Gary Leech's new book, Killing Peace: Colombia's Conflict and the Failure of US Intervention offers a highly readable introduction to anyone wishing to begin to understand the roots and dimensions of Colombia's social conflict. In the first part of the book, a potted history takes the reader through the country's formation up to the catastrophic social implosion of La Violencia in the 50s, in whose savage repression of a large section of Colombia's poor lay the origins of the current 40-year conflict and the emergence of Colombia's largest insurgent movement, FARC. It goes on to outline how the breakdown of the social fabric lead to the proliferation of coca cultivation, the rise of paramilitarism linked to the cocaine trade and the extent of US involvement with the death squads, including a list of Colombian army officers trained by the US involved in paramilitary atrocities.
The second part of the book examines various aspects of the current conflict, focusing on the US's so-called 'war against drugs', including its use of defoliants as a form of chemical warfare, the ruin of the economy under IMF-dictated policies, the failure of the peace process to address the problem of paramilitarism and the dirty war that is being waged against all progressive sectors of Colombian society. The author shows how US policy has helped to shape the conflict, including its 1990 reorganisation of Colombia's intelligence network, which effectively formalised the army's use of paramilitarism and whose links are well demonstrated in the text.
What the book does not explore is the growing role and strength of the social movement, whose handful of parliamentary representatives does not do justice to the force of grassroots mobilisations. These have shown their courage and resilience in such acts as the recent 30-day occupation by the Sintraemcali union, which has halted the privatisation of basic resources in one of Colombia's foremost cities. Neither does it specifically mention the way in which the state's criminalisation of social protest exacerbates the paramilitary assault and can only be seen as a premeditated strategy to stamp out all social resistance.
In terms of the armed conflict, the author offers little in the way of support for his assertion that the insurgents have lost much of their legitimacy or that they refuse to recognise the neutrality of civilian populations. The author also neglects to mention the efforts by some fronts to implement crop-substitution schemes or the fact that the most lucrative aspects of the drug trade take place outside guerrilla-dominated territory.
Whilst the book is packed with highly revealing detail and the author's views are generally well founded, one has to wonder why it was subtitled the 'failure of US intervention' when it is so clear from the evidence provided that US strategy has consistently been to violently repress social resistance, clearing the way for its own hegemonic role in the region. Perhaps the answer is revealed in one of the author's most scathing indictments: 'One can only assume that [US drug czar] McCaffrey's concept of "democracy" included social order "maintained" under a military state of siege, impunity for paramilitary forces that regularly massacre the civilian population, the routine assassination of political candidates in opposition to the ruling elites [and] a judicial system paralyzed by fear'. In this context, any US failure must surely be seen as the failure to exterminate all resistance and the continuing spirit of the Colombian people.
The book has some excellent photographs.
Gary Leech is an independent journalist based in New York and is the editor of the website Colombia Report (www.colombiareport.org). We are arranging a bulk order that should allow us to sell the book for £7 p&p, but contact us to confirm before ordering.