“We will not raise our children for war,” is the oft-repeated statement of the Popular Women’s Organization (OFP), a group in Barrancabermeja, Colombia, that works with displaced communities to defend human rights. Yet an outspoken commitment to protect one’s children can be enough to become a target of Colombia’s violent political war.
On October 16, Esperanza Amaris Miranda, a leading member of the OFP, was abducted from her home in Barrancabermeja and murdered. In the past, Miranda had denounced paramilitary threats before the federal prosecutor. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Right’s office, she was killed by three members of the paramilitary group Bloque Central Bolívar, an organization with documented ties to the Colombian military.
Murder and abduction of social activists in Colombia is not uncommon. In the town of Barrancabermeja alone, there have been ninety-four assassinations and fifty-six kidnappings this year. Throughout the country, there were 6,978 murders, disappearances or combat deaths as a result of political violence between July 1, 2002 and June 30, 2003. The Colombian Trade Union Congress estimates that in 2002, 172 trade unionists were killed, 164 received death threats and 132 were arbitrarily detained by authorities. Paramilitary groups, with the support of the Colombian armed forces, carried out many of these attacks.
Despite the extremely dangerous climate for social activism, the Colombian government continues to blatantly disregard human rights. Recent inflammatory statements by President Alvaro Uribe drive this point home. Speaking on September 8 before leaders of the armed forces at the inauguration of the new head of the airforce, Uribe condemned human rights defenders as terrorist sympathizers and cowards. He derided unspecified groups for supporting terrorism “under the pretext of defending human rights,” and for hiding “their political ideas behind human rights.” He called human rights workers “spokespeople” for terrorists, and he challenged them to “take off their masks.”
The inauguration ceremony of the new air force chief, Gen. Edgar Lesmez, was a particularly charged environment in which to make these accusations–the United States had pressured Lesmez’s predecessor, Gen. Fabio Velasco, to step down because of his role in the 1998 Santo Domingo massacre, in which seventeen people were killed and twenty-five injured. Velasco is the first high-ranking Colombian military official to be pressured out of office by the US government, thus Uribe’s choice of venue in which to challenge human rights concerns was symbolically significant.
Human rights groups and a few members of Congress have reacted strongly to Uribe’s statements. Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin America Working Group, notes that Uribe’s “vague accusations could give the green light to those who would attack legitimate opposition politicians, union activists, human rights defenders and community leaders in the name of fighting insurgency.” A September 23 letter sponsored by Representative Jan Schakowsky to Secretary of State Colin Powell (signed by nineteen members of the House) condemns Uribe’s statements and urges Powell to make a “strong public statement dissociating the United States from President Uribe’s remarks, indicating strong US concern with these statements, and asking him to protect, by his words and by his actions, human rights defenders and the broader non-governmental community in Colombia.” Senators Dodd, Feingold, Leahy and Kerry sent a similar letter to the Secretary of State asking for a public statement from the US ambassador to Colombia and calling for meetings between the ambassador and Colombian human rights groups. Neither the State Department nor the US Embassy in Colombia has made any public denouncement.