Feb 04

At a site called “FedBizOpps.gov” is an interesting collection of 2009 documents from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The U.S. foreign aid agency discusses its experience with U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” programs in Colombia. It also offers a glimpse at the U.S. government’s plans for aid to Colombia as the annual amount becomes gradually smaller and somewhat more balanced between military and economic priorities.

Three documents in particular are worth a look.

1. PCIM Lessons Learned (Microsoft Word [.doc] format): This is an at times candid discussion of the U.S. government’s experience with the “Integrated Action” counter-insurgency program in the La Macarena region about 200 miles south of Bogotá, a program that has received over $40 million dollars in U.S. assistance since 2007. Some findings of our December 2009 report on this program are paralleled here, such as the challenge of corruption, the need to consult communities, and the need to speed civilian government involvement. Others, particularly concerns about militarization and human rights, are not.

The paper includes some language that would have been unthinkable in a public U.S. government document even a few years ago:

Government policies related to zero coca, and strict verification procedures, take a long time and limit the State’s ability to work with communities in transitioning from a coca economy to a legal economy.

When security and coca eradication are not synchronized with the arrival of socio-economic projects, the mood of a community can quickly become hostile.

The dismantling of illegally-armed organizations in an area is often accompanied by an increase in common crime and criminal gangs linked to narco-trafficking.  This situation can present a threat to the legitimacy of the armed forces in a region if not accompanied by the effective presence of the justice apparatus (fiscales and judges).

Some public agencies responsible for key services in the consolidation process have a history of corruption, which can paralyze decision-making, at the risk of being accused of more corruption.

2. CSDI Implementation Concept Paper (Microsoft Word [.doc] format): The “Colombia Strategic Development Initiative” or CSDI is the framework that will guide U.S. aid to Colombia over the next few years. While humanitarian projects (like aid to the displaced) will continue throughout the country, the plan is to focus security and development assistance in a few geographic areas. Though a bit heavy on the jargon, this year-old document is the most detailed description of the CSDI that we have seen.

USAID/Colombia will invite all eligible and interested parties to participate in full-and-open competitions for the right to implement this new approach. … Each organization will lead consortia or networks, preferably made up of Colombian entities, to provide the needed skills and systems required for results achievement. The process will result in awards during 2009-2010.  USAID/Colombia envisions a total combined ceiling of all awards of no less than $500 million but no more than $800 million.  The maximum life of the base period of any resulting agreement will be five years.

3. Briefing Presentation: Partners Meeting (PDF): This is a PDF version of an April 2009 PowerPoint presentation laying out USAID’s strategy from 2009 to 2013. It discusses the “Integrated Action” effort and the new CSDI.

It also includes this map of the U.S. government’s chosen CSDI zones. (While this map has been widely circulated, this is the only public copy we’ve seen online.) These are the geographic areas where the U.S. government will focus its military and development aid for the next few years, as overall aid amounts decline. Any zone outside these red ovals will receive humanitarian aid and little else.

Dec 03

CIP is very pleased to share our new report on the Colombian government’s U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” or “CCAI” programs: a combination of state-building, counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics that is being viewed as the successor to Plan Colombia.

“After Plan Colombia” is the product of months of research, including visits to two areas where these programs are underway, which were documented on this blog. With lots of graphics and context for readers less familiar with Colombia, it totals 40 pages plus footnotes. Download a PDF of the report, or read the HTML layout version here.

Here is the summary statement we are sending out with the report:

“After Plan Colombia”: A new report from the Center for International Policy examines the next phase of U.S. assistance

Beyond deploying 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, President Barack Obama’s December 1 speech called for something that evokes the U.S. experience in Colombia: a “civilian surge.” This, he said, would be “a more effective civilian strategy, so that the [Afghan] government can take advantage of improved security.” Working hand-in-glove with military operations, increased U.S. economic aid would focus “in areas — such as agriculture — that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.”

A U.S.-supported “civilian surge” has been underway for a few years now in Colombia, Latin America’s third most-populous country, where an internal armed conflict has raged since the 1960s. U.S. officials say they hope to apply lessons learned from Colombia in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Misunderstanding these lessons, however, could bring disastrous results.

The program in Colombia, “Integrated Action,” aims to help the government function in zones controlled by armed groups. With U.S. support, a national agency — the Center for the Coordination of Integrated Action or CCAI — is to bring civilian government institutions, and basic services, into areas very recently secured by military operations. As in Afghanistan, agricultural aid and other quick-impact projects are priorities.

These programs are controversial, as they tread the uneasy ground between military operations, nation-building, development and human rights. Yet both the U.S. and Colombian governments view Integrated Action as the future of U.S. aid to Colombia, which since 2000 has been by far the world’s largest U.S. aid recipient outside the Middle East. Integrated Action is being viewed as the successor to Plan Colombia, through which the United States has provided $6.7 billion since 2000.

With so much at stake here, the Center for International Policy — which has worked on Colombia policy since the late 1990s — resolved to take a closer look at Integrated Action. This year, we visited the two areas where the U.S. government is most generously supporting the Integrated Action model: the La Macarena zone in southern Colombia and the Montes de María zone near the Caribbean coast. We carried out more than 50 interviews and meetings with more than 150 subjects, from government authorities and military officers to massacre victims and peasant associations.

We found a program that is an improvement over Plan Colombia: there has been learning from the mistakes of a U.S. aid program that, from 2000 to 2007, was 80 percent military and failed to coordinate security and governance. We conclude that the “Integrated Action” model should not be abandoned, which would do more harm than good.

But Integrated Action is not there yet. This experiment could still go badly wrong. A predominantly military program could give the armed forces dominion over all aspects of governance and development. Failure to address land tenure could concentrate landholding in fewer hands. Continued herbicide fumigations and mass arrests could undermine the population’s fragile trust in the government. Poor coordination between government bureaucracies could leave promises unfulfilled.

We recommend several changes to the U.S.-supported approach. These must be implemented before Integrated Action can be considered a model for Afghanistan or anywhere else.

The U.S. and Colombian governments must:

  • Civilianize the Integrated Action strategy as soon as security conditions allow it.
  • Coordinate cooperation between disparate government institutions, and give political clout to the civilian coordinators so that they can compel participation.
  • Consult with communities about every decision that affects them.
  • Work carefully with, and be prepared to say “no” to, local political and economic elites.
  • Act more quickly to resolve land tenure and property rights.
  • Quickly and transparently investigate and punish any allegations of abuse, corruption or predatory behavior.
  • Commit to sustainability by making clear that this effort is for the long haul.

The Center for International Policy is proud to present these recommendations in After Plan Colombia, a new report from our Latin America Security Program. This 40-page, richly illustrated report explains how the U.S. and Colombian governments arrived at this model, explores its design, and narrates “what we saw and heard” on our field visits to the La Macarena and Montes de María zones.

We expect our analysis to inform the lively debate about the future of U.S. policy toward Colombia, which is at a crossroads as the Obama administration reviews its approach. We also hope that After Plan Colombia may contribute to the debate over the U.S. role in Afghanistan — or anywhere else that we may be considering “civilian surges” into ungoverned areas.

Dec 02

Tomorrow we will be releasing “After Plan Colombia,” a lengthy report on the Colombian government’s U.S.-supported “Integrated Action”  or “CCAI” programs, which appear to constitute the next phase of U.S. support to Colombia.

One of the report’s recommendations is that far more must be done to speed land titling in the zones where these state-building-and-counterinsurgency programs are being carried out. Farmers in the “Integrated Action” zones are still not getting titles to their land, and Colombia’s Agriculture Ministry (whose policies, as recent scandals indicate, favor large landholders) is chiefly to blame.

This was a big issue on our April and July research visits. It was very discouraging yesterday to see this piece by John Otis yesterday on the Global Post website, indicating that even today, months later, not a single land title has been handed out in the La Macarena “Integrated Action” zone. This is stunning.

For the past two years, La Macarena and nearby towns have been the focus of a two-year-old “consolidation plan” that has brought together troops, drug warriors and aid agencies in an effort to drive out the rebels, undermine the cocaine trade and bolster the legal economy.

Alvaro Balcazar, who manages the program, fears that the security patrols, new schools and crop substitution programs may fall short unless local peasants are brought into the legal system.

“Land titling is what’s going to make the difference in whether or not we can consolidate security and the rule of law,” he said.

Yet over the past two years, Balcazar admits that he doesn’t know of a single case in which a small land-holder has been awarded title to his land.

The land issue is critical to the CCAI strategy’s success. If it goes unaddressed, especially in zones where land is being bought up rapidly, it will be a key reason for its failure.

“After Plan Colombia” includes a discussion of the land-tenure issue and the CCAI’s strategy. We will add a link and a summary to the report here tomorrow morning. (We note that the INDEPAZ website in Colombia already has posted an earlier draft, with several typos.) Here are the blog entries that served as a rough draft of our work, which has since been substantially edited.

Sep 28

This is the third and final installment of posts about our July 2009 visit to the Montes de María region of northern Colombia. It wraps up a longer series of initial observations of Colombia’s U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” (or “consolidation” or “fusion center” or “CCAI” or “Plan Colombia 2″) counterinsurgency or state-building programs. These will be boiled down to key points, laid out and presented as a CIP publication within a couple of weeks.

Earlier posts about the Montes de María give an overview of the region’s recent history, and a narrative of what we saw when we visited. This post attempts to evaluate what is still a very new program in the Montes de María.

A less military program – but soldiers still play an outsize role

When we visited the Integrated Action “Fusion Center” in La Macarena in April, it was plain that we had arrived in the middle of an active military operation. With security far from established, and combat with the FARC frequent, the “Integrated Action” strategy was, as we noted, “a mostly military endeavor.”

That description does not fit the program in Montes de María. There is a significant military and police component, and there is strong reason to be concerned about the armed forces taking on roles that do not correspond to it. But the program’s design and makeup are fundamentally more civilian.

The reason for that is security. In La Macarena, the Fusion Center employs updated maps dividing the zone into red (too insecure), yellow (civilians with military accompaniment) or green (a security perimeter has been established) areas. Most of the map, beyond town centers and their immediate environs, appears red. The Montes de María Fusion Center sees no need for such a “stoplight” system; we were told that the entire region is now considered “green.”

As we have noted, the guerrilla presence in the zone is nearly zero since the late 2007 killing of FARC 37th Front leader Martín Caballero. The heirs to the paramilitaries who swept through the zone are strong, politically influential, and killing each other with increasing frequency, but the state does not regard them to be a threat significant enough to warrant a constant military role in development (more on that below).

There are exceptions, though. The most notable is the program’s largest infrastructure-building project: a badly needed road between El Carmen de Bolívar and Chinulito, Sucre. This road’s construction, ambitious because of the rugged terrain it must cross, has been left entirely up to the Marines (Infantería de Marina; as in many coastal areas, the Marines, a unit of Colombia’s Navy, play a far more prominent role than the Army). When asked why the military was given such a non-security job in a permissive security environment, military authorities contended that using the Marines was more cost-effective. Other Fusion Center personnel characterized it as the result of decisions made in 2007, when the zone was less secure and the CCAI was being established with an active-duty military commander (see below).

While the Montes de María program is a less olive-drab affair than its counterpart in La Macarena, the military component is still viewed as central. “The patrols are there to accompany the campesino,” a military officer expressed to us. A prominent social leader was more critical: “Whenever the guns come out, we’re the ones who get shot at.”

The Coordination (Formerly Fusion) Center

The Center for the Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI) began work in the Montes de María in 2007. The modestly funded program was coordinated by Col. Rafael Colón, the Marine officer who had confronted the region’s paramilitaries during his 2004-2006 tenure at the head of the local brigade. (Col. Colón is discussed in an earlier post.) Colón was transferred to a post in Peru after a mid-2008 apology, on behalf of the Navy, to the victims of the Macayepo, Chengue and El Salado massacres, which earned a rebuke from his superiors. We heard little evaluation of Colón’s brief tenure during the CCAI’s initial period in Montes de María, other than that it appeared well-intentioned but took too long to get started, seemed to lack resources, and envisioned an oversize military role.

The Montes de María program was “reset” at the beginning of 2009, when the Colombian Presidency’s Social Action agency signed an assistance agreement with USAID. This allowed for a larger budget and, in February, the opening of a “Fusion Center” office to provide on-the-ground coordination of the program’s activities. By June, five such centers had been established throughout Colombia, though only the La Macarena and Montes de María centers had significant U.S. funding. That month, it was decided to change their names to the less bellicose-sounding “Coordination Centers” (a name we will use for the remainder of this post). The Montes de María Coordination Center is not physically based in Montes de María, however: its headquarters are in an office building in Cartagena, with a satellite office in Sincelejo, the capital of Sucre.

USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) is contributing modestly to this program – amounts likely do not exceed $3 million, though we’ve been unable to obtain an exact figure for this region – but the agency as a whole is planning to invest more heavily; a recent request for grant applications outlines an “Enhanced Livelihoods Initiative” that expects to spend $32 million in Montes de María over the next five years. A CCAI PowerPoint about its Montes de María program appears to indicate a total investment from all sources of about $43.3 million.

As was the case at the La Macarena Center and the CCAI headquarters in Bogotá, the civilian staff at the Montes de María Coordination Center was made up of able, energetic technocrats, most from the Social Action agency. Though Social Action is known mainly for clientelistic programs that hand out cash subsidies to millions, the Coordination Center staff we met were detail-oriented practitioners, not political apparatchiks.

The Coordination Center did not appear to be a tool for the Uribe government’s political machine. To the contrary, the worry would be the opposite: that this surprisingly small office (all CCAI coordinating offices were surprisingly small) is held at such arms’ length from the rest of “government as usual” that it may lack the political clout necessary to gain resources or to overcome opposition from reticent ministries, local officials or economic elites.

Returning the displaced

Unlike La Macarena, where the main goal is to build a state presence where none exists, the Montes de María Center’s main mission is to help displaced communities return to the area. While security and “consolidating governance” are big parts of the methodology, the objective is far more economic or humanitarian than the more counterinsurgent program in La Macarena.

(Click map to enlarge)

The Montes de María program focuses on only four of the region’s 15 municipalities (counties), making up roughly one-third of its land area: San Onofre and Ovejas, Sucre, and El Carmen de Bolívar and San Jacinto, Bolívar. As of early July, the Coordination Center was developing operational plans for each of the four municipalities, focusing on about 12 communities where displaced populations are returning.

As in La Macarena, the USAID/OTI funding was focused heavily on “rapid-impact projects” in and around these communities. These are small construction projects and other efforts designed to make a short-term demonstration that the state intends to establish a presence. They include:

  • Transportation projects like the El Carmen-Chinulito road discussed above, and a series of bridges in San Jacinto municipality being built mostly with funds from the government of Japan;
  • Assistance in restoring returned communities’ housing and neighborhoods;
  • Water and electricity projects;
  • Telecommunications projects like building up the mobile phone network, radio broadcasting (the Coordination Center staff said they sought to encourage community radio stations), and Internet through state-run “Compartel” access points in remote communities;
  • Construction and repairs to schools, though longer-term needs like teachers and materials, the responsibility of the Education Ministry, remained to be dealt with;
  • Construction of health posts in town centers, though the questions of doctors and supplies depend on the Social Protection Ministry. Some community members expressed concerns about providing care in rural areas with a lack of roads and ambulances, while others worried that these health posts, many of them managed by for-profit companies, were part of an effort to do away with public hospitals in municipal “county seats;”
  • Food security projects, with cacao and yuca the principal crops being encouraged. We were told that the Coordination Center’s projects were not encouraging cultivation of the controversial African oil palm, though the municipality of María La Baja, Bolívar, adjacent to the zone of the Center’s focus, is quickly becoming a center of oil palm production, and the crop is popular among many who are rapidly buying land in the region; and
  • Accompaniment of projects for the conflict’s victims, like mental health programs and historical memory efforts like the recent release of a report on the El Salado massacre, published by the Historical Memory Group of the National Reconciliation and Reparations Commission.

As “rapid impact” projects, most of these efforts will require a good deal of follow-up beyond the next two or three years before the Colombian state can truly be said to be present in the region’s historically neglected villages and rural zones.


Any effort to restore displaced farm families to their original communities must immediately confront Colombia’s unjust and intricately complicated land tenure system. In rural Colombia, land is equal to power, and competition for its control has driven the conflict for generations. This is especially true in the Montes de María, with its semi-feudal tenant-farmer past, the unusual fertility of its soil, its location among highly coveted drug-trafficking corridors, its high rate of internal displacement, and the extremely rapid land-buying rush underway today.

As a result of the violence at the beginning of the decade, we were told, as much as 150,000 hectares (375,000 acres) of Montes de María farmland is abandoned and uncultivated, “returning to the jungle.” But in many cases, this land is either in the hands of large landholders whose tenant farmers are not returning, or it is simply unclear to whom it belongs.

The Coordination Center plans to spend US$4.5 million for a range of land-tenure activities, including cadastral surveys, adjudication of disputes, compensation, certifying possession, legal protection for small landholders, debt freezes, freezing land sales in specific areas, and investigating suspicious transactions. The Center does not, however, plan anything as ambitious as a full plot-by-plot cadaster (mapping of landholdings) in all four municipalities, nor does it plan a massive titling of small landholders. Instead, they will focus on the roughly twelve returning communities they have already identified, taking an inventory of landholdings – “a snapshot of what landholding looked like when displacement happened” – and seeking to restore land to those who wish to return.

Even this more modest goal will require unraveling a lot of disputes. Did the landholder ever hold clear title? If they were tenant farmers beforehand, can they prove how much land they cultivated? If they owned the land, did they sell it willingly or under duress (either direct threat or inability to pay debt due to displacement)? Does the current owner of the land deserve compensation, and if so, how much?

The Coordination Center envisions “Municipal Committees for Attention to the Displaced Population” – a body made up of the mayor, the mayor’s first secretary, the International Committee of the Red Cross, police, military, church and community leaders – as the main tool for adjudicating such local land disputes. These committees’ effectiveness varies widely across municipalities, however, and some mayors have not even bothered to convene them.

In fact, these mayors, and local elites, may not share the Coordination Center’s enthusiasm for displaced farmers’ return. As mentioned before, with relative peace in Montes de María has come a sharp rise in land prices, and a bonanza of land purchases. As thousands of hectares change hands in each municipality, we were told, land is being concentrated in the hands of “paisas.” The term refers to people from the more populous, economically potent nearby department of Antioquia, and seems to indicate either large agribusinesses or narcotraffickers laundering profits through land purchases – or both.

Amid this backdrop, the deck is already stacked against small landholders, not to mention returning displaced persons. “As soon as INCODER [the government's troubled land-reform agency] identifies an unowned plot, a large landowner shows up to buy it,” lamented one community leader. Smallholders also have a much more difficult time meeting legal requirements, including the hundreds or even thousands of dollars in notarized documents and other official fees involved in registering even a small land purchase.

While purchases are difficult, the pressures to sell are enormous. “Who is selling their land? Indebted campesinos, campesinos who can’t get credit, campesinos who don’t want to return, campesinos‘ relatives who do not identify as strongly with the land, and campesinos who are threatened, who are told, ‘Either you sell, or I’ll buy it from your widow,’” one non-governmental organization director explained. A smallholder with a large-landholding neighbor who covets his land may be subject to even further pressures to sell, beyond his own indebtedness. The large landholder can affect his water supplies, cut off his road access, or simply “accidentally” leave an opening in his fence through which cattle can pass and eat the smallholder’s crop.

Is the local government an ally of the Coordination Center?

To overcome these extraordinary challenges, small landholders and returning displaced people would need active support from the state. The Montes de María Coordination Center’s plans indicate that they hope to provide that support, at least to the returning communities they have selected in four municipalities. But it is easy to imagine that, in doing so, the Cartagena-based Center will encounter fierce opposition from a constituency that is supposed to be one of its key partners: the local governments of the Montes de María.

Unlike La Macarena, the Montes de María are not a “vacuum” of state presence. The area has been settled for centuries, not recently carved out of the jungle, and most ministries of the central government have long had a presence in municipal capitals and the larger town centers. Mayors and town councils hold actual decisionmaking power, control resources, and often have the backing of regional political machinery.

Granted, this state presence has rarely bothered to penetrate into the rural zones that make up most of the region’s territory. But the point is that where governance is concerned, the Montes de María is not a “blank slate” to the extent that guerrilla-controlled La Macarena is. There is an existing power structure, with its power ratified by elections. As it works toward its principal declared goal of returning displaced populations, the Montes de María Coordination Center must work with – or around, or even against – local and departmental governments.

From Verdad Abierta’s Sucre page (Ex-Governor Salvador Arana is in the picture). Highly recommended.

The declared intention, of course, is to work hand-in-glove with local authorities. “In the consolidation zones, the primary civilian face of the State is the municipal and departmental entities – a point on which the CCAI is clear,” notes an August communication from USAID. “Strengthening local governance capacity – especially at the municipal level – has been a fundamental PCIM [La Macarena Integral Consolidation Program] focus and is now a primary focus in Montes de María.”

The question is to what extent the local authorities actually support the smallholding agricultural model, much less the return of displaced communities. As we have noted, Sucre and Bolívar have been hard-hit by the “para-politics” scandal: many local officials are in jail or under investigation for their support of the paramilitary armies that caused most of the massive displacement in the first place. Many local governments in Sucre and Bolívar continue to be tied to a nexus of large landholders, narcotraffickers, and political bosses who chose to rid the Montes de María of guerrilla presence by sponsoring paramilitary groups that, by overwhelmingly targeting smallholding civilians who lived in the zone, caused the depopulation that the Consolidation Center now proposes to reverse.

In Sucre department alone, the Verdad Abierta website (a project of Semana magazine and prominent NGOs) noted in July, “A total of 35 politicians have been processed for their ties to the paramilitaries. Eight ex-mayors, seven ex-councilmen, one former departmental legislator, three former governors, three former congressmen, three serving congressmen and 3 senators elected for the 2006-2010 period, 2 mayors and 5 councilmen elected in 2007.” Jailed mayors included the former mayor of San Onofre, one of the four municipalities chosen for the Coordination Center’s work, as well as the mayors of neighboring municipalities Colosó and Toluviejo. (Inhabitants of Chinulito, which is part of Colosó, also accuse former mayor Manuel David Arrieta of stealing funds designated for the town’s reconstruction.) Just to the east, in the vicinity of Magangué, Bolívar, the most powerful paramilitary-tied political boss was a woman: Enilce López, “La Gata,” now in prison, who also controlled much of the legal lottery along Colombia’s northern coast.

Colombia last held municipal and gubernatorial elections in October 2007. In several parts of the country, the para-politicians’ political machines suffered stinging defeats at the polls. This was not so in Sucre, Bolívar and the Montes de María, where associates of the jailed and arrested politicians fared well. In San Onofre, the newly elected mayor was a politician widely accused of paramilitary ties. The gubernatorial election in Sucre is believed to have involved fraud in order to keep the same political group in power, as Semana magazine reported at the time:

A point of uncertainty … is the citizen alarm after the partial triumph of “Tuto” Barraza – candidate of Congressman Carlos García, imprisoned for “parapolitics” – over Julio César Guerra Tulena, for governor of Sucre. Until just before eight at night Barraza was losing by 2,000 votes, when mysteriously the Registry’s data transmission system broke down. Shortly afterward, the Registry’s officials ordered the exit of all overseers and witnesses from the political parties. When the system went back online, Barraza was winning by 200 votes. The Registry (Registraduría) assures that it will investigate what happened, while the region’s voters recall that these were the same strategies by which García won elections before being sent to prison.

Also on a 2007 Semana list [PDF] of candidates with a “high risk” of paramilitary links was the elected governor of Sincelejo, the capital of Sucre, Jesús Antonio Paternina Samur. Meanwhile in Magangué, imprisoned regional boss “La Gata” scored another victory in early July 2009 when her approved candidate won a special mayoral election.

We obtained no smoking-gun evidence of current officeholders’ illegal activity. We note, though, that most are members of the same political groupings as the para-politicians who came before. As a result, even if they are not proven “para-politicians” themselves, they are likely to be representing the same sets of political interests and constituencies. And those constituencies have a record of being hostile to the interests of the small landholders and formerly displaced people of rural Montes de María. This concern is ratified by repeated testimony we heard about elected leaders’ utter lack of interest even in visiting communities of small farmers and returned displaced people.

Yet these are the elected officials with whom the Coordination Center – an entity dedicated to the viability of small farmers and the return of displaced people – must work. “They were voted in,” a U.S. official explained. “You do what you can and work with everyone.” The way to deal with the challenge of reticent local officials, officials told us, is to offer training and support to build their own management capacities; to strengthen the justice system so that official wrongdoing can be denounced and punished; to work with all social sectors, not just the local government; and to maintain a constant monitoring presence and avoid giving them direct control of resources. Local officials, we were told, are even expected to provide resources from their own treasuries in order to increase their “buy-in.” These officials, for their part, view this as an additional strain on tight budgets. “They [the Coordination Center] ask for resources, but there aren’t any,” Sucre’s governor told us.

The Coordination Center is involving local leadership through the signing of “Political Pacts” with the authorities and other “fuerzas vivas” (business, religious, and civil-society leaders) in each of the four chosen municipalities. The pacts include commitments for development projects in the entire zone, but their chief focus is the return of displaced communities.

These pacts are being drawn up with local institutions as they currently exist. If these institutions represent interests that favor large-scale agribusiness, do not view displaced communities’ return as a priority, and may be one or two degrees of separation away from the paramilitaries themselves, their partnership with the Coordination Center will be a very uneasy one.

In the best of scenarios, it could pit the central government, allied with USAID and Southern Command, against a local landowning elite. This would be an unusual match-up, and it would be interesting to see who would come out ahead. The determining factor would be the central government: will it ultimately back the technocrats of the Coordination Center, or would it back the local elite, which has been strongly supportive of President Uribe since his first candidacy? An unencouraging sign comes from the central government’s Agriculture Ministry, which has clearly favored the large-landholder model and has been notably slow to issue land titles either in La Macarena or the Montes de María.

The security challenge

Even if communities do return, and receive land titles, how will they protect their claims, and their lives, in a region considered strategic for drug traffickers and highly profitable for land speculators? Since Col. Colón’s tenure in the Marines’ 1st Brigade, the armed forces have been viewed as standing between the population and violent groups. But leaderships change, and protecting the population in a region considered “safe” is not a likely long-term military role anyway, even in Colombia. That responsibility will fall to Colombia’s National Police.

Currently, the police are responsible for citizen security in town centers, while the Marines handle the rural areas. We were told that a transition from Marines to police is likely to take place, though we heard little idea of a timetable. The United States is helping to set up mobile constabulary forces (Carabineros) and provide them with equipment in order to increase police coverage in rural areas. Still, the local police have yet to win the population’s trust. We heard several times that they are often regarded as too tied to local political elites, too corrupt, and too quick to treat the local citizenry with suspicion, including suspicion of helping guerrillas.

The towns, which are the purview of the police, have seen the greatest increase in activity by re-armed or “new” paramilitary groups, some of which are little more than foot-soldiers for drug trafficking organizations. The doubling of murders in Sincelejo from the first half of 2008 to the first half of 2009 owes almost entirely to internecine violence between groups competing for control of drug trafficking routes.

The “new” groups most frequently mentioned are the Paisas (related to the Medellín-based Oficina de Envigado narcotrafficking organization), the Rastrojos (the rapidly growing heirs to part of the North Valle cartel and the AUC’s Calima Bloc), and the organization led by “Don Mario,” a fugitive paramilitary leader and narcotrafficker captured in April. We also heard of the Águilas Negras (Black Eagles), a rearmed group whose name has emerged in many parts of the country, but the Marines told us that this group has not in fact appeared in the zone – it is a name used to intimidate, as when issuing threats.

A special prosecutor, operating from the safety of the 1st Marine Brigade’s base, was assigned from Bogotá early this year to investigate Sucre’s new groups, and between February and June his efforts had resulted in 28 arrests. However, the “new” paramilitaries are more active this year than before in the zone, increasing their recruitment, more visibly monitoring activity in neighborhoods they control, and issuing more frequent and severe threats against civil-society figures, especially victims’ leaders. Among the municipalities of the Montes de María, the armed groups’ violence appeared to be worst in San Onofre, where the victims’ leaders were seeing the worst threats, and where the new armed groups were estimated to have killed between 15 and 19 of each other’s members during the first half of 2009.

Amid this worsening panorama, concerns about the police force’s capacity to protect vulnerable populations, such as returned displaced communities, are real and will require attention.

Civil society

On the positive side, displaced communities are not returning to a vacuum. The Montes de María may have unequal landholding, an entrenched political class, and growing armed groups, but it also has a civil society. At least in the towns, there are organizations petitioning the state, denouncing wrongdoing, and exercising their rights as citizens: victims’ groups, religious groups, human rights groups, and active scholars, among others.

There is also a European-funded “peace and development” program seeking to combine economic projects with reconciliation and conflict-resolution: the Montes de María Development and Peace Network. Since 2005, this program has executed projects funded by the European Commission’s “3rd Peace Laboratory,” an aid program that intends to provide Colombia with non-military, civil-society-based assistance. The Network’s director, Father Rafael Castillo, spoke of building peace on the foundation of a “triangle of sustainability” uniting civil society, state institutions and the private sector. His program, he argued, promotes a model of “development based on rights, not needs,” avoiding an assistentialist, handout-based approach. And he made clear that the Network is more interested in building lasting “processes” through ongoing dialogue with communities than scoring quick, impermanent “successes” – which we interpreted to be a gentle critique of USAID’s “rapid impact project”approach.

Critics of the European-funded model contend that it moves too slowly and tentatively, making the larger community impatient to see results; that it does not distinguish clearly enough between effective civil-society organizations and “free riders;” and that its interactions with communities and the state too often ignore the power and influence of narcotraffickers. Still, the Peace Laboratory and the Development and Peace Network now have several years of experience and have put down roots in the community. The Coordination Center must make every effort to reach out to, and learn from, them. The same goes for the region’s other active civil society groups – especially the highly threatened and vulnerable victims’ groups who most urgently need protection.


The “Integrated Action” program we saw in Montes de María is too new to evaluate. What we saw, however, was a project with modest but mostly laudable goals, with a far better mix of civilian and military/police capacities than we witnessed in La Macarena. The better security situation should also contribute to better relations with the local population, as the security forces are not employing harsh measures like mass arrests or forced eradication.

We saw a model that may in fact encounter its greatest “pushback” not from the rural population, but from the large landholders and traditional political class in the towns and cities. Overcoming that resistance and helping the formerly displaced small-farmer communities chosen for assistance will require strong political support from the central government and an ability to resist the wave of buying and selling that is concentrating land in fewer hands. It will also require a more responsive, capable and professional police presence, a judicial system that can credibly punish abuse and corruption, and a relationship with civil society based on far more trust and communication than exist now.

It will also require that residents of Montes de María be convinced that a state – not local politicians captured by elites, but a state that enforces the law and provides basic services – is truly being established in the zone. This will require more than a few years of “rapid impact projects.” It will call for delivery of services and a constant state presence among communities that have never known one. It is a very long-term commitment.

Aug 24
One of the 8 river crossings on the road to Macayepo.

Here is another lengthy post – the second of what should be a three-part series on the Colombian government’s U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” programs in the Montes de María region of northern Colombia, which we visited in July. (The first post is here.)

Written principally by CIP Associate Abigail Poe, the observations below come from meetings with human rights and victims’ leaders from San Onofre and María La Baja; community members and leaders along the “road” to Macayepo (“road” is in quotation marks because in order to arrive in Macayepo, we had to ford a river at least 8 times and drive along a dirt road filled with potholes, mudholes and other variations of disrepair); the governor of Sucre, Jorge Barraza; and the chief of the Marine Corps brigade in the region, Colonel Eduardo Cardona; in addition to informal meetings with civil-society leaders, journalists and academic experts in the area.

Throughout our travels, a few themes were consistent. First, “emerging criminal groups” are rampant in the region and it would be difficult to deny that they are remnants of the old paramilitary structure. Second, the lack of state presence outside of urban centers, along with corruption and armed-group infiltration when the state is present, are obstacles to the attainment of the Integrated Action policy’s stated goals. Third, the problem of land, which some scholars say is the backbone of Colombia’s long history of conflict, is severe, and difficult to resolve. And finally, while some displaced families want to return and others do not, this decision is largely influenced by the lack of basic services and security in their communities of origin.

Emerging criminal groups and security in the region

As mentioned in our earlier post about Montes de María, this region of Colombia is adjacent to Córdoba and northern Antioquia, a cattle-raising zone often referred to as the “birthplace of the paramilitaries.” This small region includes the sites of some of the country’s most notorious and brutal massacres of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

While the AUC began a demobilization process in 2003, remnants still remain and are emerging as new criminal groups, with names like the Paisas, Águilas Negras, Rastrojos and Grupo de Don Mario. By most accounts, their numbers and activities are growing as they compete for dominion of the region’s lucrative drug-trafficking routes.

Fighting between them has brought a spike in homicides after several years of sharp declines. National Police statistics showed 106 homicides in the department of Sucre in the first six months of 2009, more than double the 49 recorded during the same period in 2008.

Colombian Marines talk to a young woman at a local “tienda” outside our meeting in Macayepo.

In San Onofre, a coastal municipality in northern Sucre, we met with victims’ leaders and other displaced members of the communities where some of the region’s major paramilitary massacres took place, including Mampuján and El Salado. After the massacres many of the displaced fled to urban centers – including the county seats of San Onofre and María la Baja, as well as Sincelejo and Cartagena – where the majority remain today.

While the Colombian national and local governments contend that recent paramilitary violence in the area is merely a phenomenon of gangs fighting gangs, those in San Onofre tell a very different story.

Following the demobilization of the AUC, the region calmed down and violence levels subsided. In the past year, however, violence and threats against community members have skyrocketed. The spike in violence is being at least partly attributed to the extradition of top paramilitary leaders to the United States in May 2008, leaving the lower levels of the groups to fight for power and control of important narcotrafficking routes and valuable land.

In San Onofre, we were told that 15 people have been murdered so far in 2009 in the municipality; the body of one victim who disappeared four months prior had been found the week before our visit in a roadside grave. And while violence has not returned to the peak levels of the early 2000s, some victims described their situation as worse, because with so many groups and armed actors “you don’t know who is doing the killing. So we can’t speak out.”

Community members from María La Baja, just over the border in Bolívar department, told us they do not receive as many threats as their counterparts in San Onofre. However, many people are still being killed in their town. “It is normal to wake up and hear that a young man was found dead,” one victims’ leader told us.

These leaders receive threats via telephone, cell phone and even email. Many cannot leave their homes or are hiding in the mountains, and others cannot speak out due to fear of being killed by one of the “emerging criminal groups.” Threats against women’s groups have also increased; one leader was recently murdered in front of her five year old daughter.

While government officials, such as the governor of Sucre, say that “only criminals are being killed” right now, the victims with whom we spoke in San Onofre told us that “those who are killed are not only the bad ones, some are being killed for telling the truth.”

The “new” criminal groups have dramatically increased their recruitment. According to one displaced person in San Onofre, “many of the demobilized paramilitaries returned to their ranks. Of the young men from our neighborhood, we estimate that around 20 have gone with them.” In San Onofre, members of these armed groups will sit in the park and offer 1,000,000 pesos (about US$400) to join their group. It is tempting for these young men and women to join the emerging groups – especially those who are displaced, unemployed and living in extreme poverty. If accepted, the new “member” is given a motorcycle, a gun, a salary, and a sense of purpose.

Lack of legal employment opportunities play a role in the success rate of recruitment, a problem to which the governor of Sucre alluded. He told us, “All of the dead and arrested are displaced persons. The problem is that the government doesn’t give them an employment option, or an alternative. Therefore the displaced are using weapons as a machine of their work. The governor suggested few solutions, however, and he said he has heard no complaints about social leaders or victims’ organizations receiving threats.

Lack of state presence and basic services

For a region near major cities that has been settled for centuries, the communities of Montes de María have a striking lack of government presence. This is a factor of a lack of political will and insufficient resources, themselves often a result of local corruption. We heard indications of a general mistrust in local institutions, complaints about public access to health care and education, a lack of basic services such as potable water, electricity, tertiary roads and sewage outside of urban centers, and a police force that is unable to respond to crimes promptly, or at all.

Remnants of the only contact some campesinos have with local political leaders: campaign ads painted on their homes.

Many of the victims and displaced people we spoke to, especially in San Onofre, did not trust the local government, largely due to its recent history of working closely with paramilitaries. “We do not have the trust necessary to denounce the violence or threats made against us, therefore all of our complaints must be made at the national level in Bogotá,” we were told by one victim. “Paramilitarism is so much a part of the structure here that it is difficult to win, or even to speak out.”

The low level of confidence in the local government is also manifested through a weak police force. We were told that “the police are not carrying out their duties” by both community members and military authorities. The first group attributes this mainly to corruption of the police force via collaboration with narcotraffickers and emerging criminal groups, while the latter attributed it to a lack of resources, telling us that many police squads must patrol without police cars and must even hail taxis to take them to a crime scene. The governor of Sucre also said that while the national government recently dispatched 700 additional officers to the region, they still are unable to reach the rural areas, “where the majority of the violence is now occurring.”

As a result, the police often resort to calling the military to help them respond to crimes and violence. As Colonel Cardona explained the military’s role to us, it became clear that the military – with little guerrilla presence to confront in the region – is playing an ever-increasing police role. Marines are manning control points, gathering intelligence and soliciting arrest warrants. Colonel Cardona appeared frustrated that the military could not carry out arrests. “We were told that the problem of the [emerging] criminal groups is of the police, and that we can only intervene when their capacity is surpassed, but since the beginning the police have been overwhelmed.”

Weak (or non-existent) health and education

In San Onofre we heard complaints about the underfunded and understaffed condition of the public hospital in Sincelejo. We were told that the hospital only has five doctors, when at least 12 are needed, and that it does not even have an ambulance. According to one community member, “This is not due to a lack of resources, but to political corruption.” The community member continued, explaining that seventy percent of the hospital budget is to be allocated to the public facility and 30% to private clinics (GPS). However, those assembled alleged, the mayor’s brother runs the GPS in Sincelejo, and therefore it receives 70% of the budget, while the public hospital barely can afford to pay its staff – a strategy which some claimed is intended to shut down the public hospital in Sincelejo.

In the rural communities we visited, access to health is virtually non-existent. A complete lack of health clinics, doctors, and nurses in these rural areas results in the need to travel to Sincelejo – several hours without a private vehicle – when someone is injured or falls ill. The poor quality of the roads leading to these towns often means that a simple injury or sickness is a death sentence.

While there are some schools in some of the rural communities, their lack of resources results in a poor quality of education. The school in Macayepo does not even have a roof, according to one community member.

Lack of basic services

The lack of services means no potable water, sewage system or electricity in many of the rural communities, especially those above Macayepo in the mountains, where the “road” does not reach.

Delivery of basic services in these rural areas is the responsibility of the local government, which receives some funds for this purpose from the central government. These funds, themselves insufficient, frequently fail to reach their destination. As we were returning to Sincelejo after a day of meetings with rural communities, we made one final stop in Chinulito, a community that sits along the main coastal highway. Community members, along with the sergeant heading the local police detachment, told us of several unanswered petitions to the local government for basic services to reach this community.

They told us that resources for the community’s rebuilding had been stolen by local officials. They allege that the previous mayor of the municipality of which Chinulito is a part (Colosó), now in prison for ties to paramilitaries, stole hundreds of thousands of dollars of central government funds intended for the town. As a result, Chinulito remains without a decent school, health post or potable water. Chinulito is so close to the highway that these services would be easy to provide, yet the community appears just as neglected as those that sit two hours away up a dirt road.

The role of the Colombian armed forces

Behind the soccer goal is the Chinulito-El Carmen road that is being constructed by the Colombian Marines.

Perhaps due to the lack of state presence and civilian government political will in Montes de María, the Colombian armed forces are not just acting to secure the area, but they are also serving as the main “developers.” The military is working with some communities to create a “census” of their most immediate needs. They then take this list to other government ministries and petition for health, education, roads and other services. (This process is a bit more formal – though incipient – in the four municipalities where the CCAI is operating. More on that in the next post.)

Currently, as part of the “Integrated Action” effort, the marine corps (Infantería de Marina) is building the first east-west paved road in Montes de María, which will connect El Carmen to Chinulito. The route, which exists as a dirt road in severe disrepair, will be paved and have multiple bridges over the winding Macayepo River.

Colonel Cardona was quite pleased with this project, indicating that the military hopes to take part in more development projects in the future. When asked why the military should play such an important role in development, he responded that using soldiers for labor is cheaper: the Montes de María highway, he said, is being built for “40 percent less money” than civilian projects contracted out by the country’s road institute. As a result, he continued, “the goal of the military is to eventually carry out projects such as helping to build roads, instead of being in this conflict. Each brigade wants to add a battalion of engineers to carry out constructions such as these.”

In the region, however, we heard complaints that the El Carmen-Chinulito road-building project is being carried out inefficiently, with antiquated equipment and inexperienced military engineers.

The problem of land

The lack of state presence and political will is a major obstacle in achieving a principal stated goal for CCAI in the region: the return of displaced communities. We visited rural communities whose residents said they have not been visited by a state official in years – other than during election season, when someone shows up to paint a campaign slogan on some houses in the community. While the governor of Sucre told us that he did not have the resources to carry out projects for rural dwellers, officials at the CCAI in Bogotá suggested that he did.

Another obstacle for CCAI in Montes de María will be to change the attitudes of local political leaders. According to one staffer at the “Fusion Center” in Cartagena, “The major challenge is to sit down with the political class. The problem is not how to build the road for the community, it is how to change the attitude of the people.” This may be the greatest challenge, as it requires taking on not only the issue of corruption, but also the perhaps even thornier issue of land tenure.

The problem of land distribution in Colombia is not a recent one, nor is it simple. Many scholars cite it as one of the major factors behind the continuation of the conflict. Yet a chief goal of CCAI in Montes de María – the return of displaced communities to their land – will require officials to take on the land problem energetically. What we saw and heard in the region, however, indicates that this will be a monumental task.

CCAI, supported by the Colombian Armed Forces, is conducting a campaign to convince campesinos not to sell their land. However, this does nothing to address the conditions leading them to sell in the first place. When asked who is selling their land, Father Rafael Castillo, of the Montes de María Peace and Development Foundation, listed off characteristics: “campesinos in debt, campesinos without access to credit, campesinos who do not want to return, relatives of those campesinos who have lost their love of the land, and threatened campesinos.”

The situation is worsened by the quality of land in Montes de María (some of the most fertile in Colombia), its proximity to major cities, or a widespread belief that the region has potential for oil and mineral production. Large landowners, investors in “mega-projects” and foreign corporations are making very rapid land purchases in the newly guerrilla-free zone.

Many campesinos are selling their land as a result of the large debts they owe to INCODER, the state land-reform agency – a problem explained in the first post of this series. Large landowners and investors in mega-projects, such as African palm, bitter yucca (which produces starch and can be used for biofuels) and teak, are taking advantage of this situation and offering a price that will cover the farmer’s debt plus a little extra – an offer that, though below current market prices, many campesinos cannot refuse.

We were also told that when a small farmer refuses to sell his land, he risks eventually being forced off by a strategy known as “circling them out.” Basically, an investor buys up all the land around the farmer who does not want to leave, and cuts off his access to roads and services, leaving him no way to leave his land without “trespassing.” Another strategy described to us involves the large landowner allowing his animals to “accidentally” eat the small farmers’ crops.

Other campesinos are being “convinced” to join cooperatives to grow crops such as African palm and bitter yucca. The agreements bind the campesino to growing crops for biofuels on their land for twenty years, a period of time after which the once-fertile soil is depleated. Many community members we met in San Onofre expressed skepticism about these monocultural cooperatives, which they say worsens the problem of food security in the region.

In parts of El Carmen de Bolívar, where rumors are spreading that a large mining project is in the works, land is being bought up so quickly that the local government has had to place an embargo on more land sales.

However, even though the “land grab” taking place in Montes de María appears often to be illegal, due to the intricate problems of land titling, it is being carried out in a way that, by the standards of INCODER and the Ministry of Agriculture, appears to meet all procedural requirements for legality. “This theft of land is being legalized,” a Cartagena-based government official with land responsibilities explained to us.

However, when we asked local community leaders who was buying the land, we received responses ranging from “paisas” (large landholders from Antioquia department) to investors from a group calling itself the “Friends of Montes de María Foundation” to “we don’t know.”

Food security

The “transportation center” in Macayepo, where small farmers can rent burros to travel up the mountain to their plots of land.

Interviewees often alluded to the problem of food security, which promises to worsen as more and more land is bought up for large plantations of biofuel crops. As one leader put it, “the campesino land plot has a very important function: food security.” And that function is weakening.

Rural community members noted that the lack of transportation infrastructure makes it nearly impossible to get crops to market. In order to transport their products, small farmers must first make a long trip by burro to reach their land. They must use the same burro to haul the harvest down the mountain, either all the way to the highway or to a town along a rutted dirt road, like Macayepo, where groups of farmers will chip in to pay for a truck to carry their harvest the remaining distance. This is a lengthy and expensive strategy that leaves very little profit for the small farmers. The road being built through many of these communities will eventually help make this process more efficient, although most of Montes de María’s farmers cultivate land very far from this new road.


CCAI plans to support the return of displaced populations to their original communities in Montes de María. However, many obstacles remain in the way, some described above. We asked what people thought about the viability of return, and asked those who had returned about the problems they were facing. Some told us they did not want to return, others wanted to yet did not have the resources to make the move, while those who had already returned were struggling with virtually no state involvement or assistance.

It was common for government officials to tell us that people did not want to return. Yet from our conversations, it seems that some of those who say they do not want to return now, would do so if the local government provided the basic services necessary for their return to be viable. In San Onofre, these demands included security, roads, rebuilt houses, and basic services, which were referred to as “the basic conditions of dignity.” Because these conditions were not present, many of those we spoke to in San Onofre said they would not return.

Evidence of new life emerges alongside abandoned homes as some of the displaced begin to return.

Another element that must exist in order for displaced persons to return is education. In many cases, males are returning to farm their land, leaving their families behind in towns and cities so that their children can go to school – an opportunity that does not exist in rural communities.

We were also told that many displaced persons fear returning, especially through a program run by the local government or military, since they saw few guarantees that they would not be displaced again by violence. This fear resonated in many of the meetings we held. People were wary of working with the state without a guarantee that the program would continue for more than two years, for fear of retaliation from illegal armed groups once the state – in their view, inevitably – disappears.

The rural communities we visited were scarcely populated by displaced persons who had returned on their own initiative – perhaps 20 to 25 percent of the original pre-2000 population. These community members felt empowered to do things on their own, and noted that “we couldn’t sit back and wait for someone from Bogotá to come help us.”

Not only have they returned to cultivate their land and continue with their lives, but they have initiated efforts to educate about democracy and human rights, and to work to keep the youth from being enticed by violence. However, the basic disrepair of their houses and the lack of basic services indicated the need for a great deal more assistance from the local government. They cannot do this alone, in a vacuum.


A main goal of CCAI in Montes de María, as presented to us at the Cartagena Fusion Center, is the return of displaced people and victims to their communities and the creation of a political pact between the community and the local government. However, we learned that some huge hurdles stand in the way of actually achieving this goal. Emerging criminal groups threaten human rights and victims’ leaders, land is an incredibly sticky subject, and true buy-in and support from the local government are far from guaranteed.

We were struck by how differently the government and military talked about the Montes de María, compared to the descriptions offered by those who live there. Government and military officials said the zone was secure and that there were almost no reports of murders of victims’ leaders, or even threats. They told us that people were not returning because they are content with their lives in the urban centers, and that those who are getting killed or threatened are the “bad guys.” It is true that many displaced campesinos do not want to return to their communities because, after eight or nine years, they are now used to living in cities and towns. However, if access to health, education, and a sustainable livelihood existed in their original communities, we were assured that far more of the pre-2000 population of Montes de María would gladly return to their land.

Jul 29

This is the first of a few posts that will look at U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” or “CCAI” programs in the Montes de María region of Colombia, just south of Cartagena near the central Caribbean coast.  These programs, which combine military and development assistance with the goal of “consolidating” government control of territory, are being billed as the future direction of U.S. assistance to Colombia.

U.S. support for this model has so far been concentrated in two zones: the Serranía de La Macarena region in Meta, about 150 miles south of Bogotá in Meta department; and – as of early this year – the Montes de María. We visited La Macarena in April and wrote about it in May. We visited Montes de María during the week of July 6-10.

This post gives a brief overview of the region, its recent history and current challenges. Subsequent posts will discuss the new aid program itself in more detail.

To the south of Cartagena, a port city of a million people, Colombia’s northern coast curves into a north-south line, with the Caribbean off to the west. Go a few miles inland and the land rises into a low mountain range, the Montes de María.

The surrounding region, 15 municipalities (counties) in the departments of Sucre and Bolívar, has some of the best land in the country. Farmers tell visitors that they don’t even need to use fertilizer, and that avocado trees, if left untended, grow wild and produce more than can be brought to market.

The zone is strategic, as it is rugged terrain, with lots of hiding places, sitting right between nearby coca-producing zones and the Caribbean Sea. While the Montes de María is not a coca-growing area, the Gulf of Morrosquillo, a bay scooped out of the coast south of San Onofre, has long been a jumping-off point for boats carrying tons of cocaine every year.

On either of two good highways, the Montes de María are a less than two-hour drive from Cartagena, Colombia’s fifth-largest city. Four hundred years ago, when Cartagena was one of the Spanish empire’s principal slave-trading ports, the region’s jungles and mountains were just far enough away for escaped slaves to hide. In fortified towns, or palenques, they resisted, maintained many west African customs, and became the Montes de María’s first non-indigenous settlers.

Most (though not all) palenques eventually fell to the Spaniards, who divided up land among themselves in enormous estates. Ever since, landholding in the Montes de María – as in much of Colombia’s north coast region – has been highly unequal. Agriculture has been the main economic activity, and small farming has been the norm, but most farmers have been tenants on vast tracts of land, in many cases owned by wealthy families who live in Cartagena or elsewhere.

Unequal landholding made the Montes de María a center of campesino protest in the 1970s, when a national movement, the National Association of Campesinos (ANUC), pressured for land reform with “invasions” of estates and other tactics. As a result, the Colombian government’s usually inactive land-reform agency, INCORA (since renamed INCODER), bought land from wealthy landholders in the 197os and 1980s and distributed it to thousands of families in the region, in most cases requiring them to borrow money to pay 30 percent of the sale price.

This was only a very partial reform, however, and large estates and tenant farming remain the norm in the Montes de María. This fertile region’s population is extremely poor: at least two-thirds subsist below the poverty line.  Though a relatively dense rural population has been there for generations, government neglect and absence are severe: alhough two highways run north-south from Cartagena, secondary and tertiary roads are very few, and most villages are still unserved by electricity or potable water.

As might be expected of a mountainous, strategically located region with a poor, aggrieved population, the Montes de María quickly fell under the control of leftist guerrilla groups in the 1970s. The FARC set up two fronts (35th and 37th), the ELN established its “Jaime Bateman Cayón” Bloc, and a smaller group, the Revolutionary Army of the Poor (ERP), was also active. All groups heavily extorted large landowners, charged levies on small businesses, kidnapped for ransom, and disrupted road traffic, including cargo moving between Medellín and Cartagena.

The 1970s and 1980s also saw narcotraffickers move into the area, buying up land and competing for control of lucrative routes for transshipping cocaine to the Caribbean. Figures from Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel were no strangers to the Montes de María; it was in Tolú, just south of San Onofre, where in December 1989 police pursued and killed one of Escobar’s most powerful lieutenants, Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, alias “El Mexicano.”

Rodrigo Mercado, alias “Cadena” (source).

From the 1980s on, narcotraffickers and large landowners organized small “self-defense” militias to protect them from the guerrillas. These militias carried out occasional executions and massacres of civilians, but posed little threat to the guerrillas’ domination of the region. That changed in the late 1990s, when the first national paramilitary network, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), expanded from its original strongholds just to the west, the department of Córdoba and the area around the Gulf of Urabá. Colombia’s Security and Democracy Foundation explains (PDF):

In 1997 there was a meeting between members of local elites and [Córdoba-based AUC leader] Salvatore Mancuso, where it was decided that they would form a self-defense group, which would start to operate with financing from payments made by landowners and cattlemen. Also, one must not lose sight of the influence of narcotrafficking on this dynamic.

The “Heroes of Montes de María” paramilitary bloc was born. Its three best-known leaders were Rodrigo Mercado, alias “Cadena” (”Chain,” who has disappeared, either dead or, as some insist, a fugitive); Edward Cobo Téllez, alias “Diego Vecino” (participating in the Justice and Peace process and requested in extradition by the United States earlier this month); and Húbert Bánquez, alias “Juancho Dique” (participating in the Justice and Peace process).

IMG_3267Montes de Maria trip - Colombia - July 2009
Detail of a “memory quilt” sewn by massacre victims, shown to us in San Onofre.

Starting in 1999, this paramilitary bloc launched one of the bloodiest campaigns in Colombia’s history, almost entirely directed at the smallholding campesinos who inhabited the guerrilla-controlled territories of the Montes de María. 1999 and 2000 alone saw 75 massacres, making notorious the names of small villages like El Salado, Chengue, Macayepo and Mampuján. More than 3,000 people were killed or disappeared, many buried in mass graves. More than 20,000 families – nearly 100,000 people – were displaced by the violence between 1996 and 2000, according to official data, many of them filling up the rapidly growing slums ringing nearby cities like Cartagena and Sincelejo.

The paramilitaries counted on generous support from local leaders. Sucre was one of the first to be hit by the “para-politics” scandal, which consumed the department’s political class. Reports the excellent Verdad Abierta (Open Truth) website:

In Sucre’s “para-politics” scandal, a total of 35 politicians have been investigated or tried for their ties with paramilitaries. 8 ex-mayors, 7 ex-councilmen, 1 ex-departmental legislator, 3 ex-governors, 3 ex-representatives to Congress and 3 senators elected for the 2006-2010 term, and 2 mayors and 5 councilmen elected in 2007.

Former Senator Álvaro García (source).

Evidence indicates that Senator Álvaro García even helped the “Heroes of Montes de María” bloc to plot the October 2000 Macayepo massacre.

The region’s security is primarily the responsibility of the 1st Brigade of Colombia’s Marines, a division of the Navy. At the time of the paramilitary onslaught, the brigade was commanded by Gen. Rodrigo Quiñónez, a now-retired officer who remains one of those most severely questioned by human rights groups. In a January 2001 front-page story on the Chengue massacre, the Washington Post questioned Quiñónez’s role.

Human rights officials say the described events resemble those surrounding the massacre last year in El Salado. Gen. Rodrigo Quinones [sic.] was the officer in charge of the security zone for Chengue and El Salado at that time, and remained in that post in the months leading up to the Chengue massacre. … El Salado survivors said a military plane and helicopter flew over the village the day of the massacre, and that at least one wounded militiaman was transported from the site by military helicopter. Soldiers under Quinones’s command sealed the village for days, barring even Red Cross workers from entering.

By 2002, security conditions in the Montes de María were so poor that newly inaugurated President Álvaro Uribe imposed virtual martial law in the region in September, declaring it one of two special “Zones of Rehabilitation and Consolidation” with a highly concentrated military presence, a military census of the population, and controls over road travel, among other measures. (The other designated zone was the oil-producing department of Arauca in northeastern Colombia.) The special “zone” status ended in April 2003, after Colombia’s Constitutional Court struck it down.

The increased state presence brought the region’s violence down a bit from its horrific 2000-2001 peak. The cease-fire that the AUC declared at the end of 2002, as it entered into negotiations with the Colombian government, also reduced the frequency of the paramilitaries’ violent actions in the region, though leaders like “Cadena” and “Diego Vecino,” along with their partners in Sucre’s political class, continued to exercise great power, even as their armed structure entered into a demobilization process that culminated in a July 2005 ceremony in which 594 members of the “Heroes of Montes de María” bloc turned in weapons.

Col. Rafael Colón (source).

The paramilitaries saw their power much more effectively reduced, and the region saw its security improve greatly, after the 2004 arrival of a much different officer at the Marine command once occupied by the notorious Gen. Quiñónez. Col. Rafael Colón had lost a relative to paramilitary violence, and during his two years at the head of the 1st Marine Brigade he ordered his troops to carry out a campaign against the paramilitaries. Reports the Security and Democracy Foundation (PDF):

The Navy carried out a series of operations that impacted the structures and finances of the self-defense groups. A series of searches, surveillance and intelligence operations allowed 3.5 tons of cocaine to be interdicted in the Gulf of Morrosquillo in less than a year. The first captures also occurred, among them that of El Oso, one of Cadena’s right-hand men. …

But Cadena had amassed such power that, faced with the offensive directed by Col. Rafael Colón, the commander of the Marines’ 1st Brigade, many of his political allies, influential personalities in the life of Sucre, began to ask through various channels that Colón be removed from the zone. According to [the weekly newsmagazine] Semana, they complained that the Navy only attacked the AUC and not the FARC – an argument that sought to decrease the pressure on the paramilitaries. Despite these demands, Colón stayed in the zone and the operations against the self-defense groups continued, which generated enough confidence that the local population began to denounce the abuses suffered under Cadena.

With the paramilitaries actually on the run from the security forces – a situation, sadly, not typical in most regions of Colombia, then or now – their victims became more vocal and organized. In the town of San Onofre, where Cadena based his operations at a huge farm called “El Palmar,” dozens of witnesses began to come forward revealing the locations of mass graves dug by the paramilitaries. Hundreds of bodies were found, and by 2005 San Onofre almost came to be synonymous with mass graves in the international media.

Alias “Martín Caballero” (source).

In 2006 and 2007, the armed forces dealt blows to the reduced number of FARC guerrillas who, weakened by the paramilitary onslaught, remained in the highest and remotest reaches of the Montes de María. An operation at the very end of 2006 allowed the escape of a Cartagena politician whom the FARC had held hostage since 2000; shortly afterward, President Uribe named Fernando Araújo to the post of foreign minister, where he remained for nearly a year and a half. In October 2007, a military operation in El Carmen de Bolívar killed Gustavo Rueda Díaz, alias “Martín Caballero,” the commander of the 37th Front and probably the most powerful FARC leader remaining in Colombia’s Caribbean.

Today, the guerrilla presence in Montes de María is negligible. During our July visit to the zone, we heard estimates of the FARC presence in the Montes de María today ranging from zero to 40 members, perhaps with several dozen undercover militia members. However, we heard rumors of a guerrilla attempt to regroup and to forcibly recruit campesinos – including children – in some of the zone’s most isolated corners.

For their part, the paramilitaries are less visible and less lethal, but they are very much present in the Montes de María, albeit in their fragmented, post-AUC incarnation. Groups include the Águilas Negras (Black Eagles, who have emerged in several regions of the country), the Paisas (a band that originated in the Medellín drug underworld), and the remnants of the paramilitaries organized by “Don Mario” (Daniel Rendón, a former AUC figure and narcotrafficker whom police captured in April). These groups are heavily armed and recruiting rapidly, though they rarely wear uniforms and often resemble urban gangs more than armies. For the most part, their leaders are former mid-level commanders who served under AUC leaders extradited to the United States since May 2008, and who are now competing to fill the vacuum.

Their principal motivation is narcotrafficking. The cocaine transshipment routes through the Montes de María continue to be much coveted, and violence is actually increasing as these “new” paramilitary bands fight each other to control them. The governor of Sucre, Jorge Barraza, told us that 106 people were murdered in his department during the first six months of 2009 – more than double the 49 killed during the same period in 2008. Fighting between “new” paramilitary groups was the principal cause.

Montes de Maria trip - Colombia - July 2009
Abandoned church in Macayepo.

Victims’ group leaders told us that, more than 3 years since the “para-politics” scandal first hit Sucre, many of the region’s mayors and councilmen maintain ties of corruption with the paramilitaries. The leaders also told us that in the first half of 2009 they suffered an increase in threats from the groups, particularly the “Águilas Negras,” in retaliation for their efforts to recover property, denounce corruption, and uncover the truth about what happened to their loved ones. Worsening threats forced Íngrid Vergara, an outspoken local leader in the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes, to leave the zone in late June. The Verbel family, featured in a 2005 New York Times story about San Onofre due to their leading role in organizing victims, continues to live under constant threat, with some members in hiding.

On balance, though, security in the Montes de María is better than it was in the 1990s and the early 2000s. As a result, the value of the region’s fertile land is skyrocketing. A hectare (2.5 acres) of land that would have sold for 200,000 pesos (US$90) in 2001 is worth at least 4 million pesos (US$1,800) today. Author and El Espectador columnist Alfredo Molano, writing late last year, described a phenomenon that we heard about in almost every encounter during our time in the region.

For the past several months, strange personalities have come to the towns of the Montes de María in bulletproof Hummers to negotiate land purchases. (Hummers are combat vehicles from the Gulf War, today sold commercially and hated by environmentalists for the very high levels of pollution that they produce.) That is, they come to buy, at a low cost, small properties that have been foreclosed upon by the banks or by businesses. Or because they like to have their pistols seen and they don’t hide their bodyguards. Campesinos who have managed to come out of the war alive, or who have returned after being displaced to other cities, are the first ones obligated to sell.

We heard that, in fact, threats against those who refuse to sell are relatively rare (though they do happen). Instead, landholders – especially those who received their titles from the INCORA land redistributions of the 1970s and 1980s – are either being enticed to sell by the attractiveness of the prices they are being offered, or – far more sinister – are selling because they cannot pay their mortgages after years of displacement from the zone. (Displaced people are supposed to have their debts frozen, but due to the bureaucratic difficulty of registering promptly as a displaced person, and the lack of communication between the parts of the government responsible for displacement and debt, this has offered little protection.) As a result, a wealthy land-buyer need only offer an indebted displaced person enough money to pay their remaining mortgage, plus perhaps several hundred extra dollars, to seal the deal.

The new buyers – almost universally referred to as “paisas,” or landowners from Antioquia, the wealthy department of which Medellín is the capital – are buying up small plots at a blistering pace. In the municipality of Ovejas, Sucre, El Tiempo reported in March, “Last year more than 3,000 hectares were sold, an amount that exceeds by more than 50 percent that municipality’s earlier annual average. The mayor, Antonio García, admits that people from the interior, especially Antioquia, came to buy at very low prices, taking advantage of the campesinos’ fear of returning to their farms.” The buying frenzy has reached the point where some local authorities are trying to implement a freeze on land purchases; in an August 2008 “town meeting” in San Juan Nepomuceno, Bolívar, President Uribe himself exhorted the local citizenry, “Don’t sell your land!”

In the midst of this improved security and huge sell-off, a few people displaced in the 1999-2002 period are returning to their land. Many more have not: some are now accustomed to life in the cities, while others are semi-displaced, working their land during the day but traveling hours to sleep at night in urban areas. We visited a few towns that had been emptied by mass displacements in 2000 – Chinulito, El Aguacate, Macayepo – and were told that perhaps one-fifth or one-quarter of the population had returned to their abandoned plots. Some had periodically returned to maintain their farms, while others came back after seven or eight years to find their plots completely overgrown and their houses empty shells.

With less violence has come more foreign assistance. Supported by Sweden, Spain and the Netherlands, the UN Development Program has implemented a project called Redes (Networks), which since 2003 has sought to improve local governance and support civil-society organizations, combining local conflict resolution and economic development. Redes assisted the creation of the Montes de María Peace and Development Network, a regional effort with heavy church involvement. The Network adapts the model of reconciliation and income generation first carried out in the Magdalena Medio region in north-central Colombia, where the Magdalena Medio Development and Peace Project has functioned since the mid-1990s.

The Montes de María Peace and Development Network, in turn, is the principal partner of, and executor of projects for, the “Laboratory of Peace,” the framework through which the European Commission provides much of its assistance to Colombia, with a principal focus on assisting civil society. Montes de María was designated the site of the third such “Laboratory” in 2005; funds started to flow in 2007. The plan is to invest about 24 million euros in Montes de María and Meta over five years, of which about 14 million would go to the Montes de María.

In 2007, the Montes de María also became one of the regions chosen as a focus for the Center for the Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI), the Colombian government’s military-civilian strategy, developed with heavy U.S. input, for bringing the government into zones where it is largely missing. The CCAI activities in the region were coordinated out of an office that by 2008 was being called a “Fusion Center.” The office’s head was Col. Rafael Colón, the marine officer who had won reknown for confronting the paramilitaries. The Center declared one of its main objectives to be assisting the return of displaced communities.

It also sought to involve the military in many traditionally civilian service projects, including an east-west road passing through the heart of the Montes de María between Chinulito and El Carmen de Bolívar, the first paved road to connect the two north-south highways that pass through the region. As Alfredo Molano noted in December 2008, “The military has begun to contract all infrastructure projects with the civilian sector, such as roads, bridges, schools, or medical centers; to carry out health-care brigades; to organize campesino associations; to entertain the campesinos with a traveling circus; and, though it may surprise the country, to give human rights workshops.”

In June 2008 Col. Colón, speaking before a gathering of 350 victims of the violence at an event organized by the NGO Redepaz in El Carmen de Bolívar, publicly begged the victims’ pardon for the Marines’ inaction during the worst years of the paramilitary slaughter. After delivering his remarks, Colón told El Tiempo, “If massacres were committed in Macayepo, Chengue and El Salado, and the victims demand that all institutions beg forgiveness, it is natural for me to tell them that, if for some reason, those massacres were committed due to carelessness or lack of attention on the part of state institutions, then I ask their pardon with much fervor and feeling.” Col. Colon was immediately rebuked by his superiors, and shortly afterward was relieved of the directorship of the Montes de María “Fusion Center” and sent to what El Tiempo called “an overseas military commission.” (Colón was promoted to the rank of general at the end of 2008, but has not returned to a post with responsibility for the Montes de María.)

The Fusion Center, based in an office building in Cartagena, is now under the command of a civilian, Juan Carlos Vargas. Inaugurated in its new location in early 2009, it has now become a focus of U.S. assistance to the “Integrated Action” or CCAI model.

Let’s leave the narrative here. The next post on this topic will look at what the Fusion Center plans to do in Montes de María, and how it differs from what we saw in La Macarena in April.

Jul 13

We got back from Colombia on Saturday. Between meetings and a bursting e-mail inbox, it may be a few more days before I post any substantial entries to this blog.

In the meantime, here is another video from last week in Colombia. 1:20 of footage of some of the houses abandoned in 2000 after the paramilitaries swept through the town of Chinulito, Sucre, which sits right on the main highway between the cities of Cartagena and Sincelejo.

Now that security conditions have improved, about one-quarter of the families who displaced from the area have returned. But most of the homes are still empty shells, a very stark image of what forced displacement looks like.

I apologize for the clumsy improvised narration, which ends up adding little. Also, the road goes east from Chinulito, not south as I say here. No chance for a second take, obviously.

Abandoned homes in Chinulito from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

Jul 10

Hi from Sincelejo, the capital of the department of Sucre, Colombia. We’ve had several tremendous days of interviews and site visits in the Montes de María region, which was hit hard by the conflict in the early 2000s and which is now increasingly a focus for U.S.-supported “integrated action” programs. Today we go to Montería, Córdoba, and then back to Washington.

Here’s a 100-second video I recorded from the back of a pickup truck on the road between Macayepo and Chinulito, both of them sites of massacres in 2000, and both of them experiencing a partial return of displaced people.

Some of you may recognize Nancy Sánchez of the Colombian human rights group MINGA (winner of the Institute for Policy Studies’ 2003 Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award). It may appear that I have Nancy in an affectionate embrace; actually, I’m clinging desperately with my free hand to the roof of the truck in order to avoid flying out. The road is in terrible condition.

On the road between Macayepo and Chinulito from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

On the road between Macayepo and Chinulito from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

Jun 10

This is the final “Integrated Action” post for now. I know it’s a bit long for the blog format. If you haven’t been following these programs in detail, it may even seem a bit boring. But these posts are helping us to process our own ideas and to engage in more conversations as we try to figure out what to make of these programs. And since we’re really looking at what may be the future of U.S. aid to Colombia, it is important that we get this right. Thanks for your patience.

This is the third of three posts presenting initial impressions of Colombia’s “Integrated Action” strategy and programs. (Here are the first and second posts.) These programs are being billed as the model for much future U.S. assistance to Colombia.

This post offers some initial conclusions and observations based on what we’ve seen and heard so far after a few months of documentary research and interviews, and a late April trip to the “Integrated Action” zone in Vistahermosa, Meta. We plan on traveling to another zone, carrying out more interviews, and publishing a fuller evaluation in September.

Again, these are preliminary conclusions. The caveats laid out in the first post in this series fully apply.

Our first conclusion is that, in its present form, Integrated Action is a mostly military endeavor.

The Colombian government’s new strategy is being billed as a “whole of government approach.” It is meant to have a civilian component from the very beginning, and it envisions the armed forces becoming almost a junior partner by its latter stages, when the state presence is “consolidated.”

So far, however, the armed forces are playing a dominant role. This is so even though the Center for the Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI) is located within a civilian agency, the Colombian Presidency’s Agency for Social Action (Acción Social). In the regions where the strategy is being executed, a clear majority of personnel involved are Defense Ministry personnel: uniformed military and police.

There is ample evidence of the military’s predominance.

The security forces make up the bulk of management positions in the Center for the Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI) structure.

As mentioned in the first post in this series, a March 2009 presidential directive (PDF) establishes a CCAI “Directive Council” (Consejo Directivo), sort of like a board of directors, to guide the effort. Four of this council’s six members come from one of the state security forces.

  • [x] Minister of Defense
  • [x] Commander-General of the Armed Forces
  • [x] Director-General of the Police
  • [x] Director of the Administrative Department for Security (DAS) in the Presidency
  • [ ] High Counselor of Social Action in the Presidency
  • [ ] Prosecutor-General [Fiscal General]

The military is performing duties that normally correspond to civilians, particularly development and humanitarian programs.

As Semana magazine noted in a recent article praising the model, “While the consolidation strategy is civilian, the military has a protagonistic role, from the engineer battalions that build highways, to the support for other Social Action tasks like the distribution of food and seeds.”

Military engineers are carrying out the bulk of construction projects in the CCAI zones. Juan Manuel Santos offered examples in early May, shortly before leaving his post as defense minister.

“Between 2009 and 2010, military engineers will spend the equivalent of more than 30 million dollars to build such important roads as the Montes de María Transversal [near the Caribbean coast, in the departments of Sucre and Bolívar] or road-paving in La Uribe [Meta] in the former demilitarized zone, a symbolic deed of greatest importance.”

The military’s role extends to heavy participation in, or even coordination of, meetings with communities to discuss development needs. “The military, including Southern Command, meets with communities, offering [productive] projects,” a community leader told me, as others nodded. “They’re involving the civilian population in a military dynamic.”

In fact, one of these programs’ key stated goals is to build communities’ relationships with the military, rather than having the military create the security conditions necessary to allow communities to relate to the civilian part of the government. “Since the last reporting period,” notes a 2008 field report from USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives, “target communities increasingly have been willing to accept assistance with their commitments from the military. This growing willingness demonstrates an increasing level of confidence in the military, and the cooperation this confidence generates is making these relationships even stronger.”

This high degree of military participation is probably not due to any military “power grab,” nor is it necessarily a result of the Uribe government’s evident predilection for military solutions.

First, the model originated with the military. As noted in the first post, the Integrated Action concept and the CCAI came from a series of discussions between Colombia’s Defense Ministry and U.S. Southern Command. This is naturally a recipe for a militaristic model. Beyond moving the model into the Social Action agency, it is not clear how much more has been done to “socialize” it among the civilian sectors of the government. Clearly, though, giving civilian agencies and ministries more of a leadership role than they have now would increase their sense of “buy-in.”

Second, due to security concerns, the military has to predominate during the plan’s earliest phases. If illegal armed groups are still present in large numbers, and killing people, in the zone, then it is hard to argue against a very strong role for the security forces.

Juan Manuel Santos had a point when he wrote in 2007,

“Finding the right balance between military and social effort remains difficult. Our experience has shown that without minimum security conditions, social efforts are fruitless. For that reason, the first advance is military. … [T]he military must establish the first strategy for consolidation which can be supported later by social activities.”

However, anyone who thinks that the main goal should be state-building and economic development may have trouble swallowing the rest of Santos’ argument: “Military criteria must continue to be the genesis of the consolidation. Selecting regions for consolidation must be based on a military strategy that will destabilize enemy plans and positions.”

Security concerns are helping to keep this a military-centered program. My strong impression from what I have seen so far is that the entire program is still in an incipient phase, with security conditions far from established outside of a few small town centers.

It is impressive that the effort has brought security to the town centers of the Vistahermosa / La Macarena zone, particularly the municipal “county seats.” These towns spent decades under uncontested FARC domination, and now they bear virtually no evidence of guerrilla presence.

But while efforts are ongoing to secure rural areas, this is proving to be very difficult. The security situation outside of the towns appears to be very precarious. The degree of FARC activity in rural zones was greater than I’d been led to believe by some of the triumphal rhetoric coming out of the Defense Ministry and the U.S. government. A few examples of that rhetoric:

  • Juan Manuel Santos, in May of this year: “[T]hese regions, which used to be refuges for terrorism and narcotrafficking, have been recovered for peace.”
  • And in February: “The people now reject the FARC in all of its manifestations, defend the state and support the security forces. They are seeing that after being submitted for so long to the FARC’s violence, now, hand-in-hand with the state, progress and development are arriving.”
  • USAID, in mid-2008: “Because of improvements in the security situation, which have come about much faster than anticipated, the consolidation effort is seeing opportunities in transition zones that are proving relatively secure but where a State presence is practically absent. Communities that were controlled by the FARC and dedicated to coca production 6 months ago now find that the Colombian military is providing security, and that coca production is no longer an option.”

To the contrary, the guerrillas were so active near Vistahermosa’s town center that, as discussed in this series’ second post, road travel was thoroughly discouraged. The Fusion Center territory’s rural zone was not what the development community calls a “permissive environment.”

U.S. documents quietly acknowledge that security remains a big issue. USAID recognized in a mid-2008 report, “Although the security situation is improving, it continues to complicate staff travel and program logistics.” That clearly remains the case. Reporting in October, the Government Accountability Office noted that security concerns in the rural zones are very real: “Security remains a primary concern for CCAI because it operates in areas where illegal armed groups are present. For example, CCAI representatives in La Macarena do not travel outside of a 5-kilometer radius of the city center due to security concerns.”

Among those with whom I spoke, there seemed to be a consensus that guerrilla activity in the area began to increase in March 2009. “The guerrillas are reactivating” was how one leader in Puerto Toledo put it. March 2009 was the one-year anniversary of the death of “Manuel Marulanda,” the guerrillas’ co-founder and longtime leader, and two other FARC secretariat members in unrelated incidents. As USAID put it: “The FARC called for a ‘Black March’ to commemorate the deaths and demonstrate its continued relevance after a year of setbacks. … There was an uptick in FARC activities throughout the country.”

In addition, a large-scale effort to capture or kill top-ranking FARC leader Jorge Briceño (a.k.a. “El Mono Jojoy”) has been ongoing on the western edge of the La Macarena zone. FARC activity may be increasing elsewhere in the zone because fronts have been pushed out of – or trying to draw troops away from – the area of heaviest combat.

Local leaders and human rights defenders told me of an increase in the guerrillas’ recruitment of children in the area. The local FARC fronts, they said, have lowered their recruiting age and are now taking away children as young as 9 years old. This, they said, is a reaction to blows the FARC have received from army. Also, the guerrillas consider children to be easier to control.” Guerrillas are “constantly present in schools” in the zone, and parents are pulling their children out of school in order to avoid their recruitment. (On the other hand, I was told of a heartbreakingly grim scenario: parents whose crops were fumigated and are going hungry will make the painful decision to hand their children over to the guerrillas or paramilitaries so that their kids may have enough food to eat. I got no sense of how common this is.)

It is impossible to determine with certainty whether the guerrilla presence in the Vistahermosa – La Macarena zone is a fading but lingering phenomenon, or whether the guerrillas are still the dominant force beyond the town centers. What is certain, though, is that the FARC’s influence has not been reduced to such an extent that the local population has been able to lose its fear of retribution for participating in “Integrated Action” program. The International Crisis Group, citing “local sources in Meta,” wrote in March that “some communities remain apprehensive about a FARC resurgence should the government fail to keep the CCAI promise of permanent presence.” In rural areas, where that presence does not reliably penetrate, the apprehension is even greater.

For their part, USAID and its contractors face their own security challenge: the imperative that they not appear to be participants in an ongoing military operation. A 2007 USAID document recognized the need to maintain some separation from the Colombian military effort, but then went on to say, in as many words, that USAID is there to support the Colombian military.

“The program needs, for security reasons, to maintain a credible space between program field staff and the Colombian military—while at the same time publicly including the military in the process as a representative of the State at events ranging from municipal assemblies to public inaugurations. Coming to a joint understanding on this point has required time and tact, but the process has helped build a strong positive relationship between the program and the Colombian military.”

A church official working in the zone was not convinced that USAID has maintained a credible distance from the military effort. “For us, USAID and Southern Command are the same thing,” he said matter-of-factly.

Beyond the security situation, there is another compelling explanation for the overwhelmingly military nature of Integrated Action so far: the lack of civilian government presence in the region to play the roles that a civilian government must play, and provide the services that civilians are expected to provide.

Many of the non-military institutions that are supposed to be governing neglected rural areas are not stepping up quickly. “[T]he civilian component of the state response can be slow and inefficient,” USAID acknowledges.

“It is apparent that administrative rigidity is a factor hindering the GOC’s ability to respond rapidly to opportunities as they arise. Difficulties arising in the transition zones provide clear examples. This rigidity is the consequence of 1) the normal bureaucratic processes inherent in any democratic government; 2) a history of corruption that has spawned layers of processes to combat that corruption; and 3) a political culture that is accustomed to using administrative infractions to punish political opponents. This rigidity manifests as an institutional reluctance to try anything outside of the clearly defined administrative box. To address this inflexibility, a “comfort zone” needs to be established where GOC employees are allowed to take small chances and adapt procedures so that processes can move forward in the transition zones where rapid and flexible responses are required.”

Much of the problem is a simple lack of civilian capacity. Local governments, USAID argues, simply lack the experience and managerial know-how to “absorb” and carry out ambitious development programs. An additional challenge to working with mayors and governors – one which AID does not explicitly mention – is the possibility that they may face questions for past or ongoing relations with armed groups.

At the national level, capacities and even willingness to participate are uneven. Cabinet ministries and other civilian state entities whose presence would be needed have not all jumped aboard at the same rate.

It is too early in this study to grade civilian government agencies’ contributions in the Integrated Action zones, or to have taken into account all of the reasons for inability or reluctance to participate. But I note that I heard much praise for the National Park Service and the National Learning Service (SENA), and generalized concerns expressed about the Interior and Justice Ministry and the Agriculture Ministry. The latter is a particular concern because of its responsibility for land-titling, which has been proceeding with excruciating slowness.

The performance of the Presidency’s Social Action office – the civilian entity in charge of the CCAI – is more complicated, and we’re not yet ready to evaluate it. Some concerns I did hear about Acción Social include:

  • A sense that the handoff of control from the Defense Ministry is not yet consolidated, and that within the rest of the government, Defense continues to be a more energetic backer of the Integrated Action program than Acción Social, the nominal “owner” of the program.
  • A sense that Acción Social, as an entity with nationwide responsibilities centralized in the Presidency, is more inclined to devote resources to more populated areas where needs are more concentrated, such as the slums that surround Bogotá and other large cities.
  • A sense that Acción Social responds significantly to political criteria. Many of its programs, prominent among them “Families in Action” and “Forest-Warden Families,” are quite clientelistic, as they distribute cash subsidies to grateful poor people. Viewed through the lens of clientelism and seeking political support for the government in power, the sparsely populated Integrated Action zones would be a low priority. They have few voters.
  • This week the Presidency’s longtime high counselor for Social Action, Luis Alfonso Hoyos, announced that he is leaving his post to become Colombia’s ambassador to the OAS. Whether that is good news or bad news for the Integrated Action model is unclear at this point. Hoyos, however, was viewed by some of my interviewees as an official who still “needed convincing” about Integrated Action, which was one of many big-budget programs his office managed. If accurate, this could be a potential explanation for some of the civilian government’s past slowness to get fully involved.

Persistent problems with inter-agency coordination also explain some of the lack of civilian involvement. Though this is something that the CCAI and “fusion centers” are designed to overcome, it is not a trivial task to get agencies with little history of working together to do so in a part of the country where none of them have been present. This is “not something that’s rocket science, but it’s a very, very difficult thing to actually do,” Susan Reichle, the USAID mission chief in Colombia, told the Washington Post last month.

While poor coordination was a frequent complaint I heard, at this point I do not have a lot of specific examples to enumerate. I do have one, though: the National Parks relocation program discussed in the last Integrated Action post. If we were witnessing a situation of effective inter-agency coordination, we would not see a group of trained ecologists – however able and dedicated – finding themselves performing nearly all the planning and logistics for a mass relocation program, complete with community organization, housing construction, and administration of sophisticated productive development projects. While I admire the work they were doing, the lack of coordination that led them to be doing it virtually alone was troubling.

Another reason given for civilian agencies’ reluctance to plunge fully into the Integrated Action model is the lack of a legal framework to give the CCAI statutory authority and permanence. The CCAI is a presidential initiative, not a legally constituted entity of the Colombian government.

While the March 2009 decree addresses this deficiency somewhat, it may not be enough to convince key government ministries to devote a greater portion of their meager existing budgets to priority Integrated Action zones like Vistahermosa – La Macarena. Especially when the decree itself expires at the end of President Uribe’s term, about fourteen months from now.

As a result, while the CCAI headquarters in Bogotá is universally described as a small but efficient office staffed by dynamic young officials who believe in the joint mission, in some cases those officials are operating with little political and financial support from the ministries they represent.

Doubts about the program’s long-term sustainability are also a barrier to fuller civilian involvement. The March 2009 decree only “institutionalizes” the CCAI until August of 2010, when President Uribe leaves office (unless, of course, he doesn’t).

The sustainability of “Integrated Action” is also more immediately placed into question by the very recent exit from government of some of the doctrine’s main architects and advocates within the Colombian government.

Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos was a persistent backer of these programs, and even sought in March to re-brand them as part of a “Strategic Leap” (Salto Estratégico) to make the Colombian state’s presence more permanent in conflict zones. It seems odd to declare a “Strategic Leap” in March and leave your job in May. But that is what Santos did, leaving his post after nearly three years in order to clear the way for a possible presidential bid.

With him, as appears likely, may go Vice-Minister of Defense Sergio Jaramillo, who has been the most active proponent of the Integrated Action model within the government. Jaramillo, according to several accounts, is the official who has done most to cajole and convince recalcitrant government counterparts – both military and civilian – to back CCAI efforts. If Jaramillo leaves the government, it is not clear who will play the active salesman/manager role that had been his.

For all of these reasons, I have to conclude that at this point in its development, the Integrated Action programs are predominantly military. However, it would be unfair to accuse the military of being “unable to let go.” The security situation is more precarious than official statements indicate, and civilian agencies have been very slow to fulfill their proper roles.

While Integrated Action is “predominantly military,” it could just as fittingly be called “insufficiently civilian.”

A second conclusion is that important human rights concerns require attention. I heard troubling human rights complaints during my visit to the Vistahermosa-La Macarena zone. At this stage in our research, I have not been able to verify claims or make specific denunciations of abuses. But it is important to note some trends.

The main problem I heard about in the zone was forced displacement.

The emptiness of towns like Puerto Toledo and (I was told) some of the countryside owed in some part to the collapse of the coca economy. Many who grew or profited from coca in the zone have simply moved elsewhere.

But economics are not the only – and may not even be the main – reason why, as a Puerto Toledo community leader put it, “Many people have had to leave.” The zone has seen frequent combat since 2002, when the last peace process ended and the military re-took the FARC demilitarized zone. Then, in 2004 through 2006, it was a principal theater of operations for the large-scale “Plan Patriota” military offensive. Displacement occurred as people were forced out by fighting, or pressured by the FARC to leave.

While the Integrated Action effort seeks to win the population’s “hearts and minds” with a softer touch, people with whom I spoke said that many local residents, particularly community leaders, had left in order to avoid being detained as suspected FARC supporters. I was surprised to hear fear of the Prosecutor-General’s office (Fiscalía), which has been brought into the zone to investigate and prosecute suspected guerrilla supporters, cited as a reason for displacement.

I heard reports that the paramilitary presence was increasing as the military chipped away at the guerrillas’ once uncontested dominion over the zone.

The paramilitaries in question appear to be those at the command of Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias “Cuchillo,” who now has influence in much of Meta, Guaviare, Casanare and Vichada. I also heard the name of Víctor Carranza, a Boyacá-based emerald magnate who has long been accused of sponsoring paramilitary groups.

Paramilitaries are showing up in town centers, occasionally uniformed but often in civilian dress. In some cases, they claim to be there “with the state’s permission,” and they often encourage or even obligate the population to grow coca. Cuchillo appears to be interested principally in narcotrafficking, rather than massacring suspected guerrilla collaborators. His men have reportedly won over populations by promising to be “less violent” than the guerrillas.

A significant number of paramilitaries, I was told, had taken over a former guerrilla encampment between the hamlet of Pi̱alito Рwhere a police station was recently inaugurated Рand Vistahermosa.

In general, local leaders characterized the military as being on generally good behavior, making an effort not to mistreat the civilian population. However, there were some serious complaints, none of which I have been able to verify. These included:

  • One case of a “false positive” during the second half of 2008, which I was told is already in Bogotá-based groups’ databases.
  • Military and paramilitary personnel patrolling together without insignias on their uniforms.
  • Four indiscriminate bombings so far this year, with no casualties.
  • Blocking trucks carrying food aid to populations, and stealing some of it for themselves. (Local human rights advocates reported raising this issue directly with the commander of the 12th Mobile Brigade.)
  • Obligating civilians to “demobilize,” even though they were not FARC members, using language like “either you demobilize, or we’ll arrest you.”
  • Aggressive behavior or harassment of civilians, including unfounded accusations of being guerrillas.
  • A perceived lack of will to confront paramilitary groups.

A third conclusion is that the military’s relations with the population have been strained by a belief or subtext that anybody who lives in the Vistahermosa-La Macarena zone is somehow a guerrilla supporter. This, at least, was a concern that local leaders expressed repeatedly. While the local population is distrustful of the state, it is interesting to note that they are also concerned that the state doesn’t trust them.

Vistahermosa – La Macarena is part of a zone that was ceded to the FARC for more than three years. Local leaders said they felt that anyone who remained during the entire “despeje” period is treated with suspicion by the newly arrived state authorities. “Of course people had to be with the guerrillas” during the time that the state vacated the zone, one leader said. “Should you accuse people of being guerrilla auxiliaries, then? You could do that with everyone here.”

I heard many complaints about the most aggressive manifestation of this mistrust: mass arrests. Local leaders said that security forces, accompanied by officials from the prosecutor-general’s office, were showing up in towns and rounding up citizens, usually local leaders, who had been fingered as likely guerrilla supporters. A representative of a humanitarian organization told me of arriving in one town in a white 4-wheel-drive vehicle, and finding the entire place empty. After a few minutes, townspeople emerged from their hiding places. “We thought you were the Fiscalía,” they said.

Overcoming distrust is a huge challenge in a region that has been FARC territory for decades, where much of the population was born into, and has never known anything but, living under guerrilla control.

Most of the population appears to be open to having the state protect them and provide basic services. But a small handful of the population is indeed working with the FARC. That is impossible to deny. If you are a representative of the state, this handful of people may help get you killed.

The Colombian government is still trying to figure out how to separate the hardened FARC cadres from the general population in which they are mixed, without alienating that general population. Clearly careful intelligence work and winning the population’s trust are key to this effort. But massively detaining social leaders seems counter-productive, due to the reaction it inspires among the people whom they led.

A fourth conclusion is that forced eradication continues to contribute to distrust. When coca eradication – whether fumigation or manual – is not accompanied by immediate food security and other economic aid, the result may be positive from a counter-narcotics standpoint (there is less coca, momentarily), but disastrous from a counter-insurgency or state-building standpoint.

When small-scale coca growers see their illegal crop destroyed, but are left with no short-term possibility of staying fed, they will react in a number of ways. One apparently common result is that they simply replant coca, or move elsewhere and replant coca. Their resentment of the Colombian government may increase, causing them to align more closely with the FARC or paramilitaries.

The Vistahermosa – La Macarena “Fusion Center” recognizes this dynamic, and has made a priority of following up eradication with quick delivery of food security and development assistance. However, I heard complaints about months-long lags between eradication and the first delivery of promised aid. Indeed, a USAID document notes that the Fusion Center staff are grappling “with the lack of a GOC [Government of Colombia] post-eradication program.” It is remarkable that no such program exists.

In addition, I heard complaints that the manual eradicators themselves are not always the Colombian state’s most diplomatic representatives when they interact with the population. “People fear the eradicators, they are abusive,” one leader told me, citing coarse language and theft of food and other goods.

Fifth and finally, another frequently cited suspicion of government motives is the belief that the Integrated Action policy will lead to a “land grab,” displacing peasant farmers in favor of large landowners.

Some of the more conspiratorial residents note that forced eradication, mass arrests, the arrival of paramilitaries, and displacement are happening at the same time that large oil palm plantations spring up in significant numbers right outside the zone. They then conclude that large landowners want the existing population out of the picture so that they can more easily appropriate their land. For those who harbor these suspicions which are easily spread by rumors – news that land values in the region are rising is a reason for alarm, not celebration.

To counter these rumors, it is important that projects be small scale, including the formation of cooperatives, and accompanied by rapid delivery of clear land titles, in order to disabuse people of the widely held “land grab” notion.

Despite these often critical problems, the “Integrated Action” effort has done enough in the Vistahermosa – La Macarena area to raise people’s expectations a great deal. There is a real desire to live in an area governed by a proper state, to feel secure, to have title to land, and to participate in a community planning process.

My initial impression is that it would do more harm than good to abandon or cease to support Integrated Action. But the model could go badly awry, with grave consequences, if it continues without a number of significant adjustments. These would include – but not be limited to – the following. (We expect our recommendations to be far more specific, detailed and comprehensive as our research advances.)

  • Increase the participation of civilian agencies and institutions. Give them a much greater decision-making and management role in the CCAI in order to encourage their “buy-in.”
  • Give more explicit high-level political backing to this more civilian CCAI, to decrease foot-dragging and make it a higher priority for the state agencies being asked to participate. Ensure that Acción Social provides sufficient funding for, and more active management of, the civilian side of Integrated Action projects, and that it does more to encourage other government agencies to establish their own presence in the priority zones as soon as minimal security conditions permit.
  • Use these added civilian resources to move beyond short-term demonstration projects and commit to larger-scale efforts, especially infrastructure and basic services.
  • Get the military out of non-security roles as soon as it is safe to do so.
  • Continue making improvements in coordination between state agencies, so that ecologists no longer have to oversee housing construction projects or help organize agricultural cooperatives on their own.
  • Ensure that development efforts are chosen by the communities themselves through a transparent process, so that the frequent criticism that programs were “designed at a desk in Bogotá” cannot stick.
  • Speed up land titling to reassure populations that they will not be victims of a “land grab.”
  • Quickly and transparently punish any examples of human rights abuse, so that impunity for abusers does not undermine trust in the state and intimidate citizens who should be participating in community planning processes.
  • Minimize harm to community relations by halting overzealous mass arrests of civilians suspected of guerrilla collaboration.
  • Aggressively confront any signs of paramilitary presence.
  • Eradicate coca only when immediate delivery of food-security and development assistance can be assured. Place a priority on programs in which eradication is voluntary.
  • Focus more on the sustainability of the effort. Integrated Action will not be credible to key constituencies – including civilian government agencies called on to take part in it – if it is in danger of ending in August 2010.

I would add a final, more conceptual, observation. Colombia and the United States have to decide whether Integrated Action is going to prioritize counter-insurgency, counter-narcotics, or state-building.

Defenders of the current program might argue that its brilliance lies in the manner in which it hybridizes these three strategies. Either they would prioritize counter-insurgency, or they would argue that all three are equal components that reinforce each other.

That is often untrue, however. Counter-insurgency undermines state-building when government representatives alienate community leaders whom they suspect of guerrilla ties. Counter-narcotics undermines both counter-insurgency and state building when forced eradication leaves peasants hungry and angry at the government.

In our view, state-building goals should be given priority over counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency. We will develop this more in our final report. But the success of Integrated Action will not be measured by the number of guerrilla attacks or the number of hectares of coca eradicated. It will depend on the extent to which these strategies build a functioning, mostly civilian state in vast areas of Colombia that have never had one. If Integrated Action focuses on meeting that good governance standard, it will leave behind territories that are infertile ground for armed groups, narcotrafficking or organized crime. Govern well – with a full state presence and low impunity – and the guerrilla and narcotrafficking problems will fade.

If Integrated Action can do away with statelessness and impunity in lawless regions of Colombia, it would offer the world a promising model. It isn’t there yet. But nor is a disastrous outcome assured. With important adjustments and corrections, and close monitoring of the programs’ execution, what has been started in Vistahermosa – La Macarena could turn out well.

May 31

This is the second of (probably) three posts presenting initial impressions of Colombia’s “Integrated Action” strategy and programs. The first post is here. These programs are being billed as the model for much future U.S. assistance to Colombia.

This post describes a late April visit to southwestern Meta department, where I saw the “Fusion Center” in Vistahermosa and went to Puerto Toledo, a town in Puerto Rico municipality within the center’s zone of operations. Here, I talk mainly about what I saw and heard. A more analytical post with observations about the strategy will follow this one.

This map, from the Colombian government’s road-building institute, shows the Vistahermosa-La Macarena zone’s proximity to Bogotá.
The Serranía de La Macarena.
The Vistahermosa Fusion Center.
Puerto Toledo.
Puerto Toledo.
School project bearing the Acción Social logo in Puerto Toledo.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the La Macarena “Fusion Center” zone is how close it is to Bogotá. This area, which has long been considered wild and ungoverned, lies only about four hours’ drive from Colombia’s capital. Its proximity may be a key reason why the project has become something of a showcase.

It hasn’t always been this way. As recently as the early 1990s, it took 12 hours just to do the first third of the trip, from Bogotá to Villavicencio, the capital of Meta Department and a city of nearly 300,000 people. Villavicencio is the gateway to Colombia’s llanos, a vast stretch of savannah that incorporates much of Meta department – including the “Fusion Center” zone – as well as Guaviare, Casanare, Arauca, and Vichada departments.

Until the completion of a series of tunnels, bridges and highway improvements in the 1990s and early 2000s, the llanos were cut off from the rest of the country by the very difficult geography of Colombia’s eastern Andean mountain range. The area began to be settled in earnest during the middle of the 20th century, but its inaccessibility, and the central government’s absence, left it lawless and violent.

It now takes only two hours to get to Villavicencio, on a road that passes through Bogotá’s vast southern slums and then through the Sumapaz region, a páramo or high plain that spent decades under strong FARC influence. As little as seven years ago, those who traveled Sumapaz by road risked being kidnapped for ransom by the FARC’s 53rd Front, commanded by Henry Castellanos, alias “Romaña,” who helped pioneer the guerrilla practice of “pescas milagrosas,” or “miraculous fishing” for motorists who might be wealthy kidnap victims. While Romaña remains at large, the FARC presence in Sumapaz has been greatly reduced since a 2003 military offensive pushed them away from the main road and out of town centers. A FARC attempt to reposition itself in the zone was turned back in early March of this year.

South of Villavicencio, a very recently paved two-lane road speeds through towns whose names are synonymous with the violent 20th-century colonization of the llanos. During the “Violencia” of the 1950s, San Martín, Granada, and El Castillo were under the dominion of Liberal Party warlords like Dúmar Aljure and Guadalupe Salcedo. (This part of Colombia figures prominently in Alfredo Molano’s 1989 oral history Siguendo el Corte.) These roadside towns fell under strong FARC influence until the 1990s, when a campaign of paramilitary violence, mainly directed at civilians, largely cleared the FARC out of the area between Villavicencio and the Ariari River.

The paramilitaries who came to dominate the area between Villavicencio and Granada fought each other frequently. The first was Héctor Buitrago, alias “Martín Llanos,” who remains a fugitive today. Buitrago fought and lost a bloody 2003-2004 war with the “Centaurs Bloc” of Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso’s United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which at the time was supposedly engaged in a cease-fire and peace talks with the Uribe government.

Miguel Arroyave, the head of the Centaurs Bloc and a noted narcotrafficker, was strongly interested in expanding large-landholder agriculture in Meta. Arroyave owned vast cattle ranches and enthusiastically promoted the planting of African oil palms, a biofuel crop that many in Meta still associate with him. Both cattle and oil palms are very much in evidence along the main road.

Arroyave was killed by his own men in 2004. One of the assassins, Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias “Cuchillo,” has since steadily expanded his power in much of Meta and Guaviare departments. He has done so in part by striking up alliances with other narcotraffickers, such as Daniel “El Loco” Barrera, and with the FARC, who are reputed to be one of Cuchillo’s frequent narco business associates. Cuchillo now has great influence, but generally low visibility, from Vichada to Guaviare into Villavicencio. Though President Uribe has ordered the security forces to capture the fugitive warlord, they have been unable to do so.

South and southwest of Granada, the paramilitary influence wanes. The road, paved within the past 3 years, remains excellent all the way to Vistahermosa. About 3 1/2 hours from Bogotá, a tall mountain range rises sharply from the llanos: the Serranía de la Macarena, an unusual geological formation that anchors the La Macarena National Park.

This area has been a FARC stronghold for a very long time. It falls within the borders of the “despeje” or clearance zone from which Colombia’s security forces pulled out between 1998 and 2002, giving the guerrillas uncontested dominion over five municipalities (counties), including Vistahermosa and La Macarena. On the western side of the La Macarena range is La Uribe municipality, the birthplace of FARC military boss Jorge Briceño (”El Mono Jojoy“), and the location of the FARC’s “Casa Verde” headquarters during a failed 1980s cease-fire and peace process.

The good road ends in Vistahermosa, county seat of the municipality of the same name. After that, weather permitting, the drive to La Macarena, the next county seat to the south, would take at least six hours on a poor dirt road.

For decades, including the 1998-2002 “despeje” period, the FARC ruled this town openly. Guerrillas walked the streets, settled disputes, enforced their own laws, levied taxes, and encouraged a thriving coca trade. As late as 2004-2005, the FARC’s control was reportedly so complete that people not only had guerrilla-issued ID cards, even their horses were required to have a carnet de caballo.

In 2004 and 2005, a large-scale, U.S.-supported military offensive in southern Colombia, known as “Plan Patriota,” swept through this zone. The offensive pushed the guerrillas out of the mostly small town centers of municipalities like Vistahermosa, leaving behind contingents of soldiers and police. Plan Patriota was not an example of “Integrated Action”: it was accompanied by almost no non-military effort.

The guerrilla reaction to Plan Patriota was to retreat, up to a point. The FARC left the town centers but remained in significant numbers in the countryside, amid the coca fields. The guerrillas continue to launch ambushes and attacks, including occasional attacks on civilian and military targets in the towns; to lay landmines; to forcibly recruit members, many of them children; and to make road travel dangerous.

The town center of Vistahermosa, however, today bears no sign of guerrillas. The military and police presence is heavy, with a very active joint base alongside the main road at the entrance to the town. Recent crop eradication offensives have weakened an economy that had become quite dependent on coca, and the town looks less prosperous, with quite a few storefronts shuttered.

The military base at the entrance to Vistahermosa is home to the Fusion Center, which since early 2009 coordinates the government agencies carrying out the stabilization and consolidation effort in Vistahermosa, La Macarena, and parts of eight other municipalities in Meta and Caquetá departments.

The center itself is an underwhelming site: a cluster of FEMA-style containers outfitted as offices. A plaque reads:

Integrated Fusion Center
Vistahermosa (Meta)
Built by the
Military Forces of Colombia
With the Support of the
Military Group of the Embassy of
The United States of America
December 2008

The center lies alongside the landing zone of the base, which was remarkably active on the day I visited, with police and army Blackhawks and Hueys constantly taking off and landing, loading and unloading dozens of soldiers outfitted for combat with packs and rifles at the ready. The deafening chopper noise made the base’s level of activity obvious to anyone living in the town of Vistahermosa, including students at the school across the road. It also made outdoor conversation at the Fusion Center impossible.

While the center bustled with personnel from all of Colombia’s military services, I only saw three civilian government representatives during my stop at the Fusion Center. Though that of course is indicative of nothing, the impression left was that of a military operation with a handful of civilians attached to it.

Our plan was to visit Puerto Toledo, about 35 miles to the east, more than two hours away by road. I would be traveling with two Colombian NGO colleagues and the National Parks Service official who appears in the brief video interview posted earlier this month. As it turned out, road travel was made impossible by high recent levels of guerrilla activity in the area. This was unexpected, given official rhetoric that “these regions, which used to be refuges for terrorism and narcotrafficking, have been recovered for peace.” During the time we were in Puerto Toledo, in fact, the soldiers on the edge of town told us that guerrillas had attacked some coca eradicators only two kilometers away. The precarious security situation in the countryside meant that we had to make the very short trip to Puerto Toledo in an Army helicopter.

The countryside we flew over was flat territory full of swamps and rivers. It appeared mostly uninhabited, with only a few tiny hamlets, the occasional house, and most land uncultivated. Much of the agricultural activity visible from the air was cattle ranching and African oil palm cultivation, most of it looking very recently planted.

The soldiers left us about a half-mile outside of town, and we walked the rest of the way unaccompanied. Puerto Toledo, perhaps ten blocks square along the Güéjar River, was a major coca market town when the FARC held uncontested dominion over the area. Now, one’s first impression while walking the town’s dusty streets is, “This place is empty.” Very few people are out on the streets and sidewalks, and very little is open for business.

Only a few years ago, I was told, Puerto Toledo had dozens of discos, bars and brothels open at all hours, where residents from throughout the area would gather to spend their easy coca profits. All of the discos are now closed. Today, it is hard to imagine the streets booming with salsa, vallenato and American pop music. Puerto Toledo is very quiet.

One of the former discos in the middle of town has been converted into the local office the National Park Service, which is carrying out an effort to move hundreds of coca-growing families out of the La Macarena park and fringe areas around the park, along with the eradication of their coca, in exchange for assistance with housing, land titles, productive projects and food-security assistance.

The Park Service project office is one of the only visible signs that Colombia’s civilian state has moved into Puerto Toledo. The town center is under solid military control (though the FARC set off a bomb in the town center a few months ago), but there is not even a police station yet. The main civilian projects I heard about were the repainting and refurbishment of the bridge over the Güéjar River, improvements to the town school, and some improvements to roads outside of town.

At the Park Service office, I met with leaders of AgroGüéjar, an organization of small-holding farmers from several veredas (hamlets) in Puerto Rico municipality. The organization represents 300 families, residents of seven veredas, who have agreed with the Park Service to relocate away from the transition zone around the La Macarena Park. In exchange, they are receiving land titles, houses, and technical assistance with productive projects.

Theirs is a very instructive story of what happens when a government tries to work with citizens who have simply never known life under a government. Residents of this area have lived alongside guerrillas for their entire lives, but still have a manifest desire to have the state present in their territory, and to feel connected to the rest of Colombia. But they also have a very deep distrust of a state that has always been absent, never honored its past commitments, and may prove unable to protect them.

“We didn’t come here for coca. We were displaced,” is how one leader introduced the group. Like nearly all farmers in southern Colombia’s “agricultural frontier” zones, the residents of Puerto Toledo and its environs had arrived within the past generation, pushed out from elsewhere by violence or drawn by economic opportunity – often illicit economic opportunity.

Many of the most recent arrivals, they said, had come from the municipality of Miraflores, in the neighboring department of Guaviare. At the time an area of heavy coca cultivation, Miraflores, discussed in this post from last year, was a principal zone of operations for the “Plan Patriota” military offensive in 2004-2005. The offensive and accompanying coca eradication caused a sharp depopulation – one estimate is from 20,000 to 10,000 people. But the Colombian government had no idea where the people who left Miraflores went. Many, apparently, went to Puerto Toledo.

The leaders of AgroGüéjar insisted that their organization’s farmers want to stop growing the illegal crop, and have said for years that they are willing to eradicate, if the government would make the investments in infrastructure and basic services necessary for a legal economy to exist.

They told a story rife with frustration. AgroGüéjar has its origins among participants in a self-financed organic produce cooperative that formed in 2004, in part because increased eradication after the 2002 end of the demilitarized zone was making coca harder to grow. The cooperative had its crops sprayed and lost its investment.

Its members protested to anti-narcotics authorities and arrived at an agreement stating that, in exchange for aid, they would voluntarily eradicate all coca in three veredas. The agreement included a three-month deadline to eradicate one-third of their coca, after which economic assistance would begin to arrive. An accord was signed, but fumigation planes flew over their communities the very day that it was to begin implementation. The cooperative’s members “decided to shut off all contact with state institutions.”

AgroGüéjar formed in 2006, after the Colombian government, backed by the United States, began a major campaign of manual eradication – and later, fumigation – in the La Macarena park. Arguing that “we are hungry,” it led a 29-day march to Bogotá to demand government investment.

“The only government agency that responded to us,” I was told, “was the National Park Service.” The first response was a very modest food-security project, which AgroGüéjar, intensely distrustful, limited to 50 families. The Park Service complied with its commitments, however, and the organization quickly agreed to expand participation to 300 families.

The Park Service received a large grant for the relocation project from the Colombian Presidency’s Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, which together with funds from the Meta governor’s office (flush with oil revenues), USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives and the government of the Netherlands, has added up to about US$5 million. (See page 9 of this 2007 report [PDF].) The families are to receive titled plots of land, with prefabricated houses. The Park Service is also offering technical assistance with several productive projects, forming cooperatives to produce and market several products that the communities have selected. A beekeeping project, which is getting technical support from Colombia’s National University, may be the most advanced.

The AgroGüéjar representatives had kind words for the demonstration projects that had been completed in and around Puerto Toledo, such as the refurbished bridge, the construction of a new school classroom, and minor road improvements. Quick projects like these seek to make a high-profile display of the government’s presence when, in USAID’s words, “the potential for political impact is the greatest.”

While these programs are welcome, the local leaders said, “Our biggest concern is the income of our families.” Larger projects, like paving farm-to-market roads or building bridges, electricity grids, clean water or communication networks, appear to be far off. In fact, the poor state of the region’s roads and bridges has complicated things for the Park Service. Efforts to deliver construction materials for promised houses have been stymied by delivery trucks’ inability to cross rivers on the narrow, rickety bridges that exist in the area.

Another type of demonstration project has been offered but declined: the Colombian Army’s “health brigades” in which doctors, and sometimes veterinarians, visit an area offering free checkups and medical care. These brigades feature free haircuts and food, along with clowns handing out toys to the children. Puerto Toledo has turned down an Army health brigade visit because of “who comes after”: guerrillas angered by the community’s perceived welcoming of the security forces.

The AgroGüéjar leaders told of some frustrating experiences with the Fusion Center and its predecessor, the Macarena Integrated Consolidation Plan (PCIM). During a seven or eight month period in 2007 and 2008, they said, the communities were subject to constant forced manual eradication of their coca, but received no other assistance, not even basic food-security aid. As a result, they said, “the eradicators had to keep eradicating plots that they had already eradicated before.” Even when commitments for aid had been made, its arrival was slow. “By the time the corn seeds arrived, we could have had ears of corn already.”

Similar delay has also been widely denounced in the case of land titling, which so far has been an exceedingly slow and unresponsive process here and elsewhere in the Fusion Center zone. The lag time for aid, titling, and similar efforts appears to be the result of bureaucracy, lack of coordination and civilian agencies’ inaction – the very problems that the “Fusion” and “Integrated Action” strategies are purportedly designed to address.

A particularly frustrating experience began in August 2008, when 280 campesino leaders from the area gathered in Puerto Toledo to formulate a proposal for voluntary eradication and development assistance to present to the PCIM. They came to a consensus on the proposal and presented it formally in October.

For the Colombian government, this overture should have been regarded as an important opportunity to achieve a “consolidation” goal. Representatives of thousands of people who had lived their entire lives with the FARC were asking the Colombian state to play a greater role and to help them.

The PCIM responded by furnishing the leaders with an application form laying out an agreement for assistance. But the form had some troubling wording, which required several back-and-forth exchanges. The initial version of the form required the communities to affirm that they were “asking for the security forces to be present” in the area. Obviously, if the FARC were to learn that they had signed such a document, the leaders’ lives would be in grave danger. They demanded that the document be altered.

In January of this year, the leaders sent the PCIM a counter-proposal. They received an e-mail reply in March communicating to them that their document was acceptable, but that the PCIM  no longer had resources in its budget to carry out the agreement.

The communities’ remarkable approach to the government had effectively been rebuffed, at least for now. As a result, one leader put it, “We lost seven months, while eradication continues, and there are still no roads.”

Despite these frustrations, the balance of the National Parks-AgroGüéjar experience so far remains positive. The communities participating in the project have eradicated 2,000 hectares of coca, an amount equal to (if the new UNODC figures are correct) about one-fortieth of all coca grown in Colombia. This is the largest example of voluntary coca eradication I have ever heard of in Colombia.

In addition, communities in a longtime guerrilla and narco stronghold are now looking to the state for assistance, associating themselves with a state agency (National Parks), and want the state – at least through this project – to increase its presence beyond the seven veredas of Puerto Rico municipality that are involved to date. (Puerto Rico has 22 veredas.)

Even without the added element of a guerrilla insurgency, overcoming distrust is one of the most difficult challenges faced when establishing a government presence where none has existed. It requires keeping your word. It requires listening to critiques and consulting frequently with the population.

It is remarkable that the Vistahermosa-La Macarena region’s town centers have no overt FARC presence. It is remarkable that groups like Agrogüéjar, though still intensely suspicious, are showing themselves open to working with their government. But this is just a first step, and it will be easily reversed if the non-military component falls through. Hopes are being raised here. The Colombian government cannot afford to disappoint.

May 26

This is the first of what will be a series of at least three posts presenting some initial impressions of Colombia’s “Integrated Action” doctrine and programs. These programs are important: they represent the Uribe government’s view – or at least the view of key officials in the Uribe government – of what the country’s future military and counternarcotics strategies should look like. They also appear to be the template for future U.S. assistance to Colombia, as aid packages become smaller and less military over the next several years.

Just a few quick disclaimers before diving in.

  • The following analysis is based on documentary research, many interviews, and travel to one of the zones where this new model is being carried out. But we’re not done yet. One reason this is appearing on our blog and not in a published report is that we’re not done with our research phase yet. We plan to have a proper report out in September.
  • For now, our research is nowhere near complete. The program we are analyzing is still quite incipient, and the situation is fluid. Different sources are telling us often wildly different things. As a result, between now and September, we may end up rescinding or strongly altering some of the observations that appear below. We present them here for discussion, and in the hope that they will open more doors to dialogue with analysts, officials and practitioners.
  • We should make clear that despite strong concerns, we do not oppose this model outright, as we did with Plan Colombia. The 2000 and subsequent aid packages – with their mostly military approach, their neglect of governance, and their reliance on eradication without development aid – never made sense to us. The new “Integrated Action” model, at least as a concept, does more to reflect basic realities and incorporate many strategies that we have been advocating for years.
  • However, we do not know enough yet to say we support the model. While the concept and intent appear sound, both could be badly undermined by poor execution. Militarization, poor coordination, politicization or human-rights abuse are just four of many examples of issues that could cause these complex efforts to go disastrously wrong.
  • Our goals, then, are to (1) Learn as much as we can about what is being done, especially what is being done with U.S. support; (2) Evaluate what is working and what isn’t; (3) Warn about problems with the programs’ execution that could do grave damage if not corrected; (4) Praise and support the components of the program that are doing innovative and promising work; and (5) Make recommendations for how the model and its execution should be altered, and how U.S. support should change, to achieve a good outcome and avoid doing damage. At this point, we not at all prepared to begin point (5).

The rest of this first post tries to lay out the basics of exactly what it is we’re analyzing here: the “Integrated Action” model of counter-insurgency – or, as others seek to define it, of state-building and governance in long-neglected areas. In subsequent posts, I will share a bit of what I saw during a late April visit to one of the main “Integrated Action” zones, and then offer a few preliminary observations, critiques, warnings, and the occasional kind word.

What is “Integrated Action?”

It is a set of new Colombian government programs that have gone under many names in the past few years. These include Plan Colombia 2, Plan Colombia Consolidation Phase, Social Recovery of Territory (or Social Control of Territory), the National Consolidation Plan, the Center for the Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI), or the “Strategic Leap.”

Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s defense minister until last week, offered this definition: “It means state institutions’ entry or return to zones affected by violence to satisfy the population’s basic needs, like health, education and public services, as well as justice, culture, recreation and infrastructure projects.”

The underlying idea is that Colombia’s historically neglected rural areas will only be taken back from illegal armed groups if the entire government is involved in “recovering” or “consolidating” its presence in these territories. While the military and police must handle security, the doctrine contends that the rest of the government must be brought into these zones in a quick, coordinated way.

This is a response to many past frustrations. Even as they saw their size nearly double and budget nearly triple during the 2000s, Colombia’s security forces found that they could chase guerrillas out of territory – often with large, costly military offensives – but they could not keep the guerrillas from returning after they deployed elsewhere. Similarly, drug eradication programs sprayed tens of thousands of campesinos’ crops, increasing anger at the government in guerrilla-controlled zones. In a vacuum of governance, however, coca replanting easily kept up with the increased eradication.

In response to these frustrations, the “Integrated Action” doctrine began emerging around 2004 and rose to prominence by 2006. The new rhetoric appeared to incorporate many of the arguments and suggestions of Plan Colombia’s critics: that the effort shouldn’t be entirely military; that social services are important; that forced eradication without aid will do harm; that populations should be consulted.

“Integrated Action” also dovetails with rapidly evolving U.S. counter-insurgency theories, as embodied by Gen. David Petraeus’s new Army Counter-Insurgency Field Manual [PDF] or the work of scholars and advisors like David Kilcullen, who recommends [PDF] “A comprehensive approach that closely integrates civil and military efforts,” “timeliness and reliability in delivering on development promises,” and “careful cueing of security operations to support development and governance activities, and vice versa.”

The doctrine originated in the U.S. Southern Command and Colombia’s Defense Ministry. Together, they developed an entity called the Center for Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI), a sort of coordination body that is now within the Colombian Presidency’s Social Action office. (Social Action, which does not operate out of a cabinet ministry, is a large, well-funded presidential initiative that manages several direct subsidy, humanitarian aid, and alternative development programs. Its critics charge that much of its aid is short-term handouts that verge on clientelism.)

The CCAI seeks to coordinate the entry of fourteen state institutions, including the military, the judiciary, and cabinet departments, into parts of Colombia considered to have been “recovered” from armed groups’ control.

A recent paper from the U.S. Army War College [PDF] contends that the CCAI structure came from a U.S. military proposal.

Following a suggestion from U.S. Southern Command, President Alfonso [sic.] Uribe created the Coordinating Center for Integrated Action (CCAI) and made it his vehicle to achieve the required unity of effort to defeat the insurgency.

… [T]he Civil Affairs section of the SOUTHCOM operations directorate proposed an initiative to establish a Colombian interagency organization “capable of synchronizing national level efforts to reestablish governance” in areas that had been under FARC, ELN, or AUI control. Civil Affairs officers attached to the MILGP [U.S. Embassy Military Group] in Colombia presented the concept to the Minister of Defense who liked it and made it the basis for his proposal to President Uribe in February 2004.

… CCAI’s first major planning activity was a senior leader seminar and planning session held from May 8-10, 2004, which developed an  economic, social development, and security plan to reestablish long-term governance in southern Colombia.

… Implementation of this plan was sufficiently successful that planning was expanded to address a full seven conflictive zones throughout the country. This plan was addressed at an off-site planning session in Washington at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies from March 28-31, 2005.

In thirteen presumably “recovered” zones throughout the country, the CCAI follows a sequenced and phased strategy that, on paper at least, begins with military operations, moves into quick social and economic-assistance efforts to win the population’s support, and is to end up with the presence of a functioning civilian government and the withdrawal of most military forces. “The process begins with the provision of security and is followed by voluntary and forced coca eradication, the establishment of police posts, and the provision of civilian government social services, including a judiciary,” explains a late 2008 USAID report.

The CCAI considers different territories to be in different phases of “consolidation,” and thus requiring different combinations of military and non-military investment. The schematic looks something like this:

Source: Colombian Ministry of Defense [PDF].

  1. Territorial Control phase: areas with active presence of illegal armed groups. Intense military effort to expel the armed groups.
  2. Territorial Stabilization phase: areas under control, but in process of institutional recovery. Intense military and police effort to keep order while seeking to attract other state institutions to the zone.
  3. Territorial Consolidation phase: areas stabilized. Intense political and social effort to establish state institutions and public services.

Most CCAI-managed projects so far appear to be oriented toward the Stabilization (yellow) phase, where some civilian activity is going on alongside the security forces’  large-scale security and coca-eradication effort. Communities are gathered at assemblies, where they choose income-generating projects. Local government officials are getting technical assistance. Judicial and prosecutorial authorities are entering zones, though their initial focus often seems to be prosecuting suspected guerrillas and collaborators. Infrastructure-building or repair activities, many of them quick demonstration projects, are proceeding significantly, mainly in the safer town centers. The goal is to win local communities’ trust and support – though of course forced eradication, human rights abuse or prosecutorial zeal risk increasing communities’ suspicion.

The CCAI is conceived as an inter-agency body. But because it originated in the Defense Ministry, and because the “Territorial Control” and “Territorial Stabilization” phases call for a large military role, the CCAI in fact includes heavy military participation and is under significant military leadership. A March 2009 Defense Ministry directive [PDF] places the CCAI under the leadership of a Consejo Directivo (Directive Council) whose members come almost entirely from the state security forces.

The CCAI Directive Council will be made up of the Ministry of National Defense, the Commander-General of the Armed Forces, the Director-General of the National Police, the High Counselor of the Presidential Agency for Social Action and International Cooperation, the Director of the DAS [Administrative Security Department, or presidential intelligence and secret police], and the Prosecutor-General of the Nation. [Of this list, only Social Action and the Prosecutor-General are not security officials.]

Other, non-military, government bodies belong to a CCAI Comité Ejecutivo (Executive Committee), which does not play the same leadership role. This committee includes the civilian ministries of Agriculture, Social Protecction, Interior and Justice, Education, Mines and Energy, Transportation and Environment, Housing and Development, as well as the presidential planning department, the family welfare institute, the national technical training service, the sports agency and the civil registry. The CCAI also includes local civilian officials, particularly governors and mayors, in its zones of operation. But the military role appears to be paramount.

The “Integrated Action” model built momentum in 2006, as Álvaro Uribe began his second term and Juan Manuel Santos became his defense minister. Santos and a key vice-minister, Sergio Jaramillo, sought to attract resources and political support to the model they helped to develop. In March 2009, only two months before leaving office, Santos sought to brand the CCAI and the Integrated Action framework as part of a “Strategic Leap” (Salto Estratégico) toward, in his view, bringing Colombia’s conflict to a definitive end.

Earlier this year, with U.S. support, Colombia’s defense ministry established two “Fusion Centers.” The first is in and around the La Macarena National Park in Meta department, about 150 miles due south of Bogotá in what, between 1998 and 2002, was part of the zone temporarily ceded to the FARC for talks with the guerrillas. The other is in the Montes de María region southwest of Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

These facilities’ purpose, explained Santos [PDF], is “to replicate at the local level the interagency coordination effort that occurs at the national level in bodies like the CCAI.” The Fusion Center is an office in the “consolidation” zone with “a military coordinator, a police coordinator and a civilian manager. This manager, who reports to the CCAI, is charged with administrating and supervising the implementation of plans in coordination with local and regional authorities.”

La Macarena is the first Fusion Center, and the one I visited in April (and will discuss in later posts). A zone that has been under solid FARC control for decades, it has been a principal focus of “Integrated Action” since 2007, when the Defense Ministry instituted a special “Consolidation Plan for La Macarena” (PCIM) to coordinate activities in the zone.

Here is a sampling of what some generally supportive outside voices have been saying about the La Macarena project.

  • Friday’s Washington Post: “Under the Integrated Consolidation Plan for the Macarena, named after a national park west of here, the military first drove out guerrillas and other armed groups. In quick sequence, engineers and work crews, technicians, prosecutors, social workers and policy types arrived, working in concert to transform a lawless backwater into something resembling a functioning part of Colombia.”
  • Colombia’s Semana magazine, current issue: “In three years, 191 billion pesos [about US$80 million] have been invested in infrastructure projects, especially highways like the paving that will connect the towns of San Juan de Arama and La Uribe, and several tertiary roads.”
  • U.S. General Accounting Office, October 2008 report: “If successful, the approach in La Macarena is intended to serve as a model for similar CCAI efforts in 10 other regions of the country. It represents a key test of the government’s enhanced state presence strategy and a potential indicator of the long-term prospects for reducing Colombia’s drug trade by systematically re-establishing government control throughout the country.”

The U.S. Agency for International Development has generously supported the La Macarena program since March 2007. The main funding channels have been USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI), which carries out rapid, short-term projects in crisis situations and plans to leave Colombia in 2010, and the Defense Department’s so-called “Section 1207″ authority (named for the section of the 2006 National Defense Authorization Act, which created it), which allows the Pentagon to transfer some of its budget to the State Department for development projects. The Dutch government supports a food-security and rural development program in the same area.

My best estimate (which could be off) of funding directly through OTI, including 2009, is about $6 million. Section 1207 has likely provided another $14-19 million. It is not clear how much more has come from other sources, such as USAID’s “regular” Colombia budget, Southern Command’s operational funds, or the Defense Department’s counter-narcotics programs.

USAID-OTI manages an “Initial Governance Response Program” whose mission is to “work with CCAI to deliver quick-impact activities in the short term to build trust between the government and vulnerable communities and to establish a foundation for longer term socioeconomic recovery and growth.” While OTI supports training programs, planning processes, technical support and publicity strategies, the “quick-impact” projects are the most visible aspect of U.S. aid in the CCAI-PCIM-Fusion Center in La Macarena. Many of these projects – soccer fields, playgrounds, renovations and repainting of existing infrastructure – appear to do more to build confidence in the Colombian state’s incipient presence than meet residents’ basic socioeconomic needs.

This program’s supporters are increasingly touting it as a model of state-building and counterinsurgency that will guide the future of U.S. aid to Colombia and could be replicated elsewhere. “Colombia’s government may have found a remedy palatable to a Democratic-led U.S. Congress not only interested in emphasizing social development over military aid for this country but also looking for solutions to consider in Afghanistan,” writes Juan Forero in last Friday’s Washington Post. Adds USAID:

The consolidation plan is now widely seen in Colombia as the model for creating the conditions necessary for sustained establishment of a state presence in formerly ungoverned parts of the country. The GOC is basing its still-to-be-finalized national consolidation strategy on the unified consolidation plan that OTI has supported. Similarly, lessons learned during plan implementation are being used to help shape the U.S. Embassy’s new embassy-wide strategy as well as the USAID Mission’s revised strategy.

Colombia’s now-former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, even thinks that the “Integrated Action” model should be pursued in Afghanistan, and said so at a joint press conference earlier this year in Bogotá with Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

This concept applied in Afghanistan is something that could really help. And we have particular experiences, like crop eradication, like the integrated fight against trafficking whereby we go after every link in the chain. In Afghanistan there are some jobs that are more important or less important than those that we have here, but the concept is applicable there. It is in this way that we think our experience could contribute in some way to solving the problem in Afghanistan or the problem in Iraq.

Non-governmental critics of the model have expressed strong concerns about the military’s dominant role and the likelihood – or reality – of human rights abuses. The Colombian human rights group MINGA is an example [PDF]:

The main risk of this strategy is that it is being developed in zones with high levels of confrontation and armed-group presence, where the civilian population is viewed as being at the service of the armed forces (with the risk implied by tying civilian non-combatants to any of the armed groups), in which civilian subordination to military power is in evidence. … It can be said that, in this model, mayors and council members don’t work mainly for the civilian population, but instead respond to military coordination in the main issues of local governance. Among these are the distribution of food, emergency assistance, health and vaccination services, school recreation activities and training courses given by military personnel.

Adds Garry Leech of the Colombia Journal website:

The PCIM’s strategy appears to be as much about counterinsurgency as it is about counternarcotics and social and economic development. Furthermore, the counterinsurgency component of the PCIM has been linked to human rights violations. Local peasants and human rights defenders claim that the Colombian army has worked in collusion with right-wing paramilitaries in its effort to consolidate control over the region.

This rather confusing and often vague picture is, by and large, what we know so far about the “Integrated Action” doctrine and the strategies it has implemented. We need to know more in order to evaluate it properly. To do so, CIP staff is visiting at least two sites where Fusion Centers or CCAI programs exist, including the two that the United States has most generously funded: La Macarena and Montes de María.

We paid a visit to the La Macarena zone a month ago, spending a day in Vistahermosa – site of the “Fusion Center” – and the nearby village of Puerto Toledo. That visit will be the subject of the next post.

May 04

Here is an interview recorded April 24 with Rodrigo Botero, the director for the Amazon and Orinoco regions at Colombia’s National Parks Service.

Colombia’s government, with U.S. support, is trying to implement a “consolidation” strategy to establish state presence and services in the vast areas of the country that have historically been completely ungoverned. One of the priority zones, and one which has received significant U.S. investment, are the municipalities in and around the La Macarena National Park.

A FARC stronghold for decades, the La Macarena park was situated completely within the demilitarized zone ceded to the guerrillas during the failed 1998-2002 peace process. During the 2000s, this zone of primary forest saw a sharp increase in coca cultivation, as farmers moved into the zone, with guerrilla encouragement, to grow the crop. Since 2006, the Colombian and U.S. governments have responded by sending manual eradicators, then fumigation aircraft, into the park.

Mr. Botero is wrestling with one of the thorniest questions that the state-building effort faces: what to in areas where people simply shouldn’t be living? In zones that, because they are parkland, wilderness, or simply too far from the rest of the population, cannot expect to be properly served by the government?

His solution has been an ambitious program to move people out of the park with promises of housing, productive projects and food-security assistance in exchange for voluntary eradication of coca. His efforts – by far the largest voluntary eradication project in the country – have so far brought the permanent disappearance of 2,000 hectares of coca from in and around the park.

Though he is an ecologist by training, Mr. Botero and his team have had to learn a lot very quickly about rural development, housing construction, community organizing and political negotiation. Though the Park Service is purportedly part of an inter-agency effort to bring the Colombian state into the area surrounding La Macarena, it – and the communities with which it is working – have seen little assistance or accompaniment from most other government agencies.

Here are 5 minutes of footage of a conversation with Mr. Botero, with English subtitles. He describes the model that he has constructed, together with the leaders of several communities outside the park.

Interview with Rodrigo Botero from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

(Yes, by the way, I’m aware my Spanish accent is atrocious.)

Apr 25

Below is a brief video update recorded Friday after a visit with community leaders in the village of Puerto Toledo, in the municipality of Puerto Rico, Meta.

Puerto Toledo used to be a big cocaine market town under solid FARC control. The town is now rather empty-looking. However, the FARC still appears to have a great ability to cause havoc in the area. We even had to leave without dawdling because the guerrillas had just attacked a team of coca eradicators, guarded by police and army, about 2 kilometers away. I was actually surprised by the level of guerrilla activity in the area which, according to all observers we interviewed, appeared to have intensified significantly starting in March.

Because of the security situation, which is clearly far from consolidated, we had to hitch a 15-minute ride on a Colombian Army helicopter to get from Vistahermosa to Puerto Toledo. The soldiers dropped us off at the edge of town and were nowhere nearby when we met with the community leaders. In the video, I am waiting at the pickup site on the edge of town, where a group of soldiers, most of them hardly a day over twenty, were encamped.

In this area, the soldiers are on their own. While there is an ambitious plan to establish a full state presence in the zone, being coordinated by a facility called a “fusion center,” headquartered in Vistahermosa, Puerto Toledo has seen little non-military presence or investment. The main efforts so far have been a refurbishment of the town’s bridge, with USAID funds, and a program, carried out by the National Park Service, to relocate 300 families from the fringes of the La Macarena National Park to new, titled landholdings with decent houses and no coca plants. The Park Service program is moving steadily, but slowly.

The 300 families, from Puerto Toledo and nearby towns, have been in negotiations for nearly a year with the directors of the “Integrated Action” program for support with productive projects and food security assistance. The communities have exchanged several proposals and counter-proposals with the Plan for Integrated Consolidation of La Macarena (PCIM), the entity coordinating the state-building effort in the region. The communities’ main reservations had to do with clauses requiring them to certify that they invited the presence of the security forces – an affirmation that, in their view, would have left them vulnerable to swift and cruel retribution from the FARC. Finally, a month ago, the PCIM told the communities that their most recent proposal was acceptable, but that the funding window had closed.

In general, my impression of the program is that its civilian component is still quite weak. This appears to be due mainly to lack of resources, lack of civilian agencies’ “buy-in,” and a security situation that appears to be far less permissive than I had been led to believe.

I’ll write more about this later. Please keep in mind that these are very raw first impressions from someone who just returned to Bogotá a few hours ago and hasn’t even reviewed his notes yet. I’ll post corrections if necessary.

Outside Puerto Toledo, Colombia from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

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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