The Social and Armed Conflicts in Colombia

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The history of Colombia is rife with social and armed conflicts – although there have been periods without open armed conflict, the hostilities between traditional enemies and rivals have always simmered not far from the surface ready to erupt at any time, and it is reasonable to assert that since the Spaniards arrived at the end of the fifteenth century Colombia has on occasion enjoyed periods without large scale armed hostilities rather than periods of peace.

The Social and Armed Conflicts in Colombia

Written by Daniel Edgar exclusively for SouthFront

Since the independence of Colombia was formally attained and internationally recognized in 1820 following a brutal 10 year war, the armed conflicts have generally been fought out between factions and alliances aligned around the two major political parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives. Colombia has been involved in several international wars, notably the separation of Panama in 1903, fomented and supported by the USA in order to secure control over the Panama Canal, and a territorial dispute over the border with Peru in 1932-33 featuring relatively small scale battles won by Colombia (Colombia also sent a small contingent to the Korean war in the 1950s in return for US military assistance in Colombia). Nonetheless, the rulers of the country have usually been too preoccupied with internal power struggles and the associated armed conflicts to participate in large scale international conflicts (though of course powerful countries and groups outside the country are inevitably involved to varying degrees in direct and/ or indirect participation in the conflict in Colombia, most notably the British, the Catholic Church, and during the twentieth century the USA).

The internecine armed conflicts over political power between the Liberals and Conservatives were interrupted by a brief military dictatorship in the 1950s established to put an end to the most widespread and devastating civil war since the War of Independence. The traditional ruling classes and families, centred around the Liberal and Conservative parties, subsequently reached a formal power sharing arrangement to establish the “National Front” in 1957, pursuant to which the leaders of the two political parties took turns appointing the president for four year terms until presidential elections were again held in 1974.

It was during this period that the social and armed conflicts in Colombia began to assume their current form, significantly influenced by the Cold War and the Cuban revolution. The two main revolutionary insurgent groups, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Army of Liberation), were both founded in the mid-1960s, subscribing to extreme left wing ideologies and committed to the overthrow of the ruling classes by the use of force.

They remained small in number and were contained within the more remote parts of the country until the 1980s when the scale of social unrest given the continued monopoly of the Liberals and Conservatives over the institutions of power (maintained by ruthless oppression of all challengers and opponents), combined with the huge profits to be made from the illegal drug trade, resulted in an explosion in the geographic range and intensity of the armed conflict. The guerrilla groups rapidly extended the territory under their control during the 1980s and 1990s until they controlled or had a substantial presence in many parts of the country, making terrestrial travel extremely hazardous if not impossible for most Colombians.

The ruling classes (particularly those with large land holdings) responded by massively increasing their reliance on the use of ultra right wing paramilitary groups to protect (and further augment) their land and other economic interests, confront the guerrillas, and control the remainder of the population through widespread threats, massacres and terror. The paramilitary groups were supplied and financed primarily by large landholders, including Colombian and foreign companies and drug cartels, and their free movement to terrorise local populations and conduct military operations against the guerrilla groups were facilitated by extensive cooperation with officials and at times entire units of the “security” (police, intelligence and military) forces.

Two rounds of negotiations took place between the main guerrilla groups of the time and the government attempting to find a negotiated solution to end the insurgency, one during the 1980s and another during the late 1990s. The first was partially successful; one of the insurgent groups, the M-19 (formed in the 1970s), demobilized, its members disarming and attempting to compete in the political scene (along with some members of the FARC), and a progressive constitution was adopted in 1990 that opened national and sub-national politics and public institutions to other political parties (on paper at least). However, during the late 1980s and 1990s all political opponents to the traditional political parties and their control over the institutions of power were ruthlessly and systematically exterminated, including several widely popular independent presidential candidates and the leftist political party formed by demobilised guerrillas united with other left wing politicians and candidates (the Patriotic Union). The violence also reached unprecedented proportions in the countryside; remote and rural farming, Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities throughout the country were devastated and many were forced to leave their land and their communities to live as refugees in unaffected (or less intensively affected) regions, cities, or other countries (Venezuela in particular). In many cases they were forced to leave by the generalized violence associated with the armed conflict, in many others they were deliberately targeted in order to appropriate their land, natural resources, or areas of strategic importance.

The second set of major negotiations during the late 1990s failed to attain any of its stated objectives (in particular the demobilization of the remaining insurgent groups, the FARC and the ELN), most analysts attributing the responsibility for the failure both on the government as well as the guerrilla groups. The first decade of the new millennium witnessed a period of total war heavily promoted by the president elected in 2002 (Álvaro Uribe) and the United States. The size and range of the paramilitary groups increased enormously during the 1990s and first half of the following decade, and the guerrilla groups were pushed back to their mountain and tropical jungle strongholds and remote border areas. The areas vacated by the guerrilla groups as they retreated have invariably been occupied by paramilitary groups; thus, although the overall level of violence has decreased substantially since around 2008, the security situation in many regions remains extremely problematic as many “liberated” areas become subject to the dominance of paramilitary groups acting in collaboration with the local political and economic elites rather than being ruled in accordance with law and order guaranteed by the State.

The paramilitary groups were ostensibly demobilized in 2005 following negotiations with the government; nonetheless, the campaign of State terror continued unabated, many of the members of the paramilitary groups joining repackaged and decentralised “neo-paramilitary” groups. Apart from organic links to the security forces, over one third of the members of the national Congress have been investigated for alleged links with paramilitary groups (although many have been prosecuted and sentenced as a result, a similar proportion of the current members of Congress as well as provincial and municipal politicians are subject to investigation over suspicions of similar links), and they have enjoyed the patronage of or extensive collaboration with many other groups within the ruling classes including landlords, businessmen, bureaucrats and bankers.

Between 200,000 and 300,000 people have been killed during the social and armed conflicts since the mid-1960s (the estimates vary considerably, official estimates invariably considerably lower than those of associations formed by victims and human rights groups), the overwhelming majority civilians, and approximately 50,000 have disappeared without a trace. Most of the victims have been killed since the violence intensified early in the 1980s. There are around 10,000 political prisoners languishing in Colombia´s prisons, victims of contrived arrests and prosecutions carried out by police and prosecutors against critics of the policies, organizations and personalities of the ruling classes.

There are around 4 to 5 million displaced people in Colombia, most of them from rural and remote farming, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities. The perpetrators of and  motives behind forced displacements are fiercely contested, but apart from the displacements caused by living in areas where fierce military confrontations were taking place, most analysts attribute the responsibility for a majority of the deliberate forced displacements carried out to appropriate control over land and resources to the paramilitary groups, while the guerrilla groups and security forces are also indisputably responsible for a large number of forced displacements. Nonetheless, such cases must be treated with caution: the social, military, geographic and economic factors and dynamics of each region and area, as well as the idiosyncrasies of regional and local politics and the respective paramilitary groups and guerrilla fronts and their leaders, are very distinct and determine the nature of the armed conflict and its impacts on the local populations.

Many of the forced displacements attributed to the paramilitaries and security forces have evicted people from specific localities to make way for mining or infrastructure “mega projects” or large scale cattle ranches or plantations (whether for agricultural products such as bananas and African palm or for the production of prohibited drugs). The guerrilla groups also seek control over such areas in order to gain access to the proceeds of the large scale projects (or to interrupt their operations), as well as to obtain supplies and money from the local population, businesses and commerce through extortion.

Since the founding of the National Front in 1957 the Liberals and Conservatives had generally agreed on many core policies such as cooperation to maintain their bipartisan control over politics and the State apparatus, the aggressive adoption and implementation of neoliberal economic policies, and the primacy of the “alliance” with the US. A new president (Manuel Santos) was elected in 2010; although he had been Álvaro Uribe`s Defence Minister for many years, surprisingly he commenced negotiations with the FARC in 2012, breaking completely with his predecessor´s policy of total war against the guerrillas. This caused a deep split among the ruling classes, some factions and groups supporting President Santos` efforts to negotiate with the FARC, while others have coalesced around former president Uribe (now a senator in the national Congress) seeking to continue the policy of all-out war.

Thus the most recent fundamental split between the various families and groups that make up the Establishment is distinct from the more traditional disputes between the Liberals and Conservatives as such, being based in this instance on coalitions and alliances formed in support of or against the decision to seek a negotiated resolution to the armed conflict. The split has resulted in polarisation throughout the Establishment with factions and groups forming in both public and private institutions and organizations to support one side or the other. In addition to this rupture within the traditional ruling classes and the apparatus of the State, a large number of political parties have been formed since the new constitution entered into force in 1990, taking control of local and provincial governments in many regions and achieving a significant presence in the national Congress. Most of the new political parties derive their strength from particular regions and are right wing or extreme right wing in ideology and the tenor of their policies (they also account for the overwhelming majority of “parapolitics” cases, those prosecuted for links with the paramilitary groups), however a left wing political party formed several years after the Patriotic Union was brutally eliminated from the political scene has also gained a significant presence in the Congress. The Patriotic Union has been re-founded but is still in embryonic form, failing to secure any seats in the Congress in the most recent election.

Notwithstanding the negotiations between the government and the FARC, the official strategies involving the systematic persecution of opponents to the monopoly of the ruling classes on power and the associated campaign of State terror continue unabated. The systematic selective assassination of civil society leaders and in many cases entire communities continue, accompanied by tightly coordinated political, administrative, judicial and corporate persecution of civil society groups and their leaders and membership. The campaigns of persecution and terror are implemented by officials in all branches of government – politicians approve laws to weaken or eliminate civil rights and strengthen the rights of corporations (“foreign investors” in particular); officials in the public administration execute those laws to maximize their effect in favour of large corporations and against civil society groups, communities and their representatives; many magistrates in the courts partake in judicial proceedings to imprison those targeted for persecution; police, intelligence and military officials conduct extensive surveillance campaigns and frequent raids and detentions to harass such groups and their members, and continue to maintain close links with the neo-paramilitary groups who act as their executioners of selected targets. Either the strategy is too deeply entrenched within the Establishment and President Santos and his colleagues and allies are not capable of putting an end to it, or they are not committed to ending the systematic persecution.

All of these activities of persecution and terror are closely coordinated with many of the largest companies in the private sector, including those involved in large infrastructure and natural resource sectors as well as companies such as Nestlé and Coca Cola, to accelerate their plundering of Colombia`s people and abundant natural resources, the US Embassy often serving as a coordination hub and facilitator. The United States has long had and continues to have a huge direct and indirect role in the social and armed conflicts: the conduct of the campaigns of persecution and terror is a carbon copy of the counterinsurgency manuals of the US military produced since the 1960s, and a large number of the Colombian officers and military units implicated in the worst human rights abuses have received intensive training from the US military. A large number of foreign corporations have also been active participants in the persecution and terror; instead of exercising utmost diligence in their relations with stakeholders to ensure that their rights are respected as much as is possible, many companies have collaborated with (and often urged the intensification of) the political persecution and State terror in order to appropriate extremely lucrative resources and markets at a terrifying human cost.

Although information is much more scarce, it appears that Britain and Israel in particular have also been significantly involved in certain aspects of the armed conflict; for example, “former” military personnel from both countries were caught training paramilitary groups and drug cartel militias during the 1980s, and both countries continue to sell weapons and associated equipment and technology and supply military and intelligence “advisors”, often through the private sector.

While they have had some influence on major political decisions at particular moments in relation to particular policies, “the masses” have always been excluded from any meaningful role in politics, being relegated to secondary roles (when they are not excluded entirely) to be ruthlessly exploited and manipulated according to the whims of the Liberals and Conservatives in their devastating fratricidal feud in order to strengthen their respective political positions and fight their wars as cannon fodder and disposable militias. While the trade union movement in particular has on occasion coalesced and united with some other civil society groups such as the student movement to exert considerable pressure on the ruling classes, the sectors excluded from power and wealth have traditionally been extremely fragmented, acting in isolation to formulate their respective positions and pursue their particular objectives.

They have been prominent among the sectors and groups most affected by the social and armed conflicts and most heavily targeted by State campaign of persecution and terror. Over the last three decades over half of all of the assassinations of trade unionists around the world have occurred in Colombia, and human rights defenders, left wing political opponents, Indigenous people and representatives of victims groups seeking justice and the return of stolen land have also been heavily targeted. There has however been a steady expansion in the size and number of strategic political actions by excluded sectors as well as the crystallization of links of unity amongst them to develop coordinated strategies and realise joint actions in recent years.

In 2008 the Indigenous peoples of Colombia set out on a “Minga” (traditionally referring to a collective action within a community to achieve a specific task or objective), marching over 1000 kilometres from the south of Colombia to the capital Bogota to present their demands to the government and Colombian society generally. In 2014 the farmers and rural communities declared a national Agrarian strike that closed down many major highways for a month, lifting the blockade when the government committed to negotiations with their representative to address their demands. The government has failed to fulfil almost all of the major commitments it has since made and the organizations and movements that convoked the strike and blockade have stated that they will return to direct action if the government doesn`t begin to fulfil its commitments and obligations. It is unlikely that the government will be able to do this unless it is prepared to revoke the extravagant rights and powers that successive governments have granted to foreign investors in particular.

Such mass actions and developments have been consolidated by the strengthening of unity and ongoing bonds of cooperation amongst trade unions, Indigenous peoples, farmers, Afro-Colombians and other major social movements and actors to develop joint strategies and organise joint events and activities, the first time that the downtrodden and excluded sectors of Colombian society have formed a united front to confront their oppressors and pursue their respective objectives together. These developments culminated in a national strike on the 17th of March convoked by a coordinating committee comprising most of the associations and movements representing large sectors of the Colombian population; the turnout in demonstrations held throughout the country was less than the organisers had hoped for, but more than their detractors had hoped. While the groups making up the new popular social alliance are determined to maintain their cooperation and mass actions, it remains to be seen whether they can consolidate their strategies and activities and have a substantive effect on political and economic developments in the future.

At the same time, the negotiations with the FARC have reached numerous preliminary agreements and both sides appear to be exerting all their force to conclude a final agreement, and the rumours continue that the remaining guerrilla group (the ELN) and the government are on the verge of commencing formal negotiations for their demobilisation as well. Most recently (in early March 2016), one of the larger “neo- paramilitary” groups recently offered to demobilize (“la Oficina de Envigado” based in Medellin), which could be extremely significant given that many fear such groups will take over areas vacated by the guerrilla groups leading to a mutation of the social and armed conflicts rather than their termination.

However, the process according to which the negotiations with the FARC are taking place has not provided space for widespread participation; the negotiations are taking place in Havana Cuba and the agenda has been determined exclusively between the FARC and the government (notwithstanding occasional forums and events in Colombia to provide for broader discussion and public debate over specific topics). The government appears to be trying to keep tight control over the conditions in which the negotiations take place and the possible constitutional, legal and political outcomes, both in terms of the details of the negotiated settlement as well as in terms of whether and if so how it is to be submitted to the approval of the people of Colombia. This approach has alienated many sectors of society notwithstanding widespread support for attempting to reach a negotiated settlement. At the same time, the government has to contend with its opponents within the Establishment, placing it in an extremely difficult position; apart from the vehement opposition of a substantial number of the members of the national Congress and politicians in the provinces and municipalities, it cannot count on the support and obedience of many senior and mid-level public officials and is vulnerable to attempts by some of them to actively block or sabotage its decisions and policies.

As has occurred on so many occasions, Colombia is at a decisive point in its history. A wide range of factors are intimately involved in the course of developments: the power struggle within the Establishment (and the resultant complications for their international patrons and collaborators), the consolidation and confluence of many of the excluded and oppressed sectors of Colombian society which are for the first time in Colombia`s history forming a united front to present their demands to the ruling classes, the possible demobilisation of the remaining guerrilla groups, and the prospects for the further expansion or demobilisation of the various neo-paramilitary groups.

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