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Discourse and War in Colombia

by Philip Cryan

Last week, Carlos Castaño, longtime leader of the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia), announced that the group was disbanding. For years the AUC has united the many local rightwing paramilitary groups in Colombia within a single federation.

The previous week, Colombia’s largest newspaper (“El Tiempo”) and major television news programs provided extensive coverage of civilian resistance to a FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the country’s largest guerrilla group) takeover in Toribio, a small town in the southwestern Colombian province of Cauca. The news sources claim that the people of Toribio have provided a new model for Colombians to emulate in supporting the government’s counter-guerrilla war, by standing up to the FARC, who had threatened to execute members of the defeated local police.

On August 7, Alvaro Uribe Velez will be sworn in as the next president of Colombia. Uribe’s foremost campaign promise was an intensification of the counter-guerrilla ­ or “counter-terrorist,” as it’s now of course invariably called ­ campaign: a decisive re-ordering of the balance of power between the government and the FARC, achieved militarily. In addition, Uribe has proposed the establishment of a network of “a million friends” ­ one million Colombian civilians enlisted as “eyes and ears” for the military’s campaign against the guerrillas. Though strongly criticized by Colombian social organizations of all kinds, this proposal has not met with the kind of general aversion to which President Bush’s similar proposal (“TIPS”) was recently ­ thankfully ­ subjected.

These three issues ­ the AUC’s announced dissolution, the Colombian media’s reverential coverage of a new form of “civil resistance” to the guerrillas, and Uribe’s campaign promises ­ seem to me deeply related (“deep” in the sense of fundamental but also in the sense of tectonic, below the surface, their conflagrations not yet visible). I will try to lay out some of these subterranean relationships, acknowledging that at this early stage such an analysis can only be speculative.

First: the cooptation of civil resistance (“resistencia civil”). Until a couple weeks ago, “resistencia civil” meant popular resistance to all of Colombia’s armed actors, a nonviolent opposition (often led, as was the case in Toribio, by indigenous communities) to the AUC, the FARC and ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrillas, and the Colombian State security forces (military and police). The first transformation carried out by media coverage of and Colombian government officials’ statements about Toribio was to shift the meaning of “civil resistance” from “resistance to all armed actors” to “resistance to the guerrillas.” CRIC (Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, the largest indigenous coalition in the province) leaders insist that the actions of the people of Toribio in fact were driven by a principled opposition to all armed actors, yet media coverage and government statements consistently portrayed those actions as opposition solely to the FARC.

The second transformation was to make “resistencia civil” mean active support of the Colombian State security forces. The actions of the people of Toribio were reframed as spirited defense of the police and State. This new model has been offered by the media and government for the emulation of the Colombian populace in general: stand up for the State and against the guerrillas. While anchormen discuss “civil resistance,” images of police and military forces flash across the television screen. An impressively executed rhetorical coup. When I recently visited a Colombian Army battalion in Popayan (the capital of Cauca province) they had a newspaper article about civilian support for the military, titled “La resistencia civil,” tacked up on the wall at the entrance.

The second element is the announcement by Carlos Castaño, the longtime leader of the AUC paramilitary federation (which is responsible for over 70% of the civilian deaths in Colombia’s conflict), of its dissolution. His stated reasons for pulling out of the federation were, basically, 1) that he disapproves of many members’ heavy involvement in drug trafficking, and 2) that he disapproves of the judgment and actions of some members in carrying out assassinations and kidnappings.

There are many things to say about this announcement. First, it is entirely unknowable at present whether or not the dissolution actually happened, whether this is their spin on an actual schism in the federation or whether it is pure p.r. It will probably be a while before anyone knows which of these is the case. Either way, Castaño’s “casting out the bad seeds” and distancing himself (and the regional paramilitary group to which he has now returned) from drug trafficking clearly serves strategically in a broader project of legitimization.

Bringing in the third element, Castaño’s announcement prepares the ground for this legitimization process under Uribe, who takes office in little more than a week. In addition, it creates space for the U.S. government to rethink its stated opposition to the paramilitaries, since now some of them will supposedly be ‘clean’ (having ‘purged the bad elements’) and potentially legitimate in the eyes of the new Colombian administration. This despite the fact that Castaño and the other ‘clean’ defectors have been involved in a mind-boggling series of brutal massacres, torture, death threats, and a host of different forms of social control and repression for more than a decade (all amply documented in Castaño’s memoirs). Crucial to this courting of U.S. government approval is Castaño’s moralizing condemnation of the great Satan of drug trafficking.

The move also coincides happily with the U.S. Congress’s first-ever approval of aid to create a Colombian military battalion charged specifically with fighting the paramilitaries. U.S. military aid in general is to be used against State Department-designated “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” ­ the FARC, the ELN, and the AUC. Now that they are no longer the AUC, are the paramilitaries an approved target of U.S. military aid?

The key to linking this move towards legitimacy by the paramilitaries with the cooptation of “civil resistance” and with Uribe’s proposed “million friends” program is a study published last summer by the RAND Corporation, a U.S. think-tank. The study, called “The Colombian Labyrinth,” offered advice to the U.S. government in its ongoing support of the Colombian military. Even before September 11th ­ in the days when the U.S. Congress and Bush administration disavowed any interest in Colombia beyond the Drug War ­ the RAND study argued that establishment of stability and “peace” in Colombia would require much more than crop-dusters to spray coca fields. The RAND study’s analysis brings the various recent developments in Colombia together in a neat and carefully-constructed package:

Realistically, because the paramilitaries are the product of an environment of insecurity, they will continue to be a factor in Colombia’s crisis as long as the conditions that gave rise to them are not changed. An alternative approach could be to establish a network of government-supervised self-defense organizations. Legalized self-defense units could at least give the central government more control over their activities, and possibly improve the prospects for peace by empowering local communities to provide for their own security.

So this, it seems, is where Colombia may well be headed. “Civil resistance” will mean “legalized self-defense units” legitimized by the new government ­ groups which, like the current paramilitaries, will actively support the Colombian military. As in the 1980s and early 1990s, collusion between the government and these “self-defense units” will not be disguised. And civilians will be enlisted ­ if not as soldiers, then as informants and supporters ­ in this project, queerly called “resistance.”

Such a world we live in, no? The Gap sprays graffiti on its own store-windows; the Colombian military’s dirty work outsourcer re-outsources its dirty work. A nonviolent stance becomes active support for war.

Resistance is allegiance; and war is peace.

Phillip Cryan lives in Bogotá, Colombia. His essay “Defining Terrorism,” first published by Counterpunch, is included in Shattered Illusions, a collection of essays on post-September 11th politics, now available from Amal Press. He can be reached at:


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