Colombia officially became a state in 1810 when it gained independence from Spain. In the late 1840s the Spanish elite who had remained in control even after Colombia’s separation from Spain formed the Liberal and Conservative parties which to this dominate Colombia’s political and social institutions. The Liberal party was formed on the platform of a secular federal state, whereas the Conservatives were interested in developing a stronger centralized Roman Catholic state. These two political parties have fought each other throughout Colombia’s history resulting in the death of thousands of innocent civilians and indigenous peoples, and catalyzing much of the instability and warfare that still present in modern day Colombia. The elite’s desire for land has resulted in the mass oppression of social and human rights movements, causing the displacement of hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples and peasants, as well as the murder and imprisonment of union leaders, indigenous leaders, human rights workers and the exploitation of the working class. This is not a situation of the past as people continue to be murdered within the state of Colombia for working with and advocating for human rights and social reform. The constant struggle involving the needs of the peasant and indigenous peoples versus the power of the wealthy and elitist government has resulted in the formation of right-wing paramilitary and left-wing guerilla groups that have been participating in civil warfare in Colombia for over forty years.
In the mid-1960s, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) arose as a peasant movement in reaction to their oppression by the elite, demanding land redistribution and social reform. They use kidnappings and violent intimidation as a way to publicize their various campaigns. “The FARC is an 18,000-strong guerrilla force that controls large territories in Colombia. Its demands revolve around issues of social welfare, economic development, agrarian and judiciary reform and reorganization of the military.” However, the FARC’s overall political platform is murky especially since their involvement with cocaine production and trafficking. Although the FARC has a strong support base in some areas and are acting on behalf of the peasant and working class, they lack overall credibility because of their brutal tactics, including massacres of civilians.
Paramilitary groups later formed in reaction to guerilla attacks and kidnappings targeted at wealthy land-owners and drug cartels. At the time these groups were endorsed by the government as essential for civilian protection, but over time their tactics have proven so inhumane that they can no longer legally claim to be interested in the ‘defense’ of the people. “Colombia’s 19 paramilitary groups are under the central command of the United Self-Defense Units of Colombia (AUC). These forces use extreme violence to protect the interests of various elites, including US-based corporations, large landowners and drug traffickers.” Because paramilitaries are no longer formally linked to the state, the government has continuously avoided any accountability for their violence, yet the paramilitaries operate with the silent approval and sometimes open support of the military. They have been involved in the massacre of hundreds of indigenous peoples and have a direct hand in the millions that have been displaced from their cultural lands and forced to move into shanty towns which ring Colombia’s most populated cities. Because of the action of the paramilitary hundreds of cultural groups within Colombia are losing the right and the ability to participate in their own cultures and yet the government does nothing often denying these people even the most basic access to social services supposedly provided by the state. Human Rights Watch reports that half of the Army’s 18 brigades have clear links to paramilitaries and yet the US continues to send millions in aid to Colombia which often goes directly to strengthening military forces within the state. Although the US government has publicly admonished Colombia’s high level of internal conflict the rise of paramilitarism in Colombia can be traced directly to the United States who has encouraged Colombia’s officials to use paramilitary terror as a means of controlling their own citizens. The ongoing conflict within Colombia has resulted in the displacement of millions of people with no end in sight, while indigenous groups are more alienated from their right to their cultural knowledge on a daily basis.
The cocaine industry has added further complications to an already overtly-complex issue. Not only has it created heightened tension between the guerillas and paramilitaries but it has led to a larger gap between the wealthy and poor classes within Colombia and further exacerbated already fractured relationships between the Colombian government and the peasant working class. Up to 90% of all cocaine on American streets comes from Colombia which the US government has used as an excuse to shape and influence Colombia’s political infrastructure. “Since 2000, the US has spent more than $3 billion on Plan Colombia, under which Colombian forces receive training, equipment and intelligence to root out drug traffickers and eliminate coca crops.” The practice of aerial-spraying to eradicate cocaine crops has also put the health of hundreds of thousands Colombians at risk. While the US and Colombian governments are still heralding the safety of this technique evidence from the ground is showing that this practice is more then questionable and is causing an unaddressed health crisis amongst Colombia’s poorest people. “Both the war on drugs and the war on terror exacerbate the poverty and inequality that lie at the root of Colombia’s conflict. For example, drug fumigation destroys food crops and water supplies as well as coca leaves, further impoverishing and threatening the health of Colombia’s rural population. Increased militarization leads to increased displacement and further destroys Colombia’s social fabric.”
Colombia and the United States:
The election of President Alvaro Uribe in 2002 and his re-election in 2006 has led to a further deterioration of human rights conditions in Colombia. Uribe has exploited the climate of the US “War on Terror” to call for an increase in military power and heightened surveillance of human rights and other civil society organizations while failing to properly search out and prosecute paramilitary groups within the state. Since 1997, US military aid to Colombia has increased six-fold making Colombia the second largest recipient of US aid in the Western hemisphere next to Iraq. Under the guise of the “War on Terror”, the Bush Administration has escalated US involvement in Colombia. The US has given over three billion dollars since 2000 to “Plan Colombia”, more than 75 percent of it to fund and increase in the military and police. For the first time since the 1980s, the US is undertaking a counterinsurgency effort in Latin America, giving weapons, training and money to a government that relies on paramilitary death squads. Oil is Colombia’s most lucrative export, bringing in roughly $4.5 billion a year. Indigenous Peoples who have opposed oil exploration on their lands have been killed by paramilitaries said to be in the service of US and British oil companies. Tens of thousands of Indigenous Colombians have been displaced from their ancestral lands, which are now controlled by oil companies including Occidental and British Petroleum. The increase in oil production and exploration in Colombia is heavily endorsed by the World Bank, IMF and the Bush administration, even though it is directly linked to the death and displacement of thousands of Colombian citizens.