Oct 23

After several years of declining violence statistics in Colombia, we are seeing some very serious backsliding. The chief causes are the new FARC leadership’s shifts in strategy, and the proliferation of “emerging” criminal groups, the heirs of paramilitary groups whose leaders have mostly been extradited to the United States. This backsliding should worry both proponents and detractors of Álvaro Uribe’s hardline security policies.

  1. A Reuters piece published Tuesday and a CNN series [1 | 2 | 3] that ran last week attest to the severe wave of drug and gang-related violence sweeping over Medellín. According to Reuters, “The city’s murder rate has more than doubled since the [May] 2008 extradition of its main crime boss, [paramilitary chieftain Diego Fernando Murillo,] known as Don Berna, which left a power vacuum in the local drug and extortion rackets.”
  1. El Tiempo reports on the tense atmosphere in Sumapaz, a mountainous zone just to the south of Bogotá, from which Colombia’s army ejected the FARC in 2003 and 2004. Last Sunday, in broad daylight, the guerrillas killed two town council members in the zone (Sumapaz is part of Bogotá and Colombia’s Capital District).
  1. Herbín Hoyos, host of the Bogotá-based “Voices of Kidnapping” radio program, which broadcasts relatives’ messages to FARC kidnap victims, was forced to leave the country two weeks ago in the face of what Colombian military intelligence said was a recently uncovered FARC plot to kill him.
  1. In the oil-refining port of Barrancabermeja, 99 people have been murdered so far this year, 5 more than in all of 2008. El Tiempo places much of the blame on two “emerging” paramilitary groups, the “Rastrojos” and the “Urabistas.”
  1. Semana notes “three simultanous processes” of violence amid a counter-guerrilla military offensive in Cauca, in southwestern Colombia: “First, the alliance between the ELN guerrillas and a criminal gang known as ‘Los Rastrojos’ to fight the FARC; second, the military forces’ tendency to go easy on the ELN and Los Rastrojos, since the Espada II and III military operations have not touched them, and the whole offensive has been against the FARC. … The third process, however, is the strengthening of the FARC’s offensive military capacity in northern Cauca. So much that the guerrillas have attacked Toribío municipality on 51 occasions this year; the most recent attack was on October 7, which left two police dead and several soldiers wounded.” El Tiempo also reported this week on the ongoing Cauca offensive.
  1. This week the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo) issued “early warning” alerts about FARC threats against the population of Toribío, as well as that of the municipalities of Puerto Lleras, Puerto Rico and Vistahermosa, Meta. The Meta alert covers the heart of the La Macarena region, where a Colombian government “Fusion Center” has been carrying out a U.S.-funded counter-insurgency and “consolidation” program. In Puerto Rico municipality, Amnesty International reports, a FARC attack on the Guéjar river wounded Islena Rey, president of the Meta Human Rights Civic Committee.
  1. Elsewhere in Meta, authorities are concerned about a growing “war” between two powerful paramilitary chieftains who had been believed to be cooperating: Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias “Cuchillo,” and Víctor Carranza, who controls a large portion of Colombia’s lucrative emerald trade.
  1. More than 220 people have been killed this year in the Bajo Cauca region of northern Antioquia department, where four “emerging” paramilitary groups are fighting to control the drug trade: “Los Paisas,” “Los Rastrojos,” “Los de Urabá” and remnants of the AUC’s “Bloque Mineros.”
  1. Two weeks ago in Arauca, a brazen ELN attack managed to free “Pablito,” who until being imprisoned was the guerrilla group’s maximum leader in the zone, one of its longtime strongholds.

All of these links are from the past two weeks. They indicate that Colombia’s government needs to refocus on its public security strategy, which may have reached the limits of what it can achieve. Significant adjustments are needed, particularly a renewed effort to protect threatened populations (instead of using resources on costly offensives) and a far stronger campaign against the “new” paramilitary groups before they manage to consolidate themselves.

But no adjustments are likely over the next several months, since Colombia’s President and its entire political class are likely to be focusing entirely on Álvaro Uribe’s attempt to win a third term in office.

Jul 01

We are alarmed by news that on Sunday a FARC guerrilla unit ambushed the vehicle of Pedro Arenas, the mayor of San José del Guaviare, in the southern Colombian department of Guaviare.

Mr. Arenas is a longtime friend, a former social-movement leader known to many in Washington for his articulate critique of the aerial fumigation policy and his repeated calls for increased alternative development investment in his home department, which is one of Colombia’s principal coca-growing areas. (See posts from our April 2008 visit to Guaviare.)

The subject of two previous posts to this blog (2008 video, 2005 post), Mr. Arenas belongs to a locally based center-left political movement and has run afoul of both paramilitaries and guerrillas in the past. But this is by far the FARC’s worst-ever attack on him.

While nobody was killed, the president of San José del Guaviare’s town council, Marcos Baquero, is still missing. We condemn, and urge others to join us in condeming, the FARC for a vicious act of barbarism that will only serve to isolate them still further, both internationally and in the department of Guaviare. If the FARC are holding Mr. Baquero, we demand that they release him, immediately and unconditionally.

Here is a translation of Pedro Arenas’s statement on what happened. The attack also received coverage in Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper, and on the AP wire.

Yesterday [Sunday] at 11 AM, when I was going from San José to La Carpa (a town about 50 kilometers from the county seat), we were the object of an attack with bombs and gunshots. I managed to get out of the area in an armored truck, but a departmental legislator was wounded – we rescued him two hours later – and we lost the president of the municipal council, compañero Marcos Baquero, who belongs to the Green Party. Since then, we haven’t heard a thing from Marcos and we want him to reappear unharmed.

Guerrillas of the 7th Front of the FARC committed the attack. Several of them took our secretary of education and a reporter from the community radio for half an hour to the chief of their group, who presented himself with the alias of “Jesús.” He told the reporter that his attack was aimed at the mayor, and that it was a message to show that they were very much alive, and that – according to them – “nobody is speaking against the fumigations.” The reporter and the secretary were freed, the departmental legislator is out of danger.

In La Carpa we were carrying out an activity of the mayor’s office with the support of several government agencies, which we call “services fairs [ferias de servicios],” in the framework of a strategy of preventing displacement; we bring health, technical assistance, SENA [vocational training], SISBEN [central government assistance to municipalities], subsidized regime [central government health care], sports and culture among other social services, to help the campesinos in their places of origin. I left La Carpa in an army helicopter, after speaking to about 1,000 campesinos who gathered there. In the same helicopter were also five police who were in the caravan and who were “lost” for nearly 3 hours in the zone.

This time we have saved ourselves from an ambush, but our councilman has disappeared, and I ask you to raise your voice for his return. Marcos is a campesino, leader of an association of producers, student in the ESAP [national public administration school], and a member of our political movement. This is his first time in politics and he represents the very region in which the attack occurred.

It is quite curious that the FARC would carry out this attack against me, accusing us of saying nothing against fumigations, when the truth is that we have a lifetime of commitment with the campesinos and of denouncing the damages that the spraying causes to the local economy and the environment. For the past 15 years, every day we have asked for more commitment and investment in alternative development, in roads and productive projects to help the campesinos. I did it as a councilman, departmental legislator and representative in Congress, and now as mayor I have not lowered my guard on this issue. I am still working constantly to get decisionmakers to change this policy, and instead to carry out a program of integral rural development.

This is a tremendous error on the part of an armed organization that has attacked us, ignoring the fact that, perhaps the only voice that has remained alive and aloud about the damaging effects of the fumigations has been ours. It is absurd that they would try to do away with our political process in Guaviare and to silence our voices.

Jan 26

In a post three weeks ago, we discussed Venezuela’s persistent public security problems, including spiking murder and kidnapping rates and evidence of worsening organized crime. We interpreted the Venezuelan state’s inability to stem common crime as a reason to worry about its overall stability, especially its capacity to weather a likely coming economic shock.

Writing in last Thursday’s Washington Post opinion pages, international lawyer Robert Amsterdam offered a much more sinister take on Caracas’s crime wave. Likening Chávez’s Venezuela to Putin’s Russia, Amsterdam imputes that both leaders are keeping common crime levels high on purpose.

Since Putin and Chávez are said to rule with “iron fists,” a menacing question arises: Why have they been unable to stem the tide of crime in their streets? Is it a reflection of incompetence, or is there some tacit benefit to keeping a society imprisoned under a cloak of severe insecurity and moral panic? …

It occurred to me that the monstrous violence on the streets of Caracas and Moscow is perhaps useful to both regimes — and that in their incompetence at delivering public security, they have found a convenience that contributes to their grip on power.

Allowing lawlessness to fester on the streets as a means of enforcing an authoritarian social order? That’s certainly a novel interpretation of what’s happening in Venezuela. Violence in Venezuela could just as easily be the product of a model that, while highly statist and centralized, lacks the rigidity, ruthlessness and all-encompassing nature of the example followed in Cuba, where violent crime rates are negligible

If Mr. Amsterdam offered up even a shred of empirical evidence that Venezuela’s lax law enforcement was a deliberate strategy, and not simply a consequence of poor governance, his highly counterintuitive argument might make some sense. But his column includes no such evidence. It is surprising that the Washington Post would air such an outlandish argument based entirely on speculation.

Mr. Amsterdam is unconvincing. Venezuela’s violent crime problem is real and appears to be worsening. But instead of a devious means of social control, we see it as a result of bad public security policies, and thus a threat – not a support – to the Chávez government’s longevity.