Principle Actors in Today's Conflict

excerpted from the book

Colombia and the United States

War, Unrest and Destabilization

by Mario A. Murillo

Seven Stories Press, 2004, paper


The FARC came into being on July 20, 1964 (Colombia's Independence Day), when groups of militants from the regions l affected by the brutal, United States-backed military offensives of the previous years got together and issued their agrarian program. The Conference of the Southern Bloc included members of the group that survived the attacks on the now legendary Marquetalia, led by Manuel Marulanda Velez, alias Tirofijo or "Sureshot," as well as other regions of southern and eastern Tolima. The conference issued its political military declaration as a way to consolidate its actions with a view towards the future:

We are revolutionaries struggling for a change in regime. But we always wanted and struggled for this change for our people using the least painful means: through peaceful means, through the democratic struggle of the masses, through the legal mechanism spelled out in the Colombian Constitution. This path was closed to us violently, and since we are revolutionaries that in one way or another are going to play the historic role that corresponds to us, we have been forced to find another way: the path of armed revolution for the struggle for power.

In the 1970s, the FARC was a somewhat limited force with marginal military capacity, operating about nine fronts with what some observers have described as "enormous internal divisions." It was not until the 1980s that the FARC began to generate its highest levels of social and political support, a direct result of the mounting evidence that the Colombian political system was not open for everybody.

... The Patriotic Union (UP), a political party established by the FARC in 1984 in an effort to engage in legal political activity. At the time, the FARC was engaged in peace negotiations with then president Belisario Betancur. President Betancur was trying to reverse four years of escalating military conflict and repression that was ruthlessly carried out by his predecessor, Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala. In the early to mid-1980s, the FARC was reconsidering its national strategy, maintaining a strong and growing presence in the countryside, but also incorporating a push into the cities through political action. The Patriotic Union represented that push.

The UP was made up of some of the most articulate voices and brilliant political minds of the Colombian left. Included in its ranks were progressive activists and intellectuals from the Communist Party, as well as the traditional parties, local and regional social movements, and the guerrilla movement itself and its support base. Despite winning seats in dozens of local, municipal, and departmental bodies, the traditional oligarchy and the military refused to let them truly participate in political life. In ten years, the UP lost 3,000 of its militants to the dirty war, including two presidential candidates. Threats, assassinations, and general intimidation was the price for trying to establish a legitimate, third political force, lending credence to the ongoing argument of the armed resistance that there are no guarantees for truly independent voices in Colombia. For the last several years, the Colombian human rights nongovernmental organization Reiniciar has been working within the structures of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights of the Organization of American States to classify the extermination of the UP as genocide carried out by organisms of the state, a campaign that has received little attention in the Colombian media. While the tens of thousands of people affected by this dark episode in Colombian "democracy" are not quick to forget, the powers that be prefer to file it away into the archive of collective amnesia. For the FARC, it was a clear lesson. By the end of the 1980s it became apparent that peace talks from the government's standpoint were designed to simply disarm the rebels and not resolve the long-standing issues that led the rebels to take up arms in the first place.

In fact, the FARC's increasing focus on a military as opposed to a political strategy in the past decade-something that has lost the organization considerable support over the years from progressive circles within Colombia-can be tied directly to the dirty war against the UP and the failure of the state to provide guarantees for those militants who attempted to partake in civilian political life. The guerrillas justify the expansion of their military program as the only means to force the government to truly carry out structural reforms that go beyond the superficiality of including decommissioned combatants in the cabinet or in the legislature, something that was tried in the past with other sectors of the armed opposition like the M-l9, a small faction of the ELN, as well as the EPL, with very little to show for in terms of a truly democratic transformation.

There is no question that the guerrillas should be criticized for their ongoing use of kidnapping of civilians as a deliberate tactic in their war against the state, for their incursions into indigenous communities and threats against indigenous leaders, for their intimidation and assassinations of local elected officials throughout the country, and for their indiscriminate attacks on civilians, both in the heat of battle and in high-profile actions carried out in the cities. Many, if not all, of these actions can indeed be considered terrorist in the traditional sense, particularly because of their impact on civilians. However, it is difficult to argue against the guerrillas' position regarding democratic guarantees for demobilized combatants given the historical track record of the Colombian government in the wake of previous peace accords with other armed groups. In this sense, their role as an armed opposition force cannot be negated, notwithstanding Uribe's (and many others') claims that they are terrorists or criminals.

The level of social disintegration that existed in Colombia in the 1980s was exacerbated by the expansion of the drug trade, and in particular the power of the Medellin cartel headed by Pablo Escobar. Indeed, it was this aspect of Colombia's internal crisis that received the most attention in the United States and elsewhere at the time. Meanwhile, the corruption, the neverending civil war, and the violence against political and social movements reached a boiling point toward the end of the decade and into the l990s. It must be noted that the intensification of the domestic sociopolitical crisis coincided with historic, global developments such as the end of the Cold War and the expansion of the neoliberal economic program throughout the Western Hemisphere.

The peace talks in 1989-1990 led to the Constituent Assembly that was mandated to rewrite the antiquated Constitution of 1886. The new Constitution was drafted by a broad cross section of Colombian society that included indigenous leaders, former guerrillas, businessmen, and traditional as well as independent politicians. This was an attempt to correct the many contradictions described earlier, and it was widely seen as resulting from years of organized popular resistance-armed and "legal"-to a very authoritarian, undemocratic system that based its legitimacy on the veneer of a constitutional democracy.

The inclusion of indigenous representatives in the Constituent Assembly must be seen as a watershed moment in the history of Colombia's social movements and democratic opposition in general, and it directly affected public perceptions about the guerrilla movement. Indeed, to a certain extent, the success of the indigenous organizations demonstrated to Colombians of all political stripes that a social movement outside the traditional political party system and autonomous of the armed opposition could gain political space within Colombia.

... the limited gains of the indigenous movement directly challenged the FARC who, in the process of creating a revolutionary "sub-state" in their areas of control, saw indigenous demands for autonomy, land, and cultural rights as inherently counterrevolutionary. These tensions have remained ever since, and in some cases have gotten worse.

The 1990s saw a rapid change in the fundamental nature of the guerrilla struggle. When peace talks between the FARC and the government of Cesar Gaviria collapsed, the response from the government once again was "total war," based on the faulty premise that the rebels could be contained militarily without addressing the root causes that brought them into the conflict in the first place. As time went on, it became apparent that the "democratic guarantees" spelled out in the new Constitution were not worth the paper they were written on, as political murders, disappearances, and other human rights abuses continued against the popular movement, unabated.

... paramilitary violence financed by large drug I traffickers and coordinated with the armed forces began to pick up, with the primary targets being peasants, trade unionists, and leftist political and social organizations throughout the country. With a heightened level of U.S. intervention developing in the name of the war on drugs, the FARC was forced to adjust its guerrilla tactics at the local level in order to increase revenues for funding its war against the state. The political project that they had proposed in the 1980s quickly faded, overtaken by an expansive military strategy. This led to an increase in the use of kidnapping and extortion of the civilian population, which gradually began to lose the FARC the public support it had cultivated a decade earlier.

Finally, the complex relationship between the FARC and the illicit drug trade began to evolve beyond the rebel's daily contacts with the poor peasant farmers that cultivate coca in regions where the guerrillas had situated themselves years earlier in the vacuum left by the state. Much like the financial demands made on cattle ranchers, banana growers, and the oil industry in other parts of the country, the guerrillas initially levied so-called war taxes on farmers, merchants, and groups operating the processing labs and airstrips used for cocaine shipments in coca-growing regions. Over the years, however, the FARC has penetrated even deeper into the drug business, now directly overseeing these and other aspects of the trade, thereby generating much more income.

In this sense, FARC is perceived as both a defender and a danger to the peasant farmers who cultivate coca as their primary means of economic activity. Guerrillas have sided with the farmers over the issue of the government's toxic aerial eradication campaign, demanding development alternatives for the regions most affected and an end to the United States-backed fumigations. In many parts of the country, the FARC has also served as the "local authority," providing security and "revolutionary justice" for the local peasant communities, resolving everything from traffic violations to domestic disputes.

At the same time, the FARC is also known to apply considerable pressure on the campesinos of Putumayo, Guaviare, Caqueta, Cauca and elsewhere, not only in terms of their participation in coca cultivation, but also in terms of demanding food, transportation, and other logistical support to the rebels.

Although they are far from being an international drugtrafficking organization similar to the Medellin or Cali cartels that were dismantled in the early to mid-1990s, it is no longer accurate to say the FARC's involvement in the drug trade remains limited to their imposition of a war tax on farmers. The amount of revenue generated by the FARC through its role in the drug trade is hard to measure. Indeed, it is still seen as a small percentage of the overall amounts of money exchanged globally in the international drug market. It pales in comparison to the money involved in the actual distribution and marketing of the finished product that is cocaine once it is exported. What is clear is that the FARC's military focus of the last ten to twelve years forced it to find more lucrative funding sources, with the illicit drug trade and kidnapping being two very important ones. The corrupting influence of drug money has penetrated just about every sector of Colombian society, including the armed forces and the political establishment. To argue that it has not had the same corrupting influence on certain elements of this large guerrilla army, as defenders of the FARC often claim, is to live in a state of naive denial.

As this process unfolded, the FARC continued to grow: It has almost quadrupled in size in the last fifteen years, from roughly 3,600 combatants in 1987, to 7,000 in 1995, to today with estimates ranging between 15,000 and 20,000 fighters operating in more than 105 fronts with control of more than 40 percent of the national territory. Some people attribute this growth to the guerrillas' growing involvement in narcotrafficking. Others say it is the result of the forced recruitment carried out by the FARC in the countryside and has less to do with the personal ideological convictions of the new combatants. Perhaps the real answer lies in a socioeconomic crisis whereby most youth living in the countryside are for all intents and purposes unemployable in any legitimate productive sector. They have a choice either to look for work in the cities, where unemployment rates in recent years have reached as high as 22 percent, or to take up arms with one or another military organization, legal or otherwise ...

As a result of this rapid growth, in the late 1990s the Colombian army was handed a series of humiliating military setbacks at the hands of the FARC, suffering numerous casualties throughout the country after a number of dramatic assaults on military installations and police stations. The FARC was able to capture dozens of soldiers and police officials in some of these operations, embarrassing the military and forcing the government not only to rethink its overall strategy but actually give in to a number of highly controversial guerrilla demands. The fact that the government of President Andres Pastrana demilitarized five municipalities in southern Colombia controlled by the FARC in January 1999 in order to jumpstart peace talks was a clear demonstration of the military successes of the guerrillas. Critics argued that the government's position in the talks was doomed from the start because it was negotiating from a position of strategic weakness. The growing consensus in Washington and Bogota was that the military simply needed to get tougher.

The FARC as an insurgent movement does have a twelve-point political program made public for many years, but it is rarely presented in media reports about the war or in the debates about ways to resolve the war.

Some of the main points of the FARC's platform include a desire to find a political solution to the "grave conflict facing the country"; a comprehensive reform of the armed forces and national security apparatus in order to guarantee that the army will be used to defend the national borders and not be used against the Colombian people; direct, democratic participation in national, regional, and municipal decisions that "compromise the future of the society," an idea related to creating a new type of active, democratic citizenry; the modernization and development of the national economy with social justice as a primary concern; a more equitable tax structure that would force "those with more wealth to pay more taxes"; an agrarian policy that would "democratize credits, technical assistance and the marketing of products"; the exploitation of the country's natural resources to "benefit the nation and its regions"; and the development of international relations that respects the self-determination of peoples worldwide.

The decades-long guerrilla war in Colombia has been used as a smokescreen by a succession of governments to carry out systematic repression against the many individuals and organizations mobilizing for social, political, and economic change through legally recognized channels. By repeatedly branding these groups as "subversives," the Colombian military-political establishment has converted legally constituted social and political organizations, and the civilian population in general, into military targets themselves. In this respect, the presence of the guerrillas provides the state with the justification to declare states of emergency, suspend civil protections, expand the role of the military to include civilian police functions, endorse the use of torture, and wage a war against the popular movement, all the while failing to implement the political and economic reforms demanded by the vast majority of the population. Again and again, this is done in the name of national security, restoring order, and defending democracy.

When President Alvaro Uribe declared emergency powers in September 2002 that included the right to arrest and detain people without due cause, tap phone lines and enter homes without warrants, declare "rehabilitation and consolidation zones" totally under military control, and limit foreigners' access to conflict areas, he said it was to fight "terrorism" and confront the growing guerrilla threat. In Colombia, this has been unofficial policy for years and has been at the root of what human rights groups have described as the country's dirty war, manifested in countless cases of forced disappearances, summary executions, political assassinations, arbitrary detentions, and massacres of civilians. It's a situation that by all accounts has gotten worse since the late 1990s, a period that has also seen a radical increase in U.S. military assistance to and training in Colombia. The Colombian Commission of jurists, for example, reports that the number of politically motivated deaths has increased from roughly ten per day in the early 1990s, to fourteen in 1999, to more than twenty per day in 2002.

In the past, this systematic repression was carried out through official organisms of the state such as the armed forces, national police, and military intelligence. Over the years, however, after considerable criticism from international and domestic human rights organizations, the task of rooting out potential and actual "subversives" has been handed over to illegal paramilitary groups whose origins lie in the so-called self-defense militias created by drug traffickers and large landowners in the 1980s in areas where the guerrillas were carrying out kidnappings and other military operations, particularly in Uraba and Cordoba in northern Colombia. It is no coincidence that this paramilitary phenomenon began to emerge as peace talks were taking place between then-president Belisario Betancur and various rebel factions in 1984, a process that was accompanied by widespread calls for democratization. At the time, the Colombian army began to arm civilians in order to curtail some of the political, and to a lesser extent military, gains of the guerrillas. It was a marriage of convenience between large landowners tied to narcotrafficking who were profoundly anticommunist and whose interests were threatened by guerrillas, and the Colombian military, thoroughly discredited as an institution for its high levels of corruption and complete failure to successfully confront the armed insurgency. As one Colombian analyst observed, it is also no coincidence that this happened during the tenure of Ambassador Lewis Tambs, President Reagan's representative in Colombia who coined the term narcoguerrilla in an effort to weaken the peace process underway with the insurgents. We must not forget that Tambs was the chief spokesperson in Colombia for an administration that had already established the unholy alliance of drug traffickers and Nicaraguan Contras in an effort to topple the Sandinistas.

The results of this paramilitary enterprise have been documented extensively by human rights groups in Colombia and abroad. It is a phenomenon that has grown considerably in the last decade, and has moved from region to region throughout the country. Civilian massacres continued to rise in recent years, from 168 in 1999, to 236 in 2000, and 281 in 2001, the majority of them committed by members of the AUC-Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. This in turn has led to the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians: An estimated 319,000 people were forced from their homes in 2000,342,000 in 2001, and 350,000 in 2002, bringing the current total number to an estimated 2.75 million internally displaced people. This is not including the roughly 105,000-125,000 Colombians living in refugee-like conditions in neighboring countries. In turn, the paramilitaries' capacity to implant stability and order in their regions of primary control has provided them with considerable support from the elite sectors of those regions, for years threatened by the guerrilla presence.

Although it is easy to paint the displacement phenomenon as an unfortunate byproduct of a violent confrontation between the guerrillas and paramilitaries where civilians unfortunately get caught in the crossfire, a growing amount of evidence suggests the massacres of civilians are part of a deliberate strategy on the part of the right-wing AUC to take control of territory considered to be strategically valuable in relation to the broader economic interests of the sectors of Colombian society that the paramilitaries represent: large landowners, backers of so-called mega-projects, and, of course, narcotraffickers. For the most part, the land being cleared just so happens to be territory considered to be traditional strongholds of the FARC or the ELN. As one displaced activist from the department of Choco said to me, "it's simply a war about land and resources, and the people living in these lands happen to be in the way. " Human rights groups and popular movement activists argue that paramilitaries have targeted not only civilians deemed "sympathetic to the guerrillas, but also whatever social, labor, popular, or peasant movement that happens to call to question the development of megaprojects" and the consolidation of economic interests that may not benefit their interests.

... the intensification of the war in the late l990s and into 2002 led to "a noticeable decline in respect for human rights and international humanitarian law in Colombia" by all sectors in the conflict, as pointed out by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) ... the guerrillas should be held accountable for a portion of this escalating violence. However, the paramilitary organizations have deliberately chosen terror as their primary strategy of gaining territorial control of areas seen to be in the hands of the FARC and ELN. Very often this is done with complicit sectors of the Colombian armed forces, who themselves have wreaked terror throughout the countryside for decades.

In the 1980s, roughly 70 to 75 percent of all documented human rights violations carried out in Colombia were attributed to the armed forces and the national police. Today, the AUC is accused of up to 70 to 75 percent of these same crimes. In other words, the culpability ratio has shifted proportionally from the army to the paramilitaries (the guerrillas make up anywhere between 20 and 25 percent of all human rights violations, a poor record in and of itself. It is clear that, as human rights considerations climbed up the priority list of the U.S. foreign policy agenda, particularly in the Congress, the Colombian military was finding it increasingly difficult to come clean when it had its hand out seeking support from Washington. Human rights activists have argued it's not a coincidence that by the mid-1990s, the paramilitary organizations took over the role of primary human rights abusers as part of the government's overall counterinsurgency strategy. As a result, the Colombian army washed its hands of any responsibility for the human rights crisis facing Colombia while still benefiting from the paramilitary infrastructure that spread throughout the country. The process accelerated considerably in the mid-1990s. In 1996, Carlos Castano the political leader of the AUC, told Human Rights Watch that he commanded about 2,000 armed and trained fighters. By 2000, he claimed 11,200, an increase of 460 percent in four years, confirmed by the government's own statistics. By 2003, when the government and the AUC were engaged in demobilization talks, the numbers of paramilitary combatants ranged from 13,000 to 19,500.

Despite the documented links between the AUC and the state security apparatus, in recent years Colombian authorities have publicly distanced themselves from the paramilitaries, describing them as terrorists who are also involved in drug trafficking. As Human Rights Watch reported in 2001, government officials ranging from the former attorney general's office to the public advocate had begun to take limited action against the paramilitaries, decommissioning officers accused of collaborating with death squads, seizing some weapons, and preventing some massacres. But "their actions have been consistently and effectively undermined, canceled out, or in some cases wholly reversed by actions promoted by the military-paramilitary alliance." Instead of concrete actions aimed at fundamentally altering the conditions on the ground, the government has "dedicated a great deal of energy and time to a public relations effort purporting to show that the military has made progress against paramilitaries." By 2003, the Uribe government began to take more deliberate steps at capturing paramilitary fighters and decommissioning some of their weapons, presenting these actions as part of the administration's Democratic Defense and Security Policy aimed at reestablishing state authority throughout the country. For many human rights groups, however, these actions were cosmetic gestures carried out to obscure the gradual institutionalization of the paramilitary enterprise.

... the counterinsurgency war of the last forty years has been characterized by violence carried out directly by the state's own security forces, and turned over gradually to their paramilitary allies backed by the tremendous resources of the cocaine trade. This horrendous track record of massacres and displacement has been written about in countless human rights reports, academic journals, and news articles. In Colombia, the names have become synonymous with terror: El Nilo, Mapiripan, Santo Domingo, el Naya, Uraba . . . the list could go on and on.

Today, a newly constituted force is slowly emerging whereby legitimate state actors are meant to be the primary protagonists. The dirty war infrastructure of the paramilitaries is being dismantled with the blessing of its top leadership because, as they see it, today "there is a government and there are institutions capable of assuming their responsibilities." This is happening with the primary goal of fighting guerrilla terror and ending the forty year internal conflict with a military victory.

Colombia and the United States

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