Colombia's Three Countries
In the year 2000, I spent a sabbatical year at the Faculty of Business Administration at Bogotá's Universidad de los Andes. Not including short visits, ten years had passed since I had left Colombia, and I had a mix of memories and fixed beliefs about Colombian life. In 1994, I had published a piece on Colombian history that a colleague called “a gloomy vision” of the country. It well should have been. I had left Colombia in 1990 in the midst of one of the most horrifying waves of violence and urban terrorism. The drug traffickers were waging war against those who made their life difficult: judges, journalists, union or civic leaders and politicians that disagreed with the ascendancy of the drug trade over public life.
It was a war staged without headquarters between those called the “Medellín and Cali cartels.” In those days, with the Berlin Wall about to fall, the leftist guerillas occupied a distant second place in the creation of violence. But the military, the police and detectives, large landowners (many with wealth recently derived from drug trafficking) and clientelist politicians often formed alliances themselves in order to destroy the internal enemy, complying with the guidebook of the sinister Videla dictatorship in Argentina. In this preventative anticommunist war, rightist paramilitary squadrons appeared, carrying out massacres of peasants in the Córdoba province and of banana plantation workers in Urubá who had been identified as guerillas or their supporters.
This extermination campaign resulted in the death of two to three thousand members of the political party Patriotic Union (UP), an organization emerging from the 1984 peace accord that brought together cadres of the Communist party and the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC). The UP was an electoral force, an experiment in political peace that could have marked the beginning of the guerilla disarmament.
The drug traffickers’ military organizations replied with the same tactics, assassinating three presidential candidates between 1989 and 1990, including the charismatic Luis Carlos Galán, the leader of the liberal party and head of the UP, as well as the former M-19 guerrilla leader Carlos Pizarro. They made terrorism, bombing and kidnapping everyday practices. Governmental formulas did not work against them, and with that backdrop, the corruption of the police and the politicians was more and more palpable.
Ten years later, when I returned to Bogotá, the cruelty and the disorder of that Colombia of 1990 appeared to have lessened. By any reckoning, the capital city was transforming itself, and from that vantage point, Colombia’s problems seemed less depressing. The city not only had millions of inhabitants, it now had citizens—a collective soul. The mayors, elected by a direct vote since the constitutional reform of 1986, had to report to the electorate and had incentives for honest administration. Perhaps, as a collective and unconscious answer to the waves of violence that continued to shake the country, and also as a response to new institutions, the citizens of the capital believed that they could substantially improve their living conditions, including better transportation and the modernization of public schools. Like medieval cathedrals, beautiful public libraries were built in the slums: well-organized and endowed with books, magazines, CDs and videos.
It is emotional to visit them and verify that they are crammed with children, adolescents, and poor youths, by themselves or with their mothers, and at times with both parents. These seeds of citizenship have been one of my greatest intellectual stimuli and a solace for my worries about the Colombian citizen.
Without a doubt, I should give warning that the whole country does not offer these doses of hope, nor are all the governmental projects so impressive. The gloominess of the Colombian scene persists and appears to once again be worsening.
Underlying Colombia’s global leadership in homicides, kidnappings, and human rights violations is a profound social division and a loss of values not only among the less privileged but also among many sectors of the higher classes. Classical sociology recognizes the anomie—the social breakdown due to loss of standards—of the common man in the transition towards industrial society, but new sociology has not yet come to grips with anomie of the ruling classes in countries such as Colombia, where they have been principal targets of insecurity and violence by "armed actors." On the other hand, many leftist leaders, journalists, union leaders, and primary school teachers have been “disappeared” and tortured by the agents of the State or have fallen into the hands of paramilitary groups.
For those of my university generation (I was born in Bogotá in 1944), there was possibly the matter of the combined inertia of two forces: "La Violencia" (c. 1946-1964) and the Cuban Revolution. In my college years in Bogotá (1962-1967) it was not easy to elude the messianic force of the Cuban revolution. I recall, in the early 1980s, the death of an old friend from a heart attack. At the funeral, a mutual friend pointed out that he was “the first one of us who died a natural death.” That is, that almost all of our friends had died as a result of political violence. This makes me assume that there must be many visions of the Colombian violence, many memories and reinventions of a national trauma that persists in spite of everything. Urban, rural, and village visions, and naturally, those among society’s upper, middle and lower classes are very polarized in terms of the distribution of wealth and of income.
In my work as a historian of the present, I have tried to put this chaos in intellectual order. The question is, how does one focus events in a manner that allows valid lessons to be extracted so that lasting solutions can be found?
First, one must question generalizations such as “the 40-year civil war.” Between 1990 and 1999, 260,690 Colombians were the victims of homicides. Nonetheless, the intensity of the violence has fluctuated: from 1950 to 1965 Colombia maintained significantly high homicide rates, above the Latin American average. From 1965 to 1975 the number of homicides dropped, with rates similar to those of Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua, or Panama. But during the 1970s, the murder rate rose rapidly, and ten years later, Colombia was named one of the most homicidal countries of the world.
Yet the national homicide rate varies sharply among different municipalities, counties, and Departments. The national rate per 100,000 inhabitants evolved approximately in the following manner: 32, from 1960 to 1965; from 1970-1975, it dropped to 23, then rose and leveled off at 33 in 1980, and 32 in 1985. It registered a strong increase until it reached 63 murders per 100,000 in 1990, spiraling to its height in 1991-1993 with 78 and lowering to 56 in 1998, although it rose once more to 63 in the two-year period of 1999-2000.
Although the connections between the different types of violence have not been established with sufficient precision, the most accepted hypothesis points to organized drug-trafficking as the trigger that shot up the crime index. Almost 70% of the murders in Colombia are in Bogotá, Medellín or Cali.
Possibly because of the framework of complicity among sectors of the political class and the drug-traffickers, guerilla and paramilitary violence overtook this diversified urban violence. What is for certain is that the peace process with the guerrillas (and now with the paramilitaries) has been a substantial ingredient to Colombian politics for the last 20 years, with paradoxical effects. In the last two decades, the guerrillas, in particular Tirofijo's FARC, shaped itself as a national political actor, while the traditional parties are exhibiting weakness. The traditional bastion, the Conservative Party, is about to disappear, and the Liberal Party sends signals of division and disability. Yet, the FARC has moved from being “communists” during the Cold War to being “political interlocutors” in the brief golden years of the post-Cold War, and since September 11th, they are, more and more, “terrorists.”
It is said, each time with more frequency, that Colombia is at the point of falling apart. The phrase can be developed in various directions. Let us examine a report in Time magazine about the extensive demilitarized zone established by then-president Pastrana in 1998 warned: “Colombia runs the risk of dividing itself into three countries, following the geography of its mountains. The Marxist guerillas prevail in the south; the government controls the central areas and the primary urban centers; and the paramilitary forces of the right, supported by the Army, are very well rooted in the majority of the north. " (Latin American Edition, September 28, 1998)
From the perspective of the actual armed conflict, Time's observations would be more convincing if before the frontier lines of the sovereign proto-states are drawn on the Colombian map, Colombian lines of political legitimacy are drawn. These lines are certainly fluid and somewhat imprecise.
If we briefly develop this exercise, we would see that the majority of Colombian cities would be “islands of legitimacy,” while the “guerilla south” and the “paramilitary north” would be niches of factional power. There would also be a “third country," made up of the rest. In the urban part of the country, in general, and not only in Bogotá, political legitimacy is clearer. The rules of representative democracy are more consistent; the business of the State is each time more transparent, institutions and public services more coherent and efficient, and the principle of citizenship more real. Having said this, it is necessary to also recognize the fragility of the foundations, as indicated by the criminal statistic of cities like Medellín and Cali, which place Colombia among the most unsafe and homicidal countries in the world. It must be understood that, on the political level, there are many unpredictable situations, perhaps because the crisis of the political parties has translated into fragmentation, violence and clientelism. A very different situation is lived in the territories of the factional powers—the guerrillas and the paramilitary.
The latter includes the nine new zones of recent colonization, zones with very low population density. The failure of agrarian reform policy in the 1930s and then again in the 1960s led land-starved peasants to colonize deep in the jungle. In the second half of the 20th century, the forces of colonization expanded throughout much of the country. In these new territories “all is negotiable.”
There, the Hobbesian law of the strongest rules: the traditional political clientelist networks; the guerrilla and the contra-guerrilla; the interests of latifundismo, primarily ranching and "narcolatifundismo,"; the interests surrounding the illicit crops and their processing, the financing and transport of chemical precursors and products (cocaine and heroin); international contraband routes flourish in many places within this geography, including arms traffic. In some of these zones, a prosperous economy revolves around oil, bananas and gold. These export zones witness the high geographic mobility of young people to whom the State does not offer minimal opportunities of education, and therefore no possibility for social ascent. Localism, high geographic mobility and low social mobility are tied to abundant exportable resources (drugs, gold and oil, primarily) and feed the war that Colombia has been experiencing in the last decade.
In these territories, transitory alliances are forged and private armies are formed, destined to combat guerrillas of diverse denominations. The paramilitary formations, highly localized and locally oriented, are gaining autonomy (there are those who speak of guerrillas of the right) and they have attempted, unsuccessfully to date, to create a true national organization in the same style as the FARC.
In the country of factional powers, the police, the judicial power, and the electoral system are facades. Nonetheless, the viability of factional powers depends, as paradoxical as it sounds, on the existence of a nation and a State: Colombia. In the nation, there exist the intermediates that make local networks possible, as they do markets; and the State offers legal coverage and cultural reference. Moreover, since the 1991 Constitution, a substantial part of these zones' income derives from oil royalties and/or operational money transferred to the municipalities. This country is thus a permanent framework of “legitimacy and violence” and although the institutions are facades, they provide resources and rules of the game for all the participants, including the guerrillas.
Although Colombia does not appear to confront the problem of Balkanization, it is evident that the balance could depend more and more on the “third country” located among the “islands of legitimacy” and the territories of “factional power.” This "country" is formed through the joining of the more densely populated provinces with the coastal line of the Caribbean region, the Andean mountain ranges and the coffee belt. This country literally feeds Colombia and political and economic institutions function here, although reliant on traditional clientelistic practices.
Despite everything, it is also evident that in the “third country,” the emergence of the middle urban classes has created a more critical attitude, disposed towards forming an independent opinion, and integrating into what is called civil society. This country is now a privileged territory of guerrilla predatory activities, primarily by means of extortion known as “boleteo,” extortion kidnappings and attacks on the road and electric infrastructure, which as a result produce “protection” actions on the part of the paramilitary groups. In this country, the paramilitary have organized another source of income: the systematic robbery of gasoline from its transport systems.
In conclusion, without a diagnostic that heeds the complexity of the phenomena of violence in Colombia, it will be very difficult to find adequate solutions. Maybe such phenomena are not anything other than the expression of a nation and a State that as of yet has not fully formed itself. If that is the case, it would have to be asked if the world today would help the Colombians march towards the correct direction.
Marco Palacios is a historian and the newly-appointed rector of the National University of Colombia.