A significant rise in international opposition toward the militaristic policies of the Colombian state, under President Álvaro Uribe Vélez and Vice-President Francisco Santos Calderón (2002-2010), has been realized over the past week. Much of this opposition has been centred on an illegal military campaign carried out under the direction of Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, which saw Colombian forces deploy an air and ground assault against members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC-EP) shortly after midnight on March 1, 2008. The illegal clandestine mission, conducted by a special forces wing of the Colombia military via intelligence support from the United States, resulted in the deaths of Raúl Reyes, Julian Conrado, and twenty other combatants associated with the FARC-EP. Quickly, these events led both the President of Ecuador Rafael Correa and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to denounce the Colombian state’s blatant violation of international law and agreements established through the Organization of the American States (OAS) and the Andean Parliament, which prevent a nation’s sovereign territory from being violated.
Virtually every country in Central and South America, including the Caribbean, has denounced the Colombian state’s aggressions. During meetings of the OAS, state officials and representatives from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, and Nicaragua, condemned the assault. Critics of Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution, such as Peruvian President Alan Garcia and Paraguay’s President Nicanor Duarte, have put aside their ideological positions and agreed that the Uribe and Santos administration not only overstepped their boundaries but must effectively guarantee that such a flagrant violation of international law cannot, for the good of the region, transpire again. Unsurprisingly, one of the only backers of the illegal military incursion was the US vis-à-vis President George W. Bush and J. Robert Manzanares, the United States’ representative during the OAS meetings.
While a consistent distain toward the Colombian state continues to resonate throughout various Latin American countries so too has a considerable opposition been witnessed within Colombia itself. A domestic condemnation appeared this past Thursday. Colombians from all walks of like not only protested the illegal incursion of their country’s forces on Ecuador’s territory but denounced human rights abuses against sectors of the Colombian populace at the hands of the Uribe and Santos administration and their links to the Colombian paramilitary.
In the past year, just under 80 governors, mayors, and Congressional politicians have been alleged or found guilty of having direct connections, meetings, and/or contracts with the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC), which led to oppositional political opponents being targeted for assassination, trade-unionists threatened, and various community organizers disappeared. Included in this list is Colombia’s Vice-President Francisco Santos Calderón, his cousin Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos, President Uribe’s brother Santiago and their cousin former-Senator Mario Uribe.
Promoted by the National Movement of Victims of State-Sponsored Crimes (Movimiento Nacional de Víctimas de Crímenes de Estado, MOVICE) and various social justice-based organizations, March 6 was a day of remembrance, homage, and protest against those tortured, murdered, and disappeared by reactionary sectors of Colombia’s past and present government, military, and paramilitary-linked factions. For months, human rights groups, sectors of organized labour, and politically conscious civilians worked together to create a domestic and international response to the atrocities committed. Luis Alberto Matta highlighted that 270 cities, medium sized towns, and large villages within Colombia had connected with each other to arrange and offer their support. Outside Colombia, an estimated 140 cities in twenty-three countries across Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and Latin America coordinated events outside Colombian embassies and consulates in conjunction with the day of protest.
After months of preparation and days of travel across countless kilometers, Colombian men and women peacefully demonstrated their distain and opposition. Manuel Rueda reported that in total hundreds of thousands, throughout the countryside and urban centres, came forth to show their condemnation for the state’s coercive disregard for the plight of the many. Bill Weinberg and the BBC documented that over 40,000 arrived in Bogotá and surrounded the Casa de Nariño and the Plaza de Bolívar in protest. On March 6, 2008, Colombians from all socioeconomic brackets, religions, ethnic backgrounds, and racial categories flooded the streets to indirectly confront paramilitaries who forced communities and individuals to vote for the Uribe administration or face torture and death; publicly raped and molested children, women, and men; executed and/or mutilated civilians with chainsaws; inflicted castrations; cut off the limbs of non-combatants; murdered the mentally and physically challenged; suffocated children in front of their parents; committed acts of cannibalism; and decapitated suspected guerrillas and subsequently used their skulls during soccer games with the Colombian army.
While the demonstration was a great success, the state tried relentlessly to dissuade social and political participation through both direct coercion and psychological intimidation. A few weeks ago, President Uribe’s top political adviser, José Obdulio Gaviria, proclaimed the events scheduled for March 6 as nothing more than a rally coordinated through the FARC-EP. Such statements clearly de-legitimized the reality of the event by linking those who participate as ‘terrorist’. Coinciding with the states threats, Colombia’s popular media outlets, primarily El Tiempo, made a spectacle of the slaughtered FARC-EP Comandante Raúl Reyes. These media groups paraded photographs of the bullet ridden and mutilated corpse of Reyes on an hourly basis. Such propaganda was employed as a tool to psychologically intimidate and deter activists and socially conscious peoples within Colombia from participating in the protest. Through a more direct tactic of intimidation, paramilitaries within the southwestern department of Nariño threatened to attack any organization or person associated with the activities.
Days prior to the demonstration, in the face of threat and intimidation, indigenous communities, Afro-Colombians, and rural-based civilians began their procession to the Plaza de Bolívar in the heart of Bogotá. For example, Helda Martínez symbolically documented how roughly 700 people of various ethnicities and racial backgrounds – all of whom have been displaced by state and paramilitary forces – from Cauca, Chocó, Cundinamarca, Huila, and Tolima joined together at a bridge linking Flandes, Tolima and Girardot, Cundinamarca. The collective then proceeded to drop thousands of ‘flowers of all colours’ into the flowing current of the country’s famous Magdalena River, paying homage to those disappeared, tortured, and/or murdered by a select minority that seeks to uphold Colombia’s dominant class.
As the sun fell on March 6, it was clear that people in Colombia want peace with social justice. Ironically, as hundreds of thousands marched for an end to the civil war.
JAMES J. BRITTAIN is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada and the co-founder of the Atlantic Canada-Colombia Research Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.