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Special Report: State of siege in Arauca

ARAUCA, Colombia - "When there was no petroleum, there was no war," says Dario Tulivila, a traditional Guahibo Indian leader from Colombia's bloodily conflicted department of Arauca. "When the oil came, the war came. Before that, we had a dignified life here. Our council of cabildos does not permit them to take the blood from the earth in our territories. The wealth goes to other countries, and only brings war to us Colombians."

Tulivila is president of the Association of Cabildos and Traditional Indigenous Authorities of the Department of Arauca (ASCATIDAR), which was officially launched in June 2003 to promote the local autonomy of the department's Guahibo and Uwa Indian peoples. This autonomy is ostensibly protected by provisions of Colombia's 1991 constitution - but, ironically, since that constitution was enacted the threats to indigenous self-rule in Arauca have grown at a terrifying pace.

Saravena is situated at the northwestern corner of Arauca, just south of the Rio Arauca, a tributary of the Orinoco that forms the border with Venezuela. The town is just east of where the forested mountains of the Cordillera Oriental slope down to the broad savannas of the Orinoco basin, once viewed by Colombia's ruling elite as a solution to the crisis of landlessness in the cordillera. Saravena sprang up over the past 40 years, as the region was opened to peasant colonization with the official encouragement of Colombia's government. The Uwa, who inhabit the mountain cloud forests, and the Guahibo, the indigenous people of the Orinoco plains, have learned to live with their campesino settler neighbors, even if on reduced lands. But over those same years, this land once seen as an expendable frontier has become a top priority for the national government - as it has been targeted by both armed guerrilla groups and multinational oil companies.

"Unity, territory, autonomy and culture - if we don't have this, we don't have anything," Tulivila outlines the priorities of the contested zone's indigenous peoples. "We have been maintaining our traditions for over 500 years. We are not with the guerrillas, nor the army, nor the paramilitaries. We are our own authorities."

However, making that authority real has never been more of a challenge, as the army, National Police and the officially illegal paramilitary groups with which they seem to closely coordinate now charge nearly every organization of civil society with being a guerrilla front.

Army-Paramilitary impunity on indigenous land

In the latest of several round-ups of community leaders in Saravena, on Aug. 21, army troops and agents of the Administrative Security Department carried out a series of raids on homes and workplaces in the town, arresting 26 on the usual charge of "rebellion" - specifically, collaborating with the ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrillas, as widely reported in the Colombian press.

But the greater terror comes from the completely unaccountable forces of the paramilitary groups, who operate in a shadowy network of groups with names like the Vencedores de Arauca, and seem to overlap with the official security forces in Arauca with greater blatancy than elsewhere in Colombia.

At the Guahibo resguardo of Parreros, about an hour southeast of Saravena in Tame municipality, an April 2 and 3 attack by paras left three dead - including a pregnant woman. Several others were raped. Most of community fled. The refugees mostly made for Saravena, where they were put up in town's Catholic church. They only returned to their villages in mid-August, with army accompaniment and security guarantees negotiated by church leaders.

The attack fit the paramilitant model. The gunmen arrived at dawn on April 2, rounded up the residents at rifle-point, carried out the atrocities, and sacked the village schoolhouse, leaving paramilitary graffiti scrawled all over the chalkboard. Adding to the chaos, guerrillas attacked later that day, apparently aware of the seizure of the village. The guerrilla presence, in turn, brought in the army. Military aircraft bombed the resguardo, destroying forest and yucca and platano crops.

There were plenty of warning signs that such atrocities were coming. On March 30, days before the attack, armed men had detained and roughed up local mestizo residents at Betoyes, accusing them of being guerrilla collaborators. Witnesses were not even sure if these gunmen were army or paramilitary.

The pregnant woman who was killed, Omaira Fernandez, also had reason to believe she was targeted. Her husband, Nilson Delgado Lopez, had been killed in a similar attack in Betoyes Dec. 31, 2002.

Survivors of the April atrocities reported to ASCATIDAR and the Saravena-based Joel Sierra Regional Human Rights Committee that they recognized soldiers from Arauca's 18th Battalion wearing para armbands in the attack. The 18th Battalion's Col. Montoya Sanchez later told Arauca's Radio Caracol that the refugees had fled under orders from the ELN, and that the claims of a paramilitary attack were a "manipulation of the NGO Joel Sierra."

From community control to corporate-military occupation

The decline of legitimate government in Arauca reflects a generalized attack on the local institutions of civil society. The 26 arrested in the August sweep include representatives of the CUT trade union federation; members of the local construction, education and municipal workers unions; a worker from the Colombian agrarian reform institute; nurses from the Saravena hospital; a reporter from community-run Radio DIH; promoters of a project to develop a local university for Saravena; the director of Saravena's Casa de Cultura community center; three workers from the mayor's office; and a taxi driver. Jose Murrillo, president of the Joel Sierra Regional Human Rights Committee, was detained in a local barrio, where he was meeting with the family of another man who had just been detained. Another Joel Sierra official, Ismael Pabon, and three more CUT officials remain at large, apparently under arrest orders. Those arrested are now awaiting trial in a Bogota prison.

The previous sweep was even harsher. Last Nov. 12, in the midst of Saravena's annual country fair, members of the 18th Battalion and National Police rounded up several hundred people from their residences and workplaces at dawn. They were held for several hours in the local sports stadium, and interrogated. Forty-three social leaders among the detainees were arrested, including three women. They are still being held in Bogota on "rebellion" charges - allegedly, once again, collaborating with the ELN. Local peasant leader Juan Evangelista Rocha of the National Association of Campesino Land Users is among the imprisoned. The army dubbed the sweep "Operation Heroica."

Also arrested in both sweeps - five in November and four in August - were members of the Communitarian Aqueduct and Sewer Corporation of Saravena, or ECASS.

Aracua was at this time conceived as a "campesino zone," with a 50-hectare limit on family holdings titled by Colombia's agrarian reform bureaucracy as campesinos settled the region from the Cordillera Oriental. The region's economy was based on local consumption of locally-gown rice, yucca, beef, platano and maize. The settlers were largely left to their own devices. "There was no state presence," says Guerra. "The local population built the sewers by their own means. It all changed with the oil boom in the 1980s, when the Cano-Limon pipeline was built."

ECASS remains true to its roots, maintaining a grassroots-democratic structure. The local Junta de Accion Comunal in each of Saravena's 37 barrios has two delegates to an Assembly of Delegates, which in turn elects seven representatives to the ECASS Junta Directiva, which also includes members from CUT, the National Association of Campesino Land Users and the Chamber of Commerce. A portion of the profits go to community aid, and the rest is re-invested. Three simialr such community water corporations also exist in rural areas of the municipality.

Other ECASS members and employees have been threatened by phone. The army has detained employees at roadblocks, and accused them of giving ECASS money to the guerrillas. The Fiscalia, the national government's criminal investigative arm, is said to be probing ECASS president Luciano Pinto for suspected links to the guerrillas.

ECASS worker Rito Hernandez Porras says that in mid-August, men in civilian clothes stopped him in the streets, threatened him with death, and showed him list of ECASS workers and others targeted for death as guerrilla collaborators. Another time he was detained by police, who threatened to bring in paras to kill him.

Guerra denies that ECASS has any links to the guerrillas, but acknowledges that ECASS equipment is sometimes commandeered by the FARC. He says that two ECASS vehicles have been stolen by FARC guerrillas at gunpoint in the field over past two years.

"This is a dirty war," he said. "The state is incapable of defeating the guerrillas, so they attack the people."

On the night of Aug. 31, despite (or perhaps because of) the massive army presence in Saravena's streets, paramilitary graffiti appeared on walls throughout the town. Most read ACC-AUC HAS ARRIVED - an apparent reference to the para group Campesino Self-Defense of Casanare (the department immediately to the south of Arauca) and the notorious United Colombian Self-Defense Forces, grandfather of the paramilitary movement. Another piece of graffiti read DEATH TO TOADS, MILITIAS AND COLLABORATORS - toads apparently being para slang for guerrilla informants. Among the buildings prominently marked with graffiti were the Joel Sierra offices, the ECASS building and (unnervingly, but probably coincidentally) the hotel where I was staying with my photographer. The graffiti on the ECASS building read: FINAL SENTENCE: DEATH TO ECASS COLLABORATORS.