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BOGOTA, COLOMBIA. The streets were strangely empty in Bogota after the mortars went off on inauguration day. Soldiers, police, beggars, and vendors remained on the streets, but anyone who had the choice stayed locked up inside. The eerie silence was punctuated by the sound of army helicopters and U.S. fighter jets flying low over the city.
Bogota that afternoon felt like a city under siege–and it was hard to tell which side was responsible–the leftist guerillas with their mortar attacks, or the new government with its heavy handed show of military force throughout a capital city that has been spared the worst of this country’s forty year civil war, but threatens to become a new battleground as the war escalates. President Alvaro Uribe Velez had campaigned on the slogan “Mano Firme, Coraznon Grande,” The firm hand clearly had its grip in Bogota, the big heart was nowhere to be found.
That same morning, in Barrancabermeja, an oil refining city on the Magdelana River north of Bogota, an activist with the Organizacion Femina Popular, a brave and dedicated group of women working for peace, sustainable development, and women’s rights in a city completely under the control of right wing paramilitaries, told our delegation of human rights activists from the U.S., that with the inauguration of President Uribe, “We expect to see the realization of a totalitarian model blessed by the U.S.”
In the days that have followed, Uribe has moved quickly to expand state power and escalate the war against the Marxist guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Army of National Liberation (ELN.) The guerillas have fought for four decades against the Colombian military and illegal right wing paramilitaries aligned with the government.
On his first day in office, Uribe announced a pilot project to recruit 600 “civilian informants” for the military in the northern department of Cesar. If the program is successful, Uribe hopes to recruit one million such informants nationwide.
The program has chilling echoes of the East German secret police’s network of citizen spies and President Bush’s proposed TIPS program, which would have recruited one out of every twenty-four people in the U.S. to spy on their neighbors. (The U.S. TIPS program was scuttled when federal employees refused to participate.)
The reality of Uribe’s program may be even more frightening. He told reporters that he wouldn’t rule out arming the informants: “Initially, (they) will not have guns because people will kill them to take the weapons, but the defense minister and the high commanders will study under what circumstances the use of arms could be authorized,” he said. Uribe oversaw a similar program when he was governor of the Antioquia department. The CONVIVIR armed civilian patrols Uribe’s gubernatorial administration created ended up working closely with the outlawed right wing paramilitaries that are responsible for many of the worst atrocities in Colombia. Human rights groups fear that arming volunteer civilian informants could be a way of legitimizing and legalizing paramilitary groups. They also point out that the program will dangerously blur the line between civilians and combatants in a war where all sides already commit gross violations of international humanitarian law, targeting civilians that are suspected of collaborating with their opponents. Indeed Irish journalist, Ana Carrigan reports that, partially in response to the civilian informants program:
“The FARC is planning the next stage of their strategy to impose an alternative local government, based on the formation of “revolutionary civilian councils”_which would function under the direction of community leaders, forced to carry out FARC “laws’ at gunpoint.”
Fernando Londono, Uribe’s Justice and Interior Minister, has suggested that the new government will push for a constitutional amendment that would reestablish some of the provisions of the dreaded Security Statute that stripped citizens of their civil liberties and enabled the military to murder, torture, and disappear dissidents with impunity in the late 1970’s. Recently, when a reporter asked Londono which rights Colombians should be prepared to sacrifice for greater security, he replied “All of them. There are no absolute rights.”
The following Monday, Uribe declared a “State of Internal Commotion,” giving his administration emergency power to establish a $800 million emergency war tax and to suspend some of the freedoms guaranteed in Colombia’s 1991 constitution. The Washington Post reports that:
“The decree, which will last from three to nine months, allows the government to impose extended curfews and prevent access to areas without prior court approval; restrict information reported by the news media; commandeer land, equipment and professional expertise from private citizens; and suspend elected officials contributing to public unrest.”
It also allows the President to authorize the military to conduct searches and make arrests without judicial warrants.
Visiting U.S. Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman endorsed the moves, saying “Colombians have sacrificed a lot over the years, but Uribe is calling on them to sacrifice more to protect their democracy. We support this call,”
The decree in essence gives the government new legal tools to silence dissent in the name of fighting terrorism..
The Face Of Things To Come?
There are those who believe that Barrancabermeja under paramilitary control offers a rough image of the Colombia President Uribe would like to create through his strengthened national security state. The paramilitaries are right wing militias, funded by wealthy landowners, cocaine traffickers, and multinational corporations, that have carried out a “dirty war” of massacres and political assassinations against Colombian dissidents for decades. While they are officially outlawed, they operate in close cooperation with the military.
Barrancabermeja is a unique place. This working class city has a strong history of union activism–it was here that the oil workers’ union, USO forced the Colombian government to form the state oil company, ECOPETROL, in the early part of the century, in order to insure that some of Colombia’s oil wealth would stay in the country rather than being stripped completely by foreign companies.. Barranca (as its residents call it) was long a stronghold for the ELN guerillas, until the military drove them out of the city in “Operacion Feliz Navidad” in December, 2000. With the guerillas gone, the paramilitaries seized control and began assassinating their perceived opponents in the labor unions, the OFP, and peace and human rights groups in order to show that they now had absolute power. They also imposed a strict social code, and began a campaign of “social cleansing” killing gays, lesbians, bisexuals, drug addicts, prostitutes, women with tattoos, men with dreadlocks, and anyone else who didn’t fit their vision of what Barrancabermeja should be. In their first year of control, the paramilitaries killed an average of three to five people in Barranca every day. These killings were carried out with complete impunity in a city that boasts a large military and police presence. Paramilitary roadblocks are routinely set-up within plain sight of military roadblocks on the roads and rivers outside the city. This year, killings are down–having established a reignof terror, the paramilitaries only have to kill an average of one person per week in Barranca to maintain the credibility of their threats.
Officials from the city’s Chamber of Commerce officially condemn the paramilitaries, but note that the city is more peaceful now. The guerillas and the military used to fight pitched battles in the streets. But the military and the paramilitaries don’t fight with each other at all, and the guerillas are gone now. They also noted that unions have become “more reasonable” in recent years.
The weakening of the unions has meant increased poverty for the people of the region. In the past, USO was strong enough to ensure that ECOPETROL would keep 50% of the profits made from any oil contract with a foreign company. But in recent years, USO has had to fight hard to keep even 30% of the profits from most oil deals in Colombia, with most foreign corporations taking 90% of the profits from their joint projects with ECOPETROL.
Activists from the regional human rights group, CREDHOS, had told us that the government is experimenting now with subjecting dissidents to prosecuting and imprisoning dissidents on false charges, because it creates less international outrage than having paramilitaries carry out political assassinations (which certainly continue at a horrific rate.) Last October, police arrested six leaders of the oil worker’s union, USO, and charged them with rebellion. The workers remain under house arrest.
Legal repression seems to go hand in hand with political assassinations–representing that state’s way of maintaining the order the paramilitaries have established. Amnesty International wrote in a report on the arrest of the oil workers that:
“These latest detentions occurred in the context of a work stoppage at ECOPETROL (the state run oil company) to demand that the national government provide guarantees for union activity, which is being impeded by the continuous threats of killings and persecution by paramilitary groups. The Colombian government has not only failed to take action against the paramilitaries who continue bleeding the Colombian social movement, but also now the judicial authorities have charged these [union] leaders with activities outside the law, seeking to de facto criminalize the rights of association and of protest of Colombian citizens.”
Strong words from a cautious and moderate organization like Amnesty.
The attempt to criminalize dissent became even clearer during our meeting with Col. Andres Rodriguez Fernandez, a former human rights instructor at the infamous U.S. Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning in Georgia, who now commands Special Energy and Infrastructure Protection Battalion Number 7 of the Colombian army based in Barrancabermeja He insinuated that the USO had been heavily infiltrated by guerillas, and showed us slides of alleged acts of terrorism union workers had carried out against the ECOPETROL factory (minor sabotage of gates and fences that took place during a strike.) He told us that the human rights groups in the area are “people coming in from some place or another to issue press releases and denunciations.” He suggested that the FARC was behind these groups–that it sought to have officers removed from duty by having the Attorney General bring them up on false charges of human rights abuses. In Colombia, labeling activists as guerilla sympathizers is commonly understood as a way of telling the paramilitaries that the activists in question are legitimate targets for assassination. The Colonel repeatedly lumped his opponents together under the common category of “terrorists”–clearly understanding that if he wanted U.S. military aid for his battalion, he needed to convince people in the U.S. that his work was part of the war on terrorism. Col. Rodriguez’s attitude toward human rights groups raises disturbing questions about what exactly the U.S. military is teaching Latin American soldiers in its human rights courses at the School of the Americas (which was recently renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.)
The next morning, an activist from the OFP explained to us what the “war on terrorism” Col. Rodriguez speaks of means to social justice activists in Barranca:
“This idea of terrorism is very dangerous. In the past Communism was seen as the great demon. Later, drug trafficking became that demon to justify violence and intervention and to destroy entire worlds and peoples. Today terrorism is being used to justify killing people who think differently. Some of our best men and women are being assassinated because they think differently.
“So right now the government strategy around terrorism is being built around eliminating anyone who thinks differently, to make us uniform in our ideas and lives. As leaders we are blacklisted and criminalized. Those of us who do think differently will be labeled as terrorists and rounded up and arrested.”
The Looming Economic Crisis
The violence in Colombia obscures another looming and related problem: Colombia is on the verge of an economic crisis.
The leader of one of the country’s major unions told our delegation that Colombia is $48 billion in debt to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and is in danger of defaulting on its loans. Colombia may soon face a financial collapse on the level of the recent collapses in Argentina and Uruguay.
Uribe’s answer to the economic crisis is a kind of economic shock therapy that will force accelerated development on a country that has been devastated by decades of war and displacement.
He wants to privatize and sell off public services and utilities–a move that will lead to massive layoffs in a country already dealing with double digit unemployment.
He wants to promote massive energy projects such as new oil fields, new coal mines, and new hydro-electric dams. These projects will bring an infusion of foreign capital into the country, but most of the profits will go to the multinational corporations that take the initial financial risk. Worse yet, they will force people off their land, adding to the existing humanitarian crisis in a country that already has over 2 million internal refugees, and increasing the concentration of land ownership in a country where the 5000 largest landowners own 48%of the land.
He wants large-scale commercial agriculture to replace small-scale subsistence farming. But growing cash crops for export has failed Colombia in the past–crashes in wheat prices and coffee prices devastated the Colombian economy in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Now business leaders, like the members of Barrancabermeja’s Chamber of Commerce are touting the African Palm as the source of Colombia’s economic salvation. Large food conglomerates like Nabisco, General Foods, and Unilever are buying up palm oil as a cheap base ingredient for junk food products. But as one economist pointed out to us, these corporations and the international lenders they are closely related to are encouraging poor countries around the world to increase their palm oil production. Soon the market will be flooded and prices will crash again.
The only Colombian crops that reliably fetch a good price are coca and opium poppies.
To make matters worse, in order to fund his military build up, Uribe will be forced to either cut back on social services or borrow more money from international lenders.
All of this points to increased poverty and increased social unrest in a country where over half the population already lives on less then $2 a day.
Its hard to imagine things getting worse in Colombia than they already are, but Uribe’s political, economic, and military policies could combine to push Colombia over the edge into an absolute bloodbath. One Jesuit priest, himself a pacifist, told us:
“The majority of the people in Colombia now understand that war is not the solution to any problem. We don’t like the FARC war. We don’t like the ELN war. We don’t like the paramilitary war. But if you start again introducing arms, introducing again the state of siege, if you eliminate the rights people got in the 1991 Constitution . . . If you do this people will feel they are attacked. Our people are a very noble people. If you attack them they will say someone has to take up arms again.”
Uribe is depending on more weapons, funding, and military training from the United States to give his government the military strength to impose its political and economic will on the United States. These policies will only plunge the country deeper into war. As one OFP activist told us:
“The conflict in Colombia arose out of social inequalities, and as this war intensifies, we are losing our rights, and seeing our lives become more uniform. This war can’t end through fighting it can only end through structural changes in our society.”
Echoing her sentiments, a labor leader told us that Colombians want to be free to build a country “the size of their hearts and the shape of their dreams.” War, violence, and repression stand in their way. We in the U.S. need to work to end U.S. military aid to Colombia, to get our government and the repressive forces it supports to step out of the way and allow the Colombian people to take control of their own country, their own economy, their own lives.
Sean Donahue is Co-Director of New Hampshire Peace Action. He recently returned from a trip to Bogota and Barrancabermeja with a delegation organized by School of the Americas and Witness for Peace.
He can be reached at email@example.com.