Colombia, Focal Point of Struggles Against Militarization and Criminalization

2008-04-11 00:00:00

Ana Ester Ceceña, a researcher from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), opened the second day of the Seventh Hemispheric Conference Against Free Trade Agreements in Havana, Cuba as part of a panel entitled "Militarization, Anti-Terrorism Legislation and Criminalization of Dissent." She provided an overview of current strategies to shore up US military hegemony in Latin America and Caribbean with a particular examination of contemporary military bases.

While the US says that it's cutting back on its military bases around the world, she said that the number of military installations is actually on the rise. However the tendency is toward smaller and more flexible military installations in coordination with regular military exercises that serve as important means of training and relationship building between US and Latin American military, as well as for surveillance and intelligence purposes.

New installations largely fall into several new categories including Forward Operating Locations (FOLs), such as in Manta, Ecuador; although traditional US military bases, or Main Operating Bases (MOBs), remain very important. She characterized the older bases as military cities where soldiers and their families are stationed over long periods of time. Cost and agility of such operations are motivating recent changes.

With the closure of the US Main Operating Base in Panama, she said Manta, Ecuador has become the "pivot point of Plan Colombia" in coordination with two other such installations that form a triangle around the northern part of South America and the southern area of Central America to the Panama Canal, and squared off by anti-narcotrafficking operations in Key West, Florida. Plan Colombia, she says is "a central means of spreading militarism throughout both South and Central America." Adding that Manta is specialized for its monitoring systems and high capacity airplanes which coordinate with an additional six Micro Bases strategically located in Colombia.

This network of military installations encircles a part of Latin America strategic not only for military purposes, but also because it's also the most biodiverse and resource rich part of Latin America with regard to water, oil, and minerals.

Ceceña's investigations have included participation in continuing efforts to monitor military exercises taking place systematically throughout the year across the region. These involve several new types of operations. Recent testimonies include reports of school construction projects and medical clinics in countries such as Paraguay where military personnel are thought to be gathering intelligence and establishing civilian infrastructure that might have additional military uses.

She added that a marked increase in US military presence was observed in Peru in time with Ecuador's announcement that it will not renew the contract with the US for its Forward Operating Location in Manta in 2009.

Criminalization of Dissent

All three remaining presenters addressed the criminalization of dissent within the context of the current phase of neoliberalism and the war against terrorism. They emphasized that the use of the legal system against people who don't fit within dominant economic and political interests is nothing new, and drew particular attention to the case of Colombia.

Luis Arza Valdes of the Continental Student Organization of Latin America and the Caribbean (OCLAE) recounted a series of incidents throughout Latin America in which student leaders have been targeted for their activism. He noted that students have historically been involved in many of the most revolutionary movements in the region. As a result, numerous leaders have been targeted and assassinated.

Student movements now, he says, are facing new challenges with the privatization of education and its orientation toward market interests. Students are being encouraged to set their values aside and in some cases mobilized to defend neoliberal interests.

Irene Leon, Ecuadorian, from the Latin American Information Agency (ALAI) noted that criminalization also particularly impacts the poor and groups that have been historically marginalized, such as afro-descendants and indigenous peoples.

She drew additional connections with neoliberalism and the growing security industry, reminding the audience of recent statements by President George W. Bush following the March 1st massacre on Ecuadorian territory when Colombian forces bombed a FARC encampment, when he said that the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement is a security issue for the US. The security industry, she noted, is now one of the biggest businesses worldwide which is increasingly privatized, adding that the European Union has put security on the table in upcoming free trade talks with the Andean Community (CAN).

"We have to demonstrate that anti-terrorist laws are against people not terrorism," concluded Leon, adding that attempts to criminalize social movements and organizations are more reason to fight for alternative projects in progress.

Length of Lawsuits Demobilizes Activists

"We're all practically confessed terrorists simply for attending this conference," said Lawyer Beinusz Schmukler from the American Association of Jurists. He remarked that many legal instruments exist to repress social movements, but pointed out how, such as in the case of the Cuban Five now in its 10th year, one of the most powerful tools is not necessarily the nature of a case, but rather how long and in how many ways it can be held up in court in order to demobilize activists.

As jurists he said they are trying to resist such injustice in a variety of ways, saying that "it can't just be the struggle of jurists." Their role is limited insofar as he described, "We're not going to bring down imperialism in the Supreme International Court…although we can demonstrate by using its own laws that the system by nature is oppressive and perverse."

The US invasion of Iraq is the greatest example of how the system even disregards its own rules, said Schmukler, proposing that the following year include a campaign in a show of solidarity with the Colombian people seeking a humanitarian accord noting that Colombia is "the maximum case of state terrorism in Latin America." Arza of Cuba, also said that the student movement will focus attention on Colombia this year in order to support student activists who have recently received threats indicating that they're targets of reorganized paramilitaries, the Black Eagles.

- Jennifer Moore
ALAI/Minga Informativa de Movimientos Sociales