Coercion Incorporated: Paramilitary Colombia

June 26, 2009

In May, the Colombian senate began deliberations on a draft law that would grant pardons to former paramilitaries, including those who had committed massacres. Moreover, it would allow them to run for public office, become public employees, or enter into government contracts. Those who have committed serious crimes could “receive full political rehabilitation and get more benefits than are normally given in laws governing amnesties and pardons,” warned Jaime Castro, a former Colombian government minister, speaking to Miami’s El Nuevo Herald. The reform was championed by Fabio Valencia Cossio, minister of the Interior and Justice, whose older brother happens to be on trial for belonging to the Bloque Élmer Cárdenas, a militia unit of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), once the country’s largest paramilitary organization.

Such a brazen attempt at not only granting paramilitaries impunity but making them over as legitimate political actors bespeaks the extent to which these violent groups have infiltrated the Colombian body politic. As the sociologist Jasmin Hristsov explains in this issue’s opening piece, the government of President Álvaro Uribe began a “peace process” with the AUC in 2002 that, although farcical, has played an important role in creating the illusion of a paramilitary “demobilization” that in fact represents “the final, definitive incorporation of paramilitarism into the Colombian state and economy”: coercion incorporated.

Since their inception, Colombian paramilitaries have served as an extension of the Colombian state coercive apparatus, and this relationship has only grown stronger since the implementation of Plan Colombia, the U.S.-sponsored military aid program, in 2000. The United States also provided an initial $3 million for the phony peace process, which has served above all to perpetuate the state-paramilitary nexus by guaranteeing near total impunity for confessed paramilitaries. Trials carried out under the Justice and Peace Law have characteristically involved mock confessions and the disappearance of evidence, while top paramilitary chiefs, many of them guilty of crimes against humanity, have been extradited to the United States, ensuring that the only thing they will be tried for is drug trafficking.

Paramilitaries, Hristov emphasizes, have been crucial to processes of capital accumulation in Colombia, as they violently secure the land and strategic resources necessary for enriching themselves and those they serve. Anthropologist Lesley Gill offers a case study of this in her description of how a local paramilitary state, or “parastate,” emerged in Barrancabermeja, an oil-refining center in the Magdalena Medio region. Paramilitaries began invading the city in 2000, serving as the shock troops of neoliberalism, terrorizing their way to local hegemony. Today, Gill reports, “new forms of rent extraction and ‘flexible’ labor relationships now form part of illegal networks and organizations that are beyond the reach of the official state, and they are maintained by fierce coercion.”

The remaining three authors in this issue, all of them journalists, explore how policies pursued by the Colombian government, in collusion with its paramilitary extension, affect different communities in the country. Mario Murillo highlights the murder in December of an indigenous activist from the department of Cauca, emphasizing both state and paramilitary violence as a backlash against an indigenous rights movement that is growing ever more powerful. Garry Leech reports on the deleterious impact that the African oil palm industry has had on Afro-Colombian communities, many of which have been coerced in various ways into growing the cash crop. Lina Britto explores the international dimension, focusing on the Colombian military’s incursion into Ecuadoran territory on March 1, 2008, which cannot be properly understood without taking into account the Uribe administration’s “push to the south,” meaning the extension of the parastate into strategic territory once held by guerrillas.

Grappling with these difficult realities is an important task for those of us in the United States, where the good news about the paramilitary “demobilization” has figured heavily in mainstream media coverage of Colombia, even as the U.S. government continues to generously fund the Colombian state and its security forces—and therefore the unofficial paramilitary system as well.


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