Coercion Incorporated: Paramilitary Colombia

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.


Taking Note

Fred Rosen
In early May, while the international media’s concern for Mexico fixated on the swine flu, two events heightened political tensions in the country, as July’s legislative and local elections began to draw near. First, a tell-all memoir called Derecho a réplica (Right of Reply), written by a small-time swindler named Carlos Ahumada, credibly implicated much of Mexico’s political class in fraud, deceit, and venality.

Open Forum

Alfonso Gonzales
Salvadorans in the United States helped create the conditions for a fair presidential election in El Salvador—particularly by undermining right-wing fear tactics that aimed to scare voters away from Mauricio Funes.


Marion Werner and Jennifer Bair
Garment and textile factories all over the circum-Caribbean have been shutting down in recent years as owners, undercut by competition from Asia, seek to cut labor costs by moving production elsewhere. The factory closures oblige us to reconsider strategies to defend workers’ rights in the region.


Jasmin Hristov
Although Colombian president Álvaro Uribe proudly announced in 2006 that the country’s largest illegal paramilitary organization, the AUC, had been completely demobilized, the government’s “peace process” with the AUC was a pure farce. The result of the “demobilization” has been the final, definitive incorporation of paramilitarism into the Colombian state and economy.
Lesley Gill
In 2000, paramilitaries began their bloody assault on Barrancabermeja, an oil-refining center in Colombia’s Magdalena Medio region. They vanquished the guerrillas, killed labor and human rights activists, and terrorized the general population with massacres, threats, and disappearances. Today, daily life has regained a patina of normalcy. But selective assassinations, death threats, and various forms of coercion leave little doubt about who is in charge.
Mario A. Murillo
In December, the Colombian military shot to death an unarmed indigenous rights activist, Edwin Legarda (Nasa), in what it officially branded an “accident.” Fellow activists believe the bullets were likely meant for Legarda’s widow, Aida Quilcué, one of Colombia’s most visible indigenous leaders. The killing is part of a larger pattern of violence aimed at countering the Colombian indigenous movement’s growing momentum.
Garry Leech
With the government’s encouragement, the cultivation of African oil palm in Colombia has exploded in recent years. Concentrated in the country’s Afro-descendant heartland, the Pacific coast, palm cultivation has been coercively foisted on small growers, while workers on large corporate palm plantations struggle with an imposed regime of “flexible” labor.
Lina Britto
The Colombian military’s incursion into Ecuadoran territory on March 1, 2008, was a consequence of the Uribe administration’s decision almost a decade ago to “retake” its southern territory by force under the auspices of Plan Colombia. Ecuador, in contrast, has launched an alternative initiative in its border zone, one that emphasizes local development, the upholding of human rights, and national sovereignty.
Bill Weinberg
From its origins 10 years ago, the multibillion-dollar aid package and militarized anti-narcotics program known as Plan Colombia was understood by its proponents as a model to be applied elsewhere in the hemisphere, and it was—first in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, through the Andean Regional Initiative. More recently, Pentagon planners have been explicitly evoking Plan Colombia as a model for the war in Afghanistan, where counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics efforts have likewise become inexorably entwined.


Gregory Wilpert
The Silence and the Scorpion: The Coup Against Chávez and the Making of Modern Venezuela, by Brian A. Nelson, Nation Books, 2009, 355 pp., $26.95 (hardcover)
Dictatorship, Democracy, and Globalization: Argentina and the Cost of Paralysis, 1973–2001 by Klaus F. Veigel; Argentina: Stories for a Nation by Amy K. Kaminsky; Dirty Secrets, Dirty War: The Exile of Editor Robert J. Cox (Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1976–1983), by David Cox


Melissa del Bosque
In March, the mainstream media parachuted into El Paso, Texas, to hype the supposed “spillover” of drug war violence from neighboring Ciudad Juárez. There was only one problem with this latest rationale for further militarizing the U.S.-Mexico border: The El Paso murder rate remains a small fraction of that in Juárez, according to the FBI.