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US Certifies Colombia Despite Killing of Peace Activists

by Marcie Ley

(Marcie Ley was in San José de Apartado for one year in 2004 as accompanier with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. This article will be published at:


On February 21, I received the devastating news: Luis Eduardo Guerra, the beloved leader and founder of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, Colombia had just been killed in a massacre near his home in Colombia. For days I wept, mourning the loss of this extraordinarily compassionate individual. Given the impressive international attention and support showered upon his small community since it's founding 8 years ago and the great number of lives Luis Eduardo had touched, I was certainly not alone in my grief and outrage.


For a community that has suffered countless atrocities caught as San José is in the middle of the Colombian civil war, to lose a charismatic and irreplaceable leader such as Luis Eduardo was an unimaginable blow. As the horrifying details of the massacre became public the nightmare only worsened. Including Luis Eduardo, eight civilians had been tortured and then hacked to death by machete blows.

Four of the victims were minors, including Luis Eduardo's 11-year-old crippled son and an 18-month-old baby girl. All eyewitness testimony pointed to the Colombian Army as being directly involved in the killings. Meanwhile the Colombian government very quickly placed blame on FARC guerrillas, despite a lack of any credible evidence.

In the weeks and months following the massacre, Colombian and international human rights groups pressured the Colombian government to conduct a thorough investigation especially of the soldiers allegedly involved. Across the US, religious leaders, solidarity organizations, grassroots activists, and even a handful of senators pressured Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to withhold certification citing the San Jose massacre, among other cases as evidence of the precarious human rights situation in Colombia.

Yet, on August 1 the State Department took injustice to the next level: it certified Colombia as meeting human rights conditions, thus releasing over $70 million of aid that had been held up for months partly due to pressure generated by the San José case. The resulting message sent by the US to it's closest ally in the hemisphere is that Colombia could count on US support, regardless of whether it made any effort to improve its abominable human rights record. "

[The] decision [to certify] is a major blow to the promotion of human rights in Colombia and is based on only the narrowest reading of the law and the thinnest of evidence," said Dr. William F. Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA. "Further, it undermines the Bush Administration's contention that the promotion of human rights worldwide is a top priority for the U.S. government." US Aid to Colombia Since 2000, the US has sent over $4 billion dollars of assistance to the Colombian government making it the largest recipient of US funding outside of the Middle East.

Called Plan Colombia, this aid package was first passed during the Clinton era under the guise of fighting the drug war. After September 11, 2001 and the start of the war on terror, Congress lifted restrictions that US funding could only be used for anti-narcotic activities. Helping the Colombian government defeat leftist guerrillas rebels became a central focus of US support. Since Plan Colombia began, neither objective of stamping out insurgency nor stemming the flow of drugs out of Colombia has been achieved. The largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC, is as strong as its ever been. Meanwhile the US street price of cocaine has dropped, purity has increased and the drug is more popular and available than it has been since the 1980's.

Yet despite this lack of results, earlier this summer as Plan Colombia was set to expire, the US Congress approved an aid package that will allocate $742 billion in assistance to Colombia. To date, over 80% of US aid to Colombia has gone directly to the Colombian armed forces despite a horrendous human rights record and proven ties to paramilitary groups who are responsible for the majority of political killings. Interestingly, much of US aid "sent" to Colombia is used to purchase weapons, ammunition and helicopters made from US manufacturers and some of Plan Colombia's biggest supporters in Congress represent districts where defense contractors are located.

Regardless of how much money actually leaves this country as foreign aid, US law clearly prohibits funding governments that fail to respect human rights. In the case of Colombia, 25% of military aid can be withheld if the Secretary of State determines that Colombia is not adequately addressing human rights concerns. In order to pass twice-yearly certifications the Colombian government must demonstrate that it is severing ties between its military and illegal paramilitary death squads and investigating reported abuses of civilians by military personnel, such as those that took place in San José.

Neither of these conditions have been sufficiently met which is why the passage of certification is a slap in the face to anyone that believes the US should use its considerable influence to improve human rights conditions abroad. "The State Department should use the leverage it has-not give away the store," said Lisa Haugaard, of the Latin American Working Group. "The price of U.S. assistance should be respect for human rights."

Human rights groups report that violations are on the rise and that 2005 has been one of worst years to date. According to the United Nations, abuses by military personnel are on the rise as is forced displacement. Colombia already has one of the highest rates of displacement in the world with over 2.5 million internal refugees.

While the armed groups wrestle for political and geographical control of the country, it is the civilians that bear the brunt of the conflict. For every one armed combatant killed in Colombia's 50-year-old civil war, six civilians are disappeared or killed. Peaceful Resistance In many communities across Colombia, the civilians are doing what they can to resist the continued violence around them by asserting their neutrality. The community of San José de Apartadó declared themselves a Peace Community in 1997.

Arms of all kind are forbidden, as is collaboration with any side of the conflict, including the passing of information to armed actors. Yet, despite their principled stance of neutrality and non-violence the community has continued to suffer the devastating effects of the civil war. To date, the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartadó has lost over 150 members to acts of violence, the vast majority of them alleged to have been perpetrated by paramilitary or military soldiers. In eight years, over 300 testimonies have been given by community members to Colombian authorities yet not once have charges been filed as the result of an investigation. In fact, many of the accusers and witnesses have been threatened or harmed as a result of providing testimony, evidence of the high level of corruption in the Colombian legal system. The San José massacre is just one example of the hundreds of human rights atrocities allegedly committed by the Colombian armed forces that have thus far gone uninvestigated and unpunished.

It is neither the most horrendous case, nor the most politically significant. Yet in many ways it exemplifies the vulnerability of the civilian population as well as the total impunity that exists in Colombia. Immediately after the massacre human rights groups around the world rallied to the side of San José and demanded that an investigation be carried out.

In the US, a grassroots campaign helped alert Congressional representatives to the fact that the Colombia government was not adequately protecting its citizens from violence, especially from its own armed forces. The massive outcry was enough to put certification on hold for several months and inspire a hearty debate in the House of Representatives as it considered passing the renewal of aid to Colombia. However, as Colombian President Alberto Uribe prepared for an historical visit to President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, it appeared that US policy toward Colombia resumed to business-as-usual.

Clearly, the State Department's certification announcement on August 1 was timed to smooth Uribe's landing three days later by assuring him that billions of dollars of US aid will continue to flow, despite Colombia's lack of compliance with human rights conditions. Clearly the current administration has shown little concern for human rights abuses across the globe and Colombia is no exception. Yet for the people of San José, the targeting of innocent civilians by armed forces is not something that can be easily swept aside for the sake of amiable political friendships.

For those that suffer the most in the conflict, creating a climate in which human rights abuses are investigated and punished is the only way to prevent further tragedy. Luis Eduardo committed his life to the cause of justice and respect for civilian rights. He is but one of many martyrs to this cause. Until the US commits to using its leverage and wealth to pressure countries like Colombia to respect the rights of its own people, he will remain one of many to come.

"Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable." - MLK, Jr.

Marcie Ley (415) 341-4074

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