More terrible than death

By Robin Kirk

PublicAffairs, 336 pp., $16.95

For most of the past half century, Colombia has been at war within itself, in a vicious conflict that is fueled from the outside by the money and prerogatives of the most powerful country in the world. The U.S. role in Colombia’s turmoil is a central theme in Robin Kirk’s More Terrible than Death: Violence, Drugs, and America’s War in Colombia. Published last year, the book was released this month in paperback with a new epilogue.

Kirk, a former journalist who is now a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, lives in Durham and has spent much of the past decade in Colombia, where she’s talked to all sides in the country’s seemingly ceaseless civil war. Her analysis, while casting a close eye on the U.S. hand in events, focuses on the role of Colombians, who must be, she believes, the ones to craft a genuine peace.

Kirk’s book may be English-speaking America’s best chance at getting a grip on a conflict that can be confounding in its complexity. For decades, Colombia’s Liberals and Conservatives, poor and rich, communists and capitalists, have waged bitter battles over resources and ideology. Heavy infusions of U.S. military aid have exacerbated the violence–but such aid is dwarfed, Kirk points out, by the billions Americans spend every year on Colombian cocaine. “Colombia can never truly find a peaceful existence until the United States finds a different way to deal with our own drug problem,” she says.

In short, there are elements of truth in those ham-handed TV ads that suggest the drug trade bankrolls terrorist violence. But there’s much more to it, Kirk says. What the ads don’t mention is that Colombia’s paramilitary death squads, which often work hand-in-hand with the U.S.-backed regular military, are largely financed by the coca bonanza. Nor do the ads note that the drug war itself is responsible for many of the costs, both in terms of dollars and human lives, and that the rhetoric and reality of the so-called “war against terrorism” could dump fuel on Colombia’s fires.

In an interview with the The Independent, Kirk discussed the state of U.S. policy toward Colombia.

The Independent: We get very little news from and about Colombia, and a lot of folks in the United States probably get their main impressions of the country from action movies. What are the misconceptions we may be harboring about Colombia?

Robin Kirk: One is that most Colombians are violent, or that Colombia is a culture of violence and that violence there is essentially insoluble. I think that is one of the most persistent and damaging preconceptions that Americans have. And the second one is that most Colombians are engaged in some way in the drug trade, and that the relationship between Colombia and the United States is one of Colombia essentially poisoning Americans with drugs.

On the first issue, as I’ve worked in Colombia for over a decade I’ve met infinitely more peaceful Colombians than violent Colombians and, as I try to show in my book, Colombians who sacrifice literally everything for peace and to find a nonviolent way. … The whole ‘culture of violence’ thing is something I’m convinced is a myth, and I think that it’s a dangerous myth because it allows us to simply write off places like Colombia.

The second is the relationship between the United States and Colombia in terms of the drug trade. Often in Washington, drugs are portrayed as a poison or as an evil, even as a weapon of mass destruction–that’s the latest way that they’re described. And that somehow we’re victims of the drug trade, that Americans who buy and use drugs are somehow victimized by evil Colombians. And while I don’t want to condone or stand up for people who sell drugs, it’s a relationship of equals. You have buyers and sellers, people who make it and people who want it. And as long as that relationship exists in the way it is currently framed now, it will bring both countries tremendous troubles.

You’ve written about the various ways the United States is involved in the conflict, often, it seems, without us realizing it. How do our habits and policies feed the violence there?

If you only look at is as a foreign policy issue, and not as an economic relationship, you really miss the most powerful part of the relationship. As long as these American consumers are actively engaged in buying drugs and having that money go to Colombia, and lining the pockets of violent groups, whether they be left-wing or right-wing, Colombia’s going to have human rights problems. In many ways the human rights crisis in Colombia is much more a product of U.S. behavior than any other situation, save what’s going on currently in Iraq, in that we fund many of the violent deaths in Colombia through the purchase of drugs. This relationship is very intimate, but it’s not really recognized.

How has the war on terror impacted the Colombian conflict?

There is now a profound difference in the way the conflict is described, both by Colombia’s leaders and in the United States, and I think it’s a very dangerous trend. There are several reasons this has changed. One is that the Colombians themselves have appropriated the rhetoric of the war on terror. At one point, Colombia’s president [Alvaro Uribe] even argued that Colombia was a greater threat to world stability than Iraq–this was before the war. And this was clearly a bid for attention and funding, as the Colombians believe very deeply that to be able to maintain the current levels of [U.S.] military and economic support, they have to be part of the trend. And some people in Washington now are looking for links to Al-Qaeda in Colombia; I think that’s all ridiculous. This is the same conflict, in its bones, that it has been for 40 years.

Finally, just a word on current events. It’s incredibly damaging when the United States is seen to be flouting human rights, the latest version being the torture of Iraqi prisoners. This is especially harmful in places like Colombia, where the United States has, on paper at least, a human rights message. And here we have our army engaged in precisely the kind of torture that we’re telling the Colombian army not to engage in.

What, besides gaining a better understanding of Colombia, can Americans do to promote peace there?

I think the whole idea of having a war on drugs is profoundly wrong. Our Congress people and the people who vote for them have to come to look at this program as a dramatically failed effort, and we have to look at drug use in the United States from a completely different point of view. We’re not only damaging Colombia with this, we’re also damaging ourselves. … And finally, we need to spend a lot more attention on non-military aid to Colombia, including aid that will strengthen democratic institutions like the judiciary and civilian government. To send so much military aid, and so little democratic aid, is profoundly damaging for Colombia.