Magazine article Tikkun

Colombia: Washington's Dirtiest "War on Drugs"

Magazine article Tikkun

Colombia: Washington's Dirtiest "War on Drugs"

Article excerpt

With the slaughters of Guatemala and El Salvador receding, the bloodiest killing field of this hemisphere is now Colombia. Left-wing political leaders, union organizers, and many other civilians are being systematically slaughtered, while random terror is being used to drive peasants and shopkeepers from their land. Major human rights organizations agree that the United States should forthwith cease arming and training those who are conducting this organized counterinsurgency program of political terror and murder. A small group in Congress is increasingly concerned and vocal about the impact of U.S. aid on Colombian human rights.

Yet many people I talk to, even those who are veterans of the Vietnam anti-war movement, know almost nothing about the Colombian atrocities. The press also avoids this tragedy, discussing instead more remote horrors like those in Rwanda or Zaire. How similar this seems to the 1970s, when we were told so much about the atrocities occurring in Cambodia, and nothing at all about the mass killings occurring with U.S. support in East Timor.

In part, this ignorance and avoidance is psychological. People view "revolutions" and "guerrillas" as much less glamorous today, after the revelations about Pol Pot, than they did in the 1960s. And in truth there is no reason to romanticize the guerrillas of Colombia. Most of them have become little more than bandits -- robbing, extorting, kidnapping and murdering in their turn, and causing vast ecological damage when they blow up oil companies' pipelines.

But this ignorance can be traced back to a systematic distortion of Colombian realities in the U.S. press and in Washington. We do not hear that in Colombia most of the killings are perpetrated by the military and its allies, not by the guerrillas. Nor do we hear that these killings are part of a strategy of terror that has been encouraged by so-called U.S. Special Warfare or Low Intensity Conflict theorists and trainers.

United States aid to Colombia is presented as part of a legitimate "war on drugs." The aid is said to help break what journalist Robert Novak recently called the "clear link between guerrillas and drug traffickers." Clinton drug czar Barry McCaffrey agrees, and has said that counterinsurgency and counter-narcotics are, in fact, "two sides of the same coin." But in practice the United States is supporting a military-paramilitary alliance that works in conjunction with - not against - the richest drug-traffickers and their private death squads. Some U.S. aid ends up in counterinsurgency operations where no drugs are present at all. An internal Department of Defense (DOD) memo has conceded that it is "unrealistic to expect the military [to] limit use of [U.S.] equipment to operations against narcotraffickers."

The American public is further confused by hearing that Colombia has been decertified as an aid recipient for not having "fully cooperated" with U.S. drug enforcement. But decertification, which embarrasses the civilian government, does not affect the flow of arms to the Colombian military and police. In fact, this is being augmented by a waiver in the name of national security, and again by supplemental "drawdowns" of arms in the DOD inventory, and finally by direct arms sales. U.S. arms grants and sales to Colombia in fiscal year 1997 are expected to be the highest ever.

Pacification Through Pure Terror

Consider the situation in Uraba, in northwestern Colombia. There, paramilitary units, some of them financed by drug-trafficking landowners, are mimicking the death squads of El Salvador to impose the "peace" that comes from maximized terror. This approach is suggested by the reaction last August to the "Peace Week" declared by Gloria Cuartas, the courageous Mayor of Apartado. The Mayor was giving a lesson in conflict resolution to an elementary school class when her talk was broken up by two men outside who grabbed an eight year-old boy, chopped off his head, and threw the head into the classroom. …

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