Worthy and Unworthy Victims in Colombia's War of Terror
by Doug Stokes
March 12, 2003
In the narratives of the worlds global media corporations familiar themes can be traced. One such theme that occurs time and again is the designation of worthy victims; poor unfortunates caught up in a spiral of violence. Invisible however are the unworthy victims; those poor unfortunates who have also been caught up in a spiral of violence, but due to the fact that their deaths do not lend weight to the narratives of the powerful, can be ignored or worse still never acknowledged. An example would be the Kurds in Northern Iraq. Worthy victims whilst their terrible suffering under Saddam suits the interests of the powerful, whilst their brothers and sisters across the border in Turkey are unworthy victims. Their suffering not only ignored by the powerful, but massively amplified with the flow of western arms and legitimacy throughout the years of Turkey's war on its Kurdish minority.
This familiar pattern of worthy and unworthy victims is now being played out in Colombia, the worlds third largest recipient of global US military aid and the US's latest ally in its war of terror. On the 7th of February a car bomb went off outside El Nogal, one of Colombia's elite clubs for the mega-rich. The bomb devastated the building and killed 37 people, and was almost certainly planted by the FARC, Latin America's largest and oldest guerrilla movement. The death of these people was rightly condemned. But now their deaths are being weaved into a powerful narrative of worthy victims that justifies plans to increase the militarisation and bloodshed for Colombia's unnamed and unacknowledged unworthy victims; the poor and the displaced. Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe's immediate response to the bombing was to call for more US military aid to fight the FARC. He stated bluntly that "nations shouldn't ask Colombia to tolerate terrorism while the U.N. is deciding the matter of Iraq," Uribe has also promised to carry out far reaching proposals to strengthen the longstanding US backed war of terror in Colombia by committing his administration to double the size of the Colombian military and create a new network of a million civilian informers to perform a counter-intelligence role. Prior to the El Nogal bombing Uribe had declared a state of "internal commotion" that allowed the Colombian state to prohibit public rallies and impose curfews and order searches without a court order with Fernando Londono, Colombian Interior and Justice minister stating that "we all have to be aware that terror leads to extreme instability in Colombia. For this reason, the government has decided to declare a state of internal commotion". On September 10th 2002, Uribe also passed his first military decree that has allowed for the creation of military "Zones of Rehabilitation and Consolidation". In these zones direct military rule replaces existing local government and military authorities can carry out arrests and searches without a warrant. Uribe is also pushing for tighter control of the Colombian media by passing laws which seek to restrict reporting on Colombian 'counter terrorist measures' with sentences of eight to twelve years in prison for anyone who publishes statistics considered ''counterproductive to the fight against terrorism,'' as well as the possible ''suspension'' of the media outlet in question. These sanctions will apply to anybody who divulges "reports that could hamper the effective implementation of military or police operations, endanger the lives of public forces personnel or private individuals,'' or commit other acts that undermine public order, ''while boosting the position or image of the enemy''. The innocent civilians caught up in the El Nogal bomb therefore have been added to a narrative of worthy victims that in turn lends further legitmation for Uribe's new national security strategy.
But what of the unworthy victims? Colombia's military has one of the worst human rights records in the Western Hemisphere and has well documented and long standing ties to the AUC, a paramilitary group headed by Carlos Castano. Although the AUC has sought to cast itself as an independent political actor the US State Department notes that the AUC is "a mercenary vigilante force, financed by criminal activities" and was the "the paid private" army of "narcotics traffickers or large landowners". The collusion between the Colombian military and these private armies has led the Colombia Commission for Justice and Peace to label Colombian military and paramilitary forces "parastate" forces so as to diminish the alleged separation between these armed actors. This in turn is largely to counter the 'triangulation' of Colombian violence that is regularly portrayed in mainstream international media. This portrays the Colombian military as a neutral arbiter between the armed left (the FARC) and the armed right (the AUC), when in fact the Colombian military and paramilitaries are two sides of the same counterinsurgency coin.
These parastate forces are responsible for over 80 percent of all human rights abuses in Colombia. In the last fifteen years, an entire democratic leftist political party was eliminated by right-wing paramilitaries; 4000 activists were murdered in the 1980s; in 2002 over 8000 political assassinations were committed in Colombia with 80 percent of these murders committed by paramilitary groups; three out of four trade union activists murdered worldwide are killed by the Colombian paramilitaries whilst 2.7 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes. According to the UN, lecturers and teachers are "among the workers most often affected by killings, threats and violence-related displacement." Paramilitary groups also regularly target human rights activists, indigenous leaders, and community activists. This repression serves to criminalize any form of civil society resistance to US-led neo-liberal restructuring of Colombia's economy and stifle political and economic challenges to the Colombian status quo with Castano arguing that his paramilitaries "have always proclaimed that we are the defenders of business freedom and of the national and international industrial sectors". Amidst this repression over half of Colombia's population live in poverty according to the World Bank, with those most vulnerable being "children of all ages".
Talks between Uribe's government and the AUC are ongoing with Justice Minister Fernando Londono stating that both sides "are working very sincerely". A regional commander of the AUC declared, "Uribe is like heaven compared to Pastrana". Gordon Sumner, former President Reagan's special envoy to Latin America outlined the best way to publicly incorporate the paramilitaries within the new CONVIVIR "counter terrorist" networks: "First, have them answer the law, cut out the drugs, and embrace human rights" then try to "bring them under the tent, to fight against the guerrillas, who are the biggest threat". He went on to note that in Colombia the "battle is never too crowded with friends". Uribe has commenced negotiations with the AUC (and has thus recognized them as a distinct political actor) and has received endorsement for his policies from the US. Colin Powell has broadly supported Uribe's policies and argued that the US is "firmly committed to President Uribe and his new national security strategy," with the Bush administration working "with our Congress to provide additional funding for Colombia."
The unworthy victims then are the poor and displaced who are regularly targeted by state and parastate forces. Their deaths are far more numerous and far more dreadful in the systematic and long-standing manner in which they are killed, and yet completely ignored by the world's mainstream media. The El Nogal bombing, whilst terrible, is being used to influence international opinion which in turn will increase the suffering of Colombia's 'unworthy' victims and provide more US funding for Uribe's militarisation of Colombia under the pretext of the US's global 'war on terror'.
Doug Stokes is an academic at Bristol University, UK. His research is on the continuity of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy in the global South, in particular those policies that continue to lead to large-scale civilian suffering. He has published extensively on U.S. counterinsurgency in Latin America with a strong emphasis on Colombia. Read more of his work at www.dougstokes.net.