Archive | April, 2013

“Your daughter will suffer”: Colombia’s dark side

29 Apr

Baños, Ecuador
[by Jeremy]

Like so many other travellers, we have, over the past few months, often waxed lyrical about Colombia’s natural beauty – its stunning landscapes, its warm people, its incredible coastline, its deserts, mountains, not forgetting its delicious arepas con queso.

paramilitaries

Colombia’s paramilitaries target trade union activists and community leaders

Unlike most other travellers we are fortunate enough – if that can ever be the right word – to have been able to lift the veil of normality, to scratch below the surface of the glossy tourist brochures and to experience a small part of the reality of the Colombia in which many millions of poor, displaced and victimised Colombians are forced to live.

Maybe partly through our own fear, or for the sake of some of those we met, we decided to wait until we had left the country before writing this blog. That in itself speaks volumes about the situation.

For 10 years before this trip I travelled to Colombia helping to expose the human stories behind the grim statistics. I have been present when mass graves of alleged ‘false positives’ – young men from among the urban poor who had been kidnapped by the army, murdered, dressed in guerilla uniforms and buried in rural areas far from prying eyes – were uncovered. I have met these young men’s mothers and heard first hand of the persecution they face simply for seeking the truth about their sons’ murders.

I have helped document testimonies from peasant farmers in Meta province about the human rights abuses suffered by whole communities at the hands of the army and the right-wing paramilitaries – and forced back a tear when two weeks later their spokesperson was assassinated in front of his family. I have been in to the women’s prison in Bogota to meet with young women living in insanitary conditions, with eight to a room designed for four, who are denied visits from friends and family, sometimes even their own children. These women and many more – among them teachers and community workers – are arrested and detained often for years at a time, without trial in flagrant breach of international human rights laws.

Colombia is a country not only rich in natural beauty, it is a rich country, full stop. Boasting reserves of the majority of the world’s most valuable natural resources, Colombia exports petroleum, coal nickel, gold, copper, iron ore, bananas, cut flowers, sugarcane, natural gas and over half of the world’s emeralds. Colombia also boasts the most uneven income distribution in the whole of Latin America.

Extra-judicial killings aim to silence those who speak out

Extra-judicial killings aim to silence those who speak out

Many millions of Colombians live in poverty. Millions are denied healthcare, millions live without clean water, millions live below the poverty line – and for those journalists, peace campaigners, trade unionists and indigenous rights activists, who expose such realities or stand up to the onward march of the multinationals, against privatisation of basic services, or who defend land and speak out for the peasants and the urban poor, the full force of a vicious, neo-liberal regime and a brutal paramilitary movement – aided and abetted by sections of the state, army and police – is brought down upon them.

These aren’t mere fantasies. 60% of all the trade unionists killed in the world are killed in Colombia. Around 200 trade unionists are currently classified as ‘disappeared’. Colombia now has the highest number of internally displaced people in the world – around 5,000,000 – mostly the result of land seizures. 230,000 people were forced to flee their homes last year alone. There are more than 5,600 political prisoners, many languishing in appalling conditions in overcrowded jails – mainly opposition politicians, trade union leaders and community activists. In recent years (2002-2010) an average of 4,368 people have been killed or disappeared in combat and conflict-related violence each year – around 12 people per day. And at the heart of Colombia’s human rights crisis is the issue of impunity. According to the UN, in 98.5% of cases of extra-judicial executions carried out by the army, no-one has been brought to justice. In 98% of the cases of killings of journalists and trade unionists the perpetrators have never been charged.

Colombia has among the highest number of forced disappearances in the world – with approximately 30,000 people currently believed to be disappeared. The state security forces are responsible for the vast majority of disappearances. The Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ) state that “public functionaries are compromised in one way or another in around 97% of these cases.

“Few stories of bravery and resilience in the face of abuse, torture and intimidation can surpass that of my old friend Claudia Julieta Duque.”

Even the space for democratic participation in Colombia is severely limited. In most elections, even today, large numbers of votes are simply bought. In recent years the paramilitaries – in what is now known as the para-political scandal – have played an increasingly pivotal role in delivering elections for their favoured candidates by, for example, ensuring the other candidates on the ballot are threatened into pulling out. The paramilitaries also poured millions of dollars in to funding electoral campaigns, leaving the successful candidates indebted to them rather than to their electorate. More than 50 members of the 2006-10 Congress are currently facing trial as a result of accepting bribes from paramilitary organisations.

In my years of travelling to Colombia I have met some of the most inspirational people I will ever meet. People who in the face of such injustices and terror continue to expose the truth, stand up for economic and social justice and represent their fellow workers, their communities or simply their beliefs.

Protesting against human rights abuses in Colombia

Protesting against human rights abuses in Colombia

In Bogota, just a few weeks ago, we interviewed the lawyer and sister of a jailed teacher – Omar Combita – for a video to be shown in the UK. Their dignity in the face of the injustice he has faced was incredible. Omar is yet another trade union activist and community leader accused of the catch-all ‘crime’ of ‘rebellion’. He has been imprisoned for over 18 months – without trial. He has been denied medical assistance despite suffering from the early symptoms of Parkinson’s. The evidence against him has been changed twice and he has been denied due legal process.
He and his family continue to fight, with dignity, for justice.

But few stories of bravery and resilience in the face of abuse, torture and intimidation can surpass that of my old friend Claudia Julieta Duque. Whilst her bravery as an independent journalist exposing human rights abuses has won her numerous international awards, it is only up close you can understand the true horror of what she and her amazing daughter have been through.

We stayed with them in Bogota. Claudia couldn’t come out and meet us or go for a drink or even walk to the shop with us. She lives under a constant death threat from paramilitary groups. She lives in a gated apartment complex, hidden away behind an armoured front door with locks like Fort Knox. There is a TV in her living room but it doesn’t show films or comedies or sport. It relays images from the security cameras which survey the inside and outside or her home. When she does go out she cannot walk, instead she has to drive her armour-plated car with bullet proof glass.

For Claudia though, life is better than it was. In Claudia’s case such improvements are relative.

Grave

The ‘false positives’ scandal saw poor young men kidnapped by the army, murdered, dressed in guerilla uniforms and buried in rural areas. This grave is one of dozens in the cemetery next to the army base in La Macarena.

Between 2001 and 2008 Claudia was subjected to systematic intimidation at the hands of Colombia’s security services (DAS) – years of illegal monitoring, surveillance, interception of emails, physical threats and harassment. She received abusive phone calls threatening the life of her then 11-year old daughter – one caller told her “your daughter is going to suffer, we will burn her alive, we will spread her fingers throughout the house.”. In 2004 Claudia Julieta was kidnapped. She later uncovered an instruction manual published by the DAS, setting out in detail how to intimidate and frighten her and to rape her daughter. The manual outlined exactly how to make the threat (from a public phone box with no CCTV cameras nearby), how long to stay on the line (less than 60 seconds to avoid a trace) and the exact wording to use to threaten her and her daughter. She has been forced to flee Colombia three times already, leaving behind family, friends and colleagues.

Claudia’s crime? She consistently documented and exposed irregularities in the investigation into the murder of journalist Jaime Garzon, including the involvement of the security services in his killing. The threats were designed to silence her. They failed.

Today, while things improve from time to time, Claudia still faces threats, still lives in fear of assassination, and finds it almost impossible to earn a living because of the intimidation. Editors are often too scared to even commission her for fear of the reprisals against them.

I have known Claudia for many years. It is no surprise to me she refuses to be cowed. While we are there her phone rings constantly, talking to journalists in exile, campaigning for recompense for the victims of the conflict, hearing testimony of further human rights abuses, organising to defend a threatened journalist and much more. One call tells her a community leader she interviewed just a few days before has been assassinated, paying the ultimate price for speaking truth to power

The day after we say our goodbyes to Claudia arrest warrants are finally issued against 7 former senior security agents – men at the very top of Colombia’s state apparatus – for the campaign of intimidation against her.

It is a breakthrough after more than a decade of denouncing threats and presenting evidence – but Claudia like so many others knows a long battle lies ahead to actually get a court case, prosecution and some semblance of justice.

Colombians show their support for peace - Tatacoa desert 2013

Colombians show their support for peace – Tatacoa desert 2013

Such dreams seem a long way off. Just days later her daughter is photographed up close by an unknown man. Then again when out with her boyfriend. Unknown cars have begun to follow Claudia and her daughter. Claudia’s brother has been receiving intimidating phone calls. The cycle of threat and intimidation has begun again.

All Claudia wants, not just for her but for all victims of Colombia’s conflict, is peace – the chance to live her life, work as a journalist. Just the ability to go to the shop, free from fear, for her daughter to enjoy a normal life as a student.

Colombia needs peace. The current peace talks are long overdue. A few days after we left Colombia, civil society took to the streets to demand their voice be heard in those talks.

As Martin Luther King made clear you cannot have justice without peace. And you cannot have peace without justice.

For a fuller briefing on the economic, political and social issues facing Colombia click here.
To find out how you can help click here.

Days: 536
Miles: 17,551
Things we now know to be true: Even bullets cannot silence the voice of the people

Hasta luego Colombia

12 Apr
Tatacoa Desert, Colombia

Campspot with a view, Tatacoa Desert, Colombia

Otavalo, Ecuador
[by Paula]

Hello Ecuador!

We’d been in Colombia so long we were in danger of starting to look suspicious to the authorities. The last customs official to renew our car permit told us one more month would be plenty to get us to the border. So we took the hint… and after five months there it seemed like a good time to start heading south again, which is, after all, kind of the aim of this journey.

We were sad to leave. But our grief rapidly lifted when we crossed the border and filled the tank with petrol at less than a third of the price of Colombia. US$1.48 per gallon. Let me say again, hello Ecuador!

Otavalo, Ecuador

Good morning Ecuador. Otavalo is our first stop.

Our last couple of weeks in Colombia had fulfilled our now expected quota of serenity, drama, beauty, wilderness, city stress, desert, mountains, mechanics, blistering heat, cold nights, rain, drought, and ups and downs of both the geographical and emotional variety.
The bad day, of which we blogged recently, was joined by some others vying to be contenders in the Really Bad Days stakes, but they were – happily – outnumbered by some last minute entries in the Best Bits of Colombia contest.

The morning after that hideous day we started up the van without a hitch and were chaperoned by the owner’s son, Jose, to Hacienda Venecia – a coffee finca that served as a perfect haven for a few days. The fabulous view, fresh mountain air, bracing swimming pool and a rare, indescribably brilliant, hot shower were only enhanced by the constant smell of fresh roasting coffee.

I may be a tea addict, but even I could appreciate that what we were drinking there was some of the best around. We took a coffee tour one sunny morning, and learned a lot about the process, the politics and the economics of growing coffee – which at the moment is a pretty disastrous situation for most small growers in Colombia and beyond.

Our journey through coffee country took us onwards to the less idyllic location of Pereira, a fairly unremarkable industrial city that contained something crucial for our future progress – a VW specialist mechanic. There followed a few days of back and forth, with the owners Martin and his wife Liliana gradually adopting us as their latest cause. As suspected, our recently-bought ignition wires were shot to pieces and needed to be replaced. A few days of searching for compatible parts in Colombia led to the conclusion we expected – nada.

We had no option but to order some from the US and hand over obscene amounts of money to FedEx to get them down to Pereira quick smart. To make sure there was extra pressure added, we were scrambling to get everything done ahead of the interminable shutdown that happens in Latin America at Easter.

Wax palms, Valle de Cocora, Colombia

These wax palms are really tall. Valle de Cocora, Colombia

As we headed off to the nearby mountain retreat of Salento to wait out the delivery, we asked Liliana when they would close for the holidays, at which point she generously offered up their home phone number. “Whenever the parts arrive, call us at home and we’ll open up the workshop for you”, she said. Result.

From Salento we got re-aquainted with our hiking boots and tackled the steep trail up through the Valle de Cocora, with its impossibly tall and incongruous-looking wax palm trees. At Finca La Montaña, hummingbirds with luminous long tails darted around among the flowers, announcing their presence with a whirr that seemed disproportionate to their size.

As we returned to the town we rewarded ourselves with two regional specialities in a local restaurant – trout with a giant patacone (bashed, fried plantain) and the heart-condition-inducing bandeja paisa; a platter of chorizo, blood sausage, ground pork, fried pork rind, rice, beans, avocado, fried plantains, fried egg and arepas. “I wonder if you’ll get through all of that!” I mused, about 180 seconds before Jeremy washed down the last bite with a swig of Aguila, then accepted some of my spare patacone.

We were outside the FedEx office at 8am, the day before the Easter holidays, gazing at the as-yet-unopened office door like a pair of creepy stalkers. By this time the car was really in a bad way, with steep uphills proving to be the ultimate nightmare. The parts were there. Yay! We just had to hand over yet more cash (a disappointingly high import tax) before we could pick them up. Boo. All we had to do was drive them across the city to the mechanic.

Bandeja Paisa, Salento, Colombia

Post-hike snack for one. Bandeja Paisa, Salento, Colombia.

Unfortunately Pereira is like a mini Latin American version of San Francisco. As we tried to navigate the one-way systems we kept coming upon the most vertiginous streets imaginable. It was like a weird dream – we just had to get 6 blocks over that way, whilst avoiding all one-way streets and up-hill manoeuvres. At one point we had to roll back down a hill that the van simply refused to drive up. A passer-by, on hearing our predicament, suggested we reverse about one kilometre down a one-way street to get there. Helpful.

Thanks to Jeremy’s photographic memory of the city’s grid system, finally we made it! After a long day the new wires – and a new coil pack, if you are remotely interested – were fitted. We drove off, heading back to Salento, with the van feeling all powerful and macho again.
About 20 minutes later, as we ascended the mountains, we started to lose power, again. It was nowhere near as bad as before but was undoubtedly still playing up.

Much as we’d wanted to avoided it, the next day we dragged Martin and Liliana away from their holiday to investigate. He spent hours sorting out a problem with the electrical wires governing the throttle, or something, and then would not ask for any money (we soon rectified that).

The van was driving really well, powering up hills like it actually enjoyed it, and we headed off south with renewed gusto. During a quite punishingly mountainous drive we stopped to drink a coffee and let the brakes cool. As we pulled out again the shop owner shouted for us to stop, pointing to brake fluid spilling all over the back tyre and saying ‘dangerous’. Before we knew it we were surrounded by a group of guys, some of whom were roving highway mechanics (aka highway robbers). It all seemed rather convenient, and we were suspicious at first, but when he pulled the wheel off there was an obviously deteriorated rubber seal on the caliper.

“We’d been so furious we’d thrown every penny we had at them. One km later we came upon a road toll. No money.”

He went off for 2 hours to source some replacements and after the wheels were back on, the bill they presented us with was laughable. At nearly 3 times what we’d paid for a highly technical mechanic to work on the van for a day and a half in Pereira, this bill was no joke. We had a furious argument. The truth was we didn’t have the cash to pay it, but even if we had we would never have accepted it. I told them they could have the money we had on us (less than half of the bill) or we could go together to the next city and “take advice” about it, perhaps from the police. They took the money we offered and we sped off.

Trouble was, we’d been so furious we’d thrown every penny we had at them. One km later we came upon a road toll. No money. The officials refused Jeremy’s pleas about what had happened, refused to change our US dollars or take a card and, for the sake of $4, they told him to hitch 12km to the city to find a cash machine. After walking 3km a motorcyclist stopped and picked him up, ‘kindly’ offering to pay the toll and then drive with us the ATM so we could pay them back. When we arrived we offered a tip to say thanks, but they demanded a ridiculous $25 for their petrol. We were so sick of arguing by this stage we threw the money at him and drove off. In 5 months we can safely say we had not met any nasty or unwelcoming people in Colombia, and yet in the space of a morning we’d had them in spades. When added to recent frustrations, we temporarily lost faith and felt down for a little while.

But here I am rattling on about the van again – it was still going, and the next 10 days saw our spirits life as as we put in a lot of miles, by our standards, and visited some of the highlights of the country.

We left the mountains for a while and descended to the hot valley that leads to Colombia’s tiny southern desert, Desierto de la Tatacoa. The desert, ah how we love it! 

'Camping' at a house in Espinal

Camping in Walter’s living room, Espinal, Colombia.

At the end of day one of driving there we were looking for a place to camp and asked at a country club outside the town of Espinal. The owner wasn’t keen, but a guy who was there giving a tennis lesson offered us a space to camp at his house. Okay, we said, if you are sure you have space. He got in the van and directed us straight into the busy town square. ‘Here we are!’ he said. Erm, we explained again that we wanted to camp, in case he hadn’t understood. ‘Yes, my house is very big’, he said. Two street stalls were moved aside to make room for us to drive through large gates sandwiched between a packed restaurant and a shop. We drove in to find a house arranged part outdoors, part indoors, with a living and dining area outside and bedrooms arranged around the courtyard. We would be camping right next to the the sofa in his living room! Definitely a first.

We took advantage of the location and went straight into the adjoining restaurant, which specialised in a local dish, lechona – a slow roasted whole pig stuffed with rice, pulses and spices and served with a sweet stuffing. Oh yes.

A bumpy final stretch took us to the desert the next day, and one of the best camping spots we’d encountered in Colombia. We enjoyed sunset beers and early morning coffee from our position on the edge of a spectacular canyon, filled with jutting cacti and a labyrinth of protruding rock formations that changed colour with each stage of the day.

Heading south and west, towards the Andes and the Ecuadorian border, we spent a glorious few days in San Agustín, the site of hundreds of pre-Columbian statues in the surrounding hills and forests. On a horseback trip through the area, the scenery was spectacular, taking in lush fertile farms of fruits, coffee, yuca and bright red peppers. On a coffee stop at a little house we were talking with the owner about the animals he had. He pointed into a little hut and asked if we knew what ‘cuy’ were. “Yes!” I exclaimed, looking a three cute little furries, “a guinea pig was my first pet.”

“We roast them over there,” he said, pointing to a large clay oven beside us. Oh. A taste of things to come in Ecuador, where guinea pig is a popular dish. 

Horseriding around San Agustin

Horseriding around San Agustin, Colombia

Moving on from San Agustín was never going to be easy. We had three options for getting back over the Andes to Popayán. 1. The very rough, albeit shortest and most common route, otherwise known as the ‘Kangaroo Express’. 2. A similarly rough, and more dangerous, route known as the ‘Trampoline of Death’, or 3. A really really long way round that involved backtracking and taking a, reportedly, less terrible gravel road. We asked the police about the state of the road in option 1, which we had heard was, on top of just being generally bad, churned up with road works and deep muddy ruts.  “Well, there are guerillas in that area, but if you are lucky you won’t encounter any,” he said. Right. Actually we were just asking about the road surface, but now you’re really spooking us.

After much deliberation we decided on option 1, before changing our minds at the last minute and taking 3 – the long way round.

What a day. After about 6 hours on normal roads and 5 hours of grinding along the washboard gravel road – all through spectacular scenery – we were rewarded with a final awesome stretch through the páramo near the 4750m Volcán Puracè. Wow. 

We arrived in Popayán at twilight and managed, almost, to stay awake through dinner before collapsing. We felt like we were on the home straight, we were going to make it to Ecuador.

Sanctuario de las Lajas, nr Ipiales, Colombia

The spectacular Sanctuario de las Lajas was our final sight-seeing stop in Colombia

Two more days of driving got us to the border, via a beautiful stop overlooking Volcán Galeras, plus the unreal Sanctuario de Las Lajas, an enormous cathedral built on a bridge over a gorge near the border town of Ipiales.

As is often the way, we spent our final night in the country in rather grimy circumstances – at a gas station truck stop convenient for an early start to the border. We reflected on our 5 months in Colombia, all the things we had seen and done, the amazing people we had met, and the fact that – despite the luxurious amount of time we’d had in the country – that there was still plenty we hadn’t seen.

As night came we couldn’t believe it when another overlander pulled into the truck stop, a guy from Switzerland. We chatted a while and he explained that he had only crossed into Colombia from Panama one week earlier.
“A week!” we said. “And you are already leaving for Ecuador?”
“Yeah”, he sighed. “There’s just nothing to see here.”

For once, we were truly speechless.

Days: 519
Miles: 17,484
Things we now know to be true: Everyone sees the world through different eyes.