This morning I may have inadvertantly talked at a political rally for peace. I arrived at what I thought was just one school’s assembly to kick off their month-long program regarding friendship, love, and sex (seriously, this is what I understand it to be).
It started out, however, with all of the schools from the municipality marching in a parade with the mayor and his secretaries. And then we ended in the main plaza at the church, where the priest said a prayer and then a representative from each school had to talk about what peace meant to them. And I got pulled into the fold by my dear friend the Secretary of Education, so I said something like “I’m excited to be here, and I’m really excited to be here at this time where peace is underway. Colombia is being watched by the world…or at least by my dad, who sent me a message about Colombia’s peace accord. Just remember the values of peace always; peace isn’t just something of a moment, a day, or a month, but always.” People probably had no idea what I was talking about because I was confusing the one school’s program with whatever was happening there.
I now know that the peace treaty is going to a public referendum on October 2, and while I don’t exactly understand why the mayor would promote “yes to peace” to a bunch of high school kids that can’t vote, I think that’s what I accidentally got myself mixed in with.
Since I hadn’t previously written the Colombian history section on my Colombian 101 page, I decided this was the time to do that. I need to prove that I understand a little bit about where I am. Here is an excerpt from that, which I hope will help you to understand the context of this peace treaty and what’s in store for the future.
This is lengthy, but I think it’s important to understand the context of the wars to understand the peace accord. I think it’s also important to note that I’ve only been here for eight months. The truth is that families – families of people I know – have been deeply hurt by the events of the last 60+ years. I can’t begin to understand where they go from here or what peace means to them. I hope that I have presented this information objectively, but I want it to be clear from here that I do not really take a stance in this.
Pretty much since its independence was claimed in 1819, Colombia has been a nation of political unrest and civil war. For years and years and years it had just two major political groups who were very polemic: the Liberals and the Conservatives (sound familiar?). They managed to live in relative peace during the first half of the 20th century. Then in 1948 the Liberal leader was assassinated, and his people took up arms, starting what is known as La Violencia (The Violence). It was extra bloody, leaving 300,000 dead – one of the deadliest wars in the western Hemisphere. In 1953 there was a military coup, but the resulting dictatorship only lasted 4 years before the Liberals and Conservatives signed an agreement creating the National Front, in which they agreed to alternate power every 4 years, and abolished the existence of any other political party.
Around this same time, Cold War conflicts starting planting seeds in the outsiders’ minds, and leftist dissidents took to the rural regions to build their independent communities. Basically, communist civilizations were taking root. Back in the cities, rich people began fearing the breakdown of their capitalist civilization and began creating militias. With these new leftist ideologies prohibited from entering the standard political scene by the National Front, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia or Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia) was created and took up arms against the government. Only it wasn’t just the government that they were left to fight, but also the capitalist militias. FARC was not the only group to enter the scene; there were dozens of leftist guerrilla groups taking up arms, but FARC, ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional or Army of National Freedom), and M-19 (Movimiento 19 de abril or Movement of April 19) are the best-known.
Initially these groups had support from the likes of Moscow and Havana, but as the global political landscape began shifting with the fall of communism, they soon had to look for other sources of income. One of their well-known sources of financing is kidnapping; they also got involved in robbery, extortion, and drug trade. Guerrillas primarily controlled the countryside, but they did so in a big way- up to 40%. In 2002 the USA and EU added the guerrillas to their lists of terrorist organizations.
Meanwhile, back in the cities, the drug trade was growing quickly. It is estimated that 80-90% of the world’s cocaine is produced in Colombia, and by the 1980’s, massive drug cartels were formed. The most well-known cartel leader was Pablo Escobar (please watch Netflix’s Narcos now). Early on, he built his smokescreen around a political career. He gave and gave to the poor to win their affection. He appeared powerful thanks to his connections with politicians and business leaders. Behind the scenes, however, he had started the ley de plata o plomo – the law of silver or lead. Most politicians took the bribes, but Escobar’s cartel was responsible for countless deaths thanks to this “law.” He was the richest criminal in history, at the height of his career making $60 million USD per day.
So you’ve got these drug cartels, who for a while were funding the capitalist paramilitary groups.
You’ve got these leftist guerrilla groups, who were fighting the capitlist paramilitary groups and the government itself.
The government finally started fighting the drug cartels after a presidential candidate was assassinated and the US government, thick in the War on Drugs, offered extradition to any criminals.
Things were really bloody again.
But then there was hope – the president who took office in 1990 banned extradition, and the cartel leaders surrendered. They were placed in high-security remote prisons, where they lived like kings thanks to their smuggling skills. That is, until people began to infiltrate and assassinate their members. During the government’s attempt to move Escobar and his people to a safer spot, Escobar escaped and lived on the run until he was found and killed in 1994.
While the cartel violence stopped in the mid-90’s, guerrilla warfare continued and resurged.
In 2002, super-conservative Álvaro Uribe took office largely on an anti-guerrilla platform; he was the first third-party president since the National Front. During his 8 years in office (thanks to a controversial constitutional amendment that allowed him a consecutive second term), murder rates went down 40%. His acknowledgement of the guerrilla groups as terrorists won him major US support in the form of lots of money, which helped in getting stuff done. However, his success rate is also a bit shady – there were numerous corpses dressed up posthumously in guerrilla gear, and he almost started a war with neighboring Venezuela during Chavez’s rule.
He was replaced in 2010 by Juan Manuel Santos, who ran by uniting Uribe supporters to create a new party. In 2012, Santos began peace talks with the heads of FARC and ELN (M-19 demobilized in 1990). After four years of negotiations, on August 24, 2016, a peace accord was signed. The deal enables the group to become an official political party, and creates a calendar for the demobilization of its members. This isn’t concrete yet, though: on October 2, 2016, the people of Colombia will vote in a referendum whether to accept or reject the deal. While peace is something everyone wants, there is some uncertainty as to whether this is the deal that the government should be accepting: it allows the guerrilla group members who ordered or committed monstruous crimes to pay reparations through community service rather than any jail time.
This history is not over.