Colombia the continued struggle for peace and justice

On 23 June, after three and a half years of negotiations, the US-backed Colombian state and its armed communist opponents, the FARC, finally signed ‘a bilateral and definitive ceasefire, cessation of hostilities, and laying aside of weapons’, to end the armed class struggle waged since 1964. In the last year the FARC held to a unilateral ceasefire despite continued attacks, killings and provocations by the Colombian military. Cuban President Raul Castro declared the peace agreement a ‘victory for the people of Colombia’.

The governments of Chile, Cuba, Norway, and Venezuela were hosts, mediators or observers in the process. However, the peace accords have yet to be fully finalised and will be subject to a binding referendum, perhaps in September. Disarmament should take place immediately after the final peace accord is signed. In January 2016, the UN Security Council agreed to send a mission of 350 unarmed representatives, mainly from the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which excludes the US and Canada, to oversee redeployment by FARC troops to 23 ‘temporary hamlet zones for normalisation’. Once the FARC lists the combatants in each hamlet zone, the government will suspend all outstanding arrest warrants for them. Weapons will be surrendered to the UN over a 180-day period.

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Colombia peace talks: make or break

The Santos government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) set 23 March 2016 as the deadline to sign a final peace agreement, but negotiations in Cuba have stalled in past months over the last question on their agenda – decommissioning FARC’s armoury and demobilisation. On 10 March both sides announced that they aim to reach a deal by the end of the year. Since November 2012 – in long negotiations punctuated by government killings of FARC leaders – agreement has been reached on approaches to land reform, political participation, the illegal drugs trade and transitional justice. Alvaro Michaels reports.

On 21 March in Havana, US Secretary of State John Kerry again urged the Colombian government and FARC to reach a peace accord. Obama will ask the US Congress for $450m (£312m) as a sweetener after completion. To back Santos’s final shift against opponents from the large landowning class and sections of the military, Kerry defended the Santos-FARC talks by pointing out that it is not the FARC, but ‘right-wing militias’ that are currently ‘increasing the violence’. FARC quickly pushed for the State Department to remove the guerrilla army from its list of ‘foreign terrorist organisations’. When a peace agreement is reached, a referendum will be held for its approval.

President Santos has now discarded ex-President Alvaro Uribe as a useful bargaining tool in his negotiations with FARC, finally approving the arrest of Uribe’s brother Santiago on 29 February. He is accused of involvement in murders and forced disappearances in the 1990s. The family’s dealings with the drug trade (father, cousins, in-laws), known to US intelligence, made President Uribe pliable to US pressure when in office.

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Colombia: negotiating the future

President Santos (left) and FARC’s chief, Rodrigo Londoño (Timochenko) shook hands after a meeting facilitated by Raul Castro (centre)

On 23 September a further step in the class struggle in Colombia was reached when the FARC and the Colombian President Santos, accompanied by President Raul Castro, announced in Havana that they expected to conclude a peace agreement by March 2016. They have agreed on a formula for transitional justice for those accused of crimes committed in the conflict such as kidnapping, murder, forced displacement, disappearance and torture.

FARC leaders had hoped the Pope would agree to meet the negotiating teams on his visit to Cuba, but the Vatican rejected the notion. However while there Pope Francis’s warned that failure was not an option, a message already made on several occasions, including directly to President Santos at the Vatican. This deal on justice, along with previous agreements made since November 2012 on rural development, political participation for demobilised guerrillas and drug trafficking, now means agreement on four of the six points of negotiations. It remains to agree how FARC will demobilise and decommission their weapons, and how to implement the final accords.

FARC’s chief, Rodrigo Londoño (Timochenko) said that a ‘propitious environment’ had been created to reach agreement on remaining points. Special tribunals, to include international judges, will judge crimes related to the conflict committed by participants or non-combatants. Voluntary confession will result in confinements – though not prison – of up to eight years. Immediate guilty pleas will mean reduced prison sentences. Those convicted without admission face the longest sentences. Membership of FARC, currently a political crime, will be pardoned, and this should apply to some 15,000 FARC members.

US secretary of state Kerry welcomed the step and let it be known that US drug trafficking charges, and extradition requests targeting FARC leaders will not be used by the US to obstruct the deal. It is clear to everyone that, despite every effort, the ruling class in Colombia cannot physically eliminate FARC’s armed opposition, which arises out of the terror applied by the state itself. The US is anxious to intensify its commercial exploitation of Colombia after the end of the civil war, as well as regaining lost political ground in Latin America. Former president Alvaro Uribe, representing the decaying, family landowning class claimed the deal will ‘generate new violence’ in the country.

Alvaro Michaels

Colombia’s Killing Fields: Peace is War - James Petras article

FRFI is publishing this analysis by James Petras of the war in Colombia as it provides useful information and analysis of the current situation.
Colombia has received more US military aid - over $6 billion dollars in the past decade - than any country in the Western Hemisphere.  For its part, Colombia allowed the Pentagon to build seven military bases, more than all the other countries in the region combined. There are over 2,000 US military officers and private US ‘mercenary’ contractors engaged in military activities in Colombia - more than any other country in Latin America.

During the decade-long (2001-2010) regime of President Alvaro Uribe, (a drug trafficker and death squad jefe in his own right), more than one-thousand trade union leaders and activists were murdered - over one hundred a year.

Nevertheless, the ‘Colombian killing field’ regime under Uribe was described in glowing terms by all the major respectable Anglo-American newspapers, including the Financial Times New York TimesWall Street Journal, and Washington Post for having brought 'stability and peace' (of the graveyard) to the country and making Colombia 'safe for investors'.

Eventually Uribe’s excesses, his policy of ‘peace through terror’ policies frightened and appalled many Colombians and (most important for the oligarchs) he failed to defeat the armed insurgency  When the regime’s new extractive export growth strategy called for massive expansion of foreign investment in guerrilla-controlled mineral and oil-rich regions  tactics and key political leaders had to change.

After two terms in office, President Uribe’s former Defense Minister Juan Santos was elected on the promise of renewed peace negotiations with the principal guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

President Santos’ Peace Negotiations and the Killing Fields

Under President Santos, Colombia still retains the title as the most dangerous country in the world for trade union leaders and human rights activists.  During his first 5 years in office, from 2011 to April 2015, more than 105 trade unionists have been murdered; 596 have been injured in attacks and 1,337 received death threats. Over half of the killings, which are officially labeled ‘unattributed’, have clearly been committed by the paramilitary hitmen- ‘sicarios’, and others are categorized as ‘false positives’, where the military claims civilian deaths result from the ‘cross-fire of combat operations’.  Few arrests have ever been made in a country where assassins enjoy immunity.  Over 80% of trade union leader assassinations are attributed to paramilitary-military-police while 6% are blamed on the guerrillas.  In the case of the guerrillas, most of the ‘victims’ are not popularly elected trade unionists but agents, appointed by the employers and government, with links to the paramilitary gangs, who identify and purge militant workers and have nothing to do with the defense of  workers rights.

There are a minority of cases of guerrilla units committing human rights violations. These are investigated and the guilty are punished by the national leaders – a far cry from Bogota’s policy.  A recent case, which took place in early August, led to severe internal sanctioning of a FARC unit.

The drop in the ‘number’ of labour leaders murdered, from an average of 100 a year under Uribe to 25 a year under Santos, is due to the precipitous decline in the number of trade unionists overall – thanks to a decade of slaughter under Uribe.  In other words, there may be fewer union leaders murdered under President Santos, but overall the proportion of leaders assassinated remains essentially the same – and the life expectancy for a Colombian labour leader is the lowest in the hemisphere!

What has changed under Santos is the shift away from slaughtering a dwindling number of union leaders, to killing and jailing human rights and social movement activists.

In 2014, 35 activists were murdered. During the first half of 2015, the death toll has almost doubled with 69 social movement and human rights activists killed.

The Patriotic March is the major Colombian umbrella movement, bringing together over 100 social organizations, including the country’s major indigenous groups, Afro-Colombians, regional peasant  and human rights groups.  More than 9,000 Patriotic March activists have been arrested and 40 have been killed during Santos reign of terror.

Peace Negotiations and Cross Border Aggression

Santos’ peace negotiations with the main guerrilla groups, as well as the FARC’s unilateral ceasefire, has allowed the Colombian military and its paramilitary allies to step up their cross-border drug and contraband smuggling and terrorist incursions into Venezuela.

In mid-August, a Colombian paramilitary squad entered Venezuela and wounded 3 Venezuelan soldiers who had been part of a team combating large-scale contraband and arms smuggling across the Colombian border. Cross-border smuggling has a double purpose: It creates insecurity and shortages in Venezuela inciting opposition to the government while earning huge profits for paramilitary leaders who re-sell the subsidized Venezuelan goods (food, medicine and gasoline) at a huge mark-up in Colombia.

Cross-border paramilitary-smuggling operations have vastly increased under President Santos. While the regime claims to be negotiating a peace accord with the FARC in Havana, Venezuelan security is under threat.

Large-scale, widespread smuggling gangs from Colombia enjoy impunity, intelligence and encouragement from the Colombian government and its US Special Forces ‘advisers’ intent on ‘regime change’ in Caracas.  And with the FARC honoring its unilateral ceasefire, the paramilitaries no longer have to contend with attacks from the guerrillas.

Peace Negotiations and Extractive Capital

President Santos’ economic policies are attracting large flows of foreign investment into Colombia’s mining and energy sector.  The oil and mineral-rich regions are heavily influenced by the armed guerrillas.  Furthermore, there is a tradition of militant trade unionism among miners and oil workers.  In order to make these regions safe and extremely profitable for multinational oil and mining companies, Santos has adopted a ‘two-pronged’ approach. He negotiates ceasefires and disarmament with the two insurgent movements (the FARC and the ELN- the National Liberation Army) in Havana, while stepping up repression and terror against union leaders in the oil and mining sectors.

During the Santos’ regime the greatest number of assassinated trade union leaders have come from the mining and energy sector (25.4%), followed by the manufacturing (19.3%), education (18%) and agriculture (12.7%).  From 2014 to mid 2015, 90% of paramilitary and military assaults against civilians have targeted union leaders and activists (208 out of 229).  

In other words, Santos’ strategy has been designed to neutralize the guerrillas via bogus peace negotiations in Havana in order to concentrate state repression against mass popular movement activists and trade unionists, as they struggle to secure a fairer share of Colombia’s immense natural wealth which is being pillaged by the gigantic foreign mining and energy companies and their local oligarch partners.

Under Santos, assassinations and attacks have become more selective than the indiscriminate mass killings that characterized his predecessor’s regime. The scorched earth policies which drove 4 million peasants and small farmers from their lands have been replaced by the targeted killing and assault of trade unionists active in strategic economic sectors.

Cross border incursions by the Colombian military harassing Venezuela border patrols have been replaced by proxy criminal and paramilitary gangs of smugglers operating with the blessing of Bogota and Washington.

Santos’ dual strategy allows him to pose as a ‘peacemaker’ in Havana and a ‘hatchet-man’ for foreign investors in Colombia’s mineral-rich regions.

The assassinations of two dozen trade unionists per year, the murders of six dozen human rights activists in the first 6 months of 2015, and the 9,000 social movement activists rotting in  Colombia’s prisons is not reported in the international mass media, or at international forums, and regional meetings.  Meanwhile, the press concentrates on the ‘peace negotiations’ between the FARC and President Santos in Havana – as if nothing were happening on the ground in Colombia.


The new policies pursued by President Santos, which combine peace negotiations with Colombian guerrilla movements in Havana and violent repression against mass social movements and labor leaders at home; friendly overtures to Cuba and cross-border smuggling and destabilization campaigns against  Venezuela, do not bode well for future regional peace or stability.

President Santos’ two-face policies mirror those of the Obama regime.  While Obama pursues negotiation with Iran, he wages proxy wars against Iran’s allies in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.  While, Obama celebrates the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, he intensifies a policy of sabotage and ‘regime change’ with Cuba’s close ally in Venezuela.

The parallels between Santos and Obama’s policies reflect their common ideology and their political strategy of talking peace while waging war.

This two track policy brings up the fundamental strategic question: how durable and reliable are peace gestures in the midst of proxy wars and mass killing. 

With regard to Colombia one thing is certain: The signing of a 'peace agreement' between the Santos regime and the FARC will not end the killing of trade unionists and human rights activists; it will not free the thousands of social movement activists in Colombian prisons.  By the same token, Obama’s agreement with Iran has not reduced US military intervention in the Middle East and South Asia.

Imperial agreements are temporary expedients.  They represent a brief prelude to new and more virulent aggression against independent nations and emerging national and class-based mass movements.

Colombia: Army provokes an end to FARC’s ceasefire

On 22 May FARC suspended its current ceasefire after yet another attack by Colombian state forces the previous day that killed 27 revolutionaries at a cost of at least 10 government forces. This included Jairo Martinez, a negotiator at the Havana talks, who had returned to report the state of the peace discussions with his comrades. President Santos called this a ‘legitimate action’. The 36th round of discussions in Havana between FARC and the Colombian state representatives had only just been completed in mid-May. FARC persisted with the next round starting 25 May, despite the killing of another FARC commander, Roma Ruiz, that day. FARC representative Pablo Catatumbo stated that ‘We’ll proceed with cool heads and ardent hearts, we cannot throw away our determined efforts in more than three years of talks.’

Violence of the state

FARC declared and patiently maintained a ceasefire from December 2014. This is the third and longest ceasefire declared by it since 2012, all without reciprocation from the state. 360 days of negotiations have taken place since 2012, despite the continuation of highly provocative armed assaults and killings of FARC troops and senior leaders by state forces.

Throughout the negotiations FARC forces have been constantly attacked by state forces on the ground and from the air. On 14 April the Apollo Task Force lost 11 men when FARC was forced to defend itself. President Santos continues to send in troops to kill and be killed in a senseless bloodletting that FARC tries to prevent by political means. Whilst the talks between the parties in Havana continued after the 14 April battle, the aerial bombing of FARC positions, which Santos had just suspended in the face of pressure by European and UN politicians, was immediately resumed.

Repeated assaults aim to weaken FARC on the ground and so in negotiations. The Colombian ruling class’s cynical use of violence has seen some five million people displaced, and a quarter of a million killed during 55 years of war aimed at clearing and seizing the land, and crushing all resistance to super-exploitation of the working class.

On 23 May another attack killed seven FARC soldiers in Antioquia province, part of a force commanded by communist leader ‘Pastor’ Alape, one of the chief envoys to peace talks.

Chequered developments

The struggles by organised labour, workers and poor peasants and pressure from humanitarian and liberal activists, on top of demands from Colombian and international businesses for a stable and profitable environment, have driven Santos’s search for a peace tolerable to his class. He knows he cannot defeat FARC or smaller groups like the ELN, so he seeks to weaken and then disperse them. Thus any step towards peace is always accompanied by military attacks and new political and legal obstacles.

On May 13 FARC had again urged the government to include the smaller ELN guerrilla group in peace talks, and President Santos finally facilitated a meeting between the leaders of FARC and the ELN. Already a pilot programme in which Colombian military and FARC members are together clearing mines from conflict zones, is in operation.

However any steps towards peace disturb the war profiteers, whether US or Colombian. Sections of the armed forces are anxious to maintain the conflict. They fear further criminal exposure if the demand by FARC for the opening of the state and army archives to the Historical Commission for the Conflict and its Victims (CHCV) is conceded. Yet without this, full reparation for the victims of state terror cannot be completed. To what is already known will be added an avalanche of new revelations - and the truth is revolutionary. President Santos, when Minister of Defence, signed Directive 029 providing bonuses for killing FARC members, which lead to thousands of unemployed youth being murdered and reported as dead guerrillas so that his officials could take the bonuses.

FARC’s demands – the demilitarisation of society; abandonment of the doctrine of ‘National Security’ against the ‘enemy within’, and a clean-up and reduction in the number of the police and armed forces – are clearly a threat to the Colombian police and military. FARC also demands the dismantling of state-sponsored paramilitary organisations, funded by the drugs trade. In the past these organisations have systematically butchered leaders of the revolutionary left after political agreements. The continued provocative assaults and killings of FARC troops under truce also came at a time when key political questions are on the Havana agenda. What will be the future role of the present FARC leadership, including those members incarcerated in US prisons? FARC cannot agree to the imprisonment of its own soldiers, who voluntarily took up arms to defend their land from thieving landlords and their homes and families from destruction by landowners’ paramilitaries.

How will rural reform be achieved when the government is now trying to change the law to impose ‘Zones of economic and rural development’ (ZIDRES) which would block the rights of exploitation of uncultivated land by landless peasants? The government now proposes to break up family farms (legally ‘Unidades Agrícolas Familiares’ currently protected by a law of 1994) so as to hand the territories over to large landlords and international capital. The agricultural programme of the FARC is central to its negotiating position.

Alvaro Michaels

British Petroleum

The current claim for damages in the London High Court against BP by Gilberto Torres, a Colombian trade union leader, is the most recent case to seize the headlines in Britain. Kidnapped and tortured in 2002 by paramilitaries, he is one of only two trade unionists kidnapped in 30 years to have survived. His torturers have since claimed they were paid to protect BP and other multinational oil company pipelines. The plunder of Colombia’s resources to profit the wealthiest social classes of imperialist countries is at the heart of the ongoing tragedy.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 245 June/July 2015