Forwarded from Anthony (a provocation in Colombia)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue May 23 09:10:09 MDT 2000

A Murder with all the Earmarks of a Provocation

Yesterday the FARC suspended peace talks with the Colombian government, as
the whole peace process threatened to unravel under the pressure of a right
wing political offensive with a centerpiece that has all the markings of a

At 12:30 PM Tuesday, Ana Elvia Cortés López had her head blown off of her
shoulders by a sophisticated collar-bomb which a military bomb expert was
trying to defuse. The bomb expert was also killed.

General Rosso José Serrano, director of the national police and darling of
General Barry McCaffrey and friends in the USA, announced to the press
within hours, "The guerrillas of the FARC are the only ones in Colombia
capable of committing an atrocity like this one committed against this

Not long after Serrano's pronouncement, the FARC adamantly denied
responsibility, condemned the assassination, and said, "This is a
premeditated act by the enemies of the peace process to confuse public
opinion nationally, and internationally."

The atrocity occurred at a moment of profound crisis in the Pastrana
government: his government and congressional faction are sinking in a
corruption scandal more profound than any which touched the previous
corruption tainted government; the officer corps is seething with
rebellious sentiment - with talks of a coup and a return to the wholesale
use of death squads rampant among younger officers; the paramilitaries have
launched an offensive against the peace process - centered in a high
profile mass campaign of public civil disobedience against Pastrana's
attempt to establish demilitarized zone for the ELN (Ejercito Liberacion
Nacional- National Liberation Army , second largest of this countries
guerrilla organizations).

President Andres Pastrana following up on Serrano's trial without jury of
the FARC, announced the suspension of a planned international meeting with
the FARC to discuss a cooperative effort in the war on drugs, allotted
20,000,000,000 pesos (about $9,500,000 US) to a special anti-kidnapping
fund, and demanded that "the FARC must change." The national council of
business organizations, accused by the FARC of being tied to the
paramilitaries, called for a suspension of the peace process.

Camilo Gomez, the new high commissioner for peace, said the peace process
would continue.

The FARC suspended all talks until the international meeting is
rescheduled, but insisted that the peace process will continue.

Most of the facts that have appeared in public, including those alluded to
by Serrano, point not toward the FARC, but toward a provocation by
opponents of the peace process - as the FARC says. Opponents most likely
within the military, the paramilitaries, and/or agencies of the the United

Most important of these facts is the bomb itself. The bomb was a
sophisticated device unlike anything ever used by the FARC in this country.
The FARC is famous for using ingenious low tech weapons, despite its
reputation for being well financed. According to bomb experts, the bomb had
a light sensitive trigger within it to thwart any efforts to disarm it.
This was probably what set the device off when the military bomb expert
tried to dismantle it.

Estimates of the cost of this bomb here run into the thousands of dollars.

The FARC has for years collected taxes through arresting those who do not
pay - this is called in the press and by the government extortion and
kidnapping. It has never needed more than a pistol or two to efficiently
carry out its tax collection and arrests. Why would it invest $10,000 (US)
when it could accomplish the same thing without any investment at all?

The only reason to use such a device is to terrorize the victim, and the

This was a device built for publicity of the crime.

The day after the crime well-organized, but poorly attended, "mass" rallies
were "spontaneously" put together to protest the war in general, and to
condemn the FARC. Here the peace movement, although sometimes massive is a
far different animal than the anti-war movement was in the USA in the days
of Viet Nam.

For the FARC, which really does have an image problem, having lost popular
support not only among the middle class, but in the urban working class and
poor as well, acts of senseless brutality are not in its interest when it
comes to the war for public opinion.

While it is conceivable that the FARC acted against its own political
interests - it has before - it would have been an act of profound stupidity
if it did.

The FARC's most significant act of political stupidity, the murder of the
three activists from the USA working with the Ai'wa, hurt the FARC badly
amongst its own supporters and sympathizers - especially among the
indigenous people here, but almost as much in the universities, in the
leadership of the workers movement, and among the broader circles of people
who sympathized with the FARC in the cities.

 One reason for the damage was that others on the left, who constantly work
in fear of paramilitary attack, worried that the FARC might be adopting
Sendero Luminoso style relations with other leftists. The idea is not as
far fetched as it may sound, since on several occasions in the last two
years the FARC and ELN have engaged in gun battles. Most significantly
their militias in the oil city of Barancabermeja, have fought each other -
even as both were fighting paramilitary incursions into the town.

Publicly, and it appears internally as well, the FARC has spent a year
trying to repair the damage done by the murders of the Ai'wa supporters.

The FARC's image problem goes beyond the Ai'wa issue, however.

Outside of the regions where the FARC taxes the drug dealers, its tax
collection is not popular.

Many in the countryside percieve FARC tax collecting as arbitrary, and a
double tax - one to the government - one to the FARC. And it is not levied
only against the rich, but against almost anyone who owns land.

(It appears to me that most of the discussion of the FARC outside of
Colombia - as indeed most of the discussion about Colombia outside of
Colombia - is related to drugs. While the FARC as a whole probably derives
most of its income from taxing drug dealers, it has many fronts in areas
where there is little or no drug production)

In Colombia, a lot of people own little pieces of land. Large landholdings
dominate the cattle and banana regions, but there are some large
landholdings in all parts of the country. Medium sized farms (though they
would be small farms in the USA) are very common in the coffee and dairy
regions. Some medium sized farms are very capital intensive, and in fact
big businesses, e.g. those in the cut flower industry. In the most rugged
or isolated parts of the country, there are many, many very small farms
which - while increasingly market oriented - do not provide subsistence for
their owners.

In theory, and in practice, the FARC has tried to draw a line between the
medium sized and small farms in its taxation policies - but the line is a
very hazy one. Many very small farms are owned by "absentee landlords" -
but many of these absentee landlords are in fact poor peasants who moved to
the cities to find work, or escape the war. In the cities they may be
working as domestic servants, or street vendors, but still paying the taxes
on their two or three fanegada finca ( a fanegada is about an acre, it is
the tradtional measure of land size here, not the hectare.) Others are
owned by rich peasants who buy up the land of those who abandon the country
for the city at cheap prices, and then rent the plots out to even poorer
peasants. Many are owned by the urban petty bourgeois who use the, or plan
to use them, as weekend retreats.

Of course, in the drug regions (changing over time) many fincas are owned
by drug dealers (who might have started out as peasants, landlords,
lawyers, workers, emerald smugglers, or whatever.)

The FARC's third "image problem - beyond the scope of this article - is
that it does not really have a program and a strategy for the urban working
class - in a country where more than 70% of the people live in cities of
over 50,000; 50% in cities over 200,000, and about 35% in the six biggest

Elvia Cortes was not poor by this country's standards, but almost. She and
her husband lived on a small farm which they owned (about two acres) on the
edge of Chiquinquirá in Boyaca. They grew corn, potatoes, and vegetables,
and owned six cows.

If the "muzhiks" of Colombia believe the FARC committed the brutal murder
of this woman, it will do far more damage to the FARC in its real political
base of support - the countryside, than the murders of the Ai'wa supporters
ever could have done.

All of this argues against the FARC as the perpetrator of this outrage.

All of this argues for the theory that this was a finely - and
intelligently - calculated provocation.

A look at the current political situation here, provides more reasons for
thinking that this was a provocation.

Recently the FARC publicly asserted its right to levy a tax against the
"rich" but rich judged by the standard not of the USA, but of poor
Colombian peasants. By that standard the murdered lady might qualify as
rich. The immediate effect of that announcement, was to cause a panic among
the already panicy upper petty bourgeoisie, who rushed to buy dollars -
pushing the peso down about 10% in one week.

But the FARC's announcement, was not the most basic cause of the panic -
which was already gathering steam when the announcement was made.

The government is in a profound and deep crisis.

More important than the war, is the economy .... And it is in deep and
prolonged recession. While the recession is part of the more general Latin
American recession that began with the Asian collapse a couple of years
ago, here it is also war-related. FARC taxes, kidnapings and extortion by
many players [The ELN uses large scale dramatic kidnapings, but the
paramilitaries and common criminals also have made a big business out of
kidnapping for ransom], major road blockades - again by many players, make
the "investment environment" uncertain.

The Colombian bourgeoisie keeps a lot of its cash offshore, while only the
biggest international players - like oil companies - are investing here.
Many US firms have a constant travel ban on US citizens working here (a
boon to Colombian yuppies). There are virtually no foreign tourists here,
except for the Caribean beaches, and even there, most hotels make their
profits from internal tourism.

On top of the economy, which would be a serious problem for any government
anywhere, Pastrana's "Grand Alliance for Colombia" has failed to deliver on
the two popular points of its political program: peace, and honest
government. In fact, it is sinking in a corruption scandal that has dwarfed
anything that ever hit the previous Liberal party government. Ministers,
Congressmen, and even Pastrana's own personal secretary have been indicted,
resigned, or are under investigation by Pastrana's own government
bureaucracy for a bewildering array of corrupt practices.

Pastrana's attempt to defuse the corruption scandal with a proposal for a
referendum to reform Congress has only added fuel to the fire - as his own
coalition has begun to abandon him as it his proposal threatens to put a
presidential lock on the pork barrel and cookie jar.

At the same time, the peace talks with the FARC have dragged on without
tangible result for nearly two years now.

A little background on Pastrana's government may help to understand the
mess it is in. Pastrana was elected as the standard bearer of something
called the "Grand Alliance for Colombia". If this electoral alliance was
not dreamed up someplace on the banks of the Potomac, or in the basement of
the US embassy - it could have been. It is a political hodge-podge that
would make an Italian prime Minister proud.

The alliance consists of Pastrana's own Conservative Party, the oligarchic
and neo-liberal faction of the Liberal Party, the former M-19 (famous for
stunts like stealing Bolivar's sword, and being murdered by the army in the
Palace of Justice - which they had taken over), and a group of bourgeois
independents [who model themselves on the Progressives of early 20th
century USA, and admire Fujimori of 21st century Peru]. The alliance barely
defeated the official Liberal party.

It's victory was based on a two point program - Peace and Honest
Government. The first point was made convincing by the astonishing support
the FARC gave Pastrana (a higly publicized preelection meeting, and a
promise NOT to negotiate with Horacio Serpa the Liberal candidate - an
event with the same smell as the hostage for arms deal Reagan made with
Iran to defeat Jimmy Carter, way back in 1980).

The second point of the program - honest government, had nothing to do with
Pastrana's own personal record, nor the records of his allies, but by US
allegations that the previous Liberal Party government of President Ernesto
Samper had been bought by drug dealers [allegations never proven, though
probably with some merit).

In that election the thinly veiled candidate of the paramilitaries was
former General Harold Bedoya who was trounced in he first round of voting,
receiving about 5% of the vote. Bedoya, then threw his support to Pastrana
- (putting the paramilitaries and the FARC in the same electoral camp.)

As sketched above, the Pastrana camp never was a politically homogeneous
machine - almost the opposite. It is disintegrating under the pressure of
the political situation.

In that context it appears that the paramilitary right wing within the
Pastrana camp is making a bid for power.

The well organized campaign against the despeje (demilitarized zone) for
the ELN - which has featured municipal "paros" in towns throughout the
region that would be effected, is almost certainly part of this campaign (a
paro is a shut down of business by workers and bosses, it is sort of like a
multi-class political general strike). This is a region which 50 years ago
was the site of an important land-reform program, that is now the site of a
real counter land reform under the guns of the paramilitaries. Small
landowners are forced off their plots at the point of a gun, sell their
land for next to nothing to the paras, who then resell it to the new drug
dealers. Very large numbers of the displaced people in the cities come from
this region. While, the civic actions are publicly organized by local
elected officials, behind them are the paramilitaries. And behind the
paramilitary is the military, or at least part of it (according to the
FARC, most of the army is not tied to the paramilitary).

Exactly what the "right" within the Pastrana camp really wants in the short
run is not clear- publicly they have voiced a range of demands including an
end to the peace process. Most prominent however, have been the demands for
the inclusion of the recognition of the paramilitaries as a legitimate and
independent political force which should be included as an equal with the
FARC in the peace negotiations, and an end to military reform and
prosecutions of military officers for human rights violations.

Most likely a major cabinet reshuffle is in the works.

 However, the danger of a coup attempt here is beginning to grow: for the
first time since the USA nixed the attempted coup against President Samper
almost four years ago.

[Where the USA stands in this latest turn of events is not clear, yet.
Clinton has promoted the peace process, while the GOP right wing have tried
to sabotage it. Pastrana is closely tied to the neo-liberal Democrats,
while the military has close ties to Barry McGaffrey and Republican
Senators. Here it is no secret that the FARC, and Pastrana - are rooting
for Gore, while most of the army and much of the Conservative Party is
rooting for Bush.]

My regards, Anthony

Louis Proyect

(The Marxism mailing list:

More information about the Marxism mailing list