Colombia : Catatumbo Peasants Protest, Confront Violent State Repression

Adjoining Venezuela, the Catatumbo region in Colombia’s Norte de Santandar department is remarkable for coca growing and almost exclusive use of Monsato’s Glyphosate product for aerial fumigations of the crop. Also noteworthy is the presence of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla forces and heavy deployment there of soldiers, paramilitaries, and police.

Since June 11, some 14,000 protesting peasants from eight municipalities have demonstrated and obstructed traffic throughout the area using highway blockades. Many belong to the Campesino Association of Catatumbo (Ascamcat). The reaction of the Colombian government has been to mobilize police and army units, especially elements of its “Esmad” mobile riot police. Chaos marked by killings, injuries, and arrests has attracted world attention.

The Catatumbo background is of poverty, populations displaced from land, and government neglect of dire social problems. Paramilitaries controlled the area for many years and oil production and industrial agriculture expanded due in part to foreign funding and backing by multi-national corporations.

Flare-up of conflict there coincides with government – FARC peace talks underway in Cuba. There, negotiators recently reached agreements on agrarian reforms and are dealing with future political participation of insurgents.  Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos inflamed the situation on June 22 by accusing the FARC of having organized the uprising. He was reacting to FARC negotiator Ivan Marquez who earlier had called upon him to “ease up on pressure against peasant protesters.”  Santos publically labeled that communication as “stupid” and claimed it proved that “those demonstrations are infiltrated” by the FARC. Reporting on the killing of two protesters, Prensa Rural interpreted the President’s remarks as signifying, “Santos today ordered an open-fire on the peasants.”

The government’s decision in early June to carry out “eradication of coca cultivation without [prior] consultation served as trigger for the protests.”  With highway blockades serving to isolate population centers in Catatumbo and basic supplies being scarce, a protester recalled, “I saw how the police stole television sets, were drinking liquor, and shooting off guns in the air.” Helicopters were ubiquitous overhead.

The crisis tipping point came four days later as talks were getting underway in the oil producing hub Tibú, population 19,000; 4,800 protesters were in the city.  With the mayor’s house having been torched, government representatives were preparing to meet with 200 demonstrators led by 28-year old Ascamcat vice president Juan Carlos Quintero. On hand was Agricultural Minister Francisco Estupiñán, Norte de Santander Governor Edgar Díaz, and Miriam Villegas, head of the Institute of Rural Development (Incoder), also mayors of 10 local municipalities, However, Army General Rodolfo Tamayo and Police General Rodolfo Palomino were also present. On asking his Ascamcat representatives about the generals’ presence, Quintero heard back a resounding “No.” Local talks were re-scheduled for July 3.

Meanwhile trouble was building in Ocaña, “epicenter of the peasant movement,” and home to proportionally more displaced persons than other top victim destinations like Medellín and Buenaventura.  Over three days 7000 people gathered at the Ocaña airport in order to impede troop movements and re-supply. Soldiers using tear gas ambushed 400 peasants en route from Hacari municipality, robbing them and causing injuries. In Ocaña, Esmad personnel entered homes and attacked residents. By June 22, 600 police and soldiers were in place at the airport.

In a melee that day troops using tear gas and rubber bullets opened fire, killing two peasant demonstrators. Over fifty protesters were wounded, many seriously, and hundreds were arrested. A “Commission of Verification” charged with monitoring human rights violations was present as shooting began. Juan Carlos Quintero assured TeleSur that 7000 peasants were dealt a “response [of violence] from the government whom we hold responsible for everything that happened.”   Pamplona University students spoke out in favor of the peasants and other victims of state violence. Prisoners in the nearby Cúcuta penitentiary initiated a hunger strike on behalf of the Catatumbo peasant movement.

President Santos, in the area on June 24, ordered state security services to “restore order.”  The Humanitarian and Verification Commission held a report-back meeting at the Ascamcat offices in Bogota that day. Peasant rights group met in the President’s office in Bogota also on June 24 to offer mediation services. Human rights groups belonging to “Catatumba Resists!” laid plans to demonstrate in front of the Agricultural Ministry on June 25. A spokesperson condemned President Santos for rejecting peace and governing on behalf of transnational capital.

Prior to the aborted meeting in Tibu, organizers had obtained 3,200 Ascamcat signatures in support of peasant demands on the government. They include:

  • Immediately declare a Peasant Reserve Zone (Spanish initials: ZRC) for Catatumbo as authorized by national legislation of 1994 and 1996,

  • Define a “route of financing” of projects “prioritized by the Plan of Sustainable Development of the ZRC,”

  • Immediately suspend the recently announced forced eradication of young coca plants  and develop a program of gradual and acceptable substitution of legal crops,
  • Mitigate food shortages resulting from diminished coca sales by providing an $800 monthly subsidy for peasant families for at least two years.

  • Suspend big mining projects envisioned for a future ZRC, recognize the right of peasant communities to participate in decisions affecting them, and remedy other human rights failings, which were itemized.

Agrarian rights activists have called for ZRC’s for at least 20 years. The reserves offer the promise of land for marginalized rural peoples.  As proposed, they promote food security and environmental sustainability. They would exempt some state – controlled land from mining use and industrial agriculture. Any ZRC materializing in Norte de Santander would take in 925,000 acres.  In the negotiations in Cuba the FARC has proposed creation of 59 ZRC’s. Presently in Colombia there are only six.

In Tibu, Ascamcat Vice President Quintera was carrying a 546 – page document in his knapsack titled “Sustainable Development Plan for the Constitution of Peasant Reserve Zones.”  It reflected peasant discussions from 2009, he explained, that explored ways to survive the abandonment of illegal crops. “No one can say we don’t have proposals,” he told a reporter. Earlier he had lamented difficulties of his organization in mounting protests due to stigmatization as guerrillas and to Catatumbo having been declared a ‘strategic mineral zone” a year earlier in line with a multi-national corporation’s demand.

In his book “Catatumbo, Challenging the Truth” written in 2008, Irish analyst Gearoid O Loingsigh tries to explain the Colombian government’s frequent resort to armed force. It does not “distinguish between the civilian and guerrilla populations, whether armed or not. As part of its strategy, it relies on violence against either one of them.”   Colombian military doctrine is replete with notions of “using civilians as part of a strategy of hiding the reality of dirty war.”

Tibú Bishop Ómar Albeiro Sánchez also provided perspective as he observed to Semana News that “Catatumbo is like a son rejected by its father the state, But he is grown up now and confronting it, and he doesn’t believe in its promises. He feels he has been deceived with eternal promises of recognition than never came.”