Origins of the Conflict

excerpted from the book

Colombia and the United States

War, Unrest and Destabilization

by Mario A. Murillo

Seven Stories Press, 2004, paper

Whether it has been the decades-long war against "drug trafficking," the newly constituted war against "terrorism," or, as we have seen over the last few years, a convenient marriage of the two, the foundations of Colombia's internal conflict are rarely addressed by U.S. policymakers and are often swept under the rug by their Colombian counterparts. The pattern has continued with only slight variation over time: For the most part, the military approach toward the drug war in Colombia has remained at the forefront of the overall strategy. Fifteen years and billions of dollars later, the result has been very little progress in terms of actually curtailing the amount of drugs entering the United States, even by Washington's own stated objectives outlined in numerous studies and reports on drug trafficking. Colombia's history of institutionalized corruption, state neglect, far-reaching poverty, and political violence precedes by decades the introduction and expansion of the drug trade, a fact made irrelevant in a world driven by dramatic drug war images and succinct sound-bites by tough-talking politicians.

Ironically, over this period we have seen the rapid and widespread deterioration of the internal social-political conflict in Colombia. This is manifested in several areas, including the growth in right-wing paramilitary violence and an expansion of the left-wing armed insurgency, both resulting in a worsening human rights record that includes more than 2 million internal refugees. Meanwhile, notwithstanding claims of success made by both Colombian and U.S. officials in curtailing illicit crop cultivation as a result of accelerated aerial fumigations in Colombia, and leaving aside the potentially devastating health and environmental consequences the U.S.-backed coca eradication campaign may be having for the people living in the targeted areas-there has been an overall increase in production in other parts of the Andean region. Finally, as if to further demonstrate the overall failures of the ongoing policy, today more people are living in poverty in Colombia than in 1989, the result of an economic crisis unseen in the country since the 1930s.

Fortunately for the hawks in Washington and Bogota, today you have an added dimension in order to justify a continuation and expansion of the same failed policies: the war on "terrorism. " For years, to varying degrees, Colombian and U.S. officials have attempted to link drug trafficking and the left-wing guerrilla organizations operating in Colombia, in particular the FARC. The term narcoguerrilla was coined in the mid-1980s by Lewis Tambs, the former U.S. ambassador to Colombia. He used it to describe how the FARC was using money extorted from coca farmers to fund its armed insurrection against the Colombian state. The term was quickly adopted by Colombian officials as they likened the guerrillas to another international drug cartel.

Gradually, the United States was forced to negate the legitimacy of the term as it became apparent that it was not exactly an accurate description of the FARC's relationship to the drug trade. Yes, the FARC taxed mid- and large-scale farmers, but its role in the drug trade at the time was really a drop in the bucket that paled in comparison to the billions of dollars being generated by those sectors involved in international trafficking, sectors in many instances tied directly to the state.

Colombian officials often boast about having the "longest standing democracy in Latin America, " but throughout its recent history the spoils of that democracy have gone to a very small, privileged sector of society, what journalist and writer Apolinar Diaz Callejo described as "hereditary power without monarchy." In Colombia, the Constitution and its laws are often ignored and rarely enforced, either because of a lack of bureaucratic capacity on the part of the state to do so, or because of an absence of political will on the part of the ruling elite to execute those laws that are designed to protect the public.

The statistic that most dramatically illustrates this is that of all the political crimes committed in Colombia every year- including assassinations, forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and torture-97 percent end up in complete impunity. On average, anywhere between 2,100 and 3,000 people are killed each year for political reasons in Colombia. This occurs despite the fact that, during the past sixty years, Colombia has been ruled only once by a military dictatorship, from 1953 to 1957. The country avoided the "national security dictatorships" that emerged in the southern cone of South America in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Colombia has presidential elections every four years, as well as elections for other national, departmental, and local offices where political parties openly compete for votes using the communications media as their primary vehicle for democratic discourse. It has witnessed dozens of "peaceful" transitions of political power on every occasion since 1957, something not every country in the region could easily claim. Today, talk of political reform is openly debated in the news media, all in an effort to strengthen Colombian "democracy."

Since its independence in 1810, and certainly over the last sixty years, political life in Colombia has been dominated by two powerful, traditional parties, Conservative and Liberal, while the army, despite tensions over the years with the civilian leadership, has remained subordinate to the elite political establishment. Conservatives have always been identified with large landowners and the rigid hierarchy of the Catholic Church, while Liberals have often been characterized as more reform-minded, although with strong links to powerful economic interests as well. As historian David Bushnell writes, "constitutional government in Colombia has endured at least partly because it has suited the interests of the wealthy and powerful.

Nevertheless, the open elections, U.S.-styled campaigns, and regular parliamentary debates that characterize Colombian bourgeois politics have provided the Colombian elite with a convenient argument that democracy can indeed work in Colombia, if only it were given more support from outside. These existing democratic formalities have provided the Colombian establishment with a smokescreen from which it can point to the violent, antidemocratic, guerrilla forces and paramilitaries as the greatest threat to its democratic institutions, while very rarely having to look itself in the mirror and be held accountable for the many undemocratic practices that have been carried out against popular sectors for the last fifty years.

The fact of the matter is that the level of politically motivated violence generated by the state and its paramilitary apparatus, ostensibly in response to increasingly high levels of guerrilla-generated violence, has in many respects surpassed the brutality witnessed anywhere else in the region. Notwithstanding the existence of at least the superficial trappings of a democratic political culture, what exists in Colombia are two parallel spheres that negate the existence of a genuine democracy, as Father Javier Giraldo of the Colombian human rights group Justicia y Paz wrote in 1996. The first is the bureaucratic/ administrative sphere, where traditional political parties, run predominantly by elites, compete for the spoils that "serve as an incentive for cycles of generalized corruption," all the while neglecting the needs of the majority of the people. The second is the country's social conflict, whose origins lie in the collective attempts at resistance to the first sphere, and which over the years has been turned over to the armed forces and its auxiliaries for management, with dramatic levels of repression.

This repression is part of Colombia's long history, although one would be hard pressed to find even a mention of it in any of the hundreds of contemporary news reports about the conflict, in either the U.S. or the Colombian media. Indeed/ the failure of Colombia's "democratic" institutions to respond to the public's legitimate, constitutionally protected demands regarding the right to life, employment, land, political participation, economic opportunity, and justice, and the tendency of the state to respond to these demands through the use of force, has led some sectors of Colombian society to take up arms to achieve their political and social objectives. It is a complex picture that can be summed up with several general observations, the first of which has already been made: Colombia on paper is a liberal democracy, but in reality it is far from satisfying a democracy's basic prerequisites, precisely because, as Colombian sociologist and journalist Alfredo Molano has pointed out, the power monopoly of the two traditional parties, "which have an aura almost of religious trappings, " has prevented social changes "unleashed by development from finding suitable avenues of political action."

Second, although economically Colombia is a rich country with considerable natural resources and productive capacity, not everyone has benefited from this wealth. In its ongoing effort to stimulate foreign investment, Colombian officials often point out that until its most recent economic recession, the country has avoided the major crises other countries of the region faced in the 1980s and 1990s. Notwithstanding the relative stability and wealth of the country, one cannot erase the fact that the majority of Colombians are poor, with between 60 and 68 percent of the population currently living at or below the poverty line. One might expect this in the countryside where the economic situation is much worse, with poverty levels reaching 85 percent. However, poverty is universal in Colombia. For example, in the Caribbean city of Cartagena, perhaps the most popular tourist attraction in all of Colombia, almost half of the population lives in absolute misery, while 75 percent (more than 700,000 people) are forced to survive below the poverty level. These numbers are not so readily apparent to the millions of annual visitors to the city's sandy beaches and walled-in historic sector.' Next to Brazil, Colombia has the most inequitable distribution of wealth in the Western Hemisphere.

The myth of a "racial democracy" in Colombia is pervasive. The fact that the country is and always has been divided strongly along ethnic and racial lines-with those wielding power consistently of European descent based in the capital and other major central urban centers, and the most marginalized sectors being either indigenous, of African descent, or a combination of the races-is repeatedly ignored or simply given lip service by the same institutions established to defend the country's democratic traditions. This issue is very rarely raised when contemporary Colombian politics are discussed, even within progressive circles inside Colombia. It also doesn't occur to the people shaping U.S. policy.

The fact of the matter is that Colombia is a multicultural, pluriethnic country where discrimination and marginalization of black and indigenous people have been institutionalized. This can be seen in the fact that of the more than 2 million Colombians who have been internally displaced as a result of the civil war over the past ten years, more than one-third are of African descent. Colombia has a large black population, ranging anywhere between 20 and 45 percent of the total, depending on which figures you read and how you interpret them. " Eighty percent of Afro-Colombians live with their basic needs unmet in conditions of poverty, with an annual per capita income of 600 U.S. dollars (the national average is $1,500); some 74 percent of all Afro-Colombians receive salaries below the legal minimum wage; in the Pacific coast, where 85 percent of the population is of African descent, only 43 percent of all homes in urban areas have running water served by an aqueduct, while the number drops to 5 percent in rural areas. Illiteracy rates in Colombia's black population range between 20 percent in urban areas and 45 percent in rural areas, double the national average. In short, Afro-Colombians have been subjected to a history of institutionalized violence, intense racial discrimination, a lack of opportunity to participate in the economic life of the country, and the complete disrespect of their culture.

For the indigenous communities of Colombia, the situation is not much better. There are eighty-four different indigenous groups in Colombia, of which sixty-five have maintained their own language. Making up less than 5 percent of the overall population (there are about 2 million in total), Colombia's indigenous people continue to be threatened almost daily by the violence of the internal conflict, as all the armed actors attempt to gain the strategic upper hand in their territories. In fact, there is a growing amount of evidence demonstrating the deliberate displacement of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities because they happen to populate large areas deemed strategically and economically important for the "national well-being." All of these points are worth mentioning as we try to understand the nature of Colombia's "democracy." Colombia's political leadership seldom talks about the extreme marginalization of indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities and the role the state has played in maintaining the racist status quo when they appeal to international public opinion about the threats its brand of democracy faces from so-called terrorist groups.

Behind this backdrop we find the Colombian mass communication system. Colombia's media institutions have been described as an "imperfect duopoly" where two major groups control the majority of the information industries. They continue to perpetuate the above-mentioned myths about Colombian society, by embracing the institutional definitions used by the establishment to describe the fringes of society, or by limiting the spaces whereby these voices may be heard. As in other parts of the world, Colombian media scholars have pointed out repeatedly that when it comes to journalism and democracy, "political and economic interests are more important than support for freedom of expression and the right of citizens to information.'' Yet again and again, the existence of a "free press" is used by Colombian officials as still another example of the strength of Colombian democracy.

Therefore, from the notions of a liberal democracy severely tainted by political violence and repression, of relative economic stability built alongside abject misery, of "racial and national unity" based on European supremacy, we see an institutional process of exclusion, much of which has been downplayed, if not outright ignored, by the dominant domestic media industries and ... their counterparts abroad.

It is in response to these fundamental contradictions inherent in Colombian "democracy" that many varied popular movements have emerged over the years, in essence with the goal of forcing the state to be responsive to the majority of the people. In most cases, these groups have carried out their struggle in the form of legal resistance, whether manifested as peasant and indigenous organizing over land reform, "civic strikes" of the popular movement, trade unions mobilizing over workers' rights, or political independents engaged in grassroots, sometimes populist, strategies to broaden the political spaces monopolized by elites. Yet their efforts have been met by direct and indirect repression, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths, arbitrary detentions, cases of torture, and forced disappearances or exile.

This has led others to resort to armed solutions, as exemplified by the many guerrilla groups that have formed over the last forty years. The most visible today is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), currently considered the oldest and largest leftist insurgency in all of the Americas.

Colombia and the United States

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