Nonviolent Grassroots Challenge to U.S.-led Plan Colombia
Luis van Isschot. 2018 “Nonviolent Grassroots Challenge to U.S.-led Plan Colombia”. ed John Lindsay-Poland, Plan Colombia: U.S. Ally Atrocities and Community Activity, Durham, NC : Duke University Press.
John Lindsay-Poland’s new book tells the fascinating story of a small and isolated village that has stood for non-violence and human rights, defying the Colombian military and its paramilitary allies for more than two decades. This richly detailed study of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó sheds new light on one of the darkest chapters in the history of Colombia’s armed conflict. It is at once an intimate portrait of community organizing and international solidarity. The author also presents a unique grassroots perspective on the impact of Plan Colombia, a U.S.-sponsored counterinsurgency program initiated in 1999.
This important book is based on extensive primary research, including interviews and direct observations conducted by the author, as well as human rights and press reports, Colombian military and judicial records, and U.S. government correspondence. For readers unfamiliar with the complexities of Colombia’s long and complicated history of political violence, the author provides very good summaries of national events in clear, jargon-free prose. Those interested in the finer points of the case study itself will be rewarded by Lindsay-Poland’s close observations of the ways in which community organizers, foreign observers, soldiers, paramilitaries, policymakers, and diplomats interact.
In 1997 at the height of an oftentimes brutal counterinsurgency sweep of Colombia’s northwestern Urabá region, the residents of the small town of San José de Apartadó and its nearby farming settlements announced that they would not cooperate with any parties to the armed conflict, including insurgent and government forces alike. By declaring itself neutral, the Peace Community refused to allow anyone bearing arms to establish a presence in the area. San José de Apartadó’s stance was the source of tremendous frustration on the part of Colombian authorities, who viewed it as an act of sedition. Other war-affected communities viewed the initiative as an example to follow. Indeed, the Peace Community fits into a constellation of related initiatives, including analogous projects along the Pacific littoral where majority African-Colombian communities have attempted to keep the war at bay through declarations of nonviolence bolstered through a strategy of local and transnational mobilization.
The struggle of San Jose de Apartadó has played out against the backdrop of the most intense period of conflict in Colombia in the past fifty years, fueled in part by a massive influx of U.S. security cooperation. Approved by Bill Clinton in 1999, the $1.3 billion Plan Colombia package was spent mainly on matériel and training. Simultaneous with the start of Plan Colombia, Bogotá was holding exploratory peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. Tragically, all sides in the conflict took advantage of the period of negotiation to expand their operations, and the peace process failed. Amongst the many citizen-led efforts that emerged in opposition to the violence, San José de Apartadó became one of the most celebrated.
In the first chapters of the book, Lindsay-Poland makes the case that Colombia became a “super client” of the United States at the end of the twentieth century. The author finds that the Colombian military benefitted not just from the delivery of helicopters and other equipment, but also from “high-level and sustained political and moral support,” at a time when human rights activists were clearly and persuasively denouncing links between state security forces and illegal paramilitaries (18). Described by Bogotá and Washington as a counternarcotics strategy, Plan Colombia was widely understood by activists to be mainly about fighting guerrillas, and more broadly at fighting perceived idelogical enemies of the state. Most of the resources were spent attacking FARC positions in the southeast of the country. However, Plan Colombia had much wider impacts. Lindsay-Poland’s book shifts between vastly different scales of historical enquiry to show how this occurred. How do U.S. policymakers imagine the Colombian conflict? How did ordinary Colombians experience the consequences of U.S. foreign policy? And when we look for the consequences of the War on Drugs, how far outside of the immediate impact zone should we be looking?
Over the course of the past two decades, San José de Apartadó has received considerable attention outside of Colombia, not least because international organizations answered requests from the Peace Community for solidarity. Through the middle chapters of the book we learn about the practice of protective accompaniment as a model of defending human rights in conflict areas. Among the best-known proponents of this work, whereby unarmed observers work alongside threatened communities to provide protection against attacks by military and paramilitary forces, are non-governmental organizations such as Fellowship of Reconciliation, which the author worked for, and Peace Brigades International. While similar tactics have a long history, notably in the U.S. south during the civil rights era, the literature on protective accompaniment in Latin America is sparse. Lindsay-Poland focuses on the processes by which local activists negotiated relationships with such groups. All too often the literature on human rights distinguishes between the local and the global in simple ways, but the case of San José de Apartadó reminds us how small communities can assert themselves across borders, transforming frontline communities into points of transnational convergence.
One of the many strengths of the book is Lindsay-Poland’s description of the process whereby a small community of war resisters came to the attention of the international community. The European, Canadian, and U.S. embassies in Bogotá, as well as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, all became engrossed with events in San José de Apartadó. Indeed, envoys from these organizations and governments visited the region regularly. Members of the U.S. Congress also travelled to the region and wrote public letters of support based on what they heard. Besides exposing state-sponsored violence, one of the main diplomatic priorities of the Peace Community was to counter attempts to discredit its project. Colombian generals and government officials, and even U.S. diplomats, accused the community of being a front for leftist guerrillas, and of trying to operate a “state within a state” (72). In 2002, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Anne Patterson circulated a memo to members of the U.S. Congress alleging that the community was in league with FARC. In response, representatives of the Peace Community traveled to Washington to persuade U.S. lawmakers of their commitment to nonviolence and urge action against the Colombian army. Around the same time, rights groups were gathering evidence of extrajudicial killings by the Colombian military and the practice of producing so-called “false positives” whereby the bodies of murdered civilians were dressed up in guerrilla uniforms and presented as fallen combatants. Despite the efforts of frontline activists in San José de Apartadó and elsewhere, the United States would cite alleged improvements in Colombia’s human rights record during the first decade of the twenty-first century to justify continued assistance.
In the second half of the book, the author describes a brutal series of reprisals suffered by the Peace Community. Widely reported and denounced, the February 2005 massacre of five adults and three children in a joint military-paramilitary operation is in many ways at the heart of the book. The story is told with forensic attention to available evidence, and to the dynamics of command responsibility. Later, the author considers the investigation of the massacre. He shows how a myriad of groups fought to uncover the truth, only to be stymied by a powerful military determined to enforce impunity for its members (183). Lindsay-Poland finds that the mixed signals sent out of Washington served to ensure this result.
John Lindsay-Poland has written a book that tells a complex history of foreign policy, armed conflict, human rights, and international solidarity from a grassroots perspective. He has made a significant contribution to our understanding of what Colombians experienced in the shadows of the ubiquitous military aid package known as Plan Colombia. His insistence that we think about diplomacy, not just arms transfers, is important. The author is a participant-observer, having worked as a human rights advocate between Colombia and the United States. That said, he allows readers to identify with the protagonists of the story by allowing their words to speak for themselves, avoiding polemic.
Luis van Isschot is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. His research focuses on political violence and human rights movements in Latin America in the twentieth century. He is the author of The Social Origins of Human Rights: Protesting Political Violence in Colombia's Oil Capital, 1919–2010 (Madison, WI, 2015), and is currently working on a book on the history of popular and opinion tribunals.
This content has been updated on October 22, 2020.