Saturday, November 22, 2008

Explosion Targets Our Home

Dear friends,

Last night at 8:35 P.M., an explosive was set-off in the entrance of the social organizations building where I live in Saravena. No one was hurt but windows were shattered on the first and second floors of the building (see attached photos). I was in Arauquita at the time and I returned here early this morning.

The explosive didn't contain any shrapnel and it appears that the intention was to scare and intimidate us, rather than hurt anyone. Leaders of the social organizations that operate in the building believe that the explosive was set-off either by a FARC guerrilla or a government agent.

The guerrillas of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Army of Liberation) have been fighting against each other for the past three years here in the state of Arauca. Both groups profess to be fighting against the Colombian government to achieve social justice, but their conflict in Arauca is solely about the control of territory and economic resources.

In addition to killing each other, the FARC and ELN have also been operating like death squads in Arauca; displacing and killing civilians that they view as supporting the other side. They've also created a situation in which anyone could take action (set-off an explosive or kill someone) and make it look like it was part of the fight between the two groups.

The social organizations building is located in the center of Saravena, one-and-a-half blocks from a police guard post, two-and-a-half blocks from another guard post, and just four blocks from the police station.

The various social organizations have written public denunciations about the explosion and are determined to continue forward with their non-violent struggle for social justice.

I'll be moving to a room on the third floor later today, further away from the street and with bulletproof glass.

In love and solidarity,


March for Freedom

Dear friends,

More than 500 people participated in a mass and march in Arauquita on November 11 in protest of the mass arrest that occurred there the week before. Fourteen people were arrested for "rebellion" on November 4 including Martin Sandoval, president of the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CPDH).

The March for Freedom and Dignity began with a mass in the central park. The young priest that welcomed people to the event talked about the need to speak out against the unjust arrests and to overcome the fear that people are feeling now in Arauquita. "It is legitimate to resist any authority that gravely and repeatedly violates the principles of natural law," stated the other priest during the homily. He also spoke out about "the many problems that this system of brutal capitalism has caused for us."

Ingrid stepped onto the stage with her son Christian in her arms after the mass (see attached photo). Her spouse, Jose, was arrested for "rebellion" during the previous mass arrest in Arauquita on January 12. Christian was born three months later on April 21. Ingrid told me "the environment in the Arauca City prison is very oppressive" and, because of that, she has only taken Christian there twice to see his father.

Martin wrote a letter from prison that was read before the start of the march. "If having an opinion that differs with the government, and denouncing the abuses that are committed in the name of law and justice is a crime; then they should convict me. But because they don't have any valid arguments, they will continue using all their tricks to convert lies into absurd truths which not even they, themselves, believe...If we all remain silent; the next victim could be you, a family member, or a good friend."

The people then marched through the main streets of Arauquita, passing in front of the police station where the 14 people had been taken the week before. Several families carried placards with photos of their loved ones, calling for their immediate release (see attached photo).

I accompanied CPDH leaders a few days later when they visited Martin and the others in the Arauca City prison on November 15. Martin told us that he knew the risks he was facing for defending human rights in the state of Arauca and that he had been prepared psychologically for the likelihood of being imprisoned. "This is a beautiful experience," he said. "We share everything with each other here." Martin also stated that the march in Arauquita "inspires us to keep going forward."

Guillermo Diaz is the president of the Afro-Colombian association and treasurer of the Laborers' union in Arauquita. He told me that he has five daughters - including a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old that he and his wife adopted as orphans. The police came to their house at 5:40 A.M. on November 4. He was handcuffed and taken away to the police station, and wasn't shown an arrest order until two hours later. Guillermo was the sole source of income for the family.

Yilmar Mina is a leader of the search and rescue team and a member of the Assembly of God church in Arauquita. The police called him to the station on November 4 with the pretext that they were going to give him radios for the team. When he arrived there at 5:45 P.M. he was arrested. Yilmar and his wife, Lisbeth, have three young children.

Martin told us, "We're paying the price for the public hearing and the visit to the prison." CPDH helped organize the public hearing of the House of Representatives human rights commission in Arauquita on July 31 and also organized a fiesta for the inmates of the Arauca City prison on October 10.

In love and solidarity,


Monday, November 17, 2008

Arrest of a Friend

Dear friends,

My friend, Martin Sandoval, was arrested along with 13 other people here in the town of Arauquita on November 4. He began a hunger strike the following day in protest of those arrests.

Martin is the president of the Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in the state of Arauca. He has consistently spoken out against the human rights violations committed by the Colombian government in the state – including mass arrests and the killing of civilians who are then reported as guerrillas killed in combat. He has also forcefully denounced the abuses committed against the civilian population by the FARC and ELN guerrillas in their fight against each other in Arauca.

Martin was arrested just four days after the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, met with human rights activists in Arauca to discuss the difficult situation that they’re confronting in their work. The arrest also occurred just four weeks after the United Nations working group on arbitrary arrests visited Arauca to investigate the mass arrests that have taken place in the state.

The Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights organized a fiesta in the Arauca City prison on October 10 – to provide solidarity for the prisoners and lift their spirits for a few hours. Martin greeted the inmates on behalf of the Committee (see attached photo). He is currently being held in the Arauca City police station and will probably be entering the prison again soon – although, this time, not as a visitor.

The Committee also helped organize a public hearing of the House of Representatives human rights commission in Arauquita on July 31 which was attended by more than 500 people. Martin and other community leaders denounced the persistent violation of human rights in Arauca. The leaders of the Committee believe that his arrest is due, in part, to retaliation for that hearing.

Maria Ruth Sanabria is the Arauquita representative for the Committee, and I organized her Montana and Northwest U.S. speaking tour in April. She called me on November 4 and said “I have bad news for you, my son, Martin has just been arrested,” as her voice began to break.

I arrived in Arauquita two hours later and went to the police station to enquire about Martin. The police commander told me that I couldn’t enter at that moment, but I could come back in 20 minutes at noon. When I returned shortly after noon, the prisoners were being loaded into a truck and were then taken to the Arauquita military base. We arrived at the base in time to see the helicopter land that, a few minutes later, took the prisoners away to the 18th Military Brigade headquarters in Arauca City.

Martin and the others are charged with rebellion, conspiracy and terrorism. The primary “evidence” in many of the previous mass arrests in Arauca has been the testimony of supposed former guerrillas that receive compensation for their collaboration.

Guillermo Diaz was one of the 13 people arrested along with Martin. Guillermo is the treasurer of the Laborer’s union and president of the Afro-Colombian association in Arauquita. Jose Ortiz, a young man who is studying accounting in the National Training Institute, was also arrested. José was the only source of financial support for his elderly mother. Reynel Cifuentes and Olegario Araque, who both have disabilities, were also among those arrested.

The news on the day of the arrests was dominated by the U.S. elections. Our friends from Arauquita, including Martin, want to believe that Barack Obama will represent a change from the policies of George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

In love and solidarity,