On April 8, Alfredo Zapata Herrera was on his way to
work at a cement factory when right wing
paramilitaries dragged him off a bus and killed him.
Zapata was a leader in the local construction workers'
union. The military and the police knew that he was
targeted for assassination, but did nothing to protect
him. He was the 45th union organizer killed in
Colombia this year. Six more have been killed since.
Three out of every four union organizers killed around
the world are killed in Colombia.
Last year, 4,000 civilians were murdered for political
reasons in Colombia -- up from 1,187 in 2000. The vast
majority were killed by right wing paramilitaries
closely aligned with the Colombian military:
assassinated for speaking out for political and
economic justice, or massacred to scare their
neighbors into abandoning land coveted by oil
companies, cattle ranchers, or cocaine traffickers.
The U.S. and Colombian government circumvent human
rights restrictions that are supposed to prevent U.S.
military aid from going to military units linked to
the paramilitaries. According to Human Rights Watch:
"The U.S. violated the spirit of its own laws [ . . .
] in order to continue funding abusive units.
Compelling evidence emerged, in particular, of ties
between paramilitaries and Colombian military units
deployed in the U.S. antinarcotics campaign in
southern Colombia, showing that U.S.-vetted, funded,
and -trained troops were mixing freely with units that maintained close ties with paramilitaries. This occurred in the case of the First and Second Counternarcotics Battalions. On their first joint deployment in December 2000, these battalions depended heavily on the army's Twenty-Fourth Brigade for support and logistical assistance, particularly with regard to intelligence, civic-military outreach, and psychological operations. Yet there was abundant and credible evidence to show that the Twenty-fourth Brigade regularly worked with and supported paramilitary groups in the department of Putumayo. Indeed, the Twenty-fourth Brigade hosted counternarcotics battalion troops at its facilities in La Hormigá a town where, according to witnesses, paramilitaries and Colombian Army troops were indistinguishable."
The war has grown even bloodier in recent months since
the government broke off peace talks with
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC,) the
larger of the country's two Marxist guerilla groups.
President Pastrana has declared 19 municipalities
"theaters of operation" under the country's new
security law - essentially imposing martial law in
these areas, giving the military broad impunity.
Escalation of the war against the guerillas serves to
cloak and legitimize the "dirty war" against
dissenters. Colombian human rights activist Hector
"Both the right and the guerilla are trying to impose
war. The strengthening of the movements of the left
for peace could possibly resolve the conflict. This
is the possibility that the dirty war and
assassinations have tried to prevent."
Guerilla violence provides a justification for the
further escalation of military/paramilitary violence.
And so the cycle continues.
Things are about to get worse. On Sunday, Colombians
elected a new president, Alvaro Uribe, who has
promised to take a harder line against the FARC. Among
his proposals: doubling the size of the Colombian
military, and creating a network of one million
civilian intelligence operatives. The latter proposal
is especially frightening to human rights activists:
it has disturbing similarities to the "CONVIVIR"
program of the late 1990's that created armed civilian
patrols throughout the country. In the department of
Antioquia, where Uribe was governor at the time, the
CONVIVIR groups operated as thinly veiled fronts for
the paramilitaries. Uribe ignored repeated pleas from
Mayor Gloria Cuartas of Apatardo to intervene to stop
the groups from terrorizing her people. By the end of
his term as governor, Uribe was boasting that the
labor unions in the banana growing region of Uraba
had been "pacified." This "pacification" involved
3500 assassinations. Today, Uribe publicly condemns the paramilitaries, but he owes his overwhelming victory in part to "armed campaigning" by paramilitary groups that threatened to carry out massacres in villages that voted for another candidate.
Uribe's victory was welcomed by the Bush
administration. The BBC reports that "Mr. Uribe was
without a doubt the favored candidate of the U.S."
And that "The U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, Anne
Patterson, went to Mr. Uribe's campaign headquarters
to congratulate him even before the final vote was
To make matters worse, as part of the Emergency
Supplemental budget bill, the House voted last week to
allow the Colombian military to use U.S. funds designated for use in counternarcotics operations to
finance its war against the guerillas.
Why the U.S. support? Another provision of the bill
hints at the real reason why the U.S. is involved in
Colombia: a $6 million down payment on a $98 million program to create a new Colombian army battalion to
protect an oil pipeline used by California based
Occidental Petroleum. Instability in the Middle East
is making Latin American oil more important to the
U.S. Earlier this year Ambassador Anne Patterson told
the Bogota daily newspaper El Tiempo that:
"After Mexico and Venezuela, Colombia is the most important oil country in the region. After what
happened on September 11th, the traditional oil
sources for the United States (the Middle East) are
less secure . . . Latin America could not cover a
shortage, it could not supply (us) in a crisis, but it
allows a small margin to work with and avoid price
speculation . . . Colombia has great potential for
exporting more oil to the United States, and now more
than ever it is important for us to diversify our oil
Increasing oil production in Colombia to meet U.S.
needs will inevitably require forcing more farmers and indigenous people off their land. Escalating the war achieves this end - as do crop fumigations, massacres and assassinations.
The U.S. already has several hundred soldiers on the
ground in Colombia acting as "military advisors."
These soldiers are currently prohibited from engaging
in combat, but how long will that policy last if the
FARC kills one of them? The U.S. Is getting more
deeply involved in Colombia's war with no clear goals
and no exit strategy.
The Senate will have a chance to stop the U.S. from
wading deeper into the Colombian war when it votes on
the Emergency Supplemental bill next week. Senators
must take action to prevent us from getting more
deeply implicated in the atrocities of Colombia's
Sean Donahue <firstname.lastname@example.org> is Co-Director of New Hampshire Peace
Action, and has written and spoken extensively on U.S.
policy toward Colombia. He traveled to southern
Colombia in January, 2001 with a delegation of
activists and journalists organized by the Colombia
Support Network to document the human and
environmental impacts of U.S. Military aid. He plans to
return to Colombia in August with Witness for Peace.