Elections Loom Large Over Colombia

by William Camacaro National Co-Coordinator for Alliance for Global Justice

Anher Ordonez International Political Studies Pepperdine University

 

     William is coordinating the Bogotá desk of our Colombia Election Day Live Coverage broadcast on May 29, 2022. Click here to register as a “studio audience” member via Zoom. For more info…

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The armed conflict in Colombia was one of the longest-running conflicts of the

Twentieth Century and continues on some level even today. The conflict was marked by a high

level of activity on the part of irregular armed groups, and tied to a variety of other social

problems, including land and indigenous issues 1. The conflict decimated Colombia’s economy,

and spawned the rise of Colombia’s problematic yet lucrative drug trade. The resolution of the

armed conflict was for many years sought through the implementation of the peace deal, yet

when this peace deal was finally implemented in 2016 the violence directed against civil society

leaders did not cease. With the upcoming elections taking place in May of this year, concerns

over the possibility of electoral fraud and political disruption taking place are at an alarming

high. The conflict in Colombia was historically sparked by a clash between the Liberals led by

Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, who had a moderate pro-worker agenda, and the Right, which was

determined to defend traditional oligarchic interests. The Liberals were on course to win the

elections and take over the government. The right wing sectors of the country saw these

developments as a threat to their interests.

 

Gaitan was assassinated on April 9, 1948, leading to a massive rebellion known as El

Bogotazo, which was followed by a ten-year period of civil war known as La Violencia that

included the military dictatorship of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla that was marked by the widespread

repression of rural communities, labor leaders, and political opposition. In this period leftist

groups began emerging to fill the void left by Gaitan’s assassination. However, the repression

did not end with the removal of Rojas Pinilla from power in 1958. In fact, in the period

following, the Pentagon sent the Yarborough Commission to Colombia, which advised the

Colombian government to organize paramilitaries and organize campaigns of “terror” in

unilateral assaults against peasant autonomous zones. The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de

Colombia were formed from militias organized to defend these zones after a particularly large

assault on the Marquetalia area in 1964.

 

The Left in Colombia had traditionally enjoyed support from the Peasantry and industrial

workers, and had already participated in a rebellion that had been ruthlessly crushed. Other rebel

groups such as the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), launched their own guerilla wars

hoping to emulate the Cuban Revolution, while the Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL) took

inspiration from Maoism. The violence would ramp up in the following decades, affecting the

entire country across social lines.

 

What had originally been a low-intensity conflict in the countryside sparked by calls

for greater equality and land reform was thrown into further chaos around the 1980s. The siege

on the Palace of Justice carried out by the 19th of April Movement(M-19) exposed how

volatile the situation was in the country. Two new factors were introduced into the conflict

that tore up the established dichotomy.

 

The first of these factors was the rise of far-right paramilitary factions. As the state’s

hold on the country weakened, large landowners began financing armed groups to assume

the bulk of the fighting against the guerillas 2 . The paramilitaries also acted as a vigilante

force, carrying out targeted assassinations against “undesirables”, often targeting the most

vulnerable people in society. Their influence grew so great to the point where the

Colombian state struggled to contain their power. It is also important to point out the

connections that paramilitaries and their patrons had with drug trafficking; much of their

funding came from this elicit business.

 

For many years the likes of Pablo Escobar projected an image of Colombia as a lawless

country to the outside world. Indeed, the clout that the drug trade had in Colombia was

significant; nearly every aspect of society became permeated with drug cartel influence. The

drug trade added an explosive ingredient to the already toxic civil war; many of the previously

mentioned paramilitary groups became involved with drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

Prominent drug cartels included the Medellin Cartel, the Cali Cartel, and los Rastrojos, a

Mexican cartel responsible for distributing Colombian drugs.  

 

The nature of Colombian politics helps illustrate why it has been so hard for the country

to achieve peace and stability. Electoral fraud has persisted in the country for much of its

modern history. A notable example of this was the 1970 presidential election, where

now-candidate and former dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla alleged, with sufficient evidence,

that fraud was committed on behalf of the winning candidate, Misael Pastrana Borrero 3.

More recently, several irregularities were reported in the 2018 election where Ivan Duque

won the presidency versus Gustavo Petro.

 

The son of Pastrana Borrero, Andres Pastrana, would also go on to become president.

This political dynasty had been entrenched in Colombia for years. The election of the younger

Pastrana came amid suspicion of electoral fraud, reflecting the sameness of the Colombian

political class of yesterday and today. Pastrana would go on to preside over the first attempt at

a peace process from 1998 to 2002, creating demilitarized zones.

 

These demilitarized zones involved FARC retreating from various parts of the country,

while FARC hoped to secure political legitimacy and a negotiated settlement. FARC also hoped

to address other issues including agrarian reform, drug trafficking, and the presence of right wing

paramilitary groups. These FARC fighters, considered dissidents following the end of the cold

war, were marginalized from society and their activities criminalized. This was part of a global

effort led by the US in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, which undoubtedly influenced

Colombian society.

 

There is little doubt FARC felt uncomfortable with the idea of demobilizing and

becoming targets for violent reprisal. Based on the experiences of the Union Patriotica

party 4, the demobilized EPL and other dissident groups, there was clear hesitance to give

up arms and reincorporate into civil society. This feeling persists to this day among

still-active elements of the guerillas.

The 1998-2002 peace process led by Pastrana ended up failing, worsening relations

between the state and FARC. After this failure there was little appetite left for another attempt

at a peace deal. FARC was further convinced to double down by the precedent of the Union

Patriotica leftist party. It had originally been formed by former FARC members looking to

capitalize on the discontent of poor Colombians towards the two biggest political parties, the

Conservatives and the Liberals. They chose the peaceful democratic path, but were violently

purged before elections through assassinations. It is estimated that at least 1,163 members of

the UP were assassinated 5 ; notable among these victims is Manuel Cepeda Vargas, father of

Colombian leftist senator Ivan Cepeda.

 

The Colombian government increased its cooperation with the US as part of Plan

Colombia, which among many things included the training of Colombian troops and selected

paramilitary forces. Its official purpose was to combat drug trafficking, yet today there is more

drug production and trafficking in Colombia than ever 6. Andres Pastrana’s popularity

plummeted as a repercussion of the failed peace talks, and conservative sectors of society

began to organize and prepare for the upcoming elections.

 

This led to the election of Alvaro Uribe as President in 2002. Alvaro Uribe comes from

one of the richest landowning families in Colombia, linked closely with illegal activities such

as drug trafficking and paramilitarism 7. The election came amid a time of great societal turmoil

and political violence, with the Union Patriotica party having been violently purged and

paramilitary violence spreading throughout the country. The election result reflected a profound

disdain that the conservative sectors of society felt towards the prospect of peace with FARC.

 

These sectors hoped that with the election of Uribe, any remaining possibility of peace

would die. Uribe was firmly opposed to any prospect of peace with the guerillas. He came from

the wealthy landowner class, his family linked with the drug trafficking business. Uribe spoke of

the fight against FARC and the guerillas as part of the “War on Terrorism” and showed no room

for compromise or flexibility in regards to the conflict 8 . The dissidents were now referred to as

“terrorists”, reflecting the unipolar US-centered international climate of the time that came as a

result of the cold war ending and the criminalization of dissidence. Uribe echoing the rhetoric of

Bush consolidated his short-term political prospects 9.

 

Uribe also pushed through the controversial Justice and Peace Law(2005) which granted

amnesty for members of irregular armed groups who gave up their weapons and demobilized.

The law was perceived by many sectors in Colombia and human rights organizations as being

too lenient on paramilitaries who had committed a number of atrocities. This law only served to

enrage the FARC, and for the entirety of Uribe’s presidency it continued to mount deadly

military attacks and offensives.

 

Uribe’s hardline strategy for dealing with the conflict led to less accountability for the

actions of the state. His presidency saw a rise in human rights violations committed by the state,

catalyzed by the falso positivos scandal which involved the killing of civilians by the army, and

the presentation of the corpses as being those of rebel fighters. The victims were lured by the

promise of work to rural areas, and were killed off by the army. Another factor that challenged

Uribe’s position were allegations of his connections to the illegal drug trade. These scandals

weakened Uribe’s prospects to become a protagonist of the peace process, and he would go on

to maintain a hardline stance against the insurgency.

 

The conflict spread to neighboring Ecuador and Venezuela. As the Colombian

government pressed on with its offensive against FARC, the rebels sought to take haven in

the porous border areas between Colombia and the neighboring countries. Along with the

difficulty that these countries have in controlling their remote areas, any efforts by

Colombia to cooperate with its neighbors on counterinsurgency were hampered by the

Uribe Administration’s strained relations with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Chavez in particular was seen as a foe by Uribe, as the

Colombian President had repeatedly accused Chavez of supporting FARC and allowing them

use of Venezuela’s territory.

 

Hugo Chavez of Venezuela would play a major role in developments during the latter

phases of the conflict; believed to wield influence with FARC, he was seen as a key cog in

any potential peace process due to his ability to put pressure on the guerillas and bring them

to the table. Chavez and Uribe often clashed during their presidencies; Chavez eventually

became dismayed by Uribe and his political cohorts, citing the Colombian military incursion

into Ecuador, allegedly in hot pursuit of FARC guerillas.

 

An example of this can be seen in the Acuerdo Humanitario process of 2007. After a

series of high profile FARC kidnappings, Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba, with the

approval of Uribe, persuaded Chavez to talk with the FARC, with the condition that the talks

take place in Venezuela. The FARC representative demanded that Chavez request a new

demilitarized zone, and soon afterwards Chavez, Cordoba, and French President Nicolas

Sarkozy met.

 

However, Uribe became impatient with Chavez, and imposed upon him the deadline of

December 31. Chavez responded by directly contacting Colombian military leaders, which

Uribe saw as a red line violated. Uribe essentially “fired” Chavez from the talks, and Chavez

retaliated by calling Uribe a “liar”. The feud between the two escalated to a point where both

countries suspended relations with each other. The killing of Raul Reyes and Mono Jojoy, two

founders of FARC with vast knowledge of the group’s functions, further raised the threat of

the armed conflict spreading to Ecuador.

 

With his communication with Uribe closed, Chavez decided to move ahead with his own

initiative to free the hostages. As part of Operation Emmanuel FARC agreed to release three

high profile hostages, and in January Venezuela Army helicopters labeled with Red Cross

insignia at the request of Colombia successfully rescued the three hostages. The Colombian

government later launched its own rescue mission, Operation Jaque, that freed fifteen hostages.

Though both were successful, they were in essence unilateral actions that did little to

address the fundamental issues of the conflict, and tensions remained high between Colombia

and Venezuela.

 

These tensions ultimately reached their peak in March of 2008, sparked by an incident

that took place in the Ecuadorian border area. The Colombian army had raided a FARC

encampment with the primary motive being to kill the FARC second in command Raul Reyes.

Ecuador responded furiously, declaring that Colombia violated Ecuadorian sovereignty. Chavez

rushed to defend his ally Correa, and ordered his army to deploy to the border with Colombia.

The raid had involved cooperation with the Manta US Air Force Base in Ecuador, and the raid

led to Correa ordering the base’s closure and exit from the country.

 

Both Ecuador and Venezuela cut off relations with Colombia. The situation was further

complicated by Colombia’s announcement of recovered “FARC files” which they claimed

revealed FARC ties with foreign actors, including Chavez. The computer’s chain of custody was

interrupted and its whereabouts unknown for several hours after it was seized, and, when

recovered, files showed evidence of tampering. The files were contained inside a computer

which received extensive and often hyperbolic media coverage, to the point where it was

mockingly referred to by Colombians as the “magic computer”. After a vicious war of

words between the three leaders, a further escalation of tensions was avoided in the Rio Group

meeting on March 7 in the Dominican Republic, which marked Uribe, Chavez, and Correa

shaking hands and restoring relations 10.  A Track II initiative sponsored by the Carter Center

and the OAS also sought to restore ties to normal. Even with the threat of war removed, the

danger of Colombia’s guerilla war to the region remained clear, yet by the end of Uribe’s

presidency there appeared to be little hope of a negotiated solution.

 

Uribe’s successor, Santos, echoed much of his predecessor’s rhetoric concerning the

conflict. Having served as Defense Minister under Uribe, Santos was a supporter of the

campaign against FARC and the guerillas. As defense minister under Uribe, he had been

involved with the falsos positivos killings by which peasants had been lured to remote parts

of the country with promise of work, massacred, then presented to the press as guerillas killed

in combat 11. Even so, his ascension to the Presidency was a welcome change for Chavez; the

two countries had once again cut off relations during Uribe’s last months. Santos and Chavez

promptly restored relations. Santos also began making overtures to Cuba as a possible venue

for potential peace talks. Santos’ decisions regarding Cuba and Venezuela reflected an

understanding on his part of the necessary ingredients for peace negotiations; the participation

of those countries was needed in order for the FARC to feel confident of its own involvement in

the talks.

 

It was during these years that the most progress was made towards a peace deal. With the

governments of Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, Norway, and Chile, along with the FARC working

together there was growing optimism that a deal could soon be reached. Hugo Chavez especially

was highly committed to this; so much that after his death in March 2013 President Santos said

that “The best tribute that we can give to the memory of Hugo Chavez is accomplish his dream

that he shared with us all of reaching an accord for the end of the conflict and seeing a Colombia

in peace”.12

 

The FARC lead negotiator, Ivan Marquez, as well as the government lead negotiator,

Humberto De la Calle, both attempted to isolate themselves from developments occurring

outside the talks. This attitude was challenged by a number of developments. Unabated by

the talks, individual FARC commanders continued to launch attacks, while former President

Uribe turned on Santos and called him out for his “betrayal” for supporting the talks.

Pressure from the United States as well as media leaks over private details of the talks

threatened to sabotage the peace process. The outside challenges to the talks manifested

themselves with the 2014 elections, where an emboldened Uribe was leading an effort to

unseat Santos. His hand picked candidate used incendiary rhetoric in regards to the talks,

labeling FARC as “terrorists” and “the main drug cartel in the world”.

 

Aware of the delicate situation, FARC had declared two temporary ceasefires during the

elections, in a clear signal to the government of its desire for continued negotiations. It

evidently served as an acceptance of FARC of its “marriage” to the Santos government in their

joint bid for successful peace talks. The continuing Havana negotiations continued to employ a

variety of diplomatic tactics, including allowing victims of the conflict time with the negotiators,

and managed to make progress on issues such as the clearing of land mines and IEDs. Such

progress won support from international actors. However, issues in Colombia persisted and

occasional military conflicts still took place. In order to save the peace process, Cuba and

Norway proceeded to get tough on the parties, and pressured for greater de-escalation.

 

The calls for de-escalation ultimately succeeded as FARC ceased their attacks and Santos

ordered the cessation of attacks on the guerillas. Finally in September 2015, the two parties

reached an agreement on transitional justice that was described as “historic” by the Colombian

media. The agreement involved careful mediation over deeply dividing issues for the parties

involved. The negotiators, seeing themselves limited in their ability to find a compromise,

chose to delegate power over the issue to six designated jurists, who managed to craft a

resolution. The parties involved also made sure to incorporate positive press; on September 23,

Santos and FARC commander Timochenko shook hands with Raul Castro present. This was

seen as a decisive moment in the peace talks. But a definitive end to the conflict still had a

ways to go.

 

This was seen with the 2016 Peace Agreement Referendum, in which the No vote

narrowly defeated the Yes vote. This was a major political victory for Uribe, and left Santos

with limited authority for the remainder of his term. Political violence has not receded in the

aftermath of the peace agreement signing. Since the signing of the peace accord in September

2016 up until the present, according to INDEPAZ, 1,287 social leaders and 306 signers of the

peace accord have been killed. 13 The presence of a Colombian peace process is no guarantee

of actual peace for ordinary Colombian citizens. According to the Colombian Ombudsman’s

Office 1,863 civilians were assassinated in 1999, the first year of the original peace process that

lasted from 1999 to 2002. In recent years the violence has spilled over into neighboring

Venezuela. There has been a rise of prolific gangsters in Venezuela, with the most notable being

el Conejo. After a security operation in Aragua state, captured henchmen of el Conejo said that

they had received training and financing from Colombian paramilitaries. 14 The Caracas

neighborhood of Cota 905 is considered an important fulcrum for armed gangs that the

Venezuelan state believes to have ties to Colombian paramilitarism, led by the likes of el Vampi,

el Koki, and el Garbys. 15

 

With elections set to take place in May of this year to elect the next President of

Colombia, the role of center-left candidate Gustavo Petro is a central one for this election.

According to polls he is the center-left candidate with the greatest chance of winning since

Gaitan more than 70 years ago. This poses an uncomfortable dilemma for the country- can

a center-left candidate truly win in such a political climate given the obscenely routine practice

of political assassination in Colombia(Pizarro, Galan, Leal etc.)? 16 Over the past weeks reports

have come out of Colombia concerning payments that have been made to three hitmen totaling

around 1500 million pesos, or $365,539. The purpose of these payments is to kill Petro at a

public meeting in the department of Risaralda. The Petro campaign has also had to suspend

activities in a region due to threats from a paramilitary group known as La Cordillera. 17

President Ivan Duque has insisted that they are “strongholds” of the criminal groups.

From last Thursday, May 5, to Tuesday, May 10, the paramilitary group the

Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, or Gaitanistas, declared an armed work stoppage to

protest the extradition of their leader, Otoniel, to the US on drug trafficking charges. The

Gaitanistas cynically named after Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, even though their politics are the

opposite of what Gaitan stood for. This armed siege of Colombian territories, especially, but

not only, in the north, shows that the organization is cohesive on a national scale. They killed

at least 26 persons and managed to paralyze and frighten up to 178 municipalities in 11

departments, according to figures from the JEP’s Investigation and Accusation Unit. 18

To aggravate the situation, for months Mexican drug cartels appear to have been shipping

high-powered weapons to Colombia to purchase shipments of cocaine; it is believed that there

are more weapons in the hands of civilians than the army itself. 19 At the same time, it is

disturbing that with less than a month to go before the presidential elections in Colombia,

President Ivan Duque has given a salary increase to the Colombian police of more than 35%,

the highest in more than 29 years. The police generally act brutally against peaceful protests

and in many cases have close relationships with different paramilitary groups. 20

 

It would be a catastrophe if Gaitan’s case were repeated after 74 years. At this critical

moment, the international community must accompany the Colombian people and must be

alert to any eventuality that could cause a new wave of violence that could have undesirable

and unpredictable consequences for Colombia and the entire region. The Colombian people

are already tired of violence and deserve to live in peace.

 

 

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