Enough! Accounting and Remembering the Long War in Colombia

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Common Dreams

Enough! Accounting and Remembering the Long War in Colombia

US military interventions differ greatly from each other. Some, like the one currently contemplated in Syria or the invasions of Kosovo and Haiti, are publicly rationalized as humanitarian in purpose, while others, such as the long occupation of Afghanistan, are purportedly in self-defense, and still others supposedly fight drug trafficking, as in Colombia and Mexico. Some involve enormous commitments of US troops and treasure, as in Iraq and Vietnam, while others involve a relatively small number of US personnel, as in El Salvador or the Philippines.

But a constant among all such interventions is the stated belief of those propagating them that they will have a positive impact in the invaded nation. This may be a cynical ploy for US and international support, but the most effective prevaricators are those who have convinced themselves of the lie they tell or the myths they perpetuate. An antidote to such myths is the historical memory of the victims of wars where the United States has played a part.

That is the starting point of Basta Ya! Colombia: Memories of War and Dignity, released last week, and compiled over five years by the Group for Historical Memory. The 420-page report is the culmination of 24 volumes that focused on emblematic atrocities and cross-cutting issues of the war in Colombia since 1958. Basta Ya! overwhelms with statistics: 220,000 killed in the conflict, 81.5% of them civilians; 25,007 people forcibly disappeared; at least 4.7 million people displaced from their homes by the violence – one in every ten Colombians; more than 27,023 people kidnapped; 10,189 injured or killed by landmines; as well as people victimized by military recruitment of children, and sexual violence as a weapon of war.

Of nearly two thousand massacres documented in Colombia since 1980, 59% of them were committed by right-wing paramilitaries (often in alliance with the military and/or local political elites), 17% by guerrillas, 8% by the armed forces, and 15% couldn’t be determined.
But the experiences of victims and survivors are never far from these cold numbers: the absolute impotence of those who couldn’t stop the bloodletting, the silencing caused by the violence – which was one of its objectives, the collective fear after a massacre and the ways that selective killings took even more lives, the high levels of impunity for these crimes.

Last month, I sat with family members of a dozen people killed by army soldiers and police in Arauca, the oil-producing department near the Venezuelan border.  Most of the killings had occurred eight to ten years ago, but their cases are languishing in the criminal justice, with no movement at all. A reform to the military justice system this year increases the chances that these mothers and fathers will never see justice, and their dead children will continue to be stigmatized.  

The United States has influenced the doctrine, weapons and operations of the Colombian military for decades, especially since Colombia fought alongside the U.S. in Korea. Washington dramatically escalated its involvement in the war between 1998 and 2002, just as it was generating its worst toll. The terrible synergy produced by the Bush administration’s brutal and cynical use of 9/11 with Colombia’s fatal reaction against failed peace talks created an alliance bent on war and militarization without end, while hypocritically certifying improvements in human rights. As paramilitary groups partially demobilized between 2003 and 2006, some of their perverse practices transferred back to the US-client Colombian Army, which adopted a “body count” strategy that became so mercenary that recruiters were paid to supply hundreds of men who were executed and counted as guerrillas killed in combat.

The authors of Basta Ya! clearly intended it for a Colombian audience. There is only a Spanish version, and comparisons made to show the scale of damage from the war are made to Colombian cities that most non-Colombians are unlikely to know. This could explain, at least in part, why the authors also give little attention to the role of the more than $8 billion in US assistance to the Colombian military and police, multinational corporations that have assisted paramilitary groups, or the international narcotics trade that also has financed much of the armed conflict. The focus is on national actors and relationships, many of them hidden and under-reported.

An accounting of what impact the United States has had on Colombia’s terrible suffering has yet to be made. Washington trumpets the success of its military assistance in Colombia, and is financing the exporting of Colombian military expertise to other nations in Latin America and around the world.

But the Pentagon and State Department are increasingly secretive about just what that assistance consists of. After the Fellowship of Reconciliation published a published a report in 2010 indicating that increased civilian killings were committed by US-aided Colombian Army units, the State Department pointedly classified its list of supported units. Similarly, after School of the Americas Watch began to more effectively use lists of Latin American graduates of the U.S. Army school to show how many had committed atrocities, the Pentagon began to systematically refuse disclosure of those names. With the United States spending $25 billion a year on foreign military and police aid, transparency about what units receive assistance is increasingly important for fiscal reasons, as well as a political and ethical imperative.

As human rights, peace, and solidarity activists work against reflexive US military adventures, the victims of wars where the United States takes part deserve the truth about how the U.S. impacted the conflict. This task of constructing and reconstructing memory will require work not just by projects in the affected countries, like Colombia’s Group for Historical Memory, but by researchers, activists, advocates, legislators, whistleblowers, and ordinary people in the United States as well. It is a necessary prerequisite to the United States’ own transformation.

John Lindsay-Poland

John Lindsay-Poland is research director and southwestern regional coordinator of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and author of Emperors in the Jungle: The Hidden History of the U.S. in Panama.

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