Colombia – continuing struggle for justice

In April 2016, two of Colombia’s leading union and human rights activists visited Britain to speak about the threats facing political activists in Colombia. On the three-week tour, which was organised by Justice for Colombia, they met with MPs, government representatives, union leaders, the Colombian community in Britain and journalists to discuss the worrying spike in violence against activists in Colombia and how, with a final peace deal approaching, the international community can support activists in their struggle for peace with social justice.

My name is Gustavo Rengifo. I’m from the department of Cauca in South-west Colombia. I am a member of FENSUAGRO, the agricultural workers’ union, and the Patriotic March, an umbrella organisation that campaigns for peace and social justice. I’m also a member of a local peasant farmer association in my village and I’m a community leader. I am a human rights defender and I campaign to make people in my community aware of their rights.

The department of Cauca is an area which has been particularly hit by the violence in Colombia and the armed conflict. It is a wealthy region in terms of natural resources and for that reason many different interests have tried to rob peasant farmers like myself of our land. Anyone who defends union and human rights in the area is stigmatised and accused, often by the Colombian state, of collaborating with the guerrillas.

As a result of my campaign to defend the rights of my community I was kidnapped by members of the investigative police in collusion with paramilitaries. On 17 May 2015, I was returning home to my farm when my path was blocked by two vehicles. I was violently forced from my car by six men, hooded and taken to a warehouse where I was tortured, abused and threatened both psychologically and physically. I was told I had to stop my union and community activism and work for them as an informant. I was shown photos of my family who had obviously been monitored by the police and told that if I didn’t collaborate they would be killed. After ten hours I was abandoned on the side of the road, far from my home. They gave me a window of twenty days to decide if I would collaborate with them. Since then I have been in hiding. For over a year I have been in hiding in the mountains of Colombia, fearful for my life and my family’s safety.

It was very difficult to speak out as I was very afraid, but I decided to contact the South-west Colombian human rights network, which started to put together a formal denouncement. Shortly after it happened, in June 2015 Justice for Colombia brought a delegation of British trade unionists to the region and I told them my story. This was the first time I had publicly denounced what had happened to me. The help I have received from Justice for Colombia, and the international attention they have brought to my case, has provided me with some protection. The Colombian government has so far failed to provide me with any security guarantees or protection measures.

During the time I spent in Britain, eight peasant farmers were killed in my region alone. As a farmer and activist I ask the international community to support us in our struggle and campaign for the protection of our rights and our lives. We need you to speak to the Colombian government and the British government and tell them the extent of paramilitary violence in the area. We are being killed, threatened and displaced by a campaign of terror to rid us of our land. I was touched by the solidarity I received from British activists and trade unionists when I was in there. I thank them for all their support and ask that they continue calling for my protection and that of all farmers and trade union activists in Colombia.

My name is Deivin Hurtado. I am a lawyer and human rights defender. I am the head of the South-west Colombian human rights network, Franciso Isaías Cifuentes. Our organisation was founded in 2000 after mass protests in South-west Colombia against the armed conflict and the economic and social crisis in the region. We are named after a teacher who participated in the 1999 mobilisations and was murdered by paramilitaries in 2001. We work to prevent human rights abuses and provide protection, training and support for the peasant farmers, indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, students and grassroots sectors that make up our network.

In 2013, there was a mass agrarian strike in Colombia, one of the largest industrial actions of the past few decades. Peasant farmers, workers and trade unionists were protesting against the neo-liberal policies of the Colombian government, which have created widespread poverty in the Colombian countryside. In the Cauca department, the strike was particularly strong, there were more than 13,000 peasant farmers protesting in one area alone.

The protests and strikes were met with severe repression by state security forces. Nationally, there were reports of tear-gassing, shootings and arbitrary arrests, amongst other abuses. In Cauca, I was working as a human rights observer and saw first-hand the effects of police repression. In the area I was in there was a massive military operation to disperse the strikers. I saw grenades being thrown at protestors, the police shooting indiscriminately into crowds and infiltrating the protests. In this operation one farmer was killed, he was only 27 years old, he was shot in the cheek and because he was shot with a long gun it destroyed his brain.

After seeing a grenade thrown at a group of peasant farmers, which severely wounded one of them, I moved closer to register his details. It was in this moment I myself was targeted. Despite the fact I was clearly identifiable as a human rights observer, and had informed the police, army and local government of my presence, a grenade was thrown at me, causing three serious wounds. I had to have eight surgeries to save my life. The shrapnel cut my carotid artery, the vein that sends oxygen to the brain, I had to have my finger amputated and still have shrapnel in my throat and leg.

In Cauca alone 70 people were wounded and 2 people killed by the excessive use of force by state security agents. Yet the Colombian state has not investigated these cases of police and army brutality. Instead, those like myself who denounced this brutality are being criminalised and investigated. That’s to say we run the risk of being put in prison for having been victims of state violence.

The threats and attacks against human rights defenders and political and social activists are ongoing. The South-west Colombian human rights network is part of the Patriotic March, which brings together over 2,000 union, peasant associations, NGOs, political and other grassroots sectors in the campaign for peace and social justice. This is a relatively new organisation – it was only founded in 2012. Yet since then 116 of its members have been killed and a huge number have been imprisoned. One case in particular is Huber Ballesteros, who was one of the leaders during the 2013 Agrarian Strike. He was arrested then and he has been in prison for 3 years without trial.

The reason the Patriotic March has suffered sustained political persecution and the criminalisation of its political activities is because it is working for peace in Colombia, for a negotiated solution to the armed conflict. Paramilitary groups opposed to the peace process, and who have become stronger in recent months, have targeted the Patriotic March with the aim of preventing peace and creating a rupture in the peace negotiations in Havana between the Colombian government and the FARC.

In just one area of Cauca, a municipality called el Tambo, we know that many people have been killed by paramilitaries. Yet the Colombian state denies their existence and says these deaths are the result of criminal violence. They consequently refuse to investigate these politically-motivated crimes. For this reason the solidarity actions of the international community are extremely important, to raise awareness of what is happening in Colombia and campaign for the protection of those fighting for peace and social justice. This will be especially important in the coming months the peace deal is implemented.

Scottish Left Review gratefully recognises the work of Cherilyn Elston in translating these testimonies. She works as Programme Assistant for Justice for Colombia.