Thousands Come Out for Anti-Paramilitary March In Colombia

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Inter Press Service

Thousands Come Out for Anti-Paramilitary March In Colombia

Helda Martínez

BOGOTA - "I will march against the members of the security forces who have betrayed the honour of the military and the police, and have betrayed their fatherland, by selling themselves out to paramilitaries and drug traffickers to serve their interests," said Colombian Senator Juan Manuel Galán in a speech given at the spot where his father was assassinated in 1989.0307 07

He was addressing hundreds of protesters on their way to take part in Thursday's demonstration that paid "homage to the victims of paramilitarism, parapolitics and crimes of the state" in more than 20 Colombian cities and another 100 around the world.

The peaceful nationwide demonstration took place without incident. But it basically went unreported by the mainstream media, by contrast with the heavy international coverage of the global Feb. 4 march against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas.

People displaced by Colombia's four-decade civil war paid tribute Wednesday to former Liberal Party presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán in the main square of Soacha, a poor suburb south of the capital where he was killed in 1989.

Soacha was one stop along their march, which began Tuesday in the fishing village of Flandes, 150 km southwest of the capital. On Thursday morning they continued on to the Plaza de Bolívar in central Bogotá, where they joined people affected by the war and by the U.S.-financed Plan Colombia counterinsurgency and anti-drug strategy in remote rural regions of the country.

Between 1982 and 2005, nearly four million people were forcibly displaced and lost their land, and at least 15,000 people fell victim to forced disappearance, according to a local human rights group, Justice and Peace.

Inspector general Edgardo Maya led the group of public employees who joined the march even though their participation was criticised by presidential adviser José Obdulio Gaviria.

"We are taking part in this peaceful march in homage to all of the victims of the conflict, and especially the victims of paramilitarism," Maya told IPS.

The far-right paramilitary militias, which in the 1980s joined the security forces in their fight against the leftist rebel groups that emerged in 1964, have been blamed by the United Nations for the lion's share of the human rights crimes committed in the armed conflict.

In the last few years, the paramilitaries have taken part in a controversial partial demobilisation process negotiated with the rightwing government of Álvaro Uribe, in exchange for lenient sentences and a promise by the government not to extradite them to the United States, where many of them are wanted on drug trafficking charges.

Accompanying the public employees were 200 international observers, as well as former senator Luis Eladio Pérez, one of the four hostages released on Feb. 27 by the FARC. He was held in the jungle by the guerrillas for more than six years.

Also participating was "peace walker" Gustavo Moncayo, a high school teacher who has become a well-known activist calling for the release of his son, army corporal Pablo Emilio, who was captured by the FARC in December 1997, and the rest of the hostages.

Thousands of other Colombians took part in the march, many of them carrying signs with photos of their loved ones, victims of murder or forced disappearance.

"This is the first time that I have come out to protest in 15 years," 47-year-old María Rodríguez told IPS. "I always get this horrible feeling when I remember the men in camouflage who came to the farm and threatened me and killed my two nephews."

Of the 15,000 victims of forced disappearance reported between 1982 and 2005, at least 3,000 were buried in common graves, some of which have begun to be exhumed. It is impossible to know how many were thrown into rivers, a common paramilitary practice.

"Disappearance is a monstrous crime," former Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus told IPS. "That is why...we started this march at the Magdalena river," he said, after accompanying hundreds of mainly indigenous and black people displaced by the war on the three-day march from Flandes.

"We were inspired by an audiovisual testimony by the artist Clemencia Echeverri, who recently showed, in a sophisticated Bogotá art gallery, a night-time recording taken from the two shores of the Cauca river" in the northwestern province of Antioquia, said Mockus. (Antioquia is a paramilitary stronghold.)

"On the recording, you hear the sound of the water flowing, and above that you hear the screams of peasant farmers and chainsaws running, and you can see people with sticks, fishing pieces of clothing out of the river," he added.

According to testimony from numerous survivors and members of paramilitary groups, the latter frequently used chainsaws to cut their victims up alive.

Jusice and Peace also reported that 1,700 indigenous people, 2,550 trade unionists and 5,000 members of the now-defunct leftist political party Patriotic Union were murdered between 1982 and 2005.

"The paramilitaries have perpetrated more than 3,500 massacres and stolen more than six million hectares of land, and since their demobilisation they have killed 600 people a year. They also achieved control over 35 percent of the seats in Congress," said the Movement of Victims of Crimes of the State (MOVICE), which organised Thursday's nationwide march.

Guillermo Cano, director of the El Espectador newspaper, was murdered in 1986 after denouncing, in his column, the activities of "paramilitarism and drug trafficking carried out under the complicit silence of the government."

Human rights defender Héctor Abad Gómez was killed in 1987, as related by his son, journalist Héctor Abad Faciolince, in his book "El olvido que seremos" (The Oblivion We Shall Be).

Leftist politician José Antequera was murdered in 1989. His son José remembers that at the age of five he could not understand why his father was killed. And "today I can't either," he said in a vigil Sunday in the Plaza de Bolívar in which victims and survivors of the war gave their personal accounts of their suffering.

Leftist presidential candidates Bernardo Jaramillo and Carlos Pizarro were assassinated in 1990, and in 1994 Patriotic Union Senator Manuel Cepeda was killed.

Stories that repeat themselves over and over again, at all levels of Colombian society.

"Nicolás was 15 years old on May 1, 2005. He was marching calmly with students and other people when the army began to fire tear gas, for no reason, because there were no disturbances," read out one woman in the vigil.

"Nicolás, who had asthma, was unable to move because of the tear gas and was beaten by eight members of ESMAD (the anti-riot police). He died a few days later in a health clinic. And his father, who is here with us, has faced constant threats by the police, and survived an attempt on his life," she said.

Liberal Party Senator Juan Manuel Galán told the demonstrators in Soacha: "I will march against former army lieutenant Carlos Flores, (retired) general Miguel Maza Márquez, then director of the Administrative Security Department (the DAS intelligence agency), and general Oscar Peláez of the national police, who participated in the plot that ended my father's life."

On Thursday, the columns of protesters reached the Plaza de Bolívar and slowly filed out to make room for other groups, in a climate free of tension but charged with emotion.

Marc Chernick, a professor from Georgetown University in Washington, DC who took part in the march, told IPS that "I feel relieved and happy to see that there are still people who want to make themselves heard, even though there was so much pressure to keep them from coming out on the streets." He said the demonstration helped open a door to democracy.

The head of MOVICE, Iván Cepeda, the son of the murdered senator, told the crowd: "Thank you Colombia. This is the start, not the end, of our struggle."

With additional reporting by Constanza Vieira.

© 2008 Inter Press Service

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