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Government shares blame in Colombian violence

I believe that the nomination of Colombian President Virgilio Barco '43 for commencement speaker and the commendation bestowed on him by the MIT Corporation, as described in The Tech by Mauricio Roman, have been accompanied by a dangerous oversimplification of the violence in Colombia.

Although the mass media in the United States currently emphasize the Colombian government's war against the drug cartels, Colombia was marred by political violence long before the rise of the cartels. Americas Watch, in its April 1989 report, "The Killings in Colombia," lists the perpetrators of human rights violations as follows: "... the guerillas; the armed and security forces; and `private armies' that are linked to elements in the armed forces, to landowners, to rural business interests and to the drug traffic."

A good example is the March 4, 1988 massacre in the northern region of Urab'a. Although people working on banana plantations there are paid relatively well, working conditions are poor. Labor unions, which have become more militant, resulting in disputes with the management of the plantations and killings of labor leaders. On the date in question, armed men killed approximately 20 workers late at night. A judicial investigation led by Judge Martha Luc'ia Gonz'alez Rodr'iguez found evidence that the paramilitary group ACDEGAM (Association of Peasants and Cattle Ranchers) was responsible. The group is funded by the Medell'in drug cartel. However, it was assisted in its attack by two army officers, one of whom "paid a hotel bill at the Medell'in Intercontinental Hotel for one or more of the participants in the massacre," according to the Americas Watch report.

In addition, the mayor and chief of police of Puerto Boyac'a, ACDEGAM's home base, were charged by Gonz'alez with "covering up the criminal activity of ACDEGAM." At one point in her investigation, Gonz'alez and her party were detained at an airstrip by a local chief of police and prevented from carrying out a part of the investigation. Americas Watch learned that "Judge Gonz'alez was threatened by a high military officer if she persisted in pressing charges against Army officers for their role in the Urab'a massacres.... for Ms. Gonz'alez's protection, the Government had arranged to have her placed in a job outside the country." (This same military will receive assistance from the United States in our effort to help Colombia with her "war on drugs.")

This is not to say that Barco has himself ordered that human rights of Colombian citizens be violated. Rather, Colombia's civilian government is attempting to curtail political violence. That the government's strategy is flawed is seen by the unabating increase in violence there, as well as the government's apparent inability to bring right-wing and military-related perpetrators of violence to justice. Colombia is clearly failing to ensure the human rights of her citizens.

If the MIT community decides to engage in an informed discussion of political violence in Colombia and its relationship to North American demand for cocaine, I might find myself supporting the nomination of Barco for commencement speaker.

Stephen Fromm G->