Colombia has received more US military
aid--over $6 billion dollars in the past decade -- than any country in the
Western Hemisphere. For its part, Colombia allowed the Pentagon to build seven
military bases, more than all the other countries in the region combined. There
are over 2,000 US military officers and private US ‘mercenary’ contractors
engaged in military activities in Colombia - more than any other country in
During the decade-long (2001-2010)
regime of President Alvaro Uribe, (a drug trafficker and death squad jefe
in his own right), more than one thousand trade union leaders and activists
were murdered - over one hundred a year.
Nevertheless, the ‘Colombian killing
field’ regime under Uribe was described in glowing terms by all the major
respectable Anglo-American newspapers, including the Financial Times, New York
Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post for having brought “stability
and peace” (of the graveyard) to the country and making Colombia “safe for
Eventually Uribe’s excesses, his
policy of ‘peace through terror’ policies frightened and appalled many
Colombians and (most important for the oligarchs) he failed to defeat the armed
insurgency When the regime’s new extractive export growth strategy
called for massive expansion of foreign investment in guerrilla-controlled
mineral and oil-rich regions tactics and key political leaders had to change.
After two terms in office, President
Uribe’s former Defense Minister Juan Santos was elected on the promise of
renewed peace negotiations with the principal guerrilla group, the
Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
President Santos’ Peace
Negotiations and the Killing Fields
Under President Santos, Colombia still
retains the title as the most dangerous country in the world for trade union
leaders and human rights activists. During his first 5 years in office, from
2011 to April 2015, more than 105 trade unionists have been murdered; 596 have
been injured in attacks and 1,337 received death threats. Over half of the
killings, which are officially labeled ‘unattributed’, have clearly been
committed by the paramilitary hitmen- ‘sicarios’, and others are
categorized as ‘false positives’, where the military claims civilian
deaths result from the ‘cross-fire of combat operations’. Few arrests
have ever been made in a country where assassins enjoy immunity. Over 80% of
trade union leader assassinations are attributed to paramilitary-military-police
while 6% are blamed on the guerrillas. In the case of the guerrillas, most of
the ‘victims’ are not popularly elected trade unionists but agents, appointed
by the employers and government, with links to the paramilitary gangs, who identify
and purge militant workers and have nothing to do with the defense of workers
There are a minority of cases of
guerrilla units committing human rights violations. These are investigated and
the guilty are punished by the national leaders – a far cry from Bogota’s
policy. A recent case, which took place in early August, led to severe internal
sanctioning of a FARC unit.
The drop in the ‘number’ of labor
leaders murdered, from an average of 100 a year under Uribe to 25 a year under Santos,
is due to the precipitous decline in the number of trade unionists overall –
thanks to a decade of slaughter under Uribe. In other words, there may be fewer
union leaders murdered under President Santos, but overall the proportion of
leaders assassinated remains essentially the same – and the life expectancy for
a Colombian labor leader is the lowest in the hemisphere!
What has changed under Santos is the
shift away from slaughtering a dwindling number of union leaders, to killing
and jailing human rights and social movement activists.
In 2014, 35 activists were murdered.
During the first half of 2015, the death toll has almost doubled with 69 social
movement and human rights activists killed.
The Patriotic March is the major Colombian
umbrella movement, bringing together over 100 social organizations, including
the country’s major indigenous groups, Afro-Colombians, regional peasant and
human rights groups. More than 9,000 Patriotic March activists have been
arrested and 40 have been killed during Santos reign of terror.
Peace Negotiations and Cross
Santos’ peace negotiations with the
main guerrilla groups, as well as the FARC’s unilateral ceasefire, has allowed
the Colombian military and its paramilitary allies to step up their
cross-border drug and contraband smuggling and terrorist incursions into
In mid-August, a Colombian paramilitary
squad entered Venezuela and wounded 3 Venezuelan soldiers who had been part of
a team combating large-scale contraband and arms smuggling across the Colombian
border. Cross-border smuggling has a double purpose: It creates insecurity and
shortages in Venezuela inciting opposition to the government while earning huge
profits for paramilitary leaders who re-sell the subsidized Venezuelan goods
(food, medicine and gasoline) at a huge mark-up in Colombia.
operations have vastly increased under President Santos. While the regime
claims to be negotiating a peace accord with the FARC in Havana, Venezuelan
security is under threat.
Large-scale, widespread smuggling gangs
from Colombia enjoy impunity, intelligence and encouragement from the Colombian
government and its US Special Forces ‘advisers’ intent on ‘regime
change’ in Caracas. And with the FARC honoring its unilateral ceasefire, the
paramilitaries no longer have to contend with attacks from the guerrillas.
Peace Negotiations and
President Santos’ economic policies are
attracting large flows of foreign investment into Colombia’s mining and energy
sector. The oil and mineral-rich regions are heavily influenced by the armed
guerrillas. Furthermore, there is a tradition of militant trade unionism among
miners and oil workers. In order to make these regions safe and extremely
profitable for multinational oil and mining companies, Santos has adopted a
‘two-pronged’ approach. He negotiates ceasefires and disarmament with the two
insurgent movements (the FARC and the ELN- the National Liberation Army) in Havana,
while stepping up repression and terror against union leaders in the oil and
During the Santos’ regime the greatest
number of assassinated trade union leaders have come from the mining and energy
sector (25.4%), followed by the manufacturing (19.3%), education (18%) and
agriculture (12.7%). From 2014 to mid 2015, 90% of paramilitary and military
assaults against civilians have targeted union leaders and activists (208 out
In other words, Santos’ strategy has
been designed to neutralize the guerrillas via bogus peace negotiations in
Havana in order to concentrate state repression against mass popular movement
activists and trade unionists, as they struggle to secure a fairer share of
Colombia’s immense natural wealth which is being pillaged by the gigantic
foreign mining and energy companies and their local oligarch partners.
Under Santos, assassinations and
attacks have become more selective than the indiscriminate mass killings that
characterized his predecessor’s regime. The scorched earth policies which drove
4 million peasants and small farmers from their lands have been replaced by the
targeted killing and assault of trade unionists active in strategic economic
Cross border incursions by the
Colombian military harassing Venezuela border patrols have been replaced by
proxy criminal and paramilitary gangs of smugglers operating with the blessing
of Bogota and Washington.
Santos’ dual strategy allows him to
pose as a ‘peacemaker’ in Havana and a ‘hatchet-man’ for foreign
investors in Colombia’s mineral-rich regions.
The assassinations of two dozen trade
unionists per year, the murders of six dozen human rights activists in the
first 6 months of 2015, and the 9,000 social movement activists rotting in
Colombia’s prisons is not reported in the international mass media, or at
international forums, and regional meetings. Meanwhile, the press concentrates
on the ‘peace negotiations’ between the FARC and President Santos in
Havana – as if nothing were happening on the ground in Colombia.
The new policies pursued by President
Santos, which combine peace negotiations with Colombian guerrilla movements in
Havana and violent repression against mass social movements and labor leaders
at home; friendly overtures to Cuba and cross-border smuggling and
destabilization campaigns against Venezuela, do not bode well for future
regional peace or stability.
President Santos’ two-face policies
mirror those of the Obama regime. While Obama pursues negotiation with Iran, he
wages proxy wars against Iran’s allies in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. While,
Obama celebrates the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, he
intensifies a policy of sabotage and ‘regime change’ with Cuba’s close ally in
The parallels between Santos and
Obama’s policies reflect their common ideology and their political strategy of
talking peace while waging war.
This two track policy brings up the
fundamental strategic question: how durable and reliable are peace gestures in
the midst of proxy wars and mass killing.
With regard to Colombia one thing is
certain: The signing of a “peace agreement” between the Santos regime
and the FARC will not end the killing of trade unionists and human rights
activists; it will not free the thousands of social movement activists in
Colombian prisons. By the same token, Obama’s agreement with Iran has not
reduced US military intervention in the Middle East and South Asia.
Imperial agreements are temporary
expedients. They represent a brief prelude to new and more virulent aggression
against independent nations and emerging national and class-based mass
James Petras's latest books include:
- James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer (2014), Extractive Imperialism in the Americas: Capitalism’s New Frontier, published by Brill (Leiden/Boston) (Studies in Critical Social Sciences Series).
- James Petras (2014), The Politics of Empire: The US, Israel and the Middle East, published by Clarity Press, Atlanta.
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