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Colombia and the “War” on Terror: Rhetoric and Reality

By Robin Kirk

Published in The World Today, a publication of the Royal Institute of International Affairs

March 2004  
The Islamic fundamentalism that inspired the September 11 2001 attacks on the United States is unknown in Colombia. Yet the aftermath has changed the country’s relationship to the world and especially America. Colombia’s decades-old internal armed dispute is now described and understood differently, through the newly energised rhetoric of a global ‘war’ on terrorism.

The political incentive behind such rhetoric is obvious: it allows Colombia to reposition its conflict as worthy of international attention and, with it, financial and military support for government efforts to combat the violence.  
But there are other more disturbing consequences. Particularly when terrorism is presented as a phenomenon influenced by or linked to the Middle East, it can mask serious deficiencies or even profound contradictions in the way that Colombia and its allies search for an end to political violence, respond to groups that employ terror, and develop realistic solutions to the country’s problems.  
Clearly, Colombia faces serious threats to its democracy. Left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries represent a combined force of over forty thousand armed and trained fighters. Both groups pay for war with profits from illegal activities, among them kidnapping, contraband, and the international trade in weapons and narcotics.  
Of these, narcotics is the most robust single resource for the illegal armies. The country is the main producer of cocaine and has surpassed Asia in providing American consumers with heroin. The US government estimates that Americans, the largest single group of illegal drug consumers, spend $46 billion annually on the two drugs.  
A percentage of this profit goes into the pockets of armed groups, who use it to pay fighters and buy weapons, uniforms, food, equipment, vehicles and munitions. Their main targets are civilians and the preferred method of attack is terror, through massacres, car bombs and indiscriminate violence.  
Last year human rights groups registered more than 2,500 killings of civilians as a result of political violence. Each day an average of 650 people were forced to flee their homes. Torture remains commonplace and hundreds, including a former presidential candidate, a senator, a governor, and members of Congress, are held hostage by guerrillas. Survivors of attacks do not hesitate to describe themselves as terrorised.  
Robbed of legitimacy  
Certainly, Colombia is not new to the term ‘terrorist’. Both the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP) and smaller Camilist Union-Army of National Liberation (UCELN) guerrillas appeared on the first American list of foreign terrorist organisations in 1997. On September 10 2001, Washington added the United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary coalition that represents at least ten regional groups.  
Once three years of negotiations with the FARC-EP broke down in February 2002, then President Andrés Pastrana successfully lobbied the European Union to include guerrillas on its terrorist list. Used in this way, the term ‘terrorist’ robbed guerrillas of legitimacy and shifted blame for failed talks onto their shoulders.  
Objectively, however, there was little difference between guerrilla behaviour during the talks — when the president rarely used the term terrorist — and their behaviour after negotiations collapsed. Even as guerrilla negotiators sat down with their government counterparts in 1999, 2000 and 2001, fighters kidnapped, carried out massacres and launched attacks against towns, often with catastrophic effects.  
With the inauguration of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez in August 2002, the terrorist rhetoric from the presidential palace at once broadened and hardened. More than any previous Colombian president, Uribe has deployed the word terrorist to describe the country’s illegal armed groups and their actions, and has gone so far as to link them to Islamic fundamentalists.  
In his inauguration speech, for example, Uribe used terrorism to refer to ‘any violence against [a democratic state]’. As the US prepared to topple Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the president added Colombia to the ‘coalition of the willing’ — the only South American nation to join — and explicitly linked Colombian violence to events in the Middle East.  
Colombia, he asserted, was ‘a more serious menace [to the world] than Iraq’. Since nations were mobilising to contain the Iraqi threat, he argued, ‘why don’t they consider an equal, similar deployment to put an end to this problem [in Colombia], which has the potential for such serious consequences?’  
Uribe also followed the US example in declaring certain fighters ‘illegal combatants’, suggesting that they are ineligible for rights guaranteed to combatants by international law. ‘I don’t acknowledge [guerrillas] as combatants, but instead call them terrorists,’ Uribe said last June. ‘[It’s necessary to leave behind] this story that we must recognise  
their status as combatants.’  
In important ways, Washington has reinforced this shift. In 2002, the White House received congressional permission to use military assistance in Colombia to directly engage groups identified by the State Department as terrorists. Previously, this aid could only be used in counter-drug operations. This year Colombia is likely to receive over $680 million in mostly military aid from America, placing it among the top five countries benefiting from US military assistance.  
General James T. Hill, head of the US Army’s Southern Command, routinely describes illegal drugs like cocaine and heroin as ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and links drug sales to support for ‘international terrorist organisations such as Hizbollah, Hamas and Islamiyya al Gammat, which have support cells throughout Latin America.’  
Dangerous decisions  
However, a wealth of studies demonstrate that most of the profits from the sales of cocaine and heroin benefit American dealers, not foreign terrorists. The rhetoric of global terrorism used on Colombia can lead to serious flaws in analysis. For instance, Colombia’s history is nothing like that of the Middle East, with its dominant theme of religious conflict.  
Colombia’s fighters, both legal and illegal, are strikingly similar in age, ethnic background, skin colour, language, gender, economic status and religion. With a very few exceptions, the armies target other Colombians, not foreigners, and have even gone to great lengths to exempt or shield foreigners from attack.  
Neither the guerrillas nor the paramilitaries have ever launched an attack on the US or Europe — though guerrillas in particular will kidnap the occasional foreigner for ransom. While fighting or refugees have spilled over the border, most of the energy and weaponry is focused on Colombians, not outsiders.  
But the problem is not just one of faulty description. The ‘war’ on terrorism rhetoric prepares the way for dangerous decisions that promise to perpetuate political violence well into the new millennium.  
For instance, the paramilitaries continue to maintain a clandestine alliance with units of the security forces — particularly the Colombian army — and some economic elites, like ranchers and local politicians. Yet the government does little to suppress this source of terror, cut these links, or root out the corrupt government officials who work with known human rights abusers.  
On the contrary, the Uribe administration has avoided challenging paramilitaries in the field, in sharp contrast to its robust campaign against guerrillas. Using the considerable power of the law, the Attorney-General has also blocked or detoured investigations against paramilitaries, meaning that impunity has become the rule in the courts.  
Under the guise of demobilisation talks, the government has gone even further. If it prevails against intense international pressure, it will ensure impunity for the paramilitaries who have committed some of the bloodiest crimes in Colombian history.  
Take, for instance, the case of AUC commander Carlos Castaño. Currently, Castaño has been convicted of ordering the assassination of one presidential candidate, has admitted to the assassination of a second, as well as a Colombian senator, and was found guilty last year of planning two massacres in 1997 with an estimated 45 victims. There are over forty additional arrest warrants for him related to massacres, killings, and cases of torture and death threats.  
Yet under a bill presented to Congress, Castaño could wipe his record clean by making a cash payment, promising to reform, and remaining in a certain region for five years. As the feared warlord has already let it be known, he would then be legally able to pursue a seat in Congress or even run for president.  
Paramilitary power  
Efforts to dismantle the guerrillas — while leaving paramilitaries virtually untouched — have had dramatic impact in places like Barrancabermeja, in the country’s steaming centre. Long an engine of economic power, the city hosts the country’s largest oil refinery and is a major port along the Magdalena river. For over a decade, the UC-ELN guerrillas profited from extorting the multinational oil companies that pipe crude in and extract marketable fuels.  
That changed in late 2000, when a combined assault by paramilitaries working with official tolerance and, in some cases visible support, dislodged the guerrillas from the city’s slums within a matter of months. But instead of reasserting control, the government has ceded de facto authority to paramilitaries, who now set rules, collect extortion, and mete out punishment.  
‘The military and police authorities show that they are incapable of exercising authority, which permits [paramilitaries] to maintain their structure and control of the area,’ explains Yolanda Becerra, a human rights defender from the Popular Women’s Organisation (OFP), a Barrancabermeja-based human rights group. ‘Killings continue... The paramilitaries control the job contracts issued by Ecopetrol [the state-run oil company]. They prohibit all protest marches. They force people to support their political candidates. And the authorities claim that they can do nothing against them.’  
In January, Becerra narrowly escaped a paramilitary ambush as she escorted representatives of the Norwegian Refugee Council visiting displaced communities.  
Silencing critics  
The punishment for talking about what is happening can be extreme. On October 16, for example, OFP worker Esperanza Amaris Miranda was dragged from her home by armed paramilitaries. Although her adult daughter tried to stop the abduction and fought with the kidnappers, they forced Miranda into a waiting taxi. Five minutes later, they shot and killed her in front of a school. Though the authorities had been informed of previous threats against Miranda and the paramilitary presence in the area, her murder was carried out with no impediment.  
In many regions, prosecutors are simply too afraid to investigate paramilitaries aggressively. Meanwhile, there is a new and disturbing abundance of trumped-up cases against community and human rights leaders who speak out against paramilitaries and their official patrons. The Procuraduría, Colombia’s internal affairs agency, has noted that many of those detained or searched for supposed terrorist ties are government critics, not guerrillas or their supporters.  
Uribe himself has attacked human rights groups, accusing them of acting as ‘spokespeople for terrorism… Here there are traffickers in human rights who spend all of their time asking for support from the European Union and other institutions simply to maintain themselves, because they have made a living out of this and because they need resources to stop the state from acting, and this is the way they stop the defeat of terrorism.’  
As Senator Antonio Navarro Wolff has said, disregard for the law threatens to weaken democracy with little real gain in the fight against terror. ‘This is not just because the law is the soul of democracy, but because now more than ever the centre of gravity of this conflict is legitimacy.’  
None deny that Colombia has for too long been prey to terror. Its citizens need security and to defend themselves from attack. But to do this, all sources of terror — including the state sponsors still hidden within the system — must be pursued. Otherwise, the government risks perpetuating the same sources of violence that have drained the country’s vibrancy and talent for too long.

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