Colombia: a conflict that was never urban?

by Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

This article aims to answer a simple question, whether the conflict is only a rural one or whether it is also urban.  The verb ‘to be’ is conjugated in the present tense as ,despite what some would say, the conflict has not ended.

The question would seem to be nonsensical as the answer is obvious: the conflict was and is both rural and urban, but the head of the Truth Commission, Francisco de Roux, has stated the exact opposite and has denied the existence not only of murders and massacres, but also of false positives in the cities.  More recently, the Public Defender, Carlos Negret, has come out with similar declarations.  If de Roux were not the current head of the Truth Commission and as such the man in charge of drawing up an official “truth” – or semi-official one – it would not be so problematic; but we are on the verge of a falsification of history.  Moreover, his commentaries on the issue have been repeated by supposed lefties and published over and again on social networks and groups that claim to be on the left, which says more about them than it does about de Roux.

They are not simple mistakes; behind the lies is an attempt to reduce the conflict not just to a rural setting but also to armed engagements or acts by armed actors in dispute of territory and excludes any reference to the role not just of the state as such, which is not the same as crimes committed by individual public servants as individuals, but rather the role of companies, political parties, and state agencies such as the Prosecutor’s Office, amongst others.  The conflict is reduced to a question of law and order in remote, far away, baffling places and thus the role of the state can be distorted when not flat out denied.  And of course, de Roux and Negret offer their services in bringing us closer to those distant places and making us understand what we couldn’t or didn’t want to, through their own ideological and class interests.

Before going on to deal with the issue, it should be said that neither de Roux nor Negret define what they understand as rural.  Thus, we don’t know if a faraway poorly-connected town, such as Segovia, where in 1988 the right-wing paramilitaries under the orders of the head of the Liberal Party massacred 43 people because they had voted for the wrong party (the Patriotic Union) falls within their definition of rural, as 75% of the population of that municipality live in the municipal capital where the 1988 massacre was carried out, just like the Billiards Hall Massacre of 1996.  But we can be sure that large cities such as Bogotá, Medellín and Barrancabermeja are not rural, not even in the delusions of both characters.  So we will go over the conflict in those places, although due to space we can only look at some telling deeds.

According to de Roux, “The urban population do not know what war is like, it knows a little bit about it through the television and it sees it as if it were a film and does comprehend the enormous human ethical responsibility we have in the face of so much suffering.”[1]. It is a huge insult to the victims in cities, their loved ones, unlike actors in a film they did not rise from the ground to dust themselves off after being taken out by the official and unofficial state forces.  To De Roux, “The urban population is familiar with violence in the school, in the family, against women and experiences the insecurity of the streets, the buses, amongst other things, because there is a lot of administrative corruption and drug trafficking.”[2]  A point of fact, the rural areas also experience that type of violence but it can’t be reduced to a problem of corruption and drug trafficking, although they are important elements, but rather to questions of macho culture, in the case of domestic violence and violence against women, and also poverty, something he strangely excluded as a factor in daily violence.  Mr. De Roux, those who get on buses with knives and sometimes firearms to rob, do so, due to poverty.

De Roux goes on to cite statistics on the conflict:

“. . . the 1982 massacres, of which 1166 were carried out by paramilitaries, 343 by guerrillas, the 27,000 kidnappings, over 90% of which the guerrillas were responsible for, the 23,000 selective assassinations, the 5,000 disappeared, the 5,000 cases of attacks on civilian assets, the hundreds of false positives, and the thousands of landmine victims: the urban population has not experienced that.[3]

All of his statistics are debatable, particularly those relating to false positives, as not even the Prosecutor’s Office talks of just hundreds of false positives and nobody talks of just 5,000 disappeared, but rather of tens of thousands of disappeared, of figures that exceed those of the Southern Cone dictatorships (eg Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay).

But the main problem is not his figures, but rather his statement that the urban population have no experience of false positives when the most emblematic case is that of the Mothers of Soacha whose children were kidnapped in the city of Soacha by the Colombian Army and taken to a rural area of the Catatumbo region to be murdered and presented to the media as guerrillas killed in combat.  Soacha is a municipality with an official population of 553,000 people though some estimates place the real figure at almost one million.  It is mainly an urban area and forms part of the conurbation of Bogotá, so much so it is in practice a borough of the city.  The youths murdered by the army were from that urban area.  It is not possible that de Roux is unaware of the case, it is the most famous false positive case and moreover military officers involved in it have been convicted for their roles.[4]

In their struggle, the Mothers of Soacha, have been vilified, insulted, accused and they suffered all kinds of attacks and now De Roux denies they exist.

When he speaks of selective killings, he also denies that they occur in urban areas, though historically many of the images used by human rights groups in their campaigns and publications nationally and internationally are urban dwellers.  De Roux lived in the city of Barrancabermeja when the working class neighbourhoods were dominated by the ELN (National Liberation Army) and he also lived through the paramilitary takeover of the city.  He knows the history of the city and the reality of the violence it suffered.  The Navy’s Intelligence Network 07 operated in the city and according to the Prosecutor’s Office it murdered 68 people, though social organizations speak of a figure of 430 murders, 130 of them being social leaders.[5]  On May 16th, 1998 the paramilitaries raided the city and killed seven people and disappeared a further 25 people.  It made national and international headlines and de Roux was in the city.  Such was the situation that Amnesty International published a report titled Barrancabermeja: A City Under Siege.[6]  But according to de Roux the urban population have not experienced the conflict, not even that which he lived through in a city.

Revolutionary guerrilla movements were a powerful force for years in Comuna 13 in Medellin

Medellín is another emblematic case.  For many years the working class neighbourhoods were under the control of various armed groups – mainly the ELN and the CAP (People’s Armed Commandos) and almost no-one denies it.  There are three facts well known by everyone, except it would seem de Roux and Negret.  The first one is Operation Orion.  Whilst it is true that the insurgencies operated in the city, it is also true that they were expelled from most of the city and their current presence is not comparable to their former territorial control.

On October 16th, 2002, a massive military operation that lasted days was launched to expel the guerrillas of the ELN from the Comuna 13 (13th Borough) of the city of Medellín.

In that year, huge military deployments by the state were carried out in order to re-establish the presence of the security forces in the neighbourhoods of the Comuna 13; military operations that were codenamed Operation Mariscal, carried out in March 2002, and Operation Orion carried out in October of that year, which counted on the participation of various forces, such as the army, the air force, the DAS (Administrative Department of Security), the CTI (Technical Judicial Investigative Corps), the CEAT (Elite Antiterrorist Corps), the Metropolitan and Departmental Police Forces, involving more than 1,000 members of these forces in which combat helicopters were used both to load and unload troops and strafing with machine gun fire.[7]

Some sources speak of 3,000 troops and not 1,000, but no-one denied that it was one of the largest military operations.  The storming of the Comuna 13 also caused the forced displacement of the population both during and after the military operation, just like in Barrancabermeja.  The displacement was from one neighbourhood to the other, and also from one city to another, something de Roux thinks only happens in the countryside.  The displacement in the Comuna 13 was of such magnitude that the National Centre for Historic Memory, the same source where de Roux supposedly obtained his dubious figures on the conflict, published a report whose title leaves us in no doubt as to the nature of the problem: The Invisible Mark of the War: Forced Displacement in the Comuna 13 (La Huella Invisible de la Guerra: Desplazamiento Forzado en la Comuna 13).  It couldn’t be any clearer.  The report deals with displacement in the borough from 1985 when it under the control of the ELN till 2010, passing through the periods when it was under paramilitary and/or state control.  The Comuna 13 is also the where the municipal rubbish dump “La Escombrera is located, which is also a mass grave where the military and their paramilitary allies dumped the bodies of the disappeared, some of them from the Operation Orion and it is said that it is probably the largest mass grave in Latin America.[8]  But the urban population, says de Roux, have not experienced the conflict.

The capital city of Bogotá is no rural expanse; not only is it the capital city, it is the most urbanised area of the whole country.  If the conflict is just a rural one, then Bogotá would be the last place you would expect to find significant signs of the conflict.  However, many of the most emblematic cases of the conflict took place in Bogotá, such as the storming of the Santo Domingo Embassy, the disappeared from the Palace of Justice, the selective murders of lawyers such as Umaña Mendoza, or the researchers at the CINEP (Centre for Research and People’s Education) such as Mario Calderón and Elsa Alvarado, murdered by right-wing paramilitaries at their apartment in the north of Bogotá, or the comedian Jaime Garzón.  It is almost certain that de Roux knew Calderón and Alvarado as he occupied various posts at the CINEP and was its director between 1987 and 1993.  How easy it is to forget the blood spilled and adapt your discourse to the needs of the state.  More recently Bogotá was the setting for the advance of the FARC – it achieved a strong presence in the south of the city, setting up the urban structure known as the Antonio Nariño Urban Network.  Later on, the paramilitaries came to expel this group and take over that space in the south of the city.

I have barely mentioned Negret in this article. Although he is now the Public Defender he’s of much lesser importance than de Roux.  Before taking up the post of Public Defender he was the General Secretary of the Party of National Unity (Partido de la U.), an extreme right-wing corrupt party that has given its support to Uribe on numerous occasions and has been linked to paramilitaries time and again.  Eight congressmen from this paryt have ended up in the Picota Prison and there is a long list of other corrupt members.[9]  Carlos Negret is also the brother of former governor of Cauca, César Negret.  In an interview in June of this year with Semana magazine, the Public Defender stated that “In the cities, they don’t experience the fear that people in the countryside go to bed with.”[10]  First of all, we should be clear that the Negret family has no right to speak about the countryside; as governor of Cauca, his brother César Negret ordered a violent attempt to evict peasants that had taken over the Panamerican highway in 1999 and both César and Carlos have held important posts in the country from which they did nothing for the peasantry; rather the opposite, they were linked to political parties that caused great harm to the peasantry.  Both of them were linked to the Liberal Party during the dirty war and the economic aperture of the 1990s and Carlos later on was linked to the Party of National Unity.

However, he is right, those in the city have no idea what it is like to go to bed in the countryside, just like the peasant knows nothing of the fear of a trade unionist organising a  strike, or the security measures that human rights lawyers must take.  Neither do they know what it is to be a teacher in a working class neighbourhood and stand up to the sexual abuse of their students by members of the so-called security forces. Each one experiences the conflict in a different manner, but they experience it.  What these two favourite children of influential families want is to isolate each one, atomise them so as each one’s problems are dealt with in an isolated and even individual manner.  Thus we see the conflict as a series of evil acts committed by evil individuals against other individuals.  So, we will not talk about the system, the state or, less still, capitalism.  If the urban population is excluded from the analysis it is easier to not talk about the state.

In another article I described the Truth Commission as a commission of half-truths.  But, upon reflection, if we manage to drag a half truth from the lips of characters like de Roux and Negret it will be a major achievement as the path they have outlined is one of vile lies and the falsification of history.  The political, ideological and historical legacy of the Peace Process is that it was all a misunderstanding; it wasn’t the state that did it the murdering, the disappearing and the generalised repression.

NOTES

[1] El País (30/11/2014) “El país urbano no sabe lo que es la guerra”: Francisco de Roux https://www.elpais.com.co/judicial/el-pais-urbano-no-sabe-lo-que-es-la-guerra-francisco-de-roux.html

[2] Ibíd.,

[3] Ibíd.,

[4] Semana (03/04/2017) Falsos positivos de Soacha: condenan a 21 a militares a penas entre 37 y 52 años de prisión https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/falso-positivo-de-soacha-condenas-de-hasta-52-anos/520904

[5] See Ó Loingsigh, G. (2003) La Estrategia Integral del Paramilitarismo en el Magdalena Medio, España, p. 8

[6] Amnesty International (1999) Barrancabermeja: A City Under Siege, AI Index: AMR23/36/99 disponible en https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/144000/amr230361999en.pdf

[7] IPC (2005) Informe Sobre el Estado Actual de los Derechos Humanos en la Comuna 13 de la Ciudad de Medellín, IPC, Medellín pp 9-10

[8] El Confidencial (23/05/2018) La Escombrera: una fosa común en Medellín clave para el futuro de Colombia https://www.elconfidencial.com/mundo/2018-05-23/escombrera-fosa-comun-medellin-colombia_1566616/

[9] Razón Publica (12/03/2017) El Partido de la U y sus políticos impresentables https://www.razonpublica.com/index.php/politica-y-gobierno-temas-27/10090-el-partido-de-la-u-y-sus-políticos-impresentables.html

[10] Semana (30/06/2019) “En la ciudad no conocen el miedo con el que duermen en el campo”: defensor del Pueblo https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/carlos-negret-defensor-del-pueblo-habla-de-la-terrible-ola-de-asesinatos-de-lideres-sociales/621273