Colombia: The Next Vietnam?
Colombia, a country of 40 million people located in northwest corner of South America, has been embroiled in a complicated and disastrous civil war for 38 years. The most recent phase of the civil war – which has various left-wing guerrilla organizations fighting against the state and right-wing paramilitaries - has claimed over 35,000 lives and has left over two million people displaced. The current situation is as volatile and grave as ever. The war wages on, in light of the recent failure of peace talks, while half of the population lives in poverty and 20 percent of the workforce is unemployed. The recent election of a hard-line, reactionary president in Colombia, along with the increased amounts of US financial and military aid to the country, has laid the foundations for an escalation of the decades-old conflict.
Roots of Rebellion
The origins of the current civil war in Colombia can be traced back to 1948, the year that “La Violencia” (the violence) began. Sparked by the assassination of the progressive presidential candidate George Eliecer Gaitan, a civil war erupted between pro-reform liberals and conservatives sponsored by the elite landowners and the Catholic Church. Two hundred thousands deaths and ten years later, the two sides reconciled and governed through a power-sharing agreement for the next twenty years, excluding all other parties from the political arena (“Revolutionary” 1).
In the aftermath of this conflict, approximately 1,000 communist peasants retreated to the jungle in southern Colombia and set up a cooperative known as the “Independent Republic of Marquetalia.” In May of 1964, the Colombian Army attacked the cooperative and massacred over 900 of its inhabitants. That same year, survivors of the Marquetalia massacre founded the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), led by Manuel Marulanda, a peasant guerrilla who had fought in La Violencia (“Information” 2). The FARC was organized around a Marxist ideology that focuses on self defense and agrarian and social reform. These reforms are spelled in a ten point communiqué and include demands for a progressive tax system, state ownership of all strategic sectors of the economy, fifty percent of the budget being invested in social programs to benefit Colombian people, the renegotiation of contracts with multinational corporations, a unicameral parliament, and democratic participation on the national, regional and municipal levels when making decisions concerning the future of Colombian society (“FARC-EP” 1-3).
Also in 1964, Colombian students who had undergone training in Cuba founded another guerrilla organization, the National Liberation Army (ELN). Following the Cuban model of rural rebellion, the ELN grew slowly but attracted many radical students and priests. Among the priests who joined the ELN was the legendary Camilo Torres, who would be killed in combat in 1966 (“Information” 1).
History of the Civil War
Between 1970 and 1982, the FARC matured and grew from a movement of a few hundred people, to a small army of 3,000 with a centralized hierarchical structure, a training school, and a political program (“Information” 3). During this period they carried out sustained attacks against military targets. To fund their army they kidnapped for ransom and became involved in cocoa production.
In 1984, the FARC, in a historic compromise, renounced kidnapping and agreed to
a ceasefire with the government. This act led to the creation of the Patriotic Union (UP) – a legal political party that was affiliated with the FARC. The UP won significant representation in the Colombian parliament in the 1986 elections. However, in 1987, at the urging of the multinational banana companies – who felt that the guerrillas were backing the banana workers’ union, the government ended the truce and the army began a major offensive against the FARC. At the same time, paramilitary organizations began to grow dramatically. This growth coincided with the advent of Columbia’s drug trade. Wealthy drug traffickers, such as Pablo Escobar, laundered their money by purchasing millions of acres of land in Columbia. They then put together private, right-wing armies to destroy the guerrillas who kidnapped and extorted wealthy ranchers and drug lords. One of the first, and most brutal, paramilitaries was known as “Death to Kidnappers” (“Information” 2).
These paramilitaries, with increased funding from drug
traffickers and landlords, and through open cooperation with the Colombian
military, rapidly grew in strength and size. Their tactics of assassinations,
massacres, and forced displacements of entire populations made them Colombia’s
worst human rights abusers (infocombat 2).
These events had a disastrous effect on the UP. Between the founding of the party
in 1985, and the early 1990s, over 3,500 of the party’s candidates, congress members, mayors, and activists were killed by paramilitary forces (“War” 3). These murders led to the disbanding of the UP and the FARC’s retreat from non-violent, political participation.
In 1984, another paramilitary group, the United
Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUC), was formed under the leadership of
Carlos Castano. This organization quickly became the largest paramilitary group
and acquired an atrocious reputation for human rights violations.
In 1987, as armed conflict once again spread across the country, the FARC and the
ELN, along with smaller guerrilla groups, formed the Simon Bolivar Guerrilla Coordinating Group (CGSB), a banner organization under which the guerrillas negotiated. Peace talks resumed and failed in 1990 and again in 1992.
In 1996, the guerrillas mobilized in major actions against the armed forces. Over
the next year and a half the guerrillas met with significant military success - capturing a
number of army bases and villages, ambushing army patrols, and capturing army soldiers
Present Day Conflict
The FARC has grown to be the hemisphere’s largest guerrilla group, with approximately 18,000 members on almost 70 fronts, along with mobile columns and urban militias - the organization far out shadows the ELN in both size and strength. The FARC is still lead by Manuel Marulanda, and it operates freely in or controls roughly 40 percent of the country (although most of this area is sparsely populated jungles and plains). As it has since its inception, the FARC still advocates widespread social and political reforms (“FARC-EP” 1-3).
The FARC still
finances itself primarily through kidnapping for ransom, extortion, and
involvement in Columbia’s drug trade. They are responsible for the majority of
kidnappings in Colombia, and they received a lot of media attention when, in
2000, they demanded contributions from any Colombian whose assets exceed 1
million dollars (“Information” 3). The Colombian Armed Forces also estimate
that the FARC gets about half of its income (between $200 and $400 million)
from its taxation of cocoa-growers in the area under its control.
The other notable guerrilla organization, the ELN, operates on a much smaller scale then the FARC. The ELN has approximately 3,5000 members (down from 5,000 in
the late 1990s) and primarily engages in attacks on Colombia’s oil sector, which it views
as being dominated by foreign interests. It does not rely on drug trafficking for funding;
instead the ELN relies on kidnapping and extortion to support itself. The ELN has been
involved with the Colombian government in sporadic peace talks since 1999, but have not come to any agreements to end the conflict (“Information” 4).
The Colombian military is comprised of roughly 146,000 soldiers and maintains a very close relationship with the United States. It operates with a great deal of autonomy and has developed a reputation for corruption, human rights abuses, and poor performance on the battlefield. Between 1996 and 1998 the Colombian army suffered a number of defeats at the hands of the FARC guerrillas. However, with the United States support, the armed forces have improved their fighting performance and have since won key victories over the FARC in Sumapaz, in 2000, and in Vichada and Guania, in 2001 (“Information” 2). Though their share of direct involvement in killings and disappearances has fallen sharply in recent years, the armed forces nonetheless continue to face serious allegations of indirect human rights abuse through collaboration with paramilitary groups.
Right-wing paramilitaries have grown increasingly
stronger over the past decade. Fueled by drug money and donations from wealthy
landowners, the paramilitary
organizations have grown to more then 8,000 members. Groups such as the AUC, with approximately 5,000 soldiers, are still notorious for human rights abuses. Paramilitary groups are responsible for about 80 percent of the killings associated with the war in Colombia (“Information” 3). Although the government publicly refuses to recognize the paramilitaries or negotiate with them, allegations of cooperation between the paramilitaries and the Colombian military remain widespread and have been documented by organizations ranging from Human Rights Watch to the United Nations to the US State Department (“Information” 3). Thousands of murders have been accredited to the paramilitary groups, which according to the Center for International Policy, are responsible for about 75 percent of all politically motivated killings and the vast majority of forced displacements in Colombia (“War”). Their victims are not only political opponents, but also homosexuals, prostitutes, criminals, and street kids. It has also been documented that the army directly ordered the most important massacres affected by the paramilitaries, although no leading Colombian military officials have ever been tried for war crimes (“History” 5).
Current Peace Situation
On January 7, 1999 the FARC and the Colombian government launched a new
round of peace talks. As a prerequisite for these negotiations, Andrés Pastrana, president
at the time, ordered the military to pull out of a 42,000 square-mile area and created an
autonomous, demilitarized “safe zone,” that the FARC governed without Colombian
military interference. The talks were sporadic, however, and were unable to accomplish
any terms for peace (“Information” 3-4).
In February of 2002, after several kidnappings of prominent Colombian political
figures by the ELN and the FARC, the three-year peace process in Colombia came to an
end. Pastrana, under political pressure from the conservative elements of his government
and the United States, decided to retake the demilitarized zone ceded to rebel forces. With this decision, Colombia returned to a full-scale civil war, continuing a decades-long cycle of violence.
In May of 2002, right-wing candidate Alvaro Uribe was elected president of
Colombia. A hard-line opponent of the Marxist guerrillas, he has many links with right- wing paramilitaries and he supports stepping up military actions against the revolutionaries. His election ensures that there will be no peaceful resolution to the conflict in the near future (McDermott 1).
In July of 2001, President Bill Clinton signed into law legislation that will give over $1.3 billion in aid to Colombia, its neighbors, and US anti-drug agencies over the next two years. Known as “Plan Colombia,” this was the largest aid package ever granted to Latin America. Of the 1.3 billion dollars, $860.3 million was given to Colombia, of which $642.3 million was specifically for military and police assistance. This aid was added to the $330 million in ongoing military and police aid from the United States to Colombia (“Colombia” 1). This assistance primarily went to arming, funding, and training three newly created battalions for action in the southern Colombian territory of Putumayo, a cocoa-growing region and a FARC stronghold. These battalions received helicopters (16 UH-60 Blackhawks and thirty upgraded UH-1 Hueys), logistical support, training from the US military, and other aid - at a estimated cost of 416.9 million dollars (“Colombia” 1).
The aid package also earmarked $115.6 million to the
Colombian National Police
(CNP), primarily to assist with illicit crop eradication. The US-supported CNP Air
Service, with over sixty helicopters, focuses on poppy eradication by spraying glyphosate
on opium poppy fields. A private US contractor, Dyncorp, is responsible for cocoa
fumigation in Colombia (“Colombia” 2). There is considerable controversy about the social and environment consequences of this fumigation spraying, similar to the concerns about Agent Orange in Vietnam.
The newest aid package, with its focus on arming the military, was a major change
in US foreign policy in Colombia. Before “Plan Colombia,” the vast majority of US aid
went to the Colombian National Police. However, years of aerial herbicide fumigation of
cocoa fields in the north, lead the cultivation of the crop to be moved to southern
Colombia, in the region of Putumayo, as mentioned above. Putumayo, an area in which
the FARC is very active, is considered to dangerous for the CNP. Therefore, the United
States’ new objective is to establish the security conditions needed to implement
counter-drug programs in the area. It is this new military strategy that has lead many critics to fear that the escalation of US involvement in Colombia could lead to another quagmire similar to the Vietnam War. Indeed, the FARC has already classified all US
military trainers as legitimate “military targets” (“Colombia” 5).
Present Day US Involvement
In February of this year, the Bush administration announced it will ask Congress
for $98 million in the 2003 budget to train, arm and provide air support for Colombian
troops to defend the Cano Limon pipeline in Colombia, which is jointly owned by the
Occidental Petroleum Corporation, with headquarters in Los Angeles, and the Colombian state
oil company Ecopetrol (Penhaul 1). This 500 mile long pipeline, in northern Colombia, has been the target of guerrilla acts of sabotage for years. The FARC and the ELN, since 1993, have called for state ownership and control of strategic economic sectors, including the oil industry, and asked that contracts with multinational companies be rescinded or renegotiated. (Penhaul 1).
The Bush administration, as part of this proposal, also wants to scrap requirements
that the Colombian military must observe human rights standards, and end the existing cap on the number of US military personal that can be deployed in Colombia at any one time (Vann 1). The Bush administration is clearly working towards an increased military presence in Colombia, in order to insure the destruction of the leftist guerrillas.
“Colombia Overview.” The Center for International Policy. 2001. 25 November 2002 <http://www.ciponline.org/facts/co.htm>.
“FARC-EP Proposed Agenda.” Cable News Network. 2002. 25 November 2002 <http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2000/colombia.noframes/story/communiques/farc.html>.
“Information About the Combatants.” The Center for International Policy. 27 August 2002. 25 November 2002 <http://www.ciponline.org/colombia/infocombat.htm>.
Penhaul, Karl. “Protection for Oil Pipeline Raises US Profile in Colombia.” Common Dreams News Center. 16 February 2002. 25 November 2002 <http://www.commondreams.org/headlines02/0216-03.htm>.
“Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.” Center for Defense Information. 7 May 2002. 25 November 2002 <http://www.cdi.org/terrorism/farc.cfm>.
Vann, Bill and Rodriguez, Thomas. “Bush’s recipe for Latin America: austerity, repression and more US militarism.” World Socialist Web Site. 28 March 2002. 25 Novmeber 2002 <http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/mar2002/bush-m28.shtml>.
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