||It is impossible to understand the phenomenon of ‘para-politica’ that has come out to public light in Colombia in recent months, without analyzing it as an evolution of the deepest structures of power in Colombian society.
The roots of paramilitary power grow from the regime of the ‘gamonales’, characteristic of the diverse regions of the country. This regime ruled since 1854, when the army that liberated Colombia from the Spanish was dissolved as a consequence of the defeat of the revolution of the artisans. At that time, the gamonales won their victory thanks to weapons provided by the US, England, France, and Prussia. From that moment on, they became warlords in a country which suffered successive civil wars in which troops loyal to the conservative and liberal parties dominated what were then federal states, and confronted each other.
The triumph of the gamonales had several consequences. Not only did they consolidate their local power and the property of their haciendas, they also imposed an era of “free trade”, which really meant freedom of import, setting the growth of national industry back fifty years. That era saw the rule of the doctrines of English liberal economists as well as Colombia’s submission to the Treaty of Commerce and Navigation, signed in 1846 with the US by the government of the gamonal of gamonales, landowner Tomas Cipriano de Mosquera, who not only opened the doors to free trade but also forfeited the sovereignty of the country to the megaproject of the Panama Canal which led eventually to Colombia losing Panama in 1903.
It is therefore an error to see gamonalismo and its regime as a merely local phenomenon. On the contrary, gamonalismo is embedded in the global economy and international power. The gamonal is in the first instance a major landowner. His title originally depended on the Spanish Crown, which granted lands and gold mines, first to the conquistadors and afterwards, under the Bourbon dynasty, to slave traders and other businessmen who received the mines and haciendas of the Jesuits, who were expelled by the empire at that time. His wealth depended on the government in power, the articulation of economic power and international politics, and the links between local powers and big landowners. These elements have shaped the configuration of gamonalismo, from its beginnings to this day.
What could have been and what it came to be
The Colombian process of industrialization at the beginning of the 20th century could have meant the twilight of gamonalismo. The capitalist economy, the centralization of the state, the re-creation of a national army and the modern mentality should have progressively weakened and, eventually, extinguished gamonalismo. But it was not to be.
Gamonalismo survived in spite of industrialization and severely limited the modernization of Colombia. Although peasant and indigenous movements expanded and won some victories between 1914 and 1946, the gamonales managed to retain their latifundia and ultimately to consolidate them by way of violence, namely “La Violencia”, between 1946 and 1958. The territorial base for the local power of the gamonales was maintained and so was their power. Just as had occurred under the colonial dynasties and civil wars, the only change was the rise of some new gamonales and the fall of some others – the recycling of the same political castes by way of violence or elections or the combination of both.
An important part of the industry grew as a result of the state protection upon the money accumulated by exporting landowners and importing businessmen - which represented the conversion of the gamonales’ money into industrial capital. This process occurred because an extensive artisanal base for industrialization had been liquidated at the hands of “free trade” and the territory available for the transformation of the peasantry into prosperous farmers was limited due to concentrated land ownership.
Another portion of the capital came from foreign investment in petroleum, mining, and banana enclaves that, rather than challenging the power of the gamonales, stimulated it and guaranteed its concessions and profits. Gamonalismo was the most efficient political agent and police force for foreign capital.
The Senate and House of Representatives were elected under the dominant power held by the gamonales at the departmental (local) level. It was thus assured that national laws did not threaten their local power or their latifundia. Even in 1936, in the midst of a strong movement of peasants, indigenous peoples, and workers, the very agrarian law – a reform that intended to limit the concentration of land property - also contained norms for stalling the process long enough for conditions to change, as they actually did, in favour of the gamonales.
The army was re-founded in 1907 by self-appointed generals from the conservative militas that won the “War of a Thousand Days” (1899-1902), true warlords in triumph. General Reyes himself, the President at the time, had been an exporter of quinine, colonizer of the Amazon, designer of megaprojects, promoter of foreign investment, married to a daughter of latifundistas, who, after commercial bankruptcy, became a conservative general and a major landowner. Since then, the army could be controlled closely by the gamonales and their “civil” interests.
Although the civil wars ceased temporarily, the gamonales did not give up having their own armed forces, in the first place the watchmen of their haciendas who continued to have police power to enforce territorial control, repress and punish campesinos, indigenous peoples, and day workers. Local and departmental-level police forces completed the picture.
“La Violencia” of 1946 closed many hopes for democracy. The assassination of Colombia’s most popular leader, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, on April 9 1948, summarized the decision of traditional gamonalismo to maintain the status quo with blood and fire. Two hundred thousand people were killed in the process of displacing 2 million people from 350 000 small plots of land. Those who are today called “paramilitaries” were then called “pajaros”, illegal troops who worked with police and the regime and its own army to assault lands and peoples. For the politicians, access to armed bands was a source of power, and new fortunes were made by way of La Violencia, fortunes that made it possible to control local business and the international contraband trade in coffee and liquor.
The “peace” that held after 1958 was made by a very novel piece of antidemocratic handiwork and decreed by way of plebiscite: the liberal and conservative parties would share all public posts and rotate the presidency of the Republic by way of Constitutional mandate. No better artifice could have been designed to facilitate the civilized exercise of domination by the gamonales.
All the modernizing effort of economists and politicians such as Carlos Lleras Restrepo with all the theory and experience of modern state institutions hit an impenetrable wall with the constitutional reign of the gamonales who, with the advice of the US Military Mission, considered the small zones controlled by guerrillas who had signed the peace of 1958 a threat. They decided that if these “independent republics” were not extirpated they would become “guerrilla focos.” In 1964 they attacked Marquetalia and other peasant areas and the ex-guerrillas became guerrillas once again.
Once again under arms
Having provoked the guerrillas, the gamonales had their own pretext to return to arms. The Agricultural Society of Colombia had since 1963 sought, in the name of the large rural landowners, authority from the government to organize “self-defense” groups to protect them from the guerrillas. The answer came after the attack at Marquetalia with Decree 3398 of 1965 that ordered the creation of “self-defense juntas”. The decree became law 48 of 1968. According to a military manual, each battalion of the army had to organize one of juntas, integrating it with the “notable people of the region” (read “latifundistas and the local agents of the transnationals”).
The “self-defense juntas” were thus designed to link local power, foreign enterprises, and the army.
A “new” element arose in the mid-1970s: the addition of the mafia to the self-defense juntas. The government of Misael Pastrana and the two traditional parties had just finished derailing the timid attempt at agrarian reform initiated by Lleras. Colonization was offered as the solution for landless peasants and in the distant regions, without roads, communication, or services, the peasantry had resorted to illicit cultivation, first of marijuana and then of coca. Colonization, the solution for preventing agrarian reform, had become a problem: the peasants had money and gained power, organized, marched, and held strikes. The war extended into the regions of colonization, and under the pretext of the “War on Drugs”, the gamonales crushed the peasant resistance, allied with the mafia dons and seized control of narcotrafficking. This was the model in Puerto Boyaca, Puerto Berrio, Puerto Triunfo and a large part of southern Magdalena Medio, and extended throughout the country. At the same time that the liberal-conservative power-sharing agreement ended, the war was imposed on the countryside.
But was the link between the mafia and the gamonales something totally new? During La Violencia of 1948-1958 the contraband mafias, especially the coffee mafia, were linked with armed groups and converted their wealth into political dominion after the “peace”. The traditional activity of the gamonales, taking public money from social investment, contracts, commissions, and concessions from the state, has always been criminal and has made politicians a mafia of sorts, ready to relate to other mafia activities. The illicit exploitation and commercialization of emeralds was one activity that linked to politics in the mining regions, which ended up governed by emerald mafia dons converted to gamonales with their own militaries, sometimes legitimized as security companies or self-defense teams. When the mining regulations were challenged, the emerald barons managed to prevent all but symbolic changes by declaring that they were the state in the mining regions and they had already spent a great deal there.
The self-defense team of Bogota is an example of the presence of the emerald mafia linked to landowners and transnationals and from there to police officials and military officers. Some of the chiefs of the troops of the emerald barons, such as Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, became narcotraffickers. These increasingly wealthy mafias became central characters in many self-defense teams and came to finance the training of the paramilitaries as an army, paying well-known mercenaries from the UK (like Peter McAlleese), South Africa, and Israel (like Yair Klein). These mercenaries had been (in Malaysia or Angola) continued to be (in Sierra Leone or the Congo) stars for the transnationals in the wars of other countries. The warlords trained by these men can be found in various parts of the world where profits can be had from gold, petroleum, diamonds, narcotrafficking, the theft of gasoline from government pipelines, or the theft of health care, housing, and any other public funds to which the imprisoned electoral system can provide “democratic access”.
The international character of the association of the warlords with the mafia extends to international examples of association between latifundio, gamonalismo, politics and the mafia. Italy is an example of a similar association. The Calabrian mafia, called ‘ndrangheta, has four aspects:
I. Extortion: armed action to force small landholders to sell valuable territories.
II. Theft of subsidies from the EU, especially those destined for olive and olive oil growers.
III. Seizing land for illicit cultivation.
IV. Political influence to legalize these thefts and preserve their urban businesses.
It is no coincidence that the paramilitaries of the Cordoba department in Colombia were found to be linked to the ‘ndrangheta as the suppliers of its cocaine for the Italian and Spanish markets.
Democratic peace, drowned
Facing the growing demands for a democratic opening, the upsurge of new political forces and the peace agreements that permitted these processes, the consolidation of the warlords, region by region, was the chosen solution of the gamonales against any structural change. All movements for agrarian reform were crushed.
The processes of decentralization unleashed in 1986 won democratization in some municipalities and regions, but the troops of the gamonales were successful in most cases in preventing local-level change. In these conditions decentralization became a source of power for the gamonales and local resources a bank account for the warlords. Democratizing social sectors could not defeat gamonalismo in departmental or municipal administrations and were defeated by the power of clientilism and paramilitarism.
It must be recognized that some of the warlords had achieved modernity: rather than murdering peasants in the coutryside to maintain latifundia, their machinery of death had served capital in destroying workers’ rights, by way of destroying their unions and murdering thousands of labour activists and leaders. The modern face of paramilitarism consists of an anti-worker, neo-fascist character that has succeeded in crushing the rights of Colombian workers and serving them to the transnationals. This was demonstrated in the case of Chiquita brands and many others. The fact that Chiquita was once United Fruit, the intellectual author of the massacre of striking workers on December 6 1928 shows the continuity between the armed groups and their relation with foreign capital. If Anglo Gold or any other “South African” enterprise is behind the warlords of the Congo, the Anglo-South African mercenaries have also done their part in training the armed gamonales of Colombia.
The triumph of the shock troops
Paramilitaries have been used as the shock troops of the fascist assault against the unions and against political and social opposition. Once the reign of terror had been unleashed, the electoral victory of the fascists was a fact and consolidated with the election of Alvaro Uribe Velez, who as governor of Antioquia had won the confidence of the armed gamonales and took advantage like no one else of the unpopularity of the guerrillas’ tactics.
At the moment of victory of Uribe, as has now come to light, the traditional political chiefs had arrived at programmatic agreements with their regional paramilitaries that guaranteed their election as senators, representatives, governors, deputies or mayors, establishing the dividing-up of local budgets between the paramilitaries and their clients, and defining the struggle for the re-founding of the country as a fascist state. Those politicians left out of these agreements were marginalized and if they rebelled, they were kidnapped or simply killed. Given that the warlords held their own military power and ended up as gamonales, there were known latifundistas and businessmen who became paramilitary chiefs to lead their own troops and eliminate the disloyalty of their butchers.
The parties affiliated with President Uribe are full of para-politicians, who in the congress voted in the “Law of Justice and Peace” that regulated the agreement between the paramilitaries and the government. Today in Colombia by virtue of the laws that were approved, the jail term a paramilitary faces for cutting hundreds of people to pieces is the same that a peasant would receive for growing a Monsanto-patented seed.
The para-Congress has approved and continues to approve laws that legalize displacement. For example law 731 of 2002 reduces by half the amount of time during which a person forcibly displaced from their territory can demand its return. It has approved a labor reform that has taken rights and money from workers at the same time. It has approved laws that make oil palm, sugar cane, and forest plantations tax-exempt. Today it is attempting to approve a rural statute that will legalize accounting strictures, subordinating indigenous and afro-colombian territories to “development plans” and permitting unlimited extension into the jungle by large businesses growing oil palm to produce biodiesel. The President has recently come to ask the para-Congress to vote these laws in rapidly before they go to jail.
If the para-Congress is functioning, the para-Administration never stops. It has recently tried to impose the liquidation of the territorial rights of afro-colombians in the interests of the oil palm industry that has already invaded by paramilitary force.
The war between the lords
One essential characteristic of the warlords is that they frequently go to war against one another. Like bank robbers who behave with perfect solidarity during the robbery, they kill each other later over how to divide the spoils.
One of the reasons Colombian fascists have failed to establish a fascist regime has been the contradictions between the paramilitary chiefs. Bogota was about to fall under the control of paramilitaries who had taken over all the mafia activities, narcotrafficking, prostitution, and robbery. They had penetrated private security companies and established control over all street sellers and panhandlers. They controlled the suburbs like Ciudad Bolivar – all that remained was to strike the final blow.
But the war in Meta and in Bogota, between the Bloque Centauros of Carlos Castaño and the paramilitaries of Casanare of Martin Llanos saved Bogota. After they had defeated those of Casanare, the Bloque Centauros fell apart itself. Those who had been fighting the “Heroes of the Llanos” later killed their own military chief in their own territories.
These were not the only wars between paramilitaries. In Magdalena Carlos Castaño fought against Hernan Giraldo, who fell in disgrace for assassinating a DEA agent with whom Castaño had always had a good relationship. Jorge 40, who belongs to a family of gamonales from Valledupar, emerged as the agent of Castano against Giraldo, to later assume the chieftancy of Castaños troops and lead them against the Gnecco, also gamonales and competitors for the domination of the Araujo region. Afterwards Jorge 40 conquered Sucre and Bolivar from the local para chiefs.
Castaño in Medellin confronted the Bloque Nutibara headed by the narcotrafficker Don Berna, against the Bloque Metro, which was smashed. In Cordoba, Mancuso set up his own shop in local business and edged out those who were in Castaño’s confidence. Mancuso’s lieutenant, Commander Andres, himself left to compete and wanted to be a candidate for Congress to represent the gamonales who were against Mancuso, but he was killed. In Uraba El Aleman and Vicente Castaño dispute Mancuso’s power.
The list of wars between the paras never ends. It does not simply produce deaths in paramilitary ranks and changes in control of business, politics and the lands of whole regions, but it results in mutual undermining and incidents that have kept the para-political scandal going as each gang knows, and uses, the sins of its competitors to eliminate a future electoral adversary.
Even though the war between his own party members is the biggest threat facing Uribe, it is very unlikely that he will be able to stop it. The warlords do not have a general interest. They are united by their hatred for the popular movement, but as they get stronger, they are unable to resist the necessity to expand their feuds against their rivals. Carlos Castaño, when he founded the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, hoped it would be a disciplined army for the regime of transnational capital, and in this he had all the support of the business class and the aristocracy. But his own interests and those of the other paras could not help but conflict. Any para would want to be the only chief but non could tolerate that someone else be.
The parapolitical program and civil resistance
The card that ‘uribismo’ has yet to play is to follow the internal and international program of Bush, to approve (before they all go to jail) the Free Trade Agreement with the US (FTA) and its complementary laws and to serve as the wedge against the popular processes in Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and other countries of Latin America. Against these objectives, there is a popular resistance that has expressed itself in mobilizations like that of May 15 2006, the popular consulta against FTA organized by the indigenous, the unity of peasant, indigenous, and afro-colombian organizations against FTA and the Rural Statutes, the marches of the teachers, the struggles of the oil workers and the strengthening of the Polo Democratico Alternativo as the opposition party.
In 2003, civil resistance managed to stop in a referendum the constitutional reform of Uribe. Civil resistance has slowed the project of imposing a fascist constitution legalizing mass detention without judicial order. But civil resistance has not managed to stop the co-optation of local governments by the armed gamonales nor has it managed to stop the FTA or Uribe’s lamentable foreign policy. It is nevertheless the only hope for Colombia to break the hegemony of the gamonales and their transnational sponsors and join the movement of the majority of Latin America. Only civil resistance can prevent the war from being a profitable business for the warlords.
For the moment Uribe can count on a favorable point in the economic cycle, brought on by the laundering of the narcodollars of the paramilitaries. But when the economic cycle moves back down and the speculative force becomes a crisis again, uribismo could fall to popular mobilization. Agrarian reform will be an essential element of change because it will take the power base of the gamonales away and create the economic conditions to strengthen the internal market that the FTA seeks to destroy. The great failure of the 1991 constitution, which sought to combine democracy with neoliberalism and latifundium, should be repaired.
Translated by Justin Podur
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