People & Power

Colombia: The end game

Behind the scenes with Colombia’s insurgents as they bring their 50-year-long conflict to a close.


How do you end a civil war that has dragged on for 50 years, killed or wounded at least half a million people and displaced millions more? It is a question all those attending the Colombian peace talks in Havana, Cuba are trying to answer.

Since late 2012, the Colombian government of President Manuel Santos has been in negotiation with FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

Separate talks with another, smaller insurgent group, the ELN (National Liberation Army) are also now underway. But finding a solution to one of the most destructive and divisive civil conflicts in modern times is not easy.

Although both of the guerrilla groups have come under sustained pressure in recent years from an increasingly sophisticated Colombian Army – and have seen their numbers dwindle as a consequence of successive crackdowns – neither has yet been comprehensively defeated.

Both are still well resourced because they are hard-wired into Colombia’s illegal cocaine trade (FARC alone is estimated to make more than $500m every year from narcotics traffic) and, as important, their Marxist-inspired ideology still commands a degree of support among Colombia’s rural poor.

There are also multiple controversies to resolve – the negotiations in Havana have had five main talking points: land reform, political participation, drug trafficking, victims’ rights and reparations, and disarmament of the rebels and implementation of the peace deal.

The two sides have been able to reach draft agreements on the first three points, but victims’ rights and the disarmament have proven more complicated.

Victim’s rights are especially problematic because they touches on questions of responsibility for hundreds of thousands of killings, disappearances and kidnappings and on the degree of immunity from prosecution that any of the protagonists in the peace process might expect.

There have been other unexpected hiccups along the way. In November, for example, the negotiations were suspended for two weeks after a leading Colombian general, Ruben Dario Alzate, was kidnapped with two companions while on a river trip through the FARC dominated Choco province.

The talks only resumed on December 10 following the general’s release. Nevertheless, there’s clearly a greater appetite for a settlement in Colombia now than there has been for years. President Santos was re-elected in June after campaigning heavily on the peace ticket and across the country there is a feeling across the country that the Havana process might be Colombia’s best chance to finally end this war.

For this special People & Power report, filmmaker Rodrigo Vazquez spent much of 2014 behind the scenes with the participants of the talks – and those waiting for the outcome.

He spoke to negotiators from all sides, Colombian government and army officials, former pro-government paramilitaries, victims and relatives of victims of the FARC and current and demobilized insurgents. He also gained exclusive access to ELN fighters, still deployed deep in the Colombian jungle, as recruits watched the talks unfold from afar and tried to come to terms with the possibility that the last stages of their long struggle might be in sight.




By Rodrigo Vazquez

In 2014 the war in Colombia turned 50. Marxist guerrillas FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia ) and ELN (National Liberation Army) have fought against a state dominated by landowning and business elites who have traditionally been both conservative and reactionary.

This top heavy establishment is common in Latin America, where the poor are repressed and exploited by those in power. But while ruling classes in other countries have gradually accommodated some popular demands for wealth redistribution and political reform, Colombia’s elite have utterly failed.

There is no peace without justice. The establishment, the government, the armed forces, the guerrilla and President Santos must tell the truth and acknowledge their crimes. Then ask for forgiveness. Otherwise we can't even start to consider peace.

by Alexander Pulgarin Castro, war victim

Instead, they have used the army to repress rebel movements that have been fighting to become mainstream political forces for half a century. Landowners have especially tied their fortunes to an army trained and financed by the US to the tune of some $640m per year.

Often citing the War on Drugs as a reason, past US administrations supported the war in Colombia with little regard for the human rights abuses committed by the Colombian army and its paramilitary proxies. Some of these atrocities – mass killings, disappearances and forced displacement of peasant and indigenous communities – helped make the civil war one of the bloodiest conflicts in the Americas: 40,000 forced disappearances in the last 10 years alone (of a total of 250,000 since 1958), 175,000 killings and 75,000 forced displacements since 2005 (from a total of 5 million since 1958).

The rebels too have played their part in all this brutality, although their abuses only amount to 20 percent of the total, according to the Centro Nacional de Memoria Historica or CNDMH, which was set up as a first step towards a Truth Commission. Today the frontline of this war goes from the Colombian capital Bogota’s slums in the east to the jungles in the west, and neither side can plausibly claim to have clean hands.

I started filming in Bogota just before the anniversary of the beginning of the civil war – at a march organised by war victims, making its way through the city to the spot where the fighting began, where a gunman assassinated a populist presidential candidate, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, in 1948, with the CIA’s blessing. Gaitan’s crime was to promise land reform that would benefit Colombia’s poor peasants or campesinos.

His murder sparked the civil strife known as “La Violencia”, which resulted in the creation of peasant self-defence groups, aligned either with Gaitan’s Liberal Party, or the right-wing Conservative Party. The in 1959, the Cuban Revolution planted the seeds for the two Marxist insurgencies.

In 1964, Manuel Marulanda, a campesino, formed the FARC, while a Catholic priest Camilo Torres was the driving force behind the initially more middle class and student dominated ELN. Other Colombian guerrilla forces came and went, but the FARC and ELN remained.

FARC was financed in part by a growing involvement in the cocaine trade, and because both guerrillas were able to control remote parts of the country in which the state seemed to have little interest. Even today, entire regions of Colombia do not have adequate infrastructure to accommodate the most basic needs of the population. The guerrillas filled this vacuum and gained the backing of the poorest campesinos by organising them to work collectively to compensate for the lack of state support, a historical fact the Santos government has only now begun to address.

These areas saw some of the worst massacres. Disappearances and brutality largely committed by the Army and its paramilitary “fifth column” were common. Narco-trafficking became a way for poor Colombians to get out of poverty, but ultimately it became another complication as paramilitary groups became drug-cartels and abandoned their ideological convictions.

Colombia’s current president, Juan Manuel Santos, comes from the land-owning elite who have historically opposed popular demands. Before taking office in 2010, he was President Alvaro Uribe’s minister of defence. Uribe, whose father was killed by the FARC, is now under investigation for instigating and supporting paramilitary groups.

Santos used his position to intensify the war on the guerrillas. His time in office has been shrouded in allegations of human rights abuses by the Colombian army and security services. In 2010, when the tide began to turn in favour of the army, FARC were forced to talk peace.

Despite the negotiations, the Santos government has yet to face its human rights record and ask victims for forgiveness for 50 years of State-sponsored war crimes. FARC has so far failed to acknowledge its abuses as well – particularly the forced displacement of 100,000 peasants and the disappearance of 3,500 of its own combatants whom they summarily sentenced to death for treason.

I was interested in what these negotiations entailed and why the ELN also wanted peace talks on the eve of their 50th anniversary. So I visited a ELN camp in Arauca, on the border with Venezuela.

A 70-year-old ELN commander, Ramiro Vargas, emerged from the jungle where he has been living for half a century. He used a walking stick and was rather ill, but his message was clear: “Peace has become the most heart-felt desire of the Colombian people. The guerrilla can’t ignore that reality because the Colombian conflict is not only an armed conflict; it’s a social conflict too. So we say let’s solve the social conflict and the armed one at once.” Most Colombians agree. They re-elected Santos in June 2014 to support a negotiated solution.

The chance for peace in Colombia is real. But one thing still tells me we are far from real peace – the continued involvement of foreign multinational corporations in the war who have in the past, and continue to use paramilitary groups to displace and kill peasants and grab land and natural resources.

The government has allowed these companies to wage their war by subsidising corporate activity in guerrilla held areas. For every $100 the companies invest, the government gives them $135.

The corporations host the paramilitaries within their compounds and allow them to ravage the civilian population. They have avoided paying for the damage they cause thanks to loopholes in European and US legislation.

This, and the multinationals’ continued support for the Colombian army through financial handouts, has made sure business runs smoothly in spite of the human rights abuses being committed. Whenever local unions have pushed for action against these companies, union leaders have been harassed, imprisoned, or murdered.

One war victim I met, Alexander Pulgarin Castro, is clear about the way forward: “There is no peace without justice. The establishment, the government, the armed forces, the guerrilla and President Santos must tell the truth and acknowledge their crimes. Then ask for forgiveness. Otherwise we can’t even start to consider peace.”