Contemporary challenges in Colombia: an Afro-Colombian perspective.

Author:Murillo-Urrutia, Luis Gilberto

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member, and members of this distinguished Sub-Committee. My name is Luis Gilberto Murillo-Urrutia. I am Colombian and now serve as Senior Fellow on International Policy at the Phelps Stokes Fund, a nearly 100-year-old organization that seeks to promote justice through education and leadership in communities of color, globally.

I am very pleased to appear before this important Subcommittee. Let me first express my appreciation to members of this Subcommittee for their leadership and ongoing interest in Colombia. Also, I am grateful to members of the Congressional Black Caucus for their steadfast support to Afro-Colombians. As requested, my remarks this afternoon, from an Afro-Colombian perspective, will focus on my assessment of current U.S. policy toward Colombia, the Colombian government's efforts to reduce violence and bring an end to the armed conflict, and the future of U.S. assistance to Colombia.

The Armed Conflict in Colombia

Colombia's current armed conflict has been going on for almost 50 years, though many would say much longer. This conflict is rooted in inequality, poverty, and the social, political and economic exclusion of disadvantaged social groups in extensive geographic areas of the country. In the last three decades these socio-economic and political conditions created an environment for drug trafficking to emerge as one of the main drivers of the Colombian crisis. The fighting between leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), the right wing paramilitary, sometimes in collusion with the Colombian army, has caught most of the rural civilian population in the crossfire. Thus, thousands of Colombians have died as result of this conflict. Furthermore, the illegal fighting factions hold about 11,000 child soldiers with violence as the second leading cause of death for Colombian children ages five to fourteen years; therefore, the human suffering created by this armed conflict is irreparable and unacceptable.

In addition, Colombia has the second highest number of persons internally displaced by violence in the world, only second to Sudan. Thus, between two and three million people have been displaced by violence according to the UNHCR, while the Catholic Church's Social Ministry and the nongovernmental Consultancy on Displacement and Human Rights (CODHES) estimates, since 1985 that more than 3.5 million Colombians have been forced to flee their homes, farms, churches and communities--by violence. Hence, women, children, and marginalized ethnic and racial minorities suffer the most from displacement; and humanitarian assistance and aid to transition internally displaced persons (IDPs) into self-sufficient economic activity is far from adequate: a study by the Colombian government's Inspector General's Office and the Ombudsman's Office revealed that just 30 percent of households individually displaced between 1997 and 2004 and 8 percent of families displaced in large groups received emergency assistance. And as a result, the United Nations calls the IDP crisis in Colombia the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the Western Hemisphere.

Conversely, women experience violence in many ways because they are direct target of military and related actions, including sexual attacks; and they suffer when their husbands or sons, or increasingly their daughters are killed or injured in combat, with a large numbers of girls forcibly recruited by illegal armed groups, and forced into slaverylike conditions. Women and children are increasingly becoming the recognized face of poverty, violence, displacement and social exclusion in Colombia. And according to some statistics, more that 60% of internally displaced women are unemployed and near 80% do not have health insurance as 44% of women internally displaced have suffered from intra-family violence, 18% during the pregnancy.

Hence, the Colombian conflict is disproportionately affecting women as Colombian society look for ways to advance peace and attain the kind of security that will really protect them.

The Impacts of Plan Colombia and Recent Political Trends

U.S. policy towards Colombia has expressed itself mainly through the multiyear Plan Colombia (Andean Counter-drug initiative ACI) and the Andean Trade Preferences and Drug Enforcement Act. Plan Colombia was passed into law in 2000, with the stated objectives of strengthening democracy, promoting human rights and the rule of law, fostering socio-economic development, and reducing coca cultivation in Colombia. This plan has evolved from being an exclusive anti-narcotics package to an anti-terror strategy. The plan has had mixed results, and by some measures, the security situation has improved. Yet, the government maintains that the overall numbers of murders and kidnappings have fallen while nearly 200 of Colombia's 1,092 counties lacked a police presence in 2002, however, now all have at least a small contingent of police.

Despite these welcome gains, the stated objectives of Plan Colombia have not been achieved. A variety of deeply disturbing trends illustrate this point. For example, eradication through aerial fumigation of coca crops, the centerpiece of the U.S. counterdrug strategy in Colombia, despite an unprecedented aerial spraying campaign wherein coca cultivation has increased, instead of decreasing by 50% as projected. Hence, cultivation is spreading to new areas and returning to others previously cleared. This situation suggests that a decrease in acres planted in one province, or indeed in one country, is not a reliable indicator of drug policy success.

One major concern for Colombian society is the infiltration of Colombian institutions by illegal armed groups. There are multiple credible allegations of links between prominent national politicians, businessmen, and high-ranking military with paramilitary groups. And according to recent reports, there is serious body of evidence of collaboration between members of the Colombian parliament, governors, mayors, senior government officials, and paramilitary commanders. Apparently, these alliances orchestrated fraudulent elections and then went about infiltrating and stealing from hospitals and other public institutions while assassinating hundreds of adversaries. Thus eight prominent members of Congress have been jailed and many others are under investigation, including the speaker of the House. While these investigations are a good step, the United States government should press for real results, including suspension from their posts of those under investigation for very serious crimes, and arrests and convictions.

Moreover, a number of national and U.S. based companies has been accused of making payments to both paramilitaries and guerrilla groups. Recently, Chiquita Brands International admitted that it paid off a Colombian group on the U.S. terrorist list. This has spotlighted a practice once denied in Colombia. Also, several other U.S.-based corporations, including Atlanta-based Coca-Cola and the Alabama-based coal company Drummond Co., face civil lawsuits alleging their Colombian operations worked with an outlaw group to kill several trade unionists. This has focused attention on the payoffs that Colombian and foreign companies make to illegal armed groups fighting the country's 50-year-old civil war, especially in remote areas where they hold sway.

The government is carrying out an ambitious process of demobilization of paramilitary groups. Nonetheless, new paramilitary organizations are being created in many regions of the country, or old groups never demobilized are emerging with new names. This suggests that the structural conditions for the existence of these criminal organizations are not being addressed properly. Nor has the Colombian government been effective enough about fully dismantling paramilitary organizations. Therefore, it is essential that the U.S. and Colombian governments take seriously the continued threats to communities by the rearmed or never demobilized paramilitary forces, as the persistence of the internal armed conflict implies that there is not an easy military solution to the Colombian crisis.

Despite Colombian government efforts, the situation for the most vulnerable Colombians located in certain regions of the country has grown considerably worse. Both the Colombian and the U.S. governments in their rhetoric do not recognize poverty and inequality as central dimensions of the Colombian security problem. The meeting of Presidents George Bush and Alvaro Uribe with Afro-Colombian leaders in a recent trip to Bogota confirms this proposition. However, government policy prescriptions--both...

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