By Leni Villagomez Reeves
During May, at least 70 demonstrators were killed in Colombia. On June 9, thousands of people marched, chanting slogans against President Ivan Duque and police brutality, to the Tequendama hotel, where the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) was meeting with NGOs, victims and institutions during its working visit to the country to verify the human rights situation amid protests, according to the report of Portafolio, a Bogotá newspaper, which continues, “As night fell, the agents of the state returned to attack the capital’s citizens with short and long-range weapons and tear gas canisters.”
Local human rights organization Temblores received reports on 3,789 human rights violations by the police from the beginning of the protests on April 28 to May 31.
Colombia has risen in protest against a right-wing government that has mishandled everything: health, education, the economy, pensions, police and military violence, and, of course, the pandemic. Community, labor, feminist, environmental and campesino/Indigenous organizing for change has been met by paramilitary death squads and regular assassinations of leaders.
The spark that ignited this for the urban poor and organized labor was a proposed regressive sales tax on food, fuel and basic services, such as water and electricity, and even on funerals—in the middle of the pandemic. These are neoliberal fiscal policies designed to take from the poor to benefit the rich.
The renewed spraying of glyphosate has also mobilized campesinos and Indigenous peoples in rural areas. And right-wing President Duque’s orders to the Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios (ESMAD), with their reckless and often lethal response, to stop the protests at all costs, made people angrier. The ESMAD is a U.S.-trained and -funded attack unit connected to the Colombian army and designed to repress movements for social justice throughout the country.
Paro Nacional—General Strike
There is a national strike with broad participation: unions representing most of the workers of Colombia, including the teachers; regional and national Indigenous organizations; students; and community, including feminist organizations. This is only the latest and largest of a series of protests and actions.
The strike and demonstrations have been suppressed—or rather attacked—with great brutality by the government. The human rights organization Temblores has verified at least 1,728 cases of militarized police violence resulting in at least 40 deaths, thousands of wounded, more than 900 arbitrary detentions, 33 attacks on journalists and 12 cases of sexual assault by police. On May 13, one of the victims, a minor, killed herself after being raped in Papayán by the Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios.
The issues in more detail are as follows:
Taxing the poor. Following International Monetary Fund guidelines, the imposition of taxes on poor and middle-class households, with taxed items to include food, water, natural gas for cooking, electricity, telephone, funeral expenses and other necessities.
Healthcare reform. Demands for an accessible regionalized health system, including the Indigenous and Afro-Colombian areas of the country.
Violence. Massacres and assassinations of community leaders, with militarization of the police including the purchase of combat aircraft and tanks for the ESMAD; encouragement of paramilitaries.
Management of the pandemic. Corruption and lack of planning and support for the population, delays and lack of transparency, inadequate treatment and no real vaccination plan.
Police brutality. Demands for structural reform of the police and the disbanding of the ESMAD.
Economic issues. Colombia’s poverty rate has risen to 42.5%. This means that 21.2 million people lack the means to satisfy their basic needs. Colombia rose from 4.6 million people in extreme poverty to 7.4 million.
Some Background: U.S. Responsibility
Colombia is the fifth largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world, behind only Israel, Afghanistan, Jordan and Egypt. The State Department calls it “direct and indirect support to peace implementation.” That means money, weapons, and U.S. military Special Forces and other troops and trainers, almost all directed against the people of Colombia.
Here’s some more State Department verbiage (translations follow): “Colombia is a key U.S. partner in ongoing efforts to help Venezuela in its return to democracy and economic prosperity.” This means “We will do anything to maintain an ultra-right government in Colombia that we can use to attack Venezuela.”
“The United States is Colombia’s largest trade and investment partner, with large investments in the mining and manufacturing sectors.” That means “We own you.”
Let’s go further back because U.S. policy and actions have been remarkably consistent in Colombia for so long, with such terrible results for the people of Colombia.
In 1928, the workers struck at United Fruit in Colombia. The United States brought in an army regiment armed with machine guns to break the strike, which they did by killing about 2,000 strikers and their families, unarmed and defenseless after going to mass on Sunday.
In 1948, a Colombian populist presidential candidate was mysteriously assassinated during the Organization of American States (OAS) formation conference. This was the first act of a civil war lasting until the mid-1950s; campesinos and refugees from that war, which killed about 300,000 Colombians, gathered in enclaves for agriculture and self-protection.
The U.S. government saw these peasant enclaves as potentially dangerous to U.S. business interests in Colombia. In May 1964, as part of President John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, a CIA-backed program called Plan LAZO was carried out in which the United States trained Colombian military troops to invade the largest peasant enclaves. They used bomber aircraft with napalm to destroy the threat to U.S. business interests—and a lot of people.
2000 Plan Colombia/2016Peace Colombia
Under the pretext of drug traffic interdiction, Plan Colombia was imposed on Colombia by the United States. It was originally written in English and not even available in Spanish for months after Colombia supposedly agreed to it. It gave millions to military and police initiatives, including herbicide fumigation of nearly 400,000 acres, and the launch of a guerrilla encampment-bombing campaign and a “Territorial Consolidation” counterinsurgency plan.
Colombian peasants are a target, not because they are growing coca as a survival strategy, but because they are calling for social reform and hindering international plans to exploit Colombia’s valuable resources, including oil.
Private military contractors form the United States and other countries, including Israel, have signed contracts to carry out military operations in Colombia. The U.S. Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) battalion is attached to Colombian military units as “trainers and advisers.”
A UN study reported that elements within the Colombian security forces, which have been strengthened due to Plan Colombia and U.S. aid, continue to maintain intimate relationships with right-wing death squads, help organize paramilitary forces, and participate in abuses and massacres directly.
In August 2000, President Bill Clinton used his presidential waiver to override the human rights conditions, on the grounds that it was necessary for the interests of U.S. national security. Rebranded Peace Colombia, a change that fools no one, the plan continues to the present.
School of the Americas (SOA)
Colombia sent more military officers to the United States for training, and more Colombian SOA graduates than those of any other country have been identified as human rights abusers. The manuals prepared by the U.S. military and used for the SOA training recommend “fear, payment of bounties for enemy dead, beatings, false imprisonment, executions and the use of truth serum” for “suspects and informants” as well as their family members.
All of the commanders of the III Brigade in Valle del Cauca, where the 2001 Alto Naya massacre occurred, were SOA graduates. As you have never had a chance to hear about the Alto Naya massacre from advertiser-driven corporate conglomerate media, we will report it here. You might not want to read this; it is horrible.
Alto Naya Massacre (trigger warning: graphic violence)
At Alto Naya in Cauca on April 12, 2001, an estimated 40–130 civilians were killed and thousands displaced. Approximately 100 paramilitaries from the Frente Calima participated in the killings. The first victim was a 17-year-old girl named Gladys Ipia whose head and hands were cut off with a chainsaw.
Next, six people were shot while eating at a local restaurant. Another man was chopped into pieces and burned. A woman had her abdomen ripped open with a chainsaw. An indigenous leader named Cayetano Cruz was cut in half with a chainsaw.
The paramilitaries lined up the villagers in the middle of the town and asked people if they knew any guerrillas. If they answered “no,” they were hacked to death with machetes. Many of the bodies were dismembered and strewn piecemeal around the area, making it difficult to gain an accurate body count and identify victims. Between 4,000 and 6,000 people were displaced as they fled the area during and following the violence.
The paramilitaries are armed right-wing groups, supposedly illegal but in fact encouraged by the government and military of Colombia; they work alongside the armed forces. They include forces owned and organized by landowners and business interests.
They target and kill union leaders, campesino and Indigenous leaders, Afro-Colombian community leaders, human rights workers, land reform activists, and left-wing politicians and their “sympathizers.”
Continuity for Repression
Currently, U.S. operations are carried out under the pretext of the “War on Drugs” but in Colombia the FARC and ELN were not major elements of drug trade, nor are the current community, labor, social, feminist, environmental and Indigenous movements.
This is really about the United States continuing to control and exploit the resources of Latin America. There is great continuity in U.S. policy, whether it is carried out labeled as anti-drug, anti-communist, counterinsurgency or anti-terrorist.
What Can We Do?
We are being urged by people in Colombia, including the president of WILPF Colombia (LIMPAL), Diana Maria Salcedo, who spoke recently from Colombia:
“To raise our voices against the Duque government violence.
“To promote international human rights intervention in the situation. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has come to Colombia to examine the human rights situation during the General Strike—Paro Nacional. It took international pressure to make the Duque government allow this.
“To work to end U.S. military aid, sponsorship and presence in Colombia.”
A Dear Colleague letter directed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken was circulated by Rep. James P. McGovern (D–Mass.) and co-led by Reps. Mark Pocan (D–Wisc.), Jan Schakowsky (D–Ill.) and Raul Grijalva (D–Ariz.). This letter denounces excessive violence against citizens by Colombian Security Forces, the National Police and the riot police (ESMAD) and calls for the suspension of all U.S. direct assistance to Colombia’s National Police, especially to the Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron (ESMAD) riot police unit.
Ask your Congressional representative to sign on to this letter.
Even a casual look at the history of the United States in Colombia shows that U.S. policy does not change, regardless of the party in power. Something more is needed.
Leni Villagomez Reeves is a local physician and activist. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out her news and views about Cuba on Facebook (fresnosolidarity/).