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Plan Colombia Bleeds into Neighboring Countries
O n February 19, 2004, a public hearing was held in Quito, Ecuador, organized by more than 100 nonprofit and human rights organizations to symbolically try the former Ecuadorian ambassador to Argentina. The hearing, called the Tribunal of Dignity, took place inside a crowded theater holding a diverse group of attendants: members of the indigenous community, activists, reporters, NGO professionals, university professors, students, and concerned citizens. The jury was made up of prominent national intellectuals. Witnesses called to testify included:
- Pablo Ortiz, editor of one of Ecuador’s chief newspapers, El Comercio
- Mauricio Gándara, diplomat and ex-ambassador to England
- Kintto Lucas, the head editor of a liberal political magazine, Tintají
- Joselinda Iza, an indigenous leader and regional director for the Women’s Crescent Moon Movement
- Nora Cortiña, the founder of the Mothers of the Disappeared from Plaza de Mayo in Argentina
Only one chair remained empty: the one meant for the accused, Colonel Lieutenant Germanico Molina, Ecuadorian ambassador to Argentina. The event was transmitted live to Ecuador by Radio La Luna and to the rest of Latin America by the Latin American Educational Radio Satellite Network (ALER) . The alleged crime perpetrated by Colonel Molina rang fear and caution in the minds of many Ecuadorians, Argentineans, and other Latin Americans who have lost loved ones under repressive military governments.
President General Lucio Gutier- rez appointed Molina as ambassador to Argentina in spite of complaints that Molina lacked diplomatic training or experience. In mid-February 2004, Molina paid a visit to General Guillermo Suarez Mason, Argentina’s mastermind behind and leader of the largest torture camp in Argentina under a military dictatorship that caused the deaths of over 30,000 people. Serving a life sentence under home arrest, the 80-year-old general was due to celebrate his birthday. Molina decided to take Mason on a small excursion in the trunk of his car, which enjoyed diplomatic immunity. They drove to a nightclub, socialized with strippers, and chatted jovially for over four hours before Molina brought Mason home. The next day the Argentinean president ousted Col. Molina from the country and recalled Mason to serve the rest of his sentence inside a federal prison.
Unfortunately, Molina’s peculiar friendship abroad is only the latest of several incidents that indicate Ecuador, once a healthy democracy, is becoming a dangerous political environment for opposition groups. Many believe that Molina’s merrymaking with Mason is clear proof of the kind of networking sought by the president’s officials. Domestic political assassinations were unheard of a year before President Gutierrez rose to power. With Gutierrez, an atmosphere of terror unforeseen in the country has been established only six months into his presidency.
On November 4, 2003, the president of the Amazon Defense Front and indigenous leader, Angel Shingre, was shot dead in the city of Coca, Orellana province. It’s believed he was targeted for his 10 years of environmental work and his involvement in the landmark $1 billion class-action lawsuit by the Amazonian people against Texaco for illegally polluting their environment. On January 30, 2004, prosecutor Patricio Campana was murdered a day before he was due to present evidence on corruption allegations against oil company officials. Prominent reporters from alternative media such as Tintají , Radio La Luna, and other media networks critical of the current government, also received death threats.
On February 1, 2004, an assassination attempt against the president of the largest indigenous organization in Ecuador, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE), was thwarted by his family. Leonidas Iza had just returned from Cuba after participating in an international congress against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, or ALCA, as it is known in Spanish. Together with his wife, son, and a nephew, he barely escaped the 13 shots directed at them in front of CONAIE’s headquarters. His 19-year-old son was gravely wounded. Gutierrez’s government, however, claimed these were self-inflicted wounds. The indigenous community has accused Gutierrez of blatantly refusing to investigate. They see it as clear evidence of political repression.
Events like these are common to Colombia where drug traffickers, paramilitaries, guerrilla members, and countless innocents blend together, becoming frequent targets from all sides in the 50-year-old armed conflict. According to findings in a recent Amnesty International report, during 2002 more than 4,000 civilians were killed for political motives; 1,000 people “disappeared”; more than 400,000 were displaced; and at least 2,700 people were abducted—1,500 by armed opposition groups and paramilitaries. Such bloodshed had long been absent in Ecuador.
However, ever since a partnership on “collaborative efforts against drug trafficking” was signed between Ecuador and Colombia, there has been an atmosphere of fear and paranoia everywhere. Denoted as the second stage of Plan Colombia, some of its procedures entail military action and “campesino training” by the Ecuadorian government on its border with Colombia, the continuation of coca crop fumigation regardless of increasing health complaints in the area, the strengthening of migration laws dealing with Colombian refugees, and “an increase in the exchange and coordination of information about people who act above the law and attempt to cross the frontier common to both countries.”
A direct result of this partnership was evidenced on August 24, 2003, when collaboration between Colombian and Ecuadorian security forces led to the arrest of Simon Freire, a prominent Colombian guerilla member, in Quito, Ecuador. According to Tintají, Freire is said to have been in Ecuador to arrange a meeting between the French government and guerrilla leaders about its possible involvement in peace talks and the release of a guerrilla hostage, a French citizen. President Gutierrez denies any collaboration exists between Ecuadorian and Colombian security forces. Yet, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe publicly congratulated the Ecuadorian national police for its efforts. Moreover, director of public relations at the U.S. Embassy Marti Stell was quoted in Tintají as acknowledging that Freire’s detention was “an exemplary act of cooperation between the Colombian and Ecuadorian police, a conjoined operation that was carried to perfection. It is a success in the campaign against regional terrorism.”
At the Tribunal of Dignity, Nora Cortiña reminded the public that Molina’s newfound friend, General Mason, was officially charged with abducting over 500 children and relocating them among military families—only one of many tactics used to repress political opposition. Most importantly, Argentina was not acting alone. The military dictatorships in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, and Paraguay were engaged in a concerted campaign with the United States, between the 1970s and 1980s, to obliterate any leftist, socialist, or communist “tendencies” in the southern cone of the continent under a strategy infamously called Plan Condor. This military strategy would spur masterminds of cruelty, like Pinochet in Chile, and create a powerful network of oppression where Argentinean political refugees could be arrested in Uruguay and Uruguayan members of the resistance could be tortured in Brazil. The exact extent of this network is not yet known, but its tactics now seem to be applied in Ecuador and Colombia.
“To forget the past and remain quiet,” Cortiña argued, whose 24- year-old son was disappeared in 1977 by Argentinean armed forces, “is to become an accomplice of these terrible crimes.”
The latest assassination attempts, and Molina’s night cruise with Mason in Argentina, are indicators that Plan Colombia and irregular methods of repression common to that conflict are bleeding into neighboring countries. As Joselinda Iza affirms during her testimony at the tribunal, quoted by the Independent Media Center, “There is a declared persecution against social movements, the media, and democratic sectors of this country that oppose its current regime.”
Sofia Jarrin-Thomas is a freelance writer currently residing in Boston. She was a human rights activist in Colombia for three years and has published opinion articles in Dollars & Sense and the Boston Metro .
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