by Marc Becker
Last year in the South American country of Colombia there were 35,000 violent deaths, 530 massacres, 745 people disappeared, 172 labor leaders killed, 342,000 campesinos (rural dwellers or peasants) displaced, and about 3,500 people were kidnaped. All of this makes Colombia the most violent country in Latin America, and one of the most violent countries in the world.
In order to better understand the violence in this country, over Spring Break I traveled to Colombia with a Witness for Peace delegation. Witness for Peace is a politically independent, grassroots organization led by faith and conscience and committed to nonviolence. The organization's mission is to support peace, justice, and sustainable economies in the Americas by changing U.S. policies and corporate practices that contribute to poverty and oppression in Latin America and the Caribbean.
In Colombia, we interviewed members of civil society, refugees, human rights workers, government officials and U.S. State Department officials. We also visited Arauca located on Colombia's border with Venezuela which is one of Colombia's major oil producing regions. Battles over natural resources have led to exceptionally high rates of violence in this rural region, even by Colombian standards.
Colombia has endured almost four decades of continual brutal armed conflict between the national army, leftist guerrilla movements, and right-wing paramilitary forces. Overwhelmingly, the victims of this conflict have been and continue to be civilians-primarily church and community leaders, human rights workers, and local labor organizers. Into this situation, the U.S. government is now sending more than $1.3 billion in mostly military aid, ostensibly to fight the "war on drugs."
The roots of violence in Colombia run much deeper than recent problems with drug trafficking. The U.S. considers Colombia to be one of the oldest democracies in Latin America, but the system it seeks to defend is one of exclusion and oppression. Colombia is rich in natural resources, but 60 percent of its 40 million people live in extreme poverty. Democracy in Colombia is a hypocritical system that has become a genocidal regime in which any opposition is violently eliminated. Thousands of opposition political and labor union leaders have been killed for seeking to defend their civil and human rights.
Increasingly the U.S. is being drawn into this conflict, and its role is neither altruistic nor positive. Colombia has the third largest (after Venezuela and Mexico) known preserves of oil in the Americas. Los Angeles-based Occidental (Oxy) Petroleum Corporation has recently significantly increased its exploration for oil in Colombia. In order to defend its economic interests from leftist guerrilla threats, it has allied with the right-wing United Colombian Self-Defense paramilitary group which the U.S. State Department has declared to be a terrorist group.
Furthermore, George W. Bush has a financial interest in the small Houston-based Harken Energy Corporation which is also developing oil wells in Colombia. Given these investments, it is no surprise that Bush wants to increase U.S. aid to the Colombia military. The problem, however, is that the Colombia military has proven links to the same right-wing paramilitary groups that last September 10 the State Department placed on its list of terrorist groups.
These paramilitary groups are often nothing more than retired or off-duty military officials or, in a type of shell game, a place to hide unsavory soldiers who commit human rights abuses so that they cannot be sanctioned for being part of the "formal" military structure. An unknown amount of U.S. military aid and training to Colombia ends up in the hands of these paramilitary forces. In a nutshell, U.S. tax dollars fund and support terrorist activity in Colombia.
Since Colombia gained independence from Spain in 1819, it has only known five years of peace. The roots of violent conflict in this country run much deeper than recent conflicts stemming from the illegal drug trade or oil production. Ending U.S. military aid to Colombia would not end the conflict. But when questioned about the proposed additional U.S. military aid to provide security for oil pipelines, local citizens, elected officials, and human rights representatives all said that helping to build up the Colombian military will only increase the violence for civilians in their communities.
The U.S. as the world's sole remaining superpower has the ability to be an actor for good or harm. In Colombia, U.S. military aid only contributes to cycles of violence, undercuts civil society's ability to build a strong and lasting peace, and is a force for great unspeakable evil.