Oct 13

Note added 10/13 – Claudia López writes:

I don’t have enough words to explain to you how absolutely surprised and disconcerted this reaction from El Tiempo’s directorship leaves me. It never crossed my mind that El Tiempo would fire one of their own columnists for criticizing the newspaper, even less that they would to so without warning, instead notifying me about it publicly, and even less without even offering a single argument to contradict the criticisms. I never imagined that the directorship of the newspaper would turn to someone in power, instead of journalism, to report or contradict its information or opinions.

There is neither trust nor conditions to keep writing in El Tiempo now. I can write somewhere else. I’m not worried about that. But I do believe that attention must be called to the excessive risk to Colombian democracy when the most important newspaper in the country refuses to debate well-founded criticisms about the risks and conflicts of interest between its business, political and journalistic activities.

El Tiempo rejects Claudia López’s statements as false, badly intentioned, and slanderous. The Directorship of this daily understands her strong criticism of our journalistic work to be a resignation letter, which we immediately accept.”

This is the testy, thin-skinned postscript that El Tiempo, Colombia’s most-circulated daily newspaper, added to the bottom of this morning’s column from Claudia López, whose Tuesday missives have consistently been among the paper’s most read and most commented contributions.

The columnist and think-tank researcher, who is spending this semester as a World Fellow at Yale University, is known for being a tenacious and outspoken investigator, and gets some credit for breaking the “para-politics” scandal in 2006. Her column has made her one of President Álvaro Uribe’s fiercest and best-known critics. We have cited her on a few occasions.

So what did Ms. López write that caused El Tiempo to give her the boot? She chose to turn her sights on the newspaper itself. She argued that El Tiempo has used the “Agro Ingreso Seguro” (AIS) scandal (the subject of Friday’s post), in which an agricultural subsidy program gave large sums of cash to some of the country’s largest landholders, to benefit the presidential aspirations of a family member.

“Unlike other written media, El Tiempo did not dig deeper into the AIS program, focusing only on the scandal’s political effects,” writes López, noting that the scandal was, however, broken by the weekly magazine Cambio, which is owned by El Tiempo.

But López goes on to argue that El Tiempo’s focus on the scandal’s political effects sought to harm the prospects of one 2010 presidential aspirant – former Agriculture Minister Andrés Felipe Arias – and explicitly to help another possible candidate, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos. (Both Arias and Santos have said that they will run in 2010 only if President Uribe is unable to run for a third term.)

López backs up the allegation of favoritism by citing a web forum on eltiempo.com, an article about comments in the forum, and a political analysis article contending, without citing poll data, that “Andrés Felipe Arias emerges weakened and Juan Manuel Santos is strengthened by the AIS scandal.”

Using subtle tools like a web forum and “political analyses” to benefit one candidate is a common charge leveled against media everywhere. But in this case, the candidate allegedly benefiting, Juan Manuel Santos, is a member of the family that owns El Tiempo. (Actually, since a 2007 sale to Spain’s Grupo Planeta, the Santos family shares control of the newspaper.) Candidate Santos is also a former editor at the newspaper.

López’s accusation is serious and documented, and her attack is strong.

El Tiempo’s journalistic quality is ever more compromised by the growing conflict of interests between its commercial purposes (to win a third television channel) and political purposes (to cover the Government that provides this channel, and its partner in the campaign), and its journalistic duties.

In this morning’s coverage, Claudia López accused El Tiempo’s management of benefiting a relative’s political aspirations, and demanded that it itself. Instead of an explanation, she was publicly fired.

This is extremely disappointing from a newspaper whose prominence in Latin America would lead one to expect that its columnists could cover any topic they choose. A newspaper whose editorial staff includes Enrique Santos, the current first vice-president of the Inter-American Press Association, a prominent press freedom association. And a newspaper that, every week, publishes the often hilarious fabrications of José Obdulio Gaviria, a far-right figure who until recently was one of President Uribe’s principal advisors.

Claudia López has lost her space in El Tiempo, but Gaviria, who frequently attacks her in his columns, isn’t going anywhere.

Oct 07

Here is the first of what we expect to be a series of regularly updated fact sheets about Colombia and U.S. policy toward the Americas. Once we have made a few of these, we’ll add a section to this site and host them here in HTML and PDF format.

This first entry seeks to give a brief overview of Colombia’s “DAS” wiretapping and surveillance scandal, with links to all sources consulted.

Colombia’s Domestic Spying Scandal

By Adam Isacson, CIP Latin America Security Program. Last updated October 8, 2009.
A PDF version of this document is available at www.cipcol.org/files/factsheets/das_scandal.pdf

On February 21, 2009, Colombia’s most-circulated newsweekly, Semana, broke an important story. It revealed that the Administrative Security Department (DAS), the Colombian Presidency’s internal intelligence agency, had been carrying out a campaign of wiretaps and surveillance of human rights defenders, Supreme Court justices, opposition politicians, and journalists. DAS agents also followed their targets’ children, wives, and assistants.

New evidence has emerged over the course of 2009. It indicates that the DAS was conducting warrantless wiretapping since at least 2003 through 2008, and possibly this year. The full extent of the illegal spying, and the identity of the individual(s) who ordered the program, remain unknown.

What does the DAS do?

  • In 1953, Colombia’s only military dictatorship of the 20th century created a Colombian Intelligence Service (SIC) within the president’s office. The SIC became the DAS in 1960.
  • The agency’s roles have since expanded. Its 6,500 members now gather intelligence about domestic threats, handle passports and immigration, guard threatened individuals, and serve as Colombia’s main interface with Interpol. The DAS has been a key counterpart for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

This is not the Uribe administration’s first DAS scandal

Jorge Noguera.
  • Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s first DAS Director (2002-2005) was Jorge Noguera, who directed Uribe’s 2002 campaign in the department (province) of Magdalena. In early 2006, Noguera was revealed to have collaborated closely with some of Colombia’s most notorious narcotraffickers and right-wing paramilitary leaders. He allegedly facilitated drug shipments and gave the paramilitaries lists of human rights defenders and labor leaders to assassinate. Since December 2008, Jorge Noguera has been in prison and facing trial for aggravated homicide.
  • In late 2008, the DAS was found to have been ordering illegal surveillance of opposition Senator Gustavo Petro, a revelation that forced the resignation of DAS Director María de Pilar Hurtado.
  • Four appointees and one interim director have led the DAS during Uribe’s seven years in office.

The February 2009 revelations

The “G-3”

  • In 2003, then-DAS Director Noguera created the “Special Strategic Intelligence Group,” a unit known as G-3 which appeared nowhere in the agency’s organization chart. The G-3, whose very existence the DAS denied until March 2009, was created to carry out intelligence operations including, according to one folder found in the agency’s headquarters, “Surveillance of organizations and people with tendencies to oppose government policy in order to restrict or neutralize their actions.”
  • The G-3 was abolished when Noguera left in November 2005. However, many of its functions passed to another DAS unit, the “National and International Observation Group” (GONI). The G-3’s original coordinator, Jaime Fernando Ovalle, remained in the DAS until November 2008, when he was fired for his role in the illegal surveillance of Senator Petro. The GONI was dissolved in March 2009.

Spying on human rights defenders

The G-3 closely followed members of Colombia’s most prominent human rights groups, as well as some labor leaders and independent journalists. The extent of the surveillance is alarming.

  • Prosecutors showed Alirio Uribe of the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyer’s Collective (no relation to President Uribe), a human rights group, some of his DAS files from the 2003-2005 period. According to the New York Times, they “included photos of [Uribe’s] children, transcripts of phone and e-mail conversations, details on his finances [including bank account information] and evidence that DAS agents rented an apartment across from his home to monitor him.”
Hollman Morris.
  • Investigative journalist Hollman Morris, reports Inter-Press Service, found a file with “photos and information on his parents, siblings, wife and children, and on his day-to-day movements, with a level of detail that reminded those looking at it of the thorough investigations carried out by hired killers while planning their hit jobs.”
  • International human rights workers were targeted by DAS too. Emails from Human Rights Watch ended up in DAS files, and the G-3 recommended carrying out “offensive intelligence” against the organization’s Americas director, José Miguel Vivanco. The OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission protested revelations that the DAS had spied on a June 2005 visit of Special Rapporteur for Women’s Rights Susana Villarán.

Spying on judges

  • The G-3 appeared to focus principally on non-governmental activists. The GONI’s targets, however, included Supreme Court magistrates who have been investigating dozens of President Uribe’s political allies’ alleged ties to murderous paramilitary groups. (The charges of politicians’ support for paramilitaries, known in Colombia as the “para-politics” scandal, have put about one-quarter of Colombia’s current Congress [.doc file], nearly all of them government supporters, under investigation, on trial or in prison.)
  • Documents found in a DAS detective’s office contained brief biographies of Supreme Court magistrates, information on their families, and personal information ranging from their political affiliations to intimate details.
Iván Velásquez.
  • A chief target has been Iván Velásquez, the magistrate charged with leading the “para-politics” investigation against President Uribe’s political allies. Judge Velásquez “was never left alone for a minute,” reported Semana. During one three-month period in 2008, DAS spies recorded 1,900 of his phone conversations. The DAS also spied on members of Judge Velásquez’s investigation team and their families.

Spying on political figures

  • In May 2009, investigators found recordings revealing that all candidates running against President Uribe’s 2006 re-election bid were wiretapped. Colombia’s daily El Espectador published a list of 36 prominent politicians, nearly all from the opposition, and six noted journalists who were under surveillance at the time.
  • One DAS detective said he was assigned to monitor people like ex-presidents Ernesto Samper and Andrés Pastrana. This included wiretapping and wearing disguises to meetings and events, as well as following their children, wives, advisors, and assistants.
  • Semana columnist Daniel Coronell noted a series of “inexplicable coincidences” in which DAS agents made a series of searches into the agency’s restricted database for information about former president César Gaviria, a critic of President Uribe. Days later, on April 27, 2006, Gaviria’s sister was murdered.

August 2009 revelations of new spying

  • In its August 30, 2009 issue, Semana reported that, in the wake of the DAS surveillance revelations, “Things not only have not changed, but they have even gotten worse. The wiretaps and surveillance of [Supreme] Court members, journalists, politicians and some lawyers continue. And if that weren’t enough, they have extended to some presidential candidates [Colombia has elections in 2010] and, recently, to members of Congress.”
  • “Some of the [wiretapping] equipment being used was hidden from the Prosecutor-General [Fiscalía] and Inspector-General [Procuraduría] during the wiretap investigation,” an anonymous DAS source involved in the operation told Semana. “Two weeks ago, some of the equipment returned to Bogotá to monitor members of Congress, based on the referendum voting.” The “referendum” refers to a bill, passed by Colombia’s Congress in September, to schedule a plebiscite on whether to change the country’s constitution to allow Álvaro Uribe to run for a third straight term.
  • Among the new wiretaps are more recordings of Judge Iván Velásquez, the Supreme Court’s chief “para-politics” investigator. One recording (audio) is of a mid-2009 phone conversation between Velásquez and James Faulkner, a Justice Department official assigned to the U.S. embassy. “It worries me to hear the voice of my judicial attaché in a wiretapped call,” U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield told reporters.

The extent of the spying, and who ordered it, are unknown

Removing boxes (more photos).
  • Security videotapes from the first week of January 2009 show boxes and computers being removed from the DAS offices. Colombia’s prosecutor-general at the time, Mario Iguarán, told the Associated Press that when prosecutors first went to the DAS offices to start investigating, they were “given the run-around by DAS personnel, who directed them to the wrong offices or went searching for keys.” Much information is probably lost.
  • Jorge Lagos, the DAS chief of counterintelligence, told the Prosecutor-General’s Office that he gave information about some Supreme Court justices to President Uribe’s general secretary, Bernardo Moreno, and the president’s controversial personal advisor, José Obdulio Gaviria.
  • Former DAS Director Maria del Pilar Hurtado said in an interview that the warrantless wiretaps and investigations of Supreme Court magistrates were born out of concerns voiced by President Uribe.

The U.S. government’s response

  • In February 2009, U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield recognized that the United States provided eavesdropping equipment to the DAS.
  • “[W]e obviously think that the steps that have already been made on issues like extrajudicial killings and illegal surveillance, that it is important that Colombia pursue a path of rule of law and transparency, and I know that that is something that President Uribe is committed to doing.” – President Barack Obama, June 29, 2009, hosting President Uribe at the White House.
  • “Allegations of illegal domestic wiretapping and surveillance by Colombia’s Department of Administrative Security (DAS) are troubling and unacceptable. The importance that the Prosecutor General’s Office has placed on prosecuting these crimes is a positive step for Colombia, but media and NGO reports allege that illegal activity continues, so it is even more vital that the Colombian government take steps to ensure that this is not the case, and that the Prosecutor General’s Office conduct a rigorous, thorough and independent investigation in order to determine the extent of these abuses and to hold all perpetrators accountable.” – September 2009 Department of State press release announcing that Colombia, in the department’s view, meets human rights conditions in U.S. foreign aid law.

The Colombian government’s response

  • The scandal has led to the exit of at least 33 DAS employees, including resignations of the deputy directors for counterintelligence, Jorge Alberto Lagos; intelligence, Fernando Tavares; analysis, Gustavo Sierra; and operations, Marta Leal.
José Miguel de Narváez.
  • In July 2009, the Prosecutor-General’s office [Fiscalía], which is a separate branch of government in Colombia, ordered the arrest of ten DAS officials in connection with the spying allegations. Those arrested include Lagos, Leal, Tavares, and José Miguel de Narváez, who served as the number-two DAS official under Jorge Noguera and is widely accused of very close ties to paramilitaries. The arrest orders came one day before Prosecutor-General Mario Iguarán left office, at the end of his four-year term. Lagos and Tavares were released in late September 2009 on claims that prosecutors committed “procedural errors.”
  • In mid-September 2009, acting Prosecutor-General Guillermo Mendoza revealed that two prosecutors in his office – not the DAS – had illegally wiretapped Justice Iván Velásquez, the “para-politics” investigator, in 2009. These recordings included the judge’s conversation with the U.S. embassy official. However, it is not clear why Justice Velásquez’s phone number was among those given to the Prosecutor-General’s office for wiretapping. An unknown party added the judge’s number to a list of numbers to be tapped for a routine extortion case of a hardware-store owner in a town near Bogotá.
  • The Uribe administration has repeatedly maintained that the spying occurred behind the president’s back. Following the September 2009 revelation that some phone numbers for wiretapping had been passed to the Prosecutor-General’s office, officials began to advance the theory that the entire scandal was the product of a plot to sabotage the Uribe government. In mid-September 2009, President Uribe spoke of “a criminal plot to discredit the government and affect its international relations.” Vice-President Francisco Santos claimed that the DAS spying and related revelations owed to “a big, well-orchestrated, well-funded defamation campaign.”

How is President Uribe proposing to reform the DAS?

President Uribe makes his September 17 announcement.
  • On September 17, 2009, President Uribe surprised many by declaring, “I’m in favor of eliminating the institution [the DAS] and leaving a small entity lending immigration and intelligence services, which can be managed by the National Police.”
  • Functions proposed to pass from the DAS to the National Police, or to the Prosecutor-General’s Technical Investigations Corps (CTI), include security for threatened individuals, liaison with Interpol (official as of October 7, 2009), and judicial police powers.
  • According to a September 18, 2009 DAS communiqué, “The DAS will be liquidated to give way to a new civilian intelligence agency. … The new intelligence agency will have as its only mission to produce the intelligence and counter-intelligence that the country needs.”
  • It remains unclear how this new agency will be safeguarded and monitored to avoid a repeat of politically motivated wiretapping and surveillance in the future.
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.

Sep 19

In commemoration of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s visit to Washington today, here is a collection of some of his some of his more outrageous or bizarre verbal attacks on his country’s human-rights defenders, judges, independent journalists, and political opponents.

  • Every time a security policy to defeat terrorism appears in Colombia, when the terrorists begin to feel weak, they immediately send their spokespeople to talk about human rights. … These human-rights traffickers must take off their masks, appear with their political ideas and drop this cowardice of hiding them behind human rights.” – September 8, 2003, addressing the military high command
  • Many of those who attack the government saying that the president is a paramilitary, basically what they are is enraged that the president attacks the guerrillas. They are not able to say that they defend the guerrillas, and that they are very bothered because the government is fighting them. They should be more authentic, more sincere.” – November 19, 2006
  • [In the early 1990s some demobilized ex-guerrillas] simply took off their camouflage, put on a suit and came to Congress wanting to teach the country about morality. Some have done it well. Others, unfortunately, went from being terrorists in camouflage to terrorists in business suits.” – February 3, 2007
  • I am very worried that the guerrillas’ political friends, who live here constantly posing as political enemies of yankee imperialism, frequently travel to the United States to discredit the Colombian government, for two purposes: the purpose of keeping the Free Trade Agreement from being approved, and the purpose of suspending the aid. … [These are] friends of the guerrillas, politicians who want the guerrillas to triumph in Colombia, but lack the authenticity to call for it openly.” – April 19, 2007
  • You’re biased to the guerrillas and everyone in Colombia thinks that.” – May 2007, addressing Human Rights Watch/Americas director José Miguel Vivanco at a dinner with members of Congress in Washington.
  • Behind this woman is Gonzalo Guillén, who has dedicated his journalistic career to slander and lies.” – October 2007. Uribe responded to a book published by Pablo Escobar’s onetime girlfriend, which alleged that the young Uribe helped Escobar, by attacking Guillén, a reporter for the Miami Herald’s Spanish-language sister paper. Guillén said that he hadn’t even read the book in question.
  • The only thing you do is shield yourself in your rights as a journalist, so that in my case you can wound me with lies. Enough of this cynicism behind your quote-unquote ‘journalistic ethics.’” – October 2007, to Daniel Coronell, a columnist for Colombia’s largest newsmagazine, who has probed questions about the president’s alleged past relations with narcotraffickers and paramilitaries.
  • May they not make the mistake there [in Bogotá] of electing mayors supported by the guerrillas.” – October 2007, before voters went ahead and elected opposition-party member Samuel Moreno, who has no ties whatsoever to guerrillas, to serve as mayor of Bogotá.
  • I have wanted to fight for a safe, prosperous and equitable country. The trap of the power of terrorism in its death agony – to which justices of the Penal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice have lent themselves – does not appear to have a judicial solution.” – June 26, 2008, referring to the Supreme Court’s questioning of the 2004 constitutional amendment that allowed the president to run for a second term, which only passed a congressional committee with the vote of a legislator who was bribed.
  • It is important that the justice system investigate what manipulations of witnesses have been carried out by [opposition legislators] Sen. Piedad Córdoba or Sen. Gustavo Petro. It is very important to do that.” – August 11, 2008, charging that allegations tying the president’s political allies to paramilitary death squads are the product of the political opposition’s manipulation of witnesses.
  • What we have here is … ‘trafficking in witnesses.’ – August 25, 2008, accusing the Supreme Court of trying to build a false case linking him to paramilitary death squads.
Aug 18

It is hard to follow Colombia for any period of time without coming across, and enjoying, the books of Alfredo Molano. A journalist who has traveled to the farthest corners of his country, Molano has published several hugely compelling oral histories of violence, injustice, and the struggle to survive in the largely unseen “other” Colombia. He publishes a popular column in the Sunday edition of Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper.

I count six of Molano’s books on my shelf, and have had the pleasure of meeting him – and learning a lot from him – twice in Bogota. So I’m especially disturbed that he is facing criminal charges brought by a wealthy provincial family, whose members are trying to force him to retract a February 2007 column that does not even mention any of them by name.

The Colombia Support Network, which is seeking signatures for a letter of support for Molano, explains:

On February 24, 2007 well-known Colombian sociologist and journalist Alfredo Molano-Bravo wrote in his weekly column in the newspaper El Espectador an article entitled “Araujos et al”. In it he drew upon his personal experiences in Cesar Department and its capital city, Valledupar, where he had worked in INCORA, the Colombian government ‘s land reform agency, and later visited collecting oral testimony of regional history. After referring to the Araujo families of Valledupar and Cartagena as operators of haciendas and commercial businesses and as occupants of public offices, Molano described a series of unlawful, immoral actions which he ascribed to the “Notables” of Valledupar, including contraband in coffee, cattle and marijuana; using notary services by relatives to obtain lands in their names; stealing land from the indigenous peoples of the Sierra Nevada region; and procuring votes in their favor by transporting indigenous peoples to the polls, giving them liquor and then abandoning them after receiving their votes.

Molano did not identify the “Notables” as members of the Araujo family and made no charge against any member of the Araujo family for the activities of the “Notables”. It should be observed, however, that former Senator and Minister of Agriculture Alfredo Araujo Noguera, accused of kidnapping one candidate to favor the election of his son, Alvaro Araujo-Castro, is a fugitive from justice, while his son Alvaro is in prison accused of using illegal paramilitaries to pressure people to vote for him.

When members of the Araujo family complained to the Attorney General’s office that Molano had accused them of committing crimes, a staff attorney of the office, Maria Cecilia Cadena-Lleras, met with the Araujos and Molano. She interpreted the description of misdeeds by the “Notables” to refer directly to the Araujo family of Valledupar, though nowhere do the words of Molano make that connection. When Molano refused a proposal by the Araujos that he show them a response for their appoval before publication–essentially prior censorship– he refused. He asked for three months to respond to the charges and substantiate his position. However, Ms. Cadena instead formulated criminal charges against him for falsely imputing dishonorable conduct to the Araujo family, violating their right to a good name and privacy, and libeling them, causing intangible harm to the good name, honor and dignity of each of the members of the Araujo family of Valledupar–none of whom he specifically named in his article.

For more information, visit the CSN site, the Spanish-language blog Todos Somos Molano (”We are all Molano”), and read this excerpted translation of Antonio Caballero’s column in Sunday’s edition of Semana magazine.

A Judicial Papering-Over
By Antonio Caballero, Semana magazine, August 16, 2008

I ask: Why, when García Márquez wrote Mama Grande’s Funerals, why didn’t the “notables” of the Caribbean coast sue him for slander and libel? Why, when Escalona wrote Admiral Padilla, did the Socorrás family not bring him before a judge for saying that their relative Tite made a living by smuggling?

A year and a half ago, Alfredo Molano published in El Espectador an article titled “Araújos et al,” telling of how the provincial notables behave in this country: how they manage their haciendas, politics, business, beauty contests and also the justice system.

One column that was, let’s say, folkloric. And several young members of Valledupar’s Araújo family – themselves still not very notable but certainly members by blood of the coastal notability – added an equally folkloric endnote to his column, hitting Molano with a lawsuit that is running its course before the 4th Municipal Penal Court of the Bogotá circuit. Last December there was a conciliation hearing, in which the journalist refused to retract his words, since “this would place a bad precedent for freedom of the press” justifying his censure. The plaintiffs persisted with the case. …

Molano, faced with the judicial onslaught from the young Araújos, has not wanted to retract what he wrote in his article. He is right. Molano is the great chronicler of a country that has been torn up by the local notables’ outrages, which he has described in a dozen books and hundreds of press articles. A chronicler cannot allow them to gag him judicially when he is describing, literally, the reality that surrounds him. He cannot allow himself to be silenced, because to speak is his essence. …

As Albert Camus said in his speech upon receiving the Nobel Prize for literature: “The writer cannot put himself today in the service of those who make history; he is at the service of those who suffer it.”

They are papering over Molano for being loyal to his role as a writer.

May 02
  • The Colombian authorities’ takedown of the Mejía Múnera brothers this week – one killed, one arrested – is a big deal. The “twins” (they really were identical twins) were top narcotraffickers who initially sought to avoid extradition by posing as paramilitary leaders in negotiations with the government. Later, they decided to become fugitives instead. They were believed to be some of the principal sponsors of “new” or “emerging” paramilitary groups.
  • Also significant was Tuesday’s capture in Cúcuta of Raúl Hasbún, a fugitive paramilitary leader who was the main go-between collecting money from Chiquita Brands to paramilitaries after 1997. If he tells what he knows, Hasbún will be a key witness in investigations of banana companies’ illegal payments.
  • A lengthy report in last weekend’s El Nuevo Herald details the testimony of a former paramilitary who says he recalls Álvaro Uribe, then governor of Antioquia department, participating in a meeting to plan the 1997 El Aro massacre. Here is an English translation (PDF).
  • The Committee to Protect Journalists places Colombia 4th in its worldwide “Impunity Index” of countries that fail to prosecute murders of journalists. Only Iraq, Sudan and Sierra Leone had worse indices.
  • A new report from the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Amnesty International questions the United States’ vetting of Colombian military units that receive aid, alleging that many of those units face allegations of carrying out abuses like extrajudicial executions. “Geographic regions with the highest levels of reported extrajudicial executions of civilians by members of the armed forces in 2006 were also largely regions with the most military units receiving US assistance.”
  • The latest Gallup poll of 1,000 people with telephones in Colombia’s four largest cities shows little change in approval ratings of President Uribe and other major figures and institutions. All are down ever so slightly, as indicated by this large powerpoint file on the El Tiempo website.
  • President Uribe testified for four hours Tuesday in his slander suit against César Julio Valencia, who until recently was chief justice of Colombia’s Supreme Court. Justice Valencia told reporters that Uribe, in a surprise phone call last September, asked him about the case against his cousin Mario Uribe, now in jail awaiting trial for colluding with paramilitaries. According to Colombia’s Caracol Radio network, “The hearing was prolonged amid the constant attacks, some of them virulent, between Uribe and [Valencia's defense lawyer, former DAS (presidential intelligence) chief Ramiro] Bejarano, during with the president offered at least ten times to resign if Valencia’s representative’s statements could be proved.”
  • “In less than a decade, this thousand-headed monster [paramilitarism] has taken over the state, infiltrating it at all levels. It is serious that this far into their supposed demobilization, it is still not possible to know how far they have penetrated the political sphere, much less the military, financial or business spheres. The scandals of the last few months (’para-politics’ in Congress) are nothing but the tip of the iceberg. … The violent ones, and their accomplices in power, never imagined that some men in togas, like a true suicide squadron, would stand up to defend the fatherland. The Penal Tribunal of the Supreme Court is the institutions’ last bastion against the barbarians.” – Parmenio Cuéllar, former Colombian justice minister, senator, and governor of Nariño department.
  • Meanwhile in Bolivia, the relatively wealthy, relatively less-indigenous province of Santa Cruz will be holding a referendum Sunday to seek greater autonomy from La Paz. The central government says that the vote is illegal. Violence is expected: the U.S. embassy in Bolivia has put out a “warden message” warning U.S. citizens in the country to be on guard. “Americans are urged to avoid the areas of demonstrations and to exercise caution if within the vicinity of any protests. … You could become a convenient target of opportunity.”
  • [Added 5/3, I almost forgot:] On the website of The Atlantic, Robert “The Coming Anarchy” Kaplan, clearly not a reader of this weblog, writes that “Colombia is what Iraq should eventually look like, in our best dreams. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe has fought — and is winning — a counterinsurgency war even as he has liberalized the economy, strengthened institutions, and improved human rights.” Kaplan’s three-paragraph polemic should remind us of what is turning out to be a central lesson of our post-9/11 foreign policy: beware the snap judgments of a foreign policy generalist, left or right.
Dec 13

El Nuevo Herald reporter Gerardo Reyes.

El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-language sister paper of The Miami Herald, has performed some of the most aggressive investigative reporting about narcotraffickers’ and paramilitaries’ power in Colombia. While its editorial board has been fiercely supportive of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, the rest of the paper has worked assiduously to reveal uncomfortable truths about Uribe, his associations, and his past as a rising politician in cartel-dominated 1980s Medellín.

Most of this is the work of two veteran El Nuevo Herald reporters, Gerardo Reyes and Gonzalo Guillén. Both are Colombian. In part because they are associated with a U.S.-based newspaper whose editors give them backing, they have been able to carry out investigations into topics that most Colombian journalists would find very uncomfortable.

The work of both reveals a deep suspicion about Álvaro Uribe’s background. “Bombs are exploding all around Uribe and some shrapnel has hit him,” Reyes told the Colombian newsmagazine Cambio in November. “But there is nothing strong enough to place his credibility in question. Since no direct link with the paramilitaries has so far been demonstrated, the United States has not begun to exert pressure.”

Guillén, meanwhile, has probed more deeply into President Uribe’s past than almost any other reporter, including allegations that, upon his father’s murder by FARC guerrillas in 1983, Uribe tried to reach the zone in a helicopter belonging to Pablo Escobar. These investigations attracted Uribe’s notice, according to an October article in the Miami New Times weekly.

In 2003, he says, he received an unexpected call from the president. “He said he had copies of several e-mails that I had sent to people and that he didn’t like the investigation I was doing,” Guillén remembers. “People from the [American] embassy that I knew told me these calls were really threatening and dangerous. And a secretary of the government named Moreno told me that I was really in danger.”

Reyes, who works out of Miami, has broken many stories about paramilitary groups’ infiltration of Colombia’s state, implicating many officials close to Uribe. He is one of few reporters to have interviewed Rafael García, a jailed former official of the presidential intelligence service, the DAS. García has become a star witness in several so-called “para-politics” criminal investigations, including one against his former boss, Jorge Noguera, who allegedly worked closely with top paramilitary leaders while heading Uribe’s DAS for over three years. The New Times recounts an April 2007 confrontation between President Uribe and Reyes.

In April, speaking before journalists from around the world at the Ritz-Carlton in Coconut Grove, Uribe castigated Guillén’s colleague, El Nuevo Herald investigative reporter Gerardo Reyes, for asking about the paramilitary ties.

The scene was otherworldly weird, Reyes says — a president who follows the press too closely. “He began reciting each story I had written,” Reyes recalls. “He was furious, and he was looking right at me. Everyone turned around to look. It was very uncomfortable.”

In May of this year, Guillén raised the stakes, publishing a book, Pablo Escobar’s Confidants, alleging that the Uribe family had links to the drug trade. This clearly enraged President Uribe, who singled out Guillén in October when Pablo Escobar’s ex-girlfriend, Virginia Vallejo, published a separate book including allegations that Escobar was quite fond of the young Uribe.

On October 2, Uribe told a Bogotá radio program, “Behind this woman [Vallejo] is Gonzalo Guillén, who has dedicated his journalistic career to slander and lies.” Guillén, who said he had not even read Vallejo’s book, was forced to leave Colombia after receiving about two dozen threats and having one of his two DAS bodyguards inexplicably removed.

“I got a call at my home … a guy said, ‘We can kill you,’” Guillén told the Miami New Times. “Then the threats started coming fast. Five calls at my home, e-mails, 24 death threats in 48 hours. I was afraid for me, for my family. I left the country in a sprint.”

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