Apr 10

Carlos Lozano is the longtime director of Voz, a weekly newspaper in Colombia with historical ties to the country’s Communist party. Colombia’s right wing accuses Lozano of being a supporter of the FARC guerrillas. While he recognizes that he has had contact with the guerrillas – he has served as a facilitator for past attempts at dialogue – Lozano insists that his goal is to convince them to negotiate, to abandon the armed struggle in favor of practicing politics.

More recently, Lozano has joined Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba and other civil-society leaders in “Colombians for Peace,” an ad hoc group that has engaged in a series of public, written exchanges with the FARC. In more recent communications, the Colombians for Peace have called on the FARC to abandon the practice of kidnapping. The guerrillas have so far responded by releasing six hostages in early February, and by telling the group (falsely, most believe) that they currently hold only nine individuals for ransom.

Due to his pro-dialogue stance, which he has held in a high-profile way for decades, Lozano has rarely criticized the guerrillas directly. This in turn has fed accusations that he supports them. Because of that past, it is significant that Lozano has adopted a stronger, more critical tone against the FARC in recent days.

On March 29, Lozano wrote a letter to the editor of El Tiempo, Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, condemning in strong terms a reported FARC plan to assassinate the newspaper’s director, Enrique Santos, and his brother Juan Manuel, the minister of defense.

I reject with indignation any FARC plan against the lives of Enrique Santos or his brother. Such stupidity and absurd behavior go against the effort of Colombians for Peace to open favorable political spaces for the negotiated and peaceful resolution of the conflict. This degraded conflict already has enough horror and barbarism wihout the guerrillas resorting to personal assassinations. Nothing justifies it, and no rational person should accept it. Disagreements must be laid out in the battle of ideas, in peaceful and civilized ideological confrontation. A plan like this does a poor service to the cause of peace. I hope that this is a “false positive” [a fake plan thought up by Colombian intelligence], like so many that we have seen. I raise my voice in protest, and if the echo makes it to the deepest jungle and to the ears of [FARC leader] “Alfonso Cano,” of whom we expect a greater political accent in the FARC’s actions, that they reflect and abandon any violent act against his life and his family. Don’t even try it!

These were important words coming from one of the principal voices of Colombia’s ultra-left. Lozano repeated them in an interview with El Tiempo yesterday.

Q: Why such strong words for the FARC?

Lozano: The political solution of the conflict demands the will of the government and the FARC. We have to make opportune criticisms when the lack of will is most evident. The moment to negotiate has arrived, this can’t go on any longer. To insist on armed confrontation is irrational. We must be very incisive and critical with all parties, including the guerrillas.

Q: Don’t you think this demanding tone should have begun when the number of kidnappings exceeded 3,000 per year?

L: We have always been critical of the guerrillas. For example, on the issue of kidnapping the Communist Party and its directors have been critical and we have distanced ourselves from that. Perhaps we hadn’t done it as strongly and publicly as we do now.

Q: You have asked “Alfonso Cano” to adopt more of a political accent. What are you referring to?

L: The FARC have demonstrated in their most recent pronouncements that there is some interest in a political accent. Reality demands that much more political accent is required of the guerrillas to contribute to a political solution to the conflict. I hope that “Cano” and the whole Secretariat reflect on this.

Q: You said that Colombians for Peace must demand of the FARC a commitment with regard to kidnapping and use of landmines. What would that be?

L: The three letters from Colombians for Peace have in common the issue of the humanitarian exchange [to free FARC hostages], but also the issue of kidnapping. The guerrillas have to understand that the intensity of the conflict must decrease, especially issues that affect the civilian population like kidnapping and mines.

Q: Before any dialogue, should the FARC abandon kidnapping?

L: Of course, and the government should make commitments too. It is required that a peace process begin with commitments from both sides: no more forced disappearance, no more kidnapping, no more “false positives,” no more mines.

Q: President Uribe asks the FARC to cease [hostilities] for 4 months in order to create conditions [for talks]. Does that sound acceptable?

L: A cessation of hostilities on both sides sounds acceptable. We won’t get anything out of it if military operations against them continue. That would make compliance inviable.

The three remarkably new elements in Lozano’s analysis, which had never before been so clearly stated, are:

  • Recognition that Colombia’s Communist Party should have been more openly critical of kidnapping in the past.
  • The demand that the practice of kidnapping cease before new dialogues begin.
  • The tacit acceptance of President Uribe’s proposal for a four-month cessation of hostilities, as long as it is bilateral.

We have no idea whether the FARC will respond positively to any of this, especially as Colombia enters another election season and the issue of peace becomes very politically charged. But Lozano’s words – both because of their content and because of their messenger – are very welcome and a source of hope.

Oct 21

Senator Gustavo Petro, a leader of Colombia’s main left-of-center opposition party, released two very disturbing documents this afternoon. They are internal memoranda of the Administrative Security Department (DAS), the Colombian Presidency’s security and intelligence service, or “secret police.” Both were published within the past two months.

The first requests that DAS section chiefs send to Bogotá all intelligence that they have gathered about Senator Petro’s “ties … to illegal organizations” and his contacts with para-politics witnesses, or as the memo ominously puts it, “people who have come forward to testify against the government.” Petro has been an outspoken advocate of investigations into ties between paramilitary groups and politicians, most of whom are supporters of President Álvaro Uribe.

The second requests that DAS section chiefs help the agency gather intelligence about Senator Petro’s political party, the Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA). The PDA is one of Colombia’s two principal opposition parties, whose members include congresspeople, senators, the mayor of Bogotá and the governor of Nariño.

Though the party is legally constituted, the DAS memo orders agents to spy on the party’s convention, scheduled for this weekend, to seek out evidence of ties to illegal armed groups, plans to “destabilize the National Government,” or – heaven forbid – ties to labor unions or non-governmental organizations.

These documents are frightening because of what they say about the Colombian government’s tolerance of dissent, its ability to distinguish between legitimate political participation and left-wing terrorism, and the amount of political space in which the political opposition can operate.

They should trigger a scandal, and an investigation into possible illegal infringement of Colombians’ right to organize and participate in political movements. They should also inspire the U.S. government to loosen its embrace of a government that is clearly going too far in an undemocratic direction.

Bogotá, August 29, 2008

To: Departmental Directors

From: Political and Social Intelligence Department Director

Subject: Information Request

I politely ask your collaboration in sending me any available information related to the activities of Gustavo Petro Urrego, senator from Polo Democrático Alternativo (Alternative Democratic Pole – leftist opposition party), taking into account:

  • Privileged information of ties or links with illegal organizations.
  • His contacts with people who have come forward to testify against the government.

It is requested that your response be sent to the e-mail politicosocial@das.gov.co by September 4, 2008. Please respond even if you do not have information.

Cordially,

Jaime Fernando Ovalle Olaz

Bogotá, September 16, 2008

To: Departmental Directors

From: Political and Social Intelligence Department Director

Subject: Information Request

Taking into account that the Polo Democratico Alternativo (PDA) is undergoing a series of internal divisions due to differing ideologies present in the various political positions represented in the party (moderate to radical leftist), and given the fact that the PDA will have its Second National Congress on October 26, 2008, I politely request your collaboration in sending available information concerning the following aspects:

1. Internal Division

  • PDA leaders’ alliances with domestic and international political movements.
  • Connections between PDA leaders and clandestine movements or illegal organizations.
  • International and domestic political support for the different political factions within the PDA.
  • Political statements, and public or clandestine activities, that party members are carrying out in the context of the PDA’s current political moment.

2. Second Congress of the PDA

  • The PDA’s alliances with domestic and international political movements.
  • The PDA’s connections to clandestine movements or illegal organizations.
  • Full identification of the delegates to the PDA’s Second National Congress, and their possible connections or ties to terrorist organizations.
  • Identification of terrorist organizations’ interest in the development of the PDA’s Second Congress.
  • Strategic plans to destablize the National Government.
  • Alliances with social organizations (Unions, NGOs, etc.)

It is requested that your response be sent to the e-mail politicosocial@das.gov.co by 5:00 PM on October 1, 2008. Please respond even if you do not have information.

Cordially,

Jaime Fernando Ovalle Olaz

Jul 21

Yesterday’s marches in Colombia and around the world are the third massive outpouring in just over a year of rejection of the FARC and its practice of kidnapping. (Large-scale rallies took place on July 5, 2007; February 4, 2008 and July 20, 2008.)

These emotional events are proving to be a very effective way to weaken the guerrillas. If the goal is to make the FARC feel isolated and besieged – thus complicating recruitment, encouraging informants and deserters, and discouraging international solidarity – these marches are more effective than military operations.

They are the biggest demonstrations Colombia has seen since 1998-1999, when the guerrillas were at the height of their military capacity. Then, hundreds of thousands of Colombians took to the streets calling for the government and the FARC to negotiate peace. Now, millions of Colombians are calling on the FARC simply to go away, freeing their hostages in the process.

The marches reflect a national mood in which only a minority of Colombians are willing to support negotiations with the FARC, beyond terms of surrender. They rest appear to prefer to pay the cost – which could total several years, thousands of lives, and billions of dollars – of a continued military campaign.

Of course, the FARC have made that choice easy, as they have given very little evidence of flexibility on peace talks or even the terms for negotiating a hostage exchange. It appears that the FARC wants to continue fighting.

All of this benefits President Álvaro Uribe, whose hard line that seemed so radical in 2001 is now Colombia’s conventional wisdom.

Where, though, does that leave Colombia’s democratic opposition? What is left for people who support neither Uribe nor the FARC?

Those who believe that the war should be brought to a negotiated, political end are in a bind, because the FARC themselves do not appear to be interested yet. How, then, do they join in efforts to exert political pressure on the FARC without appearing to boost a president whose policies they oppose? How to express anger at the FARC, but also express anger at a president who defends the military’s hardest line, has numerous political supporters tied to paramilitaries, picks ugly fights with the justice system, routinely attacks human rights groups, and calls his political opponents “terrorists”?

Colombia’s opposition has not figured out how to square this circle. The main left opposition party, the Democratic Pole – whom columnist Daniel Samper this weekend compared to a bunch of hippies who take an hour to argue about what drink to order in a restaurant – is on the ropes.

After some internal debate about unduly supporting the president, the Pole decided to participate in yesterday’s marches, but their statement revealed the contortions they had to perform in order to justify doing so. “While the Humanitarian Accord, in the view of Polo President Carlos Gaviria, is still a valid option, ‘the guerrillas must take note and be conscious that the citizens are asking for kidnappings to stop and the conflict to cease.’”

The Democratic Pole’s message continues:

It is important that these citizen protest marches against such abominable acts as kidnapping become institutionalized, but also for causes like forced disappearances, unionist killings, the rule of law, peace and the peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Broad-based citizen marches for these causes would be a wonder to behold. But in the current climate they are sadly unlikely.

In his last column for El Espectador, former Bogotá mayor Luis Eduardo Garzon, a founder of the Democratic Pole, aimed his frustration at the FARC.

The only successful blow they [the FARC] have dealt is to weaken the opposition. Every day it is harder to exercise opposition, not just for lack of security guarantees, but because the guerrillas’ actions end up giving Uribe more to work with. Those who oppose re-election, those who defend the justice system’s decisions, those who want to warn about the economic and social catastrophe that awaits, those who believe that this must end in a political negotiation and those who wish to humanize the war, among other issues, end up being seen as accomplices of the FARC.

Yesterday’s marches illustrate the opposition’s dilemma. The FARC have left the opposition with no ability to dissent from President Uribe. “Ni con uno, ni con el otro” is not a message that resonates with most Colombians.

Colombia’s non-violent left is being asphyxiated, but right now the FARC are sucking away more oxygen than Uribe is.

May 23

At dinnertime this evening, I had just lit the grill when the phone started buzzing in my pocket. Two calls in a row from U.S. reporters.

How strange to be standing in my backyard, barbecue tongs in hand, answering questions about a criminal investigation of several colleagues and acquaintances. (I suppose, though, that there are many people here in Washington to whom this sort of thing happens all the time.)

Only a little while before, Colombian Prosecutor-General Mario Iguarán had announced that several Colombian politicians and peace facilitators, as well as a few citizens of Ecuador, Venezuela and the United States, were being formally investigated for ties to the FARC. The allegations are based on information culled from laptop computers and other media recovered at the site in Ecuador where, on March 1, Colombia’s army killed FARC leader Raúl Reyes.

While several of the names are unfamiliar, Prosecutor Iguarán’s list of those under investigation includes people who are well known for their efforts to convince the FARC to participate in negotiations. Because of their work, this weblog has interviewed or discussed some of them.

Those under investigation include:

  • Liberal Party Senator Piedad Córdoba,
  • Democratic Pole Party Congressman Wilson Borja,
  • Democratic Pole Party Congresswoman Gloria Inés Ramírez,
  • U.S. development consultant Jim Jones,
  • Colombian politician Álvaro Leyva,
  • Carlos Lozano, editor of the Colombian Communist Party newspaper Voz,
  • Telesur reporter William Parra,
  • Columnist Lázaro Viveros,
  • Liliana Patricia Obando, director of an NGO called Frunceagro [edit 5/27: the NGO is Fensuagro, the National Federation of Agricultural Farming Unions],
  • Venezuelan politician Amílkar Figueroa,
  • Ecuadorian politician María Augusta Calle, and
  • Iván Larrea, brother of Ecuador’s interior minister.

Beyond expressing relief that I’ve never written the FARC any e-mails, I found it hard to offer any useful observations in this evening’s phone conversations. (As evidenced here.) There is too much that we don’t know, particularly about what the computer files say, and what possible criminal charges these individuals might end up facing.

But we can speculate, which is still a useful exercise because it shows how complicated this issue is. Let’s start by asking: What, in the end, might these people be charged with?

  • Unauthorized contact with an armed group? If that is indeed a criminal offense in Colombia, they are all guilty, as is anyone else who has e-mailed, called or visited the FARC without express prior authorization from the Colombian government. If a law against such contacts exists, however, I have never seen it enforced before.
  • Offering material support, like weapons, money or protection? In the case of those under investigation whom I know personally, I highly doubt it. All of them are repulsed by Colombia’s violence and alarmed by the conflict’s degradation. I cannot imagine them doing anything that would add to the killing. (According to El Tiempo, though, the Venezuelan individual – whom I don’t know – may have been a go-between in the FARC’s efforts to get weapons from Caracas.)
  • Offering advice? Perhaps advice was offered, and this is where it gets tricky. Whether advice constituted support for the FARC depends on what kind of advice it was.

Tactical or strategic advice? This is unlikely – the list includes no military masterminds who would have much to teach the FARC about guerrilla warfare.

Political advice? Again, perhaps – but there are two kinds of political advice in question here, one malign and one benign.

  • Political advice intended to help the FARC achieve power, including local power, or to enter into power-sharing alliances? If the advice is found to fit in this category, those who offered it are in some trouble. This is the sort of support that many of the “para-politicians” are accused of providing. (Though of course many of them are accused of far more serious crimes like conspiring to kill or intimidate opponents, or to steal elections.)
  • Political advice to move the FARC’s thinking in a less militaristic, more flexible, more peace-friendly direction? Let’s assume the goal of a communication with the FARC is to encourage them to free hostages, be more open to negotiations, or simply to stop violating international humanitarian law. Clearly, one strong way to make the case is to convince the FARC that it is in their own self-interest to do so. That essentially means offering political advice.

Continue reading »

Oct 29

The parties in President Uribe’s coalition won governorships in less than half the country, and in only a few of the most populous departments. (Source: votebien.com, adding candidates from the Alas Equipo and “La ‘U’“parties.)

Colombia held municipal and departmental elections yesterday. The voting was mostly peaceful, though the past few months’ campaigning was quite violent, with dozens of attacks on candidates, the majority carried out by the FARC.

Here are a few notes about yesterday’s election results.

  • President Álvaro Uribe and his supporters cannot be happy about the outcome.

Candidates from the pro-Uribe coalition got more votes than any other single party, but failed to win the mayorships of Colombia’s three largest cities. Pro-Uribe party candidates won about 15 of 32 governorships, and the mayor’s offices of about 14 of 32 departmental capitals.

  • Independent candidates did well.

The term refers to candidates from neither the Uribista coalition nor either of the two main opposition parties (the Liberals and the Alternative Democratic Pole). Candidates from small, usually locally focused, political movements – many of them from the left – scored some key victories.

In Medellín Alonso Salazar, an expert on violence and gang activity who served as Secretario del Gobierno (similar to deputy mayor) under popular Mayor Sergio Fajardo, came from behind in the polls to defeat former mayor Luis Pérez by a comfortable margin. Salazar, from the same small independent left-of-center political movement as Fajardo, was polling in the single digits a few months ago, while Pérez had locked up the support of Medellín’s traditional politicians and much of its business community. Though not the most charismatic campaigner, Salazar was helped by his association with Fajardo and by a wide range of endorsements – from the pop singer Juanes to President Uribe’s wife Lina Moreno.

In Cali Jorge Iván Ospina, another candidate from a small left-of-center political group, surprised many by beating Francisco Lloreda, scion of one of the city’s oldest and wealthiest families. The 39-year-old mayor-elect is the son of an M-19 leader killed in combat in the mid-1980s.

Colombia’s traditional parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, had a hard time in Colombia’s cities. They remain quite strong in rural areas, though, judging from mayoral results in rural municipalities and gubernatorial results in more rural departments. The Liberals won nine departmental governorships (out of 32) and about 200 mostly rural municipalities (out of about 1,100); the Conservatives – part of the pro-Uribe coalition – took three governorships and about 200 mostly” rural municipalities.

  • The “united left” did reasonably well, but showed its weaknesses.

Colombia’s united left opposition party, the Alternative Democratic Pole, held onto the Bogotá mayor’s seat, which is often referred to as the second-most powerful position in the country. Samuel Moreno, with a come-from behind victory, beat former mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who was President Uribe’s choice. Moreno succeeds popular Alternative Democratic Pole mayor Luis Eduardo Garzón. Though Garzón did not support Moreno in their party’s primary election – the outgoing mayor is more politically moderate than Moreno – his high approval ratings (consistently over 60 percent) gave the candidate a boost.

In the days before the election, President Uribe gave Moreno a great political gift. On several occasions the president urged voters not to support Moreno and the Alternative Democratic Pole by implying that the party was tied to the FARC. On a visit to the Caribbean coast town of Algarrobo, Magdalena last Thursday, Uribe said, “Today Algarrobo speaks to Bogotá. May they not make the mistake there … of electing mayors supported by the guerrillas who also buy votes.” Uribe made similar statements on Friday and Saturday, and had his ministers of interior and defense do the same.

Continue reading »

Sep 12

Sen. Gustavo Petro, a former member of the disbanded M-19 guerrilla group, is now a prominent senator from the Democratic Pole, Colombia’s united left opposition party. He has played a central role in the effort to expose links between paramilitaries and state officials.

His inquiries into paramilitary ties to President Uribe’s inner circle led Uribe to call Sen. Petro a “terrorist in a business suit” last February.

Now the hostility toward Sen. Petro is coming from the other extreme. On Monday, the FARC guerrillas posted to their website an attack on Petro written by Iván Márquez, a member of the group’s secretariat.

In open support of the U.S. Southern Command’s Plan Patriota, a foolish sniper shoots at the FARC from his fatuous trench, a demobilized M-19 member named Gustavo Petro. …

For a while Petro has been spraying around some truly stupid things about the FARC. We cannot feel resentment toward the admirable work of so many democratic and revolutionary leaders in the Democratic Pole. What we do feel is suspicion toward personalities like Petro.

The FARC are angry at Petro for several strong statements he has recently made about them. In early July, after news emerged of the death of eleven provincial legislators whom the guerrillas had taken hostage, Petro wrote a letter to Carlos Gaviria, the president of the Democratic Pole, suggesting that the party’s bloc in Congress hold a hearing investigating ties between politicians and the FARC.

I think that our position with respect to the FARC is not sufficiently clear before public opinion. Even though our statutes condemn violence as a way to resolve the country’s social and political conflicts, Colombian society has not totally and clearly defined the facts that separate us from the FARC. Despite the high number of militants of the democratic left whom this guerrilla group has murdered, the citizenry does not perceive our absolute and categorical rejection of that movement [the FARC].

Petro went further in an early September interview with the Colombian newsmagazine Cambio. Continue reading »

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.

Apr 25

While on Capitol Hill viewing yesterday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Colombia, we started getting calls and emails. Colombian police were raiding the offices of Gustavo Petro, the opposition senator and nemesis of President Álvaro Uribe. This was happening a mere seven days after Petro’s congressional hearing on paramilitarism in President Uribe’s home state of Antioquia had transfixed the country.

It sounded like something a hack screenwriter would have written: the scene where the would-be dictator begins his crackdown on the opposition. By the end of the day, however, the episode – while troubling – appeared to be much less serious than that.

Two police delegations appeared at Petro’s office. One was there to discuss Petro’s own security, apparently with a prior appointment. A prosecutor had ordered the other – perhaps improperly – to obtain information from Petro’s records about allegations the senator had made regarding bribery of army officers in 2003.

The Uribe administration’s interior minister, Carlos Holguín, disassociated the government from the episode. Attorney-General Mario Iguarán, whose office is a separate branch of government beyond the president’s control, added that he had no role in the prosecutor’s decision to send police to Sen. Petro’s office.

The incident appears to have blown over. What happened yesterday was not an all-out frontal attack on President Uribe’s opponents. But it is still serious in the current context. Consider the following recent developments.

1. Espionage against the peaceful political opposition? In his extensive comments to the media last Thursday, President Uribe offered this startling piece of information.

Continue reading »

Apr 18

Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos yawns during Sen. Gustavo Petro's congressional debate yesterday on paramilitarism in Antioquia.Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos may look bored, but in fact there’s a lot going on right now. I’m in Chicago for a few events and meetings, which are going to keep me from writing much today. But I want to point to three things:

1. Senator Gustavo Petro held his long-awaited congressional debate on paramilitary-government links in Antioquia, a department that Álvaro Uribe represented as a senator from 1986 to 1994, and as governor from 1995 to 1997.

From today’s Washington Post:

Basing his accusations on government documents and depositions by former paramilitary members and military officers, Sen. Gustavo Petro said the militiamen met at Uribe’s Guacharacas farm as well as ranches owned by his brother, Santiago Uribe, and a close associate, Luis Alberto Villegas. “From there, at night, they would go out and kill people,” Petro said, referring to the sprawling ranch owned by Álvaro Uribe.

If you understand Spanish, you can view Petro’s presentation in its entirety on the website of his political party, the Polo Democrático. Here is other coverage:

2. Sen. Patrick Leahy has put a hold on 2006 military aid to Colombia that was “unfrozen” earlier this month, when the State Department certified that the Colombian military’s human-rights record was improving. This $55 million is once again frozen until Sen. Leahy – who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee in charge of foreign aid – gets a fuller explanation of how the State Department could possibly see things as improving right now.

3. The Colombian government and ELN negotiators finally sat down in Havana and began talks yesterday, five days later than the current round was scheduled to begin. The ELN has offered a partial cease-fire, which the government is unlikely to accept. Talks continue behind closed doors, but pessimism abounds.