A group of award-winning human rights activists from Colombia traveled to Washington, DC, from February 15 through 19 to share their perspectives on the armed conflict that has roiled their country for more than half a century, as well as the historic negotiations aimed at ending it.
Their visit comes just two weeks after Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos arrived in Washington for an official visit to celebrate "Plan Colombia," a 15-year long counterinsurgency and counternarcotics campaign backed by billions of dollars in US funding, most of which went to Colombia's military and police.
Echoing the opinion of many top US policymakers, several prominent mainstream news outlets - like The Economist, Foreign Policy and The Washington Post - have recently hailed Plan Colombia as a "success." But the viewpoints presented by the delegation of human rights defenders during a panel discussion at the United States Institute of Peace contrasted sharply with such glowing portrayals.
For example, Fabián Laverde of the Social Corporation for Community Advisory and Training pointed out that while violence associated with the armed conflict has decreased significantly since the start of Plan Colombia, attacks against human rights defenders like himself have risen to levels described by the country's top United Nations official as "extremely alarming."
Various politicians and commentators have cited generally declining murder and kidnapping rates as achievements attributable to Plan Colombia. But much less public attention has been paid to the more than 6 million Colombian citizens victimized since the program began - including more than 4 million people displaced from their homes and more than 3,500 civilians murdered by Colombian security forces, who disguised many of the victims as guerillas in order to inflate the tally of "enemies" killed.
Luz Elena Galeano, of the Medellín-based organization Women Walking for Truth, described operations carried out by state security forces that resulted in massacres and enforced disappearances.
"They were the ones that raided our homes," she said, referring to members of the security forces. "And pointing to young people who had nothing to do with the war, they took them out of their houses, killed them and then disappeared many of them."
"As for Plan Colombia, I think it's the worst support that went to Colombia," Galeano continued. "Because the United States gave money for war, and to assassinate our loved ones and to disappear them."
Another member of the delegation, Afro-Colombian community leader Francia Elena Márquez Mina, spoke critically about the long-running practice of spraying dangerous herbicides like glyphosate from airplanes in order to destroy crops of coca plants, which can be used to make drugs like cocaine.
In areas targeted for fumigation during Plan Colombia, Márquez said, "The coca wasn't eradicated. The people were eradicated. Because it has killed the subsistence crops, because it has contaminated the water we drink, because it has destroyed our territories."
For years, US officials strongly defended the controversial program, despite its failure to substantially reduce the supply of cocaine in the international market and despite serious humanitarian concerns about the practice. The Colombian government recently suspended aerial spraying of herbicides, but glyphosate is still being used in manual eradication efforts.
William Rivas, who has served as the head of the Community Council of the Peasant Association of the Atrato, one of the country's largest land rights organizations, also criticized Plan Colombia.
"It created displacement, it created massacres … It has created the loss of food security, the dispossession of territories," Rivas said. "The resources that the United States now wants to provide to Colombia should be invested to repay the injuries [caused by] the previous resources."
President Obama announced during Santos' visit that his administration would request a new package of $450 million worth of assistance for Colombia. President Obama said the money would "be devoted to helping to reinforce security gains, reintegrate former combatants into society, and extend opportunity and the rule of law into areas denied them for decades."
The announcement followed Santos' declaration that peace talks between the government and the country's largest rebel group, the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia, or FARC, had reached "an irreversible moment." The negotiating parties are expected to sign an accord to put a formal end to the conflict within the next few weeks.
While all the activists said that they supported the idea of a peaceful settlement to the decades-old conflict, they also said they would like to see closer consultation between the negotiators and the communities most affected by the conflict, namely Afro-Colombians, Indigenous peoples and the poor.
Márquez said that Indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups had been asking for a seat at the negotiating table to provide their input on the issues under discussion and to advocate for their rights. "But our petitions have been denied by the government," she said.
Many experts agree that these groups must play a key role in any post-conflict scenario in order to establish a sustainable peace - not only because they have the most direct experience with the causes and effects of the conflict, but also because they have the most at stake.
"The poor cannot and do not want to continue sustaining this war until the end of their lives," said Laverde. "Because those who have died during this phase of the conflict … have been our brothers, the children of the poorest families."
"More than anyone, we want the peace process," Márquez added. "Because we know what war is."