Colombia’s paramilitary killers were dramatically ‘pardoned’ on national television in late November, and are now in ‘negotiations’ with the government to ‘demobilize’. The Colombian army, meanwhile, no longer having to worry about the paramilitaries, is now able to focus on ambitious plans for destroying the guerrillas. Indeed, Colombia’s army commander, General Martin Orlando Carreno told the Associated Press (reported Dec. 20) that he will catch FARC’s leaders by the end of the year or resign: “They found Saddam in a hole, like a rat’ These guys are rats too, hidden away in the jungle. And we can find them’ Everything is in our favor to win this war’ We must win. There is no alternative’ It is either now or never.”
Or so the story goes. In reality, the army-backed paramilitaries have not let the phony ‘demobilization’ or ‘negotiations’ impede their work of assassination and massacre. And the government’s ‘successful’ war against the guerrillas looks more like a war against the population itself.
Pardoning the Paramilitaries
A leader in Colombia’s women’s movement organization the Organizacion Feminina Popular (OFP), Esperanza Amaris Miranda, was killed on October 16, 2003, in the city of Barrancabermeja, by paramilitaries. The OFP counted 120 assassinated in Barrancabermeja in 2003 (to November), 13 of whom were women of their own organization.
The paramilitaries have been attacking the social movements savagely since the referendum of October 25 (1) went against the government. The Human Rights Department of Colombia’s union central, the Centro Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT, who counted 58 assassinations of unionists to November), reported on October 31:
“Domingo Tovar Arrieta, member of the National Executive and Director of the Human Rights Department in the afternoon of 30 October received a telephone call to his mobile in which they said:
“YOU WILL PAY WITH YOUR LIFE FOR THE LOSS OF THE REFERENDUM”.
Over the next two weeks, the paramilitaries assassinated teacher’s unionists Pacheco Everto Fiholl (November 3) and Nubia Estela Castro (November 5), Health worker’s unionist Zuly Esther Colina Perez (November 12), unionist Mario Sierra (November 16), and severely wounded teacher’s unionist Berta Lucy Davila (November 13).
There are reports of a massacre of 5 people on November 2 in Cajamarca in the department of Tolima, by men in army uniforms. Paramilitary roadblocks were taking people off buses at the peace community of San Jose de Apartado in late October, while at the same time army and paramilitary units were raiding houses in Arauqita. The Embera indigenous reported paramilitary incursions of men armed to the teeth and threatening their people in mid-November.
Shortly afterwards, on November 25, the beginning of the paramilitary ‘demobilization’ took place. Colombians are told that the paramilitaries are in ‘negotiations’ with the government, giving the government the chance to focus on destroying the guerrillas. At the ceremony, a paramilitary unit in Medellin called the Cacique Nutibara Bloc, consisting of 850 members, turned in some 112 weapons. The paramilitary foot soldiers were sent off to ‘readjustment training’ and will be given government stipends. The leaders remain at large, however, and used the occasion of the ‘demobilization’ to broadcast video messages to the nation. Carlos Castano, for example, who has been convicted of arranging assassinations and massacres, who has admitted to drug trafficking and assassinations (the latter in his published biography), went on television. So did paramilitary leaders Salvatore Mancuso and Diego Murillo Bejarano.
Human Rights Watch was unimpressed. Jose Miguel Vivanco of the Americas division of HRW said: “The broadcast is a travesty. Instead of handing these criminals a microphone, the government should be concentrating on arresting them and bringing them to justice.” Legislator Gustavo Petro called it “the biggest whitewash in history,” asking: “Is pardoning crimes against humanity the way to peace?” Claudia Martinez, a writer from Medellin, wondered: “We are in the difficult position of not knowing whether to laugh, cry, or be filled with indignation.” She wondered about the equipment the paramilitaries turned over: “One doesn’t have to be very intelligent to notice that the weapons turned over are a tiny fraction of the thousands of guns the BCN had in Medellin, to say nothing of the communication equipment they had. Where is all that?”
The dramatic gesture of paramilitary ‘demobilization’ has not stopped the murderous campaign against the social movements, however.
The UK Colombia Solidarity Campaign reported “34-year old JOSE DE JESUS ROJAS CASTANEDA was assassinated at 9pm on 3 December in the Bosque neighborhood in the southeast part of Barrancabermeja. Mr. Rojas Castaneda was killed in front of his wife, who was in her ninth month of pregnancy. He worked in the Instituto Tecnico Superior de Comercio and was a member of the municipal educators’ union ASEM. He was the brother of Jacqueline Rojas Castaneda, who is a leader of the Women’s organization OFP and the brother-in-law of Juan Carlos Galvis (president of the CUT in Barrancabermeja and a Sinaltrainal union leader).”
The ‘demobilized’ BCN itself assassinated a councillor of the municipality of San Carlos in Antioquia on December 14. Paramilitaries killed unionist Severo Bastos on the same day, in Villa del Rosario near Cucuta.
Renewing the Offensive
If it failed to stop the paramilitary killings, ‘demobilization’ did manage to embolden Colombia’s President and Army to talk, and act, even tougher against their perceived enemies.
The Colombian Army was so offended by Human Rights Watch’s comments that they put a poll on their website. The question? “How would you describe Jose Miguel Vivanco, who called the demobilization of paramilitaries a ‘spectacle of impunity’, knowing that there are now 850 less weapons killing Colombians?” Possible answers: “1. He should support the process. 2. He should not express an opinion. 3. He’s right. 4. He is supporting terrorism.”
In the event, the Army may not have gotten the result it wanted: 62% of 358 people who checked the site said Vivanco was right at the time El Tiempo reported it on December 7.
Meanwhile Uribe was giving a speech urging the “extermination” of the guerrillas “by good ways or bad,” and that “we need to calculate less and risk more.” (Reported by El Tiempo Dec. 6, 2003) The speech was followed by the passage of a new ‘anti-terror’ law (enabling arrests without warrants, phone taps, and more), and claims of a major combat between the army and the paramilitaries, in which 24 paramilitaries were killed and 39 captured.
On December 22, the ‘Casa de Mujeres Trabajadoras’ (House of Working Class Women), a part of the ‘Ruta Pacifica de Mujeres’, an important women’s peace group in Colombia, released a communique. Their office was raided by four armed men, who forced the workers there to kneel on the ground with weapons pointed at them, went directly for the computers, and made off with five of them. The women are unsure who the raiders were, but their communique states clearly that they “believe this action is an effect of the politics of ‘Democratic Security’ and the ‘Counterterrorism Statute’, which place under suspicion and harrassment all organizations that work for human rights and in this case women’s rights.”
Another front of the offensive was the aerial fumigation program. Colombia’s daily, El Tiempo, reported on December 5 that the US Congress has approved aerial fumigation of National Parks and Nature Reserves in Colombia. In the same article, it was noted that “Colombia’s national parks occupy some 10 million hectares and are considered the second richest part of the world in terms of biodiversity after Brazil.” An anonymous source “close to the government” was quoted saying that the fumigations “persist in acting as if reducing coca cultivation was weakening narcotrafficking. But reducing cultivation is not the same as reducing the global drug supply.” The report ended with a discussion of the Colombian laws and international environmental agreements that would be violated by such fumigation, followed by quotes from the Vice-Minister of Justice arguing for it.
Uribe is talking about ‘extermination’, the army is accusing Human Rights Watch of ‘supporting terrorism’, the pardoned paramilitaries are still killing, and the fumigation program continues. But not everything is going Uribe’s way.
The FARC, in a gruesome way, continue to demonstrate that Uribe’s ‘Democratic Security’ policy isn’t stopping them. A bombing in Barranquilla on December 16 killed a woman and injured 20 others. A captain of the police force was killed in fighting with the guerrillas in Cauca on December 21.
More hopeful are the political reverses Uribe has faced. The referendum of October 25, in which the government’s program was defeated (1), was the first such reverse. The departmental and municipal elections, which brought democratic left candidates to power all over the country, was another.
In Cauca itself, the government has tried to exploit the indigenous movement for autonomy as part of its counterinsurgency campaign. But on December 15, the Indigenous Regional Council of Cauca (CRIC) sent a letter to Uribe clearing this issue up. CRIC’s position was reported in the Colombian media, and the letter said: “we arrive at the conclusion that, sadly, this war is not one between armies fighting for state power, but of armies against the civilian population, especially against the population living in territories with strategic importance, economic or military in nature. Here we see the strengthening of war-like confrontation, a condition that maintains anxiety and a high risk of forced disappearances among our indigenous communities of Cauca as well as those in other parts of the country. We have told you that the establishment of military or police bases in various communities has not proven to be the solution. On the contrary, their existence has proven that there are imminent risks for the population, since their presence only serves to encourage armed confrontations.”
Uribe’s privatizations have been contested as well. In October, a coalition of trade unions called for a campaign against the World Bank’s restructuring of Colombia’s Mining Code, the liquidation of the state mining corporation MINERCOL, and the removal of the ‘restructured’ mining sector from even a semblance of social control.
Right now, there is a battle going on in the Colombian Congress. Legislator Alexander Lopez, from Valle del Cauca, has brought a case against Uribe for violating the Constitution, the agreement on public services, the penal code, and the disciplinary code by liquidating Colombia’s state telephone company, Telecom, by presidential decree without following proper legal procedure. In his statement to the Congressional Committee dealing with the case, Uribe, instead of answering the charges, accused Lopez of engaging in “parliamentary subversion”, attempting to link Lopez’s defense of Colombia’s public telephone company to terrorism. Communiques from Lopez’s office on December 17 and 18 asked Uribe to answer the charges rather than make insinuations.
In the wake of the paramilitary pardon, respected journalist Fernando Garavito wrote in his regular column, ‘The Lord of the Flies’, that:
” what’s at stake is more than just the reinsertion of a group of common criminals’ much more than pardon and erasing from memory of the atrocities of Castano and Mancuso’ this peace is an ethical impossibility. With it the slightest possibility of justice is eliminated’ If things continue on this road, it will be no surprise if in a little while the minimal necessary elements for the existence of even this cardboard democracy of ours begin to disappear'”
While Uribe tries to tear it up, Colombia’s movements are fighting hard for more than just a ‘cardboard democracy’.
The sources for this article are communiques of the various organizations quoted and the Colombian and North American press. If you want a specific reference, write to email@example.com
For a note from the beginning of the paramilitary negotiations, see my ‘Paramilitary Negotiations’, ZNet November 27 2003:
1) See my ‘Colombia’s Referendum’, ZNet October 27, 2003: