US Policy Contradictory on Colombia

Military Intervention and Talk of Human Rights Clash

by Alison Giffen and Charlie Roberts

Resist newsletter, July / August 1999


This is a critical year in Colombia and for US policy toward Colombia. The new Colombian administration of President Andres Pastrana has engaged the largest guerrilla group in Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in unprecedented peace talks. While preliminary peace talks have gradually proceeded between the FARC and the Colombian Government, US policy has grown increasingly contradictory, including a mix of militarization and initiatives to support peace and human rights.

US policy in Latin America has continued to grow more militaristic under the guise of the war on drugs. The drug war is taking precedence over US foreign policy objectives of peace, respect for human rights, and support for stable and democratic institutions. Colombia is the best example, in Latin America, of the discrepancy between the pursuit of these foreign policy objectives and the waging of the drug war. Although Colombia will receive $240 million in military assistance in 1999, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has allocated only $6 million for development assistance for the year 2000, $5 million for alternative development, and $1 million for human rights and justice reform.

How do we know that these contradictions in US policy are undermining peace and human rights? On March 24, Jack Leonard, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, recognized in his testimony before a Senate foreign relations subcommittee that a purely military solution to the Colombian conflict is not possible; however, he emphasized that a strong military effort will be necessary to achieve peace. Ambassador Leonard also testified that certain initiatives by the Colombian government to achieve peace such as the demilitarization of a region in southern Colombia for the purpose of holding peace talks-are undermining drug war objectives.

War on Drugs Thwarts Peace Efforts

This argument ignores several realities of political violence in Colombia. First of all, Pastrana is facing resistance to his conduct of the peace process from military officers. When he announced the withdrawal from the demilitarized area would be for an indefinite time, the defense minister resigned and 14 generals and colonels followed suit. Yet Pastrana refused to accept the officers' resignations, instead affixing the time period of six months to the withdrawal. In this context, Mr. Leonard's testimony to the Senate to the effect that the peace process is undermining the drug war would appear to be placing yet another obstacle in the way of the peace process.

Also, US policy attempts to reduce the problem of international drug control to eradicating various plant species and "enforcing the law" against persons involved in drug-related activities. Consequently, human beings are turned into military targets, and the issue is framed in terms of military tactics and strategy, rather than in terms of the social and human problems at the root of the expanding coca crop in southern Colombia.

Moreover, the dimensions of the humanitarian consequences of contemporary violence in Colombia are severe. More than 300,000 Colombians were forcibly displaced from their homes last year, bringing the total to 1.3 million since 1990. Political killings average 10 to I 1 per day for over 10 years running, with an upward trend in recent years. Given these realities, the Clinton Administration would be well-advised to analyze the extent to which the military side of US policy is bound to make peace efforts among Colombians all the more difficult.

Even while the US pumps millions of dollars into the war on drugs, the Clinton administration has been more vociferous in its support for President Pastrana's peace initiatives, and in condemning attacks on human rights defenders. Statements made by top State Department officials have come at critical times to free kidnapped human rights defenders and peace advocates as well as to support President Pastrana during serious political crises.

The contradictions among different parts of the Clinton Administration, and between the Administration and Congress, can be exploited by those concerned to effect a change in US policy to be more supportive of human rights and the peace process.

Violence Worsens in 1999

Since the start of the peace talks, violence has increased, as the armed actors struggle for the upper hand, straining the delicate negotiations. The various actors, including the guerrilla forces, the Colombian armed forces, and the paramilitary groups, have increasingly targeted civilians. In January, over 140 people were killed in less than two weeks by paramilitary groups, in an attempt to show political power. Moreover, violence directed at human rights defenders and persons working for peace has intensified.

The incidents of violence are so frequent as to make it very difficult to convey a sense of how bad political violence has become. Some recent events include:

* The kidnapping by paramilitary forces of four staff of the Medellin-based Instituto Popular de Capacitacion on January 29.

* The January 31 assassination of two human rights workers from the Comite de Solidaridad con Presos Politicos.

* Early March: FARC guerrillas kidnapped and murdered three US citizens, indigenous rights activists Lahe'ena'e Gay, Ingrid Washinawatok, and Terence Freitas.

* Early April: a paramilitary group entered the neutral zone of San Jose de Apartado and killed three people in each of two separate incidents, three days apart.

* In late April, a leader of the EmberaKatio indigenous community in the northern department of Cordoba was assassinated; his people have been fighting a large hydroelectric project that has already disrupted the ecology of their traditional lands.

* Late May/early June: Paramilitary forces murdered dozens in an offensive in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander, near the border with Venezuela. 3,000 peasants fled the region to Venezuela; at least 600 were forcibly returned by Venezuelan authorities.

Paramilitary groups have caused massive forced displacement, in large measure to clear areas that certain business interests intend to exploit in major infrastructure projects such as energy, and a long-discussed "dry canal" parallel to the Panama Canal, in the Uraba region in northwestern Colombia. Threats continue to be made against human rights activists throughout Colombia; over 30 have been assassinated in the last three years. The paramilitary groups work closely with the military, as both consider the guerrillas to be their main enemy.

Guerrilla forces have stepped up kidnappings of civilians, a long-standing practice used to finance their operations. Most dramatic have been the April 12 hijacking of a domestic Avianca airlines flight to a remote jungle airfield, and the May 30 mass kidnapping of approximately 140 people from a Cali church during Sunday mass. Colombians from all walks of life have roundly condemned all actions by armed groups that make civilians victims, particularly kidnappings and killings. The latest round of violence has renewed calls for all parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian law, which absolutely forbids any actions targeting non-combatants.

Human Peace vs. Drug War

Against this backdrop of violence-in which approximately 75% of political killings last year were attributable to paramilitary groups, 20% to the guerrillas, and 5% to official Colombian forces-US policy has purportedly sought to promote foreign policy goals of peace and democracy accompanied by greater military intervention.

On the one hand, certain policy makers in the administration and Congress have publicly supported peace initiatives. Late last year, the State Department met with FARC leaders to encourage negotiations and convey concerns, issued strong condemnations of the deteriorating human rights situation in Colombia, and urged the Colombian government to make progress on human rights. In May, during a political crisis that pitted Colombia's military against the Pastrana administration, President Clinton spoke out in continued support of Pastrana and his peace initiatives.

On June 21, 68 members of the US House of Representatives urged Pastrana to continue preliminary peace negotiations and support protection measures for human rights defenders who have come under increasing threat.

Yet, at the same time, certain policy-makers focused on the drug war, including members of Congress Sen. Dewine (R-OH), Rep. Gilman (R-NY), Rep. Burton (R-IN), and Rep. Hastert (R-IL), have pressured the Clinton administration to increase aid to the Colombian police and military. State Department anti-narcotics officials and Pentagon officials have also persistently advocated greater militarization of Colombia and the surrounding region.

As a result, last October the United States increased military assistance to Colombia in the amount of $240 million, making Colombia the third-largest recipient of US military aid and training after Egypt and Israel.

In December, Defense Secretary Cohen announced US support for the establishment of a joint counter-narcotics battalion in the Colombian Army made up of 800 to 1,000 Colombian soldiers trained and equipped by the United States; training would be at a military intelligence base at Tres Esquinas, in Caqueta (southwest Colombia). In March 1999 Sen. Dewine introduced the Drug Free Century Act (S. 5). If this legislation passes, $1 billion in anti-narcotics aid to the Western Hemisphere will be allocated over the next two years. This package includes further military assistance in addition to the aid already allocated to Colombia.

Activists Respond

During this uncertain time in Colombia, the United States should promote in words and deeds the only answer to Colombia's long-running internal conflict, a negotiated settlement. Moreover, it is essential that US policy demand respect for human rights and international humanitarian law.

An ever-widening coalition of policy, grassroots, religious, cultural, humanitarian, and human rights groups in Washington, DC and around the United States is working on two fronts to achieve these goals; short-term initiatives to respond to a situation exacerbated by US militarization of the conflict and long-term approaches that prepare the public and policy makers to examine and revise US policy.

In the short term, the coalition mobilizes existing grassroots networks and encourages policy makers to write letters and publicly denounce acts that violate international human rights and humanitarian law resulting from the internal conflict. This international public pressure, particularly from the United States, has proven successful in encouraging the release of human rights defenders and public officials who have been kidnapped, as was illustrated in the release of four human rights defenders kidnapped by paramilitary forces in January and the release of Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba kidnapped by paramilitaries in late May.

In the long term, this diverse coalition educates US public officials on the current situation in Colombia, as well as bringing Colombian human rights defenders and peace advocates to educate press and policy makers. In order to be successful in the long run in changing US policy trends toward Colombia and elsewhere, the coalition is working to inform the general public, mobilize grassroots networks, and develop national grassroots strategies.


Alison Giffen is the Director of the US/Colombia Coordinating Office, a project of the Colombia Human Rights Committee. Charlie Roberts is co-editor of Colombia Update, the newsletter of the Colombia Human Rights Network, which received a grant from Resist in 1999. For more information, contact the US Colombia Coordinating Office, 1630 Connecticut Avenue NW #200, Washington, DC 20009;, colhrc@igc. org.

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