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SPECIAL REPORT: ARMED CONFLICT IN TUMACO

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An Espectador team of four journalists has been sent to the Tumaco municipality in Nariño to investigate government claims that violent conflict has ended in the region.

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April 30, 2010 at 5:47 pm

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Power to the people

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By: Stefani Catudal

 

Alvaro Uribe takes hardline stance on guerrillas

Obscured by cocaine and AK-47s, the Colombian government has failed to address Tumaco’s conflict-fueling structural inequality.  Although class disparity has been deemed subsidiary to the nation’s drug war, the Uribe administration may be taking a misstep by overlooking the root cause of conflict in Narino.

The three failed peace negotiations between the FARC and the Colombian government point to the futility of a superficial handshake while the people of Tumaco remain uncared-for.  Uribe’s hardline, ‘no negotiations’ policy will also lead to failure if Colombia’s forgotten lower class still lacks access to basic human needs.  Amidst the growingchasm between rich and poor, many Tumaco residents’ best option is to join the rebel armed forces, where at least they have access to fundamental necessities.

Negotiations between parties have generally focused on the eradication of coca crops and specialized training of military personnel, supported by the United States’ ‘Plan Colombia’ initiative.  While the plan may succeed in weakening the narco trade in Narino, ‘Plan Colombia’ neglects the underlying structural inequality that fuels conflict.  Wiping out coca fields will only assist in deepening the social gap by eliminating many campesinos’ only source of income.  Likewise, overlooking wealth disparity will only encourage discontent with the current administration and in turn lead to the perpetuation of conflict in the region.

One of the poorest regions in Colombia, the indigenous Awa village is a prime example of basic human needs deprivation and severe governmental neglect.  Located near Tumaco,  the Awa have little food, insufficient shelter and are without access to clean water.  Despite being a target for different violent groups, the government has failed to give any protection to the indigenous villagers.  Having been attacked three times by unconfirmed violent groups, many Awa villagers have left their homes in fear of further persecution.

Dire conditions of rural Columbians

The government’s failure to provide protection for indigenous groups as well as its refusal to recognize the FARC as an insurgent political party denotes the president’s neglectof the need for social reform.  Although tainted by major human rights violations, the FARC’s quest for social equality is still valid.  Even if Uribe succeeds in eradicating the FARC through hardline military strikes, the conflict will remain so long as social inequality exists in Tumaco.  And if the FARC wishes to be the voice of ‘the people’, it must end its discriminatory targeting of innocent civilians.

Although the FARC and the ELN are losing their ideological legitimacy through involvement in human rights violations and narcotrafficking, their message continues to portrayColombia’s rich and poor disparity.  Both the government and guerilla groups should be more attentive to people’s dissatisfaction with the status quo by involving civil society in any potential peace talks.

After all is said and done, a total reinvention of priorities is needed in order for peace talks to be productive.  For starters, Uribe’s oligarchy could redirect some of the 6% of the GDP spent on armed forces and channel funds into social reform.  As for the leftist guerillas, they won’t get off the hook easily either.  As the self-proclaimed voice of “el pueblo”, the FARC needs to start walking the walk by including civil society in any potential peace negotiations.  Are these rarefied goals?  Perhaps.  But what is peace if not a lofty aspiration?

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May 18, 2010 at 2:27 am

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Nariño’s “rugrat” wars

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By: Llared Nol.

FARC Child Soldier Training

Our government’s official position is that the fighting in Nariño has ended, and it is now a post-conflict situation.  Beyond the mountainous evidence that this is a bold-faced lie, the character of the still very much armed conflict is even more shocking than our country had realized.  It has long been known to us that the FARC guerrilla insurgency group has used child soldiers in warfare, who can fire an AK-47 as effectively as an adult, and they have been demonized for it in the media and government press releases.

In an exclusive interview with an American drug trafficker who conducts business with the FARC, the ELN, the ONG, the AUC and the Rastrojas, we discovered that the reality on the ground is far more dire.  According to the source, in reference to the age and stature of the soldiers belonging to the ELN and even the ONG paramilitaries, “they’re all [explitive] rugrats out there”.  While the other groups have yet to comment officially, this supports the suspicion that all the actors in the Nariño conflict, including the shadowy arm of our own government, are exploiting innocent and impressionable children in warfare for economic and political gain.

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May 18, 2010 at 2:09 am

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“The People are with us”

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Commandante Elena has been the FARC’s political leader since early 2004.  Brought to a FARC training facility in West Tumaco at age 10 after her family was killed by Fuerzas Militarias de Colombia, Elena has become a hardened, stoic leader.  On May 5th 2010, Commandante Elena a group of local and international journalists and NGOs to Santa Elena, the FARC’s main training camp.  El Espectador’s Estefani Catudal and Su-Yun Kwan sat with Elena at her headquarters to get an inside look at what guerilla life is like.

Commander Elena at the Santa Elena FARC training camp

Q: What does being a member of the FARC mean to you?

A: Being the FARC means being the people.  We’re here fighting to give Colombia back to the people.  The government only cares about its people in Bogota.  We’re fighting for the real people of Colombia.

Q:  What would constitute giving Colombia back to the people?  What are your main goals?

A: Giving Colombia back to the people means giving the land back.  There are too many rich people owning the land that rightfully belongs to us.  We want revolution.

Q:  How many people are living in Santa Elena?

A:  There are many of us.  Everyone here, in this camp, is training to fight.  The children who are too young to fight are living outside the camp, in FARC protected territory.

Q:  What age is too young to fight?  When is a child ready?

A:  There is no age limit.  A child is ready when he is ready to fight.  Then he becomes an adult.

Q:  Is everyone here by choice, or are they forced to stay in Santa Elena?

A:  People are able to leave, but no one wants to leave.  If they leave they are betraying the people.

Q:  Is violence the only way to fight?

A:  Yes, it’s the only communication that the government understands.  They wouldn’t listen to us if we didn’t have weapons.  Having weapons put us on level ground with the government.

Q:  Would you be willing to participate in national elections as a valid political party?

A:  When the time comes, yes.  When we’ve gained enough power, then we will run.  But the only way we will gain power is by fighting.  So, until then, we will fight.

Q:  The international community seems to suggest that, because of allegation that the FARC commits human rights violations, you are losing public support.  Is this true?

A:  No.  The people are with us.  Every year we gain more and more support.  The reason the media tells the world that we are losing popularity is because the Colombian government is brainwashing the world.  We are not the aggressors.  We are just defending our land.

Q:  In defending your land, if some innocent civilians die, is it justified?

A:  Yes, it’s justified if it helps to bring justice back to the people.  People have died in every revolution.  If innocent people are killed, they are dying for the cause.

Q:  It’s been said that the FARC are now involved in cocaine trade.  Is it justified to buy into a capitalist business in order to satisfy your leftist goals?

A:  We are involved in the narcotics trade only to help further the revolution.  The only thing we buy with the drug money are weapons, because everything else we need is given to us by the people.  Without money, we have no guns, and without guns, there is no revolution.

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May 18, 2010 at 2:04 am

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Nariño confirms more doubts over demobilization

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By: Abixek Kumar

Demobilized FARC Guerrilla at Camp

When in May 2010 the Colombian government finally opened the gates to Nariño, El Espectador’s won the long awaited prize of reporting from inside this much illfamed province, also often heralded as the worst conflict theatre in Colombia.  On the bandwagon were also the International Crisis Group, Colombian based Humanitarian NGO ‘CCJ’ and Qatar based Al Jazeera.

As the team of us four journalists was picked up we knew our only chance of credible reporting would come from our acceptance by all the players in the conflict.  As usual El Espectador treaded the thin line without compromising its integrity to give you this story!

Amidst previously documented doubts that the reputed international organizations had cast on the complete demobilization of paramilitary factions, our journalistic due diligence discovered that the complex nature of conflict in Narino would require a sustained journalistic work in order to corroborate the circumstantial evidence leading to what has been alleged by many as a flawed demobilization.

The spurious ONG checkpoint that the El Espectador had to confront not far from the military base in —- manned by members of FARC was the first block that did not fit the jig saw puzzle.  Why would FARC disguise itself as ONG close to the military base? Could it be because ONG and military have an understanding? Or is it because FARC runs it’s writ large in Tumaco with impunity and conducts operations under ONG banner to vilify its rival?

Whatever may be the reason it came out substantially well that complete paramilitary demobilization at best is not a certainty for ONG banner still has currency in the Tumaco municipality.

Statements from the FARC commander at Awa village blaming the military and paramilitary for the massacre seemed to only reaffirm that paramilitary is indeed active in Narino. However, the protocols of independent journalism demand a thorough investigation before coming to a conclusion.

A careful look at the process of overnight formation of drug cartels like Rastrojas following the demobilization reeked of further suspicion. Somehow the emergence of Rastrojas in a territory dominated by FARC did not look plausible without the presence of a existing network.

FARC Fighting the ELN and Rastrojas

While the operations of Rastrojas would pit them against FARC, their choice of automatic weapons would speak of their past proximity with the paramilitary.

The El Espectador team got a ringside view of one such ambush between the two factions.  Based on what we saw we found it only logical to conclude that the possibility of former paramilitaries in drug cartels like Rastrojas could not be ruled out.

And thus, doubts on a successful demobilization of paramilitaries loom large.

The government of Colombia has a two pronged demobilization process. The collective and individual demobilization. While the collective demobilization only pertained to paramilitary and has been officially declared a success, individual demobilization is for members of groups like FARC. Official records suggest that over 10,000 FARC members have individually demobilized in the recent past.

Coincidental to our visit, the government claimed demobilization of 50 more FARC members. However, on a physical inspection of the demobilized facility El Espectador could not find more than three, one of whom was a woman whose in person account suggested multiple rapes by fellow FARC members. It was also not clear why the demobilized had not been shifted out of the military facility after 15 days of maximum mandated limit.

That FARC member are not only involved in the intra gang wars but also in the killing of civilians was also confirmed by the demobilized members.

But what was indeed apparent is the fact that not all demobilized would meet the fate they are expecting to meet.  It was ratified by the some of the military officials on the conditions of anonymity that some of the demobilized FARC would either be executed or sent to prison in order to inflate their numbers to ornate the success of Uribe government.

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May 18, 2010 at 1:46 am

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The Awa is “People”

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By: Su-Yun Kwan

Awa Villagers in Nariño

The Awa – as they call themselves – means “people”. They live in mountainous rainforest regions of the south-west of Colombia.  The Awa are one of 87 different indigenous groups in Colombia, a third of which are at risk of extinction as a result of armed conflict and forced displacement, the UNHCR says.

The recent killings and kidnapping of some members of the Awa indigenous community by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in the state of Nariño, highlights the ongoing problem which utter disregard for the lives of civilians.

“My two suns were kidnapped three days ago by FARC, I don’t know where they are.” The one of the Awa family who was attacked by FARC said.

Civilians from the most vulnerable sectors of society, including indigenous groups, are among the most adversely affected by the violence in Nariño.

“These cruel killings violate the most basic principles of human decency and dignity,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “There is no possible excuse or justification for these horrific actions.”

Ongoing IDPs

40 years of multi-party conflict between the army and illegal armed groups including insurgent groups, notably the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have led over four million Colombians to be internally displaced, according to the Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES). All the parties to the conflict have consistently targeted civilians for strategic ends.

The Awa tribe’s physical security and integrity is extremely threatened since targeted attacks by FARC.

The FARC commander says, “The Awa does not want to our help.”

Mass displacement of the Awa people has consistently more difficulties in enjoying economic social and cultural rights than the rest of the population.

“I don’t know where my family is but, I have fear to go outside” one 15 years-old displaced girl said.

Colombia’s displaced face a range of protection concerns, due not only to the ongoing conflict and the appropriation of their property, but also to the lack of access to emergency support after displacement and limited livelihoods opportunities.

There are many displaced children in IDPs camp and they have lower access to medical care and education. They are children who neither read nor write their name.

A displaced woman who has ten-years old sun says, “my son is healthy, except that he often got night mare.”

The only thing what the displaced children can do is playing gun-game alone, imaging the memory of the day.

A large women proportion of IDPs have added vulnerability. According to the Internal Displacememt Mornitoring Centre(IDMC), 46 percent of displaced households are led by a woman after the man has been killed or disappeared. Overall, 36 percent of the displaced population are under 18 years of age, and many risk forced recruitment by armed groups. Young women and girls face exceedingly high rates of sexual abuse and exploitation.

Humanitarian Assistance

The government would improve its response by streamlining plans at the local level and adopting differential measures to support vulnerable Awa people such as displaced children, women, minorities, and the disabled.

Human Rights NGO including Human Right Watch called to take immediate action to provide assistance to the displaced population and victims, to protect the civilian population in Nariño. ICRC has routinely provided food aid after mass displacement, while international NGOs have provided protection and other support. Colombian civil society including local human right NGOs, such as CCJ, also work to protect IDPs.

However, prospects for the return of most IDPs to their original homes remain low because of the ongoing conflict.

Moreover, people who have been displaced from rural areas to towns and cities across the country are increasingly been forced to flee violence within those urban areas.

“They are particularly at a disadvantage when arriving in urban centre, because of language barriers, lack of familiarity with the environment, and discrimination.” Internal-displacement.org said.

Colombia government and other human right organizations have a remarkably advanced body of norms for IDP protection, these are sometimes not applied on the ground.

Communication for Peace

The FARC has been involved in peace talks with the Colombian government since the 1980s. Some experts suggest the rebels continue to enter talks because it legitimizes their social justice cause. In October 2006, the FARC issued a letter that clarified the conditions under which they would agree to a bilateral cease-fire and prisoner exchange.

Since then, there has been some forward movement on the exchange of imprisoned FARC members for hostages but no negotiations on a cease-fire or demobilization.

The interesting change of the FARC is women military’s position in the camp. Now the FARC’s commander is woman(46) and the number of women army in FARC is

Woman Commander of the FARC

extremely increasing.

In other words, the FARC’s ideology and principle have changed in the near future.

“I am working for ten years and we have many women soldier. My principle is freedom of all Colombian”, the commander said.

The Awa tribe has suffered many humanitarian issues including gender issue by FARC and this human being issue can be resolve within a soft-line approach to ultimately gear towards drawing the groups into peace talks.

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May 18, 2010 at 1:21 am

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The “post-conflict” situation in Tumaco

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By: Llared Nol.

Guerrilla Warfare in Tumaco

For the first time in history, journalists and non-governmental testifiers have been allowed into the Tumaco municipality in Nariño, which the government has officially declared a post-conflict region.  This precedent is in itself a monumental event, but what we found there is of much greater gravity.

The conflict in Tumaco is far from over.  In our investigation, we four Espectador journalists uncovered continuing violence between the FARC and ELN narcoguerrilla insurgencies, the ONG paramilitaries, and the Rastrojas mercenary group.  We witnessed the aftermath of a brutal massacre of the Awa indigenous people, where frightened villagers confided that “the FARC has done this… they came for our children”.  On the scene we found discarded machetes and bullet casings from AK-47s and revolvers, munitions used only by the FARC.

Returning from the village, we witnessed a firefight between the FARC and the ELN on what was almost certainly a landing strip for international cocaine trafficking shockingly near the government’s military base outside Tumaco, demonstrating the clear reality that violent conflict continues in the region.  During our investigation, a top military official admitted that the FARC continued to take control of new territory a mutually antagonistic struggle with government and paramilitary forces.

The FARC commander Elena admitted to the violent action, stating that “the Awa supported the government and paramilitaries in this armed struggle”, indicating violent aggression between conflicting factions in the region.  At the camp we found child soldiers being trained, one of whom had been abducted from the Awa village where the massacre took place.  He told us that “[they] fight for their families, for food and shelter to survive”, but did not understand any reason beyond this to fight.  An international American drug dealer conducting business there at the same time confided that “they’re all [expletive] rugrats out there”, that in his dealings with the ELN and other groups he had seen child soldier training as well.

Government officials have held up demobilized soldiers as evidence for the end of the conflict, but when we investigated their camp we found only former FARC members.  There was a discrepancy between their understanding and their actual situation; the demobilized guerrillas told us they were going to “new apartments to be with [their families]”, but military personnel confessed that they would in fact be going from “institution to institution”, including prisons.A FARC Soldier Prepared for Combat

Similar discrepancies were found at a prison for armed combatants, where paramilitary impressions differed greatly from those of the FARC and ELN, who accused their captors of human rights abuses including torture.  At the same camp we were shown internally displaced persons, where only one confessed concerns about the government, while the rest were staunch supporters.  One Clemenca, age 40, admitted that she wanted to find her family but the government would not let her.  Whatever the truth may be, the prevalence of civilians forced from their homes by armed conflict is further evidence of continued violence in Tumaco and Nariño.

The only conclusion that can possible be drawn, is that contrary to government lines this is clearly still a situation of armed conflict.

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May 17, 2010 at 9:50 pm

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