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Violence is a fact of life in Colombia; it has been so throughout the country's 175-year history. The Spanish word violencia is even used to refer to a particularly bloody period in Colombian history in which an estimated 200,000 people lost their lives - La Violencia. Colombian President Ernesto Samper acknowledged this tragic reality in his inauguration speech 7 August 1994, borrowing a quote from former President Manuel Murillo Toro, who wrote 120 years earlier: 'We belie our pretension of being a civilised, moral, and dignified people when, under the most futile pretexts, we appeal to arms or we proceed to commit acts of violence.'(1)
Yet while violence has been prevalent throughout Colombian history, that aspect of violence associated with leftist guerrillas is much more recent, dating back only to the late 1940s, when Liberal peasants organised self-defence associations in response to Conservative attacks during La Violencia. Since then, several presidents have attempted to quell this type of violence with only limited success. While the April 19th Movement (M-19) and most of the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) have been demobilised, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 guerrillas remain active, divided primarily between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), together with a dissident front of the EPL. Samper announced on 17 November 1994 that he would attempt to restart the peace talks and his initiative appears to have the qualified backing of both the military and the guerrillas.
This article seeks to determine whether or not conditions exist that would allow the Colombian government to achieve lasting peace with the country's remaining rebel groups through a process of demobilisation and reinsertion. Moreover, it will place the state at the centre of the polemic, arguing that the historically weak Colombian state (and previously closed or restricted political system) has allowed leftist guerrilla groups to create para-statal organisations in the regions in which they operate. Logically then, peace probably cannot be achieved without first strengthening the state, at least its legal functions and its ability to provide basic public services. The evidence that will be presented will suggest that Samper has initiated some of the necessary steps to expand the state's presence within Colombia, thus narrowing the socio-political space available to the guerrillas and leaving them increasingly isolated.
Colombia possesses the oldest active guerrilla groups in Latin America. The FARC can trace its roots to the Liberal and Communist self-defence groups formed as early as the 1930s, long before Cuban revolutionaries Fidel Castro and Ernesto 'Che' Guevara became the inspirations for Latin American rebel groups. FARC was founded, however, in 1964, following a series of government attacks against so-called 'independent republics' created by these self-defence groups. Longtime FARC leader Manuel Marulanda Velez, alias ' Tirofijo', said in a 1984 interview that ' [t]hat was the last and most immediate antecedent of FARC's creation'.(2)
Colombia's three other principal guerrilla groups made their appearance in the wake of the Cuban revolution. The ELN, like the FARC, was founded in 1964 by a group of university students who had travelled to Cuba and had become convinced of Guevara's foquismo theory. The group has operated mostly in northeastern and central Colombia and its ranks have attracted such notables as radical Roman Catholic priest Camilo Torres. Its current leader, Manuel Perez, is a Spanish-born priest. While decidedly Marxist in its ideology, the ELN has become closely associated with Colombia's petroleum industry and its attacks have focused on disrupting the flow of crude oil through the pipelines leading to the coast. The ELN sees petroleum as a national resource that should be managed as such, not by foreign oil companies.
The EPL first appeared in 1967 as a Maoist-oriented group dedicated to the idea of the prolonged popular war. Over time, the EPL shifted its base of operation to the northwest and then to certain urban areas. By the time it demobilised in 1990, the group's Maoist ideology was evolving into one that more closely resembled that of the eclectic M-19, with the main emphasis on democratisation.
The M-19 was the last of the major rebel groups to appear. It was founded in 1972 by dissident members of the FARC and the radical wing of the National Popular Alliance (ANAPO), whose presidential candidate Gustavo Rojas Pinilla allegedly was defrauded of victory in the 1970 elections. The M-19's raison d'etre was, then, mainly political. As Pecaut has argued, 'as the extension of ANAPO, M-19 proclaimed itself only as nationalist and as a partisan of participatory democracy without further clarifying its social projects'.(3) Chernick, on the other hand, writes that the M-19 was 'more urban, and combined the languages of nationalism and Colombian politics with a heterodox Marxism'.(4)
Despite the diversity of their origins, Colombia's guerrilla groups all drew upon the legacy of La Violencia and many rebel leaders have admitted in interviews that they were influenced by the assassination in 1948 of populist leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan.(5) Pizarro has noted that the areas in which the rebels operated and continue to have a strong presence are by and large the same areas in which La Violencia was the most intense: Tolima, the Santanders, Antioquia, and Meta. 'The map of the old violence and the map of the new had no substantial differences; both coincide with the map of the MRL (Revolutionary Liberal Movement) and the Communist enclaves, forming a map of the resistance and of national rebellion.'(6) The rebellion. continued even after the warring Liberal and Conservative parties had signed a pact creating the National Front in 1957. For, whereas the immediate cause of La Violencia had been eliminated, the real reasons for social conflict remained. As Hartlyn has observed, '[u]nderlying the formation of guerrilla movements in Colombia in each decade was a sense of social injustice and political blockage as a consequence of the National Front regime'.(7)
In summary, Colombian history since the 1930s has been marked by almost continual violence, which one could argue is the by-product of the repeated and generally frustrated attempts by the country's marginalised sectors and emerging social forces to gain a greater share of Colombia's abundant wealth. A major part of this struggle has been the inability of these social forces to gain significant access to the political system. With legitimate channels closed off, many Colombians resorted to violence, in the form of revolutionary groups, to gain their objectives. In addition, the weak Colombian state came to be viewed as simply an instrument of the ruling classes. As such, the laws underpinning it could only be seen as a means of repressing large parts of the population. It goes without saying, then, that for many Colombians, the police and courts were not to be trusted.
No real attempts were made to negotiate with the guerrillas until 1982, when Conservative President Belisario Betancur (1982-6) was elected on a platform that included a commitment to peace. He immediately declared a general amnesty and the talks began soon afterward. The amnesty did not, however, require that the guerrillas disarm, a major point of omission that would doom this first stage of the peace process even though it initially appeared to hold enormous potential.(8)
Betancur's initiative proved to be a disaster. Although nominally a Conservative, Betancur was a political maverick who never enjoyed the support of the country's elite or the military. As Pearce has observed, '[t]he army was hostile to the process from the beginning and most business elites and the majority of the traditional …