MADRE Talking Points: The Role of the US in Colombia's Conflict

Wednesday, June 30, 2010
North America
South America
United States of America

The Conflict in a Nutshell

* For over 40 years, Colombians have endured an armed conflict over their country's highly concentrated sources of natural wealth, especially land.
* In the mid-1960s, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) arose as a peasant movement demanding land redistribution and social reform from the government.
* Since the 1990s, the conflict has been a three-way war: the FARC is battling the government; the government is fighting to eliminate the FARC; and brutal paramilitary groups function symbiotically with the government and Army to protect the interests of powerful elites.
* Instead of battling one another directly, Colombia's armed groups usually attack civilians suspected of siding with their enemy. The main victims of the conflict are women and families, hundreds of thousands of whom have been assaulted, displaced from their homes or killed.

The Government

* The Colombian government has historically refused to address the desperate conditions of the poor majority, opting instead to criminalize all political and social opposition.
* After his election in 2002, right-wing President Alvaro Uribe exploited the climate of the US "War on Terror" to expand the power of the military and silence critics. Those targeted for assassination by paramilitaries or intimidation and arrest by the army include labor organizers, human rights workers, Indigenous leaders, opposition party candidates, peasant activists, student and neighborhood groups, intellectuals and religious leaders.
* In June 2010, former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos was elected to succeed Uribe as president. He has promised to continue the policies of his predecessor, an outcome decried by Colombian human rights groups. Between 2006 and 2009, during Santos' tenure as defense minister, more than 2,200 people were killed, apparently by state security forces.


* The FARC is a guerrilla force estimated to number between 15,000 and 20,000 recruits that controls large territories in Colombia. Its demands revolve around issues of social welfare, economic development, agrarian and judiciary reform and reorganization of the military. However, the FARC's overall political platform is murky. Some progressives charge that the organization has no coherent program other than to perpetuate its own existence.
* Although the FARC has a strong support base in some areas, it lacks credibility because of its brutal tactics, including massacres of civilians. In 1999, three US-based activists, including former MADRE staff member and Indigenous rights activist Ingrid Washinawatok, were tortured and killed by FARC combatants.

The Paramilitaries

* Colombia's paramilitary groups use extreme violence to protect the interests of elites, including US-based corporations, large landowners and drug traffickers.
* Because paramilitaries are not formally linked to the state, the government avoids accountability for their violence. Yet the paramilitaries operate with the tacit approval and sometimes open support of the military.
* The government claims that paramilitary groups have significantly demobilized since an agreement in 2003 with the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), a major coalition of paramilitaries. Yet, they continue to be responsible for the murder of civilians and other human rights violations.
* Amnesty International has also reported that the Colombian government continues to use former paramilitaries in its own operations, regardless of a ban on such activity.

How Has the Conflict Impacted Women and Families in Colombia?

* There are nearly five million internally displaced people (IDP) as a result of the conflict, putting Colombia on par with Sudan as having one of the two largest displaced populations in the world.
* Violence against women, especially rape and forced servitude, is systematic and widespread in the shanty towns and camps where displaced people find refuge.
* Indigenous Peoples and Afro-Colombians are disproportionately affected by displacement and tens of thousands have been forced from their homes each year by the violence.
* The Colombian Constitutional Court has warned that at least 34 Indigenous Peoples "are in danger of cultural or physical extermination due to the internal armed conflict."
* Most displaced families end up in overcrowded and impoverished urban slums. Almost 60% of displaced women have no job or income.
* Nearly all internally displaced households fall below the poverty line; and nearly half are headed by women.
* High-ranking government officials continue to make statements linking Indigenous communities with guerrilla groups. Meanwhile, FARC claims that these groups closely collaborate with the army. This has encouraged a climate in which abuses against Indigenous Peoples are tolerated, encouraged or facilitated.

What Has Been the Role of the US in Colombia's Conflict?

* The rise of paramilitarism in Colombia can be traced directly to the United States. According to declassified State Department documents, a 1962 US Special Forces mission to Bogotá advised the Colombian military to use "paramilitary terror" against "communist proponents" (defined as virtually anyone who challenged the status quo).
* During the Kennedy Administration, the US began giving weapons and training to the Colombian military. This policy marked the onset of the "National Security Doctrine," which the US eventually instilled across Latin America. The strategy uses the military to wage war on the domestic population as a means of safeguarding elite interests.
* Under the guise of the war on terror, the Bush Administration began funding operations against leftist guerillas directly, rather than channeling funding through counternarcotics missions. Since then—and for the first time since the 1980s—the US has waged a direct counterinsurgency effort in Latin America, giving weapons, training and money to a government that relies on paramilitary death squads.

The Vicious Cycle of Neoliberalism & Armed Conflict

* The root causes of Colombia's conflict—poverty and inequality—have been exacerbated since the 1990s, when the US began demanding neo-liberal economic reforms including wage suppression, debt servicing and public sector budget cuts.
* In the 1990s, the US insisted that the Colombian government stop subsidizing agriculture (although the US and Europe maintain this lucrative practice for themselves).
* Without government subsidies, millions of small farmers were unable to compete with large-scale agribusiness and were driven off their lands.
* Displaced farmers generally have four options: join the guerrillas or paramilitaries; move into the jungle to cultivate coca (the one crop that promises a profit); become poorly-paid laborers on large plantations or in urban factories, or migrate to the urban slums to join the "informal economy."
* The same economic policies that concentrate land ownership in the hands of a few drive people to join the armed conflict and the drug trade. The forced displacement of Colombians by the armed conflict also creates a labor force for the factories and plantations created by neo-liberal policies.

Obama's Colombia Policy

* Over the past decade, the US has lost much of its influence over countries surrounding Colombia, as progressive social movements gave rise to left-leaning governments in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil.
* In response, the Obama Administration is shoring up relations with Colombia. In 2009, Colombia leased seven new military bases to the US, in a move that angered human rights activists in both countries.
* The Pentagon said the bases are needed to "expand expeditionary warfare capability" and counter threats from "anti-U.S. governments," presumably those in South America that are demanding sovereignty, autonomy and independence from US demands.
* Enhancing US military capability in Colombia is linked to two other US policies in that country: Plan Colombia and the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

Plan Colombia

* First authorized under the Clinton Administration, Plan Colombia is a multi-billion dollar aid package whose stated aim is to wipe out the drug trade and cocoa production in southern Colombia.
* The failure of the 'war on drugs" has been amply documented. Yet, Plan Colombia persists because of its usefulness to funding counter-insurgency efforts (more than 75 percent of the funding goes to the Colombia military) and protecting US business interests in Colombia.
* For example, in 2003, US military aid to Colombia included $98 million to train Colombian soldiers to guard the 480-mile Cano Limon pipeline, which belongs to US-based Occidental Petroleum. The FARC, which opposes foreign exploitation of oil, has repeatedly attacked the pipeline.
* Oil is Colombia's most lucrative export, bringing in roughly $10 billion in 2009. Indigenous Peoples who have opposed oil exploration on their lands have been killed by paramilitaries said to be in the service of oil companies. Tens of thousands of Indigenous Colombians have been displaced from their ancestral lands, which are now controlled by oil companies including Occidental and BP.

The US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement

* The US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was first signed in 2006 and ratified by the Colombian Congress in 2007. However, the US Congress has not ratified it, responding to pressure from human rights advocates who point to continuing violence against labor and trade unionists, among other human rights violations.
* Since 1991, more than 2,200 trade unionists have been killed, mostly by paramilitaries. Meanwhile, the FTA does not require Colombia to meet international labor standards; it merely calls on the government to adhere to its own weak labor laws.
* The passage of the FTA would worsen rural poverty and hunger. The deal prevents Colombia from subsidizing its own farmers, while large-scale US agribusiness continues to enjoy billions in subsidies. Many of Colombia's small-holder farmers are women and Indigenous Peoples, who would be unable to compete with subsidized imports and deprived of their livelihoods.

For more information, read the MADRE factsheet "The US-Colombia Unfair Trade Agreement."

How Can We Support Peace and Justice in Colombia?

* MADRE works in partnership with the organization Taller de Vida to offer support to women and youth who have been displaced from their homes by the conflict or conscripted into armed groups.
* MADRE demands a more just US policy towards Colombia. We believe that instead of fueling Colombia's war, the United States should act as part of the international community to support a negotiated settlement to the conflict, one that addresses the poverty and inequality at the root of Colombia's crisis.