Neither the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot six times by a white police officer, nor the events that have since unfolded in Ferguson, Missouri have taught us anything about American race relations that hasn’t been abundantly clear since for decades. What Ferguson has done is expose, in unprecedented public fashion, the shadowy osmosis of military tactics and equipment into local and state police departments. And one needs only look to one of America’s closest allies in the hemisphere for how badly this could turn out.
The tactics used in Ferguson are not a particularly new phenomenon, but images of armored vehicles spewing tear gas and Army-grade assault weapons being pointed at civilians, combined with the momentum the story has built on Twitter, has turned police aggression into a national issue, even for people who aren’t moved by the simple fact of Brown’s death. In that sense, June’s ACLU report on the subject seems rather prescient. “By invoking the imagery of war, aggressively funding the enforcement of U.S. drug laws, and creating an over-hyped fear of siege from within our borders,” it reads, “the federal government has justified and encouraged the militarization of local law enforcement.”
What the study doesn’t discuss at length is that the federal government has already experimented with similar approaches in countries across the world, affording all manner of political support and military aid to repressive autocratic regimes from Indonesia and Iraq, to South Africa, Egypt, and Guatemala, sometimes with even less oversight than has been exercised back home. These and other historical examples provide the best indicators available of what unchecked fear-mongering and the continued militarization of law enforcement could mean for U.S. democracy over the long term.
In no place are the lingering effects of this “paramilitary police juggernaut” more evident than Colombia, which has, for at least the last 20 years, been by far the biggest recipient of U.S. military aid, equipment, training, and tactical guidance of any country outside the greater Middle East, and which remains — some would say as a result — one of the most entrenched human rights crises in the world.
Since the mid-1980s, Colombia has been a key staging ground for the so-called wars on drugs and terror, but U.S. military involvement in the country actually predates even the 50-year armed conflict often used to justify it. Regardless of the true motives, the reliance of institutionalized right-wing paramilitary violence as an institutionalized strategy in the Colombian conflict has been more or less consistent — from the mid 1960s, when U.S. “special advisors” began advocating for the creation of just such a “guerrilla/terrorist” counterinsurgent structure, all the way up to the early 2000s, when Presidents Clinton and Bush both waived human rights restrictions on massive Plan Colombia aid packages, despite overwhelming evidence that the Colombian state was working hand-and-hand with narcotrafficking death squads throughout much of the country.
The guiding principle throughout has been the conflation of civilians with guerrillas of legitimate dissent and grievances with the act of supporting terrorism. And the results have been predictably destructive. A close parallel to the ongoing protests in Ferguson would be the Colombian government’s handling of last year’s national Agrarian Strike movement, which protested some of nether same systemic inequalities as demonstrations in Missouri .
Almost as soon as roadblocks went up in Colombia last summer, the government reacted with naked displays of force that led to charged confrontations with protesters. Tear gas was employed liberally in civilian areas, and reports emerged of death threats and unprovoked attacks being leveled against peaceful demonstrators, journalists, and even uninvolved bystanders. In one notable case, a local legislator was arrested during one of protests, and various other organizers were held and released without charges. Throughout the month-long strike, top-down rhetoric centered around claims of “outside infiltration” and emphasized isolated incidents of protest violence to the exclusion of widespread police abuses.
That should sound familiar enough to anyone following the Ferguson story. And if getting called out for human rights conduct by Egypt is an embarrassment, then any viable comparisons to Colombian security should say troubling things about the state of U.S. law enforcement.
Looking more broadly at Colombia shows what the extreme version of the trends in the U.S. looks like, offering a warning to American civilians. According to the National Center for Historic Memory, the military-paramilitary apparatus in Colombia has been responsible for more and more gruesome acts of deliberate violence against civilian populations, surpassing the leftists insurgents the government is ostensibly fighting. If 80 percent of the victims in the armed conflict have been unarmed civilians, then the solution has caused dramatically more damage than the supposed problem.
Even in 2013, seven years after what the Human Rights Watch refers to as the “sham” demobilization of Colombia’s largest paramilitary organization, a combined 87 percent of all human rights violations registered by the Center for Popular Investigation and Education were attributed to state (44 percent) and paramilitary (43 percent) actors. To rid the country of terrorism and drugs, in other words, the U.S.-funded, U.S.-backed Colombian government has worked extensively with the worst terrorists and most powerful narco-interests in the country. In Colombia, then, the pretexts for military escalation have only had slightly more grounding in fact than they have in the States, where the same justifications have been used toward the same basic purpose.
The comparison isn’t exact, obviously, particularly as after a third night of calm, the situation may finally be desalting in Ferguson. But the difference is one of degree rather than quality. It’s not hard to look at, say, “false positives,” the widespread Colombian military practice — recently correlated to U.S. aid — of dressing murdered civilians up in guerrilla uniforms, and see a crude metaphor for the posthumous “character assassinations” of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, and countless others like them. In many cases in the United States, this blanket antagonistic mentality already seems to be there, and has been for a long time. Americans should think twice about arming it.
Steven Cohen is the editor of Colombia Reports, an independent English-language news site.