Repression, Displacement and Coffee Brigades in Dolores, Colombia

The municipality of Dolores, Tolima in the heart of Colombia’s coffee country has been enduring more than ten years of repression related to the discovery of oil in the region.  At least five residents have been killed by members of the Colombian Armed Forces and a series of detentions of labor and community leaders have taken place.  Explosives used to look for oil in an area with a well-known geological fault, have also lead to “natural” disasters contributing to devastating mudslides.  All this has resulted in several periods of massive displacement of farming families.  Between 1993 and 2005, the time of the last census, the population of Dolores decreased by 2,000 residents, leaving just over 9,000 people.  Since 2005, there have been other mass displacements not yet included in that count.  Currently a number of families are on the verge of being displaced  because they are unable to bring in the May and June coffee harvests, having lost their primary harvesters because of arrests and other repressive measures.

It is in response to this urgent situation that the Alliance for Global Justice is working with Lazos de Dignidad, a Bogotá based human rights group, and Astracatol, the Tolima affiliate of Fensuagro, the national agricultural workers union, to bring a Just Peace Coffee Brigade to help out with the harvest the last week of May and the first week of June.  (For those interested in supporting this brigade, either by participating or contributing toward brigadista scholarships, please send an email to

Dolores, Tolima, is one of the most threatened municipalities in one of the most threatened departments of Colombia.  But it is not alone, and what is happening there is indicative of what is happening throughout the country, even as the peace process is underway.  There are a number of disturbing indicators.  In 2011, the same year Congress passed the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement , the human rights group Somos Defensores reported that assaults against human rights defenders were the highest in 10 years.  Then in 2012, they reported the number had risen by another 49%, with 97% of those assassinated being from rural areas.  And while the numbers for the entire year are not yet available, the first semester of 2013 saw a 21% increase in murders of human rights defenders.

Likewise, in 2012 the number of those forcibly displaced rose by 83% according to CODHES (the Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement), with some 42,724 persons on record as having been displaced.  Colombia already leads the world in the number of internally displaced persons.

Perhaps most disturbing has been the murder of 30 leaders of the Patriotic March (Marcha Patriótica), the grassroots mobilization for a just peace with popular participation in peace negotiations.  And lest we forget, Colombia continues to be the most dangerous country in the world to be a unionist, with union representations at an abysmal low of just 4% of the workplace, yet with more unionists murdered there than anywhere else in the world. Many fear that all these indicators together are presaging a repeat of what happened to the Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica) in the 1980s and 1990s.  During that time this political party and the entire peace process were destroyed as paramilitaries and members of the Armed Forces assassinated over 5,000 UP candidates and elected officials.  A major factor in this genocide was the lack of international awareness and accompaniment which otherwise might have provided a shield against the violence.

And while exact numbers are not available, it is obvious to those of us who focus on the struggles of Colombian political prisoners that arrests are significantly up.  According to Jairo Ramirez, the Human Rights Coordinator of USO, Colombia’s Oil Workers Union, the number of political prisoners has risen to 15,000.  When the Alliance for Global Justice (AfGJ) first got involved with Colombian political prisoner advocacy in 2008, the accepted number of political prisoners was 7,800.  This would be an almost 100% increase! (AfGJ continues to cite the existence of over 10,000 Colombian political prisoners.  However, we have used that number for three years now, and given the increase in detentions, we find the number cited by Ramirez to be credible.)

In February of this year, I visited the small village of Las Vegas, part of the Dolores municipality.  There I listened to the testimonies of farming families who, one after the other, spoke of the fear that they would not be able to harvest their coffee in May and June.  Repeatedly they told me that this would be the last straw that would lead to them having to leave their homes and their farms to seek refuge on the streets of the big cities.  As I listened to the despairing words, I raised the idea of coming back in May with a brigade of solidarity workers to help with the harvest.  Following is a typical response I received from one of the women left alone to care for the family farm and her children while her husband is in jail:  “Thank you so much!  If you could do that, it could get us through this difficult period and perhaps save our homes!”

What has happened that so many of the families in this small village and this small municipality are in danger of being displaced?  Oil exploration first began in the area in the late 1990s.  That was followed shortly by the entrance  of the Colombian Armed Forces and a period of repression that lead to deaths, political arrests and displacement.  Over the last year, the people of Dolores have been subject to a series of detentions and attacks.  Las Vegas and surrounding communities are among the most affected.  An area with a number of family coffee farms, a small school and an even smaller community center, in less than a year, the village has been twice invaded by military troops and helicopters with at least 16 Astracatol members detained.  The school is itself something of a symbol of the community’s struggle against repression.  At one point in 2008 it was closed when a teacher was kidnapped, tortured and forced to flee the region.  The classrooms had been vandalized with graffiti reading, “You guerrilla dogs are going to die”, with “21st Mobile Brigade” etched into several tables and desks.

The community was negatively affected by a severe drop in coffee prices that lead to the February 25 through March 2, 2013 Coffee Strike to demand better subsidies and price controls.   Shortly afterward, a similar farmer’s strike took place in the Catatumbo region that was focused several demands, including:  repeals of Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with the United States, the European Union and Canada;  an end to aerial fumigation of coca-growing areas with Monsanto’s RoundUp Ultra; government implementation of unfulfilled agreements to develop rural infrastructure and crop substitution programs; the establishment of Peasant Reseve Zones, a promised but suspended program to develop areas of protected farming communities; and popular participation of social movements in the peace process underway between the government and insurgents.  This strike was brutally repressed, leading to the larger and broader National Agrarian Strike last August.  The repression of the national strike was even more pronounced, leaving several dead, hundreds wounded and hundreds more incarcerated.  At one point the streets of Bogotá and other strike centers were filled with as many as 50,000 military troops committing all manner of violence against unarmed strikers.  During my visit to Las Vegas, I met one young farmer no longer able to care for his farm or his family because of a gunshot to his leg during the crackdown.  The state still has not taken responsibility for its actions and his wounds are being left untreated.  As I sat with him and his family, what he told me was a heartbreaking, yet all too familiar story:  “I was unarmed, but they shot me….The government and the state promised us help, but there is nothing. Instead, they kill us, they beat us, they put us in jail—and they ignore us.  For six months I haven’t been able to work and I don’t know how we will be able to bring in the coffee harvest this year.  If we can’t, we can’t pay our bills, I can’t feed my family.  I am afraid we are going to have to leave everything and go to Bogotá to seek work.  I am afraid we are going to be among the forcibly displaced.”

I spoke with Don Guillermo Cano about all this at his farm on February 15th.  Don Guillermo is a member of the coordinating commitees of both Astracatol and Fensuagro, as well the Marcha Patriotica.  He spoke not only about how the various farmers strikes and the resultant repression had affected local families, but even more so about the desire for oil companies to explore and develop the land in the municipality without having to deal with the “obstacle” of those who already live on and farm that land.

Don Guillermo explains that,

“…At the end of 2001, the communities began to meet and to organize in order to form the resistance to the oil companies.  The attitude of the community surged because of the fact that none of the enterprises conducting the seismic tests was in accord with the norms that existed even in Colombia, where they say that for the entrance of a mining project in whatever region…they must conduct…one consultation before the communities.  Not even one company has done this….

In 2002, the communities confronted the businesses resulting in the companies promising some computers and community centers….The communities organized and presented a Project for the Development of the Community [calling for]…for example, schools, universities for this zone, good roads to connect the area.  Not for one moment did the communities go to the companies and tell them to “get out!”.  The communities presented development projects that they considered necessary for the entrance into the area in order to better the living standard of the communities…..But when they presented these ideas, every company rejected them.”

Don Guillermo explained that he was one of three chosen by lottery to go to Bogotá and meet with the oil developers.  He says that “At this point began my persecution.” He talks about being called to Bogotá to meet with the owners of the companies for “more or less 5 hours”.  By November 5, 2004, he had experienced his first detention, and that there was “much publicity…calling me a Comandante of this zone—a Comandante of the militia.” He was held for 22 days, but let go finally for lack of evidence.  Again, in 2006, he was questioned and made to sign a “statement of good treatment” before being released.

Don Guillermo explains,

“There are significant interests of the transnational’s here….The oil companies…and the leaders of this process want us to leave and to take away our space to make claims….

In 2013, the oil companies returned to begin again to make some explorations, but they have encountered resistance….At this time the repression is severe.”

He explains how he and eight other local farmers and members of the Marcha Patriótica were detained in May of 2013 after attending a Forum on Political Participation held as part of the peace process.  So far there have been two such forums, the first on Agrarian Reform.  Most of these detainees are now under house arrest, isolated in their rural communities and unable to engage in these important national processes or to continue their union work regionally.

Then, again, in early January, helicopters from the Colombian Armed Forces landed in the small village and arrested another eight men who are now being jailed in the US-funded La Picaleña Penitentiary in Ibague, an institution infamous for its bad conditions

Don Guillermo explains that one of the primary demands of peasant farming families in the area is for the establishment of a Peasant Reserve Zones.  This idea  was adopted in the 1990s, but was never adequately developed before it was completely jettisoned under the administration of former President Álvaro Uribe. Uribe is the father of Colombia’s modern paramilitary death squad movement and was included on a US Defense Intelligence Agency list as one of Colombia’s top 100 narco-traffickers before becoming one the closest US allies in Latin America.  The Peasant Reserve Zones were supposed to provide legal protection for small farmers from land grabs while providing important development for rural communities in the form of better roads, schools and other vital  infrastructure projects.

According to Don Guillermo,

“The population of this region wants [the zone] to be developed….It would protect all the natural resources and, better, the social ones, to establish such a Peasant Reserve Zone….But the policies of the Colombian state are not in accord with this type of agreement….The State has never fulfilled its agreements regarding these zones.”

Instead, Don Guillermo tells us that,

“…There has been advanced the permanent presence of the Public Forces.  Initially the Public Forces entered in a very repressive, very aggressive way….They approached the peasant farmers with bad words, they terrorized and threatened constantly.  There were various state crimes….In 2003 they assassinated a woman of 78 years—the Public Forces killed her….In October 2006, they killed two boys…executed them as “false positives” [this refers to the ongoing revelations of Colombian Armed Forces executing young people and later dressing their corpses up in insurgent regalia and claiming them as “enemy combatants”.  More than 3,000 “false positives” have been officially recognized.]  A troop killed the boys–Hector, I don’t remember his last name, and a boy, Mario, from here.  [These were Hector Jairo Yat and José Mario Guerrero Garzón, killed in 2006.]  All the boys were killed by the troops….One officer named Porras…this guy was practically a paramilitary….One Sunday, in the evening, there began a clamor from the civil population, women and men, looking for the missing boys….. [They went to the military post and] were almost at the point of being massacred….They asked Officer Porras about the two boys.  He called them guerrillas and combatants and said they died.

The farmers broke through the fence, and were shot at…looking for the two young boys.  They asked who killed them and the soldiers told them that ‘It was that bad one, the officer killed them.’

In this area, we have had at least 5 persons killed in this way….

The deaths of these boys led to a great displacement…. Fourteen households were displaced from this region.  In Dolores, there was a great displacement over 28 days…..Some leaders believe that thanks to this displacement there haven’t been more deaths.  They just want us to leave.

Don Guillermo explained that since 2003 there has been an ongoing series of group detentions.

A 2010 statement released by Fensuagro gives some idea of the kinds of threats and activities suffered by the residents of Dolores:

“The communities…declare once again an urgent alert due to the new…outrages and threats exercised against the civilian population by troops of the national army belonging to the 21st Mobile Brigade, which has been present in the zone for two years, bringing with them destructive consequences and dangers….From the moment that they initiated military operations, they provoked damages in the aquaducts that supply water to the populations, damages to the forests that protect the small springs of water that flow into the aquaducts, polluting the same with trash…around the sources of water that the communities consume. This situation is worrisome since the population cannot make any complaint, since whoever complains is immediately threatened with the paramilitaries or categorized as a guerrilla or militia member….

It is well known by all the competent authorities that due to these outrages and murders committed by the troops of the army, the population has twice been displaced and has returned because of pacts agreed to between the communities and the authorities…. However, these said accords have not been fulfilled and taking into account the latest events that have occurred, the situation has become much more dangerous….”

* On March 26th, Units of the 21st Mobile Brigade arrived at the house of a couple working at the farm of Mr. Luis Torres of the village of Vegas del Café. There they accosted Mrs. Marilín Ramírez and her husband for two hours threatening them and saying things such as, “You seem like guerrillas”.

* The 29th of March, some 15 to 20 soldiers, at five in the morning, assaulted the Ramírez brothers in their house where they were sleeping, beating their rifles against the windows, pounding on the door and shooting two times into the house, while shouting for the brothers to “exit the house so we can fill you with lead!”. This went on about an hour. When the three brothers (Carlos and José Yesid Ramírez Romero and Darwin Vanegas) went to complain to the military, they were again threatened that they would be “filled with lead at any moment”. An hour after this, José Yesid, an adolescent, on his way to work was again threatened by one of the troops that had attacked his house. He was detained again and told that “one of these days we will take you and fill your body with lead.”

* Also on March 29th…. at six in the evening, army units detained the youth Darío Ortigoza Mayorga, 16 years of age. They tied his arms with a rope and threatened to kill him, accusing him of being a guerrilla and took his identification card. An hour later they set him free, without returning the identification card. On March 30th, in the morning hours, Mr. Nelson Ortigoza found a black bag in a well with the younger Ortigoza’s (Darío) identification card, accompanied by a note that said, “Hello, son of a Whore. I saved you from death because I know you are a guerrilla. Here are your papers, you son of a whore. Listen, son of a whore—the next time you will not be saved. The National Army.” It was signed with an illegible signature.

It is this kind of atmosphere along with  the wounds and attacks suffered in the crackdown against the farmers strikes that are threatening local farming families with displacement for lack of workers to bring in the May and June coffee harvests.

About his own recent detention, Don Guillermo says that,

“Supposedly there was a witness who said that ‘Guillermo Cano has operated an armed farmers strike in this region’….But there was never an armed contingent of these strikes in the Department of Tolima, and much less so in this municipality….Never!”

In March of 2014, I was part of a delegation accompanied by Don Guillermo that visited the municipality of Herrera, Tolima.  There we went through a military checkpoint that included Colombian soldiers wearing uniforms and canteens emblazoned with the insignia “USA”.  I asked Don Guillermo if he had seen any presence of US military personnel in the municipality of Dolores.  Don Guillermo told me, “Yes, in 2004 and 2005, in this very village, I saw two Gringo officers that the Colombian soldiers would consult with.”

I asked Don Guillermo about the role of international solidarity and how it might support and give protection to the community.  He told me that,

“We, the politically persecuted, think…the solidarity is very special…and we want our sister organizations of the United States to unite and come share with us, that you might divulge to the entire world what really exists in Colombia….Here, we don’t want an Empire, a bourgeois and repressive Empire.  There are sectors in the United States and other parts of the world that share this with us and consider that our struggle for democracy in Colombia is just….One of the labors of solidarity is organizing and sharing what we are doing….When the Empire comes with these mercenaries that they bring to Colombia, the best thing you can do is to organize based on class struggle and join with us in the permanent struggle to combat this Empire….

And we need your help in the struggle against these Free Trade Agreements and for our survival.  What we need is the kind of trade based on a solidarity economy that respects sovereignty between sister peoples.

Capitalism has a world character, and we must, too.  When I think about the genocide against the Patriotic Union and the threat to the whole peace process—I believe that it was the lack of international solidarity that made that genocide possible and that led to the failure of the peace process back then.  Well, it is happening again.  This is not the time for our struggle to be hidden away.  The terrorism of the state intends that all of us who think of a New Colombia, should buried away where the state won’t see us, where we won’t be a disturbance for the state, where our voices won’t be heard….This is what the state intends…But I think in this moment, we have to seek peace…and tell the world what is happening in Colombia….We want peace and therefore we have to open the space and not hide ourselves….As many sister organizations that want to accompany us…this is what has to be done.”

I discussed the idea further with Don Guillermo about bringing a Just Peace Coffee Brigade to help out in this time of crucial need.  I explained to Don Guillermo that the majority of my working life I had myself worked on farms or worked as a landscaper, including running my own business.  I know how to do hard work—and I know that there are a lot of people who don’t, and I was a little worried about bringing people who might be more in the way than helpful.  Don Guillermo laughed, but said that the work people do would all be helpful, and even more helpful would be the show of international solidarity—showing the farming families that, no, they are not alone and, more, showing the Colombian government, the Armed Forces and the United States government that funds and advises them, that people from around the world and even from the US are paying attention—that we’re watching what happens and that we care.

I asked Don Guillermo, again, point blank, “So you are in favor of the brigade?”

Don Guillermo fixed his eyes on mine and paused, then he said, slowly, deliberately and clearly, “I think it would be stupendous!”  And he gave me one of those solidarity hugs the Colombians are so famous for.

So the invitation is out.

Not everyone can go.  Not everyone can do that kind of work, under fairly rustic conditions.  But if you can, please consider joining us.  And if you can’t, please consider making a contribution to help those who can do the work, but can’t afford the international travel costs.

Let’s raise a cup of Joe to the farmers of Colombia, to the farmers of Dolores, Tolima, to participatory democracy and the power of the people—and let’s strike a blow…or rather, let’s strike a cup of Joe against the Empire!

James Jordan is an organizer with Alliance for Global Justice.