WASHINGTON -- In February 2005, in a rural hamlet in ApartadÃƒÂ³, Colombia, eight people were massacred. The victims included an 18-month-old baby, an 11-year-old boy and two girls ages 6 and 17. Some bodies were mutilated.Witnesses said the army was responsible. The Ministry of Defense claimed that no army units were in the region at the time. The vice president pointed his finger at guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The massacre in ApartadÃƒÂ³ was far from unique. There are many similar stories in Colombia. They have beginnings, but no endings because investigations remain open for years, even decades, and almost never result in convictions.
Until recently, it appeared that a related story would also unfold as it has for years: the billions of taxpayer dollars that the United States sends to support the Colombian military, $5 billion since 2000. That makes it the largest recipient of U.S. aid outside of the Middle East and South Asia. About 80 percent goes to Colombia's military and police. Despite continuing human-rights violations in Colombia, the Bush administration wants to maintain funding levels with the same emphasis on military support.
But Congress has the power to shape the aid package. The current appropriations process offers the best opportunity in recent history to reform U.S. involvement at its most basic level.
Members of Congress responsible for aid to Colombia are constructing a more balanced and humane policy by directing funds toward critical social, economic and humanitarian needs. In coming months, Congress will decide whether to approve a $530 million package that shifts aid to rural development, judicial reform and human rights while maintaining hefty support for the military.
As Colombian President ÃƒÂlvaro Uribe has pointed out, there have been some improvements, including a considerable decrease in the number of reported kidnappings and the number of civilians killed. But the human-rights situation remains critical.
Wounds are slow to heal in a country where millions have been internally displaced. Fear persists when reports of extra-judicial executions of civilians by the army are on the rise.
The basic dynamics of the war remain unchanged. Guerrillas fight the collaborating army and paramilitaries, thousands of which have rearmed in a flawed demobilization process. All sides have committed human-rights abuses, and civilians caught in the crossfire suffer the majority of the casualties.
Yet every now and then there is a glimmer of hope for survivors and family members of the victims when the institutions of justice show signs that they can function when pressured. In what could be the beginning of the end to the story of the brutal ApartadÃƒÂ³ massacre, earlier this year Colombia's attorney general called on 69 soldiers to testify. In April, a former member of the paramilitary Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) testified that he was armed by the military and witnessed a military unit kill one of the victims of the massacre. If the perpetrators of this barbaric crime are identified and punished, it would signal to the most marginalized communities that justice is possible.
Colombia faces many challenges and the United States assists in many ways. But no amount of money or weapons can end the violence and impunity that have plagued Colombia for generations. Without institutions of justice in which all Colombians can have confidence, peace and security will remain elusive. Our Congress should support a shift in policy that has the protection of human rights and the establishment of the rule of law at its core. Concerned U.S. citizens should call upon their individual representatives in Congress to support such an approach.
© 2007 The Providence Journal