Saturday, February 20, 2010

Seven Yanqui Bases in Colombia

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Written by Diane Lefer and Hector Aristizábal
U.S. and Colombian officials signed an agreement granting the U.S. military access to seven Colombian bases for ten years.

ImageThe United States thereby increased its ties to the military known for the worst human rights abuses in the Western Hemisphere and is a troubling indication of what can be expected of the Obama Administration and its promise of change. Does this agreement (signed in the fall of 2009) really change anything? We take a look at the history of each of these bases as well as conditions in the surrounding communities and the nation as a whole.

#1: Tolemaida

This base, located in Melgar, Cundinamarca, has been sending students to the School of the Americas for Army Ranger training for more than 50 years. The US military and its contractors already have a long association with the base where they have enjoyed immunity from prosecution for such crimes as the rape and sexual abuse of Colombian girls as young as twelve (documented by video), and the trafficking for profit of arms to illegal paramilitary groups. The new agreement will allow unparalleled access by the US armed forces and will apparently continue diplomatic immunity for US personnel, both military and civilian.

In Bogotá, just 43 miles to the northeast, more than 1,000 people arrive each day as they flee violence aimed at stealing their small rural landholdings usually for the benefit of paramilitary bosses, narcotraffickers, transnational corporations and their government allies. The US-supported Colombian military has done nothing to protect approximately 4 million internally displaced people, 75 percent of whom are women and children, left homeless and impoverished.

While US policy is to fund the war on drugs and the war on the FARC, the cocaine trade provides employment and income to more than one million Colombians and the armed conflict is one of the nation's largest sources of work. In Colombia, a minority of the population has steady employment. Most of the potential workforce consists of the unemployed, those who've given up looking for work or who participate in the informal economy of day laborers, street vendors, armed insurgents, and criminals. Workers lucky enough to have steady employment for a 48-hour week at the minimum wage do not earn enough to purchase a basic market basket of goods for a family of four.

The Colombian Ministry of Defense has estimated that more than 4,600 FARC members and more than 1,300 ELN members are minors and that most guerrilla fighters had joined the guerrilla ranks as children. Witness for Peace learned of a school in Bogotá where 80 children dropped out in a single semester to join the FARC, motivated not by ideology but because their families couldn't afford to feed them.

Education and employment opportunities will have more impact on the civil conflict and the cocaine trade than more weapons, more military training, and more war.

#2. Bahía Málaga

This naval base in Valle de Cauca department is located outside Buenaventura which, as the nation's largest Pacific port, is also notorious for its role in exporting cocaine--a clear rationale for the base. The city itself is

dangerous and impoverished though it serves as a gateway to some of Colombia's premier tourist beach resorts and lies near an essential ocean ecosystem.

Over the past several years, the workforce of mostly Afro-Colombian and indigenous sugar-cane cutters and sugar refinery workers have labored in slavery-like conditions in Valle de Cauca and neighboring Cauca department. The 18,000 workers who went on strike in 2008 were, predictably, called FARC terrorists by Colombia's President Uribe.

The department capital of Cali was the destination that same year of tens of thousands of indigenous protestors and their Afro-Colombian and campesino allies who undertook an eight-day march to focus the nation's attention on their call for a Life Plan that honors human development and the environment instead of the Development Plan promoted by transnationals and the government that focuses on resource extraction with no concern for consequences. The development plans that equal Death Plans for millions are enforced and implemented by the Colombian military.

The Colombian Constitution affirms specific rights--including land rights--to Afro-Colombians as well as to the indigenous populations but both minority groups continue to suffer discrimination. The US State Department reports that indigenous people are the country's poorest population and have the highest age-specific mortality rates and rates of intestinal diseases, tuberculosis, hepatitis, and malaria.

Valle de Cauca borders the department of Chocó which a former Colombian president referred to as the "country's piggy bank" because of the richness of its vast mineral deposits and other natural resources.
Chocó, with the highest percentage of Afro-Colombian residents in the nation, also has the lowest per capita level of social investment and ranked last in terms of education, health, and infrastructure while suffering some of the country's worst political violence.

Throughout Colombia, Afro-Colombians are driven off the land they own and their leaders are targeted for assassination. Native leaders who resist the degrading exploitation of their traditional lands and try to ban military actors from their resguardos (reservations) are labeled FARC sympathizers and have been assassinated at a rate that would translate in the US to more than 21,500 elected officials and community leaders murdered for political purposes each year for the last 10 years. The Awa people are particularly at risk as their homeland spans the Colombia-Ecuador border, considered a strategic military area by the government. Massacres in February and August of 2009 claimed the lives of 25 people including children.

#3: Palanquero

The base is situated in the heart of Colombia, near Puerto Salgar on the Magdalena River, the country's principal inland waterway, notorious for the mutilated bodies floating downstream or, unseen, confined to its depths. While the guerrilla movements continue to carry out killings, kidnappings, sabotage, and other atrocities--extensively covered by the mainstream media, the vast majority of murders, disappearances, and other human rights abuses have been rarely covered in the press and clearly tied to the Colombian Army and its paramilitary allies.

Direct military funding from the US for Palanquero was supposed to stop when courts found it was from this base that planes dropped a US-made rocket on the village of Santo Domingo, killing18 civilians. Palanquero was later "recertified" for assistance. The advanced radar equipment installed here by a US team was indispensable in the operation that killed FARC Commander Raúl Reyes. The bombing of his camp across the border in Ecuador caused an international incident and is one of the reasons the US lease on the Forward Operations Base in Manta, Ecuador was not renewed.

Palanquero has become the most infamous and talked about of the seven bases because of a US Department of Defense Air Force document that stated the site "provides a unique opportunity for full spectrum operations in a critical sub region of our hemisphere where security and stability is under constant threat from narcotics funded terrorist insurgencies, anti-US governments, endemic poverty and recurring natural disasters." [emphasis added] Colombian government documents state the agreement provides for cooperation against narcotrafficking, terrorism, and "otras amenazas de carácter trasnacional" (other threats transnational in character). Documents were later revised to eliminate language suggesting the US might mount operations against any target in the South American continent and the US administration has offered high-level assurances, but we've seen revised documents before. Just one familiar example: Descriptions of torture techniques were blacked out in the SOA Manual while the practice continued around the world including by US forces. In Colombia, during the first six months of 2008, government security forces were involved in 74 incidents of torture, a 46 percent increase compared with the first six months of 2007--and those are merely the incidents that were noted by the US State Department.

#4: Cartagena

As the home of the country's largest naval base, and with the omnipresent police and military on the streets, Cartagena--even during the worst periods of violence in Colombia--continued to attract tourists with its beaches and cultural life. Its patrimony of Spanish Colonial architecture won the city designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The US has conducted joint training exercises with Colombian sailors here.

Cartagena is also the site of a sprawling shantytown with thousands of displaced and desperate young people, prime recruit material for criminal organizations and illegal armed actors. Rightwing death squads visit these streets to strike and kill, and the government's security forces--ever present in tourists areas--do nothing to make life here secure.

Instead of more military, Cartagena needs more programs like El Colegio del Cuerpo, a local dance company that trains young people from impoverished backgrounds. Through the discipline and expressiveness of creating beauty, youth at-risk learn not only about the art of dance, but a new sense of ethics. As the founders explain, in Colombia, the human body is too often a disposable thing, made to be tortured, mutilated, murdered. At El Colegio del Cuerpo, youth once inured to violence learn to respect the human body--their own, and the bodies of others.

#5: Apiay

This air base also hosts the Colombian Army and Navy as well as hundreds of US military personnel and contractors who have been there since 2004, supporting the anti-FARC military campaign called Plan Patriota. Given that oil and gas facilities are often a guerrilla target, it's worth noting that Apiay is also home to an oil refinery. A gas pipeline to Bogotá runs from the nearby city of Villavicencio which has been overwhelmed, like Bogotá, with internally displaced people who live in new slums that lack access to clean water. There's no sanitation in poor neighborhoods and the electrical grid is insufficient to meet the needs of the city.

Water, sanitation, electricity, city services. Those are the exact concerns being addressed in the city of Medellín by the youth organization, Red Juvenil which offers a positive model for the nation. These young people--conscientious objectors from the poorest and most violent neighborhoods--reject recruitment by all the armed actors. The say no to the guerrilla, the paramilitaries, the cartels, and the Colombian military as well, and instead focus their efforts on civic improvement.

#6: Larandia

This base in Caquetá department is home to Colombian counter-insurgency brigade No. 89, trained at WHINSEC. Most of the several hundred US military advisors, Special Forces, and DynCorp contractors sent to the country by Plan Colombia have been based here.

In the Spring of 2009, Human Rights First reports that 97 people in Caquetá including prominent and well-respected activists and intellectuals suddenly found their names, addresses, and photographs circulated on a military intelligence list linking them--without any corroboration--to the FARC just as they were about to testify about abuses and "extrajudicial killings"--a euphemism for State-sponsored murders and lynchings--carried out by the Colombian military. Being named as a FARC sympathizer is tantamount in Colombia to having a target pinned to your back.

Throughout the country, such accusations are routinely made against those who resist war. "Peace Communities" such as San José de Apartadó, which deny access to all armed groups, whether legal or illegal, are relentlessly targeted by the Army, police, and paramilitary forces and suffer threats, massacres and disappearances.

Larandia's role in Plan Colombia, since 2002, has been as the takeoff and landing site for the aircraft that have fumigated the neighboring Putumayo region with toxic herbicides. Cocaine cultivation has not diminished, the supply remains unchanged, but local people have suffered extreme hunger as their food crops were sprayed and destroyed, toxins impacted people's health as well as the environment in the Amazon basin, "the lungs of the world."

Rumors now circulate about a deal: Colombian President Uribe approves US access to bases in exchange for Obama supporting a Free Trade Agreement by which the US could continue to subsidize domestic agribusiness, thereby threatening the livelihoods of Colombia's small and subsistence farmers. Their lands are already being illegally grabbed and transformed to palm oil biofuel plantations--food for machines rather than people. Under the FTA, the US could regulate its own financial sector but Colombia would not be allowed to do so. Colombia could not give preference to local businesses in awarding government procurement contracts or in any way privilege Colombian businesses over transnationals.

Every successful world economy has gone through a period of protecting and developing its own business and industrial base. The FTA presents Colombia with almost insurmountable obstacles to doing so. While the wealthy would become wealthier through their participation in multinational schemes, the majority of Colombians would be trapped in a backwards economy exporting natural resources, monoculture products such as biofuels, and raw materials, all of which rely on an exploitable underclass of workers.

While Colombia needs a Fair Trade program that encourages the development of a competitive 21st-century economy, Uribe's government remains tragically committed to neoliberalism. A better model is being tried elsewhere on the continent: ALBA (Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América) is based on the idea of social, political, and economic integration between the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean and a vision of social welfare, barter and mutual economic aid.

#7: Malambo

Air Force officers from Malambo, located on Caribbean coast in Colombia's Atlantic department, have trained at WHINSEC. In the 80's, in addition to its anti-narcotics operations, the base was charged with defense against a presumed Sandinista threat. No wonder South and Central American countries are not reassured by US statements that all operations will be confined to Colombian territory.

At the end of 2009, at the Second International Conference for the Abolition of Foreign Military Bases, delegates from twelve Latin American countries pledged to cooperate on a campaign that seeks to have other nations follow the lead of Bolivia and Ecuador, two countries that have a ban on foreign bases written into their respective national Constitutions.

In recent years, US military joined with the Colombian Air Force to bring disaster relief to the departments flood zones. They have also garnered favorable press by participating in joint medical missions.

Flooding is common along the coast and regularly creates disaster and disease in Barranquilla, the largest city of the department, which has no rainwater drainage system or flood prevention plan. If infrastructure needs were addressed, the military wouldn't have to respond to frequent disasters. If the department had sufficient clinics, hospitals, and health care personnel, the population wouldn't have to wait for the infrequent arrival of medical missions.

In 2009, the mayor of Barranquilla faced a disciplinary investigation by an anti-corruption agency after his sudden dismissal of 2,300 municipal workers who were members of trade unions. Union leaders and journalists who voiced opposition to the mass firings received death threats. Threats and actual killings are nothing new for union leaders at the local Coca-Cola plant.

Violence against trade unionists in Colombia increases every year with multinationals linked again and again to the hiring of assassins.

In Argentina and Chile, people are now being held accountable for crimes against humanity committed during their Dirty Wars. In Colombia, when arrested paramilitary leaders begin to testify about their connections to high ranking government officials and US and transnational corporations, they are quickly extradited to the US to face drug charges, putting them out of reach of Colombian prosecutors, human rights organizations, victims and their families. Not only do Colombian perpetrators continue to enjoy impunity for their past crimes, the abuses are ongoing.


When funding for the SOA was threatened, the Department of Defense renamed it WHINSEC. The agreement on bases represents one more example of sleight-of-hand: As Congress loses faith in Plan Colombia after investing more than six billion dollars, the DOD taps the military budget to keep the failed policies going with even less Congressional oversight.

The Obama Administration's decision to extend US military muscle to an extent previously unknown threatens to destabilize the entire region. Yes, South American countries have had their border skirmishes and brief armed conflicts, but American bases create a scenario for what could potentially be a major war on the continent. At the same time, the US presence will lead Colombia's neighbors to respond to this anxiety by buying more weapons and raising more national armies. Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru will spend on their militaries the money that could and should go to improving the quality of life for all their citizens.

The agreement represents more of the inevitable failure that comes from policies that rely on the military paradigm. In Colombia, as in Afghanistan, military might has failed and is destined to fail. In neither country can the military put a dent in drug trafficking. In both countries, a weak central government has little or no presence--except for military presence--in much of the country and fails to provide even basic services. Military action inspires insurgency and resistance, while warlords and corrupt government officials continue to profit from war.

Social justice is the road to peace.