Do or Die

An article from Do or Die Issue 10. In the paper edition, this article appears on page(s) 140-148.


The Third World War has already started

This article is about Colombia, but it is also about the logic of capitalism - applied in a specific part of the world. In order to maintain access to energy resources that keep the scandalous luxury of the global minority, the already impoverished majority is being driven to misery and violent death. Those who speak out against this injustice are threatened, kidnapped, tortured, massacred. The energy resources I am talking about are hydroelectricity and, more notably, oil.

Back in Colombia, to build dams, oil wells and pipelines, the legitimate inhabitants are either displaced or killed in order to clear the land before the machinery moves in. The paramilitaries kill them; poisonous fumigation, supposedly for the coca crop, displaces them. The money and resources come from a 'Northern Brother' - the US - via the army and the government. This process is called Plan Colombia: $1.3 billion in US 'anti-drug' aid, sending 70 Black Hawk helicopters to skim the tree line and fumigate illicit coca crops with clouds of chemicals.

Colombians are not about victimism - they put on a brave face with a huge smile. Colombia enjoys an extremely cheerful and colourful culture; visitors from Europe always get the shock of the vision of poverty first, then how extremely whole-hearted, lively, optimistic and generous they are - like only poor people can be. Which does not mean they live in limbo. They know what is happening and know they can't believe the hype. Robert, a journalist turned human rights activist, told me that those who have a TV watch the news just as they watch the 'telenovelas', soap operas about impossible life stories that invariably come to a neat conclusion in the last episode.

They also do something about the situation in their country. Juan Carlos, or Juancho, is a peasant from the Caribbean coast who saw seven members of his family being killed by a death squad raid on his village. He now campaigns in the city, and sometimes comes to Europe. He told me of so many human rights activists and lawyers, unionists, indigenous leaders, who had been gunned down or kidnapped, that we would need another book to enumerate them: "Most of the best union leaders, journalists and human rights workers have been killed or are in the mountains. All high profile human rights lawyers are now dead. When they attempt to use the political system to analyse this they are exterminated." The amazing - yet natural - thing is, it doesn't alter the strength of the struggle.

A History of Struggle

It is always necessary to look back to the past to understand what is happening in the present. In 1903, Colombia lost Panama over the ratification of the lease to the USA of the Canal Zone. Then as the demand for manpower increased in the cities, migrations from the rural areas began in the 1940s. Social conflicts also sprang up in this decade, over land redistribution and labour reform. During this period, the liberal Jorge Eliecer Gaitán consolidated the political party UNIR ('Unión de Izquierda Revolucionaria' - Union of the Revolutionary Left), representing the popular masses. The party was welcomed across the country. The conflict escalated with the murder of Gaitán in 1948.

The first guerrilla groups appeared and there was a period known as 'La Violencia' (The Violence) which lasted until the early '50s, during which about 300,000 people died as popular movements were repressed. In the 1950s there was the first attempt to carry out an agrarian land reform, but many peasants were massacred and the process had to stop. The colonial structure was still in place, with a few landowners controlling most of the arable land. Another attempt at agrarian reform in the 1960s was also stopped, as many peasants and indigenous leaders were killed. In this decade, thousands of families left their lands and villages and organised themselves in the mountains. Many of them took up arms.

In 1964 a Communist Party-inspired peasant co-operative, calling itself the 'Independent Republic of Marquetalia', suffered a military attack supported by the US. Survivors of the attack proclaimed the 'Programa Agrario de las Guerrillas' (Guerrilla groups' agrarian programme), and in 1966 founded the FARC ('Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia'). The ELN ('Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional'), Colombia's second largest guerrilla army, was also founded around this time.

Peasants and Paramilitaries

With a programme deeply in consonance with the peasantry's long standing demands, especially in regions where the peasant and indigenous leaders were killed, the guerrillas filled that political space. As a response, the paramilitary groups were created, and the government legalised them in 1968 as a form to fight the guerrillas, and gave them the backing of the army.

In 1984 the first peace negotiations between the government and various guerrilla groups took place, resulting in a bilateral ceasefire and the demobilisation of most groups except FARC and ELN. Although attacks against guerrilla members proliferated and some guerrilla groups abandoned the ceasefire, the reaction of others was to create a political party to bring about change by 'democratic' means. Unión Patriótica (UP) was the union of political parties, grassroots lefty movements and guerrilla members that returned to civil life after the ceasefire. It participated in the elections of 1986, getting the best results for a lefty party until then.

During this process, and until 1990, more than 5,000 members were killed, including the two presidential candidates. Subsequent investigations revealed the existence of strong links between the perpetrators and members of military intelligence. The guerrillas who had remained in arms had supported UP - its treatment deepened their feeling that government promises of a normal civilian life in exchange for disarming were lies. They also doubted the government's ability to satisfy their political demands.

Paramilitaries were declared illegal in 1989. Little was done to disband them, though. Human rights groups have documented widespread post-1989 collaboration between Colombia's armed forces and the paramilitary groups. To mention but one, the Human Rights Watch report 'The Ties that Bind' states that specific brigades of the military do collaborate with paramilitaries who are committing atrocities against civilians. For Robert the difficulty is not in proving links between the army and the paramilitaries, but to differentiate between them: "They have the same arms, same uniform, same radio wave, same food rations, even the same commanders some times, and most operations are joint. It could be said that the paramilitaries are just one part of the army." It would be difficult to prove this and stay alive; however he was in contact with army troops and this is what he was told: "If you work for the army, one day you get told: 'You have 5 days off, see you back then'. But before you go off, you are required to put on a mask and put yourself under the command of paramilitaries."

Bloody Petroleum

Nowadays, approximately 62% of Colombians live in poverty, of which 10 million (25%) live in absolute poverty. 21% are unemployed, while the 1.5% who are landowners control 80% of the useful land area. The legal products it exports are oil, coffee, coal, bananas and flowers. Coca is a major export too. As for oil, the United States imports more of it from Colombia and its neighbours Venezuela and Ecuador than from all the Persian Gulf countries combined - and that is with less than half of the suspected 'oil territory' having been explored. This, however, is on its way to being amended: in June 2001 the largest oil discovery since the 1980s was announced. And international consortia (otherwise known as transnational corporations) plan to exploit the vital oil needed in the North for survival.

The ELN in particular targets Colombia's oil sector, which it regards as dominated by foreign interests. Bombings of pipelines and energy infrastructure (such as power lines) are frequent. Usually oil exploration will mean the displacement of the population that is settled in the land, that sometimes even owns it. Most times the displacement takes place well before the machinery moves in, so the faces of massacres and oil exploration don't get linked in the 'mainstream media'.

However some instances - like the one in which British Petroleum (BP) was involved - do reach the 'mainstream media'. It happened in 1996, with BP's Cusiana-Coveñas pipeline in the region of Zaragoza. Through different subsidiaries, BP owns two different pipelines that cross the region, in northern Antioquia. The two pipelines pass through farms and have caused significant environmental damage - stripped trees, moved earth, and other pipe works - with serious erosion, avalanches, diversions of streams and the destruction of 150 sources of water. While some of the reparation works were in progress, animals got poisoned and fruit trees and other crops were lost. In some cases, this forced peasants off their lands. But 300 peasants who stayed have since claimed compensation[1]. This 'inconvenience' to the company could have been avoided by previously displacing the farmers. Not to say that BP ever planned to do so here, although there have been, in the past, links between 'Beyond Petroleum' and paramilitaries, well documented, proven and admitted.

In 1992, a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights linked former army commander General Hernán Guzmán Rodríguez to a paramilitary group responsible for 149 murders from 1987 to 1990[2]. It turned out that he had been hired to provide security for BP. In 1995 the Colombian President's human rights adviser, Attorney-General and Ombudsman made specific allegations that "BP passed photographs and videos of local protesters to the army, which human rights groups say led to killings, disappearances, torture and beatings"[3]. BP has admitted paying a 'war tax' for army protection to stop left-wing guerrillas kidnapping senior staff and attacking oil installations. They "also made additional voluntary contributions to Colombian military spending which it claimed were to provide soldiers with good food and accommodation."[4]

Guerrilla Groups

I asked Juancho about these allegations of guerrillas kidnapping staff and attacking installations: "The second biggest oil drilling site in Colombia," says Juancho, "is Cañon Limon; it gets blown up every day by the guerrillas. Last year in February they just couldn't drill at all." Robert explained the 'taxing process': "After Plan Colombia was announced, FARC has produced a law, 'Ley 002', which states 'every company or individual in Colombia, either Colombian or foreigner, who has assets of more than one million dollars, must pay taxes to FARC'. So in Colombia, if you are rich you must pay taxes to FARC. If you don't, you are kidnapped and taken to a FARC jail in the mountains. If it is a company not paying, the premises get blown up - always without people inside. It is usually cheaper to pay."

Can this not be considered a human rights abuse? "In the UK, whether you are rich or poor, you must pay taxes to the state. If you don't, you are taken to jail and your assets get auctioned. It seems the same process to me. In my view, it is a worse abuse to have the resources and hold them when there is so much need in the country, or next door to the rich. There is this particular town under FARC control, where the head offices of big companies need to send one representative once a year and pay. Then they are left alone for that year. So you will see an expensive jeep in this town with no roads, and a man in a suit, with all these peasants in poor clothes looking at him, as he looks around lost with this thick case handcuffed to his wrist."

It was to fight this kind of guerrilla activity that paramilitary groups were created. However, it seems to be doing the contrary. Juancho has been in the FARC'S 'demilitarised zone' and he knows why much of the population supports the guerrillas: "FARC control about one half of Colombia. This is impossible to maintain without civil support. It would be impossible for them to even survive, let alone to hold power in the region, without that support. About three quarters of the members of guerrilla groups come from poor families, with no education. About one quarter come from universities: students, reformist activists, professors. Samuel Trinidad was professor of economics, he is now a FARC commander. Ivan Marquez, left-wing politician, member of Congress, is now a member of the central command of FARC. And many more. Lots of commanders, about 30 or 40, were union leaders and Communist Party activists before. Student leaders are now in the various guerrilla groups." Another reason for this support is the fact that in some areas, every family has an acquaintance in the guerrillas. When a town gets displaced, or when a human rights lawyer suffers too many assassination attempts, there are not many other options but to go to the guerrillas.

In 1999, the ELN demanded a 'clearance zone' be established, similar to that granted to the FARC. Here, they intended to negotiate their peace agenda through a several-month 'convention' with Colombia's civil society and popular groups. Since early 2000, the government and ELN agreed in principle to establish a temporary zone in two municipalities in southern Bolívar department. The zone has yet to be established, however, due to the active and at times violent resistance of paramilitary groups who control much of the area to be 'demilitarised'.

Death Squads and Drug War

Paramilitaries are widely considered to be responsible for about 80% of human rights abuses in Colombia. But when it comes to the numbers of those murdered, only a very poor estimate is possible. More often than not, after a massacre, body parts appear separated from each other, making it difficult - if not impossible - to identify or even count the victims. It is also difficult to determine if those parts were cut off before or after killing the victim. Therefore it is almost impossible to determine the numbers of those 'just' killed, those tortured and those tortured before killing. Torture is not unusual as a way of killing civilians, especially when they are union members or politically active members of peasant and indigenous communities. Those surviving these massacres have only the option to leave a deserted village, where they saw their families being slaughtered - they either emigrate to a big city, to add to the unemployed masses, or they disappear in the mountains, where they will join the guerrillas.

If paramilitary massacres are an 'efficient' way of displacing population to clear the land, fumigation by aerial spraying is another one. The excuse is to eradicate cocaine production, but there is so much evidence that what fumigation does is to move the coca crops further into the forest (thus forcing peasants to destroy it in order to survive). According to Juancho: "Fumigation has been going on for many years. It began intensively in 2000, but only where guerrillas are strong. Orovar Cordoba is a region strong with coca, and there are lots of laboratories dedicated to coca processing there, but it is controlled by death squads so it has never been targeted. The paramilitaries are funded by that drugs money. They produce the crop, they process and traffic it. The area has been never targeted by Plan Colombia."

In case Juancho fails to convince us, here are the words of Stan Goff, a former US Special Forces Intelligence sergeant, quoted in October by Bogotá daily the Espectador. According to him, Plan Colombia's purpose is "defending the operations of Occidental, British Petroleum and Texas Petroleum and securing control of future Colombian fields. The main interest of the United States is oil." Goff retired in 1996 from the unit that trains the Colombian anti-narcotics battalions: "We never mentioned the words coca or narco-trafficker in our training. The objective of our operations was not the Colombians but the Americans who pay taxes for the investment made in Colombia. The objective continues to be oil. Look where American forces are - Iraq, the Caspian Sea, Colombia - places where we expect to find petroleum reserves." Plan Colombia also means new intelligence bases: "Nobody knows about the intelligence component. For now, the biggest CIA station in the world is in Bogotá."

One 'defence' for fumigation spraying is that coca funds the guerrillas: "FARC tax the drug business. They don't tax peasants who grow it. They target one level up - people who buy the leaves and process it. They also target big factories of, say, socks, restaurant chains, banks, millionaires, and multinational companies. They call them drug guerrillas, but they could call them car guerrillas, or beer guerrillas, they tax drug business as they tax any other business, their activity is just taxation."

Two kinds of weapons are used in the fumigation: biological and chemical. The biological weapon is a genetically modified fungus, 'Fusarium Oxysporum' or EN4; the chemical weapon is gliphosate, produced by Monsanto and called Round Up, some times Round Up Ultra. The fungus spores are dispersed from planes over the coca plantations. In the soil, the fungus reproduces and kills the coca, surviving in the soil for up to 5 years after destroying the coca. Which means that nothing else will grow during that time. And because the fungal herbicide does not distinguish between coca and other crops like bananas - and neither do the planes, spraying them from hundreds of meters up - alternative crops will be destroyed too, and with them the efforts of years of sustainable coca eradication programmes. Having lost their food crops as well as coca, peasants cut down more jungle to replant[5].

The ecological implications of this war strategy are unpredictable, as current science is not in a position to predict the effects of fungi or bacteria in alien ecosystems[6]. So far, what has been researched and documented is the phenomenon of epidemics. Fumigation often affects sources of water too; when the water gets poisoned it poisons crops, animals and humans, and illnesses no-one has seen before proliferate.

Death or Total Change

The results of these different kinds of what Juancho calls 'war against the people', are that "each year, some 300,000 new refugees are driven from their homes, with a death toll of about 3,000 and many horrible massacres."[7] Official statistics reveal that in the year 2000, 480 villages were affected by displacement. The DefensorÌa del Pueblo (Ombudsman) admitted that 128,843 had been displaced in 2000, while other sources counted 317,375 (CEDHU, Ecuador). According to the World Bank Development Report in that year fifteen thousand fled the country. As Juancho puts it, there is a real situation of civil war in Colombia: "One union leader/worker is killed every day. In the context of this war, about 72 are killed a day".

As in other zones in a situation of conflict, there is also a peace process going on: "The government is only using the peace process to wait for the aid from the USA to arrive. It will take about 2 or 3 years for Plan Colombia to be fully implemented. The money has already been planned, but it takes time to build the promised helicopters, to train the militaries, to set up intelligence systems, with those huge computer databases, and train people to use them. That takes time to be implemented. The government is using this time to get FARC less militaristic, to do this it is promising the reforms FARC are seeking, and have them weakened when the USA aid is ready."

The reforms FARC are after are those of the unions and peasants: land reform, social change. "But the government, and the oligarchy, of which the family of Pastrana [the Colombian President] is an important part, won't give anything they are promising. All those documents, all those rhetoric words, what lies behind is the government saying 'Let's sit and talk peace', the guerrillas sitting and saying 'We want land reforms, human rights, a halt to massacres, economic resources for all, etc.' Then the government replies 'We won't give them', then the guerrillas get up and leave. There is no peace process anywhere, there is only an oligarchy winning time."

At the time of writing these lines the peace process is not only stopped, but the demilitarised zone where FARC rules has been bombed - which of course has been ignored by our media. I had to ask what the situation is after September 11th: "On the 12th of September the head of the army appeared on TV and said that FARC were terrorists. Union leaders, and human rights activists are just said to be terrorists and put in jail. Sometimes they get killed, sometimes they don't. They are never charged (there is no evidence that they are terrorists) and they are never taken to court. It is just the last tactic to criminalise opposition. They just call them terrorists; before, they were drug traffickers, the name just changed in one day."

It looks like activists are globally considered terrorists now. Robert puts it this way: "Any peaceful attempt to change things leads to its promoters getting killed. But things are changing. That's why they kill them, there is a real possibility of change and that is why. It is a war between the people, especially poor people, and the status quo." Juancho puts it this way: "The people are very strong, they have the power. Either all the left is killed or take power. Either they all die or it will change." They both think that "Colombia has the greatest chance to change the system, than any other country, at this moment in history.".


1) Colombia Report, 13th August 2001, published by the Colombia Peace Association.
2) See: for more information.
3) David Harrison and Melissa Jones in The Observer, 20 October 1996.
4) See:
5) 'Anti-drugs plan threatens Colombian peasants', Jeremy McDermott, in 'Heinz Dieterich Steffan', 1st August 2000.
6) See: for more information.
7) The Colombia Plan, Noam Chomsky, April 2000.

CAP: Members of an elite counter-insurgency unit of the Colombian armed forces.

CAP: Indigenous protest in Coiyama, Tolima department. The banner reads "Stop the Killing of Indigenous Peoples".

FARC that for a game of soldiers

It seems all too easy sometimes for radicals in the west to become uncritical cheerleaders of national liberation movements in the 'Third World'. Sometimes in solidarity circles, critical discussion is sidestepped by the mantra 'It is not for us to tell people in other countries how to lead their struggles'. And then it is assumed that whichever is the biggest organisation - be it the PLO, the ANC, the Viet Cong or the FARC - is the only authentic 'voice of the people'.

CAP: Members of M-19, the April 19 Movement, handing over their weapons in March 1990 after the group's formal surrender.

This kind of solidarity only encourages authoritarian organisations to be even more repressive towards other groups seeking change, or internal dissent.

In the case of Colombia there is clear evidence of the FARC's repression of other left-wing groups. Some of it comes from the bourgeois media. But not all. For example, the second largest guerrilla group the ELN (National Liberation Army) have denounced killings of their militants by the FARC in the east of the province of Antioquia on their website.[1] And a smaller group, the EPL (People's Liberation Army) denounced massacres of their militants through the December 2000 issue of Revolución, the newspaper of their political wing. Then there is the small matter of the 'collateral damage' caused in all of the operations of these groups, which has been fully exploited by local media to worsen yet further their credibility among ordinary people.

But all this is not simply a result of regrettable but unavoidable 'errors'. Rather it flows from the politics of organisations steeped in the Leninist tradition and the separation of 'the (armed) vanguard' and the 'masses'. This is a tradition which has been amply critiqued by its libertarian and communist counterpart, and indeed by many Colombians, who see the armed groups as basing their whole strategy around organisational self-preservation. And self-preservation is a key issue. The real story of the last few years is the ability of the right-wing paramilitaries to recruit urban youth: even gang members who once participated in the guerrillas' previous attempts to set up an urban front.[2] It is they who now control urban neighbourhoods and villages, with the guerrillas pushed out into more rural areas. With the growth of the 'paras', the war itself has become increasingly barbaric. Disillusionment and cynicism, rather than revolutionary hopes, are the dominant feeling among new generations after decades of warfare. But local echoes of the wider anti-capitalist movement can counter this effect, as recent carnival type protests in Bogotá to coincide with anti-ALCA (the Americas Free Trade Agreement) and WTO actions have shown.[3] As elsewhere, there is a sense of the need to go beyond authoritarian, militarist solutions of the old left, without necessarily falling into pacifism or reformism.[4].


1) See:
2) See Alonso Salazar, 'Viaje al interior de los paras' (Journey to the centre of the 'paras') in Semana magazine, March 25 2002.
3) For a report see:
4) A libertarian view from Colombia of the situation can be found in 'Civil War in Colombia', Organize No. 55. Also, between 1992 and 2000 articles by the (now defunct) Alas de Xue collective in Bogotá were published in the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist magazine CNT - including a very full report on the March 1998 Bogotá Libertarian Gathering (CNT, October 1998).


Coordinadora Libertaria Banderas Negras
The co-ordinating body of anarchist and similar groups in Colombia, who organised the April 2002 Libertarian Days in Bogotá.

Desde Abajo magazine:

Colombia Indymedia:

Colombia Refugee Association (CORAS)
36 Vauxhall Street, London SE1 5LG, England.

Colombian Anarchist Statement

We reject the escalation in the war caused by the breakdown of talks between the government and the FARC. Likewise we reject the official version according to which this breakdown was 'caused' by the kidnapping of a senator, because there is evidence that it was planned well in advance: Plan Colombia required this escalation in order to see through its business, in the shape of the arms deal made between the Colombian state and the North American capitalists.

We consider that the best response is a radical opposition to the war, which recognises that the war will not de-escalate without concessions on the part of the state. This opposition includes a generalised civil resistance: not only against guerrilla attacks[1] but also based on actions such as: Direct action/desertion from the different armies; non-payment campaigns against the war being waged by the state and the bourgeoisie on the population, for example refusing to pay the public utilities bills;[2] strikes, including a political strike for peace.

We reject the way in which politicians and mayors - such as Bogotá mayor Antonios Mockus - support 'civil resistance' when at the same time they support policies which harm the people. We also reject the biased stance of the media, in particular Colombian TV, who use terrorist acts to spread disinformation and fear among the population, and as a way to improve their ratings. We support a social revolution which does not have to wait till 'after the war', and which is made by everyone, not just an armed vanguard. Historically it has been shown that an authoritarian, hierarchical opposition only creates a new elite of oppressors, in which exploitation continues despite images to the contrary. We think opposition to the war should focus on its causes: the defence at any cost of the profits made by the Colombian state and national and foreign capital from the exploitation of the majority of Colombians. Those who benefit include arms dealers, drug traffickers, politicians, the media, large property owners and financiers, and all those on whichever side who profit from the war and the suffering of the people..

- Signed by various anarchist and sympathetic collectives in Bogotá and Medellin. Issued March 2002, after the breakdown of peace talks.


1) Translator's note: This refers to the widely publicised cases of unarmed villagers filling the streets of their villages in order to dissuade the guerrillas from launching an attack (usually aimed at the police station but affecting anyone and anything in the way).
2) Translator's note: This refers to the way Colombian electricity companies increase their charges, using the cost of damages caused by guerrilla attacks as an excuse but obviously charging the consumer way above what corresponds to the costs of these damages.

U'wa Victory!

Since November of 1999 the U'wa Indians have engaged in mass peaceful protest against oil exploration on their traditional lands in Colombia by the Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum. They have blockaded exploration work and mobilised to protect their land and way of life, despite government violence that has killed three and injured dozens. Early in 2000, nearly 3,000 local farmers, union members, and students joined the U'wa in nonviolent blockades and protests near the Gibraltar 1 well site. The military responded violently, and in February a confrontation between peaceful protesters and the military resulted in the deaths of three indigenous children. On June 24 2000, approximately 400 Colombian anti-riot police and soldiers entered indigenous territory in the department of Norte de Santander, attacking two hundred peaceful U'wa people who were blockading a road near the town of Cubara. The police and soldiers removed the U'wa from the blockade through the use of tear gas and physical blows. The next day, some sixty soldiers and police again physically attacked a group of U'wa peacefully assembled in Cubara. U'wa spokespeople reported that at least twenty-eight people were injured, some requiring medical attention, and that up to seventy people had been detained. But in May 2002 what has been a hellish struggle for the U'wa resulted in a major victory: Occidental announced that they would no longer drill for oil on their land - having already spent $16 billion on exploration work! Unfortunately Spanish company Repsol - who are involved in the devastating OCP pipeline through the Ecuadorian Amazon - are waiting to pick up where Occidental left off.

Do or Die DTP/web team: