Morning Star Article: Death squads in Colombia – paid for by big business

Colombian Death Squads Exploiting Coronavirus Lockdown to Kill Activists

Originally published 21st May 2019, this article is republished from the Morning Star Newspaper – the online Morning Star edition can be found HERE

Throughout Colombia’s half-century civil war, wealthy social sectors, especially landowners, have sponsored the formation of private armed groups to act as a counter-measure against the labour movement to protect their interests.

These paramilitaries have generally employed violence and terror as a conscious weapon against civilians. The objective has been to make workers too afraid to join trade unions and to stand up for their economic and political rights.

This belief that violence against the labour movement has a strategic utility led to the use of barbarous tactics. Pregnant woman’s foetuses were ripped out with machetes, to prevent the child from growing up as a socialist. Cannibalism and mass-rape have been employed to devastate communities, depopulate land and open the way for capitalist investment.

The legal foundations of paramilitarism are found in the law itself. In the 1960s, to tackle leftist insurgency in the midst of a disorganised and weak state, the US advised Latin American governments to use local proxy forces to combat insurgents.

In the US counter-insurgency manuals of this era, paramilitary violence was cited as one of the most effective measures that could be taken to protect private property from insurgents and left-wing activists.

However, because paramilitaries were organised and sponsored by capitalists from the outset, these privatised armed groups were not just used defensively to protect private property from rebel encroachment: they were used offensively against the broader political left and labour movement.

Paramilitarism in Colombia played a crucial role for capitalist stability in the late 1990s. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), previously the country’s largest leftist insurgent force, had taken the strategic offensive and were regularly defeating the armed forces in conventional operations, taking over towns and even small cities.

In response, capitalists, working with the state, funded paramilitary organisations as proxy forces while the security situation could be addressed.

During this period, the CIA predicted that unless Colombia’s precarious security situation was addressed, the leftist rebels would be likely to overthrow the state and introduce “anti-American” and socialist measures.

For this reason, the US arranged “Plan Colombia” — a US sponsored initiative mainly intended to upgrade and restructure the armed forces. This initiative was sanctioned by the US, despite the fact that it was public knowledge that Colombia’s state and paramilitary actively collaborated — they were widely known to be engaging in frequent human rights abuses — Colombia at the time was the worlds’ leader in terms of having the highest number of trade unionists assassinated. A trade unionist was murdered every three days between 1986 and 2007.

But thanks largely to “Plan Colombia,” for the first time in its history the Colombian government was able to implement a long-term counter-insurgency strategy that gradually weakened the offensive capabilities of the Farc, preventing it from engaging in conventional methods of warfare and forcing the leftist rebels to retreat to more isolated areas.

It was the paramilitary forces, however, that were able to fill in the vacuum left by the weak state while its armed forces were restructured. Through targeted assassinations of social leaders and by using terror to strike fear into communities, the capitalist-sponsored paramilitaries provided the space and time for the US sponsored Plan Colombia to be implemented.

During this period, the paramilitaries had been organised collectively into an umbrella movement — “AUC” — the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia. Benefiting from an estimated 30,000 combatants and “unofficial” state support — the AUC attacked labour activists and social leaders and targeted strategically based communities suspected of sympathising with leftist insurgents.

By the time Plan Colombia had been implemented and a long-term counter-insurgency strategy put in place, much of the socialist movement’s political structures had been devastated by paramilitary terror.

This outcome served to shatter the political connections between the rural based guerillas and the urbanised labour movement — because the overwhelming majority of Colombians today live in urban areas, a political strategy for mobilising urban communities was absolutely central to the guerillas’ strategy.

From then on out, the Colombian state was able to take the military initiative against the leftist rebels and more effectively introduce neoliberal reforms, thus putting the labour movement on the defensive indefinitely.

Crucially, the paramilitary was not specifically targeted for demobilisation by the government until it had served its strategic function of holding back the leftist rebels while the state’s security situation had been addressed by Plan Colombia.

The former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe — a Washington favourite whose administration has been marred in scandal because of its institutional support for paramilitarism — said in 2002: “Every time a security policy aims at defeating terrorism in Colombia, every time the terrorists start to feel weak, they send their mouthpieces to talk about human rights.”

The paramilitary ultimately existed to provide stability for capitalist investment, not to transform the country’s political economy like the left-wing insurgents. The focus of the United States was to “stop Colombia going red” — the same logic the US government drew on when it supported repressive right-wing military dictatorships during the Cold War.

It took until 2004, when Colombia’s armed forces had received the latest military equipment and surveillance technology, and benefited from a massive surge in recruitment, for a peace agreement with the AUC to be signed. This agreement included a convenient clause that no demobilising paramilitaries would be asked to report on their collaboration with state structures.

To use an example, take Viota, which was a historic stronghold of the Communist Party, dating back to the 1930s. Based only two hours from the capital city Bogota, the paramilitaries repeatedly targeted this territory during the 1999-2002 peace talks with Farc, committing massacres and destroying the labour structures that had been organised by workers and peasants over decades.

The military did not arrive until days after the right-wing paramilitaries had finished their brutal executions of suspected left-wing activists and fled the scene.

Laura Angelica Gracia, a Colombian journalist specialising in Viota’s armed conflict, states: “Since 1997, the paramilitary conducted intelligence work in Viota, often with the support of the military. Over the next few years, the paramilitaries murdered scores of left-wing politicians, social leaders, peasants, Communist Party members and government officials. By 2003, the paramilitaries had consolidated their strength inside Viota and forcefully displaced thousands, warning all the peasants that “guerilla and communist party collaborators must leave their homes within 24 hours or otherwise be killed.”

Today, there is little evidence left of Viota’s historic socialist influence — it is a bastion of the conservative Catholic Church and regularly votes for militarist right-wing political candidates.

Still, paramilitary groups were not only supported by small businesses and landowners. Large-scale businesses and corporations have also been involved in supporting paramilitary violence against the left, especially regarding capitalist enterprises invested in agriculture, mining, oil and commerce.

The US corporation “Chiquita,” formerly known as “United Fruit Company,” a company infamous for its support of the CIA-backed military coup against Guatemala’s first left-wing president in 1954, was compelled to admit to its funding of paramilitary organisations in Colombia. The company financed the paramilitaries between 1997-2004, a time period especially brutal for the scale and severity of paramilitary violence.

Likewise, a Coca Cola subsidiary in Colombia, by providing information on trade union organisers, was accused of helping to orchestrate the executions of at least three trade unionists, as well as of providing finance to a local paramilitary organisation. Other multinationals, such as Texaco and Exxon Mobil, have been linked to sponsorship of paramilitary death squads.

The experience of paramilitary terror against the political left and labour movement in Colombia is a lesson for socialists of all countries.

Such widespread backing of violence by capitalist sectors of Colombian society reveals the extent to which dominant classes are willing to go to advance their interests in the face of a powerful and threatening socialist movement.

Morning Star Article: Why Latin America’s oldest insurgent communist army is growing

Originally published 9th April 2019, this article is republished from the Morning Star Newspaper – the online Morning Star edition can be found HERE

Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) is Latin America’s oldest insurgent movement.

When founded in 1964, the ELN was, strategically and tactically speaking, inspired by the Cuban Revolution, which proved that a determined and well-organised political-military movement, could bring a solidly US-backed dictatorship to its knees.

While some have written that the ELN grew out of Colombia’s student movement — in reality, it emerged out of a worker-student-peasant alliance.

This alliance included peasant veterans of “La Violencia” (the violence) of 1948-58, where Liberal and Conservative party elites, alongside the Catholic church and powerful landowners, incited and coerced economically dependent peasants to go to war with each other in order to expand the wealth and power of dominant classes.

In return for risking their lives, the dominant classes that had facilitated La Violencia offered basic services and favours to the peasants — a form of exploitative relationship known as “clientelism.”

Out of the violent disorder came communist-led “self-defence” zones — some of the few areas that were free from the spreading violence of the countryside — these territories, organised on socialist principles, provided the rural social foundations for the ELN and the FARC (Colombia’s other but now demobilised insurgent group).

To resolve the inter-class tensions that had led to La Violencia, the Conservative and Liberal Party elites signed a pact that constitutionally shared political power between them. By definition, this agreement, which mainly sought to overcome the antagonisms between Colombia’s nationally oriented and internationally oriented capitalists, politically excluded working-class and peasant social forces.

Colombia essentially became a dictatorship governed by servants of the capitalist class.

Such top-down political exclusion sparked resistance from the labour movement: not just from communists but also from socialists, social democrats, and progressive Catholics. It was in this context of social unrest that ELN was born.

One of ELN’s most famous revolutionaries was Camilo Torres — known popularly as the “guerilla priest” — who declared in 1964 that “if Jesus Christ was alive today, he too would be a guerilla fighter.”

Torres was an influential Catholic priest from a very wealthy and politically connected family in Colombia. He was killed in his first moments of combat, after trying to save the life of a wounded comrade, but other Catholic priests, also influenced by socially progressive interpretations of Christianity, followed in joining the ELN.

Manuel Perez, a Spanish priest, became the leader of the ELN in the 1970s, dying in 1998.

Still, Che Guevara remains the most celebrated socialist revolutionary inside the ELN.

Internally, the movement’s literature refers to an ethical norm named after the internationalist guerilla fighter — “the spirit for sacrifice” — an ideal which all ELN members are encouraged to live up to.

ELN’s manual on ethics, held by every political officer, insists that there is something as distinct as a “socialist morality” — one based on internationalism and leading by example.

Despite having some history with progressive versions of Catholicism — “liberation theology” — according to its literature carried by combatants, the ELN is broadly Marxist-Leninist and seeks to apply that doctrine creatively.

For this reason, ELN has an unusual political-military strategy in the history of Latin American guerilla movements. Based on the peculiarity of Colombia’s political and economic conditions, the ELN rejects sectarianism and views itself as but one part of a broader movement of social forces fighting for social justice.

Unlike other insurgent groups that have sought to take state power by defeating the armed forces in offensive operations, Colombia’s civil formations are indispensable to ELN’s strategy.

In contrast to the Farc, ELN has focused more on working with localised grassroots structures, such as trade unions, peasant associations and community movements.

ELN’s is a dynamic form of strategy that draws on various social bases of support, including armed units, to organise spaces of socialist resistance.

Underlying such an approach is the distinction that, unique for Latin American insurgent movements, ELN is a political federation, a union of partially self-governing political and/or military fronts — each of which can serve as the vanguard depending on the correlation of class forces in any given period.

Under such a logic of organising, ELN incorporates civilian structures, as well as armed units into its ranks.

ELN’s leadership is elected at a national congress every few years, although at least two guerilla commanders sit permanently on the “central command” — except for the National Congress, that is the ELN’s highest decision-making body.

Regarding the armed wing, ELN members commit to be guerillas, in general, temporarily. After spending around three years as armed combatants in the countryside and mountains and having become increasingly politicised through such armed struggle, combatants then leave these armed units — at which point they work for the ideas of socialism inside civilian communities.

At the same time, however, these “civilian members” are then liable to be called back up to the armed units if the military conflict intensifies. Hence, there is an interdependence involving civilian and armed activity. Both fields of work seek to benefit from the other.

Traditionally, ELN has relied largely on extortion — referred to as “revolutionary taxes” — to fund its armed operations. This primarily involves a “taxation” on wealthy businesses, and where capitalists have refused to pay, their imprisonment for “tax evasion” — what is understood generally to be “kidnapping.”

Detainees are usually released after a ransom is paid — regarded as a “fine” for tax evasion by the ELN. This regular income supply permits ELN members to commit full-time to political struggle.

While ELN previously opposed the drug trade for decades on political grounds, it appears that in recent times the group’s leadership has authorised the taxation of coca-growing (for the production of cocaine), in addition to other commodities, at least in the territories of some guerilla fronts. This will inevitably help ELN finance its political struggle.

Still, ELN is far from a wealthy movement. Weapons from the 1960s are occasionally being used, food for guerillas is scarce, and armed units typically depend on collecting military equipment from combat with the Colombian armed forces.

It is still considered the ultimate offence for a guerilla fighter to lose their weapon, even in the most precarious of circumstances.

Since the introduction of “Plan Colombia” — a US-sponsored counter-insurgency initiative which upgraded and restructured Colombia’s armed forces, notably air-power, ELN has struggled from a military point of view.

The group’s interaction with civilians in towns and villages has been frustrated.

A medium-level commander in ELN admitted, because of advancements in the Colombian military’s air force capabilities, while a decade or so ago ELN guerilla fighters could spend weeks in the same camp, today they were compelled to move after a couple of days.

The Colombian government has made recruiting millions of civilian informants, each being paid every time they provide information on guerilla activity, a priority. It only takes a single willing individual to potentially give up the location of a guerilla camp using an anonymous phone call.

The military tries to recruit civilians from working-class and peasant backgrounds and transport them to ELN territories to report on rebel activity and their supporters. These types of tactics have frustrated ELN’s ability to organise openly.

Even so, ELN has expanded in recent years, taking over territory previously governed by Farc rebels.

They are also benefiting from the reality that the peace accord signed with Farc has not succeeded in decreasing the widespread killings of social activists, especially trade unionists.

With no shortage of peasants wanting to join the guerilla movement, combined with ELN’s connections to strategically chosen urban and rural communities, there is little chance of the Colombian state defeating ELN militarily.

President Iván Duque and Colombia’s ELN

Since 2017, Colombia’s government and the National Liberation Army (ELN), a Marxist revolutionary group, have been engaged in discussions to end 54 years of war. So far, the government has been playing down the strength of the insurgent group while hoping to negotiate its surrender in return for its protection as a legal political entity. On the other hand, the ELN has been demanding that the government implement social reforms as part of its negotiating platform, particularly focused on resolving the conditions that have given rise to the conflict. However, in June, a right-wing candidate won Colombia’s 2018 presidential elections and promises to treat the ELN as mere criminals rather than as a political entity with legitimate grievances and demands. This blog post argues that the new president would do well to change his political posture and recognise ELN’s increasing strength and strong bargaining position to achieve a peace deal.

Colombia’s incoming President, Iván Duque, primarily represents the landowning fraction of capital. He promises to modify the peace deal reached with the FARC in 2016 and offer negotiating conditions so strict to the National Liberation Army (ELN) that the latter will not agree to surrender their weapons. However, like Colombia’s government, the ELN has been preparing for more war, aware of the possibility that a peace agreement may not be reached. For years they have sought to expand on the battlefield so as to ensure a stronger hand at the negotiating table. While Colombia’s military, working with the Venezuelan Armed Forces, has killed several important commanders in ELN’s strongest Domingo Lain Front, this entity has taken strong advantage of the vacuum left by the FARC-EP and significantly expanded its operations and influence. Similarly, powerful ELN Fronts in both Nariño and Chocó have also developed their operations. In other words, Duque wants to force surrender to a political-military organisation that is gaining strength.

The tactic of using overwhelming militarily superiority effectively against ELN has also largely depended on the expectation that FARC dissidents will not be able to unite around a single banner. Now that FARC dissidents are working collectively, and have grown rapidly, numbering around 4000 combatants – only an estimated 3500-4000 less than FARC-EP at the inception of negotiations in 2013 – Colombia’s military can no longer expect to dominate the ELN militarily. They must focus on at least two highly organised political-military groups that are gaining momentum. Moreover, after many years of relative inactivity, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) is currently experiencing a resurgence in the East. Hence, unless Colombia’s government is willing to compromise politically and implement structural reforms to its neoliberal model, as is demanded by the ELN as part of negotiations, it looks likely that a peace accord will be off the cards for the next decade or so.

The ELN has been underestimated and misjudged by a large majority of ‘experts’. Too often they have been compared to FARC-EP or seen as a traditional insurgent organisation that is attempting to overthrow the Colombian state militarily. This is not the case. They have a unique political strategy. With new combatants generally committing around three years as a guerrilla combatant (rather than a lifetime) before they leave to work for social justice causes legally, ELN relies on a large reserve force that organises within moderate political movements and throughout communities. Indeed, unlike traditional insurgent groups, the ELN does not view itself as the so-called ‘vanguard of the revolutionary struggle’, but rather as one of many anti-capitalist movements and networks pressuring the state to change from its neoliberal political course. Put differently, the ELN does not worship the rifle. Thus, the group should not be evaluated simply on the basis of its military strength – which has grown since negotiations began. The government’s bargaining team ought to take this difference in strategy into account when negotiating with the group.

The international situation likewise is not favourable to the incoming Colombian President. The United States does not want to continue financing Colombia’s expensive military struggle against the rebels when it needs to be focused on more pressing matters relating to conflict around the Middle East, East Asia, and Africa. Importantly, military success against the rebels from 2002 to the Present has been overwhelmingly dependent on Plan Colombia, an international initiative sponsored predominantly by the United States to stop Colombia ‘going communist’ and to make the country receptive to international business. In fact, the United States exploited Colombia’s desperate situation with the rebels during the 1990s to open Colombia’s economy up and provoke its government to embrace economic policies favourable to U.S-based corporations, a fact that has tended to negatively affect Colombia’s local and landowning bourgeoisie. This means President Duque cannot afford to simply ignore the expectations of its hegemonic northern ‘partner’.

Duque’s negotiating position is made worse by Colombia’s slowing economy, the fact that European Union countries support compromise in peace negotiations, and because multinational corporations have largely shown themselves to be in support of a negotiated peace, even if at the expense of the local landowning class. Indeed, the only class that seems to be united in supporting Duque’s negotiating plans are Colombia’s powerful landowning elite, a social class that fears ELN’s expectation to implement land reform as part of any peace agreement.

Ultimately, what this post has shown is that, contrary to the claims of many other commentators, ELN has real bargaining power vis-a-vis Colombia’s government during negotiations. While ELN’s military position has grown recently, both the domestic and international situation is favourable to the organisation and its political strategy. This means that if incoming President Ivan Duque presses on with his current hardline demands – prison for ELN’s leadership and a refusal to accept any changes to Colombia’s political and economic structures – Colombia will face war with this organisation for at least another four years, probably many more.

Meeting FARC Insurgents

Image result for farc insurgents

Near the Colombian border in Ecuador, in 2010, I spoke with a former FARC guerrilla who was forcefully relieved of his duties after a military aircraft took one of his legs away. Like the overwhelming majority of Campesinos I have met, and although he was categorised as a ‘terrorist’ by some governments, I was received by the ex-guerrilla fighter with humility and kindness. And despite that the revolutionary’ had his leg blown away, almost certainly by US-made bombs, this man had not become the kind of ‘terrorist’ usually portrayed in the media – psychotic and driven by hatred, especially, they say, of ‘gringos’ like me.

The young FARC militant had fled to Ecuador to escape a private ‘security’ force, sponsored by landowners, which is not known for killing its left-wing peasant enemies quickly or quietly. Even after the FARC militant had paid the permanent and gruesome price of losing a limb to a night-time bombing in the jungle, instead of surrender to benefit from a government programme that rewards guerrillas financially who disband and collaborate, he continued to choose poverty and insecurity while doing what he could to defend the FARC as an amputee in civilian communities.

I found out in 2014 that three of my closest friends from Colombia had been killed. We spoke for the last time in January 2013 on Skype, and I did not learn of their violent end by military units until later in October. I spent around 18 days with them on a farm in the countryside of Cauca province – conversing about their personal histories with the FARC, and about the political situation in Colombia. It was July of 2010, shortly after the eight-year presidential leadership of Alvaro Uribe, a right-wing militarist welcomed by Colombia’s ‘narco-bourgeoisie’, and who predictably, has not supported the 2016 peace agreement. The political ‘establishment’ and economic elites tend to believe that FARC and ELN should be treated as a ‘terrorist threat’ as opposed to social forces organically rooted in rural working-class communities spread throughout Colombia.

Although we have been told many terrible stories about insurgents in Colombia, I was not able to identify a single strain of fanatism, or an ideological mindset, in these FARC revolutionaries, which included, at the time of death, a 24-year-old mother. Aside from active work with FARC, they were employed as labourers, had stable families and friendships, and were no more stubborn than your average conservative; they seemed to be deeply concerned about the state and direction of their country.

While it is always difficult to pinpoint individual motivations, it was clearly not drugs or money that motivated these revolutionaries, including one who already escaped an aeroplane bombing, but not without first losing a thumb and having his stomach and back covered with shrapnel. Their daily examples contrast with the thoughts of ‘greed theorists’ who conclude that FARC members are drug traffickers or bandits exploiting political ideology for their personal ambitions.

Instead, the real crime of the FARC insurgents I met was to correspond their feelings of indignation, into the deeds of political practices. And through that action, they sacrificed everything, not merely their lives, but also their security while they still had the chance to live. So, it became obvious to me that such guerrillas should not be described as drug-traffickers or bandits part of an organisation that gave up or lost its political identity decades ago.

Note: Names of those described above have been hidden to protect friends and family members.