Colombia Delegation – Day 4
The first place we were due to visit today was Buen Pastor Women's Prison in Bogota. The Justice for Colombia delegations have visited prisons on their visits before. We were told that only 5 of our group would be allowed to enter the prison and there would be restrictions on the visit. Whist there had often been difficulties in arranging visits before there had never been a restriction of access such as this, which seems strange from a Government that has tried to present a more acceptable face.
The party that went in were disturbed by the harsh conditions in what was supposed to be one of the better prisons. Steve Gillan the General Secretary of the Prison Officers Association in the UK has seen many prisons, but said that he was shocked by the conditions in Buen Pastor. The prison was heavily over crowded, there were insufficient and inadequate sanitary facilities and the prisoners had little or no opportunity for education or recreation. Children are kept in the prison with their mothers until the age of four.
One of the prisoners the group were able to speak to was Liliany Obando who is an academic who carried out research into violence against trade unionists. She was arrested in a raid on her house on 8 August 2008 and has been held since then without conviction. At the time of her arrest she was about to publish an in depth report into human rights abuses. Liliany is a single mother and sole provider for 2 young children.
The group who entered the prison met the Governor and forcefully expressed their concern about what they had seen or heard.
Those who were not able to go into the prison travelled to the National University of Colombia to meet student representatives. Last year students and academics campaigned against proposals to reform education to privatise higher education and also focus state subsidy for students on technical and vocational courses. In October students demonstrated in Bogota and around the country in the face of tear gas, water cannon and tanks. The Government has said the reforms will not be introduced yet but they have far from gone away altogether.
It is an oddity that the police are officially not permitted onto University campuses in Colombia or in other countries across Latin America. This practice dates back to an atrocity in the early 20th Century which led to Universities being considered space free of state interference. In Colombia the police regularly contravene this, particularly when there are protests on campus. One of the police that has formed our escort for the week, said that they would not therefore be able to accompany us onto the campus, and told us it was a very dangerous place and that our lives would be in danger.
We had a little trouble getting into the campus. The security guards (and all the support services) have been privatised. We were told that many of the guards are 'rehabilitated' paramilitaries although the students fear that they are still active and form one means of watching the activists.
We were met by representatives of the Association for Colombian University Students (ACEU) which is one of the largest student groups and was founded in 1988. They explained that entry to one of the 33 state universities was by entrance exam or a sufficiently good score on high school matriculation. All students have to pay for their education and in the state universities the fees are means tested and go up to £1,500 per term. In the 1980s all the student halls of residence were closed and private lodging costs about £100 per month. The average monthly wage in Colombia is £175. There is some limited charitable provision of food assistance, but only 1,000 of the 28,000 students can get places on the food programme.
Most students, those who do not pass entry requirements, are in one of the 70 private universities. Fees are about 4 times as high as the state sector. In addition there are also 'garage' universities which are less formal, often poor quality institutions in what the students called 'shacks'.
As we walked further into the university we started to see more and more graffiti. It soon became apparent that the walls everywhere were covered with graffiti and slogans. The students explained that because areas for freedom of expression had been closed down the walls had become their space for expression. The graffiti covered everything from quotes from Che Guevara, Simon Bolivar and Marxist leaders through individual calls for freedom and justice to subversive humour.
The effect of the graffiti was powerful, it was not just covering the outsides of the buildings but into the halls and corridors of the buildings and even into the lecture rooms. We were told that there was a policy of 'white walls' in the university, keeping the walls all painted white. During the weekend before our visit the authorities had been painting over the slogans - our visit was unplanned so it was not for our benefit. By Wednesday the walls were full, the students having reclaimed their space for debate and ideas.
We also saw memorials to students that had been killed. One records the ten names of students killed in 1954 at a demonstration in Bogota, itself to commemorate the killing of the first student in 1929. On the 8 June 1954 protesting students sat down in the road when their way was blocked, leading the security forces to open fire whilst from a balcony the Minister of Justice looked on. Every year the students mark the 8/9 June massacres.
The most recent student death at the university was 8 March 2006. We were told that Oscar Salas, a languages student was killed when he was hit by a bullet fired by riot police that contained glass crystals, one of which went through his eye causing his death. Our group held a minute's silence at one of the memorials. I thought we had plumbed the depths of our emotions over the past two days but standing with the students was another moving moment.
There was much to inspire us at the university. One story was how in the 1960s the students tackled a statue of General Santander - a general who fell out with Bolivar during the independence struggle - in the University's central square. One night the students hired a crane and removed the General, never to return. The spirit of the students was infectious, the way young people had created a space that offered the hope of change. If our police escort was right that the university grounds were a dangerous place, it was not a physical danger but a danger that some of the students' ideas might just take hold.
Over lunch the lawyers on our delegation met with the Colombian Labour Lawyers Association. With the assistance of colleagues in the Americas, Spain and elsewhere they are planning a tribunal in May to receive testimony regarding attacks on trade unionists and others. They hope to present the findings to the International Labour Organisation in the hope of prompting international action on the abuses taking place.
In the afternoon we met the leaders of the Democratic Pole, an umbrella organisation of groups and political parties that forms the only opposition to the Government in the Senate and Parliament. They form about 10% of the members of Congress, the other 90% being part of the Government of National Unity headed by President Santos. They explained the difficulties they faced with paramilitaries having a far reaching influence in the political scene. This is not just in terms of the process of elections and the way votes are cast but also within Congress. We were told that 35% of Members of Congress have a paramilitary background. There is a men's prison in Colombia where one wing has been filled by former members of Congress who have been convicted of offences under what has been known as the Para Political scandal.
Dr Clara Lopez Obregon, the leader of the Democratic Pole, described the aims of the movement to bring about change. The Santos Government has promoted two laws, the Land Law and Victims Law which are said to be designed to make good the injustices of the past. The Democratic Pole opposed the laws on the basis that they are insufficient and just an attempt to create an appearance of change. In relation to the Land Law for example, she said that there had been 22 judgments concerning the return of stolen land and not one has led to the return of the land.
It was clear to us that the organisation has a massive task with limited funds and resources. Another Congressman Ivan Cepeda who we met later over dinner explained that he could not make the meeting because of the demands on their time. In particular, in addition to any work in Congress, the representatives spend much of their time around the country trying to uncover abuses and also supporting and trying to give some protection to the activities of social movements.
At the end of the meeting a lawyer arrived who announced that a court decision issued the same day had granted Liliany Obando, who the group entering the prison earlier had met, bail on the basis that her detention without conviction for this length of time was against the constitution. There is still a long way to go for Liliany but the news was understandably met with jubilation and shows that pressure works. Hopefully Liliany will be released in the next day or so and will be able to meet the whole delegation.
Our final meeting of a long day was with human rights groups and organisations. This was organised by, amongst others, MOVICE which is an umbrella organisation of groups of victims of state violence including paramilitaries. They work on helping displaced people, the families of disappeared people to locate the bodies of loved ones and getting the bodies returned home for burial and also to combat the impunity that exists in relation to these crimes.
We heard testimony from victims covering a range of crimes and incidents. We heard from the daughter of a Bogota trade union leader who was killed in 2008. She explained he was abducted by the local police. When a trade unionist disappears there is an automatic search procedure that should be triggered, despite the fact those searching and those holding him were one and the same, two days after his abduction he was killed.
The leader of an Afro Colombian people from the North of the Colombia who describe how despite the constitution guaranteed the rights of indigenous people, they had lost their collective lands. The land was now owned by just 3 individuals and has been turned over to commercial palm oil production that is well documented to damage the environment.
A trade union leader from southern Colombia faced constant charges of terrorism and rebellion, every single case being dropped when it comes to trial. His wife who was involved in investigating rights abuses was kidnapped by paramilitaries. Both he and his wife and their 10 month old daughter have been declared 'military targets'. Another witness we were due to hear from had just been the victim of an assassination attempt and therefore had to flee his home instead.
The brother of an assassination victim from January 2012 described his abduction, torture and murder which was subsequently reported as being a death in combat. His brother had been the subject of stigmatisation or slander since 2008, an example given was a leaflet distributed in 2010 accusing him and others of being members of Farc. This brought home to us the effect of the policy of stigmatisation. His brother was active in the agricultural workers union.
Another witness described how in 1995 paramilitaries killed two of his brothers and forced his family to flee along with 500 other families. The family had one hour to hurriedly bury his brothers in a single grave before leaving. Twelve years after the incident public records suggested that one of his dead brothers had sold the land to a paramilitary leader despite being dead. Evidence has been presented about the injustice to no effect. The owner of the land is now a Congressman.
The meeting also heard a report from the National Committee for Peace on hearings that were held in July 2010 that Justice for Colombia supported. The hearings recorded denouncements of mass graves in the municipality of La Macarena. The hearings forced the Government to act on the issue of unidentified bodies. A directive was issued to mayors around the country to report all unidentified bodies. The forensic science service and holders of medical records were required to cooperate in a process of identification. 22,689 bodies have been reported and the action of the groups supporting the 2010 hearing have enabled 9,968 of those bodies to be identified.
It was another long hard day but with moments of real hope. Over the next two days amongst other things we will be holding a series of meetings with the Government.
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