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Indigenous People Troubled by US Military Presence in Colombia

by Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA - The head of Colombia's biggest association of indigenous people is concerned that allowing U.S. troops to use military bases in his country will signal a regression to former times when the United States exercised control over Latin America, while a native activist warned of an increase in the number of cases of sexual abuse of young indigenous women by foreign soldiers.

A recent agreement between Bogotá and Washington for the U.S. to use seven military bases in Colombia, which has caused concern across Latin America, was ignored in discussions about Colombia's record on racial discrimination, held this week in Geneva.

At sessions of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the effects of militarisation in Colombia, which has been torn by civil war by nearly half a century, were examined, but the controversial issue of the bases was not raised, said Karmen Ramírez Boscán, a leader of the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC).

"This issue is a focus of broad debate at the national level, and of course it should have been dealt with here at this U.N. agency," said Ramírez Boscán, a Wayuu indigenous woman.

The fact that it was not discussed is because "we all know that a very sensitive situation is developing," she said.

The agreement between the two countries provides greater access to Colombian territory for the U.S. military, which will operate small stations known as Forward Operating Locations (FOLs) or Cooperative Security Locations (CSLs).

This will create changed circumstances and greater difficulties for Colombian, especially indigenous, women. "I think that, directly or indirectly, this generates violence, and obviously its most immediate effects are on Colombian women," said Ramírez Boscán.

The indigenous leader recalled cases that have been investigated of young single mothers in which "the fathers had been stationed at Colombian military bases. They became pregnant by foreign soldiers, not Colombians," Ramírez Boscán told IPS.

"I believe the greater presence of U.S. troops will definitely bring changes to the local areas near the bases," she said.

Wilbert van der Zeijden, an expert with the Transnational Institute, told IPS in April that "We should not forget that military bases are usually inhabited mostly by young men, who get bored and frustrated, being far from home, family, friends and girlfriends/wives. They seek 'diversion' in town. "The result has been a steep increase in all sorts of crime, including rape, drugs, theft and violent abuse," he said. In the view of Luis Evelis Andrade, an indigenous elder and head of ONIC, the fight against drugs and terrorism is being used as a pretext to wind the clock back to the time when the United States had total control over Latin American countries.

Some of the seven bases are close to villages of indigenous or Afro-descendant people, while others are not, Andrade said.

"The Colombian state and the government are riding roughshod over what I understand to be the feelings and the collective imaginary about the meaning of foreign military bases in any country, and especially in Latin America," he said.

"Bases commanded, operated and administered by the United States are unacceptable, and so are bases operated by the Colombian military with the presence of U.S. military advisers," he said. Neither scenario is acceptable "to us, as indigenous peoples."

Cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking cannot mean interference and the covert abdication of sovereignty to another country, said Andrade, of the Emberá people, who as elder statesman is president of ONIC, the national authority of indigenous peoples living in Colombia.

U.S. forces at the bases will have immunity from the Colombian justice system, and facilities for operating C-17 Globemasters, large transport planes for troops and weapons with a range that extends to half the South American continent. With refuelling and provisioning, these aircraft can reach every part of the Americas except Cape Horn, at the southernmost tip of Chile.

Andrade remarked that the Colombian government acts as if the agreement with the United States had implications only for Colombia. But experts and other governments are well aware that the aircraft and technology involved have implications far beyond the borders of Colombia, and can be used to spy on other countries, he said.

"We're already sick and tired of the internal armed conflict. We think (U.S. access to) these bases should not be implemented, because we believe it will damage relations with bordering countries," he added.

For example, deteriorating relations between Colombia and Ecuador and between Colombia and Venezuela have repercussions on health care and food security for more than 20 indigenous villages along the Ecuadorean and Venezuelan borders.

The ill-feeling between the countries arises because of the mishandling of the Colombian armed conflict, which spreads across national boundaries, Andrade argued.

The issue of the military bases is already causing problems for indigenous people, "and I would say for all the poor who live on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, as Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez himself has recognised," Andrade said.

The Chávez administration has frozen relations with Colombia – with which Venezuela has close economic ties - because of the decision on military bases.

Andrade criticised those involved in the debate on the effects of the tension between Bogotá and Caracas for only alluding to the crisis experienced in the dominant economic sectors, such as automobile manufacturers, textile industrialists and beef exporters.

"But no one talks about the problems of the border communities, which normally, as in the case of the border between Colombia and Venezuela, get most of their supplies of food, clothing and even medicines from Venezuela," he said.

Ramírez Boscán said Colombian officials had portrayed the agreement for the U.S. use of the bases as "a necessary evil" in order to combat the guerrillas and drug trafficking. "But we think that it's all part of a strategy to control everything that goes on in Latin America, in countries like Ecuador and Venezuela, from a key geographical position," she said.

She said it was a good thing that Monday's summit meeting of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in Quito had decided to hold another summit on Aug. 27 in Bariloche, in southern Argentina, to examine Latin America's reaction to the U.S.-Colombia military base agreement.

"It's important for other countries to hold the Colombian state accountable, because we really do not know what our government's intentions are," she said.

The plans for U.S. access to the bases have met with vocal resistance in Colombia on the part of human rights and indigenous organisations, and civil society in general. But "the government has responded with indifference," Ramírez Boscán said.

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