Civil War In Colombia

by Mary Cuevas

     The forty million people living in Colombia have endured four decades of conflict that shows no signs of abating in what is the longest conflict in Latin America involving leftist guerillas, far-right paramilitary death squads and the army, which critics accuse of being linked to paramilitaries or turning a blind eye to their activities.  The fighting continues claiming 40,000 lives and displacing nearly two million people in the last decade alone.  Ana Carrigan reported in her article “A Cry for Help” in The Irish Times (November 13, 1999):
“At least 20 civilians were being slaughtered daily in paramilitary massacres
 in the villages while the army stood aside and looked the other way; at 200
seizures a month, guerilla kidnappings, carried out at random roadblocks,
were up 20 per cent since 1998; each month, 25,000 peasants were abandoning
 their homes and their crops to join the population of 1.5 million displaced
 persons (seven times greater than the numbers driven out of East Timor,
almost twice the refugee population of Kosovo) thus intensifying the worst
 humanitarian crisis in South America this century.”

     Not only has the conflict turned this coffee, oil, and coal producing nation into the most violent in the world, it is further complicated by the war on drugs.  The rebel groups and right-wing paramilitary death squads profit in the cultivation of coca crops.  It is reported that the drug cartels pay a “tax” to the rebel groups and paramilitary for protection of their coca crops.  To help Colombia fight the war on drugs, former President Clinton signed an aid package in July 2000 for $1.3 billion.  Some critics feel this will only fuel the fire of the forty-year old conflict and produce more human rights violations.  On the other hand, some Colombians welcomed the aid package and are hopeful that it will improve the situation in their country.
El Bogotazo - 1948

     “I am not a man, I am a people!”  was Jorge Eliecer Gaitán’s slogan.  Liberal presidential candidate Gaitán was of mixed blood, with the education and manner of the country’s white elite but with the dark skin, broad face, and coarse black hair of Colombia’s lower Indian castes.  No matter how educated or powerful he became, he was tied to the people who worked the mines or fields at subsistence wages with absolutely no chance for education or a better life.
     The cities were plagued by inflation and sky-rocketing unemployment.  For the people in the mountains and jungle villages it meant no work, hunger and starvation.  Against this backdrop, the skillful lawyer and socialist, Gaitán, was able to rally support and was projected to win the elections in 1950.
   All hope for a peaceful Colombia ended in 1948 when a lone gunman with grandiose delusions open fired on Gaitán as he left his office in Bogotá.  Despite desperate attempts to save him by doctors, Gaitán died of several gunshot wounds within hours.  The vision of the future died with Gaitán. 
     Gaitán’s assassination exploded into El Bogotazo; days of rioting so intense it left large parts of the city in flames before spreading to other cities.  The mobs evolved into random destruction, drunkenness, and looting.
     El Bogotazo eventually ended in the big cities but lived on in the countryside.  A nightmarish period began in the countryside.  Bloodletting so empty of meaning it is simply called La Violencia. (Killing Pablo, Mark Bowden)
La Violencia  
     The estimates are as high as two hundred thousand people killed during La Violencia.  Outlaws and bandidos roamed the countryside, robbing, pillaging and raping, and killing in the villages and towns they passed through.   They would steal from the rich landowners in a Robin Hood-like manner.  However, in the end they were viewed as brutal outlaws by the people. 
     It is against this backdrop in the 1960s that the Marxist guerillas formed as successors to the bandido tradition.  The Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) are now about 18,000 strong and the smaller Cuban inspired National Liberation Army (ELN) are about 5,000 strong.  Many in the countryside welcomed the ideology of change in the disparity between rich and poor the FARC and ELN promised.   However, by the 1980s it seemed to many that the ideology that began in the jungles was being lost by acts of terror against the people in the villages.  Although posters and bumper stickers of Che Guevara still adorn walls and the back of buses, the people were simply tired of all the blood shed.
     When the FARC killed yet another wealthy landowner in the early1980s in a most brutal fashion by tying him to a post and torturing him for hours before killing him, the birth of the right-wing paramilitary death squads was on the horizon.  The son of this wealthy landowner was Carlos Castano.  After finding his father’s body, Carlos Castano’s rage and sorrow was the fuel for the fire that led to his organization of the paramilitary death squads. Tired of the inept attempts by the government to stop the violence perpetrated by the FARC and ELN, Castano began and is now head of the AUC known in Colombia as the Auto Defensas or paras.  The AUC are about 11,000 strong.
    In the countryside the violence already deeply rooted in the culture culminated into a twisted psychological warfare of terror by all armed groups.  It was not enough just to kill your enemy.  The ritual of torture and rape in front of family members became an art.  Severed heads were left on pikes along the road.  Women had their breasts cut off.  Men had their genitals cut off and stuffed in their mouths.  The right-wing paramilitary death squads are responsible for 80 percent of the human rights violations in the country at the present time.
Cocaine Wars
     When the appetite for marijuana waned and cocaine became the drug of choice in the United States, the cartels in Colombia took on a new face.  The reign of terror during the Pablo Escobar years was unprecedented.  Escobar brought the country to its knees.  He hijacked and blew planes up in mid air.  With the growing demand for cocaine and his ability to supply the drug there seemed no end to his power.  When he was caught and murdered after escaping a prison he built in 1992 other cartels in Medellin, Cali, and Barranquilla took his place.
     Eighty percent of the cocaine coming out of Colombia is headed for the inner cities and yuppie urban centers in the United States.  U.S. consumption of cocaine financially supports the cartels.  Furthermore, the rebel groups and paramilitary death squads are also supported in their on going war by U.S. consumption of cocaine.  The “tax” they charge the cartels for protection of their coca crops pays for the weapons and bombs used on innocent civilians.  Yet Clinton signed an aid package for $1.3 billion to fight the war on drugs.  The result has been spraying campaigns that are devastating to the environment.  The primary focus of the aid package is on the supply side of the problem rather than the demand.   By ignoring the demand side of the problem, some politicians and scholars feel the billions of dollars in aid to be an exercise in futility.  Not only are farmers in neighboring countries cultivating coca crops, but the demand has only increased with a reduction in the price of cocaine.        
Mary Cuevas