Colombia's Heart of Darkness in NYC--and DC
Colombian paramilitary commander Diego "Don Berna" Fernando Murillo--ex-boss of Medellín's feared Cacique Nutibara Bloc--was arraigned in federal court in Manhattan last month on cocaine charges that could land him in prison for thirty years. He is one of fourteen top commanders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) who had turned themselves in to serve reduced sentences in Colombia under the supposed demobilization plan and were summarily extradited to the United States in May. The Colombian Government charges that they had not lived up to their commitment to compensate victims and sever links to crime networks.
The US State Department has designated the AUC a terrorist group. But the US charges against Don Berna and his confederates all concern cocaine, not violence. Rights watchers fear their extradition will mean little chance of justice for their victims. Survivors have filed hundreds of complaints against each of the paramilitary blocs the fourteen led.
Although media reports have not noted it, Don Berna was linked to one particularly horrific crime--not against rival narco-lords or left-wing guerillas but against peasant pacifists who had declared their jungle village in the war-torn Urabá region a peace community. Since 1997, San José de Apartadó, in one of several such citizen initiatives in Colombia, has maintained a policy of non-collaboration with any of the armed actors in the country's war--the army, paras or guerillas. The village has been repeatedly targeted for bloody reprisals, chiefly from the paras.
In February 2005, eight San José residents, including community leader Luis Eduardo Guerra and three children, were killed in the outlying fields. The village was subsequently occupied by the army and the residents forced to take refuge in a camp they have dubbed San Josécito (Little San José).
This year fifteen army troops were arrested in connection with the massacre. In May, just before Don Berna was extradited, the highest-ranking of them, Captain Guillermo Gordillo, started to cooperate with prosecutors, confessing that the massacre was carried out as a joint operation by the army's 17th Brigade and the Don's local Heroes de Tolova paramilitary bloc. Gordillo added that his superiors knew of the massacre and were involved in its planning.
SOA Watch, the group that monitors the US Army's School of the Americas (now officially the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), reports that the commander of the 17th Brigade received training at the SOA. General Héctor Jaime Fandiño Rincón attended the Small-Unit Infantry Tactics course in 1976. In December 2004 he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general.
The United States has provided the Colombian government with more than $3 billion in mostly military aid since the Plan Colombia initiative was launched in 2000. In 2009, total US aid to Colombia will top $750 million. Despite the AUC "demobilization," which took effect in 2005, the "remobilzed" Black Eagles paramilitary network remains active across Colombia--and has assassinated more leaders of the San José peace community. Rights watchers continue to charge collaboration between paras and the army--this despite the "para-politics" scandal that has shaken the government of President Alvaro Uribe, with several leading politicians in jail awaiting trial on charges of paramilitary collaboration.
More than fourteen members of Colombia's Congress, most from Uribe's coalition, have been jailed and await trial for suspected links to the paramilitary network. Another sixty current or former legislators, including Uribe's cousin and thirty-year political ally Mario Uribe, are under investigation for having collaborated with the AUC's de facto control of much of Colombia's countryside. Jorge Noguera, former chief of Colombia's secret police, was arrested last year on charges of providing the AUC with information that led to several slayings.
In October, Sandra Suarez, Uribe's special envoy in Washington to usher the pending free trade agreement through Congress, stepped down, stating in her resignation letter that she'd failed her government and that the agreement is dead. Although her letter didn't explicitly mention it, the day she resigned, former secret police chief Rafael Garcia testified in Bogotá that Suarez collaborated with leaders of the AUC, and with the governors of César and Magdalena departments to establish paramilitary control over these regions.
Uribe and the White House argue that stability is returning to Colombia and point to the drop in kidnappings and guerilla and paramilitary attacks. But they always ignore the horrific human rights toll of this pacification. The 2008 Amnesty International annual report on Colombia states that while guerilla and paramilitary attacks are down, rights abuses by the army and security forces actually rose last year.
Compounding the betrayal of Don Berna's victims is the irony that the United States is now replicating the disastrous Colombia model in a $1.4 billion, multi-year anti-drug program for Mexico and Central America, dubbed the Mérida Initiative. Last month, Congress approved $400 million for Mexico and $65 million for the Central American nations in the first year of the program. Critics call the project "Plan Mexico"--although, unlike Plan Colombia, it does not make a commitment to supplying US military advisers.
Under pressure from human rights groups, Congress initially included rights "conditions" in the Merida Initiative legislation. But following protests from Mexico, the language was softened, with "conditions" dropped in favor of "guidelines." The most significant difference is that the amount of aid that can be withheld if Mexico fails to meet the guidelines has been dropped from 25 percent to 15 percent.
Similar conditions on Colombia aid have failed to remove that country from its position as the hemisphere's worst rights abuser. And there is little reason for optimism in Mexico. As Mexico's drug war quickly escalates to a real one, grisly abuses mount, with growing talk of the country's "Colombianization." President Felipe Calderón has sent the army to patrol northern cities and fight the drug gangs. Despite official denials that the Merida Initiative mirrors Plan Colombia, Mexico's Attorney General Eduardo Medina Mora said on a trip to Bogotá in 2006 that Mexican law enforcement should "learn through an exchange of information with Colombia about the best way to combat organized crime."
And they do seem to be learning. Mexico's National Human Rights Commission has just issued eight recommendations for prosecution of army personnel involved in grave rights violations--including homicide, "disappearance" and torture with electric shock--in anti-crime operations in the states of Sinaloa, Sonora, Michoacán and Tamaulipas.
All the incidents took place within the last year. Although the story hasn't made headlines in the United States, the central city of León is being wracked by a scandal in which a video made of a police torture training session was leaked to a newspaper. It shows recruits having their heads submerged in excrement and being pushed into their own vomit.
John McCain's July 1 meeting with Colombia's hard-line President Uribe indicates he will continue the Bush Administration's militarist agenda for Latin America. If we are lucky enough to get a President Obama, he may, at least, be more susceptible to pressure on the question. But with all eyes on Iraq and the credit crisis, human rights in Latin America have at best been relegated to an afterthought.