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Neoliberalism Needs Death Squads in Colombia

By       Message Hans Bennett     Permalink
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Throughout Blood & Capital, Hristov details many horrifying ways in which the rich are empowered by violence from what she identifies as the "state's coercive apparatus" (SCA). She argues that "two intertwining motifs run throughout Colombia's history: (1) social relations marked by inequality, exploitation, and exclusion and (2) violence employed by those with economic and political power over the working majority and the poor in order to acquire control over resources, forcibly recruit labor, and suppress or eliminate dissent."

Dating back to the European conquest of the Americas, Hristov asserts that violence has been central to the creation of modern-day Colombia's government and economy. She writes that "starting in the late 1500s, the conquerors began clearing the indigenous population from territories with desirable characteristics--mineral deposits, fertile soil, access to water, transportation routes, and so on. The separation of the indigenous from their means of subsistence allowed the formation of a local colonial elite who transformed what used to be the native inhabitants communal lands into large estates or haciendas. The creation of landless peasants facilitated the supply of labor for the Spaniards' ventures, such as mining and agriculture."

State violence supporting the economic elite continued, but became much worse in the 1960s under the direction of the US military. Alfredo Vasquez Carrizosa, President of the Colombian Permanent Committee for Human Rights reports that in the 1960s, "during the Kennedy administration," the US "took great pains to transform our regular armies into counterinsurgency brigades, accepting the new strategy of the death squads." This "ushered in what is known in Latin America as the National Security Doctrine"not defense against an external enemy, but a way to make the military establishment the masters of the game"the right to combat the internal enemy"this could mean anyone, including human rights activists such as myself."

As Edward Herman, co-author of The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism explained in a previous interview with Upside Down World, US support for repressive governments in Colombia and throughout Latin America was, and still is, part of a general policy towards third world populations. Focusing largely on US support for the Latin American "National Security States," Herman and co-author Noam Chomsky argue that U.S. corporations purposefully support (and in many instances create) fascist terror states in order to create a favorable investment climate. In exchange for a cut of the action, local military police-states brutally repress their population when it attempts to assert basic human rights.

In the 1960s, the US and Colombian governments launched Plan Lazo, designed to target the "internal enemy." Hristov writes that "the military aid that was part of Plan Lazo (and all subsequent programs, including those in place today, such as the Patriot Plan) were given on the condition that Colombian forces would use terror and violence, since these formed a legitimate part of the overall anticommunist offensive. In 1966 the field manual US Army Counterinsurgency Forces specified that while antiguerrilla should not employ mass terror, selective terror against civilians was acceptable and was justified as a necessary response to the alleged terrorism committed by rebel forces."

Hristov asserts that while the US handled the "financial and ideological aspects" of building and strengthening the SCA, locally the Colombian elites also played a key role. "It implemented many of the policies suggested by the US counterinsurgency manual in order to discipline the civilian population through measures such as press censorship, the suspension of civil rights (to permit arrest on mere suspicion), and the forced relocation of entire villages. President Guillermo Leon Valencia (1962-66) boosted the anticommunist campaign by declaring a state of siege whereby judicial and political powers were transferred to the military while the latter was freed from accountability to civilian authorities for its conduct."

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With US financing and supervision, the Colombian armed forces have since become one of the most renowned human rights violators in the world. This despicable conduct eventually created significant local and international opposition, and under this pressure the SCA has been forced to adjust. In response, the responsibility for repression has shifted more towards paramilitaries, whose activities are officially independent of the government. In this situation, when paramilitaries target the "internal enemy," the same goal is accomplished as if the government itself did it, yet the government cannot be officially linked to the violence.

The Paramilitarization of Colombia

The size and strength of paramilitary death squads in Colombia has steadily increased since they were first established in the 1960s. According to Hristov, the paramilitaries are now responsible for about 80 percent of human rights violations in Colombia, compared to 16 percent by the rebel guerrillas. The paramilitaries' evolution, Hristov argues, is the result of "perhaps the most creative and intelligent effort by an elite-dominated state to counteract revolutionary processes. "The Colombian parastatal system represents neither a traditional centralized authoritarian regime, as those that existed in Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, nor merely a collection of autonomous armed bands dispersed over rural areas, each ruling locally, as in Mexico. What we see in Colombia is a mutated SCA that has assumed a nonstate appearance."

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The function of the paramilitaries in Colombia was explained well by Captain Gilberto Cardenas, former captain of the national police and former director of the Judicial Police Investigative and Intelligence Unit in the Uraba region. In 2002, testifying against the commander of the Seventeenth Brigade of the Colombian armed forces, Cardenas told representatives of the United Nations and Colombian authorities that "The paramilitaries were created by the Colombian government itself to do the dirty work, in other words, in order to kill all individuals who, according to the state and the police, are guerrillas. But in order to do that, the [the government] had to create illegal groups so that no one would suspect the government of Colombia and its military forces"members of the army and the police even patrol side by side with the paramilitaries."

The paramilitary system first began in the mid-1960s when the Colombian government passed legislation that authorized citizens to carry arms and assist the military in repression. Hristov argues that "paramilitary forces entered the scene to perform two main functions." The first was to participate in combat at a local level, as described by the 1966 US Army Counterinsurgency Forces field manual, which stated: "paramilitary units can support the national army in the conduct of counterinsurgency operations when the latter are being conducted in their own province or political subdivision." Second, Hristov writes that paramilitaries "were intended to monitor and gather intelligence on the rebels, their civilian supporters, and social organizations by establishing networks throughout the country."

While these early paramilitaries did play some role in state repression, it would not be until the 1980s that they really began to increase in size and influence. Hristov writes that "the 1980s were the golden age of paramilitary development, as many new groups formed, expanded, and rapidly acquired financial and military strength...This second wave of creation enacted by large-scale landowners, cattle ranchers, mining entrepreneurs (particularly those in the emerald business) and narco-lords took place in a particular context, characterized by five main features: a shift in the state's (unofficial) policy toward the partial privatization of coercion; the state's fusion with the elite; a legal framework that had set the ground for the design, training, equipping, and administration by the state military of armed bodies outside its institution; a prevailing anticommunist ideology; and militarized patches of the country that served as models to emulate."

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Hans Bennett is a multi-media journalist mostly focusing on the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and all political prisoners. An archive of his work is available at and he is also co-founder of "Journalists for Mumia," (more...)

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