Colombia: Paramilitaries, Businesses and the “Truth”
Gearóid Ó Loingsigh
29 July 2022
The Colombian Truth Commission’s (CEV) report Findings and Recommendations aims to be a text that reveals a truth, that up to now was hidden or partially hidden from Colombian society. It is true that in Colombia, after decades of a conflict that began before many of those actually alive were born, along with propaganda from the media, the churches and political parties, there are many aspects that are not well known to everyone. That is not to say that it is a document that reveals or uncovers these truths. If we look at the issue of paramilitaries and how the CEV treats it, various problems with this commission are evident.
It comes out with some truths about the paramilitaries that initially give one hope about the content of the report.
Paramilitarism is not just an armed actor – understood as private armies with terror strategies aimed at the civilian population – but rather a network of interests and alliances also associated with economic, social and political projects that managed to impose an armed territorial control through terror and violence and also through mechanisms to legitimate it, the establishment of rules and norms.(1)It is true that the paramilitaries are more than just massacres, but the CEV not only fails to explain what the interests at stake are, but it gets it back to front about who is in charge and who serves. It inverts the roles many times and though it acknowledges the role the state played, or still plays, the state is presented almost as just another victim of the paramilitaries.
The CEV accepts that the USA played a role in the 1960s.
The recommendations of US missions that visited the country during the administration of Alberto Lleras Camargo (1958-1962) led to Decree 1381 of 1963, Decree 3398 of 1965 and National Defence Law 48 of 1968, through which the involvement of civilians in the armed conflict was institutionalised.(2)But it doesn’t explore this role that much further, it would seem as if various north American governments played no further role than that, that they have not been the one constant factor in the history of the conflict, as if their support to all the Colombian governments, the training of the Colombian military in the School of the Americas did not count for anything, and of course there is Plan Colombia which is dealt with by the report.
Neither do they explore the role of the state that passed those laws. It would seem as if the laws appeared through magic. They accept that paramilitaries enjoyed legal status for a long time, but they put no names to the matter, nor who benefitted from those laws or what were the interests of the presidents and congresspeople involved in passing those laws and decrees. We are told of how Virgilio Barco suspended the legality of the paramilitaries in 1989, but according to the CEV it was revived in practice through the rural security cooperatives known as the Convivir.(3) It is dubious to say that the Convivir were the paramilitaries in practice and not paramilitaries de jure, as it is not the case that these cooperatives were corrupted. It was always the intention to legalise the paramilitaries through this figure and in that, President Cesar Gaviria and his Minister for Defence, Rafael Pardo both of whom signed the degree that brought them to life, played an important role as did President Samper who implemented the decree during his government. These people are not spoken of as promotors of paramilitaries.
To the CEV the paramilitaries are a type of loose cannon, independent of the state, with a life of their own. The ills of the country are the result of the actions of this loose cannon and how it infiltrates the state, the institutions, including the military and how it co-opts spaces.(4)
Thus, the institutionalisation – through various governments – of armed groups legally at the service of private interests, as well as their legitimation from the 1960s show not only the tolerance but also the promotion by state of the outsourcing of public security (bold not in the original). The legal cover and political legitimation have allowed for the maintenance and expansion of the paramilitaries, structures that were co-opted by paramilitary bosses.(5)To the CEV, the paramilitaries were an outsourcing of security to private bodies that went wrong. Dr. Frankenstein thought he was creating life and his creation turned into a monster despite his wishes. Paramilitaries are referred to in this manner throughout the document, they exist and act with the approval of named sectors, but the responsibility does not lie with any known person. They are incapable of saying that Samper and Gaviria legalised the paramilitaries. Samper was fully aware of what the Convivir were and defended them tooth and nail during his government, and lashed out at those who denounced the Convivir as paramilitary structures. Samper never put an end to the Convivir, rather it was the Constitutional Court that declared that they couldn’t use arms reserved for the state’s military, so the paramilitaries had no need to use this cover any more if they couldn’t obtain arms legally.
The paramilitaries were a state policy as can be seen from the laws and decrees enacted, in the promotions of military officers involved in massacres and also in the persecution of social actors, human rights organisations and in a number of cases the systematic murder of witnesses. The CEV talks about these things but does not connect them together as a state policy. It shamelessly accepts the excuses of Uribe that everyone lied to him, the face Santos put on of it wasn’t me, or the “it was all done behind my back” of Samper. A real truth commission would try to tell us not only what happened but who did it (with full names) and also why.
The same complacent attitude it takes with the state is extended to the business people. It talks of interests but does not put a name to them. But thanks to the decades long work of social organisations we can put a name to many of the cases. The CEV doesn’t do that and goes on with its tale of some sectors. But these same sectors have been more honest than the CEV. The CEV names the cattle rancher’s association in Puerto Boyacá, Acdegam, as a key player in the founding of the paramilitary groups.(6) But it does not mention the role played by Texaco. Carlos Medina Gallego in his book Autodefensas, Paramilitares y Narcotráfico in Colombia describes the birth of this group.
The process in the region began with the creation of a private army or paramilitary group to, alongside the army, jointly combat the subversives. This group was set up doing the military mayorship of Captain Oscar Echandía, in a meeting which, in addition to the mayor, was attended by representatives of the Texas Petroleum Company, members of the Cattle Ranchers Committee, political leaders, the Civil Defence, members of the armed forces and other special guests.(7)Neither does it mention the National Federation of Cattle Ranchers, Fedegan. The president of Fedegan, however did acknowledge the role they played. In 2006, in an interview given to Cambio magazine, he said that they had paid paramilitaries, as had others such as flower and rice growers amongst others.(8) Around the same time, 10,000 cattle ranchers, traders and industrialists signed a letter acknowledging and justifying their financing of the paramilitaries.(9)
The CEV describes paramilitarism as something unstable and changeable in nature and that “it has had diverse actors, motives and modus operandi, which leads to difficulties when it comes to trying to come up with a static definition.”(10) Yes, it is true that the paramilitaries have changed over time, as has the army, the state, the political parties, the guerrillas and even society. Nothing stands still, but that doesn’t mean we can’t come up with an approximation of what it is, taking into account the variables. That is what the study of history, politics and also any branch of knowledge is about. So, the CEV doesn’t describe the paramilitaries as a state policy, not because it is a changing phenomenon, but rather because it doesn’t want to. It deals with various paramilitary forms and leaves out one very clear telling example: the AAA (American Anti-Communist Alliance).
The AAA was a paramilitary structure founded by the commanders of the Charry Solano Battalion, amongst them Lieutenant Colonel Harold Bedoya, who would later become the commander of the armed forces. The existence of such a paramilitary structure operating within the battalion was public knowledge as five soldiers reported it to the presidency, the Procurator, the Organisation of American States and the news was even published in the Mexican press. This structure is not mentioned in the CEV report.
Another paramilitary structure that is dealt with partially in the report is the 07 Naval Intelligence Network. However, it does not delve into the reality of the Network and the significance of its activity as a state policy.
The case of the 07 Naval Intelligence Network based in Barrancabermeja that operated in part of Bolívar and Cesar stands out due to the seriousness of it. According to the ordinary criminal justice system, the network functioned as a powerful “death squad” with logistical means, personnel trained to kill and was responsible for dozens of murders, forced disappearances and massacres whose victims were mainly trade unionists, politicians, community leaders and activists. The network financed paramilitaries using secret funds.(11)But the network was the paramilitary structure par excellence. Despite the CEV’s quote, they do not go into great detail as the issue cannot be dealt with and conclude that it was just some functionaries and not the military unit as such. The Network murdered at least 68 people, though some estimates put the figure of 430. The soldiers implicated were exonerated by the commander in chief of the official armed forces of the state, General Fernando Tapias. To the CEV this is just another case of rotten apples. But, can 60 years of violence be explained as the result of the actions of some soldiers, some politicians, some business people? We are talking about tens of thousands of dead, tortured, disappeared and the outcome follows from the actions of some… and not from a state policy.
…the paramilitary phenomenon has maintained a role in components of the state such as the armed forces, security and intelligence agencies, collegiate state bodies (Congress, assemblies and councils), judicial institutions and oversight bodies, as well as economic sectors such agri-industrial, extractive industries, public servants and candidates in elections. It has also permeated sectors of the church and the media. Without the close link between this body of sectors and the armed paramilitaries, this phenomenon would not have unleashed the deep wounds that it inflicted nor would it have lasted as long.(12)There are no policies here, no state backed dirty war but rather a compendium of massacres carried out by blood thirsty types that co-opted everyone else, i.e. Colombia is an open-air lunatic asylum.
Politicians and functionaries were another sector that was widely implicated in the paramilitary plan to “penetrate all political power: mayors, councillors, deputies, governors, congress people from the zones that we managed […] ultimately, regional powers that together guaranteed a national power for the self defence groups”. The relationship between politics and paramilitaries went in both directions as many politicians and functionaries in turn sought out the commanders of the paramilitary groups to benefit from their armed power.(13)In this repugnant discourse, the paramilitaries are the ones who penetrate the state and some politicians seek them out, the paramilitaries are not a counter-insurgency strategy of the state nor a policy to implement “development” projects they want, but rather the excuse is “the paramilitaries made us do it”. It comes across like crying children trying to blame the other for breaking the window, but they are not broken windows, rather tens of thousands of broken bodies. And the CEV does not want to blame who it should. It accepts that the state played a role, but limits it to individual behaviour and private interests but not part of a strategy.
Not even the genocide committed against the Patriotic Union (UP) is seen as a state policy, once again the state is a victim of the paramilitaries. The CEV describes it in the following terms.
It was during the attempts at a democratic aperture and the peace policies of the government of Belisario Betancur (1982-1986). It is in this context the paramilitary network from Puerto Boyacá sought to contain the democratic and peace initiatives through systematic violence (persecution, extermination and displacement) against members of left wing political groups such as the Patriotic Union and the Communist Party, trade unionists and social leaders.(14)The reality is that no one expected the UP to be successful and the oligarchy took fright and responded as it always does: with violence. The extermination of the UP was not an attempt to contain supposed democratic measures from President Betancur, but rather an attempt to suppress a left-wing political group. The CEV forgets that Betancur allowed the military to attack and burn the Palace of Justice in 1985, which was only a few metres from the Presidential Palace. He was not a just man whose peace initiatives were undermined by the unjust.
Lastly, we should look at how they describe the business people.
The economic agents were a key part of the paramilitary web. Some national and international business people, local and regional economic powers and productive sectors supported them in different ways because they had interests in the war.(15)We shouldn’t be surprised that the CEV, led by the favourite child of the bourgeoisie reaches such conclusions. De Roux wrote an executive summary of the report before he even formally took up the job of president of the CEV. In March 2017, shortly before he began working for the CEV he wrote a column in the El Tiempo newspaper with a simple headline I ask for forgiveness.(16) The column makes various assertions, amongst which the following stand out.
I incur in a generalisation when I write that the paramilitaries were financed by businesspeople. When, in truth, some paramilitary groups were financed by businesses, whilst the majority of women and men to whom we owe the production of goods and services in this country did not finance the paramilitaries.(17)That is to say, as the CEV report does, that it was only some of them. He continues with another assertion that some of them did it as a response to guerrilla violence, repeating one of the great lies of the business associations and the state about the nature of paramilitarism.
Others out of rage, following the kidnapping and payment of the ransom, supported the AUC to attack the kidnappers. Others did so because they didn’t trust the state’s security forces.(18)And lastly, this little gem which reduces the dirty war to the behaviour of just some.
I must also acknowledge that I have been unfair when I have generalised about soldiers and police officers in Colombia. I admit that I have an intellectual and emotive abhorrence of weapons on all sides. I am a follower of Jesus who once and for all separated God from all wars and preached efficient non-violence. But I know there have been many and increasing numbers of men and women in the Armed Forces who see service to the homeland as a service to the dignity and rights of every human being and the collective good of peace.(19)A question arises. Given that De Roux through his column outlined an executive summary of the future report of the CEV, why did he not save us time, money and the effort by writing, on his own, a report 100% to his liking? It would have had the advantage of not selling false hopes to the victims of the conflict.
(1) CEV (2022) Hallazgos y Propuestas. CEV p.296
(2) Ibíd., p.303
(3) Ibíd., pp 304 y 305
(4) Ibíd., p.299
(5) Ibíd., p.305
(6) Ibíd., p.310
(7) Medina Gallego, C. (1990) Autodefensas, Paramilitares y Narcotráfico en Colombia. Editorial Documentos Periodisticos. Bogotá p.173
(8) El Cambio No 704 diciembre 2006/enero 2007 Diez Preguntas (Entrevista con José Félix Lafaurie) p.48
(9) El Espectador (17/12/2006) La hora de los ganaderos, p. 2A
(10) CEV (2022) Op. Cit. P.296
(11) Ibíd., p.502
(12) Ibíd., p.299
(13) Ibíd., pp. 345 & 346
(14) Ibíd., p.310
(15) Ibíd., p. 350
(16) Francisco de Roux (01/03/2017) Pido perdón https://www.eltiempo.com/archivo/documento/CMS-16832051