Colombia being bled dry

This article first appeared in De Standaard on August 9, 2003.

"Social violence has claimed as many victims in Cali as the civil war, if not more", according to Donatella Massaï, the coordinator of Médecins Sans Frontières projects in Colombia at the headquarters in Brussels. "It is the chief cause of death. It is just less conspicuous than political violence."

Still, the rules are clear. Individuals straying outside their own neighbourhood and into another gang's area do so at the risk of losing their lives. Even crossing the street can have fatal repercussions in the Columbian city of Cali. Edilson was 17 years old when he made the fatal blunder. After a night out, he ran into five members of a rival gang. They were armed with revolvers and a "chupasangre", a long pointed stick, whose literal translation is "bloodsucker"'.

"'Finish him off', I heard them call. They shot me to the ground. Two friends came back to pick me up. I couldn't see, everything had gone blacks," said Edilson.

Edilson was shot in the back and the head. From the start, the doctors feared he would be reduced to a plant-like existence. The most optimistic prognosis was that he would be unable to walk. However, he made a recovery after undergoing a Médecins Sans Frontières-sponsored rehabilitation project and is now learning to get about again on crutches.

Edilson was no pushover himself. He joined the El Machete when he was a lot younger. He spent most of his time fighting, drinking and sniffing drugs. He claims he has never killed anyone but did stab a boy for trying to steal Edilson's cap.

"The first time you stab someone you are really in awe of what you have done but after that you find yourself just going through the motions," he said.

After he was shot himself, Edilson decided to steer clear of street life. However, in the poor areas of Columbia, it is a huge struggle to change your lifestyle. Last year Edilson joined in the New Year festivities in Cali.

"As I returned home alone at night, I was stopped by three guys from another street gang," he explained. "They hit me over the head with rifle butts. When I regained consciousness, I was lying in hospital with serious skull fractures."

A war without flags and positions is raging in the slums of Cali. Street gangs are struggling to gain control of city neighbourhoods, striving to make a profit from 'protection money' and drug-trafficking. Rivals over love are after each other's blood, interfamily violence is a fatal problem and hot-tempered drunkards are likely to pull out a knife for the slightest excuse.

"Social violence has claimed as many victims in Cali as the civil war, if not more", according to Donatella Massaï, the coordinator of Médecins Sans Frontières projects in Colombia at the headquarters in Brussels. "It is the chief cause of death. It is just less conspicuous than political violence."

Power vacuum

However it is difficult to make a distinction in Columbia between social violence, mere delinquency and political struggles. 'El conflicto', as it is called in Colombia, involves sundry, interwoven conflicts.

"A distinction has to be made between the various protagonists in order to get a good understanding of the violence", says An Vranckx, a researcher with the Antwerp-based International Peace Information Service (IPIS) and a lecturer in International Politics at Antwerp University. Her speciality is the role key non-state operators play in international politics.

Colombia is a classic case of how such groups fill a vacuum when a government is too weak.

"Columbia is a huge country a lot of which is inaccessible and sparsely populated. The state's presence is almost non-existent. Various guerrilla groups sprang up in these areas during the 1960s."

What is amazing is that Colombia has never had any coup d'états or military dictatorships. The country with the longest-lasting conflict in Latin America is also one of the oldest democracies in this continent. And Vranckx claims this contradiction can be attributed to the persistent violence.

"Until 1991, Colombia had never really invested in its army, in spite of the guerrilla movements," she said. "The civil government's suspicious attitude toward the armed forces dates back a long time. It is precisely this neglect of the army and police forces that has created a power vacuum in many areas of the country, paving the way for people to take the law into their own hands. The FARC guerrilla movement sprang up in 1964 as a result of groups of farmers acting in self-defence. The ELN was established in the very same year. Paramilitary forces also came into being in the early 1980s, so as to protect cattle farmers and drug barons from the guerrillas."

Colombia politics

Colombia is Simón Bolívar's dream turned into a nightmare.

Between 1810 and 1825, the legendary freedom fighter Simón Bolívar succeeded in liberating Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia from Spanish rule. However, the huge South American federation he had in mind, La Gran Colombia, finished, in 1830, by breaking up into rival states. Colombia in turn was being torn apart by a continuing civil war between local caudillos, militia forces and political parties. This conflict has continued in various forms down to the present day.

Nonetheless, Colombia is a rich country that can boast a democratic tradition that goes back a long way. Established in 1991, the new constitution is particularly progressive and elections are properly conducted notwithstanding the violence. The legal system is very weak, however, with the result that there is an astonishing level of immunity from punishment in the country.

Colombia is the fourth largest country in Latin America and with 41 million inhabitants, has the largest population after Brazil. Nearly 60% of the population are of mixed race, 20% are white and fewer than 20% are black or mulatto. A small minority of 1% is of Indian origin. The education and health care systems are fairly well developed in the urban areas. The country boasts rich cultural activities and has an effective and varied press.

The landscape varies enormously: a flat, tropical coastal strip, high mountain ranges and extensive areas of Amazon forest. Huge rivers cross the territory. Consequently, Colombia has extremely fertile farmlands and valuable mineral resources, including petroleum, gold and emeralds.

It has a fairly well developed and diversified industry, a vast tertiary sector and the national debt is under control. But war has taken its toll on the economy in recent years. Investors are withdrawing and the economic crisis is forcing the administration to cut back on government spending.

Columbia's enviable wealth is unevenly distributed. And one of the basic reasons for the continuing conflict in Colombia is the yawning gap between a rich elite and huge mass of impoverished people.

Political and economic power has long been concentrated in the hands of an oligarchy, often of Spanish descent. 55% of the people, mainly coloured people, are living in dire poverty. Foreign and domestic investors have their eyes on large pieces of land for farming and mining activities.

The distinction between the legal and illegal economy (drugs) is of little importance for smaller farmers who are, in any case, threatening to leave the land.



Up until the 1980s the conflict between the guerrillas and paramilitaries was primarily an issue confined to the countryside and was of little concern to politicians and the urban population. They were more worried about the violence the drug cartels in Medellín and Cali were using to blackmail the government. And Vranckx believes the drug trade was not the cause of the conflict but acted as a catalyst.

"When the demand for cocaine exploded in the United States in the late 1970s, Columbia was involved in the international cocaine trade," she explained. "The coca leaves were produced in Peru and Bolivia and sent to Columbia for processing and trafficking under the supervision of the major cartels."

"In the middle of the 1990s, the Columbia government succeeded in breaking the major cartels but this did not signal the end of the coca trade. This was divided up into a couple of hundred invisible mini cartels. And even more seriously, people started growing coca in Columbia itself on a large scale.

"As soon as they came into existence, the paramilitary groups were linked to the drug cartels. In 1982, however, the FARC authorised its various sections to extort revolutionary taxes from the cocaine base operators. This meant that towards the middle of the 1990s there was an exponential increase in the resources available to the warring factions."

And Vranckx claims the conflict in Colombia no longer takes the form of a struggle between the left and the right but rather of strategic alliances between armed protagonists and the drug-based economy. Last year the FARC counted 17,000 members and the smaller ELN 3,500. The paramilitary forces, too, established themselves on nationwide scale. Carlos Castaño succeeded in 1997 in organising the various national militia groups into the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), a well-oiled and well-funded machinery of death boasting 13,000 members.

Huge areas of the country are under the control of guerrilla and paramilitary groups, while the government exercises its authority in the cities only with great difficulty. The paramilitary groups in particular have established a firm footing on the ground in urban areas.

And Vranckx: "The situation had reached a total deadlock by the late 1990s. The guerrilla and anti-guerrilla forces were getting richer all the time, faced with a state that was growing weaker and weaker because of the crisis and compelled to fight on several fronts."

Humanitarian disaster

The humanitarian repercussions of the Columbian conflict have been disastrous. The paramilitary forces in particular excel in cruelty. According to Human Rights Watch, they are responsible for 70% of the 30,000 deaths resulting from the conflict over the last 10 years. In the countryside, the AUC has used brutal slaughtering tactics to force entire communities to flee their villages.

They have introduced a new weapon into the conflict: the chainsaw. In urban areas they systematically kill anyone thought to sympathise with the guerrilla forces: family, friends, trade unionists, human rights workers and journalists.

The guerrilla groups, too, are now disdainful of the civilian population and have no qualms about flouting the Geneva Convention. Kidnappings, bomb attacks against civilian targets, payments and recruiting child soldiers - all of these are part of their huge arsenal of war.

Apart from the thousands of direct victims, the war has also lumbered Colombia with a huge refugee problem. According to a report by the International Crisis Group, 320,000 people had to leave their villages in 2002. The war has left a total of two and a half million people homeless. Most of them have ended up in the slum areas of cities. About half of them are dependent on the International Red Cross for their survival.

Seriously defective and bound by too much red tape, Colombia's own health system is unable to cater for all the needs. This is why Médecins Sans Frontières workers in Quibdo are running an aid project for displaced people. Meanwhile, the International Crisis Group claims the Columbian administration is not doing enough to address the humanitarian disaster.

A glimmer of hope?

Few observers believe there is a quick fix for the Columbian conflict. Brokered by the former President Pastrana, the latest round of talks with the FARC ended in failure. The initiative was nevertheless an ambitious one. The idea was for police forces and the army to withdraw from an area as big as Switzerland so as to provide the FARC with sufficient security guarantees. But fours years of talks in the so-called zona de despeje have come to nought.

The liberal Álvaro Uribe came to power in the wake of fresh elections in 2002. His huge election victory stemmed largely from his pledge to take firm measures to tackled the armed groups, whilst at the same time continuing to promote disarmament and demobilisation. Human rights organisations are suspicious of Uribe. They regard him as a right-wing hardliner who has ties with the paramilitary groups. They also warn that the approach adopted by Uribe could result in a further escalation of violence.

After he came to office, the FARC did indeed let loose with a few spectacular operations, including a mortar attack on the presidential palace on the day of Uribe's inauguration. Conversely, Columbian citizens are firmly convinced that Uribe has improved the security situation, and this is borne out by the government figures. Compared with last year, the number of kidnappings, attacks and deaths among the civilian population has dropped sharply, whilst losses among the guerrilla groups and AUC have doubled. More and more members of guerrilla and paramilitary groups have laid down their weapons.

The greatest surprise of Uribe's term of office (and these are still early days) occurred at the end of 2002. Regarded by everyone as an uncontrollable hydra-headed monster, the paramilitary forces announced a cease-fire that has held for seven months and a few two weeks ago led to a concrete disarmament agreement with the government. By late 2005, about 13,000 paramilitaries will have laid down their arms.

Miraculous is how An Vranckx describes the pact.

"It has long been taboo for the paramilitary forces to become involved in negotiations. But they are now the first ones to agree to observe a cease-fire. What this means in practice is that 13,000 men, who are without a shadow of a doubt responsible for the greatest humanitarian disaster, are withdrawing from the conflict."

And Vranckx sees this as offering a glimmer of hope.

"The disarmament may be the first step to straightening out the tangle," she said.

Unanswered questions

The reaction from European Union and the United States administration is one of cautious optimism. However, there are still a lot of unanswered questions, not least about how serious the intentions are of the paramilitary leaders. They have very close connections with the drug trade and the Columbian establishment.

Human rights organisations are mainly concerned about immunity from punishment. The AUC leaders Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso are faced with a dozen or so legal proceedings owing to their implication in massacres. Is there not a danger that such people may be allowed to enter public life without any punishment at all? Is there not also a risk that the illegal war economy could be given an official setting? Are senior military officials and politicians likely to agree to their involvement with the AUC being revealed?

In other words: is there any chance of truth, justice and compensation, the three preconditions for actual reconciliation, being fully addressed? The Columbian administration denies that those guilty of human rights violations will get off scot-free.

Let us return to An Vranckx for a final comment about the agreement: "Who is going to pay for it? If the agreement is to succeed, the demobilised paramilitary forces will have to have a chance to lead respectable lives."

The article was prepared with the cooperation of Médecins Sans Frontières,

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of MSF.