Chronicle of a Disaster Foretold: Drugs, Oil, and Death in Colombia
by Brad Miller

They walked through the small Colombian village openly brandishing knives used to butcher pigs. Then, as they had the tools sharpened at the local meat market in the Gabriel García Márquez novel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the two brothers repeatedly announced to the community that they were going to kill a man. Despite the warnings, the townspeople did nothing but watch as the victim was disemboweled in the street. “There had never been a death more foretold,” wrote Márquez.

In Márquez’s contemporary Colombia, killers roam the barrios and villages with more firepower than butchers’ tools, their arsenals of automatic weapons and helicopter gunships purchased with US tax dollars, oil revenue, and drug money. As politicians in the US and Colombia legislate the intensification of the country’s four-decade-old civil war from the comfort of their chambers, the stress fractures in Colombia’s social structure deepen under the slow crushing--a lump of a campesino’s dry soil disintegrating in a soldier’s hand, life falling through the fingers.

The pressure being applied to Colombian society under the Clinton-initiated Plan Colombia increased as George W. Bush’s “anti-terrorism” crusade reached its full fervor. US aid previously restricted to “anti-narcotics” purposes--at least ostensibly and officially--is now being used openly for counter-insurgency and the protection of US oil corporations’ assets. Four hundred Special Forces soldiers are assigned to train Colombian soldiers, a number the Bush administration wants to double by 2005. Blackhawk and Huey helicopters hunt from the air, and poison falls from the sky courtesy of Monsanto as planes fumigate illegal and legal crops alike.

In January, the US Congress granted a total aid package to Colombia of $700 million for 2004, and $34 million in military aid left over from fiscal year 2003 was also disbursed after Secretary Colin Powell announced that Colombia had passed the certification for human rights standards--despite the hard-line policies of the right-wing administration of President Alvaro Uribe.

Shortly after taking office in August of 2002, Uribe established the “State of Unrest and Democratic Security” and “Zones of Rehabilitation and Consolidation” in several of the more important economic regions. He unleashed the military to conduct mass detentions of union members, activists, and indigenous leaders. In early December 2003 the Colombian Congress backed Uribe, passing an “anti-terrorist” measure that gave the military judicial powers to tap phones, conduct searches and raids without warrants, and arrest subjects solely on the basis of accusation. Any member of the security forces who commits human rights violations while battling “terrorists” will be immune from prosecution. Uribe branded the “terrorist” stigma on certain NGOs after they dared to question his extreme tactics. This increases the risk for human rights and environmental workers, and decreases any legal options for dissent.

One group under attack is CENSAT-AGUA VIVA--Friends of the Earth Colombia, a non-profit that helps socially disadvantaged sectors of the Colombian population improve their working and living conditions while maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Over the past several years, CENSAT-AGUA VIVA offices have been ransacked and searched by state security agencies and its members harassed and threatened by the paramilitary Autodefensas Unidas de Colombio (AUC).

While the leftist Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionario de Colombia and Ejercito Liberación Nacional guerrillas do commit abuses, approximately 70 percent of the human rights violations have been attributed to the paramilitaries. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the Bush administration continues to break US law, which specifies under the Leahy Amendment that Colombian security forces cannot receive funding until they sever ties with the death squads.

But “war is business,” says Régulo Madero Fernández of the Corporación Regional para la Defensa del los Derechos Humanos--CREDHOS. It is a lucrative business for the chemical companies like Monsanto and arms manufacturers Lockheed Martin, Textron, and United Technologies Corporation. George W. Bush has allocated over 90 million US tax dollars a year to guard the infrastructure of the oil industry, and companies like Occidental, Texaco, and British Petroleum have contracted with the Colombian military to maintain elite units to protect their investments. Occidental has continued to lobby for the intensification of the counter-insurgency operations in oil-rich regions to increase its capacity for resources extraction. Land evacuated by campesinos and indigenous communities because of military operations and aerial fumigation is subsequently open for development by multinational corporations.

The oil industry in Colombia has a dark history of harming indigenous communities in irreversible ways. The Siona, Kofan, U’wa, and Nukak Makú have lived through land grabs, pollution, disease, and oil exploration and development. Colombia is home to over 80 different native tribes that depend on the land for their survival. It has some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. Its varied topography, from rainforest, savannas, coasts, to 18,000-foot mountains, provides habitat for over 130,000 species of plants, as well as jaguars, condors, tapirs, and the rare spectacled bear.

But this fragile ecosystem is under extreme threat. The government’s support of the petroleum industry leads to the sabotage of pipelines by insurgents, acts that have spilled more oil into streams and farmland than seeped out of the Exxon Valdez. The fumigation of coca and poppy plantations is killing adjacent food crops and poisoning drinking water. The perpetuation of the civil war dislocates campesinos, who often leave their subsistence farms to join the guerrillas or, ironically, to start growing coca. And while the International Monetary Fund and the WTO pressure Colombia to remove legal and regulatory policies that inhibit corporate operations, the military and paramilitary forces continue to threaten, detain, and assassinate members of indigenous communities.

In the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, four indigenous Kankuamo were assassinated by the AUC over a five-day period in October 2003. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has documented the killings of 50 Kankuamo by illegal armed groups in 2003, 180 since 1993.

Many Kankuamo have been dislocated from their traditional territory due to forced recruitment and death threats by the military, paras, and guerrillas. More US aid has only increased their misery, as “Jaime,” a displaced Kankuamo now living in Bogota states: “The money from the US for Plan Colombia is being sent to prepare people for war. It is sent here to kill indigenous people.”

Black smoke from the petroleum refinery spreads over the city of Barrancabermeja, permeating the humid air. With its scattering of Internet cafés, strings of Christmas lights, and soccer games in the park, the “Petroleum Capital” of Colombia is portrayed by the government as peaceful and secure. But despite being one of the most militarized cities in Colombia, with several battalions patrolling the streets, Barrancabermeja is also one of the most violent. In fact, as Yolanda Becerra, Director of the Organización Femenina Popular says, “The paramilitaries control everything.”

The AUC has created a “para-estado,” running the economic, social, and political aspects of everyday life. While the AUC enriches itself by running illegal narcotics operations and robbing gas from the refineries of Colombia’s national oil company, ECOPETROL, it imposes its “manual of behavior” on the rest of society. The para roam the barrios, maintaining their “order.” They shave the heads of kids who break curfew, and they publicly chastise adulteresses. One 13-year-old boy was punished for homosexuality by having an electrified cable stuck up his rectum.

Labor leaders, feminists, community organizers, and anyone associated with them are fair game as paramilitary assassinations targets. The Region Defenso del Pueblo has documented 150 killings, 80 disappearances, and 800 people displaced during 2003 in the entire Magdalena Medio, the region where Barrancabermeja is located. Three families a week are forcibly dislocated, mainly due to the pressure and death threats of the AUC, adding steadily to the three million refugees created by Colombia’s civil war. Five bodies were left floating in the Magdalena River. Some were missing body parts. Three remained CNI--"Cuerpos No Identificados"--just a fraction of the 4,000 non-combatants killed in Colombia every year.

The façade of normality in Barrancabermeja cannot support the weight of the bodies dumped in the street, the young woman hung from the tree, even the weight of its own petroleum-laden air.

Politicians, pundits, and talking heads discuss the benefits of Plan Colombia and counter-insurgency and envision the profits of oil, globalization, and the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas. They invent their fiction, obscuring the sound of metal on stone, the sharpening of knives used to butcher pigs, disaster foretold.

Freelance writer Brad Miller is a frequent contributor to Earth Island Journal.

© Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2004