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Colombia is Burning... And the US Is Pouring Gasoline on the Fire

31 May 2002

On April 8, Alfredo Zapata Herrera was on his way to work at a cement factory when right wing paramilitaries dragged him off a bus and killed him. Zapata was a leader in the local construction workers' union. The military and the police knew that he was targeted for assassination, but did nothing to protect him. He was the 45th union organizer killed in Colombia this year. Six more have been killed since. Three out of every four union organizers killed around the world are killed in Colombia.

Last year, 4,000 civilians were murdered for political reasons in Colombia -- up from 1,187 in 2000. The vast majority were killed by right wing paramilitaries closely aligned with the Colombian military: assassinated for speaking out for political and economic justice, or massacred to scare their neighbors into abandoning land coveted by oil companies, cattle ranchers, or cocaine traffickers. The U.S. and Colombian government circumvent human rights restrictions that are supposed to prevent U.S. military aid from going to military units linked to the paramilitaries. According to Human Rights Watch:

"The U.S. violated the spirit of its own laws [ . . . ] in order to continue funding abusive units. Compelling evidence emerged, in particular, of ties between paramilitaries and Colombian military units deployed in the U.S. antinarcotics campaign in southern Colombia, showing that U.S.-vetted, funded, and -trained troops were mixing freely with units that maintained close ties with paramilitaries. This occurred in the case of the First and Second Counternarcotics Battalions. On their first joint deployment in December 2000, these battalions depended heavily on the army's Twenty-Fourth Brigade for support and logistical assistance, particularly with regard to intelligence, civic-military outreach, and psychological operations. Yet there was abundant and credible evidence to show that the Twenty-fourth Brigade regularly worked with and supported paramilitary groups in the department of Putumayo. Indeed, the Twenty-fourth Brigade hosted counternarcotics battalion troops at its facilities in La Hormigá a town where, according to witnesses, paramilitaries and Colombian Army troops were indistinguishable."

The war has grown even bloodier in recent months since the government broke off peace talks with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC,) the larger of the country's two Marxist guerilla groups. President Pastrana has declared 19 municipalities "theaters of operation" under the country's new security law - essentially imposing martial law in these areas, giving the military broad impunity. Escalation of the war against the guerillas serves to cloak and legitimize the "dirty war" against dissenters. Colombian human rights activist Hector Mondragon writes:

"Both the right and the guerilla are trying to impose war. The strengthening of the movements of the left for peace could possibly resolve the conflict. This is the possibility that the dirty war and assassinations have tried to prevent."

Guerilla violence provides a justification for the further escalation of military/paramilitary violence. And so the cycle continues.

Things are about to get worse. On Sunday, Colombians elected a new president, Alvaro Uribe, who has promised to take a harder line against the FARC. Among his proposals: doubling the size of the Colombian military, and creating a network of one million civilian intelligence operatives. The latter proposal is especially frightening to human rights activists: it has disturbing similarities to the "CONVIVIR" program of the late 1990's that created armed civilian patrols throughout the country. In the department of Antioquia, where Uribe was governor at the time, the CONVIVIR groups operated as thinly veiled fronts for the paramilitaries. Uribe ignored repeated pleas from Mayor Gloria Cuartas of Apatardo to intervene to stop the groups from terrorizing her people. By the end of his term as governor, Uribe was boasting that the labor unions in the banana growing region of Uraba had been "pacified." This "pacification" involved 3500 assassinations. Today, Uribe publicly condemns the paramilitaries, but he owes his overwhelming victory in part to "armed campaigning" by paramilitary groups that threatened to carry out massacres in villages that voted for another candidate.

Uribe's victory was welcomed by the Bush administration. The BBC reports that "Mr. Uribe was without a doubt the favored candidate of the U.S." And that "The U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, Anne Patterson, went to Mr. Uribe's campaign headquarters to congratulate him even before the final vote was announced."

To make matters worse, as part of the Emergency Supplemental budget bill, the House voted last week to allow the Colombian military to use U.S. funds designated for use in counternarcotics operations to finance its war against the guerillas.

Why the U.S. support? Another provision of the bill hints at the real reason why the U.S. is involved in Colombia: a $6 million down payment on a $98 million program to create a new Colombian army battalion to protect an oil pipeline used by California based Occidental Petroleum. Instability in the Middle East is making Latin American oil more important to the U.S. Earlier this year Ambassador Anne Patterson told the Bogota daily newspaper El Tiempo that:

"After Mexico and Venezuela, Colombia is the most important oil country in the region. After what happened on September 11th, the traditional oil sources for the United States (the Middle East) are less secure . . . Latin America could not cover a shortage, it could not supply (us) in a crisis, but it allows a small margin to work with and avoid price speculation . . . Colombia has great potential for exporting more oil to the United States, and now more than ever it is important for us to diversify our oil sources."

Increasing oil production in Colombia to meet U.S. needs will inevitably require forcing more farmers and indigenous people off their land. Escalating the war achieves this end - as do crop fumigations, massacres and assassinations.

The U.S. already has several hundred soldiers on the ground in Colombia acting as "military advisors." These soldiers are currently prohibited from engaging in combat, but how long will that policy last if the FARC kills one of them? The U.S. is getting more deeply involved in Colombia's war with no clear goals and no exit strategy.

The Senate will have a chance to stop the U.S. from wading deeper into the Colombian war when it votes on the Emergency Supplemental bill next week. Senators must take action to prevent us from getting more deeply implicated in the atrocities of Colombia's brutal war.

Sean Donahue
Published by © Sean Donahue

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