War has raged in Colombia for the past 60 years, but the armed conflict as we know if today began at the close of *La Violencia*. La Violencia, the most violent period in Colombian history, began with the 1948 assassination of Liberal Party leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, by members of the Conservative Party. This and other forms of Conservative government oppression led to a civil war, which was waged primarily by armed peasant groups, organized by political elites. On one hand the Conservatives, linked to the religious right, depended on armed groups to protect the property of the traditional oligarchy. On the other, the Liberal Party organized similar 'self-defence' groups, initially to defend liberal values linked to the new national bourgeoisie. This period ended with a peace accord (National Front Accord, 1958) between the Conservative and Liberal parties, but armed peasant groups persisted.
Legal Framework for the Paramilitary Strategy
Since 1965, Colombia has enacted special rules that have legalized the training and provisioning of armed civilian troops by the Colombian National Army, (decree 3398, 1965). Thanks to this legal framework, the Colombian state adopted paramilitarism as part of its national counter-insurgency strategy. The paramilitary structure in Colombia reached maturity in 1997, when the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), an umbrella organization of paramilitary blocs, was formed.
Armed Insurrection and Social Conflict
The Marxist 'Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia' (FARC), and the 'National Liberation Army' (ELN), which was inspired by Guevarist ideology and liberation theology, were among the first guerrilla groups to appear in Colombia in the 1960s. These peasant self-defence organizations, inspired by the socialist revolutions taking place on the American continent at the time, sought to end land inequality by forcing the state to carry out agrarian reform.
Today, the social conflict that sparked the armed insurrection in Colombia still exists. According to the World Bank, income inequality in the country is the same as it was in 1938. 22 million Colombians live in poverty, while 7 million live in extreme poverty.
From Communist Containment, to the War on Drugs, to the War on Terror
Although the role of the United States in the 'dirty wars' of the Southern Cone is well-document, the affect of US imperialism on the Colombian conflict is less known. During the Cold War, the United States defined its military mandate in the Americas as one of ensuring 'internal security' (NSC no. 122/1, 1953). This meant that the role of the military was to fight an 'internal enemy', often identified as members of the civilian population believed to be communists. At the School of the Americas, the United States trained Latin American military leaders in counter-insurgency and low-intensity conflict strategies, including tactics like forced disappearances and extra-judicial killings. Some of the most notorious military men in the hemisphere were trained at this school, including Colombian paramilitary commanders.
At the end of the Cold War, the US could no longer use the 'communist threat' to justify its military presence in the Americas, so it adopted a new discourse. The February, 1987 edition of the US Army's Military Review, laid out a new strategy: by emphasising real or imagined linkages between leftist guerrillas and drugs the Pentagon can assume an "unassailable moral position" and can continue to suppress revolutionary movements that challenge US hegemony in Latin America.
George Bush Sr. adopted the 'narcoguerrilla ' discourse when he announced the Andean Initiative, effectively launching the War on Drugs in the Southern Cone. His successor, Bill Clinton, continued on the same path, creating Plan Colombia in 1999. In 2002, during the George W. Bush presidency, the US Congress officially integrated Plan Colombia into the War on Terror. Although the discourse had changed, military assistance in Colombia was still directed towards one main target: left wing guerrilla groups, now dubbed 'narcoterrorists'.
Despite this, the Geopolitical Observatory for Drugs, Paris, maintains that the vast majority of drugs arriving in European ports come from Colombian coastal regions controlled by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). In fact, when the guerrilla movement began to threaten the activities of drug lords in Colombia, the later joined forces with the counter-insurgency, forming an alliance with paramilitaries. It is no wonder then that experts widely agree that the War on Drugs has been a complete failure. Despite 10 years of military and economic assistance dedicated to countering drug trafficking, there has been no significant decline in the growing, processing and exporting of illicit substances in Colombia.
Between 2000 and 2006, the United States invested $4.7 billion in Plan Colombia. Of this, 80% went towards the training and provisioning of military forces, and 20% went towards 'social' and 'alternative' development program. These programs focused primarily on the promotion of export commodities, like African palm, coffee and rubber, which could act as an alternative to the cultivation of coca. With $3.5 billion in funds from the US under George W. Bush, Colombian president Alvaro Uribe launched the 'Strategy to Strengthen Democracy and Promote Social Development', or the 'new' Plan Colombia (2007-2013). Uribe's 'Community State and Social Development' project was a part of this new phase of Plan Colombia.
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Plan Colombia, Noam Chomsky
The conflict in Colombia is often described as one of 'low-intensity', meaning that it is marked by irregular and 'unofficial' warfare. This includes paramilitarism, forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, and arbitrary detentions.
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Political Assassinations, Extrajudicial Killings and Massacres
Between 2002 and 2008, the Colombian Commission of Jurists documented 13,877 political killings (outside of combat) and 393 massacres in which 2,312 people were killed. The 'False Positive Scandal' adds to this sad reality; Over the course of Alvaro Uribe's two terms in office, the Colombian military murdered 1,122 civilians, and then presented them as dead guerrilla combatants in order to inflate the numbers of the counter-insurgency. The majority of those killed were union members, peasant leaders, unemployed youths, and residents of impoverished urban neighbourhoods.
Members of the political opposition have historically been targeted for selective assassinations. Since 1985, 5,000 members of the political left have been killed. Today, union leaders are arguably the main target. According to the 2009 annual report of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), 48 out of the 101 assassinations of union members in the world took place in Colombia. This makes it the most dangerous country in the world for union members. According to a 2009 UN report on extrajudicial killings, 98.5% of political assassinations in Colombia remain in impunity.
Forced Disappearances, Arbitrary Detentions and Torture
Beyond selective assassinations, there is also the issue of forced disappearances. According to official government statistics, a total of 49,756 forced disappearances have taken place in Colombia. What is more, human rights organizations have also documented over 15,000 cases of 'detention-disappearances', (when people are *officially* detained by the state before disappearing). As far as the detention of members of the political opposition, there are currently 12,000 political prisoners in Colombia. (Learn more about Political Prisoners here.) Between 2002 and 2008, the Colombian Commission of Jurists documented 5,114 cases of arbitrary detentions.
This situation is all the more worrying considering the cruel treatment that prisoners receive. According to the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT), torture is 'widespread' in Colombia and persists with complete impunity. Between 2002 and 2008, the Colombian Commission of Jurists documented 1,314 cases of torture, 96 of which were cases of sexual torture. In its 2009 report, the CAT noted an increase in such cases in Colombia, and condemned the Colombian military's use of sexual violence as a tool of war.
Aside from acts of torture, which the UN Committee Against Torture attributes primarily to official state agents, the majority of crimes against humanity in Colombia are committed by paramilitaries. It is important to recognize here that the 83rd, 1976 edition of the journal of the Colombian Armed Forces states that "paramilitary techniques are a sure, useful and necessary means of obtaining political objectives". This link between official military forces and paramilitary troops is apparent in the recent 'parapolitics' scandal, and through the declarations of paramilitary leaders themselves. The ex-paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso, extradited to the United States, stated before a federal court in Washington, "I am going to be frank. We do the dirty work that the DAS (the Colombian intelligence agency) and the public forces can't do" (November 18, 2008).
The paramilitary strategy is in effect one of the pillars of the low-intensity conflict in Colombia. It is implemented with the active support of national and international elites, as well as the United States. It is financed by large landowners and cattle ranchers, certain sectors of the political system, and by Colombian and foreign companies. Foreign capital's support of paramilitarism is evident in the lawsuits brought against Chiquita Brands (the former United Fruit Company) and Drummond, for directly financing paramilitaries whom in turn helped to protect and secure their investments in Colombia (sic).)
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The False Demobilization of Paramilitary Groups, or the 'Forgive and Forget' Law
Despite the official discourse that the Colombian government is separate from paramilitary forces, it is clear that there are really only two armed actors in the conflict: On one side, there is the armed insurrection (the FARC and ELN guerrilla forces), and on the other, there is the state, with its regular and irregular forces. The state, however, has refused to disclose the history of its role in crimes committed by paramilitaries.
In this sense, president Alvaro Uribe's 2002 'dialogue' with the AUC, to negotiate their demobilization, was more of a monologue. Despite the 'cease-fire' declared by the AUC in 2002 and the demobilization of more than 30,000 paramilitaries, over 4,000 political assassinations and forced disappearances have since been attributed to paramilitaries. Following the so-called demobilization, paramilitary groups have restructured themselves into different squadrons, like the 'Alguilas Negras', who use the same techniques and operational methods as the former AUC.
The demobilization took place in the context of the controversial Law of Justice and Peace, nicknamed the 'Forgive and Forget' Law by social groups because it prohibited the disclosure of information about the training, financing and direction of paramilitary groups. It also offered no serious reparations to victims. By providing amnesty to the material authors of paramilitary crimes, and obscuring the intellectual authors, this poorly-named Law of Justice and Peace sealed the deal of impunity between political elites and paramilitary forces, who themselves continue to do the dirty work of the military.
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The Implication of Civilians in the Armed Conflict
Given the large number of crimes against humanity attributed to the Colombian state, social organizations in the country have denounced what can be described as 'state terrorism'. We define state terrorism as the systematic integration of threats and acts of retaliation, generally considered to be illegal, into national policy, with the goal of ensuring the obedience and active cooperation of civilians in the warfare of the state. Let us be clear that this active cooperation on behalf of the civilian population is obtained through official state policies, as is the case with 'Community State and Democratic Security' project put in place by President Álvaro Uribe.
According to this policy, citizens play a role in public security. Any citizen that refuses to collaborate with the activities of the Colombian public forces is considered 'suspect' and presumed to be aiding the guerrilla movement. This policy is implemented through the so-called 'Network of a Million Informants' and the Peasant Soldier Program, through which 250,000 inhabitants of rural villages received three months of military training before being reintegrated into the community with a weapon and a uniform. sein du conflit armé. Cette politique est en violation directe du « principe de distinction » entre combattants et population civile dicté par le droit humanitaire international.
These policies generate mistrust between community members, harming the social fabric in Colombia. They also convert peasant-soldiers and informants (large sections of the civilian population) into objects of war. This is in direct violation of the Distinction principal between combatants and civilians, as laid out under international humanitarian law.
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The Criminalization of Dissent
Such a policy, which is meant to involve the entire civilian population in the armed conflict, implies that any person who is critical of political and economic elites is necessarily part of the armed insurrection. President Uribe's speech to the nation on September 8, 2003, in which he accuses human rights organizations of being '"agents of terrorism" illustrates this. Far from being an isolated case, this type of public defamation of human rights defenders is part of a larger strategy to criminalize social movements and political dissent.
We define criminalization as: the whole of state strategies and politico-juridical actions designed to relegate communities, organizations and individuals who defend human and community rights to the realm of the illegal and illegitimate. These strategies include the public defamation of the political opposition by elected officials, civil servants, and the media; lawsuits (tampering with evidence, use of false witnesses, etc.); and the abuse of the penal system in order to criminalize the legitimate actions of social movements. In 2010, 130 human rights defenders were victims of criminalization, from arbitrary detentions to legal prosecution.
Counter Agrarian Reform in Favour of Transnational Capital Contre-réforme agraire en faveur du capital transnational
Under the pretext of a counter-insurgency war, the Colombian state has employed a series of tactics aimed at oppressing the civilian population and asserting social and territorial control over the country. It has specifically targeted state critics, including union members, peasant leaders, social activists, and human rights defenders. The objective of territorial control should not be underestimated, as many analysts of the Colombian conflict maintain that the state's paramilitary strategy is, above all, a way to reverse agrarian reform. In this way, land with potential vale is concentrated in the hands of the oligarchy, or taken over by transnational capital.
This hidden objective of the war helps explain the internal refugee crisis within Colombia. After the Sudan, Colombia is the country with the highest number of internally displaced people in the world. Since 1985, more than 4.6 million people have been victims of forced displacement, of which 80% suffered more than one displacement. In 2009, it was estimated that nearly 10% of the population of Colombia had been affected. On top of these staggering figures, there are roughly 374,000 external Colombian refugees, 13,080 of which are in Canada.
Forced displacements, attributed mostly to paramilitary forces, have succeeded in reversing agrarian reform in the country. Roughly 6 million hectares of land have been taken by force from their legitimate owners (mostly small farmers, afro-descendant communities and indigenous people). This number is three times greater than the amount of hectares redistributed over forty years of so-called 'agrarian reform'. Thanks to this deliberate strategy, Colombia is one of the nations with the highest levels of land inequality in the world.
These lands, stolen from peasant farmers, are now home to a number of industrial farming and livestock projects. They are also sites for the extraction of precious metals, oil and forest products. The majority of these 'mega-development projects', from industrial farming to the extraction of natural resources, are financed by government programs aimed either at the reinsertion of so-called 'demobilized' paramilitaries, or at the promotion of certain crops as alternatives to the cultivation of coca. (The later has received a great deal of support from international development agencies.)
As far as agriculture is concerned, these projects prioritize export commodities, the three most important of which are agrofuels (mostly African palm and ethanol), coffee, rubber and exotic fruits. The type of industrial farming used to produce these crops degrades the soil and contaminates waterways with toxic pesticides. It also destroys the food sovereignty of small farmers.
In addition to its attraction to fertile land, and the large pool of labour generated by forced displacement and land theft, foreign capital is also drawn to Colombia's rich natural resources. This includes its biodiversity, water, mineral wealth and hydrocarbons. As a general rule, transnational companies, like Canadian oil interests Petrobank, Grantierra, Petrominerales, and Talisman, and mining companies like Medoro Resources and Greystar, arrive in an area only once it has been 'cleaned up' by official and unofficial military forces. With the local population displaced and land theft made legal by various agrarian laws benefiting the land-owning elite, international corporations can set up shop without fear of opposition. Once installed, they enjoy all the military support necessary to 'secure their investments' (sic), whether that entails the cooperation of paramilitary forces that control the local population, or relying on death squads to dismantle unions.
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Transnational corporations and crimes against humanity", People's Permanent Tribunal Colombia Session
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