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A Way Out for Colombia
U.S. military assistance and fumigation programs

Justin Podur . ZNet . 2002

Who in the U.S. benefits from fumigating Colombians?” the man asked me pointedly in the crowded community hall in a paramilitary-controlled part of Putumayo. Putumayo is a southern department of Colombia where the guerrilla insurgency is strong, where much coca is grown, where paramilitary massacres, disappearances, and assassinations are frequent, and where Plan Colombia is focused. It’s also the focus of U.S. military assistance and fumigation programs.

It was a painful question to face. But in some ways it wasn’t the most painful question. We had been placed on the stage, 20 North American delegates facing about 100 members of this recently fumigated community, so that they could tell us the impacts of U.S. policy on them. They told us that fumigation, which has airplanes spraying farmer’s fields with Monsanto-made Roundup Ultra in order to destroy coca crops, has some effects, which could easily have been predicted. These include destroying food crops, polluting the water, killing livestock, causing skin rashes, respiratory problems, stomach illnesses, destroying economies. They showed us the destruction. Elsewhere in Putumayo they showed us where the agricultural college was fumigated. We visited a 160-hectare yucca cooperative—that was also fumigated.

When you try to imagine the options a farmer has in a place like Putumayo—grow coca and have a chance of making ends meet (and be fumigated) or grow food crops and risk not being able to make ends meet (and be fumigated), it’s hard to think of what the appropriate emotional response is. It’s enraging to hear from the U.S. Embassy that Roundup Ultra is perfectly safe and hear Embassy staff imply:

(1) that these campesinos aren’t suffering from fumigation
(2) that they are inflating health and environmental problems caused by the campesinos’s own ignorance in handling agro-chemicals
(3) that they are doing so in order to get money from the U.S.
But there was something even worse than all this, and that was the defensiveness that most of the campesinos had when they were talking to us. They would have had every right to tell us to tell the U.S. to take its fumigation programs, and its military aid, and its helicopters, and get lost, never coming back except to apologize for all the destruction and plunder and maybe pay reparations. Instead they insisted that they were hard-working people who didn’t want to grow coca, but needed workable alternatives to coca production. They explained how the “alternative development” component of Plan Colombia, whereby campesinos get subsidies if they eradicate their own coca, was designed to fail. It’s administered by neglectful organizations and not under the control of the community. The aid comes in kind, not in cash, and has to be picked up from town. Traveling to town is expensive and time-consuming and much of the aid money is eaten away in lost time and money traveling to get chickens one day, chicken feed the next day, a water pump one day, and a hose another day.

Even though the governors of the departments are lobbying against it, the U.S. and the Colombian federal government seem to have set everything up for another round of fumigation. As terrible as fumigation is, it’s just a pretext for something worse.

The War Against People

In Colombia our delegation had the chance to talk to Hector Mondragon, an activist and economic advisor to many different people’s movements. For this work he has been imprisoned six times, tortured by a U.S.-trained officer once, and threatened innumerable times. He sleeps in a different bed each night and doesn’t announce his schedule in advance. He says, without exaggeration, that he’s lost 5,000 friends to this war. While the fact that he’s alive and still fighting is an inspiration, the analysis he presented to us was stark.

He told us how the history of Colombia is one of elites pushing campesinos deeper into the jungle in order to concentrate their own wealth and facilitate multinational exploitation. He suggested we look not only at the complexities of all the armed actors, the paramilitaries and guerrillas and armed forces and U.S. and narcotraffickers, but also at who benefits from the violence.

Afro-Colombians are on land that is slated for canal-building, dam-building, and oil development and are being displaced and murdered in huge numbers. The black population of Colombia is between 8 to 10 million in a total population of 41 million. Of that, an estimated 900,000 are displaced right now. The total displaced population of Colombia is around two million, in another example of black people suffering out of proportion to their numbers. Many of them were displaced after 1991. The timing might have something to do with the fact that their constitutional rights to their resource-rich lands on the coast were guaranteed in the 1991 constitution, and that those who wanted to “develop” those areas would, according to the constitution, have had to negotiate with them in good faith and compensate them adequately.

Indigenous people are on resource-rich lands and are facing the same kinds of violence. The massacres of the Embera people began after foreign companies acquired energy interests on their lands in 1998. They, too, are a disproportionate number of the victims of displacement.

From 1948 to 1958, in La Violencia in Colombia, 2 million people were driven off their lands and 200,000 killed. At the end of it, their sugar and cotton plantations were consolidated in few hands. The current phase of violence has had 2 million people driven off their lands and land concentration has increased, from 34 percent of the land in the hands of the top 5,000 landowners in 1994 to 48 percent in those hands in 2001.

There has never been agrarian reform in Colombia. Felix Posada of the Center for Latin American Popular Communication said there’s been “reverse land reform.” Since the 1990s neoliberal opening of the country, 140,000 jobs were lost in the agricultural sector. Colombia has a poverty rate of 56 percent, defined as people living on less than $500 U.S. a year. In rural areas this figure goes up to 86 percent. Between the neoliberal opening, an IMF restructuring of the economy, and the 24 percent unemployment (75 percent in some areas and sectors), it’s easy to conclude there is a war on workers and campesinos. Add to this that there is a murder of a unionist every three days, and you’ll see this isn’t a war between armed actors, much less a war on drugs, but a war against the people.

Towards Humanitarian Intervention?

There is tremendous, and growing, resistance to this kind of exploitation in Latin America that is of great concern to U.S. elites. There is the landless peasants’s movement in Brazil, the Zapatistas in Mexico, Chavez in Venezuela, a strong indigenous movement in Ecuador, people’s movements in Bolivia and economic collapse in Argentina. All this as the U.S. tries to force the FTAA through in a shortened time span. To do so will require violence, as neoliberalism required. “If neoliberalism came into Latin America in the boots of Pinochet’s military coup,” Mondragon said, “the FTAA will come to Latin America in the helicopters of Plan Colombia.”

But Mondragon fears that even worse than the violence of Plan Colombia is on the horizon. “Human rights workers in Colombia have a sad story to tell,” he said. “We denounce imprisonment and torture and they respond by disappearing people. We denounce disappearances and they assassinate people. We denounce assassinations and they respond with massacres. What could be worse than massacres? There is something worse and that is a direct military intervention that would destroy the country and not solve the problems of the war.” He fears a military intervention like that of Kosovo, justified as a humanitarian intervention, whose real intention is to discipline the popular movements of all of Latin America.

When I was in Colombia a report came out of human rights abuses in the guerrilla-controlled demilitarized zone. The U.S. Embassy staff was excited about the report and talked about the need to “bring the FARC to the negotiating table” by winning military victories. I asked a Columbian military officer if he thought there was a negotiated solution to the conflict and he told me that if the guerrillas had wanted peace, they’ve had ample opportunity to negotiate. The only encouraging news from the U.S. Embassy was when they said Colombia was too big, much bigger than Kosovo or El Salvador and harder to control, so they didn’t think a “peace force” would be able to function in Colombia. But if they attack, it will be in the tradition of U.S. interventions and the tradition of this cowardly war. They won’t be attacking human rights violators or any armed actors for that matter. They’ll be attacking the civilians in guerrilla controlled zones. From the air, from a safe place from which they can test their expensive equipment and experimental weapons on unarmed peasants.

The fastest-growing armed group in Colombia is the Autodefensas Unidas Colombianas, the paramilitary. They’re up to 8,000 and growing. There’s a little checklist a European historian friend of mine drew up for me on “prerequisites for a fascist takeover.” One prerequisite on the list is a group of armed thugs that becomes a political movement. Another is that this movement have the support of elites and sectors of the military. A third is that it present itself as the right-wing solution to the country’s problems—whether those problems are unruly workers or unruly peasants. The last is the complicity and silence of the international community.

The RAND Corporation is no stranger to laying out nightmare scenarios and helping to make them happen. They do just that in their “Colombian Labyrinth” ( The most interesting portion of this document is the eight scenarios they envision for the future of Colombia. They present eight scenarios, but if you read carefully, there are only four. Scenario one is a “successful peace agreement.” Scenario two is called “turning the tide,” in which the guerrilla insurgency is defeated. This is actually the same as scenario four, called “the Peruvian model,” which RAND admits involves the government brutally crushing the insurgency without regard for anybody’s human rights. Scenarios three and six are called “stalemate” and “FARC Takeover or Power Sharing,” also the same. Scenario five is “Disintegration,” and scenario seven is what the U.S. really wants, “Internationalization of the Conflict.”

RAND goes on to advise the U.S. administration to stop fiddling around with counternarcotics and go ahead and fight the counterinsurgency war it so badly wants to, and enlist the help of the neighboring countries to do so. “The United States should...reexamine the utility of distinguishing between counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency assistance and consider providing assistance to improve Colombia’s conventional military capabilities” (chapter 10, page 2). But the most telling line in the report has to be “The U.S. program of military assistance to El Salvador during the Reagan administration could be a relevant model” (chapter 10, page 3).

Whether it’s Hector Mondragon’s nightmare, the AUC’s project, or RAND’s advice that comes to pass, the global economic project will be fulfilled. Manuel Rozental of the Canada-Colombia Campaign talked about this in Toronto. “There are two obstacles to the FTAA in the Americas,” he said. “The first is the people on the land with rights to the land and the resources. The second is the organizations that increase the costs of production. The theory of competitive advantage is based on cheap resources and cheap labor. Empowered people raise the cost of both. So the strategy is quite simple—remove the people, and dismantle the organized opposition.”

Caught between the insurgents and their project, the paramilitaries and their fascist political project, the Colombian military, and the U.S. violence, are the people of Colombia. They’re reaching out to us to build a bridge. Will we be able, together, to stop the war on drugs? To stop the kind of “development” that’s destroying Colombia? To stop the humanitarian intervention before it happens?

I didn’t go to Colombia looking for understanding, although it was there for me in the form of razor-sharp analysts who do their work under fire. I didn’t go looking for hope either, although I found some of that too, in the very same people. What I went looking for was credibility and priorities. I wanted to be able to face those who claim human rights workers are tools of the insurgency. I wanted to be able to stare down the argument that the only solution to the conflict is the continuation of the war, which isn’t a war between guerrillas, paramilitaries, and the armed forces, but a war of people with guns against people without them, and a war of people with power against the earth. I wanted to know what Colombians thought were the most urgent priorities for North American activists.

What I found was extraordinary people like those of the Centro Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), a union central who told of the war against Colombian workers, a war prosecuted by violence as well as by the economic restructuring, privatization, and unemployment wrought by globalization; people like Afrodes, the organization of the Afro-Colombian displaced, who told of how they are being displaced from their resource rich lands, even as the constutitional guarantees of their rights to those lands come into effect, to make room for megaprojects; people like the Organizacion Femenina Popular and the Ruta Pacifica de Mujeres, who talked about the impacts of the war on women and their readiness to become authors of peace.

The Way Out

The people and their organizations are the way out of this conflict for Colombia. After hearing, in the villages of Putumayo, that everything is set for a new round of fumigations of campesinos in the winter, it’s hard to think of anything but stopping that horror from happening. The way out is a negotiated solution with civil society at the table with decision making power. The Guatemalan peace process gave civil society an advisory capacity, and some of the problems with that process come from the limited role assigned to civil society.

The negotiations will also have to rehabilitate the armed actors. Ninety-seven percent of murders go unpunished in Colombia. This impunity will have to end. Otherwise there will be a repeat of the 1980s, when the FARC guerrillas tried to “go legitimate” and form the Union Patriotica political party, a success at the polls that was systematically destroyed by assassinations by the military and police of about 3,000 party members and leaders. The same thing happened to the Army of Popular Liberation, the EPL, who sued for peace in 1991 and by 1994 had 274 members killed. The intellectual and material authors of the crimes against Colombians will have to be brought to justice. Some kind of truth commission will have to happen.

The war on drugs, and the prohibition, will have to end. Prohibition makes the price of drugs artificially high. An editorial in El Tiempo in November 1999 compared the prohibition of cocaine to the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s. Prohibition caused the prison population to expand from 32.4 per 100,000 in 1910 to 41.8 per 100,000 in 1926. It caused alcohol production in Canada to double from 1925-1928. It corrupted the justice system, empowered criminal syndicates, and bred tremendous violence. Faced with these problems, the U.S. government realized in the 1930s that prohibition had to end—for alcohol. But it’s not willing to do the same for other drugs. Drugs are still too valuable of a pretext for controlling populations of poor people of color at home and campesinos abroad. This has to change. A lack of development makes growing coca the only sensible choice for campesinos. Treating drug addiction as a crime and not a health issue prevents a reasonable program for reduction of demand. Legalization, control, and education in the U.S. and true development in the producing countries will have to happen.

The economic model of exploitation and exclusion has to be replaced with an economy based on equitable cooperation and inclusion. There are such models and alternatives being built in Colombia right now, and the people trying to build them are being slaughtered. That’s what the CUT identified as a high priority, talking to us in their office that overlooks Bogota through bulletproof windows.

Manuel Rozental and Sheila Gruner of the Canada-Colombia Solidarity Campaign talked about short-term tactics for resistance. If we could make assassinations, massacres, and disappearances counterproductive, we could keep social organizations alive long enough to have a fighting chance. Rozental suggested if a community under threat could displace to another community under threat, make connections, and return home, rather than displacing to the city, this would be a step to making displacement counter-productive. The Campaign is going to develop a platform for solidarity to facilitate these kinds of strategies and actions starting with a delegation to Colombia in August.

This month the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) is planning a mobilization to force Ontario’s conservative government from office. They are a community anti-poverty organization that has made the connection between globalization and the economic model being applied to the world and the poverty, unemployment, and social devastation occurring in communities all over the hemisphere, even the first world. They are ready to bring the anti-capitalist globalization struggle home. This may not sound related to Colombia’s struggle, but it is. Because it is unlikely that there will be a real end to the violence in Colombia as long as capitalist globalization expands. It’s unlikely that capitalist globalization will stop expanding until the struggles are brought home, to fight poverty and racism and destructive development as OCAP (and so many other community organizations) is trying to do. But if these struggles do succeed, and if solidarity actions are made strategic as the Canada-Colombia Campaign envisions, maybe we can make our way out of this mess.


Justin Podur works with the Canada-Colombia Solidarity Campaign and maintains ZNet’s Colombia pages ( where sources of this article appear.