U.S. must take stand against the death squads in Colombia

Posted: January 15, 2002

The villagers of El Salado know why thousands of people in southern Colombia are fleeing in terror. A few months ago, El Salado endured an ordeal that could soon be reenacted on a much larger scale elsewhere in the country: a massacre of civilians by right-wing paramilitary forces, with the acquiescence of the country's military.

With peace talks now officially over and leftist guerrillas ordered to abandon the Switzerland-size zone they were allowed to control, the Colombian military forces are poised for a major escalation of the civil war. Now is precisely the moment for Washington to tell Colombia, in absolutely unequivocal terms, that paramilitary fighters must not be allowed to target civilian populations in that region or anywhere else.

In scores of towns throughout Colombia, the paramilitary's particular brand of horror has left scars that may never heal. On a Friday morning several months ago, the people of the tiny village of El Salado in northern Colombia were startled by a terrifying sight. Hundreds of armed men were marching into the center of town. One pulled out a list and started calling out names. In the next three days, those on the list would be tortured, beaten and stabbed.

Later, the men would identify themselves as members of Colombia's paramilitary force, the so-called United Self-Defense of Colombia (AUC), right-wing antiguerrilla vigilantes responsible for most, though not all, of the civilian deaths in the civil war. The AUC was started by ranchers and relatives of those killed by the country's leftist guerillas.

AUC accused the people on the list of helping left-wing guerrillas. A few miles away, the official Colombian army had set up roadblocks, keeping villagers from escaping and human-rights monitors from entering the town.

In the first six months of 2001, the Colombian army reported almost 100 separate massacres that left 568 civilians dead. True, the guerrillas are guilty of many of the murders, but, as mentioned, most are committed by the paramilitary AUC, often with the complicity of the country's army. And it is the AUC whose actions the United States can prevent by demanding that government forces refuse to permit death squads to do their horrific work.

After all, the United States is the principal sponsor of Colombia's military. Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. aid, after Israel and Egypt. The aid program is a controversial structure designed, in theory, to fight the drug trade. Because the many parties to Colombia's conflict, principally the leftist guerrillas, receive funding from the drug cartels, the United States can claim to fight drugs while, in fact, supporting the government's war against a guerrilla insurgency that has gone on for decades.

With Black Hawk helicopters and American military advisers, the Colombian military has taken on two leftist armies: the Revolutionary armed forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army or ELN. The fourth army in the bloodbath is the AUC.

During the last three years, the government of President Andres Pastrana has engaged in a peace process with the guerrillas, granting FARC full control of a section of the country as an incentive to negotiate. But now that negotiations are all but over, the war in Colombia is about to get much worse. The Colombian army is about to take on FARC head-on. And there is every reason to believe the paramilitaries will punish the people of that region as accomplices of the guerrillas. Such a bloodletting will guarantee that the civil war continues to escalate.

The United States, which has branded FARC as a terrorist group, no longer needs to rationalize its support of the Colombian military as being part of its "war on drugs." In the new, post-Sept. 11 reality, the United States can act more bluntly. It will no doubt side firmly with Colombia's government in this war, as it should.

But it must also stand with Colombia's people in protecting civilian lives.

Frida Ghitis (fghitis@yahoo.com), a native of Colombia, is a journalist and author. Her latest book is "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television."

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