Summary : A social, political and armed conflict
The history of Colombia is the history of resistance to colonialism and capitalism, a conflict that revolves around cycles of escalating social struggles. To find the ingredient for resolution, these struggles are alternately marked either by an increase in violence or by the construction of a new social pact.
While the history of the conflict could be written over 500 years, we focus here on the last century, taking as our starting point the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the liberal candidate who represented the possibility of social transformation through elections in 1948. This event sounded the death knell of the civil war; the peasantry was forced to split between the bloc of the Church and landowners and the emerging guerrillas associated with the Liberal Party. The famous guerrillas of the plains eventually accepted a peace agreement, which was betrayed in 1953 with the assassination of Commander Guadalupe Salcedo. After 10 years of war, an agreement between the political parties led to the creation of a "National Front" (1958-1974) between the conservatives and the liberal leaders. This agreement provided for a cyclical alternation of power between the two political formations, an arrangement which, under the pretext of "national unity", made the right to vote a sham and effectively excluded the working classes from decision-making.
In the 1960s, at a time when democratic opportunities were double-locked, Colombia saw the emergence of a number of left-wing guerrilla movements claiming to be able to transform society through armed revolution. Against the backdrop of the latent Cold War and in the name of the international fight against communism, the first paramilitary groups appeared whose aim was to rival the guerrillas militarily. In 1970, following an electoral fraud, a nationalist urban guerrilla group, the M-19, to which the current Colombian president Gustavo Petro belonged, emerged to try and ensure that the results of the elections were respected.
In addition to the mobilization of armed groups, there was also activity on the part of social movements, which staged a number of strikes in the 70s and 80s. This situation came to an end in 1991, when most of the guerrilla groups signed a new peace agreement, in particular the M19, and the expected social and political changes were linked to the drafting of a new constitution for the country. Although very progressive for its time, this constitutional project coincided with the imposition of neo-liberal policies and a structural adjustment plan devised by the IMF, decisions that were implemented while reinforcing an openly militaristic State strategy. This was the time of the return of paramilitarism, which - with its forced displacements, massacres and assassinations - consolidated the development of capitalism in Colombia, in particular by expelling the peasantry from their land in favour of foreign capital. This process of accumulation through dispossession was sanctified by the far-right government of President Álvaro Uribe, which between 2002 and 2010 made the doctrine of the "internal enemy" the spearhead of its policy of systematic repression of the social movement. However, towards the end of Uribe's reign, popular movements appeared that the right had thought defeated, marking the beginning of a new cycle of struggles. Since 2008, this dynamic has been marked, among other things, by the historic peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas in 2016, and unprecedented waves of mobilization culminating in the popular uprisings of 2019 and 2021.
It was this fundamental work that finally led to the election of Colombia's first left-wing president in 2022. Although elected with a representative of social struggles, Afro leader Francia Márquez, as vice-president, the composition of her government is more center than left, and her policy of conciliation with the right and far right in order to avoid being the subject of a coup d'état. At the time of writing, the possibilities for change and the future of this page in history are highly uncertain.
Find out more (in french) : Conflit social colombien : qu’est-ce qui attend le gouvernement de Petro et Márquez ?
Armed conflict : from violence to war
War has raged in Colombia since the colonial era, but armed conflict as we know it today began with the period known as La Violencia (1948-1958). This period, triggered by the assassination of Liberal Party leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, was the most violent episode in the history of Colombia.
Fuelled by indignation, spontaneous popular protests erupted after the murder of the progressive leader. The masses flooded into the capital, carrying Gaitán's body as a martyr and engaging in rioting. The event is now better known as the "Bogotazo", a major period of popular unrest which, starting in Bogotá, had a domino effect on the country's other major cities (Medellín, Barranquilla, etc.).
Unable to tolerate such a degree of social protest, the Conservative Party, the party of law and order in the service of large landowners, decided to wage an all-out war against the population. The orchestrated repression degenerated into a full-blown civil war between groups of peasants, armed and mobilized on both sides by the two main groups of political elites: Conservatives on one side and Liberals on the other. The conservatives, backed by the religious right, relied on armed troops to defend the properties of the traditional oligarchy, while peasant self-defense groups were formed under the banner of the Conservative Party, an organization centralized in Bogotá and led by the new national bourgeoisie. After a decade of turmoil, this period finally came to an end with a final agreement between the conservatives and the liberals (the National Front Agreement of 1958), but the armed peasant troops did not disappear just because of it. Clearly, the elites' new political common ground did not address the social reasons for the conflict, the most important of which was the demand for comprehensive agrarian reform for the peasantry.
Legal framework for paramilitary strategy
In response to the activities of the peasant groups, in 1965 the State decreed a series of special regulations legalizing the training and arming of troops of "armed civilians" by the Army (Decree 3398 of 1965). Thanks to the regulatory framework and the support of the National Army, the new paramilitary groups, then serving large landowners and cattle breeders, began to structure themselves within a national counter-insurgency strategy. The organizational consolidation of the paramilitary troops at national level was completed at the turn of 1997 when the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), an umbrella organization bringing together all the paramilitary blocs, was founded.
Find out more (in french) :
Armed insurrection and social conflict
For their part, certain liberal peasant self-defense groups drew their inspiration from the socialist revolutions that were igniting the American continent, with the aim of forcing the authorities to carry out agrarian reform to put an end to the concentration of land in the hands of the national oligarchy. In the mid-1960s, the first Marxist guerrillas emerged with the creation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), strongly influenced by the tactics and theory of Marxism-Leninism, and the National Liberation Army (ELN), which espoused a socialism inspired by the ideology of Guevarism and the liberation theology.
Today, the social problems that led peasants to join the armed insurrection are far from over. According to the World Bank (2022), economic disparities in Colombia are proportional to those that prevailed in 1938. Today, 22 million Colombians live in poverty (almost 45% of the population), while 7 million people live in extreme poverty (12% of the population).
From the containment of communism to the war on terror and the war on drugs
While the complicity of the United States in the "dirty wars" that ravaged the Southern Cone during the Cold War has been widely documented, the weight of imperialism in the Colombian conflict is often downplayed or even ignored. During the Cold War, the United States defined the mandate of the Latin American military in terms of "internal security" (NSC no. 144/1, 1953), which implied that the role of the military forces was to combat an "internal enemy" (elements of the civilian population deemed to be "communist"). To train the military for their counter-insurgency mandate, the School of the Americas was set up, where the continent's greatest torturers received their military training, along with many Colombian paramilitary commanders. The US Army manuals used at this school taught paramilitary strategy and low-intensity conflict techniques (forced disappearance, extrajudicial executions, etc.).
At the end of the Cold War, the United States' military presence could no longer be justified by the fight against communism, and a new discourse emerged. In its February 1987 issue, the US Army's Military Review argued that emphasizing a link, real or invented, between left-wing guerrillas and drug trafficking would enable the Pentagon to continue dismantling movements that challenged American hegemony, while at the same time boosting its moral standing in the eyes of public opinion. The "narco-guerrilla" thesis was taken up by George Bush senior when, in 1989, he announced the Andean Initiative, which launched the "war on drugs" in the Andean region. His successor, Bill Clinton, followed suit with Plan Colombia in 1999. In 2002, the US Congress officially incorporated Plan Colombia into their "war on terror" mandate under George Bush Jr. Despite the change in rhetoric, US military assistance was aimed at the same target: left-wing guerrillas, now labelled "narcoterrorism".
However, back in 1997, the Paris-based Observatoire géopolitique des drogues reported that the vast majority of cocaine arriving in European ports came from the Colombian coastal areas controlled by the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), paramilitaries unofficially linked to the country's armed forces. Indeed, when the interests of the drug barons began to be threatened by the guerrillas, a strong alliance was forged between the paramilitaries and the drug traffickers in order to step up their efforts in the counter-insurgency fight. For the reasons given, independent experts generally agree that the fight against drugs is a total failure: the planting, processing and export of drugs continues without any significant decline after more than 30 years of military and economic assistance officially designed to counter drug trafficking.
Between 2000 and 2006, the United States invested $4.6 billion in Plan Colombia. Of this amount, 80% was earmarked for training military forces and sending military equipment, and 20% for so-called "social and alternative" development programmes aimed at promoting exportable agricultural products (African palm, coffee, rubber, etc.) to replace coca cultivation. The new Plan Colombia (2007-2013), entitled "Strategy for the Strengthening of Democracy and Social Development", was driven by former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, who was looking for the support he needed for his "Community State and Democratic Security" project. He obtained Bush Junior's support of $3,500 million for this new phase of Plan Colombia. In 2016, the Obama and Santos governments signed a new plan called Paz Colombia, worth $450 million a year ($470 million in 2022). Over 20 years, $13,000 million will have been invested in the war in Colombia.
Find out more (in french) : Le Plan Colombie II, PASC.
State terrorism, low-intensity conflict and paramilitary strategy
The social and armed conflict in Colombia is taking place against a backdrop of "low-intensity conflict", using techniques of irregular warfare: paramilitary strategies, enforced disappearances, extra-judicial executions, torture, arbitrary detention and so on.
Find out more (in french) : La contre-insurrection en Colombie : vers une économie politique stratégique, PASC.
Political assassinations, extrajudicial executions and massacres
Between 2002 and 2008, the Colombian Commission of Jurists documented 13,877 political assassinations (excluding combat) and 2,312 assassinations during 393 massacres orchestrated by socio-political violence. Added to this sad reality is the scandal of "false positives", i.e. the murder of civilians committed directly by the Army to inflate the figures for the fight against the guerrillas. During Uribe's two presidential terms, according to data from the Tribunal of Justice for Peace established in 2016, at least 6,400 civilians were murdered and then presented by the Army as combatants who had "died in combat". The majority of those murdered were trade unionists, peasant leaders, unemployed young people and residents of poor urban areas. According to the Truth Commission's report published in July 2022, between 1995 and 2004, around 45% of the victims (202,293 victims) in the history of the armed conflict were recorded. This was the deadliest decade of the conflict. The main perpetrators of homicides were paramilitary groups: 205,028 victims (45%), followed by guerrilla groups: 122,813 victims (27%). Of the guerrilla groups, 21% were members of the FARC-EP (96,952 victims), 4% were associated with the ELN (17,725 victims) and some 2% were sponsored by other guerrillas (8,496 victims).
Find out more (in french) :
Les faux positifs : Quand l'Armée colombienne assassine des jeunes pour faire du chiffre, Sara G. Mendeza https://basta.media/Quand-l-Armee-colombienne
Massacres de civils en Colombie : d’anciens militaires font des aveux historiques, FAL- F24
Commission de la Vérité a publié son rapport finale en juin 2022:
Political opponents are the first targets of the selective assassination strategy. Since 1982, at least 5,000 left-wing political opponents have been murdered. The majority were members of the Unión Patriotica political party and the A Luchar movement, in what is now considered to be a veritable political genocide. Today, trade unionists are undoubtedly the first victims of this strategy. In 2009, according to the annual report of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), 101 trade unionists were murdered around the world. Of these, 48 were in Colombia, a sad toll that already placed the country at the top of the list of the most dangerous for trade union activity. According to the UN report on extrajudicial executions (2009), 98.5% of political assassinations are carried out with complete impunity. In 2020, a similar report showed a 54% increase in the number of murders recorded in 2019: "Figures that demonstrate the seriousness of the problem, but that hide the structural reasons for this violence", according to the UN. Colombia remains one of the most dangerous countries for trade union activity. According to a report submitted to the Truth Commission in 2020, nearly 15,000 attacks were recorded, including 3,240 homicides in nearly 500 trade unions between 1973 and 2018.
Find out more (in french) :
Informe de la CUT a la Comisión de la Verdad, CUT 2021 https://cut.org.co/informe-de-la-cut-a-la-comision-de-la-verdad/
Enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture
In addition to the selective assassinations of opponents, there is the problem of disappearances. According to official government figures (2018), there are currently 80,000 victims of enforced disappearance in Colombia. Human rights organizations have documented more than 15,000 cases of "disappearance-detention", i.e. people who were officially detained by the state before disappearing. With regard to the detention of opponents, up until 2016 the country's prison population included more than 12,000 people imprisoned for political reasons.
For more information, consult the solidarity campaign with political prisoners.
Other typical strategies employed by the Colombian authorities include arbitrary detention and torture. Between 2002 and 2008, the Colombian Commission of Jurists documented no fewer than 5,114 cases of arbitrary detention. This situation is all the more worrying when you consider the cruel treatment that detainees are all too often subjected to. According to the United Nations Committee against Torture, the use of torture is "widespread" in Colombia, and continues with complete impunity (between 2002 and 2008: 1,314 cases of torture were documented by the Colombian Commission of Jurists, including 96 cases of sexual torture). In its 2009 report, the UN Committee even noted an increase in cases attributable to law enforcement officers and condemned the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war by the Colombian military forces. More recently, as part of the mass mobilizations of 2019 and 2021, hundreds of arbitrary detentions were recorded and denounced.
According to the Truth Commission, in its report published in 2022: "Arbitrary detentions in the context of the armed conflict have been carried out by State agents on the basis of unproven accusations of belonging to an illegal armed group, on the suspicion that they know something, or in order to disrupt social organizations, terrorize their members or obstruct social processes. They have been used as a prelude to other violations such as torture, sexual violence, enforced disappearances or extrajudicial executions".
Find out more:
In Spanish : Desaparición Forzada Balance de la contribución del CNMH al esclarecimiento histórico, 2018
To achieve its objectives of defending the interests of the ruling bloc, the paramilitaries opted for a strategy of involving the entire population in the armed conflict. This meant that anyone critical of the country's political and economic elites would automatically be lumped in with the armed insurrectionists. President Uribe's speech to the nation on 8 September 2003 is a clear example of this. In it, he accused human rights organizations of being "human rights traffickers in the service of terrorism". Far from being an isolated case, this type of public defamation of human rights defenders is part of a broad strategy to criminalize social movements and political dissent.
By " criminalization ", we mean all the political and legal strategies and actions deployed by the State to force communities, organizations and individuals fighting for the exercise and defense of human rights and the rights of peoples into the realm of illegitimacy and illegality. These strategies include public defamation of opponents by elected officials, civil servants and the media, legal tricks (falsification of evidence, use of false witnesses, etc.) and the arbitrary use of the criminal justice system to legalize the legitimate actions of social movements. In 2018, Michel Forst, United Nations rapporteur, denounced the way in which legal proceedings are set up to neutralize the activities of activists.
(See: Visita a Colombia, 20 de noviembre al 3 de diciembre de 2018 Declaración de Fin de Misión)
Paramilitarism and State crimes
In addition to acts of torture, which the UN Committee attributes primarily to lawful agents of the State, the majority of these crimes against humanity are attributed to paramilitaries (structures illegally set up and supported by the State). It is worth remembering that number 83 of the Colombian Armed Forces magazine (1976) stated that "paramilitary techniques are a safe, useful and necessary force for political objectives". Since then, the links between the regular military forces and paramilitary troops have been clear, from the "parapolitics" scandals that erupted in 2006 to the public statements made by paramilitary leaders. The former paramilitary leader extradited to the United States, Salvatore Mancuso, told the Federal Court in Washington: "I'll be honest. We were doing the dirty work that the DAS (Colombian intelligence service) and the police couldn't do". (18 November 2008). After numerous scandals over its links with paramilitarism and political persecution, the DAS was finally wound up by the government of Juan Manuel Santos in 2011.
The paramilitary strategy is in fact one of the pillars of the low-intensity conflict, and is deployed from the State with the active support of the United States and the national and foreign economic elites. It is financed by large landowners and cattle breeders, certain sectors of political power, drug trafficking, as well as by certain Colombian and foreign companies. The trials against Chiquita Brands - formerly the United Fruit Company - and the Drummond mining company come to mind, both accused of having directly financed paramilitary groups "responsible for securing their investments (sic!)". In this context, the masquerade of the "demobilization" of paramilitaries under the Uribe government is a direct affront to the victims of state crimes.
From State terrorism to genocidal social practices
Involvement of the civilian population in armed conflict
Faced with the scale of the crimes against humanity attributed to the Colombian state, Colombia's social organizations denounce the logic of "state terrorism", which we define as the systematic use by the government of threats and reprisals (generally considered illegal even within its own national legislation) with the aim of infusing widespread terror in order to ensure the obedience and active collaboration of the population in the state's war for power. This strategy nevertheless achieves its full coherence when it combines the extra-legal aspect with a masquerade of legality. State terrorism therefore has both official and unofficial aspects. On the quiet, as we have seen, the higher chains of command can, for example, order agents of the public forces to engage in illegal techniques of intimidation, acts of persecution, etc. At the same time, a legal framework is being created to give full latitude to abuses. The eponymous "Community State and Democratic Security" policy is undoubtedly one of the best examples of this.
For some years now, Colombian social organizations have been talking about "genocidal social practices", of which State terrorism is one form. The concept of genocidal social practices includes all the means by which a social group is targeted with the aim of annihilating it, whether it is an ethnic group, a political organization or a social and community fabric. To clarify its definition, the Permanent Peoples' Tribunal held a specific session on political genocide in 2021. In its sentence, it described the set of practices that "aim to eliminate any person and any social, trade union or political organization that opposes the unjust socio-economic and political structures in force in the country. The assassination of popular leaders and opposition politicians, forced disappearances, massacres of peasants, bomb attacks in rural areas and illegal detention are some of the instruments used in the systematic and permanent violation of the most basic rights". The hearing also described the mechanisms of impunity that have remained in force for many years.
Find out more (in french) : Le Tribunal permanent des Peuples et la session sur le génocide politique, l’impunité et les crimes contre la paix en Colombie, TPP 2021
"Democratic security" and "peasant soldiers"
Under the so-called Democratic Security program of the Uribe government between 2002 and 2010, which envisages a policy of all-out war against the "internal enemy" (defined more or less precisely as guerrilla groups and their accomplices), citizens would have duties in terms of public security. It states that any citizen who refuses to collaborate with the military activities of the security forces should be considered a "suspect" and therefore presumed to be a guerrilla auxiliary. This policy is applied, among other things, through the so-called "network of one million informers" and the "peasant soldiers" program, under which 250,000 members of rural villages have received three months' military training before returning to their communities with a gun and a uniform.
In addition to the destruction of the social network caused by such policies, which generate excessive mistrust between members of the same community, these practices also have the effect of converting part of the civilian population (peasant soldiers and informers) into a military objective within the armed conflict. This policy is in direct contradiction with the principle of distinction between combatants and the civilian population dictated by international humanitarian law.
Find out more (in french) :
Peace process in the 21st century
The false demobilization of paramilitaries or the Forgive and Forget Law
Despite the rhetoric of the Colombian government, which still refuses to shed light on its historical responsibility for paramilitary crimes, it has to be admitted that there are only two antagonistic armed actors in the conflict: on the one hand the armed insurgency (guerrillas) and on the other the State with its regular and irregular forces (paramilitaries). The "dialogue" (sic) initiated by President Álvaro Uribe with the AUC in 2002 to negotiate their demobilization was more akin to a monologue ... if not a conversation between good friends. This "demobilization" was framed by the highly controversial "Justice and Peace" law, renamed the "Forgive and Forget Law" by social organizations because it did not allow the truth to be established about the formation, financing and command of the paramilitary strategy and did not offer any serious reparation to the victims. By granting amnesty to those materially responsible for the crimes and ignoring those intellectually responsible for them, the misnamed Justice and Peace law sealed the pact of impunity between the political elite and the paramilitary forces that today continue to carry out the Army's dirty work.
Since 2008, instead of a centralized paramilitary organization as in the days of the AUC, paramilitary actions have been claimed under a whole host of banners: Águilas Negras, Autodefensas Gaitanistas, Rastrojos and dozens of other names that come and go at random. Since this media operation to decriminalize paramilitarism, the State has simply denied the existence of paramilitary groups, using different names such as "criminal gangs" (Bandas Criminales, also known as "BACRIM") or Organized Armed Groups (GAOs). In 2017, the Minister of Defence even said that in Colombia "there is no paramilitarism".
While there is no doubt about paramilitary political control in the country, there is much debate about the current characterization of paramilitarism in the sectors of human rights organizations in Colombia. Naturally, the current forms of paramilitarism make it difficult to carry out a systematic analysis of their structure, which operates clandestinely... sometimes in the form of groups linked to drug trafficking, sometimes as part of actions carried out directly by military battalions. Since 2020, the presence of Mexican cartels has also added to the complexity of this constellation of illegal armed groups.
In short, whether we talk of state terrorism, genocidal social practices, or use other analytical frameworks, the result remains the same: there is a systematic war against political opposition, community activists, those who try to defend their rights against the mega-projects imposed on them, or seek to lay the foundations for a new social order beyond capitalism.
Find out more (in french) :
Héritiers des paramilitaires : Le nouveau visage de la violence en Colombie, Rapport de HRW
Peace process with the revolutionary guerrillas
With a view to ending the armed conflict, President Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) began peace negotiations with the FARC-EP in 2012 and then with the ELN in 2014, the two largest guerrilla groups in terms of size and military capacity.
Talks with FARC concluded in August 2016 with the signing of a "final, integral and definitive" agreement to end the conflict, signed by Santos and the last commander-in-chief of the historic FARC, Timoleón Jiménez. The term "dissidents" was coined to describe the troops who remained in arms and refused to be reincorporated into civilian life, either because they disagreed with the terms of the peace agreement or because they lacked confidence in the conditions under which it would be applied.
The agreement with FARC was rejected in a referendum held on 2 October 2016. The low turnout and former president Uribe's skilful propaganda operation no doubt had something to do with it. Be that as it may, the government of President Duque (2018-2022), who succeeded Santos, did not have the will to implement the agreements renegotiated a few weeks later. Since then, more than 400 former FARC fighters have been murdered (between 2016 and 2022), most of them political assassinations orchestrated by paramilitaries recycled as criminal gangs.
The FARC signatories to the peace agreement formed a political party in 2016, called Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común, which later became Comunes. However, in the absence of sufficient security conditions for the ex-combatants, some of the forces took up arms again in 2019, led by Ivan Marquez. This former chief negotiator of the peace agreement will form the Segunda Marquetalia (Second Marquetalia) guerrilla group, referring to the birthplace of FARC in 1964.
Dialogues with the ELN were initiated in 2014. Negotiations began in 2017, but a year later, when Uribe candidate Ivan Duque took office, negotiations were effectively suspended in June 2018, and unilaterally broken off in January 2019 after ELN military action against the General Santander police academy. The government refused to comply with international protocols on the return of the ELN delegation to Colombia, demanding Cuba extradite the delegation, a procedure that would have constituted nothing less than a transgression of international law. Finally, following the election of Gustavo Petro's government in June 2022, the protocols were finally implemented before negotiations resumed towards the end of the year.
To date, a transitional justice system known as "Justicia especial para la Paz" (special justice for peace) has been implemented. However, this process has come up against the Fiscalia's refusal to collaborate, and the Truth Commission is relying solely on the goodwill of the commissioners to fulfil its mission despite the government's lack of support. In July 2022, the Commission's final report was published (https://www.comisiondelaverdad.co/hay-futuro-si-hay-verdad). The report was strongly criticized for attempting to equate all forms of violence. The abuses committed by the state, big business and paramilitaries are said to be similar to the violence of insurrectionary groups, or even to that attributed to the social movement. In good conscience, however, it remains difficult to equate the excesses called for by demands for social justice with massacres committed in the name of elite interests.
Find out more (in french) :
Land as a source of conflict
Agrarian counter-reform in favour of transnational capital
Under the pretext of a war of counter-insurgency, a series of repressive mechanisms is being deployed against the civilian population in general, for territorial and social control, and targeted against political opponents (trade unionists, peasant leaders, social activists, human rights defenders, etc.). The objective of territorial control should not be underestimated, since several analysts of the Colombian conflict have argued that the paramilitary strategy deployed by the State is aimed above all at achieving a counter-agrarian reform to encourage the concentration of land in the hands of the national oligarchy and the handing over of the areas richest in natural resources to transnational capital.
This hidden objective of the war explains Colombia's disastrous situation in terms of internal refugees. After Syria, Colombia has the highest rate of internal displacement in the world. Between 1985 and 2018, the Truth Commission recognized that more than 7.7 million people on its territory were internally displaced, 80% of whom were forcibly displaced. The Truth Commission has described this sad reality as "the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in the Western Hemisphere".
Find out more (in Spanish) : https://centrodememoriahistorica.gov.co/micrositios/desplazamientoForzado/
In 2008 alone, 380,000 people were forced to flee their homes. In 2009, it was estimated that almost 10% of the national population was directly affected by this phenomenon. To these already staggering figures must be added the 374,000 external refugees worldwide, including 13,080 in Canada. Forced displacements, the majority of which are attributed to paramilitary forces, have led to a real agrarian counter-reform in the country. Around 86 million hectares of land have been violently wrested from their rightful owners (small farmers, Afro-descendant and indigenous communities). This is three times the number of hectares redistributed in 40 years of so-called "agrarian reform". Thanks to this planned strategy, Colombia has one of the highest concentrations of land in the world. By 2020, there will be a 200% increase in displacements, with 72,000 people displaced.
In terms of agriculture, the focus is on production for export, divided between agrofuels (mainly African palm and ethanol), coffee, rubber and "exotic fruit". In addition to impoverishing the soil and contaminating waterways through the use of toxic products, these crops, which take the form of intensive monocultures, are a direct cause of the loss of food sovereignty for small farmers.
Free trade agreements - notably with Canada, the United States and the European Union - have only worsened the situation for Colombia's small and medium-sized producers.
In addition to fertile land (and the availability of a large labour pool generated by forced displacement and land theft), Colombian territory is coveted by foreign capital for its wealth of natural resources (biodiversity, water, minerals, hydrocarbons). As a rule, transnational companies (such as the Canadian oil companies Petrobank, Grantierra, Petrominerales and Talisman, and the Canadian mining companies Medoro Ressources, Greystar, etc.) enter the territory after it has been "cleaned up" by regular and irregular armed forces. Once the population has been displaced and the theft of land legalized by multiple agrarian laws for the benefit of the landowning elite, foreign companies can set up shop without fear of opposition. They will then have all the military support they need to "secure their investments (sic)", whether through the collaboration of paramilitary forces that control the local population or through the use of armed squads that break up any trade union organization.
Consulta popular : a right of referendum to protect land
The 1991 constitution recognizes the right to popular consultation, a democratic mechanism for deciding on land use, while the Afro and indigenous peoples use another mechanism for prior consultation. These consultations are frequently used to oppose mining or energy mega-projects. However, the Colombian State considers energy resources to be in the national interest and tries to invalidate the results of popular referendums.
Find out more (in french) :
13 Novembre 2017 Consultas populares - entrevue avec July Mendez de Tauramena
Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement and the mining and energy sector
Although Canadian companies had a presence in Colombia before the 2011 Free Trade Agreement was signed, the agreement encourages them to do business there. The FTA was signed under President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who updated the regulatory, legal, political and security frameworks that allow foreign companies and investors to benefit from more favourable conditions. According to Colombia's Comptroller General, 80% of human rights violations and 90% of crimes committed against indigenous or Afro-descendant communities occur in mining or energy production zones.
Canadian companies also benefit from the CCFTA's arbitration mechanisms. Two Canadian mining companies are demanding US$1,000 million from the Colombian government under the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement signed in 2008. The offence: having protected a hydraulic reserve and not having repressed the demonstrations effectively enough. The Gran Colombia Gold case is still under review as the Toronto-based company changes its name for the third time, and the Eco Oro case was decided in favour of the company, condemning the Colombian government to pay exorbitant sums.
Find out more (in french) :
Les responsabilités du "Canada" en Colombie, PASC 2021.
Colombie: La complaisance du Canada, PASC 2021.
To find out more about the complicity of Canadian companies, see our campaign Targeting Canadian War Profiteers!
Social struggles in Colombia : the sinews of war
Over the last fifteen years or so, there has been a revival of social struggles in Colombia. In 2008, in the midst of the war, the indigenous movement declared itself a "Minga", a collective action for the common good. The Minga marched from the south to the capital, bringing together day after day numerous social and community organizations to swell the ranks of the indigenous peoples who, in their own words, had decided to risk "dying on their feet rather than on their knees". Student movements made headlines in 2011 with MANE, a national alliance of student processes that shook the country, sending thousands of students into the streets. In 2013, it was the free trade agreements and their devastating effects on the peasant economy and its very possibility of existing while its seeds were being privatized that gave rise to the first of a long series of Paros agrarios (agrarian strikes) between 2014, 2016 and 2018. This series of struggles led to a negotiation process with the national government alongside peace negotiations with the guerrillas. As with FARC and ELN, the agreements signed with these players in the agrarian and popular sector have not been respected. In the end, the government abandoned the negotiating table. In 2019, the Colombian social movement, seeking to create alliances between the rural, student, trade union and urban sectors, launched a call for mobilization that surprised everyone with its vigour, forcing the government to declare curfews that were systematically defied by crowds of neighbours armed with saucepans. This great adventure of popular unrest in 2019-2020 was nevertheless buried by the advent of COVID-19, an unprecedented episode that violently affected the country's most vulnerable sectors.
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Pandemic shock and class struggle
This is how the COVID-19 pandemic arrived with its slogan "stay at home", a maxim imported from the North into a country where the majority leave home to earn their daily bread as workers in the informal economy. For many, "respecting health measures" means nothing more than starving to death. While the state financed airlines in peril, the little money intended for food baskets for the poorest neighbourhoods was diverted, leaving thousands of people hungry.
As early as June 2020, symbolic mobilizations of a few hundred marchers alerted international attention, while red rags, symbols of hunger, were displayed in the windows of homes in working-class neighbourhoods across the country. The spark was a proposed tax reform to increase taxes and create new ones on basic foods. Tensions continued to rise, and the initially sporadic mobilizations resumed with a bang on 28 April 2021, when the call for a huge demonstration was transformed into a social movement that would last for weeks. This veritable "social explosion" (estadillo social, to use the recognized expression) started out as a unitary trade union mobilization before uniting the most diverse sectors of the working classes. It didn't take long for the grassroots to break through the traditional structures of the protests, blowing away everything that seemed to stand in the way of transforming society.
Eight weeks of Paro. The government's response was repression and state terrorism. The scenes of horror, torture and death ended up putting the brakes on popular neighbourhood assemblies, barricades and blockades. However, this episode left its mark on people's consciences. The precarious youth of the peripheral and marginalized districts of the big cities broke the silence. They erected barricades and defended them, often following the principles of autonomous organization, groups that would henceforth be known under the banner of "the front line" (primera linea). The front lines are to the Latin American present what the black bloc was to the years of the counter-summits and other mobilizations against capitalist globalization. Much more colourful, they are made up of dozens or even hundreds of young people who, usually wearing bicycle helmets and carrying shields, defend the front line. The barrels are decorated with graffiti that reads ACAB, 1312, Ni una menos and other slogans typical of the current struggle.
This form of action is similar to what in rural areas is known as the indigenous, Maroon or peasant guard process, or even inter-ethnic guard process in some regions. An unarmed territorial defense system that uses the symbolic authority granted by community organizations to exercise territorial control.
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14 Juillet 2020 Harcèlement policier contre la marche de la dignité
Colombie : les facteurs structurels de la crise actuelle, PASC 2021 https://www.cahiersdusocialisme.org/colombie-les-facteurs-structurels-de-la-crise-actuelle/
Self-government and territorial self-management
Community self-management is intertwined with the history of social struggles in Colombia. The Community Action Committees (junta de acción comunal) are the basis of community organization in the city and the countryside, to which were added in 1991, with the new Constitution, the various "ethnic authorities", the Afro-descendant community council, the indigenous cabildo, and so on. The 2000s also saw the emergence of several forms of peasant territoriality, such as initiatives linked to the formation of agri-food territories, inter-ethnic territories and peasant reserve zones. All of these are instances of autonomous government with varying degrees of legal recognition. Some sectors link these practices to the construction of popular power, a constituted power that competes with state control in favour of a self-managed political system.
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21 Juillet 2022 Luttes paysannes dans la Colombie contemporaine
An example of self-management in Arauca
The Arauca region, far from the major centers, was born of a history of social struggles. The encounter between the peasant farmers who came here in search of land in the last century and the indigenous U'wa nation has given rise to a community development that proves on a daily basis that the relationship with the land can be woven in harmony. First came ECAAAS, a community water and sewage management company based on an assembly of local residents who ensure the preservation of water sources in alliance with the indigenous U'wa nation. With initiatives of this kind, the idea of an accessible service tailored to the needs of users is paramount. Other cooperative projects have also been added. On the one hand, transport cooperatives have taken on the task of building road infrastructure to provide links between villages. On the other, we have seen the emergence of popular agri-food programs: cooperatives producing plantain, cocoa and even a slaughterhouse for meat production in this lowland region where livestock farming is an important part of the economy. This local economy system also includes service cooperatives, cocoa chocolate processing cooperatives, community radio stations and a regional newspaper.
It is this social network as a whole that opposes the oil companies' stranglehold on the region, and supports the recovery and occupation of land in the region that has been stolen by oil multinationals such as OXY Petroleum.
Faced with the government's inaction, this is a region that has organized itself to eradicate the coca fields, a crop that not only exhausts the soil but also causes a whole host of social problems. Today, the department of Arauca has one of the lowest percentages of drug trafficking.
In her book on peasant struggles (https://ruor.uottawa.ca/bitstream/10393/41465/1/9782760330955_WEB.pdf), Leila Celis describes the transition from the struggle for land, to the struggle for life, to the struggle for territory.
Indigenous, Maroon and Peasant Guards
This system of territorial self-management is complemented by the guardia organization, a territorial defense body armed with a simple stick. The bastón symbolizes community authority, which can be revoked at any time. The guardias are responsible for day-to-day community security, particularly during mobilizations and public events. These groups are often supported by alternative justice systems, more or less formal, with legal recognition in the case of indigenous territories. Indeed, indigenous communities have a parallel traditional justice system that is recognized in the Colombian legislative system.
The inter-ethnic, peasant and popular guards arose out of the need to defend human, territorial and collective rights as part of the struggles waged by communities in Colombia. The guards set up in the central-eastern regions (and which would eventually give life to the Interethnic Guard) date back to the mobilizations of the 50s, 60s and 70s, and more specifically to the Sarare Civic Strike, from which the people, mobilized to maintain discipline and confront aggression on the part of the government, went on to form the Sarare Civic Guard, which later, during the 1980s and 2000s, was fuelled by the various popular struggles.
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