June 29, 2007

Colombian rights activist says paramilitary units a danger to country

By Ashley Matthews
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON — Activist Ivan Cepeda told a Capitol Hill audience that Colombia needs to demobilize paramilitary forces for the country to gain stability.

Speaking through a translator, Cepeda spoke to staff members and human rights activists on Monday, June 18, 2007.

Cepeda has documented thousands of abuses in his home country. He is the founder of and spokesman for several human rights organizations, including the National Movement for Victims of State Crimes, an umbrella organization made up of more than 200 groups.

“With various members of Congress during the week that I’ve been here in the U.S., we’ve tried to communicate a few simple messages, with the idea that these are things that should be debated in the U.S.,” Cepeda said. “They should be things that U.S. policy makers communicate.”

Since the 1970s, there has been conflict between the Colombian government and right-wing paramilitary groups and leftist rebels. The country is also plagued by drug trafficking and guerilla insurgencies, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which uses the Spanish acronym FARC.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was elected in 2002 on the promise that he would use military pressure to demobilize groups like FARC and decrease drug trafficking.

Cepeda disagreed with Uribe’s claim that the human rights situation has improved. Uribe has visited Washington twice to talk about the state of human rights affairs in Colombia, most recently earlier this month.

“Today, we’re going to talk about pre-existing situations, which we believe shows that Uribe is not making a strong argument,” Cepeda said. “We will present these situations to show a lack of improvement to members of Congress here.”

The U.S. assists Plan Colombia, which was created primarily to combat the narcotics trade.

“Colombia is one of Latin America’s oldest democracies, and the U.S. has long enjoyed close and friendly relations,” U.S. State Department spokesman Eric Watnik said. “Most recently, U.S. policy towards Colombia supports the Colombian government’s efforts to strengthen its democratic institutions.”

Cepeda said evidence links government officials to the ongoing violence.

“Colombia is living in a serious political conflict right now, a serious political situation, which in the media has become known as the ‘para-political’ scandal,” he said. “This crisis has unfolded because the Supreme Court of Colombia has begun investigations that are showing that there are connections between paramilitary leaders and politicians.”

This connection is making it hard to trust demobilization statistics, Cepeda said. According to the International Crisis Group, more than 80 paramilitary groups operate in different regions of the country with up to 9,000 combatants.

Cepeda said this would make the number of active paramilitary groups the same as when Uribe assumed the presidency.

“I want to note that the drug trafficking in Colombia continues unabated, despite the fact that there has been a supposed demobilization,” he said.

In 1994, Cepeda witnessed paramilitary gunmen assassinate his father, Manual Cepeda Vargas. Vargas was a senator who belonged to the Patriotic Union, a leftist political party.

“My wife and I now have spent 12 years struggling for justice in the case of my father and other politicians who were part of the Patriotic Union party who were assassinated,” he said.

The investigation almost cost Cepeda his life.

“We were able to leave Colombia and go into exile in the year 2000 in order to save our own lives,” he said.

Cepeda faces slander and libel charges in Colombia for implicating government officials in human rights violations. Cepeda joked that he is “impressed” with the attorney general’s promptness in investigating his crimes, while the government still has not been investigated for possible wrongdoings.

Andrew Hudson, a Helton fellow with the Human Rights Defender program of Human Rights First, called the charges against Cepeda “baseless and politically motivated.”

Cepeda and his wife returned to Colombia in 2004. Their apartment has bulletproof glass on the doors and windows. They also ride around Bogotá in a bulletproof vehicle.

Human Rights First, a New York based human rights organization, chose Cepeda as the winner of the 2007 Roger Baldwin Medal of Liberty. The medal, which Human Rights First awards every two years, was presented to Cepeda on Wednesday in New York.

Hudson said although Cepeda is “modest,” he is deserving of the medal.

Hudson said Cepeda won over other nominees “for the really groundbreaking work he has done for the last 12 years since the death of his father.”

Roger Baldwin founded the American Civil Liberties Union and the International League for Human Rights.

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