archivos de los protestos globales

COLOMBIA: Casualties in Battle Against Free Trade Pact with US

Constanza Vieira |

BOGOTÁ, May 22 (IPS) - Indigenous and campesino protests against the free trade deal that Colombia is negotiating with the United States drew a harsh military response from the government of rightwing President Álvaro Uribe, leaving an as yet unknown number of people dead, injured or missing.

Even the ombudsman of the southwestern province of Nariño, Carlos Mario Aguirre, was hospitalised last Thursday. He was among those suffering the effects of "prohibited gases sprayed from gunship helicopters," according to the non-governmental Permanent Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CPDH).

A recent statement released by the ombudsman's office of Nariño said pepper gas, banned by treaties on international humanitarian law, was used.

The communiqué also denounced "the arbitrary and excessive use of force by the national police and army against defenceless civilians."

No authority or civil society organisation has provided an estimate of the total number of protesters killed, injured or missing after the army was called in to crack down on the ongoing demonstrations in rural areas, which began May 15 in 14 of the country's 32 departments (provinces).

The campesinos (small farmers) and indigenous people are protesting the free trade pact negotiated by the Uribe administration and the U.S. government of George W. Bush.

According to the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC), which originally called the protests that were later joined by campesino and Afro-Colombian organisations, some 50,000 people have taken part in the demonstrations.

The government claims the protests were sponsored and organised by the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's main rebel group, which has been fighting for four decades.

But the demonstrators categorically deny any link to the FARC.

ONIC links 90 indigenous groups that account for around one million people in this country of 44 million.

The crackdown on the protests was at its most brutal in the indigenous regions of Cauca and Nariño, as well as the departments of Putumayo (on the Ecuadorian border) and Meta (south of Bogotá).

In Nariño on Friday May 19, "The security forces attacked not only demonstrators but also government officials who were trying to mediate," the national executive secretary of the CPDH, Jairo Ramírez, told IPS.

The demonstrations there were being held "in response to a national call for indigenous and campesino groups to protest the free trade pact with the United States," said Ramírez. But "They are also against the spraying and forced eradication of coca crops," he added.

Coca is the raw material of cocaine, of which Colombia is the world's top exporter.

Ramírez pointed out that a large number of coca farmers displaced from their land by counterinsurgency and anti-drug operations carried out in other regions under the U.S.-financed and coordinated Plan Colombia and Patriot Plan have fled to Nariño.

Campesino groups are afraid that the competition resulting from the lifting of trade barriers with the United States will hurt farmers, and drive more of them into raising coca, by far the most profitable crop in this South American country.

The negotiations of the free trade pact took two years, and were initially completed on Feb. 25, although they were later reopened over discrepancies on touchy areas for Colombian agriculture. The contents of the agreement remain secret.

The Colombian government announced last week that the sections of the trade agreement that have given rise to differences will only be discussed after the May 28 presidential elections, in which Uribe is slated for re-election.

ONIC warned in early March that the free trade treaty would allow "our genetic resources to be patented."

According to the indigenous umbrella group, the free trade accord threatens indigenous cultures, communities, families, dignity and even lives because of the aim to "turn everything that exists into merchandise and commodities."

ONIC also warned that the agreement would "drive up the cost of medicines, thus causing death; destroy national agricultural production and food sovereignty; and establish excessive perks for foreign investors, contractors and suppliers." It also forces Colombia to approve laws that will affect national resources and the legal system, the group said, calling for efforts to keep the legislature - where 70 percent of the seats are held by pro-Uribe lawmakers - from ratifying the trade pact.

The main indigenous protest on Monday May 15 was held in the town of La María, in the district of Piendamó in the southwestern department of Cauca.

Since a September 2004 march in which La María was declared a "territory of coexistence, dialogue and negotiation," it is considered a sacred place by indigenous groups.

Some 8,000 people took part in the May 15 march in La María, former minister Camilo González Posso, director of the Institute of Studies for Development and Peace - who also participated - told IPS.

That same day, the government stated that the march was sponsored by the guerrillas. The next day, under the pretext of guaranteeing that traffic would be able to circulate on roads in the area, helicopters opened fire on the demonstrators in La María and other rural areas of Nariño with rubber bullets and tear gas, while the anti-riot police (ESMAD) and the army cracked down on the protesters from the ground.

In La María, the indigenous people and campesinos had agreed to meet with three deputy ministers who were to be sent to the area for that purpose. But instead of the three officials, the police showed up at the meeting place.

Both male and female protesters were treated for bullet wounds as well as fractures that witnesses said were caused by beatings by ESMAD. One of the seriously wounded victims was an 18-month old girl. Four people were in critical condition according to the ombudsman's office of Nariño.

The troops first raided a local indigenous radio station, destroying the equipment and arresting four journalists. "The second target was the leaders," Silza Arias, ONIC coordinator of communications, told IPS.

The security forces behaved like "invading armies," says a statement issued by the powerful Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca.

The police and troops attacked the health centre, where children and pregnant women were receiving medical attention. They also destroyed the community store and merchandise on the shelves, and raided the venue where the demonstrators were meeting as well as local homes, setting clothing and other personal belongings on fire, the Council added.

Pedro Coscué, a member of the "indigenous guard", was shot and killed during the clashes with the security forces. The indigenous guard is a group of 10,000 young men and women civilians who carry nothing more than decorated staffs as a symbol of their authority. An indigenous woman and girl were killed as well.

Some 10,000 people who took refuge in La María have received humanitarian aid over the past few days.

A delegate of a European cooperation office told IPS that a mission made up of representatives of several United Nations agencies and the Catholic Church is investigating the events of the past week and assessing the damages.

ONIC reported that ESMAD destroyed a water pipe in a rural area of Cauca, and that in Nariño, small planes sprayed the water source of the village of El Remolino with glyphosate (an herbicide used to destroy coca crops).

"The use of firearms, helicopters and barbed wire, and the denial of access to drinking water," were merely the third form of aggression against indigenous, campesino and Afro-Colombian communities in the area, said ONIC.

"The first aggression that we suffered was the attempt to make our protests invisible," because the local press ignored the demonstrations, the organisation stated.

And "The second aggression" was the government's claim that the protests were organised by FARC, "a lie that paved the way for the bullets, the killings and the barbarity" against the demonstrators, added ONIC.

In Nariño, protest organisers and authorities agreed in a meeting Sunday to hold future talks on negotiated crop substitution efforts rather than forced eradication. The UNHCR - the United Nations Refugee Agency - will monitor the talks and agreements reached.

And on May 25, the governor of the department of Cauca, the mayors of the municipalities where the protests have taken place and representatives of the campesino and Afro-Colombian communities involved will meet to hammer out an agenda, which will then serve as the basis for a May 31 meeting in Bogotá between the delegates and ministers and other government officials. (END/2006)

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