her command addressed her as "doctora."

The column stopped at the gray concrete home of Jaime Merino, the first on the road, and kicked in the door. They seized him and three workers, including Luis Miguel Romero, who picked avocados to pay for medical treatment for his infant daughter.

They were led down the steep dirt road into the village, past the church and school, and to a small terrace above the square where they waited. Three brothers from the green house on the square, a father and two sons from the sky blue house across the square, and Nestor Merino, a mentally ill man who hadn't left his home in four months, all joined them in the flickering darkness.

When the men arrived for Rusbel Oviedo Barreto, 23, his father blocked the door. "They pushed me away," said Enrique al Alberto Oviedo Merino, 68. "I was yelling not to take him, and they were saying 'we'll check the computer.' There was no computer. They were mocking us. They took my identification card and said they would know me the next time."

Cesar Merino awoke on his farm above the village, and peering down, saw the town below lit by candles. His neighbors, 19-year-old Juan Carlos Martinez Oviedo and his younger brother Elkin, were also awake. The three men, who worked the same avocado farm, walked down the hillside into town. Elkin, 15, was the youngest to die.

On the far side of town, where the road bends up and out toward Ovejas, the paramilitaries gathered Cesar Merino's cousin, Andres Merino, and his 18-year-old son, Cristobal. One of them, father or son, watched the other die before his own execution.

Human rights workers and survivors speculated that the paramilitaries, who were armed with automatic rifles, used stones to kill the men to heighten the horror of the message to surrounding villages and to maintain a measure of silence in a guerilla zone.

The work was over within an hour and a half. As the column prepared to leave, according to several witnesses, one militiaman used a portable radio to make a call. No transmission was intercepted that morning by military officials, although their log of the proceeding weeks showed numerous intercepts of FARC radio traffic. Then the men smashed the town's only telephone and set the village on fire.

The hillside was full of hiding villagers, many of whom say that between 15 and 30 minutes later two military helicopters arrived overhead and circled for several minutes. The sun was beginning to rise.

"They would have been able to see [the paramilitaries] clearly at that hour," said one survivor, who has fled to Ovejas. "Why didn't they catch anyone?"

Human rights officials say the described events resemble those surrounding the massacre last year in El Salado. Gen. Rodrigo Quinones was the officer in charge of the security zone for Chengue and El Salado at that time, and remained in that post in the months leading up to the Chengue massacre. He left the navy's 1st Brigade last month to run a special investigation at the Atlantic Command in Cartagena, from where military flights in the zone are directed.

In a report issued this month, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Washington Office on Latin America called specifically for Quinones's removal. As a regional head of naval intelligence in the early 1990s, Quinones was linked to the killings of 57 trade unionists, human rights workers and activists. He was acquitted by a military court. According to the human rights report, a civilian judge who reviewed the case was "perplexed" by the verdict, saying he found the evidence of Quinones's guilt "irrefutable."

El Salado survivors said a military plane and helicopter flew over the village the day of the massacre, and that at least one wounded militiaman was transported from the site by military helicopter. Soldiers under Quinones's command sealed the village for days, barring even Red Cross workers from entering.

"We are very worried and very suspicious about the coincidences," said Anders Kompass, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights representative in Colombia. "This involves the same officer in charge, the same kind of military activity before and after the massacre, and the same lack of military presence while it was going on."

'There Is a Terror Here'

During the two hours following the killings, survivors emerged from hiding and into the shambles of their village. Eliecer Lopez Oviedo, a 66-year-old Chengue native, said his son arrived at his small farm at 9 a.m.

"He told me they had burned Chengue, killed my brothers, my sister and my niece," he said. "I arrived there to find that they hadn't killed the women. But my three brothers were above the square, dead."

What Oviedo and others found were two piles of bodies — 17 on the dirt terrace above the square, seven in front of the health center. Cristobal Merino's Yankees hat, torn and bloody, lay near his body. The rocks used in the killings remained where they were dropped. The bodies of Videncio Quintana Barreto and Pedro Arias Barreto, killed along with fathers and brothers, were found later in shallow graves.

Ash from more than 20 burning houses floated in the hot, still air. Graffiti declaring "Get Out Marxist Communist Guerrillas," "AUC" and "Beatriz" was scrawled across the walls of vacant houses. "The bodies were all right there for us to see, and I knew all of them," said a 56-year Chengue resident whose brother and brother-in-law were among the dead. "Now there is a terror here."

Officials at the 1st Brigade said they were alerted at 8:45 a.m. when the National Police chief for Sucre reported a possible paramilitary "incursion" in Chengue. According to a military log, Parra dispatched two helicopters to the village at 9:30 a.m. and the Dragon company of 80 infantry soldiers based in nearby Pijiguay five minutes later. Villagers said the troops did not arrive for at least another two hours.

When they did arrive, according to logs and soldiers present that day, a gun battle erupted with guerillas from the FARC's 35th Front. Parra said he sealed the roads into the zone "to prevent the paramilitaries from escaping." The battle lasted all day — the air force sent in one Arpia and three Black Hawk helicopters at 2:10 p.m., according to the military - and village residents waved homemade white flags urging the military to stop shooting. No casualties were reported on either side. No paramilitary troops were captured.

Three days later, the 1st Brigade announced the arrest of eight people in connection with the killings. They were apprehended in San Onofre, a town 15 miles from Chengue known for a small paramilitary camp that patrols nearby ranches. Villagers say that, though they didn't see faces that morning because of the darkness, these "old names" are scapegoats and not the men who killed their families.

A steady flow of traffic now moves toward Ovejas, jeeps stuffed with everything from refrigerators to pool cues to family pictures. The marines have set up two base camps in Chengue — one under a large shade tree behind the village, the other in the vacant school. The remaining residents do not mix with the soldiers.

"We have taken back this town," said Maj. Alvaro Jimenez, standing in the square two days after the massacre. "We are telling people we are here, that it is time to reclaim their village."

No one plans to. Marlena Lopez, 52, lost three brothers, a nephew, a brother-in-law and her pink house. Her brother, Cesar Lopez, was the town telephone operator. He fled, she said, "with nothing but his pants."

In the ashes of her home, she weeps about the pain she can't manage. "We are humble people," she said. "Why in the world are we paying for this?"

To find out more about educational and activism / advocacy work related to the "Summit" meeting in Quebec City,

Rights Action has invited development and human rights experts/activists from Chiapas (Mexico) and Honduras to participate in speaking tours leading up to the Quebec City Summit meeting on "Free" Trade. One will go through the north eastern USA; the other from southern Ontario through to Quebec City. If you are interested in hosting an event(s) for these speakers, contact Rights Action: 416-654-2074.

Leading up to and during the Summit meeting in Quebec City, a "Carnival" (including teach-ins, conferences, workshops, concerts, cabarets, street theatre, direct actions, protests and more) is being organized by CLAC (la CONVERGENCE DES LUTTES ANTI-CAPITALISTES), focusing critical attention on the unjust global economic order. Contact the CLAC EXTERNAL LIAISON: Marie (, 514-529-7724) or Jaggi (, 514-526-8946).

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