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June 10th, 2008
An Honest Citizen
Colombia's Civil Warriors: Colombian State

Following the failed attempts of the Andrés Pastrana government (1998-2002) to achieve peace in Colombia by negotiating with FARC and other guerrilla groups, the nation’s voters responded strongly to the promises of a hardline approach given by Álvaro Uribe Vélez in the 2002 presidential elections. Uribe was elected in May 2002, and took office in August of that year as leader of the right-wing Colombia Primero coalition, vowing to get tough with the country’s left-wing insurgents, improve the country’s economy, and bring “democratic security for all.”

Uribe himself is considered a disciplined, hard-working, and scholarly man. Although his father was murdered, he says, by leftist insurgents, he adds that he bears no bitterness and only wishes to serve his country. He has extensive experience in Colombian politics at the local and provincial levels, having served as mayor of Medellín in 1982 and governor of his home province of Antioquia from 1995-97.

Militarizing Politics

Many Colombian civilians still lack a truly neutral legal authority to turn to when threatened. This problem predates even La Violencia, when riots loomed with each election, and persists today, when civilians are routinely accused of or brutalized for cooperating with the “wrong” party in the ever-shifting patterns of local guerrilla or paramilitary dominance.

In short, one’s safety can, in many parts of Colombia, depend very much on one’s politics. And the politics of a specific situation can be complex — former AUC leader Carlos Castaño, for example, often boasted of having hundreds of ex-leftist guerrillas among his troops.

But there are enduring patterns, an important one being the government’s often-denied (though repeatedly observed) tendency to cooperate with rightist paramilitary groups. 1996 and 2000 reports by Human Rights Watch outlined a pattern of tacit collaboration: when civilians are threatened by assassins or a village targeted for collaboration, the police may become conspicuously absent, or the military may collaborate actively by providing information or passively by suspending patrols of the area. The U.S. Department of State also recognizes the continuing problem of military-paramilitary collaboration, and in a May 2002 statement made Colombia’s receipt of US military aid contingent on the Colombian Armed Forces’ commitment to severing links with the paramilitaries.

One proposed remedy for this lack of security has been to turn civilians themselves into security forces. President Uribe took this approach during the mid 1990s, as governor of Antioquia state, when he set up a network of rural security collectives called “convivir” groups. The name, meaning “to live together,” alluded to Uribe’s intention that they provide a kind of “neighborhood watch” function, though under close government supervision. These groups were meant to function as counterinsurgency (anti-leftist) forces, and did in fact rollback guerrilla activity. Critics would indicate, however, that politically motivated murders actually rose during the convivir.

The Pastrana government of the late 1990s disbanded the convivirs. But with Uribe’s election as president in 2002, he has begun to revive and expand the program, creating a nationwide network of civilian informants (the “eyes and ears” for the police and military) with weekly rewards for important tips regarding rebel activities, as well as the deployment of thousands of rapidly-trained “Soldados Campesinos” (”peasant soldiers”) who serve as security forces by day, but live and eat at home.

Much of his career history shows important successes, but is also controversial. His time as governor of Antioquia was marked by substantial governmental gains of territory from the FARC guerrillas. However, this was achieved, in part, through creation of controversial civilian militias (see side bar). Another aspect of his past that dogged him as a candidate, and has resurfaced in a recently released 1991 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report, are allegations that Uribe was a staunch ally of the Medellín cartel and a personal friend of its kingpin, Pablo Escobar. The U.S. DIA report adds that, as a senator, Uribe worked against extradition of Colombian traffickers, and that his father, Alberto Uribe, was murdered because of his son’s ties to drugs.

Various U.S. officials have denied the contents of the report, emphasizing that it contains unverified information. Uribe himself has responded that he was studying at Harvard at the time, and that his father was killed resisting Marxist rebels who were trying to kidnap him. While the allegations may provoke additional research and investigation, some experts on Colombia emphasize that the country has been, at times, so dominated by the drug trade that contacts between aspiring politicians and drug traffickers are unsurprising.

However, these and other criticisms have not been decisive factors. Despite important political gaffes that have left much of Uribe’s reform agenda unresolved, voters seem generally satisfied that his government is making progress in important areas. Uribe’s enemies have also expressed their opinions: since becoming president, he has survived at least four assassination attempts.

The progress of the security campaign has been measured. The slaughter of peasants that was common throughout the 1990s has become far less frequent since Uribe took power — despite a recent massacre, by FARC guerrillas, of farmers believed to be collaborating with the paramilitaries. In December of 2002, the government signed a cease-fire agreement with the AUC, and in the summer of 2004, began demobilization talks with the paramilitaries. The cease-fire with the AUC, however, has often been broken. In fact, violence appears to have intensified in some areas of the country that both FARC and AUC see as strategic, such as the Norte de Santander region. But, overall, the violence has been reduced. Though it is difficult to confirm all claims, the government seems confident that it has reduced the strength of the FARC by about 15 percent.

Photo of President Uribe, addressing an audience at a conference in the city of Neiva, pledges to work to eliminate the threat of guerrilla and paramilitary violence.

President Uribe, addressing an audience at a conference in the city of Neiva, pledges to work to eliminate the threat of guerrilla and paramilitary violence.
Photo: October Films

Corruption is a chronic problem, with all aspects of the ongoing civil conflict exerting a distorting force on the nation’s law and governance. In the spring of 2004, it was reported that justice officials opened criminal investigations against eight current and former members of the attorney general’s office for aiding drug traffickers, paramilitaries, and rebels.

And another important part of Uribe’s agenda, the economy, is troubled. A combination of slow growth, deficit spending, an expensive security buildup, and falling currency caused the nation’s debt-to-GDP ratios to increase throughout the 1990s. Uribe has managed to bring some improvement, and he is still trying to reform taxes and the state pension system, while controlling state spending but he has thus far been unable to push most of these through congress.

On November 30, 2004 Colombia’s Congress passed an amendment that permits President Uribe to run for re-election in 2006. The bill states that presidents are now allowed to serve two consecutive, four-year terms. The Colombian Constitutional Court will be debating the validity of this law in the coming months, and there is therefore a chance that the bill will be overturned. However, if the law stands, according to a Gallup poll, 72.2 percent of Colombians would vote for Uribe’s reelection. These new developments put Uribe in a potentially favorable position; if he seeks and attains reelection he will have more power to push legislation now considered controversial and politically risky and congress will have less influence over his actions. The U.S. government is an important ally for him as it currently supplies $700 million per year, much of it in military aid.

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