Colombia Analysis: Interpreting the Signs of the Times


by Stewart Vriesinga

In 2005 the Uribe government implemented the Peace and Justice Law, which resulted in the demobilization of thousands of right-wing paramilitaries responsible for the majority of human rights abuses in Colombia.  In February 2008, the largest march against the left-wing FARC guerrillas in the history of Colombia took place in cities across the nation, involving hundreds of thousands. 

One could easily view these events as evidence that significant steps have been taken to bring an end to the decades-long conflict in Colombia.  But don’t turn your attention away from Colombia just yet.  There is more than one way to understand what’s happening.

The Uribe government interprets the huge public display of opposition to the FARC as support for President Uribe and has proposed changes to the constitution so that he can run for a third term in office.

The victims of right-wing violence in Colombia, on the other hand, express alarm at the narrow focus of the march against the FARC.  Many organizations chose not to participate, including CPT.  Having suffered the worst consequences of paramilitary and military violence, they fear that the public is being manipulated into taking sides in an armed struggle rather than uniting in opposition to all forms of violence and oppression.  They worry that this singular focus on the FARC could result in a form of McCarthyism; as critics and opponents of the current government, they would be labelled as supporters of the “FARC terrorists” and consequently subjected to more repression than they already experience.  If labelled “FARC allies,” any prospects of justice, reparations and reconciliation would be substantially diminished.  Furthermore, there would be little public sympathy if they were to suffer new human rights abuses.

The FARC poses an ongoing threat to the security and well-being of Colombians.  Their victims are not limited to the oligarchy and social or economic elites.  Just ask anyone in the landmine capital of Colombia – Ricaurte, a primarily Awa indigenous community in the southwestern province of Narińo.  Condemnation of the conduct of this left-wing insurgency group, which often shows complete disregard for the lives of the very people for whom they purport to be fighting, is widespread.

Former members of paramilitary groups and state security forces also terrorize large segments of the Colombian population.  These right-wing armed actors primarily target peasants, workers, small scale miners, and especially their advocates including human rights workers, union leaders, community organizers, clergy, women’s organizations, etc.

Victims of paramilitary violence have long claimed that paramilitaries, in the service of drug cartels and/or powerful national and international private business interests, are responsible for death threats, hundreds of massacres of unarmed civilians, the forced displacement of millions, extrajudicial killings and torture.  They further claim that much of this is done with the support, collaboration and collusion of the military, including high-ranking officers.  Recent confessions and testimonies from top demobilized paramilitary leaders corroborate these claims, implicating military commanders, civil servants, and elected officials at all levels – municipal, provincial and national – and embroiling the Uribe government in a scandal that has become known as “Para-politics.”

CPT continues to stand with the civilian victims of violence in Colombia, and will continue to work with organizations and communities who promote the socio-economic conditions for peace and nonviolently assert truth, justice, reparations and reconciliation.

From December 2007 - February 2008, CPT continued accompanying the Opón and mining communities in the Magdalena Medio region and the indigenous communities of Narińo. Following an unusually calm Christmas season, 14 people were murdered in Barrancabermeja (where CPT is based) in January, double the rate of last January. The team met with three U.S. legislators who went to Colombia to learn about multinational links to paramilitaries, union abuses, the FARC hostage crisis, and ways the U.S. could support a humanitarian accord.