Las Am��_ricas

When the Right Hand Finds Out What the Left is Doing


On May 7th of this year, at 10:15 at night, unknown gunmen blasted out the bedroom windows of Adriana Margarita Mor-eno Baquero in downtown Bogotá. The attack was not entirely unexpected: Adriana is the daughter of María Clara Baquero Sarmiento, President of ASODEFENSA, the union of civilian workers in the Colombian Ministry of Defense. María Clara founded the union to oppose the ongoing labor abuses in the Ministry, where employees often work mandatory 12-hour days and 7-day weeks; when convenient, they are forced to wear military uniforms and work in conflict zones as if they were combatants. If they protest, they are transferred permanently to conflict zones, where many have been killed.

On any ordinary day, María Clara is under more stress and pressure than an inner city high school substitute math teacher, which is quite a lot. Since establishing the union six years ago, she has suffered two attempts on her life, not counting the evening blowout this past May. She has been driven off the road, shot in the knees, and routinely threatened by phone. The callers identify themselves as members of MASIN, a catchy acronym for “Muerte a Sindicalis-tas,” or “Death to Trade Unionists.” These are not your average telephone creeps, although they do call her at impolite hours and mutter obscenities. But they have quasi-sophisticated electronic voice-altering technology, and occasionally, they threaten to kill her son.

How quaint. Here in the United States, the anti-labor elements got this sort of thing out of their system with the Haymarket episode, but it’s still going strong in Colombia. Fortunately for her, María Clara is a beneficiary of a physical protection program funded by USAID that is designed to provide security to labor leaders and human rights workers who have been threatened by death squads. Unfortunately, the program is not especially effective. On the evening of the last assault, María Clara, although not at home, was notified immediately by cell phone. Using her high-tech USAID AVANTEL communication system, she repeatedly called the protection program’s emergency number for the Security Network at the Ministry of the Interior to request help for her daughter. One of her bodyguards also called, but no one answered. Probably on break.

Subsequently, the regular police showed up at the house but refused to go in for fear that they might get hurt. From afar, they determined that the house had been hit by bullets, probably from a .32, possibly with a silencer, and that the bedroom windows had been the target. To date, no protection has been provided for the home or the children of María Clara. Nor has anyone been arrested. There are no signs that any investigation is underway.

Odd. Judging from the forensic experience accumulated by those of us who watch Law and Order every other night, once the police have some bullets, tire tracks, suspects, and motives, they can usually come up with a responsible party. Not in Colombia, though, despite the expert protection assistance of USAID.

Here’s how the Agency describes its protection program:

USAID works with the Ministry of the Interior, Attorney General’s Office, national and municipal Ombudsmen, the human rights unit of the Prosecutor General, and other Colom-bian government agencies on human rights abuse detection and prevention, protection of human rights workers, and the provision of effective responses to violations. USAID and the National Ombudsman have developed an early warning system as a means of preventing massacres by paramilitary forces and guerrillas.

You know your country is a living hell when you need bilateral aid to provide you with an early warning system for massacres, don’t we agree? Also:

USAID assists the mixed Ministry of Interior-NGO committee for protection of NGO human rights workers, journalists, and labor leaders. Radios, bulletproof vests and other commodities as well as security remodeling of offices for NGOs and union leaders are being purchased by USAID and the Ministry of Interior.

Despite this largesse, lumbering about in your bullet-proof vest with a pocket full of walkie-talkies will not help you when your daughter is shot while reading in bed or your son is picked off riding his bicycle to school. To be honest, María Clara’s family members were given training in self-protection under the USAID program. The curriculum, however, was sketchy and pathetic: it consisted of an hour session, during which family members were told not to go anywhere alone after dark, not to get into cars with strange men speaking in weird electronic voices and to “Watch out.”

At this year’s annual meeting of the International Labour Office (ILO) in Geneva, the Norwegian delegation de-nounced the program, which also has ILO backing, as inoperative due to lack of funds and delays in processing protection requests. And even when bodyguards are provided, they are not always able to prevent attacks. Among the labor rights crowd, potential victims joke that they like to have bodyguards because, after all, no one wants to die alone.

Nonetheless, the U.S. government’s delegation to the ILO offered the opinion that the protection program was “bearing fruit,” although “much remains to be done.” “Much” presumably refers to actions that might have prevented the murders of 42 trade unionists so far this year. Last June, as part of its campaign to safeguard the lives of its Colombian affiliates’ members, Public Services International, a global labor federation for public sector workers, called on the ILO to establish a Commission of Inquiry on Colombia. But the move was blocked by government and employers’ delegations, and so the assassinations continue.

Although María Clara Baquero is certainly not the only labor union member in Colombia to be threatened by death squads, she seems to have been singled out for especially rough treatment. Quite possibly this is because of her privileged place in the machinery of the Colombian Armed Forces. The members of her union are chauffeurs, clerks, lawyers, accountants, and administrators for the Army and the Police. If you’ll pardon the expression, they know where the bodies are buried. It is hard to hide everything from all of them and still run efficiently. Some of them have seen a lot of money disappear that ought to still be in the accounts; others have seen truckloads full of stuff delivered to apparently human creatures wearing ski masks. And besides all that, if you’re Colonel Bustabolas and you’re used to shoving people around to make them do what you want, then piss-ant, talk-back, labor-union types are going to get on your nerves.

Ironically, although Colonel Bustabolas is a big part of the problem here, he and his also get much of their funding from the U.S. government, and they have for a long time. On July 13, the U.S. House of Representatives marked the three-year anniversary of the signing of Plan Colombia by passing a great huge $600 million “aid” package—most of it for Colombia’s military and police. Colombia is now the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Israel and Egypt, with no end in sight. This fall, the Senate plans to pass the package without debate. The Latin American Working Group in Washington D.C. points out that the Senate has not debated Colombia policy for two years, despite the fact that the goals that Congress set out three years ago have not been met.

Among these goals was the directive that the Colombian military sever its ties to the paramilitary groups—the guys who are shooting up the bedrooms of labor leaders and their daughters. In 2001, the U.S. Congress put human rights conditions on 2002 aid to Colombia, requiring the military to remove and punish human rights violators. But the Bush administration, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, has certified that the Colombian military was punishing violators, working productively with human rights investigators, and combating the paramilitaries.

The military and the paramilitaries, however, continue to operate hand in hand. The most recent evidence of their alliance surfaced in May, when the news broke that the Colombian President, Alvaro Uribe, had fired General Gabriel Díaz Ortiz, Commander of the Army’s Second Brigade and the entire northern zone of the country, at the insistence of the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá.

General Díaz had apparently been careless. Among his transgressions, many of them videotaped, were extensive contacts with paramilitary groups operating in Putamayo. In 2001, when then-Colonel Díaz commanded the Fourteenth Brigade, Human Rights Watch published an extensive chronicle of the intimate relations between the two: 500 meters outside the encampment of the 25th Battalion—under the command of the Colonel—was a paramilitary post. People who disappeared in the zone were first taken by the Army, later transferred to the paramilitaries, and then taken to the nearby Villa Sandra, where they vanished. After the HRW report was published, the witness who substantiated the links was threatened by the local police for his trouble, while Colonel Díaz was promoted to the rank of General.

The General turned up once again post-promotion when he was transferred to Barranquilla. There, he immediately made contact with the paramilitaries and routinely met with the Lopesierra brothers, CEOs of the narco-enterprise originally run by Alberto Orlández Gamboa. Mr. Gamboa, a.k.a. “The Snail,” had been previously extradited to the U.S.

Regrettably for the General, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency had the Lopesierra boys and the local paras under surveillance, videotaping their movements and contacts. Imagine the agents’ shock and horror when the General popped up on the screen and the tapes. It wasn’t a cameo appearance either, but more like a starring role. And we’re not talking about a lone, low-level rogue officer simply showing off with his finger on the trigger and his hand in the till. We are talking about a very big shot. Literally. This is like finding out that Gen. Tommy Franks has been buying uranium in Africa. Accordingly, this past April, two U.S. embassy officials tapped on the door of the Defense Minister and had her send for a VCR. When she saw the tapes, she sent her two visitors round to the various Armed Forces Commanders, who, we understand, each kept them waiting a rather long time and then did nothing. Finally in June, President Uribe intervened and fired the General.

So let’s see, now. How does this all work? The United States finances the Colombian military’s war on drugs and terror. The aid, however, is conditioned on the military’s severance of its ties to paramilitaries because they are terrorists and narcos. Also murderers and thieves. But the Colombian Armed Forces don’t really comply. They like the paras and get along well with them because they, too, are murderers and thieves. The Bush administration tries to obscure this ugly fact. Meanwhile, civilian employees in Colombia’s Defense Ministry are treated rather badly and form a union. The union leader protests the way in which Ministry workers are kicked around in an excessively exploitative fashion. She is an especially distressing presence because she knows more than she should about the ties that might jeopardize access to U.S. millions. She and her children are then targeted and threatened by the paramilitaries, who are assisted in their efforts by the Colombian military, amply supplied by the U.S. government. She appeals to the Colombian government for protection. It provides her with security measures, such as they are, that also are funded by the U.S. government.

The level of hypocrisy in this undertaking is breathtaking. I mean, why bother? If our government is going to ship $600 million worth of weapons and “technical assistance” to the likes of General Díaz, then a few walkie-talkies and a flak jacket are not going to help María Clara. And the pious, high-moral tone of the USAID program is also hard to take: “USAID’s goal is to promote responsive, participative, and accountable public institutions, particularly in the judiciary, municipal governments and agencies that deal with human rights.”

Yeah, right. If that is the case, why wasn’t General Díaz formally charged with drug-trafficking and terrorism and tried publicly in court? What were the two Embassy officials doing slinking around Bogotá in April, rather than simply informing the Attorney General of Colombia and having the General charged openly? Why did the Minister of Defense, the Armed Forces and the President delay more than a month in taking any action against Díaz? Why has there been no investigation of the attempts on the lives of María Clara Baquero and her children? Why in nearly a year of beefed up military operations, have the Armed Forces not successfully captured a single paramilitary leader? And how can USAID believe that anyone is really fooled by the half-baked, cheapskate “protection program” that is now the only thing that stands between María Clara Baquero and assassination?

When not traveling throughout the Américas, Gabriela Bocagrande lives in Washington, D.C.