A BIOGRAPHY OF COLOMBIA EMBATTLED, PART II
The Guerrilla Movement Takes Off: The FARC, the PCC, and Organized Labor
The ELN: Another Guerrilla Group
From And To Elections: The Story of the M-19
Yet Another Guerrilla Movement: The EPL
The Indigenous Movement in Colombia
Drugs, and the Changing Face of Conflict
Conspiracy Theory: Colombia
Outline of Section Contents
A Technical Note on Accents and Tildes
References and Resources
A Colony Of Spain
Ethnicity In Colombia
The Struggle For Independence From Spain
Legacies Of Spanish Colonialism
Liberals And Conservatives
Struggles For Land And Labor
La Violencia, And The Origins Of Social Revolution In Colombia
The Alliance for Progress, and Nationalist Wounds
The Guerrilla Movement Takes Off: The FARC, the PCC, and Organized Labor
In 1962, as US economic aid began to pour into Colombia, and internal reforms began to be implemented by the Colombian government in order to more effectively harness that aid, a preliminary military assault upon the independent peasant zone of Marquetalia (one of several such zones) was made. The campaign was not successful and seemed to accomplish little except to prove the strength and determination of the peasant self-defense groups.
In 1964, the year after President Kennedy’s assassination, the Colombian government renewed its efforts to take Marquetalia and other similar peasant communities, which it now referred to as "independent republics" and considered to be a grave threat to national security. The example of armed peasant groups taking control of large pieces of the national territory, and establishing their own laws, government, and system of land use there, in utter disregard for the policies of the central government, was considered to be potentially destabilizing. Acts of resistance, not punished, could incite new acts of resistance in other parts of the country. Even if the "peasant republics" had no greater agenda, at the moment, than mere survival, survival, itself, had revolutionary implications. Of course, the Colombian government did not see the "independent republics" as being mainly defensive in purpose, they imagined that they were being consolidated by the PCC as bases from which to launch a Communist revolution throughout Colombia, and they therefore embraced the doctrine of "preventive counterinsurgency." The fire must be put out before it began!
"Operation Marquetalia", as the campaign against this remote rural zone of approximately 500 square kilometers in the Department of Tolima was designated, was part of a broader plan, "Plan LASO", which the United States military had helped Colombia to craft. ("LASO" stood for "Latin American Security Operation.") The US military also provided the Colombian army with training, advice, and equipment to carry out the operation. In late May, approximately 16,000 Colombian troops moved into action against the peasant zone, supported by bombers and helicopters, and armed with the latest strategies and techniques of counterinsurgency. At the time, the zone may have been occupied by about 4,000 peasants, backed by a small nucleus of hard-core fighters. The army bombed and strafed the zone, attempted to encircle and blockade it, and pushed into it with ground troops and airborne units. The peasants fought back fiercely, not only making the army pay for its successes, but also discomfiting the Colombian government politically by launching denunciations of the offensive which reached the international community, even prompting statements of solidarity from the likes of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone Beauvoir, as well as many other intellectuals, writers, journalists, activists, and political figures. For many observers, both inside and outside of Colombia, the battle raging in Marquetalia seemed less a necessary preventative, than an uncalled-for and unjust act of aggression, which had produced a kind of David versus Goliath struggle in which men and women who merely wanted to escape from injustice were not even being allowed to run away from it. "Operation Marquetalia", designed to last for three weeks, dragged on for over a year until the core of fighters which had been confronting the army there finally effected a strategic withdrawal to a new base in Riochiquito-Tierradentro, in the Department of Cauca, from which they continued to launch operations into Marquetalia. In the meantime, the guerrilla fighters from Marquetalia began to network extensively with other guerrilla fighters of both Liberal and Communist persuasion in the Departments of Tolima, Huila, Valle, and Cauca. By the end of 1965, they had formed a united guerrilla group known as el Bloque Sur ("the Southern Block"), and by the end of 1966, they had formed the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), or the "Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia", which is today the largest and most effective guerrilla group in Colombia. Its outstanding leaders, in those formative days (and for many years to come), were Manuel Marulanda, aka Tiro Fijo ("Crack Shot") and Jacobo Arenas.
From their initial focus on defending their own lands against the incursions of landlords, and on preserving the integrity of the alternative political and social structures which they had developed during their period of withdrawal from the State, the guerrilla leadership now upped the ante, deciding to extend the struggle into other regions of Colombia, as well. Isolated and alone, rebellious peasant zones were vulnerable when confronted by the full power of the State. If more struggles could be ignited in more zones, the government would have less resources with which to fight any one. And eventually, if the peasant revolt were to become widespread enough, and to connect with other disaffected sectors of society, a successful revolution might even be precipitated, capable of overthrowing the government, and gaining power on the national level. With this end in sight, the FARC began to send guerrilla units throughout the country, gradually opening up fronts in many regions after winning widespread peasant support with a platform based on land reform. The government’s doctrine of "preventive counterinsurgency" had backfired, helping to catalyze a peasant self-defense strategy into outright revolution.
For strategists in both Washington and Bogota, the emergence of the FARC was a major challenge. It was a potent revolutionary movement genuinely rooted in the social history of Colombia, no mere invention of Soviet policy-makers; it resonated with the inhabitants of the Colombian countryside as no transplanted insurrection could. And yet, at the same time, it was also closely linked to the PCC, the Colombian Communist Party, which was, in turn, affiliated with the Communist International. (The Communist International was, of course, the international organization which transmitted the needs of Soviet foreign policy to the local Communist parties of many different lands.) Was the FARC controlled by the PCC - was it the "armed wing of the PCC", as some described it? And was it, therefore, a tool of Soviet foreign policy?
The relationship between the PCC and the FARC was complex - they were extremely close, but not synonymous. For example, at that moment in history, in the mid-1960s, the Soviet Union wished to downplay armed revolution in Latin America (it already had Communist Cuba on its side), and to orient local Communist parties towards doing political work which would expand their power and influence, without provoking levels of repression which they were not capable of withstanding. These local parties were to use the electoral process, labor groups and student groups to gradually widen their appeal, while avoiding violent confrontation. The USSR did not feel that the political conditions necessary for successful revolutions existed yet in Latin America - especially now that the Cuba Revolution had sneaked in "under the radar" (becoming Communist only after it had gained power), triggering a gigantic US counterinsurgency response which had increased the ability of Latin American militaries to counter guerrilla movements throughout the hemisphere. It is also possible that the USSR did not wish to overpressure the US in its own "backyard", now that it was beginning to have serious territorial and ideological problems with China as a result of the "Sino-Soviet split." Throughout this period in Latin America, Communist parties affiliated with the International, therefore, tended to avoid revolutionary activity, which meant that most guerrillas of the period tended to sprout from, or to establish connections with, pro-Chinese Maoist parties, or "Trotskyite" or "Guevarist" groups, which did believe in revolution. In the midst of this complex situation, the FARC rejected the pacific Soviet line. It refused to fall into place with someone else’s global strategy, or to sacrifice itself or the people it was fighting for for a perception formed outside of its own environment, and without intimate knowledge of its circumstances. In this regard, the FARC demonstrated some independence of both the PCC and the Soviet Union; and the PCC, not to lose its strongest asset, gave way. When it came to fighting or not fighting, the FARC called the shots.
On the other hand, many FARC leaders belonged to the PCC, and if there were clear divisions and signs of individuation, significant aspects of their strategy were still coordinated. Not synonymous, they were nonetheless symbiotic and complementary. They needed each other. The PCC, which had played a major role in helping to organize peasants in the Colombian countryside, needed the FARC to defend its gains and to widen its access to the peasantry. They also needed its military might as a bargaining tool. The FARC, for its part, needed the PCC’s ability to build support within the labor movement, and to develop contacts with other potentially-supportive urban sectors, if it was ever to grow beyond a rural-based peasant army and have a realistic hope of one day toppling the ruling class from power. The PCC’s ability to help the FARC in this way fluctuated according to the Colombian government’s response to its activities. As a political party, the PCC had historically alternated between being legal (in which case it was able to operate in the open and to sometimes accomplish a great deal), and being banned (in which case it was driven underground and forced to work under far more difficult circumstances, with a corresponding reduction in its effectiveness). In recent years, it has most often remained technically legal, but exposed to varying degrees of harassment, some of which have been so severe as to virtually it shut it down. As a proponent of organized labor, the PCC was exposed to similar swings in fortune. A brief description of the Colombian labor movement, and the PCC’s role in it, would be helpful at this point, since there are both real and potential connections between the guerrillas and radical labor.
The Colombian labor movement, which first erupted in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917, was initially guided by groups of foreign and Colombian anarchists and socialists. Its first major impact was registered in 1918, as a powerful wave of strikes rocked the Atlantic coastal region, especially affecting the transport sector, which was crucial to the operation of ports such as Barranquilla, Santa Marta, and Cartagena, and to the movement of commerce along the Magdalena River. There was also agitation against the United Fruit Company in the banana zone of Santa Marta. The Colombian government contained this first wave of strikes, and responded to it with legislation designed to curtail the power of organized labor. In 1924, a second wave of strikes struck the region. This time, the main targets were Tropical Oil, a US-owned company operating in the Department of Santander in the vicinity of the river port of Barranca; and the United Fruit Company, whose banana zone experienced its second major strike. By 1926, the Partido Socialista Revolucionaria (the "Revolutionary Socialist Party", or PSR) had emerged as the principal political organization of radical pro-labor forces in Colombia, and it was behind the huge strikes of 1927 against Tropical Oil and 1928 against United Fruit. As a result of the 1928 massacre in the banana zone, and the massive government crackdown which followed, the radical labor movement was temporarily disorganized and disoriented, and the PSR, which was also disrupted by internal arguments, began to unravel. In 1930, elements of the disintegrating PSR reconstituted themselves as the PCC.
The next major surge in organized labor activity occurred in the 1930s, during the era of Liberal populism inaugurated by President Alfonso Lopez Pumarejo. As part of its new populist direction, the Liberal Party lent its support to the formation of unions, and was generally sympathetic to the demands of workers, as long as they were not extreme or threatening to the State. During this time, a major federation of unions was created, the CTC, or Confederacion de Trabajadores de Colombia (the "Confederation of Colombian Workers"), which especially included unions affiliated with the Liberal Party, as well as unions affiliated with the PCC. Throughout this period of populist expansion, the PCC chose not to confront the Liberal Party, but to use that party’s tolerance towards it in order to work legally, and to rebuild its influence and connections. In 1944, Liberal and Communist unions both participated in massive demonstrations on behalf of President Lopez Pumarejo, who had been kidnapped by elements of the army attempting to stage a coup. The support of these workers, as well as the support of other sectors of society, helped lead to the restoration of civilian rule. Soon after, however, in 1945, Liberal interim president Alberto Lleras Camargo, who succeeded Lopez Pumarejo, sent in government troops to break up a strike that had been launched by the PCC-affiliated union which represented dock workers and transport workers along the Magdalena River. This action was a clear warning to the PCC that Populism and Communism were not the same, and that the Liberal Party was not going to allow the Communists to take over and use Liberal mediums for mobilizing the masses, for their own purposes.
In 1946, as Colombia returned to Conservative rule, the UTC (Union de Trabajadores de Colombia, or the "Union of Colombian Workers") was formed as a competitor and alternative to the CTC. The Catholic Church played a major role in the formation of this federation, whose purpose was to protect the basic rights of workers within the context of promoting harmony between Capital and Labor. As much as possible, the UTC sought to de-politicize the labor movement, to focus it on issues specifically related to the workplace, and to discourage it from engaging in strikes except as a last resort. The Conservative Party favored the UTC as a means of widening its appeal, of catching up with irreversible historical realities and wooing important elements of Colombia’s labor force away from the Liberal Party.
In 1961, as the Alliance for Progress began to develop in Colombia, the CTC expelled its Communist unions in order to "cleanse its image", and to deny the PCC "cover" for its "subversive operations." In 1964, the PCC responded by forming its own labor grouping, the CSTC, or Confederacion Sindical de Trabajadores de Colombia ("Labor Confederation of Workers of Colombia), which grew steadily in numbers and influence in the ensuing years.
(More recently, in 1986, the CUT, or Confederacion Unitaria de Trabajadores - the Unity Confederation of Workers - was formed, bringing together Conservative, Liberal, Communist, and Independent unions dedicated to the issues of "labor rights, wages and conditions, and human rights." As of 2000, roughly 80% of Colombia’s unionized workers were affiliated with the CUT.)
Colombia’s labor movement has traditionally been most powerfully centered on the crucial transport sector of the Atlantic Coastal region and the Magdalena River (which is Colombia’s great internal waterway); on workers in the oil zone and banana zone; and later on industrial workers and public employees. It has been pointed out that the most important economic sector in Colombia for most of its history, and during the formative years of its labor movement, was coffee; and that coffee was not fertile terrain for the development of a labor movement. This was because, although there were great coffee haciendas which did provide strong opportunities for organizing, as the PCC discovered in Viota in the 1930s, a great deal of Colombia’s coffee production was carried out by independent peasants, who would bring their bultos de café (sacks of coffee) down on mules to the markets, purchase centers, railroad junctions, or river ports where they would receive payment for it. The coffee industry was not dominated by a few large landowners (as banana production was, for example, dominated by United Fruit); it was not primarily dependent upon wage-laborers, as were the oil and banana industries; and coffee producers were not concentrated in a single enclave, but rather, were spread out in many different regions in ways which did not foster unity and cohesion. All of this, some analysts speculate, prevented the coffee sector from serving as a major base for the development of the labor movement; which, in turn - since coffee was the leading product of the Colombian economy - prevented the Colombian labor movement from developing into the powerful social force it might have been. For those who had revolutionary visions for Colombia, the peasantry, motivated by their struggle to acquire and defend their land, were a far more promising agent for change than the traditional working class, motivated by its traditional concerns of wages and working conditions.
Of course, this insight ran against the grain of classic Marxist thought, with which the PCC was familiar. But by 1966, that classic line of thought had already been significantly amended by history - and the PCC was in tune with that.
According to Marx’s original idea, first promulgated in the mid-1800s, the capitalist class (consisting of the owners of the means of production) was in the process of creating the very forces which would destroy it. Powerful landowners in Europe had invested their profits into the birth of industry, and by "enclosing" large numbers of peasants (shutting them off of the land), driven them into the cities which commerce and industry had spawned, in order to work in factories as wage-laborers. In contrast to the wealthy capitalists, Marx referred to this new class of underpaid and overworked industrial workers as "the proletariat." Frequently they lived in the squalor of slums, subsisting in poverty without any form of job security (they had no unemployment insurance, and no workman’s compensation), while they spent their workdays exposed to unhealthy and dangerous conditions that slowly ground them down, and oftentimes killed them, as they fell victim to accidents or succumbed to diseases related to their environment. As the Industrial Revolution (as this proliferation of machines and factories, with its attendant social transformation, was called) grew in magnitude, so the ranks of the proletariat swelled: displaced peasants were soon joined by independent artisans and craftsmen who had been driven out of business by the output of the factories; while rival capitalists, driven into bankruptcy by more successful competitors, came next. Marx detested the abuses of the Industrial Revolution, but saw hope in its ruthless dynamics: for as the forces of unbridled competition and greed increased the numbers of impoverished proletarians, concentrating wealth more and more in the hands of a few successful capitalist entrepreneurs who exploited the rest of mankind in order to maximize their profits, so the balance of power would gradually shift from the capitalist class to the proletariat. The proletariat would come to vastly outnumber the capitalist class and to gain a potential force that not even the money of the capitalists, invested in the maintenance of the repressive apparatus of the military and police, and in institutions of collective manipulation and mind-control, such as the capitalist-owned Press and the capitalist-friendly Church with its doctrine of social passivity, could contain. All that was needed was for the proletariat to develop class consciousness - an awareness of its exploited position and its capacity to resist - for this potential power to be translated into revolutionary action, which would overthrow the capitalist class and its repressive State, and replace it with a worker’s government dedicated to a fair distribution of the "fruits of labor." In order to develop this class consciousness, Marx believed in political work, radical labor organizing, and social proselytizing. The workers must be led to understand that traditional political parties which represented elite interests would never truly serve them, only use them; that nationalism was nothing more than a manipulative tool meant to bond the oppressed to those who oppressed them within their own country; that religion was merely a drug - "the opiate of the masses" - used to condition the poor to passively accept their misery on the earth in hopes of an illusory reward after death; and that democratic institutions controlled by the elites would never allow the workers to take power by peaceful means (if the capitalists could not buy the elections, or steal them through fraud, they would invalidate the results by unleashing the army and police against the workers). Once consciousness had been raised and the workers had been united by Communist thinkers and organizers, and once they had sufficiently armed themselves or devised a plan for capturing or acquiring weapons, the call to revolt would be given. The proletariat would then rise up in arms, seize control of the means of production - the factories where the wealth of society was produced - and use this control to topple the capitalists from power. Since the defeated capitalists of one country would be likely to attempt to use other sympathetic countries, still controlled by capitalists, as bases from which to launch counterrevolutions against the new proletarian regime, Marx formulated the idea of the "dictatorship of the proletariat." He believed that the newly formed Communist workers’ State could not "expose" itself to the inevitable capitalist counterattack by allowing a democratic political process to exist during its initial period of vulnerability. Elections could be bought from abroad; and in an "open system", manipulation and disinformation could be used to undermine proletarian gains, while covert activities meant to organize a violent recapture of power could proliferate. Only after the capitalist system had been overthrown in every country, would the revolution of the proletariat be safe from counterattack, Marx theorized. At that time, he believed, the dictatorship could end; and in fact, he went so far as to speculate that the lack of a class enemy or artificially-created foreign enemy would make the State basically irrelevant, since its coercive and protective apparatuses would no longer be needed. This would lead to an eventual "withering away of the State", leaving in its wake a worker’s utopia where "each worked according to his ability and received according to his need."
It should be pointed out that Marxism, in spite of the prevailing mindset which currently condemns it on moral, as well as economic grounds, was actually conceived of as a compassionate response to terrible abuses which were later corrected by our own society, and by European societies, in non-Marxist ways. It provided many useful insights in its day, and pushed Western societies to humanize themselves through varied reforms, in order to defuse its threat. This having been said, Marxism also contained some very serious flaws, among them its overly materialist view of reality, which turned it into an enemy not only of frequently manipulative organized religions but also, in many cases, of spirituality itself. The passion of religion was now to be given to the idea of the workers’ revolution and the workers’ State, but these were no true substitute for Humanity’s quest for meaning in the Universe and for a deeply-felt connection with God. Equally damaging was Marxism’s "scientific" rigidity regarding the forces of history, its intractable dedication to violence and warfare as the only possible means to overcome the domination of repressive elites, its premature disillusionment with alternative possibilities for social change, and its concept of the "dictatorship of the proletariat", which was eventually used to consolidate and justify repressive regimes in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, and elsewhere.
As time went on, and the world entered the 20th Century with Marx’s prophecies of a Communist revolution still unfulfilled, Marxist theory began to evolve. New thinkers and revolutionaries appeared to make sense of its impasse, and to give it new direction. Particularly important among these new adapters of Marxist theory was the Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Ilich Lenin. According to Lenin, and others of his persuasion, the revolution predicted by Marx had failed to materialize due to the fact that the capitalist class had made unexpected concessions to the working class in order to survive. It had allowed "trade unionism" to surface and even to flourish: labor movements which focused on economic rather than political issues, and did not aim to overthrow the capitalist system, but rather, to improve the situation of workers within that system. (The violent repression of revolutionary labor movements by police and soldiers helped to channel workers towards these unions of more limited scope.) At the same time as the capitalist class realized that some concessions to labor must be given up for the sake of political stability, the realization was also made by important capitalist figures, such as Henry Ford, that low wages limited the capitalist’s ability to sell his product. If workers received higher wages, they would be able to become consumers of the products they manufactured, which would expand the market for that product, enabling the capitalist to sell more. (This is, in fact, how Henry Ford turned the motorcar from a luxury item, available only to a few, into a mass consumer product and a driving force of American economic development.) According to Lenin, the new concessions given to the working class in Europe and America were made possible by a new surge of imperialism: the subjugation, domination and exploitation of foreign lands, which were either directly invaded and turned into colonies, or else pressured into allowing capitalist money and influence to penetrate them and turn them into appendages of the capitalist economy. It was pointed out that England had India, and much of Africa under its sway; that the French had vast holdings in Africa and Indochina; that the Dutch had the East Indies; that Germany had lately expanded into Africa; that Belgium had the Congo; and that the US had Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines, and had effected a significant "neocolonial" penetration of large parts of Asia, and Latin America. From these lands, the capitalists drew many of the raw materials which they needed to expand and sustain their industrial growth - raw materials which they attained at unfairly low prices, enforced by their power. They also utilized these lands as captive markets for their goods, increasing their revenues, while inhibiting the development of native industries. Where necessary, the capitalist nations spearheaded the complete reorganization of preexisting economies and social structures in the colonies in order to make them better fit into their own system, even when such changes produced massive dislocations on the local level, increasing the vulnerability of millions, who lost the traditional safety nets which had previously protected them (safety nets such as land ownership, village organization, communal values and social networks). According to Lenin, the income generated from imperialism was used by the capitalist class of Europe and the United States to "bribe" its own working class with higher wages and better working conditions, to deter it from the revolution that Marx had predicted. Some Marxist analysts called this phenomenon the "exportation" or "externalization" of the proletariat. They theorized that class relations were now being internationalized: the core industrial countries, although not free of class distinctions, were no longer faced with revolution on account of them, and were beginning to assume a position towards the rest of the world (the periphery) which was very similar to the position which the capitalist class had once assumed towards the proletariat. Under these circumstances, Marx’s original idea that the "inevitable" Communist revolution would commence in the urban/industrial heartland of Europe had to be revised. Conditions for revolution were declining in the core, but increasing in the periphery. In the face of this shift, Lenin theorized that the Communist revolution which he and other Marxists still believed in would now no longer begin in the most developed countries, which had the largest urban populations and the largest concentrations of workers, but in less-developed countries exploited by the dynamic of imperialism. The new revolutionary theory which Lenin advocated was, therefore, to redirect revolutionary activity away from the "bought off" core, towards the "weakest links of the chain." This, conveniently, led him to envision Russia as the center of the revolution which Marx had predicted, and he energetically set himself to turning his own country, which was far behind Europe in terms of industrial development and the significance of its proletariat, into the cradle of the international Communist revolt. In 1917, aided by the exhaustion produced by the First World War, in which Russia was battered and humiliated by Germany in a hopeless war that seemed to have no end, until it finally became desperate for change, Lenin managed to carry out a successful Communist revolution, backed by factory workers, disaffected soldiers, and masses of poor peasants who were set against the land-hoarding nobles of the countryside. This role of peasants in the revolutionary struggle was something new - early Marxists had regarded the peasantry as a basically conservative, almost inert class, lacking the revolutionary spark of the proletariat. It was viewed as wed to tradition, as slow to accept change, as susceptible to manipulation by the elites and organized religion, as a force more likely to be reactionary than revolutionary. (When it did revolt, as it often did through history, its revolts were said to be nothing more than short-sighted responses to local injustice, without broader goals or visions.) In addition to this, the peasantry was dispersed, spread out over a large area, not concentrated in cities in the economic and political heartland of the nation, where its actions must prove decisive. It was perceived as being geographically tangential to the attainment of power. This, too, was said to mitigate against its use as a revolutionary instrument. Lenin, however, withdrew from these perceptions and prejudices, or at least began the movement away from them. He demonstrated the ability to be flexible with Marxist doctrine, to adapt it to changing developments and to local conditions without "destroying the religion of Marx", and to grant the peasantry a major role in the attainment of Communism. He grafted his own vision to Marx’s, giving rise to what would later be called "Marxism-Leninism." While many would abhor his militancy and harshness, seeking to lead Marxism down other paths (including towards the idea of creating democratic socialism without revolution), others would take inspiration from Lenin, and seek to spawn revolutions from within the expanded framework he had created.
In China, during the 1930s, Mao Tse-Tung built on Lenin’s insights, by actually elevating the peasantry into being the principal instrument of his revolutionary strategy. In China, given the size of its rural population compared to its urban population, and given the serious abuses of large-scale landowners in the countryside, who had alienated huge sectors of the peasantry, making them ripe for Communist agitation, this strategy made perfect sense. The enemy had also already proved his ability to repress and destroy Communist organizers in the cities, where his military and police apparatus was at its strongest. Mao’s long-term blueprint for gaining power was, therefore, to win the support of the peasantry; and to build mobile guerrilla units which could move invisibly through it, like "fish in the sea." The people would provide food, shelter, intelligence and scouting support for the guerrilla units, alerting them to the movements of the enemy, while concealing the guerrillas’ presence and intentions from the enemy. The guerrillas, in the zones under their influence, would have "eyes"; the army that sought to destroy them would be "blind." In this first phase of the war, the guerrillas would be politically on the offensive, expanding their influence and the invisible infrastructure of their control over ever larger sections of the country; but from the military point of view, they would be mainly on the defensive, unable to face the enemy in the open, or outside of the support structures of their peasant bases. Their goal would, instead, be to consolidate their domination of certain regions through a combination of popular reforms and selective terror directed against elements of the local ruling class (especially powerful landlords), and against informants who might betray them; to use these regions as bases from which to expand their political work to adjoining regions; and to perhaps carry out acts of sabotage, disruption, and selective terror against "class enemies" and agents of the State (such as the police, the military, and local government officials). These actions would eventually draw a major government response, in which case the guerrilla units would retreat back into the peasant zones which they already controlled, "luring" the army to follow them into deadly ambushes, which the guerrillas’ greater knowledge of local terrain, and its monopoly of information (thanks to peasant collaboration) would enable. Following the simple idea of "when the enemy advances, retreat - when he tires, attack - when he retreats, pursue", the Chinese Communist guerrillas followed a strategy of attempting to wound and demoralize the government army, to slowly bleed it and weaken it in innumerable small-scale conflicts, and to gradually bring increasing swaths of the Chinese countryside under Communist control. After a certain point, as the balance of power between the revolutionary armed forces and the government army began to shift, the guerrillas could form increasingly large mobile columns, engage the government army in major battles of maneuver and positional warfare, drive it back even further, and finally begin to employ a strategy of encircling the major cities which were still in government hands, from the countryside. At the last moment, as the Communist armies advanced on the cities from the rural zones which they controlled, urban supporters secretly recruited and prepared by Communist organizers, would rise up in arms, disorganizing the army’s defense from "behind the lines" as the peasant armies attacked from the front. (In cases, surrounded and cut off from supplies, the cities might even capitulate without a fight.)
In practice, Mao’s victory in China had some important twists and turns along the way. His fierce nationalist rival, Chiang Kai-Shek, gained the upper hand for some time, through a strategy of blockading the peasant zones with forts and garrisons, and attacking them with powerful armies backed by air power. Mao and his supporters were dislodged from their initial peasant base, and forced to retreat to a new base hundreds of miles away, in a military exodus known as the "Long March", which was subsequently glorified in Chinese Communist folklore as a symbol of their superhuman determination, and "the power of the will of the people to overcome all odds." Chiang’s advantage disappeared, however, as a result of the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. In this brutal theater of World War Two, Chiang’s conventional army could not stand up to the powerful forces of Imperial Japan, and he was forced to give ground, retreating deeper and deeper into the interior of his country. Meanwhile, Mao’s Communist guerrillas stayed behind. Able to hide among the people, and frequently without a visible profile to attack, they were able to survive where Chiang’s forces could not. Organizing guerrilla resistance behind the lines of the Japanese advance, they profited greatly from the wave of nationalism which the Japanese invasion had produced, which now lent them the aura of being nationalist heroes, and washed away the stigma of being divisive rebels, and "Reds", which Chiang had attempted to color them as. Even more importantly, the Communists took advantage of Chiang’s absence to fill in the vacuum which existed in large parts of the country from which his authority had been driven by the Japanese, in order to secretly construct the human networks and logistical bases from which they could renew their war against him once the Japanese had been defeated. Sure enough, as soon as the war against Japan was over, the war between the Communists and the Nationalists resumed. Bolstered by weapons and equipment surrendered by the Japanese, and by military aid from the Soviet Union, Mao succeeded in defeating the government of Chiang Kai-Shek by 1949, and in consolidating Communist power on Mainland China.
In spite of the anomalies which contributed to his triumph, Mao’s strategy became the basic creed for a new generation of "Third World revolutionaries" - fighters from the "peripheral nations" who, in many cases, opted to base their revolutionary strategy upon the peasantry, with the urban proletariat playing only a supporting role. Although the term "Maoist" came into vogue as a term for describing those guerrilla groups which chose to model their strategy after his, the truth of the matter is that most guerrilla groups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America which came from countries with a large rural population opted to follow a peasant-based strategy from the 1960s on. Only those that also established close political links with China, and which favored China in the Sino-Soviet split, earned the actual designation of "Maoist."
Although the preceding discussion may seem to have been a long digression from the revolution in Colombia, it has actually been essential in order to put the mindset, the goals, and the methods of the FARC into their proper historical perspective. A movement of peasant resistance generated by decades of abuse - a movement of peasant resistance which was deeply rooted in the Colombian experience - a movement of peasant resistance which was encouraged both by Liberal populism and by Communism, and which grew stronger during the chaos and insecurity of La Violencia, when previous traditions of self-defense were resurrected and amplified - became consciously connected to the international revolutionary history just described, with the genesis of the FARC. The FARC, once it emerged from the seemingly infinite panorama of conflict in Colombia, dedicated itself to the strategic goals of securing and expanding zones of control in the countryside, based upon the peasantry, which it sought to harness and, at the same time, was a part of; of punishing the army in ambushes, fought mainly within these zones, as it conducted raids, acts of sabotage, and political work outside of these zones; of gradually weakening the army, enabling it to launch more direct and aggressive threats against the government; of coordinating its attacks from the countryside with support activities carried on by sectors of the urban population, organized by its agents and by the PCC working with broad political fronts and coalitions; and finally, of overthrowing the Colombian government and creating a new revolutionary State, based to a large extent on Marxist principles (with a Colombian flavor). This new State would expropriate and nationalize many foreign companies (to prevent the remission of "excessive profits" to other lands), effect a radical nation-wide land reform program, and introduce a wide range of socialist features into the economy. It most certainly would not be friendly towards the United States government, as that government was then (1966), and is now (2006).
Throughout the 1960s, as revolutionary activity flared up and was put out throughout the Latin American continent, the FARC demonstrated its resilience and staying power. Among many fragile revolutions, its was the one that would not break. Perhaps if the Alliance for Progress’ carrot had been bigger, the counterinsurgency stick would not have failed. But the aid and the reforms that were meant to peacefully pull the rug out from underneath the feet of the revolutionaries, making the FARC irrelevant and unnecessary to the peasantry, were never able to accomplish their purpose. In 1961, Liberal President Alberto Lleras Camargo, coordinating his policies with the Alliance for Progress, signed a new agrarian reform act into law, and established INCORA (el Instituto Colombiano de la Reforma Agraria, or the Colombian Institute of Agrarian Reform) to oversee it. The goal was to lessen tensions in the countryside (and the appeal of the revolutionaries) by satisfying poor peasants’ desire for land. The heart of Lleras Camargo’s reform project was to distribute idle land to peasants in need of it. In most cases, INCORA would seek to purchase unused land from the major landowners, and then redistribute it to peasants via a parcelization program, which would require that the peasants pay INCORA back over a number of years. The land redistribution project was strongly opposed by the major landowners, however, who essentially stunted it; nor was it popular among many peasants, as the economic burden of acquiring land under the program was stressful, and frequently prohibitive. Faced with intense political resistance in the most desirable parts of the country, the government sought to satisfy the peasants’ demand for land, while bypassing the fierce opposition of the major landowners, by sponsoring large-scale "colonization" projects directed into the still sparsely-settled frontier regions of Colombia: places such as Caqueta and Putumayo. Politically, the strategy was prudent. It would not be obstructed by the land-holding elites, who would fight to the death to prevent the expropriation of their property, but who had no problem with government-sponsored colonization projects of poor peasants launched into the distant wilderness. The problem with the colonization projects, however, was that the cost of supplying the colonists and transporting them to the remote frontier regions where land was still available was high, and the cost of building up necessary infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, schools, and hospitals, was even higher. The huge cost of the colonization projects finally limited their scale, meaning that not enough peasants could be satisfied by means of them to defuse the revolutionary energy that was brewing in the countryside. Besides this, the relative lack of resources available for the colonization projects meant that those peasants who did participate in them frequently ended up with the feeling that they had, essentially, been deceived and, under the guise of being helped, been dumped in the middle of nowhere. In their new environments, they were often exposed to conditions of abject poverty, a lack of government services, greatly increased health risks, and extreme personal insecurity (due to the weakness of the State in these distant regions, which led to increased crime and violence). Paradoxically, all the State had accomplished was to provide the FARC with new opportunities for expansion. In the wake of these highly-flawed colonization projects, the guerrillas moved in. Here, they found many who were sympathetic to their cause. They filled the void left by the absence of the State, and provided law and order. They created courts to resolve disputes. They encouraged the peasants to pool resources, and generated rudimentary services to complement what the government had provided, and to take the place of what the government had neglected to provide. Because these areas were remote and hard to access, the government was not able to effectively respond to their take-over by the FARC. At the same time, while their remoteness provided greater security for the FARC as it attempted to consolidate new bases against the government, geography also diminished the strategic power of these new bases, which were too far removed from the centers of power to present an immediate threat to the government. Far more promising, from the FARC’s point of view, were its gains in Meta, a large and rugged Department astride Cundinamarca, the Department which is home to Bogota, the capital.
In 1967, Liberal President Carlos Lleras Restrepo, distressed by the manner in which Colombia’s land reform program - "the peaceful way to defeat the guerrillas" - had become bogged down in internal politics, decided to give the process one last major push. He initiated the creation of a peasant advocacy group, the Asociacion Nacional de Usuarios Campesinos (the National Association of Peasant Users), or ANUC, to increase pressure on conservative elements in society, with the hope of smashing through the political barricade against progress that was threatening to polarize Colombian society past the point of healing. While the government renewed its efforts to implement the obstructed land reform, the peasants brought together by ANUC began a campaign of grass-roots agitation against the landlords, mounting challenges against the properties of the powerful, and calling on INCORA to adjudicate. But Lleras Restrepo’s ploy, in the classic mold of Liberal populism, succeeded in awakening forces for change that would not abide by his limits, or stay within his vision. Quite soon, ANUC had developed a life of its own. It radicalized, and became a vehicle for peasants who wished to take more aggressive steps to acquire the land which they felt they deserved. Massive land invasions, intense political strife and violence ensued. For Conservatives, Lleras Restrepo had created an agrarian Frankenstein. Reform meant to fortify the system had become a force to destabilize it; a government tool meant to pacify had been captured by revolutionaries, and turned into an instrument of revolution. Conservative President Misael Pastrana, who succeeded Lleras Restrepo according to the Frente Nacional agreement, struck back against ANUC, the government’s escaped creation. ANUC split in two, the tamer wing returning to the fold in exchange for continued government support (which was necessary for legally acquiring land), while the other wing was beaten back by stern government measures, which included sending in the army to take control of areas beset by land disputes, using force to support the mass evictions of peasants who were deemed "squatters", and imposing long prison sentences on "illegal settlers." Additionally, there was a resurgence of the pajaros during this time - the notorious killers who had populated La Violencia, who seemed to strike at radical peasants in conflictive areas with utter impunity.
All of this turmoil and disappointment - for once again, State-inspired dreams of a real social transformation, spearheaded by far-reaching reforms, had only led to a sense of abandonment and renewed repression - was very damaging for the future of peace in Colombia. Poor peasants were likely to be more responsive to the guerrillas than ever, now that the great State project to help them had collapsed; while the ruling elites, Liberals included, were impressed by the difficulty of keeping reform from spiraling out of control, and becoming a mere forerunner to revolution. It was becoming harder, by the year, to play the card of the masses without getting burned.
How much did the Alliance for Progress contribute to the economic development and promotion of social justice in Colombia, when all is said and done? Its impact cannot be dismissed. Major improvements in agricultural productivity resulted. These improvements were largely the result of the creation of large-scale capitalist farms in the countryside (replete with modern equipment, improved seeds, new fertilizers, and substantial irrigation and pest-control systems), which came into being as many of the major landowners proved to be more accommodating to economic modernization than outside planners had expected. These planners had expected to encounter intractable landlords and an obstinate semi-feudal social system in the countryside, which must be broken down by political action and a massive program of land reform if agricultural productivity were to be increased. The adaptability of the landlords surprised and encouraged them. In fact, the increase in agricultural productivity which occurred in spite of the failure of a far-reaching agrarian reform program helped to deflate the push for such a program. On the other hand, the aid offered by the Alliance for Progress, although felt by diverse sectors in the economy, was most successfully utilized by those who were already well-endowed with resources, and best able to profit from the influx of foreign credit and technology. Thus, although there was an increase in agricultural productivity in the Colombian countryside as a result of the Alliance for Progress, that productivity was not necessarily connected to the sectors of society which most needed to improve their economic condition - in other words, not enough of it "trickled down" to the masses; nor was the need for a social safety net, which land ownership most frequently provides to the poor, addressed by these gains. Only a viable land reform could have accomplished that. These shortcomings, in the midst of some success, assured that the guerrillas would remain a powerful force in Colombia, at the same time as they led to two new developments: first, the beginning of a massive wave of immigration of unemployed and landless Colombians into Venezuela - a population flow which is in many ways useful to Venezuela, which has historically been affected by labor shortages, but which has also brought Venezuela enormous headaches in the present, as serious Colombian social problems have spilled over into its territory; and second, the beginning of the Colombian drug trade, as marijuana appeared, during the 1970s, as an answer to the poverty of multitudes of peasants left behind by conventional development. (Profits from marijuana were estimated to be about six times higher than those which could be earned from the cultivation of coffee.)
Throughout the 1970s, the FARC persisted and grew, while some other guerrilla organizations suffered serious setbacks. (More will be said about these competing guerrilla groups later.) The FARC’s ability to survive was proven, but its threat to the national government, in terms of actually having the ability to overthrow it, was also considered to be limited. It tended to be strongest in remote areas of the country, where its ability to hurt the government was diminished; and population dynamics were also subtly eroding its future. In 1938, 60% of the Colombian population lived and worked in the countryside. Violence in the countryside, leading to "internal displacement", as well as changes in the Colombian economy (including increased agricultural productivity, which enabled more people to live in the cities), had reduced this percentage significantly by the 1970s. (By 1984, statistics showed that only one third of the Colombian population was living and working in the Colombian countryside). These trends were not necessarily favorable to a rural, peasant-based revolutionary force, which still lacked important urban skills. Nonetheless, the very fact that the FARC could not be eradicated, and that its control over significant tracts of rural territory was deepening, made it a formidable enemy to the Colombian government. While there was some relief in the thought that the guerrillas, at that time, seemed incapable of decisively defeating the government, there was also considerable tension in the thought that neither could the government decisively defeat the guerrillas. "Distant thunder may pass by harmlessly, or bring lighting down onto your house."
During the 1960s and 1970s, the FARC, which was supported by peasant communities in its zones of influence and control, developed two primary methods of obtaining the financial resources which it needed to purchase weaponry, equipment and additional supplies, and to fund its operations. First of all, there was la vacuna ("the vaccine"), which was a "war tax" imposed upon large- and middle-sized landholders living in the areas which it dominated or was in a position to raid. If you paid the tax, it meant you were "vaccinated", and safe from the "disease" of being attacked by the FARC. Essentially, la vacuna was "protection money." Those who were not friendly towards the guerrillas considered la vacuna to be a form of extortion based on intimidation. Deeply resentful, many of these went on to privately organize and fund paramilitary units to keep the guerrillas away from their property. In cases where la vacuna was overused, the FARC made the mistake of alienating middle-class peasants as well as major landholders, planting the seeds of increased resistance to its operations and giving new impetus to the birth of right wing autodefensas (self-defense groups), which would proliferate in the 1990s.
The second main form of acquiring finance utilized by the FARC during this period was el secuestro ("kidnapping"). Over time, the guerrillas developed a tremendous expertise in kidnapping members of the upper class, and holding them prisoner until the ransom which they demanded had been paid. Although these operations were conducted as a form of business, with the kidnap victims being safely returned to their relatives upon the payment of the ransom, there was great risk involved. Kidnap victims who resisted might be killed; or victims might be gunned down in the heat of battle, if police or soldiers stumbled onto the guerrillas’ hiding place. Some captives died from the stressful conditions of their captivity, while almost all were severely traumatized by the experience. Critics of the guerrillas were especially incensed by the FARC’s refusal to set age limits for their kidnap targets. (Children as young as three- and five-years old were swept up by the guerrillas.) The FARC (which from 1997-2001 was responsible for 25% of all kidnappings in Colombia) defended its policy of kidnapping by emphasizing the class-nature of its actions, which were directed mainly against members of the elites, and could be considered to be a means of "getting back from the rich what they had already taken from the poor." On the other hand, critics still found this method of financing to be cruel, and pointed out that not all kidnap victims were actually wealthy. Overused, el secuestro once again alienated important sectors of the population from the FARC’s struggle, strengthened resistance to it, and impeded its political progress.
More recently, the FARC has developed a new dimension of el secuestro, known as el pescar ("fishing"). In this technique, the guerrillas will take control of an area filled with civilians, then inspect their "catch", letting the "ordinary people" go while seizing up anyone who seems to be wealthy as a kidnap victim. The "fishing operations" are most commonly set up on roads, which the guerrillas will temporarily block, creating a zone of captured traffic to assess. The inspection of potential kidnap victims may focus on details such as the kind of car they are driving, the kind of watch or jewelry they are wearing, their destination, and where they live (discerned by questioning, or by the inspection of documents in their possession). In cases, the guerrillas, today, are even said to cross-reference the IDs of civilians who have been swept up in their net with names maintained on a computerized data base. Individuals who meet the guerrillas’ criteria for kidnapping, referred to as "miracle catches", are taken away, while all the "small fish are thrown back into the sea." Once again, these operations illustrate the FARC’s tendency to accept political damage in the name of financial or military gain. It may yet prove to be a fatal weakness in their strategy.
With the money obtained through la vacuna and el secuestro, the FARC purchased weapons and equipment from a variety of sources, including Cuba, the Soviet Bloc, some Central American countries (especially during the 1980s), and the international and internal arms market. These purchases enhanced the FARC’s ability to fight throughout the 1960s and the 1970s.
In the 1980s, according to analysts, the FARC’s ability to finance itself was greatly amplified by its decision to become involved in the drug trade which was beginning to inundate Colombia. Marijuana had got the ball rolling, and cultivation was now moving on to la coca (cocaine) and towards la amapola (poppy/heroin). The guerrillas did not start this business, nor were they the only player in Colombia to get their hands into it. There were, first of all, the narcotraficantes (the drug traffickers), a powerful and resourceful criminal class; and soon, elements of the Colombian government and paramilitary death squads devoted to destroying the guerrillas would become involved, as well. Simply-speaking, drugs became a part of the social and political terrain in Colombia during this period, and the guerrillas were not to be left out. By protecting and taxing certain drug operations within the territory which they controlled, they greatly amplified their financial capacity during the 1980s and 1990s, leading to a corresponding increase in military effectiveness. (Much more will be said about the drug trade later in this article, in the section "Drugs, and the Changing Face of Conflict.") According to Thomas Marks, a counterinsurgency expert with links to the US military, the FARC had only about 2,000 guerrilla fighters operating in 15 Fronts, in 1982, before connecting itself to the economic potential of the drug boom. By 2002, powered by the new resources which the drug trade placed at its command, it had an estimated 15,000-20,000 fighters operating in 60 Fronts across the nation. It was also estimated that the FARC controlled 40-50% of Colombia, though Marks disputes this statistic which made it to the international press, insisting that the guerrillas have influence and the ability to operate in 40% of the country, which is not the same as actually controlling it. Whatever the case, a massive expansion in FARC power occurred during the 1980s and 1990s.
In the late 1990s, both the US and Colombian government received a severe jolt as a sudden increase in FARC effectiveness became evident as a result of some stunning guerrilla victories. In 1996, a company of 120 conscripted soldiers stationed at the military base of Las Delicias in the Department of Putumayo was overrun, losing half their number in battle, with the other half being captured. The FARC had, by this time, developed its own version of "Special Forces", which included sappers (landmine-clearers), air-defense teams (armed with powerful rifles, machine guns, and later, with shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles), and light artillery (mortars, and various forms of homemade bombs), as well as grenade-launchers. They may also have been equipped with goggles for night vision. These units were said to have received training from the FMLN (the guerrillas of El Salvador), who, in turn, were said to have received training from the highly-experienced guerrilla veterans of Vietnam. According to analysts, the FARC managed to slip infiltrators into the base, who made maps of it and even passed on video footage taken from the inside to the guerrillas. The guerrillas then built a full-scale replica of the base deep in the jungle, and practiced assaulting it in utter secrecy. Once prepared, a column of about 500 guerrillas, spearheaded by these Special Forces, moved in against the base. The outer perimeter was quickly penetrated, and the army’s sentries were picked off; sappers then cleared a path to the base, and the guerrillas surged in with assault rifles and explosive charges, wreaking havoc on the defenders. The defeat took the army by surprise: the aggressiveness, scale, and extreme competence of the attack had not been expected. The routine small-scale clash, of army patrol versus guerrilla ambushers, had been left behind for something bolder and more menacing.
In 1998, at El Billar in the Department of Caqueta, the guerrillas won another huge victory. This time, the soldiers they defeated were not mere conscripts, but 154 members of an elite Colombian unit, the 52nd Counterguerrilla Battalion (52BCG) of the 3rd Mobile Brigade. The unit appears to have moved forward against a staging area of guerrilla troops, believed to be massing for an attack against a nearby town. By some accounts, the guerrillas had planned a trap from the very beginning, while others believe that the guerrillas adapted to the army’s approach by reconfiguring and improvising a trap. Whatever the case, the elite unit was baited and drawn in against a guerrilla target, then encircled. A second guerrilla ring, studded with air-defense units, was thrown around this circle to prevent relief columns from reaching the trapped troops, as the FARC pounded and hunted down the soldiers enclosed within its "kill zone." By the time the battle had ended, 80 Colombian soldiers were dead and 43 captured. Something close to panic rippled through the halls of power in Bogota. Had the FARC finally grown powerful enough to pose a real threat to the survival of the national government?
According to analysts, the FARC was, indeed, determined to carry the war to the next level - if not to take power on the national level, at least to shake the confidence of the government enough to elicit major concessions from it, including, perhaps, the formal recognition and acceptance of FARC control over much of the nation’s territory. In that case, Colombia would, in essence, be divided into two, one part remaining under the authority of the government, one part being conceded to the guerrillas. For a time, the guerrillas’ string of successes continued. In August 1998, a military base cohabited by a company of army draftees and a unit of counter-narcotics police was overrun at Miraflores. In this engagement, Colombian security forces lost 30 men, with 50 wounded, and 100 captured by the guerrillas. But finally, the Colombian army was able to recover its poise, and to adjust to the FARC’s increased combat power and audacity. In 1999, powerful FARC offensives which even included thrusts towards Bogota were repelled, with heavy casualties inflicted on the FARC. In these battles, the FARC went so far as to utilize homemade armored vehicles, which were deemed primitive but effective. The army successfully knocked them out, and made the best of its own firepower and air support. These defeats did not end the intensity of the armed conflict. In October 2000, for example, the FARC succeeded in destroying a US-made Blackhawk helicopter with 22 Colombian soldiers aboard, which it detected attempting to make a landing inside "its territory." Nonetheless, the FARC was humbled by the defeats of 1999 into realizing that its attempt to shift from the phase of small-scale conflict, built upon ambushes and raids, to one of larger-scale confrontations against the army, was premature. The Colombian government and its armed forces were still too much for the guerrillas to overcome in this kind of fighting.
What the FARC is now left with is an extensive guerrilla army, capable of inflicting punishing blows against military and police forces that attempt to maneuver in its strongholds; and the capacity to wield strong mobile columns of 60 - 400 men, sometimes backed by highly-trained guerrilla "special forces", against select targets. This capacity, temporarily withheld, has not ceased to exist. It remains to be materialized when the FARC deems circumstances right. According to military analysts, the FARC’s strategy at this point in time consists of maintaining control of its peasant strongholds; and of gradually constructing "corridors of mobility", extending outwards from these zones, into new, strategically important parts of Colombia. "Corridors of mobility" refers to large tracts of country (and sometimes town) which have been, and are gradually being, brought under FARC influence, by means of political work, selective assassinations of uncooperative mayors and policemen, and the development of logistical support networks. Once consolidated, these corridors allow the guerrillas freedom of movement through enemy-held territory. FARC troops are able to pass through them, unobstructed, and many times undetected, on the way from their strongholds towards important targets; likewise, they are able to utilize the corridors to retire back to the safety of their strongholds, once their missions have been accomplished. For the guerrillas, the "corridors of mobility" are like highways cutting through the desert, like black rivers flowing through a white land, giving them access to targets they could never before have reached, and the potential to significantly elevate their strategic impact.
The FARC is definitely eyeing the possibility of beginning to threaten some of the more important urban areas of the nation from behind a closing ring of peasant zones, connected by "corridors of mobility." They are hoping, in the future, to be able to once again hit major targets with large mobile columns maneuvering through these corridors, while masking their true intentions with diversionary attacks and feints carried out by complementary guerrilla forces. They are hoping to one day develop the capacity to be able to blockade important towns and even cities, preventing all transport in and out, cutting off electricity and the water supply, while setting up ambushes of military units sent from the outside to relieve the defenders. They are also busy cultivating urban militias (milicias), recruited from poor urban youth, many of them under the age of 18. (In fact, all parties in the conflict in Colombia - guerrillas, paramilitaries, and the army - have been criticized by human rights groups for integrating "children" into their forces.) These milicias are not only "training grounds for future guerrillas", but are the basis for an armed urban presence which could theoretically be unleashed by the FARC in conjunction with assaults launched by peasant armies out of its "corridors of mobility."
As the FARC works on developing the human networks required to successfully implement this strategy, it continues to seek enhancing its military and technical capacities. It has recently been detected seeking training and advice from the IRA (the Irish Republican Army), which may be teaching it techniques of urban warfare, and advanced skills in the construction of land mines, and car bombs: all of which suggest an increased guerrilla interest in enhancing its potential to impact the urban environment. Additionally, the FARC has recently been detected attempting to buy 50-caliber anti-armor sniping rifles in the US. These powerful weapons, which can penetrate armor plating and even destroy aircraft, symbolize its desire to attain higher-level armaments which will make it more capable of meeting and defeating Colombian security forces in battle.
At this point in time, the FARC, ambitious as it is, is plagued by waves of paramilitary violence, which are disorganizing its peasant support network in many parts of the country by means of the intimidation, assassination and massacre of civilians. (The paramilitary phenomenon will be discussed later.) These same paramilitaries have also destroyed many FARC agents and potential sympathizers in civilian political groups in the cities, as well as important heads of the labor movement. These actions are curtailing the FARC’s ability to connect its military prowess to broader political movements (as the IRA was able to do through the Sinn Fein), and are short-circuiting the possibility that the FARC’s struggle might one day be transformed into a predominantly political one, backed by a revolutionary army, but not imposed by one. The FARC is already well-versed in the dangers of the "demobilized guerrilla", remembering the case of Guadalupe Salcedo and other Liberal guerrillas who put down their guns in the epoch of Rojas Pinilla, only to be assassinated when they came in from the monte. The same happened to M-19 chief Carlos Pizarro in 1990, when his response to an offer of amnesty and the chance to participate legally in politics turned out to be nothing more than a sophisticated trap. Like Zapata, Sandino, and Salcedo before him, he fell for the ideal of peace. Claimed by the violence he thought he had left behind, he was gunned down in cold blood on an Avianca jet. As some have said: "For the guerrilla, the olive branch is more deadly than the bullet." For this reason, veteran FARC commanders are not likely to accept any kind of negotiated settlement which involves them disarming and reintegrating into civilian society. Not unless, that is, they are so battered by the Colombian military that they feel they have no legs left to stand on (and surely not until the last of the wise old veterans, going back to the days of La Violencia, has passed away.) In fact, Colombia’s current president, Alvaro Uribe Velez, is attempting to do just that: to pound the guerrillas militarily until they are willing to crawl back to the negotiating table, and accept peace on his terms. After forty years of warfare, it is doubtful that he will succeed.
Nonetheless, enclosed within a circle of paramilitary fire, and with its image damaged by well-crafted propaganda, as well as by the consequences of its own actions, the FARC seems hemmed in these days, confined to the military aspects of its struggle without a clear way to gain mass political support. Frustration under these circumstances could lead it to impatience, and provoke it to take potentially disastrous risks; or drive it to increasingly desperate and callous tactics, such as an escalation in its kidnapping operations, or the deployment of urban car bombs, which could sink its already shaky image and destroy the ability of its military strength to transmit political results. Whether the FARC will be able to maintain its poise, and to salvage some shred of political savvy in the midst of an increasingly violent and lawless situation, remains to be seen.
One other development which the FARC does expect, at this time, and which it says it is preparing for, is the deployment of US troops in Colombia in the near future. US military advisers, soldiers, and "private security contractors" (aka mercenaries) are already present in Colombia, directing not only anti-narcotics operations, but also participating in counterinsurgency operations. However, the FARC is expecting this small "advance guard" of the US military to dramatically increase in size quite soon, as the US seeks to lend a helping hand to the Colombian government, which does not seem able to win the war on its own. Recognizing the military problem that would create, as the fighting capabilities of the US Army, Air Force, Marines, and Special Forces far surpass those of the Colombian army, the FARC nonetheless sees the political benefits which such an intervention could bring to it. For, as previously mentioned, Colombia has had a troubled historical relationship with the US, going back to the loss of Panama in 1903 and the massacre of Colombian workers on the banana plantations of the United Fruit Company in 1928. Many Colombians are very sensitive to the presence of the US in their country, in any form, and their nationalistic spirit would be inflamed by the arrival of American troops to fight fellow Colombians. They would interpret the intervention, even if it were well-meaning, as a disguised effort at eventual domination; they would not listen as faithfully as US television audiences to the noble-sounding words of a US president, but would rather look behind words such as "freedom" and "democracy" for other, less flattering motives; look for the shape of the gun behind the curtain. "What is it he really wants? Our oil? Our coal? Our cocaine?" (See "Conspiracy Theory: Colombia.") This reaction, properly harnessed by the FARC, could vastly amplify its limited political appeal, turn it into a symbol of nationalist resistance against the "foreign invader", and elevate it into a genuine threat to attain national power, if the US intervention could be weathered and outlasted. It is interesting to note that the central concept of Che Guevara’s ill-fated guerrilla expedition into Bolivia in 1967 was the idea that, if he could mount a strong enough challenge against the existing Bolivian regime, the US military would have to intervene on its behalf, inciting huge waves of anti-American sentiment which would envelope the guerrilla movement in a kind of nationalist aura and endow it with extraordinary political power. In that campaign, the key to the US quelling the Guevarist revolution was not to intervene directly, but rather, to train, arm, and advise Bolivian army units so that they could defeat Guevara by themselves.
Will the US, temporarily directed by leaders who are not known to be masters of the indirect approach, discard the proven effectiveness of subtlety? That, also, is an unknown. However, if America does choose to become directly involved in Colombia on a large scale, as it was previously involved in Vietnam and as it is currently involved in Iraq, the FARC is not the only armed group that it will have to contend with. There is also the ELN.
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The ELN: Another Guerrilla Group
The ELN, or Ejercito Nacional de Liberacion (National Liberation Army), was born in the early 1960s as an "adoring response" to the Cuban Revolution. Colombian students and intellectuals who were inspired by Fidel Castro’s triumph over the Batista dictatorship in 1959 - by his nationalization of US-owned sugar mills and strong stand against "Yankee Imperialism", by his rhetoric on behalf of the poor, by his rejection of capitalism, and implementation of a socialist economy - traveled to Cuba in the early 1960s to seek political connections and military training. Among these students was Fabio Vazquez Castan~o, a member of the JMRL, or Juventud del Movimiento Revolucionario Liberal (Revolutionary Liberal Movement Youth). Another founding member of the ELN was Victor Medina Moron, a former member of the regional PCC in the Department of Santander. Other participants included former members of a failed guerrilla group known as MOEC, el Movimiento Obrero Estudiantil Campesino (the Worker-Student-Peasant Movement), which had attempted to link up with Liberal guerrillas/bandits operating in the Departments of Cauca and Vichada in the early 1960s, and essentially been decimated.
In Cuba, the would-be revolutionaries received sound political advice, important material support, expert training in the art of guerrilla warfare, and animo ("spirit"): for in Cuba was embodied the possibility of carrying out a successful revolution and creating a new socialist society from "out of the depths of the capitalist nightmare which the iron fist of Yanqui imperialism has imposed upon Latin America" (this is how they saw things in the haze of hope, creativity, and passion which colored the early days of the Cuban Revolution, if one was a leftist). For Latin American revolutionaries of that time, Cuba was like a miracle that proved the existence of God, inspired faith, and imparted the courage to act. They were youths, in every sense of the word.
Central to the Cuban mystique in those early days was the charismatic and ambitious presence of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, co-architect of the Cuban Revolution, and probably its most radical force. Guevara was actually a native of Argentina, a medical student and later doctor whose initial goals were to find a cure for allergies, and to treat and provide both medical and emotional support to lepers. Also an avid wanderer who could not withstand his own adventurous spirit, he traveled all about South America on his motorbike, leaving behind the comfort of his bourgeois background to confront (without intending to) the poverty and injustice which tormented his continent. Looking deeply into its eyes, he became a changed man. The asthma which afflicted him, and taught him the meaning of suffering in spite of the comfortable circumstances in which he had grown up, became connected to the powerful impressions created by his motorcycle journey through the mountains, deserts, towns and countryside of South America. In 1954, Guevara’s emotional drift towards political activism was ignited by the fact that he happened to be residing in Guatemala - hanging out with friends, surviving by doing odd jobs, searching for meaning and direction in life - at the very moment that General Castillo Armas, backed by the CIA and the United Fruit Company, launched a military coup against the democratically-elected, leftist government of Jacobo Arbenz. Suddenly, Guevara found himself in the midst of a period of violent repression which was aimed at dismantling the Guatemalan workers’ movement and putting an end to the agrarian reform which Arbenz had attempted to implement, by expropriating unused (reserve) lands held by the United Fruit Company, in order to distribute them to poor peasants. (At that time, Allen Dulles, a former member of United Fruit’s Board of Directors, was Director of the CIA, and his brother, John Foster Dulles, was US Secretary of State. This confluence of nepotism, naked self-interest, and military power was shocking to Latin American sensibilities, reinforcing the radical perspective that US pretensions of morality were purely hypocritical and disposable, and would be betrayed before they would be allowed to inhibit the true North American objectives of profit and domination. What happened in Guatemala convinced a whole generation of Latin American leftists, Guevara included, that their societies were not at liberty to be anything but appendages of US business interests and political decisions.) Guevara, briefly participating in futile militia activity on behalf of the toppled Guatemalan government, was forced to go into hiding and leave the country. Before he left, he must have heard Arbenz’s capitulation speech on the radio: "Someday, the dark forces that oppress the downtrodden colonial world will be beaten." Someday. Che determined to achieve someday in his own lifetime. Ending up in Mexico, the radicalized drifter synchronistically encountered Fidel Castro and a small nucleus of Cuban fighters who were preparing to sail back to Cuba, from exile, aboard a yacht known as the Granma, in order to begin a revolution against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Che joined them in training under the guidance of Colonel Alberto Bayo, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and became Bayo’s star pupil, standing out for his intelligence, alertness, and motivation. In 1956, Che accompanied the Cuban revolutionaries as the expedition’s doctor, but soon became its most effective military leader, directing the decisive battle against Santa Clara in 1958, which opened the way for the fall of Havana, and the installation of the revolutionary regime, in January 1959.
Unavoidably, Che’s keen intelligence and charisma catapulted him into a prominent role in Castro’s new government. Che, by now a committed Communist, was one of the main forces behind the government’s open move towards Marxism. Serving in various posts devoted to the economic and industrial development of Cuba via socialist means, he also established an international reputation on the basis of wide-sweeping diplomatic tours, eventually acquiring something like "rock star status" throughout much of the Western world, where 60s youth was in a period of exploring solidarity, and romanticizing revolution in the "Third World"; posters of Che would, in fact, become one of the most popular artifacts of leftist pop culture, earning Che a place on many walls, next to photos of John Lennon, Mick Jaegger and Jimi Hendrix.
Meanwhile, in the real world of revolution, Che began to encounter problems. His economic work for the Cuban government was hampered by inexperience (he was a brilliant man, but not a trained economist), and by an excess of idealism (he wished to implement an economy based upon the new man which he envisioned socialism would create, before that new man had yet been born, thereby overemphasizing volunteerism and moral incentives in the workplace). In cases bypassing pragmatic solutions for what he perceived to be ethical ones, which were ahead of their times or perhaps beyond human nature, he contributed to the disarray of the Cuban economy. In recognition of his limitations, he withdrew from his positions of formal power in the Cuban economy to concentrate more and more upon the idea of fostering revolutionary activity in other "oppressed countries." This objective was fed by a genuine sense of solidarity and internationalism which flowed through his veins; by a deep emotional desire to "liberate" his own country, Argentina, where he would no longer be in the bittersweet and oftentimes awkward position of being a beloved foreigner; and also by the realization that the revolution in Cuba, if not provided cover by other successful revolutions throughout the region, would remain isolated and exposed, too small to ever truly acquire political or economic independence. Just as Cuba had formerly been an appendage of the US, so Che could not help but see that it was now becoming highly dependent upon the Soviet Union. The Soviets now bought the sugar that the US was boycotting. The Soviets kept the Cuban economy afloat, allowing Castro’s economic experiment to survive in the face of hemispheric ostracism. They trained and armed the Cuban military. Soviet global power provided the ring of protection which inhibited the US from directly assaulting the vulnerable island, just 90 miles off its shore. In return for all these things, the Soviets expected absolute loyalty from Cuba. But Che, cursed as usual by his revolutionary idealism, could not comply. He found the Soviet Union’s relation towards the Third World to be too self-interested, too much driven by its own economic and political objectives instead of by real solidarity. He chided the USSR for this in public places. He also brushed aside Soviet objections to the use of armed revolutionary force in Latin America as a practical tool for achieving political change in the 1960s. As previously stated, the Soviets believed, at that particular moment of history, that Latin America was not yet ripe for revolution, and that Communist parties in the region should therefore concentrate on doing political work, and cooperating with other leftist and even centrist parties, in order to develop a larger mass appeal and create the potential for more fruitful action in the future. For Che, the Soviets were still prisoners of the concept of "Socialism in one country," which had first been championed by Stalin in the 1920s, after Lenin’s death. They had abandoned the earlier ideas of Marx, who believed that the proletarian revolution must be worldwide: that a single socialist nation could not exist for long in the middle of a sea of capitalist enemies. Perhaps, Che thought, the concept of "socialism in one country" might work for the Soviet Union, which had vast amounts of resources at its disposal - a veritable continent - and also controlled a buffer zone of satellite states in Eastern Europe to shelter it from the capitalist nations of the West. Cuba, however, was small and alone in the midst of a region dominated by the United States. It needed supporting revolutions to shield itself, a network of diplomatic empathy and economic cooperation if it were to thrive as a truly autonomous State. For the Soviets, these attitudes turned Che into an unreliable maverick, and many were not afraid to label him an "adventurist" and even a "Trotskyite." (Trotsky, before he was forced into exile, and Bukharin, before he was purged, were Stalin’s chief rivals for assuming power in the Soviet Union after the death of Lenin; Trotsky, like Che, was an ardent believer in world revolution, and remained a powerful symbol of Communist resistance to the Stalinist "betrayal of Communism", until he was assassinated in Mexico in 1940.) Che’s growing rift with the USSR (while remaining a firm enemy of the United States), created serious tensions in his relationship with Fidel Castro. Castro, as supreme leader of the Cuban revolutionary government, could not risk alienating the superpower that sustained him in the face of North American hostility, and felt compelled to tolerate the Soviets’ many faults in order to maintain the indispensable bond between the two nations. Che, a free spirit and a loose cannon, was starting to become a liability to him. Acutely sensitive to the damage his conscience was causing his cherished comrade (for there was great affection between Fidel and Che, although it was laced with a tinge of rivalry), and also most certainly pressured by officials close to Fidel, Che finally left Cuba altogether to pursue his dream of fomenting new revolutions in new places. He could be true to himself, avoiding the compromises he hated, without destroying a friend and a truly significant historical creation which he had participated in making.
Before Che’s departure for Africa in 1965 to assist African guerrillas fighting in the Congo, he had already attempted to pursue his dream of planting the seeds of revolution in other lands, working as a military planner behind the scenes with Fidel’s consent, and in spite of the Soviet Union’s displeasure. During this time, in the early 1960s, Che’s ideas, which were embraced, lauded and further diffused by French intellectual Regis Debray, represented the leading edge of Latin American guerrilla theory: his concepts of guerrilla war, explained in his memoirs, in various articles and speeches, and later consolidated into a manual, were given a special credibility due to his spectacular personal performance in the Cuban Revolution. His confidence was also hard to resist. Apart from numerous detailed and sound suggestions regarding guerrilla tactics, weaponry, equipment, communication, and politicization, which were of great value to the potential revolutionary, he offered to prospective guerrillas a bold new strategic doctrine, known as el foquismo - or the use of the revolutionary foco (center). According to Che’s new doctrine, extrapolated from his interpretation of the Cuban experience, it was not always necessary that the subjective conditions for a revolution exist (that is, that the people had already developed class consciousness and been properly organized) in order for a successful revolution to be launched. As long as the objective conditions for a revolution existed, he theorized - as long as the people were victimized by an unjust social structure and lived in poverty, and as long as they were repressed by a political system that was committed to the perpetuation of injustice - a determined group of well-trained guerrillas, injected into the environment, could awaken the people, and generate the subjective conditions necessary for the revolution to succeed. The mere presence of the guerrillas, embodying the spirit of resistance and offering the hope of change, could dramatize, to the people, the depths of their oppression and break through the numbness of their resignation to their dormant will to be free. In this way, the guerrillas would act as a revolutionary spark, igniting the sleeping potential of the masses, winning its trust through sacrifice and teaching it to fight back. Years of patient, methodical organizational groundwork - years in which millions would remain oppressed - years filled, like a cage, with those who were not yet able to be saved - years with more dying, with the present nailed to the cross of the future- could be bypassed, the revolution could be rescued from tomorrow and given to today. Foquismo was a shortcut to the future, a dream come true for the impatient, the tormented and the compassionate. As Che, in his writings on Guerrilla Warfare, put it dryly, almost in an innuendo, that would commit a generation: "It is not always necessary to wait until all the conditions for revolution exist: the insurrectional focus can create them."
From his offices in Havana, Che sought to put el foquismo into practice in the early 1960s. In 1963, he attempted to inject a foco into Peru. There, the badly-repressed descendants of the Incas lived under bitter conditions of exploitation and poverty, and, in fact, some very valuable political work had already been done in the region of the intended foco by Hugo Blanco, a radical Peruvian peasant organizer who was not a part of the project planned in Havana. The would-be guerrilla force, which sought to connect with the human base Blanco had unwittingly prepared for it, was destroyed by inexperience. It was infiltrated, and met by Peruvian security forces at Puerto Maldonado, where it was shot to pieces while attempting to cross a river. Among the dead was Peru’s award-winning poet-turned-guerrilla, Javier Heraud.
In that same year, 1963, another foquista movement engineered from Havana was shattered. This time it happened in Argentina, Che’s homeland, as Argentine journalist- turned-guerrilla Jorge Ricardo Masetti and his small band of armed men, were discovered, engaged, and destroyed, bit by bit, by Argentine security forces. Masetti himself simply disappeared into the wilderness, defeated by Nature, never to be heard from again. As one fellow journalist wrote: "He just vanished into the jungle, into the rain and into time. In some unknown spot the body of ‘Commander Segundo’ holds a rusty gun."
These defeats hinted at a crucial weakness of el foquismo, but did not prove it: which was that the guerrilla nucleus, injected into an environment not yet emotionally ready or intellectually prepared to receive it, would, until it could persuade the people to join it in body and soul, be operating under conditions of extreme vulnerability, exposed to the full force of military pursuit without the developed network of support which typically shelters the guerrilla and enables him to survive that pursuit. For a time, the fish would be without a sea. Che, who lost a friend in Masetti, may have felt the sting of being behind a desk while his protégé died, and felt the need to put his own life on the line to put his theory to a conclusive test; or perhaps he thought that he, himself, was needed to "get it right." Disillusioned by the military and cultural circumstances which he encountered in the Congo - never really able to interface with his allies there or to have the impact he desired - Che withdrew towards the end of 1965, and prepared to launch a new revolutionary venture, this time in the jungles of Bolivia. By late 1966, disguised as a bourgeois bureaucrat (properly equipped with false documents manufactured by Cuban intelligence), Che was ready to infiltrate Bolivia and begin the installation of a guerrilla foco which he hoped would change the course of history.
The Cuban Revolution, from which Che, the revolutionary icon, emerged, had first taken hold in a rugged mountain range known as the Sierra Maestra, where the peasants were receptive and the government was hampered by the terrain. For years, Che had been dreaming of turning the Andes into "the Sierra Maestra of South America." He had said it, and deepened his commitment to it by putting it on paper. He was, in other words, dreaming of initiating a "continental revolution", a Communist version of Simon Bolivar’s gigantic 19th -century revolt which liberated Latin America from Spain. This time, the colonial power to be "overthrown" was the US, which Che and many other Latin American radicals believed was behind the unjust oligarchies and repressive dictatorships which reigned over the nations of their continent. Che’s plan was to enter Bolivia with a core of well-trained Cuban fighters (he brought 16); to link up with locally recruited Bolivian fighters, supplied to him by the local Communist Party (he received 29); to incorporate other international fighters, as well (he was joined by 3 Peruvians, and a female East German agent); to set up a base camp in a remote jungle region of Bolivia (he chose Nancahuazu in the region of Santa Cruz); to train and physically condition his guerrilla troops, as they explored the terrain and prepared to initiate operations; to begin to reach out to the local peasantry and recruit new fighters; to also recruit new fighters from, and enhance supply and finance networks through, Bolivian cities and mining districts; to initiate combat operations against Bolivian security forces; to follow the path of growth and expansion experienced by the Cuban Revolution; and to eventually threaten the Bolivian government so seriously, that direct United States military intervention would be required to prevent him from taking over the country. (As the US had sent marines to Santo Domingo as recently as 1965 in order to "restore order" there, Che was sure they would also send troops against him.) As previously explained, North American intervention was expected to provoke a huge nationalist backlash throughout Latin America, elevating the political importance of Che’s revolutionary movement and endowing it with a patriotic appeal that would vastly enhance its ability to recruit new fighters, as well as giving impetus to the formation of new guerrilla focos throughout the continent. Since the US was simultaneously fighting a major war in Vietnam, Che expected that this escalation of the struggle would "overload its repressive capacities", and finally cause a breakdown in its ability to "maintain its Empire." As Che himself said, "let there be two, three, many Vietnams." The "Third World" was going to gang tackle the giant.
Unfortunately for Che, however, his grand plan was never able to emerge from the fragility of its opening stages. This was the deadly flaw of el foquismo. There were blunders committed by his urban support team, which was uncovered and dismantled as a result, leaving him pretty much stranded in an isolated part of Bolivia where his friends could not reach him, and the peasants were slow to warm up to him. His well- constructed and well-stocked base camp was approached too closely by security forces, and he was forced to give battle prematurely, winning the first engagement decisively, but exposing himself before he was ready to operate. He had no choice but to abandon his camp, losing valuable equipment and sensitive information in the process. From then on, his guerrilla column wandered about the jungle, winning military engagements, but failing to obtain significant support from the peasants, who would not trust strangers so quickly, nor so easily cross the cultural divide which separated Cubans from indigenous Bolivians. Conditions degenerated still further when the guerrilla column split in two, then failed to effect a reunion, leaving its strength divided. Productive strategy was replaced by days spent by the two halves vainly searching for each other. Finally, indirect US assistance to the Bolivian government, which included the provision of military equipment, the training of new Bolivian Ranger units, and the sharing of intelligence information gathered by plane and satellite, raised the fighting capacity of the Bolivian security forces to the point where they could handle Che’s guerrilla forces on their own. On August 31, 1967, the smaller of the two guerrilla columns was destroyed in an army ambush. On October 8, 1967, Che’s column was trapped at Quebrada del Yuro, and except for a small group of survivors who were able to escape, annihilated. Che himself was wounded and captured. After some hours of interrogation, and rudimentary medical attention, he was executed early in the afternoon of October 9, then reported dead as "a result of combat." El foquismo, given one last opportunity to prove itself in the hands of its creator, died with Che, leaving many Latin American revolutionaries traumatized and at a loss. Some even retracted from the concept of the rural guerrilla altogether, and, like the Tupamaros of Uruguay, began to experiment with the idea of the urban guerrilla. Discredited, now, as a theorist, Che lived on as an example of revolutionary conviction, idealism and sincerity, admired, for those qualities, even by those who disagreed with him and killed him. He had passed from the realm of the living and the flawed, into the realm of those who die for their beliefs. He had apologized to Javier Heraud, to Jorge Masetti, and to the infinite masses he could not save, by becoming a martyr. As a ghost, Che continued to fight and to lead: new generations of revolutionaries who abandoned his methods, became his troops. Even the Bolivian peasants who did not rise up to join him when he was among them, pray to him now beside photos of his life-like, bullet-ridden corpse with its beautiful eyes staring into space. "Little soul of Che, please help me in my time of need, please grant me this miracle…"
In 1964, however, as the ELN was just being born in Colombia, Che and his theory of the foco insurrecional were still very much alive, and in their prime. Fabio Vazquez Castano, Victor Medina Moron and others who had been inspired by the Cuban example and trained by Cuban fighters in Cuba, moved into the countryside in the Department of Santander in that year to begin to organize their revolution against the Colombian government. Their attempts to form links with the FARC at this time failed, as the FARC, which was connected to the PCC, distrusted the new guerrilla entity. Nonetheless, the revolutionaries did succeed in linking up with some former Liberal guerrillas who had fighting experience, a knowledge of the terrain, and some connections in the region. The ELN, which was spawned from the foquista movement, and created in the spirit of foquismo, was lucky to be able to inject itself into a region that already had a history and tradition of armed peasants and combat; a region which was endowed with a psychology alert to repression, and fully motivated to fight back when threatened. This does not mean that the locals rushed to join the ELN as soon as it appeared in their midst. But they understood where it was coming from, and did not shut it out; there was a certain shared culture that made collaboration plausible. No doubt, this is what saved the ELN from becoming just another failed foco, just another fragile match with its tiny flash of newborn light unable to stand up to the wind of reality. In January 1965, the ELN engaged in its first military action, the taking of the town of Simacota, which really amounted to nothing more than the appearance of a few guerrilla fighters in the surprised plaza in order to distribute copies of their revolutionary manifesto. Other small-scale and basically unimpressive actions followed. The guerrilla group had made itself known, but had little demonstrable power and seemed to lack a significant political base. That is, until, it was able to effect its extraordinary connection with a charismatic young priest turned radical, el padre (Father) Camilo Torres Restrepo.
For Latin America, ever since the very first step a Spanish conquistador took upon its shore, the Roman Catholic faith had been a cultural force of tremendous power, and those who served it had, consequently, been endowed with a special power, which was traditionally utilized to justify and fortify the elites, but which occasionally, when it was given with political awareness to the poor, became revolutionary.
In the very beginning, of course, the Cross was used as a moral justification for the unsheathing of the sword. "God" was used, by Spanish adventurers, to mask their naked desire for plunder and power: heathen Indians who stood in the way of the spread of the Christian faith must die, so that the souls of their descendants might be "saved" by the religion imposed by their conquerors. As Eduardo Galeano describes the strange formula of malice, thinly coated with benevolence, by which men with vastly superior weapons were able to bear their crimes, as they pillaged and yoked a continent to their appetites: "…before each military action the captains of the conquest were required to read to the Indians, without an interpreter but before a notary public, a long and rhetorical Requerimiento exhorting them to adopt the holy Catholic faith: ‘If you do not, or if you maliciously delay in so doing, I certify that with God’s help I will advance powerfully against you and make war on you and wherever and however I am able, and will subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their majesties and take your women and children to be slaves, and as such I will sell and dispose of them as their majesties may order, and I will take your possessions and do you all the harm and damage that I can.’ " (Open Veins of Latin America, p. 23.) As African natives later said of the Europeans who came to colonize them in the 19th Century: "When you first came, we had the land and you had the Bible. Now we have the Bible, and you have the land." Throughout the Americas, the defeated Native cultures were politically and economically mastered, and harnessed for the enrichment of Spain (by institutions such as slavery, the encomienda, and the mita). Socially, culturally, and spiritually, they were likewise hurled into an abyss; their way of life was disorganized, in cases eradicated, their religions were repressed. Not only were the barbaric features of some indigenous faiths (such as the human sacrifice practiced by the Aztecs) outlawed, but other utterly innocent and uplifting aspects of Native spirituality were also assaulted, and driven underground by the ferocious intolerance of the Inquisition. In 1562, in one classic episode reminiscent of the Nazi book-burnings of 1933, Bishop Diego de Landa ordered hundreds of Maya manuscripts seized in the Yucatan and cast into a giant bonfire "because they contained nothing in which there was not to be seen superstition and lies of the Devil." Confused, bewildered by the unsustainable velocity of the collapse of their inner and outer universe, by the strangeness and loneliness of having to persist in el mundo al reves, "the upside-down world"; wounded by the terrible inferiority complex which was driven into their hearts by the sight of their burning temples, their broken armies lying vanquished on the ground, their raped women coming home with swollen bellies, turned into new citadels of the enemy; their inner lives thrown into utter turmoil; feeling "let down" by their Gods, who could not stop the Spanish armies, nor ward off the apocalypse of plagues that seemed to fall from Heaven upon their heads as soon as the Spaniards came, the Native population of the Americas was desperate for something to redeem it, for something to console it. In the ruins of everything it had believed in and lived for, it was ripe for a rebirth of hope. Paradoxically, it was the Catholic Church, the excuse of those who had come to conquer, which would provide that hope.
The message of hope that the Catholic Church brought to the subjected Native peoples of Latin America was not utterly hypocritical, because, working within the Church there were not only manipulators and fanatics, but also true men of faith and compassion whose sincerity touched the battered peoples they encountered. There were friars like Bartolome de las Casas, who passionately argued on behalf of the Indians, insisting that they had souls after all, and that they therefore ought to be protected against slavery and treated as subjects of Spain, rather than mere beasts of labor. (His efforts helped lead to the abolition of Indian slavery, although the Indians continued to be exploited by feudal institutions, while Africans were imported to take their place as slaves.) There were also men like Jose de Acosta, who raged against de Landa and all those like him for disrespecting the achievements of Native culture, and uncritically treating any trace of Native spirituality, philosophy, or science which they came across as "sorcery" which must be expunged from the history of humanity. Besides figures such as de las Casas and Acosta, there were multitudes of hard-working, earnest priests and church-workers who felt tenderness and genuine love for the indigenous people their countrymen had so shamefully mistreated (although this love was frequently tainted by cultural bias and a strong degree of paternalism). For a pain-filled people, Catholic images of the tragic, suffering Jesus, lover of the poor, and of the Virgin Mary, goddess of infinite tenderness and acceptance, forever grieving over the bloody body of her unjustly murdered son, were powerful icons of solidarity and consolation in the midst of a great collective nightmare. "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted," were words that reached the heart of their despair. In addition to this natural resonance between the Catholic faith and the deeply-hurt soul of Native Latin America, the Church’s flexibility regarding some aspects of its doctrine and appearance led, over time, to a strange fusion of Christian and indigenous beliefs, which preserved the outer forms and rituals of the Christian faith, while allowing Native peoples to inject some of the substance of their original spiritual beliefs into those forms and rituals. This process, known as el sincretismo (syncretism), was a kind of spiritual compromise which allowed the Church in Latin America to retain social control of religion, and to keep the power of religion in their hands, while facilitating the emotional access of subjugated Native peoples to that religion, which might otherwise have seemed too alien to fully commit themselves to. The classic case of syncretism in Latin America is the phenomenon of la Virgen de Guadalupe (the "Virgin of Guadalupe"), who was actually an "indianization" of the Virgin Mary, which allowed the conquered descendants of the Aztecs to worship her with a special enthusiasm and sense of familiarity, finally breaking down the ice that had existed between them and the Church of their conquerors. (According to legend, a baptized Aztec peasant, Juan Diego Cuauhtlahtoatzin, while passing by Tepeyac Hill, where a shrine to the Aztec goddess Tonantzin had once stood, came upon the apparition of an Indian woman shining with light and radiance. She told him that she was the Virgin Mary, and that she wished for a temple to be built for her upon this hill. She urged him to bring her message to the Bishop; but the sight of the humble peasant did not impress this religious authority enough to believe in the apparition, and he therefore demanded that Juan Diego bring him some form of proof. Feeling unworthy of the task he had been given, and wishing to escape from it, Juan Diego subsequently attempted to avoid the Virgin by changing the route of his daily path. But she came down from Tepeyac hill and gently chastised him, urging him not to give up. She then gave him the sign which the Bishop required: on the hill, Juan Diego found many roses blooming where before, there had been only cacti and mesquite. Picking some, and bundling them up in his mantle, he hastily returned to the Bishop. When he opened up the mantle to let the fresh roses fall out at the Bishop’s feet, everyone present was stunned to behold not only the roses, but also the image of la Virgen de Guadalupe, which had become supernaturally emblazoned upon the garment. The Bishop relented, and the temple the Virgin wanted was built. The Catholic hierarchy and bureaucracy gave in to the aberration, legitimized and sanctioned Juan Diego’s discovery, and accepted la Virgin de Guadalupe as a special manifestation assumed by the Virgin Mary in order to win the trust and devotion of the Aztec people. For Church leaders, it did not really matter if the first Aztec worshippers in the new temple at Tepeyac believed that Mary was really Tonantzin, coming back to stand beside them in their misfortune by adopting a form they would not be kept away from. The Bishop had got the Indians into the Church, by letting them give Mary a dark face. Within a few generations, their absorption by Christianity would be complete.) Thanks to the new faith’s special appeal to the oppressed and the afflicted - and thanks to the powerful concession of syncretism, which allowed Natives (and later Africans) to preserve important elements of their own faiths within the new one - the Catholic Church survived indigenous efforts, such as the Taki Onqoy revival of 1560s Peru, to overthrow it, and gradually consolidated its position as the singular spiritual resource of Latin America (only in more recent times has this monopoly been challenged by the rise of alternative, "evangelical" Christian sects).
The Church, however, remained a being of two faces in its new stronghold. It was at the same time a source of hope and spiritual renewal for millions of people living in hardship, and a bastion of the rich and the powerful, propagating elite control of society by preaching passivity to the masses. Resignation, fatalism, the surrender of the earth to the unjust so that a greater reward in Heaven might be attained by those who did not stain their souls by fighting back, were promoted. Biblical quotes were used as shields to defend the strong, by indoctrinating the weak to remain weak - to destroy the strength of the people’s valor with the strength of their endurance:
"Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven… Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth." (Matthew 5: 3, 5)
"Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." (Matthew 5: 38-39)
"Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbor and hate thine enemy.
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven; for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans do the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." (Matthew 5: 43-48)
"For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (Matthew 6: 14-15)
When only revolution seemed possible to right an earthly wrong, the barricade of the commandment, given by God to Moses, was erected in the path of the will to be free: "Thou shalt not kill." (Exodus 20: 13) While the spirit of revolution was given a new place, Heaven, and a new time, after one’s death, to defuse its earthly impetus: "So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen." (Matthew 20: 16) El mundo al reves was to be righted by God on the other side of a long and exploited life. There the powerful would finally fall, the cruel would finally be humbled, the rich would be damned, the revolution would triumph. All one had to do to attain justice was to live according to the Christian virtues, especially acquiescence. Justice was not dead, it was merely hidden behind the mask of one savage day. Patience was the weapon that would set one free.
While this mindset helped millions to psychologically survive the impotence thrust upon them by the superior power of the elites, it drove others who were more active and combative, or perhaps only less demoralized, into fits of rage. Like Marx, who called religion the "opiate of the masses", they saw the Catholic Church as one gigantic apparatus of brainwashing, designed to mentally enslave the multitudes so that they would not rise up to challenge their oppressors. They saw the Church as the ideological complement to the repressive police and militaries wielded by the elites, and an even more effective instrument of domination that guns and bullets, because it did not leave a trail of blood in the street, or leave the fields filled with the dead and no one left to tend them: it stole the mind, but spared the body to serve. In Biblical terms, it might be said: "How can one enter into a strong man’s house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? and then he will spoil the house." (Matthew 12: 29) By binding the mind of the masses with religion, the elites were able to break into the house of the people and to steal everything of value.
In addition to this perception of the Church as the ideological prop of egotistic elites (both before and after the Bolivarian wars of independence), the Church, throughout much of Latin American history, was also a major landholder. The huge concentration of wealth which it gathered into its hands over time outraged the religious sensibilities of many, just as it had outraged Europeans in the 16th Century, when figures such as Martin Luther arose to unleash the Protestant Reformation. It also had serious economic and social consequences. In the same way that landless peasants grew resentful of the accumulation of vast properties in the hands of the hacendados - properties from which they were excluded - so the hoarding of land by the Church became a major aggravation for those who were struggling to feed their families. The confluence of these two negative perceptions - that of the Church as a mental bulwark of the rich, which had betrayed its duty to the poor, and that of the Church as a hoarder of wealth, whose abundance was impoverishing the masses - produced radical consequences at various moments in Latin American history, most notably during the Mexican Revolution (beginning 1910) and the Cuban Revolution (which assumed power in1959). In the case of Mexico, the clash with the Church came to a head in the 1920s as several anti-clerical provisions in the revolutionary Constitution began to be enforced by the State, in its effort to diminish Church influence in the realm of politics and education. The attack was not against religion itself, but against a rival internal source of power. It nonetheless sparked a furious backlash known as the Cristero Rebellion, a kind of civil war characterized by a surprising brutality. In one instance, a Cristero army accompanied by priests dynamited the train between Mexico City and Guadalajara, killing over one hundred passengers, in the name of bringing God back into the center of Mexican life. Later, compromises between Church and State were made, but into the 1930s, in many parts of Mexico, organized religion was still looked upon with intense suspicion as a potential instrument of right-wing subversion, and the number of priests allowed to practice their craft was severely restricted. All through this period, the Mexican people continued to pray to Jesus, the Virgin, and the spirits of the dead, to light their candles, to worship and maintain their faith. Once again, the struggle was not about religion: it was about the institution of the Catholic Church and its relation to the State.
In Cuba, after Castro came to power, the Church was subjected to similar efforts of containment. Religion was cut back, like jungle growth, to open up the path to a future that was to be built upon the rational principles of socialism. But this was only the coating of the motive. Communism, supposedly a Science, was always actually more of a religion, and like all religions, it was not enamored of competition; it therefore sought to diminish Christianity so that it could capture the flock. In order to fill a spiritual void, it must first create a spiritual void, and so it sought to limit and erode the influence of the Church. It also viewed the Church as a likely portal for the forces of counterrevolution, which must be closed. The Church survived in Cuba, but under pressure and under scrutiny. As in the case of Mexico, the people’s spirituality remained intact in spite of the conflict between Church and State. Los indigenas of Mexico and los africanos of Cuba were too spiritual for there to be any other result. Liberal/radical State, conservative Church: the people remained in the middle with God.
As time went on, however, familiar Church dynamics acquired a new dimension: powerful currents of change began to appear in the Christian universe, as more and more priests began to dream of breaking free from the Church’s association with repressive elites, from its tradition of whitewashing the world of the wealthy and powerful and abandoning the poor to the afterlife. At Vatican II, or the Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, which was opened in 1962 by Pope John XXIII, and closed in 1965 by Pope Paul VI, the seeds of change were planted. A liberal wind swept through the Catholic world as leading church figures agreed to many reforms and changes in attitude, including a new commitment to improving man’s earthly existence, in addition to their previous vocation of preparing him for the world to come. Out of the spirit which was awakened by Vatican II would eventually evolve the radical Christian movement known as "Liberation Theology", protagonized by such figures as Gustavo Gutierrez of Peru, Helder Camara and Leonardo Boff of Brazil, Ernesto Cardenal of Nicaragua, and Oscar Romero of El Salvador. Liberation theologians were a highly diverse group of sociospiritual activists who did not always come to the same conclusions; and yet, most began from the same starting point, which was that the emphasis of Christianity, as it was preached and directed into the world, must shift from that of Jesus’ capacity to suffer and bear persecution, to that of Jesus’ passion to serve the poor. For this interpretation, they found as many compelling Biblical references as had the proponents of forbearance, the champions of "turning the other cheek." Among them:
"If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me." (Matthew 19:21)
"Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich an to enter into the kingdom of God." (Matthew 19: 23-24)
"No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other: or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon." (Matthew 6: 24)
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." (Luke 4: 18-19)
Jesus’ reaching out to the afflicted - his extraordinary healings of lepers, cripples, the blind, the "possessed", and the grief-stricken - were taken to be signs of his enormous love of Man, which ought to be emulated, not postponed. While preaching to a great mass of people beside the Sea of Galilee, Jesus said to his disciples: "I have compassion on the multitude, because they continue with me now for three days, and have nothing to eat: and I will not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way." (Matthew 15: 32) This is when Jesus produced his great miracle of "multiplying the loaves", transforming the seven loaves of bread which he and his disciples had into enough to feed the hungering masses. For liberation theologians, the miracle was not one which they could reproduce in a divine way; it must therefore be reproduced by human beings using the political and economic mechanisms of society to insure a fairer distribution of the available wealth.
Similarly, they pointed to these passages, inciting the true believer to practice the virtue of solidarity: "Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungerd, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." (Matthew 25: 34-40) The beggar was not to be left behind, he was to be treated as a brother. Where poverty was rampant, too much for pennies thrown into a cup, charity must take the higher form of justice.
And liberation theologians pointed to these crucial lines attributed to Jesus, as well, which seemed to cut right through the Gordian knot of hundreds of Bible stories and sometimes discordant lessons, to get to the essential nucleus of the Christian faith - a summary, in four sentences, of what to live by if nothing else could be remembered: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22: 37-40) Love of self was not to be in opposition to the rest of mankind, leading to captives or slaves or impoverished classes, it was to be the instrument by which one would come to know, respect, and cherish others: love of self was to become the foundation of one’s love of others. El amor propio (love of self) was not the end, but merely the first step in beginning to amar al projimo (love one’s neighbor); it was to be a way of defeating isolation, not fortifying it, on the way to true brotherhood.
Liberation theologians were united in choosing this emphasis, but divided in how to follow it up. On the tamer side, this new direction could be seen as a Christian answer to Communism: as an effort to renew the responsiveness of Christianity to the poor so as to undercut the appeal of radical ideologies which might threaten the Church in the future. In this manifestation, socially-conscious priests would step up pressure on the ruling elites in their countries, pushing them towards reforms which might bring enough relief to the masses to prevent them from "going the other way." On the other hand, some Liberation theologians and practitioners were just as committed to change as were the Communist revolutionaries, they simply had a different basis for their actions, and, of course, a somewhat different vision of what the outcome should be.
For these theologians, poverty was not a nuisance, not an "unfortunate circumstance", not even a deadly but innocent catastrophe like an earthquake or flood. It was an act of violence perpetrated by man against man. It occurred when one group of men used a system based upon the unequal and unfair distribution of wealth - a system which was enforced by the often dormant but always implied threat of violence, residing in the repressive capacities of the elite-controlled police and army - against another group of men, in order to subject them to economic and social bondage. While priests of the rich sought to comfort the conscience of the transgressors, and to bind the masses to servitude with the image of the gentle Jesus who bore his cross to Golgotha rather than revolt, these resurgent priests of the poor, motivated by the counter-image of Jesus as the champion of the poor, began to involve themselves in radical social action and politics meant to alleviate the suffering around them in the here and now. As some said: "Poverty is just as lethal as a bullet fired from a gun. The slum is as deadly as a bomb. The tiny piece of land that is all that’s left after the rich man has satisfied himself is like a bayonet, thrust into the entrails of the person you love most." While they did not necessarily condone revolutionary violence as a reaction to injustice, many stated that they could understand it. "Under such circumstances, revolution is merely a form of self-defense." Helder Camara of Brazil, who did not choose the path of violence to right earthly wrongs, nonetheless worked with tremendous dedication to improve the social situation of his followers in the poverty-stricken state of Recife. Morally, liberation theology was a good place for these priests to be, but socially, it was dangerous. As Camara himself said, in perhaps his most famous quote: "When I fed the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked them why there were poor, they called me a Communist." In March of 1980, Archbishop Romero of El Salvador paid the price for his unquiet conscience - he was gunned down in the middle of saying Mass by those who felt the Church rightfully belonged to the status quo, and the earth to those who already owned it.
For the most radical wing of Liberation theologians, revolutionary violence as an answer to social injustice was not merely a legitimate act of self-defense by the poor, when peaceful avenues of change were blocked by dictatorship or by the corruption of democracy, it also had a scriptural basis. They pointed to the incident of Jesus’ rage-filled use of physical force to throw the moneylenders out of the great Temple in Jerusalem, when he discovered them betraying the holiness of that sacred place:
"And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves. And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer: but ye have made it a den of thieves." (Matthew 21: 12-13)
Invariably, for the most radical element of liberation theologians, there came a moment in which the Church hierarchy, which did not wish to risk its very existence by becoming revolutionary in a concrete way, began to put on the restraints, removing overactive priests from their positions, transferring them to less public or socially volatile assignments, forbidding them from teaching or writing, defrocking them and thereby dealing a death blow to their authority and mystique, even excommunicating them under extreme circumstances. Without the prestige of representing God, through the Church, the liberation priests lost much of their clout. Of course this hierarchical opposition to liberation theology was not simply a matter of the Church’s commitment to peace, and its rejection of any forms of agitation and organization which could lead to strife. Even in its most liberal phases, the Church did not wish to antagonize the power structure of the societies in which it was imbedded. Its moral reminders could be tolerated by the dominant elites, but not its genuine interference in their affairs.
The hierarchical nature of the Roman Catholic Church, based upon obedience to the Pope (who was held to be the spokesman of God), and to the cardinals and bishops beneath him, demanded and created strong sentiments of loyalty within the clergy. Just as captains and lieutenants cannot refuse the commands of their general, so priests were expected to follow orders, and to act within the parameters set for them by higher authorities. However, in the Bible, radical priests also sought and found justification for acts of insubordination. Two incidents involving the Sabbath, the holy day set aside by God on which man was not to work, but to worship Him instead (Exodus 20: 8-10), were called to mind: incidents which revealed that earthly needs, especially those stemming from compassion, took priority over the inflexible obligations imposed by doctrine, and enforced by religious hierarchies:
When Jesus was questioned by critics for healing a man on the Sabbath, he replied: "What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold of it, and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days." (Matthew 12: 11-12)
Likewise, there is the incident reported in the Gospel According to Saint Mark: "And it came to pass, that he [Jesus] went through the corn fields on the sabbath day: and his disciples began, as they went, to pluck the ears of corn. And the Pharisees said unto him, Behold, why do they on the sabbath day that which is not lawful? And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungered, he and they that were with him? How he went into the house of God in the Days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the shewbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him? And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath…" (Mark 2: 23-27)
In both cases, the idea that acts of compassion were not to be restrained by religion, was strongly suggested. Religion’s true purpose was to empower and release compassion into the world, not to inhibit it.
In the heyday of liberation theology, an exciting and fertile tension filled the Church, as different viewpoints struggled to find accommodation, as rifts opened, and as a sense of both freedom and danger permeated an institution which had been sleeping for too long, surviving on the inertia of habit and history. The old guard feared the radical priests, who wanted the influence possible through the Church, without accepting the responsibility of following Church directions. But the Church was also afraid that it was losing the masses - losing them to Communism, losing them to evangelicalism; it was afraid that it was growing old and drying up: it needed the new blood, the enthusiasm, the connection with the people that this passionate, sincere, new breed of priest was able to offer it, even at the price of instability. In a peculiar symbiosis, the old and the new were therefore able to coexist for a time. What was archaic lent prestige and credibility to what was fresh and emerging; what was fresh and emerging renewed the life force of what was turning into a fossil. It was not a situation which could last forever, but while it did, both great good and great catastrophe were possible. Mediocrity held its breath.
Once again, as in the section on Marx, Lenin, and Mao, this may seem to have been a rather long digression from the story of Colombia; and yet, to grasp the full meaning of Camilo Torres, the revolutionary priest who shook the soul of his nation during the turbulence of the 1960s, an understanding of the historic role of the Church in Latin America, as well as of the countercurrent of Liberation Theology, is indispensable. At the time that Camilo emerged as a monumental political figure in Colombia, Liberation Theology was still in a state of genesis. Gustavo Gutierrez had not yet written his world-famous essay, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation (1971), but many priests and devout lay people were, nonetheless, already moving into the social arena and acting according to its undefined precepts. Camilo was one of these.
Born in 1929 into comfortable bourgeois circumstances, the son of a well-respected medical doctor, Camilo switched from his original pursuit of a law degree to religious studies, being ordained as a priest in 1954. The priesthood was a well-respected profession in Colombia, and his family consequently viewed the path which their son had chosen with pride. Upon entering the priesthood, Camilo received the opportunity to study at the Catholic University of Louvaine in Belgium, where he earned a degree in Sociology, enhancing the intellectual skills which he sought to place at the service of his growing social consciousness. The university, at that time, was alive with excitement and debate: a stimulating birthplace of new ideas and new directions in Christianity.
Returning to Colombia in 1959, home to one of the most "backward", i.e., conservative churches in the world (according to Camilo), he began his priestly career as auxiliary chaplain at the National University in Bogota; soon afterwards, with the help of the highly regarded Orlando Fals Borda, he helped to develop a Sociology Faculty at the University, and assumed a teaching position in that field. He added to this already heavy work load a busy agenda of social work in poor and working-class neighborhoods in Bogota, while encouraging university students to participate in the building of a humanitarian communal movement meant to develop improved forms of social cooperation among the humble people of the city. And he was an ardent devotee of the reforms proposed at Vatican II, enthusiastically implementing the suggestion that priests should now face their congregations as they delivered Mass rather than turning their backs upon those who had come to hear them; that they should deliver Mass in the native tongue of their congregation instead of in Latin (which meant that Camilo could now give his in Spanish); and that a greater role should be given to the laity in the conduct of Church rituals. Seemingly small details to those outside the Church, for practitioners of Catholicism these were actually enormously important symbolic steps aimed at "bringing the Church back to the people", and replacing mystery and aloofness with familiarity and a sense of inclusion. In 1962, Cardinal Luis Concha Cordoba, a conservative clergyman who would prove to be Camilo’s nemesis on more than one occasion, pushed him to resign from his position at the National University, and to fulfill his priestly duties in a less politically pregnant environment - for in Latin America, universities had often proved to be the birthplace of revolutions - oases of awakening minds, where intellect, ambition, and the idealism of youth often came together in dangerous ways, to transmit powerful challenges to the existing order. Camilo was exceedingly personable, charismatic, sincere, and capable of attracting a following. His energy, genuineness and ability to inspire others, and the uncensored social content of his message, had, within a few short years, become alarming to the Cardinal, who wanted him out of such an influential environment. Nonetheless, the popular, "uncontainable" priest continued his march towards the dream of transforming his country by means of a reorientied Christianity, to be rescued from the rich and given back to the poor: it was a dream which he was so committed to, that it could not be easily stopped; a dream which he dreamt for others, although the engine in its heart was the personal destiny he could not avoid. For his "imitation of Christ", in loyalty to the altruistic might of his soul, could not be left incomplete.
In 1963, Camilo presented an academic study, "La Violencia and Sociocultural Changes in the Rural Areas of Colombia" at the First National Congress of Sociology. In 1964, he returned to teaching at the National University and resumed his social work and organizational activities in the Bogota. He was also named as a member of the Archdiocese’s Commission on Religious Sociology by his distrustful superior, Cardinal Luis Concha, who recognized his abilities and respected his professional reputation, but abhorred his rebelliousness, and therefore alternated between trying to control him by rewarding him and neutralizing him by limiting his activities, without disaffecting those who had been drawn to the Church because of him.
In January 1965, Camilo’s career as a Christian activist and political thinker finally took that momentous step which all his previous efforts had been leading to. He formed a popular movement known as el Frente Unido (the "United Front"), publicizing a radical platform of social change featuring proposals for a widespread and effective land reform, measures meant to alleviate the suffering of poor urban dwellers, measures meant to improve the conditions of Colombian workers, and bold exhortations to nationalize foreign companies which were using Colombian labor and resources to enrich themselves at the expense of the Colombian people. In the vein of the Latin American radicals who believed that "Our wealth is used to make us poor", he championed Colombian control of Colombian resources, and the recapture of the profits that were being drained from the country by foreign enterprises to make the already rich even richer, while poverty in Colombia grew deeper. By this time, Camilo was actively describing himself as a revolutionary. He did not insist on violence, but rather, stated: "It is necessary to strip power from the privileged minority to return it the poor majority. This, if it occurs rapidly, is the essence of revolution. The Revolution can be peaceful if the minority refrains from resisting it with violence." As for the basis of his now explicitly revolutionary stance, Camilo explained: "The most important thing in Christianity is el amor al projimo (love of one’s neighbor, love of one’s fellow man). He who loves his fellow man has fulfilled the Law. (St. Peter, Romans 13: 8) This love, in order to be true, must seek effectiveness." For Camilo, the oligarchic elites which dominated Colombian politics could not be counted on to participate, of their own volition, in the redesign of society in the name of justice, because justice would deprive them of the fruits of injustice, to which they had become accustomed. At the moment in time in which Camilo launched the Frente Unido, the elites had secured a monopoly of the political process by means of the power-sharing pact of the Frente Nacional, which denied the masses a plausible electoral avenue for gaining power. For this reason, the people must organize themselves into a vast social movement capable of pressuring the government for change, and capable of building up their own forms of power in order to be able to withstand the possibility of repression. They must create a new path which would empower Christian love with the political clarity and organizational structures needed to make it effective. If necessary, they must develop the capacity to overthrow the government. As Camilo went on to say: "The Revolution… is the means of attaining a government which will feed the hungry, clothe the naked, teach the ignorant, and manifest el amor al projimo with works of charity, not only in an occasional and transitory form, not only for a few, but for the majority of our fellows. For this reason the Revolution is not only permitted but obligatory for Christians, who see in it the only efficient and far-reaching means of realizing love for all."
Through various publications Camilo disseminated his teachings; yet, far more significantly than that, he traveled throughout the country, drawing huge and excited audiences wherever he spoke. The sight of this striking, earnest figure dressed in priestly black, and therefore bearing the stamp of the Church and God, taking the side of the poor, was mesmerizing to the masses. It seemed he had come to rescue Christianity from its self-betrayal, to put an end to its desertion of the people, to take it back from the wealthy and give it once more to the afflicted. The enormous potency of the original message of Christ, dulled by years of neglect, was suddenly made vivid again for many thousands for whom the Church had become nothing but a tomb, or temple of surrender. Blockaded from revolutionary activity by their fear and distrust of Communism, vast numbers of Catholics now permitted themselves to be mobilized on behalf of the great social struggle which Camilo was invoking, not in the name of Marx, but in the name of God.
At the same time, Camilo recognized the value of Marxist allies, who had already developed a substantial history of resistance to Colombia’s elites, and who were already in control of major sources of revolutionary energy in Colombia. Camilo sought a rapprochement with the Marxists, and at the same time, to assuage his followers that association with them was not the same as absorption by them. He said: "The Communists ought to know very well that I will never join their ranks, that I am not and will never be Communist, not as a Colombian, not as a sociologist, not as a Christian, nor as a priest." But he also said: "I am not anticommunist as a Colombian, because anti-communism aims at persecuting dissatisfied countrymen, communist or not, of whom the majority are poor people… I am not anticommunist as a Christian, because I believe that anti-communism rushes in to indiscriminately condemn everything that the Communists stand for, and, among those things which they stand for are both just things and unjust things. To condemn it all together, leads us to equally condemn what is just and what is unjust, and that is anti-Christian… I am not anticommunist as a priest because, although the communists may not know it, among them there could be many who are authentic Christians. If they are of good faith, they may receive divine grace and if they receive divine grace and love their neighbor, they will be saved." He went on to say: "Although [I will never be a Communist], I am disposed to fight beside them for common objectives: against the oligarchy and the domination of the United States, in order to facilitate the seizure of power by the popular class."
As Camilo saw it, members of the Frente Unido were not to participate in the elections in Colombia. He believed that the electoral process was locked up by the Frente Nacional, and defended by conspiracy and fraud. Participation would only "legitimize" the deception. Already, Camilo pointed out, abstention rates in the Colombian elections were huge: it was estimated that as few as 20-30% of eligible voters were now part of the system, the rest merely sitting on the sidelines, discouraged, apathetic, disgusted, unwilling any longer to collaborate in their impotence. From this disaffected majority, which he aimed to enthuse and resuscitate with his sincerity and vision for a real change, Camilo hoped to build a movement which would dwarf the electoral base of the Liberal and Conservative parties. But he would not wield his creation electorally. Exactly what he would do with it is not absolutely clear. Launch a wave of demonstrations and civic strikes to shut down the country? Create a popular army, to carry out a Bogotazo-style uprising coordinated with strikes by oil workers and actions by peasant communities? Pressure concessions from the government through the sheer energy and presence of the mobilized masses? Whatever the long-term prospects of el Frente Unido may have been is now a moot point, because for the Frente Unido there was no long-term.
Government persecution began to strike hard at it. Many activists were arrested. Others were harassed, followed, and threatened. Camilo, meanwhile, was attacked by the Church. Cardinal Luis Concha Cordoba, as fiercely as such an old man was able to, debated with the revolutionary priest, condemned his views, assaulted what he considered to be Camilo’s misuse of Christianity, attempted to crush his prestige. In August of 1965, Camilo was forced to abandon his clerical duties and struggled to continue with his work, which depended largely on the mystique of the priesthood, as the Church attempted to withdraw from him and leave him stranded, like a ship without water, on the shores of Marxism. A kind of "social sanctuary" which his position as a clergyman had granted him was slowly being dismantled by the Church, and Camilo had premonitions of being assassinated at any moment, like Gaitan. As he, himself, said: "When the people prayed for a leader and found one in Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, the oligarchy killed him." It was no longer possible for Camilo to persist in open political work, he felt like a sitting duck and imagined that every time he walked out the door, it might only be to die. Somewhere out there, there was a gun, and in that gun there was a bullet with his name on it. In the meantime, his organization was beginning to unravel under intensifying persecution by the government.
For Camilo, the time had now come to take another step. In November of 1965, with all other options closed down, he left the city and headed for the mountains of Santander, where he linked up with Fabio Vazquez Castan~o and the ELN. Camilo had decided to become a guerrilla, the ultimate liberation theologian. In the mountains with the guerrillas, there was, strange to say, more security than there was in the city as an unprotected citizen activist, "defended" by a police force that wanted him dead. Even more than this, however, death, should it come, would have more meaning in the mountains than in the city. This was because, as Camilo pointed out, Gaitan’s death had not imparted direction to the masses from whom he was stolen; instead, it had unleashed unfocused rage and despair that the oligarchy had been able to disarm. Were Camilo to die with the guerrillas in the mountains, however, the path set by his death would be clear: that of revolutionary armed struggle against the government.
Some say that Camilo, even before 1965, had become convinced of the need for armed struggle to "liberate Colombia from the oligarchy and North American dominion", and that he had created the United Front as an instrument for mobilizing a broad political urban base which would serve to support the guerrillas in the countryside after he had joined the ELN. From supporters in the city, they would receive money, weapons, recruits, and crucial cooperation in the implementation of coordinated rural-urban actions. Other analysts, however, believe that Camilo’s emphasis really was on the United Front, with the ELN envisioned, in his mind, as a source of armed support if needed. There should be links between the two so that if Camilo’s peaceful path to change was obstructed, he could transfer his revolutionary mission to Vazquez Castan~o’s violent one. These analysts believe that the level of repression which Camilo’s United Front encountered from the government, as well as the inherent tensions between Marxists and Christians within his organization, which produced a certain degree of disintegration from within, finally convinced Camilo of the futility of his efforts and drove him into the mountains. From those mountains, which were his new home, Camilo directed a message to the Colombian people, explaining to them his reasons for joining the ELN, for choosing the path of the guerrilla. He decried the new "comedy of elections" which the oligarchy was planning in order to prove to the world that it was democratic, and insisted that the "armed path is the only one that remains" if the people were to truly transform
their country. He said that he had chosen the ELN "because it has the same ideals as the United Front." Furthermore (but he was not explicit in this), the ELN was open to the concept of a Marxist-Christian alliance, and not distrustful of the presence of a revolutionary priest, as was el Bloque Sur (the proto-FARC) with its PCC connections. The ELN was newer and more of a free agent, in Camilo’s mind: bonded to Cuba, it is true, but not so ideologically indebted to, or compressed by, the Soviets as he believed the Bloque Sur to be. Camilo went on to assure his followers in Bogota and other major Colombian cities that he had not betrayed them; his absence was only another way of being present. The mountains were standing beside them.
Within the guerrilla army, the 36-year-old priest stood out for his motivation, and desire to be spared no privation. The thought of special treatment repelled him. Although his political work in the cities, now laid at the feet of the ELN, had elevated the small guerrilla force into an entity of national significance overnight, in the mountains it was Fabio Vazquez who was the commander, and Camilo cheerfully acquiesced, giving way to the guerrilla leader’s expertise with no sign of resentment or jealousy. Camilo served as a priest to the fellow guerrillas, and did literacy work with local peasants. Vazquez recognized the enormity of Camilo’s value to his small guerrilla movement, and could not help but regard him as his single most precious asset. And yet, he was also vulnerable to the revolutionary priest’s charm and earnestness, and finally let himself be persuaded into letting Camilo, who hated being protected while others risked their lives, join him in a military action against an army patrol. The ambush was carefully set up on February 15, 1966. The guerrillas were concealed on high ground in the jungle, waiting for the enemy patrol to enter fully into their trap. But mistakes were made. In this case, the usually beneficial high ground was not an advantage; the ambushers stood out more clearly in the light that penetrated the treetops than the defenders who were hidden in the shadows of the forest floor. The guerrillas opened fire. The army unit took hits, fell to the ground, fired back. Camilo, lacking experience, but courageous and determined to do his part, moved from his position to attempt to capture the rifle of a fallen fighter. For the guerrilla, every captured rifle was like gold; in the beginning of the struggle, defeating enemies (with a minimum expenditure of bullets) was a crucial means for acquiring weapons and ammunition. But in war, acts of heroism do not always go unpunished. That’s why the word "heroism" is so sacred. As Camilo went for the gun, a soldier who Camilo believed was dead opened fire. The guerrillas saw him go down, and tried to rescue him, directing gunfire in his support and throwing a grenade on his behalf. But they couldn’t reach him. The ambush came apart, and the guerrillas were finally forced to withdraw, leaving Camilo behind, dead on the battlefield. It was only a few months since a photograph of him had been taken by his new friends: Camilo standing there, smiling proudly in his guerrilla uniform, happy to be where his principles had led him. The photograph that followed the 15th of February was of a blood-splattered face, battered into silence. And yet, had not Camilo gotten what he wanted - if not for Colombia, for himself? Like Christ, he had preached the gospel of the poor, for the poor, and proved himself by paying the full price of his convictions. According to witnesses, he had killed no one, for he had died first, before Jesus’ words on behalf of peace and Jesus’ words on behalf of love could collide in his actions. God would not let him stain himself by living long enough to kill. The gun in his hands had merely been his way of securing martyrdom. Camilo Torres was dead, but the blood of his sacrifice would inspire a generation of radical Colombians, longing for change, but also longing for God.
Fabio Vazquez, though some accused him of deliberately sacrificing the revolutionary priest in order to take possession of his popularity without the complication of having to collaborate with him, appears to have been stunned and grief-stricken by Camilo’s death. Suddenly, in one moment, one poorly-executed ambush, his most valuable asset, the treasure of his guerrilla army, was lost. Critics lambasted Vazquez’s stupidity for allowing someone of Camilo’s immense value to participate in a minor skirmish, but they underestimated the powers of Camilo’s persuasiveness, and the poor judgment that friendship can sometimes lead to. For Vazquez had allowed Camilo to become his friend, and in that bonding process lost the cold and calculating control of his emotions that could have allowed him to save his life.
Camilo’s death, however damaging to the ELN in the long-term, produced a wave of regret and sympathy which greatly enhanced the guerrilla organization’s popular appeal and, consequently, its ability to attract supporters and expand as a fighting force. Thanks to Camilo’s work, the ELN, for a time, became the more glamorous of Colombia’s two main revolutionary armies, and the one with the broadest and most diverse array of urban support. It enjoyed a period of "promising success" and increasing power. However, in 1973, the Colombian government finally rallied to deal it a devastating blow, in a highly effective counterinsurgency operation known as Operation Anori. Fabio Vazquez left the country for Cuba, and never returned, and the organization foundered, struggling to restore internal unity and recover direction. It did not truly emerge from disarray until the 1980s, when Manuel Perez, a Spanish priest who had come to Colombia in the 1960s, where he had been mesmerized by the example of Camilo, assumed command of the organization. Perez increased its efforts to reach out from the isolated rural regions to which it was then confined, to community groups and trade unions which could help to nourish its failing strength and to transmute its armed struggle into wider forms of political action. It was during Perez’s captainship that the ELN also adopted its spectacularly successful strategy of holding foreign-owned oil pipelines and installations as "hostage", demanding hefty protection payments from the oil companies in exchange for allowing them to operate without interference. Otherwise, the ELN would dynamite the facilities, especially the highly vulnerable and economically valuable Can~o Limon-Covenas pipeline operated by Occidental Petroleum, hemorrhaging its oil and profits. With the money gained from this extortion strategy, the ELN was able to acquire new and better weapons, and to step up its political and military operations throughout the country. Although the strategy of "bombing the oil pipelines" was controversial, since Colombia lost income whenever the oil industry took a hit (and there was also significant environmental damage as a result), there was enough of an "anti-imperialist" flavor to the attacks, since the oil industry was largely controlled by foreigners (and especially by the US) to mitigate the negative political impact for the ELN.
In addition to financing itself by means of threats made against the oil industry, the ELN also developed a major kidnapping capacity, in the manner of the FARC. In fact, between the years of 1997 and 2001, the ELN actually kidnapped slightly more people than did the FARC, a surprising fact considering the FARC’s much greater military capability. In one shocking incident carried out in May of 2000, the ELN carried out a mass kidnapping of worshippers from their church in Cali, seizing 143 men, women, and children as bargaining chips for use against the government, and as a signal to all of Colombia that they could strike anywhere and anytime, even in the middle of a major city which was well-protected by the army and police. The lesson transmitted by the ELN, however, was also politically damaging, for many felt this to be an act of sacrilege which could not be justified, no matter what the class dynamics. (By this time, Manuel Perez had already passed away. One wonders what he, and Camilo, would have thought of this invasion of a church.) Apologists for this and some other extremely aggressive kidnappings carried out by the ELN, however, note that its involvement in the drug trade is minimal or non-existent (as of 2001), which has led it to place a greater emphasis upon kidnapping, relative to its size, than the FARC.
In 1987, the ELN temporarily joined with the FARC and the EPL, another guerrilla group, to form the Coordinadora Guerrillera Simon Bolivar (the Simon Bolivar Guerrilla Coordinating Organization), a unified guerrilla "high command" which was created in order to better coordinate the actions of the various guerrilla groups against the government. The guerrilla organizations which became integrated into the Coordinadora each maintained their own command structure, their own goals, their own priorities, their own "territory." They simply agreed to attempt to work together in a loose alliance, along parallel lines rather than in competition or conflict with each other. By 1994, differences in strategic outlook and old rivalries led the ELN to drop out of the (now defunct) Coordinadora, and to once more "go it alone."
As of the year 2000, the ELN was estimated to have anywhere between 3,500 and 4,500 fighters in its ranks. Although its presence was felt in many different parts of Colombia, and in some urban as well as rural areas, it remained primarily a rural-based guerrilla movement with significant strongholds in the Departments of Arauca, Casanare and Santander, from which it continued to exert pressure against the oil industry. In response, its hands tied by the vulnerability and importance of the oil industry to its economy (and by its need to protect the economic assets of its foreign allies), the Colombian government was forced to maintain large troop deployments in the area. As in the case of the FARC, ELN influence is today being severely challenged by the operation of paramilitary death squads which are attempting to intimidate, and in cases to exterminate, its human support base, in both the cities and the countryside.
Nonetheless, the ELN remains a vigorous and real threat to the stability of the Colombian government. It is in no way in a position to vie for State power, but it is fully capable of inhibiting the growth of the Colombian oil industry, of discouraging foreign investment in Colombia, of dominating limited peasant-based zones in the countryside, and, when taken in conjunction with the FARC and various social movements which enjoy an urban base, potentially capable of mounting a genuine challenge to the Colombian government in the distant future.
The aura of Camilo Torres still clings to this group, though they may tear it to tatters. Time will tell.
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From And To Elections: The Story of the M-19
In 1970, Colombia witnessed the return of General Rojas Pinilla, not as the leader of a military coup as he was in 1953, but as the presidential candidate of a new political party, ANAPO, or the Alianza Nacional Popular ("Popular National Alliance"). With ANAPO, a broad-based populist movement incorporating diverse elements of Colombian society, he sought to break through the political stranglehold which the Frente Nacional had imposed upon the nation since 1958, and to pave the way for genuine alternatives, whether his own, or others to follow. For many leftists, Rojas Pinilla was not an ingratiating character. They held him responsible for the murder of large numbers of students and demobilized guerrillas during the years of his dictatorship, as well as for initiating powerful, and they believed unwarranted, military attacks against peasant self-defense communities. Nonetheless, many others regarded him as the savior of Colombia, the man who had stepped forward to try to end the bloodbath of La Violencia when neither the Liberal nor Conservative parties were able to take a nonpartisan stand, and to manifest the vision and humanity needed to save the country. Now, once again, Rojas Pinilla had appeared on the scene, this time as a democratic rival to the two traditional parties which had sterilized the political landscape in the name of co-existence. People who wanted political change and a better life, without going through the stress of a true revolution; workers who wanted higher wages and greater social inclusion, without giving up their souls to the danger and mystery of Communism; nationalists who wanted Colombia to control Colombian resources, and to develop its economic potential without servitude to foreign multinationals; citizens of centrist, leftist, and even fascist tendencies - all coalesced into Rojas Pinilla’s project, accepted it enthusiastically, or pragmatically, as the necessary battering ram which could smash through the gates behind which el Frente Nacional had locked Colombia. "We want our country back," was the unifying spirit of ANAPO. A vote for Rojas Pinilla was a vote against the Liberals and the Conservatives, and a vote against the farce which they had imposed upon the nation. "Let democracy be real," they said. Compared by some to Argentine strongman Juan Peron (who is known today in the US as "Evita’s husband", but who was actually one of the great political figures of Latin America in his day) - while others compared him to Marius and Caesar, the populist generals of ancient Rome whose military prestige turned them into champions of a people no longer served by the system - Rojas Pinilla directed a formidable challenge against the Frente Nacional in 1970. In fact, although the Frente Nacional claimed, and utilized State power to consolidate victory in those elections, most independent observers, and nearly all ANAPO members, believed that the results were attained by fraud. Votes were lost, underreported, overreported, miscounted. Democracy was hijacked by the National Front, and discredited as a legitimate process, as a medium for real change; it was exposed as a game whose only rule was "We win, and you lose."
Although the nation was filled with rage and frustration, the results were not challenged with large-scale violence. Cynicism, disgust, and disenchantment filled the streets, not crowds of angry revolutionaries. Rojas Pinilla would not preside over a new catastrophe of bloodshed in his country, not open up the floodgates of social forces that were beyond his power to control. Without a leader, the discontent led to bitterness, not upheaval.
The sense of robbery and helplessness, however, was intolerable to some members of ANAPO’s left-wing. Believing strongly in their social agenda, and convinced, now, that the democratic path to reform was closed, they opted to create a new guerrilla movement known as M-19 (el Movimiento Diecinueve de Abril, or "April 19th Movement"), named for the day on which the elections were stolen. The M-19 described itself as "democratic, nationalist, revolutionary, and patriotic", and basically proposed to work towards the creation of a social democratic state in Colombia, using guerrilla warfare and political action in order to topple a government that only used elections as the public relations weapon of its refusal to change. The M-19 believed, for the time being, that bullets, only, could speak to such hypocrisy. Middle-class intellectuals such as Carlos Toledo Plata, Andres Almarales and Israel Santamaria joined together with disaffected ex-FARC members, such as Jaime Bateman Cayon, Alvaro Fayad, Ivan Marino Ospina and Carlos Pizarro, to organize this new pole of resistance to the government. Unlike the FARC, whose roots lay in the countryside, and whose history was built upon the experience of peasants fighting for their land, the M-19 was well-connected to the urban sectors of Colombia, and displayed a much greater expertise in relating to these sectors. This was a great advantage, for it meant that the M-19 had the potential to become strong in the of very heart of national power, in important cities like Cali and Bogota, unlike the FARC, which could be more easily kept at bay in its distant rural strongholds. However, the remoteness of many FARC strongholds, and the difficulty of the terrain, also made the FARC more difficult to combat and defeat than the M-19: for the cities, if they put more politically significant targets within the guerrillas’ reach, also provided a superior medium of repression for the police and army, whose forces were already concentrated there and able to exploit the possibilities of well-developed transportation and communications systems. Although the M-19 did attempt to expand its operations with time, and to develop an active rural presence, especially in the Departments of el Cauca and el Valle, it remained a basically urban guerrilla force throughout its fighting days.
From the very beginning, this group displayed a keen understanding of the power of symbolism and a highly-developed sense of drama, realizing that the impact of military actions could be greatly magnified by infusing them with a sense of theater. In this way small acts, like a theft, could be turned into compelling "works of art" like a Greek tragedy, capable of moving the nation. In 1974, for example, M-19 guerrillas broke into a historic site, la Casa de Bolivar (the House of Bolivar, which had become a national museum), in order to steal the sword of Simon Bolivar, the great Liberator of the Americas. By taking possession of his sword, M-19 was identifying their struggle with his, and symbolically appointing themselves as the inheritors of his spirit, the new liberators of Colombia. Especially important was the fact that Simon Bolivar was not a Communist with links to the Soviets (like the FARC), or with links to the Cubans (like the ELN); he predated both Lenin and Castro, and, for many Latin Americans, represented a purer source of inspiration for revolt. He was nationalistic, without Cold War complications, far enough removed from the present to no longer be controversial. Everyone could accept him as a personification of the longing of men to be free; and of the courage needed to transform that longing into a reality.
One of the M-19’s first successful military actions was the capture of 5,000 rifles from a military arsenal, which they accessed by means of a secret underground tunnel, 80 meters in length, which they dug from their hiding place into the facility. An M-19 militant later mused that the irony of this great triumph was that the most guerrillas the M-19 ever managed to integrate into their organization was 2,000! In the very first days of action, they captured more weapons than they would ever be able to use!
Two thousand determined and well-trained men, many of them based in urban locations, was, nonetheless, a force to be reckoned with. The M-19 gained increasing popularity as a result of its tactic of commandeering grocery delivery trucks in cities such as Cali, and driving them into poor neighborhoods to distribute free food to the people. Once again, the symbolic power of these actions created an impact that transcended the physical dimensions of the deeds. A kind of Robin Hood romanticism enveloped the group, a mystique which had political repercussions. Injustices of the government were dramatized and exposed, at the same time as the possibility of confronting it was proved.
In 1980, M-19 carried out perhaps its most successful military action, the seizure of the Embassy of the Dominican Republic in Bogota. It was February 27, "Independence Day" for the Republica Dominicana, and the embassy was swarming with diplomats and members of high society. In political terms, it was a fabulously rich target, and a group of M-19 guerrillas managed to successfully penetrate the compound, take control of it, seize the guests as hostages, and set up defensive positions to deter any rescue attempt from the outside, at the same time as they secured their prisoners. In all ways, it was a well-planned and executed operation. Among the M-19’s captives were fourteen foreign ambassadors, including the US ambassador to Colombia. After a period of tense negotiations, in which the M-19 publicized various demands from the high-profile platform of the captive embassy - their temporary citadel in the heart of the capital - a deal was finally reached. The hostages were released, while the guerrillas were offered safe passage to Cuba (which had agreed to help defuse the crisis by allowing them sanctuary). Later, most of these guerrillas re-infiltrated Colombia to continue their struggle. According to some reports, the Colombian government paid the M-19 a ransom of $2.5 million, or even more, in order to facilitate an end to the crisis, which it could not end by force, due to the "value" of the hostages.
In the years following the seizure of the Dominican Embassy, the M-19 continued to travel the upward path. Its appeal remained strong, and seemed to be increasing. It survived the difficulties of urban guerrilla warfare: the surveillance, the police raids, the arrests, the infiltration attempts, at times the torture, the shootouts and the pursuits, growing ever more formidable. But then, in 1985, the group met with a devastating setback - a setback which resulted from an operation that could, just as easily, have turned out to be its most spectacular success. On November 6, M-19 guerrillas, striking quickly and effectively, seized control of the Palace of Justice in Bogota, the Colombian equivalent to the US Supreme Court. Inside, they captured over 300 lawyers, judges, and Supreme Court magistrates, stunning the government with the hugeness of their accomplishment, and throwing it into chaos. What, exactly, the guerrillas’ plans were has become confused with time, although one thing that is clear is that the military phase of the operation was a complete success. The building was secured, with its high-prestige hostages inside, and turned into an M-19 fortress in the middle of the capital. The nation was stunned, on edge. What would happen next? And when? Although the results could never have been so decisive, it nonetheless seemed for some, caught up in the emotion of the moment, as if the history of their country were hanging in the balance.
In retrospect, some say that the guerrillas’ objective in seizing the Palace of Justice was to carry out their end of a bargain made with Pablo Escobar, the powerful Colombian drug lord (see "Drugs, and the Changing Face of Conflict"). These theorists conjecture that, in exchange for a large payment provided by Escobar, with which they could greatly enhance the capabilities of their organization, the M-19 invaded the Palace of Justice with the objective (or at least the secondary goal) of destroying documents deemed essential to the government’s prosecution of the notorious drug baron. Other analysts, however, dismiss this interpretation as little more than an effort to discredit the guerrillas: to tarnish a committed, if violent, political alternative with the brush of common delinquency. These analysts believe that the M-19 guerrillas were intent on using the forum of the captured Palace of Justice to launch a symbolic "trial" of the Colombian government, condemning it for its social, economic, and political failings, for its human rights abuses and for its indifference to its poor. From inside the Palace of Justice, they would essentially broadcast the message to the rest of the world that "there is no justice in Colombia", and thereby energize the forces of change. "Exposure" as a "criminal" on a stage that could not be hidden would shame and weaken the Colombian government vis-à-vis its opponents, and help to create space for a genuine transformation of the national situation. Once the military action had achieved its political objectives, the M-19 guerrillas could utilize the value of their hostages to negotiate a successful withdrawal, as they had after the Dominican Embassy takeover of 1980, thus preserving their personnel for future operations, while consolidating a huge victory in the all-important battle of public perception, which provides or denies durability to material forms of power.
In the face of a crisis of this scale, the Colombian military revolted against its sense of powerlessness, against the rage which having one’s hands tied inevitably produces in the strong. Tension had been building for a while between the army and Colombian President Belisario Betancur, a moderate Conservative who had launched a major peace initiative in 1982, offering amnesty to the guerrillas, negotiating a temporary cease-fire with the FARC and the M-19 in 1984, and promoting an aperatura democratica (a "democratic opening"), which was an invitation to disaffected sectors of society to redirect their opposition from violent forms of resistance into peaceful channels of change. The amnesty had not led many guerrillas to disarm, and the cease-fires had been shaky, undermined by mutual distrust and opportunism, with alleged violations on both sides. From the Colombian military’s point of view, Betancur’s peace process was a "fool’s gambit", a naive commitment to diplomacy which was merely playing into the hands of the guerrillas by restraining the army from using its full force against them, as the rebels took advantage to consolidate their control of large swaths of Colombian territory, and to extend their influence into new regions and reach new sectors of the population. Now, with the seizure of the Palace of Justice, the failure of Betancur’s policies came home to roost with an almost unbearable irony. Many military figures felt mocked by the circumstances, utterly humiliated, as though they had been made the butt of a gigantic guerrilla joke, which had been set up by their very own president (el Sen~or Guevon, or "Mr. Fool"). More than this, members of the high command realized the political damage that the M-19 was in a position to wreak if the government were to give way to the logic of the situation, and, in order to spare the hostages, allow the guerrillas to go forward with their agenda.
What took place next within the corridors of power has yet to be unraveled. Many believe that President Betancur’s arm was twisted by the military to opt for a military solution, against his own inclination to search for a political one. Others go so far as to suggest that for a few hours, the military actually "took control" of the nation’s response to the takeover of the Palace of Justice, and that Betancur was essentially displaced by a mini-coup, limited in time and substance to the elimination of the crisis. On the other hand, still other analysts propose that rumors to this effect were merely "leaked" in the wake of the disaster which followed, in order to cleanse President Betancur’s hands and preserve his potential to continue playing the role of "peacemaker."
Whatever the case, the military inverted the perception which seems to have had the civilian government paralyzed at this moment. As samurai warrior Miyamoto Musashi wrote more than three centuries before: "To become the enemy means to think yourself into the enemy’s position. In the world people tend to think of a robber trapped in a house as a fortified enemy. However, if we think of becoming the enemy, we feel that the whole world is against us and that there is no escape. He who is shut inside is a pheasant. He who enters to arrest is a hawk. You must appreciate this." (A Book of Five Rings, Overlook Press, p. 75) Colombian generals realized that they were the ones who really had the power, if they were willing to sweep aside the political ramifications of the use of their superior armaments and manpower. A large number of highly effective guerrillas were now concentrated and confined in a single location, encircled and in a position to be destroyed, protected not so much by the walls of the Palace of Justice, which could be bombed by aircraft or blown apart by artillery, but by the psychological barrier of the guerrillas believing that the army would not dare to risk the lives of the hostages in order to get at them. It was a barrier that was simultaneously formidable and nonexistent. The military, enraged beyond the point of caution, decided to confront the guerrillas head on. What stood in their way was purely mental, not physical, and they could not resist the temptation to apply force: militarily, they could not lose, and whatever the political cost, they deemed it less than the cost of allowing the M-19 to inject its revolutionary message into the heart of the world’s captured attention; they also gambled that the blame for any civilian casualties which might result from the operation (and it was inevitable that many would), would be blamed on the M-19.
Ringed by armored personnel carriers, tanks, and top-notch troops armed with automatic weapons, the Palace of Justice was quickly isolated and seemed sure to be subjected to a long-term siege, when suddenly and unexpectedly, the containing operation was converted into a massive assault. It is hard to describe this assault as an attempted "rescue operation", given its relative lack of preparation and concrete intelligence to act upon. (In contrast, the successful recapture of the Japanese Embassy, and the hostages within, from MRTA guerrillas in Peru during the reign of Alberto Fujimori, was made possible by highly-detailed intelligence reports, meticulous planning and preparation, and the exercise of tremendous patience, until an opportunity for decisive intervention was created.) But the modus operandi in the military assault upon the Palace of Justice, more than getting the hostages out alive, seemed to be to silence the guerrillas before they could turn their operation into a fully-realized act of political theater and impart meaning to their accomplishment; as well as to send a message to the M-19 and every other armed revolutionary movement in the country that the government was through with "playing the part of the sucker." Tanks and APCs opened fire on the Palace with heavy machine guns and shells; and infantry units, with M-19 guerrillas driven away from windows and other firing positions, stormed in. Fierce fighting continued in hallways and rooms. The Palace caught on fire, whether from the shelling, or from deliberate fires set by the M-19 guerrillas to destroy drug-related documents, or by the military to destroy documents pertaining to human rights abuses in which they may have had a part, no one can be entirely sure. Smoke was in the air, bullets were flying everywhere, and the hostages seem to have been completely disregarded as human shields; they were simply blown away to get at the guerrillas, who fired from behind them at the soldiers. By the time the chaos had ended, over one hundred people had died, including all of the guerrillas and twelve of Colombia’s twenty-five Supreme Court magistrates.
The episode left Colombia in shock. Although the fault of the guerrillas in the catastrophe was undeniable, many Colombians also blamed the government and military for choosing a military solution before properly exploring peaceful alternatives; they also blamed the government for disrespecting the lives of the judges and civilian personnel who were being held hostage by the M-19 by undertaking a "rescue operation" before they were ready, or even foregoing the idea of a "rescue operation" altogether in order to pursue the simpler objective of exterminating the guerrillas. In a way, the M-19 had succeeded in producing a masterful piece of political theater, after all. They had lured the government into shooting up, and almost burning down, the Palace of Justice; into symbolically riddling the citadel of its virtue and legitimacy with bullets, and revealing its utter disrespect for an institution meant to redeem power with morality. Outside the wrecked Palace of Justice, a photographer captured an image of the body of a dove caught in the crossfire between the guerrillas and the army, lying white and dead beside the cold stone walls of the gutted building which enshrined the ideals men live for. It was a photograph that traveled around the world, and spoke in a way that words could not, to the deep places in the soul that only silence can reach.
Whatever damage the Colombian government may have sustained as a result of its blunt and poorly-executed solution to the Palace of Justice takeover, the M-19 was hit even harder. It lost experienced, valuable, and irreplaceable fighters, including Andres Almarales. Enough of the population blamed it for its role in the bloodbath to deny it political gain; while the prestige and mystique which it might have enhanced if things had gone its way, were seriously diminished by defeat. Without a doubt, the appeal of the M-19’s works of "armed theater" declined significantly, as real people, especially innocents, died in its "productions", obscuring the potent symbolism of its actions with the even more potent force of human blood. Even though "this was war", the M-19 had somehow seemed to evade the stigma which other participants in the armed conflict had acquired as a result of the violence; it was as though, even in the midst of committing acts of violence, the M-19 had somehow been less committed to them than was the Army, or the FARC or the ELN, enabling its admirers to disassociate from its methods as they idealized its panache, and sympathized with its goals. For these people, M-19 had been the group which took the most risks, and killed the least, making it the most morally comfortable of the revolutionary options. Now, with the disaster at the Palace of Justice, everything suddenly became more real: the nature of revolution, as well as the limits of guerrilla power. They despaired at changing society by means of "armed stunts", and woke up to the true moral meaning of supporting a guerrilla movement. It required a deep level of contact with the meaning of life, death, personal responsibility, justice, and human nature, and that was frightening to many who wanted to uphold ideals, without ambiguities. Where were the dividing lines between pragmatism and fantasy, purity and ineffectiveness, compassion and disengagement, sympathy and participation? For some M-19 supporters, emotionally and physically imbedded in the revolution, there was no wavering: the Palace of Justice catastrophe was just one more example of why the government must go. But for many others, who were crucial to the M-19 as the political constituency which might one day be able to translate the guerrilla organization’s military actions into an actual reshaping of Colombian society, the catastrophe was highly inhibitory. After 1985, the M-19 was attacked more aggressively and with more success by the Colombian government, losing another important leader, Alvaro Fayad in 1986, and struggling to recover its sense of optimism and its former impact on society.
Finally, under debilitated circumstances in 1989, the M-19 responded to a new peace offer put forward by Colombian President Virgilio Barco. The new peace accords called for the disarmament of the M-19, in exchange for amnesty and the right of former M-19 guerrillas to reintegrate into society and participate in the electoral process. Since M-19 had originally emerged from that process, as protagonized by ANAPO, the return was not to unfamiliar territory. While the government viewed the demobilization of the M-19 as a huge victory, removing a significant revolutionary threat (at the same time as government negotiators discounted the M-19’s ability to mount a serious challenge in the electoral arena), the M-19 did not see its years of armed struggle as having been in vain. Rather, it felt that it had gained credibility as a supporter of the popular classes, and won significant levels of sympathy from elements of the middle class. Shut down by electoral fraud in 1970, it had survived as an alternative voice, and gained political stature through the underground path of the guerrilla. M-19 supporters believed that the pressure which the armed struggle had placed upon the government was responsible for the opening of new political space in their country: space which might finally allow a real option to flourish in the soil of Colombian politics. For those who feared the FARC and the ELN, but wanted social change, Alianza Democratica M-19 (the "M-19 Democratic Alliance" as the M-19 now called itself), would provide the answer. Consistent with its mastery of, and emphasis on, political symbolism, the M-19 returned the stolen sword of Bolivar at the time it gave up its armed struggle to return to the ways of peace.
Sad to say, the M-19’s surrender of its weapons was barely a month old when its principal surviving leader, Carlos Pizarro, who had declared himself as a presidential candidate, was gunned down by an assassin aboard an Avianca jetliner. How did the killer and his gun get on board? people demanded. Was it possible the government had nothing to do with it? While the FARC only shook its head in the mountains, thinking that the M-19 had fallen for the oldest trick in the book, M-19 supporters felt enraged and betrayed by the government, but nonetheless determined to go on with the process they had begun. Antonio Navarro Wolff, himself missing a leg from a battle with Colombian security forces when he had been a guerrilla fighter, stepped into the gun sights to assume leadership of the movement, and bravely led it forward under conditions of both increased opportunity and vulnerability. AD-M19 garnered 12.5% of the vote in the 1990 presidential elections, and went on to capture 26.7% of the votes for the Constituent Assembly, which was elected in 1991 to modernize the Colombian Constitution. As a result of that process, the position of certain basic human rights in Colombian society was formally strengthened. (Conformity with the measures and spirit of the new Constitution did not necessarily follow, however.) At this moment in time, the AD-M19 seemed poised to become a major player on the national scene, perhaps even to challenge the supremacy of the Liberal and Conservative parties. Its transition from guerrilla movement to political party was nothing short of spectacular. However, the results of 1991 were the party’s high point (up until January-April 2006, at least, the period in which this article was written). Radicals became disenchanted with AD-M19’s cooperation with the Gaviria government, which produced few tangible results for the popular classes; while the party, by focusing too much attention on its national-level efforts, failed to develop a solid presence on the local level, which hurt its performance in municipal elections and finally impeded its growth on the national level, as well. More and more, it came to be characterized as a party without a real base. In 1994, in his second bid for the presidency, Navarro Wolff won only 3.79 % of the votes, evidence of a sharp decline in AD-M19’s popularity. In 1998, AD-M19 attempted to reinvigorate itself by forming an electoral alliance with the Alianza Social Indigena (the "Native American Social Alliance") and with various independent groups, who came together as the Via Alterna. In 2002, the Via Alterna allied with the FSP (el Frente Social y Politico, or the "Social and Political Front"), an alliance of left-wing parties including the PCC, which had broken its relations with the FARC in 1993 over disputes in strategy, and probably in an effort to distance itself from the guerrillas so as to avoid persecution by right-wing paramilitaries, who had decimated an earlier, 1980’s version of a left-wing coalition (the Union Patriotica), while the PCC was still closely connected with the FARC. (This break, in turn, led the FARC to form its own political party, the PCCC, or Partido Comunista Colombiano Clandestino - the "Clandestine Colombian Communist Party" - in 2000. This group was charged with secretly carrying out political work for the FARC, below the "radar screen" of the paramilitary assassins who had shut down the UP.) In 2002, the combined forces of the FSP (spearheaded by the PCC) and the Via Alterna (spearheaded by the AD-M19), known together as el Polo Democratico (the "Democratic Pole"), placed a former M-19 guerrilla, Vera Grabe, before the nation as their candidate for president. She came in third, with 6% of the votes, while Navarro Wolff was elected to the national Senate.
Alianza Social Indigena
and other left-wing parties
Frente Social y Politico (FSP)
and other left-wing parties
and other left-wing groups
When considering the name "Democratic Pole", it is probably helpful to refer to the economic concept, so well-known in Latin America, of the "pole of development": an economic project or a settlement introduced into an "underdeveloped area", whose very existence is expected to draw in the people, resources, and investments needed to jump-start development throughout the entire area. This concept has been applied by many South American nations to the "development" of their frontiers, most notably by Brazil. In the case of "Democratic Pole", the implication was most certainly that the creation of a new grouping of left-wing parties and movements, by uniting their forces and generating real hope for progress via the electoral route, could begin to attract increasing numbers of supporters, who would begin to return from the no-man’s-land of apathy and cynicism which was perpetuating the domination of the traditional parties. If the Democratic Pole were able to gather together enough support from enough dissatisfied groups to make a dent, then a vote for the Left instead of for the Liberals or the Conservatives might no longer be seen as a "throwaway vote" - and that, in turn, would be the beginning of a real third alternative in Colombia.
What the future holds for the AD-M19, or any of the coalitions just mentioned, is hard to say. Most likely, no alliance of the Left at this time should be considered as permanent or even long-term. The various parties have different goals and orientations, and each is motivated by its own ambition. Nonetheless, while there is a sense of compressed political space in Colombia, it is logical that groups that feel repressed or marginalized will attempt to increase their impact by combining forces, by entering into coalitions for specific elections or for longer periods of time, and by working together for common objectives, beginning with the basic matter of survival, which is not to be taken for granted in a country such as Colombia, where the assassination of leftist political figures, labor representatives and social activists has become commonplace (more will be said about this later). At this point in time, in an unpredictable environment, all that can be said is that the M-19 has made its mark as both a guerrilla organization and a political movement. It has shown the government, as well as other guerrilla organizations, both the potential and the limitations of urban guerrilla warfare as an instrument of revolution, while demonstrating the potential of a revolutionary movement which is in tune with the cities to elicit support from strategic elements of the urban middle class, in addition to winning over the destitute of the slums. AD-M19 is now on the path of attempting to prove that it is possible to construct a democratic Left in Colombia, and to transform the nation with votes and not bullets. This is a path which is beautiful to contemplate, but which many feel will only be shot down in cold blood, on the day the dream finally comes too close to reality…
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Yet Another Guerrilla Movement: The EPL
It is not very easy for a government to claim that it is managing the affairs of the nation well when four separate guerrilla movements are working to bring it down. For each guerrilla movement represents a source of disaffection, and a base of opposition that has been driven to extremes. In the 1980s, the Colombian government was engaged in warfare not only against the FARC, the ELN, and the M-19, but also against the EPL: the Ejercito Popular de Liberacion (or the "Popular Army of Liberation").
The EPL was born in 1967 after a split in the Colombian Communist Party led to the formation of a new Maoist party in Colombia - the PCC-ML, or Marxist Leninist Colombian Communist Party. The EPL took up weapons on behalf of this party and its ideology, seeking to direct a Chinese-style revolution in the countryside. Unlike the founders of the FARC, however, the originators of this guerrilla movement were primarily urban intellectuals and theorists disconnected from the tradition of peasant resistance in Colombia, and lacking personal roots in the rural environment which they proposed to turn into the base of their revolutionary project. Nonetheless, the countryside was in turmoil when they came upon the scene, and they were able to make contact with men who possessed the experience they lacked. In the late 1960s, the EPL, which initially made inroads into the Departments of Cordoba and Antioquia, attained some stature as a defender of the radicalized peasants of ANUC, the government-created peasant association which broke away from government control, turning the reform process into a sort of revolution. In the Atlantic coastal region of Colombia, in particular, landlords who were frightened by ANUC had begun to carry out mass evictions of aparceros, or sharecroppers. These aparceros were tenant-farmers who were required to pay rent in kind, instead of in labor, donating a portion of their crops to the landlord in exchange for the right to live on his property. They were generally less upwardly mobile than the arrendatarios who had been organized by the PCC on some coffee haciendas during the 1930s, and they were, for that reason, even more vulnerable. As agitation on behalf of peasants intensified during the heyday of ANUC, many landlords panicked, believing that their aparceros would claim ownership of land on their estates and attempt to bring in INCORA, the government land-reform agency, to back them up. This is what led to the mass evictions, sometimes carried out by private bands of armed men. At this time, many landlords sought to transform their property into cattle ranches, which would enable them to maintain a form of productivity which satisfied the government (which was biased against idle property), at the same time as it lowered the manpower required to work the land, and therefore lessened the number of peasants in a position to challenge landlord ownership through INCORA. The EPL grew in the midst of this turbulence, as an armed counter-force to the power of the landlords. After some initial gains, however, it lost influence as it proved unable to stand up to the government’s repudiation of the radical wing of ANUC (once ANUC split in two), which unleashed a new wave of crackdowns by the army and the police, on top of the violence already being perpetrated by the landlords. By the mid-1970s, the EPL had been badly mauled by counterinsurgency operations, and reduced to a shell.
In the 1980s, however, it made a powerful comeback. Politically, it renounced Maoism (following the lead of the PCC-ML), a move which put it more in sync with other elements of the Colombian left. It gained a year of peace by experimenting with the peace offers of President Betancur, then joined the FARC and ELN as a member of the Coordinadora Guerrillera Simon Bolivar in 1985. Most importantly, it embraced a new strategy, rejecting the concept of protracted rural warfare based on peasants which had brought the Chinese Communists to power, in favor of a strategy of penetrating new strongholds of agricultural capitalism which were forming in the Colombian countryside, and connecting there with the rural proletariat - an expanding class of workers who happened to be employed by major agricultural enterprises, instead of by urban factories. Theoretically, the rural proletariat, concentrated in economically vital zones linked to the export economy, rather than dispersed throughout rural zones of limited national impact which could be isolated or abandoned to the guerrillas, should be able to be organized much more effectively, and wielded with much more force, than the traditional peasantry. Right or wrong, the strategy was a better fit for the strengths of the EPL; and it sought to implement it in the banana-growing zone of Uraba, on the Atlantic Coast of Antioquia, south of Panama.
The banana-growing zone of Uraba into which the EPL inserted itself with considerable success in the 1980s, was a very different creature from the United Fruit Company enclave in Santa Marta, which had been the target of nationalists and radicals alike during the 1920s. United Fruit had learned from its experience of alienating a nation, and eager to free itself from the terrible liabilities of being a symbol of oppression, it came to Uraba a wiser and more discreet company. Soil exhaustion and blight had taken a toll on the banana enclave of Santa Marta, which needed time to recover and reorganize, leading United Fruit to initiate an Associate Producer Program in Uraba in 1962. Essentially, it offered low-interest loans, seeds, technical support, and contracts (meaning high-level access to the North American market via United Fruit’s distribution and sales network) to eligible Colombian planters. Although the company did initially take control of some important aspects of the local infrastructure (which it subsequently relinquished), it placed a much lower emphasis on the direct control of the banana zone than it had in 1920s’ Santa Marta. This was especially evident in its avoidance of assuming ownership of the land, or responsibility for management of the banana plantations. Both of these aspects were left in the hands of the Colombian planters - mainly Antioquen~o and Bogotano entrepreneurs who moved in to buy up land in the area once they learned that the United Fruit Company was launching an Associate Producers Program there. The brilliance of United Fruit’s strategy was that the Colombian plantation-owning class would be left in charge of the potentially explosive issue of labor management, and that whatever social strife developed in the banana-growing region would now be an internal affair between Colombian classes, without the high profile presence of a foreign multinational to incite or unify the opposition. United Fruit (which changed its name to United Brands) was still reeling from the bad PR of the 1928 massacre in Cienaga, and from the 1954 coup in Guatemala (as well as from a whole lore of Central American adventures which had earned it the nickname of el pulpo, or "the octopus": octopus, octopus, your tentacles reach everywhere where there is green, into the palace of the president, into the barracks of the army, into the womb of the earth that is tired of giving birth to you); and it was determined to protect its image from further damage, while attempting to salvage the considerable profits which its technical competence made possible. Business first, without the incriminating politics of the past. Since the bulk of the income generated by the banana industry occurs on the distributing, marketing, and sales end of the business, rather than in the productive phase, United Fruit was not really losing money by shifting responsibility for production onto the shoulders of local elites; it was, in fact, relieving itself of a burden, making itself less of a target, without sacrificing its profits.
Tensions, nonetheless, did arise between the Colombian plantation-owning class and the United Fruit Company, as they had in Santa Marta; only this time, they were worked out with far less turmoil. Both parties seemed to realize that their disagreements must not come to involve the working class, or provide an opportunity for revolutionaries to enter the picture. A large group of Colombian planters, dissatisfied with the low purchase prices for bananas which the United Fruit Company had set throughout Uraba, formed AUGURA (the Association of Banana Growers of Uraba), which pressured the Colombian government to allow other multinationals, such as Castle & Cooke (the parent company of Standard Fruit) to enter the region as well, in an effort to generate higher purchase prices through competition. More than this, AUGURA formed UNIBAN, an independent commercializing project whose goal was to develop the expertise and contacts needed to sell Colombian bananas directly in foreign markets, without having to depend on United Fruit or Standard Fruit to do it for them. Colombian planters wanted to break into the end of the banana business where the real money was made. After the initial contracts with United Fruit had expired, many members of AUGURA, rather than renew, began to work through UNIBAN, which marketed Colombian bananas directly to the US through the "Turbana" label. So successful was UNIBAN that, as of 1990, it ranked fourth among the world’s leading banana exporters, after United Fruit, Castle and Cooke, and Del Monte. In 1983, United Fruit and Standard Fruit officially left Uraba, with Standard Fruit reconcentrating its efforts in United Fruit’s old banana zone of Santa Marta. United Fruit, however, remained an important force in the zone, due to its association with two new Colombian-owned commercializing organizations, BANACOL and PROBAN, which lacking the clout of UNIBAN, continued to depend upon United Fruit to help sell their bananas in the US. None of this activity by Colombian growers, it should be emphasized, sought to mobilize or to utilize the working class as an ally against the foreign multinationals. That strategy, which had demonstrated its enormous power in the 1920s, had also released excesses of energy that could not be contained, loosening the grip of a foreign company at the expense of simultaneously unleashing class war in Colombia, and endangering the social position of local elites. "You cannot invoke a flood to wash away only one house." The lesson had been learned.
All of this meant that when the EPL came to Uraba to build a base for its revolution among the rural proletarians of the new banana zone, it would not have the opportunity to exploit nationalist sentiments to the same extent that the PSR had been able to do in Santa Marta. The United Fruit Company was now in hiding, and the fight would have to be carried out principally against Colombian elites. The conflict would, in other words, be one of pure class warfare, with a correspondingly more limited appeal to the bulk of Colombian society.
In spite of this, the social terrain for developing revolutionary activity in Uraba seemed excellent to the EPL. The Colombian banana-plantation owners, who had internalized many of the methods and attitudes of the United Fruit Company ("that’s the way things are in the banana industry"), left much to be desired from the point of view of labor. The obnoxious use of private contractors to provide workers who the plantation-owners were not officially responsible for persisted. This enabled the plantation owners to avoid paying the benefits or providing the services which were mandated by Colombian law, to large numbers of men who worked for them. Piecework was also widely utilized, making pay less secure, and driving workers to work at a more intense pace, which was not always sustainable for long periods of time. "Overtime" was common, but without increased pay. Salaries, which were often relatively high by Colombian standards, were mitigated by the high cost of living in the banana zone, and by the fact that many workers who had migrated from other regions of Colombia, especially from el Choco, were forced to remit significant portions of their earnings to help support relatives back home. Housing received mixed reviews, some residents deeming it above average for the region, others complaining that it was overcrowded and unhygienic, and pointing out that many workers were forced to bathe at plants, in the same water that was used to wash bananas. Perhaps most importantly of all, the right of workers to organize into effective unions was under attack. Two major unions, SINTRAGO (UTC-affiliated) and SINTRABANANO (CSTC-affiliated) emerged in the zone, both of which were targeted for repression by local elites, the police, and eventually by the military. Colombian planters utilized old United Fruit tactics of blacklisting known labor activists, utilizing spies to detect dissidents and workers with "negative attitudes", and selectively firing anyone who attempted to challenge the existing structure of the banana industry, or whose dissatisfaction, politicized or not, might prove to be contagious. Later, as the conflict in Uraba intensified, the targeted assassination of labor organizers would become standard practice.
These conditions, which provided a promising environment for a guerrilla movement to grow in, coupled with the economic importance of the banana zone, which rendered it politically significant, turned Uraba into the major focus of the EPL during the 1980s. Colombian banana exports were the nation’s fifth-to-sixth principal earner of foreign exchange (behind oil, coffee, coal, flowers, and sometimes emeralds). And that production was centered in Uraba. Uraba was also geographically important as the site of a potential alternative to the Panama Canal (which could be constructed from the Atlantic to the Pacific, utilizing a portion of the Rio Atrato). Should the US ever lose access to the Panama Canal, the importance of this alternative route could become monumental overnight.
For all these reasons, the EPL moved into Uraba, which became the central base of their revolutionary project. From 80 active guerrilla fighters in 1968, the EPL achieved an estimated strength of 800 guerrilleros by 1990. While the EPL concentrated on the struggle of the rural proletariat in the banana zone, the FARC also moved into Uraba, basing its growth upon the peasant colonos who had moved into this still underserviced and underdeveloped region, and who were plagued by typical issues of land. These colonos had varying degrees of connection with the banana industry, some working part-time on the banana plantations, some interacting with it as sellers of produce in local markets, some having very little to do with it at all. With both the FARC and the EPL operating in the zone, the banana producers had a lot to worry about, while the United Fruit Company must have spent some time standing in front of the mirror, saying, "Thank you for not being there. Thank you for not being there."
The very same economic importance which made Uraba an excellent target for guerrilla activities, however, also made it a priority for the government to secure. A major military presence was therefore committed to the region. Outposts basing army patrols and roadblocks were used to restrict the movement of civilians through the zone; identification was required at checkpoints, and the purpose of those entering and leaving the banana-growing areas was ascertained; vehicles and persons were inspected and searched, infiltration and counterintelligence operations were stepped up. There were some sharp clashes between the guerrillas, and the army and police. But the key turning point in the war occurred beginning in the mid-1980s, when a major increase in violence against banana workers, labor organizers, and local leftist politicians occurred as the result of the entry of paramilitary death squads into the region. More about these death squads will be said later, but for now, it is enough to state that they arose out of the dangerous mixture of drug money, the fear landholders and business owners felt living under the shadow of the guerrillas, and the military’s frustration with the limits of "humane counterinsurgency." Una guerra sucia (a "dirty war") ensued, in which the norms of war, always obscure in times of counterinsurgency, were utterly violated. The army hunted and killed guerrillas, while the paramilitary death squads, acting with total impunity, murdered civilians suspected of sympathizing with the guerrillas, as well as many other inconformes (individuals not in agreement with the way things were). Under this fearsome pressure, the EPL lost ground. It did not have enough space to diffuse the attack; the geography of its base was not adequate to break the impact of the government offensive. Unable to protect its supporters, it began to be hemmed in by the disengagement of the populace, which was learning that solidarity with the guerrillas was not a step towards "liberation", but rather, a step towards death. The blood turned ugly with futility. As Chilean songwriter Victor Jara once wrote of Latin American revolutionaries: "There have already been thousands upon thousands who have given up their blood and, in generous streams, multiplied the loaves." (Vientos del Pueblo) But blood given for nothing ceases to excite; heroes remain buried in the earth like seeds until they can sense that the spring is possible. In Uraba, the hope which sustains the fighting spirit of the human heart began to fade, not because of cowardice, but because of realism; many men and women fought on, but enough withdrew emotionally to leave the EPL debilitated and waning as a guerrilla force. Under these conditions, in 1991, the majority of EPL fighters accepted a government peace offer (the same one which was accepted by M-19), and agreed to demobilize in exchange for amnesty and the opportunity to reintegrate into civil society.
Unlike the M-19, the EPL had no significant political options after leaving the battlefield; the PCC-ML, its associated political party, was a low-impact organization with no real future, except as a part of other, broader, left-wing coalitions. Perhaps for this reason, a determined EPL minority remained active in the field, persisting as a guerrilla force. This faction was hit hard in 1994, in a highly successful military operation which captured several of its most important leaders, including Francisco Caraballo. Shortly thereafter, what remained of the EPL in Uraba began to experience difficulties - guerrilla turf wars, one might say - with the FARC. These inter-guerrilla tensions were exacerbated by paramilitary hits which were designed to mimic attacks by the guerrillas, so that the FARC would think that members of their organization had been killed by the EPL, and the EPL would think that members of their organization had been killed by the FARC. In the complex, gray-shaded world of violence which had engulfed Uraba, some EPL members ended up joining the right-wing paramilitaries in order to shelter themselves from the FARC, and to gain some measure of revenge against their guerrilla rivals. Others, however, would have nothing to do with the death squad movement, even as a form of sanctuary.
Clearly, the EPL was past its prime, if not on the verge of disappearing altogether. But prophecy is not a prudent profession in Colombia. There is too much uncertainty, too much mystery, too much resilience, and too long a history of surprises. Many times a fire that has seemed to be put out has contained, hidden within its coldness, a few smoldering ashes, just enough to light it up anew and immerse a new generation in the past - or give the future to the dead. Has the EPL joined the ranks of Colombia’s broken guerrilla armies, bearing empty names such as MOEC, the FAL, the ERC, and the ADO; or fallen into the ranks of tiny splinter groups such as the ERG, ERP and Grupo Jaime Bateman Cayon, which operate today in obscurity and with little hope for success, like fleas making war upon an elephant? Or does it shelter, within its battered form, a new beginning? A new birth, or a lesson that will prevent something else from dying, which is a way to be born without rising up from one’s defeat? Time will tell. With Colombia, this is the eternal refrain: time will tell.
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The Indigenous Movement in Colombia
Colombia, like all Latin American countries, was born from the shock of a tremendous trauma, one from which it never completely recovered, although the pain of the original sin of la conquista slowly hid itself within the pain of new injustices, new circumstances, new challenges presented by history, whose hand never stops writing transgressions. Faces that once were pure Indian became whiter, giving a physical form to the conquest: indigenous features peered out from the skin of those who had tried to erase them, but could not quite destroy the evidence of their crime. Conqueror and conquered were forced to coexist in the same body, locked in combat, forever, it seemed, struggling to recover self-love and to forget the violence that had made them one. As some very insightful thinkers here, in the US, have postulated the existence of a "post-traumatic slave syndrome" - the continuing psychological impact of slavery on African-Americans, which they say has been passed on from generation to generation, from the uprooted and the enslaved to the free, who still carry vestiges of the original catastrophe in their inner emotional life - so the trauma of conquest by Spain persisted in Colombia, in the attitudes and feelings, and in the very physiology, of those who survived. For the great majority of those Colombians who were descended from los indigenas, the process of ethnic mixing mentioned at the beginning of this article ("Ethnicity in Colombia") gradually eroded their sense of Native American identity. The Spanish language replaced their mother tongue, Latin culture supplanted their own native heritage, they became lost in a new hybrid world, attuned to new values, new perceptions and new ways of life. Beautiful traces of the past survived, but did not know where they had come from. Things which had absorbed them, and were influenced by them, were nonetheless not the same. This loss of identity, born from violence, racism, dispossession and dispersal, and flight from the sense of inferiority which was produced by calamity and contempt, eventually reduced the "indigenous question" to the margins of the national political debate, except for a few areas where pure-blooded Indians remained in large-enough numbers to retain awareness of who they were, and who they were not.
One of these areas was the Department of the Cauca, where a people known as the Paez Indians (los paeces, or the Nasa), lived together, cherishing and maintaining a strong tradition of resistance to outside invaders. In 1536, a woman known as La Gaitana united local tribes to fight against the Spaniards, and inflicted heavy losses on them in a courageous but doomed effort to remain free. The Spanish Crown thereafter recognized, and contained los paeces within, resguardos (reservations, or refuges); but not all Spaniards chose to respect the boundaries of these lands which the paeces had been allowed to keep. Juan Tama, a Paez Indian and advocate of his people (circa 1670), studied law so that he was able to ward off the illegal incursions of those who sought to erode the resguardos and enhance their own landholdings at the Indians’ expense. However, after Independence, as previously mentioned, the resguardos were newly threatened, and practically dissolved, by Liberal attempts to "modernize" the nation according to European models of economic development which overlooked the social and cultural realities of el Cauca. Los paeces lost huge amounts of territory, and were disorganized culturally, politically, and socially. It seemed, then, as if a white sea was about to engulf and wash away the last residue of a red land. But, just as night seemed about to fall over the history and hope of el Cauca, a new champion arose, one of those special figures whose personality and talents were intimately bound to the moment in which he was given to live. Is it always that way - that darkness never comes alone, but always with the light that will dispel it?
The new hero of los paeces was not a cacique, not a member of the traditional Paez power structure, but simply a man of great determination and force of character who deeply felt the need to defend his people, and sought to find ways, effective in modern times, to do so. Martin Quintin Lame, born in 1880, was shaped by the mistreatment of his people by land-hungry outsiders, who, sometime after 1905, began a new push to take away what remained of the Paez’ dwindling lands; he was also deeply affected by the rape of his mute sister, and by the murder and mutilation of his brother, during wars which accomplished nothing except for the elites, who despised them. What could be more powerful as a symbol of the intolerable abuse of his people by outsiders, than the rape of his own sister who could not cry out for help? Filled with passion, but wise enough to make it useful, Quintin Lame determined to become the voice of his people: to expose and fight back against the rape which the Colombian nation was committing against the Paez. Beginning around 1910, he launched his life-long campaign on their behalf. Like Juan Tama, he turned to the law, studying royal documents of the Spanish colonial past regarding the integrity and dimensions of the resguardos, and presenting his findings to the Colombian Congress. He sought to win support on the national level against the predation being carried out by local elites in the Cauca. At the same time, Quintin Lame began to painstakingly organize his people to resist incursions onto their lands, so that they could repel illegal attempts by outsiders to take possession of Paez territory; when landlords sent men to clear growth or to build on Paez property, or when they sent in cattle as a way of claiming the Indians’ land as their own (trampling the Indians’ crops underfoot in the process), or when they dispatched armed men to evict Indians from their own farms, the Paez would gather together to drive them out. The Paez would also carry out coordinated "land invasions" to retake land that rightfully belonged to them. Local elites responded to this generally nonviolent, but intimidating resistance, with violence and repression. During the course of his life, Quintin Lame was arrested nearly a hundred times, and threats against his life forced him to flee, for many years, to the neighboring Department of Tolima. While he was there, his ally in the indigenous movement of the Cauca, Jose Gonzalo Sanchez, was poisoned by local landlords.
Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, driven to one of his many moments of genius by the torment of wanting to change the world faster than it could be changed - so fast, in fact, that what one was working for would only be ruined by the recklessness of one’s love - came to the realization (and simultaneously coined a phrase for it) that what the world needed was paciencia ardiente, or "burning patience." This was exactly the quality which set Martin Quintin Lame apart from other leaders. Setbacks were legion, provocations were endless, his life was a constant struggle; sometimes the prison had no window. But his faith in the trait of tenacity, and in the power of organization which gives invincible forms to the human spirit, would not let injustice outlast the will to change it. This tremendous emotional stamina came from, and was given back, to his people. Perhaps most importantly of all, as Quintin Lame fought for land, the material base of survival for his people, he also fought on other planes so that the Paez people might rediscover their cultural and spiritual heritage, and recommit themselves to it. He did not want an empty people to recover land that had been deserted by their souls; he realized that for the Paez to truly regain their land, they must be Paez, or else the land which they recaptured would not belong to them, but to the shadows they had become. To overturn one’s conquest, one must do more than change the map of where one’s body can walk; one must change the inside map of one’s soul, drive away the degradation, the self-hate, the fear to be oneself, the inferiority complex, the amnesia which is how a proud heart bows down. In a country where conflict over land was commonplace, this was, perhaps, Quintin Lame’s most unique contribution: the courage to stand up to siglos de desprecio ("centuries of disdain"), and to battle centuries of brainwashing, with a renewed pride and interest in the ways of the ancestors, which he helped to restore to his people. In a long and distinguished life, Quintin Lame finally won the admiration of the nation as a whole. His dignity and perseverance had weathered the worst of the storm of racism, survived entire decades when Indians were dismissed as ignorantes y salvajes ("ignorant people" and "savages") by massive sectors of the Colombian population, and finally reached a point in time when awareness and sensitivity had grown sufficiently to enable politically significant multitudes to comprehend him, and to embrace his humble requests. Paez lands received new levels of protection. The resguardos of Ortega and Chaparral were reconstituted. A people’s struggle, and a man’s life, were vindicated. Martin Quintin Lame passed away in 1967, an old man who had faced death many times, but not given in to it until his work was done.
Sad to say, fairy-tale endings in history are rare, perhaps impossible, for time never ceases to move on: victories are tested, and perfect creations are challenged by imperfect people. Fools do not understand the work of geniuses, and unseen souls that need to stand out launch crusades to transform what cannot be improved upon; while opportunists wait for the strong to die. Incursions against Paez lands were renewed, and revolutionary violence and counterinsurgency escalated, engulfing their homeland in el Cauca.
In 1971, the Paez and Guambiano peoples created a new political organization to further the work of the indigenous cabildos, or "councils", which were the native power structures in the region. CRIC, or the Consejo Regional Indigena del Cauca ("Regional Indigenous Council of the Cauca"), was formed to protect native lands from takeover by private landowners (terratenientes), to mediate solutions to inter-indigenous problems, and to promote the economic well-being of indigenous peoples in the context of a greater degree of political autonomy ("decisions affecting Indians should be made by Indians"), as well as to defend the language and culture of native peoples from the deadly effects of neglect and deliberate programs of eradication perpetrated, with varying degrees of subtlety, by the Church and State. The CRIC paid a special attention to the role of teachers, preferring bilingual Natives to teach their young over pedagogues from the outside, who they saw as soldiers in a thought war that was meant to turn indigenous peoples into dark-skinned whites; they also opposed government and international efforts to introduce "Family Planning", including birth control, into the resguardos, stating: "…they want to prevent us from having children to exterminate our families, to take away our lands…" In the context of a limited and confined community, heavily pressured from the outside, population control seemed just one more strategy conceived to weaken their capacity to resist.
Recognizing the importance of alliances in building a stronger indigenous movement, the CRIC soon established links with the many other Native American organizations which were beginning to proliferate at that time, including regional indigenous councils from Tolima, Vaupes, el Choco, and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Eventually, a national indigenous organization known as ONIC, or la Organizacion Nacional Indigena de Colombia (the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia) was formed, facilitating an even greater level of cooperation and mutual support among Colombia’s Native American peoples. In addition to the issues facing the Paez, which were relevant to many other Native groups, the ONIC had to confront government colonization schemes (officially-sponsored projects which created settlements for landless peasants in the nation’s frontier zones, as a way of avoiding the political resistance which land reform in the heart of the country would have produced). For the ONIC, this was the Colombian government’s way of trying to dump problems it lacked the will to resolve on an isolated sector of the population which it believed was too politically weak to resist. Unable to obtain justice from the rich, by either persuasion or coercion, the government would finally achieve it at the price of creating a new injustice: sending landless peasants to colonize baldios ("public lands" available for settlement), many of which were really indigenous lands. The colonization projects would also help to "occupy" the "empty" frontier, and bring its resources within the reach of the national government at the expense of dispossessed Indian tribes, such as the Kofanes (a Native people inhabiting the border region with Ecuador).
In addition to creating links with indigenous groups in other regions, and participating with them in political, social, economic and cultural projects at the national level, the CRIC also recognized the crucial importance of forming connections with non-indigenous organizations. (In Colombia, although traces of Native American ancestry are widespread and visible in the mixed-race features of the people, only about 1.7% of the population is classified as indigenous.) Given the population limits of the indigenous community and its relative lack of political clout, this kind of alliance-building was essential. As Native leaders stated: "We indigenous peoples are not the only ones who are exploited in our country; workers, peasants, students and the urban poor are also suffering from hunger, misery, the lack of land and credit, low salaries, and other grave problems that we bear in common. For that reason, starting from a position of equality and mutual respect, we ought to unify our struggles and establish solidarity with their organizations so that, together, we can achieve our goal of constructing a just society." The Native population had been traditionally threatened and repressed, but the efforts of the CRIC to bond with other radical sectors of the population which were mobilized against the status quo turned the indigenous movement in the Cauca into an even more alarming presence, for those who feared it, than it had been before. Suddenly, they perceived the Cauca not merely as an isolated "bastion of backward and uncooperative Natives", but as a developing revolutionary base which, integrated into a "national leftist agenda", might contribute to the destabilization of the State. Native leaders began to be subjected to a new wave of imprisonment and assassination, as outside forces sought to intimidate the Paez back into inertness.
The natural dynamic of events led many Natives in the Cauca to become sympathetic towards the FARC, which could provide armed backup against persecution and abuse. The FARC, eager to establish as many zones of operation as possible within the nation so as to enhance its strategic options, and overload the defensive capacities of the government with multiple threats, was also eager to move into the territory and to build its influence there. However, problems between the FARC and the Paez soon developed.
First of all, the indigenous community was not all of one mind. Many Natives disapproved of the FARC’s presence in their region, believing that "armed backup" would only intensify repression. These Natives preferred to pursue their goals by persistent, nonviolent means, combining social action with political outreach. Some other Natives, however, did favor the arrival of the guerrillas.
Besides this, the FARC and the indigenous power structures began to experience conflict around a number of issues. As indigenous spokespersons had said, they wished to establish political connections with elements of the non-Native Colombian Left "starting from a position of equality and mutual respect." However, the FARC was accused of coming in with an air of superiority, and blamed for seeking to "indoctrinate" Native communities with its own particular Marxist perspective of history and society. The Paez wished to base their struggle on what were, for them, authentic cultural foundations stemming from their own experience, not have one external model of social reality imposed upon them as a vehicle for fighting against another. Analysts, comparing revolutionary experiences, have likened the FARC’s entry into the Cauca with the Sandinistas’ mishandling of the Native population on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast during the 1980s, which turned the Miskitu Indians into a "counterrevolutionary base" amenable to the activities of the contras. Although the Paez reaction against the "cultural hubris" of the FARC was not as drastic as the Miskitu reaction to the Sandinistas, severe damage still resulted. (In contrast, non-Native Marxists with a far greater level of cultural sensitivity, were able to successfully integrate with an authentic indigenous struggle in southern Mexico, to form the Zapatista movement of the 1990s.)
In addition to the difficulties experienced in the cultural interface between the FARC and los paeces, issues of power and strategy created rifts. The FARC did not want to be told what it could do and not do in its zone of operation, it didn’t want its style cramped, or its options curtailed; Paez leaders, by the same token, didn’t want to be pushed to the side, and lose the autonomy they were trying so hard to build simply to "acquire" an armed force. Concretely, the Paez were very upset by the FARC’s unilateral decisions to demand the vacuna ("war tax" or "protection fees") from major landowners in the region, who the FARC then protected, not only against robbery, kidnapping, and guerrilla violence, but also against Paez land claims and corollary efforts by the indigenas to occupy properties that rightfully belonged to them. For Paez leaders, the FARC’s quest for funds to support its revolutionary activities had led it to close its eyes to justice; it had decided to sacrifice the interests of the Natives on the altar of its own national agenda. The "defender" had become just one more exploiter. Paez communities also deeply resented the FARC practice of killing informers, who are known colloquially as sapos ("toads"). The practice of killing informers, common in guerrilla warfare, is used to retaliate against members of a community who betray guerrillas to the army or police. The emotion behind the killings is: "Your big mouth cost us one of our men, so now it’s your turn." Of course, more than that, the practice is meant to demonstrate to the local populace that "collaboration with the enemy" will not be tolerated. For the guerrillas, the execution of informers is the just punishment of deserving Judas’; for the people of the community, it is a warning shot across the bough; for counterinsurgency specialists, it is "selective terror." In areas where the guerrillas are heavily supported, executions of this sort are infrequent, they are not "needed"; in areas where guerrilla support is less enthusiastic, the use of executions is likely to increase, until those elements of a community not enamored of the guerrillas learn not to get involved, and to let "nature take its course." In the case of el Cauca, Paez leaders were indignant whenever the FARC assumed authority for executing informers who were Natives, without allowing indigenous leaders to intervene and take responsibility for handling the conflict. For these leaders, the FARC was acting outside of its rightful jurisdiction. For them, "This man you just killed was not a sapo, he was a Paez."
The growing tensions between the FARC and los paeces in el Cauca eventually led to the formation, in 1985, of an indigenous guerrilla group named Quintin Lame, after the great champion of Paez rights and culture. This small Native army was meant to provide an armed alternative to the FARC, which could defend the Paez against threats from all sides. It was trained by the M-19, which also sent a guerrilla unit into the Cauca to collaborate with it, as part of the M-19’s attempt to develop a credible rural presence in addition to the powerful urban fronts it had already constructed in Bogota and Cali. In 1987, perhaps influenced by these developments as well as by negative PR in leftist circles, the FARC finally sat down with the CRIC to sign an agreement meant to repair their badly-damaged relationship. This did not mean that the CRIC was now in the FARC camp, or that the FARC had yielded to the will of the Native leaders, only that the CRIC recognized the FARC as a reality in the region which it was important to have an understanding with; and that the FARC was willing to surrender some of its prerogatives in the name of indigenous rights. Power does not always come, as Mao once said, "from the barrel of a gun." Weapons only create the illusion of persuasion; and those whose arms are weaker (for the true frame of reference for the FARC was not the Quintin Lame, but the Colombian Army), must learn this lesson or perish. In 1991, the Quintin Lame (which at that time numbered less than 200 fighters) demobilized along with its patron guerrilla group, the M-19, leaving the FARC as the only armed revolutionary group in the region. With the monopoly of guerrilla power once again in its hands, abuses reappeared. But these abuses were matched, and most likely overshadowed, by abuses coming from the outside, produced by the aggressiveness of landholders interested in acquiring land for the drug trade, and by military, paramilitary and police forces, which treated FARC guerrillas and indigenous activists as little more than two sides of the same subversive coin.
Much more about the drug issue in Colombia will be said shortly, in "Drugs, and the Changing Face of Conflict." But for now it needs to be said, in order to bring events in the Cauca up to date, that coca-growing for "cocaine" (and now poppy cultivation for "heroin") is a major economic activity in the region. The coca plant has long been cultivated by indigenous peoples in the Andes, and the Paez have a long tradition of growing the plant for ceremonial, religious and medicinal purposes that predate the use of cocaine as a modern, high-powered drug. As consumed by the Natives, usually as a leaf which is chewed, coca produces a sense of well-being, boosts one’s energy, and may, if taken in large enough amounts and within the proper mystical framework and setting, produce altered states linked to a genuine spiritual experience. It does not yield an explosive or dangerous high, although it can, under some circumstances, lead to dependency: especially when its use occurs as part of the continuing tradition of labor exploitation initiated in colonial times by the Spaniards, who utilized it to "fuel" the miten~os (or Indian labor draftees) who worked in their mines, thereby turning coca into a habit. In the 1980s, as the coca boom took off in Colombia, many Native farmers, already familiar with the plant, became involved. (It should be noted that the vast majority of farmers involved in the cultivation of narcotics in Colombia at this time are not indigenas, however. The phenomenon is an economic one not linked to ethnicity.) In those formative days, drug lords acquired huge tracts of land and hired workers to cultivate their coca crops. Natives also began to grow coca on their own, selling to distributors, while the FARC kept the State out to the extent that was necessary to provide shelter for the growing industry, which it had not created, but which it accepted as a new historical development that could not prudently be repressed, but which might be lucratively milked. As the coca trade grew in importance, the region grew in economic value to both the guerrillas and the State. The level of conflict intensified. Today, as a result, the Paez find themselves caught between many forces: between the power of drug dealers, landlords, the national government and its armed forces, the United States and its anti-drug policies, and the guerrillas; struggling to create and hold onto an identity and a plan that can survive the ferocious pressures of the vortex.
In recent years, the traditional leadership has responded by creating a new self-defense force known as the Indigenous Guards. They do not carry weapons and are said to number somewhere around seven thousand men and women. Armed only with ceremonial batons about a meter in length, which are typically adorned with the "Paez" colors of green and red, the Guards patrol Paez territory on the lookout for unwanted intruders, who could be members of paramilitary units, or the guerrillas. Once detected, large groups of Indians are called in to confront the trespassers and try to pressure them to leave the resguardo. The interventions are dangerous, depending heavily upon numbers, which can have an inhibiting effect, and upon the reluctance of armed fighters to incur the political damage which would result from gunning down a large number of unarmed civilians in front of multiple witnesses. In recent times, the Indigenous Guards have been credited with mobilizing a march of four hundred paeces to a guerrilla camp, where a kidnapped mayor was being held captive by the FARC, and demanding his release. Subjected to this form of well-organized and determined moral pressure, the FARC relented and gave up its prisoner. In another incident, the FARC was firing on troops who had been sent onto the resguardo by the government to oppose them. Indigenous Guard members asked the army to leave, but officers replied that they were here to assert the presence of the State, and that they could not just abandon the region to the FARC. At this moment, the FARC began to launch homemade bombs against the army. These bombs, constructed out of a common household appliance in the countryside - propane gas cylinders which are used for heating and cooking - are armed with explosives, shrapnel, and fuel, and launched out of tubes at enemy targets. (Although the FARC is in possession of some very effective and modern equipment, it still depends heavily on makeshift and low-quality weapons to conserve higher-end resources in many engagements. In fact, it is hard to tell just how advanced the FARC’s arsenal truly is, since most assessments of its strength also incorporate political agendas revolving around the procurement of military aid and/or the manipulation of public perception and morale.) In all events, the gas-cylinder bombs are standard FARC artillery, and hated by friend and foe alike: deadly when they strike, but so inaccurate that they often do as much harm to innocent civilians as they do to police and soldiers. In the Department of el Choco in 2002, the FARC accidentally landed a bomb on top of a church where civilians had taken refuge during a battle between the guerrillas and paramilitaries. In the ensuing inferno, over sixty civilians, mainly women and children, lost their lives. As one irate Paez leader cursed, as the gas-cylinder bombs began to explode around them: "They just shoot them off, and they land wherever they land." Even in the midst of this impasse, however, with the army and the FARC equally determined to continue fighting each other in spite of the wishes of the people whose territory they had turned into a battlefield, the Indigenous Guards were able to exert some influence. They asked an army leader who had positioned his tanks too closely to a site where Paez refugees had gathered to wait out the attack, to move further away from the civilians, since the FARC’s bombs were too inaccurate to be used against the soldiers without also threatening the noncombatants. In this case, the officer complied. Indigenous Guards also rescued a young Paez man who the army had seized and accused of being a FARC sympathizer. Once again, the army acceded to the demands of the Indigenous Guards, giving way to their aura of authority and negotiating skills. The work of the Indigenous Guards was very successful on that day, but it is not always so. The complexity of so many forces intersecting in their land continues to claim casualties, while solutions struggle to keep pace with problems.
One issue of special concern to indigenous communities in the Cauca as of late is fumigation. The Colombian government, under pressure from the US government to eradicate illegal coca and poppy cultivations in the region (and elsewhere), has instituted a widespread program of aerial fumigation, mean to destroy the forbidden crops without risking ground troops to accomplish the task. (Even so, FARC troops sometimes succeed in driving away or even shooting down the fumigation planes.) The most common herbicide in use today in the war against coca and la amapola (the poppy) is Glyphosate, which, mixed with certain other chemical agents (some of which are produced by Exxon), is sold under the name of "Roundup" by the US biotech company Monsanto. The herbicide is typically mixed with "Cosmo Flux 411F", a chemical agent which causes the herbicide to "stick" to surfaces it comes in contact with, whether those surfaces are coca leaves or human flesh. Individuals in the Cauca and elsewhere claim that they have frequently been fumigated while working in the coca fields (and that nearby fields without coca have also been sprayed). They complain that the spraying has resulted in severe skin burns, blindness, nausea, dizziness, stomach disorders and respiratory problems, and report that animals have died in the aftermath of the fumigation runs. Scientists believe that the herbicide may also pose a danger to the human reproductive system, as well as threatening the healthy functioning of the liver and kidneys, and creating a long-term risk for cancer. Like flies on a fruit, they spray us, humans in the fields, like bombers come the planes, to not risk a soldier they spray our green fields, the bellies of our women, the soul of our country, poison is their answer to our poverty, like flies on a fruit they spray us, to be rid of us once and for all. The government fumigation campaigns angered local peasants involved in the coca trade, indigena or not, and in many places produced massive protests, and led to increased solidarity with the FARC. For the Paez, the spraying seemed to be not only an assault against an important component of their economy, but also one more act of racism and "genocide", a form of "poisoning from the skies."
In 2000, Floro Turnubula, un indigena, was elected governor of the Department of Cauca, and sought to spearhead a new, local solution to the problem of the war on drugs, which his people were experiencing at ground zero. Stating that, "poverty is forcing farmers to grow poppies and coca," he sought to win a consensus throughout the region to develop and implement an alternative economic strategy which would support the region’s needs while satisfying the government’s desire to eliminate illegal crops. Many indigenous communities agreed to begin the voluntary manual eradication of their illegal crops. Instead of growing coca, they would now commit themselves to growing basic foodstuffs for their own subsistence, and cultivating organic produce to be sold in European markets, which Turnubula arranged for via diplomatic efforts abroad. The national government, however, appears not to have trusted the Paez plan of voluntarily eradicating their illegal crops, and therefore launched a major campaign of aerial spraying in July of 2001. The resulting contamination of the environment essentially knocked out the possibility of substituting organic produce for coca. While the soil would remain unsafe for the cultivation of food for a long time to come, the areas denuded by "Roundup" would be ready for new coca cultivations within six months.
One new and interesting twist to the story of coca in el Cauca is the invention of "Coca Sek" by a group of Paez businessmen. In an effort to overcome the "bad name" of the coca leaf, and to draw economic advantage from it without antagonizing the national government or the international community, they have begun to develop coca products which operate below the threshold of cocaine, the drug. They have therefore sold crushed dried coca leaves for use as tea, and in 2005 invented "Coca Sek", a coca-derived soft drink which they herald as a "homegrown answer to Coca Cola" (which is, itself, suspected of using a non-narcotic extract of coca leaves as one of its secret "flavoring" ingredients.) The description of their new product as a "homegrown answer to Coca Cola" is particularly meaningful in Colombia, today, as the Coca Cola company has been blamed for allowing paramilitary death squads to bust unions at its Colombian bottling plants, bringing back to mind the excesses of the United Fruit Company, and other foreign companies which have killed Colombians in order to enhance their profits. "Coca Sek" hopes to become the nationalist solution to the human love of soft drinks, while simultaneously helping to boost the economic well-being of the Paez. If the drink is able to make headway in the major cities of Colombia, it may accomplish just that, although its chances of making it as an export seem remote, due to its controversial nature. And one must expect that anti-narcotics forces will consider the development of legal coca-derived products in the Cauca to be a mere front for the continuation of the drug trade, giving cover to illegal cultivations by masking them as part of legitimate business enterprises.
For the Paez people, there seems to be no shortage of challenges. The future will not let this resilient people sleep, but will continue to test them and to demand repeated proofs of their greatness.
The Paez, of course, though one of the most powerful and influential of indigenous groups in Colombia today, are far from being the only one. According to the National Census of 1993-1997, there are 80 different ethnic groups of indigenous Colombians, speaking 64 languages and 300 dialects. Another one of these groups is the Kogi (Cogui) of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a mountain range which straddles the Departments of Magdalena, Cesar, and Guajira. The Kogi are descended from the Tairona, who were one of the two principal divisions of the Chibchas, creators of an advanced indigenous Colombian civilization, who many have compared to the Incas of Peru and Bolivia. While the other division of the Chibchas, the Muiscas, inhabited the plateaus of Cundinamaraca and Boyaca, and unwittingly generated the legend of El Dorado with their wealth, a legend which was their undoing, the Tairona dwelled closer to the Atlantic Coast, and were renowned for their highly competent and interesting constructions, their fine pottery, and their brilliantly-worked gold ornaments, especially the "caciques", or little figurines worn as pendants to bring power and luck. The Tairona were inevitably broken by the Spanish Conquest, but many Natives escaped into the mountains beyond the reach of their pursuers, and survived in communities that were mere shadows of what had been, but in which they were nonetheless able to preserve their freedom, many of their social customs, and their way of seeing the world. Perhaps, in humility, there was safety, for grandeur and gold had only caught the attention of "the great beast." My glory is fallen down, but my eyes still see, my ears still hear, and there is still a voice in my throat. You have my city, but not my soul. My heart maintains me. In the mountains, my heart maintains me.
For years, the Kogi practiced isolation from the outside world, which they had come to distrust. They lived with the goal of holding onto their ways, and carrying out a sacred spiritual mission which they believed they had been entrusted with by Mother Earth. Conceiving of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta as the Center of the World, and of themselves as the "Elder Brothers" of Humanity, they undertook, by means of adhering to their traditions, and by means of their prayers and the work of the Mamas, or high priests, to preserve the harmony and life force of the entire earth. They saw themselves as a "guardian people", whose actions and spiritual presence were intimately connected to the continuation of the world. For this people, it should be noted, spirituality was no effortless pretense, they approached it with incredible seriousness, giving meaning and consciousness to the way they walked, the way they talked, to the little things that contain everything, cultivating their sensitivity at every moment to the depths of being alive that most people think they don’t need - which is why our world is falling apart. Some of the more powerful Mamas had even spent years living in darkness in order to develop the "sight" of their spirit. And why not? Left on the side of history, the Kogi had time on their hands. Time to become wise, to see more than the strong.
Finally, however, around 1990, the Kogi felt the need to contact outsiders. The Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta had become a haven for marijuana growers, and later, for peasants dedicated to the cultivation of coca, who had moved onto indigenous lands. Deforestation had accompanied the peasant colonization of neighboring areas, and the Kogi noticed serious repercussions on their environment, including the retreat of the snow line on their most sacred mountain peak. For the Kogi, what was happening in their homeland was something that was bound to happen to the rest of the earth. It was a warning of doom. Like the death of the canary in the mine, this sickness at the center of the world was the earth’s way of crying for help. The Kogi were moved and compelled to contact others more powerful and influential than themselves, to bring the message of the earth’s distress to the rest of the world. This is how the Kogi came out of their shell.
Today, the Kogi continue to live in an area plagued by violence. Indian lands have been invaded by non-Indian peasants, and tombs of Tairona ancestors have been plundered for their gold and archaeological artifacts. Forests have been cut down, and the local ecology is hurting. As much as possible, the Kogi are trying to stay out of the storm of Colombian politics, to defend their sanctuary and promote global environmental healing (their spiritual vision has successfully reached out to the world, and made important links with the international environmentalist community). The Kogi and other local Native groups have now joined together in an organization dedicated to the preservation of their cultural ways, and to the recovery of indigenous lands, which they propose to achieve by buying up the farms of local, coca-growing peasants with money collected, in part, through the support of the international community. They feel that these peasant settlers are willing to sell, because the value of the coca cultivations which they have planted on indigenous lands are in decline due to the threat of government fumigation. Once recovered, the Kogi intend to let forest reclaim much of the land, in order to salvage the fragile climate of their damaged ecosystem. How much this Kogi plan for the recovery of Native lands and the restoration of the Center of the World can accomplish, remains to be seen. Whether or not we believe that the health of the entire earth is linked to the health of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta on a mystical level, as do the Kogi, probably does not matter at this point. If we act as though it were true - if we believe in the gasps of the canary in the mine - there still may be time to save the earth.
Far from the rugged mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, in the steamy tropical jungles of Caqueta and Putumayo, lives another well-known Native group of Colombia, a "classic" Amazonian people known as the Witoto. Very different from the Paez and the Kogi, in both culture and historical circumstances, they face unique challenges, and yet, also bear wounds from the same weapons. They are not Paez or Kogi, but they are indigena. Like many other Amazonian tribes, the women go about naked, the men garbed only in breechcloths; body-painting is a highly developed art form; the people live in large communal houses. Anthropologists can never resist mentioning the famous signal drums, which send messages for miles through the jungle, unnerving passers-bye, especially since the Witoto were, in the past, practitioners of cannibalism in the context of war-related religious rituals. Unlike many indigenous peoples in Colombia, the Witoto did not suffer during the days of the Spanish Conquest, for their remote location kept them well-isolated from the depravations of "civilization." Around the beginning of the 20th-Century, however, as Colombia temporarily inserted itself into the South American Rubber Boom, the tropical rainforest suddenly became a "gold mine" to businessmen, who entered aggressively in search of rubber trees and labor to tap the trees. It was at this moment that the Witoto finally felt the full impact of the outside world. For Colombia’s rainforest population, the Rubber Boom signified recruitment and forced labor, or wars of extermination meant to "secure" the rubber zones by eliminating the threat of "hostile savages", or simply the deadly assault of new diseases, accompanied by the cultural invasion of missionaries. During this period, the Witoto population suffered a catastrophic collapse, declining, according to some estimates, to one-tenth of its original dimensions. With the downfall of the South American Rubber Boom (thanks to competition from the Dutch East Indies), the genocidal pressure against the Witoto was relieved. Still, the experience with rubber had awakened many Colombians to the potential of the jungle as an unexplored source of natural resources and as a possible site for new waves of peasant colonization. The respite which the Rubber Boom’s early demise had given the Witoto was only temporary. By the time it was renewed in force, however, anthropologists were ready to intervene.
Anthropologists, anthropologists - what is one to make of them?! Through history they have played a thousand different roles, from voyeurs and peeping toms in the service of a stagnant, bored, and repressed civilization seeking outlets for its imagination; to seekers of utopia, in search of cultural armaments to transform their dead-end societies; to fugitives from safety, predictability, and themselves; to defenders of justice, and guardians of the weak. In modern times, anthropologists have assumed an increasingly political function in the world, in addition to their expected dedication to cultural observation and analysis. In some ways, this "engagement" may be selfish - an effort to preserve their field of study from "cultural contamination", although the study of the interaction of traditional and modern societies is a vibrant field in its own right. On the other hand, the anthropologist may also have developed empathy and compassion for the culture he has chosen to study, and in some ways come to identify with it. He does not want to see it destroyed physically, by disease or violence, or culturally or morally, by the arrival of a civilization whose values he has come to distrust (which is part of the reason he has tried to escape from it by immersing himself in another world). The anthropologist, in most cases, understands the dilemma which his attitude has created. On the one hand, he wants to erect protective barriers around the culture he has come to cherish, or fear, or in some way be infatuated with; on the other hand, he also recognizes that that is a personal imposition on his part and in some ways an interference with the processes of history, and the destiny of the world. Some of the progress which he wishes to shut out may actually be desired by, and beneficial to, the people he has become protective of. Does he truly know what is in their best interest? Is he a protector, or an arrester of development; a guardian, or a freezer of cultures; a heroic defender of the vulnerable, or a stunter of destinies? If the jewels of machines have not saved him, is he right to infer that others prefer their nakedness? Is he wise enough to know that the offerings of "civilization" are merely a trap, or were they only that way for him? Would he have been able to do without, if he had not first had? The universe of the anthropologist, studying isolated cultures in the midst of the ever-encroaching modern world, is complex: a philosophical and moral minefield. In a country like Colombia, it is particularly so. Not only must the anthropologist confront his own personal dynamics, and weigh them alongside the pros and cons of "progress"; he must do so in the heated environment of a society in turmoil with itself, in the dangerous place where revolution, counterinsurgency, and his commitment to his field intersect.
Typical dynamics faced by anthropologists throughout the world have also been present in the Colombian Amazon: the desire of the government to extend State control into remote regions of the country, by means of development and colonization projects which, it is hoped, will eventually bring new resources into the reach of the national and international economy; as well as the desire of Christian missionaries, of both Catholic and Evangelical persuasions, to "save the souls" of "godless heathens", and educate the Natives in the ways of civilization. Anthropologists have had their hands filled trying to mitigate the "cultural damage" produced by these mentalities. In Colombia, however, the story becomes more complex, for the Amazonian Departments have more recently become citadels of guerrilla power, centers of drug trafficking, and targets of counterinsurgency, giving new shades of meaning to anthropological endeavors there. Typically resented by the State for impeding "progress", by defending the peoples who need to be swept aside or transformed if "progress" is to occur, the anthropologists are now frequently distrusted by the guerrillas, as well. In remote, guerrilla-influenced areas of Colombia, foreigners, be they ornithologists, geologists, or anthropologists, are viewed with intense suspicion and considered to be probable agents of the Colombian government or the CIA, acting under cover of legitimate professions. They are also, at times, considered to be part of an international conspiracy intended to mobilize and wield the "ignorant goodwill" of foreign constituencies against the guerrillas.
As some members of the FARC see it, groups of anthropologists and ecologists from abroad have formed a joint alliance (expressed through the work of various organizations) to protect the environmental well-being of the rainforest and the cultural integrity of the indigenous peoples who inhabit it. They have mobilized public opinion in the US and Europe to support their objectives, and seek to persuade the Colombian government to take strong measures to establish and defend large nature reserves in the Amazon which will preserve the forest and shelter the tribes who dwell within it. From opposition to this foreign effort to erect internal barriers around its jungle regions, which could block Colombia from reaching and developing its own resources, elements of the government have come to recognize the value of selective cooperation with it. In areas which the FARC already controls or where it wields extensive influence- areas such as the Departments of Putumayo and Caqueta where the Witoto live - the establishment of temporary nature reserves, or the extension or creation of resguardos, does not cost the government anything, because it is already physically shut out by the FARC. At the same time, such moves have the potential to create broad geographic spaces which morally "shut out" the FARC. Although the FARC may continue to operate within these spaces, supporting and growing from the ranks of the peasant colonos who have always been its mainstay, guerrilla activities in these zones now incur a new political cost. International sectors which had formerly been neutral towards the FARC - center-left and leftist sectors connected to environmental issues and sympathetic to indigenous peoples - can be mobilized against it, and made more amenable to the political agenda of the center-right, and the right, which does not care about the environment or indigenous rights, but wants the FARC defeated for its own reasons. For the FARC, the work of some anthropologists and ecologists is providing a new source for its villainization, leading to a perceptual setback with definite military ramifications: for them, images of the naked Indian and the Tree evoke the sound of helicopters in the sky. Pure anthropology is dead. Politics is everywhere. Sometimes, it only grows stronger the more you try to run from it.
Given the stakes, it is not surprising that the leaders of many indigenous groups are being cultivated today, by "neutral anthropologists", government authorities, and the guerrillas. When traditional leadership fails to harmonize properly with a given agenda, it is always possible to create new forms of leadership, to find dissident Natives, Natives who are the "true representatives" of their people. Everyone wants an "authentic" indigenous voice to express his own non-indigenous point of view. The power conferred upon these Native voices, preexisting or manufactured, is both real and illusory. Influence that imbeds someone else’s influence has a genuine impact. For those Indians who forget what an Indian is supposed to be and what an Indian is supposed to say, there are always bullets to refresh the memory.
Although not all of the above discussion applies to the Witoto, this most well-known of Colombia’s Amazonian tribes has served as a natural springboard for the introduction of this material. Peasant colonization, drug cultivation, guerrilla activity, counterguerrilla activity, cultural collision and interaction, and the "anthropological dynamic" have all come into play in their homeland. What the future of this tribe, and others like it, will be, remains to be seen. If one speck contained the soul of the world, would we save it? Would we save it? Did the mountain ruin the place where we left our heart? Giants die when they forget how to be small. Between their steps is the whole world. Did you laugh when they told you they didn’t know your name?
Perhaps one of the most poignant points of intersection between foreign activists committed to indigenous rights, and the violence and conflict which engulfs modern-day Colombia, occurred on March 5, 1999, when three US citizens who had been working with the U’wa people of Arauca, near the Venezuelan border, were murdered by the FARC. The activists included Ingrid Washinawatok, a Menominee Indian from Wisconsin who was co-chairperson of the Indigenous Women’s Network, based in Rapid City, South Dakota; Lahe’ena’e Gay, an indigenous leader from Hawaii; and Terence Freitas, a biologist from California. The three activists, who had been involved in a project designed to assist the U’wa in creating an educational system which prioritized the retention of Native culture, were kidnapped on February 25 by armed assailants while driving to the local airport to return home. At first, the identity of the assailants was not known. Friends of the activists believed that they could have been targeted by any one of several groups who were either opposed to their work, or simply eager to take advantage of them.
First of all, there was the possibility that they had been kidnapped by delincuentes (common criminals), who are responsible for many of the kidnappings that occur in Colombia, which they perpetrate, without political objectives, in order to collect ransom money. Secondly, there was the possibility that they had been kidnapped by the FARC, which might have considered them to be foreign agents, or else opposed their efforts to fortify an alternative power structure in the region (the U’wa tribal leadership). A strong sense of indigenous cultural identity might well impede the implantation of a national revolutionary Marxist agenda in the region, and the FARC could have acted to eliminate a potential obstacle. Or perhaps the FARC had merely kidnapped them to acquire money from los gringos. A third possibility was that the activists had been kidnapped by paramilitary personnel acting on behalf of the Colombian government or foreign oil companies. Occidental Petroleum, a US-owned multinational active in the Department of Arauca, was interested in securing the drilling rights to explore for oil reserves underneath U’wa lands. For some time, a tense legal battle had been being waged between representatives of the U’wa people, and Occidental Petroleum and its Colombian advocates, as the U’wa insisted that they would not tolerate the penetration of their territory by the oil industry, which they believed would result in the degradation of their natural environment, the loss of their lands, and the erosion of their culture. To strengthen their position, the U’wa resorted to a unique moral threat, akin to the Celtic troscad or the Hindu dharna, practices in which the specter of self-destruction was raised against the powerful as a tool for attaining justice: they warned the Colombian government, the oil companies, and the world, that they would commit mass suicide on the day that their will was swept aside, and drilling was allowed in their territory. The thought was, "The arrival of the oil industry will kill us. It will ruin the place we live and the way we live. You do not understand that this is a form of murder. So if you come, we will show you exactly what you are doing. We will do it by our own hand, but it will be because of you, and the sin will be yours." The U’wa succeeded in drawing international ecologists and anthropologists, and indigenous rights groups such as the Indigenous Women’s Network, to its support, who helped to erect a moral barricade around their territory which further inhibited the penetration of Occidental Petroleum. Naturally, this resistance was highly aggravating to the oil industry; to elements of the Colombian government which were focused on classic lines of economic development; and to elements of the Colombian government and military which believed that the advance of the oil industry would strengthen the presence of the State in the region, and curb the power of the FARC. Considering all this, friends of the activists strongly suspected that right-wing paramilitaries might have been involved in the kidnapping. The FARC, although its relationship with indigenous communities was frequently problematic, was not eager to alienate the "Ecological Left" and "Greens" of Europe and the US. It was not eager to lose its image of the "defender of the poor", and become known in international solidarity circles as the "bully of the indigenas." The perceptual transition from romanticized guerrilla savior to guerrilla thug was not one it could allow to take place (even though it already had taken place, to a certain extent, due especially to FARC involvement in the drug trade) . When David becomes Goliath, strange to say, he loses all his power. For this reason, the FARC was not, initially, the prime suspect.
Nonetheless, Menominee Indian leaders in the US contacted the FARC soon after the kidnapping of the activists, to see what they knew about the incident and to urge their safe release. The FARC responded positively. But soon afterwards, the bodies of the three activists were discovered just across the Colombian border, in Venezuela. They had been "bound, blindfolded, beaten, tortured, and shot numerous times." The identity of the battered corpses was established due to the credit cards found in Ingrid Washinawatok’s possession at the scene of the crime.
It was several days later, on March 10, that the FARC officially admitted responsibility for the killings. Central leaders of the guerrilla organization blamed the overzealousness of a local commander, who had apprehended the "foreign strangers" he found traveling through a FARC-controlled zone, and after a makeshift investigation, decided to execute them "without consulting his superiors." The FARC stated that the guilty commander might be subject, under their revolutionary codes of justice, to the death penalty for his transgression, and apologized to the friends of the deceased, requesting "forgiveness from indigenous peoples around the world." Meanwhile, indigenous rights activists in the US, though highly critical of the FARC, divided blame for the tragedy. As the Indigenous Women’s Network wrote in a communiqué: "We believe that the US State Department destabilized negotiations [for the hostages’ release] and ultimately cost our sisters and brother their lives in a possible attempt to gain financial support for US policies in Colombia… We attribute this assertion to the fact that exactly during the negotiations for the release of the three humanitarian workers, the US State Department released approximately $230 million in military support for the alleged Anti-Drug War in Colombia. The Colombian government then attacked and killed over 70 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in an orchestrated attack. We believe that these two overt acts may have destabilized any hopes for the release of our sisters and brother…" As a Menominee spokesman said of the timing of the US aid: "The US government sent money for arms to the Colombian government four or five days after the kidnappings, knowing that those arms might be used against the rebels [who were possible suspects in the kidnappings], and that the kidnap victims might well be executed in retaliation." Although the FARC had committed the crime, friends of the indigenous activists believed that they had been "set up" to commit a politically-damaging act by US and Colombian government actions, which were designed to produce a purely emotional reaction: to induce a moment of blind rage which would consume innocent victims and taint the FARC in the world’s eyes, opening the floodgates for a higher level of US involvement in the counterinsurgency. The Women’s Indigenous Network went on to say: "We… request, on behalf of our sister Ingrid, that her death not be used to forward political ends of the US State Department…. State Department support [for the counterinsurgency] will increase the militarization of a country already fraught with one of the highest rates of violence in the Western Hemisphere, and a State continuing violence against Indigenous peoples."
This tragic episode, as much as any other, illustrates the plight of Colombia’s contemporary indigenous communities, caught in the crossfire between a non-Indian, globally-connected society with expansionist tendencies, which wants indigenous land and resources, without valuing indigenous culture; and revolutionary guerrilla forces that want to keep out the State, but at the price of installing a counter-State which reflects their own aims and values, which always take precedence over authentic Native agendas. Both forces wish to "integrate" indigenous communities into the national framework on their own terms, either as economically accessible and exploitable entities, or as local revolutionary bases subordinated to a country-wide strategy. Threatened by transnationals; by peasant colonizers who are driven by the failure of land reform in the center of the nation to seek new lands to live on; by paramilitary units in the service of the powerful who have dedicated themselves to taking indigenous lands through terror and intimidation; by guerrillas determined to turn the resguardos into revolutionary bases, threatening Native culture and forms of autonomy, at the same time as their presence draws in military and paramilitary counterattacks; and by the drug trade, the dark answer to poverty which escalates violence and leads to deadly environmental contamination - Native populations, never fully recovered from the shock of the Spanish Conquest of nearly five hundred years before, continue to fight for their existence, on all levels: physical, cultural, and spiritual. Although los indigenas comprise less than 2% of the national population, in certain places they occupy Center Stage in the war for the State; while their moral power, indefinable in modern terms, exerts an unseen influence over the soul of the nation, able to point it towards Salvation, or to curse it forever with the strength that beauty has to destroy. For, as it has been said, "Never is but one man killed by the knife; for the goodness of he who is killed by wrong, is the death of the strong." In the midst of the despair and the pain, there is also pride, and the glory of tenacity.
Sobreviviente, sobreviviente soy yo
Sobrevivientes, sobrevivientes somos
no basta para acabar conmigo
ni la bala, ni el desprecio
ni la plaga de su avaricia, ni el tiro
la prueba es el tiempo
estos quinientos an~os
Sobreviviente, sobreviviente soy yo
Sobrevivientes, sobrevivientes somos
La cara en el espejo
llega de mis abuelos
Voy a quererla
Voy a defenderla
con las armas del orgullo
de mi pasado y mi destino
No me regalaron su sangre
para que no fuera indio
Sobreviviente, sobreviviente soy yo
Sobrevivientes, sobrevivientes somos
Que estoy aqui
Que no me voy
Que me quedo, si
Que aqui estoy
Sobreviviente, sobreviviente soy yo
Sobrevivientes, sobrevivientes somos
Debes acostumbrarte a mi
El mapa dice indio
y tambien dice siempre
Sobreviviente, sobreviviente soy yo
Sobrevivientes, sobrevivientes somos
la memoria es el Templo
la historia es el Dios
lo que hizo el abuelo es la inspiracion
lo que a mi me toca es el Sol
Sobreviviente, sobreviviente soy yo
Sobrevivientes, sobrevivientes somos
Que estoy aqui
Que no me voy
Que me quedo, si
Que aqui estoy
Sobreviviente, sobreviviente soy yo
Sobrevivientes, sobrevivientes somos
Sobreviviente, sobreviviente soy yo
Sobrevivientes, sobrevivientes somos
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Weapons of Depth Contents