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Fear, Impunity and State Power

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Issue: 49 Section: Accounts Geography: Latin America Colombia Topics: civil war, paramilitary

January 12, 2008

Fear, Impunity and State Power

Colombia's paramilitary regime and social movements

by David Parker

3 military soldiers standing amid an African Palm plantation in Choco, during an armed incursion into peasant communities in 2005. Photo: Simon Bruno

MONTREAL -- In August of 2007, Paola, a mother, university student and teacher, received a written death threat. She is a member of the Committee for Solidarity for Political Prisoners, a group that struggles for the rights of political prisoners in Colombia. It is a country where state repression has broken the social fabric, where being a human rights defender can have dangerous consequences; since 2002, there have been 955 assassinations committed by the Armed Forces, the highest level of politically motivated homicide in the Western hemisphere.

In a country where repression of social organizations involves selective and collective assassinations, disappearances, detentions and massacres, fear of death is part of daily life. On the bus on the way to the Industrial University of Santander in Bucaramanga, Paola handed me a note sent by the paramilitary organization known as “Aguilas Negras” to 11 student organizers, accusing them of being linked to networks of the FARC and ELN, Colombia’s two largest guerrilla groups. The death threat assured their recipients that their actions were being monitored and their days numbered. "You and the organizations you represent are a problem for Colombia... The plan to annihilate you all will begin with the very next student strike."

The death threat is a common tactic from this nationwide right-wing paramilitary group. Weeks ago, the local office of SINALTRAINAL, a national union of food workers, received a written death threat under the front door. Fear courses in the veins of the country; a legitimate fear, a well-sanctioned and reasonable fear for the safety of human rights defenders, unionists, peasant leaders, Afro-Colombians, indigenous leaders and community members.

Paramilitary and military forces have honed a method of instilling fear and producing forced displacement throughout the country. Jose Antonio knows this tactic well. An Afro-Colombian peasant, a subsistence farmer until his forced displacement and the theft of his lands in 1997, he and his family have lived it first-hand. As we walked through the African Palm plantations in Choco, Jose Antonio showed me the former location of his community. Ten years ago, under Operation Genesis, the whole region was attacked by air, water and land, a concerted military and paramilitary operation that massacred, tortured, assassinated and forcibly displaced over 4,000 traditional communities living ancestral lifestyles. He showed me the former location of his brother's small farm, which is now rows of African Palm trees.

Jose Antonio pointed to where there used to be a river and said, "Over there, my brother used to fish."

"He was fishing one day with his four children, when the paramilitaries came to him. They tied his hands behind his back, cut open his chest and removed his innards with their hands. They told his children to leave and not to come back to this land."

The statistics of systematic violence in Colombia show the endemic nature of the problem. The Union Patriotica, a political party seeking a humanitarian accord between the FARC and the government since the 1990s, have suffered the assassination of over 5,000 members. The highest rates of homicide of indigenous people have been among the Embera Katio, the Wayuu and the Kankuamo peoples, who have suffered 234 homicides since 1999. From 1986 to 2006, there have been 2,515 union leaders assassinated. The National Federation of Municipal Councils (FENACOM) reports 251 council members assassinated since 1985. According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, between 1996 and June 2006, 31,656 people were either killed or disappeared. Of these massacres, 83.07% are attributed to State forces.

The Consultation of Human Rights and Forced Displacement (CODHES) has stated that between 1985 and 2005, there were 3,720,428 citizens registered as forcibly displaced. According to the Ideas for Peace Foundation, members of the AUC--a former paramilitary organization--have invested in three million hectares of land, while drug traffickers have bought one million hectares. Seventy per cent of landowners are small-scale farmers who possess only five per cent of total land area. The reality of forced displacement by State forces and the subsequent purchasing of large quantities of land by paramilitary members are facts that demonstrate the illegal appropriation of land through violent means. Meanwhile, most small-scale farmers are forced either to find smaller parcels of land to cultivate, or join the growing waves of urbanization. In either case, they continue to face the threat of violence.

A traveller passing through the cities of Colombia might see a moderately developed country, an urbanized population and a burgeoning middle class. Liberal economic journals describe Colombia’s economy as a prosperous, growing market, rich in natural resources and ready for investment. But many Colombians understand the situation as an ongoing civil war. The State apparatus of control and repression--legitimated through impunity and maintained through the consolidation of executive military power in all branches of government and a broken social fabric with violence being a continual threat in all levels of society--has maintained a state of siege and atomized the Colombian countryside. Informants and military and paramilitary forces create local fiefdoms, regional strongholds of ultra-right-wing power. Urban centres are infiltrated by networks of informants and surveyed by police and military.

“The most preoccupying factor of the situation is the appearance of normality which this military and political project has acquired”, says Soraya Gutierrez Arguello, president of the Jose Alvear Restrepo Lawyers' Collective. Specific elements of social control, such as paramilitarism, impunity and State power, have kept much of the country's population in a state of terror.

Paramilitarism: Infiltrating Civil Society and Rending the Social Fabric

Most socio-political studies agree that the origins of contemporary violence in Colombia began in the mid-1940s. Institutional and rural violence, stimulated by the Conservative Party, left 300,000 dead without investigation and left thousands without homes. The resulting armed uprising from rural sectors precipitated an internal conflict that to this day continues to spill blood. The State doctrine since the 1960s has been one of counterinsurgency and has authored systematic, generalized violations of human rights and crimes against humanity. A key element of the counterinsurgent strategy has been paramilitarism, which uses terrorist tactics and benefits from state support.

Paramilitarism has worked to annihilate social resistance and democratic opposition of civil society, creating new agents of capitalist accumulation while generating forced displacement.

According to Arguello, paramilitarism has united the anti-insurgent struggle with drug trafficking and State support under one apparatus of "irregular right-wing war, constructing paramilitary corridors, owned territorialities, zones of consolidation, eruption of local para-states, interlinked into a national phenomenon of power."

Armed right-wing paramilitary groups have had ample support from corporate sectors, large scale farmers, merchants, State security institutions, Armed Forces, police and regional government. They have even benefited from significant representation in Colombian parliament and share a profound affinity with the current administration of President Uribe Velez. The Colombian Office of the United Nations' High Commission of Human Rights has signalled the ongoing connections between paramilitary groups and the State.

The paramilitary strategy is excused with claims that victims are suspected guerrillas or guerrilla collaborators. In reality, the victims are systematically targeted members of the civilian population. According to a follow-up mission conducted by the Organization of American States in July 2007, paramilitaries maintain and exercise an authoritarian criminal control, which inhibits the possibility of citizen action without coercion, making municipal and departmental elections very problematic. Relying on a network of informants, paramilitary infiltration into communities and authorities at all levels of society has broken the social fabric, creating suspicion and mistrust among communities, neighbours and even family.

According to Leonardo Jaimes M, a lawyer with the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners (FCSPP), it is common in penal processes to observe lists created by militaries that include many people (students, small farmers, unionists, civilians) accused of being guerrillas.

"No one knows how these lists are formed, what criteria are held, or what proof exists to conclude guerrilla participation. The majority of these listed people are later assassinated or disappeared by State agents or paramilitary groups."

Canadian and other foreign companies certainly figure prominently in the paradigm of State violence for economic development. According to Maria Jimenez of The Globe and Mail, Canadian investments in Colombia are an estimated $1 billion from 17 corporations, making Canada the 10th largest investor in the world. The investments are concentrated in the sectors where repression of unionists is greatest: oil, gas and mining.

While scandal erupts in Colombia over President Uribe’s ties to narco-traffickers and paramilitaries, Canada is putting trade negotiations with Colombia in overdrive by signing a new Free Trade Agreement. The FTA will open up Colombia for more foreign development and resource extraction for the profit of Canadian companies at the expense of the basic civil rights of Colombians.

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