Colombia: the Displaced & Invisible Nation

The latest thematic report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) concerning Colombia makes for shocking though quite important reading.   [1] In short, it details human rights abuses on a massive scale, and lays the blame for these abuses chiefly upon the right-wing paramilitaries aligned with the Colombian State.   Citing Colombia’s Center for Historical Memory, the IACHR concludes that Colombia, with its over 6 million internally displaced persons, is indeed “a displaced nation.”


Exhibit at Center for Historical Memory, Showing Personal Effects of “False Positive” Victim

As the IACHR explains, the paramilitaries were responsible for 72% of the attacks recorded in the first half of 2015.   Incredibly, the Colombian State, along with its U.S. sponsor, insist that the paramilitaries (also known as Autodefensas) no longer exist as a result of a demobilization (largely faked) back in 2003-2006.   And, it is this very denial, the IACHR points out, which allows the paramilitaries to carry out their reign of terror with near complete impunity.   After all, the State will not dismantle or prosecute what it claims does not even exist.

As explained in the report, “during 2015 the IACHR has continued receiving information about actions of the illegal armed groups that emerged after the demobilization and which are identified as being related or having among their members, persons that belonged to paramilitary groups who, in many cases allegedly continue acting under the protection of State agents.”

The misdeeds the paramilitaries are carrying out under State protection include disappearances, of which there were an incredible 3,400 during the first 7 months of 2015 alone.   In all, the IACHR reports that there have been a total of between 45,000 and 61,918 forced disappearances in Colombia in the past 30 years.   Thus, there have potentially been more than three times the disappearances in Colombia than in Argentina during all of the Dirty War years.   And, of course, with such disappearances come mass graves, of which Colombia has many – 4,519 of them to be exact, with 5,817 bodies exhumed from them so far.

Meanwhile, the IACHR reported on the fact that at least 5,736 individuals were the victims of extrajudicial executions by the Colombian State forces between 2000 and 2010 – that, is during the period of the U.S.’s major military support for Colombia known as Plan Colombia.   Nearly all of these executions were “false positive” killings in which the Colombian military murdered innocent civilians – many of them young, unemployed men – and then dressed them up as guerillas to justify to the U.S. the military assistance the Colombian military was receiving for counter-insurgency purposes.   And, while the rate of such killings has decreased since 2010, they nonetheless continue, with 230 reported cases since then.

To the extent Colombia is covered at all in the mainstream press these days, one rarely gets a glimpse into the horror show which is taking place in that country.   And, casual visitors to places such as Bogota or Medellin would rarely get a glimpse of this either.   This is so because the lion’s share of the violence described above is taking place in the more remote areas where Colombia’s Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities live, and it is these communities which are suffering the brunt of this violence.

As the IACHR explains, these communities are largely “invisible” in Colombian society, “are victims of racial discrimination and disproportionately affected by violence, forced displacement, poverty and social exclusion.” In addition, “the majority of victims of sexual violence in armed conflict are Afro-descendant and indigenous women.” And, impunity for sexual violence in Colombia is near total “given that sexual violence against women would be perpetrated mainly by paramilitary, but also by agents of the government . . . .”

As for the issue of poverty, these communities are suffering from some of the most extreme versions of it, and live in conditions of misery which residents in the major cities are often shielded from.   For example, in Choco – a town nestled in between the Pacific and Caribbean coasts and populated by mostly Afro-Colombian and indigenous – the infant mortality rate is 42.69 per 1000. This figure is higher than that of post-invasion Iraq, and nearly as high as that in such countries as Burma, Bangladesh, Namibia and Haiti.   Meanwhile, in Bogota, the figure is 12.88 per 1000. These figures underscore the incredible inequities and disparity in wealth which make Colombia one of the most unequal societies on earth, with a very stark divide along racial and ethnic lines.

However, the violence against Afro-Colombians and indigenous is not just the product of racism, but is also the product of the unfettered capital penetration of their rich, ancestral land.   As the IACHR points out, large scale megaprojects – many of them mining projects – “have led to the appropriation of Afro-Colombian’s collective territories, and have resulted in “brutal forced displacements, massive violence and selective assassinations.”

And, of course, many of these megaprojects are owned, in whole or in part, by North American companies to which the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) has opened Colombia wide open.

An example of such a deadly megaproject detailed in the IACHR report is the port expansion of Buenaventura, a town which is 90% Afro-Colombian. This port expansion was carried out to facilitate the trade and tourism created by the FTA. And, the struggle of the paramilitaries to control the wealth generated by the port expansion has led to the forced disappearances of hundreds of Buenaventura residents “and the operation of ‘chop houses’ (casa de pique)” where people are chopped up alive.

Like the Colombian and U.S. governments denials of the existence of the paramilitary death squads, the very failure of our mainstream media to acknowledge or discuss the existence of the above-described crimes allows them to continue.   Thus, the U.S. government is able to continue supporting the Colombian military, and by extension its paramilitary allies, and North American multi-nationals are able to keep violently exploiting the Colombian people and their land by virtue of the fact that we are kept in the dark about this reality by a press corps which is failing in its duty to report on such matters of public concern. It is only by breaking this silence around these crimes that we have any chance of stopping them.


[1] http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/docs/annual/2015/doc-en/InformeAnual2015-cap5-Colombia-EN.pdf

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

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