June 8, 2001

First Person

"I Survived A Colombian Paramilitary Death Squad"

EDITOR'S NOTE: About one in four of Colombia's 42 million citizens are black — but they account for some 70 percent of those forcibly displaced by violence and are also over-represented among those killed by aramilitaries. Luis Gilberto Murillo, one-time governor of Choco, found that trying to find a neutral position and protect resources nearly cost him his life. Now 35, Murillo, the youngest popularly elected governor in Colombian history, spoke to Mary Jo McConahay, who transcribed and translated his story.


By Luis Gilberto Murillo
as told to Mary Jo McConahay
PACIFIC NEWS SERVICE

African Americans and others should know something about the war in my country, Colombia. It's not about drugs. It's about greed and the struggle for local control.

Someone who tries to declare neutrality in that situation invites death, as my story shows.

You don't see black faces in seats of power in Colombia, even though we number 11 million. Social discrimination is strong — it is still acceptable to make fun of those of African descent in the media — and few blacks finish school. More than 82 percent of African Colombians live below the poverty line.

Choco, where I lived, is one of the country's biggest states, about the size of Costa Rica — but among the least populated, with 600,000 persons, about 85 percent African Colombian. It is extremely rich in resources.

By the mid-1950s, I was known as a public official active in community issues in Choco and an administrator of Bogota's environmental protection agency.

I was named a candidate for governor by a coalition of independent liberals and the National African Colombian Movement, a political party. My platform was to defend our province against projects launched by the country's traditional economic elites — huge infrastructure projects like highways, giant ports and even a proposed transoceanic canal. We get no benefit at all from such projects.

We wanted to represent new processes of thought in the black community. We also wanted to be visible in the national picture.

We won the election in l996, but there was fraud, and I was not inaugurated until January, l998.

In October, I introduced a plan called "Choco, Territory of Peace." We asked that the army, paramilitaries, and guerrillas leave our department, and permit us to exercise neutrality.

This was published all over the country and the army launched a smear campaign against us. But this was the only way to avoid more of the killing and abuses we had seen in Choco.

And it was a way of taking a position in the conflict — not siding with any armed groups — but a solely political position.

By January 1999, an election ruling by the State Council, which is controlled by traditional parties, forced me out of office.

I went to work as a consultant, and in June, I received a phone call from people who said they wanted advice about the environmental consequences of projects in Choco.

We were to meet on a central street patrolled by plenty of police and private guards in an exclusive Bogota neighborhood. I greeted the well-dressed man, but then noticed he was standing next to a red Toyota van with dark polarized windows — the kind you can only have with army authorization.

I didn't want to get inside, but somebody opened the door and pulled me in and I thought, that's it, they're going to kill me right now. It was between 12:30 and 1:00 in the afternoon on a busy street. No one did anything.

The men in the van were armed with submachine guns. "Well, we're not investors," they said.

They blindfolded me, and made me squat on the floor as they threw a jacket over my head. The car took off fast. Five minutes later we stopped and went into an apartment. They took off my blindfold and I saw that black curtains covered the windows and there were about 10 men, heavily armed, without uniforms, wearing no masks.

They made me sit in a chair. They told me this was nothing personal, they were completing a mission for the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a paramilitary group. They said the people they work with were connected to the government and economically powerful, and had to straighten out a problem.

Some of my decisions as governor had made these people lose money, they said. Now I had to pay them back. I told them "No," until they said, "If you are not going to pay, you'll work with us. We have financial resources. Many people work with us. We can finance your campaigns, and soon you'll be a political figure again in Choco."

Meanwhile, to remind me of my dependence on them, they were continually handling their weapons.

They brought me lunch, but I couldn't eat, had no appetite. They showed me pictures they had taken of my wife and small children, at school and walking home. "Call your wife. Tell her you're at a meeting and will be late," they said.

Later, all of them left the room. Then, over and over, someone would come in, say nothing to me, then leave again.

"What's happening?" I'd say. But there were no answers.

Then they took me to a small room where I sat on the bed, under guard, until about 6 p.m. Someone came to announce angrily, "This is no game." They were going to bring in my wife as a guarantee, until I paid them 500 million pesos (About $280,000).

They put a stack of checks in front of me and told me to sign. "You're crazy, I owe nothing," I said. They put a gun to my head. "We've killed others right here." I thought of those pictures of my wife and sons.

I signed checks. I recorded a statement that I was signing willingly, but this took hours, because I kept speaking in a voice that tried to show I was being forced. They got angry. After what seemed like a thousand tries, at about three in the morning, they seemed satisfied.

They took me to the mountains outside Bogota and left me in the dark. They told me that if I went to the police, they would know and kill my family first, and then me. They gave me until July 10 to leave the country.

I walked until 6:00 a.m., and found a taxi home. I told my wife, brothers and others and we decided to make all this public and denounce it, even though we know the Justice Department is infiltrated by the paramilitary and the army.

A police official said, "Oh, this is very serious," and called in a general in charge of kidnappings. He said giving protection wasn't their job.

So we went to the head of a department like the FBI. He agreed that protection was among their functions, but said they did not have enough men to provide it.

Finally, as many had recommended, we decided to leave the country temporarily.

All this happened just three months before elections. Without my presence, our coalition was not able to win.

I believe my kidnapping was part of an attempt to gain control of local government. The paramilitaries' project is not simply anti- guerrilla, it's a project of economic "development."

They intimidate so that even local leaders who don't support them don't attack their plans. Other leaders, whom they cannot neutralize in this way, neutralize such leaders. Other leaders have been assassinated.

I want to return as soon as I can to continue my political fight in Colombia. As an exile you give talks, appear at university seminars, but the massacres continue, more people are forcibly displaced.

On Easter Sunday over 100 were massacred in Upper Naya, most of them African Colombians. The Colombian government worries that if the news of how severely the black community is suffering gets out, it might call the attention of African Americans, or African countries.

I would like African Americans to note that their tax money is used to support a U.S. policy, including Plan Colombia, which is detrimental to African Colombians. And not just detrimental to their standard of living, but to their lives. It is a policy that kills them.

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