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Dirty War in Colombia

Workers in Colombia are amongst the poorest in the world yet live in an area rich in natural resources. Colombia’s complex and on-going war between the government’s armed forces, drug producers and traffickers, leftist guerrillas and rightist paramilitaries, with blurred distinctions between each side, continues. Trade unionists, students, activists, journalists and those accused of collaborating with any side in the conflict are potential victims, not just combatants. This is not only a civil conflict, for following the globalisation of capital we see the globalisation of the means of defending capital: war.

In the late 1980s the Andean Group of governments further liberalized investment regulations to ease the repatriation of profits from foreign investments and to allow a greater foreign involvement in the national economy. This led to the Andean Pact free trade agreement in 1992. The most recent figures show that free-trade capitalism has done little to benefit workers in Colombia. World Bank figures show that the national poverty rate declined from 65 percent in 1988 to 64 percent in 1999. According to the FAO, the number of undernourished people in the population decreased from 6.1 million in 1990-92 to 5.7 million in 2000-02. If this is the World Bank’s current motto of ‘A World Free of Poverty’ in action, then Colombians will be waiting several decades before they even have enough food to eat in a country with the some of the richest natural resources on the planet.

In the late 1980s, when Colombia began to attract British capital, Margaret Thatcher sanctioned military assistance to Colombia’s notorious armed forces. This assistance continues to this day. Despite the efforts of journalists and activists, the British government refuse to disclose the full amount and nature of all the military assistance given to Colombia’s armed forces. It is known that British military officers have trained their members in the UK as well as in Colombia. The UK government has also aided the Colombian government to set up the National Intelligence Centre a co-ordinating body for the Colombian security forces. The UK government has also sanctioned arms sales to Colombia; indeed Colombian delegations have attended the Defence Systems and Equipment International Exhibition (DSEi) in London and Farnborough International Airshow at the invitation of the Ministry of Defence. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued arms export licences to the value of ú£3.5 million in 2004. The British government can refuse to allow export of arms, for example, on the basis of risk of use for internal repression, risk of contributing to internal tensions or conflict in the recipient country or the preservation of regional stability. Perhaps the case of Colombia is an administrative oversight.

US security assistance amounted to $98 million in military financing, $1.7 million for military training and education and $474 million for counter-narcotic operations in the 2004 financial year. Corporations are also thought to make donations to the Colombian military.

The US Department of State’s Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2004 state that members of the security forces continued to commit serious abuses, including unlawful and extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances. Also police, prison guards, and military forces mistreated detainees in harsh, overcrowded and underfunded prisons. State security forces were responsible for 124 extrajudicial killings during the first six months of 2004 and at least 17 of the 65 cases of forced disappearance. Victims are often portrayed as guerrillas killed in combat.

One of the controversial aspects of US-funded counter-narcotic operations involves the eradication of coca and opium poppy plantations by aerial herbicide spraying. The US Department of State’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs reports that 2004 was the fourth consecutive record-breaking year of aerial eradication: 136,500 hectares of coca and 3,061 hectares of opium poppy were defoliated. The use of broad-spectrum, non-selective herbicides means that not only is coca and poppy production affected but also food crops, pasture and forests, to say nothing of the possible effects of large amounts of herbicide on livestock and humans. The illicit crop eradication programmes have simply meant that new areas are brought into cultivation. The result is that the increasing destruction of immensely diverse natural forest as farmers are displaced by removal of their means of living and by poorly targeted spraying. Some compensation is available as part of the eradication programme but is inadequate when set against the losses, and not enough to act as a disincentive to further planting of illicit crops.

Commentators have suggested that US-funded counter-narcotic operations are little more than an attack on the financial supply lines of the guerrillas. Quoted in the New York Times last year, a spokesperson from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said ‘Key indicators of domestic cocaine availability show stable or slightly increased availability in drug markets throughout the country’. It seems that the eradication programme has had little effect on the supply of cocaine within the USA.

The Caûo Limùn oilfield in the Arauca region, which accounts for 30 percent of Colombia’s oil production, has seen some of the greatest violence in recent years. A pipeline which pumps oil to the Caribbean for export has been a major target for guerrilla forces seeking payment for not sabotaging the pipeline. The 18th Brigade of the Colombian military which is funded and trained by the US government and an oil company has been accused of abuses against civilians and of co-operation with paramilitaries. Health workers, trade unionists, teachers, journalists and activists as well as members of displaced peasant communities who lived near the pipeline have been victimised by the both the military and paramilitaries.

 

The US State Department and Amnesty International both state that despite the near impunity with which military personnel carry out atrocities, they continue to fight a ‘dirty war’ by collusion with paramilitary groups. The extent to which this occurs is unclear, reports vary from the merely sharing intelligence to paramilitaries and the military being trained, transported, armed and fighting together.

Paramilitaries were responsible for numerous violations of international humanitarian law and human rights according to the US Department of State’s Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2004. There are approximately 12,000 paramilitary fighters in Colombia, mostly members of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), a coalition of paramilitary groups. Though officially the AUC is demobilising and announced a ceasefire in 2002 more than 1,800 killings and disappearances have occurred since then. Paramilitaries were responsible for at least 304 of such killings during the first six months of 2004, including journalists, activists, trade unionists, indigenous leaders, local politicians and others who threatened to interfere with their drug trafficking activities or those suspected of collaboration with guerrillas. There are also reports that paramilitaries continued to commit ‘social cleansing’ killings of prostitutes, drug users, vagrants, and the mentally ill in city neighbourhoods they controlled.

One of the most well publicised aspects of paramilitary killing in Colombia in recent years involved the Coca-Cola company. SINALTRAINAL, a Colombian food and drink workers’ union, claim that members and their families have been abducted, tortured and murdered by paramilitaries hired by the management of Coca-Cola bottling plants. With no means of redress in Colombia, the union with the help of the United Steel Workers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund attempted to bring a case against Coca-Cola in Florida under the Alien Tort Statute and Torture Victim Protection Act. The court found the Colombian government complicit with the paramilitaries but absolved Coca-Cola of responsibility as the bottling companies were separately owned, despite Coca-Cola then being the major shareholder in the company. The union’s case against the bottlers is unresolved. Since the beginning of the case SINALTRAINAL have called for an international boycott of Coca-Cola products.

The paramilitary groups and guerrillas have their roots in La Violencia, the war of 1948–1957 between supporters of the oligarchic landowners and supporters of a liberal state and land reform. At the end of La Violencia several independent republics existed within Colombia. The armed forces of the state, supported by the US military, took these areas by force. From one of these republics known as Marquetalia, the creator and future leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) emerged with a small band of guerrilla fighters to continue to fight against the official parties who had now formed a power-sharing coalition. It was later that they aligned themselves with the Colombian Communist Party (PCC). FARC and the PCC severed links in the late 1980s. However, despite the differences between Marxism and the PCC’s Leninism, and the obvious discrepancies between FARC’s openly stated political programme and that of Marx, FARC and the smaller pro-Cuban National Liberation Army (ELN) are often referred to as ‘Marxists’ in the popular press. In fact, FARC declare themselves to be Bolivarian and call for ‘Colombia for Colombians, with equality of opportunities and equitable distribution of wealth and where among us all we can build peace with social equality and sovereignty’, rather than for Marx’s call for workers of all lands to unite for the overthrow of all existing social conditions.

FARC and ELN members were responsible for a large percentage of civilian deaths attributable to the armed conflict according to the US Department of State’s Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2004. FARC are thought to be responsible for hundreds of intentional killings and have injured hundreds of civilians with bombings and land-mines. FARC also kidnap, torture, and murder off-duty members of the public security forces. Both FARC and ELN kidnap hundreds of civilians to help finance their activities. The Colombian Presidential Programme for Human Rights reports that from January to November 2004, the FARC killed at least 99 persons in massacres. Guerrillas targeted local elected officials, candidates for public office, religious leaders, suspected paramilitary collaborators, and members of the security forces.

The war in Colombia reminds us that we are living with a globalised capitalism. The war is of a global nature and not just a domestic war. Tragically most workers still look to a beneficial national government for amelioration of their conditions. However, as long as the social conditions of capitalism exist, and minority ownership of the means of production and distribution, competition to be that minority will all too often turn to war. Be it the benevolent liberal democratic state with a mixed economy, or the free-market economy or a government of nationalized industry free of foreign influence, this has ever been the case. World socialism will destroy the social conditions that create poverty and war.

PIERS HOBSON