Murder and Politics in Colombia

Review of:


Steven Dudley’s Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia (London: Routledge, 2004)


Dudley’s book seeks to trace the ways in which Colombia’s first democratic leftist party, the Union Patriotica (UP), was systematically exterminated by Colombia’s ultra-right paramilitary warlords during the 1980s and early 1990s. The UP began under the joint initiative of the then Colombian President Belisario Betancur and Colombia’s largest rebel army the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Betancur’s peace process sought to open up Colombia’s traditionally stymied political system to the UP both to provide a mechanism for the democratic expression of left-wing politics but also as a way of politically incorporating the FARC within the Colombian democratic process. Dudley’s book is an important English language study of this under-researched and crucial period in Colombia’s history, and as such plugs a significant historical gap. Dudley has a sensitivity for his subjects and his extensive interviews with some of the UP’s key players, alongside other less savoury characters such as the notorious paramilitary chief Carlos Castano, provides an interesting view of the perceptions of those involved in Colombian politics during this turbulent period.


However, there was something slightly troubling in some of Dudley’s wider conclusions. For example, he seems to lay the failure of the UP’s political project largely at the feet of the FARC leadership. Dudley argues that the FARC acted in bad faith throughout the peace process by building up their military forces. Meanwhile, many of the idealistic activists of the UP were often unaware of the FARC’s parasitic strategy which sought to capitalise on the wider political capital generated by the UP. Dudley asserts that the UP were merely one more political instrument in the FARC’s “project of insurrection” and asserts that the FARC’s strategy of combining legal and illegal means to topple the state (la combinacion de todas las formas de lucha) was the primary reason that the paramilitaries targeted the UP. Indeed, Dudley argues that “while the rebels’ duplicity helped them grow militarily, it also gave its enemies the leverage they needed to attack the [UP]”. The argument that Dudley seems to be making is that the FARC acted in bad faith, used the cover of  the UP to build up it’s military forces, and continued to employ la combinacion with devastating associated consequences for the UP. Conversely, the paramilitaries are often portrayed as acting in a defensive capacity (reacting against FARC encroachment on their business interests or in the case of the Castano brothers because of revenge for the murder of their father).


The problem with this account, however, is that the paras have long targeted the unarmed left regardless of their real or alleged links to the FARC and continue to do so to this day. Indeed, most of their victims are civilians murdered under the flimsy pretext of “counter-subversion”. This pretext is used to disguise what are often blatant land-grabs, “social-cleansing” operations, and the murder of progressive social forces that happen to threaten the interests of the Colombian ruling class. As the US State Department argues, the paramilitaries are essentially “a mercenary vigilante force, financed by criminal activities” and “the paid private” army of “narcotics traffickers or large landowners”. In other words, the paramilitaries are little more than the private militias of the Colombian ruling class.  Dudley’s argument that the violence meted upon the UP is attributable to the duplicitous la combinacion strategy of the FARC stretches reality in that it presumes that in the absence of the FARC the Colombian ruling class would have reacted any less violently to a political project that sought to reform Colombia’s socio-economic system. Dudley tells us that even before the first anniversary of the UP (and presumably before the FARC can expand under their auspices to any significant extent) 300 UP activists had already been murdered by the Colombian state and parastate forces. To argue that the UP’s extermination (over three thousand activists murdered by the mid 1990s) was largely driven by the FARC’s continued military build-up is pushing the argument too far. Indeed, one could seriously ask: in the face of the paramilitary onslaught against the FARC’s democratic experiment, what was the FARC supposed to do? Does he believe that that if the FARC had not expanded then paramilitary violence against the UP would have been lessened? Does he think that if the FARC demobilised then the Colombian state would have guaranteed the protection of the FARC’s former guerrillas?  If the UP had presented a credible threat to the interests of the Colombian ruling class entirely autonomously of the FARC would they have been less of a target? Sadly the historical evidence seems to point in the opposite direction. One only has to look at the continued targeting of the unarmed left by the Colombian state today. It seems that Dudley has in some ways swallowed the PR line of both the Colombian and US state which lays the ills for Colombia’s terrible violence solely at the feet of the FARC. In short, FARC = aggressors, paras = reactive defenders. There is no doubt that the FARC acted cynically in relation to the UP at times, but Dudley lets the Colombian elite, their military and privatised paramilitaries off the hook far too easily. The UP were destroyed because they represented a credible and potentially viable threat to the interests of Colombian and US capital, with the FARC military build up merely one of many factors that the led to the demise of the UP and the tragic slaughter of its activists.


Overall, those interested in the politics of Colombia and Latin America or the under-researched history of the Colombian state’s brutal war against the left should read this book. Dudley has some interesting interviews and the real value of the book lays in its access to the opinions of the UP’s movers and shakers. It tells a tragic tale, and illustrates the immense heroism of the UP’s forgotten thousands who gave their lives struggling for a better world.


Doug Stokes’ book “Repackaging Repression: US Intervention in Colombia After the Cold War” is forthcoming with Zed Books. 

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