The Colombian Surrender – Exploring the history of capitulation in Colombia’s narco-wars (September 12, 2012)

As peace talks begin anew between the Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC) it becomes important to understand why such talks are eventually likely to fail. Colombia is a special place. Bordered by mountains, oceans, rivers and jungle, it is a country that is defined by its ruggedness and beauty. Yet, these places that define it physically have also allowed it to be a place of mystery and legend. Jungle valleys and trackless mountains have bred a hardened people, well suited and used to the arduous nature of their existence. And arduous it has always been. The modern country of Colombia began as the Viceroyalty of New Grenada, a colonial Spanish fiefdom on the northern tip of South America. Rich in resources but poor in labour and investment, the imperial possession struggled through the leadership of inept and cruel provincial dictators, whose harsh management of the native, mulatto and mestizo populations resulted in endless rebellions and banditry throughout the region. This vicious treatment by successive imperial governments eventually allowed a groundswell of support to form around a new man, a leader who’s supposed humanistic principles would drag the fledgling countries of the Spanish American Empire to nationhood. This apparent pinnacle of human ingenuity, humanism and integrity, Simon Bolivar, would lead a self-proclaimed revolution that he named after himself, creating the modern states of northern South America, (two of which were also named after him). But while the Bolivarian Revolution and the countries of Bolivia and Venezuela stand as testaments to the egocentricity of this famous figure and to the power of nationalist, revisionist history, this period in time also saw the beginning of a behavioural pattern that continues to this day; one that has come to typify the ongoing fight between the Colombian government and the revolutionary and criminal groups it opposes: the old Colombian Surrender.

From Bolivar’s perspective, his campaigns against Spanish imperialism were indeed glorious. Marching triumphantly across the mountains, plains and jungles of northern South America and losing thousands of troops in the process, he and his peasant army liberated the modern territories of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru from depleted Spanish royalist forces. Fighting numerous famous battles, including Boyaca (1819), Carabobo (1821), Pinchincha (1822) and Junin (1824), Bolivar succeeded in founding the new state of Gran Colombia, which incorporated all of his newly conquered territories into one massive country. However, this great civilizing project of his, for which he is still immensely popular in South America today, would not last long. Despite his plans for a strong, republican federation of states, modelled on the newly formed United States of America, the new country would soon collapse under the weight of extraordinary economic pressures and Bolivar’s own ego. Proclaiming himself dictator in Peru, and eventually for all of Gran Colombia, Bolivar even afforded himself the undemocratic right to choose his own successor, who, like him, would hold the dual post of head of state and head of government for life. From Bolivar’s far from nuanced perspective, only his strength could keep the glorious dream of Gran Colombia alive and well. Yet, his drive for power was not accepted as a universally good thing by all those he came to rule over. Certainly the royalist forces loyal to Spain remained his enemy, but Bolivar also managed to alienate and divide the common people who, he believed, idolized him. Lawlessness, simony and corruption continued in the far flung reaches of his new empire and produced a local identity in many regions, an identity that viewed all outer interference in local affairs as an invasion of privacy – something that Bolivar guaranteed when he would ride triumphantly throughout the peasant villages of the countryside during his various glorious campaigns. However, this guarantee of serving the local needs and the common good quickly evaporated when Bolivar came to power. Thus, republican democracy was replaced by dictatorship, and the rights of the people replaced by the economic needs of the elite.

But, in this intensely pro-Bolivarian atmosphere how could the peasants possibly challenge their hero, the first man to even attempt to champion their rights, albeit for personal reasons, ever? The answer is one that has been replicated time and again throughout the course of human history: the peasants rose in revolt. However, while many peasant communities and whole regions opposed Bolivar’s rule, they often avoided expressly saying so in order to dodge the violent repercussions. Therefore, rebellions and insurrections arose against the state, but not Bolivar himself, creating a pattern where whenever Bolivar personally led troops to quell an uprising those particular rebels would most often surrender to him and promise to behave, or simply vanish into the wilderness and not offer combat. Yet, once Bolivar left the region the peasant rebels would re-emerge and the revolt would continue unabated. So, while the dream of Gran Colombia would completely evaporate soon after his death, Bolivar’s power of presence created a practice that is increasingly employed by revolutionaries and criminal warlords in the region to this day: the Colombian Surrender. This process of faking one’s allegiance to a cause or person only to return to the ways of banditry and revolution soon after signing the surrender could only have begun under the reign of someone like Bolivar, whose ego prevented him from truly dealing with the underlying issues that caused the constant unrest.

The history of modern South America is littered with the stories of supposedly great men who initially strive for the people, but who soon bring their country into a nightmare created by greed and narcissism. Bolivar was the first of these nationalist failures, and his magnetic personality allowed for the development of the Colombian Surrender behavioural pattern that typifies the history of contemporary Colombia. This notion of a well thought out false surrender may seem, on the surface, to be merely a strategy of survival operated on a whim by desperate people in desperate situations, and in many cases throughout human history this may indeed be true. However, Colombia’s ongoing history as a place of revolution against feudalistic, monopolistic interests presents this strategy in a completely different light. Up until the last decade, from the perspective of the poor masses, the government of Colombia has never fully represented the needs and wants of the people. This institution existed in order to further the wealth and goals of the elite while systemically abusing the majority of the public for their own needs. While it is possible, when analyzing these facts under certain political philosophical traditions, to apply this notion to almost any modern state, the legacy of the Colombian government’s nepotism, mismanagement and greed has created a public that is almost universally distrustful of its leadership. Add to this fact that Colombia still possesses some of the most wild and uncharted jungle on the planet and it becomes obvious that from the perspective of the isolated, rebellious peasantry, the notion of honestly surrendering to the government is simply ridiculous. If the state is untrustworthy, then why should the rebels behave in a trustworthy fashion themselves, especially if they have the ability to disappear into the wilderness? In this context it becomes easy to see how the practice of the Colombian Surrender developed and why it continues to be used today. Paramilitaries, narcotics traffickers and revolutionaries have all employed this strategy over the past thirty years, and, as seen in the recent actions of El Ejercito Revolucionario Popular Anticomunista de Colombia (The Popular Anti-Communist Army of Colombia, also known as ERPAC), it is likely to be employed for some time to come.

The first modern luminary in Colombian history to utilize this practice is a figure that looms even larger in the minds of most Colombians than the well-known Simon Bolivar. Starting out as a street-level enforcer for criminal gangs in Medellin, Pablo Escobar’s name would become synonymous with narco-terrorism, drug dealing and duplicity. As he murdered and bribed his way to the top of the organized criminal pyramid in Medellin, Escobar, borrowing a page from Bolivar’s handbook, sought to ingratiate himself with the local peasantry. He erected public housing, which, in Bolivarian fashion, he named after himself, and he spurred the development of Medellin through the provision of utilities and rudimentary public services, something that was unheard of in the city’s shantytowns up until that point. However, in spite of his popularity with the local underclass of Medellin, his violent control of the burgeoning cocaine trade between Colombia and the United States (US) had created enemies overseas. As American law enforcement stepped up its operations in Colombia, Escobar attempted to avoid the issue by turning himself in, believing that if he appeared to be under control there would be no reason for the Colombian government to reintroduce extradition and ship him to the US.

At first, the arrangement seemed like a good deal for both sides. The Colombian government could point to their first public-relations success story in the war on drugs and Escobar would avoid being sent to the US and likely jailed there for life. So, in June, 1991, Escobar moved into his new abode. In this case, Escobar’s jail was positively comfy. Not only did the drug lord have complete control of La Citadel prison, which was located just outside of his fiefdom in Medellin, but he built it as well. Establishing the rotation of guards and ruling as some type of medieval lord, Escobar hosted elaborate parties, which regularly included players from Colombia’s national soccer (football) team. His drug trafficking operations also remained unchanged, despite his apparent incarceration. A perfect example of the power he wielded in prison are the murders of four of people he deemed untrustworthy, who were kidnapped and brought to La Citadel for execution in front of Escobar himself. These killings finally embarrassed the government into revoking their agreement with Escobar, who seemingly found out as soon as the decision was made. So, on July 22, 1992, after serving a year and one month into a five year sentence, Escobar walked out of the front door of the prison and flew to freedom on a private plane from a local airfield, also rumoured to be owned and operated by him. As Escobar’s time in prison reveals, Colombian security forces have a history of being used by criminals and terrorists, even when they believe they are doing well.

While Escobar’s duplicitous surrender strategy was the first to be publicly documented, it would certainly not be the last. The next armed group to adopt the Colombian Surrender tactic would be the country’s oldest and most feared rebel group, the FARC. Despite retaining a significant amount of followers in various “Fronts” throughout the country, by the late 1990s the FARC had failed to achieve any major political or military goals. The US, in its support for the Colombian government, had launched repeated intelligence and military operations against the group, which succeeded in weakening its hold on several regions that were deemed crucial to the movement’s revenue generation. So, as the Colombian government increased its pressure, the FARC leadership decided it needed a break. Therefore, in 1999, the supreme military council of the FARC announced that if the government would grant a cease fire and consider granting amnesty and immunity to FARC fighters the group would consider surrendering. The Colombian government’s enthusiasm for the idea was unbridled, and it gladly granted the FARC concessions. From its point of view it had finally succeeded in bringing a renowned militant group to its knees. Unfortunately, regardless of its original intentions, the FARC leadership never actually got around to surrendering. Between 1999 and 2002, while negotiators went back and forth, FARC fighters re-established themselves in the isolated rural regions the government had designated and strengthened their position by selling coca-paste (the paste extracted from the coca leaf to make cocaine) to various criminal groups, using the new funds to buy weapons and military equipment. By the time the talks formally disintegrated in 2002 the FARC had reinvigorated itself, allowing its fighters to continue their battle for another decade.

As the FARC were in the process of pretending to come in from the cold, their old right-wing paramilitary enemies were seeing the wisdom in their strategy. The Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) were formed in the 1990s by peasant communities to fight back against the abuses perpetrated by left wing rebel movements in the country, such as the FARC and National Liberation Army (ELN). Yet, as with the FARC, their focus was changing. But while the FARC at least maintained their political goals through drug trafficking, many prominent members of the AUC now sought to move from the political arena exclusively into narcotics. Thus, when the Colombian government offered an amnesty program for AUC paramilitaries many jumped at the chance. This amnesty was not simply a way to stay out of jail, it represented to the AUC leadership a sure-fire way to clear their names and maintain their militant organizations in order to get rich dealing drugs. So, as the amnesty program got underway at least 30,000 known AUC paramilitaries turned themselves in, often with outdated weapons. What wasn’t known at the time was that these supposed AUC combatants were merely just peasants the AUC factions had paid to take their place. In many cases, they were provided with obsolete weapons to turn in while the AUC factions retained their control of state of the art weaponry they obtained during the fighting. Therefore, what was left at the end of 2003 was a long list of 30,000 peasants, who had nothing to do with the AUC, and several highly organized criminal groups who proceeded to begin carving out various fiefdoms in Colombia’s underworld.

Contemporary organizations such as the Rastrojos, Urabenos, ERPAC, and the Black Eagles, now known as Bandas Criminals (BACRIMS), are the direct result of the AUC’s fake surrender strategy of 2003. These groups now control vast stretches of Colombian territory and now work in concert with their former left-wing enemies, the FARC and ELN, to produce coca paste and ship cocaine to consumer markets overseas. Many leaders from the AUC now operate in Colombia’s cities, where they have created insecurity and caused destructive gang wars that have terrorized whole communities. The ongoing chaos in the Communa 8 neighbourhood in Medellin provides a perfect example of this destructive pattern. Yet, the legacy of these groups and their fake surrenders do not end there, and such strategies may be simply becoming the modus operandi of Colombian narco-organizations.

One such group is the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC), which was once a powerful AUC paramilitary group that was based in Colombia’s eastern plains region. This BACRIMS followed the now typical AUC operating procedure following the amnesty program of 2003, and re-established itself in its former area of operations, this time with the express goal of harvesting and selling cocaine. Yet despite the rewards that this lucrative business can provide and the supposed cooperation amongst former enemies in the Colombian underworld, cocaine trafficking remains a dangerous business. The eastern plains of Colombia remain a hallmark of the Wild West era, where bandits, revolutionaries and peasants exist in a conglomeration of uncertainty, violence and distrust. This same region has produced powerful international drug traffickers, such as Daniel “El Loco” Barrera Barrera, and has therefore become a primary concern for the American Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Thus, despite enjoying almost a decade of prosperity, several ERPAC commanders were wanted by the American law enforcement agencies and faced swift extradition to the US under current laws. Under such circumstances and fearing a long prison sentence if caught on the run – Colombia often cuts sentences in half if suspects surrender to face justice – the ERPAC commanders went to their time honoured playbook and once again decided on a ‘Colombian Surrender.’

So, on Christmas Day, 2011, several senior commanders of ERPAC and over 200 fighters turned themselves in to a Colombian police precinct in the eastern plains region. Such was the shock of the Colombian police establishment in the district that they proceeded to let the fighters go, uncharged. While large numbers of ERPAC members were eventually recaptured, many more continue to fight under disparate ERPAC figures, and it becomes clear that Colombian criminal groups view the process of surrendering to the Colombian government as essentially a restart button for their criminal careers. This is the problem the Colombian government now faces with the current 2012 – 2013 FARC negotiations. While it has overcome the issue of allowing the rebels free zones to rest in and no ceasefire has been declared while the talks continue, the danger of even talking with such an opponent is obvious. Even if it is possible for the rebels to manage to rearm and invigorate themselves during the process, an even more disturbing possibility is that the rebel leadership decides to capitulate. Yes, the leaders of the FARC may face a certain modicum of justice or be removed from the militant scene for a limited period of time, but what will happen to the 20,000 or so rebel fighters in the jungles around the country? The answer is tragically available for all to see. History does not lie, it provides context for the world in which humanity struggles with itself. Therefore, even if the FARC decides to call its political struggle quits, the various leaders of the 30-odd fronts throughout the country will simply refocus their energies on enriching themselves through the sale of cocaine and coca-paste, something which most likely up takes the majority of their time at this point anyway. This isn’t an opinion; it is a fact of life within the world of Colombian militancy. In the context of these conflicts, the process of surrender has become synonymous with duplicity and violence.

Although PanAmerican Crime is not an advocate of violence in any form, the concept of appeasement is present throughout this analysis. Allowing entrenched criminal groups to control the process of their surrender only emboldens such organizations and those who come after. Surrender, especially for criminal groups, is not to be bartered but imposed when no other option exist but death or imprisonment. And while it is important to differentiate between political struggles and rampant, opportunistic criminality, it should be recognized that allowing any such group to supervise its own dismantlement allows various factions within that group to take advantage of either the government’s lackadaisical attitude on security or its supposed good will. This transfer in identity from ‘the rebel’ to ‘the criminal’ can be seen throughout the history of Colombia, whether it be the AUC, the FARC, or the myriad BACRIMS that continue to plague the country, and it is clearly this distinct pattern of the Colombian Surrender that allows such a transfer to take place. Indeed, such shifts from revolutionary to criminal goals to are not limited to the experience of Colombia alone. In Peru, the Sendaro Luminoso (Shining Path) has evolved over the last two decades from a dangerous revolutionary movement into various drug dealing factions in the isolated Huallaga, Apurimac and Ene river valleys of Peru; a process which has allowed that country to once again gain the ignominious top spot as the premier cocaine producing country on the planet. The difference is that these groups were not ushered into their new domains by government acquiescence to their plans, as similar organizations clearly were in Colombia, and the corresponding levels of violence have therefore been extremely limited when comparing the two countries.

Government legitimacy is not merely a product of violence or strength; rather, in a poor, developing country such legitimacy is maintained by the establishment of a correlation between the state and power. By allowing rebels and criminal movements to determine their own relationship with the state, the Colombian government has surrendered its legitimacy and power in many regions of the country. This article is not an appeal for the Colombian government to renege on its agreement with the FARC or to haul the rebel leadership out into the streets for an extrajudicial execution, as the PEPES group did with Pablo Escobar. Instead, it is recognition that sometimes ending the fight against narco-trafficking, violence and corruption is not measured by simply halting the conflict, but rather through how it is brought to an end. Although it is quite popular in today’s Western society to consider peace and ends in itself, or the ultimate goal for all governments at war, the Colombian situation should serve as reminder that true peace, prosperity and fulfillment are only attainable when they are achieved by action rather than acquiescence. Otherwise, they merely happen again.

Bolivar’s habit of traipsing around on campaigns and achieving temporary surrender from various enemies was bad policy because it failed to deal with the issues of the peasants or crush the rebellions outright. And so too are the current actions of the Colombian national government. Cutting deals with drug dealers and revolutionaries who have no intention of relinquishing their power or their wealth, and who have proven thusly over decades of conflict, will always backfire. Conflict is certainly not to be sought by any responsible government or institution, but once begun it is irresponsible to end it before a permanent resolution can be achieved. The Colombian Surrender is now standard practice for the antagonists of Colombia’s narco-wars, and it is about time the government there recognized it.

Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice… Y’ain’t gonna fool me twice.” – George Walker Bush

Scott Paulseth, Editor, PanAmerican Crime


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