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NORTHWEST ARKANSAS TIMES: Halt U.S. aid to Colombian military

January 14th, 2009

By Jess Hunter-Bowman

Nearly 10 years ago, Washington feared the worst for South America's oldest democracy. The hand wringing from the Pentagon to the State Department suggested Colombia's government could be brought to its knees by the dual threat of a robust cocaine trade and powerful guerrillas. Congress held its nose while passing legislation making the Colombian military - by far the hemisphere's worst human rights abuser - the largest recipient of U.S. military aid outside of the Middle East. Human rights concerns were brushed aside as military brass proudly declared that training by U.S. Special Forces would transform the military into a professional fighting force with a spotless human rights record.

With $4.9 billion in security assistance and eight years of U.S. military training in the rearview mirror, it is time for a reality check in Washington.

While the $100,000-a-month lobby machine working in Washington for the Colombian government has assured Congress that violence has declined from all-time highs earlier this decade, there is a dirty little secret hidden behind this public relations makeover: an alarming increase in human rights abuses committed by the U.S.-backed Colombian military.

On March 11, 2006, Martha Giraldo's heart pounded as she stood at the gate of her father's humble farm outside of Cali, Colombia. When the soldiers surrounding the house finally owned up to killing her father, they told Martha and her family to watch their step or they would be next. Martha pushed past them to discover her father's body, riddled with bullet holes and signs of torture. The soldiers' tale of Martha's father being a member of the guerrillas killed in fighting has not stood up in court.

Martha's horrific experience is not unique. A coalition of Colombian human rights groups recently reported that between 2002 and 2007, 1,122 civilians were murdered by the armed forces, a staggering 68 percent increase over the previous five-year period. The report further indicates that the rate of killing is still on the rise. Between January 2007 and June 2008, 535 such murders were reported.

While Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's canned response to such reports had been to accuse the victims and their supporters of working at the behest of the guerrillas, his hand was forced in late October when the Colombian press extensively reported on the military's execution of 19 young men who disappeared from a city near the capital. President Uribe fired 27 Army officers - including three generals - in an attempt to turn the page. Yet it appears none of these officers are being prosecuted for their crimes.

Undoubtedly it is soul-searching time in Washington. The dramatic increase in human rights violations at the hands of the U.S.-backed Colombian military - what the United Nations has dubbed a "systematic practice" of extrajudicial executions - sets in plain light the failure of U.S. policy to transform the Colombian military into a professional fighting force respectful of human rights. In fact, the military's human rights record appears to have worsened while receiving billions in U.S. military aid.

Washington's risky experiment with the hemisphere's most abusive military has become a stain on our foreign policy in the region. The new Congress and President-elect Barack Obama now need to turn the page on this flawed policy and immediately end military aid to Colombia.

The tears Martha Giraldo and untold others have shed for their loved ones allegedly killed at the hands of the Colombian military scream out for change. Is Washington listening?

Jess Hunter-Bowman is the Bogotá-based Andean Regional Director for Witness for Peace.