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The Story of the Colombian Civil War

Colombia has been at war with itself for more than fifty years and most people seem to have forgotten why. Whereas in somewhere like Israel everyone talks about the situation all the time, here it’s the last thing anyone would ever just chat about. It would bring everyone down.

So it wasn’t all that easy to find people who could explain to me what it was all about. Not only are people reluctant to talk about the war but they’re also paranoid of people who ask too many questions. My girlfriend put it this way:

“Look, if you show an interest in the conflict everyone will think that you have an interest. In some places in this country people lose their lives for saying the wrong thing.”

Oh. Even when i was writing this article at 3am my girlfriend woke up and helped me with a few of the facts – She suddenly fell silent as she heard a footstep outside. She was afraid that the soldiers who patrolled our street might be listening in.

A war is always an incredible complicated affair. It’s also just a bunch of men doing their best to kill the guys on the other side. This article is an explanation of the war in Colombia as far as i could understand it; a synopsis of the conflict gleaned from the opinions of whoever i could get to talk to me.

When facts contradict themselves and reason itself loses meaning in the incessant waves of blood and death, we can run to the refuge of metaphor. Someone described the war to me like this;

“It’s like the country got bit by a mosquito in 1948, we scratched and scratched the bite until to got infected and now it’s taken over 85% of the body, festering and in pain.”

There has always been fighting in Colombia, however and a testament to the insurmountable difference between the Liberals and the Conservatives is that they finally agreed to just share power, each side ruling for four years at a time.

The current rebels were originally the socialists fighting for the rights of the people. The good guys in the jungle fighting the army and demanding an end to the economic indifference so characteristic of South America. They received help from countries like Cuba which sympathized with their political aims but they were largely an army of peasants, incapable of really threatening the government.

Other elements in the country decided that the answer to their own lack of funds was not in war but in business. When the hippies found their freedom in the US in the 60’s the marijuana had to come from somewhere. Colombian entrepreneurs weren’t slow to realize that there was a tasty profit to be made. The best land for plantation happened to be in the hands of the guerillas and their help was needed to ensure a safe passage. The guerillas themselves were in no position to turn down an extra income.

Then when the 70’s made cocaine the glamour drug of choice for anyone who could afford it, business really began. Coke costs about a dollar a gram in Colombia and around 80 bucks in Europe and the States. Do your math and you’ll see why so many government officials, customs agents and freelance pilots between Bogota and LA were keen to get in on the action.

As powerful as the rising coke cartels were, they also depended upon the guerillas in the jungle to guard their plantations. Within a few years absurd fortunes were being made and the rebel army became a modern force capable of causing real civil unrest.

Meanwhile the big coke lords of Colombia were getting a little too big for their satin slippers. They took to shooting any policeman who dared walk the streets and casually offering to pay off the national debt. The government saw little alternative but to hunt them down. Despite the attractive bribes they’d been receiving for years.

It was going to take the guerillas some time to learn how to traffic drugs for themselves and in the meantime they were badly in need of more easy money. Perhaps some of their socialist perspectives were also slipping by the wayside as their leaders became very rich men. Kidnapping had previously been a sideline income but now it was stepped up to become a major source of revenue. The roads became unsafe to travel and anyone with anything to lose could consider themselves a potential target. Understandably, this new tactic hardly succeeded in winning the support of the people for whom they were supposed to be fighting.

The kidnapping business was going well until they kidnapped someone’s father, received the ransom and then executed him anyway. The son turned out to be a force of nature and he persuaded the government to fund an army of para-militaries, a well paid task force designed to exterminate the guerillas. Some say that the regular army spent more time hiding from encounters with the rebels than hunting them down.

But like Frankenstein’s monster, the para’s soon got out of control and set about executing any old illiterate farmer who allowed the guerillas to rob him of his chickens. When the government was forced to cut off aid to these self-styled murderers, they too turned to trafficking in narcotics and kidnapping. All part of being a man with a gun in Colombia.

So you have 20,000 para militaries in ruthless skirmishes with 40,000 guerillas who also fight with whichever units of the army can be bothered turning up. In the middle of all this blood-letting are millions of farmers living in fear and getting massacred each time one of the sides accuses them of collaborating with the other. They’re dispossessed of their land and they flee to the cities with a couple of chickens and a bagful of potatoes. You see them in the street in culture shock, without a clue as to what to do next. Soon after they’re generally to be seen in the gutter, sniffing glue, injecting alcohol or smoking crack.

So you have the para’s who pay so well that the poor flock to their ranks, the guerillas with teams of women giving birth to as many new soldiers as they can and whole generations growing up on crack in Los Angeles and Manchester. The petroleum companies suck out Colombia’s oil at absurdly low prices, other multi-nationals buy up the gold, coal and textiles and just about everyone profits. Except, of course, the people of Colombia who don’t walk around shooting each other.

The war takes place in the countryside but the guerillas and the para’s also plant militia in the cities and there are informants everywhere. The fear of kidnapping is an ever present reality and thus most of the beautiful country of Colombia is off limits.

Will it ever end? No one seems to agree. If it wasn’t for the coke business then it’s hard to imagine that the guerillas would be able to maintain a realistic threat. So some people tell me that if cocaine could only be legalized worldwide then the massive corruption and illegal profits would just fall away. The war on drugs waged by the US maintains the incredible profit margins and the money is invested in making everyone as miserable as possible.

Other people are less optimistic. One old guy told me:

“Look, war in this country has become an end in itself. As long as men can wield guns and take power for themselves by force they will always find a reason to keep on fighting. Men with guns.”