Colombia: Closing the Circle of Violence

Against the Current, No. 95, November/December 2001

Cecilia Zárate-Laun

ON JULY 16, 2001 Carlos Arturo Marulanda-Ramirez, former Colombian Ambassador to the European Union, was detained by INTERPOL in Madrid, under international orders from the Colombian Prosecutor General.  He accused Marulanda of crimes against humanity, among them organizing paramilitary groups to torture, assassinate and displace peasants.

Ariel Toscano, a 31-year-old peasant, a former leader of ANUC (National Association of Peasants) living in exile, declared his willingness to testify against Marulanda since four of his brothers were killed by paramilitaries working under his orders.  Toscano told the newspaper, El Espectador, on July 19 “It is fitting to accuse him of crimes against mankind, because he followed the steps of his father, Carlos Arturo Marulanda-Grillo, who during the La Violencia period assassinated and displaced many peasants in order to take their land.”

Paramilitarism has a long history in Colombia.  In order to understand this phenomenon one must first understand that Colombia is an exclusionary society—it excludes the majority of its inhabitants from their economic, social, political, cultural and human rights.  This exclusion occurs in a country of great natural wealth yet one of sharp inequality, where the wealthiest 10% hold eighty times the value of the poorest 10%.  Colombia also defines itself as the oldest democracy in Latin America.

Unleashing Violence

From 1900-1930 Colombia was governed by the Conservative Party, a party which characterized itself by defending religious fanaticism, protecting the most traditional values of Colombian society and isolating the country from all modern currents of thought.  During this time period the big coffee plantations consolidated lands taken from indigenous peoples and poor peasants, using armed bands which were precursors of paramilitary bands.

In 1930 Enrique Olaya Herrera of the Liberal Party was elected president.  This change brought violent local upheavals because some Liberals, oppressed for a very long time, decided to persecute the recently defeated Conservatives.  According to the classic book, La Violencia en Colombia, duly armed and salaried bandits were created.  Their mission was to attack, persecute and kill, if necessary, all persons who would not agree with their politics.  Power was concentrated in the figure of the presidency; thus the party in power also monopolized access to power in departments (states) and municipalities.  Presidents appointed governors and governors appointed mayors.  The stakes were high when the parties went to elections.

In 1945 Gabriel Turbay and Jorge Eliécer Gaitán both ran as Liberal Party candidates for president while a united Conservative Party nominated Mariano Ospina Pérez.  With the Liberal candidates splitting their vote, Ospina was elected.  Two months after Ospina took office the first Liberals were killed.  When Liberals obtained a majority of the midterm congressional elections, the Conservatives unleashed the apparatus of the state to assure their continued hold.

In May 1947 the government declared a general transportation workers’ strike illegal.  That July police in Moniquirá, Boyacá attacked a Liberal Party fundraiser, killing two and wounding twelve.  With the level of violence expanding, a local political boss in the state of Caldas organized a group of armed, violent men, called pájaros (birds).  Strikes, including one by the Magdalena river workers, multiplied—and so did the repression.  Telegraph stations, bridges and trains were destroyed and the Tropical Oil Company’s site in Barrancabermeja was dynamited.

On February 7, 1948 more than 200,000 who identified as Liberals participated in the Demonstration of Silence.  Carrying mourning flags, thousands from all over the country marched silently through the streets of Bogotá.  They filled the immense Bolívar Square to hear Gaitán beg President Ospina to exercise his authority and preserve order.  Workers, peasants and the poor were drawn to Gaitán’s political platform, which melded Liberalism to a program of radical reform.

Within two months Gaitán was assassinated.  On April 9, the rage of a people whose leader had just been assassinated almost destroyed the city of Bogotá.  This eruption, called the Bogotázo, has become a symbol of popular fury in Latin America.  It is also a symbol of what can become of a revolution without a leadership.  Provincial politicians from the Liberal Party called for vengeance over Gaitán’s assassination while their Conservative counterparts called for action to protect their church.  The masses were called upon to hate and destroy the enemy.

This was the beginning of a systematic trend of assassinations and terror throughout Colombia and is known as the period of La Violencia.  Hate, fanaticism, ambition for power, irreconcilable ideas and clashing economic perspectives dominated the countryside, seeking either to bring down the Conservative government or to defend it. Properties were abandoned, people displaced and land tenure forcibly altered.  The Conservative government used the police to persecute Liberals.  The Liberal Party responded by forming armed groups.  The Communist Party, which had existed since the 1930s, decided to form self-defense groups of peasants in regions such as Tolima and Cundinamarca.

Ospina dispersed Congress in 1949 and the Liberals boycotted the 1950 elections.  President Laureano Gómez announced that his policies were “pro-United States, pro-United Nations, anti-Communist and against violence.” In reality the highest levels of violence occurred during his presidency, with frequent army massacres—such as the one in the town of Belalcázar, Cauca where 112 persons were killed in one day. Many Liberals were killed on the pretext that the Liberal Party, in Gómez’s view, was “synonymous with Communism.”

By the early 1950s there were four different kinds of private armed groups in Colombia:

  1. Political guerrillas, organized by the political parties whose members were deceived and exploited by the political leaders.
  2. Bandit groups whose creation was unavoidable when children grew up watching atrocities.  An example is Teófilo Rojas (aka Chispas) who, after being a bandit for ten years, at 22 was accused of killing 400 people.  When asked what he wanted in life he answered “I want to learn how to read.”
  3. Self-Defense groups organized by the Communist Party, which had as one of the leaders Pedro Antonio Marín (aka Tirofijo—Sureshot, aka Manuel Marulanda Vélez), present commander of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC).  These groups encouraged peasant communities to share the land and created mechanisms for collective work.
  4. The pájaros, apparently created by policemen, local officers and political bosses with the idea of “conservatizing” Liberal areas, especially the followers of Gaitán.  Pájaros were armed private groups and hitmen financed by landowners, industrialists and cattle ranchers.  They were mobile, decentralized and trained in surprise attacks.

At first the pájaros specialized in killing local political leaders or coffee hacienda owners whose harvests would be useful to finance the organization.  Later honest judges and political leaders were targeted, taken from their homes or even in the streets or while in churches and placed in jail. There they were tortured, killed and, at night, their bodies thrown into rivers.  There were virtually no killings among the elite, either Liberal or Conservative.  In all, around 200,000 people were killed in Colombia during La Violencia (1948-53).

In this situation of violence and chaos the military came to power through a coup d’etat on June 13, 1953.  Except for the Communist Party and the ultra-Conservatives, most people welcomed coup leader General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla.  Rojas immediately addressed the violence by offering political amnesty to the guerrillas.  On September 8, 1953 the document for surrender of arms was signed by Guadalupe Salcedo, Commander of the Liberal guerrillas.  The following year he was assassinated in the streets of Bogotá.

But at the same time Rojas declared the Communist Party illegal and initiated a campaign against the peasant self-defense groups that had not accepted official amnesty.  With the cooperation of the Pentagon and the CIA-developed Plan LASO (Latin America Security Operation), the army launched an economic and military blockade.  In this degraded way, an army founded by Simón Bolívar adopted National Security as its ideology and “low intensity warfare” as its modus operandi.

But Rojas wanted to govern independently of the political and economic elites, who then became disenchanted with him and sought a different political solution.  The solution was a nationwide bipartisan agreement called the National Front, to share rule between Liberals and Conservatives as if nothing had happened.

This agreement limited the functioning of the democratic system and the two parties alternated power from 1958 to 1974, sharing administrative functions.  Their ideology was fundamentally the same: the National Front functioned as one party with two separate flags.  The military was assigned the task to repress all attempts to introduce any alternative to the Conservative-Liberal National Front Alliance, thus defining the army’s role as targeting an internal enemy.

The National Front leadership mouthed support for reforms, but effectively undermined structural change in practice.  Thus political movements were created in opposition to bipartisanship, among them ANAPO, General Rojas’ party, and the Movimiento Revolucionario Liberal (MRL), a dissident faction within the Liberal Party.

After 1959 the formidable influence of the Cuban revolution stormed Latin America like a cyclone and most of the current Colombian guerrilla movements were born during this time. The National Front was seen as an expression of the landowners’ interests.

During the late 1960s it was obvious to President Carlos Lleras, a Liberal, that the social problems in the countryside had to be addressed in order to achieve peace, “because this cannot be achieved through the military and the police but through justice.”

With the Cuban Revolution hanging like a sword over its head, the Lleras government supported land distribution to poor peasants.  However, as sociologist Mauricio Romero says, “As the best lands were concentrated in latifundios (large states), the government’s policy of land redistribution aroused vociferous opposition from the powerful landed elites and their congressional allies.”

Lleras’ support to land reform opened new opportunities for peasants to participate in politics, and they developed their own organizations and their own vision of land reform.  Given that the traditional politicians were blocking reform, peasants resorted to invading vacant lands and settling them.

Michael McClintock, researching declassified papers in the Pentagon, found that in early 1962 Washington pressured the Colombian government to adopt a paramilitary strategy towards those challenging capitalism’s right to assert economic and political hegemony.  This matched well with the already developed native system of pájaros.

In 1965 a presidential decree empowered the Ministry of Defense to allow military officers to support private use of arms and authorized the government to utilize the civilian population “in activities and works by which they contribute to the reestablishment of normality.” This decree became Law 48 (1968).

Then in 1969 Resolution 5 authorized the military to “organize in military form the civilian population, so that it will protect against the actions of the guerrillas and will support the carrying out of combat operations.” This same resolution establishes self-defense boards, which are defined as organizations of the military type made up of civilian personnel selected from the combat zone, trained and equipped to develop actions against groups of guerrillas appearing in the area, or to operate in coordination with troops in actions of combat.  These same boards would be used to prevent the formation of armed groups.

Father Javier Giraldo S.J, in his book Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy suggests that by being clandestine, paramilitaries achieve the secret objective of hiding the identity of state agents:

Paramilitarism becomes, then, the keystone of a strategy of “Dirty War,” where the dirty actions cannot be attributed to persons on behalf of the State because they have been delegated, passed along or projected upon confused bodies of armed civilians.  Those committing the crimes are anonymous and easily defined as common delinquents who act and thereafter disappear into the fog. This covers up responsibility for acts which have no legal justification or legitimacy, not even during times of warlike confrontations.  The result is that they confound and complement two types of events: actions of military officers camouflaged as civilians and military actions of civilian protected in a clandestine way by military personnel.  Both types of procedures have the same objective: to provide impunity through cover ups.

In 1970 Misael Pastrana (father of the current president Andres Pastrana) was elected president in a fraudulent election contest with General Rojas, who, according to many accounts, won. This delegitimized even more the National Front agreement.

Pastrana reversed land reform and instead supported large-scale agriculture.  During the Pastrana administration and the one following, of Alfonso López Michelsen, there was a flourishing of strikes, work stoppages, union demands and student demonstrations.  Kidnappings substantially increased.  An “illegal” economy, based on marijuana and cocaine, developed, along with smuggling coffee and emeralds.  In this climate, the army became sort of a jack-of-all-trades to “keep order”; Colombian society was greatly militarized.

During the 1980s when the social and political crisis forced the elites to confront the situation, the process of military autonomy was difficult to reverse.  The presence of guerrillas, the paramilitaries, self-defense groups, drug dealers and common delinquency led to confrontation with the military and filled the country with a spiral of violence.  Although formally accepting the peace proposals, the military rejected them. They knew they had the backing of powerful economic segments and regional forces, and these worked together to put public resources in the service of private parties.

Julio Cesar Turbay’s administration (1978-1982) sought to banish Communism forever from Colombia.  This included not only Communist guerrillas, but any expression of thought considered “subversive”—a term which encompassed many teachers, journalists, intellectuals, even nuns and priests.  Turbay’s Minister of Defense talked about “cultural subversion” hiding among poets, playwrights, writers, novelists and intellectuals.  On September 6, 1978 Decree 1923, a Security Statute was promulgated.  It struck at the most elementary rights of citizens and launched a witch hunt. Activists began to be “disappeared”; civilians were judged in military courts.

On December 3, 1981 a helicopter spread fliers over the city of Cali, announcing the creation of the group MAS (Muerte a Secuestradores/Death to Kidnappers).  The fliers explained that motivated by the kidnapping of a girl in the Ochoa family, part of the Medellín drug cartel, 223 mafia chiefs had put up money to create a squadron of 2,230 men that would execute without compunction any person linked to kidnapping.  Through 1982 the MAS were linked to disappearances, murders and threats.

Campaigning on a promise of finding a political solution to the “guerrilla problem, Belisario Betancur, a Conservative, was elected president in 1982 by a wide margin.  Betancur’s proposed peace negotiations with democratic openings, amnesty for the rebels, and a national rehabilitation plan combined with commitment to social programs, including an agrarian reform.  Powerful economic groups, the military, the political class (and even his own party) then torpedoed his efforts.  These private groups initiated counter-insurgency actions to counterbalance his conversations with the guerrillas.

The guerrillas did not capture the moment either.  Weak and divided, they overestimated their own capacity and allowed their military approach to predominate.  Paradoxically, the FARC, reluctant at the beginning to participate in any peace negotiation, created the Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica, UP) as an alternative political party.  When the UP elected large numbers of mayors and municipal councilmen, as well as departmental deputies and a few members of Congress, paramilitary groups, often in league with military officers, killed more than 3,000 UP activists.  By the mid 1990s the UP was virtually eliminated.

A Case Study in Paramilitarism

To better explain the formation of paramilitary groups on the local level I will use as an example the “Vatican” of paramilitarism, the small town of Puerto Boyacá.  Located on the banks of the Magdalena River, Puerto Boyacá is a town with a Liberal tradition.  It organized Liberal guerrillas during La Violencia.

In the National Front period the town supported a dissident Liberal faction (the MRL), which had links to the Communist Party.  Little by little the Communist Party became the most important local political force in the region, eventually coming to win elections and dominate the municipal councils.  The FARC, a guerilla group, existed in these areas where, besides indoctrinating peasants, they acted as a “rural civil guard” and controlled cattle theft, earning them the support and sympathy of the region’s cattlemen.  The FARC grew so much that they developed along several fronts.  One of these began to tax both cattlemen and large landowners.  Several of those pressured fled but protection taxes—called “vaccinations”—and kidnappings continued.

After Julio Cesar Turbay became president in 1978, the army decided to militarize the region.  First came the murder of seven Communist city council members from Cimitarra, a nearby town. Torture and assassination became common.  The army imposed a curfew.  Stores were closed and livestock slaughter was prohibited.  As a result, the peasant population—especially the children—were dying of hunger.

The government assigned Puerto Boyacá a military mayor and stationed the army’s Bárbula Battalion there.  The Fourteenth Brigade was created to control the area and soon extreme right organizations arrived, the most famous of which was the Colombian Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), linked to a fascist movement throughout Latin America.

When President Belisario Betancur’s government took office in 1982, with its policy of reconciliation, the army changed its tactics and adopted the slogan that he who has the civilian population with him is he who will win the war. Army units began to build roads, to support public health campaigns and to work on cemetery beautification.  The army organized a circus that traveled from town to town with the objective of getting orphan children to laugh.  And the cattlemen began to see the army as a strong institution that could defend them.

A meeting was called, attended by the mayor, cattlemen, businessmen, local political chiefs, victims of kidnapping and representatives of the Texas Petroleum Company (TEXACO), which had oil fields in the region and had been involved in land disputes with peasants since 1928.  The meeting created a group to provide defense against the “subversion.” They patrolled with the army and “fumigated” the guerrillas as one fumigates insects.  The group focused its attention on breaking up the political organization of the Communist Party and the FARC by means of selective, systematic murder of union members, schoolteachers, peasant and civic leaders in a ferocious campaign of annihilation, killing about 800 people.

The founders of the group consolidated into an innocent-sounding organization Association de Campesinos y Ganaders del Magdalena Medio (ACDEGAM), which published in its newsletter of August 1987 that whoever wanted arms could obtain them from the army’s Fourteenth Brigade.  ACDEGAM also organized health clinics, a network of thirty grade schools with teachers it paid, community stores and cooperatives.  It built highways and bridges and installed communications networks.  All of these had as a goal to win and control the civilian population.

All of this activity required money and the contributions of the cattlemen and merchants were not sufficient.  So at this time a new actor was incorporated into the groups’ struggle: drug traffickers.  In its haste to launder its illegal earnings, the Medellín cartel began to buy land in the region where it established cocaine laboratories and trained its private armies.  Soon the Medellín cartel drug traffickers joined the group and from then on the members of ACDEGAM lost no more sleep worrying about lack of funds.  With the collaboration of the army, mercenaries were brought from Israel, Australia, England and the United States to train hitmen and modernize the tactics of the war.

The entry of drug traffickers gave a new twist to the paramilitary phenomenon because they were not interested in the doctrine of National Security, nor in anti-Communism; but this would help them justify any action to benefit their earnings and investments.  In addition, it helped them win favor with the military and the Colombian elites.

The success of the paramilitary model in Puerto Boyacá led to its being reproduced and perfected throughout Colombia—adapted of course to regional characteristics.  One of the most successful paramilitary leaders was Fidel Castaño, who belonged to the leadership of the Medellín cartel.  Following the model of the Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá (ACCU), which succeeded in eliminating literally all the peasant activists in Colombia’s northeast, Castaño began building his paramilitary group, the Foundation for Peace in Córdoba, in 1980.  Following Fidel’s death under mysterious circumstances, his brother Carlos Castaño took over.

The guerrillas who out of principle did not seek vengeance on the paramilitaries after Puerto Boyacá, decided in response to Castaño’s paramilitary force that they would fight back with the same cruelty.  From that point on the conflict descended into greater barbarity.

The Recent Evolution of Paramilitarism

  • During the government of Virgilio Barco (1986-90), an attempt was made to technify the peace process by removing the social foundation of the guerrillas, creating the National Rehabilitation Plan to reincorporate guerrillas into society.  A rather humorous incident occurred during this process of peace negotiations when the Movement 19th of April (M-19) guerrillas sought to use Article 33 of Law 48.  They requested permission to use arms for their own “self-defense” forces similar to those supported, promoted and protected by the army. In response, President Barco was pressured to suspend Law 48.  It was then declared “unconstitutional” by the Supreme Court—twenty-one years after its passage!

    Thus paramilitarism became illegal.  But driving it underground did not contain it. By 1989 the Minister of Interior himself declared in Congress that there were 140 paramilitary groups.  New models of paramilitary action began, including mass terror.  Residents of a community would be brought together in the town squares of small rural communities and some would be selected to be cut up by chainsaws as an effective method to force the population to abandon the area.

  • President Cesar Gaviria (1990-94) implemented a constitutional reform to give greater authority to the regions.  Governors and mayors became elected by popular vote instead of by appointment, and this reform set loose fierce competition to control local mayoral offices.  Besides increasing the interest in participation in politics, this reform increased the fears of the army and the regional elites that they were going to loose control.

    This in turn led to an increase in military force by both the guerrillas and the paramilitaries.  Before he left office, Gaviria left in place Decree 356 of 1994, by which the Convivir “cooperatives” were created.  These provided special private watch services, which operated in high-risk regions supposedly to return peace to these areas.  They were allied to the military and police in the sense that they would lodge complaints about disturbances of public order and could employ long-range firearms.  Ultimately, the Colombian government itself was compelled to restructure the Convivir after it was found that many operated in close association with paramilitaries.

  • President Samper (1994-98) was accused of having been elected with drug trafficking money and almost all the energy of his administration was spent on defending itself against these allegations.  The paramilitaries took advantage of the power vacuum under the Samper presidency by holding a national meeting and consolidating into one organization, called AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia), with Carlos Castaño as commander-in-chief.  Its presence was also expanded during this time period.

    AUC’s web page explains how cattlemen, farmers and small businessmen had to organize themselves spontaneously because of guerrillas.  The AUC has approximately 8,000 armed men. It defines itself as “a political-military movement which uses the same irregular methods as the guerrillas.  Its members are not terrorists, nor common criminals, but rather persons who have found it necessary to violate the law because the Colombian state penalizes the legitimate right of self-defense even though it is incapable of providing that defense.” Its principal political demand is that it be included in the peace process.

  • Andres Pastrana, elected in 1998, has introduced a new element with respect to paramilitaries: globalization and the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA).  The Colombian conflict is the only armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere that impedes plans to expand the FTAA rapidly.  The only South American country with coasts on two oceans, Colombia as an actor in the global drama is a key element in understanding the most recent paramilitary actions.  Curiously the paramilitaries penetrate into zones desired for investment by international capital, and in these areas the AUC commit atrocities for the purpose of displacing the residents and taking their lands.  Today there are more than two million internally displaced persons, many of whom can survive only by cutting the rain forest to grow coca.

    The AUC have taken over regions such as Chocó, where megaprojects are planned.  These include a possible alternative canal to the Panama Canal, as well as oil pipelines, new roads and even sweatshops.  AUC paramilitaries told the area residents openly that they must leave because of the canal’s construction.

    Meanwhile in the southern part of Bolívar Department, an area where a very rich gold mine with high quality gold is located, the AUC paramilitaries decapitated a leader of the miners’ union and announced that the multinationals are coming and would provide jobs for many residents.  They are also active in Arauca and Putumayo, where there is oil, and the Middle Magdalena, site of the main oil refinery.

    Recently, the AUC has decided to form a political directorate.  In a ghoulish note, on July 17, 2001, the AUC published a column using the words which Jorge Eliécer Gaitán spoke on February 7, 1948 in his famous Prayer for Peace to justify their right to self-defense.  The circle has closed.

Conclusions to be Drawn

  1. The paramilitaries are a national counter-insurgency project of a political nature.  They are professional mercenaries who carry out coordinated and strategic actions.  They should not be permitted to participate as actors in a peace process because they in fact participate through the army, which formed them.
  2. The paramilitaries rely upon support given to them by cattlemen, businessmen, agricultural exporters, industrialists, traditional large landowners, the military and multinational businesses that believe negotiating a peace proposal with the guerrillas would give credibility to the idea that armed rebellion reflects the necessity for economic, political and social reforms.  From their point of view, the guerrillas are the result of Communism.  The case of Ambassador Marulanda is being watched with a great deal of attention by the large capitalists who have helped promote, finance, equip and sustain the paramilitaries.
  3. It is undeniable that the two groups, guerrillas and paramilitaries, obtain large sums of money from the coca business.  The FARC tax the growing and processing of the coca, which gives them about 50% of their income.  Carlos Castaño, on the other hand, has admitted in several published interviews that the AUC receives about 70% of its finances from the drug trade.
  4. The weakness of the Colombian state is not an accident.  From the earliest days of the republic, institutions were designed on paper with the purpose of fortifying local and regional elites.  A nation has never been constructed in Colombia.
  5. The term “self-defense” forces in Colombia has been used with a sense of possession indiscriminately as much by the guerrillas as by the paramilitaries.  Both believe they are legitimate self-defense forces which practice the right of rebellion.
  6. The human cost of the terror, the massacres, the genocide against the Colombian civilian population has still not been measured.  The paramilitaries give the peasants only three alternatives: you leave, you join us or you die. The directed and selective repopulation of regions appears to be part of a well-planned strategy and the fight involves killing of civilians by both the guerrillas and the paramilitaries.
  7. The main hope lies within the vitality of the Colombian people, who in spite of so much pain continue risking their lives and searching for peace with justice.  A people with less vitality would by now have been destroyed.
  8. It is necessary for the international community to solidarize with the Colombian people.  Marulanda’s detention resulted from intense pressure by the European Union.  The only thing which the Colombian elites fear is rejection by the international community.

Cecilia Zárate-Laun is Co-founder and Program Director of the Colombian Support Network in Madison, WI. The network can be emailed at and its website is

from ATC 95 (November/December 2001)