Tuesday, March 11, 2008

JustaPaz Documentation Project

The Colombian government has two kinds of competitors to organized violence in the country: insurgents and paramilitary. Unfortunately, the government is only inherently motivated to fight one of them: the insurgents. Their solution to insurgents is to try to kill them and their solution to the paramilitary is to claim they do not exist.

The logic of a paramilitary force is to eliminate the support of an irregular army (like guerillas) that can’t be defeated by a regular army. This is true everywhere in the world – paramilitary doesn’t exist to fight the state, but to fight insurgent groups. Paramilitary may not be directly controlled by the state, but their intent is to eliminate threats to those with economic power (such as plantation owners or drug lords). If the state is not strong enough to eliminate those threats, those wiith money and power will buy or acquire a paramilitary force that will.

They then engage in a variety of atrocities, like going into villages and areas where there is a guerilla presence and massacring everyone there. If the state were to do this, they would get blamed for human rights violations. But they can claim they have nothing to do with it if they allow paramilitary to do whatever they want.

In addition to fighting insurgents, the paramilitary in Colombia in the 80s and 90s destroyed almost all legitimate opposition groups. For example, they assassinated over 3,000 members of a legal opposition political party, plus scores of union leaders, peace activists, etc. In the end, the only opposition left was the insurgents, so there is now the assumption that whoever is against the government must be a terrorist. Gee, that sounds kind of familiar.

Another twist in Colombia is that drug money took over the country. Both paramilitary and insurgents started growing coca to finance their own operations, and the government benefits from massive military aid to fight drugs (or terrorism, depending on the political climate in the US). With an unending supply of money flowing in, the violence was and is able to continue indefinitely, because everyone can afford to continue buying more weapons to fight each other.

However, the insurgents have lost most of their popular support by acting more and more like paramilitary over the years. This has made it a little easier on the government. The military aid and political support they get from the US (“Plan Colombia”) is supposed to fight insurgents and dismantle the paramilitary. They certainly get the “fight insurgents” part. They are so aggressive in going after insurgents that President Uribe has fired dozens of generals because they were not able to kill them fast enough. This has lead to the military attempting to pump up the numbers by killing civilians and dressing them up as insurgents in order to get their numbers up.

On the paramilitary side, they have made some strides, by getting a lot of the paramilitary to disband. However, the disbanded groups have often just formed different groups, and gone on as before. And yet, the official government line is that paramilitary no longer exist, and that the killings are mostly happening by and to insurgents, or are random acts of violence.

The first step in counteracting official government misinformation is to collect real data and make sure it people have access to it. JustaPaz is one of the organizations in Colombia doing the unpleasant work of collecting stories and counting victims. It has released two volumes of its report “A Prophetic Call” that documents human rights violations that happen within the context of Protestant churches. There are also plenty of Catholics and people not associated with a church who are victims, but JustaPaz has very limited resources, and the Jesuits and others collect info on other populations.

JustaPaz investigates each violation, and talks to the victims. It tries to do so in an anonymous way, but last year, its offices were broken into, and its database was stolen. The government is classifying it as an economic crime of a few stolen computers, and isn’t doing much to investigate, despite the problem that victims who come forward often do so at considerable risk to themselves. Stealing data that can identify them is at least an act of intimidation, and possibly much worse. Other peace and justice organizations have also had their computers stolen around the same time, so obviously the documentation process is getting some unhappy attention by those in power.

They say it takes as long to get out of a war as to get into one. Colombia’s has been going on at various levels of intensity for 60 years, so recovery is going to be a long process. However, despite the continued violence, it is good to know there are committed people watching and counting, and it is good for them to know that people support them in their work.

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