Armed conflict, land grabs and big business: Colombia’s deadly pact

The recent assassination of Colombian marxist insurgent group leader Alfonso Cano has been hailed internationally as an advance towards peace, giving Colombia a boost down the path to becoming the latest emerging market of Latin America. A closer look at the history and nature of Colombia's nearly 50 year-long armed struggle, however, tells us otherwise.
Kyla Sankey
16 November 2011

Ahead of the Colombian President Santos’ visit to the UK next week, The Guardian this weekend published an interview describing the President’s “rebranding” of his country- ‘from the failed state of 10 years ago to an emerging economic powerhouse in Latin America’. "We dismantled the drug cartels,” claims Santos. “Those big cartels that had our democracy on its knees – they no longer exist. The only big cartel still is the FARC [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a left-wing insurgent group in operation for nearly 50 years] but we have weakened them more and more." The message is clear: Colombia, a country once ravaged by drug trafficking guerrilla groups, is now stepping out of its war-torn history and is ready for a new horizon of European investment opportunities, an account which seems to be supported by the recent death of FARC leader Alfonso Cano. A closer look into the history and nature of violence in Colombia, however, seems to tell us otherwise.

The end of a 50 year war?

The hailing of the recent assassination of Alfonso Cano as an advancement towards ‘peace’, by this meaning the destruction of the rebel fighters, is mistaken first of all on factual grounds, according to most serious commentators. Each regional block of the guerrilla group is run by a council, with one central council consisting of 25 experienced and well-trained members. That is to say that for every death of a military leader, there is another ready to take his place. The technique of going after the insurgent leaders is a strategy that the government has been adopting for years now, resulting in the restructuring of the organization, but with no conclusive evidence of an overall decline in the group’s activities

The chances of annihilating or dissolving the guerrilla group, or weakening them to the point of forcing them to the negotiating table empty-handed, as the government envisions, are not very high, at least not in the foreseeable future. With its vast expanses of ungoverned land, along with nearly half the nation in poverty (and nearly two-thirds in rural areas), one fifth in extreme poverty, and its ranking as the sixth most unequal country in the world, the conditions in Colombia for the FARC to continue recruiting young soldiers to its files are of similar relevance now as they were when the guerrilla group was founded, nearly fifty years ago. Moreover, the rising of Cano to maximum leader had been welcomed as a significant step towards possible peace negotiations with the government. In various interviews and public announcements, Cano had called for an end to the conflict through negotiations, citing as the main demands of the rebels “social justice, tolerance and national sovereignty”. 

In August of this year, 30,000 Colombians from the most marginalized regions and social groups, those most affected by the violence came together in an event to demand that the government and insurgents come together in peace negotiations to end the conflict. Yet the war continues; according to the government’s own figures, last year alone 167 members of the armed forces died in combat with the insurgents, and between 2002-9 there were 11,354 combats initiated by government forces, an average of 4.5 a day. In 2010, 14.2% of the country’s GDP was spent on defence, a total of 11,057 million dollars, on top of the over one and a half million dollars it receives daily in military aid from the US, making the  Colombian army the 12th largest in the world. Colombia’s annual military budget could pay the country’s public health bill, provide houses for 360 thousand families and put 6 million children through school.

So, it’s expensive, the people affected don’t want it and the rebel forces at least claim they don’t want it. This raises the question of what other factors are at work in perpetuating this country’s nearly fifty years of internal conflict. 

Darker forces behind the violence

In supposed response to the threat of left-wing insurgency, paramilitary groups were born out of an alliance between landowners, government officials and US cold war counter-insurgency strategy. They at first counted on official, open support from the state in the 70s and 80s, followed by unofficial support and military cooperation in many operations in the last two decades. In the late 90’s the Castaño brothers embarked on a project to unite the paramilitary groups, giving central political direction to the regional bands, under the name of the United Self-Defense forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC). The AUC project of control followed the pattern of entering a region, executing or forcibly disappearing certain community leaders and other community members, usually causing many others, or even the whole community to flee.  The land would then be seized. 

It is estimated that 150,000 people have been killed by paramilitary forces and hundreds of thousands more have been forcibly displaced, and it is possible that up to 10% of land in Colombia, some 25 million acres, may have been in hands of the paramilitaries. In a recent scandal, approximately one third of the senate and congress in Colombia was found to have paramilitary ties, with many more investigations still underway. Recently sentenced to 25 years of prison for conspiracy to murder in collusion with paramilitary bosses is the former chief of the Colombian equivalent of the CIA, the  administrative security department. Colombia today has an estimated displaced population of 5.2 million (over 10% of the population), from between 15 and 25 million acres of land, largely as a result of paramilitary land usurpation.

Colombia continues to be the most dangerous country in the world for trade union leaders; between 1986 and 2010, over 2,800 trade unionists were killed, more than the rest of the world combined.   Human rights defenders, journalists and opposition leaders continue to be threatened, persecuted and killed.  Of the selective assassinations for socio-political motivations, an estimated 75% are committed by state or paramilitary forces. In the first 6 months of 2011, 145 human rights activists suffered some type of aggression, including 29 murders, a 126% increase on the same period last year

The paramilitary violence was extensive and brutal, but it was moreover also politically and economically directed. In his confessions, the ex paramilitary boss alias H.H. declared that the true causes of the war were more than simply a counter-insurgent struggle. The “real objective of the war”, he claimed,  was “the interests of politicians, businessmen and landowners” who, under the pretext of a cold war counter-insurgent struggle, took the opportunity to suppress any worker or social protests and seize land for their own purposes, much of which has ended up in the hands of national and multi-national banana companies, the mining and petrol industries and palm oil plantations. 

The 2005 Justice and Peace law, aiming to offer a large degree of amnesty to the paramilitary forces in return for their demobilization and confessions, was highly flawed. Firstly, it is difficult to explain how, according to the government’s own figures, of the 16,000 paramilitaries registered to exist when the peace negotiations started, over 35,000 managed to demobilize. Various human rights organizations have documented how the process lacked any real verification of the identities of the supposedly demobilizing paramilitaries, nor was there a proper investigation into and dismantling of paramilitary structures and economic activities.   On top of this, the false demobilisation process has been followed by the equally flawed victim reparation and land restoration project now in progress. The law suffers from the same mathematical difficulties as its predecessor, returning just 5.5 million of the estimated 15-25 million acres of usurped land in a rushed and badly administered process. Together, the farcical duo may end up serving a more sinister purpose: the legalisation of usurped land to then be placed in the hands of large landowners and national and multinational companies, in a type of counter-agrarian reform.



A map of forced displacement and mining concessions in Colombia. In red is the area where mining concessions have been granted and there has been no forced displacement. In blue, where there have been both mining concessions granted and forced displacement.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of the reality of a country now being held up as the latest opportunity for foreign investors. Today, over 20 million acres of mining concessions have been granted across the country, many to large multinationals, such as the partly British-owned Anglo-American company. The signing of a free trade agreement between Colombia and the EU is most likely to result in the EU benefitting from the spoils of stolen lands that have been, and continue to be, seized from communities by armed groups. It is sometimes claimed that human rights clauses in free trade agreements will encourage countries to improve their human rights record. Colombia’s human rights record has so far, however, had very little effect on the current General Systems of Preference agreement. Moreover, as repeatedly argued by Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank, free trade agreements will force Colombian farmers to compete with subsidised European agricultural products, provoking a new wave of rural poverty, displacement and motivation for the next generation of young soldiers to join illegal armed groups.

Today, a host of so-called developing countries are lining up to be named the latest “emerging market” to budding foreign investors. The message from Colombia, it seems, is be careful what you wish for.


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