Talk of "terrorism" is everywhere. But words are imprecise tools. Could it be that people tend to see terrorism where they want to and manage to ignore it elsewhere?
Take Colombia, for example. While it is a naturally rich and culturally diverse country, Colombia is not at peace. 3,000 kidnappings are reported annually: an average of more than 8 per day. Labor activists are murdered at the rate of about 150 per year — Colombia is by far the most dangerous place on earth to fight for workers' rights. In the last three years about 30 professors, students, and university administrators have been killed. As for the indigenous people, in just the last year alone more than 300 of them were assassinated. Colombia is obviously not at peace.
So how do we describe what's going on in Colombia? Is it a war? A revolution? An insurgency? If it is terrorism, who are the terrorists? Let's see if we can find them …
Who's who in Colombia these days? Well, first of all, there is an elected government, currently led by right-wing politician Alvaro Uribe.
Then there are right-wing paramilitary forces, often set up or hired by the wealthy as mercenaries. There are two left-wing guerrilla armies; the FARC, the larger of the two, may well be the strongest guerrilla army in the history of Latin America. All of these illegal (or extra-legal) forces, left and right, are responsible for numerous massacres and violations of human rights. All derive significant income from illegal narcotics.
There is a military and a police force. The police force is corrupt from top to bottom: the former chief of the anti-narcotics division, for example, resigned earlier this year after $2 million of US aid vanished. The military, meanwhile, is credited with the worst human-rights record in the Western Hemisphere — although much of its dirtiest work is often "farmed out" to the right-wing paramilitaries. As for military strategy: the army has roughly doubled in size over the last five years, yet the amount of territory it controls continues to decrease.
Then there is the government of the United States. Over the last three years in Colombia, the US government has provided billions of dollars in military aid, ostensibly to combat the production and processing of cocaine. But production is not declining; it is spreading to other countries in the region. And even inside Colombia, it may still be rising: the US State Department reports that in just the one year 2000-2001 the land area under coca cultivation increased by more than 25%. Yet the same alleged anti-drug policies are being pursued. Fumigation, for example, is proceeding apace, leading to contamination of food and water supplies, illness, the killing of livestock, and further economic devastation. Last year, a group of Colombian governors came to Washington hoping to convince the Congress to stop the fumigation in their provinces; they did not succeed. Perhaps by sheer coincidence, the fumigation often drives campesinos and indigenous people away from their homes and farms, leaving valuable land, timber, oil, and minerals accessible to certain parties who appreciate the easy access.
Finally, there are the foreign — largely US — corporations. Their entry into Colombia has greatly been eased in recent years by the "free market" conditions attached to loans and aid packages by international lending institutions — e.g., the World Bank and the IMF — and by the US government. These "free market" conditions usually require the termination of various Colombian government subsidies — so that already- impoverished Colombians now have to pay unsubsidized prices for many of the necessities of life. At the same time the US corporations demand — and are given — subsidies by their own government, both at home and in Colombia. Occidental Petroleum, for example, recently outfoxed the "free market" yet again by convincing the US government to finance its security needs in Colombia to the tune of a hundred million (tax-payer) dollars. Coca-Cola, meanwhile, is being sued in US federal court, charged with complicity in the murder of a Colombian union leader. "The lawsuit alleges, in detail, that [a Coca-Cola] plant manager […] consorted with [right-wing paramilitary] gunmen prior to the murder and made public comments that the gunmen would wipe out the union" (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 6, 2002). The day after the murder, the gunmen returned to demand that all union members at the plant resign.
So … corporations, governments, armed groups of one sort or another, these are the players. Surrounding them, yet surrounded by them, are the millions of ordinary people of Colombia — civilians — from the indigenous and rural folk to the urban masses. However we choose to describe the violence in Colombia, these civilians are doing most of the dying. Suppose we were to ask them who the "terrorists" are — what would they say?