Truce or Dare in Colombia

Violence rages even as peace talks continue.

Jeremy Kryt

Soldiers of the 29th Mobile Brigade, ready to be deployed to the front lines in Popayán, Colombia on Oct. 5.

COLOM­BIA — The bombs start­ed falling just after mid­night on Sun­day, Dec. 2 near the town of Ricau­rte, along Colombia’s rugged and heav­i­ly forest­ed bor­der with Ecuador. Explo­sions rocked the jun­gle as a squadron of Super Tucano attack air­craft, oper­at­ed by the Colom­bian air force, dropped a clus­ter of 500-pound, com­put­er-guid­ed smart bombs on three encamp­ments of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia (FARC). When the sal­vo end­ed, at least twen­ty dead FARC guer­ril­las lay dead in the twist­ed mess of smashed huts and heat-fused weapons. Among the bomb-muti­lat­ed corpses were the unit com­man­der of an entire FARC col­umn and his third in com­mand. The column’s sur­vivors had scat­tered into the bush, a bro­ken force.

"When the death threats come, they're sent by text message."

The FARC insur­gents [were] a threat to peas­ants and indige­nous res­i­dents in the area,” says Gen­er­al Jorge Segu­ra, who com­mands the Third Divi­sion of the Colom­bian Army and over­saw the strike near Ricau­rte. Segu­ra tells In These Times the oper­a­tion was part of an inte­grat­ed strat­e­gy” aimed at end­ing the intim­i­da­tion and ter­ror­ism of the FARC.”

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The Ricau­rte attack came even as the Colom­bian gov­ern­ment was engaged in his­toric peace talks with the left­ist FARC in an attempt to end five decades of civ­il war. The round­table began in Nor­way in Octo­ber and moved to Havana, Cuba, a month lat­er. But lit­tle has been accom­plished so far, and both sides say the talks are like­ly to drag on for months. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple have been killed and 35.5 mil­lion have been dis­placed by the con­flict that has endured for near­ly 50 years. Dozens of gov­ern­ment troops and civil­ians have lost their lives since the peace talks were announced.

When the lat­est round of talks began in Havana on Nov. 19, the FARC called a truce. How­ev­er, the admin­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent Juan Manuel San­tos has refused to acknowl­edge the cease­fire and con­tin­ued mil­i­tary oper­a­tions , such as the Cau­ca bomb­ing on Dec. 1, per­haps hop­ing to pres­sure the FARC’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives at the nego­ti­at­ing table.

We’re engaged in a per­ma­nent offen­sive against the ban­dits of the FARC,” says Gen­er­al Segu­ra. There can be no peace with­out victory.”

But the absence of either peace or vic­to­ry has caused sup­port for the talks to wane among aver­age Colom­bians, who don’t see their own inter­ests rep­re­sent­ed by either side in Havana. Dur­ing the first week of Decem­ber, thou­sands took to the streets across the coun­try, to protest the lack of pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion in the talks, and to demand improved liv­ing con­di­tions, edu­ca­tion and health care.

Gov­ern­ment forces have gained ground against the FARC over the last decade, large­ly thanks to mil­i­tary aid from the Unit­ed States. But much of the coun­try, espe­cial­ly in rur­al areas, remains in the hands of var­i­ous armed mili­tias, who con­tin­ue to do bat­tle with the mil­i­tary and each oth­er for con­trol of strate­gic resources such as gold mines, ship­ping routes and arable land for pro­duc­ing narcotics. 

Although most Colom­bians are hop­ing for an end to one of the world’s longest-run­ning civ­il wars, a treaty with the FARC is not, in itself, like­ly to end the drug-fueled con­flict that plagues the countryside.

A lot of the FARC lead­er­ship have real­ized they’ll have to demo­bi­lize,” says Adam Isac­son of the Wash­ing­ton Office on Latin Amer­i­ca (WOLA), a human rights NGO.

But that’s not going to end vio­lence and drugs,” Isac­son says.

Death texts

In the trou­bled Cau­ca Depart­ment in south­west­ern Colom­bia, some sources esti­mate rough­ly 25,000 peo­ple were dis­placed by con­flict-relat­ed vio­lence in the last year alone. Over­all, Colom­bia is home to one of the high­est num­ber of inter­nal­ly dis­placed peo­ple in the world. Most are peas­ant farm­ers and indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties liv­ing in out­ly­ing regions.

Here in Cau­ca, many res­i­dents describe a life of con­stant ter­ror. Some 70 mem­bers of the local Nasa tribe have met vio­lent deaths in Cau­ca since the start of 2012 — many of them the vic­tims of tar­get­ed assassinations.

When the death threats come, they’re sent by text mes­sage,” says Diana Per­afán, a nurse with the Nasa, hold­ing up her bat­tered cell phone, which dis­plays an anony­mous promise to lop off her head with a machete. Per­afán has been receiv­ing such mes­sages for weeks. She believes she’s been tar­get­ed because of her work treat­ing the wound­ed and trau­ma­tized in Nasa com­mu­ni­ties such as Toribío and Caloto.

Per­afán says the death threats she’s get­ting could be com­ing from the FARC, who main­tain a strong pres­ence in Cau­ca — or any of the oth­er armed groups that also oper­ate in the area, which is a major hub for cocaine pro­duc­tion and trafficking.

Just the fact that they can send texts from an anony­mous source tells you some­thing about how pow­er­ful these groups are,” Per­afán says dur­ing a hushed inter­view in a café in Popayán, the region­al cap­i­tal. It means they’ve got funds. Access to some kind of tech sup­port. Who­ev­er it is, they know what they’re doing.”

In addi­tion to the FARC, Colom­bia is also home to a dozen or so pow­er­ful, right-wing para­mil­i­tary groups with names like Águilas Negras (Black Eagles) and the Colom­bia Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Pop­u­lar Anti-ter­ror­ist Army (ERPAC). Accord­ing to both the Unit­ed Nations and Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al, these mili­tias, orig­i­nal­ly com­mis­sioned by the army to help com­bat the FARC, have actu­al­ly been respon­si­ble for more killings and human rights abus­es than the FARC itself. 

Major play­ers in the drug trade, the mili­tias con­trol vast swaths of the coun­try­side and have forced whole com­mu­ni­ties to aban­don their homes and busi­ness­es. In Cau­ca, high schools and soc­cer fields over­flow with evac­uees flee­ing the vio­lence. Many of them end up on the streets in crowd­ed urban slums.

The vio­lence caused by the para­mil­i­taries, the strug­gle among crim­i­nal armies for suprema­cy, is tear­ing apart the fab­ric of Colom­bian soci­ety,” says Dr. Jairo Ortiz, a polit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cau­ca. Ortiz also points out that a mass demo­bi­liza­tion of the FARC might also allow these mili­tias to expand their territory.

Colom­bia is fac­ing a human rights cri­sis that’s going on right now,” Ortiz says. But nobody is talk­ing about that [at the round­table] in Havana.”

The fight­ing could go on for decades”

The FARC del­e­gates to the peace con­fer­ences have remained upbeat about the process, even after the government’s attack near Ricau­rte — the worst blow to the rebels since the talks began. Yet many observers won­der whether Latin America’s old­est insur­gency can con­vince all of its units to lay down arms and demo­bi­lize if their lead­er­ship orders it. Sev­er­al alleged vio­la­tions of the FARC’s self-imposed Nov. 19 cease­fire call into ques­tion whether top-lev­el offi­cers can exer­cise con­trol over its many far-flung cells.

It could be hard to con­vince local com­man­ders to turn in their weapons and go to jail,” admits WOLA’s Isac­son. Moti­vat­ed by the lucra­tive drug trade and accus­tomed to the war­lord lifestyle, many of the FARC’s com­man­ders may pre­fer to keep on fight­ing, per­haps under anoth­er name, instead of com­ing in from the jungle.

But the biggest obsta­cle to peace might be the Colom­bian government’s reluc­tance to include mean­ing­ful eco­nom­ic reforms as part of the peace pack­age. The San­tos admin­is­tra­tion has yet to prove that it’s will­ing to con­front deep-root­ed prob­lems like mass pover­ty and land resti­tu­tion — the same issues that caused the FARC to take up arms decades ago, and still a part of their peace agenda.

The talks in Cuba have so far failed to address the fun­da­men­tal caus­es of pover­ty and suf­fer­ing in the coun­try,” says Dr. Ortiz, who esti­mates that 52 per­cent of Colom­bians remain deeply impoverished.

The great num­ber of hope­less young peo­ple feeds the ranks of both the FARC and the para­mil­i­taries,” Ortiz explains. The state doesn’t offer much of a future, so there’s a strong incen­tive to turn against it.”

Accord­ing to Dr. Anto­nio Navar­ro Wolff — a for­mer com­man­der of the guer­ril­la group 19th of April Move­ment (M‑19) and ex-gov­er­nor of Cauca’s neigh­bor­ing Nar­iño Depart­ment, where the 20 guer­ril­las were killed on Dec. 2 — if the his­toric par­lay in Havana fails to address social jus­tice and devel­op­ment needs, oth­er insur­gen­cies will rise up to fill the void left by the FARC.

For the last 25 years in Colom­bia, when­ev­er one group had demo­bi­lized, anoth­er has come along to take its place,” says Dr. Wolff, who lost a leg to the con­flict as a young man.

Wolff also says that the FARC are still capa­ble of wag­ing war against the gov­ern­ment if the peace talks col­lapse. In 2006, a U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice indict­ment claimed FARC was sup­ply­ing 50 per­cent of the world’s cocaine. And with over 158,000 acres of coca grow­ing with­in its bor­ders, Colom­bia is the world’s lead­ing cul­ti­va­tor, which means a poten­tial­ly end­less sup­ply of drug-relat­ed fund­ing for FARC. 

If we can’t make peace now,” says Wolff, the fight­ing could go on for decades.”

This is an expand­ed ver­sion of a piece that appeared Jan­u­ary 2013 issue of In These Times.

Jere­my Kryt is a Chica­go-based journalist.
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