Colombia's War on Terror
By Doug Stokes
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
March 8, 2003
In the narratives of recent history, at least in those offered by the global media corporations, familiar themes can be traced. One recurring theme is the idea of so-called Worthy Victims, defenseless unfortunates who get caught up in a spiral of violence and horror, and therefore become worthy of our sympathy and aid.
The long-suffering Kurds are an excellent example. So long as their travails under Saddam in northern Iraq happen to coincide with the interests of the powerful, they are Worthy Victims, and we can read all about them. But take a step across the border into Turkey and see what a difference a line on a map makes.
Now you’re in the world of the Unworthy Victim. It looks very much the same and why not? Like their brothers and sisters in Iraq, these victims, too, are Kurds who have been swept up in a spiral of violence and death. But since highlighting the sufferings of Turkey’s Kurdish minority serves no immediate or useful political purpose, their distress is studiously ignored, most likely since it has been massively amplified by the flow of Western arms, which assists the Turkish government in its war on the Kurds.
Like an old friend, the pattern of Worthy and Unworthy Victims is now being played out in Colombia, the world’s third-largest recipient of US military aid and its latest ally in the War on Terror. On February 7th, a car bomb went off outside the El Nogal nightclub in Bogota, a gathering place for the mega-rich. The bomb devastated the building, killed 37 people, and was almost certainly planted by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in its Spanish acronym), Latin America’s largest and oldest guerrilla movement. The nightclub deaths were rightly condemned. But the Colombian government has seized on the incident to lend further legitimacy to its new national security strategy, weaving these dead into the role of Worthy Victim.
Publisher’s Update, March 10: In a March 9 communiqué, the FARC denied responsibility for the El Nogal explosion, accusing, “The State Terrorism in El Nogal only sought to unleash hysteria against the guerrilla inside the country…”
The immediate response of Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe was to call for more US military aid to fight the FARC. Uribe was well down this path even before the club bombing. Since last year, Colombia has been in “a state of internal commotion,” an official decree that allows the banning of public rallies, imposes curfews, and allows searches without a court order. This followed the creation last fall of military “Zones of Rehabilitation and Consolidation,” where direct military rule replaces existing local governments and military authorities can carry out arrests and searches without a warrant. Uribe has also committed to doubling the size of the Colombian military, and creating a new network of a million civilian informers to perform counter-intelligence work.
He is also pushing for tighter control of the Colombian media by passing laws restricting reporting of Colombian “counter-terrorist measures.” A possible “suspension” of the offending publication and a prison sentence of between eight to 12 years awaits anyone who publishes statistics considered “counterproductive to the fight against terrorism.” These sanctions also apply to anyone who reveals “reports that could hamper the effective implementation of military or police operations, endanger the lives of public forces personnel or private individuals,” or commit other acts that undermine public order, “while boosting the position or image of the enemy.”
Thus, the stage is set for the continued, silent brutalization of Colombia’s Unworthy Victims, whom official and semi-official forces regularly target. Their deaths are far more numerous and far more dreadful in the systematic and long-standing manner in which they are killed. But, like the Turkish Kurds, their plight is virtually invisible to the outside world.
Last year, over 8,000 political assassinations were committed in Colombia, with 80 percent of these murders committed by paramilitary groups; three out of four trade union activists murdered worldwide are killed by the Colombian paramilitaries whilst 2.7 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes. According to the UN, lecturers and teachers are “among the workers most often affected by killings, threats and violence-related displacement.” Paramilitary groups also regularly target human rights activists, indigenous leaders, and community activists.
To anyone with knowledge of Colombia’s military situation, those statistics are hardly surprising. The country’s army has one of the worst human rights records in the Western Hemisphere, along with well-documented ties to the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC, in its Spanish acronym), a right-wing paramilitary group headed by Carlos Castano. (For more detailed information, see http://www.hrw.org/reports/2000/colombia/.)
Although the AUC casts itself as an independent political movement, the US State Department describes it as “a mercenary vigilante force, financed by criminal activities” and “the paid private” army of “narcotics traffickers or large landowners.”
Of course, this conflicts wildly with the picture painted in the international media. There, the Colombian military is usually depicted as a neutral arbiter between the armed left (the FARC) and the armed right (the AUC). The fact that the Colombian military and paramilitaries are two sides of the same counterinsurgency coin is rarely mentioned. Castano, meanwhile, argues that his paramilitaries “are the defenders of business freedom and of the national and international industrial sectors.”
Gordon Sumner, who was Ronald Reagan’s former special envoy to Latin America, suggests that the paramilitaries are capable of being whipped into shape and molded into anti-terrorist shock troops. “First, have them answer the law, cut out the drugs, and embrace human rights,” Sumner advised the Washington Times. Then, try to “bring them under the tent, to fight against the guerrillas, who are the biggest threat.” In Colombia, he noted, the “battle is never too crowded with friends.”
Uribe has commenced negotiations with the AUC (and has thus recognized them as a distinct political actor) and has received endorsement for his policies from the US government. Colin Powell has insisted that the US is “firmly committed to President Uribe and his new national security strategy.”
A regional commander of the AUC put it more bluntly: “Uribe is like heaven compared to (former President Andres) Pastrana.” But for Colombia’s Unworthy Victims, it is a heaven that most certainly can wait.
Doug Stokes is a Ph.D candidate in the Politics department of Bristol University in Great Britain, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. He has investigated and written extensively on Plan Colombia. Many of his works are linked from his web page: http://www.dougstokes.net
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