Conflict Seeping Across Venezuelan Border
Paramilitary Abuses Continue Despite U.S. Human Rights Standards
by Mike Ceaser | November 7, 2002
In expanding its participation in the Colombian war, which pits the military and its paramilitary allies against leftist guerrilla groups, the United States has encountered strong opposition from human rights organizations. These groups cite repeated reports of ties between the Colombian military and right-wing paramilitary forces, who are charged with systemic violations of human rights and also with funding themselves through cocaine production.
Before approving millions of dollars of additional aid for Colombia this past September, the U.S. State Department first had to certify that the Colombian military was not only cutting ties to the paramilitaries and punishing officers involved with the armed groups, but also actively combating them. On Sept. 9, the State Department did just that–although, it added, "more needs to be done."
However, the international human rights group Amnesty International called the notion that the Colombian military was complying with aid requirements "a farce."
Indeed, a recent visit to a remote stretch of the Colombia-Venezuela border, where thousands of Colombian campesinos have fled into Venezuela in order to escape paramilitary massacres, finds evidence that the military-paramilitary alliance continues unhindered.
Peasants: on the front line
Poor campesinos make up the great majority of the thousands of annual casualties in Colombia’s 38-year-old civil war, many of them killed by fighting groups who accuse the peasants of supporting their enemies. Recent paramilitary violence against campesinos in the Rio de Oro region on Colombia’s border with Venezuela is in keeping with the now-familiar pattern of violence here.
The Rio de Oro is a wide, slow river of swirling brown and green waters, much of it still bordered by thick jungle interrupted only by an occasional wooden house or an isolated Venezuelan border post. Near the river’s shores, slender white herons wade carefully, watchful for unwary fish, which they grab in their sharp beaks and lift up flailing helplessly. But recently this remote stretch of river has been more than a lifeblood and highway for the region’s scattered communities: it now marks the border between life and death, fear and safety, for thousands of Colombian campesinos.
They came to Maria Eliana’s small wooden house just after dawn one of the first days of August: ten paramilitary fighters dressed in green fatigues and wielding automatic rifles. They forced their way in, accused her husband Augustin of helping the guerrillas, and took him away. Maria Eliana would not learn Augustin’s fate until, some two weeks later, someone found his bare bones in the jungle. "I have three children and [the paramilitaries] left me with nothing," she said, wiping away tears. "Maybe someone gave them bad information that [Augustin] worked with the guerrillas."
Meanwhile, alone in her wooden home near the river bank, Ernestina, a petite, gray-haired woman of 70, could not understand what was happening when strangers destroyed her cacao trees and stole her cattle. When the shooting started, she cowered on her floor for nine days, too terrified she says to even get up to seek food, before the area quieted enough in mid-August for one of her sons to rescue her and a tiny bundle of belongings. "I didn’t know who they were or where they came from," she says, now safe on the porch of her son’s home in the nearby Venezuelan town of Cruce Catatumbo.
The paramilitaries killed three men that first early August day on the Colombian side of the Rio de Oro–the start of what survivors describe as a weeks-long campaign of terror, plunder, and murder killing some 50 men and women along dozens of kilometers of river, and still continuing today against campesino farmers, whom the paramilitaries accuse of collaborating with leftist guerrillas.
Area residents report that the paramilitaries killed with extreme brutality. After murdering a young couple living upriver, several campesinos said, the paramilitaries scalped the woman and sliced off her breasts. Other victims have been chopped into bits with machetes, numerous people said. A young man who operates a motorized canoe said he has encountered plastic garbage sacks filled with chopped human flesh floating in the river. "One has to look away and shut up in order to live," he said.
Charges of continued military-paramilitary cooperation
Colombian refugees say the paramilitaries first arrived about three years ago, accompanied by Colombian military forces, who then departed and left the paramilitaries to their work. The paramilitaries killed accused guerrilla collaborators, stole property, and burned the wooden homes scattered in the jungle and along the river. One day more than a year ago, several refugees recalled, paramilitaries arrived at dawn in the community of La Pista, rousted hundreds of people from their homes and herded them together under the palm-thatched shelter used for community meetings.
"They ordered everybody who was in the guerrilla militia to raise their hands," recalled a young woman who was present. "When nobody did, they said they were going to kill everybody." But then, Venezuelan soldiers began firing from the river’s opposite bank and the paramilitaries fled. After that, nearly all of La Pista’s residents abandoned their property and escaped to Venezuela.
Charges of military and police collaboration with the paramilitaries in the Rio de Oro region are nothing new. For example, local officials have been arrested for allegedly turning a blind eye while paramilitaries massacred 27 campesinos in August 1999. Although implicated military officers were assigned to other locations after that massacre, in April of the next year paramilitaries dragged another 21 unarmed campesinos out of their homes and killed them.
Even after the incident in La Pista, a few campesinos remained on the Colombian side, and others continued crossing the river to work their old farms. During their most recent attacks, the paramilitaries robbed and killed some of those people. Meanwhile, on the Venezuelan side families hid for days in the jungle, fearful that the paramilitaries would cross the river. In late September, a local human rights worker reported, a renewed paramilitary offensive drove hundreds more campesinos across the river to the relative safety of the Venezuelan side.
The refugee influx is one of several impacts of the Colombian civil war on Venezuela. Recent months have seen the appearance of guerrilla groups in Venezuelan border areas, an epidemic of kidnappings, and reports that a Venezuelan paramilitary organization had been created–causing some to fear that Columbia’s war will be reproduced in Venezuela. In October, such a Venezuelan paramilitary group claimed responsibility for recent border area massacres as part of a "social cleansing" operation.
According to campesinos along the Rio de Oro, the Colombian military has never attempted to stop the paramilitaries. They say that appeals to government authorities are futile because they consider the paramilitaries and government forces synonymous. Even the two forces’ uniforms are nearly identical, campesinos say, except for the white armbands with black lettering worn by the paramilitaries.
"They’re all the same," said a woman resignedly. "The paramilitaries arrive and say ‘we are the Colombian army’."
In La Gabarra, both the Colombian police and the paramilitaries have bases a few minutes’ drive apart, said several people familiar with the area. Antonio, a 25-year-old canoe operator who has traveled through La Gabarra, said he has seen police, soldiers, and paramilitaries intermixing freely there and riding together in vehicles.
"They patrol together," Antonio said. "The paramilitaries pass through the police camp."
A Colombian military commander in the region who asked not to be named said the Rio de Oro region was the scene of a "hard fight" between illegal forces and that the military was working to protect civilians. "We have reinforced our troops in order to take territory away from the narcoterrorists," he said. "The army has carried out military operations in that zone."
A review of the Colombian border city of Cucuta’s La Opinion newspaper for August and most of September turned up news reports that 672 guerrillas had been killed or captured in conflicts with the military nationwide. The number of injured or dead paramilitaries for the same period was thirty-six. La Opinion also reported several military-guerrilla clashes in the Rio de Oro area, but none between the military and paramilitaries.
The officer declined to answer questions concerning alleged government-paramilitary relations, saying the situation near the Rio de Oro was "under investigation."
According to area resident Jon Cesar, after each paramilitary massacre more young men join the guerrillas to avenge the killings. "If the paramilitaries enter an area, 100 more men come out for the guerrillas," he said.
"The Colombian armed forces must look at themselves hard," added campesino Martin Hernandez, whose right arm is badly scarred, "because they are falling under dark forces."
Mike Ceaser is a freelance journalist based in Caracas, Venezuela. He can he reached at < email@example.com >.
Published by the Americas
Program at the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC). ©2002. All
Mike Ceaser, "As U.S. Increases Military Aid to Colombia, Paramilitary Violence Against Campesinos Increases Too," Americas Program, (Silver City, NM: Interhemispheric Resource Center, Nov. 7, 2002).