by Bill Weinberg
Colombia makes few headlines in the United States these days. But
Washington’s involvement in the western hemisphere’s longest, bloodiest war
is rapidly escalating, as the world’s attention is elsewhere. And the
latest signal of increased US embroilment comes just as a vocal civil
movement is emerging in Colombia to demand an end to the military option.
Congressional approval last weekend of a doubling of the Pentagon’s troop
presence in Colombia was closely followed by a national wave of protest
throughout the war-torn South American nation, as some 1.4 million
public-sector workers walked off their jobs and took to the streets for a
one-day strike. Organized by major trade unions as well as civil
organizations, the Oct. 12 strike demanded an end both to President Alvaro
Uribe’s push to join Bush’s Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), and to
the rights abuses and atrocities associated with the government’s
counter-guerilla war–which the US has funded to the tune of $3.3 billion
since Plan Colombia was passed in 2000.
The vote in Washington two days earlier doubled the cap on US military
advisors in Colombia to 800, and raised the cap on the number of US
civilian contract agents–pilots, intelligence analysts, security
personnel–from 400 to 600. The measure came as a little-noticed part of
the 2005 Defense Department authorization act, and was a defeat for human
rights groups which had been pushing for a lower cap. The new 800/600 cap
is exactly what the White House asked for. An earlier House version would
have established a 500 cap for military personnel and kept the cap for
civilian contractors at 400, but this was rejected in joint committee. A
proposal establishing these caps in the Senate–known as the Byrd amendment
for Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV)–was defeated in June by a vote of 58 to 40.
Among the two senators who abstained was John Kerry.
The authorization bill says the measure is aimed at helping the Colombian
government fight "against narcotics trafficking and against activities by
organizations designated as terrorists," naming the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the
United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). But rights groups point to a
long record of close collaboration between Colombia’s armed forces at the
AUC, a rightist paramilitary group. And while US troops are officially
barred from actual combat missions in Colombia, many fear that Washington
is on a slippery slope.
"This amounts to authorization of increased involvement by US troops in an
internal armed conflict in Colombia," says Kimberly Stanton, deputy
director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "And it was
passed without significant public debate. We are sliding into a protracted
civil war in Colombia."
In the general strike that followed the vote, hundreds of thousands of
workers, joined by peasants and students, shut down cities throughout the
country. Bogota’s central square, Bolivar Plaza, was filled with some
300,000–Colombia’s largest protest in recent memory. Business was also
paralyzed in Medellin, Cali, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga and Cartagena, and
traffic was blocked on the Panamerican Highway. In addition to protesting
the war and FTAA plans, the strikers also opposed Uribe’s scheme to alter
the constitution to allow himself to seek another term in office. The
hardline Uribe, Bush’s closest ally in South America, has refused to
negotiate with the FARC, Colombia’s biggest guerilla army. A negotiated
settlement to the conflict was among the strikers’ demands.
The New York Times story on the raising of the troop cap (at the bottom of
page nine) claimed that "Under Mr. Uribe’s administration, violence has
ebbed in Colombia." But human rights groups in Colombia say that atrocities
have more than doubled since Uribe took office in 2002.
The Congressional vote also coincided with the release of a new Amnesty
International report on sexual violence in Colombia’s war. The report,
"Colombia: Violence Against Women," finds that rape and other sexual
crimes–including genital mutilation–are frequently used by both the
paramilitaries and the official security forces against communities accused
of collaborating with the guerrillas.
"Women and girls are raped, sexually abused and even killed because they
behave in ways deemed as unacceptable to the combatants, or because women
may have challenged the authority of armed groups, or simply because women
are viewed as a useful target on which to inflict humiliation on the
enemy", said Susan Lee, director of Amnesty’s Americas program.
The vote also came days after yet another peasant leader was assassinated.
On Oct. 6, the body of Pedro Jaime Mosquera Cosme, an Afro-Colombian leader
of the Campesino Association of Arauca, was found near the Venezuelan
border, with what the group called "clear signs of torture." Arauca is one
of the most conflicted of Colombia’s departments, and numerous campesino
leaders have been killed by paramilitaries and the army there in recent
Rights advocates fear that in next year’s DoD authorization act, DC
hardliners will again push to get the cap on US troop levels raised–or
done away with altogether, as is proposed by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA).
WOLA’s Stanton sees the lack of media coverage of the vote–and Colombia
generally–as a bad sign. "The American people are not aware that we are
increasingly involved," she says, "with all attention focussed on Iraq."
Amnesty International press release on "Colombia: Violence Against Women"
Prensa Rural on killing of Pedro Jaime Mosquera
Compiled by WORLD WAR 3 REPORT, Nov. 6, 2004
Reprinting permissible with attribution