Apr 21

It’s a good idea to visit the Colombian Defense Ministry’s website every once in a while to view their latest “Operational Results” report (PDF). You get a long powerpoint presentation with the official versions of statistics about the country’s security situation.

You also find some really shocking numbers. Take combat deaths, for instance.

Between 2002 and the end of March 2010:

  • 13,653 members of “subversive groups” have been killed.
  • 1,611 members of “illegal self-defense groups” were killed between 2002 and 2006 (source is an older version of the same report – PDF).
  • 1,080 members of “criminal gangs” have been killed since 2007.
  • 4,571 members of the security forces were killed in acts of service.

That’s a total of 20,915 people. Most of them young Colombians — many under 18 years of age — serving as foot-soldiers or low-level recruits in the armed forces, the FARC, the ELN or the paramilitaries.

And that’s combat deaths only. This horrifying statistic does not include civilians killed or disappeared in conflict-related violence, which the Colombian Commission of Jurists estimates (PDF) at 14,028 people between mid-2002 and mid-2008. It does not count people wounded, whether by combat, terror attacks or landmines. It does not include the 2.4 million people that CODHES (PDF) estimates were displaced since 2002. (It may, unfortunately, include thousands of civilians falsely presented as armed-group members killed in combat.)

Had the FARC and the Colombian government successfully concluded good-faith negotiations between 1998 and 2002, these 20,915 people would be alive today. That is the cost of the failed peace process of the Pastrana years. It is also the cost of the “successful” security policies of the Uribe years.

Perhaps the most important task Colombia’s next president will face is how to avoid the combat deaths of another 20,915 Colombians over the next eight years. (Plus the civilian dead, disappeared, wounded and displaced.) How to break with a war of attrition which — with as many as 20,000 guerrillas and “new” paramilitaries still active in Colombia — promises to drag on for many more years.

Proposing and pursuing a policy other than continued war will take great political courage. But if a Colombian leader chooses this path, the Obama administration must support him or her unequivocally. The numbers alone demand it.

Feb 15
Medellín’s gang-ridden Comuna 13 neighborhood.

Note as of February 16: we’ve added a podcast about this topic to the “Just the Facts” website.


Only two or three years ago, Medellín was a showcase for Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s security policies. An 80-percent drop in homicides [PDF] brought new prosperity and confidence. A series of U.S. congressional delegations, organized by both governments to promote the free-trade agreement signed in 2006, toured the city to view the “Medellín Miracle.”

The progress owed in part to the Uribe government’s deployments of soldiers and police to the violent slums that surround the city, and in part to the municipal government’s heavy investments in basic services in those neighborhoods.

But another factor shared the credit: an unusually high degree of harmony between the drug-funded, paramilitary-linked gangs responsible for most of Medellín’s criminality. The members of this loose network of gangs, often known as the “Office of Envigado” — the name comes from the Medellín suburb where Pablo Escobar established a group of hitmen — feud as often as they cooperate, with very bloody results.


The unusual period of harmony owed to a monopoly. From 2003 until 2008, the barrios’ gangs were under the solid control of one man: Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” a longtime drug-underworld figure who became head of the AUC paramilitaries’ “Cacique Nutibara Bloc.” Likely in cooperation with the Colombian Army, Don Berna pushed guerrilla militias out of the barrios. Then he pushed out, or coopted, all other paramilitary and narco-gangs in the city.

When the Nutibara Bloc “demobilized” in late 2003, the order went out from Don Berna: keep violent behavior to a minimum. The ensuing period of peace in Medellín has been called “DonBernabilidad,” a play on the Spanish word for “governability.”

“DonBernabilidad” ended with the paramilitary boss’s extradition to the United States in May 2008. With the leviathan gone, the fractured Office of Envigado gangs began fighting each other again. Crime rates began rising dramatically; in 2009 the number of murders in this city of 2.5 million reached 2,178, more than double the 2008 figure.

Seventy percent of those murders, by some estimates, owe to fighting between two main factions of the Office of Envigado: one headed by Erick Vargas, alias “Sebastián,” and one headed by Maximiliano Bonilla, alias “Valenciano.” Though imprisoned, both leaders continue to exercise very strong control over their factions, which together control about 80 percent of Medellín’s gangs.

The “Committee for Life”

For this reason, a committee of prominent Medellín citizens spent three months shuttling from jail to jail seeking to broker a non-agression pact between Sebastián and Valenciano. That pact was achieved on February 1, and the number of murders in Medellín is reportedly down since that date.

The non-governmental mediators, calling themselves the “Committee for Life” (Comisión por la Vida), were a diverse and influential group:

  • Jaime Jaramillo Panesso, one of ten members of the Colombian government’s National Commission for Reparations and Reconciliation, who served as the Committee’s spokesman;
  • Francisco Galán, until recently a leader of the ELN guerrilla group;
  • Monsignor Alberto Giraldo, the archbishop of Medellín; and
  • Jorge Gaviria, former director of the Medellin government’s program to reintegrate ex-combatants. Gaviria is the brother of José Obdulio Gaviria, who until last year was one of President Álvaro Uribe’s closest advisors, and who is now an ultra-right-wing columnist in the Colombian daily El Tiempo, where he accuses all of Uribe’s detractors, from NGOs to members of the U.S. Congress, of being FARC supporters. Both Gaviria brothers are first cousins of Pablo Escobar.

Who authorized talks with narcotraffickers?

As it carried out its prison negotiations between the Medellín factions, the committee counted with the Uribe government’s authorization. In November, President Uribe authorized the Catholic Church and civil-society groupings to initiate dialogues with criminal groups (not guerrillas) operating in their territories, for a three-month period, with the goal of convincing them “to turn themselves in to justice.”

When news of the Medellín “pact” leaked, however, Colombia’s media was immediately abuzz with charges that the government had authorized a “pact with narcotraffickers.” The Uribe administration backed off: Frank Pearl, the presidency’s “high commissioner for peace,” told reporters, “The members of the civil society commission had very good intentions, but it is possible that at some moment they lost sight of their goal, which was nothing other than the [criminal groups'] submission to justice.” For his part, Medellín Mayor Alonso Salazar, who has rejected negotiations with criminal groups but whose beleaguered administration could benefit from a break in the violence, said he was aware of the work of the “Committee for Life” but was not participating.

What did the gang leaders get in return for agreeing to the pact?

Committee spokesman Panesso insists that the Office of Envigado factions’ top leaders got no privileges in exchange for calling a truce. “It is an action of good will between them, at our request,” he told reporters. “We found that they are tired of war, that there has been a bloodletting that is not in their interest. And if it’s not in their interest, much less in society’s interest. They told us that what they needed was someone to mediate and help them come to an understanding.”

However, the Committee proposed that, “in order to continue its work,” the criminal bosses should all be transferred to prisons near Medellín — a step that would put them in much greater control over their syndicates. And indeed, it appears that a few key members of the Office of Envigado were recently moved to the Itagüí prison on Medellín’s outskirts.

A model, or a mistake?

For years, the Uribe government has prohibited, or limited very strictly, so-called “regional dialogues” with guerrilla groups about issues like hostage releases or limiting landmine use. It seems odd, then, that the government would so readily authorize citizen dialogues with imprisoned organized-crime leaders. (Even if the talks seek only to discuss “submission to justice,” the implication is that something will be offered in return.)

This inconsistency doesn’t mean that the “Committee for Life” was a loose cannon whose work should never have been authorized. Brokering a pact with imprisoned criminal leaders would be acceptable if:

  1. It truly brings social peace, measured in an immediate drop in crime.
  2. It truly happens in exchange for nothing. The leaders should not get any benefits from the state, since they are still running criminal organizations.
  3. It happens amid a concerted effort to strengthen the rule of law — and especially to capture the imprisoned criminal bosses’ commanders “on the outside” and dismantle their networks. The communications between the jailed leaders and their underlings should be a rich source of intelligence.

These pacts are not acceptable, though, if all three of the above conditions are not in place. The third one in particular seems to be badly absent right now.

Feb 10

Washington has been hit by two big snowstorms in the past five days. Everything has been closed all week – the government, the schools, and CIP’s offices (everything is closed tomorrow too; the roads are impassable). On the bright side, being trapped at home gave me a chance to read three just-released books about Colombia. All of them are from careful, credible authors who happen to be very clear writers.

Law of the Jungle: The Hunt for Colombian Guerrillas, American Hostages, and Buried Treasure, by John Otis, published by William Morrow. (Official release February 23.) John Otis has reported from Colombia for more than a decade for the Houston Chronicle, Time, and the Global Post website. He spent much of that time in the field, covering the Pastrana government’s failed peace process with the FARC, the expansion of U.S. aid programs, the plight of guerrilla hostages, and other stories. Law of the Jungle focuses especially on the three U.S. contractors who were taken hostage by the FARC in 2003 and freed in 2008, and the Colombian military unit that came upon a multi-million-dollar cache of guerrilla dollars in the jungle in 2003, then got in trouble after spending it lavishly on themselves.

Otis’s book is written for an audience that is not intimately familiar with Colombia; he includes a lot of background information, vividly written. The book is fast-paced and peppered with anecdotes. Striking examples include a 2001 battle between the FARC and DynCorp contractors sent into the wilds of Caquetá to rescue the head of Colombia’s Counternarcotics Police, who was pinned down by guerrilla fire; and the too-slow response after Colombian soldiers caught a glimpse of the three U.S. hostages in early 2008. In general, the U.S. government is portrayed as lumbering, bureaucratic, and slow to learn. The Colombian military is portrayed as at times heroic — the case of Operación Jaque, the July 2008 ruse that freed 15 FARC hostages, is richly detailed — but at times abusive or corrupt, as in the case of the guerrilla cash find or former Army Chief Gen. Mario Montoya’s alleged collaboration with paramilitaries.

Otis includes some unvarnished quotes from people involved in the story; U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield even drops the “f-bomb” once or twice.

“No divulgar hasta que los implicados estén muertos:” Las guerras de “Doblecero,” by Aldo Civico, published by Intermedio. Aldo Civico, an Italian-born  anthropologist who heads Columbia University’s Center for International Conflict Resolution, was doing post-graduate research in Medellín in the early- to mid-2000s. He developed a relationship, with interviews and a long series of e-mail exchanges, with Carlos García, alias “Rodrigo Doblecero,” the leader of the AUC paramilitary group’s “Metro Bloc,” which for a time at the turn of the decade dominated Medellín and much of Antioquia department. By the time Civico met “Doblecero,” he was on the run from his former paramilitary colleagues (especially Diego Murillo alias “Don Berna,” now in a U.S. prison), from whom he had split out of disagreement with their increasing involvement in narcotrafficking. By then the paramilitary leader was fighting “Don Berna” and the military far more than he was fighting guerrillas. Cívico was in regular contact with “Doblecero” (who at the time was also talking to U.S. reporters) from mid-2003 until days before he was killed in May 2004.

Most of the book is transcriptions of emails from “Doblecero,” or his recorded words as Civico interviewed him. Much is autobiographical or explaining the origins of the paramilitaries, making “No Divulgar” an interesting companion book to AUC founder Carlos Castaño’s 2002 autobiography Mi Confesión.

His analysis of what is wrong with Colombia’s politics and economy makes “Doblecero” sound like a leftist: venal, corrupt elites and narcotraffickers, in his view, are strengthening a feudal system. But those he regards as the “true” paramilitaries are defending the interests of middle-class landholders, whom the guerrillas — in what he sees as a great miscalculation — began to target in the 1980s. “Doblecero” believes that the paramilitary cause went badly in the late 1990s, when leaders like Carlos Castaño allied with the country’s principal narcotraffickers, many of whom became top paramilitary leaders and amassed huge quantities of land. “Doblecero,” however, has very little to say to Civico about the massive atrocities that even the most “pure,” non-narco paramilitaries committed, including the bloody mid-1990s Urabá campaign in which he participated.

Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs, by Vanda Felbab-Brown, published by Brookings Institution Press. Brookings Institution Fellow Felbab-Brown traveled extensively to Afghanistan, Colombia and Peru to research a study concluding that U.S. “War on Drugs” programs badly undermine U.S. counter-insurgency goals. In countries where insurgencies draw support from the drug trade, one of the main assumptions underlying U.S. counter-drug policy has been that attacking drug production will take resources away from the insurgency, weakening it badly. Felbab-Brown dismantles that argument.

Instead, she argues for a “political capital” model, which considers how the U.S.-supported operation affects the population’s perception of the insurgents. If people in Colombia or Afghanistan live off of coca or poppy plants, an eradication campaign may modestly reduce the insurgents’ income. However, Felbab-Brown argues, the eradication will alienate the population from the government and increase their support for the insurgents, adding to their “political capital,” which gives them strong military advantages. Shooting Up makes an important, well-documented point, one that explains much of the frustrations of U.S.-supported campaigns in Colombia and Afghanistan during the 2000s (both of which left drug production unaffected while insurgent groups tenaciously persist).

Felbab-Brown’s model points to only one type of drug policy that can reduce both the insurgents’ drug income and their “political capital” simultaneously. This would be something along the lines of a “laissez-faire” approach, or even decriminalization and regulation, which would reduce the drug trade’s profitability while offering no political advantages to the insurgents. She acknowledges, however, that for now such approaches are “politically infeasible.”

Feb 04

At a site called “FedBizOpps.gov” is an interesting collection of 2009 documents from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The U.S. foreign aid agency discusses its experience with U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” programs in Colombia. It also offers a glimpse at the U.S. government’s plans for aid to Colombia as the annual amount becomes gradually smaller and somewhat more balanced between military and economic priorities.

Three documents in particular are worth a look.

1. PCIM Lessons Learned (Microsoft Word [.doc] format): This is an at times candid discussion of the U.S. government’s experience with the “Integrated Action” counter-insurgency program in the La Macarena region about 200 miles south of Bogotá, a program that has received over $40 million dollars in U.S. assistance since 2007. Some findings of our December 2009 report on this program are paralleled here, such as the challenge of corruption, the need to consult communities, and the need to speed civilian government involvement. Others, particularly concerns about militarization and human rights, are not.

The paper includes some language that would have been unthinkable in a public U.S. government document even a few years ago:

Government policies related to zero coca, and strict verification procedures, take a long time and limit the State’s ability to work with communities in transitioning from a coca economy to a legal economy.

When security and coca eradication are not synchronized with the arrival of socio-economic projects, the mood of a community can quickly become hostile.

The dismantling of illegally-armed organizations in an area is often accompanied by an increase in common crime and criminal gangs linked to narco-trafficking.  This situation can present a threat to the legitimacy of the armed forces in a region if not accompanied by the effective presence of the justice apparatus (fiscales and judges).

Some public agencies responsible for key services in the consolidation process have a history of corruption, which can paralyze decision-making, at the risk of being accused of more corruption.

2. CSDI Implementation Concept Paper (Microsoft Word [.doc] format): The “Colombia Strategic Development Initiative” or CSDI is the framework that will guide U.S. aid to Colombia over the next few years. While humanitarian projects (like aid to the displaced) will continue throughout the country, the plan is to focus security and development assistance in a few geographic areas. Though a bit heavy on the jargon, this year-old document is the most detailed description of the CSDI that we have seen.

USAID/Colombia will invite all eligible and interested parties to participate in full-and-open competitions for the right to implement this new approach. … Each organization will lead consortia or networks, preferably made up of Colombian entities, to provide the needed skills and systems required for results achievement. The process will result in awards during 2009-2010.  USAID/Colombia envisions a total combined ceiling of all awards of no less than $500 million but no more than $800 million.  The maximum life of the base period of any resulting agreement will be five years.

3. Briefing Presentation: Partners Meeting (PDF): This is a PDF version of an April 2009 PowerPoint presentation laying out USAID’s strategy from 2009 to 2013. It discusses the “Integrated Action” effort and the new CSDI.

It also includes this map of the U.S. government’s chosen CSDI zones. (While this map has been widely circulated, this is the only public copy we’ve seen online.) These are the geographic areas where the U.S. government will focus its military and development aid for the next few years, as overall aid amounts decline. Any zone outside these red ovals will receive humanitarian aid and little else.

Dec 23
Luis Francisco Cuéllar. (Photo from Semana.)

Colombian soldiers yesterday found the body of Governor Luis Francisco Cuéllar in a village outside Florencia, the capital of Caquetá department in southern Colombia. Cuéllar, the 69-year-old governor of Caquetá, was abducted from his home in Florencia late Monday by a guerrilla unit wearing army uniforms.

The brazen attack took place in a city that hosts the Army’s 6th Division and is a very short drive away from Larandia, the army base that hosts the Colombian armed forces’ Joint Task Force Omega. Larandia is one of seven Colombian bases to which U.S. personnel now have access under a new defense agreement signed in late October.

The evidence points to the FARC, which have been strong in Caquetá for decades. We condemn this crime in the strongest possible terms. Governor Cuéllar’s murder is a violation of international humanitarian law that none who value civilization can justify.

We are also concerned about what it means for the evolution of Colombia’s conflict.

The Cuéllar killing could have been a botched kidnapping. If the FARC’s intention was to hold the governor hostage, it might mean a shift back to the guerrillas’ early 2000s tactic of kidnapping prominent civilian leaders, holding them hostage to pressure for a prisoner exchange agreement. This tactic proved to be a spectacular failure for the guerrillas, who got nothing in exchange, earned near-universal international condemnation, and lost many hostages to a brilliant Colombian military ruse in July 2008. Today, the FARC hold no civilians to pressure for a prisoner exchange. (They do hold military and police personnel for that purpose, and many civilians for ransom.) It is not clear why the FARC would have sought to revive this disastrous tactic now.

It could be that the FARC meant to kill Cuéllar, whom it had already kidnapped for ransom four times since 1987. (Cuéllar is believed to have had trouble with paramilitary groups as well; the VerdadAbierta website noted in June that paramilitaries actively opposed his 2004 campaign for the Caquetá governorship.) The FARC maintains old feuds with Caquetá’s powerful families, and its intentions with Cuéllar may not have been abduction but murder, as in the killing of another prominent Caquetá politician, Diego Turbay Cote, and his mother almost exactly nine years ago. If assassination was the guerrillas’ intention, then it is urgent that Colombia’s government step up its protection of local officials throughout the country.

Above all, this and other recent actions are likely part of a FARC effort to undermine President Álvaro Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policy, five months before an election in which Uribe may be running for a third straight term. Actions like these certainly show the limits of Uribe’s reliance on military power. But by making Colombians feel insecure, the FARC are in fact helping the electoral prospects of the candidate with whom voters most associate the word “security”: Álvaro Uribe.

For his part, Uribe has promised to redouble the military effort against the FARC, ordering the armed forces once again to attempt the military rescue of all guerrilla hostages. This in turn caused the International Committee of the Red Cross to announce that it is suspending efforts to guarantee the FARC’s imminent release of two soldiers whom it has held hostage for years, including Corporal Pablo Moncayo, who just finished his 12th year in the guerrillas’ custody.

Dec 09

That is the title of a report released two weeks ago by the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, one of a small handful of security-focused think-tanks in Bogotá. It has received a lot of attention in the Colombian media because it warns of some bad news.

For the first time since Álvaro Uribe and his get-tough “Democratic Security” policy entered Colombia’s presidency in 2002, the country’s security indicators are headed in the wrong direction. Nuevo Arco Iris contends that the Uribe government’s policies are experiencing diminishing returns after a high point in mid-2008, when paramilitary leaders were extradited, hostages were freed, and top FARC leaders were killed.

Here are a few points that stood out in my reading of the report.

  • The FARC are more active. Nuevo Arco Iris registered 1,429 actions initiated by this guerrilla group through October 20, 2009 – more than 30 percent more than in all of 2008. Their increased capacity is most evident in the southwestern departments of Cauca and Nariño, the Orinoco-basin department of Guaviare, and the coca-producing Bajo Cauca region in northern Antioquia department. The guerrillas are relying ever more heavily on landmines – including the planting of enormous minefields – and snipers. This, Nuevo Arco Iris says, is part of the FARC’s “Plan Renacer” (Rebirth Plan) begun after “Alfonso Cano” took over the group’s leadership in 2008.
  • “New” paramilitary groups are far more active. In 2008 and 2009, Nuevo Arco Iris detected activity of “emerging criminal bands,” or groups including elements of the now-defunct United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), in 293 of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities (counties). They estimate 11,000 people belonging to dozens of such armed bands.
  • Crisis in Medellín. While a few years ago Medellín had reduced its murder rate to 32 killings per 100,000 residents, this year the murder rate has shot back up to 73 per 100,000 residents. Nuevo Arco Iris attributes the rise to violence between gangs, narcotrafficking groups and re-forming paramilitary groups, all of them trying to fill the vacuum left by the boss who had dominated the city’s criminality for much of the 2000s: paramilitary leader Diego Fernando Murillo, “Don Berna,” extradited to the United States in May 2008.
  • “New” paramilitaries are also increasingly active in Bogotá, especially poor and working-class neighborhoods in the city’s west and south. They appear to exercise significant influence in the city’s main food wholesaling and distribution center, Corabastos, and over the city’s semi-legal markets in untaxed and often counterfeit goods, known as “Sanandresitos.”
  • Judicial actions in cases of “false positives” or extrajudicial executions. Nuevo Arco Iris reports that Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) is currently investigating more than 2,000 members of Colombia’s armed forces on charges of killing civilians and presenting them later as civilians killed in combat. Of this number, 476 are detained, a few serving jail terms and most awaiting trial.
Dec 03

CIP is very pleased to share our new report on the Colombian government’s U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” or “CCAI” programs: a combination of state-building, counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics that is being viewed as the successor to Plan Colombia.

“After Plan Colombia” is the product of months of research, including visits to two areas where these programs are underway, which were documented on this blog. With lots of graphics and context for readers less familiar with Colombia, it totals 40 pages plus footnotes. Download a PDF of the report, or read the HTML layout version here.

Here is the summary statement we are sending out with the report:

“After Plan Colombia”: A new report from the Center for International Policy examines the next phase of U.S. assistance

Beyond deploying 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, President Barack Obama’s December 1 speech called for something that evokes the U.S. experience in Colombia: a “civilian surge.” This, he said, would be “a more effective civilian strategy, so that the [Afghan] government can take advantage of improved security.” Working hand-in-glove with military operations, increased U.S. economic aid would focus “in areas — such as agriculture — that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.”

A U.S.-supported “civilian surge” has been underway for a few years now in Colombia, Latin America’s third most-populous country, where an internal armed conflict has raged since the 1960s. U.S. officials say they hope to apply lessons learned from Colombia in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Misunderstanding these lessons, however, could bring disastrous results.

The program in Colombia, “Integrated Action,” aims to help the government function in zones controlled by armed groups. With U.S. support, a national agency — the Center for the Coordination of Integrated Action or CCAI — is to bring civilian government institutions, and basic services, into areas very recently secured by military operations. As in Afghanistan, agricultural aid and other quick-impact projects are priorities.

These programs are controversial, as they tread the uneasy ground between military operations, nation-building, development and human rights. Yet both the U.S. and Colombian governments view Integrated Action as the future of U.S. aid to Colombia, which since 2000 has been by far the world’s largest U.S. aid recipient outside the Middle East. Integrated Action is being viewed as the successor to Plan Colombia, through which the United States has provided $6.7 billion since 2000.

With so much at stake here, the Center for International Policy — which has worked on Colombia policy since the late 1990s — resolved to take a closer look at Integrated Action. This year, we visited the two areas where the U.S. government is most generously supporting the Integrated Action model: the La Macarena zone in southern Colombia and the Montes de María zone near the Caribbean coast. We carried out more than 50 interviews and meetings with more than 150 subjects, from government authorities and military officers to massacre victims and peasant associations.

We found a program that is an improvement over Plan Colombia: there has been learning from the mistakes of a U.S. aid program that, from 2000 to 2007, was 80 percent military and failed to coordinate security and governance. We conclude that the “Integrated Action” model should not be abandoned, which would do more harm than good.

But Integrated Action is not there yet. This experiment could still go badly wrong. A predominantly military program could give the armed forces dominion over all aspects of governance and development. Failure to address land tenure could concentrate landholding in fewer hands. Continued herbicide fumigations and mass arrests could undermine the population’s fragile trust in the government. Poor coordination between government bureaucracies could leave promises unfulfilled.

We recommend several changes to the U.S.-supported approach. These must be implemented before Integrated Action can be considered a model for Afghanistan or anywhere else.

The U.S. and Colombian governments must:

  • Civilianize the Integrated Action strategy as soon as security conditions allow it.
  • Coordinate cooperation between disparate government institutions, and give political clout to the civilian coordinators so that they can compel participation.
  • Consult with communities about every decision that affects them.
  • Work carefully with, and be prepared to say “no” to, local political and economic elites.
  • Act more quickly to resolve land tenure and property rights.
  • Quickly and transparently investigate and punish any allegations of abuse, corruption or predatory behavior.
  • Commit to sustainability by making clear that this effort is for the long haul.

The Center for International Policy is proud to present these recommendations in After Plan Colombia, a new report from our Latin America Security Program. This 40-page, richly illustrated report explains how the U.S. and Colombian governments arrived at this model, explores its design, and narrates “what we saw and heard” on our field visits to the La Macarena and Montes de María zones.

We expect our analysis to inform the lively debate about the future of U.S. policy toward Colombia, which is at a crossroads as the Obama administration reviews its approach. We also hope that After Plan Colombia may contribute to the debate over the U.S. role in Afghanistan — or anywhere else that we may be considering “civilian surges” into ungoverned areas.

Dec 02

Tomorrow we will be releasing “After Plan Colombia,” a lengthy report on the Colombian government’s U.S.-supported “Integrated Action”  or “CCAI” programs, which appear to constitute the next phase of U.S. support to Colombia.

One of the report’s recommendations is that far more must be done to speed land titling in the zones where these state-building-and-counterinsurgency programs are being carried out. Farmers in the “Integrated Action” zones are still not getting titles to their land, and Colombia’s Agriculture Ministry (whose policies, as recent scandals indicate, favor large landholders) is chiefly to blame.

This was a big issue on our April and July research visits. It was very discouraging yesterday to see this piece by John Otis yesterday on the Global Post website, indicating that even today, months later, not a single land title has been handed out in the La Macarena “Integrated Action” zone. This is stunning.

For the past two years, La Macarena and nearby towns have been the focus of a two-year-old “consolidation plan” that has brought together troops, drug warriors and aid agencies in an effort to drive out the rebels, undermine the cocaine trade and bolster the legal economy.

Alvaro Balcazar, who manages the program, fears that the security patrols, new schools and crop substitution programs may fall short unless local peasants are brought into the legal system.

“Land titling is what’s going to make the difference in whether or not we can consolidate security and the rule of law,” he said.

Yet over the past two years, Balcazar admits that he doesn’t know of a single case in which a small land-holder has been awarded title to his land.

The land issue is critical to the CCAI strategy’s success. If it goes unaddressed, especially in zones where land is being bought up rapidly, it will be a key reason for its failure.

“After Plan Colombia” includes a discussion of the land-tenure issue and the CCAI’s strategy. We will add a link and a summary to the report here tomorrow morning. (We note that the INDEPAZ website in Colombia already has posted an earlier draft, with several typos.) Here are the blog entries that served as a rough draft of our work, which has since been substantially edited.

Oct 23

After several years of declining violence statistics in Colombia, we are seeing some very serious backsliding. The chief causes are the new FARC leadership’s shifts in strategy, and the proliferation of “emerging” criminal groups, the heirs of paramilitary groups whose leaders have mostly been extradited to the United States. This backsliding should worry both proponents and detractors of Álvaro Uribe’s hardline security policies.

  1. A Reuters piece published Tuesday and a CNN series [1 | 2 | 3] that ran last week attest to the severe wave of drug and gang-related violence sweeping over Medellín. According to Reuters, “The city’s murder rate has more than doubled since the [May] 2008 extradition of its main crime boss, [paramilitary chieftain Diego Fernando Murillo,] known as Don Berna, which left a power vacuum in the local drug and extortion rackets.”
  1. El Tiempo reports on the tense atmosphere in Sumapaz, a mountainous zone just to the south of Bogotá, from which Colombia’s army ejected the FARC in 2003 and 2004. Last Sunday, in broad daylight, the guerrillas killed two town council members in the zone (Sumapaz is part of Bogotá and Colombia’s Capital District).
  1. Herbín Hoyos, host of the Bogotá-based “Voices of Kidnapping” radio program, which broadcasts relatives’ messages to FARC kidnap victims, was forced to leave the country two weeks ago in the face of what Colombian military intelligence said was a recently uncovered FARC plot to kill him.
  1. In the oil-refining port of Barrancabermeja, 99 people have been murdered so far this year, 5 more than in all of 2008. El Tiempo places much of the blame on two “emerging” paramilitary groups, the “Rastrojos” and the “Urabistas.”
  1. Semana notes “three simultanous processes” of violence amid a counter-guerrilla military offensive in Cauca, in southwestern Colombia: “First, the alliance between the ELN guerrillas and a criminal gang known as ‘Los Rastrojos’ to fight the FARC; second, the military forces’ tendency to go easy on the ELN and Los Rastrojos, since the Espada II and III military operations have not touched them, and the whole offensive has been against the FARC. … The third process, however, is the strengthening of the FARC’s offensive military capacity in northern Cauca. So much that the guerrillas have attacked Toribío municipality on 51 occasions this year; the most recent attack was on October 7, which left two police dead and several soldiers wounded.” El Tiempo also reported this week on the ongoing Cauca offensive.
  1. This week the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo) issued “early warning” alerts about FARC threats against the population of Toribío, as well as that of the municipalities of Puerto Lleras, Puerto Rico and Vistahermosa, Meta. The Meta alert covers the heart of the La Macarena region, where a Colombian government “Fusion Center” has been carrying out a U.S.-funded counter-insurgency and “consolidation” program. In Puerto Rico municipality, Amnesty International reports, a FARC attack on the Guéjar river wounded Islena Rey, president of the Meta Human Rights Civic Committee.
  1. Elsewhere in Meta, authorities are concerned about a growing “war” between two powerful paramilitary chieftains who had been believed to be cooperating: Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias “Cuchillo,” and Víctor Carranza, who controls a large portion of Colombia’s lucrative emerald trade.
  1. More than 220 people have been killed this year in the Bajo Cauca region of northern Antioquia department, where four “emerging” paramilitary groups are fighting to control the drug trade: “Los Paisas,” “Los Rastrojos,” “Los de Urabá” and remnants of the AUC’s “Bloque Mineros.”
  1. Two weeks ago in Arauca, a brazen ELN attack managed to free “Pablito,” who until being imprisoned was the guerrilla group’s maximum leader in the zone, one of its longtime strongholds.

All of these links are from the past two weeks. They indicate that Colombia’s government needs to refocus on its public security strategy, which may have reached the limits of what it can achieve. Significant adjustments are needed, particularly a renewed effort to protect threatened populations (instead of using resources on costly offensives) and a far stronger campaign against the “new” paramilitary groups before they manage to consolidate themselves.

But no adjustments are likely over the next several months, since Colombia’s President and its entire political class are likely to be focusing entirely on Álvaro Uribe’s attempt to win a third term in office.

Oct 22

Though El Espectador’s website shrinks it to the brink of unreadability, the graphic below reveals an unhappy fact about the Colombian government’s recently approved 2010 budget.

For the first time, the country’s defense and security spending will exceed what it spends on education.

The Colombian government plans to spend 148.3 trillion pesos next year (US$78.2 billion at today’s exchange rate). 14.2 percent of the budget (and not of GDP, as the article erroneously reports) – roughly US$11.1 billion – will go to the armed forces and police. 13.9 percent – US$10.9 billion – will go to educate young Colombians.

Sep 28

This is the third and final installment of posts about our July 2009 visit to the Montes de María region of northern Colombia. It wraps up a longer series of initial observations of Colombia’s U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” (or “consolidation” or “fusion center” or “CCAI” or “Plan Colombia 2″) counterinsurgency or state-building programs. These will be boiled down to key points, laid out and presented as a CIP publication within a couple of weeks.

Earlier posts about the Montes de María give an overview of the region’s recent history, and a narrative of what we saw when we visited. This post attempts to evaluate what is still a very new program in the Montes de María.

A less military program – but soldiers still play an outsize role

When we visited the Integrated Action “Fusion Center” in La Macarena in April, it was plain that we had arrived in the middle of an active military operation. With security far from established, and combat with the FARC frequent, the “Integrated Action” strategy was, as we noted, “a mostly military endeavor.”

That description does not fit the program in Montes de María. There is a significant military and police component, and there is strong reason to be concerned about the armed forces taking on roles that do not correspond to it. But the program’s design and makeup are fundamentally more civilian.

The reason for that is security. In La Macarena, the Fusion Center employs updated maps dividing the zone into red (too insecure), yellow (civilians with military accompaniment) or green (a security perimeter has been established) areas. Most of the map, beyond town centers and their immediate environs, appears red. The Montes de María Fusion Center sees no need for such a “stoplight” system; we were told that the entire region is now considered “green.”

As we have noted, the guerrilla presence in the zone is nearly zero since the late 2007 killing of FARC 37th Front leader Martín Caballero. The heirs to the paramilitaries who swept through the zone are strong, politically influential, and killing each other with increasing frequency, but the state does not regard them to be a threat significant enough to warrant a constant military role in development (more on that below).

There are exceptions, though. The most notable is the program’s largest infrastructure-building project: a badly needed road between El Carmen de Bolívar and Chinulito, Sucre. This road’s construction, ambitious because of the rugged terrain it must cross, has been left entirely up to the Marines (Infantería de Marina; as in many coastal areas, the Marines, a unit of Colombia’s Navy, play a far more prominent role than the Army). When asked why the military was given such a non-security job in a permissive security environment, military authorities contended that using the Marines was more cost-effective. Other Fusion Center personnel characterized it as the result of decisions made in 2007, when the zone was less secure and the CCAI was being established with an active-duty military commander (see below).

While the Montes de María program is a less olive-drab affair than its counterpart in La Macarena, the military component is still viewed as central. “The patrols are there to accompany the campesino,” a military officer expressed to us. A prominent social leader was more critical: “Whenever the guns come out, we’re the ones who get shot at.”

The Coordination (Formerly Fusion) Center

The Center for the Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI) began work in the Montes de María in 2007. The modestly funded program was coordinated by Col. Rafael Colón, the Marine officer who had confronted the region’s paramilitaries during his 2004-2006 tenure at the head of the local brigade. (Col. Colón is discussed in an earlier post.) Colón was transferred to a post in Peru after a mid-2008 apology, on behalf of the Navy, to the victims of the Macayepo, Chengue and El Salado massacres, which earned a rebuke from his superiors. We heard little evaluation of Colón’s brief tenure during the CCAI’s initial period in Montes de María, other than that it appeared well-intentioned but took too long to get started, seemed to lack resources, and envisioned an oversize military role.

The Montes de María program was “reset” at the beginning of 2009, when the Colombian Presidency’s Social Action agency signed an assistance agreement with USAID. This allowed for a larger budget and, in February, the opening of a “Fusion Center” office to provide on-the-ground coordination of the program’s activities. By June, five such centers had been established throughout Colombia, though only the La Macarena and Montes de María centers had significant U.S. funding. That month, it was decided to change their names to the less bellicose-sounding “Coordination Centers” (a name we will use for the remainder of this post). The Montes de María Coordination Center is not physically based in Montes de María, however: its headquarters are in an office building in Cartagena, with a satellite office in Sincelejo, the capital of Sucre.

USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) is contributing modestly to this program – amounts likely do not exceed $3 million, though we’ve been unable to obtain an exact figure for this region – but the agency as a whole is planning to invest more heavily; a recent request for grant applications outlines an “Enhanced Livelihoods Initiative” that expects to spend $32 million in Montes de María over the next five years. A CCAI PowerPoint about its Montes de María program appears to indicate a total investment from all sources of about $43.3 million.

As was the case at the La Macarena Center and the CCAI headquarters in Bogotá, the civilian staff at the Montes de María Coordination Center was made up of able, energetic technocrats, most from the Social Action agency. Though Social Action is known mainly for clientelistic programs that hand out cash subsidies to millions, the Coordination Center staff we met were detail-oriented practitioners, not political apparatchiks.

The Coordination Center did not appear to be a tool for the Uribe government’s political machine. To the contrary, the worry would be the opposite: that this surprisingly small office (all CCAI coordinating offices were surprisingly small) is held at such arms’ length from the rest of “government as usual” that it may lack the political clout necessary to gain resources or to overcome opposition from reticent ministries, local officials or economic elites.

Returning the displaced

Unlike La Macarena, where the main goal is to build a state presence where none exists, the Montes de María Center’s main mission is to help displaced communities return to the area. While security and “consolidating governance” are big parts of the methodology, the objective is far more economic or humanitarian than the more counterinsurgent program in La Macarena.

(Click map to enlarge)

The Montes de María program focuses on only four of the region’s 15 municipalities (counties), making up roughly one-third of its land area: San Onofre and Ovejas, Sucre, and El Carmen de Bolívar and San Jacinto, Bolívar. As of early July, the Coordination Center was developing operational plans for each of the four municipalities, focusing on about 12 communities where displaced populations are returning.

As in La Macarena, the USAID/OTI funding was focused heavily on “rapid-impact projects” in and around these communities. These are small construction projects and other efforts designed to make a short-term demonstration that the state intends to establish a presence. They include:

  • Transportation projects like the El Carmen-Chinulito road discussed above, and a series of bridges in San Jacinto municipality being built mostly with funds from the government of Japan;
  • Assistance in restoring returned communities’ housing and neighborhoods;
  • Water and electricity projects;
  • Telecommunications projects like building up the mobile phone network, radio broadcasting (the Coordination Center staff said they sought to encourage community radio stations), and Internet through state-run “Compartel” access points in remote communities;
  • Construction and repairs to schools, though longer-term needs like teachers and materials, the responsibility of the Education Ministry, remained to be dealt with;
  • Construction of health posts in town centers, though the questions of doctors and supplies depend on the Social Protection Ministry. Some community members expressed concerns about providing care in rural areas with a lack of roads and ambulances, while others worried that these health posts, many of them managed by for-profit companies, were part of an effort to do away with public hospitals in municipal “county seats;”
  • Food security projects, with cacao and yuca the principal crops being encouraged. We were told that the Coordination Center’s projects were not encouraging cultivation of the controversial African oil palm, though the municipality of María La Baja, Bolívar, adjacent to the zone of the Center’s focus, is quickly becoming a center of oil palm production, and the crop is popular among many who are rapidly buying land in the region; and
  • Accompaniment of projects for the conflict’s victims, like mental health programs and historical memory efforts like the recent release of a report on the El Salado massacre, published by the Historical Memory Group of the National Reconciliation and Reparations Commission.

As “rapid impact” projects, most of these efforts will require a good deal of follow-up beyond the next two or three years before the Colombian state can truly be said to be present in the region’s historically neglected villages and rural zones.


Any effort to restore displaced farm families to their original communities must immediately confront Colombia’s unjust and intricately complicated land tenure system. In rural Colombia, land is equal to power, and competition for its control has driven the conflict for generations. This is especially true in the Montes de María, with its semi-feudal tenant-farmer past, the unusual fertility of its soil, its location among highly coveted drug-trafficking corridors, its high rate of internal displacement, and the extremely rapid land-buying rush underway today.

As a result of the violence at the beginning of the decade, we were told, as much as 150,000 hectares (375,000 acres) of Montes de María farmland is abandoned and uncultivated, “returning to the jungle.” But in many cases, this land is either in the hands of large landholders whose tenant farmers are not returning, or it is simply unclear to whom it belongs.

The Coordination Center plans to spend US$4.5 million for a range of land-tenure activities, including cadastral surveys, adjudication of disputes, compensation, certifying possession, legal protection for small landholders, debt freezes, freezing land sales in specific areas, and investigating suspicious transactions. The Center does not, however, plan anything as ambitious as a full plot-by-plot cadaster (mapping of landholdings) in all four municipalities, nor does it plan a massive titling of small landholders. Instead, they will focus on the roughly twelve returning communities they have already identified, taking an inventory of landholdings – “a snapshot of what landholding looked like when displacement happened” – and seeking to restore land to those who wish to return.

Even this more modest goal will require unraveling a lot of disputes. Did the landholder ever hold clear title? If they were tenant farmers beforehand, can they prove how much land they cultivated? If they owned the land, did they sell it willingly or under duress (either direct threat or inability to pay debt due to displacement)? Does the current owner of the land deserve compensation, and if so, how much?

The Coordination Center envisions “Municipal Committees for Attention to the Displaced Population” – a body made up of the mayor, the mayor’s first secretary, the International Committee of the Red Cross, police, military, church and community leaders – as the main tool for adjudicating such local land disputes. These committees’ effectiveness varies widely across municipalities, however, and some mayors have not even bothered to convene them.

In fact, these mayors, and local elites, may not share the Coordination Center’s enthusiasm for displaced farmers’ return. As mentioned before, with relative peace in Montes de María has come a sharp rise in land prices, and a bonanza of land purchases. As thousands of hectares change hands in each municipality, we were told, land is being concentrated in the hands of “paisas.” The term refers to people from the more populous, economically potent nearby department of Antioquia, and seems to indicate either large agribusinesses or narcotraffickers laundering profits through land purchases – or both.

Amid this backdrop, the deck is already stacked against small landholders, not to mention returning displaced persons. “As soon as INCODER [the government's troubled land-reform agency] identifies an unowned plot, a large landowner shows up to buy it,” lamented one community leader. Smallholders also have a much more difficult time meeting legal requirements, including the hundreds or even thousands of dollars in notarized documents and other official fees involved in registering even a small land purchase.

While purchases are difficult, the pressures to sell are enormous. “Who is selling their land? Indebted campesinos, campesinos who can’t get credit, campesinos who don’t want to return, campesinos‘ relatives who do not identify as strongly with the land, and campesinos who are threatened, who are told, ‘Either you sell, or I’ll buy it from your widow,’” one non-governmental organization director explained. A smallholder with a large-landholding neighbor who covets his land may be subject to even further pressures to sell, beyond his own indebtedness. The large landholder can affect his water supplies, cut off his road access, or simply “accidentally” leave an opening in his fence through which cattle can pass and eat the smallholder’s crop.

Is the local government an ally of the Coordination Center?

To overcome these extraordinary challenges, small landholders and returning displaced people would need active support from the state. The Montes de María Coordination Center’s plans indicate that they hope to provide that support, at least to the returning communities they have selected in four municipalities. But it is easy to imagine that, in doing so, the Cartagena-based Center will encounter fierce opposition from a constituency that is supposed to be one of its key partners: the local governments of the Montes de María.

Unlike La Macarena, the Montes de María are not a “vacuum” of state presence. The area has been settled for centuries, not recently carved out of the jungle, and most ministries of the central government have long had a presence in municipal capitals and the larger town centers. Mayors and town councils hold actual decisionmaking power, control resources, and often have the backing of regional political machinery.

Granted, this state presence has rarely bothered to penetrate into the rural zones that make up most of the region’s territory. But the point is that where governance is concerned, the Montes de María is not a “blank slate” to the extent that guerrilla-controlled La Macarena is. There is an existing power structure, with its power ratified by elections. As it works toward its principal declared goal of returning displaced populations, the Montes de María Coordination Center must work with – or around, or even against – local and departmental governments.

From Verdad Abierta’s Sucre page (Ex-Governor Salvador Arana is in the picture). Highly recommended.

The declared intention, of course, is to work hand-in-glove with local authorities. “In the consolidation zones, the primary civilian face of the State is the municipal and departmental entities – a point on which the CCAI is clear,” notes an August communication from USAID. “Strengthening local governance capacity – especially at the municipal level – has been a fundamental PCIM [La Macarena Integral Consolidation Program] focus and is now a primary focus in Montes de María.”

The question is to what extent the local authorities actually support the smallholding agricultural model, much less the return of displaced communities. As we have noted, Sucre and Bolívar have been hard-hit by the “para-politics” scandal: many local officials are in jail or under investigation for their support of the paramilitary armies that caused most of the massive displacement in the first place. Many local governments in Sucre and Bolívar continue to be tied to a nexus of large landholders, narcotraffickers, and political bosses who chose to rid the Montes de María of guerrilla presence by sponsoring paramilitary groups that, by overwhelmingly targeting smallholding civilians who lived in the zone, caused the depopulation that the Consolidation Center now proposes to reverse.

In Sucre department alone, the Verdad Abierta website (a project of Semana magazine and prominent NGOs) noted in July, “A total of 35 politicians have been processed for their ties to the paramilitaries. Eight ex-mayors, seven ex-councilmen, one former departmental legislator, three former governors, three former congressmen, three serving congressmen and 3 senators elected for the 2006-2010 period, 2 mayors and 5 councilmen elected in 2007.” Jailed mayors included the former mayor of San Onofre, one of the four municipalities chosen for the Coordination Center’s work, as well as the mayors of neighboring municipalities Colosó and Toluviejo. (Inhabitants of Chinulito, which is part of Colosó, also accuse former mayor Manuel David Arrieta of stealing funds designated for the town’s reconstruction.) Just to the east, in the vicinity of Magangué, Bolívar, the most powerful paramilitary-tied political boss was a woman: Enilce López, “La Gata,” now in prison, who also controlled much of the legal lottery along Colombia’s northern coast.

Colombia last held municipal and gubernatorial elections in October 2007. In several parts of the country, the para-politicians’ political machines suffered stinging defeats at the polls. This was not so in Sucre, Bolívar and the Montes de María, where associates of the jailed and arrested politicians fared well. In San Onofre, the newly elected mayor was a politician widely accused of paramilitary ties. The gubernatorial election in Sucre is believed to have involved fraud in order to keep the same political group in power, as Semana magazine reported at the time:

A point of uncertainty … is the citizen alarm after the partial triumph of “Tuto” Barraza – candidate of Congressman Carlos García, imprisoned for “parapolitics” – over Julio César Guerra Tulena, for governor of Sucre. Until just before eight at night Barraza was losing by 2,000 votes, when mysteriously the Registry’s data transmission system broke down. Shortly afterward, the Registry’s officials ordered the exit of all overseers and witnesses from the political parties. When the system went back online, Barraza was winning by 200 votes. The Registry (Registraduría) assures that it will investigate what happened, while the region’s voters recall that these were the same strategies by which García won elections before being sent to prison.

Also on a 2007 Semana list [PDF] of candidates with a “high risk” of paramilitary links was the elected governor of Sincelejo, the capital of Sucre, Jesús Antonio Paternina Samur. Meanwhile in Magangué, imprisoned regional boss “La Gata” scored another victory in early July 2009 when her approved candidate won a special mayoral election.

We obtained no smoking-gun evidence of current officeholders’ illegal activity. We note, though, that most are members of the same political groupings as the para-politicians who came before. As a result, even if they are not proven “para-politicians” themselves, they are likely to be representing the same sets of political interests and constituencies. And those constituencies have a record of being hostile to the interests of the small landholders and formerly displaced people of rural Montes de María. This concern is ratified by repeated testimony we heard about elected leaders’ utter lack of interest even in visiting communities of small farmers and returned displaced people.

Yet these are the elected officials with whom the Coordination Center – an entity dedicated to the viability of small farmers and the return of displaced people – must work. “They were voted in,” a U.S. official explained. “You do what you can and work with everyone.” The way to deal with the challenge of reticent local officials, officials told us, is to offer training and support to build their own management capacities; to strengthen the justice system so that official wrongdoing can be denounced and punished; to work with all social sectors, not just the local government; and to maintain a constant monitoring presence and avoid giving them direct control of resources. Local officials, we were told, are even expected to provide resources from their own treasuries in order to increase their “buy-in.” These officials, for their part, view this as an additional strain on tight budgets. “They [the Coordination Center] ask for resources, but there aren’t any,” Sucre’s governor told us.

The Coordination Center is involving local leadership through the signing of “Political Pacts” with the authorities and other “fuerzas vivas” (business, religious, and civil-society leaders) in each of the four chosen municipalities. The pacts include commitments for development projects in the entire zone, but their chief focus is the return of displaced communities.

These pacts are being drawn up with local institutions as they currently exist. If these institutions represent interests that favor large-scale agribusiness, do not view displaced communities’ return as a priority, and may be one or two degrees of separation away from the paramilitaries themselves, their partnership with the Coordination Center will be a very uneasy one.

In the best of scenarios, it could pit the central government, allied with USAID and Southern Command, against a local landowning elite. This would be an unusual match-up, and it would be interesting to see who would come out ahead. The determining factor would be the central government: will it ultimately back the technocrats of the Coordination Center, or would it back the local elite, which has been strongly supportive of President Uribe since his first candidacy? An unencouraging sign comes from the central government’s Agriculture Ministry, which has clearly favored the large-landholder model and has been notably slow to issue land titles either in La Macarena or the Montes de María.

The security challenge

Even if communities do return, and receive land titles, how will they protect their claims, and their lives, in a region considered strategic for drug traffickers and highly profitable for land speculators? Since Col. Colón’s tenure in the Marines’ 1st Brigade, the armed forces have been viewed as standing between the population and violent groups. But leaderships change, and protecting the population in a region considered “safe” is not a likely long-term military role anyway, even in Colombia. That responsibility will fall to Colombia’s National Police.

Currently, the police are responsible for citizen security in town centers, while the Marines handle the rural areas. We were told that a transition from Marines to police is likely to take place, though we heard little idea of a timetable. The United States is helping to set up mobile constabulary forces (Carabineros) and provide them with equipment in order to increase police coverage in rural areas. Still, the local police have yet to win the population’s trust. We heard several times that they are often regarded as too tied to local political elites, too corrupt, and too quick to treat the local citizenry with suspicion, including suspicion of helping guerrillas.

The towns, which are the purview of the police, have seen the greatest increase in activity by re-armed or “new” paramilitary groups, some of which are little more than foot-soldiers for drug trafficking organizations. The doubling of murders in Sincelejo from the first half of 2008 to the first half of 2009 owes almost entirely to internecine violence between groups competing for control of drug trafficking routes.

The “new” groups most frequently mentioned are the Paisas (related to the Medellín-based Oficina de Envigado narcotrafficking organization), the Rastrojos (the rapidly growing heirs to part of the North Valle cartel and the AUC’s Calima Bloc), and the organization led by “Don Mario,” a fugitive paramilitary leader and narcotrafficker captured in April. We also heard of the Águilas Negras (Black Eagles), a rearmed group whose name has emerged in many parts of the country, but the Marines told us that this group has not in fact appeared in the zone – it is a name used to intimidate, as when issuing threats.

A special prosecutor, operating from the safety of the 1st Marine Brigade’s base, was assigned from Bogotá early this year to investigate Sucre’s new groups, and between February and June his efforts had resulted in 28 arrests. However, the “new” paramilitaries are more active this year than before in the zone, increasing their recruitment, more visibly monitoring activity in neighborhoods they control, and issuing more frequent and severe threats against civil-society figures, especially victims’ leaders. Among the municipalities of the Montes de María, the armed groups’ violence appeared to be worst in San Onofre, where the victims’ leaders were seeing the worst threats, and where the new armed groups were estimated to have killed between 15 and 19 of each other’s members during the first half of 2009.

Amid this worsening panorama, concerns about the police force’s capacity to protect vulnerable populations, such as returned displaced communities, are real and will require attention.

Civil society

On the positive side, displaced communities are not returning to a vacuum. The Montes de María may have unequal landholding, an entrenched political class, and growing armed groups, but it also has a civil society. At least in the towns, there are organizations petitioning the state, denouncing wrongdoing, and exercising their rights as citizens: victims’ groups, religious groups, human rights groups, and active scholars, among others.

There is also a European-funded “peace and development” program seeking to combine economic projects with reconciliation and conflict-resolution: the Montes de María Development and Peace Network. Since 2005, this program has executed projects funded by the European Commission’s “3rd Peace Laboratory,” an aid program that intends to provide Colombia with non-military, civil-society-based assistance. The Network’s director, Father Rafael Castillo, spoke of building peace on the foundation of a “triangle of sustainability” uniting civil society, state institutions and the private sector. His program, he argued, promotes a model of “development based on rights, not needs,” avoiding an assistentialist, handout-based approach. And he made clear that the Network is more interested in building lasting “processes” through ongoing dialogue with communities than scoring quick, impermanent “successes” – which we interpreted to be a gentle critique of USAID’s “rapid impact project”approach.

Critics of the European-funded model contend that it moves too slowly and tentatively, making the larger community impatient to see results; that it does not distinguish clearly enough between effective civil-society organizations and “free riders;” and that its interactions with communities and the state too often ignore the power and influence of narcotraffickers. Still, the Peace Laboratory and the Development and Peace Network now have several years of experience and have put down roots in the community. The Coordination Center must make every effort to reach out to, and learn from, them. The same goes for the region’s other active civil society groups – especially the highly threatened and vulnerable victims’ groups who most urgently need protection.


The “Integrated Action” program we saw in Montes de María is too new to evaluate. What we saw, however, was a project with modest but mostly laudable goals, with a far better mix of civilian and military/police capacities than we witnessed in La Macarena. The better security situation should also contribute to better relations with the local population, as the security forces are not employing harsh measures like mass arrests or forced eradication.

We saw a model that may in fact encounter its greatest “pushback” not from the rural population, but from the large landholders and traditional political class in the towns and cities. Overcoming that resistance and helping the formerly displaced small-farmer communities chosen for assistance will require strong political support from the central government and an ability to resist the wave of buying and selling that is concentrating land in fewer hands. It will also require a more responsive, capable and professional police presence, a judicial system that can credibly punish abuse and corruption, and a relationship with civil society based on far more trust and communication than exist now.

It will also require that residents of Montes de María be convinced that a state – not local politicians captured by elites, but a state that enforces the law and provides basic services – is truly being established in the zone. This will require more than a few years of “rapid impact projects.” It will call for delivery of services and a constant state presence among communities that have never known one. It is a very long-term commitment.

Aug 24
One of the 8 river crossings on the road to Macayepo.

Here is another lengthy post – the second of what should be a three-part series on the Colombian government’s U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” programs in the Montes de María region of northern Colombia, which we visited in July. (The first post is here.)

Written principally by CIP Associate Abigail Poe, the observations below come from meetings with human rights and victims’ leaders from San Onofre and María La Baja; community members and leaders along the “road” to Macayepo (“road” is in quotation marks because in order to arrive in Macayepo, we had to ford a river at least 8 times and drive along a dirt road filled with potholes, mudholes and other variations of disrepair); the governor of Sucre, Jorge Barraza; and the chief of the Marine Corps brigade in the region, Colonel Eduardo Cardona; in addition to informal meetings with civil-society leaders, journalists and academic experts in the area.

Throughout our travels, a few themes were consistent. First, “emerging criminal groups” are rampant in the region and it would be difficult to deny that they are remnants of the old paramilitary structure. Second, the lack of state presence outside of urban centers, along with corruption and armed-group infiltration when the state is present, are obstacles to the attainment of the Integrated Action policy’s stated goals. Third, the problem of land, which some scholars say is the backbone of Colombia’s long history of conflict, is severe, and difficult to resolve. And finally, while some displaced families want to return and others do not, this decision is largely influenced by the lack of basic services and security in their communities of origin.

Emerging criminal groups and security in the region

As mentioned in our earlier post about Montes de María, this region of Colombia is adjacent to Córdoba and northern Antioquia, a cattle-raising zone often referred to as the “birthplace of the paramilitaries.” This small region includes the sites of some of the country’s most notorious and brutal massacres of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

While the AUC began a demobilization process in 2003, remnants still remain and are emerging as new criminal groups, with names like the Paisas, Águilas Negras, Rastrojos and Grupo de Don Mario. By most accounts, their numbers and activities are growing as they compete for dominion of the region’s lucrative drug-trafficking routes.

Fighting between them has brought a spike in homicides after several years of sharp declines. National Police statistics showed 106 homicides in the department of Sucre in the first six months of 2009, more than double the 49 recorded during the same period in 2008.

Colombian Marines talk to a young woman at a local “tienda” outside our meeting in Macayepo.

In San Onofre, a coastal municipality in northern Sucre, we met with victims’ leaders and other displaced members of the communities where some of the region’s major paramilitary massacres took place, including Mampuján and El Salado. After the massacres many of the displaced fled to urban centers – including the county seats of San Onofre and María la Baja, as well as Sincelejo and Cartagena – where the majority remain today.

While the Colombian national and local governments contend that recent paramilitary violence in the area is merely a phenomenon of gangs fighting gangs, those in San Onofre tell a very different story.

Following the demobilization of the AUC, the region calmed down and violence levels subsided. In the past year, however, violence and threats against community members have skyrocketed. The spike in violence is being at least partly attributed to the extradition of top paramilitary leaders to the United States in May 2008, leaving the lower levels of the groups to fight for power and control of important narcotrafficking routes and valuable land.

In San Onofre, we were told that 15 people have been murdered so far in 2009 in the municipality; the body of one victim who disappeared four months prior had been found the week before our visit in a roadside grave. And while violence has not returned to the peak levels of the early 2000s, some victims described their situation as worse, because with so many groups and armed actors “you don’t know who is doing the killing. So we can’t speak out.”

Community members from María La Baja, just over the border in Bolívar department, told us they do not receive as many threats as their counterparts in San Onofre. However, many people are still being killed in their town. “It is normal to wake up and hear that a young man was found dead,” one victims’ leader told us.

These leaders receive threats via telephone, cell phone and even email. Many cannot leave their homes or are hiding in the mountains, and others cannot speak out due to fear of being killed by one of the “emerging criminal groups.” Threats against women’s groups have also increased; one leader was recently murdered in front of her five year old daughter.

While government officials, such as the governor of Sucre, say that “only criminals are being killed” right now, the victims with whom we spoke in San Onofre told us that “those who are killed are not only the bad ones, some are being killed for telling the truth.”

The “new” criminal groups have dramatically increased their recruitment. According to one displaced person in San Onofre, “many of the demobilized paramilitaries returned to their ranks. Of the young men from our neighborhood, we estimate that around 20 have gone with them.” In San Onofre, members of these armed groups will sit in the park and offer 1,000,000 pesos (about US$400) to join their group. It is tempting for these young men and women to join the emerging groups – especially those who are displaced, unemployed and living in extreme poverty. If accepted, the new “member” is given a motorcycle, a gun, a salary, and a sense of purpose.

Lack of legal employment opportunities play a role in the success rate of recruitment, a problem to which the governor of Sucre alluded. He told us, “All of the dead and arrested are displaced persons. The problem is that the government doesn’t give them an employment option, or an alternative. Therefore the displaced are using weapons as a machine of their work. The governor suggested few solutions, however, and he said he has heard no complaints about social leaders or victims’ organizations receiving threats.

Lack of state presence and basic services

For a region near major cities that has been settled for centuries, the communities of Montes de María have a striking lack of government presence. This is a factor of a lack of political will and insufficient resources, themselves often a result of local corruption. We heard indications of a general mistrust in local institutions, complaints about public access to health care and education, a lack of basic services such as potable water, electricity, tertiary roads and sewage outside of urban centers, and a police force that is unable to respond to crimes promptly, or at all.

Remnants of the only contact some campesinos have with local political leaders: campaign ads painted on their homes.

Many of the victims and displaced people we spoke to, especially in San Onofre, did not trust the local government, largely due to its recent history of working closely with paramilitaries. “We do not have the trust necessary to denounce the violence or threats made against us, therefore all of our complaints must be made at the national level in Bogotá,” we were told by one victim. “Paramilitarism is so much a part of the structure here that it is difficult to win, or even to speak out.”

The low level of confidence in the local government is also manifested through a weak police force. We were told that “the police are not carrying out their duties” by both community members and military authorities. The first group attributes this mainly to corruption of the police force via collaboration with narcotraffickers and emerging criminal groups, while the latter attributed it to a lack of resources, telling us that many police squads must patrol without police cars and must even hail taxis to take them to a crime scene. The governor of Sucre also said that while the national government recently dispatched 700 additional officers to the region, they still are unable to reach the rural areas, “where the majority of the violence is now occurring.”

As a result, the police often resort to calling the military to help them respond to crimes and violence. As Colonel Cardona explained the military’s role to us, it became clear that the military – with little guerrilla presence to confront in the region – is playing an ever-increasing police role. Marines are manning control points, gathering intelligence and soliciting arrest warrants. Colonel Cardona appeared frustrated that the military could not carry out arrests. “We were told that the problem of the [emerging] criminal groups is of the police, and that we can only intervene when their capacity is surpassed, but since the beginning the police have been overwhelmed.”

Weak (or non-existent) health and education

In San Onofre we heard complaints about the underfunded and understaffed condition of the public hospital in Sincelejo. We were told that the hospital only has five doctors, when at least 12 are needed, and that it does not even have an ambulance. According to one community member, “This is not due to a lack of resources, but to political corruption.” The community member continued, explaining that seventy percent of the hospital budget is to be allocated to the public facility and 30% to private clinics (GPS). However, those assembled alleged, the mayor’s brother runs the GPS in Sincelejo, and therefore it receives 70% of the budget, while the public hospital barely can afford to pay its staff – a strategy which some claimed is intended to shut down the public hospital in Sincelejo.

In the rural communities we visited, access to health is virtually non-existent. A complete lack of health clinics, doctors, and nurses in these rural areas results in the need to travel to Sincelejo – several hours without a private vehicle – when someone is injured or falls ill. The poor quality of the roads leading to these towns often means that a simple injury or sickness is a death sentence.

While there are some schools in some of the rural communities, their lack of resources results in a poor quality of education. The school in Macayepo does not even have a roof, according to one community member.

Lack of basic services

The lack of services means no potable water, sewage system or electricity in many of the rural communities, especially those above Macayepo in the mountains, where the “road” does not reach.

Delivery of basic services in these rural areas is the responsibility of the local government, which receives some funds for this purpose from the central government. These funds, themselves insufficient, frequently fail to reach their destination. As we were returning to Sincelejo after a day of meetings with rural communities, we made one final stop in Chinulito, a community that sits along the main coastal highway. Community members, along with the sergeant heading the local police detachment, told us of several unanswered petitions to the local government for basic services to reach this community.

They told us that resources for the community’s rebuilding had been stolen by local officials. They allege that the previous mayor of the municipality of which Chinulito is a part (Colosó), now in prison for ties to paramilitaries, stole hundreds of thousands of dollars of central government funds intended for the town. As a result, Chinulito remains without a decent school, health post or potable water. Chinulito is so close to the highway that these services would be easy to provide, yet the community appears just as neglected as those that sit two hours away up a dirt road.

The role of the Colombian armed forces

Behind the soccer goal is the Chinulito-El Carmen road that is being constructed by the Colombian Marines.

Perhaps due to the lack of state presence and civilian government political will in Montes de María, the Colombian armed forces are not just acting to secure the area, but they are also serving as the main “developers.” The military is working with some communities to create a “census” of their most immediate needs. They then take this list to other government ministries and petition for health, education, roads and other services. (This process is a bit more formal – though incipient – in the four municipalities where the CCAI is operating. More on that in the next post.)

Currently, as part of the “Integrated Action” effort, the marine corps (Infantería de Marina) is building the first east-west paved road in Montes de María, which will connect El Carmen to Chinulito. The route, which exists as a dirt road in severe disrepair, will be paved and have multiple bridges over the winding Macayepo River.

Colonel Cardona was quite pleased with this project, indicating that the military hopes to take part in more development projects in the future. When asked why the military should play such an important role in development, he responded that using soldiers for labor is cheaper: the Montes de María highway, he said, is being built for “40 percent less money” than civilian projects contracted out by the country’s road institute. As a result, he continued, “the goal of the military is to eventually carry out projects such as helping to build roads, instead of being in this conflict. Each brigade wants to add a battalion of engineers to carry out constructions such as these.”

In the region, however, we heard complaints that the El Carmen-Chinulito road-building project is being carried out inefficiently, with antiquated equipment and inexperienced military engineers.

The problem of land

The lack of state presence and political will is a major obstacle in achieving a principal stated goal for CCAI in the region: the return of displaced communities. We visited rural communities whose residents said they have not been visited by a state official in years – other than during election season, when someone shows up to paint a campaign slogan on some houses in the community. While the governor of Sucre told us that he did not have the resources to carry out projects for rural dwellers, officials at the CCAI in Bogotá suggested that he did.

Another obstacle for CCAI in Montes de María will be to change the attitudes of local political leaders. According to one staffer at the “Fusion Center” in Cartagena, “The major challenge is to sit down with the political class. The problem is not how to build the road for the community, it is how to change the attitude of the people.” This may be the greatest challenge, as it requires taking on not only the issue of corruption, but also the perhaps even thornier issue of land tenure.

The problem of land distribution in Colombia is not a recent one, nor is it simple. Many scholars cite it as one of the major factors behind the continuation of the conflict. Yet a chief goal of CCAI in Montes de María – the return of displaced communities to their land – will require officials to take on the land problem energetically. What we saw and heard in the region, however, indicates that this will be a monumental task.

CCAI, supported by the Colombian Armed Forces, is conducting a campaign to convince campesinos not to sell their land. However, this does nothing to address the conditions leading them to sell in the first place. When asked who is selling their land, Father Rafael Castillo, of the Montes de María Peace and Development Foundation, listed off characteristics: “campesinos in debt, campesinos without access to credit, campesinos who do not want to return, relatives of those campesinos who have lost their love of the land, and threatened campesinos.”

The situation is worsened by the quality of land in Montes de María (some of the most fertile in Colombia), its proximity to major cities, or a widespread belief that the region has potential for oil and mineral production. Large landowners, investors in “mega-projects” and foreign corporations are making very rapid land purchases in the newly guerrilla-free zone.

Many campesinos are selling their land as a result of the large debts they owe to INCODER, the state land-reform agency – a problem explained in the first post of this series. Large landowners and investors in mega-projects, such as African palm, bitter yucca (which produces starch and can be used for biofuels) and teak, are taking advantage of this situation and offering a price that will cover the farmer’s debt plus a little extra – an offer that, though below current market prices, many campesinos cannot refuse.

We were also told that when a small farmer refuses to sell his land, he risks eventually being forced off by a strategy known as “circling them out.” Basically, an investor buys up all the land around the farmer who does not want to leave, and cuts off his access to roads and services, leaving him no way to leave his land without “trespassing.” Another strategy described to us involves the large landowner allowing his animals to “accidentally” eat the small farmers’ crops.

Other campesinos are being “convinced” to join cooperatives to grow crops such as African palm and bitter yucca. The agreements bind the campesino to growing crops for biofuels on their land for twenty years, a period of time after which the once-fertile soil is depleated. Many community members we met in San Onofre expressed skepticism about these monocultural cooperatives, which they say worsens the problem of food security in the region.

In parts of El Carmen de Bolívar, where rumors are spreading that a large mining project is in the works, land is being bought up so quickly that the local government has had to place an embargo on more land sales.

However, even though the “land grab” taking place in Montes de María appears often to be illegal, due to the intricate problems of land titling, it is being carried out in a way that, by the standards of INCODER and the Ministry of Agriculture, appears to meet all procedural requirements for legality. “This theft of land is being legalized,” a Cartagena-based government official with land responsibilities explained to us.

However, when we asked local community leaders who was buying the land, we received responses ranging from “paisas” (large landholders from Antioquia department) to investors from a group calling itself the “Friends of Montes de María Foundation” to “we don’t know.”

Food security

The “transportation center” in Macayepo, where small farmers can rent burros to travel up the mountain to their plots of land.

Interviewees often alluded to the problem of food security, which promises to worsen as more and more land is bought up for large plantations of biofuel crops. As one leader put it, “the campesino land plot has a very important function: food security.” And that function is weakening.

Rural community members noted that the lack of transportation infrastructure makes it nearly impossible to get crops to market. In order to transport their products, small farmers must first make a long trip by burro to reach their land. They must use the same burro to haul the harvest down the mountain, either all the way to the highway or to a town along a rutted dirt road, like Macayepo, where groups of farmers will chip in to pay for a truck to carry their harvest the remaining distance. This is a lengthy and expensive strategy that leaves very little profit for the small farmers. The road being built through many of these communities will eventually help make this process more efficient, although most of Montes de María’s farmers cultivate land very far from this new road.


CCAI plans to support the return of displaced populations to their original communities in Montes de María. However, many obstacles remain in the way, some described above. We asked what people thought about the viability of return, and asked those who had returned about the problems they were facing. Some told us they did not want to return, others wanted to yet did not have the resources to make the move, while those who had already returned were struggling with virtually no state involvement or assistance.

It was common for government officials to tell us that people did not want to return. Yet from our conversations, it seems that some of those who say they do not want to return now, would do so if the local government provided the basic services necessary for their return to be viable. In San Onofre, these demands included security, roads, rebuilt houses, and basic services, which were referred to as “the basic conditions of dignity.” Because these conditions were not present, many of those we spoke to in San Onofre said they would not return.

Evidence of new life emerges alongside abandoned homes as some of the displaced begin to return.

Another element that must exist in order for displaced persons to return is education. In many cases, males are returning to farm their land, leaving their families behind in towns and cities so that their children can go to school – an opportunity that does not exist in rural communities.

We were also told that many displaced persons fear returning, especially through a program run by the local government or military, since they saw few guarantees that they would not be displaced again by violence. This fear resonated in many of the meetings we held. People were wary of working with the state without a guarantee that the program would continue for more than two years, for fear of retaliation from illegal armed groups once the state – in their view, inevitably – disappears.

The rural communities we visited were scarcely populated by displaced persons who had returned on their own initiative – perhaps 20 to 25 percent of the original pre-2000 population. These community members felt empowered to do things on their own, and noted that “we couldn’t sit back and wait for someone from Bogotá to come help us.”

Not only have they returned to cultivate their land and continue with their lives, but they have initiated efforts to educate about democracy and human rights, and to work to keep the youth from being enticed by violence. However, the basic disrepair of their houses and the lack of basic services indicated the need for a great deal more assistance from the local government. They cannot do this alone, in a vacuum.


A main goal of CCAI in Montes de María, as presented to us at the Cartagena Fusion Center, is the return of displaced people and victims to their communities and the creation of a political pact between the community and the local government. However, we learned that some huge hurdles stand in the way of actually achieving this goal. Emerging criminal groups threaten human rights and victims’ leaders, land is an incredibly sticky subject, and true buy-in and support from the local government are far from guaranteed.

We were struck by how differently the government and military talked about the Montes de María, compared to the descriptions offered by those who live there. Government and military officials said the zone was secure and that there were almost no reports of murders of victims’ leaders, or even threats. They told us that people were not returning because they are content with their lives in the urban centers, and that those who are getting killed or threatened are the “bad guys.” It is true that many displaced campesinos do not want to return to their communities because, after eight or nine years, they are now used to living in cities and towns. However, if access to health, education, and a sustainable livelihood existed in their original communities, we were assured that far more of the pre-2000 population of Montes de María would gladly return to their land.

Jul 29

This is the first of a few posts that will look at U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” or “CCAI” programs in the Montes de María region of Colombia, just south of Cartagena near the central Caribbean coast.  These programs, which combine military and development assistance with the goal of “consolidating” government control of territory, are being billed as the future direction of U.S. assistance to Colombia.

U.S. support for this model has so far been concentrated in two zones: the Serranía de La Macarena region in Meta, about 150 miles south of Bogotá in Meta department; and – as of early this year – the Montes de María. We visited La Macarena in April and wrote about it in May. We visited Montes de María during the week of July 6-10.

This post gives a brief overview of the region, its recent history and current challenges. Subsequent posts will discuss the new aid program itself in more detail.

To the south of Cartagena, a port city of a million people, Colombia’s northern coast curves into a north-south line, with the Caribbean off to the west. Go a few miles inland and the land rises into a low mountain range, the Montes de María.

The surrounding region, 15 municipalities (counties) in the departments of Sucre and Bolívar, has some of the best land in the country. Farmers tell visitors that they don’t even need to use fertilizer, and that avocado trees, if left untended, grow wild and produce more than can be brought to market.

The zone is strategic, as it is rugged terrain, with lots of hiding places, sitting right between nearby coca-producing zones and the Caribbean Sea. While the Montes de María is not a coca-growing area, the Gulf of Morrosquillo, a bay scooped out of the coast south of San Onofre, has long been a jumping-off point for boats carrying tons of cocaine every year.

On either of two good highways, the Montes de María are a less than two-hour drive from Cartagena, Colombia’s fifth-largest city. Four hundred years ago, when Cartagena was one of the Spanish empire’s principal slave-trading ports, the region’s jungles and mountains were just far enough away for escaped slaves to hide. In fortified towns, or palenques, they resisted, maintained many west African customs, and became the Montes de María’s first non-indigenous settlers.

Most (though not all) palenques eventually fell to the Spaniards, who divided up land among themselves in enormous estates. Ever since, landholding in the Montes de María – as in much of Colombia’s north coast region – has been highly unequal. Agriculture has been the main economic activity, and small farming has been the norm, but most farmers have been tenants on vast tracts of land, in many cases owned by wealthy families who live in Cartagena or elsewhere.

Unequal landholding made the Montes de María a center of campesino protest in the 1970s, when a national movement, the National Association of Campesinos (ANUC), pressured for land reform with “invasions” of estates and other tactics. As a result, the Colombian government’s usually inactive land-reform agency, INCORA (since renamed INCODER), bought land from wealthy landholders in the 197os and 1980s and distributed it to thousands of families in the region, in most cases requiring them to borrow money to pay 30 percent of the sale price.

This was only a very partial reform, however, and large estates and tenant farming remain the norm in the Montes de María. This fertile region’s population is extremely poor: at least two-thirds subsist below the poverty line.  Though a relatively dense rural population has been there for generations, government neglect and absence are severe: alhough two highways run north-south from Cartagena, secondary and tertiary roads are very few, and most villages are still unserved by electricity or potable water.

As might be expected of a mountainous, strategically located region with a poor, aggrieved population, the Montes de María quickly fell under the control of leftist guerrilla groups in the 1970s. The FARC set up two fronts (35th and 37th), the ELN established its “Jaime Bateman Cayón” Bloc, and a smaller group, the Revolutionary Army of the Poor (ERP), was also active. All groups heavily extorted large landowners, charged levies on small businesses, kidnapped for ransom, and disrupted road traffic, including cargo moving between Medellín and Cartagena.

The 1970s and 1980s also saw narcotraffickers move into the area, buying up land and competing for control of lucrative routes for transshipping cocaine to the Caribbean. Figures from Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel were no strangers to the Montes de María; it was in Tolú, just south of San Onofre, where in December 1989 police pursued and killed one of Escobar’s most powerful lieutenants, Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, alias “El Mexicano.”

Rodrigo Mercado, alias “Cadena” (source).

From the 1980s on, narcotraffickers and large landowners organized small “self-defense” militias to protect them from the guerrillas. These militias carried out occasional executions and massacres of civilians, but posed little threat to the guerrillas’ domination of the region. That changed in the late 1990s, when the first national paramilitary network, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), expanded from its original strongholds just to the west, the department of Córdoba and the area around the Gulf of Urabá. Colombia’s Security and Democracy Foundation explains (PDF):

In 1997 there was a meeting between members of local elites and [Córdoba-based AUC leader] Salvatore Mancuso, where it was decided that they would form a self-defense group, which would start to operate with financing from payments made by landowners and cattlemen. Also, one must not lose sight of the influence of narcotrafficking on this dynamic.

The “Heroes of Montes de María” paramilitary bloc was born. Its three best-known leaders were Rodrigo Mercado, alias “Cadena” (”Chain,” who has disappeared, either dead or, as some insist, a fugitive); Edward Cobo Téllez, alias “Diego Vecino” (participating in the Justice and Peace process and requested in extradition by the United States earlier this month); and Húbert Bánquez, alias “Juancho Dique” (participating in the Justice and Peace process).

IMG_3267Montes de Maria trip - Colombia - July 2009
Detail of a “memory quilt” sewn by massacre victims, shown to us in San Onofre.

Starting in 1999, this paramilitary bloc launched one of the bloodiest campaigns in Colombia’s history, almost entirely directed at the smallholding campesinos who inhabited the guerrilla-controlled territories of the Montes de María. 1999 and 2000 alone saw 75 massacres, making notorious the names of small villages like El Salado, Chengue, Macayepo and Mampuján. More than 3,000 people were killed or disappeared, many buried in mass graves. More than 20,000 families – nearly 100,000 people – were displaced by the violence between 1996 and 2000, according to official data, many of them filling up the rapidly growing slums ringing nearby cities like Cartagena and Sincelejo.

The paramilitaries counted on generous support from local leaders. Sucre was one of the first to be hit by the “para-politics” scandal, which consumed the department’s political class. Reports the excellent Verdad Abierta (Open Truth) website:

In Sucre’s “para-politics” scandal, a total of 35 politicians have been investigated or tried for their ties with paramilitaries. 8 ex-mayors, 7 ex-councilmen, 1 ex-departmental legislator, 3 ex-governors, 3 ex-representatives to Congress and 3 senators elected for the 2006-2010 term, and 2 mayors and 5 councilmen elected in 2007.

Former Senator Álvaro García (source).

Evidence indicates that Senator Álvaro García even helped the “Heroes of Montes de María” bloc to plot the October 2000 Macayepo massacre.

The region’s security is primarily the responsibility of the 1st Brigade of Colombia’s Marines, a division of the Navy. At the time of the paramilitary onslaught, the brigade was commanded by Gen. Rodrigo Quiñónez, a now-retired officer who remains one of those most severely questioned by human rights groups. In a January 2001 front-page story on the Chengue massacre, the Washington Post questioned Quiñónez’s role.

Human rights officials say the described events resemble those surrounding the massacre last year in El Salado. Gen. Rodrigo Quinones [sic.] was the officer in charge of the security zone for Chengue and El Salado at that time, and remained in that post in the months leading up to the Chengue massacre. … El Salado survivors said a military plane and helicopter flew over the village the day of the massacre, and that at least one wounded militiaman was transported from the site by military helicopter. Soldiers under Quinones’s command sealed the village for days, barring even Red Cross workers from entering.

By 2002, security conditions in the Montes de María were so poor that newly inaugurated President Álvaro Uribe imposed virtual martial law in the region in September, declaring it one of two special “Zones of Rehabilitation and Consolidation” with a highly concentrated military presence, a military census of the population, and controls over road travel, among other measures. (The other designated zone was the oil-producing department of Arauca in northeastern Colombia.) The special “zone” status ended in April 2003, after Colombia’s Constitutional Court struck it down.

The increased state presence brought the region’s violence down a bit from its horrific 2000-2001 peak. The cease-fire that the AUC declared at the end of 2002, as it entered into negotiations with the Colombian government, also reduced the frequency of the paramilitaries’ violent actions in the region, though leaders like “Cadena” and “Diego Vecino,” along with their partners in Sucre’s political class, continued to exercise great power, even as their armed structure entered into a demobilization process that culminated in a July 2005 ceremony in which 594 members of the “Heroes of Montes de María” bloc turned in weapons.

Col. Rafael Colón (source).

The paramilitaries saw their power much more effectively reduced, and the region saw its security improve greatly, after the 2004 arrival of a much different officer at the Marine command once occupied by the notorious Gen. Quiñónez. Col. Rafael Colón had lost a relative to paramilitary violence, and during his two years at the head of the 1st Marine Brigade he ordered his troops to carry out a campaign against the paramilitaries. Reports the Security and Democracy Foundation (PDF):

The Navy carried out a series of operations that impacted the structures and finances of the self-defense groups. A series of searches, surveillance and intelligence operations allowed 3.5 tons of cocaine to be interdicted in the Gulf of Morrosquillo in less than a year. The first captures also occurred, among them that of El Oso, one of Cadena’s right-hand men. …

But Cadena had amassed such power that, faced with the offensive directed by Col. Rafael Colón, the commander of the Marines’ 1st Brigade, many of his political allies, influential personalities in the life of Sucre, began to ask through various channels that Colón be removed from the zone. According to [the weekly newsmagazine] Semana, they complained that the Navy only attacked the AUC and not the FARC – an argument that sought to decrease the pressure on the paramilitaries. Despite these demands, Colón stayed in the zone and the operations against the self-defense groups continued, which generated enough confidence that the local population began to denounce the abuses suffered under Cadena.

With the paramilitaries actually on the run from the security forces – a situation, sadly, not typical in most regions of Colombia, then or now – their victims became more vocal and organized. In the town of San Onofre, where Cadena based his operations at a huge farm called “El Palmar,” dozens of witnesses began to come forward revealing the locations of mass graves dug by the paramilitaries. Hundreds of bodies were found, and by 2005 San Onofre almost came to be synonymous with mass graves in the international media.

Alias “Martín Caballero” (source).

In 2006 and 2007, the armed forces dealt blows to the reduced number of FARC guerrillas who, weakened by the paramilitary onslaught, remained in the highest and remotest reaches of the Montes de María. An operation at the very end of 2006 allowed the escape of a Cartagena politician whom the FARC had held hostage since 2000; shortly afterward, President Uribe named Fernando Araújo to the post of foreign minister, where he remained for nearly a year and a half. In October 2007, a military operation in El Carmen de Bolívar killed Gustavo Rueda Díaz, alias “Martín Caballero,” the commander of the 37th Front and probably the most powerful FARC leader remaining in Colombia’s Caribbean.

Today, the guerrilla presence in Montes de María is negligible. During our July visit to the zone, we heard estimates of the FARC presence in the Montes de María today ranging from zero to 40 members, perhaps with several dozen undercover militia members. However, we heard rumors of a guerrilla attempt to regroup and to forcibly recruit campesinos – including children – in some of the zone’s most isolated corners.

For their part, the paramilitaries are less visible and less lethal, but they are very much present in the Montes de María, albeit in their fragmented, post-AUC incarnation. Groups include the Águilas Negras (Black Eagles, who have emerged in several regions of the country), the Paisas (a band that originated in the Medellín drug underworld), and the remnants of the paramilitaries organized by “Don Mario” (Daniel Rendón, a former AUC figure and narcotrafficker whom police captured in April). These groups are heavily armed and recruiting rapidly, though they rarely wear uniforms and often resemble urban gangs more than armies. For the most part, their leaders are former mid-level commanders who served under AUC leaders extradited to the United States since May 2008, and who are now competing to fill the vacuum.

Their principal motivation is narcotrafficking. The cocaine transshipment routes through the Montes de María continue to be much coveted, and violence is actually increasing as these “new” paramilitary bands fight each other to control them. The governor of Sucre, Jorge Barraza, told us that 106 people were murdered in his department during the first six months of 2009 – more than double the 49 killed during the same period in 2008. Fighting between “new” paramilitary groups was the principal cause.

Montes de Maria trip - Colombia - July 2009
Abandoned church in Macayepo.

Victims’ group leaders told us that, more than 3 years since the “para-politics” scandal first hit Sucre, many of the region’s mayors and councilmen maintain ties of corruption with the paramilitaries. The leaders also told us that in the first half of 2009 they suffered an increase in threats from the groups, particularly the “Águilas Negras,” in retaliation for their efforts to recover property, denounce corruption, and uncover the truth about what happened to their loved ones. Worsening threats forced Íngrid Vergara, an outspoken local leader in the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes, to leave the zone in late June. The Verbel family, featured in a 2005 New York Times story about San Onofre due to their leading role in organizing victims, continues to live under constant threat, with some members in hiding.

On balance, though, security in the Montes de María is better than it was in the 1990s and the early 2000s. As a result, the value of the region’s fertile land is skyrocketing. A hectare (2.5 acres) of land that would have sold for 200,000 pesos (US$90) in 2001 is worth at least 4 million pesos (US$1,800) today. Author and El Espectador columnist Alfredo Molano, writing late last year, described a phenomenon that we heard about in almost every encounter during our time in the region.

For the past several months, strange personalities have come to the towns of the Montes de María in bulletproof Hummers to negotiate land purchases. (Hummers are combat vehicles from the Gulf War, today sold commercially and hated by environmentalists for the very high levels of pollution that they produce.) That is, they come to buy, at a low cost, small properties that have been foreclosed upon by the banks or by businesses. Or because they like to have their pistols seen and they don’t hide their bodyguards. Campesinos who have managed to come out of the war alive, or who have returned after being displaced to other cities, are the first ones obligated to sell.

We heard that, in fact, threats against those who refuse to sell are relatively rare (though they do happen). Instead, landholders – especially those who received their titles from the INCORA land redistributions of the 1970s and 1980s – are either being enticed to sell by the attractiveness of the prices they are being offered, or – far more sinister – are selling because they cannot pay their mortgages after years of displacement from the zone. (Displaced people are supposed to have their debts frozen, but due to the bureaucratic difficulty of registering promptly as a displaced person, and the lack of communication between the parts of the government responsible for displacement and debt, this has offered little protection.) As a result, a wealthy land-buyer need only offer an indebted displaced person enough money to pay their remaining mortgage, plus perhaps several hundred extra dollars, to seal the deal.

The new buyers – almost universally referred to as “paisas,” or landowners from Antioquia, the wealthy department of which Medellín is the capital – are buying up small plots at a blistering pace. In the municipality of Ovejas, Sucre, El Tiempo reported in March, “Last year more than 3,000 hectares were sold, an amount that exceeds by more than 50 percent that municipality’s earlier annual average. The mayor, Antonio García, admits that people from the interior, especially Antioquia, came to buy at very low prices, taking advantage of the campesinos’ fear of returning to their farms.” The buying frenzy has reached the point where some local authorities are trying to implement a freeze on land purchases; in an August 2008 “town meeting” in San Juan Nepomuceno, Bolívar, President Uribe himself exhorted the local citizenry, “Don’t sell your land!”

In the midst of this improved security and huge sell-off, a few people displaced in the 1999-2002 period are returning to their land. Many more have not: some are now accustomed to life in the cities, while others are semi-displaced, working their land during the day but traveling hours to sleep at night in urban areas. We visited a few towns that had been emptied by mass displacements in 2000 – Chinulito, El Aguacate, Macayepo – and were told that perhaps one-fifth or one-quarter of the population had returned to their abandoned plots. Some had periodically returned to maintain their farms, while others came back after seven or eight years to find their plots completely overgrown and their houses empty shells.

With less violence has come more foreign assistance. Supported by Sweden, Spain and the Netherlands, the UN Development Program has implemented a project called Redes (Networks), which since 2003 has sought to improve local governance and support civil-society organizations, combining local conflict resolution and economic development. Redes assisted the creation of the Montes de María Peace and Development Network, a regional effort with heavy church involvement. The Network adapts the model of reconciliation and income generation first carried out in the Magdalena Medio region in north-central Colombia, where the Magdalena Medio Development and Peace Project has functioned since the mid-1990s.

The Montes de María Peace and Development Network, in turn, is the principal partner of, and executor of projects for, the “Laboratory of Peace,” the framework through which the European Commission provides much of its assistance to Colombia, with a principal focus on assisting civil society. Montes de María was designated the site of the third such “Laboratory” in 2005; funds started to flow in 2007. The plan is to invest about 24 million euros in Montes de María and Meta over five years, of which about 14 million would go to the Montes de María.

In 2007, the Montes de María also became one of the regions chosen as a focus for the Center for the Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI), the Colombian government’s military-civilian strategy, developed with heavy U.S. input, for bringing the government into zones where it is largely missing. The CCAI activities in the region were coordinated out of an office that by 2008 was being called a “Fusion Center.” The office’s head was Col. Rafael Colón, the marine officer who had won reknown for confronting the paramilitaries. The Center declared one of its main objectives to be assisting the return of displaced communities.

It also sought to involve the military in many traditionally civilian service projects, including an east-west road passing through the heart of the Montes de María between Chinulito and El Carmen de Bolívar, the first paved road to connect the two north-south highways that pass through the region. As Alfredo Molano noted in December 2008, “The military has begun to contract all infrastructure projects with the civilian sector, such as roads, bridges, schools, or medical centers; to carry out health-care brigades; to organize campesino associations; to entertain the campesinos with a traveling circus; and, though it may surprise the country, to give human rights workshops.”

In June 2008 Col. Colón, speaking before a gathering of 350 victims of the violence at an event organized by the NGO Redepaz in El Carmen de Bolívar, publicly begged the victims’ pardon for the Marines’ inaction during the worst years of the paramilitary slaughter. After delivering his remarks, Colón told El Tiempo, “If massacres were committed in Macayepo, Chengue and El Salado, and the victims demand that all institutions beg forgiveness, it is natural for me to tell them that, if for some reason, those massacres were committed due to carelessness or lack of attention on the part of state institutions, then I ask their pardon with much fervor and feeling.” Col. Colon was immediately rebuked by his superiors, and shortly afterward was relieved of the directorship of the Montes de María “Fusion Center” and sent to what El Tiempo called “an overseas military commission.” (Colón was promoted to the rank of general at the end of 2008, but has not returned to a post with responsibility for the Montes de María.)

The Fusion Center, based in an office building in Cartagena, is now under the command of a civilian, Juan Carlos Vargas. Inaugurated in its new location in early 2009, it has now become a focus of U.S. assistance to the “Integrated Action” or CCAI model.

Let’s leave the narrative here. The next post on this topic will look at what the Fusion Center plans to do in Montes de María, and how it differs from what we saw in La Macarena in April.

Jul 13

We got back from Colombia on Saturday. Between meetings and a bursting e-mail inbox, it may be a few more days before I post any substantial entries to this blog.

In the meantime, here is another video from last week in Colombia. 1:20 of footage of some of the houses abandoned in 2000 after the paramilitaries swept through the town of Chinulito, Sucre, which sits right on the main highway between the cities of Cartagena and Sincelejo.

Now that security conditions have improved, about one-quarter of the families who displaced from the area have returned. But most of the homes are still empty shells, a very stark image of what forced displacement looks like.

I apologize for the clumsy improvised narration, which ends up adding little. Also, the road goes east from Chinulito, not south as I say here. No chance for a second take, obviously.

Abandoned homes in Chinulito from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

Jul 10

Hi from Sincelejo, the capital of the department of Sucre, Colombia. We’ve had several tremendous days of interviews and site visits in the Montes de María region, which was hit hard by the conflict in the early 2000s and which is now increasingly a focus for U.S.-supported “integrated action” programs. Today we go to Montería, Córdoba, and then back to Washington.

Here’s a 100-second video I recorded from the back of a pickup truck on the road between Macayepo and Chinulito, both of them sites of massacres in 2000, and both of them experiencing a partial return of displaced people.

Some of you may recognize Nancy Sánchez of the Colombian human rights group MINGA (winner of the Institute for Policy Studies’ 2003 Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award). It may appear that I have Nancy in an affectionate embrace; actually, I’m clinging desperately with my free hand to the roof of the truck in order to avoid flying out. The road is in terrible condition.

On the road between Macayepo and Chinulito from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

On the road between Macayepo and Chinulito from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.