Friday, May 21, 2010

Colombia: NGO partner murdered - LWR calls on Colombian and U.S. officials to quickly investigate

Source: Lutheran World Relief (LWR)

Lutheran World Relief mourns the death of partner Rogelio Martínez Mercado, murdered May 18 at 6:00 p.m. in the province of Sucre, Colombia. He is survived by his wife, Julia Torres Cancino, and four children.

LWR calls on Colombian and U.S. officials to quickly investigate Martínez’s murder, provide protection to his family and colleagues, and transform security and development policies on Colombia’s northern coast that have left small farmers vulnerable to violence.

In 2000, Martínez and his family were violently displaced from their farm, located in the municipality of San Onofre, by members of the paramilitary group “Héroes Montes de Maria.” Between 2000 and 2001, paramilitaries forced more than 50 other families from adjoining farms. The paramilitary forces, led by Rodrigo Tovar Pupo and Rodrigo Mercado Peluffo, turned these farms into a base for torture, murder and combat operatives.

After an initial demobilization of paramilitary forces in Colombia, Martínez returned to his farm in 2007 and helped lead the return of 53 other displaced farming families to the same area. With LWR’s support, Martínez and these families established La Alemania Farm, comprising 552 hectares for planting crops and grazing cattle.

In late 2009, Martínez told LWR staff, “I was forced to leave everything behind—my land, my crops, even my dignity. But now we have corn seed in the ground again and have harvested rice and yucca.” Before his death, Martínez was eagerly planning small pig and fish farming projects with fellow farmers.

In December 2008, after returning to La Alemania and assuming leadership in the National Victims’ Movement—Sucre chapter, Martínez began receiving verbal and written death threats.

Annalise Romoser, LWR’s acting director for public policy and advocacy explains, “Land is highly disputed in northern Colombia. Small farmers are under constant threat by reorganized paramilitary forces to turn over lands or face death. If they are not displaced by violence or fear then crushing debt and lack of credit drives them from their land.”

Because of the threats, Martínez was granted protection measures by the Inter-American Court and limited protection measures from the Colombian Ministry of the Interior, including two plane tickets to use in case of imminent threat and the need to flee Sucre.

Eyewitnesses report that hooded men approached Martínez’s moto-taxi as he neared his home at La Alemania farm on Tuesday evening and shot him several times. Before he was shot, Martínez managed to yell at his moto-taxi driver to flee and escape the attack. Martínez’s body remained on the roadside well into the night due to delayed action by local police. Today, LWR staff and Martínez’s family will participate in funeral and mourning services.

LWR joins Martínez’s family in calling for support from the Colombian government. Protection must be provided to his wife and children, and to his farming colleagues who remain in grave danger. LWR also calls on the Colombian government to swiftly resolve long-standing legal issues that have made it impossible for all farming families originally displaced from La Alemania Farm to return safely.

“Unfortunately, Rogelio's murder typifies the fate of far too many brave Colombian civil society leaders,” said Michael Watt, LWR’s regional director for Latin America. “Colombian human rights organizations and individual rights defenders—women, men, Afro-Colombians, indigenous, and peasant community leaders, and labor organizers—are increasingly the target of violence from paramilitary factions, newly emerging criminal groups, and other armed actors competing for control of land and resources. Rogelio's murder is, tragically, an occurrence repeated on a weekly basis in far too many communities across Colombia.”

“Protection and agriculture programming must go hand in hand or farmers have no future in Sucre,” adds Romoser. LWR calls on the U.S. government to improve rural development programming in Colombia and limit support for Colombia’s armed forces until there is marked progress of human rights protection in the country.

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