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- Monday, 19 February 2001 -
THE CIMITARRA VALLEY SITUATION
by Liam Craig-Best
On the morning of January 20, 2001, a joint Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrilla force
simultaneously carried out surprise attacks on five paramilitary bases in
the Cimitarra Valley in the south of Bolivar. The guerrillas, who initially
attacked the camps with gas cylinders that immediately killed 22 death
squad members, in total managed to wipe-out over 120 paramilitary fighters.
In 1998 after paramilitaries had begun to displace large numbers of peasant
farmers in the south of Bolivar department, a delegation of regional
peasant farmer leaders took part in a series of negotiations with the
Colombian government that led to a signed agreement under which the
government said it would guarantee the safety of the displaced communities
and take action to combat the paramilitary groups responsible.
Far from taking action against the paramilitary forces the government stood
by and did nothing, while an increase in paramilitary activity occurred
alongside an increase in the amount of help these units received from the
Colombian Army in the region. Local army commanders who were known to be
deeply involved in death squad activities were allowed to remain in their
posts and army units that openly patrolled with the paramilitaries were not
reigned in. One of the worst affected areas was the Cimitarra Valley.
The following year, on November 28, 1999, Cimitarra Valley peasant leaders
Edgar Quiroga and Gildardo Fuentes were 'disappeared' by local paramilitary
forces. Both men had taken part in the talks with the Colombian government
yet still nothing was done and the army continued working hand in glove
with the killers.
In late 2000 there was a massive increase in paramilitary activity in the
Cimitarra Valley and the numbers of civilians being displaced from the area
increased dramatically. Amnesty International reported that in early
December the paramilitaries attacked the Cimitarra River Valley Peasant
Farmers Association and that during mid-December some 200 paramilitaries
raided 11 hamlets in the valley. Amnesty also said, "Two army helicopters
were reportedly overhead during the raids, together with one civilian
helicopter which is known to be used by paramilitaries. It is of concern
that the army and the paramilitaries were apparently working together."
On December 15, the Colombian military bombed four communities in the
Valley and although this forced many residents to flee, a large number
elected to remain. Predictably the paramilitaries then moved in and began
their work. Hundreds of families were told that they would be exterminated
if they did not leave and at least six people, including peasant leader
Eduardo Amaris Perz, were 'disappeared'.
During the following days the paramilitaries announced that local peasant
leaders Miguel Cifuentes, Gilberto Guerra, Andres Gil and Libardo
Traslavina, along with the communities they represented were guerrilla
sympathizers and were therefore military targets. To add to this the army
then backed-up the paramilitaries by labelling the leaders of the Cimitarra
River Valley Peasant Farmers' Association as 'subversives,' thereby leaving
them completely open to death squad attacks. All four of the leaders
threatened had, two years previously, participated in the negotiations with
the government regarding protection for the displaced.
The paramilitaries with the open backing of the army now had the Cimitarra
Valley firmly under their control and by the end of December they had set
up numerous checkpoints and bases in the region from which they ran their
operations. On December 30th, according to witnesses, paramilitaries and
soldiers from a nearby counter-guerrilla battalion were jointly manning a
roadblock at a place known as La Rompida when an unarmed civilian, Libardo
Taburete, arrived on a motorcycle. He was hauled away tortured and
murdered, apparently without reason
In the new year the paramilitary violence continued and on January 3, 2001,
the death squads kidnapped 18 local residents who were members of the
Cimitarra River Valley Peasants Association. In a communiqu the
paramilitaries announced that the kidnappings were in retaliation for the
killing of a paramilitary fighter and the detention of two others by the
Coinciding with the December increase in paramilitary activity two senior
guerrilla force commanders in the region met and devised a joint strategy
to expel the death squads from the Cimitarra Valley and, in the words of
one of them, "to give some sort of justice to those families who have
suffered at the hands of the death squads. The two commanders, Pastor
Alape, commander of the Magdalena Medio Block of the FARC, and Gallero, a
senior leader of the Ramirez Castro Block of the ELN, decided to slowly and
secretly surround the area where the paramilitary forces had their camps
before making a large-scale lightening blow against them. In the meantime,
they decided, they would carry out as many assassinations of death squad
members as possible.
By mid-January 2001 the guerrillas had managed to kill around 100
paramilitary fighters and had all five major death squad camps in the
Cimitarra Valley secretly surrounded.
Early in the morning on January 20, the FARC and ELN sent their best troops
to attack the five camps. Even though a military helicopter provided
logistical support to the paramilitaries defending the camps, the guerrilla
operation managed to over-run all five camps and kill more than 120
paramilitaries, including the Cimitarra Valley death squad commander.
What the guerrilla forces found in the paramilitary camps only surprised
the most naive observers. Piles of boxes of army issue ammunition and
landmines, as well as military documents, were discovered in the command
posts. The army had basically supplied the bases.
What came as more of a shock was the fact that some of those killed by the
guerrillas inside the death squad camps were actually active service
military personnel. Among them was Henry Morales Rojas (Identification
Number 91-478-941) who was found with a certificate showing he was a
serving member of a local army counter-guerrilla battalion. Other
paramilitaries killed included Orlando Francisco Campo Mendoza from the
town of Fonseca, Guajira department (ID Number 17-956-895), who had
documents on his body showing that he had left the army only a few days
According to local FARC commander Julian, many of those killed during the
attack on the bases had in fact been Colombian Army Special Forces troops
who were serving as paramilitary fighters.
The Colombian government, the armed forces and their U.S. backers all
continue to deny that the paramilitaries and the army are working together.
Yet the recent attack on the Cimitarra Valley paramilitary bases has been
completely ignored by them. It is very likely that this is due to the fact
that an investigation would show that these bases were regularly supplied
by army and paramilitary helicopters and that it is impossible that the
army radar base in nearby Barrancabermeja was not aware of this. The
question of why the paramilitary helicopters that used the bases were never
intercepted would obviously also arise.
Furthermore, an investigation would show that while military aircraft
regularly flew over the area on their way to bomb alleged guerrilla camps
deep in the forests and mountains, they never once attacked the
paramilitary camps that were easy targets on low and open land and that,
more importantly, housed the real criminals of the Cimitarra Valley.
The Colombian government also claims that it is cracking down on
paramilitarism in and around the city of Barrancabermeja, yet the the
paramilitaries that survived the guerrilla offensive met, on January 21,
2001, with army commanders from that city. The meeting was held at a place
known as Cuatro Bocas at the end of the Cimitarra Valley and, according to
observers, involved talk of a future joint effort to retake the region. The
next few months, unfortunately, will no doubt see a lot more united action
from the paramilitary-military alliance.
It appears that by the first week of February 2001, the surviving
paramilitaries in the Cimitarra Valley region had set themselves up in the
area around Cuatro Bocas -- the place where they had met with the army. In
the last few days guerrilla units have arrived in the area and the
paramilitaries have again had to go on the defensive.
On February 5, troops of the Colombian Army`s 4th Brigade appeared in the
area for the first time and have gone into battle with the guerrillas in an
effort to give the paramilitaries an opportunity to regroup. When the
troops arrived, planes and helicopters accompanied them and these have
begun to saturate the region with bombs and machine gun fire, forcing
numerous residents to leave the area and join other displaced people in
Barrancabermeja and other places. During the past months of paramilitary
terror in the Valley the troops of the 4th Brigade never once made an
Furthermore evidence has emerged that when the guerrillas retreat into the
mountains, rather than pursue them, these troops spend their time doing the
paramilitary's work for them. A February 5, 2001, statement the Cimitarra
River Valley Peasant Farmers' Association denounced "the Colombian State
and its Armed Forces" as "directly responsible for the current massacres,
disappearances, ransacking, burning of small villages, destruction of
harvests and killing of livestock that is occurring as part of this new
military operation" in the area.
On the morning of Feb 7, 2001, reports began coming through of at least
3,000 more counter-insurgency troops, from both the Colombian Army`s 5th
and 14th Brigades, arriving at the airport in Barrancabermeja to reinforce
those already in the south of Bolivar. Heavy combat with both FARC and ELN
units has also been reported and a large number of U.S.-made Blackhawk
helicopters have been seen in the area.
Liam Craig-Best is an independent journalist who focuses on Colombia.
Copyright 2000. Colombia Report is a publication of the Information Network
of the Americas (INOTA), a non-profit organization. All rights reserved.
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