Exclusive Interview: Lina Paola Malagon on the FARC and Colombia

After 50 years of brutal armed conflict, peace is on the horizon in Colombia.  I sit down in St. Andrews’ cozy Old Union Café, some 8000 odd kilometers from Bogota, to discuss the Colombian Peace talks with Lina Paola Malagón. Lina is a human rights lawyer who worked for the Colombia Commission of Jurists for 12 years and was forced into political exile in 2009 after receiving death threats from paramilitaries for her work with trade unionists in Colombia.

Image courtesy of US DEA, public domain.

A mood of cautious optimism prevails, as the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s main guerrilla group, enter into a series of peace talks in Oslo and Havana.

On the table: ending a brutal armed conflict that has plagued Colombia since the 1960s. But while the talks are ongoing in Oslo, fighting continues in the troubled country; the FARC last week killed 5 Colombian soldiers. The Colombian government adamantly refuses to negotiate a ceasefire until the final stages of the peace talks. Memories of failed peace talks in Caguan are inescapable. I ask Lina, do people think peace is possible?

 

“I have expectations, now it’s different than before.  I can see will, and this is and may be the only difference, but it’s an important difference,” she says.

Lina points out, however, “when the government and guerilla talk you do not end all problems and all aspects of the war, but it’s a good beginning.”

Ten years ago, peace talks failed in Caguan, Colombia. Ten violent years have passed in the country since then. With the emergence of this new opportunity, both parties seem eager to latch on, fearing that the moment may pass with no assurances for another in the near future. Both parties have agreed on a process—a 5-point agenda—to end the five decades of violent conflict. To a certain extent, the parties want peace, but what that peace looks like is less clear.

The FARC of the 1950s, touting the rhetoric of Simon Bolivar and Marxism, have become increasingly divorced from the rural people they once sought to represent. For Lina, the FARC represents a different voice, a Marxist voice, but one that has unfortunately quashed left wing activism. Left wing activists are silenced with lethal accusations that they are the guerrilla.

“The left in Colombia have paid a heavy price for the existence of guerilla,” she says.

Left fighting for their military survival after heavy military assault from Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, part of former President  Álvaro Uribe’s military strategy, the question of who the FARC really represents is unclear. One fact remains, however, the Colombian government has not been able to stomp out the FARC, even after a multi-million dollar military budget heavily supported by the US.

The government, on the other side of the table, faces an uneasy legacy of impunity, paramilitary groups and a dubious human rights record. Colombia’s extractive industry boom has significantly increased Foreign Direct Investment and even more foreign investment is pending, but contingent on a more secure and less dangerous Colombia. In short, the longer the conflict drags on, the longer Colombian elites have to wait for money to roll in.  For Lina, the current administration speaks for the people to a large extent, but more so to the middle class and elite.

“Santos’ government represents an important part of society. This is the reality, because they are a democratic government.”

The snubbed Civil Society Groups

Civil society groups do not feature in the Oslo/Havana peace talks. Lina sees this is as a problem. She would like to see the government “create a real space” for other stakeholders, including rights activists like herself to help raise contentious issues and underlying societal problems.

“The government and guerillas are not the only actors. The war in Colombia has many perspectives. Paramilitary groups are a strong force in Colombia and we have drug trafficking, and we have a mafia for everything,” She contends.

Ending the armed conflict between the FARC and government, then doesn’t address a magnitude of other issues facing Colombia, criminality, narco-trafficking, violent targeting of activists, and the continued presence of the purportedly disbanded and demobilized paramilitary groups.

Lina asserts that civil society’s inclusion is important “because peace needs many visions and many ideas to create a pluralistic environment.”

Lina explains the perpetual threats rights activists face. Movements that challenge the status quo are falsely labeled guerrilla, anti-patriotic and even terrorist movements. This strategic discourse enables paramilitary forces to justify their violent targeting of activists in the violence-riddled country. Almost 3000 trade unionists have been killed since 1986, and Lina explains that paramilitary groups, who strategically label trade unionists as guerillas, perpetrate 85% of these violent acts, which seem to portray a zero tolerance for alternative political discourses.

Colombia has the highest rates of unionist deaths in the world, and Lina makes it clear that the country needs varying alternatives to solve its vast problems.

“We don’t need a mano dura (hard hand/crackdown on opposition) in our government. We need a government who thinks about many perspectives,” the rights lawyer says.

While working with the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), Lina was intimately involved in a large campaign against the inequity in the free trade agreement between the US and Colombia.  Lina and the CCJ “fought against this specific agreement because of bad labour conditions in Colombia. Uribe said we were guerillas and anti-patriotic people and that we were terrorists.”

A victim of the violence

After releasing an extensive report revealing the links between paramilitary violence and what she calls the ‘dark war’ against trade unions in Colombia, Lina received a fax from paramilitaries. The message was simple. “Leave or we will kill you bitch. You have one day to leave Bogotá and do not come back.”[1]
Lina was forced into political exile in Switzerland.

The violent threats Lina faced wouldn’t necessarily be eliminated in the advent of a political settlement between the FARC and Colombian government.

Lina explains:  “violence against trade unionists is different from violence between guerrilla and government. Between government and guerrilla we do not have a positive peace.”

As she puts it, peace in Colombia means a real, structural transformation of Colombia.

 “We need redistribution of power, which means we need different political parties, left parties, central-left parties, central-right. We need many different political ideas in Colombia. And we need tolerance to understand different ideas. And the answer for these different ideas cannot be silencing ideas through violence.”

Over the course of the upcoming peace talks in Oslo/Havana, Lina predicts that peace talks will unravel in one of two ways. The first: legalize the FARC through political participation, a limited outcome that wouldn’t address the broader social violence in Colombia. On the other hand, she says, is that Colombia has “a big opportunity to stop hostilities and create a positive peace where the peace process can create a new space to negotiate or debate other issues.” And if the latter opportunity is seized, it would provide an opportunity for real transformation.

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