The Other Side of Colombia

So I just spoke about great food in Cartagena; featured videos of the massive march for peace back in July; have discussed the proposed free trade agreement; and highlighted some great places to visit in the spring. But Colombia does have a dark side – violence, drug trafficking, an ongoing war with guerrillas.

On Wednesday Simon Romero wrote the disturbing piece “Colombia Lists Civilian Killings in Guerrilla Toll” in the New York Times. The accusations are horrific – the army taking young men, mostly poor and down-and-out, and transporting them to guerrilla war zones. The army then kills them and dresses them in guerilla gear, thus upping the tally for enemy combatants killed. Getting “kills” earns promotions, time-off, and extra pay.

Prosecutors and human rights researchers are investigating hundreds of such deaths and disappearances, contending that Colombia’s security forces are increasingly murdering civilians and making it look as if they were killed in combat, often by planting weapons by the bodies or dressing them in guerrilla fatigues.

Besides the incentives from the side of the army, this new effort appears like a resurgence of social cleansing techniques used by vigilante groups in the cities and paramilitaries in rural regions. These are the poor, disabled, the mentally ill, often seen as morally degenerate and as criminals, and thus less than human and a danger to the better parts of society. I knew boys targeted by such groups in Bogota; thieves, addicts, gang members who saw themselves in a shadow war with unknown, powerful groups who wanted to get rid of them.

But this effort by the army is more directly coordinated and more sinister. It has caught up people who have done no wrong at all. The highlighted case is Julian Oveido, a 19 year old construction worker who disappeared March 2 after he told his mother he was going to talk with a man about work. A day later he turned up dead 350 miles to the north and was classified as a “subversive” by the army.

Faced with this crisis, President Alvaro Uribe is purging army generals and making renewed calls for the protection of human rights. But Uribe is the one pursuing the war and has old ties to paramilitary groups who carried on an extra-judicial and savage war in his home state of Antioquia.

Amnesty International has released a report (full report available here) on this sudden resurgence of social cleansing and the murder of civilians in the midst of a generally improving human rights picture in Colombia. The Colombian Commision of Jurists reports that “civilian killings rose to 287 from mid-2006 to mid-2007, up from 267 in the same period a year earlier and 218 the year before that.”

El Tiempo has a video report from CityTV on the capture of the recruiters that were working in Bogota (not a direct link, but the video is there as I post this). El Espectador relates that there are “more and more” denunciations, this time in the city of Huila, for what people in Colombia are calling “false positives,” innocents taken and killed as guerrillas.

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