Colombia: Struggling For Autonomy and Justice in the Face of State Repression

Last week over 200 people held a march and rally in the city of Barrancabermeja, Santander department, to demand justice for two imprisoned leaders of the largest campesino association in the region a day before the beginning of their trial.

ImageLast week over 200 people held a march and rally in the city of Barrancabermeja, Santander department, to demand justice for two imprisoned leaders of the largest campesino association in the region a day before the beginning of their trial.

Andrés Elías Gil and Miguel Gonzáles Huepa went before a judge for the first time since their 2007 arrests, for their leadership of the Campesino Campesino Association of the Cimitarry River Valley (ACVC). Activists from a dozen groups held up banners and placards pledging solidarity, as over a hundred campesino members chanted demanding their release, and sang songs of resistance. They also demanded an end to fumigations, which recently pulverized fields of yucca, banana and plantain outside Puerto Matilde in Antioquia department, and called for continuation of coca eradication by hand instead. They were joined by representatives of student unions, women’s groups, human rights defenders CREDHOS and ASORVIM and local oil workers unions SINALTRAINAL and the USO.

The case has also generated international attention; dozens of UK trade union and parliament leaders sent letters to the Colombian president and local judges last year demanding freedom for both men.

In advance of the hearing, other political prisoners held in Tier No. 8 at the Palogordo prison in Girón, Santander declared themselves on hunger strike. In a communique they also denounced the "grave human rights crisis" facing prisoners there.

Both activists were captured by state security agents and soldiers in January and September 2007, both times while taking part in community meetings. Four other leaders were also taken into custody during the raids and were released in 2007 for lack of evidence. Orders of capture have been issued for eighteen ACVC leaders total. Fearing the impossibility of a just hearing in this climate, six have gone into exile.

"This is a political process, not a judicial process," clarified one of the group’s leaders in a press conference. "No one is running because they’re guilty. ACVC members are being sought because they threaten the political priorities of the government."

The notorious Calibío Batallion of the army’s 7th Division carried out the arrests, during which they briefly, mistakenly detained Miguel’s son, whose ID card also read "Miguel Gonzáles." A week later, the same batallion killed the younger Miguel and dressed him in the camouflage of a guerrilla fighter. Members of the army unit have been fingered as the culprits of dozens of similar so-called "false positive" extrajudicial executions, the most of the military units operating in the valley.

The persecutions are nothing new for campesinos in the region. In northeastern Antioquia department alone eleven campesinos have been killed during the Uribe administration, and in twelve years of existence six ACVC leaders have been assasinated, with dozens of the group’s members also been assassinated by military and paramilitary forces. In addition to arbitrary prosecution the ACVC has been menaced as of late by new paramilitary organizations, including the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, who also sent threats to Barrancabermeja groups like the oilworkers union (USO) last October.

Persecuted for Success

ImageThe ACVC might be the most successful campesino organization in the country, counting tens of thousands of members in the sprawling Magdaleno Medio region, comprising parts of the Bolívar, Antioquia, Santander and Cesar departments. Through productive projects like a buffalo herd incubation program — in which families are loaned eleven buffalo for three years to start their own herd — and organizational development programs to create more opportunities for women, the ACVC are unique in their dedication to economic initiatives that allow campesinos to be less reliant on coca production, which is otherwise the only viable, marketable crop for small farmers.

These programs have all been implemented unilaterally by the group since the founding of the Campesino Reserve Zone of the Cimitarra River Valley (ZRC), a legal determination that would prevent the further growth of large plantations and resource extraction projects in the area, allowing projects that benefited campesinos and the environment to flourish. The ZRC was first proposed in 1998, to cover Cantagallo, Remedios, San Pablo and Yondó municipalities, and guarantee land tenancy for campesinos. As the ACVC explained in a founding document, "We hope to create a model form of local development based in a just, regional redistribution of resources, avoiding land expropriation and forced displacement."

The ACVC itself was formed in 1996 thanks to unfulfillment of promises made by the federal government to communities in Magdalena Medio in response to massive street marches in that year. The group started with 56 Communal Action Committees (JAC) made up largely of campesinos displaced by landowners and paramilitaries. Today the association counts 120 JACs, productive cooperative projects raising cattle, buffalo and fish, women’s programs, community health projects, human rights committees and a technical support committee staffed by volunteers from urban areas. Their work to support organizational development and political education seeks to make possible the redistribution of land and dignity for campesinos in the short term, and longer term to ensure structural changes to improve the conditions of people in the regions.

The zone was made possible by Law 160 of 1994 governing the National Agrarian Reform System. Chapter XIII refers to the ZRC as a way of establishing campesino economies and impeding the growth of big plantations. This chapter was amplified in 1996 by Decree 1777, following pressure from campesinos and cocaleros around the country beginning to develop the structure of proposed ZRCs. Along with the Cimitarran River Valley, ZRCs were also incubated at this time in the regions of Pato-Balsillas (Caquetá department), Calamar (Guaviaré) and Cabrera (Cundinamarca), each under the sponsorship of local campesino groups.

The zone is considered especially important for the well-being of campesinos and the environment as a whole in Magdalena Medio, where pressure by multinationals to exploit resources in the region have gradually intensified over seventy years. The area is home to some of the largest oil wells in Colombia – first drilled by Standard Oil in the 1930s – which account for 70% of economic activity. The region, named for the Magdalena River, also counts a large trade in coal, lumber, palm oil, and gold, monopolized for the most part by large industrialists. Also significant is commercial production of beef, rice, cotton, corn and cacao, which is dominated by large landowners who have historically pushed campesinos further to the edges to expand their own plantations.

Following the signing of an agreement with President Andrés Pastrana in 2000, the ACVC had within two years fulfilled all requirements stipulated by the state agency Incoder, and on December 10, 2002 Resolution 028 declared the zone a legal entity, covering 184,000 hectares in two departments with over 25,000 inhabitants. Within three months, following pressure by "landowners, paramilitaries and narcotraffickers," according to the ACVC, president Álvaro Uribe Vélez had suspended all ZRCs. At the time the Cimitarra River Valley ZRC was in fact acting to limit the growth of plantations, agroindustry and large-scale mineral exploitation. The president, however, claimed that the ZRC was generating social conflict. Four years later, in the face of new protests demanding compliance with the law, the viceminister of agriculture claimed that "lifting the ban will deepen the crisis of violence."

Last week ACVC members pointed to pending development projects that threaten their way of life as reasons for the continued urgency of the ZRC. These include a hydroelectric project in Yondó on the Tamar River, and the presence of a contractor of state oil company Ecopetrol undertaking seismic exploration for petroleum deposits, during which the only riverway to the Magdalena River was blocked, making inaccessible the only form of transportation in the winter months when rains make road travel impossible.

The area is also an important supplier of hardwoods, a trade dominated by large landlords but with participation also by campesinos. As part of their commitment to environmental sustainability, the ACVC has sought certification from forest management certifier SmartWood for its affiliate villages, to ensure that forest management practices comply with Forest Stewardship Council guidelines. This is critical because over 90% of all timber is harvested illicitly, and 80% is lost before arriving to port in Barrancabermeja.

One of the group’s slogans is, "Para que no haya más tierras sin hombres y hombres sin tierras," – ("So that there will be no more land without men and men without land") a reference to large plantations owned by big landowners that often sit fallow, as displaced campesinos struggle to get by. Much like the Zapatistas decided to ignore the Mexican government’s unwillingness to follow through with agreements, and have since 2003 unilaterally implemented the San Andrés Accords giving indigenous people regional autonomy across western Chiapas on the border with Guatemala, the ACVC has pressed on with projects designed to improve the standing of campesinos in the region, constantly under attack by multinational industrial initiatives and the local consolidation of land holdings. Since the suspension in 2003 the group has received funding for its work from the United Nations and European Union, and has sought alliances with national and international allies to reinstate the ZRC.

A Very Focused ‘Investigation’


ACVC Community Health Center

The two ACVC leaders are being accused of rebellion, a crime under Article 467 of the penal code, and specifically of being FARC rebels. In a rare move, the Attorney General asked the AG’s special Medellín Human Rights Unit to prosecute the case.

Under Colombian law, the prosecution has only six months to conduct investigations, and six months to convince a judge to convict. The investigations have lasted over six years, and in Miguel’s case should have expired in December, automatically liberating him. But the judge lifted this restriction.

On Wednesday the judges heard from witnesses in each case, all claiming to be "reinserted" former FARC combatants, and all currently on the payroll of the state. In Colombia, it’s not necessary to present empirical evidence to secure a conviction, testimony of paid informants is enough. One witness claimed he couldn’t remember when or where he’d seen Andres meet with rebels, and another claimed to have seen him with two "blonde, Swiss agents" bringing the FARC millions of dollars. But, once again, couldn’t remember when or where. Informants who turn themselves in have in other cases been discovered to be either disgruntled political rivals or simply campesinos looking for a government handout. Leaders of unions in Arauca have been convicted based on similar accounts.

"The authorities weren’t looking for evidence here, they already knew who they wanted to go after," said attorney Luis Alfonso Ruiz of the legal corporation Humanidad Vigente, of the prosecution’s case. "They tapped the phones of the ACVC office, of Miguel Cifuentes… this was a very focused ‘investigation.’"

Miguel only has one witness for the prosecution accusing him of FARC membership, following the renouncement of another state witness, ACVC secretary Álvaro Manzano, who was imprisoned, interrogated and forced to sign an "exit agreement" that, it was later revealed, was written as a confession.

Call for Support

ImageSince they were transferred to the maximum security prison in Palogordo from a jail in Bucaramanga, the two have suffered random attacks of pepper spray and tear gas by guards, and punishment for violations of prison rules committed by cellmates, which include being forced to disrobe and being beaten when they decline. They are housed in a tier with others accused of rebellion, paramilitarism, and common theft – a clear safety risk to both well-known civilian leaders.

"It’s too expensive to visit," said Miguel’s daughter, Marta Gonzalez, in an interview. "He can call us occasionally, but it’s far away."

Each man faces at least another three or four hearings, set to resume in April, before judges announce a verdict.

Supporters are asked to write to the judge in the case denouncing the arbitrary prosecution of these two social movement leaders and demanding their release. Letters should be addressed to:

Juzgado Segundo Penal Circuito de Barrancabermeja, Santander, Colombia

You can also write, call and fax the following officials:

* Permanent Colombian Mission to Geneva. Chemin du Champ d’Anier, 17-19, 1209 Geneva, Switzerland. FAX: + 41.22.791.07.87; TEL.:+ 41.22.798.45.55. E-mail:

* Carlos Holmes Trujillo, Diplomatic Mission in Brussels: FAX: +32.2.646.54.91, E-mail:

* Álvaro Uribe Vélez, President, Carrera 8 # 7-26, Palacio de Nariño, Santa Fe de Bogotá. Fax: +57.1.566.20.71 E-mail:

* Francisco Santos, Vicepresident, Téls.: +571334.45.07, +573.7720130, E-mail: ;

* Human Rights Program of the Vicepresidency: – Human Rights Observatory of the Vicepresidency:

* Doctor Mario Hernán Iguarán Arana, Attorney General, Diagonal 22-B # 52-01, Bogotá. Fax: +57.1.570.20.00; +57.1.414.90.00 Extensión 1113, E-mail:;


Andrew Willis Garcés is an organizer based in Washington, DC currently working with International Peace Observatory in Colombia, and writes the blog