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Uribe's other war: students and public universities under siege in the Colombian conflict

category venezuela / colombia | repression / prisoners | opinion / analysis author Thursday October 08, 2009 19:06author by CILEP & José Antonio Gutiérrez D, Report this post to the editors

For years, the dirty war raging in Colombia has been moving onto the university campuses; students, workers and professors have suffered threats, persecution and murder. Persecution from state agencies has been combined with an orchestrated media campaign to create an atmosphere of hysteria, which reached its climax in the famous videos shown by Gina Parody, an Uribe supporter and senator, and accusations from the director of the Department of Administrative Security (DAS), that accused the organised student movement of being a mere façade of the insurgency. It is not necessary to insist that this atmosphere of collective hysteria is what the state was looking for in order to justify the use of brutal force, that under president Uribe Vélez’s so-called policy of Democratic Security means nothing but the militarisation of all spheres of social life. This is a multifaceted strategy - and has been the typical response of the dominant classes to social protest - in which the repressive actions by both the official institutions and unofficial institutions (ie. Paramilitary gangs) have combined.The collective nature of this document is both a denunciation and a reflection that aims at strengthening the resistance they are trying to suppress, by revealing the mechanisms which are used to advance the institutional and paramilitary intervention in the public universities, and thus to help to advance towards the defeat of this authoritarian project being imposed in Colombia.

Uribe's other war: students and public universities under siege in the Colombian conflict


For years, the dirty war raging in Colombia has been moving onto the university campuses; students, workers and professors have suffered threats, persecution and murder. Persecution from state agencies has been combined with an orchestrated media campaign to create an atmosphere of hysteria, which reached its climax in the famous videos shown by Gina Parody, an Uribe supporter and senator, and accusations from the director of the Department of Administrative Security (DAS) [1], that accused the organised student movement of being a mere façade of the insurgency. It is not necessary to insist that this atmosphere of collective hysteria is what the state was looking for in order to justify the use of brutal force, that under president Uribe Vélez’s so-called policy of Democratic Security means nothing but the militarisation of all spheres of social life.

The official media portrays acts of violence against public universities as isolated cases, unconnected with each other, and alien to political motivations. A systematic study of these aggressions, however, reveals a global strategy of repression, control and intervention in public universities. This is a multifaceted strategy - and has been the typical response of the dominant classes to social protest - in which the repressive actions by both the official institutions and unofficial institutions (ie. Paramilitary gangs) have combined.

The strategy has several aims: to impose an elitist model of education, to deepen the commoditisation of public universities, to erode the concept of education (turning education into a substantial business instead of a right), and to eradicate actual or potential centres of criticism to the authoritarian regime. The student movement, critical academics and unionised university workers have all faced repression and criminalisation as part of a campaign fueled by the government of Uribe Vélez to surpress resistance.

The collective nature of this document is both a denunciation and a reflection that aims at strengthening the resistance they are trying to suppress, by revealing the mechanisms which are used to advance the institutional and paramilitary intervention in the public universities, and thus to help to advance towards the defeat of this authoritarian project being imposed in Colombia.

1. Pedagogical Neoliberalism

For many years now Colombian higher education, especially public education, has suffered substantial changes related to what is globally known as “pedagogical neo-liberalism” [2]. This kind of neo-liberalism has its origin in the "Atcon Plan" of 1963 and the proposals driven by Milton Friedman in 1980 [3]. “Pedagogical neo-liberalism” is part of the global capitalist trend of privatisation and subsequent commoditisation of culture, health, housing and public services. Higher education institutions, as centres for the development of power and knowledge, are fundamental tools for the consolidation of the status quo. The university is to be included in the lager project of neo-liberal reforms and, therefore, it becomes necessary to adjust it to the principles and contents of education as settled by the free market rules.

Since 1963, as mentioned above, the Colombian higher education system has essentially followed the guidelines of the Atcon Plan. This plan is a synthesis report on Latin American universities that Rudolph Atcon, an adviser to the U.S. State Department, made in the context of the "California Mission". Atcon suggested in his report that the Latin American universities be reformed not only to insert them into the landscape of the neo-liberal global economy, but also so they would not be contrary to U.S. interests. In his words: "Latin America, living in a state of permanent anachronism, makes it necessary to penetrate its society with a social elite who sympathize with the U.S. system and model" [4]. To ensure the creation of this social elite, it is essential that access to universities is restricted and that, in general, there is a significant harmony in them with the U.S. lifestyle. This clearly ensures the continuity of colonial rule and the adoption of policies related to global capitalism. But, as if that were not enough, Atcon insists that the development of this educational model must be accompanied by the elimination of negative forces that abound in higher education institutions. The U.S. refers to two main forces: the first is that of state funding, which under neo-liberal premises, is a hindrance to the development of the free market; the second, is the existence of a radicalised and politicised student base that can become an obstacle for the implementation of reforms required by the new educational model.

As is well known, the Atcon Plan in its infancy years received the name of "pedagogical neo-liberalism". In his book “Freedom to Choose”, Milton Friedman states that students and their parents should have the freedom to decide exactly in which institution they would prefer to study and, therefore, in order to be more consistent with liberal democracy and free market, the State should fund the demand and not the supply of education. Friedman's proposal was that students then becomes customers who choose freely and, if they do not have money for the institution of their choice, they should appeal to scholarships, educational loans, or various financing alternatives. Attention thus shifts from the field of providing a public service to that of customers, and it is they as such that become the focus of educational development. This goes hand in hand with the formation of customers that are optimal for the functioning of the market. Customers will not only contribute to the greater or lesser demand for certain educational institutions, but also themselves, after being educated, will become human capital offered in the market exchange. Each student, upon entering an institution, is investing in him/herself to qualify his/her workforce and make him/herself attractive and competitive in the market. This workforce acquires a value, and the graduate student, who’s now a professional, is nothing but a commodity that can be exchanged as any other. It is in this form that the "commoditisation of education" begins, together with the mass production of professionals with certain job skills and a range of technical skills for efficient production processes.

Atcon and Friedman’s pedagogical neo-liberal proposal has recently been updated in the Bologna Plan. This plan seeks the establishment of a Common European Education Area by 2010. Its main goal is to unify educational programs to facilitate the exchange of students and alumni. Although the principle draft of Bologna seems to be another of the virtues of global capitalism, the reality is that behind its purpose is a policy of privatisation, standardisation of education, declining quality of undergraduate programs and the violation of university autonomy.

2. The Public University and the imposition of Pedagogical Neo-liberalism

In Colombia, the teachings of neo-liberalism have been imposed – even, as shown below, with blood and fire – through the guidelines of international agencies such as the World Bank, ECLAC and UNESCO. The Colombian government, particularly the current one, has tried to fulfil the goal of applying the measures of these agencies, and in order to carry out this objective, it has placed the public universities in the spotlight. This is no accident, since the public university is deficient in terms of neo-liberalism, and has so far been one of the most important bastions of resistance to this model.

However, the imposition of pedagogical neo-liberalism within the Colombian public higher education system has its times and strategies. First, it is not done immediately, but slowly, in a way that often contributes to obscuring the substantial targets. Secondly, the imposition is carried out from different angles, sometimes pointing to economic, social and political, and in others, policing and academic issues [5]. With this in mind, the most direct way of including the public universities within the educational system that the market demands is certainly privatisation. This privatisation is a slow process that consists of public universities being steered to a dangerous state of underfunding. This has been developed with Law 30, in effect since 1992, which, although it continued with the transfer from the nation to public universities, largely neglected the needs of these institutions and froze any increase in resources for the renovation of academic staff, of educational facilities, coverage for new infrastructure, the provision of libraries and laboratories and investment projects for the universities. Since then, Colombian public universities have experienced different measures of underfunding that have worsened considerably with the National Development Plan (NDP) of the Uribe administration and the inclusion, during his government, of the higher education institutions in the so-called bankruptcy law. Uribe’s first NDP was to subtract 12% from the budget of all public universities in the country; the second, through the famous Article 38, found that public universities must compete with national government for the payment of pension liabilities [6]. For its part, the bankruptcy law made it possible for the rule of corporate restructuring to be applied to all public universities, which in short means that such institutions slowly become businesses and are subject to agreements promoted by the Ministry of Finance.

These measures left us facing a worrying scenario of budget embezzlement within several public universities in the country. The most famous case is the University of the Atlantic which showed, among other things, an increase of 330% in enrolment, the dismissal of several workers and the reduction of teachers and part-time teachers [7]. But apart from Atlantic University, we can mention the large budget deficits that are facing the University of Pamplona, the Pedagogical and Technological University of Colombia-UPTC, the University of Magdalena and the National Pedagogical University [8]. According to the same data from the Ministry of Education public expenditure on higher education was reduced from 1% of GDP in 2002 to 0.92% in 2009.

However, besides this crucial economic component, which gradually leads public universities to privatisation, we find the attack that is carried out upon the academic field, political and social grounds. The decline in educational quality and homogenisation according to U.S. and European models is introduced by academic reforms – such as that attempted by Marco Palacios in 2005 at the National University – and changes to student statutes. On the political side, it is clear that higher education institutions in the country have forever lost their autonomy and, on the other hand, that decisions made within them are in most cases undemocratic. Thus reforms, be they academic or economic, are implanted in the most authoritarian manner possible, imposing measures with little or no consultation or discussion. In social terms, the university is becoming less concerned with the students’ welfare and with access by low-income students. Cafeterias and recreation centres are moving into private hands and student residences are almost non-existent in most of the campuses around Colombia.

Similarly, the social dimension of public universities is also under fire from Uribe’s education policies. Although the Latin American university was born under the specific model of the Napoleonic French court, which was intended to prepare the children of landowners, merchants and officials to perform in positions of government and other prestigious liberal professions [9], after the Cordoba Manifesto of 1918, the university experienced a slow process of democratisation and openness that began to settle in Latin America several decades later. This manifesto, which basically posited university autonomy, student co-government, academic freedom, free education paid for by the State and the general democratisation of the university, was adopted almost verbatim by the nascent student movement in Colombia [10]. Thus, the Manifesto of Cordoba made visible at higher education institutions around the continent a class conflict which was latent, and it will leave a deep mark afterwards in what is understood as a Latin American public university. Universities, deeply elitist and therefore designed to train the technical and intellectual cadres of the bourgeoisie, undergo a series of changes internally as a result of social and political fights led by the students. But it is precisely these partial victories of the rebellious students that are being attacked by the imposition of the pedagogical neo-liberalism.

3. The student movement and resistance to the educational model

However, this wave of attacks against public universities has not gone unanswered. Since 2005 the country has been shocked several times by major demonstrations and protests inside and outside the universities. Faced with the academic reforms of Palacios, National University students reacted with the biggest strike in the history of the university since 1984. The strike lasted several months and was resumed even after the students returned from forced holidays. Faced with such a strike the rector had to resign and was replaced by Palacios Ramón Fayad, who eventually faced a partial victory for the student movement. Two years later, in 2007, another strike erupted, this time at national level, because of Article 38 of the NDP. The strike lasted several months in various universities of the country and was accompanied by large and numerous street demonstrations and even by violent protests in cities like Manizales and Popayán. In Bogotá, all public universities, not just the National University, joined the strike and were supported by several students from district schools. This time the country's universities were closed down, and some semesters were cancelled and many students were also arrested. In 2008 the National University, and especially its branches in Manizales, Medellin, Bogota and Palmira, experienced a large student protest because of the authoritarian introduction of a new Student statute. Although there were many street demonstrations, the universities were blocked for several days and occupied by students. Principals tried to close the campuses, but they were open every passing day by people who joined the protest. Besides these three major events, other universities such as the Pedagogical Universities of Bogotá, of Valle del Cauca (Univalle), of Atlantic, of Antioquia, Tolima and that of Tunja, to name only a few, have protested constantly about budget problems, academic reforms and repression against the student movement.

4. The totalitarian control of the centres of critical thinking

But it would be an error to think that an intrinsically authoritarian project like Uribe’s, which has been characterized by the control of the media and rests on the forceful establishment of a counter-insurgent hegemonic thought (that pretends to see in the guerrillas the cause and the last reason of all the evils that afflict this world), by the historical revisionism of Colombia and the installation of a collective amnesia, would be interested only in attacking the interests of the students only in terms of their actual demands. All authoritarian regimes concentrate their attacks on the universities, insofar as they see in them as an enclave of potential questioning of the system. Another leader of a totalitarian regime, the dictator Pinochet, coined a famous phrase that perfectly describes Uribe’s vision for higher education: “those who come to the universities come to study, not to think”.

But we need to understand this in its context. One characteristic strategy of the mindset of the totalitarian Uribe regime is its concern to safeguard and enhance the domination dynamics which ensure the perpetuity of the status quo. This means that in recent years the government has used a plethora of media, economic, political and repressive devices to retain power, building a project that celebrates the right of military logic, which, under the counter-insurgency alibi, has received the support of the most conservative and backward elites of the country, especially, of the paramilitary groups.

This counter-insurgent strategy has its greatest expression in the "Policy of Defence and Democratic Security" [11] written in 2003 which, in the words of President Uribe, seeks to "restore order and security" which have been usurped by "terrorism." Throughout this document there is an explicit interest in clarifying that "democratic security differs from the conceptions of security professed by authoritarian regimes, proponents of ideological hegemony and political exclusion" and made clear that achieving the country's security is not incompatible with democratic processes, and much less with the protection of human rights. However, he clarified that "we must draw a sharp line between the right to dissent and criminal conduct," which does not discard the possibility of linking (conveniently) any action or thought of dissent with the current regime with terrorism, against which "there can be only one answer: to defeat it."

It is important to note that this counter-insurgency policy entails not only a logic of war and annihilation of those social sectors who openly express an interest to turn this scene of social and economic inequality, but also seeks to intervene against potential dissidents, that is to say anywhere and anyone that the doctrine of the regime has not been able to control absolutely, where dissent has not been completely overshadowed and where – in the eyes of totalitarian regime – organisational proposals may emerge which question the prevailing order and, ultimately, the interests of the country’s dominant class.

One of the sectors that fit into this category of dissident potentialities is the university sector made up of students, professors and workers. That is to say, within the academic scope interstices exist that have not yet been conquered absolutely by the doctrine of the government, which become scenes of conflict and persecution, where the thin line which differentiates the right to dissent (to think, to discuss, to question, to investigate, to criticize) vanishes quickly to open a passage to the criminalization of the university sector.

5. McCarthyism and criminalisation – a preamble to violence

In this way, during the government of President Uribe the widespread allegations and accusations made by senior officials to stigmatize the universities and other centres of public education (the National Training Service - SENA, for example) as urban dens which train subversives, has been constant. One of the first people to make such high-sounding declarations was vice-president Francisco Santos, who on October 20, 2006 issued statements in the media demanding, almost in those terms, the militarization of public universities, under the assumption that subversive groups operate there and student activists are "infiltrated terrorists” [12].

Following this line of arguments, on April 13, 2007, the then Agriculture Minister Andrés Felipe Arias (now presidential candidate for the Conservative Party), who also is considered "a loyal soldier in the paths of Uribe” [13], asserted that it was necessary to infiltrate the mainstream "terrorist dens", i.e. the universities [14]. Two years later, Senator Gina Parody of the U Party [15] played along with a whole mainstream media orchestra that resonated strongly a propitious scene for the stigmatisation of the university movement when she stated that “the FARC is infiltrating the universities of Bogotá”, stating that in these institutions “they are attempting to indoctrinate nuclei with clear military objectives”. [16]

Furthermore, in September 2008, while Parody was unleashing hysteria with the alleged "terrorist infiltration" of public universities in Bogotá, the director of the DAS, Maria del Pilar Hurtado added to this well-orchestrated, macabre comedy by accusing student organisations of serving as fronts for the FARC-EP [17] and saying that in the University of Antioquia, students of bacteriology, physics, physical education, zootechnics and student groups such as that of social medicine were "seeds" of the FARC-EP [18]. As a result of these charges, by the way, at least 20 students had to move because of the escalation of threats.

Such statements are aimed at reducing all forms of student organisation, all protest, demonstration or expression of dissent to mere activities promoted by the insurgency, in order to pursue their criminalisation. That is, seeking to deprive any student movement of political meaning and sense, labelling them as the handiwork (or at least accomplices) of "terrorist" groups, thus seeking a McCarthyist effect to justify and facilitate the subsequent repressive action on them [19].

That this stigmatisation is the preamble to violence, can be deduced from the statements of paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso in connection with the intervention that the right-wing death squad known as the United Self-Defences of Colombia (AUC) carried out on the University of Cordoba (UNICOR), because it was supposedly a place "where a tendentious ideology was thought in favour of the guerrilla phenomenon (...) We could not permit the indoctrination of young men (...), so we started to act" [20].

6. Repressive violence - a preamble to intervention

Criminalisation does not go unnoticed by the State. In fact, it is their own institutions, in the hands of officials of doubtful reputation with clear links to paramilitary groups, that have systematised and institutionalised the persecution of students, workers, trade unionists and university professors. This was the case in late 2008 when the then Prosecutor of the 12 National Anti-Terrorism Unit, Jorge Ivan Piedrahita Montoya ordered an investigation of the databases of national universities, in order to investigate possible links between illegal armed groups and these schools [21]. According to the deputy minister of higher education, the requested databases contained information on at least 1,450,000 people [22]. The measure, which was established on October 22, 2008, led on November 12 to the opening of criminal investigations and judicial proceedings against members of the universities [23]. One these was William Javier Díaz Ramírez, a professor at the District University (Universidad Distrital) and coordinator of the Roots Student Training Workshop (TJER), who was arrested on November 14, 2008. The prosecutor was finally dismissed by the Disciplinary Chamber of the Supreme Judicial Council and disqualified for 20 years from holding public office, in a trial that found him guilty of abuse of authority and other irregularities [24] committed during the exercise of his office [25].

This flood of accusations prompted a wave of arrests, thereby strengthening the institutional and political persecution against the public university and dissident positions that did not follow the rules defined by the regime. This is demonstrated by the arrest of several teachers and students in public universities accused of "rebellion," such as: Maria Antonia Lopez Espitia and Ipayú Reyes (both students of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia), Isabel Cristina Guzmán (actress and student at the National University), Hugo Giovanni Hilarion (member of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Colombia - FESCOL), Edison Javier Reyes Roa (member of Territorio Sur) [26], and other teachers and researchers – even abroad – are still subject to persecution: for example, the case of the arbitrary arrest and deportation to Colombia on May 22, 2009 of Miguel Angel Beltran, a renowned Colombian academic, who was doing post-doctoral studies at the Centre of Latin American studies in UNAM (Mexico) when he was accused of "being a prominent member of the FARC". [27].

In this regard, and in the context of student strikes and protests in 2008 at the National University of Colombia, President Uribe himself said that it was the very students and teachers from public universities who were asking the Judicial Police and the General Attorney to bring to justice “members of subversive groups that are doing harm to the faculties of education”. The president explained that though the Colombian government respected academic freedom, it "can not tolerate criminals entering the universities." It is therefore necessary for police to “bring to justice as soon as possible those criminals who are doing harm to the National University". [28].

7. Paramilitary intervention in universities

The high-intensity warfare in several of the country's public universities is not limited to institutional persecution and legal repression, or media accusations and inflammatory speeches. Since the supposed demobilisation of the right-wing paramilitaries in 2006 that formally brought the AUC to an end, there has been a continuation of paramilitary structures under new organisational forms but without a unified command at a national level (which takes us back to some extent to a similar situation to Paramilitarism before 1997, mostly as regional groups). But also, on the other hand, they are now being called “emergent bands”, as if they did not have anything to do with the strategy of domination by the ruling class and therefore are reported as mere expressions of common crime. It is difficult to think that these complex processes are tried to be reduced to simple and isolated criminal acts, particularly in the face of clear evidence that the aggression towards the universities is being carried out in a coordinated and methodical form.

With the Law of Justice and Peace in place, the paramilitaries – “reintegrated” into civilian life, after their “normalisation” by means of the existence of qualification programs and education [29] – have been able to enter university campuses and to arm squads within them, with an eye to intervening in a space of critical thought in a country where such spaces are becoming smaller through censorship, terror and cooptation of the media.

While it is clear that we are in a situation in which paramilitaries have intensified this campaign to universities nationwide, which has been facilitated by the political scenario posed by the Law of Justice and Peace, it is important to note that paramilitary infiltration and intervention is not a new phenomenon. This is a process that must be taken into account if we are to understand extreme cases such as the University of Cordoba, where the constituent elements of the process of paramilitary intervention in universities can be seen very clearly.

8. The intervention of the AUC at the University of Cordoba (UNICOR) – a paramilitary model:

UNICOR is a case in which, thanks to the testimony of paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso, there is abundant evidence of how the modus operandi of the paramilitaries is being used against public universities. The truth, by the way, is only recently coming to light in an environment in which terror still reigns, where the paramilitary presence is strong and where the media still "justifies" the people associated with the paramilitaries because of their supposed "popularity", achieved through terror and because of the real or imagined actions of the insurgency. As one columnist says in the magazine Semana, "it is unacceptable to continue justifying the slaughter within this university with the false statement that it is a ‘nest of guerrillas’" [30].

In 1995 the assault began with a wave of paramilitary violence against the university community on a par with the stigmatisation of UNICOR as a "nest of guerrillas": that year, student Francisco Aguilar Madera was murdered and a year later, professor Alberto Alzate Patiño met with the same fate. In June 1996 an attempt was made on the life of college union leader René Cabrales, but instead of killing the leader, the paramilitaries killed her granddaughter of just 2 years of age. This occurred in a context of widespread violence and killings in Montería (capital of the Cordoba department) and the whole department, towards teachers.

Then in 1999 direct paramilitary intervention began, occurring in stages:

  • First, infiltration through the establishment of one of their contacts in the Student Council for tasks of intelligence and the creation of “university self defence“.
  • By means of threats (including the kidnapping of rector Eduardo Gonzalez and some students, and the subsequent murder of one of the candidates to become rector, Hugo Iguarán) they managed to install one of their own as rector in September 2000, Victor Hugo Hernandez [31]. When he fell from grace with the leaders of the AUC, he was simply replaced in 2002 by Claudio Sánchez Parra, who was to be the rector up to December 2008, when he was captured by police [32], a moment in which President Uribe publicly defended him, following his tradition of defending everything related to paramilitarism [33].
  • Then, between 2000 and 2002, came the stage of the targeted killing of teachers Freddy Fuentes, Manuel Segundo Ruiz (both leaders of the teachers’ union), Rene Rios, James Antonio Pérez, Félix Antonio Avilez (demobilized ex-member of the People's Liberation Army - EPL), Ivan Antonio Garnica and students such as Francisco José Ayazo, Marlin de la Ossa, Pedro Esteban Manotas, Eduardo Enrique Hernandez and Sheila Olascoaga.
  • In February 2003, the rector organised a meeting between leading academics and Mancuso during which he threatened them, saying he would not allow a subversive presence at the university, which was the completion of the circle of paramilitary involvement in UNICOR.

    It is important to note that in all these actions the paramilitaries counted on the complicity of the Technical Investigation Unit of the Attorney General - CTI (whose director Rosalba Negrete was a person they trusted) and of the Armed Forces: of the Local Criminal Investigation Unit -SIJIN (Agent Wilfredo Ortiz himself was Mancuso’s bodyguard), of the Police (the commander Raúl Suárez was a regular supporter the AUC) and the Captain of the Marines Jorge Muñoz. They also enjoyed the support of civil authorities and of the Governor María Jesús López [34].

    Having said this, President Uribe has maintained close ties with the elite of the area, i.e., farmers, the military, paramilitary leaders, landowners [35] and influential political sectors that, in a strong alliance, have consolidated a reckless counterinsurgency project in these lands through bloody massacres, in which paramilitary involvement in the UNICOR is but one aspect only. So no wonder that this region, that remains a clear paramilitary dominion and which during the last decade has seen the foundation of the Self Defence of the Farmers of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCUR, predecessors of the AUC) at the hands of the Castaño brothers, together with the birth of one of the bloodiest figures of the zone, Salvatore Mancuso [36] – who does not deny his admiration for the current president [37] – is a region described by Uribe as "one of the few corners of the country where there is peace" [38].

    9. Universities in the sights of Colombian paramilitaries

    For some time we can say that the wave of violence against the universities has become a rule; that in more than one college campus groups have been linked to the "demobilized" paramilitaries; and that, in some cases, academic authorities are in full collusion with these organisations.

    Here are some of the highlights of violence affecting the university community and some elements at our disposal allow us to infer, based on the model of UNICOR, that there is a strategy for paramilitary intervention of public universities being implemented right now throughout Colombia:

    A. Infiltration and academic links with the paramilitaries

    Universidad Industrial de Santander (UIS), "The Pistol Plan"

    The case of the UIS is a clear case of how the paramilitary groups operate with the connivance and support of some academic authorities. In July 2007 Jaime Alberto Camacho, rector of the UIS, held conversations with a paramilitary leader known as "Felix" concerning the physical elimination of leftist students and leaders of the student movement who oppose the neo-liberal reforms that he was pushing forward. Some of these phone conversations were recorded and were made public on May 4 this year [39]. The rector mentions a list of students to be "wiped out" and this plan is called "Pistol Plan," in the purest Mafia style [40].

    Since that time, the death threats to students, academics and members of the UIS began. These were issued by a paramilitary structure known as the "Águilas Negras" (Black Eagles) [41]. There was also a constant harassment by the academic authorities to take disciplinary measures against students involved in protests [42]. Even the Department of Communications in the UIS was instructed to record and to carry out espionage against trade unionists and students [43].

    Recently, on February 13, 2009, a threat from the paramilitary organisation “Bloque Metropolitano de Bucaramanga ‘Nueva Generación – Águilas Negras" circulated among the university community, in which more than 40 students, academics and workers were threatened. The communiqué, which threatened individuals and student groups, stated clearly: "We are a group of UIS students who demobilised from the AUC and who identify ourselves with the policies of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez and will stay with him until the final victory over the guerrillas hidden and disguised as student representatives – trade unionists of Sintraunicol, as human rights defenders in the UIS, and so on. This is a step forward to fulfil the desire of our president to consolidate the communitarian state and democratic security"[44].

    It should be noted that these disclosures are made in a context of increasing attacks, threats and harassment against the university by the paramilitary and public forces [45], some of which have entered the university after their alleged "demobilisation" through the Justice and Peace Law, according to the threat pamphlet quoted.

    B. Birth of Paramilitary groups and threats

    One of the most pressing concerns about Uribe’s government’s reckless lash against the university community, is that it coincides with the emergence of paramilitary groups in the urban centres that support this policy of intimidation of activists from the left, thus conforming a very favourable scenario for the presidential aspirations of silencing the voice of the universities.

    The picture inside the public universities is so critical that by the year 2006 the Ombudsman issued a report through its Early Warning System (SAT) on the public universities in Bogotá, in which it was stressed that these universities were at a high level of risk by the actions of “illegal” groups and by the criminalisation of which they have become victims, especially over the last five years by members of the national government, orchestrated with the special assistance of the media [46].

    For example, on Wednesday, November 12, 2008 (the same day that court proceedings were begun against the universities by order of the prosecutor Jorge Iván Piedrahita Montoya) e-mails arrived in the accounts of the Department of Law, Political and Social Sciences of the National University of Bogotá, containing a threatening note with the subject "Final Warning". This indicated as a military objective of the paramilitary organisation "Águilas Negras" thirty-three (33) people; among them are twelve (12) students, four (4) university graduates and two (2) teachers at the Faculty of Law and Political Science. But apart from declaring these people as military targets, there was also a “curfew” set by this organisation on the campus: "We have decreed a curfew in the National University from November 18, not for students but for the rebels, and that they should not stay in the university premises between 6:00 pm and 6:00 a.m. and to this effect we have paramilitary staff in this area" [47]. Also, the note states that these groups have decided to declare the university campus as a battleground and that they will not make public anymore their blacklists, because they create "useful idiots for subversion" (i.e. human rights defenders), but that they will begin to act directly instead, without further warning [48]. It is worth clarifying that this was the fifth threat received at the National University following the accusations made by government officials such as Senator Gina Parody about students, thus resulting in many being forced to leave the country.

    However this problem is not only confined to the city of Bogotá, or to the National University; on the contrary, the threats of paramilitary attacks against public universities appear to be systematically occurring across the country. For example, two recent cases illustrate this. On Friday March 6, 2009 intimidating e-mails from the “Bloque Antioqueño of the AUC” were sent to 30 student leaders from the University of Antioquia (Medellín), which warned in the following terms: "you have a week to disappear or we will make you disappear” [49]. But that's not all. In March 2009 over 100 students were threatened and three were wounded. Furthermore, between March and April this year police raided the Universities of Antioquia and Valle, and many students and professors of the University of Caldas , Cauca , La Guajira were threatened [50].

    C. From threat to murder

    These intimidating communications were sent at the same time as students were being killed throughout the country. An overview of the violence against the Colombian student movement between 2002 and 2006 shows us 120 threats, 5 raids, 174 personal injuries, 28 harassments, 11 court charges, 204 arbitrary arrests, 15 displacements, 11 abductions, 10 tortures and 14 murders recorded, for a total of 592 cases [51].

    It is worth bearing in mind that, in addition to the accusations by senior government officials and threats from paramilitary groups, a main stage where this violence is emerging is in the control of student protest. This, today, is in the hands of the ESMAD (Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squad), to which the latest Report of the District Human Rights Committee attributed the deaths of six students in two years. It is also important to remember that ESMAD was harshly criticized in the Annual Report of the Colombian U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, who reported the students to be victims of fractures as a result of the impact of gas grenades and pointed to their involvement in the death of Johnny Silva during the student protests against the FTA in the Universidad del Valle in 2005 [52].

    Because we cannot allow our fallen comrades to be forgotten, and in order to demonstrate that this is not a matter of a few isolated cases, we believe it relevant to publish a list of some of the cases of which we know, which we are almost certain to be an incomplete list in any case:


  • On September 22, 2005, the ESMAD shot at close range and killed a 21-year-old chemistry student, Johnny Silva, inside the university campus during a national day of protests against Colombia ’s FTA with the U.S [53]. This case is emblematic for even though the responsibility of the ESMAD has been proven, no individual has been found responsible. What is more, a Public Prosecutor delegated by the Supreme Court of Cali (Carlos Adolfo Millán) has been appointed to try to clean the blood from the hands of the ESMAD on this crime and to guarantee at all costs that this crime, like all those committed by the state, go unpunished. This has motivated the murdered student’s family to take the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) [54]
  • On April 10, 2006 in Yumbo hired hit men murdered a student of social sciences, William Ortiz [55].
  • On October 4, 2006, hired hit men killed pre-hospital care student Julián Andrés Hurtado, who was 30 years old. It should be noted that Julián Andrés led a commission investigating the murder of Johnny Silva which proved ESMAD was guilty. He was also an active student leader [56].
  • On August 3, 2007, students Katerine Soto Ospina and Rolando Quinteros were attacked by the army in the village of San Cipriano, a tourist town in Buenaventura. As a consequence of the attack, Katerine died. The army simply washed their hands of the matter, saying that it was a mistake [57].
  • On March 26, 2009 Business Administration student Juan David Jiménez Caballos was murdered by hired hit men on the outskirts of the Zarzal branch of Univalle [58].

    University of La Guajira:

  • On March 9, 2009 Ethno-education student Eder Enrique Sierra, 38, a member of the Colombian Association of University Students (ACEU), was murdered by hired assassins while en route to study [59].

    Universidad de Antioquia:

  • In March 2009 former law student Jorge Andrés Isaza Velásquez, 28, was murdered on campus [60].

    Universidad del Cauca (Unicauca)

  • Milton Troyano, a student of biology and prominent student leader, was murdered on the night of October 18, 2006 by hired assassins who followed him out of the university [61].

    Universidad Distrital Francisco José de Caldas

  • Oscar Salas (20 years of age, studying Humanities and Languages) was shot dead on March 8, 2006 by ESMAD during a student protest [62]. He had recently won a prize for poetry at the college and his murder prevented him from receiving it [63].

    Universidad del Atlántico

  • An explosion on October 24, 2006, left four students dead: Juan Llinás, Dreiber Melo (Law), Darwin Peñaranda (History) and Yuri Martínez (History). As usual, the authorities immediately said that the students had been handling explosives which were to be used in a protest several days later. They even came to say that these students were members of urban militias of the Front 37 of the FARC-EP [64]. However, on July 28, 4 students who survived the explosion were found not guilty, so what happened in the end, although not entirely clear, seems to have been a massacre, planned and executed by right-wing paramilitaries: only 4 days before the explosion occurred, Francisco Santos had called for the militarization of university campuses because subversive groups were operating there [65]. “Coincidentally”, the explosion gave strength to his “argument” [66].

    Needless to say, in all these cases absolute impunity is the order of the day.

    10. Conclusion: And after murder... control?

    Knowing what happened in UNICOR we can be sure that what is being sought through this campaign of the criminalisation and paramilitary infiltration of the universities is to move toward the control of public universities in the same manner as was done in the department of Cordoba some years ago.

    How to resist this pressure that seems to come from everywhere?

  • First of all, denounce each aggression as much as possible, both nationally and internationally;
  • Increase the levels of organisation and unity of students at a national level;
  • Fortify the bonds between the Colombian student movement with the student movements of other countries so that they can develop actions of impact, solidarity and pressure;
  • Break the isolation of the university community and deepen the bonds that unite it with other social areas who today also offer resistance to the government’s social project;
  • Continue with mobilisations and actions to bring public attention to this situation.

    In conclusion, we believe it is important to emphasize that what is now happening on the campuses is part of a widespread climate of terror, threats and violence in Colombia, an everyday reality that Uribe is trying to hide under a thick blanket of propaganda, with fanciful rigged statistics and statements, aiming to make the world believe that Colombia is a haven for democratic freedoms and social welfare, where nothing ever happens.

    The propaganda does not come cheap: it is estimated that in 2007 alone the Colombian state spent at least $12,800,000,000 (€4,530,071.9220) on propaganda. And there is no greater surprise to see that the bulk of this expenditure was made by two of the state institutions that are more stained by human rights violations and links to the paramilitaries: the Ministry of Defence (42%) and Parliament (27%) [67].

    But the sun cannot be covered with one finger: despite the regime’s propaganda, their paramilitary links are increasingly evident and unacceptable. And in turn, it is increasingly clear that this alliance is nothing more than a crusade to establish a political and social model which is deeply hostile to the most basic rights and needs of the people of Colombia. This model can be imposed only through violence, whether overt or covert: Uribe's war is a war against all of the people and is nothing but the utmost expression of a social model based on dispossession through the violence of the state and its para-institutional tentacles which have been consolidated after decades of war. It is in the hands of the people where the ability to twist the arm of this history of dispossession and violence rests. It is time to awaken this force.

    CILEP- Red Libertaria Popular Mateo Kramer
    José Antonio Gutiérrez D. (Associate of CILEP)
    July 28, 2009


    [1] The government intelligence agency.
    [2] This expression was coined by Renán Vega Cantor in his book “Los economistas neoliberales: nuevos criminales de guerra”. Bogotá: Centro Bolivariano, 2005, pp. 125-169.
    [3] “Universidad y Estatuto Estudiantil”. Comité Académico Red Revuelta. In: “Documento de trabajo No.3. Alternativas frente al estatuto estudiantil”. Bogotá: Planeta Paz, 2009, pp. 45-55.
    [4] Quoted in Ibid, p. 50.
    [5] This was the opinion held by Red Revuelta and Red Antorcha during the 2008 strike in the National University of Colombia, Bogotá. There is a document entitled “La universidad sitiada”. See
    [6] Through an article of the National Development Plan, the government is aiming at forcing national public universities to take responsibility for part of the cost of the pensions debt. To give but one example, the debt of the National University of Colombia is around $3,000,000,000,000 (€1,063,435,088.705), the equivalent of three years of its overall costs.
    [7] Cf.
    [8] In 2008 the budget deficit of Pamplona University was $42,000,000,000 (€14,891,472.711) and that of Magdalena University $8,000,000,000 (€2,835,765.67986). On the other hand, the current deficit of the UPTC is $18,000,000,000 (€6,381,227.794505). Cf.
    [9] Amaya Francoa, Manuel Enrique. “Universidad y Democracia alrededor de la “Reforma de Córdoba”, in: “Universidad y Sociedad”, Revista Argumento, issues 14/15, 16/17, Bogotá, 1986, p. 158.
    [10] García, Carlos Arturo. “El movimiento estudiantil en Colombia década del sesenta”, in: “Universidad y Sociedad”, Revista Argumento, issues 14/15, 16/17, Bogotá, 1986, p.189.
    [11] Cf.
    [12] Cf.
    [13] Cf.
    [14] Cf.
    [15] The U Party was created in 2005 by Liberal Party dissidents headed by current Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos, which promoted the re-election of Álvaro Uribe in the presidential elections of 2006.
    [16] Cf.
    [19] Sometimes this witch hunt goes beyond accusations and some set ups have been carried out (the so called “falsos positivos” or “false positives” in English), as that denounced by the students of Univalle. On April 4, 2009 both ESMAD and SIJIN (police branches) entered Univalle to conduct a raid in which they “discovered” explosives, evidence that proved to be a set-up, according to students. After this the university was closed for a while. see also
    [21] Cf.
    [22] Cf.
    [23] Cf.
    [24] To have a look at the scary profile of this Prosecutor see:
    [25] The counter-insurgent fuzz is in sharp contrast with the permissiveness of the authorities in relation to the right-wing paramilitary presence in the public universities, as was denounced in an article of Semana at the time of the Parody accusations and of the Prosecutor’s inquisitorial activities: “A few weeks ago Prosecutor Jorge Iván Piedrahita ordered a review of the databases of all public universities of the Capital. This measure was a prompt response to the denunciations by Senator Gina Parody about the suspected infiltration of university campuses in Bogota by guerrillas. The swift intervention of the prosecuting bodies at the universities in Bogota is in sharp contrast with the sloppy action taken in the case of Unicor, where, in spite of enormous evidence and the brutal level of violence, no-one did anything about it, even though there were constant denunciations”.
    [25] Cf.
    [26] Cf. colombiano -a- quien-bogota-relaciona-con-las-farc.html
    [27] Cf.
    [28] See article 66 of the 975 Law of 2005 (the so-called Justice and Peace Law) en:
    [30] The murder of Iguarán took place in the very home of Hernández.
    [31] Alter a short while he was let go, but he would not be rector again.
    [33] Ver,,,
    [34] Uribe, himself a big landowner, having a large estate called El Ubérrimo, is one of the 2,300 Colombians who own over 2,000 hectares of land. All of them together own around 40 million hectares.. Cf. Cepeda, Iván; Rojas, Jorge. “A las puertas de El Ubérrimo”. Bogotá: Debate, p.36.
    [35] “Mancuso has recognised his role in at least 300 murders and in the massacres of Mapiripán in which over 20 peasants were killed and El Aro where some 15 were killed in 1997. He is also indicated as being responsible for the massacre of La Gabarra in 1999, when 35 people were murdered, and of the massacre of El Salado, where over 100 people were slaughtered. This paramilitary confessed that the paramilitary structure Bloque Catatumbo, of which he was commander, was responsible over all for the death of some 5,000 civilians” Ibid, p.17.
    [36] On this issue Mancuso states that: “Uribe has proved a firm discourse and a transparent management of State affaire, as governor of Antioquia and in every single public office he has held” Ibid, p.60.
    [37] Ibid, p.35.
    [38] The conversation can be heard at
    [40] This name has been adopted by one of the groups in this new phase of the paramilitary strategy that starts with the negotiations between the government of Alvaro Uribe and paramilitary structure United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia and the implementation of the 975 Law of 2005 “by which dispositions are put in place in order to reintegrate members of organised illegal armed groups, who contribute in an effective manner to achieve peace in the nation. It also puts in place other dispositions with an eye to humanitarian agreements”. These groups constantly refer to the need of implementing the Democratic Security doctrine promoted by the government of Álvaro Uribe.
    [43] This statement can be read at
    [45] Cf.
    [46] This threat coincided with the arrival of the indigenous “Minga” to Bogotá, a national protest of indigenous communities, so the curfew was intended so the students would not stay in the university to support this popular protest.
    [47] Cf.
    [48] Cf.; ver también:
    [49] Cf.
    [50] Cf.
    [51] Cf.
    [53] ver también
    [58] ver también

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