Court says Colombian state exterminated left-wing Patriotic Union, but doesn’t mention U.S. role
Photographs of disappeared and murdered members of the Patriotic Union political party sit on a table during an event in honor of the victims of the nation's armed conflict in Bogota, Colombia, Oct. 18, 2012. Leaders of the political party were systematically gunned down by right-wing death squads linked to the Colombian military. | William Fernando Martinez / AP

Rubí Andrea Forero has been coping with her father’s murder for over three decades. A prominent left-wing political and trade union leader in Colombia, he was assassinated when she was only a teenager. For all these years, she has been waiting for justice.

Now 52 years old, she talked recently to Prensa Latina about a court ruling in the case filed by her father’s political movement, the Patriotic Union, against Colombia’s government.

The court’s decision has brought her some sense of relief, finally.

Her father was killed on Feb. 27, 1989, and since then she has been all too aware of the “impunity” for his killers and “continuing crimes.” She recalls “silent longings and frustrated dreams from the war” and the “fears, absences, and frustrations” of families and friends.

Teofilo Forero, Rubí’s father, was a union president, a deputy in the Cundinamarca legislature, and Bogota City councilor. Nationally, he was a leader of the CTC Labor Federation and organization secretary of Colombia’s Communist Party.

That party, as explained in Rubí’s Prensa Latina interview, was the “vertebral column of the Patriotic Union (UP in Spanish-language initials).” The UP dates from 1985, and the Communist Party was its central core, providing direction for the coalition.

On Jan. 30 this year, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) announced its long-anticipated ruling in the UP case. The Court named the Colombian state as responsible “for violations of human rights committed against more than 6,000 members of the Patriotic Union political party during a period that began in 1984 and lasted for more than 20 years.”

The Special Jurisdiction for Peace, a body established under the 2016 Peace Agreement between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government, indicated in 2022 that “5,733 persons were assassinated or disappeared in attacks directed against the UP.”

The Court ruling cites a “plan of systematic extermination … relying on participation by state agents and acquiescence by authorities.” It cites “forced disappearances, massacres, extrajudicial executions, assassinations … [and] impunity.”

The peace agreement between FARC and Colombia’s government in 1984 enabled demobilized FARC insurgents, Communist Party activists, and others to create the UP. The organization undertook to “promote the social, economic, and political transformations necessary for building a peace with social justice,” according to Corporación Reiniciar, a stalwart defender of the UP since 1992.

As 1985 closed, the UP had established “2,229 grassroots organizations” in more than 200 municipalities and rural districts. In early 1986, 15 UP candidates were elected to Colombia’s Congress, 18 to departmental legislatures, and 335 to city councils; there were 23 UP mayors.

In elections a few weeks later, UP candidate Jaime Pardo Leal proved to be the third most popular presidential candidate. The UP was a powerful political force.

Then came the catastrophe.

Teofilo Forero, one of the leading figures of the Patriotic Union, the Communist Party, and Colombia’s main trade union federation, was murdered by the right wing in February 1989. | via PCC

Assassins killed “nine congresspersons, 70 city council members, and dozens of deputies, mayors, and grassroots leaders,” and also “labor leaders, students, artists, activists, and sympathizers” from all sectors. Two presidential candidates would be murdered.

In its decision last month, the IACHR Court ordered reparations for all these atrocities. The state was ordered to pursue investigations of “gross violations of human rights and [that way] determine penal responsibilities.”

In addition, those who were “disappeared” must be located, victims cared for, and the Court’s decision publicized. The Court called for protecting UP activists now, a national educational campaign, recompense for “material and immaterial damages,” and a national day of commemorating UP victims.

The Reiniciar Corporation in 1993 led in submitting the UP case to the IACHR. That agency collected evidence and collaborated with the Colombian government to reach a settlement, but to no avail. Years later, in 2017, the case moved to the IACHR Court.

No longer able to field electoral candidates, the UP in 2002 lost its “judicial personhood” and state recognition of its status as a political party. Reacting to IACHR’s verification of persecution, election officials in 2013 restored the UP’s former status.

UP’s participation in elections was evident recently in the party having joined the victorious Historic Pact coalition of President Gustavo Petro. Former UP activist Germán Umaña now serves as minister of commerce in the Petro government. He had abandoned political life after the assassination in 1998 of his brother Eduardo Umaña, a law professor and defender of human rights.

Revival of the UP and its distancing from a violent past go along with Colombia’s tentative turn to peace. In that regard, the government on Jan. 1 announced a ceasefire among combatant groups; among them the Colombian Army, National Liberation Army guerrillas, two groups of narco-trafficking paramilitaries, and two dissident insurgencies formerly part of the now defunct FARC.

However, the UP story is about U.S. military intervention as well as peace in Colombia.

Journalist Nelson Lombana Silva sees the IACHR Court decision as “not solely applying to the Colombian state, but also to Colombia’s liberal-conservative, criminal oligarchy that decided to remove this political movement,” and did so “with U.S. participation.”

Historian Ivan David Ortiz is the author of the 2007 book, El Genocidio Político contra la Unión Patriótica (in English, The Political Genocide against the Patriotic Union). Investigating the failure of the 1984 peace agreement, he noted the FARC’s explanation at the time, that “hegemonic political and economic sectors continued the warlike policies of the United States.” He cited the FARC’s claim that “the anti-peace offensive in Colombia came from the Pentagon.”

An Amnesty International report of 2005 covers the same ground:

“Efforts by the government of President Belisario Betancur (1982-86) to initiate peace talks with guerrilla groups in the mid-1980s heightened concern that any peace agreement would have entailed land and other socio-economic reforms.

“This dynamic strengthened the alliance between the traditional economic elites and the armed forces and spurred on the development of paramilitary structures under the coordination of the armed forces.”

Accessory information points to U.S. involvement within this context. Paramilitaries bore most of the direct responsibility for massacring the Patriotic Union. They coordinate their operations with Colombia’s military, which has a supervisory role, as documented here and here.

The impetus for the paramilitary phenomenon derived from recommendations of a U.S. “Special Warfare” consulting team in 1962.

Secondly, Colombia’s military, the paramilitaries’ senior partner, thrives due in part to the U.S. government’s generous support and financing. The flow of billions of dollars to Colombia’s military is notable. It began in 2000 under the U.S.’ “Plan Columbia” and continued for more than ten years.

The “war on drugs,” the usual justification for U.S. partnering with Colombia’s military, has been useful as a cover for war against leftist guerrillas and against left-leaning political groups and social movements.

Ultimately, it seems, there was a big element of the U.S. proxy war in the deadly suppression of the UP. U.S. would-be masters of global affairs have long manifested instant readiness to blot out popular risings viewed as threatening to their accustomed ways.


W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.