Monday, 5 December 2011

The Colombian conflict is complex, but not confusing. Confusion is a strategy.

As I try to understand this complex conflict which has morphed over the decades and which deviously seeps its tentacles into civilian life, I feel the need to write down some of the many things I've learnt over the last weeks about the current political situation. Now living in the conflictive Urabá region,where my work involves having to know the location of the Fifth Front of the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), where the Urabeños and the Paisas control territory, where combats between paramilitaries and guerrillas take place, and what current threats exist to the lives of the civilians we accompany, I want to understand what recent developments mean for the Colombian conflict and prospects of peace.

Following Cano's death, many analysts showed scepticism at claims of it being a positive step towards peace in Colombia. My reaction was no different. Initially, one of the reasons for this was that wiping out its head may cause the FARC to decentralize and to splinter and that thousands of well trained, armed men with no strong ideological and political leadership could be more lethal and less controllable than the insurgent force as we currently know it. Also, the Colombian state's obsession with wiping out key leaders has not been known to weaken the FARC; they are no strangers to having to adapt and restructure. When leader Mono Jojoy died in September 2010, calls to demobilize went unheeded, his successor took the position, and the FARC continued in much the same way as before. This time appears to be no different. What is more, according to Arial Ávila, a conflict analyst with Nuevo Arco Iris, Cano had managed to build a consensus among the FARC's leadership to seek peace talks with the government and his death may well push the FARC further away from the negotiating table. The statement the guerrilla group made after Cano's death is also telling: “They are so lost that they are celebrating the death of the most fervent supporter of a political solution and peace”.

Many analysts (and the Colombian state) claim that the ideological fervour of the FARC has entirely dissolved and been replaced by an increasing appetite for drug trafficking, that the FARC now are merely criminals with little political basis. While the FARC's ideological base is evidently not as strong as it was at its peak, I think people are underestimating the strength of the ideology that has relentlessly propelled one of the longest-running insurgencies in the world.

The FARC remain committed to fighting against oppression, inequality, exploitation and poverty and to achieving a fairer, socialist society. This vision will not simply evaporate with calls to demobilise; they have no real incentive to give up their fight. As Ariel Ávila maintains, “you can't destroy a five-decade peasant revolution by killing one leader; they are not just going to surrender in return for nothing”. If the conflict is to be resolved through negotiations, the FARC will need something significant in return. As they put it: “Peace in Colombia will not be achieved by guerrilla demobilisation, but by the abolition of the causes that give rise to the uprising. We have a policy laid down and it is to continue.” And the government seems unlikely to concede, as Santos offered one of three things to the guerrilla after Cano's death: demobilization, prison or the grave.

Indeed, official discourse tells us that Colombia's problem, enemy and downfall is the FARC. Yet the reality is that the FARC is only one – albeit the most exposed – layer, of a multi-layered conflict which involves a complex mix of armed actors, all of them with different (and sometimes fluctuating) degrees of legitimacy, political motivations, criminal objectives and corporate interests. Paramilitary groups make up a substantial number of these.

Between 2003 and 2006 the Colombian government implemented a demobilization process for the paramilitary coalition known as the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia). While the state claimed success, in reality paramilitary structures were not tamed. Indeed, paramilitary groups, have over recent years fractured, morphed and become more complex, but no less destructive and deadly. These include the Urabeños, the Rastrojos, ERPAC, the Paisas, the Machos, New Generation, the group from the Magdalena Medio, and Renacer.

The state has attempted to simplify and entirely depoliticize the role of these paramilitary groups in the conflict, claiming that paramilitaries no longer exist (this makes our meetings with military officials very difficult), and saying that these are simply ‘Criminal Gangs’. But many of these groups continue to display the same traits as the AUC: they involve the same personnel (with the same links to the military) operating in the same areas, targeting the same people, using the same tactics and in some cases with the same counterinsurgency objectives. Human Rights Watch describes in detail the farce of the demobilization process in ‘Paramilitaries Heirs’, describing how “they massacre, kill, rape, torture, and forcibly ‘disappear’ persons who do not follow their orders. They regularly use threats and extortion against members of the communities where they operate, as a way to exert control over local populations. They frequently threaten, and sometimes attack, human rights defenders, trade unionists, journalists, and victims of the AUC who press claims for justice or restitution of land”.

While Santos' discourses impress the international community and he appears to be doing all the right things to positively portray the country on the global stage, the reality here is that the conditions people live in have not changed: fear and violence are what these people are forced to live and breathe, what communities like the one I'm accompanying continue to struggle against.

And this situation is barely improving. Indeed, forced displacement by these neo-paramilitary groups increased substantially after 2004 (more than 5 million people - representing more than 10% of Colombia's population - have been internally displaced in the last three decades). According to official figures, after dropping to 228,828 in 2004, the number of newly displaced persons went up each year until it hit 327,624 in 2007. Violence nationwide also dipped and then rose substantially in that same time period. What is more, killings of human rights defenders and activists fighting for land restitution for displaced communities have also escalated. Against All Odds, a US Office on Colombia report, describes this dire situation, giving the profiles of 20 leaders of displaced communities who have been murdered in the short time period since Santos took office in August 2010. Moreover, social movements and people standing up for rights in Colombia are heavily stigmatised as guerrilla proxies. This includes us as human rights accompaniers, which can make our role here difficult and means we cannot openly say what our work is.

The successor groups of the paramilitary continue to commit abuses and terrorise civilians, often with the complicity of state actors. There is no accountability between the people and the government and many of those who have committed the most horrific abuses against the civilian population continue to enjoy total impunity. What is more, patronage politics is prevalent in Colombia and the militarisation of life and land has led to the normalisation of violence.

Considering this situation, for peace to be achieved, there is a need for substantial political and social change. Rather than pushing for a total military victory, an approach which has already come at way too high a price for democracy, civilians and basic rights, the Colombian state needs to reframe its processes and discourses and fundamentally change its approach to the conflict.

The situation of paramilitary groups must be thoroughly reanalysed so those structures can be genuinely and comprehensively dismantled. There must be justice for those struggling for recognition after having been displaced and having had their families torn apart. Protection must be provided for human rights activists, social leaders and those struggling to reclaim their lands, since these groups continue to be, at best, stigmatised, undermined and threatened, and, at worst, brutally exterminated. There needs to be substantial political change so that local civilian populations can enjoy basic rights to life and land and human dignity. What is more, faced with a polarised society, the government must be more receptive and accountable to the people, and attention needs to be paid to closing the enormous divide between the wealthyand the poor, between the ruling elites and the disenfranchised masses. Political processes need to become more accountable, democratic and inclusive.