In her latest pro bono public relations initiative on behalf of right-wing Latin American regimes, The Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady interviews a former commander of the 5th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—Daniel Sierra Martínez, alias “Samir”— who deserted the organization in 2008 and is now serving as a primary accomplice in Colombian government efforts to prove campesinos are terrorists. In her Dec. 13 article entitled “The FARC and the ‘Peace Community’,” O’Grady announces that “[l]ast week Colombian authorities agreed to let [Samir] sit down with me and talk about his rebel experience,” an arrangement which presumably did not require much twisting of authorities’ arms.
The peace community in question is that of San José de Apartadó, which was founded in 1997 in the northwestern Colombian department of Antioquia near the Panamanian border and is a network of geographically-proximate villages and outposts that have renounced cooperation with the military, paramilitaries, and guerrillas alike. The unilateral rejection of armed conflict had not prevented the community from suffering 184 assassinations—out of a population of approximately 1500—as of its 12th anniversary this year, however, as nonviolent philosophies do not appear to be compatible with efforts to clear territory of inhabitants in order to exploit coal mines and other local resources.
The sub-headline of O’Grady’s article—which was apparently originally titled “The FARC’s NGO Friends” as this is how it turns up on the Google search engine—explains that Colombian peace communities are “controlled by NGOs” and that “peace-niks helped the terrorists.” Perhaps in an effort to make her rejection of peace more globally applicable, O’Grady begins her article:
As the U.S. prepares to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan on a mission that will include defending a civilian population in a narco-economy, Colombia’s experience with drug traffickers and terrorism may be instructive.
The testimony of the former second in command of the 5th Front of the [FARC], which operates in the banana-growing, drug-trafficking region known as Urabá, could serve as Lesson One.”
The ability of the United States to defend civilians in narco-economies is first of all called into question by its history of defending narco-economies against civilian populations—such as via Plan Colombia, which did not reduce Colombian cocaine production but did result in the fumigation of numerous campesinos, their children, their livestock, and their water supplies. As for what exactly Lesson One entails, it is not clear whether O’Grady intends it as a warning to the Afghan populace not to attempt to renounce violence or as a warning to the Afghan government not to permit NGOs in the country.
The NGO danger had been highlighted in a 2003 speech by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who, O’Grady explains, had “expressed his concern about the possibility that some ‘human rights’ groups are actually fronts for terrorists. The international left, including Sen. Chris Dodd (D., Conn.), jumped all over [Uribe] for making that claim.” Newer members of the international left were meanwhile identified in O’Grady’s August 2009 article entitled “The FARC’s Honduran Friends,” in which she proves the terrorist ties of the anti-coup Democratic Unification party (UD) of Honduras through a letter that had recently “landed on my desk.” The letter had purportedly been retrieved from one of the FARC-owned computers that were said to have been confiscated during a 2008 Colombian raid into Ecuadorian territory and that a year and a half after the incident continued to churn out FARC friendships with whomever was deemed currently in need.
As for “The FARC’s ‘Human Rights’ friends,” this was the title of a July 2008 article by O’Grady suggesting that the success of the recent rescue of Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and fellow FARC captives had much to do with the fact that “[i]n tricking FARC rebels into putting the hostages aboard a helicopter, undercover special forces simply told the comandantes that the aircraft was being loaned to them by a fictitious nongovernmental organization.” NGO assistance to the FARC in the peace community of San José of Apartadó was meanwhile cast into doubt when I arrived this past March to San Josesito—the core village of the community—to find two Italian NGO workers swinging in hammocks with pasta cooking on the stove; they explained that they were not permitted to engage in any activity that could be construed as remotely political in nature and that the presence of international bodies was merely required in order to prevent the community’s obliteration.
O’Grady missed the opportunity to add the Bolivians to her “FARC Friends” series on Nov. 22 when she instead chose the title “The End of Bolivian Democracy” for her article concerning Evo Morales’ impending reelection to the presidency. Her complaints regarding the perpetuation of a “narco-dictatorship” in Bolivia and not Colombia indicate that she has judged this term to be more applicable in situations in which the current president objects to criminalization of the coca leaf than in situations in which the current president has been described in a U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report as being “dedicated to collaboration with the Medellín cartel at high government levels.” This particular report was compiled in 1991 during Uribe’s term as senator and additionally describes him as a close personal friend of (late) cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar.
Other individuals with a history in the cocaine trade include O’Grady’s ex-FARC interlocutor Samir, who she claims “resented the FARC’s decision to take up drug trafficking and to work with drug-running paramilitaries. He also objected to the FARC’s exploitation of the locals.” That Samir had waited 23 years to object to guerrilla activities does not interfere with O’Grady’s apparent conviction that the former commander should suddenly be regarded as a righteous disseminator of truth, and she explains that “[i]n exchange for a reduced prison sentence, [Samir] had to come clean about what he did in over two decades in the FARC.” He was evidently saved from any sort of prison sentence, however, when the Colombian government named him a “gestor de paz” in June 2009—a position offered to reformed guerrillas who pledged to promote national reconciliation in accordance with government-dictated strategies; the government did not explain why Pablo Escobar had never been offered a drug counseling position in Colombian middle schools.
Lucrative surrender opportunities for Colombian combatants were part of Uribe’s Justice and Peace Law of 2005, which had already succeeded in disguising the regrouping of paramilitary formations under different names as a complete demobilization—and thus during my recent visit to the southern Colombian department of Putumayo residents of various towns reported receiving flyers signed not by the “United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia” (AUC—the dominant paramilitary umbrella group prior to its alleged disbanding) but rather by the “Black Eagles,” threatening to kill certain sectors of society such as people who left their homes after 10 PM. O’Grady nonetheless opts to classify not the Justice and Peace Law but rather the Colombian NGO by the name of Justice and Peace as being on the side of terrorists.
According to O’Grady, Justice and Peace is one of the NGOs “controlling” the peace community of San José de Apartadó, the leaders of which Samir informs O’Grady “had a close relationship” with the FARC “dating back to the early days.” Other relevant tidbits provided by Samir include that the “community was a FARC safe haven for wounded and sick rebels and for storing medical supplies”—a claim somewhat contradicted by the fact that I slept in the infirmary of the village of San Josesito during my March visit and that it boasted neither rebels nor medical supplies; as for the close relationship between the community and the FARC, this did not explain why community members attributed 24 of their 184 assassinations since 1997 to the guerrillas. Arón David, a member of San José’s 8-person consejo interno—a leadership body on which members served 2-year terms—did however admit to me that the FARC was more likely than other armed factions in the area to offer reimbursement to citizens for devoured or destroyed crops and livestock.
The alcohol-free peace community runs on a system of collective work groups, with area crops ranging from cacao to corn to yucca to miniature bananas shipped to the U.S. in plastic bags marked “Baby.” David lamented the paramilitary ties of banana intermediaries and the impossibility of existing in complete isolation from armed conflict in Colombia; O’Grady has of course detected less of a desire for isolation on the part of the community, and states that “[a]ccording to Samir, the peace community helped the FARC in its effort to tag the Colombian military as a violator of human rights.”
Thus, although O’Grady ostensibly began her article as an effort to demonstrate the affection for the FARC harbored by NGOs, she has just made the blanket statement that “the peace community helped the FARC”—which is exactly the sort of justification for violent reprisals that the community has sought to avert by rejecting support for armed actors on all sides. María Brígida González, a woman with two grey braids who was one of the founders of the peace community in addition to having lost her 15-year-old daughter Eliseña to a December 2005 massacre by the Colombian army’s 17th Brigade, explained to me that the army had justified the deed by claiming that Eliseña and the 5 other victims, murdered in their sleep, were FARC combatants. As for the ultimate objective of massacres by Colombian armed groups, González confirmed that it was “to sew terror so that everyone runs away and the land’s resources can be exploited.”
O’Grady continues relating the peace community’s contributions to the FARC’s “effort to tag the Colombian military as a violator of human rights”:
When the community was getting ready to accuse someone of a human-rights violation, Samir would organize the ‘witnesses’ by ordering FARC members, posing as civilians, to give testimony.”
How the guerrillas had time to dress up as civilians and denounce human rights abuses in addition to attending to their normal duties of drug trafficking and exploitation of locals is not covered, although the implied superior acting talents of the FARC may shed some light on the nature of the encounter between O’Grady and Samir. Other forms of dress-up meanwhile consisted of a Colombian army practice described in the 2008 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on Colombia, which states that “army members apparently take civilians from their homes or workplaces, kill them, and then dress them up to claim they were combatants killed in action.”
As if the FARC did not already have enough collaborators in its smear campaign against the army, it was then joined by retired army lieutenant Jorge Humberto Milanés Vega, the protagonist of a Dec. 14 article in the Colombian daily El Espectador titled “Military man admits responsibility of 17th Brigade in massacre of San José de Apartadó.” O’Grady has thus far refrained from delivering a riposte along the lines of “The FARC’s Colombian Army Friends,” possibly because she prefers to ignore certain portions of the peace community’s history such as the 21 February 2005 massacre, not to be confused with the 2005 massacre that claimed the life of Eliseña.
The former event resulted in the death and dismemberment of 8 members of the community, including community leader Luis Eduardo Guerra, a 5-year-old girl, and an 18-month-old boy. Prominent Colombian news outlets obediently reported the incident as the work of the FARC and Guerra as a guerrilla attempting desertion, claims that decreased in credibility following military and paramilitary confessions to the contrary. Confessions were temporarily stanched with the extradition to the U.S. of a paramilitary commander involved in the massacre who had demobilized in accordance with the Justice and Peace Law and was now entitled to face narcotrafficking charges abroad rather than human rights-related ones at home; as for details provided by Lieutenant Milanés, these included that members of the army’s 17th Brigade had facilitated the access of paramilitaries belonging to the “Heroes of Tolová” front of the AUC to the peace community area.
According to the El Espectador article, paramilitary access was additionally facilitated by the combatants’ disguise as campesinos, suggesting that the FARC were not the only ones capable of dressing up as civilians. Civilian acting talent was meanwhile detected in the 2008 HRW report on Colombia:
While more than 30,000 [paramilitaries] supposedly demobilized, Colombian prosecutors have turned up evidence that many of them were not paramilitaries at all, but rather, civilians recruited to pose as paramilitaries. Law enforcement authorities never investigated most of them.”
Peace community member Arley Tuberquia, the young man in charge of the community radio station and digital archives, declared to me in March that the only reason the Feb. 21 massacre was being investigated was that in its wake the U.S. had suspended a portion of military aid to Colombia but that such concern had not extended to the approximately 750 other accusations of human rights violations the community had levied against the army’s 17th Brigade—including rapes, forced displacements, and economic blockades. Consejo interno member Jesús Emilio Tuberquia meanwhile argued that government investigation into the massacre intensified in accordance with visits to Colombia by U.S. presidents; as for eyewitness reports that the army had played a more direct role in the killings than simply facilitating paramilitary access to the area, Tuberquia claimed that there was no great distinction between soldiers and paramilitaries anyway as both worked on behalf of the state—something alluded to by Ingrid Betancourt in a 2008 post-rescue interview with the BBC in which she noted overwhelming paramilitary support for Uribe.
Following the Feb. 21 massacre, the Colombian government determined that the most appropriate response to the incident would be to install a police station in the village of San José de Apartadó, the original core village of the peace community. As policemen naturally violated the community’s pledge not to live among armed actors, the installment of the station caused most of the village’s inhabitants to displace themselves one kilometer down the road, where they erected the village of San Josesito to serve as the new core village of the community. During the peace community’s 12th-anniversary commemoration this past March, campesinos arriving to San Josesito from more remote areas explained that a number of colleagues had remained behind in order to guard their homes against the army; this does not prevent O’Grady from concluding her recent article as follows:
But what cannot be denied is that while the FARC has been largely discredited among rural populations, it is the Colombian military, not the so-called peace community, that has pacified Urabá and given new life to its inhabitants.”
How O’Grady has suddenly arrived at this conclusion is unclear as she has refrained from citing a single instance of pacification or new life in the region of Urabá, but the Colombian military has nonetheless repaid O’Grady’s compliment by posting her article on its website. As for Samir’s new life, O’Grady declares that “[o]f course his adversaries accuse him of making all [of his stories] up to ingratiate himself with the government” but fails to address the fact that Samir’s demobilization in 2008 consisted of him taking up residence with the 17th Brigade of the Colombian army, which refrained from delivering him to the Attorney General’s Office as required by law—an oversight mentioned by Father Javier Giraldo of the NGO Justice and Peace in his letter to The Wall Street Journal re: O’Grady’s call to arms.
Ideas for future articles such as “Uribe’s FARC Friends” are suggested by Ingrid Betancourt’s 2008 statement that “[w]ithout the FARC, Uribe would not exist”—which she intends as an explanation of why Colombians vote for Uribe but which can also be construed as an explanation of why he needs to keep the guerrillas around. By implicating the peace community of San José de Apartadó in the activities of the FARC, meanwhile, O’Grady is implicating herself in continued violence against the community as well as against Colombian and international NGOs. Although she never establishes what her proposed “Lesson One” for Afghanistan is, it may be a lesson Afghanistan has already learned, which is that armed conflict can be perpetuated via the liberal application of the term “terrorist.”
First published in Upside Down World, 29 December 2009