Oct 19, 2012

The Trail of your Blood in the Jungle

One of the constant features in Gabriel García Márquez’s fiction set in Colombia is violence. Usually there are two rogue groups, or a guerrilla and the government, harassing the country and provoking fear or resignation in the characters. This is just to put in a long-term context the announcement made two days ago by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia) that, after 50 years of struggle, they would sit down with the government and have peace talks.

John Bailey considers that the fight between the Colombian government and the FARC is a “profound internal war”. In its origins, back in the 1960s, the group was an openly Marxist-Leninist army of peasants that claimed to represent the poor in a class struggle against the rich and powerful of Colombia. It was formed out of a rally of guerrilla organizations that did not accept the amnesty proposed by President General Gustavo Rojas. With its clearly Communist speech, and in the midst of the Cold War, the FARC became a constant target of the Colombian Government. The greater challenge it posed to the state came from the fact that the FARC effectively controlled the rural south of the country, imposing its own law and obtaining revenues from criminal activities, mainly kidnapping and drug trafficking (though they were and are not the only drug trafficking organizations in Colombia). The problem grew when some landowners in the region where the FARC exercised its authority, tired of the government not being able to protect their properties or lives from the attacks of the guerrilla, decided to form a paramilitary group, the Self-Defenses (Autodefensas).

In the long-run, there has not been a unique strategy of the Colombian government against the armed groups in its territory. It can be argued that official actions have frequently oscillated between fierce and decisive military confrontations and attempts of amnesty and integration of those actors into the formal political life. In 1978, President Julio Turbay began an intense fight against drug cartels. Four years later, his successor Belisario Betancourt offered amnesty and freed political prisoners. In 1984, after the Justice Minister was assassinated, the government retook its offensive campaign. A critical point of the fight against the armed groups arrived when Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellín cartel, was shot when resisting detention. It was expected that this event could diminish the power of the guerrilla and narcos, but in 1993 the President-Elect Ernesto Samper was charged and cleared of receiving money for his campaign from drug cartels.

Evidently, the story so far suggests that the government has not had the necessary capacities to constitute as a serious threat, even less an enemy, of the armed groups. Furthermore, what began as relatively clear distinctions between the FARC, the Self-Defenses and drug cartels began blurring over time as their criminal activities overlapped more and more.

Yet another apparent turning point arrived in the late nineties, with the strategy championed by President Andrés Pastrana. He offered a safe haven in the south of the country for the guerrillas, out of the Army’s reach, and even met FARC’s leader, Manuel Marluanda. And, with the help of the US government, providing military capacity against drug trafficking organizations, Pastrana launched the Plan Colombia in 2000. However, as in previous occasions, the process was truncated. The FARC and drug cartels continued to resort to violence, in spite of the concessions of the government, and public authorities were not yet able to construct the necessary capacities to meet the challenge.

During the first decade of the 21st century, another dimension was added to the conflict: relations of Colombia with its neighbors. Many times Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela, has been pointed out as a financer of the FARC activities; even more, in 2009 he urged the Venezuelan army to stand ready in case of an armed conflict with Colombia. A bomb strike by the Colombian government against a FARC border camp also hit a part of Ecuador, estranging the relations. And the extradition to the US of many drug leaders detained in Colombia has raised concerns among the countries in the area about the level of presence, even interference, the United States has there.

Why would the peace talks announced recently be any different? Previous ceasefire calls have been broken. Furthermore, former president Andrés Pastrana mentioned that “Even if the FARC stops fighting today it won’t be the end of violence in Colombia”. A key point is that disarmament or peace are not in the agenda; its topics are drug trade, victims rights, land ownership, FARC participation in politics and how to end the war. It can be alleged that the point is to create a favorable environment for peace, a more modest objective. But antecedents to any negotiations are pessimistic, even gloomy. Perhaps a point in favor of the conflicting parts is that they acknowledge that neither they nor their country can continue to live like that.




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