In her new book Blood & Capital: The Paramilitarization of Colombia, author Jasmin Hristov writes: "For roughly forty years, the Colombian state has been playing a double game: prohibiting the formation of paramilitary groups with one law and facilitating their existence with another; condemning their barbarities and at the same time assisting their operations; promising to bring perpetrators of crime to justice, while opening the door to perpetual immunity; convicting them of narco-trafficking, yet profiting from their drug deals; announcing to the world the government's persecution of paramilitary organizations, even though in reality these 'illegal armed groups' have been carrying out the dirty work unseemly for a state that claims to be democratic and worthy of billions of dollars in US military aid."
As the largest recipient of US military aid in the hemisphere, Colombia has long been the US' most important ally in Latin America. Simultaneously, Colombia has also become the hemisphere's worst human rights violator, with Colombia's numerous paramilitary organizations recently taking center stage, as they've gradually become directly responsible for more human rights atrocities than the formal military and police. In the name of fighting "narco-terrorism," poor people and dissidents are massacred, assassinated, tortured, and disappeared, among other atrocities--done to eliminate particular individuals and to "set an example" by intimidating others in the community. 97 percent of human rights abuses remain unpunished.
In recent years, a variety of human rights organizations, as well as mainstream academics and journalists have found it impossible to ignore the astronomical human rights violations. However, even though these groups have accurately reported on the actual atrocities, Jasmin Hristov argues that in their reports, the atrocities are largely de-contextualized from the powerful forces in Colombia and the US that directly benefit from this repression. According to Hristov, this mainstream presentation serves to mask the fact that US and Colombian elites directly support (via funding, training, supervising, and providing legal immunity for) state repression carried out by the police and military, as well as illegal paramilitary groups that are unofficially sanctioned by the government. Whether it is murdering labor organizers or displacing an indigenous community because a US corporation wants to drill for oil on their land, Hristov passionately asserts that death squad violence is purposefully directed towards sectors of society that stand in the way of the ruling class' efforts to maintain economic dominance and acquire more resources to make even more profit.
In her book, Hristov does make a convincing argument that Colombia's notorious death squads are inherently linked to maintenance of the country's extreme economic inequality. Particularly since the neoliberal reforms of the 1990s that have increased poverty, Colombia's poor continue to resist their oppression in many different ways. In response, state repression on a variety of levels is needed to terrorize unarmed social movements and other community groups and activists.
Throughout Blood & Capital, Hristov seeks to expose the rational motivations behind state violence for capitalism's economic elites in the US and Colombia. In meticulous detail, Hristov shows how the super-rich benefit from state repression and how the violators of human rights have essentially become immune from any consequences for their actions. If death squads are truly to be abolished in Colombia, we must look honestly at how and why they exist today. Hristov's new book is a powerful tool for exposing who truly calls the shots.
Neoliberalism or Neopoverty?
Hristov asserts that "it is not a mere coincidence that during the era of accelerated neoliberal restructuring, the deterioration in the living conditions of the working majority has been accompanied by an increase in the capabilities and activities of military, police, and paramilitary groups, as well as the portrayal of social movements as forces that must be monitored, silenced, and eventually dismantled." The scandalous epidemic of poverty in Colombia is key to understanding Colombian politics, and why the upper classes so fear political organizing among the poor, who could mount a formidable opposition to the status quo if allowed to organize unrestrained by state repression.
When neoliberal policies were adopted by the Colombian government in the 1990s, it dramatically increased poverty, and made an already terrible situation worse. Hristov writes that the "essential components of neoliberalism are trade liberalization, privatization, deregulation, and austerity. Trade liberalization entails the removal of any trade barriers, such as tariffs and quotas. Privatization requires the sale of public enterprises and assets to private owners. Through the removal of government restrictions and interventions on capital, deregulation allows market forces to act as a self-regulating mechanism"Austerity requires the drastic reduction or elimination of expenditures for social programs and services."
She argues that the "main cause that led to the official adoption of neoliberal policies by the developing countries in Latin America and elsewhere was the pressure to service their external debts in the late 1970s. In order to receive loans from the World Bank (WB), or the International Monetary Fund (IMF), nations had to agree to a program of structural adjustment that included drastically reducing public spending in health, education, and welfare," and much more.
Because Colombia had less debt than other Latin American countries, "major neoliberal restructuring did not begin until 1990, under President Cesar Gaviria Trujillo (1990-94), when the country began to receive massive amounts of US military aid. "In addition to the significant social damage wrought by these policies, by the mid-1990s Colombia had to almost double its borrowing from the IMF because of the economic crisis brought on by the market liberalization," writes Hristov.
These drastic reforms have intensified since current President Alvaro Uribe came to power in 2002. After the IMF loaned $2.1 billion in 2003 on the condition that the reforms be accelerated, Uribe "privatized one of the country's largest banks (BANCAFE), restructured the pension program, and reduced the number of public-sector workers in order to cut budget deficits, as required by the international lending institution. Uribe also closed down some of the country's biggest public hospitals, eliminating over four thousand medical jobs, and denationalized companies in the telecommunications, oil, and mining sectors," reports Hristov.
These are a few of the statistics compiled by Hristov, who writes that "in a country of 45 million, around 11 million people are unable to afford even one nutritious meal a day. According to statistics from 2005, 65 percent of Colombians are unable to regularly satisfy basic subsistence needs. In rural areas, the poverty rate is as high as 85 percent"In 2000 it was estimated that half a million children suffer from malnutrition and close to 2.5 million children between the ages of six and seventeen are forced to work"Furthermore, there has been a notable decline in school attendance, literacy, and life expectancy as well as access to child care and education over the past couple of years."
Blood, Capital, and the State Coercive Apparatus
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."