Tuesday, April 12, 2016

COLOMBIA: Where did the violence come from?

Colombia (with marker at the Pacific port of Buenaventura)
As a peace agreement draws near in Colombia, it is a good time for people in the US to try to learn a little bit about what has been going on in that country.

A few years ago, I got way outside my comfort zone and read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. Yes, yes, I know it's a work of fiction -- "magical realist" fiction at that -- but it's also a plunge into one particular point of view about the Latin American experience from the perspective of someone who came from northeastern Colombia. (Not to mention some basic facts of geography and demographics: but of course, unlike me, you already knew that Colombia has a Caribbean coast and a Pacific coast, connecting to Panama at its northwest corner, right?)

I had thought (like most people in the US, I suppose) that Colombia is a country of jungles, suitable for clandestinely growing cocaine and channeling it to markets like the US. I couldn't picture much else. But as I read One Hundred Years of Solitude, I started to try to imagine the history of Colombia -- a place to which thousands of people had come to try to make a life through mining and agriculture and trade. I tried to imagine the spirit in which people embarked on military campaigns, as a logical extension of their efforts to build wealth and grow their families. Riding roughshod over the indigenous peoples, disregard for inequality and inequity, and deep-seated racism seemed to be part of the ethos.

Hold that thought.

Now, read the snapshot of life in the southeast coastal area of Colombia (red flag in map above) on the Peace Brigades International website: "The women of Puente Nayero."  This is a current account of the simple existence that the ordinary people of Colombia are trying to eke out, and the pain and trauma they are experiencing as a result of the years of violence in Colombia.

Perhaps, like me, you will read a sentence like, "In 2001, many people came to her neighbourhood looking for a new home, fleeing from the Naya River where the paramilitaries had massacred and displaced the Afro-Colombian communities," and wonder what it refers to. Luckily, these days we're all just a few clicks away from answers:

Another massacre took place at Alto Naya, Cauca department on April 12, 2001, in which an estimated 40-130 civilians were killed, and thousands displaced. Approximately 100 paramilitaries from the Frente Calima ("Calima Front") participated in the killings.

The first victim was a 17-year-old girl named Gladys Ipia whose head and hands were cut off with a chain saw. Next, six people were shot while eating at a local restaurant. Another man was chopped into pieces and burned. A woman had her abdomen ripped open with a chainsaw. An indigenous leader named Cayetano Cruz, was cut in half with a chainsaw. The paramilitaries lined up the villagers in the middle of the town, and asked people if they knew any guerrillas. If they answered "no", they were hacked to death with machetes. Many of the bodies were dismembered, and strewn piecemeal around the area, making it difficult to gain an accurate body count and identify victims. Between 4,000 and 6,000 people were displaced as they fled the area during and following the violence.

Despite repeated warnings over the preceding two weeks that such an attack was about to occur, the Colombian military refused to provide protection for the villagers. And although the massacre went on for more than three days, the nearby Third Brigade did not show up until after it was over. Yet when the FARC attempted to take over a town, in neighboring Nariño, the military responded within three hours. Some of the villagers traveled to the Colombian Army's Third Brigade an hour away. The Cauca People’s Defender, Victor Javier Melendez, notified the military that a massacre was occurring on the morning of April 13. He received no response. The Colombian Public Advocate's office stated: "it is inexplicable how approximately 500 paramilitaries could carry out an operation of this type without being challenged in any way, especially since the area that these men entered is only twenty minutes from the village of Timba, where a base operated by the Colombian Army is located and has been staffed since March 30 of this year." (Source: Wikipedia: "Right-wing paramilitarism in Colombia: The Alto Naya massacre")

Perhaps, like me, you'll wonder how cruelty like this can occur. Scroll up the page and discover the picture of a US military officer:

General William P. Yarborough
In October 1959, the United States sent a "Special Survey Team", composed of counterinsurgency experts, to investigate Colombia's internal security situation, due to the increased prevalence of armed communist groups in rural Colombia which formed during and after La Violencia. Three years later, in February 1962, a Fort Bragg top-level U.S. Special Warfare team headed by Special Warfare Center commander General William P. Yarborough, visited Colombia for a second survey.

In a secret supplement to his report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Yarborough encouraged the creation and deployment of a paramilitary force to commit sabotage and terrorist acts against communists:

"A concerted country team effort should be made now to select civilian and military personnel for clandestine training in resistance operations in case they are needed later. This should be done with a view toward development of a civil and military structure for exploitation in the event the Colombian internal security system deteriorates further. This structure should be used to pressure toward reforms known to be needed, perform counter-agent and counter-propaganda functions and as necessary execute paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents. It should be backed by the United States." [emphasis added]

The new counter-insurgency policy was instituted as Plan Lazo in 1962 and called for both military operations and civic action programs in violent areas. Following Yarborough's recommendations, the Colombian military recruited civilians into paramilitary "civil defense" groups which worked alongside the military in its counter-insurgency campaign, as well as in civilian intelligence networks to gather information on guerrilla activity. Among other policy recommendations the US team advised that "in order to shield the interests of both Colombian and US authorities against 'interventionist' charges any special aid given for internal security was to be sterile and covert in nature." It was not until the early part of the 1980s that the Colombian government attempted to move away from the counterinsurgency strategy represented by Plan Lazo and Yarborough's 1962 recommendations. (Source: Wikipedia: "Right-wing paramilitarism in Colombia: Plan Lazo")

Plan Lazo? Clearly there is much more to learn and think about . . . .

As the peace process yields fruit in Colombia, let's not let it be an invitation to wash our hands and say, "Well that's one problem solved," and forget about it. Let's have the fortitude to try to learn a little bit about what has been happening in Colombia -- and what our part in it has been -- and begin to ask how we can participate in healing.

Yes, read One Hundred Years of Solitude. But also devote at least the same amount of time to connecting the dots about recent Colombian history and the role of the US.

Related posts

It will take me multiple posts to spell out everything that I feel needs to be said about the Ayotzinapa 43.  People in the US need to work to change their own attitude about Mexico, and about the culpability or all of us here in the US in the wrongs that are being done down there. The Ayotzinapa 43 were persecuted for saying "the future can be different." It's time for us to take up their cry.

(See Ayotzinapa43: US People Need an Attitude Adjustment )

How do you observe Indigenous Peoples Day?

(See Reflections on Indigenous Peoples Day 2015)

"Missa dos Quilombos" asked for forgiveness and sought healing for the legacy of slavery in Brazil. Dom Helder celebrated the Quilombo Mass. He said: "Mariama [Mother Mary], we aren't here to ask that today's slaves be tomorrow's slave masters. Enough of slaves! Enough of masters! We want liberty!" The beating of the drums was overpowering, they exploded like the screams of our souls!

(See Hélder Câmara and Liberation Theology 101: Where? When? Why? Who? )

"You may not understand every word, you may feel uncomfortable, you may have to spend time later trying to figure it out or to humble yourself now and ask for help; you may have to work at it. But in the long run . . . a Spanish speaker is what you are . . . because that's the community you're a part of!"

(See Don't speak Spanish? "Sure you do . . . .")

In a composition suggestive of a yin-yang symbol, a woman in a burka (but wearing audacious red glitter platform heels) is surrounded by genie-ish tableaus of the many male obsessions/pastimes that some of us rail about frequently -- sexualized pop singers, professional sports -- as well as some that we probably should rail about more (such as patriarchy in religion and political violence).

(See VIOLENCE: " . . . and the women must live with the consequences . . . " )