Colombia makes few headlines in the United States these days. But Washington’s involvement in the Western Hemisphere’s longest, bloodiest war is rapidly escalating, as the world’s attention is elsewhere. The latest signal of increased U.S. embroilment comes just as a vocal civil movement is emerging in Colombia to demand an end to the war.
The U.S. Congress approved last weekend a doubling of the Pentagon’s troop presence in Colombia, where a wave of protest has erupted as some 1.4 million public-sector workers walked off their jobs and took to the streets for a one-day strike. Organized by major trade unions as well as civil organizations, the Oct. 12 strike demanded an end both to President Alvaro Uribe’s push to join Bush’s Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), and to the rights abuses and atrocities associated with the government’s counter-guerrilla war—which the United States has funded to the tune of $3.3 billion since Plan Colombia was passed in 2000.
The vote in Washington two days earlier doubled the cap on U.S. military advisors in Colombia to 800, and raised the cap on the number of U.S. civilian contract agents—pilots, intelligence analysts, security personnel—from 400 to 600. The measure came as a little-noticed part of the 2005 Defense Department authorization act, and was a defeat for human rights groups that were pushing for a lower cap. The new 800/600 cap is exactly what the White House asked for. An earlier House version would have set a 500 cap for military personnel and kept the cap for civilian contractors at 400, but this was rejected in joint committee. A proposal establishing these caps in the Senate—known as the Byrd amendment for Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.)—was defeated in June by a vote of 58 to 40. Among the two senators who abstained was John Kerry.
The authorization measure is ostensibly aimed at helping the Colombian government fight “against narcotics trafficking and against activities by organizations designated as terrorists,” naming the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). But rights groups point to a long record of close collaboration between Colombia’s armed forces and the AUC, a rightist paramilitary group. And while U.S. troops are officially barred from actual combat missions in Colombia, many fear that Washington is on a slippery slope.
“This amounts to authorization of increased involvement by U.S. troops in an internal armed conflict in Colombia,” says Kimberly Stanton, deputy director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). “And it was passed without significant public debate. We are sliding into a protracted civil war in Colombia.”
In the general strike, hundreds of thousands of workers, joined by peasants and students, shut down cities throughout the country. Bogota’s central square, Bolivar Plaza, was filled with some 300,000 people—Colombia’s largest protest in recent memory. Business was also paralyzed in Medellin, Cali, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga and Cartagena, and traffic was blocked on the Pan-American Highway. In addition to protesting the war and FTAA plans, the strikers also opposed Uribe’s scheme to alter the constitution to allow himself to seek another term in office. The hardline Uribe, Bush’s closest ally in South America, has refused to negotiate with the FARC, Colombia’s biggest guerilla army. A negotiated settlement to the conflict was among the strikers’ demands.
An Oct. 11 New York Times story on the troop cap authorization claimed that “Under Mr. Uribe’s administration, violence has ebbed in Colombia.” But Colombia human rights groups say that atrocities have more than doubled since Uribe took office in 2002.
The Congressional vote also coincided with the release of a new Amnesty International report, “Colombia: Violence Against Women,” which finds that rape and other sexual crimes—including genital mutilation—are frequently used by both the paramilitaries and the official security forces against communities accused of collaborating with the guerrillas. The report says the guerrillas, in turn, have used similar brutal tactics against those thought to be collaborating with the army or paramilitaries.
“Women and girls are raped, sexually abused and even killed because they behave in ways deemed as unacceptable to the combatants, or because women may have challenged the authority of armed groups, or simply because women are viewed as a useful target on which to inflict humiliation on the enemy,” said Susan Lee, director of Amnesty’s Americas program.
The vote also came days after yet another peasant leader was assassinated. On Oct. 6, the body of Pedro Jaime Mosquera Cosme, an Afro-Colombian leader of the Campesino Association of Arauca, was found near the Venezuelan border, with what the group called “clear signs of torture.” Arauca is one of the most violent of Colombia’s departments, where numerous campesino leaders have been killed by paramilitaries and the army in recent years.
Rights advocates fear that in next year’s Defense Dept. authorization act, Congressional hardliners will again push to get the cap on U.S. troop levels raised—or done away with altogether, as proposed by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA). WOLA’s Stanton says the lack of media coverage of the vote—and Colombia generally—is a bad sign. “The American people are not aware that we are increasingly involved,” she says, “with all attention focused on Iraq.”
Bill Weinberg, author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso, 2000) and editor of the online World War 3 Report (www.WW3
Report.com), is working on a book on Plan Colombia.