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Essential Questions from Ft. Benning and from Putumayo

Now that President-elect Obama has pledged to shut down the detention camp at Guantanamo, will the infamous School of the Americas be next? And what about Plan Colombia--that other blot on US honor in the Western Hemisphere?


This weekend, November 21-23, thousands of activists gather at the gates of Ft. Benning, Georgia, as they do each year, demanding the closure of the facility they prefer to call School of the Assassins. This is where the US Army trains Latin American military officers notorious for such operations as the assassination of Archbishop Romero in El Salvador, the genocide against the Maya people of Guatemala, the dirty wars in Argentina and Chile, and more. In 2000, Congress cut off funding but the Department of Defense simply found money elsewhere in the budget and reopened the school in January under a new name, WHINSEC (Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), with the same faculty and only minor changes to the curriculum.

The US government and the Army blame excesses on the usual suspects--those all-too-familiar bad apples. So why was Colombian General Farouk Yanini Diaz invited to be a guest speaker when he was involved in at least two massacres and the assassination of a mayor? Why was Colombian General Mario Montoya (who was forced to resign in a recent scandal) chosen to serve as an instructor there when his links to death squads were common knowledge? Brigadier General Jose Cortes Franco also taught there and gee, isn't he one of the military officers recently fired after civilians were abducted and killed, their bodies then presented falsely as dead guerrillas?

Father Roy Bourgeois, a Maryknoll priest, first began the struggle to close the school in 1983. (Today, incidentally, the Vatican is threatening him with excommunication unless he recants his support for the ordination of women as priests.) But military training also goes on at Lackland Air Force base in Texas. Foreign military are already being trained by contractors including Blackwater. Will closure of the School of the Americas/WHINSEC be only a symbolic victory if US policies toward Latin America don't change?

The Obama administration needs to take a hard and critical look at programs that drain our dwindling Treasury resources without any benefit but with terrible consequences to our Western Hemisphere neighbors--above all, Plan Colombia.

Since 2000, Plan Colombia has costs billions of taxpayer dollars in ill-conceived efforts to combat drug trafficking and the FARC guerrillas who benefit from the cocaine trade-just as the rightwing paramilitary armies and highranking Colombian government officials do.

In August, I traveled with a Witness for Peace delegation to Bogota and to Putumayo in the Amazon basin where ordinary people asked questions I was hard pressed to answer:

"Why does your country send aid to the army that tortures and kills innocent people?"
The Bush State Department certified that Colombia is living up to its human rights commitments and should continue to receive military aid but respected organizations such as the Colombian Commission of Jurists report an increase in "extrajudicial killings" - people who are detained and summarily executed by soldiers without any sort of trial.

When our delegation met with Brigadier General Javier Fernandez Leal, I noted the poster in the briefing room proclaiming 2008 as the year of Human Rights and the general assured us there had been no complaints against the troops under his command. But local people told us of harassment, disappearances, and killings by the military. Why the discrepancy? Maybe because the brigade accused of committing the crime is the same brigade that has the responsibility for securing the crime scene and conducting the inquest. It's the same brigade where you go to file a complaint--which may explain why some people complained to us rather than to the military and why so many witnesses and complainants soon turn up dead or not at all.

"Why does the US make war on us?"
In Colombia, approximately 4 million people have been driven from their homes by violence, as US-supported military and paramilitary forces clear vast areas for multinational corporations and for members of the oligarchy who remove small farmers from productive land in order to create palm oil plantations for the production of lucrative biofuels.

We saw the results of Plan Colombia in Putumayo, once the epicenter of coca cultivation, where the humble farmers we met reminded me more of farmworkers in the California vineyards than of The Godfather.

"Why does your country poison our food?"
Through aerial fumigation with chemicals purchased from Monsanto, sprayed from helicopters purchased from Bell and Sikorsky, operated by crews provided by Dyncorp, the US has done a thorough job of killing staple food crops while coca cultivation has simply moved deeper into the jungle and to other regions. The United Nations reports that acreage actually increased 27% in 2007, while the cocaine supply has not diminished and the US has done little to curb demand for the drug here at home.

Through the USAID component of Plan Colombia, some small farmers have been given help in replacing coca plants with cacao but it takes three years till the first harvest, with no cash or food before then. Millions were spent on a factory in Orito that never functioned, benefiting no one but the contractor. Other alternative crop and development schemes have been abject failures, with most money going to middlemen and contractors leaving the local people indigent and hungry.

We passed the bridge blown up by the FARC guerrillas who no longer use ideological indoctrination to recruit fighters: they promise hungry people wages and meals. A shocking 40% of guerrilla combatants are now 15 years old or younger, joining up to ease the burden on families that cannot feed them.

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But the guerrillas commit only a tiny fraction of the atrocities in Colombia. Most of the torture and killing can be attributed to government forces and their paramilitary allies. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe himself created rural militias when he was Governor of Antioquia, armed groups that soon--through shared leadership and weapons--became virtually indistinguishable from the paramilitary AUC which was classified by the US government as a terrorist organization.

"Why did the U.S. extradite the worst paramilitary leaders on drug charges just when we were hearing them confess to massacres, assassinations, and their links to the army, politicians, and multinationals?"
Will Colombian prosecutors and victims' families will be given access to these men? Their accomplices remain free, enjoying impunity while the whereabouts of many victims and mass graves remain unknown. One of the confessed leaders, Ever Veloza, alias H.H., does remain in Colombia where he's been spilling the beans about payoffs from multinationals, about using Chiquita-brand boats and loading facilities to transport drugs and weapons.

"Why do you favor the paramilitary killers?"
Though the AUC paramilitary armies have supposedly demobilized, many are now on the payroll of the police or private security firms while death squads under the new name, Aguilas Negras, continue to target community leaders and anyone falsely labeled "subversive." In just one week in August, five union leaders were assassinated in Colombia.

AUC killers who claim to have laid down their weapons are rewarded.

In Putumayo, 20 killers were given one hundred hectares of productive land. Their victims--women whose husbands were murdered--were given nothing. One hundred widows scraped together enough pesos to purchase four hectares. They planted corn, yuca, and banana to feed their children only to see their crops fumigated by the U.S. and destroyed.

How can this be happening?
During the last month, at least 24 indigenous leaders engaged in nonviolent protest were gunned down by an elite police squad. At least fifty more were wounded. And this is no aberration. Government and paramilitary forces assassinate indigenous leaders at a rate that would translate in the US to more than 21,500 elected officials and community leaders murdered for political purposes annually for the last 10 years.

On a reservation near the Ecuador border, an indigenous leader challenged our delegation: "We commit our message to you so you can make it travel. But what are you going to do to help us? And when?"

An American woman in our group tried to answer and burst into tears.

A hush fell over the crowd until the leader spoke again: "We've heard when there's a death in the family, gringos don't cry. We believed gringos don't feel things in the heart. Now we know that isn't true."

diane lefer

But the big question remains: What will it take to close the School of the Americas and to change U.S. policies that are both counterproductive and heartless?

Diane Lefer

Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist whose most recent book, California Transit, was awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Her stories, novels, and nonfiction often address social issues and draw on such experiences as going to jail for civil disobedience and her volunteer work as a legal assistant/interpreter for immigrants in detention. She collaborated with exiled Colombian theatre artist Hector Aristizábal on "Nightwind," about his arrest and torture by the US-supported military in Colombia, a play that has toured theatres, campuses, conferences, and houses of worship throughout the US and Canada. Other recent work for the stage includes "Majikan," a Ciona Taylor Production in New York's Central Park, about an orangutan and the War on Terror. She has picked potatoes, typed autopsy reports, surveyed parolees and drug addicts about their sex lives, and taught creative writing to gangbangers as well as, for twenty years, to graduate students in the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College. She received the 2006-07 COLA (City of Los Angeles) literary arts fellowship in support of Phantom Heart, her novel-in-progress set in and around a beautiful Southern California nuclear waste site. She lives in Los Angeles and has never written a screenplay.

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