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Empire Files’ Abby Martin says the massacre of unarmed coca farmers in Tumaco, Colombia was in response to pressure from the Trump administration to undermine the government’s crop substitution agreement and use force in the “war on drugs”

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network, I’m Paul Jay. The Drug Enforcement Administration reported that coca production had reached record-high levels in Colombia in 2016. The increases came after the 2015 decision by the Colombian government to terminate the controversial aerial eradication program. That means spraying coca pants, suspected coca plants, and frequently spraying the people, animals, and plants in their proximity with glyphosate. I hope I’m pronouncing it right. It’s a chemical that the World Health Organization has linked to cancer.
Ending the aerial spraying of the chemical put Colombia at odds with a crucial party in United States counter-narcotics strategy in the country. For many observers, this change marked a new willingness of Colombia to defy the United States. Well, the eradication program resumed after threats from the Trump administration last September to de-certify Colombia as a partner in the war on drugs. The campaign took a deadly turn this year, and that’s the subject of the latest Empire Files with Abby Martin. Here’s the introduction to that segment of The Empire Files.
ABBY MARTIN: On October 5th, 2017, deep in the Rainforest of Tumaco, Colombia, dozens of peasant farmers gathered to protest the Colombian police. The state forces had come to destroy their coca crops in violation of a government agreement for gradual crop substitution. But suddenly things turned deadly as the police opened fire on the unarmed campesinos. The gunfire continued for several minutes as those fleeing were shot.
PAUL JAY: Abby traveled far inland to speak with the peasants that have been attacked by the military, and now joining us to discuss her report is Abby Martin. She joins us from Los Angeles. Thanks for joining us, Abby.
ABBY MARTIN: Thanks so much for having me on, Paul.
PAUL JAY: As one can see in the report, you traveled far inland by boat, and I think you’re one of the few certainly foreign journalists to actually get the peasants’ side of the story. As I understand it, the peasants were having a protest and the army showed up, and what happened?
ABBY MARTIN: Right. Like I said in the report, this was in response to the forced eradication taking place from the police and the military. At the behest of Trump … Remember, this is actually on the heels of threats from the Trump administration saying, “Ramp up the eradication efforts. We do not acknowledge the agreement,” this historic peace accord ending a 53-year civil war, saying that the government is going to help substitute these crops. So back to the massacre, these campesinos in the middle of the jungle were protesting this. They showed up to have a dialogue with the police that were there, forced eradicating their crops.
Dozens of them were there peacefully just discussing what was happening, completely unarmed. What happened? The police opened fire. As you heard, I mean, the horrifying sounds of just a rain of bullets that happened for minutes, shooting people who were fleeing, shooting people who were on the ground, falling down. It is the most horrifying accounts that you hear of what happened in this massacre, Paul. And yeah, foreign media did cover it, but what they covered — and this is what the campesinos told us — they covered it very unfairly. They basically just quoted the Minister of Defense report just like the cops and states and stenographers do here, working for corporate media.
They did not actually get the first-hand accounts of the campesinos who said “We were unarmed. We were shot at. We were killed. We were slaughtered basically for no reason,” and really to send a message, to send a message saying “Do not fight us. Do not stand up for your rights.” But yeah, again, Trump is not only trying to put pressure on the Colombian government and threaten to cut the billions of dollars in aid — remember Colombia is the third-largest recipient of military aid in the world from the U.S. empire — but also he’s trying to get them to reuse the Monsanto aerial spraying with the cancer-causing agents. So forced eradication via the aerial spraying of this Monsanto’s Roundup spray that the Colombian government had already stopped using due to public pressure years ago.
PAUL JAY: What has been the response of the Colombian Santos government to the massacre?
ABBY MARTIN: Of course, the Santos government at first said, “There was no massacre,” right? But then of course they said it was FARC militants. This is what they have said time and again, going back to the false positive story where paramilitary death squads actually just killed leftist leaders en masse, killed FARC guerrilla fighters en masse, but they also killed civilians en masse and dressed them up as guerrilla fighters just so they can prop up the numbers and basically justify more U.S. spending. So the Santos government has been contemptuous. They basically have suspended four of the officers, no firing, no arrests, and that’s it. Case closed, right? According to them, there was a confrontation where if they used their guns, there was a reason to do so, and the end of the story is that the confrontation happened with armed groups and that’s it. So these officers are suspended and probably no justice will be held.
These campesinos are really saying “We want the Havana Peace Agreement dealt with. We want it agreed to. We want the terms to be followed through.” And this really shows you how many people are dependent on coca crops, Paul. You know, we like to think of these people as narco traffickers and criminals. These are just poor, humble campesino coca farmers who have maybe a tiny plot of land and some chickens. They just grow the crops, right? It’s extremely hypocritical when you look at who really is the top cocaine trafficker, and that really points all the way back to the Colombian government itself.
PAUL JAY: Now, the agreement, if I understand it correctly, the campesinos were supposed to be subsidized for switching from coca to some kind of agricultural crop. But that’s not been happening and, if I understand it correctly as well, the American government that was supposed to help subsidize some of this is actually cutting back the non-military aid to Colombia.
ABBY MARTIN: Yeah, exactly. Trump is refusing to recognize the voluntary substitution aspect of the agreement, and they’re threatening to cut aid to do so. So you see the ramping up of these efforts on the heels of Trump. But yeah, the substitution agreement itself … 100,000 families have signed up for the voluntary crop substitution, so it really shows you how many families are dependent on coca crops for their livelihood. But initially, the state agreed to either completely help them plant a new crop like papaya or plantain, or give them, substitute $300 a month to kind of make up for the costs of selling the fruit, etc., because it’s obviously a lot less than cocaine leaves to be sold, if you’re selling plantain or etc. So these coca fields that we had visited were just destroyed moments before arriving. I mean, we were really on the heels of this eradication program from the police. We actually got to confront some of the soldiers, which was pretty harrowing.
PAUL JAY: Now, in your-
ABBY MARTIN: Oh, one more point, Paul. One more point, Paul. 100,000 hectares, they’ve already declared that they’re going to eradicate by the end of the year, 50% of that land has been where voluntary substitution agreements were already initiated. So they’re already violating the agreement in so many ways and already just completely disregarding 50% are already people who were supposed to be in this program.
PAUL JAY: Now, the initial confrontation where the soldiers fire on the campesinos, but then there’s a second one where they chase people into a town or something?
ABBY MARTIN: Yes. There was a humanitarian mission a couple days later, trying to assess what had happened. They also shot smoke bombs and shots into the air to scare the humanitarian mission. I mean, these are UN officials who were there assessing the grounds and the crime scene. I mean, it’s just the most shocking stories that you’ll ever hear.
I talked to one guy, who brought me to his home, who said his son and wife were asphyxiated with the tear gas. People were getting shot in the back of the head. People were going back to help injured people and getting massacred, clearly unarmed. It was just the gravest crime against humanity to do this, Paul. The most tragic thing is that this is happening in a time of so-called peace. We met with FARC officials, or ex-FARC officials rather, and they were so optimistic about this peace process, about finally … a year in. So it’s just so disappointing, I guess is the least thing that you can say about the government just having no disregard to hold up their own end.
PAUL JAY: Now, the Colombian government, as I mentioned in the introduction, they had shown some signs of respecting the accord. They had stopped the aerial spraying. They had pulled back on most of the eradication program until this Trump threat. Now that they’ve restarted the eradication, you said they were sending a message. Are they sending a message to campesinos, “Don’t protest,” or are they sending a message, “Look, Trump government, look what we’re doing,” and making something so visible by making it a massacre?
ABBY MARTIN: Very, very interesting point. I mean, I think it’s anyone’s guess. I think it’s a little bit of both, Paul. Look, the last time FARC tried to form an established political party was the first attempted peace process, the Patriotic Union. After they formed that party, 5,000 of their members were gunned down in cold blood. So this is the second time that they’ve initiated to try to form a party.
I think that the Colombian government is trying to send a stark message to campesinos, saying “Don’t try to mess with us,” but I think the bigger message, as you said, is a kind of a nod and a wink to the Trump administration, saying “Hey, we’re gonna do what you want because that’s really, at the end of the day, who we work for.” I mean, we’re talking about a country that’s received $10 billion since 2000. It’s been deemed the Israel of Latin America because it’s such a beach head for U.S. imperialism and militarism in the entire region. The former ambassador to Colombia said that there more U.S. involvement militarily in Colombia than Afghanistan.
When you look at the cocaine trafficking, they like to point to FARC. They like to say it’s all happening from FARC. Really? Yeah, FARC taxed coca crops. When you look at the actual main purveyors of the coca production, it is going back all the way to Uribe itself, and this is according to the UN and DEA. I mean, according to the UN Drug Control Program, the Colombian government itself is in the five top biggest cocaine trading institutions in the world. It’s just amazing. I mean, you cannot talk about the flow of cocaine or have Trump with his empty rhetoric about how this is all about fighting a drug war when the Colombian government is producing the most cocaine, and it’s at a record high as you said in the intro.
PAUL JAY: Well, I said that the production of the crop’s at a record high. But what is the evidence that Colombian government is number five and actually just … I mean, you’re saying the Colombian government itself, in an official way, is directly involved or people in the government are involved?
ABBY MARTIN: People in the government. You have links to these paramilitary death squads that have been wreaking havoc across the country for decades. This all the way goes back to the National Security Doctrine created by Kennedy. I mean, they basically fomented the idea of a paramilitary death squad. This was years before even FARC was created, so that initially was to fight Communism, then it was to fight drugs. But you’ve seen this time and again come out where at least 70 members of Uribe’s party were directly linked to paramilitary death squads, and that’s the majority of the cocaine trafficking and trade goes back to these right-wing paramilitary squads and members of the government itself, again, going back to the UN Drug Control Program and the DEA itself. This is all cited in these documents.
PAUL JAY: I saw reports that of the soldiers that shot on the campesinos that are in your report, something like over 100 were suspended. Is that correct, and is that trying to send some kind of message? Let me add to that. How has this massacre been received in terms of Colombian public opinion?
ABBY MARTIN: I mean, the media’s very controlled. teleSUR was removed from the airwaves. You can only get it through a special cable access network, so that gives you an idea of kinda the right-wing crackdown on media and the consolidation similarly to this country. Right? And when I talked to people who were there, they said that it really was that [bervane 00:12:59] narrative put out by the state, that you really don’t see the voice from the campesinos really calling attention to what really happened and putting their voice out there, Paul. It’s pretty unfortunate. But again, you were saying 100 soldiers were put on leave? What-
PAUL JAY: Yeah. I saw a report that-
ABBY MARTIN: … is that from?
PAUL JAY: … 100 of the soldiers involved in the attack had been suspended. I saw one news report about this.
ABBY MARTIN: Oh, wow. I just saw four. But if that’s true, I didn’t even know that there were 100 soldiers there. That’s really interesting. I’ll have to look into that.
PAUL JAY: I can’t verify the report. It’s one of many reports we saw getting ready for the interview. We can look into it. Well, just I guess finally in terms of the bigger picture, Colombia’s very close to the United States. It’s, I think, the only Latin American country that has an operational relationship with NATO. When you read the right-wing press about the relationship, they look at Colombia as a potential ally for action in and against Venezuela. Why do you think Trump did this, threaten Colombia, put such pressure on them, when it is such a relationship of such importance to the Americans?
ABBY MARTIN: I mean, I think that it’s just going back to his kind of rabid impulsivity and also just … I don’t know. I mean, it is a good question. I think that he likes to be perceived as being tough on drugs, talking about cracking down on the opioid crisis here. I mean, meanwhile he’s been appointing big pharma executives to run these agencies, so I think it is all talk. He wants to appear like he’s tough on drugs. I don’t know if it’s to appeal to the neoconservative base or the crazy, extremist Christian Evangelical outliers that are surrounding him. Who knows? You never can tell when it comes to Trump. But yeah, I mean, good point. Colombia, again, is the biggest ally that the U.S. military in the region. What this is all about, what this drug war is all about there, is really just eliminating the competition for the real criminals, and that’s the people working with the CIA and their allies in the region.
PAUL JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Abby.
ABBY MARTIN: Thanks so much, Paul.
PAUL JAY: Don’t forget, watch the whole report of Empire Files. You can get it at the teleSUR YouTube channel or we’re gonna be posting it at The Real News Network. Also, don’t forget we’re in our year-end fundraising campaign. Every dollar you donate gets matched, and we can’t do the work we do without you. So thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Abby Martin is the creator and director of "The Empire Files" on teleSUR English. Previously she hosted "Breaking the Set" on Russia Today. She founded the independent media site Media Roots and is a board member of Project Censored.

Follow her on Twitter @AbbyMartin.