The conflict’s recent history is well known. In the early 1980s, a rash of guerrilla kidnapping and extortion led to local alliances of drug traffickers, emerald smugglers, large landowners, multinational corporations, industrial groups and Colombia’s police and military forces. These groups formed paramilitary units such as the infamous Death to Kidnappers (MAS).
Ever since, these death squads have carried out most of the war’s killing, and they’ve functioned in close coordination with the nation’s U.S.-backed security forces (despite occasional objections from some officials, including Colombia’s human rights ombudsperson and its attorney general). In the 1990s, most of the death squads joined forces in a national rightwing federation, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
What’s understood less is that government support for paramilitary organizations is a tradition that dates back more than half a century. Mary Roldán’s new book, Blood and Fire: La Violencia in Antioquia, Colombia, 1946-1953 (Duke), makes a strong case that government links to paramilitary groups are nothing new and that “recent and past periods of violence are inextricably intertwined.”
Even before the 1948 assassination of Liberal Party leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the ruling Conservative Party was busy laying a legal basis for armed civilian squads known as “contrachusmas.” These squads attacked popular Liberals, inaugurating “La Violencia,” as Colombians refer to the mid-century years. Contrachusma deployment was coordinated by appointed Conservative mayors, many with criminal records.
The government also arranged civilian “police” units on the municipal level. Assistance for the deployments came from regular police forces, Conservative Party bosses and even priests. Using civilians gave the government plausible deniability at a rock-bottom price, since training amounted to little more than handing out .38 Specials.
In response to contrachusma attacks and massacres, a Liberal faction and other besieged Colombians organized “self-defense” groups. Years of partisan clashes, and eventually military bombings, led many of these groups to form the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 1964. But the state-sponsored terror persisted, making it nearly impossible for the FARC and other guerrilla groups to demobilize.
Roldán shows that “La Violencia” was not a natural development but, rather, the direct consequence of state-sponsored repression. The death squads were both a principal cause and sustaining force of the bloodshed.
The question is how long the government will be allowed to go on supporting death squads. Barring pressure from the United States, it looks like the preacher had it right: “That thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done.”
W. JOHN GREEN is a senior research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, D.C., and author of Gaitanismo, Left Liberalism, and Popular Mobilization in Colombia (University of Florida, 2003).
This column was originally published by Colombia Week; subscribe for free by writing to email@example.com.