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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Goodbye to the Confederate flag

After the shootings in Charleston, the Republican right showed it was finally ready to reject the old symbols of the Confederacy.

On 27 June, an African-American activist named Bree Newsome woke up before dawn, put on her climbing equipment and scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the lawn of State House in Columbia, South Carolina. She then removed the Confederate battle flag that flew from it. “We can’t wait any longer,” she explained later in an online statement. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy.”

After she was led away in handcuffs, the flag was raised again.

Newsome’s protest reflected a growing impatience within America’s black community and anger about liberal inaction. Political rallies by the Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been disrupted by the Black Lives Matter campaign against violence committed on young African Americans and the cultural and legal biases that justify it. While promoting his book on race in the US, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that, to African Americans, the battle flag represents a lingering attempt “to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery”.

Yet, on this matter, to everyone’s surprise, the black civil rights movement and many southern Republicans have proved to be of one mind. On 9 July the House of Representatives in South Carolina voted to lower the battle flag for good. It stood, representatives said, for racism. It had to go.

The context of this agreement was a painful one. Ten days before Newsome’s act, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to his room-mate, he wanted to start a race war. The TV screens showed a photo of him holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other.

If the demands for redress made by civil rights groups didn’t come as a surprise, conservative acquiescence did. The Republican Party had built a solid base in the South by courting white voters who cherished the memory of the Confederacy. Yet the party’s presidential hopefuls from both the North and the South – including Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and George Pataki – said that the battle flag ought to be lowered. The most striking intervention was made by the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who denounced the use of the Confederate flag and signed the bill removing it. Haley is now tipped to figure on the list of potential vice-presidential nominees.

The volte-face of the US right is in part a result of the horror of the Charleston shootings. Yet it also occurs in the context of major shifts within American society. There are still many conservatives who will defend Confederate heritage as a matter of southern pride but the culture wars are changing as the US becomes increasingly European in outlook. This is taking place across the country. It just happens to be more pronounced in the South because no other region has fought so violently and so long to resist the liberal tide.

The story of the battle flag is the story of the South. The first official Confederate flag used in the civil war of 1861-65 caused confusion during fighting – through the haze of gun smoke, its design of 13 stars and red and white bars was hard to distinguish from the Stars and Stripes. An alternative blue cross was rejected for being too sectarian; the racist Confederacy was anxious not to offend its Jewish citizens. So the cross became a diagonal X. This flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate army. In the years after the war its use was infrequent.

There was little need to visualise southern difference in a flag. It was self-evident in the physical signs of racial segregation: separate schools, pools and drinking fountains; black people confined to the back of the bus. Political displays of the battle flag of Dixie (the historical nickname for the states that seceded from the Union) only really resurfaced when that racial order was challenged by northern liberals. In 1948, the Democrats – then the party overwhelmingly in control of the South – split over modest calls for civil rights. The conservatives who refused to support that year’s presidential ticket, the “Dixiecrats”, triggered a rev­ival of flag-waving across the region.

The old battle flag suddenly appeared on private lawns, on cars and at political rallies. Supposedly ancient cultural traditions were invented overnight. For instance, the 1948 student handbook of the University of Mississippi confessed: “Many Ole Miss customs are fairly new; they lack only the savouring which time brings . . . Ole Miss has adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of the Mississippi spirit. Each football game finds the scarlet flag frantically waving to the rhythm of the Rebel band.”

I can confirm that this “tradition” was still going as recently as in 2005. That year, I attended an American football game at Ole Miss and was surprised when the band played “Dixie” at the end. White boys and white girls stood up and belted out the folk song of the Confederacy, while black students filed out.

In 1958, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the battle flag. Three years later, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war, it was hoisted above its Capitol building in Columbia. That day, there was a struggle in the US Congress to keep federal funding going for segregated schools.

So clear is the link between the postwar white resistance to civil rights and the battle flag that many see it as the symbolic equivalent of the N-word. Jack Hunter, the editor of the conservative website Rare Politics, says: “Some people insist that it’s not about racism, not about slavery, not about segregation. But it’s about all those things.” Hunter grew up in Charleston and used to skateboard in the car park of the church that Dylann Roof attacked. When he was a young journalist, he appeared on local radio as a rabidly right-wing masked character called “the Southern Avenger”. His past was exposed in 2013 while he was working for Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, and Hunter stepped down from his position. He publicly renounced his youthful association with racial conservatism. He now eschews any romanticism about the Confederate cause and its demand for states’ rights. “States’ rights to do what?” he asks: the right to discriminate against African Americans? He is glad that the State House flag is gone. He ascribes its longevity to ignorance, which was corrected by Roof’s rampage: “It was the first time that [southern Republicans] were able to see a different perspective on this symbol.”

Not everyone agrees. Richard Hines – a former South Carolina legislator, Reagan campaign state co-chair and senior activist with the Sons of Confederate Veterans – insists that the flag is “an enduring symbol of the southern fighting man”. Indeed, a poll in July found that 57 per cent of Americans think it stands for southern heritage, rather than racism. Yet that heritage has a political dimension. “Southern people are proud of who they are and there is a leftist assault to destroy the best part of America,” Hines says. “The Trotskyite elite in control of the establishment wants to root out the southern tradition” – a tradition of religious devotion, chivalry and military honour. It is possible to cast the battle flag as a pawn in a much larger cultural conflict.

In 2000, civil rights activists lobbied hard to get the battle flag removed from the top of the South Carolina Capitol and succeeded in having it shrunk in size and relocated to the grounds of State House. The issue came up in that year’s Republican presidential primaries – an unusually poisonous contest between George W Bush and John McCain. Supporters of Bush put out a false story that McCain had fathered an interracial child out of wedlock. McCain added to his woes by opining that the battle flag was “a symbol of racism and slavery”. An organisation called Keep It Flying flooded the state with 250,000 letters attacking him and he lost the crucial competition here to Bush.

The battle flag has retained a strong emotional power for a long time. This makes the Republican establishment’s abandonment of the flag all the more surprising. Then again, those who run the South are probably the people most likely to grasp how much the region has changed in just a decade.

***

In 2010 I took a trip through North Carolina. The landscape told a story. Dotted along the roadside were abandoned black buildings, the old tobacco sheds. The decline of the rural economy had rendered them obsolete. Over the fields that would once have been full of farmers were freshly tarmacked roads, stretching out to nowhere. My guide explained that these were supposed to be cul-de-sacs for new houses. North Carolina was going through a property boom. But who was going to buy all those homes, I asked? The answer: damn Yankees.

Demography is destiny. This once agri­cultural region developed fast from the 1960s onwards by keeping union membership, taxes and regulation as low as possible. Yet capitalism proved disastrous for southern conservatism. Northerners flooded in, seeking work or retirement and bringing their own values. The forecast is that North Carolina’s Research Triangle – the South’s Silicon Valley – will grow by 700,000 jobs and 1.2 million people in two decades.

White migration was accompanied by an influx of Spanish speakers as the service sector flourished. Between 2000 and 2010, the white share of the population of North Carolina fell from 70 to 65 per cent. The black proportion remained at roughly 21 per cent. The Latino proportion, however, jumped from 4.7 per cent to 8.4 per cent. Today, the proportion of people who are non-white and over 60 is about a third. But it’s approaching nearly half for those under 18. As a result, politics in the South is no longer biracial: a contest between white and black. It is increasingly multiracial and uncoupled from the region’s complex past.

The impact of these changes is reflected in voting patterns. In 2000, the South was still overwhelmingly Republican in presidential contests. Even the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, a southerner, lost his home state of Tennessee. But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama took those states with the fastest-changing demographics: Florida and Virginia. He won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012 – but by less than 100,000 votes. It is true that the Republicans won back control in the 2014 midterm elections, with the result that the Deep South now sends few Democrats to Congress; but the region’s political masters are not quite as traditional-minded as they once were.

The Republican relationship with the Confederate past is complex. As the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the GOPs’ southern support was historically small. But in the 1960s the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights and alienated its once loyal southern following; the Republicans took the opportunity to steal some conservative white voters.

The growing southern Republican vote had a class component. Its success in local and congressional races was built more on winning over middle-class moderates than on appealing to the working-class racists who filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. The southern Republican Party did enthusiastically embrace the Confederate battle flag in many quarters. But some office-holders did so only with ambiguity, while large sections of the party never identified with it at all. The period of Republican ascendancy in the South was, in reality, linked with a softening of the area’s racial politics.

Two of the Republicans’ current southern stars are Indian Americans: Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the anti-flag governor of South Carolina. There are just two black people in the US Senate and one of them is a Republican, the Tea Party-backed senator for South Carolina, Tim Scott. Marco Rubio, the Floridian senator and presidential candidate, is Cuban American, and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush is married to a Mexican-born woman and speaks fluent Spanish. Bush has tried to push a more moderate line on immigration, in deference to how the GOP will struggle to win the White House if it appeals only to angry white voters. The Kentucky libertarian senator Rand Paul, Jack Hunter’s former boss, has called for legal reforms to correct the trend of keeping far more black than white people in prison. And he is not the only Republican to have been moved by recent race riots sparked by police violence.

***

Violence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, confirmed that there still is a culture war in the US. Yet its character has changed. In the past, civil disturbances were typically leapt upon by conservative politicians as evidence of social decline. The 1992 LA riots were blamed on single parenthood and rap lyrics. In contrast, conservative leaders today are far more likely to acknowledge the problems of white racism. There is no place in their ranks for the likes of Dylann Roof. White supremacists are tiny in number.

Jack Hunter claims: “The KKK is like 12 guys in a telephone booth. Liberal groups will use their threat for fundraising but it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t properly since the 1960s.” Roof’s actions say more about gun control, mental illness and the angst of the young than they do about popular, largely liberal views on race, as polling shows.

We can see a similar liberal shift in other areas of the historic culture war. In May 2015 Gallup released the results of a “moral acceptability” survey charting changes in national attitude across all age groups, from 2001 to 2015. Approval of gay relationships jumped from 40 to 63 per cent; having a baby out of wedlock from 45 to 61 per cent; sex between unmarried men and women from 53 to 68 per cent; doctor-assisted suicide from 49 to 56 per cent; even polygamy went from 7 to 16 per cent. Abortion remained narrowly disapproved of: support for access has only crept up from 42 to 45 per cent. This is probably a result of an unusual concentration of political and religious opposition and because it involves a potential life-or-death decision. But the general trend is that young people just don’t care as much about what consenting adults get up to.

Why? It might be because old forms of identity are dying. One way of measuring that is religious affiliation. From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as Christian fell from 78 to 71 per cent. Today, only a quarter of the population is evangelical and 21 per cent Catholic, down despite high immigration. Then there is the decline in civic or communal activity. Since 2012, the organisers of Nascar, the stock-car races, have not published attendance figures at their tracks, probably because they have fallen so sharply. The decline of this most macho and working class of sports parallels the fall in conservative forms of collective identity such as southern traditionalism.

The old culture war was, like the racial politics of the old South, binary. In the 1950s, around the same time as the South invented its tradition of flying the battle flag in colleges, the US constructed an ideal of the “normal” nuclear family unit: straight, white, patriarchal, religious. On the other side was the “abnormal”: gay, black, feminist, atheist, and the rest. The surest way to get elected in the US between 1952 and 2004 was to associate yourself with the economic needs and cultural prejudices of the majority. The approach was once summed up by a Richard Nixon strategist thus: split the country in two and the Republicans will take the larger half. But that is changing. The old normal is no longer the cultural standard but just one of many identities to choose from. The races are mixing. Women want to work more and have children later in life, possibly without marriage. Many religious people are having to rethink their theology when a child comes out as gay. And the enforcers of the old ways – the unions, churches or political parties – are far less attractive than the atomising internet.

***

Politicians are scrabbling to keep up with the diffusion of American identity. Democrats got lucky when they nominated Barack Obama and chose a presidential candidate who reflected the fractured era well: interracial, non-denominational Christian, and so on. In the 2012 presidential race the Republicans got burned when they tried to play the old culture war card on abortion. They won’t repeat that mistake. After the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage across the country in June, the right’s response was not as uniformly loud and outraged as it would have been in the past. Some protested, but serious presidential contenders such as Jeb Bush grasped the implications of the defeat. There is a cultural and political realignment going on and no one is sure where it will lead. It’s encouraging caution among the Republican top brass. It is time, they think, to abandon lost causes.

The death of southern traditionalism is part of the ebb and flow of cultural history. Identities flourish and die. As political fashions change, you find the typically American mix of triumph on one side and jeremiad on the other. Richard Hines stood vigil as the battle flag was lowered in Columbia and noted with disgust the presence of what he described as “bussed-in” activists. “They pulled out all these gay pride flags and started shouting, ‘USA, USA, USA!’ It reminded me of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Hines reckons that more southerners will now fly the flag than ever before and says he has attended overflow rallies of ordinary folks who love their region. He may well be correct. The faithful will keep the old Confederate standard fluttering on their lawns – an act of secession from the 21st century. But in the public domain, the battle flag is on its way down and in its place will be raised the standard of the new America. The rainbow flag flutters high. For now.

Tim Stanley is a historian and a columnist for the Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars