- Paramilitaries and the Economic Origins of Armed Conflict in Colombia
During the past three decades, Colombia has suffered the most extreme violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in all of Latin America. In January 2011, the office of Colombia’s attorney general reported that 174,618 homicides and 1,614 massacres had been committed by demobilized armed groups, the vast majority of them belonging to the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), a coalition of right-wing paramilitaries officially disbanded by 2006.1 In December 2010, two U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that there were more than 42,000 unresolved cases of disappearances in the consolidated database of the Colombian government.2 These profoundly disturbing, indeed terrifying, figures underscore the extent to which Colombia continues [End Page 205] to experience the violence of an internal conflict involving state security forces, right-wing paramilitaries, and leftist guerrillas.
That the general public outside of Colombia is ignorant of this conflict goes without saying. That many scholars of Latin America continue to be unaware of its depth and impact is inexcusable. Textbook discussions of human rights tend to focus on the violations committed by military regimes in the Southern Cone in the 1970s and 1980s, even as Colombia outstrips all of these together in the number of disappearances, massacres, political homicides, forcibly displaced persons, and so on. Although factors such as drug trafficking and U.S. military aid make Colombia’s conflict particularly complex, a largely ignored but pivotal element is the role of right-wing paramilitaries. Long considered by human rights activists to be the most violent of all actors in Colombia, these forces are at last receiving attention from Colombian and North American scholars, with a spate of recent books on their development, nature, and impact. The six works reviewed in these pages exemplify this trend.
Although there is broad agreement on the essential character of Colombia’s paramilitary forces, scholars, activists, and policy makers continue to debate their relationship to the state, social classes, civil society, and political parties. This debate is of pressing importance, given that a number of paramilitaries either did not disband or have reemerged in new and vicious guises after formal demobilization of the AUC under President Álvaro Uribe in 2006.
A critical interest of these works is the relationship of paramilitaries to Colombia’s state and ruling classes. Did the government control paramilitaries, or did they enjoy significant autonomy? Are paramilitaries exclusively an expression of the interests of the dominant class? Jasmin Hristov’s Blood and Capital is a passionate condemnation, particularly of the ties between Colombia’s upper classes and its paramilitary forces. The work’s passion is at times an obstacle to a full and accurate understanding. Hristov’s class-based analysis attributes the origin, development, and persistence of Colombia’s conflict directly to the rapacity of the upper classes, which also control the state. She writes, “The aim of the dominant classes—to maintain their power and privileges and enrich themselves further by progressively dispossessing the working class and destroying...