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The executions in Nuevo Laredo must be a watershed moment for ending human rights violations in Mexico

August 28, 2020

Arturo Garza, a 19-year-old engineering student and baseball aficionado, left home to visit his girlfriend on the night of Saturday 27 June. It was the last time his family would see him alive.

The next day they looked for him all over Nuevo Laredo, a border town in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. They reported his disappearance to the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Missing or Abducted Persons, but it was not until 3 July that they learned of a shootout between the Mexican Army and a group of alleged criminals, in which 12 men died. 

A video published by El Universal this week revealed how soldiers relentlessly pursued a pickup truck, hitting it with at least 243 shots. At the end of the video, a soldier approaches the back of the truck and shouts: “He’s alive!” Another responds with the order: “Kill the fucker”. 

Lying in the back of the truck was Arturo, next to Ángel Nuñez, a 27-year-old mechanic who had disappeared on 27 June, and Damián Genovez Tercero, an 18-year-old migrant from Chiapas, who had not been seen since 24 June when he went out to look for work with his cousin Alejandro Tercero, who remains missing.  

All three had been shot dead, but unlike the others killed in the shootout they were not carrying weapons or wearing uniforms and had been bound by their hands and feet. The evidence suggests that they had been abducted by a criminal gang and that the soldiers illegally executed them. 

“My son didn’t deserve this kind of death,” said Hector Garza, Arturo’s father. “I wouldn’t wish this on any other parent, it’s too much pain, it tears at my heart and the truth is I feel betrayed by Mexico.” 

Unfortunately, these were not isolated events. Amnesty International and the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee have been denouncing grave human rights violations in Mexico and in the state of Tamaulipas for decades, often at the hands of the armed forces. 

The militarized public security strategy of successive governments, combined with rampant impunity, has created a lethal environment in which the Army and Navy continue to commit crimes under international law, such as extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances, in Tamaulipas and many parts of the country.  

We have seen how the authorities often blame the victims, portraying them as hitmen or members of organized crime. In many cases they treat their families with contempt and tell them they have no right to seek justice. Criminals must be brought to justice in accordance with the law, and victims must be protected, not criminalized, nor have their lives put at risk. 

Impunity is a key factor. The Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee has documented dozens of cases of probable extrajudicial executions in recent years, but the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office has not prosecuted a single one. It seems that no amount of evidence is ever enough to bring about justice. 

In this case, as in all others, the authorities must promptly carry out an independent, impartial and exhaustive investigation to clarify the facts and bring to justice any member of the armed forces suspected of criminal responsibility. They cannot continue to deny the rights of the victims and their families to truth, justice and reparation for the damage done.  

A year ago, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador stated: “No one is authorized to execute, to finish off the wounded, or to massacre. The Army and the Navy are making a great effort and acting with great responsibility, and I would also say with conviction, to regulate the use of force and not to violate human rights.” 

These events suggest the opposite is true. This painful incident must be a watershed moment for the government and the armed forces to reflect deeply and accept their mistakes. Mexico is sick and tired of violence and at this point words are not enough. It is time to act. 

To end the crimes committed by the armed forces, the government must reconsider their role and that of the new de facto military body, the National Guard, and place human rights at the center of its public security strategy. The authorities must carry out a complete overhaul of the protocols for action and the use of force by the armed forces, as well as the treatment of victims and the provision of justice in Mexico.  

We must also consider members of the armed forces’ mental health and the dehumanization and emotional trauma they suffer. They are worn out after years of violent confrontations and years of carrying out public security tasks for which they were not properly trained. This environment is conducive to these grave human rights violations. 

We cannot continue down this path, repeating the same horror stories like that of Arturo, Ángel and Damián. We need a Mexico where the authorities rescue victims, protect the population and respect human rights.  

This op-ed was coauthored by Raymundo Ramos, president of the Nuevo Laredo Human Rights Committee, and was published in El País 

COVID-19 is not a pretext for violating the rights of Colombian farmers

May 4, 2020

Many farmers in Colombia have little choice but to grow coca.

Colombia’s farming communities have suffered decades of conflict between the army, paramilitaries and guerrilla groups, who dispute control of their territories, but the threats they face have intensified with the arrival of COVID-19.

Instead of protecting them from the pandemic, Colombian authorities are invading their territories to resume the forced eradication of coca crops, the primary ingredient used to make cocaine. This means exposing a population with little access to health care to infection, and taking away their only means of subsistence while they comply with isolation and social distancing orders. As if this were not grave enough, the authorities are also abandoning farming communities to the mercy of armed groups who have threatened to “shoot anyone suspected of having been infected by COVID-19”.

Despite several social organizations having requested the suspension of forced eradication during the pandemic, the authorities have carried out operations in seven provinces of the country since the government decreed obligatory preventive isolation on March 25. Local organizations have complained that the military were responsible for gunfire during the operations, and in one case even shot at coca farmers. These operations undermine the terms of the 2016 Peace Agreement, which states that the eradication of illicit crops should be voluntary.

The Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission has reported that the police and the army have carried out these operations without taking hygiene and health protocols to avoid COVID-19 infections into account. They are therefore violating the right to health of farming communities, which are often more vulnerable to the pandemic since in many cases they do not have nearby medical centers.

Jani Silva, legal representative of the Association for the Sustainable Integral Development of the Amazon Pearl in Putumayo, said in an interview with Amnesty International that the farming communities in the region asked the government “for the military to at least stay away from houses when they’re going to eradicate coca crops, but that hasn’t happened… the soldiers are approaching people’s houses, and they’re coming from elsewhere so they could be contagious and infect the locals.”

Amnesty International has visited several agricultural communities in the Amazon rainforests of Putumayo and the rugged mountains of Catatumbo in the past year. In these regions, where there is little state presence other than military deployments, the message from coca farmers is clear: they do it because they have no choice. Many say they do not want to grow illicit crops, but the historic lack of social and economic investment in their communities leaves them with no alternative.

“The government cannot decree social isolation without guaranteeing the fundamental rights of our communities to water, food and health, at the same time as threatening our food sovereignty by launching operations to forcibly eradicate coca crops,” said María Ciro, a member of the Social Integration Committee of Catatumbo.

Invading agricultural workers’ territories to eradicate coca in the midst of a pandemic can be tantamount to a death sentence. Farmers not only face losing their only source of income, but during the eradication they also risk of losing legal crops that they depend on so as not to starve to death during the pandemic.

“The government cannot decree social isolation without guaranteeing the fundamental rights of our communities to water, food and health,” says María Ciro.

Silva warns that “leaving families completely unprotected, with no means of defending themselves, when the government does not take responsibility for anything, would be catastrophic. People would be forced into displacement. What are they going to do without coca, without money and without food when they can’t go out to work? There would be a deadly famine during the pandemic.”

The farming communities of Catatumbo have peacefully protested to call on the government to halt the coca eradication operations, at least during the health emergency. But taking a stand in Colombia can cost you your life. On 26 March, the Catatumbo Farmworkers Association accused the army of the extrajudicial execution of Alejandro Carvajal, a 20-year-old who was participating in the protests against forced eradication. The situation in Putumayo is just as serious. On 19 March, armed men killed Marco Rivadeneira, a defender of the rights of farming communities, who had been promoting crop substitution in the region. In total, at least 14 people have been killed in Putumayo during the quarantine.

At 56, Silva is all too aware of the risks that agricultural workers face. She grew up on the edge of the Amazon, surrounded by crystal-clear waters, towering trees and wild animals, but had to move to the city of Puerto Asís after receiving threats link to her work defending local territories and the environment. Last month she was warned of a new plot to assassinate her.

“With this pandemic it’s become clear to us that the army does not guarantee the security of the farmers, and that it’s the armed groups who control these territories,” Silva said, referring to the paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug traffickers that operate in Putumayo. “With the threats and killings that have taken place in the region, we are afraid and in panic, not only about contracting the virus, but about being killed.”

In light of this terrifying situation, the Colombian government must immediately suspend coca crop eradication operations and take urgent measures to guarantee farming communities’ rights to life and health. The COVID-19 pandemic is not a pretext for violating anyone’s human rights.

This op-ed was co-written by Amnesty International campaigner Daniela Camacho and was originally published in Spanish by The Washington Post

Colombia’s coca farmers want viable alternatives, not militarization

March 12, 2020

Colombia is the world’s biggest producer of cocaine, with coca cultivation rising by 2% last year

Marina, a 50-year-old farmer and human rights defender from Colombia’s mountainous Catatumbo region, has never known peace. Dotted with lime-green coca plantations, this fertile but remote area near the Venezuela border has suffered decades of conflict between the army, paramilitaries and multiple guerrilla groups, two of which killed Marina’s father and brother when she was a child.

Today, like many local farmers, she has little choice but to grow coca – the illicit crop used to make cocaine – on the steep plot of land where she also keeps chickens, pigs and rabbits alongside parsley and turmeric plants. Guerrillas often skirmish with the soldiers camped near her mountaintop farmhouse, at times forcing her to flee with her husband, son and grandchildren when they hear gunshots and mortars raining down.

“Every day I think my life could be in danger, because if I don’t give the soldiers water or I don’t sell them whatever they want then I become a guerrilla accomplice,” says Marina, who works with the Committee for Social Integration in Catatumbo (CISCA) to defend agricultural workers’ land rights.

A farmer points to the scene of a shootout between the army and guerrillas beside his coca plantation

Her fears are well founded. Colombia was the world’s deadliest country for human right defenders in 2019, with Front Line Defenders counting at least 106 killings. The UN said it was “deeply troubled by the staggering number” of killings, which could reach as high as 120. The 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has had little impact in Catatumbo, where other groups like the National Liberation Army (ELN) and Popular Liberation Army (EPL) have a strong presence and some FARC dissidents have since returned to armed struggle.

President Iván Duque has deployed 5,000 troops to support the 12,000 already stationed there in “liberating citizens from the pressures of terrorism and drug-trafficking”, while boasting of delivering new infrastructure, aqueducts, electricity, housing, childcare and roads to the region. Yet Catatumbo’s agricultural workers say the state has abandoned and stigmatized them, with insufficient social investment leaving no viable alternative to coca farming. Local officials and social leaders want more sustainable development instead of militarization, warning that government plans to resume the controversial aerial fumigation of coca crops will provoke yet more violence and displacement.

Marina would like to stop growing coca but says it’s the only product with enough demand for buyers to come directly to collect it. The area’s dirt roads are impassable when it rains, making it impractical for farmers to transport other produce to the nearest cities, which are many hours away. With little evidence of a state presence beyond the army checkpoints and helicopters that buzz overhead, local communities have even set up their own toll booths to raise funds to fix the roads as best they can. Instead of sending more soldiers, Marina wishes the government would invest in roads, health centers and reforestation programs to protect the environment and create better opportunities for future generations: “I believe in peace. I don’t want other children to suffer what I went through.”

The state presence in Catatumbo is so lacking that local communities have set up their own toll booths to raise funds to fix their roads

Distrust of the army is pervasive in Catatumbo. Locals fear that if they stand up for their rights the army will accuse them of involvement with guerrillas to justify arresting, killing or forcibly disappearing them. In one case last April, residents of the village Campo Alegre discovered soldiers burying the body of Dimar Torres, a former FARC combatant who had disarmed in accordance with the peace agreement. A corporal was convicted for shooting Torres, while a colonel faces trial for allegedly ordering the extrajudicial execution.

Fighting back tears at her humble home, Dimar’s sister Mary Torres says the army falsely claimed he was carrying firearms and tried to portray him as an active guerrilla: “If they knew something, why didn’t they take him and hold him? They didn’t have to kill him like a dog.”

Children are also at risk. In July 2018, María Trinidad Andrade’s nine-year-old daughter and three-year-old granddaughter were wounded when a shootout erupted in Campo Alegre and stray rounds sliced through their bedroom walls. Trinidad believes soldiers stationed in front of the house were responsible for the shots that scarred her daughter above the knee and damaged her granddaughter’s bladder and colon. When she confronted the army, it blamed guerrillas for the shooting.

FARC propaganda in San José del Tarra, Catatumbo

The school in San José del Tarra, another remote village, has advice on avoiding landmines pinned to its walls and holds workshops instructing children on what to do if they find grenades or other explosives. “The conflict has scarred every one of us,” says a member of a local women’s collective. “We want this to end already. We don’t want more deaths… we’re afraid that people will get used to it, that it becomes something normal.”

The village’s 700 inhabitants have few alternatives to coca farming. Those who have tried selling cacao, coffee and bananas say their sales failed to cover the costs of production. “There are honest people here, noble people who are waiting for the state to notice them and address their needs,” the woman adds. “Militarizing the area will not solve the problem of San José del Tarra… It needs decent housing, modern public services, good education and healthcare.”

In Hacarí, a nearby town with soldiers camped in its leafy central plaza, the municipal government secretary, Isnardo Rincón, agrees the state presence is lacking and that troop deployments “don’t help us at all, really”. Rincón urges the federal government to provide locals with viable alternatives to coca, ensuring that they have the necessary infrastructure to sell legal crops at a profit. “We need projects that will benefit the families here, because they’re dependent on coca, it’s their livelihood,” he says. “If the state doesn’t provide a solution for agricultural workers, they won’t stop farming coca.”

Local officials and social leaders warn that aerial fumigation of coca crops will provoke yet more violence and displacement

So far, the Duque administration has provided insufficient funding to subsidize the substitution of coca plants through a program established under the peace deal. His government is pursuing a more aggressive approach, announcing plans in December to resume the aerial fumigation of coca crops using the herbicide glyphosate, five years after the previous administration suspended its use due to links to cancer.

On a humid evening at a ranch in the town of El Tarra, the mayor, José de Dios Toro Villegas, warns that aerial fumigation, which can also affect legal crops near coca plantations, would have devastating effects, leaving families in extreme poverty and driving farmers to take up arms. “It will unleash a wave of violence because the people are against it,” he says. “Nobody likes having the bread taken from their table.”

Rather than providing security or opportunities for the population, many in Catatumbo suspect the government’s priority is to safeguard the exploitation of natural resources in a region rich in oil, gold and coal. Álvaro Pérez, a CISCA member in El Tarra, believes the army and paramilitary groups are primarily there to pave the way for extractive projects: “They sow terror among the population in order to displace people, leaving the land free for them to do as they please with it.”

The ELN is one of several active guerrilla groups in Catatumbo

2014 UN report supports this interpretation, noting that mining and energy firms sometimes work with paramilitaries to advance their interests in Catatumbo, while army deployments to protect oil infrastructure have resulted in human rights violations such as the bombing of territory belonging to the indigenous Barí people.

Similar concerns arise at a community meeting in the town of Filo Gringo. The government is reluctant to provide viable alternatives to coca, suggests one man, “because it allows them to keep criminalizing us and come to our territory to impose the development plans they need. We must study these plans and ask: development for whom?”

The community echoes agreement. Many locals view their territory as a sacred and intrinsic part of their identity, providing subsistence and spiritual wellbeing. They will not give their land up easily.

Back at her farmhouse, Marina is equally determined to resist displacement. “I was born here,” she says, “I live here, and I want to die here.”

This article was originally published by Newsweek Español