Nov 29

Colombia’s Defense Minister, Jorge Alberto Uribe, made an explosive allegation
on Saturday. Colombia’s security forces, he said, foiled a FARC attempt to
assassinate President Bush during his November 22 visit to Cartagena.

This is a very serious charge. If it’s true – if Bush narrowly missed murder
at the hands of the FARC – it will set back for years any effort to limit
U.S. involvement in Colombia’s conflict and any effort to find a non-military
solution to the fighting. If the FARC really tried to kill President Bush,
it would put an entirely new set of options on the table for Washington, including
direct military action. (Think about it – if the group truly put a hit out
on the president, why would the United States respond indirectly, using the
Colombian military as proxies?)

I’m skeptical. While the FARC has built a record of shocking brutality against
Colombian citizens, and while it claims that U.S. troops and contractors are
"military targets," its few attacks on U.S. personnel have been
hastily arranged and too small to provoke a massive U.S. response. When a
planeload of U.S. contractors went down (or was shot down, perhaps) in Caquetá
nearly two years ago, the FARC column that found them killed one and took
the other three hostage. A lone FARC fighter lobbed a grenade into a Bogotá
bar frequented by U.S. personnel in 2003, and was caught shortly afterward.

Surely the FARC have had many other opportunities to target U.S. citizens
working for their government. Why have they not done more? Probably because
while the FARC often appear to be acting against their own interests, they’re
not suicidal.

To carry out a concerted campaign against U.S. citizens in Colombia – much
less to target the president of the United States – would be to make the guerrilla
group one of Washington’s top military priorities in the entire world. The
FARC knows it cannot afford to be one of Washington’s top military priorities;
at a time when it is facing a strengthened Colombian military, why would it
choose to open up a huge new front in its fight by provoking the United States

We need more details and proof from Colombia’s defense minister. It may turn
out that he is basing his allegations on something indirect or circumstantial,
such as the discovery of an arms cache or a bomb-making facility in the general
area of Cartagena during the days before Bush’s arrival. While disturbing,
such evidence would hardly indicate a sophisticated plot to kill the U.S.

So far, we haven’t heard any details. I scanned the U.S. and Colombian press
this morning and found no follow-up stories on Minister Uribe’s allegations.
The assassination-threat story has not even shown up on the news-update sites
of either the target="_blank">Colombian presidency or the href="" target="_blank">Defense Ministry.

The assassination story got a lot of media attention on Sunday. But let’s
take a deep breath here. We need to know more. Was the FARC really planning
a sophisticated hit, or was an over-exuberant minister overselling his case
for increased US military assistance?

Note as of November 30: The Associated Press reports that the Colombian government is backpedaling from Minister Uribe’s allegation. “Interior and Justice Minister Sabas Pretelt played down the comments Monday, saying he had no information about any assassination plot against Bush.” So there you have it.

Nov 29

In the neglected, largely rural zones where Colombia’s conflict is most fiercely
fought, government representatives – including soldiers – are much scarcer than
guerrillas and paramilitaries. Colombians living in these conditions (there
are millions) will tell you that if they have to live without a government,
they prefer to live under one illegal group’s solid control. To live in a contested
area – where combat is frequent and all are under suspicion of serving the other
side – is to begin each day with no guarantee of seeing its end.

In paramilitary-dominated zones, residents know that there is a more frightening
alternative to the reasonably predictable tyranny of the warlords. A return
of the FARC or ELN to their communities would bring a territorial struggle with
the AUC, with pitched battles, massacres, and a dirty war against residents
who, in the guerrillas’ eyes, formed the paramilitaries’ support system.

As the AUC prepares to demobilize 3,000 fighters by 2005 and all 20,000 of
its members by 2006, it is understandable, then, that many residents of paramilitary-dominated
areas are terrified by what might happen next. As Human Rights Ombudsman Volmar
Pérez puts it, “people are afraid that the guerrillas will come and destroy
them because they had to live among the paramilitaries.” 

Urabá and Catatumbo

One such zone is Urabá, a banana-growing region encompassing parts of Antioquia
and Chocó departments near the Panamanian border. The AUC wrested Urabá from
guerrilla control with a very bloody campaign of massacres and displacements
during the mid-1990s (a period that included Álvaro Uribe’s term as governor
of Antioquia). One of the three paramilitary groups active in Urabá, the Bananero
Bloc commanded by Hernán Hernández, made headlines on Thursday with a demobilization
ceremony. The bloc’s 450 members turned in a smaller number of weapons, making
them the first of 3,000 paramilitaries expected to do the same by the end of
the year.

Colombian journalists have detected a palpable fear that the Bananero Bloc’s
disappearance will encourage the FARC, which continues to dominate the nearby
Serranía de Abibe region, to return in force. “We haven’t had police here for
ten years,” Fernando Callejas, a councilman from Turbo municipality, told Medellín’s
El Colombiano. “First we were under the FARC’s control, and now the AUC
is nearby, blocking the guerrillas’ way. We hope the security forces stay in
the zone and don’t abandon us.” The director of Urabá’s largest private-security
firm told El Tiempo that her business is picking up. “Cattle ranchers,
merchants and even individuals are requesting our services. It all owes to the

Another zone likely to see an imminent paramilitary demobilization is the Catatumbo
region of Norte de Santander department, a coca-growing zone near the Venezuelan
border. Catatumbo was an ELN stronghold until 1999, when the paramilitaries
poured into the area, killing hundreds and displacing thousands. (The commander
of the Colombian Army’s 5th Brigade at the time, Gen. Alberto Bravo,
was fired for allowing the paramilitaries to advance unhindered.)

Sometime in December, the AUC’s Catatumbo Bloc, commanded by Salvatore Mancuso,
is to disband its 1,400 members – the largest single bloc expected to dissolve
in 2004. The guerrillas’ return to this zone is a very real possibility: according
to El Tiempo, 500 FARC and ELN fighters continue to dominate the sparsely
populated left bank of the Catatumbo river, while the paramilitaries reign on
the right bank, where most of the population lives. We may have seen a preview
of what might happen if the guerrillas cross the river for good: in June, the
FARC massacred 34 coca-pickers in the paramilitary-dominated La Gabarra district
of Tibú municipality.

The Colombian press has noted a slow but steady exodus from Catatumbo since
word of the Catatumbo Bloc’s demobilization began to spread. Anticipating a
rise in violence and a disruption to the coca economy, locals have been leaving
by the busload. A campesino who has lived in the zone for twenty years told
Cali’s El País that his bags are packed “because we are going to be unprotected
and abandoned. What people are saying is that if the ‘paras’ leave, the guerrillas
will enter, and we don’t know how they will act nor what their intentions will
be, because they will consider those of us who live here to be collaborators.”

A greater military and police presence, he added, won’t make much difference.
“It’s not enough, because they’re not going to put a policeman or soldier on
every corner. And if they do, what will happen to the people who live in the
countryside? Before, when the guerrillas ran things and the security forces
were also present, the guerrillas killed at any time of day or night, anywhere
they pleased, and we don’t want to see that situation repeated.”

Filling the vacuum

The Colombian government has announced its intention to fill the vacuum left
by demobilizing paramilitaries, deploying new troops and police to the zones
the AUC claims to be vacating. In the short term, the Defense Ministry expects
to send personnel from elite mobile brigades, which may require a drawdown from
other anti-guerrilla operations elsewhere in the country, particularly “Plan
Patriota.” By next year, the armed forces are href=""
target="_blank">promising an additional 4,000 troops in the demobilization
zones, a gap that they expect to fill in part by “redirecting” some peasant
soldiers – participants in a program originally designed to station soldiers
in their hometowns.

“The important thing is that they come to stay. Our hope is that we can finally
have a state here,” a druggist in El Tarra, Catatumbo told El Tiempo. Unfortunately,
it is far from clear that the Colombian military will be able to maintain a
long-term presence of that size in these zones, when the conflict continues
to be fought on so many other battlegrounds throughout the country.

“At its innermost circles, the government seems to fear the same thing,” href=""
target="_blank">writes security analyst Alfredo Rangel, who directs the Bogotá-based
Security and Democracy Foundation. “It knows that it is still unable to stop
the guerrillas’ return to many places where paramilitary groups will be demobilized.
… Where will it find these additional troops? Clearly, by pulling them out of
Plan Patriota in the south, because the government does not have enough military
power to demobilize the paramilitaries and to try to defeat the guerrillas at
the same time.”

Of course, truly filling the vacuum and securing these zones would require
more than just military force; Human Rights Ombudsman Volmar Pérez has proposed
a more integral “ href=""
target="_blank">humanitarian cordon” in the demobilization zones, with agencies
from the civilian government, governors and mayors, the international community
and civil society carrying out an ambitious strategy “to rebuild the social
fabric and allow the population to live in peace.” Of course this is absolutely
what needs to be done. Like any workable solution in Colombia, though, it would
be expensive – and the Colombian government lacks even the budget to deploy
soldiers, much less carry out such an ambitious program.

A grim outlook

If the demobilizations embolden the guerrillas and the Colombian government
cannot mount an effective deterrent, what will happen? The likely outcomes are

The first possibility is a guerrilla takeover of key paramilitary demobilization
zones. The guerrilla fronts that were pushed out of these areas (especially the FARC fronts) remain largely intact and are generally
present in remote nearby zones, poised to return. If they do, the result could be quite bloody, as has been the case in the few areas where
the FARC has made inroads into paramilitary dominance (such as lower Putumayo
and the Atrato River region in Chocó).

A guerrilla resurgence in these zones would also deal a death blow to the Colombian
government’s talks with the AUC. If their gesture is met with a guerrilla scorched-earth
campaign, it is hard to imagine the paramilitaries agreeing to demobilize any
more of their blocs.

In fact, the guerrilla-takeover scenario is rather unlikely. The paramilitaries
are near their peak military strength and well positioned at the negotiating
table; for them to cede control over strategic zones at this point defies all
logic. They probably have something else in mind. It is more likely that the AUC leadership’s control will simply assume
a different form.

In the short term, AUC control may be preserved through
duplication of blocs. Most, if not all, of the paramilitary blocs slated to
turn in their weapons between now and January 1 operate alongside other AUC
groups in the same regions. In Urabá, two more AUC blocs continue to operate:
the Élmer Cárdenas bloc commanded by “Alemán” (and not participating in peace
talks), and the Héroes de Tolová bloc commanded by “Don Berna.” The Catatumbo
bloc is part of a larger AUC structure in Norte de Santander department; Salvatore
Mancuso’s paramilitaries around the nearby city of Cúcuta, for instance, are
not going anywhere.

We witnessed a similar phenomenon after the much-heralded November 2003 demobilization
of Don Berna’s Cacique Nutibara bloc in Medellín. It later emerged that Don
Berna had begun another Medellín-based group, the “Héroes de Granada,” which
continues his dominance over the city’s crime-ridden slums and in fact absorbed
several former Nutibara bloc members.

If the AUC is truly to demobilize, however, these parallel blocs
will have to disappear eventually. To solidify control over territories after “demobilizing,”
the paramilitaries would have to pursue a less formal solution.

Taking off the camouflage fatigues and the armbands, turning in some weapons
and serving some light jail sentences will certainly do away with the AUC as
Colombians know it. But this alone will not undo the command structures, the
criminal financial networks, the support from large landowners, drug kingpins,
military officers and local officials, and large payrolls of killers-for-hire. In other words, demobilization alone will not undo AUC dominance over its territories.

While it may no longer operate within a “paramilitary” structure of uniformed
fighters living with military discipline in encampments, a post-negotiation
AUC may still be a lethal force with broad dominion over territory and control
over much of the drug economy. In some areas, it could exert control as a network
of shadowy death squads; in others, it could be a private system of vigilantes
carrying out private “justice”; in still others, it may be nothing more than
a mafia controlling illicit behavior. Or it could be all three at the same time.

The paramilitary peace talks could end up as a nationwide repeat of what Alfredo
Rangel calls “‘the Cacique Nutibara model’: demobilization without demobilization,
disarmament without disarmament, reinsertion without reinsertion, and a veiled
toleration of territorial control by paramilitaries who impede the guerrillas’

If this reconfigured paramilitary control is to be the result, the current
negotiations are clearly not worth the effort.

Some tough questions

The Uribe government and the AUC leadership would of course object strongly
to this analysis, insisting that the main point of the negotiations is to restore
government control to the zones the paramilitaries are to vacate. Filling the
security vacuum, they will argue, is a challenge, but Colombia’s security forces
and other institutions are ready.

Would-be donor governments should not just take the negotiators’
word for it. They must ask tough questions about the Colombian government’s
plans to keep the guerrillas or re-configured paramilitaries from filling the

  • What troop strength is needed to secure the population of the demobilization
  • Will this presence guarantee security in rural areas, or just town centers?
  • For how long must that troop strength be maintained?
  • Do the Colombian military and police have the manpower to maintain that
    sort of presence for that long a period, or is it likely that they will be
    called away early for more urgent missions?
  • When, and to what extent, will civilian government institutions, especially
    the judiciary, enter the zone – and is the ombudsman’s proposal for a “humanitarian
    cordon” being taken seriously?
  • How much would all of this – the military and civilian components – cost?
    Does the Colombian government’s budget anticipate covering that cost? Where
    will the money come from?
  • What is being done about parallel paramilitary blocs in the same zones?
  • Will the OAS or some other credible mechanism be in place to verify that
    (a) former paramilitary leaders are not carrying out illegal activities in
    the zones they previously dominated, and (b) the security forces are working
    diligently to dismantle any illegal networks involving former AUC leaders?

Until the Colombian government can offer satisfactory answers to these questions
– and clear responses have not been forthcoming – the “security
vacuum” question will continue to be an urgent concern.

If the talks go ahead without good answers to these questions, the unlucky
residents of paramilitary-controlled zones will not be any better off after
the AUC demobilizes. If the state fails to fill the vacuum, either they will
find themselves living under the same brutal leadership under a different name,
or – perhaps worse – they will be caught in the crossfire, living in a territory
disputed by guerrillas and ex-paramilitaries. The likelihood of either outcome
poses an important obstacle to international support for the paramilitary peace

Coming soon: (5) Justice, victims’ rights and accountability

Nov 24

I apologize for the delay in posting this continuation of the paramilitary
talks discussion. Blame Bush’s visit to Cartagena, which proved to be a bit
of a distraction.


Between now and December 31, at least 3,000 of the AUC paramilitary group’s
approximately 20,000 members are to hand in their weapons and re-enter civilian
life. In other words, a massive demobilization process – larger than what happened
in Colombia over a decade ago, when the M-19, EPL, and several other guerrilla
groups turned in their weapons – is to occur in a timeframe of just over two

This would be an amazingly good piece of news if the demobilization were part
of a reasonably well thought-out, well-funded process. But it isn’t. The coming
AUC "layoff" leaves the impression that thousands of unemployed young
men with violent backgrounds are being thrust upon a Colombian government that
has little more than a hastily thrown-together plan for dealing with them, and
probably doesn’t have the resources even for this plan.

In all, ten or eleven paramilitary fronts from eight parts of the country are
to demobilize between now and the new year.

  1. The Self-Defense Groups of Córdoba, commanded by Salvatore Mancuso;
  2. The Catatumbo Bloc, commanded by Mancuso – this bloc is the largest to demobilize,
    with approximately 1,400 members;
  3. The Urabá-based Bananero Bloc, commanded by "Hernán Hernández,"
    which is to be the first to demobilize formally, starting tomorrow (November
  4. The Valle del Cauca-based Calima Bloc, commanded by "Hernán Hernández";
  5. The Pacific Bloc, commanded by "Don Berna";
  6. The Cundinamarca Bloc, commanded by Luis Eduardo Cifuentes ("Águila");
  7. The Sucre-based Mojana Front, commanded by "Ramón Mojana";
  8. The Southeast Antioquia Front, commanded by "John Santamaría"
    (this 50-man front recently indicated it may not in fact be ready to demobilize
    by the end of the year);
  9. The Self-Defense Groups of Southern Magdalena and San Fernando Island, commanded
    by "Chepe Barrera";
  10. The Self-Defense Groups of Meta and Vichada, commanded by Guillermo Torres;
  11. The Vichada Front of the Central Bolívar Bloc, commanded by "Javier
    Montañez" and "Julián Bolívar" alias "Macaco."

Right now, and for several more weeks, top paramilitary leaders like Salvatore
Mancuso have their arrest warrants suspended and can travel throughout the country
without fear of detention or extradition to the United States, in order to "coordinate"
the demobilization. As columnist María Isabel Rueda wrote in Semana magazine,
"It won’t be long until we see Mancuso sitting down to eat in northern
Bogotá’s best-known restaurants."

            A compressed "cronograma"

The process began on November 3. Members of the Bananero Bloc, the first to
turn itself in, have been trickling into their concentration zone, a ¾-square-kilometer
ranch in the municipality of Turbo, Antioquia, in anticipation of a November
25 kickoff ceremony.

There is a plan, or " href=""
in place, although it is remarkably
rushed in comparison with demobilization efforts carried out in other countries
and contexts. A first phase, covering roughly the month of November, has involved
educating citizens and local governments in affected areas about what is to
come, compiling lists of those who will turn themselves in, and concentrating
the paramilitary fighters in the zones where they will hand in their weapons.

A second phase – beginning November 25 for the Bananero Bloc, later for others
– will include several challenging tasks; incredibly, all of the following is
to happen in only two to ten days. Fighters will turn in their weapons. Their
identities will be verified. Minors will be sorted out and sent into the government
family welfare system (ICBF). Fighters will be interviewed to determine if they
have any marketable skills useful for future civilian employment.

All will undergo a background check to uncover allegations of past human-rights
abuse. It is not clear how thorough this check will be, though, since Colombian
authorities will be performing hundreds of them in less than ten days. Existing
Colombian law ("Law 782" and "Decree 128") will allow most
rank-and-file paramilitaries to benefit from amnesty for their crimes. Paramilitary
leaders, and members accused of committing larger-scale crimes against humanity,
will not be amnestied. Currently, there is no law in place to determine what
will happen to these leaders and top abusers (they have made clear that they
will not turn themselves in at all if they must enter Colombia’s regular criminal-justice
system); until this legal framework exists, these "unpardonables"
will be concentrated in a special zone, probably the demilitarized area in San
José de Ralito, Córdoba, where negotiations have been taking place.

In a third and final phase, which the "cronograma" compresses
into eight days, ex-fighters will return to their places of origin. The Colombian
government will set up four regional "centers of reference" to serve
a variety of needs: legal status, education, health, psychological adjustment,
and a legal way to make a living. Each ex-fighter who participates in job-training
or microenterprise programs will be entitled to 300,000 pesos ($125) per month
for up to two years. Many will be given short-term employment performing tasks
like manual eradication of coca, while local businesses will be given tax breaks
for hiring ex-paramilitaries.

All of this is to be carried out in two months by a Colombian government that
is so cash-strapped and inefficient that displaced people in many areas must
wait months to have their status "verified," people who have had their
legal crops fumigated must wait months or years to have their compensation petitions
resolved, and rural communities country-wide are still awaiting fulfillment
of years-old promises to maintain roads, build schools or formalize land titles.
What, short of a miracle, will guarantee that Bogotá has the political will
to see this ambitious new commitment through?

And are the resources on hand? If done right, this will be a very expensive
undertaking. The Colombian Treasury Ministry claims to have set aside 410 billion
pesos (about $160 million) for the AUC’s disarmament, about $8,000 per fighter.
In a country that already has a ballooning fiscal budget deficit, it is not
clear where Colombia’s government plans to find even this extra 0.2 percent
of GDP.

            A poor precedent: the 2003 BCN demobilization

The experience of the first AUC demobilization, which happened a year ago tomorrow,
gives further cause for skepticism. Last November 25 in Medellín, 874 members
of Don Berna’s Cacique Nutibara Bloc (BCN) turned in 200-plus weapons in a ceremony
that received a good deal of media attention in Colombia and some favorable
coverage in the United States. The ex-fighters were whisked off for three weeks’
"reorientation" at a recreation center outside Medellín; quick background
checks there found 214 under suspicion of having committed past crimes, and
fourteen have been detained.

Those demobilized have entered poorly funded education, job training and job
placement programs, run largely by the Medellín mayor’s office. Though the programs
have certainly helped some ex-fighters, the overall result of the BCN process
is far from encouraging. The Brussels-based International Crisis Group, which
has done the most thorough follow-up on this process, target="_blank">found in August that efforts "made on a limited budget,
with little central government support and against the backdrop of a partial
demobilization process" have failed to address key issues like "bringing
offenders to justice, compensating victims or dealing with drug trafficking
and other illegal activities," leaving a "long-term risk … that paramilitary
power in Medellín will be strengthened by institutionalizing it."

Worse, the ICG and other observers have pointed out that many of those who
demobilized – somewhere between 30 to 70 percent – were not even AUC members
in the first place. It appears that, in the days before the weapons-handover
ceremony, the BCN recruited hundreds of gang members, common criminals, and
aimless young men from Medellín’s slums to pose as paramilitary members and
enter the process as free-riders. It is not clear why Don Berna would have felt
a need to pad his group’s numbers, since a BCN "political coordinator"
href="" target="_blank">told
Medellín’s El Colombiano in March 2003 that his group had 4,000 members.

Today, many ex-BCN members have returned to their former activities, dominating
their marginal Medellín neighborhoods and controlling common crime and the local
drug trade. The ICG reports that many "appear to remain in close contact
with the AUC through a cellular phone network, to consult their commanders on
important decisions, and to operate according to their strict hierarchy."
Some, according to Colombia’s human rights href=""
target="_blank">ombudsman, have joined other paramilitary blocs like the Antioquia-based
"Heroes of Granada." As of August, the OAS verification mission href=""
target="_blank">reported, seven demobilized fighters had been murdered. Less
than fifty have found work in the private sector, according to href=""
target="_blank">El Tiempo.
Even the Colombian government’s peace negotiator,
the ever-optimistic Luis Carlos Restrepo, has called the BCN process "an

Restrepo and other Colombian officials insist that the upcoming demobilization
will not be a repeat of what happened in Medellín last year. Lists of those
turning themselves in are to be handed over beforehand, instead of demobilizing
anybody who shows up. Many of the weapons are being turned over beforehand as

Measures like these are not enough, though, to head off many likely consequences
of a partial, largely improvised demobilization. The current plan does little
to guarantee that the demobilized individuals will truly be removed from the
paramilitary orbit. Most of the blocs about to turn themselves in co-exist geographically
with other AUC groups. The Bananero Bloc, for instance, operates in Urabá alongside
Don Berna’s "Heroes of Tolová" bloc and the venerable Élmer Cárdenas
bloc, headed by "Alemán," which is not participating in peace talks.
(Don’t miss the bizarre "Farcman and Elena" flash-animation story
on the Élmer Cárdenas bloc’s website.)

Will such active groups absorb, or at least exercise strong influence over,
those who demobilize? Or as El Tiempo’s href=""
target="_blank">editorial-writers put it, "What are the mechanisms foreseen
to avoid a situation in which, two years from now, these zones are under the
control of pro-’para’ political movements, NGOs or cooperatives, this time legalized
and legitimized?" Re-recruitment has certainly happened after past peace
processes; in fact, dozens of those likely to be demobilizing from the Bananero
Bloc are former members of the EPL guerrilla group that dominated Urabá in the
1980s, and who participated in demobilization programs over a decade ago.

Meanwhile, there is little way to tell whether those being demobilized are
paramilitaries, or whether all of the paramilitaries who belonged to a particular
bloc are demobilizing. Colombian prosecutors and intelligence agents note that
paramilitary blocs’ sizes fluctuate wildly, depending on needs – it is not unusual
for a bloc’s membership to range between 50 and 500 over the course of a year.
At the same time, few are convinced that Colombia’s military and police have
either the resources or the strategic plans in place to fill the "security
vacuum" left in zones where paramilitaries are disappearing. (This topic
will be covered in our next posting.)

A pattern of improvisation

These are just some of the consequences of a peace process that, for two years
now, has consistently adopted a cart-before-the-horse, "let’s see what
happens next" approach. Post-mortems of President Andrés Pastrana’s failed
1998-2002 attempt to negotiate with the FARC almost uniformly note that a major
reason for failure was the lack of a coherent plan. With both negotiating teams
wildly improvising, the talks careened from topic to topic, commitments were
made hastily and without consultation (such as agreeing to cede five municipalities
to the FARC), other commitments were ignored, and the talks often ran aground
on fruitless discussions of procedural details.

The critics were right. While some improvisation is necessary – negotiators
have to be flexible in a very fluid situation – something as serious and risky
as a peace negotiation cannot be made up as one goes along. Without a plan and
a timeline in place, consideration of the thorniest, most difficult issues –
and there are many – gets delayed and put off; delay and foot-dragging in turn
deteriorate confidence in the process and sharpen divisions on both sides about
how, and whether, to proceed.

In the case of the paramilitary talks, we can even discern a troubling pattern
resulting from over-improvisation. The talks have shown a tendency to flounder
for months with no breakthrough, until a crisis takes them to a potential breaking
point. At that point, an ultimatum is issued and both sides take a small, very
public step that is intended to show "progress." Then the talks go
back to their previous floundering.

For instance, this spring the talks were going nowhere, then were thrown into
crisis by reports of continued cease-fire violations and the disappearance /
murder of Carlos Castaño. On April 27, President Uribe issued a strongly worded
target="_blank">statement demanding that the paramilitaries concentrate themselves
in special zones and progress toward demobilization. By late June, the AUC leadership
had relocated to the San José de Ralito zone. The latest "breakthrough"
– the upcoming demobilizations – came after several more months with no progress,
followed by numerous crises, such as the September killing of paramilitary leader
Miguel Arroyave, reports of narcotraffickers entering the paramilitaries (the
so-called " href="">paracaidistas"),
press coverage of increasing paramilitary influence over Colombian politics,
and Mancuso’s leak of controversial recordings from the peace negotiations (discussed
below). The Uribe government reacted by agreeing to extradite a mid-level paramilitary
leader; only Mancuso’s October announcement of a big new demobilization was
able to break the impasse.

An elusive legal framework

Improvisation has led to a situation in which combatants are demobilizing,
but there is no law in place to deal with those who stand accused of crimes
against humanity. Those accused of war crimes who turn themselves in over the
next five weeks will enter a legal limbo, confined to sites like the Ralito
zone while they await passage of legislation.

Though the Uribe government has introduced two "alternative punishment"
bills in Colombia’s Congress – the first calling for only "symbolic"
punishments and payments – these have gone nowhere, with opposition coming even
from some of President Uribe’s strongest supporters. Nearly two years into the
process, the government has failed to develop a consensus proposal that major
political factions, as well as victims’ groups and the human rights community,
can support.

Senator Rafael Pardo, a leading opponent of Uribe’s first legislative efforts,
has worked with members of other parties – including congressman Wilson Borja
of the left-of-center Democratic Alternative party, who was wounded in a 2000
paramilitary assassination attempt – to craft a new "justice, reconciliation
and reparation" law. This bill hasn’t been introduced in Colombia’s Congress
yet, but it proposes to resolve some of the thorniest issues with five to ten-year
jail sentences for the worst violators and an effort to compensate victims,
both through paramilitaries’ return of stolen assets and government compensation
for damages. The latter commitment could carry an enormous price tag. A special
tribunal, a new branch of the inspector-general’s office (Procuraduría),
and a new National Reparations Council would take on most of these responsibilities.

The legislation should undergo a few modifications – so far, for instance,
anyone who aided, abetted, or funded the paramilitaries remains untouched –
but it is a significant improvement over past attempts to create a legal framework
for this demobilization and possible future processes with guerrillas. However,
it has not been introduced yet, the Uribe government has not yet signaled its
support, and it remains to be seen whether all major paramilitary leaders will
agree to spend up to ten years in jail. (While Salvatore Mancuso has indicated
he might accede to this, some of those who have spent more time in Colombia’s
drug underground, like "Don Berna," may refuse.) Even after being
introduced, the bill could take months to pass, and will probably undergo a
Constitutional Court challenge afterward. So a legal framework for demobilization
could be lacking for some time to come.


Colombia has a good deal of experience now with demobilizing armed groups,
but few examples of success. Past "forgive and forget" peace processes
have left behind seething hatreds among survivors. There has also been a failure
to address the poverty and lack of opportunity that led fighters to join armed
groups in the first place. Desire for revenge in an atmosphere of few economic
options is a recipe for another generation of conflict.

These are difficult challenges to overcome, and they require of the Colombian
government not only a deep reserve of political will, but a clear plan and lots
of resources. Not only are justice and opportunity impossible to improvise,
they are also expensive. And for the moment, it is far from clear how Bogotá
plans to pay for them.

Even if Colombia’s government can indeed carve $160 million out of its existing
revenues to demobilize the AUC, this is unlikely to be anywhere enough to help
rebuild lives, livelihoods and communities in the zones the paramilitaries have
dominated. Colombia is obviously counting on the international community to
step in and help. But the international community has so far proven reluctant:
the United States, Sweden and the Netherlands have offered modest support for
logistical aspects of the negotiations, but nobody has paid for demobilizations
yet. The European Union is typical: it has sought clearer human rights guarantees
– nobody wants to fund amnesty for war criminals – but is also holding off until
a clearer plan is in place.

Like any investor, they are unwilling to put their money down without having
a better sense of the details. The continued reliance on improvisation is deterring
them. This is, of course, a bit of a vicious circle: it is difficult to craft
a workable plan until one knows what level of resources one can expect to have
on hand – but donors are unwilling to grant resources until they see a plan.
The way out of this circle is to craft a plan in close coordination with the
donor community, something that has not been done systematically for the paramilitary

The U.S. government shares some of the EU critique. The House-Senate Conference
Committee’s final version of the href="" target="_blank">2005
foreign aid bill, which may be signed into law at any moment, includes in
its non-binding href="" target="_blank">narrative
report the following concerns about the lack of well-thought-out safeguards.

The managers [the bill's primary authors] believe that the costs of demobilizing
illegal armed groups should be borne by the Colombian Government, not the
United States. The managers are concerned that the demobilization process
is being undertaken without adequate safeguards to ensure the dismantling
of such FTOs, to deter members of such groups from resuming illegal activities,
or to prosecute and punish those involved in drug trafficking and human rights

Since it is non-binding, this language does not make it illegal for the United
States to fund the demobilization of rank-and-file paramilitaries, something
that many in the executive branch would like to do after receiving repeated
entreaties from the Uribe government.

What does make it illegal, remarkably, is the 2001 USA-PATRIOT Act.
Section 803 of this href="" target="_blank">very
controversial law makes those who "harbor or conceal" terrorists
subject to fines or up to ten years in jail. The Justice Department has advised
the State Department that this provision could make it a jailable offense to
fund the demobilization even of those who have renounced membership in terrorist
groups (the AUC, FARC and ELN are all on the State Department’s list of international
terrorist groups). So no U.S. money for demobilization will be forthcoming even
if Colombia comes up with a detailed, foolproof plan – at least until a legislative
fix is made to Section 803 of the PATRIOT Act.


Compounding the sense that the talks are occurring in an atmosphere of improvisation
and disorganization – that they are going around in circles – is the high level
of secrecy in which they are taking place. It is difficult to gauge what progress,
if any, emerges from the periodic meetings between negotiators, or how close
or distant agreement on key points may be.

This shield of secrecy is in part a reaction to the Pastrana government’s talks
with the FARC, which took place amid heavy media coverage in the Caguán demilitarized
zone. Every minor setback was amplified, and both sides set the process back
by posturing in the press.

The current talks have gone to the other extreme. Without transparency, confidence
in the talks is damaged – especially when the talks are taking place between
a government and an armed group that happens to be pro-government. The AUC’s
many victims and other stakeholders are denied opportunities for meaningful
input into the negotiations as well, adding to a sense of outrage that was perhaps
most palpable when three AUC leaders addressed Colombia’s Congress in July.

Suspicions of foul play are magnified when scandalous pieces of news do penetrate
the barrier of secrecy, such as the recordings of negotiation sessions leaked
to the media by Salvatore Mancuso in September. In the tapes, government peace
negotiator Restrepo assures Mancuso that he is trying to keep reports of paramilitaries
murdering civilians in the Ralito demilitarized zone out of the media. Restrepo
also tells the paramilitaries that they have nothing to fear from the International
Criminal Court, even though Colombia is a signatory to the Rome Statute.

Make a plan and stick with it

Defenders of the paramilitary talks in their current form often acknowledge
the negotiators’ reliance on improvisation, but respond that the situation is
too complex to demand adherence to a fixed strategy. But nobody is calling for
a rigid, subpoint-by-subpoint timeline – confidence in the talks would suffer
every time they ran behind such a detailed schedule. Of course flexibility is
important. But the current level of improvisation may end up being worse than
no talks at all.

Without plans and mechanisms to keep the talks on track and to verify gains,
the Colombian government is forced to depend heavily on the paramilitaries’
goodwill. For instance, we are required right now to trust that the AUC is indeed
demobilizing eleven blocs and truly reducing its presence in the affected zones.
There is no way to verify this, especially when the timeframe is compressed
to two months and the international community is hardly participating. "Trust
but don’t verify" is a poor guideline.

Colombia has improvised its peace processes before, and it has nearly always
gone badly. Simply taking a leap into the unknown and hoping for the best is
not a strategy. It is a recipe for future neglect of the demobilized fighters,
future resentments in affected communities, and future violence as Colombia’s
conflict drags on.

Coming soon: (4) The post-demobilization security vacuum

Nov 14

I’ll continue the postings about the paramilitary peace talks in a day or two. First, here’s an English translation of the op-ed that ran today in El Espectador (the Spanish is here).

Bush and Uribe make their shopping list

By Adam Isacson

Colombia – and not Mexico, as was the case four years ago – will be the first Latin American country to get a bilateral visit from George Bush after his reelection. This shouldn’t surprise us: there are very few governments in the hemisphere that have politically supported the Iraq adventure, fast free-trade talks, and the “war on terror” as currently envisioned.

For Bush and his foreign-policy team, Álvaro Uribe’s Colombia is a “balance” against the growing axis of center-left regimes in places like Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina and now Uruguay. Among the main issues to be discussed with Uribe will be the question of what will come after Plan Colombia. At the end of 2005, after six years and $4 billion in U.S. aid – 80 percent for the armed forces and the police – this program will end.

The debate over post-2005 aid will begin in the spring of next year, when the Bush administration presents Congress with its 2006 aid request. Right now, months before formalizing its request, the administration is deciding what to ask Congress to grant Colombia: more military aid, a better balance between money for war and money for urgent socioeconomic needs, or an across-the-board cut to free up money for other countries.

For President Uribe, then, the November 22 visit is his best opportunity to lobby on behalf of his preferred “shopping list.” If the past is any guide, this list will not include job-creation projects, hospitals, schools, or support for the judicial system. It will be made up of weapons, helicopters, fumigation and perhaps support to clone “Plan Patriota” and carry out similar military offensives elsewhere in the country. (Perhaps Uribe’s list will also include a clear signal of U.S. support for his reelection.)

To sell his “shopping list,” Uribe and his people will rain statistics and PowerPoint slides on their U.S. visitors. Men in uniform will tell of imminent victory over the terrorists. Officials will assure that, according to their data, fumigation is finally working and the little human-rights problem is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

How wonderful it would be if, in spite of the security bubble in which he travels, his first visit to Colombia opens Mr. Bush’s eyes – at least enough to inspire him to ask some uncomfortable questions. Imagine if Bush sought to learn why, after so many years of fighting a drug war, the price and purity of cocaine and heroin has failed to change on U.S. streets.

Imagine if Bush asked his own officers if, given the current military realities in Colombia, we won’t see ourselves condemned to keep on repeating the recent doubling of the legal limit on the U.S. military presence, until we find ourselves fully involved in the conflict. Imagine if Bush were to ask why so much U.S. aid goes to help conquer territory, and so little to help govern it.

Imagine if these questions led Bush to seek to consult with social and campesino leaders from the zones subject to fumigation; with brave organizers of innovative peace-building initiatives; with governors of indigenous groups under fire from all armed actors; with human-rights defenders and union activists living in conditions of permanent threat.

This is all very unlikely, of course. No matter what, it is at least reasonable to hope that, instead of another celebration of uncertain achievements, this visit results in a serious consideration of the challenges of the near future and the sharp changes in strategy that will be needed to meet them.

Adam Isacson is director of programs at the Center for International Policy in Washington.

Nov 13

Pity poor Pablo Escobar. The flamboyant, brutal drug dealer always wanted a
clean slate – to be seen, in journalist Mark Bowden’s words, "as a benevolent,
law-abiding citizen." But he came and went 15 years too early for that.

Had he been trafficking drugs and killing enemies today, perhaps Escobar could
have avoided ending up dead on a Medellín rooftop, surrounded by smiling, photo-snapping
policemen. Today, he could have put on camouflage fatigues, christened himself
"Comandante" something-or-other, and bought himself a seat at the
table in the Santa Fe de Ralito demilitarized zone, where negotiations are proceeding
between the Colombian government and the AUC paramilitaries. There, Escobar
would have stood a decent chance of winning amnesty, or at least a vastly reduced
penalty, for his past crimes. His presence at the table would also have stymied
any U.S. attempt to extradite him.

Sounds farfetched? Well, it’s happening right now for an entire corps of Colombia’s
top drug dealers. An odd wave of brand-new comandantes has swept the
AUC leadership over the past three or four years: people with precious little
experience fighting guerrillas but a long record as capos in Colombian
narcotrafficking organizations. Among them are no less than three of the twelve
figures on the U.S. government’s "wanted" list of members of the North
Valle Cartel, Colombia’s largest existing drug organization.

Colombians even have a term for these traffickers-turned-paramilitaries: the
"paracaidistas" – the parachutists – as in people who’ve just
"dropped in." The paracaidistas’ presence at Ralito, and their
growing influence over the AUC, might be the largest obstacle the Uribe
government’s talks face right now.

The difference between these new leaders and more "traditional" AUC
comandantes may at first seem semantic, since today’s paramilitaries
got their start and get much of their support from drug traffickers’ money,
since they control 40 percent of Colombia’s drug trade (according
to U.S. Ambassador William Wood
), and since much of the AUC leadership is
subject to U.S. Justice Department extradition requests. In addition to ordering
mass murder, longtime paramilitary leaders like Salvatore Mancuso, Iván Roberto
Duque, "Macaco" and Ramón Isaza have helped send prodigious amounts
of drugs to the United States.

As awful as they are, though, the paramilitaries’ old guard at least can claim
to have fought guerrillas and those they regarded as guerrilla sympathizers. The paracaidistas
can hardly even claim that. They have few anti-guerrilla credentials, but long
resumes in Colombia’s drug underworld. It is not even clear whether they view
the guerrillas as blood enemies or merely as rival drug mafias. In one celebrated
example from February, when Colombian troops participating in the early stages
of Plan Patriota captured "Sonia" (Nayibe Rojas Valderrama), the "financial
chief" of the FARC’s Southern Bloc, they found e-mails on her computer
asking the local AUC to lend a helicopter "to transport arms and drugs
through the jungle." 

The distinction between old-line paramilitaries, however "narco,"
and the paracaidistas makes a world of difference for Colombia’s peace
talks with the AUC. First, it makes international support impossible: a negotiation
with longtime, unreformed cartel leaders – regardless of the insignia on their
new uniforms – is still a negotiation with cartel leaders, something that no
other government is going to touch. Second, the paracaidistas are rapidly
supplanting the AUC’s old guard – even killing those who (like Carlos Castaño
in April, or the Metro Bloc’s "Rodrigo 00" in May) opposed the group’s
advanced narcotization and may have been seen as too likely to turn state’s
evidence. Under this new management, the paramilitaries are turning into a mafia,
or rather a set of rival mafias united only by their common hope to negotiate
an amnesty.

Here are some examples of paracaidistas currently in the Ralito zone
talking with government representatives.

  • Diego Fernando Murillo, nicknamed "Don Berna" or "Adolfo
    Paz," is the AUC’s "inspector-general" and, by some accounts,
    the group’s most feared and powerful leader. A July narcotrafficking indictment
    issued by New York prosecutors calls him the "de facto leader of the
    AUC." His long href="" target="_blank">biography
    includes time spent as a Medellín cartel bagman, a participant in a Cali Cartel-funded
    effort to kill Pablo Escobar, and leader of La Terraza, Medellín’s
    feared, but now defunct, network of hitmen-for-hire and street criminals.
    He did not join up with the paramilitaries until 2000 or so; thanks to a combination
    of generous buyouts of paramilitary blocs and sheer ruthlessness, his rise
    within the organization has been meteoric. Among several paramilitary units
    that answer to him was a short-lived Medellín-based paramilitary front, the
    Cacique Nutibara Bloc, that produced 860 young men for a widely questioned
    November 2003 "demobilization" ceremony.

  • Víctor Manuel Mejía Múnera, nicknamed "El Mellizo" ("The
    Twin") but known in Ralito as "Pablo Arauca," is the head of
    the AUC’s "Avengers of Arauca" bloc. Mejía, along with his twin
    brother, has long been on FBI most-wanted lists as a high-ranking figure in
    the Northern Valle cartel. Apparently he’s a member of the "General Staff"
    of Iván Duque’s Central Bolívar Bloc, and his group operates in Arauca, the
    oil-rich department of northeastern Colombia where U.S. military personnel
    have been present for nearly two years now, training the Colombian army in
    pipeline-protection and offensive anti-guerrilla operations. Observers were
    surprised to see him in Ralito when the current stage of talks was launched
    in July; Mejía was not before known to be a paramilitary leader. The "Avengers
    of Arauca" purportedly plan to demobilize by the end of the year; if
    that happens, though, few believe that it will mean an end to paramilitarism
    in Arauca.

  • Francisco Javier Zuluaga Lindo, known as "Gordo Lindo"
    in the drug underworld but in Ralito as "Comandante Gabriel Galindo,"
    is the political chief of Don Berna’s Pacific Bloc. He was an associate of
    the Medellín cartel’s Fabio and Jorge Ochoa and later, a partner of narcotrafficker
    Alejandro Bernal Madrigal, or "Juvenal," who was captured and extradited
    in Operation Millenium, a large-scale 1999 drug sting. A court in Fort Lauderdale
    requested Zuluaga’s extradition at that time, but he had evaded capture. Along
    with Mejía, his presence at the Ralito negotiating table in July surprised
    many who did not know him to be a paramilitary associate.

  • Ramiro Vanoy Murillo, or "Cuco," heads the Antioquia-based
    Mineros Bloc. Along with "Gordo Lindo," Vanoy is sought by the Fort
    Lauderdale court as an associate of "Juvenal."

  • Guillermo Pérez Alzate, or "Pablo Sevillano," heads the
    Liberators of the South Bloc, based in the Pacific port city of Tumaco near
    the coca fields of western Nariño department. He is wanted by Colombian police
    in connection with a shipment of 11 tons of cocaine. He also reputedly coordinated
    the North Valle Cartel’s "mule" operation ( href="" target="_blank">recruiting women
    to board planes to the United States after swallowing sealed packets of drugs).
    He paid large sums to the AUC sometime after 2001 for control of southern
    Pacific coast narcotrafficking routes and for permission to wear the AUC label.
    According to Moritz Ackerman, a columnist for the Medellín daily El Colombiano,
    Perez’s group routinely does business with guerrillas: "in the department
    of Nariño, in a region called ‘Coca City,’ the ‘Liberators of the South’ paramilitaries
    buy the harvest and the FARC’s 29th Front supervises the refining
    of cocaine."

  • Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, or "Jorge 40," runs the AUC’s Northern
    Bloc and is based in and around the port of Barranquilla, Colombia’s fourth-largest
    city. He allegedly controls the lion’s share of narcotrafficking in Colombia’s
    Atlantic Coast region, though he disputes it with Santa Marta-based paramilitary
    leader Hernán Giraldo. The dispute has often flared up into large-scale
    internecine violence, including frequent fighting over routes through the
    Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region of northern Colombia. Giraldo and the
    rest of the AUC, led by Tovar, fought an all-out war in 2002 that killed dozens
    in the port city of Santa Marta. The AUC allegedly sought to rein in Giraldo
    after he ordered the murder of two U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
    agents, a crime for which the United States seeks his extradition.

    A truce between Tovar and Giraldo has mostly held since then, though both
    have committed numerous high-profile violations of the cease-fire the AUC
    should be observing as a pre-condition for negotiations, among them the February
    murder of park ranger Marta Lucía Hernández, the abortive June kidnapping
    of Sen. José Gnecco, the August murder of indigenous leader Freddy Arias,
    and the September killing of professor href="">Alfredo Correa.

  • Last but not least, a recent href=""
    target="_blank">report in the Colombian newsweekly Semana asserts that,
    after paying a US$5 million fee, top North Valle Cartel leader Diego Montoya
    , "Don Diego," is now in the Ralito demilitarized zone,
    wearing olive-green fatigues and posing as the head of a new 150-man bloc,
    the "Heroes of Ríonegro." Montoya is on the FBI’s worldwide list
    of its target="_blank">ten most-wanted fugitives, alongside Osama bin Laden. If it
    turns out that Don Diego has truly "parachuted in" – and his online
    wanted poster notes that "Montoya is presently protected by the Colombian
    paramilitary group, ‘Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia’ (AUC)" – it could
    prove to be a near-fatal blow to the credibility of the Uribe government’s
    peace talks.

    Note as of November 24: Semana magazine has revised this claim. In a November 21 article, it contends that the AUC refused Don Diego’s request to play comandante in the Ralito zone, saying it posed to great a risk to the peace process. So Don Diego is probably not in Ralito – though his FBI wanted poster still claims that “Montoya is presently protected by the Colombian paramilitary group, ‘Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia’ (AUC).”

How remarkable that, in the name of peace and disarmament, some of the world’s
most prominent narco-criminals not only have a safe haven, but they have regular
opportunities to meet with government officials to demand an amnesty deal. If
they get even some of the impunity they want, the paracaidistas will
have succeeded in a scheme so brazen that even Pablo Escobar couldn’t have devised

How remarkable as well that the government of Álvaro Uribe – which takes such
a hard line against the hapless peasants who grow the narco-kingpins’ coca –
has reacted so meekly to the growing presence of the kingpins themselves. So
far, the Colombian government has sought to extradite only one paracaidista
in the Ralito zone, Juan Carlos Sierra Ramírez or "El Tuso," a
relatively minor figure who had bought up a small paramilitary bloc in Antioquia
department. And they didn’t arrest him; "El Tuso" remains at large.

The Colombian government has made no secret of its unhappiness with current
low levels of international support for the paramilitary peace talks. For donor
governments, though, the talks will remain radioactive – utterly untouchable
– as long as the paracaidistas remain at the table. They have to go if
this process is to have any credibility at all.

Coming soon: (3) Improvisation and secrecy

Nov 09

The imminent demobilization of 3,000 paramilitary fighters is likely to bring
a wave of optimistic statements and glowing press coverage about the Uribe government’s
very troubled process of negotiations with the AUC. In order to help keep things
in perspective, the next few days’ postings will explore several troubling issues
that urgently need to be sorted out before we can recommend that the U.S.
government support the Santa Fe de Ralito peace talks.

These issues include (1) continued paramilitary cease-fire violations; (2)
drug traffickers at the negotiating table; (3) improvisation and secrecy; (4)
the post-demobilization security vacuum; and (5) justice, victims’ rights and
accountability; and (6) extradition and the U.S.

(1) Cease-fire violations

Between 1998 and 2002, a right-wing presidential aspirant named Álvaro
Uribe relentlessly criticized President Andrés Pastrana for agreeing to
negotiate with the FARC guerrillas while the fighting raged on away from the
negotiating table. Uribe promised that, if elected, he would only talk with
groups that first agreed to a unilateral cease-fire.

Uribe was elected in May 2002, inaugurated that August, and by December the
AUC paramilitaries had declared a cease-fire, allowing talks to begin. After
two years, though, there’s a snag that’s awfully hard to overlook: the AUC
hasn’t stopped killing people
. Cease-fire violations are routine, and usually
the government, rather than threatening to get up from the table, hardly even
acknowledges them.

Granted, there has been a partial truce; the AUC has significantly slowed the
pace of its slaughter since December 2002. (This is a main reason for the recent
torrent of statistics about reduced violence since Uribe took office.) Cease-fire
violations nonetheless continue at an alarming rate.

On October 3, the Colombian government’s human rights ombudsman (Defensoría
del Pueblo
) announced that its offices in eleven
of Colombia’s
thirty-two departments (provinces) had received 342 complaints of paramilitary
cease-fire violations since December 2002. In the department of Tolima alone, the local ombudsman said that the paramilitaries
had killed 170 people since the cease-fire was declared. Nationally, the Colombian
Commission of Jurists cites a far higher number of violations: Between December
1, 2002 and September 10,
2004, the respected human-rights group target="_blank">reports, the paramilitaries killed
or disappeared at least 1,895 civilians "in actions not directly related
to the armed conflict."

The last three months alone offer some high-profile and very disturbing examples
of cease-fire violations.

  • In August, paramilitaries killed Freddy Arias, a leader of the Kankuamo
    indigenous group, in the northeastern city of Valledupar. Paramilitaries and
    guerrillas have both killed numerous civilians, many of them in deeply rooted
    indigenous communities, in an all-out war for control of drug crops and trafficking
    routes in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region of northern Colombia.
  • In September, paramilitaries killed href=""
    target="_blank">Alfredo Correa de Andreis, a professor at Barranquilla’s Simón
    Bolívar University. Correa, a leading local
    advocate of human rights, had been arrested and charged with helping guerrillas
    a few months earlier; he was shot shortly after being released for lack of
  • In October, paramilitaries in Medellín killed Teresa Yarce, a community
    organizer in the conflictive Comuna 13 neighborhood.
  • An October 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 href=""
    target="_blank">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."

Even the office of the Colombian government’s peace negotiator (High Commissioner
for Peace) recognizes a (far smaller) number of cease-fire violations in href=""
target="_blank">periodic reports. For its part, the OAS support mission (MAPP-OEA),
which is charged with verifying the cease-fire, has noted in reports issued
in May ( href=""
target="_blank">PDF format) and August ( href=""
target="_blank">MS Word format) that cease-fire violations are a problem.

Instead of forcefully denouncing these violations, however, the OAS has chosen
to downplay them: the August report, which contains the most extensive discussion
of cease-fire violations, devotes much space to a repetition of the Uribe government’s
statistics showing a general decline in violence. "We are deeply concerned
that the OAS is in fact abandoning its impartial verification role and locating
itself openly alongside one of the parties in the current conflict," read
a May 2004 href=""
target="_blank">letter to OAS mission chief Sergio
Caramagna from dozens of Colombian human-rights organizations
and political groups.

With the cease-fire routinely violated, the Uribe government is left sitting
with armed-group leaders at a table in a special demilitarized zone, while the
group’s members go on killing people throughout the
country. In that respect, there’s a strong similarity between the Ralito
dialogues and the Pastrana government’s much-maligned
talks with the FARC

Clearly, having a cease-fire in place makes negotiators’ work easier; ongoing
battles, offensives and atrocities create distractions that make dialogues very
difficult to sustain. It is not always practical to require a cease-fire, though:
if a group is willing to talk without one, and forcing them into a truce would
entail a great deal of bloodshed on the battlefield, being flexible about a
cease-fire could save lives. For this reason, CIP did not recommend a cease-fire
as a pre-condition for the 1998-2002 talks with the FARC.

In this case, however, the AUC’s noncompliance casts
strong doubts on the whole negotiation process. Since President Uribe had made
the cease-fire a fundamental pre-condition for talks, it has become an early
test of the paramilitaries’ will to negotiate in good faith. By violating their
word so blatantly, the paramilitaries fail this test miserably. The result is
mounting distrust at the negotiating table and weakening public and international
confidence in the talks.

The Colombian government, along with the OAS, must keep the situation from
getting worse, and not by issuing yet another empty ultimatum. Bogotá’s options
include (1) suspending the talks until the killing measurably stops; (2) greatly
stepping up military pressure on the paramilitaries, especially in zones where
cease-fire observance is poorest; or (3) abandoning the "cease-fire first"
requirement, which in fact would allow the government to accelerate and regularize
its discussions with the FARC and ELN.

Coming soon: (2) The “paracaidistas”

Nov 05

Imagine a U.S. government agency, in a public document posted to its website, describing CIP as a pro-terrorist organization, even linking us to a particular terrorist group. Imagine that the document presents no evidence to back up this outrageous claim, and no effort is made to investigate or prosecute us – but the charge remains out there, in a widely distributed document bearing official government letterhead.

It sounds preposterous, of course. But not in Colombia.

Pay a visit to this page on the website of the Dirección Nacional de Estupefacientes (DNE), the office of the Colombian government’s drug czar. (The DNE, by the way, is a recipient of U.S. government assistance.) Scroll down to “Asuntos Jurídicos Relevantes,” where you’ll see the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyer’s Collective – one of the country’s most reputable human rights groups, which in this case had helped to file an injunction against herbicide fumigations – described in an offhand way as “traditional defenders of the FARC.”

CIP knows and has worked alongside many members of the “Colectivo de Abogados” for years. Yes, it is a group that does not avoid controversy (what use is a human-rights group that avoids controversy?) and frequently pursues human-rights abusers in the Colombian government. But we can say unequivocally that its members have no sympathies whatsoever for guerrillas or any other generators of violence in Colombia.

As serious as it would be for a U.S. government agency to characterize domestic activists as terrorist sympathizers, it’s even more dangerous in Colombia, where the mere suspicion of supporting guerrillas is often tantamount to a death sentence. Seeing such suspicions confirmed in an official document is a direct threat to the safety of the group’s members.

We thank colleagues at the Washington Office on Latin America for pointing out this irresponsible and dangerous language. We join them in urgently calling on Colombia’s DNE and its director, retired Col. Luis Alfonso Plazas Vega (who himself has faced past allegations of human-rights abuse), to remove this very offensive phrase from its website.

Nov 04

A side effect of election results like last night’s is a minor, momentary crisis
of confidence for some on the losing side. When a majority of your fellow citizens
ratifies a foreign policy you strongly oppose, it’s only natural to ask – probably
while lying awake at night – "Am I missing something? How do so many not
see the obvious danger, the likelihood of failure, the need to change course
now? Are they blinded by ignorance, ideology, or propaganda? Or could it be

If that has happened to you, don’t worry. It’s easy to make that flash of doubt
vanish in an instant. All you have to do is read a newspaper, visit some websites,
stay informed.

For example: if you ever have even the faintest feeling that the Bush and Uribe
governments could somehow, possibly, be on the right path, simply scan the
day’s news
in Colombia.

One item in this morning’s news did it for me. The IndyMedia Colombia site
had posted an alert
from the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) about the disappearance
of Efrén Pascal, a leader of the Awá indigenous group in Nariño
department, in Colombia’s far southwest. Members of the FARC’s 29th Front kidnapped
Pascal, the governor of the Awá nation’s Kuambí Yaslambí
community, from his home in Ricaurte municipality (county) in the middle of
the night on October 24. Even a 250-person delegation organized by the Awá
People’s Indigenous Unity (UNIPA),
the ethnic group’s advocacy organization, was unable to free or find him.

The alert struck a chord because I know some of these people – I paid a visit
to the UNIPA’s headquarters in Ricaurte back in April. While I’ve seen many
examples of the human cost and unintended consequences of Plan Colombia and
the Uribe security policies, the largely unknown situation of the Awá
people is one of the most disturbing and urgent.

Nariño and Ricaurte.

Ricaurte straddles the main road between the city of Pasto and the busy port
of Tumaco, about halfway between the high Andes and the sea. The municipality
is big, stretching all the way to the Ecuadorian border. Indigenous groups,
particularly the Awá, make up 85 percent of the 14,000 people scattered
across Ricaurte’s very rugged terrain. Colombia’s 22,000 Awá people live
in 11 communities, or resguardos, in three municipalities (Ricaurte,
Barbacoas and Nariño). More live across the border in Ecuador. Their
language, Awapit, is still widely spoken, and UNIPA has helped develop an alphabet
to accommodate some of its softly spoken consonants – a project that Mr. Pascal,
the kidnapped governor, helped to spearhead.

Together with colleagues from several Colombian and Ecuadorian human rights
groups, I met and shared lunch with leaders of UNIPA. (I don’t know whether
Mr. Pascal was present; he may have been, as he is a member of the organization’s
board.) The group’s leaders told us this was the first time any human rights
groups had ever visited them.

We apologized for arriving at midday, nearly two hours late. They told us that
it was for the best, since guerrillas and police had been fighting just that
morning at a site about ten minutes away. Ricaurte is a violent place: its position
on the Pasto-Tumaco road places it along a strategic corridor for the movement
of drugs and weapons. All of Colombia’s armed groups are present, and significant
plantings of coca are in the countryside.

The Awapit language.

The spike in violence, the group’s leaders said, is a very new phenomenon.
Their part of Colombia had gone largely untouched by the conflict until very
recently. "This was a tranquil zone," one UNIPA member said. "It
was safe to travel through the countryside. … We had a way of life that was
functioning well, with our language, our traditional medicine, and a tight social
fabric." Though a small ELN presence had established itself in the general
area by about 1995, illegal armed groups were unknown.

Plan Colombia changed all that. In 2000-2001, the United States began
pouring millions of dollars in military hardware, training and herbicide fumigation
into Putumayo, the department about six hours’ drive to the east. Putumayo was
the main focus
of Plan Colombia’s first phase; at the time, it had more coca than any of Colombia’s
other 31 departments. Spray planes and a U.S.-funded army counter-narcotics
battalion fanned throughout Putumayo’s coca fields, destroying the crop. It
did not take long for many Putumayo coca-growers, and the armed groups and narcotraffickers
who buy from them, to pack up and move westward to Nariño, especially
the coastal zone just west of Ricaurte. By 2003, the UN reported (PDF
), Nariño had replaced Putumayo as the country’s number-one
coca-growing department. As it has done many times since major spraying began
in Colombia about ten years ago, the problem moved to a new zone.

The Awá leaders told us they had never seen coca until Plan Colombia
began pushing it out of Putumayo. People began arriving from Putumayo in 2000-2001
and buying up land, even in the indigenous group’s reserves, offering astronomical
prices. Coca-growing expanded dramatically. In an area where people had traditionally
lived on subsistence agriculture, earning perhaps $1-2 per day on sales of food,
a strange world of brothels and discos sprouted up overnight, particularly in
zones like Llorente in Tumaco municipality to the west.

A view of Ricaurte.

Our UNIPA hosts admitted that some Awá had planted coca too – particularly
younger people tempted by the easy money – but that they only planted tiny amounts,
enough to produce perhaps a few grams of coca paste per harvest. The paste sells
for 2,500 pesos (about $1) per gram, a price that they said had not risen over
the years despite U.S.-led eradication efforts (fumigation, they said, has occurred
in waves arriving about every nine months since 2001).

As Plan Colombia pushed the coca westward into Awá lands, violence quickly
followed. The FARC showed up for the first time in 2000, at about the same time
as the coca. The paramilitaries’ Pacific Bloc was not far behind. Guerrilla
presence and violence grew sharply worse in 2002, as the end of the Pastrana-era
peace process, and the Uribe government’s military offensives elsewhere, pushed
greater numbers of FARC into this more remote zone. The army, which had been
utterly absent for years, established itself in 2003, as part of the Uribe government’s
efforts to secure strategic roads.

The armed groups, competing ruthlessly for drug money and access routes, have
hit the Awá people exceedingly hard. Both the guerrillas and paramilitaries
routinely blockade and displace populations. Dozens of indigenous people have
been killed, both by selective assassination and by getting caught in the crossfire.
Rape is common. Armed groups routinely steal money, livestock, crops, and even
clothing. Blockades have had a devastating effect on a zone where malnutrition
levels are already high; the guerrillas have made it impossible to maintain
flows of food aid from the World Food Program and the Colombian government’s
Social Solidarity Network. In June 2003, the FARC killed an Awá governor
who had tried to facilitate some of these shipments, accusing him of helping

"You are the owners of this land, but we make the rules," a local
FARC leader told UNIPA. The guerrillas prohibit travel after 6:00 PM. Both sides
suspect anyone who travels – even from the rural to the urban part of Ricaurte
– of spying for their opponents. Even a few minutes’ detention and questioning
by the military or paramilitaries may mark one as a sapo (snitch) in
the eyes of the local FARC.

What of the Uribe government’s vaunted Democratic Security policy, which has
sought to protect citizens from this kind of violence through increased military
presence? An Awá leader put it well: the increased presence is "only
good if you happen to live near the highway," where most soldiers and police
are deployed. In fact, the military and police presence in larger towns and
roadsides has served only to push the guerrilla and paramilitary presence farther
into remote, neglected zones like the Awá resguardos, making conditions
markedly worse.

For their part, the indigenous leaders said, the army and police themselves
have done little to win the local population’s trust. Residents are treated
as likely terrorists; even wearing rubber mud-boots, carrying more than a little
cash, or lacking an identity card (a cédula, which many indigenous
do not have) may mark one, at a military or police roadblock, as a guerrilla.
Several recent combats between the military and guerrillas have taken place
in small Awá towns, amid a terrified population; in February, as the
ONIC has
, the Colombian air force apparently even bombed an Awá
school in Ricaurte. Meanwhile, nobody we asked could cite an example of soldiers
fighting paramilitaries.

After four years of Plan Colombia and two years of Democratic Security – two
strategies that have pushed drugs and violence from other zones to their once-peaceful
lands – the Awá people are reeling. Many are displacing, leaving for
Pasto, for Ecuador. A fiercely independent and well-organized group, the Awá,
usually through UNIPA, have repeatedly sought to denounce abuses and plead for
help before various Colombian government institutions, with almost no response.
The government’s non-miltary presence in rural Ricaurte remains virtually nil.

Awá leaders did not hide their consternation when I told them that my
country’s aid to Colombia was 80 percent military and police assistance. "Plan
Colombia should be all social aid," they said unanimously, as if that were
the most obvious thing in the world.

We still await news on governor Pascal’s whereabouts. Rumors that he had been
killed were proved false earlier this week. The UN High Commissioner for Human
Rights’ Bogotá office has called
on the FARC to release him immediately. ONIC and UNIPA are demanding the same.
Though the guerrillas and paramilitaries have a poor record of responding to
international pressure and outcry, CIP adds its voice to those urgently calling
on the FARC to immediately release Mr. Pascal.

Faced with the overwhelming evidence of places like Ricaurte, and the evident
suffering of the Awá and many others in similar circumstances, we repeat
our calls for an immediate and fundamental reconsideration of U.S. policy toward
Colombia. We fear that too many vulnerable Colombians – who, like the Awá,
have the misfortune of living far from the roads and the towns, and far from
the gatherers of optimistic statistics – are quietly becoming indirect victims
of both Plan Colombia and the Democratic Security policy.

What we have seen in places like Ricaurte makes a crisis of confidence impossible,
no matter what the election results tell us about public opinion in general.
We will stay informed and active in the new political climate, and we hope that
you will too.