Colombia: Between an Electoral Peace and the Return of Fear

Bogotá, Colombia.

In the midst of a severe crisis in the peace talks between the Colombian government and the guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC by their Spanish initials) in Havana, terrorist acts have reappeared in urban centers that could be part of a dirty war by the extreme right and other enemies of the peace process, as they prepare to run in upcoming elections next October 2015.

Since September of 2012, the Colombian government and the FARC—People’s Army (EP), have been in dialogue in Havana, Cuba and have advanced as never before on crucial issues for the country. But the absence of an enforcement body (which could have been the UN) that would trusted by both sides and the Colombian media to verify the ceasefire, insure that agreements are respected and report instances of non-compliance on both sides, and to shield the process from the negative propaganda of dissident sectors and the extreme right, has left the dialogues in their worst moment and increased fears that they could stall.

The first incident that provoked the nation’s condemnation was the murder last April of 10 military officers in the municipality of Buenos Aires in the north of the department of Cauca. This was followed by the almost immediate response from President Santos’ government to renew the bombardment of guerilla territory, killing at least 51 suspected guerilla members up until this past May according to Defense Ministry sources.

Other victims of the war include the animals, rivers and vast regions suffering deforestation or damage from the demolition of oil pipelines (the FARC blew up an oil pipeline that polluted the waters of a tributary that supplies water to Tumaco, a city in the south of the country – one of the poorest regions – in the process killing hundreds of animals and other life forms), and from the legal and illegal mining operations that also affect many regions but don’t receive the same media coverage.

The national government maintains a contradictory peace discourse that glorifies the heroism of the murdered soldiers, but paints the supposed guerilla members as terrorists or criminals. Even if they were, they are still human beings, many of them poor and recruited at gunpoint or due to lack of opportunities.

And we can’t forget the infamous cases of the “false positives”, where members of the Colombian National Army disguised teenagers from poor neighborhoods of different regions in the country as guerilla members fallen in combat. the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights in Colombia states that the total of false positives could surpass 3,000 cases in recent years.

Between a peace the country needs and an electoral peace

From the beginning of the peace talks, various topics have been proposed that should be obvious for a democratic country, but that have been violently denied for more than 50 years: 1) development of an integrated agricultural policy that proposes the need for zones reserved for peasant food production and safeguards food sovereignty in a country that currently counts on large-scale mining for its development; 2) increase political participation so as to reverse the mafia-style co-opting and exclusion of many of those holding elected office; 3) put an end to the armed conflict, not just the laying down of arms but also the necessary restructuring of the Colombian army; 4) find a solution for the drug-trafficking problem that includes more humane policies that attend to the needs of poor farmers, and consumers from a public health perspective; 5) provide integral reparation for the victims of armed conflict, which implies the sensitive subject of how to define the victims, given that the FARC members consider themselves to be historic victims of exclusion by the state; 6) submit the agreements to referendum under an obligatory constitutional assembly that would allow for a redesigning of the country’s political system, and a renewal of the rules of the game for a necessary period of transitional justice.

Given the enormous challenges surrounding these issues, the negotiations have put on display the most pragmatic side of both parties, and the government and the guerrilla’s relative lack of willingness to think beyond their own interests. Obviously, a peace process requires an unpleasant pragmatism that the thousands of victims of violence committed by the guerillas, the paramilitary groups formed by businessman, political leaders and mafia bosses to counter the guerillas, and of course the state agents find difficult to understand. But while the ultimate goal is peace for the country, it becomes hard to reach when the political, economic and social conflicts at the root are not reflected in the agreements.

The Colombian government has consistently maintained that the country’s economic model is not up for negotiation, but a few obvious questions arise: How to reverse the economic dynamics that place Colombia among the most unequal countries of the planet? How can peace possibly be reached without reevaluating issues like the free trade agreements that have further impoverished Colombia’s rural producers?

Another challenge for the peace process will be how to involve the financial system, the trade unions and some sectors of the armed forces to participate in a peace that is not simplistically understood as the laying down of arms or defeat of the guerilla. The peace the country needs requires levels of equality and social justice that can impede any resurgence of violence as a desperate response to unmet social demands. It is about giving the thousands of youth that are dying today as a result of the war a chance to exercise the right to a life not shattered by violence and death.

The war in Colombia has a clear relationship to interests that range from drug trafficking to the discretionary use of public resources by the military, and is justified by the electoral opportunism of those who sell the war as the only solution to “terrorist violence”. Could it not be possible that the best way to stop the murder of soldiers is to intensify the peace dialogues instead of sending more young men to the battlefield?

The electoral campaign coming up in October for Colombia’s mayorships, governerships, departmental legislatures and municipal councils seems more like a third round of the presidential campaign, where the forces of the governing coalition of President Santos are measured up against the sectors loyal to former president Alvaro Uribe sectors that question the current peace process, and whose doubts should be part of a great national debate. It is necessary to put an end to the rumors and disinformation aimed at the average citizen, who tends to view the peace process as a dialogue between elites of the government and the guerilla that has nothing to do with his or her daily life, in spite of the fact that thousands of today’s urban inhabitants are children or grandchildren of those who arrived fleeing from the war and violence of the last 50 years.

The return of terror and fear

In the last two weeks of June, 2015, two explosive devices blew up in Bogota bringing back memories of the era when Pablo Escobar sowed terror in cities throughout the country with bombs that exploded indiscriminately, seeking to kill as many people as possible. And while these events occurred during an uptick in the hostilities between the army and the FARC, the latter has not taken responsibility for the attacks and it is feared that they may be the work of ultra-right wing sectors that seek to create panic and turn public opinion against the peace process.

The right is yet again featuring the issue of “security” as a part of their electoral campaigns that so happens to be well-timed with the reappearance of terrorist attacks. Topics that ought to be common concerns for every municipality throughout the country have since disappeared from the electoral discussion: healthcare coverage, education, public infrastructure works and the environment have fallen to second place. The priority is now between those who are in favor of the peace process or “handing over the government to the guerilla” – according to their opponents – , or those candidates who will reinstate the police-backed “security” for a frightened citizenry.

In this dense panorama the media is also waging its own electoral campaign. The editorial publication El Tiempo belongs to the Santos family, including the participation of the current president of the country and his cousin Francisco, who is one of the candidates for Mayor of Bogota, capital city and the second most important political position in Colombia that serves often as a “warm up” prior to a future presidential campaign. One of Francisco Santos’ security proposals for Bogota regards the formation of security groups comprised of 6,000 ex-soldiers and police. The proposal received stern criticism due to the country’s memory of the so-called Convivir or private security groups, a cradle of Colombia’s paramilitary movements.

The electoral and media agendas reduce “peace” to its minimalist expression. Nonetheless, any Colombian who has travelled the country is pained by the violence that mercilessly assaults the rural inhabitants, soldiers, guerilla fighters, animals, birds and rivers. But the media are not helping to broaden the panorama from one that paints everything in black and white, and reduces the peace dialogues to a “surrender” of the country to FARC “terrorists”. Aren’t the criminal deaths that thousands of families must mourn throughout the country reason enough to believe that peace is a minimum necessity for Colombia?

Between heroes and terrorists, who are the victims and who are the “monsters”?

Another crisis of the country is reflected in the ambivalence regarding the basic rights and value of human life. While the soldiers, military and police who die in the middle of armed combat are “heroes” reminiscent of a campaign by the armed forces that insisted “In Colombia heroes do exist”, the fallen guerillas are less than garbage. It’s worth remembering that the body of Luis Édgar Devia Silva, alias Raúl Reyes, member of the Secretariat of the FARC and killed by the Colombian army in Ecuadorian territory in 2008 was never delivered to his family under orders given by then President Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

The country has constructed an image of heroism of soldiers and police that is nonetheless unsympathetic to the legal battles that many must undertake so that their pensions and other compensations be recognized after being wounded in combat, while at the same time “stereotyping” the guerilla fighters and their supposed collaborators as monsters and subjects for which any right to the presumption of innocence becomes impossible. As a mother whose son was killed for suspicion of being a guerilla fighter said: “I don’t know what hurts me more, that they would have killed my son or that they made him out to be a guerilla fighter killed in combat”.

Perhaps this is the most complex situation rising from the Colombian conflict–the impossibility of recovering that taboo on violent death and rejecting the justifications of the homicide. “It must have been a settling of scores between rival gangs”, as the police frequently say, or “He must have been doing something”, as another common phrase puts it.

Another of the phenomena that starts to spread through social media and the news reports are the many cases of vigilante justice and lynching attempts that citizens resort to in response to street robberies. These cases demonstrate the failure of public policies to foster the social inclusion of youth that grow up marginalized far from any opportunity, and of a justice system in crisis that with overflowing jails still cannot contain the collective discontent or the absence of any sense of boundaries. While it may be true that no act of violence should be justified, it’s enough to listen to those who fill the jails to find stories of exclusion and poverty that are in the final instance the most common cause of many acts of violence, including those resulting from the armed conflict.

Another scourge that, according to political scientist and Senator Claudia Lopez, is worse than the violence itself, is the corruption epidemic throughout the country. Many scandals involve judges, magistrates, military officials, politicians and businessmen in various instances of criminal conduct associated with corruption, and the Colombian justice system does not respond the same way to these cases.

Peace will fail as long as Colombian society as a whole cannot assert the value of human life over any other consideration, exercise proportional justice between minor crimes and the large-scale corruption that also is behind the need to perpetuate the war, and stop using peace as a mere electoral slogan useful in eliciting a desired behavior from the country’s citizens. In this situation, it’s difficult to imagine how the peace talks might inspire the collective spirit of a country that surely deserves to find an end to a conflict that after more than 50 years has cost so many millions of victims.

Translation: Justin Coley 

Alex Sierra R.  is an Anthropologist based in Bogotá. He has worked as a researcher and independent consultant on topics related to human rights, international development cooperation and public policies in Colombia. He has conducted work in the areas of armed conflict and among vulnerable communities in his country during the last 14 years. He writes for the Americas Program