On the afternoon of Sunday, August 25, Huber Ballesteros was snatched by police and arrested as he ate his lunch in the Colombian capital of Bogota. Two days later he was charged with “rebellion” and “financing terrorism” at the Attorney General’s office, and denied bail. At the moment, he’s languishing in Colombia’s notoriously squalid prison, La Picota, without a trial date.
Ballesteros is one of Colombia’s most prominent social justice activists and a key personality in the country’s newest grassroots peacebuilding movement, the Patriotic March. Two weeks prior to his arrest he had helped organize nationwide strikes against the appropriation of rural peasants' land by multinational corporations, but the Attorney General has strenuously denied the two had anything to do with each other.
Ballesteros is currently housed in a maximum-security wing, which means he's cut off from daylight. He's supposed to share his cell with just three other men, but if new prisoners turn up they just get packed in, with many ending up sleeping on the floor. Food rations are also dwindling — not that it makes a great deal of difference to Huber; he’s diabetic and the prison won’t cater to his diet. And the constant, pervasive smell of rotting meat does little to stimulate appetites, anyway.
Healthcare is always a problem in La Picota, but the overcrowding makes it even worse. Terminally ill HIV-positive patients are rarely seen by a doctor, and when they are the extent of their treatment is being handed an Ibuprofen or paracetamol and sent on their way. Last year Mariela Kohon, director of the NGO Justice for Colombia, visited La Picota and met a prisoner who had sliced off a chunk of his own face because he was being denied the necessary healthcare to remove a tumor.
Yet, perhaps the strangest part of Huber’s imprisonment is that he has to share a cell with a paramilitary convicted for taking part in one of Colombia's many massacres — massacres being one of the main societal issues that activists like Huber are protesting against. Cramming paramilitaries in with people who spend their lives campaigning against paramilitaries can, of course, create friction. Guards are supposed to keep an eye on prisoners to prevent altercations, but tensions regularly spill over, and less than two weeks ago a paramilitary detained at La Picota stabbed another prisoner.
That said, Huber finding himself incarcerated in a filthy, ill-equipped jail is a relatively benign fate compared to other activists and trade unionists in Colombia. So far this year, 25 other members of the Patriotic March have been murdered, and 16 trade unionists have been assassinated — four of whom were shot during protests in Catatumbo near the Venezuelan border. These figures add to a death toll that numbers almost 3,000 trade unionists murdered since 1986, earning Colombia the dubious and unwanted accolade of "the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist."
To understand why this is happening, you must examine the roots of Colombia’s raging civil war. The conflict revolves mainly around land: the campesinos have it; multinational companies want it. As Colombia’s neoliberal government is only too pleased to satisfy the desires of the multinationals, a pattern emerges: first the army arrives on a patch of land and attempts to intimidate the campesinos into leaving. If that doesn’t work, right-wing paramilitaries arrive and take out anyone brave enough to stay, leaving the land free for multinationals to begin stripping for resources.
According to the UN’s 2012 report, close to 20,000 people have been "disappeared" in Colombia by right-wing paramilitaries. These groups are often presented as criminal gangs that operate separately from the state, but the reality on the ground isn't so clear cut. When I met campesinos in the southwestern Colombian department of Cauca, they told me paramilitaries and the army took over their community soccer field and played a game together. In 2006, following a supposed demobilization of paramilitaries, Amnesty International said, "There is strong evidence of continued links between paramilitaries and the security forces."
The climate that this is taking place in is, according to a Bloomberg report, the second most unequal country in the world. Multinational companies own up to 75 percent of the land in some regions, and nearly 10 percent of the country’s population is displaced. Mass privatization in sectors like education and healthcare magnify the country’s soaring inequalities and any opposition to the situation is violently oppressed — even the country’s opposition senators travel around in bulletproof cars with armed bodyguards.
Remarkably, given the evidence of collusion between security forces and paramilitaries in slaughtering peasants, the US and UK still provide Colombia with military aid. According to Amnesty International, "Despite overwhelming evidence of continued failure to protect human rights the State Department has continued to certify Colombia as fit to receive aid. The US has continued a policy of throwing 'fuel on the fire' of already widespread human rights violations, collusion with illegal paramilitary groups and near total impunity." As for Britain, Justice for Colombia says they provide "highly secretive assistance to the Colombian security forces. Among those who have benefited are Colombian military units that have been involved in the torture and murder of trade unionists and other innocent people. Even more concerning is that there are no strings attached to the assistance — so even when Colombian soldiers kill people, the aid keeps flowing."
The US and Britain are also part of free trade agreements with Colombia, which stifles the ability of campesinos to make a decent living from the crops they farm because they can’t compete with cheap foreign imports. As Jonathan Glennie wrote in the Guardian recently: "Potatoes and onions were selling for a pittance, and [campesinos] were desperately trying to avoid the temptation to grow coca, which — though often the only option if people want to put food on the table, send their kids to school or make improvements to their homes — brings the threat of violence.” Opposition to the US agreement was the catalyst for a series of strikes across Colombia in August.
But strikes and protests rarely seem to make any kind of difference, and so the conflict rolls on. Four days ago, 53-year-old peasant leader Roberto Cortes was assassinated in front of his son by two gunmen on a motorbike. A passerby drove him to the hospital, where he later died from blood loss and respiratory complications. A day earlier, Sergio Ulcue Perdomo, a peasant leader from Cauca department, was assassinated. The killers entered the shelter where he was living with other families and shot him in front of them. Two weeks before that, 37-year-old Cesar Garcia, a community leader and opponent of mass mining, returned home to his farm and was shot in the head in front of his wife and 8-year-old son. Police said that they couldn’t attend to the scene because they were out at a local festival.
Meanwhile, Huber Ballesteros is building a library in prison so he can keep active. Yesterday, I read a letter he had written from prison: “In these moments, we are brought together by the struggle of the working class," he wrote. "Sooner or later, we will transform this world. It is worth any sacrifice — freedom or death, if that is necessary.”