Uribe’s Undemocratic and Insecure Colombia


Colombians will soon vote in presidential elections, the outcome of which will be crucial for prospects for peace in the country. For the first time in 50 years, an incumbent president is seeking re-election and most of the domestic and international media predict that President Álvaro Uribe Vélez will win. What could four more years of Uribe mean for Colombia? To answer this question, we must observe his administration’s imprint on the last four years.  

Uribe has championed a hard-line, militaristic stance against Latin America’s oldest and most entrenched left-wing guerrilla insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Uribe’s militarism has won him approval in Washington, and among FARC’s Colombian victims and ideological opponents. But the security and military endeavors of the Uribe administration can only be considered successful if we ignore the sufferings of Colombia’s most vulnerable populations, including the rural and urban poor, the displaced, trade unionists, and indigenous peoples. 

From the outset, Uribe has rejected a negotiated settlement with the two main left-wing guerrilla groups, the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN). [1] While more of the country may feel a greater sense of security under Uribe, the Colombian armed forces frequently engage with the FARC and ELN in the countryside, often with the aid of paramilitary death squads with whom they are historically and ideologically linked.  

Subsequently, more human rights abuses have occurred with greater impunity; human rights workers are labeled as ‘terrorists;’ and Colombia retains the shameful top position worldwide for murders of trade unionists and kidnappings. [2] On average, 500 people are forcibly displaced each day as a result of the conflict and under Uribe’s watch, the numbers have risen. [3]

When Uribe won the presidency in 2002, Forrest Hylton wrote, "the outlaws [became] the establishment." [4] The Uribe administration began ‘negotiations’ with the right-wing paramilitary group, United Self-Defense de Colombia (AUC), an organization Uribe himself had a hand in creating. The AUC talks openly of its involvement in the country’s lucrative and highly institutionalized drug trade. ‘Negotiations’ have been widely considered a farce, as paramilitary groups have been able to define the terms of their own disarmament and avoid extradition, preserving impunity for the country’s worst recent human rights abuses. 

‘Democratic Security’ 

The Uribe administration has sought to define itself through its "Democratic Security and Defence Policy" (DS), which essentially outlines the creation of a national security state aimed at consolidating state control throughout the country by militarily retaking FARC territories, controlling road systems, creating a civilian army of informants, and promoting drug eradication programs. DS has been highly undemocratic and created greater insecurity for many. Only by ignoring the real consequences of the policy on the vulnerable can one argue its merits. 

The DS policy creates a casual army of civilian informants to assist the government in counterinsurgency efforts through "neighborhood watch" programs. [5] The stated goal is to "engage" the population in the government’s war with the FARC. But given the country’s war geography and rural economy – where shifting frontlines force many farmers to cross multiple fronts and checkpoints, potentially meeting several armed actors over the course of a single day – the risks of "collaboration" for rural non-combatants are daily and deadly/ [6]

Uribe has sought to negate civilians’ claims to non-combatant status by placing them on the side of either the paramilitary-government or that of the guerrilla "terrorists," a perilous paradigm familiar to US residents. The informant army has stifled Colombians’ ability to speak freely and, according to researcher Eric Fichtl, reinforced the "near monopoly on political discourse wielded by the armed groups." [7]

Drug Eradication

The infamous joint US-Colombia drug eradication strategy, Plan Colombia, recently resurrected under Plan Patriota, has been embraced by the Uribe administration and referred to in the DS policy. Although most armed groups now finance their operations through the drug economy, Uribe claims to fight the "war on drugs" and the "war on terror" simultaneously. Curiously, the government "negotiates" with those most directly involved in the drug trade, the AUC, while engaging in an all-out offensive with the minor players: left-wing guerrilla groups.  

Meanwhile, aerial fumigations of wide swaths of land are in full swing, coating the countryside in a deadly blanket of Monsanto’s Round-Up Ultra and Cosmoflux, a chemical compound that makes glyphosphate stick to everything it touches, including legal subsistence crops. [8] The chemicals are known to cause respiratory and skin infections in humans and destroy livestock, fish, and wildlife while contaminating the region’s river systems. [9] 

Nevertheless, according to a recent US National Drug Control Policy report, coca cultivation has increased by 26 per cent over 2004-2005 alone. [10] Production moves around the country, into natural reserves in some cases. According to Tchendukua, an NGO working with indigenous groups in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, when manual eradication in natural reserves is too dangerous or ineffective, spraying techniques have been applied. [11] The intensification of the coca eradication program under DS and Plan Patriota signifies a humanitarian and ecological catastrophe.  

The DS policy calls for the state to reaffirm its control over the national road system, increasing people’s "sense" of security. [12] Here the motives are economic and political and indicative of the hierarchy of interests with which the Uribe administration adheres. Colombia’s highways are vital for the functioning of its economy, and with the country’s recently signed Free Trade Agreement with the United States pending ratification, control of the major arteries is vital for the neo-liberal project. As Nazih Richani points out, Colombia’s road systems constitute "the veins through which globalization is expanded and consolidated." [13] Uribe has been largely successful in controlling the nodal points of the future economy, lining the major highways with troops to project to potential foreign investors that the days of security concerns and banditry are over.  

Yet Uribe’s overtures of democracy and security are not intended for all. In reality, as Luis Evelis Andrade Casama, president of the Organización Nacional Indígena de Colombia (ONIC), puts it, "democratic security, which protects the highways with great success, cannot do the same for those of us who inhabit the rivers, jungles, and plains of Colombia." [14] Nor has it arrived for the country’s famous peace communities. 

The Peace Communities

Colombia’s conflict has not been without various attempts at peace, including attempts at political inclusion of the left; peace processes that sought to negotiate a settlement; and of course, the Uribe-FARC military approach. However, the rural communities most directly affected by the conflict propose alternatives to all the mainstream strategies. In fact, their alternatives reach further than the war, addressing alternative forms of community organization, justice, and ecological sustainability, all aligned with a respect for "life."  

Several have declared themselves "peace communities," seeking autonomy from all the armed groups and declaring "active neutrality" in a conflict that has neither considered nor benefited them. While the peace communities are seen by some as pockets of hope in the abyss of a long civil conflict, the response of the Uribe administration has been reactionary and contemptuous, as rejecting all armed actors includes rejecting the public forces as well. Over the span of about six weeks in early 2005, Uribe’s "democratic security" arrived at two well-known peace communities with devastating effects.

The case of San José de Apartadó, Antioquia

On 21 February 2005, the Colombian military’s 17th Brigade attacked the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, arguing that some members had had "relations" with the FARC. [15] One of the community’s founders, Luis Eduardo Guerra and three of his family members were detained. Their bodies and those of four other community members, including two children, were found near the Mulatos River the next day. [16] 

Later, two members of an investigative commission from the Attorney General’s Human Rights office were allegedly attacked by the 17th Brigade while returning from the community after interviewing witnesses of the 21 February events. One commission member later died.  

Uribe argued that the military attacks were justified by the "fact" that some of the community’s inhabitants were aligned with the FARC. [17] Backed by the President’s comments, the army returned to intimidate the community into not divulging information of the events to external observers or the authorities. This resulted in the peace community’s self-imposed displacement on April 1, 2005. The "reactionary ideology" of the Uribe administration marked a new era, one in which those who pursue truths damaging to the state’s agenda are to be targeted. [18] This is Uribe’s "democratic security."

The Case of Toribío, Cauca

Like San José de Apartadó, the municipality of Toribío, in northern Cauca, is a declared peace community. Toribío participates in a multi-facetted development project begun by the Nasa people, the Nasa Project, which was awarded special recognition by the UNDP and the Equator Initiative in 2004. The communities have been at the forefront of non-violent resistance in the midst of a brutal conflict, and the Nasa people have developed an alternative approach to ending the conflict – one that is based on the respect for "life" and includes a withdrawal of all armed groups from indigenous territories, an immediate ceasefire, and a negotiated settlement. [19] They also project a vision that is against the Free Trade Area with the US, which would not recognize the authority and autonomy of indigenous communities as guaranteed under the 1991 Constitution, the result of one of their many other battles.  

The Uribe administration has accused Toribío of "co-government" with the FARC and argued that indigenous claims to autonomy are illegal. [20] The FARC attacked Toribío on April 14, 2005, negating Uribe’s "co-government" accusations. [21] The people retreated into "permanent assembly" zones outside town to avoid displacement. 

The next day, the heavily guarded President arrived, taunted the guerrillas, and insisted the population "decide which side they are on." [22] The FARC’s reckless attack conveniently facilitated the state’s militarization of the region, opening the community to more guerrilla reprisals and fulfilling its desire to ignore the autonomy of the communities, though it is constitutionally obliged to do so.  

Podur and Rozental contend that Uribe’s strategy is to destroy these alternative visions through wars: the drug war of fumigations; the dirty war against unionists, peace activists, and community leaders; the "war on terror," to bring in greater US involvement; the economic war for the imposition of the neoliberal model; and "the war of lies," which "presents a picture of a harried government facing narco-terrorism and guerrilla warfare." [23]

By militarizing the peace communities, the Uribe regime is engaged in consolidating hegemony in Colombia through the war system, persuading the middle- and elite-classes that a negotiated settlement is ineffective and coercing the entire civilian population into participation in a war that claims all Colombians as victims. 

As bad as it seems, the Uribe administration has not been able entirely fulfill its objectives in his first term. Many of the provisions of the DS policy – as well as neo-liberal and the constitutional reforms allowing for his own re-election – were effectively rejected in a referendum held in October 2003. Uribe has subsequently had to push his agenda through less democratic channels than the plebiscite, forcing the temporary dilution of many of his policies. However, another term could consolidate Uribe’s stranglehold on Colombia’s progressive movements and worsen an already dire situation. 

But there is hope. Uribe’s support is strong but slipping in the polls, and Carlos Gaviria Díaz, the left candidate, is gaining ground. Gaviria supports the Indigenous and Popular Mandate [24] of the indigenous of Northern Cauca and opposes the neo-liberal project. He has a chance of winning if he can push Uribe into a second round. 

Scandals regarding paramilitary infiltration of Colombia’s intelligence services (DAS) have hurt the President, as has the signing of the widely unpopular FTA with the US. The campaign has been exceptionally dirty, Uribe denouncing Gaviria’s platform as "communism in disguise" and attempting to link the opposition to the FARC with no evidence. His baseless attacks illuminate his vulnerability. A clean campaign would defeat the dirty president, who often overlooks his own links to narco-paramilitarism. 

With the threat of another four years of Uribe, the willingness of the US to deploy Army Special Forces units to Colombia, [25] and the certain intensification of "democratic security," the upcoming presidential elections have never been so important for so many. The possibility of worsening conditions rules out the feasibility of abstention.  

It will be the task of the country’s social movements to mobilize and demonstrate Colombians’ opposition to all the armed actors and desire for a just peace, the only condition in which true democracy and true security can take root. 

Indigenous movements called for a mobilization for May 15, 2006 in which 13,000 participated, though many more would have if not for the repression of government forces. The hope lies in the vitality of these movements, which in spite of the power and diversity of their enemies, continue to resist in a situation that many outside Colombia would perceive as hopeless.  Yet for many of these movements, resistance is a 500 year old tradition, something Uribe and his supporters can neither take away nor defeat. 

Michèal Ó Tuathail studies political science at the University of Alberta, Canada. Contact him at maidc.otuathail@gmail.com. 


[1] See Nazih Richani ("The Dominant Classes and the Prospects of Peace." Systems of Violence: The Political Economy of War and Peace in Colombia. State University of New York Press: New York, 2002. 141), who points out that a negotiated settlement with the FARC would inevitably put the landed elite and cattle ranchers on the losing end of a long overdue land reform. It must also be highlighted that many powerful drug czars, military people, and the president himself belong to this small yet influential sector of Colombian society.

[2] Amnesty International. "Colombia." Amnesty Report 2005 . 25 May 2005. 80-82.

[3] According to the Consultoria para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (CODHES), during 2003, 207,607 people were displaced by violence in Colombia. In 2004, this statistic ascended to 287, 381, and in 2005, the number was 310,237. Source: CODHES. Colombia: Desplazamiento Forzado Interno y Transfronterizo. 26 February 2006 . Retrieved 14 April 2006 from << http://www.codhes.org/index.php?


[4] Hylton, Forrest. "An Evil Hour: Uribe’s Colombia in Historical Perspective." New Left Review. Issue 23. September-October 2003. 91.

[5] Embassy of Colombia, Washington . The Uribe Administration’s Democratic Security and Defence Policy.

[6] Fichtl, Eric. "Civilian ‘Collaborators’ in Colombia’s Conflict." Colombia Journal. March 2004. Retrieved 7 April 2006 from <<http://www.colombiajournal.org/collaboration.htm>>.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hylton 91-92.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Leech, Gary. "Coca Figures Make Evident the Failure of Plan Colombia." Colombia Journal . 17 April 2006. Retrieved 17 May 2006 from < http://www.colombiajournal.org/colombia233.htm>.

[11] Email Interview. 13 January 2006.

[12] Embassy of Colombia, Washington .

[13] Richani 145.

[14] Interview. 21 April, 2005. Bogotá , Colombia.

[15] Colombia Support Network. "Mulatos Massacre: Report of a Colombia Support Network Delegation." CSN. 12 July 2005. Retrieved 14 April 2006 from <<http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?

ItemID=8289 >>.

[16] Brittain, James J. "The Reactionary Restriction of Justice in Colombia." Colombia Journal. 2 May 2005. Retrieved 7 April 2006 from <http://www.colombiajournal.org/colombia208.htm> .

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Murillo, Mario A. "Democratic Security Has Not Arrived for Colombia’s Indigenous Communities." Colombia Journal. 18 August, 2005. Retrieved 7 April 2006 from <http://www.colombiajournal.org/colombia215.htm> .

[20] Ibid.

[21] Colombian political scientist, Daniel Garcia-Pena, published a piece in El Espectator at the time about the FARC’s military logic in attacking Toribío being a political blunder. He writes, "what they are winning on the field of battle, they are destroying on the field of legitimacy." It is available in English on Znet: << http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?

SectionID=45&ItemID=7760 >>.

[22] Podur, Justin. "Will People Power Have a Chance in Colombia?" Znet. 23 April 2005. Retrieved 7 April 2006 from < http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?

SectionID=9&ItemID=7715> .

[23] Podur, Justin and Manuel Rozental. "Prepare for Four Years of the Uribe Model: Change and Continuity After Colombia’s Elections." Znet. 30 May 2002. Retrieved 7 April 2006 from <http://www.zmag.org/content/print_article.cfm?

itemID=1446&sectionID=1> .

[24] See << http://www.nasaacin.net/mandato_indigena

_popular.htm>> in Spanish; <<http://www.killingtrain.com/archives/000153.html >> in English.

[25] See Leech, Garry. "U.S. Willing to Deploy Combat Troops to Colombia." Colombia Journal. 2 April 2006. <<http://www.colombiajournal.org/colombia232.htm >>.