On March 5, Colombia’s President, Alvaro Uribe, met with Florida Governor Jeb Bush at a Coral Gables business forum. He pledged that lawless armed groups are being dismantled, that stability for foreign investors is around the corner–and that bilateral talks can ensue on his country joining the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
Among those who buy Uribe’s line is Colin Powell. On January 21 the US State Department certified Colombia’s compliance with human rights conditions, officially releasing $34 million in military aid. The certification is the eighth since Congress established conditions on the aid, requiring Colombia’s army to break ties to illegal paramilitary groups, arrest their leaders and suspend officers implicated in rights abuses.
Just ten days before State’s declaration, paramilitaries killed three campesinos at the community of La Ratonera in the conflicted Cimitarra Valley, rights observers say. One elderly man was publicly tortured and a woman was raped. Survivors at the village said army troops recognized from nearby battalions were among the gunmen.
Another village, Pozo Azul, in Sur de Bolivar, was nearly destroyed in January when it was seized by paramilitaries–the inhabitants were used as “human shields” in a battle with the guerrillas. Several homes went up in flames as fierce fighting swept through the hamlet.
Throughout the country, the armed forces are carrying out mass arrests of campesino and labor leaders, even municipal government officials, on trumped-up charges of guerrilla collaboration. Four days after Powell’s certification, two unarmed campesinos were killed and dozens of families displaced following a sweep by the army’s 12th Brigade at Union Penaya, in the rainforest of Caqueta.
Independent peasant organizations in these regions such as the Cimitarra Valley Campesino Association argue that Colombia’s paramilitaries are an extra-official extension of the national army–and therefore, at least indirectly, beneficiaries of US aid. Making matters worse, peasants report that the paramilitaries are forcing campesinos to grow coca–which then results in their communities being sprayed with toxic chemicals by US-piloted aircraft as part of the “war on drugs.”
When I visited one community in the Cimitarra Valley last year, residents showed me a tax form issued to their village by the local bloc of the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia–AUC, the national para network. They said the paras demanded a cut of all their produce to support the war. They also showed me fields–of banana and yucca as well as coca–that had been destroyed by glyphosate sprayed from State Department-contracted DynCorp planes.
The Cimitarra Valley Campesino Association says its followers are targeted precisely because they are promoting a plan for local self-sufficiency to wean peasants off coca and dependence on any armed groups–para or guerrilla. “We developed our own plan for a sustainable economic alternative,” the association’s Miguel Cifuentes told me. “We called for roads, schools, hospitals, mills for sugar and rice, local cooperatives to exploit fish and timber. These solutions could work. But there is no political will to provide the resources. The region means nothing to those in power.”