On Sunday in Colombia gunmen attempted to murder the presidential candidate for the Patriotic Union (UP) party. Aida Abella’s car was sprayed with bullets while she was out campaigning for the June presidential elections. The UP is promoting the peace talks in Cuba between the Revolutionary Armed Forces in Colombia (Farc) and the government.
The attempted political assassination happened in the oil-rich region of Arauca but the shots would have been echoing loudly in the Cuban capital Havana. Guerilla negotiators agreed terms to guarantee the safety of political parties of the left – and specifically for Farc ex-combatants – in November last year.
But the bullets are also like ghosts from recent history as Abella and the UP are highly symbolic. The UP was first set up by the Farc and sanctioned by the then government in 1985 as on outcome of an earlier peace process (La Uribe Accords of 1984).
The party soon developed into a broad organisation that contained many shades of red and was autonomous from the Farc even though it contained former combatants from the organisation.
Between 3-4,000 UP members were murdered between its creation in 1985 and the mid 1990s. Hundreds of local political representatives were assassinated, eight national congressmen and two presidential candidates. Most of those were not ex-guerrillas.
Abella was president of the UP in 1996 when somebody fired a rocket at her car in Bogotá. She was forced into exile in Switzerland in 1996 where she stayed for 17 years only returning to her last year. She is from a trade union background.
Who shot at Abella?
Two gunmen on a motorbike were seen carrying out the assassination attempt, but it is not clear which organization was responsible. Political assassinations against Colombia leftists have usually been carried out by paramilitary death squads, often in collusion with the army. For example, over 2,500 trade unionists have murdered in the last 20 years.
The death squads numbered over 30,000 when they were most active in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They demobilised in 2004 as part of a deal with former president Alvaro Uribe. This demobilisation has been dismissed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty international. The same human rights organisations pointed to links between the death squads and the military.
The word on the Colombian street is that they are keeping a lower profile. Violence has been reduced, but the organizational structures are still in place. They have been much quieter because their job has been done – the guerrillas were pushed back and weakened, poor farmers driven off the best agricultural land and natural resources such as oil, gas and gold secured for multinationals.
And everyone too frightened to challenge politically the status quo. “Wait till we start to give out leaflets and campaign, then we’ll see if they if the paramilitaries still exist,” said one leftist activist from Huila in the south. The answer came on Sunday.
It is the Farc that usually get the bad press. There has a carefully constructed media operation – particularly inside Colombia but also internationally – designed to turn the Farc into monsters while President Juan Manuel Santos is paraded as a statesmen.
But Santos’s party El Partido de la U has been riddled with paramilitary involvement. The government’s approach to the death squads has been to rebrand them. They have been depolticised and are now known as Bacrim or bandas criminales – criminal gangs in English.
How Santos deals with the death squads – whether he has the power or the will to put them out of business – will be the issue that makes or breaks any peace agreement.
Stephen Mather is a UK journalist based in Colombia.