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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

Putting Profits over People: Extractivism and Human Rights in Colombia

Originally published on Friday, 15 November 2013 12:56 at Upside Down World, and written by Mariel Perez and Dana Brown.

colombia_mining_violence

César García, a husband, father, and outspoken leader was assassinated on November 2 by a gunshot wound to the head as he was heading home with his wife and nine-year-old daughter after a day of work in his small-farmer community. Garcia led farm workers in brave and staunch opposition to a large-scale mining project in the Tolima department of central Colombia. Little more than one month prior, a similarly tragic story unfolded. On September 30, 36-year-old Adelinda Gómez left a meeting of her community’s women group, part of her countless efforts as a leader and human rights defender in the small agricultural municipality of Almaguer, in the Cauca department of southwestern Colombia. As she was walking home, she was attacked by two unidentified individuals, who shot her to death and left her 16-year-old son in critical condition. Just one month before her death, Adelinda had received an anonymous telephone call in which she was ordered to stop speaking out against mining or she would get herself killed. Adelinda and César’s tragic assassinations are sobering examples of the increasingly violent context surrounding large-scale mining and other extractive industry projects in Colombia.

 

When President Juan Manuel Santos took office in 2010 and declared mining one of the principal locomotoras or engines of the Colombian economy, communities and individuals like Adelinda and César strengthened their mobilization efforts to peacefully protest mining projects because of the serious environmental and human rights issues associated with the largely unregulated industry. Colombian human rights organization CINEP notes an exponential rise since 2008 in the number of social movements protesting extractive industries such as carbon, gold, and petroleum, seemingly in response to the increased economic focus on mining. In a manifestation of civil society’s mobilization in response to the serious problems caused by mining, communities and rights groups, organized under the Network of Solidarity and Fraternity with Colombia (Red de Hermandad y Solidaridad con Colombia), recently conducted a Juicio Ético or People’s Tribunal against transnational mining corporation AngloGold Ashanti, citing evidence of grave violations of human rights and International Humanitarian Law, including forced displacement, aggressions against community leaders, and lack of consultation of affected communities. This people’s tribunal concluded that transnational corporations as well as the Colombian government must be held politically and legally accountable to citizens, given the devastating human rights effects of the largely unregulated mining sector in Colombia. This rising trend in social unrest exposes how mining activities constitute an imminent threat to the livelihoods of local communities; human rights defenders and communities have had to organize in response to recent legal efforts to ease restrictions on mining and to combat the consequences of Free Trade Agreements (10 of which have been signed or negotiated since Santos began his presidential term), which ultimately prioritize transnational companies by imposing restrictions that make it more difficult for the Colombian government to protect its people.

 

The issues at stake are so pressing that the Colombian government’s own oversight institution, the Comptroller’s Office, dedicated a 200+ page report to the consequences of large-scale mining. In the document, the Comptroller warns of the serious human rights effects of unbridled and unregulated large-scale mining, using data to show how mining projects reward companies with accumulated wealth while leaving Colombia with only accumulated waste. The institution warns that current laws impose no limits on awarding mining titles for projects, they do not limit environmental licenses that permit mining activity, and they do not employ adequate enforcement mechanisms in terms of environmental impact studies related to mining projects.  Even more grave is the lack of appropriate consultation of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities in regards to proposed projects, despite the fact that Free, Prior, and Informed Consent of these communities is enshrined in the 1991 Constitution.

 

Although Colombians are exercising their constitutional rights in mobilizing against these devastating large-scale mining projects, the deaths of brave defenders like Adelinda and César show the high risks involved in confronting the powerful economic and political interests at stake in large-scale extractive projects, as well as the State’s failure to protect and defend the rights of its citizens.

 

Mega-projects and Human Rights

 

The Comptroller’s report underscores the strong links between extractive projects and violations of human rights, underlining concern around the increased militarization and the exacerbation of conflicts that mining causes. The statistics presented in the report seem to justify these worries. For example, 87% of forced displacement originates in areas with mining and energy projects. Other numbers further cement this correlation: 78% of crimes against trade unionists occur in these regions; 89% of violations against indigenous peoples; and 90% of those against Afro-Colombians. In total, 80% of human rights violations in Colombia occur in zones contemplating or already hosting large-scale mining and energy projects. Civil society presented one example of this correlation during its juicio ético against AngloGold Ashanti; human rights defender Alejandro Uribe Chacón was killed by members of the military, who were assigned to the Sur de Bolivar region to protect strategic zones for mining. While this execution took place in 2006, the human rights problems persist in this economically strategic region. Just a few weeks ago, human rights groups warned of a plan to assassinate leaders in Sur de Bolivar who are mobilizing against mining projects in the area. The huge risks to the lives and livelihoods of those opposing mega-projects reaches beyond the mining sector. In the municipality of Ituango in the department of Antioquia, the Movimiento Rios Vivos, a rights group peacefully protesting the construction of a hydroelectric dam, denounces frequent threats and attacks against its leaders. Just last month, Rios Vivos leader Genaro Graciano was nearly killed after a small explosion was intentionally caused just in front of his home.  ASOQUIMBO, an organization protesting the construction of the El Quimbo dam in the southwestern Huila department of Colombia warns of a similar situation of violence, denouncing massive forced displacement of communities by the armed forces and violence against those peacefully protesting the dam project.

 

Colombian human rights organization CODHES also reports a relationship between occurences of forced displacement and regions or municipalities that are in the government’s Territorial Consolidation Plan, a plan that foments foreign investment in the extractive industries in rural regions. This correlation underscores the state’s support of transnational corporations over its own people. Further evidence of the state’s prioritization of transnational interests is the fact that the 2001 Mining Code, which is still in force, classifies mining projects as public utility works. This implies that national development projects will always take precedence over local interests. Given the current reality, this means that the government’s locomotora, or economic engine, legally trumps the human rights of its citizens.

 

The Comptroller’s office warns that human rights violations related to mining will become a bigger problem as the government grants more and more land titles to victims claiming their land rights through the 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law. This is because almost all towns that are at the center of the government’s land restitution law are currently developing mining projects.

 

“Conflict Minerals”

 

In a sense, the increased link between the presence of extractive industries, megaprojects and violations of human rights seems to be reminiscent of the “conflict minerals” situation in certain African countries. Though in the Colombian case, it is important to note that mineral wealth not only lines the guerrillas’ pockets, but also those of state and para-state actors. While the FARC’s role in illegally mining tungsten ore is most visible at the international level, corporations, state agents, and paramilitary groups have also benefitted from a loosely regulated extractives industry. US coal mining company Drummond, for example, is known to have extensive links with paramilitary groups whom they paid to threaten and assassinate those contesting the company’s economic interests in Colombia. Furthermore, virtually the entire emerald trade in Colombia (which accounts for a whopping 80-90% of the world market) has long been controlled by paramilitary actors. The military’s 2006 assassination of human rights defender Uribe Chacón for the benefit of AngloGold Ashanti exemplifies the state’s direct role in fomenting conflict mining. A more recent example involves Colombia’s use of legal recourses to protect large-scale mining interests over the rights of Colombian citizens. In the municipality of Piedras in the department of Tolima, citizens held a popular referendum in which 2,791 individuals voted to reject mining projects in the region and only 24 voted in support of large-scale mining. While these mechanisms of participatory democracy are binding according to current law, the government directly undermined these rights in May of this year, enacting a decree that rules that citizens cannot halt the awarding of titles for mining projects, regardless of the degree of popular opposition. In effect, the state is legalizing conflict mining through its economic policies and through the use of legal recourse that benefits large-scale corporations, to the serious detriment of Colombian citizens.

 

While Santos agreed to put the land issue on the table of negotiation with the FARC, recognizing its role in the exacerbation of the Colombian conflict, victims of the armed conflict are not party to the negotiations and there are no discussions of mineral rights for communities, leaving dangerous room for loopholes that may allow corporations to continue to take lands from their rightful owners. Given Colombia’s increased economic aperture and the growing prominence of extractive industries and megaprojects, the government cannot expect to fully address the land issue without talking about natural resources.  A true political will for peace must go beyond demobilizing the guerrilla and address all of the factors and actors that exacerbate violence in the country.

 

A Lasting Peace in Colombia

 

This week we celebrated news of a new agreement at the negotiating table between the FARC and the Colombian government regarding political participation. This is an important step towards reaching a full agreement on the end of the armed conflict and a huge achievement for the negotiators. Nevertheless, Colombians know that much more than a signed agreement with the FARC is needed in order to bring lasting peace to Colombia.

 

In addition to the need to dismantle neoparamilitary organizations and negotiate with the other remaining guerrilla groups, a lasting peace in Colombia would require economic and social justice that includes equitable access to land and natural resources.

 

While the prospects for peace in Colombia seem grim given the increasingly violent conflict surrounding extractive industries and their so-called development projects, the tireless efforts of members of civil society cannot be overlooked. Recently, Afro-Colombian communities succeeded in legal action against the State, which had identified portions of their collectively-held land as strategic mining zones under a 2012 Resolution. The Court declared that the labeling of these areas as strategic mining zones violated Afro-Colombian groups’ rights to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent, a success in upholding communities’ rights over the rights of transnational corporations. Nonetheless, the Court failed to make a statement on other fundamental rights, including the communities’ rights to land and cultural diversity, and a healthy environment. As the shortcomings of the decision show, much work remains in ensuring the rights of Colombian citizens. Adelinda and César’s recent deaths are a testament to this fact. They are the devastating manifestations of the dehumanizing effects of uncontrolled large-scale extractivism and neoliberal development in Colombia and of the high costs of putting national and transnational economic interests before the lives and livelihood of the Colombian people.

Dana Brown and Mariel Pérez are human rights activists at the US Office on Colombia (http://www.usofficeoncolombia.org/) where they work to support civil society voices for peace with justice, an end to impunity and respect for human rights in Colombia.”

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