By Camilo Alzate González, EL ESPECTADOR, April 27, 2023
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
The priest Javier Giraldo explains that we can’t expect the same results from negotiations with the ELN as from the negotiations with the FARC; he talks about the strikes by the AGC, also called the Clan del Golfo, and the Gustavo Petro administration’s objectives with an eye on negotiations with the mafias and the criminal gangs.
Looking down at the table, wearing his customary dark jacket, without any revealing gesture, just a timid and momentary smile, Javier Giraldo (1944), the Jesuit priest who has dedicated his life to the defense of human rights, calmly itemizes his ideas about peace in Colombia. As always, he insists on the “structural changes” that Colombian society must make in order to bring an end to the conflict, stressing the urgency of trying new formulas for negotiation. If that isn’t done, he points out, the violence will be “recycled”.
The interview is taking place on Wednesday, April 19, in the offices of the Center for Investigation and Popular Education (Cinep) in Bogotá, just a little while after that organization, which Fr. Giraldo has been a part of since its foundation, had presented a report of the human rights violations in the second half of 2022, a period that commences with the inauguration of Gustavo Petro as President.
The AGC or Clan del Golfo just demonstrated their power with a strike in Bajo Cauca and marches on April 9 in Urabá. Do they have the social base there that they say they have?
I believe they do have a social base. For example, in San José de Apartadó they have coopted the majority of the community action boards and many of those leaders are in step with them. I don’t know how the April 9 marches went, but I’m inclined to think they were successful, because they have very substantial territorial domination there. They have built that with the support of the Armed Forces; at first they wore the same uniform, patrolling the towns (veredas), Army and paramilitaries, they cooked together, they planned massacres together.
The pressure from the international community led them to transform the relationship; they camouflaged it. They even wanted to eliminate the name “paramilitary”. That happened in Havana; you couldn’t mention “paramilitaries” because the government said “that no longer exists”, “it’s over”, “what you see there now is just criminal gangs”. There has been a policy of camouflaging paramilitarism. For example, in San José de Apartadó, when the paramilitaries call together an assembly in a town, which goes on continually, the night before the meeting, the Brigade orders its troops to remain 10 kilometers away, because when the community complains that there has been a paramilitary assembly, where they extort money from the people or prohibit all sorts of things, the government always responds that there weren’t any troops in the area, they had been ordered away the night before. The domination by the AGC in Urabá has been absolute after the demobilization of the FARC, they are the government, and what is serious is that they have the support of the business owners, especially the owners of the banana plantations, also the Mayors and the members of the Municipal Councils. They also manage all the election procedures.
If they have weapons, exercise control over the countryside, can count on a social base and eventually can show a platform of proposals, why not give them political status?
But giving them that political status would tend to be an opposition status. They have elaborated a message as if they were an opposition group, but look at the way they pursued Otoniel. Everybody knows that the Army knew where he was, the whole community knew where his farm was, in the town of Playa Larga, and they had a big center for paramilitary training there. The people were laughing about Operation Agamenón because they invested millions and millions, and in the end, it wasn’t really a capture, but rather a surrender. That shows the conniving between the government and the AGC.
It looks as if there really is opposition to this administration, and the proof of that could be the strike in Bajo Cauca.
To this administration, maybe, because it’s a different administration. But with the previous administrations, they were never opposed.
Cinep delivered its usual report with a depressing panorama of human rights violations. How do you assess the starting up by President Gustavo Petro?
In his “total peace” project, which is his banner, there is one thing I would emphasize: they haven’t gone to the traditional schemes for negotiation. They’ve been making peace agreements for more than 40 years, and all of them have failed because of three characteristics. First, they don’t touch on the roots of the violence. Second, after every one of the agreements, we saw those who demobilized being murdered. And third, there is a recycling of the violence. That means that there is always another and another and another process of demobilization, and so there’s obvious frustration. The most recent peace agreement, the one in Havana, was one of the longest. It touched on four very sensitive points: land, political participation, drugs, and victims. It took a long time to sign the solutions that, to my way of thinking, were not solutions. For example, the agreement regarding the land.
Why do you say that?
The deepest root of the armed conflict in Colombia was the problem of the land. I saw how the FARC presented more than 100 very interesting proposals for agrarian reform, putting a lot of emphasis on campesino reserve areas. Those are properties that are taken out of the market problems, something like the indigenous reservations where the land is not merchandise, and is destined for food production, which is a failure that this country has had for a long time, agriculture was ended, land had been given to extractive multinationals, and now we import millions of tons of food. This solution that the FARC proposed was not accepted. They discussed it for seven months and the government kept saying no and no to all their proposals.
Finally, the FARC themselves gave up insisting and sent the whole thing into the deep freeze. They never went back to that discussion, and they agreed to the government’s proposal: create a land fund containing three million hectares to be handed out in 12 years, which they never created; nor did they carry out the agreement. Who would have received the land they would have handed out? You might think it would be the widows and the victims, but knowing these groups of victims, you know they were not going to go back to the countryside. Neither would they use the land to live on, but instead they would sell it. And who would they sell it to? To the same people that had expropriated it, to those who had enough money to buy it, who are the big landowners. What kind of agrarian reform is that? It didn’t modify the patterns of land acquisition even a little bit. On the contrary, it was recycling more of the same.
That’s what Petro is pushing: massive purchases of farms by Fedegan, handing out land seized from the narcos, and implementing rural reform. The UN has just praised it . . .
Yes, because the Peace Agreement has not been implemented. The Santos administration didn’t implement it and Duque’s administration tore the Agreement to shreds. Petro is committed publicly to implementing it, although he has said that it needs some follow-up. I’m convinced that even if it is implemented there will not be any agrarian reform.
Pablo Beltrán, the ELN’s negotiator, claims that in Colombia there have not been peace processes, but rather disarmament, and peace is understood as “silencing the guns”. He asserts that now we are embarking on a peace process where there will be the structural changes that have always been rejected, but that the administration is running out of time. How do you see this process?
Just before this round of negotiations with them, EL ESPECTADOR found an article that shows that this negotiation with them is very different from the previous one: they’re not looking for seats in Congress, they’re not looking to be a political party; nor are they negotiating turning over their weapons in exchange for promises that won’t be kept. One achievement of the process that began in Quito (with Juan Manuel Santos) was passing over the first point on the agenda giving them participation in society. I now see the process stuck in the mud. The ELN argues for giving voice to the sectors that have never been listened to. How is that going to happen? The statement is valid from an moral point of view, but it’s very difficult to accomplish. Colombia is a very complicated country geographically, the excluded sectors are enormous and are scattered, its peripheries are very complicated, it’s even hard to get to them. I think that up to now they haven’t even found a methodology for participation; besides, there is another obstacle, those social sectors have been very much manipulated by the political mafias. We would have to start by getting them their independence from those mafias.
I see in this administration, in the media, and in society that expectations of the ELN process are stuck in what the negotiation with the FARC was, they are expecting the same thing: a zero hour of turning over the weapons, which is what the ELN is going to ask for. This won’t happen.
There’s some criticism of the management by the High Commissioner for Peace. They are accusing him of being on his own in getting close to the criminal groups. What do you think of Danilo Rueda’s activities?
Danilo had a plan before he was appointed Peace Commissioner. He had visited the prisons to get to know the imprisoned paramilitaries and mafiosos, to see what their perspective was and how we could think of demobilizing them. I think that was what Petro saw in appointing him Commissioner. I know that he has been successful in some cases, for example with paramilitary leaders. He has been able to coordinate with ex-leaders of the guerrillas to be able to help the victims. I know of a case in Caquetá in which ex-paras and ex-guerrillas have done very interesting work in helping find the location of the remains of some of the victims.
We need to reconsider the peace processes; with the methods they’ve used, they have all failed for 40 years. Now we have to confront many factors of violence and some enormous powers. The “total peace” project broadens the panorama so that you aren’t negotiating with one and then with another, like partial organizations. Rather we have to try to confront all of the factors of the violence, the armed groups, the problem of drugs, the problem of organized crime, which is enormous, because we have not wanted to face up to it; rather, we’ve been coopted. The AGC, for example, has had a cooptation with the Armed Forces; their power has been built on that cooptation with the establishment. It’s very difficult, but if we don’t face up to all of that, we will never get anywhere with the peace. Going back to the same old thing is going back to failure.
The model that you’re putting forward argues for structural transformations to achieve peace, but how do you negotiate with mafiosos? What can you offer them?
Evidently, that’s what Danilo has achieved in all of those conversations with them. Seeing what it is that they are demanding. There are things there that really can be discussed, for example, that they could keep a percentage of the property they have obtained through crime. I don’t see anything easy in that negotiation, but what I am definitely convinced of is that the previous models haven’t worked.
What would be the red lines in those negotiations with drug traffickers and the AGC. How much should the government give up?
First and foremost, they have to show they will put an end to their commitment to the drug business. The idea of their keeping a percentage of their property seems to me something that could be discussed. Unfortunately, in every negotiation you are going to have to give something, but the most important thing is that they show that the organization is ended, over. There is an aspect of the changes that are most structural that President Petro has not taken up. I don’t know if he’s going to take them up. There is the problem of the weapons and the dependence on the United States. He has scratched at the military a little, he’s fired some generals; he hasn’t taken on the military’s “doctrine”. We have to delegitimize that “doctrine” radically, and create a different military “doctrine”. The resistance in the Armed Forces is intense, so intense that they’re talking about a coup. We have to reform the military’s structures, put an end to the dependence on the United States to monitor the security of this country, and eliminate carrying weapons. It’s a very difficult problem, but while we keep on thinking that a bullet is the solution to every problem, we will never arrive at any peace at all.
Another problem is the media. The major media manage information and the manipulation of awareness. They all belong to big economic conglomerates, and then they call it freedom of the press. I don’t think that is freedom of the press. Ever since the Andrés Pastrana administration, we have been making proposals to democratize information; they tried it in Ecuador in the times of President Rafael Correa. Subjects like re-organizing the electromagnetic spectrum, there has to be a much more radical democratization. The media are going to take down Petro; you hear Caracol, you listen to RCN, the magazine Semana, and it’s the most poisonous and the most radical delegitimization of every detail of the administration. I think the media are going to take him down. That is another very difficult matter that Petro has not touched and I don’t know if he will ever touch it.
I hear you more pessimistic than ever . . .
It’s a gigantic problem. To change this country that has advanced so far in injustice, in violence, in corruption, is really difficult.
 Fedegan is the Colombian Association of Cattle Ranchers.