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Columbia: The Genocidal Democracy

By Javier Giraldo S. J. Common Courage Press. 118 pages. $12.95.

This remarkable little book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what is happening in Colombia. In the last two years, Washington and the U.S. media have belatedly woken up to one aspect of Colombian official corruption: the infiltration of drug monies and mafias at the highest levels of government. But the history of an older, more brutal corruption of the rule of law--the state's "dirty war" against its democratic opposition--remains untold.

Javier Giraldo's Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy provides American readers with an all-important context for today's headlines. His book makes available in this country a solidly documented, English-language introduction to the story of the Colombian state's unofficial war against its own citizens.

As told through the filter of Giraldo's personal knowledge of many of the casualties, his book reveals the evolution, the strategy, the methods, and the protagonists of state terrorism. This violence by the state has been responsible for most of the nearly 40,000 civilian deaths or disappearances during the last fifteen years of the "dirty war"--more than all the victims of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile.

A Colombian Jesuit priest, Javier Giraldo is uniquely qualified to document this history. Ten years ago, using the resources of the Commission of Peace and Justice, an umbrella organization representing more than fifty-five Catholic religious orders all over the country, Giraldo initiated a project to assemble, analyze, store, and circulate the casualty lists from the hundreds of fronts of the "dirty war."

Giraldo's data bank offers the only comprehensive record of the assassinations, massacres, and disappearances that have given Colombia one of the worst human-rights records worldwide.

In these "testimonies of death," stored in a special data bank in Bogota, the names of el prominente--senators and congressmen, ministers of state, and presidential candidates--can be found beside the names of thousands of peasants, trade unionists, teachers, grassroots activists, lawyers, human-rights workers, priests and nuns, banana workers, judges, journalists, and janitors who have fallen since the war escalated in 1986.

Numbered among the dead and missing are the leadership and grassroots members of the country's sole left opposition party--the Union Patriotica. Founded by former guerrillas who, in 1984, availed themselves of an amnesty offered by President Belisario Betancur, the Union Patriotica had a short life and a bloody demise. Its fate demonstrates the true goal of the "dirty war." In 1986, when these former combatants put down their guns, came in from the cold, went out on the hustings, and immediately won leadership positions through the ballot box, they were systematically mowed down. At last count, some 3,000 Union Patriotica activists had been killed, and Colombia's short-lived experiment in multiparty, pluralistic democracy was over.

Colombian society is a sophisticated, complex mix of the modern and the feudal, the democratic and the totalitarian. The country's political leaders have developed their own unique political system, and democracy has very little to do with it. Noam Chomsky, in his introduction, aptly entitled "The Culture of Fear," refers to the name invented by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano to describe a system designed to keep the same dynastic minority in power for the past fifty years. Galeano called Colombia a "democra-tatorship. "

By whatever name, every Colombian elected official knows that almost fifty years of civilian dependency on the military has made a fiction of both civilian authority and the Colombian constitution. Like the militaries of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay before it, today the Colombian army continues to fight a counterinsurgency war inspired by the doctrine of national security. This doctrine justifies the repression of an internal, civilian enemy--broadly defined as all those men and women whose opposition to the establishment renders them, in military eyes, "subversives."

But unlike the militaries of Chile or the other countries of the Southern cone, the Colombian military has not overtly seized power. It hasn't needed to. In Colombia, recourse to government through states of siege, which grant the military expanded powers, is fundamentally embedded in the political system. Since 1948, not one president has governed without invoking a state of siege.

Since 1992, the past two presidents--Caesar Gaviria and Ernesto Samper-- have declared several "states of internal commotion" and issued more than fifty emergency decrees. In the process, they have shredded the democratic, constitutional protections and abdicated civilian control in almost 50 percent of the country, now designated "public-order zones."

Welcome to the rural headquarters of the "dirty war." Step aside, if you know what's good for you, elected governors, mayors, municipal counselors. In "public-order zones" the army is in charge.

There are several wars in Colombia. There is the official "war on drugs," financed by the United States, which in 1989 sent billions of dollars, helicopters, trucks, and outdated military equipment to the Colombian army, hoping to fight the Medellin Cartel. There are drug wars between the mafias over control of distribution networks and markets. And there is also the on-again-off-again war between the mafias and the state.

But the war that counts is the counterinsurgency war. It keeps the military in the ascendancy. It feeds state terror. And, as every Colombian leader who has attempted to end the conflict has discovered, this is one war the Colombian army refuses to permit the civilians to call off.

Officially an armed conflict between two armies--one regular, one irregular-- the counterinsurgency conflict has evolved into a murderous struggle between the guerrillas and the army's surrogates, the paramilitaries, for control over civilian populations and territory. Trained (at a profit) by the Colombian army, and funded by large landowners (frequently mafia bosses), the paramilitaries are the brawn of state terrorism.

In the rural areas, they savagely "cleanse" the land of recalcitrant, small peasant owners, and create feudal enclaves where the subdued populations that remain work as serfs for the new landowners.

In the cities, they provide intelligence and the anonymous, civilian hit men--death squads that strike at will at the targets of their army "handlers."

Everywhere, they provide the smoke screen of anonymity for the army and the government to hide behind, ensuring a 97 percent impunity rate that, in turn, protects and perpetuates the terror.

The thoughtful concluding chapter of Giraldo's book provides, with chilling clarity, an analysis of how the state encourages the proliferation of paramilitary armies. He calls this phenomenon "the state which devours the country." With some 400 criminal paramilitary armies now operating in more than 50 percent of the nation, the word "devour" evokes a powerful image.

Giraldo's most important contribution is the unraveling of secret links between the death squads and a small group of highly placed officers of the army's intelligence and counterintelligence brigade in Bogota. With the help of a gullible media, the state has managed for years to mask its participation in terror behind two powerful images of mayhem: drug lords and guerrillas.

Giraldo's courageous testimony has ripped away these masks. His exploration of judicial archives exposes the origins of the "dirty war." In 1978, a young elite group in army intelligence led the planning sessions, discussed strategy, identified targets, and arranged funding and support from political and financial sources for the first acts of state terrorism. Today, these pioneers of the "dirty war"--including the man who created the first terrorist cell-- are among the most highly decorated members of the Colombian high command.

Noam Chomsky lays much of the blame for Colombia's infamous condition on the United States. Down the years, while Washington embraced the Colombian establishment, the Pentagon trained the nation's murderous armed forces. In 1989, the Bush Administration, seeking battles to win in the quagmire of the war on drugs, seized on an opportunity to send billions of dollars of aid and equipment to the Colombian military when the government of President Barco declared war on the Medellin Cartel.

Undoubtedly Washington knew then, as it has since admitted, that the Colombian army was corrupt, that many highly placed commanders were in an unholy alliance with the drug mafia, that much of the equipment and money would go to fight not the drug war but the guerrillas. Undoubtedly, too, the State Department also knew--as an unnamed source in the American Embassy in Bogota admitted recently--that the Colombian army was "a hive of human-rights abusers."

Until now, U.S. influence and money in Colombia have indeed tended to back the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Yet today, the end of the Cold War and the tardy discovery of the rot at the center of Colombia's political institutions open a space for change. The Colombian counterinsurgency war between the army and the paramilitaries on the one side, and the guerrillas on the other--all three linked, in their different ways, to drug monies--is the longest and bloodiest counterinsurgency campaign in the hemisphere. Like the terrible conflicts in Guatemala and El Salvador, Colombia's shows no signs of winding down without international help.

This presents American diplomacy with perhaps its greatest hemispheric challenge to date.

Ana Carrigan is the author of "The Palace of Justice: A Colombian Tragedy." She is working on a sequel to that book.
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Author:Carriagan, Ana
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1996
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