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,



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