Amid an escalation in the armed conflict in the border region of Arauca, social leader and human rights defender Sonia López discusses the broader context of systemic state violence against communities
On January 2, multiple organizations in the department of Arauca, Colombia, declared a humanitarian emergency in the region, due to increased clashes between the National Liberation Army (ELN) and dissidents of the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). However, the context of the current violence in this region is much broader.
Arauca, a department located in the eastern region of Colombia on the border with Venezuela, has several mining and energy projects and one of the highest soldier-to-population ratios in the country. It also has a wide range of social and popular organizations that have historically fought for their permanence in the territory.
During the last few days, the humanitarian emergency caused by confrontations between the ELN and FARC dissidents has left 27 people dead, in addition to an undetermined number of retained and displaced persons.
The Joel Sierra Human Rights Foundation was the first organization to alert about this situation and has been constantly accompanying the communities in affected areas. Colombia Informa spoke with Sonia López, representative of the Foundation, about the context in the department beyond the current situation.
Colombia Informa: Many media outlets have attributed the humanitarian emergency in Arauca to the confrontations between ELN and FARC dissidents. What other contextual elements do you consider relevant to understand what is happening?
Sonia López: Colombia is itself immersed in an international social, political and economic dynamic, determined by the capitalist mode of production, which outlines each country’s specific tasks according to their interests of accumulation. Our country has been assigned the task of supplier of raw materials. In this sense, our territories have become a target for the looting and plundering of natural resources. In order to achieve these objectives of capitalist accumulation, the Colombian State, servile to the empires, has unleashed a strategy of aggression against the Colombian people, their social organizations, and their life project.
Arauca has some particular characteristics: its wealth in natural resources (oil, water and biodiversity) make it attractive for national and foreign capital, as well as the fact that it lies on the border with the sister Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Our territory is geostrategic in the context of the imperialist war and its interventionist plans against our sister country.
The social and popular movement in Arauca throughout its history has built a social fabric that has resisted and materialized its plan for life under the slogan “in defense of life and permanence in the territory”. Our struggle to defend this plan for life has meant we have been stigmatized, persecuted and criminalized by the Colombian State and seen as “internal enemies” in the framework of the national security doctrine.
CI: How has this impacted the communities in the region?
SI: Here we have suffered the rigors of war in all its forms: on the one hand, historical state neglect in terms of social investment. What exists in Arauca today in terms of infrastructure in health, roads, education, is the product of social mobilization campaigns that have pressured the state to make these investments. The Colombian State has declared our territory a laboratory of war and here they have implemented the various strategies in their alleged wars of counterinsurgency, counter-terrorism, and anti-narcotics, among others.
With this, they have stigmatized us, declared our territories ‘rehabilitation and consolidation zones’, and consolidated the paramilitary project. Under Plan Colombia, they have used the different iterations of aerial fumigation and militarization. They have massacred us, they have continued (and perfected) the practice of extrajudicial executions with more than 100 documented and denounced cases in Arauca.
We have also faced selective political persecution and imprisonment on a large scale. Since 2002 to date we have had at least 353 comrades prosecuted and/or imprisoned, which is an average of 18 social leaders, community leaders, and human rights defenders per year. Added to this are the consequences of the armed conflict. During 2021, 150 people were selectively assassinated, dozens were detained and wounded, and civilian property was affected, among other impacts.
Almost forty years of oil extraction in the region have not resulted in a dignified life for the people of Arauca, on the contrary, we are faced with a social, humanitarian, economic, and environmental catastrophe. The oil corporations are responsible for the financing of this war and the criminalization of the social movement.
We have denounced this economic financing of the public forces and the structures of the prosecutor’s office, which are responsible for designing and carrying out the judicial persecution against leaders and human rights defenders. In addition to financially supporting the prosecutor’s office, the police and the army through cooperation agreements, the oil companies have even declared themselves as victims in the criminal proceedings against the leaders who have been prosecuted.
This situation has worsened with the implementation of new oil projects in Saravena, Arauquita, Tame, and Fortul. These new oil projects coincide with the implementation of the so-called strategic zones of integral intervention or future zones, which are nothing more than the continuity of Plan Colombia and its war plan, wherein the military element is central. These programs have had limited social assistance programs, with the intention to clean up the image of the public force that has been discredited by the more than 6,402 cases of extrajudicial executions and the massacres that they have carried out during the mobilizations.
CI: What responsibility does the National Government have for what is currently happening in Arauca?
SL: The State is the sole entity responsible for guaranteeing human rights, therefore, in the situation of the country and of Arauca, the Government, as representative of the State, is responsible by action and omission. On the one hand, it does not guarantee the minimum subsistence conditions for the majority of Colombians, as evidenced by the high rates of poverty, extreme poverty, and unemployment. On the other hand, it has carried forward criminalization strategies that have taken the lives, freedom, and integrity of people, peoples, and territories.
In the face of the armed conflict, it has not had the will to comply with the minimums agreements that were reached in the peace agreements.
Nor has it complied with the agreements reached with the social movement during the various mobilizations and spaces for dialogue.
CI: What is the position of the Joel Sierra Foundation regarding the militarization of the territory as a response to social problems?
SL: In Arauca, as in the rest of the country, there is a social, political and armed conflict, which has structural causes based on inequality and inequity generated by the capitalist mode of production, which must be overcome. As long as these causes persist, violence will be the order of the day.
Arauca is a highly militarized territory. There are more than 9,000 military personnel, in addition to the police and the army. This militarization has not been at the service of protecting the life, integrity, goods and projects of the people of Arauca, but at the service of the interests of national and foreign capital, mainly to take care of the oil infrastructure. If militarization were the solution to the humanitarian crisis in the territory, it would have already been solved.
CI: How is this reflected in the current context?
SL: This situation in Arauca has been continually used by the State to justify the high level of militarization and with it, the aggression against the communities and their projects. It has also been a way to continue preparing the ground for the interventionist plans against Venezuela, as Arauca is key for this geostrategically.
Today it would appear that after years of state neglect in social investment, high levels of human rights violations, and looting and dispossession, the State, the National Government and the security forces want to show themselves as protectors of the Araucanian civilian population. However, their real interest is to protect and guarantee their economic interests in the territory. It is no coincidence that the two new battalions arrived precisely in areas where new oil projects are being developed.
CI: How have communities and social processes historically responded to this context of extractivism and systematic violation of human rights?
SL: Despite years of state neglect in social investment, structural and direct violence, and daily consequences of the armed conflict, the communities in Arauca have organized themselves in the various sectors and social processes around a “plan for life”. This plan outlines the political commitments, proposals, programs, and projects with which they have been making social, political, and economic transformations to guarantee a dignified life and permanence in the territory.
On a daily basis, the projects in defense of health continue to be materialized and strengthened, such as the public hospital network and incorporating ancestral and traditional medicine, as well as strengthening public and quality education at various levels. We have worked hard in peasant production and have gone beyond production to agro-industrialization, with the processing plant for bananas, milk, and agro-inputs. We have also worked to strengthen the Agro-food Peasant Territories for agroecological food production, water care, and to protect the environment. In addition, we are committed to the provision of public services through community enterprises such as water treatment plants in Saravena – ECAAAS ESP, Fortul – EMCOAFOR, Arauquita – ECADES, among others.
We continue working for peace, which we understand as the full exercise of rights. For this reason, on a daily basis the “Plan for Life” of the social movement is our proposal for peace, for a peace that is reflected in real conditions, for the permanence in the territory in conditions of dignity.
CI: What actions have been taken by the social and community organizations to respond to what is happening?
SL: In light of the latest events, committed to our legacy of defending life and territory, we have been making the situation visible, calling on municipal and departmental authorities, humanitarian organizations, and the international community to accompany the initiatives proposed by the communities to protect life and guarantee permanence in the territory.
We have also encouraged the communities to strengthen the community fabric and self-protection mechanisms for the protection of life and territory.
Featured image: Colombia’s Arauca department is one of the most heavily militarized in the country, in addition to being home to several transnational oil extraction projects. Photo: Colombia Informa
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