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Murder Epidemic Halts Colombia’s Peace Process

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Paramilitaries and armed thugs have long sullied politics in Latin America, most notably in Colombia and recently in Honduras. A recent increase in politically motivated killings in Colombia coincided with final preparations for signing a peace agreement between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government, at war for 50 years. The much anticipated accord never materialized.

In Honduras the murder of longtime environmental and indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres caps a wave of killings there of journalists, teachers, women, and especially of agrarian rights activists.

Governments and private parties serving predatory interests evidently regard terror at the hands of thugs or paramilitary forces as useful for maintaining dominion. Colombia’s paramilitary phenomenon warrants a look now because paramilitary attacks have brought Colombia’s peace process to a halt. Fortunately documentation of paramilitary offenses in Colombia provides much by way of details and particulars, more so than in Honduras, for instance. That’s because Colombian paramilitaries have long met resistance and gained special notoriety.

On March 23, after 40 months of talks in Havana, negotiators on both sides in the Colombian peace talks were to have announced a “Final Agreement,” one covering five agenda items they had set out to discuss. But an impasse developed over the last one, designated as “end of conflict.” It entails a “bilateral and definitive cease of fire and hostilities” and laying down arms.

FARC negotiators held back; an epidemic of killings during March revived long-held FARC concerns about the safety of ex-guerrillas in a time of peace. Others worry too.

The Executive Committee of the Patriotic Union (UP), a leftist political party, reported March 18 that in the previous three weeks “unknown armed men,” presumably paramilitaries, had carried out 11 politically motivated killings and “disappeared” three other people – whose bodies were found later.

Speaking to reporters, Aída Avella, the UP president, accused business leaders of financing the resurgence of paramilitaries. She also accused military leaders of being “immersed” in paramilitary operations. Avella herself went into foreign exile for 17 years in 1996 after a rocket destroyed the car in which she was a passenger.

In an open letter to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Andrés Gil, a leader of the Patriotic March, condemned the assassinations. “[I]f we continue to be killed,” he wrote, “then the conclusion will be that really there’s no room for anyone on the left…. You will pass into history not as the president for peace but as the one who didn’t take the fight against paramilitaries seriously.”

Referring to the flood of paramilitary victims, the FARC peace delegation released a statement asking, “How can this be in the midst of a peace process now approaching the signing of a final accord?” Colombian authorities, the FARC said, “can no longer delay clearing away the phenomenon of paramilitarism.”

The FARC has reason to be alarmed. Many FARC guerrillas left the insurgency in 1985 in accordance with an agreement signed with President Belisario Betancur. They engaged in electoral politics as candidates for the UP party. That provoked a massacre; some say almost 5000 UP activists have since been murdered.

FARC negotiator Carlos Antonio Lozada may have been thinking of that experience when he told reporters March14 that, “[W]e have to take measures to avoid being betrayed and attacked as happened in the past.” He noted that the government recently dismissed a technical sub-commission report, already agreed upon, calling for “a bilateral and definitive ceasefire.”

The FARC negotiating team took the occasion of Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit with them on March 21 to seek help in regard to the paramilitary problem. Kerry had accompanied President Obama on his historic visit to Cuba. The negotiators released a communication saying, “Mr. Kerry, we ask through you that the United States help curb paramilitary violence, which in the midst of the peace process keeps mowing down the lives of defenders of human rights and social leaders.”

The request is not without irony. The United States provides funds for the Colombian army, known to facilitate paramilitary operations. And in the early 1960s U. S. military experts advised the Colombian government to utilize paramilitaries to augment its campaign then of pushing back against leftist guerrillas.

In a joint press conference February 4 with President Santos in Washington, President Obama introduced a U. S. plan called “Peace Colombia.” The two leaders had met to celebrate the upcoming peace accord and the end after 15 years of Plan Colombia, that U.S. mechanism for supporting counterinsurgency and drug-war efforts in Colombia.

For Voz newspaper editor Carlos Lozano, the name of the new venture signifies a “Pax Romana, or peace of the graveyard.” He lamented that “within Peace Colombia there’s not one entry for combating paramilitarism, which is the principal obstacle to peace in Colombia.”

Trivializing the FARC and thereby perhaps signaling the guerrillas’ irrelevance in a Colombia at peace, the New York Times recently headlined a reporter’s story thus: “Inside a Rebel Camp in Colombia, Marx and Free Love Reign.” It celebrated the collapse of communism by likening the supposed decline of the FARC to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

To the extent that such triumphalism extends to official U. S. attitudes, prospects for peace in Colombia are diminished.

Nevertheless, neither Colombia’s government nor the United States will likely have the final say in regard to disruptions at the hands of paramilitaries. Other forces, powerful and based on realities, are in play, and have been. A voice on their behalf is heard from, of all places, inside prison.

Political prisoner Húbert Ballesteros joined the Communist Party and Patriotic Union in 1986. More recently he’s been a leader of both the Fensuagro agricultural workers’ union and the CUT labor federation. Writing on March 12, he reflects upon “the killings in Antioquia, Sur de Bolívar, Arauca, Bogotá, and Cauca; the jailing of social leaders in Cauca, and the spread of paramilitary bands the length and breadth of the country.” According to Ballesteros, “We can no longer continue assuming that this oligarchy wants peace [other than] a cheap peace, a silencing of the guns.”

He knows what to do: “[W]hile we are building scenarios of peace, we must organize the people for resistance, and do so massively and convincingly so that this government understands that people are no longer content to live under its domination.” We must deal with “the true problems of the country, which are unemployment, poverty, corruption, and social and political marginalization.”

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a retired pediatrician and political journalist living in Maine.

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