So far this year alone, Colombia has seen 33 massacres of social leaders, trade union organizers and ex-guerrilla fighters belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). At least 119 people have been murdered by paramilitary groups, state security forces or unidentified assassins as of April 27, according to the Instituto de Estudio para el Desarrollo y la Paz, or Institute of Study for Development and Peace. According to Colombia’s Ombudsman’s Office, in the first three months of 2021, more than 27,000 Colombians were forcibly displaced due to violence by groups fighting for territorial control and control of the drug trade — an increase of 177 percent compared to last year.
Colombia has a long history of political violence. For over five decades, beginning in the 1960s, it was gripped by a civil war between numerous left-wing rebel movements, right-wing paramilitaries and a corrupt U.S.-backed authoritarian state. This conflict resulted in more than 7 million people internally displaced and over 220,000 people killed. Of those murdered, 10,000 are considered “false positives” — often poor peasants who were murdered by the Colombian military and then dressed up as rebels so soldiers could boost their statistics in the war against leftist insurgents. In 2013, in one of the most comprehensive studies into the conflict, the National Center of Historical Memory noted that between 1980 to 2012, 1,982 massacres occurred in Colombia with 1,166 attributed to the paramilitaries, 343 to the rebels (i.e., multiple armed groups such as the FARC, ELN, M19 and EPL) and 295 to government security forces. In November 2016, after years of delicate negotiations in Norway and Cuba, the FARC and the Colombian State reached a historic peace agreement.
Under the 2016 peace deal, the FARC guerrillas were allowed to create their own political party according to Nick MacWilliam, a trade unions and programs officer at Justice for Colombia in the United Kingdom. As a result, several of their leaders won seats in congress while more than 13,000 rebels surrendered their weapons, commencing a process to integrate themselves into civilian life. MacWilliam notes that, “based in specially created ‘reincorporation zones’ scattered around the country, former guerrilla combatants developed sustainable projects, enrolled on educational courses and undertook vocational training” taking up “diverse new roles in medicine, journalism, tourism, textiles, agriculture and even beer brewing.”
Heading the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia last year, Carlos Ruiz Massieu stated that, “despite continued attacks and stigmatization against them, the vast majority of those who laid down their weapons remain engaged in the reintegration process.”
Still, the number of ongoing murders of ex-FARC combatants is staggering. Mariela Kohon, a senior international officer at the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in the United Kingdom who worked as an advisor to the FARC during the peace agreement, notes that the number of assassinated ex-rebels since the accord was signed has reached 271. “This is a horrifying figure” says Kohon, as “these are 271 ex-combatants who signed up to the peace agreement and laid down their weapons in good faith.” In her view, “it is an absolute tragedy that so many who are working in their communities and contributing to building peace are being brutally assassinated.”
According to Liliany Obando, who is a high-ranking member of the FARC’s new political party Partido Comunes (Party of Communes) in the capital of Bogotá, political violence in Colombia since the signing of the peace accord has in fact increased, and the number of ex-combatants assassinated includes seven women.
The murders of these activists and ex-rebels are acts by “illegal organizations” and “criminal groups” who want to “let civilians know about the high cost of supporting the peace agreement,” according to Camilo Tamayo Gomez, a senior lecturer in criminology and security studies at Birmingham City University in the U.K. Based on his research, these criminal cliques are trying to “exercise control in territories prior occupied by FARC guerrillas” where, for example, poor farmers grow coca leaves that are used in the production of cocaine. Another factor for the high number of murders taking place, according to Tamayo Gomez, is the “criminal incompetence of the actual Colombian government to implement the peace agreement.”
Kohon says the current administration “must implement the peace agreement in a comprehensive way, and particularly the section dealing with security guarantees” of the former rebels that are now part of civilian life. Obando says the incumbent government’s lack of willingness to support the peace accord has left many ex-rebels feeling “disappointed and betrayed and wanting to take up arms again.”
In late 2019, that is precisely what Iván Márquez — the second-highest commander of the FARC — did, issuing a statement on video that he and other FARC members were returning to war given the unacceptably high number of ex-rebels that have been murdered. According to Márquez, the refusal of the current hard right-wing government of President Iván Duque Márquez to abide by the original peace accords was another reason for this action. In his declaration, Márquez was accompanied by 20 armed rebels, including ex-rebel leaders Hernán Darío Velásquez (also known as “El Paisa”), who was once commander of the FARC’s strongest military faction, the Teófilo Forero Column, and Seuxis Pausías Hernández (also known as Jesús Santrich).
The FARC’s frustration with the state’s unwillingness to operate in good faith goes back decades. During the 1980s, the FARC attempted to engage in a peace agreement working with the progressive political party Unión Patriótica (Patriotic Union, or UP). While some critics point out that the FARC often tried to manipulate the UP to suit its own objectives, the end result, as documented in Steven Dudley’s book, Walking Ghost: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia, was that by the early 1990s, thousands of UP members had been killed, including two presidential candidates. These murders were carried out by hired assassins and right-wing paramilitaries who often had strong connections to drug cartels, the military and state authorities.
With the UP decimated, the FARC returned to war, and by the end of the 1990s, had between 17,000-19,000 well-armed guerrillas controlling approximately 30 percent of Colombia. Subsequently, Washington sent Bogotá close to $10 billion in aid to fight the FARC under Plan Colombia (2000-2015). By 2008, for the first time ever, the Colombian military was able to kill several members of the FARC’s secretariat and inflict important military defeats on the rebels.
Asked if he saw any parallels between the current era and the wave of killings inflicted on the UP and the FARC members in the 1980s, Tamayo Gomez said no. In his view, today the large number of killings taking place are not for “ideological reasons,” but rather monetary or territorial ones. Other experts take a different perspective.
Adjunct professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, Dan Kovalik, who has a long history of working on Colombia and defending the rights of trade unionists, states that “the Colombian state is carrying out such murders with greater frequency for one reason: it can.” He adds, “with the FARC demobilized, the state and its paramilitary allies have decided that there is no impediment to wiping out the left and progressive social movements in Colombia. This is the painful truth.” In his view, the wave of violence since 2016 peace agreement is “very reminiscent of the mass murder of UP leaders and members” during the peace talks in the 1980s.
Victor Figueroa Clark, an observer of Colombian politics who taught Latin American history at the London School of Economics, takes a similar perspective, arguing that today there are “clear parallels to the political genocide of the Patriotic Union.” In his view, in contemporary Colombia, “The state, the oligarchy and its allies in the media consider that they won the war. Little in the negotiation process led them to think otherwise. They felt that the FARC were tired of fighting, that they were reeling from the loss of their leader Alfonso Cano (killed after being located through his communications with the government about starting talks), that they were basically losing the war. I think this attitude was shared by the government’s allies in the U.S. and across ‘the West.’”
Figueroa Clark adds that, “as a result” of how the war was going for the Colombian state in the last years before the peace accords were signed, “the government saw peace as a charity offering, a sort of dignified way out for the guerrillas, and not a negotiation enforced by military stalemate.”
Cristian Delgado, a leading human rights defender from the southwest of Colombia and the National Coordinator for Human Rights for the Marcha Patriotica, a conglomeration of student groups, unions, peace activists and grass roots organizations from rural zones experiencing conflict, notes that “since the signing of the  peace agreement, there have been 1,163 homicides against social leaders and human rights defenders in Colombia, 128 of them committed against members of the Patriotic March.” Delgado claims that several of these murders were “committed by agents of the public force, which shows an exponential and sustained increase.”
Created in 2010, the objective of the Marcha Patriotica is to bring national attention to the reality of urban, rural and agricultural Colombia, and express its views on a range of issues such as social and economic rights. According to one observer, in Marcha Patriotica’s view, the end of the armed conflict should be accompanied by real steps toward social justice, including “the need for agrarian reform, a radical change in economic policy, and respect for the right of all Colombians to health, education and work opportunities.” Currently Marcha Patriotica represents over 2,000 national and regional organizations.
Asked for his opinion on the future of the peace process, Figueroa Clark is not optimistic. He says that for peace to succeed, what would be required would be a “fundamental change of attitude from the government, from the state and from the oligarchy that they rule for.” He adds that the United Nations should play a greater role — for example, through an oversight mission reporting to the Security Council. An increase in the protection of social activists and trade union leaders would also be necessary, while Colombia’s armed forces should be seriously reduced and retrained. However, these changes “would require at root a recognition of the state’s role as an instigator of violence.” Figueroa Clark claims the U.S. government’s attitude toward the Colombian government would also need to change, given that the U.S. is Colombia’s “main ally and guarantor.”
From Kohon’s perspective, the “international community should be outraged that signatories to a peace agreement are facing this violence.” In the British parliament, this issue along with other human rights concerns have been raised by Labour MPs, but thus far the response from the international community has been paltry at best.
Back in Bogotá, Defense Minister Diego Molano recently confirmed that the practice of massive aerial fumigation would resume in areas where poor farmers grow coca leaves. In 2015, after a World Health Organization literature review found that the herbicide glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans,” the Santos government suspended the program. While one observer pointed out that aerial fumigation was reminiscent of the days of Plan Colombia, the U.S. State Department for its part declared it a “most welcome development.” In March 2020, during his presidential campaign, Joe Biden stated that he was “the guy who put together Plan Colombia … straighten[ing] that government out for a long while.”
In Colombia, as the daily killings of ex-rebels, social leaders and trade union organizers continue at alarming rates, the Duque administration was met with a massive national strike on April 28 organized by student groups and the Central Unitary of Workers, the country’s largest trade union federation. Demonstrating against the government’s recently proposed sharp increase in taxes that would hurt working-class and middle-class families, and the conditions of a collapsing public health care system due to the COVID-19 pandemic, protesters also expressed concerns about the danger in which the country’s peace process now finds itself.
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