Criminalizing farmers' activism in Colombia

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Alexander Guzmán Romero was five years old when his mother died. His father raised him and six siblings and at the age of ten, he started working on someone else's farm to be able to afford groceries and clothing.

He completed elementary school when he was 18 years old and afterwards, continued working to support his family, including two relatives with special needs.

Guzmán Romero became aware of the social problems in his beloved Sumapaz, Colombia one of the biggest moor in the world, located south of Bogotá.

Sumapaz is a rich ecosystem and the place where several rivers rise. For this reason, it has attracted transnational companies such as Emgesa, a Colombian electric power company, which wants to produce hydroelectricity.

Guzmán Romero was a locally elected representative and became a visible leader of this region. He wasn't afraid to denounce human rights violations by the military; he also couldn't keep silence when corporations showed interested on Sumapaz' hydropower potential.

He paid a high price for his audacity. On December 17, 2014 he was detained while having breakfast on his way home and, along with 14 other farmers, was arrested.

The nightmare started. "We were taken to two different police stations in Engativa and Funza (Cundinamarca) where we slept on the corridors without blankets. People with addictions surrounded us. This was a traumatic experience," said Guzmán Romero.

One month later, he was kept under house arrest until December 21, 2015. The 15 farmers, including him, were released from prison on that date. However, they remained under investigation.

Why these farmers were detained on the first place?

Erica Gómez, a human rights defender and a lawyer at Permanent Committee of Human Rights (CPDH) explained: "In the last 15 years prosecution against farmers and grassroots activists has been used to disrupt their activism."

According to Gómez this is a systematic practice in Colombia. "The areas where massive arrests happened more often are: Sumapaz, Meta, Putumayo, Caquetá, Huila and Arauca."

The first mass arrest that Gómez remembers took place in Montes de María, in 2002, where 120 farmers were accused of belonging to the FARC Guerrilla. In this case, 90 per cent of these farmers were declared innocent according to Gómez, and the rest accepted charges because they didn't have a good legal support.

But these are not the only ones. Aidé Moreno, from Fensuagro, a National Union Federation for Agriculture added the provinces of Tolima, Cauca, Sucre, and Bolívar to the list.

"Massive arrests took place between 2005 and 2009 in Sucre where 25 unionized agriculture workers were detained. Others were imprisoned in Tolima, Cundinamarca, Putumayo and Arauca," Moreno said.

As a consequence of massive incarceration, persecutions and killings of unionized agriculture workers several unions disappeared. Some of their members were forcibly displaced to different provinces and others went into exile.

"We can say that massive arrests are permanent (…) the federation registered the names of agriculture workers in different prisons such as Alirio García and Miguel Ángel Bobadilla among others. The average age of incarcerated farmers is between 35-50 years old," Moreno added.

Diana Cubillos, a lawyer, human rights activist and a member of the CPDH agreed with Moreno's comments on mass arrest. "Some farmers were detained twice for the same crime even though they were declared innocent the first time, this happened in Dolores (Tolima). This is an evidence of a systematic persecution through criminalization and stigmatization of farmer's leaders. Another example happened in Putumayo where a group of farmers was released after their lawyers proved their innocence. They spent a long period in jail."

Jeison Pava, a human rights defender and a lawyer says that these farmers are not the only ones who have been arrested; unfortunately, mass arrests of farmers happen every three to four years in Sumapaz.

"This is one the most militarized regions of Colombia and also a strategic corridor for the guerrilla. The prosecution of farmers is based on false testimonies from demobilized guerrilla members who accused them of providing medicines, food or groceries to the guerrilla," affirmed Pava.

What is the impact of this mass arrest in Sumapaz?

Filiberto Baquero, president of Agriculture Union Workers from Sumapaz believes that the purposes of this mass arrest are to provoke panic and to debilitate social organizations, which defend their territory. "A proof of this is that some of the farmers linked to this investigation are members of our union and community organizations," commented Baquero.

Libia Villalba, an elected local representative from Sumapaz stated: "stigmatization and persecution of farmers in Sumapaz started years ago because of their defense of the land and its ecosystem."

On March 19, 2016 three men, Jorge Castiblanco, 18, his brother Cristian Castiblanco, 23 and Alexander Carrillo, 35, were found dead five days after their initialdisappearance. They belonged to the Sumapaz community and their fathers are farmers who are against hydroelectric projects on their land.

Villalba worked with Guzmán Romero for four years. She admires his commitment to the community; she also knows the other agriculture workers detained with him and acknowledges their honesty.

On February 15, 2016 Guzmán Romero went to the hearing at 9:00 a.m. but it was postponed for the third time in the past five months. He continues with his life even though he is under investigation. "We don't have any connection with the guerrilla, our sin is to be in the moor," Alexander said.


Photos courtesy of Filiberto Baquero López

Fernanda Sánchez Jaramillo is a Colombian journalist, has amaster's degree in international relations and is a social service worker. During her time as a social service worker, she was elected as a human rights representative for people of colour at BCGEU union in Vancouver. Fernanda has 20 years of experience. She worked for traditional media such as El Espectador and El Tiempo in her country but now she is a freelancer for online media in Colombia, Spain and Latin America.

She wrote seven books about women. In 2014, she received the Colibrí award in Barrancabermeja (Colombia) for her contribution to peace through journalism. Nowadays, she is a Carter's Center fellow and a law student. She is a feminist.

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