Oct 28

We’re constantly being asked about how U.S. policy toward Colombia might change after next week’s elections. The short answer: it’s probably going to change a great deal, no matter who is elected. The longer answer is more interesting: as we see it, the policy could go one of three ways next year.

The United States’ approach to Colombia has not changed much since about 2002-2003, when the Plan Colombia counter-drug framework was broadened to include aid for “counter-terrorism.” Big-ticket initiatives begun then – protection of the Arauca pipeline, creation of a commando unit to go after illegal groups’ leadership, helping create new mobile units, and others, including “Plan Patriota” – have been in place for some time now. The aid request for 2005, which Congress is in the last stages of approving, closely resembles 2004 aid (with the doubled troop cap the main difference).

We don’t expect the policy to remain on autopilot for much longer, though. As the next Congress debates the 2006 aid proposal, 2005 will be sort of a “crossroads” year for the U.S. strategy in Colombia, perhaps the first such year since 2000.

The election result is only one reason why, and in fact not a major one. Whether the next president is a clean-slate Kerry or a strengthened Bush, we’ll have an administration headed by a consistent proponent of Plan Colombia. Though the two candidates clearly disagree on some aspects of the policy – such as the weight that should be given to human rights – both appear to have supported the policy’s general thrust, including the overwhelmingly military content of U.S. assistance.

There are more important reasons why 2005 is likely to be a year of reconsideration.

  1. U.S. officials insist that Plan Colombia, which they define as a six-year plan begun in 2000, is “ending” after 2005. What comes next? Will the United States continue to aid Colombia with more than $700 million per year (80 percent of it for the military and police)?
  2. The 2006 U.S. aid package for Colombia will have to compete with other priorities that didn’t exist in 2000, like greatly increased aid for the Middle East, the Millennium Challenge account, and the Bush administration’s global HIV-AIDS initiative. The pool of resources available for these priorities – the annual foreign aid bill – has grown since 2000, but not as much as one might expect given the urgent need to win more hearts and minds in the “war on terror.” (Foreign aid totaled $16.5 billion worldwide in 2000; for 2005, the Senate would provide $19.6 billion and the House $19.4 billion. The new priorities listed above cost more than the $3 billion increase of the past few years; in fact, the administration plans to cut development and child-health aid to Latin America by 10 percent between 2004 and 2005.)
  3. Many policymakers, convinced of success after more than two years of Colombian government statistics claiming gains against drugs and violence, may believe that it is time to consolidate gains by shifting tactics.

Sometime in early 2005 (usually February, though a new administration often starts later), the next president will send his 2006 aid request to Congress, and the debate will begin. We foresee three possible scenarios for what U.S. policy toward Colombia will look like after that debate concludes.

Scenario 1: “Plan Colombia 2″

What would happen: It is possible that the U.S. military commitment will continue to expand after 2005. Military aid levels would increase, with counterterrorism / counterinsurgency becoming the chief focus. In this scenario, the U.S.-supported “Plan Patriota” offensive currently going on in southern Colombia would be seen as a pilot project for a profusion of similar offensives launched elsewhere in the country. U.S. trainers, logistics teams, intelligence specialists, and others would help the Uribe government expand its efforts to retake territory and go after guerrilla (probably not paramilitary) leadership. New weapons transfers – including more helicopters – would also be likely. This expansion would in turn create new pressures to raise the “cap” on the U.S. military presence once again. Under this scenario, a significant increase in economic aid would be unlikely. Even counternarcotics would become a secondary goal put on autopilot; fumigation, for instance, might even decrease to what State Department counter-narcotics chief Bobby Charles has called “maintenance levels” of spraying.

Who wants it: The Uribe government has already gone on record in favor of a “Plan Colombia 2,” asking for an extension of aid through 2009 and more help fighting guerrillas. Segments of the Pentagon, Southern Command and State Department who want to support the Uribe program would also get on board; Southcom’s commander, Gen. James Hill, has spoken often about the need to “stay the course,” pressuring the FARC so hard that by 2006 they will be “combat ineffective” and have no choice but to negotiate. Some congressional Republicans would no doubt support this scenario as well.

What they will argue: Citing the statistics that come from Colombia’s Defense Ministry and elsewhere in the Uribe government, this option’s proponents will contend that progress is being made – we may even hear references to “the light at the end of the tunnel” – and insist that now is the time to begin to hit harder. This group may also argue that now is not the time to talk about economic aid or poverty alleviation, that security must come first.

Scenario 2: A more balanced approach

What would happen: While aid to Colombia would stay in the $700-750 million dollar range, military and police aid would decrease while economic and social aid increases. The military component would shrink to far less than the 80 percent that it has been since 2000. The United States would invest more on priorities like judicial reform, citizen security, alternative development and job creation, and aid to the displaced. The USAID mission would grow.

Who wants it: Some – mainly mid-level – officials at the State Department and other agencies may favor this shift. Congressional Democrats, including both opponents and some mild proponents of Plan Colombia, are likely to push for this scenario. Perhaps – and this is less certain – some congressional Republicans may begin calling for a better balance in assistance; an indicator of that could be last month’s letter from nine key House Republicans recommending support for several job-creation initiatives (PDF format). If so, this scenario would enjoy the support of an unusual coalition of policymakers who come to the same conclusion from very different perspectives.

What they will argue: Liberals will argue, as they have for years, that an overly military strategy won’t work, as it ignores and worsens the poverty and inequality that feed Colombia’s cycle of violence. They will argue that economic aid is an inseparable element of a security strategy, and that it makes no sense to keep waiting for ideal “security conditions” to be established before making non-military investments. Conservatives, again citing official statistics, will argue that Plan Colombia and Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policies have made rapid gains in drug-crop eradication and security, but they will express concern that these gains could be ephemeral without a stronger non-military strategy to sustain them.

Scenario 3: “Adiós, amigos”

What would happen: The proportion of military to economic aid may or may not shift, but it wouldn’t matter much, as the overall amount of aid to Colombia would begin to shrink well below the current level of $700-750 million. Along with less aid, the U.S. military commitment and overall level of interest in Colombia would also decrease.

Who wants it: Some congressional Republicans, especially in the House, appear to be ready to start winding down after 2005. In the non-binding narrative report language accompanying its version of the 2005 foreign aid bill, which was released in July, the House Appropriations Committee’s Republican majority seemed to be expressing “Colombia fatigue.”

The Committee is concerned that the level of resources provided by the United States Government to Colombia is increasing in 2005, including increased funding for a costly air bridge denial program. Therefore, the Committee anticipates a decrease in the President’s budget request for 2006 for the Andean Counterdrug Initiative for Colombia.

What they will argue: Proponents of this scenario will argue that while Colombia may have been a high priority in 2000, the world has changed dramatically since then, and the United States faces more immediate security threats. The foreign aid budget is already stretched very thin, they will contend, and our focus on the Middle East means that we’ll need to redirect some of the hundreds of millions that go to Colombia. Another likely argument would hold that, since the statistics indicate that Plan Colombia and Uribe have brought Colombia’s problems down to “manageable” levels, the United States can afford to “take its eye off the ball” and reduce its commitment.

Which of the three scenarios is most likely? We honestly haven’t the slightest idea. CIP obviously favors the second, and we predict that it may be somewhat more likely to come to pass should Kerry be elected. However, it is also easy to imagine a Kerry government, including among its officialdom the original Clinton-era authors of Plan Colombia, going with Scenario 1. It’s also possible that a Bush government, not wishing to make an ideological stand in a region it has largely ignored, might give in to a coalition pushing for Scenario 2. And the reality of Scenario 3 looms over both possible administrations.

The policy could change for the better in 2005, or it could spiral deeper into disaster. Much of the outcome will depend on whether U.S. policymakers are hearing from U.S. citizens. While Scenario 2 is attainable to an extent unseen in years, making it a reality will require that concerned Americans let their members of Congress and senators know that the choice they make next year matters to them. Without this input, our policymakers – whether under a Kerry or a Bush administration, a Republican or a Democratic Congress – will be debating and deciding the future of the U.S. Colombia policy in a vacuum. They will see no political cost if they choose either to launch “Plan Colombia 2″ or to disengage from Colombia.

So be sure to vote next Tuesday – but also be sure to let whoever wins know what you think about where we should be headed in Colombia.

Oct 26

“As President, I will work with President Uribe to keep the bipartisan spirit in Washington alive in support of Plan Colombia,” reads Sen. John Kerry’s October 15 statement on Colombia.

With that sentence, Sen. Kerry employed an adjective that Plan Colombia’s proponents frequently invoke. A few examples just since June:

  • “This policy reflects the continuing bipartisan support received from the Congress for our programs in Colombia.” – Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega, testifying before the House Government Reform Committee, June 17, 2004 (PDF format).
  • “Led by Speaker Dennis Hastert and enjoying bipartisan support, Congress continues to fund activities that are making a difference.” – Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Thomas O’Connell, in a Washington Times op-ed, July 1, 2004.
  • “Our policy enjoys strong, durable bipartisan support because it responds not only the needs of a friend and ally, but also to the fundamental values and vital security needs of the United States.” – Ambassador William Wood at Georgetown University, September 20, 2004.

It makes good political sense to sell Plan Colombia – which was proposed by the Democratic Clinton administration and supported by the Republican congressional leadership four-and-a-half years ago – as a bipartisan strategy. If majorities on both sides of the aisle see the current course in Colombia as the best possible one, then the policy must not be controversial; all those peace and human-rights people opposing it must be fringe characters way out of touch with the mainstream.

The vision of bipartisanship may be comforting for Plan Colombia’s proponents. Unfortunately, it’s wrong, and it has been wrong for some time. Plan Colombia hasn’t enjoyed anything resembling bipartisan support since Bill Clinton left the White House. Today, most of the Democratic Party is not on board.

A look at votes in Congress makes clear a trend of steadily increasing skepticism about U.S. policy toward Colombia. While skeptics have yet to win a vote – the Republican majority remains tightly disciplined, in part due to Speaker Dennis Hastert’s longstanding interest in Colombia, a country he has visited many times – the Democrats’ growing opposition is measurable.

Votes in the House of Representatives are quite illustrative:

  • March 29, 2000: During the debate on the initial Plan Colombia appropriation, Rep. David Obey (D-Wisconsin) introduced an amendment to strip out military assistance for Colombia and postpone it for a later, separate vote. The amendment lost by a 186-239 vote; a majority of Democrats (127-81, or 61%) voted for the Obey measure. (Plan Colombia was attached to the 2001 military construction appropriations bill; the vote on that much larger bill is not a useful measure of representatives’ positions on Plan Colombia.)
  • July 24, 2001: During debate on the 2002 foreign aid bill, Reps. Barbara Lee (D-California) and Jim Leach (R-Iowa) introduced an amendment to shift some funding from the Andean Counter-Drug Initiative to the Global AIDS Trust Fund. The amendment lost by a 188-240 vote; a majority of Democrats (172-35, or 83%) voted for it.
  • July 24, 2001: During debate on the 2002 foreign aid bill, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) and several other members introduced an amendment that would have cut $100 million from the Andean aid to pay for increased assistance for anti-tuberculosis programs. The amendment lost by a 179-240 vote; a majority of Democrats (156-50, or 76%) voted for it.
  • May 23, 2002: During debate over a special appropriation for counter-terrorism, Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) and Ike Skelton (D-Missouri) introduced an amendment that would have cut language broadening the mission of U.S. military assistance in Colombia, restricted at the time to counter-drug purposes, to include combat against illegal armed groups. The amendment lost by a 192-225 vote; a majority of Democrats (170-30, or 85%) voted for it.
  • April 3, 2003: During debate on the Iraq war appropriation, Reps. McGovern, Skelton and Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut) introduced an amendment that would have cut U.S. military assistance in Colombia included in the bill. The amendment lost by a 209-216 vote; a strong majority of Democrats (190-10, or 95%) voted for it.
  • July 23, 2003: During debate on the 2004 foreign aid bill, Reps. McGovern and Skelton that would have some cut military aid for Colombia and transferred it to HIV-AIDS programs. The amendment lost by a 195-226 vote; a strong majority of Democrats (182-17, or 91%) voted for it.

The Senate has not considered Colombia as often, and is more difficult to measure. During the 2000 debate on the first Plan Colombia appropriation, this body did indeed act in a bipartisan fashion, rejecting amendments by Democrat Paul Wellstone (11 to 89) and Republican Slade Gorton (19 to 79) seeking to cut military assistance.

Though the Senate hardly considered Colombia over the next few years, 2004 brought signs that bipartisan support for Plan Colombia has eroded. In July, Sen. Russell Feingold circulated a letter to President Uribe expressing several human rights concerns; while the letter gained the signatures of 23 Democratic senators (including Kerry and Edwards), not a single Republican would sign onto it, despite activists’ strenuous efforts to make the letter a bipartisan document.

On June 23 of this year, the Senate had its first significant debate and vote on Colombia policy in some time. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) introduced an amendment to the 2005 Defense Authorization bill seeking to roll back an increase in the number of U.S. military and contractor personnel allowed in Colombia. (A similar “troop cap” measure had been approved by the House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee – the first example of bipartisan support for a provision in opposition to the executive branch’s efforts to carry out Plan Colombia.) The Byrd amendment lost by a 40-58 vote, a much better Senate showing than in 2000; a majority of Democratic senators (38-9, or 79%) voted for it.

The record of the last few years shows a string of sharply divided party-line votes, not a bipartisan consensus behind the current U.S. policy toward Colombia. “Bipartisanship” is not the appropriate term for a coalition between nearly all Republicans and a thin sliver from the Democratic minority. If one accepts that definition, then the “b-word” can be slapped onto just about any Republican initiative of the past few years that counted with a few maverick Democratic votes – the Medicare bill, the Bush tax cuts, even the war in Iraq.

Despite the wording of Sen. Kerry’s statement and Bush administration officials’ assurances, Plan Colombia does not enjoy bipartisan support. And saying so simply won’t make it true.

Oct 25

To those who, like President Uribe, have trouble distinguishing between non-governmental human rights groups and guerrillas (recall Uribe’s characterization of most Colombian human rights NGOs as “spokespeople for terrorism,” among other things, on several occasions over the past 13 months), we direct you to the website of CODHES, one of Colombia’s best-known human rights organizations.

In an editorial published Saturday, CODHES strongly condemns a group of misguided activists in Denmark who recently raised $8,500 and sent it to the FARC. The Colombian group makes clear that no money for war – whether cash for the guerrillas or helicopters for the Colombian army – is welcome from the international community. An English translation follows.

The announcement that a group of Danish citizens donated US$8,500 to the FARC elicits not only indignation and condemnation, but should also serve to open a national and international political debate about the methods of finance and support for the internal war from which Colombia suffers.

We should not accept support of any kind, be it economic or political, from governments, non-governmental organizations, or social organizations that continue to feed the confrontation, because after 40 years we are convinced that war is not the path and weapons are not the answer.

The country is mired in a deep social crisis, the result of accelerated poverty for the majority of the population combined with the utilization of a sizeable portion of resources for war.

The FARC, ELN, and self-defense groups are spending approximately US$2,592,251 each day, much of it coming from drug trafficking, to prolong this unjustifiable war.

Last year, the national government spent a daily average of approximately US$7,287,175 on its defense and national security budget, amid the warlike enthusiasm surrounding the idea of a military solution.

From the United States, US$1,680,175 arrives in our country every day to feed this war, in the framework of the struggle against terror and drugs, with no result other than the indefinite prolonging of the conflict and the unchanged supply of narcotics in the streets of the world’s largest cities

This is why it is imperative that all types of support for those who make war must be condemned. The aid we demand of the world is aid for peace, democracy, human rights, justice and social equality.

Nobody should send their money to buy guns, promote attacks, displace, confine or kidnap civilians, disappear citizens, lay mines, destroy the national infrastructure, or arbitrarily arrest people.

Instead of money for war, Colombia requires support for a political and negotiated solution to this conflict, a serious process with results, which includes broad participation of civil society (including the victims) and serious mechanisms of international facilitation and verification, within the framework of the principles of truth, justice, reparation, and international human rights instruments.

Ladies and gentlemen of Denmark, we do not want your money for the FARC.

Oct 24

The Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), one of the country’s oldest and most respected human-rights groups, has just released a very thorough report on how Colombia’s human-rights situation has evolved since Álvaro Uribe assumed office in August 2002. “Colombia: Against International Human Rights Recommendations” represents the Colombian human rights community’s best response yet to the Uribe government’s barrage of official statistics trumpeting the success of its hard-line security policies.

The report begins with a long epigraph of excerpts from “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the Hans Christian Andersen fable about a leader whose followers vigorously support his utter denial of easily observed reality. It then asks:

What would happen if the people in the government charged with analyzing the results of the current security policy, put into practice between 2002 and 2004, find that it has been a failure? Probably, nothing would happen. The President and his government’s publicity specialists have transmitted, day after day, such a strong message of victory that it would be difficult for a simple low-level technocrat, basing himself on his humble observations of the facts of reality, to dare to contradict the avalanche of official, effective information.

The report goes on to do just that. It scores several direct hits on the Uribe government’s claims of miraculous success in the fight against illegal armed groups and the protection of human rights. The Bogotá government has backed these claims by playing a rather one-sided “numbers game,” with endless press releases and PowerPoint presentations showing declines in everything from murders to pipeline bombings. (Look no further than the website of the vice-president’s human rights program – www.derechoshumanos.gov.co – which offers little about fighting impunity or breaking links with paramilitaries but offers an annoying Flash presentation and reams of statistics. The U.S. government, eager to sell Plan Colombia, happily repeats these statistics in PowerPoint slides distributed by the U.S. Southern Command (like this PDF file) and in officials’ congressional hearing testimonies (like this one).) The CCJ’s report now makes the numbers game a two-sided affair, casting serious doubt on many of the Colombian government’s claims.

For those who don’t read Spanish or are unwilling to wade through the report’s 114 pages and 360 footnotes, here are what we consider to be its top ten findings.

  1. In 2003, 6,335 people – over 17 per day – were killed by what the CCJ calls “sociopolitical violence.” (Corresponding numbers for past years were 6,639 in 2000, 6,641 in 2001, and 7,803 in 2002.) Of those, 3,905 were not killed in combat situations – they were killed “in their homes, in the street or in their workplaces.” 2,430 were killed during combat, 115 of them civilians caught in the crossfire. 7.77 percent were killed directly by the security forces, 69.34 percent were killed by paramilitaries, and 22.89 percent were killed by guerrillas. Killings of civilians by the state security forces increased from an average of 120 between 1998 and 2002 to 184 in 2003.
  2. The CCJ claims to have “solid information” about recent military-paramilitary collaboration in the departments (provinces) of Antioquia, Arauca, Bolívar, Chocó, Córdoba, Cundinamarca, Meta, Norte de Santander, Santander, Sucre, Tolima and Valle del Cauca. These include “cases of joint actions between members of the security forces and paramilitary groups; cases in which members of the security forces present themselves before the civilian population as paramilitaries; [and] cases in which paramilitary groups circulate unbothered in showy vehicles (including stolen ones), carrying kidnap victims without the security forces doing anything to prevent it.”
  3. The paramilitaries have failed to respect the cease-fire that Álvaro Uribe required of them as a pre-condition for holding peace talks. Between December 1, 2002 – when the AUC cease-fire was declared – and September 10, 2004, the paramilitaries killed or disappeared at least 1,895 civilians “in actions not directly related to the armed conflict.”
  4. Killings and disappearances of human-rights defenders have increased. Thirty-three human-rights activists were murdered or disappeared between August 7, 2002 and August 7, 2004. This is more than the 29 victims between August 2000 and August 2002, the 21 victims between August 1998 and August 2000, and the 24 victims between August 1996 and August 1998.
  5. At least 340 people were tortured between July 2002 and June 2003, a significant increase over the 242 recorded during the previous twelve months. Of the 175 cases where those responsible could be identified, state actors tortured 52 people, paramilitaries tortured 123 people, and guerrillas tortured ten.
  6. About 207,607 people were displaced from their homes during 2003, a sharp drop from the
    more than 400,000 displaced the previous year. That downward trend appears to be proving short-lived, though; citing figures from the non-governmental organization CODHES, the CCJ notes that 130,346 people were displaced during the first half of 2004, a 33.5 percent increase over the last six months of 2003.
  7. As of August 2004, the Uribe government claims to have signed up 2.5 million Colombians (of a population of 44 million) as “cooperators” willing to provide intelligence about armed-group activity to the security forces. As of April 2003, 7,011 had signed up as “informants,” individuals paid to provide intelligence on a regular basis. The CCJ report notes that “the current government forgets the principle according to which, under the democratic and social rule of law, the authorities exist to protect people (article 2 of the Colombian Constitution) and not the people to protect the state. … Programs like the networks of informants and cooperators, and that of the “peasant soldiers,” lead to new forms of paramilitarism and ignore the fundamental principle of distinction between combatants and non-combatants.”
  8. Arbitrary detentions have increased dramatically. The CCJ counted 4,362 cases of people rounded up without probable cause between July 2002 and June 2003. In the six previous years – from July 1996 to June 2002 combined – the CCJ only counted 2,869 arbitrary detentions. This sharp rise owes to the Uribe government’s policy of carrying out mass arrests.
  9. The report notes a dramatic change in the performance of the Colombian attorney-general’s office (Fiscalía) since the 2001 accession of Luis Camilo Osorio as the nation’s head prosecutor. “First, the attorney-general has sought to diminish the importance of human rights violations committed by members of the security forces. Second, the attorney-general has unduly interfered, in detriment to the victims’ rights, with ongoing investigations. Since the beginning of his term the attorney-general has criticized the fact that his office’s Human Rights Unit focused on cases against members of the security forces. Finally, the attorney-general’s office has participated directly, through acts of commission, in serious human-rights violations,” particularly cases connected to the above-mentioned mass arrests. (The damage Osorio has done to his office’s human-rights protection effort was the subject of a late 2002 Human Rights Watch report.)
  10. The CCJ repeats statistics about worsening poverty and inequality compiled by the government’s comptroller-general’s office (Contraloría), among others. 64.2 percent of Colombians now live below the poverty line of roughly $3 per day; 31 percent live below the extreme poverty line of roughly $2 per day. The rural poverty rate is an incredible 85.3 percent. 0.4 percent of landholders control 61.2 percent of registered land. Colombia’s Gini coefficient (a number between 0 and 1, where 0 means everyone in the country has the same income and 1 means one person earns all the income and everyone else gets nothing) is 0.562, making Colombia one of the most unequal countries in the world.

The CCJ report takes into account some – though not all – of the observations about Colombian human rights groups’ documentation methods raised by a well-publicized October 2003 (PDF format) cable from U.S. Embassy Bogotá (which criticized the Colombian groups’ “selective emphasis on bad news”). While the CCJ provides ample clarity about its sources and methods, differing definitions of some terms – such as “sociopolitical violence” or “arbitrary detention” – do explain some of the divergence from the Colombian government’s numbers.

In all, though, the CCJ report makes a strong contribution to the debate over the effectiveness of Álvaro Uribe’s security policies. It is very highly recommended.

It’s too bad, though, that the CCJ apparently hasn’t mastered news cycles. The announcement of the new report arrived in our e-mail inboxes late on Friday afternoon. As anyone who follows the U.S. government’s disclosures of inconvenient information knows, late Friday – after reporters’ deadlines and before Saturday, the day in which newspapers gain their lowest circulation of the week – is the best time to avoid, not attract, publicity.

Oct 21

A poll released October 15 by Colombian media giant RCN contained some very bad news for Álvaro Uribe. The RCN-Yanhaas survey found an 18.2 percent drop in the president’s approval rating since August. Of those surveyed, 47.8 percent characterized his performance as “good,” 37.9 percent as “medium” and 12.7 percent as “poor.” This follows an October 8 Invamer-Gallup survey, in which the president’s approval rating fell from 78 to 72 percent (Invamer-Gallup doesn’t offer “medium” as an option).

Though not catastrophic or irreversible drops, these represent the lowest points for Uribe at least since early 2003. For the first time in his presidency, Invamer-Gallup found that the number of people who think the country is on the wrong track (38 percent) nearly equals the number who believe things are improving (39 percent).

Keep in mind that this poll does not sample a cross-section of Colombian opinion. It only reaches Colombians (1) who live in the four to seven largest cities; (2) who own a telephone; and (3) who may be less than candid about their political opinions when speaking to a total stranger on the telephone. Nonetheless, even with a sample so skewed toward the wealthy, Invamer found three economic issues – the cost of living, unemployment, and management of the economy – to be the main reasons for the drop in approval.

According to the same poll, the fourth-most damaging issue for Colombia’s president is his “management of the paramilitary problem.” Indeed, the Bogotá government’s attempt to talk peace with the AUC have been unraveling in an atmosphere of secrecy, miscommunication, infighting and widespread concern about what might happen next.

Uribe and his peace commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo, have faced mounting criticism for launching the peace talks without a clear plan, devoting insufficient resources to get the job done right, failing to win the international community’s support, and denying, in the face of much evidence, that a fundamental change in strategy is needed.

Those same criticisms, of course, have also been leveled at the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq. In both cases, these self-inflicted wounds are doing significant damage to both presidents’ domestic approval ratings.

As bad news continues to flow out of Baghdad, the Uribe government’s talks with the AUC have generated their own torrent of alarming developments just during the past month.

- On September 19, one of the principal paramilitary negotiators, Miguel Arroyave – who assumed control over the AUC’s “Centauros Bloc” in Cundinamarca, Meta and Casanare in 2001, after serving jail time for narcotrafficking – was killed by his own men. Arroyave became the third top paramilitary leader, and second AUC negotiator, killed by fellow paramilitaries since April, when longtime leader Carlos Castaño disappeared following an armed attack. (Castaño is presumed dead; U.S. Ambassador William Wood revealed recently that the warlord’s 22-year-old wife was granted asylum and is currently in the United States.)

- On September 26, Colombia’s Semana magazine printed transcripts of secretly taped conversations between government negotiator Restrepo and AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso. In the tapes, Restrepo assured the paramilitary leader that he is trying to keep reports of paramilitaries murdering civilians in the Ralito demilitarized zone out of the media. He also told them they have nothing to fear from the International Criminal Court, even though Colombia is a signatory to the Rome Statute. It turned out that the leaker of the tapes was Mancuso himself, apparently making a heavy-handed effort to weaken Restrepo’s position. Restrepo offered his resignation, but President Uribe did not accept it.

While those revelations shocked Colombia, the impact was amplified by simultaneous reports that same September 26 in Colombia’s main Sunday papers. El Tiempo and El Espectador both reported on the paramilitaries’ growing influence in Colombia’s economy and political system, including a strong presence in 35 percent of the country’s municipalities (counties), close ties to many members of the Congress and local governments, and revelations of schemes to channel public funds into paramilitary coffers.

- On September 30, authorities arrested Andrés Vélez, who served for months as the AUC’s spokesman at the Ralito peace talks, as part of a DEA-assisted operation to dismantle a money-laundering ring. Further investigation revealed that Vélez played a role in a massive multinational scheme to bring drug money back into Colombia for the Centauros Bloc, the paramilitary unit headed by Miguel Arroyave until his murder less than two weeks earlier.

- President Uribe had made clear that he would not hold peace talks with any group that did not first declare a unilateral cease-fire. The paramilitaries declared a cease-fire in December 2002; while this has slowed the pace of paramilitary human-rights abuses, violations of the cease-fire continue at an alarming rate. On October 3, the Colombian government’s human rights ombudsman (Defensoría del Pueblo) announced that its offices had received 342 complaints of paramilitary cease-fire violations since December 2002. The statistic refers to records the ombudsman has kept in only eleven of Colombia’s thirty-two departments (provinces). In the department of Tolima alone, the local ombudsman announced on October 17 that the paramilitaries had killed 170 people since the cease-fire was declared.

- An October 3 massacre of at least 11 people at a resort in Candelaria, Valle del Cauca – part of an ongoing war between drug traffickers in the area – appeared to involve paramilitaries. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Bogotá field office issued a statement noting that “this mass killing appears to constitute another clear violation of the commitments the paramilitaries have made at the Santa Fe de Ralito negotiating table.”

- On October 7, Colombian authorities arrested Gabriel Puerta Parra, alias “The Doctor,” one of twelve top North Valle Cartel figures the United States has sought to extradite since May. El Tiempo reported this week that in August, Puerta Parra had written to an unnamed top AUC leader asking permission to join the ranks of the paramilitary leadership in the demilitarized zone where talks are taking place. By becoming “Comandante Agamez,” the name he chose for himself, Puerta Parra hoped not only to evade arrest, but to negotiate a possible amnesty and a way to avoid extradition to the United States. Though his letter’s addressee apparently said no to this scheme, Puerta Parra’s text indicates that several top paramilitary leaders – Vicente Castaño, Diego Murillo Bejarano (Don Berna), Lorenzo González Quinchía (Macaco), and Iván Roberto Duque (Ernesto Báez) – had already approved the idea. (The amount of money the AUC would have received in exchange is not discussed.) In the letter, the narcotrafficker reminded the AUC leadership of his eighteen years of financial support for paramilitaries in several parts of the country.

Though it didn’t work out for Puerta Parra, other narcotraffickers-turned-paramilitary-leaders have been luckier: they are currently serving as paramilitary negotiators in the demilitarized zone at Santa Fe de Ralito, Córdoba. Among them are no less than three of the twelve North Valle capos on the U.S. government’s “wanted” list. They include Víctor Manuel Mejía Múnera, nicknamed “El Mellizo” (”The Twin”) but known in Ralito as “Pablo Arauca,” the head of the AUC’s “Avengers of Arauca” bloc; Francisco Javier Zuluaga Lindo, known as “Gordo Lindo” in the drug underworld but in Ralito as “Comandante Gabriel Galindo,” the political chief of the Pacific Bloc; and Ramiro Vanoy Murillo, or “Cuco,” the chief of the Antioquia-based Mineros Bloc. (See this interesting list, in a recent issue of Semana, of narcos who have recently converted to paramilitarism.) The Uribe government did take the step of ordering the extradition of a mid-ranking paramilitary leader present in the Ralito zone, Juan Carlos Sierra (alias “El Tuso”), on September 26. Angry AUC leaders did not turn over “El Tuso,” who remains a fugitive from justice.

- U.S. support for the peace process continued to weaken. In an October 10 interview with Semana magazine, U.S. Ambassador William Wood again ratified the United States’ position that Washington’s support depends on paramilitary leaders’ submission to justice, “including the jailing of those guilty of crimes against humanity and the extradition of those who broke our laws.” He added that the paramilitaries “are not political actors. They are criminals, narcotraffickers, murderers and thieves.”

In the face of this punishing barrage of bad news, the AUC and the Colombian government have proposed a measure to try to shore up the talks’ flagging image: the demobilization of 3,000 paramilitary fighters – about one-sixth to one-seventh of the AUC – between early November and late December.

It is unclear whether the proposed demobilization is a show of paramilitary goodwill or, as some observers contend, a take-it-or-leave-it offer to accept thousands of fighters whom the paramilitaries no longer wish to pay. Peace Commissioner Restrepo, however, is seizing on the proposal as a sign of success. When El Tiempo reporters asked him on October 10 about his statements in the leaked tapes, he dismissed the issue: “The episode of the leaked tapes is, for me, an issue of the past. What interest me are deeds, and what is happening today [the AUC demobilization proposal] is a positive step. This is what definitely should be reported.”

With hundreds of young, unemployed fighters possibly ready to begin exiting the paramilitaries as early as two weeks from now, the Colombian government’s ability to ease their transition is a very urgent question. Right now, the Uribe administration appears to have neither the resources nor a solid plan in place for demobilization. Questions like financing, logistics, security guarantees, verifying weapons stockpiles, identifying known human-rights abusers, and the design of reintegration assistance all remain unanswered.

The November 2003 demobilization of 850 members of the “Nutibara Bloc” paramilitary group in Medellín does not offer a hopeful model. Though some in the U.S. media reported it as a hopeful step (a Miami Herald editorial at the time called it “a move in the right direction“), even peace negotiator Restrepo now acknowledges that this underfinanced, thrown-together episode was “an embarrassment.” Up to 70 percent of the young men who demobilized with much fanfare that day (handing in about 200 weapons, mostly pistols) were in fact street criminals rounded up at the last moment and passed off as paramilitaries. Three weeks of “reintegration” and a poorly-financed follow-up have had almost no impact; the “demobilized” young men continue to control the same poor Medellín neighborhoods, and many have been killed by internecine gang-fighting.

In an editorial, El Tiempo asks some difficult questions.

Is the government prepared and does it have the resources to handle the surrender of 3,000 men all at once? Have control measures been contemplated to avoid a repeat of the errors of the “Nutibara Bloc” in Medellín? How to make sure that young people aren’t recruited at the last minute and passed off as paramilitaries? What verification mechanisms will be applied to determine if the “paras” are complying? If it has been difficult in an urban zone like Medellín, how will it be now? And their security? With so many troops in the south searching for the FARC’s rearguard [in "Plan Patriota"], how will the security forces be able to respond in zones that the paramilitaries leave in their hands?

With answers to these questions far off, the upcoming demobilization – if it indeed happens – may end up being yet another liability to add to the long list of blows the paramilitary talks have suffered. As with President Bush and Iraq, the damage could come to extend well beyond President Uribe’s approval rating.

Oct 20

The Colombian Army’s website this morning has an interestingly worded poll question:

The high commissioner for peace, Luis Carlos Restrepo, said that now is the best moment for the self-defense groups [paramilitaries] to carry out a massive demobilization.

Do you think this is the best moment, considering that the FARC still remains active as a terrorist organization?

The question’s phrasing indicates that the army is still not viewing all illegal armed groups equally as enemies. Even in question form, the army should not publicly be entertaining the notion that one group might serve as a bulwark, or a balance, against another. If the AUC demobilizes (which is pretty unlikely anyway), the army should be pleased to have an enemy removed from the battlefield, not worried about having to confront the FARC alone.

Encouragingly, the majority of respondents so far – 69% as of noon today – have voted “yes,” the AUC should demobilize no matter what happens to the FARC.

Oct 17

A Google search for English-language pages with the name “Alfredo Correa de Andreis” returned nothing from any media source, just a few alerts from international solidarity groups. That Correa’s case has slipped below the international radar is good news for Alvaro Uribe and his government’s controversial security policies, which deserve far more scrutiny than they are getting.

A month ago today, on September 17, two hitmen on a motorcycle killed Correa and his bodyguard, Edward Ochoa, in Barranquilla, Correa’s hometown and Colombia’s fourth-largest city. A sociologist, agronomist and a professor at Barranquilla’s Simon Bolivar University, the 52-year-old Correa was known as an outspoken advocate of human rights, organized labor and improved conditions for the poor. One of his last works was a study, funded in part by USAID, of displaced populations in Barranquilla. He described himself a “militant of the democratic [that is, nonviolent] left.”

Most observers suspect that the dominant paramilitary figure in the area, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo or “Jorge 40,” ordered the killing. Right now, “Jorge 40″ is in the Santa Fe de Ralito demilitarized zone, sitting at a table with government peace negotiators; while talks proceed, any outstanding orders for his arrest have been suspended.

The chain of events that led to Correa’s death may in fact have been triggered by the Uribe government’s policy of aggressively and often indiscriminately arresting suspected guerrilla collaborators. On June 17, dozens of heavily armed police arrested Correa on suspicion of serving clandestinely as a FARC ideologist named “Comandante Eulogio.” Prof. Correa became one of thousands of academics, labor leaders, human-rights activists and other left-of-center figures across Colombia who have been arrested on similar charges since the Uribe government began implementing its “Democratic Security” policy in 2002.

In July, as has occurred in the majority of such cases, the attorney-general’s office (Fiscalia) freed Correa for lack of evidence. The case against Correa depended on three informants, all of them former guerrillas, now part of the network of 1.9 million “eyes and ears” the Uribe government has put together with promises of payment for useful information. Their testimonies fell apart easily; El Espectador reported that several passages were in fact repeated verbatim in each of the witnesses’ statements.

Though found innocent, Correa was far from safe. The professor’s arrest had left him “señalado” (marked) in a country where hundreds of civilians are killed each year because someone suspects them of being guerilla auxiliaries. Though convicted of no crime, the mere suspicion – strongly ratified by the Colombian government’s decision to arrest him – was proof enough for the paramilitaries. “They didn’t kill Alfredo on Friday [September 17th],” Correa’s sister, Magda, told El Espectador. “They really killed him when they arrested him. That was the day they placed the tombstone over him.”

The case “reveals a perverse formula,” wrote Daniel Samper, an El Tiempo columnist and the former president’s brother. “The paid snitch denounces without proof, the prosecutor arrests in a frightening fashion, the justice system absolves and the hitman proceeds.”

According to the Permanent Assembly of Civil Society for Peace and the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners, two of Colombia’s most outspoken non-governmental groups, 4,846 civilians were arrested on charges of “rebellion” in 2003; as of early this year, 3,750 had been found innocent and freed.

Some of the arrests have occurred massively, in roundups of citizens in conflictive zones like Arauca, eastern Antioquia, Cauca, Caquetá, and Sucre. In a November 2002 report from Saravena, Arauca (where U.S. troops have been training Colombian personnel to guard an oil pipeline), Miami Herald reporter Frances Robles described a mass detention.

[T]he Colombian army rounded up hundreds of people before dawn one recent morning. Those who didn’t have any pending warrants or cloaked neighbors pointing an accusing finger went home with a black stamp. Of the 500 or so who waited hours in the Saravena town stadium, 85 went to jail. … [M]ore than half were later released.

Other arrests have taken place on a less massive, “case by case” basis, including the controversial jailings of several well-known local activists. Jose Luis Serna Alzate, the bishop of Líbano, Tolima, has faced a long struggle to clear his name. Luz Perly Córdoba of the Arauca Campesino Association has been imprisoned since February 2004. Barranquilla-based Presbyterian Church worker Mauricio Avilez has been imprisoned since June (he shared a cell with Correa). Barranquilla folksinger Yamil Cure was arrested in September and released late last week. Amaury Padilla, who served as a peace advisor to the government of Bolívar department, is now in exile after being detained and freed. Three prominent Cartagena residents – writer Rogelio España, union leader Román Torres and former local government official Rafael Palencia – have received threats after being arrested and freed. Most of those picked up in the Saravena mass arrests fear to return to their homes even though they have been found “innocent.”

The Colombian newsmagazine Semana reported on many of these cases in a recent story. As this and other sources indicate, several former detainees, like Correa, have been subsequently murdered. Six people in Bolívar have been killed this year after being arrested and released, Semana reports, citing local Public Ministry authorities. Marco Antonio Rodríguez, picked up and freed after a mass arrest in Cajamarca, Tolima, was killed shortly afterward in November 2003. Ana Teresa Yarce, a local women’s group leader, was arrested during an October 2002 government offensive against guerrilla militias in Medellín’s Comuna 13 slum, only to be freed ten days later; suspected paramilitaries killed her earlier this month.

It is remarkable how little attention the mass arrest policy has received overseas, though the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights did express concerns in its last annual report on Colombia. (British EU diplomat Chris Patten also pointed out the mass arrests’ counterproductive nature during an early 2004 trip to Colombia, recalling that “in Northern Ireland in the 1970s we committed one of our worst errors by massively detaining people suspected of ties to the IRA. The reaction to this abuse was greater support for the other side.”)

The lack of outside attention owes partly to the fact that it’s all perfectly legal, according to Colombian law; technically, none of the detainees is denied due process. Most everyone is arrested and promptly charged with a crime – though often they are paraded before reporters, their pictures published in the media as suspected guerrilla collaborators.

If Colombia’s guilty-until-proven-innocent system finds that no crime occurred, the accused is released. But common sense dictates that the practice should not be so widespread when the accusation is so serious, and the potential consequences so great for the accused. While Colombia’s judicial system frequently frees those wrongly accused, it cannot protect them from some powerful figures on Colombia’s right wing, who may see the arrest as evidence enough to target them. Even without this risk, the possibility is too great that an unscrupulous government or prosecutor can use such accusations to jail political enemies, who must then prove their innocence.

“This is a nightmare, incomparable as a violation of all my rights as a citizen,” Correa wrote to President Uribe from jail last June. “I trust that you will not only read my letter but, from a humane perspective, will adopt a course of fairness so that nobody else in this country suffers similarly.”

It is inexcusable that Professor Correa’s circumstances, and the Uribe government’s practice of rounding up suspected guerrilla collaborators on flimsy evidence, are so poorly known outside Colombia. We are certain that most members of the U.S. Congress who claim to support Alvaro Uribe’s security policies have no idea this is happening. (Who can blame them; they are usually getting their information from a U.S. government that has proven reluctant to criticize President Uribe’s policies, other than some aspects of the paramilitary peace talks).

Those of us outside Colombia need to be following this more closely. The practice of mass arrests threatens to close the political space on which Colombian democracy depends, and it should bear consequences for our governments’ relations with Bogotá.

Oct 15

John Kerry scored points in the presidential debates by using the focus group-tested term “more of the same” to deride George Bush’s plans (or lack thereof) for Iraq. Yet for the most part, “more of the same” appears to be what Kerry is promising for Colombia in a statement released this morning. The three-paragraph release praises Álvaro Uribe’s security policies and promises “to keep the bipartisan spirit in Washington alive in support of Plan Colombia.”

However, the Democratic candidate’s language does draw some distinctions with the Bush administration’s approach. Three are worth highlighting.

  • Kerry takes care to cite the twenty-seven recommendations for human-rights protection that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Bogotá office has been promoting for the past two years. The Bush administration has been loath to pressure the Uribe government to comply with all of these recommendations, or even to offer clear support for them.

    Kerry’s statement says he is “encouraged that the Colombian government has agreed to use the recommendations of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights as a framework for achieving the just peace that all Colombians deserve.” Unfortunately, that’s inaccurate: while Uribe’s adminstration has made an effort to comply with some recommendations, it has flatly refused to follow others. Bogotá has dismissed recommendations for a strict distinction between civilians and combatants (which would torpedo efforts like the government’s network of paid informants) and a prohibition on police powers for the military (the cornerstone of a constitutional amendment Uribe tried, and nearly succeeded, in passing earlier this year).

    The Colombian government freely acknowledges that it does not accept all recommendations. An oft-repeated phrase, which appeared in Vice-President Francisco Santos’ response to the High Commissioner’s annual report in March, reads: “Your recommendations are respectfully received. When the government judges that it cannot attend to them, this will be discussed frankly.”

    Give Kerry a point for invoking the recommendations, though. It’s the thought that counts.

  • The statement’s second paragraph includes very good language on impunity, breaking links with paramilitaries, and protecting human rights defenders. If a Kerry administration were actually to make these issues priorities in the U.S.-Colombian relationship, that would represent a significant change. Instead of more sunny declarations about how everything is getting better in Colombia, this would require a very tough stance the next time the State Department has to certify Colombia’s human rights performance.
  • Kerry may or may not be promoting a better balance between military and economic aid. Oddly, this depends on which version of the campaign’s statement you’re reading. They may have removed it by now, but for much of the day the Colombian Embassy had posted an earlier version of the statement on its website. In that version, the first sentence of the third paragraph reads

    In Colombia, we must not focus narrowly on the fight against narco-trafficking and counterinsurgency, diminishing the critical importance of the rule of law, alternative development, and the expansion of legitimate state authority in achieving a durable peace.

    This looks like a clear and welcome call to give more emphasis to non-military priorities. However, in the “final” version posted to the campaign’s website, this sentence has been softened considerably.

    In Colombia, we must focus on the fight against narco-trafficking and counterinsurgency at the same time as we support the rule of law, alternative development, and the expansion of legitimate state authority to achieve a durable peace.

    To this sentence, the Bush administration can simply respond, “we’re already doing that.” Why erase a key distinction with your opponent’s position?

Despite these differences in emphasis, support for Plan Colombia has been a consistent Kerry position since the Clinton administration developed the U.S. aid package in 2000. No flip-flop here. Kerry even spoke on the Senate floor in favor of Plan Colombia during the June 2000 Senate debate on the special appropriation.

His speech merits a second look. The Massachusetts senator was clearly wrestling with some aspects of Plan Colombia that worry him – the likelihood of sliding into counterinsurgency, the possibility that drug crops will move elsewhere, the human rights implications, the need to focus on drug treatment at home – but he ended up supporting the bill mainly because Colombia needed help, and Plan Colombia was the only train leaving the station. “Despite my reservations, the potential benefits of this plan are too large to ignore.”

When listing the “potential benefits,” Kerry offers an unremarkable recitation of the Clinton administration’s talking points at the time. Hindsight reveals that, by doing so, Kerry was gazing into a pretty cloudy crystal ball.

  • On the line between counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency: “The line between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency is not at all clear in Colombia, but we cannot let this stop our extension of aid. … If human rights abuses continue, or if we begin to get embroiled in the counterinsurgency efforts, the Senate must remain vigilant, ending the program if necessary.” He adds later, “the United States is not in the business of fighting insurgents, we are in the business of fighting drugs.”

    Yet two years later, in August 2002, the Senate first approved language expanding the mission of U.S. assistance from counter-narcotics only to a “unified campaign” against both drugs and insurgents. Nobody in the Senate, Kerry included, even bothered to introduce an amendment to strip that language out. (In the House, Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) and Ike Skelton (D-Missouri) introduced just such an amendment and got 192 votes.)

    Today, despite his previous misgivings, Kerry’s statement argues that “we must focus on the fight against narco-trafficking and counterinsurgency.” Perhaps that does count as a flip-flop.

  • On the U.S. military commitment: “Our military involvement in Colombia should go no further than this. Efforts to limit number of personnel are designed to address this.” Our military involvement has in fact gone much further, with U.S. military personnel now on a number of missions – from pipeline protection to Plan Patriota – not contemplated in 2000. Meanwhile, “efforts to limit the number of personnel” changed dramatically last Saturday, when Congress approved a doubling of the number of U.S. military personnel allowed on Colombian soil.
  • On other countries’ balancing out the U.S. overemphasis on military aid: “I appreciate the concerns expressed by my colleagues that the United States contribution to Plan Colombia is skewed in favor of the military, but we must keep in mind that our contribution is only a percentage of the total Plan. … As part of our contribution, and to balance military aid, the United States must continue to support Colombian requests for additional funding from international financial institutions and other EU donors.”

    For a variety of reasons, high among them a disagreement with our chosen strategy, European donors did not contribute significantly to Plan Colombia. The Colombian government’s Comptroller-General’s office (Contraloría) keeps the best record of this with a series of periodic reports. The last one (PDF format) tells us that, as of March 2003, non-US countries had announced donations of $320 million, programmed $272 million, and delivered $165.5 million in aid, nearly all of it non-military. That adds up to less than 10 percent of the mostly military U.S. contribution.

  • On the effect Plan Colombia would have on the drug trade: “Plan Colombia’s counterdrug focus will also benefit the United States by reducing the flow of drugs to the United States.”

    Unfortunately, as CIP has pointed out elsewhere (PDF format), there has been no change in the price, availability or purity of drugs on U.S. streets. Despite Plan Colombia, supply is meeting demand as well as it ever has.

In the end, promising “more of the same” probably makes tactical sense if the goal is to get elected in 2004, when a candidate must inoculate himself against charges of being “soft on drugs” and “soft on ‘narcoterrorists.’” There is also a need to appeal to the largely pro-Uribe, pro-Plan Colombia Colombian-American community in Florida, a state where peeling off even a few dozen votes can make all the difference. If he wins, however, let’s hope that Kerry distinguishes his strategy from the Bush approach with some changes that are more fundamental than what his statement presents.

Oct 14

The Colombian Defense Ministry’s latest “Operational Results” report released this week (pdf format) presents a wide range of conflict-related statistics compiled since President Uribe took office in August 2002.

The document offers the following figures about the number of paramilitaries and guerrillas taken out of combat since Uribe’s inauguration, whether by capture, death or desertion/demobilization:

  • Paramilitaries captured: 7,576
  • Paramilitaries killed: 896
  • Paramilitaries demobilized individually: 1,432
  • Paramilitaries demobilized in groups: 1,042
  • Guerrillas captured: 14,031
  • Guerrillas killed: 4,150
  • Guerrillas demobilized: 3,960

Adding these up reveals a total of 33,087 “terrorists” out of circulation since August 2002.

In a February 2004 op-ed published in the Madrid daily El País, Álvaro Uribe declared that when he arrived in office, “my government found 30,000 people integrated into terrorist organizations.”

If you take these numbers at face value and perform some quick subtraction, you find that the combined membership of the FARC, ELN and AUC should be 30,000 – 33,087 = –3,087 fighters.

That’s awfully odd, since all three groups appear to have more than zero members – in fact, all are very evidently still out there killing people in great numbers.

Perhaps the groups’ ability to recruit is greater than even previously imagined. Perhaps the Defense Ministry is padding its figures, for instance by including among its captured “guerrillas” many of the thousands of civilians arrested lately (and often released within weeks) after paid informants have labeled them guerrilla collaborators.

Whatever the reason, this “body count” statistic is clearly not a particularly useful indicator of anything.

Oct 13

Readers of the Colombian newsweekly Semana may have seen an article last week about a June 2004 letter from USAID to one of its contractors in Colombia. In the letter, a USAID official questions support for Colombian non-governmental organizations that criticize U.S. and Colombian government policies.

The contractor, Management Services for Development (MSD), was forced to accept the resignation of two project directors due to this and other complaints from USAID. The controversy caused Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee that funds foreign aid, to freeze the flow of some human rights aid for over two months.

MSD has managed a significant chunk of U.S. aid to Colombia that fits under the “human rights” category, including assistance to Colombian government entities with human-rights responsibilities (such as the office of Vice President Francisco Santos), support for an early-warning system to prevent abuses, and technical support, protection, and other aid for some non-governmental human-rights groups. This aid, within a $24 million-per-year category called “Support for Democracy” under the “Andean Counterdrug Initiative” appropriation, is part of the 20 percent of U.S. aid to Colombia that goes to something other than the military, the police or the aerial fumigation program.

“Training and support for human rights non-governmental organizations” has been an non-military aid objective since Plan Colombia’s inception. Though several prominent Colombian human rights organizations have refused aid that bears the taint of Plan Colombia, CIP has nonetheless supported this aid. An effective, independent NGO sector is absolutely necessary to keep democratic space open for those who happen to disagree with the government but wish to work within the system. It is also necessary to keep the Bogotá government accountable for its human rights performance.

The USAID letter to MSD is disturbing because it indicates that U.S. support to Colombian NGOs may be becoming “politicized” – that is, conditioned on what the recipient organizations say or believe.

“The purpose of this letter is to formally convey our grave concerns regarding a number of contract performance issues,” the missive begins. High among those concerns is that some organizations MSD has chosen to support have dared to criticize Plan Colombia in writing.

For example, while USAID welcomes constructive criticism of Plan Colombia, USG policies and/or the Government of Colombia during debates and open policy forums supported by the human rights program implemented through MSD, it is nonetheless not appropriate for stringent criticism to be included in formal publications funded by the program. MSD has, however, permitted documents and/or publications funded under the contract to include language strongly critical of Plan Colombia and/or other USG programs and policy.

This appears to mean that, with USAID funding, it is permissible to criticize Plan Colombia orally, but not in writing. Must AID contractors now ensure that their NGO grantees’ publications avoid criticisms of U.S. policy?

The letter chides MSD employees themselves for having “taken meetings considered by the CTO [the USAID contract officer] to be contrary to US Government policy (for example, the recent Humanitarian Accord meeting with the French Embassy).” What a chilling criticism that is. Does it really mean that MSD employees cannot “take meetings” with anyone whose positions run counter to U.S. policy? Perhaps it makes sense to avoid the French embassy – they’re an enemy country now, after all – but can’t this guideline be interpreted to mean that MSD employees should avoid CIP employees because we’ve criticized Plan Colombia?

In another passage, the letter instructs MSD to “include a strategy and approach for ensuring that events supported under the contract are supportive of USAID objectives.”

For example, … as USAID’S strategy for strengthening human rights in Colombia is focused upon strengthening the GOC’s capacity in this area, work with the NGO community should be targeted to that support which advances this objective.

It should be evident that “strengthening the GOC’s capacity” to guarantee the basic rights of all of its citizens is a central goal of human-rights NGOs’ aggressive research, documentation, case advocacy – and even their criticisms. By pointing out the gaps between policy and practice, and by recommending steps that need to be taken, these groups are encouraging a whole range of improvements in the Uribe government’s human rights performance. This is the role that independent NGOs have come to play, on a whole range of issues, in every functioning democracy.

But Colombia’s most independent and effective NGOs are not out to win a popularity contest. Nor are they in business to encourage government policies or excesses that they fear will close space for non-violent dissent and worsen the human rights situation overall. Remaining independent – and, thus, credible – means speaking truth to power, saying things that neither the U.S. nor the Colombian government particularly wants to hear. If the organization in question gets U.S. government funding via MSD, it may even require them to “bite the hand” on occasion.

A defense of the USAID stance might argue that it only restricts what recipient organizations do and produce with U.S. funds. If that’s the case, are Colombian human rights groups who receive U.S. assistance really required to compartmentalize their arguments, to gag themselves depending on the source of their projects’ funding? That’s awfully unlikely to happen, and to our knowledge, the support that European countries provide comes with no such strings. (We at CIP would make no such pledge to our own funders, nor would they expect it.)

Semana reports that the MSD affair caused Sen. Leahy to put a “hold” on aid to the program in July. The hold was lifted a few weeks ago, though it’s not clear whether the issue has been resolved adequately.

Oct 11

It’s not a major breakthrough, but a call for a new economic aid program in Colombia has come from an unlikely quarter: nine Republican members of Congress, including the present and former chairmen of several committees and subcommittees that oversee aid to Colombia.

In letters three weeks ago to USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios (here, in PDF format) and Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman, the nine Republicans ask to reprogram $3.5 million in USAID funds. The money would pay for a few specific initiatives to create jobs for demobilized guerrillas and paramilitaries and displaced people, as “a way to provide many Colombians with a ready and practical alternative to the cultivation, processing and transport of illicit drugs, or membership in illegal armed groups.” Their list of projects includes improving abilities to trade in agricultural goods, and specifics like “Pest Risk Analysis,” swine fever eradication, hog slaughtering, and growing fruit for export, like uchuvas and blueberries.

I do not know how, or from where, they came up with such a specific list of activities. In this case, though, the “who” is perhaps more important than the “what.” The letter’s nine signers are some of the House members most responsible for the design of U.S. aid to Colombia today, 80 percent of which has gone to Colombia’s military and police since 2000.

These reps are not known for aggressively advocating non-military aid. These are the hard-liners, some of the members who as long as eight or nine years ago were pushing the Clinton administration hard to increase aid to Colombia’s police and expand aerial fumigation. They include

  • Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Illinois), chairman of the International Relations Committee;
  • Cass Ballenger (R-North Carolina), who heads the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee;
  • Tom Davis (R-Virginia), chairman of the Government Reform Committee and
  • his predecessor, Dan Burton (R-Indiana);
  • Mark Souder (R-Indiana), chairman of the Drug Policy Subcommittee and
  • his predecessor, John Mica (R-Florida);
  • Jerry Weller (R-Illinois);
  • Katherine Harris (R-Florida, yes, the one from the 2000 recount); and
  • Mark Steven Kirk (R-Illinois, who, incidentally, is the brother of Robin Kirk, the former Human Rights Watch researcher and author of More Terrible Than Death: Massacres, Drugs, and America’s War in Colombia.

All nine have been to Colombia, where they’ve flown over the coca fields in police helicopters. Several have issued statements, hosted hearings, and spoken on the House floor in favor of more helicopters, more guns, more spraying, and more training. By comparison, their advocacy of alternative development, judicial reform, protection of human rights workers, and similar economic and social assistance has been lukewarm at best.

That is why their advocacy of even these few initiatives is encouraging and deserves applause. Equally important is language in the letter that reveals a growing recognition that security, in Colombia, is more than just a military issue. “We are reaching a critical turning point,” the letter reads. “The challenge: to provide basic jobs and opportunities for many more working Colombians – such as displaced persons and the demobilized (ex-combatants who have renounced violence) – in a practical and sustainable manner.” That’s absolutely right.

What happens after this “turning point” will be at the center of next year’s debate over aid to Colombia in 2006 (Congress has nearly finished with the 2005 bill; opportunity for debate has passed). “Plan Colombia” – however you define it – is slated to end after 2005, and it is still not clear what will replace it. Will post-2005 U.S. aid still be a mostly military effort, a “Plan Colombia 2,” with the counter-terror mission eclipsing counter-narcotics? Or will we finally see a better balance between military and economic aid, a recognition that reducing drugs and violence depends on more resources to fight poverty and strengthen the civilian part of Colombia’s government?

Or will aid just decline overall? In the non-binding narrative report language accompanying its version of the 2005 foreign aid bill, the House Appropriations Committee calls for just that in 2006.

The Committee is concerned that the level of resources provided by the United States Government to Colombia is increasing in 2005, including increased funding for a costly air bridge denial program. Therefore, the Committee anticipates a decrease in the President’s budget request for 2006 for the Andean Counterdrug Initiative for Colombia.

CIP disagrees with that recommendation. Whether Colombia is recovering from its crisis or whether the worst is still to come, it makes no sense to cut back on the U.S. aid commitment after 2005. However, the ratio of military aid to economic aid absolutely must change. If the Uribe government is making gains militarily, these must be cemented by helping the rest of the government provide badly needed services, and by assisting those brave Colombians who are fighting to keep their government democratic and law-abiding. The priority should be on programs like the ones the nine members of Congress propose.

The Republicans’ letter is a welcome step. The next step is to appropriate an increase in USAID funds in 2006 – not a reprogramming, but a real increase – to create jobs, fight poverty, protect human rights and strengthen civilian democratic institutions. If those funds have to come from reduced military and police aid programs, so be it.

Oct 11

If you read Spanish, yesterday’s edition of the Sunday-only Colombian newspaper El Espectador featured some highly recommended reading (in addition to its coverage, and my summary, of the joint report on military aid we released last week with LAWG and WOLA). (Sorry about all those hyperlinks.)

Two articles in particular were “must-read”:

  • A debate between Ricardo Vargas of Acción Andina, one of Colombia’s most articulate drug-policy critics, and Gen. Gustavo Socha, a former head of the Colombian Police Anti-Narcotics Division (he left this post in 2002, when he was reassigned after several members of his unit allegedly stole about $2 million from a U.S.-donated fund for fuel and spare parts). The article is interesting because these are two drug-policy experts who rarely spend much time together.

    “Fumigation has a perverse effect,” Vargas says, “because it has been focused too much on the smallholding peasants, while an effective strategy against narcotrafficking is nowhere to be seen.”

  • A U.S.-based analyst named Zachariah Bruyn Decker writes about changes in the FARC guerrillas’ strategy in response to Uribe’s security policies, as indicated by captured guerrilla documents.

    Apparently, a letter from FARC leader Manuel Marulanda to his subalterns outlines three goals: first, don’t let Uribe consolidate security throughout the country; second, don’t allow the economy to bounce back from the 1999-2001 downturn; and third, create a division in Colombian public opinion about how peace can be achieved. A key tactic was to be increased attacks and bombings in cities, especially Bogotá, in order to “make the rich and the government feel the war.” The article indicates that the adoption of urban terrorism was not a popular idea with all guerrilla leaders, some of whom reportedly noted that “it’s good for weakening the state, but causes the people to reject us.” Though the FARC has carried out more attacks in cities, such as the February 2003 bombing of the El Nogal social club in Bogotá, the article notes that the urban campaign has been nowhere near as intense as the guerrilla leadership had hoped.

    The captured communications also indicate that the FARC seeks to follow the Maoist dictum of dispersing forces when the government is strong, and concentrating them when the government is weak. Apparently, their attempt to put this into practice failed a year ago, when the fronts in Cundinamarca department surrounding Bogotá were routed by the Army’s “Libertad I” offensive despite dividing into small groups. The conclusion is that “the Democratic Security strategy and its military component, Plan Patriota, have indeed substantially diminished the FARC’s ability to carry out offensive actions.”

    Is this accurate? It’s hard to tell; groups like Alfredo Rangel’s Security and Democracy Foundation have issued positive, but far less rosy, evaluations of their own. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of new information in Decker’s piece, it’s definitely worth a close read.

Oct 08

Congress has granted the Bush administration’s full request to double the number of U.S. troops in Colombia. (See CIP’s memo from earlier this afternoon.) Soon, it will be legal to have as many as 800 U.S. military personnel and 600 U.S. citizen contractors in Colombia at any given time.

With lots of public statements and in publications with titles like Getting in Deeper, we have been warning for years that a key risk of U.S. policy toward Colombia, which heavily favors a military approach, is to “greatly deepen Washington’s involvement in Colombia’s intractable war.” While people told us back in 2000 that our talk of “slippery slopes” was hysterical, we now have objective proof that we’re right: by triggering the troop cap tripwire, the congressional committee’s decision makes our deepening military involvement quantitatively measurable.

It’s anyone’s guess how long it will be until the Bush or Kerry administration comes back to Congress asking for another increase. The argument will either be “the policy is failing, we need more troops” or “the policy is going great, let’s stay the course, we need more troops.” Either way, this is not the end of the troop cap debate.

This legislative defeat does hurt, though, because it was a close one. This was not a bipartisan steamroller like the Plan Colombia aid package in 2000; Congress was notably unenthusiastic about broadening one of our overstretched military’s overseas missions. The House, thanks to the efforts of Mississippi Democrat Gene Taylor, ended up giving the administration very little of what it had asked for in May, only 100 more troops and no contractor increase at all in its version of the Defense Authorization bill (HR 4200).

The Senate granted the full request, however, even though in June Robert Byrd (D-West Virginia) managed to get 40 votes (the most votes the Senate has cast for a measure expressing any skepticism about Colombia policy) for a failed amendment that sought to do what Taylor had done in the House.

With a low revised troop cap in the House and a high one in the Senate, a conference committee – basically, the chairmen, ranking Democrats and a few other members of the Armed Services Committees – had to resolve the discrepancy. On the House side, committee chairman Duncan Hunter (R-California) was clearly in favor of the higher amount; however, his Democratic counterpart, Ike Skelton (D-Missouri), backed by Rep. Taylor, was solidly behind the lower cap. On the Senate side, neither chairman John Warner (R-Virginia) nor ranking Democrat Carl Levin (D-Michigan) had a strong opinion, though Levin had spoken on behalf of Sen. Byrd’s failed amendment in June.

The conference committee had to deal with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of differences on the Defense bill, which governs the entire $400 billion-plus Pentagon budget for 2005. Nonetheless, we understand that the Colombia troop cap, a relatively minor provision compared to things like base closures and multibillion-dollar weapons systems, was one of the last issues to be resolved because of a lack of agreement.

In the end, however, the Senate version won out. The likely reason: Senator Levin was not convinced that the issue was important enough to be stubborn about, and didn’t include it on his list of issues for which he would fight the Republican majority.

It’s possible as well that some of Levin’s staff actually favored the troop cap increase; Richard DeBobes, Levin’s staff director on the Armed Services Committee, is generally a strong proponent of U.S. military missions in Latin America. Look at the 2002 report of the “Board of Visitors” – which meets each year to review the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), the successor to the controversial U.S. Army School of the Americas – which notes this sharp exchange between DeBobes and an activist from School of the Americas Watch.

Reverend Porter [of SOA Watch] … expressed the view that U.S. Government needed to apologize to the countries whose militaries were trained by the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA) and WHINSEC, and the wish that the Board could help find a way ‘not to give license to students to abuse their power to kill.’ He told the Board that he and others honestly believe that students leave WHINSEC feeling empowered to commit crimes. … Mr. DeBobes took strong exception to Rev. Porter’s statement about students ‘feeling licensed to commit crimes,’ suggesting among other things that there was no evidence for this charge.

But enough with the post-mortems. Over the next few days, the goal is to ensure that the troop cap increase is viewed not as yet another victory for the Bush and Uribe policies, but instead a moment for sober reflection about where the United States is headed in Colombia. Mission creep is not cause for celebration – and in fact the Taylor amendment, the Byrd vote, and the conference committee’s deliberations represent a high-water mark for congressional skepticism about U.S. policy toward Colombia.

Oct 07

The PBS program Wide Angle broadcast a show on Colombia last month, and accompanied it with a very useful website. Among the pictures and articles you can find there is a transcript of an interview with Marc Grossman, who as the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs is the highest-ranking foreign service officer in the State Department.

In the transcript, Grossman makes a rather remarkable assertion to interviewer Carol Marin.

Carol Marin: When you go, what do you see? What kind of Colombia do we see through your lens?

Marc Grossman: Well, let me tell you one of the things that surprises me whenever I go to Colombia. And that is that each time when I visit Colombia, I always make time to meet with the human rights groups and the democracy groups and the church because I think it’s very important that we hear their voices as well.

And one of the most interesting things that I have found is that in every one of those meetings, what do you hear? You hear people say, ‘Stay engaged. It’s right for America to be here.’ And specifically they ask for more and more training of Colombian military forces. Because they know that the forces that we train understand human rights and understand democracy and understand their role in a democratic society. And I’ve been very interested over these six or seven times, and usually I see the same people, so I can judge what they are thinking and where they have come to. And not ever does anyone say, take your money, it’s wrong.

Carol Marin: Get out of town?

Marc Grossman: No, they want more. They want you to train more Colombian military units, to be involved more in their society. I think that’s a very interesting thing and something that always gives me a real cause for optimism.

“Get out of town” indeed. For seven years now, CIP has been in regular contact with most of Colombia’s best-known, most-cited human rights groups, and never – ever – has any of them even come close to asking for “more and more training of Colombian security forces.”

It’s perfectly impossible to imagine any of Colombia’s prominent human rights figures ever saying something like “You know our military? The one that keeps intelligence files on us and whose officers call us guerrilla collaborators? The one with a history of working with the paramilitaries who’ve killed our colleagues? Well, we think it’s great that the United States is training them. It’s just wonderful that all that light infantry training from U.S. Special Forces (the subject of about a third of U.S. training in 2003) is giving them more lethal skills. How terrific that contact with the United States is conferring such prestige and legitimacy on them. Do keep it up.”

They wouldn’t say that, ever. Not even in jest. Many – among them CODHES, CINEP, the Colombian Commission of Jurists, Planeta Paz, MINGA, and others – have been steadfast and consistent in their opposition to Plan Colombia.

Marc Grossman is not an ideologue. He’s a very capable career diplomat, not a Bush political appointee from the neocon fringe. While we’ve disagreed with many of his past statements about Colombia, he’s always been careful and measured in his assertions. But this one isn’t careful.

If Grossman had used the more vague term “non-governmental organizations” instead of human rights and democracy groups, his statement could technically be correct – the cattlemen’s federation, for instance, is non-governmental, but I’m sure they’d want more US military aid. If Grossman hadn’t specified that he’d heard calls for more military training at “every one” of his meetings, there might still be a way to make this statement resemble truth.

But he didn’t say that. The State Department’s number-three official actually wants us to believe that Colombia’s human rights community wants the United States to train more Colombian soldiers, and that they tell him so every time he visits.

This leaves two depressing possibilities. It could be that Marc Grossman is being misled by a very slanted, very limited selection of pro-military human-rights groups (and there must be some) when he goes to Colombia. If not, we can only conclude that he’s gone on record telling a first-class whopper.

Oct 06

Álvaro Uribe can always be counted on to say what’s on his mind. Colombia’s president did it again last Thursday, while answering audience questions at Florida International University in Miami. Seeking to assure a questioner that paramilitary leaders would not be amnestied following peace negotiations, he took a swipe at an important past peace effort.

“In the past, guerrilla atrocities were amnestied,” Uribe said. “The M-19 burned down the Palace of Justice, in association with narcotraffickers, and was amnestied. Colombia cannot repeat these errors, whether in favor of paramilitaries or in favor of guerrillas.”

With three sentences, Uribe slammed a peace process generally regarded as a success, probed the still-open wounds left by the 1985 Palace of Justice takeover, and failed to answer questions about what will happen to demobilized paramilitaries should their struggling peace talks with the government ever reach conclusion.

Between 1989 and 1991, the April 19th Movement (M-19), one of Colombia’s main leftist guerrilla groups, agreed to lay down its arms and participate in politics, in exchange for political reforms that included a redrafting of Colombia’s constitution. This peace process, which took place at about the same time as successful negotiations in El Salvador, brought the demobilization of over 6,500 fighters from the M-19 and six smaller groups. In 1990 elections of delegates to the Constituent Assembly that rewrote the constitution, the M-19 did so well that demobilized guerrilla leader Antonio Navarro Wolff was able to serve as one of the assembly’s three co-presidents.

The M-19 became a political party. A few candidates were killed, particularly movement leader and presidential candidate Carlos Pizarro – whose murder the rightist paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño (missing in action since April 2004, probably dead) claims credit for in his autobiography. The party ultimately failed to prosper in Colombia’s political system, but most of its leaders have indeed survived. Antonio Navarro and Gustavo Petro are now top vote-getters in Colombia’s Senate and House, respectively, and central figures in the Polo Democrático, Colombia’s most successful left-of-center political party (its ranks include Bogotá’s mayor, Luis Eduardo Garzón, who does not have an M-19 background). Other former M-19 members, like Otty Patiño and Vera Grabe, are respected analysts of peace and conflict in Colombia.

The M-19 process was a rare hopeful moment for Colombia, observes Patiño: “The peace processes of the early 1990s opened a new perspective on the possibility of a different country, one where changes could be made through peaceful means.”

The M-19 deal did include an amnesty for “political crimes,” which excludes both common crime and more serious crimes against humanity. Among guerrilla actions covered by amnesty was the M-19’s absurd November 1985 attempt to take over the supreme court building, the Palace of Justice in downtown Bogotá, in order to carry out a “public judgement” of then-president Belisario Betancur. The military counter-attacked, leaving searing images of tanks slamming into the front doors of the palace and flames licking out of its windows. The inferno took the lives of 95 people, among them eleven Supreme Court justices and most of the M-19 fighters involved.

With last Thursday’s comments, Uribe made allegations about the incident that either aren’t true or, at least, are very much in dispute. Senator Navarro, the former top M-19 leader, did not mince words, calling Uribe’s statements “an offensive and untruthful aggression.” The guerrillas “made a profound, terrible mistake,” Navarro added, “with an operation that we will never stop regretting and for which we’ll never stop asking forgiveness.” However, “that doesn’t mean that the M-19 burned down the Palace of Justice, or that there was any alliance with narcotraffickers.”

There is no credible evidence that the M-19 intended to immolate themselves by burning down the Palace of Justice. Former Colombian Attorney-General Alfonso Gómez Méndez, who in his earlier post of Procurator-General headed an investigation of the incident, recalled this week that the building burned down due to the armed forces’ “inappropriate reaction to the terrorist act” of the M-19. (For more information on the 1985 incident, including a disturbing account of the military’s heavy-handed response, I recommend journalist Ana Carrigan’s 1993 book The Palace of Justice: A Colombian Tragedy.)

Even more sensitive is Uribe’s allegation that the M-19 conspired with narcotraffickers (many of whose trial records and incriminating evidence were destroyed in the conflagration) to take over the palace. Gómez Méndez recalled this week that no links to narcotraffickers – which at that time, pretty much meant Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel – have ever been demonstrated.

Gustavo Petro, the former M-19 member, now congressman and head of the Polo Democrático, recalled that the Medellín Cartel in fact killed 200 of the group’s members during the early 1980s, and that “Ramiro,” the guerrilla who led the ill-fated takeover, had once been tortured and left for dead by Escobar’s men. “The President apparently believes Carlos Castaño – who invented the tie to narcotrafficking in order to justify murdering [top M-19 leader] Carlos Pizarro – more then he believes the country’s justice system, which found no ties between narcotraffickers and the M-19 in the Palace of Justice takeover.”

Three former government peace negotiators and a former interior minister – among them Horacio Serpa, who Uribe defeated in the 2002 presidential election – sent Uribe a sharply worded letter over the weekend denying any link between the M-19 and drug lords. The former officials point out that the M-19 were only granted amnesty for political crimes, and that some who demobilized were sent to jail for committing common crimes or atrocities. Cooperation with narcotrafficking is not a political crime, and as such could not have been amnestied. “If any citizen possesses information about atrocities or narcotrafficking, these crimes cannot remain unpunished,” reads the former negotiators’ letter to Uribe. “It is necessary to take them before the justice system.”

The reason the narcotrafficking charge is so sensitive today, of course, is its relevance to the Colombian government’s ongoing talks with the paramilitaries. Critics – among them former M-19 members – are concerned that these talks may not only allow dozens of horrific massacres to go unpunished and unaccountable, but that the nexus between paramilitary leaders and drug traffickers may end up being “legalized” by the process. Today’s paramilitaries, they argue, are so involved in the drug trade that it is now difficult to distinguish between leaders of the “self-defense groups” and leaders of major trafficking organizations. Their resulting economic power has made them very powerful figures in Colombia.

For its part, the M-19 is alleged to have been in contact with drug traffickers, and even to have traded marijuana for arms in the 1970s and early 1980s. But the group’s relationship with the Medellín cartel was consistently terrible, especially after M-19 leaders made the mistake of trying to raise funds by kidnapping drug lords’ family members. The drug lords proved to be much more ruthless than the guerrillas.

If the M-19 did dabble in the drug trade to raise money, it never became a significant income stream for the group. Nor did the group ever gain a reputation as allies of the cartels. It is worth noting that the U.S. government, which is currently seeking the extradition of eight paramilitary leaders for narcotrafficking, issued no such requests for M-19 leaders. Perhaps because they didn’t benefit from the massive resources that the drug trade later provided to the FARC and the AUC, the M-19 by 1989 was badly beaten: down to a couple of thousand members, with little territory and its prestige shredded by the 1985 fiasco. When it agreed to negotiate, it did so from a position of profound weakness.

Compare that to the current talks with the paramilitaries. The group of gentlemen negotiating with the government in the Santa Fé de Ralito demilitarized zone includes some of the most notorious narcos in the country. AUC military chief Salvatore Mancuso is wanted by the U.S. Justice Department for sending at least 17 tons of cocaine to our shores. Iván Roberto Duque’s Central Bolívar Bloc manages drug-manufacturing labs all over the country. (Mancuso and Duque, incidentally, addressed Colombia’s Congress in a special session in June.) Diego Fernando Murillo (“Don Berna”) was a minor Pablo Escobar henchman and head of Medellín’s main gang of hitmen-for-hire before joining the AUC in 2000. Hernán Giraldo exercises brutal control over the drug trade in the port city of Santa Marta. Víctor Manuel Mejía, one of the top figures in the Norte del Valle Cartel, showed up in the negotiation zone in June as titular head of the AUC in oil-rich Arauca department. Miguel Arroyave, a paramilitary since emerging in 2001 from a jail term for narcotrafficking, ran the “Centauros Bloc” in eastern Colombia until two weeks ago, when he was killed by his own men.

Once a network of anti-guerrilla death squads whose leaders furthered their right-wing cause by allying with drug lords, the paramilitaries have metamorphosed into a network of mafias, with a new generation of leaders who were drug lords first, and paramilitaries later. Observers even have a term for the recent wave of drug figures who have recently bought their way into the paramilitary structure, presumably in order to benefit from a negotiated amnesty: they are the “paracaidistas,” or those who have just “parachuted in.” These new leaders have few anti-guerrilla credentials; if anything, they view the FARC as competition for drug funds and trafficking routes, a rival mafia – and in some cases, they are alleged to be doing business with the guerrillas, such as buying coca paste from them. For evidence of their increasing grip on the paramilitaries, look no further than the recent fate of high-profile AUC leaders, like the late Carlos Castaño and Rodrigo Franco, who were allegedly murdered for opposing the group’s increased fealty to the drug underworld.

Unlike the M-19, these narco-paramilitaries are negotiating from a position of surprising strength. Colombia’s press has been abuzz lately with stories about the “paramilitarization” of the country. Mancuso claims that the AUC “controls” about 35 percent of the Congress. Together, the groups reportedly have 49 fronts in 35 percent of the national territory. As Garry Leech’s Colombia Journal points out this week, the Colombian military has aggressively fought paramilitaries outside the AUC structure, but the main paramilitary network remains largely unchallenged as talks with the government move along slowly and secretly.

The paramilitaries know they are in a position of strength, especially as President Uribe, concerned about his popularity as he seeks a constitutional amendment to run for reelection, is unwilling to take the politically costly step of calling off the negotiations. Doing so would end the AUC’s declared cease-fire and cause violence levels to climb back upward.

Because the paramilitaries have room for maneuver, they have only partially observed the cease-fire, which was Uribe’s main pre-condition for engaging in peace talks. Colombia’s human-rights ombudsman’s office announced last week that it had documented 342 cease-fire violations. And that doesn’t even count Sunday’s horrific massacre of 11 people, including children and a pregnant woman, in Valle del Cauca department. From their position of strength, paramilitary leaders know they can continue to violate the cease-fire with impunity and to remain inflexible in their demands for a full amnesty for past crimes.

Under these circumstances, one can imagine why Uribe might be responding so testily to questions about where the paramilitary peace talks are headed. But there is no need for such an unhelpful response.

The right answer would have included a promise to redouble efforts to curtail the paramilitaries’ narcotrafficking, and to put so much pressure on their leaders that they will have no choice but to agree to accountability for past atrocities. How disappointing, then, that Uribe instead chose to denigrate a past peace effort and to imply that there is nothing new about negotiating amnesty with a group that is up to its neck in illegal drugs. The M-19 comparison simply doesn’t fit. While a rectification is unlikely, let’s hope that the president does the right thing about the paramilitary talks, which are becoming more troubled with each passing week.