Colombian regime launches new crackdown by Kiraz Janicke

Dandelion Salad

Posted with permission from Green Left Weekly

Kiraz Janicke
22 August 2008

Taking advantage of the political capital it gained with the Colombian military rescue of high-profile Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) prisoner Ingrid Betancourt on July 2, the government of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has launched a major crackdown on political opponents and social movement leaders.

There is also the ongoing so-called “FARC-politics” scandal, involving the investigation of three opposition parliamentarians — Wilson Borj, Piedad Cordoba and Gloria Ines Ramirez — as well as journalists William Parra and Carlos Lozano, who are accused of having links to the FARC (all of whom deny the charges).

The Uribe regime is also stepping up its persecution of trade union activists.

Union repression

On August 8, Liliany Obando, who has been contracted for a human rights project by the Agricultural Workers Union Federation (FENSUAGRO), was arrested and detained by the anti-terrorism unit of the Colombian National Police.

Only days earlier Manuel Gamboa, vice-president of the Peasants Association for the Defence of the Putumayo (ASCAP), an affiliated organisation of FENSUAGRO, was gunned down by right-wing paramilitaries.

Obando has been charged with “rebellion” and “managing resources related to terrorist activities”. However, no material evidence has been presented to support the charges.

The only “proof” provided by state prosecutors against Obando is a series of emails allegedly found on laptops belonging to FARC guerrillas and seized during Colombia’s illegal military attack on a FARC camp in Ecuadorian territory on March 1 in which 26 people were massacred.

However, the material on the laptops is highly suspect.

A forensic investigation by Interpol into the computers found that a total of “48,055 files had either been created, accessed, modified or deleted as a result of the direct access to the eight seized exhibits by Colombian authorities between the time of their seizure on 1 March 2008 and 3 March 2008 at 11:45 a.m.”

Obando said in an August 11 statement that the accusations against her are false. Obando, a sociologist, had been carrying out a study of the assassinations of FENSUAGRO members by paramilitary death squads and government security forces when she was arrested.

Obando travelled to Australia in October last year where she spoke at the Latin America Asia Pacific Solidarity Forum in Melbourne, detailing the human rights abuses and anti-labour practices that are occurring in Colombia.

She has also travelled to Canada and Europe meeting with unions, NGOs, student organisations, development agencies, community and faith-based organisations and raising funds for small-scale agricultural, human rights and gender equity educational projects.

‘Para-politics’ scandal

In addition to silencing dissent, the “FARC-politics” scandal also aims to distract attention from the growing “para-politics” scandal that is engulfing the Uribe government.

More than 70 pro-Uribe legislators (including key figures in Uribe’s cabinet such as Vice-President Francisco Santos Calderon and his cousin defence minister Juan Manuel Santos, as well as Uribe’s brother Santiago and their cousin former-Senator Mario Uribe. Senator Carlos Garcia, president of Uribe’s political party, is also implicated.

All these figures are under investigation for direct links to paramilitary death squads, in particular the notorious Auto-Defence Units of Colombia (AUC). Allegations have also been made that paramilitaries held secret meetings at Uribe’s farm.

US academic James Petras, in a review of Calvo Ospina’s recent book Colombia, Laboratory of Witches, debunked the notion that the paramilitary groups operate independently of the Uribe regime.

“The use of paramilitary death squads promoted/financed and protected by the Uribe regime to murder and ‘disappear’ popular leaders serves several strategic political goals”, Petras argued.

“It allows the regime to lower the number of human rights abuses attributed to the Colombian Armed Forces; it facilitates the extensive use of extreme terror tactics … to intimidate entire communities; it creates the myth that the regime is ‘centrist’ — opposed by the ‘extreme left’ (FARC) and the ‘extreme right’ (death squads).

“This claim is particularly effective in furthering the regime’s diplomatic relations in the US and Europe …”, according to Petras.

The investigation into the “para-politics” scandal has increasingly brought the Uribe government into confrontation with the Supreme Court.

Uribe has sought to undermine the investigations by extraditing key AUC witnesses to the US, as well as proposing constitutional amendments that would curtail the ability of the Supreme Court to investigate sitting politicians.

In May, the Supreme Court had ordered an investigation — dubbed the “Yidis-politics” scandal — into a constitutional amendment passed in 2005 that allowed Uribe to stand for a second term in office, after former parliamentarian Yidis Medina publicly admitted he had been bribed to vote for the amendment.

Uribe went on to win the 2006 presidential elections with 56% of the vote. However, in a country where elections are marred by intimidation, violence and assassinations, only 21% of the electorate voted.

Uribe, who is pushing for a further constitutional change to enable him to stand for a third time and has managed to secure a support base among the urban middle classes, responded by accusing the Supreme Court of being infiltrated by paramilitaries. He proposed a “consultative referendum” on his presidency.

The Supreme Court has since backed down, announcing on July 2 that it would withdraw its investigation and that the constitutional reform “could not be an object of revision”.

‘Democratic creditials’ and murdered opponents

Despite corporate media and US State Department eulogies to the “democratic credentials” of the Uribe regime, Colombia continues to have the highest rate of killings of trade unionists in the world.

Since Uribe assumed the presidency in 2002, more than 500 unionists have been murdered by state and paramilitary forces and according to the European Union, more than 300 human rights activists were assassinated during Uribe’s first term in office.

James Brittain, in an August 8 Colombia Journal article, reported that more members of FENSUAGRO have been assassinated than any other union in Colombia.

“Since its inception, over 500 persons within FENSUAGRO have been assassinated or disappeared by right-wing paramilitaries or State forces, while five thousand members have experienced some form of state-based abuse or human rights violations. In 2007, 20% of all known unionists murdered in Colombia belonged to FENSUAGRO.”

Emphasising Obando’s links to social movements, religious institutions, human rights groups, academics and unions outside Colombia, Brittain categorises her arrest as a systematic attempt to mask the “reactionary military, political and economic policy” of the Uribe government “by going after those who can reveal the truth”.

“Amidst efforts to obtain bilateral free-trade agreements with the United States and Canada, it is imperative that the Colombian State silence any and all attempts at international solidarity among unionists, researchers and concerned citizens”, Brittain concludes.

[To sign a statement calling for the release of Liliany Obando, visit http://www.colombiasolidarity.net.]