Colombia: in evil hour

Isabel Hilton
4 March 2004

The man I will call Jose Miguel used to be director of a health clinic in a small town in Colombia. One day a group of paramilitary fighters arrived and set up camp in the clinic for several days. After they had left, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) arrived. They threatened Jose Miguel with death because he had, they said, “collaborated” with the paramilitary.

In another village, a health worker was threatened by the paramilitary for allegedly offering medical assistance to the FARC. Both have fled their homes and are now among the displaced in Bogota. In Colombia’s forty years of armed conflict, and especially in the last fifteen, such stories have become so commonplace that individually they attract little attention: only the collective suffering weighs enough to be acknowledged – the experience repeated in its hundreds of thousands. But the details of lives disrupted and destroyed, and the steady erosion of any peaceful, civic ground in a country increasingly defined and conditioned by its armed extremes – this is a story now almost untold and untellable in Colombia.

Politics and paramilitarism

Colombia’s president, Alvaro Uribe Velez recently visited Europe in search of moral and financial support. He received a cool welcome: even Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister, declined to meet him and his address to the European parliament was marked by protests and a boycott by its members. In Colombia, these events were attributed to a European tendency to romanticise – or even to support – the guerrillas. Europeans were, in this explanation, either fools or knaves.

The reality is that in Europe there is no support in the governments, and little in its parliaments, for the FARC - or the other major guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). If it once existed, it was long since destroyed by the dismal list of kidnappings, killings and other atrocities against civilians that can be laid at the door of the guerrillas.

As Uribe jetted in, the European Union’s council of ministers offered to back Colombia’s fight against narcotics and terrorism but rebuked the president for his failure to comply with UN recommendations on human rights abuses and for the powers he had granted to the judicial police and other arms of state security. As the EU’s commissioner for external relations Chris Patten observed on his recent visit to Colombia, these fights should be conducted “with respect for the rule of law, of international humanitarian law and the international human rights agreements to which Colombia was party.”

European reserve stems from President Uribe’s “democratic security” policies, which provide for a network of 1.5 million paid informers as well as 15,000 peasant soldiers – army recruits who live at home, thus exposing their families to military risk. In addition, they grant the army powers to detain civilians on suspicion, without judicial preliminaries, to raid homes and places of work.

All these measures contribute to the erosion of the rule of law in Colombia. The law is in many respects tenuous enough, but Colombians still cite it in support of the argument that Colombia, despite everything, remains a functioning democracy.

President Uribe now wants to give civilians the right to carry assault weapons, a measure best explained in the context of his peace negotiations with the paramilitary. He plans to demobilise and reintegrate more than 14,000 paramilitary fighters whose atrocities and terror are certainly the equal of those of the guerrillas.

The paramilitary forces first appeared in 1988 when Colombia’s major drug traffickers, under threat of extradition to the United States, declared war on any proponents of extradition in the Colombian state. In their more recent manifestation – in which they present themselves as a force of self defence against the mounting level of kidnappings by the FARC – they acknowledge their debt to a man called Carlos Castaño for the founding idea.

In 1997, Castaño inaugurated a loose coalition of such forces known as the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC). He was the brother of a prominent local cocaine trafficker and the son of a cattle-rancher from Antioquia who had been kidnapped and murdered by the FARC. Carlos embarked on a bloody campaign of vengeance.

Since their inception, the paramilitary have been benignly viewed by the official armed forces who, until recently, not just left them undisturbed but even lent logistical support. The paramilitaries could use methods that were beyond the legal scope of the armed forces and provided deniable cover for any freelance operations indulged in by local army commanders.

It soon became clear that self-defence was not the only agenda. The AUC and others were also defending and promoting the interests of major landowners and drug-dealers, using terror to clear the population off the land in contested areas. They often gained either de facto rights or forced the owners to concede legal title, thus denying them a chance to return.

Although the paramilitary forces, like the FARC and the ELN, have been declared terrorist organisations in the post 9/11 order, the government is keen to find a way to legitimise any who are willing to undergo this step. Under a deal that Uribe wants to conclude, they have the opportunity to demobilise, to be forgiven for their past crimes and, on payment of a modest fine, to run for parliament on a freshly wiped slate. Carlos Castaño has already announced his intention to stand for office.

Paramilitary killings, though down, have not stopped – NGOs report 750 in the last two years of tortuous ceasefire negotiations. The paramilitary have won unofficial control of such important cities as Barrancabermeja, Colombia’s principal oil refining town – which gives them control of the $60 million in petrol estimated to be stolen annually from the pipelines, as well as tracts of valuable land from which they have driven the rightful occupants as well as any guerrillas based there.

According to government statistics, the last eight years of paramilitary land grab has concentrated 40% of Colombia’s best agricultural land in “narco” hands. In a further twist, a former governor of Cordoba, in agreement with local cattle-ranchers, recently proposed that any lands expropriated from drug traffickers be distributed among demobilised paramilitary, to help them settle down. Justice for their victims – or restitution of their stolen lands – is unlikely to figure in the talks.

Pointing this out in Colombia is a hazardous business. Some years ago I visited a Colombian NGO that was analysing areas of intense paramilitary activity in terms of the value of contested land – including such contributory factors as mineral deposits and proposed infrastructure projects. The degree of overlap was startling. Soon afterwards, paramilitary forces kidnapped several members of the NGO. They were subsequently released, but the message was clear. In this war, to know too much – and to make it known – is potentially a capital offence.

A key component of President Uribe’s external public relations is the fact that he is a democratically elected president and the assertion that he enjoys a staggering 80% support. But the opinion poll that produced that striking vote of confidence was conducted, as almost all of them are in Colombia, by telephone from Miami. 60% of the Colombian population struggles to eat, let alone to acquire a telephone.

Even for the well-off and well-connected, the frank expression of a political opinion can be hazardous. Recently, Juan Carlos Lecompte, the husband of Ingrid Betancourt – a former presidential candidate who was kidnapped two years ago by the FARC – revealed that he was receiving death threats. His crime was to criticise President Uribe’s refusal to negotiate a humanitarian exchange of any of the 3,000 hostages held by the guerrillas for some 400 guerrilla captives in Colombian jails.

The message he received was straightforward: if he did not like President Uribe, it said, he could get out of Colombia. If he stayed in Colombia he should shut up. If he did not shut up, his interlocutor would shut him up. It is not an atmosphere in which accurate opinion polls thrive.

A more direct expression of popular sentiment came with the referendum in October 2003 in which Uribe sought approval for new security measures and license to change the constitution to allow himself another term of office. It was resoundingly defeated. The next day, Colombians elected a series of prominent figures of the left – including ex-guerrillas and a member of the Communist Party – to important positions that included that of mayor of the capital, Bogota. Does that mean that most Colombians support the FARC? I think not. But it may indicate that many Colombians have doubts about the measures being taken in the name of defeating them.

The ripples of Plan Colombia

In 1999, when Plan Colombia was first floated to the US Congress, it was presented as a comprehensive anti-narcotics plan that would combine support for those growers who would switch to legal crops with stern action against those who would not. By the time it was finally approved, the carrots had shrunk and the stick had grown.

Now it is acknowledged as a frankly “counter-terrorist” programme – presumably on the questionable grounds that defeating the FARC will eliminate Colombia’s cocaine trade: in fact, according to a report commissioned by Uribe, 40% of Colombia’s cocaine flow is controlled by paramilitary groups. President Bush has asked for $567 million to spend in Colombia in 2004; last year, direct aid to the security forces totalled $31 million.

The public relations of the “war on drugs” – briefly in the spotlight as the war of choice at the end of the cold war – were always problematic. Since the war was declared, drug production and consumption have continued to grow. Any temporary reduction in production in Colombia is offset by increased production elsewhere.

It is, as a counter-narcotics official once observed, like squeezing a soft balloon: one Colombian congressmen explained to me recently that the net result of the toxic programme of aerial spraying carried out under Plan Colombia has been to keep the market price steady by preventing any sudden oversupply.

But simply to re-label the war in Colombia as a branch office of the global “war on terror” risks another defeat. The FARC and the ELN are not al-Qaida: they are both longstanding insurgent armies with exclusively domestic ambitions. However degraded their methods and discredited their ideology, their existence represents the failure of a political system to resolve profound and long running internal problems. Even were they to be defeated militarily (and the record in that respect is not encouraging), few dispassionate observers can envisage a lasting peace, or indeed any peace, in Colombia – except through the resolution of the problems that gave rise to the insurgencies.

The government of Uribe is headed in the other direction. Beneath the crude outlines of the Colombian conflict – armed forces against guerrillas and residual paramilitary, with all sides sustained by coca revenues – are a myriad other conflicts that reveal an entirely different agenda.

Colombia is one of the most unequal countries on the continent in terms of wealth distribution. A land of relative wealth in which more than half of all Colombians live in poverty is now assailed by a policy of economic liberalisation, enthusiastically embraced by the government but resisted by a wealth of social and civic organisations that have, in turn, been targeted by gunmen.

In the year after Uribe was elected president in August 2002, fifteen human rights defenders were murdered. Trades unionists, schoolteachers, and health workers have been targeted – in part because of the leadership they provide in rural communities. 16,000 people, including many trades unionists and civic activists, have been arrested under new security regulations. Others have died contesting the privatisation of public services and other measures foreseen under Uribe’s economic liberalisation programme.

The president and his ministers have denounced native and foreign NGOs as sympathisers with terrorism. Recently, the definitions were widened further. In Bogota a rash of mysterious notices appeared on major hoardings and billboards: Those who go abroad to denigrate Colombia, the message said, “are traitors to the fatherland.”


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