Washington's Role in Colombian Repression

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 town.

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 in Colombia.

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 places.

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.

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