Two Colombia’s in 2008: Which One Will Be Remembered?
olombians could be forgiven for waking up in the year 2009 with a slightly larger hangover than the guayabo usually associated with drinking too much aguardiente during the festive season. The country now faces the challenge of moving on from arguably the most momentous year in its modern history. While 2008 brought with it the euphoria of the rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and the process of national mutual backslapping that accompanied periodic confrontations with Colombia’s leftist neighbors, it also revealed previously ignored cancers of Colombia’s politics and society: primarily the scandalous massacre of innocent youths to present them as “enemy” casualties, and the country’s time bomb of pyramid schemes and money laundering activities. The year 2008, therefore, revealed two Colombia’s: one being the swaggering and reveling in the government’s achievements against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the country’s role as the continent’s bastion of free market capitalism; the other dark and shady, highlighted by the “false positives” scandal and the pyramid scheme crisis.
Government officials have already claimed 2008 as a watershed year, a year when the government finally broke the back of the continent’s longest running guerrilla movement, the FARC. In previous years, while success had been declared in reclaiming control of large swathes of the country’s territory, the FARC’s leadership had essentially remained intact. That all began to change in March when the government ordered a highly controversial, but undoubtedly successful, operation against FARC commander Raúl Reyes across the border in Ecuadorian territory. While the Ecuadorian and Venezuelan governments denounced the act as unjustified aggression, the majority of Colombians applauded their government, convinced by claims that their neighbors were supporting the FARC. Within seeks came even more remarkable news: The FARC’s veteran leader, Manuel Marulanda, alias Tirofijo (Sureshot), had died of natural causes. Perhaps, some commentators suggested, a heart attack brought on by the shock at Reyes’ death.
And if that was not enough, the best was yet to follow. On July 2, the Colombian army implemented Operacion Jaque, an audacious military operation to grab the jewels in the FARC’s negotiating crown: 15 of its most high profile hostages, including the veritable heroine of the hour, former presidential candidate, French-born Ingrid Betancourt. The country watched Betancourt beaming with delight and showering compliments on her erstwhile political rival, President Alvaro Uribe, while the president’s approval ratings rose to an unprecedented 91 percent.
Meanwhile, lingering accusations about the illegal misuse of the Red Cross symbol suggest that it was far from the “Hollywood” operation presented by the government and media, but that didn’t affect the mood of euphoria that engulfed the country. At this point, Uribe could do no wrong; accusations of human rights abuses and judicial illegality didn’t seem to wash with the Colombian public. The most important thing to them was that the FARC were, and are, in disarray, meaning Uribe has successfully delivered on his main campaign promise. Another re-election seemed inevitable.
But if 2008 saw a peak in the popularity of the armed forces, it also revealed the extent to which arbitrary and inhuman actions have become institutionalized. For years, warnings by human rights organizations and international monitors of the dangers of having a system of quotas for killed “enemy combatants” were ignored by the government. The revelation that 11 young men from poor backgrounds had been lured from Soacha in southern Bogotá to the department of North Santander, only to be killed and presented as enemy combatants, revealed that the phenomenon known as “false positives” had been rampant for years. Although Uribe forcibly retired 27 generals and commanders, he failed to recognize any institutional cause of the phenomenon.
How could it be that those very same armed forces who were regularly feted for being guardians of democracy, typified by the “perfect” saving of the hostages, had normalized the assassination of innocent youths simply to get promotions and pay raises? And, more to the point, how could a president like Alvaro Uribe, famed for his “iron fist, big heart” approach, have permitted this monster to grow under his watch in spite of the persistent warnings from human rights organizations and international monitors? The only explanation, surely, is that Uribe, a man whose political prestige is umbilically connected to that of the armed forces, saw the “false positives” as a lesser evil in the wider battle to defeat the FARC.
And in spite of all this, if the year had ended on November 12th, Uribe, and the majority of Colombians, would undoubtedly have seen it as a good year. However, if the failure of the Colombian public to respond to the false positives scandal with any serious opposition to the president had disappointed the political opposition, they were surely relieved by what happened next. The collapse and flight of the pyramid scheme DRFE (Fast, Easy Money in Cash) induced not only economic disaster for those Colombians who had invested their savings there, but a dramatic chain reaction that saw the government forced into confronting the elephant in the room: the multi-billion dollar “holdings company” known as DMG (named after its mercurial founder and owner, David Murcia Guzmán).
For more than three years, DMG had been consistently achieving wondrous financial feats for a large sector of the population, namely multiplying their money to levels beyond their wildest dreams. DMG had worked by combining elements of a pyramid scheme with a complex and growing network of legal and pseudo-legal enterprises, all enhanced by the “secret ingredient,” namely the laundering of proceeds from drug trafficking. For many poor Colombians, David Murcia Guzmán had achieved a cult status to rival that of Uribe himself, and they happily repeated the infamous mantra “pray to God, and David Murcia Guzmán.”
Similarly to the “false positives” scandal, it seems remarkable that DMG and a myriad of smaller pyramid schemes were allowed to flourish in a country with a government so committed to confronting “delinquents.” The government’s embarrassment was extreme, given that stalwarts of the establishment, from allied politicians, to high profile lawyers, to the president’s children and even soldiers involved in Betancourt’s rescue, were revealed to have links with, or to have invested in, DMG. Some sectors of the media blamed it all on “lazy” people seduced by the culture of “easy money.” But such moralizing contributes little to the debate. How many people in the world, particularly those living in poverty, would resist the chance to have their savings multiplied within a matter of months, especially if it was being done by what was then a legal business, which operated in shopping malls and paid taxes?
Surely, if any solid conclusion can be drawn from the DMG issue, it is the extent to which the country’s vaunted anti-narcotics initiative Plan Colombia, funded by the United States, has been a dramatic failure. In spite of billions of dollars invested in eradication programs, evidence suggests that illicit cultivation has only shifted to other areas, and the rise of DMG demonstrates the ever present ability of drug-related “ghost” economies to penetrate all sectors of Colombian society. Surely, the failure of Plan Colombia must induce a radical rethinking of drug policy at a national and international level in order to finally put an end to the distortions that continue to plague Colombia’s society.
Ultimately, 2008 was the story of two Colombia’s: the modern day fairytale of a Colombia of daring rescues, economic growth and political stability, alongside the shadier, more mysterious Colombia, plagued by authoritarianism, impunity and illegality. Meanwhile, further away from the limelight, other worrying trends intensified, such as the ongoing discontent of the country’s indigenous population, the violent displacement of Afro-Colombian communities to make way for palm oil production, and the continuous rebranding of the supposedly “demobilized” paramilitaries as “Black Eagles.” At the beginning of 2009, Uribe’s position, compared to several months ago, seems far less assured, leading one to ask whether change is afoot in this most reliably conservative of South American countries.