Building peace in Colombia was the focus of the international conference in Chicago where Orlando Valencia, an Afro-Colombian activist, was invited to speak about his community’s struggle to defend its land from agribusiness interests and paramilitary forces. He never showed up.
Valencia was representing Jiguamiandó, a “peace community” that has declared itself neutral in the country’s ravaging civil war and has no alignment with either right-wing paramilitary or left-wing guerrilla factions. Displaced by violence in 1997, the community won the right to return in 2000 under collective land rights granted to Afro-indigenous people. But during their absence the land had been illegally planted with African palm, as part of a large-scale palm oil export operation. Since then, the community has been struggling to claim their land while paramilitaries continue to protect the illegal agriculture, which poses a serious threat to the surrounding Choco rainforest.
A week before he was to leave for Chicago, Valencia was denied a visa, for the second time, by the U.S. Embassy in Bogata. Fed up with the process, he started the long trek back home. A group of fellow Colombians and international observers accompanied him.
At mid-day on October 15, the group was stopped by police in the Belén de Bajirá area, taken to a station, and several people, including Valencia, were isolated and questioned. Observers noticed that nearby, three known paramilitary members including an Afro-Colombian named “Dimas” waited in a white truck.
One of the observers overheard the police captain referring to Valencia as a “deserter” from the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia), Colombia’s main leftist guerrilla group.
After the group was released, the paramilitaries – who are widely known to be aligned with government forces – apparently followed them. As the group approached the end of their journey, the paramilitaries accosted them and kidnapped Valencia at gunpoint, telling the observers they would kill him on the spot if they couldn’t take him with them. They set off with Valencia captive on a motorcycle, and despite the desperate efforts of activists and requests from the U.S. Embassy, he hasn’t been heard from since.
In a country where union members, leftist sympathizers and other dissidents or peace activists are regularly killed by right-wing paramilitary forces, Valencia’s friends and supporters fear the worst.
Johny Meneses, a Colombian taxi driver and union activist who has been living in Chicago and seeking asylum here, says he thinks the kidnapping was meant to send a message to the other Colombians participating in the “Partnering for Peace” conference, which took place October 21 – 23. Speakers included members of the U’Wa indigenous group who have been fighting plans for petroleum extraction on their land, a co-founder of the Small Farmers Movement of Cajibío, women’s rights activists and other Afro-Colombian representatives.
“It’s a signal,” Meneses says. “The paramilitaries definitely know what’s going on in Chicago. When someone comes to conferences in the U.S. and denounces [the paramilitaries], they are in a lot of danger when they return. “
Meneses and others noted that it is also striking that the kidnappers were not deterred by the presence of international observers.
“It’s pretty scary in terms of the brazenness of it,” says Martha Pierce, director of the Chicago Metro Sanctuary Alliance, one of the groups sponsoring Valencia’s visit. “And the local officials don’t seem to be taking it as seriously as we’d like.”
Pierce says she was surprised that Valencia was denied a visa by the United States even though he had letters from conference organizers and an invitation to meet with Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky.
”The two things they were concerned about were his financial resources while he’s here and whether he’ll go back home,” she says. “We assured them he’ was being sponsored by a group, so he wouldn’t be a burden on U.S. taxpayers, and the expectation was that he would go home after about two weeks.
“If he’d overstayed his visa, would that have been as bad as him getting killed?” she asked. “The U.S. Embassy must have this on their conscience – or at least they should.”