The Peace Process in Colombia—How the United States Can Help

by James Jordan, Alliance for Global Justice

Send an email to the White House and State Department demanding an end to extraditions that threaten Colombia’s peace process, and for Simón Trinidad aka Ricardo Palmera to be allowed to take his proper place at the negotiations.

Click here to learn about AfGJ’s April 11-18, 2015 delegation to Cuba to meet with negotiators and sponsoring countries working to end Colombia’s civil war.

Members of the CUT labor federation in Colombia march for peace in Colombia.

Members of the CUT labor federation in Colombia march for peace in Colombia.

Could 2015 be the year that a successful peace agreement is reached in Colombia, ending the world’s longest standing major war? Those of us in the United States who advocate for peace are eager for a just resolution. It is a source of shame to know that war and repression in Colombia has largely been funded and directed by our own government.

It was, after all, the US government that not only advocated for the current war, but also for the creation of paramilitary death squads to literally terrorize Colombian peasants. This is no exaggeration. A secret memo sent in February 1962 by a “Special Warfare” team headed by General William P. Yarborough visited Colombia and called for “paramilitary…terrorist activities” justified by conjuring up Cold War rhetoric about the fight against communism. The memo suggested that a “civil and military structure” should be created to “perform counter-agent and counter-propaganda functions and as necessary execute paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities [in Colombia] against known communist proponents. It should be backed by the United States…”

According to a 1970 US Army manual, the signs of communist or insurgent infiltration included activities such as, “Increase in the number of entertainers with a political message….Appearance of questionable doctrine in the educational system….Increased unrest among laborers. Increased student activity against the government and its police….An increased number of articles or advertisements in newspapers criticizing the government. Strikes or work stoppages called to protest government actions. Increase of petitions demanding government redress of grievances. Proliferation of slogans pinpointing specific grievances. Initiation of letter-writing campaigns to newspapers and government officials deploring undesirable conditions and blaming individuals in power.”

One might extrapolate from all this that US military policy toward Colombia justified terrorist activities against those with obvious communist tendencies based on such activities as writing letters to the editor or organizing a benefit concert.

It was General Yarborough’s visit that led to the reorganization of the Colombian military and civilian intelligence agencies and a campaign of armed attacks directed against independent and autonomous peasant regions. These areas had organized themselves during the period of repression against the Liberal and Communist Parties known as “La Violencia” (The Violence). It was in response to attacks on one of these zones, the Marquetalia Republic, that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was formed. Since then the US has spent literally billions of dollars, including over $9 billion as part of Plan Colombia, which the Clinton administration signed onto in 2000. The US has advised and directed a war that has brought devastation to millions of Colombians, but quite a few riches to transnational corporations and Colombia’s oligarchy. That’s because this war has always been, at heart, a war to displace peasant, indigenous and AfroColombian populations in order to free up natural resources for private development and profit.

The legacy of this war has been over 220,000 lives lost to political violence according to Colombia’s National Center for Historical Memory. Some sources say the number is even higher. Not included in this figure are the at least 62,000 people who have been “disappeared”, according to a 2011 report by the office of Colombia’s ombudsman. In 2014, the International Red Cross put that number at 92,000 and others put the figure as high as 200,000. Four fifths of the victims of this war have been civilian, and at any point during this conflict, 70 to 80% of political violence has been perpetrated by either paramilitaries or the Colombian Armed Forces.

Colombia currently has a population of more than 5 million people who have been forcibly displaced, and farming families have been removed violently from over 5.5 million hectares (equal to 19,000 square miles) of land. Displacement and killings are most concentrated where there are natural resources targeted for private development.

The war has been carried to workers via assassinations that have made Colombia the world’s most dangerous place to be a unionist. Over 3,000 unionists have been murdered since the mid-1980s. The unionists most targeted are rural workers. Since 1976, more than 1,500 members of the Fensuagro agricultural workers union have been assassinated. There has likewise been a high concentration of assaults against rural members of other unions, such as teachers and mining unions.

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After more than 50 years of war, neither the Colombian Armed Forces nor the insurgents have been able to achieve a clear victory. Furthermore, over 70% of the Colombian people have expressed their support for the peace process. For these reasons, and desirous of economic stability, the established Colombian oligarchy broke with Colombia’s extreme right wing and backed the idea of negotiations that had been long called for by everyone from the FARC to the major social movements to the Catholic church. Peace talks between the government and the FARC formally began on Nov. 19, 2012.

Since that time the peace progress has made significant progress. Agreements in principle have been reached in three of the five major areas of negotiation: agricultural reform, ending the illicit drug trade and political participation. Currently being discussed are the topics of resolving the situation of the war’s victims and measures to end the armed conflict. That the talks have lasted this long and gotten this far is reason for hope and a testament to the popular movements and their demands for peace with justice.

Nevertheless, there continue to be significant obstacles to achieving this

1.2 million people march in Bogotá in support of the peace process--April 9, 2013.

1.2 million people march in Bogotá in support of the peace process–April 9, 2013.

long-hoped for peace. The extreme right wing lead by former President and current Senator Álvaro Uribe, have been clamoring at every opportunity to stop the negotiations. And at every opportunity they have been rebuffed, from the April 9, 2013 march for peace in Bogotá that turned out 1.2 million people from across the political spectrum to the elections of 2014, which were rightly seen as a referendum on the peace process. But the extreme right still has great power and influence. Where they have failed to win the hearts and minds of the people or achieve legislative or electoral victories, they have ratcheted up their illegal assaults and paramilitary activities. Recent years have seen a number of spikes in forced displacement, assaults on human rights defenders and threats against popular movements.

Juan Manuel Santos has made the completion of successful negotiations the top  priority of his presidency, hoping to be remembered for helping broker an end to decades of war. Nevertheless, elements of the Colombian government and armed forces continue to undertake actions that threaten the peace process. At the same time the FARC has announced a unilateral cease fire, and at the same time Pres. Santos has expressed interest in a cease fire by the military, the Colombian Armed Forces are still making military incursions that could compel the insurgents to return to battle. And while the FARC released its own captives well before the current dialogue started, today the Colombia’s jails hold 9,500 political prisoners and prisoners of war. The majority are people arrested for nonviolent activities in unions, student groups and political opposition groups.

A major and ongoing obstacle to the peace process is the policy of extraditions of members of both the FARC and paramilitary organizations to the United States. These are justified by the US government position that the insurgents and paras are guilty of breaking US laws by conspiring to traffic illicit drugs in the US despite the fact that those arrested were not on US soil at the time. That in itself is highly unusual and what many would call a clear violation of Colombian sovereignty, considering that Colombia’s own laws, and ability to prosecute them, should take precedence over a foreign country’s laws, especially when the alleged crimes are said to have taken place in Colombia, not the US.

Extraditions of both paramilitary members and insurgents actually have very little to do with any kind of effective strategy to confront narcotrafficking. In the case of the paramilitaries, the extraditions impede truth telling and investigations into ties between Colombian politicians and paramilitary death squads. As of April 17, 2012, five governors and 139 members of Congress were under investigation, including Mario Uribe Escobar, former President of Congress and cousin to Álvaro Uribe.

Especially in regards to the FARC, US extradition requests appear to have nothing other than a political basis. Donnie Marshall, the head of the Drug Enforcement Agency under Pres. George W. Bush has gone on record saying, “…there is no evidence that any FARC or ELN units have established international transportation, wholesale distribution or drug money-laundering networks in the United States or Europe.”

And Oliver Villar and Drew Cottle note in their book, Cocaine, Death Squads and the War on Terror, that,

Despite the propaganda about the FARC as narco-terrorists, in 2001 Colombian intelligence estimated that FARC controlled less than 2.5 percent of Colombia’s cocaine exports, while the AUC [paramilitary organization] controlled 40 percent, not counting the narco-bourgeoise as a whole…

The guerrillas provide the security and enforce a drug tax, as they do with all products under their control. By protecting its campesino base, the FARC accepts the cash crop as a supplementary income for the campesinos’ subsistence…When territory is captured by the FARC insurgents the narco-bourgeoisie is driven out….”

Extradition requests for FARC members are also justified by charges of kidnapping. This completely removes the political and war time context for these apprehensions and simplistically reduces the activities of revolutionary insurgents to being nothing but common crimes. Still, the issue is moot since, as stated earlier, the FARC have released their captives. And, again—what crimes have been committed on Colombian soil should be prosecuted on Colombian soil.. But in the case of political prisoners and prisoners of war, be they held by insurgents or the government, what is called for is a political solution to their situations. Extradition requests by the United States only muddy the waters and get in the way of dialogue and negotiations about such matters.

Continued extradition requests could directly hinder or even render meaningless assurances of reintegration of the FARC into legal electoral processes. A turn to the right of an elected government in the United States or Colombia could result in the extradition process being used to destabilize the country and even return it to armed conflict.

The imprisonment of Simon Trinidad, aka Ricardo Palmera, in the United States is a very particular obstacle to the negotiations. Trinidad was a university professor and belonged to a Leftist teachers’ organization. All but two of its members were murdered for their activities. One survivor, Imelda Daza Cotes, went into exile in Sweden. The other survivor, Trinidad, joined the FARC in 1987.

The CIA seized Trinidad in Ecuador, while he was traveling under terms of “safe passage”. Trinidad was on his way to meet an aide to UN chief Kofi Annan so they could discuss terms of a prisoner release by the FARC. Trinidad was extradited from Colombia to the US on Dec. 31, 2004 to face terrorism, hostage-taking and drug charges. The terrorism and hostage-taking charges stemmed from a Feb. 13, 2003 incident in which three US mercenaries were taken prisoner after their plane crashed inside FARC-controlled territory. Trinidad himself had nothing to do with this and was charged entirely on the basis of his membership in the FARC. In fact, the prosecutor at one point identified 20,000 FARC members as co-conspirators, later reducing it to 50 FARC officers. Trinidad was convicted on one count of hostage-taking and sentenced to 60 years. Prosecutors were unable to get convictions on the other counts.

According to journalist Hernán Camacho, writing for the Colombian newspaper Voz, “Simón Trinidad was chosen as an envoy and negotiator of this guerrilla army in the peace dialogues in Havana, Cuba because of his profound knowledge of the regional and national economy, his political capacity and boldness, in addition to his experience as a negotiator in the Caguán peace process [1999 – 2002]. Today Simón Trinidad passes his hours in the federal prison of Florence, Colorado (United States), with only one hour of sunlight per day. He is a political prisoner held in unjust captivity.”

The rightful place of Simón Trinidad is not in solitary confinement in the Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, but at the negotiating table in Havana.

As we can see, the US has a long history of involvement in this civil war, and it is incumbent on people in the US to ensure that our country supports the peace process in a meaningful way and reverses its longstanding commitment to political violence in Colombia. We must demand clear support from our government for the negotiations including a call for the release of Simon Trinidad to participate in the negotiations in Havana; an end to the policy of requesting extraditions of paramilitary and insurgent members; and the return to Colombia of those currently being held in US prisons. These concrete steps would be a powerful boost to the process underway and do much to assure that Colombians could live in a nation at peace rather than one ravaged by a US sponsored war.

Click HERE to send an email to the White House and State Department demanding concrete steps to support Colombia’s peace process

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