Witness for Peace Letter on Peace Process


Dear Friends,

Greetings from Colombia. We hope that you are doing well. We write to you today with heavy hearts. As you probably know by now, President Pastrana announced at 10pm on February 20th that the peace process had ended and that the Colombian military would enter into the zona de despeje (demilitarized zone). Despite these very difficult times for Colombia and our partners, the WfP Team is doing fine down here. We wanted to take a minute to let you know what is happening and give you some suggestions for actions. This is a long letter, but important, so please bear with us.

Peace Process Breaks Down

As you know, the Colombian peace process has been highly volatile since its inception in 1998 with moments of serious crisis and jubilation. Nevertheless, since January the peace process has been on the cusp of a final breakdown. When President Pastrana took office in ’98, he was voted in with a “Mandate for Peace” in which more people voted for peace (10 million) than voted for Pastrana (7.5 million). Around that same time there were simultaneous marches for peace throughout the country—in at least 15 cities—in which around 12 million people participated. Due to many different factors, not the least of which is that fact that in the negotiations there have been virtually no concrete steps towards peace, public opinion appears to be changing its tune.

According to the major Colombian media sources, which are not without their interests but which certainly influence Colombian public opinion, somewhere around 70% of the Colombian population is tired of un-productive peace negotiations that gave the FARC control over a zona de despeje the size of Switzerland which, reports say, they have used for training troops, holding kidnapping victims and drug related activities. In January, when the peace process was in a serious crisis and President Pastrana considered ending the negotiations, virtually all of the traditional political forces in the country, as well as the international community, spoke out in support of Pastrana’s decision to end the peace process, if he so decided. The US government spoke out in this same vein.

Nevertheless, another short-term solution to the crisis was achieved in mid-January when a timeline was set that would have culminated with a ceasefire agreement signed no later than April 7, 2002. Colombia and the international community experienced a moment of relaxation and braced for the next crisis. Unfortunately, the crisis arrived earlier than anyone expected. After two months of a fairly intense offensive by the FARC, which included attacks on the Colombian military and police, infrastructure and civilian targets, early in the morning of February 20th, the FARC hijacked a small commercial airplane that was flying from Huila to Bogotá with 30 passengers. They kidnapped a Colombian Senator, president of the Senate’s peace commission and member of a prominent political family. At 10pm that night President Pastrana announced that the peace process with the FARC was over and that the Colombian military would take back the zona de despeje beginning at midnight. At midnight the Colombian Air Force began bombing military targets in the zone and by 10am on February 21st, they had carried out 200 bombing runs, hitting 85 targets. The Colombian Armed Forces plan to send in ground troops as soon as possible.

The FARC released a statement condemning the Colombian government and oligarchy for breaking off the peace process. They had reiterated, on numerous occasions, that if the government broke off negotiations and decided to move the army back into the zone, the FARC would hand over the urban centers but would not leave the rural areas since this was their historic territory.

Groups working for peace, justice and human rights continue to work for a negotiated, political solution to the Colombian armed conflict. Nevertheless, they appear to be increasingly isolated voices in the wilderness. Ever-louder voices in the national and international press discuss the need to get the killing over with in the next couple of years by giving up the false hope of peace accords. They claim that a military solution is the only solution.

Outlook for Colombian Elections

The outlook for the near future is not bright. Congressional and presidential elections are scheduled for March 10 and May 26 respectively with a second round of presidential elections on June 19, if necessary. The new president will take office in August 2002. Rumors are circulating in the Colombian press that armed actors from both the right and the left will influence the congressional elections. The paramilitaries stated publicly that they expect at least 30% of the new members of congress to be “their people.” Meanwhile polls show presidential candidate Alvaro Uribe Velez has over 50% of the vote while the next closest candidate stands below 30%. In the past six months Uribe Velez has shot up in the polls basically running on a platform of a hard-line military approach to the armed conflict. On numerous occasions Uribe Velez has insisted on the need for foreign military troops to engage in fighting the guerillas. During his time as Governor of Antioquia Uribe Velez oversaw the participation of the civilian CONVIVIR groups with the Colombian Military. These groups have since been determined illegal and are often associated with current paramilitary groups.

US Military Policy Intensifies

But these are internal Colombian affairs. What is the US government up to these days regarding Colombia? It appears as though things are going from bad to worse. There are four main elements of US policy that we are watching. First of all, in early February the Bush Administration proposed a new aid package to supplement the US emergency aid to support Plan Colombia, which for the past two years has been called the Andean Regional Initiative. The proposed package for 2003 totals US$731 million for the Andean Region, 60% of which is earmarked for Colombia. 60% of the package is currently military aid. According to the Center for International Policy, included in the military aid is funding to establish a second Counternarcotics Brigade. For more specific information on this and any other US aid to Colombia, see http://www.ciponline.org/colombia.

Protecting US Oil from Guerrilla Attacks

In what was a surprise move to some, in early February the Bush Administration’s “Foreign Military Financing” aid request for Colombia included funding that was outside the scope of the counternarcotics package provided in the Andean Regional Initiative request. According to preliminary information, the Foreign Military Financing request includes US$98 million for the Colombian Army’s 18th Brigade. This money would be used for approximately 12 UH-1 Huey helicopters, communications equipment, intelligence and for training of one of its battalions by US Army Special Forces. The singular focus of this battalion would be the protection of the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline. This pipeline is partially operated by Occidental Petroleum Corporation. According to US Ambassador Anne Patterson, almost US$445 million was lost last year due to more than 150 guerrilla attacks against the pipeline that halted pumping of oil through the pipeline for approximately 250 days. For years critics have been saying that US military aid, regardless of the governmental rhetoric, has been aimed at fighting the Colombian insurgency and protecting US oil interests in the region. Now the US government has publicly admitted it. Ambassador Patterson recently said, “…the issue of oil security has become a priority for the United States…After Mexico and Venezuela, Colombia is the most important oil country in the region… We explored different types of cooperation, and we came to the conclusion that protecting the Caño Limón-Coveñas pipeline was a crucial project.”

There are allegations that the 18th Brigade has links with paramilitary groups operating in the region and thereby could be implicated in paramilitary human rights violations by action or omission. Due to the Leahy Law, this could preclude the Brigade from receiving any US military aid. This law says that no US military aid can be provided to foreign militaries if there are credible allegations of human rights abuses against a “unit” until those allegations have been fully investigated and the responsible parties have been brought to justice. During the creation of the Counternarcotics Brigade, founded and training by US Special Forces in 2001, the US and Colombian governments moved “clean” troops from other brigades to create a brigade that the US could legally fund. It is not yet clear if the Colombian and US governments will have to move troops around to legally fund the 18th Brigade.

Plan Colombia Aid Freed for Counterinsurgency?

A third important issue that we are following closely is that of freeing up Counternarcotics aid for counterinsurgency. For almost a year, President Pastrana and the Colombian Military have been lobbying the US government to remove the restrictions on US military aid and allow it to be used for both counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations. While the proposal to provide US military aid to protect an oil pipeline from guerrilla attacks is obviously outside of the counternarcotics scope, the US government has been hesitant in the past to allow the almost US$2 billion dollars in counternarcotics aid that it has given in the past two years to be used in strictly counterinsurgency operations.

Nevertheless, two high level State Department officials told the Colombian daily, El Tiempo on February 20th, “all the violence in Putumayo is linked to drug trafficking. The (armed) groups that are present there fight for control over the (drug) business and not for any ideology. For that reason, if a town is attacked (by an illegal armed actor) the Counternarcotics Brigade can intervene without violating the law that was passed by the US Congress.” This represents another step by the US government towards freeing up counternarcotics aid for counterinsurgency operations.

Human Rights and Fumigation Certification

A fourth issue to watch is the State Department’s human rights certification process for Colombia. According to the Andean Regional Initiative legislation, Colombia must pass certain human rights conditions before US money is distributed. According to a detailed study by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and WOLA, the Colombia government has failed to meet these conditions. Many groups expect the administration to certify Colombia anyway. You can find a fact sheet about the human rights certification at: http://www.witnessforpeace.org/tools/colombia_hrfactsheet.html or a full report at: http://www.hrw.org/press/2002/02/colombia0205.htm.

The Andean Initiative also has conditions regarding human and environmental effects of fumigation. Before US money can be used to buy chemicals for aerial fumigations in Colombia, the State Department must certify that fumigations comply with Colombian law and that they do not cause an unnecessary health risk for the local population. According to a Witness for Peace report, these conditions have been systematically violated in the most recent fumigation campaign in southern Colombia. You can find Witness for Peace’s Fumigations Report about violations of conditions for fumigation aid allocation at: http://www.witnessforpeace.org/colombia/colombia_fumigationupdate.html.

Time to Turn our Conviction into Action!

Given this challenging situation in which things are taking a turn for the worse, both inside of Colombia and in terms of US policy towards Colombia, how do we respond? We follow the example of our Colombian brothers and sisters. Today Colombian peace groups are preparing for an emergency peace mobilization to demand a political, negotiated solution to the Colombian conflict. There are approximately 30,000 people carrying out a sit-in in the Colombian department of Arauca, home to the 18th Brigade that the Bush Administration hopes to fund. The protesters oppose this aid proposal and US support for a Brigade that has alleged links to paramilitaries. On February 19th social organizations and people from Arauca protested in front of the US Embassy in Colombia. One woman let her voice rise above the crowd saying, “The oil in Arauca has been a curse for us. The only thing that it has brought us, and continues to bring us, is death and destruction.”

We too are called to raise our voices to speak the truth about what is happening in Colombia. Those of us who have seen the first hand impacts of the war and fumigations on the civilian population in Colombia must now speak, with words and with actions, about what the future of US policy in Colombia should be. As you well know, It is not only Occidental Petroleum that has interests here. There are other multinational corporations that have oil interests connected to the Caño Limón-Coveñas pipeline. No matter whether the helicopters that would be provided to protect the pipeline are Hueys or Blackhawks, a corporation will benefit from their production and sale. Monsanto makes and sells the Glyphosate that is rained on rural Colombia while Dyncorp provides pilots and technicians to fly and maintain spray planes and helicopters that are part of the US “War on Drugs” in Colombia. All of these corporate interests, not to mention the officials within the US and Colombian governments that are supporting a military solution to that country’s problems, are using all of their power to lobby for increased US military and fumigation aid for Colombia. We have to remember that we, as US citizens, too have power. Now is the time for us to use that power.

We, at Witness for Peace have the following requests for you. First of all, keep Colombia in your hearts and prayers in their most difficult moment. Next, we need a huge turnout at the Colombia Mobilization April 19-22. If we want our voices to be heard above the voices of the US and Colombian executive branches and above the money of the corporations with interests in Colombia our nonviolent presence on the streets of Washington, D.C. has to be massive. Join with members of Witness for Peace, the other 60+ organizations co-sponsoring the event and Colombian partners to say NO! to US military and fumigations aid and YES! to supporting human rights and a political, negotiated solution to Colombia’s armed conflict. Come with your family, friends, members of your church, school, union, local organization…come with anyone and everyone that you can bring. Just make sure you come! See www.colombiamobilization.org for details and schedule.

Keep on the lookout for legislative actions from Witness for Peace or other organizations around new aid to Colombia, allowing counternarcotics aid to be used for counterinsurgency and/or dealing with the certification processes for aid distribution. For that information see;

www.witnessforpeace.org

www.lawg.org/colombia.htm

http://www.globalexchange.org/colombia/, among other sites.

Now is the time to turn our conviction into action. Now is the time that our Colombia brothers and sisters are counting on us, in the US, to move our support for them from that important moral and prayerful support, to clear, direct action.

In Peace,

Andy Schwiebert

Jess Hunter

Julia Graff

Rodney Ortiz

Ryan Calkins

Witness for Peace, Colombia

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