The Human Costs of War in Colombia
Natalia Cardona is the Senior Associate of the Latin America & Caribbean Program at the American Friends Service Committee. Jessica Walker Beaumont is a Trade and Debt Specialist at the American Friends Service Committee.
When President Bush was asked recently what success in Iraq would look like, he held up the example of Colombia. Outside the Middle East, Colombia is the largest recipient of US military funding. Despite growing evidence of failed US war policies in both Iraq and Colombia, the majority of Congress and the Bush administration seem determined to 'stay the course' in both regions. In Iraq, the US's role is shaped by geopolitical and economic interests. This is also true in Colombia, although these motivations are hidden behind the US-funded Plan Colombia which provides billions of dollars for the supposed war on drugs and terror.
Communities in Peaceful Resistance
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has monitored the effects of Plan Colombia since the Plan's beginnings, and works in solidarity with Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities in peaceful resistance. Today many of these rural communities define themselves as "communities in peaceful resistance" because their struggle is rooted in history as opposed to the more recently established "peace communities" in Colombia. These communities have a history of struggle which is as long as the history of colonization in the western hemisphere. Africans were enslaved 500 years ago and brought to Colombia when the original indigenous communities were almost wiped out by enslavement, war, and disease.
These communities resist by declaring their right not to take part in the ever-intensifying conflict between government forces (including large, powerful paramilitary groups) and the armed rebel movement. The communities are creating nonviolent mechanisms of self-protection such as developing security procedures, strengthening community organization, generating sustainable agriculture projects, and developing national and international ties to other groups.
Unique to the indigenous communities across Colombia is the Indigenous Peace Guard. In the Nasa community of northern Cauca province is a special group of 7000 men, women, and youth who, armed only with staffs of office which are not used for violence, are responsible for stopping any armed actor from setting foot on their territory.
Today the Indigenous Guard is training an Afro-Colombian Peace Guard which also carries unique staffs of office. These staffs carry cultural and spiritual meaning for each of the communities. The indigenous staff, adorned with green, white, and red ribbons, is blessed by the Tewhalas (traditional shamans), and the ribbons symbolize the earth, peace, and the blood the ancestors lost in the struggle. The staffs of Afro-Colombian guards have a strip of leather wrapped around them symbolizing a tied-up whip that can no longer be used to hurt or enslave anyone. It too is blessed by elders and traditional doctors.
Communities that resist often pay dearly for their opposition. The Afro-Colombian Peace Guard originates in Buenos Aires, a community which was displaced by a hydro-electric project in 1990. In its new location, the community was forced by the paramilitary to flee again, but returned with even greater strength of will and organization. Similarly, when communities first formed the Indigenous Guard, several members were killed; indeed, this peaceful force still loses guards to armed violence.
Plan Colombia's Results
A recent delegation organized by AFSC visited three of these communities: the Nasa community in Northern Cauca province (Southwestern Colombia) and two Afro-Colombian communities in Buenos Aires, Cauca, and Tumaco, the capital of Nariño Province (which borders Ecuador). Our goal was to observe the effects of Plan Colombia on communities in peaceful resistance. In addition, we wanted to explore the links between the US-financed war and the pending US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.
The delegation witnessed firsthand the human costs of the "war on drugs" in indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities. During the past six years in the southern Colombian province of Nariño alone, thousands of people have been displaced by US-funded fumigations of the coca crops which have also killed food crops.
The communities we visited have been used as human shields during military operations and battles between the different armed groups, legal or illegal. When these communities and their leaders refuse to cooperate with the military, they are treated as terrorists -- a pattern being recreated across the nation, largely as a result of the US-funded war on drugs and terror.
Plan Colombia has aggravated what the United Nations calls the worst humanitarian crisis in the western hemisphere and fueled the fires of the conflict. In light of this disaster, the US government's daily $1.6 million outlay for the drug war in Colombia is unjustifiable. That astonishing figure seems especially ill-spent when treatment and education for US citizens is 23 times more effective than pursuing a war on drugs at home and abroad, according to a RAND Corporation study. Furthermore, the US State Department recently revealed that coca production in Colombia is at the same level as it was six years ago when Plan Colombia began -- and cocaine is just as easy to purchase in the United States as it ever was. So why pursue this failed policy?
Making Colombia Safe -- for Investors
There are several explanations. One is the role of the military-industrial complex, which is heavily invested in the war. Monsanto, Sikorsky, and Dyncorp are three corporations that profit from providing everything from Black Hawk helicopters to chemicals and mercenaries. All three companies aggressively lobbied for investment in Plan Colombia. Then there is the Colombian government, which is determined to maintain the military aid and has kept a strong lobbying presence in Washington, DC. And, in the context of Colombia's negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement with the US, other motivations for Plan Colombia are beginning to surface. After almost fifty years of internal conflict, the Colombian government is determined to create a "safe" investment environment in order to attract US-based and multinational corporations and secure the interests of Colombia's large landholders.
Our delegation witnessed the suffering caused by military and paramilitary operations intent on securing the investment environment in Nariño. During the past six years, thousands of people have been displaced throughout Nariño. Meeting with these displaced communities left a powerful impression on the heart of every delegation member. Those who have been displaced now live in slums built of wood scraps over the marshes. While these are communities with strong convictions and dignity, the exhaustion on their faces was evident as the mostly female, mostly widowed population struggled to meet the basic needs of their families and heal from the psychological wounds of war. In our visit to these communities we were particularly touched by one woman's testimony: "My family did not eat for days," she cried out. "Today we were fortunate to have coffee for breakfast and we do not know if the rest of the day will bring anything!" Most of the communities were living in the same conditions. Though their misery was sometimes eased by international aid and accompaniment from AFSC and other organizations, these kinds of assistance were limited. Many organizations have security concerns for their staff. Given the situation, organizations like the Process for Black Communities (a national umbrella organization for Black communities in Colombia), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and CARE Canada were attempting to provide as much aid and accompaniment as they could.
The Struggle Moves to the Courts
These conflicts are especially tragic in a country that granted traditional territory rights to Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities in its 1991 constitution. A precedent-setting constitution for all of the Americas, this document states that traditional territory cannot be legally sold, appropriated, or bought. However, given the wealth of natural resources on this land (including gold, marble, timber, water, oil, and more), the Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities are now perceived as obstacles to resource extraction and "development."
Despite its constitutional rights, an Afro-Colombian community in peaceful resistance in Tumaco lost its traditional territory after its leaders were assassinated and the community was threatened by the US-funded military in complicity with paramilitary groups. In this case, after the community was displaced, the Palmeiras corporation took over the territory, clear-cut the forest, and planted nothing but oil palm trees. The processed oil is exported to Malaysia and sold on the international market for use in confectionery items and beauty products.
Yet in Colombia, communities working for peace are prevailing in the struggle for dignity and self-determination. Just a few days before our delegation arrived, the same community triumphed in the Colombian court system by using the rights granted to them in the constitution, and won their territory back from the corporation. There are of course many risks ahead for these leaders because of continuing threats from the military and paramilitary. During our visit one leader told of the assassination of an elder: "He was killed but our spirit was not!" The company, he said did not realize who it was messing with. Still he was quite realistic, and he said "the struggle will not be easily won." To date the corporation has not acceded to the court ruling and has made it clear that it will deny the community access to the roads and refinery, likely leaving only one option: pulling up the palm trees and returning the land to its natural state.
Further jeopardizing the status of displaced communities, legal reforms are being put in place that will make reclaiming and returning to their territories more difficult. Currently the Colombian parliament is considering the "Rural Development Law." This law would secure the investment environment for corporations by allowing those who have taken land to get legal title as long as they can prove five years of occupation. Although not explicitly linked to the Free Trade Agreement, this reform would be very difficult to reverse once the FTA is ratified without risking being challenged by corporations in a secret dispute resolution process that operates above national courts. Clearly, the motivation for the law is in line with that of the FTA in its current form, giving rights to corporations and the wealthy regardless of the cost to Afro-Colombian and indigenous farmers. This law is a huge concern for the community in Tumaco that won its land back because it would pave the way for this corporation to gain title of the land if they can keep the community from entering the plantation.
For our delegation it was clear that the legacy of Plan Colombia for Afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples is a legacy of death. Increasingly, the Colombian population is confronting this legacy as a scandal unfolds revealing the true extent of the links between the paramilitary death squads, a large number of prominent Colombian politicians, and President Uribe himself. A Colombian congressional committee is studying accusations that President Uribe supported the rise of paramilitaries when he was a governor in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the country's Supreme Court summoned six legislators to answer accusations that they conspired with paramilitary leaders in assassinations, kidnappings, massacres, fixed elections, corruption, and helping militias get a better deal in the peace process. These legislators are among 12 government officials accused or charged in these cases.
In an effort to distance himself from such accusations, Uribe has begun taking a hard line with top paramilitary leaders who are awaiting sentencing. Recently, top paramilitary leaders were moved from a recreation center where they were being held to a real penitentiary. In retaliation, the paramilitaries pulled out of a peace deal they had struck with Uribe. They are threatening to tell the truth about their ties to business leaders, industrialists, political and economic bosses, government employees, regional and local leaders, and members of the security forces. According to a recent article in Colombia's national newspaper, El Tiempo, the truth is the paramilitaries' "secret weapon." It will be hard for the US government to continue to justify millions of dollars of military aid to Colombia if members of the security forces are prosecuted for conspiring with paramilitary groups.
Seizing the Moment in the US
Here in the US, our recent elections bring new opportunities for changing US policy toward Colombia. The major change is not just the composition of Congress but who is in leadership and committee posts. The House speaker, and those chairing key House committees have expressed substantive concerns with US policy toward Colombia. While we have to be realistic about the limits of this change, this is a significant opportunity for Colombia work. Representative Rangel, incoming chair of the Ways and Means Committee (which handles trade) has made it known the Colombia agreement would need to be modified to include labor and environmental concerns. Although important, these changes are likely to be cosmetic and won't fully address the impact of US policy on Colombia's rural communities, access to medicines, development policy space, and basic services. The trade justice movement has benefited from seven years of organizing against bad trade deals. The year ahead will bring hard work in reaching consensus on what just trade looks like in concrete terms.
As for aid to Colombia, even a Democratic-led Congress will start with the budget that the President presents. We have an opportunity in the short term to shift some of the military aid to economic aid by working closely with congressional representatives. Activists should focus on "Colombia 101" meetings with the new members of Congress. New representatives need clear and concise information about the role of US military aid in Colombia. They also need to hear from us when this aid is being discussed in the House. Even five calls to a representative can make a difference.
For more information on Colombia and how to take action, please visit www.afsc.org/colombia; for information on the displaced, visit www.lawg.org; for information on current events in Colombia and on policy in the US visit www.ciponline.org; for other grassroots actions you can take visit www.for.org/colombia and www.witnessforpeace.org.