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US Support for War of Terror in Arauca, Colombia
by Dan Kovalik
October 31, 2004
First Published in Colombia Journal

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During the current election campaign, there is much discussion of the U.S. “war on terror.” While this discussion focuses almost entirely upon the Middle East, Iraq and Al-Qaeda, there is almost no mention of Washington’s current war in Colombia, a war in which the United States is actually supporting military forces that are terrorizing the population. Indeed, the U.S. Congress, over the objection of numerous human rights organizations, recently deepened the U.S. role in Colombia by voting to double the U.S. troop level there from 400 to 800. This troop involvement is in addition to the more than $3.5 billion the United States has already spent on the Colombian military since 2000, making Colombia the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world.

I just returned from Saravena, Colombia, a small town located in the important oil region of the Arauca Department and a town in which a large proportion of the U.S. troops in Colombia are based. The U.S. troops live in the confines of a base that houses a unit of the Colombian Army’s 18th Brigade. The U.S. soldiers train this Brigade in what they term “anti-terror” techniques and in how to protect the oil pipeline of Occidental Petroleum, a U.S. company operating in Arauca. Indeed, the United States just recently appropriated $99 million to equip the 18th Brigade for the express purpose of protecting this pipeline.

Yet, this same 18th Brigade is notorious for gross violations of human rights against the civilian population. One of the most recent and blatant acts of misconduct of the 18th Brigade was the assassination of three union leaders on August 5, 2004, and the arrest of two other trade unionists on the same date. While the Colombian military claimed that the three unionists were killed in a gunfight with the Army, the Colombian Attorney General has concluded that this was not the case and that the unionists were unarmed and killed in cold blood.

While in Saravena, I met with Colonel Medina, the head of the 18th Brigade’s unit based in the town, to express my concern for the lives of community leaders in his zone. The Colonel expressed his view to me that the unionists and social leaders in the region are guerrillas—a typical claim of the Colombian military that has been discredited by respected groups reporting on human rights in Colombia, including Amnesty International, and the U.S. State Department itself.

As Amnesty International recently explained, the military engages in the “practice of launching often spurious criminal investigations against human rights defenders and other civilians. These tactics are designed to tarnish defenders and social activists by accusing them of guerrilla activity, exposing them to heightened risk of violent attack by paramilitaries, regardless of whether or not investigations uncover evidence of criminal wrong-doing.” A notorious example of such tactics, as elaborated in this same report, is the Army’s rounding up and detention of 2,000 civilians, including “[m]ost of Saravena’s human rights community, as well as many known trade unionists and other social leaders,” by the 18th Brigade during a traditional fiesta in 2002.

What is happening in Saravena is not an anomaly. The U.S. State Department itself has concluded that human rights in Colombia remain poor, that social activists, such as trade unionists, are being killed at an alarming rate, and that they are being killed mostly by paramilitary groups that are receiving the active support and collaboration of the very military which the United States is funding at record levels. Looking at the situation of trade unionists in particular, 94 trade unionists were assassinated in Colombia last year out of a total of 123 killed worldwide. In other words, as has been typical for the last several years, Colombia has accounted for approximately 75 percent of the trade union killings in the world.

When I went to the base of the 18th Brigade to speak with the Colonel, the member of the local government who accompanied me warned, “You are now entering the mouth of the wolf.” The view that the Colombian Army is the wolf guarding the hen house was a common one among the people I met in Saravena. The leader of the local trade union confederation, human rights lawyers, a director of the community-run water treatment plant, and the vice-president of the U’Wa indigenous tribe all expressed the sentiment that the soldiers, who outnumber the civilians on the streets of Saravena, are not there to protect the civilian population, but rather, are there to protect the oil companies.

And indeed, there is good evidence of this. For example, the military attempted to violently expel the U’Wa from their land to secure it for Occidental exploration. The military also acted in concert with Occidental in bombing the small hamlet of Santo Domingo, killing 17 civilians in the process.

Indeed, as Amnesty International has reported, the violent conflict in Arauca is motivated and fueled by oil interests and the attempt of the Colombian military, with the support of the United States, to protect these interests. The result is one of the worst human rights situations in the world. People of conscience must ask themselves if they really want our country to be supporting a military in Colombia that is terrorizing the population in order to protect oil interests. Sadly, this has not even entered into the debate this election year.

Dan Kovalik is assistant general counsel for the United Steel Workers of America (USWA). This article first appeared in Colombia Journal Online (