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Published on Sunday, August 13, 2000 in the Contra Costa Times
US Policy Makes It Part Of Colombia's Civil War
by Cecilia Zarate-Laun
WHEN I WENT to Colombia in January, I met Rigoberto Guzman and Elodino Rivera, peasants who had been displaced for two years from their homes and farms. At that time, the farmers showed me their crops -- some of which had been devastated during their forced exile.

On July 8, paramilitary gunmen killed Rigoberto, Elodino and four other people. The assassins also struck a Catholic nun and pushed her aside when she told them that the peasants were not on the side of the guerrillas. Then they warned the residents of La Union, a neutral hamlet in the northwestern part of Colombia, that they had to leave the area within 20 days.

These peasants are caught in the crossfire of a brutal civil war between leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries that are allegedly tied to the Colombian military. According to eyewitnesses, soldiers of the 17th Army Brigade were stationed nearby, but did not act to stop the massacre. And an army helicopter hovered overhead.

This attack is, unfortunately, just one of many by the paramilitary forces. In February, a paramilitary death squad tortured and executed 36 people in the tiny village of El Salado, according to the New York Times.

Tragedies like these show the wrongheadedness of U.S. policy toward Colombia. The United States has just agreed to send $1.3 billion in aid to the Colombian armed forces and police.

But a February report by Human Rights Watch found "detailed, abundant and compelling evidence of continuing close ties between the Colombian army and paramilitary groups responsible for gross human rights violations."

The group believes that half of Colombia's brigade-level units are connected to paramilitaries. According to the Colombian government, more than 2,500 people have died in more than 500 attacks in just the last 18 months. Most of these are unarmed peasants who are victims of paramilitaries.

"U.S. support for Colombia cannot include partnership with an army implicated in gross human rights violations," says Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn. Wellstone has tried unsuccessfully to redirect aid from the Colombian military to U.S. domestic drug-treatment programs.

We are told that this aid is designed for the war on drugs. But the paramilitaries are deeply involved in the drug trade themselves. And the Colombian government is working hand in glove with the paramilitaries, as a June 1999 report by the General Accounting Office made clear.

The war on drugs in Colombia is, in reality, a war against the guerrillas. By allying itself openly with the Colombian army, the United States is taking sides in the Colombian civil war, which has already cost 35,000 lives. More U.S. aid will only add more victims -- like Rigoberto and Eladio -- to this casualty list.

Zarate-Laun is the co-founder and program director of the Colombia Support Network in Madison, Wis.

Copyright 2000


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