Miami Herald, July 27, 1999
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, July 19, 1999
San Francisco Examiner, July 23, 1999
Cincinnati Enquirer, July 25, 1999
Mention Colombia and the first thing most Americans think of is drugs, and secondly violence. What most people don't realize is that there are more than ten times as many political murders in Colombia as there are drug-related killings. And these political murders are being funded with U.S. tax dollars.
The Clinton administration upped the ante last week with a proposal for a billion dollars of "anti-drug aid"-- widely acknowledged to be indistinguishable from other military assistance-- to the government of Colombia over the next fiscal year. And now peace talks between the government and guerrillas that were supposed to resume this week have been postponed.
A billion dollars is an enormous amount of money to fight an extraordinarily dirty war that most Americans know nothing about. Even at the height of President Reagan's war in El Salvador in the 1980s, US spending did not reach that amount.
The Colombian war is very similar to the 1980s war in El Salvador (or Guatemala, for that matter). As in the Salvadoran war, most of the victims are innocent people-- labor leaders, peasants, and even human rights workers. They are killed by the government or its allies, who often use hideous torture and mutilation in order to discourage opposition political activity. And most of the murders and atrocities are carried out by paramilitary groups with close links to the army and police. This allows the Colombian government to deny responsibility, and U.S. officials to pretend that they are aiding a democratic government.
These methods were brutally successful in El Salvador, from Washington's point of view. After literally killing off most of the opposition's leaders and organizers, it is now possible to have national elections in which even former guerrilla leaders can run, without risk that anyone upsetting to US officials or their local allies could win.
Washington's problem in Colombia is that the guerrillas are much more entrenched, for various historical and geographical reasons. The two main guerrilla groups now control about half the national territory, and can blow up oil pipelines whenever they want.
These realities-- as well as the overwhelming popular desire for an end to the war-- have convinced Colombian President Andres Pastrana to pursue peace negotiations, which began in January. But Columbia's military, its drug-rich and commercial elite, and of course the paramilitary death squads want to pursue a "Salvadoran" solution: fight the rebels while killing and terrorizing their potential supporters among citizens' organizations that are seen as "subversive."
The social and political causes of the war cry out for a negotiated solution. Seventy percent of the land is owned by three percent of the population, and 42% of children do not make it to the fifth grade. In the 1980s an amnesty was granted so that the left could participate in the political process, but those who did were murdered at a rate of one every 39 hours.
The United States has been less than supportive of the latest peace overtures. Our government informed Pastrana that the demilitarized zone that he created as a concession to the rebels must not get in the way of anti-drug activities. But the paramilitary death squads, as everyone knows, are much more tightly linked to big-time drug traffickers than the guerrillas-- yet this does not seem to concern U.S. officials.
The facts of the Colombian situation are well-known. Human rights groups in this country-- including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch-- and even our own State Department recognize that the Colombian government is responsible for the overwhelming majority of the 35,000 political murders committed there over the last decade. The Colombian army has publicly stated that its targets include civilians across a broad array of citizens' organizations that it considers "subversive." And our own government has pretty much given up the pretense that its military aid is supposed to be used for "anti-drug" activities, as opposed to taking sides in this dirty civil war.
Yet we are about to give Colombia a billion dollars in military aid, plus $3 billion from the IMF and another $2 billion from other multilateral institutions like the Inter-American Development Bank. Our military is now sharing intelligence with theirs, oblivious to the atrocities that may be committed with the help of this information.
For 78 days American planes bombed Serbia, supposedly to defend the human rights of the Kosovars. Now who in Congress will stand up for the human rights of Colombians, by saying no to this latest billion-dollar installment to a government that rules its people by means of terror?