Bogotá, Colombia - Liliany Obando is powerful. She is one thousands of Colombian political prisoners. For a year now, I have known Liliany through letters. We finally met face-to-face on three occasions, during a delegation sponsored by the U.S.-based Campaign for Labor Rights and the Colombia Action Network. I represented the International Network in Solidarity with Colombia’s Political Prisoners.
I’m a fairly tall man, and Liliany is relatively small. But upon first meeting her, I was engulfed by one of her bear hugs - hugs that show a heart and courage many times larger than her size. Liliany is in jail, accused of ‘rebellion.’ Yet even behind bars, she is organizing; collecting the testimonies of other political prisoners and advocating for a humanitarian exchange of prisoners between the Colombian government and guerrillas as a first step toward a just peace.
Liliany is the first person arrested through the ‘farc-politica’ process, which is aimed against unionists, academics and others aligned with the opposition. Recently, Miguel Angel Betran became the second person arrested and at least twelve persons have been investigated as a part of this process. Both Liliany and Beltran are sociologists. Liliany also worked as a consultant for Fensuagro, Colombia’s largest union of farmers and farm workers. Liliany was arrested the very week she released a report on the murders of more than 1500 Fensuagro members and leaders over 30 years.
The ‘farc-politica’ is supposedly based on emails and files culled from computers belonging to Raul Reyes, the second-in-command leader of the FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army). Reyes was killed by an illegal U.S./Colombian attack on a FARC-EP camp in Ecuador, on March 1, 2008. This camp was working out details of a planned release of FARC-EP held prisoners of war. The bombing was an attack on the entire peace process.
The reliability of this ‘evidence’ is thoroughly discredited. The computers were in the hands of Colombian authorities for ten days before being turned over to the international police agency, INTERPOL. INTERPOL said that the evidence could not be authenticated and that the handling “…did not conform to internationally recognized principles for handling electronic evidence by law enforcement...”
Colombian authorities cite emails from the computers as the basis for charges against Liliany and others. However, Captain Ronald Hayden Coy Ortiz of Colombia’s Investigative Police said in court that the computers contained no emails at all, only Word documents. Word documents are easily manipulated. Captain Coy was the first person to access these computers and oversaw their initial investigation.
Miguel suggests his arrest is a “judicial false positive.” This refers to the ‘false positive’ scandal that caused the downfall of dozens of high-ranking Colombian military officials - many who trained at the often-protested School of the Americas in Columbus, Georgia. The Colombian military officials are guilty of kidnapping and killing nearly 1200 young Colombians, dressing them up in guerrilla clothing, and claiming them as FARC-EP fighters slain in battle.
The ‘farc-politica’ is really a ‘farce-politica.’ It serves two purposes, one obviously being to imprison, intimidate and repress political opposition. The other purpose is to divert attention away from the ‘para-politica’ scandal. The paramilitary scandal ties over 100 members of Congress and officials of Colombian President Uribe’s administration to the death squads. 42 are now in jail for participating in events that led directly to assassinations, but many roam free.
Because of Liliany’s association with the peasants’ union Fensuagro, she is especially vulnerable. The U.S.-backed war in Colombia is an aggression against rural populations - especially small and cooperative farmers and indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations.
The U.S. has given over $7 billion in military aid to Colombia, trained hundreds of its soldiers in the notorious School of the Americas and directs the Colombian military in carrying out this war. However, Plan Colombia is a big failure, so there are serious moves on for a new U.S. war plan. The U.S. is going to take over and rebuild seven new military bases in Colombia. This is bad news for peasants and workers in Colombia, who suffer poverty, misery and death at the hands of the U.S. and Colombian military. It is also bad news for working people in the U.S. who foot the bill, while suffering through the worst economic crisis in decades. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to push for a Free Trade deal!
Both the U.S.-backed war and the Free Trade of the Americas (FTA) deal are for the direct benefit of huge transnational corporations like Chiquita Banana, Coca-Cola, Occidental Petroleum and Drummond Coal. Over 4.5 million people have been displaced by the U.S.-backed war in Colombia. Family farmers and farm workers make up over 60% of the displaced. Wealthy landowners and investors move in to take this land - up to 6.8 million hectares of land have been swindled. Wherever such displacement occurs, the land is soon ceded to petroleum, mining, biofuel (African palm oil) or big agricultural (sugarcane) interests. Passage of an FTA with Colombia would be the crowning achievement of this corporate land grab and is the economic underpinning to the war.
Liliany is being targeted because of her work on behalf of Fensuagro. She is accused of raising money for the FARC-EP under the auspices of the union. Fensuagro is falsely portrayed as a front for the guerrillas and has already had bank accounts closed due to the case. However, the money that Liliany raised is traceable and never went into the hands of the guerrillas. Her real ‘crime’ is advocating for agrarian reform - land for the peasants - as a cornerstone for a just peace in Colombia.
On our delegation, we not only visited Liliany and other prisoners, but we visited two different farms and attended community meetings. I can say without exaggeration that of the many farmers and farm workers we met, every single person lost close family members or friends to military and paramilitary violence. Aidee Moreno, the human rights officer for Fensuagro, lost her husband, mother, brother and niece within ten years -three of the four within two years.
It is shocking to realize how many of those killed so randomly were youths…even children. One night, the leader of a cooperative asked us to watch a video with him. It was a grisly video I had no desire to see. We watched it, nonetheless, because we felt doing so contradicted some of the isolation he and community members must feel under such conditions. The video showed a young man and woman - neither beyond high school age - murdered by shots to their heads. The scene of the bodies showed community members, who assembled immediately with video camera in hand, calling on DAS (Administrative Department of Security) officers to come investigate.
The murder scene was shown in detail, before it could be changed, before two more young people could be dressed up and claimed as ‘false positives.’ The bowls of food they were eating were lying beside them, their bodies crumpled up where they had been sitting casually, finishing modest dinners. The only weapons anywhere near were the weapons the soldiers carried. The victory from all this was that these murders were made public for what they were and the victims not lost among the ‘false positives.’ However, no one was ever prosecuted for the crimes. The immunity rate for such political murders is over 95%.
We heard story after story of similar atrocities. Every day innocent lives are destroyed and families are ripped apart as farmers and farm workers and indigenous persons and Afro-Colombians are assassinated, driven from their homes, and/or placed under sudden and arbitrary arrest.
On my final visit to see Liliany, I went on the ‘men’s visiting day’ with two fellow delegates. At first, we just visited with Liliany, but around lunchtime, we went down to a common room, put our tables together and pretty much had a party for the rest of the visit. We ate and talked and joked together, played some games and finished the afternoon dancing. (I’m a pretty rotten dancer, which provided some genuine amusement for the general population!)
Throughout our visit, I saw prisoners, farmers and activists enjoying themselves, despite all this repression. These people were the most generous and fun loving people I’d ever met anywhere, hands down. Every smile, every good time they have is an act of resistance, a victory against repression - a refusal to surrender. I asked Liliany about this, and she told me about a saying they have: “Today we struggle, tonight we dance!”
The women I met at the Buen Pastor prison were there for no other ‘crime’ than thinking differently and wanting a better country. And some of them were, indeed, captured soldiers of the FARC-EP. I looked in the eyes of these women and talked to them and laughed with them and danced with them. These were women who had had enough of seeing their loved ones killed and their own lives threatened and who had come to a point where they were ready to fight back. A few took up arms. Others simply began to organize unions or demonstrations and other mobilizations for social change.
The women prisoners, or presas, joked with us, asked us how we liked “being surrounded by all these dangerous women?” I liked it a lot. And next time I come, I’m going to learn to dance. That’s what my trip to Colombia is teaching me: to struggle and to dance. I want to be ready when the time comes to dance on the rubble of U.S. imperialism as we prepare to build that better world we all dream of and fight for.