Sunday, 19 September 2004
The other war on terrorism By Michael S. Rose

The U.S. is becoming increasingly involved with counter-terrorism efforts in South America’s most volatile country.

(CALI, Colombia) -- Few are aware that, far from Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is becoming increasingly involved with counter-terrorism efforts in South America’s most volatile country and the U.S.’s top supplier of cocaine and heroin: Colombia. Since war in the Persian Gulf has understandably absorbed the global spotlight this year, the escalating conflict here has dropped off the international public awareness map. Colombia has been called America’s forgotten war.

One newly important element of this conflict is an increased U.S. military presence in Colombia, necessitated in part by the execution-style murder of American intelligence operative Thomas Janis when his single-engine Cessna crashed in rebel-held territory in Colombia on February 13. Three other Americans aboard the plane are being held hostage by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolutionarias de Colombia). While the leftist guerillas claim to have shot down the U.S. government plane, Washington says the crash was accidental, caused by engine trouble. Either way, the question arises as to how safe the country is for Americans on U.S. government sponsored missions.

The most telling indication that the largely internal conflict in Colombia has intensified, is that FARC considers its three American hostages to be prisoners of war and charges that the plane crash survivors are CIA agents, a claim that U.S. officials deny, though only technically.

Janis, a retired Army officer and Vietnam veteran, was employed by California Microwave, which provides surveillance systems for the U.S. military. He and his three fellow American travelers were under contract to the Office of Regional Administration, a covert CIA operation based at the U.S. embassy in Bogotá. According to embassy sources, the plane was on an electronic intelligence operation monitoring the whereabouts of guerilla commandantes.

Political analysts believe that the seizure of the U.S. government plane marks a major change in the guerillas’ tactics to bring about a confrontation with the Colombian government and its main backer, the United States. American rescue experts joined some 2,500 Colombian troops in the search for the abducted Americans. FARC rebels are demanding that the Colombia government release dozens of jailed guerillas and grant them a demilitarized zone in exchange for the American hostages. They have also threatened to kill the Americans if the Colombian army and its U.S. helpers continue their rescue efforts. FARC says it will not deal with the U.S., but will only negotiate with Colombia.

It is instructive to note that Janis was executed by the Marxist rebels just days after the Bush administration moved to establish an outright military relationship with the new government in Bogotá. Colombia is already the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, increasingly growing closer to Israel and Egypt. Since 1997, the United States has provided over $2 billion in military aid, which has helped destroy much of southern Colombia’s coca crops, cutting deeply into a major source of the rebels’ revenue. Earlier this year the White House approved a request for nearly $500 million in military assistance to Colombia for the 2003 fiscal year, a 15% increase from last year’s allocation.

The increase in aid comes at a time when Washington is moving the terms of the debate about Colombia from a “war on drugs” to counter-terrorism efforts. In a recent development, U.S. aid previously intended to fight drugs can now be used to fight insurgents, and Colombia has more than its share of such groups, ranging from anti-government Marxist rebels to brutal right-wing paramilitary death squads. Groups on both sides of Colombia’s decades-old civil war have historically been financed by the nation’s lucrative drug trade, and are consequently referred to as “narco-guerillas” and “narco-terrorists.”

The most influential, and the most feared, of these insurgent groups is FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army, or ELN. Both left-wing groups have been declared international terrorist organizations by the U.S. government. Both have sought for decades to reorganize society based on Marxist principles through the use of force and violence. Their tactics are similar to those used by Al Qaeda. For example, in February FARC claimed responsibility for a car bomb that killed 34 people at an exclusive Bogotá night club. In March a second explosion attributed to FARC killed 18 people in a poor neighborhood in the city of Neiva.

In light of the increased incidents of terrorism, the United States has also stepped up direct military aid to the Colombian government. As part of the new counter-terrorism plan Washington has recently sent in dozens of U.S. Special Forces to train Colombian troops in counterinsurgency warfare to combat rebel guerillas. The ensuing killing and kidnapping of American officials complicates matters further, and will almost surely draw the United States further into the conflict in Colombia. At the same time, the Colombian government is pressing for renewed international interest and assistance.

A culture of kidnapping

These Colombian terrorist organizations are most notorious for their culture of kidnapping. Before the February incident, 80 Americans had been taken hostage since 1990, and twelve had been murdered since 1995. But that is only a fraction of the total number of guerilla-sponsored abductions in the past decade. According to a travel advisory issued by the U.S. State Department which warns Americans not to travel to the Andean nation, “there is a greater risk of being kidnapped in Colombia than in any other country in the world.” According to statistics gathered by the BBC, more than 3,000 people are kidnapped in Colombia each year.

Just this year five foreign journalists—four Americans and a U.S.-based British citizen—have been forcibly abducted. Two were held hostage by the leftist ELN, and three by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, an outlawed paramilitary squad. This was the first time in Colombia’s four-decade war that foreign journalists have been targeted. In the past, foreign journalists have been given something akin to diplomatic immunity, especially since some starry-eyed American reporters have sympathized with the rebels in the past, especially a few decades ago when their operating Marxist philosophy was much clearer.

These recent abductions prompted a worldwide alert from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), which declared Colombia one of the most dangerous countries in the world. IFJ General Secretary Aidan White warned that “travel to Colombia is extremely risky and journalists must be aware that they are now being targeted.”

But the vast majority of those kidnapped by narco-terrorists are Colombians, including Colombian journalists: no diplomatic immunity for them. According to the IFJ between five and ten journalists have been killed annually in recent years. “But this is only the tip of the iceberg,” said White. “Colombia is a notorious center of intimidation.”

In a March 24 meeting in San Salvador, the Inter-American Press Association reported that violence by rebel groups in Colombia caused the death of at least five journalists last year. Nine others were kidnapped, 65 were threatened, and three left the country because they feared for their lives.

The vast majority of the kidnappings has been motivated primarily by financial gain rather than political reasons although some of the abducted—soldiers, politicians, policemen, and ordinary citizens—have been held hostage as political pawns. Others were targeted for publicly denouncing the terrorists. For more than a year now Ingrid Betancourt, a candidate in Colombia’s 2002 presidential elections, has been held hostage by FARC, of which she has been a severe critic.

Betancourt is by no means the only prominent politician to have been kidnapped in Colombia. Five members of Colombia’s Congress, including Senator Jorge Gechem who was taken hostage during a domestic airline hijacking, have been kidnapped in recent years.

In Cali, Colombia’s third largest city and home to the notorious Cali drug cartel, a group of FARC rebels carried out an audacious multi-person kidnapping. The rebels, dressed in Colombian military uniforms, arrived at the San Luis County Assembly Building, where an elected city council conducts its day-to-day political affairs amongst its support staff of city employees.

The masquerading rebels informed the police on guard there that, for heightened security measures, the state has ordered a military patrol to relieve the police of its 24-hour-a-day vigil over the County Assembly. Once the police left, the armed rebels took the entire city council hostage and held them for ransom. All of this was accomplished at mid-day in one of Colombia’s busiest business districts.

No one in Colombia seems to have immunity. Even priests, nuns, and bishops have not been spared. On the contrary, some prominent members of the influential Catholic Church in Colombia have increasingly been targeted for abduction in recent years.

Last November, while travelling to a confirmation Mass, Bishop Jorge Enrique Jiménez of Zipaquira and a priest associate were kidnapped by masked FARC gunmen near Bogotá. As President of the Latin American Episcopal Conference (CELAM), Bishop Jiménez is one of South America’s most prominent clerics. After the Colombian bishops made it clear that they would not pay a ransom in exchange for the safe return of the two kidnapped clerics, Colombian army troops rescued the bishop and priest just days later after a dramatic shootout with their 21 rebel captors in a remote mountain region. Cardinal Pedro Rubiano of Bogotá publicly excommunicated the perpetrators, stating that “the kidnappers have committed a grave crime according to canon law, which implies a break in communion with the Church.”

A few years earlier, in 1999, Archbishop Isaías Duarte of Cali was also forced to excommunicate members of a rebel group. He did so after the ELN abducted an entire congregation from a Catholic parish in Cali during a Sunday evening Mass. The rebels burst into La Maria Church and herded the 143 worshippers and the priest into trucks and whisked them away to a rebel compound in the mountains.

A Cali priest close to the situation told CWR that the rebels had carefully planned the attack for approximately a year. The parish was targeted for two reasons, he said. First, the church was easily accessible from their mountain hideaway. Second, some of the wealthiest Catholics in Cali attended this parish. The ELN obtained personal information about parishioners through their housekeepers and maids, including information about their financial situations, which informed the rebels just how much to ask each family for ransom.

Once the prisoners arrived at the ELN compound, the guerrillas sorted out their hostages, keeping one member of each family to hold for ransom. The others were released that night. According to the Cali priest, the ELN’s sole mission in this case was to drain the bank accounts of each wealthy family. The guerillas’ goal was accomplished, he adds. All the ransom demands were met by the families, most of whom consequently went broke. Some families were forced to pay by deeding over the titles to their property, and others are actually paying the terrorists on an installment plan. Such is a measure of just how lawless a society exists in Colombia.

Since that time, one way the Colombian people have been fighting this kidnap culture is by making it clear beforehand that they will not pay any ransom for those kidnapped. Another priest in Cali stated that “paying ransoms to the rebels is like making a pact with the devil.”

The Catholic Church in Colombia has led the way in promoting this pre-emptive strategy. Church policy is now typically publicized that it will not meet any ransom demands. Archbishop Duarte, for example, came to an agreement with his priests that they will not pay ransoms for one another so as not to perpetuate the kidnapping culture. The Jesuits in Colombia also adopted a similar policy in hopes of deterring future kidnappings among their ranks.

These policies come after years of Church-related kidnappings. Since 1989, when Bishop Jesus Emilio Jaramillo was murdered by the ELN, violence against the Catholic Church has worsened throughout Colombia. Over the past 14 years three bishops have been kidnapped, while one archbishop, one bishop, 43 priests, two nuns, and two foreign missionaries have been murdered.

During a public audience in Rome last November, Pope John Paul II, speaking in Spanish, said that the kidnapping in Colombia is a sign of “a climate in which human rights are violated and the population is afflicted along with the Church.”

A new dignity for the Church

The kidnapping of Bishop Jiménez came just eight months after the cold-blooded murder of Archbishop Duarte, probably the most prominent incident of violence against the Catholic Church in Colombia.

Known popularly as the “Apostle for Peace,” the archbishop was one of the most stalwart critics of the various anti-Christian elements of society, often blunt and harsh in his condemnations of the perpetrators of Colombia’s violence. He spoke out equally against the leftist rebels and the right-wing militias. He especially condemned the murder and kidnapping of innocent civilians.

“A rebel who kidnaps and kills, eliminates entire populations, and mocks the whole peace process, lacks the virtues proper to a human being and becomes the most miserable of men,” he wrote in 2000. “We ask God that the guerilla fighters in Colombia may feel deep sorrow in their souls for the evil they commit when they kill an innocent, defenseless brother or sister, that they understand that theirs is not a just war, but merely a repeating of savage acts of the saddest times in human history.”

Just weeks before his death he characterized guerillas and paramilitaries as “cowards” for assaulting civilians, and condemned congressional candidates for buying votes with money from drug traffickers, motivating Colombia’s attorney general to open an investigation into the charges.

Archbishop Duarte was gunned down as he left a mass wedding ceremony in the dirt-poor Cali neighborhood of Aguablanca. According to the archbishop’s driver Edilberto Ceballos, two masked assassins shot him four times at point-blank range, including in the head. The assassins were later identified as FARC guerillas. The terrorists say they murdered the archbishop because he described the peace process of the former government under Andrés Pastrana as an “absurdity” for “talking with a rebel group that continued its violent actions while dialoguing with the state.”

“This conflict has become so degraded that it has reached the level of pure barbarity,” said Fr. Gersain Paz, the archbishop’s spokesman who later fled the country in fear of his own life. “Who would strike out against someone so beloved?”

Talking to Catholics in Cali a year after the murder, it is easy to tell that Archbishop Isaías, as he is called in Colombia, was most beloved and his murder still fresh in the minds of those who looked up to him as an exemplary shepherd.

He is now hailed by the people of Cali as a “martyr for peace.” Indeed, shortly after the archbishop’s murder, the Pope reinforced this notion when he said that the outspoken prelate had paid “the highest price for his energetic defense of human life.” Fr. Paz said that the archbishop knew that assassination was a possibility. “Everything he did was a risk.”

Archbishop Duarte is respected for taking these risks as much as for anything else. In fact, according to Cali priests, he warned them of the risks of speaking out directly against the atrocities committed by the terrorist groups. He urged his priests not to get personally involved in the disputes, saying that it was his own duty as the shepherd of the archdiocese to take on the risks himself, while at the same time trying to protect his people, including the safety of his priests.

Archbishop Duarte had earned popular respect even before he came to Cali in 1995. In 1988, he was appointed bishop of Apartado, an impoverished area near the Caribbean coast that serves as a lucrative port for the export of cocaine and heroin, which has financed the activities of both the right-wing and left-wing terrorist groups. Consequently, territorial wars have long sparked violence in this volatile area of the country.

In his recent autobiography Carlos Castano, the leader of a Colombian paramilitary group, writes that Duarte was a bishop who was most balanced his condemnations: “Don’t doubt that he internationally condemned the guerillas and us. He criticized both sides.”

An unprecedented number of nearly a million mourners lined up last March to pass the archbishop’s body as it lay in a glass-topped coffin in Cali’s San Pedro Cathedral. Today a special shrine for the tomb of the murdered prelate is well-visited in the cathedral.

When asked how the late Archbishop Duarte’s death affected the Catholic Church in Cali, priests explained that generally the murder of their shepherd was at first a “major wound.” But since then it has given strength and encouragement to the Church throughout the country. “He is seen as a martyr,” explained one priest, “and the Church does not feel intimidated. Only a year later are people understanding the import of what happened and that the archbishop was a prophet. The Church has received a new dignity.”

Archbishop Duarte’s successor, Juan Francisco Sarasti, though he has a different style, has consistently identified with and reinforced his predecessor’s concerns for life, liberty, and peace. On the anniversary of Duarte’s death, Archbishop Sarasti wrote that the richness of the slain prelate’s message “has increased as we continue to study his concerns.”

Chaotic fallout

The 39-year-old civil war in Colombia has begotten not only violence through the direct conflict between right-wing paramilitary forces, Marxist rebels, and the Colombian armed forces. More significantly the longstanding conflicts have produced side effects of societal chaos, an unstable economy, and some corrupt institutions.

In the background of the war are drug lords, common street criminals, and the much-feared highway banditos who together account for the majority of the nation’s violence. Of the 27,000 homicides in Colombia each year, only about 20% are due directly to civil war conflicts. The rest stem from side-effects of the war: gang feuds, drug-related assassinations, and common street crimes. According to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, Colombia has a per-capita murder rate more than thirteen times higher than that of the United States.

The links between the war and its many side effects are easily understood here. Because of the activities of the rebel groups and paramilitary squads, there are certain areas of the country outside the major cities where lawlessness rules. Busses full of civilians, for example, are regularly hijacked by rebel roadblocks. Kidnappings sometimes result from these detentions. More often the rebels simply rob everyone aboard and steal the bus. In order to deter such takeovers, some busses bear a sign reading, Vehiculo Viglado Satellemente: “This vehicle is watched by satellite.” Colombians laugh at such unlikely security measures, saying that, even if a bus was monitored by satellite, it could only record the bus being stopped, hi-jacked, robbed, and burnt.

Violence by narco-terrorists has created a culture of fear that has catalyzed common criminals throughout the country. The terrorists’ strategies have long been mimicked. Highway banditos, for example, also have a habit of stopping busses and other transport vehicles in order to rob passengers or steal their cargo. Even in urban areas with a police presence, city busses are commonly hijacked by armed bandits. In a recent incident in Cali, ten passengers were shot dead for a booty amounting to just $10.

An even more obvious side-effect of the war is that civilians have suffered from bombings, indiscriminate fumigations, massacres, forced displacements, road blocks, destruction of basic infrastructure, and a lack of water and food. Last year, for example, the church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios in Dagua, about an hour outside Cali, was bombed by rebel fighting, destroying the roof of the church and several neighboring buildings.

The fear of massacres in the lawless rural areas of Colombia produces a corresponding displacement of the rural population towards urban areas. Others are displaced under the direct pressure of threats or lack of food created by rebel blockades. This shifting of the population creates additional problems for the urban areas, which cannot adequately support the current glut of city residents.

One atypical area of Cali is being settled on the outskirts of town as a government-planned neighborhood called De Se Paz, short for “Development, Security, and Peace” in an effort to accommodate and care for the displaced. Residents of De Se Paz, which in some ways resembles a small-scale urban American housing project, are able to enjoy city utilities, including a sporadic garbage collection service. The squatter settlements that border De Se Paz and exist in many other areas in and around Cali have no such luxuries: no running water, sewers, electricity, or garbage collection. Squatter houses tend to be little more than a small ramshackle dwelling of bamboo and wooden boards knocked together.

Dirt-poor Aguablanca has been seeing some 200 new residents each week due to forced displacements. It is now home to approximately 600,000 residents, all from the lowest economic strata of Colombian society.

Much of the population in Aguablanca and other similar neighborhoods, especially the teenage and pre-teen population, suffers from the worst of societal problems found in all parts of the world: child prostitution, sexual promiscuity, and alcohol and drug addiction. Many girls are pregnant by the age of 17, and most of them remain unwed. Street children are a common site, many of whom are lured into prostitution and subsequently become addicted to drugs. Colombia not only exports drugs; it consumes drugs too. Ironically, cocaine is not as much of a problem in Colombia among the teen population as is the drug XTC, which is imported from the United States.

It is also common to see drug addicts shooting up heroin, literally in the streets, while many of the poorest simply mill about aimlessly, a logical outcome of the staggering 28% unemployment rate in Colombia. Some say official statistics are low because the state surveys do not take into consideration the large number of unemployed squatters.

Economic instability is another repercussion of the societal chaos caused by decades of civil war. One major problem that perpetuates the chaos is that rebel guerillas have a habit of blowing up an oil pipeline that is crucial to the economy. But most of the instability arises from subtler causes. Buying a home in Colombia, for example, is nearly impossible for working-class citizens because it is simply not equitable. It is common that house buyers will end up owing more money on their mortgage after five years than when they started making their payments because the landlords keep raising the price of the property. Such surprising problems arise not only because of the lack of law and order in society, but are also due to the inability of many laws in Colombia to be enforced with any kind of regularity.

Above all, due to the spate of recent terrorist acts, coupled with the long-term repercussions of civil war, many Colombians live in fear. One senses a general feeling that there is little security in Colombia, even in light of the new government’s commitment to restoring law and order. Since he was elected a year ago, President Álvaro Uribe has initiated an ambitious military buildup and given security forces broad new police powers, all in an effort to face the force of 18,000 rebels who are willing to resort to indiscriminate terror tactics in their war against the state.

It remains that 160 of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities still have no police or army presence. About 250 towns operate without a mayor. That accounts for some of the insecurity felt by Colombians.

The role of the Church

After Bishop Jiménez’s dramatic rescue, the Colombian hierarchy decided it was a good time to work at renewing peace efforts. The role of the Church in these violent disputes is not a political one; rather it is purely one of mediation. Cardinal Rubiano, president of the Colombian bishops conference, said that the Church “reaffirms its willingness to continue working in favor of peace, facilitating dialogue and the drawing closer of all parties implicated in the conflict.” The bishops’ immediate goal is to put an end to the kidnap culture which has struck fear into the hearts of most Colombians.

Since 1989 the Church has assumed an active role in mediating negotiations between the Colombian government and the various rebel groups, both formally and informally. Often leaders of the rebel groups have contacted the bishops, seeking their assistance in the capacity of mediators. But Colombian priests and bishops are careful not to appear to take sides in the dispute between the right-wing and left-wing groups. That would most certainly mean brutal retaliation for them. Beyond facilitating mediation and negotiations, a priest’s role in Colombia is to inform the groups as to what is Christian behavior and what is not, without reference to the many volatile political issues that set the groups apart.

Last year, before the murder of Archbishop Duarte, negotiations broke off between FARC and the Colombian government, sparking a renewed wave of violence. On February 20, former President Andrés Pastrana ordered the Colombian army to retake a former Switzerland-sized demilitarized zone ceded to FARC during a three-year-long peace process that bore no fruit. Intense fighting ensued in the former rebel safe-haven. Since that time, despite the Church’s willingness and its efforts, no new negotiations have taken place.

According to Andrés Grillo, editor of the influential periodical Semana, the Catholic Church has “become in many areas the only counterweight to FARC. In regions where there is no state presence, literally abandoned to the hand of God, members of the Church in many cases are the only ones who, through their pastoral work, keep the community united, defend its rights, and protect it from the abuses of armed actors.”

The same can be said about the Church’s role in society at large. In many areas of the country it is only through the Church’s pastoral work and charity that the poorest members of Colombian society are able to go on living from day to day. Beyond that, the Church offers a solidarity not found elsewhere in Colombian society.

In Aguablanca, for example, the Shrine of the Divine Mercy attracts more than 1,000 worshipers every Monday night, many of them children and teens. They pack into the bamboo-frame church and spill out into the surrounding neighborhood. Known as the “renovation” Mass, the weekly service provides some neighborhood stability, a fostering of solidarity in the Christian community, and a focus on the relatively new devotion to the Divine Mercy of Christ.

American aid to Colombia

So how does the average Colombian feel about the increased aid and presence of the United States? Sources in Cali—laymen, priests, and seminarians, all speaking on condition of anonymity because they fear being targeted by guerillas—all seem to agree. They say that when Colombians are asked publicly what they think about U.S. aid, they will most likely reply that “the situation raises some concerns for them.” In other words, few Colombians want to go on record supporting American aid and a U.S. military presence. But when asked privately and assured anonymity, all the Colombians CWR spoke with applaud the American efforts, enthusiastically welcoming both U.S. financial aid and direct military assistance. “We couldn’t be happier,” was the typical response. They emphasized, however, that there is no safe way to publicly get across that message. Speaking out in the media in favor of an American presence in Colombia leaves them vulnerable, they explained.

Today the United States has more than 1,100 American officials working throughout Colombia. Almost half work in the Bogotá-based embassy. More than 400 military personal, including the 260 American soldiers who are training Colombia troops, and the recently deployed 150 Special Forces troops sent by President Bush to assist the Colombians in the search for the three Americans hostages round out the number.

FARC has made it clear that it considers the recently deployed American troops to be an “invasion.” Even a Colombian politician sent an unequivocal warning to Washington. Congressman Gustavo Petro, a former leftist rebel of the disbanded group M-19, warned against further U.S. involvement. He told RadioNet that “Colombia is not Afghanistan; it is not Iraq. With the type of violent conflict we’re living here, what the United States is going to get tangled up in is a new Vietnam.” He explained that Bush’s decision to send more troops to the region will only help FARC “transform their senseless war into some sort of patriotic war.”

Petro’s belligerence, however, appears to be very much in the minority among Colombian politicians. Vice President Francisco Santo, for example, swiftly responded to Petro’s criticism of the United States, strenuously rejecting his views. The bottom line in Colombia at this important juncture is that it is difficult to find a Colombian family of any economic strata that has not in some way been affected by the present chaos, whether through bombings, kidnappings, forced displacements, unemployment, or crime. The rebel groups that once billed themselves as “defenders of the poor” have become oppressors of the poorest. Through the years they have lost their way politically. Money and power is now their main motive. Consequently, less than 3% of Colombians support the goals of FARC and the ELN. Nor do many support the brutal tactics used by the outlawed militia groups, not least of all because they have harmed many innocent people. Far from defending the people of Colombia, these terrorist groups now only want to demoralize their country and the Uribe-led government.

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