Colombia: mixed messages

By Rodrigo Acuña

The Diplomat  

January 2008

The recent release of hostages by Colombia's largest rebel movement the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has again demonstrated the rebels' willingness to engage in peace negotiations with the government of Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

And yet, if the latest reports that the FARC have kidnapped six tourists are correct, it also reveals that their leadership does not regard its international image - which is deservedly bad enough - high on its list of priorities. This is particularly the case after the successful mediating role played by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the declaration passed by his country's National Assembly which stated that the FARC and the Army of National Liberation (ELN) - the country's second largest leftist guerrilla group - to be insurgents and not terrorists.

The civil war in Colombia is undoubtedly complex with no members of the conflict free of committing human rights abuses. Growing coca plantations and manufacturing cocaine is a lucrative trade whose dirty money is touched by all hands. However, despite these complexities, a few things should be straightforward to understand.

For a start, naming the FARC and the ELN as terrorists - as did the US State Department since November 2001 - has been based on political motives rather than these organisations abandonment of their Marxists and liberation theology philosophies - as much as they have degenerated in the last two decades.

Guerrilla movements in Colombia have a long history often originating after all legal means to establish trade unions or leftist political parties were closed off through harsh violence. When the country plunged into civil war after the moderate centre-left presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated in 1948, guerrilla organisations emerged in even greater numbers as poor peasants were driven off their lands for having supported Gaitán.

Although many rebels rallied under the banner of the Liberal party - Colombia's second oldest political organisation - until it reached an agreement with the Conservatives in 1958, many insurgents continued to fight after these accords since, from their perspective, the settlement would not bring about a greater degree of social justice or the legalisation of organisations such as the Communist Party.

And hence a war has raged in Colombia which seems to have no end.

When the cocaine trade flourished in the mid-1970s, the conflict became even more complex. The ELN, like the M19 - a former rebel group who signed a peace accord in the late 1980s - decided not to become involved with cocaine but instead relied on ransom from kidnappings as their key source of revenue.

The FARC however was more pragmatic. It taxed poor peasants, robbed cocaine gangsters and eventually kidnapped anyone they thought could pay up. While the cocaine cartels in return declared war on the FARC through the creation of huge right-wing paramilitary armies, by 2002, according to one estimate, the guerrillas made over $US200 million through kidnappings and $US500 million from taxing sections of the drug industry.

Colombia though has had its chances for peace. Nowhere was this more evident than when the Uribe Accords were signed in 1984 between the government and the FARC.

Steven Dudley - Bureau Chief of the Andes for The Miami Herald - in his book Walking Ghost: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia has written about the peace accords which included allowing the FARC to legally establish a political party called Unión Patriótica (UP).

While Dudley notes the complexities of the negotiations and how the FARC used them to continue to arm itself, his analysis of how the ring-wing paramilitaries and sections of the Colombian establishment destroyed the UP - and hence eliminating the possibility for a permanent peace - are clear:

"From almost the beginning, the UP's enemies dissected the new party's purpose. These enemies didn't wait to hear the UP's platform or understand its motives. They simply equated the UP with the FARC and started shooting."

Dudley adds that since the UP's formation in 1985 "thousands of UP militants were killed. Hundreds of others went into hiding or fled the country. Even when it was clear that the UP had no more political power, their enemies kept killing them."

Among the dead were two UP presidential candidates as well as any hopes that the FARC would again broaden its political views to include moderates and more importantly, trust the Colombian state. When talks were resumed in 1999 with the aid of United Nations mediators, some observers believe this had more to do with the political pressure on then president Andrés Pastrana than a real commitment for peace. By then the FARC had a standing army between 17-19,000 troops and controlled roughly 30 per cent of the country.

Seen as an unacceptable scenario by Colombia's hawkish generals and the Clinton administration, behind closed doors the counter-insurgency Plan Colombia was devised during the peace talks aimed at ridding the country once and for all of the FARC. In 2002, as expected, negotiations broke down and war was back on the agenda.

These days, despite more than US$4 billion in recent years having poured into Colombia from the United States, and Uribe's deep links to the paramilitaries and drug cartels, perhaps unlike any pervious head of state, the FARC hardly looks defeated.

According to a 2007 Amnesty International report more than "3000 killings and enforced disappearances of civilians were attributed to paramilitary groups since they declared a "ceasefire" in 2002". With the army, the paramilitaries are by far the biggest human rights abusers whose actions, along with Plan Colombia, do nothing but garner support for the rebels.

President Chávez - who the FARC see as an acceptable mediating figure - has recently declared he disapproves with the guerrillas' policy of kidnapping and will ask them to reconsider it. This is a positive step.

Unfortunately, until Colombia has a government which is serious about bringing to justice members of the military and paramilitaries for human rights abuses, taking an independent stance from Washington and, more importantly, allowing the FARC to create a political party who will not have its candidates gunned down at the polls like the UP's were, peace in the Andean country seems quite remote.

Posted on August 5, 2013 .