The Western Hemisphere's longest, bloodiest war has become an invisible one, pushed from the headlines by the ongoing crisis in Iraq. But Washington's involvement in Colombia – which the United Nations calls the worst humanitarian disaster in the Americas, and one of the worst in the world after Congo and Darfur – is rapidly escalating.
The United States has plowed $3.3 billion in mostly military aid into Colombia since "Plan Colombia" was passed in 2000 – making it the third-greatest recipient of Washington's largesse after Israel and Egypt. Since 9/11 the focus of Plan Colombia has quietly shifted from a counternarcotics campaign to a crusade against "terrorism." And now the number of U.S. forces on the ground is set to double.
On Oct. 10 Congress voted to raise the cap on U.S. military advisers in Colombia to 800, and raise that on the number of U.S. civilian contract agents – pilots, intelligence analysts, security personnel – from 400 to 600. The measure, a little-noted part of the 2005 Defense Department authorization act, was a defeat for human rights groups, which had been pushing for a lower cap. The new 800/600 cap is exactly what the White House asked for. An earlier House version would have established a 500 cap for military personnel and kept the cap for civilians at 400, but this was rejected in joint committee. A Senate proposal establishing these lower caps – known as the Byrd amendment, for Sen. Robert Byrd – was defeated in June by a vote of 58 to 40. Among the two senators who abstained was John Kerry.
The bill says the measure is aimed at helping the Colombian government fight "against narcotics trafficking and against activities by organizations designated as terrorists," such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). But rights groups point to a long record of collaboration between Colombia's armed forces and the AUC, a rightist paramilitary group.
"This amounts to authorization of increased involvement by U.S. troops in an internal armed conflict in Colombia," says Kimberly Stanton, deputy director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). "And it was passed without significant public debate. We are sliding into a protracted civil war in Colombia."
The vote comes just as Colombia's hard-line President Álvaro Uribe is pursuing a new offensive against the FARC guerrillas in the south of the country. While US soldiers are ostensibly barred from combat missions, there have already been reports in the Colombian press that U.S. troops are leading "scorched earth" campaigns in the southern Amazon region.
The New York Times story on the raising of the troop cap (at the bottom of page nine) claimed that "Under Mr. Uribe's administration, violence has ebbed in Colombia." But human rights groups in Colombia say that state-sponsored terror has only increased since Uribe took office in 2002.
Yenly Angelica Mendez of the group Humanidad Vigente, which works closely with peasant groups in militarized rural areas, claims that assassinations and arbitrary imprisonment have doubled under Uribe, especially in the conflicted eastern department of Arauca, which she calls "a laboratory for the so-called Democratic Security policy of the current Colombian administration."
In an interview with the independent Colombian press agency ANNCOL, Mendez said: "Since the start of the present administration human rights violations in Arauca have risen about 100 percent. The primary victims have been the social movements, who at the moment have more than ten leaders jailed, primarily those with a record of uncompromising and dedicated protest against human rights violations, and of promoting a model of alternative development."
Just four days before the Congressional vote, the body of Pedro Jaime Mosquera Cosme, an Afro-Colombian leader of the Campesino Association of Arauca, was found near the Venezuelan border, with what the group called "clear signs of torture."
The Congressional vote also coincided with the release of a new Amnesty International report on sexual violence in Colombia's war. The report, "Colombia: Scarred Bodies, Hidden Crimes," finds that rape and other sexual crimes – including genital mutilation – are frequently used by both the paramilitaries and the official security forces against communities accused of collaborating with the guerrillas.
"Women and girls are raped, sexually abused and even killed because they behave in ways deemed as unacceptable to the combatants, or because women may have challenged the authority of armed groups, or simply because women are viewed as a useful target on which to inflict humiliation on the enemy," said Susan Lee, director of Amnesty's Americas program.
The vote also came in spite of the recent release of a U.S. government document linking Uribe to the drug trade. The 1991 Defense Intelligence Agency report was released under the Freedom of Information Act to a DC-based research group, the National Security Archive. It asserts that Uribe, then a senator from the department of Antioquia, was "dedicated to collaboration with the Medellin cartel at high government levels." It named him as a "close personal friend" of cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar, and claimed he helped Escobar secure his seat as an auxiliary congressman.
Most ironic of all, the vote comes just as a vocal civil movement is emerging in Colombia to demand an end to the military option. Some 1.4 million public-sector workers walked off their jobs and took to the streets for a one-day strike Oct. 12. Organized by major trade unions as well as civil organizations, the strike demanded an end both to the rights abuses and atrocities associated with the government's counterguerrilla war and to President Uribe's push to join Bush's Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).
Bogotá's central square, Bolívar Plaza, was filled with some 300,000 – Colombia's largest protest in recent memory. Business was also paralyzed in Medellín, Cali, Barranquilla, Bucaramanga and Cartagena, and traffic was blocked on the Panamerican Highway. In addition to protesting the war and FTAA plans, the strikers also opposed Uribe's scheme to alter the Constitution to allow himself to seek another term in office. Uribe, Bush's closest ally in South America, has refused to talk with the FARC, and a negotiated settlement to the conflict was among the strikers' demands.
Also part of this general movement for peace are indigenous communities now standing up to demand that all armed groups in the war respect their constitutionally recognized right to autonomy. After marching four days from their communities in Colombia's heavily indigenous southern department of Cauca, some 60,000 Nasa Indians and their supporters arrived in the city of Cali on Sept. 17 for a massive rally at the city's stadium. The unprecedented march was held in defiance of threats and intimidation by paramilitaries, guerrillas and official armed forces alike – including the abduction of indigenous leaders.
Rights advocates fear that in next year's Defense Department authorization act, the White House will again push to get the cap on U.S. troop levels raised – or done away with altogether, as is proposed by California Rep. Duncan Hunter.
"The American people are not aware that we are increasingly involved, with all attention focused on Iraq," says WOLA's Stanton. And to the extent that Colombia now garners any media attention at all in the United States, it certainly doesn't include the new civil movement, which is demanding an end to precisely the policy that Washington is directing and abetting.