America's other war -- Colombia

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Dan Kovalik finds human-rights abuses perpetrated in the name of protecting oil pipelines

Tomorrow President Bush will be traveling to Colombia to meet with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe in the resort town of Cartagena. This is President Bush's first official foreign state visit after the elections, showing the high importance of Colombia to the administration.

Congress, over the objection of numerous human rights organizations, just recently deepened the United States' role in Colombia by voting to double the U.S. troop level in Colombia from 400 to 800. This troop involvement is in addition to the over $3.5 billion the United States has already spent on the Colombian military since 2000, making Colombia the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world.

Recently, the RAND Corp., a nonpartisan research organization, concluded that the civil war in Colombia simply could not continue without the continued flow of U.S. supply of armaments to that country -- armaments upon which all armed groups, both legal and illegal, rely.

I just returned from Saravena, Colombia, a city where the Colombian civil war is raging fiercely. Saravena is a small town located in the oil region of the Arauca Department and a town in which a large proportion of the U.S. troops in Colombia are housed. The U.S. troops live in the confines of Colombia's 18th Army Brigade and train this brigade in what they term "anti-terror" techniques and in how to protect the oil pipelines of Occidental Petroleum, a U.S. company also located in Arauca. Indeed, the United States just recently appropriated $99 million to equip the 18th Brigade for the express purpose of protecting these pipelines.

This same 18th Brigade is notorious for gross violations of human rights against the civilian population. One of the most recent and blatant acts of misconduct of the 18th Brigade was the assassination of three union leaders on Aug. 5 and the arrest of two other trade unionists on the same date. While the Colombian military claimed that the three unionists were killed in a gun fight with the army, the Colombian attorney general has concluded that this was not indeed the case and that the unionists were unarmed and killed in cold blood.

While in Saravena, I met with Col. Medina, the head of the 18th Brigade, to express my concern for the lives of community leaders in his zone. The Colonel implied that unionists and social leaders are fair game because, in his view, they are all guerillas -- a typical claim of the Colombian military but discredited by respected groups reporting on human rights in Colombia, including Amnesty International and the U.S. State Department itself.

As Amnesty International has recently explained, the military typically engages in tactics, such as commencing spurious criminal actions, "designed to tarnish [human rights] defenders and social activists by accusing them of guerrilla activity, exposing them to heightened risk of violent attack by paramilitaries, regardless of whether or not investigations uncover evidence of criminal wrongdoing."

A notorious example of such tactics, as elaborated in this same report, is the army's rounding up and detention of 2,000 civilians, including "most of Saravena's human rights community, as well as many known trade unionists and other social leaders" during the traditional fiesta in 2002.

What is happening in Saravena is not an anomaly. The State Department itself has concluded that human rights in Colombia remain poor, that social activists, such as trade unionists, are being killed at an alarming rate, and that they are being killed mostly by paramilitary groups which, as the State Department also concludes, are receiving the active support and collaboration of the very military which the United States is funding at record levels.

Looking at the situation of trade unionists in particular, 94 trade unionists were assassinated in Colombia last year out of a total of 123 killed worldwide. In other words, as has been typical for the last several years, Colombia has accounted for 75 percent of the trade-union killings in the world.

When I went to the base of the 18th Brigade to speak with the colonel, I was told by a member of the local government who accompanied me, that "you are now entering the mouth of the wolf."

The view that the Colombian army is the wolf guarding the hen house was a common one among the people I met. The leader of the local trade union confederation, human rights lawyers, a director of the community-run water treatment plant and a leader of the U'Wa indigenous tribe all expressed the sentiment that the soldiers, which outnumber the civilians on the streets of Saravena, are not there to protect the civilian population, but rather, are there to protect the oil companies from them.

There is good evidence of this. For example, the military attempted to violently expel the U'Wa from their land to secure it for Occidental to drill there. The military also acted in concert with Occidental in bombing the small hamlet of Santo Domingo, killing 17 civilians in the process.

As Amnesty International has reported, the violent conflict in Arauca is motivated and fueled by oil interests and the attempt of the Colombian military, with the support of the United States, to protect these interests.

The result is one of the worst human-rights situations in the world. People of conscience must ask themselves if they really want our country to be supporting a military in Colombia which is terrorizing the population to protect oil interests.

Daniel Kovalik is a labor and human rights lawyer living in Highland Park. He was recognized this month in Pittsburgh Magazine's "40 under 40" for his work in Colombia.