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Tristan Adie & Paul D’Amato

Colombia: The terrorist state

(Winter 2000)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 10, Winter 2000.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In general, the meeting was dominated by catastrophic visions of the possible scenarios in Colombia – including “total war,” “protraction of the conflict,” and “Balkanization” ... Indeed, in many U.S. government circles it is now common to speak openly of the eventuality of a total collapse of the Colombian state.”
– Colombian political scientist Eduardo Pizarro Leongómez on a CIA-organized meeting of U.S. military officials to discuss developments in Colombia [1]

COLOMBIA TODAY is facing its worst crisis in decades. The economy is mired in the worst recession since the 1930s. After growth declined to zero in 1998, the gross domestic product (GDP) declined by more than 7 percent in the first two quarters of 1999 and continues its decline. Industrial production has declined by more than 9 percent. Official unemployment stands at more than 20 percent. Another 25 percent of the population is underemployed. Of those Colombians who are employed, 77 percent make less than the minimum wage of four dollars a day. More than half of the population lives in poverty, and at least half of the country’s children go hungry.

The crisis comes amid several years of neoliberal policies in which the Colombian state has sought to sell off vital state enterprises and cut social spending to reduce its $36 billion debt. This is happening in a country where the state is notorious for its inability to provide basic services to large parts of the country.

The raw statistics on the scale of the crisis don’t begin to tell the story. In October 1999 in Bogotá, armed guards kept order as more than 10,000 people lined up to fill out applications for 22 jobs cleaning the city’s sewer tunnels. [2]

At the same time, the state faces a decades-old but escalating civil war that pits the Colombian army and paramilitary organizations against a guerrilla insurgency. Left-wing guerrilla groups operating mostly in the countryside now control roughly 40 percent of Colombia. They have also brought their war to the cities through increased kidnappings and extortion of wealthy Colombian business owners.

Paramilitary groups have intensified their savage campaign of massacres and assassinations against small farmers and agricultural workers, trade unionists, human rights activists and members of left-wing guerrilla and political organizations. It is estimated that 35,000 civilians have died over the last 10 years as a result of the civil war. The Economist magazine reported in November 1999 that “the guerrilla war accounts for less than 20 percent of the violent deaths in Colombia.” [3] There are three to four thousand political assassinations in Colombia each year. [4]

The U.S. has grown increasingly concerned over the increased strength of the guerrillas. Clinton has asked Congress for $1 billion in military aid for Colombia in the coming year (up from $289 million in 1999) – an amount that nearly equals Colombia’s total military budget for 1998. [5] Not to be outdone, Republican senators just introduced the Alianza Act, which would put $1.635 billion toward the Colombian military.

Both Colombian and U.S. officials have deliberately blurred the distinction between the guerrillas and narcotraffickers, lumping them into a single “narcoterrorist” threat. The former head of anti-narcotics operations in Colombia, Colonel J.C. Hiett, was more candid about the real reasons for U.S. involvement in Colombia. In a recent letter to a member of the Colombia Support Network in Wisconsin, he wrote:

The last time I looked, there are five countries that are neighbors of Colombia – and they are already having problems with the spillover effects of the guerrilla problem in Colombia. Forty percent of the money the U.S. makes in international trade is with Latin America, and we get more oil from Venezuela than we do from the Mideast now. Better think about the U.S. economic interests in the future before you propose we let the guerrillas take over. [6]

Hiett has since stepped down from his post in disgrace. His wife was indicted for using the American embassy post office in Bogotá to send $500,000 worth of cocaine and heroin to New York. This may be why his remarks contained not a single reference to his alleged reason for working at the Embassy in the first place – to head up U.S. anti-drug efforts.

The roots of violence

The roots of Colombia’s crisis lie in its historically weak state, a divided ruling class and a closed two-party political system that has blocked any participation or voice from the mass of the population.

Colombia has a long history of violence and civil war going back to its origins in 1810, when one of Latin America’s poorest and most divided oligarchies gained independence from Spain. During the nineteenth century, the ruling landed oligarchy (or latifundistas), divided between the Conservative and Liberal parties, waged constant war for control of the country. One historian described Colombia during this period as a “country of permanent war.” [7]

The growth of coffee as Colombia’s main cash crop in the early twentieth century provided the capital to establish the country’s first industries. As Colombian industry established itself, workers sought to organize unions and political parties to defend their interests against the new industrial bosses. Workers and intellectuals, inspired by the 1917 Russian Revolution, founded Colombia’s first socialist party in 1921. In 1926, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (PSR) was formed.

Factions within the Liberal Party began to seek electoral support by appealing to the aspirations of the new middle class, working class and urban poor of the towns. “I don’t see any reason for founding a third political party,” said one Liberal candidate in 1922 about the newly formed socialist party, “when all the aspirations of workers fit with liberalism.” [8]

Working-class militancy grew in this period, culminating in the 1928 strike of workers against United Fruit, during which the government shot down 1,000 banana workers. The Colombian Communist Party (PCC) was formed in 1930 after the working-class movement had been brutally crushed. Under directions from Moscow’s “Popular Front” period, the party became uncritical supporters of the Liberal Party. Under López Pumarejo, the Liberals finally won the presidency in 1930. In his first years of office, López embarked on policies influenced by Roosevelt’s New Deal, aimed at modernizing Colombia’s economic and political structure. But this period did not benefit the working class, as wages fell and social spending stagnated.

In spite of the anti-working class policies of the López government and the latifundistas’ violent assault on peasants fighting for land, the PCC remained staunch Liberal supporters.

“Our post,” the Communist Party declared in its newspaper, Tierra (Land), in February 1937, “is at the side of the reformist government of López ... Today we are not subversives. The only subversives are the falangist [Spanish fascists – ed.] Conservatives. We Communists aspire to become the champions of order and peace.” [9]

Under the PCC’s influence, the main trade union federation in this period became tied to the Liberal Party. The division of the labor movement between two essentially state-controlled federations – one Liberal and one Conservative – held labor in check until the late 1970s.

The Liberal Party now became the repository of political and social discontent. A liberal faction led by left-wing populist Jorge Eliécer Gaitán gained mass support in the 1940s over his call to unite “the people” against the “oligarchy.” Gaitán sought, according to author Jenny Pearce, to “make capitalism socially responsible.” [10] But even this was too much for members of the ruling classes, who felt that the social order was threatened by Gaitán’s popular appeals. Gaitán’s popularity coincided with a rising wave of mass protest, including hundreds of strikes, demonstrations and street protests. His assassination in 1948 provoked a massive riot in Bogotá, known as the Bogotazo, in which 2,000 people were killed. More than a decade of violent civil war, known as La Violencia, was unleashed. Eduardo Galeano describes its character:

The violence began with a confrontation between Liberal and Conservative Parties, but the dynamic of class hostilities steadily sharpened its class-struggle character ... When he [Gaitán] was shot dead, the hurricane was unleashed. First the spontaneous bogotazo – an uncontrollable human tide in the streets of the capital; then the violence spread to the countryside, where bands organized by the Conservatives had for some time been sowing terror. The bitter taste of hatred, long in the peasants’ mouths, provoked an explosion; the government sent police and soldiers to cut off testicles, slash pregnant women’s bellies, and throw babies into the air to catch on bayonet points ... Liberal Party sages shut themselves in their homes, never abandoning their good manners and the gentlemanly tone of their manifestos ... It was a war of incredible cruelty and it became worse as it went on, feeding the lust for vengeance. [11]

While terror raged in the countryside, the ruling class achieved labor peace by smashing all expressions of urban opposition. As a result, Colombia experienced its greatest period of capital accumulation, with industrial production increasing by 56 percent between 1948 and 1953. [12]

Democracy in name only

The formality of democracy has long been maintained in Colombia, but the substance of democracy has been missing. Instead, Colombia has been controlled from top to bottom through a system of “clientelism” in which everything from the judiciary to social services has been controlled by the bosses of the two main parties.

In 1957 – after five years of military rule – the Liberals and Conservatives formed the National Front and made a pact to run Colombia jointly. Leaders from each party would take turns at the presidency. Jenny Pearce explains:

The state was ... literally carved up by the traditional parties. In addition to alternating the presidency between them for 16 years, all legislative bodies and public corporations ... cabinet offices, judicial posts and posts at all levels of public administration were to be distributed by agreement between the two parties.

No expression of social conflict was permitted outside the control of the two traditional parties. [13]

For three-quarters of the last 40 years, the Colombian state has operated under a “state of siege” or, as it is now called, a state of “internal commotion.” This has allowed the government to suspend various political and social rights. Even the most moderate, social-democratic left-wing opposition has been violently suppressed or simply co-opted into the two-party structure. This fact has not been lost on voting-age Colombians. In the October 1994 elections for mayors, governors, city council members and provincial deputies, for example, voter absenteeism ran at more than 70 percent. [14]

After the Conservatives and Liberals made peace in 1957, La Violencia became purely a war to suppress left-wing insurgency in the countryside. The PCC pledged its willingness to cooperate with the National Front “in any way we can.” [15] But this was the period of the Cold War. In the late 1950s, some PCC members organized armed defense of peasants who were taking over unused land in the central and southern regions of the country. Most of these peasant “colonists” had been uprooted by the carnage of La Violencia. Communist Party guerrillas declared the areas they controlled in the south to be “independent republics.”

The Colombian army began a campaign to displace those peasants who had seized land years earlier. With the training and support of the U.S. and the use of both foot soldiers and aerial bombardments, the army attacked the independent republics. Embattled peasants joined with a small number of disaffected Liberal and Communist guerrillas to form the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 1966.

Around this same time, the Army of National Liberation (ELN), inspired by the victorious strategies of the guerrillas who led the Cuban Revolution in 1959, formed in the countryside. The Communist Party-Marxist Leninist (PC-ML) – the pro-China party that emerged out of the Sino-Soviet split – also established the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) as its armed wing in 1965. The Colombian army together with paramilitary death squads has fought a vicious war to wipe out these and other rebel groups that have formed subsequently over the last three and a half decades.

The state’s crisis of legitimacy

For a time, the ruling parties were able to maintain their hold on Colombian politics by locking out all opposition. But this strategy began to break down in the late 1970s as the political setup was increasingly unable to respond to the massive economic and social changes in Colombia. As Jenny Pearce writes:

The state’s role has been primarily to provide the conditions for private sector-led growth.

The relationship of the state to the people is therefore one of neglect and, in many areas, abandonment. The modernization and expansion of one sector of the economy has taken place regardless of the rights and needs of the majority of the population. The battle between cattle ranchers and peasant colonizers for the agricultural frontier is reminiscent of the Wild West. Unhindered by social responsibility, the private sector has pushed ahead, swallowing up the fertile land and resources ... [16]

With growing frequency, workers, peasants and sections of the middle class took to the streets in massive protests. For the first time in decades, popular movements that asserted their independence from the traditional parties of the ruling class emerged.

The movement grew in the 1970s with great geographical and political diversity. It contained Indians demanding their territorial and cultural rights in the south, banana workers waging a bloody battle for basic union recognition in the north, peasants fighting for land and colonizers for basic services in the east, and black people organizing for the first time in Colombia’s most backward department of Chocó in the west. In the smaller towns multi-class civic protests over lack of services became widespread, while in the larger cities urban workers sought to break free from the shackles of traditional party control. [17]

Sixty-four percent of the strikes in the period between 1974 and 1980 were organized by newly emerging unions that were independent of the two trade union confederations controlled by the Liberals and Conservatives. Under pressure from the rank and file, the unions came together in 1977 to organize the country’s first national civic strike. In 1986, after the working class held two more national civic strikes, a new trade union confederation was formed. The Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT) soon came to embrace the majority of organized workers, absorbing a number of smaller confederations – including one controlled by the PCC.

The guerrilla movement also grew in this period, represented most dramatically in 1985 by the armed seizure of the National Palace of Justice by the M-1918 – a middle-class, populist guerrilla organization demanding the right to operate as a legal electoral party. [18]

In line with efforts in places such as El Salvador to demobilize the guerrilla struggle and reform the political process, Conservative president Belisario Betancur allowed for such things as the democratic election of mayors in 1986 (for the first time in Colombia’s history). More importantly, his administration launched an effort to negotiate with guerrilla groups. He offered the opportunity to organize and operate in the electoral arena in exchange for disarmament. The offer was taken up first by the FARC in 1984, then by M-19. Both guerrilla groups demobilized and formed electoral parties. FARC leader Manuel Marulanda, known by his nickname Tirofijo (Sureshot), spoke at this time of his desire to return to political life as a town councilor. One of M-19’s leaders, Antonio Navarro Wolff, spoke of the organization’s desire for “political space ... Simply we asked for modernization, the opening of the bourgeois state. We asked for the bourgeois revolution.” [19]

The results of this process reveal how little the peace accords fundamentally changed politics in Colombia – and how dangerous it is in Colombia for parties to the left of the traditional parties to operate openly.

The M-19’s first presidential candidate, Carlos Pizarro, was assassinated before the 1988 presidential elections. His replacement, Navarro Wolff, won 12 percent of the popular vote – the largest vote for a left candidate in Colombia’s history. The political party formed by demobilized sections of the FARC, Union Patriótica (UP), faced even worse repression. Two of their presidential candidates and between 3,000 and 5,000 members – mayoral candidates, elected officials and activists – were murdered by death squads. One of the few remaining UP members, former mayor of Apartado José Antonio López, told The Progressive, “When I see pictures of the rallies we had in the 1980s, they are a roster of people who were killed.” [20]

The ruling class in Colombia rejected Betancur’s efforts at peace and reacted with ferocity to the movements that grew in this period. Jenny Pearce describes the reaction within the military to the growth of social protest and the guerrilla struggle:

Strategic thinking ... had shifted in favor of low-intensity conflict (LIC). This attempted to adapt traditional counterinsurgency thinking to the 1970s and 1980s – when revolutionary movements were no longer the isolated bands of guerrillas they were in the 1960s, but [were joined by] mass-based social and popular movements ... LIC [was] a strategy for prolonged and total war using both conventional and unconventional means; it include[d] political, economic and psychological warfare, programs to win the hearts and minds of local populations, and various techniques of terror. [21]

This was part of a strategy the Reagan administration promoted throughout Latin America. Colombian bosses turned increasingly during this time toward paramilitary groups, which had grown to number 140 (five of them nationally organized) by 1989. Private businesses – primarily those of cattle ranchers and rich drug barons – often provided funding for these death squads. High-ranking military officials often worked together with the death squads or even initiated them and used the armed forces’ artillery and equipment to assassinate trade unionists, peasant leaders, indigenous activists and opposition politicians.

By the early 1990s, the toll of the reaction had been severe. According to the Inter-Congregational Commission of Peace and Justice, there were an average of 23.4 political killings per day in Colombia between 1988 and 1995. Shockingly, only 7.4 percent of fatalities came from the army-guerrilla conflict. [22] And the vast majority of killings were not drug-related. For example, between May 1989 and June 1990, there were 227 drug-related fatalities compared to 2,969 politically motivated murders. [23]

The violence has only worsened over the course of the decade. In 1991, there were 166 massacres involving 929 victims. As of September 1999, 289 massacres involving 1,357 victims were reported. (A massacre is defined here as a killing involving four or more victims.) [24]

The “dirty war” unleashed by the ruling class in the 1980s has intensified in the last few years. As the Colombian economy has descended into its worst recession in 70 years, the two most influential rebel movements that remain in Colombia – the FARC, which returned to armed struggle after the slaughter of UP candidates, and the ELN – have more than doubled in size. Workers have also been fighting back in greater numbers, and the Colombian state finds itself increasingly unable to maintain order.

The “war on drugs” fraud

Clinton’s top drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, insists on calling Colombia’s rebels “narcoguerrillas” and derides as “ludicrous” any attempt to separate the “drug problem” from the “insurgency problem.” Representative Dan Burton (R-Ind.), a prominent member of the House International Relations Committee, said recently: “Whatever pressure needs to be exerted on the narcoguerrillas down there needs to be exerted. The entire northern tier of South America could be lost to narcoguerrillas and traffickers, and that would be horrible for the United States.” [25]

This is nothing new. “Fighting drugs” has become a common justification for U.S. military intervention in Latin America, replacing communism as the new American bogeyman.

Lawrence Korb, former Assistant Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan, observed: “Getting help from the military on drugs used to be like pulling teeth. Now everybody’s looking around to say, ‘Hey, how can we justify these forces?’ And the answer they’re coming up with is drugs.” [26]

Drugs are used as an excuse to fight left-wing states and guerrilla insurgencies. But for years, the same Reagan and Bush administrations that complained of “narcoterrorism” were funding a war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua through the illicit cocaine trade. Meanwhile, in Panama, George Bush engineered a bloody 1989 invasion under the auspices of removing drug-dealing dictator Manuel Noriega (formerly backed by the U.S.). However, U.S. drug agents admitted that within a year of the invasion, Panama became a base for the Cali cartel to flood the U.S. market with cocaine. [27] According to former Colombian drug kingpin Carlos Lehder, who testified at Noriega’s trial, the Medellín cartel gave $10 million to Reagan’s contra army fighting to overthrow the Sandinista government. In other words, the narcoterrorists in Central America were Washington’s chief allies.

As the authors of Cocaine Politics show,

In country after country, from Mexico and Honduras to Panama and Peru, the CIA helped set up or consolidate intelligence agencies that became forces of repression, and whose intelligence connections to other countries greased the way for illicit drug shipments ...

Far from considering drug networks the enemy, U.S. intelligence organizations have made them an essential ally in the covert expansion of 7American influence abroad. [28]

The State Department’s record of fighting drugs in Colombia fits this pattern.

The administration of President Ernesto Samper collapsed amid scandal in 1998 after revelations that he had accepted at least $6.1 million in campaign contributions from the notorious Cali cartel. In 1996, the commander of the Colombian armed forces was forced out because of his ties to drug traffickers. Though American officials were publicly critical of these leaders’ ties to the drug cartels, the U.S. continued to prop up the Colombian military with millions of dollars in aid.

More recently, U.S. Customs officials in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, found 1,634.6 pounds of cocaine aboard a Colombian air force plane. Colombian prosecutors claim to have conclusive evidence that the Colombian air force has been infiltrated by the cocaine cartels at the highest levels. [29] Apparently, the hand-in-glove relationship between drug cartels and the Colombian president, chief of armed forces and the rampaging militaries is not a cause for U.S. concern – but the growth of the left-wing rebels is.

A number of officials who are themselves directly involved in anti-drug efforts admit that left-wing guerrillas are not the locus of drug production. The head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Donnie Marshall, recently testified before Congress that “[the DEA hasn’t] come close to the conclusion that [the main rebel armies have] been involved as a drug trafficking organization.” And President Pastrana said in an interview with the Argentine daily Clarín in July that the rebels “were not narcoguerrillas.” “There is no evidence,” he said, “that the FARC are drug traffickers.” [30]

The real “narcoterrorists” in Colombia are the military and the paramilitaries – the former implicated in one drug scandal after another, the latter launched with drug traffickers’ money in the early 1980s. An analysis from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs states:

While the FARC undoubtedly generates wealth through the “war taxes” it levies on drug processors and traffickers, as well as through the abduction of foreign corporate executives and wealthy Colombians for ransom, there is no direct evidence linking the rebels to the actual export of drugs to the U.S. Available evidence reveals that among the primary transporters of drugs are right-wing paramilitary groups in collaboration with wealthy drug barons, the armed forces, key financial figures and senior government bureaucrats. [31]

The U.S. role

Gerald Haines, a senior historian for the CIA, wrote in 1945 that the U.S. has “assumed, out of self-interest, responsibility for the welfare of the world capitalist system.” [32] This is especially true in Latin America, the “backyard” of the U.S. American corporations, from Coca-Cola to emerald-mining and oil companies, have operated for decades in Colombia. Coal, oil, bananas, coffee and minerals are all fantastic sources of wealth in Colombia and neighboring countries.

The U.S. has long operated in concert with the militaries of the region to safeguard the interests of American corporations or investors who do business there. Former Minister of Foreign Affairs and current president of the Colombia Permanent Committee for Human Rights Alfredo Vasquez Carrizosa once wrote that “during the Kennedy Administration, [Washington] took great pains to transform our regular armies into counterinsurgency brigades, accepting the new strategy of the death squads.” [33]

Almost 10,000 Colombian officers have received training at the notorious School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia in the years since then – far more than from any other country. Dozens of these officers have headed up military units implicated in massacres throughout Colombia.

The Colombian state has been an important U.S. client state since the Cold War, when the U.S. first began helping it build its first modern army. Today, the U.S. finds itself facing a period of increased economic and political instability in a strategically vital region. The states which surround Colombia – from Ecuador to Venezuela, are themselves suffering severe economic crises. Colombia sits at the crossroads of this region, and American leaders are increasingly worried that the civil war will spill over into its neighbors’ territories, including Panama, where the U.S. relinquished control of the canal and withdrew all military forces at the end of 1999. The State Department clearly sees demobilizing the rebels and shoring up the Colombian state as key to a larger project of reasserting control in the region and restoring some level of stability.

In early November 1999, President Clinton told the Spanish-language television network Telemundo that the U.S. shouldn’t “be drawn directly into [Colombia’s] conflict, because I think it would boomerang ... If we were to become directly involved, I think it would ensure a disastrous result for the Colombian government, and people would accuse us of being imperialists in some way.” [34]

Even if the United States is not ready to send in the marines, the Clinton administration already has almost a decade’s worth of blood on its hands. From 1990 to 1998, the U.S. spent more than $1 billion on aid to the Colombian military, despite the armed forces’ record of committing the greatest number of human rights violations in the hemisphere.

The Pentagon initially turned down the administration’s request for increased military aid to Colombia earlier in the decade. Undeterred, Clinton turned to an emergency-overdrawing fund for assistance. And the Clinton administration has conducted a massive covert operation in Colombia for the last several years. According to a 1998 report in the Dallas Morning News, U.S. Special Forces, former Green Berets, Gulf War veterans and CIA agents all have been involved in training Colombian soldiers and even fighting in direct combat against Colombian guerrillas. [35]

According to the New York Times, the State Department has used the same legal loophole to bolster the Colombian regime that it used in order to train the Indonesian troops that propped up the former dictator Suharto: a 1991 program called Joint Combined Exchange Training. Human Rights Watch notes that “at least 24 Colombian army units comprising a significant percentage of total troop strength, devoted primarily to counterinsurgency and with a disturbing record of human rights violations, have received U.S. weaponry.” [36]

Over this past year, Clinton has dramatically stepped up U.S. support for the Colombian military. The U.S. sent Colombia $289 million in military aid in 1999, up from $96 million over the previous two years combined. This made Colombia the recipient of the third-largest amount of U.S. military assistance in the world, after Israel and Egypt. The notoriously brutal American Special Forces recently finished training a special “anti-narcotics” unit of 1,000 Colombian soldiers deployed to rebel-held territory in December. The Clinton administration is now proposing that money should be set aside for the training of four more identical teams.

Four hundred and eighty American soldiers were stationed along Colombian borders with Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru for most of 1999. And the U.S. has been able to muscle Brazil and Peru into deploying troops to the zones that mark their borders with Colombia as well. At least 200 American military officials have been deployed to rebel-held territories. Vietnam-era UH-H1 “Huey” helicopters have also been refurbished to be sent to Colombia for the spraying of defoliants in the countryside. Blackhawk helicopters will perform surveillance of rebel areas. And when an American military plane loaded with high-tech spying equipment crashed in a remote rebel stronghold of Colombia in July 1999, several U.S. officials acknowledged that the plane was taking part in ongoing U.S.-Colombian joint efforts to monitor the guerrillas.

The rebel threat?

The Clinton administration’s increased military buildup in Colombia has everything to do with the growth of left-wing guerrilla armies there. The largest rebel group, the FARC, has grown from about 7,000 combatants in the early 1990s to about 15,000 now. Last November, newly elected President Pastrana granted the FARC a swath of territory the size of Switzerland to govern independently, hoping that this would convince the organization to come to the negotiating table. This zone is in the southeastern part of the country in a jungle and savanna region with a population of only 90,000.

The citizens of the main town in this region, San Vicente Del Caguán, report that under FARC control the area has become, according to one Washington Post reporter, an oasis of calm.

”The guerrillas have brought tranquility and peace here that I have not seen in a long time,” said ... Angelina Bargas, 22. “At first, the big guns and the reputation of the rebels as killers, thieves and kidnappers frightened many of us, but they have changed San Vicente for the better. I just hope the changes do not go away.” [37]

In July 1999, the FARC embarked on a massive campaign throughout the country, attacking army units in 11 provinces. The guerrillas were able to advance to within 25 miles of the capital city of Bogotá. The Colombian army succeeded in putting down the offensive, but only after days of intensive combat in which it lost scores of soldiers and killed hundreds of rebels. Though driven back, the FARC had brought the war uncomfortably close to the urban center of Colombia.

In addition, the FARC and the smaller ELN have stepped up kidnappings of wealthy Colombians and members of the clergy over the last year. The number of Colombians seeking refuge in the U.S. from rebel attacks and threats at home has increased to the point where the Immigration and Naturalization Service is considering whether to grant Temporary Protected Status to the estimated 100,000 Colombians who have come to the U.S. over the past several years.

Many Colombian soldiers are demoralized and have been reluctant to continue fighting, which in part explains the continued willingness of many military officers to work through the paramilitary organizations instead. Because these groups are accountable to no one, they can operate with impunity against the civilian population. The paramilitaries do not directly confront the guerrillas – their war is mainly against the civilian population. They declare open season on anyone who expresses opposition to the government – trade union activists, civic protesters, guerrilla sympathizers and human rights activists. As General Luis Carlos Camacho Leyva, defense minister from 1978 to 1982 explained, social protest was simply “the unarmed branch of subversion.” [38]

The Colombian state looks increasingly weak and discredited against this backdrop. President Pastrana was elected on the promise that he would finally bring peace to Colombia. But it took Pastrana 10 months to convince the rebels – who cited the escalation of paramilitary violence as a sign of the government’s lack of sincerity – to sit down in negotiations. Pastrana’s pledge to sever links between the military and the death squads resulted in the firing of only three officers in 1999 – despite the fact that the attorney general’s office has documented the involvement of at least 68 officers in paramilitary organizations. It is increasingly clear that Pastrana follows the lead of Colombia’s military and the Clinton administration in talking peace, while pursuing war.

What accounts for the survival – and even growth – of guerrilla struggle in Colombia, while in the rest of Latin America it has collapsed? One reason is that the Colombian ruling class and its two parties have virtually shut out electoral participation from anyone to their left. The battle for what is known as “the agricultural frontier” has been an interminable source of rural warfare. Large landowners and multinationals have long used the army and paramilitaries to drive campesinos off the land. The FARC continues to offer protection to peasants, whose only ability to survive often depends on growing coca. The guerrillas have also been able to survive because of the vast jungle terrain in the eastern part of the country and the mountainous terrain in the rest of the country.

The politics of the insurgent movement

In some ways, the FARC – and the PCC, which operates in the main cities – have changed little from their Stalinist past. [39] They are essentially nationalists, committed to ridding Colombia of foreign domination. Moreover, they still look to Cuba, China and former Communists in Russia as genuine political alternatives. The FARC, for example, sent a letter to the Chinese Communist Party offering its condolences for the death of Deng Xiaoping. In the letter, it expressed its “friendship and admiration at this difficult time” for the “great socialist nation of China.” [40] The PCC’s magazine, Voz, recently argued that the only way out of Russia’s crisis would be “a return of the Communists to power.” [41]

The disappearance of the Soviet Union, of the socialist camp, and the crisis of socialism historically ... constituted a harsh blow to the world revolutionary movement, but not a defeat of the significant experiences of Cuba, China, Vietnam and Korea. [42]

But there have been some political changes too. In July 1999, Raúl Reyes, a leader of the FARC, held a summit at his jungle headquarters with Richard Grasso, the head of the New York Stock Exchange. Grasso reportedly explained markets to Reyes. “Although ostensibly Marxist,” wrote a Miami Herald reporter about the FARC, “its ideologists say they don’t oppose foreign investment or free-market mechanisms as long as social justice is guaranteed.” [43]

The FARC, in spite of its name, is fighting not for a revolutionary transformation of Colombia, but to use force as a lever for reforming the Colombian state. Raúl Reyes calls for a “democratic peace” that builds “sovereignty, true social justice, political rights and liberties in equal conditions for rich and poor.” He concludes that this is “an investment” that requires the

cooperation of everyone, including political parties, Congress, the branches of public power, trade unions, industrialists, businessmen, the Church, teachers, students, women, the young, the indigenous, people of color, worker and peasant organizations, wage workers and the unemployed, media, intellectuals, the army and the police. [44]

In its public statements, the FARC calls for “a strong economic investment in the countryside and in the cities; with [an end to] corruption and weakening the State security forces so they never again use arms and laws against the hungry and dispossessed.” [45] These politics are echoed by the PCC, which stated at its Seventeenth Party Congress in 1998:

Colombia cries out for a complete transformation that opens a space for political liberty, democracy and social and human emancipation – what we have called the “popular democratic revolution as the road to humanist socialism” ... In the struggle for a democratic and popular solution to the crisis, which goes to the root of the ills that affect this country, we propose a program of unity of all Colombians, male and female, for a new democratic society, sovereign, integrated in its territory, with equality and social justice. [46]

In the rural areas the FARC now controls, it acts much as a local state: collecting taxes, providing services like basic health care and education, administering justice and – most importantly – acting as a protection force for civilians from military and paramilitary attacks. It is through this role of protector that the FARC has come to dominate so much of the rural countryside, as peasants weary of state-sponsored violence have welcomed its presence. But while the FARC is undoubtedly more congenial to the peasants who live in its territories than the military or the death squads might be, the fact remains that the FARC is a military organization. It does not function as a democratically elected government with participation from the civilians who live in its territories.

Though both the FARC and the ELN have grown, most analysts do not believe they will be in a position to assume control of Colombia in the immediate future. Even if such a development were possible, however, neither group looks to Colombia’s workers, or peasants for that matter, as independent actors. They are in no way seeking to build a society where workers themselves take over the means of production – the textile factories, the oil refineries or the emerald mines. Indeed, the FARC has on occasion included workers, indigenous people and peasants in its attacks. [47] Like all guerrilla movements, the FARC sees itself acting on behalf of the mass of Colombians, as this May Day greeting to Colombia’s workers makes clear: “The men and women ... of the FARC will continue fighting for you until we conquer political power and take on the building of a new Colombia.”

It is not that guerrilla organizations ignore mass struggle. On the contrary, as the PCC’s Seventeenth Party Congress shows, the struggle is seen as one that involves a number of fronts. The PCC, for example, which supports the FARC’s armed struggle, has also sunk roots in the trade union movement, and a number of its top leaders are union leaders as well. However, the working class is not seen as an independent political force, but rather one that fights as part of a broad front for a democratic opening of society. Again, the PCC’s Seventeenth Party Congress program states:

The program of unity is a proposal that is a convergence of initiatives by the guerrilla movement, of the popular movement and of influential sectors of the peace movement and public debate that is developing around a search for a way out of this severe crisis. A guarantee of its development can only be provided by a pluralist government with broad support of the masses and noninterventionist support of the international community. [48]

This is in essence Antonio Navarro Wolff’s demand for “the bourgeois revolution” in Colombia. In such a scenario, the working class plays an important but subordinate role in the struggle to democratize Colombia.

The working-class struggle

Colombia today is an urban society. Seventy-four percent of its population lives in the cities. According to the World Bank, in 1998 agriculture accounted for 14.5 percent of the GDP, industry for 27.1 percent and services for 58.4 percent. The workforce numbers approximately 11 million. [49] Though overall unionization is only 7 percent – down from a high of 26 percent in 1980 – unions are strong in some of the most important sectors of the economy, such as the oil, coffee, banana and coal industries. Workers are also well organized in the public sector, especially among teachers and health care workers. Private-sector workers are less organized than public sector workers, and teachers alone account for three-quarters of unionized public workers.

Colombian workers have fought tooth and nail for the right to organize unions at all. The first independent trade union federation did not even appear until 1986, when left-wing workers (including Trotskyists and Communists) organized the CUT in the context of a growing strike wave and reforms passed under the Betancur administration.

Workers have faced deep, vicious resistance in their struggles to organize from Colombia’s bosses. More than 2,300 trade unionists have been murdered since 1987. The banana workers on the Atlantic Coast, for example, have withstood unbelievable repression from the death squads and the army. Hundreds of banana workers have been massacred over the last 10 years (200 in 1987 alone). On December 13, 1999 César Herrera Torreglosa, General Secretary of the banana workers union SINTRAINAGRO, was machine-gunned to death while entering one of the union’s regional offices. Death squads have repeatedly bombed union headquarters throughout the Urabá province where bananas are grown. And the army has deployed helicopter gunships, tanks and fighter planes to destroy union leaders’ homes throughout the area. Jenny Pearce described an army attack:

A typical incident was the arrest by members of the Voltigeros Battalion of 19 banana plantation workers in the municipality of Apartado in March 1989. They were taken to the battalion headquarters in Carepa and 12 were later released. Four others were released after several days during which they were tortured, and three needed hospital treatment for their injuries. The bodies, or rather remains, of two other workers were found on 4 April. They had been killed by having charges of dynamite attached to their bodies and exploded. [50]

Yet the banana workers have taken to the streets by the tens of thousands time and again to protest the bombings, massacres and disappearances. They have organized work stoppages in direct response to murders of their comrades. Through their struggle, they have won a unionization rate of 96 percent throughout the industry.

The experiences of the banana workers in many ways mirror those of workers in a number of other companies, including Coca-Cola, Nestle, British Petroleum and Ecopetrol, Colombia’s state-owned oil company. Since oil has become Colombia’s most important export – surpassing coffee in the 1980s – oil workers have become the most strategic sector of the labor movement.

Workers’ struggle has revived significantly in the last few years in response to the state’s extreme austerity measures, which have centered primarily on public workers. In February 1997, public sector workers staged a daylong strike against benefit reductions. In October 1998, 800,000 public workers struck for 21 days – the longest public-sector strike in the country’s history – against government austerity plans to cut jobs and services and to increase taxes. In Bogotá, 200,000 marched while the army forcibly removed oil workers who had occupied refineries and bank workers sprayed police with high-pressure hoses to stop them from evicting them from bank premises.

Though the unions were unable to prevent the austerity measures, they won wage increases of 15 percent, barely keeping up with inflation. But the cost was tremendous. Twelve union leaders were assassinated during the strike, including Jorge Luis Ortega García, vice president of the CUT, and Hortensia Alfaro Banderas, a nurse who headed the health workers’ union. The state has attempted to use the notorious Decree No. 180, a law that allows the government to brand strikers as “terrorists,” to break the union movement. Public-sector workers, including health workers and oil workers, staged another daylong general strike in April 1999 and were joined by 300,000 striking teachers.

Against the backdrop of such repression, the fact that between 1.5 and 2 million workers came out into the streets as part of a general strike against the austerity plans of the Pastrana government in September 1999 is nothing short of heroic. In this strike, workers risked their lives not only to shut down their workplaces, but also to shut down major highways and city streets as well. And when the army attempted to occupy a working-class neighborhood in the capital city of Bogotá, workers threw up barricades and fought to keep them out.

The strike was significant for the political demands it raised and the level of support it garnished. Called by a coalition of Colombia’s unions in conjunction with various civic, peasant and student organizations, the strike involved 20 million people who struck, marched and blocked roads throughout the country. The strike’s organizing committee, called the Comando Nacional del Paro (National Strike Command or CNP), advanced 41 demands involving canceling the foreign debt, increasing social spending and putting an end to violence and human rights abuses. While social spending has been cut drastically, funds have been diverted to pay for servicing Colombia’s burgeoning debt. The unions are challenging the government’s efforts to obtain a $3 billion International Monetary Fund loan that will come with conditions that the state cut needed social spending, freeze wages and lay off thousands of workers to pay its rich creditors.

The way forward

The September general strike shows that the struggle against the regime is by no means limited to the guerrilla front. In fact, in the middle of the general strike, the FARC had to play more of a supporting role, taking over a power plant for a day in solidarity with the strikers’ demands.

Ordinary Colombians have the right to arm and defend themselves against the unimaginable horrors inflicted on them by Colombia’s ruling class. But the guerrilla struggle has not – and, we would argue, cannot – topple the regime. To do that would require the mass of Colombians who live in the cities – in particular, Colombia’s combative working class.

One of the solutions put forward to solve the crisis has been the “Mandate for Peace,” a broad initiative that calls upon the combatants to declare a cease-fire and begin talks. The sentiment for peace is extremely popular, as shown by the mass peace marches of millions of Colombians in October 1999. After decades of bloodshed, this sentiment is justified.

The problem is that the violence is not equal on all sides. It is largely a one-sided war of the Colombian state and its hired thugs. Yet, more often than not, the demands to end the violence begin with the demand that those most oppressed give up their guns first. For good reason, many doubt the sincerity of the paramilitaries, the government or the employers. The October demonstrations were called by the editor of one of Bogota’s biggest conservative newspapers, and were backed by the country’s main business organization. [51] As a 1996 Human Rights Watch report aptly commented, in Colombia “peaceful political participation has proven to be more dangerous than armed struggle.” [52]

It is a fantasy to think that ordinary Colombians’ problems will be solved if the guerrillas simply lay down their arms. In El Salvador the guerrillas traded in their fighting uniforms for pinstripe suits, yet the mass of workers and peasants face the same conditions that prevailed before the peace. In Colombia, it is not even clear that disarmament is an option. As Nicolas Bautista Rodriguez, military representative of the ELN, told an interviewer in 1997, “It’s wrong to speak of peace and think that we will just hand in our weapons, because the government will never hesitate to use its guns when strikes, demonstrations and other struggles take place and those in power feel threatened.” [53] The only “successful” example of disarmament in Colombia – that of M-19 – was possible because its leaders agreed to play by the traditional rules of Colombian politics. M-19 asked not for “upheaval,” but merely for “participation.” [54]

The argument for socialists is not whether to choose a peaceful or violent road to change. If a peaceful road were possible, socialists would be wholly for it. But all too often, a peaceful road in Latin America has led to a slaughter of our side. The conclusion must be that socialists in Colombia need to focus on organizing where power lies – Colombia’s working class in factory and field – and be willing to defend that movement if necessary, including by force of arms. The 1973 coup in Chile illustrates what savagery the Latin American ruling class metes out to those who attempt a “peaceful road” to socialism. [55]

At the end of the day, to simply see the argument as one over tactics (violence vs. nonviolence) avoids the question of what the goals of the struggle should be. More than a century ago, young Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg took up the debate of reform vs. revolution in this way:

People who pronounce themselves in favor of the method of legislative reform in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modifications of the old society. [56]

Different century, different continent, but the argument applies as much to Colombia as it did to Europe more than a century ago.

* * *


1. Eduardo Pizarro Leongómez, Clouds Over Colombia, NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2, September/October 1999: p. 6.

2. Jobs, Hope in Short Supply, Orlando Sentinel, October 11, 1999 <>.

3. Pastrana’s Many Battles, The Economist, November 27, 1999: p. 31.

4. Coletta Youngers, U.S. Entanglements in Colombia Continue, NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. XXXI, No. 5, March/April 1998: p. 34.

5. U.S. State Department, Annual Report of Military Expenditures, 1998: Colombia <> (as of December 9, 1999).

6. 1999 letter to Dennis Grammenos of the Colombia Support Network.

7. Gonzalo Sánchez quoted in Jenny Pearce, Colombia: Inside the Labyrinth (London: Latin America Bureau, 1990), p. 17.

8. Pearce, p. 30.

9. Pearce, p. 41

10. Pearce, p. 44.

11. Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973), pp. 116–17.

12. Pearce, p. 58.

13. Pearce, p. 65.

14. Voter Apathy & Rejection of Traditional Parties Mark Local Elections, Notisur, April 11, 1994 <>.

15. Pearce, p. 64.

16. Pearce, p. 115.

17. Pearce, p. 119.

18. The M-19 (April Nineteenth Movement) was formed by ex-FARC members together with a section of ANAPO (Popular National Alliance), a populist organization set up by General Rojas Pinella in the 1960s.

19. Pearce, pp. 179–80.

20. Stop the War in Colombia, The Progressive, September 1999 <> (as of December 19, 1999).

21. Pearce, p. 205.

22. Javier Giraldo, Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1996).

23. Giraldo, p. 20.

24. Ricardo Peñaranda S., Eduardo Pizarro L. and Jaime Zuluaga N., Incertidumbre ante la estrategia gubernamental, Colombia Thema: Análisis de la Situación Social y Política <> (as of December 19, 1999).

25. Juan Forero, Colombia turmoil plays out like upheaval in Kosovo, Houston Chronicle, May 7, 1999.

26. Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall, Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 3.

27. Scott and Marshall, p. ix.

28. Scott and Marshall, pp. vii–viii, p. 4.

29. Colombia: Drug-Laden Plane Points to Military Role in Drug Trafficking, Notisur, November 20, 1998 <>.

30. Colombia’s Pastrana plays down FARC’s drug links, Reuters, July 29, 1999 <> (as of December 19, 1999).

31. “Drugs replace communism as the point of entry for U.S. policy on Latin America: U.S. policy towards Colombia about to massively veer off-track,” Wednesday, August 24, 1999 <>. There is a close relationship between the drug cartels, the paramilitaries and their efforts to become a part of the “legitimate” business world. According a report by Colombian professor Alejandro Reyes, 42 percent of the best land in Colombia is now owned by the drug mafia. Much of the land has been purchased – in what is known as “counter land reform” – after paramilitary terror has driven peasants off their land.

32. Quoted in Noam Chomsky, The Culture of Fear,” Znet <> (as of December 19, 1999).

33. Chomsky, The Culture of Fear.

34. Clinton quoted in Clinton Says No Direct U.S. Role in Colombia, Reuters, Friday, Nov. 5, 1999.

35. Tod Robberson, U.S. launches covert program to aid Colombia, Dallas Morning News, August 19, 1998.

36. Colombia’s Killer Networks: The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States (Washington: Human Rights Watch/Americas Human Rights Watch Arms Project, 1996), p. 88.

37. Serge F. Kovaleski, Colombian Town Basking in Peace: Many Welcome Rebel Takeover, The Washington Post, January 25, 1999: p A15.

38. Colombia’s Killer Networks, p. 16.

39. For more on Stalinism and the Latin American left, see the article in this magazine on page 43.

40. Letter to the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Resistencia Edicion Internacional No. 17 <> (as of December 19, 1999).

41. La Debacle Rusa, Voz, Edition 1991, September 16–29, 1998 <> (as of December 19, 1999). Translation from the original Spanish by Bridget Broderick.

42. 17th Congreso del Partido Comunista Colombiano: Resolución política. POR UNA SOLUCIÓN POLÍTICA Y DEMOCRÁTICA DE LA CRISIS COLOMBIANA, Voz, Edition 1993, October 14-27, 1998 <> (as of December 19, 1999). Translated from the original Spanish by Bridget Broderick.

43. Frank Bajak, Stock Exchange Chief, Rebel Talk Economics in Colombian Plains, Miami Herald, June 27, 1999: p. 8A.

44. State Policy for Peace, editorial, Resistencia Edicion Internacional, No. 17 <> (as of December 19, 1999).

45. The Two Colombias, editorial, Resistencia Edicion Internacional, No. 20, <> (as of December 19, 1999).

46. 17th Congreso del Partido Comunista Colombiano: Resolución política. POR UNA SOLUCIÓN POLÍTICA Y DEMOCRÁTICA DE LA CRISIS COLOMBIANA. Translated from the original Spanish by Bridget Broderick.

47. The FARC received a great deal of press when its members killed three American environmental activists who were living with the U’Wa Indians last summer. Though the FARC attempted to distance themselves from the attack by saying it was carried out under the orders of a rogue commander, they have nonetheless been implicated in the killings or kidnappings of oil workers, peasants and other potential allies. For instance, according to War Without Quarter: Colombia and International Humanitarian Law, the 1998 Human Rights Watch Report, “In May 1997, the José David Suárez Front of the UC-ELN announced over a Casanare radio station that it would consider the 1,300 workers at facilities belonging to British Petroleum ‘military objectives.’” According to a February 4, 1998 report published by the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), the Fifth Front of FARC squads “now specifically target members of SINTRAINAGRO [agricultural workers’ union] and ‘Esperanza, Paz y Libertad’ (Hope, Peace and Freedom), a movement which includes former guerrillas committed to nonviolent democratic political action.” <>

48. 17th Congreso del Partido Comunista Colombiano: Resolución política. POR UNA SOLUCIÓN POLÍTICA Y DEMOCRÁTICA DE LA CRISIS COLOMBIANA. Translated from the original Spanish by Bridget Broderick.

49. The informal sector, which consists of small businesses, illegal trade, street vendors and so on, accounts for about half of Colombia’s economy.

50. Pearce, p. 225.

51. La Paz, Más Que un Trapo, Desde Abajo, Año VI, No. 42, Septiembre de 1999, p. 1.

52. Quoted in The Drug War in Colombia: The Neglected Tragedy of Political Violence (Washington: Human Rights Watch Report, 1990), p. 120.

53. They Promise Bridges Where There Are No Rivers, Internationalen, December 16, 1999 <>.

54. Navarro Wolff quoted in Ana Carrigan, The Palace of Justice: a Colombian Tragedy (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993), p.30. Carrigan also interviewed an M-19 spokesperson who complained that the UP was “stupid” because “every time they opened their mouths they insulted the army.”(Carrigan, p. 31.)

55. For a discussion of how the parliamentary road to socialism led to a bloodbath in Chile, see Tom Lewis, Chile: The State and Revolution, International Socialist Review, No. 6, Spring 1999: pp. 24–33.

56. Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (New York: Pathfinder, 1994), pp. 77–78.

* * *

Paramilitaries: The Real Threat

The army found a willing ally ... in Colombia’s new landowning narco-bourgeoisie. Land was an attractive investment for the drug barons not only for its material value, but also for the social status it bestowed. By the end of the 1980s, drug traffickers had become the largest landowners in the country, turning large swaths of rural Colombia into unproductive cattle ranches. This rapid expansion of Colombia’s cattle frontier has provided the social base for Colombia’s modern paramilitary forces. [1]

What makes the rhetoric of American politicians and military officials so hard to stomach is their intentional silence on the butchery by the paramilitary organizations that terrorize ordinary Colombians. The Colombian government estimates that approximately 80 percent of all murders can be traced to these groups. [2] Five to 10 people die each day from paramilitary attacks. This includes the 73 trade union officials who have been assassinated in the last year alone. It includes the 21 human rights workers killed so far in 1999. Human rights organizations now say that Colombia is by far the most dangerous place in the hemisphere for them to operate. It includes thousands of panhandlers, prostitutes, street children and gay people murdered in a campaign the paramilitaries call “social cleansing.”

The following account describes two such attacks carried out in January, 1999. These were part of a nationally coordinated campaign that resulted in the deaths of at least 150 civilians:

In the village of Playón de Orozco, in the northern province of Magdalena, some 70 heavily armed AUC men [an acronym for the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a national organization of death squads] dragged 27 church-goers, several children among them, out of a baptismal mass and shot them in front of the priest and their families. In the southern jungle town of El Tigre, some 30 peasants were shot, decapitated or hacked to death with machetes. [3]

The AUC is headed by the notorious Carlos Castaño, who – together with his drug-trafficking brother Fidel – set up a death squad in the early 1980s in the Middle Magdalena region.

Today he commands a nationwide force, reckoned at roughly 5,000 men, ruthlessly savage toward civilians accused of backing left-wing rebels – well financed, too. The AUC’s link with drugs goes beyond protection: American drug-fighters consider Castaño to be a big trafficker in his own right. [4]

The death squads operate with the support and even collusion of Colombia’s military. The men who carried out the El Tigre massacre, for example, arrived in the town in army trucks from the Twenty-fourth Brigade. [5] And the Colombian attorney general’s office has a long list of senior and middle-ranking officers convicted, accused or suspected of links with the death squads. Sixty-eight are currently under investigation, although the likelihood that any will be disciplined is slim.

President Pastrana, under pressure from human rights organizations to clean up the military, has fired three army generals this year for failing to prevent massacres by death squads in their jurisdictions. There is even a $1 million price on Castaño’s head. Yet he continues to operate unmolested.

This past April, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson wrote of her “concern that state officials implicated in killings, disappearances and torture and other atrocities continue to occupy their posts indefinitely.” [6]

A 1996 Human Rights Watch report was more blunt.

Far from being punished, the junior and mid-level officers who tolerated, planned, directed and even took part in paramilitary violence in Colombia in the 1980s have been promoted and rewarded and now occupy the highest positions in the Colombian army. To be sure, a few, linked to well-publicized cases, have been forced into retirement or dismissed. But many more have been awarded medals for distinguished service and lead Colombia’s troops. [7]

The death squads operate as the private security forces of cattle ranchers, drug cartels, mineral-mining corporations and large landowners throughout the countryside. The largest have operated for some 20 years and have broadened their operations to include drug production and trafficking themselves. Over the last several years, though, the death squads have grown as larger corporations and other forces have given them monetary and legal support.

The CIA had a hand in establishing some of the paramilitary groups as well. The Progressive magazine reported last year:

In May 1991, Colombia completely reorganized its military intelligence networks “based on the recommendations made by the commission of U.S. military advisers,” according to the secret Colombian reorganization order, which Human Rights Watch made public in 1996.

The 41 new intelligence networks created by the order directed their energies toward unarmed civilians suspected of supporting the guerrillas. One of these intelligence networks, in the oil refinery town of Barrancabermeja, assassinated at least 57 civilians in the first two years of operation. Victims included the president, vice president, and treasurer of the local transportation union, two leaders of the local oil workers union, one leader of a local peasant workers union, two human rights monitors, and one journalist. [8]

It is little wonder, then, that the death squads receive so little attention from American politicians beating the drum for open intervention in Colombia. While overwhelmingly responsible for the astonishing level of violence that rages throughout the country, the death squads are the necessary shock troops of Colombia’s bosses in their struggle to defend their power and property. The Clinton administration certainly can’t openly defend the paramilitaries – but Washington dollars and bullets help keep them running.

* * *


1. Marc W. Chernick, The Paramilitarization of the War in Colombia, NACLA Report on the Americas, Vol. XXXI, No. 5, March/April 1998: p. 30.

2. John Burnett, Paramilitaries’ influence in Colombia welcomed by some but feared by others, Morning Edition, National Public Radio, October 7, 1999.

3. The Butchers Strike Back, The Economist, January 16, 1999 <http://www.economist/tfs/aarchive_tframeset.html>.

4. The Butchers Strike Back.

5. The Butchers Strike Back.

6. Andrew Gray, Colombia’s rights record worsens – UN’s Robinson, Reuters, April 15, 1999.

7. Colombia’s Killer Networks: The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States (Human Rights Watch/Americas Human Rights Watch Arms Project, 1996), p. 1.

8. Frank Smyth, Still Seeing Red: The CIA Fosters Death Squads in Colombia, The Progressive, June 1998 <> (as of December 19, 1999).

* * *

Barrancabermeja: City under siege

Excerpted from the Amnesty International report, Barrancabermeja: A City Under Siege, May 1999

ON THE evening of 16 May 1998 a large heavily-armed paramilitary force drove unhindered through a number of poor districts of the city of Barrancabermeja, department of Santander. On route the gunmen rounded up residents, killing several on the spot and forcing many others on to trucks. By the next day the bodies of seven victims of the paramilitary attack had been discovered. The whereabouts of the remaining 25 people who were forcibly abducted is still unknown.

Despite the fact that the Colombian armed forces maintain a heavy presence in close proximity to the districts where the attack took place and that these units had only recently received intelligence reports indicating that paramilitary forces were planning a massacre in the city; despite the sound of gunfire and the reported cries for help of the victims and the appeals made to the security forces to pursue the paramilitary attackers, no action was taken by the security forces either to confront the paramilitary force during the attack or to track them down as they made their exit from the city ...


The oil-refining river port of Barrancabermeja is the heart of the Magdalena Medio region. The city, with over 250,000 inhabitants, is wholly dependent on the oil industry: it is the headquarters for the state-run oil company Ecopetrol ... and its refinery supplies 60 percent of Colombia’s gas and other fuel needs. The Union Sindical de Obreros (USO), the oil workers union, is the country’s most powerful union and has, over the years, achieved considerable political and economic advances for its affiliates. However, the union has paid a high price for its militancy: scores of its leaders have been murdered, “disappeared” or imprisoned on charges of terrorist-related offenses. The strong trade union traditions of Barrancabermeja’s workforce have developed alongside left-wing political parties and a body of militant civic organizations.

The city is considered a stronghold of both the FARC and the ELN, and, to a lesser extent, the EPL. With a massive influx of migrant workers and forcibly displaced peasant communities over the last decade, the city has grown substantially with extensive shantytowns spreading over the surrounding lands. It is particularly in these poor districts that guerrilla organizations have established a strong presence. Neighborhoods tend to be identified with one or other of the insurgent movements. The southeastern and northeastern districts of the city are also strongholds of urban militia units linked to the guerrilla groups ...

The strategic importance of Barrancabermeja, both in economic and military terms, has made it a prime target of the paramilitary/military axis. For over a decade paramilitary forces have been preparing to wrest control of the city from the insurgents.


In Barrancabermeja itself close links between security forces and paramilitary organizations are long standing. In 1993 in written statements submitted to the Fiscalía General de la Nación, Office of the Attorney General, two Colombian Navy officers related in detail how dozens of people had been killed from 1991 in Barrancabermeja by a Colombian navy intelligence unit [Note: as part of a CIA-sponsored reorganization of Colombian intelligence operations] ...

The intelligence network was not only made up of security force agents but paramilitaries contracted to carry out killings. One civilian member of the intelligence network described in testimony to the investigating authorities how his task was to ... “Collect information on targets, members of subversive groups and delinquents and then kill them.”


The heavily-armed gunmen in civilian clothing, some wearing hoods, some wearing bullet-proof jackets ... first targeted la Tora bar ... The armed men entered the bar and began attacking several of the customers, forcing them out into the street at gunpoint ... Two local residents, Juan de Jesús Valdivieso and Pedro Julio Rondón were forced onto the trucks the paramilitary were travelling in ...

The paramilitary group then passed unhindered into the nearby Capestre district, where they abducted Libardo Londoño ... [who] attempted to escape. He was recaptured. When he refused to climb back into the truck he said: “If you’re going to kill me somewhere else, kill me here so that they can find my remains once and for all.” The paramilitaries then slit his throat.

Nearby 500 local residents were taking part in a street party in Divino Niño district. The gunmen surrounded them shouting: “on the ground you guerrilla sons of bitches.” Many were then beaten with rifle butts and kicked, several were forced onto the paramilitary vehicles. When the paramilitary group seized Diego Fernando Ochoa, his twin sister Alejandra María Ochoa, reportedly grabbed hold of him and refused to let him be taken away. The paramilitary group then abducted her as well.


In the days after the attack the USO publicly denounced the military authorities for having allowed the killings and abductions to take place, despite having been given clear advance warning of the paramilitary incursions. The USO stated that union representatives had met with Ecopetrol management on 7 May and reported that they had received information of an imminent paramilitary attack ...

On 18 May the USO together with religious leaders and other civic sectors of the city launched a five-day strike to protest at the killings and “disappearances.” The strike was only lifted when the government agreed to set up a Commission of Enquiry in order to establish the fate of the “disappeared” and to investigate the attack. Paramilitary forces reacted to the strike by circulating leaflets in which they declared the organizers to be ... “military targets.”

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