Tragic Events at La Union Bridge in Santa Cecilia, Risaralda and Guarato, Choco, Colombia
26-27 May 2007
The undersigned from the Observation Commission share with us what they witnessed regarding the events that occurred at Union Bridge, Santa Cecilia, Risaralda and Guarato in Chocó, Colombia.
According to the Testimony of the Indigenous Peoples:
The indigenous communities of the Chocó have been negotiating with the government a list of demands concerning education, health, territory and human rights. The points of agreement for each topic were signed into law on April 27, 2007. The indigenous communities provided a deadline to speed up the arrangements, especially regarding the appointment of teachers, as the children have a right to education.
As the deadline passed and there were still no results, the indigenous communities decided to take the highway that runs from Quibdó to Medellín at Kilometer 18 on May 21, 2007. The indigenous authorities have since been in various meetings with government institutions from the Chocó region. Unable to reach an agreement, they decided to strengthen the negotiation by creating a roadblock along the highway from Quibdó to Pereira, with the goal of seeking a fulfillment of the aforementioned agreements on behalf of the government.
The indigenous peoples made their presence on the highway on Friday, May 25, 2007. Around 100 people participated, among them were boys, girls, women (some pregnant), men, young and elderly. They situated themselves at a place called “Union Bridge”—a bridge over the San Juan River, 4 kilometers from the Santa Cecilia district, both in the Pueblo Rico municipality. On Friday, May 25th, both the army and the police arrived and spoke with the city council, demanding the passage of three buses detained by the road block. They reached an agreement to allow the buses to pass; the drivers gathered about $200.000 (= $110.USD) for the indigenous peoples and one of the drivers gave them rice.
On Saturday, May 26, 2007, while they were preparing breakfast at approximately 7:00am, troops from ESMAD (a mobile anti-disturbances squadron of the police force) arrived in anti-disturbance trucks and attacked the indigenous peoples with tear gas and chased them, trying to dissolve the group and round them up towards Agüita, a small hamlet alongside the highway. The chaos provoked disorder, dizziness and blurred vision and several people were injured. ESMAD dissolved the road block, burned and destroyed the huts that the indigenous peoples set up along the highway and threw their suitcases and other belongings into the river.
The indigenous people also report the disappearance of three minors who presumably fell into the San Juan River during these events. Their names are: GLORIA INES ARCE, 6 years old, from the Conondo community; and brothers, JORGE MURRI NARIQUIAZA, 8 years old, and EMILIO MURRI NARIQUIAZA, 6 years old, both from the Dokabú community. On May 27, the parents reported these events to the woman who is the official representative of the community ( called thee Corregidora) of Santa Cecila in the Pueblo Rico district of Risaralda, accompanied by members of the OREWA Association, Diocese of Quibdó and international organizations.
Once these violent acts had passed, members of the community, who had dispersed and sought shelter from the gases, reunited. The police then put them in their vehicles and drove them to Guarato, a small community in the Chocó region, 8 kilometers from Santa Cecilia, saying that they could continue their protest there. According to the indigenous people, when they arrived in Guarato, they saw that the police had driven them to a different location so several of them decided to jump out of the police vehicles and remain there on the highway. The police stopped the vehicles and the indigenous people got out of the trucks and continued their protest on the highway.
While they were preparing lunch at around 2:30 pm, units from ESMAD arrived with 2 anti-disturbance trucks and once again fired tear gas and chased them to the banks of the San Juan River. From these events, we attach in the annex a report of 22 disappeared people, of which 14 are minors and 8 are adults. The Vivícora community is awaiting the report of 6 children from the community who have not yet appeared. Additionally, 13 people were injured. The community also told us of the damages to their personal belongings. Among them, they corroborated the burning of suitcases filled with clothes, the destruction of kitchen utensils and the loss of money and means of communication, such as cell phones, radios and megaphones. In conjunction with these events on May 26th, 2 missionaries of the Diocese of Quibdo, who had conducted a health workshop for the indigenous communities, were detained for four hours. They were driven to the Santa Cecilia station without ever being presented with detention orders.
According to the Police and ESMAD Versions:
This Commission had many opportunities to meet with representatives of the police and ESMAD. From these dialogues, the synthesis of their interventions is written as follows:
1. The indigenous people cannot block a highway because it disrespects the rights of other citizens, risking the Chocó department’s inhabitant’s access to food.
2. This protest was risking the health of various people who were sick and in the vehicles being detained at the roadblocks.
3. The indigenous people demanded 200.000 pesos ($ 110 in USD) from each detained bus in order to allow them to pass. This could be considered extortion and aggravated kidnapping.
4. The indigenous people were causing damage to other vehicles by breaking the windows.
5. They spoke with the indigenous people on May 25 to lift the roadblock along the highway, or at least do it in intervals, but they did not accept this proposal.
6. ESMAD said that they deterred the protest with only one anti-disturbance group, which used non-damaging tear gas while being assaulted with stones by the indigenous people
7. The police recognize that there are three missing children in the Risaralda jurisdiction as a result of these events. They say that they have been searching for them since the moment they were notified of this loss, but they have not yet found them.
8. In the ESMAD operation, the police brought many indigenous people towards the area of Chocó after the events at Union Bridge, but the indigenous people conspired in their language and decided to throw themselves from the trucks and remain at Guarato to continue the roadblock.
9. In one of the dialogues, Major Díaz of the Santa Cecilia police requested a copy of the notes that members of the commission were taking, but the commission refused to do it since they were private notes.
10. The police say that the retention of the 2 missionaries was done to get complete identity and verify their records.
11. The police expressed their desire for the indigenous people to achieve a good and timely agreement with the administrative authorities and not to continue with this type of behavior.
1. We request that the Colombian government carry out an immediate investigation to identify the responsibilities of the superiors who gave the orders for the use of disproportionate and unnecessary force on behalf of the ESMAD agents.
2. We request that all necessary and pertinent efforts are carried out for the immediate search of the minors, especially the three children who presumably fell into the San Juan River during the events at Union Bridge. We especially encourage the intervention of rescue and relief organizations.
3. We urge the Colombian national and departmental governments to move quickly to fulfill the agreements they reached with the indigenous people to improve their living conditions, as their inaction was the cause of these new protests.
4. We ask the same Colombian government, as well as humanitarian aid organizations, to attend to the nutritional, health and clothing necessities of the indigenous people who lost their possessions as a result of these tragic events.
In witness whereof the undersigned have signed this report on May 28, 2007 in Quibdó, Chocó,
Diócesis de Quibdó, Chocó, Colombia.
Christian AID de Gran Bretaña e Irlanda
Diakonía de Suecia
Amnistía Internacional Francia,
PTM Mundu Bat, del Estado Español
Colombia Support Network
P.O. Box 1505
Madison, WI 53701-1505
phone: (608) 257-8753
fax: (608) 255-6621