50 years of civil war

By Rhia Perkins

Human rights atrocities and widespread violence are daily occurrences in Colombia. In fact, for the last 50 years, life in this country has been so typified by civil war, the country has earned the moniker of "Most Violent Country in the Western Hemisphere."

Reports suggest dozens of people are killed each day and frequent threats are made against innocent civilians, and both national and international human rights workers.

Colombia suffers from problems typical to Latin America–extreme poverty, unequal distribution of wealth and land, and unequal advances in technology and community development. In Colombia, the rich stay rich and the poor get increasingly poorer.

Recent problems
A recent atrocity took place in San José de Apartado, a small, neutral village in the Ubará region of Colombia. On Feb. 19, a group of armed men entered the village and sought out specific individuals, later murdering five and injuring two. Members of two international groups, Peace Brigades International and the Intercongregational Commission of Justice and Peace, were present in the village at the time, indicating that paramilitary groups are no longer worried about the presence of international observers. The police did not appear until two hours after the shootings, despite warnings they were going to happen, and the army arrived three hours later.

Another recent incident that illustrated the reality of the violence in Colombia involved the U’wa tribe. In late January, the military evicted the natives from their land in the northeast of Colombia. The lands surrounded an Occidental Petroleum drill site, and the military acted in accordance with Occidental’s plans to expand into the surrounding area. On Feb. 11, the national police again moved into the area to disperse a peaceful roadblock the U’wa had mounted on a road approaching the drill site. The approximately 150 officers that approached the site used tear gas to force the protesters into a nearby river. Three children drowned in the attack and 15 members of the tribe are considered missing. Military and police occupation of the area continues and supporters from throughout the country are being denied access.

The most recent atrocities took place on March 27. Over 300 guerrillas entered the town of Vigía del Puerto, and commenced shooting–first at the police fortification of the village, then at houses, and finally at the local hospital. Thirty-six people died in the attack–including two toddlers. Simultaneously, another guerrilla battalion attacked a correctional institute in Bellavista, kidnapping seven of the officers.

Clearly, something has to be done to resolve the conflicts and human rights violations in Colombia, but the matter is far more complex than mainstream media might have you believe.

The heart of the issue
"The biggest cause [of the conflict] is poverty and the inability of the state to provide the minimum living conditions in some areas," says Dan Pulido, a student who recently returned to Colombia after studying at the University of Calgary.

The state’s lack of ability in aiding the plight of the poor has given rise to civilian unrest. Two guerrilla groups began fighting to improve standards of life in rural areas, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (eln).

Originally, the groups were motivated by strong ideological ideas, said U of C Dean of Social Sciences Dr. Stephen J. Randall.

"They wanted to destroy capitalism, internationally destroy capitalist states, including the US, rather than to harm their own society," he said.

Increasingly, however, guerrilla groups are motivated by the personal wealth they have steadily amassed throughout the conflict.

"The conflict has moved from the capitalist-Marxist confrontation, and the guerrilla’s ideological principles have vanished," said Pulido. "The truth of the matter is they are responsible for the increasing levels of poverty. They destroy the electrical infrastructure, oil pipelines… deviate scarce financial resources from social investments to military build-up. They don’t have an ideal, they just want to take their part of the cake and make themselves rich."

The matter is further complicated by the proliferation of paramilitary groups. Composed of trained civilians and often funded by the regular military and local elite, paramilitaries are responsible for about 70 per cent of the deaths that occur every day in Colombia.

Nevertheless, popular support for the paramilitaries is on the rise.

"They’re the only protection [civilians have]," said Randall. "The army simply can’t cover the entire country, it’s huge. It’s very difficult terrain."

The damage
Tragically, the victims of the conflict are those the guerrillas originally set out to defend. Nearly all the fighting takes place in rural areas that were already suffering from extreme poverty, and these military, guerilla and paramilitary groups also target human rights organizations and other groups that work to effect change.

"Basically speaking, the typical victims of violence in Colombia are not guerrillas or paramilitaries or even soldiers," said Lucho van Isschot, a PBI representative. "They are typically civilians and there are sectors of the civilian population which are especially vulnerable–human rights workers, union organizers, community organizers, teachers, those kinds of people."

Randall agrees the outspoken sectors of society tend to be targeted.

"There’s a high degree of unpredictability and for high profile people–journalists, prominent business people, well-to-do families, for example–their risk is significant," he said. "There have been individual assassinations of people who have been outspoken on issues, whether it’s been journalists, judges, lawyers, academics [or] labour leaders."

In the past year, international human rights workers have been included in that list, with threats issued against organizations in the Ubará area. On March 8, 1999, three US human rights workers were killed by FARC.

Pulido faults the guerrillas for a lack of respect of human life.

"Guerrillas use civilians as shields when they fight the army, they kill innocent people, they incorporate minors in their armies," he said. "I believe the Colombian Army is very conscious about human rights and they’ve been receiving unfair treatment from international agencies."

Still, it is the rural population that is particularly targeted by guerrillas and the paramilitary alike.

"The people who feel their lives are in danger are the people from the rural areas," said Mónica Heincke, a Colombian student currently at the U of C. "People who are in isolated areas, who have no property control from the government."

Currently there are between 1.5 to 2 million displaced people in Colombia, giving it one of the highest percentages of displacement in the world.

"Displacement has occurred in areas where there were investors eager to create new projects," said van Isschot. "One group or another clears an area of land so that they can pacify it and then secure the economic interests for those people who want to invest in that region."

People forced from their land in this manner usually flee to the cities where, despite the decreased effect of the conflict, there are few resources to house and feed them.

"Lots of people are escaping from war and they end up in the big cities starving, or even worse, as criminals," said Pulido.

Displacement is often considered the most serious consequence of the rural violence.

"It has greatly increased the massive level of impoverishment. In a population of 4 million people, 1.2 million is not insignificant no matter how you look at it," said Randall. "They clearly are desperate in many cases. Families have been in some cases destroyed, sometimes they have left as an entire family, sometimes they have fled because the males of the household have been killed, or have joined one of the paramilitary or the guerrilla movements. They’ve headed, as you would expect, for the periphery of cities with the result that it has increased significantly the number of shantytowns on the edge of major cities."

Nevertheless, Randall is reluctant to blame business interests.

"It’s the random and organized violence in the countryside, not economic development that is driving that displacement," he said. "I think it would be really very misleading to suggest that business is driving indigenous people out of the areas. They’re not coming primarily from indigenous areas–they’re coming from areas which are campesino [rural workers] dominated."

The disappearences
People who are considered subversive or dangerous by controlling groups in Colombia are often kidnapped and never seen again. While the problem is not of the same magnitude in Colombia as it was in countries like Chile or Argentina, currently 3,000-5,000 Colombians are considered "disappeared."

"The government has been reluctant to approve laws that would have ‘forced disappearance’ tried as a crime against humanity," said van Isschot. "For about 12 years now, it’s been discussed in the Colombian congress and it was just vetoed by the president a couple of months ago."

Heincke recognizes the kidnappings as one of the things that brings the conflict closest to the cities.

"I haven’t [known] any [people] kidnapped," she said, "but my friends–their fathers have been kidnapped. It’s very desperate if you have any relatives or friends involved."

According to Randall, ransom earned by political kidnappings are also an important source of funds for both the guerrilla movement and other impoverished political groups.

The drug trade
There is some argument concerning the importance of the Colombian drug trade to the conflict, although it was certainly not one of the original causes of the civil war.

"Both guerilla movements were originally [in the 1960s], and for a very long period of time, quite opposed to any involvement with narcotics for ideological reasons," said Randall. "At that stage, through the 1970s, with the exception of marijuana production and export, there was no cocaine growing in Colombia of any significance at all."

With time, however, things have changed.

"Gradually FARC recognized the potential source of income generated by running protection for narcotics cartels. An alliance was formed. If there was no drug trafficking right now, there would be no guerrilla movement. At least there wouldn’t be a successful guerrilla movement because their source of funding is primarily from narcotics."

Heincke agrees that the economic side of the narcotics trade is important to the guerrilla movements.

"In some ways [the combatants] have been financed by the drug trafficking… but the conflict is not really about that," she said. "Giving the main reason to the drug trade or things like that, as has been happening for the past couple of years… I think that has really damaged the [country’s] image, and it causes really serious problems for the country in all senses."

Pulido agrees that the importance of the drug trade has been wrongly represented in the media.

"The impact of drug related money is not as important as they think in the developed countries," he said. "The drug trade has diminished compared to the end of the ’80s and the beginning of the ’90s. The big drug cartels have been dismantled."

Hopes for peace
The federal government is currently negotiating with FARC and other armed forces and together they have developed a 12-point agenda detailing the issues that need to be addressed.

"The problem is, aside from the diplomatic discussions between FARC and the government, there are few positive signs on the ground that peace is going to come soon," said van Isschot. "Levels of violence are higher than they were a couple of years ago, as in some ways the two sides jockey for position."

Randall is also skeptical about the peace process.

"The peace negotiations really have not been at all successful," he said. "There has been very little accomplished at this stage, partially because the terms may not be workable. FARC has a demilitarized territory southeast of Bogotá, which is about the size of Switzerland, in which, effectively, they’re the civil and military power. It’s significantly increased their bargaining power. The [Andres] Pastrana government is more committed to a peaceful solution, but in order to accomplish that, both sides really have to find the basis to agree on. FARC’s demands continue to be that the paramilitaries be disarmed. The paramilitaries are never going to agree."

He sees this guerrilla power as one of the more difficult aspects of the peace process.

"In spite of the fact that we may be somewhat sympathetic to guerrilla movements, neither FARC or eln has a very good case politically in the country," said Randall. "They’re a terrorist organization, they’re ultimately also an organization that has lost any purity to their ideology. [There are] kids who’ve been born into the movement who know no other life. It has become a way of life; the extortion and violence is a reality."

The US government’s Plan Colombia, which would see approximately $1.6 billion dollars put into military aid and development assistance, is currently awaiting approval. It’s dubious whether a military solution would have any success.

"The government has not been able to defeat the insurgency in the last 35 years, so why will they be able to do so now?" asked Randall.

Heincke, though positive about peace, also sees it as a long and difficult process.

"I think that peace is achievable, but not in the short term," she said. "The problem is, if the conflict finished right now, the people who are fighting won’t have any jobs. It’s a problem of employment too; it’s affecting the economy. The government and international community should offer other alternatives for people to survive."

International presence
To a certain extent, the presence of international non-governmental organizations promoting human rights and acting as watchdogs for the rest of the world is making a difference.

PBI is one of the groups currently working in Colombia. Their mandate is to provide accompaniment to human rights workers and other people whose lives are in danger in Colombia and other conflicted countries.

"We’ve been there for five years and we’re planning to stay as long as Colombian organizations see the need for an international presence," said van Isschot. "Our role is to be the conscience of the international community in Colombia."

Isschot was quick to note that they are only one of the groups active in the country.

"Probably the most successful one is Amnesty International," he said. He also mentioned the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America, a group based in Toronto.

Environmental groups are also involved in Colombia.

"In Colombia, it’s a bit of a stretch to be worried about the forest when there’s an entire culture ready to kill themselves to protect their land in face of an oil company, so in this instance we’re concerned about human rights," said Jeff Emmett of Forest Action Network. "The environmental destruction is there, but definitely not as compelling."

Through the Rainforest Action Network Emmett has been involved in the U’wa issue.

Perhaps the most important function of non-governmental organizations in Colombia is to raise public awareness.

"I think the most important thing is to let our government, in particular the ministry of foreign affairs, know that you’re conscious of what’s going on in Colombia," he said.

"The other impact that organizations can have… is in helping to sensitize the international community to the problems that exist and the complexity of the problems," said Randall. "They are complex. It’s not simply a kind of black and white situation where one side’s completely right and the other side is completely wrong. There are more than two sides in this conflict."

While Colombia is certainly facing some serious problems and has been embroiled in this conflict for some time, it is important to remember that there is more to the country than its civil war.

"I get distressed when I read the [paper]–they talk about Colombia being half-lobotomized," said Randall.

"It’s such an inaccurate way of describing a very sophisticated, complex, and very troubled country right now. There’s still a huge middle class, they’re productive, highly educated… It’s a very vibrant, highly cultured society, where most people go through their daily lives without much interference. [But] large numbers of the middle class and the elite are gone. They are tired, frankly, of being threatened on a constant basis."

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