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Neoliberalism Needs Death Squads in Colombia

By       Message Hans Bennett     Permalink
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This second wave was given another boost in 1994 with the creation of the Community Rural Surveillance Associations (CONVIVIR) by current President Alvaro Uribe Velez, who was the governor of the department of Antioquia at that time. Hristov writes that Uribe made CONVIVIR into "a replica of the original paramilitary bodies designed in the 1960s. As it had thirty years ago, now the civilian counterpart of the SCA was to take on a central role in the Dirty War under a legal mantle. By the time CONVIVIR was outlawed, in 1999, most of the numerous paramilitary self defense bodies had united, attaining an organizational and military capacity unsurpassed by paramilitary forces in any other Latin American country."

In August, 1998, just before the legislation supporting CONVIVIR was abolished, hundreds of members publicly announced that they would be joining the AUC paramilitary network, which became the most prominent paramilitary network in Colombia. The AUC had been created in 1997, mostly under the leadership of Carlos Castano and his paramilitary group, the ACCU, which became the largest group in the AUC federation. Others that operated in this loose confederation of paramilitary groups included Bloque Cacique Nutibara, the Bloque Central Bolivar, and the Bloque de Magdalena Medio.

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Following official "peace negotiations" between the AUC and the Colombian government which began in 2002 with an official AUC ceasefire agreement, the AUC officially disbanded in February 2006, as part of an overall public disarmament of many paramilitaries throughout Colombia. However Hristov argues that "there are many factors challenging the legitimacy of the peace process. First, during the entire period of the cease-fire announced by the AUC, its groups regularly engaged in military actions against civilians, thereby committing human rights violations (and such activities continue to take place). Second, often those who claimed to be demobilizing were not the real paramilitary combatants but hired criminals, or drug dealers who had bought the AUC franchise. Third, large quantities of arms that should have been turned over were not. Fourth, fighters who are officially considered demobilized are in reality already active militarily in new organizations, where their skills of terrorizing the civilian population for economic gains are necessary and valued."

Since 2006, there have been several government initiatives that give the formal appearance of the Colombian government working to combat paramilitaries. Hristov explains that "early in 2007 the Supreme Court began investigating numerous connections between paramilitaries and important state actors, such as senators, representatives, deputies, councilors, and mayors. As time went by, the public learned of more and more cases in which the legal (state officials with their political authority and legitimacy) and the illegal (paramilitary groups with their economic and military power) had entered into alliances to advance their mutual interests. Through mid-2008, 38 percent of members of Congress have been implicated in this parapolitica scandal."

While Hristov recognizes some importance in these recent investigations, she feels that their real impact has been extremely limited. She argues that "despite all the cases that have been exposed, parapolitica is not likely to be eradicated from the Colombian political system. On the contrary, the flood of revelations about politicians' connections to the paramilitary actually allows serious crimes, such as complicity in massacres, to get buried under waves of minor offenses, and eventually the entire issue becomes just another corruption scandal."

In their 2009 report on Colombia, Human Rights Watch concluded that there are many "threats to accountability for paramilitaries' accomplices," reporting that "the Uribe administration has repeatedly taken actions that could sabotage the investigations. Administration officials have issued public personal attacks on the Supreme Court and its members, in some cases making accusations that have turned out to be baseless, in what increasingly looks like a campaign to discredit the court. In mid-2008 the administration proposed a series of constitutional amendments that would have removed what are known as the 'parapolitics' investigations from the Supreme Court's jurisdiction, but it withdrew the proposal in November. The administration also blocked what is known as the 'empty chair' bill, which would have reformed the Congress to sanction parties that had backed politicians linked to paramilitaries."

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Hristov concludes that the centrality of paramilitaries to Colombian politics will not be disappearing anytime soon, mostly because repression has been necessary to enforce the country's stark social/political/economic injustice. Hristov argues that the paramilitaries have become an essential tool of repression, and because Colombia's poor majority will continue to resist this outrageous poverty, the paramilitaries' repression will continue. Seen in this context, the recent demobilization process is only a tactical restructuring of paramilitaries and the SCA, similar to their restructurings in the 1980s and 1990s. Hristov sees this restructuring as an "adaptation response" to "assure its future survival" in the face of "the reality of resistance and opposition by numerous sectors of society against further dispossession," with the state's ultimate goal being "the institutionalization of paramilitarism and the legalization of capital accumulation through violence."

War on Narco-terrorists?

Since the official end of the Cold War in 1989, US rhetorical justification for allying itself with and providing military aid to the Colombian government has shifted from fighting "communism" to fighting "narco-terrorism." Hristov argues that official rhetoric may have changed but it's still easy to expose this fraudulent war on narco-terrorism as actually being a war against poor people. Concerning the so-called war on terrorism, how can the hemisphere's worst human rights violator fight terrorism? Then, similar to the absurd notion of a terrorist fighting terrorism, how can a government heavily complicit in the drug trade claim that it is fighting a war on drugs?

The Colombian government's multi-faceted complicity in drug trafficking extends all the way to current President Uribe, who was listed by the Pentagon itself, as one of the most wanted international drug traffickers. A declassified National Security Archives report dated September 23, 1991, explicitly accused Uribe of being a collaborator of the Medellin cartel and a personal friend of Pablo Escobar. This report states further that Uribe was one of the "more important Colombian narco-terrorists contracted by the Colombian narcotics cartels for security, transportation, distribution, collection, and enforcement of narcotics operations in both the US and Colombia. These individuals are also contracted as 'HIT MEN' to assassinate individuals targeted by the 'extraditables,' or individual 'narcotic leaders,' and to perform terrorist acts against Colombian officials, other government officials, law enforcement agencies, and groups of other political persuasions."

It's not just the Colombian government! Hristov argues that the US government's Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) "has in reality been converted largely to an instrument of drug traffickers and paramilitaries." To support this assertion, she cites a 2004 memorandum issued by a lawyer at the US Department of Justice named Thomas M. Kent, which accused the DEA of extreme misconduct. Kent states that strong evidence of misconduct is routinely ignored by the control agencies of the Department of Justice. Hristov summarizes key points made in Kent's memorandum, including "to supplement their $7,000 monthly salary, some DEA agents have managed to negotiate with Colombian drug dealers"DEA personnel have been implicated in the killing of informants. "Members of the AUC [paramilitaries] have been assisted by DEA agents in money laundering...DEA agents have participated in the extortion of drug traffickers awaiting extradition."

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On another note, Hristov makes the important point that drug trafficking and the rise of paramilitaries have both fed each other in two key ways. "First, the groups involved in trafficking needed to protect their laboratories, illegal cultivation, and clandestine airstrips in rural areas stimulated the emergence of local armed groups outside the state. Second, many drug dealers had begun to invest their capital in millions of hectares of the best agricultural land in the country and they needed armed forces to protect their lands." Hristov adds further that "the preexisting concentration of land ownership in the hands of the elite and the displacement of impoverished peasants was aggravated dramatically by this trend."

To further expose this fraudulent "war on drugs," it should be noted that the US government has a long history of complicity in drug trafficking, particularly in Latin America. While author William Blum has written the definitive short article on the topic, Alfred McCoy has written the most comprehensive book, titled The Politics of Heroin, documenting the CIA's relationships with drug traffickers around the world, including in France, Italy, China, Laos, Afghanistan, Haiti, and throughout Latin America. In 1989, a Senatorial Committee chaired by Senator John Kerry documented that during the 1980s, while working with the anti-Sandinista "Contras," the CIA and other branches of the US government were complicit in trafficking cocaine into the U.S. from Latin America. The Kerry Committee concluded a three year investigation by stating in their report that "there was substantial evidence of drug smuggling through the war zones on the part of individual Contras, Contra suppliers, Contra pilots, mercenaries who worked with the Contras, and Contra supporters throughout the region"U.S. officials involved in Central America failed to address the drug issue for fear of jeopardizing the war efforts against Nicaragua. "In each case, one or another agency of the US government had information regarding the involvement either while it was occurring, or immediately thereafter."

The Kerry Committee's report and the story behind it has been well-analyzed by authors Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall in their book Cocaine Politics. In 1996, investigative journalist Gary Webb wrote a series of articles for the San Jose Mercury News (later expanded and made into a book in 1999) which directly tied Contra cocaine traffickers Danilo Blandon and Norwin Meneses (both protected by the US government) to Los Angeles drug kingpin "Freeway" Rick Ross, who played a key role in starting the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. The mainstream media launched a smear campaign attacking Webb's story that eventually caused even the Mercury News to denounce Webb. However, several prominent journalists came to Webb's defense and challenged the mainstream media's smear campaign, including Norman Solomon, Robert Parry, and Counterpunch co-editors Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair.

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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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