Dec 14

From their U.S. jail cells, top Colombian paramilitary leaders often write letters and give testimonies in which they claim to have had long relationships with top Colombian government and military officials. We discuss these allegations only rarely, because the sources are individuals with political axes to grind and little record of truth-telling.

The same standard does not apply on the ultraconservative opinion page of the Wall Street Journal. In today’s edition, columnist Mary O’Grady unquestioningly takes the testimony of a demobilized FARC fighter at face value. Her column not only fails to verify her source’s allegations: it gravely threatens the security of a community and the organizations working with it. This is shameful.

The Colombian government arranged for Ms. O’Grady to interview Daniel Sierra Martinez, a FARC deserter who went by the nickname “Samir.” He told her some very troubling things about the relationship between the FARC and the “Peace Community” of San José de Apartadó, a town in the northwestern region of Urabá that has tried to remain neutral, and as a result has had over 150 of its members killed since 1997 – most by paramilitaries, but some by the FARC.

[T]he peace community of San José de Apartadó, according to Samir, was not the least bit neutral. Rather, he says, the FARC had a close relationship with its leaders dating back to the early days.

Samir says that the peace community was a FARC safe haven for wounded and sick rebels and for storing medical supplies. He also says that suppliers to the FARC met with rebels in the town, where there were also always five or six members of the Peace Brigades International.

According to Samir, the peace community helped the FARC in its effort to tag the Colombian military as a violator of human rights. When the community was getting ready to accuse someone of a human-rights violation, Samir would organize the “witnesses” by ordering FARC members, posing as civilians, to give testimony.

Samir’s allegations are serious, but raise questions.

  • How does Samir respond to the San José Apartadó community’s vehement denials of his allegations, especially a list of people whom the community accuses him of helping to kill over the years?
  • What did this alleged “close relationship” with the leaders of San José de Apartadó actually look like? Did the FARC meet with them? To discuss what? What might the community’s leaders possibly have received from the FARC as a result of this association? (They clearly have received neither wealth nor protection.)
  • If guerrillas used the community’s territory (which includes many square miles of countryside beyond the town) for medical or supply purposes, did they do so with the community’s permission? With the permission of the community’s leadership, or just some rogue members? Was this permission given willingly? Or did they do so clandestinely?
  • Why mention Peace Brigades International, a highly disciplined, non-violent accompaniment group whose volunteers follow rigid codes of behavior and vetting of those they accompany?
  • The San José de Apartadó community’s declared neutrality has long irritated the Colombian armed forces and Álvaro Uribe’s government. Past efforts to accuse the community of working with FARC – including some rather ugly statements after a horrific 2005 massacre – have fallen apart as facts came to light. Is Samir telling the truth, or is he just agreeing to be part of a frame-up in exchange for a lighter sentence?

A real journalist would have sought answers to these questions, or at the very least provided more context, before giving Samir unchallenged access to the pages of the Wall Street Journal. But real journalism is not what Mary O’Grady set out to do. Her column, whose webpage bears the title “The FARC’s NGO Friends,” is a smear job that threatens the security of people working to defend human rights in a very dangerous corner of Colombia.

Oct 29

We’ve grown accustomed to hearing Colombian government officials accuse the country’s human rights organizations of supporting guerrilla groups. While they never present proof, the notion that human rights defenders are “spokespeople for terrorism” of the left is a regular theme in speeches by President Álvaro Uribe and others. (See examples in the section that begins on page 33 of this report, recently produced by a coalition of Colombian groups.)

But here is an accusation we’ve never heard before. This 20-second video shows Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos, in a Colombian television interview granted last Thursday. Santos is responding to news that Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) reopened an investigation into allegations that, ten years ago, he urged paramilitary leaders to set up a presence in Bogotá:

Santos seems to think that Colombia’s human rights NGOs are now in league not just with the guerrillas, but also with the right-wing paramilitaries – and that the judicial system should investigate.

Keep in mind that, in the Uribe government, the human rights portfolio is managed by the Vice President’s Office.

Oct 16

(I’m spending Friday at a conference at Syracuse University. Meanwhile, we’re pleased to help get the word out about this important hearing Tuesday afternoon with Margaret Sekaggya, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. Read the statement from her September visit to Colombia, when she found that “patterns of harassment and persecution against human rights defenders, and often their families, continue to exist in Colombia.”)

Commission Hearing Announcement
Human Rights Defenders in the Crosshairs:
The Ongoing Crisis in Colombia
with
Margaret Sekaggya,
UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders
Tuesday, October 20
2 - 3:30 p.m.
Room: TBD

Please join the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission for a hearing on the situation of human rights defenders in Colombia. The hearing will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday, October 20, (room: tbd). The hearing is open to the media and the public.
The ongoing 44-year-old armed conflict in Colombia has created one of the worlds most dangerous environments for human rights defenders, social leaders, labor activists, and journalists, despite some protection efforts by the Colombian government. During last year’s Universal Periodic Human Rights Review of Colombia at the United Nations, the subsequent Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review on Colombia (A/HRC/10/82; Jan. 9, 2009) reflected the global concern regarding extra-judicial killings and disappearances of individuals.
Recognizing the dangers that human rights defenders face from paramilitary, guerilla fighters and drug lords, the working group recommended that the Colombian government fully implement Presidential Directive 7 of 1999, and give stronger and unambiguous public recognition and support to human rights defenders.  The recommendations also included sanctioning those who make unsubstantiated allegations against human rights defenders and strengthening the protection program for NGO representatives. The report further recommended that the Colombian government fully investigate and punish crimes against human rights defenders to end the climate of impunity and called for the visits of all relevant human rights rapporteurs to Colombia.
Margaret Sekaggya, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders and former head of the Ugandan Human Rights Commission, visited Colombia last month from September 7-18 and met with the Uribe government, civil society, judicial institutions, diplomatic delegations, and authorities in Bogota, Barranquilla, Medellín, Cali and Arauca. Ms. Sekaggya will be joined by other human rights experts to present and discuss the findings of her trip.
Other witnesses include:·
  • Principe Gabriel Gonzalez Arango, Colombian Political Prisoners Solidarity Committee·
  • Reynaldo Villalba Vargas, President, José Alvear Restrepo Lawyer’s Collective·
  • Andrew Hudson, Manager, Human Rights Defenders Program, Human Rights First
  • Kelly Nicholls, Executive Director, U.S. Office on Colombia.

If you have any questions regarding this hearing, please contact Hans Hogrefe (Rep. McGovern) or Elizabeth Hoffman (Rep. Wolf) at (202) 225-3599.

James P. McGovern, M.C.
Co-Chair, TLHRC

Frank R. Wolf, M.C.
Co-Chair, TLHRC

Oct 07

Here is the first of what we expect to be a series of regularly updated fact sheets about Colombia and U.S. policy toward the Americas. Once we have made a few of these, we’ll add a section to this site and host them here in HTML and PDF format.

This first entry seeks to give a brief overview of Colombia’s “DAS” wiretapping and surveillance scandal, with links to all sources consulted.


Colombia’s Domestic Spying Scandal

By Adam Isacson, CIP Latin America Security Program. Last updated October 8, 2009.
A PDF version of this document is available at www.cipcol.org/files/factsheets/das_scandal.pdf

On February 21, 2009, Colombia’s most-circulated newsweekly, Semana, broke an important story. It revealed that the Administrative Security Department (DAS), the Colombian Presidency’s internal intelligence agency, had been carrying out a campaign of wiretaps and surveillance of human rights defenders, Supreme Court justices, opposition politicians, and journalists. DAS agents also followed their targets’ children, wives, and assistants.

New evidence has emerged over the course of 2009. It indicates that the DAS was conducting warrantless wiretapping since at least 2003 through 2008, and possibly this year. The full extent of the illegal spying, and the identity of the individual(s) who ordered the program, remain unknown.

What does the DAS do?

  • In 1953, Colombia’s only military dictatorship of the 20th century created a Colombian Intelligence Service (SIC) within the president’s office. The SIC became the DAS in 1960.
  • The agency’s roles have since expanded. Its 6,500 members now gather intelligence about domestic threats, handle passports and immigration, guard threatened individuals, and serve as Colombia’s main interface with Interpol. The DAS has been a key counterpart for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

This is not the Uribe administration’s first DAS scandal

Jorge Noguera.
  • Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s first DAS Director (2002-2005) was Jorge Noguera, who directed Uribe’s 2002 campaign in the department (province) of Magdalena. In early 2006, Noguera was revealed to have collaborated closely with some of Colombia’s most notorious narcotraffickers and right-wing paramilitary leaders. He allegedly facilitated drug shipments and gave the paramilitaries lists of human rights defenders and labor leaders to assassinate. Since December 2008, Jorge Noguera has been in prison and facing trial for aggravated homicide.
  • In late 2008, the DAS was found to have been ordering illegal surveillance of opposition Senator Gustavo Petro, a revelation that forced the resignation of DAS Director María de Pilar Hurtado.
  • Four appointees and one interim director have led the DAS during Uribe’s seven years in office.

The February 2009 revelations

The “G-3”

  • In 2003, then-DAS Director Noguera created the “Special Strategic Intelligence Group,” a unit known as G-3 which appeared nowhere in the agency’s organization chart. The G-3, whose very existence the DAS denied until March 2009, was created to carry out intelligence operations including, according to one folder found in the agency’s headquarters, “Surveillance of organizations and people with tendencies to oppose government policy in order to restrict or neutralize their actions.”
  • The G-3 was abolished when Noguera left in November 2005. However, many of its functions passed to another DAS unit, the “National and International Observation Group” (GONI). The G-3’s original coordinator, Jaime Fernando Ovalle, remained in the DAS until November 2008, when he was fired for his role in the illegal surveillance of Senator Petro. The GONI was dissolved in March 2009.

Spying on human rights defenders

The G-3 closely followed members of Colombia’s most prominent human rights groups, as well as some labor leaders and independent journalists. The extent of the surveillance is alarming.

  • Prosecutors showed Alirio Uribe of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyer’s Collective (no relation to President Uribe), a human rights group, some of his DAS files from the 2003-2005 period. According to the New York Times, they “included photos of [Uribe’s] children, transcripts of phone and e-mail conversations, details on his finances [including bank account information] and evidence that DAS agents rented an apartment across from his home to monitor him.”
Hollman Morris.
  • Investigative journalist Hollman Morris, reports Inter-Press Service, found a file with “photos and information on his parents, siblings, wife and children, and on his day-to-day movements, with a level of detail that reminded those looking at it of the thorough investigations carried out by hired killers while planning their hit jobs.”
  • International human rights workers were targeted by DAS too. Emails from Human Rights Watch ended up in DAS files, and the G-3 recommended carrying out “offensive intelligence” against the organization’s Americas director, José Miguel Vivanco. The OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission protested revelations that the DAS had spied on a June 2005 visit of Special Rapporteur for Women’s Rights Susana Villarán.

Spying on judges

  • The G-3 appeared to focus principally on non-governmental activists. The GONI’s targets, however, included Supreme Court magistrates who have been investigating dozens of President Uribe’s political allies’ alleged ties to murderous paramilitary groups. (The charges of politicians’ support for paramilitaries, known in Colombia as the “para-politics” scandal, have put about one-quarter of Colombia’s current Congress [.doc file], nearly all of them government supporters, under investigation, on trial or in prison.)
  • Documents found in a DAS detective’s office contained brief biographies of Supreme Court magistrates, information on their families, and personal information ranging from their political affiliations to intimate details.
Iván Velásquez.
  • A chief target has been Iván Velásquez, the magistrate charged with leading the “para-politics” investigation against President Uribe’s political allies. Judge Velásquez “was never left alone for a minute,” reported Semana. During one three-month period in 2008, DAS spies recorded 1,900 of his phone conversations. The DAS also spied on members of Judge Velásquez’s investigation team and their families.

Spying on political figures

  • In May 2009, investigators found recordings revealing that all candidates running against President Uribe’s 2006 re-election bid were wiretapped. Colombia’s daily El Espectador published a list of 36 prominent politicians, nearly all from the opposition, and six noted journalists who were under surveillance at the time.
  • One DAS detective said he was assigned to monitor people like ex-presidents Ernesto Samper and Andrés Pastrana. This included wiretapping and wearing disguises to meetings and events, as well as following their children, wives, advisors, and assistants.
  • Semana columnist Daniel Coronell noted a series of “inexplicable coincidences” in which DAS agents made a series of searches into the agency’s restricted database for information about former president César Gaviria, a critic of President Uribe. Days later, on April 27, 2006, Gaviria’s sister was murdered.

August 2009 revelations of new spying

  • In its August 30, 2009 issue, Semana reported that, in the wake of the DAS surveillance revelations, “Things not only have not changed, but they have even gotten worse. The wiretaps and surveillance of [Supreme] Court members, journalists, politicians and some lawyers continue. And if that weren’t enough, they have extended to some presidential candidates [Colombia has elections in 2010] and, recently, to members of Congress.”
  • “Some of the [wiretapping] equipment being used was hidden from the Prosecutor-General [Fiscalía] and Inspector-General [Procuraduría] during the wiretap investigation,” an anonymous DAS source involved in the operation told Semana. “Two weeks ago, some of the equipment returned to Bogotá to monitor members of Congress, based on the referendum voting.” The “referendum” refers to a bill, passed by Colombia’s Congress in September, to schedule a plebiscite on whether to change the country’s constitution to allow Álvaro Uribe to run for a third straight term.
  • Among the new wiretaps are more recordings of Judge Iván Velásquez, the Supreme Court’s chief “para-politics” investigator. One recording (audio) is of a mid-2009 phone conversation between Velásquez and James Faulkner, a Justice Department official assigned to the U.S. embassy. “It worries me to hear the voice of my judicial attaché in a wiretapped call,” U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield told reporters.

The extent of the spying, and who ordered it, are unknown

Removing boxes (more photos).
  • Security videotapes from the first week of January 2009 show boxes and computers being removed from the DAS offices. Colombia’s prosecutor-general at the time, Mario Iguarán, told the Associated Press that when prosecutors first went to the DAS offices to start investigating, they were “given the run-around by DAS personnel, who directed them to the wrong offices or went searching for keys.” Much information is probably lost.
  • Jorge Lagos, the DAS chief of counterintelligence, told the Prosecutor-General’s Office that he gave information about some Supreme Court justices to President Uribe’s general secretary, Bernardo Moreno, and the president’s controversial personal advisor, José Obdulio Gaviria.
  • Former DAS Director Maria del Pilar Hurtado said in an interview that the warrantless wiretaps and investigations of Supreme Court magistrates were born out of concerns voiced by President Uribe.

The U.S. government’s response

  • In February 2009, U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield recognized that the United States provided eavesdropping equipment to the DAS.
  • “[W]e obviously think that the steps that have already been made on issues like extrajudicial killings and illegal surveillance, that it is important that Colombia pursue a path of rule of law and transparency, and I know that that is something that President Uribe is committed to doing.” – President Barack Obama, June 29, 2009, hosting President Uribe at the White House.
  • “Allegations of illegal domestic wiretapping and surveillance by Colombia’s Department of Administrative Security (DAS) are troubling and unacceptable. The importance that the Prosecutor General’s Office has placed on prosecuting these crimes is a positive step for Colombia, but media and NGO reports allege that illegal activity continues, so it is even more vital that the Colombian government take steps to ensure that this is not the case, and that the Prosecutor General’s Office conduct a rigorous, thorough and independent investigation in order to determine the extent of these abuses and to hold all perpetrators accountable.” – September 2009 Department of State press release announcing that Colombia, in the department’s view, meets human rights conditions in U.S. foreign aid law.

The Colombian government’s response

  • The scandal has led to the exit of at least 33 DAS employees, including resignations of the deputy directors for counterintelligence, Jorge Alberto Lagos; intelligence, Fernando Tavares; analysis, Gustavo Sierra; and operations, Marta Leal.
José Miguel de Narváez.
  • In July 2009, the Prosecutor-General’s office [Fiscalía], which is a separate branch of government in Colombia, ordered the arrest of ten DAS officials in connection with the spying allegations. Those arrested include Lagos, Leal, Tavares, and José Miguel de Narváez, who served as the number-two DAS official under Jorge Noguera and is widely accused of very close ties to paramilitaries. The arrest orders came one day before Prosecutor-General Mario Iguarán left office, at the end of his four-year term. Lagos and Tavares were released in late September 2009 on claims that prosecutors committed “procedural errors.”
  • In mid-September 2009, acting Prosecutor-General Guillermo Mendoza revealed that two prosecutors in his office – not the DAS – had illegally wiretapped Justice Iván Velásquez, the “para-politics” investigator, in 2009. These recordings included the judge’s conversation with the U.S. embassy official. However, it is not clear why Justice Velásquez’s phone number was among those given to the Prosecutor-General’s office for wiretapping. An unknown party added the judge’s number to a list of numbers to be tapped for a routine extortion case of a hardware-store owner in a town near Bogotá.
  • The Uribe administration has repeatedly maintained that the spying occurred behind the president’s back. Following the September 2009 revelation that some phone numbers for wiretapping had been passed to the Prosecutor-General’s office, officials began to advance the theory that the entire scandal was the product of a plot to sabotage the Uribe government. In mid-September 2009, President Uribe spoke of “a criminal plot to discredit the government and affect its international relations.” Vice-President Francisco Santos claimed that the DAS spying and related revelations owed to “a big, well-orchestrated, well-funded defamation campaign.”

How is President Uribe proposing to reform the DAS?

President Uribe makes his September 17 announcement.
  • On September 17, 2009, President Uribe surprised many by declaring, “I’m in favor of eliminating the institution [the DAS] and leaving a small entity lending immigration and intelligence services, which can be managed by the National Police.”
  • Functions proposed to pass from the DAS to the National Police, or to the Prosecutor-General’s Technical Investigations Corps (CTI), include security for threatened individuals, liaison with Interpol (official as of October 7, 2009), and judicial police powers.
  • According to a September 18, 2009 DAS communiqué, “The DAS will be liquidated to give way to a new civilian intelligence agency. … The new intelligence agency will have as its only mission to produce the intelligence and counter-intelligence that the country needs.”
  • It remains unclear how this new agency will be safeguarded and monitored to avoid a repeat of politically motivated wiretapping and surveillance in the future.
Sep 09

  • Today, 178 non-governmental organizations in 23 countries (CIP included) are launching a Campaign for the Right to Defend Human Rights in Colombia. “The aim of the campaign is to bring sustained and coordinated pressure on the Colombian government in order to achieve a positive lasting and significant change for the country’s human rights defenders,” because for Colombia’s non-governmental human rights workers, “things are getting worse.” See www.colombiadefenders.org.
  • The Colombia Support Network is asking U.S. citizens to contact their members of Congress to request that they sign a letter to President Obama [PDF]. The letter expresses strong concerns about the nearly signed deal to allow U.S. military personnel to use Colombian military bases.
  • A group of U.S. activists has responded to the Colombian government’s U.S.-based public relations effort – especially the installation of dozens of heart sculptures around Washington – with a parody website of their own, www.colombiavisit.org. (”We’d be more than happy to arrange to have your conversations wiretapped and transcribed on your visit. Don’t worry about fees, we already get $500 million from the US government every year, and we’re expecting even more in 2010.”) It’s part of a counter-campaign called “No More Broken Hearts” – www.nomorebrokenhearts.net.
Jun 18

Here are excerpts from today’s press statement from Philip Alston, the United Nations’ special rapporteur for extrajudicial executions. Alston just finished a ten-day visit to Colombia, where he investigated allegations of “false positives” and other killings of civilians by the parties to Colombia’s conflict. The headings are ours, not his.

The “false positives” problem goes beyond Soacha

[T]here are two problems with the narrative focused on falsos positivos and Soacha [the headline-grabbing scandal, which broke in September, surrounding military killings of young men in Soacha, a poor Bogotá suburb]. The first is that the term provides a sort of technical aura to describe a practice which is better characterized as cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit. The second is that the focus on Soacha encourages the perception that the phenomenon was limited both geographically and temporally. But while the Soacha killings were undeniably blatant and obscene, my investigations show that they were but the tip of the iceberg. I interviewed witnesses and survivors who described very similar killings in the departments of Antioquia, Arauca, Cali, Casanare, Cesar, Cordoba, Huila, Meta, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Santander, Sucre, and Vichada. A significant number of military units were thus involved.

Military denials or cover-ups

Some officials continue to assert that many of the cases were in fact legitimate killings of guerrillas or others. But the evidence – including ballistics and forensics reports, eyewitness testimony, and the testimony of soldiers themselves – strongly suggests that this was not the case. The “dangerous guerillas” who were killed include boys of 16 and 17, a young man with a mental age of nine, a devoted family man with two in-laws in active military service, and a young soldier home on leave. I cannot rule out the possibility that some of the falsos positivos were, in fact, guerillas, but apart from sweeping allegations, I have been provided with no sustained evidence to that effect by the Government. Evidence showing victims dressed in camouflage outfits which are neatly pressed, or wearing clean jungle boots which are four sizes too big for them, or lefthanders holding guns in their right hand, or men with a single shot through the back of their necks, further undermines the suggestion that these were guerillas killed in combat.

A further problem concerns the systematic harassment of the survivors by the military. A woman from Soacha described how, in 2008, one of her sons disappeared and was reported killed in combat two days later. When another of her sons became active in pursuing the case, he received a series of threats. He was shot and killed earlier this year. Since then, the mother has also received death threats. This is part of a common pattern.

Not just “a few bad apples”

The key question is who was responsible for these premeditated killings? On the one hand, I have found no evidence to suggest that these killings were carried out as a matter of official Government policy, or that they were directed by, or carried out with the knowledge of, the President or successive Defence Ministers. On the other hand, the explanation favoured by many in Government – that the killings were carried out on a small scale by a few bad apples – is equally unsustainable. The sheer number of cases, their geographic spread, and the diversity of military units implicated, indicate that these killings were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military.

The gap between policies and practice

Starting in 2007, the Government has taken important steps to stop and respond to these killings. They include: disciplinary sanctions, increased cooperation with the ICRC and the UN, the installation of Operational Legal Advisors to advise on specific military operations, increased oversight of payments to informers, the appointment of the Suarez Temporary Special Commission, the appointment of Delegated Inspectors to army divisions, requiring deaths in combat to be investigated first by judicial police, modifying award criteria, and creating a specialized unit in the Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalia).

These encouraging steps demonstrate a good faith effort by the Government to address past killings and prevent future ones. But there remains a worrying gap between the policies and the practice. The number of successful prosecutions remains very low, although improved results are hoped for in the coming year. Three problems stand out. The first is that the Fiscalia, and especially its Human Rights Unit, lack the requisite staff, resources and training. A substantial increase in resources is essential. The second is that in some areas military judges ignore the rulings of the Constitutional Court and do all in their power to thwart the transfer of clear human rights cases to the ordinary justice system. The transfer of information is delayed or obstructed, wherever possible jurisdictional clashes are set up, and delaying tactics are standard. Delays, often of months or years, result and the value of testimony and evidence is jeopardized.

The good news is that there has been a significant reduction in recorded allegations of extrajudicial executions by the military over the last 6-9 months. If this trend is confirmed, it will represent a welcome reversal of course, but the problem of impunity for past killings must still be addressed. …

Officials’ unfounded accusations against human rights defenders

[H]uman rights defenders (HRDs) are frequently intimidated and threatened, and sometimes killed, often by private actors. They have been accused by high level officials of being – or being close to – guerrillas or terrorists. Such statements have also been made against prosecutors and judges. These statements stigmatise those working to promote human rights, and encourage an environment in which specific acts of threats and killings by private actors can take place. It is important for senior officials to cease the stigmatization of such groups. …

A clear position on Colombia’s “Victims Law”

It is my understanding that the current draft law on victims’ rights – approved by the commission set up to reconcile the texts approved in the Senate and the House of Representatives – contains a definition of victim that includes victims of state agents and generally puts them on equal standing with victims of paramilitaries. It is imperative that as the draft law moves forward, that victims of both state and non-state actors continue to be treated equally.

Dec 18

Communiqué from the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC), Cauca, Colombia, December 16

At 4:00 this morning, troops from the National Army fired without pity upon a CRIC pickup truck, a vehicle that had been on a medical mission to the municipality of Inzá Tierradentro, driven by Edwin Legarda Vásquez, husband of the Chief Counselor of the CRIC, Aide Quilcué. Legarda was hit by two bullets, one on the right side of his chest, and he died at 8:00 AM in Popayán’s San José Hospital.

The CRIC vehicle, which is widely known because of frequent travels on this road, was attacked on three sides and had 17 rifle impacts, in a clear act of war on the part of the Colombian Army against the civilian population and, especially, against indigenous people. …

The CRIC Counselor, upon analyzing the circumstances of her husband’s assassination, has denounced this deed as a premeditated act in which she was the real target. Aida Quilcué has received multiple threats, and her risk increased after having made national and international denunciations [including in Geneva the previous week] about violence against indigenous people, and murders committed during the National Minga [indigenous protests that began in Cauca in October].

Statement from the Colombian Defense Ministry, December 17

The minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, denied that the death of indigenous person Edwin Legarda, husband of indigenous leader Aida Quilque [sic.], could have been premeditated, and expressed his conviction that it was an error committed by the troops, whose circumstnaces must be clarified by competent authorities.

“We have to clarify what happened, whether there was an excess of force or an irresponsible act, but I can assure you that the rumors about a premeditated action have neither feet nor a head,” the minister insisted, while affirming that the soldiers themselves reported the act.

Santos announced that personnel from the Army Inspector-General and from the 3rd Division had arrived at the scene of the act, and reiterated that he has asked the Prosecutor-General [Fiscalía], the Inspector-General [Procuraduría] and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to carry out the investigation to determine responsibilities.

Meanwhile he said that if punishments are established, they will be rigorously applied. “If this is the case we are willing to offer reparations to everyone,” the minister emphasized.

Finally, he said that there are no orders to shoot at vehicles at roadblocks and, to the contrary, there are established procedures for these cases. “If someone did not follow them he will be punished, that is not the policy.”

We join dozens of Colombian and international groups in condemning the killing of Edwin Legarda, and share our sorrow with Ms. Quilcué, her family and colleagues. Ms. Quilcué’s role as an outspoken human rights defender, and the unusual nature of the attack, certainly arouse suspicions of foul play. We strongly hope that Minister Santos’ words above mean that the investigation and prosecution of this incident will pass to Colombia’s civilian justice system. 

Dec 11

Authors Jorge Rojas and Iván Cepeda. (Picture from the website of Semana magazine.)

At Ubérrimo’s Gates is the name of a book released this week in Colombia, jointly written by two of the country’s most prominent human rights defenders: Iván Cepeda of the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes and Jorge Rojas, the director of the Consultancy for Human Rights and Internal Displacement (CODHES.)

The book’s title cites the name of the extensive ranch outside Montería, a small city that serves as capital of the northwestern Colombian department of Córdoba, that is the property of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe. Though he is from the neighboring department of Antioquia, where he served as governor from 1995 to 1997, Uribe owns significant amounts of land in Córdoba as well, and frequently receives visitors at El Ubérrimo.

The authors make note of this because Montería, and the department of Córdoba in general, are practically synonymous with the rise of paramilitarism in Colombia since the 1980s. By the 1990s much of the department was firmly under the control of the founding group of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the United Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU), led by Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso. The AUC/ACCU was headquartered in Córdoba’s Nudo de Paramillo region, it received generous and open support from Montería’s landowning elite and politicians, and its leaders were frequently seen in the city.

Cepeda’s and Rojas’s book is not principally about Álvaro Uribe. It contains no juicy “smoking gun” evidence that Colombia’s president has ties to paramilitaries and narcotraffickers. The authors’ focus is on the growth and pervasiveness of paramilitarism in a city and province that became a chief AUC stronghold, with local elites’ acquiescence and support.

The book goes on to ask how Álvaro Uribe could have spent years as a prominent public figure and landholder in Montería without showing any signs that he was uncomfortable with, or even aware of, the paramilitaries’ strong dominion over the zone. It also notes Uribe’s close relationships with Córdoba business and political leaders who have since become embroiled in scandal over their ties to paramilitary groups, among other corruption.

Here is an excerpt from the opening chapter of At Ubérrimo’s Gates, published Sunday by the Colombian daily El Espectador.

Excerpt from At Ubérrimo’s Gates, by Iván Cepeda and Jorge Rojas

Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s successful political career was bearing fruit. His name began to be heard in political circles as a card in the deck of aspirants for the Presidency of the Republic. Followers and regional leaders launched his candidacy. Shortly before he finished his term as governor [in 1997], representatives of Antioquia’s commercial, industrial and cattle-raising sectors asked him to resign the governorship and begin his campaign. As a show of their support, the business associations organized a public demonstration that gathered more than 3,000 people in the Plaza Cisneros, across from La Alpujarra, where the governor’s office is located. The media highlighted that among those headlining the event was found the head of the Ochoa clan [associates of the Medellín cartel], the horse enthusiast Fabio Ochoa. The Uribes and the Ochoas never hid their friendly relationship. The event closed with the songs of Darío Gómez, “the king of despecho music.”

In Córdoba, the cattlemen’s associations’ leaders saw in Uribe Vélez a politician inextricably tied to the department, as the owner of “El Ubérrimo” and other lands. His first public appearance in Córdoba as a presidential pre-candidate was to take place, with him as the central speaker, at an event in honor of Rodrigo García Caicedo, considered one of the clearest exponents of the self-defense doctrine, a confessed admirer of the Castaño Gil brothers [founders of the AUC] and the victim of a dynamite attack.

Last-minute difficulties kept the governor of Antioquia from attending. Among those attending the event were Jorge Visbal Martelo, who convened it, and the ex-commander of the [Montería-based] 11th Brigade, Iván Ramírez. A few months after the event, in May 1998, Gen. Ramírez would see himself tied down by a complicated situation, when the U.S. embassy decided to revoke his visa to enter that country due to presumed human rights violations committed when he commanded the army brigade in Montería. Upon learning of the decision, the general said that all he had done was fight terrorists for 36 years, and that it was an outrage that, near the end of his career, he would be treated like one of them.

It wasn’t until 1999 that the new candidate attended several public events in Córdoba that had an electoral connotation. He participated in the 39th Agricultural, Commercial, Microenterprise and Equine Fair and Exposition. The local media referred to him as “the owner of considerable extensions of land in Córdoba” and as one who “has been credited, during his occupation of the Antioquia governor’s office, with revitalizing the controversial Convivir [state-sanctioned self-defense militias], many of which later turned into paramilitary groups.” On the night of June 18, the ex-governor of Antioquia was at a cocktail party at this event. In the photos published in the social pages of Córdoba’s El Meridiano newspaper, Uribe Vélez appeared with Johanna Mancuso, the newspaper’s sales executive and the cousin of Salvatore Mancuso, who at the time was one of the AUC’s commanders. At the same event was Giuliana Mancuso, the national “cattle queen” and cousin of the paramilitary chief. The presidential candidate, who had known Mancuso years earlier, knew to whom the El Meridiano executive and the queen were related.

Along with the young Mancusos, the cattlemen’s fair’s social event counted with the presence of Róger Taboada, who at the time was the vice president of the Banco Ganadero. Months later, Taboada became treasurer of Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s presidential campaign. His friendship with Uribe led him to be Colombia’s consul-general in San Francisco, California. After his tenure as a diplomat, his legal problems began: the Prosecutor-General’s Office [Fiscalía] ordered his arrest for his alleged participation in a series of illegal operations that made up part of the multi-million-dollar theft from the Fond for the Financing of the Agrarian Sector, Finagro, of which he was president, which benefited the narcotrafficker Luis Enrique Micky Ramírez, a former partner of Pablo Escobar. The investigations indicated that Taboada may have given out 855 credits of 29 million pesos each [about US$14,000], supposedly loaned to cattlemen. The former official faced an arrest warrant for conspiracy, money-laundering, document falsification and procedural fraud. After being a fugitive, he was captured in June 2008.

Accompanied by two of the main signers of the Santa Fe de Ralito Pact [a 2001 mutual-support document signed by politicians and paramilitary leaders], Miguel Alfonso de la Espriella and Eleonora Pineda, candidate Álvaro Uribe traveled throughout Córdoba, held public events, spoke at conferences and spoke with the people. In ads and photos published in El Meridiano de Córdoba he appeared in a red shirt, hand on his heart, behind him the national flag and beside him the smiling faces of Miguel Alfonso and Eleonora. With them he went to Montería’s neighborhoods and spoke of defeating violence and corruption; he attended the demonstrations carried out in the zones of Bajo and Alto Sinú, San Jorge, Sahagún and Cereté. He met with young Córdoba university students, to whom he spoke of the need to “rebuild the Fatherland.”

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Nov 05

Gen. Óscar González, the new chief of Colombia’s army.

Feeling euphoric over the important human rights steps that Colombia has taken over the past week? The firings of top army officers for involvement in extra-judicial executions, and yesterday’s resignation of hard-line Army Chief Gen. Mario Montoya, were both significant steps forward. But steps backward, unfortunately, are also plainly occurring.

Here are two items to dampen your enthusiasm:

  • Colombia’s president is still unable (or unwilling) to distinguish between respected human rights defenders and guerrilla collaborators. On Monday, Álvaro Uribe had this to say about José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of U.S.-based Human Rights Watch: “Before Mr. Vivanco, that defender of the FARC, before Mr. Vivanco, that accomplice of the FARC, comes here to criticize the Democratic Security policy, we are making an effort to move this country forward.”
  • Today’s edition of the Colombian daily El Tiempo has this to say about Gen. Montoya’s replacement as chief of the Colombian Army:

“Gen. Óscar Enrique González, new commander of the Army, who a year ago assumed command of the Caribbean Joint Command, had arrived there from the Army’s Seventh Division, based in Antioquia and one of the units most seriously questioned for ‘false positives’ [cases of civilians being disappeared, murdered, and later presented as armed-group members killed in combat].

In fact, when complaints about this practice began in the department [Antioquia] in 2006, he told El Tiempo that the denunciations were part of the guerrillas’ ‘political-judicial war’ against the state.

In an interview about several cases, gathered by the UN and the Vice-President’s Office, of civilians who died in supposedly illegal operations, Gen. González – then the head of the Seventh Division – said, ‘The number of complaints is directly proportional to the success of the units. … This is what some sympathizers of the subversives do to try to halt the military’s operations.‘ Several of those cases, however, ended in guilty verdicts against uniformed personnel.

Oct 15

We are saddened and angered by yesterday’s murder of Walberto Hoyos, a community leader in the Bajo Atrato region of Chocó department, in Colombia’s far northwest. Mr. Hoyos was a leader of the struggle of two afro-Colombian communities, Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó, to recover communally held lands that paramilitary groups, employing the most brutal violence, stole from them and have since employed for large-scale agribusiness projects.

Mr. Hoyos, a survivor of a September 2007 assassination attempt, is one of many Bajo Atrato community leaders who are working in the face of ceaseless threats from the paramilitaries and related large landowners who dominate this region, which is considered highly strategic because of its natural resources and its frequent use as a drug-trafficking corridor.

These threats’ severity has guaranteed a significant amount of international accompaniment for the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó communities’ leaders, including special designations from the Inter-American human rights system and some protective measures from the Colombian government’s U.S.-funded human rights defenders’ program.

But in large part because of the impunity that those responsible for the threats, violence and theft continue to enjoy, these measures were not enough for Walberto Hoyos. His murder yesterday afternoon, in broad daylight before witnesses, was as brazen as it was announced.

This time, the murder must not go unpunished. This time, the network of criminals, greedy landowners, and corrupt officials – including security-force officials – that is violating these communities’ most basic rights must be definitively dismantled. If it is not, Colombia’s claims to have “turned the corner” on its dark past will not pass any reasonable test of credibility.

Here are translated excerpts from the announcement of Mr. Hoyos’s murder posted to the website of the Colombian non-governmental organization Justicia y Paz, which accompanies the Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó communities.

Today, October 14, 2008, approximately between 3:30 and 4:00 PM, two paramilitaries murdered Curvaradó community leader WALBERTO HOYOS RIVAS. Walberto was within the Caño Manso Humanitarian Zone, located in the collectively owned territory of Curvaradó, participating in a meeting with the community. Two of three armed men entered the humanitarian place, after dialoguing with the administrator of the Villa Alejandra I hacienda, known as “Pablo Hoyos,” and with the administrator of other lands in El Guamo, which paramilitaries have also usurped illegally and violently from afro-descended communities since 1996.

In the humanitarian area the two paramilitaries, after locating Walberto, took his cellphone as well as the one the community uses to activate early warnings. Seconds later they grabbed Walberto, insulting him, calling him “son of a whore.” The paramilitaries lifted their shirts, he lunged at them trying to protect himself, but they forced him to turn around and shot him repeatedly.

The paramilitaries left the area, and returned five minutes later. They took Walberto’s lifeless body, turned him face upwards, and shot him again in the face and neck.

Later they left the humanitarian area, fleeing on the motorcycles on which they arrived, one a blue Honda and one a black Suzuki, both without license plates.

Thanks to the investigative and human rights defense work Walberto carried out, it has been possible to unmask the paramilitary strategy of usurping collective territories for agro-industrial projects in the Bajo Atrato region: the planting of oil palms, intensive deforestation and extensive cattle-raising, which have been hidden behind “Campesino Associations” like Asoprobeba and the development of the paramilitary economic strategy in the region.

Behind the crime of Walberto are the same armed paramilitary structures, operating with the consent of military and police, that protect and are beneficiaries of palm, cattle and timber enterprises. …

Walberto had protective measures from the Ministry of Interior and Justice, among them a DAS [presidential security service] bodyguard and car. At the moment of his murder these measures were not functioning, due to mechanical problems with the car.

Walberto served as a witness in the case of the police detention and subsequent forced disappearance of Curvaradó community leader ORLANDO VALENCIA on October 15, 2005. This afro-Colombian individual later appeared, murdered by paramilitary structures, on October 24 of that year.

For his testimony about this crime and his encouragement of the creation of Humanitarian Zones in Curvaradó, Walberto Hoyos was the victim of a September 17, 2007 attempt on his life, in which he was wounded together with his brother MIGUEL HOYOS RIVAS. Regarding this double attempted murder, as of today the Prosecutor-General’s Office has neither identified nor charged those who planned or carried it out; these individuals continue to operate as armed structures in the security forces’ midst in Curvaradó. …

Today, October 14, the First Penal Judge of the Specialized Circuit of Antioquia communicated in writing the decision to call WALBERTO HOYOS RIVAS to give three days of testimony in Bogotá in the trial against the paramilitaries JULIO CESAR SILVA BORJA – known as “El Indio” or “El Enano” – and PABLO JOSÉ MONTALVO CUITIVA – known as “Alpha 11″ – for the murder of Curvaradó community leader Orlando Valencia. These people are important within the structure of the Elmer Cárdenas Bloc [the paramilitary group that dominated the Bajo Atrato region].

Walberto was protected by Provisional Measures of the Inter-American Human Rights Court, and within that framework he had a protection plan from the Ministry of Interior and Justice. …

The paramilitary strategy continues in the midst of the presence of the army’s 15th Brigade and the National Police. In the midst of this presence the palm plantings advance, along with large-scale cattle-raising. The crimes, like that of Walberto, continue. The only things that don’t advance are the investigations of crimes committed in Curvaradó, while the criminal and business structures continue operating illegally in Curvaradó and Jiguamiandó.

Sep 19

In commemoration of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s visit to Washington today, here is a collection of some of his some of his more outrageous or bizarre verbal attacks on his country’s human-rights defenders, judges, independent journalists, and political opponents.

  • Every time a security policy to defeat terrorism appears in Colombia, when the terrorists begin to feel weak, they immediately send their spokespeople to talk about human rights. … These human-rights traffickers must take off their masks, appear with their political ideas and drop this cowardice of hiding them behind human rights.” – September 8, 2003, addressing the military high command
  • Many of those who attack the government saying that the president is a paramilitary, basically what they are is enraged that the president attacks the guerrillas. They are not able to say that they defend the guerrillas, and that they are very bothered because the government is fighting them. They should be more authentic, more sincere.” – November 19, 2006
  • [In the early 1990s some demobilized ex-guerrillas] simply took off their camouflage, put on a suit and came to Congress wanting to teach the country about morality. Some have done it well. Others, unfortunately, went from being terrorists in camouflage to terrorists in business suits.” – February 3, 2007
  • I am very worried that the guerrillas’ political friends, who live here constantly posing as political enemies of yankee imperialism, frequently travel to the United States to discredit the Colombian government, for two purposes: the purpose of keeping the Free Trade Agreement from being approved, and the purpose of suspending the aid. … [These are] friends of the guerrillas, politicians who want the guerrillas to triumph in Colombia, but lack the authenticity to call for it openly.” – April 19, 2007
  • You’re biased to the guerrillas and everyone in Colombia thinks that.” – May 2007, addressing Human Rights Watch/Americas director José Miguel Vivanco at a dinner with members of Congress in Washington.
  • Behind this woman is Gonzalo Guillén, who has dedicated his journalistic career to slander and lies.” – October 2007. Uribe responded to a book published by Pablo Escobar’s onetime girlfriend, which alleged that the young Uribe helped Escobar, by attacking Guillén, a reporter for the Miami Herald’s Spanish-language sister paper. Guillén said that he hadn’t even read the book in question.
  • The only thing you do is shield yourself in your rights as a journalist, so that in my case you can wound me with lies. Enough of this cynicism behind your quote-unquote ‘journalistic ethics.’” – October 2007, to Daniel Coronell, a columnist for Colombia’s largest newsmagazine, who has probed questions about the president’s alleged past relations with narcotraffickers and paramilitaries.
  • May they not make the mistake there [in Bogotá] of electing mayors supported by the guerrillas.” – October 2007, before voters went ahead and elected opposition-party member Samuel Moreno, who has no ties whatsoever to guerrillas, to serve as mayor of Bogotá.
  • I have wanted to fight for a safe, prosperous and equitable country. The trap of the power of terrorism in its death agony – to which justices of the Penal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice have lent themselves – does not appear to have a judicial solution.” – June 26, 2008, referring to the Supreme Court’s questioning of the 2004 constitutional amendment that allowed the president to run for a second term, which only passed a congressional committee with the vote of a legislator who was bribed.
  • It is important that the justice system investigate what manipulations of witnesses have been carried out by [opposition legislators] Sen. Piedad Córdoba or Sen. Gustavo Petro. It is very important to do that.” – August 11, 2008, charging that allegations tying the president’s political allies to paramilitary death squads are the product of the political opposition’s manipulation of witnesses.
  • What we have here is … ‘trafficking in witnesses.’ – August 25, 2008, accusing the Supreme Court of trying to build a false case linking him to paramilitary death squads.
Sep 17

On September 1, one of Colombia’s main television news programs broadcast a report alleging that, as part of the FARC guerrillas’ “international support network,” the prominent human-rights group MINGA had been helping FARC and ELN members gain asylum in Canada.

“Since 2001, Canada has become the largest recipient of Colombian refugees. In addition, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), among them ‘MINGA,’ have been responsible for helping FARC and ELN members emigrate to Canada,” read text splashed onto the screen by the “CM&” news program.

This claim is beyond ridiculous, it is false and it is dangerous for MINGA’s employees. We say this as one of dozens of Colombia-focused organizations that have worked closely with MINGA, and admired their brave work, for many years.

When MINGA’s director contacted the news program, she was told that the Canada asylum allegation came from an intelligence report that “government security agencies” had distributed to the news media [PDF excerpt].

It is already dangerous enough to be a human-rights defender in Colombia. Denouncing government human-rights abuse, as MINGA does, is risky – but the risk multiplies many times if an “official” source claims that the group or individual doing the denouncing is somehow allied with an illegal armed group. For cowardly and unnamed Colombian security-force officials to be distributing false reports tying human rights workers to terrorist groups is terrifying and outrageous. It demands a strong international response.

Here is a translation of a letter MINGA sent to the Colombian government’s Inspector-General (Procurador), Edgardo Maya. It demands rectification of the allegations broadcast on September 1, and repeats a years-old recommendation that Colombia’s security forces, with the Inspector-General’s participation, clear false claims about human-rights defenders from the security forces’ intelligence files. It is more than past time for that recommendation to be met.

Bogotá, September 4, 2008

Doctor
EDGARDO MAYA VILLAZÓN
INSPECTOR-GENERAL OF THE NATION

Re: Intelligence Report affects integrity of Human Rights Defenders in Colombia.

Dear Mr. Inspector-General:

Accept a respectful greeting from our peace and human rights organizations.

On September 1, the “CM&” news program, in its 9:30 PM broadcast, published a news piece entitled “The government launches offensive against the FARC’s International Front,” in which reference is made to the supposed collaboration of human rights NGOs, among them MINGA, in Colombian guerrillas’ emigration to Canada.

Afterward, and in response to our request for rectification, the news program indicated on its web page, on September 3, that the information against MINGA propagated on September 1 is based on an intelligence report from state security agencies, recently distributed to the media.

This information, coming from the national government, affects not just the good name of this human rights organization, but puts at grave risk the physical and moral integrity of human rights defenders, of MINGA’s employees and, in general, of the national human rights and peace movement.

Worse, this information constitutes an open attack against the legal and legitimate work that human-rights organizations carry out in Colombia, while directly contravening the recommendation of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights:

“The High Commissioner encourages the Government to promote legislation that adequately regulates the use of military intelligence archives, including applicable procedures for their annual review by the Inspector-General. The Defense Minister is urged to cooperate with the Inspector-General to identify criteria, parameters and other relevant aspects to be utilized, with the goal of excluding from their registries erroneous or tendentious information about human rights defenders and organizers.”

as well as the declarations of governments that repeatedly ask the Colombian government to provide effective security guarantees for human rights organizations in Colombia, among them the cleansing of intelligence archives, which have served as a basis for past murders, attacks and forced disappearances against human rights defenders.

It must be emphasized that these pronouncements are taking place at a moment when the government and the central platforms of human rights and peace organizations are discussing, with the international community’s observation, conditions and guarantees for civil society’s participation in the process of developing a National Action Plan for Human Rights and IHL. That makes this new stigmatization a clear declaration from the government that it refuses to accept the role of human rights defenders and peace workers, and that it will not offer the full security guarantees necessary for us to carry out this labor.

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Jul 16

Congratulations are due to the group of Colombian non-governmental organizations that published a report last week on an April 2008 mission to the department of Putumayo in southern Colombia. The report [PDF available on the website of the human-rights group MINGA] details the human-rights situation in this conflictive zone, based on “open dialogue between people, communities, organizations and local authorities, in meetings with approximately 400 people.”

Understanding what happened in Putumayo is critical for a full appreciation of the lessons of Plan Colombia. It was in Putumayo, during the 2000-2003 period, that Plan Colombia basically got underway, as U.S. funding underwrote a mostly military “Push into Southern Colombia” in the department, a major coca-cultivation zone along the border with Ecuador. Just as the U.S. effort was getting underway, paramilitaries were pouring into Putumayo’s main towns, massacring hundreds, with no opposition from the U.S.-supported security forces. The true extent of the human-rights disaster that took place during this period – which also involved increased guerrilla abuses – is still unknown because the guerrillas and paramilitaries still dominant in the zone deal harshly with those who denounce past violations.

This report takes a big step toward learning the truth about what happened in Putumayo. It is highly recommended. Here is a translation of the executive summary.

Report on the Observer Mission of the Human Rights Situation in Bajo Putumayo [PDF]
Bogotá, June 2008
Texts compiled by Marcela Ceballos and Carlos Duarte
Final text edited by Marcela Cebalos, María Isabel Casas and Carolina Rojas

This report indicates the main current risk factors for the inhabitants of the department of Putumayo, and concludes by identifying three different types of factors: (1) An absence of guarantees of legal security, for a dignified existence, for the exercise of individual liberties and the defense of human rights; (2) Impediments to communities’ ability to remain in their territories; (3) Direct persecution of residents and community leaders, and the “invisibilization” of the armed conflict’s victims.

In the first aspect we found a situation of generalized fear. The majority of victims of sociopolitical violence, and of inhabitants in general, abstain from making public denunciations for fear of possible retaliations from the victimizers. This fear is mediated by distrust of institutions that have been under pressure from, and in some cases infiltrated by, members of illegal armed groups. This situation reaches critical levels in San Miguel municipality [in Putumayo's southwest corner, across the river from Ecuador], and results in a context of impunity and precariousness of the protection of fundamental rights. The presence of illegal armed groups – guerrillas and paramilitaries – worsens the situation. The national government’s Democratic Consolidation policy, based on the Integrated Action Doctrine and implemented through the Strategy of Social Recovery of Territory, increased the civilian population’s risk levels, since it dilutes the distinction between civilians and combatants. In addition, it is concentrating state intervention and humanitarian aid within the armed forces, weakening local governance and militarizing relations between the state and civil society.

In the second aspect, forced displacement and the militarization of indigenous reservations and protected areas, as well as regions with abundant exploitable resources, favor unregulated economic intervention in the department. The presence of oil companies that have been granted concessions, as well as the campesinos’ incorporation in the productive chain, have deepened without any corresponding investment in social needs or infrastructure. Nor does it respect the principle of previous consultation, and goes against the “life plans” of the social organizations and indigenous peoples that inhabit this territory. THe absence of alternatives either to this development model or to coca-growing affects the ability of towns, communities, families and inhabitants in general to survive with dignity. This situation presents itself from the towns of Teteyé to Puerto Vega (in the rural zone of Puerto Asís municipality) and in indigenous territories (the Siona people’s Buenavista reservation and others, such as Santa Rosa del Guamuéz, that make up the Cofán people’s “Permanent Table”). Intense fumigation and forced manual eradication are affecting health, the environment and food security for the population in general, without mechanisms of compensation or reparation for damages caused by this strategy’s indiscriminate effects. Women are victims of diverse strategies of the armed groups, who convert their bodies into a “spoil of war” and a “resource for war.” Young people find themselves amid multiple pressures and before the absence of opportunities to develop their life projects; their futures are uncertain.

In the third aspect, we find a situation of permanent stigmatization of leaders who oppose the models of economic and military intervention described above; to guerrilla pressures for recruitment and the incorporation of young people in their ranks; to threats and murders by groups that, it appears, are in a process of rearmament in the zone around San Miguel municipality and some areas of Valle del Guamuez municipality. These factors impede the “visilibization” of the armed conflict’s victims, while the government’s reparations policy, though it has not yet established itself, proposes an economic dimension – a small one – but not a clarification of what happened nor any advance in justice. In this sense, the existence of a large number of mass graves in the department, without a process of identification of remains or identification of those responsible, shows the need to consider this dimension to be part of a policy of strengthening justice in Colombia.

Despite all of this, the organizations we interviewed insist on resisting their disappearance and their forced displacement. They have decided to remain in the territory that belongs to them and they have chosen civility and the peaceful way to resolve their conflicts, even though they find themselves in a context in which war is habitual. They have build life plans and projects that aim for integral and human development (Cofán people’s Life Plan, Integral Plan for Campesino Development of the Departmental Table of Social Organizations, Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Plan of ACSOMAYO, among other initiatives). They continue defending autonomy and liberty as bases for the building of conditions for a dignified life, and they persist in a dialogue with the national government, although in their relationships with institutions, on occasion, they have been stigmatized, silenced, ignored and even harassed. We dedicate this document to them and manifest our admiration. We hope that the international community’s support will also take into account this universe, because from below and from civil society are built the bases of democracy and peace, as well as the long-lasting conditions for human rights protection.

Jul 11
  • In the aftermath of the FARC hostage rescue, we are alarmed that Luis Eladio Pérez, the former senator and hostage whom the FARC released in February, was forced to leave Colombia this week by threats that probably came from the FARC. We note that Ingrid Betancourt also has no plans to return to Colombia soon, for fear of FARC reprisals.

The Post explains that the idea of a guns-blazing military rescue was only abandoned in June, when a Colombian Army major hatched the “Operation Check” plan, and that the Colombians did not alert U.S. officials immediately.

Although the Americans and Colombians work together closely, Colombia’s Defense Ministry does not always tell the American Embassy what plans are in the works. U.S. officials discovered on their own that a rescue plan was taking shape.

In June, the Americans noted that three FARC units, all of them known for holding hostages, began moving together into a region southeast of the Guaviare capital, San Jose.

Brownfield said he and his team deduced that the Colombians, using fake communications, were executing a deception plan aimed at freeing the hostages. Later that month, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos told Brownfield about Operation Check, as in checkmate.

AP describes “Operation Alliance,” a crafty U.S. plan, with heavy FBI involvement, to infiltrate more than 5,000 guerrilla communications by providing the FARC with wiretapped telecommunications equipment.

U.S. law officers arrested the Miami contacts, who in exchange for promises of reduced sentences put [guerrilla supply chief Nancy] Conde in touch with an FBI front company, according to a U.S. law enforcement official involved in the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

Over more than four years, that company provided wiretapped satphones and other compromised telecommunications equipment that threw the rebels off balance and eventually helped authorities strangle their supply lines.

  • Congratulations to Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) for a far-seeing letter [PDF] to President Uribe that calls for creative steps to end the conflict at the negotiating table.

With the FARC on its heels for the moment, I encourage you to press for its disarmament and its renunciation of drug trafficking and extortion in exchange for a seat at the negotiating table. In this regard, I applaud Colombia’s decision to seek direct talks with FARC rebels to explore further hostage releases; these steps could lay the groundwork for broader gains in the interest of peace for the people of Colombia. In addition, I would urge you to consider including the National Liberation Army (ELN) as part of future talks to end the violence. Lastly and more generally, I would encourage you to consider Brazil, a country with a record of bridging ideological divisions and displaying an awareness of regional sensitivities, as a possible mediator for any discussions.

  • The hostage rescue has meanwhile inspired some right-wing commentators to get back on the old “human rights NGOs love the FARC” hobbyhorse. The Wall Street Journal’s Mary A. O’Grady is back at it again. And don’t miss this informed exchange between the Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes and NPR’s Juan Williams that took place on Fox News a few days ago:

Barnes: [Y]ou have a kind of iron triangle. I’m calling it an iron triangle, of the human rights groups in Colombia, and organized labor in the United States, and then Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Fox host Brit Hume: But why did the Colombian guerillas not smell a rat?

Barnes: Well, one, because the military guys were all dressed up as guerillas, but particularly the helicopter was one they thought was from one of these non-government organization which they thought with — it was perfectly normal for those organizations to actually be on very friendly and supportive terms with the FARC guerillas.

Hume: Do you agree with that, Juan?

Williams: Well, I don’t think there’s any question about it. I don’t think the facts can be disputed here left or right.

… Now the point at which I think Fred goes too far is to say, listen, of course Americans have every legitimate right to be concerned about human rights and the way people are treated, but what the FARC had become, in the midst of its disarray, was involved with cocaine smuggling and trying to undermine the legitimate government of Colombia.

And at that point, you would have hoped that somehow these human rights groups and labor in the United States would have taken a step back. Apparently it didn’t happen.

Take a step back from what exactly, Mr. Williams? Do these journalists really believe that non-governmental organizations, including U.S. groups like ours as well as labor unions, sympathize with the FARC? That we’ve somehow managed to ignore their horrific atrocities, including hostage-taking, committed over so many years? Or are they just cynically employing the hostages’ rescue to score cheap political points?

Anyone who chose to do a bit of homework and investigate would find a community of groups that supports Colombia’s state – not the violent groups that confront it – as well as the idea of U.S. support to Colombia’s state. A community that wants this state – and U.S. aid to it – to improve the quality of its governance and its accountability to its own citizens.

It is highly irresponsible – and very dangerous, given the frequency of attacks on human-rights defenders in Colombia – to use heavily-viewed forums like the Journal and Fox News for these uninformed “terrorist sympathy” slurs. If these news outlets value their credibility at all, they will publish rectifications.

  • A post earlier this week linked to this article, but it’s worth highlighting again because, as it was written at the height of the “Baby Emmanuel” fracas late last year, it didn’t get much attention. Semana magazine’s security editor, Marta Ruiz, provides a very helpful overview of the shifts in strategy that have done so much to weaken the FARC over the past year and a half. Ruiz notes that success required the Colombian military, in 2006-2007, to break with its own super-hard-line approach.

The true change that the armed forces required had to do with doctrine. The visions inherited from cold-war counterinsurgency, which regarded the civilian population as an enemy or “the water in which the insurgents swim,” began to be left behind. This sort of vision predominated at the outset of Democratic Security and Plan Patriota. Mass arrests, “rehabilitation zones” and the absurd criminalization of coca-growers did nothing more than deepen distrust of the government among the inhabitants of regions controlled by the guerrillas. Questions remained about the sustainability of a model that achieved the control of much territory through purely military means, with all that this implied with regard to keeping troops in each locale, and with regard to the financial effort required. What would happen next?

The Consolidation Plan, although far from perfect, hits the nail on the head of the crucial problem that the state confronts in this war: its legitimacy in the eyes of the inhabitants of remote regions. An important sector of the military high command has begun to understand that counting bodies is not the road to defeating the FARC. Even though in its first few years Plan Patriota fought the guerrillas fiercely, and there were many dead on both sides, the losses did not have a significant impact on the FARC. That combat, while carrying a big human cost, would have little effect if the government did not launch a plan for these marginal zones where war is a part of everyday life.

  • The widely cited Colombian human-rights NGO CODHES (Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement), the go-to organization for information about the country’s internal-displacement crisis, estimates that a horrifying 113,473 Colombians were displaced during the first three months of 2008. [PDF] This is the highest quarterly figure that CODHES has counted since 1999.

The reasons for the displacements were, mainly, the aerial spraying of illicit crips within the framework of military operations; forced recruitment [mainly by guerrillas]; the planting of landmines [mainly by guerrillas]; the presence of paramilitary groups in 17 departments [out of 32] in the country; intense combat between the army and FARC guerrillas, which included bombardments and use of arms with indiscriminate effects; as well as confrontations between the FARC and ELN in some regions of the country.

  • The OAS verification mission in Colombia released its eleventh report [DOC format] on the paramilitary demobilization and reintegration process at the end of June. As usual, the summary and recommendations are neutral and general (demobilization is a good thing; the process faces challenges). But the region-by-region overview of reintegration programs and re-arming paramilitary activity is indispensable.
  • In a column in Wednesday’s Guardian, Richard Gott has a suggested Latin America policy memo that the next U.S. president, in his view, should write after assuming office. It includes the following appointment:

I have asked Wayne Smith, our oldest former US state department official with an intimate knowledge of Cuba, to come out from academic retirement to become the chief of our embassy in Havana, the so-called US Interests’ Section of the Swiss Embassy. Smith is a former member of the US Marine Corps, and he held this post between 1979 and 1982. He will work toward the normalisation of our diplomatic relations with Cuba.

To Wayne Smith, a CIP senior fellow since 1991 whose office is two doors down from mine: We’ll miss you!

Jun 24

The city of Barrancabermeja, in Colombia’s Magdalena Medio region, is a strategic port, a center of oil refining, and for decades has been a center of labor and social-movement organizing. Barrancabermeja’s labor leaders and human rights defenders have long been in the sights of the powerful paramilitary groups who operate in the region.

The paramilitaries took de facto control of the city through a campaign of massacres and selective killings in late 2000 and early 2001. While there was a relative lull in paramilitary activity after the AUC’s Central Bolívar Bloc demobilized in 2005-2006, the situation appears to be worsening.

Last November, Yolanda Becerra, head of the Barrancabermeja-based Popular Women’s Organization (OFP) had her home invaded by thugs who told her to leave town or die. Now, six labor unions have received threats on letterhead bearing the logo of the “Black Eagles,” the name being used by a growing number of rapidly re-arming paramilitary groups.

Here is a translation of a brief article about the new threats that was posted yesterday to the website of Colombia’s Semana magazine. Thanks to CIP Intern Stephanie DiBello for the translation.

The ‘Black Eagles’ Threaten Leaders of Social Organizations in Barrancabermeja

After two quiet years, new violence against non-governmental organizations raises alarm. In a pamphlet, the armed group Black Eagles lists six labor unions and human rights groups as “military targets.”

6/23/2008

Terror has returned to Barrancabermeja (Santander) after several years of relative calm. Six labor unions and non-governmental organizations that have worked for several years in the Magdalena Medio were declared military targets by the emerging group known as the ‘Black Eagles’. They all received a printed notification, with letterhead in color, directly accusing them of supporting the guerrillas.

This pamphlet has worried the labor unions Asociación de Directivos Profesionales y Técnicos de Empresas de la Industria del Petróleo de Colombia, ADECO (Association of Professional and Technical Workers of Companies of the Petroleum Industry of Colombia); and Unión Sindical Obrera, USO (Workers’ Trade Union); and the NGOs Comité Regional por la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos, CREDHOS (Regional Committee for the Defense of Human Rights); Asociación Campesina del Valle del Río Cimitarra, ACVC (Campesino Association of the Cimitarra River Valley); Asociación de Desplazados Asentados en el Municipio de Barrancabermeja, ASODESAMUBA (Association of Displaced Persons Settled in the Municipality of Barrancabermeja); and Organización Femenina Popular, OFP (Popular Womens’ Association); all human rights defenders.

The Black Eagles justify the threats by saying, “Once again we are being overrun with lowly guerrillas who, hidden behind crude and dirty deceptions, want to take control of the city in order to return to the old days when they only had extortions, assassinations, union workers, and NGOs at their disposition, to fulfill their revolutionary ends and look for ways to destabilize the State.”

They continued on to warn that, “The guerrillas and their supporters have dared to set foot again in our Barrancabermeja, and our organization is not willing to allow them to enter.”

They point out that the aforementioned organizations “are full of revolutionary union workers and guerrilla supporters who are instigating and financing the emergence and actions of these insurgent groups, which is why they are the declared enemies and military targets of this organization.”

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