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.”
Things are little better in regions which do mean something to the powerful–such as Arauca, heart of the country’s oil resources. There, campesinos and Indians who oppose the encroachment of oil operations onto traditional lands also face para terror. Uribe has declared a “Zone of Rehabilitation and Consolidation” in Arauca, granting the army extraordinary powers–part of a string of ZRCs following the pipeline that links Occidental Petroleum’s Caño-Limon oilfields with the Caribbean. “Caño-Limon was our territory,” local Guahibo Indian leader Dario Tulivila told me. “We had big fish there–now there are no fish. The rivers are all contaminated.”
Last May a paramilitary attack on the Guahibo reservation of Parreros left three dead–including a pregnant woman. Residents told Arauca’s Joel Sierra Regional Human Rights Committee that they recognized soldiers from the local 18th Battalion among the gunmen, wearing para armbands.
Perhaps the most telling case is that of Barrancabermeja, site of the country’s principal refinery. There, union leaders who oppose Uribe’s planned privatization of the state oil company Ecopetrol are regularly targeted for assassination.
The refinery itself is under military occupation. The army’s Energy and Transport Battalion No. 7–ostensibly charged with protecting oil infrastructure from the guerrillas–took control of the site in June, following protests by the oil workers. The protests came in response to Uribe’s reorganization of the industry, which further opened Colombia to foreign oil companies and eliminated Ecopetrol’s responsibility to reinvest in impacted communities. Juan Carlos Galvis, Barrancabermeja president of the Central Workers Union, told me: “This is setting the groundwork for privatization and is paving the way for the FTAA. It is savage capitalism, without a human face.”
Galvis started receiving death threats in 2001. Last August he was the target of an assassination attempt, when gunmen on motorbikes opened fire on his car. “The paras do whatever they want here in Barranca,” he says. Local rights workers say the Colombian Navy, whose First Brigade patrols the Rio Magdalena from Barrancabermeja, oversaw an operation that has assassinated both peasant and labor leaders in the region. Naval and para forces came together in the so-called Navy Network 07–the last two digits being a reference to the “license to kill.”
Uribe’s referendum package, conceived to speed privatization of state industries and the public education system, was defeated by a popular boycott in October, with the minimum 25 percent of the electorate not voting. But, while significantly slowed by defeat of the referendum, the privatization agenda is still moving ahead via Uribe’s reorganization of Ecopetrol, which both eliminates the mandate that the government be a 50 percent partner in oil development and establishes Ecopetrol as an “SA” (Anonymous Society, equivalent of Inc. or Ltd.) rather than a state agency.
Uribe’s visit to Coral Gables made headlines in the United States; the numerous atrocities in Colombia so far this year have not. But against this backdrop, Uribe’s assurances to investors appear in a stark light–as does the annual ritual of “certification.” The paras are the actual enforcers of the promised favorable investment climate.