Colombia’s New Age of Terror
Uribe Attacks Human Rights Groups as “Supporters of Terrorism”
By Augusto Fernández C.
Special to The Narco News Bulletin
October 15, 2003
“I am the State”
– Luis XVI
According to the latest polls – widely reported in the Colombian and foreign commercial press – President Alvaro Uribe Vélez enjoys a high approval rating among “the majority of Colombia’s 40 million people.” What you won’t read in these surveys is that this “majority” is made up the economic and industrial elite and the middle class. These people are the ultra-catholic, moralizing, selfish consumers and slaves to possessions that unquestioningly support clearing poor people from the streets and destroying the guerrilla.
By now, well-known Colombian columnists like Daniel Samper have started to talk about “the Uribelatría,” a kind of armor that has formed around the image of the president. For Uribe has become an expert when it comes to showering himself in popularity. This has been especially obvious in the past few months, as several congressmen have introduced legislation that would allow Uribe to run for an unprecedented second term.
Lately, the president has even been appearing on a certain “reality” TV show affectionately chatting with the cast, encouraging them to keep giving hope to the Colombian people, and taking advantage of the opportunity to campaign for his latest referendum. It’s a risky but effective public relations strategy in a country where these televised abominations, unfortunately, enjoy spectacular ratings.
The president would never waste a chance to sport his “good citizen” suit, which consists of “honesty,” “intelligence,” “hard work,” “charisma,” “family devotion,” “being demanding of himself and others,” “pluralism,” “sensitivity,” and “national pride.” In sum, his image is that of an advocate for a politically correct society that cares for family, tradition and property. (“Family, tradition and property” are the three basic principles of a certain conservative strain of Catholicism founded by a priest named Escrivá in 1928, now enjoying a wide following among the Latin American upper classes.) Maybe that’s why it wouldn’t be surprising to hear a shopkeeper, a taxi driver, or a woman waiting on line at a bank on any given Colombian street corner say that “Uribe is just the firm hand that this country needed.”
Uribe is famous for never losing his composure – a result, perhaps, of his well-known after-lunch yoga sessions, 5 a.m. jogs, and homeopathic medicines. In fact, when he gets upset, Uribe simply says, “I don’t think I’ll say any more,” and elegantly withdraws (in other words, he runs away). We saw this last year, during an interview with Newsweek reporter Joseph Contreras, when Contreras asked about Uribe’s links to right-wing paramilitaries and narco-trafficking.
And so the president was behaving like the perfect gentleman on September 8, when he attended a ceremony in which retiring General Héctor Fabio Velázco officially transferred command of the Colombian Air Force to General Édgar Alfonso Lesmez Abad. Uribe gave a provocative speech at the event, bidding farewell to Velazco and welcoming Lezmez, emphasizing the “constant sacrifice and vigilance of the armed forces in bringing peace to Colombia and protecting the nation’s sovereignty.” Very moving.
But, surprise! Suddenly, the president lost his typical self-control as he began to talk about “Human Rights Week” and how his “democratic security policy” was based on respect for those same rights.
Just as he got to this point, he showed his obvious anger toward the criticism many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in Colombia have made of this policy. Ready for a fight, he started to divide these NGOs into three categories. The first, he said, were those “made up of theorists,” with which he still has disagreements. The president didn’t specify which theorists or organizations he was talking about, surely out of a great sense of tact.
The president then spoke about the next category – NGOs made up of human rights activists. He committed to protecting these groups and maintaining an open dialog with them. In what must have been another tactful gesture, he did not specify which groups fell into this category either.
By the time he got to his third category, the president’s composure had gone out the window. These were the NGOs, he said, made up of “writers and demagogues at the service of terrorism who traffic in human rights.” He claimed, “They have the resources to publish books that tarnish the honor of the Colombian generals and citizens who fight against terrorism. They have no sense of shame or decency, and manipulate international opinion with books that have no serious sources.” The president was not being so tactful anymore. “Collectives and lawyers will appear,” he continued, “they appeared under one name or another, they are the mouthpieces for terrorism.” There can be little doubt he was here referring directly to the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective, a Colombian NGO that has been reporting for years on crimes against humanity that the State either supports or overlooks.
What could the NGOs have done that was serious enough to hurt the president’s feelings? Did they threaten his magic power to hide the shades of authoritarianism and subordination to the world order (read: the International Monetary Fund and World Bank) that lie behind the veneer of an ideal, charismatic, statesman? As we continue, we will try to answer these and other questions about this disturbing, unknown, side of “Uribismo.”
The source of President Uribe’s anger has but one name: “The Authoritarian Curse.” With this name, the Colombian Human Rights Platform (an umbrella organization of 80 groups from around the country devoted to the issue) christened a recent report in which it makes a complete, critical, assessment of the first year of the Uribe administration. The report contrasts the many promises and commitments Uribe has made in his speeches with his incompetent performance during his first year in office, using figures and data from both governmental and non-governmental sources. It focuses on basic issues like the role of the State, the structure of the criminal justice system, healthcare and education, housing, employment, food security, agricultural policy, civil and political rights, social struggles, trade unionism, freedom of information, the status of women, and children’s services.
To begin to understand Uribe’s reaction to this assessment, let’s revisit the part of his speech in which he defines the government critics that go into his third category:
“…And the third group: Demagogues at the service of terrorism, who, like cowards, wave the banner of human rights in an attempt to bring terrorism back into the spaces from which the armed forces and the public have expelled it.
“Every time a security policy aimed at defeating terrorism appears in Colombia, every time the terrorists start to feel weak, they send their mouthpieces to talk about human rights.
“Many of those arguments come right from the FARC’s* website. They have no shame or limits. They publish books of rumors and slander in Europe. They know that their only weapon is that slander that hides hypocritically behind human rights.”
(*FARC is the Spanish abbreviation for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s largest guerrilla army.)
Let’s hope that the president is not referring to the NGOs from the Human Rights Platform
that prepared the articles in the “Authoritarian Curse” report. These organizations enjoy wide recognition and credibility from many in the international community, thanks to the rigorous academic standards and painstaking research reflected in each of their reports and studies, which stay mostly clear of political rhetoric and dogma. What’s more, prestigious Colombian economist and social researcher Luis Jorge Garay, known for his objectivity in the country’s complicated civil war, collaborated on the report. No one could call Jorge a “demagogue,” much less a “human rights trafficker.”
These days, to hear Uribe speak presumptuously of leading a pluralistic and democratic State during his public appearances is commonplace. The question is, pluralistic and democratic for whom? Who is convinced that everything the government does is correct? Has the president forgotten that a truly pluralistic and democratic state tolerates individuals and groups with different interests and ideas, which can dissent or even completely disagree with and oppose the government’s perspective?
Was it the NGOs’ detailed objections to the government’s ineffective health and education policies that raised the president’s ire? Or was it their criticism of his “Democratic Security Policy,” no doubt inspired by the National Security Strategy of US President George W. Bush and that administration’s general paranoia over the “terrorist threat.” At least, that was the impression Uribe gave, as he spent most of his speech expressing his “indignation” over the issue:
“[The NGOs] complain about army raids. For heaven’s sake! In other countries dealing with terrorism, those working for terrorism have been eliminated by armed forces and by death squads. Private “justice groups” were starting to do the same in Colombia.
“So what has this administration done? We have consistently confronted these private justice groups, as the record shows. At the same time, supported by the constitution and according to the principles of human rights, we have hunted down and isolated the terrorists, that we might capture all their henchmen and supporters.
“We’re going to keep doing it this way: receiving information, converting it into intelligence, and then leaving it up to the public prosecutors. And – as soon as our prosecutors send warrants to our police or army – capturing the terrorists.
“It’s nice to know that a very high percentage of these arrests have been correct and successful. We don’t have arbitrary raids here, as the human rights zealots claim. We have a policy with a strategy behind it. And part of that strategy requires us to isolate terrorists and to methodically capture their supporters.”
Could it be more obvious? The president must be referring here to Point 11 of the Platform’s report, which focuses on civil and political rights. This is where the Center for Research and Popular Education
(CINEP)’s Human Rights Database
group raises the issue that the “Democratic Security Policy” has given rise to the current “domestic crisis” clause. This clause, a form of martial law, gives the armed forces (and especially the army) full police powers in certain regions, and allows them to defend “democracy” (read: commercial interests within the so-called terrorists’ territory) uninhibited.
These special powers for the military include performing raids without a warrant and monitoring the private communications of “individuals for whom there exists indication of behavior leading to said [violent] acts.”
The report also brings up the armed forces’ and paramilitaries’ constant aggression toward civilians in the context of this security policy. In one example, it describes how troops from the Nueva Granada Air Battalion burst into a humble peasant settlement in the village of Brisas de Yanacué, in the Bolívar province. They killed a man and nine-year-old boy. According to the report, “the military authorities reported that [the two civilians] had been killed in combat with the FARC’s ‘24th Batallion,’” (do the authorities mean to imply that the assassinated nine-year-old boy was a FARC soldier?) and, “that the operation was carried out based on a tip from an informant.”
Uribe is well aware of these reports. On August 28, Colombian Attorney General Edgardo Maya submitted a report to the president on the “rehabilitation and reconciliation zones” created under the “domestic crisis” clause in the northern Sucre and Bolívar provinces. Testimony gathered from local inhabitants revealed that violence has increased in the area. While the military and police and have been detaining and arresting people in the zone, there have been many “irregularities.”
Maya’s report joins that of the office of Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman, which has documented and publicized many human rights abuses at the hands of the military this year. High-profile politicians, like Congresswoman Piedad Córdoba and Supreme Court chief Eduardo Montealegre, have also led several legislative revolts within the government on this issue. But, curiously enough, until now the president hasn’t dared to call these organizations or individuals “mouthpieces for terrorism” or “human rights traffickers,” or anything of the sort.
And so, one wonders: Why does the president seem so “surprised” and “offended” by reports whose contents were already known by government agencies? What brought his (lack of) diplomacy regarding human rights violations to this point? Does he see “The Authoritarian Curse” as a kind of dangerous conspiracy planned by his main critics?
Let’s hope that the president is not prejudiced against the NGOs that contributed to “The Authoritarian Curse” simply for their being, to put it one way, “outside the State’s way of thinking,” when he hurls such serious accusations their way. Sometimes, the president simply does this in passing:
“May the human rights traffickers not hold you up, not lead you astray,” he told new Air Force General Édgar Alfonso Lesmez on September 8. “May they not stop the Air Force from lending its service to this great nation and liberating us, finally, from this nightmare.”
Has President Uribe become unable to distinguish between the normal exercise of authority and coercive authoritarianism? Is he, in fact, not the democratic and pluralistic leader portrayed by the mainstream media, but actually an autocratic partisan who sees every act of dissidence, confrontation or critique as an attack by internal enemies bent on overthrowing the order of the State? If a government is really strong and legitimate, as Uribe always describes his, shouldn’t even its most radical citizens be free from being identified as agents of disorder and destabilization worthy of stigmatization and persecution?
Let’s hope there’s nothing to the objections that national and international human rights groups (as well as a US Senator) have raised – in a series of published documents and open letters – against Uribe’s labeling of human rights activists and other political opponents as “mouthpieces for terrorism.” For instance, a group of Colombian intellectuals, academics, and artists – including sociologist and journalist Alfredo Molano, writer William Ospina, and actor Humberto Dorado – recently sent a letter to the president.
“In a country like Colombia,” reads the letter, “where popular leaders, human rights activists, writers, academics and journalists been threatened, persecuted and assassinated for decades, it is outrageous that the president should speak about many of them as ‘writers and partisans that ultimately serve terrorism and hide like cowards behind the banner of human rights.’”
Uribe’s words have aroused so much international indignation that the influential London daily newspaper The Guardian wrote that the president’s words had “a chilling resonance, coming as it does in the same week as the 30th anniversary of the Pinochet coup in Chile.”
If Uribe specialized in conflict negotiation at Harvard – as his brief biographies always claim – he should know better than anyone the important role NGOs play as arbitrators and negotiators in so-called democratic states. Since the 1980s, NGOs have been hugely important players in Latin American civil society. In Colombia, NGOs gained even more strength with the Constitution of 1991: articles 38 and 40 establish the right of “free association and free expression,” while article 103 recognizes “charitable associations or non-governmental organizations working in the public interest” as “mechanisms of representation and participation, leaving to the State the task of contributing to their organization, promotion, and empowerment.” In times of war or during dictatorial or totalitarian regimes, NGOs assume the role of watchdog and advocate against the State. Any conflict negotiator knows this as well, especially if he is, like Uribe, a Harvard graduate.
Maybe President Uribe should remember what he learned at school, and be a little more careful of what he says. It will help him to maintain his image as a moderate politician, and the public – which admires him so much – won’t start to see the similarities between his supposedly “pluralistic and democratic” administration and the totalitarian dictatorships of recent Latin American history. Under those regimes, NGOs have been stigmatized and persecuted for carrying out their role as whistleblowers to the abuses committed in the name of the State.
But apparently such wisdom and authoritarian fanaticism don’t go together. On September 30, obviously worried about maintaining his good image for the international community after his awkward reaction to “The Authoritarian Curse,” Uribe gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly and presented his own “assessment” of the human rights situation in Colombia. Of course, according to Uribe, the situation has improved considerably since he took office. He had no qualms about painting, in the broadest strokes, his Democratic Security Policy as the model of kindness, pluralism, and freedom of thought:
“One year ago, I set out the Democratic Security Policy to free our people from terrorism. This policy protects all our citizens regardless of their economic or social status, political or religious beliefs. This policy protects equally the company boss and the union leader, the pro-government activist and the opposition leader. This policy is based on the dream of a pluralistic nation, on permanent, constructive, brotherly debate that is free of hatred.
“If we ask for international support, it is because we are open to international observation. We respect human rights groups and activists that work seriously; we respect their constructive criticisms and suggestions. These organizations contribute to the improvement of democratic conditions. That’s why we endorse the report that Human Rights Watch has presented on the terrorists’ recruitment of children. We reserve the right to dissent from biased reports that distort our efforts towards a democratic concept of security.”
What is the president talking about when he mentions these “biased reports?” Does he simply mean the NGOs’ “Authoritarian Curse” or is he also talking about complaints from the most marginalized parts of Colombian society?
Take, for example, the peasent-farmers (or campesinos) of the Sumapaz plateau in Cundinamerca province. Thanks to an article published on June 24 by journalist Dick Emanuelsson, these campesinos were able to tell the world about the hostilities and aggression towards their community from men from members of the 13th Brigade, the First Counter-Guerrilla Unit, the Special Forces and the army’s Rapid Deployment Force, who had tortured many inhabitants of the region. Emanuelsson’s report includes the powerful testimony of two campesinos who were forced to stand naked for hours in the middle of a snowstorm at 4,000 meters (13,000 feet above sea level) as Special Forces members tried to extract information about a guerrilla group the men had never even seen. Does the president consider the thousands of campesinos and indigenous Colombians who have reported incidents like this one “supporters of terrorism?” If so, President Uribe’s “pluralistic nation” is really nothing more than a bad joke.
And while Uribe shows his nice face at the UN, the Bolívar Central Self-Defense Bloc paramilitaries publish an article titled “Why Steal the Dogs?” which expresses their unconditional support for the president’s discourse against the NGOs, even celebrating Uribe’s accusations of the NGOs’ non-objective reporting of human rights violations. According to the paramilitaries, the NGOs ignore the abuses (kidnappings, extortion, executions, etc.) blamed on the guerrillas: “The Commander-in-Chief has condemned the highly suspicious mission of certain humanitarian organizations that seem to have taken part in the conflict, and that think the only active human rights violators are those who combat or are the sworn enemies of the communist guerrillas.”
It would be worth asking the president and the paramilitaries (who should really be asked about their own moral authority in making these kinds of accusations) if they’ve even read the report. “The Authoritarian Curse,” by such respected groups as the CINEP’s Human Rights Database group and the Colombian Commission of Jurists, makes many harsh criticisms of the various rebel groups for committing their own human rights violations. We’d also have to ask them if – when they say the NGOs only superficially mention the abuses of these armed groups – they don’t think about how superficial the government reports on paramilitary abuses are. We’d have to ask them if the government shouldn’t be thought of as a “supporter of paramilitarism.” But we’d have to ask, of course, in the context of a pluralistic and democratic dialog.
The president, significantly, has not bothered to make even the smallest show of rejecting the solidarity shown him by the Bolívar Central Self-Defense Bloc. But he has made it well known that he will be investigating the human rights organizations working in Colombia together with Defence Minister Marta Lucía Rodríguez, his most devoted disciple. He will then reveal exactly which NGOs are accused of being “terrorist supporters.” What does the president mean when he talks about “investigations?” Does he consider the warrant-less raids of various NGO offices – as reported in a recent complaint from the National Health, Environmental and Labor Union (known as Censat Agua Viva in Spanish) an “investigation”?
The complaint says “around 11:30 a.m. March 25, 2003, three men in civilian cloths arrived at the Censat Agua Viva offices in a public taxi. The men identified themselves as agents of Sijin (the Intelligence Agency) from the Bogotá Police Department, looking for the building’s owner to perform a ‘building evaluation’ and to interrogate him about Censat Agua Viva’s activities. The inquiry request, presented as a ‘work order,’ was based on a report of ‘suspicious movements’ in the area.” It must be mentioned that Censat is an organization that has strongly criticized the government’s eradication of illicit crops using glyphosate fumigation and fosarium oxysporum fungus.
Does the president consider unjustified detentions, death threats, and assassinations, of NGO workers, union organizers, campesino and indigenous leaders an “investigation?” The CINEP Human Rights Database group has documented concrete cases of this. Take the case of human rights activist Julio Abella, from the National Solidarity Aid Association (ANDAS, in its Spanish initials), who was detained by National Police officers on December 6, 2002, in Becaramanga, Santander. After raiding his house, the police charged him with “rebellion.” It was only after six months in prison that Abella was able to prove his innocence. Is that what the president calls an “investigation?” Does this mean that any Colombian can be similarly “investigated” for nothing more than disagreeing with the government?
According to CINEP, “this legal persecution is sustained through the use of military intelligence reports, tips from the ‘network of volunteers and informants,’ questionable testimonies (from anonymous witnesses, ‘clone’ witnesses, paid witnesses and witnesses being put up and protected in military facilities), threats, attacks, and persecution of defense lawyers, and pressure on the courts from the military.”
And so Colombia has become the world’s schizophrenic nation par excellence. Curiously, President Uribe said, in his speech before the UN General Assembly: “It would be a tragedy if the world did not unite its forces to defeat terrorism and to support those democracies fighting against it. We need the unity of all democracies to defeat terror.”
But what does terror really mean to Uribe? The president knows well – terror hides behind the soft curtain of democracy; terror lurks behind a model citizen who puts on elaborate shows for the media, giving cheap advice to cheap casts of cheap reality shows. Terror is truly felt by the members of Colombia’s human rights organizations, who fear for their lives and the lives of their families. Terror is in the eyes of a campesino from any given part of Colombia who is forced to stand naked for hours on a mountaintop surrounded by a battalion of psychopaths demanding information on some guerrilla group he’s never seen in his life.
Terror exists in Colombia’s cities, where the humanoids of the middle and upper classes live, convinced that everything is okay, that “it doesn’t matter how many have to die to make this country better.” The same people will go vote for the president’s latest referendum, and will willingly sign up for the government informant network if it pays well. Terror appears when the man who just looks wrong to the rest of the block, or who has the audacity to talk to the street people, gets turned in by his neighbors.
The terror is there, living among the heirs to the hate that surfaced in Colombia on April 9, 1948, when they assassinated President Jorge Eliecer Gaitán. Now, as we begin the 21st century, this particularly Colombian hate is stronger than ever, thanks to an authoritarian government that unfortunately has many people under its spell.
In Colombia, a new age of terror has just begun, and that terror walks hand-in-hand with our own president. It feels like some scary suspense movie: there’s nowhere safe; there’s nowhere to hide.
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