Militarism and Social Movements

“Half of the country is in the hands of the paras,” Paula says by the candlelight in a bar in La Candelaria, the historic old town of Bogotá that has been declared a World Heritage Site. “Wherever they establish their domain, they impose strict rules on daily life and customs: the haircuts of the young people, the closing times of the bars and clubs, and above all, they control and harass the women.” Paula works for an environmental organization and she cannot hide her anguish over a country that she and many other Colombians feel is slipping out of their hands. Daniel, a university professor, more calmly adds, “Here there was a war and the paramilitaries won. The paramilitaries are not only auxiliaries of the state, but they are also the embodiment of a societal project that hopes to wipe out the social advances and conquests of more than a century.”

Both assertions, at first glance, appear exaggerated. Friday night, La Candelaria is full of young students from the private universities that abound in the area who flock to the many bars that dot this beautiful neighborhood of narrow, cobblestone streets and old colonial houses. The night seems peaceful with nothing to reveal that the country is at war and, as my hosts claim, controlled by the military. But upon leaving the bar, we see uniformed patrols entering the nightspots, asking for documentation or simply observing the clientele. Back at the hotel, we turn on the television to a program about the Colombian armed forces, with beautiful young women extolling the virtues of the military’s social work.

As the days pass, my initial doubts about militarization disappear. Bogotá is a city bristling with olive-green uniforms. The military presence is an unavoidable part of daily life. At the main entrance of the National University, for example, several armored vehicles serve to remind the students that at any moment the soldiers may enter to restore “order.” This kind of supervision constitutes systematic control of the very pores of social life. And with it, according to all reports, fear is converted into a way of life, with no end in sight.

If the military presence is suffocating in the big city, in the rural areas it is even stronger and, above all, more indiscriminate. The war and violence in Colombia revolve on a central axis: land. Territorial control is the reason for a conflict that has already lasted half a century. It began in 1948, when liberal leader and popular mayor Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated. He was detested by the Colombian oligarchy, one of the most unyielding in the world. With time and global changes, the fight for land as a means of production is being replaced with the defense of territory as a space to nurture identities, people’s histories, and natural riches. Additionally, Colombia has been converted into an essential piece of the regional, geopolitical chess game, for its ports on both the Pacific and the Caribbean, for its proximity to Panama and the world’s most important maritime route, and for its extensive border with Venezuela, a country that is in the sights of the White House.


Winning the War

Álvaro Uribe was elected president of the war. A half century of civil violence (since the Bogotazo of 1948, a spontaneous popular insurrection after the assassination of Gaitán) and 20 years of failed peace processes have generated deep skepticism in a population that is tired of politicians and their electoral promises.

War is destroying the social fabric of the country: Almost 3 million displaced persons, 8,000 homicides annually for socio-political reasons, 3,500 detentions a year, and hundreds of forced disappearances. These are the tragic results of a conflict that appears interminable. In all, Colombia has one of the highest crime rates in the world, with some 27,000 homicides a year. (1) The state appears incapable of offering security and justice in a situation of deteriorating institutions. This panorama explains the reasons why the population feels fear and chose security in 2002, electing Álvaro Uribe, who was promoted by the paramilitary sector, on a hard-line platform of ending the war. The ruinous situation dates back decades. In 1978, then-President Turbay Ayala (1978-1982) expanded the Statute of Security, which gave the armed forces judicial functions and opened the doors to the systematic violation of human rights. The Constitution of 1991 eliminated the state of siege with which the country had been governed for one century, but it instituted a state of shock.

Colombia lives in a permanent contradiction between constructing democratic order or authoritarian order. The wide-ranging violence and the election of Uribe tipped the balance toward the second option. The neoliberal model, generator of exclusion and social marginalization, and the policies of the government of U.S. President George W. Bush, among them the “Plan Colombia,” do nothing more than strengthen authoritarianism. The present Colombian administration decided to cut social spending in order to finance the war. The methods adopted by Uribe clearly show this orientation: the creation of a net of civilian informers of up to a million people to help the armed forces; security fronts in neighborhoods and businesses; tied to this a network of taxi and other drivers to ensure security on streets and highways; and the establishment of a Day of Reward that pays citizens who in the previous week helped the law stop acts of terrorism and capture those responsible. Moreover, the government has increased the personnel in the armed forces by 30,000 and in the police force by 10,000. Plus, it has created 120,000 “peasant soldiers.” It has also set up Zones of Rehabilitation and Consolidation under the direction of the military in which civil liberties, such as the right of assembly and mobilization, are restricted.

At the same time that this promotes the dismantling of the public apparatus, it is generating situations of legal informality that favor indiscretion in the use of force. The scheme encourages the reorganization of society using the army as a model. Analyst María Teresa Uribe maintains that it is an attempt to “model society along the lines of a militia and convert the citizen into a combatant with duties and obligations in the scenes of war.” With this vigilante society, “trust between neighbors, old loyalties of solidarity and the threads of cordiality break, dissolve, atomize; and in this context of mutual suspicion, collective action, public deliberation, and social organization decline. It ends with silence prevailing and with the withdrawal of individuals into the private and domestic sphere.” (2)


Guerrillas, Paramilitaries, Drug Trafficking

The previous description, although correct, does not cover the whole problem. The war happens on stages determined by geography and history’s idiosyncrasies. Colombia’s fragmented territory is divided by three branches of the Andean mountain range. It is crisscrossed by jungles and mountains, forests of permanent fog, deep valleys, and inaccessible regions. The Colombian state, which was formed by the gradual integration of territories, populations, and social groups, never was able to control all of this territory. It never was a modern state, and today the principal economic and social problem of the country is the concentration of land, which generated an agrarian problem that was never resolved. In sum, there never was a true state in Colombia or anything like agrarian reform or a redistribution of the land, which makes Colombia different from many other South American countries.

The enormous power of the national and regional elites, woven over a stratified social base and the marginalization of the majority of farmers, produced two complementary facts: the fragmentation of the presence of the state and the weakness of the mechanisms of social regulation. This was compensated for with a wider movement of permanent colonization, with the expulsion of the “excess” population of farmers toward the margins of agricultural borders and, more recently, toward the periphery of the big cities. “In these zones the organization of social life is left to the free play of the people and social groups, due to the absence of state regulation and the lack of relations with the national society.” (3)

In these areas the guerilla was born. It is the continuation-certainly amplified and more systematic-of a duality of powers inherited from colonial times: The isolated territories were populated by marginalized groups, mestizos reluctant to bow to the control of the clergy, whites without land, blacks and mulattos fleeing from the mines. These are regions that are the exact opposite face of the elitist cities, which are governed as the feudal territory of the dominant groups. Daniel Pécaut, one of the most knowledgeable analysts of Colombia, maintains that the state conserves its own oligarchic and exclusive features. For that matter, so does the culture of the Colombian elites.

FARC, created in 1966, emerged from groups of farmers armed to defend the liberal communities that emerged during la Violencia. (4) Rather than seeking nearly impossible ideological agreement, they sought territorial affinities. The guerilla was consolidated in the zones of colonization, where the peasants needed to protect themselves from the state and the landowners, and where the geography offered refuge. Afterward, the cultural changes of the 1970s, the criminalization of peasant protest, the birth of the powerful urban movements (workers and students), and the radicalization of the middle class contributed to the birth of other rebel groups (ELN, EPL, and M-19). Currently, FARC counts some 20,000 combatants and the ELN has some 4,000. The other groups disarmed throughout the 1990s.

The paramilitary groups (of 10,000 to 20,000 members) were born out of the civil “self-defense” groups, legally created by the army at the end of the 1960s to serve as backup to counterinsurgency operations. Amnesty International and Americas Watch have thoroughly documented the close relationship between the paramilitaries and the security forces of the state, as have the United Nations and the Organization of American States. They all attribute the immense majority of human rights violations in Colombia to the paramilitary groups and they characterize them as imposing terror in the zones that they control.

But things do not stop here. The paramilitaries are tightly tied to the big landowners (their “social cradle”) and to drug trafficking, sectors whose limits are also hard to define. While the army handed out the weapons to the paramilitary forces, it was the owners of coffee plantations and cattle farmers who organized them, choosing to confront the FARC on their own ground, with the formation of groups of drug-addicted peasants. Their targets were not only the guerillas, but also the union leaders, professors, journalists, defenders of human rights, and politicians of the left. With the years, the rise of drug trafficking has modified this situation. The Americas Watch 1990 report states that the drug traffickers have become big landowners, and as such, have begun to share the right-wing politics of the traditional landowners and directors of some of the most notorious paramilitary groups. (5)

The diverse “private armies” ended up coming together as the United Self-Defense of Colombia (AUC) during the 1990s. Economically and militarily powerful, they contributed to choosing a president who is considered a loyal friend, in addition to the numerous legislators who back them. On July 15, 2003 the government and the AUC signed an agreement for demobilization. It has been two years since they announced a ceasefire, yet in 2004 they were responsible for the death or disappearance of 1,300 people, or more than 70% of all of the politically motivated homicides in the country not related to combat. (6) Demobilization talks are continuing in Santa Fé de Ralito. While the government defends the demobilization of AUC and says it is submitting to justice, the paramilitaries have rejected this possibility. One of the greatest difficulties is that many of the paramilitary leaders can be extradited to the United States, where they would be judged for drug trafficking.


Three Phases of Plan Colombia

Plan Colombia is useful for militarization of the country, but also, in a striking way, for the consolidation of paramilitarism as a social and political alternative. Some analysts distinguish three phases of the process of consolidation and expansion, based on the declarations of the paramilitary leaders themselves. An imperative reference is the experience of the Magdalena Medio, one of the strategic zones of the country where the ultra-right was able to uproot enclaves of guerillas and the union movement (as it has in the oil city of Barrancabermeja).

The first phase is about “liberating” by means of war or terror “large zones of subversion and its popular bases of support, imposing the process of land concentration, the modernization of roads, of services, and of infrastructure, the development of capital and the new hierarchical structure, and the authority in the social and political organization of the region.” The second phase is about “bringing wealth to the region” by generating jobs, handing over land, different kinds of productive projects, technical assistance, and credit. This looks good on paper, but “the new inhabitants who occupy the old liberated zones are not those who were uprooted by violence; it is a new population (poor people brought from other regions), loyal to the ‘patroncito’ who rapidly organized them, formed their base groups. This is the paramilitary self-defense.” The third phase is consolidation, when the conditions are ripe for the expansion of multinational capitalism and the modernizing state. (7)

The objectives of Plan Colombia are present in each one of the three stages: Although 80% of the resources appear to be dedicated to the war and the strengthening of the military apparatus, important parts of the budget are dedicated to plans to improve the infrastructure, health, education, and alternative development (see Plan Colombia). In this sense, it is important to conceive of Plan Colombia as an integral, long-range project to “open” the entire region to the control of the multinationals and the United States. That is why analysts frequently point out that Plan Colombia is a way of “preparing the turf” for the imposition of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). (8)

In fact, in some regions such as in Magdelena Medio, parts of the resources of the Plan Colombia fell into the hands of the paramilitaries’ nongovernmental organizations that manage the plan’s social funds. At the same time, with the imposition of strict control over daily life, the project of domination allows “the revival of paternalism of the old landlords without the minimum social obligations of the past.” (9) In Barrancabermeja, a paramilitary laboratory, “they prohibited the kids from wearing long hair, earrings, and bracelets. They closed the gay bars, and the beauty parlors of homosexual men were transferred to women. They killed one homosexual man, and then they cut off his penis and put it in the mouth of the dead body.” Also, they established a curfew for minors and obligatory schooling until age 17. They limited the hours for public establishments and imposed sanctions and punishments on those who disobey. The report from various human rights organizations about the Magdalena Medio notes: “On a side street in any of the neighborhoods of Barrancabermeja and Puerto Wilches, one can see boys with machete in hand, cleaning the public areas as part of their punishment. In other cases they are forced to wear signs that say that they are thieves, prostitutes, etc.” Reaching the end of the report, I find that the anguish of my hosts in Bogotá, Paula and Daniel, is more than justified.


Difficult Work of Social Movements

How can one create a social movement in a militarized society, one in which the spaces for public action are closed, and where the activists and leaders are killed or systematically kidnapped? And, above all, how can civil society avoid reproducing militarism in the process? For those seeking demilitarization, there is no question that all actors in the conflict violate human rights, including the guerillas. In Colombia, Pécaut points out, “Violence is not only a series of happenings, it is the eruption of a new modality of politics.” That is to say that politics since 1948 or even earlier represents violence. (11) The depths of the violence in Colombia are such that not only does it impregnate all manifestations of the political and social, rather it constitutes them.

Nevertheless, some models exist for escaping the logic of polarization through the creation of demilitarized zones off limits to the different actors in the conflict: guerillas, paramilitaries, and army. It is not something simple, since violent elements break in to destroy, assassinate, sequester, and torture. What’s more, these areas have been considered at some time or other by all the actors in the conflict as zones of real or potential “enemies.” Nonetheless, these models provide an option to the temptation to respond to the violence with violence or the temptation to abandon the land, an even more frequent desire. Luis Angel Saavedra, director of Inredh, a human rights organization in Quito, maintains that “Plan Colombia is a part of a greater strategy to control the social movements of Latin America, and the resources of this part of the world.” (12) He argues that similar plans for military control were undertaken in all of the countries of the Andean region with the pretext of coca eradication, because they are the sites where the peace movements are most active. From this follows the urgent necessity of finding alternatives to militarism, which always favors those who dominate.

The second problem is the lack of a real social movement of national proportions able to demonstrate itself as an alternative to the conflict. A good part of the experiences for peace are local initiatives, with the notable exception of the indigenous movement that only represents 2% of the Colombian population but has a large geographic area of influence. The Regional Indigenous Council of the Cauca (CRIC) forms part of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), which unites all the ethnicities of the country. As an outcome of hundreds of years of resistance, the indigenous peoples obtained recognition of territories, called “indigenous havens.” There are 712 in the country and they occupy 30% of the Colombian territory. The Constitution of 1991 recognizes collective rights and the Indian people’s territories. But they are being threatened by what they call a “new invasion.” The pressure is on to eliminate Article 329 of the Constitution, which recognizes the inalienable character of indigenous territories, in order to implement the FTAA.

The indigenous peoples of the Cauca are resisting the war by their decision not to participate in the conflict. They do it as a community and collectively, based on their cosmology, in an unarmed and non-violent way. They maintain that they are experiencing the new invasion as a consequence of globalization. The first and fundamental step is the defense of territory, from people as well as from cultural, social, and economic threats. They are trying to maintain diversity in the means of production, rescuing and strengthening traditional ways of cultivating the earth, conserving seeds to prevent the disappearance of crops–everything contrary to the intentions of the FTAA. They postulate territorial organization as “a perfectly viable way for the general population to resist the war.” (13)

They resist being uprooted and hold onto their land. They preserve their own languages as a way to defy cultural homogenization. They value and fortify traditional knowledge of healing and all that affects the territory and the population. Their communities have organized “Indian guards,” unarmed commune members with ancestral canes of authority or chontas, who protect residents. The guard “depends exclusively on the community, which in big assemblies decided to reorganize it, establishing rules of control, criteria and requisites for its members.”(14) Guards carry out no police functions, and all commune members have to take their turns at being guards. They have set up meeting places for inhabitants to gather when an armed conflict breaks out between the guerrilla and the paramilitaries or the army. They sound alarms for the community at times of danger. Without resorting to violence, the guards have recovered people kidnapped by armed groups. They maintain that the system of guards can be utilized by other sectors of the population to resist the war, too.

Besides the indigenous communities in Colombia, other population groups around the country, and especially in rural areas, have declared their territory war-free, demanding that the armed groups leave. San José de Apartadó, in the north of the country, is the first of these communities of peace. Created in 1997, it maintains its stance despite the aggressions of armed groups from the left and the right. In only seven years the small community suffered more than 360 human rights violations and more than 144 assassinations, perpetrated by the actors of the conflicts.

In August, San José de Apartadó opened the Peasant University of the Resistance, receiving support from 15 other communities. In December of 2004, the community held the Second Meeting of Communities of Civil Resistance, “inspired by life and solidarity as an answer to the actions of death that the Colombian state uses against the communities.” It is true that the communities of peace movement is small for the size of the challenges, but to have maintained itself and expanded in the past seven years, the most violent years of the war, spells hope.

Apart from the urban mobilizations against the war, Plan Colombia, and the FTAA was the outstanding indigenous “Minga for Life, Autonomy, Liberty, Justice, and Happiness,” which was celebrated this past Sept. 13. La minga (a collective work in the indigenous language) was a mobilization of 60,000 Indians of the Cauca (south) that convened in Cali for three days.

Organized by the CRIC, la minga was not directed at the government. It featured no platform of vindications. Rather it was directed toward the people, who were called upon to defend life against the war and to oppose the free trade agreement between Colombia and the United States. The large mobilization managed to create a demilitarized zone for three days. It opened with the rescue of the Indian mayor of Toribío, kidnapped by the FARC. The members of the indigenous guard arrived en masse, overwhelmed the troops of the armed group and liberated the mayor together with his delegation.

The indigenous people showed that it is possible to pry open cracks in a militarized society, if it’s clear that you don’t fight war with more war. Or, as the indigenous women of the south say, fight to undermine “the dominant logics of eliminating the other,” because “in the logics of life, there is no other, rather the constant flow that does not eliminate but creates.” They denounce the logic of destruction, saying it is only for the oppressors or the oppressed, because “the ends and the means cannot be separated.” (15) They believe that the transformations are made from the bottom up and from the inside out, from the local to the global and from the singular to the universal. That’s what helped them break the barriers of militarism and indifference. Daniel, the professor from Bogotá, was in Cali that Wednesday in September when thousands of Indians crossed the elegant commercial streets in the second-largest city in Colombia. “It was exciting,” he confesses, “to see the rest of the population’s reception of the Indians. The people were applauding and others were crying. This is the other Colombia, the one of hope.”

RAÚL ZIBECHI is a member of Editorial Council of the weekly Brecha de Montevideo, teacher and research of social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina , and adviser to social groups. He is a monthly contributor to the IRC’s Americas Program.



Acosta, Alfredo (2004) “Resistencia indígena ante unanueva invasión,” en La resistencia civil. Estrategias de acción y protección en los contextos de guerra y globalización, PIUCP, Bogotá.

Americas Watch (1991) La ‘guerra’ contra las drogas en Colombia, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá.

Amnistía Internacional (2004) Colombia: un laboratorio de guerra. Represión y violencia en Arauca.

Caldón, José Domingo “Pueblos indígenas y resistencia a la guerra,” en La resistencia civil, ob. cit.

González, Fernán 2004 “Una mirada de largo plazo sobre la violencia en Colombia,” en revista Bajo el volcán, Puebla, No. 7.

Loingsigh, Gearóid (2002) La estrategia integral de paramilitarismo en el Magdalena Medio de Colombia, en

Pécaut, Daniel (1987) Orden y violencia: Colombia 1930-1954, Siglo XXI, Bogotá.

Plataforma Colombiana de Derechos Humanos, Democracia y Desarrollo (2004) Reelección: el embrujo continúa. Segundo año de gobierno de Álvaro Uribe Vélez, Plataforma Colombiana de Derechos Humanos, Bogotá, 2004.

Unidad Indígena (2004) periódico de la ONIC, No. 119, Bogotá, septiembre.

Salgado Ruiz, Henry (2004) “Plan Colombia: ¿Guerra contra las drogas o contra las poblaciones amazónicas?,” en Bajo el volcán, Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, Puebla, No. 7.

Sarmiento, Libardo (1996) Un modelo piloto de modernización autoritaria en Colombia, CREDHOS, Barrancabermeja.

Uribe, María Teresa, “El republicanismo patriótico,” en Reelección: el embrujo continúa, ob. cit.

Zuluaga Nieto, Jaime (2003) “Colombia: entre la democracia y el autoritarismo,” revista OSAL No. 9, Buenos Aires, enero.