Ending Colombia’s 100-Year War

Ending Colombia’s 100-Year War

Peace talks, nudged along by Cuba and the Vatican, might finally bring an end to the hemisphere’s longest-running civil war.


Depending on how you date it, Colombia’s civil war has either been going on:

  1. Since the early 1960s, when the national military, with US backing and training, began to attack Communist-allied peasant communities. For a while, it was Colombia, not Cuba, Guatemala, or Chile, that seemed to be the American analog to what Washington was doing in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, with counterinsurgent intelligence officers and Green Berets moving from one country to another. In 1964, the US-trained Colombian armed forces enacted a scorched-earth campaign (that included the use of napalm), razing rebellious villages and setting up “strategic hamlets.”
  1. Since 1948, when the murder of a very popular left-liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán kicked off a 10-year period of intense fighting between “liberals” and “conservatives” that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 200,000 people in the countryside. It was during this period that many peasant communities began to affiliate with the Communist Party, in the form of armed self-defense committees (the precursors to the FARC, the largest and oldest insurgent group), setting the stage for the Cold War assault described above.
  1. Or since the 1920s, when pitched and violent conflict between dispossessed peasants and landlords in the coffee-producing regions of Sumapaz, Tequendama,and Tolima pushed the Liberal Party to the left, eventually making possible the rise of Gaitán.

In other words, Colombia’s civil war is nearly a 100 years’ war. Similar to what had occurred in other areas of Latin America, this long cycle of conflict worsened after World War II, as the promise of social democracy collided with the emerging Cold War international security state. Nearly every country in Latin America experienced accelerated polarization: Reform was met with repression; repression led to radicalization.

Colombia, however, is distinct: In most other Latin American countries, the end of the Cold War brought about a resolution of this long arc of militancy. Civil wars (in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua) ended. Anti-communist dictatorships (in, among other places, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil) yielded to constitutionalists.

Not in Colombia, where the insurgency/counterinsurgency drags on to this day. There are many reasons why this is so, including, importantly, drugs (both US demand and Washington’s “war on”), which allowed the conflict to evolve and adapt to a post–Cold War reality.

There was a real effort in the mid-1980s to wind the war down. After peace talks, the FARC founded a political party, the Patriotic Union, to participate in the electoral process. For a brief period, it was “the most successful leftist party in Colombian history,” according to The Washington Post. But its membership and leaders, including its first presidential candidate, Jaime Pardo Leal, were targeted for assassination by paramilitary death squads, which, funded by narco-dollars, had grown in numbers and power.

No matter how much we might all hate the FARC, no matter how corrupt, cruel, or cocaine-dependent that guerrilla organization might today be, it is important to take in this fact:

From 1986 to 1990, 4,000–6,000 members of the Patriotic Union were murdered, including another presidential candidate, Bernardo Jaramillo, who was slated to run in 1990. More than 70 percent of all center-left presidential candidates in 1990 were assassinated as well.

The murders were carried out by “a combination of drug dealers, right-wing paramilitary groups and members of the incumbent government and army”—in other words, by Colombia’s ruling class. In Berlin, the Wall was falling. In Colombia, the only things falling were leftists who thought they would be allowed to win at the ballot.

The Reagan administration, committed to reviving a hardline policy of anti-communism in the region, provided no support for the peace process and no shelter for leftists who were trying to lay down arms and commit to electoral politics. In fact, Reagan’s ambassador to Colombia, Lewis Tambs, practically issued the death sentence: he insisted that drug traffickers and guerillas were one and the same thing, coining, according to The Washington Post, “a term summing up the unholy alliance—‘narco-guerrillas.’” “It became evident that Tambs was against the negotiated peace,” Gabriel García Márquez noted at the time. Of course, as Iran-Contra (a conspiracy in which Tambs was deeply involved) reveals, Reagan officials were more than willing to work with drug traffickers when it suited them. (Here’s a great essay on how Netflix’s Narcos represents and misrepresents this period, by Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra.)

The near hundred-year war might, however, finally be coming to an end, as peace talks, nudged along by Cuba and the Vatican, are advancing.

I asked Winifred Tate, who teaches in the anthropology department at Colby College and has been involved with Colombia since the 1980s, about those talks. Tate is the author of a number of terrific books, including 2007’s Counting the Dead: The Culture and Politics of Human Rights Activism in Colombia and this year’s Drugs, Thugs and Diplomats: U.S. Policymaking in Colombia. Both are excellent, as is Tate as a guide to the complexities of Colombian history and politics.

Greg Grandin: Where do the talks stand currently?

Winifred Tate: Following considerable tension this summer, the talks have gained important momentum. The parties have agreed to produce a final peace accord that will end the longest-running civil war in the hemisphere by March 23, 2016. Most recently, on October 17, the parties announced an agreement focused on settling cases of the disappeared, including immediate humanitarian measures “for the search, location and dignified release of the remains” of the disappeared, and a special investigative unit to be established after the final accord is signed. To date, negotiators have announced agreements on five of the six major agenda items, including the controversial transitional justice provisions. On September 24, they announced the “Special Jurisdiction for Peace,” which includes alternative sentencing and amnesties for political crimes, but no pardons for war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide. The only remaining agenda item is the agreement on demobilization and disarmament.

Ginny Bouvier, a special advisor at the US Institute for Peace, has the most comprehensive coverage of the agreements to date at her blog, Colombia Calls.

Who are the major spoilers?

Former President Alvaro Uribe, who championed the use of local civilian security cooperatives that were frequently a façade for paramilitary groups and oversaw the expansion of the military forces, has been galvanizing public opinion against the process. He is widely seen as spearheading conservative and hardline opposition, and following his 2014 election to the Senate, he is well-positioned to marshal resistance to agreements requiring congressional approval or funding. And he is not alone. Public opinion polls of the urban middle class in Colombia have reported widespread skepticism about the process, and concern about a possible future political role of the FARC.

Neo-paramilitary groups, sometimes known as the BACRIM for their Spanish initials (bandas criminals), are also a specter haunting the process, because of the fear of violence against demobilized guerrillas. There are a number of historical examples of post-accord violence against the demobilized. Many remember the case of Patriotic Union, a political party created out of frustrated peace talks with the FARC in the early 1980s. After gaining significant electoral victories, the party was wiped out—and thousands of their members killed—by paramilitary gunmen, many working with local military commanders.

What is the role of land reform in the process?

In May 2013, the first agreement focused on agrarian issues. The FARC emerged from rural communities, as a rural guerrilla force, and has made land reform a major platform of their political agenda. Many imagine that FARC troops will want to reintegrate as part of the rural workforce. Yet the rural sector in Colombia is in crisis because of the structural transformations of the national economy.

The Colombian countryside has experienced what is called “the reverse agrarian reform.” Beginning in the 1980s, drug traffickers, many of whom became paramilitary leaders, began buying up land and using violence and threats to push people off the land. Victims reported being told, I’ll buy from you or your widow. Land was used to launder money and to buy their way into the respect of the elite. Much of this land has been taken over, directly or through third-party sales, by regional elites, agribusiness involved in teak, oil palm, or banana production, or the growing extractive industries.

According to one estimate, as many as 6 million of hectares changed hands. Nobody really knows—in many places, paramilitary groups burned land registries, while in other regions these registries are inaccurate, or the files lost or not maintained. At present, USAID reports that “in rural areas, less than 1% of the population owns more than half Colombia’s best land.”

What is interesting in the Colombian case is that the government has begun implementing post-conflict measures while the conflict is still going on. The flagship program of the Santos government has been the Victims’ and Land Restitution Law (Ley de Víctimas y Restitución de Tierras), Law 1448 of 2011, which sets out procedures for reparations and land return for victims of violence in Colombia.

The law has offered new regulations and institutional requirements but little land. From its passage in June 2011 to April 2013, the Victims’ Law land restitution programs restored 10,585 hectares of land to 218 families. But to date, of the two million hectares claimed by almost 30,000 people, only 7 percent of claims filed have been resolved so far. Moreover, these claimants are only a tiny subset of the estimated 6 million people who were displaced.

There are also many issues of institutional weakness within the agencies tasked with investigating claims and implementing returns. In many cases, tracing the legitimacy of land claims is extremely difficult, given the lack of land titles and periodic waves of violent displacement in many regions.

But the most significant factor is violent opposition and the use of armed actors to prevent people from claiming and returning to this land. Scores of land restitution leaders have been assassinated, and the survivors face growing threats. As more land claims move through the system, many fear a more violent response.

Land, and the ability to create equitable land distribution and sustainable rural lifeways, is critical for any lasting peace, yet we can already see that the struggle for the land is one of the primary flashpoints for ongoing violence.

What are the concerns about demobilization?

The FARC has been a kind of black box; there really isn’t anyone who has had good, ongoing access to their leadership or even local troops, in part because Colombia is under-studied in the US and partly because such research is illegal, and dangerous.

In terms of demobilization, anthropologist Alex Fattal has pointed out that current demobilization efforts are part of the war effort, designed to get military intelligence for ongoing combat operations, not remove combatants from the war and reintegrate them into civilian life. So demobilization programs must be demilitarized.

The FARC is fairly unique in that approximately 40 percent of the troops are women–although women are not present proportionally in the leadership structure–which means a substantial subset of the potential demobilized guerrillas will be women.

Women in Colombia, like women throughout the world, remain severely under-represented in public life. They face discrimination in the labor force, and are over-represented in the informal sector.

A decade ago Colombia passed quota laws, requiring 30 percent of candidates and political appointees to be women. This law has not been anywhere near fully applied, but it has resulted in some increasing levels of women in political positions, including in central ministries as well as town councils and other local-level elected positions. The law is currently being supported with a new push from the central government agency for gender equity. The quota law could prove very important in helping ensure that demobilized women guerrillas are able to participate in public political life following their demobilization.

The estimated numbers of FARC female combatants is much higher than in previous demobilizations. Yet the studies of their experiences do offer some insights and possible issues to consider. Demobilized women tend to participate less in public life than men, in part because they are not recognized as political actors within their own guerrilla groups. They tend to have ongoing economic responsibilities for their families. And in the transition to civilian life, women face a double stigma: as guerrillas stigmatized within society, and as women who have violated expected female social roles.

In particular, women face harsh criticism for failing in their maternal roles. While fathers were often celebrated for their sacrifice, mothers are frequently vilified and most were never able to establish relationships with their children following demobilization.

So, demobilization programs should address the particular challenges faced by women because of the domestic expectations they face, as mothers and as daughters, their greater economic vulnerability, and support their political leadership.

Is there going to be a truth commission?

Colombia is already in the midst of a “memory boom,” which dates to the mid-2000s and the paramilitary demobilization programs. The legal framework for this process, known as the Justice and Peace Law (Law 975 of 2005), required the creation of a National Commission on Reparations and Reconciliation, which in turn created the Historical Memory Group (HMG; their mandate has now lapsed and they remain as a government Historical Memory Center). The HMG functioned as an independent academic group; their work focused on documenting emblematic cases and has resulted in 20 book-length studies that are available in Spanish on their website, as well as web resources including an interactive site focused on massacres. Spurred in part by this process, academics, journalists, and human-rights organizations as well as local governments have began producing reports intended to clarify the violence events of Colombia’s recent history. Some examples include websites focused on documenting the history of the conflict, like Semana magazine’s site focused on victims, and another, “The Public Truth,” that examines the evolution and impact of the conflict; the Bogotá mayor’s office’s Center for Memory, Peace and Reconciliation; and numerous regional initiatives.

Despite these efforts, there are still many questions about what has happened in Colombia, and why. On June 4, the parties announced the creation of a “Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition,” which will name collective responsibilities.

While the scope of the commission’s work has yet to be decided, one major issue in my view is the establishing of US responsibility, as a military patron of the Colombian armed forces and as the source of prohibitionist drug policies and much of the demand for illegal narcotics.

As someone who has been involved in Colombia issues since the late 1980s, this is an amazing and inspiring process. But of course, the devil is in the details, in terms of how the implementation of these general agreements will be structured and what kind of institutional support they will have on the ground.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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