¨Colombia¨ may lead the listener or reader to think of drugs, guerrilla, poverty, political corruption or simply another under-developed country where people struggle to make a living and try to survive to all the sprouts of violence that take place in Colombians everyday life.
Since the conformation of the Colombian state in the first decades of the nineteenth century and up to our days, Colombians have struggled to conform a system of democratic institutions strong enough to obtain and keep a just social order, but vested interests and partisanship have not made this possible; the present work is not intended to be an answer to all the possible questions which may have raised regarding the Colombian case; it is instead an approach to it from the point of view form a common Colombian citizen.
The aim of this work is not to cover the reality of the conflict; it is a book for those people who for a number of reasons are interested in the country and would like to deepen a bit more on what the situation is like and perhaps lead them to a better understanding of the conflict; the book contains a short historical overview, analysis of the peace process and perspectives for a possible solution to the conflict will be discussed.
It has been said for many years that Colombia is one of the most long-lasting democracies in the Latin -American scenario but historical facts demonstrate the contrary; Colombian history is characterized by an endless chain of internal wars marked by sectarian and regional disputes in which the average citizen has been affected the most; the leaders of political parties have turned back to people when the elections time is close or when armed confrontation with the opposition party has taken place.
When the Spaniards came to the new world and especially Colombia, they found a vast territory inhabited by native tribes with a very archaic organization and a lot of internal disputes for territory and domestic market; in opposition to what they found in Mexico and Peru, they had to deal with divided groups which were very easy to seize and annihilate in most of the cases. At the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century, there were about 3.5 million indigenous people in what is now the territory of Colombia, by the end of the 17th century, there were only about six hundred thousand and one-hundred and thirty thousand by the end of the 18th century. When colonization started, there were very few indigenous people; the Spaniards brought their costumes and religion along with their illnesses and socio-economic feudal structure which was reproduced to administer the native communities and the Africans who were forced to live as slaves until 1850 especially in the south-west of the country where landlords opposed antislavery laws.
Colombia obtained its independence from Spain on august 7TH 1819 after the battle of Boyaca with Gr. Simòn Bolivar leading the patriot troops; and since then, the struggle for power and political ideals has not finished. From the very beginning of the conformation of the state in the first decades of the nineteenth century, Colombians have tried to construct a system that would allow all citizens to take part in the political decision-making process both at the national and regional levels; it is said that Colombia has one of the strongest democracies in the Latin American context but many people forget or ignore the type of democracy that has really been somehow accepted or imposed; an example of this, is the constitution that since 1886 Colombians kept, it was not the result of a consensus but the flag of victory of those who won the civil war between the Radicals (Liberals) and the Reformists (Liberals supporting the conservative principles of the time ) and the Conservative party being the first ones those who during the federal republic were influenced by the liberal political ideas and the free exchange policy, and the latter those who wanted a central and stronger action of the state along with a centralized banking system and a relevant role of the catholic church in the educational, economical and political fields in the country. By that time, Rafael Nuñez who was a Reformist-Liberal, was the president of the country and he himself conformed and organized the constitutional assembly with leaders of the conservative party “ Not even one delegate from the Liberal (radical) party was invited to vote the articles of the new constitution”. The new constitution established a wide system of individual rights but very limited; it facilitated the control of the press, provided all citizens (except women, women in Colombia were allowed to vote until the second half of the 50’s when General Rojas Pinilla was president; the fact did not make part of a democratic process, it obeyed the need for more voters) with the right to elect for the regional and local assemblies and city councils respectively but restricted the participation in elections for citizens who did not have a certain yearly income or no literacy level at all; the citizens who qualified were very few and they elected an “elector “ out of a thousand and this latter would elect the president and the vice president of the country. It does not mean that they are to blame for all the problems the country is currently facing but it is an antecedent of how political crisis have been solved in an exclusive way for more than a century in this country.
The conformation of the state in Colombia has been tinted by the incapacity of the state to control both the territory and the society based on the discriminating and restrictive ideals and principles of nationality from the elite. The state has almost always favoured the creation of measures that tend to facilitate conditions of accumulation of capital in the private sector; the absence of redistribution policies which would help improve the social status and perhaps overcome the unquestionable levels of inequity and segregation have been a constant issue. In Colombia, this is known as the“ Social ” accumulated social debt to indicate the absence of an effective state in terms of being the motor of social integration having as a reference the demand of real democracy from the citizens”… and the need of a democratic system strong enough to guarantee a pluralist participation in access to political power.
Since the beginning of the 19th century and mid 20th the political scene had been led by the two traditional parties, Liberal and Conservative that is; the Conservative party was created upon the principles of a traditional society and a strong demonstration of the fact that the state must have a strict control of the force and therefore be the only violent actor; this was taken too seriously by some conservative leaders and ended with aggressions to civil society starting with the violence era in the 1940¨s when peasants demonstrations took place. The Liberal party also began as an elite strategy to get to public offices following the principles of the economical liberalism in Europe rather than a real political programme, both parties caught Colombians attention; the conservatives in the late 1800´s through the first decades of the 20th century when liberals started to influence the electorate taking advantage of the need of people to canalise the new civil demands that emerged with the influence of socialism and the sprouting blue-collar social class. Nevertheless, both parties neither as democratic institutions nor as representatives of the people have been able to solve the problems of land-holding and political openness which I consider are the two critical issues to solve prior to obtaining a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Since the 1886 constitution was approved until the 1950´s the political scenario in the country was completely conducted and influenced by these two traditional parties which basically represented the interests of the economical elite in the country. When the conservative party regained government in 1946, the confrontation between the two parties had already led to several short civil wars including the so called “Guerra de Los Mil Días” which accelerated the process for the separation of Panama in 1903; …” With the return of the conservative party to power, the official violence increased dramatically particularly during the time in which Laureano Gómez was the president; his term in office was later remembered as the “Civil Dictatorship” in which he tried to establish a corporative-like regime on behalf of the utilization of the armed forces with political purposes and the birth of paramilitary groups; persecution against liberal sympathisers increased during this term, especially in the eastern plains of the country, self defence groups (Chusma) started to emerge and later became the roots of many revolutionary groups; it was once more a clear demonstration of the incapacity of the traditional parties and their state to appropriate the new social conflicts.
After this bipartisan conflict ended, a new type of violence emerged; the revolutionary violence, this time fed by the political crisis and also by the internationalisation of socialism and independence wars in the third world. The leaders of the two traditional parties, especially a fraction of the conservative party, tried to solve the problem with a military coup appointing general Gustavo Rojas Pinilla president (1953-1957) who achieved some initial success in peace talks with the guerrilla but then the confrontation restarted”…; with his term in power, many advancements in infrastructure and technology were reached; During his government, many airports and roads were constructed and television had a great share of the domestic market.
Rojas Pinilla took advantage of mass media to promote his image around the country with a populist campaign, he was influenced by Peron in Argentina and Franco in Spain; many people started to like him because the country experienced a sense of peaceful environment and the economy was starting to improve, it was then, when the ruling class started to worry about his “success” and started to look for ways of removing him from office; they met in Spain and other countries to discuss the way their strategy should be implemented; they finally came out with the proposal of taking turns in power. “Rojas Pinilla was removed from power but incidentally, he turned into a key factor in the political sphere; because of his term in power and the need to change the regime, he enhanced the creation of Frente Nacional but also, in 1970 when Frente Nacional was supposed to come to an end, we ran for president, his opposition candidate was Misael Pastrana Borrero whom became the president of the country but created a feeling of disappointment in people and a crisis of legitimacy because of the alleged electoral fraud with which he was elected; According to the polls and vote counting results, Rojas Pinilla had won the elections until the last minute, but suddenly, the official inform granted Misael Pastrana the presidency of the country; it became one more reason to justify the access of power by force, guerrilla movement M-19 ( Movimiento 19 de Abril) had it s origins in this episode.”
With this political environment, in 1958 the “frente Nacional” was created; the national front consisted of alternation in power for the two political parties ( no other existing political currents were called to discuss the strategy) for a four-year presidential term; this agreement solved the situation for the traditional parties but worsened the crisis of legitimacy and a real pluralist and democratic access to power; it was a two-party rule that lasted until 1974 keeping any other form of political tendency aside. In this context, groups that represented a third- way alternative were subject to persecution and in many cases had to organize armed squads to defend themselves which later became the seed of guerrilla groups.
“–Factum- alternation in power was observed until the late 80’s; even though Frente Nacional was supposed to have ended, the two political parties continued alternating the government. It could have been a coincidence, but the fact is registered in the most recent history of Colombia.”
Origin of Guerrilla Groups
The present conflict has its roots in the 40´s throughout the 50’s and 60´s when revolutionary wars occurred in Asia and Cuba started a new political era with Fidel Castro. The confrontation was not only between the two traditional parties but between the elite of the National Front and the other political currents which were excluded or persecuted by the regime; the first guerrilla groups (FARC, EPL, ELN) started operations in those areas in which the state influence was null or very scarce, or in those places where victims of political persecution hid; Jacobo Arenas (Founder with Manuel Marulanda Velez of the FARC) summarized the origin of FARC from his own experience:
...” We are the nerve of a revolutionary movement that started in 1948. It was against us, peasants from the south of Tolima, Huila, Cauca, and Valle in the central mountain chain, that since 1948 the violence of the large-landed estate, the large cattle growers, the large business men, regional political leaders and the violence traders was launched. We knocked at all the possible doors in search of help to avoid an anticommunist crusade, which is a crusade against our people; it will lead us to a long bloody confrontation. We are revolutionary Colombians who fight for a change of regime. We wanted and pursued that change in the less painful way: The peaceful way, the way of democratic dispute but this pathway was violently closed by the war, and we are revolutionaries who one way or another will play a relevant role in history, obliged by the circumstances we had to adopt the revolutionary way, the armed way to struggle for power...”
In spite of the above and the hypothesis that the guerrilla is mainly conformed by peasants, it is also true that the sprouting blue-collar class played a very important role in the conformation of guerrilla groups; in the universities new political ideas were discussed, some revolutionary groups started in the classrooms of public universities.
The number of insurgents in the two largest guerrilla groups is estimated to be of about 20.000 heavily armed men; 15.000 belong to the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC and 5.000 to the Ejército de Liberación Nacional –ELN. These two groups ideologies differ very little; they are both inspired by Marxism-Leninism currents and their main goal is to reach power by means of the guerrilla war copied from the Cuban and Asiatic model of revolutionary processes.
FARC and ELN have managed to control many regions of the country and influence local governments in their decisions. FARC have been questioned by the use of propane gas pipes against civilians in small towns of the country, they are responsible for several cases of kidnapping and accused of blackmailing local businessmen and promoting drug dealing.
Origin of Paramilitary Groups
It may sound strange but the origin of the paramilitary groups dates from the 60`s and not from the 80´s as many people believe;…” With the National Front, the military ideology had turned into a more complex issue, an example of this is the Civil-Military Action Programme which combined several anti-guerrilla strategies in which the use of irregular paramilitary forces was common, particularly right after 1961…”. All these actions occurred as part of the national security doctrine. …” In 1965, decree 3398 was sanctioned and later became part of the permanent legislation on behalf of law 48 of 1968, which organizes and structures the “national defence” , the “civil defence” and the promotion of “self-defence groups”. With this legislation, members of the official armed forces trained, armed, and encouraged many inhabitants of the regions in conflict with the purpose of involving civilians in the conflict and supporting the official forces in the anti-insurgence war.
Back in those years, the problem was marginal, but opposite to that, in the 80`s, the paramilitary movement grew dramatically as a result of the efforts made by cattle growers and major landholders to defend themselves against guerrilla attacks, but especially as an expression of the military and economical power demonstrated by drug dealers and their aim of controlling large extensions of land…” Drug-dealers started confrontation against guerrilla groups in order to gain influence in the isolated areas of the country to harvest illicit plants. The chief commander of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia AUC is Carlos Castaño ( He has recently resigned to his position of military leader of the AUC ; a “collegiate” board of commanders are the ones in charge of the task; Castaño will be in charge of the political orientation of the organization) whom justifies his actions after part of his family had been assassinated by guerrilla groups and whose ideas are classified in the extreme-right range.
Paramilitary groups have managed to control several regions of the country and expelled guerrilla groups from others, their modus operandi has been strongly questioned by NGO’s in the country and internationally; they have been accused of selective massacres and promotion of illicit activities.
Since the beginning of the 80´s, the paramilitary movement has shown effectiveness militarily speaking; the have “recuperated strategic regions from the influence of guerrilla groups” but they have also involved civilians in the conflict with the most unspeakable results.
Have Colombians Done Everything Wrong?
Definitely not, there have been several successful peace-talk processes such as the ones held with the M19, EPL, PRT, and the indigenous guerrilla movement Quintín Lame that ended with their incorporation to the civil status and the national constituent assembly in 1991; this latter of extremely vital importance for the development of a real democratic state; in this constituent assembly, most sectors from the socio-economical sphere in the country had the opportunity to discuss and vote the articles of the new political constitution, including delegates from the former guerrilla groups: For the first time people had the chance to take part in the construction of a new country, a constitution is a general agreement held by a society after which a state shall provide order and happiness to its citizens and Colombia was finally on that track; for the first time Colombians did not fight with the edge of a sword nor with the sound of a gun but with the effectiveness and value of consensus.
Nevertheless, this constitution did not represent the pillars for a peace agreement with the other insurgent groups, especially FARC and ELN, it did not have the capacity to interpret the causes that led to the conflict nor propose real solutions in the foreseeable future containing substantial changes regarding the political and economical situation in which the country has been sunk for decades.
In short words, one could say that Colombia is a country which was born without being born; internal disputes and numerous civil wars have not made the dream of a unified country possible.
The lack of participation of the average citizen in the political and economical spheres, has been the constant that has brought about inconformity and frustration which made violent expressions the only way some Colombians could make themselves be listened to. I am not justifying the use of violence, I am pledging for a civilized way out of the conflict, for the elimination of massacres, to bring anti-kidnapping protests to an end; not because people should not say anything about it but for the absence of these horrendous phenomena.
The use of violence breeds more violence and common Colombian citizens are tired of this situation in which the conflict actors including the government, have not been able to reach an agreement at least at the international humanitarian law level; many efforts have been made but very few results have been achieved; there are still many wounds to heal and a long way to the construction of a nation that is torn in pieces by its own people.
Peace talks have been started with guerrilla leaders, but still, many Colombians are being victimized by violence in the countryside and in the city. The levels of violence have reached the most horrendous levels a society could reach; thousands of people have left their land behind fleeing from violence and looking for new opportunities; many Colombians have moved to the cities and thousands have left the country in search not only of new opportunities but a peaceful environment in which their children may grow up without being threatened by the ghost of death that chases Colombians in every corner of the country.
TESTIMONIES OF THE CONFLICT
Several people have been interviewed to discuss the possible causes and share the their experiences regarding the development of the conflict, the testimonies described below are from people who have lived long enough to describe the process of this internal confrontation, their names have been changed for security reasons, also, some testimonies were taken from specialized publications, hereafter are a few of them.
Tulia Gutierrez 75
“I had to live the “violence epoch” , the whole thing started when they killed Gaitán, he was the man in whom poor people had their hopes set and his death caused the violence that up to this day we have gone through
When he was killed, on April ninth of 1948, one could see the upset crowd plundering stores and setting things on fire and people shooting their guns at random; the city was completely destroyed by the fire, had it not been for the strong rain, the city would have been totally destroyed.
By that time I was visiting my mother in Chapinero; We turned on the radio to listen to the news, some followers of the liberal party had seized the radio stations and were encouraging people to go out and protest with any thing they had at hand, we heard that the assassin had been killed by the enraged crowd, we could not go out of the house because we might have been killed, we had enough food to eat but it was starting to become scarce, we heard that army tanks were heading downtown to disperse the riots; after a few days I manages to go back home hoping to see him but he had already been killed ...or at least that is what people told me; I went to the central graveyard were many dead people were being buried in groups picked from the streets; they were dumped from trucks and buried all together, no names, none to give them a descent burial service.
My mother had a farm in Boyacá, she asked me to go and see what had happened there; I did not want to go but my brother was the only one man alive in the family and he could not leave my mother on her own, so finally I had to go .
After two months of waiting, finally I went to the farm, I had to take the train to the smallest town and then go on by myself, on the way to the farm, I saw many people running with their baggage fleeing from the shootings and killings ; among them, I could see Felix the man my mother had hired to look after the farm, he told me that police members were killing liberals, he asked me to remove from my body anything with in red or blue ( the distinctive color of the liberals and conservatives respectively). I turned frightened and decided no to continue my trip, I had to go back to Bogotá empty-handed. A few years later, I returned to find out what had happened with the farm, but it had already been assigned to a family who showed documents that stated that they were the new owners... now I live alone and I just wait for the day the Lord comes to take me with Him...”
Leopoldo Triana, 62
“ Ehh, I had a rice plantation in the eastern plains, but when Laureano Gómez was the president, he started a persecution against liberals ; especially against peasants, after that, many people organized groups to defend themselves from the persecution...: For some people, they were self-defense groups, but for the army, they were nothing but rascals “la chusma”, and because of these groups the situation worsened because when someone arrived to your property and asked you to what political party you belonged, one wouldn’t know what to answer because if you said that you were liberal, they killed you and if you said that you were conservative, the chusma would. It was impossible to live with this situation, one had to feed everyone who passed by or else one was signing his defunction certificate.
It was a terrible situation for peasants in the region, we had to put up with bandits , some times we had to hide in the woods or at night because you knew you were going to bed but you weren’t certain that the next day you would be alive.
When Rojas Pinilla was elected president by the military coup, the situation improved a lot because one could work and go to the market place to sell the produce, there was and amnesty law and many people came back to work in the countryside to work, many rascals gave their weapons in and resumed with work in their farms...that was good for us , but I heard that many people in the country in other parts of the country were killed without any justifiable reason; I got tired of that situation and sold the land at a very low price, I did not want to continue running away anymore, I started a restaurant in Bogotá and never managed to become rich but at least I live in peace.
Testimony of a twenty-year-old girl
“I know that he disappeared on February 10 /1986,he was a member of the Unión Patriótica –U.P, that he disappeared in Bogotá on a very regular day, just like when someone goes out and never comes back. I know this, because I heard it form some other people, no one wants to talk about it .
I was jus a little girl , I lived with my father; and two months later, we were taken out of the country and my father told me that my mother had been killed.
Then, I came back, trying to find out more about the problem, because when you are six years old, you are too young to be really affected for what is called death, but you start to understand as you group up and when you realize that you live in the most violent country in the world.
I never got to hear anything about my father, I think that this causes him a lot of sorrow, I don’t ask my grand mother about it because this may hurt her feelings.
The case was never taken to the authorities, we never talked to any organization, I don’t know why, perhaps because it is like trying to bring to broad daylight something in which people do not want to believe.
About her, no one could tell me anything, that’s what people call an absolute missing, not even a trace of her, nearly two years ago, the showed me a defunct ion certificate with the following notice: “ allegedly death”, and since then in this country one cannot talk, assume nor think because the guess what you are thinking, the none dared to say word about the case. That’s all I know.
I am still waiting for her, I barely got to know her , I can say that I have two clear images on my mind, but suddenly I may die and in that moment, she will show up , something inside myself tells me that she is alive... that something can be my hope, time goes by and we , Colombians say “there’s not anything evil that lasts more that a hundred years”, but as time goes by, one starts to feel even sadder , more impotent, one becomes more anxious watching every night go by without having any news , the you start to hate the system, everything that it contains. These are immeasurable and uncontrollable feelings and they will remain even if she shows up.
When I found out that she was dead, I think I did not even cry, now I am 21 and it really hurts, I cry, and cry, a don’t do anything but cry. But I think it is a good way out of frustration and disappointment. I mean, we have to work so that these thins won’t happen again, One has to keep on studying striving, trying hard, anything that you can do, you have to do it the best way you can . you cannot be overwhelmed by the feelings of hatred and sorrow...”
Testimony of an 18 year-old Colombian
“There had passed several months since the army had killed many insurgents in combat, then they decided to carry on a census, if there were ten children in the family, they said that they had to give nine for the revolution; they would leave one (the oldest) to take care of their mother, they told my mother that they needed to collect a tax which included the giving away of her children to the guerrilla groups.
My mother told them: “I will rather lose everything I have, The they told her that they were going to give us five hours to think about it , they came back about three hours later “Are you ready?” and my mother told them that we were leaving the place, one of the tried to persuade her telling her that we were not going to die, we will take good care of them, we will have the girl working at that campsite and the boys to the jungle, we will take good care of them.
Then my mother told them “I will take them all with me” he got upset and started shouting, after a few seconds , he told my mother that we had to leave the place in half an hour or else, they were going to kill us all., we didn’t have time to pack anything, se disappeared from that place.
Carlos Pérez 23
“ I had to come to this country (USA) because my mother in law was kidnapped on a farm in Anapóima, some guys made us pull over the car and threatened us with guns , they tied her and put a potato sack on her head so that she couldn’t see, they made her get in their car and took her away, before leaving, they told us that they would get in contact with the family in the coming days.
About two weeks later , we received a letter in which they were asking us to pay 500 million pesos (about 250.000 Us dollars) in exchange for the freedom of my mother in law., she was very ill, she had high blood pressure, we asked the kidnappers that she needed to take medicine to control it , their response was that the best thing was for us to hurry and gather the money so that we could take care of her better, the only favor they were going to do for us was to bring her back to freedom and that it was our responsibility if she didn’t get better.
We couldn’t gather the money, despite the efforts that all the members of the family made to do so; we did not hear from the kidnappers any other news, neither from my mother in law for a month, they then called us again and told us that we were a bunch of ###**$%; they also said “we will be sending you the old w...; but you have fifteen days to disappear from the region or we will have to kill you all”.
With the money we gathered after selling everything we had, the ones that had visa came to this country and the rest had to migrate to other cities or Venezuela; the situation is not easy here, you have to work very hard and they don’t validate the professional training from your country, it is very difficult to legalize your situation here especially after de September 11 episodes.”
SOME TRAGIC FIGURES OF THE CONFLICT
One could write all the testimonies of people affected by violence in this country but there would not be space to store all the books that may come out, like these Colombians above, hundreds of thousands have been forced to leave their homelands, kidnapped, blackmailed, tortured or assassinated with “political” purposes; the situation
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