3. United States’ Policies in Columbia Support Mass Murder

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:


July 1-15, 2001
Title: “Blueprints for the Colombian War”
Author: Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair

October 4, 2001
Title: “Colombian Army and Police Still Working With Paramilitaries”
Author: Jim Lobe

May/June 2001
Title: “Colombian Trade Unionists Need U.S. Help”
Authors: Dan Kovalik and Gerald Dickey

December 7, 2000
Title: “Echoes of Vietnam”
Author: Rachel Massey

Faculty Evaluators: Jorge Porras, Fred Fletcher,
Student Researchers: Lauren Renison, Adam Cimino, Erik Wagle, Gabrielle Mitchell

Over the past two years, Colombia has been Washington’s third largest recipient of foreign aid, behind only Israel and Egypt. In July of 2000, the U.S. Congress approved a $1.3 billion war package for Colombia to support President Pastrana’s “Plan Colombia.” Plan Colombia is a $7.5 billion counter-narcotics initiative. In addition to this financial support, the US also trains the Colombian military.

Colombia’s annual murder rate is 30,000. It is reported that around 19,000 of these murders are linked to illegal right-wing paramilitary forces. Many leaders of these paramilitary groups were once officers in the Colombian military, trained at the U.S. Military run School of the Americas.

According to the Human Rights Watch Report, a 120-page report titled “The ‘Sixth Division’: Military-Paramilitary Ties and US Policy in Colombia,” Colombian armed forces and police continue to work closely with right-wing paramilitary groups. The government of President Pastrana and the US administration have played down evidence of this cooperation. Jim Lobe says that Human Rights Watch holds the Pastrana administration responsible for the current, violent situation because of its dramatic and costly failure to take prompt, effective control of security forces, break their persistent ties to paramilitary groups, and ensure respect for human rights.

Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair contend that the war in Colombia isn’t about drugs. It’s about the annihilation of popular uprisings by Indian peasants fending off the ravages of oil companies, cattle barons and mining firms. It is a counter-insurgency war, designed to clear the way for American corporations to set up shop in Colombia.

Cockburn and St. Clair examined two Defense Department commissioned reports, the RAND Report and a paper written by Gabriel Marcella, titled “Plan Colombia: the Strategic and Operational Imperatives.” Both reports recommend that the US step up its military involvement in Colombia. In addition, the reports make several admissions about the paramilitaries and their links to the drug trade, regarding human rights abuses by the US-trained Colombian military, and about the irrationality of crop fumigation.

Throughout these past two years, Colombian citizens have been the victims of human rights atrocities committed by the US-trained Colombian military and linked paramilitaries. Trade unionists and human rights activists face murder, torture, and harassment. It is reported that Latin America remains the most dangerous place in the world for trade unionists. Since 1986, some 4,000 trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia. In 2000 alone, more trade unionists were killed in Colombia than in the whole world in 1999.

Another problem resulting from the Colombian “drug war” has been the health consequences of the US-sponsored aerial fumigation. Since January 2001, Colombian aircraft have been spraying toxic herbicides over Colombian fields in order to kill opium poppy and coca plants. These sprayings are killing food crops that indigenous Colombians depend on for survival, as well as harming their health. The sprayings have killed fish, livestock, and have contaminated water supplies.

The US provides slightly over 1 billion dollars of military aid for what is known as “Plan Colombia,” yet it is more a war against citizens and those who are fighting for social justice. US aid is not improving conditions for the people of Colombia, but rather supporting the government and right-wing paramilitary groups. According to an American member of the international steelworker delegation, Jesse Isbell, who recently visited Columbia, “The US says one thing to the American public when in reality it is [doing] something totally different. Our government portrays this as a drug war against cocaine but all we are doing is keeping an ineffective government in power.”

COMMENTS BY TONY WHITE, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, SONOMA STATE UNIVERSITY: Truth is often the first casualty of war and the “war on drugs” is no exception. Clinton’s endorsement of Plan Colombia and George W.’s expansion of U.S. support for the incompetent and corrupt government of Colombia has very little to do with the supply of cocaine, but has a lot to do with protecting American mining, oil and logging interests in the region. Our support of Plan Colombia also involves us in a decades-long civil war between the haves and have-nots. Our allies include the para-military groups which have committed numerous atrocities. The resort to aerial spraying threatens other crops and the health of Colombian peasants and may increase the number of guerrillas. Given the nature of the conflict and the terrain, this policy risks another Vietnam.

UPDATE BY AUTHOR DAN KOVALIK: The story of trade union assassination portrayed in the article has played an important role in the attempt to expose US military aid to Colombia for what it is-the support for right-wing counter-insurgents who are committing 80% of the human rights abuses in Colombia. These forces, the paramilitaries, are targeting mostly unarmed activists, such as trade unionists, peace activists, and human rights workers who are challenging the unjust social order in Colombia. Colombia is in fact the trade unionist assassination capitol of the world. Indeed, out of every 5 trade unionists murdered worldwide, over 3 are Colombian. Over 4,000 trade unionists have been murdered in that small country since 1986. This story of the anti-union violence in particular has helped to create unprecedented links between trade unionists and peace activists who are now working together to oppose US military aid to Colombia.

Following this story, the USWA, along with the International Labor Rights Fund, brought lawsuits against both Coca-Cola and Drummond Company for their role in human rights abuses in Colombia. In particular, the USWA and ILRF brought claims against Drummond for the murder of the trade unionists which happened while, as described in the story, the USWA delegation was in Colombia.

Sadly, however, the trade union assassinations have continued unabated, and have in fact increased in Colombia, with over 160 trade unionists being killed there last year. In addition, the US military aid has continued despite these assassinations and our attempts to publicize them. Indeed, the US Congress is presently debating whether to explicitly expand the role of the U.S. in Colombia by, for the first time, expressly earmarking aid for (1) counter-insurgency efforts; and (2) to protect oil pipelines in Colombia, for example those of Occidental Oil.

The USWA is attempting to ameliorate the effects of the military build-up and the violence through its Colombia Solidarity Fund which has and continues to provide support for trade unionists under threat to relocate, sometimes within Colombia, sometimes out of the country, to find safe-haven. Those wishing to support this effort can write to:

Colombia Solidarity Fund
c/o Solidarity Center
1925 K Street, N.W., Suite 300
Washington, D.C. 20006-1105

While the mainstream press did not respond to the story as such, the media has presented some coverage of the two lawsuits mentioned above. And, in covering these lawsuits, the media has mentioned the anti-union violence described in the story. However, the media has been reluctant to give much credence to the allegations of the Colombian plaintiffs. For its part, Time Magazine did a wonderful job of reporting about the Coca-Cola lawsuit, filed in the U.S. by US institutions and lawyers, and about the anti-union violence in Colombia. Curiously, however, Time chose to print this story in every edition in the world except the United States where, with the sole exception of Colombia, it was most relevant. I had to obtain a copy of the article from a friend in Canada where it was published.

You can obtain more information about this story, and about what actions you can take to help, from the Steelabor website, as well as the following: http://www.ilrf.org and the websites of Witness for Peace and Human Rights Watch.

UPDATE BY AUTHOR RACHEL MASSEY: The Bush Administration’s requests for renewed funds to support the war in Colombia have led to significant debate in Congress, but simple questions about the spray campaigns still have not been answered. For example, the State Department has not clarified what formulations of glyphosate herbicides have been or will be used in the spray campaigns. Toxicity characteristics vary among formulations, so this is crucial information. The State Department also continues to keep secret the ingredients of other chemicals, such as surfactants and anti-foaming agents, that are added to the mix before application in Colombia.

In the Foreign Appropriations Bill for 2002, Congress established three criteria that must be met in order for the spray campaigns to continue. The bill requires the Secretary of State to consult with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the US Department of Agriculture, and the Centers for Disease Control to determine that spray procedures in Colombia are consistent with US label requirements for herbicide application, do not violate Colombian laws, and do not “pose unreasonable risks or adverse effects to humans or the environment.” The State Department must also certify that procedures exist for compensating harm to human health or agricultural crops. As of mid-June, 2002, the State Department’s consultations with EPA are still in progress. Meanwhile, the US Embassy in Bogotá has informed representatives of US non-governmental organizations that a new round of spray campaigns is expected to begin in early July.

The State Department has continued to produce and disseminate misleading information about the effects of the spray campaigns. For example, in December 2000, an investigative report published in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad reported on an outbreak of severe skin problems among small children in the Colombian community of Aponte, Department of Nariño, in the aftermath of spraying. Responding to this article and the concerns it raised, the US Embassy in Bogotá commissioned a report on health patterns in the Department of Nariño. The report claims to find no evidence of adverse effects from the spray campaigns. The report is clearly designed to achieve the desired answers; it includes no explanation of study methodology, and considers only 23 case reports, presenting these as the totality of data available for a period of about eight months. In addition, the report suggests that the doctor who originally treated the affected children was intimidated into silence. According to the report, after an initial telephone conversation with the report’s authors, the doctor left his place of work permanently, leaving no forwarding contact information. This story illustrates some of the difficulties that Colombian citizens face when they speak publicly about the health effects of the “war on drugs.”

Several US and European organizations are working to stop the spray campaigns. Information and updates are available from Amazon Alliance (202-785-3334); Center for International Policy (202-232-3317); Earthjustice (510-550-6700); Institute for Science and Interdisciplinary Studies (413-559-5582); Latin America Working Group (202-546-7010); and Transnational Institute. For listings of new documents on the spray campaigns, see the US Fumigation Information Website. To join a delegation to Colombia and interact with Colombian citizens who are working for peace there, contact: Witness for Peace (202-588-1471).