On September 20, President Bush will be hosting Colombian President Alvaro Uribe at the White House. This meeting comes as the "para-political scandal" -- which has already implicated around 60 political allies of President Uribe in aiding and abetting the right-wing paramilitaries -- mounts in Colombia. This also comes as the body count of the victims of the paramilitaries, also known as "death squards," continues to mount.
As Juan Forero reported in an August 27 Washington Post article entitled, "Unearthing Secrets of Colombia's Long War - Forensic Teams Track Victims 'Disappeared' by Death Squads," the number of those "disappeared" by the right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia appears to be far greater than originally expected. Citing Colombia's Attorney General, Mario Iguaran, Forero related that 1,500 bodies of the "disappeared" have already been recovered, and "authorities think more than 10,000 bodies might still be scattered across the country" - "three times as high as estimates made by human rights groups in 2005."
Forero reported what many of us have been painfully aware of for years, and what the U.S. State Department itself has acknowledged in its annual country report on Colombia - that "illegal paramilitary gunmen, often working closely with army units, killed thousands of people" in their ostensible war against leftist guerrillas. I say, "ostensible," because, in fact, the paramilitaries have rarely fought guerrillas themselves, but rather, have targeted civilians struggling peacefully for social change - for example, trade unionists, peasant leaders, teachers and Catholic priests advocating for the poor.
As for trade unionists, forty-two (42) have been killed in Colombia so far this year, already exceeding the 39 killed in all of 2007. In all, over 2599 unionists have been killed in Colombia since 1986, making Colombia by far the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. And, as the U.S. State Department has reported, those responsible for the vast majority of these killings are right-wing paramilitaries which receive ammunition, weapons and logistical support from the official Colombian military - a military which the U.S. has sponsored with over $4 billion in aid since 2000. This military assistance continues to this day.
In addition, the Colombian military's own share of atrocities has actually increased since President Uribe - a friend of Bush as well as a number of U.S. Congressional representatives - was elected in May of 2002. This fact was highlighted in an August 21 L.A. Times article by Chris Kraul who explained that, while Colombian President Alvaro Uribe "has become the United States' No. 1 Latin American ally in its war on terrorism and drugs," Colombia is actually the greatest purveyor of terror against its own population in the region. To wit, as the article notes, the Colombian military has been credibly accused of murdering 329 civilians in cold blood in 2007 - a 48% increase from the 223 reported in 2006. This brings to 997 the total number of civilians murdered by the Colombian military since President Uribe took office in the spring of 2002. No other country in the Hemisphere even comes close to this horrendous record of state-sponsored violence against its own people.
Meanwhile, just as the U.S. supported the death squad governments of El Salvador and Guatemala during the 1980's - regimes which murdered upwards of 200,000 of their own people - the White House is preparing to roll out the red carpet for Latin America's latest death squad President. It is no wonder then that the rest of the world is incredulous about the U.S.'s claims to be promoting global democracy and human rights.
If the U.S. government were really serious about such goals, it would be shunning President Uribe, ceasing all military assistance to his regime, and rejecting his current lobbying of the U.S. Congress to pass the Colombian Free Trade Agreement (FTA) - an agreement which would give trade preferences to Colombia, thereby rewarding it for continuing to be the most dangerous country in the world for trade union leaders and the country with the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere. Let us hope that the Democratic Congress will see the wisdom of continuing to block the FTA over these human and labor rights concerns, and that it will take the further step of ending aid to Colombia's brutal military regime.