Colombia: Neoliberalism and Violence

Against the Current, No. 101, November/December 2002

Forrest Hylton

“Our ancient tragedy began that 9th of April, 1948 [date of the assassination of radical Liberal Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in Bogotá, which triggered Colombia’s largest twentieth-century urban riots].

“We can never forget when Fidel Castro and other muchachos came to Bogotá to interrupt the Panamerican Conference and create an international conflict, and indeed they succeeded. Thus began an extremely painful situation of conflict between parties that never managed to clear up what happened that day or determine the effort of international communism to destroy Colombia . . . .

“Political scientists tell us that communism died but communists no, and they continue to maintain their points of view, their will to fracture contemporary society. Frequently they dress up in green, they are no longer red parties because that does not attract . . . they are ecologists and they get together to decide where to strike and they inflict painful damage on the prestige and lives of Colombians. There can be no doubt that we are victims of an international conspiracy against the image of Colombia.” –Fernando Londoño Hoyos, Colombian Minister of Justice and the Interior

THE NOTION THAT Colombia has been at war for more than fifty years — together with the corollary that violence is endemic to modern Colombian politics — is widely accepted in Colombia, as well as in the United States and Europe.

Nor is this view of Colombian history altogether untrue. But its power to explain the present situation is limited, because it does not chart the specifics of the conflict, its ebbs and flows, its shifting topography, or the evolving shapes of its actors — one among whom is the newly elected president of the country, Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

At this writing, nearly half of Colombia’s departments have become “zones of rehabilitation and consolidation” under direct administrative control of the military, in which the circulation of persons is strictly limited and closely monitored.

Under the “State of Internal Commotion” statutes, searches without warrants and provisional detention without charges are now permitted. A national strike to protest these measures was called for September 16 by peasant and indigenous organizations, students, professors and trade unions.

Minister of Defense Marta Lucia Ramirez accused the guerillas of organizing the strike. Throughout the countryside the paramilitaries threatened peasants so that they would not participate, and the army took away their food and blankets. The strike organizer, trade unionist Raul Herrera, was detained and has not been released.

Violence and Capitalist Conquest

The Colombian regions where violent conflict is at its most intense are, for the most part, zones that have been conquered for capital in the past quarter century. The struggle for control over natural resources and transport routes is concentrated at points of production of petroleum (Barrancabermeja), bananas (Urabá), poppy (Nariño, Cauca, Tolima, Huila) and coca (Bolívar, Northern Santander, Meta, Caquetá, Guaviare, Putumayo); extraction of emeralds (Boyacá, Meta), gold (Antioquia), coal (Guajira), timber, and petroleum (Arauca).

This is also true of zones in which megaprojects — such as dams, an inter-oceanic corridor, a port on the Pacific — are planned or underway. Emphasizing the relationship between violence and neoliberal development schemes, Colombian philosopher/economist Libardo Sarmiento put it as follows: “The violence is the mark of the process of the regime of capitalist accumulation in Colombia in the past twenty-five years.”

Liberals or Conservatives have ruled since the mid-nineteenth century. Contrary to what Fernando Londoño Hoyos suggests, however, Colombia is not a country of “the changing same,” to borrow a phrase from Amiri Baraka.

To understand the present drastic ratcheting up of the temperature of war, it is necessary to return to the scene of the late 1970s. At that time, encountering favorable “subjective and objective conditions,” the three major guerrilla insurgencies (FARC, ELN and M-19) sought to project themselves nationally. The fourth, the Maoist EPL, operated regionally in Antioquia and Córdoba, where fertile flatlands give way to the Caribbean.

The government of Liberal President Jorge Turbay Ayala imposed state of siege legislation — a power granted under terms of the “democratic” National Front established between Liberals and Conservatives in 1958 — giving the military and intelligence services blanket authority to repress trade union, human rights, civic, peasant, student, indigenous and community leaders.

Paramilitary forces, organized by military intelligence with the help of former policemen and army officers, carried out terrorist attacks against and disappeared activists of the left.

In 1979, even as more and more of the marijuana consumed in North America was produced domestically, Turbay Ayala signed an extradition treaty with the United States — and U.S.-backed fumigation campaigns against marijuana began in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

While the war against marijuana production intensified, cocaine mafiosos from Medellín and, to a lesser degree, Cali, began to make their presence felt in national political life through the Liberal Party. This was true in the countryside as well the cities, as traffickers bought up large tracts of land and built their luxury ranches complete with runways.

Both of Medellín’s “traditional industries,” coffee and textiles, not even a century old, had fallen into crisis in the mid-1970s, and the cocaine industry offered appeared to offer salvation to the regional bourgeoisie, which had few exit strategies. The money that cocaine production, transport and distribution brought did not generate controversy, even if the violent vulgarity of the mafiosi did.

Drugs, Counterinsurgency and Terror

In September 1981, M-19, a radical populist organization with an urban, middle-class following, kidnapped Marta Nieves Ochoa, the relative of a leading Medellín trafficker. This incident led to the formation of Death to Kidnappers (MAS), a paramilitary group based in the Magdalena Medio region. MAS abducted and assassinated civilians, especially but not only social activists.

In February 1983 the Prosecutor General’s office issued a report stating that MAS was organized by what had become known as “the Medellín cartel” — Pablo Escobar (then serving as a Liberal Party congressional deputy), Carlos Lehder, Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, and the Ochoa family. By then, the cartel was target of the first phase of the U.S. “war on drugs,” managed by then Vice-president George H.W. Bush.

According to the Colombian Prosecutor General’s report, in addition to the “cartel,” MAS counted on the support and participation of cattle ranchers, ex-military and police, and fifty-nine active members of the police and armed forces, particularly from the Bárbula Battalion of the Army’s 20th Brigade. Under Conservative President Belisario Betancur (1982-86), MAS brought the counterinsurgent effort that had begun under Turbay to a new level of terror.

Because of Pablo Escobar’s ties to the cocaine trade, in early 1982 Luis Carlos Galán and Rodrigo Lara Bonilla had publicly expelled Escobar from the ranks of their “New Liberalism” reform movement.

Galán, Lara Bonilla and other “New Liberals” worked for renewal within the Liberal Party, and they aimed to curtail the growing reach of mafia money in Colombian politics. Theirs was the earliest vocal opposition to the mafia to emerge from within official ranks.

In September 1983, Lara Bonilla, Belisario Betancur’s Minister of Justice, ordered Aerocivil, the government aviation agency, to suspend flights on fifty-seven “narco-routes.” Run by Álvaro Uribe Vélez from 1980-82, Aerocivil had granted licenses to Escobar, the Ochoas and Lehder.

In October 1983 Lara Bonilla managed to convince Congress to strip Escobar of his parliamentary immunity in order to extradite him to the United States. On April 30, 1984, an adolescent gunman from Medellín hired by Escobar assassinated Lara Bonilla in Bogotá, setting off the first round of confrontation between the cartel and Colombian state and ending Escobar’s undistinguished political career.

Álvaro Uribe served briefly as the Liberal mayor of Medellín in late 1982, a time when the city — from which MAS launched its radio broadcasts asking for information about the recent kidnap victim, Marta Nieves Ochoa — was known to narcotraffickers as “the sanctuary.”

It appears that Uribe was removed from his post by President Betancur at the insistence of Ivan Duque Escobar, a veteran Liberal Party boss and governor of Antioquia, for attending a meeting of traffickers — including Lehder, Escobar, the Ochoas — at Escobar’s ranch, Nápoles, where MAS was founded. Uribe was flown to Nápoles in Escobar’s helicopter. This irritated Duque Escobar, who wanted to keep the Liberal Party and the mafia separate.

In June 1983, Alberto Uribe Sierra, Uribe Vélez’ father, a Liberal merchant-landlord who became fabulously wealthy overnight, was killed on one of his many cattle ranches in northern Antioquia in a failed kidnapping attempt by the FARC. Uribe Vélez was immediately flown to the ranch, again in Escobar’s helicopter.

The same year he removed Uribe from his post of mayor of Medellín, 1982, President Betancur announced his intention to initiate a peace process, and by 1984 he had negotiated a truce with the FARC, M-19 and the EPL. The person in charge of contacts with the guerrillas, however, Secretary of Government Jaime Castro Castro, had close ties to the Liberal Party boss Pablo Emilio Guarín Vera, who during 1982-83 was bent on “fumigating” Puerto Boyacá, and the oil-rich Magdalena Medio region as a whole, of “communists.”

The FARC and the PCC had ruled the Magdalena Medio through the early 1980s, by which time most of the wealthy cattle ranchers sold their properties and moved elsewhere, while farmers and peasant smallholders were left to bear the increasing weight of FARC exactions.

In contrast to the lowland frontiers, where the FARC provided protection and regulation of the volatile markets in coca paste and coca leaf, in the Magdalena Medio they were merely parasitic on agricultural production and commercialization.

Previously the civilian population in the Magdalena Medio had regarded the army with suspicion, since it targeted them as “subversives.” General Farauk Yanine Díaz, however, realized that the way to attain victory was to by restore the legitimacy and credibility of the army, and to cease treating civilians in zones of FARC influence as subversives.

Yanine Díaz designed and implemented a plan to obtain the active participation of the civilian population in the counterinsurgency effort. Consequently farmers and the peasantry — not to mention Texaco and the cattle ranchers — supported the “fumigation” process.

Following the massacres and forced displacements of all suspected “communists” from the area, in 1985, in the Jorge Eliércer Gaitán Plaza in Puerto Boyacá, President Betancur pointed to the town and the Magdalena Medio region — where the departments Antioquia, Cundinamarca, Santander and Boyacá come together — as a “model of peace” to be emulated on a national level.

Betancur’s remarks provide us with an indication of how committed Colombian rulers, including those who have had the political sense to pursue negotiations, have been to escalating the dirty war as a complement to “peace” — always with the resources, equipment, training and technical support of the U.S. armed forces.

After the collapse of the peace process under the Betancur administration in 1986, under Liberal Virgilio Barco the emergent reactionary block of landlords, cocaine barons and military men, whose connections to the Liberal Party afforded them official protection, physically eliminated the political opposition.

Along with the FARC-PCC’s electoral vehicle, the Patriotic Union (UP), founded in late 1985, narco-paramilitaries targeted leaders of the reformist wing of the Liberal Party such as Luis Carlos Galán, who was assassinated in 1989 before he could run as their presidential candidate. In the 1990 presidential elections, narco-paramilitaries also killed the UP candidate, Bernardo Jaramillo, and the M-19’s candidate Carlos Pizarro.

M-19, like the EPL and other small guerrilla groups, such as the indigenous Quintin Lame and the Trotskyist PRT, negotiated their “reinsertion” into civilian life in preparation for the 1991 Constituent Assembly. Many of the “reinserted” guerrillas were subsequently assassinated — or, in the case of the EPL, went to work for the paramilitaries.

The FARC and the ELN, in contrast, grew in numbers and technological mastery throughout the 1990s, but suffered from frequent defections to the paramilitaries and a gradual loss of political legitimacy.

Paving the Neoliberal Road

In 1989 paramilitarism, having done its job of work, was finally declared illegal. As outlined above, narco-paramilitarism and the fight against “communist subversion” paved the way for the neoliberal policy formulas (austerity, privatization, liberalization and “flexibilization” of labor) that have ruled in Colombia ever since.

As a Liberal Senator during the administrations of Liberals Virgilio Barco (1986-90) and César Gaviria (1990-94), Uribe Vélez sponsored three of the most important pieces of neoliberal legislation: Law 71, which privatized pension funds, Law 50, which “flexibilized” labor, and Law 100, which privatized health care and social security. In the presidential campaign in 1994, Uribe distanced himself slightly from Liberal candidate Ernesto Samper because Samper had dared to criticize Law 100 publicly.

Once in power, Samper and his closest advisors, like Minister of Defense Fernando Botero, had to confront Process 8000, the suit brought against them because of the Cali cartel’s influence in the presidential campaign. In his defense, Fernando Botero, who served as one of Uribe’s chief presidential campaign advisors, employed the legal services of current Minister of Justice and Interior, Fernando Londoño.

Nearly alone, Uribe defended Samper’s honor to the end, which is unsurprising since Uribe had been aligned with Samper’s Popular Power faction within the Liberal Party since the mid-1970s.

With today’s discourse of “democratic security,” President Uribe’s goal — as it was during his term as governor of Antioquia from 1995-97 — is to incorporate civilians (one million of them) into the repressive organs of the state as informants in order to deepen neoliberal development patterns.

Along with a declaration of “internal commotion,” permitted under the 1991 Constitution, Uribe’s first act as president was to install a pilot program of civilian spies in the department of César. The regional government of Córdoba has asked to be next. Following the suggestion of U.S. ambassador Anne Patterson, Uribe has also announced plans to call up reservists. He is shortly to turn 20,000 peasants into soldiers.

The basic aim of the “communitarian state” is to fuse the state with society under a unified authority strong enough to battle the forces of political corruption and the insurgency at the same time. With the forced sale of “war bonds,” Uribe wants to double the size of the military and police — and to please the Bush administration.

Uribe has also introduced proposals to intensify the privatization of pensions and the public sector, as well as the flexibilization of labor processes. For his part, Minister of Justice and Interior Londoño plans to get rid of the Constitutional Court, restrict the power of the legislature to prosecute war criminals, and revive “state of siege” legislation outlawed by the 1991 Constitution.

Transparency, efficiency, results, legality, anticorruption — the pat phrases of the neoliberal technocratic vocabulary — are intoned like mantras, even as the few basic individual and collective rights that remain are violated or eliminated.

As Hector-León Moncayo has noted, fascists have always claimed to battle establishment corruption and revolutionaries in the name of the law; they have always built up the military and removed checks upon the scope of its brutality and criminality. But what makes contemporary Colombia singular in Latin America is that a reactionary block of cattle ranchers, narcotraffickers and paramilitaries from Antioquia and Córdoba, now in power at the national level, has been the lever for the implementation of neoliberalism.

When Uribe governed Antioquia, paramilitaries and the military drove the FARC and tens of thousands of peasants out of Urabá (the part of Antioquia that leads to the Caribbean). Uribe became the chief promoter of the CONVIVIRs (rural security co-operatives), the brainchild of former Minister of Defence Fernando Botero.

It was through these CONVIVIRs that the paramilitary groups based in Antioquia and Córdoba managed to project themselves as a national force under the direction of Carlos Castaño (currently sought for extradition on U.S. drug trafficking charges).

Urabá, which the FARC is currently trying to retake from the military and paramilitaries in order to regain access to the strategic drugs-arms corridor, is the intended site for a megaproject linking the Caribbean to the Pacific and is home to banana plantations owned by Chiquita, Dole and del Monte, and others.

The campaign to “clean up” Urabá was planned and directed by the Fourth Brigade in Medellín, which was then led by Jorge Enrique Mora (now head of the Colombian Armed Forces), and supported by multinationals, narcotraffickers and cattle ranchers.

In the presence of Fernando Londoño, Uribe launched his presidential campaign in December 1999 at an event held in honor of General Rito Alejo del Rio Rojas, who led the scorched earth campaign on the ground in Urabá, and who is currently under judicial investigation.

In the late 1970s, del Rio Rojas was a member of AAA, one of the first paramilitary groups to begin disappearing leftwing activists under Turbay Ayala. In the same speech of Fernando Londoño’s from which the epigraph is taken, Londoño saluted Uribe’s desire to be “the country’s first soldier” and expressed his desire to follow Uribe’s example. If Mora and del Rio Rojas are model generals, what kind of soldiers will Londoño and Uribe make?

Always a Paramilitary Man

With all the rhetoric about the need to fight drugs and terror on the left and right, Uribe has taken great pains of late to distance himself from narcotraffickers and paramilitaries, even though he has always denied any connections to either group. Yet there is no reason to expect that Uribe will break with the milieu that has surrounded him since his political career began.

As head of the Antioquia branch of the National Cattlemen’s Association (FEDEGAN), Fabio Echeverri Correa, Uribe’s campaign manager and chief economic advisor, was a staunch defender of paramilitarism when it became a topic of national debate in 1986-87.

When Echeverri Correa was president of the National Association of Industrialists (ANDI) in 1981, he advocated a sort of “amnesty” for capital accumulated illegally. His political connections to narco-paramilitarism are unmistakable. So are those of Pedro Juan Moreno, whom Alfredo Molano, a leading Colombian writer (in exile), has called “our Montesinos” (a reference to the former Peruvian security/intelligence strongman).

Uribe’s ranch in Córdoba shares a boundary with the property of Salvatore Mancuso, head of the ACCU, the most powerful paramilitary organization in Colombia, who led of one of the CONVIVIRs during Uribe’s time as governor of Antioquia. Uribe claims to have known Mancuso (past tense) only in his capacity as a cattle rancher. But Mancuso has publicly expressed his unconditional support for Uribe on a number of occasions; and in the countryside where Mancuso rules, peasants voted for Uribe under threat of death.

The Military-Political Balance Sheet

With their rocket attack on the Presidential Palace in Bogotá on August 7, the FARC have shown that they can strike at the seat of power at politically symbolic moments, as well as create a media event that provides legitimacy to “democratic institutions” in the face of “terrorism.”

One third of Colombian municipalities are without civil authority at the time of writing, demonstrating that the FARC can achieve their immediate aims through threats, kidnappings of family members, and murder in large parts of the countryside.

The FARC have no real presence in the cities, however. Their militias tend to operate in extremely localized fashion: this university or that peripheral neighborhood. The FARC’s milicianos can throw bombs out of passing cars or launch rockets from time to time, but to date, Pablo Escobar’s narco-gang has been the only organization capable of carrying out urban attacks violent enough to shake the foundations of the Colombian state.

Despite important exceptions — Medellín (ELN, FARC), Cali (M-19, FARC), and Barrancabermeja (ELN, FARC) — the guerrilla insurgencies have been, and remain, essentially rural, though Colombia’s majority is urban. The right has won the urban war politically, culturally, and ideologically, and the insurgency has never had a coherent or viable urban strategy.

As for the ELN and their goal of staging a National Constitutional Assembly with the participation of representatives from the government, the ELN and “civil society,” the dream is more distant now than ever. The ELN have suffered from desertions and erosion of identity, as well as the effects of combined military/paramilitary offensives in their zones of influence.

The FARC, declaring that the ELN are on the path to negotiation taken by other groups such as M-19, seek to occupy ELN zones of influence, take ELN arms, and absorb ELN combatants. Worse, the ELN suffers from deep internal divisions regarding the future course to be followed in the face of FARC and military/paramilitary aggression.

What of Colombia’s social movements? Héctor-León Moncayo finds hope in the fact that women are playing a leading role in all of them, though it is important to remember that the guerrillas and paramilitaries also have many women in leadership positions.

In the August peace march in Bogotá of 20,000 women favoring a negotiated settlement, there were women’s organizations representing all regions and sectors of Colombian society: intellectuals, indigenous, Afro-Colombian, peasant, displaced, urban workers.

The indigenous movements continue to struggle to make the provisions on indigenous rights of the 1991 Constitution a reality, as well as for the right to keep all armed groups out of their territory. Afro-Colombian communities claim the same rights for themselves.

Though the trade union movement represents a tiny fraction of the Colombian working-class population, and though much of its leadership is closely aligned with management, there are strong, seasoned minority currents working for radical renewal of the labor movement and of society as a whole.

Perhaps that is why ninety percent of trade unionists murdered in the world in 2001 were assassinated in Colombia. On the whole, Colombia’s social movements are weak and fragmented, but Uribe’s authoritarianism may well provide impetus to greater unity.

Alfredo Molano has pointed out that in demanding a territory that includes both Caquetá and Putumayo — where most of Colombia’s coca is grown — as a precondition for negotiations, the FARC have made it clear that for now, they have opted for total war. In demanding a ceasefire as a precondition for negotiations, the Uribe government has shown that as promised, it will seek to gain the upper hand by military and disciplinary rather than political means.

Twenty-five years in the making, total counterinsurgency war — financed by the U.S. government, its Colombian client, and a robust cocaine trade — has arrived to stay in Colombia, at least for the next few years. Thus those of us working to build cross-border solidarity with Colombian social movements have our work cut out for us — and as the next phase of permanent planetary warfare opens in Iraq, now more than ever.

ATC 101, November-December 2002