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Senate Considers Colombia Aid Package

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Policymakers in Washington are preparing to substantially increase their backing of Latin America’s premier human rights violator, Colombia, under the guise of a “war on drugs.” The Clinton Administration-initiated $1.7 billion aid package was approved by the House of Representatives in late March. It is now in the Senate. [includes rush transcript]

When the Bill eventually passes, it will furnish the Colombian security forces with a massive amount of aid in the form of equipment and training. It includes about $388 million to purchase 28 Blackhawk helicopters for the Colombian Army.

But for months, the funding package has been held up in the Senate by Majority Leader Trent Lott.

On this issue, there was an interesting article in the Washington Post last week that covered some of the things that are not happening in Colombia as a result of the hold-up of the bill. Among them:

— Fumigation flights against coca have been scaled back or stopped in many areas. Officials estimate that Colombia supplies more than 80 percent of the U.S. cocaine market. Aerial fumigation of opium poppies, the raw material of heroin, has been stopped.

— A special Colombian army anti-drug battalion, trained at U.S. expense last year, has yet to undertake its first mission, because the helicopters it is supposed to use are not available.

— A second 1,000-man battalion recruited, vetted for human rights violations and moved two months ago to a training base in southern Colombia is “doing jumping jacks’’ while waiting for U.S. Army Special Forces trainers, for whom no funding has been approved, said one official.

We did invite the State Department to come on the program. They declined our invitation.


  • Piedad Cordoba, a Colombian Senator. She is also president of the Human Rights Commission of the Colombian Congress. A year ago she was kidnapped by paramilitaries in Medellin and taken to the hideaway of feared paramilitary leader Carlos Castano where she was held for 16 days. She has now been forced to flee Colombia because of threats of violence.
  • Ignacio Gomez, a veteran investigative journalist with El Espectador in Bogota. He recently did an expose about US military involvement in a massacre of civilians in the village of Mapiripan in 1997. He has just recently come to the United States after learning there was a death warrant on him by paramilitaries.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Policymakers in Washington are preparing to substantially increase their backing of Latin America’s premier human rights violator, Colombia, under the guise of the war on drugs. The Clinton administration-initiated $1.6 billion aid package was approved by the House of Representatives in late March. It now is being considered by the Senate.

If the bill eventually passes, it will furnish the Colombian security forces with a massive amount of aid in the form of equipment and training, including about $388 million to purchase twenty-eight Blackhawk helicopters for the Colombian army, but for months the funding package has been held up by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

We are going to have a debate on the issue of the Colombian aid package. We’ll be joined by Amnesty International’s Carlos Salinas, as well as the spokesperson for the Drug Czar’s office, Barry McCaffrey’s office, Bob Weiner will be with us, because Barry McCaffrey is the number one supporter of this so-called anti-drug bill.

But before we do that, we’re joined in the studio by two prominent Colombians who have fled Colombia in the last month. Ignacio Gomez is with us. If you’re a regular listener to Democracy Now!_, you heard him last week on the program. Our outgoing producer Maria Carrion had just been in Colombia, and she interviewed him about some of his exposes_ involving massacres in southern Colombia. And we played an excerpt of the interview, when she asked him about what it means to be a journalist in Colombia. More journalists have died in Colombia over the last years than in any other Latin American country.

We are also joined in the studio by Piedad Cordoba, who is a Colombian senator, president of the Human Rights Commission of the Colombian Congress. This is the first anniversary of her kidnapping by paramilitaries in Medellin. She was taken to the hideaway of the feared paramilitary leader Carlos Castano, where she was held for sixteen days. She has come to New York to address the UN Beijing Plus Five Conference on Women, and then she heads to Canada, where she will make her home, as she is in exile from Colombia in fear for her life.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Ignacio Gomez, you just came to the United States, to New York, a few days ago. What happened in the last week?

IGNACIO GOMEZ: [translated] One half-hour after a botched kidnapping attempt directed at me, someone called my colleague, Bedoya Lima, kidnapped her, raped her, and insistently warned her that myself and three other colleagues were going to be chopped up into little pieces. I was hiding out in Colombia, preparing my trip, organizing the situation of another four journalists who had suffered murder attempts, because I’m also a president of the Foundation for Press Freedom. So I flew to New York, expelled from the country.

AMY GOODMAN: We talked to you — we played this interview with you last week, where you said you didn’t want to talk about the threats you face, because if you talk about death, you will start to smell it all around you. Why are you targeted, and who is targeting you?

IGNACIO GOMEZ: [translated] The Colombian Police sustains that I’m facing multiple risks as a result of my journalistic works on corruption over the last five years. The presidency has lost at least six ministers as a result of my work as a journalist. I have written articles on human rights very frequently. And recently I’ve been working on the massacre at Mapiripan, which brought about protests. It infuriated the commander of the Colombian armed forces and Carlos Castano’s paramilitary forces, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk for a moment about the Mapiripan massacre that took place in '97? We did just do an interview last week, run an interview that Maria Carrion did, with a lawyer for the survivors. But can you talk about the US military's connection to it, the story that you broke?

IGNACIO GOMEZ: [translated] It’s absolutely clear that the airport that — which a group of paramilitaries landed armed only with machetes, fifteen men, who were protected by another hundred armed paramilitaries with shotguns, was in the airport located within the main air force base of the Department of State in San Jose del Guaviare. It’s also clear that at the place where the colonel who today is named as the intellectual author of the massacre, the Green Berets, the third group, based in Fort Bragg, were training their group exactly in military planning. It just so happens that at that same moment the colonel was planning the massacre, as was clearly demonstrated in the investigation on the matter.

AMY GOODMAN: If the $1.6 or $1.7 billion aid package goes through, if the Senate approves it here in this country, what does that mean for the people of Colombia?

IGNACIO GOMEZ: [translated] If it’s not approved with the exceptions to human rights that it should contain, then what we’re looking at in the first place is that they’re — we’re not going to have journalists in Colombia who can tell the story of the atrocities that are going to be committed with that money. And it’s a fact that the diagnosis that the United States has carried out about the situation of violence in Colombia is not consequent to the solution that is being set forth in the Colombia plan. According to documents issued by the Department of Defense, and even the Department of State, the paramilitary forces and guerrilla forces are involved in narco-trafficking. And all of us in Colombia know that that is the case. But if the United States only combats the guerrilla drugs, then it’s automatically granting a monopoly over cocaine to a fascist group. It’s supporting fascists in Colombia. The United States is doing that if it maintains this position.

AMY GOODMAN: Ignacio Gomez is with us, has just fled to the United States from Colombia, where he was targeted by Carlos Castano’s paramilitary forces. He is here in New York, and, well, because he was here, was attending the Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference this weekend.

Also with us, Piedad Cordoba, a Colombian senator who did not want to be here in New York, headed to Canada, where she will make her home, but rather to stay in Colombia — about a year was kidnapped by paramilitaries in Medellin, taken to the hideaway of Carlos Castano, the feared paramilitary leader.

What happened to you when you were held for sixteen days, Senator Piedad Cordoba?

PIEDAD CORDOBA: [translated] They were sixteen very difficult days, where I was constantly under fear and threat of being assassinated for my activities for human rights in Colombia. I was tied up, blindfolded. And, strangely enough, they were able to take me out of my apartment in a helicopter that nobody seemed to see. They accused me of being a member of one of the guerrilla groups in the country, the ELN. I think they weren’t able to kill me because of the very strong international pressure. But I believe the message was to put fear into the hearts of the people who were working very hard on human rights in Colombia.

AMY GOODMAN: What area of Colombia did you represent?

PIEDAD CORDOBA: [translated] I am from the Department of Antiochia, which is really the cradle of the paramilitaries. But my family is from — on my father’s side — is from the Department of Choco.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is Carlos Castano?

PIEDAD CORDOBA: [translated] He is a man who, unfortunately, is the armed representative of the rightwing in my country. He’s about thirty-five, thirty-six years old. He has a lot of support, especially a lot of economic support. And I would say that in the last few years he is responsible for the worst assassinations in Colombia.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is his connection to the Colombian military?

PIEDAD CORDOBA: [translated] I believe that if there wasn’t a strong connection with the Colombian military, with particularly certain people in the Colombian military, it would be impossible to be doing what he’s doing. Unfortunately, many massacres occur with military presence. And with the omission of those functions and with the blessing of many important economic forces in the country, this weekend a ceasefire stopped in part of the militaries. They were very well protected by the army. For the first time, I saw the compasinos well treated. It’s important to understand that there is a very strong link between the paramilitaries and the armed forces.

AMY GOODMAN: Piedad Cordoba is our guest. What about the connection between the paramilitaries and the US military. Is there one?

PIEDAD CORDOBA: [translated] I don’t know for sure, but I know that the US military supports the Colombian military, and perhaps they don’t know about all their activities.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me put that question to Ignacio Gomez about the US military’s connection to the paramilitaries.

IGNACIO GOMEZ: [translated] Carlos Castano is a confessed narco-trafficker, dating back to 1984. The United States, which tends to open up investigations against all narco-traffickers, has been omitting its functions regarding Carlos Castano for seventeen years. Carlos Castano participated in a group of murderers that cruelly eliminated the entire narco-traffic organization of Pablo Escobar. And Pablo Escobar’s death was vindicated to the Pentagon the very same day that it took place.

The US Army is continuously training the Colombian army. And it has developed strategic plans that have coincided, since 1984 to the present, with the plans and movements of Carlos Castano. At this moment, Carlos Castano is moving his troops on the border of the operations area where the United States troops are. And to that — and he expelled six journalists from the region, burning their cars and threatening them, threatening their lives.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break for stations to identify themselves. When we come back, we’ll also be joined by Carlos Salinas of Amnesty International about the details of the bill that the Senate is expected to take up tomorrow. We also hope to be joined by a spokesperson for the Drug Czar’s office, Barry McCaffrey, about why the US is supporting — the US admin — Clinton administration, supporting the bill. At this point he is in meeting with McCaffrey, and we’re going to see if he can get out of it.

You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll be back with journalist Ignacio Gomez and Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba in just a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

It’s unusual when Congress is debating a bill to be able to hear from people on the ground about a country that the money would go to, although we shouldn’t say that the $1.6 or $1.7 billion is going to — even the majority of it — will be going down to Colombia. In fact, most of it will be spent here in the United States on corporations like Sikorsky and its helicopters, as well as Bell Helicopter Textron. That’s where a lot of the money goes, to the arms manufacturers in this country, and then the weapons get sent down to Colombia.

But we are joined in the studio by two people who — I shouldn’t say would be the recipients of that aid, but who are in the country that we’re talking about — from the country — now in the United States because of the terror in Colombia. Ignacio Gomez, a veteran investigative journalist. He is with the daily newspaper El Espectador, and Piedad Cordoba, the Colombian senator, president of the Human Rights Commission, the Colombian congress, kidnapped by paramilitaries last year, has come up to this country. She has addressed the UN conference on Women, Beijing Plus Five, and is headed to Canada, where she will live until the terror has diminished.

On the phone with us is Carlos Salinas. He’s with Amnesty International. Carlos, can you lay out the bill that we’re talking about, the Senate taking up this week?

CARLOS SALINAS: Well, the Senate, what they’ve done is they’ve curtailed and cut quite a bit of what the House had passed earlier and came up with a total of $714 million in additional aid for Colombia. That is in addition to $330 million that was already preplanned, giving a grand total of $1.044 billion in aid to Colombia. And of that, at least $336 million is in aid strictly for the Colombian military, and about $114 million is in direct aid to the Colombian National Police.

AMY GOODMAN: What percentage of it, or how much, goes to US weapons manufacturers?

CARLOS SALINAS: Well, we haven’t done an analysis of looking at which companies will be the main beneficiaries, but there is a sort of a battle of the corporations looming, because the Senate version decided that they weren’t going to give Sikorsky the grand contract that the House is giving. So the Senate version has several million dollars in aid for Huey II helicopters, as opposed to Black Hawk. And the Black Hawks are the ones that are manufactured by Sikorsky. In the House aid, there’s $362 million for the Black Hawks, while the Senate version has $64 million for the UH-1 and Huey helicopters.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the delay right now? There was a front-page piece in the Washington Post last week talking about the problems with the delay. Since it was emergency funding, a lot hasn’t happened. For example — and some might consider this a good thing — fumigation flights against coca, a centerpiece of the anti-drug effort, have been scaled back or stopped in many key areas. A special Colombian army anti-drug battalion, trained at US expense last year, has yet to undertake its first mission. A second 1,000-man battalion recruited, vetted for human rights violations, and moved two months ago to a training base in southern Colombia, is “doing jumping jacks” while waiting for US Army Special Forces trainers, for whom no funding has been approved.

CARLOS SALINAS: Well, one thing is, I’d rather have the soldiers doing jumping jacks than aiding and abetting paramilitaries and committing massacres against peasants, so I think that’s a very good thing. With regards to fumigations, I think there’s a lot of unanswered questions and health concerns that have been raised, not to mention environmental concerns. And it is no secret that the US government has pushed much more toxic fumigation schemes on the Colombians, which have been resisted even by the likes of Dow Chemical, that did not want its products being used in Colombia in the way the US government wanted them used. So there is a lot of unanswered questions that need to be met before those fumigations can really be kept up in good faith.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Carlos Salinas, we have just been joined by Bob Weiner, spokesperson for the Drug Czar, Barry McCaffrey, the General has been pushing very hard for this $1.6 billion aid bill to go through. Bob Weiner, why?

BOB WEINER: Hey. And Carlos, thank you so much for your support on — in working with us on human rights concerns in Colombia. Sorry we’re late, I just literally got out of a meeting with Director McCaffrey, as we speak.

The President, once again, has pressed for the aid to Colombia package. And the reason is that 90% of the drugs that come to the United States come from or through Colombia. 90% of the cocaine, 70% of the heroin that comes into the United States, of the seizures that are now recorded, come from or through Colombia. Ten years ago, it was zero percent of the heroin. So how can you not go after the number one source country, which has the drugs that are killing our kids? Of course, you do.

Now, I have personally gone with Director McCaffrey and watched the training at Tolemaida of human rights for their soldiers. They are becoming more and more sensitive to that. It is a real concern. We totally agree with Carlos that that must, must, must be addressed. And it was not the mentality of doing so in the past. But now, Colombia is aware that that is part of the vectoring of US aid, that there will be none unless they are sensitive to human rights concerns.

And I watched how the soldiers in the training kicked a FARC person that they supposedly had captured. And another soldier said, “No, you cannot do that!” And one soldier took a wallet and said — the other one said, “No, you cannot do that!” They are training physically, emotionally, and actually now to conduct human rights properly and not to conduct the abuses. So that is very important.

Now, in terms of the eradication programs, I saw the CIA briefing here: where you eradicate, the coca doesn’t grow. Where you don’t eradicate, the coca grows. And it’s sort of obvious. And in Peru, which went down 66% in coca cultivation in the last four years. Bolivia, 55% reduction in the last four years. These are doable programs, and you’ve got to correlate the environmental impact. Of course, you do. There are tests that constantly going on. There are tests in the United States that are going on.

But given that, given that we do not want drugs killing our kids, this is a good thing if these countries want to do that and do it accurately. So there’s a lot going on here. Nobody is out to cause environmental destruction. Nobody is out to commit human rights abuses. But we are out to stop the drugs from coming into our country, and Colombia wants more and more to stop it also, because they know it is destroying their democracy. And there’s a lot of disingenuous press that goes on. Is this Amy who’s on now?


BOB WEINER: Yeah. There’s a lot of disingenuous press, as far —

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to interrupt for a second, Bob Weiner, to give Carlos a chance to respond.

BOB WEINER: OK, yep, yep.

CARLOS SALINAS: Well, I mean, I certainly agree that General McCaffrey has shown at least a public interest in human rights, but we —

BOB WEINER: Not just public interest.

CARLOS SALINAS: — certainly do no support the General in the plan for further escalating the forty-year-old conflict in Colombia. Unfortunately, I mean, despite the good intentions that are stated, what this really amounts to is a thinly veiled counterinsurgency package that’s going to result in a humanitarian and a human rights catastrophe.

And while we certainly support any kind of human rights sensitivity training, human rights sensitivity awareness, we also understand that in the Colombian situation, not only is there a long history of impunity, meaning that the climate is not positive or conducive for ensuring that soldiers, in fact, do the right thing, but also, there’s no independent monitoring.

The human rights movement has been decimated in Colombia. Now they’re going after the journalists. It is no coincidence that Ignacio Gomez is here in the United States after having been forced to flee Colombia. And without the independent oversight, I mean, the massacres are going to happen in the middle of the forest, and no one’s going to be there to tell us about them.

BOB WEINER: The journalists that we talked to want this package. One journalist, his cousin was kidnapped by the FARC. Let’s keep in mind who’s committing the human rights abuses. It’s the people who are getting $1.8 billion a year from the drug cultivation in Colombia and who are constantly killing people and kidnapping them.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Weiner, we’re actually joined in the studio by Ignacio Gomez, who is the journalist, head of the Independent Press Freedom Foundation in Colombia. He reports for El Espectador. He was just forced out of Colombia last week. What are your thoughts?

IGNACIO GOMEZ: [translated] I keep a careful eye on US press, and I have still not seen the first reporter with child murdered by cocaine. I keep a continuous eye on the Colombian press, as well, and there has been no space to register the murder of our children related to the war that we are living through in Colombia. I’m not using secret information or stealing documents. I’m using documents that are property of the US Congress to find those coincidences between the training — the training of the Green Berets training the Colombian army — and human rights abuses that have happened throughout the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Weiner?

BOB WEINER: Well, we have found that human rights abuses occur and drugs are prevalent where there is no government control. And that is one of the reasons why the FARC and the ELN are putting this disingenuous press plan into play, saying that we only want democracy. In fact, what they want is free reign and blank check to grow drugs and to be able to send them wherever they want and make as much money as they want.

That is the problem, is that it is — there is a counter-press strategy working from the FARC and from the ELN that’s in their interest to make it look like all they are is democratic lovers. They represent — actually, the FARC and the ELN represent 4% and 8% public opinion. The Colombian people hate, detest, resent, and are afraid of them. And the only way that Colombia will be able to stop drugs and to return stability is if they have a strong way of stopping the drug trafficking and cutting it out and slicing it down.

AMY GOODMAN: Is the General concerned about the paramilitary violence in Colombia and the human rights groups labeling Colombia’s military as one of the worst human rights-abusing entities in Latin America?

BOB WEINER: Well, the human rights abuses have gone down and down and down and down, as this increasing sensitivity, Amy, that we’ve mentioned has gone up. They are aware of the need to change their culture of violence that they have had in the past. They are aware of that. And, yes, of course, he is very concerned about the paramilitaries and the ELN and what’s called the illegal self-defense groups now — they change the title all the time, but they’re — whatever you want to call them. The people of Colombia need to regain control through their government. And that is what we’re helping to do. And that will stop the drugs. It will stop the drug trafficking. And that’s the overall objective of this.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Weiner, we’re also joined State Senator Piedad Cordoba, who was arrested — who was kidnapped by the paramilitaries a year ago for sixteen days. Bob Weiner of General McCaffrey’s office, Piedad Cordoba, says that the people of Colombia want this aid package.

PIEDAD CORDOBA: [translated] I get the impression that Mr. Weiner does not know the Colombian people. Colombia, at this time, is in the most highest moment of human rights violations. The proof is that right now, here in the studio, there are two people who can no longer live in their country.

Why are they insisting on military aid? Why aren’t they providing aid to protect human rights and to make substitute crops? The Colombia plan will be like having the atom bomb in Colombia. It will destroy the peace process.

We are not against fighting drug trafficking. We understand that there is a governance problem in the country. But, first of all, we demand respect for our culture. And we don’t think that this will stop narco traffic. This way will only strengthen the paramilitary.

AMY GOODMAN: We have come to the end of our program, and I know that tomorrow the Senate is expected to take up this bill. Carlos Salinas of Amnesty International, what are human rights groups in this country doing about that?

CARLOS SALINAS: Well, there is a call-in day tomorrow to target both House and Senate, but given the fact that may be coming up in the Senate, to put in a lot of pressure on senators to reject the aid to the military, to reject the deepening conflict in Colombia, to reject getting the United States government involved in this forty-year conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob Weiner, what are you doing to get it passed, in ten seconds?

BOB WEINER: Well, Amy, that state senator’s statement sounded like a lot of propaganda. There’s $250 million of crop substitution. There is human rights training. Bolivia and Peru, both with a billion dollars over the last eight years, stopped drugs by 66% and 55%. This is a workable plan with a time definite. It is not Vietnam. We are stopping drugs from coming to our kids.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have ten seconds. Your response, Piedad Cordoba? Ten seconds. He said it’s a lot of propaganda, what you just put out.

PIEDAD CORDOBA: [translated] Perhaps you don’t know our country. Perhaps you don’t know that there is a grave violation of human rights taking place in Colombia. We demand respect.

AMY GOODMAN: That does it for the show. Ignacio Gomez, Piedad Cordoba, Carlos Salinas, and Bob Weiner, thanks for being with us.

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