The Paramilitary Spearhead of Plan Colombia
Over the past five weeks the rebel Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have imposed an armed blockade on the southern province of Putumayo in response to increased paramilitary attacks ahead of Plan Colombia’s military “push into southern Colombia.” Also, the FARC announced last week that it is suspending peace talks until the government takes steps to dismantle the right-wing paramilitaries, a demand the guerrillas have made repeatedly throughout the peace process. The government has done little to combat the paramilitaries, especially in Putumayo where they move freely through army checkpoints while waging war against the guerrillas.
In May, Commander Yair, a leader of a United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary unit in Putumayo, said the AUC supports Plan Colombia and could even spearhead the military offensive against the FARC by flushing out the guerrillas and then turning the territory over to the Colombian army. It appears that this scenario is now unfolding in Putumayo one month before the Colombian army’s three U.S.-trained battalions are expected to launch the military offensive called for in Plan Colombia (see, Plan Colombia: A Closer Look).
For more than a month, in spite of repeated calls for help from local officials and residents of Putumayo, the government in Bogotá was content to let the paramilitaries and the FARC fight it out in the remote southern province. But last week President Andrés Pastrana finally bowed to public pressure and deployed some 6,000 troops in an attempt to quell the violence.
Putumayo was a FARC stronghold until the paramilitaries arrived in 1998 to successfully gain control of the province’s major towns. Commander Yair — a former member of the Colombian Army’s Special Forces who was trained by elite U.S. Army Ranger and Navy SEAL units — now moves freely around the town of Puerto Asís in spite of three outstanding warrants for his arrest. He and his 800-strong paramilitary force regularly pass unhindered through checkpoints manned by the army’s 24th Brigade as they go about their business of fighting the guerrillas. It is exactly this sort of cooperation between the army and the paramilitaries that have led human rights organizations to criticize the U.S. aid package (see, Plan Colombia Lacks International Support).
Last week, FARC leader Andres Paris announced that the guerrillas were suspending peace talks until the government takes action against the paramilitaries who, according to human rights organizations, are responsible for approximately 75% of the human rights abuses in Colombia. Paris also said the FARC views the recent meeting between Interior Minister Humberto de la Calle and AUC leader Carlos Castaño to negotiate the release of eight politicians kidnapped by the paramilitary group as a concession to the right-wing death squads.
The FARC’s suspension of the peace talks raises the possibility that the government will decide against a six-month extension of the Switzerland-sized demilitarized zone in Caquetá province. The zone was ceded to the FARC almost two years ago in return for the guerrilla group’s participation in negotiations and the question of its continued existence comes up for congressional review on December 7, shortly before Plan Colombia’s military offensive is set to begin.
If the government uses the FARC’s withdrawal from peace talks as an excuse to discontinue the demilitarized zone, the Colombian army will likely launch an offensive in both Caquetá and Putumayo provinces. However, the guerrillas have become deeply entrenched in Caquetá over the past two years. Therefore, while the army is implementing Plan Colombia in neighboring Putumayo, the paramilitaries will more than likely move into Caquetá to replicate the spearhead strategy they are currently implementing in Putumayo.
With its lackluster attempts to dismantle the paramilitary organizations and Plan Colombia’s emphasis on a military solution, the government has sent a clear message that it is not serious about the peace process. And for its part, the FARC has failed to make a single substantial concession during two years of negotiations. Consequently, an escalation of violence seems inevitable, especially in the militaristic context of the U.S.-inspired drug war.
The FARC’s suspension of the peace talks is the most serious threat yet to the faltering peace process. The two sides are further apart than ever with the FARC unwilling to return to the negotiating table until the government deals with the paramilitaries, while hardliners in the government and the military eagerly await the Colombian army’s U.S.-backed “push into southern Colombia.”
In the meantime, the Colombian people continue to be the principle targets of the violence. More than 2000 refugees flooded over the border from Putumayo into Ecuador last week and, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees, 1000 of them requested asylum. Many human rights organizations believe this is only the beginning as up to 100,000 refugees are expected to flee the military offensive in Putumayo (see, Colombia’s Forgotten Refugees).
In light of recent events, it is essential that the government get the peace process back on track. One possible proposal is a government crackdown on paramilitary groups and a postponement of Plan Colombia’s military offensive in return for the FARC abstaining from further kidnapping. It is clear that, unless both sides are willing to make serious concessions in order to achieve a negotiated settlement, the paramilitary spearhead of Plan Colombia’s military offensive in Putumayo will be replicated in neighboring Caquetá and eventually the rest of the country.