By Rebecca Van Horn, Program Coordinator, USLEAP
A wave of 2010 reports on Colombia points to a cold reality: things might be getting better, but they’re
still bad. In early December, the Latin America Working Group (LAWG) and the U.S. Office on Colombia (USOC) released a report entitled Breaking the Silence: In Search of Colombia’s Disappeared, which draws attention to the more than 32,000 people who have been forcibly disappeared in Colombia. Among other grim statistics, the reports highlights the 1,130 cases of forced disappearances documented in the last three years alone, a number that discounts the many cases that remain unreported or unregistered in the government database. Armed actors, including the Colombian army, right-wing paramilitaries, and left-wing guerrillas, are alleged to disappear people in order to maintain control. While the families are left to wonder, the victims, many of whom are human rights defenders, trade unionists, campesinos, Afro-Colombians, indigenous people, the homeless, or members of the LGBT community, become pawns in a game of armed-inspired terror.
A report released in July of 2010 by the Global Rights and the National Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians (AFRODES) underscores the violence and discrimination levied against Afro-Colombians. Forty-two have been killed since 1996—11 in 2010 alone. Sixty-seven percent of the 77 massive displacements in 2009 took place in Afro-Colombian areas, and 69% of the displaced received no immediate assistance after their removal. According to a letter submitted to the Office of the Vice-President of Colombia, “96.5% of the Afro-Colombian displaced population finds itself below the poverty line.”
On the labor front, the U.S. Labor Education in the Americas Project (USLEAP) just released its third-annual Impunity Report documenting the convictions of murders of trade unionists in 2009. The report, entitled Colombia: Falling Further Behind in the Fight Against the Impunity of Anti-Union Violence, is by no means rosy. In an analysis of 77 rulings issued in 2009 by Colombian courts, the report found that the Colombian government achieved convictions in cases of 59 murdered trade unionists, of which 41 represented new convictions (18 were for victims for whom some convictions had been achieved in previous years). This means that Colombia is falling further behind in the battle against impunity; the 41 new convictions in 2009 for murders of trade unionists were outpaced by the 47 trade unionists killed in the same year. Even if there were no more deaths starting today, at its current pace it would take the Colombian justice system 30 years to even partially address the backlog of nearly 3,000 murder cases.
The three reports highlighted above reveal a Colombia gripped by violence and fear. But violence is not a numbers game, and knowledge not an end in itself. More significant than the weight of the numbers are the names, faces, and families that accompany each statistic, the stories of tragedy and heroism that put a human face to inhuman acts. It is all too easy to get swept up in the statistics and, overwhelmed, ignore the real people affected by attitudes and policies every day. The ultimate test is not what we know but what we do with the information contained in the reports, how we provide solidarity and push for reform capable of effecting change.
As rumors continue that the U.S. Congress will bring the pending, Bush-era Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Colombia to a vote, we have an opportunity to move knowledge to action. It is undeniable that U.S. policy in Colombia has a significant effect on the perpetuation of violence. According to the Colombian government, for instance, there were more forced disappearances during the first four years of U.S.-funded Plan Colombia (2000-2003) than any other recorded time period. By educating our friends and neighbors, pushing public officials to recognize the human cost of economic policies, and providing informed alternatives, we can move towards recognizing our complicity in the violence and working towards systemic change, one statistic at a time. Things might be getting better, but we’re not there yet.