Return to Contents
of Past Special Reports and Features | Project
Changing Identities and Contested Settings:
Regional Elites and the Paramilitaries in Colombia
The armed confrontation in Colombia is an important case of violence
in the Americas. Escalating progressively since the mid 1970s, it has
reached such an intensity that it now threatens to divide the country
into three different territories: the northwest, dominated by counterinsurgent
paramilitary groups; the Andean and central area, controlled by the
constitutional armed forces; and the southeast, where leftist guerrillas
prevail. Until recently, such intranational or civil wars tended to
be regarded as reflections of Cold War hostilities.
Scholars focused on the interstate or systemic dynamics, and paid little
attention to domestic conflicts, violent nonstate entrepreneurs, or
the implications of intranational struggle for longer-term patterns
of political change and state transformation in so-called Third World
societies. By bringing real social actors back in, this study of armed
conflict in contemporary Colombia shows that the state's monopoly of
the means of violence -an attribute that is often considered as given,
permanent, and even natural- is actually social and practical. Authority
over the means of violence is contested and changing, and is, in fact,
a variable quality of the state.
What are the origins of the fragmentation observed in the case of Colombia?
What kinds of cleavages threaten the contested configuration of the
Colombian national state? If, as some allege, the Cold War provoked
the conflict, then what accounts for the continuance of armed confrontation
in the post Cold War period? Unlike many current national conflicts,
ethnic or religious divisions do not fuel the dispute in contemporary
Colombia, and the class approach alone cannot account for the persistence
of armed conflict or the variety of regional alignments shaped by the
dispute. Even drugtrafficking, which has contributed to the escalation
of confrontation, explains little beyond the availability of material
resources. Moreover, none of these approaches pays sufficient attention
to the identities and configurations of the armed actors, how the fields
of contention among them were shaped, or how institutional changes have
The article examines thirty years of political polarization in the
northwestern department (state) of Córdoba, an agribusiness and
cattle-ranching region where leftist guerrillas had gained extensive
control and influence in the mid 1980s. It explores the reactions of
regional elites to the intervention of the central state and explains
how a military apparatus separate from both the state and the guerrillas
was consolidated in the 1990s. The counterinsurgent activities of the
military, drugtraffickers-turned-landowners, and the regional elites
who reacted to the guerrillas extraction of resources through extortion
and kidnapping, converged to make this territory the center of a fierce
campaign to restore proprietor's order in the Colombian countryside.
The feared Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá, ACCU (Peasant
Self-Defense Groups of Córdoba and Urabá), -the nation's strongest paramilitary
organization- is headquartered in Córdoba. This countersubversive group
has built a solid network of local and regional support and influence
that reinforces the dominion exercised by its estimated 4,000 armed
combatants scattered around the country.
With the open support of regional elites and the subtle backing of
the armed forces, the ACCU arose to challenge the guerrillas' impressive
military apparatus of approximately 20,00 combatants (16,000 in the
Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces
of Colombia), or FARC, and 4,000 in the Ejército de Liberación Nacional
(National Liberation Army), ELN, operating in 622 of the 1,071 of the
country's municipalities. The military's methods of confronting the
guerrillas was effective in the short run, but ultimately backfired.
Armed confrontation escalated and the government's control of politics,
conflict and aggression weakened.
Organized in an insurrectionist guerrilla fashion, the ACCU has managed
to form "an imagined political community" and to compete for popular,
middle class and elite loyalties with both the national state and the
leftist insurgents. The ACCU leads the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia
(United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia), AUC, an organization of national
scope financed by agroexporters, landowners, cattle ranchers, merchants,
and drugtraffickers which operates in direct cooperation with or with
the tacit consent of the armed forces and the police. In its counterinsurgency
campaign, the AUC has terrorized vast areas of Colombia, wherever it
detects civilian support for the insurgents, social movement protests,
or mobilizations of human rights activists.
Identities and Conflict
Both the widespread influence of the paramilitary and the political
and economic elites' acceptance of their deadly methods are surprising.
The confrontation has caused more than 40,000 deaths in the last 15
years, primarily of unarmed grassroots and human rights activists, trade
unionists, leftist political activists, and suspected guerrilla sympathizers,
usually in commando-like attacks by the security forces or paramilitary
groups. The defiant stance of business and landed elites in northwestern
Colombia reveals a major shift in their attitudes towards the central
state and its assumed monopoly of the means of coercion. In organizing
to defend and protect themselves from the guerrillas and common criminals
and to oppose the reformist policies of the central state, these elites
developed strong social ties and a shared vision of a corporatist social
order and their place within it. This network of camaraderie and solidarity
shaped a political identity that resisted state penetration, collective
mobilization, and autonomous peoples organizations -promoting masculine
values of courage and honor, and relying on retaliation to resolve conflict.
This analysis of changing political identities and contested settings
presents a dynamic understanding of the interaction between culture
and politics. Cultural differences are often taken as stable, and such
fixity is seen as encouraging confrontation. However, this study of
conflict in northwestern Colombia examines the changing character of
political identities of both elites and subaltern groups. In this perspective,
identity formation is considered as an ongoing process, a changeable
product rather than a cause of collective action.
Identity is not a preexisting condition that exerts causal influence
on collective action, but a changeable result of political interaction.
The analysis also explores the role of collective mobilization, state
policies, and armed conflict in resignifying received notions of citizenship,
political representation, and participation.
Public identities, including citizenship, are thus regarded in this
study as social relations that remain open to interpretation and renegotiation.
The emphasis on identities underscores the importance of local and regional
political cultures to the construction of a national political order,
whereas many scholars focus solely on national-level dynamics. This
inquiry also explores how state consolidation relates to changing loyalties
at the regional level, where regional actors challenge the national
government's discourses and practices that emphasize the belonging and
obedience to a "national community" represented by Bogotá, the capital.
This is important because state capacity is often considered as an absolute
phenomenon. But as the variability of the monopoly of the means of coercion
demonstrates, state capacity is also relational. Whether or not the
state can acquire a near-monopoly depends on the resistance or cooperation
from the different sectors of society. In short, the approach suggests
how meaning relates to political practice, how local political cultures
interact with and constitute national society, and how identities and
collective action are part of state consolidation.
State Decentralization, and New Opportunities
The distinctive institutional setting in which the central state's
policies were implemented in Córdoba affected both landowners and subaltern
groups and shaped changing regional identities. A 1958 nation-wide bipartisan
agreement to share rule between the Liberal and Conservative parties
had effectively limited the functioning of the democratic system, while
until 1988 state power was concentrated in the presidency. Both of these
institutional features contributed to the construction of radical political
identities and attitudes within subaltern groups. This effect was significant
in regions like Córdoba where radical political groups developed alongside
and in contradistinction to the Liberal and Conservative parties.
While a number of scholars have examined the radicalizing effects of
the consociational regime Ðthe Frente Nacional- on politics in the 1960s
and 1970s, little attention has been paid to the consequences of the
centralization of state authority in the presidency, the institutional
design that prevailed until 1988. The concentration of power in the
presidency allowed the two major parties Ðthe Liberal and the ConservativeÑ
to monopolize access to state power from the municipal level to the
capital, much to the disadvantage of radicals, reformists, and minority
and opposition parties. The importance of the relationship between institutions
and political behavior became evident again in the late 1980s: changes
in the form of the state induced new patterns of armed confrontation
between state and nonstate actors.
In 1988, a decentralizing reform of the state granted greater political
and administrative autonomy to municipalities. Before the reform, the
president appointed regional governors who in turn appointed municipal
mayors. Since 1988 citizens have directly elected their mayors who serve
a two-year, non-renewable term (the term was increased to three years
in 1991). Decentralization unleashed fierce competition for local office
and increased people's interest in politics. It also offered the guerrillas
(and later, the paramilitaries) a more tangible and accessible target
than the distant power of the central state in the capital. The new
institutional opportunities for leftist groups and even the guerrillas
to influence or control local government exacerbated the elite's and
armed forces' worries about the growing territorial reach and political
leverage of the rebels. Thus, although the intent of decentralization
was to improve democracy, it further polarized the conflict and exposed
civilians active in local politics to reprisals from guerrillas, paramilitaries,
and security forces.
Taking a historical approach, I examine in the remainder of this article
two moments of state intervention that ignited local tensions, polarized
the regional political field, and galvanized the identities of the groups
in dispute. This historical view gives us insights into the origins
of the Cordoban regional elites' discontent and current contentious
stand. The first moment is the period around 1968, when the central
government attempted to implement an agrarian reform. Landowner and
Congressional opposition aborted the reform. Following its failure,
there were changes at the elite level, an increase in armed resistance,
and the introduction of drugtraffickers' investment in land. The second
moment is the period after 1983, when the central government embarked
on direct negotiations for a cease-fire with the guerrillas and issued
an amnesty for imprisoned guerrillas. Political violence escalated in
Córdoba, and after the first direct elections of mayors in 1988, the
"cleansing" of leftist candidates and activists intensified. I conclude
the substantive portion of the article with an explanation of the consolidation
of the ACCU -how it achieved strong cross-class support in the 1990s,
and how competing loyalties and identities were shaped in opposition
to the reformist pretensions of the central state and the guerrilla's
efforts to extract resources.
Reformism and Discontent
The agrarian reformism that swept Latin America after the Cuban revolution
had in Colombia a committed supporter: the Liberal president Carlos
Lleras (1966-1970). Lleras's support for land distribution to poor peasants
and rural labor unionization raised the landless population's hopes
and encouraged their political participation. The central government's
support for the longstanding peasant claims for land shifted the local
political balance in favor of the peasantry in regions like Cordoba
where competition for land had deepened social divisions. Lleras' endorsement
of poor people's rights opened opportunities for trade unionists, radicals,
and leftist activists to mobilize their sympathizers, publicize their
claims and political projects, and gain an audience in the local public
arenas. These claims and worldviews had been underplayed by the Liberal
and Conservative coalition, ruling under a consociational regime since
1958. As the best lands were concentrated in latifundios (large estates),
the government's policy of land redistribution aroused vociferous opposition
from the powerful landed elites and its congressional allies. The reformist
effort was short-lived, and the next Conservative government headed
by Misael Pastrana (1970-1974) restored the former balance of power
by reversing the reform and shifting state support to wealthy owners
and large-scale agriculture. However, the modernizing policies of the
Llerista Liberals opened a schism between region and center, and proprietors
have distrusted and resented state intervention ever since. The landed
elites' sense of having been betrayed by state managers in the capital
reinforced their perception of disloyalty from the modernizing elites
in Bogotá, and new attempts at state intervention served only to reinforce
differences and paved the road to increasing tensions.
At the same time, the state's failure to uphold the reform brought
despair and rage to peasants, reformists, and leftist activists. Lleras,
their powerful but vacillating ally, had opened the way for negotiation,
debate, and participation, and peasants, leftist activists, and grass-roots
organizers enjoyed unprecedented public recognition of their claims.
The Asociación Nacional de Usuarios Campesinos (National Association
of Peasant Small-holders), ANUC, with support from the presidency, broke
the ranchers' monopoly of opinion in the public discussion, broadening
the boundaries of the regional political culture. While new discourses
advocating justice and democracy circulated, neighbors, students, and
public employee associations prospered, improving subaltern groups'
organizational capacities. The networks of communication and solidarity
that developed in the short period of reformism helped articulate identities
and projects that challenged the anti-reformists. The political dynamic
unleashed by the weakened ties between the presidency and the landed
elites also offered opportunities to urban workers to expand their claims
to housing, education, and health, as well as intensifying the elites'
perceived loss of control over the local order.
Urban and rural popular groups strongly resisted President Pastrana's
attempts to tighten his power after the failure of the reform and to
regain the support of the wealthy proprietors. An unparalleled wave
of protests and land invasions swept rural Colombia between 1971 and
1973. Peasants and radical activists from Córdoba and the neighboring
department of Sucre organized a third of the protest activity. The voice
of peasant dissent was added to the discontent expressed by teachers,
students, and workers, who paralyzed the public university system in
response to Pastrana's deep budgetary cuts in education. Led by communists
and socialists, and abandoned by the dominant Liberal-Conservative factions
in power, peasants and the urban popular classes experienced ruthless
persecution, justified by the authorities as a defense against "foreign
ideologies" and "communist subversion".
Loyal Ties From Above, and Opposition From Below
The 1970s were years of anger and repression in the Sinœ valley, as
is known the richest part of Córdoba. No channels existed for bargaining
with the authorities, and protests became increasingly irreverent. Dissenters
even subverted the corralejas, the most potent public symbol of masculine,
landowner power: During the corralejas, a festivity organized by the
cattle ranchers every January, poor peasants risk their lives bullfighting
in exchange for money and alcohol. The corralejas were suspended in
1971 in Montería, the capital of the department of Córdoba, after "the
public tore to pieces and ate" three bulls donated by the cattle ranchers,
and then stoned the notables' box and set fire to several others.
Similar protests were repeated in smaller cities such as Sahagœn, Cereté
and Ciénaga de Oro, - when "people from Montería's peripheral neighborhoods"
arrived to stone buses, throw sand at the notables' boxes, and slaughter
The targets of these actions were well-recognized public authorities
or figures symbolizing the prevailing order. Shouting "to save the corralejas,"
alarmed cattle ranchers demanded the authorities' "iron fist" to repress
transgressors. The civic strike of 1974 further illustrates the heated
political atmosphere in Córdoba in the 1970s. The transfer of power
from the Conservative Misael Pastrana to the Liberal Alfonso López was
an occasion to demand solutions to the problems left by the outgoing
administration. The civic strike paralyzed Montería, and all the major
cities of the department. Protesters demanded, among other things, a
solution to the University of Córdoba's financial crisis, immediate
payment of delayed salaries for public employees, paving for Montería's
main streets, improvement of the water and power supply, and release
of imprisoned peasants. The authorities declared a 6:00 p.m. curfew
throughout the department after protesters stoned the police, set fire
to several public offices, destroyed the state-owned telecommunication
offices and the offices of the Association of Cattle Ranchers, and attacked
other public buildings and congressmen's homes.
The police killed one student during the street skirmishes in Lorica,
the second largest city in the department. Police officials blamed the
protesters, whom they alleged had opened fire first upon the police.
Students built barricades on the streets and stoned the police headquarters
and the municipal palace the next day, and protesters plundered government
food deposits and paralyzed transportation that evening.
Local authorities declared that "professional red agents" from other
cities instigated the turmoil. After this demonstration of insubordination
against the state and the local order, authorities and regional elites
were intimidated. As Conservative senator Miguel Escobar observed, "Peasant
hostility destroyed the old order. It was no longer possible to go back
to the hacienda without being scared" (Romero, 1995). Rodrigo García,
head of the department's Association of Cattle Ranchers, blamed "leftist
demagoguery and Marxist infiltration in the public educational system"
for the turmoil. He also resented Carlos Lleras's reformism and sympathy
for the peasants. Distrustful of the intervention of the central state,
García aggressively expressed landlord sentiment: "if peasants have
the right to land, owners have the right to defend it."
In short, state reformism in the late 1960s created political tensions
that became even more polarized in the 1970s. State agrarian and fiscal
policies ignited both mobilization and reaction and unleashed struggles
for material and symbolic resources. On the one hand, proprietors considered
the state managers in Bogotá to be unreliable allies. For peasants,
reformists, and leftist activists, on the other hand, the government's
biased support for the large proprietors and its violent response to
their claims for justice and democracy framed an experience of how the
state and the bipartisan regime worked, and shaped a political identity
of resistance against the central state and its local allies. In Córdoba,
a decade after the reformist experiment of the 1960s, the central state
found its loyalties from above weaker and faced growing opposition from
Fragmentation, Drugtrafficking, and Subversion
The events of the late 1970s and early 1980s created propitious conditions
for the emergence of the ACCU's military apparatus in the late 1980s.
As the traditional political elites fragmented and declined, armed solutions
to the challenges they were confronting appeared expedient and attractive.
The decay coincided with the election of the Liberal president Julio
César Turbay (1978-1982) and the consolidation of a new fraction of
the Liberal elite on the Colombian Caribbean coast. In Córdoba and other
departments of the region, new political networks associated with wealthy
Arab families began to challenge the power of the old Cordoban politicians.
Settled in the region since the early 20th century, when they migrated
from what is known today as Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, these families
made a living retailing grains, fabrics, and tools in small shops. They
soon prospered in hardware and foodstuffs, diversified, and became powerful
merchants, landowners, and businessmen. By selling on credit to peasants
and urban workers, they gained social recognition and political influence.
The first generation supported the traditional Liberal politicians,
who opposed the Conservatives and recalcitrant landed elites in power.
During the Frente Nacional (1958-1974), the younger generation participated
as subordinates of the Liberal politicians; and by the end of the bipartisan
pact, they had organized their own networks and competed with their
former bosses for congressional seats. By the mid-1980s, half the department's
Liberal representation in Congress were drawn from these new networks.
These new groups achieved power pragmatically. Unlike the old Cordoban
elite, who controlled the important state positions and the relationship
with the capital, the newcomers lacked access to state resources to
fund their political campaigns. However, they had cash, and like other
immigrant groups in the Americas, they wanted to replicate their economic
success in politics. By investing significant sums in the electoral
campaigns, they broke the monopoly of the old politicians. As the Conservative
ex-minister and congressman Miguel Escobar complained, "politics became
exclusively a matter of money."
Exchanging votes for money, clothes, food, alcohol, scholarships or
recommendations for public sector employment, became common. Campaign
costs skyrocketed, and this had a perverse effect on the public administration.
Supporters of successful candidates received contracts for municipal
and departmental public works to assist them in recovering their campaign
While local politicians were engaged in this game, two other phenomena
aggravated the tendency towards fragmentation and polarization: drugtraffickers
were buying land in the department and guerrillas were expanding their
activities. First, the old bourgeois and influential families of Medellín
that had invested in cattle ranching began to withdraw from the region.
Fearing conflict in the countryside, facing diminished returns on ranching,
and seeing new opportunities opened by the reform of the national savings
and investment system, these Antioque–os sought less risky ventures
in the late 1970s. They had deeply influenced the business community
since the beginning of the century. With the old Cordoban elite, these
Antioque–o investors and businessmen formed the traditional regional
networks of power, influence, and liaison with the capital. Meanwhile,
"hot money" Ðthe product of illegal activitiesÑ pursued investment outlets,
and one of them was cattle ranching. New, wealthy merchants arrived
from Medellín and Antioquia to the Sinœ valley and the area of the San
Jorge River, and behind them followed money from drugtrafficking. According
to the ex-minister Miguel Escobar, the new proprietors, in contrast
with the old Antioque–o owners, came with "unlimited ambition." With
the drugtraffickers came armed guards, then vigilante bands, and finally
paramilitary groups to pacify peasants and radicals. Political fragmentation
increased and the new political actors were also quick to chose violent
solutions to social conflicts.
The second factor was the growing influence of the Ejército Popular
de Liberación (Popular Liberation Army), EPL. This group had a significant
following among peasants, small proprietors, and merchants in the upper
and middle valleys of the Sinœ and San Jorge rivers, and among the banana
workers in Urabá, a neighboring agribusiness and exporting zone. Military
repression of peasants and banana workers, feelings of injustice and
oppression caused by the lack of local democracy, and the denial of
political recognition to alternative parties (despite the formal end
of the Liberal-Conservative pact in 1974) helped the guerrillas attract
sympathy from broad range of social groups.
At its first national conference in 1981, the EPL adopted a "strategy
of growing nationally." To grow, the EPL would have to extract more
resources from wealthy owners and merchants and expand the "taxable
population" by including small- and middle-size owners who had hitherto
been exempt from the "war tax." The EPL had many supporters in Córdoba
and Urabá, and it was therefore an ideal territory to become the guerrilla's
main source of income.
The harassment by the guerrillas heightened the elite's fears of people's
insubordination. While this fear was present since the peasant's mobilization
in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the threat was seen now as potentially
backed by the EPL's military apparatus that aimed at territorial expansion.
At the same time, however, the guerrillas' inclusion of small- and middle-size
landowners owners in the "taxable universe" created the conditions among
owners to share goals and promote a common action, paving the way for
the emergence of the self-defense and paramilitary groups.
The Split of the State: The Military Changes Partner
The Conservative president Belisario Betancur (1982-1986) took measures
to open the bipartisan regime -- the Frente Nacional -- which despite
its formal end in 1974, remained operative because of the bureaucratic
and political inertia created by the 16 years of shared government.
Betancur agreed to talk with the guerrillas in 1982, without any preconditions.
His predecessor, the Liberal Julio César Turbay, had demanded
that the guerrillas disarm and practically surrender before coming to
the table. Betancur's initiative was courageous, but controversial.
Few within the Conservative or Liberal parties, the business groups,
the armed forces, or the Catholic Church supported his efforts to negotiate
a peace settlement. Cattle ranchers, banana exporters, and other rural
elites joined the army generals in rebuffing the peace talks. In their
view, negotiations implied giving credence to the notion that armed
insurrection reflected the need for social and political reform. For
them, insurrection was but a manifestation of communist subversion.
Those who suffered the direct consequences of guerrilla warfare considered
the presidency's shift a betrayal. The military, steeped in Cold War
security doctrine, judged Betancur's new policy a political victory
for the guerrillas. The generals claimed that the talks confirmed "democracy's
inability to defend itself," echoing the justification proffered by
the Southern Cone armed forces for their coups d'etat in the 1970s.
The army claimed that the peace negotiations were "a blow against the
morale and feelings of the army and the armed forces."
For the cattle ranchers of the Sinœ valley, the talks were unthinkable
amid the wave of kidnapping and extortion they were facing. In Córdoba,
the number of kidnappings per 100,000 inhabitants increased from 0.4
in 1982 to almost three in 1984, while the national average remained
at about one. By 1989, Cordoba's kidnapping rate of 4.3 was over twice
as high as the national average.
However, there were fewer kidnappings in Córdoba than in other departments
where the guerrillas had influence. In the southern department of Huila,
there were nearly seven kidnappings per 100,000 inhabitants throughout
the 1980s. Landowners and cattle ranchers in the northeast reacted by
taking up arms, an alternative facilitated by the growing leadership
of drugtraffickers-turned-landowners and the presence of the army's
counterinsurgent forces, which had at last found the civilian counterpart
willing to assume its own defense -as preached by the anticommunist
manuals advocating "total war" against the leftist enemy. Because Betancur's
decision to commence peace negotiations with the guerrilla coincided
with the guerrillas' intensified forcible extraction of funds, cattle
ranchers blamed the conditions of rural insecurity on the national government.
The military and rural elites felt that the peace talks had resuscitated
the already isolated and defeated guerrillas.
By the mid-1980s, the presidency and the army's divergent views on
the viability of a negotiated solution had produced a clear split within
the structure of the state. The armed forces and the elites of the regions
where the guerrillas and leftist groups had influence, supported by
urban businesses and the Catholic Church, considered the escalation
of conflict as the most effective strategy to attain peace. This group
had a new, powerful and ruthless ally: the drugtraffickers of the Medellín
cartel and other groups associated with its rival, the Cali cartel.
On the other side, a heterogeneous array of groups provided intermittent
support for president Betancur: urban middle classes, professionals,
technocrats, intellectuals, journalists, and trade unionists. The media,
which had contributed to Betancur's presidential victory, proved to
be too diverse and dispersed to confront his opponents.
If domestic conditions did not favor Betancur's initiative, even less
so did international conditions. The Cold War was at its height in the
1980s. In Central America, the Reagan administration openly supported
armed opposition to the Sandinista regime and counterinsurgency in El
Salvador, and it vehemently protected its backyard in the Caribbean.
Reagan called the Nicaraguan Contras "freedom fighters," a term that
offered the Colombian military their sought-after political and moral
discourse to justify their call to owners' self-defense. They needed
to vindicate their violence against leftist civilians, and thus respond
to accusations of human rights violations. Lewis Tambs, US ambassador
to Colombia in the early 1980s contributed to the labeling of the rebels
as common criminals by coining the term "narcoguerrillas," alluding
to their role as middlemen between the drugtraffickers and coca-cultivating
That it was impossible to create a "political community" and redefine
Colombian polity as a result of the peace negotiations revealed how
inflexible the identities that had been shaped by the protracted conflict
in the context of the Cold War were. The case of the armed forces in
the 1980s suggests how their identities were constituted in relation
to both domestic and foreign actors. Their opposition to the peace talks
indicates that they were as accountable to international actors, in
this case the U.S. government, as they were to domestic ones. The asymmetry
of the relationship between the United States and a country like Colombia
indicates that both Colombia's foreign and domestic policies are constrained:
even a process of national reconciliation is both domestic and international.
The prospect of reformulating and strengthening the Colombian national
state unveiled how strongly and extensively the domestic interests,
images, and representations favored by the National Front and the Cold
War had been encoded in Colombian political culture. That the Armed
Forces, encouraged by regional elites and drugtraffickers-turned-landowners,
would confront the executive's peace policy reveals the intensity of
that antagonism. Few anticipated the magnitude of the reaction that
the process provoked.
Peace Talks Amid Dirty War
The guerrillas' harassment of rural elites, especially of cattle ranchers,
peaked in the 1980s. The president of the Federación Nacional de Ganaderos,
FEDEGAN (National Federation of Cattle Ranchers), José Raimundo Sojo,
criticized the government for failing to protect owners from the rebels
and considered the peace talks futile because "what the guerrillas want
is to seize state power."
The rebels' attempts to extract funds through kidnapping and extortion
were unforgiving. Those who resisted paying faced the consequences:
Rodrigo Garcia, president of Córdoba's rancher association and public
supporter of self-defense initiatives found his hacienda torched and
his cattle shot in 1988. Influential and wealthy ranchers managed their
businesses from afar, with close and generous backing from the army:
"through army officers who go in helicopters."
The guerrillas demanded ever-higher contributions indiscriminately.
A former guerrilla commander of the EPL, who took the government amnesty
in the early 1990s, recalled that "a farmer with 50 head of cattle or
a medium-size property was classified as 'rich'... imagine, people who
used to be poor [the guerrillas], were now dealing with millions." Another
EPL commander recognized that "the policy was to get huge amounts of
money because war was expensive, which led to the organization of numerous
The political atmosphere was ready for a deeper polarization of the
cattle ranchers' identities. All they needed was a leader. They could
avail themselves of the model of political cleansing instituted by the
XIVth Army Brigade in the early 1980s in the Magdalena Medio, a central
oil-producing region where the army had promoted self-defense groups
that soon evolved into ruthless paramilitary organizations under drugtraffickers'
The dominant bipartisan factions, the main media in the capital, and
even members of Liberal President Virgilio Barco's cabinet (1986-1990)
vehemently defended the right to self-defense.
In this environment, Fidel Casta–o, part of the Medellín Cartel and
one of the new land investors in Córdoba, found the support to lead
the transformation of discourses, practices and allegiances within landowner
and businessmen of the region. The conditions were ripe for the rural
elites to go beyond their habitual complaints and distrust of state
intervention and to organize to substitute the coercive capacity of
the state. The chance for state reforms, justice and opportunities for
the poor had past its time, and initiatives to these ends languished
amid state bureaucracy and repression in the 1970s. The new project
had leadership, social support, and tacit approval of the military.
Rodrigo García, president of the Cattle Ranchers Association in Córdoba,
recalls: "Casta–o raised our fighting spirit. By succumbing to the guerrillas'
blackmail, each individual was feeding his own enemy. We realized we
must recover together or definitely fail."
By the end of 1987, the stage for the "dirty war" was set. The army
had established the XIth Brigade in Montería; Fidel Casta–o had a well-organized
and equipped paramilitary group; and merchants, cattle ranchers and
businessmen had begun to fill Castano's shoulder bag instead of the
guerrilla's knapsack. Meanwhile, even as the peace talks transpired
in the capital or in the guerrillas' headquarters, the negotiations
were defined in practice through murder, disappearance or massacre of
leftist leaders and activists by security forces or paramilitary hit-men
in the main cities.
Congress approved the decentralizing reform while peace talks were
taking place, and thus inadvertently intensified the conflict. The opportunities
offered by the reform at the local level coincided with the greater
"visibility" afforded to leftist actors as a result of the national
level peace talks. Radical movements -Unión Patriótica, Frente Popular,
A Luchar, and other coalitions- suddenly seemed to dominate the political
fields in some areas. The fears of the regional elites where the legal
and armed left had gained support, and the prospect of including the
guerrillas in a broader polity, galvanized the military and those opposed
to the negotiations with the guerrillas. In Córdoba, where leftist groups
had support and the guerrillas had territorial control, the radical
movements trying to consolidate a broader polity faced a fierce reaction.
The period between 1987 and 1990, when the first two local elections
of mayors were held, was one of the bloodiest in recent Colombian history,
and certainly the bloodiest in Córdoba's.
The carnage began in late 1987 with the assassination of a leader of
the region's teachers union who was the Frente Popular's mayoral candidate
in Tierralta, the main city of the upper Sinœ. A series of killings
followed targeting the members of the Unión Patriótica and A Luchar,
candidates for local office and councilpersons, trade unionists, university
professors, journalists, indigenous leaders and peasants. Commanders
from the XIth Army Brigade pressured elected leftist candidates, often
summoning them for interrogation in military compounds. Anonymous death
threats against leftist elected officials and activists proliferated,
creating an intimidating environment.
In early 1988, the paramilitaries introduced a new tactic in their
political cleansing. They murdered 37 peasants who had been led by the
guerrillas in a takeover of an abandoned hacienda, alleging that the
peasants had engaged in kidnapping and extortion. Twenty more massacres
followed in the next two years.
Newspapers registered about 200 political killings and just under 400
presumably political killings in Córdoba between 1988 and 1990.
Basing itself on police reports, the presidency's Advisory Office for
Defense and Security estimated a similar proportion of political killings
and common homicides (34/100,000 inhabitants), implying that all the
roughly 1,200 murders committed in that period were political. Whatever
the exact figures might be, the armed forces justified their laxity
in protecting leftist electoral participation, arguing that if their
comrades were kidnapping and extorting, they had to face the consequences.
The generals labeled the leftist movements as "the unarmed branch of
the subversion," reacting to the "combination of all forms of struggle,"
exalted by the FARC, the largest of the insurgent groups, as a tactical
maneuver in response to the peace talks proposed by the presidency.
The "cleansing" complemented the continuing military campaign throughout
the upper Sinœ area, where the EPL headquarters was located. Economic
and political elites advocated counterinsurgency operations and demanded
that the government cease the peace talks, which they considered a rebel
ploy to forestall the military offensive. Despite the bloodshed, most
of the landowners, businessmen, and bipartisan politicians considered
the "dirty war" and the escalation of conflict as justified. The hardliners
labeled as "internal enemies" civilians sympathizing with, or active
in the leftist movements, contributing to the acceptance of practices
and discourses against members of the local population, that would have
been unacceptable in other circumstances. Politically radical citizens
became anonymous undesirables, and therefore disposable. In this logic,
Fidel Casta–o became a redeemer, not only because he forced the guerrillas
to retreat, but also because he controlled social protest and insubordination.
The Peace That Never Was
The Cordoban elite and the armed forced combined "all forms of struggle"
to pacify the region and restore political order under landowner control.
However, this supremacy came at a price: the consolidation of the drugtraffickers'
power and the rise of the Casta–o network as the leading political and
military actor in the region, confirming its prominent role in the army's
counterinsurgency strategy. The EPL, the regionÕs oldest and most influential
guerrilla group renamed itself Esperanza, Paz y Libertad (Hope, Peace
and Freedom) in the early 1990s, and participated in an aborted regional
peace agreement facilitated by the 1991 constitution and the political
process opened by the local elections. Within a few years, however,
the new EPL had almost disappeared, attacked by the security forces,
former enemies among the landed elites, and the FARC, which shunned
The local peace agreement failed as the talks between the national
government and the FARC, the largest guerrilla group foundered. The
FARC occupied the areas vacated by the EPL in Córdoba and neighboring
Urabá, and hostilities broke out with renewed intensity in the regions
where the insurgents had influence and support. The Casta–o-led self-defense
and paramilitary groups that had demobilized were reactivated in 1993
under the leadership of Fidel Castano's younger brother Carlos, this
time with a distinctive political and military banner: The Autodefensas
Unidas de Córdoba y Urabá, ACCU. The ACCU organized a sophisticated
communication network in the region, linking approximately a thousand
cattle ranches and plantations, whose administrators became permanent
watchmen reporting to the police, the army, and Casta–o's headquarters.
In 1996, the ACCU and its underground commander, Carlos Casta–o, promoted
the union of all the self-defense and paramilitary groups in the country,
and founded the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC. They defined themselves
as an anticommunist advance guard in "defense of private property and
free enterprise," and they offered their security model to owners and
businessmen in areas plundered by the guerrillas. They see themselves
as a "civilian self-defense organization," compelled to protect themselves
given "the state's abandonment" of its security duties towards proprietors.
Casta o's solid support in Córdoba was demonstrated in early 1997, when
75 cattle ranchers from the Sinœ area sent a letter to the defense minister
protesting the government's offer of a US$ 500,000 reward in exchange
for information concerning Casta–o's whereabouts.
The reward was a symbolic gesture of the Samper administration's (1994-1998)
commitment to prosecuting the paramilitary groups as demanded by a range
of international actors, including the U.S. government, the European
Union, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch. Casta–o, in explaining
his group's "political cleansing," associated unarmed civilians with
military targets: "in war, unarmed civilians is a relative term. Two
thirds of the guerrilla members are unarmed, functioning as civilian
population collaborating with the guerrilla." This construction of the
enemy fits well with the counterinsurgent objective of isolating rebels
by "taking the water away of the fish." He has even labeled as "parasubversive"
those who publicly denounces paramilitary massacres, thus exposing human
rights activists and journalists to retaliation from the death squads.
This regional outcome in Córdoba sharply contrasts with the aims of
the peace talks held between the guerrillas and the national government
since 1983, and with the hopes of improved democracy and institutions
raised by the new constitution of 1991. It showed how different the
peace policy and politics were in the region as compared to the center,
and how strongly the cattle ranchers identified with and supported Casta–o
and the ACCU. As the Cordoban owners' 1997 letter to Samper read, "Casta–o
took their fear away and taught them to fight against our enemy," showing
the strength of the local and regional loyalties built by the ACCU,
in opposition to the allegiance to the national authority in the capital,
Northwestern regional elites justify their support of the paramilitaries
by claiming their right to defend themselves from guerrilla harassment,
coercion, and extraction. They also blame the central state for failing
to protect them and they accuse state managers of not safeguarding their
constitutional rights to peace, ownership, and honor. The political
order established by the Cordoban elite has succeeded, since 1991, in
reducing guerrilla abductions and extortion, thanks first, to the regional
peace agreement, then as a consequence of the EPL demobilization, and
finally as a result of the local "national security" regime. However,
the political and administrative conditions are deplorable. Corruption
and mismanagement are rampant among the politicians dealing with the
public administration and resources, because of the absence of groups
or parties concerned with rendering bipartisan politicians accountable
to the voters. Reformists, radicals, or challengers to the local order
were practically swept out of the region, or forced into silence. These
conditions help to explain why in the recent attorney general's investigation
of drugtrafficker's funds flowing to the 1994 electoral campaigns, most
of the congressmen involved are from the department of Córdoba and Sucre,
The analysis of the political and social dispute in the department
of Córdoba attempted to show how conflicts such as class are mediated
by specific institutions -a consociational regime and a centralized
state- contributing to shaping political identities. The study also
explains the role of reformist state intervention in the constitution
of regional conflict in contemporary Colombia, and how state attempts
to modify local power structures and political practices have provoked
strong reactions from regional elites and drugtraffickers-turned-landowners.
The mobilization and protest those interventions encouraged contributed
to shaping and transforming political identities, deepening the cleavages
in the Sinœ valley. In this article, the construction of these identities
was considered as an ongoing process, a changeable product of collective
action, rather than a stable underlying cause. This perspective coincides
with some of the school of historical institutionalism's postulates,
which emphasize the interaction between institutions and actors, and
the consequences of distinctive institutional designs in the forms that
social conflict takes.
This was evidenced in the guerrillas new objective of conquering local
and regional power as opposed to seizing national state power in the
capital. This seems to have become the guerrillas' logic (and later,
the paramilitaries') after the decentralizing administrative and political
reform of the mid-1980s and the political opportunities that the reform
unleashed at the local level.
The analysis of the three periods reveals how difficult it has been
for the Colombian state to territorialize its authority. Initially,
subaltern groups challenged central state rule, and later, regional
elites did the same. Drugtraffickers have played a central but not exclusive
role in this process. State interventions unleashed political effects
that weakened loyalties from above, and encouraged opposition and rebellion
from below. Most reformist state interventions, however, neither attracted
new allies nor strengthened the support of the former ones, so state
managers have been unable to advance the territoriality of central authority
Finally, I have pointed out how the owners' organization -via a tributary
system parallel to the state's- of an armed apparatus to protect them
from the guerrillas strengthened local and regional identities, while
it weakened allegiance to the national authorities in Bogotá. The state's
inability to integrate the guerrillas as members of the polity or to
protect the ranchers, merchants, landowners, and businessmen led to
the formation of the ACCU, sponsored first by drugtraffickers and then
by other business groups, and facilitated by the military opposition
to the presidency's negotiations with the leftist guerrillas. The emergence
of the ACCU and the AUC suggests that the near-monopoly of the means
of coercion by the state is the result of a social process and is not
an inherent attribute of state organization. It further reveals that
state capacities are not absolute, but relational. It is not merely
a question of strength but also of the potential of the different social
sectors to cooperate with or resist to state intervention.
... Warren, Kay B., "Introduction: Revealing Conflict Across Cultures
and Disciplines," in idem, ed., The Violence Within. Cultural and Political
Opposition in Divided Nations, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1993), p. 3.
... See José Noé Ríos and Daniel García-Pe–a, Construyendo la Paz del
Ma–ana: Una Estrategia de Reconciliación Nacional, (Bogotá: Comité Exploratorio
de Paz, 1997). ... Calhoun, Craig, "The Problem of Identity in Collective
Action," in Joan Huber ed., Macro-Micro Linkages in Sociology, (NewBury
Park: Sage Publications, 1991), p. 59.
... See Charles Tilly, Political Identities, Working Paper # 212, Center
for Studies of Social Change, CSSC, New School for Social Research.
... Alvarez, Sonia, Evelina Dagnino and Arturo Escobar, "Introduction:
The Cultural and the Political in Latin American Social Movements,"
in idem, eds., Culture of Politics/Politics of Cultures. Re-visioning
Latin American Social Movements, (Boulder: Westview Press, 1998), p.
2, and Warren, The Violence Within. Cultural and Political Opposition
in Divided Nations, op. cit.
... Tilly, Charles, "Citizenship, Identity and Social History," in
idem, ed., Citizenship, Identity and Social History, International Review
of Social History Supplement 3, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1996), p. 12.
... See Jonathan Hartlyn, The Politics of Coalition Rule in Colombia,
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
... See Francisco Leal, El Oficio de la Guerra. La Seguridad Nacional
en Colombia, (Bogotá: TM Editores-IEPRI, 1994) and "Defensa y Seguridad
Nacional en Colombia, 1958- 1993," in idem and Juan Gabriel Tokatlian,
eds., Orden Mundial y Seguridad. Nuevos Desafíos para Colombia y América
Latina, (Bogotá: TM Editores-IEPRI-SID, 1994), Eduardo Pizarro, Insurgencia
sin Revolución. La Guerrilla en Colombia en una Perspectiva Comparada,
(Bogotá: TM Editores-IEPRI, 1996), and idem, "La Reforma Militar en
un Contexto de Democratización Política", in Francisco Leal, ed., En
Busca de la Estabilidad Perdida, (Bogotá: TM Editores-IEPRI-COLCIENCIAS,
1995). ... See Hartlyn, op. cit.
... El Espectador, January 9, 1974.
... La Repœblica, August 21, 1974
... El Espectador, August 23 and 24, 1974.
... Romero, Mauricio, "Transformación Rural, Violencia Política y Narcotráfico
en Córdoba, 1953-1991", Controversia # 167 (Bogotá: CINEP, 1995), pp.
112-113. ... Ibid. p. 113.
... Ibid. p. 112.
... See Alvaro Villarraga and Nelson Plazas, Para Reconstruir los Sue–os.
Una Historia del EPL, (Bogotá: Colcutura-Progresar-Fundación Cultura
... See Germán Castro, "Los Paramilitares," in En Secreto, (Bogotá:
Editorial Planeta, 1996).
... Behar, Olga, Las Guerras de la Paz, (Bogotá: Editorial Planeta,
1985), p. 309.
... Cubides, Fernando, Ana Cecilia Olaya and Carlos Miguel Ortíz, Violencia
y Desarrollo Municipal, (Bogotá: CES-UN, 1995), p. 58.
... Interview with Rodrigo García Caicedo, president of Córdoba's Association
of Cattle Ranchers, Montería, August 11, 1997. ... Carta FEDEGAN # 24,
... Villarraga and Plazas, op. cit., p. 226.
... See Carlos Medina, Autodefensas, Paramilitares y Narcotráfico en
Colombia, (Bogotá: Editorial Documentos Periodísticos, 1990).
... See declarations of José Manuel Arias, minister of Justice, El
Tiempo, July 29, 1987.
... Interview with García, 1997.
... Romero, op. cit., p. 114.
... Negrete, Victor, Los Desplazados por la Violencia en Colombia.
El Caso de Córdoba, (Barranquilla: Editorial Antillas, 1995), p. 35.
... Justicia y Paz, trimonthly reports, 1988, 1989, 1990. ... Villarraga
and Plazas, op. cit., p. 316.
... Semana, weekly magazine, February 28, 1995.
... Document by the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC, July 1997,
in which they announce the creation of their organization.
... Castro, op. cit., p. 177.
... El Tiempo, January 18, 1997.
... See Roger Friedland and Robert Alford, "Bringing Society Back In:
Symbols, Practices and Institutional Contradictions," Walter W. Powell
and Paul D. DiMaggio, eds., The New Institutionalism in Organizational
Analysis, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1991), and Robert D. Putnam,
Making Democracy Work. Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1993).