Latin America and the Caribbean

November 1993

By Marc Cooper

(PART 2 of 2/BACK TO PART 1 )

But the guns of the military are not only turned against the guerrillas. They are trained on anybody thought to be vaguely sympathetic to the guerrillas or slightly critical of the dominant economic and political powers. Of the endemic political murders that wrack Colombia, more than 70 percent of them are committed by the U.S.-backed military and police or by the paramilitary death squads linked to them, according to the respected Andean Commission of Jurists. Barely 1 percent are attributed to the drug lords, in spite of the sensational coverage given back home.

Activists, community leaders, and trade unionists are found riddled with bullets. Peasant organizers, human rights monitors, and often the very grassroots leaders working against the drug bosses turn up dead, their cadavers mutilated by systematic torture. Membership in the legally established, left-wing Popular Union party has become equal to a death sentence: 1,500 to 2,200 activists of that party have been killed since its inception in 1985. And some 200 trade unionists were slain in the first two years of this decade.

"In Colombia, drug lords have forged alliances with landowners and the military to launch paramilitary death squads," wrote Robin Kirk, Andean researcher for the human-rights group Americas Watch. "This triple alliance is dedicated to 'cleansing' the nation of ideas that threaten their brand of armed capitalism."

By March of 1990 two high-ranking Colombian Generals admitted to the staff of the House Committee on Government Operations that, in fact, most of the U.S. military aid was going not to fight drugs but rather to fight the political enemies of the Colombian government. Of the $40.3 million allocated by the U.S. in 1990 for Colombian antinarcotics assistance, the Generals said, $38.5 million would be used as part of the Army's Operation Tri-Color 90 counterinsurgency campaign. A report by the House committee in 1990 found that in Colombia "there is evidence that antinarcotics military aid has been inappropriately used for counterinsurgency purposes." A few whispers of congressional concern were generated by the report, but mostly Capitol Hill regarded U.S. policy in Colombia with either silent nods of complicity or hosannas of praise. There was no congressional opposition. There wasn't even debate.

"There is an addiction to the drug approach in Washington," says Charles Roberts of the U.S.-based Colombian Human Rights Committee. "No one wants to risk opposing a drug war. There's this really distorted notion on the Hill that by the U.S. helping to fight drugs in Colombia we have been fighting violence. A total non sequitur."

Our story of U.S. involvement in Colombia starts to come full circle back to the killing of Bogota's street kids in 1992. It was in that year, after the San Antonio drug summit, that the Bush administration made a strategic shift in the U.S. aid program to Colombia. Due in part to the Colombian government's insistence, and in part to a mutual agreement that the police could be a more effective anti-narco force because of their specialized training, the majority of U.S. military aid was redirected away from the army and towards the National Police.

The National Police had already been receiving millions in U.S. aid, plus training by American Green Berets. But now an additional $75 million in U.S. funding was being rescheduled for the police over a three-year period, giving them an average of about $20 million or more in U.S. support annually. New antinarco divisions would be crated, an other long-standing departments would be upgraded with U.S. help, including the so-called Elite Corps and the various intelligence divisions, all of them notorious human-rights violators.

Since that shift toward the police, no one seems to be able to detail exactly where the tens of millions in U.S. aid is going. The State Department, the U.S. Embassy, the House Committee on Government Operations, and the U.S. General Accounting Office, which has repeatedly complained about the unaccountability of the Colombian aid project, have all been kept in the dark.

But even tracing the money, argue Colombian human rights advocates, is a pointless exercise. "What you need to talk about is the very nature of the military and police that the U.S. supports," says Catholic Priest Francisco de Roux, director of the Center for Popular Education and Research. "The U.S. says the Colombian military is democratic. In Colombia things work like this: the military doesn't interfere with civilian government so long as the politicians grant the military the right to dictate all policies of national security, public order, administration of justice and so on. The results are obvious: you get a police trained by the military, repression of the opposition, murder of dissidents, social cleanup, and near- absolute impunity. It is that military-police structure that the U.S. had decided to support."

It didn't surprise me that after days of unreturned phone calls and repeated promises of an audience with a political officer, the U.S. Embassy in Bogota--eventually citing problems of "scheduling"--failed to offer me a briefing before I had to leave the country. During the entire four-year period of the Bush administration, and now well into the first year of the Clinton administration, the U.S. Embassy has not made a single public statement calling upon Colombia to improve its human rights record (to their credit, the authors of the State Department human rights report on Colombia have been unusually candid in reporting government abuse, but it seems their work is not read in Washington).

It's perhaps annoying that the U.S. government won't talk to me about Colombia. But it's outrageous that it won't talk to Dr. Tahi Barrios, Colombia's Assistant Attorney General for Human Rights. For more than three years in government office, this soft-spoken, thirtysomething former criminal judge has compiled one of the most comprehensive overviews of police and military abuse. But the U.S. government, and for that matter, the Colombian government, doesn't have to pay much attention to her: in Colombia, the Attorney General's Office can't criminally indict anyone; it can only recommend civil service sanctions, such as job transfers, suspensions, and firings.

Nevertheless, you'd think that the financiers of Colombia's police and army--the U.S.--might want to occasionally check notes with Colombia's ranking official investigating their record of abuse. "With nearly four years on the job," Barrios says in her downtown office, "first as Assistant Attorney General for police matters, and ow for Human Rights, I have never been consulted by anyone in the U.S. Embassy or in the U.S. government, except for once every six months someone comes by to pick up our statistical reports.

"And yet I can tell you that the human rights situation remains extremely serious in regard to both the armed forces and the police." She pulls documents from her crowded shelves, adorned not with a portrait of the President, as is the case in most government offices, but rather with a photo of Rodin's "The Kiss." " I can absolutely affirm as Assistant Attorney General that in many cases of social cleanup the police are responsible, though individual guilt is difficult to prove. Nobody in this country has more power than the policeman in the street. No one has more power to do whatever he feels like."

Barrios hands me her office's latest report on human rights, issued this past June. "Special importance," it says, must be given to the National Police, who have now displaced the Army as the top violator of human rights. In 1992, they were responsible for 58 percent of the reported human rights abuses in the country, a total of 1,517 cases that have landed on the desk of the Attorney General. Most worrisome to Barrios is talk by the U.S. of increased funding to the special units of the police whom she identifies as the worst offenders of all.

"The Elite Corps are barbaric. They are not just refined in cruelty, not just heartless," she says. "They are liverless." As for the intelligence police, they are "experts in torture." And the antikidnapping police, known as UNASE, she reminds me, have a history of running their own extortion and kidnapping operation, especially in the Medellin area. This near-legendary cit became the epicenter of the war between the cocaine cartel and the Colombian government in the late '80s. In 1990, with Pablo Escobar offering his henchmen $4,000 for every police officer killed, more than 200 police were gunned down in just a five-month period. But, as documented in a report by the Washington Office on Latin America, "law enforcement efforts turned into a campaign of retaliation, extending beyond include innocent citizens." The report quotes a Medellin sociologist saying the "principal agents of violence" in that city today are "the public security forces."

"When the Cold War collapsed, your government lost its bogeyman of communism," Barrios says. "The new bogeyman became cocaine, and the U.S. fought it the only way it was accustomed to fighting its enemies: with military support. But that military support is used here for political ends, for political repression. Look at the situation today in Medellin. Millions spent looking for Pablo Escobar. In the meantime, in the name of looking for him I can't tell you how many serious rights violations are being carried out. Illegal raids, arrests, and killings."

Perhaps, I suggest, the U.S. has exerted a positive influence on the Army and the police. Couldn't it be that perhaps quietly, out of sight, the U.S. maybe urged along reforms intended to make these institutions more respectful of human rights? Barrios is silent but then breaks out into an ear-to-ear smile. A pause, then she chuckles. "Now that's a stupid question, isn't it?"

Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act calls upon Washington to "avoid identification" with regimes that routinely abuse human rights. Yet the Clinton Administration sent a jolt of dismay through the small community of professional Colombia watchers earlier this year when the President proposed military-aid levels similar to those of the Bush era. Now up for consideration on Capitol Hill for 1994 is a $77 million U.S. aid program for Colombia that includes $25 million in anti-narcotic assistance-- 90 percent of which is slated for the police, and an additional $30 million in military aid. Most discouraging to human rights activists is that this latter figure is a $4 million increase over the allocation given in the last year of the Bush administration. A state department official who works in the region, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged Colombia's human rights violations but insisted U.S. aid to the military and police is having a positive impact on their behavior.

Some principled resistance to the funding is being offered by a handful of Congressional representatives, most notably Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont). He and a small group of allies have been able to slowly work more and more critical language into government reports. But in the end, the U.S. dollars and guns continue to flow southward. On August 12, Clinton's new "drug czar," Lee Brown, seemed to put the administration's stamp of approval on the Colombian program when he made a quick visit to the country and praised Colombia as a "leader in demonstrating political will in confronting drug trafficking."

But the critics of U.S. policy in Colombia--more numerous in Bogota than in Washington--say that's precisely the problem. The problem is identifying drug trafficking as the number one problem in Colombia instead of seeing it as just one more symptom of a radically unjust society, one where 45 percent of the population lives in "absolute poverty," where there are an estimated 240,000 prostitutes just in Bogota, where an equal number of people throughout the country survive solely by recycling discarded trash. Long before anyone heard of Pablo Escobar or the Medellin or Cali cartels, these critics say, more than 200,000 people were killed in the political conflict of 1949-53 known as "la violencia." And since then, just as many have died in popular struggles.

"U.S. policy that singles out drugs and guerrillas as the source of violence in this country, and that appoints the army and police as eradicators of that violence, puts an emphasis on repression rather than on social justice," says Sonia Zambrano, analyst at the Andean Commission of Jurists. "What you get is a policy of attacks on the civilian population. You can see today, there are more and more narcos busted, more and more guerrillas killed every day, yet the social violence continues to spiral upward. Why? Because there is more and more unemployment, more poverty, more people in the streets, more drugs, more coke, more marijuana, more trafficking in emerald, more crime. But all this tells you one thing: what we have in Colombia is an economic problem, one that has been recast by the Colombian and American governments as a political-military problem. The more you focus on drugs and guerrillas as the problem, the more repressive the Colombian state will become."

U.S. policy, says Father De Roux, must be turned on its head. "There are no solutions here to be had through a military path," he says. "You don't support Colombian democracy by supporting its military, you support democracy by supporting the grassroots democrats. You get rid of drugs by improving people's lives through economic measures and through legalization, in part. You solve the guerilla war as it has been solved in El Salvador through negotiation. If, however, we continue with the emphasis on the military, then this craziness which we Colombians find ourselves in will worsen. There will only be more dead."

No sooner had I returned to my hotel from De Roux's office than my phone buzzed. On the line was Henry, the volunteer from RENACER. Unfortunately, his gut had made a perfect reading of the streets. At 3:00 that afternoon, exactly one week after the death posters went up, and only 18 hours after we walked the neighborhood, the urchin Caleno had been gunned down. "It was just around the corner from RENACER, 50 yards down 13th Street," Henry said dryly. "A car pulled up beside him, rolled down its darkened windows, and before you knew it, Caleno was dead of 'natural causes.' You know, two bullets in the head."

I hung up the phone, a bit stunned, and tried to make sense of it all. What rang in my ears were Father De Roux's words--that the U.S. had it all backward. Whether it's been here in Colombia, or earlier in Chile, Guatemala, or El Salvador, the U.S. has always employed a "trickle down" human rights strategy with governments it considers friendly. Instead of supporting, let alone finding, the sort of grassroots groups trying to get kids off the street, or one fighting for labor rights or livable wages or those that, against all odds, battle state repression, murder, and torture, our government instead sides with the local corrupt military elite, promising Congress and the world at large hat "we" will help reform them from within. Military aid, advisers, and diplomatic support, we are told, give us leverage with these friendly but flawed governments and armies. But history shows that trickle-down human rights policies breed only escalating body counts.

Additional reporting: Leslie Wirpsa. Research Assistance: Robert Levine. Further suggested reading: "The Colombian National Police, Human Rights and U.S. Drug Policy," a 58-page report available for $7.75 from the Washington Office on Latin America, 110 Maryland Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002-5695.

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