When the Clinton administration advanced its militarized Drug War program for Colombia two years ago, there were widespread fears it would aggravate that country’s already horrendous human-rights record. The U.S. was wading into the four-decades-deep quagmire of social and political violence that has crowned Colombia with the world’s highest murder and kidnap rate.
Since the early 1960s, leftist guerrilla groups, led by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), have fought a dogged rural war. And the FARC’s strategy of “protecting” the small coca growers and “taxing” the traffickers has produced not only millions in revenue but also a heavily-equipped army that has grown to more than 15,000 combatants. President Andres Pastrana, elected three years ago, has struggled to maintain peace talks with the guerrillas, but so far to little avail.
Counter-guerrilla death squads, the so-called “paramilitaries,” have also swollen in size in recent years, and now number as many as 11,000 men. Often backed by large narco-traffickers, the paramilitaries have in the past been nurtured as well by the Colombian military. And their hallmark has been a series of massacres of villagers and farmers they brand as guerrilla sympathizers. President Pastrana has vowed to end any such collaboration, and the U.S. has publicly demanded the same.
But since the onset of Plan Colombia, “There has been only a marked and continuing deterioration of human rights,” says Andrew Miller of Amnesty USA. “Not only did the guerrillas react to U.S. aid as to an act of war, but the paramilitaries have gone full blast in their strategy of spreading themselves, and bloodshed, throughout the entire country.”
The U.S. aid package — like similar funding adventures in the 1980s, in Central America — is supposedly dependent on Washington “certifying” human-rights advances every six months. No advances, no funding — on paper at least. But as was also the case in El Salvador, the U.S. legislation allows the White House to waive human-rights certification. That’s exactly what Clinton did in August 2000. “It seems that waiving human rights gave a green light to the Colombian military and paramilitaries to continue with business as usual,” says Miller.
Since the beginning of this year, the paramilitary death squads have gone on their bloodiest rampage ever, setting new standards of barbarity. And any fiction that the Colombian military is somehow standing in the way of such butchery is just that: fiction. In the same 24-hour period in January when Clinton was known to be considering a re-affirmation of the human-rights pass, paramilitary squads entered the northern area of Chengue, took out 26 people and beat them with stones and sliced them with machetes, carrying off another 10 people after setting the whole town on fire.
And then, during Easter week, a band of 200 paramilitaries swarmed through a series of villages in the state of Cauca and, this time using not only machetes and guns but also chain saws, butchered at least 27 people and perhaps more than 40 over a three-day period. Copious documentation and statements from local human-rights workers, reported by mainstream news agencies including the Associated Press, clearly suggest that the Colombia military in the area had advance warning of the attack but did nothing to prevent it.
This spring, the U.S. State Department finally got around to identifying the Colombian paramilitaries in its category of lesser “terrorists.” And yet there has been no alteration in policy. “The U.S. is breaking its own laws,” says Winifred Tate. “It continues to deliver equipment to army units engaged in gross human-rights abuses, to units involved directly in the area where these abuses take place. And if nothing else, millions of U.S. dollars are supporting the Colombian intelligence apparatus without any oversight — the same apparatus that has cooperated in, and sometimes coordinated, the killing of so many of Colombia’s most courageous activists.”
President Bush will once again have to waive, or certify, human rights next year. No one has any doubts which he’ll do.
Political opposition to the U.S. Drug War in Colombia is anemic on Capitol Hill. While expanding American military involvement in Colombia originally sprang from the Republican side of the aisle, the Democrats soon embraced the cause. The eventual Senate debate in favor of funding Plan Colombia was bolstered by an exercised Democratic Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, who concentrated his rhetorical fire not against conservatives, but against the few liberals who questioned the strategy.
The toughest questioner of all was Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone, who unsuccessfully tried to shift a portion of the proposed Plan Colombia funding toward domestic drug-treatment programs. Wellstone has continued his mostly lonely fight since, but few politicians are willing to speak out against a policy portrayed as “anti-drugs.” And President Bush has proved a subtle drug warrior, emphasizing prevention in a May 11 address on the drug policy while maintaining the government’s fiscal commitment to its war footing abroad.
Still, Wellstone is hoping that the arrival of Republicans in the White House will grease the way for renewed criticism. “With a new administration, at least there’s an opportunity, the potential to re-examine policy,” Wellstone says. Specifically with respect to Colombia, he says, “I have had several senators come up to me and say they have had second thoughts. And this new Republican administration certainly gives Democrats more room to be critical.”