On March 30, Los Urabeños, Colombia’s largest right-wing paramilitary group, distributed leaflets across the north of the country calling for a “pacific strike.”
The next day, the streets of many towns and cities were virtually deserted. Businesses and schools were closed, and people stayed home for fear of violence. Their concerns were warranted. Paramilitaries staged dozens of attacks on security forces, injuring several police officers, and in the days that followed they mounted assaults in neighborhoods across the country, including Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city.
If there was any doubt about who controls much of the nation’s territory, the “pacific strike” dispelled it: right-wing militants, not the Colombian state, have the monopoly on violence in significant swaths of the country.
That worries the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP), the militant group currently in peace talks with the government after decades of waging armed struggle against the Colombian state. In a country where leftists have often been assassinated by state forces, paramilitaries, or cartels, FARC members say they’ll meet the same fate if they put down their guns and the paramilitaries remain armed.
The government claims that all paramilitaries have demobilized and that the remaining groups are nothing more than “criminal bands” who will not receive a peace deal. The paramilitaries’ show of force in March did, however, stall negotiations between the government and the FARC. With the talks nearing a conclusion and separate dialogues with smaller group ELN about to begin, further disruption could be disastrous.
Spokes in the Wheel of Peace
The Colombian armed conflict is extremely complex. First launched in 1964, the leftist insurgency began as a struggle for land redistribution and political representation. But the battle lines and objectives grew fuzzier and fuzzier.
Various guerrilla groups, paramilitaries, and the Colombian state fought one another in a series of shifting alliances. In recent decades, the conflict has largely devolved into an internecine struggle for control of the drug trade, with the Colombian people suffering atrocities at the hands of all combatants.
For many years the Colombian military and the largest paramilitary group (The United Self-Defense Forces, or AUC) waged a joint campaign against the guerrillas. Both were implicated in terrible massacres, sometimes torturing and murdering entire villages. Colombia became the world’s most dangerous country for trade unionists.
The AUC officially demobilized between 2003 and 2006. But many dissident AUC members have formed new groups that remain active in the drug trade. And like the AUC before them, they’re both Colombia’s largest human rights violators and the chief impediment to peace in the country.
In the first two weeks of March alone, twenty-nine members of Colombia’s left were killed. “These are the spokes in the wheel of peace in Colombia,” declared Aida Avilla, leader of the Patriotic Union (UP) political party. “The enemies of peace don’t want it to be signed, or there to be peace.”
The Colombian left — from the moderate Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA) to the more radical UP — generally supports the peace process. Prominent left-wing politicians even endorsed the leader of the peace negotiations — right-wing incumbent Juan Manuel Santos, the latest incarnation of the oligarchical Santos family — in the second round of the 2014 presidential election.
Yet however supportive of Santos’s negotiation efforts, groups like PDA and UP fiercely oppose his right-wing economic agenda.
That conservative approach has been on full display over the past year. In response to an economic downturn, the center-right governing coalition has enacted harsh austerity measures that, in combination with rising energy costs (the result of privatization) and an already insufficient minimum wage, are threatening to drive millions into poverty.
Meanwhile, the 2012 and 2013 free-trade agreements with the United States and European Union — which prompted massive protests and a nationwide strike by agriculture workers — have depressed manufacturing and agricultural exports and harmed the livelihoods of workers in these sectors.
In some parts of the country this toxic cocktail of economic decline and government indifference has generated a humanitarian crisis. In the northern department of Guajira, at least twenty-five children have already died of starvation this year.
Angered by these developments, frustrated by previous broken promises from the government, and tired of the nation’s regressive tax and pension systems, Colombian workers held a national strike on March 17.
Thousands of students, farmers, truckers, and other workers took to the streets of major cities. In Bogotá over fifteen thousand people marched from all corners of the city before assembling in the historic Bolívar Square.
The strike was peaceful compared to 2012 (when dozens were killed by police) but the ESMAD riot police unit was out in force, brutalizing protesters. Dismantling ESMAD is one of the demands made by the striking workers, along with: increased regulation of the financial sector, nationalized healthcare, increased minimum wage and transport subsidies, support for farmers, and emergency aid measures for the north.
So far the government has failed to respond to any of the protesters’ demands, leading the president of the Central Union of Workers to declare, “If the government silence continues, the strike could be indefinite.” Soon after the march seven thousand “community mothers” (child welfare workers) went on strike to protest the withdrawal of vital services.
A List of Good Intentions
Colombia’s trade unions and left parties have made determined and admirable efforts to oppose the government, but they face an uphill battle — Colombia is one of the most right-wing nations in Latin America. The biggest opposition party in Congress is not the PDA but the Democratic Center, a far-right, authoritarian party led by former president Álvaro Uribe.
First elected in 2002 on a platform of “democratic security,” Uribe carried out a huge offensive against the guerrillas. While his scorched-earth tactics isolated the guerillas, they also displaced millions of civilians. Uribe also colluded with paramilitaries who committed brutal atrocities. Villagers were routinely dismembered or decapitated as soldiers and police stood by and watched.
Despite Uribe’s appalling human rights record — and the known links between his government and the AUC (unearthed by the opposition in the 2006 “parapolitics” scandal) — his approval rating reached 91 percent in 2008, and Santos, his handpicked successor, glided into power in 2010.
Santos, however, proved to be more than a facsimile of Uribe. He soon abandoned Uribe’s hardline stance against the peace talks, infuriating the former president. Since the peace process began under Santos in 2012, Uribe has campaigned hard against the talks and — despite granting AUC members virtual immunity in 2006 — decried the “impunity” that demobilized guerrillas would receive.
Uribe’s followers have joined him in fighting the peace talks. On April 2 Uribistas marched through Colombia’s major cities in rallies that dwarfed the size of March’s national strike. When the final peace deal with the FARC is put to a public referendum — most likely later this year — these campaigners will do their best to see it rejected.
And there are certainly large numbers of Colombians inclined to vote it down. While right-wing paramilitaries have been responsible for over 80 percent of civilian deaths in the country’s decades-long conflict, many Colombians also hate the FARC and the ELN.
These groups are widely viewed as little more than criminal enterprises, profiting from extortion, kidnapping, and narco-trafficking. In this climate, opinions about peace talks don’t map neatly onto the political spectrum.
On paper, the deal has significant merit. An end to the conflict would improve the life prospects of Colombian workers — the war’s primary victims and combatants — and allow the return of farmland to the displaced to continue unhindered.
The accord contains provisions to provide better infrastructure, education, and health care in the rural areas that have been most affected by the violence. And the framework aims to promote political participation among the long-besieged by protecting former FARC members and establishing special congressional seats for former conflict zones.
But the reality may not be so ideal. While FARC members may officially be permitted to engage in politics, the continued existence of paramilitaries will pose a constant threat. Indeed, UP members were promised political space during a previous peace process in the 1980s, and instead were massacred by the Colombian government. Today, left-wing activists contend with paramilitary violence on a daily basis.
The slow pace of land restitution also calls the government’s commitment into question. At the current pace it will take at least five hundred years to return all displaced people to the land they rightfully own.
Moreover, the government cut the security budget for land claimants severely in 2014, leaving them vulnerable to attack from the ranchers and criminals who dispossessed them. Agriculture minister Aurelio Iragorri recently claimed to have received multiple threats from the rancher’s federation, which is closely linked to Uribe and his paramilitary allies.
Journalist Julio Cesar Londoño summed up the situation well, noting that while Santos may be more committed to land reform than any of his predecessors, all he has to show for it is “a list of good intentions.”
And even if the land restitution program were carried out flawlessly, it would still not ameliorate the entrenched inequality of Colombian society. 50 percent of the nation’s land is owned by 1 percent of the population. Much of it has been in the hands of wealthy families since the years of Spanish rule and would remain so even with a peace agreement.
Although urban inequality is less severe, the country’s cities are still the most unequal in Latin America. Economic inequality is matched by extreme social stratification — contact between different classes and social mobility is severely limited.
Peace in Colombia will therefore require much more than a handshake between Santos and FARC commander Timoleón Jiménez (known as Timochenko).
The recent strikes, as well as the enormous 2013 protests, show the persistence of genuine working-class movements fighting austerity and neoliberal economic policies. Unless the oligarchy and the paramilitaries are forced to allow genuine opposition, Colombia will never truly achieve peace.