<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Democracy on the Hacienda

Dark Presidential Campaigns and the Criminalization of Social Protest: The Recent Cases of Mexico and Colombia


By Laura del Castillo Matamoros
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

May 25, 2006

In a speech given during the Other Campaign on January 9 in Tonalá, Chiapas, Zapatista Insurgent Subcomandante Marcos spoke of the consequences of the “civilized, decent and peaceful path of elections” within the Mexico’s current social and political scenario.

Oh, please, Subcomandante! Don’t be so presumptuous. Here in Colombia, right now, we are also going down the “civilized, decent and peaceful path of elections” (please remember, kind readers, that this is the country with the oldest democracy in Latin America). You can believe it: the spirit of “democracy,” democracy for the most select members of Colombian society’s conservative political class, can be felt in the air.

The Impeccable Decency of Electoral Politics

Just like in Mexico — where presidential candidate Felipe Calderón, following the wise teachings of his master, Fox, is using every political trick in the book to assure his triumph and the National Action Party’s (PAN’s) continued rule, with the kind assistance of top U.S. political consultants Dick Morris and Rob Allyn (as Al Giordano reported recently) — the electoral contest in these lands has been so decent and honest that late last year President Alvaro Uribe assured that the article of the Colombian constitution prohibiting the reelection of presidents, mayors and governors be repealed by the honorable Congress of the Republic. This all happened thanks to one of the president’s typical outbursts of generosity, in which he doled out a number of important political posts to the relatives of the congressmen and women who helped him in his noble goal of staying in power for four more years, and, if possible, many more after that.

But how could we not have such decency in Mexico and Colombia, when over there they have Calderón’s “clean hands” while here we have President Uribe’s index finger extending upwards from a raised fist, as can be seen in the logo of his reelection campaign, better known as “Primero Colombia” (“Colombia First”)? Those are the same “clean hands” of Calderón’s with which he received the modest sum of 1.3 billion Mexican pesos ($116 million dollars) for his campaign and the PAN’s general cause siphoned out of the money destined for Fox’s social programs. Yes, we have seen such decency in the campaign for Colombia’s next president-for-life that, with that same index finger, Uribe gave a friendly nudge to former Administrative Department for Security (DAS) director Jorge Noguerra, sending him off as the new Colombian consul to Milan, in order that he not have to bear the terrible discomfort of being accused of links to paramilitaries and drug traffickers, or of giving them information on several human rights activists and trade unionists that were later killed.

Uribe surely used that same finger to sign off four years ago on the plan for his unconditional friends, the paramilitaries, to oblige officials at polling centers to fill out ballots for voters who never showed up, thus assuring his resounding triumph. This little electoral adjustment allegedly enjoyed the support of some honorable but misunderstood citizens, such as his recently ousted campaign managers in the Caquetá and Magdalena departments, who were forced to resign in the face of ugly accusations of links to local paramilitaries or of receiving money from drug traffickers to finance the 2002 campaign. Without a doubt, at no time in the past, either here or in Mexico, has the political class ever oozed such honesty from all its pores. It must be because here, as there, the corruption scandals are not scandals at all for the ruling class, but rather their “modus vivendi,” as columnist Antonio Caballero writes in his latest piece for Semana, Colombia’s most-read weekly newsmagazine:

Many people will go to vote to reelect Alvaro Uribe just as they voted for the “Uribistas” in Congress: under threat. Others will vote as they have always voted: because they are tied to traditional systems of clientelism. Others because they have been the direct beneficiaries of this four-year term and need Uribe to repeat it in order to consolidate their economic and political position: the paramilitaries who have not handed over their guns and have no intention of doing so, have not returned their stolen fortunes and don’t intend to do that either. They haven’t dismantled their drug plantations or trafficking networks, nor do they plan to dismantle them and leave them to the FARC guerrillas. All of that constitutes the hard core of the Uribistas, and in the week that remains until the elections that hard core will not change who it intends to vote for, not even if more scandals come out. Because those scandals refer precisely to that core. For the true Uribistas, these are not scandals; they are the modus vivendi and these people want to maintain that.

Thank God We Are Civilized People…

The citizens of both Mexico and Colombia have nothing to feel but pride for that civilized tone which has characterized the electoral season. In Mexico, for example, this has been evident in those campaign ads for Calderón that make their way onto cable channels throughout Latin America, and that speak of the danger that López Obrador represents for the country. Or in the candidate’s statements on Subcomandante Marcos: “I think that behind the ski mask is that same face of intolerance and authoritarianism that characterizes the violent Left, and which López Obrador represents today.

These enlightened proclamations of contemporary Latin American political thought inevitably recall the latest well-known phrases from our own candidate-president. Despite being too busy to attend any of the debates with other candidates and denying interviews to many news media, Uribe was able to take a few minutes to make a grand show of his McCarthyist democratic spirit during a May 5 speech at the Nueva Grenada Military University of Bogotá, referring implicitly to his strongest electoral opponent, former Supreme Court president, senator, and now presidential candidate for the Alternative Democratic Pole (currently the most important leftwing party in the country) Carlos Gaviria, with this oh-so-civilized declaration: “Colombians will surely know how to chose between Democratic Security and handing their homeland over to disguised communists.”

And nothing has shown off the civilized talent of Uribe’s campaign than one of his television spots, in which a supposed former member of the Patriotic Union (UP in its Spanish initials, an unarmed leftist political party the majority of whose members were systematically assassinated and disappeared between the year of its founding in 1985 and its final extermination in the mid-90s) shows his complete satisfaction with the president’s first term in office: “Mr. President: I belonged to the UP. It seemed like a good movement to me, but it was twisted, killing by killing, hurting others; that is wrong. It’s good that you are fighting them, that is why today we support you with everything we have.” And so Uribe’s campaign team justifies what the left scandalously labels “the genocide of hope,” an ingenious attack on the opposition in the best style of Dick Morris.

The “Enemies” of Democracy

But it’s also true that in both Mexico and Colombia there is no lack of herds of irrational people who want to attack “the peaceful path of elections.” Fortunately, in both countries the forces of law and order are always willing to control these acts of vandalism against the “state of law.”

Just look at what has happened in Atenco, where the Federal Preventive Police had no choice but to beat, imprison and kill people, as well as rape several women, all in the democratic defense of private property and commercial progress. These communal, campesino lands were to be turned into an airport as a favor from President Fox to his big business friends. This project was halted by the members of the Peoples’ Front in Defense of the Earth and their actions in 2002, the same movement that now came to support the flower growers’ protests in Texcoco on May 3 and has declared itself an organizational adherent to the Zapatista Other Campaign.


Un camión policiaco en Atenco, 4 de mayo.
Foto: D.R. 2006 Ratón Maicero
Naturally, candidate Calderón, the proud representative of the Mexican gente de bien — the good people, as we say in Colombia — approved of these police actions, saying things like “I would have done the same thing as Fox in Atenco,” or demanding “proof” of human rights violations (because those photos that show people piled on top of each other on police trucks or evidence of abuse that women were subject to must of course simply be forgeries produced by “Mexican communisim”).

But Colombia is not to be outdone, kind readers; here also the enemies of democracy and legitimate private property took over highways across the country last week. It seems that more than 300,000 indigenous, peasant farmers and Afro-Colombians (ignorant enemies of progress all, of course) went out into the streets, accompanied by other social movements, to demand a national referendum on Colombia’s Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. and a life of dignity. They were inspired in part, they say, by the Zapatista Other Campaign (the thing is, these guerrilla types help each other out, as President Uribe could tell you).

All of this was part of an event called the “Traveling Social Summit” which began May 15. There were also protests against what they called “inadequate land distribution” and the fumigation of illegal crops. What a lack of vision! No wonder Interior Minister Sabas Pretelt, a self-declared devotee of the sacred order of Opus Dei, claimed that the protests were imposed by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas. Of course, the Indians and peasants are ignorant and incapable of making their own decisions — right, Minister Sabas?

Among all those people in the streets, the most fearsome are the indigenous Nasa of the Cauca department. And so it was not in vain that the governor of the Cauca, who for some time has had to confront such aggressions, backed up Minister Sabas’ accusations and added that “political activity is not done — I say this as a simple citizen — based on destruction and the violating of the rights that we all have as citizens of Cauca.”

Those were the same rights that he defended vehemently as a congressman in 1994, when he proposed eliminating the country’s indigenous resguardos (specially protected communal land reserves). Those same rights — the rights of his friends the landowners — that he promised to defend last year, when Nasa and other Cauca indigenous groups occupied several rural estates in the area, claiming that the lands belonged to them. In those days, in a display of his attitude of tolerance and openness to dialog, he said: “Whatever the cost, I am going to defend private property. I don’t care about the political price, not even if it costs me the governorship.” And one year later, the governor came through. In fact, on April 27, in another show of his diplomatic abilities, he went to the municipality of Morales with his own revolver in hand, to remove several indigenous people protesting in front of the town hall himself. Unfortunately, he couldn’t do a thing, because those savage and dangerous people of the Indigenous Guard surrounded him and even forced him to holster his pistol. Armed to the teeth, they were… with decorated sticks (the bastones de mando signifying leadership in indigenous communities).

Fortunately, we here in Colombia have our own Federal Preventive Police, better known as the Mobil Anti-Disturbance Squad (ESMAD in its Spanish initials). More than 1,000 ESMAD officers were sent to the areas where these protests were happening, to ensure that no one put the “peaceful path of elections” in jeopardy. It is worth noting this police force’s impeccable record, which includes the murder of a 16-year-old anarchist during last year’s May Day march in Bogotá, of a university student during a protest early this year, and other similar incidents.

Just as in Atenco, to confront such savagery the ESMAD police had no choice but to resort to the use of force. It was with that legitimate force that they fired gas from helicopters into the La María de Piendamó resguardo in Cauca, killing an old woman and a 3-year-old girl, and with which they fired into a crowd with machine guns, leaving one indigenous man dead and 78 wounded. Thanks to that same legitimate force, several demonstrators have been disappeared and their whereabouts remain unknown. In defense of the “peaceful path of the elections,” police were forced to burn the houses of the indigenous and well as the resguardo’s health clinic, as well as stop medical teams from coming in, because, just like in Atenco, all the indigenous there represented a risk.


Uribe 2002 campaign propaganda.
Photo: BBC
Meanwhile, President Uribe also had to make his “firm hand” felt in El Charco, Nariño department and other parts of the country where the peasant farmers were also blocking roads, supposedly because the fumigations of illicit crops are affecting basic food crops and contaminating the rivers. So it seems that these folks, in addition to being guerrillas, are narco-traffickers as well. But, they had better get used to it, because the U.S. government, fully confident that Uribe will indeed be Colombia’s president for life, has just shelled out 601 million dollars, plus a $39 million bonus that the president will be able to spend at his own discretion, to continue fumigating more and more forests and farmland where indigenous and campesinos eek out their livings. There are those who say that all this fumigation accomplishes is to push coca and opium cultivation into more and more parts of the country, and this may be true. But as long as it makes the peasants abandon their land, leaving it in the hands of distinguished landowners or big corporations, it remains essential to the future of this country.

As if that weren’t enough, kind readers, our own riot police, just like in Mexico, have been forced to jail and beat journalists from the (obviously subversive) alternative and community media. These have included Marcelo Forero from the newspaper El Turbión, and Jesús López and Carmen Eugenia of the communications office for the La Maria resguardo, who were producing radio reports on the supposed human rights violations being committed against the protesters. And people still got upset that police, after seeing that such nonsense was being broadcast (and repeated by the regional government ombudsmen, who were present at the La María and were also attacked by the police, just in case they were “disguised communists” too), set fire to the transmission equipment with which the hoped to damage, in front of the international community, the peaceful image of the country’s current election period.

The Hacienda In Power… Again

Well, those communist journalists definitely need to learn from their colleagues in the commercial media of both Colombia and Mexico, who just like the police fulfill their patriotic duty to defend “the decent, civilized and peaceful path of elections.” They should follow the example of those impartial and objective newspapers and television stations that in Mexico showed how the police were in Atenco to take control of a region dominated by the troublemaking and irrational leaders of the Peoples’ Front in Defense of the Earth. They should learn from those media here in Colombia that dedicated themselves to reproducing, as was their duty, the government statements saying that the FARC was manipulating the protesters, but had no time to cite the words of the Cauca government’s former chief of staff, Henry Caballero, when he tried to refute these accusations, saying “we have not risen up in arms, but rather in sticks” (referring to the indigenous bastones de mando). Nor did these media waste time explaining the long history of peaceful and autonomous mobilizations that indigenous and campesino organizations have organized throughout the country, or of the more than 20 years that the indigenous Nasa community has spent organizing itself, strongly questioning the actions of both all the different armed groups on their territory.


Campesinos and indigenous people with traditional bastonesmarch in Nariño
Photo: Diario del Sur
How could there be space for all that? Who cares about indigenous people or peasant farmers when it is more important to listen to the opinions of the eminent Darío Arizmendi, news director for Colombia’s giant Caracol Radio network, who has always shown himself willing to come to the aid of Colombia’s state institutions, and, above all, President Uribe? Just try to appreciate the lucid perception this colleague has of the protests:

“…we saw on Caracol television last night striking images of how the indigenous and others protested by beating groups of five, ten, and fifteen police officers, breaking the ribs and arms of anyone who tried to stop them in acts that were vandalistic, objectionable and condemnable.”

And let’s not forget Colombia’s only national daily newspaper, El Tiempo, and its commitment to the democratic government of President Uribe. In its edition of last Friday, two pages past the staff editorial — in which the relatives of vice president “Pachito” Santos (whose family owns El Tiempo and several other leading media) expressed their consternation over the “Ecuadorization” that is spreading in the south of the country (referring to the recent indigenous mobilizations in Ecuador that banished the U.S.-based Occidental Petroleum company) — the paper dedicated an entire column to President Uribe, which spoke of his humble and austere side as a man of the countryside with a particular fascination in horse breeding.

Try a taste, kind readers, of these exquisite fragments of the editorial, which puts into evidence that acute sense of analysis that the owners of the Colombian commercial media possess.

“The FARC’s tactic of participating in the campesino mobilization in its zones, one which it has resorted many times in the past, is added — without being equivalent to — a complicated scene of unionist and social agitation that has developed recently and which appears in places as different as Urabá, Cauca, Bogotá and La Jagua (Cesar)…”

“Some 15,000 indigenous people from Cauca have blocked roads and highways in an awkward protest against the Free Trade Agreement and other issues. These are very calculated actions taken from the indigenous movements in Bolivia and Ecuador, which have produced well-known effects in those countries…”

“Here, unfortunately, the outcome has been one dead indigenous man and three with bullet wounds (it is not clear where the shots came from and an investigation is urgent) and many more arrested and injured. Three police were detained by the indigenous guard (one of them, hurt, was released on Wednesday and the other two remain in their power as we go to press)…”

“The government is doing the right thing in not letting these marches become a blockade of roads as crucial as the Pan-American Highway. Not to act would be to open the door to the “Ecuadorization” of the south of the country. The social protests, as unusual as they may be, are legitimate as long as they do not violate the basic rights of the majority, such as free transit…”

Yes, the alternative and community media in Colombia definitely have a lot to learn from those Mexican and Colombian journalists who, this Sunday in Colombia and July 2 in Mexico, will tell the whole world that “democracy has triumphed once again.” There they’ll be, to report that citizens were able to freely exercise their right to chose and that the election days went by with complete normality at the polls… And many Colombians will then boast of having the oldest democratic system in Latin America, while many Mexicans will overflow with pride for having finally made their transition to democracy after years of Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) dictatorship…

And of course, the commercial media are completely right. Both in Colombia and in Mexico, democracy will be the winner. It is a democracy in which, in many parts of Mexico and especially in Colombia, the army or paramilitaries or other systems of intimidation will make sure people vote for change… that is, for the continuing rule of the PAN over there and of the democratic dictatorship of Uribe here. Because the hands held high in both lands are the same ones as always — the owners of the big media, who at times are indistinguishable from the businessmen and landowners.

The democracy that will triumph will be that of the only people who have the right to chose, whether in Mexico or in Colombia: the business and land owning friends of President Fox and candidate Calderón; and the narco-paramilitary confidants of president-candidate Uribe, who, just like him, are the most big prominent farmers and estate holders in the country. Because the thing is, the “decent, honest and peaceful path of elections,” both in Colombia and in Mexico — and here allow me to finish transcribing Subcomandante Marcos’ words — “have filled this country with crime, and the big politicians, congressmen, senators, presidents, governors, and secretaries can all be found in the newspapers’ police reports.”

There must be some reason that in both the protests in Colombia and the rural insurrections in Mexico (the latter more and more visible due to the Other Campaign), the movements’ spokespeople have made it very clear that the main problem affecting them is inadequate land distribution. It is the same demand that has always been knocked down by the “decent, civilized and peaceful” ruling classes of Mexico and Colombia, who are capable of killing, raping, burning houses, demonizing those who disagree with them and buying up the media in order to have an entire country in the palm of their hands…

Of course democracy is going to win… it is the democracy of those two giant haciendas called Colombia and Mexico, whose owner has a ranch of his own up in Texas where Fox and Uribe are always received as guests of honor.

And they deserve it, kind readers: both have been excellent foremen.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America