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Colombia: who are the enemies of peace and democracy?

Jenny Pearce
9 April 2008

The title of this article is chosen to provoke serious reflection rather than divisive polemic. This is the most difficult of tasks in a Colombian context, where both local media coverage and international opinion are almost as polarised as Colombian society itself.

Jenny Pearce is professor of Latin American politics in the department of peace studies, University of Bradford. She researches situations of poverty, inequality and violence in Latin America and the social-action efforts needed to address them. Among her works is (with Jude Howell) Civil Society and Development: A Critical Exploration (Lynne Reiner, 2001)

Also by Jenny Pearce in openDemocracy:

"The crisis of Colombia's state" (15 May 2007)

For the Economist, the answer to the question I have posed is straightforward. Its leader article "The war behind the insults" (6 March 2008) - commenting on the escalation of tensions between Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia following the killing by Colombian forces of Farc commander Raúl Reyes inside Ecuadorian territory - attributed the problems unequivocally to the guerrilla movement itself (see Adam Isacson, "The Colombia - Venezuela - Ecuador tangle" [17 March 2008]).

The newspaper characterised Farc as being trapped by "anachronistic Marxist language" which "conceals its degeneration into a predatory mafia of kidnappers and drug traffickers. In the 1990s it came close to making Colombia ungovernable. Then three years of talks - during which the Farc kidnapped many of the hostages who now constitute its main weapon - showed that it had no interest in peace or democracy."

The images of a few of the approximately 700 hostages held by the Farc - and letters they have written to their families - should move any human being to deep compassion. On 21 January 2008, while I was in Colombia trying to work my head and heart around the competing claims to the moral high ground in the country, the weekly Semana magazine published photographs of eight kidnap victims, including soldiers who have spent a decade in Farc camps.

The images of exhausted and sick human beings with heavy chains round their necks suggest that the Farc was either oblivious or indifferent to their likely emotional impact. One hostage, Colonel Luis Mendieta, wrote in a letter to his family: "It is not the physical pain which bothers me, nor the chains around my neck that torment me, but the mental agony, the evil of the bad and the indifference of the good, as if we were worth nothing, as if we didn't exist."

Indeed, it has taken international pressure - such as the intervention of France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, in campaigning for the release of Colombian/French citizen, former Colombian presidential candidate, and Farc kidnap victim Ingrid Betancourt - to force Colombia's president, Álvaro Uribe, to take the issue of the hostages seriously. It was Uribe's request to his Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chávez, to act as intermediary with the Farc that unleashed a sequence of events that resulted in the release of only six of the hostages (and those in circumstances of extraordinary confusion). Chávez's role was undoubtedly critical to the release of the six, although there remains contention over his handling of his mediator role. What is clearer is that Uribe puts the fate of the hostages a long way behind his main objective: the annihilation of the Farc.

The story of two marches

President Uribe's popularity rating rose to 80% during the week I was in Colombia - reflecting both popular revulsion at the cruel images of the hostages, and anger at Hugo Chávez's declaration (in the wake of the release of two of the hostages) that the Farc was a legitimate combatant in a war with the Colombian state. This characterisation only reinforced Uribe's efforts to rally the country behind him; not even Colombia's leftwing political opposition - the Polo Democrático - accepted it as appropriate. The president sought to capitalise on this wave of feeling by calling on citizens to mobilise against the Farc on the streets of Bogota and other cities on 4 February 2008; millions of Colombians responded (see Catalina Holguín, "Colombia: networks of dissent and power", [4 February 2008]).

That same week, I spent time with anguished human-rights and peace activists. They too were moved by the images in Semana. Most felt they wanted to protest against the kidnappings and the many human-rights abuses in the country committed by multiple armed actors. But they did not wish to march in favour of Uribe, who they considered responsible for state collusion with paramilitary groups and impunity towards the perpetrators of some of the most savage crimes in Colombian history. Some wanted to boycott the march, and others to wear t-shirts or carry a banner which made it clear they were marching not in hatred of the Farc but for a humanitarian solution to the problem of the hostages and against all violence. After much internal debate, the Polo Democrático held a rally before the march itself began in favour of a humanitarian path beyond the conflict.

On 6 March 2008, another march was held - organised by the Movement of Victims against State Violence. It was well attended, if not on the same scale as the 4 February one: several hundred thousand people took to the streets of Bogotá and nineteen other cities. It had its component of political protest against Uribe, but more important was the impulse of opposition to violence and injustice, especially among women; one placard carried by members of the National Network of Displaced Women announced (referring to the vicious abuses of the paramilitary Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia [AUC]), "In the name of peace they make war. Farc, AUC, what shame!" Indeed, even the conservative national daily El Tiempo made an important point the next day: that the "number of women who marched yesterday, not only in Bogotá but in various towns of the country, revealed one of the most crude realities of the armed conflict. They are, as the Comisión Nacional de Reparación y Reconciliación (Commission of Reparation and Reconciliation / CNRR) has confirmed, those who have borne the weight of the violence.

Within the two Colombian marches, there is a perceptible current of opinion which sees violence and abuse from any quarter as the focal point of mobilisation. This is well expressed by Marco Romero, president of the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (Codhes) in an interview with Semana in the week of the second march:

"Colombian society was accustomed to denouncing crimes against people near them, but maintaining silence in face of that which has affected others. It was a partial and asymmetric ethic. With these marches there has been a big step. A movement has been generated which considers it legitimate to condemn the crimes of one side and the other - it doesn't matter where it originates. This embodies the principle that one day in Colombia, the pain of all the victims will be the pain of the society as a whole."

Yet, this emergent principle, it must be acknowledged, is still in the minority - probably a very small minority. If that is so, one reason is that President Uribe has resolutely worked to direct societal opprobrium against only one party in the violence: the Farc.

The nature of the Farc

The Farc is indisputably an enemy of peace and democracy in Colombia. This does not mean that (as the Economist leading article maintains) it is a criminal organisation. Indeed, even the familiar, reductive epithet of "terrorist" - a term which President Uribe has systematically promulgated in order to insert Colombia into the global "war on terror" in order to win the military aid and economic support he needs to crush the Farc - is not straightforward.

Also in openDemocracy on Colombia's politics and internal violence:

Isabel Hilton, "Álvaro Uribe's gift: Colombia's mafia goes legit"(25 October 2005)

Sue Branford, "Colombia's other war" (14 November 2005)~

Ana Carrigan, "Colombia's elections: the regional exception" (10 March 2006)

Ana Carrigan, "Colombia's testing times" (29 March 2006)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "Colombia needs a Contadora: a democratic proposal" (29 May 2006)

Adam Isacson, ""The United States and Colombia: the next plan" (12 March 2007)

Jenny Pearce, "The crisis of Colombia's state" (14 May 2007)

Ana Carrigan, "Pawns of war: the Colombian hostage crisis" (15 November 2007)

Myles Frechette, "Colombia: interrupted lives" (21 January 2008)

Catalina Holguín, "Colombia: networks of dissent and power" (4 February 2008)

Adam Isacson, "The Colombia-Venezuela-Ecuador tangle" (14 March 2008)

The Farc emerged as an instrument of peasant self-defence. It is still rooted in a mindset of ideological rigidity which stems from its isolation from the political realm. But that isolation was not always its chosen path. Its effort to test the potential for pursuing goals through normal political channels - the Unión Patriótica (Patriotic Union) party founded in 1985 - was systematically decimated by forces of the right. Many of the (at least) 2,000 of its members who were murdered had - naively or courageously - exposed themselves to their killers while trying to participate as electoral candidates in local and national elections.

As late as 1991, the Farc is believed to have been considering entering into the constituent assembly set up under the presidency of César Gaviria in the wake of negotiations with other guerrilla organisations. This possibility withered after the the Gaviria government declared "total war" on the movement and the Colombian army assaulted the Casa Verde (the Farc's headquarters). Since then, there is no doubt that the Farc has pursued war as politics by other means.

Since the path of politics was abandoned, Farc has both abused many civilian lives and used tactics of intimidation, fear and violence which some define as terrorism, and entered into the corrupting logic of the drugs trade, multiple forms of extortion and the anti-human tactic of kidnapping. For all this, the Farc is an enemy of peace and democracy in Colombia.

Its political ideas, meanwhile, have very little credibility for most Colombians - though they do exist. The Farc still presents an armed challenge to unequal landownership, rural and urban impoverishment, and multinational and other investment which cares nothing for the sustainable livelihoods of ordinary Colombians and the concentration of wealth which ostentatiously flaunts itself today in Bogotá's shopping-malls. Yet its political vision for the country has been irrevocably tainted through the decision to wage war using any means available and at any human cost.

The cycles of violence

However, the Farc is not the only enemy of peace and democracy. Since around October 2007, Álvaro Uribe has been enormously successful in directing the country's attention exclusively upon the insurgent threat. The focused, resolute and obsessed president has persuaded the vast majority of Colombia's population to suspend judgment on his stance in relation to the country's conflicts, and the deeper role of his political circle and the paramilitary forces they have forged deals with.

The inside pages of Colombia's national and regional newspapers offer the skeleton of a narrative of revelations about paramilitary atrocities. On 4 March, for instance - the very week of the tensions on the borders with Ecuador and Venezuela - this item appeared in El Tiempo:

"An ex-Colombian paramilitary chief killed several of his victims with poisonous snakes in order to evade responsibility for these crimes, according to a confession to the public prosecutor revealed this Tuesday by the local press. Jose Gregorio Mangones, alias ‘Carlos Tijeras', admitted that he ordered that practice in order to avoid that the attacks of his extreme rightwing group overtake the three killings which would turn them into massacres, according to the definition established in international humanitarian law. ‘....the aim was that they shouldn't hold us responsible for so many, so we used snakes, and these deaths count as accidents of nature'...Mangones took responsibility for 400 murders, which were added to another 320 admitted in a previous hearing. These people were murdered under accusation of cooperating or sympathising with the left guerrillas."

This hearing is taking place under the auspices of the "justice and peace law', which enabled the demobilisation of more than 31,000 paramilitary members of the AUC; though it has been condemned by international bodies for failing to meet international standards on truth, justice and reparation. In return for a confession and reparations to victims, the former militiamen receive sentences of between five and eight years. In other words, for killing 720 civilians, this paramilitary would spend little more than five years in jail.

Many Colombians - and some of the country's international allies - are being persuaded that this extraordinary guarantee of effective impunity is the necessary cost of ending Colombia's long war and strengthening its state. From another angle, it is the seed of ongoing war and the further erosion of the state's authority and legitimacy.

The Colombian commission of jurists, in one of the most careful analyses of 31,656 extra-judicial killings and forced disappearances perpetrated in 1996- 2006, attributes 46% of those where the perpetrator has been identified to the paramilitary groups, 5.1% to agents of the state, and 14% to the guerrillas. In addition, the paramilitary are deemed responsible for the majority of the estimated 3 million victims of internal displacement in the country.

In a number of cases, these expulsions are linked to massacres. Rafael Pardo, who was minister of defence under Cesar Gaviria, recounts in his book on paramilitarism - Fin del Paramilitarismo ¿es posible su desmonte? (Bogota, Ediciones B, 2007) - one such story: of the "pre-announced massacre" in Alto Naya, in the Valle del Cauca, whose inhabitants had alerted the authorities about the imminent arrival of the paramilitaries since December 2000 - four months before they arrived in April 2001 and murdered more than a hundred peasants. There was no guerrilla presence in this region; the massacre was aimed at establishing absolute control over the population and gain access to land. An estimated 4 million hectares have been stolen by paramilitaries, according to Amnesty International's 2008 statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

This is the side of the story which Colombians are being asked to put aside. Human-rights violations have declined since the demobilisation of the paramilitary, but killings and threats still continue at unacceptably high levels. Moreover, over the last few years there is evidence that the army is increasingly involved in extra-judicial killings. The commission of jurists documents 287 killed by the military in 2007, a 10% increase on 2006. The office of the UN high commissioner for human rights has documented 955 cases of extrajudicial killings and 235 cases of forced disappearance by the state's security forces between July 2002 and June 2007 - the years of Álvaro Uribe's presidency.

Some responsibility must be attributed to incentives to the army and police to show their successes against "terrorism", which generate a phenomenon known as "false positives" - the killing of peasants and unemployed youth who are then claimed to be guerrillas who died in combat. The Jesuit research centre Cinep has documented 169 victims of "false positive" abuses between July 2006 and July 2007. During my trip to Colombia, police officers I interviewed in Medellin confirmed informally that bodies of those killed in this way in the city were moved clandestinely outside its limits, in order to sustain the city's reputation for reducing violence and enhancing the security force's for defeating "terrorists".

The overall decline in the number of massacres and extra-judicial killings has diverted attention from the continued social and political control of municipalities and territories by (apparently) demobilised paramilitary. New paramilitary groups have arisen which contend for control of drugs laboratories, brothels, arms and drugs-trafficking networks. Semana reported at the end of 2007 that a group known as the Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles) had emerged in Cúcuta to impose authority on many neighbourhoods; murders in the town had increased from 259 in January-September 2006 to 327 over the same period a year later. On 19 March 2008, the Colombian press revealed evidence that the Aguilas Negras are - through its Bloque Metropolitano - operating in Bogotá. The armed right is increasingly active, confident that the president has been so successful in rallying the country against the Farc that little attention will shift to their atrocities. There is a real danger that Colombia will see renewed violence against social and human-rights activists, whom the president has always disparaged and tried to associate with the armed left. Many are living in fear.

The perils of demobilisation

Thus, far from strengthening the Colombian state, Álvaro Uribe is undermining it from within - in two ways:

* through the further erosion of the state as protector of citizens' rights

* through the blind eye it has turned to the emergence of "parallel territories" where order is based on violence imposed by paramilitary groups which either have never demobilised and or who have remobilised.

The creation of these violent jurisdictions is not confined to the "demobilised" paramilitary. Drug-traffickers with whom they have affinities and shared business interests have long established such enclaves. The mantra circulated by the United States government as well as President Uribe - that the Farc is the main source of drug-trafficking in the country - is a cynically misleading analysis. The region around Putumayo offers evidence for this: in January 2008 it was discovered that drug-traffickers had built their own refineries in order to process crude oil stolen from the Transandean oil pipeline for use in coca laboratories (eighteen such clandestine refineries had been exposed by the Putumayo police in 2007). True, the Farc had been the first to recognise the opportunity of siphoning oil from the Transandean oil pipeline; but paramilitary groups swiftly followed, to the extent that (as the Medellin newspaper El Colombiano has reported) "the main owners of the ‘business' are Los Rastrojos, of the North of Valle cartel". Drugs cartels now have a major influence in and in many cases total control over the municipalities of the Valle region.

Rafael Pardo is a man of the "establishment". But in his book on the paramilitary he writes about his deep concerns about the demobilisation process and the threat it poses to Colombian democracy:

"The policy implemented by the government for the demobilisation of the paramilitary organisations will leave a paramilitarism alive in the country, reinventing itself through organised crime and with their leaders legalised with alternative sentences; it will also leave thousands of reintegrated men and women, without sufficient and adequate programmes for their civil integration and for their definitive abandonment of their illegal and criminal activities. At the same time, the process will present literally millions of victims, including the displaced, with a potential recognition of their legal status, but without coherent programmes and enough money to satisfy them. For Colombians, this incomplete and badly led process will mean that paramilitarism will not be dismantled, the extension of democracy will be prevented, and our liberties will be restricted even more."

The state of unknowing

Many Colombians have sought a kind of collective solace in a collective forgetting. They have put their faith in President Uribe and accepted, for now at least, his argument that the Farc are the country's main enemy. They hope that he will restore some pride in a country which is a byword for violence and illegal trafficking but which has a strong middle class with a desire to be globally respectable. "He is the first strong president Colombia has had", one Colombian young woman told me. But, such faith, which can be understood at one level, requires that a full assessment be postponed - with respect both to the proliferating threats to democracy and peace (as Uribe focuses on just one), and to the role Uribe, his political camp, and other sectors of the Colombian elite have played in ignoring or actively nurturing those other threats.

The analysis which is now emerging on the rise of the paramilitary clearly points to a coherent national project of expansion of the AUC between 1997 and 2003. "What really happened in that period of five years in relation to the military and police authorities", asks León Valencia, "which did nothing to act against the expansion of the AUC, which was massacring the poorest and most defenceless population?"

Again it is on the inside pages that the story is told of how many of Uribe's closest allies are now under investigation or have been imprisoned for the deals they made with paramilitary forces in order to gain congressional seats. A small column in El Tiempo on 29 February announced the imprisonment of the fourth congressman to be sentenced of a group of twenty-two currently under arrest for their links with the AUC - all of them supporters of Uribe in congress.

Another miniscule column in El Tiempo on 10 March - the momentous week of the killing of Raúl Reyes - announced a further indictment of nine politicians for their connections with the paramilitary. They include ex-governors, ex-mayors, ex-congressmen - most of them (like the president himself) cattle- ranchers. By November 2007, the office of Colombia's attorney-general was reviewing 100 cases of alleged collusion between paramilitaries, state officials, the judicial administration and the security forces. The list of those arrested includes Jorge Noguera, Álvaro Uribe's former campaign manager in Magdalena, and national-intelligence director from 2002-05 (even the US has revoked Noguera's visa due to the seriousness of the charges against him).

The idea that Uribe himself knew nothing of what was going on defies belief; but it is a suspension of belief amongst the population - and, scandalously, amongst international allies and some commentators - which has enabled Uribe to convince the country that the threat to peace and democracy comes uniquely from the Farc.

The only purpose

President Uribe is a threat to democracy because he does not really believe in it, and a threat to peace because he has no interest in it. Uribe believes in his direct relationship with the people, and in an efficient state machine to deliver the decisions he makes on behalf of the wealthy interests he protects. He is not interested in autonomous social organisations; labour, civil and human rights; or scrutiny by citizens, the lifeblood of an accountable and meaningful modern democracy.

His main presidential goal is a military defeat of the Farc; and to that end he will turn a blind eye to violence committed by any other armed actor. The result is to sow the seed for renewed violent conflict. Now, speculation is rife that he is about to achieve his goal, and that a significant weakening of the Farc has been achieved. For Uribe, that is worth being forced - for example - by the Organisation of American States (OAS) to apologise to Ecuador for his infringement of their territory in the assassination of Raúl Reyes.

Whether the Farc is truly being seriously damaged is hard to judge. There is evidence of high-level infiltration of the Farc secretariat. The killing of a second Farc commander, "Ivan Rios" by his own head of security - a few days after the killing of Reyes - is an indication of this. The Farc is reduced in size and has suffered many desertions and loss of territory. However, it remains in control of vast areas of the south of Colombia, and still has an estimated 13,000 men under arms.

The Farc, in short, is a diminished military force but by no means a defeated one. Alvaro Uribe needs to show some very convincing victories in the coming months if he is to retain his political momentum. In the meantime, the cost of his policies is very high, both for the immediate future of the hostages and for the long-term prospects for peace. Reyes was killed at the moment when a high-level delegation from France was on its way to discuss the hostage situation with him; its members were warned against entering the guerrilla-camp zone by the Colombian government. The Colombian government's raid on the zone eliminated one of the Farc's most experienced international negotiators (as French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner said: "It is not good news that the man with whom we talk and have contact, is dead").

Uribe's domestic support gives him a great deal of leverage and legitimacy. But apart from his key allies in the Washington and London governments, his international standing is not so high. Even the Democrats in the United States have so far blocked Uribe's much desired free-trade agreement on the grounds of the absence of trade-union rights, and in view of the killings of 2,515 trade unionists since 1986 (mostly, where there is evidence, victims of the paramilitary). Most European governments (apart from Britain's) have been consistent in pushing for a peaceful negotiation to end the conflict, and improvement in Colombia's human-rights situation.

The international community has generally not accepted the intervention of the Farc in Ecuadorean territory as justification for the bombing of its camp and the killing of twenty-one people (including some Mexican students who were present). In Latin America, Uribe is isolated from the leftward regional shift in the 2000s. Many of his neighbours see Uribe's "pacification" project as ultimately one which favours certain sectors of the Colombian elite, particularly those which have accumulated their wealth through illegal and violent means.

The next project

Events move very fast in Colombia. Álvaro Uribe's ability to keep attention focused on the enemy he has chosen - rather than on the multiple enemies to peace, democracy, state and nation now embedded in violent and criminal enclaves - may not last as long as he thinks. There are many Colombians who continue to believe that political negotiation with the Farc is the only way to lasting peace in Colombia; and that that negotiation must tackle the deep sources of violence. Semana argued on 15 March 2008 that the greatest challenge of what it considers the "final phase" of the war against the Farc is not military:

"It is to put to the test the capacity of the state to incorporate all its territory into its nation-building project, even the forgotten, humid jungles. Although the Farc is a guerrilla movement which uses terrorist methods and which criminalises itself more and more, underlying the vertebral column of the Colombian conflict is the lack of state. There is an atavistic land problem, of injustice, a lack of opportunities, of culture of illegality amongst other plagues, of a country which is so far from Bogotá and so near the Farc."

The question is, how far the Uribe project belongs to a democratic future based on such an inclusive nation-building project, and how far to an antidemocratic and elitist past? A past, moreover, built more upon primitive, violent accumulation of capital, expropriation of land and resources from the most vulnerable, and transnational criminal networking than entrepreneurial acumen and responsible investment.

For those with an interest in perpetuating the first set of processes - including many sectors of the Colombian elite - "pacification" of the country has nothing to do with social justice and deepening democracy. A study by Jose Fernando Isaza Delgado and Diógenes Campos Romero in December 2007 demonstrates that the guerrilla movements managed - despite a reduction in the number of combatants - to continue recruiting in 2002-07 at a rate of eighty-four new combatants for every 100 guerillas who withdrew from combat and demobilised. The authors demonstrate the very high costs involved in the government's military strategy; 6.5% of Colombia's GDP is being dedicated to military spending, involving an incredibly high unit cost for every death, capture or demobilisation of a guerrilla. This locks militarism into the very heart of the state.

The achievement of sustainable peace and democracy in Colombia depends on a new political leadership committed to a country where all citizens enjoy rights, the means to life and a meaningful future. This is no part of Álvaro Uribe's agenda. The urgent task is to protect the spaces for those social and political activists for whom it is, so that they can help prevent "pacification" from laying the foundation of renewed cycles of violence in Colombia.

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