During his visit to Bogotá last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced:
Colombia’s success against terrorists and narco-traffickers does offer a lot of opportunities for them to share their expertise. We certainly would like to see . . . other countries take advantage of Colombia’s strengths.”
Gates noted that Peru and Mexico were already taking advantage of Colombian strengths in the area of military training but failed to note the current presence in Colombia of a delegation of mayors and vice-mayors from 26 different cities in Honduras, accompanied by Honduran Interior Minister Áfrico Madrid.
The Honduran visit comes in response to Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s brief stopover in Tegucigalpa following the January inauguration of Pepe Lobo and legitimization of last year’s coup d’état against Mel Zelaya, whose desire to enable the national Constitution to be rewritten in accordance with the interests of the majority of the populace threatened the political and financial domination of the country by 10 families. Uribe and Lobo signed a security cooperation agreement, a commitment that was reinforced in the Colombian government communiqué regarding the April 13 meeting between the Colombian leader and his Honduran guests.
According to the communiqué, Honduran Municipal Association president Carlos Miranda Canales confirmed that the excursion to Bogotá was an “educational trip” and cited “common problems” faced by the two nations. Gates identified three such problems in the region—“insurgents and narcotics and crime”—and declared that Uribe’s expertise in combating them made him “a great hero.”
The Defense Secretary’s description of the president’s abilities stands in stark contrast to a Defense Department report compiled in 1991, when Uribe was a senator and Gates director of the CIA. The report describes Uribe variously as “dedicated to collaboration with the Medellín cartel at high government levels,” “linked to a business involved in narcotics activities in the US,” “a close personal friend of [late Colombian drug lord] Pablo Escobar Gaviria,” and “one of the politicians… who has attacked all forms of the extradition treaty [between Colombia and the United States].”
Uribe’s improved cooperativeness vis-à-vis the U.S.—as evidenced in the U.S.-Colombia Defense Cooperation Agreement signed in October 2009, authorizing U.S. use of Colombian military bases—has not, however, relieved him of dubious affiliations. The parapolitics scandal, for example, has revealed paramilitary ties to a number of Uribe’s allies in the national Congress and to other pro-Uribe politicians.
As for Gates’ praise for Plan Colombia, the success of the program is called into question by the fact that billions of dollars of U.S. aid have failed to curb drug trafficking to the U.S. I observed some of the effects of the plan during a visit last year to farms in the southern Colombian department of Putumayo, where inhabitants complained of repeated fumigation of their banana crops, cows, and children, while coca fields continued to spring up in the area undeterred.
Paramilitary violence and fumigations are two of the reasons Colombia possesses the second highest number of internally displaced persons after Sudan, with the aim of displacement being to free up land for exploitation by interested parties. An example of territorial usurpation endeavors is provided in a 2008 report by the United Nations Refugee Agency on the indigenous Embera population of Colombia, whose unwillingness to donate their land to a hydroelectric dam project funded by multinational corporations has “forced [them] to live with the ever looming possibility of forced and mass expulsion from their traditional habitat and the potential extinction of their communities” as well as increasing “violent attacks and… selective assassinations of their spiritual leaders by right wing paramilitary death squads.”
Paramilitaries have also been instrumental in clearing land for oil palm plantations, which produce palm oil to be used as biofuel as well as in a vast number of food and domestic products. In addition to causing the displacement of Colombian farmers who refuse to submit to the institution of palm monoculture, the plantations are also synonymous with environmentally destructive practices such as deforestation. It is a curious coincidence that last week’s visit to Colombia by the Honduran mayoral delegation came on the heels of the recent crisis in the Bajo Aguán region in northern Honduras, where the convergence of African palm plantations, paramilitary violence, and farmer displacement highlights it as an area in which Colombian security expertise might be instructive.
On April 10, the Lobo administration sent several thousand military troops to Bajo Aguán as a prelude to negotiations regarding the fate of 20,000 hectares of land, the ownership of which is disputed by the Unified Movement of Aguán Farmers (MUCA). Consisting of approximately 3500 families, MUCA claims that land belonging to 28 palm oil-producing cooperatives was illegally sold to three wealthy businessmen in the 1990s, with the forced sale facilitated by paramilitary actions against the farmers. The possibility of resolving the dispute last year was thwarted by the coup d’état against Zelaya, whose support for land reform was merely one of his many policies challenging the traditional hierarchy of power in Honduras.
In an attempt to force negotiations, MUCA farmers occupied several African palm plantations in December 2009, after which the organization suffered a slew of assassinations. An agreement was reached last week between the farmers and the Lobo administration, according to which the government will purchase a portion of the disputed land from the businessmen in question and mortgage it to the farmers.
As Jesse Freeston points out in his recent news video “Honduran campesinos under the gun”, the accord has not resulted in a military evacuation of the area. Freeston additionally interviews a MUCA leader whose description of the agreement indicates that it is nothing more than a superficial antidote to profound injustice:
[The agreement is] not what we wanted. But we were negotiating with an M-60 to our head. [The military has] put checkpoints every two kilometers in our villages. They’ve got the people in the plantations surrounded on all sides. How are we supposed to negotiate like this?”
The probability that the Hondurans may have already learned a thing or two from the Colombians is of course emphasized by the employment on Honduran palm plantations of 40 former members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC, the largest Colombian paramilitary organization prior to its alleged disbandment). The discovery of foreign paramilitaries recruited into the Honduran private security sector was announced last October by a United Nations working group on mercenaries and was subsequently acknowledged even in the fanatically pro-coup La Tribuna newspaper, in an article aptly titled: “Yes, there are paramilitaries.”
Much more publicized, however, is the rumor that MUCA farmers are incited to action by other types of foreign entities, such as Hugo Chávez and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—claims that have unceasingly been applied to opponents of the coup in general. During my August 2009 visit to the northern Honduran community of Guadalupe Carney, farmers who had for years battled attempts at displacement complained that they were now being accused of Venezuelan, Cuban, and Nicaraguan nationality. Other accusations leveled against the farmers were that they were stockpiling weapons and that they coveted the nearby lagoon for drug trafficking purposes, accusations which might have been more plausibly leveled at the local landowning elite and their mercenaries.
Identity manipulation has also served as an excuse for violence in Colombia, as evidenced in the “false positives” scandal in which the Colombian armed forces, in perhaps thousands of separate incidents, murdered civilians and then disguised the corpses as FARC guerrillas. Secretary Gates’ recent claim that the valuable human rights lessons learned by the Colombian military may benefit Peru and other Latin American nations consequently seems out of place, unless he is suggesting that the Peruvian police provide FARC costumes to murdered indigenous protesters.
Andrew Oxford notes the oxymoronic quality of Colombian human rights advances when “Colombia still has an impunity rate of 96% in the more than 2,700 worker’s-rights related murders that have been perpetrated in the last twenty years” and when “[m]ore trade unionists have been assassinated in Colombia in the last six years than [in] the rest of the world combined.” Although Honduran impunity has yet to reach such a level, the murder of coup opponents goes largely unreported in the mainstream press and the assassins are never brought to justice, while the military perpetrators of the coup itself were promptly cleared by a judge of the crime of expatriating Zelaya.
As for potential applications of the Plan Colombia model, the April 13 AP report conveying the Honduran administration’s announcement that it was merely militarizing Bajo Aguán “to seize drugs and illegal weapons” is as convincing as the claim that the purpose of Plan Colombia is to eradicate drugs and violence. What is certain, however, is that praise for Colombia as a regional example ensures that U.S. endeavors to extend its realm of influence in Latin America will legitimize terror while ostensibly combating it.
First published in Upside Down World, 23 April 2010