The Culture of Fear Continues in Colombia


Back in 1996, Noam Chomsky wrote a quite terrifying piece about the U.S.-backed “Dirty War” in Colombia, and in Latin America generally, entitled, “The Culture of Fear.”  [1]  This article was an introduction to the magnificent book by Father Javier Giraldo, S.J., entitled, The Genocidal Democracy.   In this piece, Chomsky wrote,

“Two facts should be uppermost in the minds of North American readers of Father Giraldo’s documentation of the reign of terror that engulfed Colombia during the “Dirty War” waged by the state security forces and their paramilitary associates from the early 1980s.   The first is that the “democra-tatorship,” as Eduardo Galeano termed this amalgam of democratic forms and totalitarian terror, has managed to compile the worst human rights record in the hemisphere in recent years, no small achievement when one considers the competition.   The second is that Colombia has had accessories in crime, primary among them the government of the United States . . . [which has] helped to train and arm the assassins and torturers of the narco-military-landowner network that maintains ‘stability’ in a country that is rich in promise, and a nightmare for many of its people.”

As Chomsky further explained, the U.S. bears primary blame for Colombia’s paramilitary state which has carried out this terror against its own population because the U.S. created the paramilitaries haunting Colombia.   Chomsky cites Colombia’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs Alfredo Vasquez Carrizosa who explained that during the Kennedy Administration, Washington ‘‘took great pains to transform our regular armies into counterinsurgency brigades, accepting the new strategy of the death squads.’”  Chomsky explains that the “‘Dirty War’ escalated in the early 1980s – not only in Colombia – as the Reagan administration extended these programs throughout the region, leaving it devastated, strewn with hundreds of thousands of corpses tortured and mutilated people who might otherwise have been insufficiently supportive of the establishment, perhaps even influenced by ‘subversives.’”

In the 1980’s, the U.S. support for death squad states in such countries as El Salvador, Guatemala and Colombia was fairly well known amongst the U.S. population, and was discussed in the press on an intermittent basis.   I recall, for example, watching news segments about this phenomenon on 60 Minutes and even remember that this was a topic of conversation in the U.S. Catholic Church.  Today, however, this is not a matter of public discourse, is hardly ever mentioned in the press, and most Americans, even ones very well informed, have therefore been led to believe that such death squad states are a thing of the past.

The new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Buenaventura, Colombia, however, demonstrates that the “Dirty War” is not a thing of the past, but is in fact ongoing, and that the paramilitary state the U.S. helped to construct back in the 1960’s continues to reign over Colombia to this very day, and with continued U.S. backing.  [2]

In the port town of Buenaventura — a city, which, by the way, was to be a model city for the glories of free trade – HRW found that “entire neighborhoods were dominated by powerful paramilitary successor groups . . . who restrict residents’ movements, recruit their children, extort businesses, and routinely engage in horrific acts of violence against anyone who defies their will.”   Amongst their “horrific acts,” these paramilitaries “have ‘disappeared’ scores – and possibly hundreds – of Buenaventura residents over the past several years.  They dismember their victims and dump their body parts in the bay and along its mangrove-covered shores, or bury them in hidden graves . . . .”   HRW relates that “[i]n several neighborhoods, residents report the existence of casas de pique – or ‘chop-up houses’ – where the groups slaughter their victims,” many times while they are still alive.

Moreover, as HRW explains, the police and navy which are supposed to be protecting the civilians of Buenaventura — 84% of whom are Afro-Colombians — do nothing in the face of this violence, or, in some cases, actually cooperate with the paramilitaries.   And, while the public authorities have hundreds of cases of abuses on their docket to investigate, the number of those prosecuted for human rights abuses approaches zero.   Therefore, while it is generally known by the community, including the police, where the “chop-up houses’” are, nobody will report them.

As the result of this state of terror, tens of thousands of civilians have been forcibly displaced from Buenaventura.  As HRW explains, “[e]very year since 2011, more people have been forcibly displaced in Buenaventura than in any municipality in Colombia:  22,028 residents fled their homes in 2011, 15,191 in 2012, and 13,468 between January and October 2013, according to official figures.”   While HRW does not draw the link, it is notable that the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was passed in 2011, and that the violence in Buenaventura is largely being spurred on by paramilitary groups fighting over control of the lucrative ports which were built to accommodate the increased trade brought about by the FTA.

However, Buenaventura is not an isolated case.   Indeed, just as Father Javier Giraldo described in his book, The Genocidal Democracy, Colombia continues to be a paramilitary state, with at least 40% of the national Colombian legislature having links to the paramilitaries which are becoming ever more powerful in Colombia and which are carrying out a “Dirty War” throughout that country.

While it is remarkable that such death squad violence continues to haunt our Hemisphere into the 21st Century, what is even remarkable is that the U.S. government, which helped create the death squads to begin with, takes no responsibility for this violence, continues to fund the state and military which help perpetuate it and even fails to acknowledge that these death squads continue to exist.   Of course, the U.S. media is quite complicit in this state of affairs given that it rarely if ever reports on it.

Instead, the U.S. media fixates only on the crimes, real and imagined, of the U.S.’s adversaries.  Consider, for example, how much the U.S. focuses on the recent violence in Venezuela even though that violence — much of it committed by the opposition which the U.S. favors — pales in comparison to the violence taking place in Colombia.  This again proves the proposition put forth by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman that in this world, there are “worthy victims” and “unworthy victims,” the only “worthy victims” being those who are victimized by the U.S.’s ostensible rivals and enemies.   The victims of Colombia – one of the largest recipients of U.S. military aid in the world – sadly constitute “unworthy victims,” and are therefore barely spoken of.

Daniel Kovalik is a labor and human rights lawyer living in Pittsburgh.


[1] http://www.chomsky.info/articles/199607–.htm

[2] http://www.hrw.org/reports/2014/03/20/crisis-buenaventura

[3] http://bit.ly/1jibKWN



Daniel Kovalik teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

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