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July 31, 2005 - The Boston Globe (MA)

Column: Colombia - Our Other War

By Thomas Oliphant, Globe Columnist

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

WASHINGTON -- For American VIPs interested in a peek at the murderous mess that Colombia tragically remains, with American money and soldiers fueling the carnage, there are basically two ways to travel.

One is for the cheerleaders behind the Bush administration's policy that keeps the slaughter going and the illegal drugs flowing. The other is Jim McGovern's way.

The cheerleaders, in exchange for putting on a set of blinders, can be down and back in 36 hours. The country's sophisticated ambassador up here, Luis Alberto Moreno, is happy to arrange everything. Cheerleaders get slick presentations from top US and Colombia officials in Bogota, a quick look at a Potemkin economic development project or a newly "pacified" village, an evening of cultural entertainment, an easily assembled press conference to proclaim progress and --presto -- they're back here to support more billions to fund another US war in which only the Colombian people are the victims.

Representative McGovern prefers vans and SUVs on the back roads in remote areas, where the security is questionable and the guides are the hardy warriors for human rights and economic change from nongovernmental agencies and the Catholic and Protestant churches which face the uphill task of stopping the one approach that has always failed in Latin America - -- war.

After more than $4 billion and hundreds of US soldiers and private "contractors" of the sort flooding Iraq, the cheerleaders do not lack for what the insiders call metrics. Kidnappings are down 52 percent. The cultivation of poppies was off 52 percent, and the production of coca itself is off one third in the last three years. Arrests and "desertions" among the drug racket's forces in the country are way up.

According to McGovern, however, the fruits of American policy through two administrations over the last half-decade have been death, drugs, and oppression. "The fact is there is no light at the end of the tunnel as long as we are merely feeding the status quo," he said last week.

McGovern notes the typical spread of cocaine production through a broader slice of the region in response to the supposed crackdown on producers in Colombia, the plentiful supply and low price of cocaine on the street in the United States, and, most important, the continued violence in the country. There is no doubt about the impact of the policy of military support for a government that is trying to kill its way to stability. For decades, that has meant massacres of rural citizens whose misfortune it is to get in the way of the fighting. In fact, the UN's high commissioner for refugees has labeled the resulting displacement of people second only to the genocidal situation in Sudan as a humanitarian crisis.

Because of the continued fighting and death squad killing, about three million Colombians are now crowded into shantytown slums outside most cities and towns. That is nearly 10 percent of the population.

At the same time, official data show that fewer than 750,000 Colombians pay income taxes, a fact that underlines the extent to which this is becoming an American war.

The war is not simply left versus right or even good guys versus bad guys. As McGovern explains, there is a right-of-center government with armed forces supplemented by armed US military, still with ties to paramilitary units that operate in the traditional Latin American death squad mode. They fight with at least two agglomerations of fighters who long ago ceased to be of the left, but in fact have become essentially armed militias that raise money by dealing drugs.

From the citizen's perspective, it is a classic example of why, when elephants tangle, it is the blades of grass that get crushed. Indeed, while officially sounding as it does about Iraq, the Bush administration has been unable to come up with the evidentiary goods needed to certify that progress is occurring on the human rights front in the country -- a statutory requirement for the release of the latest batch of military aid funds.

Normally, this is one of the government's easier white lies; the fact that the State Department is still holding back is the one official clue to the truth. McGovern believes the facts justify an immediate end to military assistance and a shift to economic and social program aid. He is also appalled that President Alvara Uribe Velez may soon approve a new statute -- with the Orwellian name of the Justice and Peace Law.

In fact, it would institutionalize official violence under the guise of withdrawing sanction for the paramilitary organizations and encouraging their dismantlement. A simple reading of it shows it would permit thousands of known killers and torturers to remain free, and frustrate efforts at a public accounting of official violence and reparations.

A recent Amnesty International study says paramilitaries are already working as government informers and agents. McGovern favors the "peace communities" that have emerged in more than a dozen rural areas. Powered only by local fed-upism regarding the various combatants, they ban all guns at their borders and manage a precarious existence with the help of nongovernmental organizations.

They are, alas, the only bright spot. With US money and "advisers," Colombia's prospect remains more of the same.

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