Army of Terror: The Legacy of US-Backed Human Rights Abuses in Colombia

By Santina, Peter | Harvard International Review, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Army of Terror: The Legacy of US-Backed Human Rights Abuses in Colombia


Santina, Peter, Harvard International Review


PETER SANTINA, Staff Writer, Harvard International Review

After three decades of civil war, Colombia is finally approaching peace. On August 7, 1998, Andres Pastrana assumed the presidency, replacing the discredited Ernesto Samper. The country's two largest guerrilla armies, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), had refused to meet with Samper because he received US$6 million in campaign contributions from the Cali drug cartel. The Pastrana administration has moved quickly toward negotiations with the guerrillas, agreeing to the FARC's demand to demilitarize an area the size of Switzerland in southern Colombia for 90 days while the two sides negotiate. Pastrana was elected by the most votes in his nation's history and has established a much more cordial relationship with the United States than his predecessor, making the first Colombian presidential visit to the United States in 23 years. President Bill Clinton and Pastrana signed a joint agreement to fight the drug trade, and Clinton promised US$280 million more in US aid to Colombia.

Since his election, however, Pastrana's popularity in the polls has fallen nearly to the level of Samper's, due to an enormous amount of social unrest. Mounting opposition to the government's plans to cut public spending with privatization reforms manifested itself in a three-week national strike of 800,000 Colombian state employees. The strike, which ended on October 27, resulted in the death of seven union leaders. This tragedy highlights the key to Colombia's human rights catastrophe: political murders. Unions are targeted by right-wing paramilitaries for their opposition to the power of business, especially multinational corporations. According to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, in 1997 alone 156 trade unionists were killed in Colombia. Although unions are one target of political violence, peasants living in the countryside have suffered even more. Brutal paramilitary forces target those suspected of collaboration with the guerrillas and have committed numerous human rights abuses. This relationship between the official military and the death squads has been investigated by the US State Department, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, international think tanks, and human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Government Abuses

According to the US State Department, "the [Colombian] Government took no significant action to restrain these powerful paramilitary groups" in 1997. A major factor in the abuse is indeed the complicity of the Colombian government, particularly the armed forces, in the rightist agenda of the paramilitaries in the face of a growing leftist guerrilla movement. The Colombian government, threatened by the socialist rebels, has been unwilling to prosecute either paramilitaries or army soldiers for their human rights abuses because they are more concerned with losing power to the socialist rebels than protecting the basic human rights of Colombian citizens.

General Bedoya, the commander of the armed forces, has said that military courts effectively punish violators, citing a high overall conviction rate for military violations. When asked by Human Rights Watch, however, he could not cite a single conviction for a human rights violation; most military tribunal convictions are for technical offenses such as failure to follow orders. A detailed report on Colombian human rights abuses released by Human Rights Watch in 1998 states that in cases of humanitarian law violations, "allegations against officers are rarely investigated." The US State Department noted in its 1997 report that, "at year's end, the military exercised jurisdiction over many cases of military personnel accused of abuses, a system that has established an almost unbroken record of impunity." The Colombian National Police, although it has improved its record since 1994, continues to show a reluctance to prosecute paramilitaries. …

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