A Special Report : Colombia’s Bloody Civil War

A Rag Blog exclusive report…
War and poverty in today´s Colombia

July 15, 2008

The following analysis was presented by a Conscientious Objectors´ group, and edited and translated by The Rag Blog’s Val Liveoak. The presenter´s name is withheld to protect him. Val Liveoak was on the staff of The Rag in Austin from 1972-1975. She works with Friends Peace Teams on peacebuidling in Colombia. Val has worked on projects in Colombia since 2000, and lives in San Antonio.

Colombia is a rich country, with abundant natural resources and occupying a strategic geopolitical position on the South American Continent. Its biodiversity is remarkable: 10 per cent of all the earth’s flora and fauna are found in Colombia, and 22.4 per cent of the planet’s fresh water. This abundance of water alone makes it attractive to transnational and national businesses that need water to produce their products. Colombia has a very youthful population–of the total 43 million inhabitants, 46.5 per cent are younger than 19 years old.

Additionally Colombia has great mineral wealth. Its largest product is coal — 1,183 metric tons have been mined, about one sixth of the known reserves. Gold is also a major product. The companies which exploit these resources, along with petroleum, nickel, uranium, magnesium, zinc, copper and many others, are mainly US or Canadian owned.

In gold production, for example, Gulf Crown, a Canadian company, takes around 80 per cent of the income generated by its mines. Workers, using 18th century technology and little safety equipment, enter dangerous mineshafts, dig with pickaxes and then carry out ore which they treat with an acid despite having no protective equipment. Then they then transport it by mule-back to the mine’s office and are paid under two cents per gram for partially refined gold, while gold sells on the world market for up to $2.50/gram.

“Despite Colombia’s natural wealth of mineral and biologic resources and our geopolitical importance, or to be exact, because of these interests, it is ironic that Colombia is also a place with great poverty and human suffering.”

For more that 50 years, Colombia has suffered one of the most prolonged and bloody civil wars of the century. The past four administrations in Colombia have tried to diminish or even deny that a war is happening, but there have been over 2,500 military actions annually and deaths of over 3,000 combatants, so it is undeniable that there is a real war in process. (International standards consider an annual total of 1,000 casualties as defining a war.) In the June 6, 2008 issue of El Tiempo, a national newspaper, a survey showed that around 20 per cent of Colombians do not believe there is a war going on, and the other 80 per cent believe there is.

The human consequences of this ongoing war are innumerable. It would not be feasible to try to document in this article all of the effects on Colombians during nearly four generations of war. But we will outline a few of the effects.

Most noteworthy as having affected nearly 10 per cent of the Colombian population is internal forced displacement. Colombia has the second largest population of internally-displaced people (IDPs) in the world, over 3,500,000 according to the UN High Commission on Refugees. And even this figure is considered low, due to IDPs’ fear of reporting their displacement because the report might put themselves or their families at further risk of violence. Both paramilitary and guerrilla groups cause displacement, although paramilitaries are responsible for the majority of displacements.

In addition to the people who have suffered displacement, thousands have been assassinated, kidnapped or have disappeared. To cite one statistic, from 1993 to the first quarter of 2006, the Self Defense forces of Colombia (known in Spanish as the AUC), only one of a number of paramilitary groups, have perpetuated 1,517 massacres of a total of 8,386 victims. According to the Association of Families of the Disappeared, more than 7,000 people have been disappeared since 1977, and we know that the actual total might be much higher because not all disappearances are reported because of the fear of further violence. During the process of demobilization, begun in January, 2007, former paramilitary members´ confessions have led to the discovery of around 800 common graves with 2-18 cadavers each.

In Colombia, according to the Fiscal General (a Cabinet position similar to Attorney General), there were “…more victims of paramilitaries than there were in Chile during the military dictatorship of Agosto Pinochet and in Argentina under Rafael Videla together.” Paramilitary groups are blamed for the majority of disappearances. (Note: Paramilitary groups began appearing in Colombia around the mid 1970s, when Colombian officers began receiving counterinsurgency training at the US School of the Americas — now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security and Cooperation. They were taught to form groups that could do things the Army was forbidden to do by law. Additionally, large landowners and other business owners began around that time to hire armed groups to “protect their interests” including displacing small farmers from desirable land, and suppressing unions, journalists and judges.)

Kidnapping is common in Colombia, with over 21,000 known victims in the last 12 years, 3,167 of whom remain in captivity. Massive protests of kidnapping, and public demand for the liberation of the victims have received worldwide publicity. During this month, there have been very few days when the media did not mention a victim of kidnapping, or his/her release. The guerrilla groups, the FARC and the ELN, use the ransoms to help finance their programs. (Additionally these groups also blockade and rob travelers on highways—a tactic known as “miraculous fishing,” and are involved in the drug trade.) Other groups also kidnap people for ransom, but kidnapping by guerrilla groups is most loudly denounced.

The psychosocial implications of the impact of constant and innumerable deaths, disappearances, tortures, kidnappings, threats of violence, displacements and aggressions against the civilian population throughout the length and breadth of the country, in addition to the grave implications of entire generations marked by violence are compounded by the economic effects of the war economy that has created the terrible phenomenon of impoverishment throughout the Colombian population.

Currently, according to CEPALC (The Peoples’ Communication Center of Latin American), 63 per cent of Colombians live in poverty on less than $2 a day and of that group, 32 per cent live in absolute poverty on less than $1 daily. At the same time 1.8 per cent of the richest Colombians control approximately 68 per cent of the wealth and capital of the country. (Compare to the US where the richest one per cent controls about 55% of the national wealth.) 6,000 of the largest landowners control 50 million hectares of land while 3 million small farmers (campesinos, literally, “country people”) share around 7 million hectares, an area which is constantly being reduced by the difficulties of agricultural production, violence and the threats of armed groups.

At the same time the current administration is spending record breaking amounts on the war, deepening the critical problems of the country and creating a dangerous economic dynamic around “national security,” which in addition to being onerous is also ineffective at fulfilling the government’s own goals.

Increases in military spending directly correspond to the increases in the rates of poverty among the population. A recent year’s defense budget of over $9.7 billion makes Colombia the country with the third highest military budget (by percentage of GNP) in the world, at 6.3 per cent. (The US, even with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, spends around 4.04 per cent of GNP.)

This increase in military spending is obviously one cause of decreases in spending for health, education, housing, pensions, public services, infrastructure, sports and other vital elements for development. As a comparison, consider that there are five Colombian soldiers for every 1,000 civilians but only one doctor for every 3,800 persons. (“And that doctor is limited to serving only paying patients, so most of us use herbal medicines and other home remedies to keep well. This may be like the US medical system.”) If we take into account that not only members of the armed forces are involved in efforts to ensure “national security,” we also note that of 556,000 public employees, 460,000 are working in the area of defense, security or as police. By the account of the Colombian Defense Department, each soldier costs $7,900 each year (up from $3,500 in 1999) while the Ministry of Education says that each student in public school is budgeted to receive a little less than $900/year.

The US government is supporting this onerous war machine, too, with $320 million as a part of the Patriot Plan (the successor to the first and second phases of Plan Colombia that gave the Colombian government $580 million over the last ten years of both Democratic and Republican administrations.) Additionally, the US has provided over $150 million in technological and logistical assistance and in military equipment (“mostly obsolete”). There are large amounts of military supplies being stored in depots, far more than the Army can currently use.

Why then, cannot the 415,000 members of the Colombian Armed Forces (aided by an estimated 21,000-30,000 paramilitary members) defeat the guerrilla groups FARC (15,000 members) and the ELN (7,500 members)? Paraphrasing Noam Chomsky, “Winning a war is not good business.” Recent events also seem to indicate that the US is nudging the Uribe government into a proxy war with Venezuela. (See below.)

What are (some) Colombians afraid of?

Colombian friends have spoken often of the desire to end the “culture of violence” they experience daily. Although in the capital, Bogotá, life seems pretty normal to most people who do not have contact with the hordes of displaced people who have fled to the slum neighborhoods around the city, there are many reminders of the ongoing war, not to mention the other effects outlined in the article above.

In Colombia, all men between the ages of 18 and 50 (!) are obliged to serve in the military. Most expect to serve around the ages of 18-20, when those who have access to higher education complete their bachillerato, a degree similar to an AB from a junior college in the US. Young men studying for this degree or in seminary, heads of households, handicapped, and some others are legally entitled to deferment, if not exemption from military service, although conscientious objection for religious or moral reasons is not recognized. The Colombian Mennonite Church has led efforts to achieve recognition of CO’s for many years.

One event that affected the group of Conscientious Objectors was a massive roundup of young men for military service in February of this year. While some young men volunteer for military service (daily during the evening news there is a Colombian version of the “Be all you can be” advertisement), most are forcibly recruited — swept up by the authorities outside movie theaters or in parks, on their way to work, or even outside schools. On February 12, 2008, over 30,000 young men were taken, in the largest dragnet in the history of the country. Some, like a CO we spoke to, had received draft notices to report to a center. When he and some 3,000 others arrived they were processed and immediately sent to an Army camp. He had the assistance of the CO group, and was able, after 12 hours of protesting, to be let go with a citation to return in a few months. Others were not so fortunate, and the CO groups are still fighting in the courts for the release of youths entitled to legal exemptions as well as COs.

But those are not the only concerns the COs expressed. They have heard that these new recruits — some of whom should never have been taken — have been sent after brief training to the border areas with Venezuela and Ecuador where many troops are being massed. Although relations with Ecuador have improved after Colombia´s raid on guerrilla camps across the border in March, saber-rattling on both sides of the Colombian-Venezuelan border continues. News stories of Venezuela´s efforts to increase its military might, including its display of newly acquired missiles, are added to the coverage of President Chavez´ defiant statements opposing US military aid to Colombia. “I think there’s a propaganda campaign preparing us to wage a proxy war against Venezuela,” said one CO, “and the troop buildup on the borders seems to point to a possible war as well, not to mention the stockpiling of military equipment.”

While much of the US peace movement’s attention is (rightly) focused on the Middle East, we should remember that US interests are strong in Latin America and that Colombia is the third largest recipient of US military aid. On Sunday (June 8) President Chavez called for an end of the guerrilla war in Colombia and a unilateral release of all the kidnapped hostages. “You in the FARC should know that the war has become the excuse for the Empire to threaten us all. The day there is peace in Colombia, there will no longer be any excuse for a US Empire.” It seems he is also concerned about a possible proxy war.

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