Colombia's Invisible Wars

Will The US$1.32 billion dollar "Plan Colombia" bring visible peace to an invisble war?

By Sheila Gruner and Liisa North | 2001-04-01 12:00:00

While the world's eyes have been focused on the Balkans and the Middle East, the civil war in Colombia has escalated to the point where it threatens to spill over into neighboring countries. Over two million people, mostly peasants, have been displaced over the past decade, about 300,000 between January and August 2000 alone. Most have fled to urban centres within the country, but others have crossed borders to Ecuador and Venezuela in particular. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of union and human rights leaders, doctors, lawyers, judges, journalists, and academics have sought refuge in Europe, the United States, Canada, and elsewhere.

Yet the civil war remains largely invisible, camouflaged as a "drug war" that the United States now aims to "win" with Plan Colombia - a US $1.32 billion dollar aid package to counter drug activities in the Andean region. Of the $862 million earmarked for Colombia, 75 percent is destined for training and equipping the country's armed forces. A principal objective of the Plan is to "secure" the departments of Putumayo and CaquetÁ, a vast area in the south of the country containing indigenous reserves and the largest concentration of peasant coca leaf producers. It is controlled by the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), a left guerrilla organization that finances its insurgency largely by taxing coca producers.

It is difficult to see how Plan Colombia can succeed in making a dent in the drug trade, even if the south is "secured." Coca is cultivated on readily movable small forest clearings; furthermore, it is not limited to that region. Reliance on the drug trade cuts across the activities of all involved in the civil war - the rightist paramilitary organizations, branches of the civilian government, and the armed forces as well as the guerrillas. The complexity makes it difficult for outsiders to understand or even to care much about what is taking place as all parties to the conflict appear to be equally acting outside the law. Both the guerrillas and the paramilitaries are responsible for kidnapping in addition to their participation in the drug trade (the guerrillas - the FARC in the south and the smaller National Liberation Army, ELN, in its strongholds in the northeast - are believed to be responsible for more than half of the 2,805 abductions recorded in 1999). Matters are further complicated by Colombia's extraordinary social diversity, which produces different civil war scenarios in different regions, and by the fact that all parties involved are divided in one fashion or another.

Guerrilla History

The emergence of the contemporary guerrilla organizations can be dated back to the 1948 assassination of Jorge Eliécer GaitÁn, a highly popular Liberal Party leader and land reform advocate. His death precipitated a ten-year period of strife that became known simply as "La Violencia." It claimed over 200,000 lives as peasants armed by the Liberal and the Communist parties fought Conservative governments. After the Liberals and Conservatives - the two traditional parties that still dominate national politics - negotiated their differences in 1958 by agreeing to form a National Front, to share public office and take alternate turns in the presidency, the fighting continued. Over the past forty years, armed conflict has waxed and waned, but it escalated steadily in the 1990s, in tandem with the growth of the drug trade that now provides financing, in one fashion or another, for all the parties in conflict.

The FARC, founded in 1964, is headed by one of the peasant leaders who emerged from the Liberal uprising following the assassination of GaitÁn, and it is estimated to incorporate some 15,000 combatants. Well armed, it will not be easily dislodged from its southern base, an Amazonian area the size of the state of Pennsylvania. The ELN, with an estimated 5,000 combatants, was founded in the same year as the FARC by university students, radical workers, and Catholic priests inspired by the theology of liberation. It is considered to be the more moderate of the two guerrilla forces, advocating a peace-negotiation process that would incorporate representation from civil society organizations that are not involved in the armed conflict.

Paramilitary History

Paramilitary groups were first formed by large landlowners during the 1960s in reponse to FARC operations. However, the origins of today's principal paramilitary force, the United Self-Defense Units of Colombia (AUC), can be traced to1981 when the then-powerful MedellÍn drug cartel created a professional hit squad to eliminate kidnappers, following the abduction of a cartel-family member by the April 19th Movement (M-19), a guerrilla group that has since then disbanded. The AUC has been primarily engaged in a "dirty war" against civilians whom it accuses of cooperating with the guerrillas, and it is considered responsible for over 70 percent of the 403 massacres in which 1,865 people died in 1999.

The AUC finds it supporters among members of the landed oligarchy and what Colombians call the "narcobourgeoisie" (it is estimated that about 10 percent of the most fertile agricultural land in the country has been purchased by drug lords who have also invested in commerce, services, and construction over the past twenty years). Its leader, Carlos CastaZo, has publically stated that some 70 percent of his organization's financing is derived from drug trafficking .

The AUC also provides assistance to like-minded extreme right wing groups in neighbouring countries. CastaZo, when accused of master-minding the murder of a prominent radical black congressman in Ecuador in 1999, denied his organization's direct involvement in the assassination but stated that 59 Ecuadoreans had been trained in paramilitary tactics by the AUC. This is of great concern to Ecuador, where acute but as yet largely peaceful social conflicts have found expression in the constitiution of the hemisphere's strongest indigenous movement - CONAIE (The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador).

As for the Colombian state, Human Rights Watch, among other internationally respected human rights agencies, has documented the egregious human rights abuses of armed forces personnel and links between the paramilitaries and nine of the army's eighteen brigades. The penetration of the drug cartels into the highest levels of Colombia's civilian government and judicial system have been uncovered by, among others, U.S. government agencies.

This is not to say that honest and well-meaning soldiers, politicians, and judges do not exist. They do, and they have often displayed extraordinary courage in resisting the corruptive pressure of the drug cartels and in pursuing peace through negotiations. Their efforts are now being undercut by "Plan Colombia": in mid-November, the FARC pulled out of the periodic negotiations that were being pursued in Geneva with support from several European governments.

Points Against "Plan Colombia"

Indeed, "Plan Colombia" is likely to widen and deepen conflict and accelerate human rights abuses without responding to the causes of the civil war or reducing the scale of the drug trade. First of all, the military focus of Plan Colombia will be the FARC-controlled south . However, most coca processing, marketing infrastructure, and about forty percent of production is based in the north.

Second, all past experience with eradication programs corroborates the "balloon effect": that is, when coca production is squeezed somewhere, it simply springs up elsewhere. It will shift to other parts of Colombia or to neighboring countries. (Colombia is twice the size of France and the poorest 10 million of its 40 million population live in rural areas where income-generating activities are scarce, as they are across the borders in Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador.) In this respect, Colombia's former High Commissioner for Peace, Daniel Garcia Peña, recently noted that one of the areas from which coca was supposedly eradicated six years ago is now producing more coca than ever before.

Third, by escalating the war against the FARC in the south, Plan Colombia will provoke massive displacement and human rights abuses on the part of all contenders, all the more so since President Clinton waived most of the conditionality requirements which tie US aid to an acceptable human rights record in the receiving country. The UNHCR has already established offices in Ecuador and Venezuela, and Ecuadorean church personnel, across the border in Sucumbios, reported an increase in the number of refugees from the Putumayo to 200 per day in mid-November of 2000.

Fourth, by focusing on coca eradication in the FARC dominated regions, the AUC is left to expand its operations, given its friendly relations with sectors of the military establishment. Since the AUC is aligned with great estate interests and Colombia's most reactionary and corrupt social forces, its territorial expansion will exacerbate the land and other social inequalities that have kept the armed conflict alive and, in fact, have provoked recurrent civil wars and violence since 1840. Colombian analysts point out that the fighting has already led to land concentration as peasants flee and desert their plots in a country where three percent of landowners already control 70 percent of the arable land: over three million hectares were abandoned by refugees from the war during 1999 alone.

Fifth, Plan Colombia may sell well in the United States as proof of Washington's tough stand on drugs, but as long as demand continues to remain as it is or even increases, Colombia's cartels will continue to prosper and accumulate the billions (literally) with which they help sustain criminal networks across the world. According to investigative journalist Robert I. Friedman, the country's drug barons have even acquired military helicopters and a submarine through the good offices of the Russian mafia.

Sixth, the escalation of war will not only produce incalculable human suffering, but it may destabilize the already fragile politics of the neighboring states as refugee flows and guerrilla activities across borders intensify, production shifts to other countries, and the drug cartels increase their power with the support of paramilitary organizations. Indeed, at a recent meeting in Brazil, even the defence ministers of the South American countries expressed their opposition to the US Plan.

The international implications of the civil war are further complicated by the fact that southern Colombia is a region of major interest to transnationals - including Canadian-owned Enbridge, TransCanada Pipelines, Talisman, and Alberta Energy corporations - because of the proven oil reserves located largely within the region's indigenous reserves. It was across the border in the oil-rich Ecuadorean province of Sucumbios that Canadian petroleum industry workers were kidnapped in the fall of 1999. Moreover, not only Colombian but also Ecuadorean environmental organizations have protested the Plan's proposed use of herbicidal fungi that are banned in parts of the United States as harmful to both food crops and human beings.

Possible "Plan" Alternatives

There are alternatives to Plan Colombia. For example, during his early November visit to Toronto, Colombia's Prosecutor General, Dr. Gomez Mendez, called for concerted international action to control money laundering. He also pointed out that Colombia has lost much more dollar income from the breakdown of the International Coffee Agreement (the United States pulled out of it in 1989) than it will receive from Plan Colombia. The resulting low coffee prices have aggravated rural poverty and, as long as peasants can not earn a minimally decent income from the cultivation of food crops, no crop substitution program will work. Although both the international commodity agreements and strict regulation of financial systems proposed by Gomez Mendez run up against the solid wall of current economic orthodoxy, movement on these fronts (including protection for domestic food producers) is essential.

Emerging Peace Communities

What the great majority of Colombians want is peace with social justice and international support for achieving it (Colombia is a country where the top 10 percent of the population amasses about 40 percent of national income while the poorest 10 percent make do with 3 percent). "Peace communities," which attempt to maintain a position of "active neutrality," have been formed by indigenous, black, and mestizo peasants in the rural regions under threat from the escalating violence. Their neutrality is "active" in the sense that they don't take sides with any of the armed actors while advocating negotiated solutions that address the historic social inequities from which the civil war originated. Because of that stance, they have come under attack by all sides in the conflict but especially by the paramilitary forces which consider them little more than guerrilla front organizations.

The rural peace communities, along with some that have been formed in the urban areas, are attempting to develop a nation-wide pro-peace political movement. In this effort, they are supported by Colombia's vibrant social movements and many human rights agencies, grassroots-linked organizations for promoting development, and refugee relief groups. Although Plan Colombia includes $218 million for strengthening civil administration and civil society, these organizations have made it clear that they will not cooperate with, or accept funding from an essentially militaristic project.

In fact, Colombian President Pastrana's original request for assistance did not include a military component. He appealed in 1998 to the international community for the establishment of a "Marshall Plan" of economic assistance focused on rural development. Peace in Colombia cannot be built without responding to the demands for land and basic social justice. Nor will it be built without giving indigenous and black communities an effective voice in the negotiations over the conditions under which transnational corporations extract resources from their traditional territories.

In Canada, civil society organizations - including development promotion NGOs, human rights agencies, corporate monitoring groups, unions, churches, and other institutions - are becoming increasingly concerned about what is happening in Colombia. As a country with over US$5 billion invested in Colombia (in oil and gas, mining, telecommunications, paper, and other sectors), our government is also getting drawn into the conflict, willy nilly, not only because of our membership in the Organization of American States (OAS) but also because our private sector's investments are located in some of the areas with extremely high levels of violence, human rights abuses, and paramilitary activity.

Meanwhile, Colombian civil society organizations are working in favor of negotiations and a lasting peace, based on social equity and genuine democracy. It is clear that Plan Colombia undercuts those efforts. Canada and Canadians must find ways of opposing the Plan and supporting all who form part of the peace movement in Colombia.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2001

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2001, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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