Feb 27
In just three months, the Presidential Intelligence Service (DAS) recorded 1,900 of the phone conversations of Auxiliary Justice Iván Velásquez, the chief investigator in the “Para-Politics” scandal.

Apologies for the delay in posting about last weekend’s highly disturbing revelations that the intelligence service of the Colombian Presidency, the DAS (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad) has once again been systematically wiretapping and following private citizens.

The intelligence agency, which reports directly to President Álvaro Uribe, has been embroiled in several scandals in recent years. In late 2005 its director, Jorge Noguera, was accused of collaborating closely with paramilitaries on efforts ranging from facilitating narcotrafficking to developing lists of human-rights defenders and labor leaders to murder. Late last year, the supposedly “reformed” DAS was found to have been ordering surveillance of opposition Senator Gustavo Petro, a revelation that forced the resignation of DAS Director María de Pilar Hurtado.

The DAS continues to be a highly troubled institution, as the agency – or at least a large rogue element within the agency – is using much of its resources to spy on prominent citizens. Its “targets” include opposition politicians, social-movement leaders, journalists, and – perhaps most troublingly – Supreme Court officials trying to investigate ties between paramilitary narcotraffickers and dozens of President Uribe’s political allies.

The news outlet that broke the story, the Colombian newsmagazine Semana, has not added an English version of its cover story to its website. Here are some translated excerpts.

The DAS is still recording

Between the 19th and 21st of January, most of the “secrets” of many of Colombia’s top peraonalities were destroyed on the 11th floor of the main DAS headquarters. “We received the order to gather everything we had in several offices in the building, and in other buildings, and bring it to the Counter-Intelligence office. For two days external disk drives were gathered, hard drives were changed out of computers, CDs, voice files and confidential documents were collected. I alone, without counting my colleagues, carried two boxes full of those things,” one of the DAS detectives who participated in this unique collection told Semana. “Of all the boxes that were taken to Counter-Intelligence, with documents, recordings and the rest, only one remained, which was taken out of the 11th floor at the end of the afternoon of Wednesday the 21st. I don’t know what was left in that one, or where they took it. I just know that everything else was destroyed,” the source affirms.

The suspicious mission of recovering and destroying information was carried out by a small group of officials. Though they sought to do it in the most discrete manner, it was inevitable that a few DAS members would notice the unusual things going on during those days. But what was it that they were destroying with such urgency? Much of the files that don’t exist today were, among others, recordings, secret documents and intelligence analyses that contained information about a wide variety of personalities whom the DAS was watching.

Supreme Court justices, journalists, opposition politicians, generals in the armed forces, prosecutors, and even some high government officials made up the group that, for the past several months, was being monitored by the security body.

Many thought that it would be hard for the DAS to confront a situation worse than that of October 2005, when it ended up tangled in a scandal stemming from paramilitary infiltration that ended with the resignation, and subsequent jailing, of then-Director Jorge Noguera.

At that moment, deep reforms to the institution were promised so that this would not happen again. But it happened. Despite the subsequent directors’ good intentions, the information gathered by Semana makes clear that there is a powerful sector in this agency that is at the service of paramilitaries, guerrillas, and dark political interests.

“Here we work on targets and objectives who could become a threat to the security of the state and of the President. Among those are the guerrillas, the emerging criminal groups, some narcos. But among these targets is also, and obviously this is one of the functions of the DAS, to monitor some personalities and institutions to keep the Presidency informed. For example, how could it not be a DAS mission to monitor [Senator Gustavo] Petro, who is a former guerrilla and is in the opposition. Or [opposition Senator and peace facilitator] Piedad Córdoba, for her ties to Chávez and the guerrillas,” said to Semana a detective who works in the Subdirectorate of Operations of the DAS, part of this entity’s intelligence directorate. “Any person or entity who represents an eventual danger for the government has to be monitored by the DAS. As a result, more than a year ago, the activities of the [Supreme] Court, and some of its members, came to be considered and treated as a legitimate ‘target.’”

Targeting the justice system

This fact was corroborated to Semana by four other DAS officials, members of the intelligence, counter-intelligence and operational directorates. In addition to these testimonies, Semana obtained some of the analyses developed by DAS members, which make evident their efforts to follow, wiretap and monitor members of the Court. One of the most revealing reports is about Auxiliary Justice Iván Velásquez, the chief investigator for the “para-politics” scandal.

Velásquez has been subjected to a “man-to-man defense” since the “Tasmania” incident in October 2007, when President Álvaro Uribe accused the judge of fabricating testimonies against him, which ended up being a hoax. They don’t leave Velásquez alone for even a minute, as can be gathered from the DAS report.

In the documents Semana has, it is revealed that during three months they intercepted 1,900 of his phone calls, in which he spoke with everyone: Supreme Court justices, Justice and Peace prosecutors to know what the paramilitary witnesses were revealing, with the Prosecutor-General’s Office’s witness-protection program to know who was ready to give evidence, with para-politics witnesses, among hundreds of other calls.

But Velásquez was not the only member of the Supreme Court being watched by the DAS. Investigators, other justices and auxiliary judges of the high court were also the object of “monitoring.” According to several detectives, among these “targets” was Francisco Ricaurte, until recently the President of the Supreme Court; the president of the court’s Criminal Chamber, Sigifredo Espinosa; and justices César Julio Valencia and María del Rosario González. “When the confrontation between the court and the presidency worsened, about a year and a half ago, the order was to know as much as possible about all the justices, using all necessary means, from human sources to technical measures. When the confrontation began to diminish, the monitoring was concentrated only on those deemed high-priority, like Velásquez,” one of the detectives who works in the intelligence directorate, and who participated in following some justices, told Semana.

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Jan 22

The department (province) of Arauca, Colombia, has been a principal destination of U.S. military aid. U.S. equipment and trainers have spent much time in this oil-producing region, which shares a border with Venezuela, since 2003. That year, the Bush administration launched a program to help the Colombian army defend an oil pipeline that the FARC and ELN guerrillas frequently bombed.

Arauca had been one of the ELN’s key strongholds, with the group profiting handsomely from extorting the region’s oil wealth, since the 1980s. Starting in the early 2000s, but especially after 2005, the much larger FARC launched an offensive to supplant the ELN, making the region the scene of intense fighting. Both sides engaged in frequent combat and campaigns of murder and intimidation of each other’s perceived supporters. The death toll of this intra-guerrilla fighting exceeds 300 since 2005, and is probably far higher.

Most had assumed that the U.S.-aided Colombian Army units in Arauca had little to do with the slaughter. Either they were unable to penetrate the remote areas where combat was occurring, or they decided that it was not worth risking soldiers’ lives to halt fighting between two groups of sworn enemies. Whatever the reason, observers believed that the Colombian Army was standing idly by.

This perception is sadly wrong, according to a cover story published Sunday in the Colombian newsmagazine Semana. It turns out that the Colombian Army did choose sides in this bloody battle: some officers were actually working with elements of the ELN to attack the FARC.

Despite being far weaker than the FARC, the ELN has had much military success against the larger group in Arauca. It appears to have fended off the FARC offensive and strengthened its presence, with perhaps 400 members now in the department. In December, the ELN ambushed a police patrol near Fortul, Arauca, killing eight.

Did U.S.-aided military units play a role in the ELN’s revival in Arauca? Semana seems to think so.

For several years, various high officials of the Colombian Army decided that the best and most effective way to deal with the war in that region of Colombia was to precisely follow the saying “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Some military officials unhesitatingly allied themselves with ELN guerrillas in order to confront and defeat the FARC. What began in 2006 as a military operation turned into mutual cooperation between the ELN and the military. This benefited the ELN, as in little time these guerrillas have been able to recuperate part of their military and political capacity in Arauca.

SEMANA obtained dozens of conversations that were intercepted by the Fiscalía, the prosecutor general’s office, between an Army major in Arauca – who calls himself “Jairo” – and “Ernesto,” a commander from the Marta Elena Barón column of the Domingo Laín Front of the ELN. The conversations are part of an investigation that the Fiscalía made against the official, an investigation which Army members say “didn’t result in anything.” The recordings are simply chilling and show a very dark facet about how the war was waged in Arauca.

In the intercepted communications, in which they call each other “Brother,” Major “Jairo” and guerrilla “Ernesto” discuss:

  • The locations of Army troops, which “Jairo” reveals to the ELN.
  • Pulling the Army out of specific areas so that ELN guerrillas can freely patrol. One of the areas the military vacates, incidentally, is Santo Domingo, site of a notorious 1998 Colombian Air Force bombing that killed 18 civilians.
  • Arranging for the ELN to kill a group of alleged FARC militants, but not too many of them – “We can’t allow it to appear as a massacre because that would be a problem.”
  • The ELN alerting the Army to the location of FARC members so that the army can kill them, because “I know that you need to show results because they are pressuring you.
  • The Army promising to deliver grenades to the ELN.

Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) is now investigating these allegations. The U.S. government would do well to follow this investigation closely. According to El Tiempo, Major “Jairo” was attached to the 5th Mobile Brigade, a Colombian Army unit that has received very generous amounts of U.S. assistance since 2003. There is strong reason to believe that members of this U.S.-supported unit were working closely with an illegal armed group on the U.S. government’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. And in this bizarre case, that group is not even the paramilitaries – it is the leftist, Marxist, purportedly anti-state ELN.

Sunday’s revelations have received little attention in Washington, as would be expected during Inauguration week. But they raise a very important question. Did the United States end up indirectly supporting the ELN’s revival in Arauca?

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.

Nov 05

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

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

Here are two items to dampen your enthusiasm:

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

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

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

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

Nov 04

The following excerpt comes from an article that the Colombian newsmagazine Semana published yesterday on its English-language website. It discusses divisions between Colombia’s armed forces regarding investigations of past human rights abuses:

Even within the Armed Forces there has been division regarding the human rights issue. One opinion is held by [Army Chief] General [Mario] Montoya and his supporters, who are still suspicious regarding judicial proceedings. That side wants to protect its troops and claims persecution by the solicitor general’s office. Montoya’s unquestioned efficacy which transformed him into the hero of Operation “Jaque” (checkmate) the daring rescue mission that freed Ingrid Betancourt and others from FARC captivity, is commensurate with the anachronism of his vision of military forces, anchored more in the doctrine of national security than in the philosophy of modern warfare. The other side is headed by [Armed Forces Chief] General [Freddy] Padilla de León, who is less of a troop commander, but has a modern and universal vision of the role of an army in a society grappling with armed conflict. For Padilla, in this stage of military confrontation, with a weakened FARC and with territorial control, the military has to put is legitimacy at the forefront, because the consolidation of the policy of democratic security depends on the confidence that the Army generates among the population.

About two hours ago, Gen. Montoya, who has faced serious human rights allegations himself, resigned his post, in the wake of the horrific new revelations of civilians being killed and presented as guerrillas or paramilitaries killed in combat.

If Semana’s interpretation is correct, this is a major blow to the hard-line, “anachronistic” military faction that Gen. Montoya represents.

Oct 16

From the 2007 book Confesiones de un Paraco, published excerpts from the diary of onetime paramilitary fighter Eduin Guzmán.

I went with my bodyguard to El Trincho. I arrived at the ranch where we had agreed to meet with Miguel [Arroyave, then head of the AUC's Centaurs Bloc, operating in Colombia's eastern plains], who had still not arrived. I waited for him about two hours. When he arrived and after greeting each other, he asked me:

“So things haven’t been going so well?”

I explained to him about the many killed [in recent combat with the guerrillas]. …

“Don’t worry, ask for the coordinates of where those dogs are dug in. A politician friend of mine has done me the favor of coordinating with the Air Force so that they can carry out a bombing, the only thing needed to do it is the coordinates. This favor had to be asked directly from Bogotá. Can you believe that those bastards in Apiay [the largest air-force base in Meta] get the money and now they don’t do anything but make excuses and don’t agree to anything.” …

I called Belisario on the radio and asked him for the coordinates. He responded very pleased with the news and he told me that I couldn’t imagine the effect that this would have on our people’s morale. I gave Miguel the coordinates and told him what Belisario said, how the people were hopeful for this aerial support. That this would be the best thing to revive the troops’ morale.

Miguel said:

“Wait and see, these sons of whores are very aggressive and they don’t know what is going to fall on them.”

About 40 minutes after Miguel called, two [Brazilian-made] Tucano planes and four Harpy [modified Blackhawk] helicopters. They started to bomb almost all of La Cooperativa. We saw fragmentation bombs, 500-pound bombs and rockets falling over this village, like nobody could have imagined.

Around 4:00 PM Belisario called me, very contented about the results, and he said to me:

Comandante, we did it! Thank God, we did it! We got rid of all of them, there’s no one left standing there, they’re all dead!”

The happiness also took over Miguel:

“We beat those sons of whores; I’ll kiss that general who helped us on his [reproductive organs] if it’s necessary; those are the people we need on our side!”

Miguel almost hadn’t finished speaking, when one of my bodyguards passed me the radio and, on another frequency, we heard commander “Pólvora,” who said:

“Those sons of whores turned on us, now they’re giving it to us!”

I asked him what was happening, and in a very agitated and frightened state he confirmed to me that he was running, and we hardly understood him:

“Those Air Force bastards turned on us: they’re bombing us, they just dropped a bomb as big as a cow on us, and it made sh*t fly all over the place. I don’t know how what’s left of us are going to save ourselves.”

Miguel immediately made a satellite telephone call to someone who he called “Mi General,” and the bombing immediately stopped; the planes and helicopters vacated the zone.

From a report yesterday from one of Colombia’s main television networks, RCN.

In a video revealed by the RCN Channel, it is observed that, before a Justice and Peace prosecutor, Miguel Ángel Mejía Múnera, alias “The Twin,” testified that some of the paramilitaries’ anti-guerrilla operations were supported by Air Force combat aircraft.

[Mejía Múnera, "the Twin," a major narcotrafficker who later joined the paramilitaries, was captured earlier this year days after authorities killed his twin brother, also a top wanted narcotrafficker.]

According to the words of alias “The Twin,” there were two opportunities when the Air Force supposedly lent support to paramilitaries under his command, when they were being besieged and confronted by guerrilla fronts. The paramilitary chief explained that, supposedly, all he had to do was make a call in order for airplanes and helicopters to appear at the sites where they were.

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Oct 14

This weekend’s edition of the Colombian newsmagazine Semana ran a troubling article about how the Colombian armed forces are responding to increasing pressure on human rights, including several recent arrests and newly launched investigations into alleged abuses.

These detentions, the Prosecutor-General’s Office’s actions and the [Defense] Minister’s own declarations have the military in a state of high tension. The President has met with some retired generals who have expressed concern that after carrying out a war effort at a time when there was neither money nor resources, now they have to respond on their own before a justice system that does not evaluate the context in which they acted.

Another group of retired officers, among them Gen. Manuel José Bonnett, a former armed-forces chief, have visited media outlets with a similar message: “Society sent us to war and later punishes us without piety,” he says. Bonnett strongly criticizes the government for what he considers a surrender of the military justice system’s jurisdiction to the Prosecutor-General’s Office, ever since it investigated the Jamundí massacre [of a police anti-narcotics unit in 2006], which he believes should have been within the military justice system’s competence.

Other former soldiers go farther. A few weeks ago, an anonymous document circulated in which the prosecutors of the Prosecutor-General’s Office’s Human Rights Unit were accused of being an instrument of insurgent groups’ “judicial warfare.” Several officials in Acore, the retired officers’  association, have even accused prosecutors of roaming the jails looking for prisoners who might testify against high-ranking officers facing charges.

The dissatisfaction is also felt among active military officers. “They abandoned us,” says a colonel, while others say that it all owes to [Defense Minister] Juan Manuel Santos’ ambitions to run for President. The case against Col. Hernán Mejía [highly decorated officer accused of collaborating with paramilitaries] is perhaps the one that has most made evident the tensions and differences regarding human rights within the military institution. While some members of the high command consider that the Prosecutor-General’s Office’s actions must be respected as it investigates alleged homicide and paramilitary ties, others have quietly helped to carry out a media campaign against the Prosecutor-General’s investigators, whom they accuse of paying off witnesses.

The article concludes that there is a sharp division at the armed forces’ highest ranks regarding how much civilian human rights investigation is tolerable. One faction longs for the recent past, when there was little effort to hold the officers accountable to civilian justice or international standards. The other faction – which, Semana contends, includes Armed Forces Chief Gen. Freddy Padilla – contends that the political and international reality has changed, and that the armed forces must adapt.

This is no doubt a painful internal struggle for Colombia’s armed forces. Which faction ultimately wins the day will depend heavily on the attitudes of Colombia’s civilian leaders and international actors, particularly the United States. That is why it is so important that President Álvaro Uribe and Washington be unambiguously on the side of the reformers, and why both deserve the strongest criticism when they are not.

Sep 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bogotá, September 4, 2008


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

Dear Mr. Inspector-General:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sep 09

Here is a translation of a column, published last weekend by the Colombian daily El Espectador, by noted author and essayist Héctor Abad Faciolince. Abad, a native of Medellín, reacts to Friday’s arrest of retired Colombian Army Gen. Rito Alejo del Río.

Gen. del Río headed the 17th Brigade, in the Urabá region of Antioquia, the department of which Medellín is the capital, from 1995 to 1997. During this period, Urabá suffered a horrific wave of paramilitary violence against civilians, widely alleged to have been aided and abetted by army units under Gen. del Río’s command. During this period, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe was Antioquia’s governor.

Rito’s Rituals
By Héctor Abad Faciolince
El Espectador (Colombia), posted September 5, 2008, 10:45 PM

During 1996-1997, the Secretary of Government [sort of "vice-governor" or cabinet chief] of Antioquia, Pedro Juan Moreno, on several occasions accused the El Colombiano newspaper of being an ally, or at least a useful idiot, of the FARC subversives.

The motive was the following: when this daily’s journalists traveled by land in Antioquia’s part of Urabá, they noted with astonishment, and published in the newspaper, that the paramilitary groups’ illegal roadblocks were located only a very few kilometers away from the Army’s legal roadblocks.

The strangest thing was the following: these “paraco” roadblocks were not mobile, but fixed, yet the Brigade appeared to be doing nothing to pursue them. During those years, the 17th Brigade was commanded by General Rito Alejo del Río. When told of these roadblocks’ existence, Gen. del Río denied it vehemently. But the journalists saw them.

After the military deployments that were known as “Operation Genesis,” the campesinos in that zone near the border of Chocó and Antioquia denounced, in shaky voices, in the presence of Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, that several boats had gone up the Atrato River loaded with paramilitary troops, and that they had passed, like Pedro in his own house, right past several military detachments. Shouting, and in front of the interior minister, who at the time was [top Liberal Party politician] Horacio Serpa, Gen. del Río denied it. He also denied having carried out indiscriminate bombings in which civilians had been killed. The journalists from El Colombiano took photos of the bomb craters, which were as big as houses.

Gen. Rito Alejo has testified in his defense several times, as proof that he did pursue paramilitary groups, the fact that he detained the paramilitaries who committed the Aracatazo massacre. This is true. What is curious is that in declarations also given to journalists from El Colombiano, [now-deceased top paramilitary leader] Carlos Castaño said that he himself had called (as an anonymous citizen) the 17th Brigade, to denounce the paramilitaries’ excesses in Aracatazo. Castaño believed himself to have “purified” from his group some of its most savage members, those who played soccer with the heads of the dead, or those who killed the wrong targets.

The Catholic Church of Chocó denounced, at the time, the free passage on the Atrato River given to the paramilitaries who supported “Operation Genesis” by land. With rage, Gen. del Río denied these accusations, as well as those of the zone’s human-rights ombudsman. Colombian justice believed neither the campesinos who were the victims of these deeds, nor the Church, nor the human-rights ombudsman.  Or at least it believed them for a little while, until Prosecutor-General [Luis Camilo] Osorio dropped all the investigations against this general [in mid-2001, shortly after Osorio was inaugurated]. Those who did believe the campesinos and the Church were the officials from the State Department, who abruptly canceled the general’s visa, without regard to the fact that they had trained him themselves.

In a ritual of making amends, the defenders of Gen. Del Río’s actions (Fernando Londoño Hoyos [President Uribe's first interior-justice minister], Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza [a far-right-wing writer], President Uribe himself) carried out an homage to the retired officer in one of the ballrooms at the Hotel Tequendama [in downtown Bogotá, in May 1999]. The so-called “Pacifier of Urabá” was acclaimed as a hero. To them, this brigadier-general had simply opposed with courage the FARC guerrillas in that zone of the country, and was a victim of the NGOs’ idiocies. Nobody denied that the Army could and should, now as then, take the fight to the subversives.

What cannot be done now, as could not have been then, is to ally with the country’s bloodiest warriors (the so-called “self-defense groups”) to massacre campesinos. Some of them, in effect, were guerrillas, but they cannot be killed outside of combat, much less those who had nothing to do with the armed groups. Even supposing that all the campesinos were guerrillas, there still remain those children younger than 10 years old, who also died, and whom it would be difficult to accuse of being allies of subversion.

The Prosecutor-General’s office has once again arrested General del Río, because several demobilized paramilitaries, in particular [Salvatore] Mancuso and “H. H.” [Éver Veloza, who headed the Urabá paramilitaries at the time], have indicated that he was their ally in Urabá. It will be the justice system that must determine whether the deeds of which he is accused are true, or whether they are simply idiocies invented by wicked people, by NGOs and by reporters allied with, or at least useful idiots of, the FARC.

Aug 05

On July 15, CNN revealed that one of the Colombian Army commandos participating in “Operación Jaque” – the July 2 military operation that bloodlessly rescued 15 FARC hostages on July 2 – had worn an emblem of the International Red Cross. This is a violation of international humanitarian law; it complicates the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross in conflict zones, since combatants in future humanitarian operations may suspect ICRC representatives’ authenticity.

On July 16 Colombian President Álvaro Uribe said the following about the incident:

After press reports about the supposed appearance of an International Red Cross emblem, an internal investigation was ordered. …

The result of that investigation was that an official, in error and contrary to given orders, acknowledged that due to his nervousness, upon observing the number of armed guerrillas around the helicopter, he put over his vest a piece of cloth that bore the symbol of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

This officer, upon confessing his error to the high command, has said that when the helicopter was about to land, he saw such a quantity of guerrillas, that he became so very nervous, that he feared for his life and so he took out the piece of cloth with the International Committee of the Red Cross symbols, which he had in his pocket, and he put it over his vest.

We regret that this occurred.

It turns out that either President Uribe was misinformed, or he was lying, or the soldier got the jitters far earlier than previously thought. Yesterday Colombia’s RCN television network broadcast a video (excerpted here on the website of Semana magazine), recorded by the Colombian Army, showing more details of the preparations for Operación Jaque. The video shows clearly that one of the disguised Colombian commandos is wearing the Red Cross emblem on his chest even before the operation began, as the participants gathered around posing for photos.

It is now obvious that the Red Cross emblem’s use was no accident in defiance of orders. The rescuers posed as members of a false humanitarian NGO, as reporters from the Telesur and Ecuavisa networks, and – as is now plain – as a representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

This morning, the Colombian Presidency put out a terse communiqu̩ implying Рthough certainly not saying clearly Рthat the Colombian Army misled investigators of the Red Cross incident.

The President reiterates the need to allow all media to have equal and opportune access to the most imporant news.

It is serious that members of the Armed Forces clandestinely leaked news without coordination with their superiors. In addition, it is serious that not all of the truth came out in the first investigations of the Operation.

The use of the Red Cross emblem appears to have responded to a command decision, not the impulsive actions of a panicky soldier. As a result – painful as it is, since it happened in the context of a heroic rescue operation – those responsible for this international humanitarian law violation need to be investigated and punished, as do those responsible for the apparent cover-up.

The punishment may ultimately be light: the remarkable success of Operación Jaque makes a strong case for leniency. But the law was broken, and an investigative and judicial process must be initiated and allowed to run its course.

Colombia is trying to emerge from decades in which too many – narcos, corrupt politicians, paramilitaries, those who supported them – accumulated power and wealth by acting as though the law did not apply to them. Only by strict adherence to the rule of law – with no exceptions, even in politically difficult cases like the Red Cross emblem’s use in Operación Jaque – can Colombia show that it is truly leaving that dark past behind.

Update 5:30 PM EST: El Tiempo, covering Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos’s and Armed Forces Chief Gen. Freddy Padilla’s comments to the press, reports that, according to these officials, the army officer who wore the ICRC emblem lied to them, will be “sanctioned” and will not receive medals for his participation in the operation.

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 10

Colombia’s Jesuit-run Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP) maintains a database of human rights violations committed by all parties in Colombia. In June, they finished analyzing numbers from 2007.

Their data revealed that the problem of “false positives” – Colombian military personnel killing civilians and presenting them as guerrillas killed in combat – continued unabated through the end of last year. CINEP found 132 cases of these extrajudicial executions in 2007, though their frequency was less intense during the second half of the year than during the first half.

Here is a translation (thanks to CIP intern Stephanie DiBello) of the introduction to CINEP’s report [PDF] summarizing its disturbing findings.

The Center for Investigation and Popular Education (CINEP) is aware of the international community’s great interest and concern for helping Colombia find peaceful alternatives. In our interest in monitoring diverse aspects of the country’s human rights situation, we wish to share a new report with you about cases of “false positives” [civilians killed outside of combat and presented as insurgents killed in combat], which were brought to our attention through the consolidation of our organization’s database.

Units of the security forces have reported these cases as positive results of operations against illegal armed groups. Although these deaths were reported in official accounts as “killed in combat”, denunciations by social organizations, human rights defenders, victims, families of the victims, and regional and national press revealed them to be actions against the civil population outside of combat, thus making them violations of human rights and infractions of international humanitarian law.

Along with the update of the cases that we presented in October of last year, we consolidated a total of 132 occurrences of “false positives” between January and December of 2007. We reiterate the need to pave a way towards peace with respect for human rights, and we demand lawful actions from the security forces in Colombia.

Based on the information that was brought to our knowledge we point out the following aspects which we have presented in this report:

  • In the first six months of 2007, 85 cases involving a total of 150 victims were reported, while in the second six months 47 cases with a total of 87 victims were reported.
  • In general, during both periods of time the social group most victimized were campesinos, representing around 60% of the victims; among others, independent workers, indigenous people, and manual laborers were also victimized.
  • With respect to geographic location of the cases, it is worth noting that in the first period of 2007 the “false positives” occurred in 18 of the 32 departments of the country; in the second period they occurred in 15 departments.
  • According to department of incidents (see map), in the first half of 2007 the greatest number of cases were reported in Meta, particularly in the town of Vistahermosa; the second greatest number of cases was in the department of Huila, with the largest number in the town of Garzon; and the third greatest occurrence was in Norte de Santander. During the second half Norte de Santander had the greatest number of cases, with the town of Teorama reporting the most incidents; Antioquia was in second place with the department of Tolima in third.
  • In relation with the previous period, July 2006 – June 2007, cases appear in new departments such as Tolima, Bolivar, Quindio, Cordoba, and Risaralda.
  • During the second half of 2007, a considerable increase in cases was reported in the department of Huila (13 in total), which only had reported two cases in the July 2006 – June 2007 report. This is due to the fact that in the aforementioned report the information of the 11 cases in Huila was not available, but were later announced and published as updates in the journal Noche y Niebla 36, pages 25-28.
  • It is important to note that in the department of Meta, where 24 cases were recorded in the period between July 2006 – June 2007, only two more cases were reported in the second half of 2007. On the other hand, the department of Antioquia, which had reported three cases in the first report, reported nine new cases in the second half of 2007, while the department of Norte de Santander increased by three cases in the same period of time. However, although Norte de Santander went from having 8 reported cases to 11, the number of victims was reduced from 17 to 11.
Jan 30

A colleague just sent a copy of Balance Militar Suramericano (The South American Military Balance), a new document from the Bogotá-based Security and Democracy Foundation. It gives an interesting overview of the current sizes, capabilities and budgets of South America’s militaries, drawing much data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

(Right now, I can’t find the Balance Militar document on the foundation’s website. It bears no release date and may not be available for free. If it appears, I’ll add a link. Update as of 2/1: here it is as a PDF file.)

The report discusses the rapid military buildup that Colombia underwent over the past ten years, and includes much new data comparing Colombia with its South American neighbors. These include three surprising findings, presented here with translated excerpts from the report:

1. Colombia’s military (not counting police) expenditure is similar to Chile’s. Over the past ten years the two countries have alternated in second and third place – well behind Brazil – with military expenditure levels surpassing $4 billion per year, and approaching $5 billion. They are also similar as a proportion of the overall economy.

With respect to the assignation of military expenditures as a portion of GDP, Chile and Colombia are the countries that have most devoted their resources during the 1997-2005 period, with an average of 3.61 and 3.52 percent of GDP, respectively. Colombia is the country that has undergone the greater budgetary effort, moving from 2.9 percent in 1997 to 3.7 percent in 2005.

(By comparison, the U.S. defense budget, including the cost of the Iraq war, is roughly 4.3 percent of GDP [nearly $600 billion out of nearly $14 trillion].)

2. Since 2004, Colombia’s military expenditure has been growing more slowly than the South American average. Led by large new arms purchases in Chile, Venezuela, and Brazil – made possible by returns from high commodity prices – South American defense budgets have risen extremely rapidly since 2004.

Despite the current [Colombian] government’s commitment to sustaining a military budget in accord with the needs of armed forces involved in a sustained military campaign, budgeted military expenditures have shown the worst growth rate in the region, 3.70%, during the 2004-2006 period – far from the regional average calculated at 22.35%.

3. The sharpest increases in Colombian military spending took place not during Álvaro Uribe’s presidency, but during that of his predecessor, Andrés Pastrana. Colombian public opinion views Pastrana (president from 1998 to 2002) as a naïve peacenik whom the FARC duped into a failed negotiation while the country’s security situation went into a tailspin. In fact, while Pastrana was pursuing negotiations, his defense ministry and high command were overseeing a huge military buildup that included a big contribution from Washington: Plan Colombia.

On three occasions during the 1998-2002 period – 1998, 2000 and 2002 – the Colombian government approved military budget increases greater than 10%, more than double the average of the decade [1997-2006]. … It is with these resources that the Colombian government bought more than 12 UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, Russian Mi-17 transport helicopters, and supported the modernization of its aircraft, riverine and land combat equipment, alongside the U.S. aid funding.

After 2002, the increase in military expenditure has been gradual, without showing – so far – any extraordinary budget increases, as indicated by the 8.65% increase in defense expenditure between the years 2003 and 2006, less than the peaks described during the 1998-2002 period. Despite this, at the end of 2005 the Colombian government carried out one of the most important purchases of military materiel in at least two decades, 25 Super Tucano [Brazilian] aircraft for close air support.

The document notes that with the Uribe government implementing new asset tax on the wealthy to fund the war, a new spike in Colombian military spending is likely for 2008.

Sep 11

Yesterday’s capture of drug lord Diego Montoya, hiding in a pile of leaves in his underwear, was a huge victory for Colombia’s authorities. “Don Diego,” the paramount leader of the Northern Valle cartel – Colombia’s biggest drug-trafficking organization – was on the FBI’s ten most-wanted fugitives list, alongside Osama bin Laden. The FBI once estimated his personal fortune to be in excess of one billon dollars. The violence he employed to control drug-trafficking laboratories and routes killed thousands, and rendered ineffective local law-enforcement institutions in many parts of the country.

Is is remarkable that the Colombian Army caught Montoya without so much as an exchange of fire with the bodyguards and rings of security that the drug lord was thought to have. In general, it has been very encouraging to see more captures lately of high-ranking narco figures like Montoya, Hernando Gómez Bustamante (alias Rasguño), and Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía (alias Chupeta). Let’s hope that more are to come.

But don’t expect cocaine to become harder to find in the United States as a result of yesterday’s arrest. During the 1990s, the killing of Pablo Escobar and the capture of the Cali cartel’s Rodríguez Orejuela brothers caused little more than a hiccup in the global drug trade. There is no reason to think that things won’t be different this time.

More frequent arrests of top narcos disrupt the drug trade, and increase the risks and costs of doing business, much more than any campaign to fumigate peasants with herbicides. But they are not, by themselves, enough to change the equation.

Not while addicts’ demand continues unabated. Not while unemployment and poverty make the drug industry appear attractive to too many. And not while an absent government, corrupted officials in the security forces, and ineffective judicial institutions combine to lower the risks that criminals face.

A few observations about the fall of the “boss of bosses”:

  • While it is good news for the authorities, yesterday’s arrest is also good news for Don Diego’s competitors – including other members of the Northern Valle cartel, a loose organization whose members have fought frequent internecine battles in the past. As Montoya leaves the scene, what is to become of the laboratories, transportation networks, money-laundering schemes, and trafficking routes he leaves behind? (The term “route” refers to much more than a road or a path – it also includes all the local officials who have been paid to turn a blind eye to narcotrafficking activities, and all the effort put into terrorizing the surrounding population into silence.) Chances are, we are about to see an unstable period of “changing of the guard” in Colombia’s criminal underworld, in which criminals compete – often quite violently – for control of all that Don Diego’s departure is leaving “up for grabs.”
  • It is interesting that yesterday’s operation was apparently led by Colombia’s Army, not by police. Efforts against Pablo Escobar and the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers were primarily carried out by Colombia’s National Police.
  • Continue reading »
Aug 31
The scandal-plagued 3rd Division holds a change-of-command ceremony on August 24.

Conservative columnist Robert Novak may have been on to something in an opinion piece published Monday. He noted that the Colombian government forced several resignations in August of high-ranking army officers in and around Cali, following numerous allegations of collaboration with drug traffickers.

Novak argues that these moves are directly tied to Colombia’s free-trade agreement with the United States. Democrats in the U.S. Congress have made clear that they want to see much progress toward punishing corruption and human-rights abuse before they will allow the free-trade pact to come to a vote. The Uribe government is taking steps now – argues Novak – not because it is the right thing to do, but to placate the Democrats.

More military purges are on the way, he adds.

The forced resignation two weeks ago under pressure from President Alvaro Uribe of three prominent officers accused of drug trafficking is not likely to end the shake-up in Colombia’s army and navy. More heads will roll in a long overdue purge of corruption in the military. The credit has to go to the left-wing members of Congress who have taken over the Colombian account on Capitol Hill since the Democratic victory in the 2006 elections.

A conservative American with close, longtime ties to Colombia put it to me bluntly: “The firing of these officers is seen as President Uribe’s way of clearing the decks to make the Democrats in Congress happy, in order to secure the free trade agreement. There are plenty more generals and admirals to get the heave-ho.”

Meanwhile, the past week has seen more human rights or anti-impunity progress in Colombia than we usually see in several months:

  • The Colombian government finally recognized something that was obvious to everyone: some paramilitary leaders are still conspiring to commit crimes, even while in prison awaiting light sentences under the “Justice and Peace Law.” Last Friday Carlos Mario Jiménez (”Macaco”), the powerful de facto head of the paramilitaries’ Central Bolivar Bloc, was stripped of his “Justice and Peace” privileges and made available for extradition to the United States.
  • On Monday a special “decongestion court” (that what it’s called) handed down 40-year jail sentences to four military personnel, including a second lieutenant, accused of the August 2004 murder of three trade unionists in Arauca department. This verdict, coming in one of the most blatant and high-profile recent cases, is very significant.
  • On Wednesday two soldiers were sentenced to forty years for a drunken June 2007 massacre of six people in Balsillas, Caquetá.
  • A week ago Thursday, the government’s Inspector-General (Procuraduría) fired 141 soldiers and officers who, upon finding millions of guerrilla dollars hidden in a jungle cache in 2003, decided to keep the money for themselves. (A story told in the Colombian movie Soñar No Cuesta Nada [Dreaming Is Free].)
  • Though not a human-rights matter, a strong signal in favor of Colombia’s institutional health was President Uribe’s indication yesterday that he may not intend to run for a third term in 2010.

The pace of anti-impunity progress has picked up notably, at least in the past few weeks. This is good news, even if the free-trade “carrot” is the reason for it. It will be even better news if the current pace can be sustained; there are hundreds of human-rights cases similarly stuck in Colombia’s judicial system, and probably dozens of high-ranking active officers in the security forces whose hands are not clean.

It will take more than this month’s moves to convince most congressional Democrats, especially in the House, to approve a free-trade agreement. No matter what happens, meanwhile, the Colombia FTA is unlikely to move at all until 2009; next year, with both presidential and legislative elections in the United States, promises to be too complicated for such a debate.

While not enough to move the FTA, the recent firings and sentencings might lead the State Department to issue a new “certification” of human-rights progress in Colombia. As required by law, this step must be taken to free up about $30 million in frozen 2007 military aid. There could be a certification, citing much of the above, before the U.S. government’s fiscal year ends on September 30.