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In Colombia, a Rural Community in Peaceful Resistance Against a Repressive Government
The Arrests of Three ACVC Leaders Is Revenge Against a Region That Has Rejected Uribe and His Paramilitary Allies
Luis Alberto Matta / Sunday 21 October 2007 / Español / français

Editor’s Note: On September 30, Narco News reported the arrest of three leaders and one additional member of the Peasant Farmer Association of the Cimitarra River Valley (ACVC in its Spanish initials). The four unarmed men, important organizers in a region that has survived years of paramilitary massacres, abuses by the army and toxic crop fumigations under Plan Colombia, were detained and their office raided in operations carried out by dozens of security agents and intelligence police.

On October 5, the four men were charged with “rebellion” and denied bail. They must now stay in jail while prosecutors build their case, which will take as long as six months. Today, we translate an article by human rights defender and former advisor to the departmental (state) government of Valle de Cauca Luis Alberto Matta, which explains the history of the organization and the region where it works, showing why a peaceful peasant farmer association is seen as such a threat by the country’s politicians.

On October 31, 2001, in the middle of his presidential campaign, Álvaro Uribe Vélez met with Fremio Sánchez Carreño, a paramilitary boss from the city of Barrancabermeja known by the alias “Esteban.” In that and other meetings, the future President Uribe made dark commitments to landowners, merchants and local politicians of dubious reputation.

Uribe with paramlitary leader Fremio Sánchez Carreño in Barrancabermeja.

Although more than 75 percent of Barrancabermeja’s people abstained from voting in that turbulent election, the fascist right celebrated Uribe’s triumph, announcing that the time had come to extend its domination to the countryside. A short time later, in the first week of December 2002, the president ordered a massive military operation against the rural region of the Cimitarra River Valley. This offensive, which is still going on, has a specific aim: to dismantle and/or destroy the Peasant Farmer Association of the Cimitarra River Valley.

Since that time, the ACVC has suffered through a shameful, illegal siege, which has included the destruction of its productive projects, subsistence food crops fumigated with glyphosate, cooperative mills and processing stations burned to the ground, houses raided and plundered, arbitrary arrests, selective crimes, food blockades, rapes, cattle theft and other types of pillage and violence.

Nevertheless, what Uribe did was simply to intensify a strategy initiated by his predecessor Andres Pastrana, who, acting on the advice of Plan Colombia mercenaries, had already ordered “Operation Bolívar” in April of 2001. That strike was designed in the army’s 5th Brigade, and led by General Martín Orlando Carreño Sandoval. Gen. Carreño is accused of having followed in the footsteps of Harold Bedoya, consolidating the narco-paramilitary expansion throughout the Middle Magdalena region – including the towns of San Vicented de Chucurí, El Carmen, Sabana de Torres, Simití, Puerto Wilches – and extending the paramilitary dominion north of the Middle Magdalena into the department of Norte de Santander, especially the city of Cúcuta and the Cataumbo region, which became the scene of horrifying massacres.

The memories of other sad episodes in the life of Barrancabermeja’s people cannot be easily erased; episodes such as the massacres of September 23, 1999 and January 22, 2000, shamefully justified by then-police commander Colonel Martínez Santamaría.

And so it was that the urban area of Barrancabermeja, considered the political capital of Middle Magdalena, cradle of the left and of memorable workers’ and popular struggles, came under paramilitary domination. The unions and human rights organizations – most notably, the USO oil workers’ union, the Popular Feminine Organization (OFP) and the Regional Human Rights Corporation (CREDHOS) – courageously opposed this invasion. Nevertheless, these and other organizations lost influence among the threatened civilian population, and nearly every effort to halt the paraco advance proved useless, despite international accompaniment such as that offered in nearby areas by Christian Peacemaker Teams.

In the midst of this tragedy, other social projects, obviously separate from the Left, have managed to move forward nearly without setbacks. One of them is the Program for Development and Peace of the Magdalena Medio Region (PDPMM), funded by the World Bank and sectors of the Catholic Church. The PDPMM has been developed in 30 municipalities (equivalent to U.S. counties) over nearly two decades, including in the remote southern parts of the Bolívar and Cesár departments.

While paramilitary domination of Barrancabermeja was consolidated during the Pastrana administration and Uribe’s first term, it began under the government of Ernesto Samper. We must remember how on May 16, 1998, after “mysteriously” evading a number of police and military roadblocks, three truckloads of paramilitaries entered the urban area and, free from any problems from the authorities, tortured and murdered seven people, then kidnapped 35 more, mostly young people, who all disappeared. This carnage, still unpunished, was carried out by the same people who now hope to consolidate the process in the rural area.

What were the agreements that Uribe reached in those mysterious electoral meetings? Why is there so much fury from the president toward this agrarian region? For now, we can find a few answers in the violent terrorist attack on the Peasant Farmer Association of the Cimitarra River Valley.

Made up of colonos (pioneer farmers who have colonized what was once wilderness), of the politically persecuted, of survivors of the Patriotic Union party, and by those forced to flee paramilitary violence in neighboring lands, the ACVC was founded in December 1996, and today represents a focal point of peaceful and popular resistance to the paramilitary strategy of the region’s landed elite.

It was founded just after the extraordinary peasant and indigenous marches that shook Colombia in August and September of 1996. The protests occurred in seven regions of the country, from the Amazon, to the eastern plains, to the Andes – including southern Bolívar and Middle Magdalena. The state repression was fierce, and the protesters’ demands – for land, rural investment, protection for the rural economy and from malnutrition, education, public health, coordinated programs to substitute legal crops for coca, and a political solution to the social and armed conflict – were all ignored.

Faced with the government’s refusal to attend to their demands, the ACVC began its own search for alternatives, relying on its own creativity and relationships with development organizations, and put into action a brilliant organizational process that includes a high level of political education.

The first time that I met campesinos from the ACVC personally, it was in early 2000 on the way to a political meeting. A noisy crowd of locals, including an USO leader, showed up to hire a truck right where I was waiting for a bus, and at the last minute invited me to share the transport.

One of them couldn’t fit onto the benches, and, amid the friendly mocking of the others, found a spot next to me on the back of the truck. After 20 minutes, and after passing the military roadblock, my travel companion starting to sing popular folk songs at the top of his lungs, including a protest song or two. He asked me a few questions, and when he discovered that we were going to the same event, he shared with me, in simple words, several basic opinions about the situation in this country, immediately revealing a surprising political lucidity. I found out that his name was Miguel Huepa, and that he was part of a peasant farmer delegation from Cimitarra.

According to César Jerez, one of the association’s members and the co-founder of the Prensa Rural news agency, the ACVC was born in the heat of rural struggle. It is composed of more than one hundred Communal Action Committees (which serve as legally recognized governments in small villages) and agrarian organizations distributed throughout five municipalities: Yondó (Antioquia department), Catagallo and San Pablo (Bolívar), Remedios (Antioquia) and the oil port of Barrancabermeja (Santander).

In the words of Miguel Cifuentes, one of the association’s leaders and an agricultural engineer by trade, “there is a deep political initiative in the association and an extraordinary human capacity.”

“Its territory is strategic, and very coveted,” he adds, bluntly. And the truth is that the land where the ACVC works is saturated with freshwater sources, oil and gold exploitation zones, forests and jungles rich in biodiversity, rivers and streams rich with fish, fertile hillsides perfect for traditional agriculture, and around 27,000 inhabitants vigorously held together by their popular and democratic organizational process. Their central purpose is to work for social development and a sustainable environment, and for the defense of human rights.

Those who belong to the ACVC proudly express a sense of belonging. On two separate occasions I had the good fortune to share a few weeks with people from the association, and among the most surprising and imaginative proposals I heard was the project for “preparation and training of our human and logistic resources, for the management of productive projects in the Cimitarra River Valley.” Their leaders are visionary, they know how to live and work in solidarity, they are cheerful and disciplined, and they always think beyond their own region. Once, in Bogotá, I saw Andrés Gil choosing and purchasing books on sociology, the agrarian movement, environmental questions and literature, as he said how happy he was over the possibility to improve the plan of study in his communities.

Andrés Gil. Photo: D.R. 2007 International Peace Observatory

During one tour, I listened to Andrés Gil and Luis Carlos Ariza when they explained in a simple manner the interesting advances and difficulties in projects like the Puerto Matilde village aqueduct, the housing improvements in the rural areas of Yondó and Remedios, the multipurpose buffalo farming they are setting up, the sugarcane crops and simple machines to process panela sugar they have installed, the rice plantations and hullers, the marketing cooperative, and the medical program, among others. These projects have been funded by United Nations programs and bank loans, and sometimes with municipal resources as part of rural aid programs.

The organizational and economic success, and the consolidation of the human rights network of the Cimitarra River Valley, as well as the implementation of an early alert system against abuses, have unleashed the hatred of the far right. The paramilitary forces cannot tolerate the existence of such an example of rural development, and even less that the ACVC has proposed the creation of a Rural Agricultural Reserve to protect the land. They know that even though they have committed atrocities against the ACVC’s grassroots membership, and have assassinated numerous leaders such as Diómedes Playonero, Orlando Triana Moncada, Carlos Ramírez and Nelcy Cuesta, among others, the association’s dignity and initiative have remained strong.

Not allowing themselves to be intimidated, in the last three years the ACVC has strengthened its relationships with several university departments, provoking student interest in the problems of the countryside. Today, interesting and innovative initiatives are in motion, like the campaign to protect the Cimitarra River caimans and turtles, the comprehensive forrest protection project, and the now publicized campaign against Monsanto.

The Uribe government, visibly angry, has unleashed a new wave of attacks, and on September 29, 2007, just before the national mobilization called by the National Coordination of Agrarian and Popular Organizations of Colombia, ordered the arrest of several of its leaders. The DAS and army commandos moved against the ACVC in Catagallo and Barrancabermeja. Let’s not forget that the DAS is the government’s political police force, whose previous chief is accused of coordinating crimes against trade unionists with the paramilitaries.

The detention of Andrés Gil, Oscar Duque and Evaristo Mena occurred in the village of El Cagüí, on the San Lorenzo marsh in the municipality of Catagallo, while they were participating in a meeting with the community. The government agents shot into the air to intimidate the people there. Later, the peasant-farmer leaders were transported in helicopters to different military facilities, and are being treated as prisoners of war. The same day, an assault team raided the ACVC’s headquarters in Barrancabermeja, while in another part of the city they arrested Mario Martínez, another Middle Magdalena rural leader.

This is the revenge of the government and its followers against a civil and peaceful organization. It marks the advance of the agreements Uribe signed with the corrupt politicians of the Middle Magdalena, and perhaps also with paramilitaries like Fremio “Esteban” Sánchez Carreño (whose superior was Middle Magdalena paramilitary chief Ramón Isaza), who all hope to compromise the rural area as they have done in urban Barrancabermeja and its surrounding municipalities.

The ACVC’s spirit of resistance, its progressive and peaceful philosophy, its open support for a human agreement and prisoner exchange between the government and the guerrillas, and the political-organizational principals it is founded on, are all factors in complete contradiction to the President Uribe’s neoliberal, militarist project.

We must alert the international community, and denounce this fascist, victimizing, mafioso government, until its machinery of terror and death grind to a halt. Immediate freedom for the imprisoned members of the ACVC!