[Bogotá: The delegation receives a crash course history and sociopolitical primer.]

We advocate for U.S. policy that champions:

Transformed aid to Colombia in support of peace, not war.  This should support peace accord implementation, address the needs of victims of violence, and feature aid for safe, sustainable return of land and other durable solutions for internally displaced persons and refugees.

The delegation’s first full day in Colombia was spent in a marathon crash course on the nation’s civic, economic, social, and military history* in recent years.   We spent the day in Bogotá shuttling between conference rooms at three Peace Commission affiliated organizations: CEPALC, Justapaz, and MENCOLDES.

It was like trying to drink from a fire hose.

CEPALC (Centro Popular Para America Latina de Comunicación) is an ecumenical institute founded in 1978 by Amparo Beltrán Acosta to work with poor communities, women, and children, especially around communication issues.  Her husband and co-director, Félix A. Posada Roja, started off our sobering primer on the last 30 years of Colombian history.

Posada argues that in Colombia,

the motor of violence is not poverty, but inequality.”

He gave us estimates that 10% of the wealthiest make 50% of the wealth; the bottom 10% make just 0.6%.   In 1986, 2.5% of all landowners owned 36% of the land; that number has since increased to 53%.  The poverty level in rural areas reaches 85%.

Gang, guerrilla, and paramilitary** recruitment are fueled by massive unemployment and the social and economic fallout of mass displacements.

U.S. policy initiatives have had a particularly wide footprint.

In 2012, Colombia and the U.S. entered into a free trade agreement; Posada explained that the only winners so far have been large agro-industries—often internationally held, and/or the same ones suspected of contracting paramilitary to force peasant farmers off their land when they won’t be bought out.  (Their own employees aren’t much safer: from 2000 to 2010, over half of all trade unionist murders in the world happened in Colombia, even though less than 5% of the national workforce is unionized.)

With the market opened and U.S. imports arriving duty-free and subsidized back home, Colombian farmers are priced out in their own market and on the losing side here: a year since the agreement began, Colombian exports to the U.S. are up 3%; US exports to Colombia are up 22%.

Under Plan Colombia, farmers of coca (and others, inadvertently) have had their crops fumigated from above, but haven’t always been the recipient of the resources necessary to re-purpose their land towards crop substitution as originally promised.  Drug producers are just moving in deeper to plant their crop, some into protected forest areas, and some—forcibly—into land already home to small family farms.

Groups of campesinos (from the Spanish campo—field; a campesino is one who farms) have begun their own growing collectives to support the production and marketing of non-coca crop—the pastor we would meet in El Garzal is also the vice president of one such group in the Magdalena Medio region, the “Association of Alternative Producers of Simití” (ASPROAS).  Over the years, he has assisted family farmers in his community in switching from the cultivation of plantains to cocao, which turns two to three times as much profit.  This is a high-risk venture—Pastor Salvador has faced death threats from illegal armed actors invested in the drug trade and palm oil industry for nearly ten years now.

When Plan Colombia was approved by Congress in 2000, it was hailed as an attempt to simultaneously shore up a government under siege and target the “supply side” of the U.S. war against drugs. The original Plan Colombia proposed by the Colombian government emphasized economic development and social priorities.  What was finally approved skewed massively towards military aid—which is well-documented to have trickled its way down to paramilitary groups operating illegally on behalf of the Colombian military. 

In fact, a study published in 2011 took an empirical look at the blowback effect of U.S. military aid on paramilitary violence.  In the period 1988-2005, military aid increased by an average of 92% each year.  Each increase of 92% was associated with 138% more paramilitary attacks in military base regions, relative to non-base regions—as well as decreased voter participation during election years in those areas.

As former ambassador Ambassador Robert White stated:

If you read the original Plan Colombia, not the one that was written in Washington but the original Plan Colombia, there’s no mention of military drives against the FARC rebels. Quite the contrary. (President Pastrana) says the FARC is part of the history of Colombia and a historical phenomenon, he says, and they must be treated as Colombians... [Colombians] come and ask for bread and you (America) give them stones.”

Whatever the net merits of U.S. military support have been in helping to stabilize government control in a time of civil war, it is clear that, moving forward, it is not sufficient to win the war for peace.  This war will continue to be fought on the ground by civil society and must begin anew with urgency—not taper off—after any outcome of the current negotiations with FARC in Havana, or possible future talks with ELN.

Colombia is a critical laboratory for the theory that peace cannot result from military force alone—in fact, justice may be its only hope.   President Juan Manuel Santos acknowledged as much in his remarks to the legislature on July 20 of this year—Colombia’s Independence Day:

La paz no es solo el silencio de los fusiles.”

Peace is not solely the silence of the guns.

*The US State Department has a basic survey similar to what we received available online; the Library of Congress has a considerably more extensive one (well-indexed for reference purposes).

**The terms  “guerrilla,” and “paramilitary” refer to specific categories of illegal armed actors in Colombia (they are distinguished by the Colombian government from criminal gangs by their claims of ideology-driven leadership.)  For a broader crash course on players in Colombia’s violent modern history (including US interventions), start here.  Paramilitaries and guerrillas are traditionally at war with each other, but they are happy to transcend ideology to collaborate in illegal arms and drug trade.