Colombia: the Forgotten War
Among today’s numerous internal armed conflicts, few are as little-known as the one in Colombia, and among the world’s oldest, explains James Jones. The main insurgency—of a dozen to emerge in Colombia in the second half of the last century—is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (aka FARC). Debuting as a peasant insurgency in 1964, its roots go back a quarter century to land conflicts on an agricultural frontier.
The 5.2 million victims of forced displacement make Colombia the country with the largest number of displaced persons or refugees in the world, followed by Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Governments have negotiated with these insurgencies since the mid-1980s, reaching settlements with all but FARC and Army of National Liberation (ELN), founded in 1964 by Cuban-trained urban intellectuals. Illegal narcotics today partly fuels but does not explain the insurgencies. Right-wing paramilitaries and criminal bands have joined the weakened yet resilient FARC and the smaller ELN, forming a hash of shifting alliances. All parties, including public security forces, egregiously violate human rights. Civilians are in the crossfire of three commingling wars—on insurgency, on drugs (led by the U. S.), and today on “terrorism.” The wars spill across national borders, threatening regional stability.
A Land of Paradox
Known largely for its excellent coffee, for artists like Nobel novelist Gabriel García Márquez, or for the violent genius of world-class drug trafficker Pablo Escobar, Colombia has enormous human talent. It is a land of contrast, contradiction, and paradox—and a land of mirages, a land where things are often not what they seem. Varied topography and high biodiversity bespeak a natural richness: Caribbean and Pacific littorals rise gently to Andean uplands, where cold, windy puna descends through cloud forest to inter-montane valleys, or plunges into deep canyons in the southwest. To the east sprawl the arid Orinoco plains, to the south river-laced Amazonian rainforest. Government is absent to weakly present over most of this myriad vastness.
Inhabiting a milieu of rigid social classes, the people are as varied as the fractured land, whose richness hides a somber reality. Less than three percent of a population of 46 million is indigenous, with Afro-Colombians from 10 to 25 percent. Living in remote areas, these groups have low human-development indicators, figure disproportionately among conflict victims, and today suffer the invasion of a growing resource extraction. Half of the country—60 percent of rural areas—endures poverty, with some of Latin America’s worst just outside the walls of the colonial port city of Cartagena, site of the Sixth Summit of the Americas in April 2012.
Colombia is by income the world’s fourth most unequal country—in one of the earth’s most unequal regions. Land distribution is highly skewed; Colombia has never had a viable land reform, or a reliable cadaster. Informality, corruption, straw ownership, tax evasion, and violence mark land transactions. Fewer than one percent of landowners control 60 percent of farmland—the region’s highest concentration. Drug mafias and rightwing paramilitaries today control 35 percent of prime farmland. Land inequality has long linked to the country’s conflict, which has internally displaced some six million people—highest in the world. Many settled on urban fringes, but are more in than of the city. Thousands more fled to Ecuador and Venezuela.
A History of Violence
Colombia nestles in a violent region today. According to the U.N., eight of the world’s 10 most violent countries are in Latin America or the Caribbean. While some of the violence is drug-related: violence, poverty, social exclusion, and weak institutions, including rule of law, also figure. Colombian violence has historically been political, and with fitful surges has existed since independence (1819). Two political parties emerged at mid-century, Conservative and Liberal. These would order partisan quarreling well into the 20th century. Nineteenth-century civil wars culminated in the Thousand Days’ War (1889-1902) with 100,000 deaths—2.5 percent of the population. Repression of the union movement and native peoples followed. Party conflict ignited another bloodletting called La Violencia from 1946 to 1957. Fought in rural areas by partisan-led peasants, it killed 100,000 to 200,000 people, some grotesquely tortured. The conflict formally ended with a bi-partisan power-sharing arrangement (1958-1978). The violence did not.
The two-party “oligarchic” system has historically been part of a scheme in which geography, politics, and social class—Latin America has the world’s most rigid class structure—join to form “hereditary hatreds.” Colombia is a poorly articulated land of regions. Local and national elites link through political clientelism, whose exclusionary character partially explains the insurgencies. Liberal dissident Jorge Gaitán, arguing in 1933 that neither traditional party met the needs of the masses, formed the National Leftist Revolutionary Union, which championed workers. Distinguishing between the “political” and the “national” country, Gaitán might have been elected president had he not been assassinated in 1948. Although the two historic parties today coexist with others, clientelism lives on, and with it the violence.
Toward the mid-1970s, Colombia entered the trade in illegal narcotics, first with marijuana, then coca and cocaine in the 1980s, and some opium poppy for heroin. The trade helped fuel the longtime violence. Global changes also stirred: as the Berlin Wall fell and the U.S. invaded Panama in 1989, the Cold War segued into the drug war, and then that into the war on terror. Meanwhile, the U.S. role in Colombia grew, one that began in the 1950s as the Cold War stalked the region, endangering the status quo and threatening U.S. national security. President John Kennedy’s 1960s Alliance for Progress (Colombia was a cornerstone) was all about regional development as counterinsurgency.
The civil conflict accelerated in the 1980s, when both estate owners and drug mafiosi, then buying estates, organized paramilitaries to fight rebels who killed and extorted them. The military secretly aided these paramilitaries, not only to extend security, but to fight a dirty war by proxy. Use of civilians in counterinsurgency had thus evolved since the U.S. first promoted the practice in Colombia in 1959. The paramilitaries soon massacred and maimed, often in a strategy to induce fear and drain a rebel-occupied sea. Entire villages fled. First organized by region, the paramilitaries united in 1997 under the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). They trafficked in drugs, acquired lands through forced eviction, and engaged in corruption, often with local officials colluding.
The peasant FARC was also evolving. It entered the drug trade around 1982. Working with small coca farmers came naturally, and the trade brought mutual benefits. FARC at first protected farmers and fixed prices, and later climbed the chain to process and commercialize some cocaine. Their main relationship to the trade was and continues to be control over the trade in coca, the raw ingredient of cocaine. This is the least profitable side of the business globally, yet one that considerably enriched the FARC.
At the same time, a quest for peace was on the rebel agenda. During President Betancur’s peace process (1982-1986), FARC pacted a two-year ceasefire and formed a political party, the Patriotic Union (UP), which won 14 congressional and hundreds of city-council seats in 1986. Reaction to its wins was brutal: army-backed paramilitaries began to assassinate hundreds of UP candidates, followed by elected officials, including congressmen and two presidential candidates.
With bitter memories and drug and other monies derived from increasing criminal activity in a post-Cold War world, FARC decentralized and spread across Colombia in trickles in the 1980s and 1990s—a dispersion that would later render them vulnerable. Unlike other insurgencies, FARC never enjoyed a “liberated” zone. As a mobile force, it could not defend its actual and potential social base among peasant farmers and others from brutal paramilitary reprisals. And it attacked those seen as aiding the paramilitaries. As the conflict degraded—a conflict in which 75 percent of atrocities are attributed to paramilitaries and the State—FARC evinced a growing unconcern for civilian welfare. It recruited by force, even children, and attacked police garrisons with imprecise homemade mortars, causing sweeping collateral damage. Civilians, estranged from all warring parties—including the State—fled.
By the mid-1990s, FARC sometimes operated as a regular army, moving columns across open country. It dealt public security forces eight major defeats from 1996 to 1998. Alarms sounded in Bogotá and Washington. The defeats coincided with the election of Andrés Pastrana as president in 1998.
A Continuing Struggle for Peace
After winning on a peace platform, President-elect Pastrana met informally with then FARC chief Manuel Marulanda to discuss a plan. Peace was a heady prospect for war-weary civilians. Arguing that peace was a precondition to fighting drugs, then-President Pastrana wove drugs into a historic plan, as he and Marulanda had agreed. For Pastrana, drugs were a social ill; he opposed aerial herbicide spraying on poor coca farms—the thrust of U.S. anti-drug policy. Pastrana wanted rural development, and FARC agreed to reduce coca in return for development in coca zones with a rebel presence—so-called “crop substitution” intrigued Marulanda. A U.N. pilot project began in a demilitarized zone created for talks. All was part of what Pastrana called “Plan Colombia” in late 1998.
As the war raged, paramilitaries hovered menacingly on the DMZ’s perimeter while they massacred beyond it. To no avail, Marulanda repeatedly asked Pastrana to control them. Soon after Pastrana entered office, his military announced the forthcoming creation of a U.S.-backed anti-drug battalion. Influential U.S. interests thought the peace plan, including the DMZ, would harm anti-drug efforts. After February 1999, when FARC killed three U.S. activists helping an indigenous group resist the incursion of an oil company, the dice were cast. The murder strengthened anti-peace interests, at a time when counter-narcotics were a creeping guise for counterinsurgency—politically unsavory in the U.S. after Vietnam. One year on, pressed by the U.S. and his own military, Pastrana described a “Plan Colombia” that reversed the original strategy: drug-control was now a precondition for peace.
In a badly managed process, peace talks staggered for over three years. The conflict worsened. The Pastrana years saw the greatest growth in rightist paramilitaries, which according to the U.S. State Department were responsible for 70% of human-rights abuses. U.S. aid also grew, supplying helicopters, trainers, and intelligence. From 1998 to 2012, it totaled $8.5 billion—75 percent to military and police—and became the largest aid program outside South Asia and the Middle East.
His peace process in ruins, Pastrana ended it in February 2002, after FARC hijacked a commercial airliner and abducted a senator aboard. In the same month, AUC chief Salvatore Mancuso announced that his paramilitaries were supporting candidates in the March congressional elections, with paramilitary political power to be reflected in more than one-third of the winning seats. In May, Álvaro Uribe, a large landowner and former governor of Antioquia, won the presidential elections on a platform to defeat the FARC. An electorate that had once voted for peace through dialogue now voted for peace through war.
Uribe deftly exploited the 2001 attacks on the U.S. With U.S. help, his military waged counterinsurgency under a slogan of “democratic security.” His Defense Minister, Juan Manuel Santos, who would be elected president in 2010, led the way. Uribe’s popularity soared. He won a second four-year term in 2006—and tried for a third, which the Constitutional Court blocked. On the battlefield, he reduced FARC numbers to about 9,000—from 18,000 (one-third women) in 1998. Better intelligence and air power, with troop mobility and “smart” bombs, led to rebel captures, deaths, and defections. FARC returned operationally to its guerrilla origins: small units using hit-and-run tactics.
Levels of violence fell in the cities, home to Colombia’s elite, and foreign investment rose. U.S. presidents Clinton (out of office when Uribe was elected) and Obama praised Uribe; George Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009—the highest U.S. civilian award. Yet there was another side, one that Uribe tried to obscure using media management, semantic dodges, and legal chicane. For Uribe, Colombia had no “armed conflict” but rather a war with “terrorists”—who, he argued, were to blame for Colombia’s poverty. Uribe’s critics, including human-rights defenders, were “terrorist sympathizers.” The language resonated with Uribe backers—and made some of his critics paramilitary military targets.
Counterinsurgency under Uribe is responsible for half of all of today’s internally displaced, according to the Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), which makes Colombia – with its 5.2 million victims of forced displacement – the country with the largest number of displaced persons or refugees in the world, followed by Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Shadowing the country’s economic growth is the world’s highest murder rate for union leaders. The American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) cites 3,000 killed since 1986 (195 from 2007 to mid-2010, with six convictions), and an impunity rate well over 90 percent. (Investigative journalists have fared little better.) Mimicking Pastrana’s peace process, Uribe initiated talks with paramilitary leaders in 2002. He even allowed them to address Colombia’s Congress in 2004. In exchange for demobilization, they sought light jail sentences and immunity from extradition to the U.S. on drug charges. When a 2005 Justice and Peace Law was crafted accordingly, human-rights groups’ outrage led the Constitutional Court to amend it. Nonetheless, some 30,000 combatants had officially demobilized by 2006. FARC noted sarcastically: “You don’t make peace with friends.”
Scandal rocked Uribe’s presidency. First came revelations that some of those who “demobilized”—12,000 says Pastrana (the number is unknown)—were not paramilitaries. And some groups never demobilized, and today operate as criminal bands trafficking drugs and serving the same dark interests as before, but under new names. Yet other combatants demobilized, but later joined criminal bands. Twenty-some paramilitary groups remain active, and apparently with greater political power at local and national levels, and greater territorial control, than before the “demobilization.”
Strong circumstantial evidence of Uribe’s links to paramilitaries—officially suspected of 150,000 murders—and their backers abounds. They helped elect Uribe, and many pro-Uribe Congressmen. Since 2006, following Supreme Court investigations, more than 60 Congressmen, all Uribe supporters—including one cousin—have been jailed for paramilitary links. One analyst recalls Italy in the heyday of the Mafia, when officialdom fused seamlessly with organized crime.
When jailed paramilitary chiefs began to talk, Uribe extradited 14 of them to the U.S., allegedly to enforce silence rather than justice. And he launched an attack on Supreme Court judges. The attack used the national intelligence agency (DAS), operating under the presidency, to eavesdrop on the judges—as well as to intimidate Uribe’s critics. Moreover, a former intelligence head—Uribe’s campaign manager on the Caribbean coast in 2002—was charged in 2007, after resigning as acting consul-general in Milan, with complicity in the AUC murder of Colombian union leaders.
And very alarming was a revelation that Colombian soldiers, pressed for results and offered benefits, had since 2002 lured up to 3,000 young civilians to secluded spots under the pretense of employment, then killing them to present their bodies as felled rebels. Fewer than two percent of cases have yielded convictions. Among the charged were U.S.-trained officers.
Colombian soldiers, pressed for results and offered benefits, had since 2002 lured up to 3,000 young civilians to secluded spots under the pretense of employment, then killing them to present their bodies as felled rebels.
Uribe departed in 2010 as Colombia’s most popular president, and Juan Manuel Santos, his Defense Minister, succeeded him in August. Unlike Uribe, who is a wealthy but provincial landowner, the cosmopolitan Santos represents Colombia’s traditional “oligarchy.” As president, Uribe blended the views of 19th century rural Colombia with those of 21st century neo-liberalism and mafioso criminality. Santos has largely continued Uribe’s security policies, but has veered in other ways. He has worked to mend Colombia’s international relations, notably with Ecuador and Venezuela. He concedes the existence of an armed conflict. And through a new land law, he has vouched to restore lost land to conflict victims. But the challenges are formidable: 20-some land-restoration leaders have been assassinated since 2010—the work of what Santos calls a “dark hand.”
The war grinds on, with January 2012 the most violent month in eight years. In March, Bogotá asked for drones to fight FARC, whose chief ‘Alfonso Cano’ was killed in combat in November 2011. An aging middle-class intellectual, many saw the political Cano as the best hope for dialogue. Long-time rebel ‘Timochenko,’ trained in Russia and Cuba, replaced him. Timochenko announced in early 2012 that the rebels again wanted to dialogue, but soon added that talks did not mean surrender. Yet in a seeming good-faith gesture, FARC agreed in late February to cease abducting for ransom, and in April unilaterally freed 10 police and soldiers held captive for 14 years—the last of security forces held. Santos lauded the actions, but said they were not enough for talks.
U.S. military aid to Colombia under Santos, while declining, remains robust, and its concern for human rights lame. The U.S. describes Colombia as one of the region’s “oldest democracies” and a “success story.” The U.S. Ambassador, echoing Uribe, dubbed it a counterinsurgency “model” for Afghanistan. The 1997 Leahy Amendment to a foreign aid bill forbids U.S. aid to foreign security units involved in human rights violations, but the U.S. has consistently resorted to evasive loopholes. Colombia and the U.S. signed a free-trade pact in 2006, under Uribe and George Bush, but human-rights concerns delayed implementation. Obama, whose Colombia policy differs little from Bush’s, announced at the April 2012 Summit a starting date of May 15 for implementation—despite the 2010 murders of the land-rights leaders, and the pact’s harm to small farmers, as revealed in an Oxfam-funded study by a prominent economist.
Where To Now?
President Santos has yet to respond to recent FARC overtures to dialogue. Fifty-five percent of citizens recently polled want the government to negotiate, 42 percent do not. And there are many powerful spoilers, among them economic interests, including some government allies. Those interests think that peace, through defeat of FARC, lies just beyond the battlefield. They reject peace through dialogue for fear of what negotiations might bring. Government policy combined with illegal usurpation of lands have for three decades increasingly favored land concentration. Six million people displaced and 6.5 million hectares of land usurped speak to that. Negotiations could threaten this status quo.
After years of gore and guile, levels of mistrust between government and rebels are enormous. In March 2008, for example, Colombian planes bombed a FARC border camp in Ecuador, killing a senior rebel commander and sparking an international confrontation. Following the bombing, soldiers abseiled from helicopters and, according to non-official reports, shot dead wounded rebels. And in July 2008, a FARC unit holding French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt since 2002, three U.S. contractors captured in 2003, and 11 soldiers and police, received an order, ostensibly from FARC chief Alfonso Cano, to release the hostages to an aid organization which would collect and fly them to Cano to discuss a prisoner swap. The order was part of an elaborate ruse devised by military intelligence. A military helicopter painted white and with emblems of a Spanish aid organization arrived to retrieve the hostages. Soldiers aboard were disguised as foreign aid workers. Some wore Che Guevara T-shirts, and one a black-and-white Arab kafiya cum bib and armband with International Red Cross logos—a serious violation of international humanitarian law. A military source later leaked to CNN a private video, which showed the emblems. Uribe explained that a nervous soldier wore the unauthorized Red Cross logos. As it happened, Swiss and French envoys were at the time in Colombia seeking a meeting with Cano. The timing of the ruse was perfect.
The U.S. can be a vital force for peace—or for continued war.
FARC has indicated clearly that it will not dialogue at any price. And just as clearly that a growing inequity, especially as regards land and agricultural policy, must be on the table. FARC has argued for “social justice” since its founding. Any dialogue must involve not only the government and FARC, but also organized civil society. The conflict is a national problem. It is troubling that many relatively affluent Colombians residing in urban security are inured and indifferent to others’ suffering. This speaks to larger ethical issues: an acceptance of corruption and of human-rights violations, and an outsize veneration of material wealth. These attitudes permeate the social fabric.
Peace cum demobilization can only happen through dialogue, and once agreements on reform have been reached and movement toward their compliance is discernible. It lies far down a tortuous road. After 50 years of struggle, FARC will not demobilize, or lay down its arms, without something in return. And beyond this, recent events may well suggest to FARC that it would lack enough security to participate politically. The events include assassinations of land-rights leaders as well as physical threats to labor, indigenous, social, peasant, and cultural leaders who organized an April 2012 Patriotic March in Bogotá to found an alternative political party. The military, speaking for the government, publicly stigmatized the march as a FARC political front. Two march leaders have been assassinated to date, and two have disappeared. To FARC, this recalls the UP experience.
To its credit, the Santos government acknowledges the existence of an armed conflict. But its language—calling rebels “bandits,” “criminals,” “terrorists,” and “narco-terrorists”—discourages dialogue. Distinguishing between the three wars cited earlier must precede talks. The U.S. can be a vital force for peace—or for continued war. In the name of its national security, it supports a perverse status quo lying at the heart of the war. Its talk of human rights is unconvincing, and contradicts its own professed values. Like Colombia, the U.S. must be politically bold. For moral and practical reasons, it should rethink its own national security as regards Colombia, and ponder how best to achieve it.
The number of war casualties is staggering. One study estimates 50,000 deaths from 1988 to 2003, and another 200,000 since 1964. Colombia today has the world’s second-highest number of landmine victims; the use of mines varies directly with rebel retreat. The country badly needs to rethink its national project. Its national anthem beckons: “In rows of sorrows, the good now buds forth…”
President Santos has yet to respond to recent FARC overtures to dialogue.
Former UN advisor for the Andes (Colombia, Peru, Bolivia) on rural development as a drug-control tool, James Jones is a social scientist (Ph.D. Social Anthropology, M.S. Economics) with over 40-years of experience in 19 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. He was awarded a two-year Global Security Grant from the MacArthur Foundation to study the effect of U.S. aid on (1) the armed conflict and (2) drug control.