Aug 13

Monday’s meeting of the South American Union (Unasur) presidents in Quito was dominated by concerns about negotiations between the United States and Colombia to allow U.S. military personnel to use several Colombian bases. Colombian President Álvaro Uribe did not attend the meeting.

(Here is an overview of what we know about what Colombia and the United States are negotiating; it hasn’t changed much since we wrote it three weeks ago. The main change is that two more bases have been added to the list of facilities U.S. personnel can access, apparently at the Colombian government’s request. They are the army bases in Tolemaida, Tolima and Larandia, Caquetá. The basing negotiations could conclude as early as this weekend, says Colombia’s armed forces chief, Gen. Freddy Padilla.)

Some of the region’s elected leaders from the far left had hoped the declaration from the Quito meeting would condemn the basing deal. The presidents were unable to reach consensus on that, but some of the region’s more centrist leaders continued to express concern about the arrangement being discussed between Washington and Bogotá.

One of those leaders, Brazilian President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, made a concrete proposal to Washington: that U.S. government representatives meet with the region’s leaders to explain the agreement and the U.S. government’s intentions. “UNASUR could invite the U.S. government to a detailed discussion regarding its relations with South America. This will be resolved through a lot of conversation, much debate, the speaking of truths. People will have to hear things they don’t like,” Lula said during the Quito meeting.

This is a perfectly reasonable proposal. A joint meeting with high U.S. government officials – or even President Obama himself, perhaps during the UN General Assembly in New York in September – is a good idea.

Such a meeting would help undo the damage done by the Obama administration’s disastrous rollout of the basing arrangement. The approach so far has combined hyper-secrecy from Washington, leaks to the Colombian media mainly from Colombian government sources, and – in a move that cannot make the Colombian government happy – leaving Colombian President Álvaro Uribe to defend the deal on his own, spending an entire week traveling throughout South America to hear each country’s concerns about the proposed U.S. military presence.

Lula’s proposed meeting also makes sense because once you get past Hugo Chávez’s hugely overheated rhetoric, it makes perfect sense for the region’s governments to be concerned about a foreign power increasing its military presence, and mission, on the continent they share. And it makes sense for this concern to grow when the foreign power does not even notify them of its intentions. The United States is creating a new capability in South America, and capabilities often get used.

While South American concerns are important, the Obama administration also needs to be far more transparent to the American people. As things stand right now, the basing agreement can go forward without any need for the U.S. Congress to act to approve it. But that doesn’t mean that we should be in the disgraceful situation of getting most of our information about the impending deal from the Colombian press.

Obviously, we don’t ask that the U.S. government reveal the content of ongoing negotiations. Talks between governments routinely happen in secret. But we need to know more about what our government’s intentions are.

Until Colombian media outlets started revealing more details about the basing plan in early July, we were under the impression that the United States and Colombia were negotiating a deal to replace a capability being lost with the exit of U.S. assets from a base in the Pacific coastal city of Manta, Ecuador. There, since 1999, approximately 200-300 U.S. military personnel and contractors worked on a mission limited strictly to counternarcotics, specifically monitoring the Eastern Pacific off the coast of South America for potential aerial and maritime drug trafficking. The U.S. presence at Manta – itself a partial substitute for Howard Air Force Base in Panama, which the U.S. military vacated in 1999 – has ceased operations and will close for good in October, as the 10-year agreement has expired and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa strongly opposes renewing it.

What we have heard about the Colombia deal, however, indicates that the new U.S. presence there will go way beyond Manta’s limited mission. It will support not just counter-narcotics, but “counter-terrorism,” a very vague term in a country in the midst of an armed conflict.

There is an urgent need for more transparency from the U.S. government. More information and responsiveness to questions would help defuse tensions in the region, and is a necessary element of a foreign policy that is accountable to the American people.

Transparency must begin with clear, specific responses to these seven rather basic questions. So far, none of them has been addressed in public.

1. How close will U.S. personnel stationed at the bases – both military and contractors – get to hostilities in Colombia? What is the risk to them?

2. How will U.S. personnel stationed at the bases be contributing to, or otherwise participating in, ongoing military operations in Colombia’s armed conflict? For example, will it be providing real-time intelligence and targeting information about guerrillas or other illegal armed groups?

3. Will activities based at these facilities be limited to Colombian territory and airspace, or will the United States insist on the right to fly over neighboring countries as well?

4. Does the U.S. government view these bases as “lily pads” that will give it the ability to carry out contingency operations anywhere in the region? If not, how is it different?

(For several years, the Defense Department has indicated its desire to establish informal, flexible basing arrangements like these in order to have a forward presence as a jumping-off point. These have been colloquially calledlily pads,” and arrangements have been made for several such facilities in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Africa. Instead of a base, widely cited defense analyst Thomas P.M. Barnett wrote this week, “Think of them as the networking equivalent of an ATM: offering some basic services but hardly constituting a bank branch. And like an ATM, these facilities are to a large degree designed to obviate the requirement of a larger, dedicated presence.” Obviously, a frog jumping off of a lily pad is jumping to somewhere else; Colombia’s neighbors see themselves as likely destinations.)

5. What is the likelihood that the administration will be asking Congress to raise or eliminate the existing “troop cap” (800 military and 600 U.S. citizen contractors) limiting U.S. involvement in Colombia within, say, 3 years? Can the Obama administration guarantee that it will not seek to increase or break the troop cap as a result of activities at the Colombian bases?

(As of June 19, the Washington Post reported last week, there were 268 U.S. military personnel and 308 U.S. citizen contractors present in Colombia. If the military presence is currently one-third of the cap and the contractor presence is half of the cap even without the bases, how close will U.S. personnel come to breaking the cap once they move into the bases?)

6. Will the physical assets stationed at the bases in Colombia be different from those that were based at Manta? Will the U.S. military be stationing the same aircraft as before? If not, how will the array of planes and equipment be different?

7. The three air force bases in the seven-base package are all located to the east of the Andes mountains from the Pacific Ocean. How will U.S. assets be able to cover the eastern Pacific drug-trafficking vector – which was the main purpose of the Manta base – without a presence on the Pacific coast? What is the likelihood that this move will actually make it easier for narcos to transship drugs through the Pacific?

(We understand that the Palanquero base, in Cundinamarca near Bogotá, will be the main facility covering the Pacific, as Manta did. Three chains of the Andes mountains lie between Palanquero and the Pacific. How will this contemplate interdiction? For instance, if radars discover a boat or plane suspected of shipping cocaine in the Pacific zone, how long will it take for an aircraft based at Palanquero to respond?)

May 13

The Obama White House announced yesterday that it is nominating Arturo Valenzuela to be the next assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Valenzuela will succeed Thomas Shannon, who has held the position since 2005. The Senate must approve Valenzuela’s nomination.

Valenzuela, a professor at Georgetown University, was the director of Western Hemisphere Affairs in the National Security Council in Bill Clinton’s White House. There, he was a principal proponent of increased military assistance to Colombia under the 2000 Plan Colombia appropriation.

Valenzuela is the third Obama appointee with responsibility for U.S. policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean. The others are Dan Restrepo, a former legislative staffer and lawyer who is the director of Western Hemisphere Affairs in the National Security Council; and Frank Mora, a professor at the National War College who is now deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs.

May 07

The Obama administration’s State Department has released a “Summary and Highlights” document for its 2010 foreign assistance request, which offers some significant clues about where future aid is headed.

The document tells us how the Obama administration is asking Congress to allocate aid money to Colombia across four key programs:

  • International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE). This program is the largest source of aid to Colombia, and combines both military/police and economic/social aid. It is administered by the State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement Affairs. For the past several years, the Bush Administration used the term “Andean Counter-Drug Initiative (ACI)” as a separate category for aid to Colombia and its neighbors through INCLE. This account pays mainly for the aerial herbicide fumigation program, drug interdiction programs, maintenance of Colombian police and military aircraft, and several rule-of-law programs.

    The Obama administration would cut this program deeply, by about $50 million. Unfortunately, the “Summary and Highlights” document does not break down how much of the INCLE outlay for Colombia is military/police aid, and how much is economic/social aid. In 2009, however, we know that $40 million of the INCLE total is non-military, as required by Congress. The 2008 figure was similar. If we assume the 2010 outlay will also be $40 million non-military, then INCLE would appear as follows, in thousands of U.S. dollars:

    International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) 2008 2009 2010
    Military and Police Aid (est.) 249,005 247,500 197,760
    Economic and Social Aid (est.) 40,000 40,000 40,000
    Total INCLE 289,005 287,500 237,760
  • Foreign Military Financing (FMF). This is the main non-drug military and police aid program in the foreign aid budget. It has been used in the past to support programs like oil pipeline protection, intelligence equipment, and support for military offensives. The Democratic-majority Congress cut this account significantly since 2007. The Obama administration would restore it slightly, however, adding about $13.6 million over 2009 levels. In thousands of U.S. dollars:
    Foreign Military Financing (FMF)
    2008 2009 2010
    Military and Police Aid 52,570 53,000 66,590
  • International Military Education and Training (IMET). The main non-drug military training program in the foreign aid budget. The Obama administration would increase this relatively small program. In thousands of U.S. dollars:
    International Military Education and Training (IMET) 2008 2009 2010
    Military and Police Aid 1,421 1,400 1,695
  • Economic Support Funds (ESF). The source of most economic and social assistance to Colombia, ESF pays for alternative development programs, assistance to displaced communities, judicial reform programs, demobilization and reintegration, and human rights programs, among others. The Obama administration would increase it slightly. In thousands of U.S. dollars:
    Economic Support Funds (ESF) 2008 2009 2010
    Economic and Social Aid 194,412 196,500 200,660

Add the figures up for these four programs, and the trend looks like this, in thousands of U.S. dollars:

2008 2009 2010
Military and Police Aid (est.) 305,004 303,909 268,055
Economic and Social Aid (est.) 234,412 236,500 240,660
Total, 4 programs
539,416 540,409 508,715

From this preliminary information, we can conclude the following:

  • The Obama administration plans to provide Colombia with less aid, even though its worldwide 2010 aid request is increasing over 2008 and 2009 levels. For these four programs, the aid amount would be reduced about $31.6 million from 2009 to 2010, or nearly 6 percent.
  • Aid cuts would come from military/police aid programs, leading to greater parity between military and economic assistance. The cuts would be most likely to come from aerial fumigation and aviation maintenance programs, while non-drug military aid might actually increase. For these four programs, we estimate the military/police share of the request at only about 53 percent. There is more military aid in the Defense budget, however, so this is still a decidedly majority-military aid package.
  • Mexico is quickly eclipsing Colombia as an aid destination. Congress is currently considering a supplemental appropriation for 2009 that, in the House version (PDF), would increase military and police aid to Mexico by a whopping $470 million. Compare that amount – which is just additional aid to Mexico for this year – to the $268 million in military/police aid in the Obama administration’s request for Colombia. It is possible that Colombia could soon cease to be the hemisphere’s number-one recipient of military-police aid, for the first time since it surged ahead of El Salvador at the beginning of the 1990s.

Significant amounts of aid go through programs not listed here, such as the Defense budget ($112 million in military/police aid in 2007), Nonproliferation, Antiterrorism, Demining and Related Programs (NADR, $4.1 million in 2008), and USAID “Transition Initiatives” programs ($2 million in 2008). To see the entire aid picture, incorporating these programs – not updated to reflect the numbers in this post – visit the Colombia page of our “Just the Facts” database.

Apr 01

Here is a translation of the inaugural post that Álvaro Jiménez and I published to our joint blog about U.S.-Colombian relations, which is appearing on a new Colombian political news and analysis website, La Silla Vacía. The site’s name, “The Empty Chair,” refers to a political reform proposal, which failed in Colombia’s Congress in 2007, that would have left empty the congressional seats of legislators who lost their posts due to their ties to paramilitary groups.

Colombia, off of Obama’s itinerary

Look at this list of U.S. contacts with leaders from the region, all of them in a three-week period, with three weeks remaining before the beginning of the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. This list reveals an interesting pattern:

  • March 13: Obama places a phone call to President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina.
  • March 14: Obama hosts Brazilian President Lula in Washington.
  • March 18: Obama places a phone call to El Salvador’s president-elect, Mauricio Funes.
  • March 25-26: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Mexico.
  • March 27-28: Vice President Joe Biden visits Chile to meet with the leaders of Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay.
  • March 29-30: Biden visits Costa Rica to meet with the presidents of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Panama, and high officials from Honduras and Nicaragua.
  • April 2: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney-General Eric Holder visit Mexico.

The pattern? There is only one example of contact with Colombia during this period:

  • March 29: The secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, attends the Inter-American Development Bank summit in Medellín. Geithner holds a brief bilateral meeting with President Uribe at 7:30 that Saturday evening.

This represents a notable change from the last few years of the Bush administration, whose image in the hemisphere was so poor that it sometimes seemed like they were desperately clinging to the figure of Álvaro Uribe as the last good friend they had left in Latin America.

Obviously, after that experience, the Obama administration has a strong incentive to direct its energies toward other countries in the region beyond Colombia. The objective of all these trips and visits is, in a few words, to “re-start” many bilateral relationships that had become stuck like an old Windows computer.

For the United States, it is understandably desirable to have Colombia as one ally among several, instead of the only remaining ally in the entire region. But for Álvaro Uribe’s administration, this change is terrible news.

If Colombia is just “a” friend, and not “the” friend, the new administration in Washington will feel more comfortable distancing itself from those aspects of the Uribe administration that are troubling. Like the unpunished murders of unionists, extrajudicial executions, para-politics, the DAS wiretaps, and the president’s constant verbal attacks on his critics, whom he apparently cannot distinguish from terrorists.

And if, as everything seems to indicate, President Uribe is headed toward a second reelection, the relationship will become more complicated. Relations will probably continue to be cordial, but no high Obama administration official will enjoy sharing the frame of a photograph with a leader who has shown himself unable to part with power.

With their recent petulant calls for Colombia to distance itself from the United States, Vice President Francisco Santos and former presidential advisor Jose Obdulio Gaviria fed concerns in the United States that the current administration in Colombia lacks the necessary maturity and perspective to be a solid partner. These qualities can be found in greater quantities elsewhere, like in Brazil and Mexico.

But Santos and Gaviria are not entirely wrong when they talk about the need to de-emphasize the bilateral relationship with the United States and diversify Colombia’s friendships with “Europe, China, India and the Arabs.”

The reality is that the United States, for months now, has already been going around the region trying to do the same thing.

Jan 30

Here are translated excerpts from Semana magazine’s report on a conference it sponsored yesterday entitled “Colombia and Obama: Hopes and Fears.” A brief but interesting look at how some of Colombia’s frequently cited experts are trying to make sense of the changing of the guard in Washington.

“There are very influential Democrats who know the country and who are close to global human rights organizations. The important thing is not what has already been done to reduce violence and impunity, but what remains to be done: that is the reasoning that must be responded to.” – Jaime Ruiz, former high Colombian embassy official in Washington.

“In time a free-trade agreement will be approved because it’s also in the United States’ interest, but in the midst of a recession this doesn’t seem to be the moment.” – Jaime García Parra, former ambassador to the United States.

“The opinion of Arlene Tickner, an analyst at the University of the Andes, is that narcotrafficking is of decreasing importance in the United States’ internal agenda.”

“In addition to the Democrats’ human-rights demands, ‘we must understand the question of minorities and make advances,’ added [Miguel] Gómez [of the Colombian-American Chamber of Commerce].

“The impact of President Uribe’s possible re-election on relations with the United States was not lost on the forum. Alfonso Cuéllar, Semana editor-in-chief and moderator of the intense dialogue, said it was difficult to know about whom Obama was thinking when he referred to leaders who cling to power being on the wrong side of history, but in any case that it still applied to Colombia.”

Dec 15

Cover of the latest issue of Here is a translation of a piece about “what to expect from the new U.S. administration” appearing in the latest issue of Cien Días, published by Colombia’s Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP).

“Change is coming, but not drastic change” [PDF]
By Adam Isacson, director of programs, Center for International Policy

Once he is inaugurated as the next president of the United States in January 2009, Barack Obama’s first major foreign policy challenge will simply be managing the rest of the world’s expectations.

His historic victory in the November 4 presidential elections brought a huge sigh of relief from almost everywhere on the planet. In Latin America and other regions, there is a strong desire to see the United States abandoning the unilateralism and warlike behavior of the past several years, and a strong hope that the face the United States shows to the world will change radically.

Under these circumstances, it is virtually guaranteed that the new president will disappoint many. While there will certainly be less militarism and disregard for human rights, the change will not be as revolutionary as many expect. Colombia will be no exception.

Because Obama has never visited Latin America and – as of late November – he has not officially nominated anyone to a post with responsibility for policy toward the region, we have little information to guide us as we seek to guess how the Obama government would change Colombia policy. But given his first nominations, the positions of his advisors and the few statements he made about Colombia during the campaign, it seems most likely that his administration will not seek to change fundamentally the framework of bilateral relations established with Plan Colombia during the Clinton-Pastrana period, and strengthened during the Bush-Uribe years.

There will certainly be changes to the relationship, and some will be important. But they will not be drastic. With the objective of fighting narcotrafficking, weakening illegal armed groups and strengthening the state, Colombia will probably still be the main recipient of U.S. military and police aid in Latin America. There will still be a desire to maintain a strong and close bilateral relationship with the Colombian government, which will surely include a desire to avoid taking actions that antagonize President Álvaro Uribe. Nor is Washington likely to play any leading role in efforts to negotiate an end to Colombia’s armed conflict.

There are several reasons to believe that change will be gradual. First, the mere fact that colombia does not head the list of the United States’ current foreign policy concerns. During a long presidential campaign with many debates, press conferences and town-hall meetings, the issue of Colombia policy was hardly discussed, with the exception of a not very nuanced discussion of the free-trade agreement. As a result, it is quite unlikely that the Obama administration will seek to spend its political capital seeking profound change to Colombia policy.

A second reason not to expect large changes is the cohort of foreign policy advisors who accompany the new president. Candidate Obama surrounded himself with advisors with a more internationalist outlook and a stronger belief in “soft power” than those who came with President Bush. But the majority do not come from the left wing of the Democratic Party, which has more influence in the Congress. Some are former Clinton administration officials, present at the creation of Plan Colombia in 1999-2000 (Arturo Valenzuela, for example, was in charge of Western Hemisphere policy in the National Security Council during that period). Others worked for Democratic members of Congress known more for their foreign policy realism than their idealism (Daniel Restrepo, for example, was in charge of Western Hemisphere policy in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led at the time by Rep. Lee Hamilton [D-Indiana]). They are pragmatic experts, much less ideological than the Bush administration’s hard-liners. While they do recognize the importance of human rights and social justice, they are also guided by a conception that the U.S. interest must always come first.

A third reason why radical change is unlikely is geopolitics. While this owes significantly to serious errors that U.S. governments committed in the past, the reality today is that the number of Latin American governments seeking friendly relations with the United States is much reduced. Colombia is one of the few “friends” the United States has left in a region where the influence of “Bolivarian” leaders is on the increase. Even if the Obama government takes seriously its rather vague commitment to seek a “new alliance” with the region, it will be less likely pursue policies that jeopardize its friendship with the Colombian government.

Nonetheless, there will be notable changes in the policy toward Colombia. In fact, the center-left Obama administration will be starting from a position of little empathy with the government of Uribe, who is from the right and who left a strong impression of having supported John McCain’s election. And of course, since Colombia is a low-priority issue today in Washington, we can’t dismiss the possibility that this could allow the Obama administration to make significant changes without paying a high political cost. There will, therefore, be some changes during the administration’s first and second years. While these changes will not be of transcendental importance, they will represent a meaningful evolution away from the Bush era.

The Obama campaign’s statements made clear that the new president will follow the general framework of Plan Colombia. “When I am President, we will continue the Andean Counter-Drug Program, and update it to meet evolving challenges,” he said in May. “We will fully support Colombia’s fight against the FARC.” Colombia will thus probably continue to be the main destination of U.S. aid to Latin America, though Mexico – under the so-called “Mérida Initiative” – could come to occupy this position within a few years. And the truth is that even if McCain had won, reductions in aid to Colombia would have been inevitable.

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Dec 02

After President-Elect Obama revealed that Eric Holder would be his choice for attorney-general, several observers raised questions about the nominee’s role as a private lawyer defending Chiquita Brands, the U.S. fruit company. Holder helped Chiquita negotiate a plea agreement with the Justice Department for the years of payoffs that the company made to paramilitary groups in a part of Colombia where the right-wing militias massacred hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians.

Hofstra University’s Mario Murillo, writing for CounterPunch: “not one Chiquita official involved in the illegal transactions was forced to serve time for a crime that others have paid dearly for, mainly because they did not have the kind of legal backing that Holder’s team provided. … If the Obama Administration is seriously concerned about impunity and human rights in Colombia, Holder should probably step out of the way immediately.”

Dan Kovalik of the U.S. Steelworkers’ Union, writing in the Huffington Post: “Eric Holder would have a troubling conflict of interest in carrying out this work in light of his current work as defense lawyer for Chiquita Brands international. … Holder himself, using his influence as former deputy attorney general under the Clinton Administration, helped to negotiate Chiquita’s sweeheart deal with the Justice Department in the criminal case against Chiquita.”

Jason Glaser, writing in the Guardian: “Does Holder represent the change we need and the change we were promised? It is time that someone who chooses to represent and serve human beings over corporations holds the position of attorney general.”

    The story here is that after the Clinton administration drew to a close Holder, a former Clinton assistant attorney-general, went into private practice at the Covington and Burling law firm, where his clients included Chiquita. In 2003, Holder led the legal team that advised the fruit company to admit to the U.S. Justice Department that it had been making payments to the murderous United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) since 1997 – a relationship that started out as “protection” money but went on way too long. The payments, which finally stopped in 2004, totaled about US$1.7 million to a group that, as of September 10, 2001, was on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

    Oddly, as the Washington Post has reported, despite the terrorism link Holder and Chiquita at first had difficulty even getting a response out of Assistant Attorney-General Michael Chertoff, who would later go on to be the Bush administration’s Homeland Security secretary.

    Eventually, though, with Holder’s assistance Chiquita and the Justice Department came to an agreement in which the fruit company would pay a $25 million fine – the price of the company’s sale of Banadex, its Colombian subsidiary – for having made payments to a foreign terrorist organization. The fine’s proceeds went to the U.S. Treasury.

    There is a widespread perception that Chiquita’s punishment was quite lenient given the link with a terrorist group responsible for mass murder. Notably, the Justice Department indictment makes no mention of a potentially more serious charge, documented in a 2003 OAS investigation: that Chiquita’s Colombian subsidiary helped run weapons and ammunition from Nicaragua to the AUC.

    How can we characterize the attorney-general-designate’s role? On one hand, Holder’s actions were commendable. Upon discovering that his client had broken the law, he advised it to go to the U.S. authorities. Notably, no other fruit company operating in northwestern Colombia’s conflictive Urabá region – and there are several – has come forward to admit to paying off armed groups. (It seems absurd that Chiquita would be the only one, and indeed demobilizing paramilitary leaders – including Salvatore Mancuso in a May 2008 60 Minutes interview – have alleged that they took payments from other companies in Urabá.)

    Writing for Salon, Glenn Greenwald meanwhile makes the point that Holder should not be criticized for defending for a client, since all accused people have the right to defense counsel.

    Attempts to criticize a lawyer for representing unsavory or even evil clients are inherently illegitimate and wrong — period. Anybody who believes in core liberties should want even the most culpable parties to have zealous representation before the Government can impose punishments or other sanctions. Lawyers who defend even the worst parties are performing a vital service for our justice system. Holder is no more tainted by his defense of Chiquita than lawyers who defend accused terrorists at Guantanamo are tainted by that.

    This is true, and Holder’s defense of Chiquita should not disqualify him from serving as the Obama administration’s attorney-general.

    Nonetheless, there are questions about Holder’s role that the Senate Judiciary Committee should explore before deciding on his nomination.

    • Did Holder benefit from his contacts with former colleagues at the Justice Department in a way that allowed him to achieve a more lenient plea agreement than would have been possible for a less well-connected attorney?
    • What role has Holder played in defending Chiquita from a class-action lawsuit filed in 2007 by 173 victims of paramilitary violence in the Urabá region? Has he advised his client to refuse any and all demands for restitution or reparations to victims? If so, how did he justify this position?
    • In general, does Holder personally believe that U.S. corporations that do direct or indirect harm to citizens of a foreign country need not be held accountable to those citizens?

    It will be difficult to get a definitive answer to any of these questions, and in fact the answer to all of them may be “no.”

    Still, the U.S. Justice Department is likely to be dealing with Colombian paramilitary groups in several contexts, including possible future actions against U.S. corporations that may have aided them, and of course the criminal cases against fifteen extradited paramilitary leaders in U.S. custody since May of this year.

    In private practice, Holder sought to downplay the severity of his client’s funding of Colombia’s paramilitaries and perhaps sought to prevent or minimize reparations to victims. As attorney-general, however, Holder can do great harm to U.S. credibility in Colombia and Latin America if he is perceived to be throwing obstacles in the way of the paramilitaries’ victims’ rights to truth and reparations. Because of his past work with Chiquita, his Justice Department’s actions with regard to future paramilitary cases will deserve extremely close scrutiny.