Colombia's "black hand"

Latin America and the Caribbean

Last week, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said on two occasions that, in addition to the “black hand” of far-left violence – the FARC and ELN – there is another “black hand” on Colombia’s far right. The latter are, in Santos’s words, “those who don’t want victims to get reparations, who don’t want land restored to campesinos, those who also want to exaggerate insecurity in order to say ‘this country is in chaos.’”

Santos’s words about a violent, shadowy far-right inspired four different commentaries in yesterday’s issue of the country’s principal newsweekly, Semana.

  • A feature article contends that using the “black hand” term is a way to avoid the politically difficult responsibility of actually investigating, prosecuting and naming those responsible for serious crimes. It’s easier to blame it on a shadowy, untouchable right-wing network.

Why use a category that, instead of clarifying, doesn’t name those responsible, when these could be relatively easily identified if serious investigative efforts are made? Why doesn’t Santos name those who are behind the murders of victims and order the security institutions to take appropriate measures? In the old national tradition, “the black hand” has been less of an accusation than an excuse for not acting.


Time and again, they take advantage of the cycles of violence to amass large fortunes, and they have a strange obsession for landholding. From the 1950s confrontation between liberals and conservatives they emerged with part of the best coffee and cattle-producing lands. They have used the tortuous war that the country has lived through since the early 1980s to sack the state’s resources and to appropriate and legalize narcotrafficking income, to steal land from millions of campesinos, and to get their hands into oil and mining.


The fight is not between right and left, but between two shades of the right. Between the archaic, rural, violent, barbarous right, whose incarnation is [former President Álvaro] Uribe and his friends (many of them, it’s worth remembering, imprisoned today for their alliances with paramilitaries), and the modern, urban and non-violent right: what in other countries is called the “civilized right.”


  • Columnist María Jimena Duzán says that some of President Santos’s more moderate political positions – like his sponsorship of a recently passed law mandating restitution to victims – run counter to what the country’s far right expected of him, given that he served as defense minister in former President Álvaro Uribe’s very conservative government. She points to a recently inaugurated “National Restoration” website as evidence that the country’s far right is mobilizing to oppose Santos.

The extreme right feels betrayed by the direction that President Santos has given his government. They don’t understand why Juan Manuel is concerned with restoring land to victims instead of leaving them to the victimizers who voted for him. And I don’t blame them: to those of us who didn’t vote for Juan Manuel, this new Santos has us equally surprised. In any case, there is nothing more dangerous than an enraged extreme right, like the one that is becoming resurgent. How frightening.