Prison systems in the U.S. and Latin America.

This is the first in a series of five articles on the state of prison systems in the U.S. and Latin America. The articles have been adapted from a five-part paper written spring quarter 20l7 by students taking the course, Illicit Markets in the Americas taught by Lynn Holland.

The U.S. Prison System and How It Hurts the Poor

Leonardo Godoy

Over the last several decades, the U.S. prison population has greatly expanded due in part to measures arising from government’s drug war. These measures, including the increased use of mandatory minimum sentencing, have disproportionately affected the poor and ethnic minority groups. Other problems that continue to harm the poor include the persistent use of bail, the lack of adequate reintegration programs, and the proliferation of prison-associated fees imposed on the families of prisoners.

The Drug War

The “drug war”, currently making a revival, has entailed a series of measures which have disproportionately affected the poor in this country. Soon after declaring the “war on drugs” in 1971, President Richard Nixon established the powerful Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), to greatly expand the size and scope of federal drug control activities. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared illegal drugs to be a national security threat as First Lady Nancy Reagan launched a privately funded anti-drug campaign to encourage youth to “Just Say No” to drugs.[1]  The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 allocated $1.7 billion to the anti-drug crusade and included mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses specifically for the distribution of cocaine. The Act also imposed penalties for “crack” cocaine offenses which were far more severe than those for the more expensive powder cocaine offenses. The result was that the poor, who used the cheaper crack cocaine, suffered harsher penalties than those who used the more expensive cocaine powder. This in turn led to a dramatic increase in racial disparities in the prison population.[2]

Two years later, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 included more severe mandatory minimum sentences (first time offenders would receive a five-year minimum sentence for simple possession of cocaine, even with no intent to sell), the elimination of federal benefits (such as student loans), and the use of the death penalty for serious drug-related convictions. The following year, Reagan established the Office of National Drug Control Policy to coordinate drug-related policies, security measures, diplomatic objectives, and government research, with the goal of eradicating illicit drug use, manufacturing, and distribution, and drug-related crime. Successive directors became known as “Drug Czars.”[3]

While the matter has been debated, it is widely held that the drug war contributed substantially to the rapid rise in the prison population after 1974. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the U.S. prison population at 2,239,751 in 2013, was the highest per capita rate in the world. By comparison, China with the next highest rate and four times the population of the U.S., had a prison population of only 1,640,000. [4] By 2012, inmates whose most serious offense was a drug offense constituted 52 percent of the federally sentenced population.[5]

In recent years, mandatory minimum sentencing has been somewhat curtailed and judges have been given greater discretion in certain cases at both the state and federal level. Unfortunately, the trend has not yet affected the thousands of people still stuck in prison for crimes that would have resulted shorter sentences if they had been committed just a few years later.

The Cost of Bail

Another practice that keeps the poor incarcerated longer is that of bail. A recent study of the New Jersey jail population found that nearly 40 percent of the prisoners were being held solely because they couldn’t meet the cost of their bail. Another study found that defendants at Rikers Island, New York City’s jail complex, were detained prior to being tried for a median of 68 days. This included some 400 who had waited for over two years for trial. Such individuals serve time without having been convicted of a crime simply because they are poor while their wealthier counterparts are able to walk free before their trials begin.

A working class person without the means to post bail not only loses time while in jail, that person may also lose his or her job for missing work and residence if he or she is unable to pay rent. The bail system also encourages suspects to simply plead guilty even when innocent, since the alternative is to be held in jail until trial. Pleading guilty, however, puts a permanent mark on the person’s record and criminal convictions make finding a job extremely difficult. Thus the current bail system results in high levels of pretrial and preventative detention, punishing the accused without guilt ever having been established.[6]

In Washington D.C., some measures are being taken to amend the bail system. Judges there can now set bail only if the defendants can afford it.[7] In addition, pretrial services provide specialists who can assess whether a defendant is dangerous or a flight risk, and provide alternatives to incarceration such as drug test monitoring, tracking ankle bracelets, or calling to remind the defendant of the trial.

Mass Incarceration and Criminal Organizations

With mass incarceration on the rise in the U.S., criminal networks have actually gained in membership and influence. Under conditions of crowding, the ranks of prison gangs swell and gang organization becomes more articulated. These conditions transform the prison setting into a kind of headquarters for organizing street level criminal activity, displacing state authority in communities, and coordinating mass violence.

The prison also becomes a kind of training ground for new recruits. In order to survive, younger and less violent inmates are typically forced to make alliances and become more hardened as they seek to survive within the prison system. Crowded prisons also mean closer and more continuous contact among inmates allowing for a greater dispersion of organizational knowledge.

After Release

The task of walking out of prison and returning to community life as a law abiding citizen can be daunting. Functioning programs that aim to rehabilitate former inmates and prepare them for jobs when they leave are few and far between. Having a criminal record makes it difficult to land that essential a job interview, much less the job itself. These tremendous challenges have contributed to a national recidivism rate of 50 percent. Two-thirds of parolees who return to prison do so because of parole violation. Scheduling conflicts with parole officers are common and some officers do little to help accommodate parolees. Depending on where one lives, the parolee may have to pay the parole program, a requirement that has actually caused some to return to selling drugs.

On top of that, many former inmates find themselves saddled with a whole new set of costs stemming from their period of incarceration. These can include medical co-pays, charges for phone calls and video visitation, fees related to booking, probation, DNA testing, and police transport, court costs and even the services of a public defender. These fees have grown immensely over the years as private enterprise has made its way into the prison industry. One report has shown that families pay an average cost of $13,607 for conviction-related costs including restitution and attorney’s fees. At the same time, nearly half of the families surveyed stated that they were unable to pay the fees. Ignoring the charges can lead to a warrant for arrest, refusal of access to public housing, or the denial of one’s driver’s license.[8]


*   *   *   *   *

Prison crowding and its self-reinforcing effect on gangs and crime along with the soaring public expense of mass incarceration have created new pressure for prison reform and crime prevention. While still in office, President Obama encouraged early intervention with young people, making certain, for instance, that young Black and Latino boys are not suspended at higher than average rates. We can also do more to invest in education and the development of job skills both within and outside of the prison system. We can encourage the replacement of bail with less discriminatory ways of keeping tabs on defendants. The multitude of fees imposed on the families of prisoners should be reexamined and eliminated where possible including those imposed for public defenders. Finally, we can continue to revise mandatory minimum sentencing.

In the end, those who have done time in our nation’s prisons and jails will not be the only beneficiaries of these reforms. Since most inmates in the U.S. will eventually be released and returned to the community, it is in all our interest to give them a better chance of success.

[1] “Clergy for a new drug policy.” Retrieved on May 25, 2017. Accessible at:


[2] American Civil Liberty Union, Fair Sentencing Act, ACLU Foundation 2017,

[3]Sacco, Lisa “Drug Enforcement in the United States: History, Policy, and Trends” Analyst in Illicit Drugs and Crime Policy, pg. 9 October 2, 2014. Accessed on June 3, 2017


[4] Walmsley, Roy “World Prison Population List (tenth edition)” International Centre for Prison Studies. Accessed on June 3, 2017. Accessible at:


[5] Sam Taxy, Julie Samuels, and William Adams, Drug Offenders in Federal Prison, U.S. Department of Justice Special Report, October 2015,

[6] Ingraham, Christopher “Why we spend billions to keep half a million-unconvicted people behind bars” The Washington Post June 11, 2015.


[7] Wiltz, Teresa “Locked Up: Is Cash Bail on the way out?” The PEW Charitable Trusts Accessed on June 3, 2017. Retrievable by:


[8] Tanzina Vega, Costly Prison Fees Are Putting Inmates Deep in Debt, CNN Money, September 18, 2015,


Message from Korbel Students Addressing Executive Order Regarding Refugees and Immigrants

February 22, 2017

To the Korbel Community:

We, students of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, are horrified by the President’s executive order issued on January 27, 2017. In the face of increasing state-sanctioned discrimination, we will stand by and with the international and undocumented members of our community, and anyone who feels threatened by the actions of this administration.

As students of a school that actively recruits internationally, we recognize our unique community make-up and the value that diversity of nationality, ethnicity, color, religion, language, perspective and experience brings to this academic institution. We are firmly committed to supporting all Korbel students, faculty, and community members who face any form of discrimination or feel unsafe, either on or off campus.

While Josef Korbel’s personal story reminds us that our country has a long history of accepting immigrants and refugees—and is stronger for it— we recognize that this offers little comfort to the many members of our community who are directly affected by this executive order. Students, professors and staff may be afraid to board international or even domestic flights, for fear that they may not be able to return, or will be detained for an unknown period of time. Family members will not be able to attend students’ graduation ceremonies. Graduating students may have fewer options to pursue professional opportunities domestically (depending on Federal OPT decisions) and abroad. Additionally, restrictions on who can enter the United States will limit our ability to host visiting scholars, professors and lecturers, ultimately undermining the quality of research and education at Korbel.

Our outrage over the implications of this executive order extends beyond its direct effects on our personal community. As Korbel students, we are committed to building global networks, strengthening international exchange and engaging with the world around us. Actions such as this ban run directly counter to our values as an international school and a diverse, multicultural student body.

We hope to open a conversation among students, faculty and the administration about how best to respond to these alarming executive actions and prepare for others that will come. In the meantime, we are here, and more than ready to dig deep and do what is right.

In solidarity and resistance,


**Add your name to the letter in the google form here:


Trump’s Proposed Tariff on Mexican Exports Will Backfire

By George DeMartino

The new Trump proposal (now under consideration by his administration) to get Mexico to pay for the proposed wall along the Mexican border through a 20% tax on Mexican exports to the US violates a range of international trade laws, and is apt to generate retaliation by Mexico. Mexico’s right to retaliate is assured by the WTO, and so would survive any attempt by the Trump Administration to cancel NAFTA. That retaliation could hurt important sectors of the US economy given that Mexico now absorbs about 15% of total US exports. But in addition to the harms from retaliation (and from the wall itself), the funding proposal is likely to backfire in at least five ways.

  1. The incidence of the tax will fall heavily on and American firms at home that import from Mexico, American consumers, and American firms in Mexico that export to the US. US retailers will look to offset higher import costs by reducing other expenses, such as by shedding employees. So will firms that import inputs from Mexico for final assembly in the US. Here, too, pressure will mount to cut costs in ways that harm American workers. And for goods without immediate substitutes, like some agricultural goods, US consumers will be on the hook for a greater share of the tax. Despite appearances and Trump’s claims to the contrary, then, Americans will pay a substantial share of the costs for Trump’s wall. But don’t expect Trump to trouble himself with the basic math.
  1. For Mexican exports for which there are ready substitutes, Mexican and US firms producing in Mexico will bear a greater share of the tax in the form of reduced revenues as they struggle to maintain their exports to the US. But very soon Mexican exports to the US will decline as US importers look to buy from other countries. The decline would of course reduce the expected revenues from the tax, and trigger other unintended effects (see #5, below).
  1. President Trump will say that the tax will induce US companies producing in Mexico to relocate production and jobs back to the US. It is unlikely most will do so. If corporations in Mexico think the tax is likely to persist, they are more likely to move production to other low-waged countries than back to the US.
  1. In fact, if the tax persists for even a year or two, it is much more likely to accelerate a trend already under way—the substitution of Chinese for Mexican goods in US markets. China has posed a serious threat to Mexican exports of high-skilled and medium-skilled manufactured products for at least a decade. The Trump tax will only accelerate the trend. And so Chinese leaders are apt to be even happier about the tax (and, also, about the Trump wall) than are Trump supporters in the US. It’s not at all far-fetched to argue that the primary beneficiary of the tax on Mexican exports to the US will be China,followed by a small number of other low-waged countries that will rush to exploit the opportunity created by increased Mexican prices in the US market.
  1. The social impact in Mexico could be severe. Like most economic shocks, the tariff will hurt the most vulnerable communities rather than the administration of Mexican President Peña Nieto, who could very well begin to reverse his abysmal level of domestic support by standing up to Trump. To the degree that the Trump tax reduces Mexican exports, it can be expected to increase the number of financially desperate Mexican workers trying to enter the US—legally and illegally—and even push some displaced workers into illicit market activity. And so the Trump tax will undermine the very purpose for which it is intended—to reduce illegal border crossings—while harming working people on both sides of the wall.

George DeMartino is a Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver

Occupying High School in Brazil


Bottom-up Democracy in Brazil

Brazilian students have been occupying their schools now in the thousands in order to defend the continuation of much-needed public investments in the educational system. While the conservative new government of the country is yet to find a peaceful and more constructive way to respond to this new form of grass-roots mobilization, students are resolute in their fight.

More can be found in the recent piece by our LACS affiliated faculty, Rafael R. Ioris:

Now the Sioux Must Battle Big Oil

Photo credit to Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty

Residents of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North and South Dakota say they were never consulted about an oil pipeline. Now they’re fighting back.

By Alan Gilbert for The Daily Beast

Co-published at LAC Perspectivas 

“This demolition is devastating. These grounds are the resting places of our ancestors. The ancient cairns and stone prayer rings cannot be replaced. In one day, our sacred land has been turned into hollow ground.”

—Dave Archambault II, Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman, Sept. 4, 2016

  1. What land-protection means

On April 1, some 70 men and women from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which straddles North and South Dakota, erected an encampment on private land owned by LaDonna Brave Bull Allard off the reservation. They were there, on what they hold to be sacred land, to protest the poisoning of their water, water that they hold to be equally sacred. Without consulting the Sioux tribes, a conglomerate oil company in Texas—Energy Transfer Partners—had gotten permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline (DAP), an oil pipeline that would run near the reservation and beneath the Missouri River, the reservation’s sole source of water.

The Dakota and Lakota tribes have long lived in this territory. Here, led by Sitting Bull and Red Cloud, they fought off the U.S. Army and were defeated after long battles. Here, on Sept. 3, 1863, the army committed the Whitestone Massacre of 300 men, women, and children. The tribes still hold treaty rights to this land. Their ancestors are buried here.

But the Lakota were consulted by the Army Corps of Engineers neither about grave sites nor the waters.

The oil pipeline was originally supposed to go above Bismarck, in territory mainly inhabited by whites. But the company shifted it to go south through Standing Rock, crossing under Lake Oahu (part of the Missouri River) and the Missouri twice.

The Sacred Land encampment is a vibrant, spiritual place. It had grown into a second camp of some 2,000 people on nearby public land by the time I arrived on Aug. 30 with photographer Paula Bard. Over the weekend, the numbers swelled, and now, according to news reports, some 3,000-4,000 protesters have encamped.

Since April, word about protecting the waters has spread, and many indigenous peoples have sent support. As you enter Red Warrior camp, the flags of 154 tribes flutter along both sides of the road. People come locally and from Manitoba, Sasketchwan, California, Oklahoma, and Minnesota.

Paula and I entered the Standing Rock reservation where it divides the bright waters of Lake Oahe and the Missouri River. Water does not just give life here. Water is an extension of the people. Mni Wiconi is the Lakota phrase: “Water is life.”

We spent five days with the land protectors (they do not call themselves protesters, but protectors or defenders). We listened to drumming and prayer songs, sometimes late into the night. We met three Cheyenne and Arapaho women who had just driven 15 hours from Oklahoma, and a man from Minnesota who had been at Standing Rock for a week, gone away, and had just returned.

We heard a Minnesota woman who lived near Lake Superior speak about how when she was growing up, you could catch and eat a fish every day. One day, her grandfather warned that there would be a fight over the purity of the water. This had seemed unimaginable to her, the water blue or gray, shifting with sun or clouds.

Now, the waters are murkier, and a pregnant woman may eat only one fish caught in the lake in nine months.

The Lakota is also a women’s culture, so there were two large circle prayer meetings of women while we were there. One went down to the river. The other lifted its voice to the pure waters in the sky. Women sought the maintenance of the Missouri and Lake Oahe for children, grandchildren, and seven generations to come.

In April, young Lakotas said they would not acquiesce to oil pipes under the water. Some 15 organized the Oceti Sakownin (7 Council Fires, the original name of the Sioux) run to Washington. At one evening gathering, a Pawnee counselor who had worked for 12 years to prevent teenage suicides told of the vibrancy and initiative of the runners who spoke to Congress about the DAP.

When the Lakota people pray and sing, they speak naturally of the earth, the mother. The water and the land are given by grandfather spirit—tunkashila in Lakota—to make the life of all tribes, animals, and humans good. Tim Mentz, an elder, spoke of the understandings and instructions, passed through the grandmothers, of 19 generations. And Dave Archambault, Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman, said that the prayers which began in April had yielded guidance, as the elders conjured a vision of a nonviolent resistance movement to protect the water.

Despite dispossession from the lands, the ethnic cleansing, the treaties broken by the U.S. government, and the associated transgenerational trauma, the people at the encampment display an immediate, rich sense of the continuity of their ancestors and the sacredness of the earth.

As 13-year-old Anna Lee Rain Yellowhammer put it in a petition: “Oil companies keep telling us that this is perfectly safe, but we’ve learned that that’s a lie: from 2012-2013 alone, there were 300 oil pipeline breaks in the state of North Dakota. With such a high chance that this pipeline will leak, I can only guess that the oil industry keeps pushing for it because they don’t care about our health and safety. It’s like they think our lives are more expendable than others.

A substantial leak would poison the waters all the way down to where the Missouri flows into the Mississippi, all the way down to Mexico.

We camped next to a Navajo family from Arizona. They told us how last year, tailing ponds from Colorado mines leaked radioactive waste into the Las Animas River near Durango and Pagosa Springs. Las Animas flows into the Colorado River and Lake Powell. Downstream in Arizona, they could no longer give their horses water.

Many of us drink the Missouri’s water, and most of the country eats the crops grown in the region. This pipeline threatens every American.

  1. Wounded Knee

Standing Rock was the reservation of Sitting Bull, who led the defense of the Black Hills against Custer’s invading army. In 1876, at the battle of the Little Big Horn, which Native Americans call the Battle of Greasy Grass, a coalition of indigenous people led by Sitting Bull defeated the invaders. Sitting Bull then led his people to Canada, but eventually returned and settled at Standing Rock, where he was murdered by the U.S. Army during the suppression of the “ghost dance” at Wounded Knee in 1890. The ghost dance was an indigenous/Christian dance for the resurrection of the indigenous community and the repulsing of the invaders.

Starting on Feb. 27, 1973, the American Indian Movement led a great movement to revive the spirit of Wounded Knee, when 200 Oglala Sioux occupied the town of Wounded Knee for 71 days. They demanded the U.S. government honor or renegotiate treaties and opposed the violent and corrupt official leadership of the tribe. People were electrified. Indigenous activists and other supporters joined from all over the country. An armed standoff ensued. Dennis Banks and Russell Means, two leaders of AIM, were indicted. Because of “prosecutorial misconduct,” however, the charges were dropped.

A man holds a sign: I was not at Wounded Knee but I am at Standing Rock.

This is a battle for water, for the generations, for the country.

  1. A Company Attack with Dogs and Mace

Last Saturday, Sept. 3, Energy Transfer Associates organized a hasty new plowing of grave sites. A large nonviolent demonstration took place. Demonstrators were attacked by company dogs and maced.

Before any investigation, Kyle Kirchmeier, the sheriff of Morton County, echoed the Energy Transfer Company’s report about the alleged “violence” of protesters. So did the lead column (front page, top right) of the Bismarck Tribune for Sunday. April 5, written by Leann Eckroth.

“Protestors Get Into Worksite,” the headline read. “Security Officers, Dogs Injured.”

In civil disobedience actions over the last week, protesters have chained themselves to machines. They were eventually cut loose and arrested. No dogs were present. But while the company siccing 10 dogs on demonstrators was unusual, it does conjure the ghost of Bull Connor, the police chief of Birmingham who infamously unleashed dogs and high-pressure fire hoses on high school students in 1963. Winona LaDuke, an Anishinaabe from Minnesota, responded: “I feel like telling the governor is that, you know, you are not George Wallace, and this is not Alabama. You know? This is 2016, and you don’t get to treat Indians like you have for those last hundred years. We’re done. You know? It’ll be interesting times.”

The Bismarck Tribune alleges injuries to security—one security official was bitten by his own dog—and to the dogs themselves: “Three private security officers at the site were injured by protestors, said Donnell Preskey, spokeswoman for the Morton County Sheriff’s Office. One of them required hospitalization. Two security K-9s were also taken to a veterinarian to be treated for injuries … The security officers were hit and jabbed with fence posts and flag poles.”

The dogs were not trained. Dog expert Jonni Joyce exclaimed that they “looked like alligators on leashes.” They bit some 30 people, including a pregnant woman and a child.

Marcus Frejo, who is of Pawnee and Seminole ancestry and came from Oklahoma City, said, “We made it to the top of the hill and saw several bulldozers and trucks, and we walked up to the fence. There’s sacred sites up there, so one woman stepped through the fence, just feet in, telling them with her son at her side that this is sacred land. She yelled at them to stop.

“Bulldozers were less than 10 feet from her, and I was thinking, ‘Why can’t this bulldozer that is so close to her stop?’ So I ran in front of the bulldozer to stop, and security came up from behind and just grabbed me and flipped me over. All of a sudden I’m on the ground, and then more people started coming through the fence and got him off me.”

Ursula Young Bear, an Oglala Lakota, reported“The women joined arms, and we started saying, ‘Water is life!’ A dog came up and bit my leg, and right after that a man came up to us and maced the whole front line.”

The Bismarck Tribune reports protesters with fence posts, but no protesters had fence posts. The Tribune says, “According to several reports from security officers, knives were pulled on them or they witnessed protestors with large knives.” No defender had a knife. The camp forbids them, and the people are protesting nonviolently. Only the guards used dogs and mace.

Leann Eckroth did not speak to any of the hundreds of protesters. She did not go to the campsite, a mile down the road from the construction site.

“Reporting” on Native American protest in the North Dakota press does not include both sides. It does not pretend to the “objectivity” of ordinary journalism.

Neither the sheriff nor the Bismarck Tribune were on the scene. They did not speak with the tribes. The governor has now called out the National Guard.

Due to the numbers of protesters, the tractors retreated over the hill. Construction stopped.

  1. The Desecration of Graves

Demonstrators only learned later of the company’s premeditated grave desecration.

Tim Mentz, a Lakota elder, had recently explored this land with three of his cousins. He spoke last Saturday night to an assembly at the camp, where he reported discovering 27 graves of ancestors and 82 rare sites on the land bulldozed that day. He found the coup stick—Wagamuha—of the Strong Heart Society. He found the half rings or handles of the dipper which the Nachas of the Straight Lance People had made. These would have been the only ones in the North Dakota State Data Base.

Company archaeologists show no familiarity with Sioux practices. They walked right over this.

Mentz said that archaeologists call graves “burial mounds” to justify stealing the skeletons, and stressed the importance of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. One result of that legislation is that 20,000 indigenous skulls in the possession of the Smithsonian Institute are slowly being returned for burial.

On the destroyed site, Mentz’s team also found a sacred buffalo effigy.

David Meyers, who owns the land where the pipeline is to run, encouraged Mentz to look for the sites. Meyers is learning Lakota and wants to know why the land is important to the people. But he could not interfere, he said, where the land had been taken by the company through eminent domain. He says Energy Transfer Associates had threatened to sue him.

In district court in Washington, archaeological consultants for the company testified there were no grave sites on the land. On Friday, Jan Hasselman, attorney for the Sioux, introduced Mentz’s discoveries in hope that these sites would be protected. But on Saturday morning of Labor Day weekend, bulldozers destroyed the very sites Mentz identified.

*On September 9th,  a U.S. District Court judge denied a temporary restraining order to halt construction of the DAP. But later in the day, the Obama administration blocked the pipeline at Lake Oahe pending review and consultation with the Lakota.

Prepared for the long haul, the tribe will appeal. Protectors will engage in resistance and civil disobedience into the winter.

Alan Gilbert is a John Evans Professor at the University of Denver. 

Echoes from the past in Colombia’s Developmental trajectory

By Rafael R. Ioris 

This past October 2nd, Colombian voters surprised almost everyone when they voted to reject the Havana Accords signed between the country’s government and the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), the country’s main remaining armed insurgent group. In contrast with similar attempts in the early 1980s and late 90s, this round of negotiations was seen by most, inside and outside the country, at least until a few days ago, was the culmination of a process of national political restructuring that could finally produce a much sought and needed lasting peace.

The process innovated from the conservative path, known as the Democratic Security Policy put together by the Uribe administration (2002-2010), in the wake of the national crisis of the 1990s. This hard-handed approach trailed a path of pro-market reforms and security improvements, supported in the international investment community as the best way to restructure the country’s economy, especially in a time when much of Latin America was surfing the so-called pink wave. Interestingly, the market reforms were paralleled by the encroachment of state repression of the traditional guerrilla insurgents, particularly under the guise of Plan Colombia and associated growth of paramilitary forces. Though, some of the latter was eventually curbed, largely due to international pressure, the rise in military spending in the national budget was continuous and permanent.

The recent peace negotiations were, as to be expected, permeated by many steps and a gradualist approach involving at the same time legal reforms and public policies to areas of conflict (e.g. subsidized scholarships and housing). And although in the last few years insurgent group activities decreased, this was not necessarily translated in many areas of the country into actual state rule or at least state presence. In fact, in many rural and more isolated regions, the continued threat of reverting back to a state of overt violence is still very present and many still find in illegal activities their main means of subsistence. Moreover, in what seems like a very rational vote, regions mostly ravaged by war-related activities, such a Choco, produced some of the highest levels of support for the Havana Accord.

But in addition to the failed plebiscite, Colombia faces today rising levels of organized crime activity not only in the countryside but also in urban areas. Yet, as challenging as these latest dynamics are, they have occurred not in the void but rather within an already deeply unbalanced land tenure structure which have plagued the country’s history. In this sense, though laudable for trying to move beyond an overly militaristic approach to the structural lines of the continued conflict in the country followed by his predecessor, Santos’ political overtures have to be complemented by actual economic measures aimed at reintegrating many communities into the national economy, particularly in times when Colombia’s mainstream economic policies have become ever more aligned with those of free-trade agreements, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

To be sure, land reform and restrictions on foreign involvement in key industries, such a mining and oil exploration, were some of the main demands the negotiators from the FARC presented repeatedly to the government in order to suspend activities In fact, the growing acceptance of the Santos’ administration of the land reform demands from the FARC had been seen as one of the most promising aspects of the peace negotiations. Demands for better access to economic means are not surprising in a country ravaged by land-tenure related historical conflicts. In fact, even when an assertive land reform program was sought, little was done to curb countryside violence which, in the end, costed the staggering amount of about 200,000 deaths, mostly of poor, countryside residents.
Like much of Latin America, Colombian historical path has been defined by continued sharp socio-economic contrasts and the succession of fast-paced developmental initiatives – such as a remarkable insertion into the global economy as an important primary commodity exporter, starting at the end of the 19th century, as well as the significant levels of industrialization achieved in the middle of the 20th century – which though successful in many senses, have not been instrumental to ameliorate, let alone address the severe inequality that is to this day a defining feature of the country. In effect, rather than serving to improve the living standards of its sizable population (the third in the region), the developmental trajectory of Colombia has been rather defined by sustained oligarchic rule and social exclusion.

This persistent course of events seems particularly disheartening when one considers more closely the events of the postwar era in the country. This was the period when Colombia witnessed a substantial degree of economic and political experimentation and change. In fact, the nation experienced fast-paced economic growth, important levels of industrial growth in different parts of the country, and, especially since the late 1950s, and even more so in the 1960s and 70s, when the county came to be seen by most of its regional neighbors as a remarkable case of success of liberal democratic institutions.
In effect, given the context of dictatorial regimes throughout much of the region in the period, the Colombia experiences with pre-accorded peaceful transitions of power among the two main political parties, Liberal and Conservatives, in the wake of the National Front Agreement of 1958, seemed warranted as a case of a functioning, at least formally representative, political system. Yet, the Colombian experiences since at least the middle of the 20th century should rather be seen as those of the history of the failure of formal liberal democracy, as well as the top-down attempted modernization. On the liberal democracy side, between 1958 and the late 70s, though some changes were made along the way, the Colombian political system was best characterized by coalitional rule between Liberals and Conservatives, at times in ways that resembled the experiences of consociational regimes, though in the Colombian case, without the ethnic, religious, or linguistic elements.

Thus, although the National Front was able to put an end of the traumatic experiences of La Violencia, by creating strong incentives to the two main parties, if not to cooperate, at least to accept the rules of the game, the restrictive nature of the political to all other relevant political forces, especially among popular sectors, was nonetheless solidified by the elitist and restrictive character of the power-sharing agreement then in place. The oligarchic nature of the Colombian state was further reinforced by a central feature of the historical political evolution of the country: its weak central structures of state and strong regional elites. Taken together, these characteristics of the Colombian developmental trajectory would, in the long run, prove conducive to rising levels of dissatisfaction particularly in periods of rapid demographic grow, such in the postwar era.

The formal shortcomings of the Colombian political institutions were also aggravated by the frustration of even middle-income sectors about the possibility of significant socio-economic reform within the formal political system. In fact, even when land reform was attempted in a more concerted fashion, such as during the sponsorship of the Alliance for Progress in the early 1960s, when the country was chosen to be a showcase of the initiative, the results of the program palled against the expectations of the Colombian and US governments, and were certainly less than what was needed. Much in the same way, the important industrialization of the middle of the century was largely derivative of a cross-sectional alliance between traditional landowning families and regional industrialists, which rather than create a new social segment capable of some sort of rupture from the traditional forms of exerting political power, worked to consolidate control of the decision-making process in traditional oligarchic forces, thus sustaining the path of restricted access to the decision-making process, though industrial workers did then, and still do their best to push the boundaries of the local and national spheres of economic and political power.

In this sense, though it may be true that the National Front proved successful in preventing military overt intervention in politics for much of the second half of the twentieth century – a time when much of the region was mired in co-called bureaucratic-authoritarian regimes – this positive outcome was reached at the cost of excluding more socially advanced, progressive and even radical demands. This path indeed enhanced the already present political apathy of growing numbers of political and economic disenfranchised groups; and the guaranteed share of state resources in all realms of government which assured the democratic election of four, Liberal and Conservative party presidents, between 1958 and 1970, was conducive to enhanced corruption and clientelistic patronage of favored supporters. Much in the same way, although the formal economy of Colombia has been strengthened in the last few decades, two main negative sides of these dynamics have to be highlighted. First, the continued deeply uneven ways in which the economic growth achieved in the period benefitted the country’s population. Secondly, the fact that an important, though not easily measurable element of this economic revival derived from the eve more present production and exportation of illegal drugs. To be sure, the 1990s was largely defined by the rise of flaunting drug lords (e.g. Pablo Escobar), who control enormous economic resources and related political influence in the country.

If one considers that about 2/3 of eligible voters abstained from participating in the recent plebiscite, most Colombians did not agree with the terms of the agreement or did not feel encouraged to participate in the process. To be sure, a viable agenda for lasting peace has to include in addition to cessation of conflict, a minimal agenda of development, which needs to have key elements of social justice understood as the reforming of the institutional conditions that sustain and reproduce poverty and inequality, including moving away from the historical, and more recently deepened, path of insertion into the global economy by means of commodity export, especially in the field of carbon-based energy production. In fact, it needs to be remembered that much of the end of violence sought under the Politica de Defensa y Securidad of Uribe was aimed most of all to create a more welcoming environment for foreign investors rather than actually addressing the deep-rooted causes of the continued conflicts in the country.

Actual integration of FARC into arena must be paved by concrete means to prevent the repetition of the experiences of the Union Patriotica of the mid-1980s, when more than 3000 former members of the FARC who had joined the political process were murdered with total impunity assured by the omission of the state apparatus. Similarly, effective representation of most affected communities in the violence, especially those more in need of land needs to be a central element of the any new move towards a sustainable peace, so that the errors of the past, when the National Peasant Association, though formally allowed to exist, was consistently undermined by conservatives administration in the 1970s, as well as the market-led land policies of the 1990s, which benefitted most the already capitalized, larger landholders.

In the short term, the Santos administration needs to prove capable of preventing the derailment of the commitments made by both sides in the Cuba Accords, largely by steering things away from the rising right-wing rhetoric of his right-wing predecessor. Moving forward, a new agenda along more inclusive lines of national development needs to be pursued, especially by means of effective political and economic incorporation of the most traditionally excluded social segments, particularly in the countryside.

Rafael R. Ioris is an Associate Professor of Latin American History and Politics in the Department of History in the University of Denver

Social Justice Solidarity at the Latin America Center

Black-Brown picture LAC

By: Adrian Nava

During the 2015-2016 school year, the Latin America Center at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies organized a Social Justice Solidarity Series, where topics and issues that impact Latinxs were related and talked about in unity with issues that impact other social groups, including folks in different generations, Black students, and students at different campuses in the Denver area.

These conversations are important to me because people like me are oftentimes not represented or represented poorly on campus. In the last three years I’ve dealt with experiences and interactions on this campus that would make for interesting and astonishing stories, especially for people who are not privy to the racism, homophobia and other types of discrimination that happen on DU’s campus. The Social Justice Solidarity Series not only included voices of different students but expanded perspectives and included voices of people from different backgrounds, identities and experiences. By attending these events, I was able to sit in a room where I could hear about what mattered to students now, what was important 10 years ago, and what Latinxs in Denver were fighting for 50 years ago. The series offered me a look into Latinx history and a space to offer steps on moving forward.

By hosting conversations of this nature, the Latin America Center at Korbel is confirming its commitment to students and extending support to underrepresented groups on DU’s campus. When I first walked the sidewalks of DU, I felt a great sense of discomfort. I’d walk through the dining halls with caution and a sense of unworthiness, taking only minimal food and eating as fast as I could. Three years later I no longer feel unworthy, but I am jaded and ambivalent most days on campus. I’ve changed my relationship between myself and school grounds: I have a 30 minute commute, assuring that I live far enough away that I can be in a completely different community when school environment is overwhelming. I stacked courses on Mondays and Wednesdays, and only step foot on DU’s red-brick-paved sidewalks two days a week. It has been events like the Social Justice Solidarity Series that bring me back and offer me acknowledgement and ease. There’s a tiny and impactful feeling of power that comes with going to the Latin America Center’s events, knowing that internal shifts are starting to take place and that there are offices and people on campus that care.

In March, the Latin America Center held a Black – Brown Solidarity discussion, where students created a list of demands that addressed racial inequity on campus. Weeks later a group of Black students organized a die-in at the Anderson Academic Commons. As a student of color, events like the solidarity series reaffirm my identity, experience, and allow me to feel some relief on DU’s campus. The Latin America Center will continue to hold these events, and hopefully students like myself will begin to feel included and supported on DU’s campus.

Adrian Nava is a senior at the University of Denver and Research Assistant at the Latin America Center. He can be reached at

By: Darren Harvey

I had the privilege of being a part of the Social Justice Solidarity Series, hosted by the Latin America Center at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, this 2015-2016 academic year. As a student of color, attending the University of Denver (DU), it is not uncommon to feel very isolated in my program, in my classes, and in my overall experiences at the institution. As a Black graduate student, I can definitely describe my initial experience as one of isolation. When I first matriculated at the University of Denver, away from family and friends and my usual support systems, I was unprepared for the climate at DU. Attending an institution that is seemingly known for its majority white and affluent student body is an interesting dynamic for a student that is first generation US-born as well as first generation college-bound. I did not feel comfortable in my classes; I did not feel comfortable walking across campus; and I definitely did not feel comfortable studying in the library. Why? Why wouldn’t I feel comfortable being a student in student spaces? It’s one thing to have excellent academic programs and departments as well as having a campus that is beautiful and scenic. It’s totally different to have these features AND have an inclusive and diverse campus climate.

This is not to say that all students of color face this same overwhelming feeling of isolation. There are many that have no issue with DU’s climate and their growth at this institution is worthy of taking note. However, my experience is not unique. There are many that echo my sentiments and even more that have had experiences of dehumanization that have left them with an unsettling sense of frustration. It is tough enough to be a student at DU; add issues of race, gender, or sexual orientation into the mix, and you have one hell of a fight to graduation.

I have always seen commonalities in the struggles of disadvantage people, whether they identify as poor, as different sexual orientations or as different races. Often times, when combating social justice issues there is a crucial element left out – the identification of our commonalities. To prevent the oppressed from joining in solidarity, those who oppress love to provoke division amongst us and our leaders. This year’s Social Justice Solidarity Series took action. These events initiated an important step in facilitating much needed conversations amongst communities and student leaders at DU. We were able to start constructing what Solidarity means and what that will look like. We were able to create spaces of communion for students that all have the shared experiences of isolation attending this university. These events are a much needed piece in DU’s growth to a more inclusive institution and to building solidarity among oppressed groups, and I look forward to being a part of future endeavors.

Darren Harvey is a graduate student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and Research Assistant at the Latin America Center. He can be reached at