The War on Human Rights in Colombia



When Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez accused human rights organizations of “serving terrorism” in September 8 and 11 speeches, the international response was, thankfully, strong. The United Nations, European Union, various newspapers, NGOs and members of the U.S. Congress made statements reproaching Uribe for the comments, pointing out that within the logic of Colombia’s conflict the President’s words would be understood by right-wing paramilitaries as a green light to execute human rights defenders.

The “terrorist” NGOs “hide cowardly in the flag of human rights,” said Uribe in the first speech. “When the terrorists begin to feel weakened, they send out their spokespeople to talk about human rights.”

To refute NGOs’ claims of restrictions on democracy, he claimed, incredibly, that “Colombia has the best freedom of press and opinion in the entire world.” Dozens of Colombian journalists and hundreds of trade unionists (and others organizing to challenge government policies) have been murdered in just the last few years. Hundreds more have been forced by death-threats to leave their homes and work, going into exile abroad or seeking anonymity in the country’s large cities.

Many political analysts in Colombia and abroad had expected an apology or at least a toning-down from Uribe in response to widespread international reproach–anything but what he delivered three days later, on the 11th of September. Speaking to residents of Chita, a town where eight people had just been killed by a “horse-bomb” probably planted by FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas, Uribe insisted: “My commitment is to you, not to those people who make a living defending, enabling the terrorists. Their honeymoon is ending. My commitment is to you. It doesn’t matter what the sponsors of terrorists’ defenders say.”

Uribe did not specify which NGOs he views as front-organizations for the Colombian guerrilla groups–what he called, in a marvelous turn of phrase, “traffickers of human rights”–but his first accusations came on the same day a coalition of eighty Colombian NGOs released a book called “The Authoritarian Curse” that evaluated Uribe’s first year in office. All eighty NGOs had to assume that he was referring to them–or in any case that the anticipated consequences of his statements (a new wave of death-threats and attempted assassinations of human rights defenders) would apply to all of them equally. Many of the country’s most prestigious human rights organizations were among this group.

So far–thank God–no one from these organizations has been killed as a result of Uribe’s statements. Death-threats against and government-initiated legal prosecution of human rights defenders have, however, increased. And the political space for criticism of the Uribe government–already precarious, tightly limited by paramilitary violence against human rights defenders–was reduced even further by Uribe’s comments and, more so, by the fact that ultimately he got away with them. Though initial outcry, especially internationally, was surprisingly and hearteningly strong, three weeks later, on a visit to New York to address the UN General Assembly and to Washington for visits with his principal patrons and champions (including Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell, Drug Czar John Walters and Speaker of the House Hastert) he simply modified the tone of his accusations–without retraction or apology–and found his U.S. backing thoroughly intact. Secretary of State Powell reaffirmed faith in Uribe’s “commitment to the high standards of human rights.” And that was that.

U.S. media coverage of Uribe’s September 30 and October 1 U.S. trip to “try to calm Washington” (as Reuters put it) was minimal and surely left Uribe satisfied that he had fulfilled his mission–or perhaps just reassured that there wasn’t much calming needed after all. In a joint press conference with Powell, Uribe referred to a recent Human Rights Watch study on child combatants in the Colombian conflict as an example of respectable NGO reporting, contrasting it, ominously and again without specifying his targets, to “other reports by other NGOs.” No U.S. or Colombian paper pointed out, in stories on Uribe’s visit, that the single NGO effort he held up as respectable–the Human Rights Watch report–criticized the guerrillas and paramilitaries, not his government.

In his address to the UN General Assembly, trying to justify his human rights record and show moderation in his approach to NGOs, Uribe appealed to his own democratic freedoms: “We reserve the right to express dissent faced with slanted reports that distort our efforts.” However, in his September 8 and 11 speeches, he had not argued against NGOs’ criticisms of his policies. He had simply labeled the NGOs “terrorists” and “traffickers of human rights.” Again, no U.S. paper pointed out the wonderful irony in Uribe appealing to his own “right to express dissent” to defend generalized attacks on those critical of his policies as “terrorists.”

Even the relatively good media coverage of Uribe’s early September attacks on human rights defenders overlooked two major stories related to the September 8 speech.


The first missed story is simpler, quicker to relate. So let’s start there.

There were a number of ironies in Uribe’s choice of audience for his first frontal attack on human rights defenders.

First, most newspapers reported the speech’s setting as “a military ceremony.” This description in itself ought to have produced some serious reflection on Uribe’s “commitment to the high standards of human rights,” as Powell put it. The Colombian military, as the State Department itself acknowledges, needs constant reinforcement of an entirely different message (namely, a ringing endorsement of defending human rights) after years of documented collusion with rightwing paramilitaries responsible for most of the nation’s political killings.

Every year the State Department’s report on human rights in Colombia shows that “extensive” military-paramilitary collusion continues. In conflict regions like Putumayo, I’ve heard countless stories of what goes well beyond collusion–“the Army is the paramilitary,” explains one friend and community leader. That is, members of the Army put on paramilitary armbands to carry out massacres and other extra-legal counter-insurgency actions–often at night–then take off the armbands and go back to their day jobs as regular soldiers. It’s hard to find a single resident of rural Colombia, in fact, who believes that the military is no longer linked to the ‘paras.’ In a September 20 report, the Washington Post’s Scott Wilson quoted an unnamed “Western diplomat” describing the paramilitary movement as, quite simply, “an adjunct to the Colombian state.”

Uribe was not just taking advantage of a public-speaking opportunity to attack human rights defenders; rather, he was sending a specific message to a military audience. The military ceremony was held to swear in a new commander of Colombia’s Air Force, General Edgar Alfonso Lesmez. Near the speech’s end, Uribe addressed General Lesmez directly: “Assume command of the Air Force, to defeat terrorism. May the traffickers of human rights never stop you.” A chilling message, when you look at the Colombian military’s history.

The second irony was that Uribe delivered the speech during Colombia’s annual Week for Peace celebrations and on the eve of Colombian Human Rights Day.

But the principal irony, unmentioned by all Colombian and foreign media coverage, was the thank-you Uribe offered at the beginning of the speech to outgoing Air Force commander General Hector Fabio Velasco. Uribe praised Velasco’s “long, successful and patriotic run with the Colombian air force.” The general’s service, he said, showed a devotion to “giving back total peace to the nation.” No one seemed to recall the numerous media accounts, throughout 2003, of former U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson’s repeated requests to Uribe for Velasco’s head. The U.S. Embassy held Velasco responsible for repeated obstruction of investigations into a 1998 massacre in which the Colombian Air Force intentionally dropped a <U.S.-made> cluster bomb on the northeastern town of Santo Domingo, killing 18 civilians.

Occidental Petroleum–the beneficiary since 2002 of over $100 million in U.S. military aid specifically aimed at protecting a Colombian oil pipeline the Los Angles-based company operates–provided their facilities in Arauca to the Santo Domingo bombing’s planners. AirScan, a U.S. contractor then employed by Occidental to help protect the pipeline from guerrilla attacks, reportedly provided the coordinates for the bombing. A family-member of victims has filed suit against Occidental in U.S. courts for its role in the massacre.

Earlier this year, the U.S. disqualified the Air Force from receiving Plan Colombia military aid–the first time an entire branch of the Colombian military has been officially decertified–in response to Velasco’s systematic obfuscation of facts. Velasco initially blamed the bombing on the FARC. After that claim was disproved, he changed his story again and again. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has pressured the State Department to get to the bottom of the Santo Domingo case for years, eventually leading to the decertification and to Patterson’s request that Uribe dismiss Velasco. “If justice is not done, the Congress should withhold aid to the Colombian air force,” said Leahy in October 2002. “There has to be a consequence for killing 18 innocent people and lying about it.”

Four years passed before two of the pilots responsible for the bombing were sentenced. Their penalty? A three-month suspension from military duty.

On August 26, the Los Angeles Times described the Santo Domingo investigation as “the biggest obstacle in relations between the United States and Colombia.” When General Velasco’s resignation was announced in late August, many commentators saw it as proof that the U.S. was indeed pressuring the Colombian military to comply with human rights standards.

No judicial process has been opened against Velasco, however. Colombian authorities did not even describe his stepping-down as a dismissal. Velasco claims that he had been requesting resignation for many months and in August Uribe finally accepted. U.S. Embassy officials refused to comment on this official version, claiming that it was an “internal” Colombian matter.

And then Uribe, at a ceremony where he thanks Velasco for his “patriotic run” and issues what can fairly be described (particularly considering the audience) as open death-threats to NGO workers, tells the new Air Force commander “May the traffickers of human rights never stop you.” Three weeks later Colin Powell publicly applauds Uribe’s human rights record.

Maybe the U.S. isn’t the best place to look for leverage on human rights in Colombia after all.

Uribe closed the September 8 speech with these words: “General Velasco, from the bottom of my heart, one word: gratitude.”

How will he repay the general for shielding the Santo Domingo murderers from justice? Fittingly, twistedly, Velasco will be Colombia’s new ambassador to Israel.


But there’s a bigger story–a story tied into another little-noticed moment from Uribe’s speech at General Lesmez’s swearing-in.

The Colombian paramilitaries call themselves “self-defense forces.” Frequently, the Colombian military and government use this same phrase to describe them–a phrase that suggests, as both Colombian and U.S. military strategists so often argue, that the paramilitaries are a natural byproduct of guerrilla violence in Colombia and consequently can never be done away with until the guerrillas are defeated. (An example from RAND Corporation, a conservative U.S. think-tank, in their 2001 study The Colombian Labyrinth: “Realistically, because the paramilitaries are the product of an environment of insecurity, they will continue to be a factor in Colombia’s crisis as long as the conditions that gave rise to them are not changed.”) The notion of “self-defense forces” literally turns the paramilitaries–who are responsible for more than 2 out of every 3 political killings in Colombia over recent years, many of them unspeakably gruesome–into an epiphenomenon of the guerrilla war. Moreover, violent acts in “self-defense” are, in other contexts, generally considered justified. So when Colombian military and government officials use this euphemism, they help normalize and justify the paramilitary project.

In his September 8 speech, Uribe did not refer to them as self-defense forces. Nor did he call them paramilitaries, nor “terrorists” (which is what the U.S. State Department defines them as, and so Uribe sometimes uses the term too). Instead, twice during the speech–the same speech where he called human rights defenders “terrorists”–he called the paramilitaries “private justice groups.”

Once again, his choice of phrase takes on special significance when you consider the audience. Colombians are, in general, uniquely skilled at deciphering subtexts, insinuations and suggestions, after nearly 40 years living a conflict in which “giving away the papaya” (i.e., saying any more than you need to) at any time could get you and your family killed. Therefore: when they hear their President rail against guerrillas as terrorists and–above all–against human rights defenders as cowards who serve terrorists, the assembled military officers don’t exactly have to strain to grasp the significance of the contrast when he calls paramilitaries “private justice groups.” The message was loud and clear–and particularly satisfying, surely, to the many officers at the ceremony who have collaborated with the paramilitaries occasionally or systematically over their careers.

Uribe even turned the justification into self-congratulation for restraint (with an implicit threat): “The politickers of human rights…talk about raids by the Armed Forces. For God’s sake. In other countries, to beat terrorism, between the Armed Forces and death squads they eliminated every one of terrorism’s auxiliaries.”

His choice of the term “private justice groups” plays into an unfolding story, the historical dimensions of which make his attacks on NGOs look inconsequential. The Uribe administration proposed in August a peace deal with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the country’s largest federation of right-wing paramilitaries. If the proposal passes Colombia’s Congress, AUC troops would give up their weapons and offer symbolic reparations (primarily in the form of cash payments and social work); in exchange, they would receive amnesties from the President and not be required to serve jail time. After ten years, their criminal records would be clean and they would be eligible to hold public office. Impunity would extend even to those leaders already convicted on multiple counts of crimes against humanity.

The proposal has been pilloried by the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, European governments, dozens of NGOs, members of the U.S. Congress and numerous newspapers. Reuters, for example, posed the question of whether the government’s “conditional freedom” offer for the paramilitaries amounts to “allowing some of Colombia’s most feared criminals to literally get away with murder.” The Chicago Tribune titled their house editorial on the matter “Colombia’s pact with the devils.” Human Rights Watch calls Uribe’s proposal “the impunity law.”

Colombian Senator Rafael Pardo, one of Uribe’s most devoted allies until the law was proposed, commented to El Tiempo (Colombia’s largest newspaper): “You turn in a farm and that compensates for a massacre?”

The Colombian weekly magazine Cambio published a political cartoon called “Atrocious crimes” in its September 1 edition. Four military officers have handcuffed a man and prod him with their guns. A man watching the arrest comments to the woman next to him: “He’s a demobilized paramilitary. They proved that he participated in seven massacres.” The woman replies: “Oh, of course. So that’s why they’re jailing him.” The man: “No, it’s because they caught him selling fruit by the streetlight.” (In Colombian cities, police throw street vendors in paddy-wagons, confiscate their goods, and jail them for “invading public space.”)

Traveling in southern Colombia’s conflict regions, I have heard countless stories of AUC massacres carried out with chainsaws and machetes–slow, public decapitations designed for their spectacular effects: as lessons to those watching. On two occasions I’ve been told of paramilitaries playing soccer with decapitated heads. In some urban areas they institute a “social control” system: miniskirts for women and long hair for men are prohibited; adulterers are made to wear Scarlet Letter-like marks of shame and homosexuals are run out of town or executed. Anyone suspected of collaborating with guerrillas–anyone in a trade union, doing human rights work, or trying to be a serious journalist or priest or mayor would fall in this category–is murdered, often after prolonged torture. The paramilitaries tell civilians not to move or bury the cadavers of their victims: “leave the bodies to rot in public, so the dogs can get at them,” they instruct. On a trip to the southern province of Putumayo–the region where U.S. military aid has been most focused over the first three years of Plan Colombia–last December, I happened to arrive in the city of Mocoa the same day that the bodies of Giovanni and John, two brothers killed by the AUC, were discovered by their mother, who was just returning from a vacation. There were no bullet-wounds. The skin of their faces had been disintegrated by some kind of acid, likely applied while they were still alive.

Though of an entirely different culture and history, some of the AUC’s tactics resemble those of the Taliban.

Yet “there is 98% impunity” for paramilitary actions, according to a government human rights official from another Putumayo city. “The police refuse to collaborate [with judicial investigations].” “The military and paramilitaries play volleyball and soccer together,” says another civilian government official. Within a day of arriving in a Putumayo city, one can find out–even as an outsider–where the paramilitaries live, their names and ranks, even their military specialties. Whenever asked about collusion, however, military and police officers provide an unvarying response: “Prove it.” “We can’t act without evidence, without an official complaint being filed,” a military commander recently told me. The military insists that civilians’ claims of regular paramilitary killings are greatly exaggerated and deny outright the presence of paramilitaries in many cities they in fact control. This just to take one region of Colombia as an example.

The history of military-paramilitary collusion in Colombia is a long one–and it is within this history, finally, that Uribe’s amnesty proposal (and other recent offensives against human rights and international humanitarian law) must be understood. This history, in turn, cannot be understood without analysis of the U.S. government’s role in Colombia.

In 1962–two years before the formation of Colombia’s two largest current guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN)–a U.S. Army mission to Colombia suggested that the U.S. support a new Colombian strategy called Plan Lazo (“The Noose Plan”).[i] Through this plan, civilian and military personnel would be chosen and trained to undertake “clandestine execution of plans developed by the U.S. government toward defined objectives in the political, economic, and military fields.” The mission’s report further explained that “this civilian-military structure … will be used to perform counter-agent and counter-propaganda functions as necessary, execute paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against communist proponents. It should be backed by the United States.” (Quite remarkable to read something like that from our government, in the current context where “terrorist” tends to denote not a specific type of tactics nor even simply “our enemy” but a host of other and inherent qualities–inscrutable, lacking reason, evil, inhuman (in a recent interview with PBS, Uribe described his military campaigns against terrorists as “killing the snake”).) Also in the early 1960s, the Colombian Army published a Spanish translation of the U.S. Army’s “Manual on Operations against Irregular Forces,” which discussed civilian involvement in counter-insurgency war.

From 1965 to 1989, paramilitary groups–“civilian patrols” involved in counter-insurgency actions–were legal in Colombia. In 1994, a new breed of private, armed “surveillance and private security cooperatives” (CONVIVIR) was legalized and operated throughout the country until 1997. (The previously mentioned RAND Corporation study from 2001 essentially proposes a return to the CONVIVIR model: “An alternative approach could be to establish a network of government-supervised self-defense organizations. Legalized self-defense units could at least give the central government more control over their activities, and possibly improve the prospects for peace by empowering local communities to provide for their own security.”)

According to a 1999 article by Ivan Orozco in Foro, Office of the Advisor for Peace statistics show that between 1990 and 1997 the Colombian armed forces attacked guerrillas 3,873 times and the paramilitaries six times.

There’s a lot more history worth telling here, but the crucial part for understanding today’s developments is the period of 1995-1997 in Antioquia province–the years Uribe was governor there.

Uraba, a region of Antioquia, was effectively taken over by the AUC while Uribe was the province’s governor. Homicides in the region tripled from 1994 to 1996. The commander of the region’s Army brigade during those years, General Rito Alejo del Rio, was dismissed from service years later by President Andres Pastrana (Uribe’s predecessor) for collaborating with the paramilitaries. According to Gloria Cuartas, former mayor of the Antioquian town of Apartado, she is one of only two surviving plaintiffs in a still-pending legal case against Rito Alejo del Rio for collaboration with paramilitaries, a half-dozen other plaintiffs having been killed by paramilitaries. The former general is currently a candidate for governor in the province of Boyaca. Shortly after Rito Alejo del Rio was dismissed by Pastrana, Uribe delivered a speech at a banquet to honor the former general and another dismissed officer. Uribe and the general are frequently credited with the “pacification” of Uraba.

In the southwestern Colombian province of Cauca, paramilitaries began a major offensive in 2000, after traffic along the Panamerican Highway was stopped for nearly a month in 1999 by 60,000 farmers demanding government investment in education, health, infrastructure and other social programs. According to the mobilization’s leaders, Uribe participated in a meeting in the province’s capital shortly after the mobilization ended, in which business community leaders decided to request that the AUC move into the region. Today, the AUC maintains control of all the towns and cities in Cauca through which the Panamerican passes–and little if any control of the rest of the province.

Semana, the nation’s largest newsweekly, reported July 14 of this year that Uribe’s counter-guerrilla initiatives have been most successful in those regions of the country where the paramilitaries have simultaneously advanced. (The article ran without a byline–it can be extremely dangerous to point this sort of thing out publicly.)

In short, as the Washington Post reporter’s anonymous “Western diplomat” stated, the paramilitaries are “an adjunct to the Colombian state.” (Drug traffickers, large landholders and businessmen have played crucial roles in the paramilitary project alongside the military and government.) Carlos Castano, political leader of the AUC, describes his organization as “para-State.” He and the AUC’s current military leader, Salvator Mancuso, have made it quite clear in recent press interviews that they are entering a demobilization process only because they believe Uribe is capable of doing through State actions what they have done as a “para-State” force.

While many U.S. newspapers have written strong house editorials opposing Uribe’s amnesty plan for the AUC, the Washington Post recently defended the proposal, referring to El Salvador and South Africa as examples of previous peace processes that have involved major amnesty concessions. These historical precedents involved negotiations between adversaries. There is no precedent for peace “negotiations” between long-time allies. Even if the model provided by other countries could somehow be adapted for demobilization of Colombia’s paramilitaries–in itself an unquestionably noble goal–the offer of amnesty would come after negotiations, not at their inception (as is the case with Uribe’s offer to the AUC).

Minister of Justice and the Interior Fernando Londono–the other main speaker, with Uribe, at the 1999 banquet honoring Rito Alejo del Rio–presented the amnesty proposal to Colombia’s Congress in August. A brilliant orator, Londono is perhaps one of the few people in power in the world today who can rival his U.S. counterpart, John Ashcroft, for sheer scariness. In the speech to Congress, Londono explained that “this legislative proposal is oriented toward a restorative conception [of justice] that goes beyond the identification of punishment with personal vengeance–a discourse in which the principle thing is reaction against the criminal with a pain similar to that which he produced in the victim. It is important to keep in mind that in doing justice the law is directed at reparation, not at revenge.” An eloquent criticism of many countries’ emphasis on punitive, repressive actions in dealing with criminals–the U.S. case being particularly extreme–but his words here served specifically to justify pardoning those responsible for massacres, torture, medieval “social control” regimes, gang-rape. There’s got to be a certain point at which we agree, internationally, that punitive action’s required. In fact we have determined that, internationally. Many crimes are pardonable within a peace process, according to international law; crimes against humanity are not.

In the proposed legislation–including both the law’s specific articles and an “explanation of motives”–not a single reference is made to Colombia’s human rights obligations under international law.

On Uribe’s September 30 and October 1 trip to Washington to try to smooth over any tensions created by his attacks on NGOs and his paramilitary amnesty proposal, the White House did not formally announce support for the proposal. However, after dozens of foreign governments, international organizations and media outlets expressed contempt for it, Colombians could only interpret Washington’s silence as approval (particularly since that silence on the proposal was combined with a very warm reception of Uribe–Powell’s statement about Uribe’s “commitment to the high standards of human rights”; celebration of supposed Drug War successes; an offer of three new crop-dusters for the Plan Colombia herbicide-spraying program; Bush’s willingness to start bilateral free trade agreement negotiations with Colombia before the end of this year; etc.).

Until this past week, U.S. officials asked to comment on the amnesty proposal stated that it is an internal Colombian affair in which they should not be involved (though they also insist that they will not drop extradition orders for three top AUC leaders who are wanted in U.S. courts for drug-trafficking)–a curious assertion when the U.S. is involved in pretty much every aspect of the design and implementation of Colombia’s internal security policy. Even more curious in that former Ambassador Patterson had already offered over $2 million in new U.S. aid for the paramilitary demobilization process when she left the post in July.

Curiouser and curiouser–three U.S. officials held clandestine meetings with paramilitary emissaries earlier this year. The Embassy has admitted that the meetings took place, but, unsurprisingly, has not been very forthcoming about their content. You’d think this story would have made a bit of a splash back home (“U.S. officials negotiate with terrorists”; “Emergency Congressional hearings called on meetings with Colombian terrorists”; etc.) but, rather chillingly, after a single Associated Press report the story did not appear in U.S. media.

On October 10 El Tiempo reported that the U.S. has presented Colombia’s Peace Commissioner with a series of concerns about and suggested improvements to the amnesty proposal. The U.S.’s two principal concerns, according to the El Tiempo story, are that Ashcroft’s extradition orders against paramilitary leaders for drug trafficking will not be affected by the peace deal and that drug traffickers will be prevented from joining the paramilitaries to clean their criminal records (The New York Times’ Andes correspondent Juan Forero, in a September 15 story, had quoted yet another disgruntled, anonymous “Western diplomat” commenting on the amnesty deal: “What is happening here is the biggest legal money laundering and narco-profiting operation ever seen.”)

Forero’s article made another interesting revelation: “Western diplomats here and American officials who work on Colombia policy…say the United States has not only offered support for Mr. Uribe but also has been consulted as his administration drafted the [amnesty] legislation.”

Unlike the United Nations’ concerns and suggestions, the U.S. wish-list submitted to Peace Commissioner Restrepo reportedly focuses primarily on making sure that drug traffickers aren’t granted amnesty. Representative Tom Lantos (D-CA), in an early October interview with PBS, explained his view on the issue: “There are some things on which we cannot compromise. The key drug lords cannot escape going to prison for long terms by paying cash to their victims.”

Funny that the things we can’t compromise on don’t include the massacre of thousands of Colombian civilians.

The October 10 El Tiempo piece reported that “authors of atrocious crimes who demobilize and take part in a peace process” can still receive the benefits of “alternative penalties” (i.e., not serving time in jail) according to the U.S.’s suggestions.

Undoubtedly, Uribe will appear to give some ground in the coming weeks. The U.S.’s proposals will be largely or entirely written into a new draft of the law. He may make other concessions to Colombian Congressional critics. He’ll be praised for flexibility. Yet, because he started “making compromises” from such an extreme position (a position of literally and simply wiping the paramilitaries’ criminal slate clean, allowing within a few years for them to become–as they clearly aspire–a powerful, legitimate political force), the ultimate agreement will likely still achieve these overarching goals of legitimization and pardon. And the U.S. will quietly assent, thanking Uribe for respecting their suggestions (just as he’s consented to their “proposals” that he grant U.S. citizens in Colombia immunity before the International Criminal Court and that Colombia support the Iraq War (making it the only country in South America to do so)) and declining further comment since it’s an “internal Colombian matter.” And our helicopters and chemicals, military trainers and tax-dollars will keep on flowing into Colombia’s celebrated counter-insurgency forces, who know better than to let “the traffickers of human rights” slow or stop them.


While U.S. attention focuses, naturally, on the horrors in Iraq, the completely embarrassing events in California, the prospects for getting the ugliest regime in our nation’s history out of Washington, etc., on another front in the “War on Terror,” with Alvaro Uribe’s leadership and the U.S.’s approval one of the most brutal forces of the right in our confused and turbulent world looks like it might just get away with mass murder.

In remembrance of their thousands of civilian victims — most of them community leaders and activists, including hundreds of trade unionists, thousands (literally) of politicians, Afro-Colombian leaders, indigenous leaders, human rights defenders, local journalists, teachers……… — I ask, quietly, for prayer. And loudly, that we don’t let the bastards get away with it.

Phillip Cryan lives in Bogota, Colombia. Portions of this essay have been adapted from his biweekly columns in Colombia Week, a weekly report on events in Colombia you can sign up for by e-mailing

[i] [i] The following five paragraphs draw heavily from the International Crisis Group’s excellent, brief review of paramilitary history in “Colombia: Negotiating with the Paramilitaries” (September 16, 2003; Bogota/Brussels). I apologize for the lack of citations in other parts of this essay–please feel free to contact me at for information on other sources: