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The Colombian Dilemma: After half a century of fighting, can a fragile peace process succeed?

February 7, 2000 | Report


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At first, it sounds all too familiar. A Latin American country is plagued by inequality, rural neglect and militarism. A conflict includes Marxist guerrillas and right-wing death squads, spurring a refugee crisis. A struggling peace process gets tepid support from Washington. Amid rapidly rising U.S. military aid, concerns grow over the spread of instability to regional neighbors.

For those who recall the Reagan Administration’s adventures in Central America, much about Colombia can inspire eerie feelings of déjà vu. But the similarities do not run very deep. Colombia’s decades-old conflict and the effort to end it are far more complicated than the violence El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua suffered during the 1980s. In fact, perhaps only the Middle East rivals Colombia’s conflict for complexity.

The hemisphere’s fourth most populous country, Colombia has about one-third more people than all seven Central American nations put together. Colombia’s land area is expansive enough to accommodate all of Central America twice over, with enough room left over to fit an additional four El Salvadors. Unlike the groups in El Salvador’s FMLN and Guatemala’s URNG, Colombia’s three guerrilla groups fight separately (even confronting each other at times), violate human rights frequently, and are held in low esteem by most citizens. The paramilitary death squads operate in the open – resembling private armies more than shadowy groups of killers – and are somewhat independent of the army. While the violence has forced millions from their homes, the overwhelming majority are not refugees but "internally displaced persons," moving within the country instead of crossing borders, living in terror and receiving no significant aid. The government seeks to bring guerrillas to the negotiating table, though a series of peace processes over the past eighteen years offers few helpful models. With the exception of the United States, no foreign source arms the combatants; instead, the drug trade pervades, corrupts and finances all sides. On deeper examination, this conflict – the Western Hemisphere’s oldest and most brutal – bears only a passing resemblance to Central America.

An old war re-escalates

As in Central America, though, Colombia’s conflict owes much to a history of social injustice and government neglect. At no time since the Spanish conquest has the Bogotá government exercised authority over much of the nation’s territory. Since long before the emergence of guerrilla groups, Colombia – particularly rural Colombia – has resembled less a cohesive state than a patchwork of fiefdoms ruled by local bosses. The essential unit of power has long been the army brigade, guerrilla front, paramilitary "self-defense" association, or departmental political party. The rule of law – the guarantee that justice applies to all without regard to wealth, political power or capacity for violence – has been virtually nonexistent. The result has been a Hobbesian "war of all against all" in Colombia’s countryside. Violence, which raged out of control at the turn of the last century, flared up again in 1948 – the onset of a period known as "la violencia" – and has not ended yet.

As recently as the early 1990s, even many very able U.S. analysts viewed Colombia’s disorder as a "narco" issue, dismissing the simmering conflict with Marxist revolutionaries as a cold-war anachronism doomed to fade away. Since then, however, the fighting has intensified alarmingly. While Central America was ending its cold-war conflicts and seeking to reconcile its societies, Colombia’s two largest guerrilla groups, the FARC and ELN, were growing in strength, as were rightist paramilitaries. The FARC grew from about fifty fronts and 12,000 members in 1990 to sixty-one fronts and 17,000 members today; the ELN grew from about twenty-two fronts and 2,500 members to thirty fronts and 4,500 members; and paramilitary groups grew from several hundred members to about 5,000 today.

The combatants’ links to the drug trade

This growth owes less to the groups’ innate appeal than to their ability to finance themselves. Landowners, drug traffickers, and the military have generously supported the paramilitaries since they were founded in the 1980s. The guerrillas have long financed themselves through kidnapping, extortion and "taxes" on economic activity in areas they control.

Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, violence and unequal landholding pushed tens of thousands of peasants into Colombia’s southern plains, a neglected, unpopulated swath of Amazon-basin jungle about the size of California. The Colombian government did not follow them, leaving these small landholders without basic services, credit, farm-to-market roads, or any semblance of a rule of law. The newly arrived residents of this zone found that no matter what crop they raised – rubber, yucca, oil palm – the cost of inputs and the cost of bringing the produce to market made financial losses inevitable. By the 1980s, though, many discovered that if they grew coca – a crop more commonly found at the time in Peru and Bolivia – they had plenty of buyers offering good prices and willing to haul it away themselves.

By the mid-1990s, the FARC guerrillas who controlled this southern zone (a control gained more by filling a vacuum than by conquest) were "taxing" this mainly small-scale drug production, just as they charge levies on legal production in their zones of influence. By Colombian Army and U.S. Southern Command estimates, between one-third and two-thirds of FARC fronts and between one-eighth and one-quarter of ELN fronts benefit financially from the drug economy, mainly through taxation or payments for protection of drug laboratories. According to a U.S. intelligence assessment the New York Times cited in September 1999, Colombia’s guerrillas, chiefly the FARC, gain between $30 million and $100 million per year from the drug trade, virtually all of which appears to get plowed back into their war effort. This generous new source of revenue financed the sharp growth in guerrilla groups’ numbers and fighting ability during the 1990s.

It did the same for paramilitaries, who now admit that they also tax drug-crop cultivators in their own areas of influence. But paramilitary groups’ ties to the drug trade go still deeper. Though the term "narco-guerrilla" gets used far more often than "narco-paramilitary," drug dealers have been a part of the rightist groups’ history since their creation.

In the early and mid-1980s, after years of guerrilla extortion and taxation, many landholders in rural northern Colombia were willing to sell their properties at bargain prices. They had a ready set of buyers in the newly rich leaders of Colombia’s young drug trade, who needed legal investments with which to launder their ill-gotten gains. In what some analysts have called a "reverse land reform," a significant portion of landholdings in northern Colombia became concentrated in the hands of a small number of "capos" and cartel leaders. The drug lord-landowners, along with remaining farmers and ranchers, adopted a new approach to the guerrillas’ intimidation tactics, setting up well-paid vigilante "self-defense groups." With military-style weapons and uniforms, these groups were created with heavy input from Colombia’s armed forces. Though the paramilitaries attacked civilian populations far more frequently than guerrillas, the Colombian Army trained, equipped, and operated alongside them until 1989, when they were declared illegal. Little or no effort was ever made to enforce this ban, however, and the groups’ relationship with the armed forces, though pushed underground, remains strong today.

The most prominent paramilitary leader is Carlos Castaño of the Campesino Self-Defense Group of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU). Castaño, a former associate of Medellín cartel boss Pablo Escobar, has brought several of the larger regional paramilitary associations together under his loose direction within the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUC).

A human rights emergency

The armed groups’ growth meant that paramilitary massacres and intimidation – normally of defenseless civilians perceived to be the "social base" of guerrilla groups – had become a daily occurrence by the mid-1990s. Meanwhile the FARC’s newfound strength allowed it to deal the Colombian military several humiliating defeats.

The violence now takes over 3,000 lives each year, at least two-thirds of them civilian non-combatants, and displaces over 300,000. Fighting is at its fiercest in northern Colombia, where paramilitary groups are strongest and civilians are most often targeted. The most conflictive parts of the north are Urabá, a banana-growing region near the Panama border; the Magdalena Medio, a section of the Magdalena River valley in north-central Colombia near the oil town of Barrancabermeja; and Catatumbo, a drug-producing region near the Venezuelan border. The FARC generally holds sway in the southern jungle and coca region, though Castaño’s AUC has made inroads. Some of the most intensely contested areas in the south are Meta department, at the edge of the Amazon plains southeast of Bogotá, and Putumayo department, in the far south near the Ecuadorian border. Putumayo, the site of much coca production, hosts a recently created U.S.-funded Colombian Army counternarcotics unit, and is a chief destination of a proposed U.S. military aid package for 2000 and 2001 (see CIP’s publication Getting in Deeper).

The paramilitaries, which routinely use massacres, extrajudicial executions, and forced disappearances as battlefield tactics, are now responsible for over three-quarters of all human rights violations (see box on page 6). Guerrillas, responsible for about twenty percent of political killings, routinely execute or massacre civilians whom they regard as their opponents, and carry out numerous indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations – at times with inaccurate makeshift bombs that claim many noncombatant victims. The Colombian security forces, hunkered down in a defensive posture and fighting only in response to guerrilla attacks, have seen their share of abuses drop from half of the total in the early 1990s to about two percent today.

Though military leaders are fond of citing this two-percent figure, it fails to take into account continuing cooperation with paramilitary groups. Official policy calls for combating the right-wing groups, but military-paramilitary collaboration is common at the brigade and battalion levels. This cooperation rarely involves soldiers and "paras" openly working side-by-side on maneuvers against civilian populations. Instead, the security forces share intelligence with paramilitary counterparts, quietly provide transportation, vacate zones where abuses are to take place, and look the other way while they occur. This arrangement allows the military’s hands to appear clean amid an exceedingly dirty war.

The two percent figure fails to take into account widespread impunity for known military abusers. Though four particularly notorious generals have been fired recently for cooperation with paramilitaries, prosecutions – particularly of higher-ranking officers – are rare and quite dangerous for the prosecutors involved. The oft-cited two percent also leaves out the shadowy role of military intelligence, concentrated in the Bogotá-based 13th Brigade, which is widely suspected of eavesdropping on activists, academics and journalists, issuing threats, planning kidnappings, and carrying out assassinations.

It is especially tragic that some of Colombia’s most acutely threatened people are those who dare to work to end or to humanize the conflict. The country has been shocked and saddened by a relentless series of attacks on peace activists and human rights defenders (see box on this page). Many of Colombia’s most brilliant and effective human rights workers, scholars, journalists, labor leaders and jurists can now be found overseas, forced to leave their homes by threats and intimidation.

This senseless campaign of attacks does more than just weaken its victims’ organizations and movements. It also closes whatever political space is available for the many Colombians who hold reformist views but favor neither Marxism nor violence. By keeping Colombia’s "peaceful left" from participating in the political system, threats and attacks in fact benefit guerrilla groups by making them the only viable option for many who seek change.

A regional problem?

While guerrilla takeover or "failed state" scenarios are decidedly farfetched, the out-of-control violence easily makes Colombia the most unstable country in the Andean ridge. This is an unhappy distinction in a region that has rather suddenly become one of the world’s most troubled. Colombia’s neighbors are in only slightly better shape, with enormous problems of their own. Economic turmoil has overwhelmed Ecuador and Venezuela, contributing to a January 2000 coup in Quito and the election in Caracas of Hugo Chávez, a populist former coup plotter whose democratic credentials remain uncertain. Peru’s semi-dictatorial president, Alberto Fujimori, hopes to expand his term by five years in this year’s elections amid an advanced deterioration of democratic institutions. Panama is in its first year "on its own," with no armed U.S. presence on its soil and complete responsibility for the management of its canal.

While it is highly unlikely that, in the memorable words of Indiana Republican Rep. Dan Burton, "the entire northern tier of South America could be lost to narco-guerrillas and traffickers," Colombia’s turmoil does affect its troubled Andean neighbors. The border areas Colombia shares with Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and (to a lesser extent) Brazil have played host to refugee flows, guerrilla and paramilitary incursions, kidnapping and extortion, and infrequent combat.

While not fundamentally threatening its neighbors’ stability, the spillover of Colombia’s violence has led to a greater military presence in border areas and has soured relations between the Pastrana government and some regional leaders. Venezuela’s President Chávez has voiced support for Colombia’s peace process but has angered Colombian officials with overtures to the FARC and ELN. Meanwhile, Venezuela stations between 15,000 and 20,000 troops along its border, at 100 border posts and two large bases known as "theaters of operations." Peru’s Fujimori has been harshly critical of the Pastrana government’s peace effort – most notably in a February 1999 speech at the Inter-American Defense College in Washington – and has deployed 4,000 troops to the border area since early 1999. Many of these troops had been stationed at the Ecuadorian border before the two countries’ 1995 conflict was resolved, and many observers view Fujimori’s invocation of a new external threat as an appeal for domestic support in advance of the 2000 elections. In Panama’s unpopulated Darién region, where the FARC had taken "rest and relaxation" for years, the 1990s paramilitary offensive across the border in Urabá has increased violence and refugee flows. Panama, which formally abolished its army in 1994, has increased its police presence in the border area to over 2,000, while some have called for re-militarization "to protect the canal" – a long walk away from the border through the roadless Darién – from Colombia’s violence. Ecuador’s government, caught up in its own political and economic crisis, has stationed 3,000 troops near the border. Meanwhile the United States maintains some military presence in the border zones at radar sites, newly established counter-drug "forward operating locations" in Aruba, Curacao, and Ecuador, a Peruvian riverine operations school in the Amazon port of Iquitos, and through numerous Special Forces joint training deployments.




Talking peace

Despite the escalating conflict, human rights crisis and concerns for regional stability, there is some reason for guarded optimism. As their country’s conflict spun out of control in the 1990s, Colombian citizens did not remain passive or intimidated. In the past few years, movements calling for a national peace process and promoting local-level conflict resolution have proliferated impressively. While civil society played almost no role in past negotiations with guerrilla groups, national organizations get much of the credit for ushering in the peace process that began in 1998 and continues today (see boxes on this page and page 9). These groups’ strong push for a negotiated solution has given the Colombian state the political cover it needed to take the difficult step of initiating talks with guerrilla groups.

Street protests, assemblies, "votes" for peace, direct negotiations with armed groups, and other tactics revealed the Colombian people’s deep exhaustion with the fighting, making the search for a negotiated settlement a central issue in 1998 presidential elections. Conservative party candidate Andrés Pastrana, who made peace a centerpiece of his platform, was elected partly because FARC leaders indicated during the campaign that they were most open to negotiations with a Conservative government.

Pastrana followed through quickly on his promise to pursue talks with the guerrillas, traveling to the mountains of Colombia while still president-elect for a meeting with FARC leader Manuel Marulanda. By October 1998 Pastrana had secured a FARC commitment to talk peace, a feat he accomplished largely by agreeing to a controversial guerrilla pre-condition: the pullout of security forces from five municipalities in the southern departments of Meta and Caquetá (see map on page 4). This zone was considered FARC-held territory long before the November 1998 troop withdrawal; military units of less than company strength rarely ventured more than a mile from their base in the largest town, San Vicente del Caguán (pop. 15,000). The 16,200 square-mile "clearance zone" (about twice the size of El Salvador) has hosted all subsequent talks between government and FARC representatives.

The talks began on January 7, 1999 with a ceremony in San Vicente del Caguán. The unexpected absence of FARC leader Marulanda – who claimed that security concerns kept him away from the event – augured the difficult year ahead. Though chief government negotiator Víctor Ricardo and other government representatives met frequently with FARC counterparts, the talks made little substantial progress in their first year.

A FARC demand that the government break army-paramilitary linkages froze the talks between January and April 1999, and a dispute over international monitoring of the "clearance zone" brought an impasse between July and October 1999. Large-scale FARC offensives in July, November and December – in which the Colombian military actually scored key victories – cast a pall over the process by spreading doubt about the guerrillas’ will to pursue a peaceful solution. Doubts about the FARC’s sincerity were compounded by allegations of human rights violations and other excesses in the demilitarized zone.

For its part, the Colombian government has faced criticism for managing the peace process in a very closed fashion, allowing very little input from civil society and even key government officials viewed as outside President Pastrana’s inner circle. Though they normally do not suggest other courses of action, some critics have also attacked the government for making what they regard to be "naive" concessions to the guerrillas.

The process has nonetheless advanced farther than previous attempts to talk with the FARC. In May 1999 both sides agreed on a twelve-point agenda, providing a structure for formal negotiations (see box on page 10). Negotiators are to reach agreement on a specific set of reforms, such as agrarian policy or the military’s role, before moving to the next – a structure familiar to those who recall the Salvadoran and Guatemalan peace processes. During 1999, however, the talks’ difficult progress kept them from passing from procedural questions to the "substantive phase" of negotiated reforms foreseen in the twelve-point agenda.

Signs of a possible turnaround have surfaced in early 2000. The year began with the guerrillas’ declared "Christmas truce," a twenty-day cease-fire that was the FARC’s first since 1989. Shortly after talks resumed on January 13 Marulanda made a rare appearance at the site of the dialogues, where he voiced optimism that the substantive negotiations would soon begin. Both sides agreed to start the negotiating agenda with a discussion of the country’s economic model, and at the beginning of February three FARC leaders paid an unprecedented visit to Scandinavia to learn about those countries’ mixed economies.

President Pastrana has made substantially less progress toward dialogue with Colombia’s other armed groups. Both government and civil-society representatives have met several times with ELN leaders, most recently in Havana and Caracas, with no significant breakthroughs. The ELN hopes to develop its negotiating agenda through a nine-month "convention" with civil society leaders, but the Colombian government has resisted the group’s demand that its convention take place in a separate ELN "clearance zone." While government representatives say they are open to the idea, they disagree with the rebels’ chosen zone of southern Bolívar department, a part of the highly conflictive and strategic Magdalena Medio region in northeastern Colombia. Once an ELN stronghold, southern Bolívar has lately been overrun by paramilitaries, FARC units, and drug producers. A rash of high-profile ELN attacks followed the government’s denial: an April 1999 airplane hijacking, the kidnapping of a Cali church congregation in May, and bombings of hundreds of electrical pylons, forcing power rationing in major cities.

Though Carlos Castaño has told reporters that he is interested in negotiations, Colombian government policy dictates that the paramilitaries are not to be treated as "political actors" – in other words, Bogotá will negotiate with them the terms of their disarmament, but talks would not pursue an agenda of social reforms.

The challenges ahead

The road ahead for Colombia’s peace effort will be difficult and long. The process has been underway for more than a year, and by now all observers realize that it will likely take several more. Nearly all also agree, though, that Colombia’s conflict cannot be "won," and that the present process is the country’s best chance to avoid an almost unthinkable plunge into further bloodshed.

The challenges ahead are daunting. The FARC has made clear that it will not consider a cease-fire until a substantial number of agenda points have ended with agreements. For the foreseeable future, then, both sides will continue the difficult task of talking peace amid regular fighting.

While most peace processes end with the disarmament of opposition groups, both of Colombia’s guerrilla groups are very reluctant to turn in their weapons and attempt a new existence as political parties. Their reluctance is somewhat justified by the sad examples of Colombian guerrilla groups that demobilized in the past, only to fall victim to the ongoing campaign against the country’s "peaceful left." The Patriotic Union, a political party that the FARC established in 1985, did well in elections, but by 1992 a systematic campaign of assassination had claimed the lives of between 2,000 and 3,000 party leaders and members. The M-19 guerrilla group, which became a party in the early 1990s and helped write Colombia’s 1991 constitution, lost many of its leaders and exists today only as a marginal political force.

The success of the peace process will also depend on all sides’ ability to overcome their own divisions. A fracture is widely acknowledged to exist within the FARC leadership between a "political" wing that is willing to pursue the group’s goals through negotiations, and a "military" wing focused on furthering its battlefield gains. Colombia’s political establishment is similarly divided between those willing to make compromises to end the fighting and hard-liners who would yield very little.

Colombia’s civil-society peace movement suffers from its own divisions as well. Despite many earnest and well-designed efforts to coordinate strategies, civil society remains an amorphous mass unable to speak with one voice. Consensus does not go much further than agreement that a political solution is the best way out of the conflict, and that civil society must somehow participate. Two of the most divisive areas of disagreement are how (or whether) to incorporate paramilitary groups in the process, and whether a peace agreement would be acceptable if human rights abusers are granted amnesty.

The United States’ relationship to Colombia’s peace process is another big factor, one complicated by Washington’s overwhelming emphasis on counternar-cotics and a spreading belief that guerrilla groups are a regional security threat. U.S. support was beyond question at the outset of Pastrana’s peace effort; in December 1998 U.S. diplomats even took the bold step of meeting with FARC representatives at the Colombian government’s request. Since then, however, Washington’s rhetorical support for the peace process has been undercut by officials’ public second-guessing of President Pastrana’s strategy, by a refusal to meet again with the guerrillas following their March 1999 murder of three U.S. indigenous-rights activists, and by an aid proposal that would add about $1.3 billion in new military and police assistance over the next two years. U.S. policymakers, not known for their long attention spans, have meanwhile been voicing impatience at the talks’ slow progress.

The role of the rest of the international community also remains unclear. European countries and Colombia’s South American neighbors are on the whole more supportive of the peace process and less interventionist in their approach than Washington. Most are currently playing quiet, though often constructive, roles. The United Nations could play a very important mediation role, as it did for Central America’s peace process, but neither the FARC nor the Colombian government has so far shown much enthusiasm for its involvement. The UN is nonetheless making crucial contributions through the Bogotá field offices of its High Commissioner for Human Rights and High Commissioner for Refugees, while the appointment of Norwegian diplomat Jan Egeland as the secretary-general’s first special representative for Colombia is a very promising development.

Peace in Colombia remains a long way off, and the coming months and years will bring new disappointments, frustrations, and atrocities. While what lies ahead may make the Salvadoran and Guatemalan processes look easy, the news is not all bad. The mere fact that civil society is participating – and that this participation is growing – is very encouraging, as it was an ingredient missing from past peace talks. Another new element is a more engaged international community, both governmental and non-governmental, that will pressure for humanization of the conflict, offer technical and economic assistance, and play a conflict-resolution role. Also new is the presence of a government in Bogotá that has proven its willingness to make sacrifices and politically unpopular moves to bring its opponents to the table. Despite the formidable obstacles it faces, then, there is cause to be optimistic about Colombia’s peace process, to believe – as many do – that this will be the process that eventually ends the fighting.

CIP thanks the Compton Foundation and the General Service Foundation for the generous support that made this report possible.

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