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Colombia's Class War

by Militante Wednesday, May. 29, 2002 at 6:28 PM

The Rich Avoid the Draft as the Poor Are Pulled Into the Trenches. History Repeats Because the Ruling Class Know It All Too Well; To Their Benefit.

BOGOTA, Colombia, -- The student bulletin board at the University of the Andes offers evidence that a civil war is being fought outside its quiet courtyards. Fliers advertise a seminar on "human rights, conflict and humanitarian law."

The majority of the 4,000 students at "Los Andes" are drawn from the country's conservative elite and have studied Colombia's war. But most will never fight in it, despite a national law that requires one year's military service for all able-bodied men. Some lucked out on the draft lottery. Others suffered health problems, real or invented. Many others paid off the right people.

Colombia's draft, designed a decade ago as an employment program for rural men who rarely studied beyond the fifth grade, has become the most glaring example of how the country's growing conflict falls hardest on the poor. Although the rich experience the war's hardships, mostly through kidnappings that can mean years in jungle camps and high ransoms, the rural poor fill the military ranks, serve the longest in the most dangerous posts and die in combat most frequently.

"It's more out of fear that I opposed going," said 21 year old political science student who asked to be called "Ricky". He said he avoided service because of his opposition to the government.

"Right now if I could end the poverty, the injustice, the unemployment, by picking up a rifle and joining the Marxist guerillas, I would. But my family would never allow it, unless I fought for the government instead," said Ricky, a student radical, who works with some of the 2 million Colombians displaced by the 38-year war.

The draft is receiving new attention as the conflict grows on the profits of a vast drug trade. Colombia's new president, Alvaro Uribe Velez (see Narco News Bulletin for profile), promises a more intensive war that will force more Colombians into military service.

That pledge will likely require new help from Washington at a time when U.S. officials are asking Colombians to commit more of their own resources to the war. The conflict involves two revolutionary armies, the FARC and ELN, and a paramilitary special force death squad that fights them alongside the U.S.-backed military.

The draft has become part of the congressional debate over the Bush administration's request to allow a .3 billion "anti-narcotics" aid package to be used directly against the guerrillas. The Senate intends to endorse the request. There is a requirement that Colombia reform its 140,000-member armed forces to ensure that it is a "higher paid, professionally trained military that respects human rights," according to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the foreign operations subcommittee, who said fixing the conscription system should be one of the reforms.

"The fact that Colombia's is an army of the poor, as it is in many Latin American countries, and that the elite avoid service while expecting an under-educated, poorly trained, and under-equipped army to do the fighting, must be changed," Leahy said.

Gen. Fernando Tapias, head of the armed forces, said tightening the draft law was a top priority with a broader war in the offering. Since the "peace talks" were abandoned by the government, military officials have met with 20,000 parents to urge them not to pay bribes to keep their sons out of the service. The prosecutor general's office has opened 113 cases against middlemen suspected of arranging the payoffs.

"This is the first duty that men have to face as citizens of this country," said Col. Carlos Rueda, the army's recruiting director, who has met with parents four times this year. "We tell them, 'If your sons start their citizenship avoiding the draft with your help, don't you think that they might continue to behave that way the rest of their lives?' "

The Colombian military includes 60,000 infantrymen deployed in combat zones, about twice the number of guerrilla forces, but far fewer than what military analysts say is needed.

Under current law, Colombian men must report to the draft board when they graduate from high school or turn 18. Graduates who are physically fit must serve one year in a noncombat post. The military needs about 27,000 graduates a year, far fewer than the number available, so a lottery determines who must serve. The others pay a fee, based on their income and usually less than 0, to legally complete their obligation -- about half the cost of the average bribe to avoid service.

For those who do not finish high school, mandatory military service lasts 18 months, with at least a year in a combat post. Most non-graduates serve in their native regions -- mostly rural backwaters, those hardest hit by the war. The military takes an average of 36,000 non-graduates a year, half of whom make the military their career.

Diego Salazar, who is from Mitu in the eastern province of Vaupes, was accepted at LaSalle University in Bogota when he graduated from high school five years ago. He had to delay enrollment until he completed his service with the National Police -- part of the armed forces -- during which he was supposed to ensure that no harmful plants entered ecologically sensitive Mitu.

Two months before he was scheduled to finish, Salazar and 15 other conscripts were kidnapped by guerrillas. During three years in captivity, he slept in jungle camps and in small wooden boats on the Vaupes River.

"I never thought it [military service] should be obligatory," said Salazar, now 22 and living in Bogota. "It was not something I wanted to do. I was preparing to study. If I don't have a million pesos [about 0] to avoid it, it's not fair that those who do should be allowed to."

Uribe said he intends to add 46,000 professional soldiers to the army to bring the total to 100,000, vastly reducing the proportion of recruits in combat roles. But Uribe said he does not plan to change the draft until those soldiers are added, which could take years.

"Right now, the poorest of the poor do the fighting, and the rich people drive the generals' cars, if anything," said Uribe's running mate, journalist Francisco Santos, who said he was rejected for service because of poor eyesight and asthma. He said he has told his sons, 12 and 13, that they will enter the ranks. Neither Uribe nor his sons performed military service.

There are, of course, exceptions to the norm among the Colombian elite. Roberto Junguito, 32, a vice president of one of Colombia's largest holding companies, fits the profile of the Colombian who is able to avoid military service. His father is Colombia's representative to the International Monetary Fund and his mother is a former national treasurer.

"But there was never any talk in my house about avoiding service," Junguito said during an interview in his office at Valores Bavaria, whose holdings include major airline, media and retail companies. "If I got out of it fairly, that was okay. But my parents weren't going to pay."

So a few days after graduation, Junguito went to the Infantry School near his house, one of 292 recent high school graduates scheduled for appointments that day.

The recruiting officer announced that he needed 110 people but that only 95 of them showed up. So Junguito was given a haircut and shown his cot. He immediately began three months of training. His first culture shock was the food, horrible to him but not the others.

"They looked at me and said, 'Isn't this great? Three meals a day,' " said Junguito, whose time included six months as an interpreter for Colombian "peacekeepers" in the Middle East. "When you have to live with and share with people from a different social class, to become their friends and understand their lives, it changes the way you look at this country."

But Colombians have long been divided on the cause and meaning of their war, and the same is true of the next generation that will be called on to fight it.

Political science student Freddy Osorio lives in a middle-class neighborhood, and his parents are university administrators. He listens to Led Zeppelin.

Asked if he would join either the army or the guerrillas, Osorio said no, but with more vehemence in rejecting the army. He is among 10 Los Andes students taking a course at the Superior War College, a choice he says he made "to get another point of view."

"But they are very aggressive and tell us we are part of the problem," said Osorio, who said military service should be voluntary. "They keep repeating over and over that the war has been going on for 50 years, and they never say why. I started this course in the political center, but now I'm on the left."

Vanessa Suarez, whose father is a wealthy industrialist, plans to avoid the army when she graduates, she said. Despite her bad experience in the war college course, Suarez said she really doesn't care what happens in Colombia, "because when I finish, I'm flying to the United States anyway." A country she says, is the best in the world.

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