Black Communities under paramilitary fire
FROM PALENQUE COLOMBIA
Testimony of a survivor
Juan de Dios Garcia is one of many threatened with death that has had to leave Colombia to save his own life. ³I am a victim, being hunted down by the paramilitaries for more than a year. On the last September 7th they invaded my house in Buenaventura looking for me., I was able to escape, but they killed 7 members of my family, he says, as his voice breaks remembering the tragic events. Garcia is a leader of the Black Communities Process, a network of 140 organizations that have their base in the humid jungle region of the Colombian Pacific. Based on the National Constituent Assembly of 1991, the Afro-Colombian communities that have inhabited the region for more than 300 years achieved the legalization of their lands from which they are now being displaced by paramilitary groups of the Autodefensas de Colombia (Colombian Selfdefense Organizations) that count 8000 armed men and that are responsible for numerous massacres of the unarmed civilian population. In the following interview, the Afro-Colombian leader lays out the true objectives of the paramilitaries, their form of operation and the devastating effects the violence is having against black communities of this tormented region.
A. Since when and how has the violence shown itself in the Colombian Pacific Region?
A. Para-militarism began its activities in Urabá, along the Atlantic coast; about four years ago it fell upon the Pacific and is ravaging communities that were not prepared for it, because they are communities that have lived in peace in their jungle, in harmony with nature. We do not have experience, we do not have with a culture of war. Our people flees in panic when they hear the chatter of the machine guns, as did the indigenous population when they heard the roar(word?) of Pizarro¹s cannons and from the Spanish conquistadores, these indigenous groups were not prepared for war, the exact same thing is happening at this moment in the Pacific.
Q. Why has para-militarism raised its head in the Pacific region?
A. The Afro-Colombian families of the Pacific region use the land and are the owners of all that the land produces but not of the land itself which belongs to all of us, this is the concept of collective property that we have, but the territorial conquest by the Afro-Colombians has awakened the fury of the great national economic power and of the trans-nationals that find the grand mega-projects that they have designed in the zone threatened, such as the opening of the new inter-oceanic canal that will join the Atlantic with the Pacific through the Atrato-Truandó rivers and which will descend through the Cupica Bay.
This Project is complemented by the creation of great maritime ports which serve to satisfy the necessities of the great international commerce. There are other projects such as the cultivation of the African palm, extensive cattle ranching, all at the cost of the rich mangrove forest from which we derive our subsistence. The culture of the Afro-Colombian and that of the indigenous people that look at the territory as a habitat for life and not as a source of economic riches is being seen as a ³bother² for these mega projects; and therefore they are using a private militia, called paramilitarism, that has assassinated thousands of social leaders and has displaced more than two million people, including over a million from the black community that have been forced to leave the Pacific Region.
Q. What are the effects of the displacement in the black communities?
A. A black that leaves the Pacific (region) and is taken to a shelter in Bogota, Cali or Medellín finds himself in the same condition as a caged condor, to whom you can provide all the food you want but which still dies. This is the black culture. The blacks that are in refuges in Bogota leave to search for the beach and the forest in order to play and what they find is the highway, they are victims of autos that massacre them. We think that all acts against the culture should be considered a crime against human rights, because there is no human life without culture.
Q. Does racial discrimination against black communities on the part of the Colombian State exist?
A. The Colombian Pacific has been submitted to exclusión, to marginalization and to denial, they have looked at the pacific in terms of natural resources, the social component that exists there is not considered or taken into account by the Colombian State. For instance, when the earthquake that devastated the coffee zone and many people died, grand governmental and international resources were invested for reconstruction, but now that there are millions of persons being displaced and killed by the paramilitary phenomenon, the state is insensitive to this situation and keeps looking at the black as an object without value, so that his sacrifice, his holocaust does not count. This is a form of racism that is being committed against us.
Q. Does a connection exist between the army and the paramilitaries?
A. When the militia came looking for me, I could observe how the crimes against my family members were committed using army and police vehicles. The paramilitaries act with the direct or indirect participation of high level functionaries of the State, in such a manner that, if one is going to make a complaint in the face of these crimes, that puts one even more at risk.
For us there are evident proofs which we have testified to, before the Colombian government that demonstrate the very harmonious relationships between the paramilitaries and the army, but in spite of this they do nothing. Throughout the month of last June they came into the Yurumanguí river and in the township of Veneral they pressured the community to tell them where the guerrillas were; the community said that we see a lot of armed men pass by here, but we don¹t know if they are guerrilla forces, army solders or paramilitaries, what¹s more we don¹t know where they are going. The army responded that the community is counseled by the guerrilla forces and does not want to tell the truth and that soon the paramilitaries will come and will make you tell the truth by force, and this did not delay in occurring: on the 29th the paramilitaries entered and massacred the community. This proves that there is evidence, that there is a relationship, but what is happening, is that the Colombian state does not want to recognize this and always denies it.
Q. What are the justifications the paramilitaries use for the murder of the population?
A. The first pretext is that they are an auxiliary to the guerrilla forces. We have been here since 400 years before the arrival of the guerrillas, and so if the guerrilla establishes a presence in our midst, we do not have the strength to force them out; the Colombian government has not been able to force them out, much less a humble community would be able to force them out, Also, the paramilitaries have two lists: one of persons that are auxiliary forces of the guerrilla and another of the persons that have ³dangerous positions², dangerous persons are those that defend the territory and their right over natural resources, that is to say all those who speak out against the avalanche of neo-liberalism and the scourge of globalization.
Q. So, the paramilitary targets not only the guerrillas but also the social leaders?
A. Precisely, the conflict has taken on a connotation that is now longer only political but rather has as a first concern, the interest that exists in the territory and its resources. Therefore the displacement of our communities is not a consequence of the conflict, but rather more that the conflict is being carried out to displace the community, so that the people flee and leave the territory and we, as organizations, are trying to prevent this displacement. The lands given to the black communities as collective property are inalienable lands, owned in perpetuity and cannot be foreclosed on because of debts. The paramilitaries want to pressure the people so that the abandon the territory, and so that the lands can be expropriated for disuse, that is to say, by logical extension of the disuse. If there are no people in the territory, of course the State will extinguish the titles. We are interested in politically resisting, we do not have an armed wing, because leaving the territory is to abandon our life, our habitat, there is where we can live, we cannot develop a cultural life in another distinct place.
Q. How do the paramilitary groups operate in the communities?
In the massacre that occurred on April 29th in El Firme, on the Yurumangui river, twelve armed men arrived in the morning, they gathered the community at a meeting with them, the people left their houses to attend the meeting and immediately they forced them to throw themselves on the ground. Some attempted to escape and two were then killed and those that were on the floor were dismembered with axes. They did this in front of the entire town, this is why they called the meeting, so that all could see how the people were dismembered and in this manner to implant terror among them.
Imagine a barbaric act such as this, the following day the people left in a stampede which produced the exodus. Others were cut up by a chain saw, they dismembered them and afterwards played football with the head of the victims. Since last year massacres have been occurring and the people have alerted the government but nothing is done, the paramilitaries have given themselves the luxury of announcing their massacre with flyers and writings on the walls: we are going to such a location, we are going to massacre in such and such towns; what they promise, they carry out, without the army doing anything to avoid it, the army dedicates itself to collecting the victims, we think that this type of help we do not need, we need to stop the massacres.
Q. Now that the people flee in terror, who ends up with the homes, with the lands and with the assets?
A. The houses stay un-inhabited for a time but there have been cases in some communities where the population abandons their homes and lands and then, after six or eight months other people, that supposedly are recommended by the paramilitaries, occupy them. Precisely, in the case of black communities, they flee from the territory and their houses are occupied by non-black groups, this leaves us with the bitter taste that they are committing ethnocide, because it is wiping out the black groups.
Q. One of the concerns is that, in Colombia, the paramilitaries are acquiring a social base and even some communications media are supporting them.
A. The block that is operating in the southwest of Colombia is the Calima bock of the United Self-defense (Autodefensas Unidas) of Colombia. It does not represent a project with a political end, and is composed of mercenaries. En a region such as the Pacific, where the annual per-capita income dos not come to more than 500 dollars, the paramilitaries have come in offering 400 dollars per month, and so, some persons with dark skin pigmentation have been bought. Those that sell themselves are used to command massacres against the contrary ethnic group, that is to say the blacks are used to commit massacres in indigenous territories and the indigenous peoples used to commit massacres in Afro-Colombian territories. The inter-ethnic harmony that we have historically maintained is being threatened by the paramilitaries. This has caused us once again to approach the indigenous brothers to make know and to clarify that this is a trap that they are preparing for us and that before dividing ourselves we should unite more to defend ourselves against this enemy.
Q. In the face of this shocking situation, which you describe to us, what is it that the international community should do?
A. We have been relating these horrendous crimes to sensitive the governments of Europe, from whom the Colombian Government is asking for money for the implementation of their war plan, which is Plan Colombia, which is a death plan. The government has taken on the commitment to de-mobilize para-militarism, but on the same dates that the government commits to do this in Brussels, on these same dates the paramilitaries commit massacres. That is to say they ask for money to achieve peace in Colombia, but there (in Colombia) they are doing the opposite. High functionaries of the Colombian State and the Colombian Army are tied to the paramilitary phenomenon, which we consider to be a contradiction and that is what we are making manifest before the governments of European Civil Society. And, also the United States which is giving money to carry out a plan of war and death with the pretext of combating drug trafficking and subversion.
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