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February 6, 2001

Notes from Colombia

by Liam Craig-Best

[Editor's Note: As part of its war-on-drugs efforts, the United States is becoming increasingly involved in Colombia's civil war with the guerrillas. The U.S. has pledged $1.1 billion toward Plan Colombia, a multi-billion effort to cut Colombia's coca crop in half by 2005. Liam Craig-Best, free-lance writer based on Colombia, filed the following reports on January 28.]

Murders of Trade Unionists

Information released last week (January 25th 2001) jointly by the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in Colombia and the Human Rights Department of the CUT trade union federation in Bogota gave details of three recent assassinations of trade-union members. The figures also gave information on 1,197 trade-union members who have been assassinated for their union work in recent years, including 128 during the year 2000. The final figure for 2001 is expected to exceed 140.

Paramilitary death squads working with the Colombian armed forces have committed nearly all these assassinations, almost without exception. The figures also showed that the Colombian authorities have only solved nine of the most recent 948 assassinations of trade union members -- a rate of less than one per hundred.

The three recent most assassinations were:

On Thursday January 25th the President of the Magdalena Banana Workers Union (SINTRAINAGRO) was shot and killed by paramilitary assassins in the municipality of Cienaga, Magdalena department. Jose Luis Guete was shot not far from the place where, on December 13th 1999, paramilitaries also murdered the national leader of the union, Cesar Herrera.

On January 21st Jair Cubides, an activist with the Workers of the Department of Valle Trade Union (SINTRADEPARTAMENTO), was killed by paramilitaries in the southern city of Cali. The paramilitaries were suspected members of the "Bloque Calima" death squad which Human Rights Watch have shown (Feb, 2000 report) was set up by the Third Brigade of the Colombian Army also based in Cali.

On January 19th Arturo Alarcon, a teacher and active member of the educators' trade union FECODE, was murdered by paramilitaries in the municipality of Piendamo, Cauca department.

These murders will continue until the international community forces the Colombian government to dismantle the paramilitary groups that act with complete impunity all over Colombia. It is also of vital importance that the fact that such groups are responsible for over eighty percent of the politically-orientated civilian murders in Colombia each year is publicized more.

Peace Marches

A series of marches opposing the US aid package "Plan Colombia," denouncing paramilitary violence and calling for the government to continue the peace process with guerrilla groups, were held on Thursday January 25.

The largest march, at 6 p.m. in downtown Bogota, was attended by approximately 15,000 people and ended with a huge rally in Simon Bolivar Plaza in the center of the city. Hundreds of white balloons were released as a symbol of peace, and mobile sound systems played music with themes of peace, democracy, and freedom. Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez featured most prominently.

A wide variety of different organizations participated in the Bogota march. I myself spoke with contingents from the following sectors: Various displaced communities; The association of families of servicemen being held by guerrilla groups as prisoners of war; The Permanent Committee for Human Rights; The CUT trade union federation and its youth wing along with affiliated union delegations; The CTGD trade union federation along with affiliated union delegations; The Colombian Women's Federation; The Association of Families of the Detained and Disappeared; The Atlantis Community of Europeans opposed to "Plan Colombia"; striking Bavaria factory workers; The Citizens for Peace group; The Communist Party of Colombia and its youth wing; The Civil Society Permanent Assembly for Peace; Striking Red Cross workers; and The Remembrance Campaign.

Other marches took place around Colombia, including in the cities of Medellin, Pasto, Bucaramanga, Cucuta, Barrancebermeja, Apartado and Ibague. In all, over 100,000 people took to the streets, despite the very real possibility of reprisals from the authorities and paramilitary forces. Secret police were seen taking photographs of participants from the tops of buildings, and plain-clothes policemen and, presumably, paramilitary agents, mingled with the demonstrators.

General police presence at the events was intense, and around 650 police officers in heavy riot gear and equipped with tear-gas canisters were deployed in and around Simon Bolivar Plaza in Bogota. Mounted police were also in attendance, as were riot control vehicles with water cannons and police-dog units. The police officers to whom I spoke seemed to have little sympathy with the demonstrators and alleged that the participation of the families of retained servicemen was solely due to guerrilla manipulation.

Despite certain reports in the international media to the contrary, the vast majority of Colombians are in fact opposed both to "Plan Colombia" and to the paramilitary groups that operate with impunity all over Colombia. It is also evident that the Colombian people would prefer to see a negotiated settlement to the forty-year-old civil war rather than an attempt to solve the situation with violence. U.S. policies towards Colombia, as well as the attitudes and actions of the Colombian elite, seem to be intent on trying to find a military solution.

Discreet U.S. Base in Ecuador Expanding for War in Colombia

Many readers will be aware that for the last few months the U.S. Air Force has been quietly operating an airbase near the western Ecuadorian town of Manta. The base, which is only twenty minutes by air from guerrilla controlled areas of Colombia, already houses over 150 U.S. personnel, and accommodation is being readied for about 300 more -- mainly air force crews, security personnel and military communications experts.

Over the last weeks, construction workers at the base have been lengthening the runway and building massive new hangers to house a growing fleet of U.S. Air Force spy planes. These planes, which will soon include the highly sophisticated E-3 AWACS, are already flying missions into Colombian airspace and gathering intelligence on guerrilla movements under the guise of the "drug war."

But Ecuadorians are not happy, and many fear that the presence of the base -- which Colombian guerrilla groups obviously see as a threat -- will draw Ecuador even further into the civil war being fought in Colombia. Already, in northern Ecuador, a paramilitary death squad that were hiding over the border after massacring civilians, were pursued, found and attacked by FARC guerrilla units. Various other unconfirmed reports of combat in northern Ecuador have also surfaced.

"We are compromising our neutrality in the Colombian conflict with the Manta base, dragging ourselves into a war between the Americans and their enemies in Colombia," said Ecuadorian Congressman Henry Llanes, who sees the base as part of the U.S. military intervention in Colombia known as "Plan Colombia."

The U.S. government pays no rent for their base at Manta as the contract for them to take possession was signed with former president Jamil Mahuad -- a tremendously unpopular leader who was overthrown in a popular rebellion a year ago. When the new government wanted to put the ex-president on trial for abuse of power they found that they couldn't touch him, as Washington had allowed their corrupt friend Mahuad to take up permanent residency in the U.S. There are still warrants outstanding for his arrest and he is still living happily in the U.S.

After the left-leaning rebellion that overthrew Mahaud, led by indigenous representatives whom make up over 75 percent of the population of Ecuador, the U.S. acted swiftly. Intense, and particularly well-documented, pressure from the U.S. State Department and the Embassy in Quito led to the appointment of a new puppet president, Gustavo Noboa. Noboa, naturally, was found to be quite willing to allow Manta to remain, completely rent-free.

Exactly what goes on at the base is partially classified, although it is known that using radar, cameras and communications-interception equipment, U.S. spy planes can track certain guerrilla unit movements and, on occasion, pinpoint the location of guerrilla camps. This information is passed instantly to Colombian police and troops who, in certain areas, will then share it with paramilitary death squads before trying to attack the guerrillas.

Although the U.S. military vehemently denies that the spy flights are used against guerrilla targets there is plentiful evidence to suggest that they are. For example, a June 1999 report by the U.S. Government General Accounting Office notes that in March of that year "new guidelines were issued that allow U.S. personnel to provide intelligence about guerrilla activity to military and police units in Colombia even if the information is not related to counter-narcotics operations." Some months later, in September 1999, Rand Beers, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, said that U.S. personnel are "working to improve the Colombian security forces' ability to collect, analyze and disseminate intelligence on insurgent activity."

On top of this, an official U.S. Air Force fact sheet describes the new AWACS planes that are soon to arrive in Manta as being able to "gather and present broad and detailed battlefield information collected as events occur." They are also capable of providing "close-air support for friendly ground forces." It is worth noting too that Boeing Corporation, the maker of the AWACS, donated large amounts of money to many of the U.S. Congressmen who voted for the "Plan Colombia" package of which this is all a part.

Other new, and intentionally low profile, U.S. military bases aimed at spying on Colombia's guerrillas have also been built and are already operational. It is known that U.S. spy flights over Colombia also leave from an airbase in El Salvador and from small airfields in the Caribbean islands of Aruba and Curacao. Another, smaller U.S. military installation at Iquitos in northern Peru is also believed to be involved in intelligence activities aimed at the Colombian guerrillas. The U.S. military refers to the first three of these bases, as well as the facility at Manta, as Forward Operating Locations, or FOLs, and claims that they are all in fact "drug war" facilities. No rent is paid to the host countries for any of the FOLs.

Within Colombia itself, the Pentagon also has various permanent and extremely low-key military intelligence bases such as those at Marandua (Vichada department), Leticia (Amazones department), Riohacha (La Guajira department) and another on the northern island of San Andres.

These are in addition to the better-known installations such Tres Esquinas (Putumayo department), San Jose del Guaviare (Guaviare department), Puerto Leguizamo (Putumayo department) and Larandia (Caqueta department) where U.S. troops are based in a training capacity. Contrary to the official U.S. line, the reality of this training is that it is almost exclusively counterinsurgency oriented. This is plainly evident when one looks at the name of yet another base where US forces are working - Barrancon (Guaviare department), the Colombian Army "Rural Special Forces School."

It is clear that the US wishes to draw neighboring countries into their fight against the Colombian rebels -- much as they did in their secret war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua in the 1980s. The Washington Post gave a clue to how important the Ecuadorian front will be in a January 25th article -- apparently Continental Airlines for some reason is looking at opening direct flights from the U.S. to the town of Manta with its modest population of 125,000 and nonexistent tourist industry.


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