Negotiations in Cuba between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) aimed at ending 50 years of war have continued now for a year. Agreements on agrarian rights and, recently, political participation boosted peace hopes. But chances for peace rest largely on what happens in cities and regions like Barrancabermeja.
The fate of political prisoner David Ravelo and violence directed against the human rights group Credhos point to difficulties ahead. Credhos (Regional Corporation for Defense of Human Rights) is the Barrancabermeja human rights group Ravelo founded and led. A solidarity delegation visited with Ravelo in Bogota’s Picota prison in late 2012, and also called at Credhos headquarters in Barrancabermeja. The present writer joined that delegation and offers the following by way of follow-up.
By 1987 when Credhos was founded, paramilitaries were on the way to subjecting Barrancabermeja to a reign of terror. David Ravelo and Credhos resisted. According to Peace Brigades International, Credhos provides “promotion, defense, and protection of human rights, democracy, and international humanitarian law.” It pursues “actions and scenarios for understanding, tolerance, living together, and civilized peace.” Over time killers eliminated nine Credhos activists.
Credhos Secretary-General David Ravelo reported in 2010, “There are many murders and forced disappearances in Barrancabermeja and in the Magdalena region. Credhos accompanies victims’ families who are seeking the truth and damages for harm that was done. We demand reparations on their behalf and justice that is their due.”
Credhos’ formation coincided with growing repression against the newly formed Patriotic Union (UP). That electoral coalition emerged from a government-FARC agreement that insurgents would give up arms and be able, with others, to build a left political movement. UP activist Ravelo gained a seat on the Barrancabermeja city council. Then amidst murders, arbitrary arrests, and disappearances, he went to jail in 1993 for two years on fabricated charges.
Some 20 years later, violence still prevailed in Barrancabermeja. Credhos reported that during the first two months of 2013, there were “five murders, three forced disappearances, two people wounded, and 20 death threats.” Blame fell on paramilitaries intent upon “maintaining social and political control of the city’s poor districts and thus sustain drug trafficking, a lucrative business through which they finance their criminal action.” Credhos activists were being tracked and spied upon.
Ravelo was in prison again. Detained on Sept. 14, 2010, he learned in December 2012 that he would remain there for 18 years.
In April and early May assailants killed 10 individuals in the city. Rafael Rodríguez, secretary general of the USO oil workers union, narrowly escaped an attack. Abelardo Sánchez, the current Credhos secretary-general, is the target of repeated death threats and attacks. In November, both he and Credhos President Ivan Madero Vergel escaped from assaults.
The Santander Superior Court in October 2013 rejected David Ravelo’s appeal. Responding, Credhos blamed a “lack of guarantees and weakened due process.” Indeed, at Ravelo’s trial in early 2012, the prosecution relied upon accusations from two jailed paramilitary chieftains once active in Barrancabermeja. They gained reduced sentences in return for testimony accusing Ravelo of complicity in the 1991 murder of a Barrancebermeja city official. Reportedly they bribed a corroborating witness. The judge refused to hear testimony from 30 defense witnesses.
Ravelo’s appeal had centered on a crime committed by his prosecutor. As a police lieutenant in 1991, William Pacheco helped arrange for the forced disappearance of Guillermo Hurtado. Pacheco spent a year in a military prison. Colombian law bans criminals from serving as prosecutor. Pacheco submitted his resignation early in 2013, but remains on the job.
What with both judicial persecution of one its leaders and chaos and murder ongoing in Barrancabermeja, the Credhos story provides a cautionary lesson as to Colombia’s difficult road ahead with the project of building peace with social justice. The Credhos view is that “at the highest levels of the Colombian state they want to weaken social protest.” And, “there are hundreds of cases in which they have opened criminal investigations [of individuals] for daring to defend and promote human rights as a fundamental principle of a society dedicated to human development and defense of vulnerable communities.” As to the Colombian state: “experience has shown us that [its] strategies are structural and systematic.”
That insight is relevant for North Americans who would confront U.S. war-making. Colombia is the prime U.S. military ally in Latin America and, as such, is the recipient of military aid funds well known to trickle down to the benefit of paramilitaries and other lawless characters.
Photo: Colombia’s flag. Kaushai Karkhanis CC 2.0