Details of the one-day conference and how to get regular updates on the situation in Columbia from Grupo Raíces can be found at the end of this article.
When Alvaro Uribe stood down as president of Colombia in August 2010, the BBC’s correspondent claimed that the right-wing leader “may go down as one of Colombia’s greatest presidents, with his policies for tackling guerrillas and drug-traffickers now a permanent fixture in the country.” According to the reporter, one “simple fact” stands out from his time in power: “President Uribe made Colombia a safer place.” This sort of bland, dishonest PR spin is what we’ve come to expect from the western media in its reporting on Alvaro Uribe: they are so desperate to find something good to say about Washington’s most dependable ally in the region that they will ignore all the scandals that have accumulated under Uribe’s presidency.
The facts tell a very different story. As president, Alvaro Uribe presided over one of the darkest periods in Colombian history. Paramilitary death squads were given amnesty although they continued to rape, torture and kill their victims. Trade unionists and human rights defenders were demonised by the government as “accomplices of terrorism”. Civilians were killed by the Colombian army in huge numbers, while journalists and magistrates who investigated the abuse of human rights were spied on by the president’s intelligence service. Uribe brought Colombia to the brink of a regional war to divert attention from the scandals which beset him, and ensured that there will be no end to its long domestic conflict for years to come.
War on the guerrillas, peace with the death squads
Much discussion of Uribe’s record is distorted by a false image of the Colombian civil war. According to this view, Colombia lacks peace and democracy because left-wing guerrillas have taken up arms against the state. By weakening the guerrillas, Uribe has made the country more peaceful than it was before he took office. But this argument turns reality on its head. The civil war did not begin when the FARC or the ELN took up arms. For decades, the Colombian elite has been using violence to crush opposition movements that demand a more just social order. This was happening long before the current guerrilla forces came into being. In the past, guerrilla movements have demobilised and established legal political parties, only to see their activists wiped out by state and paramilitary terror. If the FARC was defeated, it would not mean that Colombia’s conflict was over: it would just mean that one of the parties to that conflict had been eliminated, while the state and its paramilitary allies continued to use violence against civilian social movements.
One of the main initiatives of Uribe’s first term in office was the “Justice and Peace Law”, which offered an amnesty to right-wing paramilitaries in exchange for demobilisation. It is vital to remember that this was a peace deal between friends, not enemies. The right-wing death squads emerged as a major force in Colombian politics in the 1980s and ‘90s with the blessing of the state. They carried out massacres and assassinations while the army and the police looked the other way (often, the members of paramilitary groups were off-duty soldiers or policemen). The paramilitaries were responsible for the vast majority of human rights violations in Colombia, and were major players in the cocaine industry. By the time Uribe took power, the main paramilitary bosses had become very wealthy through drugs and other criminal enterprises. They had also grabbed huge tracts of land by using terror to drive off small farmers. Uribe’s amnesty gave them the chance to legalise their criminal fortunes and wipe the slate clean in return for mild sentences. Myles Frechette, the US ambassador to Colombia under the Clinton administration, described it as “an abomination”.
During the 2002 election, Uribe had been described by the paramilitary leader Carlos Castano as “the man closest to our philosophy”. Like the paramilitaries, Uribe demonised all opponents of the status quo in Colombia as “terrorists” or “terrorist sympathisers”. The rhetoric of Uribe and his ministers made it easier for the death squads to murder trade union leaders, journalists or lawyers. When Uribe ran for a second term in 2006, the still-active paramilitaries threatened that there would be a bloodbath if Uribe’s opponent won the election, and “disappeared” people campaigning for the opposition in their strongholds.
By the time Uribe stood down, it was clear that the “Justice and Peace Law” had proved to be a farce – just as his critics always said it would be. As Amnesty International reported in their 2010 Colombia report:
“Paramilitary groups continued to operate in many parts of the country, sometimes in collusion with sectors of the security forces. Their continued activities belied government claims that all paramilitaries had laid down their arms following a government-sponsored demobilization programme that began in 2003. The government claimed that violence attributed to these groups was solely drug-related and criminal in nature. However, the tactics employed by these groups to terrorize the civilian population, including death threats and massacres, reflected those used by paramilitary groups prior to demobilization. Human rights defenders, community leaders and other social activists continued to be targeted by such groups.”
Meanwhile the conflict with the guerrillas has continued. Media hype which suggested that the FARC were facing imminent defeat has been discredited by events: the guerrillas may be weaker now than a decade ago, but their insurgency has lasted since the 1960s, with ebbs and flows in that period, and there is no reason to think they will simply disappear. By insisting that the conflict with the FARC can be resolved by purely military means, Uribe has guaranteed that it will continue for years to come.
Para-politics, “false positives” and the DAS
Given the close practical and ideological relationship between Uribe’s government and the paramilitaries, it did not come as a huge surprise when courageous magistrates began uncovering direct links between his coalition and the death squads. More than sixty pro-Uribe members of Congress have been investigated for collaborating with the paramilitaries, with many facing criminal charges. These includes Mario Uribe, the president’s cousin and a close political ally of his. One of the most notable targets of the investigation was Jorge Noguera, the head of the DAS (an intelligence service that answers directly to the president). Noguera was charged with passing on the details of labour activists compiled by the DAS to paramilitaries so the trade unionists could be targeted and killed. Noguera had been Uribe’s campaign manager in the Magdalena province when he first ran for the presidency and had been appointed to his post by the new president. It was in the midst of the “para-politics” affair that Alvaro Uribe ordered the raid on a FARC camp in Ecuadorian territory which almost provoked a regional war in Latin America: his sabre-rattling provided a convenient distraction from the revelations on the home front.
Noguera’s arrest was not the last scandal involving the DAS under Uribe. In 2009, the current affairs magazine Semana exposed the surveillance of Colombian citizens by the DAS: targets of this domestic spying included supreme-court judges, opposition politicians, journalists, army officers and human rights activists. One of the main victims of DAS surveillance was Ivan Velasquez, the chief investigator in the para-politics scandal. In a three-month period, 1,900 of his phone conversations were logged; investigators working with Velasquez were also spied on, along with their families. Another subject of DAS snooping was Uribe’s opponent in the 2006 election.
Equally revealing of the true state of affairs in Colombia was the “false positives” controversy. It emerged that the Colombian army had been systematically murdering civilians, then dressing their bodies in the uniforms of guerrillas so that they could be chalked up as “kills” in the counter-insurgency war. The number of victims was initially estimated at 2,000, but this figure had to be increased when a mass grave was discovered outside an army base in La Macarena. There are approximately 2,000 bodies in this one grave alone. The army has admitted responsibility for the grave, claiming that the dead people are all guerrillas who were killed in combat. Since the bodies were buried in secret without being identified, in defiance of protocol for handling bodies of those killed by the Colombian military, it is safe to assume that the army is lying. La Macarena may not be the last dumping ground of “false positives” to be uncovered.
True to form, Alvaro Uribe paid a visit to La Macarena during the final months of his presidency: not to visit the mass grave, but to give his full backing to the army. Uribe denounced those investigating the grave as “terrorist spokespeople” and urged the army to “stay firm”. Jhonny Hurtado, one of the human rights activists investigating La Macarena, had already been murdered in an area patrolled by soldiers. As a last attention-seeking gesture before relinquishing power, Uribe filed a suit at the International Criminal Court, accusing the Venezuelan government of supporting the FARC. By rights, he should have been sitting in the ICC’s dock himself, charged with crimes against humanity during his brutal reign.
Uribe’s invented popularity
Few articles about Uribe have lacked a reference to his supposedly overwhelming popularity. Figures of 65%, 75% or even 80% have been bandied about. Yet this ignores the dubious methodology of the opinion polls which measured Uribe’s standing among the Colombian people. The main polling agency, Invamer-Gallup, bases its polls on interviews conducted in the four largest Colombian cities: Bogota, Medellin, Barranquila, and Cali. Less than a third of Colombia’s population lives in these areas. The views of rural Colombians – who have borne the brunt of the country’s civil war – are ignored. It must also be remembered that if somebody who lives in a rural area, or one of the urban slums, is asked what they think of a president who has the enthusiastic support of paramilitary death squads, they will hesitate before identifying themselves as an opponent of Uribe. People have been killed for less.
If Uribe’s popularity was really as great as the polls suggest, we would have expected to see it represented at the ballot box, with an overwhelming victory on a high turn-out. In fact, when Uribe ran for re-election in 2006, 55% of the electorate abstained: Uribe’s victory came with the support of a small minority of potential voters. There was a similar rate of abstention when his close ally Juan Manuel Santos won the battle to replace Uribe this year. Uribe and Santos were able to consolidate a strong base of support among the Colombian middle and upper classes, who credited them with weakening the guerrillas and pushing them back into the countryside. Greater security for these social groups was achieved at the price of greater insecurity for the rural and urban poor. The rest of the population has been effectively disenfranchised by the decades-long campaign of terror against social movements. Thousands of activists who could have formed the backbone of a political alternative to what Uribe represents have been murdered, leaving behind an organisational vacuum.
Against this background, it would be naïve to hope for sudden improvements now that Uribe has left office. The paramilitary bloc has lost none of its potency, and the Colombian army is more determined than ever to protect itself from legal investigation. Yet the fact that brave magistrates, human rights defenders and journalists have dared to expose the abuses of Uribe’s regime at great risk to themselves is a hopeful sign for Colombia’s future. If the cloud of terror is lifted from Colombian society, there are many outstanding people ready to give a lead to struggles for a better Colombia.
BUILDING SOLIDARITY WITH COLOMBIA – A ONE-DAY CONFERENCE ON OCTOBER 10TH
Grupo Raíces – the Irish Colombia Solidarity Group is organising a one-day conference in Dublin on Sunday October 10th to bring together activists interested in solidarity work with Colombia. We will be discussing the work that has been done in recent years and asking how we can build greater awareness of Colombia in the trade union movement, politics, the media and other fields. We will be joined by a Colombian guest speaker who has been active in social movements and has helped to build solidarity links between European campaigners and Colombia.
VENUE – The Pearse Centre, 27 Pearse Street, Dublin 2
DATE AND TIME – Sunday October 10th, 11am – 3pm
CONTACT – email@example.com
Grupo Raíces has just published the first of what will be regular updates on the situation in Colombia – if you would like to be added to our mailing list, mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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