Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Legitimacy in Exchange for Mistreated Hostages:

My translation of an article from Madrid's El País newspaper. The Author is Joaquín Villalobos, who was a leader of El Salvadorean guerillas during the 1980's and 90's.


January 16, 2008

When I began to learn about the Colombian conflict, I found it hard to believe that the FARC commanders travelled around in air-conditioned cars, and that their camps had many comforts. I was also surprised that some of their commanders were so evidently overweight. Whereas the Salvadorean civil war could be explained by an excess of power of the State, the Colombian conflict is essentially explained by the weakness of the State in controlling its own territory. Colombia has places where there has been no government for over forty years. This vacuum has been filled by paramilitaries, guerillas, drug traffickers, and bandits who have become the default authorities before the indifference or under the consent of the government.

As Salvadorean guerillas, we fought for each square metre of our small country against authoritarian governments who were militarily supported by the United States. In Colombia, the FARC have been a sedentary guerilla force, who without much fighting were able to control extensive territory in which there was no government. They have spent forty-three years in the mountains, and some of their leaders have died of old age. Even so, in Colombia the April 19th Movement (M-19) was the first Latin American guerilla group that, at a price of many dead, negotiated democratic political reforms. Now, the M-19, as part of the Alternative Democratic Pole [a legitimate political alliance], is the second largest political force in the country. That is to say, that in Colombia the left could win the next elections, as has already occurred in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

There are those who continue to see Latin America as a set of banana republics in which political violence is legitimate. The map, the times, and money from cocaine coincided with the increase in violence of the FARC during the 1990's. Prior to this, they were a lazy insurgency, and as such, had little relevance. In 1990, after the death of their political leader Jacobo Arenas, the FARC was left without ideological guidance against the proliferation of coca plantations in their territory. They began by practicing extortion on the drug traffickers and ended up the owners of the largest cocaine production facilities in the world. Their journey took them from being the newest Latin American political guerilla force to being the first irregular drug trafficking army, and becoming a real threat to the Colombian State.

The governments of the last twenty years had to reverse the weakness of the State and to correct past abuses. First, they agreed to peace with the political insurgencies, then they broke up the large drug cartels that Pablo Escobar had led, followed by successful efforts to combat the culture of violence, and finally they began to recuperate control of terrain. The government proposed negotiations with the FARC which failed, due to the kidnapping of twelve Congress members who were executed in June of 2007. The strength of the Army and Police were increased and these forces were
permanently mobilized into the 1,120 municipalities of Colombia. They began to fight and demobilize the paramilitary forces. The guerilla leaders lost their air-conditioned cars and their camps with refrigerators. Cornered, the FARC turned to terrorism. One hundred and seventeen citizens died taking refuge in Bellavista church when it was destroyed by the FARC; a car-bomb with 200 kg of explosives demolished a club in Bogotá full of families -- this type of thing became routine, and the numbers of civilian dead and wounded mounted into the thousands. Despite this, the violence of the FARC is currently decreasing, and during 2007 they were unable to seize any towns now controlled by the State. Their fighters are demobilizing in large numbers (2,400 in the last year alone), and there is public evidence that some guerilla leaders are enjoying their lost comforts in Venezuelan territory.

The FARC have no future as guerillas, although they do have one as drug traffickers. The immense Colombian jungle allows them to keep the hostages they kidnapped in the past, and to use them as their last pieces of political ammo. The harsh conditions in which they keep them are evidence of their own demoralization and loss of control; they didn't even know where they were holding baby Emmanuel. The FARC has made kidnapping, extortion and drug trafficking its principal activities. It is now the largest hostage-taking operation on the planet.

An insurgency negotiates from a position of legitimate political demands or from the military strength it projects, but to demand legitimacy in exchange for mistreated hostages threatened with death is the moral equivalent of asking for respect because you are an evildoer. Anti-neoliberalism cannot justify exploiting the pain of the hostages' families. If Chávez were only helping to save hostages it would be positive, but his political recognition of the FARC has revived Colombian violence, opens the doors of his own country to cocaine, and makes him into the protector of cruel drug traffickers.
An interesting taunt from Villalobos, a "comrade in arms" to the original FARC movement. I have written about the rise of the cartels and the corrupting influence of the drug trade on all aspects of Colombian society before.

What you should realize, as you sit in your safe countries abroad, are two things: I have endangered myself and my family by posting these things, and second, that these thugs are also settling quite nicely into properties they buy in Europe and the United States, and working their way into the established "mara" system. Good luck getting rid of them.

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2 Comments:

At 10:40 AM, Blogger Blair said...

Do you think that major power governments think they are a real threat? It has seemed to me that they don't, and it gravely concerns me.

 
At 4:00 PM, Blogger Paul said...

I think the major powers are distracted by happenings in the Middle East for now. Latin America is pretty low priority (again)...

 

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