Some of the deadliest volcanic eruptions in the Western Hemisphere in 500 years have occurred in Colombia. Today, another record of eruptions is in the making in this conflict-torn republic. Like spewing lava, the explosion of violence has uprooted whole communities, creating the most overwhelming refugee problem in this hemisphere. Since 1985, 2.8 million Colombians have been displaced.
The United States' expanded military aid to Colombia increases the tremors and further arms combatants. Our country's lofty goal is to wage 'war on drugs,' an impossible enemy, while Colombia's pressing need is to end the decades-old fighting between and among government forces, the paramilitaries, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, ELN and others.
The factions and conflicts are uncivil and sometimes personal. That's their business. The war on drugs is ours. We in the United States create a mind-numbing demand for a certain contraband, and Colombia, declared to be the world leader in coca crops, supplies the cocaine.
The government of Colombia developed the Plan Colombia project to meet its most pressing challenges, including drugs, the economy, human rights and peace. I wanted to hear for myself what all the fighting is about, to learn firsthand just what Colombia is buying for the $1 billion annually it must spend to meet U.S. requirements for continued Plan Colombia support. So I recently joined a Witness for Peace delegation to that country. Our first stop was Bogota, Colombia's modern capital, which is ringed by steadily spreading slums. Within this misery belt is Soacha, one of the Afro-Colombian squatter communities.
Afro-Colombians and the indigenous people suffer displacement in greater proportions than others do. Their lands have great geopolitical value in multinationals' scramble to control the Pacific, the Caribbean and Central America in the Latin American scheme of development.
The next day we flew to Medellin, where we visited a community called Commune 3. Under a hot sun in the hilltop square, the displaced came in waves to tell us their stories. Upward of 100 dwellers crowded into the open-air space on a concrete area the size of a basketball court. 'We are blanketed in silence by government policy and can't say much. But we will speak today against being disappeared. Sixty people from 'Operation Star' have been taken from our community.'
Operation Star is another example of using emergency powers under Plan Colombia. 'They came at 2 a.m.,' said another speaker, 'the police and the army together. They had hooded informants who fingered 60 community leaders.' Two weeks after I left the country, 70 American special forces troops arrived to train a new army battalion.
Later, four of us kept a rendezvous in Washington to bring Colombians' messages straight to the policy makers. In offices on Capitol Hill, the staff was courteous, but across town in Foggy Bottom, we met with a tightly knit foreign-service community at the State Department. When I tried to speak of Medellin and the attack on community leaders in Commune 3, the representative from the Office of the Displaced and Refugees, said sharply, 'Well, you know they were all FARC, don't you?'
Although I've been back from Colombia a few months, the experience still occupies my thoughts. On my next trip to Colombia, I'd like to see my tax dollars, at $2.2 million a day, being used in some way to address the economic roots of this conflict.
Poverty and oppression in Latin America make fertile ground for continued coca production as farmers desperately seek means of income to feed their families and preserve a treasured way of life on their land. Spraying coca fields will succeed only if alternative crops can get to market at a profit. Shooting people, dropping bombs and spraying the cultivated land are not the solution. If the United States really has $1.6 billion to spend on the anti-drug effort in Colombia, it should be part of a long-term effort to eliminate the reasons Colombians choose to cultivate coca in the first place.
These same reasons account in part for the proliferation of armed groups, state neglect of rural areas and the lack of employment opportunities. If it is state services and the rule of law that are to come to rural Colombia, then why has our U.S. assistance so far been counter-productively military in nature?
As for the war on drugs, we should enforce the laws in our own country about drug use rather than interfering in Colombian farmers' longstanding cultivation practices.
• Humphrey is a board member of Peace Brigades International. She lives in Winston-Salem.
© 2003 Winston-Salem Journal