Colombia Primer (Part 3)
Author: Cristobal Campos
Posted: 13 March, 2003
The 1980s. It wasn’t just the “Greed Decade” up North; Colombia was more than doing its share of hedonistic living. A couple of events occurred in 1981 that would have a profound effect on the coming decades. Towards the end of the 70s, the FARC began to expand into yet another revenue-gaining venture: kidnaping. Guerilla leaders quickly realized that if a narcotrafficker was kidnapped, they could typically get a large ransom for the drug dealer. If the victim happened to be tortured a little, well then, the purse strings would fly open that much faster and that much wider. Police were rarely called and payments were usually quick and in US dollars. Then the unthinkable happened. The April 19th Movement (M-19) captured a high-ranking Medellin cartel member and instantly, the narcotraffickers realized that something needed to be done or none of them would be safe.
Obviously, the police were out of the question so the narcos began looking around for a solution. The only way out appeared to be those squads of hitmen formed to attack the FARC years ago. The Medellin cartels, most notably under Pablo Escobar, recruited and trained thousands of hitmen, called sicarios in Colombian Spanish. Their goal was to strike fear in the hearts and lead in the brains of as many guerillas as possible. They were very effective initially. The violence was unimaginable. Hitmen were after the guerillas. Drug dealers were fighting for territory. Guerillas were fighting the narcos and the paramilitaries. The government was fighting everyone and the morgues were more than filling up.
Another watershed event was the kidnaping of the father of one Carlos Castano in 1981 by the FARC. After paying a ransom, the family waited for the safe return of their father. The return never happened as Carlos’ father was murdered by the FARC after they received the ransom payment. Carlos swore his hatred and revenge for the FARC and determined to join the paramilitaries. He was 15 years old.
Throughout his life Carlos made good on his promise to take it to the FARC: he claims to have personally killed over 50 of them. Eventually he rose in ranks through the paramilitaries until he united many of them in the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). Although his umbrella group eventually became the largest paramilitary organization in the country, it has never controlled more than 70% of Colombia’s paramilitaries, illustrating that there are still many independent, autonomous groups operating.
If the 80s were the glory days for the narcos, the 90s became the decade of the subversive groups. It was during this time that the FARC grew to be something feared by the Colombian government, not just a movement inflicting inconvenient attacks on fringe-element government facilities.
In the early 90s, both the government and the FARC initiated several ill-fated peace negotiations. All ended without success and eventually FARC violence increased. It is during these years that the FARC began to make demands of the government that actually influenced government decision making. In 1994, a few days after Horacio Samper became president, the FARC promised peace talks if Samper would pull the military out of La Uribe, Meta. Samper, desperate to make some headway in his inherited and seemingly hopeless problem, ordered General Bedoya, commander of the Armed Forces, to immediately withdraw government troops from Meta. General Bedoya didn’t exactly agree with his recently elected boss and threatened a military coup if Samper continued to order the withdrawal. Samper was left between the FARC and an unruly military and made the precedent-setting decision to do absolutely nothing. Setting the tone for his entire presidency, he unwisely decided to allow the military, the FARC and the paramilitaries to fight it out among themselves.
With a disjointed government, little leadership and an apparent lack of a central command, the Colombian military achieved little success. The FARC however took advantage of their enemy, Machiavellian-style and as a result made their greatest advances ever in the mid-90s. In 1996, major FARC pushes began in Guaviare, Putumayo, Caqueta, Norte de Santander and Bolivar. In many of these places, the FARC completely killed, captured or ran off all police personnel, in essence setting up defacto guerilla governments in the vacuums left behind. Later, thrusts of government troops and paramilitaries were able to combat the FARC, stem the advancing tide and, in some rare cases, drive it back. For example, in the state of Cordoba, after several years of intense bloodletting, the paramilitaries drove the FARC out of the state almost completely. Of course, for the government, one problem was exchanged for another, but the average citizen seemed to fare better under the AUC.
The Pastrana years. In 1998, Andres Pastrana won the election largely on his promise to resume peace talks with Marulanda and his merry FARC marauders. In what Pastrana called a move of “good faith” (and everyone else just called “stupid”), Pastrana withdrew all government troops from an area in southern Colombia the size of Switzerland and simply gave it to the FARC. Pastrana’s pipe dream was that the FARC would be content with their designated play area and leave the rest of Pastrana’s country alone. However, to the contrary, the FARC simply used the “Despeje Zone” as a base of operations to continue their attacks on the Colombian people. This DMZ lasted until 2002, when it was painfully obvious, even to Pastrana, that the whole plan had backfired. He was left with flan on his face whilst the FARC had spent the better part of the last three years laughing all the way to their Swiss banks. In an effort to save face, Pastrana kicked out the FARC in 2002 just weeks before his term as president finished and left the in turmoil country to his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe Velez. Uribe, who survived 14 attempts on his life while a presidential candidate prior to his election, immediately vowed to annihilate the FARC. One of his first acts upon gaining office was to declare a national state of emergency, officially making it open season on the guerillas. Uribe’s hatred for the FARC runs deep. Like head of the paramilitaries, Carlos Castano, Uribe’s father was murdered by the FARC even though the guerilla group had received the Uribe family’s ransom payment. Activity on all fronts picked up immediately – guerillas, paramilitaries and government, with bombings making their way to previously “safe” cities such as Cartegena and Bogota. New lines were drawn and positions dug in as each side settled themselves in for the long future ahead.
What’s next? It is anyone’s guess at this point but there are certain known factors in the middle of this morass of variables:
1. Plan Colombia. A multi-billion dollar aid package, initiated under President Clinton and expanded during the Bush Administration, pumping much needed dollars, equipment and expertise into the war-torn country. In January of 2003, U. S. Army troops began training on a newly U. S. funded base in the Colombian state of Arauca. Training is designed to prepare the Colombian military and police to better combat the drug and guerilla operations in the jungles.
2. Uribe. Uribe seems more than determined to continue use every available resource to combat the FARC. Peace talks are not even on the back burner at this point. Uribe has gone as far as creating a network or informants throughout the country to gather intel on the guerilla operations.
3. The FARC. Threatened by Uribe’s steadfastness, they appeared scared for the first time in decades. This fear has fueled desperate attacks against the President in an effort to kill or deter him. No luck so far. As of this writing (01/03), there are an estimated 15,000 members in the FARC.
4. AUC. Carlos Castano recently resigned as the head of the AUC citing differences of opinions with the current management style of the various factors of his group. Additional information has recently surfaced in past weeks, confirming talks between Uribe’s administration and the paramilitaries. Uribe has never been a strong opponent of them, possibly the old adage comes into play here, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” While the AUC has committed brutal acts of torture in their persecution of the FARC, they are still criminals, wanted for a multitude of crimes. Most troublesome is their tendency to kill prosecutors, judges and law enforcement officials who attempt to investigate the group. Their numbers stand at an estimated 18,000 members, although there is quite a bit of debate surrounding this figure.
As 2003 begins, there is a sense of anticipation in the air throughout the country. No one is quite sure what will happen but everyone expects something soon. Unfortunately, it appears that the violence born in the 1930s and 1940s seems to be looming on the horizon for at least the near future.