Hat-tip to Terence Wood for this must-read piece on Colombia from the New York Review of Books. The article, which reviews And They Refounded the Nation…: How Mafiosi and Politicians Reconfigured the Colombian State, edited by Claudia López Hernández, sums up what has emerged about the relationships between the political allies of former president Alvaro Uribe and right-wing paramilitary groups. It explains how the "justice and peace" process to demobilise paramilitaries under Uribe was a fraud, bearing most resemblance to the deal that drug lord Pablo Escobar tried to strike for himself in the 1990s. It documents the close links between Uribe's coalition and the paramilitaries, whose political and economic objectives were thoroughly interlinked with drug trafficking:
The paramilitary bosses who founded the AUC just over three years later were mostly former associates of Escobar. They had gotten their start as leaders of vigilante groups set up in the 1980s to deter guerrillas from kidnapping drug traffickers. These groups had joined forces with large landholders and, with the military’s support, expanded their operations from targeted retaliations to more widespread violence against suspected guerrilla allies, including leftist politicians and trade unionists.
By the 2000s, they had more systematic ambitions:
The paramilitaries had driven more than one million poor farmers off their lands, preparing the way for what the authors refer to as a “counter-agrarian reform.” Large landholders and investors—including paramilitaries and other traffickers—acquired the land, and corrupt officials helped them obtain title. As one former paramilitary put it: “We went in killing, others followed buying, and the third group legalized.”
Gradually emerging evidence has undermined the "democratic" credentials of Uribe, from revelations about the collaboration of members of his congressional allies with paramilitaries in rigging elections, to evidence of illegal bugging and threats by the national intelligence aganecy against judges and journalists investigating the allegations.
The review also mentions the somewhat surprising changes that have happened under Uribe's handpicked successor, former Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos. Santos has promised to respect judicial independence and has promoted a "Victim's Law" which would return stolen lands to displaced people and also make monetary reparations to victims of violence.
As I'm sure I will be reminded, none of this is new to Colombians, even if they're only following it from afar through their national media. But it's important that these kind of accounts be available in English, given the poor and unbalanced information that predominates in the international press.