Letter to Chicago Public Radio


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December 22, 2015

Colombia Support Network
P O Box 1505
Madison, WI 53701-1505

Mr. lra Glass, Director
Mr. Sean Cole, Producer
“This American Life”
WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio
848 East Grand Avenue
Chicago, lllinois 60611

Dear Mr. Glass and Mr. Cole:

I have on several occasions in the past listened to your radio program
with interest. Your programs generally are interesting and informative.
However, your program featuring Jose Miguel Sokoloff was very
misleading and astonishingly incomplete. Mr. Sokoloff’s presentation
concerning his collaboration with the Colombian Army badly needed to be
placed in context, something you failed to do almost completely.

There are two basic problems with the way Mr. Sokoloff’s
presentation was treated. First, no context was given for the purpose for
which the FARC guerrillas formally began their fight against the Colombian
government back in 1965. Second, the Colombian Army, with a long
history of very serious human rights abuses, was given a pass by your
program. The Colombian Army, as we have reported at great length over
the past 29 years, has committed great crimes with virtual impunity over
this whole period.

With respect to the FARC, they began their rebellion against the
government seeking to improve the lot of small-scale farmers, called
campesinos, who had been deprived of their economic, social and political
rights by a government run by a narrow elite. The FARC sought agrarian
reform, a more just society for these residents of rural areas. Mr. Sokoloff
conveys the impression that the guerrillas are simply criminals — they
kidnap, are involved in the drug trade, and extort money from relatives of
kidnap victims and merchants — while the Colombian Army, which provided
funding and helicopters for his activities, are good guys. This is a very
misleading characterization of the situation in Colombia. The guerrillas
indeed have engaged in kidnapping and extortion, though they say this
was to raise funds to finance their activities. They have taxed coca
producers, though they deny marketing the coca or cocalne abroad
themselves. And they have committed many other very serious crimes,
including murders and massacres.

The FARC started as an organization seeking to change the power
relationships in the countryside through land reform, as campesinos lived
in poverty while large landowners denied them basic rights and controlled
the local governments. That situation is still quite true for the Colombian
countryside today. Colombia has the second worst distribution of wealth in
South America, after Paraguay, as measured by the GINI Index. You might
well have mentioned that the FARC were invited to lay down their arms
and enter the political system by President Belisario Betancur in the mid-1980’s.
When many FARC guerrillas did lay down their arms and run for
public ofiice (it must be said also, however, that the FARC continued to
maintain an armed force in the countryside), they were joined by others
who had never taken up arms against the government, but wanted to
achieve meaningful changes through peaceful electoral campaigns. The
two groups together formed a new political movement, the Union Patriotica
(UP) or Patriotic Union. The response of the traditional power structure
was to support paramilitary forces which collaborated with the Colombian
Army in carrying out the murder of some 5,000 members of the UP,
including two Presidential candidates, in a genocidal campaign that left a
tremendous blemish on Colombian society. As the UP members were
murdered, many FARC guerillas returned to armed rebellion against what
they saw as an unjust system. This case of political genocide has no
parallel elsewhere in the world. The case of the UP murders has been
brought before the Inter-American Court for Human Rights.

You might usefully have discussed the role of the United States
Government in the Colombian conflict, which would have been a much
needed learning experience for your This American Life audience. Fearful
of the influence on Colombia’s people that Fidel Castro might have,
President John F. Kennedy in 1962 sent a military mission to Colombia
headed by General William Yarborough which suggested to the Colombian
government that it should use paramilitary forces against civilians who
might opt for a change in government. The United States bears substantial
responsibility for violent suppression of peaceful efforts at change, through
the advice of General Yarborough and our government’s support for the
Colombian military to the extent of more than 6 billion dollars in military aid
under “Plan Colombia’and the “national security” doctrine, which focused
on counter-insurgency warfare. These counter-insurgency activities were
carried out against many civilians presumed to have anti-status quo
leanings, as well as against the guenillas.

And you might usefully have taken a close look at the Colombia
Army, which Mr. Sokoloff presents in such idealistic terms. This is an army
which has collaborated with violent, illegal paramilitary forces to kill many
innocent civilians and itself been responsible for massacres. Back in 1985
the Army responded to the taking of the Palace of Justice in downtown
Bogota by guerrillas of the M-19 Movement with a counter offensive which
left the building in ruins, with 11 justices of the highest Colombian courts,
including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, dead and numerous M-19
guerrillas dead. All of the dead justices reportedly were killed by military
bullets. And 11 workers at the cafeteria in the basement of the building
were ushered out of the building and subsequently tortured and murdered
by order of the Army command at the Palace of Justice and a nearby
historic house. The details of what became of the cafeteria workers and
where their lifeless bodies were buried have still not been revealed by the
Army commanders responsible for their disappearance and murder, 30
years after the event.

Furthermore, the Colombian Armed Forces have misbehaved in
another astonishing series of actions, known as the “false positives”
scandal. This activity consisted of Army commanders supervising the
kidnapping of young men of families with limited resoures — often by
offering them a job or other incentive, then taking them to a community
some distance away where they would not be known, and then murdering
them and falsely presenting them as”guerrillas killed in
combat”–“positives” in Army lingo (i.e., “false positives”). The Army
officers approved these criminal activities in order to boost the number of
guerrillas killed by their unit so they would be given promotions, vacations
or money for Christmas or Mother’s Day under a plan approved by the
Ministry of Defense when current President Juan Manuel Santos was
Minister of Defense. The number of youths killed in this manner appears to
have exceeded 3,000.

We of the Colombia Support Network have become keenly aware of
the Colombian Army’s misdeeds. We have worked with grass-roots
organizations in rural communities, forming sister community relationships,
and with human rights organizations. And we have taken delegations to
Colombia for the past 29 years and maintained a web page detailing our
activities and sending out urgent action messages in response to threats
against civilians. The Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado, the
official sister community of Dane County, Wisconsin (which includes the
state capital, Madison), is a good example of the repression of campesino
communities. The Peace Community does not allow any firearms within
the community, and has established a set of principles for good
government. Yet the Colombian military of the Seventeenth Army Brigade
in Carepa, some 30 kilometers from the Peace Community, has for many
years threatened Peace Community leaders. And on February 21,2005
the Seventeenth Brigade carried out a joint exercise with illegal
paramilitaries in which they massacred 8 Peace Community people,
including Luis Eduardo Guerra, a co-founder of the Peace Community and
member of its leadership council, and 3 young children. We had hosted
Luis Eduardo here in Madison two years or so before his murder.

So this is the military Jose Miguel Sokoloff presents so positively in
his puff piece on the Army-supported Christmas demobilization of FARC
fighters! I present this information, not to defend the guerrillas from the
charges of numerous human rights violations (including having murdered
some of the leaders of the predecessor of the Peace Community), but to
show that the presentation by Mr. Sokolofi is misleading and a serious
failure to put his discussion into the context of Colombian reality. I believe
that you have done a disservice to yor audienoe, and particularly to those
who have suffered from human rights violations by the Colombian Army.


John I. Laun
President, Colombia Support Network


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