Colombia, the Death Squads & the US’ Human Rights Double Standard
Nearly every day, we are bombarded with “news” about problems in Venezuela. And certainly, there are problems, such as food and medicine shortages and skyrocketing inflation. But there is something that is downplayed.
What the press downplays, if it mentions it at all, is the very real and significant ways that US sanctions have contributed to these problems facing Venezuela and how these sanctions are making it nearly impossible for Venezuela to solve these problems.
What the press also fails to mention is the even greater humanitarian issues confronting Venezuela’s next-door neighbor, Colombia – the US’ number one ally in the region and, quite bizarrely, the newest “global partner” of NATO from Latin America. And, the US is very much responsible for these issues as well, but in quite different ways.
The fact is that, by a number of measures, Colombia has one of the worst human rights situations on earth, but you would never know this from watching the nightly news.
First of all, Colombia has the largest number of people forcibly disappeared in all of the Americas – even more than all of the Southern Cone countries combined during the infamous ‘dirty war’ years – at over 60,000.
In addition, Colombia has one of the largest internally displaced populations on earth at well over 7 million – second only to Syria. And, a disproportionate number of these internally displaced are indigenous and Afro-descendants.
Moreover, Colombia ranks 5th in the world for the number of children internally displaced by conflict, with two million boys and girls internally displaced. Quite shockingly, Colombia ranks 3rd in the world for the number of children murdered, with 715 children murdered just last year. Such statistics have led Save The Children to conclude that Colombia is “one of the worst countries to be a child and adolescent in the world.”
Colombia is also one of the worst countries in the world to be a social leader, such as a human rights defender, union leader, indigenous or Afro-Colombian leader. Thus, even after the signing of a peace deal between the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas in 2016, social leaders are being murdered at an alarming rate. Indeed, over 200 social leaders have been killed just since January of 2017. Last year was in fact the worst year on record for human rights defenders in Colombia, with 120 killed in 2017.
Of course, the US has a large responsibility to bear for this awful situation in Colombia, as it has been the intellectual author behind Colombia’s brutal, decades-long war against its own people and has provided billions of dollars of material aid to this war effort. Indeed, since 2000, the US has given Colombia $10 billion in mostly military assistance as part of its counter-insurgency program known as ‘Plan Colombia.’ During the Plan Colombia years, the Colombian military attempted to boost US military assistance by murdering civilians in cold blood and passing them off as left-wing guerillas. It is now believed that the military killed 10,000 civilians in this grisly “false positive” operation.
But the US is also behind an even darker force than the Colombian military – that is, the Colombian paramilitary death squads. While those who live in the more remote parts of Colombia are painfully aware of the paramilitaries’ presence and brutality, the paramilitaries are now a well-kept secret in the more well-to-do parts of Colombia’s big cities and even more so outside of Colombia. Indeed, the Colombian and US governments deny the very existence of these paramilitary groups, and the compliant press is happy to oblige in keeping this dirty secret.
Recently, Colombia’s most prominent human rights defender, Father Javier Giraldo, S.J., spoke about the paramilitary phenomenon of which he is an expert. As he explains, “There are clandestine or semi-clandestine arms of the State, which are the paramilitary groups. Today, it is not tolerated that you refer to them as such, but I still call them paramilitaries, because that is the appropriate term.”
Father Giraldo describes the origin of the paramilitary death squads, a force developed by the United States before the left-wing guerrillas even came into existence in 1964. As Father Giraldo explains:
“In 1962, when Guillermo León Valencia was president, a mission of the North American army, of a special school of war in North Carolina, created after the Second World War to maintain the security of the United States, arrived in Colombia… They analyzed the situation in Colombia and left secret instructions, ordering the Colombian government to begin training mixed groups of civilians and the military, and preparing them for paramilitary terrorist activities to combat the sympathizers of communism.”
“…President Valencia, on Christmas day of the year 1965, issued Decree 3398 with which he changed the name of the Ministry of War to [the Ministry of] Defense, and authorized forming groups of civilians as auxiliaries of the armed forces, the legal basis of paramilitarism.”
“…The United States began to direct the entire security apparatus in Colombia and its agencies… first with 400 officers of the US Army; today there are at least 800. The paramilitarism that was created at that time, with all the legal support, has been reaffirmed.”
Of course, as Father Giraldo has explained on numerous occasions, the ostensible “sympathizers of communism” targeted by the paramilitaries are trade union leaders, human rights defenders, peasant leaders, and Catholic priests who advocate on behalf of the poor. As for Catholic priests, over 80 have been murdered since 1984 for the crime of advocating on behalf of the poor.
It is now becoming more evident than ever from the fact that there is now a rise in the murder of such social leaders, as well as mass forced displacement, after the disarming of the FARC guerrillas, that it, is the paramilitaries which are responsible for the lion’s share of such human rights abuses in Colombia. But again, you would have no idea about this from reading the newspapers or watching the nightly news. And, Colombians who are suffering at the hands of the paramilitaries are painfully aware of the conspiracy of silence around this issue.
Indeed, when I was recently in Colombia for the first round of the presidential elections, our delegation met with a number of residents of the small town of Suarez (Cauca Department) which had just lost three members of their community to paramilitary violence. One of the members of the community desperately asked us, “what can we do to let the world know of the continued existence of the paramilitaries?” I answered that we have been trying to do just that for many years, though few will hear us out on this issue.
While we were in Colombia, a campaign coordinator for Gustavo Petro, a Colombian presidential candidate, was murdered by paramilitaries the day before the election, and the paramilitary group known as ‘Aguilas Negras’ (Black Eagles) issued a general threat against the supporters of Petro for president just a few days before the May 27 vote.
If Colombia’s very real human rights and humanitarian crises were given nearly the attention that the problems in neighboring Venezuela receives, the US and Colombian government would at least have some incentive to improve the situation in Colombia and to go after the paramilitary groups which continue to haunt that country. The near complete silence about the staggering violence in Colombia is critical in allowing that violence to continue. Indeed, the paramilitaries have always depended upon being able to operate in the shadows, and the US press is more than happy to oblige them in this effort.
Top Photo: Doves fly over life-size images of killed and missing members of the Patriotic Union (UP), displayed during a tribute to the victims of Colombia’s armed conflict at Bolivar Square in Bogota on October 19, 2017. © Raul Arboleda / AFP