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THROUGHOUT Colombia’s half-century civil war, wealthy social sectors, especially landowners, have sponsored the formation of private armed groups to act as a counter-measure against the labour movement to protect their interests.
These paramilitaries have generally employed violence and terror as a conscious weapon against civilians. The objective has been to make workers too afraid to join trade unions and to stand up for their economic and political rights.
This belief that violence against the labour movement has a strategic utility led to the use of barbarous tactics. Pregnant woman’s foetuses were ripped out with machetes, to prevent the child from growing up as a socialist. Cannibalism and mass-rape have been employed to devastate communities, depopulate land and open the way for capitalist investment.
The legal foundations of paramilitarism are found in the law itself. In the 1960s, to tackle leftist insurgency in the midst of a disorganised and weak state, the US advised Latin American governments to use local proxy forces to combat insurgents.
In the US counter-insurgency manuals of this era, paramilitary violence was cited as one of the most effective measures that could be taken to protect private property from insurgents and left-wing activists.
However, because paramilitaries were organised and sponsored by capitalists from the outset, these privatised armed groups were not just used defensively to protect private property from rebel encroachment: they were used offensively against the broader political left and labour movement.
Paramilitarism in Colombia played a crucial role for capitalist stability in the late 1990s. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), previously the country’s largest leftist insurgent force, had taken the strategic offensive and were regularly defeating the armed forces in conventional operations, taking over towns and even small cities.
In response, capitalists, working with the state, funded paramilitary organisations as proxy forces while the security situation could be addressed.
During this period, the CIA predicted that unless Colombia’s precarious security situation was addressed, the leftist rebels would be likely to overthrow the state and introduce “anti-American” and socialist measures.
For this reason, the US arranged “Plan Colombia” — a US sponsored initiative mainly intended to upgrade and restructure the armed forces. This initiative was sanctioned by the US, despite the fact that it was public knowledge that Colombia’s state and paramilitary actively collaborated — they were widely known to be engaging in frequent human rights abuses — Colombia at the time was the worlds’ leader in terms of having the highest number of trade unionists assassinated. A trade unionist was murdered every three days between 1986 and 2007.
But thanks largely to “Plan Colombia,” for the first time in its history the Colombian government was able to implement a long-term counter-insurgency strategy that gradually weakened the offensive capabilities of the Farc, preventing it from engaging in conventional methods of warfare and forcing the leftist rebels to retreat to more isolated areas.
It was the paramilitary forces, however, that were able to fill in the vacuum left by the weak state while its armed forces were restructured. Through targeted assassinations of social leaders and by using terror to strike fear into communities, the capitalist-sponsored paramilitaries provided the space and time for the US sponsored Plan Colombia to be implemented.
During this period, the paramilitaries had been organised collectively into an umbrella movement — “AUC” — the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia. Benefiting from an estimated 30,000 combatants and “unofficial” state support — the AUC attacked labour activists and social leaders and targeted strategically based communities suspected of sympathising with leftist insurgents.
By the time Plan Colombia had been implemented and a long-term counter-insurgency strategy put in place, much of the socialist movement’s political structures had been devastated by paramilitary terror.
This outcome served to shatter the political connections between the rural based guerillas and the urbanised labour movement — because the overwhelming majority of Colombians today live in urban areas, a political strategy for mobilising urban communities was absolutely central to the guerillas’ strategy.
From then on out, the Colombian state was able to take the military initiative against the leftist rebels and more effectively introduce neoliberal reforms, thus putting the labour movement on the defensive indefinitely.
Crucially, the paramilitary was not specifically targeted for demobilisation by the government until it had served its strategic function of holding back the leftist rebels while the state’s security situation had been addressed by Plan Colombia.
The former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe — a Washington favourite whose administration has been marred in scandal because of its institutional support for paramilitarism — said in 2002: “Every time a security policy aims at defeating terrorism in Colombia, every time the terrorists start to feel weak, they send their mouthpieces to talk about human rights.”
The paramilitary ultimately existed to provide stability for capitalist investment, not to transform the country’s political economy like the left-wing insurgents. The focus of the United States was to “stop Colombia going red” — the same logic the US government drew on when it supported repressive right-wing military dictatorships during the Cold War.
It took until 2004, when Colombia’s armed forces had received the latest military equipment and surveillance technology, and benefited from a massive surge in recruitment, for a peace agreement with the AUC to be signed. This agreement included a convenient clause that no demobilising paramilitaries would be asked to report on their collaboration with state structures.
To use an example, take Viota, which was a historic stronghold of the Communist Party, dating back to the 1930s. Based only two hours from the capital city Bogota, the paramilitaries repeatedly targeted this territory during the 1999-2002 peace talks with Farc, committing massacres and destroying the labour structures that had been organised by workers and peasants over decades.
The military did not arrive until days after the right-wing paramilitaries had finished their brutal executions of suspected left-wing activists and fled the scene.
Laura Angelica Gracia, a Colombian journalist specialising in Viota’s armed conflict, states: “Since 1997, the paramilitary conducted intelligence work in Viota, often with the support of the military. Over the next few years, the paramilitaries murdered scores of left-wing politicians, social leaders, peasants, Communist Party members and government officials. By 2003, the paramilitaries had consolidated their strength inside Viota and forcefully displaced thousands, warning all the peasants that “guerilla and communist party collaborators must leave their homes within 24 hours or otherwise be killed.”
Today, there is little evidence left of Viota’s historic socialist influence — it is a bastion of the conservative Catholic Church and regularly votes for militarist right-wing political candidates.
Still, paramilitary groups were not only supported by small businesses and landowners. Large-scale businesses and corporations have also been involved in supporting paramilitary violence against the left, especially regarding capitalist enterprises invested in agriculture, mining, oil and commerce.
The US corporation “Chiquita,” formerly known as “United Fruit Company,” a company infamous for its support of the CIA-backed military coup against Guatemala’s first left-wing president in 1954, was compelled to admit to its funding of paramilitary organisations in Colombia. The company financed the paramilitaries between 1997-2004, a time period especially brutal for the scale and severity of paramilitary violence.
Likewise, a Coca Cola subsidiary in Colombia, by providing information on trade union organisers, was accused of helping to orchestrate the executions of at least three trade unionists, as well as of providing finance to a local paramilitary organisation. Other multinationals, such as Texaco and Exxon Mobil, have been linked to sponsorship of paramilitary death squads.
The experience of paramilitary terror against the political left and labour movement in Colombia is a lesson for socialists of all countries.
Such widespread backing of violence by capitalist sectors of Colombian society reveals the extent to which dominant classes are willing to go to advance their interests in the face of a powerful and threatening socialist movement.
Oliver Dodd is a PhD candidate working on Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement. He can be followed on Twitter @OliverCDodd
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