Persecution of Colombian Senator and Peasant Leader Alberto Castilla is about Criminalizing Social Movements

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By The Dawn News / March 19, 2018

Photo Credit: Senator Alberto Castilla

Settling the score? A strategy to take away the seats in Congress that were won by Polo Democratico Alternativo (left-wing political party in Colombia)? A political ploy of the extreme-right wing so that the negotiations with the National Liberation Army -ELN- never take shape? A new stage of persecution and criminalization of social movements and its leaders like Castilla? A “polarization” within the orchestrated terror of the right-wing to win the next Presidential Elections?

It seems that all of these and more will prove to be the reasons for the petition by the Office of the Attorney General before the Supreme Court to open an investigation against the Peasant Senator Alberto Castilla for supposed links to the ELN. This March 16, the aforementioned investigative body filed a lawsuit against the Senator and peasant leader Alberto Castilla and the vice president of the House of Representatives and indigenous leader, Germán Bernardo Carlosama, for supposed links with the insurgent organization.

“I am here this morning to speak with you and tell you that my conscience is at peace that I have no link to the ELN. That no relationship of this type can exist because I don’t have any links to any illegal organization. Social leaders should not become the objects of legal persecution,” affirmed Castilla on the morning of March 17 in a press conference that he had called to explain to the country about the plot against him.

“I found out through the media, because I have not been formally notified about the lawsuit that the Office of the Attorney General filed before the Supreme Court to open an investigation about my supposed connections with the ELN,” the Senator said. “We need to find out what reasons the Attorney General has to solicit this investigation. I am at the disposal of the Supreme Court of Justice when they consider it necessary and in the moment that they need to, I am fully willing to accept the call that they make to me.”


This all happens in the same week of the Legislative Elections where the Polo Democrático Alternativo maintained their five seats in the Senate, lead by Jorge Enrique Robledo, who obtained 226,099 votes – the third highest vote-share in the country, surpassing the previous 190,000 votes he had received in 2014. Senator Alberto Castilla, who is being persecuted, garnered the fifth highest vote-share within the party.

One hypothesis is that Castilla and Carlosama are being persecuted by the Attorney general Néstor Humberto Martínez as a retribution against these parliamentarians. Both had demanded the attorney general’s suspension on account of his links to people being investigated for their alleged involvement in corporate scams such as the Odebrecht Scandal.

Since the end of the 101 days-long National Temporary Bilateral Ceasefire that ended on January 9, the government had shown little interest in continuing these dialogues. The extreme right-wing, in the meantime, has carried on its frenzied propaganda to demonize the peace-process, with one eye on the presidential elections in May.

The negotiations, however, were resumed last Thursday, March 15. Under the circumstances, this accusation of the Attorney General could be read as a “legal false positive”[i], planted to sabotage the peace process and discredit those leaders trying to secure peace and put an end to the armed conflict.

It is not only a legal persecution of social leaders that is taking place in contemporary Colombia. In the period after the Peace Agreements were signed between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Government of Juan Manuel Santos, the number of social leaders that have been assassinated has also skyrocketed, along with increased criminalization and the war-like treatment of social protests that seeks to fight for a dignified life. Now that FARC has been dismantled as an armed group and negotiations have resumed with the ELN, the government, it seems, needs a new “enemy” to justify the militarization of Colombia and its high military expenditure. And for this purpose, the social movements are increasingly being characterized as the new “enemy” of the state.

While the Attorney General has been preoccupied with deploying its efforts against the social leaders, the judiciary could not find enough time and effort to deliver a timely verdict in the case of Santiago Uribe, who was charged with founding a paramilitary group, the Twelve Apostles. As a result, he was released from preventative custody on account of this delay. Santiago is the brother of the ex-president Alvaro Uribe who is one of the most controversial and violent figures in Colombian politics and is currently under investigation for manipulating testimonies in his case against Senator Ivan Cepeda. Additionally, while he was President he oversaw illegal surveillance of the opposition, a brutal campaign of extermination of not only the guerrilla groups (he was vehemently against any type of peace process) but also of organized communities and social movements. For example in the first year he was in office in 2002 15,260 people were disappeared and in 2003 12,230 were disappeared.

Support of the society

More than 300 social organizations, human rights defenders and political personalities signed a letter of indignation and rejection in response to the actions of the Attorney General. “We manifest our indignation and rejection in response to the reckless accusations made by the Office of the Attorney General and against these two representatives of the social movement. These accusations are part of a systematic strategy of criminalization of social leadership and it contrasts with the open ineffectiveness of the state institutions that maintain impunity in cases of aggression against those that defend human rights in Colombia,” they stated.

Support from Polo Democrático Alternativo

“On this subject, the Polo Democrático believes first that this party since its inception has not had nor does it have anything to do with armed insurgency and the political struggle; nor do any of its members. So the Polo Democrático absolutely stands behind Senator Alberto Castilla, it considers that he is completely innocent of any type of defamation that they could make against him. At the same time, the Polo Democrático has pointed out in a communique that this persecution is historic. For us, it is not new,” declared the councilman Alvaro Argote Muñoz, President of Polo Democrático Alternativo, who was also at the press conference.

Other senators like Carlos Gaviria, Jorge Robledo and Iván Cepeda – all members of Polo – have also been victims of political persecution by the right-wing.

To be a social leader is Not a crime

“I want to believe that there are no political reasons for the Attorney General to take this position in this moment. I would like to believe it. I hope the fact that I am from a region like El Catatumbo[ii] does not generate a direct relationship with the fact that there is an armed conflict between different actors there and that in response to this, my actions have been to fight for rights, defend the land, accompany the communities in the exercise of peoples referendums[iii] as a way to participate politically in decision taking. This cannot be understood as me being part of a subversive actor, but it is our exercise of parliamentary participation,” concluded Castilla.
Members of the Committee for Social Integration of Catatumbo (CISCA, a peasant organization that is part of the National Agrarian Coordinator) mobilizing during a national strike in 2016. Castilla has been a part of this organization since he was young.


More on the current peace process between the ELN and the Colombian Government

The peace talks with the ELN have been in crisis since the agenda with the government became public in March 2016. Time and time again the National Government of Colombia has shown their disinterest in making real advances in the peace process, cancelling the Government delegation at the last minute and not respecting the agreed upon agenda. The latest crisis came when the National, Temporary, Bilateral Ceasefire ended on January 9, and the Government refused to partake in the 5th Cycle of Negotiations because ELN did not want to continue the previous ceasefire but renegotiate the terms. In the 101 days of this ceasefire attacks on the civilian population from the Public Force increased drastically. Throughout the course of the public phase of the ELN-Government negotiation process, the Government has systematically attacked the social base which supports the peace process either through criminalization like the case of Milena Quiroz and 11 other peasant leaders or selective assassinations of social leaders, this is seen as a strategy to put pressure on the ELN to cede certain things in the negotiations.

For more info: While civil society demands a new ceasefire, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos suspends the peace negotiations

[Interview] Antonio García: “The ELN wants peace for all Colombians”. Part One

[Interview] Antonio García: “The ELN wants peace for all Colombians”. Part Two

[i] Term which refers to the practice in Colombia which mostly occurred under former president Alvaro Uribe where unarmed civilians were killed by the National Army and dressed them up as guerrilla fighters to show results on the war against the insurgent groups. “Legal false positive” is when innocent civilians are arrested and incarcerated for supposedly having links to the insurgent groups, and in some cases being the scapegoats for different actions committed by armed groups.

[ii] Catatumbo is a region in Colombia that lies on the border with Venezuela, has important natural resources (coal, petroleum, and uranium), has a high level of coca production and is a major drug trafficking route, and has historically been a battlefield involving all of the armed actors in the armed conflict. It also has strong peasant movements and organizations.

[iii] [iii] Across Colombia organized communities, social movements, environmental organizations etc. have been holding referendums or consultas populares on whether they want resource extraction in their territory, a mechanism that was created in the 1991 Constitution. The first important referendum was in 2013 when residents from an oil-producing region said ‘No’ to petroleum extraction in their territory. Since then, several referendums have been held, in every one the ‘No’ to mining and energy extraction has won.


(With input from Colombia Informa )

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