Colombia’s Killing Fields: Peace is War
by James Petras - Dissident Voice
August 30th, 2015
Colombia has received more US military aid — over $6 billion dollars in the past decade — than any country in the Western Hemisphere. For its part, Colombia allowed the Pentagon to build seven military bases, more than all the other countries in the region combined. There are over 2,000 US military officers and private US ‘mercenary’ contractors engaged in military activities in Colombia – more than any other country in Latin America.
During the decade-long (2001-2010) regime of President Alvaro Uribe, (a drug trafficker and death squad jefe in his own right), more than one-thousand trade union leaders and activists were murdered — over one hundred a year.
Nevertheless, the ‘Colombian killing field’ regime under Uribe was described in glowing terms by all the major respectable Anglo-American newspapers, including the Financial Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post for having brought “stability and peace” (of the graveyard) to the country and making Colombia “safe for investors”.
Eventually Uribe’s excesses, his policy of ‘peace through terror’ policies frightened and appalled many Colombians and (most important for the oligarchs) he failed to defeat the armed insurgency When the regime’s new extractive export growth strategy called for massive expansion of foreign investment in guerrilla-controlled mineral and oil-rich regions tactics and key political leaders had to change.
After two terms in office, President Uribe’s former Defense Minister Juan Santos was elected on the promise of renewed peace negotiations with the principal guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
President Santos’ Peace Negotiations and the Killing Fields
Under President Santos, Colombia still retains the title as the most dangerous country in the world for trade union leaders and human rights activists. During his first 5 years in office, from 2011 to April 2015, more than 105 trade unionists have been murdered; 596 have been injured in attacks and 1,337 received death threats. Over half of the killings, which are officially labeled ‘unattributed’, have clearly been committed by the paramilitary hitmen — ‘sicarios’, and others are categorized as ‘false positives’, where the military claims civilian deaths result from the ‘cross-fire of combat operations’.
Few arrests have ever been made in a country where assassins enjoy immunity. Over 80% of trade union leader assassinations are attributed to paramilitary-military-police while 6% are blamed on the guerrillas. In the case of the guerrillas, most of the ‘victims’ are not popularly elected trade unionists but agents, appointed by the employers and government, with links to the paramilitary gangs, who identify and purge militant workers and have nothing to do with the defense of workers rights.
There are a minority of cases of guerrilla units committing human rights violations. These are investigated and the guilty are punished by the national leaders — a far cry from Bogota’s policy. A recent case, which took place in early August, led to severe internal sanctioning of a FARC unit.
The drop in the ‘number’ of labor leaders murdered, from an average of 100 a year under Uribe to 25 a year under Santos, is due to the precipitous decline in the number of trade unionists overall — thanks to a decade of slaughter under Uribe. In other words, there may be fewer union leaders murdered under President Santos, but overall the proportion of leaders assassinated remains essentially the same — and the life expectancy for a Colombian labor leader is the lowest in the hemisphere!
What has changed under Santos is the shift away from slaughtering a dwindling number of union leaders, to killing and jailing human rights and social movement activists.
In 2014, 35 activists were murdered. During the first half of 2015, the death toll has almost doubled with 69 social movement and human rights activists killed.
The Patriotic March is the major Colombian umbrella movement, bringing together over 100 social organizations, including the country’s major indigenous groups, Afro-Colombians, regional peasant and human rights groups. More than 9,000 Patriotic March activists have been arrested and 40 have been killed during Santos reign of terror.
Peace Negotiations and Cross Border Aggression
Santos’ peace negotiations with the main guerrilla groups, as well as the FARC’s unilateral ceasefire, has allowed the Colombian military and its paramilitary allies to step up their cross-border drug and contraband smuggling and terrorist incursions into Venezuela.
In mid-August, a Colombian paramilitary squad entered Venezuela and wounded 3 Venezuelan soldiers who had been part of a team combating large-scale contraband and arms smuggling across the Colombian border. Cross-border smuggling has a double purpose: It creates insecurity and shortages in Venezuela inciting opposition to the government while earning huge profits for paramilitary leaders who re-sell the subsidized Venezuelan goods (food, medicine and gasoline) at a huge mark-up in Colombia.
Cross-border paramilitary-smuggling operations have vastly increased under President Santos. While the regime claims to be negotiating a peace accord with the FARC in Havana, Venezuelan security is under threat.
Large-scale, widespread smuggling gangs from Colombia enjoy impunity, intelligence and encouragement from the Colombian government and its US Special Forces ‘advisers’ intent on ‘regime change’ in Caracas. And with the FARC honoring its unilateral ceasefire, the paramilitaries no longer have to contend with attacks from the guerrillas.
Peace Negotiations and Extractive Capital
President Santos’ economic policies are attracting large flows of foreign investment into Colombia’s mining and energy sector. The oil and mineral-rich regions are heavily influenced by the armed guerrillas. Furthermore, there is a tradition of militant trade unionism among miners and oil workers. In order to make these regions safe and extremely profitable for multinational oil and mining companies, Santos has adopted a ‘two-pronged’ approach. He negotiates ceasefires and disarmament with the two insurgent movements (the FARC and the ELN-the National Liberation Army) in Havana, while stepping up repression and terror against union leaders in the oil and mining sectors.
During the Santos’ regime the greatest number of assassinated trade union leaders have come from the mining and energy sector (25.4%), followed by the manufacturing (19.3%), education (18%) and agriculture (12.7%). From 2014 to mid 2015, 90% of paramilitary and military assaults against civilians have targeted union leaders and activists (208 out of 229).
In other words, Santos’ strategy has been designed to neutralize the guerrillas via bogus peace negotiations in Havana in order to concentrate state repression against mass popular movement activists and trade unionists, as they struggle to secure a fairer share of Colombia’s immense natural wealth which is being pillaged by the gigantic foreign mining and energy companies and their local oligarch partners.
Under Santos, assassinations and attacks have become more selective than the indiscriminate mass killings that characterized his predecessor’s regime. The scorched earth policies which drove 4 million peasants and small farmers from their lands have been replaced by the targeted killing and assault of trade unionists active in strategic economic sectors.
Cross border incursions by the Colombian military harassing Venezuela border patrols have been replaced by proxy criminal and paramilitary gangs of smugglers operating with the blessing of Bogota and Washington.
Santos’ dual strategy allows him to pose as a ‘peacemaker’ in Havana and a ‘hatchet-man’ for foreign investors in Colombia’s mineral-rich regions.
The assassinations of two dozen trade unionists per year, the murders of six dozen human rights activists in the first 6 months of 2015, and the 9,000 social movement activists rotting in Colombia’s prisons is not reported in the international mass media, or at international forums, and regional meetings. Meanwhile, the press concentrates on the ‘peace negotiations’ between the FARC and President Santos in Havana — as if nothing were happening on the ground in Colombia.
The new policies pursued by President Santos, which combine peace negotiations with Colombian guerrilla movements in Havana and violent repression against mass social movements and labor leaders at home; friendly overtures to Cuba and cross-border smuggling and destabilization campaigns against Venezuela, do not bode well for future regional peace or stability.
President Santos’ two-faced policies mirror those of the Obama regime. While Obama pursues negotiation with Iran, he wages proxy wars against Iran’s allies in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. While, Obama celebrates the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, he intensifies a policy of sabotage and ‘regime change’ with Cuba’s close ally in Venezuela.
The parallels between Santos and Obama’s policies reflect their common ideology and their political strategy of talking peace while waging war.
This two track policy brings up the fundamental strategic question: how durable and reliable are peace gestures in the midst of proxy wars and mass killing.
With regard to Colombia one thing is certain: The signing of a “peace agreement” between the Santos regime and the FARC will not end the killing of trade unionists and human rights activists; it will not free the thousands of social movement activists in Colombian prisons. By the same token, Obama’s agreement with Iran has not reduced US military intervention in the Middle East and South Asia.
Imperial agreements are temporary expedients. They represent a brief prelude to new and more virulent aggression against independent nations and emerging national and class-based mass movements.
James Petras is author of Extractive Imperialism in the Americas: Capitalism's New Frontier (with Henry Veltmeyer) and The Politics of Empire: The US, Israel and the Middle East. Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.