Thursday, February 23, 2012

Colombia: The Reform-Reality Gap in Colombia - A View from Magdalena Medio Region

Source: International Crisis Group

The Reform-Reality Gap in Colombia: A View from Magdalena Medio Region

Colombian officials like to say that a recent law mandating the reparation of four million victims and the restitution of millions of hectares of stolen land will suck the political oxygen out of Latin America’s longest-surviving guerrilla movement. But can the government of President Juan Manuel Santos deliver on the implementation of the changes that are fiercely resisted by regional power groups?

This remains an open question in Magdalena Medio, a region visited by Crisis Group in February to do fieldwork for an upcoming report on prospects of peace negotiations with FARC, Colombia’s largest guerrilla group. The Magdalena river valley between Puerto Boyacá (Boyacá) and Regidor (Bolívar) has been a stronghold of FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country´s second guerrilla. As an observer noted, the conflict in Magdalena Medio has not been driven by poverty, but by the region’s wealth. Violence has been instrumental to accumulate land, secure access to resources and control the labour force. The region has long been a mining zone and an oil producer, with Barrancabermeja, the main urban centre, home to the country’s largest refinery. Since the 1960s, pressure on farming land added to the violence.

This conflictive region has also been distinguished by its strong social movements and labour unions. Alternative political propositions have commanded substantial strength. The Patriotic Union (UP), a political party founded in 1984 as part of peace negotiations with FARC, quickly positioned itself as one of the leading political forces in the region, raising hopes of a gradual and peaceful transformation. But the political opening triggered a violent reaction. Drug-traffickers and paramilitary groups killed scores of civilian UP activists which they simply (and wrongly) saw as guerrillas. In the 1980s, Puerto Boyacá became the prime laboratory for a new form of paramilitarism, transforming the small city on the Magdalena River into the self-proclaimed “anti-subversive” capital of the country.

A veteran peasant leader highlighted the difference to Santos’ controversial predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, “Santos came with a different attitude, with him we can work”. But distrust of the state’s promises is deep-seated in rural communities that have been highly exposed to paramilitary violence. There are no real guarantees that land restitution can advance, peasant activists say, pointing to over a dozen land leaders who have been killed nationwide since the start of the Santos administration in August 2010. Although the government last year restored a 550,000 hectares Peasant Farmer Reserve Zone (zona de reserva campesina) along the Cimitarra River Valley – the zone had been suspended under Uribe – rural leaders continue to complain about the ongoing framing of the peasant movement as supporters of FARC guerrillas.

Other elements also look depressingly familiar, with human rights defenders remaining in a particularly vulnerable position. In November 2011, a flyer signed by a group identifying itself as the Urban Commando of the Rastrojos – a criminal group which surged after the end of paramilitary demobilisation in 2006 – extended death threats to members of a number of regional NGOs and the labour movement. But the authorities have been slow to react to the continuing threats, according to Abelardo Sánchez, a board member of human rights NGO Credhos. Sanchez himself was threatened by two men in January while on his way to his barely protected office. Between 2009 and 2011, there were 12 death threats against members of Credhos, the organisation says.

In Puerto Wilches, a 50 minute boat trip up the river, rural workers tell the story of how African palm came to dominate local agricultural production. Paramilitary pressure helped force peasants into selling their land to large landowners and abandoning the region. Instead of the wealth promised by the cultivation of a cash crop, poverty remains widespread, with the monoculture making the local economy more vulnerable to external shocks and raising prices for food, which is no longer produced locally. Faced with an uphill battle to improve working conditions for the palm workers, the promise of returning stolen land remains a “mirage”.

The vulnerability of peasants, the labour movement and human right defenders not only reflects the legacy of the particularly deep paramilitary penetration of the Middle Magdalena region, but is also the outcome of a particular state-formation process which, as in other regions of the country, gave rise to a local state unable or unwilling to protect and advance the interests of its inhabitants. State forces and institutions were not absent, but rather paramilitaries thrived on the partial complicity of legal sectors with illegal forces. It is this privatised governance that now causes difficulties for the Santos reforms.

The battle to put in place the conditions under which victim’s reparation and land restitution can advance has just begun and its outcome remains open. There are, however, reasons for hope. For a start, the central government has, in principle, acknowledged the challenge. Santos has repeatedly vowed to extend protection for petitioners in the land restitution process. The government also made an effort to protect 2011 local elections from criminal infiltration (see Crisis Group’s report on the local elections) and it has embarked on an anti-corruption crusade.

The government talks nicely, one social leader said. But the gap between rhetoric and reality on the ground is a reminder of how hard it will be for Colombia to avoid the repetition of a cycle in which regions resist, battle and, eventually, defeat modernising proposals of the central government. Closing that gap will be decisive not only for the success of reform, but also for a sustainable peace.

Author: Christian Voelkel

Christian Voelkel is the Colombia/Andes Analyst based in Bogotá. He joined Crisis Group in January 2011 as an analyst with the Colombia/Andes Project. Previously, he was a Latin America analyst in the Security, Economics and Country Risk Group at IHS Global Insight in London. Christian studied at the universities of Leipzig and Berlin and the École normale supérieure in Paris. He completed his Ph.D. dissertation in political science at Bremen University.