The new Colombian President is likely to continue with policies of terror and corruption. And he is backed by some influential friends, reports Tom Gill
Uribe is likely to intensify state-sponsored terror. So why are the British still training Colombia’s armed forces? Drugs and tenor have long been dragging down South America’s third-most populous country.
But they have also helped catapult this Harvardeducated man from the provinces to the pinnacle of political power.
The son of a wealthy cattle rancher who only escaped extradition on drug trafficking charges because of friends in high places, Uribe carried on the family tradition at the civil aviation authority, where he handed out dozens of licenses to narco-pilots. During his tenure as mayor of Medellin, he was so helpful to the Pablo Escobar drug cartel that the city earned the nickname “the sanctuary” among traffickers.
It was Uribe who created “self-defence” units that displaced some 200,000 peasants during his governorship of Antioquia province. Today, they are an 11,000-strong paramilitary army, responsible for most of the 20 politically motivated murders a day.
Yet Uribe claims he’s the man to end a cocaine-fuelled 40-year civil war that stepped up a gear in February after peace talks collapsed amid government inaction over paramilitary violence. He has promised a “firm hand” with FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the 18,000-strong Marxist guerrilla force and has declared a state of emergency along with a tripling of military expenditure.
He has also begun preparations to create a million-strong, civilian militia. This plan, which will see arms distributed, could be a vehicle to legitimise paramilitary violence, human rights organisations fear.
It is said that Uribe, who also wants to deepen the pro-market economic reforms that have added to poverty and unemployment, has a popular mandate for such policies. And indeed, opinion polls ahead of the May elections showed his star rise as fast as that of the FARC fell. But these should be distrusted in a country where so few of the 24 million poor have access to a private telephone line that it is a small minority of wealthy Colombians who shape public opinion. And despite winning the presidential election without facing a second round run-off, he was elected by less than 25 per cent of the voting population.
Still, the United States’ Government has celebrated Uribe’s election by boosting aid to some $1.6 billion under the military package, Plan Colombia. This includes hefty sums to defend the rich against kidnapping by the FARC and guerrilla attacks on US oil pipelines. George Bush has also won changes to the law so that the US Government can openly fund military operations against the guerrillas in a move that completes the mutation from a failed war against drugs to an equally-doomed war against the insurgency.
The British Government has been less conspicuous. Yet, Britain continues to provide antidrug and other unspecified training to Colombian armed forces and police. Tony Blair’s reception of Uribe at Downing Street last month is likely to add to concerns that the British armed forces risk aiding elements within the Colombian army directly implicated in civilian atrocities or indirectly, through links with paramilitaries.
According to the Washington-based Human Rights Watch, at least half the army’s 18 brigades are tainted. The Colombian Government has launched a public relations exercise aimed at cleaning up its image. There have been stories that senior army officers have been dismissed. But the army has not said whether these dismissals are linked to human rights abuses. And of the few who have been charged with abuses and kicked out, many are understood to have simply joined the paramilitaries. Meanwhile, paramilitaries who have been arrested are often released shortly afterwards.
Perhaps the most damning proof of continuing terror was the horrendous Choco incident in May, which left 119 civilians dead in the small town of Bojay in the remote jungle of north-west Colombia.
The worst casualty toll among the civilian population from a single battle in the four decade-long civil war occurred when the FARC fired a cooking-gas cylinder packed with explosives that veered off target and hit a church where 300 villagers were sheltered.
A report prepared by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) condemned the guerrillas. It also condemned paramilitary fighters who were hiding among the civilians to defend themselves from the rebel attack. But its most damning conclusion was that the Government, the police and the army not only ignored warnings of an impending tragedy but also may have collaborated with the outlawed paramilitary forces to allow them to enter the region.
A 250-person paramilitary unit sailed up the River Atrato in seven large boats and passed through two police and one army checkpoint without the slightest problem, the OHCHR found. Paramilitary fighters in civilian clothes began returning to the village of Bojay and a sister community, Vigia del Suerte, as soon as the army flew 800 troops in and took back control. In addition, paramilitary commanders flew into the town aboard light aircraft at a time when the town was under full military control and only army aircraft were authorised to land on the small airstrip.
AGAINST such a backdrop, it would be
reasonable to expect the British Government to clarify which British forces are active in Colombia, who exactly are they training and how are they ensuring this military training is not being used to abuse human rights. Yet it refuses. Releasing such information “would be harmful to national security, defence or international relations”, the the then Minister of Defence, John Spellar, said in an answer to a written parliamentary question last year.
The British Government’s secrecy contrasts with the US administration, which under the Leahy Amendment is compelled to spell out exactly what military aid it is giving to Colombia.
The Government’s defenders, noting that Britain is the second largest investor in the country after the US, might argue that its attitude is informed by a “war on terror” that only targets armed groups, such as FARC, which threaten British and US interests friends. The more sceptical, looking for some evidence of Labour’s ethical foreign policy and promises of open government, will be looking for an explanation.