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 mutual destruction.

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 Chile.

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 editors want."

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.

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