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Peace in Colombia:  Reality, Myth and Wishful Thinking

Lara Montesinos Coleman and Gearóid Ó Loingsigh (1)

Brighton and Bogotá, April 2013

In a situation that will be familiar to  Irish militants, the peace process in Colombia has spawned an academic industry;  British Academics for a Colombia Under Peace (BACUP) that is only to willing to uncritically endorse a settlement that does nothing to meet the needs of the workers. This has led to a counteranalysis from a working class perspective that we publish below. - Editor 

The peace process in Colombia has aroused interest in the country once again.  Aid agencies, government bodies and academics are re-engaging with the internal armed conflict and with the prospects for an end to the insurgencies of the FARC-EP and the ELN.  Much of the commentary and analysis is a mixture of old myths about the nature of the conflict and wishful, if not woolly, thinking.  One such example of this is the recent policy briefing by Matt Ince and Andrei Gómez-Suarez Ending Colombia’s Internal Conflict: Prospects for Peace with the FARC and Beyond.

The paper sounds a cautious note at the beginning stating that “The Santos-FARC peace talks therefore remain a dynamic highly uncertain process and despite cautious optimism, the establishment of a meaningful peace agreement is still by no means guaranteed.” It then proceeds to throw caution to the wind, outlining a series of reasons for optimism that either ignore or distort the nature of the conflict. This is perhaps to be expected.  International experience of peace processes indicates that in the name of “peace” - which is never defined, but is presumed to be a lack of armed activity by anyone other than state agents - critical faculties are abandoned and reality is twisted to meet a political agenda.  Academics or activists who point out the shortcomings of the process are accused of being in favour of further violence.  It is, however, necessary to address the reality of the conflict and of the interests involved.  No amount of wishful thinking can overcome the reality of a murderous regime or the game of smoke and mirrors at play in the “peace” process.

In this article, we consider the various points raised by Ince and Gómez-Suarez.  We begin by addressing six reasons they set out for optimism (optimism for a demobilisation, not for an meaningful agrarian reform or an end to the country’s appalling poverty and inequality). We go on to comment upon the “challenges” to peace that Ince and Gómez-Suarez identify, alongside the recommendations they make for “balancing” these.

Six reasons for optimism: between myth and wishful-thinking

The FARC’s willingness to seek social change through negotiation

Ince and Gómez-Suarez contend that the involvement of the FARC in negotiations is a sign of their realisation that their “agenda for social change cannot be achieved by armed struggle alone” (our emphasis).  The FARC have actually engaged in repeated negotiations and contacts with governments since the 1980s, even having some contact with the Uribe regime.  The current initiative, however, is a result of the FARC having been – by their own measure of success - defeated on a number of levels.(2) The difference is subtle but important. Militarily, as Ince and Gómez-Suarez recognize, the FARC have lost key areas and been reduced from 20,000 to 8,000 members. However, the significance of this lies in the Stalinist and militarist nature of the organisation.  It is far from insignificant that he FARC declared themselves to be the “People's Army” when they added the initials EP (Army of the People) to their name in 1982: there was one people and one army that represented it, whether the people wanted it or not.  This, in turn, led to the conflict with the smaller guerrilla grouping of the ELN in 2007, a bloody battle that the FARC lost very dramatically in the department of Arauca, where FARC members from other parts refused to go to replace their dead comrades.  After their dramatic expansion during the 1990’s the FARC had considered themselves militarily invincible.  Yet the politics of that expansion – which was based on access to money from the taxes levied on coca production – had mattered little.  The aim was to fall on Bogotá and by the year 2000 they had fronts surrounding the capital alongside a strong front in the city itself.  Given their emphasis on militarily defeating the Colombian State and neglecting political work, it is unsurprising that now, having suffered major defeats, they have decided to negotiate.  They are the bigger guerrilla grouping because of a military expansion that took place at the expense of any political work.  This must inspire caution with regard to the role of the FARC’s “agenda for social change” in the current process.

The international climate

The authors also argue that the current international climate is more conducive to peace talks.  This tells us nothing about the nature or relevance of this conjuncture.  In the early 1990s the Colombian guerrilla group M-19 demobilised, shortly before the demobilization of El Salvador’s FMLN.  This was followed by demobilisations in Colombia by the EPL, PRT, Quintin Lame and the Current for Socialist Renovation (a dissident faction of the ELN) as well as the subsequent demobilisation of the URNG in Guatemala.  Why did the FARC not demobilise then? The difference now is that the FARC are isolated internationally. The revolutions in Guatemala and El Salvador have been defeated, the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua was also defeated in the early 90s (with the Sandinistas later returned on a weaker programme, under the leadership of Daniel Ortega – turned into a corrupt social democrat). The pink tide that has swept Latin America has shown itself to be progressive on certain issues, but retrograde on others such as the extractive industries. There are no triumphant revolutions, but rather a series of governments that do not share the Colombian insurgencies’ goal of breaking with capitalism and which engage in Real Politik all the time, particularly on Colombia. That is one part of the international climate that is conducive to surrender.

Secondly, it is impossible to comprehend the international climate at this juncture without addressing the economic interests and historical record of those states now supporting President Santos in his desire to reach a negotiated settlement. Let us not forget that it was the US who, in 1928 – long before the formation of Colombia’s left wing insurgencies - threatened invasion if the Colombian government did not take action to protect the interests of the United Fruit Company during a strike of Colombian banana workers.  The result was the massacre of at least 1,000 workers and their families.  The guerrilla organisations that formed in the mid-1960’s did so in the context of a genocidal anti-communism, as the US went on to back a “dirty-war” that gave state forces the green light to “exterminate social workers, trade unionists and those who [were] not supportive of the establishment”.(3) From the early 1960’s, just prior to the formation of the FARC and ELN, the US implemented a brutal counter-insurgency policy, Plan Lazo, with an emphasis upon "paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents".(4)  In line with this, a “dirty war” strategy subsequently afforded state forces “the right to … exterminate social workers, trade unionists and those who are not supportive of the establishment”.(5)  Armed civilians were incorporated into these counter-insurgency efforts from the start.  Much larger paramilitary forces were later formed and trained by army battalions, to become the perpetrators of more than twelve thousand political killings during the 1980’s (by conservative estimates). The 1991 military intelligence reorganisation plan, Order 200-05/91 was written by the Colombian military in conjunction with a US Defense Department and CIA team.  This further integrated paramilitaries into the army’s intelligence mechanisms under the direct orders of the military high command. The result was the creation “of killer networks that identified and killed civilians suspected of supporting guerrillas”.(6) 

US Foreign Policy objectives remained largely unaltered in the post-Cold War period, remaining “the preservation and defence of a (neo)-liberal international order and the destruction of social forces or states considered inimical to this order”.(7)  Using declassified information, documentation from US government agencies and human rights reports, Doug Stokes has shown how the US continued to fund and support counterinsurgency in Colombia, with the only significant differences being been the shift in rhetoric from “anti-communism” to “counter-drugs” and “counter-terrorism”.(8)  Numerous multinational corporations – operating in many cases in conjunction with US or British private security companies - have also been complicit in the armed repression of social forces representing a threat to a neoliberal economic order.  Well-documented allegations have been made against BP; Coca-Cola; Drummond; Occidental Petroleum, Chiquita Brands and many other companies.(9)  Chiquita has even admitted to paying $1.7 million to paramilitaries between 1997 and 2004, as well as to supplying paramilitaries with weapons. According to the Colombian Attorney General, these payments led to the murder of 4000 civilians.(10)

Why, then, the current support for “peace”?  This should be understood not only in the context of the military defeat of the FARC but also – very importantly – as the consolidation of the political and economic project pursued through armed counter-insurgency in Colombia.  In the 1990’s, paramilitarism was to become central to the imposition of a neoliberal economic model across Colombia. By the second half of the 1990s, they began to take over entire regions of the country, carrying out massacres and selective killings of those groups and individuals deemed an obstacle to a neoliberal model of development.  Statements of paramilitaries involved in executing this strategy have been explicit about the logic of this.  For example, in the resource-rich Magdalena Medio region, one of the first regions to be subject to paramilitary takeover, paramilitaries broke up the equipment of small-scale miners, saying that they were going to hand over the mines to those who “would make more rational use of them” and stated that they had come in the name of development and “to look after the investment made by the State and the multinationals”.(11)  Carlos Castaño, one of the commanders of what was then Colombia’s largest paramilitary group, described a three-stage strategy along these lines.(12)  First came the forced displacement of peasants and the confiscation of territory from those deemed to be supporters of the insurgency, a concentration of landholdings, and the prevention of any social initiative that was outside of paramilitary control. A second phase involved development initiatives aimed at “bringing wealth to the region”, now carried out with the more explicit backing of state institutions such as the Colombian Institute for Agrarian Reform (renamed Colombian Institute for Rural Development). Paramilitaries have even set up NGOs to oversee these development projects, many of which have ended up managing funds from international development cooperation, even as the killings continued.(13)  The final phase was “legitimation and consolidation” of the paramilitary model.  As Colombian economist Libardo Sarmiento puts it, once potentially subversive elements of the population have been eliminated and their support bases destroyed, “the paramilitaries believe they will cease to be a ‘loose cannon of the State’.  There they will have put in place the necessary structures for the victorious expansion of national and multinational capitalism and the ‘modernising’ State will be able to install itself with the cooperation of the private sector, non-governmental organisations and the ‘organised’ communities”(14) 

International support for “peace” in Colombia has to be understood in this context: as the consolidation of the model imposed by these means.  This is particularly evident in ongoing European Union efforts toward peacebuilding in Colombia. Significant here have been the regional Peace Laboratories, a joint project between the Colombian government and the European Union (in association with the World Bank and national and multinational corporations), established to ‘explore … the paths which Colombian society must go down in order to reach peace and generate sustainable development’.(15) Chris Pattern, as EU Commissioner for External Relations, announced the first Peace Laboratory in the Magdalena Medio as paramilitaries were consolidating their stronghold in the region.  In the same communiqué he noted the EU’s economic interest in a country where FDI amounted to 880 million euros in 1999, declaring that large amounts of capital would only enter the country if there was stability.(16)   Unsurprisingly, the model of development promoted in the Peace Laboratory is very much in continuity with the emphasis upon competitive “social capital” and export-oriented agricultural production promoted by NGOs that flourished in the wake of the paramilitary take-over. A key focus, for example, has been the production of African Palm, with farmers pushed in the direction of “strategic alliances” with corporations, where they alone are responsible for the costs of production and exposed to the risk of falling prices.(17) 

Indeed, the logic of the Peace Laboratories is very much in line with the international peacebuilding orthodoxy that emerged from the late 1990’s, focused on “the promotion of the orthodoxy of neo-liberalism, ‘good’ governance reforms, and the use of aid conditionality or selectivity to encourage conformity”(18), while minimising the destabilising effects of neoliberalisation. Rather than being a source of optimism, then, international support for the “peace” process should raise further questions about what sort of “peace” is at stake in these negotiations.  A “peace” that is predatory upon what has been achieved through years of state and parastate repression of the population would provide little cause for celebration.

The internal economic outlook

The authors then proceed to look at more internal factors favouring the “peace” process, claiming that the current economic outlook puts Colombia in a position to fund agreements reached with the FARC.  We make two observations on this.  First, the current outlook is based on an agro-exporting model of cash crops and the current wholesale plunder of the mineral wealth of the country.  Both of these are short term, particularly the mining boom, and both have serious consequences for the Colombian people, including land concentration and forced displacement through paramilitary violence and the dispossession of peasant farmers.(19)  The effects of the mining boom also include some of the highest rates of poverty in the country in mining regions, deleterious consequences for the health of populations living around the mines, widespread environmental damage and huge financial losses for the government in favour of multinationals holding the mining licences(20).  If the current economic situation is viewed as a positive, this negates any demands on agrarian reform or on the thousands of mining licences currently held by multinationals.(21)  

Secondly, however, there is another more worrying political aspect to what is implied by Ince and Gómez-Suarez: that the reason for not coming through on past agreements was a lack of money.  Here we refer not only to peace agreements with guerrilla groups but also to the more than five hundred agreements signed with peasant organisations in the 1990s and in the early part of this century.  These were either completely ignored, as with the agreement signed in 1998 with the peasants in southern Bolivar, or partially met, as with the agreement with peasants in Cauca and Nariño in 1999.(22)  The politics of the Colombian State’s routine failure to adhere to the terms of previous agreements can be seen most clearly with the demobilisation of M-19. The much-celebrated gain of this peace process was the formation of a Constituent Assembly, resulting in the 1991 National Constitution (famed for the array of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights afforded citizens).  The ink was hardly dry on the parchment, however, and the Colombian oligarchy were already trying to change or undermine the new Constitution.  One example is Transitory Article 55, which gave rise to Law 70 of 1993.  The purpose of the law was to give legal protection to the cultural rights of the black communities and to recognise their control over and right to their collective territories.  While they were given land on the pacific coast, all attempts to gain control over lands they had lived on, or had been forced off, in the Inter-Andean valleys were rejected.  These lands were in the hands of families belonging to Colombia's oligarchy, many of them with family members in the Congress.  On the pacific coast, even today, the communities are still fighting to gain control over their collective lands.(23)  None of this is “economic” in the sense that it resulted from a lack of government funds.  Rather, it must be attributed to other “economic” factors, namely the desire to uphold existing structures of power, wealth and privilege. In addition, collective land titles that have been recognised have been undermined by other legislation.  For example, the communities own the land, but they have little or no say in stopping the mining multinationals coming in.  Not even the right to be consulted in compliance with Convention 169 of the ILO has any effect.  The government maintains that the right of consultation does not mean the communities can veto or stop a mining project from going ahead.  Likewise, while the new Constitution recognized numerous labour rights (including those to collective organisation, stable employment, adequate rest and social security) and committed the government to redacting a new Labour Statute that would give weight to Colombia’s ratification of ILO Conventions, the State failed to fulfill its commitments, instead passing legislation that only served to further undermine the rights enshrined within the Constitution.(24) There are numerous other examples, but the point is that the experience of past agreements would indicate that the current economic conjuncture has no bearing upon the nature or outcome of the discussions, nor upon the willingness of the government to live up to any agreement the reach.  

In addition to these points, we must note a remarkable distortion of the facts in Ince and Gómez-Suarez’s statement that “The recent Victims and Land Restitution Law have also provided a good basis for a meaningful negotiating process, as, in contrast to previous peace negotiations, the government now has 3 million hectares of land in its possession to implement agrarian reform.” (emphasis added).  This is quite patently false. The land referred to by the Land Restitution Law is emphatically not for “agrarian reform”. It is land that was stolen from the peasants and which the law theoretically seeks to return to its rightful owners.  

The authors not only misrepresent the return of stolen property as “agrarian reform”, they also evade discussion of the problematic nature of the Land Restitution Law itself.  The government does not simply hand land back.  There is a lengthy legal process to go through, where the burden of proof is placed on the peasant reclaiming the land.  Having proved their case the peasants, in order to access the land, have to agree to plant cash crops, such as African Palm, sugar cane, rubber, cocoa, and even certain vegetables for the European market such as asparagus, which do not form part of the Colombian diet.  In order to grow these cash crops the peasants must take out a loan from a state body such as FINAGRO.  So, the land is not given to them, it is handed over subject to a series of conditions which include assuming a debt in order to meet the governments agro-exporting plans.

However, this is not the only difficulty.  Article 99 of Law 1448 of 2011 (the Land Restitution Law) is very clear about the circumstances under which the land can be handed back.  It states in no uncertain terms that where the new occupier acted in “good faith” and has implemented an agroindustrial project (palm or rubber for example) then the occupier may continue to exploit the land upon signing an agreement with the peasant.  The peasant will receive economic compensation and will continue to be recognised as the lawful owner but not the legal usufructuary.  It must be remembered that it is up to the peasant to prove that the occupier acted in bad faith.

In cases where there is an agroindustrial project on the land and the peasant has proved the occupier's bad faith, this still does not mean that land is automatically returned.  The same Article 99 states that the magistrate who is dealing with the case may hand the land over to the Special Adminstrative Unit for the Management and Restitution of Stolen Lands in order that it “exploit the land through a third party and set aside the produce of the project for collective reparations programs for victims in the neighbourhood of the plot of land.”  So peasants do not get their land back even when bad faith on the part of the occupier is proven. In the next line of Article 99, the law states that the magistrate will “ensure the protection of the rights of the parties and that they obtain an adequate economic retribution.”  To be clear about this, the parties in this context are the thief and the victim.  They will both receive adequate economic compensation.  Why would a thief be compensated through a law that seeks to hand back land to the victims?  Because, as is always the case in Colombia, it is the economic model that counts, not the individual citizen, and no uppity peasant will be allowed to get in the way of the agro-exporting model (the very model that Ince and Gómez-Suarez appear to think will allow the government pay for the peace agreement).

Common ground on rural development and drugs

Ince and Gómez-Suarez’s fourth reason for optimism is that “[m]any positive reports from both the FARC and the Colombian government negotiators highlight the fact that the two parties have found common ground in relation to rural development and illegal narcotics”. We must exercise caution here. The negotiations take place behind closed doors and, beyond bland statements on the points on the agenda in Havana, only the FARC-EP and governmental delegates are fully aware of what is actually being discussed.  It wasn't until Friday, March 1st that Humberto de la Calle, the chief negotiator for the State announced to the media that they had made advances on the land issue.  The details were sketchy.  Much of what we know is from reporters talking to their contacts, who feed them what they want them to know.  Until such time as there is a final agreement, we will not know the details and we will never know how the deal was reached.  It is in the State's interest that there be no debate at this stage.  Tactically it suits them to present a fait acompli rather than discuss things as they proceed.  The secrecy also suits the FARC, as they may claim that it was all they could get.

Nonetheless, following on from their previous positive assessment of the prospects for agrarian reform, the authors hail as an advance that “whereas the FARC previously opposed the existence of all large rural estates, known as latifundios, now they appear to be more focused on estates that are unproductive or unused.”  If this is the case, then it means that the FARC have given up on agrarian reform, their principal raison d'être for the last fifty years.  De la Calle’s announcement on March 1st referred to progress on programmes to recover lands illegally held by individuals and groups and would thus seem to confirm the authors’ contention.  However, far from being a cause for optimism, this is only further cause for concern. Colombia has one of the most unequal distributions of land in the world. The problem, however, is not the land held by illegal groups, but the vast stretches of land in the hands of the country’s leading families, amongst them the legislators. Confiscating land held illegally by paramilitaries or drug barons has been on the Statute books for some time. While it is welcome, it is not the solution to inequality in land distribution. Furthermore, due to a lack of political will, even this timid measure has never been properly implemented and nothing indicates that this might change.

There is little or no consolation in a focus upon “unproductive” farms as much of the land owned by Colombia’s oligarchy is likely to be good agricultural land and productive to some degree, even if only through extensive cattle ranching. To get a sense of what is at stake here, it is necessary to look at inequality in land distribution in more depth. Very different figures are frequently quoted, most of them correct.  The difference does not lie in the figures, but rather in how they are used.  If you look at farms bigger than 100 or 200 hectares you get a very different figure than if you only look at farms that are bigger than 2,000 hectares.  Many academics use lower range figures and therefore they come up with a greater number of individuals who might be asked to give up their land as part of an agrarian reform.  The cut off point is key, as illustrated by a study carried out for the Colombian Sociedad Geográfica, using data from 2001.  If we count farms of over one 100 hectares we find that 107,593 people own 49,427,991 hectares i.e. 459 hectares each, which does not seem that excessive.  If we count farms of over 200 hectares we find that the number of owners falls to 48,218 controlling 44,260,929 hectares, almost a thousand hectares each.  However, if we just look at the farms over and above 2,000 hectares we see that just 3,639 people own 31,631,308 hectares, an area of land equivalent to the size of Britain and Ireland put together and representing 47% of all rural lands, excluding natural parks, indigenous and black collective lands.(25)  These figures were compiled for the Sociedad Geográfica by the Subdirector of the Cadastre (Property Register) of the Instituto Geografico Agustín Codazzi which, like the Sociedad Geográfica, is an official state body, not some leftwing think tank that could be accused of exaggerating the situation.  According to a recent study commissioned by the Instituto Geografico Agustín Codazzi, land concentration has increased in the period between 2000 and 2010. Whereas in 2000, 75.7% of land was in the hands of just 13.6% of landowners, by 2010 these figures increased to 77.6% in the hands of 13.7%.(26)  Given such a panorama, the fact that FARC have abandoned their opposition to the large estates is not a cause for “optimism”, but one of the most depressing aspects of the process.  A substantive agrarian reform could be achieved affecting the situation of just 3,639 oligarchs. Meanwhile more then two million peasants live on less than 1.3 million hectares. This injustice is central to the conflict in Colombia(27) and no amount of tinkering with confiscation of illegally held or unproductive land will resolve it

Everything would indicate a lack of political will to deal with inequality of land distribution. With regard to illegal narcotics, however, presumed “common ground” is of limited political significance because the Colombian government is not the final arbiter in the matter.  It may seek to allow some coca growing for medicinal use as the authors say. However, it is the International Narcotics Control Board at the UN which decides where legal opium and coca growing for medicinal purposes may take place.  Countries then apply to the INCB stating their requirements and permission to buy that legal opium and coca.  The Single Convention of 1961 binds Colombia on the drugs issue.  Non-compliance would have the following consequences:

1) the suppression of 50% of bilateral aid, with the exception of some humanitarian and drug control aid; 2) a negative vote for loans in six international financial bodies, including the IDB and the World Bank; and 3) denial to US exporters of access to Export-Import Bank credits to finance sales to the country in question and refusal to investors of access to Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) credit.(28)
To be blunt about it, it is not in the Colombian State's gift to offer anything in the way of drug reform.  That depends on the INCB and ultimately the United States.

Unity within the FARC

The authors' fifth reason for optimism is that the FARC seem to be a unified organisation with the Secretariat being able to exercise real control over the different guerrilla fronts.  This is not that relevant to the politics of the “peace” process that they espouse.  It simply means that they may be able to deliver most of their combatants quietly and, if necessary, betray the remaining elements by giving information to the State.

“Anti-corruption” measures: obscuring State complicity

Ince and Gómez-Suarez’s sixth reason for optimism, however, is even more alarming and depressing than their espousal of limited or no agrarian reform.  They state that:

Despite evidence that some organised crime elements remain within the Colombian security sector and that there are still links between illegal criminal actors and security forces, recent government efforts to implement anti-corruption mechanisms suggest that it is now more likely to track members of the armed forces who give backing to neo-paramilitary groups or divert resources to private groups who take the law into their own hands.
Their statement flies in the face of everything human rights groups have said about the nature of the State's relationship with paramilitary groupings. It is not just a case of some “organised crime elements and, in the face of recent history, it would be quite absurd to suggest that the State is suddenly concerned at the murder of its own citizens. We shall deal with this latter point first as the False Positives scandal is still fresh in the mind of most people and it is noteworthy that President Santos was Minster for Defence at the time. The so-called False Positives referred to the extrajudicial killings of civilians, who were often subsequently dressed in guerrilla uniform and who were declared evidence of success in the State’s war against the insurgency. The phenomenon was best described by Phillip Alston the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings as the premeditated murder of civilians for profit.  Alston, as is wont of a diplomat, said that he had not found evidence that this was part of a strategy on the part of the Colombian State. He stated that “[a]lthough it appears that these so-called falsos positivos  (false positives) were not carried out as a matter of State policy, they were also  not isolated occurrences. The killings were committed around the country and by a large number of military units.”(29) (our emphasis).  However, even the UN Special Rapporteur was explicit that he did not accept the “few bad apples theory” promulgated by many in government.  In his press statement given on his last day in Colombia he stated that “The sheer number of cases, their geographic spread, and the diversity of military units implicated, indicate that these killings were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military” (our emphasis).(30)  Again, we are not talking about a few criminal elements.  For example, the logistics involved in transporting a large number of youths from Soacha to El Catatumbo near the Venezuelan border, where they were subsequently killed, requires permits and assistance going right up through the ranks.  It cannot be ignored that it was official policy to pay soldiers premiums according to their body count (the Rapporteur references the legislation in the area). It is true that the premiums also applied to captures of insurgents, but it is more complicated to hand in an innocent person alive.  The dead however, do not proclaim their innocence.  These premiums were sanctioned and awarded by the current President, Juan Manuel Santos, in his capacity as Minister for Defence.  By the year 2009, the Prosecutor's Office acknowledged that there were at least 2,077 False Positives, amongst them 59 minors.(31)  All of these murders generated a payment from the State.  At the time, neither Santos nor then-president Uribe, acknowledged any such problem, nor has the State prosecuted even a significant number of the cases.

The idea that the State is actively pursuing the numerous perpetrators of gross human rights violations within the ranks of the armed forces is contradicted, for example, by the recent case taken to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in which the Colombian State has declared that there are no “disappeared” people from the 1985 siege of the Palace of Justice after its occupation by members of the M-19 guerrilla,(32) as well as by recent legislative measures – discussed below – that risk further deepening the climate of impunity for perpetrators within the armed forces.  It is also contradicted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose January 2013 report stated, in relation to the False Positives that “[g]iven the scope of the false positives crisis, too few of those responsible have been removed from service or prosecuted. High ranking officials linked to these human rights crimes remain in active service and continue to be promoted.”(33) (our emphasis).  The report went further to state that:

75. The Attorney General’s Office has accumulated complaints, including 4,716 victims of homicide presumably perpetrated by members of the security forces, many of these false positive–type executions. Of all homicide investigations, only 30 per cent report procedural activity. Of these active cases, the great majority have not passed the preliminary criminal investigation stage: over 60 per cent (about 1,000) of the active cases are in the preliminary exploration phase (which precedes the formal investigation stage); and 294 cases had reached the trial/sentencing phase by August 2012. Given the nature of these crimes by State actors, as time passes, the capacity to establish criminal responsibility in these cases fades and impunity becomes systemic.(34)

The UN is a most cautious organisation in the language it uses to criticise governments.  But there is no doubting the actual situation.  There is no reason to presume that the Colombian State has any interest in prosecuting what Ince and Gómez-Suarez term those “criminal elements” within the Army and, even by the evidence of the UN, there is no reason to believe that the State is now “more likely to track members of the armed forces who give backing to neo-paramilitary groups or divert resources to private groups who take the law into their own hands”, as we discuss in more depth below in relation to the problem of impunity.

There are serious implications to Ince and Gómez-Suarez’s contentions on this issue. Most peace processes engage in a rewriting of history.  It is considered necessary to blur or erase any responsibility of the State in the conflict as, once the agreement is signed, the State is deemed not only to be legitimate but to always have been so and to have always acted accordingly.  Ince and Gómez-Suarez have lent their hand to this exercise.  Implicit in their statement is that the State is not responsible, but rather that the problem lies with individual criminal elements within the Armed Forces.  This flies in the face of the arguments of Human Rights groups going back over four decades and ignores every report filed by them, every killing, every promotion of officers linked to these killings.

In addition, while our previous discussion of dirty war tactics in Colombia focused on the role of the US, it must also be underscored that the Colombian State itself was central to the promotion of paramilitarism and gave a legal basis for the formation of paramilitary groups.  In this regard, it is worth quoting at length the renowned human rights defender, Jesuit priest Javier Giraldo:

Up to 1989, the legal substantiation for the proliferation of paramilitary civilian armed groups coordinated by the Army was found in paragraph 3 of Article 33 of Decree 3398 of 1965. This was converted into permanent legislation by Law 48 of 1968. This principle authorized the Ministry of National Defense “by conduct of authorized commanders to support, when it considers convenient, as if private property, arms which are considered as being of a private use of the Armed Forces.”(35)
Giraldo goes on the explain the purpose of such actions.
Paramilitarism becomes, then, the keystone of a strategy of “Dirty War,” where the “dirty” actions cannot be attributed to persons on behalf of the State because they have been delegated, passed along or projected upon confused bodies of armed civilians. Those committing the crimes are anonymous and easily definable as common delinquents who act and thereafter disappear into the fog. This covers up responsibility for acts which have no legal justification or legitimacy, not even during times of warlike confrontations. The result is that they confound and complement two types of events: actions of military officers camouflaged as civilians and military action of civilians protected in a clandestine way by military personnel. Both types of procedures have the same objective: to provide impunity through cover ups.(36)
Law 48 was eventually declared unconstitutional in 1989. However, the State did not give up.  César Gaviria of the Liberal Party who came to power in 1990 issued a decree in his final year of government creating the Rural Security Cooperatives, Las Convivir, giving yet another legal facade to the paramilitaries, a policy which was subsequently implemented by President Samper and his then underling, Alvaro Uribe, as Governor of the department of Antioquia.  These were in turn eventually found to be unconstitutional and, during his own term as President, Uribe replaced them with the short-lived experiment of Peasant Soldiers.  Even the UN High Commissioner Mary Robinson has had to state quite clearly that 
... the Colombian State bears undeniable historical responsibility for the origin and development of paramilitarism, which was protected by law from 1965 to 1989.  Although the so-called “self-defence groups were then declared unconstitutional, 10 years have passed and they have not been dismantled.  In the same historical context, the military forces bear special responsibility because they were in charge of promoting, selecting, organizing, training, arming and providing logistical support to the ‘self-defence groups’ during the long period they were protected by law in the general framework of support for the security forces in their struggle against the guerrillas.(37)
It is to be noted that the high-ranking military officers involved in paramilitary groups such as the then Major Harold Bedoya were promoted.(38)  Bedoya would eventually become the commander of the Armed Forces.  It should be pointed out that promotion to the rank of Colonel and above requires approval by Congress, so the long list of military officers that have made it to that rank did so with the consent and approval of the Colombian Congress.  We could go on at length here, but suffice to say that the paramilitary phenomenon is not reducible to some “criminal elements”.  The role of the State in the murder of its own citizens cannot be ignored, though it is the first demand made on the victims, that they accept the bonafides of the State.  Where Ince and Gómez-Suarez get their optimism from we do not know. 

Challenges and proposals

Ince and Gómez-Suarez proceed to enumerate four potential stumbling blocks to the peace process and a series of related proposals.  Here too we find some remarkably wooly thinking alongside a recurrent tendency to obscure the record of the Colombian state

The challenge of the “bandas criminals”

One recommendation is that the government “ensure that efforts to reach a political settlement with the FARC are complemented by a more integrated approach to combating the BACRIMs”, a generic term used by the Colombian government to refer to bandas criminals – organized crime groups, some of whom, as Ince and Gómez-Suarez recognize, “comprise illegal criminal actors that have regrouped in the wake of the paramilitary demobilisation in 2006”.   These, Ince and Gómez-Suarez note, “are now considered the country’s primary drivers of insecurity”.  The way that this recommendation is framed involves yet another sleight of hand with regard to the State’s responsibility for conflict and insecurity in Colombia.  Reference to “demobilised paramilitaries” must be understood not only in historical context, with the State having been deeply implicated in the paramilitary phenomenon at many levels, but also in the context of more recent history.  This supposed “demobilisation” occurred under the presidency of Santos’ predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, whose election had been welcomed by paramilitary leaders on the basis that he was “the man closest to our philosophy”.(39)  Uribe’s so-called “peace process” with the paramilitaries was widely decried by human rights bodies as a game of “smoke and mirrors” that guaranteed virtual impunity for the paramilitaries’ crimes and that did nothing to dismantle the structures of paramilitary organisations.(40)  Their work done, the many of the paramilitary groups who took control of regions of Colombia from the late 1990s onwards were thus disbanded, although they maintained control of their resources and were effectively “recycled” in the form of urban militia who continue to monitor, threaten and kill social activists.

It is notable, given this context, that Ince and Gómez-Suarez uncritically accept the Colombian government’s term “BACRIMs”. In a blog post issued shortly after their report was released Grace Livingstone rightly challenges academics’ acceptance of this term “when the evidence shows that these armed groups are largely made up of former paramilitaries, that they target the same people and that they frequently collude with the state?”.(41)  The January 2013 report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia states that demobilized paramilitaries comprise 53% of the BACRIMs and that they continue to target leaders of social organisations, in many cases in collusion with local authorities and State forces.(42)  As Livingstone notes, “[t]here is a danger in using the term BACRIM that we let the Colombian authorities – local and national – off the hook and give the impression that tackling them will be a simple matter of arresting a few crooks. In fact it will be far more complex because these armed groups control territory, are economically powerful and have strong ties to local political elites.”

Transitional justice

This tendency to let the Colombian authorities off the hook is evident once again in Ince and Gómez-Suarez’s recommendations regarding transitional justice.  Their discussion here is nuanced.  It recognizes the complexities surrounding amnesties and the problem of impunity for past crimes and insists that the adoption of an appropriate mechanism for transitional justice “should not be a blank cheque for impunity in Colombia”.  However, what is notable is that that much of this discussion seems to be directed at the FARC.  The notion of “accountability measures aimed at any military personnel who have committed human rights violations” is tacked on at the end, with such measures described as something that would “also need strengthening in order to ensure that justice policies adopted are fair, equitable and aim towards accountability for all”.  What Ince and Gómez-Suarez do not make clear is that the bulk of the “pressure from local and global civil-society organisations regarding impunity”, to which they refer, has not been focused upon the problem of impunity for the insurgency (however real and complex an issue this may be) but upon the longstanding, ongoing and routine impunity afforded to State and parastate actors for gross violations of human rights over many decades.  While a few very limited measures have been taken over recent years to bring a few perpetrators of these abuses to justice, impunity remains the norm while witnesses and lawyers in these cases continue to be threatened and killed.(43)  The bland reference toward “strengthening accountability measures” for military violators of human rights drastically understates the problem of impunity in Colombia.

Even after the 1991 Constitution, the product of a previous peace process with guerrilla groups, impunity was even more deeply entrenched within the Colombian justice system, partly because the Constitution itself awarded the executive a large amount of influence over key appointments such as that of the Attorney General.(44)  Meanwhile, numerous military officers who had collaborated with paramilitarism were promoted as paramilitary groups themselves were integrated more formally into military operations. The institutionalisation of impunity has been a decidedly one-way phenomenon, however. It has not applied to those engaged in political opposition, who have been pursued persistently by the justice system – even where there is little evidence that they have been involved in any crime.  Functionaries responsible for public order, rather than seeing it as a limit on their actions, tend to use criminal law instrumentally as a “tool of war” to repress groups and individuals deemed to be a threat.(45) 

There is not space here to discuss the broader socio-legal context that has facilitated the institutionalization of impunity in Colombia.  It is, however, notable that Ince and Gómez-Suarez make no reference to this broader context.  Their contention that incorporating measures to “strengthen accountability” into a mechanism of transitional justice gives the impression that the permissive legal context for State-linked perpetrators of human rights violations is a technical, rather than a political matter.  

Particularly striking in this regard is Ince and Gómez-Suarez’s omission of any reference to constitutional reform approved by Congress in December 2012, and whose concurrence with the “peace” process should not be considered coincidental given the historical record.  This reform will bolster the military justice system in Colombia and has been heavily criticized by Amnesty International, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Colombian Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, various UN experts and numerous Colombian human rights groups.  As Amnesty International’s America’s programme director has commented, approval of this reform “would fly in the face of Colombia’s international human rights obligations and is a dangerous step toward further entrenching impunity for the armed forces and the police”.(46)  Existing military justice in Colombia – especially military jurisdiction over cases involving human rights violations - has been heavily criticized for years by national and international human rights bodies.  The proposed reform would reinforce the control already enjoyed by the military over the initial stages of criminal investigation, by creating a Tribunal of Criminal Guarantees in which military representatives would sit alongside criminal representatives to decide the jurisdiction of cases. While the reform “appears to exclude some of the most serious human rights violations from military review” … the proposed Tribunal would actual give the military greater influence over outcomes and make it easier to define human rights violations as “legitimate acts of conflict … subject to military jurisdiction” (which they have routinely done in the past, including by manipulating crime scenes, for example by dressing up victims in military clothing).  Moreover, “war crimes” which, as Amnesty International note “may include enforced disappearance, torture, rape and other crimes of sexual violence” continue under the provisions of the reform to be subject to review by the military justice system, while “military courts could also continue to prosecute cases of collaboration and collusion with paramilitary groups”.(47)

Ince and Gómez-Suarez likewise fail to mention other recent legislative measures that also cast into serious doubt any supposed commitment to ending impunity on the part of the Colombian State.(48)  In particular, their discussion of “conditional amnesties” should be understood in the context of the so-called “legal framework for peace”, a constitutional reform on transitional justice approved by Congress in June 2012 that will enable Congress to suspend the prison sentences of parties to the conflict, including those of the Colombian security forces.  The reform also permits the Attorney General to prioritise some investigations over others, with the implication that some of the most serious cases of human rights abuses may not be investigated (despite the obligation to investigate all such cases under international law).  This measure, like the proposed reform of the military justice system, has been considered such a serious risk with regard to impunity, that Amnesty International in their recent submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review (April-May 2013), recommend the repeal of both constitutional reforms.(49)  None of this is mentioned by Ince and Gómez-Suarez.

Political guarantees and protection for demobilized FARC members

Ince and Gómez-Suarez’s concern that political guarantees and protection are provided for demobilized FARC members continues in the vein of erasing the historical record of the Colombian state, in this case leading them to recommendations that could easily prove lethal for former insurgents wishing to enter civilian politics.  They state, not incorrectly, that one of the obstacles to an agreement with the FARC is the State's ability “to safeguard political guarantees for demobilised FARC members wishing to enter into the political process. This refers primarily to the right and guarantee of exercising political opposition for the political groups that already exist and for similar groups that could be created in the future.”  In this they are not entirely wrong, the State will need to convince the FARC that they will not be massacred. The authors refer here to the genocide during the late 1980’s of members of the leftist electoral coalition, the Unión Patriótica, that had been formed to represent both demobilised guerrillas and Colombians who were not members of traditional political parties. Between 3,000 and 5,000 members of the UP were killed by the state forces and paramilitaries, who went on to kill many militants of the M-19 guerrilla who subsequently demobilised.(50)  However, convincing the FARC that they will not meet with the same fate is not the same as actually fulfilling that promise.  Only time will tell how interested and successful they will be, and by that time the “peace” deal will be history. What is most worrying, in this regard, is the absurd proposal that

One way to avoid a repeat of previous experiences could involve the creation of a specialised protection unit that comprises members of the armed forces, the police, members of the intelligence services, and former FARC combatants to ensure that the violence that targeted the Unión Patriótica, and other sectors associated with the peace process and FARC in the 1980s, is not replicated should a peace agreement be reached.
A simple question should be posed: who murdered the UP?  There was some paramilitary involvement but, as human rights groups have pointed out repeatedly, the shift in in the burden of repression from military to paramilitary murders was not really consolidated until the early 1990s.  Much of what happened in the 1980s was the direct responsibility of the army.  In 1988, in the town of Segovia, in the north east of the administrative department of Antioquia, the military and police murdered 43 people, most of them openly in the town’s main square, because they had voted for the UP and not for the Liberal Party (this has been documented widely, including by the Nunca Más project(51). The helicopters from which threatening flyers had been dropped were military helicopters.  The message on the fliers was clear: the town would be punished for having voted the wrong way. The UP had not just won the municipal elections in Segovia, it had wiped the board.  Forty three people paid the price, all of them murdered by the XIV Brigade of the Colombian Army and by the Police.  It should be pointed out that this brigade is the same one that set up and trained paramilitaries in Puerto Boyacá, where Carlos Castaño, developed his taste for blood.  This is all public and common knowledge.  It is impossible that the authors are unaware of the role of the Army in wiping out the UP.

Ince and Gómez-Suarez’s trust in the intelligence services is also quite extraordinary in the light of the historical record. The government was forced to disband the civilian intelligence service - Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad (DAS) – on 31 October 2011 in the wake of a public scandal about the role of the DAS in threats, killings, illegal surveillance and wire-tapping, targeting human rights activists politicians, judges and journalists.(52) During the government of Santos’ predecessor Alvaro Uribe in particular, the DAS, which operated under the President’s authority, systematically spied on people, gathering information which by its nature could only be used for murder, blackmail or framing the individuals that came to their attention. Much of this information, according to media reports, was garnered using the DAS bodyguards assigned by the State to protect the human rights defenders concerned.  The DAS has also been involved in the murder of trade unionists and two of its former directors are subject to criminal proceedings for their links with paramilitaries.  Did any or all of this pass the authors by?  Did they not also notice that many human rights defenders have been subjected to criminal charges were the key witness was the bodyguard assigned to them? 

The military intelligence services have an equally checkered record. One infamous case is that of the Navy's 07 Intelligence Network in Barrancabermeja.  This little body carried out a number of murders in the city, hiring sicarios (hitmen) to do the dirty work.  The Chief Prosecutors' Office proffered accusations in relation to 68 killings.  However, the Human Rights groups in the city put the figure at over 430.(53)  Those involved were absolved in 1998 by General Tapias, who served under that other great man of peace, President Pastrana, who decided to let them off in the middle of his peace negotiations with the FARC. It may also have escaped their attention that the XX Brigade, whose main task was intelligence gathering, had to be dissolved as its activities became too unpalatable even for the US government, which was under pressure not to finance units that were implicated in human rights violations.

Why it is that Ince and Gómez-Suarez think the FARC should trust the military, police and intelligence services this time around quite simply defies explanation.  Perhaps their hopes for change lie with the disbanding of the DAS and the establishment of a new National Protection Programme (NPP) to replace previous programmes for the protection of human rights defenders and political activists run by the Interior Ministry.  However, this too would appear to be misplaced optimism given the concerns of international human rights bodies that “many NPP staff, some of whom have been engaged in protective duties, are former DAS members”.(54)  This, alongside the continued climate of impunity for State-linked perpetrators of human rights violations, would indicate that Ince and Gómez-Suarez’s proposal is dangerously misguided.

The State’s ability to deliver meaningful land reforms

A further challenge that Ince and Gómez-Suarez address concerns the State’s ability to deliver meaningful land reform.   In the light of our previous discussion, we cannot but agree with Ince and Gómez-Suarez that “a significant amount remains to be done” with regard to rural development and the rights of victims, and in that ensuring that efforts toward land reform “are as inclusive and far-reaching as possible”.  However, having failed to grasp that a meaningful land reform is not even on the table in a peace process between a defeated guerrilla force and a government with no interest in any such reform, the authors mis-locate the obstacles to land reform, assuming such them to lie primarily with regional elites and large landowners:

...if the government were to propose substantial change, for example in the way land is used or some other kind of change to life in the country-side, there are likely to be many people especially on the right, who may object. While the Santos government and the political elite in Bogota may well understand the need for reform, hard line regional elites – particularly large land owners – who believe that the conflict can still be won militarily, may be less forthcoming. Thus, the issue is whether Santos is able to convince enough of those regional elites to accept some degree of reform and to not take the law into their own hands (i.e. by sponsoring paramilitarism).
The problem that Ince and Gómez-Suarez identify is by no means insignificant.  As discussed, regional elites have indeed in the past made recourse to paramilitarism to protect their interests and there is no reason to assume that this practice should not continue without effective measures being taken to prevent it.  However, we cannot forget the political context that has enabled this, in the form of the legal basis provided for paramilitarism; the active complicity of State forces in the promotion and training of paramilitary groups, and the institutionalized impunity that has provided a permissive context for gross violations of human rights. These groups went on to facilitate a further concentration of landholdings, that would go on to be legitimized and consolidated with by the State alongside the private sector and NGOs in the interests of “development”.

We have already shown in our criticism of the Land Restitution Law that Santos and the political elite are not interested in substantial change in the countryside.  Responsibility for a lack of agrarian reform rests not only with regional elites but also, more substantively, with the elites in Bogotá, many of whom are also large landowners. Why did the governments in which Santos has participated (under Gaviria, Pastrana, and Uribe) introduce reforms to undermine the peasantry?  To take the Uribe regime for example, we have had a whole series of laws that sought to undermine peasant production, from banning the use of seeds that are not bought from a multinational, to effectively ban the production of panela(55) and free range chickens by forcing farmers to produce it in laboratory conditions.(56)  Why did these governments sign free trade agreements with the USA and the European Union, which undermine peasant production and place a greater emphasis on agroindustrial production?

Civil society participation

At face value, Ince and Gómez-Suarez’s call for “meaningful civil society participation” appears laudable.  In the peace process as it stands, the participation of the people is reduced to that of bystanders who can approve or reject the final deal.  Despite noises made at the beginning about participation in the process, this has in practice meant little or nothing.  Two fora were convened by the National University and the UNDP which invited individuals and organisations to a discussion.  The forum on the agrarian situation was particularly pathetic.  Just over 1200 delegates attended it.  Of these, 200 were from business groups, who came well prepared.  The methodology was to divide the 1200 into different groups which would discuss in an ad hoc and often in a confusing manner all sorts of ideas with very little structure.  These were then taken back to the plenary and, from there, to Havana.  It is hardly participation by any normal understanding of the term.  The peasant groups have no direct input into the process as they have clear demands – namely land - which might upset the deal.  The forum on the agrarian situation was closed by three people: former senator Piedad Córdoba, the president of the Society of Colombian Agriculture (SAC) and Francisco de Roux former leader of the Colombian NGO administering the Magdalena Medio Peace Laboratories and current head of the Jesuits.  De Roux rounded off the forum by advocating the promotion of more of what he termed “permanent tropical crops” (palm, rubber cocoa), in accordance with an agro-industrial model that is completely at odds with the demand for land.(57)

Yet we have to ask what “meaningful participation” might mean in practice.  Again, historical context is important.  It is not just that Ince and Gómez-Suarez’s reference to a “passive citizenry”, without any acknowledgement of the widespread extermination of numerous peasant, worker, indigenous and human rights associations over the past decades is disingenuous. We must also consider the recent history of a positive promotion of “participation” in Colombia.  Since the implementation of neoliberal policies and the 1991 Constitution, successive governments have emphasised the importance of the population’s “participation” within state activities and underlined the need for open and decentralized institutions in order to provide the conditions for both peace and market competitiveness.(58) The citizen participation envisaged is, however, a participation within the boundaries of pre-defined, neo-liberal policies which are not open to negotiation, as a means to “strengthen the effectiveness of state actions” and “develop a competitive environment”.(59) The focus on a “participative state” has gone alongside a drive to incarnate a population of entrepreneurial and loyal citizens, who will “participate” accordingly.  By the mid-1990’s, Ernesto Samper’s government had begun to make explicit reference to creation of an ideal type of citizen along these lines, and this has continued to be a focus of successor governments.(60) 

This discourse has been repeated in interventions for “development and peace” geared toward rural populations. For example, Asocipaz, an NGO founded by the paramilitaries the Magdalena Medio region has stated that peasants should become employees in agro-industry in order to gain “real possibilities of active participation, in the capacity of shareholders or co-owners”.(61) In striking synergy with this, the NGO responsible for managing funds of the EU-sponsored Peace Laboratory in the Magdalena Medio region explicitly includes among its aims the inculcation of a more competitive, entrepreneurial identity, defining one of its roles as being to “facilitate the population perceiving themselves as owners and as actors in their own destiny”.(62)  The promotion of this sort “civil society participation” has been a means actively containing struggles for territory and against the dispossession and ecological destruction wrought through a neoliberal model.  We mentioned before the well-founded allegations against a number of multinational companies, including BP, for their complicity in State and parastate violence against social organisations. In the area around BP’s oilfields, in the administrative department of Casanare, the oil companies’ NGO, Fundación Amanecer openly seeks to foster similar forms of self-identification among the peasantry but has sent representatives along to community human rights meetings to encourage peasants to participate in its productive projects as opposed to engaging in the risky business of organizing against ongoing extrajudicial executions by the Colombian army.(63)

What sort of participation do Ince and Gómez-Suarez advocate? The mode of participation within predefined parameters favoured by the State and promoted by NGOs linked to paramilitarism, the private sector and international interests?  Or do they mean a form of participation that opens space for genuine disagreement, conflict and struggle over the nature of the deal on offer?  A first step toward such a possibility would be for the State to take decisive steps to put a stop to the ongoing repression of “grassroots” processes of social organisation.  This would imply (amongst other things) an end to the impunity enjoyed by State and parastate agents.  Yet by repeatedly glossing over the role of the State in the Colombian conflict, Ince and Gómez-Suarez only serve to reinforce a culture of impunity that gives carte blanche to the continued repression of social organisations.

Limiting expectations

Much of Ince and Gómez-Suarez's trouble is that they unreservedly accept the legitimacy of the Colombian State, and look at the peace process through the lenses of the government, where all problems are technical in nature and, hardly any are political.  This is evident in their final piece of advice to the government, on how to deal with disappointment:

To avoid disappointment and a potential backlash, should talks fail to reach an agreement before November 2013, Santos will need to keep the expectations of the electorate in check throughout the remainder of the negotiations. This could be achieved through the design of a more effective communication strategy centred around disseminating public information in a manner that helps manage high expectations and enables negotiating teams to deliver concise, frank and transparent public statements regarding the progress being made.

The authors’ concern for the “electorate” seems a strange priority, given that the majority of the population does not vote, and of those who do, a significant number sell their votes.(64) More significantly, however what the authors outline here is the need for a technical strategy to dampen political and social expectations, not a strategy for the participation of people in the process, for a Constitutent Assembly or other such mechanism, where due expression may be given to the demands of the Colombian people (which may, and almost certainly do, differ from the demands of the FARC).

Exactly what type of expectations would have to dampened down?  Agrarian reform might be one of them. Why do Ince and Gómez-Suarez recommend that the State come up with a strategy to dampen such an expectation?  Is it because they believe that the peasants must cede on this issue in the name of “peace”? Maybe some people have expectations that military officers will be prosecuted for past crimes.  Is this one of the expectations that should be dampened?  With this final recommendation at the end of their text, they give the game away.  This process in not about justice and neither is their proposal: it is about making the country stable for capital and safe for the elites.

Concluding remarks

Dampening down expectations is just one aspect of the State’s overall approach to eliminating and pacifying opposition, and to obscuring its own role in the armed aspect of this repression.  Those academics who uncritically throw their weight behind the current negotiations only add to this.  The experience of peace processes around the world – from Ireland, to South Africa to Latin America - would indicate that such processes are first and foremost about stability for the State and for capital, not about reducing levels of violence per se, particularly amongst the poor.  A clear example of this is the peace process in El Salvador.  During the insurgency, around 70,000 people lost their lives as a result of the conflict. Lots of people rallied around that process promulgating the liberal viewpoint that what was important was the end of conflict per se and saving lives.  Between 2000 and 2011 (a similar timeframe to the conflict) there were 38,660 intentional homicides in El Salvador(65), not as many as died in the conflict, but it is still a very high figure. El Salvador's murder rate has been consistently the second highest in Latin America with the rate for 2011 being 69.2 (per 100,000).(66)  If we look at the murder rate amongst young people between the age of 15 and 24, that rate jumped to 105.6 in 2008 (last year of available figures).(67)  Where is the international concern, the cash donations, the round tables, the honest broker roles of countries?  There is none, because reducing deaths is not what it was about, it was about removing an armed threat to capitalism. 

If the issue were just the role of academics in glossing over the defeat of an armed insurgency that had little or no chance in winning, the issues would be grave but not as serious for wider society.  However, peace processes do not just concern themselves with demobilising armed organisations but also with demobilising wider society, making sure that no one upsets the apple cart, that the deal struck leaves the powers that be intact, with their wealth untouched and unchallenged.  Here the role of NGOs and academics is crucial.  Papers are written, conferences given, books published on the importance of the deal and why everyone should support it.  We are told that those who do not support the deal want war, regardless of whether the critics ever supported the war in the first place.

The very model of development that was imposed by blood and fire is now sets the parameters for a path to peace, provided that it can be implemented in a way that is “sensitive” to the potential for conflict. Comments are thrown out about the importance of conflict resolution, a term borrowed from family therapy, as if this was about two lovers who no longer know how to live together. The interests at stake and the social forces at play are ignored.  The victory is claimed and those in opposition, such as peasants who continue to demand land, are accused of turning their backs on history, on progress and ultimately on peace.  The politics of it are ignored.  In conflict there are winners and losers.  There are no draws. You win in the conflict or you win at the negotiating table: one way or another someone wins and someone loses.  The failure to acknowledge this has given rise to a great deal of verbal, political and social acrobatics being performed to distract from the ongoing reality of social conflict. Pressure is brought to bear on people not to provoke a return to war by demanding justice, truth, reparations, land, education, health or housing.  Nothing should be demanded that upsets the deal or the powers that be. After the demobilisation of the M-19 guerrillas, the leading members of the organisation went on to take up diplomatic posts, representing the Colombian State in embassies around the world while military-paramilitary repression burgeoned. This also happened with demobilised EPL guerrillas. This will happen again: people will be asked to defend the indefensible and they will do so, all in the name of the peace process.

This is the technocratic ideal.  Everything is reduced to the needs of the State, convincing the insurgents to demobilise and everyone else to jump through hoops, whilst attempts are made to giving an academic and political veneer to a squalid deal (which is the very most that can be expected from this process).  Einstein once said that madness was repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.  When it comes to peace processes we tend to ignore all past experience.  In the case of Colombia, Ince and Gómez-Suarez have engaged in a dire misrepresentation of the reality of the country and ignored the deadly past when it comes to making recommendations.  They have given themselves over to the argument of peace at any price, regardless of the consequences for everyone but capital and the State.


1  Lara Montesinos Coleman is lecturer in the department of International Relations at the University of Sussex. Her research focuses on social and political theories of dissent and resistance; the politics of knowledge and the political sociology of development and violence.  She has been involved in human rights work relating to Colombia since 2000 and previously worked in Colombia providing international accompaniment to grassroots peasant and trade union organisations.  She is co-author of Por Dentro E'Soga: Un Análisis de los Impactos de la BP en Casanare (Ediciones Desde Abajo, 2010), co-editor of Situating Global Resistance: Between Discipline and Dissent (Routledge, 2012) and author of several academic articles.  She was previously a lecturer at Durham University and holds a PhD and MSc from the University of Bristol and a BA from the University of Oxford.
Gearóid Ó Loingsigh, M.A. in International Relations (DCU) is an Irish journalist who works on the ground in Colombia  in close collaboration with a number of grassroots peasant and indigenous organizations.  He is the author of numerous articles on Colombia as well as books on the struggles in different regions of the country.  His latest book La Reconquista del Pacifico: Invasión, Inversión, Impunidad deals with the invasions by mining companies and african palm companies of the collective lands of the black communities on the pacific coast as well the government's plans to expel en masse large sections of the population of the city of Buenaventura to make way for the expansion of the port. His first book La Estrategia Integral del Paramilitarismo en el Magdalena Medio (2003) raised great controversy due to his criticisms of the role of NGOs in promoting African palm plantations and a corporativist model for the communities in the region.
2 This is the primary reason for this “peace” initiative, although a full discussion of the FARC’s motives is beyond the scope of this article.
3  Giraldo, J, Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy (Monroe: Common Courage Press, 1996), p.10.
4 Visit to Colombia, South America, by a Team from Special Warfare Center, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Headquarters, U.S. Army Special Warfare School, 26 February 1962, Kennedy Library, Box 319, National Security Files, Special Group; Fort Bragg Team; Visit to Colombia; 3/62, "Secret Supplement, Colombian Survey Report."
5 Giraldo, The Genocidal Democracy, p.10.
6 Ibid.;  Human Rights Watch, Colombia’s Killer Networks: The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996).  Online at [16 Aug 2005].
7 Stokes, D, America’s Other War: Terrorizing Colombia (London: Zed, 2005), p. 47.
8 See Stokes, D, “Why the end of the Cold War doesn’t matter: the US war of terror in Colombia” in Review of International Studies 29 (2003), pp. 569-585; Stokes, America’s Other War, pp. 84-121.
9 E.g. Amnesty International (2004). A Laboratory of War: Repression and Violence in Arauca.  (2004) Online at [30 April 2004], p.6; Ayala, M., Coleman, L; Montesinos, J; Ó Loingsigh, G., Pedraza, O, Vega, M. and Vega, M., Por dentro e’soga: un análisis de los impactos de la BP en Casanare (Bogotá: Cospacc and Ediciones Desde Abajo, 2010). Coleman, L., “The making of docile dissent: neoliberalisation and resistance in Colombia and beyond”, International Political Sociology 7:2 (2013); Gill, L., “‘Right there with you’: Coca-Cola, labor restructuring and political violence in Colombia”, Critique of Anthropology, 27:3 (2007), p. 235-260; Ramirez Cuellar, F. The Profits of Extermination: How US Corporate Power is Destroying Colombia (Monroe: Common Courage Press), 73-80.
10 Kovalik, D. 2008. “Lawyer for Chiquita in Colombian death squad case may be next US Attorney General”, in The Huffington Post 6 November 2008.  Online at [9 April 2009]; Brodzinsky, S. “Terrorism and bananas in Colombia, in Time, 2 September 2007.  Online at,8599,1616991,00.html [15 September 2007].
11  Ó Loingsigh, G. La Estrategia Integral Del Paramilitarismo en el Magdalena Medio de Colombia (Bogotá, 2003), pp. 68-9 (our translation).
12 See Sarmiento, L., El Magdalena Medio: un modelo piloto de modernización authoritaria en Colombia (CREDHOS: Barrancabermeja, 1996), p. 33; Ó Loingsigh, La Estrategia Integral, p.11-24.
13 Ó Loingsigh, La Estrategia Integral, p. 22.
14 Sarmiento, El Magdalena Medio., p. 33 (our translation).
15 Rudqvusts, A. and van Sluys, F., Informe Final de Evaluación de Medio Término Laboratorio de Paz del Magdalena Medio (Brussels: ECO, 2005), p.2.
16 Ó Loingsigh, G. “Peace Laboratories: Europe’s Plan Colombia”, Frontline Latin America 2: 3 (2006), p.4, 20.
17 Ibid; Coleman, L. “The Gendered Violence of Development:  Imaginative Geographies of Exclusion in the Imposition of Neo-Liberal Capitalism”, in British Journal of Politics and International Relations 9:2 (2007) p.213-6
18 Mac Ginty, R. and Williams, A, Conflict and Development (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), p.18.
19 For a discussion of this in relation to the agrarian model, see Thomson, F., “The Agrarian Question and Violence in Colombia”, Journal of Agrarian Change 11:3 (2011).
20 Ramirez, The Profits of Extermination, p.81-7.
21 It should also be borne in mind that cancelling the mining licences would leave Colombia open to being sued for the losses incurred and future lost earnings.  Any change on this would require breaking with international norms as well as Colombian legislation.  It thus requires a great deal more than an administrative decision.
22 For further information on agreements with communities in the South West of the country, see Ó Loingsigh, G., Una mirada desde el sur: Huellas de lucha y resistencia, (Bogotá: CNA, 2011).
23 See Ó Loingsigh, G., La reconquista del pacífico: Invasión, Inversión, Impunidad. (Bogotá: CNA & PCN, 2013).
24 The main laws regulating these reforms were Law 10 of 1989, Law 50 of 1990 and Law 189 of 2002.
25 Martínez, Y., “La Tenecia de la Tierra en Colombia” (Bogotá: Sociedad Geográphica, 2003). Online at [12 March 2013].
26 Albáñez, A.M. and Muñoz, J.C., “La persistencia de la concentración de la tierra en Colombia: ¿Qué pasó entre 2000 y 2010?”,  Notas de la Política 9 (Bogotá: Universidad de los Andes, CEDE, 2011).
27 E.g. Thomson, “The Agrarian Question”.
28 Joyce, E., “Conclusions”, in Joyce, E. and Malamud, C. (eds) Latin America and the Multinational Drug Trade (London: MacMillan 1998), p.208
29 Alston P., Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, A/HRC/14/24/Add.2 (2010), pp.1-2
30  Alston, P. “Comunicado de Prensa del Relator Especial sobre Ejecuciones Extrajudiciales”, June 2009
31  El Tiempo (17/10/2009) “Más de dos mil colombianos habían sido asesinados en falsos positivos, según informe de la Fiscalía”, 
32 Semana (23/02/2013) “Palacio de justicia:  La peor defensa”, 
33 UNHCHR, Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation of human rights in Colombia  A/HRC/22/17/Add.3 (2013), p. 15
34 Ibíd.
35 Giraldo, J. “Paramilitarism A Criminal Policy of the State Which Devours the Country” (2005), 
36 Ibíd
37 Robinson, M. Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Office in Colombia (2000) E/CN.4/2000/11 p.24
38 E.g. Human Rights Watch, Colombia’s Killer Networks.
39 Hylton, F. “An Evil Hour: Uribe’s Colombia in Historical Perspective”, New Left Review 23 (2003), 51-93. See also Livingstone, G. Inside Colombia: Drugs, Democracy and War (London: Latin America Bureau, 2003), p.57.
40 Human Rights Watch. Smoke and Mirrors: Colombia’s Demobilization of Paramilitary Groups (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2005).  Online at [16 Aug 2005]; Amnesty International. 2005. Los paramilitares en Medellín: desmobilizacíon o legalización?.  Online at: [5 September 2005]; Isaacson, Adam. 2005. “Peace or “Paramilitarisation”?  Why a weak peace agreement with Colombian paramilitary groups may be worse than no agreement at all”, in International Policy Report, July 2005, pp. 1-11  Online at [7 July 2005].
41 Livingstone, G. “Is BACRIM just a new name for paramilitaries”, post on the British Academics for a Colombia Under Peace blog, 6 March 2013.
42 UN High Commissioner (2013), paragraphs 37-43.
43 Amnesty International, “Colombia: Impunity perpetuates ongoing human rights violations”, submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review, 16th Session of the UPR Working Group, April-May 2013, p.4.
44 Giraldo, The Genocidal Democracy, pp. 61-2; Human Rights Watch. A Wrong Turn: The Record of the Colombian Attorney General’s Office (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2002).  Online at [16 Aug 2005].
45 Santos, B. and García Villegas, M. “Colombia: El revés del contrato social de la modernidad”, in Santos, B. and García Villegas, M. eds., El Caleidoscopio de las Justicias en Colombia (Bogotá: Siglo de Hombres Editores, 2001), p.79-80, Giraldo, The Genocidal Democracy, p.61-2, 48, 79.
46 Amnesty International Press Release, “Colombia: Reform will boost impunity for military and police human rights abusers”, released 6 December 2012.
47 Ibid.
48 There is not space for a full discussion of this but for more details see, e.g. the December 2012 “Report on the human rights situation in Colombia 2008-13” by various international platforms and organisations for the UN 2013 Periodic Review.  Online at:
%20Human%20Rights%20situation%20in%20Colombia.pdf [4 April 2013], p. 6-8.
49 Amnesty International, submission to the UN periodic review, p.5-6, 8.
50 E.g. Hylton, “Evil hour”, p. 82.
51  The Nunca Más Project (Never Again) was a project first carried out in the Northeast of Antioquia which attempted to record the systematic violations of human rights in given areas of the country.  It produced reports on other regions as well, such as El Catatumbo, Meta and the South West of the Country.
52 Amnesty International. Colombia Annual Report 2012.  Online at: 
53 Interview Credhos 2002.
54 Amnesty International (2013), submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review, p. 4.
55 Panela is a type sugar based extract similiar to Jaggery from India.  It is dissolved in hot water and consumed with meals.  It is a basic staple of the Colombian diet, particularly amongst the poor.
56 See Resolution 4287/2007 of  Ministerio de Protección Social and Decree 1500 of 2007 in relation to free range poultry and Resolution 779 of March 2006 and 3462 of 2008.
57 The information in this paragraph is based on verbal reports made to one of the authors as well as recordings by journalists of the closing speeches, which we were given copies of.
58 Departamento Nacional de Planeación (DNP). 1991. La Revolución Pacífica: Plan de Desarrollo Economico y Social 1990-1994 (Bogotá: Presidencia de la Republica and Departamento Nacional de Planeación). ;Departamento Nacional de Planeación (DNP). 1995. El Salto Social: Plan Nacional de Desarrollo, Ley de Inversiones 1994-1998 (Bogotá: Presidencia de la Republica and Departamento Nacional de Planeación); Departamento Nacional de Planeación (DNP). 1999. Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 1998-2002: Cambio para Construir la Paz (Bogotá: Departamento Nacional de Planeación); Departamento Nacional de Planeación (DNP) (2003), Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 2002-2006: Hacia un Estado Comunitario (Bogotá: Departamento Nacional de Planeación).
59 Ibid., p. 68 (our translation).
60 DNP. 1995., El Salto Social; DNP.1999, Cambio para Construir la Paz 14
61 Quoted in O Loingsigh 2004, p. 83 (our translation).
62 Quoted in Rudqvusts, A. and van Sluys, F. (2005), Informe Final de Evaluación de Medio Término Laboratorio de Paz del Magdalena Medio (Brussels: ECO), p. 5.
63 Coleman, “The making of docile dissent”. Forthcoming.
64 In the last presidential elections, almost a million dollars was spent buying votes just in Bogotá.
65 OAS, Report on Citizen Security in the Americas 2012: Official Statistical Information on Citizen Security provided by the OAS Member States (Washington DC: OAS Secretariat for Multidimensional Security, 2012) p.17 
66 Ibíd p.18
67 Ibíd p.25


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