Colombia From Peace to War Again

Against the Current, No. 98, May/June 2002

Forrest Hylton

AT 9:00 PM on February 20, more than three years of peace negotiations between the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and the administration of Conservative Andrés Pastrana ended when Pastrana gave the FARC and resident civilians three hours to leave a 16,000 square-mile demilitarized zone (zona de despeje) ceded to the FARC in southern Colombia to facilitate negotiations.

Though the agreement Pastrana signed on January 20 of this year stipulated that he provide the FARC with forty-eight hours notice, shortly after midnight on February 21 A-37s and A-47s began to drop bombs of up to 500 lbs., and 13,000 troops prepared to move into the zone.

Reports filed from Putumayo in late March suggest that despite Pastrana’s professed concern for civilian lives, thirty peasants have been disappeared by paramilitaries that moved into the area following government troops and National Police.  Displacement has followed paramilitary violence in Caquetá, and civilians have been killed in the bombing raids as well. (See note 1)

The FARC’s response to the government offensive was not long in coming, and within days they had made numerous strikes against infrastructure in the south—bridges, dams, reservoirs, electricity pylons, and oil pipelines.

Regardless of their many strategic and tactical blunders, the FARC cannot be blamed for the failure of the peace process.  If the FARC did not give ground, preferring total war to concessions, that is because Colombian history has taught them that “negotiation” means preparation for war, and “amnesty” for guerrillas is a synonym for extra-judicial execution.

Here it is important to avoid a false equivalence: while the FARC have committed atrocities against the peasantry, the paramilitaries commit three times more atrocities, and they do so with the tacit or active support of the state that the U.S. government funds so lavishly.

We should remember that when the FARC released 250 prisoners as part of an exchange last year, the Colombian government released only eleven of the promised fifty FARC prisoners.  The FARC had a serious peace proposal, while the Pastrana administration had a plan for war: Plan Colombia.

The government never seriously contemplated structural reforms advocated by the FARC; these would have redistributed land, wealth and resources.  The government did not bring the paramilitaries to heel, either.

Along with many cattle ranchers, banana and flower plantation owners, sugar and palm oil processors, and oil giants like Occidental and BP Amoco, sectors of the Colombian military had been ardently opposed to the peace process from the beginning, and rejoiced at the outbreak of total war. (See note 2)

This initial triumphalism, fanned by the media, wore off quickly, however, as Pastrana geared Colombians up for a long war against “terrorism.” The FARC has reportedly melted into the jungles and towns of southern Colombia, carrying out attacks on infrastructure in small groups.  They will not be easily defeated.

Lessons Learned and Unlearned

There are three historical precedents that should be born in mind as we assess the significance of the end of “peace.”

The first was the 1960s-era “Operación Marquetalía,” a.k.a. Operation Sovereignty.  As Colombian historians Arturo Alape and Eduardo Pizarro have demonstrated, this U.S.-backed counter-insurgency campaign constitutes one of many historic failures of the Colombian ruling class and of U.S. imperialism.  It forced communist self-defense militias to become a mobile guerrilla force—the FARC. The ELN (National Liberation Army) was born the same year.

On January 1, 1964, Conservative Guillermo Valencia, billed like Pastrana as the “President of Peace,” mobilized helicopters, T-33 combat planes, seven army battalions, two specialized counterinsurgent companies and intelligence groups (GIL), along with bacterial weapons, against “independent republics” which Valencia insisted would be eradicated within a year.

Yet it took six months just to recapture the village of Marquetalía, by which time the armed peasant communities had moved out into other municipalities in the area as well as new frontier regions in Caquetá and Meta—the very regions the current operation is designed to retake.

The second precedent is the rise to presidential power of the far right in 1950.  Though the era known as La Violencia, which left an estimated 200,000 people dead, began at least four years earlier in 1946, once Laureano Gómez assumed power, Conservative paramilitary massacres increased together with mass displacement and colonization of agrarian frontiers beyond the reach of the state.

Liberal notables organized peasant militias to fight the Conservatives; one veteran of those militias, Pedro Antonio Marín, is ‘Tirofijo,’ leader of the FARC.

A third precedent is more recent, following the collapse of the peace process between President Belisario Betancur and the FARC and M-19 in 1986.  From the late 1970s to the middle 1980s, M-19, a media-savvy, middle-class urban guerrilla movement, had gained considerable sympathy for their populist program, but once they laid down their arms to participate in the elections of 1990 and the drafting of a new constitution in 1991, they were systematically eliminated.

Paramilitary attacks on the left cleared the ground for the neoliberal programs—based on privatization, liberalization and fiscal decentralization—of Virgilio Barco (1986-90) and César Gaviria (1990-94).

Then there is the story of the Patriotic Union (UP), a political party founded by the FARC, the Colombian Communist Party, and other left groups in 1985.  Paramilitaries mounted a campaign that left 300 UP militants dead within a year, among them presidential candidate Jaime Pardo Leal.

By 1990, more than 3,000 UP militants had been killed, including Bernardo Jaramillo, who was to run for president that year. Pablo Escobar and other traffickers were instrumental in organizing paramilitary forces, the better to defend their newly acquired luxury cattle ranches.

The Narco-Paramilitaries

Throughout peace negotiations during the Betancur administration (1982-86) a new agro-export, narcotrafficking elite, with tentacles in construction, finance and communications, had consolidated power by making alliances with older regional elites and local military officials.

Using paramilitaries, the new elite sought to block even center-left initiatives like those of Luis Carlos Galán, leader of the “new liberalism,” who was assassinated before the 1990 elections he was expected to win.

Ever since the López Pumarejo administration in the 1930s, a bloc of the Colombian ruling class, operating under the rubric of anti-communism, has tried, with varying degrees of failure, to stamp out popular politics by means of extra-judicial execution.  At present this bloc is ascendant once again.

Like the coca that is their lifeline, the AUC (United Self-Defense of Colombia) paramilitary forces grew considerably during the course of peace negotiations.  As the U.S.-led “war on drugs” has kicked into high gear in Colombia, the paramilitaries have roughly tripled in size from 4,500 to 14,000, and the official number of massacre victims has increased from 505 in 1994 to 1226 in 2000.

The area of coca under cultivation has grown from 68,000 hectares in 1996 to 120,000 in 1999, to 162,000 in 2000.  According to a report released by the State Department on March 7, it swelled to 170,000 hectares in 2001.

The official story is that to fight drugs, the Colombian government needs U.S. help to fight “terrorism,” i.e. FARC “narcoguerrillas.” There is a revealing irony here.

Lewis Tambs, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia under the first Reagan administration, coined the term “narcoguerrilla,” and as assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, Eliott Abrams argued in 1986 that “sustaining democracy and combating the `narcoterrorist’ threat are inextricably linked.”  (See note 3)

Having served as ambassador to Costa Rica from 1985-89, after the war in Nicaragua ended in 1990 Tambs was declared persona non-grata in Costa Rica based on his role in creating, at the behest of Oliver North, “the southern front” to overthrow the Sandinistas.

Then as now, whether in Asia or Latin America, right-wing death squads finance themselves with profits from the narcotics business and coordinate their activities with the military and intelligence services; this is a longstanding pattern detailed in Alfred W. McCoy’s The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (New York: Lawrence Hill, 1991).

Unlike the FARC, paramilitary involvement in the cocaine trade goes beyond taxing coca paste and includes processing, distributing and transporting cocaine.  In late 2000, Carlos Castaño, head of the AUC, admitted in a nationally televised interview that the paramilitaries derive seventy percent of their income from the narcotics trade.

As reported in the Guardian Unlimited on May 17, 2001, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) brought this to the attention of Colin Powell, saying, “We give more aid to the military.  They give aid to the paramilitaries.  The paramilitaries are involved in atrocities .  .  .  .  The paramilitaries are now working as semi-drug lords, too .  .  .  .  The paramilitaries have doubled in size. The number of massacres has increased.”

As the military grows larger and stronger thanks to U.S. “aid,” so too the paramilitaries, who specialize in massacres of peasants and selective assassination of trade unionists, human rights workers, student leaders, professors, Afro-Colombian and indigenous rights leaders, or anyone working for social change.

Paramilitaries are responsible for creating the bulk of Colombia’s displaced population, which numbers more than 2,000,000 at a time when the official unemployment rate is 20% and 60% are estimated to be underemployed.  Paramilitaries also commit most of the political killings, which averaged twenty per day in 2001, up from twelve a day in 2000 according to the Colombia Commission of Jurists.

Making Paramilitaries Legal

No one better personifies the nexus between politics, paramilitarism, and cocaine processing and distribution than the “independent Liberal” candidate, Alvaro Uribe Vélez, who is forecasted to win the presidential elections on May 26.

With double the projected vote of his closest competitor, Liberal Horacio Serpa, the bedrock of Uribe’s campaign is his pledge to organize a million Colombians into civil defense patrols to work with the Colombian Armed Forces.  Uribe Vélez argues that paramilitary forces need to be dissolved so that the state can regulate and coordinate anti-guerrilla campaigns with the military and its civilian collaborators.

To anyone who has read one of the numerous human rights reports detailing the symbiotic relationship between the army and the paramilitaries, it is clear that Uribe Vélez intends to legalize paramilitarism.  When questioned, he insists that he has no connection to paramilitaries—yet he has their vote.

Uribe Vélez crafted the strategy of “legalizing and regulating” anti-guerrilla militias, which displaced some 200,000 peasants during his tenure as governor of Antioquia from 1995-97.  He organized Rural Vigilance Committees, known as CONVIVIR, which came under heavy fire from human rights groups such as Amnesty International for their persistent links to paramilitaries.

In fact the two forces were unified in practice: when the CONVIVIRs, having committed numerous massacres of unarmed civilians, were officially banned at the end of 1997, the foot soldiers passed into the ranks of the AUC.

Uribe Vélez’ ties to the cocaine business are both ancestral and occupational.  Before his death in 1983, Uribe’s father had been detained on trafficking charges, but his political connections had allowed him to avoid extradition.

As head of Aerocivíl from 1980-82, Uribe was in charge of distributing licenses to narco-pilots.  As mayor of Medellín in 1982, he served as the public face of Pablo Escobar’s “Medellín without Slums” campaign, which allowed Escobar to build a base for his rightwing political initiatives and catapulted him into Congress.

During Uribe’s tenure as mayor, Medellín became known by traffickers as “the sanctuary.” In 1989, Uribe worked in the legislature to block extradition of traffickers.

Pedro Juan Moreno Villa, Uribe Vélez’ former chief of staff and current campaign manager, was caught importing 50,000 kilos of potassium permanganate in 1997-98 through Moreno’s company, GMP. Potassium permanganate is a necessary “precursor chemical” for the manufacture of cocaine, and according to Donnie R. Marshall, then head of the DEA, between 1994-98 Moreno Villa’s GMP “was the largest importer” of permanganate in Colombia.  Whoever controls the flow of permanganate controls the processing of cocaine.  (See note 4)

In sum, Uribe is a narco-paramilitary neoliberal with a shady past, and in the legislative election of March 10, his candidates won more than one-third of the seats, thus breaking the longstanding Liberal-Conservative political monopoly.  On March 26, Interior Minister Armando Estrada admitted that the paramilitaries had scored a major victory in the elections.

Counterinsurgency and Oil

As the war against the FARC and the ELN (National Liberation Army) heats up, so will the war against labor, which has already cost the lives of more that 3,500 trade unionists since 1986, when the last peace process ended.

Three out of five trade unionists killed in the world in 2000 were assassinated in Colombia.  On March 21 of this year, paramilitary assassins gunned down Rafael Jaimes Torra, the regional treasurer of the oil workers’ union (USO), in Barrancabermeja.

In January, Aury Sará, another leader of the USO, was “tried” and executed near Cartagena by the AUC for alleged ties to the guerrillas.  Since February 25, the paramilitaries have had Gilberto Torres, yet another USO leader, in their custody.  In response, oil workers have shut down the principal refinery, located in Barrancabermeja.

U.S. policy toward Colombia—consisting in more than $1 billion in mostly military aid in the past year—appears to be undergoing a shift that began in February, but which has long been in the works.  The war on drugs, which placed minimal limits on the use of U.S. military aid for counter-insurgency, is being folded into the war on terror, which removes those limits.

A new “Critical Infrastructure Brigade” would be created in 2003 with some of the $98 million requested to protect the oil—property of Occidental Petroleum—in the Caño Limón-Coveñas pipeline, which the FARC and the ELN blew up 166 times in 2001.  (See note 5)

Occidental and BP Amoco joined together with Enron and other energy firms in 1996 in creating the U.S.-Colombia business partnership, which has lobbied ever since for increased “aid” to Colombia.

While Colombia has only 2.6 billion barrels of known reserves, investors estimate that eighty percent of Colombia’s oil has yet to be tapped.  In the past two years Colombia’s state-owned oil company, Ecopetrol, has signed a record number of contracts for exploration.  As it stands, Colombia is the eighth-largest supplier of oil to the United States, and between them Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela provide more oil to the U.S. than the Persian Gulf countries combined.

In an interview published in Bogotá in October 2000, retired Special Forces Sergeant Stan Goff insisted, “We never mentioned the words coca or narco-trafficker in our training.  The objective of our operations .  .  .  continues to be oil. Look where American forces are—Iraq, the Caspian Sea, Colombia—places where we expect to find oil.”  (See note 6)

Escalating the War

The anti-drug war was always a cloak for counter-insurgency, then, but one that Congress insisted on using up until recently.  On March 18, John Ashcroft announced that the United States would seek to extradite three FARC commanders for cocaine trafficking, thus making the link between drugs and terror explicit.

Three days later, the Bush administration requested an additional $35 million to train Colombian troops and police in anti-terrorism.  It also asked that the restrictions on aid for counter-insurgency be lifted, and given the House resolution passed in early March that urged the Bush administration to fight terrorism and narcotics in Colombia, the request will likely be granted.

In the days before Bush’s visit to Lima and El Salvador on March 23-24, Gen. Erick Shinseki, chief of the Army High Command, paid a visit to the Tres Esquinas and other military bases from which the war in the southern Colombia is being launched.

Colombian generals are hoping that the thirty upgraded “Huey II” helicopters that are scheduled to arrive in June can be used openly against the FARC when the push to retake the south from Putumayo, a jungle region on the Ecuadorian border, begins.

The 2,300-man Colombian Counternarcotics Brigade, created in 2000 with U.S. “aid,” is designed to create “security conditions” for extensive fumigation of coca in Putumayo.  Fumigation destroys plants, fish, wildlife, livestock, and makes children sick, as numerous scientists working in Putumayo in 2001 demonstrated.

The Counternarcotics Brigade has to fight FARC battalions that number more than a thousand, so that pilots subcontracted by the State Department through DynCorp can spray Monsanto’s round-up ultra (glyphosate) mixed with cosmo-flux from 100 meters above ground.

The U.S. government appears to be operating under the assumption that Colombia is similar to Central America, meaning that “peace” will be achieved only once the FARC and the ELN have been defeated militarily and forced into a “peace without social justice” compromise with neoliberalism.  (See note 7)

In this it is surely mistaken.  In spite of all the “aid” it has received, the most the Colombian military can hope for is to fight the guerrillas to a stalemate.  So the generals will call for more aid.

Politics of FARC and ELN

Colombia is fifty-three times the size of El Salvador and its topography extraordinarily diverse.  This means that when we think about the war in Colombia, we must consider not only the war against the FARC in the jungles and plains of the south (Caquetá, Putumayo) but also the war against the FARC and the ELN in the mountains, valleys, and deltas of the north (Antioquia, Bolívar, Magdalena, Sucre).

The FARC spent the bulk of their energies during the last three years fighting, training, and looking after their growing pool of kidnap victims.  The FARC number more than 20,000, and as of January 2000, they were estimated to have 20,000 East German assault rifles, grenade launchers, communications equipment, mortars, SAM-12 surface-to-air missiles, and a small airforce.

The FARC, in other words, are a formidable fighting force, but they have little support among intellectuals, the middle class, or the working class, whether the tiny minority in organized labor (6%) or the majority in the “informal” sector.

The FARC has more than occasionally been brutal with indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians; but they have been arrogant and imposing with the social movements in general.  This is widely known on the Colombian left but not often discussed in public, except perhaps by indigenous intellectuals/activists.

Thus it would be too much to say that the FARC “failed” to galvanize a national-popular movement—because they never tried to do so.

In Caguán, where the negotiations between the FARC and the Pastrana administration took place, alongside those negotiations representatives of many of Colombia’s social movements took advantage of the space opened up to create a dialogue and consensus about the need to halt neoliberalism.

As Joanne Rappaport detailed in the pages of Against the Current (see “Colombia: Options from the Grassroots,” ATC 92, May/June 2001), a broad-based, grassroots coalition to stop fumigation formed in the south while the peace process went on; it is hard to imagine something similar happening under Uribe Vélez, for example.

But in the end the social movements were given short shrift in the peace process between the FARC and Pastrana.  And some reports even suggest that FARC commanders such as Alfonso Cano, Iván Márquez, and `el Mono Jojoy’ believe that, insofar as it polarizes public opinion, the indiscriminate and escalating repression and chaos in Colombia favors the “revolution.” Having used the demilitarized zone to prepare for war, they are not sorry to see the end of “peace.”

The dialogue in Havana between the ELN, currently numbering 5,000 troops, and the Pastrana administration about a ceasefire strikes a dissonant chord of hope.

The ELN, which has opted to steer clear of the drug trade, has long supported a peace process that would bring insurgents and the Colombian government to the table with representatives from the trade union and social movements as well as industry and trade associations.

It seems unlikely that in the current climate, the more participatory, democratic peace envisioned by the ELN—which would take place in a demilitarized zone the size of Rhode Island—will succeed where the top-down FARC have failed.

Also, the ELN have been condemned for human rights violations connected to extortion and kidnapping, their principal means of self-finance.  The media have struck hard against them.

Because of their political organizing, the ELN have a solid social base in most rural regions where they operate, and for that reason their base has been hardest hit by paramilitary massacres.

What Can Be Done?

That the FARC’s “independent republic” in the south, human rights violations and all, was the safest region in Colombia by far, is a fact beyond dispute.  The army and the paramilitaries, not the FARC, will displace most of the 100,000 people that live in the area.

Thus the cycle of “migration-colonization-conflict-migration” that has characterized the agrarian history of Colombia in the 20th Century continues.  As long as it does, the FARC and the ELN will likely grow stronger.

The toll that total war will take on Colombian society exceeds calculation, however, and the space for alternatives to the crisis of neoliberal order will likely continue to shrink, just as it did during the three years of paramilitary “peace.”

What can we do to change the bleak outlook for Colombia?  A short-term objective could be to strengthen ties to Colombian trade union and social movements, as the USWA have done with the workers trying to organize under paramilitary fire at Coca Cola.

The State Department has decided to co-sponsor with the AFL-CIO a tour of activists from SINALTRAINAL (bottle workers’ union).  This should give us incentive to organize more autonomous exchanges than any that might take place under State Department auspices.  Indymedia plans to bring people from the alternative monthly newspaper Desde Abajo to New York; this is a good example what we might do.

Our principal long-term, strategic goal must be to stop U.S. military aid to Colombia until workers and peasants, indigenous and Afro-Colombian people, students and professors, homosexuals, drug addicts, transgender and street children are free from paramilitary violence.  Paramilitarism is a parasitic growth on the U.S.-sponsored Colombian military—it cannot survive for long without the shelter of imperial resources and state power.

Of course, the kind of energy we would need to muster in order to radically change U.S. policy on Colombia could only grow out of a larger effort—taking place on many fronts—to stop the perpetual war machine being unleashed on a world scale.


  1. Kim Alphandary, “Reports from the Theater of Operations,”
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  2. Nazih Richani, “Colombia at the Crossroads: The Future of the Peace Accords,” NACLA, Vol. XXXV No. 4 (January February 2002), 19.
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  3. Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall, Cocaine Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 23-24.
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  4. Al Giordano, “Narco-Candidate in Colombia,”
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  5. Adam Isacson, “Colombia Peace in Tatters,” NACLA, Vol. XXXV No. 5 (March/April, 2002), 12.
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  6. Thad Dunning and Leslie Wirpsa, “Oil Rigged,”
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  7. James Petras, “The Geopolitics of Plan Colombia,” Monthly Review, Vol.53 (April 2001), 31, 43.
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Forrest Hylton is a member of the Committee for Social Justice in Colombia in New York City.

from ATC 98 (May/June 2002)