Washington's Role in Colombian
The myth and the reality
by Matthew Knoester
Z magazine, January 1998
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian-born
1982 Nobel Prize winner in literature, almost single-handedly
changed the way Latin American literature is read around the world.
Writing in a style others coined "magical realism,"
Garcia Marquez narrated the history of a town called Macondo in
such classics as One Hundred Years of Solitude. In Macondo, "civilization"
came and went, civil wars were fought without end, and massacres
of banana workers appeared only as figments of a character's imagination.
At one point, Garcia Marquez described the event in Colombian
history in which hundreds of striking United Fruit workers were
massacred in the town of Cienega in 1928. As Garcia Marquez told
the story, one banana worker survived and returned to Cienega
to find no traces of what had happened. He asked the police chief
about the morning's occurrence and the chief said "Massacre?
What massacre is he talking about? He must have been dreaming.
Aqui, no pasa nada." Nothing happens here. Macondo is a happy
The Macondo Garcia Marquez describes is
a spiraling history of his native Colombia. Macondo reveals an
official Colombian history, surrounded by a whirlwind of myth.
The official history becomes "magic." It erases the
government repression in Colombia from history, just as Bogota
daily newspapers misname those who are at fault for daily homicides,
disappearances, and the hundreds of thousands of displaced people
Today Colombia suffers from the worst
human rights record in the hemisphere. Throughout the century,
myths about Colombia have endured with rhetoric about the oldest
functioning "democracy" in Latin America, a booming
economy for the Colombian people, and perhaps a slight problem
with drug trafficking which requires military assistance from
the United States. But in Macondo, official history is myth, only
human dreams are real. Let us take a look at today's "mere
dreams" in Macondo, which happen to be documented in the
U.S. State Department's Human Rights Report of 1997, among other
Since 1986 more Colombians have been killed
at the hands of the military and their "paramilitary"
allies each year than throughout the entire 17 years of political
repression in Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship. Father Javier
Giraldo, the Jesuit director of the Intercongregational Commission
of Justice and Peace in Bogota, estimates that the military and
paramilitary are responsible for 70 percent of the killings in
Colombia. This amounts to over 14,000 people since 1986, if Amnesty
International's figures are correct. And, as is well documented,
even by the U.S. State Department's Human Rights Report of 1997,
the impunity rate in Colombia rests between 97-99.5 percent.
In the United States, the myth endures
that Colombian military forces are allies in the "war on
drugs," a campaign announced (once again) by President Bush
in 1989. Military aid has been given to Colombia for the announced
purpose of eradicating coca, the plant used to produce cocaine.
Since 1989, more than $500 million has been granted to Colombia,
almost half the total amount of U.S. military aid to all of Latin
America. Yet, between 1989 and 1994 coca production declined by
a mere 1.03 percent in Colombia, according to the U.S. State Department's
own International Narcotics Control Strategy Report [INCSR] of
1995. In the year 1995, coca production increased in all three
major coca-growing countries (Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia), reaching
a record level of 214,800 hectares. Moreover, the street price
for cocaine has declined significantly over the past 15 years,
the 1996 INCSR reports.
Clouded by myths about drugs in Colombia,
U.S. military aid to Colombia increased in 1997 to a record $123
million. This will be followed by an impending $169 million for
1998. Among the weapons sent in 1997 were several black hawk helicopters,
M60 machine guns and ammunition, as well as $40 million in helicopters,
communications gear, and equipment provided free of charge under
a special drawdown authority of the president.
Evidence suggests that military aid to
Colombia is being used for purposes other than to fight a "war
on drugs." Instead, U.S. dollars are used to fund counterinsurgency
campaigns and a vast land grab by those who already have large
tracks of land. Large landowners hire paramilitary groups to "defend,"
and, in fact, increase their holdings. The paramilitary groups
work hand in glove with the Colombian military. As a result of
this violence, the U.S. State Department records over 750,000
displaced persons in Colombia. Between 1990 and 1994, Colombians
living below the poverty line increased by one million, to include
about half of Colombia's population of 33 million people. In the
countryside, 48 percent of the land is owned by rich absentee
landowners making up 1.3 percent of the rural population while
the campesinos, comprising 63 percent of the rural population
own less than 5 percent of the land, according to Fr. Giraldo's
Justicia y Paz magazine.
The U.S. State Department notes that of
the 20,000 politically motivated killings since 1986, 59 percent
were committed by paramilitary groups. In the year 1996, their
killings "increased significantly, often with the alleged
complicity of individual soldiers or of entire military units
and with the knowledge and tacit approval of senior military officials,"
the State Department notes. Paramilitaries are private armies,
usually hired to protect large landowners in Colombia. It is with
this analysis in mind that we might finally see how drug lords
operate in Colombia: according to a recent report by Colombian
National University Professor Alejandro Reyes, 42 percent of the
best land in Colombia is owned by the drug Mafia. Since wealth
and influence have always been concentrated in the hands of those
with land in Colombia, drug traffickers have been able to buy
their way into the social life of agribusiness, military defense,
and mainstream politics.
Extrajudical killings committed by the
military account for 6 percent of the murders in Colombia, according
to the U. S. State Department. In addition, the State Department
recognized an "increased use of torture committed by the
police, army, prison officials, and other agents of the state
during the period from June 1995-October 1996." During this
period, there were 462 cases officially accounted for by the Attorney
General for Human Rights in Colombia.
The United States is in up to its eyes
in Colombia's "counterinsurgency campaign." For example,
in the last week of September, the School of Americas Watch (SOA
Watch) tabulated 9,055 Colombian officers matriculated through
the SOA in Fort Benning, Georgia, about half of all Latin American
graduates. At least 50 of these graduates were involved in 10
civilian massacres, totaling over 521 victims in several regions.
Funding for the SOA was again renewed on September 4 of this year.
However conservative the estimates, the
U.S. State Department report on human rights offers an insightful
glance at the violence in Colombia on several scores. It records
the repression of the legal political party, Union Patriotica
(UP), an offshoot of the Communist Party, and the guerrilla group
known as the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The
UP party was formed in 1985, after government/guerrilla peace
negotiations, when then president Belisario Betancur offered an
amnesty to guerrillas who agreed to put down their weapons. The
UP party soon swept elections on many levels of office, threatening
the two-party oligarchy that have traditionally shared power.
However, the momentum of the party was virtually demolished by
the systematic murder of its leaders and members including presidential
candidates and mayors. On this count, the U.S. State Department
Human Rights Report tallies over 3,500 UP party members assassinated.
In April of this year, the UN High Commissioner
placed a special human rights office in Bogota (vigorously opposed
by Washington), financed by the European Union. This action categorized
Colombia among the seven most unstable countries in the world,
along with Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi, Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia.
Despite their own inexcusable human rights
abuses and responsibility for approximately one quarter of the
politically motivated killings, the various guerrilla groups face
U.S.-funded military and paramilitary opponents committing atrocities
with total impunity. Colombian labor and guerrilla groups will
not be crushed by further repression. Amidst the U.S./Colombian
counterinsurgency campaign, peasants, labor leaders, teachers,
and human rights monitors are targets of military and paramilitary
forces. It is time Americans wake up to the tragic myths surrounding
Colombia. No longer shall the police chief get by with "Aqui,
no pasa nada." Nothing happens in Macondo.