Walking through the streets of the bustling city centre in Bucaramanga with Paola, I mentioned the name of a guerrilla group, the ELN, when she shushed me at the sound of the revolutionary army’s name, seemingly scared of open discourse about rebel groups.
‘Y por qué?’ I asked why.
‘La represión!’ she whispered.
Paola isn’t scared, just reasonably cautious. Months ago Paola received a written death threat for her social involvement. She volunteers for the Committee for Solidarity for Political Prisoners, a group which struggles for the rights of political prisoners within a country that appears to be straight out of George Orwell’s 1984, a country where being a human rights defender can have dangerous consequences; there are over 1,000 political assassinations every year in Colombia, the highest level of homicide in the Western hemisphere.
What does fear look like in a country where repression of social organizations involves assassinations, disappearances, threats and kidnapping? In the bus on the way to the University yesterday, Paola handed me a note sent by the paramilitary organization known as Las Aguilas Negras to 11 student organizers accusing them of being linked to networks of the FARC and ELN, Colombia’s two largest guerrilla groups. The death threat assured its recipients that their actions were being monitored and that their days were numbered. “We, former combatants of the United Auto-Defense of Colombia (AUC) believe that our universities, our neighborhoods and the country need to be liberated from you revolutionaries…. You and the organizations which you represent are a problem for Colombia… The plan to annihilate you all will begin with the very next student strike.” 1
A death threat from the Aguilas Negras is a common tactic from this nationwide right-wing paramilitary group. Weeks ago, the local office of Sinaltrainal, a national union of food workers, received a written death threat under the front door of their office. 11 Bucaramangan youth were accused of drug addiction in a death threat posted on a wall in a local neighborhood: the youth have since fled their houses and are sharing a floor to sleep on, displaced within their own city. Fear of death? If there is a fear that courses in the veins of the country, it is a legitimate fear, a well-sanctioned and reasonable fear for the safety of human rights defenders, unionists, peace promoters, campesino leaders, Afro-Colombians, indigenous leaders and community members.
Paramilitaries, backed by State security forces and taught with U.S. anti-guerrilla manuals and anti-terrorist tactics, have honed a method of instilling fear and producing forced displacement. My friend José Antonio knows this tactic well, as his family has lived it first hand. As we walked through the African Palm plantations in Chocó, José Antonio showed me where there used to be his community called Andalucia. 10 years ago, under Operation Genesis, the whole region was attacked by air, water and land, a concerted military and paramilitary operation which massacred, tortured, assassinated and forcibly displaced over 4000 campesinos, subsistence farmers living an ancestral lifestyle. He showed me where there used to be his brother´s small farm, and some of the old cement water tanks still remain, looking out of place amidst the symmetrical rows of African Palm, which has been developed in the region after the displacement, a business protected by the same criminals who massacred the campesinos. He pointed to where there used to be a river and said, “Over there my brother used to fish. He was fishing one day, with his four children, when the paramilitaries came to him. They tied his hands behind his back, cut open his chest, and removed his innards with their hands. They told his children to leave and not to come back to this land.”
The statistics of systematic violence in Colombia are particularly striking and show the endemic nature of the problem 2. The political genocide of the Union Patriotica, a political party seeking a humanitarian accord between the FARC and the government in the 1990’s, suffered 1163 non-judicial executions, 123 disappeared, 43 attempted murders and 223 death threats between 1985 and 1993 alone. Current statistics count around 5000 victims. Indigenous people and their resistance movements have had victims nationwide as well. The highest rates of homicide have been among the Embera Katio, the Wayuu and the Kankuamo peoples, who have suffered 342 homicides, 234 since 1999. From January 1986 to December 2006, there have been 2,515 assassinations of union leaders in the country. The National Federation of Municipal Councils (FENACOM) reports 251 council members assassinated since 1985. According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, between 1996 and June of 2006, 31,656 people were either killed or disappeared. From 1996 to 2003, 8,185 people were killed in 1,347 massacres. 83.07% of the massacres were attributed to State forces.
The Consultation of Human Rights and Forced Displacement (CODHES) has stated that between 1985 and 2005 there were 3,720,428 citizens registered as forcibly displaced, not including those who did not register out of fear. In the first third of 2006 alone, 112,099 people were forcibly displaced. According to the Ideas for Peace Foundation, members of the AUC, a former paramilitary organization, have invested in 3 million hectares of land, while drug traffickers have bought 1 million hectares. 70% of landowners are small-scale campesino farmers, who possess only 5% of total land area. The reality of forced displacement by State forces and the subsequent purchasing of large quantities of land by paramilitary members are facts that demonstrate the illegal appropriation of land through violent mechanisms. Meanwhile, most small-scale farmers are forced to either find smaller parcels of land to cultivate or join the growing waves of urbanization. In both cases they continue to face the threat of violence.
Although a traveler passing through the cities of Colombia might see a country moderately developed, an urbanized population and a burgeoning middle class, while liberal economic journals describe Colombia’s economy as a prosperous, growing market, rich in natural resources and ready for investment, the situation in Colombia should only be understood as war. The State apparatus of control and repression, legitimated through impunity and maintained through the consolidation of executive military power in all branches of government, a broken social fabric with violence being a continual threat in all levels of society, have created a state of siege and atomized the Colombian countryside. Informants, military and paramilitary forces create local fiefdoms, regional strongholds of ultra-right wing power. Urban centers are infiltrated by networks of informants and surveyed by police and military. “The most preoccupying factor of the situation is the appearance of normality which this military and political project has acquired”, says Soraya Gutierrez Arguello, president of the ‘José Alvear Restrepo’ lawyer collective. Specific elements of social control, such as paramilitarism, impunity, and State power, have all brought the country to a terrifying brink of destruction.
Infiltrating Civil Society and Rending the Social Fabric
Many sociopolitical studies agree that the origins of contemporary violence in Colombia began in the mid-1940s. Institutional and rural violence stimulated by the Conservative Party left 300,000 dead without investigation, thousands left without homes, an unfriendly political regimen and an armed uprising from rural sectors which has precipitated and perpetuated an internal conflict that to this day continues spilling blood. 3 A key element of the counterinsurgent strategy has been paramilitarism, which has proved most effective in exercising terrorist practices and garnering large support from the State.
Paramilitarism has worked to annihilate social resistance and democratic opposition of civil society, creating new agents of capitalist accumulation, generating forced displacement and the implementation of large agro-industrial projects. According to Soraya Gutierrez Arguello, President of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective, paramilitarism has united the anti-insurgent struggle with drug trafficking and State support under one concept of “irregular right-wing war, constructing paramilitary corridors, owned territorialities, zones of consolidation, eruption of local para-states, interlinked into a national phenomenon of power”. Armed right-wing paramilitary groups have had ample support from corporate sectors, large scale farmers, merchants, State security institutions, Military Forces, police and regional government. They have even benefited from significant representation in Colombian parliament and share a profound affinity with the current administration of President Uribe Vélez. The Colombian Office of the High Commission of Human Rights of the United Nations has signaled the ongoing networks between paramilitary groups and State agents. They have demonstrated the efficacy of crime and terror as instruments of social and political control and tools for accumulation and defense of wealth. 4
The paramilitary strategy is to claim that their victims are suspected guerrillas or guerrilla collaborators, when in reality the victims are systematically targeted members of the civilian population. According to the Organization of American States in a follow- up mission in July 2007, paramilitaries maintain and exercise an authoritarian criminal control, which inhibits the possibility of citizen action without coercion, making municipal and departmental elections very problematic. 5 Relying on a network of informants, paramilitary infiltration into communities and authorities at all levels of society has broken the social fabric, creating suspicion and mistrust among communities, neighbors and even family. Concerted communication and actions with military and police further institutionalizes the paramilitary criminal agenda.
According to Leonardo Jaimes M, a lawyer with the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners (FCSPP), It is common in penal processes to observe lists created by militaries that include many people (students, small farmers, unionists, civilians) accused of being guerrillas. “No one knows how these lists are formed, what criteria are held, or what proof exists to conclude guerrilla participation. The majority of these listed people are later assassinated or disappeared by State agents or paramilitary groups.” 6 The paramilitary strategy, by targeting community leaders, has been beheading the people’s movement and attempting to stop all forms of legitimate political dissent. Meanwhile, through legal and illegal impunity, structures of violence are allowed to continue.
The Legal Apparatus and Consolidation of Power
Within Colombia there is an almost complete impunity for State-sponsored crimes, including grave human rights violations, crimes against humanity, massacres, and what has been called ‘political genocide’ (the extermination of the Union Patriotica, a legitimate opposition party all but wiped out in the 1990's). Impunity is an important structural component, a necessary condition that allows for the execution and repetition of these crimes; in Colombia, 99.5% of crimes go unpunished. 7
Impunity for illegal State actors has been legally sanctioned since 1968 under Decree 3398. This decree allows Public Forces to organize a ‘civil defense’, to train, give arms and indoctrinate civilians in conflict zones in order to involve them directly in confrontations. 8
Though spying on civilians is unconstitutional, the collection of information to observe and monitor citizens has been legalized under Decree 717 of 1996, creating Special Zones of Public Order, where Public Forces can “Collect, verify, conserve and classify information around the place of residence and the habitual occupation of the inhabitants and the people who visit, come and go…” Furthermore military forces are capable of preventive arrests without judicial order, thus institutionalizing norms of military power above local and regional civil authorities.
Since the creation of Law 975 of 2005, known as the law of Justice and Peace though there has been no truth, justice or reparation, the government has ‘demobilized’ a large number of paramilitary members. This has allowed former paramilitaries to re-enter society as civilians with little or no jail time, to take ownership and develop the land that has been stolen from the civilian populations, thus consolidating their power and absolving them of their atrocities. Law 975 establishes juridical instruments for those who confess or are processed as political criminals, whose actions are considered as political, with ‘altruistic ends’. Thus the authors of horrible massacres, homicides of more than 40 people, can receive only a maximum of 8 years of jail time. Meanwhile for the crime of rebellion, social organizers receive 6 years behind bars. 9
Further worsening the situation is Decree 2767 of 2004 which establishes certain economic benefits for those who abandon activities within armed illegal groups and collaborate with Justice and Public Forces with information and the handing over of material. 10 Those who comply are today part of networks of informants and cooperators, responsible for the prosecution against hundreds of members of social organizations and human rights defenders. This tactic breaks the fabric of trust and confidence between neighbors and creates a climate of fear, where anyone can make some quick money by informing on anyone else. Due to the complicity and corruption between the judicial, executive and legislative branches, the national government has offered amnesties and benefits to over 10,000 demobilized ex-paramilitaries.
Militarization and Para-Institutionalization
The consolidation of power has accelerated under the current administration of the ultra-conservative President Álvaro Uribe Vélez. He has legalized impunity and insured the process of para-institutionalization in Colombia with great success. Law 684 of 2001 establishes a fourth power of government and distinguishes it from legislative, executive and judicial branches of a traditional constitutional democracy. It gives National Power the ability to supersede over all other institutions and mechanisms of order. Article 3 of the Law defines National Power as “the capacity of the Colombian State to offer all its potential to respond to situations that put in danger the exercising of rights and liberties, and to maintain independence, integrity, autonomy and national sovereignty.” The wording of the law is extracted almost in its totality from an anti-guerrilla manual. Law 684 shows that the classic division of power among government branches in the Colombian democracy is false: there exists only economic power, supported by National (military) Power: in essence a totalitarian regime
The consolidation of State power over the judicial branch of government has been achieved violently at times. In the massacre of La Rochela, judicial functionaries investigating a case of paramilitary violence were murdered. The Inter American Court of Human Rights denounced the act, declaring, “The facts of the case (of the massacre of La Rochela) are particularly grave because they were directed to impede the investigation and sanction violations of Human Rights. The massacre effectively intimidated functionaries of Judicial Power in the investigation of this and other cases.”
The President has attempted to authorize the military to control territories in cases where locally elected civil authorities become subordinated to regional military juntas. This year Colombian media has been covering cases that show the illegal financing of President Uribe’s political party Colombia Democratica, linking three of Uribe’s close senators to paramilitary enterprises. Links have been demonstrated to exist between paramilitary groups and the National Army, DAS (Security Administration Department), Incoder (Institute of Agrarian Reform), congressmen, the family of the President, four ministers and the Vice President. 11
With the legislation and legalization of State Power and illegal power structures, paramilitarism, impunity and terrorism are not state politics, but are the Law of the Republic of Colombia. These violent measures force us to conclude that there exists the decision of the powerful class to solve structural problems of the country through war.
While the ruling regime of Colombia tightens its control of the country through terrorism and impunity, international accords between Colombian officials and wealthy countries solidify the commitment to war and death squads, strategies directed to control popular organizations and people considered dangerous to the establishment. Plan Colombia, a nefarious agreement between the U.S. and Colombian governments, has invested 48 million dollars in order to fortify Preventive Military Intelligence. In a fascist society model, the institutions of education, church, political state structures and ordinary living spaces are vigilated and controlled by military ideology. The discourse of Uribe Vélez during his presidency campaign incorporated a two point argument that was used to justify a fascist regime. In the first element, all is chaos and disorder; democratic institutions are at risk from communists, terrorists and drug traffickers. The second element is to have a modern leader with an iron grip that will recover institutionality and restore order. 12
Authoritarian rule in Colombia in the past has demonized the “communists” as enemies of the State and of the values most trumpeted by the US doctrine of Democracy and Liberty. Now that the Communist bloc has fallen in Russia, according to Uribe and Bush, Democracy continues to be in imminent danger of being annihilated, now by drug traffickers and international terrorists, epitomized by Osama Bin Laden, a former CIA protectee, and the groups Al-Qaida and the Taliban, former CIA partners.
Above and beyond Plan Colombia, The Bush administration announced in 2002 the Andean Regional initiative, a military support package to combat drug trafficking to the tune of 98 million dollars. The handout was destined for the creation of a defense battalion for the energy infrastructures, protecting 300 geographic points in Colombia considered strategic for US interests. 13
Through legal and illegal structures, unconstitutional laws and a massive increase of military and paramilitary apparatus, power has been concentrated within the Executive and Military Forces. The criminalization of social protest and political opposition and the creation and maintenance of paramilitary groups have been utilized as State terror tactics to instill fear and subsequently control the civilian population. As Soraya Gutierrez noted above, the most preoccupying of this situation is the appearance of normality which this fascist apparatus has taken on in recent years. Meanwhile, the warm and friendly US-Colombian relations show that Colombia is a model democracy in the eyes of US foreign policy. However for the people living in Colombia and looking down the barrel of the proverbial gun, Colombia is far from a model democracy; it is the very model of State terror. And it is the model that the US plans on exporting to many more countries.
Stone In The Shoe, 2007.
- “Miembros de la UIS fueron amenazados por las ‘Águilas Negras’”, La Vanguardia (5/08/2007) electronic edition.
- “Un encuentro, muchos caminos, unidos contra el olvido”, Redaccion Caja de Herramientas. Caja de Herramientas. Year 16, No. 124. Bogota, 2007. Lic. De Mingobierno. p.8-9
- “Estado Colombiano: Responsible de genocidio politico y exterminio”, Movimiento Nacional de Victimas de Crimenes de Estado. Caja de Herramientas. Year 16, No. 124. Bogota, 2007. Lic. De Mingobierno. p. 12-13]] The State doctrine since the 1960s has been one of counterinsurgency and has authored systematic, generalized violations of human rights and crimes against humanity. [[“Consolidacion Paramilitar e Impunidad en Colombia”, Soraya Gutierrez Arguello. Democracia o Impunidad. Fundacion para la Investigación y la Cultura. Bogota 2005. p. 45-77
- “La Corte Suprema sigue adelante en el proceso de la Parapolitica”, Pedro Santana Rodríguez. Caja de Herramientas. Year 16, No. 124, Bogota, 2007. Lic. De Mingobierno. p. 3-4
- “Ley de Guerra”, Leonardo Jaimes M. Justicia y Paz: Revista de Derechos Humanos. No. 16, Bogotá, 2002. Editorial Codice Ltda. p. 37-55
- Movimiento Nacional de Victimas de Crímenes de Estado, p. 12-13]] A mechanism of governmental corruption, it enables dominant sectors of society to repeat cycles of violence and repression of social movements. One effect of impunity is that violence against women and sexual violence continues as a recurring practice by all the armed forces, allowing women to be treated as war booty for armed actors. [[“Las mujeres en acto de protesta contra la Guerra”, Ruta Pacifica de la Mujeres. Caja de Herramientas. Year 16, No. 124. Bogotá, 2007. Lic. De Mingobierno. p.5
- Gutierrez Arguello, Ibid. ]] 35 years later, Law 684 was created which sanctions the establishment of civilian militias. Article 7 declares that, “Civil service of national defense… must be completed by citizens to support authorities in the preservation of citizen’s security.” Article 76 of the same law states that, “When considered necessary, vigilance services and private security can support the goals of Security and National Defense, under the control of the Ministry of National Defense. …At the solicitude of municipal authorities in charge of municipal funds, the National Police can personally recruit local persons most adequate who cooperate in work and vigilance for the maintenance of order. These personnel will be under their direct command the same as regular personnel.” [[Jaimes M, Ibid.
- Interview with Leonardo Jaimes M., 19/08/2007.
- Gutierrez Arguello, Ibid.
- Santana Rodriguez, Ibid.
- Jaimes M, Ibid.
- Jaimes M, Ibid.]] On the 16th of January, 2002, Bush declared before the Council of World Affairs of the OEC, “We are committed to security: Security against terror, security against violence of the drug cartels and their accomplices. Because of this we are committed to countries like Colombia to defend their democracy.” Only President Bush would call this a democracy. [[Jaimes M, Ibid.