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John M. Laforge
Global Spin: The Corporate Assault â€¦
Henry A. Giroux
The Freeze: A Look Back
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Slippin' & Slidin'
Onward, Christian Soldiers?
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The War On Drugs From The Supply Side
Report from the front
Last October 25 a paramilitary patrol landed on the small town of El Aro in Colombia's northern Antioquia province, with the intention of "doing away with the guerrillas." For five days the town was converted into a concentration camp. First, they killed Andres Mendoza,Wilmar Restrepo, RosaMaria Barrera, and Dora Angela Areiza in front of everybody.
Before leaving El Aro the paras assassinated 64-year-old Marco Aurelio Areiza who owned the town's store. Prior to killing him, they tied him to a tree in the plaza, tortured him, pulled out his eyes and heart, and rubbed salt all over his body. His wife and children were forcefully taken to see his remains. On leaving, the paramilitary burned the town. The result of the paramilitary presence in El Aro was 51 of the 68 town's houses destroyed and 10 small farms looted and burned. Another 5 peasants were killed and the paras took with them 1,300 heads of cattle and 130 mules and horses.
After the paramilitary left, the 250 survivors buried the bodies of their friends and relatives, and fled to nearby towns, joining some other 1,500 peasant refugees from the region, adding to the one and a-half million refugees in the country.
The Facade Called Democracy
Colombia has been for many years the window case democracy which the U.S. State Department loves to show off as Latin America's oldest and most durable democracy. Yes, Colombia fulfills all the formal requisites of a democracy: elections are held every four years, the three branches of government function in beautiful buildings, even though in reality their powers are not separate. A string of civilian presidents sign all kinds of international treaties on human rights, women's rights, environmental rights, and children's rights.Colombia holds its place at the United Nations, the OAS, and the ILO where it has no moral problems with the fact that more labor leaders are killed in Colombia than in any other country in the world.
Colombia has always had two political parties, Liberals and Conservatives, whose power struggles have caused many wars. The last one, La Violencia, from 1948 to 1953, left more than 300,000 dead. Killings continued on a lower scale through the 1960s and 1970s. These two political entities might as well be considered one party with two heads, because there is no ideological difference between them and they hold the same position on social and economic issues.
Colombia is by not a poor country. It has abundant resources, such as oil, coal, gold, emeralds, platinum, and uranium. It exports coffee, flowers, sugar ,and bananas. An article in the Wall Street Journal published last year said that "Colombia boasts continuous economic growth, by far the best in Latin America and perhaps in the world." Yet there is much hunger in Colombia. Colombia's tragedy is the result of deep inequalities--3 percent of the people own 70 percent of the arable land--and the lack of political will to implement social, political, and economic reforms.
Because of these deep inequalities and violence, guerrilla movements started forming in the late 1930s. Today there are two major guerrilla forces, FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) and ELN (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional) .
In 1985 a challenge to the two political parties came about when the government, in one of its periodic peace processes, offered amnesty to those guerrillas who would give up their arms and become a political party competing in elections. Created by former guerrillas, the Union Patriotica Party (UP) organized at the grass roots and appealed to a broad range of Colombian citizens who believed Liberals and Conservatives had done nothing to represent their interests. Elections came and UP enjoyed extensive electoral success: city council members, mayors, state assembly and national Congress members were elected. There was a sense of being a democracy at last. Except that virtually all of the UP's elected officials and the party's only two presidential candidates were killed. About 4,000 of them at last count. The real number of UP grass roots activists and sympathizers has been lost.
Colombia has a privileged geographical location as the only country in South America with coasts on both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. This particular geographic location was the main reason why Colombia became, in the 1970s, a key stop in the trade of cocaine brought from Peru and Bolivia. This stopover for drug trade was initially made by Miami Cubans who wanted to profit from drugs after the American troops came home hooked from Vietnam. Contacts were made with the underworld in Colombia and with the emerald trade. Soon the Colombians outdid their Cuban partners and became the main middlepeople in the drug trade.
Initially Bolivia and Peru produced coca leaves and paste and the paste was brought to Colombia where it would be processed and refined to cocaine and distributed to the always hungry U.S. market. So in a Fellini-type of reality we find two contradictory illegal force, FARC and drug traffickers, co-habiting the vast rain forests of Colombia's Amazon basin. In this way the drug trade with all its money and corruptive power became another factor in the old and vicious Colombian war.
(a) The displaced peasants: The peasants, who have fled from terror during all of these 50 years of war in the countryside, have two options: to go to the big cities and become beggars and prostitutes or to go to the rainforest to colonize the land. If they choose the latter, they till the land and plant crops such as corn or plantains. Since these areas were never developed, they lack transportation routes. Only by using the big rivers and crossing hundreds of miles can the crop reach Bogota or other markets. By the time it gets there, the crop is rotten or has become so costly that all the profit is practically lost. There is only one alternative open to the peasant farmer who wishes to subsist : growing coca leaves. He does not have to worry about transportation because the drug lords' economic machinery picks up the harvested coca at the farm. Coca is more profitable than corn in the "free market." Colombian peasants growing coca are the result of social, political and economic problems that cannot and will not be solved by military means.
(b) The guerrillas: FARC and ELN have a political agenda that calls for agrarian reform, democratization, and protection of natural resources from multi-national corporations. But the Conservative and Liberal parties have never allowed third party or grass-roots opposition.
Colombian politics is very exclusionary. Guerrillas have used kidnappings of rich people to finance their activities. They also place land mines in areas where they are active, and especially the ELN has a penchant for bombing oil pipelines causing untold ecological damage.
In the 1980s paramilitary groups such as MAS (Death to Kidnappers) were formed when enraged cattlepeople joined forces with drug traffickers against guerrilla kidnappings. Recently guerrillas announced that they would also start attacking civilians they believe are friends or relatives of paramilitaries, which means further spreading the conflict to the civilian population. This violates international humanitarian law. Today the guerillas hold virtual control of vast regions of the countryside where for most of this century the only presence of the state has been the army. Since guerrillas and drug traffickers generally operate in the same areas, many guerrilla fronts tax drug trafficking operations, while protecting plantations of coca, processing and shipment of drugs, just as they tax any area that comes under their control, and in this way they benefit from the drug trade. But to say that guerrillas are "narco-guerrillas" is a simplification of the labyrinthic world of Colombian politics.
(c) The drug traffickers: Colombia's rigidly stratified class system does not give much opportunity for people to advance socially. In Medellin, for example, the textile capital of Latin America, many people were left unemployed when factories closed during the 1970s economic recession. Unemployed people plus refugees fleeing from terror make an easy breeding ground for drug trafficking. The underworld and the ruthless emerald trade Mafia in the state of Boyaca quickly took advantage of the new, promising drug trade. Fortunes were made quickly by this new class, which became wealthier than the traditional elites. They saw themselves just as much entrepreneurs as the coffee or sugar barons and demanded their share of power. Money talks and soon those who did not sell themselves were eliminated. Among them the incorruptible leaders of the UP party. Here the drug people figured out how to kill two birds with one stone: since the UP represented the left, and since the drug traffickers sought to win grace from the viscerally anticommunist Colombian elites and military, they proceeded to go after UP people and kill them, as well as non-combatant peasants suspected of guerilla sympathies such as the ones in El Aro. The drug traffickers in this way also started to get land. In the last seven years drug traffickers have taken between four to five million hectares of the best Colombian land. They are not interested in growing anything, they just want to gain social status, and owning land gives status. In taking the land, they drive the peasants out and introduce private armies to protect them.
(d) The Army: Keep in mind that Colombia's army is Simon Bolivar's army which crossed the Andes in an epic march and gave the first defeat to the Spanish empire. Made up of peasants that army and its aristocratic and enlightened leader sought to found a republic where democracy, freedom, and human rights would prevail. That army later became the private army of the ruling elites and a proxy army for a foreign power. Fighting a guerrilla war in the tropics for 50 years has made it the most seasoned army in this hemisphere, and the most brutal. Lately, as documented by the BBC, this army has been renting itself out to protect multinational corporations' properties be they oil fields in Casanare or gold mines in Segovia. Colombia's list of graduates from the School of the Americas is the longest of any Latin American country. Colombians started training in 1947 and have continued to the present. Proudly, Colombians will tell anybody that they are not only students but teachers at SOA.
(e) The Paramilitary: In November 1996 Human Rights Watch released a report called "Colombia's Killer Networks: the Military--Paramilitary Partnership and the U.S.," which documents the historical links between U.S. Cold War strategies, political violence in Colombia, and the nurturing of paramilitaries by the CIA and the Pentagon since the 1950s. Paramilitaries are a creation of the Colombian state. Clearly they represent an attempt to cover up the brutalities of the army which are continually reported by reputable human rights organizations. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the myriad of Colombian NGOs, at tremendous risks and despite the numerous killings they suffer, keep reporting atrocities such as the one in El Aro.
These paramilitary groups act together with the military, but carry out irregular actions in order to blur the borders between what is civilian and what is military. It is a perverted mechanism because it resorts to secrecy and makes a mockery of democracy and its institutions. When paramilitaries are created, a state's responsibility ceases to exist.
Father Javier Giraldo, in Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy, reveals some of the characteristics of Colombia's paramilitaries. The paras receive support from trade organizations and powerful businesses such as export agriculture, cattlemen, oil companies and drug traffickers. They get political support from the military and leaders of the traditional parties. They receive military support from the Army's local battalion and brigade. The judicial system protects them by absolving the responsible parties and discontinuing the criminal proceedings. Or if the courts condemn someone, they refuse to investigate the lines of command. The executive and the legislative powers provide the military who organize and direct this criminal structure with all kinds of promotions in rank and honors.
More insidious is the military-paramilitary modus operandi of the last ten years. The strategy has been to declare as military objectives, not only FARC and ELN militants, but also members of dissident political parties. They target people who have lived in regions where guerrillas have been present and members of any community organization, such as cooperatives, which represent alternative models to the accumulation of capital different from neo-liberalism. For local peasants geographical territories stop being seen as lands where you feel emotionally attached, but become "conquered territories " with armed groups. They are forced to relate to the combined action of the army and the paramilitaries as those who exercise power. A brutally cynical counter-insurgency tactic of former guerrillas joining paramilitary units is being tried now with the young men fighting for the highest payer.
This strategy responds to the "development" plans with a new conception of social and family relations. These relations are based on irrational use of force and loyalties where the most important thing is private property and profitability. A new society is created within the free market model where only those people who have money and property (be it cattle, contraband, or cocaine) can compete. The rest have to beg to be included in the paramilitary scheme or are excluded. The creation of the parastate has arrived.
Paramilitary structures have multiple alliances with important sectors of drug-trafficking in coordination with military units, as the massacres of Trujillo and Riofrio have shown. A typical example is that of Colonel Luis Felipe Becerra, who coordinated the death squad massacres in March 1988 of 22 workers from banana plantations in Uraba. When an honest judge announced preliminary results of her probe against two drug traffickers and three military officials, she received death threats and had to flee. Seven months later, in retaliation, her father was slain. When Colonel Becerra was going to be served with legal papers, he was in the United States where he was taking a course to be promoted to lieutenant colonel. When he returned, he was involved in a second massacre in Riofrio in 1993. A known drug lord wanted the land around Riofrio, so 13 peasant owners were killed through army-paramilitary cooperation.
(f) The Church and the NGOs: After being one of the most conservative churches in Latin America for centuries, the Colombian Catholic Church has become one of the few institutions left to help the poor. Many priests and nuns have died working for justice and the poor. Many of the internal 1,500,000 refugees have come to the Church's door. The Bishops' Conference has raised its voice in favor of the poor. And the
Colombian Jesuits, with their prestigious think tank CINEP and their Program for Peace have taken leadership in struggling for the rights of the poor. Colombian NGOs have led a courageous baffle to assist and represent the poor. Many activists have been killed or "disappeared" as a result.
(g) The U.S.: The U.S. support for the "war on drugs" does not strengthen democracy or respect human rights. The Colombian army has a long and close relationship with the U.S. military. From World War IIon, they collaborated against "communist subversion." Now it is drugs. The State Department has issued reports about human rights violations, but these are not taken seriously by the Colombian elites, because the U.S. government keeps giving military aid to the Colombian army. Human Rights Watch reports that in 1990 a team of CIA and U.S. strategists gathered to assist Colombian military intelligence. The document produced at this meeting does not mention narcotics at all, but rather emphasizes combating "terrorism by armed subversion".
So one must question the real goal of the "war on drugs." Is the "war on drugs" a pseudo-ethical argument for perpetuating violence for the economic benefit of the elites in both countries? The facts contradict the speeches by U.S. politicians in their moralists speeches and appeals to the U.S. public. Drug czar General McCaffrey announced on a recent visit to Bogota that the U.S. is willing to help Colombia combat not only "drug traffickers "but also the "guerrillas." It would be interesting to know if he considers the brutally murdered CINEP researchers Mario Calderon (a former Jesuit) and Elsa Alvarado--as guerrillas, or the millions of Colombians who desire social change.
The reality is that the United States is becoming more and more involved in the region's most brutal war. A war in which the army allied with drug traffickers and paramilitary death squads combats not only guerrillas but anyone committed to political or social change. The victims of this war have been lawyers, priests, nuns, political activists, labor leaders, peasant leaders, university professors, journalists, cooperative members, women leaders, anybody who thinks. Some 4,300 Colombians are killed each year for political reasons out of a total annual death toll of 30,000. This carnage is in a country with a population of 33 million people. According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists only 2 percent of these political killings are drug related, while 28 percent of the deaths are at the hands of the guerrillas and 70 percent are caused by the paramilitary/military alliance.
Cecilia Zarate -Laun is a co-founder of the Colombia Support Network, P.O. Box 1505, Madison, Wisconsin 53701; 608-257-8753;fax 608-255-6621; csn igc.apc.org; www.igc.apc.org/csn. Or CSN Urgent Action Service, c/o HRAS, 438 N. Skinker, St. Louis, MO 63130.