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Violence in Colombia

by Carrigan, reprinted from NACLA Report on the Americas, March/April 1995

Tuesday, August 19, 1994, mid-morning. On an ordinary, traffic-clogged street in Bogota, two motorcyclists ride up alongside the motor car of a prominent opposition politician, open fire with heavy-caliber automatic weapons, and ride away. In the backseat, Senator Manuel Cepeda, a respected, 60-year-old parliamentarian and the sole surviving senate representative of the ten-year-old Patriotic Union (UP) party, lies dying. In the landscape of Colombia's prolonged dirty war against the organized left, the death of the senator represented the latest murder of an opposition leader whose only crime, in the eyes of those who ordered his "extermination," was that he favored a peaceful settlement to the country's 40-year-old guerrilla war.

Within 24 hours, a paramilitary group, the self-proclaimed "MACOGUE," or "Death to Communists and Guerrillas," claimed responsibility for this latest assassination of a leftist political leader. After studying the MACOGUE communique, the new government of President Ernesto Samper duly attributed Senator Cepeda's assassination to drug traffickers.

For more than a decade, an official script that attributes all the political violence in Colombia to an all-powerful drug mafia has shielded the true identity of the killers of Colombian citizens from public scrutiny and judicial accountability. Internationally, assisted by the media's single-minded obsession with drugs, this official version has gone virtually unchallenged since it was first aired in connection with the 1984 assassination of Colombian Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. Yet within Colombia, the credibility of this official explanation for all the killings that have devastated the organized left since the early 1980s has badly frayed.

In the last few years, scores of investigations by Colombian and international non-governmental organizations, including the UN Center for Human Rights, the Council of the European Economic Community and the Inter-American Commission of the OAS, and by the government's own investigators, have built a solid case for discarding this official script once and for all time. The cumulative evidence of the past 12 years reveals a policy of systematic political and social "cleansing" of selected individuals and groups, sponsored and organized by the state's own security forces. The story further involves a degree of passive toleration of--sometimes difficult to distinguish from complicity with--this killing by successive civilian governments.

Like all of the murders of prominent Colombian politicians in the last decade--those of four presidential candidates: Jaime Leal and Bernardo Jaramillo of the UP, Luis Carlos Galan of the dissident wing of the Liberal Party, and Carlos Pizzarro of the M-19 Democratic Alliance; of two ministers of Justice: Rodrigo Lara Bonilla and Carlos Mauro Hoyos; of thousands of elected civic and political officials: mayors, town councillors, community leaders, indigenous leaders, and regional prosecutors; of teachers, priests, lawyers, journalists, human rights activists; of countless anonymous peasants; of workers: according to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), Colombia holds the world record for numbers of assassinated trade unionists; and of the entire activist membership of one political party, the UP--like all these, Senator Cepeda's death had been "foretold." For several months his name had headed one of the sinister death lists that circulate from time to time in political, media and legal circles in Bogota. His assassination had been "on hold"; his life was threatened weekly, then almost daily, on the anonymous, cellular telephone.

Manuel Cepeda had no illusions. When he knew he was the latest target of the army officers who plan and execute the dirty war, he went to see the then-minister of defense, Rafael Pardo, to ask him to investigate his suspicions of a military conspiracy to eliminate him. Minister Pardo refused his plea on the grounds that Cepeda "had not presented proofs." After the assassination, when Cepeda's son and the Secretary General of the Communist Party asked Pardo's successor, Fernando Botero, to initiate an investigation into the involvement of the army in the senator's murder, he also declined. In the absence of prior proof, the minister explained, he had no justification for opening an investigation.

As columnist Antonio Caballero acidly commented in the newsweekly Cambio 16: "After careful reflection, the Minister of Defense explains that in order to investigate for evidence it is first necessary to have the evidence. If not, there is nothing to be done. Neither suspicions, nor clues, not even the formal, prior accusation by the dead man himself, whose subsequent assassination might be said to provide a certain element of credibility to this case. No: what is needed are the proofs. And if they don't exist, it's not possible to look for them."

And finally, there was nothing arbitrary about the timing of Cepeda's death. Contrary to the much promoted view that all of the violence in Colombia operates in a climate of uncontrollable chaos, political violence is never arbitrary. It is selective, efficient and systematic. When the victim is a national figure, his murder always carries a message and is in response to a specific context, as befits a calculated policy geared to advance a precise political agenda.

In the case of Senator Cepeda, the context was the inauguration of the new government that had assumed power two days earlier amid a flurry of promises to make the protection of human rights a "priority issue" of its agenda, and public pledges to re-open negotiations with the guerrillas and seek an end to the war. The message delivered by this latest assassination put the new President on notice: any attempt to bring the guerrillas in from the cold would not be tolerated.

It is a simple message. Its content has not varied since its first airing in the early 1980s, for it precisely reflects the political agenda that has perpetuated all the political violence of the last 12 years. In the terminology of the hardliners in the army and among the right wing of both traditional parties, who direct and pay for the murderous activities of a proliferation of paramilitary groups with names like "MACOGUE", support for a negotiated solution to the 40-year-old peasant-based guerrilla war means "support for the guerrillas." Consequently, the message spelled out in some 30,000 identifiable political killings since the early 1980s reads: "No negotiations. No peace."

In the past, wherever Latin American "dirty wars" have flourished on a scale comparable to the Colombian experience of the last decade, they have always been sponsored and conducted from the Presidential Palace, where the strong man of the hour traditionally took up residence following a military coup. As a consequence, wearing the uniform of an identifiable tyrant and law-breaker, the military dictator was vulnerable to international opprobrium, and even perhaps to economic sanctions. At the very least, his democratic opposition could count on the informed solidarity of an alerted international community.

Alas for Colombians, their case is unique. The Colombian military doesn't need to stage coups. Colombia's ostensibly democratic civilian government provides the military--on whom it depends for its survival--with limitless freedom to exercise arbitrary power. Armed with an impressive display of image-boosting official human rights mechanisms (even the Ministry of Defense boasts its own "Human Rights Office") and the strongest, most talented diplomatic force in the hemisphere, the Colombian government polishes its democratic credentials for foreign consumption. Meanwhile at home, behind a brilliant facade of democratic institutions, it steadfastly pursues a 40-year-old policy of uncritical support for, and complicity with the military's brutal domination of all aspects of Colombian life.

In 1991, for example, the credibility of this democracy, marred somewhat by the government's recourse to "States of Seige" in 36 of the previous 43 years, received a uniquely pseudo-democratic face-lift. The repeated suspension of constitutional rights, which had cast a troubling shadow over the country's democratic credentials, was made unnecessary with the invention of a new constitutional category: "States of Internal Commotion." Henceforth, no Colombian president would need to risk alerting international scrutiny by publicly resorting to a "State of Seige." Under a "State of Internal Commotion," his power to preside over the same limitations on internationally recognized rights and democratic principles is now constitutional.

Colombia has had, year in, year out, the highest per-capita level of homicide in the Western world. Though distinct and apart from ordinary criminal violence, the political violence benefits from this general climate of brutal criminality which provides essential "cover" for its activities. The exploitation by the government of drug-related and criminal delinquency is a necessary, essential component of the dirty war. It underwrites the impunity that protects the involvement of its own agents in political crimes, and perpetuates and sustains the policy and the strategy of the murderous "cleansing" of opposition forces.

Within the context of the generalized collapse of the rule of law, and the penetration of virtually every aspect of Colombian life and society by drugs and wealthy traffickers-- beginning with the provision of financing for the political campaigns of the two traditional parties--various actors in the drama of Colombian violence sometimes overlap. It is possible, even probable, that on occasion, some of the most sensitive political executions may be carried out by the drug cartels acting on behalf of the "MACOGUEs" and their military handlers (and vice versa).

The evolution of the dirty war against the Colombian left is traceable through certain key periods of recent political history. Dirty-war tactics, specifically against the urban guerrillas of the M-19, had been an increasing part of the army's arsenal since the mid- and late 1970s. In 1982, a group of hardline, U.S.-trained counter-intelligence officers initiated a high-risk criminal alliance with the drug mafia in Medellin that has since grown into a Hydra-headed monster. Twelve months earlier, in response to the kidnapping of a family member of one of the founders of the Medellin cartel by an M-19 commando, the drug traffickers had struck back by creating their own death squad--the Medellin-based "MAS," or "Death to Kidnappers"--to "cleanse" Medellin of urban guerrillas. By the time the Colombian army was done trading intelligence, training, organization and strategy with the cartel leaders, in return for men, weapons and the money to pay for them, the "MAS" had evolved into the basic unit on which all subsequent collaboration between the army and the drug mafia would be modelled.

Much is known about the army's role in the organization of the "MAS" thanks to the results of a 1983 judicial investigation of their murderous activities undertaken by the attorney general of the day, Carlos Jimenez Gomez, who brought then-President Belisario Betancur evidence of army and police collusion with the drug-financed thugs of "MAS." That year, Jimenez put his own life on the line to go public with the names of 59 army and police officers implicated in hundreds of death-squad murders, massacres and disapearances in Medellin. In a reaction that set the pattern for official passivity whenever accusations or evidence of involvement by the armed forces with drug- or privately financed death squads and paramilitary groups surface, Betancur refused to take action. The President soothed the generals by increasing the defense budget, and the army high command promoted the highest ranking officer involved and dispatched him to a high-level training course in Washington, D.C.

Then, in 1986, following the UP's phenomenal success in national and local voting, new alliances between the army and large landowners--many of them also drug traffickers--sprang up in all of the conflict zones where today regional paramilitary groups and even private armies operate openly as partners in the army's counter-insurgency activities. As ever, the predictable "cleansing" of the land of non- combatant peasants, suspected of guerrilla sympathies, has created a situation that some observers refer to as a "hidden counter land reform." It is no coincidence that while counter-insurgency has generated almost three times as many casualties among non-combatants as among the guerrillas, and has created a refugee population of 600,000 internally displaced peasant families, drug traffickers have acquired 21% of the country's arable land.

Odious though all comparisons of the statistics of death, torture and disappearances are, in the case of Colombia, one of the few ways available to grasp the depth of the crisis is to situate it within a hemispheric and historical context. In Colombia, the toll of political victims of state terrorism demonstrates that every year since 1986, more citizens have been killed, disappeared, or suffered death from torture at the hands of the State or its paramilitary allies than the total of all the victims of political repression in Chile during the entire 17 years of the Pinochet military dictatorship. Since 1986, 29% of civilian deaths were shown to be the responsibility of the rural guerrillas and leftist urban militias. The guerrillas have also been identified in 50% of violent kidnappings of wealthy landowners and businessmen.

According to documented statistics compiled and analyzed by the Andean Commission of Jurists, 25,491 non-combatant Colombian civilians died in political and social violence between June, 1986 and June, 1994. Almost 70% of these identifiable assassinations, massacres and enforced disappearances for political reasons have been committed by the Colombian army and police, or by paramilitary groups and privately financed death squads operating in partnership with state forces. Yet since 1991, official investigators for the government's newly appointed human rights office, the Defender of the People, who, at great personal risk, have investigated or tried to investigate hundreds of cases where army officers have participated--acting alone or in collusion with the paramilitaries--in massacres of unarmed civilians, and in individual murders and disappearances, report that their work has been rendered useless by the government's unwillingness to support its own officials. Of 1,200 cases relating to army involvement in murder and disappearance of civilians which were investigated from 1992 through 1993, the office of the Defender of the People reported that just one percent resulted in disciplinary action. "Notwithstanding the government's promises," wrote the Defender of the People, Jaime Cordoba, "these abuses are tolerated and covered up by the superiors of those who have committed them." Faced with an archive of information documenting the corruption and criminality of its military, no Colombian administration has yet demonstrated the political will necessary to confront the criminals in its midst and impose the rule of law.

Throughout the last eight years, as the crisis of political violence has progressively deepened, every new legal and administrative measure has been geared to increasing the army's ability to protect the killers in their ranks, while simultaneously opening new and legal avenues of military repression. The most serious concern is the so-called judicial "reforms" of 1991, which resulted in the creation of a parallel, "secret justice" system that eliminates the right of due process and is in gross violation of all universally recognized legal procedural norms. In 1993, President Gaviria decreed modifications to the Code of Criminal Procedure which turned over critical police functions--including detention and the gathering of evidence--to the military. For the first time in Colombian history, the army was thus granted a permanent role in the prosecution of civilian cases. Ostensibly designed to combat drug trafficking and guerrilla terrorism, in practice, these measures are used to arbitrarily treat legitimate social protest and ordinary criminal offenses as crimes of terrorism. Financed to the tune of $36 million by U.S. aid, the Colombian criminal justice system has been converted into an instrument of repression against the civilian opposition against which there is no appeal. In circumstances in which the use of torture by the military in the process of "gathering of evidence" is routine, the evisceration of judicial review over military--and presidential--actions has removed all independent controls over arbitrary acts. By the end of President Gaviria's term of office, over 5,000 political prisoners were held in Colombia's jails.

As recently as 1985, Colombia had an independent judiciary of high integrity, with a history of lonely and courageous resistance to the militarization of Colombian society. That was before the hierarchy of that judiciary was physically eliminated by the army's guns and shells during the military counter-attack on the Palace of Justice, in response to the invasion of the building by a commando of M-19 guerrillas. Over a hundred civilians, including most of the justices of the Supreme Court, were killed or disappeared in the 1985 assault.

However, in 1991, the new Constitution included simpler ways of ensuring that meddlesome judges would no longer interfere with the army's conduct or reputation. It created an all- powerful justice-czar--a prosecutor general appointed by the executive--with a staff of 10,000 investigators, sole responsibility for high-level judicial appointments, and exclusive power over the selection of criminal cases for trial. Next, in direct contravention of the Nuremberg Principle, it enshrined the military doctrine of "Due Obedience to Superior Orders" in the new constitutional statutes, and expanded the military code of justice to encompass all crimes committed by the military against civilians.

Thus, with the full cooperation of the Vice-President of the Constitutional Congress, recently amnestied and efficiently guarded ex-M-19 guerrilla leader Antonio Navarro Wolff, then- President Gaviria found the legal mechanisms to destroy the independence and impartiality of the Colombian criminal justice system while simultaneously providing the army with the legal guarantee of systematic impunity for military crimes committed against civilians.

Meanwhile, several key decisions, taken in the first months of Ernesto Samper's newly elected government directly conflict with his administration's stated commitment to the defense of human rights and a negotiated end to the civil war. The refusal to investigate the murder of Senator Cepeda, the choice of new military leaders, and the decision to establish rural "security associations" of legally armed civilians--with the cooperation of the landowners who finance the paramilitaries--have sent a clear signal of continued official reluctance to confront the blanket impunity that drives and perpetuates state terrorism.

Most revealing is Samper's choice of Major General Harold Bedoya Pizzarro for the number-two post in the military hierarchy. Bedoya's entire career has been implicated with the sponsorship and organization of a network of paramilitary organizations. Bedoya, who has never undergone any investigation for his involvement in the massacres of non- combatants or other dirty-war crimes, is an articulate proponent of the continued "legal" involvement of local populations in counter-insurgency operations.

Colombia's pseudo-democrats are more intelligent and efficient than most. To those in Colombia who, every four years, yearn to believe that as each new administration enters the revolving doors of power, it will live up to its word and attack the legal impunity that protects and perpetuates the killing of so many of their best and brightest, these decisions were bad news. After all the rhetoric and all the promises, life and above all death in Colombia appeared to have returned to normal.