Magazine article The Christian Century

Cocaine State

Magazine article The Christian Century

Cocaine State

Article excerpt

Like ancient gaul, Colombia can be said to be divided into three parts. After several decades of undeclared civil war, leftist guerrillas dominate much of the southern part of the country. Much of the north is in the hands of right-wing paramilitary groups backed by wealthy landowners (though the leftists have a piece of this region too, near the Caribbean coast). Both the rebel insurgents and the rightist militias are involved in drug trafficking--a highly lucrative enterprise, Colombia being the world's principal producer of cocaine and a major provider of heroin. The beleaguered central government is literally central, occupying what might be called, without much exaggeration, an urban median strip.

As often happens in such situations, a lot of innocent civilians have been caught in the crossfire. Many such victims are killed simply because they are suspected of sympathizing with the enemy. Colombia has more than a million internal refugees who have fled their homes to save their lives, and more than half of the refugee families are headed by women whose husbands have been murdered or "disappeared." Some of the displaced have fled to neighboring countries. Though the parallels are imprecise, Colombia is a kind of Latin American Kosovo.

Colombia has a long history of political violence, much of it the result of bitter rivalry between the elite-controlled Conservative and Liberal parties. One period of bloody civil strife--called la violencia--was sparked by the assassination of Liberal leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan in 1948; lasting a decade, it descended into sheer criminality and cost some 200,000 lives. It was ended by a bipartisan power-sharing agreement--the National Front--that required a constitutional amendment and was operative for 16 years. But while interparty peace finally prevailed, the economic and social problems at the root of the conflict still went unaddressed, and the marginalization of the masses persisted--a situation that paved the way for the guerrillas, the drug cartels and the paramilitary groups.

In Bogota and other cities, the wealthy live in fear of being kidnapped for ransom; according to the North American Congress on Latin America, at least half of the world's kidnappings occur in Colombia. (Ransom money is a secondary source of income for the guerrillas.) The country's homicide rate is 15 times higher than the high U.S. rate, yet only 3 percent of homicides are ever prosecuted. The annual total of violent deaths has been close to 30,000 in recent years in this population of 36 million. Last year there were 201 separate massacres, according to Colombia Bulletin, a human rights quarterly.

In regions where paramilitaries and guerrillas are vying for control, both sides have been ruthless and unrelenting, but the former have used scorched-earth tactics, burning and bombing villages. Human Rights Watch says that 76 percent of human fights abuses in Colombia are committed by the paramilitary forces, and even the U.S. State Department, in its 1998 annual human fights report, acknowledged that right-wing death squads were responsible for 70 percent of Colombia's political murders. Those death squads often operate with the cooperation and connivance of the army.

Self-designated peace communities--towns that have declared themselves neutral and have asked all participants in the country's war not to enter--have hardly remained immune to the violence. Last April 4 the northern peace community of San Jose de Apartado was attacked by paramilitaries; claiming that they were after guerrillas, they killed town leader Anibal Jimenez (in front of his children) and two others. Three days later a 150-member militia assaulted the nearby peace community of Villahermosa; after slaughtering the livestock and taking all the food and money they could find, the marauders abducted ten leaders and reportedly killed them all, beheading some of them.

The guerrillas and the paramilitaries seldom have direct confrontations, but occasionally they make incursions into each other's territory. …

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