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Colombia: The History of Political non-inclusion, Social Turmoil and Military Action

by Sam Hazelwood about a year ago in opinion
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A clash of economic, social, and political ideals.

(Plaza de Bolívar de Bogotá)

The premise of this article is to show the cause and effect of Colombia’s history, politics, economic policies, and overall chaos, which created the perfect conditions for rebel groups to emerge, more specifically the FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People's Army or Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo). The history of the time period between the 1920s-1960s is extremely important to the formation of the FARC. The atmosphere of violence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, combined with poor government economic policies, and the rise in popularity of FARC-EP Marxist-Leninist teachings, created the perfect situation for the group’s rise to supremacy in the arena of Colombian insurgency groups. This violence of the 50's and 60's paved the way for the FARC-EP and the increased popularity of their political stance gave them the power to fend off the multiple destruction campaigns of the Colombian government. However, this power was all hinged on civilian cooperation or coercion.

Over the course of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the civilian population of Colombia was affected by widespread violence. The rural and urban lower classes are important to examine because of the way they were seen by all sides of the conflict as the political key to victory, and as an important resource in the fight for control of the country. In addition, the neo-liberal economic policies, or as I refer to it globalist economic policy will be examined in relation to the lower classes and the effects caused by their implementation. In short, this article will be a march through history, along the way considering all the political angles of the combatants in the Colombian conflict, the economic tactics used in the different decades, and the role the common citizen played in this era of turmoil.

Therefore, it is important to begin when the first signs of state deterioration occurred. The early Twentieth Century began roughly for the common man and woman in Colombia. The peasants and the bulk of the population gained nothing from the attempts at economic developments of the early Twentieth Century. The development fell short of what many within the lower classes had hoped and expected. Despite promises, the government did not grant labor rights to those employed in factories and major businesses. The result was more than half the population of Colombia lived in poverty or servitude to the upper-class minority that ruled the country. Peasants were forced to do menial tasks for landowners and local authorities in order to eke out a living. Many peasants had to travel countless miles of highway with goods on their shoulders for the little pay given to them by the wealthy businesses or landowners. Frustrations came to a head in 1914 and gave way to strikes which later escalated to outright peasant uprisings.

The beginning of 1914 started off roughly for the government as it sought to keep the situation of the poor the same as it had been at the end of the last century. During this period, Quintin Lame a peasant leader, “organized a series of revolts in the regions of Cauca, Huila, and Tolima.” Although nothing directly was achieved by the uprising, it did catch the notice of government officials, who saw it as a precursor to further troubles. Another ten years passed before another revolt of similar proportions came about kicking off a string of subsequent revolts in the following years. Between 1928 and 1937, about 20,000 peasants took part in uprisings in eighteen areas of the country. As a result of these peasant uprisings, the Liberal government was forced to grant peasants the right to form trade unions, something which had never been done before in Colombia. The leadership was often subverted “into conventional—and largely ineffective—political channels; some coffee workers were gradually transformed into conservative freeholders; and private armed squads were used increasingly to terrorize potential demonstrators.” In the overall scheme of politics it is safe to say the efforts were wasted.

In 1945 there was a ray of hope—Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was proclaimed the ‘people’s candidate’ of the Liberal Party’s national convention. However, after 1946 the partisan divide that had been growing was made more apparent. Jorge Gaitán sought to break down the rules by working directly with lower-class workers and peasants rather than the oligarchy or leadership of the co-opted organizations. Meanwhile, Conservatives promoted an environment of maltreatment towards peasants. The Liberal Party members then called for the peasants to seek retribution. The Colombian government at this time was explained as a state which “tends to intervene in severe and particularly violent social conflict even when it is not directly related to issues that have come to form part of the ongoing social policies backed by the state.” In short the Colombian state tried to monopolize the use of physical coercion and to intervene as a third party in violent matters. Some areas of involvement include inter-tribal relations and socio-political or community based conflicts. The benefits were important to both indigenous and the government. The fight for the peasants’ cooperation continues into the present and is crucial to both rebel and governmental elements.

Later in 1947, Jorge Gaitán became the Colombian Liberal Party’s leader and gained the upper hand in the fight for seats in the Congress. Things seemed to be looking up for Colombia as a whole. It seemed as if he could lead the masses and the nation toward a peace, which had been elusive up until his time. As the country grew economically, “increasing political mobilization and activism around labor issues and land tenure made the poor more difficult to ignore.” In May 1947, some 1,500 workers protested and were arrested in a general strike. The country had not really recovered from the Great Depression, and the result was a wave of violence in the Boyacá and Santander regions. An estimated 14,000 were killed in the ensuing repression by the Conservative government. Even more notable then the number of people killed was the fact that the Liberals allied with this policy and were suppressing what they supposedly stood for, which was reform for the lower class. On February 7, 1948, Jorge Gaitán led a silent protest of “100,000 people through the streets of Bogota and urged a peaceful resolution [to the ongoing] conflict.” He said in an address to the leadership, “All we ask Mr. President, is guarantees for human life, which is the least that a nation can ask.” However, Gaitán would not live to see May and was assassinated on April 9th. With his death, “large portions of Bogota, as well as other cities, were reduced to rubble, and the nation plunged into bloody strife.” The true man of the people had died and left the poor wondering where they could turn for help.

Gaitán had come to embody the hopes and demands of such a “large number of Colombians that his assassination produced seismic convulsions at the very foundations of Colombian society.” The effects were instant and continued the environment of violence in the country. A horrific and violent time period followed his death. This time was known as La Violencia and was the most famous time of Colombian history. The response by the masses was an uprising in Bogotá called the Bogotazo which rocked the capital and sent shock waves of dissent throughout the country. Gaitán was not only the voice of the lower class but beloved by all who wished to see change and progressive development of rights and participation in Colombia’s politics. It didn’t matter if an official was communist, liberal, or semi-conservative, they were seen as the possible solution to the Colombia’s problems. Liberals of all stripes, including gaitanist (supporters of Jorge Gaitán) and near communists, blamed the Bogotazo on “criminals who distorted the authentic grief of the people.” Nevertheless, the possibility for stability was eroded once again, and the commoner left to face the inevitable injustices of the corrupt government alone without a leader who truly cared for their needs. The answer was slowly working to the surface and the government could recognize it but was too concerned with protecting the oligarchy.

The popular uprising that followed the death of Gaitán shook the country and the political scene. “The looting, destruction of property, and ‘institutional inversion’ left a shaken oligarchy and changed the nature of Colombian political competition.” The elite of both parties found a common ground in their fear of the masses. It was not surprising when the two allied to put down this perceived threat. The two party system had long been a means for excluding other parties, and that’s exactly what the two went and did. Together, the Conservatives’ and the Liberals, under the leadership of Laureano Gomez, sought to crush any political organization, union, or workers group thought to hold communist or socialist views. Even worse for the people was the fact that the Liberals, who had long been seen as the protectors of the poor, took a non-aligned position, causing a deep fraction within their own party in a time when all institutions seemed fractured in the nation. In an attempt to resolve the issues of the time, guerrilla groups approached “[Liberal] party officials more than once, attempting to build a coalition against [Laureano] Gomez, but to no avail.” The Liberal party identity had been compromised and the economic and political interests of the poor were taking a back seat. In addition, many could not understand why the party was tearing itself apart from within. However, the failure to allow for rebel involvement became the biggest mistake of the party and government and fostered more hatred among the poor who were isolated from politics in the country.

Meanwhile, in 1948, the hardliners in the Colombian Conservative Party were deploying death squads throughout cities and the rural areas to weed out and crush any and all opposition. In one account, armed thugs were sent out into the countryside with the sole purpose to “sever testicles, slash bellies of pregnant women, and throw babies in the air to catch on bayonets—all under the injunction ‘don’t leave even the seed’.” The peasants responded by organizing, with the help of the Colombian Communist Party, to form defensive groups in order to fend off extermination by the Conservatives and the military. This became the first true sign of organized resistance and the precursor to the FARC. The Colombian Liberal Party also split at this time with some siding with the oppressors, while others went so far as to join the guerilla groups that had formed because of the violence. Widespread evictions, seizure of land, and an estimated one million people migrated from Colombia to get away from the carnage and bloodshed. However, the violence was not reserved only for government versus the people but also had the two political parties coming to blows.

In May 1949, there was a move to bring order about and clean house in the presidential cabinet as well as other government branches. Three conservatives and three military officers were brought in to replace six Liberal cabinet members. The transition was a disaster. Three Chamber of Representative members were shot dead by November of the same year and rioting continued to be an issue. This also coincided with the unchallenged election of the dictator Laureano Gomez who ruined the country with his land policies and globalist economic plans. In his regimes economic policies he proved to be very favorable to modern corporate capitalism. The Gomez regime removed all “import and export restrictions and encouraged foreign investment in all possible ways.” The result was that with each passing day more and more factions were being created-including peasant armies, death squads and rogue national military units. This factionalism even occurred within government armed forces still loyal to Laureano Gomez. Under Gomez, unions were dissolved or disbanded. Strikes were prohibited, and activism was punished through arrests.

Thus, La Violencia began in earnest. La Violencia refers to the “twenty years of crime and impunity facilitated by political sectarianism (1945-1965), which dislocated the lives of tens of thousands of families and communities.” The recent destruction of the urban popular movement didn’t make matters any better for ether the oligarchy or the poor. Wage levels at this time had plunged, and industrial production had increased as a result of globalist economic policy but at the expense of the poor land holders. In addition, any regions harboring Communists were declared terrorist regions and were attacked by army and air force detachments. Communists responded by pulling all people back to safe zones and worked to create ‘independent republics’ within Colombia by developing administrations that were independent of the repressive state. This, in turn, set the tone for later insurgent groups such as the FARC-EP to establish similar institutions. By 1952, Colombia had also become one of five South American countries to sign a mutual-defense agreement with the United States. This was done partly because United States businesses were creeping into the country and the United States felt it was beneficial to supply the Colombian government with funds to help stem the tide of violence and in so doing, protected the United States’ interests in the area.

To better understand La Violencia it can be broken up into three stages. The first stage was the electoral struggle and insistence by the clergy to maintain the status quo. Prior to La Violencia bishops, priests, sisters, and pastoral agents had enjoyed a considerable amount of prestige and legitimacy among popular groups. However, with the advent of the guerilla and the growing discontent among the lower classes the Catholic Church became worried. The lower classes were the traditional followers of the church and comprised the majority of the parishioners. The greater concern was the loss of upper class money. The choice was then simple for the Catholic Church and they quickly allied with the Conservative elites in a united front against change. The Church also feared acknowledging the movement and going against the word of Rome. An additional aspect of La Violencia took place in the frontier regions, where the FARC and other rebel groups took over and filled “the vacuum created by [the] Conservative and Liberal oppositions” desertion of politics and communal life. This occurred in the coffee growing regions where much of the present day rebel conflict takes place. This was due in part to the growing of coca in these areas. Contrary to common thought, peace was viewed as the most important form of justice at the time. For the commoner, La Violencia was an ever-present reminder in the everyday background of Colombian life and culture. However, many doubted or even dreamed the violence would ever become a stigma or stereotype for future generations of Colombians. The key characteristic of “[La] Violencia,…is the relatively few deaths were the result of armed contracts between guerillas or other unofficial forces on one side and military, police, or other state forces on the other.” It was a basic tug-of-war between various factions and many times the distinct factions would experience infighting. The takeover of territory in La Violencia started with; armed groups, legal or illegal, taking over a territory and impose their will on the population. The rival group would then seek revenge and succeed the previous group by retaking the territory lost. It was a never ending cycle in some places and was as consistent as the tides. La Violencia was then, in a sense, “anchored in the rural areas and small towns where it was developed in the form of peasant resistance, and political patronage.” Most of the violence and related deaths were because of atrocities or revenge killings.

A figure released in a study at the time listed that out of one hundred percent of dead found, eighty percent of the corpses were male, including those found in the countryside. At this time, massacres of entire families were common, usually accompanied by rape, looting, and burning of land and homes. The culprits were usually the paramilitaries that were the shadow arm of the military and government who could not outright commit the acts. There was no respite for any involved especially in the political arena where, after Gaitán, there was a series of ruthless presidents.

The 1950 election in Colombia is a particularly important political aspect to look at as it pertains to the later economic situation of the country and the politics. In August of 1950, the before mentioned, Laureano Gomez assumed power in the wake of Jorge Gaitán’s death. He was a highly controversial figure outside as well as within the Colombian Conservative Party. It was not surprising that he left office in 1951. Gomez’s political rule had caused huge upheaval throughout the political world. Liberals refused to participate in congressional elections and any political debates. Military leadership also questioned Gomez’s policies and feared he was making the national police force too politicized. The police were now the muscle to party policies and therefore became tied to the ruling party more than the people. The idea the police were no longer looking out for the best interests of the average citizen but of the Liberal Party headmen concerned many citizens in Colombia. In 1949, Gomez organized groups to replace the fired Liberal police forces. The act was done by the government to appease the Conservative masses. The replacement of the Liberal Police was the conservative peasant group known as the Chulavitas police. The Chulavitas took on the same practices and assumed the same death squad mentality that than as the Liberal police force they took over for had been renowned for earlier.

The national police force had been, in earlier times, used as a wing of the military and during the early years of La Violencia, an instrument of chaos by the corrupt government. At the same time Gomez was placed in power, an exiled general named Gustavo Rojas Pinilla returned to Colombia after having spent time in the United States more specifically in Miami.

On June 13, 1953, the military, under the leadership of the recently returned Rojas Pinilla and the backing of the disenfranchised element (non-Gomez) of the Conservative Party, launched a coup to oust Gomez. Shockingly, Rojas Pinilla turned out to be a successful president doing all he could to restore the equilibrium which had been lost in the Gomez era. Land rights also became a crucial topic of the decade. Fear gripped the Catholic Church so great that the Catholic Church worked with the government as an ally in the anti-Liberal crusade and helped organize a network of peasant anti-guerrilla informants in disputed government and guerilla regions. Liberal leaders were targeted and sometimes successfully assassinated. All this was done to demoralize and rein in the various splinter groups the government perceived as troublesome elements of society. Unlike Gomez who had approached the “guerrillas as insurgents, criminals and threats to the state, Rojas chose to approach them as a warring party, credible partners in negotiation and eligible for amnesty—conditioned on surrender.” However, like Gomez, he too, quickly moved away from his initial goals and reverted to military repression and neglected the important problems of the day.

In 1957 Rojas attempted to extend his presidency but the Liberal and Conservative parties formed a coalition and blocked Rojas’s move to grab more power. The coalition entered into bipartisan negotiations, which surprisingly included the ousted Gomez. The negotiations resulted in a plan to reconstruct the oligarchy’s supremacy to be known as the National Front (Frente Nacional in Spanish). Essentially, it was an improved version of an earlier attempt by the two parties to strengthen political power. The front further strengthened itself by adding a “bipartisan security clause…into the [Colombian] constitution itself.” The clause was done with the intention that its inclusion into the Colombian constitution would prevent another civil war. The front was designed to make sure both parties had equal representation in all offices at all levels of government. In this way, this allowed them to assure that no other third parties would have a say in law-making or other national decisions and that they were the only political voices. Without opposition parties, the “political class under the [National Front] lost touch with national interests and continued its policy of distributing favors at the local level.” The disenclusionment of other ideas by the elites was used by many guerilla groups to build support for their cause. Another point in the corruption in the National Front was the fact that the coalition intended to alternate presidential terms among the two parties. The goal of this movement was to stifle competition that was generally violent at the time and especially stop political violence at the very least between the two opposing parties. This goes back to the theme of ‘there is no other representation but our two parties’. The National Front did try to cover the fact that other parties affiliated to the Conservatives or Liberals were able to hold offices. This was all done under Rojas’s watchful eye and the guerrillas were not sitting back quietly and watching as the destruction of politics happen.

Meanwhile, a guerrilla reorganization campaign was taking place. In general most groups had been severely overrun by government forces in the early part of the decade. This set back pushed the rebels to escape to the mountains and jungles for refuge. By the early 1960s, “some of the guerrillas who had originated as Liberal defenders during the civil war had evolved into more sophisticated and widespread organizations.” The diverse groups engaged the Colombian state in military acts of defiance and revenge for the treatment they had received during the civil war. The most interesting thing about virtually all these groups was their emphasis on community. In addition, the Cuban Revolution that had occurred in the early 1950s had given a spark of inspiration for several revolutionary groups within Colombia such as the FARC, ELN(National Liberation Army or Ejército de Liberación Nacional), and M-19(19th of April movement or Movimiento 19 de Abril). The Cuban Revolution of 1953-1959 also gave a continental and Latin American dimension to the guerilla operations in Colombia.

The revolutionary guerillas of the 1960s were three entities at once. They were the remnants of the most radical Liberal fighting spirit that existed during La Violencia. They also assumed the role of foil to the Liberal-Conservative oligarchy’s monopoly, the National Front. Lastly, they represented the “opportunity to bring the Colombian peasantry into a socialist project from which they had been excluded” for countless years. The consensus at the time was that liberation would come from the countryside with further proof of this working coming from Mao’s successful uprising in China. The groups were more class conscious and less loyal to their traditional party identities. The guerilla groups during La Violencia were primarily Liberal sympathizers and perceived themselves as defensive organizations against Conservative oppression.

The early 1960s began with many guerrilla groups establishing foco or theory of revolution by guerrilla warfare. Focoism is the idea that small, fast-moving guerilla groups can provide a focus for popular discontent and thereby lead to a general insurrection. This is relevant to the Colombian conflict because all rebel groups involved used this tactic when confronting government forces. In addition to the theory of focoism, geography also was very important to the development of particular groups. In turn, each group laid claim to territory and regions of the country in order to set up a stronghold from which to launch and implement their ideas on the common man and nation. The ELN set up operations in the jungle of western Santander, near Barrancabermeja and San Vicente de Chucurí, and not far from the department capital Bucaramanga. The choice of the region was strategic and historical. The region was well known for its notable yet sometimes erratic tradition of popular mobilization and peasant land colonization, which dated back to the days before La Violencia when Liberal guerillas took controlled the San Vicente area.

In the case of the ELN, the military leadership never moved beyond the notion of the foco in considering how to transform the region politically and socially. The ELN, along with the FARC and many others rebel groups incorporated a significant number of students into their organizations. However, they were not popular with the grass root elements of the rebel movements. In some cases students have become leaders of units in some militant guerilla groups. . The student rebel fighters were generally hated by rebel fighters from peasant backgrounds. Those leaders who were not educated often felt threatened and sentenced the student combatants to death for deviations in group policy. Attaining weapons presented a pressing issue for all factions of the opposition in the early stages of Colombia’s internal conflict.

The ELN found a solution to this problem. The solution was simply to gain and survive on Cuban assistance in the form of arms, money, and military training. In later years the ELN turned to kidnappings for ransom and the extortion of cattle ranchers. These operations helped to fund the groups’ other ventures resulting in no need for outside assistance like before had been practiced. The FARC also practiced these methods, but the methods were not applied till much later in the FARC’s campaign for revolutionary change. In the 1970s, ELN led a military excursion across the Magdalena River. The river starts in the Colombian mountains, passes by Bogotá, and empties into Atlantic by the city of Barranquilla. The excursion took place where the river passes into North Eastern Antioquia, and it was there that the ELN was almost completely wiped out by the Colombian army. After this event the movement became a non-factor for the rest of the decade. The ELN would resurface in the early 80’s. This time the ELN set up near the Venezuelan border and gained funds by tapping into the oil exploration occurring in the area.

Another important group was the EPL or the Popular Liberation Army. The EPL, like many other rebel groups, carved out a niche for itself during the 1960s taking advantage of the social upheaval. Its strategy followed that of Mao and his Chinese revolutionary strategy of the “`Yenan Path’ or ‘prolonged popular war’.” The group established itself in the vast Urabá region of Antioquia, where the underclass of banana plantation workers and land colonizers became the backbone of and recruiting pool of the group.

However, the EPL and ELN were not anything like the FARC-EP. “The FARC [primarily] came out of [La Violencia], and (more indirectly) out of the agrarian and indigenous mobilizations of the 1920s and 1930s.” Its roots can be traced back to the 1930s. The FARC-EP held extensive roots in a bilateral communist-liberal alliance; the insurgency’s “beginnings are systematically aligned with the PCC [Colombian Communist Party] while Liberals remained an insignificant factor in its formative history.”

For decades, the Liberal party did very little to change the Colombian political scene, and the PCC took over where the government had abated by mobilizing the populace into defensive networks. Therefore, it is important to note the Communist Party’s role in the Colombian conflict. Colombians had been “rallying behind Marxism well before the [FARC ever came into existence or even] the Russian revolution of 1917.” This contradicts what many have said, which is that Marxism was a foreign delivered idea. The idea that it was foreign and introduced into society couldn’t be farther from the truth. In reality it was the Colombian Communist Party of 1935 which had entered in internationalist relations with the Soviet Union and not the other way around. However, this interaction was strictly informational for the most part with very little military aid given. In the meantime, the Liberal Party continued to distance itself from the PCC and those within their party who aligned with the PCC. As a result, the Communists struggled to find enclaves in which to build support. The support came from the PCC’s long standing ability to organize and promote a class-consciousness that protected against the state and the oligarchy.

In the late 1940s, the Liberals aligned with the military support carried out a campaign of elimination against communist communities. The reasoning behind the Liberal party’s actions was to preserve the political status they held. Also, the PCC’s increasing consolidation of both rural and urban workers was seen as a potential threat and economic liability in the eyes of the oligarchy. The response was a dis-inclusion of the PCC from the political arena. Coincidentally this coincided with the formation of the National Front. The Colombian Communist Party quickly set about making a military branch to protect itself from the inevitable retributions of the National Front, which sought to eradicate all opposition.

The FARC was then born initially as a defensive unit for the demoralized peasants and communist sympathizers. The main goal of the movement was to protect the people as well as deal with the constant assaults by government forces into their areas of control. In September 1964, a conference called Bloque Sur was held. However, it wouldn’t be until two years later when a second conference was held that the modern day FARC would officially be recognized as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Its leader was Manuel Marulanda. A man heavily influenced by the teachings of Marx and who had firsthand experience of the Colombian government’s forms of social injustice.

The FARC-EP’s goals were and remain simple. Among the chief concerns of the FARC was the distribution of land and financial resources. In addition, the FARC demanded for the implementation of “reforms that address a high percentage of the population living in poverty” must be at the forefront. This stance is one that was widely held by rebel groups, but it was one that has been stuck to by the group throughout their existence. The insurgency is distinct in its organizational structure. In the hierarchy of the FARC “the secretariat is the highest level of leadership, and [is responsible for finalizing] all tactical and political decisions in cooperation, consultation, and influence with the Central High Command.” Within the Central High Command there was and is a contingent made up of seven members known as the Secretariat. The actual Central High command is made up of twenty five members situated across the FARC’s seven blocks. A block refers to the regions of the country where the FARC control. The seven blocks mentioned are as follows: Caribbean, Centre, East, Iván Ríos, Middle Magdalena, South, and Western blocks. Blocks are then further broken down into a number of highly organized fronts or zones of operations. These fronts are then manned by an average of three hundred to six hundred combatants per unit. The unit I refer to is that of the front. Each front has a comandante who keeps a list of members’ ages, gender, injuries, reasons for joining, and rank. This is mostly done in the case a combatant needs medical care or decides to defect.

The government had not run into a group like the FARC up until this point and was impressed with “their collective level of organization, discipline, and cultivation of local support networks.” The FARC far exceeded anything the Colombian military had seen in its successful extermination of Liberal and Conservative guerrilla holdouts from La Violencia. In 1968, four years after the official founding of the FARC, the government set about replacing localized bosses of regions with new departmental barons’ as a way of reforming the old La Violencia system and solidifying their power in remote regions of the country. By the 1970s the FARC was in some of its areas of control, adjudicating legal disputes, overseeing public works and dispatching police to bring order to its territory. This takeover of power filled a void and, in the process, created a state within a state.

The governing of the remote areas of the country created a de facto second Colombian state within the existing internationally recognized Republic of Colombia. Part of the problem which led to the formation of this scenario was the “unresolved issue of land redistribution and peasant dispossession.” The issue lies at the heart of the protracted conflict that still exists. The two states fight each other through conventional tactics and those that are less conventional. The Colombian state sponsored terrorism that has been wielded against the people for decades to invoke fear and protect those the state sees as more valuable assets to economic growth and political strength. However, the violence is not one sided. The FARC are also culprits of violence against non-combatants as their involvement in illegal drugs has increased over the years. This has been made worse by the influx of United States military aid to the Colombian government, which led to the FARC intensifying their extraction of resources from the local population while decreasing the capacity to protect the population from military and paramilitary (autodefensas) elements. The involvement of the United States in Colombia increased as the nineteenth century progressed. The biggest example being the stealing of Panama and the continued infiltration of United States businesses into the Colombian economy thereby influencing the Colombian job market and exchange. The effect was that the average middle-lower class civilian job was being taken by outside entities. The reaction was complete and utter frustration which led to many to seek other opportunities. The FARC was one of these but also struggled to meet financial needs.

In order to stay afloat financially, the FARC resorted to instituting a peace tax on civilians living within the areas they control. This has mostly been imposed on the wealthy and middle classes. The reason for this is that they are the part of the population with the most money and to tax the poor heavily would go against the ideology of the movement. However, a prominent FARC leader and voice of the group, Rodrigo Granda says the “armed struggle is largely funded by the collection of the revolutionary tax on coca leaf cultivation and cocaine base production.” He goes on to say that “over the years the FARC-EP has diversified its financing through all kinds of investments” such as high finance both “at home and abroad, agricultural production, cattle raising, mining, transport, [and] construction.” However, it is widely known that the fact is that the majority of the FARC income does flow from the taxation of coca and the selling of marijuana. This drive to engage in marijuana production and sales was brought on by the deliberate pressure applied by the United states which took shape in the guise of ‘Food for Peace’ program. The program successfully undermined the production of crops for domestic consumption and use and put the Colombian people in a dependency on foreign crops. This was another part of the Colombian governments’ universal plan to incorporate Colombia into the global market.

However, the FARC has sought to escape this policy of drug involvement and profiteering. The FARC have for a long time wanted the “international community to commit to an alternative to repression and to promote social investment in the area so as to create an [“experimental laboratory”] there, [and] search for ways to eradicate those [undesirable] crops.” On the opposite end the government was buying up land throughout the 1980s to prevent the spread of drug trafficking under the guise of the “National Rehabilitation Plan in the period between 1983 and 1988. The result has been that the small Colombian farmer has suffered and found it impossible to compete with the cheap agricultural exports of countries like the United States. The united States further compounds these issues by encouraging Latin American countries like Colombia to buy crops from them and produce cash crops for the United States consumer. Consequently, along with the peasants the FARC have also been affected.

Therefore, it can be said that economically endowed groups “do not generally have problems with attracting recruits as long as they use their access to resources to meet the material interests of those recruits.” FARC recruits locally, roughly thirty percent of its “rank-and-file soldiers are female , and the great majority o f them are peasants with very little formal education.” This is a significantly higher number than is incorporated in ether the military or the paramilitary. I will go into more depth about the paramilitary as an entity later and about its importance in the broader scheme of the Colombian conflict. Among the many challenges faced by those being recruited by the FARC is the grueling drilling and discipline that takes in the recruitment process. The discipline and drilling “constitute the core organization of everyday life because FARC recruits must confront regular bouts of combat activity.” The FARC believe that by giving structure to the day they will ingrain an idea of uniformity which can then be transferred to the battlefield. In addition the fact that the FARC maintains organizational discipline, a formal commitment to political goals, and continues to draw its recruits from the peasantry has not always given it legitimacy with the host population. In fact it has even created a counter insurgency out of some of its civilian population in the form of Paramilitaries.

The Paramilitaries were created in response to the growing number of guerrilla groups in the early 1960s. In order to combat this growing number of rebel groups the government expanded the use of paramilitary forces in 1961 and by 1965 a law was passed. The name of which was Decree 3398. The decree was authorized in 1965 by the government to organize civilian groups and “arm them with military weapons typically prohibited from civilian use in peacetime.” This was all done a as provision of the state declared emergency of 1965. This also gave an added benefit for the government which could after 1965 carry out controversial operations against the FARC and other rebel groups without actually having a visible hand in the process. The Paramilitaries were not solely limited to government but were also formed by drug cartels and disenfranchise civilians who sought to protect their interests. In 1967 a “National Association of Peasants (ANUC) was set up by [then in power] Lleras Restrepo government in an attempt to contain the growing dissident factions.” Paramilitary troops were civilians, and or retired or off duty military officers. As stated earlier, the paramilitaries were often allied to local military or security forces. Armed and trained for combat they were notorious for attacks on villages involving multiple deaths and some cases massacres. Theft, destruction of property as well as kidnappings, disappearances, and displacement of civilians also accompanied these engagements. Commonly held practices of rape, theft, and torture were used against designated targets. However it was not till the mid to late 1980s and 1990s that the paramilitary would assume a greater role and pushed into the national spotlight like they hadn’t been before.

One tactic used to fill the ranks of Paramilitary forces was that of forced conscription which was seen as a way of also depleting the potential recruiting pool of the FARC. People who lived in the urban areas were easy to recruit because of the perceived lack of government provided protection. Therefore, many Paramilitaries created in urban environments were done so in an attempt to protect the interests of the h local population and those living within the neighborhood. In the country side bands f farmers joined forces to protect their lands and provided armed civilian groups with resources beyond arms given by the government. In the countryside the armed bands were created for a combination of reasons but mostly to ward of drug lords and rebel groups from taking their lands. In 1968 a second law was passed, Law 48, it permitted the paramilitary groups to remain organized and armed after the state of emergency expired. This was huge news because of the implications derived from it. It was seen as an underhanded attempt by the government to carry out a dirty war against the dissenters and rebels. The decision even concerned those who supported the government because of the authoritarian nature of the act. Once again a wave of discontent gripped the country in the 1970s and many Colombians saw little difference in supporting the political violence or the corrupt government that ruled. In short, political legitimacy of the government had taken a blow and whatever group, government or non government that filled this gap could win the people.

In 1975, in an effort to win back the disenfranchised citizens of Colombia, President Alfonso Lopez Michaelsen enacted widespread rural development and nutrition programs. It was hoped that should the programs work effectively there might be an end to the grumblings from the lower classes. The programs were also installed on the advice the World Bank had recently given the government on how to fix its economic problems. Still like most plans in Colombia the final product fell short of the lofty ambitions set out for it. Nevertheless, the programs were somewhat successful. They were able to stabilize rural society by strengthening the mid to upper levels of the peasantry. The programs were coupled with industrialization with the idea that they could feed off its predicted success. However, the industrialization project was already showing signs of infectiveness. Despite the setbacks Lopez believed “[he] would make Colombia [into] the Japan of South America- not by following the intensive model of industrialization laid out by the World Bank but by rescuing the agricultural and mining” industries. In the end the economy suffered and the dream of trade liberalization in Colombia by Lopez had evaporated due to his regimes poor implementation of its economic plan.

In response to yet another collapse in the economy the urban poor lead a series of general strikes under a variety or causes—improved public services, some were for sympathizers of doctors and teachers, and still other strikes supported land invasions. The root cause for the widespread unrest was the inflation, which had reached 33% in 1976. By 1978 the government had enough with the disorder and passed a statute against all organized crime. The statue was called the Security Statute of 1978 and it sought to bring down the increasing growth of cartels, drug traffickers, and kidnapping networks throughout Colombia. The violence continued to escalate to levels that hadn’t been reached in some time. In the same year as the statute was formed President Julio César Turbay took the initiative to act on the growing problem by emphasizing the importance of suppressing the drug trade and traffickers. Then in 1979 he negotiated an extraditing treaty with the United States. This move proved antagonistic and incendiary to the preexisting conflict. The guerilla groups responded to the move by stepping up their campaigns of killings and kidnappings, and the Colombian military responded to this by increasingly violating human rights in an effort to gain information through use of torture. However, the state would later pay heavily for these actions.

Then in 1979, a contemporary of the FARC, the M-19, demonstrated to the Colombian government and the world, the lack of control there was in the country when over Christmas vacation they invaded a military depot in Bogota, stealing over five thousand rifles. During the raid they also captured the Dominican Republic embassy which further shocked the world for the sheer audacity of the act. More bad news pilled in when further problems were realized by the Colombian government in the pacific region of Tumaco. It was in this region where some 160 guerrillas were found to have received military training by Cuban advisors. This sent seismic waves through the Colombian press and disturbed the government to no end. Despite all this the Colombian government continued to have the lowest military budget of all Latin American countries and remained a democratic institution longer than any other country in the region.

Following the Lopez regime was Belisario Betancur who assumed the presidency and its budget deficit in 1982. Accompanying this deficit was increased interest rates on foreign debt. The Colombian peso became devalued and there was further reduction to the budget deficit. In addition, there were no strikes like there had been under Lopez’s government but it did not help in further disenfranchising the poor. Between 1982-1985, the Colombian government nationalized five private banks in an effort to slow the economic decay and to “socialize losses.” In relation to the Colombian conflict President Betancur diverged from the old tactic and took a radical approach to the conflict by reducing the military and police control and establishing negotiations with the rebels for the first time in some years. The idea behind the plan was to effect peace through negotiations instead of by destruction of the opposition. In 1983, Belisario Betancur meet with M-19 guerilla leadership in Madrid to broker a peace but the group perceived it to be a gesture by the government of respect. They though the government saw them as a strong and intimidating force. This idea was misplaced and resulted in the subsequent M-19 holiday attacking of the department capital of Florencia in April of 1984. It was to go down as the first attack of a government building in Colombia. Surprisingly, a few days later a peace commission was held. A ceasefire was then worked out between the FARC, known as La Uribe Agreements. Hope had been renewed when a few short months later the EPL and M-19 joined the ceasefire and by late 1984 the only rebel group outside the process was the ELN. However, the optimism was short lived.

The shift away from the military proved to be volatile and the new approach only made the idea of autodefensas increasingly popular, among ranchers, landowners, and frustrated military troops. The actions and attempts by Betancur proved to be influential in the formation and history of the paramilitaries in Colombia as those victims of guerilla groups sought to protect themselves and their communities.

In the early days of Colombian conflict the military worked with wealthy landowners and organized that effectively cleansed entire regions of guerillas sympathizers. By the late 80s and early 90s more than one hundred paramilitary groups had been “organized and entered the [conflict]…aligned with the state” and no longer the attack dog of the government but groups gaining increasing power and autonomy. Some groups who had originated with drug cartels had secured their autonomy and financial independence by trafficking in illegal drugs. Even still other paramilitary groups who had been founded by ether the military or civilian communities also adopted drug trafficking and the sale of illegal substances as a way of funding operations. The most notable of the paramilitaries was the AUC which was founded by Carlos and Fidel Castaño.

Castaño was the equivalent of what Pablo Escobar was to the drug cartels. He like Escobar was one of the most wanted, feared, revered, and emulated people of the late 80s and early 90s. Castaño founded the group as a response to the killing of his father Jesus by FARC insurgents following the inability of Castaño’s family to pay the kidnapping ransom that had been placed on him. The response by the Castaño brothers was a campaign of revenge against all insurgency groups. The two joined the 14th Brigade in the Colombian Army and gained valuable military and weapons training. However, they were unsatisfied with the level of justice being enacted and left the military to take matters in their own hands. This was a path that many other paramilitary groups’ leaders and soldiers had followed. In addition, to the AUC paramilitary group there was the MURA (United Movement for Academic Restoration) founded by Ivan Roberto and ACDEGAM (Associación Campesina de Ganaderos y Agricultores del Magdelena Media). The goal of each paramilitary faction was the same and they all used all methods possible to eradicate subversive guerilla groups deemed dangerous to society. It has been calculated that at the height of paramilitary operations the number of combatants involved was between seven and twelve thousand. It was because of this number that the army was able to contain much of the revolutionary elements.

It was during the time of the paramilitary build up that the FARC also was building power. In Caquetá, the FARC had established supremacy. They had not only achieved territorial supremacy but also in drug production and processing zones. By the time the cocaine bonanza hit everyone from the peasants producers of the coca leaf to the most powerful drug barons was working for them. In addition to the coca the FARC were also working closely with the Colombian Communist Party to develop a legal political movement for the movement. In 1985 the Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica) was formed from their work. This was seen by many as a slight against the government. Many people felt that the creation of the Patriotic Union was a sign of government weakness since the Unión Patriótica was the legal arm of an illegal movement. However, this tactic of combining the armed and unarmed branches of an organization was not the first of its kind in Colombian history. The Colombian Communist Party had done it in the days of La Violencia and even the ELN had partaken once. Back during the Betancur peace accords they had given up their military line and started to infiltrate labor unions and civic movements. The Patriotic Union was a little more successful than the previous attempt but fell to the same retributions the earlier model had experienced. Between 1984 and 1993 and “estimated 1,163 members of the [Unión Patriótica] were executed, [and] at least 123 members disappeared.” These numbers confirmed that the times had not changed despite the attempts at consolidation. The actions were simple and direct in conveying that there was still no place for other political parties in Colombian politics. Moreover, the government violated human rights like it had in the days of La Violencia with the most notable numbers in areas where the Patriotic Union had the greatest electoral support. After the crackdown the Patriotic Union essentially fell apart and many members returned to guerilla organizations. The even bigger loss than the destruction of the party was the loss in faith by the citizens in the Colombian states ability to negotiate with dissident groups.

The defeat and destruction of the Unión Patriótica marked the end of a cycle in Colombia. The process of change has always been fought within Colombia with the Conservative and Liberal elites always seeking to undermine any reform that would threaten their political supremacy. This ideology was and is what continues to prevent the nation from moving forward. The ideology along with the unwillingness of the elites and clergy members to make policy that is beneficial to all has been detrimental in healing wounds between class lines. This inability to compromise led to the violence that took place in the late 1950s and early 1960s which combined with poor economic policies, provided the perfect environment for rebel movements and paramilitaries to thrive and take advantage of the governments short comings. In turn, the citizens’ who had no economic future then turned to these organizations with the idea that it was opportunity for a better future. This future still eludes the poor today and the cycle of violence, economic hardship, and political oppression still continues today. The political situation has tried to be altered twice and both attempts failed. Until, the government accepts opposition parties and dictates an economic policy fair to all levels of society, there will always be turmoil. Once the government realizes that the common people hold the key to Colombia's success. Only then can Colombia's dream of peace can be finally realized.


About the author

Sam Hazelwood

Avid traveler. Father. Weekend hiker. I enjoy almost every sport but football is #1. My other passion is to write historical fiction. So be on the lookout for my book. Thanks for reading!

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