COLOMBIA: Risky Games Against National Peace Meeting

Dario Martinez, whose wiretapped cell-phone conversations were attributed to guerrillas, speaks to the press in Barrancabermeja. - Constanza Vieira/IPS
Dario Martinez, whose wiretapped cell-phone conversations were attributed to guerrillas, speaks to the press in Barrancabermeja. - Constanza Vieira/IPS
  • by Constanza Vieira (barrancabermeja, colombia)
  • Inter Press Service

'That is a crime,' said Martínez, referring to the hacking of his cell-phone.

Two weeks later, the station has not yet issued a correction.

'Communication with others forms part of the realm of privacy,' he told IPS. 'Otherwise no right to freedom of expression or opinion is possible.'

The rural leader also said the mobile phone that was tapped was provided to him by the state, as part of the government's special measures to protect the lives of human rights and social activists, which can include bodyguards, armour-plated vehicles, bullet-proof vests, and cell-phones.

The phone that was allegedly hacked was reportedly given to Martínez by the Interior Ministry as a security measure, in response to requests from the Mesa Departamental de Población Desplazada del Meta — the regional organisation of displaced people from the southeastern department (province) of Meta.

Martínez, one of the organisation's leaders, said 'I have been active in many tasks throughout the province, representing 120,000 people displaced by the armed conflict.'

And on that very cell-phone provided by the government 'I have received threats,' said Martínez, who complained that illegal wiretapping of the conversations of human rights defenders and activists has continued.

The taped phone conversation, whose transcript can be read here in Spanish, was broadcast by the Caracol Radio station at the start of the National Meeting of Rural Communities, Afro-Descendant and Indigenous Peoples for Land and Peace in Colombia, held Aug. 12-14 in the river port city of Barrancabermeja, 430 km north of the capital.

More than 25,000 people from the regions hit hardest by Colombia's nearly half-century civil war took part in the national peace meeting, many of them travelling dozens of hours by boat to reach the northeastern city.

The Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers' Collective (CAJAR), one of Colombia's leading human rights groups, has decided to take action on Martínez's behalf, IPS learned.

CAJAR will demand right of reply and the broadcast of a correction, due to the risk that the Caracol Radio station's airing of the phone conversations wrongfully attributed to rebel leaders posed to the safety of everyone who attended the Aug. 12-14 national peace meeting in Barrancabermeja, especially Martínez and his family.

University professor and human rights defender Carlos Rodríguez Mejía told IPS that 'the law on intelligence approved in June by Congress authorises monitoring of the airwaves.' In this case 'the intelligence services can say 'we found this on the broadcast spectrum',' he said.

But 'What is illegal is if they are constantly hacking his cell-phone' without a warrant, he added.

Furthermore, 'It should be made clear that the state is not using the cell-phone to monitor a person receiving protection from the state. That would definitely be prohibited,' Rodríguez Mejía said.

In the document to be sent to the director of the Caracol Radio station, Darío Arizmendi, the head of CAJAR, Alirio Uribe, says the case shows that 'state intelligence agencies are still spying on human rights defenders.'

CAJAR was one of the main targets of the wiretapping carried out by the Administrative Department of Security (DAS), the domestic secret police service, during the government of right-wing President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010).

The scandal over illegal spying by the DAS, which involved wiretapping, following and threatening journalists, opposition politicians, human rights defenders and even Supreme Court justices, broke out in 2009 and led to the resignation of a number of high-level DAS officials and agents.

Dangers of rural organising

Martínez is one of Colombia's many landless rural workers. In August 2002, he was forced to flee the Meta municipality of El Castillo, where he was born. He now lives in the capital of the province, Villavicencio, and presides over the Asociación de Trabajadoras y Trabajadores Campesinos, the rural workers' association of El Castillo.

This municipality 'was a hotbed of insurgency; that's no secret to anyone,' he told IPS.

He is also vice president of the Sindicato de Trabajadores Agrícolas Independientes del Meta, the union of independent farmworkers of Meta. 'We have declared ourselves a trade union in political exile, due to persecution and stigma,' he said.

When the three years of peace talks between the government of Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) — the main insurgent group — broke down in February 2002, the military launched a major offensive in the area.

That was followed by 'the incursion' of the far-right paramilitary militias, 'the theft of livestock, and murders of rural leaders,' Martínez said.

Massacres gave way to targeted killings, very few of which are reported in the media. Since then, there have been more than 235 such murders in Meta, he said, adding: 'That prompted us to pull out of the region.'

While organising the national peace meeting in Barrancabermeja, Martínez held telephone conversations 'to get our fellow farmworkers from this region to participate,' and to help them reach the area where the gathering was held. The conversations 'were logistical in nature, with the delegation from our municipality' and from the rest of Meta, he explained.

On Aug. 17, when President Juan Manuel Santos, on a tour to Chile and Argentina, warned that 'there will be no peace talks without concrete actions. Words are not enough,' referring to the guerrillas, Caracol Radio station repeated the story.

The FARC sent two videotaped messages to the national peace meeting in Barrancabermeja — whose slogan was 'Dialogue is the Path' — while the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) sent one.

The left-wing rebel groups' messages, which merely repeated their willingness to engage in peace talks, were applauded, while the fact that they were shown at the peace meeting triggered a quiet controversy among the organisers.

The Catholic bishop of Barrancabermeja, Camilo Castrellón, who asked to speak at the gathering, said: 'Do not stigmatise us. This is a legal event, held within the context of the constitution and the country's laws, to gather together and hear the voice of the people, the communities, to allow them to express themselves freely.

'This event once again says 'no' to war and 'yes' to peace talks. We must not be frightened by the tone, or by the issues. It is important to listen calmly.'

Logistical conversations

The Caracol Radio station is one of the entities that grants the National Peace Prize, which was given in 2010 to the Asociación Campesina del Valle del Cimitarra (Cimitarra Valley Campesino Association - ACVC), which organised the Aug. 12-14 peace meeting in Barrancabermeja.

'That's what is hard to understand,' Irene Ramírez, ACVC treasurer and the logistics coordinator of the national meeting, which furthermore was supported by the other entities that grant the prestigious prize, told IPS.

Caracol Radio station took 'one of these conversations that you just have over the phone, helping explain to people how to get here, to Barrancabermeja — people who didn't know the way here,' she said.

'We heard the (broadcast) conversations here, and they were of us talking. Saying for example 'which way are you coming, compañero?', 'we're taking such and such a route', 'there will be this many of us arriving', 'we'll need food for this many people'. How can they misinterpret a phone call like that?' Ramírez asked.

'I believe it was all a sabotage attempt, to make us look bad,' she added. 'That news report tried to make it look like a group of guerrillas were on their way to Barrancabermeja.

'That is disturbing,' she said. 'Because if we are being persecuted for organising a peace meeting, what will happen next? What else will they do?'

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service