We continue with the series of PBI Coffee Breaks, this time we are joined by Ivan Madero, president of the Regional Corporation for the Defence of Human Rights. It is an organisation based in Barrancabermeja, which works to promote and defend human rights and International Humanitarian Law. The organisation has been accompanied by PBI since 1994.
PBI: Let’s start with a general picture, tell us about the history of paramilitarism in the Magdalena Medio region and Barranca in particular.
Ivan Madero: We can tell it in three moments: one at the end of the 80s when the Magdalena Medio self-defence forces were created and began persecuting the whole social and political movement in the region, and they combined with the Navy’s network 07 at the beginning of the 90s.
The second moment is a time of terror, fear and persecution against the social movement and the whole community in Magdalena Medio, when Barrancabermeja was taken by the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, which set themselves up there until 2005, imposing their laws of cohabitation, their methods.
And a third moment is the one we have been living since 2005, when they have transformed into criminal gangs, having continued to operate throughout the years, and today in Magdalena Medio we are talking about the neo-paramilitary structure of the Usuga Clan, now called Clan Golfo, or in some leaflets they call themselves Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces.
PBI: How do you see the current configuration of the armed actors in Barrancabermeja?
IM: Today the reality of the conflict is different to other years, in terms of the confrontation, how it has de-escalated, today the insurgency is in agricultural areas, the FARC on one side, the ELN on the other, today there is a new political order to the guerrilla’s actions, it is in a process of negotiating the establishment of rural areas where they will concentrate.
The scaling down of the conflict is felt, but the reality is different in urban areas around Magdalena Medio’s different municipalities, particularly in Barrancabermeja where there is a neo-paramiliatary structure led by the Golfo Clan which is continuously and publicly present in Barrancabermeja’s districts, and in all the urban areas of the region’s municipalities as well.
PBI: And with respect to the reconfiguration of these neo-paramilitary groups present in Barrancabermeja, what do you think it has meant for the social movement?
IM: The continuity of paramilitary control here in Barrancabermeja, in the districts, means the downfall of society, fear for the communities, it means paramilitary positioning, controlling the laws of cohabitation, isolating the community from the social movement. Today, it still is not possible to have a territorially based strategy for interacting with the communities in the neighbourhoods, there is still fear in the social movement to move forward on this issue, and these invisible borders are still being generated between the social movement and the community.
Today CREDHOS has a Peace Strategy for the Districts where we are working under a lot of fear, with a lot of contact with District 3. But this has been the consequence of the neo-paramilitary groups which exercise control and which the authorities still do not want to recognise, but which are right there, and feed the market for micro-trafficking which has grown in Barrancabermeja. They are elements which block the social movement’s advances in constructing initiatives to build human rights and peace with the communities.
PBI: CREDHOS is preparing a report on the presence of neo-paramilitary groups in Barrancabermeja and we wanted to know, why are you publishing this report knowing that it could put you in a difficult situation for your level of risk?
IM: For CREDHOS, its political philosophy is based on speaking out. Since 1987, for 28 years we’ve been speaking out about the dynamics of the armed conflict and the dynamics of its actors, its transformation and how the war has evolved.
So we have always had that line of work and today we are dedicated to understanding the dynamics of these neo-paramilitary structures in urban areas because these days they don’t really have a presence in rural areas, there are some of them very close to urban areas like San Pablo or Cantagallo, but we’ve seen in our investigation that in Barrancabermeja they are a distinctly urban actor, we are identifying what their structure is, their dynamics, how the impositions on communities are generated there in the neighbourhoods, the rules for cohabitation, their mode of operation, their chain of command.
So today they have one leader, tomorrow there they’ll have another one, the relationship between these structures and the Self Defence Forces of old, this relationship of paramilitary leaders who are now demobilised under Law 975, do in some cities like Barrancabermeja, have this link to the structures, and drug trafficking also interacts within this structure and State institutions.
For the spectre of organised crime to exist in a city like Barrancabermeja must mean that the institutions, in some way, are involved. This work signifies that we collect so much information which needs to brought to the public eye and the people told: look that what is happening is not a delinquent organisation, they are not here because of the micro-trafficking, they are also here because they have political purposes.
PBI: And in terms of the post-agreement phase, what do you think are the challenges for guaranteeing the security of organisations which work in human rights?
IM: A big challenge for the Havana Table is putting into practice the dismantlement of the neo-paramilitary structures. With the bilateral ceasefire three elements emerged, and they are the end of the war, guarantees for guerrilla leaders for socialising the future of the agreements, but also dismantling criminal bands and paramilitarism. The latter will happen drop by drop, very slowly. What does this mean? That in the post-agreement phase we will come face to face with these structures, which will make it complicated in a region like Magdalena Medio for the social movement and human rights defenders and organisations to accompany the implementation of the agreements. The Government must have a strategy for shutting down these structures in the short term. But it’s not just a question of dealing with it militarily, its political and economic structures must also be shut down. If these three elements are not present, the neo-paramilitary structures will exist for ever, that is the big challenge for after the agreement.
PBI: And after the signature of the agreements, what do you think will be the needs in terms of preventing, protecting and strengthening the work which human rights organisations are doing to defend human rights?
IM: One of the necessities is to generate institutional articulation. In the regions, the institutions need to be articulated to generate political guarantees for the social movement, human rights defenders and the community itself, because the community is going to be taking part politically in the post-agreement phase. Without this articulation it is difficult for there to be any guarantees.
Another need relates to territoriality in the region, and the institutions must look at the regional context. If there is no institutional transformation in the regions it is difficult for it to develop, particularly with regards to the Prosecutor General’s Office, which has a Magdalena Medio office but lacks the Specialist Units which will also generate this space for guarantees for the post-agreement phase and for implementation.
There is also a need for our work to be recognised, these days it is still difficult in regions like Magdalena Medio for there to be general, total recognition for the work of human rights defenders. Without these important elements it is hard for there to be a setting where political guarantees exist for defending human rights, bearing in mind that the conflict continues, that the FARC have begun the process of ending the conflict, but if the ELN does not enter into negotiations immediately and if there is no dismantling of paramilitarism, quite simply, the implementation will be in the middle of a conflict.
PBI: What do you think will be the biggest challenge now, in terms of the peace and the transformation, on a regional level, and for the country too?
IM: The big challenge is political participation, were are on the threshold of elections, the FARC will take up civilian life and become a political movement. So today, we must all transform ourselves for the post-agreement, for the implementation, think of it as a new dawn where Colombia has a lot at stake on a political, social and economic level.
Also at stake is the transformation of economic models, today the regions are not designed for the post-agreement, for the periods of transition. Barrancabermeja, especially, is living through critical socio-economic conditions and without economic alternatives it is hard for there to be implementation. Because the implementation is not just a series of agreements with the guerrillas, the implementation means creating spaces to transform the model from a national level to a regional one.
PBI: We won’t take up much more of your time, but at the end we would like to know, what are the proposals for building Peace in the Magdalena Medio region?
IM: There are so many, Magdalena Medio has always been an experimental space for peace building and defending human rights. Today there are many proposals, many initiatives, some by private corporations and organisations as such, and others are more community-based from the spaces where the social organisations meet. Today, an initiative which began on a regional level and became nationwide is the National Peace Federation, FENALPAZ, an initiative that came from Magdalena Medio, from the organisations here, I think it is one of the largest ever community and collective experiences of peace, in terms of territorially building peace and community.
There are other initiatives that came from the Peace Summit. The Peace Summit in Magdalena Medio was not just an event, it is conceived as an organic space, for life, at the highest level of peace building, where political movements will come, social organisations, platforms, federations, etc… these are the ideas coming from Magdalena Medio, we are thinking in terms of communal and territorial concepts to build peace in a pluralist way. We aspire to have just one initiative, just one proposal, it is difficult, it is the utopia of unity, but I think that we are doing well with FENALPAZ, the Peace Summit and we will achieve it.
PBI: Thanks very much for accepting this invitation and, as always, it’s been a pleasure talking to you.