Washington's Role in
The myth and the reality
by Matthew Knoester
Z magazine, January 1998
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian-born 1982 Nobel Prize
winner in literature, almost single-handedly changed the way Latin
American literature is read around the world. Writing in a style
others coined "magical realism," Garcia Marquez narrated
the history of a town called Macondo in such classics as One Hundred
Years of Solitude. In Macondo "civilization" came and
went, civil wars were fought without end, and massacres of banana
workers appeared only as figments of a character's imagination.
At one point, Garcia Marquez described the event in Colombian
history in which hundreds of striking United Fruit workers were
massacred in the town of Cienega in 1928. As Garcia Marquez told
the story, one banana worker survived and returned to Cienega
to find no traces of what had happened. He asked the police chief
about the morning's occurrence and the chief said "Massacre?
What massacre is he talking about? He must have been dreaming.
"Aqui, no pasa nada." Nothing happens here. Macondo
is a happy town.
The Macondo Garcia Marquez describes is a spiraling history
of his native Colombia. Macondo reveals an official Colombian
history, surrounded by a whirlwind of myth. The official history
becomes "magic." It erases the government repression
in Colombia from history, just as Bogota daily newspapers misname
those who are at fault for daily homicides, disappearances, and
the hundreds of thousands of displaced people in Colombia.
Today Colombia suffers from the worst human rights record
in the hemisphere. Throughout the century, myths about Colombia
have endured with rhetoric about the oldest functioning "democracy"
in Latin America, a booming economy for the Colombian people,
and perhaps a slight problem with drug trafficking which requires
military assistance from the United States. But in Macondo, official
history is myth, only human dreams are real. Let us take a look
at today's "mere dreams" in Macondo, which happen to
be documented in the U.S. State Department's Human Rights Report
of 1997, among other places.
Since 1986 more Colombians have been killed at the hands of
the military and their "paramilitary" allies each year
than throughout the entire 17 years of political repression in
Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship. Father Javier Giraldo,
the Jesuit director of the Intercongregational Commission of Justice
and Peace in Bogota, estimates that the military and paramilitary
are responsible for 70 percent of the killings in Colombia. This
amounts to over 14,000 people since 1986, if Amnesty International's
figures are correct. And, as is well documented, even by the U.S.
State Department's Human Rights Report of 1997, the impunity rate
in Colombia rests between 97-99.5 percent.
In the United States, the myth endures that Colombian military
forces are allies in the "war on drugs," a campaign
announced (once again) by President Bush in 1989. Military aid
has been given to Colombia for the announced purpose of eradicating
coca, the plant used to produce cocaine. Since 1989, more than
$500 million has been granted to Colombia, almost half the total
amount of U.S. military aid to all of Latin America. Yet, between
1989 and 1994 coca production declined by a mere 1.03 percent
in Colombia, according to the U.S. State Department's own International
Narcotics Control Strategy Report [INCSR] of 1995. In the year
1995, coca production increased in all three major coca-growing
countries (Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia), reaching a record level
of 214,800 hectares. Moreover, the street price for cocaine has
declined significantly over the past 15 years, the 1996 INCSR
Clouded by myths about drugs in Colombia, U.S. military aid
to Colombia increased in 1997 to a record $123 million. This will
be followed by an impending $169 million for 1998. Among the weapons
sent in 1997 were several black hawk helicopters, M60 machine
guns and ammunition, as well as $40 million in helicopters, communications
gear, and equipment provided free of charge under a special drawdown
authority of the president.
Evidence suggests that military aid to Colombia is being used
for purposes other than to fight a "war on drugs." Instead,
U.S. dollars are used to fund counterinsurgency campaigns and
a vast land grab by those who already have large tracks of land.
Large landowners hire paramilitary groups to "defend,"
and, in fact, increase their holdings. The paramilitary groups
work hand in glove with the Colombian military. As a result of
this violence, the U.S. State Department records over 750,000
displaced persons in Colombia. Between 1990 and 1994, Colombians
living below the poverty line increased by one million, to include
about half of Colombia's population of 33 million people. In the
countryside, 48 percent of the land is owned by rich absentee
landowners making up 1.3 percent of the rural population while
the campesinos, comprising 63 percent of the rural population
own less than 5 percent of the land, according to Fr. Giraldo's
Justicia y Paz magazine.
The U.S. State Department notes that of the 20,000 politically
motivated killings since 1986, 59 percent were committed by paramilitary
groups. In the year 1996, their killings "increased significantly,
often with the alleged complicity of individual soldiers or of
entire military units and with the knowledge and tacit approval
of senior military officials," the State Department notes.
Paramilitaries are private armies, usually hired to protect large
landowners in Colombia. It is with this analysis in mind that
we might finally see how drug lords operate in Colombia: according
to a recent report by Colombian National University Professor
Alejandro Reyes, 42 percent of the best land in Colombia is owned
by the drug Mafia. Since wealth and influence have always been
concentrated in the hands of those with land in Colombia, drug
traffickers have been able to buy their way into the social life
of agribusiness, military defense, and mainstream politics.
Extrajudical killings committed by the military account for
6 percent of the murders in Colombia, according to the U.S. State
Department. In addition, the State Department recognized an increased
use of torture committed by the police, army, prison officials,
and other agents of the state during the period from June 1995-October
1996." During this period, there were 462 cases officially
accounted for by the Attorney General for Human Rights in Colombia.
The United States is in up to its eyes in Colombia's "counterinsurgency
campaign." For example, in the last week of September, the
School of Americas Watch (SOA Watch) tabulated 9,055 Colombian
officers matriculated through the SOA in Fort Benning, Georgia,
about half of all Latin American graduates. At least S0 of these
graduates were involved in 10 civilian massacres, totaling over
521 victims in several regions. Funding for the SOA was again
renewed on September 4 of this year.
However conservative the estimates, the U.S. State Department
report on human rights offers an insightful glance at the violence
in Colombia on several scores. It records the repression of the
legal political party, Union Patriotica (UP), an offshoot of the
Communist Party, and the guerrilla group known as the FARC (Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia). The UP party was formed in 1985, after
government/guerrilla peace negotiations, when then president Belisario
Betancur offered an amnesty to guerrillas who agreed to put down
their weapons. The UP party soon swept elections on many levels
of office, threatening the two-party oligarchy that have traditionally
shared power. However, the momentum of the party was virtually
demolished by the systematic murder of its leaders and members
including presidential candidates and mayors. On this count, the
U.S. State Department Human Rights Report tallies over 3,500 UP
party members assassinated.
In April of this year, the UN High Commissioner placed a special
human rights office in Bogota (vigorously opposed by Washington),
financed by the European Union. This action categorized Colombia
among the seven most unstable countries in the world, along with
Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi, Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia.
Despite their own inexcusable human rights abuses and responsibility
for approximately one quarter of the politically motivated killings,
the various guerrilla groups face U.S.-funded military and paramilitary
opponents committing atrocities with total impunity. Colombian
labor and guerrilla groups will not be crushed by further repression.
Amidst the U.S./Colombian counterinsurgency campaign, peasants,
labor leaders, teachers, and human rights monitors are targets
of military and paramilitary forces. It is time Americans wake
up to the tragic myths surrounding Colombia. No longer shall the
police chief get by with " Aqui, no pasa nada." Nothing
happens in Macondo.
Human Rights, Justice, Reform