Saturday, February 16, 2008

A Tense Calm Breaks

Dear friends,

“The present is uncertain and the future is uncertain,” Sonia told me on February 13. Sonia is the president of the Joel Sierra Human Rights Foundation here in Saravena, Arauca. There is a “tense calm” now and people are concerned about what will happen when that calm breaks.

“There was a calm period during 2007 and people started returning to their homes,” said Sonia. “Then there was a series of killings (in January 2008) and people had to leave their homes again.” After those killings, Sonia, her spouse Eduardo, and their two children left their home and moved into the social organizations building in Saravena. She and Eduardo are at risk from FARC militia members and, also, from the government security forces.

“We’re relatively safe here with protective security measures but I’m worried about my brother and my parents” she said. Sonia’s brother was detained in August 2006 by ELN guerrillas who accused him of being a supporter of the FARC guerrillas. Fortunately, his community reacted quickly and demanded his release – which saved his life.

“When the paramilitaries (right-wing armed groups allied with the military) couldn’t find the person they were looking for, they would kill someone else from that person’s family,” explained Sonia. “So far, that hasn’t happened in this conflict,” but she’s still concerned for her parents.

The ELN and FARC guerrillas have been present here in the state of Arauca for more than twenty years, and both groups claim to be fighting against the government in order to achieve social justice. However, for the past two years they’ve been fighting against each other in Arauca for the control of territory and resources – and that fight exploded again last month. Both groups have threatened, displaced and killed civilians that they view as supporting the other side.

In the midst of this insanity, Sonia and I felt the need to “desahogarnos” – let our feelings out. She described the process as “sharing our sorrows.” We talked about the difficulty of not knowing what’s going to happen next – you think that the situation can’t get any worse and then something happens and it does worsen. Most recently, the government took advantage of this situation to carry out another mass arrest in Saravena on January 31 - 20 people were arrested for “rebellion” and there are arrest orders out for 20 more people.

In addition to talking with Sonia, I continue to seek solace by going up to the terrace roof of the social organizations building to watch the sunset and the herons flying by to roost. Recently, I met two children up there who moved into the building with their family last month.

Yeini is nine-years-old and as we were talking she asked me, “Do you have a father?” I replied, “Yes, do you?” She said “No” and then told me that her father had recently died - Pedro Ruiz was the president of the community of Pueblo Seco and he was killed by FARC guerrillas on January 6. Hector is eight-years-old and he asked me, “Are you displaced?” He thought that everyone that lives in the building is “displaced” – having fled from their homes.

Yeini and Hector are very beautiful and resilient children. May they inspire us to confront all forms of violence and repression, and to take even more effective action to end the U.S. military aid that continues to fan the flames of war here in Arauca.

As I finished writing the above, the tense calm broke here in Saravena. The president of the Saravena city council was assassinated at 3 P.M. yesterday afternoon just a few blocks away from the social organizations building.

In love and solidarity,


Saturday, February 9, 2008

El Salvador Needs Our Help!

San Salvador, February 2008

Dear Friend:

We are writing you about El Salvador's upcoming elections and CIS international monitoring and observation work. Each election cycle presents a different set of challenges, and the upcoming 2009 elections will be no different. Already the rightwing legislature has implemented obstacles to a fair process and there are serious threats to the rights of civil society to seek change (see below). It is less than a year until the 2009 elections, and we are writing to invite your participation and support. This election cycle will be hotly contested, as civil society and the FMLN have united behind Mauricio Funes, the FMLN candidate for President. There are currently numerous ARENA candidates vying to represent the party in power, and the smaller parties are maneuvering for space. Your help is important to encourage a free and fair choice for the Salvadoran electorate.

The CIS Electoral Observation Missions conform to the principles set forth by the Carter Center, "To be effective, election-monitoring missions should begin long before Election Day, be invited by a country's national authorities and be welcomed by the major political parties. Observers analyze election laws, assess voter education and registration processes, and evaluate fairness in campaigns. The presence of impartial election observers deters interference or fraud in the voting process, and reassures voters that they can safely and secretly cast their ballots and that vote tabulation will be conducted without tampering." (From The Carter Center Democracy Program,

The ability of CIS to monitor the entire electoral process from the campaign through the vote and vote count and our subsequent report on the process has encouraged reforms that support the movement toward a true democracy in El Salvador. For example, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal redesigned the voting booth to attempt to guarantee a secret vote and has begun to implement a pilot program of residential voting.

Municipal and national assembly elections are held every 3 years and presidential elections every 5 years; every 15 years they fall on the same date. In 2009 elections for every public office will be held- Municipal, Legislative and Presidential. The right-wing parties that control the process have thrown up a roadblock by splitting the election into two different election days: January 18 and March 15, 2009. This doubles the effort and the expense of elections both for tax payers and political parties and diminishes the ability of opposition parties, which have smaller campaign budgets, to compete on a level playing field.

Other reforms that were passed in the Legislative Assembly in December 2007 take away safeguards for free and fair elections. For example, the ballot will no longer be signed or stamped at the voting table to guarantee its validity. Additionally, there will be 3 right wing political parties and three left political parties participating in the 2009 elections. Previously, all parties could have a representative at the table or there was a lottery, but a reform passed in December guarantees a seat at each and every voting table for all 3 right wing parties and only two of the three left parties, where decisions are made as to the validity of a vote.

For a nation to claim it is democratic, at some point there needs to be a change of government, an alternability of power. Elections are the vehicle in modern democracies that are intended to reflect the will of the people and promote equality in opportunity, and movement toward economic and social justice. For CIS, it is important to accompany a fair, honest and nonviolent electoral process in El Salvador in order to allow the maximum opportunity for the elections of 2009 to demonstrate the will of the majority of the people of El Salvador.

Civil rights are in jeopardy for the first time since the signing of the Peace Accords. Legal protests against water privatization provoked the unwarranted arrest of activists in July 2007. The activists face charges of terrorism and if convicted face many years in prison in upcoming trials in February 2008. After international protest, the Salvadoran Government changed its Penal Code so that charges of disorderly conduct are now a felony instead of a misdemeanor. As a result, union activists who protested against privatization of public health care are also facing prison terms, but under charges of "disorderly conduct".

Your presence in El Salvador as an organization and/or as individual observers will enrich your understanding of our world, as you accompany a people in search of social justice through an important moment in their history, which will prove critical as to whether or not a democratic society can be consolidated, as set forth as the objective of the 1992 Peace Accords.

Here are the ways you can support CIS International Observer Mission:

  • Be an international observer: In 2009, there will be two CIS International Election Observer missions. The first will be from January 12-20, 2009, and will observe the Mayoral and Legislative Elections. The second will be from March 9-17, 2009 and will observe the Presidential elections. You will receive observation training, orientation to the municipality where you will observe, observer credentials and information about the current situation in El Salvador from human rights officials, representatives of Salvadoran civil society, and with the political parties involved in the elections. Interpreters will be present with each group of observers and Spanish is not a requirement.
  • Volunteer and help set up the CIS Mission. CIS will be relying on a group of 3 and 6 month volunteers to plan and help out with the entire electoral cycle of 2009. If you have Spanish ability, and the desire to make this kind of commitment, please contact us. We need volunteers from October 2nd 2008 to April 2, 2009; January 2 to April 2, 2009 and January 2nd to July1, 2009 to write and present the report. Please send your C.V. and a letter of interest and the dates you will be available to: misionelectoral_cis@yahoo.
  • Donate to CIS Building Democracy Fund. CIS needs funds to be able to monitor the entire process; from legislation being passed that affects the process, civil rights trials pending, and the campaign, which extra officially has already begun. We are requesting that organizations and individuals consider giving a contribution of $500 to carry out election monitoring prior to the observer mission. This fund will also be used in a non-partisan manner to mobilize voters in rural areas to the polls, some of whom have to walk up to 15 kilometers to get to polling station or sacrifice a day's wages for transportation to vote in just one of the elections. Tax deductible donations can be made to "Los Olivos CIS", with Building Democracy Fund in the memo and sent to: Los Olivos CIS/ PO BOX 76 / Westmont, IL 60559-0076. Please notify us immediately if you are able to make a contribution:

Your participation in an International Election Observer Mission with CIS will be an invaluable tool to learn about the reality of El

Salvador. It will also be important to encourage the conduct of free and fair elections in El Salvador in 2009 and the construction of democracy in El Salvador. Thank you for your work and support or participation you can offer our program. We look forward to hearing from you.

Leslie Schuld,
CIS Director

Joe DeRaymond,
Election Mission Volunteer.


Ave. Aguilares y Ave. Bolivar #103
Colonia Libertad
San Salvador, El Salvador
Telefonos: ++(503)2235-1330; 2226-5362

Los Olivos CIS
PO Box 76
Westmont, IL 60559-0076

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Crisis in Arauca, Colombia

Dear friends,

The two guerrilla groups here in the state of Arauca commemorated the new year by sharply escalating their fight against each other and their attacks against the civilian population. The Joel Sierra Human Rights Foundation reports that the FARC guerrillas killed ten civilians during the first week of January. Both groups have threatened, displaced and killed civilians that they view as supporting the other side.

More than 2,000 people have fled from the guerrillas in the countryside and sought refuge in the main towns of Arauca – about half of those people have arrived here in Saravena. Intense fighting is continuing in the countryside and the Saravena morgue was filled beyond capacity with ten bodies on January 23.

More than 60 people from the countryside were staying in the social organizations’ building in Saravena when I returned here on January 18. As I was watching the sunset from the terrace roof that evening, Julio came up for his shift of keeping watch I asked him when he had left his community and he replied, “We left two weeks ago when they killed my father.”

Four leaders of the Joel Sierra Human Rights Foundation are also staying here in the building for security reasons – including Sonia Lopez who spoke in the Northwest U.S. in 2005. They’re at risk from both guerrilla militiamen and hired gunmen (“sicarios”) that have been seen in Saravena. The gunmen could take advantage of the chaotic situation caused by the fight between the guerrilla groups to target leaders of the social movement and place the blame on the guerrillas.

A pair of men entered the social organizations’ building just two hours after my return here on January 18. They told the person who watches the entrance that they had fled from the fighting. However, once inside, they asked insistently for the whereabouts of the lawyer and the coordinator of the Joel Sierra Foundation. They were arrogant and abrupt, and seemed anxious to take action. They have since been seen in a jewelry store which served as a residence for some of the hired gunmen that operated in Saravena during 2003 and 2004.

The fight between the guerrilla groups in Arauca began in March 2006. The guerrillas have now accomplished in two years what the military and its paramilitary allies were not able to achieve in two decades – they have caused thousands of people to flee from the countryside and have severely impacted the Arauca social movement.

The fight also benefits the oil corporations in Arauca. Occidental Petroleum (a U.S. corporation), Repsol and Hocol have been able to continue their oil production and exploration activities without a problem. The Caporal oilfield being explored by Occidental is in one of the regions where the fighting is most intense. That fighting is depopulating the region and enabling exploration to continue without any opposition.

The Colombian government has taken advantage of the situation to continue its policy of mass arrests in Arauca. Fifteen people were detained by the army in the town of Arauquita from January 12 to 14 during “Operation Padlock” and arrested on charges of “rebellion.” When the local government human rights official went to inquire about the situation of the people being detained, she was also detained and has been placed under house arrest. I visited Mercy on January 22 and she told me, “If this can happen to me, what can the rest of the people expect?”

The people of Arauca have an inspiring history of organizing and resistance. The hope is that they’ll have the strength to overcome this brutal onslaught by the guerrillas and the ongoing repression by the government. The last thing they need is any more U.S. military aid - which has been used to ensure oil production and has fanned the flames of the war here in Arauca.

In love and solidarity,