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Human rights: a casualty of Colombia's drug war

US aid in war on drugs draws fire from critics who say human rights are being overlooked.

All Dora Isabel Camacho Serpa wanted was the "quiet miracle of a normal life."

Instead, the midwife and neighborhood leader was pulled from her family's modest home in the northern coastal town of Cienaga by paramilitary gunmen Monday, police officials say. Her husband and children found her in a nearby ditch, shot in the back of the head. Nine other residents of her poor neighborhood suffered the same fate in this country afflicted with staggering abuse of human rights.

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Visiting this Caribbean city Wednesday, President Clinton told Colombians in a televised address that a substantial increase in US assistance - which will make this South American country the third- largest recipient of US aid after Israel and Egypt - had been approved in a spirit of solidarity. The $1.3 billion in new aid to help fight a drug war and bolster a "democracy under attack" is a lifeline, he said, to Colombians demanding peace, justice, and "the quiet miracle of a normal life."

But what he did not say was most telling: To make Colombia eligible for aid, Clinton overrode, "for national security reasons," six human rights conditions that the Senate had attached to the aid bill. The conditions were included by the Senate to bolster flagging support among members wary of Colombia's human rights record. But in an election year, when no one wants to appear soft on drugs, little congressional protest was heard when Clinton bypassed the State Department's determination that Colombia's human rights record could not be "certified."

"The official discourse is fully compatible with international human rights concerns," says Jos Miguel Vivanco, director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch in Washington. "But the gap between that language and reality is huge."

At least seven civilians died in leftist guerrilla attacks on various towns during the few hours Clinton was in Colombia. Last year, more than 2,500 abductions made Colombia the world's kidnapping capital. Nearly 2 million people have been displaced by the civil war. Executions like those this week in Cienaga are common.

But human rights leaders say the worst problem Colombia faces is longstanding, increasing collusion between units of the country's armed forces and paramilitary organizations. With Colombia facing heightened scrutiny over human rights violations, the armed forces are acting to keep their record clean - but in some cases by simply contracting out their dirty work, critics say.

"Often the information available to us shows a clear case of criminal omission on the part of military brigades," Mr. Vivanco says. Sometimes evidence indicates that an Army unit actually supplied logistical support, or allowed the paramilitaries free transit in Army-patrolled areas. "But the standard practice is simply to look the other way when the paramilitaries are in action," he says.

At a press conference Wednesday, Colombian President Andrs Pastrana recognized the serious state of human rights in Colombia, and noted that he had assigned the country's vice president to oversee human rights issues. Clinton said the two leaders discussed "efforts to punish all violators" of human rights, and especially Pastrana's efforts to hold violators among law-enforcement bodies accountable.

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Last February, Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report documenting links between three Army brigades and paramilitaries. In response, Pastrana named a special commission to investigate paramilitary activities. Says Vivanco: "That commission hasn't met a single time."

Human rights groups say nothing will change until the international community demands action.

"The waiver sends exactly the wrong message to all levels of the Colombian military," says Bruce Bagley, a Colombia expert at the University of Miami. "Basically, it says, go ahead as you always have."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society