Colombian State Escalates Violence Against Activists
Coca cultivation and the lack of alternatives to escape poverty continue to lie at the root of the ongoing violence in Colombia, despite the peace accords, explains Mario Murillo of Hofstra University
GREGORY WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert, joining you from Quito, Ecuador. Last week, on October 5th, Colombian police officers opened fire on a peaceful protest against coca crop eradication. They killed between 6 and 15 farmers, and injured over 50 in what some are calling the worst massacre in Colombia in the last 15 years. Shortly thereafter, on Sunday, October 8th, police again opened fire on a group of journalists and investigators who were examining the earlier scene of the shooting. Luckily, no one was killed during the second incident and police later even apologized. Originally, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos denied any responsibility for the October 5th attack on protesters, but then backtracked on Wednesday and the defense minister suspended about 100 police officers from duty for their involvement.
Joining us to take a closer look at these developments is Mario Murillo. Mario is professor of Communications and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Hofstra University and he’s the author of the book, “Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest, and Destabilization.” Thanks for joining us, Mario.
MARIO MURILLO: It’s great to be with you, Greg. Thanks for having me.
GREGORY WILPERT: Let’s first go over exactly what happened in the village of Tandil, Colombia last week. Can you give us a brief update?
MARIO MURILLO: Again, the picture is pretty sketchy. The government continues to deliberately make it seem as if the people responsible were not necessarily the armed security forces that were there, and it’s been hard to get to one consistent picture, but essentially what you have is protesters, local peasant farmers cultivating coca, who were in the process of forced eradication on the part of the government, protesting that process without the government implementing any kind of alternative for them. The protesters went out and were confronted by the security forces, who were there essentially to carry out the forced eradication project.
Again, that’s where the picture gets sketchy, but essentially what we see is about anywhere between 6 and 12 people, even the numbers aren’t totally clear as to how many people were killed. The government acknowledgements six peasants were killed, although eyewitnesses say that a number of others were killed, and in fact that some are even disappeared and are not accounted for. That’s what happened on the ground.
The government initially blamed so-called dissident or breakout FARC, a remaining FARC group, a rebel group that has not been part of the peace accord that was signed last year that were putting pressure on farmers to go out there and mobilize, once again revisiting the language and the discourse that the government has used for decades, implicating any kind of social protests against the government policies as if it were being manipulated by rebel forces, by the FARC guerrillas. The government has accused FARC or remnants of the FARC, not the actual FARC rebels, for having forced them to be there.
The campesinos have said, “No, we were not forced to do anything. We protested precisely because of the contradictory policies of the government in this process of, on the one hand, voluntary eradication, but what it really has become has been a forced eradication program.” What it is, it relates to two of the most complicated components of the six-point peace accord that was signed last year, which we can get into now.
GREGORY WILPERT: Before we get into that part, I just wanted to say that activists in the region have said that the police are denying them access, and it’s been very difficult to investigate, but on the other hand, President Santos had the defense minister fire or suspend, not fire, suspend 100 police officers for their involvement. What do you think is going on behind the scenes there? Who is ultimately responsible for what happened?
MARIO MURILLO: I think they acknowledge basically that there was a complete breakdown there, supposedly, in terms of what the government forces were supposed to do. There’s just too much eyewitness testimony being reported by all the Colombian media, and peasants, and eyewitnesses who have been interviewed, who pointed out that clearly this was something that was carried out by the security forces, by the police. I think Santos had his hands tied and had to do something about that, and so that was a bit of good news in the beginning of this week when those officials were fired. The police, a number of high-end officials, about 20 officers as well as about 100 or so rank and file police officers were taken off duty. That was again most likely based on the response of the local community that was very angry about what had occurred.
On the other hand, they’re still hinting and using the same language that this was not necessarily the fault of the police, that in fact there were shooting coming from the so-called dissident forces, forced by this so-called Gaucho, who was one of these commanders of the dissident forces that have continued their war against the government, but really carrying out their support of the coca trade in that part of the region.
That’s, again, one of those contradictions in Colombian policy right now that is leading to a lot of problems. On the one hand, the government is part of the peace accord that was signed last year. They were saying that yes, we were going to have manual eradication and substitution, a voluntary substitution for the coca-growing regions all over the country, not only in Tumaco but in all of the different parts of the country. On the other hand, if you don’t comply, if they don’t comply immediately, there’s going to be this forced eradication, which is clearly going to lead to confrontation. Unfortunately, the confrontation that we saw over the weekend and last week resulted in this terrible violence and terrible result.
GREGORY WILPERT: Just a couple of days ago, there was another killing. Efigenia Vásquez Astudillo, who’s an indigenous broadcaster in the Cauca region, a department of Colombia, was killed by the anti-riot police. What can you tell us about what happened there?
MARIO MURILLO: This is the result of mobilizations that have been taking place, again as you point out, in Cauca, which is about a little bit northeast of Tumaco, which is also on the southwest part of the country. The indigenous community of the Coconuco people, one of the many indigenous nations that essentially were at the forefront of the indigenous movement in Colombia back in the 1970s, a very highly organized, very mobilized community, and they’ve for the last several months, I think it’s actually over a year in which they’ve been protesting the privatization of a territory in the Coconuco land that is being privatized to developers who are going to create a resort out of a sacred territory called Aguasvivas.
That area has a number of different thermal springs that are very sacred to the Coconuco people. The Coconuco community had and has developed one of those springs as their own eco-resort, run and controlled by the local indigenous council, and it’s very much open to the communities, not only indigenous but other communities. What they’ve been saying, as part of an agreement that was signed with the government about two years ago, that some of that land, that other spring, Aguasvivas, also had to be returned to the indigenous community so that way they can control it and take control of it. However, what the government has said is that, “No, we’ve already made this deal, and this developer is going to take it.”
They’ve been protesting that now for several months over the summer. There was a number of confrontations between police forces, the ESMAD, the same ESMAD that carried out the attack in Tumaco, the same forces, they’re sort of like SWAT police, have been heavily armed, look like teenage mutant ninja turtles out there fighting with heavily armed weapons confronting the communities that were protesting. I have a good friend who was at that protest back in August saying that the police spared no, they were ruthless in dismantling and moving the communities aside.
What happened was in covering that latest development, one of the reporters from the local radio station, Renacer, which is run by the Coconucos, one of the many indigenous community radio stations in Colombia, that she was covering the situation, and she got shot by ESMAD. The ESMAD is denying that and saying that she was killed accidentally by one of the indigenous communities themselves, a representative of the indigenous communities themselves, but the communities and the eyewitnesses say, “Absolutely not.” This is just another example of the real, heavy-handed tactics that are being used against social protest right now in Colombia.
GREGORY WILPERT: According to numerous human rights groups in Colombia right now, over 100 activists and social leaders were killed in the first six months of this year. I imagine most of them, I guess, weren’t killed by the police, but recently there seems to have been an increase in police activity or responsibility for these killings, it seems. How does all of this affect the peace agreement that you mentioned earlier between the government and the FARC guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, an agreement which was just signed last year.
MARIO MURILLO: This is revisiting a history that Colombia has already lived through and previous attempts at trying to reach some kind of reconciliation and peace in the country. In the 1980s, when there was a peace accord or an attempt to sign a peace accord between the FARC and the government, the FARC, in its attempt to try to create a political party, established the Patriotic Union. They had a political party that had won a number of seats in the Congress, and they were winning municipalities, and they had a number of very popular presidential candidates. As a result of that, the right-wing backlash was ruthless. Over 3,000, some estimates say up to 4,000 militants, from grassroots activists to two presidential candidates of the Patriotic Union, were killed essentially in a social cleansing that took place against the left party. Many analysts point to that as the militarization of the FARC really started after that period.
What we’ve seen is always an attack from the right, from the ultra-right in Colombia, against any kind of social protest and any kind of reconciliation attempts or any kind of concessions supposedly given to the FARC rebels. Unfortunately, the targets of this violence that we’re seeing are social activists, human rights workers, indigenous communities, environmentalists, all of whom are mobilizing and struggling around issues of land reform, around sustainable economic development, about green issues in many parts of the country, and also about bringing jobs to those family members of people who have been killed over the years after decades of dirty war from the right and from state security forces. These are the people that are being targeted, and it’s no accident, because these are the people who have also been most supportive of trying to reach a peace deal and pushing forward and implementing the peace accords that were signed last year.
Unfortunately, there was a lot of predictions of that prior to the peace signing, and we’ve seen that that’s pretty much what’s been going on. There’s been the rebirth, if you will, of so-called paramilitary groups, groups that in many ways never really dismantled from the middle 2000s, during a peace accord that was signed between the government of Alvaro Uribe and the right-wing paramilitary groups. A lot of those groups are still functioning in many parts of the country, putting pressure on social activists, in many instances collaborating with some of the military forces as they did in the past, and targeting of course demobilized guerrilla fighters who are now in their camps and trying to be part of this reconciliation and demobilization process. It’s a real serious issue that could indeed derail a good portion of this post-conflict period, this peace process.
GREGORY WILPERT: Finally, I just want to touch on one more thing. A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview Pablo Beltran, the head negotiator of the National Liberation Army, of the other Colombian guerrilla group, which is currently just beginning on October 1st it’s peace negotiations with the government. These negotiations are just in full swing. They’ve just started, but with all of this violence occurring, and this increase really, and he talked about this as well, how do you see this affecting those second negotiations? Do you see any hope for them being concluded given these circumstances?
MARIO MURILLO: We know the government of Santos is trying to push it, and there is a clamoring to hopefully get this done before the 2018 presidential elections. Unfortunately, Colombia is already in campaign season, full-swing campaigning, which in many ways is a problem, because the right has a pretty powerful presence in terms of media and in terms of its ability to put a bad spin on anything that’s happening in the country vis-a-vis reconciliation, vis-a-vis some kind of peace deal with the ELN.
I want to go back to the issue of the coca cultivation, because I think therein lies the biggest threat to any kind of peace agreement or tranquility, to some kind of post-conflict period that’s going to lead to peace and reconciliation in Colombia. The coca issue revolves around two of the six major points of the peace accord themselves. One is the first point, which is about rural development, land reform, and recognizing the abject poverty in which the majority of the Colombian people live as one of the precursors, one of the reasons why we’ve had such a long history of conflict in the countryside in particular.
The second point, or actually the fourth point of the agenda that’s related to the first point, is the issue of coca cultivation, and weaning the countryside from coca cultivation, and having the FARC play a role in ending the drug trade in Colombia. That’s very complicated because it has so many international implications and other factors, but what’s happening is instead of recognizing that you have to address poverty, you have to address lack of development, you have to address the issue of no state presence in the countryside, throughout the country for decades, which in many ways was the reason why the FARC were able to build strongholds around the country in places like Tumaco, places like Cauca, places like Antiochia, throughout the country. It’s because of the poverty, because of the lack of development.
What we’re seeing is a return to the discourse of Plan Colombia and the 1990s and into the 2000s, that no, first we have to deal with the coca situation. We have to eradicate it and forcibly eradicate it before we can start talking about the other kinds of development. That language is really coming out of the Trump administration. The White House is putting a lot of pressure on Santos to show results in terms of coca cultivation. That’s their main obsession. How many hectares has been eradicated?
Unfortunately, over the last year we’ve seen an increase in coca cultivation in the countryside. There’s a number of complex factors as to why that’s happened. It’s not directly related to the fact that the FARC guerrillas have demobilized or that the peace process is a failure, as the right-wing is trying to point it to, but the bottom line is that there needs to be some kind of comprehensive plan to wean the farmers, the coca growers, from the coca trade, and give them an economic alternative. Unfortunately, right now the pressure is more in terms of the military aspect and the forced eradication as opposed to looking at it as a much more comprehensive plan.
With Trump now threatening to decertify Colombia as a country cooperating with its so-called war on drugs, again revisiting the language of the late ’90s when Plan Colombia was being debated, Santas and the government of Colombia feels that pressure, and therein lies the contradiction in their policies, supposedly trying to create a voluntary substitution crop eradication, at the same time they’re bringing the ESMAD, the SWAT forces to go in there and confront the coca farmers. That is a recipe for disaster. That’s the explosion that we saw in Tumaco happen last week, and it’s most likely going to continue to occur if that issue is not reconciled with more care, more subtlety, and more understanding of the complex economic and social situation on the ground in Colombia.
GREGORY WILPERT: Okay, great. We’ll definitely keep an eye on what’s going on and further developments, and we’ll probably have you back very soon. I was speaking to Mario Murillo, professor of Communications and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Hofstra University in New York. Thanks, Mario, for having joined us.
MARIO MURILLO: Thank you, Greg.
GREGORY WILPERT: Thank you for watching The Real News Network.