(en) A History Of The Guerrilla Movement In Colombia

Arm The Spirit (ats@locust.etext.org)
Wed, 22 Oct 1997 05:06:40 -0400 (EDT)

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A History Of The Guerrilla Movement In Colombia

The Guerrilla: An Answer To The Suppression By The Ruling Class

The guerrilla movement in Colombia was not invented by the left. It dates further back and is the answer of the lower classes to the violence of the rich and mighty. Since colonial times, protest and revolts have always been put down with bloodshed. Anyone who has read "A Hundred Years Of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez knows the history of repression and of the dozens of civil wars which constantly raged in that country during the 19th century. Those wars have officially gone down in history as conflicts between the two big parties: the conservatives and the liberals. But more than that they were wars breaking out because of social injustice and in which the leading figures of the two parties enriched themselves at the expense of the lower classes. That is way the armed struggle, being an expression of social conflicts, dates back way further than the guerrilla organizations.

The Civil War (1948-53)

The "War Of A Thousand Days" (1897-1899) was followed by a brutal suppression of the union movement and of the indigenous people in the twenties. In 1928, the banana multi-national United Fruit Company slaughtered hundreds of strikers waiting for a negotiation delegation (see Gabriel Garcia Marquez, "A Hundred Years Of Solitude" - The Strike Of The Banana Workers). In 1948, the popular liberal left-wing politician Jorge Elicier, who at that point incorporated the hopes of millions of Colombians for a better life, was murdered by order of the oligarchy. This murder was succeeded by the so-called 'violencia' (1948-53), a civil war costing the lives of at least 200,000 people. The population was again slaughtered on the pretext of it being a conflict between liberals and conservatives. Again, it was, in reality, a war of land owners against the rural population. Still, the 'violencia' became a turning point in history. Independent peasant groups developed in different regions to defend themselves against the terror of the mighty. They formed the first nucleus of today's Colombian guerrilla. Although the leaders of the conservative party and the liberal party reached an agreement in the fifties to establish the 'Frente Nacional' (both parties simply took turns with the presidency and ministries every four years), some armed groups of peasants do not dispose of their weapons. While liberal and conservative governments come and go, resistance from below is rising. In rural areas, the power stays in the hands of self-organized peasants. They found so-called Independent Republics. In the beginning of the sixties, a broad mass movement against the Frente Nacional of the oligarchy was being formed. It is called the 'Frente Unido del Pueblo' (FUP) and is lead by the revolutionary priest Camilo Torres. Tens of thousands of workers, slum inhabitants, students, and peasants mobilize against social injustice and the undemocratic two-party regime. The Independent Republics as well as the Frente Unido del Pueblo are transformed into targets of the oligarchy. The Peasant's Republic of Marquetalia is extinguished by the army in 1964. Camilo Torres, the leader of the FUP, has to go into hiding due to death threats. He retires to the countryside where at that time the first group of the ELN existed.

The Birth Of Today's Guerrilla

The first two "modern" guerrilla organizations come into being in 1964: as an immediate answer to the massacre of Marquetalia, a couple of peasant groups influenced by the Communist Party founded the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (FARC-EP). At the same time, a guerrilla focus inspired by the Cuban revolution and well anchored in the peasant's resistance in Santander was being formed. This organization called itself the National Liberation Army (ELN), and, relying on the strategies of Che Guevara, gained a great deal of support after Camilo Torres joined its ranks (the revolutionary priest was killed during his first combat on February 15, 1966). In 1967, after the international division of the communist parties into "pro-Soviet" and "pro-Chinese" factions, a third organization was born: the Maoist People's Liberation Army (EPL). This new organization soon spread, especially in the northern parts of the country.

Just A Peasant's Guerrilla?

All three guerrilla groups were mainly present in the rural areas, which is an important factor in understanding the conflict in Colombia. It has often been stated that the roots the guerrilla has among the peasants stopped them from gaining a foothold in the cities. Whereas the armed organizations influence or even control large rural regions, they hardly have any influence on the conflicts in the cities. Although this criticism is legitimate to a certain degree, one should not forget how difficult it is to work illegally in the cities. Repression there is much harder than in the countryside. Still, the guerrilla has achieved a lot in the cities in spite of these restrictions.

The Expansion Of The Guerrilla Until The Armistice In 1984

In the seventies, more guerrilla organizations were being formed, many quite different from the already mentioned ones in their political program and their operations. The most important one was the Movement April 19th (M19), which was rapidly becoming known abroad due to their spectacular operations (e.g. the occupation of the embassy of the Dominican Republic in Bogota in 1980) and their significance in the big cities. In spite of numerous splits and crises of the different organizations, the guerrilla transformed into a real menace to the government in the late seventies. A massive general strike in 1977 manifested the dissatisfaction of the population. President Turbay Ayala (1978-82) reacted with new waves of repression. The security forces start to "disappear" political opponents, torture became common in police stations, and the government passed new "anti-terror laws". But other than expected, resistance spread in Colombia. At that time, the M19 in particular was leading the war against the regime. The organization conjured up an army of peasants in the south, especially in the department of Caqueta, and spectacularly reached the important cities in this region. The government of conservative Belisario Betancur (1982-86) grasped the danger emerging from the guerrilla's expansion. With the Nicaraguan revolution still being young, and civil war raging in El Salvador, Betancur was trying hard to neutralize Colombia's revolutionary movement. He suggested a very risky project: a general amnesty for political prisoners, many guerrillas among them, and direct negotiations with the armed organizations. He thus succeeded in further splitting the guerrilla. In 1984, the FARC-EP, the M19, and the EPL agreed to an armistice while the ELN (and two other organizations) rejected the government's proposal. According to the ELN, the government's initiative was only aimed at keeping the opposition calm.

Growth Of The Protest Movement

The next few years were very active ones. In the middle of the eighties, a new mass movement formed by workers, Christians, feminists, blacks, indigenous people, and the inhabitants of slums was spreading and taking over the streets. Several legal political organizations arise. Socialists, communists, and former guerrillas of the FARC-EP established the 'Union Patriotica' (UP). Sympathizers of the EPL ran as the 'Frente Popular' in the local elections. The most radical parts of the mass movement founded the political movement 'A Luchar!'. The Betancur government was playing a double game. While presenting itself as a government of dialogue in front of the world public, it promoted the creation of paramilitary groups at the same time. In 1984, the dirty war against the opposition began. An alliance of the military, secret services, ranchers, and the drug cartels formed hundreds of paramilitary groups which, unlike the Central American death squads, did not confine themselves to the murder of political opponents and the slaughter of alleged guerrilla sympathizers. Today, paramilitary groups control everyday life in dozens of communities. Especially Puerto Boyaca in Magdalena Medio (in the center of the state) and the ranching regions of Cordoba (on the Atlantic Coast) have become something like radical right-wing "independent republics".

Dirty War: The Government's Strategy

Although the armistice of 1984 was still in force, several political speakers of the M19 and the EPL were being murdered. Paramilitary groups shot the popular presidential candidate of the Union Patriotica, Jaime Pardo Leal. At the same time, the army breached the agreement and attacked guerrilla camps. Unionists and peasants were indiscriminately slaughtered in the regions of war. All told, the UP lost 2,000 representatives and activists since 1984. All in all, an estimated 30,000 murders are charged to the paramilitary. Their victims are not only political opponents, but also homosexuals, prostitutes, criminals, and street kids. In the mean time it has become known that the most important massacres effected by the paramilitary were directly ordered by the army. Investigations by human right groups and even the Colombian justice system accuse generals as important as Jesus Gil Colorado (chief of the army until 1994) and Farouck Yanine Diaz (former brigade general, then teacher at the Inter-American School for Defense Issues in Washington, D.C.). Worst of all, the ones responsible for the dirty war enjoy complete freedom of punishment. Without international pressure, not even the modest investigations now pursued by the justice authorities would be enforced. The only general ever punished for war crimes and his violations of human rights was Jesus Gil Colorado, assassinated by the FARC-EP close to Villavicencio/ Meta in 1994. It sounds brutal, but this is the truth: without such guerrilla operations, no general would have to fear punishment for his crimes.

1987: The Guerrilla Coordination Simon Bolivar Is Founded

The dirty war and the attacks by the army finally led to an end of the "peace process". The M19 and the EPL resumed their operations after one year of armistice because they could not see any genuine readiness to democratize the country. In 1985, the National Guerrilla Coordination is created consisting mostly of the M19, the EPL, and the ELN. In 1987, the FARC joins the coordination and it is renamed Guerrilla Coordination Simon Bolivar (GCSB). As a result of the unsolved social problems in the eighties, the armed struggle spread throughout the whole country. The ELN, consisting of 4 fronts in the beginning of the eighties, grew to more than 30 in 1990. The same applies to the FARC-EP, even though it had followed an entirely different strategy in the eighties. The guerrilla has become a considerable power in many regions of the country.

The Demobilization Of The M-19

In the late eighties, the mass movement was collapsing due to the dirty war and the breakdown of the "socialist" world. In spite of quantitative growth, this development led to a crisis in the rebel movement. The M19 in particular was extremely weakened between 1985 and 1989. The majority of its leaders were arrested or killed and it is sought negotiations with the government. In 1991, the M19 demobilized itself and changed into a legal political party, the Alianza Democratica M19, reaching a little over 10% of the vote in its first participation in elections. It is not the actual military significance of the M19 but the political implications of the demobilization which caused a crisis for all of the Colombian guerrilla. The 'Eme', as M19 was called, possessed an extraordinary international recognition and enjoyed much sympathy in the cities - but later on it only symbolized one big lie: that the demobilization of the guerrilla could bring social justice. One can state today that the peace process of the M19 had was a big deception maneuver by the oligarchy. Carlos Pizarro Leongomez, most important leader and presidential candidate of the M19, was murdered shortly after his return to legal life because the government feared his popularity. There was not a single drastic social reform enacted which would have improved the living conditions of the poor. Not even the human rights situation changed with the legalization of the M19. As ever, the dirty war remained a state-run policy against the opposition. But in 1990, the strategy of the M19 was still convincing to some. Two small guerrilla organizations also demobilized themselves, and the EPL split into two factions. There were terrible symptoms of decay among the guerrillas. Demobilized members of the EPL start working for the paramilitary in Uraba (Atlantic Copast). Other former fighters become criminals. This development was partly due to the state not being able to offer real alternatives to the demobilized fighters, but also to fatal errors by the guerrilla itself. Only the authoritarian structure of the organizations and the lack of political training and convictions of the fighters made this possible. Today, a realization of this fact is self-critically recognized by the organizations themselves.

No Justice - No Peace

In spite of all these problems, the majority of the GCSB, nowadays consisting of the FARC-EP, the ELN, and a minority of the EPL, remained militarily active without refusing a dialogue with the government. In 1991, the GCSB started a number of negotiations with the state. These contacts were unilaterally broken off by the Gaviria government in 1993. In opposition to the "peace process" with the M19, the suggestion of the GCSB proceeded from the assumption that the armed struggle is not the cause but the result of the violence. That is, that violence springs from social injustices and the terror of the oligarchy against the mass movement. Armed groups, therefore, are legitimate forms of resistance. Under such conditions, the demobilization of the guerrilla doesn't make sense. The only way of pacifying the country is a radical democratization, en end to repression, the punishment of those responsible for the dirty war, and a social economic policy in favor of the poor majority of the population. Eduardo Pizarro, professor of political science at the Universidad Nacional in Bogota, recently pointed out in an analysis that only a small part of the violence in Colombia has to do with the armed conflict between the army and the guerrilla. The large majority of the dead are victims of the dirty war, of the "social purge", or of criminality, the last one in its turn being a result of poverty.

Nevertheless, The Guerrilla Has Grown In Strength

Today, the Colombian guerrilla is stronger than ever. This is due more than anything to the government's oppression of the opposition. There are hardly any opportunities for legal political activity in Colombia today. Trade unionists, Christians, students, the inhabitants of the slums - they all become the victims of death threats once they start to be politically active in the opposition. It's a sad but true fact that the safest place for a Colombian political opponent today is the rain forest, that is, with the guerrilla. The organizations of the GCSB have prepared for this intensified situation. According to government sources, they are now present in more than 500 of the 1,000 Colombian communities. The guerrilla are also closing in on the cities. There are guerrilla fronts in the suburbs of Bogota, Cali, and Medellin, people's militias have come into being in the poor neighborhoods, and the FARC-EP is operating with irregular units in the municipal area of the capital Bogota. In the countryside, the guerrilla is exercising governmental duties. It administrates budgets and controls the mayor's job. Anyone who has ever been to the remote areas forgotten by the government will confirm that, in spite of all restrictions, the guerrilla accomplishes this administrative work more effectively and honestly than Colombia's political class. There is less corruption and more social investment in favor of the poor. The national uprising has transformed itself into a new power, an alternative government and a military force that will prevent a bloody "pacification", which is what the government wants. The armed movement is a legitimate factor not to be overseen. And it will go on growing, because it wants an end to the daily violence against the poor majority.

(Source: Colombia Popular - http://www.berlinet.de/eln)

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