Colombia: One Hundred Years of Corruption and Violence

Submitted by on 16 July, 2002 - 12:41

Colombian president-elect, Alvaro Uribe Velez is visiting Britain (July 16th). He was the ultra-right candidate supported by the drug-funded paramilitaries.

Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world for trade unionists. Union human rights director, Jesus Gonsalez describes it as 'genocide'.

This article gives a background to over a hundred years of political violence, institutional corruption and US-backed paramilitary terror. But the workers' organisations are fighting back. As Jesus Gonsalez says, 'When one falls, another picks up the flag'.
Drugs and violence
Before Shakira, if you asked most people to name a famous Colombian, they'd come up with one of two names, Pablo Escobar or Gabriel Garcia Marquez - the drug lord and the chronicler of one hundred years of political violence.

Drugs and political violence frame the debate. George Bush has declared the War on Drugs to be part of the War on Terror. Ultra-right Uribe Velez, Colombian President-elect, has sworn to end the violence by conscripting a million men into the armed forces. The implication is that the narco-trafficers and the insurgents are the same and that they are responsible for the terror.

This leaves out what Jesus Gonsalez, Human Rights Director of CUT, the Colombian trade union federation describes as the 'genocide' of trade unionists. 10,000 trade union activists, 50% of the local leadership of the trade unions, have been declared legitimate targets.

Last year, of the two hundred plus trade unionists assassinated worldwide 90% were Colombian. The AUC, the main paramilitary co-ordinating group responsible for these deaths was formed to protect the drug lords, the big cocaine processors and exporters who are an integral part of the Colombian agri-business ruling class.

La Violencia
Colombian politics has been dominated for the last 100 years by the struggles between the Liberals and Conservatives, sometimes in outright bloody war, mostly in institutionalised power-sharing.

Whatever differentiation originally existed, they both represent factions of the enormously wealthy ruling elite (10% owning 70% of Colombia's wealth) and their struggles have been a cover for land grabs and jockeying for resources, with especially the rural poor being the main casualties but gaining nothing.

The War of Thousand Days (1897-99) was followed by the brutal suppression of the trade unions and indigenous people, culminating in the infamous Banana Massacre of workers by the United Fruit Company.

'La Violencia' of 1948-53, following the assassination of popular left liberal Jorge Elicier, left 200,000 people dead and was a cover for driving millions of small peasants off the land to make way for large scale agri-business.

The Insurgents
The guerrilla movements have their roots in this period. Since the mid-30's there had been armed peasant self-defence groups set up. During la violencia, the Communist Party, illegal and unable to operate in the crushed labour movement, made a turn to the peasant groups.

When the National Front, a power-sharing agreement between the two traditional parties, ended the violence, it did not offer any chance for the mass of people to be involved in politics but instead institutionalised a corrupt bureaucratic apparatus.

The displaced armed peasants colonised the southern, amazonian, and mountainous areas, considered too difficult for large scale cultivation. In 1964, FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) was formed, originally from liberal peasants but increasing dominated by the Communist Party.

Other groups, ELN (National Liberation Army), EPL, M-19, followed, representing various shades of neo-Stalinist, Maoist and Guevarist ideologies, but all seeing the armed struggle of the peasantry as the engine of social change.

During the 70's they were relatively marginal. Two factors changed this situation in the 80's, the drugs trade and the wiping out of the Patriotic Union.

Union Patriotica
The Patriotic Union (UP) was an electoral coalition of leftist forces (dominated, as you can tell from the name, by the popular-frontist, Communist Party).

It aimed to break the stranglehold of the liberals and conservatives, and give some sort of political voice to the disenfranchised masses, especially in the urban areas, where following the general strike of 1977, the working class was again a force in politics.

The government gave the nod to the paramilitaries. The first year the UP won seats in Congress, within a month of their election, three of its newly elected legislators were assassinated.

Next year, the UP presidential candidate was assassinated. During the 80's an estimated 30,000 people were killed by the paramilitaries. The Patriotic Union was physically eliminated.

The debate raging throughout the world in popular liberation movements, between armed struggle and legal electoral work, peasantry or the urban working class, was settled decisively in Colombia in favour of rural guerrillaism.

Drugs and Paramilitaries.
The supposedly marginal lands seized by the displaced peasants proved suitable for the cultivation of coca (a native crop that the indigenous people had used for centuries) and the heroin poppy. The big land owners wanted a slice of the now lucrative drugs trade. They also had the capacity for large scale processing and the trading links with the largest market, the US.

This was the time of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and the FMLN successes in the civil war in El Salvador. US capital and the military did not want to countenance popular revolutionary movements in their 'backyard'.

From the mid-80's, following campaigns round the enormous human rights abuses of the Central American regimes and their death squads, overt US military support was increasingly difficult to get through Congress. This is the time of the 'dirty wars', drugs-for-arms, Contra scandals.

Under the protection of the CIA, the big drugs lords massively expanded their operations.
This brought them into conflict with the guerrillas in two ways. They wanted to move the small peasants off the land to make way for commercial cultivation of the drug crops.

These peasants were under the protection of the guerrillas, in effect 'taxed' a proportion of their crop. The guerillas had also discovered a new source of funding, kidnapping industrialists, big landowners and agri-business executives. Some of these were directly involved in the drugs trade.

In 1982, M-19 kidnapped Martha Nieves Ochoa, part of the Ochoa family who were leading figures in Pablo Escobar's Medellin cocaine cartel. She was freed by paramilitaries and as a result the cocaine barons came together to form MAS (Muerta a Secuestradores - Death to Kidnappers).

They promised, in a leaflet dropped over Cali, to hunt down and kill anyone connected with kidnapping including 'kidnappers detained by the authorities will be executed in prison.' MAS worked closely with the Colombian military who benefited from training by US Special Forces in Colombia.

As the 90's began, the US government wanted to distance itself from too close an association with the cocaine cartels, the issue of drugs had become a domestic liability. They turned on their erstwhile collaborators. In 1989, they invaded Panama to arrest General Noriega for allowing Panama to be used as a base for the Medellin cartel to export cocaine to the US, an arrangement that had been brokered by the CIA as part of the Contra war.

There was the high-profile arrest of Pablo Escobar. The newspapers were full reports of the breaking up of the Medellin and Cali cartels.

AUC terror
What actually happened was more of a sleight of hand. Carlos Castano, Escobar's protégé and graduate of the US-trained paramilitary schools, helped the US to hunt down and kill his boss and proceeded to 'murder his way to control a neo-feudal empire stretching across half of northern Colombia'.

By 1996, he had united most of the paramilitaries into the AUC (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia). AUC controls most of the oil-producing regions of Colombia with the tacit support of the multinationals, including Texaco, Occidental and BP. According to Castano, 70% of its revenue comes from the drug trafficers. In the south, AUC works with the military to clear FARC and their alleged supporters from the coca-growing areas.

AUC is believed responsible for most of the 'genocide of trade unionists'. Castano justifies this by saying 'two-thirds of the guerillas actual forces don't carry arms and act like members of the civilian population'.

The AUC leader welcomed Alvaro Uribe Velez' election as "the man closest to our philosophy".

A working class alternative
For the first time since the wiping out of Patriotic Union in the 80's, there has been an electoral challenge to the stranglehold of the institutionalised corruption of the conservative-liberal pact.

The Social and Political Front stood former CUT (Colombian union confederation) president Lucho Garzon on an anti-privatisation, pro-working class, social programme. He won 6.2% of the vote, which is more significant that it seems.

FARC and large sections of the left are against participating in elections on the grounds that it legitimises a corrupt electoral process.

There was a high boycott/stay-away rate, 70% in some southern departments. 9% of those who voted entered spoilt, blank or 'no candidate' votes. Only 41.3% of registered voters cast a positive vote for any candidate.

In the poor urban areas, where support for the Social and Political Front / Democratic Pole would be expected, there was military and paramilitary intimidation at the time of the election.

In the earlier Congressional elections, the Front won 5 Seats, including Alexander Lopez, ex-president of SINTRAEMCALI. This is the union which occupied the CAM Tower in Cali in opposition to the privatisation of EMCALI, the municipal enterprises, water, electricity, waste, of Colombia's second city.

By mobilising all of the city's working class, despite the threat of being identified with the insurgents and therefore a target of the paramilitaries, they won all their demands.

SINTRAEMCALI and NOMADESC (human rights campaign against corruption, privatisation and criminalisation of social protest) leaders are now in fear of imminent assassination after El Pais, a rightwing newspaper linked to Cali oligarchs, suggested an association between these organisations and the guerrillas.

There have been death threats, Alexander Lopez' office is now closed following a bomb threat and there are reports of suspicious vehicles following union and human rights activists.

from Colombia Solidarity Campaign
SINTRAEMCALI held a demonstration on the streets of Cali on Thursday. Although we haven't had a full report yet, but we have heard that despite a heavy police presence the march was very big and passed off without serious incident.

A delegation led by UNISON, and including the TUC, War on Want and the Colombia Solidarity Campaign, visited the Embassy in London on Friday.

We impressed on the Charge D'Affaires our concerns for the heightened danger that the El Pais series of articles has created. The Embassy promised to immediately pass on these concerns to the government.

Several other union bodies, NGOs and professional associations, as well as many individuals have been sending urgent messages to the Embassy and El Pais.

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