This is the third and final installment of posts about our July 2009 visit to the Montes de MarÃa 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 MarÃa 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 MarÃa.
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 MarÃa. 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 MarÃa 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 MartÃn 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 BolÃvar and Chinulito, Sucre. This road’s construction, ambitious because of the rugged terrain it must cross, has been left entirely up to the Marines (InfanterÃa 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 MarÃa 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 MarÃa in 2007. The modestly funded program was coordinated by Col. Rafael ColÃ³n, the Marine officer who had confronted the region’s paramilitaries during his 2004-2006 tenure at the head of the local brigade. (Col. ColÃ³n is discussed in an earlier post.) ColÃ³n 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 ColÃ³n’s brief tenure during the CCAI’s initial period in Montes de MarÃa, 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 MarÃa 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 MarÃa 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 MarÃa Coordination Center is not physically based in Montes de MarÃa, 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 MarÃa over the next five years. A CCAI PowerPoint about its Montes de MarÃa 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 BogotÃ¡, the civilian staff at the Montes de MarÃa 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 MarÃa 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 MarÃa 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 BolÃvar and San Jacinto, BolÃvar. 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 MarÃa La Baja, BolÃvar, 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 MarÃa, 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 MarÃa 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 MarÃa 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 MarÃa 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 MarÃa.
Unlike La Macarena, the Montes de MarÃa 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 MarÃa 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 MarÃa Coordination Center must work with – or around, or even against – local and departmental governments.
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 MarÃa.”
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 BolÃvar 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 BolÃvar continue to be tied to a nexus of large landholders, narcotraffickers, and political bosses who chose to rid the Montes de MarÃa 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 ColosÃ³ and Toluviejo. (Inhabitants of Chinulito, which is part of ColosÃ³, also accuse former mayor Manuel David Arrieta of stealing funds designated for the town’s reconstruction.) Just to the east, in the vicinity of MaganguÃ©, BolÃvar, the most powerful paramilitary-tied political boss was a woman: Enilce LÃ³pez, “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, BolÃvar and the Montes de MarÃa, 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 â€¦ is the citizen alarm after the partial triumph of â€œTutoâ€ Barraza â€“ candidate of Congressman Carlos GarcÃa, imprisoned for â€œparapoliticsâ€ â€“ over Julio CÃ©sar Guerra Tulena, for governor of Sucre. Until just before eight at night Barraza was losing by 2,000 votes, when mysteriously the Registryâ€™s data transmission system broke down. Shortly afterward, the Registryâ€™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 (RegistradurÃa) assures that it will investigate what happened, while the regionâ€™s voters recall that these were the same strategies by which GarcÃa 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, JesÃºs Antonio Paternina Samur. Meanwhile in MaganguÃ©, 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 MarÃa. 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 MarÃa.
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. ColÃ³n’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 MedellÃn-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 Ãguilas 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 BogotÃ¡ 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 MarÃa, 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.
On the positive side, displaced communities are not returning to a vacuum. The Montes de MarÃa 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 MarÃa 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 MarÃa 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 MarÃa 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.