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Cablegate: Threats to Priests in Southern Bolivar

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PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHBO #1656/01 1271632
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 061632Z MAY 08 ZDK
FM AMEMBASSY BOGOTA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 2646
INFO RUEHBR/AMEMBASSY BRASILIA PRIORITY 8179
RUEHCV/AMEMBASSY CARACAS PRIORITY 0372
RUEHLP/AMEMBASSY LA PAZ MAY 9421
RUEHPE/AMEMBASSY LIMA PRIORITY 6182
RUEHZP/AMEMBASSY PANAMA PRIORITY 1640
RUEHQT/AMEMBASSY QUITO PRIORITY 6834
RUEHGL/AMCONSUL GUAYAQUIL PRIORITY 4426

C O N F I D E N T I A L BOGOTA 001656

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/30/2018
TAGS: PTER PGOV PHUM PREL CO
SUBJECT: THREATS TO PRIESTS IN SOUTHERN BOLIVAR

Classified By: Political Counselor John S. Creamer.
Reasons: 1.4 (b) and (d).

--------
SUMMARY
--------

1. (U) Three Catholic priests and ten lay workers in Southern
Bolivar said they were thV8=Q'yZth links to narcotraffickers Victor
and Miguel Mejia (LosMellizos). The priests believe they were
targeted due to their alternative development, human rights, and social
organization programs which antagonize corrupt local
politicians and narcotraffickers. They said
narcotraffickers have penetrated elements of the security
forces--leading to human rights abuses--and complained that
some African palm firms are using armed force to seize
peasants' land. The GOC met with the priests to discuss
their security and committed to expedited investigations.
Ambassador Brownfield visited the region on April 7 to show
support for local alternative development programs and social
groups. End summary.

-------------------------
NARCOTRAFFICKERS TO BLAME
-------------------------

2. (C) Catholic priests Rafael Gallego (Tiquisio) and Leonel
Comas (Arenal) told us on April 30 that they--as well as ten
lay workers and a third priest in southern Bolivar--have
received written death threats from "Commander Camilo" of the
Bloque Norte de Colombia. The priests said Camilo appears to
be tied to narcotraffickers Victor and Miguel Mejia Munera
(losMellizos). (Note: The Colombian National Police killed
Victor on April 29 and captured Miguel on May 1.) Gallego
said they were targeted because of their work with rural
residents on alternative development, human rights, and
social empowerment. Their projects receive funds from the
GOC's Accion Social program, and are supported by Father De
Roux, a Jesuit priest and head of the Regional Peace and
Development Program in Medio-Magdalena (PDPMM).
-------------------------------
MILITARY ABUSES LOCAL RESIDENTS
-------------------------------

3. (C) Gallego and Comas told us they suspect elements of the
public forces are either directly supporting or turning a
blind eye to the work of criminal groups and narcotraffickers
in the area. They claim corruption is widespread among local
security forces, noting that helicopters used by
narcotraffickers in the region are clearly visible from a
local military base. Coca growers openly grow their crops on
hillsides, and the military does little to intervene. Gallego
said the priests cannot prove the military is behind the
threats, but noted that the language used mirrors military
criticism of the priests as "warriors camouflaged as
civilians who work against democratic security". Gallego was
previously threatened by paramilitaries in 2001 because of
his support for the GOC's peace process with the ELN.
Gallego added that the FARC also declared the priests to be
"military targets" in the past.

4. (C) The priests report that human rights abuses, including
extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detentions of peasants,
by the military are also common. Gallego cited the cases of
demobilized FARC who work with the military and abuse their
newfound power to intimidate peasants. Former FARC commander
"elGato" and former Revolutionary Army of the People (ERP)
commander "Wilson" regularly wear Colombian Army uniforms in
Arenal and Tiquisio and threaten local residents. The
priests report a general distrust of the local military--the
Narino and Nueva Granada battalions--among the general
population. They added that the local offices of the Human
Rights Ombudsman (Defensoria) do a good job in denouncing
human rights abuses.

--------------------------------
ORIGINS OF THE REGIONAL TENSION
--------------------------------

5. (C) The priests claim key regional actors feel threatened
by their work. Many peasants recognize the danger of
cultivating coca, and are eager to participate in the PPDMM's
alternative development programs such as cacao and sugar
cane. Narcotraffickers, including former paramilitaries and
the FARC, oppose these efforts. In many areas, the FARC,
ELN, and former paramilitaries work together on illegal drug
deals. Comas said corrupt local politicians also feel
endangered by the new political candidates that emerge from
the Church's leadership training courses. Palm companies use
intimidation and threats to push farmers to sell their land.
The priests noted that many farmers are struggling to obtain
land titles, but when they agree to sell to the palm oil
companies, local GOC officials quickly issue titles.

---------------------
GOC AND USG RESPONSE
---------------------

6. (C) Local and national GOC officials convened three
special security council meetings on the threats to priests;
the first two took place at the Governor's Office of Bolivar
on April 12 and 19. On April 21 in Aguachica, Cesar
department, President Uribe convened a National Security
Council meeting attended by Defense Minister Santos and
Father de Roux. Gallego said they also met with Presidential
Human Rights Director Carlos Franco in Bogota.Gallego said
the GOC committed to review the security profile of the
threatened individuals, expedite investigations, and assist
with security measures. The priests rejected GOC offers of
bodyguards, saying this would conflict with their pastoral
missions. The priests plan to return to the region after one
month; they fear a longer absence would lead to the collapse
of their programs.

7. (U) Ambassador Brownfield traveled to Santa Rosa del Sur
in Southern Bolivar on April 7 to show our support for
alternative development programs as well as local social
organizations. Father de Roux accompanied him on the trip.
We will follow up with the GOC to underline our concerns with
the threats. Polcouns spoke with Franco on April 30 and urged
swift GOC action in the case. We also promised to
participate in a high-level visit to the region that is being
organized by Catholic Church officials.
BROWNFIELD

=======================CABLE ENDS============================

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