U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently compared Mexico’s drug violence to that experienced in Colombia twenty years ago and claimed that drug trafficking networks were “morphing into or making common cause with what we would consider an insurgency in Mexico and in Central America.” President Barack Obama and Mexican government officials were quick to correct her, claiming that the contemporary Mexican reality does not reflect that of Colombia in the late 1980s. What they failed to correct, however, was her misinterpretation, or conscious revision, of Colombia’s history in order to justify an increased U.S. military role in Mexico and Central America.
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Marco Tulio Pérez arrived in the remote Afro-Colombian community of Libertad in 2000. One of his first acts was to organize a beauty pageant for local girls between 15 and 18 years of age. But this pageant was to be much more than just another example of a community engaging in one of Colombia’s favorite pastimes because Pérez, also known as “el Oso” (the Bear), was the new leader of the right-wing paramilitaries in Libertad. The “prize” for the 15 highest-ranking girls in the pageant was a two-week stay on the small farm that the Bear and his troops had commandeered for their living quarters. The mass rape that occurred during that two weeks signified the beginning of a brutal four-year siege that the residents of Libertad would be forced to endure at the hands of the paramilitaries. It is a violent legacy that the community is now struggling to overcome.
Four hundred years ago, Afro-Colombians living along Colombia’s Caribbean coast would cry when a child was born because the youth was destined to suffer a life of slavery under Spanish colonial rule. And when an Afro-Colombian died, people would engage in a nine-day and nine-night wake to celebrate the deceased’s return to Africa. Back then it appeared that death was the only path to liberation. But today, parents in the remote village of San Basilio de Palenque no longer cry when their children are born thanks to the bravery and resilience of their ancestors, who successfully gained freedom from the Spanish crown in 1603. The contemporary residents of San Basilio de Palenque—simply called Palenque by locals—claim to live in the first free black community in the Americas and earlier this year they sent a letter to Barack Obama inviting the first black president of the United States to visit their village. “We are inviting Barak Obama and we hope he will visit us,” explains community leader Enrique Marquéz. “We are not going to ask him for anything. We only want him, and all the blacks and all the people of the world, to learn about Palenque.”
In the hamlet of Imbirí la Loma in Colombia’s southwestern department of Nariño, Yaneth Sosa and her family once struggled to survive as oil palm farmers. But their lives became dire in 2007, when blight killed off most of the African palm trees in Nariño’s Tumaco municipality, where the country’s palm industry is concentrated. Blight, known locally as la pudrición de cogollo, has plagued much of Colombia’s palm production since 2006. Like most monocultures, palm plantations displace indigenous flora and fauna, destroying the ecosystem’s resistance to blight. They are also undermining food sovereignty in the region’s Afro-Colombian communities.
With the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan struggling on the battlefield against a resilient insurgency and opium poppy cultivation on the rise, Navy admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently suggested that the United States should import the counterinsurgency and counternarcotics model currently being employed in Colombia to Afghanistan. “I think many of us from all over the world can learn from what has happened with respect to the very successful developments of Plan Colombia,” Mullen stated, adding that the counterinsurgency approach used in Colombia would be applicable to Afghanistan. Continue reading