Who is and is not a ‘paramilitary’? Erasing the changing nature of Colombia’s conflicts over land

A few weeks ago, Al Jazeera English’s “Fault Lines” program recently ran an interesting 20-minute investigative piece on the struggles of community leaders with respect to the Land Restitution process, which raises some questions about whether or not paramilitarism continues, or has changed in Colombia.

colombia-ley-de-tierras “Land & Life”, photo credit: InfoLatAm

Some context The Paramilitary Demobilization & Contested Narratives.

Since the 1920s (and arguably, since the 16th century), disputes over who owns land, whether land can be ‘owned’, who gets to benefit off of the land, have been deeply influencing Colombia’s armed and social conflict.

Although the FARC, the ELN, drug cartels, and the army/all armed actors in Colombia have displaced people off of their land and terrorized communities in order to exert social and territorial control over them, right-wing paramilitary groups working often on behalf of narcotraffickers and large land owners have been particularly tied to the question of displacement. Colombia is said to have the highest number of internally displaced people in the world (the Norwegian Refugee Council puts it at 5.5 million, and this documentary puts it at around 6 million). This is not  even counting those who were displaced outside of Colombia. Many in Colombia say that throughout the war, as much as 10 million hectares have changed hands.

What’s interesting here is that many analyses concerning Colombia’s Land Restitution Law follow a common, and relatively accurate, narrative – Colombia’s land restitution process is at serious threat because of the continued threats by armed groups to community organizers leading land claims. However, the Al-Jazeera documentary probes deeper into the ideological and semantic questions of these threats, which arguably, are of tremendous significance to the political moment in which the land restitution process occurs.

Firstly, the confederation of right-wing paramilitary groups known as las Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC, or the United Self-Defense forces of Colombia) demobilized in 2003-6 in a highly-criticized process which some victim’s groups saw as a granting of impunity    Many of the middle-rung paramilitary leaders who demobilized under the law (and were not extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges) will start to be released this year.

Thousands of the former paramilitaries granted legal benefits under the demobilization process with the previous government of Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), re-armed into groups that have been characterized by the government and some analysts as “criminal bands” or BACRIM, or armed groups that are primarily focused on narcotrafficking, and not actors in the armed conflict.

In the documentary, a functionary of the national government says that the BACRIM are not paramilitaries, for example, because they do not engage in combat with the FARC or the ELN.

Others, such as opposition Congressman Ivan Cepeda have argued that the BACRIM are neo-paramilitaries, or a continuation of powerful interests defending themselves with private armies. What is undoubted is that the human costs of paramilitarism, and the tactics of repression, threats, and cruelty imposed by these groups on the civilian population are very similar to the ‘old’ paramilitaries and are devastating. It is important to note however that the ‘old’ paramilitaries in the 1990s committed many large, atrocious massacres, and these are much less common now, although the selective murders of activists continue at an alarming rate in Colombia. It’s also worth nothing that violence perpetrated by the neoparas/BACRIM accounts for the majority of forced displacement currently.

At the heart of the question is what is the ideological motivation (if any) behind these paramilitary successor groups – if they have, like the Castaños – a clear anti-subversive, right-wing and seemingly fascist ideological motivation, or if they are “merely” criminal groups or drug traffickers and pistols-for-hire for powerful landed interests. This raises some questions about history – one of Uribe’s main challenges in beginning negotiations with the AUC in the early 2000s was that to do so they needed to have legally recognized political status (which they did not). Moreover, some have argued that even the AUC did not necessarily have a coherent guiding ideology as many groups were the private armies of (seemingly apolitical) narcotraffickers. However, in relation to land, it is clear that the AUC did have a clear pro-business, pro-land owner and anti-dissident agenda.

“Neoparamilitarism” in the Current Political Moment – Moving toward “peace”?

SantosRestitucion President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon giving land titles in Mampujan, Cesar at a land restitution ceremony. Photo credit: Caracol.com.co

The important point here is the political interests behind this seemingly abstract distinction – if the they do have an ideological motivation, then perhaps the “neoparas” are a continuation of paramilitarism in Colombia, but if they are not, this validates the official discourse that paramilitarism in Colombia ended in 2006 with the demoblization of the AUC. Under this logic, which is the government narrative and is often reproduced in Colombian media, the only groups left to negotiate with for “peace” in Colombia are the guerrillas.

Within this narrative is the conjecture of the “historic” 2011 Victim’s and Land Restitution’s Law and the current peace talks with the FARC guerrillas in Havana. Both initiatives by the Santos government are aimed at ending Colombia’s conflict (although, a conflict defined in certain ways) and providing ‘reparations’ for “moving forward” or establishing a so-called “peace”.

Although the Victim’s Law is a useful tool and has some interesting mechanisms for Victim’s (such as a reverse-onus for land-owners accused of having ‘dirty’ land to prove that they obtained it legally), the law, as explained by the Al-Jazeera documentary, is actually quite tepid in how much land can be redistributed, and in how much time (the law stops after a decade, and the backlog on land claims is enormous). Furthermore, according to one interviewee, the law won’t touch the land of large companies or land-owners who have their paper work in order. In other words, the Victim’s Law is not an agrarian reform to respond to not only the violent, largely paramilitary and narco-trafficker-driven, counter-agrarian reform/displacement crisis of the last 30 years, but it also leaves out the historic question of land inequality in Colombia (rooted in colonialism). Finally, there are questions about whether those displaced by the BACRIM/neo-paras (as these aren’t deemed as political actors in the armed conflict) will be eligible for restitution.

Therefore, the political categorization of Colombia’s armed groups in institutional and political terms shapes conceptualizations of the conflict, and subsequently, divergences between how the state wants to frame the war (or ignore it) and how people experience it in human and material terms (killings of leaders continue, land isn’t given back).

Ideologically, the Colombian state, the international community, and particularly academia, seems to prioritize political violence (as this threatens the state, and is more “sexy”/associated with mass and sensationalized violence). Prioritizing this violence also prioritizes its victims. However, that begs the question – what is an armed conflict, what is political violence, and what does it matter? Arguably, Mexico is currently experiencing a brutal civil war.  Politics also currently colours the mass wave of violence in Venezuela, which in recent years has had some of the highest murder rates in the world.

It makes little senses to create a hierarchy of violences, and of  its’ victims, according to rigid and problematic intellectual definitions of an ‘armed conflict’ needing to have a certain relationship to discourses (groups needing explicit political goals) and to the state (protecting or challenging its monopoly on violence).

Kyle Johnson in a guest piece over at Colombia Reports on the “neo-paras” offers a much more useful conceptualization:

The political at its root is the capacity to make and implement decisions that define, normally limiting, the rules of the game in society by imposing restrictions and permissions on certain actions; it is looking to establish a social hierarchy and decide who resides where in that hierarchy; usually the rules and hierarchy are reinforced through coercion and selected benefits for certain sectors of the population. This definition is far from most arguments about what constitutes political positions, political interests, etc. It is derived from classical political theory and some sociological concepts on political power, and it should be noted that one does not need a clear, well-developed ideological project to have a political side.

…..

Given the incredible historical importance that land has played in establishing the position of people in the regional social hierarchy, and thus the economic, social and political power large landowners have, the threats and violence against those who are reclaiming their stolen land back are effectively defining the place of certain actors in that hierarchy. …

Additionally, these coercive actions indicate that looking to gain stolen land back is not permitted in the areas under Urabeños’ control.

So in the Colombian context (and many others) the contention that is politics is largely rooted in land, and therefore the BACRIM/neoparamilitaries are definitely political actors as they are trying to close political space for actors wanting to claim it, using a language of ‘cleansing’ that harks back to the days of the AUC.   They also  seem to be in favour of business interests and against activists/community leaders and progressive sectors.

By re-defining the nature of politics to be something broader than explicit ideology or threats to the state, and armed political conflict, or by not creating a hierarchy of victims, hopefully this would open more institutional spaces for victim’s to have access to memory, reparations, justice, and restitution on their terms. However, as things currently stand, questions of whether paramilitarism continues in Colombia are seemingly being ignored by the state and some sectors of the media in their language and characterization of paramilitary successor groups as ‘criminal bands’ disconnected from the past paramilitaries. What the thesis of ‘neoparamilitarism’ does is throw a wrench in the the assumptions behind the Land Restitution process, the peace process, and notions of transitional justice in Colombia : the Justice & Peace Law was not just an abject failure in providing justice, but it also provided no peace and no transition. At a local level, conflicts over land continue in the same nature as during the height of the war and paramilitarism/paramilitarism was not stopped by the demobilization.

Validating the official discourse – that paramilitaries are over, land is being given back, and soon, the guerrillas and the war in general will be history, erases not only the current lived experiences of people in regions like Jiguamiando and Curvarado and the Urabá region, but also more structural, historical, and political underpinnings of Colombia’s conflict (land inequality and the brutal repression of peaceful dissidence). It also erases how Colombian democracy was shockingly co-opted by paramilitary groups, and that the alliances between certain businesspeople, politicians, and armed groups who displace and threaten peasants, Afro-Colombians, popular sectors, and indigenous people are something that has been overcome.

In other words, at this course, violence against Colombia’s peasantry will long continue after the FARC give up their arms, but the victim’s of Colombia’s war will be even more invisible; the war will be further denied.
PS – The International Criminal Court is looking at one paramilitary group, the ‘Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia’, popularly referred to as “Los Urabeños“.

Further reading: York University Professor Jasmin Hristov’s “Legalizing the Illegal: Paramilitarism in Colombia’s ‘Post-Paramilitary’ Era” is strongly recommended.

For another perspective, InsightAnalysis has a wealth of information on Colombia’s BACRIM.

At a local level, according to Ariel Avila,  it also seems that ‘parapolitics’, or alliances between neoparas/BACRIM are still occurring, reminiscent of the ‘parapolitica’ scandal that touched over a third of Congress, intelligence agencies, the military, and civil cervants.

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Filed under Colombia, Contradictions, English, Land/Tierra, Paramilitarismo, Transitional Justice/Justicia Transicional, War On Drugs, War On Terror

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