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In Colombia, violence is a way of life

U.S. military and economic aid to Colombia has increased more than tenfold during the past decade -- to $300 million this year, and the Clinton administration is proposing another huge aid package of between $1 billion and $1.5 billion over the next three years. The funds are aimed at helping Colombia fight the drug trade and insurgents. However, critics warn against flooding the region with more weapons and becoming deeply engaged in another Latin American civil dispute.

Meanwhile, the violence continues. The mayor of a small Colombian town was murdered by unidentified gunmen Sept. 19. Marco Emilio Londono of Vistahermosa became at least the eighth mayor to die in political violence this year. One bright note was the release the same day of Bishop José de Jesús Quintero Díaz of Tibú. The bishop was kidnapped twice in the past year. In a radio message the guerrillas that did the kidnapping apologized to the pope and explained the action as "a desperate measure to attract the nation’s attention."

The following is an explanation of the groups and some of the circumstances fueling the long battle in Colombia.

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Putumayo, Colombia

On April 9, 1948, during the presidential race that pitted Colombia’s traditional political and economic powers, the liberals and conservatives, against each other, liberal candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was murdered. He had proposed transforming Colombia’s semi-feudal economy in favor of workers and campesinos, to whom he had offered access to land and significant improvements in labor rights.

Gaitán’s death gave rise to what would come to be known as “the violence,” which has shed Colombian blood for 50 years and cost a million lives. One of every three Colombians has a relative who has been killed, kidnapped, wounded or displaced.

“The violence” has become an entrenched conflict extending far beyond the economic and political spheres, a way of life with no end in sight. As journalist Jaime Garzón -- who was murdered Aug. 6 -- said, “The war in Colombia is no longer a conflict, it’s a business.”

Days before his death, Garzón, the first popularly elected mayor who dared to enter into dialogue with the guerrillas in search of a peace accord, told Ecuadorian journalist Jeanette Hinostroza how he felt about the Colombian conflict and the peace talks in which he participated.

“The conflict in Colombia isn’t the guerrillas. The guerrillas are puppets. The paramilitaries are puppets. The army is a puppet. We have to look for the puppeteers,” he said. “The war in Colombia is no longer a conflict; it’s a business, a business of the North Americans and all those who sell weapons.”

Guerrillas, paramilitaries and the army, as well as the equally violent drug-traffickers, are the main players in the business of war. The guerrillas have gained control of 40 percent of Colombia’s territory, while the narcotics traffickers control 80 percent of the world’s cocaine production.

A war with many faces

To understand the Colombian conflict, however, it is necessary to comprehend its various faces. The conflict is different at the national, regional and local levels, depending on the influence of the actors. The root cause, however, remains what it was in Gaitán’s day -- increasing social injustice, inequitable distribution of wealth, generalized corruption and a high level of immunity, factors that have made possible the growth of armed groups as well as the business of drug trafficking.

It is a curious matter of ethics, said the Rev. Jorge Martínez Restrepo, secretary general of the National Conciliation Commission of Colombia, that is fundamental to the peace process.

“Within the insurgent groups, the problem of ethics, whether well or poorly defined, well or poorly perceived, is a central point of the conflict in Colombia,” Martínez said.

In fact, the fundamental obstacle keeping the Simon Bolívar Guerrilla Coordinating Committee from pulling together all guerrilla groups and presenting a united front in peace talks with the government is rooted in an ethical problem. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) do not want to be associated with people who blow up oil pipelines and endanger the environment -- a reference to the military actions of the National Liberation Army (ELN), which refuses to negotiate with the FARC, which it considers to be overly involved with drug traffickers.

These divergent views of ethics have led the warring parties to deceive one another in order to consolidate their positions.

There are five guerrilla groups in Colombia: the FARC, ELN, Popular Liberation Army (EPL), Simón Bolívar Guerrilla Coordinating Committee and the Jaime Canón Movement.

The FARC and ELN are the oldest guerrilla groups and the ones whose political and military structure has created the greatest problems for the government. Analysts say these two groups cannot be defeated by the regular Colombian army, which has a force of 50,000 soldiers, half of whom are directly involved in anti-guerrilla action. At the same time, however, the guerrillas lack the ability to defeat the army and set up their own government.

This ill-defined situation has led to a series of stumbling attempts at negotiations between the government and the guerrillas, in which pressure has been applied through kidnappings, military attacks and takeovers of towns close to Colombia’s three main cities, a kind of blackmail meant to demonstrate the guerrillas’ military might and Colombian society’s vulnerability to the armed groups.

The FARC now has a force of 15,000 guerrillas, a high percentage of whom are minors, some only 13 or 14 years old. They have gained the demilitarization, or liberation, of a 42,000-square-kilometer area consisting of four provinces in the department of Meta and one in the department of Caquet, in southern Colombia.

After the area was established last December, the FARC and the Colombian government tried to begin peace talks in San Vicente del Cahun Jan. 7. The talks never got off the ground, however, and subsequent overtures have also failed.

The zone is under complete FARC control -- so much so that on Aug. 18 the guerrillas invited the mothers of soldiers being held hostage to travel to San Vicente del Cahun, guaranteeing them lodging and food for a day, as well as 100,000 pesos (about $65) for bus fare.

In an official communiqué, the FARC said the meeting was arranged to allow the mothers to see how their sons were faring and learn about the Exchange Law that the FARC has proposed, under which these soldiers and police officers would be swapped for hundreds of jailed rebels.

The talks, which technically are not negotiations, center on a proposal by the administration of President Andrés Pastraña for a national government of reconstruction and reconciliation, and a 10-point agenda presented by the FARC. According to the guerrillas, however, the dialogue has bogged down because the government has not taken definite steps to eliminate paramilitary forces that have been responsible for human rights violations and crimes against humanity.

At the bottom of the issue, however, is the government’s refusal to discuss an exchange of prisoners.

Seeking a change in status

The FARC is not interested in the exchange itself, but rather in what such a deal would represent from the standpoint of international law: implicit, if not explicit, recognition of the FARC as a belligerent in the conflict -- recognition that it is, or at least could be, a state with its own territory, army and political authority in a specific area. For that reason, FARC leader Manuel “Sure Shot” Marulanda, who by now is considered the oldest guerrilla in the world, won’t back down on the prisoner exchange.

Some analysts have even said that such a territory could be called the Bolivariano state, and that this is what the FARC has in mind for the demilitarized zone. As a result, analysts say, although they have not abandoned the idea of having some influence on the Colombian government, the guerrillas’ present emphasis is on establishing a government in their own area.

During the meeting in San Vicente del Cahun, a guerrilla asked one of the participants, “When will we really become our government’s army?”

The question might not be as presumptuous as it may seem. A number of international treaties list the conditions for recognition of a group’s status as a belligerent. These include:

  • a state of war, classed as internal armed conflict;
  • possession of territory and established jurisdiction within that territory (for this reason, the FARC ordered all judges and legal authorities out of the demilitarized zone; the only recognized officials are popularly elected mayors, not representatives of the Colombian government);
  • a military organization under the command of a competent authority;
  • hostilities conducted according to international humanitarian law.

Tipping the scales

It appears to many here that the FARC meet these requirements, tipping the scales toward its recognition as a belligerent. Such recognition would increase the possibility of that territory being viewed as an independent state. Such status would change the nature of the war, from internal armed conflict to international armed conflict between two states.

If that is the case, members of the armed group could not be tried by legal authorities in the other state -- in this case, by the Colombian government -- since they would not be subject to its criminal laws.

The armed group also would be recognized as representing a new state, able to enter into international treaties and legal commerce, and representatives of the group could request and obtain diplomatic privileges and immunity.

Pastraña, the Colombian president, fears recognition of the FARC as a belligerent in the conflict. As a result, the administration takes a dim view of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s offer to hold talks with the rebels, since this could set a valuable legal precedent in the guerrillas’ favor. Guillermo Fernandez de Soto, Colombia’s foreign relations minister, announced that any talks between the Venezuelan president and the guerrillas could be considered meddling in Colombia’s internal affairs and refused to allow such talks in Colombian territory, to which Chavez replied, “I don’t need anyone’s authorization to talk with Colombian guerrillas in Venezuelan territory.”

The possibility of direct talks with Venezuela came about as a result of the hijacking of a Venezuelan airliner with 16 passengers on July 31. The guerrillas later said the hijacking was a mistake and returned the plane and passengers.

The killing by paramilitaries of a group of indigenous people on the border with Panama at about the same time led Bishop Carlos María Ariz of Colón, Panama, to propose peace talks between that country’s government and the guerrillas, paramilitaries and Colombian army on the common border.

The ELN, meanwhile, which has about 5,000 guerrillas in its forces, arose under the influence of liberation theologies, with top posts held by active and former priests and nuns, such as the recently deceased Spanish priest Manuel Pérez, who was the ELN’s top commander, and Fr. Camilo Torres. Many active and former religious are still members of the ELN’s internal and international support groups.

The ELN recognized the role of civil society organizations, including the church, during talks last year in Germany, at which three main issues were defined. The ELN committed itself to peace talks with the government and agreed to act according to international humanitarian law. The group also agreed to a National Convention for Peace in Colombia.

Various analysts agree that future talks will hinge on the freeing of at least 70 hostages in exchange for demilitarization of an area where the National Convention, proposed by the guerrilla group, will be held.

The idea of a demilitarized zone for the ELN was raised in February in Caracas, but the government rejected the proposal, triggering the kidnapping of at least 222 people in massive actions between April and June in Bucaramanga, Cali and Barranquilla and stalling any possibility of a peace process with the armed group.

Official figures put the number of people kidnapped by the guerrillas at 667, but independent observers say there are between 700 and 900 hostages, including 19 foreigners.

The government has said it will talk with the ELN only if the hostages are freed. However, at the request of a group of politicians, academics and union leaders, the administration on Aug. 4 named a commission to try to unblock the process. But the first scheduled meeting between the high-level delegation and ELN representatives in the Itag maximum-security prison was suspended because of the assassination of journalist Jaime Garzón, who was a member of the commission.

“The ELN is hoping that the collective abductions will make the government say yes to demilitarization of the area the ELN specifies. They don’t say this openly, but I think that’s the stumbling block: They will free the hostages in exchange for a demilitarized zone,” said one analyst who asked not to be identified.

“Pastraña is entangled with the FARC. There are no clear rules in that group’s demilitarized area in the southern part of the country. The situation there has not been normalized, and there are problems with the creation of a verification commission. So how can this new step be taken?” the analyst asked.

Paramilitary forces, known as the United Self-Defense of Colombia (AUC) and led by Carlos Castao, are also among the most violent players in the conflict. While the paramilitaries claim to have a political plan, unlike the guerrillas, they have not been officially recognized by either Pastraña’s administration or other governments.

Taking the position that if the fish cannot be caught, the river must be drained, the 3,000 armed members of the AUC direct their military action against civilians, not attacking the guerrillas directly unless confrontation is inevitable.

For the AUC, anyone living in the conflict zone is a potential guerrilla sympathizer and, therefore, a military target. The pastor of a parish in a town frequently attacked by paramilitaries said, “Often when the guerrillas come to buy things, while people are loading their supplies onto a truck, they go into the bar to play pool. Later the paramilitaries come and kill the owner of the bar because he aided the guerrillas.”

In a statement sent to the National Conciliation Commission, Carlos Castao justified the paramilitaries’ actions, saying that “a broad sector of the para-guerrillas (abettors, disguised activists, informants, couriers, collectors, extortionists, drivers, political bosses, etc.) is protected in the community, alternating between apparently civilian duties and providing military and logistical support.”

According to Colombian army figures, in the first seven months of 1999, paramilitaries murdered 361 people, not counting the massacre of the Panamanian indigenous people. They also have threatened to extend their activity into neighboring countries that supply the guerrillas and have set up training camps for Ecuadorian and Venezuelan citizens.

Drug traffickers

Rounding out the cast of players are the bands of drug-traffickers who pay off guerrillas, paramilitaries or Colombian soldiers -- depending on who controls the area where drug crops are grown and processed -- in order to use clandestine airstrips, transport cargo, plant crops and move freely in the area.

Drug trafficking has infiltrated every corner of Colombian society, even international circles. Laurie Anne Hiett, wife of Col. James Hiett, head of the U.S. anti-narcotics forces in Colombia, and six members of the U.S. Embassy staff in Bogotá are under investigation for their involvement in shipping cocaine to the United States.

The alarming increase in drug trafficking prompted Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the U.S. “drug czar,” to make a swing through Latin America in August to drum up support for eradication of the problem.

One point on his agenda was gaining backing for setting up U.S. military bases and establishing a military ring around Colombia.

During McCaffrey’s visits to Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, the possibility of military intervention, either by the United States or a multinational Latin American force, was raised as a way of resolving, once and for all, the linked problems of guerrilla violence and drug trafficking. Retired Gen. Harold Bedoya, former commander of the armed forces of Colombia, is a strong advocate of a military solution and aid from foreign military forces.

The United States maintains bases of operations on the Netherlands Antilles island of Curacao and in Manta, Ecuador, as well as an elite force of some 270 advisers in Colombia, which uses the military base in the southeastern department of Meta. U.S. and Colombian military officials have insisted that they engage only in anti-narcotics, not counterinsurgency, duties, but the July crash in the FARC-controlled area of a military plane carrying five U.S. advisers and sophisticated intelligence-gathering equipment raised doubts among observers. Most of Colombia’s drug crop is grown in the southern department of Putumayo, in the FARC-controlled zone.

‘Military solution improbable’

U.S. officials and the governments of Colombia’s Latin American neighbors have denied any intention of intervening. During his recent visit to Colombia, Thomas Pickering, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, called the idea “totally insane, neither desirable nor possible.”

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright added, “After 38 years of fighting, it should be clear that a decisive military solution is improbable. President Pastraña was right to begin peace talks.”

The National Assembly for Peace backed that position, saying it “defends the right to self-determination to overcome the present difficulties” and calling for international solidarity in support of a negotiated settlement.

In Ecuador, meanwhile, Gen. Thelmo Sandoval, commander general of the army, called the matter “a Colombian problem [that] must be solved through Colombian political and military decisions.”

Venezuela went even further, forbidding U.S. military planes to enter its air space.

Ecuador, however, was said to have moved 5,000 troops to its northern border after discovering guerrilla encampments in its territory.

Peru has also placed 2,000 soldiers on its border with Colombia in order to rebuff any attempted infiltration by the FARC or ELN, which have 2,600 and 3,400 soldiers respectively in the border area.

Given the complications of the present situation, civil society efforts at negotiation -- such as the 1997 “Citizen Mandate for Peace, Life and Liberty,” in which 10 million voters called for all parties to the conflict to adhere to humanitarian norms -- seem to be reduced to good intentions.

There is increasing pressure for the government, guerrillas and paramilitaries to allow civilian organizations to participate in peace negotiations, since these have, as their ultimate goal, the construction of a democratic society.

Even in this, however, there is not a united front. Martínez said of his experience during the meetings in Germany, “The moderator’s most difficult role was not seeking consensus between the ELN and civil organizations, but trying to reach consensus among the members of civil society -- business people, union leaders, the population, [nongovernmental organizations] and others.”

Luis Angel Saavedra is a freelance writer based in Quito, Ecuador. The story was translated by Barbara J. Fraser, director of Latin-america Press.

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 1999