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Slaughter in Colombia

by DANIEL KOVALIK

For years, it has been believed that Guatemala led the Hemisphere in mass slaughter in the modern era, with 200,000 victims in the 1980’s – about 94% of them at the hands of the U.S.-backed state and its death squad allies.    Very sadly, it appears that Colombia has shattered that record, and, as Wikileaks reveals, the U.S. is quite aware of this.

Thus, in a November 19, 2009 U.S. Embassy Cable, entitled, “2009-2010 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report,” the U.S. Embassy in Bogota acknowledges, as a mere aside, the horrific truth: 257,089 registered victims of the right-wing paramilitaries.  And, as Human Rights Watch just reported in its 2012 annual report on Colombia, these paramilitaries continue to work hand-in-glove with the U.S.-supported Colombian military.

Even for those of us deeply involved in Colombia, this figure is staggering.  The only time I saw such a figure before was in a book (Cocaine, Death Squads, and the War on Terror) which I recently reviewed on this site, and which cites one independent journalist for the claim that around 250,000 victims have been killed by the Colombian para-state.  This book further claims that this number has been artificially lowered through mass graves and Nazi-style crematoria.

It appears now that the U.S. has been quite aware of this death toll for over two years, though this knowledge has done nothing to change U.S. policy toward Colombia — which is slated to receive over $500 million in military and police aid from the U.S. in the next two years — and certainly did nothing to prevent the Obama Administration from seeking and gaining passage of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement last year.

And, much like Guatemala in the 1980’s, the violence in Colombia falls disproportionately on the indigenous population – another fact acknowledged by the U.S. Embassy in cables released by Wikileaks.   Moreover, this anti-indigenous violence is escalating.  Indeed, as the U.S. Embassy acknowledges in a February 26, 2010 Embassy Cable entitled, “Violence Against Indigenous Shows Upward Trend,” such violence is pushing 34 indigenous groups to the point of extinction.  This violence, therefore, can only be described as genocidal.

This 2010 cable explains that, “for the second consecutive year killings of indigenous increased,” with a 50% increase (to 106 killings) from 2008 to 2009.  The cable further explains that “[o]ther indicators of violence against indigenous also worsened in 2009.  According to ONIC [The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia], displacement rose by 20% (3,212 to 3,649), forced disappearance by over 100% (7 to 18), and threats by 3000% (10 to 314).  ONIC also reported an increase in forced recruitment of minors by all illegal armed groups, but did not provide an estimated number of cases.”

Moreover, while the Embassy explains that the left-wing FARC, by its own admission, was responsible for some of the violence against indigenous, the Embassy also acknowledges that it is the Colombian state and its paramilitary allies which are chiefly to blame for this violence.

Thus, the Embassy, relying on a study by anthropologist Esther Sanchez – a study itself funded by the U.S. government – notes that the militaries and the paramilitaries target the indigenous because they “often perceive indigenous as FARC collaborators because they co-exist on their territories”; and that it is the Colombian military’s very presence on indigenous land which “’brings the conflict to the backyard of the indigenous,’” thereby putting their lives and very existence at risk.   Still, the Embassy scoffs at the notion that the Colombian military should leave indigenous territory, characterizing this very request by the Awa indigenous tribe as “impractical.”

And, this is “impractical,” the Embassy forthrightly explains, because that territory must be captured for its vast resource wealth.  To wit, the U.S. Embassy explicitly acknowledges that “capital investments in the mining of hydrocarbons sectors” as well as “investments in rubber [and] palm oil” – that is, the very investments which U.S. military policy and the Free Trade Agreement are designed to promote – are leading directly to violence against indigenous persons.  This is so, the Embassy relates, because the indigenous peoples “are unlikely to abandon land which is considered sacred to their cultural identity.”   That is, they will not make way for capital exploitation voluntarily.

All of this reveals that the U.S. and Colombia continue to press forward with both military and economic policies which the U.S. itself recognizes are leading to genocide.  Indeed, as the U.S. Embassy itself recognizes, genocide is truly necessary for these policies to be carried out.

This puts a lie to any claims that the U.S. is interested in human rights.  Indeed, as the U.S. is poised to exclude Cuba from the Summit of the Americas on human rights grounds, it is the country hosting this Summit – Colombia – which, by any objective account, should be singled out for its uniquely bad human rights policies.  In truth, the U.S. itself, which is propping up Colombia’s brutal regime, should also be so singled out.  However, because the U.S. runs the world, this too would seem to be “impractical.”

Daniel Kovalik is Senior Associate General Counsel of the United Steelworkers (USW).  

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

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