Latin America and the Caribbean

November 1993

By Marc Cooper

The U.S. Drug War in Colombia has barely wounded the cartels, but it's positively killing hundreds of peasants, union members, political dissidents, and now street children. And we, the American taxpayers, are funding the carnage.


In Bogota, Colombia, on the mean streets of downtown, night is coming and there's an air of crisis inside the spartan, storefront headquarters of RENACER, a nonprofit social agency that serves this city's tens of thousands of teenage prostitutes. About a half-dozen young girls, and an equal number of boys--most of them self-confessed petty robbers--crowd inside the agency's one-room meeting space, with its desk, folding chairs, and hand- lettered posters warning of the dangers of AIDS, drugs, and glue- sniffing. The three volunteer social workers--all women--are rifling through notes, making calls on their single black phone, scrambling to find temporary shelter for these kids.

This sleazy, central neighborhood, jammed with hot pillow joints and murky bars, its streets littered with the discards of "basuco"--the local, savage variant of crack--and crumbled plastic bags oozing the remnants of an intoxicating pale yellow glue, has been shaken up for the last few days. The previous Thursday, dozens of professionally printed death notices--two- feet square and emblazoned with oversize boldface type--bloomed overnight across the gray cement facades of 22nd Street.

The industrialists, businessmen, civic groups,
and community at large in the Zone of Martyrs
you to the funerals of the delinquents of this
sector, events that will commence immediately and
will continue until they are exterminated.

Some of the kids in the RENACER office are whacked-out on glue and others are just punch-drunk from living for years on the streets. But no one is too far gone to ignore the threat. Too many of their young comrades have already been mowed down for them to just shrug off the posters as some sort of ghoulish prank. At age 21--and looking ten years older--a part-time mugger named Frankie has already survived two execution attempts by death squads. And Frankie knows there's nowhere to run, no one to run to.

Colombia has the highest murder rate in the world--eight times that of the U.S.--nearly 30,000 homicides annually. And submerged in that sea of blood is this horrifying fact: Every month, 30 or 40, sometimes more, of the poorest Colombians-- people like Frankie, beggars, petty thieves, street kids, dopers, prostitutes, and homosexuals--are rubbed out. In any other place in the world this butchery would be called serial killings. But here, these systematic murders are known simply as "social cleansing campaigns," the mopping up of those that official society has deemed the most "disposable." Colombia is rife with such marginalized people; in a country convulsed by civil and drug war, half the population lives in poverty.

But make no mistake: Though Americans associate Colombia with TV images of car bombs set by Pablo Escobar and other cocaine cartel kingpins and outlaws, those who stalk Frankie and his friends wear the uniform of the state. While American news viewers recoiled in horror this past summer at images of eight street kids gunned down in Brazil, hundreds of similar murders were taking place in Colombia. And it was our tax dollars supporting the carnage. For the hands behind the Colombian social cleansing are none other than those of the Colombian National Police--the very institution that receives the bulk of tens of millions of dollars in annual U.S. military aid, all in the name of fighting drugs.

Frankie could have been the victim of our largesse. Twice, attempts have been made on his life. Both times by the cops. He shows me scars on his head and legs as he tells me about his first brush with death. "I saw some cops shoot at some sleeping kids. I began to run and one of the cops caught me," he says. "He handcuffed me, sat me down facing backwards on the back of his motorcycle, but instead of going to the station he took me up into the hills." And at that moment, Frankie began to panic. He was not on the very stretch of road where almost every morning a body or two shows up shot full of holes. "The cop took the cuffs off," he continues. "I started to get off the motorcycle, and I saw him draw his gun. I jumped, but my pants got caught in the chain and I began to roll down the hill. He fired a couple of shots right at me. One bullet grazed my head." Showing me the scar on his scalp and then crossing himself, Frankie adds, "I don't know how I'm alive."

Allegations, like Frankie's, of police involvement in cleanup killings have been amply documented in studies by such human- rights groups as Americas Watch and the Washington Office of Latin America. The Colombian Attorney General's Office and even the U.S. State Department have confirmed this gruesome face. But for Colombians, whose lives are played out on these streets, like Estele Cardenas, the psychologist who runs RENACER, academic studies just state the obvious. "The death posters probably come from local businessmen who are tired of street crime," she says. "But it's the police who carry out the cleanup campaigns. The cops patrol here, collect their 'tax' from some kids, and the others they pick up, shoot twice in the head, and dump. Everyone knows it's them. But go try and prove it."

As dusk falls I walk this notorious neighborhood with another RENACER volunteer I'll call Henry. Fifteen years' experience working this zone allows him to carefully gauge the atmosphere, and tonight he's got a case of full-blown heebie-jeebies. He points to a bulky Chevy van with two thuggish types inside parked kitty corner to RENACER. "Exactly your preferred death squad car," he says. "God knows who they are checking out." A minute later, a pack of seven uniformed cops plows by on their Yamahas. "I don't like this at all. I'm worried someone's going to get picked off tonight," he says, watching three of the local boys, El Paisa, Caleno, and Ricardo, kicking a ball around in front of the office.

Henry makes the rounds of the neighborhood regulars. Here there are 9-, 10-, and 11-year-old "gamines" smoking basuco. A 12- year-old pickpocket shows us the cigarette burn a cop imprinted over his lip. Another boy tells how he got his balls walloped with a police baton. Yet another shows off his crushed leg, a souvenir of his last encounter with the law.

We turn a corner and two beat cops, one with a machine gun, are hassling two ragpickers. The cops rip open the bags the two vagrants are carrying and spill the meager contents on the ground. The cop with the machine gun slaps one of the kids across the face, but then sees henry and me looking on from ten yards away. That doesn't stop the other cop from whacking the other derelict across the back, and once across the legs, before both victims are pushed along down the street.

Now Henry is urging all he come across to take the night off, to find somewhere to crash other than the street. When we get to 22nd and Caracas Avenue we come across the heartbreaking scene of three barely pubescent girls, ages 12, 14, and 15, hanging out in front of a flophouse, hoping to turn a $3 trick. They are leaning on the wall, directly below one of the funeral posters, the 12-year-old's nose buried in a baggie of glue. Henry pleads with them--get off the streets tonight. But to no avail. "We need to work," says the 15-year-old. "And there's nowhere to go." As we leave, they beg us one favor. Can we buy them some lollipops?

The next morning, inside the brightly lit offices of a Jesuit think tank, social scientist Carlos Rojas outlines the conclusions of his long-term research on Colombian social cleansing. Such killings first came to light in 1979 when bodies of youths with police records began turning up en masse. Between 1988 and 1992 he counts a staggering 1,800 confirmed social- cleansing murders. About 70 percent of the victims are in their 20s, but more than 10 percent of the victims are younger, reaching down to 9- and 10-year-olds. Rojas warns, "those figures are very incomplete--a lot of this goes unreported."

What most intrigues Rojas is the debate over responsibility for the killings. Almost all social cleanup murders are officially unsolved. But some killings, he alleges, are planned by shopkeepers who hire on- and off-duty police as triggermen. Some are organized by the police themselves. "The official policy of the police is not only that they are not involved in social cleansing, but that it just doesn't exist," he says with a bitter laugh. "Strange, isn't it, that the police deny there are such actions when everyone else knows there are."

In the end, Rojas argues, responsibility resides directly with the Colombian state. "There is an explosion of street crime. It is difficult to make arrests. Colombian courts don't function well. The state refuses to spend any money on the poor. So what can [the police] do? Kill all the poor people? No. Remember that their victims are also their clients, the cops take their cut of street crime. But they do kill some, enough to be able to control and isolate that impoverished population.

"You should look at this not as a campaign of elimination, but rather as one of control," says Rojas. "And what we have here goes way beyond the police, who in the end, maybe pull the triggers. What we have here speaks to the very concept that the entire government apparatus has of the poor. Namely, they are superfluous, disposable."

Later that morning I hear the same expression of despair from a handful of reformed street kids who work as organizers for a group known as Nueva Vida S.O.S. The precariousness of their existence was underlines earlier this year when three waits sleeping on the group's doorstep were shot to death from a passing car and when two weeks later a hand grenade peppered their front door with shrapnel. "The police know they can do anything to the neros," says 19-year-old Polo, using the local slang for street brother. "They know the nero isn't going to go to the Mayor or to anyone else to swear out a complaint."

But even people more powerful than Polo have to think twice before speaking up. Jorge Gomez Lizarazo, a human-rights worker in the Magdalena region, wrote an editorial for the New York Times last year blasting the drug war for its role in civilian deaths. Hours after Colombian radio broadcast his statements, his secretary stepped out their office door and was shot in the face by a man who had lain in wait. That brought the year's body count of Lizarazo's office colleagues to three.

That said, the murders of Colombia's street kids are just a fraction of the savage attacks carried out, partially on America's bill. Social cleansing is only the most barbarous and logical extension of a more widespread, explicitly political cleansing that claims and average of ten more lives a day--over 3,600 people a year. In addition to the one or two social cleanup deaths, four people are killed daily on both sides of the civil war between the state and a coalition of long-entrenched leftists, and an average of six people a day are killed for being politically suspect.

While political violence in Colombia dates back for decades, it has unfortunately mushroomed since U.S. military aid began pouring into this country four years ago. For in spite of U.S. policy claims that we are lending a hand in the war against drugs, what America has really done is throw itself into the middle of a complicated economic and political conflict.

As the world's major cocaine exporter, Colombia has always been central to the U.S. drug war. But the focus intensified after the 1989 killing of Presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galan by a narco death squad, a crime that shocked all of Colombia. The U.S. jumped with both feet into the middle of the stew and the war against narcotics replaced the Cold War as the obsessive American military focus in the hemisphere. President Bush pushed his so-called Andean Strategy, which called for steeply increased U.S. support of the police and military in Colombia, and also in Peru and Bolivia. American advisers and trainers flooded into all three countries, carting with them bundles of cash, equipment, and weapons, and U.S. military experts became intimately involved in the local command structure. Now squads of DEA agents roam the region, advising the antinarcotics police, while CIA forces lend their special brand of expertise to the struggle.

By 1990 Colombia surpassed El Salvador as, and remains to date, the number one recipient of U.S. military aid in the hemisphere-- a whopping $142 million in that year alone went to the drug war with a sizable chunk delivered directly to the National Police. At the same time, Colombia became the number one regional violator of human rights. In the last four years, the army and police have carried out an average of nearly one political massacre a week (the killing of four or more people at once), with a haunting death toll of more than 2,000 people. In just the period between January 1990 and April 1991, the Colombian Attorney General's Office documented 664 cases of torture and 616 disappearances at the hands of the police and military.

In the war on drugs, some police and military units, in fact, did do their jobs and raided the narcos. But they were a minority. Much of the Colombian security establishment instead concentrated their increased firepower against their long-term enemies--the left-wing guerrillas. In the official rhetoric of both Bogota and Washington, the guerrillas have a direct link and interest in drug trafficking and therefore constitute legitimate targets in the drug war. But that's a notion that has been totally debunked by human-rights monitors who say that although the guerrillas have caused their share of violence, they are not integral to the drug trade--that protecting impoverished peasants who grow coca leaves is not the same as openly trafficking.


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