U.S. aid fuels Colombian violence
August 22, 2001
I've visited Colombia three times this year. One of my goals was to see how one unique community was faring, a community dedicated to peace.
The community is called San Jose (accent over e) de Apartado (accent over o), and it consists of 17 settlements. In 1997 it declared itself a peace community -- opposed to Colombia's civil war and not affiliated with any of its armed factions. This stance has made it a target. The military, the paramilitary and guerrilla soldiers constantly harass citizens of San Jose de Apartado.
The community is under siege.
At 6 a.m. on July 30, 300 paramilitary soldiers surrounded one of the settlements, La Union, while 15 heavily armed troopers invaded it. These men ordered all members of the community out of their houses and into the central square, threatening to kill anybody who did not obey.
Most complied, except for 17-year-old Alexander Guzman (accent over a), who was killed while trying to escape.
Before leaving, the soldiers warned that those who did not collaborate with their efforts were guerrillas, and would be killed. They then headed to neighboring communities to spread the same message of death and intimidation.
The 55 families of La Union, fearing for their safety, fled their homes.
In July of last year, paramilitaries massacred six residents of La Union in the same central square where residents were forced to gather last month. More than 80 of the nonviolent community's farmers, fathers, mothers, sons and daughters have either been killed or have disappeared since the peace community was created in 1997.
When I visited the peace community in March and May of this year, residents told me about their struggles to protect themselves from the violence of Colombia's civil war and about their desire for peace and livelihood.
They told me that U.S. military aid to Colombia is helping to escalate the country's conflict, and that it increases the danger they are in.
The $1.3 billion aid the United States is funneling to Colombia is worsening the country's already tragic situation. Much of this U.S. aid goes to the Colombian military, which has close ties to paramilitary squads.
"Collusion between the Colombian security forces, particularly the army, and paramilitary groups continued and, indeed, strengthened," writes Amnesty International in its 2001 global survey of human rights. "The principal victims continued to be civilians. The majority of killings were carried out by illegal paramilitary groups operating with the tacit or active support of the Colombian armed forces."
Since last year, when U.S. Congress passed the aid package known as Plan Colombia, politically motivated killings have doubled from 10 per day to 20, according to the Colombian Commission of Jurists.
Congress presented this policy as part of the war on drugs. But this policy has not only increased the number of civilian casualties in Colombia, it has also done nothing to reduce drug abuse here at home. What's more, the policy is dragging the United States into Colombia's ghastly 40-year civil war.
Both Plan Colombia, which the U.S. government passed last year, and the Andean Regional Initiative, a similar aid package which it passed this year, ignore the devastation the people of Colombia are suffering. Around 40,000 have died just in the last decade, and 6,000 last year alone. And like the 55 families of La Union, more than 2 million Colombians have been displaced since 1985.
As Congress continues its debate on the value of U.S. military aid to Colombia, our political representatives ought not give one more cent of military aid to a nation whose civilians wants to live in peace, not war.
Sandra Alvarez, a Colombian American, is the Colombia Human Rights Program Coordinator at the San Francisco-based international human-rights organization Global Exchange (www.globalexchange.org). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.