Colombian senator banned for "collaborating" with FARC rebels

Piedad Córdoba, a close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, is ousted from the senate.

Last week a leading left-wing Colombian senator and peace activist was dramatically sacked and banned from public office for 18 years for allegedly "promoting and collaborating" with Farc rebels.

The senator in question, Piedad Córdoba, has played a key role in Colombia's peace movement since joining the Senate in 1994 and her mediation efforts have led to the release of dozens of Farc hostages. Her actions have earned her praise from around the world and she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

However, as an outspoken critic of the government and the military and a close ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, her role as a negotiator with Farc rebels has also made her a deeply controversial figure and strongly divided Colombian society. Last Monday she was ousted from the senate for what Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez described as having gone "beyond the call of duty". According to Ordóñez, Córdoba has "exceeded her functions as well as the authorisation she was given by the government to negotiate a humanitarian exchange."

According to Ordóñez's statement, her dismissal stems from evidence found in computer files captured during a cross-border military raid on an Ecuadorean rebel camp in March 2008. The raid saw senior Farc leader Raul Reyes killed and a number of laptops seized. The files allegedly identify Córdoba under several aliases such as "Teodora de Bolivar", "La Negra" and "La Negrita" and have been reportedly corroborated by various other sources, including legal phone taps. She has been accused of overstepping her role "in favour of other governments" - a clear reference to Venezuela and Ecuador which have both been known to harbour Farc rebels in the past.

A staunch advocate for human rights and the rights of the poor, many have accused her of Farc leanings due to the group's traditional grassroots membership and tendency to attract marginalised members of society. Lidia Solano, a spokesperson for Colombian NGO Justice and Life, described the allegations against Córdoba as "an attack against those who try and protect human rights, an attack against critics of President Álvaro Uribe and ultimately unlawful."

This is not the first time, however, that Córdoba has been accused of colluding with Farc and indeed the very same evidence from the 2008 raid has been used against before. In fact, these computer files were a key catalyst to the ongoing "parapolitics" scandal in which she, alongside over 30 other politicians, which include a number of former President Álvaro Uribe's close allies, have all been accused of links to right-wing paramilitary groups.

Córdoba's ousting also comes during a dramatic few weeks for Colombian politics. Farc's ascendancy was shattered when its top military chief Mono Jojoy (also known as Jorge Briceño and Víctor Julio Suárez) was killed in a large-scale military air strike in Macarena, a Farc stronghold in the south of the country.

Following weeks of increased violence and the death of some 40 soldiers and policemen since President Juan Manuel Santos took office on 7 August, this was a rather unexpected culmination to their latest campaign. Hailed as a triumph for the new president and a disaster for FARC, many doubts have been cast over Farc's future and the rebels' ability to find an adequate replacement for Mono Jojoy. However, in a move to surely reaffirm their status, it was announced that Pastor Alape, a rebel accused of coordinating cocaine operations across central Colombia, would take over his role.

Asides from the evidence from the 2008 raid, it is yet unknown what precipitated both Córdoba's ousting and the re-investigation of two other politicians, Senator Gloria Inés Ramírez and Congressman Wilson Borja. All three have been embroiled in the "parapolitics" scandal since 2008. It is possible that the laptops seized in the latest raid may have revealed more evidence against them, but nothing has been confirmed yet.

Despite being the victim of kidnappings, death threats and several assassination attempts throughout her career, Córdoba has always resolved to continue on regardless of the lack of local support for her work. Yet although she will be contesting the ban, this has undoubtedly been the clearest message yet from the government that she is unwelcome in Colombia.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser