Point of View

The many casualties of Colombia's war on drugs

April 24, 2013 



I recently returned from a Witness for Peace trip to Colombia, South America, where I saw the effects of U.S. intervention in Colombia’s 50-year war, which is not against its neighbors or the United States. Rather, we are assisting the country’s war against drugs.

Armed conflict among the Colombian army, paramilitary and guerilla groups dates to 1948. Brutal mafia-style turf wars were fought to control coca-growing and processing areas, subjecting 5 million people to forced relocation due to guerilla activity and the U.S. aerial fumigation program.

In 1999, then-President Andres Pastrana, who considered drugs a “social problem,” enlisted President Clinton’s aid to reduce the drug trade while “protecting U.S. economic interests.”

This policy has taken a huge toll on human rights and the environment: Poverty and illness increased, and coca production moved to more remote areas. The cost of our intervention also includes 40,000 to 50,000 Colombian lives, loss of food sovereignty and $7 billion going to their military, the largest in the Americas with the worst human rights record.

We flew from Bogota to Valledupar’s Cesar region and visited the open coal mines owned by Goldman Sachs and Garry Drummond of Alabama. There we heard miners’ testimony of labor violations, mass firings and layoffs of injured workers. Court cases are pending against Drummond, charged with violating international agreements, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Drummond owes $3.5 billion in taxes to Colombia.

Well-known Colombian trade unionist Francisco Ramirez Cuellar said, “This [U.S.] aid to ‘secure investments’ has produced 437 massacres in mining zones, and over 6,000 homicides.” More than 2,000 unionists have been assassinated, hundreds illegally detained and hundreds “disappeared since 2010.”

Are these the economic interests we’re protecting?

Cesar was a thriving agriculture and cattle area with rich river systems. The Conservation Act of 1959 protected 25 municipalities from industrialization. The introduction of open-pit mining in 1999 transformed the area into a desolate wasteland with a pollution level twice what’s considered safe. Those living within 60 miles of the mine explosions have developed black lung disease, bronchitis and hearing, vision and skin problems.

We visited former General Motors workers who had been on strike for over 500 days, many on hunger strike, one fasting for 60 days to get GM back to the bargaining table. GM found it less costly to hire new workers than to pay medical costs for those who sustained on-the-job injuries. Workers have set up makeshift tents across from the U.S. Embassy to live in and to serve as a visual presence for all entering or leaving.

Other U.S. corporations hurting the Colombian people are Dole and Chiquita. The Chiquita corporation was ordered by the U.S. Justice Department to pay a $25 million fine after admitting to illegal payments to the guerilla group, United Self-Defense Force of Colombia, designated in 2001 by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization and implicated in the murder of union organizers. No compensation has been paid to victims’ families.

A ray of light shines as the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas engage in peace talks to end the longest-running conflict. U.S. Reps. James McGovern and Jan Shakowsky circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter that asks our State Department to support the peace negotiations, to advocate for civil society and victims of violence to be part of the peace process and to press for an independent truth commission. It asks our government to transform aid to aid for peace not aid for war.

Production follows demand. We must reduce cocaine demand by funding rehabilitation services in our country. The Colombian government must enforce its labor laws, taking concrete steps to protect its citizens’ human rights, including the Afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples. Labor rights, land rights, environmental rights – all are human rights.

Let’s ask our lawmakers to sign the “Dear Colleague” letter. Colombian people deserve a chance for peace, the right to live without threats to their lives and livelihood. U.S. involvement in Colombia must advance these rights.

Ruth Zalph, a retired teacher, lives in Raleigh.

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