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Courage in Colombia: An interview from Colombia's Memory Gallery

Galeria de la Memoria

By erstwhile luddite

visit the blogspot at http://gmfranci.wordpress.com

A few weeks ago, my friend John Walsh traveled with a labor delegation to Colombia.  John is a bookbinder and a regional vice-president for Teamsters-GCC Local 767-M in Portland, Ore. Working through the organization Witness for Peace, he met with Colombian women and men who have been enduring and resisting the brutal realities of living under the thumb of multinational corporations. Many of these corporations, aided by the Colombian and United States government policies, employ paramilitaries to keep unions, peasant groups, and other social or civic organizations from interfering with their power. For years Colombia has been considered the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists.  In 2008 alone, there were 49 confirmed assassinations of union activists.  John spoke with Anggie Tamayo, an activist in Cali who is working to bring light to the stories of those who have been murdered.  What follows is an abridged version of his interview. (Ms. Tamayo’s English is excellent, but not fluent.  In some places I have altered her wording in order to make the English flow better for the reader.)

John Walsh: I’m in the city of Cali, Colombia, and we’re at the Galería de la Memoria Tiberio Fernández Mafla.  I’m here with Anggie Tamayo, one of the people involved in creating the Gallery, and I’m going to ask her to tell us its history and the purpose.

Anggie Tamayo: It began in 1995 with a project that is called Colombia Never Again.  The idea of this project was to save victims’ memory, because we don’t want to repeat those actions that happened to them.  So we collect their testimony, because we think it is a sacred act of pain and mourning.  This project was begun two years ago, and we make different acts to commemorate the victims.  For example, we have Katherine Soto, she was a girl from the Universidad del Valle, she was killed two years ago by the army, and she was almost shown like a false positive—

JW: And people in the US probably don’t understand what a false positive is, so could you explain that a little bit?

AT: Well, a false positive is a policy of this government.  The army used to kill people like farmers, students, people that live in the country, and the [killers] say the [victims] are from the guerrillas.  So, when they say that, they used to get vacation, they used to get more money, so there are many people [killed] that are innocent .

A memorial to the life and dreams of Katherine Soto.

JW: So there was a bounty, basically, on life.  The people who killed these innocent people were rewarded for that?

AT: Yes.  So she was in San Cipriano, it is located near Buenaventura port. She was there with her friend and she was killed because they thought she was a guerilla, but she really was a student from the Universidad del Valle. She wanted to be a teacher. She had many, many dreams, and now, what we are doing is trying to continue with her dreams.

There are some other cases like Julian Hurtado, another student from Universidad del Valle, there are many cases.  We have also the case of Don José Orlando. He was a farmer, he lived near Cali, and he was killed by the army, too.  We have cases in some neighborhoods here in Cali, but there are also special cases, near Bogotá, about twelve guys that were killed by the army.  They were invited to play soccer, but then the army killed them and they were shown in the news like guerrillas. But their family started investigating that, so they realized that they were really normal guys, that they are not from the guerrilla.  But what we used to do here is to show that they were people with dreams, not only the act that they were killed, but also they have dreams, they have family, they have friends.

JW: How many cases?

AT: Like, 15,000 cases.  Fifteen?  [She realizes what she’s just said.]  No, I’m sorry, 50,000 cases.

JW: Fifty, five-zero, 50,000 people?

AT: Yes.

JW: They were all killed?

AT: Yes. But I think it is not all.  Those are the cases we registered, but there are more cases.

JW: Does anyone get prosecuted for these killings? Are people who do the killing caught? Are they charged with the crime, do they get arrested by the police?

AT: Not too much.  There are many cases that are under impunity.  Many, many – I can say that 90% of all those acts are in impunity.

JW: Now, when they are held accountable, they’re the ones who actually pulled the trigger.  But someone else may have given orders and been the intellectual author of the killing?

AT: Yes, most of the cases the person that is judged, it is the person that did the act, but intellectual mind is not judged.

JW: So even if there is an attempt for justice, it only reaches the first layer of those responsible, not the higher-up intellectual author of the crime?

AT: Yes, that’s right.

JW: Now with this many killings over such a long period of time – you said the Gallery started in nineteen-

AT: Nineteen-, well, we started collecting the cases in 1995.

JW: Okay, so that was fourteen years ago, 50,000 people dead. There must be very substantial reasons, there must be factors in Colombian society or the Colombian situation that explain why so much violence occurs, and you’d think it’s necessary – I think it’s necessary, and probably anyone would think it’s necessary – to understand the factors that cause the violence to be able to stop it.  So can you describe, and I know this is complicated, some of the reasons, some of the basis for the violence?

AT: Well, I think that there are many reasons, but the most important reason is talking about economic reasons. Because Colombia is a very rich country: we have gold, we have water, we have many natural resources that are very important for many multinationals. But the town now has the consequences and suffers the result, because those multinationals need their land.

JW: So we’re talking about campesinos, people out in the countryside?

AT: Yes, we’re talking about that.  So, I could say that we have more than one million people in a situation of displacement.

JW: If there’s a group of people living someplace that is prime real estate from the standpoint of a multinational corporation, and somebody wants to clear them away, that somebody doesn’t go in and – in the US, you might think they’d go in and buy the land.  That’s not what happens, I take it, at least not all of the time.  Sounds like instead of buying the land from the people who live there…

AT: They take it.

JW: And they don’t take it just by asking, they take it by driving people away?

AT: Yes.

JW: And sometimes by killing them, I take it.

AT: Yes.

JW: Okay, so that’s one of the reasons why these killings happen, is to seize land and seize resources that can be exploited to make money.

AT: Yes.

JW: All right.  There are other factors, too. Do you want to mention any of the other factors involved?

AT: Well, in this moment the US government is supporting the Plan Colombia, the second part of this plan, and the idea of this plan is to eradicate coca.  But what we have seen is that coca has increased, so we don’t know how they are helping us.  And this program has had many consequences for us, because it contributes to displacement, it contributes to war, and also it doesn’t have all the guarantees we need to continue with our lives.

JW: Do you think that Plan Colombia has increased or decreased violence?

AT: I think it has increased violence.

JW: And recently, in fact I believe it was a week ago, maybe a week and a day, this new agreement regarding military bases was signed between the United States and Colombia.  I know not all the details have been made public yet, but if the US has seven military bases in Colombia, is that likely to make matters better or worse?

AT: Well, I think that the topic about the bases in Colombia is something really hard, because if we don’t have control of our army, we cannot have control of another army.  Also, it is that [U.S. soldiers] come here and they want to do whatever they want and they don’t respect, they don’t know our culture, they don’t know what we want and what we need, so I don’t know why they are here.

JW: Another factor from the US is the Free Trade Agreement, which Colombia has already ratified, but the United States has not.  Would that also make matters worse, or not?

AT: Well, it also affects our economy, because this Free Trade Agreement doesn’t have all the guarantees we need.  I think that the country that can win in this agreement is the United States, because we don’t have all the technology and all the tools to compete and have the same way of life as the United States.  Also, there are many policies [our] government has today to help them, to help the United States, but affect us in Colombia.

JW: And probably most people in the United States who work for a living don’t think they’ll benefit, either.  Not just people in Colombia, but people in the United States; many of us think that the people who will benefit are rich people and corporations, specifically multinational corporations.  I think that’s important to mention.

Anything else you’d care to add for the listeners in the United States?

AT: I don’t think so.

JW: Anggie, do you mind saying how old you are?

AT: Yes, I’m eighteen years old.

JW: You’re eighteen years old.  And that’s an example of the people you meet in Colombia.

 To read more about John's Experience in Colombia click here

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