Colombia inaugurates a newly elected president on Saturday: the former minister of defense, Juan Manuel Santos. Amid saber-rattling by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez following Colombian allegations that he is supporting FARC rebels, Santos is likely to follow outgoing President Alvaro Uribe’s policy of attempting to defeat Colombia’s insurgencies and its drug trade through military means. The Obama administration, however, should support a renewed effort for a peace process. This, and more focused leadership by the U.S., would give our Colombian partners a better chance of resolving a 40-year conflict in which we have invested billions over the last decade, as well as helping to defuse tensions between Colombia and its neighbors.
Recent visits by U.S. officials to Colombia have only scratched the surface of the challenges that nation faces. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, meeting with Uribe in June, focused on the promotion of free trade, the war on drugs and democratic transition, though she at least raised the issue of ongoing human rights violations. Before that, in April, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates addressed agreements that allow for a U.S. military presence on seven Colombian bases, another source of tension with Colombia’s neighbors. His lauding of the Colombian “success story” was front-page news in Bogota.
After 10 years and $7 billion of the U.S.-supported Plan Colombia, the Colombian government has had only marginal success in the war on drugs and in defeating the FARC and other Marxist guerrillas. A new report by a U.S. advocacy organization, the Washington Office on Latin America, details the staggering human costs of Plan Colombia, a U.S. package of assistance established during the Clinton administration and overwhelmingly directed to the Colombian security forces.
Colombia, with a population of 45 million, suffers up to 20,000 violent deaths a year, down from almost 30,000 a year at the beginning of the decade. (By contrast, Mexico’s much-covered drug violence resulted in 6,500 deaths last year.) Colombia’s population of 3.3 million internally displaced people, who have fled conflict and persecution and live in impoverished squatter camps around urban centers, is second only to Sudan’s.
Human rights violations persist. In 2008, the Colombian military was caught recruiting, then killing 11 young men from a poor neighborhood of Bogota, and presenting them as guerrillas killed in combat. Almost 2,000 cases of civilians allegedly killed by the military are now being investigated by the Colombian courts. After a 2005 plea-bargaining scheme to demobilize nearly 30,000 paramilitaries, many accused of massive human rights violations, none have been convicted. Stolen property has not been returned to their victims, and sexual violence committed against thousands of Colombian women has gone unpunished.
Homicide statistics indicate that Colombia continues to be the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist. Up to 20,000 minors have been forcibly recruited into the various armed factions. A scandal recently described by human rights advocates as “worse than Watergate” has exposed the principal security agency, which reported directly to Uribe, of harassing Colombian human rights defenders.
And then there is the cocaine industry, which has been flexible enough to adapt to fumigation and interdiction efforts. Though total production is down this year, three key provinces increased production.
The U.S. support for Plan Colombia cannot be dissociated with the prevailing impunity and injustice. Equally alarming is the absence of any peace agenda by either the U.S. or the Colombian government. The Roman Catholic Church in Colombia is apparently the only institution currently promoting a peace plan. Mobilizing a peace process would be an opportunity to articulate standards of human rights and democratic practice for both the insurgents and the Colombian government. It would also shed light on and help restrain current breaches of basic rights and provide an aspirational compass for the future, and it could help define a more constructive relationship with Colombia’s neighbors.
Colombia has been a regional and historical ally of the United States since the Korean War. Its democracy has withstood mighty challenges from drug lords and insurgents — all the more reason for the United States to honestly assess and support our Colombian partners, including renewing efforts for a peace process and demanding full accountability for human rights violations. We cannot continue to celebrate a “success story” with such disturbing human rights and humanitarian results. Saturday’s inauguration may mean more of the same failing policies unless U.S. leadership conducts a more candid review of our joint efforts under Plan Colombia and renews its commitment to peace and justice.
Milburn Line is executive director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego.