Overview of the Colombian Conflict from a Human Rights-Based Methodological Perspective

(Based on Statistics from CINEP)

Colombia is a land of ideologized realities. Different Colombias exist in the minds and imaginations of people with different personal perspectives and political persuasions. Frequently, the different Colombias are quite disparate from each other. There is the “official” Colombia, with a brave government protecting the population by fighting against leftist terrorists and demobilizing the paramilitary death squads. Then there is the “alternative” Colombia, more popular amongst human rights groups and non-governmental organizations, where an authoritarian government is, with the support of the United States, fighting a brutal war of repression against its own people. Other analysts contend that, in fact, the real-life Colombia finds itself in a highly complex gray area, somewhere between these two polarized variants. The statistics from the Centro de Investigación y Educación Popular (CINEP) seem to confirm such ambiguities.

Statistics, of course, are not set in stone. In Colombia, different and equally prestigious organizations regularly release vastly divergent statistics. For example, the national government only acknowledges that there are 2.6 million internally displaced refugees in Colombia, while human rights organizations claim that there are over 4 million. In fact, statistical disparities exist regarding virtually every controversial issue in the country, from the numbers of people being held hostage by the FARC, to the number of “false positives” to the number of people forced to live below the poverty line. CINEP, however, is arguably one of the more reliable sources. While no one is totally neutral, and CINEP is undoubtedly situated on the left of the political spectrum, experience has shown that it is far less ideological than other in-country sources. Moreover, it is sedulously conservative in its data collection, and its findings have been used by both the U.S. State Department and the Colombian Government (when it has suited them). However, its compiled statistics regarding the tabulation of overall human rights violations are sometimes so contradictory and confusing that they convolute rather than clarify the Colombian conflict. In this research memorandum, COHA will present an overview and analysis of three different graphs provided by CINEP meant to portray the number of (legitimate) armed actions, instances of international humanitarian law violations, and a listing of civilian victims of all armed political groups in the country.

The Right-Wing Paramilitaries: the Primary Perpetrators of Human Rights Abuses
Year in, year out, the paramilitaries have consistently been responsible for more abuses than any other organization, often outdoing both the main guerrilla groups combined. Having averaged 300 or so human rights violations a year from 1993 to 1995 (out of approximately 500 civilian victims annually) , they managed to raise this figure to over 800 abuses in 1997, and then up to 1200 abuses in 2001. The numbers sharply declined in 2006, when the paramilitaries were documented as responsible for less than 400 violations. The FARC, meanwhile, was responsible for 180-220 abuses a year from 1992-1995, 600 abuses in 1999 and a peak of 1100 abuses in 2002. According to CINEP’s figures, 2002 was the only year since 1991 that the paramilitaries did not kill more civilians than the FARC. This suggests that the constant government and societal preoccupation with the FARC as the source of much of the country´s problems is, if not misplaced, then at least exaggerated.

Paramilitary Justifications
At this point, apologists for the paramilitary will claim that many of these civilian victims were not, in fact, genuine civilians. Rather, the claim (repeated by government officials as well as the paramilitary leaders) was that they were terroristas en civil, that is to say people who supported or assisted the guerrillas at some level. Moreover, past paramilitary leaders like Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso frequently claimed such abuses were a necessary evil in the defense of the country against communism. Their fight, they have claimed, was a just one, aimed at defending the state rather than attacking it, and they were simply reacting to the initial leftist guerrilla presence. Essentially, they claim they didn’t start it.

The idea that paramilitary abuses can be justified in this way is contrary to any notion of human rights observance. Moreover, what the paramilitaries call terroristas en civil are mainly peasants. In many cases they indeed have assisted the guerrillas, but only because they were forced to. In many other cases victims were not in fact supporters of the guerrillas; rather they were representing other progressive causes like opposing harmful mega-projects or exploitation, or defending human rights.

There is no doubt that some progressive sectors in Colombia, at various times in their histories, made the mistake of cooperating with the guerrillas, and that the guerrillas have indeed had a policy of penetrating social movements and trade unions. By the same token, though, the paramilitaries and often the army have exploited such examples as proof that mere opposition to state policy or the established order is enough to be firmly linked to the guerrillas without requiring any further investigation.

Moreover, the statistics reveal something very telling about the way the paramilitaries have operated. They have actually engaged the guerrillas on remarkably few occasions, a fact that totally undermines their leaders’ claims to be mere “self-defense” forces. In the last 20 years, they have not committed more than 200 “acts of war” (actions directed specifically against other armed groups) in any one year. This contrasts significantly with the performance of the army and the guerrillas, whose numbers of acts of war have hovered between 300-1100 a year and are clearly directed against each other. The contrast shows the paramilitaries for what they really are: death squads aimed at terrorizing the civilian population. In the words of assassinated AUC leader Carlos Castaño “we wait for the army to leave, and then we go in and act irregularly.”

Guerrilla Justifications
On the other hand, the guerrillas and their defenders tend to downplay their abuses on the basis that they were fighting to transform a fundamentally unjust social order. This self-justification is as weak as the paramilitary’s. The idea that the ends justify the means – including some human rights abuses – while frequently employed by the FARC, has long been discredited by other groups. Firstly, this argument fails because it is highly improbable that many Colombians would actually support such ends, and the idea of a Communist state in Colombia is highly unpalatable, even to many progressive and popular sectors. Secondly, if the FARC really was representing “the people” as it so claims, it seems contradictory that it would engage in so many actions which harm those very same people. A recent case was FARC’s massacre of Awa indigenous people, on the basis that they had been “helping the army.” Thirdly, the traditional guerrilla concept of the foco, whereby the insurgency gives way to a popular rebellion, has long been abandoned by the FARC. The group has not even brought about land reform in the areas it has under its control and its only reliable base of support comes from a handful of leftist individuals in Colombia’s civil society and the 300,000 or so raspachines (coca growers). In the case of the latter, it seems that the marriage with the FARC is one of convenience rather than profound ideological convictions, as a result of the coca growers supporting the FARC because it allows them to grow and commercialize their illicit substances, not because many think that communism will improve their lot.

The Peace Process Wasn´t Peaceful
Any foreigner who doesn´t understand why Colombian President Álvaro Uribe remains so popular should pay attention to the statistics for human rights abuses during the previous “peace process” under President Andrés Pastrana. That period saw the highest levels of human rights abuses by both the guerrillas and the paramilitaries, as well as by unidentified persons. The standard explanation for this is that the guerrillas took advantage of the zone ceded to them by the government to strengthen their military and intensify their abuses, primarily kidnappings. What is less reported, though, is that both the army and the paramilitaries acted similarly. Moreover, the expansion of paramilitarism during the Pastrana Government occurred with the tacit support of the army (with whom it is known to have cooperated on numerous occasions), local politicians, and landlords. There is now abundant evidence of extensive collusion among those groups, and to date 41 congressmen (35 of whom are allied to the Government), have been detained by the Fiscalía on suspicion of cooperating with the paramilitaries. Moreover, extradited paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso has claimed that such examples of parapolitica will be dwarfed when full evidence of the army-paramilitary collusion finally comes to light.

During the peace process, the expansion of each illegal armed group served to justify the last-minute arming of and hostilities launched by the other. For the FARC, the demobilization of the paramilitaries was a non-negotiable issue and a key pre-requisite for any concessions, while the paramilitaries justified increased abuses by what they saw as the Government’s weakness towards the FARC.

Democratic Security and the Decline of the FARC
The statistics show a marked decrease in acts of war and human rights abuses on the part of both the guerrillas and paramilitaries from 2002 onwards. The number of civilians killed by the guerrillas fell from its peak of 2000 in 2002 down to under 100 in 2006. The initial reason for this was the Pastrana Government´s invasion of the demilitarized zone in the Caguan region. The loss of this area is widely recognized to have deprived them of a space to prepare their combat initiatives, detain kidnap victims and produce coca for export. Secondly, the military offensive under new President Álvaro Uribe, in turn, undoubtedly hit the FARC hard, pushing them away from populated areas and deep into marginal areas of the country such as the rainforest, Pacific Coast and llano (marshlands). All this is reflected in the fall from 1100 acts of war in 2002 to just over 300 in 2006. This decline was compounded by significant blows against the FARC in 2008. This includes the loss of its leader Manuel Marulanda to natural causes and its second in command Raúl Reyes to an armed incursion into Ecuadorian territory, in addition to the rescue of hostages in June, and several significant desertions. The FARC currently has approximately half of the soldiers it did in 2002. Such statistics have led many commentators to describe the group as being in a “terminal decline” according to Luis Eduardo Celis of the Rainbow Foundation, though it would still be unwise to make such assumptions. The FARC continues to generate a significant source of revenue from its extortions and continued participation in the cocaine industry. They have also stepped up their field attacks, the most recent the kidnapping of the Councilor of Garzón, a town in Huila Department. The FARC have recently found it easier to recruit soldiers due to societal instability. However, policymakers should remember that tactically mobilizing a guerrilla force back to its roots is not the same thing as defeating it outright.

The Demobilization Process
The decline of the paramilitaries’ human rights violations since 2003 clearly can be attributed to the demobilization process. A significant number of paramilitaries handed in their arms, and a significant total of paramilitary bloques demobilized en masse. In one sense it seems counter-intuitive that such a decline should occur under a President with such well-known links to the paramilitaries. Uribistas, if they were in a more honest mood, would probably say the opposite: that the mere fact of Uribe’s closeness to the paramilitaries made him the ideal man to demobilize them.

The decline of abuses since 2002 does not, however, mean that all is well. The principle criticism of the process is that it has not actually dismantled paramilitary structures, and therefore, it has failed to prevent any future resurgence of paramilitarism. As with the leftist guerrillas, paramilitary groups still have the drug industry to fund their operations, and moreover, it is highly likely that elements of the political class (particularly in rural areas) still view them as a necessity beyond the rule of law.

Possibly the most dangerous thing about the demobilization process is that it, in turn, gave way to a very dangerous lie, one that has been repeated ad nauseum by the Government: that paramilitarism no longer exists in Colombia. While the Government uses terms like “emergent bands” to describe the remaining paramilitary groups, the political nature of their actions (targeting political activists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, and so called “undesirables”) suggests that there is little difference between them and the paramilitaries of old. In 2007, after four years of demobilization, the paramilitaries committed 500 human rights abuses, more than at any time prior to 1996. Finally, there are currently a series of parallel phenomena that all hint at the shady hand of paramilitarism: the “false positives,” the so called “social cleansing” in the country’s cities, and the persistently high levels of forced displacement.

Question Mark over the Army
Finally, the army’s role in all this remains highly compromised. Clearly, their collaboration with the paramilitaries means that they have a significant responsibility for many crimes, even when they did not directly perpetrate them. Furthermore, Mauricio García, the Director of CINEP, is worried about the fact that the number of human rights violations committed by the army rose at the same time that those of the paramilitaries decreased (although the number of their civilian victims has gradually fallen). What this might suggest is that the ebbing of paramilitarism requires the army to take part in human rights abuses (from threatening and torturing witnesses to committing extrajudicial executions) which were previously “outsourced” to the paramilitaries. Now, they may be occurring in house. In fact, the decline in abuses by the paramilitaries and guerrillas actually left the army as the principal abuser of human rights in Colombia between 2004 and 2007. (This might now be changing with the resurgence of the paramilitaries.) In these years, its abuses claimed 800-1500 victims a year, far more than the 100 or so for which the FARC was responsible. This high rate of crimes committed by the army only really came to light with the disclosure of the now-infamous phenomenon of the “false positives.”

One of the most worrying recent developments has been the exclusion of victims (and/or their families) from the army’s criminal investigation procedures from the proposed Law of the Victims. In stark contrast to the families of people killed by the guerrillas or paramilitaries, neither the victims of the “false positive” scandal nor their loved ones are to receive any reparations. This reality justifies the opposition’s claims that in such cases “the Government cares more about the perpetrators than the victims.” What a sorry story this is for anyone who genuinely cares about justice in the country.

As was stated at the beginning of this article, no easy conclusion can be drawn from the statistics presented here. Different people will no doubt make up their own minds as to which aspects of the graphs are the most significant, or indeed, whether or not to trust the figures at all. These data seem to indicate that the democratic security policy was indeed successful in reducing the overall rates of human rights abuses from their very high level at the turn of the millennium. At the same time, the figures confirm the claim made by the Washington based Center for International Policy, that “this decline has only brought the intensity of fighting back to levels seen in the late 1990s, not exactly a golden age for peace and security in Colombia.” The country faces a series of scandals (the DAS “tapping” of opposition members, parapolitica, false positives, social cleansing) which all seem to undermine the governments’ claims that all is well in Colombia. Even though Uribe remains popular, there are increasing doubts over the credibility and trustworthiness of his government and whether or not the democratic security policy can bring peace to a long-suffering Colombian society.