Colombia is frequently referred to as the “oldest democracy in Latin America.” It’s now on the well-worn path towards dictatorship, with the help of $1.3 billion in military aid from the Clinton Administration.
Our own Senator Patty Murray recently defended the Colombia aid bill in a letter to constituents who had asked her to vote against the aid package. “While I support efforts to end the production of drugs in Colombia,” she wrote, “I believe the Congress must be absolutely certain U.S. assistance is not used to assist the Colombian military in the execution of its civil war, or allocated to units guilty of human rights violations. As a member of the Foreign Operations Subcommittee, I voted to place extensive conditions on funding in the Senate Appropriations Committee version of the Foreign Operations bill.”
Sen. Murray obviously, naively believes that such “extensive conditions” matter to the Clinton Administration. In fact, on August 22, Bill Clinton signed a waiver to release the first disbursement of funds from the aid package, even though the Colombian government has met only one of the seven human rights conditions set by Congress. That one condition was a simple written statement issued by Colombian President Andres Pastrana that military personnel accused of human rights abuses would be tried in civilian courts. In short, Clinton released the funds on Pastrana’s say-so.
The Clinton Administration also cites the “good faith” effort that Pastrana has made to extradite drug traffickers to the U.S. for trial. This is supposed to be indicative of both Pastrana’s sincerity in pursuing the drug war and the efficiency of Colombia’s “reformed” military. In fact, only three drug traffickers have been extradited in the three years since the extradition treaty was signed, and the most recent to be shipped to the U.S. was Alberto Orlandez, who has been sitting in a Colombian jail since 1998.
Sen. Murray is eager to assure us that she’s concerned about U.S. money being used to pursue the Colombian civil war or to commit human rights atrocities by the Colombian military. Notably, she avoids mentioning the right-wing paramilitary death squads, supported by the Colombian military and rich landowners, who commit the bulk of civilian murders in Colombia and who are inextricably linked to drug trafficking. This is called “plausible deniability”–as long as the Clinton Administration and its uncritical supporters in Congress can deny that the military and paramilitaries are linked, then there’s no problem.
But the evidence is quite clear. The worst massacre in Colombia this year–in El Salado–was committed by a large paramilitary group over the course of three gruesome days, while a Colombian military unit blockaded the roads to and from the town, refusing to let human rights workers in to stop the violence. The military later claimed that paramilitaries were fighting FARC rebels in the area and that civilians couldn’t enter for safety reasons. However, eyewitnesses and victims of the El Salado massacre tell a different story.
During the massacre, relatives of the victims fled to a nearby military garrison and demanded that they intervene to stop the bloodshed. “We made a scandal and nearly caused a riot, we were so insistent,” one man said. “But they did nothing to help us.” [“Colombians Tell of Massacre, as Army Stood By,” New York Times, 7/14/00.] The senior military officer in the region, Col. Rodrigo Quinones, was promoted to the rank of general afterwards. In the early ’90s, Quinones was director of Naval Intelligence, where he organized a major paramilitary network that murdered more than 57 trade unionists, human rights workers, and opposition politicians. These are the people who will receive the U.S. aid money.
While it’s a state secret in the U.S., the European press extensively reports paramilitary links to the Colombian military. Take, for example, Carlos Castano, a major paramilitary leader, who has strong links to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. In mid-August Castano spoke on Colombian national television, describing a meeting he had with DEA agents about obtaining funds and training from the U.S. Colombian aid package. One of Castano’s translators, who has attended meetings between Castano, the DEA, and drug traffickers, said that the DEA agents were setting up future meetings between Castano and U.S. Army officials, people from the Department of State, and a series of politicians. [“Europe urged to withhold support” Ana Carrigan, The Irish Times, 8/24/00.]
Castano has an interesting history. He was a hit man for the Pablo Escobar, head of the Cali drug cartel. Recruited by the CIA, he worked with Colombian police to capture Escobar. Afterwards, he set up a right-wing death squad and worked under contract to the Colombian army to murder labor union members and left-wing politicians. In the 1990s, he took his army paycheck and founded his own paramilitary group, which now controls a large swath of northern Colombia and feeds on proceeds from drug trafficking and the occasional military handout. Says Ana Carrigan of the Irish Times: “Today Castano is in a process of metamorphosis, from psychopathic gangster to political icon. In the last two years he has unified the disparate, autonomous, regional paramilitaries into a national force of some 10,000 men in uniform. Under his leadership, this army provides the muscle for a shadowy, fascist political movement, whose civilian leadership is invisible though its goals are not: first to close down the peace talks between the government and FARC; then, to provide a launching pad for a military-civilian ‘national unity government.'” In other words, a military dictatorship.
This is the type of man who will benefit from “Plan Colombia,” as the aid package is called. The funds will buy 18 Black Hawk helicopters, 42 Huey helicopters, and training and equipment for the Colombian military. It will end up in the hands of men like Quinones, who will funnel it to men like Castano.
A portion of the funds is earmarked for humanitarian aid, but last week over 100 Colombian NGOs–the very groups targeted to receive that aid–refused it on the grounds that it would only make the civil war worse, and that it would turn them into targets of the FARC. In addition, they all refused to ever accept money from the U.S. government, as a matter of principle. Clearly, they know (even if Sen. Murray doesn’t) who is responsible for aiding the current Colombian government and the Colombian military (and, therefore, the paramilitaries).
Pres. Clinton will be traveling to Colombia on August 30 to unveil Plan Colombia. He’ll be met with protests from Colombian human rights, environmental, indigenous, and social justice groups. The International Action Center (IAC), a groups of activists opposed to Plan Colombia, have helped organize protests in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, San Diego, Montreal, Toronto, Stockholm, London, Rome, Vienna, Buenos Aires, and other cities. The IAC can be contacted at 212-633-6646, via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on the Web at http://www.iacenter.org.
Other sources for this article include: “Colombian Groups Say U.S. Aid Endangers Them,” Washington Post, 8/23/00; “Clinton Clears Aid Package for Colombia,” Washington Post, 8/23/00; “Leaders Debate Colombia Aid,” Reuters, 8/14/00; and “Albright Fails to Rally Brazil on Colombia Drug War,” Reuters, 8/16/00.