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Activists protest Colombian aid at Sikorsky factory

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Eighty-five peace activists, including a priest, two nuns and members of the Catholic Worker movement, demonstrated Feb. 12 outside Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation in Startford, Conn. A subsidiary of United Technologies, Sikorsky manufactures the Blackhawk, a combat assault helicopter currently deployed in Colombia.

Twenty-five demonstrators knelt and locked arms, while others across the street chanted, “Plan Columbia equals Plan Death” and held banners that read, “Violence is the Worst Drug,” and “Black Hawk is the Angel of Death.”

According to an Army Aviation fact-sheet, the Blackhawk is “used in the performance of air assault, air cavalry and aeromedical missions.” As of 1999, the Colombian military owned 15 Blackhawks. An additional 18 -- 16 for the Colombian army and two for the Colombian National Police -- are scheduled for deployment under the Clinton administration’s controversial “Plan Colombia.” Supporters say the $1.3 billion dollar initiative of mostly military aid is to assist the Colombian government in efforts to eradicate cocaine production and restore peace to that war-torn country. Opponents say the play will exacerbate human rights violations and worsen the war.

The Colombian Commission of Jurists reports that for the year 2000 an average of 14 Colombians died daily in combat or were victims of political violence.

U.S. helicopters assist in aerial fumigation of fields of coca, the base ingredient of cocaine. However, activists believe the Colombian military is using the Blackhawk to provide surveillance for paramilitaries before and after massacres. Activists cite reports of a recent massacre in the northern Colombian village of Chenque where “suspected guerrilla sympathizers” had their heads crushed with stones. According to the Washington Post, survivors told journalists they saw military aircraft survey the area days before the killings and in the hours immediately following.

The demonstration at Sikorsky comes at a time when Colombia’s civil war seems to be intensifying. The key players in the 37-year-old conflict, which has left 130,000 people dead and 2 million displaced, are the Colombian military, guerilla forces (who rely on cocaine production for funding) and right-wing paramilitaries, many of whom are financed by drug dealers and landowners.

The New-York based World Policy Institute reports that in January 2001, “23 massacres, all attributed to right-wing paramilitaries, have taken place, killing 170 unarmed people.” The institute also states that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a 17,000-strong guerilla army, have “stepped up preparations for an all-out war” and, according to some military experts, have “acquired shoulder-fired missiles capable of downing Black Hawk and Huey helicopters.”

In mid-February, Colombian president Andres Pastrana met with Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia leader Manuel Marulanda and agreed to resume peace talks.

Activists at Sikorsky questioned Plan Colombia’s focus on coca-producing peasant farmers, “the poorest player” in the drug war. “With 90 percent of the profits from the illegal drug trade being made in the United States, with dozens of U.S. banks laundering drug money,” and with a shortage of treatment facilities for addicted users, “why are we insisting on a military solution focused on Colombia?” their leaflet read.

National Catholic Reporter, February 23, 2001