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Seven New US Military Bases in Colombia Is Hardly a Move to the Left August 8, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Colombia, Foreign Policy, Latin America.
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(Roger’s note: more of Obama’s “Plus ca change … you can believe in.”)
 
Published on Friday, August 7, 2009 by CommonDreams.org

by Moira Birss

In a recent edition of the Wall Street Journal, Mary Anastasia O’Grady laments an apparent shift left in the Obama administration’s Latin America policy.  Clearly, O’Grady hasn’t been keeping up to date with current events. If she had been, she would have heard about negotiations underway between the U.S. and Colombia to establish at least seven U.S. military bases in Colombia. Last I heard, folks on the left tend to oppose increased militarization; it’s tough to see seven new military bases as a move to the left.

Why is the Obama administration pushing for these bases, despite having previously criticized Colombia’s human rights record?

The Administration’s goals for the military facilities are “filling the gaps left by the eventual cutting of [military] aid in Plan Colombia,” according to sources in Washington and Bogotá. The proposed bases, replacements for the soon-to-closed U.S. base in Manta, Ecuador, would serve to expand the U.S. military’s counter-narcotic operations in the region, deepen involvement in Colombia’s counterinsurgency war, and combat “other international crimes,” according to Colombia’s Foreign Minister.

Despite these hints at the intention of the bases, many serious questions remain.  In fact, even the Colombian Congress has yet to receive detailed information from the Uribe administration, despite repeated official requests.  Nonetheless, on Tuesday Uribe began a South America tour to convince his regional counterparts of the plan, despite not having briefed his own Congress.

Such secrecy is worrisome. Fellowship of Reconciliation’s John Lindsay Poland, who has spent years studying U.S. military bases around the world, writes, “the locations of the bases under negotiation raise further questions. None of them are on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, where aircraft from the Manta base patrolled for drug traffic – supposedly with great success, reflecting how traffic has increased in the Pacific. Three of the bases are clustered near each other on the Caribbean coast, not far from existing U.S. military sites in Aruba and Curacao – and closer to Venezuela than to the Pacific Ocean. Why are U.S. negotiators apparently forgoing Pacific sites, if counternarcotics is still part of the U.S. military mission? What missions ‘beyond Colombia’s borders’ are U.S. planners contemplating?”

Even if we had answers to these questions, however, there exist plenty more reasons to be wary of the bases.

In cooperating with the Colombian army, the U.S. would be demonstrating support for an institution with an atrocious human rights record.  More than 1,000 civilians have been murdered by the Colombian army in recent years, in a criminal attempt to portray them as guerrillas in order to raise the number of guerrillas killed in combat. Proposing these seven bases unmasks Obama’s previous statements calling for the improvement of Colombian’s human rights record as merely lip service.

Colombian forces aren’t the only ones to worry about: U.S. military forces will be not be bound by Colombian law and will potentially get away with all kinds crimes. US negotiators have made it known that “even if they won’t interfere in the exercise of command by Colombian officers on the bases, they will ensure the autonomy of U.S. military forces when operations go beyond Colombia’s borders.” And there is precedent that validates these concerns. In 2007 two U.S. soldiers carrying out a Plan Colombia mission in the small town of Melgar raped a 12-year-old girl, and have yet to be punished.  When confronted by the girl’s mother, the soldiers were quoted as saying, “Yeah, we raped her, so what?  We are in Colombia, the law doesn’t affect us.” An all too accurate depiction of the US military’s mentality in Colombia.

These bases would lack oversight in the financial arena as well.  While Plan Colombia funding has been open for Congressional debate, funding for US military activities has not. Congress would therefore exercise little to no control over the funding – and therefore the actions – of the bases in Colombia.

The many unanswered questions and ominous possibilities that come with seven new US bases have raised alarms among Colombia’s neighbors, fueling serious regional tensions. Venezuela has frozen diplomatic relations, and Ecuador has threatened “increased military tensions” over their concerns about the increased U.S. presence in the region. Brazil’s President Lula said last week he was “not happy” at even one base being handed over for U.S. operations.

Many Colombians are opposed as well, backed up by the fact that such an agreement would bypass Article 173 of the Colombian Constitution, which prohibits the presence of foreign troops except in transit, and then only after legislative approval. Multiple protests have been held in downtown Bogota, and a national day of action is being planned for August 7 – the national holiday celebrating the Colombian armed forces – as opposition to these military bases grows.  

The bases agreement has not yet been signed; there is still time to convince Colombian and U.S. leaders to scrap the idea.  The Fellowship of Reconciliation has compiled a bilingual (English and Spanish) resource page for those opposing the bases: www.forcolombia.org/bases, and asks that you call the White House Comment Line (202-456-1111) today to say NO to military bases in Colombia.

Moira Birss is current serving in Colombia as a Human Rights Accompanier with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Moira has also worked on researching community-based models of alternative economies, advocating for affordable housing, and promoting environmental protection.

Two Colombian Generals Face Charges June 9, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Colombia, Foreign Policy, Latin America.
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Sherwood Ross

www.opednews.com

consortiumnews.com
June 8, 2009

Two Colombian generals, both of whom received training at the U.S. Army’s “School of The Americas”(SOA) at Ft. Benning, Ga., have been accused by authorities there of crimes involving narcotics and collaborating with criminal paramilitary groups, according to a report in the June 15th issue of The Nation magazine.

Brig. Gen. Pauxelino Latorre has been charged “with laundering millions of dollars for a paramilitary drug ring, and prosecutors say they are looking into his activities as head of the Seventeenth Brigade,” investigative journalist Teo Ballve reports, noting that criminal probes repeatedly linked Latorre’s unit “to illegal paramilitary groups that had brutally killed thousands” of Colombian farmers in an effort to seize their land for palm oil production.

Another general, Rito Alejo Del Rio, former Seventeenth Brigade leader, is in jail on charges of collaborating with paramilitaries, gangs that have been responsible for widespread atrocities.  He also received training at SOA.

Various firms engaged in palm oil development since 2002 apparently have received $75 million in U.S. Agency for International Development money under “Plan Colombia,” Ballve writes. And some of the firms appear to be tied to narco-traffickers, “in possible violation of federal law.” The writer notes Colombia’s paramilitaries are on the State Department’s list of foreign “terrorist” organizations.

“Plan Colombia is fighting against drugs militarily at the same time it gives money to support palm, which is used by paramilitary mafias to launder money,” The Nation quotes Colombian Senator Gustavo Petro, as saying. “The United States is implicitly subsidizing drug traffickers.”

President Alvaro Uribe has urged Colombians to increase palm production from 750,000 to 15 million acres to cash in on the expected boom in biofuels.

“Oil palm, or African palm, is one of the few aid-funded crops whose profits can match coca profits,” Ballve notes. But human rights groups have long accused palm companies, notably Urapalma, of cultivating stolen lands, he adds.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, has attached an amendment to this year’s Plan Colombia funding (for 2010) to ban palm projects that “cause the forced displacement of local people” but in the bill’s current draft, Ballve says, Leahy’s amendment is marked for deletion.

Urapalma submitted a grant application to the Bogota, Colombia, offices of ARD Inc., a rural development contractor based in Burlington, Vermont, which The Nation reports does business in 43 countries and has received $330 million in revenue from USAID.

In January, 2003, ARD began administering $41.5 million for USAID’s Colombia Agribusiness Partnership Program and Urapalma was one of its beneficiaries. Urapalma has been accused of taking land illegally from Colombian peasants.

In July, 2003, just before Urapalma’s USAID application, Colombia’s national daily El Tiempo reported that “the African palm projects in the southern banana region of Uraba are dripping with blood, misery, and corruption.” The region is where Urapalma is active.

The Nation article goes on to report that in 2003, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights singled out Urapalma for collusion with paramilitaries in these words: “Since 2001, the company Urapalma SA has initiated cultivation of the oil palm on approximately 1,500 hectares of the collective land of these communities, with the help of ‘the perimetric and concentric armed protection of the Army’s Seventeenth Brigade and armed civilians'”, i.e., paras.

All of the above, of course, has gone on by fleecing American taxpayers, courtesy of SOA and USAID.  

Sherwood Ross formerly worked for The Chicago Daily News and other major dailies and as a columnist for wire services. He currently runs a public relations firm for “worthy causes”-. Reach him at sherwoodr1@yahoo.com.

Sherwood Ross has worked as a publicist for Chicago; as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and workplace columnist for Reuters. He has also been a media consultant to colleges, law schools, labor unions, and to the editors of more than 100 (more…)

Colombia: Secret Documents Show US Aware of Army Killings in 1990s January 16, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Colombia, Human Rights, Latin America.
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Written by Constanza Vieira   

www.upsidedownworld.org

 

Thursday, 15 January 2009

 

(IPS) – Declassified U.S. documents show that the CIA and former U.S. ambassadors were fully aware, as far back as 1990, that the military in Colombia — the third largest recipient of U.S. aid after Israel and Egypt — were committing extrajudicial killings as part of “death squad tactics.”

They also knew that senior Colombian officers encouraged a “body count” mentality to demonstrate progress in the fight against left-wing guerrillas. In an undetermined number of cases, the bodies presented as casualties in the counterinsurgency war were actually civilians who had nothing to do with the country’s decades-old armed conflict.

Since at least 1990, U.S. diplomats were reporting a connection between the Colombian security forces and far-right drug-running paramilitary groups, according to the Washington-based National Security Archive (NSA).

In the meantime, the U.S. State Department continued to regularly certify Colombia’s human rights record and to heavily finance its “war on drugs.”

The declassified documents were published Jan. 7 by the NSA, a non-governmental research and archival institution located at the George Washington University that collects, archives and publishes declassified U.S. government documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.

NSA’s Colombia Project identifies and secures the release of documents from secret government archives on U.S. policy in Colombia regarding issues like security assistance, human rights, impunity and counternarcotics programmes.

“These records shed light on a policy — recently examined in a still-undisclosed Colombian Army report — that influenced the behaviour of Colombian military officers for years, leading to extrajudicial executions and collaboration with paramilitary drug traffickers,” says the NSA report released last week.

The secret army report mentioned by the NSA led in late 2008 to the dismissal of 30 army officers and the resignation of Gen. Mario Montoya, the Colombian army chief who long “promoted the idea of using body counts to measure progress against the guerrillas,” writes the author of the NSA report, Michael Evans.

In one of the declassified documents obtained by the NSA, then U.S. Ambassador Myles Frechette complained in 1994 about the “body count mentalities” among Colombian army officers seeking to climb through the ranks.

“Field officers who cannot show track records of aggressive anti-guerrilla activity (wherein the majority of the military’s human rights abuses occur) disadvantage themselves at promotion time,” said Frechette.

Evans, director of the NSA Colombia Project, states in his report that “the documents raise important questions about the historical and legal responsibilities the Army has to come clean about what appears to be a longstanding, institutional incentive to commit murder.”

“But the manner in which the investigation was conducted — in absolute secrecy and with little or no legal consequences for those implicated — raises a number of important questions,” says Evans, who asks “when, if ever, will the Colombian Army divulge the contents of its internal report?”

The question of extrajudicial killings by the army made the international headlines and drew the attention of the United Nations after a scandal broke out in the Colombian media in September 2008 over the bodies of young men reported by the armed forces as dead guerrillas or paramilitaries.

It turned out that the men had gone missing from their homes in slum neighbourhoods on the southside of Bogotá and that their corpses had turned up two or three days later in morgues hundreds of kilometres away.

Since then, scores of cases of “body count” killings by the army, also known as “false positives,” have emerged.

Although the government expressed shock and indignation, evidence soon began to emerge of a pattern that dated back years.

As defence minister under current President Álvaro Uribe, Camilo Ospina, who is now Colombia’s ambassador to the Organisation of American States (OAS), signed a 15-page secret ministerial directive in 2005 that provided for rewards for the capture or killing of leaders of illegal armed groups, for military information and war materiel, and for successful counterdrug actions.

According to the W Radio station, which reported on the secret directive in late October, it could have encouraged extrajudicial killings under a new system, which may include “a mafia of bounty-hunters allied with members of the military.”

But in the view of Iván Cepeda, spokesman for the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE), “this is not about an infiltration of organised crime in the armed forces, nor about people who have broken the law. As the NSA report shows, this is an institutional practice that has been followed for decades.”

The Defence Ministry directive encouraged the phenomenon by creating a system of incentives that rewards “results” in the form of battlefield casualties, “discounting accepted methods and controls and the observance of human rights and international humanitarian law,” he said.

Cepeda also maintained that the activities of far-right death squads and the army’s “body count” killings were connected, and that the military used the paramilitaries to show results.

“The paramilitaries delivered to the army the bodies of people who were supposed members of the guerrillas but who were actually people selectively killed by those (paramilitary) groups,” he told IPS.

When the killings became more and more widespread, the armed forces themselves asked the paramilitaries to hide the remains, to keep the country’s homicide rate from soaring any further, paramilitaries who took part in a demobilisation process negotiated with the right-wing Uribe administration have confessed.

The declassified documents demonstrate “that the U.S. military as well as U.S. diplomats and governments have taken a complacent stance towards this kind of practice,” said Cepeda.

The declassified records are in line with the results of “Colombia nunca más” (Colombia never again), a monumental effort to document human rights abuses carried out by 17 organisations since 1995.

“’Colombia nunca más’ has created a databank on 45,000 (human rights) violations, including around 25,000 extrajudicial executions and 10,000 forced disappearances, committed between 1966 and 1998,” said Cepeda. Colombia’s two insurgent groups emerged in 1964 and the paramilitaries in 1982, although the latter launched a lethal offensive beginning in 1997.

Cepeda told IPS that in the next few months, MOVICE would begin to organise the families of victims of extrajudicial killings, which would culminate in a national meeting to discuss “what routes of documenting the truth and obtaining justice can be followed in an organised manner by the families of the victims of this practice.”

The earliest of the declassified documents obtained by the NSA is a 1990 cable signed by then U.S. Ambassador Thomas McNamara, addressed to the State Department and copied to the Defence Department, the U.S. army Southern Command, and the U.S. embassies in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.

The cable, whose subject line reads “human rights in Colombia — widespread allegations of abuses by the army,” cites reports that an army major “personally directed the torture of 11 detainees and their subsequent execution…carried out by cutting of the limbs and heads of the still living victims with a chain saw.”

Referring to the connection between army officers and the paramilitaries, the ambassador stated that many “officers continue to discount virtually all allegations of military abuses as part of a leftist inspired plot to discredit the military as an institution.”

In addition, the cable mentions “strong evidence linking members of the army and police to a number of disappearances and murders which took place earlier this year in Trujillo, Valle de Cauca department.”

McNamara also mentioned “an apparent June 7 incident of extra-judicial executions.”

“The military reported to the press that, on that date, it killed 9 guerrillas in combat in El Ramal, Santander department. The investigation by Instruccion Criminal and the Procuraduria (legal authorities) strongly suggests, however, that the nine were executed by the army and then dressed in military fatigues. A military judge who arrived on the scene apparently realised that there were no bullet holes in the military uniforms to match the wounds in the victims’ bodies, and ordered the uniforms burned,” said the ambassador.

As sources told the ambassador, “all of the victims were part of the same family, and one of them, said by the army to have been a guerrilla, was 87 years old.”

Bush Tarnishes Medal of Freedom by Bestowing It on Uribe January 16, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Colombia, George W. Bush, Latin America.
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uribe-y-bushPresident George W. Bush places the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. (Photo: AFP)

www.truthout.org, January 15, 2009

 Matthew Rothschild, The Progressive

 

  Bush keeps outdoing himself on his way out the door.

    On Tuesday, he gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Alvaro Uribe, the head of Colombia.

    Uribe has had close ties with rightwing paramilitary squads. And his government is a notorious human rights abuser.

    “In recent years there has been a substantial rise in the number of extrajudicial killings of civilians attributed to the Colombian Army,” says Human Rights Watch.

    “Army members apparently take civilians from their homes or workplaces, kill them, and then dress them up to claim they were combatants killed in action.”

    Colombia also has the dubious distinction of leading the world in the murders of trade unionists. More than 2,600 labor leaders have been slain down there in the last couple of decades, and more than 400 while Uribe has been president, according to Human Rights Watch.

    Virtually none of the murderers have been brought to justice.

    Bush’s support for Colombia is typical of U.S. foreign policy. Bill Clinton before him lavished aid on the Colombian government, despite knowledge of that government’s bloody hands.

    “The CIA and senior U.S. diplomats were aware as early as 1994 that U.S.-backed Colombian security forces engaged in ‘death squad tactics,’ cooperated with drug-running paramilitary groups, and encouraged a ‘body count syndrome,’ ” said the National Security Archive, which recently posted documents backing up this point.

    “Personally, I have a hard time figuring out who is more audacious, President Bush for giving the human rights award, or President Uribe for receiving it,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

    This is the same medal that Bill Clinton awarded to Nelson Mandela. (Bush previously gave the medal to former CIA director George Tenet and Paul Bremer, the bungling viceroy of Iraq.)

    When he gave Uribe the award, Bush said, “President Uribe has reawakened the hopes of his countrymen and shown a model of leadership to a watching world. . . . The future will always be bright in a country that produces such men as President Alvaro Uribe.”

    One last Orwellian award, courtesy of our shameless President.

Chesa Boudin on Colombia’s Civil War December 26, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Colombia, Human Rights, Latin America, War.
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Posted on Dec 26, 2008, www.truthdig.com

book cover
amazon.com

By Chesa Boudin

In February 2007 I visited Colombia’s Chocó region as a guest of local Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities that had previously suffered forcible eviction from their communal lands. The phenomenon, known as forced migration or internal displacement, is so widespread across Colombia that the country trails only Iraq and Sudan in its number of internally displaced people. The communities that hosted me in Curvarado and Cacarica had recently returned to their homes after years of abuse at the hands of illegal paramilitary organizations intent on controlling their ancestral lands. Thanks to their determined efforts and support from a local NGO, Justicia y Paz (Justice and Peace), my hosts had been able to obtain legal title to their communal lands, an anomaly in a country where most forcibly displaced people lack the necessary resources or connections to navigate the legal bureaucracy. Despite their title to the land these communities remained frightened about threats from armed groups, so Justicia y Paz stationed observers to help document trespassing or attacks. 

The farmers who hosted me, and countless more farmers across Colombia, are caught in the midst of a conflict more complicated than most. Fueled by cocaine profits and U.S. military aid, it has raged for decades, pitting the government security forces and illegal paramilitary groups against various Marxist-inspired guerrilla movements. It is in this broader national context that fundamental human rights and self-determination of peoples come into constant, direct conflict with global economic growth and wealth accumulation in Colombia’s northwest Chocó region. The narrow isthmus, covered in mountainous tropical forests and dense swamplands, is increasingly the target site for potential development projects, including the completion of the Pan-American Highway, a pipeline to carry Venezuelan oil to Pacific ports, and an alternative shipping channel to the Panama Canal. In 1996, the price of land doubled following then-President Ernesto Samper’s announcement of a plan for a new inter-oceanic highway link connecting the Pacific and Atlantic. The Chocó has also attracted agriculture, timber, coal and mining interests both from Colombia and abroad. Peasants who happen to live on resource-rich territory suffer from a violent form of land speculation. In Colombia, neoliberal economic policies have gone hand in hand with militarization of a historic conflict.

“Beyond Bogotá: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia,” Gary Leech’s new book on Colombia, provides an engaging firsthand account of the country’s drug war. The book is structured around an 11-hour detention ordeal Leech underwent at the hands of the largest guerrilla group in the country, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in August 2006. Each of the 11 chapters in the book corresponds to one of the hours during which he was held at gunpoint on a coca farm in rural Colombia while the FARC higher-ups decided his fate. As Leech anxiously waits out his detention, he reflects back on his first trips to Latin America and his years reporting on Colombia’s drug war. The literary device succeeds; suspense and drama remain present throughout the book, and he provides an easy-to-follow background to the country’s civil strife, mostly narrated through first-person accounts. Luckily for Leech and his readers, he safely made it home to tell the tale. He writes with the raw passion and vivid energy of a wartime correspondent who regularly risks his life to cover stories ignored by major international media outlets. While most writers on Colombia only talk abstractly about policy, Leech goes into villages, speaks with people on the front lines and peels back the skin.

 

book cover

Beyond Bogotá

 By Garry Leech

Beacon Press, 272 pages

Demonstrating considerable courage and persistence, Leech managed to visit the hottest areas of Colombia’s conflict, survive shootouts and detentions, interview high-ranking leaders of the FARC and the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) and visit coca farms and cocaine labs. He describes all this with compelling narrative and evocative characters, taking the reader with him on his investigative adventures. While his descriptive ability makes the reading enjoyable, it is his conclusions that leave the strongest impression.

President Alvaro Uribe, currently in his second term, is a darling of the U.S. State Department and has funneled billions in U.S. aid into a military strategy for solving the country’s problems. Meanwhile, he implements neoliberal economic policies that exacerbate the very wealth disparities that Leech sees as the root of the ongoing violence. As governor of the province of Antioquia, Uribe was instrumental in establishing a civilian vigilante organization, CONVIVIR, that quickly became a right-wing paramilitary network fighting a vicious war against the country’s leftist guerrillas and anyone accused of sympathizing with them. Uribe’s own father was killed by the FARC in a botched kidnapping attempt, blurring the line between the political and the personal in his support for those fighting against the guerrillas. As Leech reports, the paramilitaries that grew out of Uribe’s CONVIVIR are widely believed to be responsible for the majority of civilian deaths and human rights abuses in Colombia. Like the FARC and sectors of the state military apparatus, the paramilitaries became involved in drug trafficking and use cocaine profits to fund their arms purchases and operations. The FARC taxes growers in the regions it controls, and Leech suggests that the paramilitaries and military are actively involved in the more lucrative processing and trafficking as well.

Leech explains how, after Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. military aid to Colombia under the heading “Plan Colombia” rapidly shifted from anti-drug trafficking to combating “narco-terrorism.” The FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) and the national paramilitary organization AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) appeared on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. While Leech is quick to condemn all of the armed groups in the conflict, much of his criticism is reserved for U.S. policy in the region. “There was also plenty of anti-American sentiment in Colombia, particularly in the rural regions targeted by Plan Colombia’s fumigations [of illegal coca crops]. Again, this anger wasn’t rooted in a hatred for U.S. freedoms; it resulted from U.S. government policies that destroyed the livelihoods of Colombian peasants without offering them any viable alternatives.” “Beyond Bogotá” gives voice to people whose opinions and perspectives are rarely included in mainstream media reports. 

Leech investigates a peasant massacre and finds that “U.S. military aid was being used as much to wage a war of terror as to fight a war against terror. At best, it appeared to be funding a selective war on terror—one that targeted civilians seen as suspected leftist terrorists, yet supported a military responsible for perpetrating state terrorism and maintaining close ties to right-wing terrorists.”

Moreover, according to Leech, the U.S.-led aerial fumigations of coca crops throughout Colombia have backfired; there is now a “super herbicide-resistant strain” of coca that is capable of yielding four times as many leaves from the same acreage. Thus, “although the U.S. and Colombian governments claimed that Plan Colombia was working because the fumigations were reducing the number of acres under cultivation … in reality coca production had remained relatively stable.” Meanwhile, Leech tells us, “Not only do coca farmers earn the least amount of profit among all those engaged in the production, trafficking, and sale of cocaine, but they are also the most vulnerable link in the chain because of their poverty and lack of mobility. Even with the widespread cultivation of coca, 85 percent of rural Colombians live in poverty. And at the close of the twentieth century, those poor farmers became the principal target in the U.S. war on drugs.”

President Uribe, a willing partner in the war on drugs, has succeeded in improving Colombia’s image in the international business community and increasing urban security. Yet the government presence in many rural areas is limited to military incursions without meaningful investment in development or economic and social infrastructure. Leech shows us the divide between rural and urban Colombia, narrating multiple political perspectives throughout. In one scene that takes place over a three-hour period, he interacts with pro-FARC rural peasants, then with nonaligned, pro-peace small-town residents, and finally with right-wing pro-Uribe urbanites. 

book cover

Beyond Bogotá

 

By Garry Leech

Beacon Press, 272 pages

Buy the book

Leech clearly knows Colombia intimately, and this makes the book. One area where “Beyond Bogotá” falls short, however, is that it lacks regional context. Colombia is just one country in a fascinating and rapidly changing region. In many ways Colombia is an outlier among its neighbors: While Colombia is still a close ally of the U.S. and an adherent to the Washington Consensus, Andean neighbors Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, for example, have elected left-wing, anti-neoliberal, populist presidents, including Hugo Chavez, Rafael Correa and Evo Morales. Uribe appears to represent the old guard of Latin American governments, while Chavez’s 1999 election was the vanguard of a wave of progressive democratic victories across the region. This regional context has shaped U.S. aid to Colombia, as well as Uribe’s domestic policies, but is largely absent from the book. Also missing are recommendations for how Colombia might find its way out of its quagmire, or how the international community can help it do so.

Latin America is a rapidly changing region, and perhaps no country illustrates this better than Colombia. Writers focusing on current events there inevitably face the pitfall that nothing remains current for long. While this book is one of the most recent, most up to date on Colombia available today, crucial developments occurred after “Beyond Bogotá” went to press. Several of the key FARC leaders Leech writes about or interviewed for this book, including Simón Trinidad, Raúl Reyes and Manuel Marulanda, are no longer on the field of battle: Trinidad was caught and extradited to the U.S., where he is currently in prison; Reyes was killed by the Colombian military; and Marulanda died of natural causes. Moreover, the FARC’s most valuable hostages, among them one-time Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and several American civilian contractors, were rescued last summer in a daring raid coordinated by the Colombian military. What implications these developments have for the FARC’s viability as a national rebel army remain to be seen. For those interested, as I am, in Leech’s ongoing analysis of these issues and future developments in Colombia, it should be noted that he is the editor of a regularly updated Web site called Colombia Journal [under construction as this review is published].

As I was finishing reading “Beyond Bogotá”, I received an e-mail from Justicia y Paz, detailing threats and kidnappings of its members working in the communities in Curvarado. A series of anonymous phone calls had preceded the kidnapping of a human rights worker based in one of the formerly displaced communities I visited in 2007. Throughout Colombia, paramilitary groups are engaged in ongoing assaults on poor communities living on resource-rich land. U.S. military aid continues unabated, even as the Colombian military is complicit with these illegal attacks or simply looks the other way. This book is an excellent way to familiarize oneself with a multifaceted conflict that sadly shows no sign of letting up soon.

Chesa Boudin is the author of “Gringo: A Coming of Age in Latin America,” forthcoming from Scribner. He studied forced migration and public policy in Latin America at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and is currently enrolled in the Yale Law School.

Colombia Confirms It Cannot Meet Necessary FTA Prerequisites; Death Squads on Rise December 20, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Colombia, Human Rights, Latin America.
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Dan Kovalik, December 4, 2008

www.huffingtonpost.com

(UPDATED) In his final debate with John McCain, President-elect Barack Obama made it clear why he opposed passage of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) – because of the problem with union assassinations in Colombia (still the highest in the world) and because the Colombian government has failed to investigate and prosecute those killings. This statement echoed Speaker Nancy Pelosi who, just last year, set forth the yard marks which were necessary for consideration for the Colombia FTA – namely, “concrete and sustained” results in dealing with continued violence against trade unionists, impunity and the role of paramilitary groups in that violence.

2008-12-04-fernandoboteromasacre.jpg
Fernando Botero, “Masacre”

On the issue of impunity, the Colombian government has successfully investigated and prosecuted around only 3% of the almost 2700 union killings since 1986, resulting in an impunity rate of 97%. And, recently, the Colombian Office of the Attorney General confirmed that this impunity rate will not be appreciably lowered.

Indeed, as Human Rights Watch recently explained in a letter to Nancy Pelosi, Congressman George Miller and Congressman Charles Rangel, “[t]he Office of the Attorney General reports that as of October 20, the specialized prosecutors unit is only reviewing a total of 1,272 cases involving anti-union violence – including both threats and killings (even though nearly all of the 2,685 reported killings and more than 3,700 threats remain unresolved).” (emphasis added).

In short, impunity will not decrease very much in Colombia because the Colombian government, by its own admission, is not even looking into the vast majority of anti-union violence cases. This is an incredible admission by the Colombian government given its continued full-court press for passage of the Colombia FTA. This admission should finally end Colombia’s chances at passage of the FTA, at least so long as Barack Obama is President and Nancy Pelosi is Speaker of the House.

What’s more, the other key issue blocking passage of the FTA – ongoing anti-union violence – continues to be a big problem. As Human Rights Watch noted in its same letter, “[a]fter dropping to 39 last year, the number of killings has increased once again in 2008. Through October, 41 trade unionists have been reported killed, compared with 33 through October 2007. More than 150 unionists have reported being threatened so far this year.”

Addressing Speaker Pelosi’s third concern about continued paramilitary violence in Colombia, particularly against trade unionists, Human Rights Watch makes it clear that this problem remains grim and is actually getting worse. Indeed, as Human Rights Watch noted, while there was some temporary abating of paramilitary violence as a result of the demobilization which accompanied the “Justice and Peace” process, the paramilitaries are now re-mobilizing. As Human Rights Watch explained, “new armed groups often led by mid-level paramilitary commanders have cropped up all over the country. The Organization of American States (OAS) Mission verifying the demobilizations has identified 22 such groups, totaling thousands of members. The groups are actively recruiting new troops and are committing widespread abuses, including extortion, killings, and forced displacement.”

These conclusions about the paramilitary resurgence in Colombia were just reinforced by a Dec. 5, 2008, L.A. Times article by Chris Kraul, entitled, “Paramilitary groups still spread terror among Colombia’s people.” This article concluded that, in spite of President Uribe’s denial of the existence of any paramilitarism in Colombia, there are as many as 100 new paramilitary “gangs” in Colombia, “including as many as 10,000 fighters.” As this article reports, the rise of these new death squads is “creating an enormous catastrophe” with massive new displacements of people, adding to the already almost 4 million internal refugees — the second largest in the world. According to the L.A. Times, the hyper-violent Black Eagles “may account for half of the newly emerged fighters.”

The strong re-emergence of the paramilitary death squads does not bode well for trade unionists, for as Colombia’s Office of the Attorney General reported in March of 2008, of all the persons convicted of killing unionists, 73% belonged to paramilitary groups.

Finally, the Colombian government continues to turn a blind eye to the participation of government officials and major corporations in the murder of unionists. As Human Rights Watch explained, the Colombian government has done little to investigate the credible allegation that Jorge Noguera, the former chief of Colombia’s DAS (the analogue of the FBI which has actually received U.S. monies to protect unionists) passed a hit list with the names of trade unionists to the paramilitaries with the intent that the paramilitaries carry out the assassination of said unionists.

Further, Human Rights Watch noted that the Colombian government has failed to abide by the order of a well-respected judge to investigate the role played by the Nestle Corporation in the murder of union leader Luciano Romero. The issue of such corporate responsibility in the murder of trade unionists continues even as Colombia, on December 6, commemorates the 80th anniversary of the massacre of striking banana workers in the town of Cienaga, Colombia at the behest of then United Fruit Company (now, Chiquita Banana, a company which has continued to fund atrocities in Colombia). This event inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s portrayal of the murder of banana workers in One Hundred Years of Solitude - a book I am told is the very favorite of none other than Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Sadly, this history of anti-union violence at the hands of elites in Colombia is repeated today on a regular basis. And, to put an end to this, Congress must continue its refusal to consider passage of the Colombia FTA.

Colombia: A Day That Will Live in Infamy (Once Again) December 19, 2008

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Written by Mario A. Murillo   
Wednesday, 17 December 2008
Army’s Killing of CRIC Member Tragically Marks 17th Anniversary of Nilo Massacre. Episode Coincides with Latest Act of Sabotage Against Nasa Community Radio Station in Northern Cauca.

December 16th is supposed to be a special day for most Colombians.

It’s the day that marks the start of what is called “La Novena,” the traditional nine-day countdown to Christmas.

For families around the country, rich and poor, urban and rural, “Las Novenas” are supposed to be a time of celebration, ritual gatherings with friends and loved ones. They are filled with community sing-alongs, of old-school holiday songs that take just about everybody back to their childhood.

But this December 16th will not be one of joy for Aida Quilcué and her family. Indeed, December 16th is once again being marked as a day of violence and terror for the indigenous communities of Cauca, and for the entire country.

This morning, at about 4:00am, on the road between Inzá, Tierradentro, and Totoró, on indigenous territory, the official car of the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, CRIC, was shot at 19 times by a column of the Third Division of the Army, fatally wounding the driver, Edwin Legarda Vázquez, Quilcué’s husband. Quilcué is the Chief Counsel of CRIC, and one of the most visible leaders of the recent Indigenous and Popular Minga that began on October 11th, culminating in a massive march and rally in downtown Bogotá on November 21st.

Three bullets penetrated Legarda, who did not survive the emergency surgery he was given after being rushed to San José Hospital in Popayán, the departmental capital.

But most people close to CRIC believe the bullets were really meant for his wife, who apparently was just returning from Geneva where she had been participating in the United Nations Human Rights Commission sessions on Colombia. She was not in the car when the attack occurred.

Ernesto Parafán, the lawyer for CRIC, believes it was a deliberate act committed against the organization, and specifically an attempt on Quilcués life by the government’s security apparatus. According to the indigenous leadership, Quilcué, along with other prominent leaders, has received numerous death threats in recent months, especially during the six weeks of mobilization and protests that captured the attention of both national and international public opinion.

General Justo Eliceo Peña, commander of the Army’s Third Division in Cauca, acknowledged on Caracol Radio that various members of the Army did indeed fire at CRIC’s car, a vehicle recognized throughout the area for its tinted windows, and for its countless trips throughout the mountainous terrain regularly carrying the movement’s leadership, particularly Quilcué. According to the General, his troops fired because the car did not stop at the military roadblock set up in the area. General Peña later expressed regrets for the attack, recognizing that even if they had not obeyed orders to stop, the excessive volley of bullets was not appropriate, and violated the Army’s protocol.

But the indigenous movement is not accepting these words at face value, and is demanding a full, independent investigation into the incident, given the recent wave of threats against Quilcué and other leaders.

“I think the attack was for me,” Quilcué later told Caracol Radio, in reference to her role in the MINGA social.

The Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, ACIN, pointed out on its website that the area where Legarda was killed was near the Finca San Miguel in the village of Gabriel López in Totoró, “a property where there is a permanent presence of the National Army,” making it highly unlikely that the soldiers did not recognize the vehicle as being that of CRIC, one of the most prominent social organizations in the country.

Meanwhile, Perafán was quoted in El Tiempo saying that if the military does not thoroughly investigate, capture the perpetrators and bring them to justice, the Indigenous Guard of the community will do so “because these crimes were carried out within the territory of the (indigenous) community.”

Alvaro Mejía, a spokesperson for CRIC, added “we demand that this crime does not remain in impunity.”

December 16th: A Day that Lives in Infamy

If one considers the long track record of the government’s deliberately lackluster investigations into crimes committed by state actors against the indigenous movement, there is considerable reason for the community to be concerned. Today’s tragic incident ironically comes on the 17th anniversary of one of the most brutal episodes of Colombia’s violent history against indigenous people, and perhaps its most despicable account of criminal cover up and public deception.

On Dec. 16, 1991, 20 indigenous people from the Huellas-Caloto community, including five women and four children, were murdered as they met to discuss a struggle over land rights in the estate of El Nilo in northern Cauca. Some 60 hooded gunmen stormed into the building where the community was meeting and opened fire. Initial news reports indicated that the gunmen were drug traffickers who had been seizing land in the region to grow opium poppies to produce heroin, but it soon became apparent that the culprits of the massacre were much more than simple narco-traffickers operating outside of the law. The killings had followed a relentless pattern of harassment and threats against the indigenous community by gunmen loyal to local landowners who were disputing the indigenous community’s claim to ownership of the land. In many ways, it was a massacre foretold.

According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Special Investigations Unit of the Office of the Attorney General, which handled the first stages of the investigation into the massacre, uncovered evidence of the involvement of members of the National Police, both before and during the execution of these horrific events. They were working hand in hand with drug traffickers and wealthy landowners, who were not comfortable with the organizing and mobilizing capacity of CRIC and the local communities.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights established that the Colombian state should hand back their land as part of the integral reparation to victims of the massacre committed by those ruthless death squads in collaboration with the police. In 1998, President Ernesto Samper acknowledged the responsibility of state actors in the massacre of El Nilo, and on behalf of the Colombian state, he apologized to the families of the victims and to the Nasa community of Northern Cauca, making promises to the relatives of the victims and the communities, to implement the recommendations of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission in the matter of Justice and Individual and Collective Reparations.

To this day, only a small portion of the land has been returned to any of the family members of the Huellas community, this despite repeated promises from various governments to do so. The issue of recuperation of the lands in the northern Cauca region continues to be a major point of contention between the government of Alvaro Uribe and the indigenous movement, and has sparked repeated mobilizations by the community in the last 17 years.

The Social and Community Minga that was initially launched in September 2004, but was re-initiated this year with the above-mentioned six-week mobilization, made the government’s fulfillment of its pledges to the community one of its five main rallying points, although it was not the only issue on their agenda of protest. The organizers of the Minga recognize that the failure of the government to come clean on its pledges to the community is just one manifestation of a much larger strategy of pushing back the indigenous movement’s national, broad-based call for social transformation on several different platforms. This platform of resistance includes a rejection of the government’s counter-reform measures that negate protections afforded to indigenous peoples across the country, measures that have opened the way for free trade agreements that in essence will rob the communities of their territories and the resources within. And it is a platform that is openly calling for an end to the government’s militarization of their territories, what President Uribe calls “Democratic Security,” but in the end results in the kinds of state-sponsored violence that took the life of Edwin Legarda Vázquez in the early morning hours of December 16th.

Aida Quilcué has been one of the most eloquent voices promoting this agenda. Are we jumping to premature conclusions in assuming those bullets were meant for her?

Will there be justice in this latest case of violence against the Nasa people, or will it be as slow in coming as it was (and still is) for the many victims of the Nilo massacre?

Silencing the Truth in Northern Cauca

The senseless tragedy befalling Quilcué, her family, CRIC and the entire indigenous community of Colombia is currently being reported peripherally by the corporate national news media such as El Tiempo, Caracol Radio and other sources. However, one media outlet where it is not currently being reported is on the community radio station of the Nasa people of northern cauca, Radio Pa’yumat, licensed to the ACIN.

Over the weekend, the station’s transmitter equipment, and antenna were severely damaged in an act of sabotage by as of yet unnamed actors, although the community refers to the perpetrators as the same forces of terror that continue to try to silence the indigenous movement with acts of violence. ACIN has denounced the latest assault on their primary communication vehicle on its website, stating that it is part of an ongoing process of intimidation and fear:

“Not coincidentally, these prior acts of sabotage have occurred at the precise time that our communities were initiating major mobilizations and important actions against the armed actors that constantly provoke war in our territories. Therefore, the assault against our community radio station is not an isolated incident, but is part of a deliberate strategy of silencing the indigenous movement of northern Cauca, because the radio station is the most important medium within the community. It allows us to listen to one another, to discuss important issues, reflect on them, make decisions in the interest of the community, and take actions collectively in defense of life and of our territory.”

It is understood by most observers that the indigenous communities that have been most successful over the years at confronting the myriad threats to their autonomy throughout the country, are those with the strongest organizational structures, legitimized by being in a constant dialogue with the base. These are the same communities that continue to play the role of interlocutor with other, non-indigenous actors, be they state institutions, different social sectors like the peasant or trade union movements, and international solidarity organizations.

And not surprisingly, many of these communities, like the cabildos that make up ACIN, maintain their own, independent media channels as essential components of their collective resistance. These community media channels spring from a long tradition of grassroots, independent, citizens’ media projects that have emerged throughout Colombia over the past 35 years, and that coalesced alongside broad based social movements with the rewriting of the Constitution in 1991. Naturally, these community-based media are only as effective as their organizations’ capacity to successfully confront the destructive, militarist, and undemocratic models that surround them. In the long run, strong organizational bases make them more secure and protect them from the inevitable, reactionary backlash, given the high levels of violence that has always been directed towards independent voices in Colombia. But sometimes that high level of organizing is not enough to prevent the kind of sabotage that occurred over the weekend.

“Those who carried out this act of sabotage knew what they were doing,” said Dora Muñoz, Coordinator of the Radio station. She added “all of this points to a systematic wave of terror. I’m afraid we’re only just beginning to see what may come in the coming days and weeks, directed against us.”

The Nasa communities of Cauca, with their long trajectory of mobilization spearheaded by CRIC and ACIN, in the spirit of constructing sustainable, democratic alternatives, are working alongside truly revolutionary, transformative practices in communication. Radio Pa’yumat happens to be one of the national models of these transformative communication practices, rooted in indigenous traditions of bottom-up consultation and community reflection. However, it is not supported in any way by state institutions.

“If there were some state communication policies that were in defense of the rights of the people, the immediate reaction of the government would have been to repudiate these acts of sabotage and provide some resources to support the radio station’s efforts, efforts that we depend on for our security and well being while we are under constant attack,” said Ezequiel Vitonás, a member of the council of chiefs of ACIN.

Today, December 16th, 2008, on the 17th anniversary of the massacre of 20 Nasa on the Nilo estate, on the same day that the husband of CRIC’s chief spokesperson was killed by a fusillade of Army bullets, ACIN’s radio station remains off the air due to ruthless acts of sabotage.

Is this all a tragic coincidence?

Too often these types of stories are completely ignored by the Colombian corporate media, which are perpetually stuck on the faulty narratives relating to guerilla terrorism, false victimization, and celebrity gossip. These patterns of media obsession were evident most clearly this past Sunday, when El Tiempo released its list of personalities of the year. Topping the list was pop-super star and pretty boy Juanes, whose ambiguous politics – supposedly “committed to social change” – make him a safe bet for the editorial writers of the nation’s establishment newspaper of record. The multi-Grammy Award winner was followed on the year-end list by two of the principal architects of the government’s Democratic Security strategy, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and Armed Forces Chief Freddy Padilla, lauded for their so-called victories against FARC guerillas. These are the same individuals who are responsible for the False Positives scandal that only temporarily rocked the top brass of the military in 2008.

And perhaps these are the same individuals who ultimately should be held accountable for the criminal act of violence perpetrated this morning against Legarda Vázquez.

So in his memory, and in the memory of Jairo Secué, Domingo Calis, Daniel Peté, Adán Mestízo, Darío Coicué, Feliciano Otelo, Calicio Chilhueso, Mario Juliqué, Edegar Mestizo, Jesús Peté, Julio Dagua, Carolina Tombé, Ofelia Tombé, Jose Elías Tombé, Foresmiro Viscué, Leonidas Casamchín, and José Elías Ulcué, and all the other victims of state-sponsored terror in Colombia, let’s not be silent today.

In the spirit of Manuel Quintín Lame!

Let our voices of rage be the megaphones projecting through the heroic signal of Radio Pa’yumat, temporarily silenced by reactionary forces. Let’s shout out collectively, in order to drown out the tacky melodies that will be sung throughout the country on this first night of the Christmas novena, in the spirit of resistance.

So that the tears of Aida Quilcué can be converted into the fire of a people that will not be silenced!

Army Commanders Fired for Killings Received U.S. Training and Assistance November 5, 2008

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Following the U.S. presidential election by just two weeks, thousands of human rights activists will converge on November 21-23, 2008 at the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia to demand a new direction in U.S.-Latin America foreign policy and the closure of the School of the Americas/ Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (SOA/WHINSEC). By John Lindsay-Poland

Colombian Army commander Mario Montoya resigned today, in the wake of a scandal over army killings of civilians that a United Nations official on Saturday called ” systematic and widespread.” A protégé of the United States, Montoya received training at the notorious U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) and has also taught other soldiers as an instructor at the SOA. Montoya was an architect of the “body count” counterinsurgency strategy that many analysts believe led to the systematic civilian killings. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe announced the dismissal of 27 military officers on October 29, including three generals and 11 colonels and lieutenant colonels, for human rights abuses. The abuses include involvement in the killings of dozens of youths who were recruited in Bogotá slums and shortly after were reported as killed in combat by the army, hundreds of miles away.

The dismissal is a positive action, which we applaud. Officers responsible for killing civilians must face consequences, or the killing will continue.

Human rights organizations have documented more than 500 reported extrajudicial killings by the army since the beginning of last year. This week, Amnesty International issued a scathing report on worsening conditions in Colombia, including massive displacement of internal refugees, increased extrajudicial killings, and attacks on human rights defenders. A New York Times front-page story on October 30 also highlighted the problem, and cited FOR’s research on extrajudicial executions, as did a Los Angeles Times story. But it was the report that poor Bogota youths whose families said they had disappeared, had been recruited by the army or others, then reported as dead in combat, that detonated the issue. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos admitted that the army still harbors “holdouts who are demanding bodies for results.” The dismissal of officers also demonstrates extensive U.S. complicity with the abuses. The United States gave military training directly or assisted the units of nearly all of the officers implicated in the killings. At least eleven of the officers, including Brigadier Generals Paulino Coronado Gamez and José Cortes Franco, were trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas, and Cortes even served as an instructor at the school in 1994. Most of the officers commanded units that had been ‘vetted’ by U.S. officials for human rights abuses and approved to receive assistance in 2008, or received training for some officers, in spite of extensive reports that their units had carried out murders of civilians.

Yet the dismissal, which focuses on officers operating in a northeastern region of Colombia where the disappeared youths were found, addresses only a small number of the army units responsible for civilian killings. In the oil-rich Casanare and Arauca departments, the U.S.-trained 16th and 18th Brigades have reportedly committed dozens of killings, as has the U.S.-supported 9th Brigade in the coffee-growing department of Huila. In southeastern Valle and Cauca, the Third Brigade’s Codazzi Batallion receives U.S. support and reportedly committed at least nine killings of civilians last year, as may be implicated in firing on peaceful indigenous protesters this month. In southern Meta and Guaviare departments, the United States supports multiple mobile brigades in areas where the army has committed a large number of civilian killings. Army chief Montoya is replaced by Major General Gilberto Rocha Ayala. In 2003-04, Rocha commanded the army’s Second Brigade in northeastern Colombia. Under his command, Colonel Hernán Mejia, then commander of the La Popa Battalion, is under investigation by the Colombian Prosecutor General for reportedly engineering the killing of paramilitaries and passing them off as guerrillas. Rocha also commanded the army’s Ninth Brigade in 2002-03, with jurisdiction in Huila province, where human rights groups report some six extrajudicial executions occurring during his command. Rocha Ayala was an instructor at the School of the Americas in 1995.

In addition, most of the army’s current leadership – including 17 of 24 brigade commanders – were trained by the United States at the School of the Americas, on top of U.S. training provided to Colombian officers at dozens of other military schools and in Colombia. Washington is involved in the army’s human rights problem through and through, and journalists, activists, and Congressional staff ought to ask when the United States will stop financing such murderous criminal operations. We believe the time is now.

By John Lindsay-Poland.

Colombia Killings Cast Doubt on War Against Insurgents October 29, 2008

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Published: October 29, 2008

SOACHA, Colombia — Julian Oviedo, a 19-year-old construction worker in this gritty patchwork of slums, told his mother on March 2 that he was going to talk to a man about a job offer. A day later, Mr. Oviedo was shot dead by army troops some 350 miles to the north. He was classified as a subversive and registered as a combat kill.

Colombia’s government, the Bush administration’s top ally in Latin America, has been buffeted by the disappearance of Mr. Oviedo and dozens of other young, impoverished men and women whose cases have come to light in recent weeks. Some were vagrants, others street vendors and manual laborers. But their fates were often the same: being catalogued as insurgents or criminal gang members and killed by the armed forces.

Prosecutors and human rights researchers are investigating hundreds of such deaths and disappearances, contending that Colombia’s security forces are increasingly murdering civilians and making it look as if they were killed in combat, often by planting weapons by the bodies or dressing the corpses in guerrilla fatigues.

With soldiers under intense pressure in recent years to register combat kills to earn promotions and benefits like time off and extra pay, reports of civilian killings are climbing, prosecutors and researchers say, pointing to a grisly facet of Colombia’s long internal war against leftist insurgencies.

The deaths have called into question the depth of Colombia’s recent strides against the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and have begun to haunt the nation’s military hierarchy.

On Wednesday, President Álvaro Uribe’s government announced that it had fired more than two dozen officers and soldiers — including three generals — in connection with the deaths of Mr. Oviedo and 10 other young men from Soacha, whose bodies were recently discovered in unmarked graves in a distant combat zone. The purge came after an initial shake-up last Friday, when the army command relieved three colonels from their duties.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Uribe said an internal military investigation appeared to have uncovered “crimes that in some regions had the goal of killing innocents, to make it seem as if criminals were being confronted.”

“The armed forces of Colombia have well-earned prestige,” Mr. Uribe said. “When there are violations of human rights, that prestige is muddled.”

The wave of recent killings has also heightened focus on the American Embassy here, which is responsible for vetting Colombian military units for human rights abuses before they can receive aid. A study of civilian killings by Amnesty International and Fellowship of Reconciliation, two human rights groups, found that 47 percent of the reported cases in 2007 involved Colombian units financed by the United States.

“If the responsibility of the army is to protect us from harm, how could they have killed my son this way?” asked Blanca Monroy, 49, Mr. Oviedo’s mother, in an interview in her cinderblock hovel here. “The official explanation is absurd, if he was here just a day earlier living a normal life. The irony of it all is that my son dreamed of being a soldier” for the government.

Even before the most recent disappearances and killings, prosecutors and human rights groups were examining a steady increase in the reports of civilian killings since 2002, when commanders intensified a counterinsurgency financed in no small part by more than $500 million a year in American security aid.

But more than 100 claims of civilians deaths at the hands of security forces have emerged in recent weeks alone, from nine different parts of Colombia. Cases have included the killing of a homeless man, a young man who suffered epileptic seizures and a veteran who had left the army after his left arm was amputated.

In some cases, victims’ families spoke of middlemen who recruited poor men and women with vague promises of jobs elsewhere, only to deliver them hours or days later to war zones where they were shot dead by soldiers.

“We are witnessing a method of social cleansing in which rogue military units operate beyond the law,” said Monica Sánchez, a lawyer at the Judicial Freedom Corporation, a human rights group in Medellín. The group says it has documented more than 60 “false positives” — the chilling term for cases of civilians who are killed and then presented as guerrillas, with weapons or fatigues — in the department, or province, of Antioquia.

Researchers have also obtained thorough descriptions of some killings in the small number of cases – less than 50 — that have resulted in convictions this decade.

One April morning in 2004, for instance, soldiers approached the home of Juan de Jesús Rendón, a 33-year-old peasant farmer in Antioquia, and shot him in front of his son, Juan Estéban, who was 10 at the time. The soldiers placed a two-way radio and a gun near Mr. Rendón’s body, court records show, and told his son that his siblings would suffer the same fate unless he said his father had fired at the soldiers.

“I still fear this can happen again,” Vilma Garcia, 35, Mr. Rendón’s wife, said in an interview in Medellín, where she and her children fled after her husband was killed. The five soldiers involved were recently convicted on charges of homicide and torture, in connection with the threats to her son. “The soldiers think we are poor and worthless,” she said, “so nobody will care how we are killed.”

The civilian killings have increasingly opened the United States to criticism because it is required to make sure Colombian military units have not engaged in human rights violations before supplying them with aid.

“If we are receiving aid and vetting from a government in Washington that validates torture, then what kind of results can one expect?” asked Liliana Uribe, a human rights lawyer in Medellín who represents victims’ families.

A senior official at the American embassy in Bogotá said the reports of civilian killings, both in past years and in recent months, were a matter of concern. “If the facts in some cases do show that parts of the armed forces were taking part in murder, then there should be mechanisms to prevent this from happening and mechanisms to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

The official said the units involved in the most recent killings, of the 11 men from Soacha, did not receive aid, since they had previously been deemed not credible to receive it.

But the official neither confirmed nor denied the contention that almost half of the reports of civilian killings in 2007 involved units that received American aid, explaining that a case-by-case review of the episodes had not been carried out by two American contractors hired by the State Department to help vet Colombian military units for human rights abuses.

Reports of civilian killings rose to 287 during the 12-month period from mid-2006 to mid-2007, up from 267 in the same period a year earlier and 218 the year before that, said the Colombian Commission of Jurists, a Bogotá human rights group.

Altogether, the attorney general’s office in Bogotá said it was investigating the killings of 1,015 civilians by security forces in 558 separate episodes unrelated to combat. Prosecutors said the number of new cases under investigation climbed to 245 in 2007 from 122 a year earlier.

The increase in reports of civilian killings spurred the defense ministry to issue a directive last year explicitly prioritizing the capture of rebels above combat kills. In an interview, Gen. Freddy Padilla, the top commander of Colombia’s armed forces, said the policy shift, while largely intended to prevent human rights abuses, also had strategic objectives.

“A terrorist captured alive is a treasure, while a dead terrorist is just one-day news,” General Padilla said, citing the example of Nelly Ávila, a FARC commander who surrendered this year and began collaborating with her captors. “A terrorist converted into an informant is useful as long as he or she lives.”

Until the latest wave of killings, it appeared the new policy was starting to work. The Center for Research and Popular Education, a Jesuit-led group in Bogotá that maintains a database on human rights violations, documented 87 reports of so-called false positives in the second half of 2007, a 34 percent drop from the first six months of that year.

But the emergence of cases in Soacha and elsewhere suggests that the problem may be more systemic than once thought.

Some human rights researchers contend the killings are tolerated by some senior officers in the Colombian army who chafe at greater scrutiny at a time when security forces have made significant gains against guerrillas, including the killing or capture of several top FARC commanders this year.

One case involves the commander of Colombia’s army, Gen. Mario Montoya. In March of 2002, the Army’s 4th Brigade, then under General Montoya’s command, killed five people in their vehicle and presented them as guerrillas, their corpses dressed in combat fatigues.

But the driver, Parmenio de Jesús Usme, testified earlier this year that none of the five was a guerrilla. According to a report by Cambio, a news magazine, Mr. Usme, a former figure in a right-wing paramilitary group that opposed the guerrillas, said two of the victims were teenagers, Érika Castañeda, 13, and Johana Carmona, 14, whom he was driving to a party when they picked up three other people.

Mr. Usme said they were fired upon, killing everyone in the vehicle but him. According to the report, General Montoya called the hospital where the bodies were taken and said that they should be turned over only to someone in his confidence, after which the corpses were later presented to the media in fatigues at a nearby building.

General Montoya did not respond to requests for comment. But when asked specifically about the case, General Padilla, the armed forces commander, said, “There are preliminary investigations in which the different declarations are being verified.”

Colombian Government Fires 25 Corrupt Military Officers October 29, 2008

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The following is a summary compiled by myself of an Associated Press article that appeared in the Guayaquil (Ecuador) daily, “El Universo,” October 29, 2008:

 

 

Twenty five high and middle level military officers have been summarily dismissed by the Colombian government of Álvaro Uribe, including three Infantry Generals: Roberto Pico Hernández, Commander of the VII Infantry Division; José Joaquín Cortes Franco, Commander of the II Division; and Paulino Coronado, Commander of the 30th Infantry Brigade. 

 

The three generals and other officers are accused of collaborating in criminal activities, including homicide.  The decision to fire them came as a result into the investigation of the disappearance of eleven men from Bogota’s Soachoa Barrio, whose bodies were subsequently found in a common grave in Colombia’s northeast Catatumbo region, some of whom were dressed uso as to appear to be guerrilla warriors.

 

Among those who were relieved of their duties was Santiago Herrera Fajardo, Major Chief of State of the V Division and Commander of the 15th Mobile Brigade, which had jurisdiction in the Catatumbo region.

 

According to Uribe, subsequent criminal charges will be in the hands of the country’s Attorney General.  He admitted that the cases were the result of negligence and the lack of care in following procedures, which led to the collaboration between the officers and criminal elements.

 

According to Armando Borrero, an analyst and former government security advisor in the 1990s, the unprecedented purge of Colombian military leadership represents a serious blow to the Uribe government and Colombia’s military because it demonstrates that civilian deaths where army officers are implicated are not isolated events but rather the result of careful planning.

 

The fact that many of the twenty five forcibly retired officers held posts in different regions of the country where there were similar cases of civilians murdered with military complicity, suggests that they were not all necessarily implicated in the case of the eleven disappeared.  Uribe failed to clarify whether or not this was the case.

 

For several months Human Rights organizations have been reporting an increase in instances where the Colombian military were complicit with extrajudicial executions in an attempt to show that they were having successes against illegally armed groups.  These killings came to be known as “false positives.”

 

In a telephone interview, Ana Teresa Bernal, director of the NGO Redepaz (Peace Network), said, “This is good, good because it uncovers and punishes, but the seriousness of the crimes is undeniable.  I don’t understand why the military involved itself in these acts, which are dishonourable and detestable.”

 

 

 

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