Feb 26

After more than two years of watching the pendulum swing from crisis to optimism and back again, the paramilitary negotiations have finally reached their breaking point. The AUC leadership let it be known this week that they will walk away from the table if their leaders have to spend time in jail. The Colombian government’s response: if you quit the talks, you have five days to pack, turn off the lights and get out of the Ralito demilitarized zone.

Though the AUC seems to have since softened its position, it looks like this negotiation process is about where the Pastrana government’s talks with the FARC were in late 2001. The talks have reached the point at which discussion of procedural and technical matters (cease-fires, demilitarized zones, in the AUC’s case the distraction of hastily thrown-together demobilizations) has been exhausted, and all parties’ true interests – the potential dealbreakers – come into sharp focus.

The Colombian government and AUC leadership probably would have been happy to spend a good deal more time allowing the talks to continue meandering and avoiding the big questions. (This is what tends to happen to any talks that lack an outside, third-party facilitator empowered to hold both sides to an agenda.) What has forced the issue now is the need for money.

Demobilizing and reintegrating the paramilitaries could cost a quarter-billion dollars or more (which, incidentally, is only a shade more than what the United States already spends each year just to maintain all of the aircraft it has given Colombia over the past several years). The Colombian government is asking international donor countries for funding. Uncomfortable with supporting a process that could end up consolidating paramilitarism’s power in Colombia, donor countries are demanding that Colombia first pass a law to govern what will happen to demobilizing paramilitary leaders accused of serious crimes against humanity, how victims will be compensated, and how the AUC will be dismantled.

This law is now under discussion within the Uribe government, where Interior Minister Sabas Pretelt is backing a “peace and justice” law that chief negotiatior Luis Carlos Restrepo, backed by Vice-President Francisco Santos, believes is too tough on the paramilitaries and will thus make it impossible to negotiate. Where President Uribe himself stands is a mystery to everyone.

Simultaneously, the Uribe government is in discussions with key members of the Colombian Congress, particularly those who back Uribe vociferously and will do whatever he asks (and, in a few cases, whatever the AUC asks). Talks have largely broken down with another key bloc of the Congress backing a much tougher “truth, justice and reparations” bill, the coalition of pro-Uribe and leftist parties whose most visible face is Senator and former Defense Minister Rafael Pardo.

The present offers a terribly confusing picture of several competing blocs with widely diverging positions on a broad array of interests. What follows is an attempt – perhaps not a successful one – to make sense of it without oversimplifying to the point of uselessness.

Right now, we can identify seven key interest groups and five strongly divisive issues. Certainly there are more than seven interest groups (for instance the guerrillas do not appear on this list even though they can torpedo the talks with a few acts of violence). There are also more than five divisive issues (such as cease-fire violations or narcotraffickers’ presence in the AUC) but the focus here is on those that appear in the contentious debate over the “framework legislation” to govern demobilizations.

Interest groups include:

1. The paramilitary leadership, which does not want to spend a day in jail, fears extradition to the United States on narcotics charges, and wants to keep at least a good share of the land and wealth it plundered over the years.

The entire Uribe government wants to stuff the paramilitary genie back into the bottle, use a successful negotiation as an argument for re-election in 2006, and keep the names of paramilitary supporters out of the historical record. For now at least, the government divides in two blocs with different estimations of how much the paramilitaries’ demands can be appeased without losing foreign aid and political face.

2. The Restrepo-Santos bloc calls for less jail time, would not require demobilizing paramilitaries to confess their crimes or give information about their command and support networks. It would put some limits on reparations and paramilitary asset seizures.

3. The Sabas Pretelt bloc backs a somewhat tougher law with more jail time, some confession and post-demobilization investigation of crimes, and a stronger reparations regime.

4. The Pardo congressional bloc backs a tougher law with fewer loopholes and less vague language than the Pretelt bill; a stated goal is the true dismantlement of paramilitarism – an effort to guarantee that the AUC does not continue to exist in another violent, lawless form. Like the two government blocs’ proposals, the Pardo bill does not appear to make a priority of identifying the paramilitaries’ past supporters in the Colombian military or their wealthy civilian donors.

5. Non-U.S. donor nations seem to be backing something similar to the Pardo bill, though they probably have somewhat more interest in extraditing paramilitary members and perhaps more interest in seeing the groups’ supporters named as part of a “historical memory” or other healing process. The U.S. Congress probably falls along these general lines, as indicated by statements like a bipartisan letter sent to President Uribe in early February.

6. The Bush administration occasionally talks tough about jail time and dismantlement, but it is hard to underestimate its desire to support President Uribe in all of his endeavors. It is possible, then, that the administration might support a weaker bill and try to put a good face on it. There is little flexibility on the extradition issue, of course, though the administration will probably not allow a failure to extradite demobilized paramilitary leaders to affect its relations with Colombia.

7. Victims’ groups, of course, want everything: jail time for paramilitary offenders, reparations, dismantlement, and naming of paramilitary supporters – though they are more ambivalent about extradition. They are joined by Sen. Piedad Córdoba, leader of the Liberal Party’s left wing, and some of the non-governmental human rights community. (Many human-rights NGOs are reluctantly backing the Pardo bill because it is the only legislative vehicle with even a remote chance of passage, though their hearts are clearly with the hard line of the victims’ groups.)

The five key issues at the moment are:

1. Some jail time for paramilitary abusers. Positions on this issue range from none at all (the AUC) to a few years with a chance for suspended sentences (Restrepo-Santos) to 5-10 years (Pardo) to 20-40 years (victims’ groups).

2. Requiring demobilized paramilitaries to confess their crimes and provide information necessary to dismantle paramilitary networks. Positions range from the current situation of taking down only names and ID numbers and making sure no arrest warrants are outstanding (which the AUC and Restrepo-Santos appear to support), to requiring vague “cooperation” instead of “confession” (Pretelt), to requiring confession and dismantlement (Pardo, and even more strongly, victims’ groups).

It would seem uncontroversial to require paramilitaries to confess and reveal what they know about their organization. Yet the Uribe government has consistently objected to this, as well as anything resembling a truth commission. The official reason is that they believe this would be a dealbreaker for the AUC – but the paramilitary leadership seems to be much more worried about jail and extradition. An unofficial reason might be that the Uribe government and its wealthier and more powerful backers fear a real investigation into paramilitary support networks. By casting a wide net of investigations and interviews of demobilizing fighters, a dismantlement process could end up uncovering more information about paramilitarism than they want revealed. In particular, such an investigation could reveal the identities of military officials and wealthy Colombians who materially supported paramilitaries over the years.

3. Naming of supporters, then, is another key issue of contention at this phase of the talks. Though the Pardo bill requires much more investigation of demobilizing paramilitary fighters than the Uribe government would, the bill does not make a specific effort to identify those who helped the paramilitaries over the years with money, weapons, training, logistical support, or simply by looking the other way.

4. Reparations for victims is a somewhat less controversial issue – almost everyone agrees that victims should have their assets returned if possible. Positions vary, however, on issues like what sort of body should be in charge of adjudicating claims, whether funding will come from seized assets or from the government treasury, and whether “reparations” should include payments for non-tangible losses like pain and suffering.

5. Extradition is strongly opposed by the paramilitaries and strongly favored by the United States (at least rhetorically). Elsewhere in Colombia, though, support for extradition is generally rather tepid. The Uribe government will not extradite paramilitary leaders who comply with commitments in a future peace agreement. Groups that want to see paramilitaries go to jail often oppose extradition as an imperialist imposition, or they are simply agnostic on the issue.

The table below offers a further oversimplification of the issue – a rough overview of where each bloc stands on these five issues. Opinions on each issue are ranked on a scale of 1 to 5. “1” means strongly disagree, “5” means strongly agree, and “3” means no strongly expressed opinion (or division with the bloc).


Some jail

Confession / Dismantlement

Name supporters



Total out of 25 (desire to change status quo)








Government I (Restrepo / Santos)







Government II (Pretelt)







US government







Pardo bloc in Congress







Most non-U.S. donor nations







Many victims’ groups (ideal preference of many NGOs supporting Pardo bill)







Total out of 35 (likelihood of a reform)







Though clearly too simple to be useful for very much, this table still reveals some interesting conclusions:

1. Adding the totals on the bottom row shows that a generous reparations regime might be likely, while naming the paramilitaries’ outside supporters might prove difficult. Extradition also looks unlikely to happen. Meanwhile, the questions of jail, confession and dismantlement yield totals right in the middle of the scale, making it hard to predict what the final outcome will be.

2. Adding the totals in the right column shows that the two blocs most opposed to any change from the status quo happen to be the two blocs seated at the negotiating table: the AUC and the Restrepo bloc of the Uribe government. If the negotiators on both sides favor a lenient deal, any hope for tougher truth, justice, reparations and dismantlement measures must come from outside actors who do not have a seat at the table.

This may be the most important conclusion we can draw at the moment. The role of outside actors – dissident legislators, NGOs, organized victims, foreign donors – is absolutely crucial right now. Any hope for a tough “truth, justice and reparations” regime lies with their ability to counter-balance the interests of the two groups sitting at the negotiating table.

Feb 23

For the past four years, Marc Grossman has served as the undersecretary of State for political affairs, the number three position in the State Department and usually the most senior post held by a foreign service officer. In his occasional dealings with Colombia, Grossman has made some statements with which we strongly disagree, but he has been relatively thoughtful and measured. He has usually listened to other points of view, and his support of the current policy of military aid and fumigations can be described more as “managerial” than “passionately ideological.”

Grossman is leaving soon, to be replaced by Nicholas Burns (another non-neoconservative). Last week, while on what will probably be his last official trip to Colombia, the undersecretary gave a very noteworthy interview to El Tiempo. Noteworthy for both good and bad reasons.

Grossman’s most encouraging statements had to do with the conditions under which the United States would support for the Uribe government’s negotiations with paramilitary groups. Instead of equivocating, he went solidly on record in support of a strong “truth, justice and reparations” law that seeks the complete dismantlement of the AUC.

Q: What kind of law is needed?

A: We hope that it is a strong law, a law that should set a precedent for the FARC and the ELN. As such, it should guarantee the dismantlement of the AUC, stop its financing and confiscate its properties. It should also assure that justice is done, that the door is open for the reparation of victims, and it should be transparent. That is what we have said in this visit to President Uribe and Senator Pardo.

Q: Does the United States support the pardoning of paramilitary leaders in order to achieve peace?

A: We are on the side of justice and we believe that justice must be done. We think that whoever has committed a crime should pay for it and should be punished. And let there be no doubt that we consistently support the extradition of those who are wanted by the U.S. justice system.

Q: How does the United States view the probability that some leaders of the AUC might participate in politics after the negotiation process?

To us, the AUC is a terrorist organization, and at the end of the demobilization process, it should completely cease to exist.

While brief statements like these of course leave plenty of wiggle room, these are the strongest words about the paramilitary talks that we have heard from a U.S. official in months. By calling for asset seizures, reparations, punishment and dismantlement, Grossman appears to endorse a very strong law for dealing with demobilizing paramilitary leaders: something close to the legislation proposed by Sen. Rafael Pardo and other legislators, and something so strongly worded that, should it pass, Colombian government peace negotiator Luis Carlos Restrepo would probably submit his resignation again.

The rest of the interview is less encouraging. Grossman repeats the administration’s tough line on Venezuela, criticizing the “negative role” the Chávez government is playing in the region, while failing to make clear how U.S. policy is encouraging the moderates and isolating the extremists (instead of the opposite) in that very polarized country.

Then, in a real misstep, Grossman effectively denies that a conflict exists in Colombia.

Q: Is there an armed conflict or a terrorist threat in Colombia?

A: It is an attack on Colombian democracy by three narcoterrorist groups.

This is more than a semantic issue. If Colombia’s violence is not a “conflict” but just a criminal or terrorist nuisance, several things change. First, much of international humanitarian law goes out the window, since Protocol II of the Geneva accords does not apply. Second, it is impossible to consider negotiating any political demands with any of the armed groups (as happened in El Salvador and Guatemala) – just the terms of their surrender and disarmament. (We discuss the “is it a conflict” issue more thoroughly in another posting.)

At the Cartagena donors’ meeting earlier this month, the Uribe government tried to sell the idea that no conflict exists in Colombia. Most countries in attendance refused to buy into that notion – especially since, while the meeting was occurring, the FARC was proving itself able to hit military targets in several parts of the country – and the meeting’s final declaration includes a reference to the conflict in Colombia.

In his declaration as U.S. representative to the donors’ meeting, USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios was careful not to use the word “conflict,” but the U.S. position was still somewhat ambiguous. Grossman’s response last week left all ambiguity aside: the U.S. government is now on record endorsing the Uribe government’s view of the violence in Colombia. Because of its implications for humanitarian standards and future negotiations, this is a disturbing development.

Feb 21

“You mean to tell me that the success of my program and my reelection hinges on the Federal Reserve and a bunch of f***ing bond traders?”

That’s how Bill Clinton responded in 1993, according to an account in Bob Woodward’s The Agenda, after his advisors told him that his ambitious economic plan had to be put on hold because of deficit jitters in the equities markets.

It seems the bond traders are at it again in Colombia, according to a Reuters piece from last Wednesday.

In December, Colombia’s Congress passed a constitutional amendment that would allow President Álvaro Uribe to run for re-election. Sometime during the next few months, Colombia’s Constitutional Court will rule on the amendment. It is possible that the court may strike it down on procedural grounds. Last spring, for instance, it killed an “anti-terror” amendment, heavily favored by President Uribe, that would have given Colombia’s military the power to arrest civilians, interrogate them and tap their phones.

Should the court stop Uribe from running again in 2006, writes reporter Hugh Bronstein, a likely result will be a “selling of the Andean country’s bonds.”

If Uribe can’t run for re-election, says one U.S.-based portfolio manager, “you would see a significant sell-off across the board in Colombian assets.” The result: “A dive in bond prices would make it more expensive for the already cash-strapped government to borrow.”

In other words: if Uribe’s re-election is struck down and someone else appears likely to occupy the Palacio de Nariño in 2006, Colombia risks seeing its debts approach junk-bond status. This other president would have to use much more of his budget just to service existing debt, which would mean less money for both military and social needs. Though foreign bond traders don’t get to vote in Colombia, they’re already indicating that electing someone other than Uribe could carry a big price tag.

The bond market is quite pleased with Álvaro Uribe. His security policies have made Colombia safer for the investor class. He is loath to tax upper income brackets or corporate profits. By holding down growth in social spending wherever possible, he has managed to bring deficits within IMF targets – though less-than-expected economic growth may make that hard to sustain. The bond traders would nonetheless hate to see Uribe have to go when his term ends.

When a country is running high deficits, the international bond market can become almost an additional branch of government, with strong checks on the other branches’ power. It is a very conservative branch – no surprise, since big money is involved – and its participants are made very nervous by leaders (such as Clinton, or Lula in Brazil) who appear to favor using government to fight poverty or increasing the tax burden of the wealthiest. The danger of a selloff leaves those leaders with fewer policy options; they in fact find themselves bending over backwards to prove that they are not about to recklessly blow the treasury on national healthcare, anti-hunger programs or education grants. They are left with incrementalism.

Meanwhile, bond traders don’t seem to put anywhere near as tight a straitjacket on leaders for whom they feel an affinity. George W. Bush thus continues to enjoy historically low interest rates even as he runs historically high deficits. And Álvaro Uribe’s mere presence is enough to avoid a bond selloff.

This is not a sinister conspiracy. Bond traders are ultimately motivated by perceptions of risk – the chance that they could lose lots of money – and not a right-wing political agenda.

However, there does seem to be an assumption that right-wing government equals lower risk. That assumption is faulty and it could end up losing people big money.

In fact, it’s been proven wrong. Look no further than the two recent examples of candidates who sent the bond market into a tailspin every time they went up in the polls: Bill Clinton and Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. Clinton ended up presiding over the longest period of economic expansion in U.S. history, and his government was the first in thirty years to run a budget surplus. Lula’s moderation has angered his base, but Brazil’s economy grew 5.2 percent last year, CEPAL estimates.

Colombia, by comparison, grew by only 3.3 percent. Its central government deficit is expected to top 6 percent of GDP this year. Yet the bond market sees no alternative to re-election?

Feb 18

The governments of Peru and Bolivia have complained loudly about the Bush administration’s 2006 aid request. The request calls for 14 percent less aid for Peru in 2006, compared to 2004. Bolivia would get 8 percent less. (Both estimates use data from the 2006 Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations, a long but very useful document. They combine military and economic aid, and exclude programs, such as Defense Department counter-drug aid, that are not part of the foreign aid request.)

Peruvian anti-drug authorities are predicting that the cuts will make it harder to fight drug trafficking. Bolivia’s foreign minister has proposed a diplomatic alliance with Peru to lobby for aid.

Bolivia and Peru are not at all unusual, though. In fact, of the 109 countries that would get more than $1 million in aid in the 2006 request, at least 50 – nearly half – are expected to get less aid next year than they did last year. Many are looking at reductions of double-digit percentages. The reason, of course, is the ballooning budget deficit, which has forced the Bush administration to seek cuts in so many foreign and domestic programs.

As a result, aid cutbacks are in store for most of the countries that saw large and steady increases since the mid-1990s because of the “war on drugs.” In addition to Peru and Bolivia, less aid may also find its way to Panama (5% less in 2006 than in 2004), Mexico (9% less), Guatemala (16% less), Brazil (18% less), Ecuador (33% less) and – unsurprisingly – Venezuela (45% less).

For its part, Colombia is likely to stay about the same in 2006 as it was in 2004. (Though the chart below shows a 3% decrease for Colombia, keep in mind that the data are incomplete: nobody – not even the Pentagon – has any idea how much of its counter-drug account the Defense Department will use to aid Colombia in 2006; this large but poorly documented source of aid could more than make up for that 3% drop.) While the overall amount will be the same, we know that non-drug programs – from the Arauca pipeline protection effort to “Plan Patriota” – are taking up a larger share, leaving less aid for counter-narcotics programs like fumigation and aerial interdiction. Colombia therefore probably will see less specifically counter-narcotics aid in 2006 than 2004.

After so many years of increases, it is intriguing to see expected reductions in counter-drug aid to the Andes and to “transit” countries like Mexico and Guatemala. The ballooning budget deficit has forced the Bush administration to show what its real international priorities are – and the drug war didn’t qualify.

What does this mean? Is this the beginning of the end of the drug war? Well, probably not. But for the foreseeable future at least, the “war on drugs” is not going to be a growth industry.

The countries that have managed to save themselves from cutbacks are those that fit in one or more of a few categories:

  • Countries considered vital to the “war on terror”;
  • Countries with more than 200 troops in Iraq today;
  • Countries getting assistance from the White House’s new Global HIV-AIDS initiative, even if aid from other accounts is declining;
  • Countries invited to apply for aid under the Millennium Challenge Account – though not all will see their applications approved; and
  • Four countries – West Bank/Gaza, Sudan, Chad and Laos – whose increases owe to peace processes, humanitarian emergencies, or de-mining programs.

Of the countries that do not meet these criteria, nearly all can expect an aid cutback in 2006. Here is the data.

“War on Terror” countries (thousands of dollars)

According to the budget request, the following countries will be getting more aid because they are considered vital to the “global war on terror.” Several are specifically mentioned in the 2005 supplemental request (PDF).





2006 – 2004

% change








Also invited for MCA







Included in 2005 supplemental







Included in 2005 supplemental




























Included in 2005 supplemental





















Included in 2005 supplemental














Included in 2005 supplemental







Included in 2005 supplemental

Countries with more than 200 troops in Iraq (thousands of dollars) 





2006 – 2004

% change























4.El Salvador













Also invited for MCA















Countries in the Global HIV-AIDS initiative (thousands of dollars)

The following countries are beneficiaries of the White House’s Global HIV-AIDS initiative. Other aid programs to these countries, however, are generally declining.





2006 – 2004

% change









2.Cote d’Ivoire





































































Also getting Transition Initiatives aid

12.South Africa













Also invited for MCA














Also invited for MCA

Countries invited to apply for the Millennium Challenge program (thousands of dollars)

The Bush administration’s banner aid program, the Millennium Challenge, which will start giving aid in 2005, only assists countries that score well on a list of sixteen governance criteria (grouped under the categories of “Ruling Justly, Encouraging Economic Freedom, and Investing in People”). Eligibility does not guarantee aid: countries must submit proposals for aid and, if accepted, enter into “compacts” with the U.S. government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation. Two MCA-eligible countries, Lesotho and Vanuatu, do not appear in this list because they currently get less than $1 million in aid.





2006 – 2004

% change








Also considered a “war on terror” country







Also in HIV-AIDS initiative

3.Sri Lanka




















Also with troops in Iraq
































































Other special cases <;/b>(thousands of dollars)





2006 – 2004

% change

Reason why

1.West Bank / Gaza






Peace process







Humanitarian emergency















Everybody else (thousands of dollars)

Almost every country on this list will see a decrease in aid, as they do not meet any of the criteria in the tables above.

It is not clear why Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay are among the few anomalies with expected aid increases. Argentina’s and Chile’s increases will come entirely from non-drug military assistance; this is probably because they are among the handful of large Latin American countries that are still eligible for such assistance – most have been disqualified because they have not signed an “Article 98” agreement exempting U.S. personnel on their soil from the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction. Paraguay’s slight increase owes to greater economic assistance and has no apparent cause.





2006 – 2004

% change

1.   Argentina






2.   Chile






3.   Somalia






4.   Paraguay






5.   India






6.   Azerbaijan






7.   Nepal






8.   Lebanon






9.   Sierra Leone






























































































































30.Congo (DR)




































36.Dominican Republic












38.Czech Republic










































45.Cuba opposition










































52.East Timor






53.Serbia and Montenegro










































Methodological notes:

  • The tables below only include aid specifically assigned to countries in the 2006 Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations and the 2005 supplemental appropriations request (PDF). This is not a full, accurate estimate of what each country is getting, but we consider it enough for comparison purposes. Programs not represented here include:

    • The Defense Department’s counter-drug programs, which don’t estimate for future years’ aid.
    • The Excess Defense Articles grant program, which doesn’t estimate future years.
    • Smaller, regional military and economic aid programs that don’t estimate amounts per country, such as ICITAP, Migration and Refugee Assistance, International Narcotics Control regional programs, and many others.
    • PL 480 food assistance, which fluctuates wildly from one year to the next.
    • Peace Corps outlays for each country, which hardly fluctuate at all.
    • Tsunami aid in the 2005 supplemental request, which is not disaggregated by country.
    • Unnamed recipients of aid from the proposed “Global War on Terror Partners Fund” in the 2005 supplemental request.

    As a result, nearly all aid amounts are higher than what is reflected here. For instance, the totals for Colombia in the table below do not match CIP’s more inclusive – and therefore higher – estimate of aid to Colombia.

    While CIP would like to be able to provide exact aid amounts for every country in the world, doing so would require us to spend the better part of a year digging up information from throughout the federal bureaucracy. (If anyone is willing to fund such a project – we’ve attempted it for Latin America – we’d be happy to do it.)

  • Aid in the 2005 supplemental has been assigned to the 2006 column for ease of comparison.
  • Countries with expected aid below $1 million are excluded.
  • Military/police and economic/social aid is combined.
Feb 15

Cali’s newspaper, El País, ran an interesting article on Sunday about the U.S. personnel, mostly private contractors, who fumigate coca in Tumaco, a port city on the Pacific coast in Nariño department, not far from Ecuador.

While the approximately 20 U.S. advisors for Plan Colombia – military and civilian – do not have much contact with the population of the “Pearl of the Pacific” [as Tumaco is sometimes called], so little contact that some in fact do not notice their presence, the Tumaqeños look poorly on the fact that foreign citizens are tied to activities that they consider an act of aggression.

I saw these fellow U.S. citizens when paying a visit to Tumaco last April. Actually, anyone who flies into Tumaco sees them because they’re right there at the airport.

I’ve been to other civilian airports in Colombia that have a police base attached with contract personnel doing the fumigation, such as San José del Guaviare or Villagarzón, Putumayo. But much tighter security at those facilities made it much harder to see the spray planes and contractors, who were confined to a separate area. Not so in Tumaco’s airport, they are they right there, mixed in with the traveling public.

When getting off one’s plane on the tarmac, there they are. Walking the 50 yards or so to the terminal, you go between ranks of brand-new-looking spray aircraft. Once in the terminal, only a chain-link fence separates the often crowded, not-very-secure waiting area from the contractors’ planes and facilities only yards away. (Despite being very much out in the open, they and the Colombian police gave a hard time to a Colombian colleague who was documenting our trip on video and couldn’t resist taking footage of the planes from our table in the airport cafeteria.)

The contractors themselves are hard to miss as the regular flights to and from Cali come and go. Some are hanging out by their facility. Some are sitting around in the cafeteria, brushing off attempts to start a conversation. They seemed pretty bored in between missions; while waiting for our bags, in fact, we saw one of these goodwill ambassadors happily jogging down the runway, waving around one of those blow-up dolls they sell in adult shops while his buddies laughed.

Though it pays well – usually over $100,000 per year – theirs is a very strange life. Their stay in Tumaco only lasts a few weeks or months, then they go home for a while only to come back again. While there, they see little of the town or its people, limited to shuttling back and forth from the airport to their hotel (where we also found ourselves staying), and perhaps to the nearby naval base, in SUVs and buses with tinted windows and no license plates.

If they ventured out, they would see a city of 100,000-plus people that is an utter basket case. Poverty for much of the city’s Afro-Colombian majority is extreme, with squalid conditions, at times recalling Port-au-Prince, making Bogotá slums like Ciudad Bolívar look prosperous by comparison. The municipal government is broke and will be for years due to astronomical debts brought on by rampant corruption and mismanagement. Between 2001 and 2004, incredibly, the town went through 62 mayors.

The port city is part of a much larger county by the same name; the vast rural zone, with rivers flowing from jungle to the ocean, is full of mangrove swamps, generations-old afro-Colombian communities, fishing villages, and – in a development that didn’t exist even 7 or 8 years ago – coca fields. The rural zone is violent, with FARC guerrillas and paramilitaries constantly jockeying for control over coca money and trafficking routes. (On top of everything else, Tumaco is one of Colombia’s main export points for illegal drugs.)

In mid-2001, a major military offensive, “Operation Tsunami,” temporarily reduced the guerrilla presence in the area. In the operation’s aftermath, the guerrillas returned to rural Tumaco, and paramilitary groups – which had barely established themselves beforehand – greatly increased their presence in the urban center and control of neighborhoods. In 2001 and 2002 they carried out a wave of selective killings (including that of an activist nun, Yolanda Cerón) and “social cleansing” murders of prostitutes, street children and other “undesirables,” while extorting local businesspeople and hooking into local government.

The chief of the AUC’s local “Liberators of the South” bloc, Guillermo Pérez Alzate or “Pablo Sevillano,” is wanted in connection with a shipment of 11 tons of cocaine, and is believed to have coordinated the North Valle Cartel’s “mule” operation (recruiting women to board planes to the United States after swallowing sealed packets of drugs). A recent convert to paramilitarism, 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.”

I have no idea whether the U.S. citizens running the spray program in Tumaco, who hardly stray from the airport, the navy base and their hotel, know or care about any of this. But if you’re in Tumaco, it’s hard to miss them doing their job. Early in the morning, every morning I was there, you hear the “Apocalypse Now” sound of the spray planes’ police escort helicopters taking off. Shortly afterward, the U.S.-provided, U.S. citizen-piloted spray planes fly out, on their way to spray more herbicides over one of Colombia’s poorest, most neglected regions.

Feb 12

“The FARC have tried to go on the offensive, but they have not been able to do so,” said Gen. Reinaldo Castellanos, the head of the Colombian Army, back in December. “Militarily they are evidently in retreat.”

That statement, a pretty common one during the past year or two, has been called seriously into doubt by events of the past two weeks. After a long period of only sporadically committing acts of violence large enough to make the news, the guerrillas have launched a series of large-scale attacks, ambushes and pitched battles against the Colombian military.

  • Iscuandé, Nariño, February 1: An estimated 200 FARC fighters carried out a nighttime surprise attack on a riverine marine post near the Pacific coast in Colombia’s far southwest. The guerrillas launched homemade mortars, made from the small gas tanks that Americans know from their household gas grills, at the sixty mostly sleeping marines stationed there. Over half of the contingent were “campesino marines,” participants in a Uribe government program that stations volunteer soldiers in their home towns after giving them three months of training. Fifteen marines were killed, and twenty-six were wounded.
  • Puerto Asís, Putumayo, February 2: In an Iraq-style roadside bombing, guerrillas detonated mines just as a truckload of soldiers passed by. The attack occurred on the well-traveled road between Puerto Asís, Putumayo’s largest city, and the town of Santa Ana, which hosts a military base, about ten miles to the north. The area has a significant military and police presence; much of it is funded by the United States, since Putumayo, a province in southwestern Colombia, was the initial focus of “Plan Colombia” 4-5 years ago. Eight soldiers were killed and five were wounded.
  • Vistahermosa, Meta, February 2: Combat between guerrillas and Colombian forces killed five soldiers and twelve guerrillas. Vistahermosa, one of five south-central Colombian municipalities that was demilitarized to host the failed 1998-2002 FARC peace talks, is now part of the large zone where “Plan Patriota,” an ambitious U.S.-supported military offensive begun more than a year ago, is taking place.
  • Pasto-Tumaco highway, Nariño, February 7: In the only one of these attacks to target civilians, guerrillas staged several roadblocks on a heavily traveled highway in southwestern Colombia, burning several trucks, buses and taxis. Security forces arrived in time to prevent the kidnapping of twelve people.
  • Mutatá, Antioquia, February 8-9: The military killed several FARC fighters during firefights in an indigenous village in the Urabá region near Panama. As the soldiers were returning to their base, the guerrillas regrouped and ambushed them. Nineteen soldiers and eleven guerrillas were killed. Gen. Héctor Fandino, the chief of the army unit responsible for Urabá (17th Brigade), was relieved of his command.
  • FARC activity in January: The FARC carried out a few large-scale actions in January as well, including a New Year’s massacre of sixteen civilians in Tame, Arauca; the killing of seven soldiers in a Tolima minefield, and an attack on a Tolima jail that freed 20 guerrillas.

(On a personal note, the two roadside attacks in the above list are unsettling because I’ve been on both of those stretches of road within the past year.)

End of the “tactical retreat”?

The early February eruption reminds Colombians of the 1996-2002 period in which the FARC – attempting to move from hit-and-run guerrilla activity to what Mao called the “war of position” – launched frequent large-scale attacks on both military and civilian targets, occasionally overrunning rural towns and military outposts. The news of the past two weeks has analysts in Colombia wondering whether these days have returned. As Semana magazine’s excellent cover story / editorial on the subject noted, on the morning of the Iscuandé attack

The news sounded like something from another era. The majority of Colombians had forgotten what it was like to wake up, turn on the radio, and hear an account of a violent takeover of a town, as occurred so often several years ago. Above all when memories are fresh of holiday vacations in which Colombians were able to travel throughout the country in peace, when highway traffic increased by 30 percent, when murders dropped by 15 percent in 2004, kidnappings 42 percent and forced displacement 37 percent.

Why did the FARC’s “war of position” stop after 2002? Supporters of Álvaro Uribe give the credit to his government’s “Democratic Security” policy, which continued the previous Pastrana government’s increases in defense spending and military manpower, while deploying the security forces throughout the country and involving civilians as informants.

Of course the policy gets some credit – it seems as though Colombia’s violence levels began their documented decline exactly in August 2002, after Uribe was sworn in. But skeptics insist that there is more going on. After all, they point out, the reductions in official measures of violence – especially guerrilla violence – are much greater than the increases in defense spending or military and police manpower. How, for instance, does a 28 percent increase in force strength lead to a 69 percent decrease in attacks on towns, or a 57 percent decline in massacres?

Official statistics show changes in security results during the Uribe presidency that are often far greater than increases in defense spending or force strength.


Colombian government sources consulted:

Departamento Nacional de Planeación, La seguridad democrática en el Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 2003 – 2006 (PowerPoint)
Ministerio de Defensa Nacional, Situación Presupuestal del Ministerio de Defensa para el Año 2005 (PowerPoint)
Presidencia de la República, Resultados Seguridad Democrática (Excel)
Presidency / Defense Ministry: The Effectiveness of the Colombian Democratic Security and Defence Policy August 2002 – August 2003 (PDF)
Vicepresidencia de la República, Resumen Ejecutivo del Informe Anual de Derechos Humanos 2005 (Word) 

Skeptics also point out that the Uribe government’s counter-offensive has so far had little impact on the guerrillas’ leadership or force structure. “They still have yet to step on the head of the snake,” says retired Gen. Manuel Bonnett, a former armed forces chief. Adds Alfredo Rangel, an advisor to the Pastrana government’s Defense Ministry whose Security and Democracy Foundation is now a main source of critical appraisals of the Uribe security policies, “According to our analysis, the FARC have been badly hit in Cundinamarca [near Bogotá] and eastern Antioquia [near Medellín], where they practically don’t exist. But in the rest of the country, including the Plan Patriota zone, they are intact.”

The most common explanation for the drastically reduced 2002-2004 guerrilla violence, then, is that the FARC chose to go into a “tactical retreat” in response to the Uribe government’s offensive. Faced with a “storm” called Democratic Security, this theory goes, the guerrilla leadership decided to wait it out, as they had done previous presidents’ “total war” efforts that eventually faded away. They retreated deep into the jungle, called a halt to most mass attacks on towns and bases, and ordered their fronts to avoid most engagements, limiting themselves to ambushes, snipers, mine-laying and similar small-scale surprise strikes.

By some measures, though, the FARC has remained quite active. A recent report by the Security and Democracy Foundation found that “the number of insurgent attacks during Uribe’s first two years – about 900 – is almost equal to all of the attacks that took place during the Pastrana administration’s four years – 907.” Most of these 900 attacks, though, have been much smaller in scale than what came before.

So is the “tactical retreat” ending? It’s really impossible to say. The FARC itself has never acknowledged that it was ever in any sort of retreat or slowdown. However, in a December 27 missive, the FARC’s Eastern Bloc predicted that “our combat against Plan Patriota and other current war operations will transition from resistance to assault.”

During the past 2 ½ years, there have been periods of a week or two in which it appeared as though FARC activity was increasing, only to die down again afterward. (One example is June-July 2004, which saw a FARC massacre of 34 coca-pickers in the Catatumbo region of northeastern Colombia, an attack on an army column in Putumayo that killed thirteen soldiers, and a series of coordinated attacks on towns in Nariño, among other events.) It is impossible to know whether the latest attacks are any different.

The Uribe security team, of course, assures us that everything is under control. While contending that the Democratic Security policy is working, President Uribe has blamed the recent setbacks on military mistakes. Iscuandé was the result of poor discipline; Puerto Asís owed to an officer’s unauthorized decision to deploy troops; Mutatá cost a brigade commander his job. While his column in yesterday’s El Tiempo predicts that the February attacks spell the end of the FARC’s “retreat” and the beginning of the Democratic Security policy’s “breakdown,” Rangel does not expect a “massive counter-offensive” to be in the offing. Instead, “the situation could grow worse as elections [legislative late this year, presidential next year] draw near.”

Why now? – political reasons

Why would the FARC choose this moment to go on the attack? Perhaps to coincide with the 2 ½ year anniversary of the Uribe government, though that wouldn’t make much sense. Perhaps to knock the paramilitary negotiations off course: Mutatá, after all, lies on the edge of the zone where the AUC’s Bananero Bloc, which demobilized its 450 members in November, used to operate. If we see FARC activity in other zones where paramilitaries laid down arms, such as Catatumbo or southern Valle de Cauca province, we will know that the guerrillas aim is to disrupt the AUC talks.

The timing may also be explained by another political objective: to prove that Colombia is indeed embroiled in an armed conflict. While that may seem obvious, the Uribe government’s repeated position is that no conflict exists in Colombia. It was common knowledge that President Uribe would insist on this point at the February 2-3 meeting of international donors assembled in Cartagena, and indeed it was a central argument in his opening speech. “I have asked that our reality of violence not be called a conflict. It is a terrorist challenge to Colombian society and democratic institutions,” Uribe said, with an eye toward getting the international community to endorse this view.

While it sounds like so much semantic nonsense, it really does matter whether or not Colombia’s violence is considered a “conflict.” If the Uribe government can get the international community to avoid using the “c-word,” it can score a key tactical victory by taking away whatever international political space the FARC had left. If there is no conflict, then the FARC is not a combatant with political demands – and therefore negotiations with the guerrillas about anything other than terms of disarmament are out of the question.

Far more troubling is that if no conflict exists, the standards of international humanitarian law do not apply. Even those who surrender stand a chance of being killed. Standards for treatment of prisoners are watered down. Medical missions, like the Red Cross, are at greater risk. The distinction between combatants and civilians need not be recognized.

In international legal terms, Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions, which includes all of these standards, only applies in conflicts between

Armed forces and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups which, under responsible command, exercise such control over a part of its territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations and to implement this Protocol. This Protocol shall not apply to situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature, as not being armed conflicts.

If Uribe can convince the world that the FARC do not meet the standard of “dissident armed forces,” then Protocol II does not kick in.

Like it or not – and even though they commit frequent acts of terrorism – the FARC still qualifies. “Despite all of their barbarity,” Rangel writes, “we have to recognize that their recent actions are acts of war executed by a hierarchical military force, capable of carrying out sustained and coordinated actions, with uniforms and visible insignia, with a chain of command, and with presence and control in many zones of the national territory.” Analyst León Valencia, a former member of the ELN, made a similar argument in Wednesday’s El Colombiano.

The United States – which has refused to apply Protocol II in its own wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – backed Uribe’s position in Cartagena (try to find the word “conflict” in the statement of the highest-ranking U.S. representative, USAID administrator Andrew Natsios). Nearly every other donor nation present, however, was unwilling to drop the word “conflict” from the meeting’s final declaration. Their argument that a conflict exists was strengthened, obviously, by the guerrilla-military combat in Iscuandé, Puerto Asís and Vistahermosa in the two days before the declaration was signed.

International humanitarian law aside, it makes little strategic sense to deny the presence of a conflict. Calling the FARC terrorists is quite accurate – they do use terrorism – and seeking to deny their combatant status is a smart strategy for the government to use in its political war against the guerrillas (though it reduces the possibility of negotiating political reforms as opposed to demobilization only).

But if the government starts to believe its own rhetoric and allows this fiction to affect its tactics, it is in for more unpleasant surprises like the ones we’ve seen since February 1. The FARC may use terrorism, but they are not ETA or the Red Brigades, operating in cells and controlling no territory. The way one fights them is completely different, and in fact requires a much more ambitious effort in which the military is only one part of the picture.

Retired Colombian Army Colonel Carlos Velásquez (the military-whistleblower-turned-college-professor mentioned in this previous posting) warned this week, “To deny the political background of this confrontation could lead to a mistake with great consequences: to diminish or underestimate one’s opponent. If we adopt the government’s position, the armed forces will be putting their center of gravity in the wrong place.” A U.S. security expert – not an NGO do-gooder – put it to me more succinctly in a conversation last year: “Of course the FARC haven’t lost their ideology. That’s why they’re still dangerous.”

Why now? – tactical reasons

The recent upsurge in violence may mean that the FARC is making some tactical shifts that indicate how it will emerge from its “retreat.” For one thing, it appears that the group has shelved its alleged plan to increase its operations in cities; the latest attacks have been in remote areas.

For another, it appears that with the exception of the combat in Vistahermosa, the FARC is launching its actions in areas outside the southern Colombian zone where the Plan Patriota offensive is taking place. This may be an effort to relieve the pressure on the fronts fighting the Colombian military in that zone. The guerrillas may also be perceiving weaknesses among the military units stationed in other parts of the country, who may be stretched thin by the demands of the 17,000-man offensive in the south. It could be a bit of both.

It could also be that the guerrillas have made a decision to begin targeting the far-flung, lightly-manned military and police outposts that the “Democratic Security” strategy has caused to spring up in small towns and along roads and rivers throughout the country.

The Uribe government has endeavored to provide a police presence in all 1,092 of Colombia’s municipalities (or counties); at least 200 had no police at all in 2002. It has also set up 600 detachments of campesino soldiers – most of them with about 36 men each – throughout the country.

Iscuandé, the marine post hit by the FARC gas-cylinder-bomb attack, is typical. The town had lacked any armed state presence since 2000, when the FARC destroyed the local navy post. In January 2004, to the applause of the local population, 70 marines, half of them hometown campesino soldiers, re-established a presence, turning the grounds of an old school into their new base.

When it came, the FARC’s attack – possibly helped by guerrilla infiltrators among the marines – was overwhelming and devastating. According to retired General Álvaro Valencia, the guerrillas had all the advantages: in addition to far superior numbers, “gas cylinders charged with explosives, massive concentration around a difficult-to-defend position, the element of surprise, and the darkness of night to assure retreat.” Nearby police were at least able to arrive in time to prevent the guerrillas from taking over the base – an element that was certainly absent from many of the FARC’s attacks of the 1990s.

FARC supply points?

While I admit that I have as much military experience as Dick Cheney or Paul Wolfowitz, this part of Uribe’s strategy always struck me as odd. While it is noble and desirable to seek to protect people throughout the country, does it make sense to disperse tiny units all over a vast national territory if they will be no match for determined guerrilla attacks?

The scattered police-and-campesino-soldier deployments bring to mind a passage in A Bright Shining Lie, journalist Neil Sheehan’s brilliant book about Vietnam. During the early 1960s, U.S. military advisor John Paul Vann tried in vain to convince the South Vietnamese to stop stationing military and police in tiny rural outposts, which the Viet Cong were easily overwhelming and from which, as a result, they were recovering hundreds of U.S.-donated weapons.

What [U.S. advisory mission chief Gen. Paul] Harkins and his staff had failed to foresee prior to ordering the [armament] program full speed ahead was that no weapons should be handed out until the little outposts garrisoned by the territorials had been dismantled and consolidated. Otherwise the Saigon territorials would serve as a conduit to channel the American arms largess to the Communists, which was exactly what was happening. The Civil Guards and the Self-Defense Corps were the troops most frequently ambushed, and they manned the 776 outposts in the northern Delta which were the prime targets of the guerrillas. … The elimination of these “VC [Viet Cong] supply points,” as Vann and his advisors referred to the outposts in general, had been another of the priorities that Vann and Porter had agreed on. … He had recommended to Cao [his Vietnamese military counterpart] and the province chiefs that they consolidate the 776 outposts into 216 camps of company size or larger capable of defending themselves until help could arrive. These defensible posts could then function as bases from which to patrol and initiate local operations. [Page 100]

I know that was more military jargon than CIP’s website usually contains, but does this discussion of small, hard-to-defend outposts, in areas where other units are unable to come to a timely rescue, sound at all familiar? A hallmark of the Democratic Security policy is to place small detachments in remote, guerrilla-heavy areas: campesino soldiers, police posts in municipalities and corregimientos that had none, units guarding highways or rivers. While Colombia’s military today has more mobile units and helicopters to come to the rescue, the vulnerability remains very real. One of the most remarkable aspects of the FARC’s “tactical retreat” is that the guerrillas have launched so few Iscuandé-style attacks on what, in many parts of the country, must present tempting targets. That may change, I’m afraid, if the “retreat” is truly ending.

What to do, then?

President Uribe’s first defense minister, Marta Lucía Ramírez, spells out a worthy goal when she writes that “Democratic Security is based on a simple, consistent principle: that the state must offer protection to all of Colombia’s citizens without regard to political beliefs, religious creed, ideological conviction or socioeconomic level.” If the protectors themselves are beyond protection, though, they are not really protecting anyone. How to make this aspiration a reality?

One possibility is to pull the dispersed troops back, concentrating them on bases while sending out patrols, until an ambitious but slow military buildup provides enough manpower and mobility. This seems to be what the Pastrana government was doing, and it didn’t work very well.

Another possibility is to keep increasing the military and police presence until an area is blanketed with bases, posts and barracks that can support each other if attacked. That seems to describe the Plan Patriota offensive. The trouble is that the troops involved in Plan Patriota, as our last posting points out, are on their own: the Colombian government is making no effort to bring the rest of its institutions into the zone being “re-conquered” from the guerrillas. No judges, courts, prosecutors, well-equipped mayors, roads, schools, clinics, energy, potable water, credit, land titling, technical assistance, or aid to the displaced. Just soldiers, mass arrests, and fumigation planes.

If the response is entirely military, the military is bound to get bogged down. And there are signs that this is happening with Plan Patriota. Last Sunday’s edition of Cali’s El País reports that “according to information provided by the Ministry of Defense, Plan Patriota, designed to fight the FARC in the south of the country, is seven months behind schedule.”

A far better – and perhaps even cheaper – way for the Colombian government to consolidate its presence in far-flung zones is to carry out the military component in close coordination with the (re)entry of the civilian part of the state. Bringing other essential government services (beyond just security) would have the immediate effect of winning the population’s support. If residents of long-forgotten parts of the country can be convinced that a greater state presence will improve their lives, the locals will go to greater lengths to help the military to avoid attacks like the ones suffered so far this month.

Sen. Antonio Navarro, the former M-19 leader who now represents Nariño, put it this way:

Iscuandé is a municipality situated in one of the poorest regions of the country. The state’s abandonment and neglect have been constant throughout its history. Those of us who know these corners of Colombia know that these are the forgotten lands. Faced with this reality, what would be its residents’ reasons for being actively in solidarity with a democracy that has done little more for them besides asking for their vote? Why should we expect that these fellow Colombians should feel morally committed to running the risk of informing on the FARC and clearly taking the side of our institutions?

Still not convinced that the strategy has to be much more than military? Writing about Iraq in Newsweek last November, Fareed Zakaria quoted an unlikely source:

The center of gravity in counterinsurgency operations is the local population. Winning and maintaining their support is crucial. Gaining territory is less important than eliminating support for the insurgents. Now if all this sounds like drippy analysis, it’s not my own. All of the sentences above are taken from the Army’s most recent manual on counterinsurgency operations (FMI 3-07.22), classified but now widely available on the Internet.

What would this look like in Colombia? The Uribe government’s Democratic Security Strategy document itself [PDF file] points the way, albeit in vague terms, on page 42:

Consolidation of State Control over Territory: Once a basic level of security has been established, the State will embark upon a policy of territorial consolidation, re-establishing the normal operation of the justice system, strengthening local democracy, meeting the most urgent needs of the population, broadening state services and initiating medium to long term projects aimed at creating sustainable development.

Semana magazine’s cover story / editorial offers some suggestions for this “consolidation” phase.

There would be less emphasis on the policy of mass arrests, which has alienated the population against the armed forces in many towns, and there would be more emphasis, for example, on cutting all links between the military and the self-defense groups [paramilitaries]. But above all, there would be less effort to attack political opponents – including human-rights defenders – in speeches and books, and more effort to bring the state to the country’s abandoned regions. To bring judges, prosecutors, schools and economic alternatives to the zones where the soldiers are fighting Plan Patriota with so much effort and sacrifice. After the rifle has to come legitimacy.

While aid from the United States and other foreign donors will be important, the effort required to truly govern – and thus pacify – long-neglected zones is so great that Colombia will have to provide most of the resources. However, the United States can, and should, do much more, and it can begin by taking two urgent steps.

First, stop fumigating small-scale coca growers, a strategy that is guaranteed to alienate local populations and to reduce any support that the Colombian government might enjoy in neglected, conflictive zones.

Second, change dramatically the balance of U.S. aid packages, in order to help Colombia meet these non-military needs. For the past five years, 80 percent of our aid has gone to the Colombian security forces, with only the remainder going to the kinds of programs that are so badly needed in long-neglected areas. Unfortunately, the Bush administration’s 2006 aid proposal promises more of the same. If we can learn anything from the FARC’s recent battlefield successes, it should be that far-flung military deployments are not enough by themselves. The priorities of both of our governments – Washington and Bogotá – need to shift.

Feb 08

In an entry dated October 28, I made this bold prediction:

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.

OK, maybe it’s not going to be a “crossroads” year, after all. At least not if the Bush administration gets its way.

After six years (2000-2005) and $4 billion in U.S. aid – $3.2 billion, or 80 percent of it, for the military and police – Plan Colombia is set to “expire” at the end of this year. This left open the possibility of a re-framing of U.S. assistance to Colombia beginning in 2006, with the three chief scenarios being (1) an increase in the military component; (2) a greater proportion for economic-aid programs; or (3) an across-the-board cut.

For now at least, it appears that the answer is “none of the above.”

Yesterday, the State Department released the broad outlines of its foreign aid request for 2006. As it turns out, the Bush administration’s plan for U.S. aid in the first post-Plan Colombia year is almost identical to the past few years’ aid packages.

Contrary to what I’d expected (and to what a couple of midlevel officials had hinted in recent off-the-record conversations), there is no shift in military versus economic priorities. We’re looking at a request for roughly $750 million more in aid for 2006, 80 percent of it – yet again – allocated for Colombia’s security forces. The budget document calls for at least $424 million in new military and police aid to Colombia, which rises to nearly $600 million when you include military aid that flows through the Pentagon’s budget. Economic aid remains stuck at $152 million, 20 percent of the total. The aid figures for 2006 are similar, in amount and proportions, to what we’ve seen each year since 2003.

There is no such thing, then, as the “end” of Plan Colombia – the post-2005 plan continues to be the same militarized, punitive approach we’ve seen for years.

We had been holding out a faint hope that the administration’s request would include somewhat more economic aid and less military aid. After all, even some conservatives and drug warriors had begun to talk about the need for economic aid to cement what they perceived to be Plan Colombia’s achievements.

In a late December article indicating that Plan Colombia “is to get a major overhaul once its five-year term ends at the end of 2005, with policymakers looking to give it more of a social and less of a military character,” the Miami Herald’s Pablo Bachelet quotes the assistant secretary of state for antinarcotics, Bobby Charles, calling for a “shift in the direction of greater attention to the social fabric in the country.”

The shift predicted by Charles (who, incidentally, is resigning his position effective in mid-March) did not come to pass. In today’s Herald Bachelet quotes a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, explaining that “The intent is indeed to change the focus as the military phase achieves success. We are achieving success but we’re not there yet.”

The change in reasoning is subtle, but meaningful. Somewhere in the administration’s internal debate, those who argued “we’re not achieving our goals yet, we can’t shift strategy” beat out those who argued “we’re achieving our goals, it’s time to shift strategy.” (Those of us who argue “we’re not achieving our goals, it’s time to shift strategy” don’t have a seat at that particular table.)

The 2006 request, then, is an admission of failure. Instead of a shift toward economic aid “to consolidate our gains,” the administration is proposing continued militarization because “we’re not there yet.”

Indeed, it looks to be a while before we get “there.” Five years into Plan Colombia, cocaine is just as cheap and available now as it was when Plan Colombia began. The conflict is nowhere near resolution, and the guerrillas have proven to be resilient. Areas where the vast bulk of U.S. aid has been focused are not getting less violent. The United States has gotten much closer to the conflict. And not enough is being done to invest in neglected conflict zones.

That last point is a big reason why we’re not “there yet.” A widely held belief here in Washington maintains that helping Colombia to govern itself is a sequential process: first security assistance, then economic aid at some distant future date. The problem here is that while we await the magical day when “security conditions” are finally sufficient to allow the so-called “soft aid” to start, the Colombian state’s neglect of conflict and coca-growing zones continues. The local population’s already low levels of trust and belief in their government deteriorate.

An example: when reporters from El Tiempo visited the “Plan Patriota” zone in December 2004, they found no evidence of non-military aid for the region’s residents. “In part, what’s happening is good because it is getting rid of this disgraceful crop [coca],” a peasant in Cartagena del Chairá told the reporters. “But the government should think about the poverty here. Those who want to stay and work need credit [to plant legal crops].”

I don’t mean that the Colombian government should start building hospitals and setting up elaborate employment-generation programs in dangerous war zones. But it is never too early to set up the more basic conditions that governance involves, such as getting the judicial system working enough to reduce corruption and abuse; giving mayors and governors the skills and resources they need to administrate their territory; mapping out and titling landholdings; protecting human-rights defenders and other reformers; or increasing the coverage of assistance to the displaced.

In an excellent opinion piece that ran last July, Semana magazine editor María Teresa Ronderos explained some of the things that citizens should expect from their government, even when the government doesn’t have full control of the territory.

To establish “institutionality” is not, as the old cliché repeats, to bring in the ethereal and easily manipulated “social investment.” To bring the legitimate state is to de-marginalize the people who live in these regions and make them Colombians once again, with full enjoyment of citizenship. This means that they should have a national ID card, that they may vote in a clean system which guarantees that local powers do not buy their election, that they have legal titles and their properties are registered, that they pay taxes, that there is a judge and a prosecutor with basic work conditions – electricity, fax, paper – so they can mete out justice. Civilization won’t arrive either until minimum development requirements are met: access to a bank, a telephone, and national currency instead of coca base.

Why wait for the moment when “the military phase achieves success,” whenever that is? Investment in these more basic economic-aid priorities can begin anytime, but neither Colombian nor U.S. funds are coming close to meeting the huge need for it.

What a shame, then, that the 2006 request is, once again, mostly military assistance. As the foreign aid bill begins its journey through the Congress this spring, it had better go through some changes.

Feb 08

Do you feel lonely? Awash in self-pity? As though the whole world is plotting against you?

You’re not alone. This affliction seems to be common among those involved in the Colombian government’s negotiations with paramilitary groups.

  • “I look once again, to my left and to my right, in front and behind, and I don’t understand the solitude in which the international community has left us.” – AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso, at the demobilization of the Mojana Bloc in Sucre, 2/2/05

  • “The enormous solitude that has marked these months of arduous work has been very difficult to bear, and the attitude of an important sector of the international community remains troubling. … We are overthinking this issue. I have never seen such a heavily conditioned peace process.” – Sergio Caramagna, head of the OAS Mission in Support of the Peace Process (MAPP-OEA), quoted in El Tiempo, 11/10/04

  • “Even in the midst of this legal confusion, the solitude of the process, the disinformation, the opportunism, the professional discrediting, the incomprehension, the hypocrisy … the movement of peasant self-defense groups will end this year by turning in an enormous arsenal.” – leadership of the Central Bolívar Bloc paramilitaries, 11/24/04
  • “I basically think that there was a political plot against the government; the negotiations for a Truth, Justice and Reparations bill were broken unilaterally just as the Cartagena donors’ summit was occurring, in a deliberate effort to put the government up against the wall and to portray us as favoring the paramilitary groups and supporting impunity. … What took place here was a political ambush against the government.” – Luis Carlos Restrepo, Colombian government high commissioner for peace, 2/4/05

A recurring theme of the paramilitary negotiation process has been the AUC leaders’ efforts to portray themselves as "victims," their good intentions spurned by skeptics who have withheld full support to the process. The best response to this ploy comes from conservative matriarch Ayn Rand: "Pity for the guilty is treason to the innocent."

Self-pity alone is not going to win support for these negotiations. Participants should do less wallowing and more listening to the international donors and others who have kept their distance from the negotiations.

These would-be supporters have indicated the basic conditions the talks should meet in order to assuage their very real concerns about impunity and the persistence of paramilitarism. If there is no movement to meet these conditions, the negotiators’ “solitude” will only get worse.

Feb 06

The man in the picture is retired general Jaime Uscátegui, one of the highest-ranking Colombian military officers ever to face indictment and a criminal trial (as opposed to a dropped investigation or a dismissal) for a human rights case. Uscátegui could get up to 40 years in jail if a Bogotá civilian court finds that he knew about, and did nothing to prevent, a grisly July 1997 paramilitary massacre in the hamlet of Mapiripán, deep inside FARC-controlled territory in south-central Colombia.

In this image from nearly two weeks ago, Uscátegui has just been asked for the name of the paramilitary leader who ordered the massacre. The general tearfully responds, “I’d rather my children have a father in jail than a father in a tomb.” Later, he indicated that the massacre’s mastermind was among three paramilitary leaders who, amid much controversy, addressed Colombia’s congress in July. Everyone understood this to mean Salvatore Mancuso, the AUC leader who has been a prominent presence in the current negotiations with the Colombian government, and who is accused of planning the massacre from a ranch in San Pedro de Urabá, hundreds of miles away from Mapiripán in Colombia’s far northwest.

That Mancuso may have coordinated Mapiripán is not exactly earth-shaking news. Far more interesting – especially to those of us whose government has donated billions to Colombia’s security forces – is the nature of the military-paramilitary cooperation that made it possible.

Uscátegui claims to know a lot about that relationship. In July 2003 recordings that were revealed last March in the Colombian newsmagazine Cambio, Uscátegui threatened to tell all unless the high command helps to keep him out of jail.

If I go to court, it will be a much more serious case than number 8,000 [the term used for the mid-90s narco-money scandal that almost took down President Ernesto Samper]. In fact, it will be more serious than everything that has happened in Colombia. With this issue [the Mapiripán massacre] I discovered what is really happening. It is very serious, very grave, because it proves an allegation that we have denied for all our lives, the one about the military’s links with paramilitaries. … It seems that in the attorney-general’s office, in the inspector-general’s office, in the presidency, they know that terrible things happened there, very grave things for the army and for the country. And that these things could even bring down Plan Colombia.

In the tapes, Uscátegui mentions a computer recovered from the nearest military base to Mapiripán. On the hard drive, with U.S. decryption assistance, was found a wide assortment of paramilitary documents, from the pamphlets the local fighters handed out to their internal rules and bylaws.

So far, however, Uscátegui has hardly followed through on his threat. His trial has revealed little that is new about military-paramilitary collaboration, either in general or as it played out in Mapiripán.

The massacre

The Mapiripán massacre, which began on July 15, 1997 and lasted for several days, was one of the worst of the hundreds of massacres Colombia has suffered during the past twenty years. It took place in a market town of about 1,000 people, a port on the Guaviare River. Mapiripán was a key link in the coca economy of a longtime guerrilla-held zone, a remote area on the border between Meta and Guaviare departments. (Mapiripán, incidentally, is now in the middle of the zone where the “Plan Patriota” military offensive is taking place). Though the town was less than 2 hours’ travel from significant-sized military bases, the paramilitaries were able to take several days to murder thirty civilians (some estimates go as high as 49), closing all outside access, shuttering all businesses, and methodically combing through the town with a list of people to kill.

Mapiripán was more than just another example of wanton slaughter: it was also a big strategic step for the paramilitaries. Until then, the right-wing militias were a phenomenon largely confined to northern Colombia (Antioquia, Córdoba, the Magdalena Medio, a bloody mid-1990s foray into Urabá). This was their first move in southern Colombia, in an area of vast jungles and plains whose population, mostly made up of recent arrivals, had grown accustomed to the uncontested dominion of the FARC guerrillas. The paramilitaries would soon be all over southern Colombia, facing no military resistance as they came to contest lucrative coca-growing zones with the FARC.

To get there, the killers had to charter two planes from northwestern Colombia, halfway across the country. The planes, a Russian aircraft and a DC-3 loaded with about 20 people each, landed in the nearest airport, San José del Guaviare. I was at that airport in January 1998, six months after the massacre, and there are two things worth mentioning. First, everyone who gets off the plane has to sign in with the police; yet for some reason the arrival of two planeloads of armed, camouflage-clad fighters didn’t appear in the police registers. Second, the airport is located alongside a counternarcotics police base which, at the time, was the only place in Colombia where the U.S.-funded fumigation program, with its spray planes and DynCorp pilots, was operating.

(These personnel were vaguely aware that something was up on the day of the massacre, according to a 1998 letter [PDF format] from the State Department to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont): “The Embassy has reported that U.S. personnel involved in counternarcotics programs at San Jose remember seeing an unusual number of Army personnel at the airport on the day in question.”)

The fighters were met outside San José by about 180 more recently recruited local fighters, split up in groups and traveled by both land and downriver. The fighters arrived in Mapiripán and set about their work for days. Mapiripán’s judge made anguished calls to the nearest military battalion, back in San José del Guaviare. The colonel in charge, Hernán Orozco, says that he had no troops at his disposal but called and sent memoranda to his superior, General Uscátegui, whose 7th brigade was responsible for Meta and Guaviare. The calls for help appear to have died in Uscátegui’s office.

The Barrancón Special Forces base

But there’s more, says investigative reporter Ignacio Gómez, who published a rigorously researched investigation in El Espectador, with assistance from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, in 2000. The paramilitaries who traveled by boat would have had to pass the Colombian Army Special Forces base and training school at Barrancón, built with U.S. assistance in 1996 on an island in the Guaviare River, just downstream from San José del Guaviare and its airport.

According to Uscátegui’s testimony of two weeks ago, “This base [Barrancón] was a fortress. It was located seven kilometers [4 miles or so] from San José del Guaviare. How is it possible that the paramilitaries, in their passage along the Guaviare River, could pass through the [riverine] checkpoint at the base’s entrance without being detected by the highly trained professional soldiers stationed there, who had been given such powerful weaponry?”

The paramilitaries’ passage by the Barrancón checkpoints would not have occurred at a routine moment. From May to July 1997, the base had some foreign guests: members of the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group who were carrying out “military planning” training with the Colombian Army’s 2nd Mobile Brigade. (It is possible that U.S. personnel left shortly before, and returned shortly after, the period in which the massacre took place.) This brigade was headed at the time by Col. Lino Sánchez, who is currently serving a jail sentence for abetting the Mapiripán massacre.

Col. Sánchez was new to his post, having just assumed command of the 2nd Mobile Brigade in May 1997, the same month the U.S. Special Forces team arrived in Barrancón. His immediate predecessor was Carlos Alberto Ospina. By the time the Mapiripán massacre happened, Ospina was out of the area, heading the 4th Brigade in Medellín, capital of the department of Antioquia, where Álvaro Uribe was serving as governor. In October 1997, troops under Ospina’s command helped make possible another of the worst mass killings in recent Colombian history, the paramilitary massacre at El Aro in northern Antioquia. Gen. Ospina is now the commander-in-chief of Colombia’s armed forces.

The fate of whistleblowers

What happened to Col. Orozco, the battalion commander who relayed his concerns about Mapiripán to Gen. Uscátegui? He was sentenced to thirty-eight months in prison for “failing to insist” that a superior officer act. “They convicted me for informing on a general, and by extension, offending all generals,” he told the New York Times. His career ruined, he now lives in Miami.

Orozco’s case is an object lesson for would-be whistleblowers in the Colombian military. A similar fate befell Col. Carlos Alfonso Velásquez, who testified against Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, the head of the Colombian Army’s 17th Brigade in Urabá in 1996-97. A region near the Panamanian border, Urabá at the time was suffering a brutal campaign of paramilitary massacres and displacement that effectively moved the strategic zone from guerrilla to paramilitary control. Gen. Alejo – known on Colombia’s right as “the pacifier of Urabá” – had his headquarters in the town of Carepa in northern Antioquia. At the time – again – the governor of Antioquia was Álvaro Uribe. Col. Velásquez, who served as Gen. Alejo’s chief of staff, testified that his boss maintained contact with paramilitaries and ordered troops to cooperate with them. Gen. Alejo was kicked out of the army in 1999; Álvaro Uribe was keynote speaker at a dinner in his honor shortly afterward. Col. Velásquez saw his career come to a swift end as well; he is now a professor at the Opus Dei-run Universidad de la Sabana north of Bogotá. Being a human-rights whistleblower in the Colombian military has little to recommend it.

As should be apparent, the Mapiripán story is one with a meandering plot and a lot of tangents. The massacre and its aftermath seem to be a limitless source of hints and shreds of information about the linkages that existed, and may still exist, between elements of the Colombian military, paramilitaries, politicians and other powerful figures. (It also offers inspiring examples of the police and military figures who believed in their institutions’ mission and who tried to break these linkages, at times at the cost of their careers.) What we still don’t know about these sinister relationships, however, could fill a very compelling book – a book, perhaps, that would strike at the very foundations of U.S. policy toward Colombia.

Can a "Truth, Justice and Reparations" bill reveal the rest of the iceberg?

Seven and a half years after Mapiripán, Gen. Uscátegui’s testimony is interesting, and offers more tantalizing clues. But it does not live up to the promise of his earlier threat to lay bare the entire arrangement that created and sustained paramilitarism in Colombia. The general still leaves us with a strong sense that we’ve barely scratched the surface.

We’re probably not going to learn much more from trials in which retired generals, afraid for their lives, are driven to tears. But there may be another way, as part of an overall effort to dismantle paramilitarism in the context of the AUC negotiations.

Many Colombians, including much of the human-rights community, are frustrated that so much remains unknown or unproven about who are complicit in paramilitarism’s rise, growth and persistence. On the other hand, many of the Colombian military’s backers are outraged that officers like Uscátegui and Lino Sánchez are facing 40 years in jail for facilitating crimes like Mapiripán, while the actual planners and trigger-pullers – the paramilitaries themselves – may end up serving no more than ten years, more likely five if they fully confess their crimes. (The main competing versions of an eventual "Truth, Justice and Reparations" law to govern the paramilitary demobilizations – the Uribe government’s bill and legislation introduced by a multiparty group of congresspeople led by Sen. Rafael Pardo – would require no more than ten years in prison for crimes against humanity.)

A possible solution may be in the Pardo legislation. According to Congressman Luis Fernando Velasco, a backer of the bill cited in Semana magazine, the draft law “contemplates that accomplices or those who somehow collaborated with the paramilitaries’ actions can benefit from the prerogatives that the law would offer [such as reduced sentences], as long as they tell the truth and admit their collaboration with these crimes.”

Since we haven’t yet seen the exact language of the Pardo bill, which was formally introduced in Congress late last week, it is unclear how explicitly this offer to the paramilitaries’ outside “accomplices and collaborators” is spelled out. However, if combined with (a) a requirement that demobilizing paramilitaries reveal what they know about their support and financing networks, and (b) a real prosecutorial effort to go after the individuals whose names emerge from these testimonies, a provision like this would do a great deal to identify those – whether in the military, the business and landowning elite, or in the drug underworld – who made common cause with AUC leaders, backed massacres and displacements, and thought they would suffer no consequences for doing so. We might know, for instance, whether Mapiripán was the work of a few bad apples or a strategy vetted and approved by powerful people in Urabá, at Barrancón, in Medellín, or in Bogotá.

And that, I fear, is why the Uribe government will oppose it vigorously. Better to have a couple of generals in tears, after all, than hundreds – or even thousands – of people identified as patrons of paramilitary terrorism.

Feb 04

Here, thanks to my intern David, is a translation of a Cambio magazine column written in late December by Colombian Senator Antonio Navarro Wolff. The second-highest vote-getter in Colombia’s last legislative elections, Sen. Navarro is a former leader of the M-19 guerrillas, which disbanded in a 1990-91 peace process. He is a key figure in the Pólo Democrático political party, which also includes Bogotá mayor Luis Eduardo Garzón.

This column, which calls into question the on-the-ground effectiveness of herbicide fumigation, closely parallels what I and others have seen when traveling to Colombia’s coca-growing zones in the past year or two. It inspired U.S. Ambassador William Wood to respond with a letter of his own, which appears on the embassy’s website.


Senator Antonio Navarro Wolff
Cambio magazine (Colombia)

Three months ago, the President invited all the members of Congress from Nariño [a department in Colombia’s far southwest, near Ecuador] to a security conference at the airport in Pasto [the capital city]. We were sitting next to the most powerful people—the ministers who deal with security issues and the region’s police and military commanders.

An issue that had to be addressed during the meeting was illegal crops. Over the course of the conversation, a surprising fact emerged: the Anti-Narcotics Police data on the presence of these crops in the department did not coincide with the information maintained by the provincial government and people familiar with the territory. While the police talked about 13,000 hectares [33,500 acres] of coca, the governor’s office estimated three times that amount. When comparing data from individual counties, the surprise was even greater. While the national data spoke of zero hectares of coca, all of us at the conference who were familiar with the region knew that these counties had thousands of planted hectares.

Later, I told them my personal experience from a visit I made in mid-2004 to Orito, Putumayo, where they were electing the mayor and my party, the PDI, had a candidate. As soon as I got on the helicopter that took me from Puerto Asís to Orito, the pilot told me that the land we would be flying over was full of coca. I didn’t believe him. Plan Colombia had begun in Putumayo [in 2000], and at some point former Interior Minister [Fernando] Londoño had said that there were no coca bushes left there. Yet the pilot showed me tons of crops on the way. Later, I spoke with many people who gave me the same information. Finally, by chance I met with an army official, who confirmed my thought that there was almost as much coca now as when Plan Colombia had started. When I finished the account of my trip, Uribe did not want to believe it. He lost his temper and asked that the official who had spoken to me be investigated.

Days later, the Chief of the Anti-Narcotics police visited Nariño and, I assume, Putumayo, where he was able to see for himself that the information they had did not correspond to the facts. Everything points to the fact that is a severe underreporting of the number of coca crops throughout the country.

This begins to cast a seed of doubt on the optimistic figures regarding eradication of coca as a result of the intense [aerial herbicide] fumigation of the last three years. Other facts point in the same direction. The amount of drugs seized on their way to the international market has reached the highest level in history. In 2004, all records in this area were broken.

Those who defend the success of fumigations believe this is due in large part to the increased presence of the Armed Forces throughout the country, making interdiction efforts much more effective. This could be true, but it can also be explained by the fact that production has not decreased significantly.

On the other hand, a study [PDF format] conducted by the U.S. based NGO WOLA [the Washington Office on Latin America] showed, among other things, that the price of drugs on U.S. streets had gone down in recent years. According to WOLA, this shows that supply has not decreased. The State Department replied that this conclusion was not true, since the drop in price could also explained by a drop in demand.

The truth is that the policy of fumigation “at any cost” is at a critical point. Its defenders hope for an abrupt decline of coca crops in Colombia in 2005. If this does not happen, has the time come to replace this policy? Will Bush accept this?

Feb 03

The Colombian government’s talks with the AUC paramilitary group are high on the agenda at a meeting going on right now in Cartagena with representatives of 24 donor nations and international lenders. The Uribe government is expected to give a strong push for international funds to pay for the demobilization and reintegration of paramilitary fighters.

While this sounds reasonable, most non-governmental organizations, including CIP, are urging donors to hold back their contributions for now.

This, after all, is not a post-conflict demobilization. Not only is a peace agreement with the AUC far off, the Colombian government has not even passed a law to determine what will happen to the more than 3,000 paramilitaries who have already turned in weapons. This leaves serious human-rights abusers with a huge opportunity to avoid punishment. It also means that paramilitary networks of violence, intimidation, command and financing may remain intact.

Human Rights Watch, in a January 18 memo, called on donors at the Cartagena meeting “to withhold demobilization aid unless Colombia enacts a law that can effectively dismantle paramilitary groups and hold their members accountable for massacres and other crimes against humanity.”

This position is very reasonable, and CIP supports it. But Eduardo Pizarro, an influential Colombian political scientist, thinks it is tantamount to murder.

The brother of Carlos Pizarro, the assassinated head of the M-19 guerrillas, Dr. Pizarro is no ideologue and is a harsh critic of all armed groups (in fact, he was wounded in a 1999 paramilitary assassination attempt just outside Bogotá’s National University, where he was a respected professor). He is also a columnist for El Tiempo, Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper.

In his column last Sunday, Pizarro called the Human Rights Watch recommendation “a very serious error,” adding that if donors follow HRW’s advice, the result could be “a new humanitarian tragedy in Colombia.”

Tomorrow, when the AUC demobilizations have culminated and ex-combatants are drawn to criminal gangs due to a lack of resources to reinsert them into productive life, HRW will have to answer to Colombians for its wrongheaded and unhelpful recommendations.

Pizarro bases most of his very forceful argument on one nightmare scenario: the post-conflict experience in El Salvador.

In El Salvador and Guatemala, after the signing of peace accords, former combatants were left at society’s margins, without jobs or education. They ended up entering criminal or juvenile gangs (the “maras”) that are assaulting both countries. That is without even mentioning the thousands and thousands of weapons that remained available after the civil war’s end.
During the [Salvadoran] civil war (1980-1992) an average of 6,250 murders per year took place in the country. In 1998, the number of murders had jumped to 8,281, making this small nation the most violent in Latin America, even above Colombia. Today, El Salvador’s murder rate is twice Colombia’s.

Eduardo Pizarro knows better than this. The El Salvador comparison is specious for many reasons.

First, most of the gang members committing crimes today hadn’t even reached puberty by the time formal hostilities ended in El Salvador, thirteen years ago. Second, several Latin American nations that had no civil wars have seen crime rates and gang activity similarly skyrocket: Honduras, Mexico and Venezuela to name a few. Third, many of the worst criminals – including those who brought the mara phenomenon to El Salvador – were not combatants; they were among the tens of thousands of Salvadorans with criminal records whom the United States began deporting after 1992. Fourth, it shouldn’t be surprising that crime rates were lower during the years of war, death squads and military rule: extremely repressive regimes almost always have low crime rates (Russia’s murder rate was also lower back when the KGB ran things).

Fifth, it’s a huge stretch to portray El Salvador as a country whose post-conflict rebuilding and reintegration process was stiffed by international donors. Well over a dozen countries and international organizations gave El Salvador well over a billion dollars in aid in the years after 1992. (See this PDF file.) Over $100 million went to ONUSAL, a UN mission that oversaw the demobilization of 11,000 guerrillas (who eventually handed in more than 10,000 weapons, 74 missiles and 9,000 grenades) and three times as many soldiers, verified a cease-fire, observed elections, and much else. Though international donations were often delivered too slowly and there were some shortfalls (problems that Colombia will also face), donors – including the United States – carried out ambitious and (for their time) innovative efforts to reintegrate ex-combatants, including distribution of land to nearly all ex-combatants who wanted it.

Of course it’s possible that the El Salvador scenario could play out in Colombia. However, if it does – contrary to Pizarro’s argument – it will have little to do with donors deciding, with NGO encouragement, to condition demobilization funds on the approval of clear rules for justice and dismantling.

In fact, the argument works the other way. Pizarro needs to respond to a concern that his column only mentions briefly: that the current scheme – and the Uribe government’s likely proposal – will fail to dismantle the paramilitaries, leading to an entirely different, but perhaps scarier, nightmare scenario.

The reality is that the essence of paramilitarism is not being dismantled. Those disarming in the [televised demobilization] ceremonies are still under the hierarchy of those who are still armed and are in Ralito [the zone where AUC leaders have congregated for negotiations]. These leaders still have more than ten thousand men in arms, and their structures remain in place. Re-mobilizing the demobilized would be relatively simple: just give them new weapons. … This negotiation will define the type of democracy we are going to have. From their encampments, the paramilitaries are assembling a political project. They are already deciding whom to support in the next elections. And, more ominously, whom they will keep from running: in the past few days, two congresspeople have told me that they had been notified that they may not run for reelection.

The paragraph above comes from a column in Wednesday’s El Tiempo by Senator Rafael Pardo, a former defense minister and – except on this issue – a strong supporter of Álvaro Uribe. Pardo, along with legislators from across the political spectrum, has proposed (but not submitted) legislation to fill the urgent need for a legal framework to govern demobilizations – a law that Colombia’s congress is under some pressure to pass quickly. The Pardo proposal is the main competitor to the Uribe government’s plan.

While far from perfect, the Pardo proposal does much more than the government’s version to ensure that those accused of crimes against humanity spend some time in a real jail. It would also offer relatively generous reparations and do much to return property that paramilitaries have stolen.

Just as importantly, the Pardo bill would at least try to dismantle paramilitary structures by requiring all who demobilize to reveal what they know about their commanders, their supporters, the location of weapons caches and similar information. For some reason, the Uribe government has been unwilling to take this simple – and hardly stringent – step toward dismantling paramilitarism. Donor countries should view with extreme skepticism any law that does not include a measure like this.

Unfortunately, it seems that the U.S. government is leaning more toward Pizarro than Pardo. In a wide-ranging interview with El Espectador on Sunday, Ambassador William Wood also played the Salvador card.

HRW’s position, as I understand it, is that the international community should not contribute to the process until the congress approves a law to regulate it. But we already have 4,500 demobilized. How many more months must Colombia wait for this judgment from outside the country to end? For example, in Central America, after the conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua there was peace and demobilization, but no programs, so armed gangs formed, there was no legal orientation, there was nothing.

This is simplistic, ahistorical, and just plain wrong. It is perfectly reasonable for governments to insist that their money support a process that actually seeks, through force of law, to dismantle the armed group in question. They should not be swayed by flawed analogies to a fictionalized Central American experience.

Let’s hope that other governments in Cartagena are not swayed, and stand firm.