Jonathan Marshall is author or co-author of five books on international affairs
Cuban and U.S. leaders overcame immense obstacles to end more than a half century of confrontation between their countries with President Barack Obama’s visit to Havana. But they were unable to end more than a half century of political violence in Colombia by brokering a peace pact that was scheduled to be signed in Havana on March 23, one day after Obama departed.
That target date was set by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, during negotiations hosted by Cuban President Raúl Castro last September. Now the parties are aiming for a new deadline at the end of this year.
After 52 years of conflict, they are used to setbacks and delays. But the armed struggle has already killed more than 220,000 and claimed 7.9 million registered victims — including 77,000 who disappeared — so Colombia desperately needs peace and reconciliation as soon as possible.
The key sticking point concerns parties who are not at the negotiating table. They include a smaller but still potent rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN. More important are right-wing and criminal paramilitary groups who have the motive and means to massacre FARC soldiers and their civilian sympathizers if they get the opportunity.
Until Bogota — and Washington — find a convincing way to restrain these paramilitary terrorists after FARC lays down its arms, Colombia will never find peace.
The peace process has made great strides over the past year. Overall violence is down. The government pardoned some FARC prisoners and helped them return to civilian life. FARC promised to end child recruitment and release children under the age of 15 from its ranks; it also conducted an historic ceremony of public apology for its part in killing civilians during a 2002 firefight with paramilitary forces. The two sides engaged in clearing mines for the first time this spring. They have jointly asked the United Nations Security Council to monitor an eventual ceasefire.
But the Colombian government demands that FARC guerrillas demobilize and hand over their weapons in remote rural “concentration zones.” They would be spared arrest as long as they remain in isolation. FARC insists that it be permitted to store weapons in the zones and be granted their freedom anywhere in the country.
Explaining the organization’s reluctance to totally disarm, a FARC negotiator pointedly questioned whether the government could guarantee their security in the face of paramilitary threats.
“In the last month, more than 28 community organizers, human rights defenders and peasant farmers have been murdered and their killers continue to enjoy impunity,” he said. “Solving the paramilitary problem the main challenge we are facing today, to help this process move ahead.”
Opposing the Peace Process
The U.N. Human Rights Council for Colombia reported in March that “diverse local interests and groups opposed to change resulting from the peace process” — including armed political and criminal groups engaged in land seizures, drug trafficking, illegal mining and extortion — “are already employing violence and intimidation to protect their interests, and the State has not had a sufficiently effective response.”
It added, with a strong affirmation of FARC’s concerns, that “demobilizing guerrillas . . . could also be vulnerable.”
Referring to right-wing death squads that annihilated supporters of a prominent leftist political party affiliated with FARC, the report declared, “The hundreds of assassinations of Unión Patriótica political party leaders and members in the 1980s and 1990s illustrate the elevated risk for new political movements. Security guarantees and transformation of the political reality are essential to avoid repetition of this situation.”
Many experts estimate that more than 2,000 Unión Patriótica members were murdered by right-wing death squads serving powerful drug lords and allied government security forces. The victims included two of the party’s presidential candidates, one elected senator, eight congressmen, 70 councilmen, and dozens of deputies and mayors. The assassination campaign ended a ceasefire reached by FARC and the government in 1987 and destroyed hopes for peace.
Much of this terrorist violence was perpetrated by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary organization that eventually took over the cocaine trade from its original patron, the Medellín Cartel. The AUC enjoyed support from government and military officials who appreciated its help in the war against FARC (which also had dirty hands in the drug trade).
The AUC’s 30,000 members officially demobilized in 2006. Subsequent testimony by some of them helped convict 60 former congressmen and seven former governors for collaborating with the criminal organization. Former President Alvaro Uribe accepted money from the AUC for his 2002 presidential campaign; his brother Santiago was arrested in February on charges of helping to create a paramilitary group of his own.
The Colombian human rights group MOVICE reported in March that a new generation of criminal bands have launched a campaign of murder and intimidation to disrupt the current peace talks. Their victims include community leaders and peasants who claim their lands were illegally seized.
“I think part of the message [of the killings] is to intimidate the FARC, and let them know what awaits them if they enter politics,” said a MOVICE spokesman.
Rightist Drug Lords
Chief among the threats to FARC and its community supporters is Colombia’s most powerful drug trafficking organization, “Los Urabeños,” which has muscled its way into many former guerrilla territories and today controls much of the country’s Caribbean coast. It is a direct successor to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.
“We feel obligated to continue our anti-subversive fight,” a spokesman for Los Urabeños declared soon after the group announced it formation.
The Santos government has made genuine moves to seek justice against the instigators of political violence. It recently arrested a senior general on charges of overseeing the grisly killing of thousands of civilians whom the Army falsely claimed were guerrillas in order to inflate body counts and win bonuses.
State prosecutors also said they will arrest a former head of the army — and ally of former President Uribe — for the same crime, known as the “false positives” scandal.
According to Human Rights Watch, at least 16 active and retired army generals are currently under investigation by the Attorney General’s office for “false positive” killings, and about 800 lower-ranking soldiers have been convicted. But human rights groups warn that rules tentatively worked out by the government and FARC to promote reconciliation by granting immunity for war crimes could prevent further prosecution of false positive cases.
The United States, which bears a heavy responsibility for promoting state violence and the growth of paramilitary organizations to combat communism in Colombia in the 1950s and 1960s, can make partial amends by supporting President Santos’s efforts at reconciliation while pressing to see that justice is served by holding war criminals accountable.
In the interests of peace and justice, Washington should also offer all reasonable aid to help Colombia suppress organizations like Los Urabeños that continue the terrible legacy of previous terrorist and criminal paramilitary groups.
As Adam Isacson, a Colombia security analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, noted recent murders by the new generation of paramilitary forces “make it a lot harder for the FARC leadership to convince their rank and file to demobilize. The U.S. has to make it clear that the paramilitaries… are right up there with the Zetas, Sinaloa [cartels] and the MS-13 as security threats, because of their ability to threaten a peaceful outcome in Colombia.”