Written by Daniel Edgar exclusively for SouthFront
The objective of the book – freely available at https://independent.academia.edu/DanielEdgar/Papers – is to review the latest series of mass social mobilizations that took place in Colombia during April and May of this year, including details of the historical social and political context leading up to the latest developments. Much of the text consists of translations of books, official reports, analysis and commentary written by Colombian experts and participants that are otherwise only available in Spanish, describing different aspects of the social, cultural and historical contexts underlying the latest series of mobilizations, in order to make the information available for other researchers, scholars, and anyone interested in more information about what is happening in Colombia.
Some five years prior to a prior series of mobilizations that occurred during 2013-2014 Colombia’s Indigenous peoples had mobilized on a massive scale (in 2008) to bring attention to ongoing attacks against their territories and communities by a wide range of groups and interests including illegal armed groups, the security forces of the State, illegal (and ‘legal’) miners and loggers, landlords and corporations (appropriately called ‘anonymous societies’ in Spanish) seeking to expand their vast estates and plantations, and foreign ‘investors’ – the latter often operating under the protection of the armed forces and/ or illegal armed groups that have a devastating impact on communities located in the vicinity of such ‘development projects’.
The incessant encroachments, invasions and exploitation of their territories and communities and terrorization by illegal (and in many instances ‘legal’) armed groups is exacerbated by a pernicious combination of persecution, invasion/ exploitation of their territories and resources, and abandonment by State officials and institutions. The mass demonstrations and protests were convoked to demand a response from the government to guarantee and actively protect the constitutional rights of Indigenous communities and their territories and organizations, and to get the government and all State officials to comply with their obligations with respect to Colombia’s Indigenous inhabitants, particularly with regard to public security, access to essential goods and services, and that State officials and representatives negotiate in good faith in order to reach mutually satisfactory solutions at the national, regional and local levels as appropriate before approving any activities or projects on Indigenous territories..
In this respect, a major obstacle facing Indigenous, Afro-Colombian and other rural communities is that the national government and Congress, as well as most provincial and municipal governments and State officials, invariably favour corporate interests and land and capital intensive mining and agribusiness development schemes and projects, which receive lavish subsidies and tax exemptions, favourable legal and administrative regimes and political treatment (including easy access to – if not close personal ties to and social relations with – government ministers and senior bureaucrats), as well as associated benefits and favours in terms of infrastructure, land tenure arrangements and market access. They also receive strong support and protection from the ‘public security forces’ (and in very many cases also from the successors of the paramilitary groups, which often facilitate such projects and schemes by terrorizing the inhabitants of local communities and forcing them to abandon their properties).
A related problem is that, while the specific forms and modalities have altered over time, the system of land ownership and registration remains deeply flawed and subject to manipulation and fraud by powerful political and economic interests. The ongoing presence of paramilitaries and other illegal armed groups in many areas, and their incessant death threats and selective assassinations, continue to constitute the greatest obstacle to the restitution of land to forcibly dispossessed farmers and communities.
The most significant development during the protests and demonstrations of 2013-2014 was the scale and depth of the mobilization by rural communities and social movements representing above all the rights and interests of small-scale farmers, including the consolidation of strategic planning and organization and the formation of alliances with rural ethnic communities (Indigenous and Afro-Colombian) throughout the country, blocking major highways and bringing many regions to a standstill for several months. The mobilizations culminated in the founding of the Agrarian Summit (“Cumbre Agraria” – consisting of organizations and communities united in pursuit of a “National Agrarian, Farmers, Ethnic and Popular Minga”) to enhance organization and planning amongst the many disparate groups, coordinate negotiations with the national government (as well as provincial and local governments in some cases), and facilitate and verify the implementation of agreements reached.
After initially responding to the mobilizations of 2014 and 2016 with strong repressive measures, deploying the heavily armed riot police (ESMAD) as well as the armed forces in an attempt to dismantle the blockades and disperse the protestors (killing numerous unarmed demonstrators in the attempt and injuring many more), the national government was eventually forced to negotiate with the representatives of the Agrarian Summit and a series of national and regional accords were reached. This was sufficient to appease the demonstrators and their representatives and secure their demobilization (no doubt the heavy economic and emotional costs involved in sustaining such a prolonged mobilization also weighed significantly on the decision).
As is so often the case, the national government and Congress subsequently reneged on implementation of almost all points contained in the agreements and treated the co-parties to the accords with contempt, presumably knowing full well that once demobilized it was unlikely that they would be able to repeat the feat on a similar scale. In this way, despite occasional peaks in social mobilizations and periods of progressive legal, political and economic reform (most notably in modern times, the process of peace dialogues and constitutional reform that culminated in the adoption of a thoroughly revised Constitution in 1991), up until now ‘the Establishment’ (the traditional ruling classes, institutions and sectors of society) has managed to contain outbursts of mass social discontent without much difficulty, and limit and then retract (or obstruct and render meaningless by other methods) all attempts to implement projects of political, social or economic reform.
Colombia is a country with one of the highest rates of inequality in the region, which is in turn a region with one of the highest rates of inequality in the world. This inequality can be measured and has clearly identifiable ramifications and consequences in terms of political power, class stratification and social status, as well as in the concentration of land ownership, financial income, resources and wealth. Extreme inequality was an inherent feature during the Spanish colonial period and it has never been addressed by those that have controlled the Colombian State in a comprehensive manner to confront the root causes and generators of inequality. It is both a cause and a consequence of the violence that has wracked Colombia throughout its history.
Temporal and geographic variations in intensity and extent notwithstanding, violent social, political and economic conflict has been a constant throughout the history of Colombia, from the Spanish conquest and the War of Independence, to a succession of devastating civil wars during the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, culminating in the most recent permutations of the condition of perpetual conflict – the ‘Cold War’, the ‘War on Drugs’ and the ‘War on Terror’. Both indiscriminate/ generalized and selective/ targeted violence and terror have been widely utilized as a means to achieve social, political, economic and territorial control whether by the State, illegal armed groups, sectoral political or economic interests or others.
Over time two distinct sets of interpretations have evolved concerning the principle causes and characteristics of the conflicts and persistent violence that have prevailed throughout Colombia’s history. One of the main points of divergence among the distinct interpretations of Colombia’s history – and contemporary condition – is whether the widespread political and economic violence and conflict that has occurred (and continues to occur) is largely due to the belligerence, extremism and persistence of the main armed insurgent groups (usually described as ‘Communist’, or more recently as ‘narco-terrorists’, implying that they have no social or ideological basis and objectives at all) that are determined to overthrow the government and impose a Communist dictatorship.
According to this reading of history and contemporary developments, the State has only resorted to violence and oppressive measures against large swathes of Colombian society through necessity, in order to defend democracy, the rule of law, private property and the rights and interests of all Colombians. The alternative explanation for the prevalence of widespread social and armed conflict in Colombia is that the emergence and persistence of insurgent groups has largely been a defensive measure taken by Colombian people in response to widespread violence and oppression instigated habitually by the State (as well as large business-owners and landlords) in order to preserve the power and privileges of the traditional ruling classes, and the stubborn refusal of the ruling elites to open political and economic spaces and opportunities for other sectors of Colombian society.
A related aspect of the social and armed conflict that is bitterly contested, both among experts as well as among Colombians generally, is the provenance and nature of the paramilitary groups; in particular, whether their emergence and rapid proliferation throughout the country were essentially a spontaneous development by local landowners and businessmen (with the assistance of some ‘rogue’ local military, intelligence and police officials – as well as the main drug cartels) responding to the rapid gains made by insurgent groups during the early 1980s, or whether they were (and are) the product of a deliberate policy and strategy to establish and empower the paramilitary structures as ‘plausibly deniable’ proxies (collaborating and coordinating their actions to greater or lesser degree in specific locations and instances) to protect and advance State/ corporate/ landlord interests. In this respect the book reviews three official studies that examine the paramilitary phenomenon and the extent to which the agreement and measures that provided for their official demobilization were effective.
The United States played an increasingly significant role in the elaboration and execution of counter-insurgency warfare strategies following the Second World War, particularly following the Cuban Revolution, driven by the concern that they might lose their control over other countries in the region, whether to Communist or patriotic nationalist (independence and liberation) movements. Most of the fundamental precepts, methods and objectives of the counter-insurgency campaigns waged by successive Colombian and US governments and associated paramilitary and private armed structures and groups find explicit expression in the numerous reports and recommendations of US military missions to the country and in US counter-insurgency manuals and military and ‘security’ training programs.
The consolidation and refinement of the methods of counter-insurgency warfare has continued to evolve as the militarization of society deepened and technological advances enhanced its capabilities and reach. This aspect of the evolution of the social and armed conflict (the origin and elaboration of the counter-insurgency doctrine and the participation of the United States more generally) is examined in detail by Renan Vega (“Interference of the United States, Counter-Insurgency and State Terrorism”) in the final report of the Historic Commission completed in 2015.
Two reports completed by Privacy International in 2015 (“Shadow State: Surveillance, Law and Order in Colombia, Privacy International”, and “Demand/ Supply: Exposing the surveillance industry in Colombia”) provide further details concerning the extensive role of foreign contractors – in particular corporations with deep ties to the security establishments of Israel, the United Kingdom and the United States – in the elaboration and management of mass surveillance systems in Colombia, systems that have been pivotal to the implementation of the counter-insurgency doctrine.
As all of the accounts of the armed conflict in Colombia demonstrate despite their many differences, there is enormous diversity amongst the ‘illegal armed groups’ and any generalizations must be treated with caution, whether referring to insurgent groups (typically described as left-wing guerrillas; the ELN is the only remaining armed insurgent group with a substantial membership – although negotiations began with the Colombian government several years ago, they have effectively been abandoned since Ivan Duque assumed the presidency in 2018), the assortment of paramilitary groups and their successors (which are often described as right-wing and which are generally though not always directly or indirectly supportive of elite political and economic interests and objectives), or other illegal armed groups which haven’t adopted a specific political or ideological position (concentrating primarily on illegal economic activities).
Another manifestation and consequence of the paramilitary phenomenon is the ‘Para-Politics’ phenomenon. Since the 1980s the enormous revenues generated from illicit drugs has had an increasing influence on politics, which combined with the proliferation of paramilitary groups during the 1990s in particular culminated in the Para-Politics scandal in the first decade of the new millennium. The extensive interactions between drug money, paramilitary groups and politicians (among others) implicated many members of the national Congress, governors and mayors, and despite the conviction of a large number of politicians from the highest echelons of power down to local councils it is far from clear that the phenomenon has been squarely confronted (after the initial wave of convictions, which was an impressive achievement by any measure) and successfully eradicated from State institutions.
Considerable evidence has also emerged over time concerning the use of private sector properties, facilities, vehicles or other equipment by members of paramilitary groups, or other forms of significant direct and indirect collaboration between paramilitary groups and companies, including mining and energy companies (Occidental Petroleum, BP, Texaco and Drummond are among the ‘foreign investors’ that have been implicated), Colombian and foreign companies and individuals that own large rural holdings (primarily involving cattle ranches and sugar, African Palm and banana plantations), and the food industry (Coca Cola and Nestlé in particular), among many other companies and sectors.
With respect to this aspect of the armed conflict, the cases involving Chiquita Brands are exceptional, as the company provided thousands of documents relating to its protracted dealings with members of a succession of both guerrilla groups and paramilitary organizations to the Department of Justice as part of a plea bargain agreement. Apart from its widely documented role in facilitating large weapons shipments to the paramilitary groups in the mid to late 1990s, numerous former paramilitary commanders have testified that many tons of cocaine were smuggled out of Colombia with the assistance of ships transporting bananas produced by Chiquita Brands. The multinationals have been able to count on the protection of the judicial system and other relevant authorities in both countries (the United States and Colombia, as well as Switzerland and the European Union in the case of Nestlé) as well as the active support of politicians and bureaucrats (including those within the mass media) that have done everything possible to prevent and disrupt the attempts of the victims to realize justice, truth and non-repetition.
Another of the central challenges to the faltering peace process is to secure the full disclosure of the paramilitary structures and exactly how they interacted with and supplemented the State and private sector ‘security forces’. Most of the testimony that the paramilitary commanders provided during their demobilization process that pertains to this key aspect of their objectives, methods, collaborators and operational and financial support structures still has not been disclosed by the Prosecutor General’s Office and other relevant judicial and State officials. Another insuperable barrier has been, and continues to be, the blanket denials of Colombian officials (and of course those of the United States) that such strategies and methods (counter-insurgency warfare) have ever existed in the first place in a systematic and integrated manner, thereby precluding the possibility that the associated structures and operating procedures can be effectively identified, described and dismantled.
The most recent social mobilizations and protests reveal an increasing level of sophistication, strategic planning and alliance building amongst the most oppressed and excluded sectors of Colombian society, culminating in the Indigenous Minga of March-April of this year centred in Cauca and the national strike convened on the 25th of April. The core issues and demands of the national strike were a rejection of the National Plan of Development recently introduced to the National Congress by President Ivan Duque, that the national government and Congress comply with the agreements they committed themselves to during previous mobilizations as well as in the 2016 Peace Accord that resulted in the disarmament of the FARC (and reactivate negotiations with the ELN to attempt to reach a similar agreement with the last remaining major insurgent group in Colombia), and an end to the systematic assassination and persecution of social leaders and the prompt investigation and prosecution of the perpetrators and intellectual authors. Many specific organizations and social sectors have also declared concurrent demands and objectives relevant to each (such as several major trade unions and the National Union of Students), within a broader platform of solidarity and mutual support with respect to the other sectors, social movements and communities.
However, as yet they have not managed to consolidate these victories and establish permanent working arrangements, cohesive and sustainable projects and programs, and institutional mechanisms in order to defend their achievements against subsequent counter-offensives and to continue strengthening their alliances and cooperative efforts in the pursuit of strategic objectives. Moreover, they have not made significant inroads into securing representation in the Congress or the Executive, and both key institutions remain under the control of groups and sectors of society that are inimically indifferent or hostile to their interests. As a result, most of the victories that have been achieved have been ephemeral, undermined, abrogated and nullified by constant legal, political, administrative, judicial and extra-legal manoeuvres and assaults against them.