Back to Basics: The One Message -- Basic Rights!

By Ferreira, Leonardo | Hemisphere, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview
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Back to Basics: The One Message -- Basic Rights!

Ferreira, Leonardo, Hemisphere

Is the second oldest democracy of Latin America in "clear and present danger" of destruction? Novelist Tom Clancy and the US government would assumedly answer 'apparently.' On March 1, 1996, eight months before the US presidential vote, the White House decertified Colombia as an uncooperative state in the war against drugs, as a republic where even its president is at the mercy of drug cartels by accepting payments of up to six million dollars in the last election (1994).

Colombians are not living through another Violencia, the conflict which caused a minimum of 200,000 deaths following World War II. As a precaution against violence, recent administrations have banned live broadcasts of terrorist and subversive acts including communiques and interviews with narcotraffickers or guerrilla groups. Yet, a democracy such as Colombia, weak and in fear, needs remedies far from media controls, beyond sweeping legal reforms or presidential recalls. Colombia requires--deserves--a fresh social agenda stemming from the effective protection of fundamental liberties and prerogatives.


For two decades, to paraphrase Archhishop Pedro Rubiano, drug corruption was an "elephant--Colombia's adopted symbol for dishonesty--sitting supposedly undetected in the presidential palace's foyer. How could a retired army sergeant amass a one-billion-dollar fortune without being suspected of narcotrafficking? Thousands of Colombians, particularly members of the elite, contributed to the moral erosion of the country by profiting from drug proceeds. As President Samper acknowledges, "Let's not be hypocrites. This society went about tolerating drug trafficking in such a way that what we need is an escape for all of us, not just for me."

Presidential candidate Alvaro Gomez proposed in 1990 a "National Salvation Movement." After being kidnapped by the guerrilla and defeated in three presidential elections, Gomez insisted that Colombia was ill and in need of radical reform. On November 2, 1995, he was assassinated.

Colombian society has been historically shaped by armed conflicts. To understand its character, it is essential to examine the relationship between political unrest and human rights.


There are no definite numbers on the casualties of Colombia's drug war. Colonel Jose Leonardo Gallego, director of the antinarcotics police, has revealed that over 8,400 individuals fell victims to drug terrorism in the last decade. Forty percent of these individuals were murdered, including one minister of justice, one attorney general, four presidential candidates (notably, Luis Carlos Galan in 1989), eighteen magistrates, fifteen judges, hundreds of police officers, public officials, party militants, and civilians.

Journalist Maria Jimena Duzan, author of an authoritative book on drug cartels, calculates her homeland's sacrifice at 60,000 lives in the second half of the 1980s. A CBS station in Miami estimates the country's death toll at nearly 45,000 people, and Latin American Guide claims there were 30,050 assassinations in this Andean state between 1993-94. No one really knows how many people have died in the so-called Colombian drug war.

Foreign commentators attribute this violence to the "aggressive" habits of Colombians, primarily radical politics and drug trafficking. For these commentators, the former "South American Athens"--Santafe de Bogota--may very well be "the most dangerous city on earth." Colombians reject, even resent this behavior label as simplistic and discriminatory, recognizing narcotrafficking as the source of most human rights crimes, primarily murder and kidnapping.


The last Colombian constitutional convention concluded that there is no democracy without harmony. On July 5, 1991, the new 'Magna Carta' commanded every citizen to work for peace and the protection of fundamental rights as the basis for tolerance and coexistence.

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Back to Basics: The One Message -- Basic Rights!


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