Jesus Emilio Tuberquia’s life is at risk every time he leaves his home. As the legal representative and a founding member of the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado in northern Colombia, he suffers constant death threats and has survived several attempts on his life.
Located in the conflict torn region of Uraba, the Peace Community was founded in 1997 by displaced campesinos – small scale farmers and rural workers – who declared the abandoned town of San Jose a neutral zone where all armed actors, legal and illegal, were prohibited.
However, the violence continued and the community suffered atrocity after atrocity – mostly at the hands of the Colombian military and the paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) but also from the leftist insurgents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
In 2005, five adults and three children from the Peace Community were murdered by the military and the AUC. The victims were dismembered and some were decapitated. Following the massacre, many abandoned the town once again. While some returned to the nearby rural villages that they had originally fled, others built a new village a mile away – San Josecito, where Tuberquia now lives and works.
With the paramilitaries, the FARC and the army’s infamous 17th Brigade all still active in the region, the persecution of the Peace Community continues. However, San Josecito and the surrounding villages continue to be a refuge for Colombia’s war victims, and its inhabitants’ commitment to the community’s principles of liberty, transparency, dialogue, plurality, justice and resistance remain a powerful statement of defiance against the seemingly endless violence of Colombia’s conflict.
James Bargent: What is the security situation like for the Peace Community at the moment?
Jesus Emilio Tuberquia: The state has always been the main repressor of the Peace Community. We are talking about more than 200 people murdered – members of the peace community and civilian campesinos. The current situation is the same as always, it has not changed for 15 years.
We cannot talk about security but insecurity from a state that talks about democracy, that talks about liberty, justice [and] rights. In the end it is a terrorist state. A state that kills the civilian population, that shoots children, that carries out indiscriminate machine-gunnings and bombardments, that burns houses, that robs campesinos’ livestock and burns and damages their crops, that constantly tortures the campesinos with the threat of death. If this isn’t terrorism then there is no terrorism in the world.
This is a state that is supposedly legitimate – but in theory – because it is a terrorist state and it acts this way with the agreement of the U.S. government and the governments of Europe. That is why there will never be security for the Peace Community.
JB: People in community don’t talk about the guerrillas, the paramilitaries and the state, just the guerrillas and the state. Why don’t you distinguish between the paramilitaries and the state?
JET: The paramilitaries were created by the Colombian state to exterminate social organizations, popular movements, unionists, human rights defenders, alternative journalists and whatever person opposes all the injustices of the neo-liberal and conservative system.
They talked about the demobilization of the paramilitaries [through the 2005 Justice and Peace law] – this was no demobilization, but a re-legitimization of Colombia’s paramilitaries carried out by President Alvaro Uribe Velez with the motivation of not having to face legal and political repercussions at an international level – to obtain immunity and to channel international funds.
JB: Why does the violence and persecution of the Peace Community continue when the community has declared that it is neutral in the war?
JET: I believe there are many reasons but we can talk about two fundamental reasons; the first is because they see us as a social organization and as I said they want to exterminate these. The second reason is because they need to hand over the natural riches that we have here – the oil, the coal [and] privatize all the sources of water.
JB: The political discourse has changed a lot since Juan Manuel Santos replaced Alvaro Uribe as president in 2010. Has the situation on the ground changed?
JET: It is the same. Since Santo’s arrived, we are talking about 20 more dead civilians. There have been false positives [the practice of killing civilians then dressing them up as guerrillas] from the military. The paramilitary presence has increased in the area. It is a very dramatic, delicate situation because their economic policies are based on the exploitation of mineral riches. But, where these riches are is where the campesino communities are, the indigenous communities, the Afro-Colombian communities, and we are not going to hand over the land because we need it to grow crops to feed our children. We are not going to hand it over so they have to kill us – that is why they use the paramilitaries.
JB: You have called the current situation an “invisible war,” yet before Uraba was renowned for being a conflict hotspot. How has the situation in Uraba gone from a visible war to an invisible war?
JET: It is not that it is an invisible war; it is that the media, the security forces and the institutions of the state have made it invisible. There are military deaths, police deaths, guerrilla deaths, paramilitary deaths, civilian deaths – there is a conflict like before but they don’t talk about it.
A lot of people have stopped talking about the war for two reasons – one because many people have submitted themselves to the paramilitary regime set up by the government and the other for fear – now people are scared that if they talk about it they will be killed.
JB: The guerrillas have been severely weakened over the last decade. Have you seen any change in the guerrilla presence or do they also continue as before?
JET: The guerrilla presence continues as before. There is combat, there are deaths on both sides at any moment. They have simply changed tactics and their form, but they are here.
JB: You have denounced what is happening to foreign governments and organizations, what has the response been?
JET: The response is always diplomatic because in both the U.S. congress and in the European parliament it is a diplomatic discourse that in the end is not diplomatic and finally it accepts that that’s the way the world is. There is insecurity, there is impunity, what there isn’t is the clarity to pressure a state about violations of human rights because the same states are involved in it.
JB: What sort of relations does the community have with the local politicians in this area?
JET: We don’t have any relations because they are connected to the paramilitary project of the system.
JB: Have any been investigated for their ties to paramilitaries?
JET: They are simply referred to as “under investigation” but in the end nothing happens. They will not be tried because justice does not exist – justice in this country has been “paramilitarized,” like all the institutions in this country. Justice for all the thousands of crimes against humanity does not exist.
JB: How do the international groups that do accompanying work [escorting threatened community members when they travel outside the community] help the Peace Community?
JET: For us, the international presence is the only protection that we can have because in the end, if it wasn’t for these international groups like the FOR [Fellowship of Reconciliation], the Brigades [Peace Brigades International] or Palomas de Paz and other organizations working behind the scenes we couldn’t do this – the state would have exterminated us a long time ago.
JB: How does the community sustain itself economically?
JET: With the return [to the territories] we have gone back to working the land, setting up new projects growing staple crops for food security and to be self-sufficient. With our productive projects we have managed to get into exports. We do everything autonomously because we have nothing to thank the state for except deaths and injustices.
We are exporting cacao to England and we have also exported it to Germany. We were exporting bananas to Germany, but exports dropped because of the economic crisis and also because the paramilitaries shut the port of Turbo.
JB: How will the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the U.S. affect this economic model the community is developing?
JET: The FTA will bring an end to the Colombian countryside. In the community, now that we can’t export bananas, we are trying to balance this out with the cacao but it is possible we won’t be able to export it as dollars will start to enter the country, and the peso will be revalued and exports will drop.
On the other side – Colombians have to produce the raw materials that have to do with providing food at high costs and we can’t compete so we will end up slaves to the FTA, or a disposable population for social cleansing.
JB: Do you have any hope that things will get better for the community?
JET: Things are going to go from bad to worse. Now with the FTA, there will be more war. They simply talk about economic issues, and the war, now this is to be made invisible.
James Bargent is a freelance journalist based in Colombia. See jamesbargent.com