Alvaro Uribe Velez was being sworn in as Colombia’s president on August 7 while mortar shells were hitting the presidential palace. He was swearing that his war plan, that includes the creation of a ‘civilian intelligence network’ of spies who are to inform on their neighbours, would make Colombians safe.
Outside, the war was killing Colombians. US chemical warfare (or aerial fumigation of coca crops and anything else in the vicinity) started again in Putumayo the day before the inaguration. The mortar shells, attributed to the FARC, killed 19 people, mostly civilians from one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Bogota.
5.8 million out of 44 million Colombians (24.2 million of whom could vote) voted for Uribe. This victory was attributed to Colombian weariness with the peace process initiated by former Colombian president Pastrana. Uribe promises a full-on war on terror against the FARC: breaking off negotiations until they unilaterally disarm; drawing another $800 million from the US (mostly for military forces to protect an oil pipeline) on top of the $2 billion already offered; and, of course, this million-member ‘civilian intelligence network’.
More is promised. Human rights organizations are to be investigated for links to the guerrillas. And, perhaps just by coincidence, the paramilitary organization, Autodefensas Unidas Colombianas (United Self-Defence groups of Colombia) has gone through some changes.
Their leader, Carlos Castano, has quit, claiming the organization is dissolved. It might not be too drastic a speculation to wonder whether the 15,000 members of this army-backed, government-linked, murderous group might not find shiny new careers in ‘civilian intelligence’. In addition to the 70% of their income they derive from the drug trade, these men might be offered a ‘small monthly stipend of about $40’ from the government.
Hey, if the civilian intelligence network really does reach 1 million members and each member draws $40 a month, that’s the whole $800 million promised by the US over two years eaten up in ‘small monthly stipends’. I wonder how thoroughly the incoming administration has thought this one through.
The plan to unleash a war on the social organizations using newly legitimated paramilitaries and US money isn’t anything but a more brutal and more open version of outgoing president Pastrana’s strategy. Pastrana claimed he was negotiating while the war machine was built up and the paramilitaries kept up the slaughter. Uribe promises to use the war machine and bring the paramilitaries back into the fold. This is the ‘new’ policy that is supposed to solve Colombians’ security problem. This is Uribe’s plan to make Colombians feel safer.
But he cannot make Colombians safer, and the massacre on the 7th proves it. That’s the trouble with the war on terror. Uribe can, if he chooses, unleash the most ruthless campaigns against the most helpless civilian populations, watch while social leaders are slaughtered and kidnapped by his new ‘intelligence network’. But the claim that it’s a strategy to fight terror will explode with the next terror bomb. And if 6 million Colombians voted for Uribe because they were tired of the terror they faced under Pastrana, how much faster will they tire of the terror they face under Uribe?
Bogota had 20,000 soldiers and police on guard for the inaguration. It had helicopters flying overhead and a US radar jet scanning for trouble. The shellers hit the palace from a house a mile away and launched 13 more shells that killed 19 people, including 3 children. “This type of attack is absolutely impossible to stop”, a Colombian senator said.
The Colombian-US militaries wanted $800 million to fight the FARC and protect their oil pipelines, back when they thought the FARC only had pipe bombs made of propane gas tanks. What will they need now that they know that their opposition has 120mm mortars that can hit from a mile away while the vaunted helicopters of Plan Colombia fly patrols directly overhead? How much money will Colombians have to watch siphoned away from their educations, their health, their environment, on a program that only speeds up the rate of violence against them?
The FARC tried a political strategy in the 1980s and were slaughtered for their trouble. They chose a military strategy then, understandably from their point of view and unfortunately from the point of view of those who are tired of war. Since then, they’ve been building their forces, with all the patience of a peasant guerrilla army, and waiting for the total war that they were sure, from their experience, would come. They’ve been waiting for a president like Alvaro Uribe Velez. And does anyone really think that this is the only military surprise they have in store?
No, the war on terror in Colombia will be like the war on terror everywhere else. One side or the other of the terrorists will win. Those who believe terror can make people safe will be proven wrong. But how many innocents will die to make such a trivial point understood?
Colombians did not ask for this. Neither the 38 million who didn’t vote for Uribe nor most of the 6 million who did could possibly want this. But Uribe is prepared to offer their lives: “We will die if we must, but we have to recover peace.” Change ‘recover’ to ‘prevent’, and you have something like what is on offer.
Can Colombia afford 4 years of this? What will be left after four years of this?
Justin Podur is a ZNet Commentator and volunteer.