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The Fight for Peace and Justice in Colombia

In Colombia, a mass movement has emerged to challenge the government’s neoliberal policies and failure to honor its historic peace agreement with the FARC. It offers the possibility of a just future for the country.

Students participate in anti-government protests on December 4, 2019 in Bogotá, Colombia. (Guillermo Legaria / Getty Images)

Late last August, prominent FARC commanders Iván Márquez and Jesús Santrich declared that they would be taking up arms against the Colombian state once again. The announcement signified a partial breakdown of the 2016 peace agreement which was meant to mark the end of the decades-long conflict.

The vocal cynics within Colombia’s hawkish right wing will consider this a prophecy fulfilled, parroting familiar narratives about violence being the only way to “deal with” guerrillas. But this simplistic view obscures the failure of the government to end the continuous murder of activists or address the inequities that gave rise to the armed conflict in the first place.

On the other hand, the last several years have seen the beginnings of a new left movement that is now grappling with the question of how best to organize while navigating the dangerous uncertainties within this fragile era of peace. The country’s recent national strike was the powerful culmination of what were, until recently, fragmented efforts to organize for social and economic justice.

The First Cracks

It is important to note that this partial retreat from the peace agreement does not signify a return to the same scale of armed conflict previously experienced in Colombia. The vast majority of the thirteen thousand demobilized FARC guerrillas are complying with their mandate of nonviolence and making efforts to reintegrate into civilian life. Many reside in one of the twenty-four government-sponsored reintegration camps, receiving some limited job skills training, and some have even gone on to graduate from university. While some one thousand to three thousand FARC dissidents spread throughout the country persist in the form of localized militias, there is scarcely any cohesive organization to direct these scattered groups. For the time being, the bulk of what used to be the FARC remains demobilized.

This call for a return to arms also bears a dimension of personal interest for Márquez and Santrich. Despite both leaders winning congressional seats, they each chose to vacate and go into hiding as a result of recent threats of extradition to the United States on serious drug trafficking charges. While Colombia has had an extradition agreement with the United States since 1979, the 2016 peace agreement explicitly bars FARC members from being extradited for crimes committed before December 1, 2016. In fact, the Jurisdicción Especial de Paz (JEP), a special tribunal created for the transitional peace process, blocked the extradition of Santrich on a lack of evidence. Colombia’s current president, Iván Duque, has repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of such a tribunal in the first place. Consequently, both commanders disappeared from public life, only to reemerge on August 29 to declare this “new phase” of armed struggle.

The government’s actions against these FARC commanders and their resulting return to armed struggle shouldn’t be viewed in isolation. They demonstrate the state’s intent to take pernicious advantage of guerrilla demobilization, and only confirm the suspicions of dissidents and still-active guerrillas who refuse to trust the government. This puts the entire peace process in jeopardy, and risks stifling the development of a new, broader left politics in the country.

Broken Promises

Targeted prosecutions outside of the bounds of the JEP aren’t the only segments of the agreement the Colombian state has failed to honor. Since the agreement was made, the government has been slow to supply camps with the funds promised for reintegration programs. UN figures reveal that just 10 percent of former FARC guerrillas have been granted credit for job development projects. This delay has forced the government to extend multimillion-dollar stipends in place of project funds. Farming projects were meant to have particular emphasis, as commercial crop production would discourage a return to illegal coca cultivation. The more time passes without adequate social investment, the more disillusioned former guerrillas become.

But by far the worst betrayal of the peace process has been the nonstop murder of local leaders and activists by still-active paramilitary groups. The United Nations reports that 137 ex-combatants have been killed since the agreement was signed, while independent think tank Indepaz estimates that 738 civilian activists have been murdered. Over a thousand more activists have received death threats, and displacement remains an unfortunate feature of rural life in traditional zones of conflict. With mixed signals from the government as to their commitment to the protection and maintenance of protected camps for ex-guerrillas, a return to arms becomes not just an ideological choice, but a matter of survival for some.

As one demobilized soldier told VICE when asked if he regretted giving up arms: “Yes. . .If I were to die with a weapon in my hands, it would have been for a better cause. But if a group of one thousand paramilitaries comes here to kill us, there’s not much we can do.” This fear echoes the massacre of thousands of FARC soldiers and political party representatives from 1984 to 1995 that occurred following the previous attempt at peace negotiations. Guerrilla leaders took this breakdown and subsequent genocide to signify that the government would not tolerate their existence in the political arena.

Competing Visions of Peace

To fully understand the context of this rapidly deteriorating peace, it is important to grasp the conflicting interests which gave birth to it. Former president Juan Manuel Santos made the peace agreement his administration’s priority from the outset. The incentives for the state were obvious: for starters, a cessation of large-scale violence would attract further foreign investment and boost neoliberal development projects. At the same time, a demobilized rural population would allow foreign capital to mine and extract resources, often illegally, from land inhabited by marginalized populations.

Santos was ever eager to portray the economic consequences of demobilization as universal positives. In 2013, I attended a speech given by Santos in New York City, in which he celebrated the fact that extreme poverty had declined, and that Colombia was no longer the most unequal country in Latin America. But he also argued that the withdrawal of guerrilla forces allowed for new forms of dissent to flourish, using as an example the paro cafetero, a strike by coffee farmers initiated that same year. The strike itself was organized by agricultural producers, including thousands of indigenous coffee growers, across several municipal departments over a lack of public investment in the face of rising supply costs and a drastic drop in the international price of coffee. The goal of the movement was to force a deal from the government independent from the Federación Nacional de Cafeteros, the official organ of representation for coffee growers, which farmers felt did not represent their interests. While Santos was no fan of the strike, he described the action as the type of social protest that wouldn’t occur when the conflict was in full swing. “When la guerrilla was strong,” he said, “they wouldn’t dare voice their opposition that way.”

There is some truth to the notion that new political opportunities have arisen in an era of reduced violence. For decades, urban labor advocates, indigenous leaders, human rights activists, and other dissidents faced a dangerously complex political environment. From one side, paramilitary death squads terrorized the countryside and actively assassinated left activists. Contrary to apparent public perceptions in Colombia, paramilitary groups were responsible for the vast majority of deaths in the armed conflict and created the highest rate of internal displacement in the world prior to the Syrian conflict.

It’s no secret that these murderous paramilitary groups received direct and indirect support from various sectors of the Colombian state. But perhaps the most stifling form of state repression was the persecution of dissidents through often dubious accusations of collaboration with the FARC. A notable example was that of Piedad Córdoba, a lawyer, activist, and senator who had previously been appointed by the government as a mediator for the humanitarian exchange of hostages with the FARC. Córdoba was the object of numerous accusations from the state of “collaborating” with FARC leadership through clandestine communications.

The accusations were based on data recovered in the aftermath of a military strike which contained messages between the FARC and various code-named individuals, which, according to the government, included Córdoba. Although there was no direct evidence implicating Córdoba, the conservative Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez removed her from her seat in 2010 and issued an eighteen-year ban on her holding office. It wasn’t until 2016 that the Supreme Court reversed Inspector Ordóñez’s sanctions, finding that they were not based on sufficient evidence. Córdoba would go on to play a key role in the peace agreement.

While the politically motivated removal of an established representative generated much controversy within Colombia, the state’s repressive approach to broader civilian dissidence is just as significant. Human rights groups count at least seven thousand political prisoners being held in Colombia — the highest number in the Americas. While the nature of the armed conflict in rural areas makes the line between unarmed political dissidents and insurrectionary guerrillas difficult to draw at times, it is clear that the state takes advantage of the specter of guerrilla collaboration to cast a broad net when detaining and prosecuting grassroots activists and workers’ rights lawyers.

One such example of targeted grassroots suppression was the ongoing detention and persecution of members of FENSUAGRO, a union-based advocacy group representing farmers and rural workers of largely indigenous and Afro-Colombian descent. In 2011, six members of FENSUAGRO were detained and charged with “rebellious” activity, adding to seventy-one members previously detained on similar grounds. The witness testimony forming the basis of the charges was highly suspicious, and numerous hearing postponements and delays unlawfully prolonged their detention. Additionally, the lawyers defending those detained were subjected to data theft, death threats, and assassination attempts — all of which the state made no effort to investigate when called upon to do so. This brazen disregard for due process doesn’t have to end in prosecution and guilty verdict to have an effect; the disruption of organizing efforts through detainment is enough to frustrate the growth of meaningful social change.

Meanwhile, the FARC’s war against both paramilitaries and the Colombian state came at a high cost to marginalized populations. Kidnappings by the group for ransom or forced labor and participation in the illegal coca trade are widely documented. But less publicized are the details of violence suffered by indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations at the hands of the FARC, who, like the paramilitaries, seek to procure precious metals and other valuable resources through illegal mining. While the group has continually expressed a commitment to land reform and social justice, its extortionary violence, lack of influence with urban workers, and exclusion from formal political institutions rendered the FARC unable to offer the Colombian working class a meaningful left politics. The rural violence that manifested in attacks on the state and self-defense from paramilitaries ultimately offered no concrete alternative to social conditions under capitalism. This strategy of scattered militancy was at a dead end.

Fertile Soil

From the start of the peace talks, signs slowly emerged that the threat of violence and state repression was no longer as effective in demobilizing popular movements. The first major demonstration during Juan Manuel Santos’s administration was the 2011 wave of student strikes across the country in opposition to the proposed expansion of for-profit higher education. It would be the first time in twenty years that students mobilized to challenge the government, in a movement that often incorporated dancing and a carnival-like aesthetic. After the government reneged on initial promises to incorporate democratic voices in public higher education, a lack of resources continued to plague public universities, and 2018 saw a renewed return to student strikes. This time, the movement won an increase in the budget to 4.5 billion pesos over the next four years — a significant increase from the previous budget of 3.8 billion.

Some students still remain mobilized to tackle localized issues within their specific universities. These mobilizations are a direct reaction to neoliberal austerity politics, bearing a strong resemblance to contemporaneous movements in Chile, Brazil, and now Ecuador. The fact that political formations in Colombia began to resemble those of other, similarly situated countries in South America points to a new political environment in which state repression becomes less viable and a new generation of activists march unafraid.

Even more encouraging has been the number of allied organizations connecting the struggles of students to their own. In April of this year, thousands of protestors took to the streets in Bogotá to protest President Duque’s national budget plan, which looks to make cuts in education, health, and culture while expanding funds for security forces, as well as the continuous murder of social leaders.

In addition to students, a number of unions, LGBT groups, farmers, indigenous groups, and members from the recently formed FARC political party themselves joined the march as a loose coalition of progressive forces. A few months later in July, at least fifteen thousand from these same networks marched throughout Colombia’s major cities under the slogan #DefendamosLaPaz, or “Let’s Defend the Peace.” Since then, “Defendamos La Paz” has evolved into an umbrella organization with local chapters that work with a broad variety of advocacy groups.

This exponential growth in organizing reached a historic peak with the success of the national strike on November 21. This countrywide march was first conceived by the labor unions, who opposed a series of pension and wage reforms proposed by President Duque’s administration. Additionally, the recent deaths of eight children in an attack by the army targeting an organized crime group in the region of Caquetá added a new fervor to the cause of peace advocates. And as before, indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups joined to demand state protection, this time with a renewed focus on environmental justice demands.

But perhaps the strongest ally to the unions and peace advocates were once again the students, who injected festive musical elements into the march and organized loud cacerolazos, a distinctly Latin American tradition of banging pots and pans in thunderous unison. Students of all ages marched to denounce the persistent lack of funds for public universities, administrative corruption, and police brutality, and articulated general demands for the right to health, education, and employment.

Altogether, over 132,000 Colombians participated in the march, and local protests continue throughout the country’s major cities amid several civilian deaths from clashes with police. It is worth noting that the marches were by and large peaceful and free of violence — a vital component for a continued mass movement in the country.

As he did in the lead-up to the strike, President Duque did his best to avoid acknowledging the widespread discontent that fueled the unrest, responding only with a vague commitment to furthering dialogue. The Comité Nacional del Paro, the leadership committee in charge of articulating the demands of the various groups participating in the strike, has openly asked for a direct line of negotiation and dialogue with the government. If Duque makes the mistake of choosing not to acquiesce, the newly awakened masses now know from lived experience that they have the power to force them to the table.

As this broad anti-austerity, pro-peace movement continues to manifest itself through demonstrations and the increased coordination of progressive forces, the vital link between the fulfillment of the peace process and the survival of a political left in Colombia is clearer than ever. But serious obstacles remain for the growth of a new left in Colombia. The specter of a Venezuela-like disaster still invokes strong anxieties when weaponized by right-wing rhetoric, as seen by the last presidential election that saw Duque chosen over former M-19 guerrilla Gustavo Petro. Likewise, Santrich and Márquez’s return to armed struggle demonstrates the potential danger of the countryside being plunged into violence once again.

But as time passes, the masses increasingly recognize that blame for the deterioration of the peace process lies squarely with the government. Even in the face of repression, the victims of the conflict are refusing to be passive, joining forces with the many sectors of the oppressed in Colombia to hold the government accountable. If the movement continues to capitalize on this momentum, it could mount the biggest challenge to the bloody hegemony of Colombian neoliberalism yet.