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  September 29, 2010

Turning Point for Colombian Civil War

Forrest Hylton: Killing of guerrilla leader 'Mono Jojoy' could bring negotiated end to 45-year conflict
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Forrest Hylton teaches history and politics at the Universidad de los Andes (Bogotá). He is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and with Sinclair Thomson, co-author of Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics (Verso, 2007). He has contributed to New Left Review, NACLA Report on the Americas, and CounterPunch, and his short fiction and translations have appeared in the Brooklyn Rail. Most recently he authored the novel Vanishing Acts: A Tragedy (City Works Press, 2010).

The Colombian military and President Jose Manuel Santos are claiming their greatest victory in the 45-year-long civil war against leftist guerillas. On Thursday, a night-time bombardment claimed the life of 'Mono Jojoy', military leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the largest guerilla army in the country. Forrest Hylton, professor of history and political science at Los Andes University in Bogota, says the death of such a hard-line leader could make peace negotiations more likely. Furthermore, says Hylton if President Santos is serious about his intentions to push land reform, that will largely undercut the reason for the FARC's existence as an army largely made up of rural peasants. But, Hylton cautions, the civil war isn't the source of most violence and insecurity in Colombia, and peace between the government and the FARC won't solve the country's surging urban violence.

Produced by Jesse Freeston.


JESSE FREESTON, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jesse Freeston in Washington, DC. On Thursday in the country of Colombia, one of the biggest events in that country's 45 year plus civil war: the assassination of one of the military leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, los FARC. Joining us to tell us more about this is Forrest Hylton. He comes to us from BogotĂĄ, where he is a professor of history and political science at the University of Los Andes. Alright. So, Forrest, do you want to start just by telling us a little bit about what happened? And what does this mean?

FORREST HYLTON, UNIVERSITY OF THE ANDES, COLOMBIA: Colombian armed forces succeeded killing the Revolutionary Armed Forces' Colombia's top military commander, Mono Jojoy. Mono Jojoy was a very hard-line militarist within the FARC, really the FARC's top military strategist. And without Mono Jojoy in the picture in the upper echelons of the FARC, there's a possibility that other top leaders within the FARC, like Alfonso Cano, who's recognized as the maximum leader of the FARC, will now make a very strong push to open a peace process with the government of Juan Manuel Santos.

FREESTON: We saw Juan Manuel Santos, the recently elected president of Colombia, come out and make a statement in which he declared that this was the greatest victory for the Colombian military in the history of the civil war and said that this would open the way for peace and prosperity in Colombia. Where does he stand? And what is he asking for in terms of creating a peace process? Or what are we to expect from him?

HYLTON: Well, it's not entirely clear what exactly Santos's position on peace is, what kinds of conditions he might demand of the FARC, preconditions, in order to enter into negotiations. If he displays a certain amount of flexibility about preconditions then he could very well have a peace process on his hands. Santos is also implementing a pretty massive agrarian reform program, in which 2 million hectares of stolen land are going to be returned to the peasants. Now, this is their declared intention. Whether they can actually deliver on the promises of reform is another question. But were they to enact a serious agrarian reform, it would very seriously undercut the kind of reason-for-being of the FARC, because the FARC have basically long complained of the unjust land tenure patterns in Colombia's countryside and the extent to which Colombia's countryside is ruled mostly by narco paramilitary landlords connected to politicians in the small towns. It's difficult to say right now what Santos's government is going to do now with respect to the FARC. There may be a very strong push from public opinion to try to press this victory into an even greater or definitive victory, but in fact the FARC attacks have been up in the past couple of years, in spite of the massive operations directed against them from 2002 all the way through 2010. The FARC are very, very far from being defeated, even if their chain of command were to deteriorate further. And there can be little doubt that this was the greatest blow to the chain of command in the history of the conflict. Because the narcotics economy in the jungles and the lowlands is so lucrative, and because the FARC are such an important part of that economy on the lowest rungs of the cocaine circuit, there can be little doubt that the FARC have the capacity to survive indefinitely. And even if they can never take power and even if they are politically marginalized, without a serious peace process there's certainly no prospect of them disappearing.

FREESTON: So this doesn't come that long after President Santos—at the time defense minister—was involved in the "false positives" scandal. And right in this same area where Mono Jojoy was murdered, we saw the mass grave as well, a La Macarena. Could you talk about the difference between, you know, negative publicity and positive publicity in Colombia for the military? And do they see this as their ends justify the means sort of thing?

HYLTON: Well, Juan Manuel Santos, in his previous position as minister of defense for President Alvaro Uribe, was really a master spin doctor. In 2008, when the Colombian armed forces invaded Ecuadorian territory and bombarded the camp of the FARC's top diplomatic leader, RaĂșl Reyes, killing RaĂșl Reyes and numerous other people, Juan Manuel Santos was able to spin that in favor of the Colombian government, in spite of the fact the Colombian government was in clear violation of international law. The victory against RaĂșl Reyes was considered a historic victory at the time. Then Íngrid Betancourt and several other hostages were freed when Juan Manuel Santos was minister of defense. Once again, it was a tremendous public relations victory for the Colombian government. So this really built on a series of successes that Santos had before as minister of defense. Now, on the negative side of the account is the mounting "false positives" scandal. Apparently, several thousand civilians were kidnapped, disappeared, murdered, and then dressed up in guerrilla uniforms in order to inflate the army's body count. This also took place on Santos's watch, although it began earlier, under Marta LucĂ­a RamĂ­rez, who was the minister of defense under Uribe before Santos. This is an institutionalized practice within the Colombian Armed Forces. Repudiation of these kinds of practices throughout public opinion is extremely strong, and the victims and family members of those who were disappeared and murdered in order to inflate the body count are going to be bringing lawsuits against the Uribe government, and they're going to be pressing their human rights claims in a number of different venues and arenas internationally. So the scandal's not likely to disappear, and it clearly has impacted negatively on the image that Colombians have of the armed forces.

FREESTON: As Santos makes some of these broad statements about security and prosperity in Colombia as a result of developments in the Civil War, that's not really the only security threat on the ground in Colombia for Colombians. Could you talk a little bit about the levels of violence that have developed in other sort of sectors or conflicts that are going on and whether or not there's any progress on that front?

HYLTON: Colombia's war, the war between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the Colombian armed forces, and their paramilitary allies, that takes place largely in the countryside, usually in remote frontier regions very far from areas of human settlement. Most Colombians, about 80 percent, live in the major cities of Colombia, and therefore they're not directly affected by that type of war. But the fact is that Colombia has extremely serious problems with urban violence. And it's not only the war in the countryside and on the agrarian frontier that affects the daily lives of Colombians. Far more people are affected by urban crime. And, once again, MedellĂ­n has become kind of the vanguard laboratory for urban warfare in Colombia. It was painted as a success story for several years when President Uribe worked in tandem with Mayor Sergio Fajardo in MedellĂ­n to administer the paramilitary demobilization process. Now that process has really come unraveled, and once again MedellĂ­n's violence is making world headlines because MedellĂ­n is neck and neck with Ciudad JuĂĄrez as one of the homicide capitals of the world. That happens to be where President Uribe is from. And Santos was there recently to discuss the problems of public order in MedellĂ­n. Now, MedellĂ­n is just the most visible case, because we could look at a number of other departmental capitals and see similar problems of urban crime and disorder, and in fact a growing sense of insecurity among the majority of Colombians living in the cities.

FREESTON: Now, are there any sort of popular movements or solutions being put forward by people outside the government?

HYLTON: Well, the movement of victims is an extremely important movement here in Colombia, not only the victims of false positives, but people who've been victims of human rights crimes or family members of victims of human rights crimes throughout Colombia's civil war. But really the social movements in Colombia are quite divided and weak if you compare them to their neighbors in Venezuela, Ecuador, or Bolivia, for example. Colombian social movements have to contend with a degree of right-wing mafia control in addition to civil war that social movements in other countries don't have to contend with. And that goes a long way to explaining why they are divided and weak compared to social movements in neighboring countries. That said, however, particularly in the cities, we see very vibrant urban movements of citizens trying to get public services and trying to establish systems of public order that guarantee people safety and security, but without violating their human rights. The problem is those movements are very localized in specific regions, and there is no national-level umbrella group for those kind of urban social movements right now. So, really, the government of Santos has an enormous degree of legitimacy right now, in part because of their victory against the FARC through the killing of Mono Jojoy, but partly because they have really taken the initiative politically, and they're really defining the agenda in terms of reform.

FREESTON: Alright. Well, thanks for your time, Forrest. And we'll be coming back to you as we see further developments in the situation in Colombia. Thank you.

HYLTON: Thanks a lot, Jesse.

FREESTON: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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