Massive demonstration on March 6 in Bogotá, Colombia—photo from colombia.indymedia.org
In early March there was a significant rise in international opposition to the militaristic policies of Colombia under President Álvaro Uribe Vélez and Vice-President Francisco Santos Calderón (2002-2010).
Much of this opposition has been centered on an illegal military campaign carried out under the direction of Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, in which Colombian forces deployed an air and ground assault into neighboring Ecuador 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. The illegal clandestine mission, conducted by a special forces wing of the military via intelligence support from the United States, resulted in the deaths of Raúl Reyes, Julian Conrado, and 20 other combatants associated with FARC-EP. Quickly, these events led both the president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to denounce the Colombia’s blatant violation of international law and agreements established through the Organization of the American States (OAS) and the Andean Parliament, which prohibit a nation’s sovereign territory from being violated.
Virtually every country in Central and South America, including the Caribbean, denounced the Colombian aggression. During meetings of the OAS, state officials and representatives from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, and Nicaragua condemned the assault. Even 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 President George W. Bush and J. Robert Manzanares, the U.S. repre- sentative during the OAS meetings.
While a consistent disdain toward the Colombian state continues to resonate throughout various Latin American countries, so, too, has opposition within Colombia. On Thursday, March 6, Colombians from all walks of life 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 by the Uribe and Santos administration and their links to the Colombian paramilitary.
Promoted by the National Movement of Victims of State-Sponsored Crimes (Movimiento Nacional de Víctimas de Crímenes de Estado or MOVICE) and various social justice-based organizations, March 6 was a day of remembrance, homage, and protest. For months, human rights groups, sectors of organized labor, and politically conscious civilians worked together to create a domestic and international response to the atrocities. Journalist Luis Alberto Matta pointed out that 270 cities, medium sized towns, and large villages within Colombia had connected with each other. Outside Colombia, an estimated 140 cities in 23 countries across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North and Latin America coordinated events outside Colombian embassies in conjunction with protest.
Signs for the "disappeared"—from colombia.indymedia.org
After months of preparation and days of travel, Colombians peacefully demonstrated their opposition. Radio reporter Manuel Rueda described how hundreds of thousands of people came to condemn the state. The BBC documented that over 40,000 Colombians surrounded the Casa de Nariño and the Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá to indirectly confront paramilitaries who had forced communities and individuals to vote for the Uribe administration or face torture and death; who publicly raped and molested children, women, and men and executed and/or mutilated civilians with chainsaws; forced live 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.
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 paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Auto- defensas Unidas de Colombia or AUC). The AUC has targeted, threatened, and disappeared trade unionists and various community organizers. Included in the list of those linked to the AUC are Vice President Francisco Santos Calderón, his cousin Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, President Uribe’s brother Santiago, and their cousin, former Senator Mario Uribe.
While the March 6 demonstration was a great success, the state tried relentlessly to dissuade social and political participation through direct coercion and psychological intimidation. Earlier, President Uribe’s top political adviser, José Obdulio Gaviria, had proclaimed the events as nothing more than a rally coordinated through FARC-EP.
Coinciding with the state’s 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 from protesting. 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 threats and intimidation, communities began their procession to the Plaza de Bolívar. Helda Martínez of Inter Press Service documented how roughly 700 people of various ethnicities and racial backgrounds—all of whom have been displaced by state and paramilitary forces joined together at a bridge linking Flandes, Tolima, and Girardot, Cundin amarca. The collective then dropped thousands of flowers of all colors into the Magdalena River, paying homage to those murdered.
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, the Colombian state responded as the sun rose the next day with the announcement that it had further crushed any hopes for peace with the slaying of Ivan Ríos, the second member of the FARC-EP’s Secretariat to be killed in less than one week.
James J. Brittain is an assistant professor of sociology at Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada and co-founder of the Atlantic Canada-Colombia Research Group.