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  • Paramilitaries kill, rape and torture Colombian campesinos.

    Paramilitaries kill, rape and torture Colombian campesinos. | Photo: Reuters

Published 2 May 2016
Far-right paramilitaries orchestrate a climate of fear among rural communities.

Rubiela Coique, a 37-year-old woman from Corinto, was found lying by the side of the road into town.

She had been tortured and decapitated, her head left a few meters from her body. It was Sunday April 17, 2016. Her family had reported her missing ten days earlier.

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Following the murder, the Association of Indigenous Councils of North Cauca denounced the killing. The Çxhab Wala Kiwe feminist wing of the ACIN said, "we are victims of systematic discrimination and violence which demonstrates the grave situation we confront as women and as victims of social and political violence within our territories."

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Luis Ascue is an Indigenous leader and former mayor. In April, his 12-year-old son was tortured by men who broke into the family home. They tied him up, suspended him, and threatened him with an ax, then they left. Despite his trauma, he is one of the lucky ones.

These are just two recent cases of violence in Cauca, in southern Colombia.

The department of Cauca flows down from the Andes to the Pacific coastline. Its formal economy revolves around coffee and sugar cane cultivation. Coca production is also high. A 2014 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that Cauca and the neighboring departments of Nariño, Putumayo and Caqueta constituted 73 percent of Colombia’s cocaine production.

Human rights violations form an unwelcome backdrop to the peace talks taking place in Cuba between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. While the international media focuses on Havana, the specter of violence remains prevalent in the Colombian countryside.

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Far-right paramilitaries orchestrate a climate of fear among rural communities. One such group is the Aguilas Negras, or Black Eagles, an offshoot of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, which numbered 40,000 men at its peak in the 1990s.

In March, the Black Eagles deposited pamphlets around southern Cauca. "Death to guerrillas, you are on borrowed time. Leave or die", read the pamphlet. It threatened the "servile journalists of Castro-Chavismo" and all those supporting a peace process in which "the treachery of (President) Santos is delivering the country to narcoterrorism".

Paramilitary violence is primarily committed against civilians. "The principal obstacle to peace is the shadow of paramilitarism," says Deivin Hurtado, a human rights defender from Cauca.

"They say they’re going to perform a social cleansing when they’re planning to kill people. The authorities cover up these situations but our communities see the relation between paramilitary activity and the killings."

Hurtado is among those to have been affected. He was supervising a peaceful strike when a mortar shell exploded nearby. He spent a month in the hospital. "The attackers were not wearing uniforms," he says. "I thought I was going to die. This was at 10.30 a.m. and I got to the hospital at 4 p.m. because the army wasn’t letting ambulances pass."

Terror permeates even the sacrosanctity of health and medicine. "Many injured campesinos prefer to go home than to the hospital," says Hurtado. "If they go to the hospital, their cases become known."

He has come to London to highlight Colombia’s human rights situation. His companion, Gustavo Rengifo, a trade unionist, is in hiding back home. The NGO Justice for Colombia has organized their trip and organized an event in Parliament to be chaired by the Labour MP and vice chair of Parliamentary Friends of Colombia, Ian Lavery.

Justice for Colombia has spent years chronicling human rights violations and facilitated visits to Colombia by members of Sinn Fein and other parties involved in the Good Friday agreement and the African National Congress to impart their experiences of negotiating peace processes. A statement by JFC director Mariela Kohon reads, "If the British government is serious about supporting peace in Colombia it needs to urge its counterparts in Bogota to take much greater action against the paramilitaries and to protect all political activists."

It is not only paramilitary groups enforcing the will of the Colombian right. The political party Democratic Center, which opposes the peace process, was formed in 2013 by conservatives and business leaders. It is led by former president Alvaro Uribe, whose governorship of Antioquia in the 1990s saw some of the worst paramilitary violence in Colombian history. His presidency was marked by the "false positives" scandal.

For the elite, violence is a lucrative business. "They benefit from the war," says Hurtado. "They’ve extended their estates through displacement of campesinos, who obtain land for their cows and crops. Once they’ve worked the land, groups arrive and force them out. They take over the lands and claim to be the legitimate owners."

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Within the talks between the Santos administration and the FARC, there is currently disparity over the issue of disarmament and the creation of demilitarized "concentration zones" where FARC members will remain during the demobilization process. The guerrillas are extremely cautious. History has taught brutal lessons to insurgents seeking integration into civil society.

In 1984 the FARC agreed on a peace deal with the government of Belisario Betancur. Demobilized guerrillas formed the left-wing political party Patriotic Union in 1985, which supported land redistribution, nationalization of industry, and health and education reform for the country’s poor. In return, the Colombian state launched a terror campaign which killed around 5,000 UP members and supporters over the next few years.

"The Patriotic Union was a political organization," says Hurtado. "It was almost a genocide because so many members were killed or forced into exile. Now, they continue to kill the leaders and social fighters who support the objective of peace."

Political activism in Colombia is fraught with danger. Between 2011 and 2015, there were at least 534 murders of activists, unionists, journalists and community leaders.

At the vanguard of popular mobilization is the Patriotic March , formed in 2012 from a network of grassroots organisations. So far, 117 Patriotic March members have been murdered. "They [the state] don’t want to acknowledge the attempted genocide that Colombia is again experiencing with the Patriotic March like it previously saw with the UP," says Hurtado. "That’s why we need the international community to pressure the Colombian government to take action."

But is the international community listening? The U.S. government recently denied a visa to former senator Piedad Cordoba, a member of the Patriotic March and a 2009 Nobel Peace Prize nominee. This prevented her from speaking at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In April, she survived an attempted assassination attack by paramilitaries in the department of Choco.

The U.S. has played a major role in Colombian instability. In 1999 the two countries administered Plan Colombia, which poured billions of dollars into counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations. Amnesty International calls for a "complete cut off of U.S. military aid … due to the continued collaboration between the Colombian armed forces and their paramilitary allies as well as the failure of the Colombian government to improve human rights conditions."

In February this year, however, President Barack Obama and President Juan Manuel Santos announced an extension of the state militarization process, retitled Paz Colombia, or Peace Colombia.

"International governments have contributed to sending Colombia on the path to war," says Hurtado. "What has Plan Colombia achieved? More soldiers, more young people killed, and has it resolved the violence? No. Unfortunately, the perspective of many governments is that you don’t dialogue with insurgencies, you crush them."

U.S. presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton recently said "we need to do more of a Colombian plan for Central America," advocating a similar model in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. She was responding to questions over her role in the 2009 military coup in Honduras. Violence has soared in Honduras since the elected government of Manuel Zelaya was overthrown.

What does Hurtado think of Clinton’s failure to interpret Plan Colombia as anything other than a workable model for foreign intervention? "This does not bear reality," he says. "Violence generates violence. For 50 years the state has reinforced the army, with more men, more weapons. This has cost the country half its resources. There’s less education, less health care, and more social problems."

To ensure that the prospect of peace becomes a tangible reality requires much more than signed documents in Cuba. "Silencing the guns does not mean peace," says Hurtado. "This is a process initiated a long time ago, not in the last four years. The accords have accelerated the process with the aim of guaranteeing equal conditions for all. But the aim is a better quality of life in the immediate and the long-term future. People have new hope."

The coming months will reveal much about the possibility for that hope being fulfilled.

Nick MacWilliam is an independent journalist covering Latin America and co-editor of Alborada Magazine . Follow him on @NickMacWilliam

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