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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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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