After 52 years of war and four years of negotiations, the Colombian people will vote October 2 in a plebiscite to decide yes or no on the peace agreement signed by the government and the FARC-EP insurgency on August 24. Public opinion polls suggest the agreement will be approved by voters. Even ex-President Álvaro Uribe admitted September 12 that “it’s very possible that on October 2 the yes vote will win in the plebiscite.”
Presently, however, violence by paramilitaries and their increasing visibility pose a real threat to Colombia’s move toward peace. That reality is a cue for insisting that the U.S. government no longer support or turn a blind eye to Colombian paramilitaries.
Uribe is allied to big landowners and infamous for familial and political ties with paramilitary leaders. He is the leader of those Colombians opposed to the peace agreement. And once the agreement takes hold – if it does – and as implementation proceeds, they will likely be fomenting conflict of some sort.
The circumstances potentially giving rise to strife are evident in recent observations from an ally of Uribe. Wilson Rey Arias of Meta Department explained why he and Uribe captains in two other departments would, surprisingly, be voting yes in the plebiscite.
“My greatly admired friend President Uribe…walks around with more than 20 bodyguards,” he noted. “Their corrupt senators each have four or five body guards. They live in the capital cities, [while] millions of anonymous citizens have no security and live in war zones. That’s why those people are saying ‘yes’ to disarmament. [And] the corrupt politicians and big capitalists…will say no on the plebiscite… But the defenseless farming people, those who don’t live from politics and furthermore reject the corrupt Santos government say yes. It could be the beginning of peace.”
The skewed distribution of land and wealth that precipitated armed conflict in 1964 hasn’t gone away. Struggle will inevitably continue, but the peace agreement calls for peaceful political agitation. Will that happen as the fight for justice and survival of all Colombians goes on, or even intensifies?
The looming presence of war makers complicates matters. That’s where a U.S. hand operates. Presently, Colombia’s military and police number 450,000. The U.S. government has backed Colombian security forces, most recently with $10 billion provided during 15 years of Plan Colombia.
Ever since 1964, the United States has encouraged paramilitaries as an adjunct to the national army’s war against insurgents. They in turn have harassed, bullied, and killed recalcitrant rural inhabitants and dissenting political activists. Analyst Noam Chomsky cites an “official U.S. recommendation to rely on paramilitary terror against ‘known Communist proponents.'”
The U.S. government did support Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ leadership in pursuing a negotiated peace. Now, however, recent assaults on politically active civilians – presumably by paramilitaries – pose an urgent question: What’s that support going to look like henceforth? The two governments may be partners, but one may be hanging on to old, misbegotten ways for quashing popular struggle for rights and justice.
Currently, paramilitary formations are resurging across Colombia. They are active particularly in areas good for mining, industrial-scale agriculture, and hydroelectric projects. The FARC-EP has historically been strong in such areas. Under the peace agreement, they will be leaving and the door opens wider for exploitation. Municipalities throughout the departments of Antioquia, Chocó, Córdoba, and Cauca are examples.
In Antioquia, 50 well-armed men belonging to the “Gaitainista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia“ showed up September 8 in the village of San José de Apartadó, Antioquia – “under the noses of the police and the army.” Elsewhere in Apartadó, paramilitaries have carried out “property damage, death threats against community leaders, verbal harassment, and torture.”
San José de Apartadó sticks in the memory. In 1997, some 500 farming families declared themselves to be neutral in the conflict raging around them. They established themselves as a peace community; 200 of them have since been murdered.
Among recent murders:
Neiman Agustín Lara, July 15, Afro-Colombian leader, Community Council of Sierrita, Chiriguaná municipality-Cesar
Evaristo Dagua Tróchez, July 28, Patriot March member, founder of the Association of Peasant Workers, Peasant Reserve Zone, Corinto, Cauca
Camilo Roberto Taicus Bisbicus, August 26, indigenous leader, Nariño
Diego Alfredo Chirán Nastacuas, August 26, indigenous, Barbacoas, Nariño.
Luciano and Alberto Pascal García, brothers, August 29, Indigenous, Llorente, Nariño (For murders in Nariño, see here.)
Joel Meneses Meneses, Nereo Meneses Guzmán, Ariel Sotelo. August 29, Indigenous and peasant leaders, Almaguer, Cauca
Martha Pipicano, Libio Antonio Álvarez, Simón Álvarez Soscué, Salvador Acosta, September 5, farm workers, Sucre, Cauca.
María Fabiola Jiménez, September 9, community leader, Barbosa, Antioquia
Álvaro Rincón, September 11, affiliated with Community Action Board, San Pablo, Sur de Bolívar
Néstor Iván Martínez, September 11, spokesperson for Congress of the Peoples, member of Afro-Colombian community council, opposed big mining projects, La Sierrita, Cesar
William García Cartagena. September 16, lawyer, defended victims of armed conflict, Medellín, Antioquia
Ramiro Culma Capera, September 17, Communist Party leader, member of Patriotic Union, indigenous, Coyaima, Tolima
In its report for 2016, the Somos Defensores (We are Defenders) NGO lists 35 “defenders of human rights” murdered in Colombia in the first half of 2016. Of 232 death threats, the paramilitary Black Eagles group accounted for 119; the Gaitanista Self-Defense paramilitaries, 51.
The killing September 7, 2016 of Cecilia Coicue, a member of Patriotic March and other peasant and indigenous activist groups, epitomized the hazards of peace-making in Colombia. She had offered her 175-acre farm in Corinto, Cauca as one of 23 “zones of concentration.” These are places where, under the peace agreement, FARC insurgents will be going to give up arms. She “was vilely tortured and murdered 200 meters from her humble farm,” reported journalist Dick Emanuellson.
Cecilia Coicue was a member of Fensuagro, Colombia’s largest agricultural workers union. Discussing her killing with Emanuellson, Fensuagro’s president Eberto Díaz Montes declared that, “We know that Cecilia’s murder occurs just as the process of peace between the FARC and the government is culminating. We know that the process has many enemies – landowners, cattle ranchers, agribusinesses, and the military sector. They oppose a negotiated political solution.”
“They want the political solution to be hobbled,” he added, “so they can reverse whatever possibility there is for peace in the country… Cauca is one of the richest and most biodiverse areas we have Colombia.” Díaz cited water resources, the hydroelectric industry, cattle ranching, gold, and other mineral resources, and “mono cultivation of sugar.”
He continued, saying, “We are also disturbed that the government and the bourgeoisie don’t accept the idea that for there to be peace there must be redistribution of wealth and land. The free trade model has to be revised. In general, Colombian politics has to fit with the needs of the Colombian population.”
Díaz thus poses questions for U.S. defenders of peace and social justice in Colombia. How will the U.S. government respond to agitation for redistribution of wealth and land by Colombians emboldened by the peace agreement? Will the United States revert to the “dirty war” methods that characterized its reaction to those earlier popular movements that defied the Latin American status quo?
Those in charge in the United States have a stake in Colombia, as indicated by the U.S. free trade agreement with Colombia and by the $17 billion in U.S. exports to the country in 2015, and $14 billion in imports. Bi-national collaboration in promoting and protecting U.S. investments and business ventures in Colombia will continue, undoubtedly. Now is the time for a watchful eye on U.S. modes of support that will stop at nothing.
Photo: Paramilitaries train in Antioquia in northern Colombia. | R. Mazalan / AP