Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Disappeared of Colombia

What do you do when you are given a great gift?
MaryBeth Goring with sister-in-law Eugenia Munoz and Javier Barrera Santa

Perhaps you hold it, savor it, talk with others about it, share it.

Today at my church a human rights defender from Colombia, Javier Barrera Santa, spoke about disappearances, who does them, and who is working to solve them and to bring the perpetrators to justice.  I have been completely ignorant on this subject, so his words were a great gift to me.

He began this work when his brother Oscar, aged 19, was disappeared on May 16, 1998, one of 35 young men who were rounded up on the streets of a city in the state of Antioquia, Colombia.  Seven of these young men were assassinated and 28 have never been found.

MaryBeth Goring, a member of Brentwood Presbyterian Church and Amnesty International, translated for this event and has also been traveling with Javier for two weeks of speaking.

General Mauricio Santoyo, now in prison in the US for drug trafficking, admitted to being involved in the massacre as Chief of Security under President Alvaro Uribe.  The round-up of random young men was intended to terrorize the city in which it occurred and to prevent citizens from being involved with FARC, a left-wing organization fighting the government of Colombia.  

"The operations of the FARC-EP are funded by kidnap to ransom, illegal mining, extortion, and the production and distribution of illegal drugs," says Wikipedia regarding FARC.

There are 14,162 registered disappearances in the state of Antioquia, according to the Centro de Memoria Historica de Colombia, and 122,155 in Colombia as of October 5, 2014.  Javier said the real total is much higher because many families are afraid to report a disappearance.

"Against Impunity and Oblivion: Enforced Disappearance through the Eyes of a Colombian Human Rights Defender under Threat" was the title of Javier's PowerPoint presentation.

Javier outlined three main perpetrators of the disappearances:

1) Armed actors of the Colombian State:
  • military forces, 
  • national police, and 
  • the DAS (kind of like the FBI).
2) Primary extra-judicial (illegal) armed actors:
  • the FARC
  • paramilitary groups founded to fight guerrilla leftists, created and financed by big business
3) Drug traffickers.
MaryBeth Goring translating for Javier Barrera Santa

Sadly, the Colombian government is the main perpetrator behind the disappearances, according to Javier.  But at least in 2000 "enforced disappearance" became classified as a crime.  A commission was established to enforced this law, including an "urgent search" rather than the usual waiting 72 hours after a disappearance before searching.

Unfortunately, the law against disappearance is not enforced and no urgent searches are done.  Instead, the perpetrators have impunity.

"Colombia passes lots of laws that it doesn't enforce," Javier said, "because it looks good to other nations to have these laws on the books."

Javier said, "Colombia is the strongest ally of the US in Latin America."  

(My question: Why are we so closely allied with a government that is killing its people?)

He said that the Plan Colombia set up during the Clinton administration has two goals:
  • Prevent the collapse of the government.
  • Diminish drug trafficking.
Javier said the main way of carrying out this plan is the following:
  • Kill a man.
  • Dress him in a leftist uniform.
  • Give bonuses and vacations to those who killed the man.

Cocaine consumed in the US is the basis of the drug trafficking.  (See the political cartoon above.)

The Colombian government points to demobilizing the paramilitary groups as an accomplishment.  However, out of 300,000 demobilized, only 3,000 were ever held to account for their murders.  Of those 3,000, only 50 got jail sentences; only 18 actually went to jail.  Most got out of jail without ever telling the truth about what they had done.

There is a Justice and Peace Law in Colombia, but Javier cited an article in El Tiempo of Bogota, August 3, 2014, that stated that only 10% of the truth has been brought to light as a result of this law.

See also this analysis of justice efforts in Colombia and Argentina:

Groups working for justice in Colombia:
  • ASFADDES -- Association of Families of the Detained and Disappeared (for which Javier works)
  • FEDEFAM -- Latin American Federation of Associations of Families of the Detained and Disappeared, which has its headquarters in Caracas, Venezuela
  • NGOs (non-governmental organizations), including:

  1. SWEFOR--a Swedish group
  2. Amnesty International
  3. International Court of Justice
  4. Peace Brigades International
  5. UN High Commission on Refugees
Javier has recently received official state recognition that he is under threat for legitimate human rights work.  He and others with this recognition are less likely to be killed by military forces and by the national police. 

"Colombia knows the world is watching me, and the government will not issue a killing order for me," he said.

However, he could still be killed by paramilitary groups, of which there are many, and by drug traffickers. 

"After Syria, Colombia has the highest number of internally displaced persons of any country in the world," he noted, explaining this his own family has moved within Colombia several times and twice within the same city in the last few years.  

After his brother was killed in 1998, his family distributed the remaining children to various relatives in different cities; he was sent to an aunt in Venezuela.  Only six years ago was the family finally reunited. 
Dr. Eugenia Munoz with Javier Barrera Santa

During the question and answer period following his talk, Javier made the following charge: 

"The Colombia government is training other countries in how to use paramilitaries working together with members of the police force to control their populations."

For example, Mexico is receiving this kind of training.  Enforced disappearances are increasing there.

When I expressed surprise and dismay, a Colombian-American who was present at the event quoted Winston Churchill:

“If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain.”  -- Winston Churchill

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