If your impression of Colombia has been formed solely by Hollywood movies, you’d be forgiven for writing off reports of violence as the work of drug barons desperate to augment the country’s reputation as coke pusher to the world. But you’d be wrong – the real threat of violence in Colombia comes not from gangs, but from state-linked paramilitaries crushing the country’s social and political left in order to make life easier for the multinational companies who are chasing the country’s resources.
In the last 20 years, paramilitaries have murdered 3000 trade unionists alone, and many thousands more peasants and activists have been selectively assassinated or massacred to make way for private oil, mining and agriculture companies to take control of the land.
But activists in Colombia have found renewed hope in the last year, thanks to the emergence of a grassroots left-wing movement called the Patriotic March founded in April 2012, which in the last month has seen over a million Colombians take to the streets in support of peace talks between the Colombian Government and FARC guerrillas. Government forces have been fighting the FARC peasant insurgency since 1965.
The Patriotic March is not without its dangers, and has been hit particularly hard by paramilitary oppression. In recent weeks, several leading organisers have been murdered. During the 1980s the Patriotic Union, a similar movement proposing profound social and economic changes, was destroyed with 5000 activists killed in the first case of political genocide recognized by the Bogota High Court. Activists in the Patriotic March are aware that a repetition of such violence is a very real possibility for them.
I met with three of the leading figures of the new movement during a high-profile visit they paid to the UK, organised by leading NGO Justice for Colombia: Gloria Cuartas, a former Senator, and Colombia’s most recognised women’s rights activist; Nidia Quintero, a member of the FENSUAGRO Executive Committee, the Colombian Agricultural Workers’ Union, and whose husband and son were assassinated by military and paramilitaries; and David Florez, the former General Secretary of the Colombian Federation of University Students (FEU) and national spokesperson for the Patriotic March.
What is the Patriotic March?
David Florez: The Patriotic March is a political and social movement of the left. It has brought together over 2000 popular and social organisations, amongst them students, trade unions, NGOs, victims of state violence, and peasant movements; and it’s a broad spectrum of organisations coming together to represent popular struggle in Colombia. We were launched officially a year ago on 23rd April 2012, but it’s a product of years of resistance, working and struggle.
Why have you chosen the tactic of marching?
DF: It’s not just marching. Our work is in organising, and there are lots of different elements of that. But we have had two big marches so far, because we’ve found that mass demonstrations enable people to feel like they’re participating in politics from which they’ve traditionally been excluded.
Mobilising people in this grassroots way gives legitimacy to our movement: Colombia’s formal electoral process has been discredited by corruption and the mainstream parties’ links to violence.
DF: The Patriotic March has emerged from the reconstruction of progressive movements. Social organisations, trade unions, peasant organisations, and student movements have been building over the last few years. The Patriotic March is the name we’ve given to the movement that has been created by these groups coming together.
There’s a lot of popular opposition to the practices of multinational companies in Colombia, like those in the mining industry, as well as against the human rights abuses and state violence, and there’s been a vacuum of political representation for all these people. The Patriotic March hopes to address that.
Even though the Patriotic March was founded before the peace talks began between the government and the FARC last November, we feel we have a very key role to play in the peace process.
The Ministry of Defence has said you are funded by the FARC. Can you respond to that?
DF: It’s a lie, and it’s a smear tactic that has historically been used to delegitimise social movements in Colombia and justify the assassination of activists on the social and political left. Every time Colombians have organised to challenge the government, these smear tactics are used. This very delegation is a clear example of the smears we face. It has already been portrayed in Colombia as funded by the FARC, when actually it was funded by recognised and important British trade unions.
How does the Colombian government oppress you? Can you give examples?
Nidia Quintero: An enormous problem in Colombia is the displacement of peasants for the benefit of foreign multinationals – like mining or oil companies – who want to make use of the land. At the moment there are 5 million displaced people in Colombia. These people are usually displaced by massacres and selective assassinations, carried out by government paramilitaries who to get them off the land. Behind every megaproject, like mining or agriculture, there have been a lot of massacres.
I’m from Putumayo in the south, and since the 1990s there have been a huge amount of massacres there: in 2008 alone there were between 40 and 50. Now, 75% of the region’s land is concentrated in the hands of mining companies or energy companies, like oil. In one little village, El Tigre, 45 people were murdered in a single night. Paramilitaries lined them up in a queue, called their names and then shot them in front of everyone else. They threw the bodies into a mass grave and now human rights work must be done to identify who those people are – because the remains haven’t been returned to the families in many cases.
The town Puerto Asis is on the border of Ecuador. People would go to the town from the surrounding countryside on the weekend to do their shopping. In the morning, paramilitaries would have checkpoints along the Putumayo River (which is how you accessed the town). They would stand there with lists, call the names of the activists they wanted to get rid of, kill them, and dump their bodies in the river. The paramilitaries had the list of people to assassinate from the army, police, and intelligence services. They were people these agencies wanted them to get rid of. There are many cases like this throughout Colombia, but I mention this one because I witnessed it first-hand.
In 2005, there was a supposed demobilisation of paramilitaries, which the government announced in response to growing international pressure. But the government didn’t get rid of the structures that supported the paramilitaries, and now many work in security in universities and so on. The government now refers to paramilitaries as ‘criminal gangs’ and refuses to admit that many of them hold official positions, and that they’re active in all regions. In Putumayo, they murdered 38 teenagers between January and March of this year. They announced a curfew, and killed anyone on the streets after 6pm. The police did nothing. They are killing people right under the noses of the authorities.
Gloria Cuartas: I was mayor of a town that was very close to the Panamanian border. Foreign multinationals were always coming into the region, so paramilitaries would violently displace people off the land to seize resources and use the land. I saw 1,200 people get murdered in that town when I was mayor, including a little boy who was beheaded in front of me. People were being terrorised so they would leave their homes.
It’s important to remember that in Colombia the paramilitary structure in part of the state – it has government links. The conflict in Colombia has its roots in inequality and is linked to the economic situation, so the quest for peace must be about solving those root causes. The peasants have the right to develop an alternative method of production, and that’s why I’m a member of the Patriotic March.