‘Peace With Justice Is Still a Long Way Away’ – CounterSpin interview with Mario Murillo on Colombian accords

Janine Jackson interview Mario Murillo about the Colombian peace accords for the September 23, 2016, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Mario Murillo

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Janine Jackson: The peace deal signed between the government of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC, the largest and oldest insurgency in Latin America, is historic. More than 50 years of fighting have killed more than 220,000 Colombians, overwhelmingly poor civilians. These years have seen executions, disappearances, detentions, torture. The violence has forced some 7 million people from their homes, the largest number of internally displaced people in the world.

But government negotiator Humberto de la Calle was careful in speaking to the Associated Press to say that the accord, to be approved by referendum on October 2, does not promise peace, but simply an end to hostilities with the FARC; true reconciliation will take much longer.

Joining us now to talk about why that is is Mario Murillo. He’s a professor of radio, television and film at Hofstra University, and author of Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization. Welcome to CounterSpin, Mario Murillo.

Mario Murillo: It’s great to be back with you.

JJ: I think this CNN piece captures the emphasis of much US coverage. It says:

The outcome is not certain—the call for amnesty for the guerillas involved in the war that killed up to 220,000 people and forced millions more from their homes is particularly controversial.

Former President Alvaro Uribe Velez opposes the peace deal, saying it gives “impunity” to murderers and kidnappers. Current President Juan Manuel Santos has promised that justice will be served, but details are not clear.

What that tells me is: The FARC were a source of violence, and if they lay down their arms, there will be peace. The main problem is, they want to escape punishment for horrors they committed, and people resent that. How do you respond to that as a sum-up of history and of public opinion?

MM: Well, this is the narrative that has been shaped for decades, really, in Colombia: that the atrocities that have been carried out in Colombia—which you outlined pretty clearly in terms of displacement, in terms of massacres, in terms of deaths, in terms of civilian casualties—was the work of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC, that they have the blood on their hands and there’s hell to pay for it. And this is the way it’s been, pretty much, for the last 20 years in terms of media coverage, and in terms of US foreign policy, public pronunciations, in terms of the political debate in Colombia — that the FARC are the primary culprits.

What this overlooks, conveniently, is the fact that the Colombian armed forces, and their allies in the paramilitary groups that have emerged in many different manifestations over the last 20, 25 years, have just as much if not more blood on their hands, and that when we talk about an amnesty right now, in this particular peace accord between the government of Santos and the FARC, it’s not only talking about FARC responsibilities, but also military responsibilities for the atrocities they carried out during this war. Unfortunately, that’s not emphasized at all in most of the coverage. It’s almost like a footnote in the coverage, and it’s as if there’s outrage because the FARC are going to get amnestied for all these atrocities.

It also overlooks that in 2006–2007, when the former president that you referred to, Alvaro Uribe, who’s kind of the poster child of the anti-FARC, anti–peace agreement movement in Colombia, he negotiated a peace deal with paramilitary groups that carried out what most human rights groups, both domestic in Colombia, and international human rights groups, pointed out as being up to 75 percent of those atrocities—he carried out a peace deal in which the majority of those paramilitaries have gotten away scot-free, without any punishment. So it’s an unbelievable contradiction, and it’s kind of glossed over, unfortunately, in most of the media coverage here in the United States.

NYT: The Secret History of Colombia's Paramilitaries and the US War on Drugs

New York Times report (9/10/16) on how the US helped shield Colombian paramilitaries from accountability for human rights crimes.

JJ: I wanted to draw you out on one thing, which is the record of Uribe and the pardons given to the paramilitaries, because the New York Times has just had a very big, long, compelling investigation by Deborah Sontag. Sontag lays out how they were rewarded for pleading guilty: They were treated as first-time offenders and sentenced only for drug crimes, when in fact they were guilty of human rights abuses. I wonder what you made of that big, long thoughtful piece from the New York Times just recently.

MM: Well, first of all, that was a very good and very important piece. It came out on September 10, it had a major spread. In fact, it was kind of ironic, because on the website, the title of the article was “The Secret History of Colombia’s Paramilitaries and the US War on Drugs.” In the print edition, I believe it was a much more tame title, that didn’t present so much the US complicity in this secret history.

So it’s a great article, and it does detail the major role the United States played, in many ways severing the investigations and the truth commissions that were being established to really get to the bottom of the roots of the paramilitary enterprise in Colombia — which was not simply a counterinsurgency war that was being waged by a bunch of drug traffickers, as it was often presented in the news, drug traffickers that had these illegal armies; it wasn’t just this random violence that was being carried out in the countryside against FARC sympathizers, etc. It was a systematic process which high levels of the Colombian economic and political establishment were directly involved in, including Alvaro Uribe and people close to Alvaro Uribe.

And when that investigation, when that process, was unfolding, and it was getting closer and closer to the circles of Uribe, that’s when the United States extradition requests of some of the top leadership was implemented and pushed out. So the New York Times article by Sontag is very good in outlining that, in describing that.

But we were talking about this so many years ago, and the Colombian human rights community was outraged by it, and the New York Times was pretty silent on it. Yes, there were a couple of editorials at the time criticizing the US role in doing that, but there was no intense coverage, that it certainly warranted, considering the role that the United States’ Plan Colombia military assistance, training, all the efforts that the US was involved in in Colombia, the role they played directly and indirectly in this paramilitary war that was being carried out. So the Times was, at best, very late in this story.

WaPo: ‘Plan Colombia’: How Washington learned to love Latin American intervention again

The online version of the Washington Post‘s “US Intervention Helped Turn the Tide in Colombia” (9/18/16).

JJ: Yeah, it has that kind of “now it can be told” feel to it.

Well, but over at the Washington Post, they’re not denying or undermining the US role. They have a piece with the headline “US Intervention Helped Turn the Tide in Colombia,” and it’s kind of a victory lap. Nick Miroff says, “After 16 years and $10 billion, the once-controversial security aid package is celebrated today by many Republicans and Democrats in Congress as one of the top US foreign policy achievements of the 21st century.” He’s talking about Plan Colombia. So what do we need to know about that?

MM: I think it’s the utmost in cynicism. And when we hear Hillary Clinton point to Plan Colombia as a success in US foreign policy in Latin America, it disturbs us who’ve been watching this for so long unfold. Because if you look at the history, if you understood the history, Plan Colombia was initially a plan being proposed by the former president, Andres Pastrana, to deal with the rural lack of development, lack of infrastructure, lack of support for poor peasant farmers in the countryside, that essentially gave the foundations of the FARC to begin with.

So Plan Colombia initially was an idea that Pastrana pushed forward, sort of the Marshall Plan to develop the countryside and to address this poverty, this displacement, etc. as a way to address the drug problem in Colombia. But [Bill] Clinton at that time — and I write about it in my book in 2004 — Clinton basically edited it. The State Department with the Pentagon, they basically said no, the plan has to be, we have to carry out an offensive against the guerillas, they’re the main problem. And so that’s how the military package, aid package, the several billion dollars in aid, started getting implemented. It was completely reversed, and it became a complete security strategic military package, first and foremost.

And so, yes, there’s no question about it, the war changed after that. The FARC was devastated as a result of it, losing from 20,000 to about 10- to 7,000 members that it has today. There’s no question that it was a military success. But that also comes at a cost of 15 years of displacement, 15 years of violence, 15 years of “false positives”—in which the Colombian military themselves, the supposedly professionalized Colombian military under Plan Colombia, carried out massive sweeps of poor communities in the urban centers of Colombia, kidnapping 17-, 18-, 20-year-olds, killing them on the spot, dressing them up as FARC and presenting those as war trophies, saying how successful their war against the guerillas was.

And all of this is completely ignored by this victory lap of Plan Colombia and its success in bringing the FARC to the negotiating table, and bringing us to this point of peace. We have to celebrate the fact that this negotiation has happened, that we’re that much closer to ending the conflict between the FARC and the government. But it should not be celebrated as a victory, considering the thousands of people who were killed as a result during this process, the millions displaced and the devastation it has caused to Colombia.

JJ: The October 2 referendum required to approve the accord will ask simply, “Do you support the final accord to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace?” In your recent article for the Indypendent, you explain that while the answer to “do you support peace?” can be an unreserved “yes,” it doesn’t mean that there aren’t real concerns about the “how,” because the accord doesn’t only talk about demobilizing the FARC. What are the concerns that you’re talking about there?

MM: Ignoring the backlash and opposition from the right wing in Colombia (as personified most visibly by Alvaro Uribe, the former president and current senator) which just puts out nothing but misinformation about the peace deal in an attempt to derail it, there is considerable concern from the social movements, from the indigenous, the Afro-Colombian, the peasant movement, the rural farmers, who see that, notwithstanding the fact that they applaud the fact that they’re closing this chapter in the long history of violence in Colombia—the FARC surrendering their weapons and demobilizing is a positive advance—there is not necessarily a clear picture as to how the interests and the concerns of these communities are going to be addressed in this.

Because on the one hand, the section on the accord that talks about rural development, and looking at the agrarian reform and all the things that need to be addressed in the countryside, while those are positive steps, at the same time Santos and his government are very clear that they’re going to continue with the neoliberal model of granting mining concessions in the countryside, opening up even more investment, in terms of single-crop agriculture, from both domestic and international agribusiness, and privatizing collective territories, including in indigenous lands that were guaranteed in the 1991 constitution. Gains that were had decades, 25 years ago, are now being reversed, at the same time that we’re celebrating a peace process.

So again, I say this with caution, because we celebrate — personally, covering this for so many years, and being close to this for so many years, I celebrate the fact that this peace accord is moving forward, and I hope it wins in terms of the referendum. But at the same time, we can’t be blind to the fact that the social justice component of peace with justice is still a long way away, given the trajectory of the current Colombian government.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Mario Murillo. His article, “After 50 Years of War, a Chance at Peace,” appears in the September 19 issue of The Indypendent, online at Indypendent.org. Thank you so much, Mario Murillo, for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

MM: It’s been a pleasure. Thanks for looking at Colombia in this way.

This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.