Tag Archives: Neoparamilitaries

Human Rights Watch alerts over humanitarian crisis in Buenaventura

Since the time of Alvaro Uribe Velez, where security was perceived to be improving, Colombia’s most important port, Buenaventura, has been plagued by violence from the army, drug trafficking groups, the guerrillas and the paramilitaries.

Buenaventura is Colombia’s economic gate to the Pacific and to Asia. It’s strategically vital for narcotrafficking groups to move drugs, and weapons, but also for Colombian and international designs around importing foreign goods and exporting Colombian resources to the world.

Buenaventura’s poverty, its invisibility and marginality are not only part of the institutionalized racism and classism of Colombian society or the armed conflict, but also an acute example of how the promise of “trade” and globalization has been empty for the people there. More needs to be explored on the confluence of drug trafficking, international trade, and structural and imposed poverty and violence in Buenaventura.

Nevertheless, bonaverenses are by no means helpless. As told by VerdadAbierta.com, over 30,000 people marched last month against violence in the city.

Only then did the President pay attention to the situation by visiting a few weeks ago.

Check out HRW’s press release and the video below which includes testimonies from local organizers resisting the violence.

This was originally published on HRW’s website on March 20, 2014.

“(Bogotá) – Paramilitary successor groups have abducted and disappeared scores, and possibly hundreds, of residents of the largely Afro-Colombian port of Buenaventura, Human Rights Watch said in a report and video released today. Thousands of residents have been fleeing their homes in the city each year, making Buenaventura the municipality with the highest level of ongoing forced displacement in Colombia today.

The 30-page report, “The Crisis in Buenaventura: Disappearances, Dismemberment, and Displacement in Colombia’s Main Pacific Port,” documents how many of the city’s neighborhoods are dominated by powerful criminal groups that commit widespread abuses, including abducting and dismembering people, sometimes while still alive, then dumping them in the sea. The groups maintain “chop-up houses” (casas de pique) where they slaughter victims, according to witnesses, residents, the local Catholic church, and some officials.

“The situation in Buenaventura is among the very worst we’ve seen in many years of working in Colombia and the region,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Simply walking on the wrong street can get you abducted and dismembered, so it’s no surprise the residents are fleeing by the thousands.”

Paramilitary successor groups emerged in Buenaventura after the deeply flawed official demobilization of right-wing paramilitary organizations a decade ago. Currently, the Urabeños and the Empresa are the main successor groups operating in the port city. The groups restrict residents’ movement – attacking people if they cross invisible borders between areas controlled by rival factions – recruit children, extort businesses, and routinely engage in horrific acts of violence against anyone who defies their will.


More than 150 people who were reported to have gone missing in Buenaventura between January 2010 and December 2013 are presumed by officials to have been abducted and “disappeared,” twice as many as in any other municipality in Colombia. Interviews with authorities and residents, as well as official reports, strongly suggest that the actual number of people who have been abducted and killed by paramilitary successor groups in the city is significantly higher. One major cause of underreporting is the widespread fear of reprisals.

Buenaventura residents told Human Rights Watch that they had heard people scream and plead for mercy as they were being dismembered in “chop-up houses.” In March 2014, after criminal investigators found bloodstains in two suspected “chop-up houses,” the police announced the discovery of several locations in Buenaventura where victims had been dismembered alive.

“In Buenaventura, there are chop-up houses,” said Monsignor Héctor Epalza Quintero, the Catholic bishop of Buenaventura. “People say that in the middle of the night you can hear the screams of people saying ‘Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me! Don’t be evil!’ These people are basically being chopped up alive.”

In 2013, violence drove more than 19,000 people from their homes in Buenaventura, more than in any other municipality in the country, according to official numbers. Decades of violence and armed conflict have forced more than 5 million Colombians to flee their homes, giving the country the second largest population of internally displaced people in the world. Buenaventura also led all Colombian municipalities in the numbers of newly displaced people in 2011 and 2012. Displacement caused by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas has also been a serious problem in Buenaventura’s less-populated rural areas, according to official numbers.

People living in parts of the city where the paramilitary successor groups have a strong grip reported that the police presence in their neighborhoods was scarce. Several residents reported witnessing members of the police meet with the successor group in their neighborhoods.

Prosecutors have opened more than 2,000 investigations into cases of “disappearances” and forced displacement in Buenaventura committed by a range of groups or individuals over the past two decades, but none has led to a conviction. No one had even been charged in 509 of the 512 investigations for which prosecutors provided Human Rights Watch information about the status of the investigation.

 

“There is a pervasive sense of defenselessness among Buenaventura residents, who have seen how the authorities continually fail to protect them from atrocities or bring to justice those responsible,” Vivanco said.

On March 6, after a regional police commander announced the discovery of several “chop-up sites” in Buenaventura, President Juan Manuel Santos said the government would intervene to address the city’s security problems. Along with increasing the presence of the security forces, President Santos promised to take measures to improve socio-economic conditions in the city.

Human Rights Watch outlined several steps the government should take to ensure the effectiveness of any intervention in Buenaventura. These include:

  • Maintain an uninterrupted police presence in neighborhoods were paramilitary successor groups are most active;
  • Establish an independent commission to evaluate the problem of “disappearances” in Buenaventura and develop a plan to curb the abuses and punish those responsible;
  • Create a special team of prosecutors exclusively tasked with investigating “disappearances” in Buenaventura; and
  • Vigorously investigate officials credibly alleged to have tolerated or colluded with paramilitary successor groups there.

“President Santos made an important commitment to address the human rights disaster in Buenaventura,” Vivanco said. “To be successful, the government needs to ensure accountability for abuses in Buenaventura, and dismantle the brutal paramilitary successor groups terrorizing the city.””

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Filed under Colombia, English, Land/Tierra, Paramilitarismo, Uncategorized

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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Making A Killing: Colombia and the Canadian Military Industrial Complex

John Baird

A few months ago, I wrote to the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, John Baird about Canada’s decision to allow Canadian weapons manufacturers to sell arms to Colombia. Baird had put Colombia on the Automatic Firearms Country Control List (AFCCL),  a list of now 34 countries to which Canadians can get export permits for weapons. The weapons which Canadian businesses would now be able to export to Colombia, actually aren’t even legal in Canada (see below).

In a brief and polite response, Baird informed me there had been “broad consultation” with the Canadian public and  and different government departments which had informed the decision. Apparently, the consultation touched on “multiple issues” including human rights, peace, stability, the risk of diversion, and interestingly, “commercial opportunities for Canadian business” (emphasis mine).

To Baird’s credit, he did mention that each export permit is assessed individually, with particular emphasis on what the “end-use” of the weapons will be, and if they are in accordance with Canadian foreign and  defense policy, law, and “including the potential impact of export on human rights and armed conflicts”.

At the end of his correspondence, Baird listed off a myriad of highly problematic initiatives as part of Canada’s relationship to Colombia, perhaps trying to show some sort of misguided intentions to “help” Colombia; in particular Baird lauded the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), and how Colombia has received benefits from DFAIT’s “Counter-Terrorism and Anti-Crime Capacity Building” programs.

 

Clearly all of these policies, but particularly for now the AFCCL, are very concerning and merit their own analysis. The larger point here is, despite Baird taking the time to reply, the decision of what will be a “risky” sale of weapons of mass destruction (automatic weapons)  to a country experiencing armed conflict and endemic levels of violence will be decided in Ottawa, with “commercial” interests in mind. This is all working under the militarist assumption that a country having a militarized society, or an extremely powerful military (especially with an ongoing civil war) is a desirable thing.

It goes without saying that the current Canadian government is accepting the Colombian government’s narrative that Colombia is a democratic, improving, stabilizing, and human-rights respecting country that is ready for foreign (Canadian) investment in order to “develop”. It’s important to note that, as Human Rights Watch has stated, the paramilitaries or “right-wing death squads” as others have called them, who are responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, operate like a “sixth branch of the Army”, and the Colombian army itself is often responsible for extremely egregious violations of human rights (forced disappearances, massacres, extrajudicial executions, sexual violence, etc), particularly to the civilian population it is supposedly defending. This is to whom the Canadian government thinks it is a good idea to sell guns to…..

It’s been long known that Canadian business and the Canadian government have at best been negligent to the humanitarian catastrophe of mass violence in Colombia, choosing to focus instead on promoting ‘economic growth’ through trade (which is often not unassociated). However, it now seems that, after Baird’s decision, the Canadian Military Industrial Complex will be able to directly make bank off of one of the bloodiest armed conflicts in the Western Hemisphere.

For some key points on armed violence in Colombia, check out my initial oversimplified letter below (which perhaps was a bit too charitable with the Minister). For more information on the Canadian Military Industrial Complex and how it is profiting from and exacerbating human rights violations the world over, check out this piece by Richard Sanders.

January 3, 2013

“Dear Prime Minister Harper, Minister Ablonczy, Minister Baird, and Mr. Hiebert,

I hope this message finds you all well after the holidays.

…I am an extremely concerned Canadian voter. This morning, it came to my attention that the Honourable Minister Baird, by amending the “Automatic Firearms Country Control” list, has removed the export bans on high-capacity magazines and assault weapons to my native Colombia. These same kinds of weapons are banned in Canada, as they are considered too dangerous to be on our streets. Moreover, these same kind of weapons are the ones which were used to murder over 26 innocent Americans in the Newton massacre last month.

Colombia, although much safer and less violent than in the last a decade ago, is still one of the most violent countries in the world. The homicide rate hovers at around 30-38 per 100,000, making at among the world’s 15 most violent countries. Approximately hundreds of thousands are displaced every year due to violence. Although the government is currently in promising peace talks with Colombia’s largest rebel group, the FARC, they continue to fight and terrorize local communities. This armed conflict is compounded by extremely high levels of urban violence, the ELN rebels, narcotrafficking groups, and the paramilitary successor groups or BACRIM/criminal bands which account for around a disproportionate amount of the violence in Colombia.

Colombia over the last decade has had over 200,000 murders. 75% of homicides in Colombia are committed by firearms. There are over 14,000 child soldiers in Colombia who are arguably forced to operate these kind of high-powered weapons. As per the Colombian army, it is estimated that from 2002-2006, over 3,000 young, mostly impoverished, male civilians were killed and made to look as insurgents by the Colombian army so as to increase kill counts. In Medellin a few days ago, an 11 year old girl lost her life to a stray bullet. She was only one of over 300 victims of stray bullets last year. Although Colombia is making great improvements in overcoming our violent legacy, human rights and violence are still clearly very important concerns.

I understand that in order for arms exporters to be issued a permit to export weapons under ACCFL, the government must review each case with ‘strict controls’. I also understand that Canada has been extremely generous with Colombia by making it a priority country for bilateral aid, and donating millions to support both the nascent peace process and the Land restitution law to bring growth and reconciliation to a country that has been too long plagued by violence.

However, given that Canada and Colombia’s relationship is, supposedly mutually beneficial, I fail to see the benefit that Colombia would attain from buying more arms during a peace process in which Colombian society is trying to turn away from guns. Gun bans have proven extremely effective in Colombia; earlier this year Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro banned handguns in the capital city, leading to the murder rate dropping to its lowest point in 27 years. Bogota is now safer than many American inner cities.

I am therefore extremely curious as to how exactly, beyond ‘market opportunities’ for Canadian arms dealer, your government has considered that allowing the export of extremely dangerous and deadly firearms into a very violent country like Colombia, will be consistent with your policy of creating a mutually beneficial relationship with both countries.

I would be very appreciative if I could please be informed as to your government’s rationale for adding Colombia to the AFCCL.

Please do not conflate ‘market opportunities’ for Canadians with the re-militarization of Colombian society; if this is not the case, then please inform me otherwise.”

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FARC agreement: Colombia´s history of violence and failed agrarian reform

This is part two of three looking at last week’s so-called “historic” Agrarian Reform agreement between the FARC-EP and the Colombian  government as part of Peace talks in Havana. Here, I take a look at Colombia’s history of failed agrarian reforms. This was originally published on May 30, 2013 over at Colombia Politics.  If you want to know more, I strongly recommend that you check out this an analysis of land concentration in Colombia by Ana Maria Ibanez and Juan Carlos Munoz from the University of the Andes.

FARC agreement: Colombia´s history of violence and failed agrarian reform

Soldados de la Fuerza Tarea Omega patrullan y revisan hoy 6 de agosto del 2009 en las selvas de Vista Hermosa  Meta , uno de los campamentos del frente 27 de las FARC, en medio de la ofensiva del Ejercito Nacional por la captura del Mono Jojoy, miembro del secretariado de las FARC. FOTO MAURICIO MORENO EL TIEMPO

Colombia´s government has signed an agreement with FARC guerrillas for agrarian or rural reform as part of the peace process currently underway in Havana.

On Tuesday I looked at the detail behind this accord, today I turn to history for the lessons we can learn from failed attempts at land reform in Colombia.

Colombia´s land; in the hands of the few, not the many

Like in many other Latin American countries, or post-colonial oligarchies/plutocracies, the wealth that comes from the land has been violently concentrated through different processes (genocide of indigenous peoples, colonialism, the encomienda system, agrarian reforms gone awry, free trade agreements/neoliberalism, and of course armed counter-agrarian reform/socio-political violence) for the last 500 years or so.

For historical reasons and due to the armed violence, however, Colombian rural inequality is particularly stark. 

An astounding 52% of the land is owned by 1.15% of the population. The rural GINI coefficient (the standard measure for inequality among economists) is 0.85 (where a 1 means complete inequality/where one person owns everything). Only a fifth of the potentially productive land is actually being put to use.

Colombia is by no means a naturally unequal place. So, how did we get to to this point?

I don’t want to give a history lesson, but I think Sunday’s agreement between the FARC and the Santos Government is not just a deal within it itself, but represents a significant shift in a process of popular (often armed) mobilization for agrarian reform, and counter-mobilization and concentration by the elite.

This process refers not only to Colombia´s current violence (the 49 year long war and humanitarian disaster) but also a defining aspect of the entire way the nation has been organized since the encomienda.

The history of land concentration

Initially, land was organized around the idea of owning the land that one worked (or had workers on). Later, Spanish colonial government allowed private buyers to purchase government estates, and in 1821, the government allowed the direct transfer of public land into private hands.

Under the colonial regime, land belonging to the Church or to indigenous communities was nominally protected from colonization. However, these rights were abolished for indigenous reserves in 1810, and for the Church later on.

The legalization/formalization of uncultivated public land (baldios) was handled by a government who was (much like today’s Colombia) run exclusively by the elite, leading to the creation of even more large estates for the wealthy.

Land, as a way of avoiding taxes, fighting inflation, and building credit, made it an asset which was more valuable than just what it was able to produce, making it (like in most places) one of the most coveted assets by the elites, leaving little for the landless/popular classes.

The colonization of the Colombian territory saw small-scale peasant farmers pushed off their land, forced to move into more marginal areas which they would then make productive. The landed elites would then (often forcibly) push them off of this land, and in the process expanding their territory and further consolidating its ownership.

The peasants, now landless, would move deeper into the jungle/territory/mountains looking for land. This process to a certain extent still occurs today.

A peasants´ revolt?

By the 1920s, peasants organized themselves and went on the offensive. The elites in turn responded with more displacement. This social conflict resulted in the Agrarian Reform of 1936, which because of faulty implementation (and Colombia being a Plutocracy), resulted in the formalization of property again benefiting the elites.

The Landed Oligarchy, sick of having to deal with subversive peasants, also looked for ways of making the land productive by having more capital than labour, leading to the rise of cattle-ranching.

The class warfare was only exacerbated by La Violencia  the civil war between the two political factions representing different sectors of the elite (the Liberals and the Conservatives). Forced displacement became an extremely common practice, and the standard method for resolving disputes over land given the general absence of the state in many rural or peripheral areas of the national territory.

In response to this crisis, in 1961 President Carlos Lleras Restrepo attempted a land reform through Law 135. Nevertheless, again, formalization and the granting of public land led to more concentration.

Only 1 per cent of the land was expropriated from the elite, and most of what was expropriated was poor or low-quality land. Ironically, as the government was promoting land reform, it was simultaneously giving large land owners the benefit of subsidies and tax incentives to increase production, increasing the value of their land, and making expropriation more difficult.

Rise of the narco-bourgeousie

From the 1970s to 1984, the rise of the “narco-bourgeousie” and their desire for land led to the decomposition of large estates, and the consolidation of medium-sized ones.

But while the armed counter-agrarian reform of the expansion of paramilitarism, as well as the booming cocaine industry which laundered much of its wealth in large estates reversed this trend, it also introduced drug trafficking into the historical trend of violent conflict between peasants and landed oligarchs.

In 1994, President Cesar Gaviria Trujillo tried another land reform with Law 160. Instead of focusing on formalization or expropriating land from the elite and redistributing it to the peasantry, however, it worked on the transfer of property through market mechanisms, where by the government would supposedly subsidize 70% of land bought by peasants from land owners.

However, as is evidenced by the case of the women of the Enchanted Valley, a group of displaced women who tried to purchase some land through this scheme and are now not only menaced by armed groups but also by debt collectors, the deal was only real in the halls of power in Bogota.

Paramilitarism resulted in the violent expropriation of 1.8 million hectares of land, or 2.5 times more land that had been re-distributed through the latest agrarian reform.

How different will the FARC, Santos Government reform be? 

The Agrarian Reform thrashed out in Havana runs the risk of not being very different from previous failures. This is particularly true of  how the process of “formalizing” land title (as the current agreement with the FARC seeks to do) usually is used by rural elites for their favour, and not for landless peasants.

But this reform forms part of a larger peace deal which is suppose to be transformative for Colombian society, and so the stakes are higher.

Have Paramilitaries entered where the state hasn´t bothered to go? 

Sure the “New Colombian Countryside” deal sounds promising, but will it run the same risk as the 2011 Victim’s Law (Law 1488)?

Countless courageous community leaders in places like El Choco and Cordoba have been threatened or murdered by neo-paramilitary groups simply for advocating for their land rights.

In Cordoba, there is even a neo-paramilitary group that has deemed itself the “Anti-Restitution Army“.

This resurgence of armed agrarian counter-reform (or perhaps, a consolidation that already took place during the height of the AUC paramilitaries), shows that when it comes to land in “The Other Colombia”, not much has changed in 100 or even 200 years.

The government´s apparently noble policy of trying to help the most disenfranchised in Colombian society is fine, but both the fact that the State is co-opted by the elite, and that the state has no little to no legitimate presence beyond the military in “The Other Colombia”, means it has neither the mandate, authority, or capacity to carry out these reforms.

The State can’t re-distribute land in places it has never bothered to show up for.

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