Rewarding Colombia's Bad Behavior

by Ursula Rozum
“No to the promulgation of war. No to the moving of the Manta base to Colombia.” Political graffiti found on a wall in Colombia depicts a skull spewing forth guns. Stencil: Communist Youth of Colombia.

On April 1st, the Huffington Post printed a story by Dan Kovalik on the discovery of a mass grave containing 2,000 bodies in the Macarena region of Colombia, located near a military base staffed by US advisors. The grave was found only because the pile of rotting flesh contaminated the local water supply and children started getting sick. The Procuraduria General, a Colombian government agency tasked with uncovering corruption, verified the existence of the grave. On March 15, 2010, Jhonny Hurtado, a key witness in exposing the mass grave, was assassinated. The Colombian military admits responsibility for this grave. The discovery only adds to the “false positives scandal,” which the Colombian military has tried to cover-up. The false positive scandal refers to a practice within the Colombian military of killing civilians and dressing them in FARC uniforms to claim them as guerilla kills.

There are currently about 600 US military personnel in Colombia, making it difficult to believe that some level of the US military has not been aware of these systematic killings. Yet, the US government and military continue to work with the Colombian government in, what they say, is an effort to curb drug production and trafficking. In late 2009, the US government extended Plan Colombia, which began under the Clinton administration ostensibly as an effort to cut off cocaine production. The US–Colombia Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) grants the US military unprecedented freedom of action at seven Colombian military bases.

According to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, the Colombia base agreement is meant to allow “continued cooperation in addressing the challenges posed by narco-traffickers, terrorists, and other illegal armed groups in Colombia.” However, US Air Force budget documents submitted to Congress in 2009 reveal that US military interests in Colombia reach beyond drug interdiction and stopping guerillas, despite Obama administration insistence to the contrary. Language in one of the Air Force documents reveals the desire for military capabilities over “anti-US” governments, and Latin American leaders see the newest agreement between the US and Colombia as US assertion of military dominance.

The document also highlights the importance of Palanquero airbase, close to Venezuela’s border. The US Air Force estimates the budget to increase Palanquero’s capacity to be $46 million.  Access to Palanquero will “assure regional access and presence at minimum cost....Palanquero will provide joint use capability to the US Army, Air Force, Marines, and US Interagency aircraft and personnel.” The Air Force plans to convert Palanquero into a US Cooperative Security Location, a base for operations and surveillance over all of Latin America.

The DCA gives the US military even greater dominance over governments it considers “unfriendly.” Historically, governments pursuing policies contrary to US economic interests have not fared well. While Peru signed a Free Trade Agreement with the US in 2009, the other Andean countries – Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia – are members of ALBA, making them “unfriendly.” ALBA, conceived in 2004, stands for Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America; it is an economic alliance between Venezuela and Cuba, promoting the exchange of medical and educational resources and petroleum between both nations. ALBA attempts to integrate regional economies and promote social welfare, bartering, and mutual economic aid. When Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown in a military coup in June 2009, the Honduran and North American media justified his ousting because of his flirtation with ALBA, which recognizes the failure of capitalism and embraces economics based on cooperation.

The US-Colombia Defense Cooperation Agreement operates from the same military mindset that has allowed the School of the Americas (SOA/WHINSEC) to exist for over six decades. Many thousands of Colombian military personnel have been trained by the US military and it is not a coincidence that the Colombia military is the Western Hemisphere’s greatest human rights offender south of the Rio Grande. With nearly five million Colombians forcibly displaced from their homes by internal conflict, Colombia is now the world’s second worst international displacement crisis. The DCA is the newest agreement in a series of failed plans. Plan Colombia failed to curb coca production and this new agreement will also fail. It simultaneously strengthens the US government’s support of a government that turns a blind eye to genocide and refuses to properly investigate crimes perpetrated by its military against its own people.

In October, 2009, the US signed a ten year contract with Colombia for access to seven military bases. Image: soaw.org.

In response to news of the US-Colombia agreement, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has said that the US was blowing “winds of war” over the region, and that the bases were “a threat against us.” In 2002, Chavez withstood a coup attempt by School of the Americas’ graduates. Rather than demonize Chavez, an outspoken critic of the US, as a threat to US and Colombian security, which is laughable considering US military capabilities, it’s important to recognize that Chavez is a regional leader and head of an oil-rich state. His criticism and distrust of US intentions is based on his knowledge of the Latin American reality. Upon their first meeting, Chavez presented the newly-elected President Obama with Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America, which chronicles the pillaging of Latin America’s resources, human and natural, first by colonial powers and then by the United States.

Before the discovery of the mass grave, when the pending US-Colombian base agreement became known, Senators Patrick Leahy and Chris Dodd expressed their concern in a July 2009 letter to Secretary of State Clinton: “What are the implications of further deepening our relationship with the Colombian military at a time of growing revelations about the widespread falsos positivos [false positives] scandal in which the Colombian military recruited many hundreds (some estimates are as high as 1,600) of boys and young men for jobs in the countryside that did not exist and then summarily executed them to earn bonuses and vacation days?” This activity has become widely known in Colombia in recent years, as details of human rights abuses by the military under the Uribe administration are revealed. Colombia’s President Uribe is praised by some for the semblance of security that has resulted from the increased militarization of Colombia, a strategy he refers to as “democratic security.” Though the streets of Bogotá and other urban centers are safer, terror continues against rural peasants, the indigenous, Afro-Colombians, union leaders, journalists, and anyone critical of government policy. 

The Obama administration has proposed a reduction in military aid to Colombia for 2011 and plans to gradually reduce the number of military advisors serving there. Colombia receives more military assistance and training from the US than any other Latin American country. The US has thereby created a monster.  The terror and violence that permeates rural Colombia speaks to the depth of human rights abuse in this country. The US must heal its relationship with the people of Latin America. According to a friend in Colombia, mass graves and false positives are old news. A change in US policy towards Colombia and Latin America is long overdue.


Ursula, a Syracuse native, visited Colombia in 2009 as a member of CLAC’s CNY-Cajibío, Colombia Sister City project. Her interests include salsa dancing, cooking and addressing the mess created by globalization.