Standing Up to Death Squads

In too many parts of Colombia, when it comes to a person’s rights, assassination is nine-tenths of the law.

Right-wing paramilitary forces have been responsible for most killings in Colombia’s war—about 80 percent, according to the U.N. (Guerrillas committed 12 percent, and government forces the remaining 8 percent.) The standard operating procedure for paramilitary forces—despite their rhetoric about fighting the FARC and ELN, the guerrilla movement’s two main factions—has been to create a reign of terror among the civilian population, functioning as private armies for private business interests. Colombia leads the world in number of trade unionists murdered, according to Human Rights Watch.

Colombia vies with Sudan for the dubious title “country with the most internally displaced people”—violence has forced as many as 5 million Colombians away from their homes and off land that their families, in many cases, have farmed for generations.

People aren’t easily torn from their homes. Often the separation is forged in blood—a neighbor, a father, a brother, or a whole town killed. Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities are especially hard hit. Sometimes it starts with threats painted on a wall or delivered in an anonymous letter; sometimes threats are simply made out loud, by men with guns.

Before the U.S. Congress approved a trade agreement with Colombia in 2011, Sen. Orrin Hatch and others argued that increased trade would “help bring further stability” to a country “emerging from decades of civil strife.” It’s the same logic that caused Congress to continue giving half a billion dollars a year to Colombia, much of it to the military. But it’s dead wrong.

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