Turbulent Colombian Panorama

Colombia has entered into an all-out war during the year in which Colombians will elect a new President and Congress. The current war is not necessarily the worst problem that confronts the country. The forerunner in the race for President of the Republic of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, has a shady past. He is known for allegedly having connections to the dangerous paramilitary groups.

Similarly to the bloody tradition of recent electoral seasons, the new President will be elected as bullets fly. During the elections of 1990, the four candidates of the left were assassinated in public. Today there is fear that this political violence will return as the war begins to spill into the entire Colombian territory. During this campaigning season, a Presidential candidate has been kidnapped by the guerrilla and there are few clean and civil politicians left with structured platforms that could solve the country’s crisis.

After three years and four months of peace negotiations, the Colombian government has begun an all-out war against the FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – Popular Army), thus seriously intensifying the long history of almost five decades of armed conflict in this South American country. In this atmosphere of war no one is listening to voices that are calling for new peace negotiations and everyday authoritarian proposals are gaining ground. At the same time, the FARC have said that they will only negotiate with the incoming government and not with current President Andres Pastrana. That implies that at least until August 7 of this year the war will be very intense.

Following the congressional elections carried out on March 10, which were wrought with irregularities, there was no clear winner and the Colombian Congress is now more divided than ever. None of the presidential candidates’ parties has a majority in Congress. The current Colombian dilemma is who will replace Pastrana. In the beautiful lands of Colombia only war drums are heard. Few are singing peace hymns.


The conflict is having its impact and for some time now that impact is felt in terms of the economy and infrastructure. The Colombian guerrillas will continue to increase their war earnings through kidnappings, extortion, drug trafficking, “peace taxes,” and arms trafficking. Similarly, they will put lessons learned during the Central American Wars into practice. FARC and ELN (National Liberation Army) troops fought in the Nicaraguan and El Salvadorian conflicts and had relationships with the guerrillas of Honduras and Guatemala. During that time, the Farabundo Marti Front in El Salvador systematically applied the economic warfare formula and used it in the peace negotiations that ended the conflict. Paradoxically, the fierce enemies of the Colombian guerrillas, the paramilitary “United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia” (AUC) make their money off of the same tactics.

With the failure of the peace process and the beginning of the all-out war, it is likely that Colombia surpasses its own record of an average of 37,000 assassinations per year, two-million internally displaced, almost a million exiles, thousands of isolated politicians, handicapped, and people with psychological disorders. The less seen face of the war is the economic devastation. This type of warfare includes frontal attacks on infrastructure, especially roads and electrical infrastructure, monopolies and multinational companies, causing losses in the millions of dollars.


The guerrilla controls almost half of the country. Half of the mayors of small and medium-sized towns negotiate their governing plans with the new local authorities. Additionally, there is a growing activity of death squads, financed by private large landowners, large monopolies and some multinational oil companies, as denounced by international organizations. In the beginning, paramilitaries were trained and given targets by the Colombian military establishment, but the creation has gotten out of control. The current death squads carry out their business on their own and execute massacres, commissioned to extend the territories of the drug traffickers and large landowners. The civilian population, human rights defenders and union leaders are caught in the middle of all of this and die by the thousands.

Traditionally the battles between the Army and the guerrillas happened in the jungles and rural areas. Today the war is closer to the large cities. Currently, the dispute over control of the roads and supply routes in strategic regions such as the Bogota-Medellin-Cali triangle has intensified. Evidence of this can be seen in the major development of militias (urban guerrillas) in Bogotá, Medellin, Cali, Cartagena and Barranquilla. The proof of this was sinisterly presented on April 6 when two potent bombs were detonated in the serene city of Villavicencio, killing twelve civilians and on April 8, when two car bombs exploded just outside of Bogotá, killing two police officers and many wounded.

In this dispute, the crown jewel is the Department of Antioquia where there are already battles in the Aburra Valley (which includes Medellin) and serious roadblocks on the road to the Uraba Gulf, which is an important seaport trade region. Battles are also common in the Atrato, Cauca and Magdalena river valleys. Antioquia is one of the wealthiest regions in Colombia and for that reason all of the warring factions have large combat units operating there. Presidential candidate Álvaro Uribe, with his authoritarian proposals, is from this region and it was there that he gained his first followers.


The implications of the conflict extend to neighboring countries and Colombia has a strategic location, on the banks of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Andean mountain range, the Amazon jungle and immense Caribbean territorial waters. In this geopolitical framework, special attention must be given to Colombia’s proximity to Venezuela, recently dealing with serious political instability, and Central America, with its poorly resolved conflicts. Currently the Central American guerrillas have been demobilized without having found solutions to their social problems. The tension continues and some heat could bring that fire back to life.

The United States has moved from the propaganda war to war propaganda, in the context of an open intervention (it is not a coincidence that exactly at this moment the movie “Collateral Damage” is being distributed, a Hollywood production about the Colombian war). After September 11 the US included the FARC on its list of “terrorist” groups, but in reality the confrontation between the guerrillas and Colombian military troops, financed and trained by the US School of the Americas and other entities, has been happening since the 60’s. In the framework of this history, Plan Colombia, or the generous new US military aid package that Congress has already passed, is just the most recent link in the chain of interventions in the country. While the official US vision of the conflict is a military solution, European and Latin American countries are putting all their eggs in the basket of political and social solutions.


Álvaro Uribe Vélez is the Presidential candidate most likely to win the Presidency of the Republic next May 26 (according to the most recent poll from El Tiempo newspaper in April, Uribe is ahead with 47, 6% of the vote). But Uribe will inevitably run into governing and legitimacy problems because he has a turbulent past and in the present he has been incapable of putting forth proposals for solving the crisis that are truly viable. From the beginning he attacked the peace negotiations with the guerrillas and ceded his position in the peace process to a UN commission and the ten countries that facilitated the peace process in Colombia. To be consistent in his message, Uribe Vélez has expressed his support for a US military intervention in Colombia.

Colombia searches for clean leaders for a civil society that is worn out and constantly under more and more pressure to opt for militaristic solutions. But recent years have been characterized by the absence of true political leaders. In this panorama of uncertainty Álvaro Uribe Vélez appears; a dissident form the Liberal party, who has had success selling the idea that he will save the country from catastrophe by means of a “hard line.” Álvaro Uribe represents the fight against the guerrilla, but does not offer any social options.

His résumé can be interpreted differently according to the point of view of the reader. Between 1976 and 1977, Uribe was director of the Assets of Public Entities of Medellin and from that position led the negotiations of lands and the moving of El Peñol from its old site to the new one. Supposedly this experience shows him to be a good administrator. But the populations of El Peñol and Guatape in the east of Antioquia tell the same story from the point of view of the dead and disappeared that were suffered during the land negotiations, land that was to be submerged for the dam project run by the Public Entities of Medellin. The Peñol hydroelectric project was more imposed than negotiated and the civilian population saw tear gases, land expropriations and was forcibly removed from the land for the dam.

In another part of his résumé, the time that Álvaro Uribe was in charge of the Civilian Aviation was not distinguished precisely by the control of drug trafficking in the airports. Between 1995 and 1997, as Governor of Antioquia, he gave direct support to the paramilitarized Cooperatives of Private Security, “CONVIVIR,” which originated reproaches from the international community and the UN Human Rights Commissioner for Colombia, Almudena Mazarrasa. The guerrilla assassinated Álvaro Uribe’s father and this marked him forever. While Uribe Vélez gains political power, he systematically attacks anything that looks like a social movement, labor demands, protests and human rights groups, because, according to Álvaro Uribe, all of this smells like guerrilla. This policy generates support for him among the business leaders, the best friends of salary cuts, low pensions, little labor stability and a lack of labor rights.

The bloodiest shadow that falls over the pages of Uribe Vélez’ history happened in 1997. During that year, terrible massacres occurred in the area of the Atrato River in Antioquia, and these were properly documented by journalists and human rights activists. These massacres of civilians were committed in the jurisdiction of the Seventeenth Brigade, under the command of General Rito Alejo del Rio Rojas who is currently under judicial investigation. During this time period in which these abuses against the civilian population occurred, Álvaro Uribe was the Governor of Antioquia, and he did not intercede for the benefit of the population and did not carry out any actions against General Rojas.

The AUC death squad has strategic interests in the Atrato jungles because they can plant coca there, install laboratories and export cocaine through Panama. Since May of 1997 until May 2000 the AUC took over the town of Vigia del Fuerte as one of their operational bases. From there, their troops controlled the Atrato River to its delta in the Uraba Gulf. For three years the authorities turned their heads as dozens of bodies floated down the river. The accumulated evidence against General Rojas points to the joint work of the death squads and the Colombian Army in the Cordoba, Uraba and Atrato regions. The investigation done by journalist Ricardo Ferrer in the Atrato River area confirmed this cooperation and this has similarly been denounced by international organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

If General Rojas executed massacres in Uraba and the Atrato region, Governor Álvaro Uribe Vélez did a lot of work to cover them up. It was impossible to ignore this issue when the cadavers floated down the Atrato River for days for the whole world to see since the death squads had given orders prohibiting the removal of the cadavers from the river.


Tempers are a little high to negotiate a cease fire or lessening of the hostilities during the election period of May and June which will lead to the election of a new President. In 1948, Presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated for speaking out against a platform of social reforms. Since then thousands of politicians have been killed, victims of intolerance and the culture of exclusion. As was mentioned earlier, bombs and the assassinations of four Presidential candidates accompanied the Presidential elections of 1990. In that same decade, more than 4,500 members of the Patriotic Union party were wiped out. The movement was annihilated and backing was removed from moderate voices.

Colombia’s agenda for 2002 contains, among its ingredients, the government’s war against the FARC, elections and the timeline of George Bush’s War on Terrorism. What is left undone is the government’s war against the paramilitaries, and it is unlikely that this will happen. For the people who are not allied with any of the promoters of the war, the only option is to work to defend the civilian population and prevent the terrible consequences that authoritarian policies could have for Colombia. Other parts of Latin America have already lived through such negative results, like Fujimori in Peru. In the case of Álvaro Uribe, we still have time to avoid Colombia living through another four bloody years.

All of the warring factions have participated in the numerous massacres in Colombia. With the announcement of the creation of the International Criminal Court, it is possible that some day all the Colombia genocides have to appear before an international judge. Meanwhile, the country’s economy is devastated and the nation continues to be sadly filled day after day with more orphans and widows.

(*) Ricardo Ferrer Espinosa is a Colombian journalist who lives as a political exile in Spain. Mauricio Lazala is a Colombian political scientist who currently lives in Mexico

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