The war abroad: Why we should care about human rights abuses in Colombia

Jessica Garraway  

Opinion Editor  

Participants at a meeting between the WFP Solidarity Collective delegation and Afro-Colombian social leaders from Buenos Aires, Argentina and Cauca, Colombia. The meeting was held in Timba, Buenos Aires on December 17, 2021. The author is second row, sixth from the left. 

Why should students at Metro State care about human rights abuses on the ground in Colombia? Because it has more to do with you than you may think.  

The state terrorism committed by police in the death of George Floyd and countless others in the U.S is similar to the violence committed against human rights defenders in Colombia and Latin America. This became abundantly apparent to me when I participated in a human rights delegation to Colombia in December of 2021.   

The delegation was arranged by the Witness for Peace Solidarity Collective, an organization that has existed since the 1980s to document and prevent human rights abuses in Latin America. The Solidarity Collective builds transnational grassroots solidarity to resist U.S. governmental and corporate policies that contribute to violence, poverty and oppression in the Americas. Their delegations take U.S.-based activists through an immersive and collectively transformative process with local partners in Latin America and the Caribbean. The process focuses on the struggle and principled leadership of Indigenous, African-descended, and Campesino land defenders, community organizers, and peacebuilders.  

In 1946, the U.S. State Department established the School of the Americas—now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC. This training school was created to train military officers across Latin America to fight what were considered to be “internal enemies”—unionists, communists and, in general, anyone fighting for human rights. The initiative predominantly serves the interests of multinational corporations who benefit from access to petroleum and agricultural products. This has created decades of violence between the Colombian government and human rights activists, perpetuated by U.S. training and funding. Those fighting for basic human dignity often disappear or are killed for their work they do.  

In 2016, there was what seemed to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Several guerilla groups including the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia–Ejército del Pueblo—or “Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia–People’s Army,” in English—signed peace accords with the Colombian government in Havana, Cuba. The guerillas agreed to a complete disarmament of over 13,000 combatants and militia groups in exchange for land reform and political participation. The agreement also required the guerrillas to transition away from the growth of illicit crops including coca, marijuana, and opium poppy, which has fueled violent conflict in the region for decades.   

Unfortunately, hopes for peace have been soured by the failure of the Colombian government to uphold their end of the bargain. According to a 2017 Oxfam report, less than 1% of the population owns 80% of the land. Ex-combatants are being targeted and killed by paramilitary groups and the government is doing nothing to protect them. Non-combatant human rights defenders are also targeted for their nonviolent resistance to U.S.-backed multinational corporations.  

One of the groups our delegation met with in Colombia explained that two community leaders from the Yurumangui River Basin, Abencio Caicedo Caicedo and Édinson Valencia García, had disappeared on November 28, 2021. Community leaders like these work to defend the rights, identity, culture and construction of Black Community Councils in rural areas, making them regular targets of violence.  

Despite these hostilities, the people of Colombia have achieved great things. We went to a farm run by Campesinos, or rural Colombian farmers, who took over land that had deteriorated from sugar crop farming. The Campesinos won their land during a massive rural strike against the government in 2013, and within seven years, had turned it into a thriving, ecologically-diverse farm with crops that sustain their entire community.   

In another example of positive change, several peasant communities in the Finca La Elvira region are part of a three-year agroecological project transition. They have created their own universities for young people to study the traditional farming customs of the mayoras, the elderly people from their communities. In the region of Estrella Roja, people have built homes on land currently owned by the Caicedo family, one of the most powerful sugar barons in the country. Four days before we visited Estrella Roja, the police had attacked the community, confiscating and burning possessions. Still, the people of this community continue to rebuild, even as they face floods, hunger and poverty. They are committed to reforesting so they can live off the land. 

We went to a homeless community, Settlement Tejido Popular, where one of the female representatives from the community stated: “We have hunger here so we do communal kitchens; seven so far; there is violence  against many and women especially; there is a little creek at the end of the encampment so we want  to have a garden within 100 meters of it, and repopulate around there.” One of the female Campesinos added to this, stating that government officials “want us to live in cardboard boxes. We want to live and add some beauty to the world.” She showed tremendous pride in her home and thriving garden.   

I am surprised by the similarities between homeless communities in Colombia and here in Minnesota. From what I’ve seen through my involvement in the homeless encampment movement in the Twin Cities, communities are deliberately destroyed by the state while promises of proper housing go unfulfilled. The movement in Colombia is stronger due to mass participation, and because of this, they face more violence.  

There are many ways to support the people of Colombia in their fight. Contact your representatives and demand that the U.S. cease funding for the Colombian government. Tell them to put pressure on the Colombian government to honor the peace accords. Educate yourself and others about how U.S. tax dollars lead to the oppression of the Colombian people. Join organizations like the Solidarity Collective that are doing important work on the ground, observing and fighting against human rights violations. Follow the Witness for Peace Midwest Facebook page to learn about educational opportunities and other ways to get involved.   

We in the U.S. have a responsibility to take action against the use of our tax dollars to fund violence abroad. As recently deceased human rights defender, Desmond Tutu, said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Now is the time to choose your side.