U.S. policy-makers, according to reports in the Washington Post (May 25) and New York Times (June 2), have carved out an area of Colombia corresponding roughly the southern half of the country, and designated as "the box," as the only part of Colombia in which U.S. counter-narcotics aid may be used. These accounts indicate that an area known as "the box" has been roughly demarcated, including the expanding coca fields in the southern plains and jungles of Colombia, in areas long under guerrilla influence. Despite recent State Department pronouncements showing greater sensitivity to human rights concerns in Colombia (e.g., suspending the visas of eight military officers associated with 20th Army Brigade, the military intelligence battalion accused in mid-May of carrying out several notorious political assassinations), U.S. policy appears to be dominated by an alarmist concern for U.S. national security on the part of both the Pentagon and the drug bureaucrats in the White House and State Department. These policy makers have largely simplified the many conflicts in southern Colombia into the "narcoguerrilla" problem.
In an effort to shed more light on the situation in southern Colombia, a delegation from Washington travelled to the region in late January, as part of a joint initiative under the Latin America Working Group. This issue of Colombia Update takes a close-up look "inside the box" in an effort to gain greater insight into the political and social situation of the hundreds of thousands of peasants who make a living by cultivating coca in Colombia. Included are excerpts from the January 1998 delegation's report, and two narratives by D.C.-based delegation members. In addition is an eyewitness account by news cameraman Richard Vélez of repression of the 1996 peasant marches, including an attack by Army forces on him and his camera; a communique from the World Wildlife Fund Colombia Program on the herbicide tebuthiuron, proposed for use in the U.S.-imposed chemical-based forced eradication program; and an Associated Press dispatch, reprinted with permission, described the May 4 Puerto Alvira massacre.
Certainly "the box" is not the only area afflicted by armed conflict and abuses by the parties to the conflict. Other areas have seen recent onslaughts by paramilitary groups; the articles in this issue of Colombia Update are, sadly, merely a few examples of the surge in political violence that has gripped Colombia.
Special thanks to all the contributors to this issue. Please note the urgent actions and the announcements of the October 1 Letelier-Moffitt Award and the October 2 Washington conference on human rights in Colombia.