Interview: Sanho Tree on Colombia 2/2/01

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As one of his last acts, outgoing President Bill Clinton waived human rights conditions attached to the last tranche of Plan Colombia aid released under his administration. The incoming Bush administration, by all indications, plans to continue if not deepen US assistance -- primarily military -- to the Colombian government as it attempts to eliminate the Colombian coca and cocaine industry while simultaneously prosecuting a 35-year-old guerrilla war.

Much of the killing, and the vast majority of the horrendous massacres that usually merit a paragraph or two in the US press, is done by the "paramilitaries," armed groups whose origins lie as vigilantes for Colombian landowners and cocaine barons. By their own admission, the paramilitaries profit hugely from the drug trade. Also by their own admission, and by the record, they are warriors in a civil war pitting the Colombian elite and portions of its frightened urban middle class against a mass of poor urban workers and rural peasants.

Human rights groups, both Colombian and international, have for years loudly and convincingly made the case that the paramilitaries work in alliance with the Colombian military. Even as they "soften up" the coca fields as the vanguard of Plan Colombia in the south, they do battle against the leftist FARC guerrillas, or more accurately, the FARC's potential civilian supporters, elsewhere in Colombia. Most recently, an AUC paramilitary column marched into the northern Colombian town of Chengue, dragged 24 men and boys from their beds, and smashed their skulls in with large rocks before leaving threatening graffiti and burning dozens of houses to the ground. A Washington Post reporter who visited the town days later reported it almost deserted, its residents having fled in terror. Survivors told the Post reporter military helicopters had overflown the area just prior to the attack. The military claimed no knowledge, despite earlier written requests for help from town residents who feared paramilitary attacks.

Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), visited Colombia on a fact-finding trip from January 5-17, including a week in Bogota, the nation's capital, and four days in Putumayo province, where Plan Colombia's coca-eradication program is in full swing and the first US-trained Colombian army anti-drug battalions are on the verge of moving in. The Week Online spoke with Tree this week about what he found.

WOL: With what sorts of groups and individuals did you meet?

Tree: A broad range of organizations. We met with people working on human rights issues, on indigenous rights -- there is tremendous pressure on the Uwa, for instance, from the people who want their natural resources. We met with drug policy experts, Colombian government officials, officials at the US Embassy. We talked to peasant organizations, too.

WOL: What is the atmosphere like in Colombia?

Tree: The human rights situation is god-awful. Being perceived as being for one side or the other is a death sentence. Coming from the US, it's hard to imagine. As you know, thousands have been killed, but its much deeper than that. We met with one person -- not a guerrilla, but an academic -- who was working with indigenous groups on mineral and oil issues. He hadn't slept in the same bed for two nights in a row for two years because his name was on a death list. There were 20 people on that list, which was handed out at traffic lights in downtown Bogota, and most have left the country. He chose to stay, but the price he has to pay is the loss of all routine if he wants to save his life. The Embassy says it is monitoring the situation, it takes human rights seriously, blah, blah, blah.

WOL: The "paramilitaries" are broadly condemned for their massacres and other atrocities. The US government officially sees them as the enemy, and the Colombian government has vowed to crack down on them, while critics say they are linked to the Colombian military. What have you seen on your trip that supports or belies either position?

Tree: Carlos Castano, the head of the AUC, the largest and most notorious of the paramilitaries, goes on national TV and is constantly interviewed and says he gets 70% of his funding from the drug trade. And there are charges pending against him in Colombia. Why can't the Colombian government or the DEA find him when any journalist can? I asked the Embassy, "Have you tried calling his press agent?" He's a self-admitted major drug trafficker, but they don't care. And the Colombian military won't say they work together, but there are countless press stories where the military people say "anonymous" paramilitaries are fighting the same enemy. That's the problem.

It's very difficult to tell the difference between the paramilitaries and the military -- and the rebels, for that matter. There's a popular Colombian cartoon with three identically dressed soldiers, and the caption is "Guess which is which. Guess wrong, you die." But you could see the paramilitaries on the streets of Puerto Assiz [the capital of Putumayo] -- they were the ones who didn't have a Colombian flag on their shoulders. Sometimes they put on an AUC armband. You can sometimes tell by the type of shoes they wear. If you're a peasant in the countryside and armed men show up wanting food and shelter, you can't say no. "You must be on our side," the armed men tell then, but you don't know whose side that is.

WOL: What was the situation in Putumayo?

Tree: The region is incredibly poor -- there was one stretch of paved road on the main street of Puerto Assiz, and all the rest was dirt. The province's main highway was a 1 1/2-lane dirt roadfull of rocks. My back still hurts! Now imagine trying to get your pineapples to nonexistent markets on inadequate roads to a marketplace where you can't complete because of globalization. I was horrified to learn that because of free trade, Colombia is now a net importer of coffee. Juan Valdez went from the coffee farms to the coca fields.

The further away from the main highway, the more evident it becomes that this is a region historically abandoned by the state. There is no infrastructure for development, no electricity, no running water, no street signs, no police. Now they're finally getting serious attention from the Colombian government, but it's helicopters and planes coming to destroy their crops. They don't understand why. We export the most lethal crop around. Should Colombia say to the United States, "You lack the political will, and we are coming in to fumigate North Carolina and wipe out tobacco?" Jesse Helms says those poor farmers have no viable alternative. What about the campesinos of Colombia?

WOL: US and Colombian officials say the spraying is carefully targeted and is not affecting other crops. What are people on the ground reporting?

Tree: That's what the guy at the Embassy said. If you want a good example of their accuracy, look at what happened to Senator Wellstone. That was a demonstration fumigation, the area was already pacified and pre-selected, they had the best planes and best hot shot pilots, and they still sprayed the group.

The most disturbing testimony I heard was from a 71-year-old widow whose crops were destroyed by the fumigation. She was from La Hormiga, a town about two hours from Puerto Aziz controlled by paramilitaries. She wasn't growing any coca. This older woman is crying and asking, "Who will feed me, I wasn't growing anything wrong, who will take care of me?"

The Embassy says there are Colombian channels to help such people, but given the role of the Colombian state and para-state actors in forcing peasants off the land whenever there was something to be gained, you have to be skeptical. The history has been, if you're a campesino, and especially if you're an indigenous campesino, you're screwed. There were so many reports of non-coca producing farms being destroyed that one has to ask whether they are being forced off their land under the pretext of coca eradication. Given the history and the non-coca targets, this bears close attention.

I watched a meeting where local officials tried to persuade peasants to sign voluntary eradication pacts where they agree to manually tear up their fields to avoid being sprayed. They must all sign collectively or they get sprayed. The government would promise a little bit of aid, but when they promised it last year, it didn't show up. Being there and having those people look at me with their incredibly sad eyes as they're forced to sign what amount to their own bankruptcy papers was horrible. I never felt so ashamed to be an American.

They don't understand the US drug problem. But they know they can't compete with bananas. They know they're facing starvation or joining the almost two million "internally displaced" Colombians -- you can't call them refugees because they haven't crossed a border. The local officials were putting on a brave face, but no one wants to eradicate their crops. And the fumigation planes were flying all day long.

After that, I met with the counternarcotics officer at the US Embassy, and he made the mistake of trying to tell me the peasants have to learn they can't make easy money growing coca. I'm afraid I lit into him. "Easy money?!," I shot at him. "Where do you get off calling that easy money?" The only person making easy money was that guy in the Embassy, with his high salary and hazardous duty pay, riding around in his chopper.

WOL: Does anyone in Colombia see Plan Colombia as a peace plan?

Tree: No. Some think it might be a victory plan. They are the desperate middle class, relatively well-off, but not necessarily well-informed on geopolitics or military strategy. They think that, with enough US assistance, they might actually succeed in defeating the guerrillas, but no one can win this civil war. The country is enormous and half of it is undeveloped; it can sustain any number of guerrilla armies. The Colombians don't maintain those Clintonian distinctions about how this is not a war against the guerrillas but a war against cocaine -- except when the gringos are around.

We didn't talk to anyone who identified themselves as guerrillas or guerrilla supporters. You don't do that if you want to live. But many people we spoke with oppose Plan Colombia, and you can see that opposition on the walls of Bogota, too. "Plan Colombia Equals Plan Death," read one graffito; another, referring to President Clinton's holiday visit to celebrate US military assistance, said, "Santa Claus Clinton, take your presents and go home."

The idea of thinking we can win the hearts and minds of peasants when the first thing the government does is destroy their livelihoods, that's not a smart idea. Neither is the idea that we can win the drug war this way. There are 1.2 billion people on this planet who live on less than dollar a day, and we're talking about illicit crops that grow in most climates and whose values are inflated by prohibition. The idea that we have this extreme poverty and prohibition of some crops that causes higher prices -- of course people are going to resort to growing those crops.

WOL: What have you been doing on Colombia since you returned?

Tree: I'm on a speaking tour. I went to Oregon -- Portland, Salem, Eugene -- and had an overwhelmingly positive reaction. In Eugene, maybe 350 people showed up for a 4-hour teach-in on Colombia. I'll be going to New England next, and I just participated in a forum on Capitol Hill. I'll be speaking out.

WOL: What is your sense of the state of opposition to Plan Colombia here in the US?

Tree: There is a fast-growing constituency in this country which is fed up with this. It's different from earlier solidarity movements, before the Internet. Then, you'd find out about something long after the fact, if somebody xeroxed an article from the New York Times or Boston Globe, but now we're learning about these atrocities in real time. Each massacre arrives in your computer mailbox, and people are responding. That's what I told the Colombian press: We are watching the human rights situation, we don't have to go out of our way to dig it up, it comes to us in our e-mail, and people are revolted.

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Issue #171, 2/2/01 Drug Arrests on New Jersey Highways in Freefall in Wake of Racial Profiling Scandal | Sen. Dodd Introduces Bill to Suspend Certification Process, Supports Move Toward Multilateral Drug War Evaluation Mechanism | Interview: Sanho Tree on Colombia | And the Meaning of Traffic Is...? | Drug Testing Declines Among Private Employers, but Testing Industry is Ready to Fight | Drug Bills in the Virginia Legislature: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly | Decriminalization and Medical Marijuana Bills Introduced in New Mexico Legislature | Newsbrief: US 9th Circuit Court Tosses Out HUD "One Strike and You're Out" Eviction Policy | Newsbrief: MS Sufferer Guilty in DC Medical Marijuana Case | The Reformer's Calendar: Portland, Philadelphia, New York, DC, SF, Minneapolis, St. Petersburg, Fort Bragg, Miami, Amsterdam, New Delhi | Editorial: Moving Forward with Open Eyes
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