Colombia. Conquistadors to Capitalists: Peasants to Paramilitaries

Colombia is a country that is a perpetual contradiction, always moving forward whilst continuously taking a step back. The governments’ resolve to globalize as rapidly as possible while simultaneously strengthening the Colombian military has been an ambitious plan to consolidate political positions. For hundreds of years, the upper classes of Colombia’s society have controlled vast swathes of land, resources, the military and subsequently, the people; the peasants. Such a grip on the country has resulted in an oppressed, marginalized and exploited proletariat which has inevitably resulted in decades of violence and unrest. This piece will explore what the key causes have been in sustaining the continuous political instability and social unrest that has plagued Colombia for centuries. More specifically, I will emphasize how those underlying causes have translated to the creation of the modern day guerrilla and paramilitary movements.

Since the arrival of the first Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century, the indigenous peoples of South America have faced murder, enslavement and the appropriation of their lands and resources. Colombia was no exception. Indeed, as Hristov points out, “two intertwining motifs run throughout Colombia’s history: (1) social relations marked by inequality, exploitation, and exclusion and (2) violence employed by those with economic and political power over the working majority and the poor in order to acquire control over resources, forcibly recruit labor, and suppress or eliminate dissent.”[1] Out of the points that Hristov noted, the most devastating loss for the indigenous people of Colombia[2] was the loss of their common lands. Spanish control of indigenous lands caused two things to happen. The first was that indigenous groups were unable to continue living their traditional and self-sufficient agrarian ways of life that were slowly being eroded by various types of taxation imposed by the Spanish. As Bushnell points out, such taxes could take on different forms, “the tribute owed by an Indian to the Spanish (the encomendero[3]) could initially be in goods or labor or both.”[4] As a result, the roots of modern day social unrest would begin to take shape amongst these local populations, and as we will see later, still continue to battle oppression and inequality today. The other significant impact from the loss of lands was the indigenous dependency created by the Spanish on themselves. The introduction of a wage labor market combined with a crops for export economy meant less available arable land for natives to farm while simultaneously forcing them to adopt a wage labour way of life to pay for food, debts and other necessities. Indeed, as Hudson notes, “other systems of quasi-voluntary labor developed, too, while in early years some Amerindians were subjected to outright enslavement.”[5] While undoubtedly these were not the only difficulties facing indigenous populations during the colonization of Colombia, they served as the most powerful provocations for uprising amongst the rural indigenous peasant communities of Colombia.

Early in the nineteenth century as the Spanish crown was facing increased creole resistance for independent South American states, the indigenous peoples of the region were anticipating a future of positive social change. However, as Safford and Palacios point out, “ the wars of independence brought some significant social changes to New Granada, yet the creole aristocracy was able to retain a virtual unchallenged monopoly of power.”[6] While the creole aristocracy tightened their grip on power they also wanted to move the country forward economically; the newly created political elite was looking to join a globalizing world. Yet, the new political elite that was taking shape in the mid nineteenth century had its struggles. The emergence of two main political parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals would be the source of much conflict through their early stages up until the present day. “The intensity of party competition created a potentially unstable situation; petty outbreaks of violence at the local level were a normal accompaniment of election campaigns, and from time to time general civil war broke out.”[7] While politicians and their followers fought for positions of power, the majority population of the indigenous people and slaves were not a part of the political process. Palacios asserts, “the rural poor who were the vast majority of Colombians, were with few exceptions immune to the democratic virus (as many conservative critics considered it to be), and their daily lives were ruled by custom, religious belief, and inherited notions of deference and hierarchy.”[8] While the social and economic disparity between the majority rural poor of Colombia and the minority urban political elite are evident, the status quo would eventually buckle under the stresses of inequality and civic upheaval.

In effect, the political squabbles between the Liberals and Conservatives, essentially a struggle for power between the elites, led to La Violencia and inanely gave rise to guerrilla and paramilitaries. Consequently, increasing hostility in the government led to deeper political divisions within Colombia that would inevitably lead to all out civil war in 1948. The conflict became known as La Violenica[9]. According to Human Rights Watch, La Violencia “became one of the largest armed mobilizations of peasants in the hemisphere.”[10] And so, it is from this conflict that the modern guerrillas and paramilitaries rose from. “In all the years since then the agrarian frontier has been the theatre par excellence of guerrillas and counter guerrillas, both sides made up of young men (many just adolescents), unemployed or underemployed, in search of opportunity.”[11] Palacios makes a great point here, this lack of opportunity forcibly radicalized peasants who had no other option but to form or join guerrilla movements in the absence of any sort of legitimately functioning political system.

The end of La Violenica saw the Liberals and Conservatives come to a power sharing agreement where terms would be rotated under the new party of the National Front (NF or FN). The consolidation of power under the NF largely benefited the elite and failed to address the concerns of majority of the population. As Palacios notes, “the FN repressed political dissidence and sought to co-opt and control both the poor and the emerging middle classes by widening their patronage networks.”[12] These conditions directly contributed to the creation of the guerrilla and paramilitary movements. Additionally, Palacios goes on to argue that, “the FN was the golden age of gentlemen’s agreements between the leadership of the state and the quasi-corporative trade associations such as ANDO (industrialists), FENALCO (merchants), ASOBANCARIA (Banks), and SAC (large landowners).”[13] Certainly these sort of agreements further compounded feelings of discontent amongst the peasants who would feel the negative of effects from the Colombia’s audacious shift towards capitalism mostly through labour exploitation and loss of land. Kline brilliantly sums up how these negative effects translated on the ground towards the end of La Violencia. “In this environment, which was created by a weak and divided state, problems arose in Colombia. The guerillas entered with the justification of ideology, the drug dealers with the millions of dollars that their illicit trade produced, and the paramilitary squads with the rationalization that they were doing no more than protecting the basic human rights of life and property.”[14] Some of the significant guerilla groups that emerged from the left were the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Army of National Liberation (ELN) and the Movimiento 19 de Abril (M-19). Though these leftist guerrillas did indeed have differences, for the most part they all tried to protect peasants, wanted greater equality and were opposed to the mechanisms of capitalism and or American influence. In opposition to the emergence of the left wing guerrillas arose the paramilitaries that held the support of large landowners and politicians. As Amnesty International concluded in a report, “army brigade commanders and intelligence units attached to brigades and battalions in the conflict zones, recruited, armed, trained and supported paramilitary “self-defence” squads, while large landowners industrialists, regional politicians and later, drug-traffickers, gave them economic support.”[15] The largest and most brutal of the paramilitaries were the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUC), which was formed from many other smaller right wing factions. The right wing group was responsible for some of the worst atrocities in Colombia as they fought for money, power and to suppress the guerillas. The clash of ideologies between the right wing paramilitaries and the left wing guerillas is nothing new. Since colonization, both of these groups have existed in one form or another in a constant struggle against one another; the peasant proletariat against the bourgeois elite.

More recent developments in Colombia of AUC demobilization and the currently ongoing peace talks[16] with the FARC may seem promising but history would indicate that similar patterns of violence and instability will continue. As Hristov notes, “The fusion of the state with the paramilitary has created the illusion that there is lack of state – a notion as deceptive as the claim that paramilitarism disappeared after the demobilization process, an argument also made possible by this very fusion.”[17] Corporations, politicians and drug traffickers alike have all come to benefit from the presence of a private yet independent group of ruthless armed “protectors”. This relationship only served to perpetuate the feelings of animosity among the poorest populations in Colombia and thus the continued formation and existence of left wing armed resistance movements in Colombia.

Ultimately, the Spanish colonization of Colombia left an unmistakable impact on the people and the lands which reverberate to this day.   Neglect of indigenous and peasant populations combined with an insatiable appetite for wealth led to the imminent exploitation of both resources and labor. Furthermore, these exploits created the extreme conditions necessary for armed movements to emerge. A more in depth analysis could examine effects of foreign intervention in Colombia by global institutions, state actors and multinational corporations in the form of policy changes, economic and militarily aid. The deep-seated effects for foreign intervention very much continue to present issues of contention in Colombia that must be resolved. Indeed, the Spanish conquistadors created and left a lasting divide which paved the way for a continuous instability which will only be reconciled by meaningful dialogue, increased human rights, demilitarization and the cessation of elite capitalist exploitation.

[1] Hristov, Jasmin. Blood and Capital: The Paramilitarization of Columbia. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009. P. 3

[2] For the purposes of this essay I will be referring to (the Spanish colony of) New Granada and or the geographical region where the present day nation of Colombia now sits, as Colombia.

[3] Encomendero’s ran encomiendas. Encomienda’s were granted to Spanish conquerors and officials by the Spanish crown. Such grants included lands, indigenous people and other minerals and resources.

[4] Bushnell, David. The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself. Berkley: University of California Press, 1993. P. 13

[5] Hudson, Rex A., ed. Colombia: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 2010. P. 9

[6] Safford, Frank, and Marco Palacios. Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. P. 102

[7] Bushnell, David. The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself. Berkley: University of California Press, 1993. P. 118

[8] Palacios, Marco. Between Legitimacy and Violence: A History of Colombia, 1875-2002. Trans. Richard Stoller. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. P. 17

[9] La Violencia (1948 – 1965) was a civil war in Colombia between Conservatives, Liberals and the rising Communist party.

[10] Human Rights Watch. Colombia’s Killer Networks: The Military-paramilitary Partnership and the United States. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996. P. 10

[11] Palacios, Marco. Between Legitimacy and Violence: A History of Colombia, 1875-2002. Trans. Richard Stoller. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. P. 166

[12] Ibid., P. 170

[13] Palacios, Marco. Between Legitimacy and Violence: A History of Colombia, 1875-2002. Trans. Richard Stoller. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. P. 171

[14] Kline, Harvey F. State Building and Conflict Resolution in Colombia: 1986-1994. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 1998. P. 17

[15] Amnesty International. Political Violence in Colombia: Myth and Reality. London, U.K.: Amnesty International Publications, 1994. P. 52


[17] Hristov, Jasmin. Blood and Capital: The Paramilitarization of Columbia. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2009. P. 203


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