Colombia: Progress at a price

The murderous paramilitaries have been disbanded and "reintegrated" into society with generous benef

As we sit in the garden of his idyllic farmhouse in the mountains of north-eastern Colombia, Jon Jairo's life seems enviably tranquil. His daughter plays with a small dog in the shade of an orange tree. Behind us, pigs grunt in their sties. From the veranda, we look out over a spectacular panorama of Colombia's second city, Medellín, which sprawls messily below.

The peaceful scene could not be more at odds with the story I have come to hear. Jon Jairo, a stocky, confident 27-year-old, is telling me about his former life as a paramilitary. Today, he earns a living breeding pigs, but from the age of 20 he was on active service with one of Colombia's illegal right-wing armed groups. Set up during the 1980s and 1990s to quash the country's long-running left-wing insurgency, the paramilitaries became notorious for massacres, targeted killings and disappearances among civilians they suspected of being left-wing collaborators.

Like many paramilitaries, Jon Jairo signed up partly because he couldn't find work and partly, he says, "for revenge": his uncle and his cousins had been murdered and he wanted to hunt down their killers. He was sent into rural areas of Colombia where he was charged with "defending" the local communities from the Farc, a left-wing armed group. "There was no army presence in these areas, so we had to make sure the peasants could go about their work." This sometimes involved extracting "protection" money from the communities themselves, some of which, he says, were so poor that they "ate only cooked bananas for breakfast, lunch and dinner". He admits that when they came across indigenous tribes which refused to comply with their demands, others in his group would catch their leaders and torture them.

At first, Jon Jairo enjoyed the work and felt idealistic about the idea of fighting the left-wing insurgents. But as time went on, disillusionment set in. "We were pushed further and further into the jungle. Our rations didn't get through, so we had to live off whatever food we could find - monkey, fish, yucca." The paramilitary command was brutal - when one compañero asked for permission to leave the forces, "he was sent off straight away to dig his own grave". Jon Jairo's best friend was killed in combat. "The Farc soldiers had him on one side of the river, and I was watching from the other. I saw them cutting him to pieces."

That Jon Jairo has been able to leave his violent past behind is largely thanks to a multimillion-dollar "reintegration" programme, funded jointly by the Colombian government and the United States Agency for International Development. After handing himself in to the authorities, he received an impressive support package: professional training, educational and emotional help, healthcare, and eventually a generous grant to help him start up his own business. To complete the transformation, his business partner, Santiago, is a former member of the Farc. "We never argue about ideology," says Jon Jairo. "We share stories about what happened to us. We have a lot in common."

Sustainable lifestyle

At the high-rise offices of the high commission for reinte gration in Medellín, Gloria Nelcy Lopera Herrera explains the strategy behind the scheme. "The idea is to provide former combatants with a sustainable lifestyle which will keep them out of the armed groups for good," she says. Jon Jairo and Santiago both testify to its effectiveness. "My business and my family give me a lot of security," says Jon Jairo. "Why would I go back to fighting?"

In November 2003, after 40 years of a civil war that involved a death toll of tens of thousands, Colombian television broadcast an extraordinary scene: ranks of uniformed troops from one of the country's biggest paramilitary organisations queuing up to hand in their arms in Medellín's central square. It was to be the first in a series of "demobilisation" ceremonies across the country, and a coup for the right-leaning government of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who had opened official negotiations with the paramilitaries following a ceasefire the previous year. "Their moment in history has ended," announced the chief government negotiator, Luis Carlos Restrepo. "They are undesirable for the country."

Since then, more than 30,000 paramilitaries have demobilised, and under the terms of the agreement all of those who were not under investigation for human-rights abuses - the vast majority - were channelled straight into the "reintegration" system. "The word 'paramilitary' has ceased to exist in Colombia," the defence minister, Juan Manuel Santos Cal derón, told me when he came to London two months ago to give an upbeat presentation on the security situation in his country to British businesses. "They have all been demobilised and are either facing justice or going through a reintegration programme."

The process has, however, been hugely controversial. There have been widespread reports of non-paramilitaries "demobilising" simply to claim the generous government package, and even of paramilitary groups recruiting civilians to "demobilise" instead of actual combatants - it was originally estimated that there were between 10,000 and 20,000 paramilitary troops, and to date 30,000 people have handed themselves in. In many areas, new groups have emerged, with similar structures and aims to the paramilitaries but with names such as "the Black Eagles". Colombian human-rights organisations report that the paramilitaries are responsible for up to 2,300 murders and disappearances since the deal was announced (official figures are much lower).

Amnesty International has accused the government of promoting a culture of impunity. "We would argue that the demobilisation process represents a de facto amnesty for paramilitaries, many of whom will have committed war crimes," says Peter Drury, head of Amnesty's Colombia programme. "The idea is to remove combatants from the conflict, but if they have not been held to account for their actions, what guarantees that they will not go on to do the same again?"

For many Colombians, recent years have brought tangible improvements in quality of life. Medellín, capital of the north-eastern district of Antioquia, is best known for being the birthplace of Pablo Escobar and the centre of his drugs empire throughout the 1980s. Since the start of the reintegration programme, a remarkable transformation has taken place. When I lived there from 2001-2002, it had one of the highest per capita murder rates in the world: out of a population of two million people, 13 were killed every day. The poor barrios, or "comunas", which lie in the mountains on the city's outskirts, were no-go areas for the state, and were ruled by warring armed groups. At night, volleys of gunfire were often audible from my house in the city centre. Rich people stayed in the well-heeled areas with their security guards in the north of the city, and feared venturing into the countryside because kidnappings were so common.

In the past three years, the murder rate has dropped by 40 per cent; it is now roughly equivalent to that in Washington and Detroit. People are free to travel: on a bank holiday weekend, the nearby town of Guatapé, once a war zone, was heaving with day trippers from Medellín. Most people I spoke to, left and right, rich and poor, agreed that life in the city had improved. "We can't say that the drug trade has disappeared from Medellín, and of course there are still serious problems. But there certainly has been a big step forward," says Aldo Civico, an expert in conflict resolution at Columbia University who has been conducting fieldwork among the "reintegrated" paramilitaries.

It remains to be seen whether the situation can be sustained. The local government claims its policies are helping to cement a lasting peace; in addition to the "reintegration" schemes, Medellín's popular mayor, Sergio Fajardo, has embarked on an ambitious programme of social investment. A cable car has been built, providing the poorest barrios with a direct link to the centre of town for the first time; the centre itself, formerly dangerous and polluted, is being transformed into a series of pedestrianised public spaces; and a chain of libraries is being built in poor areas to promote literacy and social engagement. "The local government is now spending 40 per cent of its annual budget on education: schools, libraries and teacher training," says Civico. "The idea is to 'demobilise' the minds of the whole community, particularly young people."

There is evidence, however, that the improvements in Medellín have been possible not because the paramilitaries have been disbanded, but because they have, in effect, been legalised. When I was first in the city, there was a vicious urban war raging between various armed groups from both right and left, all of which wanted to assert control over the barrios, which surround Medellín and are therefore sentry posts on the routes to Colombia's other major cities. By the end of 2003, one of the right-wing militias, the Cacique Nutibara, headed by the country's most notorious drug lord, Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano ("Don Berna"), had won control. In this, according to Amnesty, he was aided by the Colombian army, which in 2002 sent troops into the last left-wing guerrilla stronghold, a barrio known as Comuna 13 - clearing the way for the paramilitaries to take over.

Plight of the victims

With no competitors for power in the city, the conditions were ripe for the Cacique Nutibara to demobilise: their armed patrols of the barrios were no longer necessary. After the demobilisation ceremony, Don Berna's troops were put through "reintegration" courses and then sent straight back to where they had come from. "This is a pattern we see over and over again in Colombia," says Peter Drury. "The violence will drop off sharply as one group wins control of a particular area. But the structures of the illegal armed groups are left intact, ready to re-emerge if and when necessary."

For victims of paramilitary violence, the demobilisation process offers little hope for justice. I met Yazmin Rendón Ibarra, a petite and composed young woman, in the shabby offices of Asfaddes (Asociación de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos), a local association for the families of the detained and disappeared. She is now 20, and her mother, Gloria, disappeared in 1998, when Yazmin was 12. Gloria had been an activist in some of Medellín's most deprived barrios, and, like many community leaders, had received death threats from the paramilitaries. One day, she left for work with a friend and neither of them came back. The perpetrators have never been identified; their bodies were never found.

Since then, Yazmin, who is estranged from her father, has been living alone and working to put herself through school. She has had no support from the government: in Colombia there is no care system for children. Nevertheless, she passed her exams and even, with the help of Asfaddes, mounted a campaign to pressure the authorities to investigate her mother's disappearance. "At first, you feel that your world has ended," she says calmly. "But people have always been surprised at how strong I am. As a young kid, I went to look for my mother, I went to the morgue, I went to the local attorney general. My mother taught me to fight against corruption."

She is now trying to get a place at university, but without any money her chances are slim. She would like to work for a human-rights organisation, but in reality, like millions of other Colombians, she is likely to live on the poverty line, getting by with whatever work she can find. "I don't see what is happening now as progress," she says. "The peace deal has been great for the people from the militias who have been 'reintegrated' - they get free study, and grants. They don't need all these resources, and they don't deserve them. It's as if the government is paying them for their crimes."

Some names have been changed. With thanks to Peace Brigades International (http://www.peacebrigades.org)

Colombia: the long war

1948-58 The civil conflict known as "La Violencia" erupts between the Conservative and Liberal parties. 200,000 are killed

1960s Two main left-wing guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) and National Liberation Army (ELN), form

1970s The drugs trade, led by Pablo Escobar and his Medellín cartel, starts to evolve into a multimillion-dollar industry

1980s Paramilitary groups, many state-supported, form to tackle left-wing rebels

1990s Escobar is threatened with extradition to the US and unleashes a terror campaign. In 1993 he is killed by state forces

1997 Paramilitaries form a federation, the AUC ("self-defence forces"), and move into guerrilla-controlled areas, punishing left-wing "collaborators"

1999 The US agrees to channel $1.3bn in military aid to the Plan Colombia programme

2002 Álvaro Uribe Vélez is elected president on an authoritarian, right-wing agenda. The AUC announces a ceasefire

2006 Uribe wins a second term, having changed the constitution to permit re-election

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

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We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white women

Alt-right women are less visible than their tiki torch-carrying male counterparts - but they still exist. 

In November 2016, the writer and TED speaker Siyanda Mohutsiwa tweeted a ground-breaking observation. “When we talk about online radicalisation we always talk about Muslims. But the radicalisation of white men online is at astronomical levels,” she wrote, inspiring a series of mainstream articles on the topic (“We need to talk about the online radicalisation of young, white men,” wrote Abi Wilkinson in The Guardian). It is now commonly accepted that online radicalisation is not limited to the work of Isis, which uses social media to spread propaganda and recruit new members. Young, white men frequently form alt-right and neo-Nazi beliefs online.

But this narrative, too, is missing something. When it comes to online radicalisation into extreme right-wing, white supremacist, or racist views, women are far from immune.

“It’s a really slow process to be brainwashed really,” says Alexandra*, a 22-year-old former-racist who adopted extreme views during the United States presidential election of 2016. In particular, she believed white people to be more intelligent than people of colour. “It definitely felt like being indoctrinated into a cult.”

Alexandra was “indoctrinated” on 4Chan, the imageboard site where openly racist views flourish, especially on boards such as /pol/. It is a common misconception that 4Chan is only used by loser, basement-dwelling men. In actuality, 4Chan’s official figures acknowledge 30 percent of its users are female. More women may frequent 4Chan and /pol/ than it first appears, as many do not announce their gender on the site because of its “Tits or GTFO” culture. Even when women do reveal themselves, they are often believed to be men who are lying for attention.

“There are actually a lot of females on 4chan, they just don't really say. Most of the time it just isn't relevant,” says Alexandra. Her experiences on the site are similar to male users who are radicalised by /pol/’s far-right rhetoric. “They sowed the seeds of doubt with memes,” she laughs apprehensively. “Dumb memes and stuff and jokes…

“[Then] I was shown really bullshit studies that stated that some races were inferior to others like… I know now that that’s bogus science, it was bad statistics, but I never bothered to actually look into the truth myself, I just believed what was told to me.”

To be clear, online alt-right radicalisation still skews majority male (and men make up most of the extreme far-right, though women have always played a role in white supremacist movements). The alt-right frequently recruits from misogynistic forums where they prey on sexually-frustrated males and feed them increasingly extreme beliefs. But Alexandra’s story reveals that more women are part of radical right-wing online spaces than might first be apparent.

“You’d think that it would never happen to you, that you would never hold such horrible views," says Alexandra. "But it just happened really slowly and I didn't even notice it until too late."

***

We are less inclined to talk about radical alt-right and neo-Nazi women because they are less inclined to carry out radical acts. Photographs that emerged from the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville this weekend revealed that it was mostly polo shirt-wearing young, white men picking up tiki torches, shouting racial slurs, and fighting with counter-protestors. The white supremacist and alt-right terror attacks of the last year have also been committed by men, not women. But just because women aren’t as visible doesn’t mean they are not culpable.  

“Even when people are alt-right or sympathisers with Isis, it’s a tiny percentage of people who are willing or eager to die for those reasons and those people typically have significant personal problems and mental health issues, or suicidal motives,” explains Adam Lankford, author of The Myth of Martyrdom: What Really Drives Suicide Bombers, Rampage Shooters, and Other Self-Destructive Killers.

“Both men and women can play a huge role in terms of shaping the radicalised rhetoric that then influences those rare people who commit a crime.”

Prominent alt-right women often publicly admit that their role is more behind-the-scenes. Ayla Stewart runs the blog Wife With a Purpose, where she writes about “white culture” and traditional values. She was scheduled to speak at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally before dropping out due to safety concerns. In a blog post entitled “#Charlottesville May Have Redefined Women’s Roles in the Alt Right”, she writes:

“I’ve decided that the growth of the movement has necessitated that I pick and choose my involvement as a woman more carefully and that I’m more mindful to chose [sic] women’s roles only.”

These roles include public speaking (only when her husband is present), gaining medical skills, and “listening to our men” in order to provide moral support. Stewart declined to be interviewed for this piece.

It is clear, therefore, that alt-right women do not have to carry out violence to be radical or radicalised. In some cases, they are complicit in the violence that does occur. Lankford gives the example of the Camp Chapman attack, committed by a male Jordanian suicide bomber against a CIA base in Afghanistan.

“What the research suggests in that case was the guy who ultimately committed the suicide bombing may have been less radical than his wife,” he explains. “His wife was actually pushing him to be more radical and shaming him for his lack of courage.” 

***

Just because women are less likely to be violent doesn’t mean they are incapable of it.

Angela King is a former neo-Nazi who went to prison for her part in the armed robbery and assault of a Jewish shop owner. She now runs Life After Hate, a non-profit that aims to help former right-wing extremists. While part of a skinhead gang, it was her job to recruit other women to the cause.

“I was well known for the violence I was willing to inflict on others… often times the men would come up to me and say we don’t want to physically hurt a woman so can you take care of this,” King explains. “When I brought other women in I looked for the same qualities in them that I thought I had in myself.”

King's 1999 mugshot

 

These traits, King explains, were anger and a previous history of violence. She was 15 when she became involved with neo-Nazis, and explains that struggles with her sexuality and bullying had made her into a violent teenager.

“I was bullied verbally for years. I didn't fit in, I was socially awkward,” she says. One incident in particular stands out. Aged 12, King was physically bullied for the first time.

“I was humiliated in a way that even today I still am humiliated by this experience,” she says. One day, King made the mistake of sitting at a desk that “belonged” to a bully. “She started a fight with me in front of the entire class… I’ve always struggled with weight so I was a little bit pudgy, I had my little training bra on, and during the fight she ripped my shirt open in front of the entire class.

“At that age, having absolutely no self-confidence, I made the decision that if I became the bully, and took her place, I could never be humiliated like that again.”

Angela King, aged 18

King’s story is important because when it comes to online radicalisation, the cliché is that bullied, “loser” men are drawn to these alt-right and neo-Nazi communities. The most prominent women in the far-right (such as Stewart, and Lauren Southern, a YouTuber) are traditionally attractive and successful, with long blonde hair and flashing smiles. In actuality, women that are drawn to the movement online might be struggling, like King, to be socially accepted. This in no way justifies or excuses extreme behaviour, but can go some way to explaining how and why certain young women are radicalised. 

“At the age of 15 I had been bullied, raped. I had started down a negative path you know, experimenting with drugs, drinking, theft. And I was dealing with what I would call an acute identity crisis and essentially I was a very, very angry young woman who was socially awkward who did not feel like I had a place in the world, that I fit in anywhere. And I had no self-confidence or self-esteem. I hated everything about myself.”

King explains that Life After Hate’s research reveals that there are often non-ideological based precursors that lead people to far right groups. “Individuals don’t go to hate groups because they already hate everyone, they go seeking something. They go to fill some type of void in their lives that they’re not getting.”

None of this, of course, excuses the actions and beliefs of far-right extremists, but it does go some way to explaining how “normal” young people can be radicalised online. I ask Alexandra, the former 4Chan racist, if anything else was going on in her life when she was drawn towards extreme beliefs.

“Yes, I was lonely,” she admits.                                                       

***

That lonely men and women can both be radicalised in the insidious corners of the internet shouldn’t be surprising. For years, Isis has recruited vulnerable young women online, with children as young as 15 becoming "jihadi brides". We have now acknowledged that the cliché of virginal, spotty men being driven to far-right hate excludes the college-educated, clean-cut white men who made up much of the Unite the Right rally last weekend. We now must realise that right-wing women, too, are radicalised online, and they, too, are culpable for radical acts.  

It is often assumed that extremist women are radicalised by their husbands or fathers, which is aided by statements by far-right women themselves. The YouTuber, Southern, for example, once said:  

“Anytime they [the left] talk about the alt-right, they make it sound like it’s just about a bunch of guys in basements. They don’t mention that these guys have wives – supportive wives, who go to these meet-ups and these conferences – who are there – so I think it’s great for right-wing women to show themselves. We are here. You’re wrong.”

Although there is truth in this statement, women don’t have to have far-right husbands, brothers, or fathers in order to be drawn to white supremacist or alt-right movements. Although it doesn’t seem the alt-right are actively preying on young white women the same way they prey on young white men, many women are involved in online spaces that we wrongly assume are male-only. There are other spaces, such as Reddit's r/Hawtschwitz, where neo-Nazi women upload nude and naked selfies, carving a specific space for themselves in the online far-right. 

When we speak of women radicalised by husbands and fathers, we misallocate blame. Alexandra deeply regrets her choices, but she accepts they were her own. “I’m not going to deny that what I did was bad because I have to take responsibility for my actions,” she says.

Alexandra, who was “historically left-wing”, was first drawn to 4Chan when she became frustrated with the “self-righteousness” of the website Tumblr, favoured by liberal teens. Although she frequented the site's board for talking about anime, /a/, not /pol/, she found neo-Nazi and white supremacist beliefs were spread there too. 

“I was just like really fed up with the far left,” she says, “There was a lot of stuff I didn't like, like blaming males for everything.” From this, Alexandra became anti-feminist and this is how she was incrementally exposed to anti-Semitic and racist beliefs. This parallels the story of many radicalised males on 4Chan, who turn to the site from hatred of feminists or indeed, all women. 

 “What I was doing was racist, like I – deep down I didn't really fully believe it in my heart, but the seeds of doubt were sowed again and it was a way to fit in. Like, if you don't regurgitate their opinions exactly they’ll just bully you and run you off.”

King’s life changed in prison, where Jamaican inmates befriended her and she was forced to reassess her worldview. Alexandra now considers herself “basically” free from prejudices, but says trying to rid herself of extreme beliefs is like “detoxing from drugs”. She began questioning 4Chan when she first realised that they genuinely wanted Donald Trump to become president. “I thought that supporting Trump was just a dumb meme on the internet,” she says.

Nowadays, King dedicates her life to helping young people escape from far-right extremism. "Those of us who were involved a few decades ago we did not have this type of technology, cell phones were not the slim white phones we have today, they were giant boxes," she says. "With the younger individuals who contact us who grew up with this technology, we're definitely seeing people who initially stumbled across the violent far-right online and the same holds for men and women.

"Instead of having to be out in public in a giant rally or Klan meeting, individuals find hate online."

* Name has been changed

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.