The Last Time Colombia's Guerrillas Tried to Break Into Politics
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because history has a nasty way of repeating itself.
By Wesley Tomaselli
Knowing that he would be killed one day, Colombian presidential candidate Jaime Pardo Leal took out a handful of life insurance policies, opened a bank account in his wife’s name and deposited enough money to cover his family’s groceries for a year.
An assassin’s bullet found its way into the good-natured politician one Sunday afternoon in October 1987, killing him in the small town of La Mesa on the outskirts of Bogotá. The shot, fired by a teenage murderer, marked the beginning of the end for one of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s (FARC) earliest attempts to lay down their weapons and peacefully join the political arena through a new political party called the Patriotic Union.
“Everyone expected that the construction of the Patriotic Union was synonymous with [the FARC’s] demobilization,” Armando Buenaventura*, an old friend of Pardo Leal’s, says with a sober face at a sleepy café in the capital, a beret topping his mop of graying hair. Amid a sea of Colombian memories from the late 1980s and early 1990s — when right-wing, politically motivated assassins launched a systematic extermination of the new left-wing political party Pardo Leal was leading — it’s remembering his friend’s assassination that remains the hardest.
Today, Colombia is filled with ominous parallels to a past Buenaventura remembers all too well.
The Patriotic Union was the product of a peace process between the government of President Belisario Betancur and the FARC, a Marxist-Communist revolutionary guerrilla movement that had been fighting against the Colombian state since its formation in 1964. “The idea was to turn FARC militants into Patriotic Union party members. But the Patriotic Union also incorporated members of the communist and liberal parties,” says Buenaventura, who used to work as a logistics and communications aid for the Patriotic Union. The murders of its members worked to dismantle the peace effort between the FARC and the Colombian government. Many, like Buenaventura, ended up distancing themselves from politics altogether.
But Pardo Leal’s assassination wasn’t the only thing that disillusioned Buenaventura. There was also the heart-stopping sound of his telephone in the cramped room in Quito, Ecuador, where he took refuge from the violence with his wife and infant daughter in 1989. Every time it rang, Buenaventura thought it was a call from the party to tell him his father, a high-profile party member, had been murdered. “Our family was scattered. Exile — it strips you away from everything you had. Everything.” The family stayed in Ecuador for two years before risking their return.
Exile, in fact, was for the lucky ones. According to the Patriotic Union, some 4,000 of its activists and supporters have been slain since its inception in 1984. Some were targeted because regional elites felt threatened by the Patriotic Union’s new power, says Ariel Ávila, a conflict analyst and researcher of the Bogotá-based Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation. In the 1986 elections, Patriotic Union candidates won numerous mayoral offices, council positions and other political posts that took power from the old guard. Ideological differences and fear of losing rural property to what regional power brokers perceived as a narco-FARC threat also motivated the cleansing of the left.
Today Colombia is filled with ominous parallels to a past Buenaventura remembers all too well. As Colombia’s latest peace process — started in 2012 under current President Juan Manuel Santos — inches toward an October 2 referendum on a final accord, the members of the FARC, just as much as ordinary citizens, are wondering if political violence will heat up again. There are already signs that it has: Between 2011 and 2015, the British NGO Justice for Colombia reported that 534 political activists in Colombia had been murdered.
The Patriotic Union suffered far more bloodshed in the late 1980s and early 1990s than it has in recent years, but history is repeating itself, says Ávila. He thinks things would get even messier during an eventual post-conflict. “We’re going to see assassinations … a dirty war. But more selective this time. More underground. Less visible. And it’s already starting,” he warns. Leaders associated with a government land restitution program, according to Ávila, are the main targets today. But then there’s a whole base of activists at risk, including unionists, environmentalists, indigenous community leaders, human-rights defenders and others associated with new communist groups.
The Patriotic Union has bounced back from near extermination. In 2014, it reestablished its legal party status and started operating again. The fear is that as Colombia moves into a post-conflict era, a new wave of politically motivated assassinations against left-wing politicos could pull the peace accord apart. That would likely drive members of the FARC back into the jungle and back into the fight.
Patriotic Union party administrator Carlos Garcia tells OZY that his party still “doesn’t have complete trust in this government” to protect them. After all, it’s hard to forget what happened the last time the FARC tried to enter politics.
*Armando Buenaventura is a pseudonym for an individual who conditioned sharing his story in exchange for protecting his identity.