Hounded By Paramilitary Threats and State Smears, Can the New Voice of Colombia's Left Forge Peace?


At the end of April, tens of thousands of Colombians from across the country descended on the capital city of Bogota to announce the birth of a new political movement – the Marcha Patriotica (Patriotic March). The streets were filled with representatives of communities on the front lines of Colombia’s struggles against violence, poverty and environmental destruction, united in their calls for a “second and definitive independence.”

Yet this new movement was born with an old stigma. Marcha Patriotica’s calls for a negotiated peace, economic justice and deeper democracy were quickly drowned out by other voices, denouncing the movement as a terrorist front. First the military and the police, then the media and politicians lined up to accuse Marcha Patriotica of being a political tool for the leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – the FARC.

After the accusations came the threats. Following the Bogota march, the movement’s leaders received a message signed the Aguilas Negras (Black Eagles) – a name used by right-wing paramilitary groups. The missive declared the Marcha’s leadership “military targets” and told them “you only have a few days left to abandon the city.” Already, local organizers have disappeared and one member has been murdered, giving rise to fears of a new political bloodletting reminiscent of the darkest days of Colombia’s recent past.

If the Marcha is to realize its primary goal of “peace with social justice,” it must also contend with a weakened but increasingly aggressive guerrilla insurgency and a government that risks political destruction if it is seen as “soft” on the guerrillas. Nevertheless, both sides of the conflict have recently edged toward peace with backhanded concessions and tentative calls for talks. Marcha Patriotica was born with stigma and fear, but also a cautious optimism.

A New Voice

The Marcha Patriotica was two years in the making as organizers gathered support from over 1,500 social movements representing a broad range of grassroots leftists and the disenfranchised. One of those organizers, David Florez, is a leader in the student movement and currently one of the Marcha’s national spokespeople. “We considered it necessary to build a political movement of the left that responds to another dynamic,” Florez said, “that doesn’t neglect social or popular mobilizations, that doesn’t neglect the demands of students, the indigenous, workers, Afro-Colombians, campesinos and neighborhood organizations ... [but instead] represents these dynamics and practices a new form of politics from these dynamics.”

Despite the diversity of groups involved in the Marcha Patriotica, Florez insists they share a common political vision. “All [of these groups] have set themselves up against the neo-liberal model and the commodification of society,” he said. In Bogota, the movement united to produce a 17-point platform that challenges the current economic model and calls for sweeping political changes, protection for minorities and the environment, land reform and solidarity based integration with Colombia’s Latin American neighbors.

However, the cornerstone of the Marcha Patriotica’s platform and of the movement itself remains its proposals for ending Colombia’s 50-year internal conflict and transitioning to peace. The movement’s main demand and objective is a negotiated peace with Colombia’s leftist rebels, the FARC and the ELN – the National Liberation Army – that addresses “the structural problems that created [the conflict].” To prepare the way for this “peace with social justice,” the movement has called for the exchange of guerrilla hostages for imprisoned insurgents and a reparation and restitution process for victims of state and paramilitary violence.

“The Marcha could have a fundamental role in peace negotiations,” said Florez. “These politics are not an exclusive issue for the state; it has to be a process that the state but also Colombian society and political movements participate in.”

The Guerilla Stigma

Most of the leaders elected to form the small group of Marcha Patriotica spokespeople are familiar and often divisive figures in Colombian politics. Crossing the political spectrum from the Liberal Party to the Communist Party, some of them have spent years fighting rumors about their guerrilla connections because of their peace campaigning, leftist activism or political connections.

Two of them, ex-senator, peace campaigner and hostage negotiator Piedad Cordoba, and director of communist magazine Voz (Voice) Carlos Lozano, were named as guerrilla allies in files taken from a laptop seized in the raid that killed FARC second-in-command Raul Reyes in 2008. The emails, which implicated a raft of Colombian leftists as well as the neighboring governments of Venezuela and Ecuador, were ruled inadmissible as evidence by the Colombian courts after an Interpol analysis revealed there had been a three-day period when the laptops could have been tampered with. The cases against those accused collapsed and not one of the spokespeople has been convicted of aiding the guerrillas.

Even before April’s march, the same accusations of guerrilla connections were being leveled at the Marcha Patriotica and again files from a seized laptop were proffered as evidence--this time from the military raid that killed FARC commander Mono Jojoy in 2010. Officials announced they had proof of the FARC’s involvement in the formation of the Marcha Patriotica in the form of an incriminating email, allegedly sent to then FARC Supreme Leader Alfonso Cano by Ivan Marquez--another member of the guerrillas’ ruling secretariat. The email was quoted in media reports as including the suggestion to “institutionalize the Marcha Patriotica.”

However, the email itself, obtained by Colombian investigative news Web site La Silla Vacia, makes no mention of the Marcha Patriotica, although it does use phrases that echo the movement’s rhetoric. It also discusses the formation of a “political and social movement defined as a broad leftist front,” but does so in the context of the guerrillas’ long-term plans to build a far-reaching militarily, socially, politically and culturally integrated movement with a broad base of support in and outside the country--a movement that bears little resemblance to the increasingly isolated and unpopular insurgency of today.

Along with the email, the Ministry of Defense handed over two other documents to La Silla Vacia, which were seized from FARC camps early this year and late last year, according to the Ministry. One of the documents includes orders to make connections with the Marcha leadership while the other, which is undated, contains instructions to order local communities to participate in the Marcha Patriotica.

La Silla Vacia was also told how four demobilized guerrillas had mentioned the FARC’s intention to infiltrate the movement and was allowed to interview one of them at the ministry. According to the Web site, the former guerrilla said the FARC did not play a role in the formation of the movement but had tried to infiltrate it by converting those “with the best resumes” into FARC cadres.

The Marcha Patriotica leadership has adamantly denied having any ties to the guerrillas. “We have said from the first day that we have nothing to do with the insurgency,” said David Florez. “We have absolutely nothing to hide.”

Florez believes the accusations are part of a campaign waged by sectors of the state to discredit and stigmatize the movement. “The idea is to generate a political environment that legitimizes the disappearance of this movement,” he said.

New Fear, Old History

The movement’s leaders received a chilling reminder of how dangerous it is to be seen as the political wing of the rebels in the death threat sent by the Aguilas Negras. The message compared the Marcha Patriotica to the Union Patriotica (Patriotic Union) – a political party created in 1984 as part of a peace process with the FARC, which attracted a broad range of leftists, progressives and peace campaigners as well as activists with direct ties to the guerrillas. The Union Patriotica (UP) was systematically exterminated by far-right paramilitary groups backed by state security forces in a “political genocide” that left an estimated 3,000 – 5,000 UP activists, candidates and sympathizers dead.

Public comparisons between the two movements have taken on an increasingly nervous tone since two local Marcha Patriotica leaders disappeared and one member of the movement, who was also a former bodyguard to one of its leading spokespeople, was murdered. Although the investigations have yet to yield proof as to what happened or why, Marcha leaders have denounced how “the aggressive and hostile climate against the Marcha instigated these crimes.”

Ivan Cepeda is a Colombian congressman with the leftist party Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA), a leading figure in the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE) and a prominent supporter of the Marcha Patriotica. His father Manuel was the last UP representative in the senate when he was assassinated in 1994 in a joint operation between paramilitaries and the Colombian security forces. The fear of history repeating itself hangs heavy over the Marcha Patriotica but Cepeda, himself the subject of numerous death threats and alleged assassination plots, remains defiant. “This is not going to restrict our political activity,” he said.

To ensure that the violence that wiped out the UP is not repeated, Cepeda called on the authorities to stop publicly linking the movement to the rebels. “We have seen on many occasions what happens in Colombia when [people] begin to comment in public opinion that someone or a movement is connected to the guerrillas – the attacks come immediately,” he said.

However, it is not just a nervous left that has been comparing the two movements. As UP activists were being picked off one by one in the 1980s, the FARC used the withering peace process to build up its military strength. The pause in hostilities aided the rebels’ later expansion throughout the country, which was accompanied by an expansion in kidnapping, terror tactics, human rights abuses, a deepening involvement in the drug trade and a widespread loss of public legitimacy. That the guerrillas will again use a political movement to ease the military pressure or to return to the strategy of the “combination of all forms of struggle” is now a vocal preoccupation of the Colombian right.

“Some, useful idiots, analyze the Marcha Patriotica as a positive scenario, that shows the start of the FARC’s transition to politics and peace,” read a newspaper column by Francisco Santos, cousin of President Juan Manuel Santos and vice-president under his predecessor Alvaro Uribe. “... [But] just like what happened with the Union Patriotica, the FARC will coordinate teams committed to armed struggle with these voluntaryists of peace, using them as cannon fodder.”

Colombia’s Changing Terrain

The chances of the Marcha Patriotica succeeding where the UP failed not only depend on how the government and the guerrillas react to the movement, but also on a rapidly evolving conflict and a changing political climate.

At the turn of the century, the FARC had an estimated 16,000 fighters and controlled an area the size of Switzerland that was ceded to it in a doomed peace process. It is now believed to be half that size after controversial President Alvaro Uribe launched a military assault that saw the Colombian army, financed by the U.S. aid program Plan Colombia and frequently colluding with paramilitaries, drive the insurgents out of their territory, leaving a trail of human rights abuses in their wake. However, the rebels regrouped and reorganized, and although no longer capable of controlling large territories, they have been increasingly effective after switching to hit-and-run guerrilla tactics. The number of attacks began to rise again in 2004 and has been increasing sharply and consistently since 2007. Last year the FARC launched 2,148 attacks -- surpassing their 2002 peak for the first time, according to Colombian think tank and conflict monitoring group Nuevo Arco Iris.

Despite their increasing aggression, earlier this year the FARC announced they would be interested in a “hypothetical negotiating table.” Shortly after, they declared they had renounced kidnapping and would release their last “political” hostages (though they retain hundreds more who were kidnapped to extort ransoms) -- a move interpreted by some as an opening gambit for negotiations. Around the same time, the ELN sent an open letter to the government calling for a new peace process, a call the group recently reiterated.

Just as significant for the Marcha Patriotica and for any new peace process has been recent political changes that have created new space for negotiation.

Throughout Uribe’s presidency, the prospect of a new peace process remained remote -- especially as his iron fist policies were enthusiastically supported by large sections of a Colombian population that was weary of war but cynical about peace. A negotiated peace, though, has crept closer to becoming a reality under his successor Juan Manuel Santos, even though Santos was elected pledging to continue the security policies he put into place as Uribe’s defense minister.

Since coming to power in 2010, Santos has softened the tough and divisive rhetoric of his predecessor. He has also taken steps seen by some as tentative peace overtures, such as officially recognizing Colombia has an internal conflict, implementing a land restitution law for conflict victims and the recently passed “Legal Framework for Peace,” which lays down conditions and benefits for demobilizing armed actors.

A Middle Way?

Whether Santos sees the Marcha Patriotica as part of any future peace process remains unclear. The welcome he extended to the movement was frosty, although not dismissive. “It enriches our democracy to have more voices and more spaces for all political expressions,” he said in a statement that did not mention the Marcha Patriotica by name but was released days after April’s march. “But what we cannot allow is ambiguities: It is in legality or it is in illegality.”

However, despite Santo’s public assertion that “there is no middle way,” some analysts still believe the Marcha Patriotica will play a key, if controversial, role if the president opens negotiations.

The director of Nuevo Arco Iris, Leon Valencia--who is also a former ELN guerrilla-- believes that although the Marcha Patriotica’s most prominent figures and many others in the movement share little more than a platform of social change with the guerrillas, members who come from the parts of the country controlled by the rebels have direct ties. “It is evident that behind this there is support from these insurgent organizations – it is in inarguable,” he said. “They are directly influenced by them; they have lived with them all their lives,” he added.

However, Valencia believes these connections could represent Colombia’s best chance for a new peace process. “What is good about this is that there is a movement of the insurgency that wants to open a political space to bring it to peace,” he said. “These political spaces work to pull the armed guerrillas into civilian life,” he added.

Valencia believes the success of the movement and, ultimately, of any peace process lies with being able to learn from past mistakes, especially from the Union Patriotica tragedy. “We have to hope that first, the state respects this civil and political movement from the zones and with the leaders and people who have an ideological connection or sympathy for the guerrillas,” he said, “and also to hope that the guerrillas are not so stupid this time as to support a civil and political movement but not use it for a peace process.”

For negotiations to have any chance of success, Valencia believes, the Marcha Patriotica must be protected and allowed the freedom to develop. “If you close the political doors on the guerrillas then the war is going to continue,” he said. “On the contrary, the job of the state is to protect this political movement and create the possibility that these politics grow, and, at the same time, start a direct peace negotiation process with the guerrillas.”

A Movement Dependent On Peace

While a negotiated peace is at the core of the Marcha Patriotica’s platform, it is far from its only objective and the movement’s wider aim remains a broad transformation of a Colombian society that remains one of the world’s most unequal.

However, the measure of its success will remain tied to a peace process that is dependent on warring parties with a shared history rife with paranoia and mistrust.

For Ivan Cepeda, the ability of the Marcha Patriotica to bring a political alternative to Colombia hinges on bringing those parties together. “The sectors that the Marcha Patriotica represents are located in the geographical zone of the armed conflict, so it is very important the peace process begins because this would open the door to political participation for these rural sectors,” he said. “If it can open a peace process,” he added, “that is the indispensable condition for the Marcha Patriotica to go forward.”

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