Dark Hours Before Sunrise? A Fragile Moment for Peace in Colombia

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The FARC guerrilla and the Colombian Government have decided to give peace a chance. But a rise in killings of social activists and political leaders presents a serious risk to the implementation of their peace agreement.

‘It is always darkest just before the Day dawneth’, wrote the English historian and theologian Thomas Fuller in 1650[i]. He may have been drawing on a piece of folk wisdom, or he may have come up with the phrase himself, but today the proverb is colloquially used to inspire hope under adverse circumstances.

Adverse circumstances are something that social activists and human rights defenders in Colombia know all about, and their hardships have not come to an end even as Peace has come into sight. If human rights defenders in Colombia were to come up with a proverb to describe their situation these days, they might therefore choose to hopefully refer to this very notion; that ‘the darkest hour is just before the dawn’.

Given that an overwhelming part of the political left and the civil society in Colombia have struggled for the Colombian state and the FARC guerrilla to reach a Peace Agreement for well over 20 years, they are logically joyful that a set of Peace Accords were finally finished and ratified by the two parties last year. The purpose of the agreement is to end an armed conflict that has lasted for more than five decades, cost more than 220,000 lives, displaced more than 6.8 million people and caused immense suffering and innumerable human rights violations[ii].

However, nothing is really over before the beautiful words in the agreements are transformed into actions that will sustain a lasting peace. And while the number of overall deaths related to the conflict has reached an all-time low in the past years, Colombia’s social activists and human rights defenders are experiencing a wave of targeted violent attacks and killings that is bound to make them question if peace is really that imminent after all[iii]. According to official data, 58 social activists or local leaders were killed during 2016 alone, while UN observers and independent human rights organisations set the figures as high as 116 murdered activists.[iv] At least 30 of these murders occurred during the ceasefire between the government and the FARC.

The first weeks of 2017 have been equally bloody, with human rights defenders and activists killed almost every other day, especially in the regions of Cauca, Antioquia and Bajo Calima. Such was the case of Olmedo Pito García[v], a land rights activist and indigenous leader killed by the gunfire of three un-known by-passing men during the first days of January in Caloto, a rural and remote region in northern Cauca. And such were the brutal murders of Emilsen Monyama and her husband Joe Javier Rodallega, reported on 17 January[vi]. The two were active leaders in the movement CONPAZ in Buenaventura, where they supported the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation in the documentation of the massacres, targeted killings and forced disappearances that have taken place in recent years.

In total, 15 social leaders have been killed in the two months since the signature of the final Peace Agreement on 30 November 2016[vii], which demonstrates that there is as much need as ever for international attention around the Colombian conflict. But in order to understand the conflict, as well as the current challenges and setbacks in the peace process, it is essential to comprehend the historical context, the social and economic reasons behind the violence, the state of the Colombian democracy, the framing of the guerrilla in public discourse, the negative experience from earlier peace negotiations and the criminalisation and persecution of social movements and activists.

The longest lasting civil war on earth

The conflict in Colombia predates the establishment of the two guerrillas: the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), founded as resistance movements in 1964 to defend the cause of a poor and repressed peasant population. While the FARC was founded directly by peasants who had seen their lands confiscated in the Tolima-province, the ELN was founded by intellectuals in the cities. Both groups intended to overthrow the government and install a Marxist-Leninist inspired system.

The guerrillas were a reaction against a closed and corrupt political system that made it impossible for the peasant movement and the left-wing to participate in politics and to change an extremely unequal distribution of land and other goods. In the years leading up to the creation of the guerrillas, the Conservatives and the Liberal Party had made a pact: they created a system in which political posts were distributed in advance of elections and in which there was an obvious connection between politicians, landowners and economic elites. This meant that a land reform that could have distributed the fertile soil in the country more equally was never initiated, and therefore little was done about the great economic and social inequalities[viii].

In the Tolima region, Communist Party member Manuel Marulanda cooperated with a group of displaced peasants who wanted to settle in the countryside in new communities that would address the needs and concerns of the rural population. They eventually settled in a place called Marquetalia, but the response of the Colombian government was harsh. The military was sent to fight the group of peasants and on 27 May 1964, the communities in Marquetalia were bombed. As a result, groups of peasants in the area decided to take up arms and form the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, also known as the FARC.

From communists to drug-traffickers to terrorists

In the national and international media coverage of the conflict in Colombia, the FARC have often been depicted as a criminal organisation that financed armed activities through drug related crimes and used abductions as a strategy to inspire fear. Also, both the FARC and the ELN have figured since 1997 on the terror list of the US and in 2002 the organisations entered the EU’s terror list as well.

However, the explanations for using harsh methods in the fight against the guerrillas have been changed by successive Colombian governments over the years. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the Colombian government reportedly fought the rebellion of the guerrillas because it represented a communist threat against liberal democracy. The US supported operations against the Colombian guerrillas with economic and military means, just as the US would support military dictatorships against revolutionary movements throughout the Caribbean, Central- and South America in those decades.

At the end of the Cold War, Colombia became a hub for the production of narcotics, which lead to an incredibly violent period dominated by in-fight between different drug cartels. During this phase, the US military support to the Colombian government was reasoned as a fight against drug trafficking, and it was held that the FARC was allied with the drug cartels. The reality was somewhat more complex, since all layers in society were in fact affected by the production and export of narcotics, and those connected to the drug cartels also included many in government, in the military and in the emerging paramilitary structures. The FARC also had connections, mostly to the peasants who produced crops in the territories controlled by the guerrilla, and they collected taxes no matter what type of crops were produced. Many poor peasants chose to grow coca-leaves or marihuana-plants because of the high return on these. The ELN decided on moral grounds that they would not tolerate the illicit cultivations in the territories they held, and for this reason many peasants turned their back on this guerrilla-movement[ix].

When the Twin Towers collapsed in the US in 2001, another phase began. As the ‘War on Terror’ turned into the major cause in US foreign policy, the FARC and the ELN were stamped as ‘terrorists’, and with continued support from the US from 2002-2009 the extreme right-wing President Alvaro Uribe lead a war on terrorism in Colombia with the declared purpose of ‘eliminating the guerrillas’.

It is important to note this discursive development that transformed and guided the public opinion of the guerrillas, both in Colombia and internationally, so that what was initially a politically motivated peasant movement was turned into first drug-traffickers and since terrorists.

From terrorists to civilian citizens

The conflict in Colombia surged out of an extremely unequal distribution of land, economic goods and political privileges. Obviously, there is a need to reflect critically on the methods employed by the guerrillas, and to denounce their killings of civilians, and methods such as the use of kidnappings and child soldiers. Nonetheless, it must still be acknowledged that the point of departure for the armed struggle of the FARC was a struggle for agrarian reform, democratic inclusion and an expansion of social justice.

Ever since colonial times, participation in the political system in Colombia has been reserved for the economic elites – while political rights and guarantees have not been in place for the opposition, for labour unions, peasant movements, indigenous organisations and other social movements. This was the background for the armed conflict, and therefore it was a pre-condition for the beginning of the peace talks that the Colombian government stopped referring to FARC as an illegal terrorist group.

International organisations and media outlets have a great deal of responsibility in this sense. During 2016, the EU removed the FARC from its list of foreign terror organisations, while the US have so far only considered doing so. Both the EU and the US maintain the ELN on the lists. But if we are to support the advancement of the peace process, we must acknowledge that even if grave crimes were committed by guerrilla soldiers, the majority of all human rights violations since 1964 were actually not committed by the guerrillas, but rather by the military and by paramilitary groups.

One particular scandal concerning the military’s involvement in human rights violations shocked Colombia in 2008, during the government of Alvaro Uribe. It became clear that high ranking military officials had been giving orders to kill unarmed civilians – often homeless people in the cities or farmers in poor regions of the country, and to afterwards dress up the dead bodies in guerrilla uniforms and document them as enemy combatants that had been defeated in battle. Human Rights Watch estimated in a report that at least 3,000 such “false positive” killings took place between 2002 and 2008, and generally the military chiefs and the brigades that committed the crimes would be commended for their good work[x].

The general attorney investigated the extrajudicial killings, and found that up to 5,000 members of the security forces had taken part in them some way or another. More than 800 public or military officers (mainly soldiers) have received a sentence related to the scandal, but on the highest level, among the generals in the army (of whom many still hold distinguished positions), the responsibility for the orders given is yet to be placed and sanctioned. At the moment, twenty-two active or retired generals have been called to testify on their alleged participation on false positives, but only one has been detained[xi].

With regards to the crimes committed by the paramilitaries and the guerrillas, an important study was released by culture and media researcher Dr. Alexandra García in 2016. The study investigated the media representation of grave crimes and the difference between perception in the general population, among victims of the conflict and among experts who study the perpetration of violent crimes from 1998-2006[xii]. As the figure below shows, during this period the paramilitaries were responsible for more crimes than the guerrillas.

Figure: Victims attributed to the guerrilla and the paramilitaries between 1998 and 2006. The statistics behind the graph are from the Centro de Memoría Histórica in Colombia. Source: De porque odiamos a las FARC y no tanto a las paras, Las2orillas, 11 October 2016

García analysed Colombian media headlines and stories on 500 violent attacks between 1998 and 2006, and she found that when crimes were committed by the guerrillas, the media were sure to include the name of the guerrilla in the headlines and use strong pejorative terms, but when crimes were committed by the paramilitary groups the headlines would generally be vague and unspecific, and refer to ‘unknown by-passers’ or ‘hooded men’, or simply use passive language with no determination of responsibility for the crime.

The language of the media might explain why a large part of the general population is ready to attribute the FARC with the responsibility for the majority of the grave crimes committed in the conflict, while experts in the field would rather point to the government and the paramilitary groups as the main responsible actors for the majority of the serious crimes committed (see the figure below).

Figure: Differing perceptions regarding main responsibility for crimes committed in the armed conflict in Colombia. Source: De porque odiamos a las FARC y no tanto a las paras, Las2orillas, 11 October 2016

For all of these reasons, it has been crucial for the FARC to point out during the peace negotiations that they are not the only ones responsible for grave crimes, and that soldiers from the Colombian army, paramilitaries and civilians who funded criminal activities during the conflict should also be investigated and condemned by the transitional justice system along with the guerrilla soldiers.

Experiences from earlier peace negotiations

Another issue that is very important to consider in a historical light, is the disarmament and the re-integration of the guerrilla movements into Colombian society. The peace agreement prescribes for the guerrilla to disarm in specially created Peace Zones, and it holds guarantees that former members and leaders of the guerrilla will be able to participate in civil and political life once the conflict ends. However, such guarantees were not respected in other occasions when the FARC were willing to lay down arms.

As part of the Peace Negotiations in Colombia in 1985, the FARC guerrilla joined with other guerrillas and leftist groups in an attempt to transform the guerilla into a political party named the Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica), whose members were elected for various city councils and for the parliament. But afterwards both presidential candidates and almost all of the parliamentarians from the party were killed – and in total around 5,000 activists from the Patriotic Union were murdered by government-supported death squads[xiii].

Something similar happened after the Peace Process from 1998-2002, held between the Pastrana government and the FARC. The negotiations broke down and what followed was an escalation of the conflict and an increased persecution of social and political movements on the left-wing.

Criminalisation of social and political movements

Overall, the armed conflict between the guerrilla and the state has often been a welcome excuse for the political and economic elites in Colombia to create suspicion around non-violent activists whose work was contrary to their interests. Throughout the years, social leaders and activists have been murdered, threatened or imprisoned for ‘rebellion’ even if they actually had no connection to the armed struggle. In example, more than 3,000 Colombian labour unionists have been killed in the past 40 years. And the murders have generally not been investigated, much less sanctioned, because shifting governments have either implied or directly claimed that the worker’s unions are connected to the guerrilla[xiv].

Also indigenous leaders, environmental activists and other social leaders have continuously experienced threats and attacks – especially since right-wing paramilitary organisations entered the scene in the 1980s and 90s. These groups, most notably the AUC (the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia – Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) often attacked entire communities simply because AUC leaders believed community members sympathised with the FARC, ELN, and other leftist groups. AUC attacks are estimated to have killed 19,000 people in the years from 1997-99 alone, as well as having displaced entire communities and forced hundreds to leave their homes. Nevertheless, the AUC and other paramilitary groups consistently received support from elites, drug traffickers, and politicians who sought protection from guerrilla groups[xv].

Today, after the formal dissolution in 2006 of the AUC, the Colombian government claims that paramilitary groups dissolved years ago and that the current waves of killings are done by ‘criminal gangs’ with no systemic pattern[xvi]. However, many of the activists killed in recent years (and weeks) have been receiving threats by groups with names such as ‘the Black Eagles’ or ‘Rastrojos’; threats with clear references to their political work to defend land rights, workers, peasants or indigenous groups, or because they have contributed to shed light on crimes committed during the armed conflict. This suggests there might still be some connections between the political and economic level and these armed groups, by some denominated as ‘new’ paramilitaries.

In fact, the largest such neo para-military group, the Gaitanista Self-Defence Group (AGC) stepped forward recently in an e-mail to the Press and claimed to have more than 8,000 members – while National Police would estimate the group to consist of ‘only’ 3,000 members in arms[xvii]. The AGC, also known as the Urabeños easily qualify as the top human rights violating actor in Colombia these days, and have been accused with numerous murders of leftists, human rights defenders, journalists and social leaders.

In general, Police and judicial authorities have been slow to offer protection to those community leaders threatened by the paramilitary groups, claiming they lack resources to protect all those who would need personal guards and blinded cars for transportation in rural areas[xviii]. And the authorities are even slower when it comes to investigating the murders or prosecuting those responsible.

Peace by piece

The road to this stage of the peace process has been long and circuitous. Secret negotiations between the FARC leaders and the Colombian government began as early as 2010 in Oslo, Norway, while the public rounds of negations started in 2012 in Havana, Cuba.

Over the next 4 years, chapters on the various issues that fuel the conflict were carefully drawn up and negotiated, and the delegations in Havana received visits and learned from victims of the conflict, civil society organisations and a broad range of experts. Both the original and the modified peace agreement include provisions for an extensive agrarian reform and rural development, for a halt to the production of illicit cultivations and drug trade, for increased political participation, for a special transitional justice system for peace, for reparations to victims of the conflict, and for the means to demobilise the guerrilla and paramilitary groups and reintegrate combatants into civil life.

The peace agreements were first signed by the Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Timoshenko on 25 September 2016 in the Caribbean seaside town Cartagena de Indias, in a grand ceremony where everyone wore white clothes, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and several Latin American leaders held emotional speeches and government officials hugged leaders from the social movements and celebrated the coming end of war.

However, the ceremony was followed by an immediate setback on 3 October 2016 when the Colombian population was invited to vote in order to ratify or reject the Peace Accords. The outcome of the referendum was negative, as the agreements were rejected by a narrow 50,21 per cent of the popular vote[xix].

An imperfect referendum in an imperfect democracy

At a first glance it seems odd that the Colombian population would reject a sophisticated and comprehensive Peace Agreement that could bring an end to more than 52 years of civil war and suffering. But it makes more sense if we consider the historical reasons behind the conflict and the actual state of the Colombian democracy.

First of all, 62,5 % of the voters abstained from taking part in the referendum, meaning that less than 40 % of the total electorate was responsible for the outcome. Electoral participation is generally low in Colombia for a number of reasons (such as fear of violence in polling stations, political apathy and high costs of transport to nearest polling station). Normally though, participation is somewhat higher.

Unfortunately, participation is not the only issue affecting the credibility of democratic referendums and electoral processes in Colombia. Colombia is still one of the most unequal countries in the world[xx], both in terms of land-holdings and income distribution, and this has a clear effect on the funding of political parties (often run as client enterprises). It is also obvious on election days, where votes are frequently bought and sold[xxi]. So while Colombia is often hailed as ‘the oldest democracy in Latin America’, this is obviously a truth with modifications.

Throw in a media sector equally dominated by private economic interests, one that actively promotes the idea that the guerrillas are nothing more than terrorists who disturb the public order and commit heinous crimes (while the government soldiers are merely to be considered brave heroes). Add a NO-campaign from the far right that would wrongfully argue that the Peace Agreement would give all guerrilla soldiers immediate amnesty – and the results of the referendum are more comprehensible.

Perhaps what was most notable about the referendum was that in the areas most affected by the armed conflict, the population overwhelmingly voted YES to the peace agreements. The areas most affected by the conflict are rural areas, and also areas where the guerrillas have been present or even in control of large spats of territory. The rural areas where the YES vote won are also the areas worst affected by poverty and marginalisation in the political life, while the NO-vote generally won in the bigger cities. As some Colombian commentators would remark after the referendum ‘El rencor del citadino venció sobre el perdon del campesino’[xxii]– meaning that the anger of the city-dweller triumphed over the peasants’ will to forgive.

The long road ahead

Nonetheless, the NO-vote in the referendum sparked rallies and manifestations in support of Peace all over the country. This is arguably a sign of change in a country traditionally marred by political violence and consequent fear of political engagement, as especially young people would now spontaneously gather in squares and public spaces in ‘camp-outs’ for peace, and engage in spur-of-the-moment discussions about how to overcome the negative result of the referendum and make sure that the process could continue.

Simultaneously, in less than a week after the referendum, the Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos received the Nobel Peace Prize for ‘his efforts to assure peace’. While this might have been a clever move from the Nobel Committee to pressure Santos into continuing the process, many of those who had followed the Colombian conflict for years would wrinkle their faces in disbelief. Santos served as defence minister under the extremely brutal government of Alvaro Uribe, and was in charge during the ‘false positives’ scandal – and yet he just received the finest distinction of the Peace Academy? And he didn’t even have to share the Prize with the other part in the armed conflict (the FARC)?

Whether it was the determination of the parties to reach an agreement after the referendum, the public mobilisations or the Peace Prize that did it, negotiations continued between government representatives and FARC-leaders in Havana. The re-negotiation was based on a large number of propositions from NO-voters, victims of the conflict and ‘all spheres of society’. The re-negotiations conduced to a revised final agreement[xxiii] which was passed by both chambers in the Colombian congress on 30 November 2016.

This time there was to be no referendum. Both parties assure that the revised agreement was even better than the one they had first signed in September, while social activists and land rights activists grumbled about some of the adjustments made. For example, the NO-voters managed to include a clause that private property is not to be expropriated as well as a reference to the importance of traditional family values (since the conservative Catholic right was extremely worried about the attention given to LGBT-rights and sexual and reproductive rights in the agreement).

From armed to social conflict

The implementation of the revised agreement between the government and the FARC has already begun. The guerrilla-soldiers are beginning to arrive in 23 specially designated ‘Zones for Peace’, where they will de-mobilise, disarm and begin the transition into civilian life. The Supreme Court has passed an Amnesty Law that prepares the absolution and release of those guerrilla soldiers not accused of committing serious war crimes, while bringing such war-crimes before a Special Jurisdiction of Peace (whether the perpetrator are guerrillas, military soldiers or civilians).

Those are all steps in the direction towards peace, and the next step should be that the Colombian government begins to implement the parts of the agreement that aim to improve living conditions in the impoverished rural communities. FARC representatives as well as civil society groups and human rights organisations all insist that a peace agreement is not the same thing as the end of conflict. Of course, the hope is that the violent conflict will end, that the massacres, the mortar grenades, the disappearances and the targeted killings will stop. But the social and political conflict will not end before the current inequalities are addressed, in these conflicts are the roots of the civil war.

Therefore, Colombia needs its social activists, its political leaders and human rights defenders alive and well. Only a widening of the political spheres in Colombia and an inclusion of the marginalised will be able to end the conflict, essentially a social conflict, and bring about stability and lasting peace. And the Colombian State must guarantee such a development.

As participants in an international community, not only do we have to hope that it’s possible – we have to demand it.

[i] Thomas Fuller – A Pisgah-Sight of Palestine – Oxford University, London, 1650

[ii] These numbers stem from a report published by the Colombian Centre for Historical Memory in 2013, which suggest that 220,000 people lost their lives due to the armed conflict between 1958 and 2012 (40.787 combatants and 177.307, civilians), while 6.8 million were displaced. The figures would be somewhat higher if we included the past 4 years.

[iii] See the article Hay cese bilateral, pero los asesinatos de defensores DDHH no paran from Colombian Newspaper El Espectador on 21 October 2016.

[iv] In the article, Asesinatos de líderes sociales en Colombia, el lunar que deja el 2016, the Colombian Newspaper El Tiempo quotes organisations who set the figure for murdered activists in 2016 between 90 and 116..

[v] Rechazan asesinato de líder y defensor de derechos humanos en Cauca, article in Colombian Newspaper El tiempo, 10 January 2017.

[vi] Husband and Wife Brutally Murdered – Attacks on Colombias Community Leaders Continue, Colombia Reports 18 January 2017.

[vii] Estos son los 15 líderes asesinados desde que arrancó la implementación de los Acuerdos de Paz, article by María Flórez y Mario Zamudio Palma on www.pacifista.co on 20 January 2017

[viii] See f.x. Colombia – Discord, Civility and Violence, p. 221-254 in Thomas E. Skidmore & Peter H. Smith: Modern Latin America, Oxford University Press 2005

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Read the 2008 Human Right Watch Report on the extra-judicial killings and a 2015 BBC article on the aftermath of the ‘false positives’ scandal.

[xi] See the article 22 generales son investigados por “falsos positivos” and  the article Colombia: First general to be detained for false positives scandal by FIDH, 30 March 2016.

[xii] Read a summary of the study in Spanish in the article De porque odiamos a las FARC y no tanto a las paras from the blog Las2orillas on 11 October 2016, or an English summary and interview with the author in the article Why we hate the FARC and not so the paramilitaries from Bogotá Post on 28 November 2016.

[xiii] Read more about the systematic political violence against the Patriotic Union in the Colombia Report Patriotic Union or in this Telesur article: Colombia’s Patriotic Union – A Victim of Political Genocide.

[xiv] As the British NGO Justice for Colombia notes in the article Focus: Trade Union Rights in Colombia, Justice for Colombia (JFC) in International Union Rights Vol. 23, No. 1, Latin America (2016), pp. 16-17, 28: ‘The grim toll of Colombia’s war on trade unions amounts to at least 13,713 violations of the right to life and liberty since 1977 – 3062 assassinations, 233 kidnappings, 342 violent attacks, 6572 violent threats, 1890 forced displacements and 725 arbitrary detentions. Between 2000 and 2010, Colombia accounted for 63% of trade unionists murdered globally (…) Colombian organisations regularly point out that there often appears to be more time dedicated to investigating false accusations than to bringing those responsible for carrying out the murders to justice’.

[xv] These numbers stem from this Stanford Summary on Militant Organisations, and originally from Kushner, Harvey W. Kushner: Encyclopedia of Terrorism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications 2003.

[xvi] For more on the debate on these armed groups in Colombia see the article Pólemica en Colombia: Paramilitares o bandas criminales?

[xvii] See the article Colombia’s largest neo para-military group claims to have 8,000 members from Colombia Reports, 19 January 2017.

[xviii] See this Washington Post article from 3 January 2016: The Frightening Issue That Could Destroy Colombia’s Peace Deal, in which Colombian top security official Juan Carlos Restrepo is quoted for saying that “the government doesn’t have the resources to assign bodyguards and armored cars to everyone who feels threatened”.

[xix] Colombia Rejects FARC Peace Deal, BBC News 3 October 2016

[xx] See f.x. Colombia is Latin Americas 2nd Most Unequal Country After Honduras, Colombia Reports on 10 March 2016, Latin America is the most unequal region in the World by World Economic Forum on 3 October 2016 or the World Banks GINI index.

[xxi] See f.x. this Colombia Report article on Voter fraud in the congressional elections in 2014, or this article on the alleged fraud in the NO-campaign preceding the October 2016 referendum.

[xxii] As in this meme shared on Facebook and twitter.

[xxiii] Read the text of the final agreement (in Spanish).


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