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2 April 2009 Edition

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International : Colombia

Multinational mercenaries

AS a resurgent left continues to advance across Latin America, overturning decades of right wing dogma and threatening old bastions of privilege, only Colombia appears impervious to the lure of progressive change.
If anything, Colombia seems to be regressing having twice awarded the presidency to Alvaro Uribe, in 2002 and again in 2006.In his early political life Uribe was named as an associate of the late drugs baron Pablo Escobar by US intelligence services.
Yet, just days before he left office in disgrace, George Bush acted to ensure that Uribe had a memento of ‘better times’, by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award the US can bestow. Tony Blair and Australia’s equally discredited John Howard were honoured in the same ceremony.
The White House described the award as recognition for Uribe’s “work to improve the lives of citizens and efforts to promote democracy, human rights and peace abroad.”
No reputable human rights organisation would characterise the Uribe administration’s role as ‘promoting human rights’.
The 2007 Human Rights’ Watch characterisation of Colombia as presenting “the worst human rights and humanitarian crisis in the western hemisphere” would not be uncommon or liable to cause controversy.
And the bulk of human rights violations – murder and assasination – have been and are carried out by right wing paramiliaties, with proven close links to the major Colombian drug cartels, the army and successive administrations.
In 2005, Human Rights Watch concluded that: “Paramilitary groups maintain close ties with a number of Colombian military units. The Uribe administration has yet to take effective action to break these ties....”

Since 1996, the paramilitaries – the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self Defence Forces of Colombia)  – have murdered over 13,000 people. And the targets of these self-styled self defence forces? Teachers, community activists, civilians, ‘suspected’ rebel sympathisers, journalists and trade unionists.
The AUC underwent a national ‘demobilisation’ process, during 2004/5. Nonetheless, paramilitary groupings still exist and are still targeting those considered a threat to the state.
Colombia has been described “as the murder capital of the world for trade unionists” with up to 4000 murdered over the last 20 years. And earlier this month the rationale behind that murderous focus became somewhat clearer.
From his jail cell near Medellin – complete with cable TV, a fridge and the ability to order in fast food – former banana grower Raul Hasbun has revealed how he organised and financed the murder of hundreds of Colombians through a ‘levy’ on major banana multinationals. The ‘levy’ financed the paramilitaries campaign of murder.
Companies such as Chiquita, Dole and Del Monte have a huge presence in Colombia. According to Hasbun, the levy of three cents for every box of bananas exported did not meet with huge resistance from the major banana companies doing business in Colombia
Chiquita has already conceded that it paid some $1.7m to the paramilitaries and was ‘fined’ $25 million for doing so. Chiquita claims the money was paid to protect its employees. Others like Dole and Del Monte deny paying money to paramilitaries – the man from Del Monte says no? – but other paramilitary leaders have confirmed Hasbun’s account of the three cent tax.
As Hasbun has explained: “Whoever paid me and had bad intentions, I don’t know....But there came a time when I no longer had to ask.....” Hasbun says he has company cheques to support his case.

Hasbun ran his family’s banana plantation in Uraba, the heart of Colombia’s banana growing region in the north of the country. Uraba is located in the administrative department of Anitoquia where the governor from 1995-1997 – precisely as the paramilitaries set up their infrastructure of murder  – was none other than current president Alvaro Uribe.
From the mid 90s, Hasbun says local banana plantation owners worked closely with military officers and paramilitaries and that he himself ordered the murder of hundreds of ‘suspected’ rebels and union leaders.
He now says the ‘banana levy’ came into effect in late 1996 at a meeting in Medellin and present at the meeting where the deal was struck, was a senior US executive from Chiquita. Hasbun says he regaled the group with tales of his time in Vietnam – “Is that something someone who is being extorted does?”
In addition, Hasbun claims that his group also utilised the export machinery and logistics of the major banana corporations to smuggle out guns and drugs.
But their main work was brutal murder, as this testimony from one affected family details: “The paras arrived at about 10:30......They grabbed my mother and sister, tied their hands and threw them on the floor. They were guerrillas, they said, and for guerrillas they had a special treatment.
“They dragged them out and off 100 yards or so. We were too afraid to even go out. When we did, we found their bodies. They had cut their heads off and opened their stomachs up with machetes. As they left they said we had six months to leave; that they’d be back to burn what and whoever was left.”

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