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Another scandal gets dodged

Observations on Colombia

In rural Colombia, your dead body can earn somebody a significant cash bonus – paid for indirectly by the US taxpayer.

For years, Colombia has been a recipient of large amounts of US military aid and is one of Washington’s last close allies in South America. Its government has received billions of dollars to fight drug production and the civil war with the Marxist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc). As an incentive, security forces were offered a financial reward for each guerrilla killed in combat. Soldiers have since killed hundreds of civilians, dressed up the corpses in Farc military attire, and claimed cash bonuses.

The stories of falsos positivos, or “false positives”, have been in the open for more than a year, but the official position of the right-wing president, Álvaro Uribe, has been that the slayings were isolated incidents perpetrated by a few bad apples. However, the preliminary report from Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, concludes that the killings “were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military”. He also takes issue with the term falsos positivos.

He prefers “cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit”.

Such harsh words from the UN are a difficult blow to the Uribe government, which nevertheless maintains that many of the dead were indeed guerrillas. But Alston points to evidence of “victims dressed in camouflage outfits which are neatly pressed, or wearing clean jungle boots”. There is widespread harassment of surviving relatives and those who actively pursue the cases.

President Uribe has managed to avoid much of the political fallout over false positives and remains popular in Colombia for making the cities safer and taking back much of the country’s roads from the Farc. “Someone else is blamed and Uribe comes up the winner yet again,” says Sara, a professor of law in Bogotá who chose not to use her full name. This time, some top military officials were dismissed – although one was then made an ambassador.

The false positives are far from the only example of a scandal well dodged by Uribe. His security forces were recently caught wiretapping the head of Human Rights Watch. Large numbers of his party are under investigation for links to right-wing paramilitary death squads that terrorise civilians. Colombia consistently ranks as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for trade unionists and journalists.

The government often supports the notion that the Farc has an “intellectual bloc” and that those who criticise the government are doing the work of the rebels. Last year Uribe’s administration claimed that a huge demonstration protesting against state crimes was Farc-run. Soon after, four protest organisers were assassinated.

Through all this, Uribe has maintained the support of the Colombian population and the White House, but this year David Miliband quietly announced an end to British military aid to Colombia, citing human rights concerns, though counter-narcotics assistance continues. Yet it remains unclear how close Uribe will be to Obama. He opposed a trade deal due to concerns over assassinations of union leaders. But with South America moving to the left and US interests increasingly isolated there, Colombia is not likely to lose its status as privileged friend any time soon.

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!