Friday, April 4, 2008

Proof of life from the Colombian jungle

Óscar Tulio Lizcano González was kidnapped by the 47th Brigade of the FARC in the rural municipality of Caldas in 2000 when he was traveling on a political tour. Yesterday, France embarked on a humanitarian mission with the goal of making contact with the FARC and offering medical services to the sickest of the kidnapped prisoners. This came after reports that the health of Ingrid Betancourt had taken a turn for the worst, and that, according to some reports, she could die in a matter of days.
Yesterday, the controversial senator, Piedad Córdoba, who has been working with President Chavez in favor of a prisoner exchange, unexpectedly released a video from the FARC offering proof of survival for the kidnapped senator.
Senator Lizcano urged President Uribe to continue working toward creative solutions for a prisoner exchange. He spoke directly to his wife, telling her that he feels strong and that he continues fighting every day.
He also made a direct appeal to President Chavez, asking him to do whatever he could do get them out of the jungle, because, in his words, "we're rotting here." He quoted Simon Bolívar saying, "we must do the impossible because what everyone else does every day is worry about "the possible." Perhaps one of the most moving statements came near the end when he says, "We must get out of here because I feel like a boat sinking down into the water with all its lights still on."

Saturday, March 29, 2008

New York Times Offers Insight into Labor Unions in Colombia

The New York Times

March 29, 2008
Op-Ed Contributor

Killing a Trade Pact

Cambridge, Mass.

PRESIDENT BUSH has been urging Congress to approve a pending trade agreement with Colombia, an ally that recently almost went to war with Venezuela and Hugo Chávez. Even though the agreement includes the labor and environmental conditions that Congress wanted, many Democrats, including Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, now say that Colombia must first punish whomever has been assassinating the members of the nation’s trade unions before the agreement can pass.

An examination of the Democrats’ claims, however, finds that their faith in the assertions of human-rights groups is more righteous than right. Union members have been assassinated, but the reported number is highly exaggerated. Even one murder for union organizing is atrocious, but isolated killings do not justify holding up the trade agreement.

All sides agree that trade-union murders in Colombia, like all violence, have declined drastically in recent years. The Colombian unions’ own research center says killings dropped to 39 last year from a high of 275 in 1996.

Yet in a report being released next week, the research center says the killings remain “systematic” and should be treated by the courts as “genocide” designed to “exterminate” unionism in Colombia. Most human-rights groups cite the union numbers and conclude, as Human Rights Watch did this year, that “Colombia has the highest rate of violence against trade unionists in the world.”

Even if that is true, it was far safer to be in a union than to be an ordinary citizen in Colombia last year. The unions report that they have 1 million members. Thirty-nine killings in 2007 is a murder rate of 4 unionists per 100,000. There were 15,400 homicides in Colombia last year, not counting combat deaths, according to the national police. That is a murder rate of 34 citizens per 100,000.

Many in Congress, moreover, assume that “assassinations” means murders that are carried out for union activity. But the union research center says that in 79 percent of the cases going back to 1986, it has no suspect or motive. The government doesn’t either.

When the Inter American Press Association several years ago investigated its list of murdered Colombian journalists, it found that more than 40 percent were killed for nonjournalistic reasons. The unions have never done a similar investigation.

There are, however, a growing number of convictions for union murders in Colombia. There were exactly zero convictions for them in the 1990s, Colombia’s bloodiest decade, when right-wing paramilitaries and leftist guerrillas were at the height of their strength. Each assassinated the suspected supporters of the others across society, including in unions.

With help from the United States, in 2000 the Colombian military and the judicial system began to reassert themselves. Prosecuting cases referred by the unions themselves, the attorney general’s office won its first conviction for the murder of a trade unionist in 2001. Last year, the office won nearly 40.

Of the 87 convictions won in union cases since 2001, almost all for murder, the ruling judges found that union activity was the motive in only 17. Even if you add the 16 cases in which motive was not established, the number doesn’t reach half of the cases. The judges found that 15 of the murders were related to common crime, 10 to crimes of passion and 13 to membership in a guerrilla organization.

The unions don’t dispute the numbers. Instead, they say the prosecutors and the courts are wasting time and being anti-union by seeking to establish motive — a novel position in legal jurisprudence.

The two main guerrilla groups have an avowed strategy of infiltrating unions, which attracts violence. About a third of the identified murderers of union members are leftist guerrillas. Most of the rest are members of paramilitary groups — presumed to be behind two of the four trade unionist murders this month. The demobilization of most paramilitary groups, along with the prosecutions and government protection of union leaders, has contributed to the great drop in union murders.

President Álvaro Uribe, who has thin skin, can be unwisely provocative when responding to complaints from unions and human rights groups. Still, the level of unionization in Colombia is roughly equal to that in the United States and slightly below the level in the rest of Latin America. The government registered more than 120 new unions in 2006, the last year for which numbers are available. The International Labor Organization says union legal rights in Colombia meet its highest standards. Union leaders have been cabinet members, a governor and the mayor of Bogotá.

Delaying the approval of the trade agreement would be convenient for Democrats in Washington. American labor unions and human-rights groups have made common cause to oppose it this election year. The unions oppose the trade agreement for traditional protectionist reasons. Less understandable are the rights groups.

Human Rights Watch says that it has no position on trade but that it is using the withholding of approval to gain political leverage over the Colombian government. Perversely, they are harming Colombian workers in the process. The trade agreement would stimulate economic growth and help all Colombians.

Edward Schumacher-Matos, a former foreign correspondent for The Times, is a visiting professor of Latin American studies at Harvard.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Update from the Civilian Rescue Group

This is the English translation of an open letter to the public by the Civilian Rescue Group:


The idea of a civilian-lead rescue of the more than 700 hostages held by the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) is not new, nor does it belong to any one individual or group. For over sixty years, the Colombian people have been the victim of a vicious and violent power struggle between the National government, and Left wing insurgency groups, and right wing paramilitaries. While violence has diminished in much of Colombia, and there is much reason for optimism, government negotiations with the FARC for the release of hostages have frequently failed. Many of those kidnapped by the FARC, which include several foreigners, have spent the last ten years held captive in the Colombian jungle.

Several recent events have renewed hope and solidarity among Colombians, leading to a uniquely civilian, non-violent, and non-political uprising. On June 17th, 2007, Professor Gustavo Moncayo, commonly known as the “peace walker”, set out on a walk that took him 1,186 kilometers to the capital city of Bogotá, in an effort to promote an agreement for the release of his son, Pablo Emilio, who has kidnapped by the FARC in 1997. On July 5th of the same year, Colombians responded with nationwide demonstrations against kidnapping, and February 4th of 2008, peace marches around the world were organized to speak out against the FARC. More than 5 million people participated in Colombia alone, and simultaneous marches were held in more than 100 cities around the world. For many, it seemed the next logical step should be a peaceful march to the jungle, where most of the hostages are held.

Some prominent individuals, like ex-mayors of Bogotá, Anthanas Mockus and Lucho Garzón, announced the idea in public. Furthermore, the Association of Disabled Policemen (FRAPON), who marched more than 500 kilometers in their wheel chairs to demand the liberation of FARC hostages, proposed the idea after completing their journey in Bogotá.

Nevertheless, the civilian rescue initiative has its origins many years back, inspired by non-violent movements lead by Gandhi and many others around the world, as well as more recent examples of non-violent civil resistance, such as the groups of Colombian indigenous groups who confronted the FARC at the edge of their communities in order to prevent their lands from being destroyed. Indigenous groups can also be credited with the first example of successful, civilian-lead hostage rescue, when, in August of 2004, the indigenous guard, composed of more than 500 people, but armed only with wooden staves, mobilized and entered the jungle to rescue two indigenous ex-mayors held captive by the FARC.

After the February 4th marches against the FARC, many Colombians proposed a civilian rescue initiative in more than 10 groups in the social networking site, Facebook; all with the same idea: to go to the jungle and rescue the people held hostage there by FARC guerrillas. However, only one group turned the idea into a concrete initiative, and, with a defined plan of action, began to unite hundreds of people willing to commit themselves to a clear and viable proposal - in short, to march to San José del Guaviare, the epicenter of the recent hostage liberations, and bring together at least 1,000 volunteers, at least 18 years of age, in good physical condition, and available for at least two weeks, who are willing to march to the jungle.

Under the premise of “strength in unity”, seven groups accepted the invitation, giving birth to the Civilian Rescue Group “LET’S GO GET THEM”, which, under the humanitarian principles of respect for liberty, non-violence, and voluntary disarmament, was made public and presented as an entirely peaceful and humanitarian proposal, respectful of the Rule of Law, and without any political affiliation or bias.

This initiative, which is now under way, is divided in three phases that allow for its execution and success. The first is an appeal to, and examination of, public opinion, looking to establish the group of marchers, minimum security guarantees, and the support of the national and international community.

Being aware of the inherent risks of the proposed zone, which is in the heart of FARC territory, and with such cases as those of the ex-governor Guillermo Gaviria, who was kidnapped during a peace march in 2002, and Ingrid Betancourt, the French-Colombian presidential candidate who was kidnapped during her campaign the same year, the Civilian Rescue Group has adopted serious physical/personal safety measures as a priority of utmost importance for the undertaking of the march. Thus, it is required that the participants be of legal age, in good physical shape, and available for at least two weeks. Along this same line of thought, we are securing the attendance and accompaniment of national and international human rights organizations, as well as some minimum security guarantees that should be offered by the Armed Forces, granted under Article 2 of our National Constitution.

Additionally, we are presenting a formal petition to the National Government for a humanitarian landmine removal squad to go to the zone with us to remove landmines and other explosive devices.

The second phase comprises much more than just a symbolic march between Villavicencio and San José del Guaviare. It is a humanitarian call to the members of the FARC that are holding people captive, to demobilize and unilaterally hand over the hostages to the Colombian people. Furthermore, the Colombian, whose well-being is the supposed objective of the FARC’s armed struggle, invite and demand the members of the FARC, to free, not only their hostages, but also to free themselves and return to society.

This is the essence of our humanitarian initiative, advocating dialogue and reconciliation as a determining mechanism in achieving the peace that we all long for, but demanding an end to kidnapping as a means of manipulating the population and extorting funds. It is now when we most need Colombian people, and all people, to unite as one voice, in one call for peace that will be heard in the greatest depths of the Colombian jungle.

The final phase of our proposal calls for the installation of a center of operations in San José del Guaviare, so that from there, various expeditions may go out into the jungle with the goal of finding FARC camps where the kidnapped hostages are held. However, this phase will only be carried out once the path has been cleared by anti-explosive experts who can guarantee our safety, in this regard. If we are unable to meet this minimum security condition, we will remain waiting, as a group, for seven more days, inviting the FARC to demobilize and release those hostages facing the greatest risks to their health.

Independently of the result of this humanitarian operation, the group of marchers will return to their places of origin on the 27th of June in order to multiply the humanitarian initiative in each part of the country where victims of kidnapping are held. The Civilian Rescue Group will not rest until those unjustly deprived of their freedom have been released alive, and Colombia is free of the tragic and barbaric practice of kidnapping.

Onward for peace…

For additional information and English language news and media inquiries, please contact

Friday, March 21, 2008

VAMOS POR ELLOS: Citizens Rescuing Citizens

The Collective Civilian Rescue is the response of many Colombians and people from abroad, who are, sincerely and without reservation, committed to doing something to get our fellow citizens out of where they are being held. We know that we are taking on a difficult objective, but, without a doubt, we will achieve it.
All are invited, the only condition is that you not bring your political banners. The only thing that matters is a love for Colombia and the will to carry out our unique humanitarian task, which is, to "rescue civilly" those who have been unjustly deprived of their liberty.

This is the mission statement of a collective initiative which began as a Facebook group. The group, composed of young people from Colombia and supporters from all over the world, is preparing for an unprecedented rescue mission to the Colombian jungle to demand that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) release the civilian hostages they have detained there. Colombians have been encouraged lately by a strong surge in citizen involvement and nonviolent protests such as the 5 million person peace march against the FARC which took place on the 4th of February of this year. This march is a continuation of this movement and an indicator of the renewal of hope and civic unity among the Colombian people.
A representative from the group told Caracol Radio that they are currently in the initial planning stages and are in the process of consulting with security experts, humanitarian organizations, and Colombian and international NGOs to assess strategies for the march. They hope to secure 1,000 volunteers willing to march. Right now, they plan on starting on June 16th, from Villavicencio, near the center of the country, and marching all the way to San Jose de Guaviare, which is where many hostages have been received after liberation by the FARC.

I have found that this initiative, and many other happenings in Colombia, are not commonly covered by English language news media. Rescate Civil has a blog in Spanish and I will do my best to update the blog with any English coverage that emerges.

"I am a free man only so far as I recognize the humanity and liberty of all men around me. In respecting their humanity, I respect my own". Mikhail Bakunin

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Peace Without Borders

On March 16th, Colombian, Venezuelan, and Ecuadoran singers got together to offer a free concert in Cúcuta, on the border between Venezuela and Colombia. The idea came from Juanes during tensions between the the three countries a couple weeks ago as a way of reminding people from all three Andean countries of the great connection shared between them. The concert was titled, Peace Without Borders and was organized in a matter of days by artists eager to work for peace. The concert was attended by more than 200,000 people.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

One Right Hand, One Smoking Gun

Colombia has once again disappeared from the news, and, while I'm thankful not to see the skewed and slanted coverage that characterized last week's reporting of the "crisis", I find myself equally frustrated that the mainstream media seems to have stopped their coverage right in the middle of an ongoing saga. Although CNN, and almost all English language news would have us believe that last week's meeting of the Rio Grupo in the Dominican Republic marked the end of the crisis between Uribe, Correa, and Chavez, back at home, the plot thickened as another high ranking member of the FARC was killed; this time by a most unlikely assassin.

First, although Ecuador responded with indignation when it was suggested that they were offering refuge to the FARC, an article published by El País, in Spain, reports just the opposite. The FARC camps in Ecuador are permanent camps that allow for the storing of weapons and the transport of drugs across the border. The Colombian military reports that it has been the victim of 39 attacks from the other side of the border. In the words of an ex-guerrilla fighter, "the FARC wears the uniform of the Ecuadoran military and moves along the border in trucks." This new information, long suspected by Colombians, makes it a little easier for the world to understand why the military had to go ten kilometers over the border to seek out Reyes.

The death of Reyes and the confiscation of his computer has provided another important window into the operations of the FARC and the behind the scenes political alliances that have surrounded Chavez' work as "peace negotiator" for the liberation of kidnapped civilians held by the FARC. The international community has been hesitant to criticize Chavez openly after having several successes in the release of several kidnapped civilians, but it's now clear that his agenda was far from strictly humanitarian. It turns out that Chavez had pledged 300 million dollars to the FARC to be given in installments of 50 million dollars throughout the year. This information comes from several confiscated computers and the testimony of several recently demobilized guerrilla members. Second hand weapons were among the other in kind donations offered to the Colombian terrorist organization by Chavez.

The President of Colombia and Colombians in general are obviously furious at the betrayal of Chavez but they're not surprised. Chavez has long been known to have deep rooted sympathies with the extreme Leftist insurgency group, and at least now, these ties are clear and obvious enough that Chavez will be left exposed to the light of international public opinion. Still, many questions are left to be answered. Harboring terrorists, a phrase Americans are used to hearing in White House reports on the Middle East, is a serious charge that has devastating consequences for the civilian population. The support from Chavez and the complacency of Ecuadoran officials with respect to FARC operations has allowed the terrorist group a safe harbor from which to organize kidnappings and massacres launched almost exclusively on the civilian populations.

But the FARC presence in Venezuela and Ecuador isn't all bad, according to many military strategists, ex combatants, and community leaders. It also means they're feeling the pressure of the military, and no longer have the stronghold on Colombia that allowed them to carry out their operations for freely for so many years.

The Colombian conflict is complex and academics and politicians alike have struggled to arrive at coherent explanations and solutions. That said, one of the most enlightening and hopeful commentaries that Colombians have heard in years come from an illiterate man who never even finished second grade. Pablo Montaya, better known as "Alias Rojas" spent sixteen years in the FARC, lured by the promise of a better life, and for years unable to see a viable way out of the group. Last week, as the his brigade felt the military closing in on them, he made the decision to kill his commander, Iván Rios, and turn himself in to the Colombian military along with Rios' computer, his right hand, and a wealth of inside information on the past and future of the FARC terrorist activities. Rios' hand, cut off in a scene straight out of the movies, was sent with a messenger, turned in to the army, and checked for fingerprints in order to prove that it was, in fact, Rios who had been killed.

When asked why he chose to desert and why he hadn't done it earlier, Rojas tells Caracol Radio that before, no one was sure what would happen to people that turned themselves in to the military, but now, the government has made it obvious that they provide rights, guarantees, and a clear path to people that wish to leave the armed groups. Since Uribe took office, over 10,000 FARC members and 35,000 from the paramilitaries have demobilized. During the last week, Uribe's popularity, which has been consistently above 70%, rose to a record 82%.

As Rojas sees it, the FARC is on their way out. The fact that they're borrowing money from means their own wealth is withering. He speaks of the meager rations and poor treatment given to members of the FARC and assures us that the group long ago stopped representing the voice of the rural poor. He offers a call to all members to demobilize and predicts that the FARC will be defeated from within more than from the outside as mistrust and deceit among leaders and combatants cause them to fumble and fall.

All in all, things are looking up for Colombia. In the words of Rojas, the death of Reyes and the right hand of Rios "has split the FARC's history in two parts", and the resulting revelations about financial and political ties to Chavez give Colombia and Uribe the smoking gun they needed to secure international solidarity for a hard line against terrorist groups and the countries that harbor them.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Newsworthy News from Colombia

True to form, mainstream media has covered the Colombia-Venezuela-Ecuador "crisis" in gripping detail, making sure to alert Americans on the latest details of Venezuela's troop movements, border squabbles Ecuador, and FARC rebel deaths. People who have never so much as brought up Colombia in conversation with me have emailed, called, and inquired with concern about the "close call I had with the fighting in Colombia". "So you got out just in time," they ask me, no doubt imagining all of us ducking behind cars to avoid the gunshots. I resist the urge snap at them, trying to remind myself that people ask me questions like this because they are misinformed, not malicious. I'm sure I harbor mistaken stereotypes about many people and countries, and I hope that those who know better will forgive my ignorance and kindly inform me.
When I heard the news that Raul Reyes of the FARC had been killed in a raid by the Colombian military, I'm almost embarrassed to admit it, but I felt a certain morbid sense of excitement, even joy. The FARC no longer enjoys any support within the Colombian population and their supposed fight for poor Colombians and social justice has diminished to an incoherent mixture of kidnappings, indiscriminate violence, and terror. Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, has used the hostage exchange between Colombia and the FARC as a tactic to push his own agenda, and, as his close ties to the terrorist group becoming increasingly apparent, Colombian and Venezuelans alike, are crying enough is enough.

The February 4th pro-peace anti-FARC march in Colombia was a direct reaction to President Chavez' appeal to the international community which asked for the FARC to be taken off the list of terrorists. Colombians won't stand for it. Millions of protesters all around the world gathered peacefully with signs like the one above, proclaiming, "yes, they ARE terrorists". 5 million people marched in Colombian cities alone, which is over 12% of the entire population, and simultaneous marches were carried out in over 165 cities around the world. CNN reported that "thousands" had marched. Let's be clear about the difference between "thousands" and "millions".

When the Colombian military killed Raul Reyes last week, ten kilometers over the border into Ecuador, it was considered one of the biggest victories for the Colombian military in years. Chavez responded to the violation of Ecuador's sovereignty, with his characteristic temper tantrums and name calling, but this time, he ratcheted things up by breaking diplomatic relations with Colombia and mobilizing troops to the border. Meanwhile, Venezuelans are increasingly unable to meet basic needs with rationed goods, staggering poverty, and growing divisions. Breaking relations with Colombia carries a high price for many average Colombians and Venezuelans who cross the border every day to work and who depend on the economy of the other.
Colombians rolled their eyes and shook their heads at Chavez' antics, which have reached cartoon-like proportions in the recent months, and Uribe assured Colombians and the world that we would not fuel the fire by moving troops or breaking relations, and, for most, life went on as usual. After all, the raiding of FARC camps had happened in Ecuador, not Venezuela, and both borders are a long way from major Colombian cities. That's why Ecuador and Venezuela have been such a convenient refuge for members of the FARC, and a computer uncovered in the raid shows that ties between Ecuador, Venezuela and the FARC may run deeper than anyone realized. The bottom line is that the whole "crisis" was played off by mainstream media as a legitimate showdown between Venezuela and Colombia, and this really isn't fair to say. The Colombian government had no choice but to seize the opportunity to close in on high ranking leaders of a terrorist group that has been tormenting the Colombian people for more than 40 years. And no, there was no shooting in Bogotá, no civilians were in danger, and the event shouldn't scare you from going to Colombia anymore than our National Guard troops on the border with Mexico should dissuade tourists from visiting the United States.

What should, however, call your attention is that yesterday, while CNN replayed the same blurb five thousand times about the so-called crisis in South America, which wasn't much more than another one of Chavez' temper tantrums, tens of thousand of Colombians once again took to the streets to march peacefully in favor of the victims of paramilitary violence. They conducted vigils and ceremonies for the disappeared and displaced people and called on all Colombians to keep working toward peace and reconciliation for the victims of the armed conflict and against paramilitary violence and massacres. But this, of course, didn't make the news. We were too busy watching Chavez stomp his feet and waive his arms, stirring the South American pot, and diverting attention from the all things truly newsworthy.

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