Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Colombia Watch - Paramilitaries issue trade union death threat defending multinational mining companies
 There is international outrage after a death threat was issued by paramilitary forces called the Rastrojos against trade unionists, members of the Polo opposition party, community activists and human rights organisations. Many of those threatened work closely with Justice for Colombia, including Ivan Cepeda with whom a JFC delegation met with in Colombia just over a week ago and the Patriotic March whose representatives visited Britain and Ireland last April.
The death threat explicitly spoke out in favour of the work of multinational companies such as Anglo Gold Ashanti, Pacific Rubiales and Drummond and defended the government of President Santos. Trade unions have in recent weeks taken part in a series of protests and strikes focused on improving work conditions and opposing the government’s focus on promoting large scale mining projects which are having detrimental effects in peasant farmer communities. Miners are currently on strike in the northeastern region of Bajo Cauca and more than 5,000 Drummond workers have paralysed coal exportation with industrial action that has entered its third week. Further industrial action is expected in coming weeks in different parts of the country and this threat from the Urban Command of the Rastrojos paramilitary group is a brutal warning to those involved in the protests. The inter-relation of multinational companies, state agents, and right-wing paramilitary death squads has been a common element in recent Colombian history which has led to close to 3,000 trade unionists being killed since the mid-1980s. The paramilitaries declared midnight of 7 August 2013 as the limit for any protest activity before they would begin taking action.While government representatives have issued statements condemning the death threat and have promised increased protection measures, the threatened individuals and organisations are, and have for a long time, been calling for a political commitment that goes beyond positive statements and physical protection programs. What is being called for is an end to the smear campaign which has seen top level members of the government, including the President and the Defence Minister, claiming on repeated occasions that democratic protests are infiltrated by guerrillas, and an end to the impunity which sees death threats and killings of social activists rarely find any justice.
The Colombian Government Is Killing Its Peasant Farmers for Their Land
The root of the country’s problems actually lie in land ownership and the state’s penchant for selling off peasant land to multinational companies, who then mine it for resources like oil and gold. Unfortunately for these corporations – who already own up to 75 percent of the land in some regions – the campesinos tend to be fairly reluctant to move from the turf they've spent decades making their home. So what’s the solution? Simple – chuck the campesinos off. This policy is at least part of the reason why Colombia is currently home to five million displaced people, which accounts for over 10 percent of its entire population and is the highest number of any country in the world. And these people aren't always expelled peacefully: if the army doesn’t scare them away (when I was in Colombia, I met campesinos who told me that the army was intimidating them by shitting in the water supply), right-wing paramilitaries have a tendency to turn up and just massacre everybody instead. In their quest to secure land to grow narcotics on and smuggle munitions across, these paramilitaries basically act as extrajudicial death squads.The campesinos also want the right to farm alternative crops to illegal coca, from which cocaine is made. At the moment, it’s impossible to make a living by farming food products because foreign imports are so cheap and because the total lack of decent roads or infrastructure makes transport costs too high. Campesino farmers are becoming increasingly reliant on coca, only to have the army burn down all of their crops, pushing them further into poverty. 
The government calls the campesinos terrorists, but when I was in Catatumbo, I saw no evidence of that. The campesinos seemed like ordinary people, many of them teenagers, who claim to have never fired a single shot at the authorities. As one campesino put it, “If we were terrorists with access to weaponry, why would we fight the army with sticks and stones?”It’s a compelling argument, and one the government doesn’t want people to hear. The day before we set off for Catatumbo, Colombia’s ministry of defence tried to intimidate us into changing our minds. We received several emails and were invited to a personal meeting, where we were warned that our safety among the campesinos couldn’t be guaranteed.
But that was complete bullshit – the biggest threat to our safety were the soaring temperatures. Our interactions with the campesinos consisted mainly of eating lunch together and salsa dancing – hardly the stuff of Jabhat al-Nusra. Nevertheless, the government continues its smears; the leader of the campesino union, Cesar Jerez, is regularly portrayed in the Colombian press as some kind of Latino bin Laden. Anyone with an interest in human rights should be keeping an eye on what happens to him in the coming months.
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