Earlier today I received disturbing news from a good friend of mine in Colmbia who apparently was the victim of an attack against him and his entourage by rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC.
I'm talking about long-time social justice activist, community organizer and independent politician, Pedro Arenas, the current mayor of the city of San Jose, in the southern department of Guaviare.
Pedro has been an outspoken critic of U.S.-led counter-drug policies in Latin America, and has risked his life on several occasions to expose the dangers of the aerial fumigation campaign that successive governments in Colombia have carried out in southern Colombia with the total support of Washington. He has marched with the peasantry in southern Colombia, and was involved in the 1997-1998 mobilizations against the fumigations that received national and international attention, as they denounced the toxic effect of the chemicals used in the eradication effort, the government's failure to provide alternative solutions to the problems facing the rural poor, and the role this all plays in the forced displacement in the countryside.
Arenas was a former city council member of San Jose, and later became a departmental assembly member, under the banner of the Independent Movement for Youth in Guaviare. With that organization, Pedro founded the sole community radio station in San Jose in 1998, Juventud Stereo, which I have had the honor of working alongside on a number of occasions over the years. They are the lone voice of unfiltered information for the many communities most affected by the political violence in the region, violence spearheaded by right wing paramilitaries, their allies in the security forces, and guerillas of the FARC.
As a result of this activism and organizing, Pedro was forced to leave Guaviare for some time in the late 1990s, which is when I first met him, when he came to NYC in 1997. His charisma and clarity on these issues impacted many people here as the debates began regarding the so-called Plan Colombia program, which since 1999 has funneled more than $5-billion to the Colombian regime, mostly in military and police assistance.
Arenas eventually was elected to the Colombian Congress, where he served a three year term, as an independent, aligning himself most often with the progressive wing of the legislature, taking strong stands, for example, against some of the counter-reform measures promoted by President Uribe, such as the Forestry Laws, measures designed to win the favor of Washington in its negotiations over the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.
The FARC's 70th Front apparently carried out the latest attack on Arenas and his colleagues, claiming that the mayor has not "spoken out against the fumigations," an ironic, if not deliberately misleading statement given Arenas' long track record of denunciation and resistance. He has been invited to take that critical message to meetings, conferences and forums on four continents, and is seen as one of the foremost experts on the issue of counter-drug policy, militarization and development.
Now his biggest concern is the whereabouts of a campesino leader Marcos Baquero, who has not been seen since the attack this weekend.
As the President of Colombia meets with Barack Obama today, it is important that we recognize the dire situation facing human rights activists, independent opposition leaders, and the broader social movement in Colombia today. While this latest attack came at the hands of FARC, we cannot de-link their intransigence from the continued application of failed counter-drug approaches in places like Guaviare by the Uribe government, and their close friends in Washington.
Nevertheless, here is a link to a story which focuses on the government's condemnation of the attack against Arenas, posted in El Tiempo.
Here is a report from El Nuevo Herald, which focuses on the disappearance of Marcos, who had been accompanying Pedro Arenas during this work visit in the department.
Below is the message from Pedro, in Spanish, where he describes the attack that occurred, and their rsponse so far. I'll have more in the coming days as I find more information.
NOTE FROM PEDRO ARENAS, IN SPANISH
Ayer a las 11 am cuando me desplazaba desde San Jose hacia la Carpa (una inspeccion municipal ubicada a unos 50 kilometros de esta ciudad), fuimos objeto de un atentado con bombas y rafagas de fusil, yo alcance a salir en una camioneta blindada del sitio pero alli quedo herido un diputado -al que rescatamos dos horas mas tarde- y perdimos al presidente del concejo municipal, el compañero Marcos Baquero quien pertenece al Partido Verde.
Desde entonces no tenemos razon de Marcos y deseamos que aparezca bien. Guerrilleros del 7o frente de las farc cometieron el atentado, pues varios de ellos condujeron a nuestra secretaria de educacion y un periodista de la radio comunitaria durante casi media hora hasta el jefe del grupo quien se presentó con el alias de Jesus. Este le dijo al periodista que su ataque iba dirigido contra el Alcalde y que era un mensaje para demostrar que estaban vivos y que -segun ellos- "nadie habla contra las fumigaciones".
El periodista y la secretaria fueron liberados, el diputado esta fuera de peligro. En la Carpa estamos desarrollando una actividad como Alcaldia con el apoyo de varias entidades que nosotros llamamos "ferias de servicios", en el marco de una estrategia de prevencion del desplazamiento; llevamos salud, asistencia tecnica, sena, sisben, regimen subsidiado, deportes, cultura entre otras de caracter social, para asistir al campesino en sus lugares de origen. Yo sali de la Carpa en un helicoptero del ejercito, despues de hablarle a cerca de mil campesinos que se agolparon en el lugar.
Esta vez nos hemos salvado de una emboscada, pero tenemos desaparecido al concejal y les invito a pronunciarse por su regreso. Marcos es un campesino, lider de una asociacion de productores, estudiante de la ESAP, de nuestra misma colectividad politica, es su primera vez en la politica y representa justamente la region en la que ocurrieron los hechos.
No deja de ser curioso que este atentado lo hagan las farc contra mi persona, acusandonos de no decir nada contra las fumigaciones, cuando lo cierto es que hemos llevado una vida de compromiso con el campesinado y de denuncia por los daños que causan las aspersiones en la economia local y el medio ambiente. Tremenda equivocacion de una organizacion armada que nos ha atacado desconociendo el hecho de que, quizá la unica voz que se ha mantenido viva y en alto por los efectos de la fumigacion ha sido la nuestra.
Absurdo que pretendan acabar con nuestro proceso politico en el Guaviare y acallar estas, nuestras voces.
HERE IS THE TRANSLATION OF PEDRO ARENAS'S STATEMENT:
Yesterday [Sunday] at 11 AM, when I was going from San José to La Carpa (a town about 50 kilometers from the county seat), we were the object of an attack with bombs and gunshots. I managed to get out of the area in an armored truck, but a departmental legislator was wounded - we rescued him two hours later - and we lost the president of the municipal council, compañero Marcos Baquero, who belongs to the Green Party. Since then, we haven’t heard a thing from Marcos and we want him to reappear unharmed.
Guerrillas of the 7th Front of the FARC committed the attack. Several of them took our secretary of education and a reporter from the community radio for half an hour to the chief of their group, who presented himself with the alias of “Jesús.” He told the reporter that his attack was aimed at the mayor, and that it was a message to show that they were very much alive, and that - according to them - “nobody is speaking against the fumigations.” The reporter and the secretary were freed, the departmental legislator is out of danger.
In La Carpa we were carrying out an activity of the mayor’s office with the support of several government agencies, which we call “services fairs [ferias de servicios],” in the framework of a strategy of preventing displacement; we bring health, technical assistance, SENA [vocational training], SISBEN [central government assistance to municipalities], subsidized regime [central government health care], sports and culture among other social services, to help the campesinos in their places of origin. I left La Carpa in an army helicopter, after speaking to about 1,000 campesinos who gathered there. In the same helicopter were also five police who were in the caravan and who were “lost” for nearly 3 hours in the zone.
This time we have saved ourselves from an ambush, but our councilman has disappeared, and I ask you to raise your voice for his return. Marcos is a campesino, leader of an association of producers, student in the ESAP [national public administration school], and a member of our political movement. This is his first time in politics and he represents the very region in which the attack occurred.
It is quite curious that the FARC would carry out this attack against me, accusing us of saying nothing against fumigations, when the truth is that we have a lifetime of commitment with the campesinos and of denouncing the damages that the spraying causes to the local economy and the environment. For the past 15 years, every day we have asked for more commitment and investment in alternative development, in roads and productive projects to help the campesinos. I did it as a councilman, departmental legislator and representative in Congress, and now as mayor I have not lowered my guard on this issue. I am still working constantly to get decisionmakers to change this policy, and instead to carry out a program of integral rural development.
This is a tremendous error on the part of an armed organization that has attacked us, ignoring the fact that, perhaps the only voice that has remained alive and aloud about the damaging effects of the fumigations has been ours. It is absurd that they would try to do away with our political process in Guaviare and to silence our voices.