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Silencing the social critics:
an untold story in Colombia


"Mamá, Papá, pum, pum."

Pum, pum in Colombian Spanish means bang bang. And it is what 18-months-old Iván Calderón uttered on May 19 as he sat surrounded by the bullet-pocked bodies of his mother, Elsa Alvarado, his father, Mario Calderón, his grandfather, Carlos Calderón and his grandmother, Elvira Chacón.

At about 5 a.m., gunmen dressed in black burst into the apartment where this family lived in a quiet residential zone in Bogotá. The gunmen killed everyone but little Iván, whose mother hid him in a closet, and the grandmother who, as of this writing, struggles in critical condition in a hospital.

Mario and Elsa worked in the human rights section of the Jesuit-sponsored think tank CINEP, Center of Investigation and Popular Education. In that office, people like Mario and Elsa record statistics and write analyses of the human rights emergency that is tearing Colombia apart.

A month after the killings, it occurs to me that colleagues have probably already entered their names in CINEP's data base, to be printed in dot matrix below thousands of others in the category "massacres of three or more victims."

The assumption of all the news reports in Colombia was that the murder of Mario and Elsa was a paramilitary slaughter. The story of such slaughters has become the untold story of Colombia. It is a brutal tale of U.S.-supported bloodshed more than a decade in the making that has received scant attention in the U.S. press.

In Central America in the 1980s, even into the 1990s, this genre of violence became a news priority. But Colombia's U.S.-supported death squad killings -- although they rival several times in number and brutality those carried out in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras -- have received substantial emphasis in the press only when they dovetail with tales of the drug trade. The lives and deaths of Mario and Elsa provide a prism for telling this story, one few are anxious to hear.

Remembering Mario

I remember Mario from the first years of the decade I lived in Bogotá, where I reported extensively on activities of the grassroots church and on human rights issues. This former Jesuit priest exhibited a warmth and a boundless passion for people marginalized by the political and economic structures that have historically defined Colombian society. Before leaving the priesthood and coming to Bogotá, Mario lived his "preferential option for the poor" with indigenous communities in Colombia's northern Cordoba department. There, he miraculously escaped assassination but witnessed the killing of fellow Jesuit Sergio Restrepo by paramilitary gunmen.

In time, Mario expanded his commitment to defending the dignity of indigenous and peasant communities. He became a defender of the environment. With 26 others, Mario helped found a natural reserve, purchasing protected land with personal funds. This group set up grassroots ecological education projects with rural communities in Sumapaz, a zone where for years the Colombian army has been waging counterinsurgency campaigns against left-wing guerrillas and local inhabitants.

Three years ago, after receiving death threats from the military, two forest rangers working in conservation had to flee the same zone. In an article published by CINEP shortly before his death, Mario described the work of his coterie of "crazy greens" in Sumapaz: "We have decided to be actors, not victims." Today in Colombia such an attitude is a death sentence.

A month before his death, Mario helped organize a forum questioning the impact of the Urra dam and reservoir project on the livelihood of indigenous and peasant communities in the Cordoba department where he had worked as a priest. According to one participant in the forum who knew Mario well, leaders from the Embera and Catio indigenous communities warned that the dam project would destroy the marshes that served as fishing grounds for their communities.

Warning voiced

Peasant leaders, meanwhile, warned that wealthy land owners, backed by paramilitary squads, would run them off their land. "The peasants and fishermen explained that the marshes would disappear and the powerful landowners would covet the newly dried lands. Instead of tons of fish in the hands of poor communities, there would be tons of cattle in the hands of the rich. So before exterminating the fish, they had to exterminate Mario," the participant wrote to me in an E-mail message.

Elsa also worked at CINEP. Her passions were journalism and peace. She helped found CINEP's ground-breaking quarterly publication, Cien Dias. In collaboration with Colombia's Ministry of Communication, Elsa helped organize an educational program for children called "Networks for Peace." A friend of hers in Bogotá asked, shortly after Elsa's death, "Where will little Iván fit into those networks now?" The last article Elsa wrote was titled "Peace in the Spiral of Silence."

In Colombia, defending life -- through human rights activities, union activism, peasant organizing, even environmental activism -- routinely means death for people like Mario and Elsa. It is simple, harsh, direct: People whose words and actions criticize the economic or political structures that denigrate the dignity of the vulnerable are equated with "subversives" and targeted by a sophisticated apparatus of killers. This nationwide network of assassins is backed by the Colombian military and police, tolerated by civilian authorities and bolstered by top level training and weaponry provided by United States, according to a decade of reports by human rights and governmental agencies.

The news of the death of Mario and his family conjured for me recollections of scores of people I knew or wrote about who, since the mid-1980s, have died at the hands of one of the most tenacious organizations of paramilitary violence ever nurtured in Latin America.

In terms of human rights atrocities, Colombia is El Salvador, it is Guatemala, it is Honduras and Chile and Peru, it is Brazil and Argentina, all revisited today. And the complicity of the United States government in this tragedy is equal to or surpasses its role in the carnage elsewhere. Because of the drug war, Colombia's is a more complicated tale to tell. But the paradigm of counterinsurgency violence and state-supported repression against members of grassroots organizations, religious and laity, political activists, union leaders, teachers, peasants, indigenous, lawyers, journalists -- and the list goes on -- is precisely the same one employed farther north, or south, in other places, at other times.

The Inter-Congregational Commission for Justice and Peace, a human rights organization backed by a majority of Colombia's religious communities, reports that over the seven years between 1988 and 1995 political killings committed in Colombia reached 28,332. By comparison, 9,000 political assassinations occurred in eight years of the Argentine dictatorship, and 2,666 were killed during 17 years under Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile. The bulk of Colombia's killings were carried out by paramilitary squads working with the direct or indirect complicity of high-ranking members of Colombia's armed forces.

The incidents of paramilitary slaughter are so familiar to Colombians they hardly seem real anymore: The slayings of 22 farm hands in the Urabá banana lands in March 1988; the April 1990 burning with blowtorches and dismembering with chain saw while alive of at least 26 inhabitants of the town of Trujillo, including parish priest Tiberio de Jesús Fernández; the complete takeover by paramilitary squads in the late 1980s and early 1990s of El Carmen and San Vicente de Chucurí, a rich agricultural region that was once a focal point of the rural Catholic movement known as the Comunidades Cristianas Campesians -- Christian Peasant Communities.

In the mid-1980s, reporters documented political assassinations one by one. By 1991, we could hardly keep up counting massacres. Names come back to me now. Some are individuals shot by members of the military, the police, and mercenary gunmen; others mark the sites of massacres.

The list is a bloody communion of saints: Argemiro Correa, who led the banana workers' union; Beatríz, a political activist running for mayor of a small town who -- eight months pregnant -- was killed immediately after attending a forum for peace sponsored by the bishops in Bogotá; white-haired university professor Hector Abad Gómez, a human rights champion from Medellin; El Espectador reporter Daniel and his photographer, slaughtered on a sweaty street in Segovia; Filemón Cala, who spoke back to the death squads in El Carmen and whose 10-year-old brother, Fabio, saw paramilitary thugs drink his brother's blood and kick his dismembered head like a soccer ball; journalist Silvia Duzán, whose smile was even bigger than Mario's, gunned down in an ice cream shop in Cimitarra with three rural peace activists while trying to document the identities of death squad leaders; Josué Giraldo, another human rights trooper from the eastern plains, gunned down in Guaviare department in front of his two small children just last year; Páez Indian priest Alvaro Ulcué Chocué, slain in 1986; Carlos Kovacs, José Antequera and Antonio Sotelo, all from the Patriotic Union party. The latter was killed just an hour after I interviewed him in Bogotá about death squads. The urgency with which he spoke still haunts me.

Each name conjures another, and the list brings forth the memories of the massacres: El Nilo, Honduras y la Negra, La Rochela, Segovia, Los Uvos, Mejor Esquina, Piñalito, Fusagasugá, El Tomate, Llana Caliente, Macaravita. Names of the perpetrators cited in criminal investigations, majors who are now generals, corporals who became lieutenants, and the civilians they paid and trained, also resurface. Scores of these names are listed elsewhere -- in the class rosters of U.S. Army training schools, especially the infamous School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga.

Infamous school

According to the winter 1996 human rights checklist "Colombia Bulletin," Colombia has sent more students to the School of the Americas than any other Latin American military establishment -- 9,679 total, 6,894 of whom attended during the worst years of paramilitary carnage, from 1984-1992.

At least 129 Colombian School of the Americas graduates have been linked to human rights abuses, and School of the Americas alumni have been involved in at least 10 major massacres. In his introduction to Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy by Jesuit Javier Giraldo, Noam Chomsky writes: "The training program for Colombian officers is the largest in the hemisphere, and U.S. military aid to Colombia now amounts to about half the total for the entire hemisphere. ... It has increased under Clinton." In the late 1980s, strong documentation existed showing links between the Colombian military, drug traffickers and paramilitary squads responsible for atrocities. But U.S. training and military support continued under the guise of the "war on drugs" with only one interruption.

According to a November 1996 exposé from Human Rights Watch/Americas titled "Colombia's Killer Networks: The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States," the U.S. government, in 1991, went a step beyond its usual techniques: It engaged directly and actively in the improvement of the "efficiency" of military intelligence divisions supporting Colombian death squads.

"Despite Colombia's disastrous human rights record, a U.S. Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) team worked with Colombian military officers in the 1991 intelligence reorganization that resulted in the creation of killer networks that identified and killed civilians suspected of supporting guerrillas. ... In this report, Human Rights Watch presents evidence ... that shows in 1991, the [Colombian] military made paramilitaries a key component of its intelligence-gathering apparatus," the 146-page document states.

This reorganization was efficient indeed, a transfer of U.S. technical know-how at its best. The killings of Mario and his family members attest to that. Human rights sources in Bogotá tell me they are just the beginning of a string of some 200 similar paramilitary attacks planned in future months in Bogotá alone. In the case of Mario and his family, one eyewitness still living is 18-month-old Iván, and his only testimony is, "Mamá, Papá, pum, pum."

Wirpsa, who lived in Colombia for 10 years, is NCR's West Coast Bureau writer and Latin America editor.

National Catholic Reporter, July 4, 1997