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Report from Catatumbo

February 17, 2009

Published on Narco News

After Feigned Progress, Two Steps Back for Human Rights in Colombia

“New” Colombian Army unit bombards, pillages elementary school in Catatumbo region

A tour of the elementary school La Nueva Esperanza (“The New Hope”) after the army attack

Interview with a resident whose house was hit in the attack

The Colombian Army’s brand-new 23rd Mobile Brigade, persuing National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels, pounded a school and nearby home last Monday, Febrary 2 with bombs, rockets and machine-gun fire in the hamlet of La Esperanza, in San Calixto municipality, Norte de Santander department. The area, part of the war-torn northeastern region known as Catatumbo, is sparsely populated, with less than ten homes within 500 meters of the school, spread out across a perpetually fog-covered mountain.

Over 300 soldiers first fired on the area from the ground, then laid siege from a helicopter gunship. The Nueva Esperanza school was hit dozens of times, with many bullets falling inside classrooms that, thankfully, were empty of students, owing to a lack of teachers. One young civilian resident was hurt, and bullets also fell on a house nearby, a mortar striking within thirty feet. The soldiers then camped in the homes and on the land of La Esperanza residents – a violation of International Humanitarian Law and Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions, as is the targeting and destruction of a civilian institution. (Article 48 of Geneva Conventions Protocol I requires the armed forces to only carry out operations against military targets, not civilian establishments.) They also stole personal property of local leaders, copies of parents’ identity documents and over $1,000 US in school and community property.

Calls to the army’s 2nd Division commanders requesting comment on the operation and reports of property theft were not returned. The aerial attacks by the Arpia AH-60L gunship were reportedly carried out by Air Force Unit No. 5.

These acts were verified by one Spanish citizen and one US citizen, accompaniers with International Peace Observatory , and a representative of the San Calixto Personería, a state agency charged with protecting the human rights of Colombian citizens, all of whom visited La Esperanza February 8.

“Fresh Start” After Army Assasinations Scandal?

This wouldn’t be newsworthy considering similar recent violence in Catatumbo if not for the auspicious origins of the week-old army unit that carried out the ground attack and occupation. Last month the Minister of Defense Jose Manuel Santos announced a shakeup following the “false positives” scandal that broke in October, in which dozens, perhaps hundreds of army officers were implicated in a scheme to execute ordinary civilians and make their victims look like guerrilla combatants. According to a report by an NGO coalition, at least one civilian was killed in this way every day from January ’07 to June ’08.

These murders have been an issue particularly in the Catatumbo region, where in December the campesino association ASCAMCAT held a public hearing for a senator, giving voice to the families of over 200 victims.

As a result of the work of the association and others in the region to expose these violations, tirelessly denouncing official murders of campesino civilians for years, the commanders of the army’s 2nd Division were dismissed in October, and in January Santos dissolved the 15th Mobile Brigade, one of the primary culprits of extrajudicial executions. In its place he announced the formation of the 23rd Mobile, which began operating January 29.

Santos had claimed this was a “fresh start” for the 2nd Division. Soldiers were recruited for the brigade from other divisions, reportedly receiving human rights instruction. But the results of the attack were much the same as other recent, arbitrary operations affecting civilians in Catatumbo. On January 1, the 5th Mobile Brigade carried out a similar bombardment on the community of La India in Tibú municipality, also affiliated with ASCAMCAT. An IPO accompaniment team verified that the army backed by the same air force unit hit the town with 500-pound bombs, and rockets fell within meters of homes.  In that case, there was no sign of guerrilla presence, before or after the attack.

Terror Under Seige

The attacks last week left one young campesino injured, two dead cows and wounded a donkey. There are dozens of quarter- and fist-sized holes in roofs, windows and walls, and the area is filled with trash left by the soldiers. Student play areas and the soccer field are pockmarked with craters from rockets and other projectiles. A woman and her two young sons and two pregnant women were present at the time their house was hit by gunfire just south of the school, with a bomb or rocket detonating a mere ten meters away.

The residents we spoke with talked of the terror of being under siege, and hostile treatment by encamped soldiers afterwards. The president of the local town council (Junta de Acción Comunal), José Orlando Pinzón, his cousin and son were detained by the army when they went to check on the damage. They were all interrogated, searched and photographed, and his personal diary, agenda and contacts were seized. Soldiers also stole food and beer from a storage space, music CDs from a teacher’s room and other equipment; total losses estimated at $2.5 million pesos by council leaders. National identity documents of dozens of school parents were taken also. Several residents told us the soldiers camped out in the homes of residents of La Esperanza. Confirming this account, on the way to the town we noticed a soldier stationed inside a farm in neighboring the neighboring village of El Caracol.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back for Campesinos, Human Rights Policy

This incident illustrates the halfhearted nature of the Uribe government’s voluntary reforms. Criticized for months even in the mainstream media, the government finally acted last month to replace sacked army officers and describe how they planned to prevent these acts from recurring. But the victory won by campesino leaders – official recognition of the widespread “false positive” killings – has not been matched with a change in treatment of campesinos by the army. So far neither local nor national governments have made any sign of investigating the attacks in La Esperanza. A delegate sent by the General Prosecutor’s office in Ocaña to confirm the attacks reported by ASCAMCAT advised local residents to flee with what belongings they could carry, and told one of the group’s leaders that the school only needed “a little paint.”

Since another administration – Barack Obama’s – with huge responsibility for the funding of army activities has recently started fresh, this may be an opportune time to revisit US-Colombia policy as it relates to operations against civilians. Last month Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared the Obama Administration’s intention to support Colombia’s war against guerrillas. She didn’t address rights violations by the armed forces in her confirmation testimony.

It’s unknown if either of the units responsible for the attack receive Plan Colombia funding; several calls to the US Embassy’s State Department Verification Office went unreturned. But the US has in recent years continued to fund army units in areas where the army is responsible for rights violations. A report released last year by Amnesty International and the Fellowship of Reconciliation shows that geographic regions with the highest levels of reported extrajudicial executions of civilians by members of the armed forces in 2006 were also largely regions with the most military units receiving US assistance.

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