Continuing his extensive visit to Colombia today Sinn Féin Newry/Armagh MP Conor Murphy travelled to the Putumayo region on the Ecuadorian border. This is a heavily militarised area which has witnessed displacement, extrajudicial killings, crop fumigation and environmental damage caused by oil exploration.
"We were met by David Florez of the Patriotic March organisation, who has addressed meetings in Stormont, the Dáil and Westminster. He took us on an eventful journey, involving bus, boat, jeep and motorbike, to the heart of the region to meet peasant farmers, Afro Colombians and indigenous people.
"This area has seen strike action by peasants and oil workers in recent years over the government policies of fumigation of crops and the displacement of families to facilitate oil exploration.
"There have also been mobilisations against the environmental damage being inflicted on the area and for better pay and conditions for the oil workers. The response of the military, confirmed by Human Rights Reports, has been to murder peasant leaders, including four in May this year.
"The delegation heard
testimony from their families in relation to those and other killings. They all
told a similar story of army units surrounding their homes, removing all mobile
phones from family members and then sons or fathers being taken away and later
"I also had the opportunity to visit La Picota prison where Huber Ballesteros, a trade union leader, and David Rabelo, a human rights activist, are being held. After a three hour wait, we finally got to meet the two men and hear of the dreadful conditions in Colombia's jails where overcrowding and non-existent healthcare are the norm.
"Colombia has around
10,000 political prisoners, about 60% of them combatants and the rest from
trade unions, human rights groups and political opponents of the government.
"Huber himself is a well known national trade union leader who had negotiated with the government over 22 strikes in 20 years. In the days before his arrest he had met with Congress members and Senators but then found himself accused of rebellion and fund raising for the FARC while abroad on union activities.
"He has spent 11 months in terrible conditions, with no treatment for his diabetes, awaiting trial. Despite this his spirits are high and his determination to see political change and justice in Colombia remains strong. The government here is "a dictatorship with a democratic face" he said and asked us to help bring an international focus on the need for a genuine peace process."