Blue Bloods, Parvenus, and Mercenaries: Authoritarianism and Political Violence in Colombia
The failure of governments around the world to deal with the problems generated by neoliberalism has opened the door for the far-right to exploit working-class anger and disillusionment in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse (e.g., Kalb and Mollona 2017). The election of Trump and the passage of Brexit signal that racial dog whistles and imperial privilege no longer satisfy broad segments of the white working class in the United States and Great Britain, where anxieties about economic decline and terrorism have bolstered anti-immigrant nationalism and support for strong-man rule. In Latin America, after falling global commodity prices revealed the limits of “21st Century Socialism,” the ebb of the so-called ‘pink tide’ of progressive governments has set the stage for the resolution of crises in favor of the right. Depleted commodity rents from minerals, oil, natural gas and other export products have made uplifting the poor, without challenging the power of capital, impossible, and left-leaning regimes have lost one election after another while Venezuela unravels.
Colombia, however, diverges from its neighbors, as well as from the experiences of North America and Europe. A leftist government has not held power since the 1930s, and counterinsurgent violence made the neoliberal reconfiguration of society and economy bloodier than elsewhere. Just as popular demands for national sovereignty, economic equality, and limits on corporate power began to sweep in left-leaning governments in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, and Argentina, Colombia became a narcostate. Its decades-long civil war reached a blood-drenched climax at the end of the 20th century, as the emergence of a violent, far-right political alliance led by a rising group of cocaine entrepreneurs crushed revolutionary and reformist political projects, forestalled the enactment of redistributive policies, and ushered a new group of far-right political leaders to power.
Explaining the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world is an important task for scholars. This chapter places the rise of a powerful right-wing political bloc in Colombia within a materialist history of state formation, class antagonism, regional differences, and shifting international conjunctures. It asks how the Colombian far-right emerged, how it carried out a violent counterrevolution, and how it then forged a political movement that tried to reconcile wartime violence with liberal democracy. To do so, it explores how an emergent alliance of drug traffickers, neoliberal entrepreneurs, landowners, merchants, military personnel, and conventional politicians manipulated hierarchical networks of local power and advanced a distinct form of authoritarian state formation based in the production and export of cocaine. The chapter argues that nowadays, the far-right is not only concerned with protecting what it won in the war and hostile to equality and the redistribution of power. It is also a forward movement that has succeeded by reaching outward to the United States and by extending downward to harness the energy of the middle class and subalterns. And although it emerged as a reaction to challenges from below, the far-right is more than an expression of retrograde nostalgia. It is a vital force that has arisen at the juncture of international fields of power and regional configurations of capital accumulation and has drawn in recruits and revitalized its worldview to meet new challenges (see also Grandin 2010; Robin 2018; Mayer 2000).
The paper is organized as follows: The first section focuses on the emergence of the illegal cocaine traffic in the 1970s and 1980s and the growth of a far-right alliance of blue-blooded aristocrats and narco parvenus comprised of drug traffickers, politicians, landowners, cattle ranchers, merchants and sectors of the security forces. Because it initially sought to defend the status quo rather than transform society, the far-right, like other counterrevolutionary movements in Latin America, was less attuned to history and did not lay out a strategy for victory. It emerged in reaction to the left, even imitating it in certain ways, and took shape as praxis rather than theory (See Grandin 2010:22 and Robbin 2018: 3-38). The analysis turns to how, beginning in the 1980s, this far-right alliance supported the creation of paramilitary militias that crushed the opposition and established regimes of “parcellized sovereignty” (Hylton 2006:12) where it controlled territory and regulated social life. It then became more politically aware of itself and emerged as a force for regional and national social change with a revitalized message that attempted to appeal to the masses, while simultaneously protecting the class-based inequalities deepened by its counterinsurgent violence and enabling its continued accumulation of wealth.
The Narco Nexus
The enormous profits of the illegal cocaine industry generated a tectonic shift in the configuration of power in Colombia, replacing an older form of import-substitution industrialization with gangster capitalism anchored in the production and export of an illegal narcotic. Beginning in the 1970s, the rise of cocaine displaced older industries, such as coffee and textiles, and propelled a violent group of narcoentrepreneurs into the leadership of a far-right political bloc that included regional combinations of landowners, merchants, traditional politicians, and members of the security forces who were animated by an impulse to accumulate and defend wealth, power and privilege. Reactionary to the core, the politics of the new right were rooted in regional configurations of power, patronage, and clientelism, marinated in Catholic conservatism, steeped in notions of victimhood, loss, and self-defense, and forged in violent opposition to peasants, indigenous, working people, and guerrilla insurgencies who demanded the redistribution of wealth, greater political participation, and the involvement of the state in the provision of social welfare.
According to historian David Bushnell, Colombia is “a nation in spite of itself,” a country divided by deep regional antagonisms and lacking “a true national identity and proper spirit of nationalism” (Bushnell 1993: xii), at least compared to neighboring countries. Until the 1980s, the Colombian bourgeoisie was divided between, one the one hand, regionally based landowners who derived their wealth from cotton, sugar, cattle, tobacco, and coffee and ruled with considerable autonomy within their provincial spheres of influence, and, on the other hand, a Bogotá-based bourgeoisie based in light manufacturing, banking, media, and food and beverage distribution and that controlled national political power. Although there was overlap between these groups, no faction of the bourgeoisie ever united the others, along with subalterns, to represent its interests as those of the nation (Hylton 2006: 8-9). Rather, sovereignty was regionally circumscribed, operating through two dominant political parties—the Liberals and Conservatives--, which were characterized by weak central administration and strong, regionally based, cleintelistic relationships between the population and political bosses, who were typically large landlords. Party loyalties passed from generation to generation, constituting the equivalent of national allegiances in other countries.
Import substitution policies—the development model adopted by Latin American countries, except Cuba, after World War II-- protected traditional landlords and manufacturers with high tariffs on imported goods, until they entered a permanent crisis in the 1970s. The government then turned to sources of foreign investment, and new export enclaves in oil, bananas, coal, gold, and coca/cocaine opened in remote frontier regions, reconfiguring the spatial coordinates of class power around regional poles of development and aggravating Colombia’s already pronounced regionalism. Cocaine was the most important of these commodities. A rising group of narcoentrepreneurs used organized violence to create circuits of commodity production and distribution that undergirded the creation of enormous fortunes and reorganized the Colombian bourgeoisie, regionally and nationally.
The cultivation of coca leaves from which pure cocaine is derived, and the manufacture and sale of cocaine, linked peasant settlers in the southeastern lowland frontier and the Pacific and Atlantic coasts to networks of traffickers based in the highland cities of Calí and Medellín. The traffickers, known as the Calí and Medellín cartels, then connected these cities to major North American and European centers where cocaine was consumed. At the height of their power in the 1980s and 1990s, the networks became multi-billion-dollar enterprises that invested heavily in legitimate businesses—from pharmacies and discos to soccer clubs and banks-- and controlled most of the world cocaine market. Cocaine replaced coffee as Colombia’s primary export commodity, and the new industry integrated more of Colombia’s regions than any of the older ones. It drew on a labor pool of un- or underemployed labor freed up by the decline of import-substitution industrialization, distributed wealth through money laundering, patronage, and corruption, and resolved conflicts with violence. The disruptive spatial, social, and economic dynamics of cocaine capitalism created the conditions of possibility for far-right alliances and politics to emerge (e.g. Hylton 2006).
With some notable exceptions, the new cocaine entrepreneurs hailed from humble social backgrounds. Men like the infamous Pablo Escobar, who perched atop the Medellín cartel, cut their teeth on an older contraband trade in cigarettes, clothing and cars smuggled from the duty-free Panama Canal Zone, as well as in marijuana, exported from the Guajira peninsula since the 1960s (Brito 2015). Cocaine, however, was a far more lucrative commodity. As men of modest means became fantastically wealthy, a new narcobourgeoisie displayed its wealth in garish forms of luxury consumption, such as multiple mansions, flashy automobiles, helicopters, expensive jewelry, and exotic animals, and through the purchase of rural land. The drug lords amassed vast land holdings for several reasons. The precariousness of rural property rights, especially in frontier regions, enabled them to launder money more easily through land acquisitions than through urban real estate and other businesses more closely monitored by the state (Richani 2012: 64), and monopolizing land along trafficking routs facilitated the clandestine movement of cocaine. Land purchases also had speculative value and enabled the narcos to carve out places for their opulent mansions, acquire social status and elbow their way into the long-established agrarian bourgeoisie.
Although the established rural oligarchs despised the crass cocaine parvenus whom they referred to disparagingly as lice, and only slightly more charitable as the clase emergente, the rising threat of guerrilla insurgencies in the 1980s fed oligarchic fears of chaos and stimulated a sense of self-preservation that prompted a deeper integration of the two groups. Like the agrarian old guard, drug-traffickers-turned-landlords quickly fell victim to insurgent demands for “war taxes.” Yet because their vast financial resources were useful in the fight against the guerrillas, a marriage of convenience blossomed between opportunistic oligarchs and the narcos, especially in regions, such as the North Coast, the Middle Magdalena, Urabá, Antioquia, and Caquetá, where peasants and insurgents contested the power of these increasingly intertwined groups. 1 The infusion of new blood enabled rural patricians to protect their interests at a time when many landlords were growing wary of venturing into the countryside to visit their properties because of guerrilla extortion demands and kidnapping attempts.
Regional powerholders (e.g., landlords, machine politicians, merchants) and the new cocaine capitalists also shared a fundamental hostility to social movements and popular demands for a more equitable apportionment of wealth, whether peasant appeals for land and credit, urban movements’ calls for housing, public education, and infrastructure, or workers’ petitions for better wages and working conditions. These demands grew louder in the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to radicalized peasants, oil workers and shantytown dwellers staged a “civic strike” in the oil town of Barrancabermeja to protest the lack of social services and the event became a prototype for similar strikes in other cities (Giraldo and Camargo 1985). The Colombian labor movement also united in 1986, when workers created the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores—the nation’s largest trade union federation. Among the founding members were two banana workers’ unions from the Urabá region that won landmark labor agreements that established the eight-hour day, raised wages, and promised urban housing (Chomsky 2008: 181-221). The experience of having their wealth and power threatened drove regional blue-bloods and narcos into an alliance that spread death and destruction to any person or organization whose words and actions were deemed “subversive,” especially if they could be linked to guerrilla insurgencies. 2 In addition to guerrilla harassment, what most irritated the far-right was the self-organization and agency of the lower orders. Imagining working people freeing themselves from the shackles of their presumed betters disturbed patricians and parvenus alike, because it threatened what Robin calls “the private life of power” and conjured a social world in which the ruling class was irrelevant (Robin 2018:3-38).
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was Colombia’s largest and oldest guerrilla movement. Formed in 1964 as the armed wing of the Colombian Communist Party, its stronghold was the southeastern lowlands, a remote region where peasant refugees settled during a devastating civil war (1948-1964) between the Liberal and Conservative parties that produced massive loss of life and became known simply as La Violencia.3 Because of the absence of markets, bad roads, and the lack of viable alternatives, frontier peasants turned to the cultivation of coca leaves. When demand for cocaine escalated in the United States in the 1970s, coca cultivation exploded, and the FARC, after initial uncertainty, facilitated peasant participation into the cocaine economy on favorable terms. Taxes on coca paste4 provided the guerrillas with a new source of revenue that strengthened their military power relative to the Colombian security forces and local cattle ranchers, and allowed them to protect peasants from military repression, encroachment from ranchers, and exploitation from the emissaries of the major drug traffickers who came to the region to buy coca paste (Hough 2011). Buoyed by a war chest fattened on cocaine, the FARC then expanded out of its stronghold and established a presence in many of Colombia’s municipalities during the 1980s and 1990s.
Colombia’s second largest insurgency—the National Liberation Army (ELN)—formed at approximately the same time as the FARC but was less immersed in the drug economy. Tied to middle-class university students and the liberation-theology wing of the Catholic Church, the ELN drew inspiration from the Cuban revolution, Christian humanism, and regional experiences of collective struggle in the oil-rich Middle Magdalena region, where it put down deep roots. The guerrillas remained largely a regional phenomenon until the 1980s, when, like the FARC, the ELN began to grow and reach beyond its regional power base. The increasing shift of the Colombian economy to new export enclaves in remote regions, where a single commodity predominated, presented them with new material possibilities. As sectors of the national bourgeoisie and multinational corporations invested in gold mining in northeast Antioquia department, bananas in the northwest Urabá region, coal in the Guajira peninsula, and oil in North Santander and Arauca departments, they became targets of ELN and FARC extortion and kidnapping for ransom, which financed the insurgent military build-up and geographic expansion.
Guerrilla harassment alarmed regional entrepreneurs who demanded that the state do more to protect them. Anxieties intensified when, in 1982, the government of Belisario Betancur opened a peace process with the FARC that ended in a 1985 ceasefire agreement. As part of the accord, President Betancur decentralized certain governmental decision-making powers to municipal authorities and allowed the direct election of mayors, previously appointed by the president. The decision was motivated, in part, by a strategic calculus that political decentralization would pacify the FARC and coopt the insurgents into the electoral process (Castro 1998). The FARC, in turn, agreed to participate in elections through the formation of a new party called the Unión Patriótica (UP), and similar electoral fronts--A Luchar and Frente Popular-represented the ELN and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), another insurgency active at the time.
Betancur’s peace initiative and the political opening renewed hope and raised expectations among peasants, workers, and poor urbanites that the enactment of broad democratic reforms, such as land reform, public services, infrastructure, and public education, might be around the corner (Romero 2003). For the first time in decades, a broad electoral left tied to the insurgencies but not coterminous with them organized and performed well in elections. Many insurgents laid down their arms and put their faith in the peace process, and hundreds of ordinary people bet on peace as well. They were trade unionists, peasants, teachers, and students who had previously given up on politics, because they believed all politicians were corrupt, or because they felt that the Liberals and Conservatives ignored their concerns. Unfortunately, their optimism was short lived.
No sector of the bourgeoisie or the Army had ever supported a negotiated peace, and the peace process itself unfolded in a bellicose international context. Following the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, U.S. counterinsurgency wars intensified in Central America, and the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Louis Tambs, signaled the hardline U.S. policy by labelling the FARC “narcoguerrillas,” a concept that simultaneously called forth cold war anxieties and delegitimized the guerrillas as a political movement. Fearful entrepreneurs, landlords, and sectors of the security forces, who worried that peace and political decentralization would tip the balance of power in favor of the guerrillas and their supporters, backed Washington’s bellicose stance toward the FARC. They united behind the banner of anti-communism, binding themselves to sectors of the middle class, as well as North American and Latin American ruling classes elsewhere, and justified the violent suppression of political reform.
The old-style agrarian bourgeoisie saw themselves as the victims of both guerrilla predation and of an absent state. These individuals suffered from a special kind of victimhood rooted in the threat of property loss rather than any association with people who owned very little,5 and they sought protection for their investments from the traffickers, who armed and financed death squads that consisted of mostly poor young men.6 “Death to Kidnappers” was an early group that emerged in the Middle Magdalena region with the financial backing of members of the Medellín cartel, and the participation of local merchants, cattle ranchers, state security forces, and the Texaco corporation. Integrated into military intelligence networks, Death to Kidnappers carried out the unsavory acts of dirty war in alliance with state security forces who denied any knowledge of their existence. Similar groups subsequently arose in other regions, targeting, through physical elimination or forcible displacement, organizations and individuals who supported radical social reforms or who simply impeded the emergent far right’s accumulation of wealth.
What Arno Mayer describes as “the furies of revolution”—a fierce, merciless, and rising crescendo of violence—was driven by the feverish right-wing reaction to the growing power of the guerrillas and the resurgent legal left (Mayer 2000: xvi). As it gathered force, the emergent far-right alliance did not produce a roadmap to success but forged its thinking and its strategy in combat, in relation to the left and often copying it. For example, it located itself in a movement of the masses by christening death squads “self-defense” groups, a reference to the communist-controlled, peasant communities that resisted the military in southern Colombia during La Violencia and became the bases of the FARC. The Colombian Army—a key ally of the death squads—also tailored the notion of “human rights” to its counterinsurgent mission (Tate 2007). And most lethally, it appropriated the guerrilla notion of “the combination of all forms of struggle,” in which individuals acting on behalf of the insurgencies participate in popular organization, to deadly effect. Like right-wing movements elsewhere, the Colombian far-right produced knowledge in reaction to the left by “read[ing] situations and circumstances” and preferring “adaptation and imitation” (Robin 2018). Mutilated bodies, displaced communities, and traumatized survivors initially sent the most important messages.
The peace process with the FARC and political decentralization served less to demilitarize and democratize Colombian society than to intensify an upward swirl of terror within an expanding counterinsurgency war. In only one year, 1987, mercenaries murdered forty labor leaders in the Urabá banana zone, bombed one union’s headquarters, and forced many other workers into internal exile (Chomsky 2008: 181-221), and between 1987 and 1992, they assassinated eight hundred members of the recently formed Central Unitaria de Trabajadores. Most ominous for the left, right-wing mercenaries literally wiped out the UP, massacring several thousand activists, as well as unknown numbers of A Luchar and Frente Popular militants, between 1985 and 1991, and pulverizing the broadest electoral left coalition to emerge in over forty years. The annihilation of the UP became known as a “political genocide.” Many FARC members who had opted for peace did not survive, leaving a faction of the insurgency more committed to a military solution in control of the movement and not averse to financing its remilitarization through stepped-up kidnapping, extortion and deeper involvement in narcotics (Dudley 2004). For the next two decades, the furies consumed much of Colombia in a dialectical maelstrom that solidified the alliances between drug traffickers, sectors of the security forces, and regional power holders that first came together against the UP. This matrix of drug money, violence, and landed political power represented the crucible that came to define the extreme right. Yet even as it claimed to be preserving the established order, the far-right became more aware of itself as a political force and developed into a power for social change.
Blood and Fire
Collaboration between cocaine traffickers and Colombia’s regional powerholders reached unprecedented levels at the end of the millennium, when Colombia became a narcostate. The “self-defense groups” of the 1980s morphed into standing paramilitary armies that conquered and controlled territory, murdered and displaced tens of thousands of people, pushed the guerrillas out of their traditional strongholds, and accelerated the opening of the Colombian economy in the 1990s, which further enriched the narcos. The far-right then moved to institutionalize its power by retooling its message, propelling previously unknown politicians to the center of national power, and in regions most ravaged by its violence, building a popular support base (e.g., Ballvé 2012). This was not a seamless process and it was full of contradictions. Yet the cumulative result went beyond the maintenance of the status quo. It rolled back reformist and revolutionary political movements, reterritorialized power, incorporated working people into new, relationships of inequality, and created manageable spaces for the attraction of global capital. To understand how this happened, let us review how the far-right became a fundamental force for social change in contemporary Colombia.
Paramilitary armies were second-generation drug trafficking organizations that lacked the centralized leadership of the Medellín and Calí cartels, which collapsed in the early 1990s. Regional “blocs” expanded under the cover of the Colombia state, which briefly authorized legal self-defense groups between 1997 and 1998, and they could act autonomously because their leaders’ domination of the cocaine industry allowed them to finance military operations. They also possessed well-developed networks of local, regional, and national political support, a strong military structure, and the backing of numerous military officers, all of which enabled them to scale-up their power in 1997, when several regional armies federated under the umbrella of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) (see Duncan 2006; López 2010; Romero 2007). Led by former Medellín cartel operative Carlos Castaño, the AUC defined itself as “an anti-subversive, political-military movement in exercise of the legitimate right to self-defense that demands the transformation of the state but does not attack it” (Valencia 2007: 22-23).
Paramilitary mercenaries and those they served amassed land through massacre, displacement and illegal appropriation and created nodes of parcellized sovereignty (Hylton 2006), or “parastates,” after they took over provincial towns and entire regions of the countryside. The paramilitaries became most powerful in frontier regions, such as the Urabá banana zone (Ballvé 2012), the oil and cattle region of the Middle Magdalena and North Santander (Gill 2016), the gold mining zone of northeast Antioquia, the cattle ranching planes of southern Cordoba, and the ranching and coca processing centers of the eastern plains (Hough 2011; Tate 2007; Ramírez 2011). In these areas, the paramilitaries operated alongside or in place of the institutional state. Landlords, businessmen, multinational corporations, and machine politicians who supported their advance depended on the mercenaries for security, enrichment, and their positions as regional power brokers via-a-vis central government institutions and urban centers. Consequently, as paramilitaries formed strategic networks, exercised the power to regulate social, economic, and political life, and killed with impunity, the boundaries between public/private and legal/illegal blurred.
Paramilitarism was the violent, armed expression of the far-right bloc that took sharper form in 1990s Colombia. Yet neither the AUC nor the civilians that it represented were a seamless phenomenon. The AUC, for its part, never managed to articulate a national political vision nor did it solidify an alliance among all regional commanders, who were divided by personal rivalries, suspicions, and competition over control of the drug economy. As one Colombian magistrate stated, “each commandant did what he wanted in his zone with absolute autonomy, and declared unilateral war whenever he wanted to expand territorially, despite the efforts to create a confederation by the “Castaño house” (Verdadabierta 2017).
Centrifugal forces also tugged at intra-class solidarity among the narcos and the regional landlords, cattle ranchers, machine politicians, entrepreneurs and merchants who allied with them. The drug lords benefitted from the neoliberal restructuring of the economy that began under President César Gavíria (1990-1994) far more than conventional large land owners, because the shift to free market policies lubricated the flow of capital (legal and illegal) and made trafficking and money laundering easier. The narcos became Colombia’s uber-capitalists: economic liberals who, although opposed to the state’s efforts to extradite them to the United States and dismantle their industry, benefited from free-markets and private property rights. They also accelerated the neoliberal opening of the economy by drenching the country in a flood of contraband from Panama, which effectively undercut protectionist policies. Because they were not averse to mass murder, the traffickers took the lead in the destruction of the opposition, which cemented their position within the right-wing alliance. In contrast, traditional agriculturalists, who had long been shielded from the brute force of the international market by Latin America’s highest tariff barriers, lost their protective cushion, and cheap imports displaced domestic production. Neoliberal agricultural policies favored new export commodities, such as African palm, which spread across lands illegally appropriated by the paramilitaries. They also undermined domestic food production by ruining peasant producers and energizing the spread of illegal coca cultivation--the only realistic solution to a deepening subsistence crisis for desperate peasant families—which in turn stimulated the explosive growth of the cocaine industry.
Peasants who did not cultivate coca leaves were driven to the city, where the narcos increasingly dominated the popular economy of the shantytowns that sprouted like mushrooms on urban peripheries. The children of displaced peasants and the urban poor became available as cheap labor for an expanding network of narco-controlled criminal activities, such as long-sharking, extortion, low-level drug dealing, the sale of lottery tickets, and the theft of gasoline. As ever larger swathes of the economy became integrated into the cocaine industry, the narcoentrepreneurs grew more powerful, becoming the leading force of a far-right alliance in a newly deregulated, anything-goes capitalist economy.
The far-right then moved to institutionalize its rule by organizing an electoral project with populist appeal that addressed rich and poor alike. It did so by attacking indifferent, Bogotá elites, railing against corruption, and promising to deliver Colombia’s forgotten regions from the abandonment of the central state. Although this form of reactionary populism addressed concrete grievances, it made little mention of the state-backed political and economic processes that were reconfiguring Colombian society and deepening inequality and marginalization. It had even less to say about the narco-fueled violence that propelled this transformation. Yet the far-right managed to pole vault previously unknown regional politicians to the center of national political power.7 In areas under paramilitary domination, a raft of new, right-wing parties emerged and gained power at the expense of the traditional Liberal and Conservatives parties. Convergencia Ciudadana, Colombia Viva, Cambio Radical, Movimiento de Integración Popular, and Alas represented some of the upstarts. In electoral contests between 1999 and 2003, previously unknown “outsider” politicians from these parties parachuted into local, regional, and national political office. In some cases, they ran unopposed because threats and violence had forced competitors out and created single electoral options; in other cases, paramilitary pressure moved voters to cast ballots for candidates approved by the mercenaries. And in still others, their populist message about the absent state resonated with voters and received popular support. The results constituted an astonishing reconfiguration of Colombia’s electoral map which was “substantially modified” in 12 provinces, and “partly transformed” in many others (Valencia 2007:14; see also Lopez 2010). Even more importantly, the far-right established a large, national congressional bloc in which, as paramilitary commander Salvatore Mancuso boasted in 2002, it controlled 35 percent of the delegates, and, in the same year, it elected one of its own—Álvaro Uríbe—to the presidency, a man who, according to AUC leader Carlos Castaño, “is the man closest to our philosophy” (Aranguren 2001: 177).
Uríbe’s presidency (2002-2010) marked a shift away from the Liberal-Conservative diarchy that had ruled Colombia for 150 years. A renegade Liberal from a prosperous ranching family in Antioquia province, Uríbe did not share a surname with the Bogotá bourgeoisie, and cultivated a personal image that combined aggressive militarism with a paternalistic love of the countryside. After serving as governor of Antioquia province, he broke with the Liberal party over negotiations with the FARC and organized his own party to stand for election in 2002. He was welcomed by the United States, which saw an Uríbe administration as a bulwark against left-leaning governments coming to power elsewhere in Latin America, even though accusations of ties to drug traffickers and support for paramilitaries had dogged Uríbe throughout his career. As president, Uríbe pushed a hardline military strategy for which he was rewarded with funds from Plan Colombia, a multi-billion-dollar, mostly military aid program, that deepened U.S. involvement in Colombia’s civil war.8 Although billed as a counter-narcotics initiative, Plan Colombia targeted the FARC’s southern coca fields, rather than moving against paramilitary dominated areas on the northern coast, where cocaine was shipped to the United States. Not surprisingly, it did little to stem the flow of cocaine to the United States, but strengthened the security forces, who were the paramilitaries’ closest allies, and weakened the FARC.
As the far right gained an upper hand, regional paramilitary commanders realized that, with the guerrillas on the defensive and in disarray, the time had come to move beyond war and build a durable base for their revanchist political project and an enduring regime of accumulation. This realization came only after they had hammered the civilian population and discarded the importance of cultivating popular support because of the backing of the security forces. Not surprisingly, creating a stable social order through community organizing was a complicated and contradictory endeavor. Yet as Teo Ballvé has demonstrated, paramilitaries flush with cash in Urabá basically succeeded. They organized local groups and worked through community organizations (juntas de acción comunal) on a variety of grassroots projects that unfolded alongside official development initiatives that promoted popular participation, environmental protection, and the empowerment of women. The paramilitaries articulated their base-building initiatives to the structures and practices of the municipal government and international development organizations, and what emerged, according to Ballvé, was compatible with capitalist development and liberal projects of institution building and political participation (Ballvé 2012). Yet the paramilitary base-building project was riven with contradictions.
Reconfiguring Rule and Legitimating the Illegitimate
The far-right had difficulty resolving the tensions between the violence, population displacement, and death that had facilitated the restoration of capitalist power, on the one hand, and the trappings of Colombia’s liberal democracy, on the other hand. After paramilitary armies converted vast extensions of rural Colombia into zones of resource extraction and export agriculture and pushed the guerrillas aside, they became a liability for their blue-blooded supporters and an embarrassment for a government that claimed to represent South America’s oldest democracy. Forced to contain the violence unleashed to defeat the insurgencies and no longer able to deny the existence of paramilitaries, Uríbe announced a “peace process” in 2003 that culminated in the official demobilization of the AUC in 2006, when paramilitarism officially ceased to exist.
Because the government had never been at war with the armed right, the result of the negotiations was an amnesty program, condemned by human rights groups for institutionalizing impunity, that sought to incorporate the paramilitaries into mainstream politics. In exchange for demobilizing their troops, confessing their crimes, and dismantling their criminal operations, some paramilitary commanders who had committed crimes against humanity agreed to reduced prison sentences and laid down their arms. Others balked at the prospects of spending any time in jail, arguing that they had saved the country from the guerrillas and threatening to expose their dealings with government officials and civilian collaborators. A perilous moment for the far-right bloc then ensued. In 2006, a public scandal over revelations about the connections between paramilitary commanders and politicians erupted, after a few mercenary leaders revealed their involvement in war crimes and political corruption schemes during public testimony. These revelations led to the jailing or investigation of dozens of governors and members of Congress, but when the paramilitaries threatened to get close to the president, Uríbe extradited them to the United States, where they were wanted on drug trafficking charges and less likely to be questioned about human rights violations. 9
What all the scandals had in common was the location of paramilitarism in the past, implying a rupture between the violent late 20th century and the post-2006 present in which paramilitarism officially no longer existed. Government officials ignored how political parties tainted by the scandals reorganized under new names to guarantee their continued influence and the local political power of the scandal’s heirs. Neoparamilitary groups also re-organized in areas formerly dominated by the AUC, where they continued to use violence to suppress dissent, dispossess working people, and accumulate capital on behalf of a retooled right-wing alliance purged of its most noxious elements (Hristov 2010). A new official designation—bandas criminales—disappeared neoparamilitary groups into the realm of common thieves and youth gangs that were responsible for continuing violence. Such sleight of hand severed the connection between on the one hand, the narcos who used violence to accumulate capital, and on the other hand, political leaders, the old bourgeoisie, and the security forces who supported them. It also re-established the illusion of separation between the official state and the narcostate.
Conclusion: Behind the Veil of Peace
The specter of Colombia’s turbulent past hangs over the present like a persistent nightmare. The emergence and consolidation of a reactionary right-wing bloc, tied to the rising power of cocaine capitalists has reordered Colombia’s place in the global economy, transformed class relations, reworked relations between Bogotá and Colombia’s regions, and ignited cocaine-fueled consumption booms. It has also served the broader interests of that faction of Colombia’s ruling class resident in the major cities—Bogotá, Calí, Medellín and Barranquilla—by marginalizing the guerrillas and providing “security and stability” for investment in extractive industries and the expansion of agroindustry in those regions once dominated by the guerrillas. It has done so by stifling criticism, criminalizing protest, and decimating the left (Hylton and Tauss 2016).
No longer confronting a powerful opponent on its left flank, the far right has faced less pressure to defend power and privilege than in the past, and, not surprisingly, the glue that held blue-bloods and narcos together has begun to dissolve. The fissures in the alliance erupted in the unexpected defeat, in 2016, of a national referendum meant to ratify an historic peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC. Uríbe’s former defense minister and then President Juan Manuel Santos negotiated the deal, which had the support of business associations, Colombia’s largest conglomerates, and urban professionals, as well as the Colombian left, despite its distaste for Santos. Yet the accord could not withstand the force of former president and now Senator Álvaro Uríbe’s political machine and went down in a narrow defeat. Although Congress would ratify a modified version of the agreement, the far-right reclaimed the presidency in 2018 with the election of Uríbe acolyte Iván Duque, who campaigned against the peace deal, which subsequently unraveled.
Nowadays, the targeting of social movement leaders who press for the return of stolen lands and the rights of war victims is ongoing. Some FARC guerrillas have rearmed after growing disillusioned with the peace process, while others cluster in demobilization campus, still waiting for government assistance promised over two years ago. Neoparamilitary groups continue to operate around the country at the service of a retooled right-wing alliance. They remain in control of urban peripheries, where a majority of Colombia’s rural displaced and working class live, and although they are less ideologically driven than their predecessors, in part because the far right won the war, the mercenaries are still available to suppress demands for social justice or the equitable distribution of wealth. They are able to do so because seventeen years and $10 billion dollars after the US launched Plan Colombia, the illegal cocaine traffic is enjoying boom times. Colombia’s defense minister, Luis Carlos Villegas, told the Washington Post that “We’ve never seen anything like it” (Miroff 2016).
This paper has argued that the emergence of the Colombian far-right was animated by a fundamental hostility to redistributive demands from below and a desire to protect the power and privilege of a shotgun marriage between regional oligarchs and an emergent group of narco capitalists who led the attack on both revolutionary and reformist political movements. It has shown that the growth of this far-right alliance was a dynamic, violence-driven process, and it has demonstrated that far from being a conservative effort to maintain oligarchic privilege, the Colombian far-right transformed the status quo that it had initially sought to defend, producing an extreme form of neoliberal capitalism. Yet Colombia is also indicative of a much broader pattern of working class setback, the recalibration of space for global commodity flows, and deepening inequality that we must understand to grasp the resurgence of the far right around the world.
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See Zamosc (1986) for a discussion of the Asociación Nacional de Usuarios Campesinos, a national-level political movement whose radical faction invaded haciendas on the North Coast, a region where paramilitarism subsequently became deeply rooted.↩
Many foreign corporations participated in these alliances. Between 1997 and 2004, for example, Chiquita admitted to funneling nearly 2 million dollars to right-wing paramilitary crops in the Urabá banana zone and paid a $25 million fine in 2007.↩
In addition to the massive loss of life, one of the consequences of La Violencia was the suppression of left populism through the murder of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and the repression of the movement that bore his name. The prospect of Gaitán winning the presidency led to his assassination in 1948, a day that in popular memory marked the start of La Violencia.↩
Coca paste is a brownish mash manufactured from coca leaves that is an intermediate step in the production of pure cocaine.↩
Robin (2011) notes that victimhood has long been a talking point of right-wing movements.↩
The practice of privatizing security had already been established during the Violencia, when vigilante groups knows as “pájaros” and “chulavitas” violently suppressed popular demands with gruesome forms of terror.↩
Teo Ballvé (2012) provides a detailed description of how paramilitary populism succeeded in Urabá and elaborates further in a forthcoming book.↩
Congress enacted Plan Colombia in 1999, making Colombia the largest recipient of U.S. military assistance after the Middle East.↩
During his two-term tenure as president, he shipped off 1,100 paramilitaries to the United States, far more than the 333 extradited prior to his presidency (Ramsey 2012).↩