Colombia: The Early Signs of a Violent Peace

First published at Telesur English

In my last column, I described the Colombian peace process between the government and FARC. I discussed possible spoilers of the peace agreement, especially the role of the paramilitary-linked former Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe Velez. I also discussed the many things that the peace process will not solve, including some of the most gruesome violence occurring in Buenaventura, committed by the ‘demobilized’ paramilitaries.

Since then, we have seen some of the peace process’s first murders of indigenous people, this time by the FARC. What happened is summarized in an open letter published by Pueblos en Camino. As the peace negotiations enter their final phase, the FARC faced its victims in Havana and acknowledged wrongs it has committed. On October 30, they made what WOLA called their “clearest recognition that it (FARC) owes something to its victims.”

On the ground, in the indigenous territories of the Nasa of northern Cauca (for historical background on the Nasa see my photo essay), the FARC embarked on a campaign of armed propaganda about the peace process, commemorating fighters that were assassinated by the government. One of those, killed in 2011, was Alfonso Cano. A billboard set up by FARC with Cano’s picture, reads, “We will not relent for one instant in the struggle for a political solution to the conflict, for our principles, for the certainties that motivate us, because we are revolutionaries, because we love peace. – Sixth Front, Western Bloc, Commander Alfonso Cano.” While the FARC considers northern Cauca to be its territory, and recruits Nasa people to its ranks, the Nasa have struggled at great cost for autonomy in their territory. Over the decades, the Nasa have liberated much of their territory from the speculators and large landowners who had stolen it from them, established their own municipal governments, and administered their own traditional justice system, at communal assemblies. In order to resist armed attacks, usually by the state and paramilitaries but too often also by the FARC, the Nasa have a traditional ‘indigenous guard’, a standing organization of people who carry nothing but traditional sticks as a symbol of their authority, who have played a major role in maintaining the indigenous people in their territory, resisting all of the forces that have sought to displace them.

Two of these indigenous guards, Manuel Antonio Tumina (42), and Daniel Coicue (63), began to take down some of the FARC’s propaganda, in accordance with the community’s autonomy: the decision to put up or take down propaganda materials in indigenous territory, is a political decision and belongs to the Nasa. They took down the Cano billboard. The FARC killed them in response.

Two days later, a communique appeared, signed by FARC (the FARC denies that it’s theirs) filled with further threats against a large number of indigenous people, claiming that according to their “intelligence”, “the indigenous movement in Cauca is betrayed by some of its leaders who have left the sentiments of their humble communities to work with the government”. FARC declares this long list of 26 indigenous leaders “military targets” in the ugly memo, to which the indigenous organization has responded here.

The day after the memo, on November 8, another member of the indigenous guard, 26 year old Jose Libardo Pacho, was also killed – whether the FARC killed him too is still unknown.

The FARC’s official response was not much better than the threats they disavowed, claiming that the indigenous guards (who were unarmed except for their sticks) were killed when they attempted to disarm a group of “indigenous militants”. The FARC’s official statement thus attempts to cast this as a dispute between two groups of indigenous people that got out of hand. The problem with this is that the “dispute” was between unarmed indigenous guards and armed people who, presumably, were acting on orders. This makes the FARC command responsible for the deaths. At a time when justice for victims is being discussed at the negotiating table, at a time when FARC claims to be facing its victims and taking responsibility, it is creating new victims and engaging in deception to avoid responsibility.

The FARC wants to claim these territories as its own because it has been operating in them. But the defense of the land in these territories has been done by indigenous people’s autonomous resistance – the FARC’s threats, and now killings, can be interpreted as trying to benefit from the indigenous struggle, trying to take, in a peace deal with the government, something that the indigenous people have struggled for.

The Nasa organized a search and apprehended the killers, trying them in assembly and sentencing them according to their traditional system (see Al Jazeera’s story). Those who were tried and punished for the crimes were, as the FARC had claimed, indigenous people too. But what about the organization that gave them the orders? What about the FARC’s standing threats to community members?

Two years ago, when the peace talks were starting to gain momentum, president Santos said, “We are not negotiating the state. We are not negotiating the development model. We are not negotiating public policies.” (president’s site, via Santos was reassuring his base that this was not “peace at any cost”, and that there were “red lines”.

Throughout the decades of the war, the FARC and the government told the indigenous that their autonomy and territory would need to be sacrificed for the needs of war. Now, it seems they are being sacrificed for the needs of a “peace process” in which two armies treat their territories as prizes and their lives as a matter of indifference.

A peace process should be a chance for these armed actors to behave differently. The statements from Havana sound nice, but they are little comfort, accompanied as they are by threats, lies, and murder on the ground.

The Colombian Peace Negotiations: Prospects and Continuing Horrors

From TeleSUR English

It is now about four years since the unofficial initiation of the ongoing peace process between the FARC and the Colombian government (secret approaches were made starting in October 2010), and over two years since the official opening of talks based on a “General Agreement” signed on August 26, 2012. There have been thirty rounds of negotiations to date, which have brought negotiators from the government and the FARC to Havana.

The Washington Office on Latin America has created a website,, that collects documents and media reports in a single place, and has even arranged them on a remarkably complete, and ongoing, timeline (, which we can use to begin to understand what is happening with the peace process.

The process is being supported by an unusually expansive set of actors. The Cuban government is hosting the talks. The United States government, the United Nations, most of the governments of Latin America, the Venezuelan government, are all supportive. Effusive statements have been made. Uruguay’s President Pepe Mujica last year called the peace process “The most important thing happening in Latin America”. In July 2013, Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez suggested that the process could be opposed by “only idiots, those who do not love their country”. In November 2013, Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa went further, suggesting that “only psychopaths” would boycott the process.

Speaking of which, despite the remarkably wide-ranging support for a negotiated solution to the conflict, Colombia’s former president Alvaro Uribe Velez is staunchly opposed, as is his political party (which lost at the polls earlier this year, in an election which effectively became a referendum on the continuation of the peace negotiations). Whether the Argentinian and Ecuadorian presidents were thinking of Uribe when they mentioned “idiots” and “psychopaths” is, of course, unclear. Uribe’s attempts to spoil the peace process go far beyond running against it in an election, however, a point to which I will return.

The talks have gone on for a long time, but considering that the beginning of the conflict is sometimes dated to 1964, and other times all the way back to 1948, it is perhaps reasonable to expect that a peace agreement would take a few years to achieve. So far, they have resulted in three draft accords, which were made public at the end of September and are published on the joint website, All of the accords are linked, as might be expected given the principle that “nothing is agreed until all is agreed”. The draft accords on solving the illicit drug problem, on rural development, and on political participation, include many proposals that were brought to the table by social movements, and if implemented, would represent social progress, including land reform and agrarian reform, the extension of campesino land reserves (which are already legal under Colombian law as of 1994) and guarantees for political dissent.

The occurrence of the talks, and the content of the talks and of the public discussions around the talks, have also brought some positive elements to public politics. In the years preceding the talks, Colombia saw the rise of an organized movement of the victims of the conflict. The Colombian government has focused on the FARC’s victims, but the point for the negotiations is that delegations of victims have come to the talks, and that many of the victims have mobilized for peace. The talks have created an atmosphere in which the FARC has taken responsibility for crimes, committed to stop kidnapping civilians for ransom, and seen its leaders face some of the people it has committed crimes against. The government, which has been forced to send some of its politicians and military officers to jail in past years over scandals (to which I will return), has also shown a degree of seriousness in the talks. Last year, president Santos changed the military high command, and in the wake of the agrarian strike, he changed his entire cabinet as well. In his public statements about the talks, Santos has shown a degree of political maturity that US allies rarely have, admitting that it is only with enemies that peace can be made: “We’re trying to give our enemies, in this case the FARC, a bridge to a dignified way out–lay down their arms and enter the political arena.” This contrasts with statements by peace’s most famous opponent, Uribe, who constantly invokes Al Qaeda (and probably will soon be comparing FARC to ISIS).

Uribe is a formidable threat to the peace process, because he is a powerful member of the Colombian establishment with important elite and, it must be admitted, significant right-wing popular support. Perhaps a few sentences should be spent on reminding readers who Uribe is. A document published by the National Security Archive, a 1991 report from U.S. DEA officials in Colombia, called Uribe “A Colombian politician and senator dedicated to collaboration with the Medellin Cartel”, “a close personal friend of Pablo Escobar”, “linked to a business involved in narcotics activities in the US.” When he was president of Colombia, Uribe survived a number of scandals, but the one that got closer and closer to him was called the “para-politica” scandal, or sometimes the “para-uribismo” scandal, which broke when military officers and paramilitaries spoke to the media about pacts they made with politicians to cleanse areas of leftists, unionists, indigenous people, and peasant movement leaders. The paramilitaries were also major narcotraffickers, operating the business on a much more massive scale than the FARC’s involvement in illicit cultivation. Uribe was also president during the “false positives” scandal, in which the Colombian military killed helpless peasants, posed them with weapons, and claimed they had scored kills against FARC (the current president, Santos, was defense minister during the scandal).

Uribe has made his political career on being an opponent of peace, and had his biggest political successes doing so. The last time the Colombian government and FARC negotiated for peace from 1999-2002, they agreed on a demilitarized zone under de facto FARC control, centered on San Vicente del Caguan. In this same period, in 2000, the US approved Plan Colombia, a multibillion ($1.3 billion was US money, most was Colombian money) boost to the Colombian military ostensibly for counternarcotics. Plan Colombia, and all of the covert counterinsurgency programs that accompanied it, helped scuttle the peace initiative. When in 2002 the FARC kidnapped an important senator, the government went on the offensive, sensing a change in public opinion. Uribe capitalized on this change in his presidential run that year, ran as the anti-FARC candidate, and won.

On the other hand, Uribe is not opposed to peace agreements on principle – he initiated a peace process with the paramilitaries in 2002, which, given the state backing of the paramilitaries (and the specific backing by Uribe’s political base and allies), was something of a peace process between two branches of the same organization. That ‘peace process’ was begun some 12 years ago, and featured some ceremonial handovers of old weapons by paramilitaries who then ‘demobilized’. Paramilitary violence against the state’s opponents has continued more or less unabated.

Uribe’s stance towards the ongoing negotiations is one of outright sabotage, both overt and covert. The most recent scandal (in August 2014) was about a hacker, Andres Sepulveda, who worked with Uribe supporters to spy on negotiators in Havana. While Sepulveda spied on the FARC, he said, others from the military and police spied on the government negotiators. Last year, Uribe tweeted the location from which two FARC negotiators were going to be extracted – revealing his continuing connections with the military.

Another important threat to the peace process might end up being media polls. Over the years, the polls have shown a majority, sometimes a plurality, in favor of a peace agreement, but they have also shown majorities in favor of FARC leaders going to jail, and majorities against FARC leaders entering politics. A current principle of the negotiations is that those who were deeply involved in crimes against humanity will have to submit to justice and do jail time, while most would receive suspended sentences and be able to enter politics. The talks almost ran out the clock this time, and would have, had Uribe’s party been elected. If polls, which aren’t always reliable, start to show a shift away from support for peace and Colombian politicians follow them, the chance for peace might be lost.

If the negotiations succeed, they would be a positive step for Colombia. The outcome could include some positive agrarian reforms, guarantees for political opposition and dissent (badly needed in a country where thousands of people have been killed yearly for participating in unions, peasant organizations, indigenous movements, or opposition political parties), and an end to the FARC’s kidnappings of civilians and indiscriminate attacks. It could create openings for further democratic struggle and reform.

But this peace process will not end violence in Colombia, because Colombia’s establishment, and its North American patrons, have been pursuing two wars for all of these decades: the war against the FARC (and ELN), and a generalized war on the poor. It has been a long time since the poor were represented by the guerrillas and their armed struggle. Today, they have a huge variety of their own organizations, all of which have suffered tremendous violence at the hands of the state and paramilitaries. While the Colombian government acknowledged this, when the Basta Ya report was published last year as an “uncomfortable truth”, with Santos talking about “state agencies’ collusion with illegal armed groups, and the security forces’ acts of omission at some stages of the internal armed conflict”. Santos said at that time that “the state must investigate and punish this conduct in order to comply with the victims’ rights to truth and justice.” But the negotiations don’t really cover this war, which continues. Colombia still has millions of internally displaced people, who have been displaced from their lands, lands which have been repurposed for various mega-plantations and other megaprojects. They were displaced through paramilitary massacre. Colombia also is still a very deadly place to be a union leader, human rights activist, indigenous person, Afro-Colombian, or peasant leader. In 2008, on the campaign trail, Obama opposed a free trade agreement with Colombia “because the violence against unions in Colombia would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we have insisted be included in these kinds of agreements.” There continue to be dozens of murders of unionists every year.

But the most devastating site for the war whose peace is not being negotiated is Buenaventura, a port city on the Pacific coast through which much of the country’s cargo travels. Buenaventura is currently famous for its chop houses, where the paramilitaries chop people into pieces, alive, and which has led thousands to flee the city in terror. Human Rights Watch has a report on the chop houses from March 2014. These horrors have nothing to do with the conflict between FARC and the state. They are committed by the supposedly demobilized paramilitaries, and are over control of the important territory of the port city. A peace deal with FARC, if signed, will do nothing to address them. At best, it might give some more breathing room to those in Colombian society who struggle against violence.

The Latest Colombian Peace Process

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has reinitiated a dialogue with the FARC. Talks began in Oslo and will continue in Havana. The Colombian government suspended orders to capture the 29 members of FARC’s negotiating team as long as the negotiations take place, but have warned that they will be arrested if they try to leave Cuba.

The talks will deal with five issues: the end of armed conflict; land reform; guarantees for the exercise of political opposition and citizen participation; drug trafficking; and the rights of the victims of the conflict.

Continue reading “The Latest Colombian Peace Process”

An award weirder than Obama’s Peace Prize

Seriously. The Colombian magazine, Semana, and its owner, Alejandro Santos, just won a COHA award for Excellence in Print Journalism.

Santos comes from one of Colombia’s most powerful families and Semana, while I’ll admit that it is an indispensable source (like El Tiempo), is thoroughly an establishment outlet. COHA, meanwhile, is also indispensable, but perhaps I thought it was a little more oppositional in outlook than it actually is. So I was a little surprised to see the award.

Continue reading “An award weirder than Obama’s Peace Prize”

The M-19 Palace of Justice Takeover in 1985: New Documents

The amazing National Security Archive strikes again, this time showing how the Colombian army is responsible for the deaths of 70 people when they raided Colombia’s Palace of Justice following the guerrilla group M-19’s takeover of it in 1985.

The most striking note in it, that accords with anecdotes I’ve heard from people who were around at the time and knew people who died, was the two contradictory cables that came from the US Embassy, spaced two days apart:

Continue reading “The M-19 Palace of Justice Takeover in 1985: New Documents”

The Canadian FARC cell that never left Colombia

Colombia’s president, Alvaro Uribe Velez, actually presented a dossier from his intelligence agencies when he visited Canada. The intelligence agencies were claiming, based on a magic laptop, that there were FARC guerrilla cells operating in Canada, masterminded by the cousin of the assassinated guerrilla leader Raul Reyes.

Continue reading “The Canadian FARC cell that never left Colombia”

Uribe in Ottawa

In my question/answer about the Canada Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA), I cited a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), an organization that has a board with people like George Soros, Kofi Annan, Richard Armitage, Louise Arbour, Shlomo Ben-Ami, Lakhdar Brahimi, and Ernesto Zedillo on it – not exactly raging radicals, in other words. The ICG report I cited is called “The Virtuous Twins: Protecting Human Rights and Improving Security in Colombia.” The passage I cited recommended that the international community condition arms sales to Colombia on respect for human rights. Its strongest stance was reserved for the Colombian government’s practice of attacking human rights activists as terrorists:

“Despite some recent measures in reaction to the mounting extrajudicial execution scandal, the security forces have a long way to go regarding accountability, professionalism and full commitment to human rights…an absolute precondition is an end to the stigmatisation by high government officials of human rights groups as linked to guerrillas.”

(emphasis mine).

So, Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe Velez came to Canada and spoke to Canadian politicians in order to try to resurrect the stalled CCFTA. How did he prepare the ground for this visit in Colombia, and what did he do in Canada?

He violated the “absolute precondition” for engagement with his regime and engaged in “stigmatisation” of “human rights groups as linked to guerrillas”. And, like his regime has done in the past with Venezuelans and Ecuadorians, he did so not only with Colombians, but with Canadians as well. Regimes that violate people’s rights don’t stop at any borders. Indeed, for the CCFTA to pass, it is probably necessary that those of us who are against it in Canada receive smears, false accusations, and perhaps legal persecutions the way people in Colombia do.

It started, as it usually does, in the Colombian media, last week. Remember that the CCFTA was stalled in the Canadian Parliament (we won’t say “prorogued”) on May 27/09. On June 4/09, Colombian media outlet RCN pronounced that the Colombian guerrilla group FARC had a “foreign ministry” in Canada. The source? “Colombian intelligence officials”, “who traveled to Canada to confirm suspicion” that a FARC leader’s family members “form the guerrillas’ foreign ministry and keep contact with human rights NGOs and leftist political parties.”

As usual, no evidence except the claims of these unnamed “intelligence officials” was provided. Not even a magic laptop was given.

Coincidentally, a day later on June 5/09, Canada’s latest free trade partner, Peru, was massacring indigenous protesters – over 40 at the latest count, with over 20 police dying as well – for their blockades, which were set up to protest laws enabling the seizure of their lands and the opening up of the Amazon to mining developments that they won’t benefit from, destroying the agricultural and natural lands that provide the means for their survival. This is an ongoing free trade massacre, occurring to ensure that the agreement benefits those who pushed it through. Implementing legislation for the Canada-Peru Free Trade Agreement had been passed two days before (by the Conservatives and the Liberals*). Mining Watch, Council of Canadians, and Common Frontiers argued that Canada should pull out of the Peru Free Trade Agreement. It could be stopped if the Canadian Senate sends the bill back to Parliament for reconsideration. If a massacre like this can’t force a reconsideration, it’s not clear what can – or what motivates decisions like these.

Back to Colombia for more “stigmatisation”. On the day of the massacre in Peru (June 5/09), Colombian Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo, a very strong voice against the CCFTA on economic grounds (Robledo visited Ottawa earlier this year and tried to explain the economics of the CCFTA to Conservatives and Liberals), published an op-ed about President Uribe’s sons benefiting from some government-sponsored deals. The land-turnaround deal for the politically connected is a fairly simple staple in politics: buy a piece of land cheaply, make some improvements to it, its legal status changes due to some political decisions, and then you sell it off at a huge profit. If you know the right politicians and know when to buy and sell, it’s a great way to make money. Having a father who is President of the country doesn’t hurt.

Amazingly, just a few days later (June 10/09), Senator Robledo discovered that he was being investigated by the Colombian Prosecutor-General for links to FARC! The basis for the accusation? The magic laptop, again! Yes, indeed, it was “evidence” found on the computer of assassinated FARC leader, Raul Reyes, that was implicating Senator Robledo, just days after he published an article showing evidence of corruption by the President’s sons! Robledo published a quick reply saying these absurd accusations would not silence him, and reminding readers that the magic laptop had been in the possession of police for 15 months; of his 30 years teaching at the National University of Colombia and renouncing violence consistently throughout; of his membership in MOIR and the Polo Democratico, both of which reject violence. Robledo went on:

“It’s no coincidence that this defamation against me, with the obvious intent to discredit me, occurs when Alvaro Uribe failed to win approval of the FTA with Canada, where my article about the business interests of the President’s sons has been circulating and where the Parliament has just heard arguments from the an international trade commission explaining why it should reject the CCFTA.”

The Harper-Uribe sitdown the next day (June 11/09) saw both men float fantastic stories about FARC cells in Canada and “ideological” motivations for opposing the CCFTA (this from the ideology-free quarters that produced “Seguridad Democratica”, Stockwell Day, and Jason Kenney). This wasn’t the energetic Harper-Uribe handshake that happened in 2007 when they had Bush behind them, however: the photo shows two tired men whose politics never fit well with democracies, but whose nastiness seems especially outdated now that their patron has switched to selling hope and optimism. In Parliament, Uribe treated NDP and BQ politicians more or less the same as he treats Polo Democratico politicians in Colombia: with vague accusations of association to terrorism and smears from the magic laptop. When the politicians brought up the ICG’s point on “stigmatisation” of human rights defenders, Uribe dodged the question with all the skill the Canadian Conservatives have shown:

“The vast majority of NGOs move freely in Colombia. There are some cases of these organizations serving terrorist groups and they have to be investigated… I no longer want to be engaged in personal confrontations with people of these organizations that have something personal against me.”

Conservatives and Liberals both reverted to their usual argument that Uribe was making “efforts to improve human rights” (Liberal) and that critics shouldn’t “dwell on individual cases” (Conservative).

In the Liberal-Conservative world, this is presumably true even if the situation is dismal and the (dozens, hundreds, thousands, millions) of “individual cases” add up to a systematic pattern.

* Thanks to Dawn Paley for this link

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. His blog is

Canada Colombia Free Trade Agreement: A Question/Answer

The Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA) was withdrawn from the table while being debated for its second reading in Canadian Parliament on May 27, 2009. Stalled for now, the CCFTA will certainly be back: it has not been defeated, and its proponents (the Conservatives and some of the Liberals) await an opportunity to bring it back.

The following set of questions and answers are intended to help those in Canada trying to stop the CCFTA (or see to it that it stays down).

Continue reading “Canada Colombia Free Trade Agreement: A Question/Answer”

The gift that keeps on giving: Colombia’s magic laptops and the war against social movements

One of Colombia’s major magazines, Cambio, published a story quoting from the magic laptops that survived bombing in the Ecuadorian jungle and were retrieved after the Colombian government assassinated Raul Reyes just about a year ago (March 3/08). This particular story concerns my friends Hollman Morris and Manuel Rozental.

Continue reading “The gift that keeps on giving: Colombia’s magic laptops and the war against social movements”