In early November I received a copy of a death threat made against student activists at the University of the Atlantic in Barranquilla, Colombia. The threat was sent out in the name of the "United Self-Defense Forces (AUC)-Rearmed". The AUC is the largest paramilitary organization in Colombia, though it supposedly demobilized due to government efforts. However, a number of organizations, from Arco Iris Corporation to Human Rights Watch, have reported that para-militarism is actually on the increase, often in the form of new or reconstituted organizations.
I am a Co-Coordinator for the Alliance for Global Justice (AFGJ). Changing U.S. policy toward Colombia is a major concern of ours, especially since Colombia is the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in Latin America. During the last ten years, the rate of military aid has doubled. U.S. support for war and repression also includes non-military aid. For example, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has awarded tens of millions of dollars in grants to paramilitary owners of African Palm plantations. Additionally, U.S. Bureau of Prisons advice for restructuring of Colombia's maximum-security institutions has actually increased the inhumane conditions, especially those affecting the political prisoners. AFGJ's work centers on advocacy for Colombian farmers, political prisoners and students.
I often receive notices about threats against our Colombian partners, but this one was especially chilling. In a disturbing excerpt, the letter reads:
Today is a very important day since we are initiating the plan of extermination against those persons who have been inviting and organizing the presence of communists, within the University…. This is not a game, already you are identified and targeted, this time you may not hide, meet together and make our work harder, we assure you that this year there will be no grades for any of you, no one is secure not even outside of Barranquilla….
This was the latest in a series of such threats against student activists. Among those targeted are Victoria Cañas Gonzales, leader of the University of the Atlantic's Federation of University Students (or FEU, by its Spanish initials), and Henry Molina Garcia, a student representative in the university's Superior Council. In fact, Molina was detained and tortured by investigative police and then threatened with death if he spoke out about what happened. Victoria Cañas was taken hostage at one point by unidentified assailants and interrogated for several hours before being released with a warning to cease her political activities.
One might expect that the University's response would be to call for an investigation and take steps to assure the safety of these young activists. Instead, the school's Rector, Ana Sofía Mesa De Cuervo, has accused seven students and one university vendor of a host of crimes, including "terrorism" and "inciting panic". She went so far as to publish personal details, including home addresses, in a widely distributed campus publication. Three of these students, including Molina, Cañas and Fernando Miguel Martes Ortega, were among the students listed in the death threat quoted earlier. Listing such personal details under these circumstances is tantamount to aiding and abetting paramilitary violence and murder.
In fact, this publication follows several actions by the university and the state that have added to the student's fears of reprisals. These include investigations for charges of "rebellion," a catch-all, political charge used to jail members of the political opposition; and a declaration in 2008 by DAS (Colombia's version of the FBI and Homeland Security combined) that Federation of University Students constitutes an arm of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). This is a common accusation used to intimidate activists, and it is often leveled against journalists and even peace negotiators who cover or negotiate the release of prisoners held by the guerrillas.
What are the crimes the students are being accused of? The Rector claims that during a protest against financial cuts, they destroyed security cameras, set up a roadblock with burning tires, damaged university equipment, and threw water balloons at a university event. In a report to the Attorney General's office in Barranquilla, the persons carrying out these actions are described as "hooded." This could be anybody. It is common for protesters to wear handkerchiefs to cover their faces, in order to protect their identities from police and military death squads. While death squads threaten to murder students on campus, the official focus is on punishing student protests. Outrageous! It seems the students need to protest more, not less.
Several other pieces of evidence are described, including video recordings and photographs, however none of these are conclusive. They include photos, for instance, of Molina and other student organizers talking on cell phones, smiling, meeting together before the protest and so on. These show the student organizers busy preparing for the mass march and protest, not committing any crimes. Nothing links them to the more militant acts that other students or protesters commonly do in Colombia where repression is heavy.
The threats and repression being carried out against the students of the University of the Atlantic are not isolated phenomena. For instance, false information and fake Facebook accounts have recently appeared from the city of Medellin spuriously linking student leaders to the FARC and the Clandestine Communist Party. These fabrications were followed by a new proposal by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe to pay 1,000 students in Medellin $50 a month to act as informers for the Colombian Armed Forces. According to Defense Minister Gabriel Silva, Colombia already has a network of 2.2 million civilian informers, including 3,000 informers already paid a monthly fee of $50. This is the largest such network in the Americas and represents just under 5% of the entire population. In other words, one in every 20 Colombians is an informant. U.S. tax money helps pay for these spy networks.
The gravity of this situation is best illustrated by the increase in arbitrary arrests of student and labor activists and members of the political opposition. Such arrests are based on false evidence fabricated by the Colombian Armed Forces and paid testimony from informants. Between 1992 and 2002, there were 2,000 illegal arrests that were thrown out of court for lack of evidence. Since President Uribe took office, that number has grown considerably. According to Colombia's Permanent Committee for Human Rights, between 2002 and 2006 alone, there were 7,500 such arrests and the pace has not abated. Persons arrested usually serve one to three years before having their cases dismissed. Based on my own visits with Colombian political prisoners, a high percentage of those arrested are students.
Another development regarding student activists is the January 22 announcement by the Colombian Attorney General's Office that ESMAD (the Spanish initials for the National Police Anti-Disturbance Mobile Squad) was responsible for the death of Johnny Silva Aranguren on September 22, 2005. Silva, a 21-year-old student at the University of Valle in Cali, was a participant in a demonstration against a Free Trade Agreement with the United States. At 2pm that day, students and professors had started a blockade of one of the university's streets. After nightfall, around 7pm, and after a suspicious failure of streetlights, ESMAD agents attacked the demonstration with tear gas and live ammunition. Other participants were able to run, but Silva was unable due to a congenital defect. He was shot in the neck. Demonstrators took him to a hospital, where he died soon after.
Cali Police Commander Jesús Antonio Gómez Méndez declared that the police had not entered the campus and that Silva had not been shot by police officers. However, video evidence showed otherwise. There were also testimonies from people who overheard on police radio airwaves that the cutting of the lights had been prearranged. ESMAD had not secured the legal requirements to enter the campus nor to use live ammunition against the crowd. When the evidence was produced to show that Gomez had lied, the response of President Uribe was to announce that there is nowhere in Colombia that the police and military are not allowed to go.
So far no penalties have been assessed against any of the officers involved in this assault. There is a more than 95% rate of impunity for military and paramilitary political assassinations. We can only hope that this will be an exception to the rule, and justice will be served.
The issue of immunity is driven home by another development affecting Colombian youth: the failure of the government to punish those already found responsible for the "false positive" scandal. This scandal involves the proven murders of some 1,700 mostly young people, executed by the Colombian military and dressed in the garb of guerrillas so they could be falsely claimed as enemy combatants slain in battle. Most of these were not university students, but youth unable to pursue higher education because of a lack of resources and public funding. This scandal was a result of the U.S. encouraging incentives and rewards for soldiers and officers who kill guerrillas. More so, it comes out of attempts to inflate numbers of those killed in battle in order to feign success for the U.S. government's Plan Colombia – a strategy of military victory versus the pursuit of a peace process. Those fired for this scandal include three generals and the commander of the Colombian Army.
On January 20, Colombian Senator Gloria Inés Ramírez Ríos made the following statement:
In effect, over recent months 31 members of the military charged with 'false positives' have been set free due to the fact that the 90 days set down in the law had transpired without the Public Prosecutor having brought them to trial. In an equivalent situation we find another group of 23 soldiers who, with no change to the application of the law, were also set free.
When we, as U.S. citizens, look at the repression daily endured by Colombian students and youth – and the impunity for those who threaten their lives – it angers us to realize that war and repression in Colombia is made in the USA, funded with our tax dollars and given an official seal of approval. Our response must be to demand the US government stop funding war in Colombia and support negotiations for a just peace. One way to begin is to contact the Alliance for Global Justice to receive alerts about Colombia and other Latin American struggles by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meanwhile, the student activists of the University of the Atlantic have written us asking that international allies join them in making the following demands:
- That the Colombian Attorney General's office investigate University of Atlántico Rector Ana Sofía Mesa de Cuervos for violations fundamental rights, including the right to life and personal security for the students HENRY MOLINA GARCIA, JOSE PEREZ ARIZA, JOSE TOMAS ORTEGA MOYA, VICTORIA CAÑAS GONZALEZ, FABIAN ENRIQUE ESCOBAR DURAN, FERNANDO MIGUEL MARTES ORTEGA, CRISTOBAL COLON MARIN and the university vendor, HENRY BARRIOS DIAZ.
- That the Colombian Attorney General's office omit the present accusations against the students made by the University of the Atlantic for insufficient evidence and because the accusations represent an attack on the right to social protest.
- That Ana Sofía Mesa de Cuervo be immediately removed from her position for abuse of her office and political persecution of students groups and activists from the opposition.
- That the Colombian Public Defender's office take action, including providing accompaniment, to protect the aforementioned students, as well as the organizations they represent, including FEU (the Federation of University Students), JUCO (the Young Communist League) and ACEU (the Association of Colombian University Students).
In support of these demands, the students have made the following petition:
We make a call to the national and international human rights organizations, the academic and university community, that they back this denunciation and send their communications of support and demands to the following authorities of the Colombian State:
Presidential Program for Human Rights
Director Carlos Franco.
Asesor Fernando Ibarra.
Justice System of Colombia
ALEJANDRO ORDÓÑEZ MALDONADO
National Public Defender
VOLMAR ANTONIO PÉREZ ORTIZ
ANA SOFÍA MESA DE CUERVO
Rector of the University of the Atlantic