THE KILLING FIELD; These Plaques Mark the Graves of Anonymous Victims of Colombia's Civil War. Human-Rights Groups Maintain That Government Death Squads Carried out the Killings - and That What's Even More Shocking Is That We're Funding Them

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), October 3, 2010 | Go to article overview
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THE KILLING FIELD; These Plaques Mark the Graves of Anonymous Victims of Colombia's Civil War. Human-Rights Groups Maintain That Government Death Squads Carried out the Killings - and That What's Even More Shocking Is That We're Funding Them


Byline: REPORT BY MIKE POWER

At first glance, the graveyard in La Macarena, 170 miles south of Bogota, looks like any other resting place for the dead in Latin America. Welltended graves lie in neat rows, divided by tidy paths.

But slightly uphill there lies an annexe to the cemetery, and in this unofficial graveyard are hundreds of small white plaques. These are marked with neither names nor poetry but instead with mere numbers. 054-08. 07-09. 08-10. 011-10. 012-10. 013-10. The last part of the code denotes the year of the burial; new bodies are still arriving. They mark the graves of anonymous victims of Colombia's civil war.

The dates run from 2002, when the army reclaimed this zone from the guerilla fighters of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). The annexe is next to the regional army base at La Macarena, where watchtowers monitor the scene from behind a chainlink fence. Radar dishes eavesdrop on every move - nothing happens without the army knowing about it.

Inside the army base, there's a filtration tower, which purifies the local water, a volleyball court and a mess hall with a 40in plasma TV. Colonel Yunda, a jovial man in his early forties, pours me a cool lemonade 'with crystal-pure water' and chats about the training he received from the British Army in 1998.

'They trained me in anti-personnel mine disposal,' he says. 'We controlled a robot that shot jets of water. It helped us a great deal, because at that time the guerrillas had left mines everywhere.'

The Colombian army says that all the dead on this hill are guerrillas killed in combat. But human rights groups say government forces have routinely killed civilians since 2002 and buried them here, having objected to their human-rights work, and that the army has presented them as dead guerrillas to deliver results to commanders.

British taxpayers have funded and trained the Colombian army, and still do - though now the funding is earmarked for anti-narcotics operations. Colombia produces 51 per cent of the world's cocaine supply - 430 tons a year - and so the fight to end the trade is vital to stop the flow of drugs onto Britain's streets. However, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has blocked Freedom of Information requests relating to both the ongoing funding of anti-drugs units, and the money we previously spent in Colombia.

'The only military aid we provide to Colombia is for the ongoing programme of counter-narcotics assistance,' says an FCO spokesman. 'It would not be appropriate to provide details about this programme, as to do so would put British and Colombian lives at risk.'

But problematically, the war against the FARC insurgency - who are indisputably involved in the drugs trade - is often framed as a war against 'narcoterrorists'.

'The military's counter-insurgency strategy has been marked by serious human-rights violations,' says Amnesty International's Marcelo Pollack. '[So] it is difficult to see how the UK Government can be confident that its counter-narcotics assistance to the Colombian military is not contributing to human rights violations.'

Tom Watson MP says this is unacceptable. 'Parliament has a right to know how our international obligations are being discharged. There is now a significant body of evidence to show that the Colombian military abuse their power. I don't want us to collaborate with that.'

The claims of killings by the army in La Macarena are inflammatory in Colombia. In 2008, the army was revealed to have been carrying out extrajudicial executions of civilians elsewhere in the midst of a violent conflict with the FARC guerrilla fighters. The then president, Alvaro Uribe, had vowed to eliminate the insurgents, and incentives for an increased body count included promotion and holidays. Under this pressure, several army units killed rural civilians, and reported their deaths as guerrillas killed in combat.

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THE KILLING FIELD; These Plaques Mark the Graves of Anonymous Victims of Colombia's Civil War. Human-Rights Groups Maintain That Government Death Squads Carried out the Killings - and That What's Even More Shocking Is That We're Funding Them
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