No peace, no silence in Colombia

New documentation is available on the precariousness of life and pall of terror weighing upon Colombia. Why has deadly conflict persisted for decades? Why have rich nations turned a blind eye, or lent a hand?

Britain’s Colombia Solidarity Campaign joined a multinational delegation in February to Arauca department in solidarity with oil workers there. A report appearing on the group’s web site provides background for a wave of murders there.

Arauca, located along the Venezuelan border, came under military control last September as a “zone of consolidation and rehabilitation.” Colombia’s interior minister characterized the oil-producing state as a “laboratory of war.”

Disappearances, killing, and displacement are routine. Paramilitaries and the army have joined in massacres. Roadblocks cause food shortages. Displacement aggravates malnutrition and sickness. Social services are nearly absent due to government neglect. Members of teacher, oil worker, health worker, peasant, and public employee unions are punished.

A tally of recent deaths provided by colombiaindymedia.org includes these victims: Hector Parra Suarez, cattle ranch worker, June 15, Fortul; Ramiro Castellanos Mantilla, June 12, Saravena; Alexis Moreno Merchan, June 12, Barrio Las Flores; Jorge Humberto Echeverri, teacher, unionist, community leader, June 11, Arauquita; Pablo Rodriguez Garavito, teacher, unionist, June 9, Puerto Rondo; Jairo Pinto, farm worker, June 9, Puerto Rondo; Linderman German Farias, indigenous, June 8, Tame.

Others, all killed in Arauquita, were: Luis Eduardo Leon Moreno, June 6; Wilman Navarro, June 5; Ana Leon Morena, May 16; and Milton Blanco, teacher and unionist April 24. For some, occupations were unspecified.

In a just-released report, the International Trade Union Confederation listed 76 unionists killed worldwide last year, 49 of them Colombian ― a 25 percent hike in one year.

Philip Alston, special UN rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, conducted a 10-day investigation in Colombia in June. He focused on killings of thousands of civilians by the military over six years, carried out to provide bodies that, dressed in guerrilla uniforms, could be presented as insurgent casualties. The military wanted to advertise victories. Murderers gained extra pay.

In a preliminary report available on the reliefweb.int web site, Alston noted that the killings “disproportionately affect rural and poor populations, indigenous people, Afro-Colombians, trade unionists, human rights defenders and community leaders.” The known victims represent “the tip of the iceberg.” He implicated ostensibly demobilized paramilitaries.

Data on divisions within Colombian society suggest class conflict as central to out-of- bounds warfare directed at the many.

Poverty is variously estimated at 50 to 60 percent, with a 60 percent-40 percent rural- urban differential. Extreme poverty afflicts almost one-fourth of rural Colombians. Some 13 percent of young children suffer from acute malnutrition and almost 30 percent from chronic malnutrition. The probability of Colombians dying under age 40 approaches 10 percent.

Wealth is concentrated: 1.4 per cent of landowners hold 65 per cent of Colombian land and 0.4 per cent of them own 61 per cent of the farm land. Peasants fleeing conflict have abandoned 15 million acres, mostly to agribusiness and extractive industries. The internally displaced exceed 4 million, almost half living in households headed by women.

Based on its Gini coefficient ― a measure of wealth distribution ― Colombia is Latin America’s second-most unequal country, after Brazil. Ten percent of the country’s wealthy earn 30 times more than the poorest 10 percent. Overall, 5 percent of the population controls over 90 percent of Colombian property.

Class division long ago induced the poor to join in defending themselves for the sake of survival. The rich and powerful took fright, magnifying the fears of others and exploiting divisions. Their tool was and is the bogeyman of a communist menace. Guerrilla insurgencies, continuing over decades, have served as foil. Peaceful conflict resolution remains a distant dream. War and militarization continue.

The United States, bloated on anti-communism and anti-terrorism, brought Colombia into the cold war. Since 2000 the country has received over $5 billion in U.S. military aid, spent largely on fomenting terror. Now the U.S. and Canadian governments, alert to business profits, move toward free trade agreements with Colombia. In May, the Pentagon asked Congress for $46 million to develop a new military base in Palanquero, Colombia, condemned by the Fellowship of Reconciliation as “giv[ing] the United States military increased capacity for intervention throughout most of Latin America.”