Into the Abyss
All-Out Destruction Looms in Colombia
by Ana Carrigan
In These Times magazine, January 22, 2001
December is the best month of the year in Bogota. The days
are sunny, warm and bright, the nights crisp and clear, and at
9,000 feet the light vibrates with burning intensity in the thin
mountain air. For a few miraculously cloud- and smog-free weeks,
it is even possible to see on the horizon the Andean ranges that
encircle this capital city.
December is also a time when people everywhere put down their
tools and devote themselves to celebrating the festive season
with tropical intensity. In the midst of their troubles, Colombians
retain a zest for life, an ability to seize pleasure from the
fleeting moment that is one of the attractions of this endlessly
complex and contradictory country. This year, however, the holiday
spirit has been submerged by an undertow of dread.
The Colombian peace process is disintegrating. There are many
reasons why this is so. First, there is the Colombian government's
failure to confront the enemy within. The moral corruption within
the Colombian armed forces has permitted the phenomenal growth
of the paramilitaries, eroding the legitimacy of President Andres
Pastrana. The government must also take the blame for failing
to grasp a fundamental fact: poverty is to the war, what the world
market for cocaine is to narco-trafficking. It is the motor driving
the violence. There is no mystery about how to get rid of guerrillas
and drugs. It only takes money.
Then there is the stubborn intransigence of the FARC guerrillas,
their obsessive reliance on their military machine and inadequate
grasp of political and economic realities of the modern world-and
of the complex, urban society with which they have been trying
for 20 years to reach an acceptable political settlement. To be
fair, it can never be forgotten that during the previous peace
process in the '80s, the FARC took the risk of fielding a civilian
political movement that was brutally eliminated. The FARC and
all Colombia are now suffering the irreplaceable loss of the intelligence,
political savvy and leadership of an entire generation.
And, of course, the U.S. war on drugs and the fumigation campaign
have done their bit to destroy the Colombian justice system and
create a reservoir of recruits for the guerrillas. More recently,
the inanity of U.S. policy in the Clinton administration, whose
Plan Colombia program is well on its way to failure, has effectively
unraveled the peace negotiations.
So much human failure adds up to a tragic reality. As each
slender opportunity for a negotiated outcome to 50 years of political
violence is squandered, the hopes of millions of ordinary Colombians
are wearing down that the fratricidal bloodletting might be stanched,
that the urgent process of reconciliation might somehow finally
begin. The history of every peacemaking process proves that making
peace is far more difficult, far more challenging, than making
war. As negotiators on each side desperately cling by their fingernails
to the slippery edge of the abyss, there is no one with the strength-or
wisdom-to put a foot on the brake before they all hurtle to their
Colombia has the opposite: a well-organized, ruthless, extreme
right-wing conspiracy, dedicated to systematically burying the
peace process beneath a heap of civilian corpses. The extreme
right has infiltrated everywhere: the armed forces, the business
community, the drug mafia, the Congress, the conservative wings
of both political parties, even the justice system. They have
their own private, mercenary army-the paramilitaries-commanded
by Latin America's most feared death squad leader, Carlos Castano.
According to official investigators, Castano has not only ordered
most of the assassinations of civilian opposition figures and
peace activists during the past decade, but he continues to murder
with impunity, even though he has recently embarked on a sophisticated
media campaign to gain respectability.
The far-right has also recruited their candidate for the next
presidential election. Four months ago, when smooth-talking, Oxford-educated
Alvaro Uribe launched his campaign, he rated a mere 5 percent
in the polls. After sharing the dais last month at a national
convention of the cattleman's association, where the members stood
to give the Falange salute and called for the government to create
a nationwide militia movement to augment the army-i.e., legalization
and state funding for the paramilitaries-Uribe's approval rate
shot up to 17 percent. In reaction to escalating guerrilla kidnapping,
extortion and terrorism, the country has polarized dangerously
and the far right has gained frightening support among the lower,
middle and upper classes. Colombia has the fastest growing fascist
movement in the Latin continent since the rise of Pinochet in
Everyone knows this is the reality, though few dare admit
it. Certainly not the decimated ranks of the Colombian press.
"The war has reached into the newsrooms," a depressed
Colombian colleague explains on my first day back in Bogota after
a seven-month absence. "We don't report the stories we would
like to on the paramilitaries any more because we all know that
our dead and exiled colleagues were targeted by the paramilitaries
and the army, and we are afraid. The FARC doesn't threaten us
here in Bogota. Individual guerrilla fronts operating in the countryside
hit the local press if they don't like what they've written, but
they don't go after us on the national level. That's why there
is such silence about the paramilitaries."
It is also the reason why the FARC gets such terrible press.
"Stories about the excesses of the FARC are easier to do,"
says my friend, "and besides, it's what the publishers and
The current crisis of the peace negotiations began in mid-November
when the FARC announced a temporary "freeze" to protest
the government's failure to develop a clear strategy on the paramilitaries.
It is the fourth time in less than two years that negotiations
between the government and the FARC have broken down, and the
third time that the paramilitaries have been at the center of
the crisis. This time, the FARC's withdrawal from negotiations
was precipitated when President Pastrana sent his Minister of
the Interior to talk to Castano to secure the release of seven
right-wing parliamentarians held hostage by his forces. In the
FARC's eyes, the "kidnap" of a group of right-wing legislators
was a cynical, manipulative hoax, engineered to sabotage delicate
negotiations for an exchange of prisoners and to force the government
to grant political status to Castano and his mercenaries. The
government's genuine surprise at the FARC's reaction was sad proof
of how little the government understands who they have been talking
to for nearly two years.
Three weeks and yet another appalling paramilitary atrocity
later, when Pastrana faced a self-imposed deadline for renewing
the legal authority of the demilitarized zone that he ceded to
the FARC two years ago to provide a safe venue for talks, the
president stunned Colombian supporters of the peace process by
announcing he would keep the zone open only until January 31,
2001. Abruptly, Colombians realized that D-Day was upon them.
Failing a miracle, it is hard to see that come late January,
anything will have intervened to alter the stand-off between the
government and the FARC on the paramilitary issue. In such circumstances,
even if he wanted to, it would take a far stronger president than
Pastrana to face down the pressure from his generals, from powerful
business leaders, from landowners, from conservative politicians
of both parties, and, presumably, from the incoming Bush administration,
to extend the life of the peace zone beyond the January deadline.
The call to war, amplified day after day in the pages of the
Colombian media, has been intensifying for months. According to
the polls, 80 percent of Colombians oppose a continuation of the
demilitarized zone. It is worth asking what cross-section of the
Colombian population is included in these polls? More than 50
percent of Colombians live below the poverty line and have little
or no access to phones. Those people do not want the peace process
to end. Nor do the nation's governors-32 of them signed a statement
asking for the zone to remain open. And the 1,000-plus mayors
who live on the front lines of the civil war are so mad at Pastrana
they refused to permit him to attend their convention in mid-December.
But like the demonization of the FARC and of Pastrana's peace
efforts, no one will ever challenge the official wisdom propagated
in the endless polls that say no one in Colombia supports the
peace process. Because, of course, no one in the media or the
government would ever talk to a popular leader in the barrios,
or sit down for a tinto in the country with a campesino to find
out what they think about war and peace and guerrillas and paramilitaries.
Those people, poor people, don't count. They are, after all, only
more than half the population.
Those who run the Colombian polls and those who want war,
both in Bogota and Washington, share a need to demonize the FARC.
So there surely will be no investigative reporting into Gen. Barry
McCaffrey's accusations that the FARC is trafficking with the
Tijuana drug cartel. It may be true, or it may be a lie, but by
the time the helicopters start to fly no one will have bothered
to find out. Because by then, true or false, it will have served
its purpose. If the new Bush team so decides, it will justify
America's next war.