The Colombian port of Buenaventura is a place of misery and fear. Four-fifths of the mainly black population live in dire poverty and paramilitary gangs exercise a reign of terror. Most of Colombia’s imports come through the port, which is being massively expanded to meet the demands of new free trade agreements.
But there’s no sign of any benefit in Buenaventura’s slums, whose deprivation is reminiscent of the worst of Bangladesh. Most of the city’s population have no sewerage and many no power. Tens of thousands have been forced off their land around the city to make way for corporate “megaprojects”.
Most horrifically, paramilitaries have been dismembering those who cross them with chainsaws in shacks known as chophouses. The police admit a dozen have met these grisly deaths in recent months, but Buenaventura’s bishop says the real figure is far higher.
The government insists the rightwing paramilitary groups that have terrorised Colombia’s opposition have been dissolved. But in Buenaventura, they can be seen openly fraternising with soldiers on the streets, and they even publish their own newspaper.
Hundreds of miles away in Putumayo, a remote rural area at the heart of the 50-year conflict between the state and the leftwing Farc guerrillas, local peasant farmers are blockading roads and bridges in protest against the destruction caused by oil exploration and the government’s drug-war fumigation of their crops.
In the village of Puerto Vega, locals line up with stories of atrocities and abductions by the police and army. Family members describe how four young trade unionists were shot in May by soldiers who later claimed they were killed in combat. It’s not the guerrillas they fear, villagers say, but the authorities.
It’s a similar story in the working-class Soacha suburb of Bogotá, where mothers of young men abducted and murdered by soldiers who falsely claimed they were guerrillas to qualify for bonuses weep as they describe years of campaigning to have those responsible brought to justice. More than 3,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed in this way in the past decade.
This is the reality of Colombia today. But it’s not, of course, the story sold by the Colombian government and its US and British backers. As far as they’re concerned, the peace talks with the Farc are heading for success after Juan Manuel Santos was re-elected president last month on a peace ticket.
Colombian officials talk peace and human rights with an evangelical zeal and a dizzying array of flipcharts. But, as one independent report after another confirms, there is a chasm between the spin and life on the ground. Laws are not implemented or abusers prosecuted. Thousands of political prisoners languish in Colombia’s jails. Political, trade union and social movement activists are still routinely jailed or assassinated.
A quarter of a million have died in Colombia’s war, the large majority of them at the hands of the army, police and government-linked paramilitaries. Five million have been forced from their homes. Although the violence is down from its peak, the killing of human rights and union activists has actually increased in the past year.
One of those jailed is the trade union and opposition leader Huber Ballesteros, arrested last year as he was about to travel to Britain to address the Trades Union Congress. Speaking in La Picota prison in Bogotá last week, Ballesteros told me: “There is no democracy in Colombia, we are confronting a dictatorship with a democratic face.”
Meanwhile in Havana, where peace negotiations have been in train since 2012, Farc guerrilla leaders warn that the process could break down unless the government agrees to meaningful democratic reforms and stops trying to kill the organisation’s leaders.
There’s no doubt the Farc wants to end its armed campaign, which first emerged as a defence of peasant farmers and has been used to smear and terrorise the country’s opposition for decades. But the guerrillas’ frustration with a one-sided process and a government that refuses to respond to their unilateral ceasefires is clearly growing.
It’s people like Ballesteros and the mothers of Soacha who have attracted the solidarity of British and Irish trade unionists and MPs, regularly brought to Colombia – where close to 3,000 union activists have been murdered since 1986 – by the British NGO Justice for Colombia.
But it’s the Colombian state and military, responsible for decades of dirty war and the worst human rights record in the hemisphere, that the US and British governments stand behind. Colombia is Washington’s closest ally in Latin America, the third largest recipient of US military and security aid in the world.
That’s why the Colombian conflict has been branded “America’s other war”, as it morphed from a fight against communism to a battle against drugs to another front in the war on terror. But Britain is also intimately involved, as it strengthens what the British ambassador in Bogotá, Lindsay Croisdale-Appleby, calls a “close” and “long-term institutional relationship” with the military.
The interests are both strategic and economic, as Colombia has opened up its resource-rich economy to privatisation and foreign investment. Western corporations such as the US-owned Chiquita banana company have been found to have directly financed paramilitaries that have cleared peasant farmers off prime land and attacked trade unions.
Santos represents that part of the Colombian elite that wants to end the war to make way for large-scale corporate investment. The progressive tide that has swept Latin America and brought leftwing governments to power across the region is also less favourable to the traditional death-squad model of rightwing politics.
A peace deal with effective protection for the opposition could open up the possibility of real change in Colombia. But that demands support for those genuinely trying to make it happen – and for the global powers that preach human rights to end their backing of repression and terror on an industrial scale.