Colombia’s Labyrinth of Violence

On May 16 of this year, in the rural Colombian town of Jardines de Sucumbíos (In the department of Narino), farmer Leonardo Obando offered the first floor of his home to four guests who had spent the day preparing for the town’s mother’s day festivities. The four men were: Brayan Yatacue Secue, Jose Antonio Acanamejoy, Jose Yinder Esterilla, and 15 year-old Deivi Lopez Ortega, all members of the agricultural union FENSUAGRO.

Around 4am, Obando and his family were awakened by the sound of gunfire as members of the Colombian military forcibly entered the house. Upon being found by soldiers Obando was given the choice of turning over the house to be used as a military base or being taken prisoner. As Obando and his family left the house he saw the dead bodies of his four guests- soon to be displayed and photographed on the front lawn and foully denounced as ‘guerillas’.

Killings like this, where military personal, apparently motivated by superiors to increase body counts (and thereby keep American aid flowing), kill civilians and report them as combatants killed in action, are often termed ‘false positives’. These have been a staple in Colombia, especially during the presidency of Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010). If the number has reduced since clearly the killings haven’t ceased (see Human Rights Watch 2014 country summary).

Colombia has long been a horrific place for union members and their leaders. Dozens are murdered every year, over 2500 in the past 20 years, more than the rest of the world combined according to British NGO Justice for Colombia. Meanwhile the actual guerillas are in talks with the government to end the multi-decades long struggle that partly explains why Colombia has the second highest number of internally displaced people in the world. Colombia also has the distinction, singular these days in South America, of essentially being an American client, the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the Western Hemisphere.

Obviously there is no contradiction between the grim national numbers and the large amount of American military aid. Nor with the fact that a report released earlier this year by Fellowship for Reconciliation found a positive correlation between military units that received American assistance and training and extrajudicial killings carried out. Locals around the world can testify what it’s like living in a client state, though that would seem to go some way towards explaining the lack of headlines Colombia’s plight receives.

On the other hand perhaps the lack of consistent headlines is also a matter of shrugging acceptance. After all Colombia has been synonymous with violence for decades. Though the country’s homicide rate has dipped to a still high 30.8 per 100,000 (down from 69.7 in 1995 but still high enough to land 10th worldwide) and media hysteria has shifted to Mexico and Central America, Colombia for many is still the country that is ground zero of the drug war, the country of the cartels, of Pablo Escobar (surely the most celebrated criminal since Al Capone).

Still there are plenty of contradictions written into Colombia’s history: at least a nominal democracy for almost all of its history, with a two party system that predates the U.S. republican/democrats, yet no sustained populist movement, solid economic growth, even spared the worst of the 1980s debt crisis, comparing favorably to its neighbors in that respect, but still with a poverty rate of over 30% according to the World Bank (and much higher in rural areas). Colombia is a country often praised for its political and economic stability but one which historian Eric Hobsbawn wrote ‘I have discovered a country in which the failure to make a social revolution had made violence the constant, universal, and omnipotent core of public life.’

Indeed contradiction is written into the geography of the land: part tropical and mountainous. The Andes, though not reaching the height they reach in Peru and Bolivia, but still separated into three main ranges (Cordillera Occidental, Cordillera Central, Cordillera Oriental), have historically divided the country culturally and politically, the southern region extends to the Amazon, the eastern coast the Caribbean.

The geographical division broadly separated the two main indigenous groups in pre-Columbian Colombia. The Taimonas lived mainly on the low slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Though geographically isolated, and not as recognized as the Mayans or Aztecs, the Taimonas did have significant achievements, including roads and bridges made of stone slab, mountainside terracing for crops, and at least a decent level of urban civilization. Apparently it took the Spanish almost two centuries to completely subdue them.

Much more numerous, living in the basins of Cordillera Oriental, were the Muisicas. While mostly an agricultural people, though seemingly the Muiscas had an expertise in cotton textiles, as well as gold sculpting, but no engineering work compared to the Taimonas, the Muisicas are perhaps the source of the original El Dorado legend: a ceremony where a local chief would coast his entire body with gold dust and plunge into the cold waters of Lake Guatcuita. Other gold objects and precious stones would be thrown into the lake to settle, along with the gold dust, on the bottom. Just before the arrival of the Spanish the Muiscas were dived into two predominate federations: the Zipa and Zaque (probably the names of the federation leaders).

The first Spanish view of what became Colombia had to have happened around 1500. The first stab at colonization was the founding of San Sabastian in 1510, near the future Panama border. It didn’t last and it took almost two more decades for the Spanish to establish a permanent hold: Santa Maria in 1526 (the oldest city in Colombia), adjacent to Taimona territory. El Dorado legends being rife by this time, in April 1536 a 800 man expedition led by Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada, who would go on to found Bogota, originally called Santa Fe, in 1538, reached the Muisica highlands in March 1537 and defeated the Zipa and Zaque (reigning Zipa Tisquesua initially was able to flee but was soon hunted down and inadvertently killed by Quesada and his men. They hoped to keep Tisquesua alive to torture him to reveal for the location of more gold). Quesada named his conquered territory New Granada which would soon be applied to all of present day Colombia.

Meanwhile exploration and settlement were occurring west. Charles V granted German banking firm Welser, to which he owed money, land that would make up western Venezuela. El Dorado myths would also send explores in the pay of Welser into New Granada led by Nicholas Federmann. A third wave was sent by Pizarro from Peru led by Sabastian de Belalcazar. Belalcazar, fresh from conquering Quito, the northern city of the Inca empire, was looking for more (he would found Cali in 1536). All three waves met in Muisica country at almost the same time. Protocol would have expected a free-for-all; however the three sides submitted their claims to royal arbitration. The territory was given to Santa Maria to govern. Welsar banking was given Venezuela though the firm was eventually relieved by the crown.

By the second half of the 16th century the colonial government took its established form. The king and his advisers (council of the Indies) were the ultimate rulers. In the New World the rulers were viceroys. For New Granada (what would later become Colombia) at first the nearest viceroy was stationed in Peru. In 1564 New Granada was given a captain-general (who oversaw Venezuela as well) which was elevated to viceroy in 1717, maintaining power over Venezuela at least on paper. The indigenous population was organized into encomiendas- entrusted to Spanish colonists for ‘civilization’ in exchange for tribute (though largely exploitative, enslavement of the indigenous population didn’t seem to occur in New Granada as it did elsewhere). As a colony New Granada itself never became a serious priority for the Spanish throne. While blessed with the largest reserves of gold on the empire (the mines were where slavery was most concentrated), gold would be Colombia’s most consistent export for a long time, the value paled in comparison to the vast silver deposits of Peru and Mexico.

The stirrings for independence, influenced by the American War of Independence and the overall Enlightenment, began in the late 18th century. The issue of royal monopoly over large part of the colonial economy and favoritism that the Spanish government showed toward Spaniards over creole elites for leadership positions brought stirrings of independence bubbling to the surface, particularly after the failed Comuneros rebellion of 1781, which wasn’t a protest for independence, rather one based on economic grievances regarding taxation and monopoly. Yet its failure enabled the radical move for independence to become more practical. It also didn’t help that the limited but growing amounts of exports New Granada had, of paramount importance to creole elites, were negatively affected by Spain’s chronic wars with Great Britain (1796-1802, 1805-07).

However it did take an external shock to trigger the final push for independence. In 1808 Napoleon invaded the Iberian peninsula deposing the Spanish king Ferdinard VII (who had just deposed his father Charles IV amid rioting when the invasion began), in favor of Napoleon’s brother, leaving Spanish resistance organized in scattered juntas. The initial response in the New World colonies was to support the old country, but it wasn’t long before colonists realized that with the king at least temporarily out of power they had an opportunity to organize junta of their own to press their agenda- at first they could even do so in the name of the deposed king.

Spanish hostility to the juntas pushed them towards independence. Venezuela declared independence on July 5 1811. Cartagena on November 8 1811, Cundinamarca in July 1813. Despite some achievements: abolishing the Inquisition, ending discrimination against the native born, opening the port of Cartagena to trade with all friendly nations, granting freedom to children of slave mothers (Antioquia), a combination of internal dissension and royal reaction doomed the republics first taste of independence (called Patria Bobo). By 1816 Spanish rule was restored and the most prominent military leader of the colonies, Simon Bolivar, given the title ‘Liberator’ for retaking Venezuela at one point in 1813 (establishing the ‘Second Republic’ which lasted a year), fled to still newly independent Haiti.

Harsh repression by Spanish authorities sparked another push for independence only a few years later. Bolivar had returned to Venezuela and after moving to New Granada defeated Spanish forces at the Battle of Boyaca on August 7 1819. In the aftermath Bolivar was named president of The Republic of Greater Colombia (formed by the Congress of Angostura on Dec 7). Bolivar named his then ally Francisco de Paula Santander to govern New Granada while Bolivar would pursue the more difficult battle for Venezuela’s independence. With events in Spain, conflict between absolutist and constitutionalist forces, preventing the king from sending large reinforcements to retake the colonies (something Napoleon’s defeat allowed in the earlier round) victory at the Battle of Carabobo on June 24 1881 was decisive for Venezuela. The Battle of Pichincha on May 24 1822, led by Gen. Antonio de Sucre, liberated Quito and effectively ending Spanish rule.

Delegates met at the Congress of Cucuta to draw up constitution for the new Republic of Colombia (or ‘Gran Colombia’). The capital of the republic, which besides New Granada again included Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama, was placed in Bogota. Bolivar and Santander were elected president and vice-president respectively. If a united South America was Bolivar’s vision, what better way to defend against the always possible return of the Spanish or other European imperialists, Gran Colombia was riveted with division from the start, division that would manifest throughout the region in the 19th century including issues of the role of the church and military, not to mention administrative rivalry between the now joined territories. Bolivar tried to stem the divisions by implementing his own constitution, one more conservative than the one agreed to in Cucuta, it made him president for life, much to the dismay of Santander and other liberals. Bolivar was able to have a semblance of absolute rule for a couple of years, during which he courted the church, restoring privileges that he himself previously campaigned against but by 1830 Bolivar was dying of tuberculosis and Gran Colombia was collapsing. Venezuela and Ecuador seceded and the federation was over by 1831 (Panama would remain part of Colombia until 1903). The collapse of Gran Colombia would foreshadow the collapse of a similar federation formed at the aftermath Central American independence, the United Provinces of Central America, which lasted until 1841.

Santander was elected first president of New Granada (renamed Colombia in 1863). The most immediate issue facing the new state, besides the role of the church (such as its influence over education, especially regarding the teachings of Jeremy Bentham), was the issue of those who served under or supported the absolutist government of Bolivar, or at least those who were forgiving towards the Bolivarian faction. What role, if any, should they have in the new republic? As Frank Safford and Marco Palacios recount in their thorough history Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society, the faction that took a hard stand on the Bolivarians (and a more confrontation stand with the church) were the exaltados, their opponents were the moderates. Both groups were essentially liberal and secular, separated by a matter of degree and pace of reform. Both felt the church should be restrained but Moderates, fearing the church’s power over the masses, advocated a gentler approach. Santander himself had been associated with the exaltados but governed largely as a moderate ensuring that him term went smoothly. Matters would turn south after the election of 1836. The split vote saw moderate Jose Ignacio de Marquez emerge as president. Although Marquez didn’t govern that differently than Santander, his reign was plagued by rebellion. In 1839 Congress voted to suppress convents in the religious region of Pasto (religious enough to have been exempted from a similar law earlier apply to the rest of the country) sparked a religious uprising, and Liberal uprisings sprang up around the country on the pretext that Marquez was in league with religious extremists. The result was a nasty civil war that led moderates in a more conservative direction (needing support from Bolivarians and becoming more supportive of the church), ultimately leading to the formation of the Conservative party. The exaltados became the Liberal party; Hence the beginning of a very old two party system.

On a superficial level, especially early on, it is difficult to see great difference between the parties, at least outside the role of the church. Some standard histories (Safford and Palacio’s Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society, Frank Bushnell’s The Making of Modern Colombia) argue that until the mid-19th century battles over tariff policy, no significant economic differences divided the parties. The desire for greater social controls probably led some regions, like Antioquia with its gold wealth, to support the Conservatives but such sentiment was not universal. Another prominent trend in scholarship posits the demand for government jobs, important in a still largely stagnant economy, and patronage rather than ideology as the deciding factor in why individuals and localities identified with either party.

Yet at the same time the parties were one of the few unifying forces for a state so geographically divided. Geography made central military control more difficult (the military was a third of the size of those in Ecuador and Peru) making civilian parties and the church more significant. A point nicely made by Forest Hylton in Evil Hour in Colombia:

Citizenship in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Colombia did not entail a sense of common belonging within the nation, represented by a central government, but rather an exclusive membership in one of two political parties. Politics, defined in terms of friend-enemy, was a zero-sum affair in the regions and municipalities, and party affiliations cut across racial, class, ethnic, and regional lines.

Still, as Charles Berquist (Coffee and Conflict in Colombia, 1886-1910) persuasively argues, there were ideological differences of importance especially as the 19th century went on, enough that the second half of the century is categorized as having two epochs: The Liberal Era (until 1875) and the conservative Regeneration.

A divided conservative vote in 1848 brought liberal General Jose Hilario Lopez to power. In May 1850 Lopez abolished the tobacco monopoly and for a time, mainly during the American civil war that so hindered the Confederacy’s economy, tobacco overtook gold as Colombia’s biggest export. A small boom in quinine also took hold. On the strength of these booms and keeping with the general liberal tide sweeping the region in 1853 a new constitution (and reaffirmed in another constitution a decade later after another civil war) was established that can be credited for putting Colombia at the forefront of regional democracies at the time. Church and state were officially separated, universal male suffrage enacted (i.e. without property qualifications), religious tolerance and divorce legalized, capital punishment abolished and local governors directly elected. This after slavery was officially ended in 1851 (at the time less than 5% of the population were slaves, again heavily concentrated in gold mining).

From a modern progressive prospective the underbelly of the period was the government’s treatment of the indigenous. While given the right to vote, their community lands were seen as an impediment to economic progress that the government wanted broken up and sold for more allegedly productive purposes (quinine exports). This brought inevitable conflict and left indigenous communities open to manipulation by conservatives. The collapse of tobacco and quinine exports, with the subsequent decline in custom duties, the government’s main source of income, gave Conservatives an opening. In 1880 former liberal, now conservative, Rafael Nunez, became president. In 1886 a new constitution came into effect, written largely by conservative intellectual Miguel Antonio Caro, vastly different than the previous one. Power was highly centralized, capital punishment restored, property qualifications for suffrage were brought back and the press was subject to censorship. Though religious tolerance was confirmed, Catholicism was declared the nation’s religion and the organizing principle of its education system. A Concordat signed with the Vatican a year later granted the Catholic Church a monopoly on marriage and compensated the church for properties previously seized or sold. Divorce was banned (it wouldn’t be legal until 1992).

Ironically the Regeneration coincided with the beginnings of the coffee boom that would in time make coffee growing the dominant part of the Colombian economy, what the country was most identified with until cocaine. The export resurgence, as well as the subsequent decline in coffee prices in the late 1890s, brought political conflict over tariff policy (the governing conservatives favored) and taxes. Another Liberal revolt, this one after the election of Conservative Manuel Antonio Sanclemente in 1898 (the election was seen as fraudulent), came in October 1899 and morphed into the worst civil war in nineteenth century Latin America. Before it was over the war degenerated from a gentleman’s battlefield affair into a guerilla war setting a precedent that the country would certainly face again. The death toll, out of a population of 4 million, was 100,000.

The results were mixed. The general weakening of the country as result of the war probably contributed to the 1903 succession of Panama. After the infamous fiasco of the French attempt to construct the Panama Canal, under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps, ended in failure, the United States stepped in to acquire the French interests (including 30,000 acres of land and more than 2000 buildings). When the Colombian senate stalled on ratifying the treaty with the U.S. (the Hay-Herran Treaty), Washington, with Theodore Roosevelt as president, took up the cause of Panama’s independence. Roosevelt discussed the prospect of rebellion with Philippe Banau-Varilla, general director of canal excavation and shareholder in the French building company. Banau-Varilla informed Roosevelt of a possible upcoming revolt by Panamanian rebels (there had been literally dozens of attempts by such rebels to secure independence for Panama). When the uprising began on November 4 1903 not a week passed before numerous U.S. warships patrolled the waters around the isthmus preventing Colombian soldiers from intervening. It was the first decisive U.S. intervention into Colombian politics. Whatever the virtue of Panama’s independence, Colombia was deprived of a geographically significant asset.

The Conservative government was able to ultimately hold power and it would not be seriously challenged until 1930. At the beginning of the twentieth century Colombia lagged behind much of Latin America in development in measures ranging from literacy and to railroads and bridges. Colombia had little foreign investment or immigration (unlike Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, Colombia received hardly any immigrants from the waves leaving Europe). Only about 400 immigrants a year arrived in Colombia from 1908-1919.

However within a few years Liberals saw all the major reforms they fought for put into effect. Import-export interests cemented their position within the power structure, and the coffee boom, spurred on by increased demand and generally high prices after 1910 integrated Colombia into the global economy. Colombian coffee exports rose to a million bags by 1913, doubled by 1921, and were over five million by 1944. By the mid-1920s Colombia became second only to Brazil in overall coffee production.

Compared to the chaotic previous century, under an order of a coffee economy and conservative governments (buttressed by the church, particularly well supported in Antioquia, the richest and most powerful coffee region), Colombia entered a period of tranquility in the first third of the twentieth century. For one thing coffee was prominent enough to have bi-partisan support. Just as critical were two factors that would have far reaching influence on Colombia’s future. First, a good amount of coffee in Colombia was produced on small and medium size farms. The first official coffee census, taken in 1932, counted about 150,000 farms; most were smaller less than 10 hectares (Bergquist, pg. 260). Though not as predominant as in Costa Rica, but surely far more than what was found on Brazil, Guatemala, or El Salvador, the large amount of small and medium size farms cemented the status quo’s conservatism. Competition between small coffee farms reinforced conservative mythology of hard work, as well as the patronage of the two dominant parties. Second, the conservative party’s dominance as Colombia entered the global economy distinguished Colombia within the region where entries of other state were led by Liberal parties. This ironic variation granted the Liberal Party in Colombia the banner of opposition enabling it to co-opt popular movements and thus limit their ideological scope (opposition in countries with liberals in power would need creative alternatives, more difficult if liberals represent the opposition).

That’s not to say there was no conflict over land. In fact there was conflict in abundance, a consistent presence that continues to hover over the country. One explosive arena was the frontier (land that encroached the Amazon for example), land that was first public land. Geographer Augustin Codazzi, studying Colombia in the nineteenth century, estimated that in 1850 75 percent of national territory was public land. Frontier land had obvious attraction for economic migrants of various stripes such as indigenous people removed from communal lands and refugees fleeing civil wars.

On the other hand migrants were also targets for large estates that were otherwise short of labor, especially given the lack of European immigration to Colombia. The logical response to the labor shortage was to enclose peasant lands and tie settlers to their former land as contract laborers. Once lands were obtained settlers were given a choice to either leave or sign tenancy contracts.

The government’s dealing with public lands was contradictory. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the government conducted a large scale privatization. Officially 3.2 million hectares were passed into private hands (even more were passed illegally) of which probably 90 percent went to wealthy merchants and landowners. Yet in 1874 (Law 61) and 1882 (Law 48) the Colombia congress passed laws that advanced the idea that cultivators of public land are its rightful owners, even if they didn’t have titles. The laws emboldened the settlers (called colonos) enough that between 1875 and 1930 more than 450 major confrontations took place, some lasting decades (see Catherine LeGrand’s “Agrarian Antecedents of Violence,” reprinted in Violence in Colombia: The Contemporary Crisis in Historical Perspective).

The coffee economy, which featured abundant small and medium size farms through the 1950s, could be seen through the prism of the years 1930 to 1946. A split Conservative vote in the election of 1930 brought about the first Liberal presidency of twentieth century in Enrique Olaya Herrera. With the depression ravaging the global economy the Liberal regime was forced to abandon some of its traditional economic policies by leaving the gold standard and defaulting on debt. With unrest burgeoning throughout the country, along with the inevitable repression- most famously the 1928 massacre of striking banana workers on the United Fruit Company’s plantation in Santa Marta (immortalized by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude), the regime was more accommodating to labor organizations, even as it tried to moderate them. Land reform also took a step forward with a 1936 law (Law 200, passed under President Lopez Pumarejo, successor to Herrera) that promised redistribution of unused and poorly used lands on large estates within ten years.

If the continued success of hardworking coffee farmers were one of the beneficiaries of the Liberal order, paradoxically their success, and the conservative ideology and loyalty to the dominant parties it reinforced, had the effect of undermining more radical elements mainly in industrializing urban areas (Charles Berguist brilliantly describes it in his essay “The Labor Movement and the Origins of Violence,” reprinted in Violence in Colombia. The essay is the main source for this theme). Urbanization came later to Colombia than other places but accelerated in the 1930s and skyrocketed in the 1950s. As the global economy recovered, and therefore without support from many small and medium sized coffee farms, the government was in position to have a firmer hand in dealing with labor militancy. Another land law passed in 1944 (during Pumarejo’s second term) ignored the previously intended land redistribution. It was about the same time that the government launched an offense against unions, such as the Magdalena River port and river transport workers that was suppressed by the military, and, with a split Liberal vote in 1946 (due to the reengage candidacy of Jorge Eliecer Gaitán) the Conservative Party came back to power with the consequence that, with the support of the church and U.S government and unions, the conservative Union de Trabajadores Colombianos became the largest labor federation in Colombia.

As for the smaller coffee farms, the rise of the price of coffee after World War II was tough on small producers credit became scare for them as compared to large estates which were favored by the international market that made larger estates profitable again. The result tension and unrest, as smaller producers fought to avoid proletarianization, was a precursor towards the period known as La Violencia. As Bergquist puts it:

The internal logic of the period, and it’s tragic outcome in The Violence, becomes truly comprehensible in terms of the democratic and largely victorious struggle of coffee workers for control of land. Therein lies the terrible historical irony of this pivotal period of national life.

If land conflicts were a trigger to La Violencia, a two decade period of intense and diverse violence that cost the lives about approximately 200,000 people, its flashpoint was the assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitán on April 9th, 1948 in Bogota. Gaitán was populist rare in Colombia history. A polarizing figure he has been to figures ranging from FDR to Mussolini to Juan Peron. After splitting the Liberal vote in 1946 he was expected to be elected president, with support of the new urban masses, running a loud, anti-oligarchy campaign in 1950. Given that La Violencia is dated from 1946-1966 it had already started to some extent before Gaitan’s murder, but the murder and massive riot in Bogota (known El Bogotazo) that left much of the downtown area in rubble are its most recognizable starting point.

La Violencia was a complex, multi-faceted period with different regional dynamics, largely rural, and evolutions as it unfolded. The period contained Colombia’s only military dictatorship in the twentieth century (and its last one since) in the mid-1950s. The coup overthrew the particularly repressive Luareano Gomez who was elected in the Liberal boycotted election in 1950 and who unleashed large scale terror on the liberal uprising, a facet that was part of La Violencia. As just described the coffee growing regions saw a correlation between the amount of coffee produced and the amount of violence: in 1955 the three most important coffee departments (Antiguo Caldas, Tolima, Antioquia) ranked first, second, and third in total violent deaths. Protestants, less than 1 percent of the population in 1950, found themselves targets of violence, involving local Catholic priests and Conservative officials.

However, La Violencia resists simple definition. Here’s how Mark Bowden puts it in Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw:

‘…Colombia remained locked in this cabalistic dance with death. private and public armies terrorized the rural areas. The government fought paramilitaries and guerillas, industrialists fought unionists, conservative Catholics fought heretical liberals, and bandits took advantage of the free-for-all to plunder.

If the War of a Thousand Days foreshadowed a largely tranquil period in Colombia’s history, La Violencia had no such aftermath. The assassination of Gaitlán probably reinforced skepticism of progressive change through nonviolence and guerillas and paramilitaries became furthered normalized as a result of the violence. True the political system again stabilized, even if under the reactionary arraignment known as the National Front: starting in 1958, an arraignment whereby the two dominant parties alternated the president’s office every four years and agreed to share power and cabinet posts equally. Though officially abolished in 1974, at least some of the power-sharing remained in place until the mid-1990s. If Colombia avoided a long period of dictatorship it must also be said it didn’t enjoy anything like real democracy.

In terms of post-Violencia, Colombia has been dominated by three overlapping factors: left-wing guerilla activity, especially in the rural fringes; most ominously the emergence of right-wing paramilitaries, often attached to the official military, economic elites, or organized crime, and a large scale drug economy, first in marijuana then cocaine. These factors have been compounded by massive U.S. intervention in the form of military and police aid and training which culminated in Plan Colombia beginning in 2000. Hovering over it all is that by the 1980s land distribution in Colombia was among the worst in the world. 62 percent of all agricultural properties represented only 5.2 percent of the area farmed, had a mean size of only 1.2 hectares, and were mostly located in less fertile areas. Neoliberalism came a bit later to Colombia than other places but it arrived in the early 1990s (see Jasmine Hristov’s Blood and Capital: The Paramilitarization of Colombia).

The drug bonanza in Colombia seems to have begun with small farmers on the slopes of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta discovering that growing marijuana for export was far more lucrative than traditional crops. Other coastal regions caught on to the boom but it was short-lived as Americans soon learned to grow good quality marijuana needing to import less. Yet a much larger cocaine boom was on the horizon. Though Colombia never grew as much coca as Bolivia or Peru it became the main territory for processing and distributing. By the early 1980s cocaine was a multi-billion dollar industry (by one estimate between 1980 and 1995 it brought $36 billion into Colombia), probably the main reason the Colombian economy avoided the worst of the debt crisis that racked the rest of the region during that time. The Medellin and Cali cartels and their leaders, like Pablo Escobar and Jorge Luis Ochoa, became household names, hip-hop heroes, and Hollywood villains (both were listed on Forbes first billionaire list in 1987).

The traditional beginnings of the largest current group of left-wing guerillas are pinpointed to the May 1964 Operation Sovereignty: a military attack on a communist hamlet in the south of Tolima. Two months after the attack survivors came together to issue an Agrarian Program of the Guerillas. Two years later the group renamed itself FARC. At its peak in the late 1990s FARC approached 20,000 fighters, its strength mainly on the agricultural frontier where peasants have resisted an encroaching state and increasingly large estates. FARC may have begun its life in the struggle for land but most sources, including human rights groups agree, that while the group no doubt maintains a leftist ideology, it has committed many human rights violations including kidnapping, use of child soldiers, and planting landmines. FARC also expanded into drug trafficking.

The smaller guerilla group still in operation, the ELN (National Liberation Army) formed at about the same time as FARC. Their origins are seen as middle class university students influenced by Che Guavara and the Cuban Revolution. ELN also peaked in the late 1990s with around 5000 fighters. Current estimates put FARC and ELN at 8000 and 2000 fighters respectively.

Though the cartels and the violence surrounding them, like in Medellín which became for a time the murder capital of the world, and the power the cartels were able to amass within the state, in 1982 Escobar actually became an alternate Liberal deputy in Congress – two years later he ordered the death of minister of justice Lara Bonilla, grabbed the headlines during the ‘Dirty War’ period of the 1980s, they were hardly the whole story. American involvement increased as the ‘war on drugs’ heated up. From 1984 to 1992 almost 7000 Colombian soldiers were trained under the U.S. International Military Education and Training Program, over 2000 trained from 1990 to 1992 as violence accelerated. And as Father Javier Giraldo explained in his book Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy between January 1991 and May 1992, drug related deaths represented only 0.18% of the total number of violent deaths in the country. Nor was the war between the state and the guerillas (another source of headlines) the main source. Here is Giraldo on that:

Between 1988 and 1992, the Colombian armed Conflict between the army and guerillas claimed 6040 victims, including soldiers, guerillas, and civilians caught in the crossfire. This figure represents 4.74% of the country’s total violent deaths and 30.5% of the politically motivated killings during the 5 year period. 70% of these latter killings must be explained in some other manner.

In December 1981, a helicopter hovering over Cali spread flyers all over the city announcing the establishment of MAS (‘Death to Kidnappers’). A squad of then just over 2000 men organized by leading crime figures including Escobar and the Ochoas whose was original stated purpose was to execute anyone linked to kidnapping but whose targets would include not only guerillas but union activists, progressive politicians, peasant farmers (anyone deemed an adversary by their wealthy patrons), not to mention ‘undesirables’ such as homosexuals and prostitutes, even local youth populations in ‘social cleansing’ operations. In the mid-1990s over hundred paramilitary leaders convened the Second National Conference of Self-Defense Forces in Urabá and the umbrella organization United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) was formed. The main bulk of the forces were supplied by ACCU under the leadership of the infamous Carlos Castano, who rained terror of the country until he himself was murdered in 2004. In 2000 Castano would state that 70 percent of AUC’s funding would come from drug trafficking.

A telling example of paramilitary brutality (in concert with drug cartels and other elite elements) was the fate of the Patriotic Union (UP), really the sole independent party during its time. Formed in 1985 by FARC and Colombia’s communist party UP was subject to savage violence. During the 1988 election campaigns 19 of its 87 mayoral candidates were murdered, along with 100 of its other candidates. UP presidential candidate Jaime Pardo Leal was killed in 1988 as was later candidate Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa, along with more independent Liberal candidate Luis Carlos Galan who was a favorite to win the 1990 election but made an enemy of Escobar by railing against trafficker political influence. By 1990 approximately three thousand members of UP had been killed, basically exterminating the party as a political factor. Such repression undoubtedly contributed to guerilla expansion in the mid-1990s and, despite its own criminality, understandably made FARC skeptical of democracy in Colombia.

The government’s overall policy toward FARC and ELN has been one of start and stop negotiations. In May 1999 the government, led by President Andres Pastrana ceded FARC a Switzerland-sized area in its stronghold as a basis for negotiation. The negotiations were broken off and two decisive events came to pass. First Pastrana and the U.S. government unleashed Plan Colombia in 2000, a massive military aid package that since its inception has funneled more than $5 billion to Colombia’s military and police, including an expansion of aerial fumigation campaign against coca growers which by wide consensus has done virtually nothing to decrease the supply of drugs to the United States and has caused great destruction against peasant farmers, even many growing food crops that are subject to indiscriminate spraying. Thousands of square miles have undergone fumigation.

If Plan Colombia was first marketed as an anti-drug program, with alleged human right protections built in, both standards were instantly circumvented. In August 2000 Bill Clinton waived 4 out the 5 human rights criteria that congress had spelled out to release the first $781.5 million. With less than 48 hours to go in his presidency the administration dodged the remainder of the certification process. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, with new emphasis on ‘narco-terrorists’, congress changed the law to allow all previous aid given for the war on drugs to be used in a campaign against the guerillas.

The second event was the 2002 election of Alvaro Uribe. Uribe, viewed as ardently pro-American by Washington, of particular importance in an era when South America featured the likes of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, disregarded any negotiations with the guerillas while at the same time overseeing a very flawed demobilization of the paramilitaries. Uribe himself has long been suspected of have ties to the paramilitaries and can at the very least be considered guilty of a lackluster effort in their demobilization. If his relentless offensive against FARC and ELN, which in the short-term enabled paramilitary expansion, was applauded internationally his government efforts during the AUC demobilization were hardly relentless.

Implemented in 2003, the government reports that over 31,000 paramilitaries demobilized- meaning they went through ceremonies in which weapons were handed over, pledged to cease criminal activity, and entered reintegration programs. For many just this was enough to receive full pardons. Amnesty International estimates that 90 percent who demobilized escaped effective investigation. In June 2005 the Uribe administration drafted the ‘Justice and Peace Law’. Aimed at more serious offenders, the law offered a reduced sentence of five to eight years for paramilitaries who make confessions (this rather light sentence for an organization that openly glorified massacre). However even these half measures were compromised by the fact that the government failed to verify who was demobilizing, much evidence exists that those who went through the process were stand0ins rather than actual paramilitaries. Nor did the government put much effort into shutting down the sources of paramilitary financing or support systems in the military or government. A Colombian Supreme Court investigation later led to over 80 members of congress being investigated or convicted of having paramilitary connections (for a thorough critique see Human Rights Watch “Paramilitary Heirs: The New Face of Violence in Colombia”).

AUC as an umbrella group may be demobilized but the predictable result of the weak process is that new groups, often led by former AUC members have sprang up all over the country with names such as the Black Eagles, The Rasrojos, and the Urabenos. Extortion, drug trafficking, and murder of all the usual targets, often with the collusion of the local authorities, continue.

With the election of Juan Manuel Santos negotiations with FARC are again ongoing (with the occasional hiccup: as of this writing the negotiations have been suspended due to the kidnaping of a general). The negotiations, which both sides confidently proclaim can be concluded by next year, are centered on six points: land reform, political participation, drug trafficking, rights of victims, disarmament, and implementation. Assuming a settlement, given Colombia’s history and the still large militant right-wing presence in the military and paramilitary and their corrupt backers, civil society faces an uphill battle to preserve any progressive gains, especially in the arena of land reform. In that light the United States has a major role. It should finally end its endlessly destructive ‘war on drugs’ and suspend military aid to Colombia’s military, another long overdue reform. While the U.S. is at it perhaps at least some of that former military aid can be channeled to a civil society struggling to build a more just Colombia. Again an uphill struggle for activists in both countries but after decades of endemic violence is there a serious alternative?

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Read other articles by Joseph.