Free at Last

Free at Last


Scott Nicholson – Colombia

Raquel Castro walked out of the Good Shepherd prison in Bogota the night of August 2.  She is a teacher who had been imprisoned for three years for “rebellion.”  She told me previously that her primary crime was being a leader in the mobilization that prevented Occidental Petroleum from drilling for oil in the territory of the U’wa indigenous people.

Raquel was also an eyewitness to the execution by the Colombian military of three renowned social leaders in the state of Arauca on August 5, 2004 – Alirio Martinez, president of the State Peasant Association; Jorge Prieto, president of the Arauca health care workers union; and Leonel Goyeneche, teacher and treasurer of the Arauca labor federation.

The day after Raquel was released from prison, she spoke at the International People’s Tribunal hearing on the oil corporations that are operating in Colombia.  She had the rapt attention of the more than 400 people that filled the hall – her words transported us to the community of Caño Seco on that morning of August 5th.

Because of the war and repression, students were abandoning the rural schools and there was concern that the government would close those schools.

The leaders of the Arauca social movement met in Caño Seco on August 4, 2004 to decide how to address that situation.  After the meeting Alirio, Leonel, and Raquel spent the night in Jorge’s home.

Soldiers came into the house at 5:30 the following morning.  Alirio, Jorge, and Leonel were taken outside and shots were fired.  The soldiers then came back in for Raquel.  She told us, “I stood in the doorway of the room and said ‘Please don’t kill me.’  They said ‘Go outside’ and stuck their rifles in my back.  I gave myself over to death and left everything behind.  I was walking but it felt like my feet weren’t touching the ground. Something began to leave my body and I felt a deep peace.”

“I saw a lot of soldiers outside in the street.  Then, something extraordinary happened!  One of the soldiers outside said ‘Go back in!  Don’t come out!’  My spirit came back and entered my chest, and I was able to return to life.  I turned around and asked the soldiers behind me, ‘What should I do?’  One of them said ‘Go back in.’ My life had been saved so that I could tell you what happened in Caño Seco that August 5th.”

Samuel Morales, a teacher and president of the Arauca labor federation, was also detained by the military in Caño Seco.  “A soldier said there was an arrest order out for me, but they never showed me any order” said Raquel.

She and Samuel were flown to the Saravena military base and “the bodies were tossed onto the floor of the helicopter by our feet,” she said.  When they arrived at the base she saw “tall, fair-skinned soldiers” – U.S. soldiers.

Raquel and Samuel were then flown to the headquarters of the 18th Brigade in Arauca City.  When the soldiers there saw that they were both still alive, some of them said “Why did you bring more trash here?  Why didn’t you kill them?”

“We survived that day and we also survived prison” concluded Raquel. 

She joins a growing list of community leaders from Arauca that have “graduated” from prison and are continuing their work on behalf of the people of Arauca.  Samuel was released on April 27.  Jose Murillo, the former president of the Joel Sierra Human Rights Foundation, was arrested on August 21, 2003 and released in September of last year.  Elida Parra, a leader of the Regional Student and Youth Association, was also arrested on August 21, 2003 and released after three years in prison.  Bernardo Arguello, a former president of the Saravena Community Water Company, was arrested on November 12, 2002 and imprisoned for 15 months.  He returned to Saravena and was arrested again three weeks later – spending another 26 months in prison.

The slogan of the Arauca Social Organizations is “Arauca exists, insists, and resists!”  Raquel, Samuel, Jose, Elida, and Bernardo are the embodiment of that spirit.

In love and solidarity,

P.S.  I recently returned to the U.S.  Thanks very much to everyone who contributed to my journey to Colombia!

Scott Nicholson served as a Short-term Volunteer with the Social Organizations of Arauca, Colombia.  As a part of the process of accompaniment, Scott worked as an advisor/consultant in the administration of productive projects in the rural communities.