Further Reading

Case Study:


Colombia MapColombia is the most enduringly violent country in the world. Against the backdrop of a civil war that is now five decades old, a host of state and non-state forces have sought to preserve the social status quo by inflicting some of the most sickening atrocities anywhere on earth. These atrocities have pronounced gendercidal characteristics, targeting males (including male children) selectively and overwhelmingly, although not exclusively.

The background

As with many Latin American countries, regionalism has been a defining force in Colombia's post-independence history, exacerbated by rugged geography (the country is split by three separate branches of the Andes mountain range). It is no accident that David Bushnell's impressive work on The Making of Modern Colombia is subtitled: "A Nation In Spite of Itself." The country was wracked by brutal conflicts between Liberal and Conservative camps, notably the "War of a Thousand Days" (1899-1902). The modern period of Colombian violence also derives from the Liberal-Conservative vendettas and the power struggles they concealed. Ignacio Ramonet offers a succinct overview of Colombia's post-World War II history, and the rise of the non-traditional forces that dominate the political scene today:

One could say that it all began in 1948, with the murder in Bogotá of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, a leading figure of the left. This crime ... sparked a civil war -- the violencia -- between the two political forces that ran the country -- the Liberals and the Conservatives. It was to last for eight years (from 1948 to 1957) and be the cause of 300,000 deaths. Eventual reconciliation between the liberals and conservatives did not translate into a development programme aimed at reducing social inequality. Consequently, several armed groups refused to give up their arms. Two among them -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Army of National Liberation (ELN) -- became, with the passing of time, the last two large-scale guerrilla movements in Latin America. The control exercised by the 10,000-strong FARC is particularly strong in the south, while the ELN (6,000-strong) dominates in the north-east.
However, the regions dominated by the guerrilla movements also happen to be the areas in which the growing of coca is particularly widespread, and where there is a major presence of drug traffickers with long-standing links with the Medellín and Cali cartels, responsible for channelling drug supplies to consumers in Europe and the United States. ... In these same regions, the large landowners have set up ["]self-defence["] groups, which have gained in size in recent years. Currently estimated to number about 6,000 men, they have now been gathered within a single umbrella organisation, the United Self-Defence of Colombia (AUC), with a view to making their presence felt as a force on the political scene. ... These paramilitary groupings are organised into death squads and their policy is to promote terror. They have been responsible for most of the massacres and have killed hundreds of former guerrilla fighters, more than 2,000 militants of the Communist Party and over 2,200 trade union cadres. In the countryside, they have created a reign of terror which, according to Amnesty International, has caused almost a million people to flee to the towns for refuge. (Ignacio Ramonet, "Hope in Colombia," Le Monde diplomatique, July 1998.)

The gendercide

"Most victims of political killings are men," Human Rights Watch acknowledged in its detailed 1998 report on Colombia, War Without Quarter. "Women and children dominate the ranks of the forcibly displaced. Guerrillas, state agents, and paramilitaries have on occasion killed women because they were family members of a perceived enemy or because they investigated the death of a relative or colleague."

This account does not quite convey the flavour of a typical act of gendercide by the paramilitary forces and their military allies in Colombia. In large part owing to the "macho" cultural tradition in Latin America, the gender-selectiveness of these killings is typically merciless. Probably between 85 and 95 percent of adult victims are male:

Right-wing militiamen shot dead 17 people in attacks across a southern drug-producing region of Colombia, officials said ... Nine men and two women were killed in El Placer, four men in La Dorada, and more in the nearby hamlet of El Vergel. ... In May, militiamen killed 11 men in the region, including at least four in El Placer. ("17 killed in Southern Colombia," Associated Press dispatch, November 9 1999.)
Rightist militiamen using chainsaws on some of their victims killed 11 peasants and kidnapped 13 others, accusing them of collaborating with leftist guerrillas ... Police said the chainsaws were used to torture and behead several of the victims. Others were shot to death. Ten of the victims were men, police reported. The slain woman, a minor, was killed by militiamen seeking her husband, who was not at home. ("Columbian [sic] Militia Massacres 11," Associated Press dispatch, 9 November 1998.)
The largest single massacre [in the Apartado area in 1997] took place on March 29, 1997, only seven days after community leaders had declared the town a "Peace Community." That day, residents say the ACCU [paramilitaries] entered the village of Las Nieves. There, they seized and executed at least five people: brothers Elias and Heliodoro Zapata; Alberto Valle; his fourteen-year-old son, Felix; and Carlos Torres, a hired hand. ... Dozens of other residents were seized and killed at paramilitary roadblocks tolerated by the army. (Human Rights Watch, War Without Quarter.)
William Rozo spoke in a hushed staccato from his desk at the office of the Catholic church’s local Committee for Justice, Life and Peace. Flanked by posters -- one heralding the rights of civilians to remain neutral during armed conflicts, another from the United Nations urging Colombians to "join the force for peace" -- Rozo gave a preliminary accounting of the massacre committed by a paramilitary squad in the town of Mapiripán. "The diocese has a record of 26 people killed. Most were mutilated with machetes, their heads were chopped off, their chests sliced open in the sign of a cross so the bodies wouldn’t float when thrown into the river. All were men. The killings began July 16 and ended July 20," Rozo, 24, said. "It seems they used heads for soccer balls. There were heads 50 yards from bodies, next to stones that looked like goal markers," he said. (Leslie Wirpsa, "Economics Fuels Return of La Violencia", National Catholic Reporter, October 1997.)
Gloria Cuartas, Mayor of Apartado[Gloria Cuartas, the mayor of Apartado] attends to many of the widows of an estimated 677 men ... who have been killed so far this year. "You have no idea my feeling of impotence when a widow shows up at my office begging for a casket to bury her husband. They have no money and I don't either," she said. ... The victims, most of them banana workers, die one by one or in massacres. ... In this macho society, women are protected and only the men are murdered, leaving about a thousand widows in the region [around Apartado], the Roman Catholic diocese estimates. (Ken Dermota, "Workers caught in clutches of fatal conflict," The Globe and Mail, September 21 1995.)

As hinted in these accounts, the sheer savagery of the killings in Colombia is an important element of the horror. "Often in Colombia, the bodies of individuals who have been arbitrarily detained are mutilated in a variety of ways meant to maximize terror: with machetes, chain saws, acid, and even surgical instruments." (Human Rights Watch, War Without Quarter.)

All sides in the Colombian conflict have increasingly targeted male youths and even children for impressment into military ranks. The gendering and possibly gendercidal character of the recruitment of child soldiers is discussed elsewhere on this site.

The informal economy -- especially the drug-trade -- is another gendercidal feature of the Colombian social and political landscape. The sicarios (assassins) and other young men recruited from the poverty-infested slums have a life expectancy of only a few years -- a phenomenon that is also well-known in the North American experience. Gendercide Watch includes a case-study of Colombia in its analysis of the informal economy, an institution that has sometimes displayed a gendercidal character.

More generally, death by intentional killing in Colombia is overwhelmingly male-dominated, if by no means a monopoly. (Domestic killings of women are a serious and growing problem.) "Colombians commit a quarter of all the murders taking place in the American continent as a whole." (Ramonet, "Hope in Colombia"; the Colombian population is approximately 30 million, versus Mexico's 90 million, Brazil's 115 million and the United States' 275 million.)

In 1994, 88.2 percent of murder victims nationwide were male. ("Colombia violenta: 75 muertes diarias [Violent Colombia: 75 deaths a day]," El País [Cali], July 18 1994.) A more recent report by the UK Economist suggested that the gendercidal trend may be on the increase:

Well over 90% of those killed are men. At the INMLCF [Institute of Medical Law and Forensic Science in Bogotá], Dr. Gloria Suarez foresees, on current trends, a serious imbalance of the sexes. Even now there is a measurable and steady rise in the number of young widows and single mothers in Bogotá -- and Colombia, accustomed to the traditional family unit, does nothing for households without a breadwinner. ... Dr. Suarez offers one crumb of comfort. Colombian society, one of old-fashioned machismo, may have to come to terms with an increasing trend toward matriarchy. Comfort? Like the underclass of black America? ("Living with death in Colombia," The Economist, 13 February 1999.)

The phenomenon has been evident for many years. The testimonies of young gamines (street kids, often in gangs) and sicarios, gathered by Alonso Salazar in the 1980s, pointed to an intricately-gendered structure of killing and counter-killing. "The gang wars have been tough: whole families have been wiped out in vendettas," Antonio, a gang member, told Salazar. "What happens is if one of the gang or one of your relatives gets killed, you go out and get the bastard who did it, or one of his family; but we never touch women." As a result, "'It's hard to find a boyfriend these days, there aren't many men left,' a young girl jokes, putting curlers in her hair." (Salazar, Born to Die in Medellín, pp. 28, 33.)

How many die?

Link to the Colombia Support NetworkMarc Chernick writes: "Today Colombia has the highest homicide rate in the world, surpassed only in exceptional circumstances, such as the mass bloodletting in Rwanda in 1994. The escalation of violence has been extraordinary and seems to be accelerating. In 1980 there were 10,000 homicides. By 1988 this figure had risen to 20,000. In 1992 the number of homicides had risen to almost 30,000. Political violence represents about 13 percent of these figures. According to the Andean Commission of Jurists, each day 5 people are gunned down in Colombia because they are political activists, or members of a labor or peasant union or some other community or political organization. One more person is 'disappeared' every third day for similar reasons. Additionally, every third day another person is gunned down for being a homosexual, prostitute, street urchin, or vagrant (this phenomenon is what has been termed 'social cleansing'). ... The attorney general's office has estimated that 97 percent of all violent crimes are committed with impunity. With regard to human rights abuses, the impunity rate is 100 percent." (Chernick, "Colombia's Fault Lines," Current History, February 1996, p. 78.) Human Rights Watch gives a figure of "2,183 people ... killed for political reasons in Colombia" in 1997 (Human Rights Watch, War Without Quarter).

Colombian military police, 1994Who is responsible?

The complicity of the army and other security forces in the Colombian gendercide is well-established. "I can't count the number of times I've been stopped at a joint army-paramilitary roadblock," a humanitarian aid worker reported in May 1997. "The soldiers are there with their green uniforms and the paramilitaries with their blue uniforms. It's like different units of the same army." (Human Rights Watch, War Without Quarter.) According to Human Rights Watch, however, "types of army violations vary according to region and unit":

For instance, in eastern Colombia, where paramilitaries are weak or have yet to fully penetrate, the army is directly implicated in the killing of non-combatants and prisoners taken hors de combat, torture, and death threats. In the rest of the country, where paramilitaries have a pronounced presence, the army fails to move against them and tolerates their activity, including egregious violations of international humanitarian law; provides some paramilitary groups with intelligence and logistical support to carry out operations; and actively promotes and coordinates with paramilitaries and goes on joint maneuvers with them. ... Though high-ranking officers deny that units under their command organize and promote paramilitary activities, the evidence is overwhelming that such activity is commonplace.

Colombian peace poster: 'The civilian population should not be the targets in an armed conflict.'It is the paramilitaries that are directly responsible for the bulk of the killings: "In cases where a perpetrator is known, 67 percent of [political] killings in 1997 were attributed ... to paramilitaries, 20 percent were attributed to guerrillas, and 3 percent to state agents. Many of the paramilitary killings, however, were carried out with the tolerance or active participation of the security forces, particularly the army." (Human Rights Watch, War Without Quarter.)

In 1995, Col. Carlos Antonio Velasquez found himself assigned to the 17th Army Brigade in Apartado, in atrocity-ridden Antioquia province. "He was shocked to discover that right-wing death squads were operating in the region with impunity. Velasquez decided to speak out. He officially accused his brigade commander, Gen. Rito Alejo del Rio, of ignoring human-rights abuses committed by Carlos Castaño's Peasant Self-Defense Force [see below] ... 'The paramilitaries were murdering people, and the army wasn't protecting them at all,' says Velasquez. 'Their measure of success was dead guerrillas, and the thinking was, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."' The report backfired. Velasquez was charged with disloyalty and insubordination, then dismissed from the army last November after a 30-year career. 'They said I was a liar,' Velasquez recalls bitterly. He now runs security for a bank in Bogotá. The Velasquez affair drew fresh attention to one of Colombia's ongoing scandals: the alliance between military commanders and right-wing death squads." (Steven Ambrus and Joshua Hammer, "A Few Good Killers," Newsweek, June 2 1997.)

As this account indicates, one of Colombia's most prominent paramilitary leaders is Carlos Castaño, who leads the Peasant Self-Defense Force of Cordoba and Uraba (ACCU), "and has been fighting since the age of 16 to avenge the death of his cattle-ranching father at the hands of FARC rebels":

Castaño has become a law unto himself on his home turf, a rich region where wealthy landowners and cocaine traffickers gladly support his force of 2,000 men. But the costs are heavy. Fighting between paramilitary armies and left-wing rebels has driven at least 1 million Colombians out of their homes during the past decade. Now, a rising tide of extrajudicial killings by Castaño's men is making Colombia a bloody exception to the rule in Latin America, where such irregular wars are largely a thing of the past. According to Human Rights Watch ... Castaño's forces executed more than 300 civilians between July and December 1996 ... The victims of his army include shopkeepers, mayors, union members, farmers -- all suspected of collaborating with the leftist insurgents. Targets are often seized in the middle of the night, tortured, mutilated and then decapitated -- earning Castaño's forces a grim nickname, "the Head Cutters." ... Human-rights experts say Castaño's war is growing more indiscriminate, not less. After guerrillas killed a policeman in the village of Caicedo last year, witnesses say, 20 gunmen in ACCU caps and uniforms marched into town, rounded up four [male?] merchants, accused them of selling food to the guerrillas and shot them dead in the town square. Castaño's troops executed a half-dozen [male?] butchers in the town of Monteria in 1996 for allegedly buying cattle rustled by FARC. ... [In May 1997] Castaño dispatched 25 masked troops carrying lists of names into the village of Los Brasiles in northwest Colombia. As relatives screamed for mercy, they pulled eight accused [male?] guerrilla collaborators from their beds and shot them dead in the street. (Joshua Hammer, "Army of an Angry Son," Newsweek, June 2 1997.)

Other paramilitary leaders of note include Victor Carranza, "a legendary emerald dealer, rancher, and paramilitary chieftain linked to hundreds of political killings in the department of Boyaca and Colombia's eastern plains." (Human Rights Watch, War Without Quarter.)

Colombian FlagThe Colombian government, which claims to be the sovereign authority in the country, must take a large share of the blame for the state terror in the country. "Impunity remains the rule for [army] officers who operate with or without paramilitaries. In general, the government has failed to exercise minimum control over its armed forces by properly investigating and punishing individuals who commit abuses. ... In cases of human rights and humanitarian law violations, allegations against officers are rarely investigated. Historically, the few officers who face a formal inquiry see the charges dropped or are acquitted." (Human Rights Watch, War Without Quarter.)

Among Colombia's international sponsors, the United States plays a leading role in arming and funding the state terror. The involvement must be seen in the context of the long U.S. struggle against leftist and dissident movements, in its hemisphere and worldwide. With the Soviet "bogey" gone, the struggle against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) -- in effect, a struggle against all "left-wing" activism and dissidence (human-rights groups, union activists, peace movements, etc.) -- is now presented under the guise of "The Drug War." The U.S. knows full well the widescale involvement of its regime and paramilitary clients in drug-trafficking and largescale killing. Yet Colombia has become the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world (after Israel and Egypt). The following commentary by The Economist makes clear the U.S. connection, and its underlying logic:

Colombia is home to a large left-wing guerrilla force, the FARC (and a lesser one, the ELN [National Liberation Army]. The Americans badly want the FARC defeated, supposedly because it plays a big part in the drugs trade. So they pile up invective and military hardware against it, in the guise of anti-drugs support. A recent \\$290m aid package includes the equipping of the Colombian helicopter fleet with 20mm cannons, supposedly for use in crop eradication. Previous military aid was listed in Washington as "category 4," for operations not involving hostilities. The 1998 package went through as category 2, for military operations short of war.
Strangely, no such hardware is being aimed at these guerrillas' bitter foes, the right-wing paramilitary groups. Yet they and the traffickers they protect are far deeper into drugs -- and the DEA [U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency] knows it. But repeated paramilitary atrocities draw only a political rap on the knuckles when things get out of hand. The United States is blind neither to drugs nor to atrocities. But those who commit such crimes -- they include, under both heads, some of the official armed forces -- are fighting the Marxist guerrillas, and the paramilitaries (not only the army) are seen as the only people remotely capable of containing these. ... There is solid evidence that the United States does indeed wink at the drug-running of the only forces that look effective against the insurgency of the far left." ("Policy, which policy?," The Economist, February 20 1999.)

"Two facts about Colombia are crucial to bear in mind," writes Noam Chomsky, who has made the country a focus of his recent writing and activism. "The first is that Colombia has a horrendous human rights record, the worst in the hemisphere -- not an easy prize to win. Political killings are variously estimated at 5 to 10 a day, mostly by the state security forces or their paramilitary associates. The second fact is that Colombia receives about half of U.S. military aid for the hemisphere, increasing under President Clinton ..."

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Researched and written by Adam Jones.
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