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Interview: US wants to extradite political prisoners

January 14, 2009

This interview is the product of yet another holiday meetup with an overcommitted, way-too-cheerful organizer. In addition to a look at the dire condition of all Colombian prisoners (as we sat in a cramped office filled with donated toiletries), the conversation with Walter helped me better understand the different takes folks on the Left have on guerrilla/insurgent groups. The mainstream liberal/left opposition are pretty clear about their desire for an end to the practice of kidnapping for financial ransom and political leverage. Beyond that, and occasional references to narcotrafficking connections, the mainstream left save their vitriol for the folks who seem responsible for 90% of all violent and politically-motivated crime in the country – the paramilitaries and their official enablers, the army and the prosecutor general.

First published on Toward Freedom.

The Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners (CSPP) provides ongoing direct support to hundreds of prisoners and their families throughout Colombia. Recently the group launched a campaign against the extradition of political prisoners to the US, collaborating with lawyers’ collectives and other prisoner support groups like the Anarchist Black Cross. The US government continues to play a key role in halting Colombian justice – primarily by extraditing paramilitary leaders, who, when they aren’t returned to Colombia for lack of evidence, are tried only for drug crimes, not for their roles in human rights abuses, assassinations and disappearances.

Now the US is requesting the extradition of three National Liberation Army (ELN) members, for their alleged role in kidnapping a US citizen. I spoke with Walter Agredo with the Cali chapter of the CSPP about the campaign. (Click here to download the campaign flyer in English.)

How did you get involved with the CSPP, and how is the group structured?

I got involved in 2003 as a student of University of the Valle, I studied communication and philosophy. We had a human rights group that was supported by members of the Comite. I came to know how to help prisoners fill out complaint forms and follow-up, how to support them. And then two years ago the two people in charge of the Cali section, including our one paid functionary, had to leave the country after receiving threats. So they asked me to be the functionary here. We have 17 people working as a team, we make decisions by consensus. We rely heavily on students but work with everyone. We just had a three-day retreat in Bogota with all the sections to decide the work for the upcoming year. We meet like that a few times a year and also host workshops given by lawyers on judicial subjects, and meet to fortify our institutional processes.

We have 9 sections throughout the country, in Medellin, Bucaramanga, the coffee growing region, Tolima, Cali, Bogota, Arauca, Valledupar. Here in the Cali section we are working with prisoners in Nariño, Cauca and the Valle del Cauca departments. Right now it’s probably 150-180 political prisoners, but of course there are many more who are not named as political prisoners for security or other concerns.

How and when was the CSPP founded?

It’s a kind of funny, paradoxical history. In the 1970s there had been many Left intellectuals concerned with the issue of political prisoners, like Enrique Santos Calderón the editor of the El Tiempo newspaper at the time. In that decade Gabriel García Márquez won the Nobel Prize, and donated much of the prize money to a Venezuelan political prisoner solidarity committee. These intellectuals reached out to him, this being his country, and told him Colombia had political prisoners too. The next time he won an award, he donated the money to help found the Comite, at the time it was starting up in 1973 to support leaders of the oil workers union who had been imprisoned for leading a strike. We’ve been around 35 years now.

How would you characterize state repression of activists since the CSPP was founded? Has it changed at all?

We’ve seen varying kinds of repression in the last four decades. In the 1970s there was a focus on arrests and imprisonment of activists. The 1980s saw the beginning of disappearances and the use of torture; this was a cruel period for state repression. And since the 1990s we’ve had to focus more on massacres and the assassination of campesino, indigenous, labor and student leaders – this has become the humanitarian crisis.

What is the work of the CSPP?

We undertake several areas of work. Our strongest area, the “vertebral column” as we refer to it, is our assistance to those in prison. This takes two forms, judicial support and humanitarian support. Each section of the CSPP counts on the support of at least one attorney that helps with submitting complaints. I want to note that we only work on cases affecting civil and political rights. Right now we’re working with three women whose sons were killed by the army. They’re from Cisneros and Suarez in the north of Cauca and Bugalagrande in Valle del Cauca. We’re helping them file grievances. We accompany these communities but also help build their capacity because we know we won’t always be around to provide this kind of direct support. We help them learn how to file requests for information and complaints, how to ID members of the armed forces. As far as humanitarian assistance, we are constantly collecting supplies for prisoners, since the jails don’t give them anything. Tomorrow we’re going to the jail in Cauca to deliver bags of supplies. Every year we have a kids festival sponsored with the labor federation CUT. We gather toiletries, blankets, other supplies for prisoners, and collect donations of books, pens, notebooks, and money for families.

Funding comes from Amnesty International, Oxfam, and some overseas religious organizations, although we’ve had problems with that before. Once a few Irish Republican Army members were held prisoner here, and an English church that funds us told us they would end our funding if we supported them. We did, of course, and lost the funding.

You recently launched a campaign to stop the extradition of political prisoners to the United States. The campaign in particular is focusing on three National Liberation Army (ELN) members accused by the US government of kidnapping a US citizen. Why is it important to halt the practice of extradition?

Extradition is a new strategy of the government to confront insurgencies, to say they’re all traffickers. So far a few have been extradited and returned for lack of evidence. Recently the government has prepared three ELN members for extradition, and the US government wants to extradite another for alleged kidnapping of a North American citizen. [Throughout much of Latin America, “North America” is used to refer to the US.] Before deciding to launch this campaign the CSPP took a step back to analyze the new tactics of the state. Ultimately this campaign was launched by the family members of the three accused, and have been joined by the families of others of accused narcotraffickers who the government wants to extradite. And they said, Colombia can’t continue to not deal with issues of justice on its soil. These people have not committed crimes in North America. Two weeks ago the Constitutional Court ruled that there is no evidence that these three have committed crimes against North America. So there’s a fight between the court and Uribe, but ultimately here the executive always has the last word on these matters.

Who is the campaign directed towards, and what methods do you use to mobilize support?

This campaign is directed to the national and international community. Plan Colombia was sold as a social development plan in Europe, and an anti-narcotrafficking plan in the US. But ultimately it’s just about the armed forces eradicating the insurgencies, which they refer to as narco-terrorists.

We use a variety of forms to advance the campaign. First our job is to amplify the voices of the affected families, and to say that as citizens we aren’t in agreement with the violation of our sovereignty, and we don’t believe these people should be exempt from our justice – if they’ve committed crimes, they’ve happened here. We hold public rallies, and host public conversations and speakers forums. Recently we hosted a talk by a constitutional law professor. We encourage people to understand the state is violating our constitution. We leaflet at judicial buildings. On October 16 & 17 we hosted a public forum here in Cali on the situation in the jails.

It’s interesting that the state is seeking to extradite both members of insurgent groups and paramilitary leaders, for drug trafficking crimes against the United States. What do you make of that?

We’re a part of MOVICE [Movement for the Victims of State Crimes]. They’re calling for an end to extraditions of paramilitaries, because we’ve seen that it’s a form of silencing paramilitary leaders, preventing them from explaining who in power has been cooperating with them. Often times paramilitaries are simply irregular army troops. For instance “H.H,” Evert Velosa, a paramilitary leader who is imprisoned. He started to talk, and was threatened with extradition. We still don’t know who he collaborated with in the Valle and Antioquia. The only people who lose with extradition are the families and victims.

Has the CSPP also been targeted for repression by the state?

First of all, we’ve always said our work is legal, and we don’t have relationships with guerrilla or illegal groups. But despite that, we have received attention from the state. Some of our members have been killed. Everado de Jesus Puerta, “Chucho,” and Julio Ernesto Gonzalez were both detained and killed ten years ago by the police in Medellin. Alirio de Jesus Pedraza, an attorney working with us, was disappeared in Bogota in 1990. And a compañero who also worked with SINALTRAINAL was assassinated two years ago in Cucuta. Recently another compañero, Gabriel, was incarcerated in Santander for two years, accused of being with the FARC. He was liberated thanks to an international campaign. And several of our members have had to flee the country after receiving threats; a few are still out of the country. Two who left in the 1980s have returned. Most leave for Spain.

In the US, there’s a strong political prisoner solidarity movement that centers on supporting freedom fighters who were active on the outside in the 1970s and 1980s, some of whom took up arms for bank expropriations or simply to defend themselves from constant police attacks.  But groups and individuals who have advocated armed resistance aren’t widely popular among the Left in the US. How does the CSPP address this issue when it comes to supporting incarcerated insurgent/guerrilla army members?

About the insurgent groups, the FARC and ELN, that’s a complicated question. We find people in jail who have dreamed of another country, a better world, like students accused of being terrorists, and indigenous leaders accused of being insurgents, of being guerrilla, leaders of social movements involved in things like the cane cutters strike – all social activists.

But we also find people who have opted for the armed way, we call them combatants.

You have to understand that this is a regime that only benefits the criollos, four or five families who more or less run the country and operate companies like Grupo Antioquena, Grupo Santo Domingo, Grupo Ardilo Lule. They decide the fate of 45 million. And they’ve brought in multinational banks. Banco Colombiano invited in [Spanish bank] BBVA, now we have Citibank, Banco Santander, all to break national and community banks. And they in turn have brought in Barcelona water companies, [Spanish utility company] Union Fenosa who own the once-public electric utilities on the Caribbean coast, and retailers like Carrefour. They’re privatizing everything.

And you have a president who is allied with them, who doesn’t recognize the courts or legislative bodies. It’s almost an authoritarian state. When you have great repression, the “social movement” manifests a stronger resistance in response to being brutally beaten. Insurgent organizations are civil populations that rose up against state repression and, exhausted from taking so much repression opted for the armed way.

Some people feel these organizations have hurt social movements, but we don’t believe it. The government is saying the indigenous Minga mobilization was infiltrated by the guerrillas. They’ll use any excuse to divide us.

A good example is the recent murder of Edwin [who was killed in a marked movement vehicle by the army. He’s the husband of CRIC leader Ada Quilcue, who says the bullets were meant for her]. The TV news company Caracol, owned by Santo Domingo, said he didn’t stop at a checkpoint, that’s why he was shot, a lie that didn’t hold up long even in the corporate press. These TV companies, like RCN, are vehicles for the state message. The reporters say, “why should these Indians want more if they already have a little land?”

Why is it important to draw public attention to the situation of political prisoners in Colombia?

We’re trying to show people that the state violates human rights and there is 100% impunity – no state agents are ever prosecuted for discriminatory and political arrests and detentions.

We now have over 70,000 imprisoned in Colombia. The number of detained has increased since 2002 [when Uribe was elected]. We’ve seen the use of mass arrests; the state detained 2,000 people in one incident in Arauca, dozens more in other cases, all discriminatory.

The conditions of the jails are appalling. Overcrowding is a huge issue. Here in Cali the jail was built for 1,300 and houses 5,000. Cells built for 3 have 8 or 9 people. They sleep in hallways, bathrooms, on the stairs. They don’t give them anything, not covers, pillows, toothbrushes, nothing. In 1998 the Constitutional Court issued order #T353 which mandated that the government change the conditions of detention. It’s been 10 years and we’ve seen nothing improve.

Our work is also to inform people about who is el detenido politico, the political detainee, we have to rescue this public figure. The government says they’re all terrorists. But Colombians understand that it’s not just someone who had an armed confrontation with the government, it’s union members too, that anyone opposed to the regime can be detained.

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