An assassination in Haiti shows how Colombia’s war machine has gone global

Palmira, Colombia
A Colombian soldier guards explosives confiscated by during a raid in Palmira, Colombia.

  • Haiti says 21 Colombian military veterans were involved in the assassination of President Jovenel Moise earlier this month.
  • The former troops were working as private contractors, and their involvement reflects Colombia’s prominence in the mercenary industry.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

BOGOTA, Colombia – Carlos Martinez joined the Colombian military at the age of 17, a minor who had to obtain his parents’ written permission to enlist.

“I didn’t have many options. There aren’t a lot of opportunities in this country for someone like me who grew up poor,” he said, “but war will always be profitable.”

Martinez spent almost 10 years on active duty in the army, eventually joining an elite special forces unit that fought armed groups and drug traffickers in the Andean countryside.

Colombia, which currently boasts some 250,000 active-duty armed forces personnel, produced millions of soldiers like Martínez during its five-decade conflict with guerilla groups, as well as its ongoing campaign on the front lines of the so-called War on Drugs – both efforts heavily subsidized by the United States.

“We are trained to kill,” Martinez told WPR. “There is no other way to describe it.”

The problem for Colombia, though, is where do these trained killers go when they leave the military? Lacking the skills necessary to readapt to civilian life, many become private security contractors, a euphemism for mercenaries that became widely used during the US war in Iraq.

And now, the government of Haiti says 21 Colombian military veterans working as private contractors were involved in the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in a nighttime assault earlier this month that also left his wife seriously wounded.

17 arrested in haiti assassination sitting in a line
Suspects in the assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moise in Port-au-Price, July 8, 2021.

Colombian mercenaries have been spotted in nearly every conflict-stricken corner of the world, working legally as contractors in Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, or training cartels in Mexico. They are in high demand because of their reputation as well-trained and battle-tested fighters, with considerable combat experience in guerrilla warfare and other complex security environments.

In addition to its large and capable military, Colombia has a long history with more informal paramilitary groups from across the political spectrum. Rebel groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – better known as the FARC – and the National Liberation Army, or ELN, battled not only against the Colombian armed forces, but against private militia groups organized by government supporters as well.

All of these entities have been guilty of grave human rights violations, but that has not stopped some of them from marketing their battlefield experience. Some paramilitary veterans drawn from groups that supported the Colombian government during the civil war were even hired to help defend Honduran landowners in the aftermath of the country’s 2009 coup.

US military involvement in Colombia has only enabled the growth of its private security contractors. Under a joint operation known as Plan Colombia, which began in 2000, the American and Colombian governments funded and trained both the Colombian military and paramilitary groups to fight drug traffickers and rebel groups like the FARC.

From 2000 until 2017, the US provided more than $10 billion in aid to Colombia, more than 70% of which went directly to the military and police. To avoid getting its own troops directly involved in the fighting, the US hired private contractors such as DynCorp, which earned hundreds of millions of dollars from Colombian contracts under Plan Colombia, to bridge the gap.

“The US military pioneered this trend [of using private contractors] in Colombia even before the Iraq and Afghanistan wars made the issue well-known globally,” said Adam Isacson, director of the Defense Oversight Program at the Washington Office on Latin America, an NGO that specializes in human rights issues in the region. “As part of the drug wars in Colombia, they began hiring outsiders and private companies to fulfill military roles.”

US troops Colombia explosive ordnance disposal
US Navy explosive-ordnance-disposal technicians and Colombian troops discuss EOD disposal techniques in Coveñas Colombia, August 21, 2018.

The private security industry took a big reputational hit in 2007, when armed guards working for Blackwater, founded by Erik Prince, massacred 17 Iraqi civilians and injured 20 more in Baghdad. But Prince continued to expand his empire, reaching an agreement to build a private standing army in partnership with Saudi Arabia in 2011.

The corporate mercenary industry had gone global, and some of its most attractive recruits were Colombian veterans and ex-paramilitary members.

“The selling point was not only that Colombian soldiers were ‘battle tested,'” said Sergio Guzman, director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a research and consultancy firm in Bogota. “They had worked with US special forces. They had been trained by US advisers.”

As if to underscore his point, the Pentagon announced Thursday that at least some of the 21 former Colombian soldiers arrested in connection with Moise’s assassination in Haiti had been trained by US advisers during their time in the Colombian military.

Another factor adding to the appeal of Colombian veterans to the private security industry, Guzman added, was that “they were cheaper than their North American counterparts.”

And that attraction was mutual. Colombians with battlefield experience found that as foreign security contractors, they were able to earn 10 times what they could at home, and former fighters flocked to the industry.

The economic draw of private contractors created a “brain drain” for the Colombian military, with Washington footing the sizeable bill.

“The US was effectively paying three times to train these contractors,” said Guzman. “They paid to train someone, who would then leave to work for a US company in the private sector, also paid for by the US, and the absence of the soldier meant [the Colombian military] had to immediately train someone else.”

Armed police officers stand in front of a mural of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse
Armed police in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

The turnover became so bad that the US insisted the Colombian military modify its contract, so that soldiers had to fulfill a minimum period of service before leaving for the private sector.

Not all soldiers dream of becoming mercenaries, however. “I would never work as a contractor,” said Martinez. “To me that’s just more paramilitarism, which is something that has torn my country apart. But many of my colleagues couldn’t retire fast enough to take military jobs abroad in the private sector.”

According to one Colombian veteran, who worked for years as a security contractor in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, there is a culture surrounding paramilitary fighters in Colombia – known locally as paracos – that enables the growth of the private security industry.

Paraco culture, sadly, has become a national culture,” he told WPR. The veteran asked that his name be withheld to avoid potential issues with his current employer.

“We all grew up in it. After more than half a century of conflict, it has become normalized,” he continued. “And unfortunately, some of those who are part of that culture have less scruples than others when it comes to deciding which jobs to take.”

The phenomenon is likely to continue. With Washington’s backing, the current Colombian government led by President Ivan Duque has ramped up the military’s anti-drug trafficking efforts.

Duque has also slow-rolled the implementation of the government’s landmark 2016 peace agreement with the FARC, which was signed by his predecessor, and the promise of peace remains a mirage for large parts of the country.

Colombia soldier border Venezuela
A Colombian soldier guards the border with Venezuela in Cucuta, Colombia, February 9, 2018.

In the FARC’s absence, other armed factions, including offshoots of some of the same paramilitary groups that received US funding in the past, simply moved into the vacuum.

“There will always be an economic impetus for more Colombian fighters,” said the Colombian veteran who currently works as a contractor. “We have become very good at what we do.”

And due to an extreme lack of transparency in the industry, as well as varying legal frameworks in the countries in which they operate, there will always be a gray area where unethical private entities hire these soldiers of fortune.

They include the shadowy firm that calls itself the Counter Terrorist Unit Federal Academy. Run by a Venezuelan exile from a small warehouse in Miami, it hired the Colombians awaiting trial in Haiti for allegedly killing the president.

“The armed forces in Colombia are made up of people who didn’t start with advantages,” said Martinez, who is now a reservist. He said his current salary from the government is about twice the minimum wage, which is roughly $264 a month.

“Some of us feel we have no choice [but to work as mercenaries], but we do,” he added. “There are other options.”

However, the continued expansion of the private sector seems to confirm Martinez’s sentiment. War is profitable.

Joshua Collins is a freelance journalist based in Bogota, focused on migration and violence. Follow him on Twitter @InvisiblesMuros.

Parker Asmann is a journalist who writes about human rights, security policy and organized crime across Latin America and the Caribbean. Follow him on Twitter @PJAsmann.

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Colombia, Cuba, and the defiant hypocrisy of Marco Rubio

People take part in a new protest against the government of Colombian President Ivan Duque, in Cali, Colombia, on May 19, 2021.
People take part in a new protest against the government of Colombian President Ivan Duque, in Cali, Colombia, on May 19, 2021.

  • In April, protests began in Colombia over the government’s handling of the economy and COVID-19.
  • The government responded by branding protesters terrorists and blaming foreign powers.
  • That argument is now being deployed by the authorities in Cuba. But the reaction is different.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In Cuba, recent weeks have seen thousands of people join the largest protests in decades to voice their displeasure at the government’s handling of the economy and the pandemic.

Months earlier, thousands of people did the same in Colombia.

One is governed by an elected, center-right government that is a staunch ally of the United States; the other is a one-party state subject to an array of sanctions from Washington. While the grievances might be similar, to some it is the relationship with America that makes all the difference.

Take Sen. Marco Rubio. When it comes to Cuba, the Florida Republican has been eager to show that he is the “human rights champion” that USA Today dubbed him in 2017. On Twitter, he has shared video after video of protesters and changed his avatar to a raised fist reminiscent of the one used by Black Lives Matter activists.

“The Cuban regime has already killed protestors,” he wrote. “And they will not hesitate to murder thousands if it means staying in power.”

Rubio has also appeared on Fox News to mischaracterize the Biden administration’s response to the protests in Cuba. “I don’t know why it’s so hard for them to criticize Marxists,” he told Sean Hannity. (Earlier in the day, he had sent a letter thanking President Joe Biden “for recognizing these heroic protests as a ‘clarion call of freedom.'”)

Havana’s response, meanwhile, has been to blame the foreigners for somehow persuading thousands of Cubans to take to the streets, all while reducing the masses of protesters to examples of the most violent among them.

In that, Cuban authorities are no different from their counterparts in Colombia. Or, for that matter, Marco Rubio.

“Behind much of the violence occurring in #Colombia this week is an orchestrated effort to destabilize a democratically elected government by left wing narco guerrilla movements & their international marxist allies,” Rubio tweeted in May. In doing so, he reduced tens of thousands of protesters to pawns of terrorists and foreign provocateurs – for which there is no evidence – all the while sounding no different than any embattled regime apparatchik.

Rubio followed up by introducing a Senate resolution to express “solidarity,” not with protesters being attacked by security forces and pro-government vigilantes but with their government, which he said “must use all tools available” to “restore stability.” That which he omitted sent as clear a message as what he said.

By that point, at least four dozen people had already been killed by security forces, with hundreds more detained. Dozens have simply gone missing. This, over protests that began over a tax hike, no less, before broadening to express a general dissatisfaction with the political class and its handling of the economy.

The right is not alone in hypocrisy, to be sure. A contingent on the left has gone beyond condemning the US embargo to expressing solidarity with the government in Havana. After condemning state violence in Colombia, some members of the Democratic Socialists of America, breaking with the democratic socialists who have won elections, amplified regime propaganda that protesters are “traitors.” (Among those detained in Cuba are communists and socialists.)

Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Insider there’s an “obvious double standard” when it comes to how some respond to state violence. In Cuba and Colombia, authorities “have both zoomed in on the tiny minority of ‘vandals’ on the margins” to “justify crackdowns.”

The playbook, whether capitalist or communist, tends to be the same in the face of popular unrest.

“When the Cuban government does that, we should all condemn it,” Isacson said. “But the condemnation comes across as weaker and less credible if the person doing the condemning was echoing the Colombian government’s stigmatizations and justifications just a few weeks ago.”

Rubio, for his part, insists there is no comparing the respective crackdowns, telling Insider it is a “pathetic and ridiculous comparison.”

“The democratically elected leaders of Colombia did not go on national television and encourage violence,” he said, or “call people to violence. They did not order the systematic arrest, torture or murder of protestors, and they did not shut off access to the internet.”

It is of course true that no two countries are exactly alike. But the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which Rubio cited this past week when discussing Cuban human-rights abuses, did find that Colombian security forces engaged in numerous abuses themselves, a report detailing allegations of sexual violence, forced disappearances, and attacks on journalists and medical workers.

“The commission confirmed that, repeatedly and in various regions of the country, the response of the state was characterized by excessive and disproportionate use of force,” IACHR President Antonia Urrejola said. It also criticized Colombian President Iván Duque’s government for criminalizing a form of protest – blocking traffic – that is popular not just in his country, but also in Florida among those who oppose the Cuban regime.

In the face of American hypocrisy, left or right, it is tempting to suggest the embrace of silence instead – for everyone to, please, just shut up. But keeping quiet is just another way of staying complicit. To stand up for justice, it is necessary to insist on it everywhere.

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Colombians accused in Haiti assassination were once trained by the US military, Pentagon says

Armed police officers stand in front of a mural of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse
Armed police in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

  • A “small number” of Colombians detained in the assassination of Haiti’s president received US military training, the Pentagon told The Washington Post.
  • They received the training while they were active members of the Colombian Military Forces, the Pentagon said.
  • It’s unclear when the training took place or how many of the suspects took part in it.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A “small number” of Colombians detained in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse had previously received US military training, the Pentagon said on Thursday.

“A review of our training databases indicates that a small number of the Colombian individuals detained as part of this investigation had participated in past U.S. military training and education programs, while serving as active members of the Colombian Military Forces,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Ken Hoffman told The Washington Post.

It’s unclear how many Colombians had the training as well as when the training to place, though Colombia is a US military partner and its military members have received training and education for decades, The Post reported.

Hoffman told The Post that the Pentagon is reviewing its training databases.

The Pentagon did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

Haitian police have said that 26 Colombians and two Haitian Americans are among the suspects in Moïse’s assassination.

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American Airlines made a bet on South America for 2021. Civil unrest and spiking COVID-19 cases are now threatening its success in the region.

American Airlines
An American Airlines Boeing 777-300ER.

  • American Airlines is facing numerous setbacks in South America.
  • Rising COVID-19 cases in Chile, Brazil, and Peru forced the airline to cut flights in April.
  • Civil unrest and protests in Colombia are now further threatening success in the region.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

American Airlines’ expansion strategy in South America is experiencing a seemingly never-ending stream of hurdles.

Tourism-dependent Latin America was among the first regions to welcome US tourists during the coronavirus pandemic, and American was standing ready to fly eager travelers. Earlier in the year, the airline had announced new flights to cities in Chile, Colombia, and Brazil in a bid to attract leisure flyers as it waited for business travel to recover.

But while the continent appeared to be welcoming at first, doing business in South America quickly proved problematic.

Flights to Santiago, Chile, were among the first to be impacted when the country closed its borders for the month of April. American had planned to launch a new non-stop route from New York using one of its largest aircraft, the Boeing 777-200, on May 7.

Chile appeared promising when it opened to Americans in November 2020. But a spike in COVID-19 cases following the country’s summer season prompted the government to once again close its borders to tourists.

The state of emergency in the country planned for the month of April has now been extended through June, according to the US Embassy in Chile. American, as a result, pushed back the launch of its inaugural New York-Santiago flight to July 2; though, Chile may extend its border closure depending on conditions in the country.

Spiking COVID-19 cases were also the reasoning for flight reductions to Brazil and Peru, the airline confirmed to Insider’s Brittany Chang in April. Both countries still allow US citizens to enter despite the rise in cases, according to the US Embassies in Brazil and Peru.

In Colombia, however, American faces a new challenge: civil unrest. Protests have gripped the country with some turning violent and taking the lives of at least 26 people, according to ABC News. The Washington Post Editorial Board is also predicting that Colombia’s levels of unrest could spread to regional countries, like Peru.

American, in response, has issued a travel alert for the Colombian city of Cali, where the protests have been the most extreme, allowing travelers to change their flight to any day between May 4 and May 18.

The protests could discourage future travelers from booking trips to Colombia or encourage flyers with existing bookings to change away from Colombia at a time when American is deploying some of its largest aircraft to the country.

Rebuilding a lost South American network at the wrong time

American’s desire to grow in South American comes as the airline seeks to rebuild following the loss of a partner in LATAM Airlines prior to the pandemic.

Delta Air Lines spent $1.9 billion in 2019 for a 20 percent stake in LATAM, significantly growing its presence in South America. The move saw LATAM drop American and the Oneworld airline alliance to join Delta and the SkyTeam airline alliance, leaving American to rebuild in a historically profitable region.

“Latin America has, for roughly 30 years now, been one of American’s international beachhead,” Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst and cofounder of Atmosphere Research Group, told Insider. “In fact, it’s been American’s most successful region outside of the US.”

With LATAM gone, American was left with Brazil’s GOL Linhas Aéreas, a limited partner in the region. But GOL didn’t have the reach of the larger airlines that were now aligned with American’s competitors.

Delta bought a new partner in LATAM Airlines alongside its existing partner in Aerolíneas Argentinas while United had Avianca and Copa Airlines. To regrow its South American network, American chose to launch new routes from the US with a domestic partner, JetBlue Airways.

American launched its routes to Colombia, Brazil, and Chile in a partnership with JetBlue dubbed the “Northeast Alliance.” For American, the partnership provides access to customers across JetBlue’s network that can connect onto the new routes.

“It’s understandable that American would be eager to start rebuilding its network in Latin America because it is so strategically important to the airline right now,” Harteveldt said.

Ceding Europe to United and Delta, for now

South America isn’t totally lost for American as the airline still operates around 30 daily flights to cities across the continent. Cirium data also shows a steady stream of cargo-only flights operating to Santiago from Miami in 2021, which Harteveldt says helps stem the losses.

But while American focuses on South America, its competitors are locked in on the reopening European continent. United and Delta were both quick to resume flights to European countries open to Americans like Greece and Iceland while also starting new routes to Croatia.

“I think American is looking at this and saying, ‘we’re going to be very careful about which routes we pick and which battles want to fight,'” Harteveldt said, thinking back to 2018 when American launched Iceland flights alongside Icelandair now-defunct Wow Air with flights to Dallas. But the airline hasn’t completely ignored Europe, nor a gradually reopening Middle East.

A new route between New York and Athens, Greece, is scheduled to launch on June 2 and existing routes to Athens from Chicago and Philadelphia will resume in June and August, respectively. The airline also just launched a new route between New York and Tel Aviv, Israel, with plans for another route to Israel from Miami, which may pay off as the Middle Eastern country starts to accept vaccinated tour groups.

American may also be waiting for the European Union to open its doors to US citizens, Harteveldt says, so the airline can fly more passengers on its traditional routes to cities like Paris, France; Madrid, Spain; and Rome, Italy.

But success in South America remains challenging as new and unexpected roadblocks appear that are outside of the airline’s control.

“It’s not American’s fault, for example, that you had a strong surge of virus in a particular country, Harteveldt said. “It’s not American’s fault that travel restrictions are in place when American may have thought that some of these restrictions would have been eased or removed.”

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Colombian protesters as young as 13 years old are being killed in the streets as they fight for a better future. The rest of the world should have their backs.

Protesters stand in the street holding signs with balloons behind them.
Colombian protests in Bogotá.

  • In the last week, protests in Colombia have been met with widespread police brutality and repression.
  • Many of the protestors who have been killed and injured are young people speaking out for a more just and peaceful Colombia.
  • The global community should condemn the violence and pressure Colombia’s government to better protect human rights.
  • Jordan Salama is a writer, journalist, and author of the upcoming book Every Day the River Changes.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

As their country tries to move towards peace, Colombia’s young people are doing everything they can to meet the moment.

It’s something that I noticed the very first time I reported from the country back in 2016, and found a nation that didn’t at all fit the stereotypical reputation that many foreigners have come to accept: a much-maligned country filled with narco-traffickers and guerrilla soldiers.

On that first trip I instead met a young man who was transforming his rural hometown into a regional center for ecological conservation. When I returned two years later for an ongoing project meant in part to explore how the people of Colombia’s heartland are recovering from more than half a century of conflict, I met dozens of other young leaders working tirelessly to pull their communities out of violence and towards a more stable and resilient peace.

Police have killed dozens of young protesters

Today, in the midst of a still-raging pandemic, brave young Colombians are being killed and assaulted in the streets at an unimaginable scale. Protests over a proposed bill to raise taxes – which was quickly revoked – have now shifted towards more general outrage over rising pandemic-induced poverty, hunger, and joblessness among the lower and middle classes of Colombia, and longstanding frustration with the current government over the implementation of the 2016 peace deal that officially ended more than half a century of armed conflict in the country. Protesters have been met with state repression and police brutality and dozens have been killed by government forces. Hundreds more have been injured, and riot control officers are facing multiple allegations of sexual abuse.

A line of police officers in riot gear block the street
Colombian protests in Bogotá.

“People are not taking to the streets in the middle of a pandemic because they want to,” said Francia Márquez Mina, 39, one of Colombia’s most prominent human-rights defenders and a current presidential candidate, told me by phone from the city of Cali, where she’s been marching alongside protestors. “There is no other way out.”

It’s a rapidly unfolding human rights crisis. Videos of the killings, some even broadcast live on social media, show instances of police (or ESMAD – the national anti-riot force) officers shooting into crowds. People in their teens and 20s have made up a huge portion of the demonstrators, and according to INDEPAZ, a national Colombian peacebuilding organization, the majority of injuries and deaths.

Marcelo Agredo, a high schooler, was killed by police in Cali after kicking a police officer. Santiago Murillo, 19, was killed while heading home from a protest in the city of Ibagué. Nicolás Guerrero of Cali, an artist and activist in his early 20s, was shot in the face by police in the midst of a peaceful protest being streamed live on Instagram. The youngest person known to have been killed was just 13 years old.

“As an activist, as a student, as a citizen, I’ve risked my life by taking to the streets and fighting for our rights,” said one 18-year-old woman from Cali, who asked that her name not be revealed because she has received death threats for speaking out. “It’s unimaginable that in the middle of peaceful, artistic, and cultural protests, the [riot police] officers would arrive every day to spray tear gas, confront the protestors, and violate our human rights. In Cali they are killing people simply for protesting against a corrupt government, a government that doesn’t think about the needs – food, jobs – of the people of Cali and the people of Colombia.”

A woman and man dressed in black and red playing drums in a street protest.
Colombian protests in Bogotá.

“Today people are rising up, and more than anyone else it’s young people,” added Márquez. “I think about all these young people who are in the streets and I think about my own children. And I think about all the mothers, these women who are losing their children every day, who are getting the news that their children have been hurt, assassinated, jailed by the state…it’s sad, but we know we have to forge on, to keep resisting, to keep fighting.”

Response to government failures

Colombia’s former president, the far-right politician Álvaro Uribe, took to Twitter over the weekend to defend “the right of soldiers and police officers to use their weapons to defend themselves” against what he called “terrorism.” The tweet was soon removed, and Twitter cited “glorification of violence,” but many also saw the tweet as a green light for Uribe’s mentee, the current President Iván Duque, to escalate the state’s repressive response.

It’s an apex point of violence against a generation that has already faced multiple threats in the years since the 2016 peace agreement. The conservative Duque administration has been resoundingly and rightly criticized for being slow to implement the accords, especially in rural areas. Colombia is now one of the most treacherous countries in the world for social leaders and activists, whose community initiatives often run counter to the interests of armed groups fighting for control of the resource-rich countryside – not long ago a 10-year-old received death threats for his environmental and educational activism. And in the past year especially, repeated massacres and shootings have led to youth deaths across the country. The Duque government has been accused of not doing enough to solve or stop these crimes.

“We young people are the ones sticking our necks out for our country, in every sense, and we’re just met with constant repression,” Sofía, a 17-year-old activist in Bogotá, told me. “To be a young person in Colombia is not only an act of survival, but an act of rebellion. We want to put an end to the systematic violence that has been upheld by so many.”

Protesters raise their hands with fists. Someone is holding a Colombian flag.
Colombian protests in Bogotá.

Hope for a better future

Young people I speak with all over Latin America have echoed Sofía’s sentiment: That in a digital, globalized world, grassroots activism is a tool that feels more appealing and more powerful than ever before. I’ve written this past year about how the pandemic has galvanized our generation of young-adult Americans to fight harder for positive social change. But in few places has it felt as urgent as in Colombia, where for many communities nearly every significant step forward has been met with a relapse into violence. The pandemic has, of course, made everything worse, with nearly 43% of the country’s population now in poverty.

And yet there is so much that Colombians love about their own country and want to see prosper – including its hugely diverse communities, rich history, and vast natural beauty. At the very least, this new generation should have a safe and fair way to speak its mind about the country and world they want to live in. That’s why, at yet another important inflection point for democracy in the Americas, the international community must not only condemn the current violence against protestors, but continue to pressure the Colombian government in the long term to protect defenders of human rights and the environment across the country.

A shirtless man with red fabric draped around him dances in the street with a crowd of people watching
Colombian protests in Bogotá.

For young people, change can’t come soon enough. “Our generation is not going to be silenced by fear,” said Sofía. “We are going to push until things change for the better.” To do our part from afar, we must stand with the pueblo of Colombia and ensure that our own leaders do the same.

Jordan Salama is a writer whose essays and stories appear often in National Geographic, The New York Times, and other outlets. His first book, Every Day the River Changes, a journey down Colombia’s Río Magdalena, will be published by Catapult in November 2021.

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After ‘glorifying violence’ on Twitter, former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe to speak at NYU event

GettyImages 1007871036
Former Colombian president (2002-2010) and senator Alvaro Uribe Velez (C), listens while his attorney Jaime Granados (R) answers questions during a press conference at his residence in Rionegro, Antioquia department, Colombia on July 30, 2018, after he resigned from the Senate and was formally placed under investigation by the Colombian Supreme Court for alleged bribery and fraud.

  • Former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe has been invited to speak at a New York University event.
  • Uribe has been linked to right-wing paramilitary groups and accused of inciting violence against protesters.
  • “Why give this man another platform?” one student critic asked.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In power, former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe was accused of collaborating with death squads that slaughtered peasant farmers and union organizers. More recently, online, he was found to be “glorifying violence” against protesters during a week of unrest that saw more than a dozen people killed.

Now, this week, he will be sharing “his journey and insights in pursuit of citizen and environmental security” at a virtual event hosted by The John Brademas Center at New York University’s campus in Washington, DC.

It’s a curious choice, Adam Isacson, an expert on Colombia at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Insider. Uribe is currently under investigation for bribing right-wing paramilitary groups to lie about one of his leftist political rivals; he was under house arrest last year. And his years as head of state, from 2002 to 2010, saw a major expansion of environmentally destructive mining operations, as well as attacks on those defending the land.

“Maybe they should have a whole series of ‘human rights violators discuss things they never really worked on,'” Isacson said.

NYU insists the May 5 event is not an endorsement. James Devitt, a spokesperson for the university, said in a statement to Insider that “we anticipate a robust exchange on President Uribe’s tenure and the larger issue of sustainability, both among the panelists and during our question-and-answer session.” He also said the school “expects the protests in Colombia – and the former president’s views on them – to be a topic.”

But critics say the center’s panel, with no participants from the South American nation, is ill-equipped for a nuanced, and necessarily confrontational, discussion of a Colombian president’s record in power. And many Colombians do not want a dialogue with their former head of state; they say they would prefer a criminal indictment.

In a letter to the Brademas Center, the group Madres Falsos Positivos de Colombia – mothers whose unarmed children were among the thousands killed by security forces during Uribe’s reign and falsely labeled guerilla fighters – were indignant.

“We do not understand how it is possible that academic centers of such renown have such a level of ignorance of the nefarious social, environmental, economic, cultural and political consequences left by the government of Álvaro Uribe in our country and in the region,” they wrote.

Nor is his contribution to state violence all behind him. In recent days, Colombia has been rocked by street protests over the policies of President Iván Duque Márquez, a member of the same conservative party, Democratic Center, founded by Uribe. Sparked by a proposed tax hike, the protests have morphed into a broader indictment of poverty and an inadequate social safety net.

Uribe, on social media, has inflamed the situation. “Let’s support the right of soldiers and police to use their firearms to defend their integrity and to defend people and property from criminal acts of terrorist vandalism,” he wrote in a post that Twitter later removed for “glorifying violence.”

Isacson said what Uribe posts online has an impact in the real world.

“Like a lot of right-wing figures around the world, he has a lot of admirers in his country’s security forces – far more than President Duque would have. So what Uribe says certainly reverberates throughout the officer corps in both the military and police,” Isacson said.

At least 18 people have been reported killed and dozens more have gone missing during the unrest, which has seen security forces repeatedly open fire on unarmed protesters, eliciting condemnations from the United Nations and US lawmakers.

Melody Feo Sverko, a graduate student at NYU from Bogotá, likens Uribe’s speaking engagement to “having Donald Trump show up to talk about how great your immigration policy is,” and treated as an elder statesman – after he incited a riot at the US Capitol. She is a part of a group of Colombians, academics, and allies who have been urging NYU to rethink the event.

A petition sent to the school, now with more than 5,500 signatures, argues against the idea that having a former president talk is part of a university’s commitment to hosting free and open dialogue, often with controversial speakers. This, signatories maintain, is not a civil debate but the use of a university forum “to echo a single perspective.”

“With concern, we note the absence of other voices,” the letter states.

Feo Sverko hopes NYU reconsiders.

“It’s tone deaf, it’s insensitive – it makes no sense,” she told Insider. “Uribe had his post taken down on Twitter for inciting violence against civilian protesters. Why give this man another platform?”

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