What’s going on here?
After being here for over a month and constantly brushing shoulders with the elephant in the room, in many ways the reasons we’re all here, SEED finally had a week dedicated to looking specifically at the armed conflict. We started by talking to one of the many victims of this conflict.
Twenty two years ago I was just being born in Paris, France. Twenty two years ago this woman started running from the various groups trying to kill her. At first a unit of the FARC, a leftist guerilla group started by campesinos in the 1960’s, murdered several people in her village, including her husband who she found with 30 bullet holes in him. Denouncing this act started her life on the run. Over the course of the last twenty two years our guest has lived in almost all areas of Colombia and been persecuted by leftist guerilla groups, paramilitary groups, and the Armed Forces., every time denouncing their acts officially, thus putting herself further at risk. As she says “If they’re going to kill me, they’re going to kill me. But I’m going to denounce it.” Fourteen of her family and friends have been killed and she continues to live a life she says is no life at all, having to move apartments every few months, never taking the same path, disguising herself and her children, living in fear at all times and weeping for her children’s inability to have friends or a childhood in such conditions. The last attempt on her life was 20 days ago.
What’s going on here? Who are the actors? Who’s at fault? What can be done?
In our stakeholder map the team made at the end of the week we identified the following main actors in the conflict: Paramilitary groups, FARC, ELN, Armed Forces, the Colombian government, political opposition, the economic and political elite, multinational companies and large national companies, narcotraffickers, the church, NGOs, the media, the international community, Colombian civil society and victims of the conflict. All of these actors play some role in the conflict however I want to just give a tiny bit of background explaining three of the main armed actors: FARC, ELN and paramilitary groups.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has its roots in campesino movements influenced by communism desiring agrarian reform. It became an armed guerrilla group starting in 1964 after, with the support and encouragement of the US government, 16,000 Colombian troops attacked the community of Marquetalia. Of the 1000 villagers, 48 were armed and fought back and eventually escaped to the mountains where they formed the core of the FARC.
The National Liberation Army, or ELN, is the second active guerrilla group. Started at around the same time, the ELN has a very distinct background to the FARC. Born from a more urban/university context, it drew its greatest influence from the Cuban Revolution and flopped Bay of Pigs experience. It also has strong roots in liberation theology which is why people such as Father Camilo Torres Restrepo and Father Manuel Pérez alias “El Cura Pérez”, joined and took leadership.
Paramilitary groups are probably the most politically-potent group to talk about. Paramilitarism is not unique to Colombia, South Africa, Guatemala and Peru are all examples of other countries with such groups, however the Colombian version is distinct. Colombian paramilarism originated out of three major sources: 1) large-land owners hiring auto-defense groups to protect from guerilla groups, 2) rich drug-lords creating MAS “Muerte a los secuestradores” or “Death to the Kidnappers” in reaction to the numerous kidnappings executed by guerilla groups 3) These same groups being hired by politicians to murder members and leaders of opposition groups in and after the 1986 election—a extraordinary case of “what if?” when the FARC and other leftist groups attempted to seek representation through political channels and consequently their entire political party, the UP (“Union Patriotica”) got exterminated–and later during the 1991 Constitutional-revision time.
In 1993 under an initiative called “La Convivir” these groups were officially legalized, only to be illegalized in 1997 when then formed the AUC, “Auto-defensas Unidas de Colombia” (a group uniting the various paramilitary groups.), officially recognized by the Colombian government and much of the international community as a “terrorist organization” but still supported by many politicians. Since the demobilization process under President Uribe in 2005, the government no longer acknowledges that any such thing as “paramility groups” exists, naming the current phenomenon of organized violence with the same network of supposedly “demobilized” leaders as “BACRIM” or criminal gangs. It is worth noting that while almost all of the human rights groups we spoke with described paramilitary violence and “parapolitics” as some of the most destructive and corrupting aspects of the Colombian landscape, our presentation from the military never once spoke the word “paramilitary” (although “terrorists” was a liberally used term)
Our victim’s reality given these groups and history is different than our colonel’s. For one, every group is oppressive, leading to destruction and death, and no one but God can be counted on to protect you. For the other there are legitimate actors and terrorists, with some unavoidable corruption in-between. Both individuals have been victims of violence, of kidnapping, and both of their life experiences validate their named realities. And yet somehow the two barely seem to be living in the same world, let alone the same country or conflict.
All of the above-discussed groups have violated international law and committed reprehensible acts of violence at various points and to various degrees. The degrees are important and I do believe that, especially if the state is going to claim a monopoly on the use of force, state-related (through funding or political support) violence and violations of rights needs to be taken all the more seriously. However, I hope that I am not portraying this conflict in terms of “good” and “bad” guys. The truth is that, even as there are individuals within all groups whose intentions are the very best, and while I may agree or disagree to various degrees with the initial ethos or telos of a given group, no armed group, legal or illegal, is above reproach in this conflict.
It has taken me all the way to the end of the week on peace building to finally post anything I learned about the armed conflict last week. I realize this is information-heavy but I truly believe that whatever reflections I have will be empty and context-less if I don’t first attempt to express some of the content being woven into my reality here as well.
In three weeks I will be living in Medellin and working with local churches on the nebulous task of peace building. Tasks will suddenly shrink down to specific projects and jobs and context will also zoom-in to specific neighborhoods and dynamics. Undoubtedly I will need to do this same work of context-analysis regarding Medellin as a city, and the churches as organizations. But I am extremely glad to have time here in the Bogota-bubble to set a framework of the broader context that these specific contexts are embedded within. For us peace-building nerds, one could say I am being educated in the “system” so as to better understand the “sub-systems”, “relationships” and “situations” I will be involved in. With greater understanding comes greater opportunity to lock oneself in the bathroom, crying at the overwhelming pain and wrongness of it all, but also a better chance of being able to engage the situation in a helpful way.
As a professor Mery Rodriguez recently admonished us, being peace builders means not letting yourself fall into apathy or despair; it is living to say: Yes, we can understand; yes, we can unravel the knots of wrong; yes, we can start with what we can do rather than focus on what we cannot.
“ Hoy, ya, yo, dos manos” , Today, now, me, two hands.
Replace “me” with “us”, but the idea is there.