Montes de María: Power, Land and Violence

 (Translated by Rolf Schoeneborn, CSN Volunteer Translator. Edited by Teresa Welsh, CSN’s Volunteer Editor.)
 Razón Pública /Sunday, April 03,  2011
Montes de María, a zone located in the center of the Colombian Departments of Bolívar and Sucre on the northern coast of Colombia, has been the scene of many human rights violations and  seems condemned never to find ways out of the dead end it is in. A precarious status quo between rich landowners (latifundistas) and very poor peasant farmers is being maintained as a result of permanent violence.

Social Control through Hand-outs  

The rural  elites favor social relief programs to fight poverty as a means to prevent attempts at popular uprisings. This traditional type of redistribution of wealth populist-style does not augment productive capacities of the poor but rather is a way of buying political power in order to perpetuate elite control.

Academic research has concentrated on investigating how oligarchic agrarian economies most likely stagnate in the long run and on the pro-active role of social conflicts given systems of this type. [1]

 Large estates and political  power

When the recent history of rural oligarchic societies such as the Montes María one and public policies which supposedly should reduce the level of peasant poverty are compared and contrasted, it is also necessary to point out that state institutions tend to reinforce class structures and economic measures as the most efficient way to maintain order[2].

This means keeping the land-owning classes in place inspite of grave social conflicts which afflict these societies periodically. .

Large privately-owned estates have monopolized political power early on, which brought about not only the vulnerability of the central State and thus was “trapped by local interests” but also the incapacity of the de facto State to govern and administer the actually existing country [3]. This social order safeguards the organization of political life, which has been inviolable so far.

Within the scope of this paper social movements and the history of violence the Montes de María communities have experienced over the last decades will be reviewed. Also, the actors involved and their respective objectives need to be identified in order to be able to examine the strategies of the elites and to assess at which point they would tend to to accept change and  thus possibly envigorate the existing agrarian economy both in the short and the long term.
The 70’s and 80’s:  boosts and restraints of agrarian reform

The 70’s and 80’s were decades of intense social protests encouraged by the official politics of agrarian reform. The land occupations (“tomas de tierras”) in the Sucre Department, altogether 194 between 1971 and 1975, and the size reduction of fincas of more than 500 hectares netted app. 214.000 hectares, although not all of this land went to peasant farmers. This progress was soon to be negated by the agrarian counter-reform which was launched under the presidents Pastrana Borrero (1970-1974) and López Michelsen (1974-1978), thus vindicating the rights of large landowners and halting the agrarian reform process.
When the National Association of Peasant Land Users (ANUC) wanted to mobilize its base, the landowners chose to hire armed groups “not only to defend themselves against land invasions and kidnappings as in the past but also to attack peasant farmers and their leaders.” According to the organization Justicia y Paz (Justice and Peace) at least 12 ANUC leaders were assassinated between 1988 and 1995.

The 90’s: paramilitaries and drug traffickers appear 

At the beginning of the 90s the list of actors consisted of landowners, stockbreeders, agricultural entrepreneurs, peasant farmers and day laborers whose relations were rigidly and hierarchically structured in this backward rural society. . 

But all of a sudden other actors made an appearance: paramilitaries and drug traffickers, who quickly became part of the social fabric of the region. Since the guerrillas were engaged in the struggle for power, the peasants found themselves completely defenseless very soon; it was the only group that did not arm itself nor enlisted armed intermediaries.

Paramilitarism was not introduced from the outside but rather by the local agents of power. Representatives of the traditional power groups instigated the action of the paramilitaries, not only involving overt political violence but also non-political violence. 

Paramilitarism has to be considered to be a criminal enterprise based upon violence and is therefore intimately linked to illegal drug dealing, which in turn involves assassinations, protection money, extortion, blackmail, kidnapping, land grabbing, cattle rustling, and stealing of gasoline. Paramilitaries impose illegal taxes selectively on storekeepers, traders, store clerks and most recently also focus on theft of bank wire transfers, bonus moneys and money for public health and education, which was to be distributed by a weak local government.

Violence as a, instrument of control 

The political and economic changes meant that poor peasant farmers became victims of forced displacement, massive crimes and selective assassinations, which not simply worsened the conflict but had to be seen as a rational instrument of terror with the aim of holding down the peasant population and forcing it to consent to displacement, thus gaining control of  strategic regions.[4]

The entire rural and urban population of this region ultimately ended up being potential victims of lawless armed groups simply because they were considered a danger to plans by the powerful. Among the victims were not only their own fighters but also civilians, peasant farmers, workers, stockbreeders, peasant leaders, union officials, indigenous people and intellectuals., 

About sixty massacres were comitted  in the Montes de María region between 1997 and 2004 and names such as El Salado, Macayepo, Chengue, Pichilín y Colosó stand for particularly cruel and vicious treatment of defenseless people.

This type of explicit violence has opened the way to what the Slovenian philosopher Zizek calls ‘bad political authority’, which has allowed the perpetrators and their leaders to exercise power per se and spread corruption without a higher goal.

This has been a kind of violence that had never been known in the history of this type of agrarian society and it continued to exist even in the face of the emerging political violence in the 50’s because it could sustain itself due to the immense resources generated by  drug-traficking activities which allowed the intensification of prepolitical violence. 

.The primary victim of this type of violence was the peasantry because it just was not able to organize any collective action of self-defense and much less arm itself and therefore presented itself as the ideal target of paramilitary and guerrilla violence.
It is well to remember that violence has always been part of these agrarian societies in which the powers that be have made use of non-political violence and even making use of the coercive state apparatus. Spokespersons for paramilitarism have often mentioned “that the void left by the State had to be filled in those regions” and this type of discourse was deliberately concocted to distort reality.
  The FARC helped spawn paramilitarism 

Following Mejía and Posada on the one hand and Acemoglu on the other, it was hoped that the landowning elite would try to defend itself against the armed threat posed by the FARC in its very own territory. 

It could be said that the FARC played the role of the ‘vanishing mediator’ a term introduced by Jameson [5], as far as the upsurge and consolidation of a violent political Right was concerned and comparable to the way the protestant ethic allowed for the rise of capitalism, to quote Max Weber. These theories then became a suitable excuse for paramilitary action.

The landowning elite initially offered nothing but stubborn resistance to the agrarian reform politics and paramilitary violence directed against the peasantry except for populist welfare measures. The poor productivity of livestock raising activities and the high levels of poverty clearly show the economic stagnation of this type of oligarchic society.
This meant that the violence unleashed by narcoparamilitarism was one of the reasons why this society did not change. This in turn benefited the large landed estates and agrarian capital, in other words a social class that benefitted from the ubiquitous violence and which is overrepresented in the Congress of the Republic. 
This type of social arrangement not only became firmly entrenched but also managed to be recognized by the central State and also project itself on the national political life. The local social fabric remains unchanged; i.e., the traditional landowning oligarchy, the political elite, the same uneven wealth distribution and a displaced peasantry humiliated and silenced. 

Insofar as the violent actors are successful with their bullets and bombs the high rates of return on their military investment encourages them  to continue with their apropriative activities instead of  concentrating on productive activities [6]. It is obvious that this investment is associated with low opportunity costs , which means that war is cheap for those who use violence and very costly for the rest of society. [7]

This cost becomes obvious when a weakened State loses the monopoly of legitimate coercive force and can no longer protect private property, guarantee political rights, economic rights and civil rights of the citizens, that is to say the rule of law in general.
Acemoglu made it abundantly clear that if no social costs are to be paid there is absolutely no incentice for the elite to tolerate changes. The elite did not have to contend with any social costs for being involved with the recent violence except for a small fraction of the political elite in the Montes de María region. 

A dead end without exit  

Finally guerrillas and narcoparamilitaries represent pathological models of premodern agrarian societies that try to go back to the past and stay frozen in time with corresponding kinds of order, values and types of agrarian social relations that simply are not viable any longer except with the help of very expensive repressive mechanisms which focus on ‘private property rights’. . 

Even more paradoxical is the fact that any attempt at consolidation by State institutions with the intention of eliminating  most armed actors in an attempt to reestablish values and relations that had been typical for agrarian societies which existed in the 70’s and 80’s ended up legitimizing the very opposite social order [8]. This of course meant that constant violence was necessary to maintain a precarious status quo.

The enormous contradiction that a reformist State such as this one has to face stems from the fact that it needs the support of politically powerful groups and not of the majority of the population especially in times of crisis [9]. But genuine reforms which it would like to introduce are bound to profoundly affect the interests of this powerful class which is tied to its violent past.

* Fernando Bernal*

Sociologist with a PhD from the University of Oxford (England). University professor and international consultant. He is at present member of a group that prepares the National Report on Human Development 2010.

[This content may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source and author are cited.]




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