Terrorism and Political Trials

(The following article was originally written in Spanish for Pulso, a Bolivian newsweekly.)

The background is as follows: in El Alto, an Aymara city of 700,000 on the upper edge of La Paz, at 6:30 AM on the morning of April 10, members of the Body of Special Investigations of the Police (CEIP), under District Attorney René Arzabe, entered the home of Claudio Ramírez, 47, militant of the opposition party, Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), and former mayor of his town, La Asunta, in the sub-tropical Yungas region north of La Paz. The police, dressed in bulletproof vests and ski masks, sporting automatic weapons, surprised Francisco “Pacho” Cortés, 39, a former leader of the national peasant federation in Colombia, ANUC, in the shower, throwing him to the floor naked and kicking him, telling him to dress, and parading he, Claudio Ramírez, and a coca growers’ trade union leader, Carmelo Peñaranda, 30-along with Ramírez’ daughter and niece, Nelly Ramírez, 17, and Betty Nina, 18-before television cameras as leaders of a new “terrorist network” in Bolivia.

The evidence: 36 7.62 caliber bullets and a gas grenade, a 64-page “organic constitution” of the Bolivian National Liberation Army (ELN), three PVC tubes, wire and silicone. The bullets and grenade belong to Claudio’s son Omar, who was conscripted to fight against rebels in the Cochabamba water wars of April 2000. The construction materials belong to Claudio. They are to finish building his house.

On April 10, the press had been called to meet at the peasant market in Villa Tunari in El Alto at 5 AMby the U.S. Embassy, not the Bolivian government. At 11 AM, five hours after the arrests, drugs-nearly three kilos of cocaine-were found in plastic bags. Neighborhood witnesses testify they saw two women from the antinarcotics police, FELCN, go into the house with said bags.

As far as the “evidence” for terrorism, the District Attorney was of two minds: the group had a FARC banner but ELN literature. When Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who appears to have Alzheimers, spoke about the case at the Heads of State Conference in Cuzco, Peru, he named Cortés as a leader of the Colombian ELN, come to open a southern front among the coca growers in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia. Until Uribe was confronted by the Colombian Committee for Political Prisoners, his administration did not deny or confirm the charges against the citizen of his cattle republic, but the Minister of Justice and the Interior, Fernando Londoño, himself a rightwing fanatic, has since gone on record saying that Cortés is not wanted for subversion in Colombia, and has enjoyed government protection as a social movement leader. In fact, on the advice of his government, which told him it was becoming harder to guarantee his security, Cortés had arrived in Bolivia 4 days before his arrest in order to buy a house and settle his family there. Since Pacho’s arrest, his wife and children in Bogotá have had to move twice because of paramilitary threats against them. Pacho’s son Andrés, 17, has had to move to Bolivia to try to free his father.)

Political trials are of recent vintage in Latin America. Until the so-called “transition to democracy” in the early 1980s, the preferred methods of confronting social protest and armed insurgency had been torture, disappearance, and forced exile, the proportion between them depending on the period and country in question. While these methods have not disappeared-in Colombia they continue to be preferred-the law is now considered the most effective instrument for guaranteeing the continuity of the ruling order: neoliberal democracy. Within such a system, political trials delimit what Bourdieu called the political field, defining the limits between acceptable political protest and criminal actions. These cases cannot be considered in national context, because they are part of the imperial political environment; they define the reach of U.S. foreign policy.

The cases of the Colombian Francisco Cortés, and the Bolivians Carmelo Peñaranda, Claudio Ramírez, Nelly Ramírez and Betty Nina speak for themselves. According to the Colombian government-which is making “peace” with the very paramilitaries who drove Cortés, like thousands of others, to flee his country-Cortés is a peasant leader who was offered official protection under the Ministry of the Interior in 1999. If he had been an insurgent in the FARC or the ELN, most likely the State, or its paramilitary allies in the counterinsurgency struggle, would already have killed him. Not to speak of Claudio and Carmelo, who are ex-peasant leaders-there’s no armed insurgency in Bolivia. (Although there are paramilitaries.) Commentators as diverse as Freddy Morales (center-left) and Cayetano Llobet (extreme reactionary) agree that it is a crude frame up, and due to the fact that the Bolivian press was notified of events by the U.S. Embassy, many see the case as a clear example of growing U.S. intervention in “domestic” Bolivian politics. It points toward some kind of extraterritorial law, of the kind operative for foreigners in the principal Chinese ports before the Japanese occupation in 1942.

Since the “April 10th” case will define the reach of U.S. antiterrorist policies in Latin America, it is worth summing up some cases that, in the name of the struggle against terrorism, the law has been used to put a stop to social protest. At the beginning of the Nixon era, the Black Panthers confronted a series of political trials that, along with internal divisions fanned-when not created by-the FBI, led to their undoing as the vanguard of the freedom movement in the U.S. In 1969, the New York 21 were indicted on conspiracy charges tantamount to terrorism, and by 1971, by which time they had been acquitted of all charges, the Black Liberation Army had formed (BLA). That year, Nixon declared war on drugs, which began to infect some wings of the Black Panther Party soon after. It is thanks to the arduous struggles of organic intellectuals of a destroyed movement, some of them in prison, that we know these facts of contemporary U.S. history.

Another case is “April 7th” in Italy, the country in which was formed, following the hot autumn of 1969, the most radical proletarian and student movement of the North Atlantic world. In the context of the deep polarization that set in following the assassination of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades on March 16, 1978, on April 7, 1979, renowned political philosopher Antonio Negri, along with many anonymous worker and student militants of the far left, were detained on charges of terrorism. Some of them were indeed engaged in clandestine armed struggle, but not in coordination with the Red Brigades, while others like Negri, belonged to groups that committed crimes according to the Italian penal code at the time-but did not engage terrorism or have a centralized command structure. According to historian Alessandro Portelli, the “Case of April 7th” was fundamental to the implementation of the new “emergency” legislation, which did away with legal subtleties and constitutional niceties, while philosopher Massimo Cacciari wrote, “the lack of evidence is itself used as evidence of the ability with which terrorists concealed themselves” (quoted in Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories, SUNY Press, 1991, 247). To build the case, the State Attorney relied almost exclusively on militants who had turned state’s evidence (pentiti).

Thus the most powerful and radical student/proletarian movement of the North Atlantic in the 1960s and 70s was reduced, in the official story, to a terrorist conspiracy directed by one group, the Red Brigades, and one revolutionary philosopher, Antonio Negri. The imperial link came before the case itself: beginning in 1969, in the face of rising student and worker militancy, the CIA was involved in formulating the “strategy of tension”: terrorist acts perpetrated by the repressive organs of the Italian State and its neofascist allies, but attributed to the far left, like the 1980 Bologna bombing which killed 80 people in a train station. (It is worth noting that one of the men behind the attack, Stefano della Chiae was involved in the ultra-right wing “cocaine coup”-so-called because of the source of funding-directed by Gen. García Meza in Bolivia in 1980.)

Mumia Abu Jamal’s is another interesting case, because in terms of criminalizing dissent, it is the one most similar to the case of Pacho, Carmelo, Claudio, Nelly and Betty. Abu Jamal was an award-winning journalist and known as the “voice of the voiceless” in his native city, Philadelphia, where had helped found the local chapter of the Black Panther Party and served as Minister of Information, falling under the surveillance eye of the FBI and the Philadephia police, run by Frank Rizzo, when he was 15. At the end of the 1970s, when Mumia asked Frank Rizzo about his handling of the Move 9 case at a press conference, Rizzo publicly threatened him. On December 9, 1981, Mumia was arrested as the principal suspect of the murder of Daniel Faulkner, and in 1982 he was condemned to death. Since each and every one of the pieces of evidence used by then-District Attorney Ed Rendell have been exposed by the defense as false or unreliable, it is clear that if they can murder Mumia with legal sanction, they can kill any social activist, especially if she is black or Latina.

If District Attorney Arzabe “proves” that Pacho, Carmelo, Claudio, Betty and Nelly are “guilty” of the crimes of which they are accused, it will give Latin American governments the green light to use the law, in the name of the war against drugs and terror, to criminalize all social protest-a vain attempt to block the transition from the neoliberal model, which has collapsed throughout the continent, to another, as yet undefined. Such criminalization of protest might well encourage the armed insurgency it is ostensibly designed to combat. One has only to look at Colombian history for lessons.

The draconian Law of Citizen Security-which, according to La Prensa, requires the return of the butcher of February 12/13, Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, as Minister of Government, to impose a strong hand-may convince many activists that legal channels of protest are drying up. If non-violent direct action like road blockades are punishable by law with up to ten years imprisonment, what incentive is there to avoid political violence? Which raises the question: is this what the authorities want? Or will it be, as Engels said, a case of the unintended consequences of historical action?

FORREST HYLTON is conducting doctoral research in history in Bolivia and can be reached at forresthylton@hotmail.com.

Forrest Hylton is visiting professor of history at the graduate school at the Universidade Federal da Bahia. He taught for four years at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Medellín as well as three years at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. He is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and has written about Colombia for New Left Review, Nueva Sociedad (Buenos Aires), London Review of Books, Historical Materialism, Against the Current, Nacla Report on the Americas – and, last but certainly not least, CounterPunch.