Feb 21
  • Take half an hour and watch “Colombia’s Cocaine Trail,” Matthew Bristow’s remarkable video about the drug war in Colombia, posted in 3 sections on the website of the British newspaper The Guardian. Over the course of two years, Bristow talked to everyone, from coca producers to FARC guerrillas to manual eradicators to members of the security forces. The Guardian doesn’t allow its videos to be embedded, so visit each link separately:
    • Part 1: The Farmers – In the first of three films, he meets the farmers, and looks at their battle with a government determined to eradicate the crop
    • Part 2: The Labs – Farmers often have little choice who they sell their coca paste to. The buyers take it to labs deep in the jungle to turn into cocaine, but anti-narcotics police are on the trail
    • Part 3: Patrolling the Coast – Colombian coastguards use intelligence to catch smugglers as they attempt to get cocaine out of the country and on to Mexico. It’s a risky business for all involved, especially the informants
  • Several compelling videos accompany the online presentation of Human Rights Watch’s recent report on Colombia’s “new” paramilitary groups.
  • Journalist Felipe Zuleta’s twenty-minute inquiry into the Colombian military’s “false positives” scandal, in which soldiers killed civilians and presented their bodies as those of armed-group members killed in combat, in order to reap rewards.
    • Part One
    • Part Two
  • Noticias Uno has chilling video about a memo from the Colombian presidency’s intelligence service (the DAS) giving instructions for how exactly to make a phone threat to journalist Claudia Julieta Duque and her 10-year-old daughter.
  • Independent journalist Hollman Morris talks with María Elvira Samper about the sudden closure of Cambio, a Colombian newsmagazine that had been carrying out some aggressive investigative reporting. Samper says she believes that the closure owed to heavy pressure from Álvaro Uribe’s government.
    • Part 1
    • Part 2
    • Part 3
    • Part 4
    • Part 5
  • Added 7:00 AM February 22: A campaign ad from Conservative Party presidential candidate Andrés Felipe Arias, President Uribe’s former minister of agriculture, presenting leftist opposition senators as FARC guerrilla supporters.
Oct 29

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

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

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

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

Apr 25

Below is a brief video update recorded Friday after a visit with community leaders in the village of Puerto Toledo, in the municipality of Puerto Rico, Meta.

Puerto Toledo used to be a big cocaine market town under solid FARC control. The town is now rather empty-looking. However, the FARC still appears to have a great ability to cause havoc in the area. We even had to leave without dawdling because the guerrillas had just attacked a team of coca eradicators, guarded by police and army, about 2 kilometers away. I was actually surprised by the level of guerrilla activity in the area which, according to all observers we interviewed, appeared to have intensified significantly starting in March.

Because of the security situation, which is clearly far from consolidated, we had to hitch a 15-minute ride on a Colombian Army helicopter to get from Vistahermosa to Puerto Toledo. The soldiers dropped us off at the edge of town and were nowhere nearby when we met with the community leaders. In the video, I am waiting at the pickup site on the edge of town, where a group of soldiers, most of them hardly a day over twenty, were encamped.

In this area, the soldiers are on their own. While there is an ambitious plan to establish a full state presence in the zone, being coordinated by a facility called a “fusion center,” headquartered in Vistahermosa, Puerto Toledo has seen little non-military presence or investment. The main efforts so far have been a refurbishment of the town’s bridge, with USAID funds, and a program, carried out by the National Park Service, to relocate 300 families from the fringes of the La Macarena National Park to new, titled landholdings with decent houses and no coca plants. The Park Service program is moving steadily, but slowly.

The 300 families, from Puerto Toledo and nearby towns, have been in negotiations for nearly a year with the directors of the “Integrated Action” program for support with productive projects and food security assistance. The communities have exchanged several proposals and counter-proposals with the Plan for Integrated Consolidation of La Macarena (PCIM), the entity coordinating the state-building effort in the region. The communities’ main reservations had to do with clauses requiring them to certify that they invited the presence of the security forces – an affirmation that, in their view, would have left them vulnerable to swift and cruel retribution from the FARC. Finally, a month ago, the PCIM told the communities that their most recent proposal was acceptable, but that the funding window had closed.

In general, my impression of the program is that its civilian component is still quite weak. This appears to be due mainly to lack of resources, lack of civilian agencies’ “buy-in,” and a security situation that appears to be far less permissive than I had been led to believe.

I’ll write more about this later. Please keep in mind that these are very raw first impressions from someone who just returned to Bogotá a few hours ago and hasn’t even reviewed his notes yet. I’ll post corrections if necessary.

Outside Puerto Toledo, Colombia from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

Apr 03

Sometimes, reading translated transcripts isn’t enough.

Here is a video, with English subtitles, of some of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s more heated attacks on journalists and peace activists in Colombia. In many cases, the president accuses his targets, without evidence, of supporting the FARC guerrillas. The impact on press freedom of such words, from a popular president speaking on nationally broadcast television, is immeasurably chilling.

These clips come from a somewhat longer video prepared by several non-governmental Colombian human rights groups for presentation at the March 23 hearings of the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission. That video – in Spanish, with clips of interviews with experts and activists – is here.

Alvaro Uribe and Freedom of Expression from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

Jun 03

Here, from my mid-April trip to the southern Colombian department of Guaviare, is a video conversation with Olga Patricia Gómez, who runs Tulasi, a small business in San José del Guaviare, the departmental capital. Tulasi buys and markets alternative, organic produce from a network of producers, most of them in and around the municipality of Miraflores.

She has a lot of proposals for how businesses like hers could attract legal income to Guaviare’s coca- and violence-ridden countryside, with just a few well-targeted investments. But as she notes, few foreign donors – including USAID – include Guaviare in their development plans.

Apr 18

Here is a video featuring Pedro Arenas, the recently elected mayor of San José del Guaviare, Colombia (someone we’ve known for a long time). Here, the mayor gives a tour of a public housing project whose scale dwarfs anything else in this town of 40,000 people.

Begun back in 2004, the project is an unfinished semi-ruin because corrupt authorities made off with the construction funds. Pedro Arenas’ administration is now trying to get the building job finished.

Of course, there is no shortage of government contracts stalled by corruption in Colombia and Latin America (or, for that matter, in the United States). What makes this particular case outrageous, though, was that the intended beneficiaries were 168 of the thousands of internally displaced families who have arrived in San José del Guaviare over the past fifteen years.

Apr 17

Hello from the Atlanta airport. Regular posting will resume soon. In the meantime, enjoy this quick passenger’s-window view of downtown San José del Guaviare.

The capital of Guaviare department about 200 miles south of Bogotá, San José has about 40,000 people in the town center and 60,000 throughout the Connecticut-sized municipality (county) of the same name. The town has grown rapidly over the past 15 years or so, due to coca, cattle ranching, and massive displacement from more remote areas.

And this is what it looks like from out the window of a pickup truck:

Mar 30

Two weeks ago, following the worst of the crisis between Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, Colombian rocker Juanes organized “Peace without Borders,” a massive, star-studded free concert given on the Simón Bolívar bridge linking Cúcuta, Colombia and San Antonio, Venezuela.

Juanes was joined by fellow Colombian Carlos Vives, Venezuela’s Ricardo Montaner, Ecuador’s Juan Fernando Velasco, Juan Luis Guerra of the Dominican Republic, and Spanish crooners Alejandro Sanz and Miguel Bosé.

For those of us who were unable to attend the concert, there is always YouTube, where dozens of people have been kind enough to post excerpts. Although a three-inch, highly compressed video is really no way to appreciate live music, here are some high points from Paz Sin Fronteras.

Carlos Vives starting things off with “La Hamaca Grande” (5:38)

Juanes – “Me Enamora” (3:53)

Juan Luis Guerra with an unplugged version of “La Bilirrubina” (4:29)

Alejandro Sanz – “Dame tu corazón” (5:23)

Juan Fernando Velasco and Juanes – “Yo nací en este país” (3:24)

All together at the end, singing Juan Luis Guerra’s classic “Ojalá que Llueva Café” (4:30)

Nov 07

Colombian journalist Hollman Morris, producer of the critically acclaimed program “Contravía” and winner of Human Rights Watch’s 2007 Human Rights Defender Award, was in Washington on October 30. Here is a quick video from a conversation with him during his visit.

Nov 07

Over the weekend, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez announced that at least one member of the FARC Secretariat (Iván Márquez) was in Caracas to begin talks about a possible hostages-for-prisoners exchange.

Last week, Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba, whom Colombian President Álvaro Uribe authorized to be a facilitator for such talks, was in Washington. I turned on the camera for a small portion of our conversation; here is a brief video.

Jul 02

Here, with English subtitles, is a brief (3:42) conversation with Wilson Borja, a Colombian congressman from the opposition Alternative Democratic Pole party. It was recorded in Brussels last Thursday, a few hours after we learned of the murder of eleven Valle del Cauca legislators.

Rep. Borja, a labor leader who has represented Bogotá in the Congress since 2002, talks about the necessity of a humanitarian exchange accord to free the remaining hostages. He argues that the Colombian government should be the most subject to international pressure because it is the only legal, institutional party involved. That is a compelling argument, but I don’t give it a full endorsement. In my view, both sides should be pressured to make the compromises necessary to get to the table.

I do, however, share Rep. Borja’s confusion at the Uribe government’s recent release of guerrilla prisoners, which has yielded no results. And I strongly share his concern for the safety of members of Rep. Borja’s political party; an Alternative Democratic Pole leader was murdered in Antioquia department early last week.

May 30

Ángela Giraldo was a dentist in Cali until April 2002, when the FARC kidnapped her brother Francisco and eleven other state legislators from Valle del Cauca department (of which Cali is the capital). The guerrillas have been holding them and about 45 other hostages – in some cases for ten years – in order to pressure for a prisoner-exchange agreement with the Colombian government. Three of the hostages are U.S. citizens.

Ángela has since become a leading voice among the hostages’ family members, who have organized to pressure both sides to negotiate a “humanitarian exchange” of prisoners. The governor of Valle del Cauca, Angelino Garzón, named her to the post of departmental peace commissioner.

Ángela Giraldo was in Washington last week to attend events hosted by the U.S. Institute for Peace. I sat down with her to talk about obstacles to freeing the hostages, and the important role that the U.S. government could play. Here is a five-minute video.

May 24

León Valencia is a former member of the ELN guerrilla group’s Central Command. After demobilizing in 1994 along with 730 other ELN members, Valencia has been one of Colombia’s most prominent analysts of the conflict and peace efforts. He heads a non-governmental organization called the New Rainbow Corporation, whose investigations of politicians’ ties to paramilitary groups get partial credit for the emergence of the “para-politics” scandal.

I cornered León yesterday at a U.S. Institute of Peace conference on peace initiatives in Colombia. He has been to Havana twice in the past month to accompany the ELN’s peace talks with the Colombian government, including a visit late last week. The message he brings is that a cessation of hostilities is imminent, and that the U.S. government should no longer keep its distance from the process.

(Valencia does not refer here to the ELN’s additional demand, announced late Tuesday, that a cease-fire be contingent on Colombia dropping its free-trade agreement with the United States. If this is a consensus position within the ELN – and that is not clear – it could be an obstacle to short-term progress because Bogotá is unlikely to yield.)

May 09

The governor of Nariño department, Eduardo Zúñiga, is in Washington this week to talk about the humanitarian situation in his home region. His message badly needs to be heard right now.

Nariño is in Colombia’s far southwest, along the border with Ecuador. Its eastern half is high Andes; its western half is a Pacific coastal plain with a high Afro-Colombian population.

Nariño’s eastern neighbor is Putumayo, where more than half of Colombia’s coca was concentrated when Plan Colombia got underway in 1999-2000. Massive aerial fumigation reduced coca-growing in Putumayo, only to see it increase sharply to the west in Nariño.

Today, Nariño is one of the most violent places in Colombia. It has a high FARC and ELN presence, and is a center of re-armed paramilitaries. The worst violence is in the Pacific coast region, including the displacement of over 7,000 people in a 2-week period in El Charco in March.

Nariño is also one of Colombia’s most heavily fumigated departments, with more than 50,000 hectares per year sprayed by U.S.-funded aircraft (out of a total of 160,000 per year nationwide). Yet coca-growing has stubbornly refused to decrease.

Coca and Spraying in Nariño

Nariño is one of two Colombian departments (out of 32) that Álvaro Uribe did not win in the May 2006 elections. Governor Zúñiga, like his predecessor Parmenio Cuéllar, comes from an independent opposition political movement that is often aligned with, but is not formally a part of, the Polo Democrático party.

Governor Zúñiga is here all week, along with Father Maurizio Pointin of Pastoral Social Caritas Colombia, and Marco Romero, the director of the Colombian human-rights group CODHES.

Here are some video excerpts from his remarks at a forum held yesterday (May 8) on Capitol Hill. Apologies for the amateur video quality, we’re still figuring out how to do this well.

“Fumigation hasn’t worked at all”
Governor Zúñiga talks about the failure of massive U.S.-funded coca fumigation in his department.

Continue reading »

Apr 17

In early 2004, colleagues at the Colombian human-rights group MINGA gave us a very interesting, and potentially useful, CD. It contained several videos of interviews with people in the southern Colombian department of Putumayo – farmers, indigenous leaders, teachers, health workers, alternative-development workers, a mayor.

They tell what happened to them and their communities after Putumayo – which in 1999-2001 was Colombia’s number-one coca-growing department – became the first battleground for the new “Plan Colombia.” With hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. funding, the Colombian government expanded its military and police presence, carried out several waves of massive herbicide fumigation, and hastily threw together some alternative development programs. Meanwhile paramilitaries multiplied their presence in the towns, competing with the guerrillas who had long carried out an iron-fisted rule.

MINGA gave us the CD three years ago with the intent that we distribute it far and wide, adding English subtitles to the footage. We made a few dozen copies and sent them to congressional staff, journalists and colleagues. It’s not clear how many of these very busy people – if any – took the trouble of inserting that CD into their computers, installing the special software needed to read the video’s unusual file format, and viewing their content. Judging from the lack of feedback, the number was small.

But that was in 2004, a long-ago, pre-YouTube era. A couple of weeks ago, we unearthed the CD of MINGA’s Putumayo testimonies, and found that they are still very much worth sharing and viewing. They are now available right here.

Take a moment to view some of these. They are quite typical of what we have heard in our own research in Colombia’s coca-and-conflict zones: indiscriminate fumigation, dysfunctional alternative-development efforts, and civilians caught in the middle of the violence. This glimpse into Plan Colombia’s first zone of operation makes pretty clear why the strategy has failed to achieve its goals.

2003 testimony from a woman in El Placer about being caught in the midst of conflict and fumigation:

2003 testimonies about U.S.-funded alternative-development projects being fumigated by U.S.-funded narcotics aircraft:

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