Fifty Years of Violence

Report prepared by Garry Leech, May 1999.


La Violencia and the National Front

The Proliferation of Guerrilla Groups

The FARC and the Coca Boom

The Proliferation of Paramilitary Organizations

The United States and the Paramilitaries

The United States and the Drug War



The civil conflict in Colombia has been epitomized by gross human rights violations that have increased dramatically over the past two decades. International human rights groups have repeatedly singled out right-wing paramilitary organizations as being the principal perpetrators of human rights abuses.

The paramilitaries are closely allied with the Colombian Armed Forces as they wage war against, not only the guerrillas, but also anyone suspected of being a guerrilla sympathizer, such as union members, peasant organizers, human rights workers and religious activists. Some paramilitary leaders have even extended the parameters of the war against the guerrillas and they’re suspected sympathizers to include drug addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes, petty criminals and the homeless in an attempt to “cleanse” Colombian society.

Over the years several Colombian presidents have attempted to address the issues–social, political and economic injustices–that the guerrillas claim to be the principal cause of the conflict. However, these efforts have been repeatedly thwarted by the United States and its war on drugs, and by the Colombian political, economic and military elite who are desperately trying to preserve a “democracy” that has marginalized much of the population.

Many contemporary news accounts label the conflict a “thirty-five year-old civil war,” basing its origin on the official formation of several guerrilla groups in the mid-1960′s. However, the roots of Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), date back to the peasant armed self-defense movements formed between 1948 and 1958 during the period known as La Violencia.

La Violencia and the National Front

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Liberal and Conservative parties, whose influence reached from Bogotá to virtually every village in the settled regions of the country, dominated Colombian politics. Ideological differences between the Liberal and Conservative elite reverberated throughout Colombian society often resulting in outbreaks of violence that repeatedly pitted loyal Liberal and Conservative factions, both peasant and elite, against each other.

In the late 1940′s dissident Liberal Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, having emerged from the Liberal and communist led agrarian and labor reform movements, was a leading presidential candidate. But on April 9, 1948, Gaitán was assassinated on a Bogotá street. The Liberal leader’s killing triggered the Bogotazo, a popular uprising by the Liberal lower classes that resulted in massive destruction and looting in the capital.

Similar Liberal peasant uprisings occurred simultaneously throughout the country pitting rural Liberals and Conservatives against each other. Fearing the violence might lead to a peasant-based social rebellion, the Liberal leadership supported the repressive means used by the Conservative government to quell the uprisings in order to preserve the Liberal and Conservative oligarchy. However, in spite of the loose alliance between the Liberal and Conservative parties, two high-ranking Liberals were assassinated in 1949. This resulted in the Liberal Party’s abstention from the 1950 presidential election, which was won uncontested by Conservative candidate Laureano Gómez.

Although the rebellion had been effectively quelled in Bogotá, there continued to be sporadic armed peasant uprisings in several rural departments. President Gómez, who considered Liberal peasants akin to Communists, responded to the uprisings with violent repression. Many Liberal members of the national police force were dismissed and replaced with peasants from the Conservative Boyacá district of Chulavita. These chulavistas soon became infamous for the brutal tactics they used to repress rebellious Liberals and communists.

In the early 1950′s, the Gómez regime–supported by the Church, which had been victimized during the uprising, and by the United States, which viewed Communist Party support for peasants through a Cold War lens–elevated the repression to new heights. The chaotic violence pitted rural Liberals and Conservatives against each other. It also resulted in battles between the oligarchy and land-starved peasants that resulted in many large landowners abandoning their properties as they fled to the relative safety of the cities.

In 1953 Gómez was overthrown by a military coup that brought General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla to power. Rojas Pinilla immediately dispatched the military to reclaim the property of the landowners who had fled to the cities. In response, armed peasant groups called for agrarian reform. In June 1953, in an attempt to bring an end to the violence, Rojas Pinilla issued an amnesty to all the armed peasants and responded to their call for agrarian reform by creating the Office of Rehabilitation and Relief. In reality, this office did little to address the agrarian problem, though it did make the Liberal and Conservative elite suspicious that Rojas Pinilla was using it to build popular support for himself. In June 1954, Rojas Pinilla extended the amnesty to those imprisoned for acts of terror on behalf of the Gómez regime.

Many of the Gomezistas released from jail immediately began killing innocent peasants, forcing those that had accepted amnesty to once again take up arms. Rojas Pinilla responded in 1955 by launching a major military offensive against the rearmed peasants in what became known as the War of Villarica. It was in the department of Tolima during this offensive that the armed self-defense movements–that would later evolve into the FARC–came into existence. The Conservative and Liberal elite blamed the renewal of La Violencia on Rojas Pinilla and in 1957 organized a general strike and street protests in the capital that forced Rojas Pinilla to resign.

Following the ouster of Rojas Pinilla, the Conservative and Liberal elite implemented a power sharing agreement called the National Front. Beginning in 1958, the two parties alternated four-year terms in the presidency and distributed all public positions evenly between the two parties. The formation of the National Front brought an end to the nineteenth-century-style aspect of La Violencia: conflict between factions of the ruling elite. However, the new government still had to contend with the armed peasants.

The Proliferation of Guerrilla Groups

Many peasants, mostly Liberals and communists, had survived the military offensives during the 1950′s by undertaking long marches, under the protection of the armed self-defense movements, to the mostly uninhabited eastern departments of Meta and Caquetá. The peasants cleared and worked new lands in areas they declared “independent republics” in an attempt to free themselves from a national government they distrusted due to “personal experience with social and economic partisanship and their discovery of the double value system upheld by the ruling classes.”1

However, the colonists soon discovered they had not found the autonomy they so desperately sought as the large landowners, intent on increasing their own land holdings, soon began laying claim to the newly cleared lands. Furthermore, the government had no intention of leaving the colonists alone: “In defining these republics as gangs of communist bandits, the government had an excuse to launch military attacks against them, condemn them politically, and blockade them economically…. The only possible outcome was war. One by one the republics fell to the army, and once they were under government control the land became concentrated in the hands of the large landowners.”2

The peasants, who were forced deeper into the jungle, realized their only chance of achieving social justice lay in their ability to wage war against the government on a national level. As a result, the armed self-defense movements dispersed units to various regions of the country in order to fight the army on several fronts simultaneously under a central command structure. On July 20, 1964, the various fronts of the armed self-defense movements issued their agrarian reform program. Two years later they officially became the FARC.3

In 1960 the independent political party, National Popular Alliance (ANAPO), had been formed by supporters of Rojas Pinilla and was soon contending in congressional elections. ANAPO’s popularity increased steadily throughout the 1960′s as it appealed to many of those who had been left out of the National Front alliance. Rojas Pinilla ran as ANAPO’s candidate in the April 19, 1970 presidential election and after holding an early lead was narrowly defeated by the National Front candidate Misael Pastrana Borrero. Many ANAPO supporters accused the government of manipulating the vote count and in response to the perceived electoral fraud, socialist members of ANAPO formed the M-19 guerrilla movement in 1972.

The M-19 gained notoriety through a series of daring urban raids that included the occupation of the Dominican Embassy in Bogotá in 1980 and the ill-fated takeover of the Palace of Justice in 1985. The latter resulted in the deaths of more than one hundred people, including eleven Supreme Court judges, during a two-day battle in which the army leveled the massive courthouse. In 1989 the M-19 guerrillas decided to lay down their weapons in return for a full government pardon. The ex-guerrillas formed a political party called the Democratic Alliance M-19 to participate in the upcoming elections; however, right-wing death squads soon assassinated many of the party’s leaders, including presidential candidate and former M-19 commander Carlos Pizarro.

The M-19 had been formed as a response to the National Front, which successfully reserved positions of power for members of the Conservative and Liberal elite. This “limited democracy” also spawned other guerrilla movements in the 1960′s, although there were other factors that also came into play. The Cuban Revolution influenced many radicals in Latin America, convincing them that Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s foco theory of armed insurrection was the revolutionary road to follow. Also, the Colombian Communist Party’s support of resolutions passed by the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party calling for a peaceful road to revolution led many young Colombians to split from the Party in order to follow the Cuban model.

These factors led to the creation of the Popular Army of Liberation (EPL) in the department of Antioquia in the mid-1960′s. Following the Soviet-Chinese split, the EPL espoused the Maoist theory of a “prolonged popular war.” But after 1980 it began to distance itself from Maoist philosophy and in August 1990 many members decided to lay down their arms in order to participate in the political process, while a small dissident faction continued to fight in northern Colombia.

In 1964, university students who had recently returned from Cuba formed the nation’s second-largest guerrilla group, the Army for National Liberation (ELN), in the department of Santander. The ELN adhered strictly to Che’s principles of rural guerrilla warfare and, in contrast to the M-19 and the EPL, has so far refused to lay down its arms and participate in the political process. Sociologist Eduardo Pizarro points out that: “In recent years the ELN has focused its activities almost exclusively on efforts to disrupt and destroy the oil industry, attacking with great success the pipelines of the north.”4

In fact, between 1986 and 1997 the ELN was responsible for 636 pipeline bombings that resulted in $1.5 billion in lost revenue for the state-owned oil company, Ecopetrol.5 For many years, the FARC and the EPL denounced the ELN for pursuing a strategy of economic sabotage that has failed to increase its popular support. However, by the end of the 1990s the FARC was also targeting pipelines used by multinational corporations to transport oil from remote drilling fields to coastal ports.

The FARC is the only Colombian guerrilla group with peasant roots that pre-date both the National Front and the Cuban Revolution. In contrast, the ELN, the EPL and the M-19 were all movements led by urban intellectuals and were typical of the many Latin American guerrilla groups that evolved in the 1960′s: Cuban-inspired armed reactions to the domestic political, social and economic situation.

The FARC and the Coca Boom

The 1974 presidential election brought an end to the National Front alliance as Liberal and Conservative candidates once again ran against each other. Sixteen years of National Front rule had reduced the amount of killings–in comparison to the 200,000 Colombians who died during the period of La Violencia–but it had failed to address the agrarian issue and a dramatic increase in poverty.

During the National Front years the percentage of the nation’s work force living in absolute poverty more than doubled, from 25 percent to 50.7 percent. The figures were even worse for the rural labor force where the rate of absolute poverty soared from 25.4 percent to 67.5 percent.”6 In light of such poverty, it is no surprise that when the coca boom began in the late 1970′s the lure of drug profits resulted in a massive new migration of urban unemployed and landless peasants to the predominantly FARC-controlled colonized regions.

Initially, the FARC was concerned the new mass migration would undermine the political and social status quo in the areas under its control. However, at the same time, its income from war taxes imposed on the local population in return for maintaining social order increased dramatically. The new revenue enabled the rebel group to vastly improve its military capabilities by modernizing its weaponry and improving the guerrilla fighter’s standard of living. In addition, the FARC was able to offer social and economic services “in the areas of credit, education, health, justice, registry, public works, and ecological and cultural programs.”7

During the early years of the coca boom the guerrillas and the drug lords worked together. The guerrillas controlled many of the coca growing regions while the cartels managed much of the cocaine production and trafficking. However, this informal alliance soon collapsed when the leaders of the drug cartels in Medellín and Cali began investing their new found wealth in property, primarily large cattle ranches, which placed them firmly in the ranks of the guerrillas’ traditional enemy. The new narco-landowners soon began organizing their own paramilitary armies in order to fight the guerrillas and those they viewed as guerrilla sympathizers.

The Proliferation of Paramilitary Organizations

During their war against the narco-landowners, the guerrillas discovered another lucrative source of income to supplement their coca taxes: the kidnapping of narco-landowners and their relatives. In response to this guerrilla tactic, 223 drug traffickers in Cali formed the paramilitary group Death to Kidnappers (Muerte a Secuestradores, MAS) in December 1981. Over the next decade hundreds of paramilitary organizations based on the MAS model were founded.

The international human rights group, Human Rights Watch, described one such organization established by the Bárbula Battalion in Puerto Boyacá, Santander, under the military mayor, Captain Oscar de Jesús Echandía: “In 1982, Echandía convened a meeting of local people, including local Liberal and Conservative party leaders, businessmen, ranchers, and representatives from the Texas Petroleum Company. They found that their goal went far beyond protecting the population from guerrilla demands. They wanted to ‘cleanse’ (limpiar) the region of subversives.8

As a result of this meeting, hired men were armed in order to perform the “cleansing” with logistical support provided by the military. The new paramilitary force was named MAS, after the Cali organization. The acronym MAS was used by so many newly-armed groups that it soon became synonymous with “paramilitary organization.”

Two of the civilians trained for paramilitary duty by the Bomboná Battalion in Puerto Berrío were the brothers Fidel and Carlos Castaño, whose father had been kidnapped and killed by the FARC. The brothers soon formed their own paramilitary force called the Peasant Self-Defense Groups of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU) and “by the end of the decade, Fidel Castaño, known as ‘Rambo,’ was a top paramilitary leader as well as an influential drug trafficker.9

Meanwhile, the Patriotic Union (UP), a political party affiliated with the FARC, was formed in 1985 following a cease-fire agreement between the rebel group and President Belisario Betancur under the La Uribe accords. According to sociologist Ricardo Vargas Meza: “By incorporating some of the FARC’s socio-economic demands and extending the cease-fire, the accords opened the possibility of a political resolution to the conflict. Betancur’s position was a radical departure from that of his predecessors, for he recognized that guerrilla violence was the product of real social conditions and he understood the relationship between those conditions and the demands of the insurgents.”10

However, many legislators were opposed to Betancur’s peace initiatives and, with the help of newly-elected President Virgilio Barco in 1986, soon put an end to any negotiated threat to the interests of the oligarchy. In addition to ending the cease-fire, “the state unleashed a dirty war, primarily against the Patriotic Union. During 1988 alone, close to 200 leaders of the Patriotic Union were assassinated.”11 In total, more than 1,000 members were killed, including two presidential candidates, during the UP’s first five years.

The paramilitary organizations involved in the dirty war were not only closely allied to the Colombian Armed Forces, they were legal militias. The Commission for the Study of the Violence notes that Law 48, which was passed in 1968, “permitted the military to organize and provide arms to groups of civilians called ‘self-defense’ units, so that they could fight back against organized delinquents and also against armed groups operating in certain peasant regions.”12

During the La Uribe cease-fire accords, when counterinsurgency operations were prohibited, the army intensified its application of Law 48 in order to create paramilitary forces capable of performing “cleansing” operations directed against the rural peasant population. The use of paramilitary forces in the dirty war provided the military with a degree of “plausible deniability” in regards to human rights abuses.

In spite of the proliferation of paramilitaries, the FARC successfully maintained its control of many southern and eastern regions of the country. However, paramilitary forces in northern Colombia, through the use of terror, displaced entire populations in order to implement an aggressive counter-agrarian reform. These tactics allowed narco-landowners to further increase their land holdings whilst at the same time disrupting bases of peasant support for the guerrillas. By the end of the 1980′s, drug traffickers had become the largest landowners in the country and as a result had turned “large swaths of rural Colombia into large, unproductive cattle ranches.”13

On February 20, 1983, the Procurador General (Attorney General) released the results of an investigation ordered by President Belisario Betancur into death squad activity by MAS organizations. Of the 163 individuals implicated in the report, 59 were active members of the police or military. Father Javier Giraldo S.J., the executive director of the Colombian human rights group Inter-Congregation of Peace and Justice, suggests that the reaction of the armed forces and the Minister of Defense to the report insinuated a military coup was imminent. As a result, “the Attorney General’s office itself would adopt from that time on a favorable attitude toward paramilitarism, by abstaining from gathering evidence and by refusing to implement any sanctioning measure against the members of MAS.”14

On the rare occasion that a case against a member of MAS or the armed forces did make it to court, the judge, out of fear for his or her life, would usually turn the case over to a military court and the charges would inevitably be dismissed. This impunity allowed military and paramilitary forces to wage war against the nation’s peasant population without fear of retribution. Furthermore, Colombia had spent most of the previous two decades under an official “state of siege,” during which the military had been given virtual autonomy in its handling of the civil conflict while the government focused, almost exclusively, on bureaucratic and administrative issues. In essence, this dual system of government allowed the military and its paramilitary allies to function with little accountability.

During the night of March 4, 1988, a group of armed men massacred 17 workers on the La Honduras farm and three more workers on the neighboring La Negra farm in the Urabá region of the department of Antioquia. All the victims were members of the local banana workers union. According to Human Rights Watch, the ensuing investigation into the massacre showed that “over the preceding weeks the army had arrested some of the eventual victims, taken their pictures, and detained others who were tortured into giving information. This information was then provided to the killers. Before the massacre, the killers were put up at a Medellín hotel by Maj. Luis Becerra Bohórquez, a member of the intelligence division of the Tenth Brigade. Becerra paid the bill with his Diner’s Club card.15

In September 1988, Judge Martha Lucia González, who was later forced to flee the country due to death threats, issued a warrant for Becerra’s arrest that was never served because “the officer was not available since he was in the United States taking a course necessary for his promotion to lieutenant-colonel.”16 Shortly after the charges against him were dropped, Becerra was involved in another military-paramilitary massacre of 13 people in Riofrío on October 5, 1993. Following the Riofrío massacre Becerra was forced into retirement by executive decree and, in spite of a warrant again being issued for his arrest, remained a free man.

An arrest warrant was also issued for the leader of the ACCU paramilitary group, Fidel Castaño, for his role in the La Honduras/La Negra massacre. Castaño was never arrested, though he was convicted in absentia and sentenced to twenty years in prison. The ACCU leader was also implicated in four more massacres between 1988 and 1990, and “Castaño himself has admitted taking part in planning the 1990 murder of UP (Patriotic Union) presidential candidate Bernardo Jaramillo.”17

Although the military has been involved in the creation and operations of many of the paramilitary organizations, it does not always control them. By 1989 the narco-landowners were not only using their paramilitary forces against the guerrillas and rural peasants, they were also targeting government officials, especially politicians and judges who supported the extradition of drug traffickers to the United States. A group of traffickers led by Medellín cartel chief Pablo Escobar, calling themselves the “Extraditables,” waged a violent bombing campaign in Colombia’s cities in an attempt to pressure the government into ending extradition.

Paramilitary forces also targeted government officials courageous enough to combat death squad activities. On January 18, 1989, two judges and ten investigators who had been investigating a number of killings by paramilitary forces were themselves massacred by paramilitaries. The government could no longer ignore the gruesome statistics: a dramatic increase in political killings from 1,053 in the 1970′s to 12,859 in the 1980′s, including 108 massacres in 1988 alone.18 However, perhaps more important in the minds of the politicians was the fact that the paramilitaries were increasingly targeting government officials.

As a result, President Virgilio Barco criticized the paramilitary organizations in an April 1989 speech: “In reality, the majority of their victims are not guerrillas. They are men, women and even children, who have not taken up arms against institutions. They are peaceful Colombians.”19 On May 25, 1989, the Colombian Supreme Court ruled Law 48 unconstitutional and the following month President Barco issued Decree 1194 which made it illegal for civilians or members of the military to create, aid or participate in “self-defense” groups.

Needless to say, the outlawing of the paramilitaries did little to diminish their activities or their affiliation with the armed forces. Father Giraldo describes the eyewitness account of an army informant who was present at the Trujillo massacre which occurred in March 1990, less than a year after the abolishment of Law 48 and the issuance of Decree 1194: “Just before midnight on the 31st, a combined army/paramilitary group dragged a large number of campesinos out of their houses, took them to the hacienda of a well-known drug trafficker and brutally tortured them, dismembering them with a chainsaw. The army major reserved the most brutal of the tortures for himself.”20

Once again the Colombian courts failed to convict those accused of the massacre. So Father Giraldo and his organization decided to take the case, on behalf of the 63 victims, to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights at the Organization of American States.

After two years of discussions the Colombian government agreed to create an extra-judicial commission consisting of governmental and non-governmental representatives. The newly formed Commission found the government responsible for the actions of the military personnel involved in the Trujillo massacre and damages were awarded to the victims’ families. However, those found responsible for the massacre were never punished due to the fact they had been previously absolved by the Colombian courts.21

The United States and the Paramilitaries

In February 1990, United States President George Bush announced his Andean Initiative, which consisted of $2.2 billion of economic and military aid to Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Two-thirds of the aid was earmarked for military and police units as part of the U.S. strategy of fighting the drug war on the military front whilst mostly ignoring the economic causes (i.e. poverty) of coca production. Furthermore, the governments were told that in order to receive the economic portion of the aid, they had to first accept the military aid.22

In response to Bush’s “strings attached” Andean Initiative, “only the Colombian government of Virgilio Barco had no reservations about signing the military agreement, enabling the Bush White House to deepen its relationship with one of the more brutal officer corps in the hemisphere which, in alliance with the police and rightist death squads, had worked closely with the Medellín cartel for more than a decade.”23

The U.S. Administration was not only intensifying its war against drugs, although that is what it led the public to believe, it was also becoming more involved in Colombia’s counterinsurgency operations. In 1990, the United States, in order to advise the Colombian military on a reorganization of its intelligence network, put together a fourteen-member team that “included representatives of the U.S. Embassy’s Military Group, U.S. Southern Command, the Defense Intelligence Agency, and the CIA.”24 In May 1991, the reorganization was complete and the Colombian Defense Ministry issued Order 200-05/91.

According to Human Rights Watch: “Contrary to the stated objectives of the Andean strategy, however, Order 200-05/91 has little if anything to do with combating drugs.”25 In fact, there is no mention of drugs in the sixteen pages of Order 200-05/91, which formulates a strategy to aid the Colombian military in its counterinsurgency war against the guerrillas.

One consequence of Order 200-05/91 was the undermining of Decree 1194 which had made it illegal for civilians and members of the military to create, aid or participate in “self-defense” groups. According to Human Rights Watch, Order 200-05/91 called for the military to create thirty intelligence networks and “instructs division and brigade commanders to select candidates ‘whether civilians or retired military personnel, for integration into the networks cadre.’”26

One of the thirty networks was created by the Colombian navy in Barrancabermeja, situated on the Magdelena River and the site of Colombia’s largest oil refinery. A member of the network, Felipe Gómez, who testified in return for a lesser sentence, admitted organizing several paramilitary organizations for the military. He also claimed to have “received weapons and equipment from the navy, including bolt-action rifles, M16 rifles, Galil rifles, revolvers, pistols, submachine guns, fragmentation grenades, military instruction texts, and high-frequency two-way radios to communicate with the navy and the army.”27

Not only is it against the law for civilians to possess many of these weapons, it is also, as a result of the 1989 Supreme Court decision ruling Law 48 unconstitutional, illegal for the military to supply such arms to the civilian population. Carlos David López, the Barrancabermeja network administrator, also testified to civilian authorities and in his confession he attributed 46 murders to the network during the first six months of 1992. Gómez, López, and other witnesses who testified about the Barrancabermeja intelligence network have since “disappeared.”

The role of the paramilitaries was further legitimized on December 13, 1994, when President Ernesto Samper initiated a new program called Cooperatives for Surveillance and Private Security (CONVIVIR). The program allowed civilians “to set up ‘rural security cooperatives’ with the stated intention of providing troops with intelligence on their regions.28 In essence, CONVIVIR, in conjunction with Order 200-05/91, all but re-legalized paramilitary organizations.

The reorganization of the Colombian Armed Forces’ intelligence network is only one aspect of U. S. involvement in the Colombian military’s counterinsurgency campaign. International human rights organizations have claimed that substantial amounts of U.S. aid in the 1990′s went to Colombian army units that have a history of human rights abuses and that the primary function of many of these units is to fight the guerrillas, not the drug war.29

In response to the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Colombian military and its paramilitary allies, the United States cut off military aid to Colombia from 1994 until 1997. However, according to the Washington Post, there were 28 U.S. army deployments in 1996 “under a 1991 law that permits U.S. Special Forces to train on foreign soil if the training is primarily to benefit the U.S. troops.”30 It is difficult to understand how the U.S. Special Forces were the primary beneficiaries of counterinsurgency training conducted with poorly trained, poorly equipped and poorly motivated Colombian soldiers.

The Clinton Administration continued to utilize the 1991 law after aid was restored because it was not subject to the Leahy Amendment of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act. Under the Leahy Amendment, only Colombian military units cleared of human rights abuses are allowed to receive U.S. aid. Such contradictory policies allowed the Clinton Administration to publicly portray itself as a staunch defender of human rights without having to compromise its support for Colombia’s repressive military forces.

Furthermore, Colombian officers and soldiers regularly receive training at the U.S. army’s School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. According to Human Rights Watch: “Several of these officers were students at the school at the time its curriculum included training manuals recommending that soldiers use bribery, blackmail, threats, and torture against insurgents.31 Many of the Colombian officers implicated in human rights violations, including the aforementioned Lt. Col. Becerra Bohórquez who was involved in the La Honduras/La Negra and Riofrío massacres, are graduates of the School of the Americas.

Another tragic aspect of the conflict has been the dramatic increase in “social cleansing killings” committed by the paramilitaries. The mission of many paramilitary organizations now includes a “moral” purification of Colombian society through “the physical elimination of drug addicts, exconvicts, petty thieves and criminals, prostitutes, homosexuals, beggars and street children.”32

Between 1989 and 1993 there were 1,926 documented cases of social cleansing performed by death squads or assassins known as “sicarios.” Many of these assassins come from the ranks of the young urban unemployed who are becoming increasingly marginalized as a result of Colombia’s deteriorating economy. Ironically, once their employers decide they know too much, these young assassins often become the targets of newly recruited sicarios.

In his essay, “The Possibilities for Peace,” Arturo Alape examines the level of violence that exists in modern day Colombia: “In the first 11 months of 1997, 23,532 people were killed–an average of 70 people murdered each day. With a total of 185 politically motivated massacres in 1997 alone, Colombia has been singled out by international human rights groups as one of the worst violators of human rights on the planet.33 According to the human rights organization, Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), paramilitary groups were responsible for 76 percent of the human rights violations committed in 1997, while the guerrillas were blamed for 17 percent and the armed forces for seven percent.34

Politically motivated massacres and social cleansing are not the only tragic consequences of the conflict: Colombia is currently the global leader in kidnappings with 1,658 cases in 1998;35 it is estimated that more than 1,500 people have “disappeared” for political reasons over the past decade;36 and there are currently more than one million internally displaced who have been forced from their homes by the violence.37

A 1998 Human Rights Watch report accused all parties involved in the conflict of human rights abuses. The report criticizes the army for its “consistent and profound failure or refusal to properly distinguish civilians from combatants” and for continuing to provide logistical support to paramilitaries who are responsible for the majority of the massacres. The report also accuses the FARC of being responsible the kidnappings and massacres of civilians. Human Rights Watch charges the ELN with targeting civilians, sowing land mines and “systematically bombing Colombia’s oil pipelines in order to extort money from oil companies.”38

The United States and the Drug War

The FARC’s upgrading of its military capabilities over the past decade has resulted in a corresponding increase in paramilitary activity. In 1985, the FARC only controlled 173 of the nation’s 1,071 municipalities, but by 1998 the rebel group controlled 622 municipalities.39 To combat the advances of the FARC, Carlos Castaño, who became leader of the ACCU following his brother’s disappearance in 1994, expanded his paramilitary operations from the regional to the national level in April 1997. He then renamed the Peasant Self-Defense Units of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU) the United Self-Defense Units of Colombia (AUC). The AUC then launched offensives in southern regions of the country that have traditionally been guerrilla strongholds.

In November 1998, President Andres Pastrana withdrew 2,000 soldiers and police from a 16,200 square mile area in southern Colombia in preparation for the upcoming peace talks with the FARC. A paramilitary offensive, launched to coincide with the talks, resulted in the deaths of 136 civilians over a four-day period. In response, the FARC withdrew from the negotiations claiming the paramilitaries are an impediment to the peace process and that talks cannot continue until the government makes a serious attempt to dismantle the right-wing death squads. Pastrana’s was facing the same obstacles as some of his predecessors whose peace overtures had been undermined by the oligarchy, the military, and the paramilitaries, as these groups continually refused to recognize the legitimacy of some of the rebels’ demands.

Furthermore, the U.S. government continued to focus on a military solution to its war on drugs, which it made virtually synonymous with the war against the guerrillas. The Clinton Administration, by repeatedly linked the rebels to drug trafficking by referring to them as “narco-guerrillas.” Consequently, Washington has seriously misrepresented a conflict that has, for fifty years, been deeply rooted in the political, social and economic inequalities so prevalent in Colombian society. Even the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency admitted, “the FARC is not involved in international drug trafficking. Rather, it is one of many actors–including elements of the armed forces and paramilitary organizations–engaged in the lucrative drug trade.”40

In 1998, the U.S. Congress allocated $290 million in anti-drugs aid to Colombia to be spent over the next three years. The huge majority of this aid was geared towards purchasing helicopters and weaponry for military and police use in coca eradication projects. Only $45 million of the aid was earmarked for crop substitution programs. Also in 1998, the U.S. government began pressuring the Colombian Government to use the herbicide Tebuthiuron, an extremely powerful chemical that kills virtually everything it comes into contact with.

Even Dow Agro Sciences, the manufacturer, stated that the herbicide should not be used for widespread coca eradication: “Tebuthiuron is not labeled for use on any crops in Colombia, and it is our desire that this product not be used for illicit crop eradication. It can be very risky in situations where territory has slopes, rainfall is significant, desirable plants or trees are nearby, and application is made under less-than-ideal circumstances.41 This geographic description accurately depicts the mountainous rain-forest terrain where most of Colombia’s coca is grown and where the U.S. wanted to aerial spray the herbicide from high altitude under what must be considered “less-than-ideal circumstances.” The Colombian government, citing environmental concerns, refused to submit to U.S. pressure regarding the use of Tebuthiuron.

The current U.S. strategy of supporting the most repressive military force in the hemisphere in its war against the guerrillas and peasant coca growers virtually ignores the economic realities that have forced the impoverished peasant farmer to turn to coca production. In a 1999 interview, the FARC’s supreme commander, Manuel “Sureshot” Marulanda, claimed his organization could eradicate coca production in three to five years.

To prove the feasibility of his claim, Marulanda stated that, if supplied with economic aid from the government and international organizations, he would take one municipality under his control and eradicate its coca production by implementing a crop substitution program.42 Regardless of the feasibility of Marulanda’s claims, it is clear that the U.S. strategy of crop eradication, without offering peasant farmers viable alternatives, has failed to stem coca production.


For fifty years the FARC and its predecessors have claimed to be fighting for agrarian reform and social justice for Colombia’s peasant population. The FARC has evolved into a powerful military force of 15,000 to 20,000 fighters who now control approximately 40 percent of the country. A U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report issued in November 1997 “concluded that the Colombian Armed Forces could be defeated within five years unless the country’s government regains political legitimacy and its armed forces are drastically restructured.”43

U.S. Drug Czar General Barry McCaffrey echoed the findings of the DIA report when he claimed that Colombian democracy is being seriously threatened by the growing military strength of the guerrillas.44 Such statements lead one to believe that McCaffrey’s concept of “democracy” involves: social order being “maintained” under a military state of siege; impunity for paramilitary forces who regularly massacre the civilian population; political candidates in opposition to the Conservative and Liberal elite being routinely assassinated; a judicial system paralyzed by fear; and thousands of peasants whose only economic means of survival is illicit coca production. Indeed, if the ruling political, economic and military elite, aided by the paramilitaries, continue to stifle truly democratic reform, then the demise of Colombian “democracy” may well be inevitable.

For its part, the United States appears intent on “Salvadorizing” the conflict. Colombia, as was the case with El Salvador in the 1980′s, is currently the hemisphere’s leading recipient of U.S. military aid. And it appears that Washington, in its attempt to prevent a guerrilla victory, is once again intent on supporting a repressive military that is closely allied to right-wing death squads. Such a policy will inevitably result in the continued suffering of the Colombian people, many of who are routinely subjected to massacres, torture, disappearance, kidnapping and forced displacement.

Any possibility of achieving a peaceful resolution to the conflict is reliant on the government’s ability to dismantle the paramilitary organizations in order to create a climate conducive to negotiations between the government and the guerrillas. Then, and only then, will it be possible to address the political, social and economic causes of the conflict.


1. Alfredo Molano, “Violence and Land Colonization,” Violence in Colombia: The Contemporary Crisis in Historical Perspective, Eds. Charles Bergquist, Ricardo Penaranda and Gonzalo Sanchez (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, 1992), 199.
2. Ibid., 206-207.
3. Eduardo Pizarro, “Revolutionary Guerrilla Groups in Colombia,” Violence in Colombia: The Contemporary Crisis in Historical Perspective, Eds. Charles Bergquist, Ricardo Penaranda and Gonzalo Sanchez (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, 1992), 181.
4. Ibid., 178.
5. Steven Dudley and Mario Murillo, “Oil in a Time of War,” NACLA-Report on the Americas, Mar./Apr. 1998, p. 42.
6. Benjamin Keen, A History of Latin America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996), 514.
7. Alfredo Molano, “Violence and Land Colonization,” 214.
8. Human Rights Watch/Americas, Colombia’s Killer Networks: The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996), 17.
9. Ibid., 18.
10. Ricardo Vargas Meza, “The FARC, the War and the Crisis of State,” NACLA-Report on the Americas, Mar./Apr. 1998, 24.
11. Ibid., 25.
12. Commission for the Study of Violence, “Organized Violence,” Violence in Colombia: The Contemporary Crisis in Historical Perspective, Eds. Charles Bergquist, Ricardo Penaranda and Gonzalo Sanchez (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources, 1992), 268.
13. Mark Chernick, “The Paramilitarization of the War in Colombia,” NACLA-Report on the Americas, Mar./Apr. 1998, 30.
14. Javier Giraldo S.J., Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy (Monroe: Common Courage, 1996), 85.
15. Human Rights Watch/Americas, Colombia’s Killer Networks: The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States, 23.
16. Ibid., 74.
17. Ibid., 75.
18. Ibid., 25.
19. Ibid., 23-24.
20. Javier Giraldo S.J., Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy, 49.
21. Ibid., 51.
22. James Petras and Morris Morley, Latin America in the Time of Cholera: Electoral Politics, Market Economics, and Permanent Crisis (New York: Routledge, 1992), 60.
23. Ibid., 60.
24. Human Rights Watch/Americas, Colombia’s Killer Networks: The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States, 27.
25. Ibid., 28.
26. Ibid., 29.
27. Ibid., 33.
28. Ibid., 44.
29. Coletta Youngers, “U.S. Entanglements in Colombia Continue,” NACLA-Report on the Americas, Mar./Apr. 1998, 34.
30. “A Sensitive Role for U.S. Troops,” Washington Post, May 25, 1998, Heraldlink, Online.
31. Human Rights Watch/Americas, Colombia’s Killer Networks: The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States, 93.
32. Javier Giraldo S.J., Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy, 23-24.
33. Arturo Alape, “The Possibilities for Peace,” NACLA-Report on the Americas, Mar./Apr. 1998, 36.
34. Human Rights Watch, “Human Rights Watch World Report 1998″ Human Rights Watch, 1998, Online.
35. “Colombia Leads in Kidnappings, with 1,678 this Year,” Miami Herald, December 25, 1998, Heraldlink, Online.
36. “Lots of Colombians Disappearing,” Miami Herald, May 12, 1998, Heraldlink, Online.
37. “Colombia War Displaces 241,312 People in 1998,” Reuters, November 29, 1998, CNN Interactive, Online.
38. Human Rights Watch/Americas, “War Without Quarter: Colombia and International Humanitarian Law,” Human Rights Watch, 1998, Online.
39. Mark Chernick, “The Paramilitarization of the War in Colombia,” NACLA-Report on the Americas, Mar./Apr. 1998, 32.
40. Coletta Youngers, “U.S. Entanglements in Colombia Continue,” NACLA-Report on the Americas, Mar./Apr. 1998, 35.
41. Tod Robberson, “Drug War Herbicide May Harm Environment,” Dallas Morning News, May 2, 1998, Heraldlink, Online.
42. “Colombian Rebels Offer to Wipe Out Drug Crops,” Reuters, January 17, 1999, CNN Interactive, Online.
43. “Multilateral Invasion force for Colombia?” NACLA-Report on the Americas, May/June 1998, 46.
44. “U.S. Drugs Czar Says Colombian Democracy Under Threat,” BBC News, March 1, 1999, Online.