Peregrinación por la Vida

Apologies to all for not having updated more recently, I have been busy, if that is any consolation to you. First I was in Quibdo for the San Pacho fesitval, and then on a large pilgrimage with the Comunidad de Paz. I have also collected a veritable zooful of tapeworms, so there’s that too.


In leui of actually producing a new update, which I haven’t quite done yet, you are offered two articles on the aforementioned pilgrimage. The first is by Chris Courtheyn, member of FOR’s International Committee, who writes on the building of peace through joint action, and the second is by El Espectador journalist Camilo Segura Álvarez (incidentally, that article comes with a great photo of me at work, looking all serious and walking next to the indominable Padre Giraldo). I editted the first and the second is my translation enjoy, and my view point will be forth coming:

Walking the Word, by Chris Courtheyn

“Caminando la palabra,” or “walking the word,” is how Siriaco and Diego*, participants from indigenous Cauca and Guajira communities, described what we had done on our recently completed Peace And Solidarity Pilgrimage to Rodoxalí, in this war-torn northwestern Urabá region of Colombia.

Organized by the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó, 150 people converged upon the village of Rodoxalí to confirm and confront the presence of death-squad paramilitary groups. The pilgrimage was organized in response to reports that four people had been killed, and paramilitaries had kidnapped and disappeared a young man and demanded that the area’s campesinos (small-scale farmers) give them information and supplies. An estimated 28 families subsequently fled their homes in fear.

Regrettably, such incidents are nothing new: paramilitaries in conjunction with government army and police forces, as well as guerrilla groups, have killed and displaced hundreds of people and communities in the Urabá region since the 1990s. This begs the question: How might “peace” actually be created in such a context?

As part of its 16 years of community struggle to defend the survival and self- determination of the area’s civilian and campesino population in the face of the country’s warring armed groups, the Peace Community invited journalists, academics, members from its 11 villages, delegates from other Colombian campesino and indigenous communities, and international protective accompaniment organizations to join the caravan. Beginning on October 6, we marched through several Peace Community villages and adjacent settlements and towns to reach Rodoxalí.

Upon arrival, Peace Community leaders proposed to the village’s six remaining families that we accompany them for a few days. They happily accepted, noting that such a large contingent of people had not been seen there for two decades. They revealed that, even before the most recent displacement of people, the village had been a skeleton of its previous self since the mid-1990s. It once was a thriving settlement that hosted local soccer tournaments before paramilitaries and the national army displaced the local population, reportedly in preparation for the nearby Urrá hydroelectric dam project, killing many residents and burning down most of the houses in the process.

They mentioned the heavy paramilitary presence currently in the region and a recently distributed paramilitary pamphlet claiming to support the campesinos, despite widespread beliefs in the region that they are in fact carrying out a land grab. Our caravan would later encounter army soldiers casually dressed and taking photos of us near the site of a recently vacated paramilitary dormitory. Yet, they said they had no specific knowledge of any paramilitary kidnapping or presence, suggesting at the very least a tacit collusion with the death squads.

We set up our hammocks and tents in some vacant buildings. The recently abandoned house in which my group stayed was particularly chilling: in two rooms, clothes that had been left behind were scattered and molding on the ground. In the kitchen, there was a rotting box of spilt flour, and small ducks and chickens wandered outside under the lemon and cacao trees scavenging for food…

When families are forcibly displaced, they take whatever they can carry on their backs and horses, which often means they bring only themselves, their children, and any large animals such as pigs, which serve as the primary savings of small- scale farmers. What is left behind is likely destroyed or lost forever. This unarmed pilgrimage of peace and solidarity with these families was organized to confront the paramilitaries and complicit state forces and to assert the rights of the area’s campesinos to work their farms as they desire: without threats and killings by armed groups that compete to control the land.

However, the paramilitaries were nowhere to be seen. The following day, we walked to an adjacent settlement where they were reportedly camped, but they had retreated into the surrounding hills from there, too. Pilgrimage participants believed that this revealed the paramilitaries’ own recognition that they lack a valid verbal defense before such a civilian delegation. Participants also suspected that national police and army officials in nearby Nuevo Antioquia —through whose checkpoints the delegation had passed the day before— informed the paramilitary groups of the caravan so that they would hide their presence.

Officially, the Colombian government claims that such “paramilitaries” targeting civilians don’t exist. It asserts that, in addition to guerrillas, there are only drug- trafficking “criminal bands.” Our large contingent of people from other regions and countries, especially accompaniment organizations such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) Peace Presence, served to testify to the witnessed realities to our support networks in the diplomatic corps and human rights organizations. According to Peace Community member Danilo, the state officials probably told the paramilitaries: “if they see you, we’re screwed.”

When we departed Rodoxalí the following day, residents said that they were energized by our visit, felt accompanied and not alone, and invited the Peace Community to return. At the conclusion of the pilgrimage in the community’s Mulatos Peace Village, we reflected on what had occurred and what we had done. With local accounts, we had unfortunately confirmed the tragic forced displacements induced by the paramilitary presence, with apparent government forces’ backing.

Additionally, though, the visit provided relief to those families who continue to resist fleeing their homes and laid the groundwork for future visits. We hope the paramilitaries and the army will respond to this act of civilian solidarity by abstaining from future killing and forced displacement, knowing that their actions will be reported to the outside world.

To put it bluntly, our group of unarmed civilians caused an armed death squad to flee into the hills. Indigenous and Peace Community leaders commented that, without the accompaniment of organizations like FOR —which the Peace Community positioned at the front of the caravan to demonstrate international observation and lead the line in any encounter with an armed group— the paramilitaries probably would not have retreated. The pilgrimage demonstrated that the collective action of walking and presence of unarmed civilian campesinos joined by solidary accompaniers can open space for people to resist displacement and harvest the fruits of their agricultural labor with dignity. As stated in the Peace Community’s subsequent statement: “Weapons will not intimidate us, and before the sowers of death, we will always choose life.”

Just as significant was our walking itself. Parts of the path were brutal. There were long stretches of thigh-high mud, in which people’s rubber boots got stuck. Others would move near to help pull them out of the ground. We had to cross rivers multiple times, which became more challenging after an afternoon of heavy rain and thunderstorms raised the water level. People locked hands while leaping from rock to rock. At one deep crossing, a senior community member immersed himself in the three-foot deep water, literally pulling horses and people across to the other side. Peace Community leaders made our commitment explicit at the outset: “We are in a war zone, but no one will be left behind.”

One of the main lessons of the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó is to re- think and practice “peace.” This concept usually refers to some future and idealized attainment of “harmony.” Yet, as the vaguely or undefined utopia that is the opposite of an equally vague “violence,” peace as such is a fairly useless term. Even the most brutal warlord justifies their actions as in the pursuit of “peace.” If we limit our understanding of peace to an abstract and utopian opposite of open warfare, we relegate the possibility for safe, clean, and meaningful lives to the actions and negotiations of states and armed groups. We forfeit our own agency. The Peace Community illustrates that even as the war rages on, we cannot cede our power to create the lives we deserve to groups of oppression and domination. The task is enacting peace as dignity and community self-determination here and now.

This pilgrimage pointed to a more profound praxis of peace, signaled by Siriaco and Diego as “Caminando la palabra”: we walked the word. We did not merely profess to support some vague notion of peace, but actually generated relationships of care and love amongst ourselves as we marched in solidarity with the threatened families of Rodoxalí. Hopefully, the political pressure exerted upon the paramilitaries and the state by the caravan opened space for these civilian campesinos to remain on and farm their lands without being forced to collaborate with armed groups. Through greater visibility and a wider support network, including the Peace Community, journalists, and international human rights organizations, Rodoxalí’s farmers can draw on a greater array of resources in their struggle.

More so, as we walked together, we actually lived the peace we want to live, rejecting the logic of competition and individualism and affirming that everyone’s life must be defended by a collective political project. We can do it, and do it now, walking and working together in solidarity, as campesino and indigenous communities, academics, journalists, and international accompaniers. In the words of Peace Community member Yirleidy: “Peace is everyone working together towards the same goal. Peace is community.”

*The names of people quoted in this article were changed because of safety concerns.

Chris Courtheyn is a Ph.D. student in Geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a former accompanier with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). He can be reached at A special thanks to FOR’s Luke Finn, Michaela Soellinger and John Lindsay-Poland for contributing their ideas, photos and edits.

 A River of Life Searching for the Dead, by Camilo Segura Álvaro (awkward phrasing my fault)

On the 31st of August Buenaventura Hoyos, a peasant farmer from the La Hoz region of Apartadó (in Urabá, North West Colombia), was held by the paramilitary group the Gaitanist Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, or AGC).  According to human rights organizations, the farmer was last seen on September 3rd, restrained by his captors, on the road to neighboring Córdoba. It seems Hoyos had been the victim of forced recruitment.  His family fled La Hoz, just as 50 others have since the end of August, and like them, they had seen a group of more than 200 paramilitary soldiers camped between Nueva Antioquia (in Turbo, Antioquia) and the various villages that form the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó.

El Espectador accompanied a “Pilgrimage for Life” led by the Peace Community, indigenous representatives from around Colombia, human rights organizations, and international accompaniers.  Some 120 people mobilized with concrete objectives: to look for the paramilitaries in their base, said by the communities to be near the village of Sabaleta; to collect eyewitness reports from people who had seen the paramilitaries in action; to discover the fate of Beunaventura Hoyos; to confront, unarmed, the paramilitaries; to hear the reasons for the threats they have made against the Peace Community; and to exercise the dignity that they have cultivated over 16 years of practicing active neutrality and non-violence in the face of the various actors of Colombia´s conflict.

The pilgrimage, which began on Sunday the 6th of October, divided into 2 groups. Both departed from San Josecito (the largest of the 11 villages of the Peace Community), destined for Nueva Antioquia, the known center of paramilitary operations in the region. The first group, of almost 70 people, travelled by mule and on foot through the village of La Union to arrive on Monday in the town center of Nueva Antioquia.  The other group, travelling by bus, would arrive in the same destination the following day. Here began the true march, which lasted 4 days more and which would show the Peace Community to be right: Urabá is being taken by force by an illegal group which promises to continue the history of violence against peasant organizations under the rubric of a supposed war against subversives.

In Nueva Antioquia, it is dead calm. In this small town there are two heavily guarded Police stations. An advanced posting, on the hill next to the town, and a station on the main avenue tell the story of the armed conflict. At the latter, the commission of international observers and journalists arrived, accompanying the Jesuit priest Father Javier Giraldo (leader and historic supporter of the Peace Community), to talk to the Public Forces. “I only have jurisdiction over the town itself, I cannot vouch that criminal gangs operate here (he never used the word “paramilitaries”). In recent months, at our checkpoints, we have captured 2 people with criminal records. We are the State presence here, there isn’t a local authority. This is an abandoned town”, said Adolfo Renalh, the Intendent who commands the station.

So, without official confirmation of the AGC´s presence, the pilgrimage leaves for the village of Rodoxalí, where, days before, paramilitaries had warned of the “need” for them to “exercise control in the region”.  On roads the locals can walk in three hours, the pilgrimage takes seven. Upon arrival, the testimonies of the people of this village, that doesn’t form part of the Peace Community, despite their words of happiness told of the horrors of the war: “We are so happy you have come, we feel supported. But we are scared – they’ve gone to the mountains, Nueva Antioquia must have warned them you were coming, and when you leave we don’t know what´s going to happen” confessed one of the villagers that offered hospitality to the people of San José de Apartadó.

The next day, on Tuesday, a group marched toward Sabaleta. There the testimonies gathered by Father Giraldo were more specific, and spoke of the armbands with the initials AGC, of heavy weaponry, of the hooded men on operation who, at the very least, are ignored by the Army troops.    Without discovering the exact location of the illegal group, the group of no more than 40 peasant farmers returned to Rodoxalí, to leave the next day to Mulatos, the epicenter of the Peace Community’s dignified fight. With the departure of the last marchers and riders, three rifle shots sound, coming from the hills surrounding the village – as if to say: “Goodbye, you don’t see us, but we’re here”.

The road to Mulatos, the final destination for Wednesday, had less topographical difficulties. The stretch, of 5 hours, was interrupted by our arrival at one point, on the borders of La Hoz, at more proof of the paramilitary presence. A camp, clearly abandoned recently by the AGC, with their initials painted over rudimentary sleeping quarters. Less than 400 meters away, an active Army camp. The Army officials that approach the caravan say they are there to deal with issues of public order, but, like the Nueva Antioquia Police, deny knowledge of the existence of any “criminal gang”.

To get to the village of Mulatos you must first repeatedly cross the River Mulatos, 10 times or more. There, in the village, the project of resistance of the Peace Community is at its most evident: The Luiz Eduardo Guerra Peace Settlement, named after the Community leader assassinated on the 21st of Februrary 2005, along with 3 children and 4 other adults in Mulatos and nearby La Resbalosa, by members of the Colombian National Army and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).

“This village we built as a tribute to those that fell that day, but also to the more than 200 dead and disappeared from these last 16 years. Here we not only launched our model of agricultural self-sustainability and education, but demonstrated that we can live in a better word, built by us in resistance against the neglect and violence of the State” says Alrey Tuberquia, member of the Council of the Peace Community.

On Thursday, in Mulatos, the pilgrimage divides again in two. One group, made of Indigenous Committees and Community members, stayed for the “University of Resistance”, working toward self-sustainability and strengthening the power of neutrality in the face of conflict. The other group left to complete the circle, and return to San Jocesito.

Passing Chontalito, the highest point on the path, the scenery is incredible. From one of the highest points of the Abibe foothills (one of the 3 branches of the Western Mountain Range) you can see the Gulf of Urabá, and the results of this war: the banana monoculture, the “megaprojects” of teak plantations, and the deforestation. Passing the high point of the hill range, those who accompany the journalists and foreigners complain that we haven’t seen what they see daily: the advance of the Lords of Death. But they celebrate life, celebrate that they are united and that “though we don’t know if we will be alive, or the Community will exist, in 10 or 15 years, time will prove us right. One day, instead of denouncing us, they will have to recognize the ethical and moral force of our Community declaring its neutrality” says Berta Tuberquia, who, like the majority of the pilgrims, has seen the blood of her family run down the mountains of Urabá.

The State and the Comunidad de Paz

I was in a meeting recently with military officials and their tame human rights advisors while doing the political work which is an essential part of our accompaniment project (in my opening blog post I think I described this as being awkward and giving people a headache).  In this meeting, one of the human rights lawyers took a line of attack on the Comunidad de Paz (CdP) I hadn’t come across before; “Why”, he asked me, “do they call themselves the Community of Peace?” His line of questioning rested on the assumption that by calling themselves a Peace Community, they were implying the rest of Colombia did not want peace, and if the CdP want peace why won’t they help the army achieve peace? “I am not a member of the CdP”, I answered, “nor am I its spokesperson, I accompany and support them”.  However, the question made me think about the way the CdP is positioned in relation to the Colombian state and it’s armed forces, and why the state and its forces take such a hard line against what is in effect a small farming community attempting to remove itself from violence.

Legitimate Violence and Its Defenders

In Max Weber´s “Politics as Vocation”, he describes a “state” (the political unit) as defined by its monopoly on “the legitimate use of force” (i.e. a monopoly of violence). This force is carried out by state actors (Police, Military), or is sanctioned by the state (self defense laws, private security). Armed revolutionary movements challenge the power and monopoly on violence of the state through force – force deemed “illegitimate” by the state.  The Colombian state actively utilizes this dichotomy of “legitimate” and “illegitimate” violence in its discourse over “BACRIMS”, “terrorists”, and “internal armed conflict” (just don’t call it a civil war).

A process of delegitimization happens when a state´s use of violence is widely believed to be excessive – for example when police officer Lt. John Pike pepper sprayed protesting students at the University of California Davis, there was popular and media outcry. Legal and political moves were made to portray Lt. Pikes actions as anomalous and isolated (despite widespread evidence to the contrary), therefor protecting the status of the Police as legitimate purveyors of state violence. The state’s monopoly claim on “legitimate” violence provides the basis for the state’s very claim to existence as a functioning government.

The Comunidad de Paz and Nonviolence

The CdP´s internal rules explicitly ban arms, the use of violence, or any supportive role in the violence in favour of any participant in the conflict – including state forces. In this way the CdP has established a space, both physically and figuratively, where the state’s violence is delegitimized. In rejecting the states use of force, and refusing to condone or participate in it, even tangentially or indirectly, the CdP denies the state’s armed forces, and thus its governing structures, legitimacy.

Furthermore, the rules of the CdP implicitly place state sanctioned (“legitimate”) violence on an equal plane with the (“illegitimate”) violence of the other armed actors.  State discourse surrounding various left-wing guerilla movements, paramilitaries and ´bandas criminales´ is a reaction to the challenges they represent to the states monopoly on violence (and therefore political control). The CdP’s rules reflect the state’s discourse back on itself, rejecting all violence as equally illegitimate within the CdP, with implications for the legitimacy of the state itself.

Defending “Legitimate” Violence

This constitutes a direct challenge to the states existence, which I´ll admit initially sounds farfetched, but the state’s reaction to the CdP reinforces this analysis.

A common form of response to the CdP is an attempt to discredit, either through generalized denunciations questioning their motives or their status as a peaceful protest movement, or through directly linking the CdP to the FARC. An example: at a festival in San Jose de Apartadó (the town where the community were displaced from), the Mayor of Apartadó made a speech declaring, “this is the real San José, not those 40 families” (despite a large number of the attendees not actually being from San Jose, but having been bussed in to make up numbers).

A better example: the head of state, at the time President Uribe, in the aftermath of a massacre in the CdP in 2005 called CdP leaders “guerrilleros” and said its leaders, sponsors, and supporters were “aiding the FARC, and wanted to use the community to protect this terrorist organization”.  Uribe has repeated these claims since leaving office.

In both these examples state officials, not even military officials, have attempted to delegitimize the CdP – its identity, as “real” representatives of Colombia (in the case of the Mayor) and as a peaceful protest movement (in the case of the President), explicitly linking the CdP to a terrorist (read: illegitimate violence) organization.  Uribe’s statement attempts to undermine too the agency of the CdP, suggesting it is being unwittingly manipulated to aid a violent armed group. These statements were explicit attempts to nullify the CdP’s rules, the same rules which call into question the legitimacy of the states use of force*.

In addition to these denunciations, you have the direct use of force by the state against the CdP.  This not only includes the persecution of CdP members at army roadblocks and veiled and explicit threats made by soldiers hiding their nametags and the like, although these are commonplace. More revealing is the tacit and overt collaboration between state forces and paramilitary. The 2005 massacre, the aftermath of which I referred to above in connection with ex-President Uribe, saw the slaying (and mutilation) of 5 adults and 3 children by members of the Colombian National Army and the paramilitary group the AUC. 84 members of the Army were linked to the massacre in the subsequent investigation, although tellingly only 15 soldiers were arrested, none over the rank of Captain. This is another example of the state reacting to outcry by attempting to isolate “illegitimate” violence committed by “legitimate” forces as an anomalous incident, as happened in the case of Lt. Pike.

Again, this is only one example of state-paramilitary collaboration, and other examples could be used.

When the state collaborates with non-state and officially “illegitimate” armed groups in an attempt to wipe out and terrorize the CdP, it is using “illegitimate” violence to bolster its monopoly on “legitimate” violence. And in this way, ironically, the state is diluting its claim to being the legitimate purveyors of political violence, further displaying the weakness the CdP exposes in its pacifist regulations.


In the end then, the frankly idiotic questions of the aforementioned “human rights advisor” employed by the Colombian National Army, has lead to the following conclusions:

  •  If the state’s governing structure rests on its monopoly on “legitimate” violence (following Weber), the CdP´s internal rules reject that violence as illegitimate and calls into question the states legitimacy as a governing structure.
  •  By rejecting all violence equally, the CdPs rules equate violence the state would deem “legitimate” with violence the state would deem “illegitimate”.
  •  The state responds to this by attempting to undermine the CdP in a number of ways (verbal and physical attacks, occasionally in collaboration with other groups), but in doing so only succeeds in demonstrating the falsehood of its claim to “legitimate” violence.

What I hope I have demonstrated is that the CdP, simply by existing and living by the rules it does, represents a fundamental challenge to the Colombian state and its security forces by undermining its claim to “legitimate violence”. That the state obliges and repeatedly demonstrates its precarious position in its attempts to diminish the CdP, only confirms the importance of the CdPs stand on nonviolence in Colombia. The CdP embodies an alternative, and consequently rival, political structure to the state, which explains the constant and seemingly overblown antagonism of Colombian state and military officials toward this small and peaceful community.

As I mentioned to the aforementioned moron, I am not a member, nor spokesperson, for the CdP, and I can’t imagine for a second the CdP would describe their struggle in these terms.  This ramble was just an attempt to look at the oppositional positioning of the CdP and the state from a political point of view, and highlight why the nonviolent and emblematic struggle of this Comunidad de Paz is nationally and internationally important.

*Nor are these the only examples of state officials attacking the community in this way. Repeated statements by army officials of the public medium of radio here in Urabá use this line of attack, the same line that is used in private conversations with state, particularly military and police, officials regularly.

** I would be really interested in hearing peoples opinions on this argument, so please leave a comment


You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Chanclas

About a week ago I found myself near some fields where coca was being grown, the first step of a global commodity chain which reaches every economically developed country in the world, as well as most of the others. Particularly in Europe and the Americas, where cocaine has developed a distinct and unique social cache, its use intersects with every section of society, the very rich, the very poor, and middle class dinner tables in between. Albert Neimann first developed an industrial purification process for the alkaloid in 1859, and Sigmund Freud first made his name in 1884 extolling the drugs virtues in his “On Coca”, back when Germany was the worlds more productive producer of cocaine.

Cocaine fits the model of any number of Latin American commodities – the silver of Potosí which provided the world’s first supranational currency, the Spanish Dollar (peso, dubloon, pieces of 8, etc), tobacco, bananas, rubber, henequen, guano, chocolate, coffee.  These commodities have their roots in the New World, but radically changed the Old. The transaction chains which took these commodities first to Europe and later to the rest of the world formed the basis for what we would now call globalization and global commodity markets. Naturally, given the fact Europeans had killed most of the continent and enslaved the rest, very few Latin Americans had any ownership, or profited in any meaningful way from these commercial empires, though Spanish landowners and their decedents formed nascent political elites which remain in place.  These were and are extractive industries, which formed their own types of enclave economies and gave the English language such gems as “banana  republics” and “our backyard”, prisms through which many people still view Latin America today.

Cocaine was the same until, through a weird, racist twist of fate (black people taking cocaine scared white political elites in the southern states of the USA*), it was subject to a global prohibition, and for the last few decades a large proportion of the cocaine industry is in Latin American hands. Both the production of the raw commodity, coca leaf, and the processing into finished product, cocaine hydrochloride, are completely under the control of Latin Americans, as well as a large proportion of the global transportation of the goods.  The industry generates enough profits within Colombia, Peru, Mexico, not to mention the transport hubs of the Caribbean and Florida, to have significant influence on politics from the local to the international level, not to mention to have almost become synonymous with large parts of Latin America (unfortunately). However the relatively unique business model, whilst taking advantage of the false scarcity provided by prohibition and generating monumental profits, has not distributed its profits equitably.  That is to say, the coca farmers I met last week were not rolling in Benjamin’s and wearing Raybans, they were living with their Grandma and worrying about their bean crops.

I was curious, obviously, and asked what sort of prices they were getting for growing coca. A 12kg bag of coca leaves got them 20,000 Colombian Pesos  – or UK £6.90, US$10.66. This was data with no context, so I did a bit of research.

From leaves to powder, cocaine takes in 3 steps – first to coca paste, then the coca base, then the cocaine hydrochloride, the popular powder available in your neighborhood which your kids just can’t get enough of. 12kg of dried leaves done right gets you 105.6g of coca paste, gets you the same amount of coca base.  This in turn will make you 47.8999g of pure, uncut cocaine, of the type not you or anyone you know, nor anyone they know, is flash enough to get hold of.  In the UK, in 2010 (the figure most often quoted in the literature, although to me it sounds a bit high), your average gram you might buy off someone called “Shaz” was about 26.5% pure. So extrapolating from that, 47.8999g of pure cocaine will get you 180.75 grams of street ready cocaine. Boo – as they say – yah. 180.75 multiplied by 50 (the number of English pounds you’d give Shaz in exchange for a gram of cocaine last time I was in Manchester) gets you £9037.62, or roughly 26,216,578 Colombian Pesos.

In short, between the campesino growing coca next to his beans, and the teenager, banker, politician in the UK, there is in profits and costs, for every 12 kg bag of coca leaves, about 26,200,000 Pesos (£9030, about $14000), or a markup of around 131,100%*.

In short, the campesinos are getting shorted, big time. While every step of the commodity chain takes on major risks to stay in business – legal risks as well as the risks of what can be described as a violently competitive market place – and in these risks lies the possibility of profit, without the coca growers, none of this 131,100% profit could be generated. In addition, the risks to the coca growers are not insignificant – they to face arrest, extortion from armed groups like the National Army, and having their livelihoods, food, and children sprayed with poison (the reason I was visiting was to have a look at crop damage due to recent fumigations in the area).

The levels of profit which are being extracted by the middlemen in this industry, on the backs of campesino labourers, suggests the possibility of improvement. The way to achieve this improvement is through organizing. That is why I am calling for a Coca Workers Union (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores Cocalera de Colombia), to protect and improve the working conditions of coca workers from Córdoba to Cauca. Through collective bargaining and downing tools, through a coca-workers strike, the campesino, being paid $20,000CP for product which is eventually worth $26,216,578CP, can demonstrate his importance in this, the first and only global commodity chain controlled by Latin Americans, and negotiate a better deal for him and his family.

The proud history of campesino movements in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia demonstrate without doubt the possibility is there to initiate true change in this extractive and exploitative industry. In Colombia, the great campesino movements of the 60’s and 70’s forced agrarian reform into popular politics, until the FARCs association with the peasant movement allowed them to be dismissed as terrorists, and many, too many, union leaders were assassinated by paramilitaries paid for by capital and political elites. But now the Paramilitaries and the FARC are the capital – they are the ones paying a measly $20,000CP for 12kg of coca leaf, they are the ones benefiting from the profit margins – and so a coca workers union hits them from the inside. What do coca-workers care about their political representation? They just want a bit more money to protect them for when the government fumigate their beans and their children.

So support the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores Cocalera de Colombia. Support the working men and women who are the first victims of the international drug trade.  Help build a Cocaine industry for the good of the best of Colombia, not just the worst.


*Tim Marge’s ”White Mischief: A Culural History of Cocaine” is great for this period. Southern police believed “that cocaine imbued African Americans with tremendous accuracy with firearms, and therefore the police were better advised to shoot first in questionable circumstances” and “a judge in Mississippi declared that supplying a “negro” with cocaine was more dangerous than injecting a dog with rabies”


For more information on the History of Latin American commodity chains and their role in world economic history, see “From Silver to Cocaine” and “The Open Veins of Latin America”.

26.5% as average purity of UK coke taken from EMCDDA Annual Report 2010. The UK is Europes largest consumer of cocaine.

Cocaine process information and numbers:

“As a guide to relative quantaties of coca leaf and the resultant amount of coca paste, 250 pounds of dried coca leaf should provide approx 2.2 pounds of coca paste.

The resulting powder is cocaine base with a roughly one to one conversion ratio from paste to base.

The yield from one kilo of coca base will vary wildly, depending on quality of coca base and efficiency of processing, but should be approx. 1 pound”

20 mil = 6.90

12 kg = 105.6g

47.8999 g (p)

180.75 g (a)

9037.62 pound sterling = 26216578.38 pesos


Them thar hills

60% of the worlds emeralds. The 4th largest coal producer in the world. Copper. Rare earths up to here and all the other weird stuff you never think about – silica sands, coltan, and so on that turns out to be worth more than Belgium. And gold. Lots of gold. Tanto oro, parce. Colombia´s based on the stuff, in more ways than one. ´Course, the legend of El Dorado (“The Golden One”) stems from a confused Spaniard, Juan Rodriguez Freyle, watching a Colombian, High Priest of the Muisca, getting covered in gold dust and jumping in Lake Guatavita, near Bogotá, in 1638, in a religious ceremony which makes the Pope´s big hat and incense burning look pretty weak. Naturally, the Spanish saw this profligacy and wrongheaded veneration of Sue the Sun God, and decided that, really, they were far better placed to use all the gold (all this gold!) responsibly, and set about destroying the complex societies that had flourished in Colombia prior. Legends of cities of gold (El Dorado, the Seven Cities of Cibola) drove men who now days would rightly be considered genocidaires (or go getting entrepreneurs in the global commodities market) across the Atlantic, from their families, to an uncertain fate, an alien environment full of strange gods, beautiful birds, jeweled beetles, the sort of landscapes working class Europeans hadn´t seen since they left the Drift Valley. And, forgive my French, but they laid waste to the motherfucker.

In England we say the Vikings “raped and pillaged”, and yet we never really think about what that means. The familiarity of the phrase has robbed it of all meaning, of all the horror and terror those words implied in reality, back in the day as it were, and just turned it into another cliché about blonde men with beards and spikey hats. Raped and pillaged doesn´t come close to what the Spanish and Portuguese did over here.  They raped and pillaged a continent – murdered civilizations, violated the land, pillaged worlds. They went Ozymandias (Watchmen, not Egypt) on South America in the name of go(l)d. The Spanish Empire was built on this (and then later, other commodities they realized they could steal, worked by the stolen people of another ravaged continent). The English have constructed a “Golden Age”, a nigh-on foundation myth, out of characters whose only job was to steal some of the gold the Spanish were “exporting” from South America (a Panamanian taxi driver once told me the English were “malos” because of Sir. Francis Drake).

Gold is still pretty valuable, as you may have heard, and still pretty coveted, and people will still do some pretty horrendous shit to get their hands on it. And it, plus everything else valuable hidden under the dirt of Colombia, still looks like its plying a major role in the direction of Colombia´s development.  In 2010/11, the Government of Colombia estimated 87% of all the gold mines in the country were operating illegally, without licenses, and recently estimated that this number has grown (  Keep that in mind, and then remember that at local level (that is, in the Colombian jungle, not at your friendly highstreet drug dealer), the price of a kilo of gold can be 19 times that of a kilo of cocaine ( And with cocaine, you got to pick it, cure it, chemically alter it, make coca base etc etc etc, and that takes ages and a lot of expertise. Illegal gold mining doesn’t have nearly the same overheads as developing cocaine, let alone legal gold mining. All you need is a digger, a likely spot, and you’re off.

With these facts in mind it´s little wonder the armed groups of Colombia have diversified their business interests, and are now heavily invested in the control of illegal gold mining. The profit returns are estimated to be 5 times that of cocaine. The FARC Bloc which dominates the region I work in, the Northwestern Bloc, AKA the Ivan Rios Bloc, is estimated to make $3 million a month from illegal gold mining ( According to a letter found from 2011, miners are forced to pay 5 percent of their total income to the FARC, 5 percent to guerrilla group ELN, as well as 7 million pesos ($3,800) to the FARC for the entrance of each mechanical digger to a mining site. The owner of the land a mine is situated on receives 15 percent of total profits, according to the letter, and the landowner must give the FARC 25 percent of that. The workers that operate in the diggers and that carry their fuel also pay small contributions (

In the Bajo Cauca region of the Antioquia/Cordoba borderlands there are estimated to be 1000 illegally operated diggers in 9 municipalities, generating $2 million a month in extortion payments – and not all in FARC territory). Of course, it´s not just the FARC – when there´s this sort of money to be made everyone´s excited (just look at the Spanish). The FARC is working in gold with los Urabeños. The ELN, old school to the core, kidnapped a Canadian representative of Braeval Mining earlier this year, who was doing exploratory work, Los Rastrojos have their slice too. Gold mining is now the primary source of funding for Colombia´s illegal armed groups in at least 8 Departments (

Of course, this is different to coca. When there´s a coca rush going on, no matter how much they want to, multinational companies cannot get directly involved.  With mining however . . .. It is clear that over the past decade, the government has seen the future of the Colombian economy, and has decided that it is under the ground.  The pivot toward mining has seen the Governments of Uribe and Santos offer multinational mining corporation’s tax breaks, investment incentives, widening the distribution of mining rights ( However, the infrastructure is relatively poor (mega-projects will come in another blog post), there is significant institutional weakness, and the vast numbers of under-regulated mines have attracted violent armed actors to the market, which in general depresses the number of foreign investments in a market (

What to do then? A huge, untapped stock of gold, which is currently  largely untouched, just laying there, and what is being extracted is funding the FARC (some communists they turn out to be), which in turn panics the gringos and scares of some of the potentially astronomical amount of money away.

The FARC have previously provided the political space for the Colombian State to extend its power and decrease the available space for dissenting opinion, civil society organizations and so on, through increasing the power of its military, through tacitly backing the paramilitaries who provide the pro-state counterbalance to FARC, through the hegemonic security state which has dominated Colombian politics for as long as anyone can remember. Fighting the FARC was definitely something the Colombian government could do without, but it wasn’t without its benefits, and those benefits the State took advantage of, as any self respecting national security apparatus would (shout out the USA on this one, seeing a silver lining to every cloud).

But now, allowing the war to continue in its most recent form would mean forfeiting that gold (all that gold!) that is controlled and profited from in areas of FARC control, and would really put a obstacle in the way of the economic pivot toward mining. But if the FARC demobilized, that would really open up the doors for some proper neoliberal development, some direct foreign investment, open up the space for a real roll-out of a new national energy and mining policy, really open the way forward for the 21st century of Colombian political-economy, not just in gold, but in coal, emeralds, oil, rare earths, and all the stuff you don’t really think about but turns out is worth more than Belgium (you can’t hear it, but I´m using a sarcastic tone here).

In addition to learning what the FARC and Government have agreed on agricultural policy, what will be interesting is how the issue of mining is dealt with – in relation to agricultural communities, land titles, exploration rights, taxes and everything. The recent interest in the issue of mining in Colombia is not just a factor of the strikes at Drummond, or the increase in human rights abuses across the northern Colombia in relation to international mining companies, but a factor of its centrality to the government’s plans for the next 50 years. It is a/the core issue which has a direct impact on our understanding of why the Government returned to the negotiations table, and how crucial it will be to those plans that the negotiations are successful for the government. Creating a new, peaceful Colombia will no doubt be used to create a context where mining can flourish, and as readers of South and Central American history will know, mining has been fucking shit up since 500 years now.

(Incidentally, if you’re only here for the Armadillo pictures I promised last post, they will be on the Pictures page)


Sorry there haven’t been more regular updates.

I went on my first accompaniment, to La Esperanza (“The Hope”), where I played at being a cowboy and slept outside in a hammock. La Esperanza is closer to the border of Cordoba than La Union, and you could tell, as the pulsating drone of helicopters (more common in La Union) morphed into the whine of single engined aircraft. Between 2008 – 2009 the amount of land actively engaged in the production of coca doubled in Cordoba, and the most recent UNODC Colombia Coca Cultivation Survey (2011, released June 2012) suggested this was due to the growth in power of “los Urabeños” (“The Urabanians”) also known as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia or AGC. The AGC are the primary Paramilitary group in this region (further south you also get Rastrojos) and while this isn’t Colombia´s primary coca growing zone, or even close to it, coca is more or less widely grown. What this particular part of the Caribbean coast offers is transport links – north, through Central America or the Caribbean, or East, to Europe directly or through Africa. The Panamá Canal provides a route to the Pacific and the ever growing markets in Asia and Australasia.

Historically British involvement in Colombia has been minimal, especially compared to the calamity that has been the influence of the United States. As such, as a British accompanier, I never really felt the sense of culpability in Colombia in the same way I know accompaniers from the States have. However, the Paramilitaries of the Caribbean coast, and in particular los Urabeños, have strong links to the Calabrian ´Ndrangheta, the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, and the Neapolitan Camorra, the 3 Italian Mafia groups who bring the majority of European cocaine in from Colombia through Mediterranean ports*. The likelihood is, is that there are direct commercial links between the campesinos farmers of Urabá, who grow their coca along side their beans, corn or bananas, and some of my friends in the UK (some of my government too). Links which take in Colombian Paramilitary, Italian Mafia, and smugglers from who knows where. As always, the middlemen are the ones getting rich, not the working class boys hired to do the growing, or the selling, or the killing, who risk death and imprisonment without the security distance and money provides for the bosses or the final users. Hard to think of Britain as so removed from Colombia now, especially when the UK has more regular users of cocaine in Europe than any other country.

Paramilitary groups form one side of the conflict which casts a shadow over every aspect of everyday life here in Antioquian Urabá. Guerrillas (most obviously the FARC) and Government forces provide the other 2 sides of the conflict. The conflict however is not “Guerrillas vs Government vs Paramilitaries”, all against all fight to the death. The conflict has been going on too long, and it has reached its own stability and developed its own political economies. All sides have committed atrocities, each has killed members of the community I live in, each have found ways to profit from the situation, and each have in one way or another found a way to work with the other 2 when it suits them.

The Guerillas and Paramilitaries are most heavily involved in the coca trade – if they aren’t directly selling then they’re growing, when they aren’t growing, they´re providing transport and trade services, if they’re not doing that then they are at least extorting the people who are growing for part of their living. Both proclaim a political mission – to return the land back to the people of Colombia, to rid proud Colombia of the communist Guerrillas, etc – and both categories are made up of varied groups, some of which are genuinely involved in what they perceive as a battle for a better Colombia, and others who are merely using the political space to make money of the trade in illegal goods and land abandoned due to violence. The Colombian Military receive money, guns, planes and training from the United States Government, as part of the “War on Drugs”, and latterly the “War on Terror”**. Military aid has added up to about $7 billion since Clinton launched “Plan Colombia”.

Currently the Government and the FARC are conducting peace talks in various glamorous and exotic locations (Havana, Oslo, Belfast), in an attempt to end the 60 year long insurgency, allow FARC commanders to do a couple of years in jail then join Congress, and allow the Government to get back to its proper job of selling mining rights to American, English and Korean companies and developing free-trade agreements for the benefit of the Colombian people.

Los Urabeños have also requested to be allowed a seat at the table. Having declared themselves the “third actor . . . with 7,000 armed men and a national presence” they demanded a part in the negotiations. This may be an attempt to demonstrate they are a political force, rather than a purely criminal one, and thus buy themselves some extra room for maneuver. It may also be an attempt by the leaders of los Urabeños to negotiate with the government a way to exit the conflict on favourable terms, in the way the Rastrojos tried and failed to do earlier. Maybe, they hear through their contacts that negotiations are going well, and they want to be sitting at that table when a possible agreement redistributes land. Maybe they just want to remind rival groups that they’re top dog.

Who knows? The conflict here is far from predictable, and everyone’s playing their cards close to their chest (or the dominos, to Colombianify the metaphor). All I´d be willing to guess is that there´ll be helicopters over Antioquia and single-engine airplanes flying over Cordoba for a while yet.

The next post will be about how I learnt to skin and gut an armadillo. The photos are great.

*The ´Ndrangheta alone are thought to bring in $30 – $50 billion a year. And in 2004 were estimated to bring in 80% of Europe´s cocaine (
** The original and long running hit “War on Communists” had its series finalé in 1992, shortly before Friends first appeared on NBC

Comunique de los Urabeños (in Spanish)

UNODC Colombia Coca Cultivation Survey 2011

Italian Mafia in Colombia

Cocaine use in the UK

Cocaine use in the UK Government

Military Aid to Colombia

Abajo y Arriba

I said I’d try to get an appraisal in first week, and I failed (get used to it). Today is my 10th day in the Peace Community, though it already feels like months (in a good way).
My house was originally built in this community as a health center by the Patriotic Union, a short-lived* political party founded in the 1980s by the FARC and the Colombian Communist Party, which, between the mid-1980s and the early 1990s, was essentially gunned out of existence by proto-paramilitary groups, some members of the governments armed forces, and drug dealers. The attack has been described as an attempt at “political genocide”.

My house is concrete – the only one of its kind in town – and contains a kitchen**, a bedroom, a toilet, and a room that contains planks of wood, old books and a spare bed. There’s another FoR house, wooden, with 2 bedrooms, an office (where I sit now), and has a garden attached with papaya, coriander, basil, lemongrass, other stuff I’ve already forgotten, and a washing line. This house is also where we wash our clothes***.

The community of La Unión has maybe 40 houses, wood and corrugated iron. There are other villages which belong to the Peace Community.

If you’re lucky, you begin the day being woken up the sounds of horses chasing, flirting, and kicking at each other in the morning. If you’re really lucky you still have cigarettes and can sit outside and watch this. If you´re the sort of lucky I seem to be sometimes, Michi has already got up and made coffee, and that’s the sort of luck I had this morning.
People pop in an out throughout the day, on their way to work, on their way back, or people just passing by. In the middle of the day the kids are running free, and will definitely arrive just as you’re about to have lunch, and definitely won’t leave until you’ve given them some and explained to them what pasta is.

Last Thursday I went on my first accompaniment, a “comunitario” or community work day. Usually this means accompanying a group going out to work the land that is held in common amongst the community – thick, green fields of cacao, bananas, avocado or sugar cane. Last Thursday however they were improving the path up from the nearest town of San José to La Unión, which can take anywhere between an hour to two and a half hours to walk. In parts the mud reaches halfway up your calf, and you cross a river 3 times. You have to redevelop the low center of gravity and tumbling forward momentum you had when you were 3, and walking on any surface was an endeavor. Last Thursday 30 adults, surrounded by 15 buzzing children dragged large rocks up from the river, then small rocks, then river silt, and compacted it over 3 of parts which most resembled a tropical Passchendaele.

This week was also an assembly of the whole Community in the settlement of La Holandita. Over 2 days they discussed everything facing the Community today, and planned for the future. We were in La Holandita but couldn’t attend the meetings (we work with the community, but are not of the community), so over the 2 days spent the time snatching conversations with whoever we could, trying to distill gossip into information about troop movements, who’s seen what where, who’s been threatened by whom. We talked to Gloria Cuartas for hours, which was a privilege, and I got beaten at marbles by some 10 year olds, which was embarrassing.

At 2am on the second day, there was a memorial for Eduar Lancheros, who died exactly 1 year prior, and was a leader for the community. Born and raised in Bogotá, and studied philosophy at university – not a campesino. The priest, Padré Javier, a spiritual leader compared him the fire on Moses´ burning bush, burning, leading, but not consuming, and the Community to the Tribes of Israel, fleeing fleeing the Pharaoh´s oppression and bloodlust. They played a synth-only version of “Con te partirò”, and sung “Escucharnos, Señor”.

On the way back from the community assembly I heard my first helicopters. It was getting dark, and we were rushing to get off the roads before sundown, but we still stopped, looked around like meerkats with our noses in the air, trying to work out what was echo and what was the noise´ true provenance. Today there was a single engine plane flying around, looking for coca. There were rumours that there was an explosion in the hills this morning, around 7. I didn’t hear it, neither did Michi, but some people are sure they did. I hope tomorrow its horses, cigarettes and coffee.


*All too literally

** 2 gas hobs, no running water, no fridge

*** This involves putting all your clothes in a bucket, filling the bucket with detergent and water, swirling them around for half an hour, rinsing them out, then scrubbing each piece with soap, then slapping them against a big lump of concrete to get them soap out.


An Englishman, and Austrian, and an American walk into a warzone, and the barman says . . .

Moving to a Colombian conflict zone with little more to protect me than a FoR t-shirt and a haltering command of Spanish may seem like an extreme plan, but then again, I had spent my last 5 years in Manchester (boom boom).

Right, now we’ve got that out of the way, I can introduce myself and what this blog is going to be about. My name’s Luke, and I have just started work as a Human Rights Accompanier for the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FoR)’s Colombia Peace Presence team.

To those poor souls unencumbered with a working knowledge of the vagaries and varieties of human rights work (ie. in the same position I was 6 months ago), I will translate this with as little jargon as possible. “Human Rights Accompaniment” is an attempt to use non-violent means to provide some sort of safety to people who live in violent situations. It is also sometimes known as “International Protective Accompaniment” which may give you a better idea of what it means in a more practical sense.

The theory, which has been used and developed in practice since the 1980s, is that were a union organizer, political activist, human rights lawyer (or indeed any of the awkward buggers that stand up for their legal rights*) come up against forces both reactionary and well-armed, the mere presence of an international observer, both symbolically and actually embodying “international opinion”, may provide additional security to said awkward bugger.

Just being there, physically accompanying somebody will make aggressors think twice (although there are no guarantees they will change their minds) about attacking, detaining, threatening, or any other sort of –ing. So that is what we do. We make sure we are in a position to be “there” when the worst may happen.

In addition, to reinforce this deterrent, FoR will carry out “political dissuasion”. This means utilizing the widely recognized first law of professional physics**. Whether this is talking regularly to international embassies, UN, or state agencies in Bogotá, or army and police coronels here where we are based with the Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó, Urabá. Essentially focusing on the specific points of power that affect the chains of command which lead to human rights abuses. Maintaining international pressure from all levels, and making life awkward for coronels, constantly reminding them that its not only Colombians, but an international headache in the area, provides the structure which supports the work we do as accompaniers.

Linked to this is the ability to demonstrate large and international support from around the world. In an emergency, FoR will send out an urgent response email to their mailing list, asking for people to write to their senators, MPs, ambassadors in Colombia, etc, to really reinforce that sense of international attention which protective accompaniment relies on in times of crises.

We provide 24 hour accompaniment to the Comunidad de Paz (i.e. we live here), which has been under sustained and very real threat since its foundation in 1997. Here, near the Gulf of Urabá, a community of cooperative farmers rresponded to the escalating violence and extrajudicial killings of community leaders by declaring themselves a Peace Community, with the support of the region’s Catholic Bishop, and committing to:

  • Farm in cooperative work groups
  • Denounce the injustice and impunity of war crimes
  • Not participate in the war in direct or indirect form, nor carry weapons
  • Not manipulate or give information to any of the parties involved in armed conflict

 This predictably resulted in the deep suspicion and of aforementioned “parties involved in armed conflict”***. Each side instantly assumed this was a front for secret collaboration with the other side, and especially in the initial years the violent onslaught was as unbaiting as it was brutal. Since foundation, the Community has been forced off their land, and has suffered over 160 deaths, the result of attacks from the FARC, the Paramilitaries, and the Colombian Army. The community requested protective accompaniment in 2002, and the rest, as they say, is geography. By our counting I am the 41st FoR volunteer to live and work in the peace community, each and every one of us awkward buggers.

 If you´re sharped eyed, you´ll notice I use “we” and “our”, rather than “I” and “my”, and this is not just a transliteration of my disreputable English phraseology, but a reference to my sisters in (non-)arms, Michaela and Jamie (an Austrian and a gringa, respectively). They are currently introducing me around town, teaching me how to live on a farm in the middle of a jungle and so on, and we are very much a team. That being said, this blog is a personal endeavor and does not reflect the views of anyone (or any organization) other than myself.

I hope this first post has introduced the basic outlines of my current situation, the theory of international accompaniment, and the Comunidad de Paz. It is currently my 2nd full day in the community, and I hope to have a new post up by the end of my first week, maybe even with pictures if I´m feeling generous, with more about day to day life as an accompanier, as a permanently bewildered foreigner in Colombia, and as an urban kid in about as rural a place as you can get. Wish me luck.

*I come from a long line of awkward buggers, and am proud to carry the tradition forwards
** “Shit rolls downhill”
*** There is nothing a man with a weapon likes less than being told you don’t need a weapon to stand up for your beliefs.
†Or at least something along those lines.
‡“Give it us”, “pass us it”, “tell us later” etc all referring to the first person singular