Neoliberalism Needs Death Squads in Colombia
By Hans Bennett
In her new book Blood & Capital: The Paramilitarization of Colombia, author Jasmin Hristov writes: “For roughly forty years, the Colombian state has been playing a double game: prohibiting the formation of paramilitary groups with one law and facilitating their existence with another; condemning their barbarities and at the same time assisting their operations; promising to bring perpetrators of crime to justice, while opening the door to perpetual immunity; convicting them of narco-trafficking, yet profiting from their drug deals; announcing to the world the government’s persecution of paramilitary organizations, even though in reality these ‘illegal armed groups’ have been carrying out the dirty work unseemly for a state that claims to be democratic and worthy of billions of dollars in US military aid.”
As the largest recipient of US military aid in the hemisphere, Colombia has long been the US’ most important ally in Latin America. Simultaneously, Colombia has also become the hemisphere’s worst human rights violator, with Colombia’s numerous paramilitary organizations recently taking center stage, as they’ve gradually become directly responsible for more human rights atrocities than the formal military and police. In the name of fighting “narco-terrorism,” poor people and dissidents are massacred, assassinated, tortured, and disappeared, among other atrocities—done to eliminate particular individuals and to “set an example” by intimidating others in the community. 97 percent of human rights abuses remain unpunished.
In recent years, a variety of human rights organizations, as well as mainstream academics and journalists have found it impossible to ignore the astronomical human rights violations. However, even though these groups have accurately reported on the actual atrocities, Jasmin Hristov argues that in their reports, the atrocities are largely de-contextualized from the powerful forces in Colombia and the US that directly benefit from this repression. According to Hristov, this mainstream presentation serves to mask the fact that US and Colombian elites directly support (via funding, training, supervising, and providing legal immunity for) state repression carried out by the police and military, as well as illegal paramilitary groups that are unofficially sanctioned by the government. Whether it is murdering labor organizers or displacing an indigenous community because a US corporation wants to drill for oil on their land, Hristov passionately asserts that death squad violence is purposefully directed towards sectors of society that stand in the way of the ruling class’ efforts to maintain economic dominance and acquire more resources to make even more profit.
In her book, Hristov does make a convincing argument that Colombia’s notorious death squads are inherently linked to maintenance of the country’s extreme economic inequality. Particularly since the neoliberal reforms of the 1990s that have increased poverty, Colombia’s poor continue to resist their oppression in many different ways. In response, state repression on a variety of levels is needed to terrorize unarmed social movements and other community groups and activists.
Throughout Blood & Capital, Hristov seeks to expose the rational motivations behind state violence for capitalism’s economic elites in the US and Colombia. In meticulous detail, Hristov shows how the super-rich benefit from state repression and how the violators of human rights have essentially become immune from any consequences for their actions. If death squads are truly to be abolished in Colombia, we must look honestly at how and why they exist today. Hristov’s new book is a powerful tool for exposing who truly calls the shots.
Neoliberalism or Neopoverty?
Hristov asserts that “it is not a mere coincidence that during the era of accelerated neoliberal restructuring, the deterioration in the living conditions of the working majority has been accompanied by an increase in the capabilities and activities of military, police, and paramilitary groups, as well as the portrayal of social movements as forces that must be monitored, silenced, and eventually dismantled.” The scandalous epidemic of poverty in Colombia is key to understanding Colombian politics, and why the upper classes so fear political organizing among the poor, who could mount a formidable opposition to the status quo if allowed to organize unrestrained by state repression.
When neoliberal policies were adopted by the Colombian government in the 1990s, it dramatically increased poverty, and made an already terrible situation worse. Hristov writes that the “essential components of neoliberalism are trade liberalization, privatization, deregulation, and austerity. Trade liberalization entails the removal of any trade barriers, such as tariffs and quotas. Privatization requires the sale of public enterprises and assets to private owners. Through the removal of government restrictions and interventions on capital, deregulation allows market forces to act as a self-regulating mechanism…Austerity requires the drastic reduction or elimination of expenditures for social programs and services.”
She argues that the “main cause that led to the official adoption of neoliberal policies by the developing countries in Latin America and elsewhere was the pressure to service their external debts in the late 1970s. In order to receive loans from the World Bank (WB), or the International Monetary Fund (IMF), nations had to agree to a program of structural adjustment that included drastically reducing public spending in health, education, and welfare,” and much more.
Because Colombia had less debt than other Latin American countries, “major neoliberal restructuring did not begin until 1990, under President Cesar Gaviria Trujillo (1990-94), when the country began to receive massive amounts of US military aid…In addition to the significant social damage wrought by these policies, by the mid-1990s Colombia had to almost double its borrowing from the IMF because of the economic crisis brought on by the market liberalization,” writes Hristov.
These drastic reforms have intensified since current President Alvaro Uribe came to power in 2002. After the IMF loaned $2.1 billion in 2003 on the condition that the reforms be accelerated, Uribe “privatized one of the country’s largest banks (BANCAFE), restructured the pension program, and reduced the number of public-sector workers in order to cut budget deficits, as required by the international lending institution. Uribe also closed down some of the country’s biggest public hospitals, eliminating over four thousand medical jobs, and denationalized companies in the telecommunications, oil, and mining sectors,” reports Hristov.
These are a few of the statistics compiled by Hristov, who writes that “in a country of 45 million, around 11 million people are unable to afford even one nutritious meal a day. According to statistics from 2005, 65 percent of Colombians are unable to regularly satisfy basic subsistence needs. In rural areas, the poverty rate is as high as 85 percent…In 2000 it was estimated that half a million children suffer from malnutrition and close to 2.5 million children between the ages of six and seventeen are forced to work…Furthermore, there has been a notable decline in school attendance, literacy, and life expectancy as well as access to child care and education over the past couple of years.”
Blood, Capital, and the State Coercive Apparatus
Throughout Blood & Capital, Hristov details many horrifying ways in which the rich are empowered by violence from what she identifies as the “state’s coercive apparatus” (SCA). She argues that “two intertwining motifs run throughout Colombia’s history: (1) social relations marked by inequality, exploitation, and exclusion and (2) violence employed by those with economic and political power over the working majority and the poor in order to acquire control over resources, forcibly recruit labor, and suppress or eliminate dissent.”
Dating back to the European conquest of the Americas, Hristov asserts that violence has been central to the creation of modern-day Colombia’s government and economy. She writes that “starting in the late 1500s, the conquerors began clearing the indigenous population from territories with desirable characteristics—mineral deposits, fertile soil, access to water, transportation routes, and so on. The separation of the indigenous from their means of subsistence allowed the formation of a local colonial elite who transformed what used to be the native inhabitants communal lands into large estates or haciendas. The creation of landless peasants facilitated the supply of labor for the Spaniards’ ventures, such as mining and agriculture.”
State violence supporting the economic elite continued, but became much worse in the 1960s under the direction of the US military. Alfredo Vasquez Carrizosa, President of the Colombian Permanent Committee for Human Rights reports that in the 1960s, “during the Kennedy administration,” the US “took great pains to transform our regular armies into counterinsurgency brigades, accepting the new strategy of the death squads.” This “ushered in what is known in Latin America as the National Security Doctrine…not defense against an external enemy, but a way to make the military establishment the masters of the game…the right to combat the internal enemy…this could mean anyone, including human rights activists such as myself.”
As Edward Herman, co-author of The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism explained in a previous interview with Upside Down World, US support for repressive governments in Colombia and throughout Latin America was, and still is, part of a general policy towards third world populations. Focusing largely on US support for the Latin American “National Security States,” Herman and co-author Noam Chomsky argue that U.S. corporations purposefully support (and in many instances create) fascist terror states in order to create a favorable investment climate. In exchange for a cut of the action, local military police-states brutally repress their population when it attempts to assert basic human rights.
In the 1960s, the US and Colombian governments launched Plan Lazo, designed to target the “internal enemy.” Hristov writes that “the military aid that was part of Plan Lazo (and all subsequent programs, including those in place today, such as the Patriot Plan) were given on the condition that Colombian forces would use terror and violence, since these formed a legitimate part of the overall anticommunist offensive. In 1966 the field manual US Army Counterinsurgency Forces specified that while antiguerrilla should not employ mass terror, selective terror against civilians was acceptable and was justified as a necessary response to the alleged terrorism committed by rebel forces.”
Hristov asserts that while the US handled the “financial and ideological aspects” of building and strengthening the SCA, locally the Colombian elites also played a key role. “It implemented many of the policies suggested by the US counterinsurgency manual in order to discipline the civilian population through measures such as press censorship, the suspension of civil rights (to permit arrest on mere suspicion), and the forced relocation of entire villages. President Guillermo Leon Valencia (1962-66) boosted the anticommunist campaign by declaring a state of siege whereby judicial and political powers were transferred to the military while the latter was freed from accountability to civilian authorities for its conduct.”
With US financing and supervision, the Colombian armed forces have since become one of the most renowned human rights violators in the world. This despicable conduct eventually created significant local and international opposition, and under this pressure the SCA has been forced to adjust. In response, the responsibility for repression has shifted more towards paramilitaries, whose activities are officially independent of the government. In this situation, when paramilitaries target the “internal enemy,” the same goal is accomplished as if the government itself did it, yet the government cannot be officially linked to the violence.
The Paramilitarization of Colombia
The size and strength of paramilitary death squads in Colombia has steadily increased since they were first established in the 1960s. According to Hristov, the paramilitaries are now responsible for about 80 percent of human rights violations in Colombia, compared to 16 percent by the rebel guerrillas. The paramilitaries’ evolution, Hristov argues, is the result of “perhaps the most creative and intelligent effort by an elite-dominated state to counteract revolutionary processes…The Colombian parastatal system represents neither a traditional centralized authoritarian regime, as those that existed in Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, nor merely a collection of autonomous armed bands dispersed over rural areas, each ruling locally, as in Mexico. What we see in Colombia is a mutated SCA that has assumed a nonstate appearance.”
The function of the paramilitaries in Colombia was explained well by Captain Gilberto Cardenas, former captain of the national police and former director of the Judicial Police Investigative and Intelligence Unit in the Uraba region. In 2002, testifying against the commander of the Seventeenth Brigade of the Colombian armed forces, Cardenas told representatives of the United Nations and Colombian authorities that “The paramilitaries were created by the Colombian government itself to do the dirty work, in other words, in order to kill all individuals who, according to the state and the police, are guerrillas. But in order to do that, the [the government] had to create illegal groups so that no one would suspect the government of Colombia and its military forces…members of the army and the police even patrol side by side with the paramilitaries.”
The paramilitary system first began in the mid-1960s when the Colombian government passed legislation that authorized citizens to carry arms and assist the military in repression. Hristov argues that “paramilitary forces entered the scene to perform two main functions.” The first was to participate in combat at a local level, as described by the 1966 US Army Counterinsurgency Forces field manual, which stated: “paramilitary units can support the national army in the conduct of counterinsurgency operations when the latter are being conducted in their own province or political subdivision.” Second, Hristov writes that paramilitaries “were intended to monitor and gather intelligence on the rebels, their civilian supporters, and social organizations by establishing networks throughout the country.”
While these early paramilitaries did play some role in state repression, it would not be until the 1980s that they really began to increase in size and influence. Hristov writes that “the 1980s were the golden age of paramilitary development, as many new groups formed, expanded, and rapidly acquired financial and military strength...This second wave of creation enacted by large-scale landowners, cattle ranchers, mining entrepreneurs (particularly those in the emerald business) and narco-lords took place in a particular context, characterized by five main features: a shift in the state’s (unofficial) policy toward the partial privatization of coercion; the state’s fusion with the elite; a legal framework that had set the ground for the design, training, equipping, and administration by the state military of armed bodies outside its institution; a prevailing anticommunist ideology; and militarized patches of the country that served as models to emulate.”
This second wave was given another boost in 1994 with the creation of the Community Rural Surveillance Associations (CONVIVIR) by current President Alvaro Uribe Velez, who was the governor of the department of Antioquia at that time. Hristov writes that Uribe made CONVIVIR into “a replica of the original paramilitary bodies designed in the 1960s. As it had thirty years ago, now the civilian counterpart of the SCA was to take on a central role in the Dirty War under a legal mantle. By the time CONVIVIR was outlawed, in 1999, most of the numerous paramilitary self defense bodies had united, attaining an organizational and military capacity unsurpassed by paramilitary forces in any other Latin American country.”
In August, 1998, just before the legislation supporting CONVIVIR was abolished, hundreds of members publicly announced that they would be joining the AUC paramilitary network, which became the most prominent paramilitary network in Colombia. The AUC had been created in 1997, mostly under the leadership of Carlos Castano and his paramilitary group, the ACCU, which became the largest group in the AUC federation. Others that operated in this loose confederation of paramilitary groups included Bloque Cacique Nutibara, the Bloque Central Bolivar, and the Bloque de Magdalena Medio.
Following official “peace negotiations” between the AUC and the Colombian government which began in 2002 with an official AUC ceasefire agreement, the AUC officially disbanded in February 2006, as part of an overall public disarmament of many paramilitaries throughout Colombia. However Hristov argues that “there are many factors challenging the legitimacy of the peace process. First, during the entire period of the cease-fire announced by the AUC, its groups regularly engaged in military actions against civilians, thereby committing human rights violations (and such activities continue to take place). Second, often those who claimed to be demobilizing were not the real paramilitary combatants but hired criminals, or drug dealers who had bought the AUC franchise. Third, large quantities of arms that should have been turned over were not. Fourth, fighters who are officially considered demobilized are in reality already active militarily in new organizations, where their skills of terrorizing the civilian population for economic gains are necessary and valued.”
Since 2006, there have been several government initiatives that give the formal appearance of the Colombian government working to combat paramilitaries. Hristov explains that “early in 2007 the Supreme Court began investigating numerous connections between paramilitaries and important state actors, such as senators, representatives, deputies, councilors, and mayors. As time went by, the public learned of more and more cases in which the legal (state officials with their political authority and legitimacy) and the illegal (paramilitary groups with their economic and military power) had entered into alliances to advance their mutual interests. Through mid-2008, 38 percent of members of Congress have been implicated in this parapolitica scandal.”
While Hristov recognizes some importance in these recent investigations, she feels that their real impact has been extremely limited. She argues that “despite all the cases that have been exposed, parapolitica is not likely to be eradicated from the Colombian political system. On the contrary, the flood of revelations about politicians’ connections to the paramilitary actually allows serious crimes, such as complicity in massacres, to get buried under waves of minor offenses, and eventually the entire issue becomes just another corruption scandal.”
In their 2009 report on Colombia, Human Rights Watch concluded that there are many “threats to accountability for paramilitaries’ accomplices,” reporting that “the Uribe administration has repeatedly taken actions that could sabotage the investigations. Administration officials have issued public personal attacks on the Supreme Court and its members, in some cases making accusations that have turned out to be baseless, in what increasingly looks like a campaign to discredit the court. In mid-2008 the administration proposed a series of constitutional amendments that would have removed what are known as the ‘parapolitics’ investigations from the Supreme Court's jurisdiction, but it withdrew the proposal in November. The administration also blocked what is known as the ‘empty chair’ bill, which would have reformed the Congress to sanction parties that had backed politicians linked to paramilitaries.”
Hristov concludes that the centrality of paramilitaries to Colombian politics will not be disappearing anytime soon, mostly because repression has been necessary to enforce the country’s stark social/political/economic injustice. Hristov argues that the paramilitaries have become an essential tool of repression, and because Colombia’s poor majority will continue to resist this outrageous poverty, the paramilitaries’ repression will continue. Seen in this context, the recent demobilization process is only a tactical restructuring of paramilitaries and the SCA, similar to their restructurings in the 1980s and 1990s. Hristov sees this restructuring as an “adaptation response” to “assure its future survival” in the face of “the reality of resistance and opposition by numerous sectors of society against further dispossession,” with the state’s ultimate goal being “the institutionalization of paramilitarism and the legalization of capital accumulation through violence.”
War on Narco-terrorists?
Since the official end of the Cold War in 1989, US rhetorical justification for allying itself with and providing military aid to the Colombian government has shifted from fighting “communism” to fighting “narco-terrorism.” Hristov argues that official rhetoric may have changed but it’s still easy to expose this fraudulent war on narco-terrorism as actually being a war against poor people. Concerning the so-called war on terrorism, how can the hemisphere’s worst human rights violator fight terrorism? Then, similar to the absurd notion of a terrorist fighting terrorism, how can a government heavily complicit in the drug trade claim that it is fighting a war on drugs?
The Colombian government’s multi-faceted complicity in drug trafficking extends all the way to current President Uribe, who was listed by the Pentagon itself, as one of the most wanted international drug traffickers. A declassified National Security Archives report dated September 23, 1991, explicitly accused Uribe of being a collaborator of the Medellin cartel and a personal friend of Pablo Escobar. This report states further that Uribe was one of the “more important Colombian narco-terrorists contracted by the Colombian narcotics cartels for security, transportation, distribution, collection, and enforcement of narcotics operations in both the US and Colombia. These individuals are also contracted as ‘HIT MEN’ to assassinate individuals targeted by the ‘extraditables,’ or individual ‘narcotic leaders,’ and to perform terrorist acts against Colombian officials, other government officials, law enforcement agencies, and groups of other political persuasions.”
It’s not just the Colombian government! Hristov argues that the US government’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) “has in reality been converted largely to an instrument of drug traffickers and paramilitaries.” To support this assertion, she cites a 2004 memorandum issued by a lawyer at the US Department of Justice named Thomas M. Kent, which accused the DEA of extreme misconduct. Kent states that strong evidence of misconduct is routinely ignored by the control agencies of the Department of Justice. Hristov summarizes key points made in Kent’s memorandum, including “to supplement their $7,000 monthly salary, some DEA agents have managed to negotiate with Colombian drug dealers…DEA personnel have been implicated in the killing of informants…Members of the AUC [paramilitaries] have been assisted by DEA agents in money laundering…DEA agents have participated in the extortion of drug traffickers awaiting extradition.”
On another note, Hristov makes the important point that drug trafficking and the rise of paramilitaries have both fed each other in two key ways. “First, the groups involved in trafficking needed to protect their laboratories, illegal cultivation, and clandestine airstrips in rural areas stimulated the emergence of local armed groups outside the state. Second, many drug dealers had begun to invest their capital in millions of hectares of the best agricultural land in the country…and they needed armed forces to protect their lands.” Hristov adds further that “the preexisting concentration of land ownership in the hands of the elite and the displacement of impoverished peasants was aggravated dramatically by this trend.”
To further expose this fraudulent “war on drugs,” it should be noted that the US government has a long history of complicity in drug trafficking, particularly in Latin America. While author William Blum has written the definitive short article on the topic, Alfred McCoy has written the most comprehensive book, titled The Politics of Heroin, documenting the CIA’s relationships with drug traffickers around the world, including in France, Italy, China, Laos, Afghanistan, Haiti, and throughout Latin America. In 1989, a Senatorial Committee chaired by Senator John Kerry documented that during the 1980s, while working with the anti-Sandinista “Contras,” the CIA and other branches of the US government were complicit in trafficking cocaine into the US from Latin America. The Kerry Committee concluded a three year investigation by stating in their report that “there was substantial evidence of drug smuggling through the war zones on the part of individual Contras, Contra suppliers, Contra pilots, mercenaries who worked with the Contras, and Contra supporters throughout the region…US officials involved in Central America failed to address the drug issue for fear of jeopardizing the war efforts against Nicaragua…In each case, one or another agency of the US government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter.”
The Kerry Committee’s report and the story behind it has been analyzed well by authors Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall in their book Cocaine Politics. In 1996, investigative journalist Gary Webb wrote a series of articles for the San Jose Mercury News (later expanded and made into a book in 1999) which directly tied Contra cocaine traffickers Danilo Blandon and Norwin Meneses (both protected by the US government) to Los Angeles drug kingpin “Freeway” Rick Ross, who played a key role in starting the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. The mainstream media launched a smear campaign attacking Webb’s story that eventually caused even the Mercury News to denounce Webb. However, several prominent journalists came to Webb’s defense and challenged the mainstream media’s smear campaign, including Norman Solomon, Robert Parry, and Counterpunch co-editors Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair.
Unmasking The Unholy Alliance
The relationship between the US and Colombian elite is truly an unholy alliance. With US President Barack Obama praising the Colombian government and attempting to build several new military bases in Colombia, it is more important than ever to expose the truth about who supports death squads and why. Hopefully Blood & Capital will receive the attention that it deserves, and Hristov’s meticulous research can be used to truly disarm the state coercive apparatus in Colombia.--Hans Bennett is an independent multi-media journalist whose website is www.insubordination.blogspot.com. This article was first published at www.UpsideDownWorld.org on September 3, 2009.