|In Colombia, Indigenous Peace Initiatives Under Attack|
Editor's Note: In Colombia, U.S. troops and advisors are contributing to a widening civil war where peasants and the indigenous are caught in the crossfire.
NEW YORK -- The carnage in Iraq has pushed several other U.S. military commitments from the headlines. Afghanistan jumps to mind. But nearly forgotten is Colombia, where the United States has 800 troops and 600 more private contractors on the ground. The troops, largely advisors from Army Special Forces, are ostensibly barred from combat missions, but they intimately direct Colombian army operations. The parallels with Iraq are increasingly obvious for those who care to look.
As in Iraq, U.S. forces have been implicated in attacks on civilian communities. As in Iraq, U.S.-backed forces and increasingly ruthless insurgents alike are making life unsustainable for local people caught between both sides. And perhaps even more so than in Iraq, civilian initiatives for peace and local autonomy are themselves being targeted by all sides in the conflict.
In recent weeks, the government of President Alvaro Uribe has launched a major counter-guerilla offensive called the Patriot Plan, in apparent emulation of the U.S. anti-terrorist legislation. One frontline in this contest is Toribio, a Nasa Indian village in the mountains of conflict-torn Cauca department, where residents have proclaimed their own right not to participate in the war.
Toribio maintained a precarious autonomy until it was occupied by government troops in August 2003, and secured from guerilla attempts to take the town after several weeks of fighting. This April, the guerillas again mounted an offensive to drive the army from Toribio, and the town has since become a war zone once again.
Ezequiel Vitonas, a former mayor of Toribio and a leading voice in the Association of Indigenous Councils of North Cauca (ACIN), was in New York City in May for the annual meeting of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. "We have a policy of not involving ourselves in the conflict of the country," Vitonas says. "We seek to protect our form of self-government and self-determination." But Vitonas says the Nasa community process, which includes health, educational and economic systems, "is not liked by either the left or the right."
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) attacked Toribio on April 14, and the government sent in the new U.S.-trained High Mountain Battalion, an elite force of battle-hardened troops, backed by a larger force of regular troops. Military planes and helicopters circled above. On the following day, Uribe himself arrived in Toribio -- the latest in a series of grandstanding moves to govern from the war zones.
Over the next two weeks, bullets flew through the village intermittently. A young child was killed, some 20 residents were wounded and as many homes destroyed. Hundreds of residents have been forced to flee to makeshift refugee centers some 50 kilometers away. Vitonas claims residents saw North American soldiers in camouflage directing the Colombian troops during the operations.
Peasant peace initiatives are also under attack throughout Colombia. In February, eight civilians, including community leader Luis Eduardo Guerra and three children, were massacred in the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado, a village in northern Uraba region that eight years ago declared its lands neutral and demilitarized. Witnesses identified the killers as members of the Colombian military, and peace community members saw the army's 17th and 11th Brigades in the area around the time of the murders.
Uribe's administration has done little to investigate the murders, but the president wasted no time in accusing the peace community leaders of being "auxiliaries of the FARC." Army and National Police forces have flooded San Jose. All but five of the 100 families that formed the Peace Community have been forced to abandon their homes and land. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is helping to manage a camp that has been formed by displaced residents.
After the massacre, SOA Watch, the group that monitors the U.S. Army's School of the Americas (now officially the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), reported that the commander of the 17th Brigade of the Colombian army received training at the SOA. Gen. Hector Jaime Fandi?o Rincon attended the "Small-Unit Infantry Tactics" course in 1976.
Now Tolemaida, a key military base outside Bogota, figures in a scandal concerning U.S. troops arming Colombia's outlawed right-wing paramilitary groups, the most brutal actor in the civil war. On May 3, Colombian authorities arrested U.S. Army Warrant Officer Allan Tanquary and Sgt. Jesus Hernandez at a luxury estate near the Tolemaida base with nearly 40,000 rounds of ammunition allegedly intended for the paramilitaries. The two were turned over to the United States under a 1974 treaty granting U.S. forces in Colombia immunity from prosecution.
"The marginal peoples of the planet must find a way to unite to promote our own methods of development," Ezequiel Vitonas says. But this is becoming a greater challenge every day as Colombia's war escalates, with Pentagon direction, in a strategy that seeks to polarize and eliminate any political space not beholden to armed factions.
PNS contributor Bill Weinberg is editor of World War 4 Report. He is working on a book about Colombia for Verso Books.
5525 Illinois Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20011