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LatinNews Daily Report - 26 June 2013

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Death toll rises in Colombia’s Catatumbo

Development: On 25 June Colombia’s national police confirmed that two more protesting peasant farmers were killed in violent clashes with its mobile anti-riot squadron (Esmad) in the Catatumbo area of Norte de Santander department.

Significance: Four protestors in the Catatumbo have now died and the tensions in the area over the past two weeks are quickly turning into a political and security crisis for the central government led by President Juan Manuel Santos. The protestors, some of them coca producers (cocaleros), want the government to suspend a newly launched coca eradication programme in the area until it provides local producers with sufficient assistance to grow alternative crops. There also are more general demands for measures to improve the local community. Colombia’s main leftist guerrilla group, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc), has a strong presence in the Catatumbo, which extends from north-eastern Colombia into neighbouring Venezuela. Consequently, the Santos government has been hesitant to engage in talks with the protestors, as it suspects that the Farc could be behind the unrest. With the crisis deepening however, the government is under growing pressure to find a solution.

Key points:

  • General Yesid Vásquez, Norte de Santander’s police commander, said the latest fatalities followed a clash between an Esmad squadron and demonstrators near the municipality of Ocaña. Vásquez said the Esmad squadron initially came under attack, with homemade shrapnel-filled bombs (‘tatucos’) launched at it, injuring various police officers. This led to a fire-fight between the Esmad and armed protestors, resulting in the casualties. Eight Esmad officers have also been injured.
  • The Farc often uses ‘tatucos’ to attack the security forces, further prompting suspicion about its involvement in the protests. President Santos has already accused the Farc of “infiltrating” the protests to pressure the government for a speedy implementation of some of the agricultural reform measures already agreed as part of its ongoing peace talks with the Farc; in particular the establishment in the area of a Zona de Reserva Campesina (ZRC), a semi-autonomous peasant farming territory. Yesterday, Vásquez said that he had information that the Farc was “financing the uprising” and was forcing the peasants to continue protesting even though the government had agreed to a dialogue.
  • The minister-councillor for social dialogue, Luis Eduardo Garzón, yesterday arrived in the local  municipality of Tibú, another focus of protests, where he will hold a first meeting with the protestors today (26 June), before heading to Ocaña. Interior Minister Fernando Carrillo has said that the government would listen to the protestors’ demands on the condition that they refrain from violence and remove the various road blockades they have put up.
  • However one protest leader, Juan Carlos Quintero of the Asociación de Campesinos del Catatumbo (Ascamcat), said his organisation would not lift any blockades “until concrete agreements are reached”. Quintero also rejected accusations that the movement had been infiltrated by the Farc and called on other peasant organisations across the country to join the protests. The government has already expressed concerns that similar uprisings may now spread to other areas of the country.
  • Even before the latest deaths, on 24 June an NGO, the International Federation for Human Rights, denounced and condemned the “repression and criminalisation of the social protests in Ocaña”; and called on the authorities to “immediately cease the hostilities, aggressions and violations of the demonstrators’ rights”.