Aug 14

This is the eighth and final entry in a series of posts from my April 2008 trip to Guaviare, Colombia. (Yes, there is no good reason why this last one should have taken so long.) The plan now is to take these, edit them down, and produce a written publication about security, human rights and U.S. policy in Colombia, as seen from a rural zone in southern Colombia.

“I have to say, I’m really tired of this. I don’t think I can do this much longer.”

These are not the words of someone prone to whining. Néstor Suárez served as a judge in the violence-wracked town of Saravena, Arauca (which the locals occasionally refer to as “Sarajevo”) for over a decade before being transferred in 2004 to San José del Guaviare. But a visit to the “Palace of Justice” on the edge of town makes clear why he – or anyone in his position – might be at the end of his rope.

Welcome to the Palace.

Suárez is the only judge in the entire department of Guaviare and the adjacent municipality of Puerto Concordia, Meta. He must hear all cases – civil, criminal, family – that come into the justice system from this vast and violent area. He must do it on an annual budget equivalent to about US$50,000.

His caseload is staggering. Judge Suárez flipped through the clipboard he uses to track his docket, one month per page. Every weekday on every page from April to December was already filled with entries for cases scheduled to be heard, and spaces were already beginning to be filled for 2009.

Judge Suárez’s docket looks like this for the next 7-8 months.

These cases are being tracked in 19th-century fashion: in color-coded ink. Judge Suárez has no government-issued computer (he writes documents and corresponds using his personal laptop). He goes out-of-pocket for work-related cellphone calls. Case files – enormous stacks of paper, bound with string – molder on shelves in two storage rooms.

Case files turn yellow on the courthouse shelves.

Though Guaviare has been a frequent focus of U.S.-funded herbicide fumigation and military aid, it has seen very little U.S. economic assistance. Judge Suárez’s courthouse is no exception. The only U.S. assistance he has received, he said, was attendance at a one-week course in Bogotá in 2007. After this course, Suárez was considered qualified to judge cases under Colombia’s new oral trial system. (U.S. aid has helped Colombia undergo a gradual but difficult transition from its traditional written trial system to a presumably faster U.S.-style “accusatory” system.)

The judge showed us a small storage room that had been converted into a courtroom by the placement of desks and chairs. He showed us the robe, hanging on the door of his office, that he now wears when officiating cases.

This roughly 12-by-15 foot room, formerly used for storage, is now Guaviare’s only courtroom for holding oral trials.

What, I asked him, would his priorities be if he had a larger budget, whether from U.S. aid or from Colombia’s own resources? “At minimum, another judge” to lighten his caseload, Judge Suárez said. He noted that the courthouse in the town of Granada, Meta – about 100 miles north of San José, roughly halfway along the road to Bogotá – has three judges.

What difference would even a small amount of U.S. aid make for justice in Guaviare? Quite a bit, I think. In fact, the effect of U.S. aid was placed in sharp relief during my visit.

On my last morning in San José de Guaviare, I had a few moments to meet with Sandra Castro, the head of the Human Rights Unit of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía), which receives millions of dollars in U.S. government assistance each year.

Sign on entrance gate of one of San José del Guaviare’s main parks: “Families of victims of forced disappearance are informed that the meeting will take place today, April 15, in “Cenpagua” at 3:00, in front of the fire station – not in the cultural center. – Office of the Prosecutor-General.”

Ms. Castro was in Guaviare to help inaugurate a temporary commission of twelve prosecutors that, in part with U.S. aid, would spend 60 days investigating cases of forced disappearances in Guaviare’s recent past. The Prosecutor-General’s Office had registered about 550 cases of disappearances between 1989 and 2005, with most occurring in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when paramilitary groups first moved into the zone.

During its 60 days, the commission would be gathering evidence and taking testimony from witnesses about new cases, including the likely locations of mass graves dug by the paramilitaries. A sign on the gate to San José’s riverfront park referred to a meeting later that day with “victims of forced disappearance” (their relatives, of course).

A temporary commission from the Human Rights Unit of the Prosecutor-General’s Office moves into the office from where, for 60 days, it will gather information about forced disappearances in Guaviare.

A quick visit to the office from which this commission would operate, a space in the municipality’s small Cultural Center, quickly made clear what a difference even a small amount of foreign assistance can make.

In sharp, stark contrast to conditions in Judge Suárez’s office, the Human Rights Unit commission had a series of computers with dedicated Internet access, telecommunications equipment, scanners and printers – as well as a sizable staff.

While this commission’s work has yet to be evaluated – and I have heard mixed reviews about the work of similar commissions elsewhere, which can achieve only so much in 60 days – it is clear that they at least had the resources they needed to do their job.

If the United States has an interest in helping Colombia to govern a violent, drug-producing region like Guaviare, then our assistance must help ensure that the local justice system – not just worthwhile, but temporary, commissions from Bogotá – has more of the tools it needs to be effective. Justice is one of the most important ingredients needed to help Colombia establish a state in long-ungoverned territories. It is a critical link in the chain.

It is unacceptable for the justice system in a crucial zone like Guaviare to be so underfunded and overburdened, when a small amount of resources could make such a big difference. If justice in Guaviare “burns out” – as Judge Suárez seemed so close to doing himself – then the region’s whole security and goverance effort, which has begun to yield some results, will collapse.

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.

May 20

Page 48 of a 2005 report [PDF] from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime features a remarkable table, reproduced to the right of this paragraph. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

For each department (province) of Colombia with coca or opium poppy cultivation, the table offers an estimate of how much international donors were planning to spend on alternative development programs between 1999 and 2007.

Between 1999 and 2006, the UNODC tells us [PDF, page 97], the United States funded the aerial herbicide fumigation of 135,265 hectares (334,247 acres) of territory in Guaviare department. This made Guaviare the third-most sprayed of Colombia’s 32 departments.

But when it comes to alternative-development aid, Guaviare is in 21st place on the table at right, with only US$500,000 in assistance between 1999 and 2007. That’s about US$3.50 for every hectare sprayed, one of the lowest proportions in the country.

This all stick, no carrot approach is barely changing. Except for some so far very limited counter-insurgency economic-aid programs discussed below, Guaviare has seen a host of military and counter-narcotics operations, but very little investment in governance.

Unless this changes quickly, it will be a recipe for frustration. U.S. and Colombian government money spent on counter-narcotics and anti-guerrilla offensives will continue to be money wasted.

Colombian government programs

While U.S. assistance in Guaviare continues to be minuscule, some aid to the department’s citizens has begun to flow through the Colombian government’s own budget, particularly that of the Presidency’s powerful “Social Action” agency. While visiting Guaviare in mid-April, I heard principally about three initiatives.

  • Forest-Warden Families (Familias Guardabosques). Under this program, whose duration is only three years, selected families receive about US$265 per month simply to keep their land free of illegal crops. In exchange, the families must participate in training programs, and some get assistance starting sustainable productive projects.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has not supported this program, which critics have argued is an assistentialist, “money for nothing” effort that leaves behind little new capacity for long-term development. Its value as a counter-insurgency effort is likely greater, as it integrates rural citizens into a paid network of people in frequent contact with state representatives, with a strong incentive to report guerrilla activity on the lands they are charged with protecting from deforestation.

The Forest-Warden Families program has mostly ended in Guaviare, after aiding about 1,000 families and 1,000 individuals. Most with whom I discussed the program in Guaviare expressed doubt about its long-term impact.

  • Families in Action (Familias en Acción). U.S. officials have expressed support for this program, a centerpiece of the Uribe government’s social investment strategy. Like the Forest-Warden Families program, Families in Action provides conditional cash subsidies. In this case, poor families with children are paid a monthly stipend to keep them in school (or, if they are below school age, to ensure that they get regular medical check-ups).

This program covers a significant portion of Guaviare’s population – about 6,100 families in a department whose population barely exceeds 100,000 people. Of those families, 3,600 are in the departmental capital municipality, San José del Guaviare.

I heard two critiques of this program. First, it requires even rural recipients to report once a month to the county seat to pick up their subsidies. Given Guaviare’s non-existent road network, this can mean a day or two of travel for some families – and the expenditure of a significant portion of the subsidy on transportation costs. Mayor’s office officials told of lines stretching for blocks on “subsidy day,” with people routinely arriving a day or more in advance to stake out a place in line, and fights breaking out when some are accused of cutting ahead.

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Apr 28

The Nukak Makú are an indigenous group of perhaps 600 nomadic hunter-gatherers who were first “contacted” by the outside world in 1988. Deep in the jungles of eastern Guaviare department, they have their own language and intricate set of customs. The men hunt monkeys and other prey with blowguns, the women weave intricate armbands and baskets. They have only a rudimentary knowledge of agriculture.

The Nukak somehow missed out on the Spanish conquest and all that came after it. This has meant no access to even the most basic technology – not even light bulbs or radios – and no knowledge of what the rest of Homo sapiens has gone through. (Imagine gazing upon the moon and not knowing that people had been there.)

On the other hand, it also meant no enslavement, no theft of their lands, and no involvement in the frequent armed conflicts that have marked Colombia’s history. But their luck is quickly running out.

Increased contact with the outside world has meant death by unfamiliar diseases for perhaps half the Nukak since the early 1990s. It has meant murder at the hands of landowners on whose property Nukak hunters have unwittingly strayed. It has meant coca growers encroaching on the land that the Colombian government “reserved” for the Nukak, cutting down old-growth rainforest in order to grow the lucrative crop used to make cocaine.

And now, perhaps inevitably, it has meant combat between the military and the FARC guerrillas in the territory where the Nukak Makú have ranged for generations. Many of the remaining Nukak, a peaceful people, have fled.

Now about sixty are in a settlement about ten minutes’ drive outside San José del Guaviare, a patch of land called Aguabonita that is the property of the mayor’s office. A shifting, leaderless group of displaced Nukak (they go in and out of the jungle, and in and out of the town of San José) has been in Aguabonita since 2006.

Journalist Juan Forero, then writing for the New York Times, visited the site in 2006, shortly after their arrival. He compared them to a second group of Nukak that had previously arrived at a settlement in Barrancón, to the east of San José del Guaviare.

What everyone agrees on is that the Nukak of Aguabonita must avoid the fate of the Nukak who came here in 2003 and now live in a clearing called Barrancón.

Now in their fourth year in the area, the Nukak in Barrancón lead listless lives, lolling in their hammocks awaiting food from the state. They do not work, nor have they learned Spanish. They also have no plans to return to the forest.

That, unfortunately, is a fair description of what I saw in Aguabonita in April 2008.

After driving through an expanse of cattle ranches, one arrives at a stand of trees, which opens up into a clearing of perhaps an acre. The ground is well-worn dirt, and dust coats everything. The Nukak live in a cluster of six or seven open-sided thatch-roofed huts strung with hammocks, an arrangement similar to what they would have in the middle of the jungle.

In the huts, cooking fires are always burning; instead of set mealtimes, a Nukak eats small amounts all day long. As hunter-gatherers, they do not work if food stocks are sufficient; they spend much of the hot day reclining in hammocks. Donated food supplies – most bearing the seal of the Colombian Presidency’s “Social Action” office, some with the USAID logo – are stacked overhead, on planks laid just below each hut’s roof. Despite the food deliveries, I saw at least two children with the light hair and swollen bellies typical of severe malnutrition.


(This basket, I was told, holds aid items for which the Nukak have no use, like lentils, pasta and toothpaste.)

When they want something other than the donated food, Nukak go back into the jungle to hunt. Monkeys in particular are a preferred food. When a hunter kills a monkey carrying offspring, the baby monkey is kept as a pet. Several young monkeys were living alongside the Nukak at Aguabonita, some adopted by children on whose shoulders they inseparably sat. Monkey and child even eat from the same bowl.

Though it was hard to get definitive information from a few linguistically difficult conversations, I gathered that the violence the Nukak have suffered has been principally at the hands of guerrillas. As “Plan Patriota” and similar military offensives have brought periodic sweeps into increasingly remote parts of Guaviare, the FARC, fleeing frontal combat, has moved into the Nukak Makú reserve.

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Apr 24

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

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

The military and police presence

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The guerrilla presence

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Apr 21

(This is the first of a few posts of my visit to Guaviare last week. All photos posted here may be reproduced without permission, with credit given.)

From April 14 to 16, I paid a brief visit to San José del Guaviare, a small city in Colombia’s vast, empty southern plains. I was the guest of the town’s new mayor, Pedro Arenas, a young, reformist politician from a social-movement background who has visited us in Washington several times over the past ten years.

I had not visited San José, the capital of Colombia’s department (province) of Guaviare, since January 1998. That was my first of what is now nearly forty visits to Colombia. On that initial visit, I was part of a delegation of non-governmental organizations. Pedro Arenas, then the head of the Guaviare Youth Movement, a local social service and advocacy organization, organized our stay in Guaviare, arranging meetings with everyone from the governor, bishop and military authorities to the region’s peasant and indigenous leaders.

I had not been back to Guaviare in the intervening ten years, in part because Pedro Arenas, our main contact there, spent much of this period in Bogotá as a member of Colombia’s Congress. During those ten years, however, the United States was quite active in Guaviare.

In a vain effort to stem cultivation of coca, the plant used to make cocaine, U.S. spray planes blanketed about 500,000 acres of Guaviare with herbicides. U.S. funds paid for the training and equipping of new military units headquartered in the area, and supported a massive, years-long military offensive – known as “Plan Patriota” – in Guaviare and nearby departments. But the department was almost completely left out of the U.S. government’s far smaller efforts to help Colombia govern its territory and lift residents out of poverty. U.S. economic aid to Guaviare over the past decade, in all forms, has totaled less than $1 million.

After ten years, what has been the outcome of such an unbalanced approach? Is the department safer? Are its rural areas more secure? Are guerrillas and paramilitaries weaker? Has the drug trade been affected? Has the department’s overwhelming poverty eased at all? Have repeatedly fumigated coca-growing families found other ways to feed themselves? Is the department’s huge displaced population getting access to basic services and a dignified existence? Are the conflict’s thousands of local victims learning the truth about what happened to them and their loved ones, recovering stolen property, or receiving reparations? After ten years, has U.S. policy helped this lawless, stateless, violent zone move at all toward good governance?

The answers to some of these questions, I found, was yes. To others, however, the answer was a clear, resounding “no.” In general, the security situation was better, though gains were mainly concentrated in town centers. Coca cultivation was still widespread but reduced; most of those interviewed gave the credit to more frequent military operations on the ground, not fumigation from the air. Rural areas remain nearly as violent and ungoverned as they were ten years ago; though the once-absent military is now a frequent combatant, the rest of the state continues to be absent. The region’s huge population of displaced people and other poor residents are getting a modest amount of attention in the larger towns, mainly from programs that offer cash handouts. Meanwhile, efforts to help victims of some of the country’s worst violence are barely underway.


Looking across the Guaviare River at Meta department.
Guaviare’s recent history

The department of Guaviare is one of several that make up a vast California-sized region east and south of Colombia’s Andes mountains. Flat and hot, this zone of dusty savannahs and dense jungles, ribboned by muddy rivers that empty into the Orinoco and Amazon rivers, is home to only about 4 percent of Colombia’s population.

This is Colombia’s coca-growing heartland, an area so far from government presence that some smaller riverside towns lack access to the central government’s currency, relying instead on grams of crude coca paste as a unit of exchange. It has also been the historical rearguard of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia’s oldest and largest (9,000-15,000 members) guerrilla group.

Like much of Colombia’s southern plains, Guaviare was settled in the past few decades by cattlemen and coca growers, many of them displaced by violence elsewhere. As recently as the 1960s, this was wilderness, settled only by a few rugged frontiersmen and outlaws – as well as nomadic tribes of indigenous hunter-gatherers who had been there for perhaps thousands of years.

Within the past two generations, outsiders began to arrive in greater numbers, either pushed out by violence or drawn by the possibility of land for the taking – the property of any who wished to knock down jungle and carve out a life on the “agricultural frontier.”

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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: