WAR IN THE LOWER ARIARI RIVER
( Translated by Anne Boylon, a CSN volunteer translator )
In April, while Uribe was in Spain being awarded the “Premio Cortes de Cadiz a la Libertad” for his fight against terrorism and enjoying hugs and statements of support from the king and Zapatero, Colombia was shaken by yet another scandal when links between narco-paramilitaries and people connected to the Presidency were made public.
And while this was going on, a commission headed by the Director of the Asturian Agency for Cooperation arrived in Colombia to investigate human rights conditions in six regions of the country.
El gueyu del ferre
Guerra en El Bajo Ariari
Javier Orozco Penaranda
From an old DC-3 we made out the rainforests of the southeast and the Sierra de La Macarena, biodiversity sanctuaries and the area where the war against the Farc is being carried out. We landed at a small airport under the control of thousands of counter-insurgency soldiers whose equipment is arranged under a giant sign that reads: “We are ordinary people who are doing extraordinary work.”
The people who live in Bajo Ariari are descendents of campesinos who fled the violence a half a century ago. They are seen as the enemy by troops who threaten them with paramilitary incursions.
The commander of the Macarena police warns us that we are entering a “theater of operations,” their name for war zones. Between ten thousand military and police search for one half thousand guerrillas who had recently killed four soldiers somewhere in Puerto Cachicamo, a village we would visit. The campesinos said that there were 40 dead militaries. There is much fear here. In February the army sprayed a school with machine gun fire wounding three children. And they daily threaten the people living there with death in attempts to get them to tell “where the bandits are.” The soldiers get very frustrated because they are under a lot of pressure to find the guerrilla, but they have little success because the guerrilla hide in the underbrush with the stealth of the jaguar.
We accepted the invitation of the organizations to go into the area of on-going military operations because, as we were told by their spokesperson, “it is necessary to go where we are needed.” It was dangerous to go by river, which was the only way to get to and interview the communities trapped in the middle of the military conflict. However, except for two army checkpoints on the river and an armed motor boat, the settlements along the Guayavero and Guaviare rivers seemed peaceful.
There is little traffic on the river. People avoid it for fear of the army which kills civilians, controls the transport of gasoline and restricts the selling of foodstuff and medicines. “The army sees us all as terrorists,” says Lucila who told us that there are five hundred unidentified bodies in the La Macarena cemetery. She believes that the army murdered her husband two years ago. “The soldiers told me it was a mistake,” but there was no investigation and she didn’t ask for one. She fears that if she did, there would be another “mistake.”
The communities of Puerto Cachicamo, Puerto Nuevo, Nueva Colombia and Tigra welcomed the Asturian commission from their landing at the river where they had formed themselves into rows of smiling appreciative children and adults. They were wearing the green shirts that identified them as Bajo Ariari Human Rights defenders. They later provided dozens of testimonies of daily horror and had the courage to represent them in theater form..
“The 7th brigade grabbed my 14 year old son Gilberto as he was coming home; they took him off his horse and beat him in the stomach; they threw him on the ground and made movements with a machete as though they were going to cut his throat. Later they took him to the mountain where various soldiers raped him. The public prosecutor did not want to investigate; to get me to leave the soldiers threatened me”. This testimony was given by Armando M. who lives in fear for his life and whose son now refuses to leave his house.
On July 2nd, 2008, the marine infantry shot and killed Nicky Ortiz and his son, Diomedes Losano, in Angoleta, a rural area, according to a family member’s account. The militaries claimed that they were members of the guerrilla. “We know that they were not,” said the witness, “but we didn’t dare go to San Jose to ask about an investigation.” They fear the infantry that is deployed along the river and the paramilitaries who are called by the alias “Cuchillo” and who control the capital of Guaviare.
“The army beats women; that’s why instead of feeling at ease when they come, we’re afraid,” says Graciela, a member of the human rights committee. “On March 29 the 52nd counterinsurgent battalion arrived at my house without identification or anything to distinguish them as soldiers. They broke in and wrecked everything in their search for the list of those who make up the human rights committee. They took my two children and tortured them. Afterwards both were forced to sign something attesting to their good treatment, and they were told to leave the area or they would be skinned alive.
As night fell a dark-skinned man came near and told how the troop commanded by Major Roldan and non-commissioned officer Rodriguez came to his small farm during an operation to eradicate his coca plants and gave him five minutes to get out of his house before setting it and all its contents on fire. Between sobs he told how in five minutes he saw everything he had worked for his entire life turned into ashes. They did not allow him to return to his property and he now earns his living selling sweets for children on the street.
A Lot of Green
The Colombian government acknowledges that the army has executed many civilians and has discharged twenty-seven militaries, including three generals. However, the violations continue. ”To commit terrorist acts is very easy, but to come up with proof of authorship is very difficult,” explains the police chief by way of justification for these killings as he points to a big hole made in the roof of the police station by a hand grenade.
In spite of the fear, the spirit of life is evident. To the green of the forest is added the green of the soldiers’ camouflage and the bright green worn by the local human rights defenders who hope that their denouncements will force the army to distinguish between civilians and combatants. These “green shirts” are part of a national movement which identifies the troops and the Uribe government as responsible for “state crimes.”
The DC 3 shudders on the return trip. Among the passengers there is a parrot which walks around the cabin and over a sick woman and a wounded soldier who are both lying on the floor. Looking down you see a broad extension of rainforest broken up by patches of African palm used for biofuel production.
In the Colombian rainforest violence and impunity against the poorest repeat themselves in cycles like the floods of these enormous rivers whose brown waters raise high and flow through the rainforest to the Orinoco and the Amazon.
Colombia Support Network
P.O. Box 1505
Madison, WI 53701-1505
phone: (608) 257-8753
fax: (608) 255-6621