MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md., October 10, 2013 – Colombia’s current peace process can only be viewed in the context of the country’s history.
Armed conflict among Colombians has historically been a common occurrence. In the 19th century, Colombia suffered 69 “civil wars.” The last one lasted over three years and resulted in the secession of Panama.
The 20th century saw the start of the organized guerrilla warfare in the 1930s. The most damaging guerrilla campaign started at the end of the 1940s.
On April 9, 1948, coinciding with the Ninth International Conference of American States in Bogotá (March – May 1948), the liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated in Bogotá. The assassin was soon caught and lynched by a mob, but no intellectual leader was ever identified. The resulting riots closed the government and caused thousands of deaths.
This event exacerbated the conflict between the liberal and conservative parties in Colombia. The liberal party an alternative government in the eastern part of the country and started fighting the conservative government with guerilla tactics. The head of this movement, La Guerrilla, was the son of a rancher named Guadalupe Salcedo. This in turn created a conservative paramilitary group that operated in association with the military, Los Chulavitas.
In 1953 after a coup de etat by Lieutenant General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla that had the blessing of all segments of society due to the dysfunction of the government, a proposal to start negotiations with the guerilla was put forward. The same year Guadalupe Salcedo accepted a government promise of amnesty and turned himself in. In the years that followed, most of the guerilla leaders, including Guadalupe, were assassinated by the military or its proxies. Rojas Pinilla was deposed from government in 1956.
In the 1980s a new guerilla group became predominant. The so called “19th of April Movement” or M19 for short. The name was a reference to the date, April 19, 1970 in which many people in Colombia believe an election was stolen. The party that lost the election was one that had been founded by Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. A significant number of M19 members came from the educated middle class and it had many sympathizers in the general public.
After several episodes that punctuated the strategic capabilities of the M19, the government decided to start a peace dialogue. The M19 was able to assault the Embassy of the Dominican Republic and took several ambassadors, including the U.S. ambassador, hostage. They also conducted a bloody takeover of the Supreme Court in which 11 of the 19 justices were killed. Many suspect that the assault on the Supreme Court was financed by drug lords with the goal of destroying evidence accumulated against them. However, this motive has been discredited.
This dialogue culminated with a full peace agreement that provided amnesty and restoration of civil and political rights for the former revolutionaries. Today one of them is the mayor of Bogotá, the second most important elected post in Colombia. Many Colombians harbor resentment that former guerilla members have found political success.
After M19 and the successful talks and amnesty, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas de Revolución de Colombia or FARC) became the most successful guerilla group in Colombia. The FARC, with about 16,000 combatants, was successful in controlling many rural areas of the country, some of them only tens of miles from urban centers like Bogotá. They relied on terror, ambush of the Army and kidnapping to further their goals. Financially they counted on drug trafficking. Its leader, “Manuel Marulanda Vélez”, real name Antonio Marín Marín, AKA “tiro fijo” (“sure shot,” for his accuracy with fire arms), was a legendary figure until his death in 2008 at the age of 78. During Alberto González’s tenure as the Attorney General of the U. S., a bounty of five million dollars on Tiro Fijo was announced; however, he was never caught and died of natural cause.
In response, paramilitary forces were created by land owners that saw their lands and businesses in peril. These forces operated with a scorched earth mentality. In rural areas they would kill and disposes anyone they suspected had connections with the guerillas and anyone that was not supporting them or the military. In effect, anyone with leftist leanings was suspect. Suspicion meant death. The result was that millions fed into urban areas, particularly into Bogotá, to escape the violence.
During this time, Colombians could only feel secure in large urban areas because of the threat of the FARC and the paramilitary forces.
In 1999, the Colombian government started peace talks with the FARC. Part of the agreement for the talks was that the FARC could keep land that it had occupied, creating essentially a country within a country. The guerilla forces continued to build up their forces while the government stopped all actions against them. By 2003 when the talks ended, the violence continued and the government had to take back the areas that it had temporarily conceded to the FARC.
Figure 1 Tito Fijo and the Colombian president Pastrana.
Riding the fiasco of the peace talks, the former right wing governor of the Antioquia Department and Senator, Alvaro Uribe Vélez won the presidency in 2002. He started a no nonsense war against the guerilla. With significant assistance from the U. S. his administration was able to inflict heavy loses to the FARC. His administration was also froth with corruption and even his successes against the FARC were tarnished; the so called “False Positive” scandal, among the misfires.
Since the future of military officers was predicated on successes against the FARC, a particularly odious process was put in place. People were recruited in poor sections of cities for “jobs”. They were taken into guerilla territory, killed and then dressed like FARC combatants. The Army would then claim that these individuals had been killed in combat, benefitting the officers in charge. An estimate is that over 1,000 people were killed this way. When it came to light, it was labeled as the “False Positive” scandal and a number of high level officers were implicated. Others blamed the president for his emphasis on body counts to obtain promotions in the military. President Uribe was also implicated in the creation and support of the paramilitary forces.
Regardless of the negative image of Uribe internationally, he remained very popular in Colombia. The fact that he had made significant gains against the FARC was his main legacy. By the time he left office it was estimated that FARC numbers had been reduced as much as two thirds. He was also counted by the Bush administration as one of the staunchest allies of the U. S.
A la Chávez (his declared enemy), Uribe tried to modify the constitution to allow him to run for a third term. His continued high popularity suggests he would have won another election, but the legislature and the Supreme Court denied him the opportunity.
In 2010 the Defense Minister under Uribe, Juan Manuel Santos, won the elections. He was influential in the recovery of high profile FARC hostages and comes from one the Shaman families in Colombia. His family has owned the most prestigious newspaper in the country since its creation. Most people believed he would continue the strong anti-guerilla policy implemented by Uribe. However, in 2012, Santos proposed a new round of peace talks with the FARC. The talks are on-going in La Havana, Cuba. His former boss, Alvaro Uribe, has come out against these talks.
Please look for my next article on the peace talks. Preliminary results of the talks will be published in November 2013, as promised by the Colombian government.
Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, is Colombian born and raised. You can follow him on Facebook (Mario Salazar) and Twitter (@chibcharus).
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