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.

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.

Dec 08

(Map source: Fundación Red Desarrollo y Paz de los Montes de María.)

Here is a translation of a troubling column by Alfredo Molano in yesterday’s El Espectador. Molano writes about the Montes de María region, along Colombia’s Caribbean coast southwest of Cartagena. He describes a war-scarred region where “strange personalities” in armored Hummers are buying up small farmers’ land, and where the government is carrying out “consolidation” programs that give the Colombian military a significant role in development projects.

Consolidation, Inc.
By Alfredo Molano Bravo
El Espectador (Bogotá), December 7, 2008

The four dead in El Pozón, a neighborhood of displaced people in Cartagena, didn’t merit anything more than small-type headlines in the newspapers and a brief reference on the radio.

In El Carmen de Bolívar, where the dead originally came from, the news spread quickly and opened up a debate. First in moderate tones and then little by little, as the weather grew hotter, an open discussion full of wounded cries about the post-conflict reality in the Montes de María. This is a mountain range that has been beaten down by violence since the 1950s, suffering the massacres of El Salado, Chengue and Macayepo, carried out by the paramilitaries under the command of alias Cadena and alias El Tigre, protected by politicians in the region and with the participation of some loose ends among the Marines.

After the death of [Caribbean Bloc commander] Martín Caballero [in October 2007], the FARC have continued to suffer blows and the security forces continue to advance. The result has inspired the government to proclaim victory, and to launch a military consolidation plan called the “Integrated Action Fusion Center,” which is nothing more than an updated way of carrying out military civic-action projects. The Marines are in charge of all government institutions, from [the presidency's office of] Social Action to the ICBF [child and family welfare institute], a coordination that ends up being authoritarian. 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.

The program is nothing more than the militarization of the state’s social programs. After the blood and pain of the massacres, after the military’s securing of the zone, now the way is open for a civilian operation in the hands of those in uniform. The people look on with skepticism. They have memories. The European Union, which financed much of the existing public works, is uncomfortable with its new partner, since its aid programs prohibit participation in military plans; and as if that weren’t enough, it is hard enough to get most public functionaries to do their own jobs.

The surprising “post-conflict” thesis has another dissonant note: 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.

There are chains of intermediaries who offer confidential commercial information and who pass through the small farms issuing “Águilas Negras” threats. It doesn’t stop there: large and recognized dairy, timber, and – of course! – oil-palm companies are those who end up buying these lands and making them into very respectable agro-industrial enterprises. It would all seem to be a perfect plan, were it not for the campesinos who have noticed “how the stream’s water arrives at the mill,” and who also know how to tell of the terrible roads they had to take to get to the notaries [to close the sales of their land]. The issue is so serious that the Bolívar departmental government has frozen land sales in the region.

Europe, which finances the social programs that the government is carrying out in the Montes de María and in the Macizo Colombiano (the mountains of southwestern Colombia), among other regions, cannot be indifferent to this huge institutional change. Nor can the incoming U.S. government: what Uribe is doing is getting out ahead of the likely reduction in Plan Colombia’s military aid and giving the military control over money spent for exclusively social purposes. This will allow [Defense] Minister [Juan Manuel] Santos to begin his election campaign and the military to continue enjoying preferential treatment in the budget.

Dec 03

In a series of three articles posted to its website and to that of Colombia’s Semana newsmagazine, the Colombian think-tank Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris (which unfortunately translates as “New Rainbow Corporation”) provides a brief but excellent overview of the state of Colombia’s conflict at the end of 2008.

The picture is complex, but very troubling on balance. They reveal U.S. officials’ portrayal of Colombia as an “international model” of successful state building to be premature at best – if not completely misguided.

Here is an English translation (thanks to CIP Intern Anthony Dest) of the third of these articles, which focuses on the state of the ELN. The smaller of Colombia’s two guerrilla groups remains weak, as it has for most of the past ten years. But according to analysts at Nuevo Arco Iris – a group founded in the mid-1990s by a group of demobilized ELN dissidents – the guerrilla organization continues to survive and to pose a threat.

A Weakened ELN Tries To Rebuild

This guerrilla group eludes government forces. It appears to be a strategy aimed at preserving what little it has left: to sustain itself and to hide.

Militarily, in 2008 the ELN carried out what could be called a passive resistance. It lost personnel in a few regions such as Antioquia, Boyacá and Santander, but in others such as Nariño, it increased in power for two reasons: alliances with emerging criminal groups, and because the Armed Forces have concentrated more on pursuing the FARC (a strategy that has given the ELN some breathing room).

The study by Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris claims that, despite its position of retreat, the ELN continues to kidnap. Kidnapping continues to be one of the ELN’s primary sources of financing, in addition to narcotics trafficking in some regions.

Here are the principal findings:

  • Historically, the ELN has had an enormously decentralized and autonomous structure in which the organization followed dissimilar regional dynamics. It is divided territorialy into independent “war fronts,” in turn subdivided into fronts. The COCE [the ELN's 'Central Command'] continues to maintain control over the organization and keep it cohesive despite great difficulties.
  • The “Arauca, Boyacá and Casanare Corridor” group failed to consolidate itself. The project aimed to unite the Domingo Laín Front of the Northeastern War Front with the other groups from the region, along with two groups from the Central War Front that were very weak. However, the Laín is in a state of stark decline and currently has very little ability to attack the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline. There is a similar situation in Casanare, where the ELN suffers from a very weak structure.
  • The group from Magdalena Medio, which operates in Santander and part of Boyacá, didn’t increase in power either. The ELN was dismantled and lost its traditional bases of power in San Vicente del Chucurí and Barrancabermeja. The Manuel Gustavo Chacón Front in Norte de Santander and part of the Yariguíes Front [around Barrancabermeja], which is made up of no more than 20 combatants according to official information, continue to survive.
  • The group on the Venezuelan border, in the south of Cesar and in Norte de Santander, has been subject to paramilitary attacks and pressure by the Armed Forces. However, in the last two years the ELN has recovered a presence and increased its attacks and recruitment activities, as a result of increased narcotics trafficking in Catatumbo and La Gabarra, where coca crops flourish.
  • The Northwestern Group, originally intended to operate in Antioquia and parts of Chocó and Córdoba, was the ELN’s most ambitious project. After notable growth, the original front, the José Antonio Galán, consolidated its bases. However, the paramilitary groups took control over the region, and at the end of 2008, the 10 ELN fronts in the region fused into three. Among the combined groups is the emblematic compañía Héroes de Anorí with the Carlos Alirio Buitrago Front.
  • The ELN’s Industrial Group of Eastern Antioquia, a region characterized by the cement and hydroelectric industries and a complicated infrastructure of energy towers, was hit very hard. Only the three original companies survived; among them was the Carlos Alirio Buitrago Front, which currently doesn’t have more than 50 combatants.
  • Since 2000, the ELN has carried out fewer attacks and its military capabilities have been in constant decline. The stage of passive resistance began in 2005 as a result of the intensification of the government’s offensive.
  • As of the end of 2008, the ELN maintains its defensive tactics.
Dec 03

In a series of three articles posted to its website and to that of Colombia’s Semana newsmagazine, the Colombian think-tank Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris (which unfortunately translates as “New Rainbow Corporation”) provides a brief but excellent overview of the state of Colombia’s conflict at the end of 2008.

The picture is complex, but very troubling on balance. They reveal U.S. officials’ portrayal of Colombia as an “international model” of successful state building to be premature at best – if not completely misguided.

Here is an English translation (thanks to CIP Intern Anthony Dest) of the second of these articles, which focuses on the state of the FARC. The guerrilla group has been weakened by the Colombian government’s military offensives and its own internal troubles, but does not appear to be anywhere near a battlefield defeat.

The FARC Adapts to Remain At War

These guerrillas have retreated to the southwest of the country and toward the border with Venezuela. They continue their offensive with homemade weapons and cruel antipersonnel mines.

In October alone, the Colombian army confiscated 504 of the FARC’s hand-crafted bombs, and the mines they continue to deactivate (at a high cost in soldiers’ lives and suffering) are homemade.

This fact comes from recent research by the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris that combines official Ministry of Defense data with field investigation. The study reveals the extent to which the government has successfully blocked the FARC’s communications and clandestine businesses, impeding their ability to obtain professional weapons.

Despite their retreat, the guerrillas haven’t stopped fighting. They continue to attack, lay mines indiscriminately, and cause damage to the Army. Another tactic the FARC has frequently used throughout the year is aligning itself with criminal groups in the eastern plains and Caribbean coast.

These alliances are always made with groups even more involved in narcotics trafficking, or to resist attacks from and combat the Águilas Negras or other emerging criminal groups that have declared themselves paramilitaries.

These are the principal findings of the study on the FARC:

  • The last 10 years of the war against this group can be divided into three periods:
    • 1995-2000: A strong offensive by the FARC. It was characterized by what could be called a change from a war of mobile guerrillas to a war of positions (de una guerra de guerrillas móviles a una guerra de movimientos).
    • 2000-2005: The modernization of the Armed Forces’ military apparatus begins. Plan Colombia begins to be applied in October of 2000.
    • 2006-2008: A loss of territory for the FARC, constant desertions, tactical retreat and a restructuring of its military actions.
  • Thanks to Plan Patriota and Plan Consolidación, 2007 was the security forces’ year of best results. 2005, however, was the worst because the Armed Forces suffered from the most registered casualties and many important military setbacks that can be attributed to the lack of knowledge of the territory where the troops were stationed.
  • The past six years have greatly weakened the FARC. The guerrillas have had very few successes in recent history. One was in the Serranía de la Macarena where they successfully stopped the manual eradication of coca crops in 2005. It also had a few military victories in the region. In 2008, the FARC was successful militarily in Tolima, Huila and the Antioquian Urabá. The Bloque Oriental (Eastern Bloc) has also strongly resisted.
  • The guerrillas’ Eighth Conference in 1993 established that the high command would act throughout the country, while the blocs and fronts would have a shared command. However, communications problems have made it difficult for the FARC to carry this out on the ground, and central and mid-level commanders are disconnected.
  • The majority of those who deserted the FARC between 2002 and 2008 were recent recruits who had only been part of the organization for 3-6 months. Of every 10, only 3 were armed combatants while 7 were collaborators or sympathizers. Last year, 2 out of every ten deserters were armed combatants; that number increased to 3 out of 10 in 2008. In 2008, the profile of deserters also changed, with more desertions of mid-ranking members who had been in the organization for over 10 years.
  • The tendency of mid-ranking members to become corrupt or demobilize reflects a crisis at that level of the FARC. Holes have become apparent in the organization; what begins as insubordination within the FARC’s structure can reach the high command, as seen in the [March 2008] betrayal of [Secretariat member] ‘Iván Ríos.’
  • [Secretariat member Raúl] Reyes’ death [in a March 2008 attack] is the biggest blow to the FARC’s directorate, but it negatively impacted the FARC’s external image more than its internal organization. The consequences were external because his death projected an image of a defeated guerrilla group to the world. It also generated a loss of confidence and was demoralizing to the FARC’s troops.
Dec 03

View this map on the Nuevo Arco Iris website.

In a series of three articles posted to its website and to that of Colombia’s Semana newsmagazine, the Colombian think-tank Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris (which unfortunately translates as “New Rainbow Corporation”) provides a brief but excellent overview of the state of Colombia’s conflict at the end of 2008.

The picture is complex, but very troubling on balance. They reveal U.S. officials’ portrayal of Colombia as an “international model” of successful state building to be premature at best – if not completely misguided.

Here is an English translation (thanks to CIP Intern Anthony Dest) of the first of these articles, which focuses on the challenge of re-arming paramilitary groups. If Nuevo Arco Iris is correct, these groups’ combined membership probably now exceeds that of the FARC.

A Worrisome Increase of Armed Groups in Colombia

There are two types: The Águilas Negras (Black Eagles), who commit political violence, and other groups involved in narcotics trafficking and other illicit businesses. They hav gone from being in 115 to 246 municipalities [counties]. This is a finding of the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris as part of a research project on the state of the war in Colombia.

The result of the research by Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris is truly disturbing. Their research, which makes use of official data and field work, concludes that Colombia’s internal security is endangered by the existence of bandas criminales emergentes (emerging criminal groups).

Part of the success of the [Uribe government's] Democratic Security strategy, which has been defined by confronting and weakening the guerrillas and successfully demobilizing the the AUC, is now at risk in 246 municipalities where these emerging criminal groups are committing violence or other illegal operations.

“They destroy the social order in order to flourish,” León Valencia, director of the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, told “This is a huge security risk for all citizens because they attack the institutions, social leaders, honest politicians, and families close to organized workers.”

Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris’ study also included a run-down on the state of the FARC, ELN, and the parapolitics scandal.

Here are a few of the key findings on these emerging criminal groups:

  • The groups throughout the country are divided into 100 armed nuclei that use 21 different names and are committed to criminal activities, murders, and threatening the population.
  • These groups are present in 246 municipalities, and conservative estimates show that they include 8,000 members. The groups are mostly concentrated (40%) in the Atlantic coastal region.
  • There are three types of criminal groups:
    • the emerging ones, which is to say the new organizations like the Águilas Negras;
    • the rearmed groups, which are made up of previously demobilized paramilitaries, such as [former "Heroes del Guaviare" paramilitary leader Pedro Oliverio Guerrero, alias] Cuchillo’s group in the Eastern Plains (Llanos Orientales); and
    • the dissidents, ex-paramilitaries who left the Ralito [2002-2006 demobilization-negotiation] process or were never involved, like those of Don Mario [Daniel Rendón, a major narcotrafficker and brother of Freddy Rendón, alias El Alemán, former head of the powerful Elmer Cárdenas paramilitary bloc that operated in the northwestern region of Urabá].
  • It is believed that Águilas Negras, who are considered a criminal group, are present in 57 municipalities, the majority of which are in the Santanders, the north of the country, and southern Cesar.
  • It is interesting that according to the authorities, the Águilas Negras have been responsible for threats against union organizers, members of local governments, professors, journalists, and employees of the Personerías and Defensorías [government entities responsible for dealing with human rights denunciations and investigations]. “Are these activities exclusively criminal, or do they aim gain social and political control? There is no doubt that there is something more than just a criminal motivation in the operations that they carry out,” according to the researchers.
  • The Organización al Servicio del Narcotráfico (Organization at the Service of Narcotrafficking) is a criminal group that works with Don Mario’s organization, as evidenced by the close proximity of their areas of operation. It has rapidly expanded its activities throughout different parts of the country.
  • Some areas of paramilitary influence are within the 60 municipalities that make up the government program called “Social Consolidation of Territory” (Consolidación Social del Territorio), which intends to recover government control and institutions in conflict areas. The military pressure to pursue the “criminal groups” in these zones is not as intense as was the pursuit of the FARC under “Plan Patriota” [an ambitious 2003-2006 series of large-scale anti-guerrilla military offensives].
  • There are agreements between the guerrillas and emerging criminal groups to secure drug corridors or attack other groups in the southeast and southwest of the country. For example, in Nariño and Cauca, there is a cease-fire between the Rastrojos [which began as a private army of North Valle Cartel figures] and the ELN in order to traffic drugs. In Meta, the FARC and Cuchillo’s group, the Organización Libertadores del Llano, have similar agreements, although these groups have confronted one another in recent months. Interestingly, in Arauca, the FARC was the target of both the Army and the ELN; the FARC eventually left the region.
Jul 15

Here is a translation of an eloquent column posted to Semana magazine’s website yesterday, written by the magazine’s former editor María Teresa Ronderos.

Let’s hope she’s right – she may be overstating the extent of the Colombian military’s generational change, but it is certain that its more moderate officers are far more influential than ever before, and the July 2 hostage rescue reinforces their position within the institution.

Ronderos’ column doesn’t put it this way, but it does raise the interesting question of whether the military’s move toward a lighter touch puts them out of step with Colombia’s President. Between his rhetoric about NGOs and his arguments with the justice system, Álvaro Uribe appears to adhere to the old ways, including a belief in the “attorney-general’s syndrome” and an inability to distinguish between human-rights defenders and guerrilla supporters.

Why history was divided in two

The celebrated rescue of Íngrid, William Pérez, Lieutenant Malagón, Keith Stansell and the other souls who spent so many years captive in the jungle marks a definitive rupture in the history of Colombia’s war.

First, because the Army had the hard evidence, the strongest ever obtained, that it can deal decisive blows to its enemy, that it can win the war, obeying national and international legal precepts.

During several decades the Army and, in general, the Colombian armed forces jealously guarded the secret conviction, as though it were part of its identity, that the war against the guerrillas cannot be won by obeying all norms of democracy.

In the past – that is, 15 years ago – the officers spoke of the “attorney-general’s syndrome,” because it was this entity [Procuraduría] that called them to account every time a violation was committed. So they said that as long as they had the Procuraduría breathing down their necks, it would be impossible for them to defeat the guerrillas. And more recently, since the 1990s, they used the “guerrilla” epithet to describe non-governmental organizations, human rights defenders and journalists who denounced them when their men committed violations.

Many soldiers went still further. Responding to the interests of businessmen and large landowners, and sometimes of narcotraffickers, they allied with paramilitary groups, so that these might fight the guerrillas without ethical or legal limits. We have borne witness to this today in Colombia thanks to the mass confessions of paramilitaries in the Justice and Peace processes, the product of the demobilization of the largest paramilitary organization the country ever had, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. The “paras” are telling of how colonel so-and-so gave them the arms, this other general trained them, the other captain who was their accomplice, etcetera. Not all of what they say is true, but when the trials end, we will surely find that many truths were said.

These have not been the only soldiers. Because of course there have been brave officers and soldiers, who have given an enormous sacrifice to preserve democracy from terror, while abstaining from using its methods.

But this culture that reigned so long among the military – nurtured by the civilians who commanded them – is changing, and the hostages’ rescue marks a point of no return. Finally, years of human rights courses, pressure from Colombian civil sectors, inquisitions from foreign organizations and governments, from civilians and, above all, soldiers who from within the armed forces, with great bravery have dedicated themselves to the difficult security mission that society set for them, have produced the cultural transformation that the Colombian military forces needed. It is meaningful that today Freddy Padilla de León, a general who throughout his career has been a member of this legitimizing faction, now heads the armed forces.

An important factor in this organizational change has been the United States. Paradoxically it was a professor of dirty wars during the Cold War, but since the Clinton era, since it gave $5 billion dollars to the Colombian state to recover the lost monopoly of force, and the government and Congress have permanently conditioned its aid on compliance with international human rights standards. Since it gave the money, it imposed the philosophy.

It is not that this tendency to win unholy victories is extinct within the security forces. There is still complicity between soldiers and paramilitaries; and extrajudicial executions are still committed (there were 127 denunciations of possible extrajudicial executions in 2006 and 73 in 2007); that is, campesinos are killed and made to appear as guerrillas killed in combat, in order to demonstrate effectiveness to the commanders. But these practices now do not reflect the dominant thinking in the armed forces, and an institutional effort is being made to avoid their repeat. Best of all, they are beginning to be viewed badly by many soldiers, above all the youngest.

In this sense, the rescue of Íngrid Betancourt and the other 14 kidnap victims is a tipping point in the Colombian Armed Forces’ cultural transformation. That July 2, they registered a great success, perhaps a mortal blow to the guerrillas, but equally importantly they did it while following the law. Operation Check, as the rescue was called, is the harvest reaped from this new mentality, and at the same time it is a lesson for those who still think that the means used do not matter (lies, human rights violations, persecution of critics), that the only important thing is to achieve results. Now it is clear that it is the other way around: the better things are done, the greater the legitimacy and, as a result, the larger is the military and political success.

Ethical means are what led to the triumph of the democratic state.


The second thing that changed forever is that the FARC have been exposed in all of their weakness.

Continue reading »

Jul 09

Using information on our “Just the Facts” military aid database (, here is a functional breakdown of the nearly $600 million in aid that the United States provided to Colombia’s military and police forces in 2007.

Using this information, this post attempts to estimate how much U.S. military/police aid goes to the “drug war,” with its well-publicized disappointing results, and how much is going to non-drug military programs. The non-drug programs include initiatives that appear to have contributed to some of the Colombian military’s recent military successes against the FARC, principally intelligence, mobility, and programs to improve Colombians’ own security. Non-drug programs also include efforts whose results have perhaps yielded less “bang for the buck,” such as big military offensives and oil-pipeline protection.

According to this exercise, we estimate that about 35 percent of U.S. military aid in 2007 went to non-drug missions. The remaining aid – nearly two-thirds – has gone to the drug war, which – as is now general knowledge – has not affected the amount of coca grown, or cocaine produced, in Colombia and the Andes.

Caveats: (1) There is not much transparency over many of these programs, and we have had to estimate percentages. For larger estimates, our reasons are explained in the notes. (2) Sometimes the drug vs. non-drug question is very hard to estimate: how often is a helicopter used for drug versus non-drug missions? We have tried to give the benefit of the doubt to non-drug missions, though we understand that U.S. officials still generally give priority to using equipment for counter-drug missions.

Funding Program
Estimated Percent Not Drug-Related
Estimated Subtotal Not Drug Related
Andean Counterdrug Initiative Support to the Colombia Military (Army Aviation Support) $104,080,000 50% $52,040,000
Foreign Military Financing Foreign Military Financing $85,500,000 75% $64,125,000
Andean Counterdrug Initiative Support to Colombian National Police (Support For Eradication) $81,950,000 0% $0
Andean Counterdrug Initiative Support to Colombian National Police (Aviation Support) $69,000,000 25% $17,250,000
Andean Counterdrug Initiative Critical Flight Safety $61,035,000 25% $15,258,750
Defense Department Counterdrug Funding SouthCom Counter-Narcotics OperationalSupport $46,178,000 0% $0
Andean Counterdrug Initiative Carabineros $18,650,000 100% $18,650,000
Andean Counterdrug Initiative Support to Colombian National Police (Support For Interdiction) $16,500,000 0% $0
Andean Counterdrug Initiative Support to the Colombia Military (Air Bridge Denial Program) $15,800,000 0% $0
Defense Department Counterdrug Funding Hemispheric Radar System $14,808,000 25% $3,702,000
Defense Department Counterdrug Funding SouthCom Section 1033 Support $12,437,000 25% $3,109,250
Defense Department Counterdrug Funding Counter-Narcotics Intelligence Programs $11,204,000 25% $2,801,000
Defense Department Counterdrug Funding Colombia Airborne Surveillance $10,623,000 100% $10,623,000
Defense Department Counterdrug Funding SOF Counter-Narcotics Support $9,924,000 0% $0
NADR – Anti-Terrorism Assistance NADR – Anti-Terrorism Assistance $3,395,000 100% $3,395,000
Defense Department Counterdrug Funding Detection and Monitoring Domain Awareness $3,300,000 25% $825,000
Defense Department Counterdrug Funding Counter-Narcotics Command Management System $3,267,000 25% $816,750
Defense Department Counterdrug Funding SouthCom Counter-Narcotics Joint Planning Action Teams $2,240,000 25% $560,000
Andean Counterdrug Initiative Support to the Colombia Military (Army Counterdrug Mobile Brigade) $2,200,000 0% $0
Defense Department Counterdrug Funding USARSO Support – SouthCom $2,140,000 100% $2,140,000
Defense Department Counterdrug Funding USMC Counter-Narcotics Training Support $2,004,000 25% $501,000
International Military Education and Training International Military Education and Training $1,646,000 100% $1,646,000
Non-Security Assistance – Unified Command Non-Security Assistance – Unified Command $1,609,148 100% $1,609,148
Defense Department Counterdrug Funding MilGroup Augmentation $1,589,000 100% $1,589,000
Defense Department Counterdrug Funding Tactical Analysis Teams $1,169,000 100% $1,169,000
Andean Counterdrug Initiative Support to Colombian National Police (Administrative Support) $1,000,000 25% $250,000
Andean Counterdrug Initiative Support to the Colombia Military (Navy Maritime Interdiction Support) $1,000,000 25% $250,000
Defense Department Counterdrug Funding CNT Technology $1,000,000 100% $1,000,000
NADR – Conventional Weapons Destruction NADR – Conventional Weapons Destruction $691,000 100% $691,000
NADR – Humanitarian Demining NADR – Humanitarian Demining $691,000 100% $691,000
Defense Department Counterdrug Funding SOUTHAF Support – Southcom $601,000 100% $601,000
Defense Department Counterdrug Funding Cooperating Nations Information Exchange System $599,000 0% $0
Defense Department Counterdrug Funding Joint Inter-Agency Task Force South $399,000 25% $99,750
Service Academies Service Academies $227,725 100% $227,725
Counter-Terrorism Fellowship Program Counter-Terrorism Fellowship Program $222,659 100% $222,659
Defense Department Counterdrug Funding SouthCom Command Support $177,000 100% $177,000
Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies $96,750 100% $96,750
Aviation Leadership Program Aviation Leadership Program $59,383 100% $59,383
Defense Department Counterdrug Funding Bilateral Maritime Collection/Reporting $35,000 100% $35,000
Defense Department Counterdrug Funding ONI Maritime Intelligence Support $35,000 100% $35,000
Asia-Pacific Center Asia-Pacific Center $2,388 100% $2,388
    $589,085,053 35% $206,248,553


Continue reading »

Jul 08

Colombia’s miraculous hostage rescue comes at an interesting moment for U.S. foreign policy. The United States is in the midst of an election-year debate about the use of military force and the role our country should be playing in the world. “Counter-insurgency” is the buzzword of the moment in Washington, as policymakers – faced with debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan – cast about for a model that shows some hope of actually working.

In this context, last week’s news revealing the FARC’s steep decline is leading some U.S. commentators to hold up Plan Colombia, especially the $4.8 billion in military and police aid granted since 2000, as a model of how the United States can undo a “terrorist” threat without having to commit large numbers of troops. (Examples – among many others – 1 2 3 4)

Are they right? Does Plan Colombia offer a handy off-the-shelf template for U.S. policymakers facing a perceived non-state threat in Country X?

Certainly not, if by “Plan Colombia” you mean a package of 80 percent military aid, the vast majority of it dedicated to a failed crusade to reduce cocaine supplies. But the Plan Colombia experience, both its successes and its failures, does offer some guidelines for future U.S. aid to countries facing internal security crises.

  1. Ensure that facing the threat merits the risk and expense. When “Plan Colombia” began eight years ago, almost nobody in Washington questioned the necessity of U.S. aid to Colombia. The country was in the midst of a severe humanitarian and governance crisis. There was strong disagreement about the aid’s heavily military emphasis, but there was consensus about the need to help.

Future aid endeavors should ensure that such a consensus exists. Does the mission in Country X respond to a real threat to U.S. security or a very compelling humanitarian imperative? Or is it merely an imperial adventure aimed at projecting “hard” power overseas?

    1. Ensure that the insurgency being targeted has little or no social support. One reason the FARC have declined so much faster than the Taliban or the Iraqi insurgents is that they are so unpopular at all levels of Colombian society. Years of predatory behavior like threats and extortion, attacks on defenseless people, and (above all) kidnapping have fed widespread rejection of the FARC. By contrast, a violent group that is supported by a larger sector of a country’s population will prove far more resilient, and the “Plan Colombia” model may not be appropriate.
    1. Ensure that the state has at least some legitimacy among the population. Having freely and fairly elected leaders is a good start. So are indicators that an increased state presence would actually be welcomed by the population in “ungoverned” areas under insurgent influence. Despite severe problems with corruption and infiltration by narcotraffickers and paramilitaries, Colombia meets these conditions. Even at the same time they complain about government abuse and neglect, Colombians in conflict zones usually demand a greater state presence and turn out to vote whenever they are able.
    1. Minimize the strategy’s impact on the poorest and weakest. Plan Colombia has often failed to meet this standard. The aerial herbicide fumigation strategy, for instance, has targeted tens of thousands of rural families so wretchedly poor that they see coca-growing as a rational choice for generating income. Insufficient pressure on – or even encouragement of – paramilitary abusers also took its toll, measured in hundreds of thousands of victims. It has taken a while for the United States to learn this lesson in Iraq, as it has gradually moved away from tactics like kicking in doors in the middle of the night. Colombia’s military and police have also begun to develop a lighter touch, but there is much room for improvement.
    1. Put a priority on protecting citizens, not treating them as suspects. This is a basic, but repeatedly ignored, tenet of counter-insurgency theory. Medals and promotions are given out for dead and captured insurgents, not for numbers of people made to feel safer. But few strategies work better than making the population believe that you are there to help them worry less about their security, insted of being just another factor of insecurity.

    The Colombian security forces have had much success with citizen security during the past five years. However, the protection of Colombians has been the focus of only a small portion of U.S. aid to Colombia. Efforts like building police stations, setting up carabinero units, and improving mobility to respond to threats have been vastly overshadowed by big-ticket items like fumigation and shock-and-awe military offensives like “Plan Patriota.”

      1. Similarly, aim intelligence efforts at the insurgent leadership, not citizens working “within the system.” The cold-war “national-security doctrine,” which instructed security forces to root out communist “subversion” within the population, did nothing to weaken the FARC, though it did make life very frightening for labor leaders, leftist politicians, and human rights defenders. (And many on the right still insist, completely mistakenly, that these sectors are the FARC’s main support.)

      This doctrine should not be revived anywhere. Instead, intelligence efforts aimed at the top FARC leadership have been a recent addition to U.S. support for Plan Colombia, a relatively cheap strategy that has yielded strong results by disrupting guerrilla communications and sowing distrust and fear of “infiltrators” among the FARC leadership.

        1. Encourage desertion, not body counts, among the insurgent rank and file. It seems like common sense given the inexhaustible supply of poor, unemployed recruitable youth. But Colombia only began encouraging desertion in earnest a few years ago, rewarding ex-guerrillas with job training and paying them for information, instead of locking them up on “rebellion” charges. This was never a significant focus of U.S. support for Plan Colombia – to the contrary, aiding people who until recently were “terrorists” appeared to risk running afoul of the Patriot Act.
        1. Recall that governance is far more than military occupation. Territories cannot truly be considered “liberated” until the entire state is able to function in the previously abandoned zone. This includes the judicial system and ministries charged with issues like land tenure, education, health, transportation and infrastructure.

        Continue reading »

        Jul 03

        “How big a blow is this for the FARC?”
        “How much does this help Uribe’s re-election?”
        “What does this mean for the free-trade agreement with the United States?”
        “Does this help John McCain?”

        All we can do is offer educated guesses to these questions, which have been asked of us many times since yesterday afternoon (Huge. Very much. Not much. Only a little.)

        More important right now is to pause, watch the jubilant video footage, and enjoy something that far too rare in Colombia: a piece of good news.

        Many, many congratulations to the freed hostages and to their families, who worked so tirelessly to keep their loved ones from being forgotten.

        Congratulations to the Colombian military and all others involved in yesterday’s rescue operation. Instead of the potentially disastrous commando raid that so many of the hostages’ relatives feared, they chose a far more subtle strategy – one in which a small number of operatives who infiltrated the FARC’s inner circles bore all the risk themselves.

        Yesterday’s operation is another in a string of humiliations for the FARC, a group that only a year and a half ago seemed to be geographically unified, hermetically secretive, and rigidly disciplined. No longer. Since June 2007 the FARC have killed 11 of their captives; lost 4 front commanders and three Secretariat members, including Manuel Marulanda – whose death was announced by Colombia’s defense minister; suffered the embarrassing “baby Emmanuel” episode and the capture of guerrilla messengers transporting hostage “proofs of life”; endured two massive anti-FARC protest marches in Colombia; saw their internal communications revealed via Raúl Reyes’ computer; and finally had Hugo Chávez tell them to disband.

        Another year like that one, and there won’t be much left to the FARC. They will still be around – they will still have tens of millions of dollars per year in drug money, and thousands of members scattered around the national territory. But their capacity will be radically reduced.

        What is interesting about yesterday’s operation – and much that the Colombian government has done in the past year or two – is how different it is than what has not worked in the past. Think about all the anti-FARC strategies that have failed over the past forty years, even during the first years of Álvaro Uribe’s term, many of them supported by the United States:

        • Massive military offensives, like “Plan Patriota,” that have mainly pushed the guerrillas temporarily out of areas that remain barely governed.
        • Efforts to rack up large body counts against the rank-and-file of a guerrilla organization made up mostly of very young, poor, easily replaceable recruits.
        • Intelligence operations aimed at rooting out a supposed guerrilla “support base” among Colombia’s non-violent left – labor movements, human-rights defenders, opposition politicians and others.

        Instead, what has worked over the past few years?

        • Putting a much greater focus on intelligence aimed at the guerrillas’ top leadership (and hostage captors). This includes both signals intelligence to intercept their communications, and human intelligence in the form of informants and infiltrators.
        • Making clear to the guerrilla rank-and-file, through public-relations campaigns and the testimonies of previous deserters, that those who surrender to the government will not only not be tortured or disappeared (as too often happened in the past), but they will get job training, perhaps a stipend, and the promise of a new life.
        • Increasing the security forces’ presence in population centers and main roads and (though there is much room for improvement here) making these forces’ main mission protecting citizens instead of treating them as suspects.

        What is interesting about these strategies is that, with the exception of increasing manpower and protective presence, they are relatively inexpensive. Compared to big-ticket items like fumigation and “Plan Patriota”-style military offensives, these efforts make up only a sliver of Colombia’s defense budget (and only a sliver of U.S. assistance). Planners of future aid packages to Colombia should take note.

        Intelligence work and encouragement of desertion, these relatively cheap but vastly improved capabilities, made yesterday’s bloodless rescue mission possible. It is hard to imagine the Colombian military circa 2003-4 pulling off an operation like this successfully. But yesterday it went without a hitch.

        Now let’s go back to enjoying those videos of the freed hostages. We’ve been waiting far too long to see them.

        Jun 23

        When we found out in late May that longtime FARC leader Manuel Marulanda was dead, many observers predicted an upsurge in guerrilla violence as (1) the group sought to show that it was still militarily viable and (2) new leader “Alfonso Cano” sought to assert his authority.

        That prediction appears to be accurate, as the tempo of FARC activity appears to be increasing. Since the announcement of Marulanda’s death and Cano’s succession, the FARC have carried out the following attacks on both military and civilian targets.

        • Attacks with explosives in Norte de Santander department shut down the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline.
        • Four attacks with explosives in Bogotá, including one in a police station in the Suba neighborhood in the city’s northwest.
        • Combat forces displacements in Zaragoza, Antioquia.
        • Attacks on electric power pylons, trains transporting coal, and burning of trucks at roadblocks in La Guajira department.
        • An ambush on a police patrol near the border between Valle del Cauca and Quindío departments.
        • Army patrols killed by landmines in Antioquia and Quindío.
        • Attacks with explosives on police stations in Granada and Tarazá, Antioquia.
        • Attack with explosives on a police station in Caguán, Huila.
        • Attacks on electric power pylons in Patía, Cauca.
        • Five attacks on civilians and military personnel in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca.
        • An attack on a helicopter in Puerto Guzmán, Putumayo.
        May 21

        On Sunday, Nelly Ávila (alias “Karina”) the head of the FARC’s once-powerful 47th Front, surrendered to authorities in southeastern Antioquia department. She appeared exhausted, underfed and thoroughly defeated, and called on other FARC members to join her in deserting the guerrilla group.

        Her capture has triggered another round of articles in the media speculating that the FARC are edging ever closer to a military defeat. Most conclude that while actual defeat remains virtually impossible, the group is being driven out of key areas and may be fragmenting as units in different areas experience difficulty communicating with each other.

        In the past twelve months, I count eight Colombian successes against FARC leaders at or above the level of front commander. (Let me know if any are missing.) Analyzing those events geographically shows a few things about the state of the FARC, discussed after the map below.

        Actions against major FARC leaders since 2007

        1. May 18, 2008: “Karina” (Nelly Ávila Moreno), head of the 47th Front, deserts.
        2. March 7, 2008: FARC Secretariat member “Iván Ríos” is killed by his own chief of security.
        3. March 1, 2008: FARC Secretariat member “Raúl Reyes” is killed about a mile inside Ecuador.
        4. October 25, 2007: “Martin Caballero,” head of the 37th Front and a key member of the Caribbean Bloc, is killed.
        5. February 26, 2008: “Martin Sombra,” one of the FARC’s oldest members and the “jailer” of many hostages, is captured.
        6. September 1, 2007: “Negro Acacio,” head of the cocaine-producing 16th Front, is killed.
        7. June 2007: “J.J.,” head of the Manuel Cepeda Vargas Urban Front, is killed.
        8. July 15, 2007: Carlos Antonio Losada, a former FARC negotiator and high-ranking member of the Eastern Bloc, is probably wounded in an attack during which Colombian forces recover his computer.

        1. Units that were already weak are being hit hardest. The FARC’s regional blocs in northern Colombia have long been smaller than those it maintains in the south and east of the country. Blocs in the central coffee-growing region, the Magdalena Medio region, Antioquia department and the Caribbean have fewer members, operate in more densely populated areas, and have had to contend for more than twenty years with paramilitary groups, which originated in this part of the country.

        Zones like southern Antioquia and northern Caldas – where “Karina” surrendered and where FARC Secretariat member Iván Ríos was killed by his own men in March – have been inhospitable to the FARC for a long time. For years they have been instead considered areas of strong paramilitary influence, particularly of blocs controlled by the recently extradited “Don Berna” and “Macaco.”

        With added military pressure in these zones, it is no wonder that Karina’s view of the FARC’s condition is so dire. It is far from clear, though, whether FARC units elsewhere are in similarly bad shape.

        1. The FARC’s strongest units have suffered fewer reversals. The FARC’s Eastern and Southern Blocs (and to a lesser extent, its Western Bloc) are far larger and wealthier than those that have suffered the strongest blows. They operate in much more remote and unpopulated areas, including triple-canopy jungles, and they profit enormously from the coca economy and control of drug-trafficking routes. Their region is considered the guerrillas’ historical “rearguard” zone.

        Continue reading »

        Apr 24

        This post continues the narrative of my visit last week to the department of Guaviare, in southern Colombia. This section gives an overview of the current security situation in the zone, based on what I learned from visits to one military and two police installations, and numerous conversations with civilian government and civil-society leaders.

        I found a situation that probably describes much of Colombia today. The military and police presence is far greater. Violence levels are down significantly in town centers and along main roads. The security strategy is having far less success, however, in penetrating rural areas, where violence and illegal activity are near all-time highs. Increasingly frequent military forays into rural zones have knocked the guerrillas off balance and eased coca eradication, but have failed either to do long-term damage to the FARC or to make progress toward a permanent, non-military government presence. The combat has also brought a new wave for forced displacement. Meanwhile, re-armed paramilitaries are doing an active drug-trafficking business (at times with the FARC), and facing very little challenge from the security forces.

        The military and police presence

        Ten years ago, the presence of Colombia’s security forces was very scarce in Guaviare. The only army unit in the entire department was the Joaquín Paris Battalion based just outside San José del Guaviare’s town center. This roughly 400-man unit was a component of the 7th Brigade, which itself was based about 80 miles to the north in Villavicencio, Meta. Its members rarely left the confines of its base without a large display of force.

        An Army Special Forces school had just been founded, with U.S. funding, in the town of Barrancón, along the river to the east of San José del Guaviare’s town center. The Special Forces facility was one of the largest outlays of aid to the military, at a time when most U.S. security assistance went to Colombia’s police.

        A poster, which at first glance appears to show President Uribe taking aim at a helicopter, commemorates the Special Forces School’s tenth anniversary.

        In 1998, the presence of police was minimal throughout the department, though the National Police Counter-Narcotics Unit was already quite active at its U.S.-funded base adjacent to the airport, from which fumigation missions flew almost daily. The rest of town was considered so dangerous, however, that the U.S. contractor personnel who flew and maintained the planes were confined to the base. A small group of contractors also operated a counter-drug radar facility on the grounds of the Joaquín Paris Battalion’s base, tracking the skies from a separate area behind tight security.

        There had been a joint military-police counter-narcotics base in Miraflores, a coca boomtown in Guaviare’s far south, until it was overrun by a guerrilla attack in August 1998. The security forces pulled out of town, and the base was not rebuilt. Nine of those taken prisoner in that attack – five corporals, two sergeants and two lieutenants – remain guerrilla captives today, nearly a decade later.

        Beyond that, there was no security-force presence in Guaviare. The municipalities (counties) of Calamar, El Retorno and Miraflores (after July 1998) had no permanent military or police presence at all.

        Today, thanks in small part to U.S. funding and in large part to the Colombian government’s hugely increased defense spending, Guaviare’s military and police presence is many times greater.

        The army’s Joaquín Paris Battalion now shares its facility with an entire mobile brigade, the 22nd (likely close to 2,000 men in five battalions) and – for the time being at least – the second battalion of the army’s Counter-Narcotics Brigade (about 600 members), a unit formed entirely with U.S. funds in mid-2000. (Mobile units, as their name implies, move around often: the U.S. State Department’s list of units approved to receive U.S. aid as of July 31, 2007 [PDF] lists a different mobile brigade – the 7th – present in Guaviare. At that time, the 22nd was at the Larandia military base to the southwest of Guaviare.)

        The destroyed base in Miraflores has been rebuilt and is heavily manned. The Special Forces school in Barrancón is an occasional site of U.S. training missions. The National Police have a new headquarters in the middle of San José del Guaviare, and between 100 and 200 policemen stationed in each of the town centers of Guaviare’s other three municipalities. These police, however, rarely venture too deeply into the rural areas beyond the town limits.

        With U.S. support, the Navy has set up an Advanced Riverine Post in Barrancón to patrol the Guaviare River. And the Counter-Narcotics Police fumigation base in San José continues to host very frequent missions: in Guaviare alone, the planes sprayed 15,000 hectares last year.

        Assistance from the United States has contributed modestly to this increased security-force presence. The impunity enjoyed by those who facilitated the 1997 Mapiripán massacre continues to halt aid to the Joaquín Paris Battalion; the so-called “Leahy Law” prohibits aid to military units worldwide whose members have evaded punishment for gross human rights violations. Only a trickle of assistance has gone to the presence of non-narcotics-related units of the Colombian National Police. A greater amount of U.S. assistance, however, supports the counter-narcotics police, the Army Counter-Narcotics Battalion, the 22nd Mobile Brigade, the Navy Riverine Post, and the Special Forces School. The fumigation base continues to have nearly all of its expenditures covered by the U.S. government, and the U.S.-manned radar site remains in operation. (While the U.S.-aided units appear to have superior equipment, members of the Counter-Narcotics Battalion lamented that they still lack access to the Internet.)

        Nearing the army roadblock on the main road by the Joaquín Paris Battalion’s base.

        All told – and this is a rough estimate, because officials were reluctant to reveal force strengths – the combined military and police presence in Guaviare has increased from less than 1,000 in 1998 to at least 5,000 today. A very conservative estimate, then, would be a fivefold increase in the government’s armed presence in the department. This would mean that there is now approximately one soldier or policeman for every 30 residents of Guaviare.

        I heard few denunciations that these forces were committing serious abuses against the population, at least not directly. The principal complaints – and these were general, with few specifics given – included continued toleration of paramilitary activity, and frequent use of civilian facilities, particularly schools, to shelter military personnel on patrol in small villages. Colombian human-rights groups have documented cases in Guaviare of the nationwide problem of “extrajudicial executions” – killings of civilians who are later presented as guerrillas killed in combat – though when I asked about such cases, local leaders instead cited more recent allegations of a rash of killings just to the north in the department of Meta.

        The guerrilla presence

        Continue reading »

        Mar 01

        Raúl Reyes (left), with neither camouflage nor rifle, accompanies Colombian government officials on a 2000 trip to Europe. The visit sought to support a peace process that ultimately failed

        I met Raúl Reyes once, in 1999, during the FARC’s failed peace process with the government of Andrés Pastrana. I was with a U.S. congressional delegation whom the Colombian government had brought to the FARC demilitarized zone to learn about the several-months-old dialogues.

        Reyes – then, as he was until this morning, the chief spokesman in the FARC’s seven-member Secretariat – received our group. He was soft-spoken and short of stature. He spoke in lengthy, florid phrases, saying much while telling us little. He assured us that the FARC hated narco-trafficking, that they merely taxed coca-growers the same way they charged levies on all economic activity, and that the FARC would be “the best ally the United States could have” against narco-trafficking if we worked with the guerrillas on alternative development. When we raised the issue of kidnapping, Reyes corrected us, insisting that the group’s victims were not kidnapped or held hostage, but “detained.”

        During the entire two-hour meeting, Raúl Reyes never removed the rifle that hung from his shoulder.

        Reyes – his real name Luis Edgar Devia – is now dead, the first member of the FARC Secretariat to be killed in the forty-four year history of Colombia’s conflict. His killing is a big victory for the Colombian government. It is also likely to be an indirect result of U.S. assistance. Reyes was located through an intercept of satellite telephone communications, a capability that the Colombians owe to equipment – or perhaps even signals intelligence itself – provided by the United States.

        Though it is hard to know what is going on within the FARC, Reyes was believed to be, after paramount leader “Manuel Marulanda,” either the most powerful or the second-most powerful member of the FARC leadership. Over the years I had heard that he was one of the FARC’s hardest-line leaders; that although he was the group’s chief spokesman and negotiator, he personally had little use for peace talks; that he was one of the group’s chief ideologists; and that he had been a significant backer of the FARC’s decision to raise funds through narco-trafficking. (Of course, I’ve never been able to verify the truth of any of these claims.)

        A few points:

        • Today’s blow is the latest – and the biggest – in a series of serious reversals for the FARC, making clear that the group’s military capability is far from its late-1990s peak. In the past year, the guerrillas have seen key leaders killed (before Reyes, Caribbean Bloc leader Gustavo Rueda, alias “Martín Caballero,” and 16th Front leader Tomás Medina, alias “Negro Acacio”). Eleven of their hostages were murdered under circumstances that they have yet to clarify. Messengers carrying proofs of life were followed and intercepted by security forces. And then the guerrillas were discovered to have lost track of a baby hostage who, in fact, had been in the custody of government welfare services.

        Taken together, these episodes show an insurgent group in a state of strategic crisis. Its problems are compounded by the group’s degraded ability to depend on local populations for logistical support or intelligence. After so many years of international humanitarian law violations, the FARC’s “hearts and minds” problems are beginning to cost them.

        Continue reading »

        Jul 10

        We’re still awaiting final word from the Senate about its version of the 2008 foreign aid bill. In broad terms, though, it appears that the Senate bill makes changes to U.S. aid to Colombia that are similar to – but smaller than – those in the bill that the House of Representatives passed last month.

        [Note added 7/11: the Senate Committee report - but not the bill text - is now available online. Note the big Colombia table under "Andean Programs" - it's easier to read in the PDF version.]

        The Senate bill probably cuts military and police aid in the Bush administration’s request by about $90.7 million, to about $359.5 million; the House had cut military and police aid by about $160.4 million, to $289.8 million. The aerial fumigation program would be cut significantly, with an increase in funding for manual coca eradication.

        It also appears that the Senate increases economic-aid programs by about $61.9 million over the Bush administration’s request, to about $201.4 million; the House bill would increase economic aid by $101.3 million, to about $240.8 million.

        Overall, the Senate bill would decrease aid to Colombia by about $28.8 million, a slightly shallower cut than the $59.1 million foreseen in the House bill. The military-to-economic aid split would be 64 percent to 36 percent, compared to 76-24 in the administration’s request and 55-45 in the House bill. (As always, about $150 million in military aid from the Defense budget must be added to the final total.)

        These numbers are not completely final, there may be – but probably won’t be – changes to the final bill once it’s made public. We have no sense yet, either, of how the Senate bill would condition or earmark aid.

        Here is some interesting language from the Appropriations Committee report, though:

        The Committee notes that after spending in excess of $5,000,000,000 in support of Plan Colombia since 2000, some areas of the country are safer and Colombia’s economic indicators are, for the most part, positive. However, reports of unlawful killings by the army have increased in the past 2 years, and impunity for such crimes remais the norm. After predictions 6 years ago that Plan Colombia would cut by half the amount of coca production by 2005, the avaiability and price of cocaine on America’s streets remain unchanged. There is no indication that the abilty of Colombian drug traffickers to meet the demand for cocaine in the United States and elsewhere has been appreciably diminished. Coca is now grown in small, hard to eradicate plots in every department of the country, as coca growers continue to adapt to aerial eradication and destroy more forest as they replant.

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