On April 5 2021, the so-called “tax reform” bill was presented by Colombia’s current government under President Iván Duque. Its purpose was to raise an additional 23 trillion Colombian pesos ($6.3 billion) and help the country recover from the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. The proposal provoked mass street protests and transportation blockades starting from the end of 2020, rising to a crescendo over six weeks in April and May this year, then continuing at lower intensity to the present. The national strike committee, made up of unions and other groups, announced early June it would adopt a new tactic for marches. Official sources have estimated the cost of blockades and protests at $3 billion. At least 21 people died and more than 2,300 people – civilians and security forces – were injured. Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that it received credible reports of 68 deaths since the beginning of the protests and confirmed that 34 deaths occurred in the context of the protests, The human rights organization Justicia y Paz reported evidence in May 2021 of fascistic paramilitary groups, operating in concert with the far-right and US-backed regime of Colombian President Ivan Duque, and of associated torture sites and mass graves intended to suppress protests in the city of Cali, which has been the epicenter of continuing countrywide demonstrations.
Duque’s “reform” would have raised taxes on the middle classes and, through extension of the 19% VAT to more products and services, increased prices of public utilities like energy, water, sewage, natural gas and certain foods, thus impacting everyone but disproportionately hurting the working class and poor. The protests forced Duque to withdraw the reform on May 2nd. Their continuation was fueled by army and police brutality. An HRW report in early June determined that members of the Colombian National Police had committed egregious abuses against mostly peaceful demonstrators. Police officers repeatedly and arbitrarily dispersed peaceful demonstrations, using excessive, often brutal, force, including live ammunition. HRW documented multiple killings by police, beatings, sexual abuse, and arbitrary detention. This was the outcome, it said, of “systemic shortcomings” in Colombian policing.
It has been evident to many that the underlying neoliberal sycophantic prostrating of Colombia’s coopted ruling class before US-led global capitalism remained wedded to continued extractivism, payment of public debt to international financiers, and the uninterrupted flow of national wealth to multinational corporations.
The 2021 “tax reform” bill and its corresponding protests are merely the latest manifestation of one of the most bitter struggles in Latin history, both South American and Southern European, between progressive and/or indigenous forces on the one hand, and monarchical and/or imperial, Catholic, conservative whiteness on the other. Although the country has experienced fewer military regimes (1830, 1854 and 1953) than most other Latin American countries and has a stronger claim to being a democracy than many, it has also manifested a very high level of political violence.
Assassination as a political weapon of war is common to both major sides to the civil conflict, but with particular brutality and ruthlessness by the forces of conservatism that, as in so many different areas of the world, have frequently enjoyed enthusiastic US backing (notwithstanding US support in 1903 for Panamanian secession from Colombia). Broadly, and despite periodic foreign policy flirtations with neutrality, the 1920s Colombian doctrine of Res Pice Polum (Follow the North Star) has prevailed. The USA is Colombia’s principal trading partner, its most important source of aid and, above all, its imperial overlord.
For a few weeks in 2021, therefore, Colombian, and international media headlines have reflected the crisis of the regressive economic selfishness of Colombia’s rentier class, turning their attention momentarily away from the never-ending succession of murders, kidnappings, disappearances, and other political violence over which successive Colombian regimes have presided – in association with the rentier class they represent, its armed forces and their off-duty death squads. Away too, from the grim reality of a failed 2016 deal to end Colombia’s seventy year civil war, a war that it is commonly believed to have been initiated by the US-backed assassination in Bogotá in 1948 of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala, leader of the Liberal Party. Others pin the blame on the 1946 election victory of the Conservative Party under President Mareiano Ospina Perez, which initiated attacks and land sequestrations by peasant supporters of the Conservative Party against peasant supporters of the Liberal Party. In 1947, a year before the purported beginning of La Violencia there were 14,000 political killings. The ensuing violence over the ten-year period of La Violencia accounted for between 200,000 and 300,00 dead, 600,000 to 800,000 wounded, 25,000 disappeared, and 5.7 million displaced. The Liberal Party had been so decimated by the 1950 election that it won barely any seats leaving plenty of scope for Conservative dictatorship under President Laureano Gomez.
The government has come under increasing pressure to execute the 2016 peace deal that was negotiated between the government of Juan Manuel Santos (who was awarded a Nobel peace prize) with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), then narrowly rejected in a referendum, but slightly modified and approved by Colombia’s Congress in November. Implementation of the deal was opposed by Iván Duque Márquez’s far-right, governing Democratic Center party which won the 2018 election. Duque launched a formal challenge to key aspects of the agreement in March 2019. In particular, he opposed the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), a parallel court system designed to try war crimes committed during the conflict and that provides legal guarantees to former combatants who trade public testimony for lighter sentences, a concession that was fundamental in bringing the FARC to the table. Duque’s opposition has fueled the cause of dissident FARC or FARC-type militia, and of the ELN (which chose to stay out of the 2016 agreement and remains active).
FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) were founded in the 1960s after La Violencia. Excluded from a power-sharing agreement forged by so-called moderates after the end of the violence, taking the form of a bipartisan National Front government that alternated positions of authority between members of what was perceived by many as a Conservative-Liberal oligarchy up until 1974, these organizations and smaller Marxist groups took up arms. The FARC built on the Communist movement of Colombia and its links to the Soviet Union in association with peasant self-defense groups, while ELN’s ranks were dominated by students, Catholic radicals, and left-wing intellectuals, inspired by Fidel Castro’s successful and ultimately communist revolution in Cuba in 1959.
The U.S. State Department designated both Colombian groups as foreign terrorist organizations. Both militia opposed the privatization of natural resources and claimed to represent the rural poor against Colombia’s wealthy. Right-wing paramilitary groups with links to the state military emerged in the 1980s paid for by landowners, corporations, and foreign interests against guerrilla groups. Both paramilitaries and FARC/ELN have regularly employed violence, kidnappings, sabotage, and extortion as sources of leverage and income. Colombia’s National Center for Historical Memory has estimated that guerrilla groups kidnapped twenty-five thousand people between 1970 and 2010 even though guerrilla violence has been superseded in many respects by the violence of the Colombian army and paramilitaries.
Underpinning the social and political problems of Colombia, in common with most of South America, is the problem of persistent inequality. Colombia has the highest rate of inequality in South America, with the exception of Haiti. Colombia is also the world’s seventh most inequitable country. The per capita income of its richest ten percent is 46 times greater than that of the poorest ten percent. The top 10% own more than 95% of the wealth. Out of a total population of over 50 million (2019), more than 12.7 million people in Colombia live on less than $2 a day. The overall population living below the poverty line is 34 percent.
The population is predominantly urban. Since 1985, over 5.9 million Colombians have been displaced due to violent conflict. People migrated to urban areas and created informal settlements on the cities’ borders. Principal centers of population in 2019 are Bogota (7,674,366), Cali (2,392,877), Medellin (1,999,979), and Barranquilla (1,380,425). 20% of the population is rural today by contrast to 50% in 1970. As part of the peace agreement with FARC in 2016, the administration of President Santos pledged to spend billions of dollars in rural areas. Experts estimated the cost at between $80 and $90 billion over the next ten years and hoped this would create economic alternatives to the drug trade.
(1 ) Land: To pay off debts, the Colombian Government sold off large portions of public land from 1823 to 1931, which led to the concentrated system of land ownership. Mechanisms for the concentration of land included the expulsion of peasant populations, exacerbating inequality. This violent expropriation led to higher rates of poverty in the countryside than in cities. Urbanization was enhanced propelled significantly by the horrific crimes of La Violencia (1948 to 1958), the wars between guerrillas of ELN, FARC, M-19 and armed forces from the 1960s, as well as the violence associated with the rise of narcotics, especially in the 1980s, centered around Medellin and Cali. Today the regime has learned to extend the process of land clearing through the weaponization of environmental conservation as in Operation Artemis, initiated in 2019. n. An army operation earlier apprehended 40 people accused of deforestation and illegal mining, in six different locations in the country. Eight operations in 2020 “recovered” more than 9,000 hectares of forest and 68 people, 20 of whom were minors. Illicit crop production is an added stress on the land. Efforts to stop illegal land acquisition by mining and fossil fuel multinationals can end in international court at great risk and expense to the indigenous people who try to stop them. According to the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development, between 2016 and 2017, deforestation caused by illicit crops increased by about 30%. In 2017, deforestation associated with coca crops in Colombia represented 24% of the total deforested in the country. 137 hectares of natural Colombian forest are deforested daily, due to coca crops.
(2) Income: In 2019, it was estimated that 56.2 percent of the income generated in Colombia was held by the richest 20 percent of its population. The per capita income of the richest ten percent is 46 times greater than those of the poorest ten percent. The top 10% own more than 95% of the wealth.
(3) Gender: Compared to men, women earn 13-23% less for the same jobs. A lack of flexibility in working arrangements directly affects female labor workers. Malnutrition killed 14 children per 1,000 births in 2018.
(4) Indigenous: According to a 2012 UINDP report, almost 30% of Colombia’s indigenous population were living in extreme poverty and the majority of indigenous children were suffering chronic malnutrition. 63% of Colombia’s 1.4 million indigenous experienced structural poverty. 29% of indigenous survived in extreme poverty. Therefore, 34 of the country’s 104 known indigenous peoples faced extinction. Colombia’s indigenous were more likely than other Colombians to experience forced displacement, colonization, mega projects, oil and mining projects, drug trafficking and deforestation.
In 2017 Colombia had the highest unemployment rate in Latin America after Venezuela. Another 8.5 percent of the population was underemployed. For those in employment the minimum wage, with transport concessions, was US $269 a month. Only 12% of employed earned double or more the minimum wage, Some 3.8 million households, nearly 30 percent of all families in Colombia, did not have adequate homes. About 662,146 families were homeless, or 5% of the population. Informal settlements often lack access to basic services, have poor structural quality, low accessibility to resources for house construction, limited access to social and health services, education, and employment. Lack of secure land tenure means people build homes on land they do not own. In 81 percent of poor rural homes in Colombia, there is no connection to the piped-water network. Additionally, 68 percent of the population suffers from overcrowding.
The Covid crisis has exacerbated problems of inequality. On official figures, 5.7 million more Colombians have been pushed into poverty in just the last three years. The Colombian economy experienced a 6.8% drop in production as measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP). There has been further class polarization. All indicators were showing a decline in working class living standards even before Covid hit. The official poverty rate, which underestimates the real degree of poverty, increased from 36.1% to 42.5% of the population between 2015 and 2020. In the cities, another 10.8% of the population has joined the ranks of the poor.
Narco power surfaced in the 1980s. It accounted for the assassinations of three presidential candidates (one led the polls) in the 1990 elections. In the early 2000s Colombia supplied as much as 90% of the world’s cocaine. The production, taxation, and trafficking of illicit narcotics provided FARC with much of its revenue. Right-wing paramilitary groups were also involved in this industry, fueling conflict as militant groups vied for territory. In 2009, the US government reported that FARC was responsible for 60% of Colombian cocaine exported to the USA, and the US Treasury Department froze the assets of several FARC members. In its later years the ELN has also participated in narcotics. Cultivation fell by more than half between 2007 and 2012, and Peru surpassed Colombia as the world’s leading cocaine producer from 2010 to 2014, perhaps on account of the migration of producers from Colombia. However, coca production was soon on the rise again in Colombia, with 2015 production levels nearly on par with those from 2007. Experts attributed this to the Colombian government’s decision to halt aerial spraying of coca crops due to health concerns, as well as moves by FARC to encourage coca cultivation in hopes that greater cultivation would give them greater leverage in rural development programs.
Uribe, Decline of FARC and Renewal of ELN
In 2000, the US anti-drug campaign, Plan Colombia, was supposed to help the country combat guerrilla violence, strengthen its institutions, and stem drug production and trafficking. In practice US money helped fund rightwing wing death squads, widespread aerial spraying of dubious pesticides (a recent report by the Interim Commission on Drug Policy of the Senate of the Republic of Colombia finds that glyphosate spraying has been ineffective in combating illicit crops and drug trafficking), the displacement of drug producers to more remote regions, and did little to curb entry of illegal drugs into the USA.
A path towards settlement with the guerilla groups was indicated by the government of Andres Pastrana which in 1998 ceded de facto control over a large portion of the southern state of Caqueta to FARC and ELN. But the election of Álvaro Uribe in 2002 ushered in a period of more intense military action against the guerrillas. This took advantage of a decade of extrajudicial killings: copying US tactics in Vietnam, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group had deliberately targeted civilian populations believed to be the guerillas’ “social base” with massacres and forced displacement. Uribe’s main opposition in 2002, the Patriotic Union, had been wiped out by this assassination campaign, which had been initiated in the mid-1980s under President Barco, and it failed to meet the electoral threshold, thus losing its legal status in a manner reminiscent of the decline of the Liberal Party in 1950. The Patriotic Union had been instituted by former guerillas and supporters in 1985 when President Betancourt and FARC negotiated a short-lived peace accord, and whose purpose was to integrate FARC into the electoral political system. By the time the FARC agreed to initiate negotiations in 2012, its ranks had reportedly fallen to some seven thousand members from sixteen thousand in 2001.
The discovery of oil in Araucain the early 1980s helped finance the ELN, which received millions of dollars by extorting oil exploration and related services, and inspired the movement’s demands for nationalization of, and redistribution of wealth from, extractive industries. FARC later moved into Arauca and between 2006 and 2010, the two guerrilla groups fought a war, with as many as 1000 resulting deaths. ELN operates mainly in northeastern Colombia and in some former FARC areas and its strength was estimated to have fallen to about two thousand members in 2017, from as many as five thousand in the late 1980s. But it appears to have experienced a resurgence, with numbers increasing to four or five thousand today. Uribe’s successor, Juan Manuel Santos, had tried dialog with the ELN but negotiations did not reach fruition. More recent talks in Cuba between the Duque government and ELN were terminated when the ELN set off a car bomb at the National Police Cadet School in Bogotá, killing 22 people.
ELN’s more decentralized structure allows it greater local autonomy and flexibility, factors that impede prospects for a one-off peace deal with central government. The group is more embedded with local peasant populations, but relations with indigenous groups are not always benign (e.g., poor ELN relations with Chocó social leaders). In many areas it is considered a requisite to have the ELN’s approval before launching an electoral campaign. Since March 2018, the ELN and a small, regional guerrilla group, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), have fought a series of battles in the Catatumbo region from which ELN appeared to have emerged victorious by 2020. The Peace and Reconciliation Foundation has documented ELN presence in 136 of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities (counties). These are clustered in six regions of the country: Arauca, Catatumbo, Magdalena Medio, Chocó, Cauca, and Nariño. Today, much of ELN’s Eastern and Northeastern War Fronts are believed to be operating inside Venezuela. The ELN has a record of attacks on non-combatants, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, and dozens of massacres. But paramilitary groups have committed far more massacres than guerrillas. Colombia’s Center for Historical Memory attributed about 70 percent of 1,667 massacres between 1980 and 2012 to paramilitary groups, and 21% to guerillas of which the ELN committed about 20 percent, or perhaps 70 massacres.
ELN has participated in ransom kidnappings of civilian non-combatants. It had kidnapped 7,108 people by 2013, second only to FARC with 8,578 kidnappings. ELN has been a major recruiter of minors, accounting for 15% of 5,156 former child combatants who ended up in Colombia’s child and family welfare system between 1999 and 2013. Its share increased after 2013. ELN has also been implicated in the laying of landmines. It is a major perpetrator of attacks on civilian infrastructure and in recent years has become a major generator of displacement. ELN bears some responsibility for increasing attacks on social leaders, human rights defenders, and demobilized FARC members . Of the 177 cases of killings of social leaders that Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office claimed to have “clarified” as of August 2019, it attributed 14—or 8 percent—to the ELN. As of January 2020, The Prosecutor-General’s Special Investigative Unit was able to attribute responsibility for 93 murders of demobilized FARC members. Of these, the Unit blamed the ELN for 12.
Combined state and ultra-right paramilitary violence have worked to eliminate all forms of opposition, including social and political mobilization. Levels of violence in Colombia are almost always horrific; the peak year for violence was 1989, which was even worse than any during La Violencia whose violence is remembered not only for its numbers of victims but by its sheer, barbaric cruelty.
In the two weeks of mass protests from 28th April to 12th May 2021 39 homicides were said to have been committed by the police state forces. But this pales in contrast to more customary levels of violence. According to the Institute of Development and Peace Studies (INDEPAZ, a think tank), 310 environmentalists, human rights defenders, indigenous, peasant and social leaders, and 64 ex-combatants of the FARC were killed in 2020. The organization also reported that around 375 people were killed in 90 massacres registered in the country that year. The institute further reported at least 78 people were killed by the national security forces. Additionally, over 500 femicides and more than 300 assassinations of transvestites and transgender were recorded in Colombia in 2020. Camilo Gonzalez, a conflict expert for INDEPAZ, 368 community leaders and human rights defenders were assassinated between Duque’s taking office in August 2018, and late 2019. Gonzalez confirmed social organizations’ claims that “there is an omission or even complicity by elements of the public force, by agents of the state” with illegal armed groups accused of many of the killings. While Duque has blamed drug trafficking for the killings, think tanks and the UN find that land disputes and mining are also among the main motives. A TeleSur report of December 7, 2020 reported that at least 1,054 community leaders had been killed since the signing of the Peace Accord in 2016, of which 286 had taken place in 2020, among the total of 340 murders recorded that year by Colombian human rights organizations, in 79 massacres.
In the first four days of 2021 two social leaders and two former combatants of the FARC were assassinated. The Common Alternative Revolutionary Forces (FARC) political party denounced the murder of former guerrilla fighter Duván Arled Galíndez Nadia on January 3. With Duván’s murder, the figure of demobilized FARC combatants killed since the signing of peace agreements reached 251. Two of those killed were members of the Colombian Federation of Education Workers (FECODE).
At least 15 community leaders were assassinated in the first 12 days of 2020, mainly in former territory of demobilized guerrilla group FARC in the south of the country where the state is virtually absent. Some were killed in an area where two rival FARC dissident groups and a group calling itself the “Sinaloa Mafia” had been intimidating the population. Others were killed in the southwestern Neiva and Cauca provinces along a two-way drug trafficking route between coca fields in central Colombia and the Pacific, and marijuana fields in the west and the capital Bogota.
In a series of assassinations of social leaders over one weekend in June 2020, 4 Indigenous, peasant and social leaders were killed in the departments of Chocó, Guaviare and Meta, North Santander, and Sucre. On June 22, a 13-year-old Indigenous girl was kidnapped and raped by seven soldiers on a sidewalk in the Pueblo Rico municipality, in the Risaralda department. Armando Valbuena, spokesperson of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), told the BBC that the sexual harassment of Indigenous girls by soldiers and paramilitaries has become a widespread problem in rural areas of the country. Three days later, a 15-year-old boy was murdered at the hands of the Mobile Anti-Disturbances Squadron (ESMAD) as it evicted unarmed poor homeless locals and migrants from a settlement on vacant lots in the municipality of Soacha, to the south of Bogotá.
In Colombia, the phenomenon of “false positives” refer to the kidnapping and murder of civilians by the Colombian National Army, presented to authorities as guerrilla fighters killed in combat for the purpose of obtaining promotions and other benefits.
Israeli and Other Foreign Assistance in Assassinations
Recent work by Dan Cohen as reported by Mnar Muhawesh Adley for Mint Press News shows how the Colombian government’s genocidal policy of massacring its political opponents between 1984 to 2002 — killing over 4,000 members of the Patriotic Union Party, including two presidential candidates, 14 parliamentarians, 15 mayors, nine mayoral candidates, three members of the House of Representatives and three senators — was done on the suggestion of an Israeli official, Rafael ‘Rafi’ Eitan. Eitan was employed by the government to advise it on counterinsurgency strategies. Another Israeli mercenary Yair Klein, provided the training for many of the most notorious far-right paramilitary groups, including the AUC, thought to have been responsible for around 80% of the killings during the civil war. The leader of the AUC, Carlos Castaño, was educated in Israel and credited the apartheid state for teaching him all he knew about terrorism.
Colombian President Barco secretly brought the veteran Mossad agent Rafi Eitan to Colombia on August 7, 1986, to advise how to defeat the FARC. Eitan spent months touring the country with Colombian advisors, secretly funded by the Colombian energy giant Ecopetrol. Yair Klein arrived in Colombia at this time and began training narco-paramilitaries in how to defeat the FARC. His firm, Hod Hahanit (Spearhead), recruited former Israeli police and special operations units. Klein was originally hired to provide security for the banana-growing operations in the region of Uraba, where fruit company Chiquita had paid millions of dollars to Colombian death squads. The Colombian Federation of Cattlemen contracted to have Eitan train a force to fight guerrillas. Klein trained brothers Carlos and Fidel Castaño, who would later form the United Self-Defense Forces (AUC), which as already noted, committed many massacres aimed at terrorizing communities into fleeing from their land.
A Faltering Economy
Iván Duque is described by analyst Andy Higginbottom as little more than a pawn for the former president, ultra-right Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who is still the real ruler of the country. When he came into office in 2018, Duque promised that he would reduce taxes on the corporations. The 2021 package was his third tax reform. Colombia’s ruling class, Higginbottom says, is comprised of a cluster of elite economic groups, corrupt politicians, the military, and their narco-paramilitary auxiliaries, on the one hand and, on the other, international big business backed by the US military and the UK.
Duque’s reform package was a response to Colombia’s fiscal deficit. In 2020 tax revenues were only 20 per cent of GDP, whilst state spending was 28% of GDP. Total indebtedness of the state under Duque rose from 47% in 2018 to two thirds of GDP in 2021. A large part of state revenue is lost to profit flows in the form of corporate tax breaks for locally owned or multinational corporations and debt repayments to the banks. The real tax actually paid by big corporations is much less than the official rate of 25% of their profits. Once the various exemption schemes are taken into account, the mining multinationals have paid only around 10% since 2013; and the oil companies even less, around 2% since 2015. Whereas the extractive industries provided a third of government revenues in 2013, such taxes now provide only 8%. Colombia could be losing up to US $11.6 bn annually to corporate tax abuse, second in Latin America only to Brazil ($14.6 bn) and highest on a per capita basis. Some 23% of all revenue, or US$19 billion, goes to banks in payment of public debt. Duque’s efforts to raise taxes and cut state spending are intended to avoid higher interest rates on public debt.
At the same time, Colombia’s military spending is by far the highest in Latin America, as a proportion of state expenditure, at US $10.6 bn per annum. Since 2018, Colombia has been the only Latin American member of NATO. It maintains 267 thousand armed forces, 186 thousand police and 24 thousand civilians on the payroll, nearly half a million personnel in all. One third of the Colombian army, 82,000 military personnel, are in the ‘mining and energy’ battalions to protect mines and oilfields. Since the 1960s, when the UAS sent military personnel to Colombia to stop the spread of the Cuban revolution, US and Colombian militaries have been close. The USA maintains at least forty bases in Colombia mainly as forward operating locations from which to launch attacks anywhere in South America and the Caribbean.
The “tax reform” crisis of 2021 and the mass protests that it provoked have exposed the persistence of deep social inequality, extractivism, racism, and political violence in Colombia, in a cauldron that has been in the making since even before the US-backed murder of Liberal Party leader Gaitán in 1948. It therefore also exposes the customary but always astonishing hypocrisy of US foreign policy that has ceaselessly denigrated and openly sought to destabilize the Chavist revolution of neighboring Venezuela, while consolidating the hold of the Colombian rentier class.
Oliver Boyd-Barrett is Professor Emeritus at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, and at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is an expert on international media, news, and propaganda. His writings can be accessed by subscription at Substack at https://oliverboydbarrett.substack.com.