Mar 30

In a href=""
target="_blank">press release dated March 25 (Good Friday), a document so
little-noticed that I only stumbled upon it this afternoon, the office of
the Drug Czar (White House Office of National Drug Control Policy) is forced
to admit some very bad news.

The release reveals that coca cultivation in Colombia did not decrease
in 2004, despite a record-high level of aerial herbicide fumigation

State Department estimates show a total of 114,000 hectares of coca planted
in Colombia at the end of last year – just 8,000 hectares less than Colombia
had in 1999, the year before Plan Colombia began. This is statistically about
the same as the 113,850 hectares measured in 2003.

Colombian coca cultivation in hectares, 1999-2004:


Total coca cultivation







Herbicide fumigation







Coca left over







Let’s just pause and consider these two numbers from the above table:

  • Total fumigation 1999-2004: 566,935 hectares (more than half the
    size of the state of Rhode Island).
  • Reduction in Colombian coca 1999-2004: 8,500 hectares.

That’s right: one hectare reduced for every 67 hectares sprayed.

Meanwhile, note that the total amount of Colombian land estimated to be under
coca cultivation – combining what was fumigated and what was “left over” – was
250,555 hectares – more than 2003 and just shy of the all-time high registered
in 2002.

The inescapable conclusion we can draw from this data: nearly a decade after
large-scale spraying began in Colombia, our fumigation program is not discouraging
Colombian peasants from growing coca

That should not surprise us when:

  • 85 percent of rural Colombia lives in poverty (less than about $3 per
  • due to government absence and neglect, vast stretches of rural Colombia
    are so isolated from the country’s economic centers that transportation costs
    make legal crops unprofitable;
  • those same neglected zones are host to armed groups that encourage coca-growing;
  • the United States’ $35 million or so per year for alternative development in coca-growing zones is nowhere near enough to keep up with the pace of eradication (by contrast,
    the United States spends over $200 million each year just to maintain helicopters
    and planes it has already given to Colombia’s security forces).

Under these “all-stick-and-no-carrot” conditions, replanting has been rapid.
Rather than seek alternatives that just don’t exist, growers are adapting
to eradication.

Elsewhere in the Andes, it’s still not clear how much coca was detected in
Bolivia and Peru last year. The State Department’s March 4 href="" target="_blank">International Narcotics
Control Strategy Report
indicated a slight drop for Bolivia – not
an increase, as the Drug Czar’s Good Friday press release claims. The March
4 report had no estimates for either Colombia or Peru, claiming that the numbers
were not yet ready. We have still seen no figures for Peru, though the Drug
Czar claims that there was some decrease. In January, however, the head of
Peru’s anti-drug agency (DEVIDA), Fernando Hurtado, told Reuters that Peruvian
coca cultivation probably rose in 2004 and is expected to increase again in

Mar 28

Antonio Caballero, an outspoken editorialist for Colombia’s newsweekly Semana, began a recent column with a scary quote from Senator Carlos Moreno de Caro, the vice-chairman of the Colombian Senate’s Peace Committee. (Sen. Moreno is known, among other things, for setting free two live scorpions on the floor of Colombia’s Senate in the midst of a debate last year.) According to Caballero, Sen. Moreno defended the idea of giving paramilitaries a lenient treatment in their current negotiations with the government, arguing that “the thing is, half the country is theirs.”

This is an exaggeration, but not a wild one. Even though Colombia’s paramilitaries are massacring fewer people lately and are negotiating “demobilization” with the Bogotá government, their leaders have been steadily tightening their grip on local politics and patronage, the drug trade and other illegal activity, and even a chunk of the legal economy. They are maintaining this grip through the same means as always – ruthless use of violence.

El Tiempo’s Álvaro Sierra put it well last September.

Today the country is becoming aware that – following an offensive that involved terrible crimes – a substantial portion of national territory, of the daily lives of millions of people, of politics, of the economy and local-government budgets, and an unknown amount of power and influence at the level of central-government institutions like the Congress, is in paramilitary hands.

While this trend – call it “paramilitarization” for want of a better word – has been going on for a few years, only in the last few months has it begun to receive attention from mainstream information sources. Colombia’s principal media began paying attention on September 26 of last year, when by some odd coincidence both Bogotá Sunday papers (El Tiempo and El Espectador) and both newsweeklies (Semanaand Cambio) ran stories about some aspect of the paramilitaries’ growing influence. Reports since then have been sporadic, but they make up most of the sources for what follows. There has been almost nothing about paramilitarization in the English-language media (though the New York Times and Houston Chronicle did publish pieces in November about paramilitary allies in Colombia’s Congress).

“Death clubs”

“According to a map drawn up by the Presidency of Colombia,” El Tiempo noted in its September 26 report, “49 paramilitary fronts are present in 26 of the country’s 32 departments [provinces] and 382 of its 1,098 municipalities [counties]. This adds up to 13,500 men distributed across 35 percent of the national territory.”

What is remarkable about this presence today is how little it resembles the paramilitary model of five or six years ago, with hundreds of heavily armed men wearing camouflage uniforms, living on encampments and carrying out bloody offensives to expand into new territory. While there still are plenty of these truly “paramilitary” paramilitaries – especially in strategically (or narcotically) important rural zones – they are becoming obsolete, a throwback to the Carlos Castaño era.

Instead, in the many regions of the country where their military control is uncontested (by the guerrillas or the military), the AUC’s blocs are increasingly coming to resemble Italian-style mafias. “In Colombia we may be entering an ‘a la italiana’ phase,” writes analyst Álvaro Camacho, “in which control and protection of illegal activity extends itself and accelerates, threatens free enterprise, overflows into politics and becomes a new form of organized crime that must be added to the already long list of threats to Colombian democracy.”

Like Italy’s mafias, the paramilitaries are getting involved in politics in order to drain money from public coffers. Particularly in the northern part of the country, the paramilitaries have managed to get “their” candidates elected to governorships, mayor’s offices and town councils in both big cities and small towns, university presidencies, and even Colombia’s Congress and Senate. This allows them to siphon off a lucrative cut of all government contracts and otherwise tap into municipal and departmental treasuries. While this is something that guerrillas have also done to fund themselves (such as the ELN’s access to oil royalties in Arauca department), the paramilitaries are taking over politics not in remote, neglected zones but in some of Colombia’s principal population centers.

Unlike Italy, though, the paramilitaries also seem to be getting involved in politics for its own sake. Many blocs have developed a social discourse (if not an ideology) that – while it stresses order and property – includes so much advocacy for the poor, including calls for land reform, that it sounds a bit like the guerrillas’ rhetoric. Paramilitary “foundations,” meanwhile, are paying for road-building, health services and development projects in much of northern Colombia.

After the 2002 legislative elections, paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso boasted that the AUC controlled at least 30 percent of the Colombian Congress. While not all of these legislators are willingly doing the paramilitaries’ bidding, a few are enthusiastic backers. The most visible are Rocío Arias and Eleonora Pineda, who represent paramilitary strongholds in northern Antioquia and southern Córdoba departments. Arias and Pineda were the driving force behind a controversial July 2004 address to the Congress by Mancuso and paramilitary leaders Iván Duque and Ramón Isaza.

Arias and Pineda belong to a new political party, “Colombia Viva,” many of whose members express open support for the paramilitaries. The party includes thirteen members of the Congress, 27 mayors and 388 councilmembers. Many other paramilitary-backed (or paramilitary-controlled) politicians belong to Colombia’s traditional parties.

The mere fact that paramilitary supporters are participating in the democratic process is not necessarily bad news – a measure of success working “within the system” could be an incentive for all armed groups to choose the ballot box over the rifle. The trouble is, just as guerrilla groups did in the past with disastrous results, the paramilitaries are choosing both. “The paramilitaries are forging ties with the Colombian political class even here, in this Congress, while they kill people along the length and breadth of the country,” warned Rep. Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrillas, in an October congressional debate. “What is being built in Colombian territory are death clubs that kill opponents.”

The paramilitaries’ “combination of all forms of struggle” goes well beyond electoral power and violence against political opponents. Like any proper mafia, the AUC’s blocs have increased their control over much of Colombia’s illegal economy. Not just the drug trade (of which, according to U.S. Ambassador William Wood, they control about 40 percent), but a big share of contraband smuggling, counterfeiting, prostitution, and gang activity.

Extortion is a major illegal income source as well. A “high-level security-force source” told El Tiempo about this phenomenon in the Caribbean port city of Santa Marta: “From the 1,000 pesos (40 cents) they charge each street vendor in Santa Marta to the 250,000 to 500,000 ($100 to $200) that every truck that enters the port must pay … and we’re talking about ships that need 70 trucks to unload them.”

Recently, the paramilitaries have begun to expand their income from Colombia’s legal economy. Part of that is their increasing share of local-government contracts, especially funds from the Subsidized Regimen Administration (ARS), a program of block grants from the central government to provide health care for the poorest. Colombian authorities are investigating as many as 63 cases of ARS funds being diverted to the paramilitaries.

Like drug cartels before them, paramilitary groups are setting up their own companies to provide services like private security and cable television in urban areas. Competitors are being run out of business – and not by the paramilitary companies’ superior service or low prices.

What follows is a description of how “paramilitarization” is advancing in several departments of Colombia, including some of the country’s most populous. This rundown, culled mainly from recent Colombian press reports, likely indicates only the very tip of the iceberg.


The department of Córdoba, which hosts the Santa Fe de Ralito demilitarized zone where the Colombian government is negotiating with the AUC, is the most strongly held of all paramilitary strongholds in Colombia. The following is from El Tiempo:

The AUC and Salvatore Mancuso [whose hometown is Montería, the department’s capital] have absolute control over the department’s south. The best reflection of this is that different sectors of society openly defend the self-defense groups’ discourse. The local newspaper, El Meridiano, has editorialized more than once in their favor. In Tierralta [the municipality that includes the Santa Fe de Ralito zone] there is a public hospital financed by the paramilitaries, where they attend to their combatants and anyone else who needs care.

Córdoba is the place of origin of Colombia Viva, the political movement whose members have expressed respect for the paramilitary cause. This group has two members of Congress from the department, Miguel Alfonso de la Espriella and Eleonora Pineda. The latter has been a political spokesperson for the self-defense groups in the current peace process.

Tierralta and Valencia can be considered the capitals of the AUC. There are no investigations or judicial accusations against either of these towns’ mayors. In the first, the mayor, Humberto Santos from Colombia Viva, won the elections a day after all other candidates protested against the paramilitaries’ pressures against them. In Valencia, Negus Correa won as the only candidate for mayor; the same happened in two previous elections.

It is acknowledged that the “paras” have some influence over the University of Córdoba. In 2003 a Congressional proceeding revealed a meeting between the president, Claudio Sánchez Parra, and members of the Superior Council with Salvatore Mancuso. The official denies any ties, and while he admits having been in the meeting, he justifies it as a response to an offer that no Colombian is in any position to refuse. A relative of Mancuso occupies a high administrative position in the university.

In the 1990s Fidel Castaño [Carlos’ brother, allegedly killed in the mid-1990s] created the Córdoba Peace Foundation (Funpazcor) through which he donated land, money and cattle to former EPL guerrillas to support development projects. Today, Funpazcor is on the “Clinton List” [the U.S. Treasury Department’s “Specially Designated Nationals” (SDN) list].


The most aggressive pioneer of paramilitary political dominance and patronage is Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, alias “Jorge 40,” the second-in-command of the AUC’s powerful Northern Bloc. He has brought it to an advanced state in the department of Magdalena, the home province of Gabriel García Márquez whose capital is the Caribbean port city of Santa Marta. Since 2002, “much of the business in Santa Marta takes place during hours set by the AUC,” notes El Tiempo. “Their control over the department is almost total, with the exception of part of the Sierra Nevada [coastal mountain chain, which still has a strong guerrilla presence].”

Magdalena’s governor, Trino Luna Correa, was elected in 2003 as the Colombia Viva candidate after running unopposed. The other candidates all quit, citing threats from paramilitaries. In the city of Santa Marta, where paramilitaries’ control of politics is less firm than in rural areas, blank ballots filed in protest outnumbered votes for Governor Luna.

AUC pressures also led to overwhelming electoral margins for Magdalena Senators Dieb Maloof (a recent arrival from the city of Barranquilla in Atlántico department), Salomón Saade and Luis Vives, and Representatives José Gamarra, Jorge Caballero and Alfonso Campo. A similar phenomenon occurred at the mayoral level; in Concordia municipality, candidate Efraín Escalante was murdered after ignoring paramilitary demands to abandon his run.

Earlier this month on the floor of the Colombian Congress, Rep. José Joaquín Vives, claiming that “the paramilitaries have 60 percent of Magdalena’s political class,” alleged that Sen. Saade had met with “Jorge 40” in Ralito to plot his murder.


Paramilitaries, chiefly those under the command of “Jorge 40,” are the principal power today in Cesar department, the birthplace of Colombia’s signature vallenato music. They dominate all but the mountainous parts of the department, where drug crops and guerilla groups are both present.

Like Magdalena, Cesar also had a single gubernatorial candidate in 2003. Hernando Molina’s two opponents quit, citing AUC threats. As in Magdalena, voters in the capital city, Valledupar, cast more blank ballots than votes for Molina. In 2004 Molina’s peace advisor, María Victoria Barreneche, was arrested for suspected paramilitary ties.

La Guajira

The mayor of La Guajira’s capital, Ríohacha, Wilder Antonio Ríos, was arrested in September, along with ten city officials. They were charged with channeling to the paramilitaries funds provided by the Bogotá government to provide healthcare to the poorest (the Subsidized Regimen Administration program, or ARS). The crime was first denounced by leaders of the Wayúu indigenous group.

The officials diverted at least 148 million pesos in ARS funds (about US$60,000, a lot of money in underpopulated La Guajira) to the paramilitaries through a representative of Jorge 40 known as “La Tía” (The Aunt).

“Jorge 40” protested that the charges were overblown. “We only received 5 million pesos from the ARS. The corrupt politicians kept the rest.”


El Espectador notes that in Barranquilla, Colombia’s fourth-largest city, “through some ARS the paramilitaries control the destination of some public funds. There is mention of a woman known as ‘La Gata’ [The Cat], protected by the self-defense groups, who presumably through the distribution of lottery tickets in Atlántico, Bolívar and Magdalena, manipulates the millions in public resources that come from state-run games of chance.”

Norte de Santander

The Venezuelan border city of Cúcuta, the capital of Norte de Santander, was long known for the quality of the counterfeit dollars (and now Euros) that its citizens produced. Since a campaign of massacres in 1999, the city and the nearby coca-growing region of Catatumbo have been under very firm paramilitary control. Cúcuta now has one of Colombia’s highest murder rates.

The frontrunner in the 2003 gubernatorial elections was Tirso Vélez, a leftist poet who used to belong to the virtually extinguished Patriotic Union party. Vélez was killed well before the elections, paving the way for Governor Miguel Morelli Navia. The Colombia Viva candidate, Ramiro Suárez Corzo, was elected mayor of Cúcuta.

Mayor Suárez was arrested in June 2003, charged by the Human Rights Unit of the Attorney-General’s office (Fiscalía) with receiving paramilitary funds for his campaign and holding several meetings and telephone conversations with local paramilitary leaders. In June 2004, one of the mayor’s police bodyguards was arrested for paramilitary links. Earlier this month, nearly two years after his arrest, Mayor Suárez was suddenly released when a higher level of the Fiscalía, citing “a reasonable doubt,” dropped all charges.

In Cúcuta, the Fiscalía itself has been heavily infiltrated by paramilitaries. The director of its Cúcuta office, Ana María Flórez, has been a fugitive since 2003, when it was revealed that her office had been passing information to the local paramilitaries. Twelve Cúcuta Fiscalia employees are in prison, among them Flórez’s secretary, Magally Moreno, who was allegedly the girlfriend of a regional paramilitary commander known as “El Gato” (The Cat – a different feline than the one in Barranquilla). Three prosecutors and two police assigned to the investigation of the case have been killed or disappeared.

Much business in Cúcuta is now a paramilitary affair. According to El Espectador, “Many young engineers have warned that one cannot get business from the mayor’s offices or the governor’s office, because the contracting process is controlled by paramilitarism.”

Paramilitaries are also deeply involved in the private security business, sharing in security firms’ profits while using the guards themselves as information sources, as El Tiempo reports.

Investigators affirm that the “paras” forced managers of these security firms or associations to resign, in order to insert trusted people in their positions.

According to these investigations, self-defense groups’ penetration of the private guard business is so great that “para” comandantes were able to call managers of unlicensed security cooperatives to meetings in Juan Frío, 30 minutes from Cúcuta.

The objective of these meetings, affirms a police intelligence source, was to establish a series of weekly and monthly quotas that these firms must pay the AUC in order to be able to operate. Also, to define the mechanisms by which guards would provide information.

“Through intimidation they broadened their information network. The private guards, before informing the police, first advised the ‘paras’ about guerrillas, robbers, lowlifes or car thieves, who took justice into their own hands,” said a police sergeant who coordinated the investigation.


The following account of widespread paramilitary extortion in Tolima comes from an October 2004 report by Inter-Press Service.

In each of the 36 municipalities in Tolima, the paramilitaries have lists of “1,000 or 2,000 citizens” whom they extort, said the parliamentarian [Tolima state legislator Hugo Zárrate]. Rice growers in the department “have to pay a very high tax by weight to the paramilitaries,” he said.

And for each of the 700,000 head of cattle in Tolima, stockbreeders pay 3.80 dollars in taxes to the paramilitaries, who take in around 3.28 million dollars a year in Tolima from stockbreeders and rice producers alone, said Zárrate.

Although the security forces have a strong presence in Tolima (unlike in portions of the country dominated by the guerrillas), the paramilitaries control urban areas in the department, and from that base they extort “casual laborers, butchers, supermarkets, landowners, transport drivers, etc.,” he said.

This kind of “paramilitary activity has increased and been strengthened since the second half of 2002,” said Zárrate.


On March 18, a hitman murdered Colombian Congressman Óscar González Grisales in the Liberal Party headquarters in Manizales, the capital of Caldas. González represented the municipality of Aguadas, just over the border from Antioquia, which is the hometown of top paramilitary leader Iván Roberto Duque (a.k.a. “Ernesto Báez”), the chief of the AUC’s Central Bolívar Bloc. In statements to the press, Duque placed the blame for the murder on the mayor of Aguadas, saying that were it not for the paramilitaries’ declared cease-fire, “I would do justice myself.”

The episode revealed, as a Fiscalía investigator told El Espectador, “that it seems every political movement in Aguadas is controlled by paramilitary spokesman Ernesto Báez.” The municipality, hit hard by the 1990s plunge in coffee prices, saw much of its best lands bought up by narcotraffickers, chief among them Duque and a family, known as “Los Cocholos,” that is believed to be a large source of financing for the Central Bolívar Bloc. Citing a university study released last year, El Tiempo states that “Aguadas is the Caldas municipality in which the narcos have bought the most hectares of land.”

According to an associate of the murdered congressman quoted in a Semana magazine article, “Every politician who wants to do something in those two towns [Aguadas and the neighboring municipality of La Merced] first needs the approval of ‘Báez’ and ‘Los Cocholos.’”


Paramilitary extortion has also been commonplace in Meta, where the AUC’s Centaurs Bloc – headed by drug figure Miguel Arroyave from about 2000 until his own men killed him last September – manages to get a 5% cut of all government contracts. According to El Tiempo, “the August murder of Carlos Pérez Gómez, a departmental government contractor, for refusing to pay his fee, made this custom evident. In addition, in Casibare, Puerto Lleras, the ‘para’ chief maintained a ‘tax collection’ center where cattlemen and merchants had to pay.”

Last August, the mayors of El Dorado and El Castillo municipalities, the ex-mayor of Lejanías, and Euser Rondón – who lost the 2003 gubernatorial election despite being Miguel Arroyave’s chosen candidate – published an open letter in El Tiempo supporting the paramilitary presence in Meta and thanking the rightist fighters for their contributions. (Rondón was killed in September 2004, shortly before Arroyave’s murder).

Valle del Cauca

If you want to sign up for satellite or cable television service in one of the towns around Cali, you will likely find yourself doing business with the AUC. According to El Tiempo, paramilitary figures known as “Carelata” and “Lombrís” have been buying up small neighborhood television providers at astronomical prices, and forcing unwilling sellers out of the business. The paramilitaries have done away with the competition either by tempting away their subscribers with offers of several free months, or by destroying their antennas and cables. The owner of one of these competitors told El Tiempo that the mastermind of this big buyout is “a recognized paramilitary leader who has yet to demobilize,” in partnership with a local narcotrafficker “for whom the United States is offering a sizable reward.”


Though his 860-member “Cacique Nutibara Bloc” (BCN) demobilized to much fanfare in November 2003, Diego Fernando Murillo (a.k.a. “Don Berna” a.k.a. “Adolfo Paz”) continues to dominate criminal activity and much else in Medellín. Many of those who demobilized (only some of which were actual paramilitaries, many were street criminals rounded up at the last minute) remain under Don Berna’s control, and the powerful AUC leader maintains another un-demobilized bloc, the “Heroes of Granada,” on the outskirts of the city.

Demobilized BCN members were quite successful in the 2004 election of local development advisory groups (Juntas de Acción Comunal) in Medellín’s poor barrios, winning posts in 30 of them. A very credible Colombian official recently explained to CIP that Don Berna maintains “offices” throughout the city where young men are recruited and paid to collect extortion money, gather intelligence, and run illegal moneymaking activities ranging from gambling to drugs to prostitution. This same source claims that the sharp drop in Medellín’s murder rate since 2002 owes to a direct order from Don Berna to abstain from killing. (For that reason, our source adds, Medellín mayor Sergio Fajardo, a progressive who has invested much municipal resources in the BCN demobilization, “must be praying every night that nothing happens to Don Berna.”)

Paramilitaries are very much in the private security business throughout Antioquia, starting up unlicensed firms in several parts of the populous department. This is the case in Urabá, where many members of the “Bloque Bananero” paramilitary group that demobilized in November have apparently begun new careers as guards.

Paramilitaries are also trying to take over satellite and cable television service in Antioquia, as evidenced by reports of a 2004 assassination attempt in Medellín against a satellite television provider who was being pressured to sell his business.


The paramilitarization phenomenon extends even to Colombia’s capital. Last September, El Espectador offered the following discussion of paramilitary activity in the neighborhoods of Los Mártires and Santa Fe, which comprise much of Bogotá’s old downtown.

In the last five years, the localities of Los Mártires and Santa Fe have been experiencing a phenomenon of paramilitary factions’ control that has resulted in innumerable selective killings, kidnappings and extortions. Several years ago they took control of the zone’s prostitution centers, where they also supervise the movement and sale of drugs. Various leaders of the sector who have tried to denounce this have been victims of attempts on their lives. The latest was Los Mártires Councilman Harvey Ayala, killed on August 31, 2004.

It is an open secret that the AUC’s Capital Bloc [an offshoot of the late Miguel Arroyave’s Centauros Bloc] has taken control of the sector’s three sanandresitos [markets where people can buy imported goods duty-free, as well as pirated music and videos, counterfeit designer clothing, and similar contraband]. … “And they have managed to mix themselves in, controlling piracy of music and all of the cellular phone outlets. From the cellphones they can make as much as 100 pesos [about 4 cents] for every phone call,” said a leader of the [sanandresito] sector.

The same article alleges that in the past three years, several paramilitary fronts have taken control of Corabastos, Bogotá’s main wholesale food market.

The vendors denounce that no less than 200 members of the Capital Bloc are constantly patrolling, supervising collections from the farmers who arrive and leave (taking 15 percent of what they earn), and that many of the nearly 6,000 displaced people in the vicinity of Corabastos work as informants. According to the authorities, their control is so structured that the paramilitaries store their weapons in locations near Corabastos’ ten entrances. That way, they dominate the transit of drugs and arms through the facility.

The new model: mafia plus death squad plus political movement

All of this activity is taking place while the paramilitaries are negotiating a demobilization deal with the Colombian government, and getting serious about politics.

Semana magazine reported last month about a January 13 meeting between informal AUC advisors, demobilized paramilitaries, Rep. Rocío Arias of Colombia Viva, “a well-known businessman who has deserted the ranks of Uribe supporters because he considers the President ‘too soft,’” representatives of “Jorge 40” and Salvatore Mancuso, and others. They produced an internal document setting an immediate objective of “identifying the AUC as a political organization” and establishing a national political movement that, “in permanent contact with the AUC Negotiating General Staff” in Ralito, would coordinate a regional election campaign strategy.

“The revelation that an AUC political movement is in its infancy has caused a stir because the demobilizations have not concluded,” Semana notes. “In the current context there is a very high risk of armed campaigning” – the practice of getting one’s party elected through threats and intimidation.

Much of rural Colombia is already represented by corrupt political bosses who govern through patronage and backroom, machine politics. If the AUC’s new version of “combination of all forms of struggle” serves them well, this old guard may soon be replaced by a new class of corrupt political bosses.

These new congressmen, senators, governors and mayors would be quite different from the politiqueros of old. They would be part of a national political project: one that is vaguely right-wing, intimately tied to the drug trade and other criminal networks, represents the interests of a Paleolithic large-landholding class, and freely uses violence when the political process gets in the way of their agenda. If “armed campaigning” allows them to increase their share of control over government institutions – if the “para-state” is allowed to grow within the state – Colombia will finally become the “narco-democracy” that U.S. drug warriors have worried about for so long.

One might expect that the Colombian government would be seeking to put an end to this now, early on, before it advances any further. The Fiscalía, for instance, would be more aggressively investigating what lies below the tip of the iceberg, going after paramilitary-run criminal networks, paramilitary involvement in the legal economy, and elected officials who may owe their positions to paramilitaries’ armed support.

The Uribe government’s negotiators would be going beyond their immediate goal of demobilizing rank-and-file paramilitary fighters. They would push for steps necessary to dismantle the paramilitary-tied mafias and violence networks, including provisions in the “Peace and Justice” law, currently being debated in the Colombian Congress, that would require all demobilizing fighters to reveal what they know about their command and financial support structures. They would be encouraging demobilized paramilitaries to participate in politics after demobilizations are complete and, even then, taking all necessary measures to ensure that this participation is unarmed. As Sen. Rafael Pardo, a key proponent of such provisions, wrote in February: “To demand less would be to subordinate democracy to armed groups, whether new ones or old ones. It would be to send society the message that crime does pay.”

Unfortunately, this is not happening. Faced with the threat of paramilitarization, the Colombian government has been surprisingly inactive, even insisting that no such threat exists. Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe unconvincingly assured El Tiempo last September that “the disease is being attacked with many medicines.”

For its part, the U.S. government’s position is less clear. While some officials are insisting that the paramilitary negotiation process must truly dismantle the paramilitaries, others are either eager to achieve the short-term goal of taking several thousand fighters out of the conflict, or are unwilling to challenge a major initiative of President Uribe, their closest ally in Latin America.

In recent conversations with U.S. officials, we have also heard an argument that we can paraphrase as, “If they end up as mafias, that would still be a major improvement over the large armies they are today, and we can deal with them more easily later.”

We believe that this is a grave misreading of the threat that “paramilitarization” presents. To ignore the problem now will create a much larger problem later. If their plan of combining crime, violence and political power succeeds, the AUC may insert itself into Colombia’s institutions to an extent well beyond what the drug cartels of the 1980s and 1990s could have hoped to achieve. They would enjoy near-total impunity, and the impossibility of opposing them politically would cause Colombia’s democracy to unravel dramatically. The effect on U.S.-Colombian relations – and on the amount of drugs arriving on our shores – would be devastating.

It makes much more sense to take the problem seriously and address paramilitarization now, not later.

Mar 27

Here is an English translation of a column that appears in today’s El Espectador.

Security: An electoral liability for Uribe?

Adam Isacson*

A bit more than a year before the Colombian presidential elections, President Uribe is doing so well in the polls that his likely opponents are either hoping that the Constitutional Court blocks his re-election, or they simply have their gaze truly fixed on 2010.

While today it seems as though Uribe can get re-elected by a wide majority, the coming election year could bring some surprises that might strongly benefit his opponents. And the Constitutional Court isn’t even on the list of potential challenges.

In fact, the major risk to Uribe’s re-election comes from something that, until now, has been his chief strength: the country’s security situation. What would happen if, before May 2006, the improvements in security indicators (massacres, killings, kidnappings, attacks on populations, etc.) lose their momentum, or – worse still – begin to move in the other direction? There are several reasons to be concerned that the coming year may bring some negative surprises.

1. The end of the FARC’s supposed “retreat.” If what the guerrillas say is true, and they really are increasing the intensity of their attacks on vulnerable targets throughout the national territory, this could bring an increase in several violence indicators, a drop in investors’ confidence, and a greater perception of generalized insecurity. These could result even without a significant change in the actual balance on the battlefield.

2. The possibility that the dialogues with the AUC might fail. Uribe and his advisors surely are conscious of the risk that Ralito could become another Caguán. If the “paras” leave the negotiating table and call off the cease-fire they are partially observing, the result could be a strong wave of violence throughout the country. But there is another possibility: if the dialogues stay alight but the Colombian Congress passes a “justice and peace” law that fails to do enough to dismantle the paramilitary phenomenon, the “mafia plus death squad” model that the paramilitaries are adopting in several parts of northern Colombia could multiply throughout the country, leaving the population feeling even less secure.

3. The possibility that “Plan Patriota” could fail due to a lack of social investment. Colombia already has a long history of military offensives that recover territory from armed groups. The problem has always been that the soldiers’ action is never coordinated with the entry of the state’s non-military institutions (courts, social services, infrastructure-building, etc.). When the military leaves the “recovered” zone – and the bulk of their forces must eventually leave when Colombia has only 360,000 military and police to cover the entire country, including those at desk jobs – it leaves a vacuum that illegal armed groups easily fill. If the lack of social investment continues in the vast Plan Patriota zone, there is a great danger that this ambitious offensive will have the same result as its forebears. If this model also fails, it could have important electoral implications.

4. The lack of money. The state of government finances threatens President Uribe’s security programs. With a central-government deficit projected to reach a frightening 6.6 percent of GDP in 2005, it is very possible that there may be neither social investment in recovered zones nor more military resources for the “Democratic Security” policy. Meanwhile, the U.S. government – which has its own credit cards maxed out as a result of the Iraq war – does not appear willing to increase its own contribution to Colombia. To the contrary.

Any of these challenges could do great damage to Uribe’s re-election plans. Of course, it is always possible that none of these surprises may arise during the next thirteen months, or that even if they do they fail to have a fundamental effect on Uribe’s popularity. No matter what, the possibility that Uribe may fall into one of these traps is real, which means that, despite his current popularity, he is assured of nothing next year.

* Director of Programs at the Center for International Policy in Washington

Mar 21

Below is a translation of a month-old memo from the Colombian human-rights group MINGA. It details the February 16 murder of José Hurtado, a shopkeeper in La Dorada, the “county seat” of San Miguel municipality in Putumayo department, just across the border from Ecuador. In late January, Mr. Hurtado dared to organize a protest against the paramilitaries who have dominated the town since about 2000. He was killed three weeks later.

CIP joins MINGA and other Colombian groups in condemning this murder, demanding that its perpetrators be brought to justice, and calling on Colombia’s government to protect other participants in the January protest. In addition, though, we wish to draw attention to two important points about Mr. Hurtado’s murder.

First, it shows that paramilitaries still enjoy great power and freedom to operate in a region that was the original target of Plan Colombia back in 2000. La Dorada lies amid one of Colombia’s densest coca-cultivation zones. It made the news in Colombia in September 2000 – just as Plan Colombia, and the first wave of herbicide fumigation – was about to get underway. That month La Dorada, which had spent years under FARC control, became the latest stop in the paramilitaries’ swift takeover of all of Putumayo’s town centers, an offensive that claimed hundreds of civilian lives and clearly took place with the security forces’ support. With massacres of civilians and pitched battles against guerrillas in the middle of town, the newly arrived paramilitaries managed to push the guerrillas to the outskirts and the countryside. The FARC responded by calling an “armed stoppage” that brought Putumayo’s road travel to a total standstill for three months.

“Putumayo is a poster child for why you need Plan Colombia,” Clinton administration Pentagon official Brian Sheridan told The St. Petersburg Times back in the fall of 2000. “The FARC and the paramilitaries are running roughshod all over the Putumayo right now, killing each other, blockading roads, holding villages hostage … and the military and the police are nowhere to be found.”

Nearly five years later, that description of Putumayo still fits. The paramilitaries still dominate town centers and operate openly (I had no problem finding some on an April 2004 visit). The guerrillas still operate freely in rural areas. Competition over control of coca revenue continues, though reports of the two sides doing business with each other are growing more frequent. Guerrillas continue to destroy infrastructure with remarkable frequency: attacks continue against bridges, power pylons, and the Transandino Pipeline that flows out of Ecuador on its way to Colombia’s Pacific port of Tumaco (guerrilla attacks on the Transandino have risen since about mid-2003). Extrajudicial killings committed by all sides are very common. Citing government data, Colombia’s Security and Democracy Foundation documented [PDF format] a 19 percent rise in murders in Putumayo in 2004.

Putumayo is still extremely insecure and ungoverned, even after years of heavy U.S. investment in Colombian military and police units based there. The Army Counternarcotics Brigade founded with Plan Colombia funds began its operations in Putumayo. The existing 27th Brigade (which replaced the old 24th) has been expanded with the addition of new counter-guerrilla and infrastructure-protection units. A Marine Riverine Brigade was established with U.S. funds and has its headquarters in Puerto Leguízamo. The presence of police, both narcotics and regular, has expanded in part with U.S. funds. “Campesino Soldiers” – recruits who receive a few months’ training and live in their hometowns – have been introduced in many parts of Putumayo. Despite all of this, it is still unsafe even to hold a protest against paramilitaries in La Dorada, Putumayo.

Second, as the memo below notes, José Hurtado was murdered by a group that pledged more than two years ago to observe a cease-fire. Upon taking office, President Uribe made clear that, unlike his predecessor, he would only negotiate with armed groups that first declare a unilateral cease-fire. The guerrillas refused, but the paramilitaries accepted, allowing talks to begin in December 2002. Though they promised to silence their weapons, the paramilitaries have not stopped killing people. Estimates of the number of non-combatants killed or disappeared by the AUC since the cease-fire began run well into the hundreds, or even as high as 2,000. José Hurtado’s murder is another entry on this long and growing list. Yet neither the Uribe government nor the OAS mission charged with verifying the cease-fire is doing much to press the paramilitaries to honor their commitment.

MINGA’s memo about José Hurtado’s killing follows.


Paramilitaries murder leader in La Dorada (Putumayo, Colombia) and threaten merchants

The Association for Alternative Social Promotion, MINGA, denounces before the national and international communities the persistence of paramilitary criminal acts against the civilian population in Putumayo, and warns of a possible wider attack against other social and business leaders in the region.


On Wednesday, February 16, at 1:00 PM, two men driving a pickup truck from the state oil company ECOPETROL, wearing uniforms from the same company, arrived at the house of Mr. JOSÉ HURTADO – an Ecuadorian citizen – whom they killed in front of his wife and children, after threatening and throwing to the ground the auxiliary policeman who was assigned to guard him. Afterward they went to the house of JOSÉ GUSTAVO ÁLVAREZ, the vice-president of the municipal council, who saved himself by not being at home.


Mr. JOSÉ HURTADO was a merchant who lived in La Dorada municipality for twenty years. On January 28, 2005, he led a demonstration against paramilitary groups, in protest of their kidnapping of another merchant on January 27.

This demonstration denounced the presence of paramilitaries in the town center [of La Dorada], the extortion of merchants, the killings and disappearances of campesinos in the town center in broad daylight, and the likely existence of mass graves in the zone. This protest march ended with formal complaints issued by Mr. HURTADO and forty others to the security forces, local authorities, and the Attorney-General’s office in La Hormiga. This led to the arrest of some presumed paramilitaries and steps toward the expulsion of this armed group from the town center.

According to testimonies from local residents, after these complaints were filed, Mr. HURTADO accompanied the Police and Army to help them locate places where the paramilitaries were to be found, in order to ensure that the complaints would have a real effect.

The risk that Mr. JOSÉ HURTADO and the leaders of the demonstration have since faced was denounced repeatedly by the municipal authorities and the Personería [the local human rights ombudsman]. As a result, the issue of protections and guarantees for the threatened merchants and leaders was of central importance in various security meetings with officials. Similar efforts were made before the offices of the national ombudsman [Defensoría] and the attorney-general in Mocoa [the capital of Putumayo]. The response to these calls was to assign an auxiliary policeman to act as a bodyguard.

On February 8, the situation of risk worsened for Mr. JOSÉ HURTADO and other leaders and merchants who had participated in the protest. That night, they received threatening telephone calls to their homes. In response, another security meeting with officials was to be convened on February 10 to discuss protections and guarantees, but was inexplicably canceled. The community now demands investigation and clarity about this act, which demonstrates the alarming impunity with which paramilitary groups operate.

In addition, concerns continue for the security of Mr. HURTADO’s family; the vice-president of the municipal council, GUSTAVO ÁLVAREZ; his family; and forty more merchants who took part in the mobilization and denunciations against the paramilitary group. In response to threats, many have already displaced themselves elsewhere.

We therefore demand:


1. That the Attorney-General and Internal Affairs office [Procuraduría] begin the corresponding penal and disciplinary investigations for the crimes denounced herein;

2. That the national government protect the lives of the leaders and merchants threatened in the municipality of San Miguel (La Dorada), and bring an end to the openly criminal activity that the paramilitary groups carry out in the municipality.

3. That Dr. SERGIO CARAMAGNA, the director of the OAS mission accompanying the negotiation process between the national government and the paramilitaries, immediately verify whether the paramilitaries are respecting the cease-fire in Putumayo department.

Bogotá, February 18, 2005

Mar 16

Every year at about this time, the congressional armed-services committees meet to hear “posture statements” delivered by the four-star generals who head each of the U.S. military’s regional commands. These statements offer the military command’s view of the potential threats to U.S. interests in each region of the world, what the command is doing about them, any other goals the command is pursuing, and what it wants Congress to support in the coming year. Because the commands’ budgets and political clout are particularly high of late, these “posture statements” have become important declarations of U.S. policy toward each part of the world.

U.S. Southern Command "Posture Statements"

  • [HTML | Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) format] Statement to the House Armed Services Committee by General Bantz J. Craddock, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, March 9, 2005
  • Statement to the House Armed Services Committee by General James T. Hill, Commander, U.S. Southern Command, March 24, 2004
  • Statement to the House Armed Services Committee by Gen. James T. Hill, commander, U.S. Southern Command, March 12, 2003
  • [HTML | Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) format]Statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee by Gen. Gary Speer, Acting Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Southern Command, March 5, 2002
  • Statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee by Gen. Peter Pace, commander-in-chief, U.S. Southern Command, March 27, 2001
  • Statement to the House Armed Services Committee by General Charles E. Wilhelm, commander-in-chief, U.S. Southern Command, March 23, 2000

Gen. Bantz Craddock, who took over in November as head of the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command – which coordinates U.S. military activities in most of Latin America and the Caribbean –presented his statement to the House Armed Services Committee last Wednesday, and did the same in the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. His statement makes clear that “prosecution of the war on terrorism” is Southcom’s number-one priority in the hemisphere. It adds, “The stability and prosperity of the SOUTHCOM AOR [area of responsibility] are threatened by transnational terrorism, narcoterrorism, illicit trafficking, forgery and money laundering, kidnapping, urban gangs, radical movements, natural disasters and mass migration.”

While still somewhat fire-breathing, the language of this year’s posture statement is far more measured than last year’s presentation from the now-departed Gen. James Hill, who warned that “terrorists throughout the Southern Command area of responsibility bomb, murder, kidnap, traffic drugs, transfer arms, launder money, and smuggle humans,” sounded alarms about the spread of elected leaders considered to be “radical populists,” as well as the proliferation of “ungoverned or ill-governed spaces and people, corruption, and clientalism [sic.].”

Gen. Craddock largely drops the “radical populism” rhetoric from this year’s statement; while this doesn’t necessarily mean that Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales can breathe easier, it is important that the Southern Command’s official statements do not hint at a view that such leaders are a threat requiring the sort of military response that is Southcom’s specialty. Gen. Craddock also includes a much more precise discussion of the terrorist threat in the hemisphere, recognizing that “we have not detected Islamic terrorist cells in the SOUTHCOM AOR that are preparing to conduct attacks against the US,” though such groups may do some fundraising in the region.

While there are many parts of the statement that we would agree with, none will mistake the newest Posture Statement for a document authored by CIP. Here are a few notes based on a reading of the statement.


"SOUTHCOM, through its joint interagency task force (JIATF-South), in conjunction with multinational and interagency efforts, directly contributed to the seizure of over 222 metric tons of cocaine."

This is a significant achievement. However, the State Department’s annual narcotics reports indicate that Colombia, Peru and Bolivia produce over 700 metric tons of cocaine each year. Less than a third, then, was interdicted.


"At this time, we have not detected Islamic terrorist cells in the SOUTHCOM AOR that are preparing to conduct attacks against the US, although Islamic Radicals in the region have proven their operational capability in the past. We have, however detected a number of Islamic Radical Group facilitators that continue to participate in fundraising and logistical support activities such as money laundering, document forgery, and illicit trafficking. Proceeds from these activities are supporting worldwide terrorist activities."

This is a much clearer discussion of the threat posed by “terrorists with global reach” in the hemisphere than was contained in last year’s Posture Statement. It also seems to contradict the findings of a much-mentioned late 2003 U.S. News and World Report article that, citing “senior U.S. military and intelligence officials,” maintained that “Venezuela is emerging as a potential hub of terrorism in the Western Hemisphere, providing assistance to Islamic radicals from the Middle East and other terrorists.”

Crime and gangs

"[Continued from last citation] Not only do these activities serve to support Islamic terrorist groups in the Middle East, these same activities performed by other groups make up the greater criminal network so prominent in the AOR. Illicit activities, facilitated by the AOR’s permissive environment, are the backbone for criminal entities like urban gangs, narco-terrorists, Islamic terrorists, and worldwide organized crime."

The profusion of organized crime networks is indeed a big problem in the region. (So is state involvement in these networks, from Guatemala to Paraguay to departmental governments in Colombia.) At issue – and this may be a big question over the next year or two – is whether the U.S. and Latin American militaries have much of a role to play in fighting these criminal networks. Successful efforts against crimes like “money laundering, document forgery, and illicit trafficking” have normally been carried out by civilian investigators, detectives, police and prosecutors – and not soldiers unless the criminals in question have a large amount of firepower.

There are estimated to be at least 70,000 gang members stretched across Central America. The level of sophistication and brutality of these gangs is without precedent. … Surges in gang violence sometimes overwhelm local law enforcement capabilities. As directed by their civilian leadership, military forces are assisting police to check this growing tide of gang violence and insecurity in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Indeed, gang activity is a huge and growing problem, especially in Central America, Mexico and Brazil. In 2003 the Mara Salvatrucha even killed people in Washington’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, less than two miles from CIP’s offices. In much of the region, polls show that citizens rank common crime even above unemployment among the most urgent problems their countries face. The Bush administration, including Southcom, has indicated that it wants to help regional allies to fight gangs. So far, though, there has been no clarity about what they plan to do.

This brings us back to our recurring question: is a military response necessary? Currently, “surges” of gang activity do overwhelm civilian police capacities in places like El Salvador and Honduras. But we have to remember that many of the countries suffering the worst gang activity are places that have undergone a generation-long struggle to get the armed forces not just out of the presidential palace, but out of most internal security duties. Moving police forces out of defense ministries and placing them under civilian control was a major and difficult reform. Gangs should not be a reason for U.S. assistance programs to encourage the region’s militaries to return to the streets of places like San Salvador and Tegucigalpa.

When the gang problem boils over, militaries probably do have to play a role in supplementing the police (just as the 82nd Airborne did during the 1992 L.A. riots). But this role should be temporary, with either a deadline or another short-term benchmark to determine when the soldiers must return to the barracks. It should also come with an aggressive effort to punish any human rights abuses that occur: if the military’s main advantage over the police is that its members enjoy more impunity when they commit abuses, then they had better stay out of the gang problem.

Instead of helping militaries fight gangs, the United States would do better to (1) help strengthen civilian police as an alternative to military force, helping them to become trusted institutions that protect all citizens and seek cooperative – not adversarial – relations with communities; (2) generously support judicial reform, both to improve processing of arrested suspects and to promptly investigate and prosecute allegations of corruption and abuse in the security forces; and (3) increase investments in education, poverty alleviation and economic opportunity in order to decrease the economic desperation that pushes so many young people into gangs in the first place. There is little role for Southcom in any of these areas.

The ICC and military-aid cutoffs

"While the American Servicemembers’ Protection Act (ASPA) provides welcome support in our efforts to seek safeguards for our service-members from prosecution under the International Criminal Court, in my judgment, it has the unintended consequence of restricting our access to and interaction with many important partner nations. Sanctions enclosed in the ASPA statute prohibit International Military Education and Training (IMET) funds from going to certain countries that are parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Of the 22 nations worldwide affected by these sanctions, 11 of them are in Latin America, hampering the engagement and professional contact that is an essential element of our regional security cooperation strategy."

Passed by Congress in 2003, the American Servicemembers Protection Act bans non-drug military aid to countries that do not exempt U.S. forces on their soil from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague. As a result, as Gen. Craddock indicates, several Latin American countries are getting no IMET or FMF military assistance. Attendance at WHINSEC – the former School of the Americas – is also down because of the funding freeze.

This is a bit ironic, since some of the most ardent opponents of the ICC are some of the most enthusiastic supporters of military aid to Latin America. Gen. Craddock’s plea for flexibility on the ASPA shows what happens when two right-wing agendas run at cross-purposes. (Of course, the ASPA gives the Bush administration the power to waive sanctions at any time, but the State Department, led by figures like John Bolton, has refused to do so.)

This year, the ASPA was toughened in an especially mean-spirited way: poor countries that refuse to grant immunity to U.S. troops will now see a cutoff in some of their economic aid as well (through Economic Support Funds (ESF), one of the main economic-aid programs).

Military engagement

"The IMET program provides partner nation students with the opportunity to attend U.S. military training, get a first-hand view of life in the U.S., and develop long-lasting friendships with U.S. military and other partner nation classmates."

How wonderful if there were a similar program for judges, legislators, mayors, environmental workers, securities regulators or any number of other civil servants. But there’s no money for that.


"I am also concerned with Venezuela’s influence in the AOR. … SOUTHCOM supports the joint staff position to maintain military-to-military contact with the Venezuelan military in support of long-term interests in Venezuela and the region."

The continued pursuit of military-to-military contact with Venezuela is noteworthy. Nobody in the Reagan administration, after all, was proposing military-to-military contact with the Nicaraguan army in 1981. Why now in Venezuela, while President Chávez’s anti-Bush rhetoric continues to escalate? Does Southcom view the Venezuelan military as a potential political counterbalance to Chávez? Or is continued mil-to-mil contact meant to counterbalance Bush administration hardliners who would go so far as to cut all ties to Venezuela? Perhaps both.

Among Colombia’s neighbors, Venezuela’s record of cooperation remains mixed. We remain concerned that Colombia’s FTOs consider the areas of the Venezuelan border with Colombia a safe area to rest, transship drugs and arms, and procure logistical supplies.

The same can be said about the border areas of Ecuador, Peru, or Panama, where armed groups routinely cross over with impunity. Is Venezuela’s lack of control the result of a Chávez government policy, or is it the result of a lack of manpower and resources to secure a 1,000-mile border? Colombia, too, reportedly has guerrilla and paramilitary safe havens on its side of that border.


China’s recent moves in Latin America have received a lot of media attention lately:

"An increasing presence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the region is an emerging dynamic that must not be ignored. … The PRC’s 2004 Defense Strategy White Paper departs from the past and promotes a power-projection military, capable of securing strategic shipping lanes and protecting its growing economic interests abroad. In 2004, national level defense officials from the PRC made 20 visits to Latin American and Caribbean nations, while Ministers and Chiefs of Defense from nine countries in our AOR visited the PRC. Growing economic interests, presence and influence in the region are not a threat, but they are clearly components of a condition we should recognize and consider carefully as we form our own objectives, policies and engagement in the region."

If you want to hold a well-attended academic conference, get published, or just sound trendy, grab onto the new topic of the moment: China’s “inroads” into Latin America. Clearly, China, our rising geopolitical rival, is sharply increasing its trade and defense ties with the region. But as Gen. Craddock’s curious phrasing indicates – “components of a condition we should recognize and consider carefully”? – U.S. officialdom still doesn’t quite know what to make of it. It’s not quite a “threat” (is IBM selling its PC division to a Chinese company a threat?), but it’s easy to detect official discomfort with this potential challenge to the Monroe Doctrine.

Populist demagogues

"In Bolivia, Ecuador, and Perú distrust and loss of faith in failed institutions fuel the emergence of anti-US, anti-globalization, and anti-free trade demagogues, who, unwilling to shoulder the burden of participating in the democratic process and too impatient to undertake legitimate political action, incite violence against their own governments and their own people."

These words are as close as Gen. Craddock comes to repeating the alarmist language about “radical populism” that appeared in Gen. Hill’s statement last year. They raise three questions. First, who are these demagogues? Lots of politicians oppose free trade and are not fans of the United States, but they do not qualify for this epithet. Second, who is inciting violence with impunity? Road blockages – which Bolivia’s Evo Morales (one of the “demagogues” Gen. Craddock likely has in mind) frequently encourages – are usually peaceful, if disruptive. Third, does Southcom really envision a military role in containing or opposing these “demagogues”?


"This command has continued to support the War on Terrorism through detainee operations at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where approximately 550 enemy combatants in the Global War on Terrorism are in custody. … In performing our intelligence mission, we continue to emphasize the U.S. government’s commitment to treating detainees "humanely, and to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva." Along these lines, we have a good working relationship with the International Committee of the Red Cross. We take their recommendations seriously and act upon them when appropriate."

Beyond the scary news reports about abuses at Guantánamo, this extremely curious formulation is disturbing enough. The International Committee of the Red Cross does not have a reputation for offering “inappropriate” recommendations – in fact, they are exceedingly cautious. We wonder which of their recommendations could possibly have been rejected and why.


Paramilitary negotiations:

"The Colombian government is making progress at removing combatants from the field and converting them into productive members of society. Once started, the Colombian government’s demobilization program must succeed. The first combatants to demobilize are currently in the sunset phase of their demobilization and reintegration process and are ready to reintegrate themselves into Colombian society. Failure of this program will not only re-create the conditions for violence but also undermine current peace negotiations and incentive for further demobilization."

This is by far the rosiest view of the demobilization process that we’ve seen from a U.S. government agency. Most would describe the demobilizations so far as underfunded, chaotic, improvised, and potentially allowing too many human rights abusers to slip through the cracks. Instead of being “ready to reintegrate themselves,” the thousands of paramilitaries who demobilized late last year – even those who are actually in the system and reporting to their “centers of reference” for benefits – are staring into an abyss of unemployment and neglect. Of those who participated in the mass demobilizations of November 2003 and November 2004-January 2005, 48 have been killed.

While too optimistic, this is also a much narrower view of the paramilitary dialogues than we hear from the State Department or Congress. It indicates that Southcom has its eye only on what appears to be a favorable short-term military result: the removal of thousands of paramilitary combatants from the conflict. The language above shows no concern about guaranteeing the paramilitaries’ dismantlement, return of stolen property, justice and reparations to victims, or ensuring that drug lords don’t benefit. If these needs go ignored or unmet, paramilitary re-recruitment and high levels of violence are very likely to continue – yet the Posture Statement appears to be concerned only with demobilization and reintegration.

Going beyond a military response:

"The Colombian government’s efforts to reassert or establish governance in areas previously controlled by narco-terrorists are essential to build on recent military successes. … To this end, the Government of Colombia established a Coordination Center for Integrated Action, which assembles representatives from 13 different ministries chaired by a board of directors that reports directly to the President of Colombia. The Center’s responsibility is to develop policies and plans to ensure a coordinated and expeditious response that will re-establish government presence and services in territory reclaimed from narco-terrorists. To date, the Colombian Government has committed over $30 million to this effort."

For years, CIP and other organizations have argued that a policy of military offensives is doomed to failure as long as it goes unaccompanied by economic aid and fails to involve the non-uniformed part of the government. Even the ambitious “Plan Patriota,” however, has been an almost entirely military effort even after fifteen months of operations in southern Colombia.

The new Coordination Center for Integrated Action (CCIA) could, finally, be a first step toward correcting this imbalance. It intends to coordinate the arrival of the rest of Colombia’s state into long-neglected conflict zones. It’s a new effort, so we still do not know enough about the CCIA to say that we support it. We do not yet know, for instance, whether it is well-run, whether it is well-funded ($30 million, of course, will barely make a dent), and whether the design of development projects involves recipient populations or is left up to politicians who are courting voters for the next elections.

Facts and figures

"Over the past two and a half years, the FARC has been reduced from 18,000 to an estimated 12,500 members."

This is the lowest estimate of FARC strength we’ve yet seen from any source.

"In 2003 Colombia resumed a thoroughly vetted and robustly staffed Air Bridge Denial Program. Since then, 20 narco-trafficking aircraft have been destroyed and 6 have been impounded resulting in a total of 10.8 metric tons of seized cocaine."

This is the first estimate of aerial interdiction that we’ve seen. Again, with as much as 560 tons of cocaine coming out of Colombia alone (and over 700 from the entire Andean region) each year, 10.8 tons is not as impressive as it sounds.

"Defense spending as a percentage of GDP rose from 3.5% to 5% in 2004."

It’s not 5 percent. The 2004 defense budget was 11 trillion pesos [PowerPoint file]. 2004 GDP is provisionally estimated to have been 248.6 trillion pesos [Excel file]. Total: 4.4% of GDP.

"Colombia increased its tax revenue 17.4% in the first nine months of 2004."

This is perhaps the oddest statistic in the entire statement: did Colombia’s government really increase tax collection by one out of every six pesos in taxpayers’ pockets? If accurate, that tax increase would, in nine months, have moved more than 2 percent of the economy out of the private sector and into government coffers. Rising sales taxes – which hit the poor hard – may have played a role. Perhaps the statistic includes revenue from the state oil company (2004 oil prices were about 50% higher than in 2003).

"Colombia has seen growth in GDP since 2002 from 1.8% to 3.9% in 2003 and 2004."

Final 2004 numbers aren’t out yet, but Colombia’s National Planning Department (DNP) says that GDP grew by 3.9 percent in 2003 and 3.6 percent in 2004. [Excel file] The UN Economic Commission on Latin America estimated Colombia’s 2004 growth at 3.3 percent.

Poverty, inequality and corruption

"The roots of the region’s poor security environment are poverty, inequality, and corruption. Forty-four percent of Latin America and the Caribbean are mired in the hopelessness and squalor of poverty. The free market reforms and privatization of the 1990’s have not delivered on the promise of prosperity for Latin America. Unequal distribution of wealth exacerbates the poverty problem. The richest one tenth of the population of Latin America and the Caribbean earn 48% of the total income, while the poorest tenth earn only 1.6%. In industrialized countries, by contrast, the top tenth receive 29.1%, while the bottom tenth earn 2.5%. Uruguay has the least economic disparity of Latin American and Caribbean countries, but its unequal income distribution is still far worse than the most unequal country in Eastern Europe and the industrialized countries."

This language is a very welcome addition to Southcom’s analysis. We can’t help but note that people who said things like this in 1980s El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras were branded “communists” and often lived in fear of their countries’ U.S.-funded militaries. We hope that the U.S. defense establishment will be more vocal in its advocacy of other U.S. agencies’ poverty-alleviation efforts, which would ease their own security efforts. Some vocal advocacy is badly needed, since most of the region is looking at a sharp economic-aid cut in the Bush administration’s 2006 budget request.

"If we in the US government are honest with ourselves, we can look at the region today and see that we are not tending the fields with the same zeal we showed in planting the seeds of democracy. Too many of the democracies in our AOR are lacking some or all of the vital democratic institutions: a functional legislative body, an independent judiciary, a free press, a transparent electoral process that guarantees the rights of the people, security forces which are subordinate to civil authority and economic opportunity for the people."

This is not at all the way we would say it – Latin America’s “fields” are not ours to tend! – but the analysis is otherwise right. Unfortunately, no government witnesses ever argue so forcefully for these non-military priorities when they appear before committees that actually fund democracy and development programs. And that is a shame.

Mar 14

I am traveling for much of the week of March 14-18; while I will try to contribute to the blog from the road – when not in meetings, Internet access permitting – this could prove impossible. I apologize if nothing new pops up on these pages while I’m gone.

– Adam Isacson, CIP Colombia Program

In the meantime, I strongly recommend that you download a copy of Blueprint for a New Colombia Policy [PDF format], a detailed set of recommendations that CIP and several other groups cobbled together over the past couple of months.

Mar 10

After weeks of often acrimonious discussions, the Uribe government and the pro-Uribe bloc in Colombia’s Congress have agreed on legislation to govern what might happen to paramilitary leaders who negotiate their demobilization but are guilty of gross human rights violations. The legislation is softer on the paramilitaries than the principal alternative bill, introduced a few weeks ago by another group of legislators led by former Defense Minister and normally pro-Uribe Senator Rafael Pardo, which in particular seeks to do more to dismantle paramilitary networks.

Like the Pardo bill, however, the “official” government legislation does include some time in prison for paramilitary human-rights offenders. While Pardo calls for terms of five to ten years, the Uribista bill would impose terms of five to eight years. The government bill, however, would also allow terms to be reduced by up to one-fifth for good behavior, and would let negotiators count toward their sentence up to eighteen months of time spent in the Ralito demilitarized zone. Under this regime, then, it is possible that the perpetrators of massacres and forced displacements could spend as little as 2 ½ years in jail (5-year minimum sentence minus 1 year for good behavior minus 1 ½ years spent in Ralito).

Nonetheless, at least all viable legislative proposals include some jail time, something that was not contemplated in the Colombian government’s first legislative proposal [MS Word file] (introduced in August 2003 and so lenient that the congress didn’t even bother to debate it) and something that most paramilitary leaders still insist is unacceptable.

Fifteen years ago yesterday, Colombia’s M-19 guerrillas signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government, which allowed its members to enter political life with a full amnesty for all past offenses. Amnesty was also the rule for other armed groups that demobilized in the early 1990s in Colombia (EPL, PRT, CRS, Quintín Lamé), as well as in Central America. None of these groups’ members spent a day in jail after demobilizing.

Why, then, is the paramilitary process different? Why do most agree that Don Berna, Jorge 40 and Salvatore Mancuso should spend at least a token period in jail – in all cases, too small a period to fit the crime – for their human rights abuses?

This question has been asked surprisingly infrequently, so there is no ready-made, prepackaged answer. This leaves a big opening for characters like Fernando Londoño, President Uribe’s first Interior-Justice Minister and now a prolific right-wing columnist.

In all of these cases [of past peace processes] guns were turned in, amnesties and pardons were granted, ex-combatants were accepted into society and the state financed employment projects. But now, none of this is possible. Punishment, not peace, is what is important. Not pardon, but reparations for victims. Not forgetting, but collective memory. Why? Simply because before, the groups in question were leftists, supported by international socialism, and now the groups are rightists hated by international socialism.

Londoño, as usual, gets it completely wrong. Rightist groups have also benefited from amnesty during the past fifteen years (the Nicaraguan Contras, for instance, or the Tangüeros paramilitary bloc run by Fidel Castaño, Carlos’s brother, in Colombia during the 1980s). It’s not a left or right issue.

There are several far more compelling reasons that, when taken together, explain why even most of Colombia’s ruling establishment believes that AUC leaders must spend at least some time in a jail cell.

1.      These negotiations are taking place between a government and a pro-government group. Unlike a peace process between longtime enemies, both sides in these talks share a very strong interest in sweeping the same past abuses under the rug, minimizing the importance of the worst violations, and avoiding reforms to the status quo. The paramilitaries want as much “forgiving and forgetting” as possible in order to avoid jail, to keep from losing most of their assets, and to be able to keep their violent power bases intact in some form. The government, and the ruling class from which it draws most of its leadership, has no desire to reveal the role that officials, military officers, and wealthy individuals played in establishing and training paramilitaries, facilitating or willfully ignoring massacres, or supporting the groups financially along with some of the country’s worst drug figures. Those without a seat at the table, then, reasonably believe that they must pressure for an agreement that holds the worst violators accountable in some way – and at least some time in jail is an indicator that accountability is being taken seriously.

2.      The scale of the abuses committed matters. While this is probably the weakest of the reasons presented here, it still carries some weight: the paramilitaries simply committed many, many times more abuses than the M-19 or the other groups that demobilized fifteen years ago. As murderous as guerrillas have been over the years, the paramilitaries have dominated statistical categories like massacres, extrajudicial killings, disappearances, displacement, and torture – at times by ratios of as high as three to one over the anti-government fighters. This does not excuse guerrillas, who dominated other categories like kidnapping, attacks on populations and destruction of infrastructure. But it does make it harder to give the paramilitaries the same deal that the M-19 got in 1990.

3.      International norms have changed since 1990. When the M-19 and other groups demobilized fifteen years ago, few disputed that the abuses they committed were “political crimes” that could be pardoned in exchange for pledges to demobilize and to seek reconciliation with society. Since then, two things have happened. First, September 11 caused a blurring of the line between “political crimes” that can be forgiven, and “terrorism” that must be punished. For the moment, there is no international standard for discerning which is which. Second, the establishment of an International Criminal Court (to which Colombia is a signatory) and efforts of judges like Baltasar Garzón have made it at least conceivable that war crimes amnestied by a national government are still punishable in a higher, international jurisdiction. Both of these new ways of viewing war crimes make peace negotiations trickier to navigate, and the paramilitary talks are one of the first to take place in this new environment.

4.      President Uribe’s pre-conditions for talks make these dialogues look like surrender negotiations. In order to start the talks, President Uribe required the paramilitaries to declare a unilateral cease-fire, which armed groups normally do not agree to do unless they are near defeat on the battlefield. Meanwhile, the Uribe government’s repeated rhetoric insists that no “armed conflict” exists in Colombia, merely a terrorist menace – which means that an M-19-style negotiation of political reforms would be preposterous. What is left to discuss, then, but the terms of the AUC’s surrender? Under those circumstances, it makes perfect sense to be discussing imprisonment for war criminals.

5.      By putting them out of circulation for a few years, jail time will make it harder for paramilitary leaders to maintain their networks of criminality and violent social control. If ex-leaders of the M-19 had decided to devote themselves to narcotrafficking and other crime, while keeping their ex-fighters armed and on call to carry out threats and killings when needed, few doubt that the Colombian security forces would have worked assiduously to break up these networks. There is more reason to doubt, though, that we might see a similar will to break up paramilitary networks: the paramilitaries have already made inroads into local government in many parts of the country, and enjoy the support of powerful sectors of society, including powerful sectors of the security forces. Instead of crossing one’s fingers and hoping that the paramilitaries’ structures disintegrate on their own, much can be accomplished by keeping the groups’ leaders in jail cells, where it will be much harder for them to ensure that their followers do their bidding. (“Jail cell,” obviously, cannot mean the kind of arrangement that allowed Pablo Escobar and the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers to continue to run their cocaine empires from prison.)

Would these five reasons have put leaders of the M-19 in jail if they were negotiating today (or the FMLN in El Salvador, or Nicaragua’s Contras)? Probably not, in fact; only point three, regarding international norms, would have been applicable to those cases. Will these reasons require jail time for FARC and ELN leaders after an eventual peace process? Maybe, though it’s still less likely than in the case of the paramilitaries.

The FARC and ELN are still subject to new international norms, and the scale of their atrocities, though somewhat less than that of the paramilitaries’, is still horrifying enough. These two reasons alone may be enough to create pressure to put guerrilla leaders behind bars for a few years after reaching an agreement.

However, the other three reasons do not apply. As a future negotiation with guerrillas would be a dialogue between enemies, not friends, both sides would have an interest in shedding maximum light on the other’s past abuses. If both sides in such a process are actively sweeping the past out from under the rug, making truth commissions and full confessions more likely and forcing guerrilla leaders to acknowledge the blood that is on their hands, there might be less of a public demand for jail as an accountability mechanism.

For the foreseeable future, any talks with guerrillas would not at all resemble surrender negotiations. Unless the battlefield situation shifts dramatically, it is hard to imagine guerrillas agreeing to a cease-fire anytime soon, much less accepting the Uribe government’s idea that they have no political claims and are mere “terrorists.” If the negotiations encompass more than just surrender terms, the prospect of jail will be less.

Finally, it’s easy to imagine the Colombian government doing much more to stamp out criminal networks run by ex-guerrillas, whose action against economic elites would be predatory, than those run by ex-paramilitaries, who would be in league with corrupt sectors of the elite. Jail time would make little difference to the effort to dismantle post-conflict guerrilla networks.

Notice that the words “leftist” and “right-wing” did not come up at all in this discussion. Mr. Londoño is wrong – ideology has nothing to do with it. Some jail time is virtually inevitable for top paramilitary leaders because the AUC talks are fundamentally different from most other peace negotiations.

Mar 07

Every March 1, the State Department releases its “International Narcotics Control Strategy Report” (INCSR), a phone-book-sized document laying out what the United States and other governments did (or did not do) to fight drug trafficking in the previous year. Though the report often strains credibility in an effort to put a good spin on events, it is a decent source of statistics and details about U.S. policy that are otherwise hard to find. (It used to include the U.S. government’s list of countries “decertified” for being insufficiently cooperative in the drug war. That list now comes out in September.)

This report had been released exactly on March 1 during each of the past several years. Last week, however, the release was postponed from the first (a Tuesday) to the afternoon of the fourth (a Friday). Though the official reason for the delay was that Secretary of State Rice “wants to be able to have the opportunity to review it as thoroughly as possible before presenting it,” those of us who have been in Washington for a few years know that Friday afternoons are made for the release of bad or embarrassing news. (Television ratings and newspaper sales indicate that Friday night through Saturday is the least-noticed news cycle of the week.)

The main bad news that State’s Narcotics Bureau needed to bury, of course, was the explosion of opium-poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. In the Andes too, though, the administration probably did not want to draw attention to the fact that it had nothing new to report.

Coca cultivation

The INCSR used to include estimates of coca cultivation in each Andean country during the previous year. During the last few years, the number of hectares planted with coca in Colombia was not available in time for the report’s release – the report included a blank space which was filled weeks later. In this year’s report, blank spaces for 2004 appear for both Colombia and Peru.

“I think they’ll be available at the end of this month, that’s something that’s out of my control,” Bobby Charles, the soon-to-be-resigning Assistant Secretary for Narcotics and Law Enforcement, said at the report’s Friday afternoon rollout. However, Charles appeared to be preparing reporters for a smaller reduction in Colombian coca-growing than we have seen every year since 2001.

In 2002, we saw a 21 percent reduction in cultivation. In 2003, we saw a 15 percent reduction. This is going to get harder as time goes on because you’re compressing the areas in both coca and in poppy. You’re compressing the areas. You’re making them — they’re more highly protected, if you will, right now by the drug traffickers and the drug trafficking organizations which, in that country, are also narcoterrorist organizations. But there is real progress.

Let’s look at the Colombian coca data from the report:

Colombian Coca










Potential Harvest (ha)










Eradication (ha)










Estimated Cultivation (ha)










HCl: Potential (mt)










Even though we still know little about what happened in 2004, two things stand out sharply in this table:

1. Estimated cultivation: though the first row of this table (“potential harvest”) gets most of the attention, the third row tells another story. In fact, it seems to call into question fumigation’s effectiveness as a deterrent to planting coca. While the intensity of spraying increased by 48,000 hectares from 2001 to 2003, the amount of land planted with coca only decreased by 7,000 hectares. (Think of all the hundreds of millions of dollars spent to achieve this 7,000-hectare decrease!) We await a 2004 number; since eradication held relatively steady from 2003 to 2004, a tiny decrease (or even an increase) would effectively end the string of coca-cultivation declines that the U.S. and Colombian governments have been trumpeting since 2002.

2. HCl Potential: The fourth row is the estimate, in metric tons, of the cocaine produced in Colombia each year. Note that, for some reason, the State Department expects the tonnage to have increased by 100 tons – 22 percent! – from 2003 to 2004. The report’s text does not explain this number – instead, it confusingly refers to a reduction to 460 tons of pure cocaine, which equals 560 tons of “export-quality” cocaine; perhaps the 2003 and 2004 numbers were reversed by mistake. However, if – as is more likely – the table is correct and cocaine production increased for the first time since 2000-2001, it would indicate that Colombia’s coca-growers are adapting to massive fumigation. Either there is a lot of new cultivation that the satellites have not detected, or growers are “doing more with less” – growing more plants per hectare and using higher-yielding varieties, for instance – or both.

The “balloon effect”

Assistant Secretary Charles boasted that Plan Colombia appears to be the first anti-drug policy to avoid the “balloon effect” – a term that refers to squeezing one part of a balloon, only to see it bulge out elsewhere – since estimated coca cultivation does not seem to be increasing in Peru and Bolivia as quickly as it is declining in Colombia.

What’s fascinating on the metrics is that we are really not seeing the balloon effect. In terms of the entire region in 2003, there was an overall regional reduction of 16 percent of cultivation. That’s a remarkable thing by itself.

If there is no balloon effect, then the U.S. government has not only repealed the law of supply and demand, but it has managed to dissuade people from growing coca even though they live in ungoverned areas and have no other economic options. That’s no small feat.

Or, more likely, declarations of victory over the balloon effect are premature. Our colleague at the Washington Office on Latin America, John Walsh, said it best last month in the Financial Times: “Declaring the balloon effect dead now is a bit like jumping from a plane and believing that the law of gravity has been suspended because you haven’t hit the ground yet.”

Not only that, we don’t even know yet what happened in 2004. Of the three countries that grow nearly all of the world’s coca, the report released Friday only estimated 2004 coca cultivation in one, Bolivia. Granted, the report indicates a small drop in Bolivia’s “potential harvest” (to 24,600 hectares, from 28,450 in 2003 – the first drop since 2000), even though it fails to provide an estimate of coca-growing before eradication, indicates that eradication levels in fact decreased in 2004, and estimates an increase in the number of tons of cocaine produced. (Peru and Bolivia do not allow fumigation; illicit crops are eradicated manually, usually by counter-drug military and police units.)

Nonetheless, the report’s table of coca-growing in Peru – the second-largest coca producer – is almost totally blank for 2004. Peruvian authorities have already said that they expect the numbers to reveal a sharp increase in coca-growing last year. The head of Peru’s anti-drug agency (DEVIDA), Fernando Hurtado, said in January that he expected Peruvian coca cultivation to have risen in 2004 and to increase again in 2005. According to a Reuters story that ran at the time, “The rise in growing areas means some 160 tons of cocaine were produced in Peru in 2004 – 20 percent more than in 2003 – with a street value in the United States of $2 billion.”

A 20 percent increase in Peruvian coca production – even a 10 percent increase – would clearly signal that reports of the balloon effect’s demise are greatly exaggerated.

The price of drugs

When a product becomes scarcer, its price rises. Yet U.S. government data have shown the price of cocaine continuing to decrease on U.S. streets, extending a general downward trend that dates back over twenty years (see John Walsh’s December 2004 report for WOLA on the subject [PDF format]). Assistant Secretary Charles promised Friday that price increases will come soon.

The question that you haven’t asked me that I think is the tougher question is the question, “When are you going see the price and purity change here on the streets of America?” Because that’s going to be when it affects us directly. … And the hope is that you’re — and I predict we will — if we stay on this track, if the political will remains solid, I think within a year or two you will begin to see palpable, measurable, in things like stride data and other data points, you will be able to see changes in the — I think you’ll actually see a change in price first and then you’ll see a change in measurable purity in major metropolitan areas.

We can probably take that promise in the same spirit as a series of similar statements over the past few years. Here are three from the White House’s drug czar, John Walters.

July 29, 2003: [W]e expect to see in the next 6 to 9 months significant disruptions in the purity and availability of cocaine throughout the world. … The magnitude of this ought to be visible in reductions in purity, probably first, and then some availability problems. … [W]e expect this magnitude to affect the whole market and it should be visible in the next 6 to 12 months.

June 17, 2004: We believe, the latest intelligence reports that we have just completed, that project and look at flow, we believe we will see a change in availability into the United States, on the streets of the United States in the next 12 months as a result of what happens here. … We believe that will probably first appear in reductions in purity, because most of the market for this product, as you know, is dependent individuals. If you raise the price, they go into crisis.

August 10, 2004: These gains have allowed us to, for the first time, have intelligence estimates in the United States that in the next 12 months we will see changes in availability of cocaine in the United States, but in probably first lower purity and it could be followed by higher prices.

Better luck with next year’s report.

Mar 03

Did the Colombian military massacre eight people last week in Urabá, including a founder of the San José de Apartadó peace community? If not, who did? And why is Colombia’s Defense Ministry trying to blame the crime on the community members themselves?

Nobody knows – but until we have a better idea, the State Department must not certify the Colombian military’s human-rights performance, a step that the law requires in order to free up 25 percent of U.S. military aid.

Statements about the massacre

Here is what witnesses claim happened.

Luis Eduardo Guerra was a leader of the San José de Apartadó Peace Community in Apartadó, Antioquia, part of the Urabá region near Panama. Founded in March 1997, the Peace Community was set up by citizens who sought to separate themselves from the conflict by refusing entry to all armed groups – guerrillas, paramilitaries and the state security forces. (In this sense it bears a passing resemblance to the Popular Resistance Communities – CPRs – that sought to provide safe havens from Guatemala’s civil war.)

Excluding armed groups has not been easy: about 130 of the community’s members have been killed by the FARC, the paramilitaries, and the security forces. Even though the community has suffered guerrilla attacks, the armed forces consider its members to be subversive sympathizers. Constant threats, followed by a grenade explosion that killed his wife, forced community leader Luis Guerra to leave the town for two years. According to Peace Brigades International, none of these murders, threats or attacks has ever been solved or punished.

Unlike the Guatemalan CPRs, the San José community has sought and received accompaniment from outside groups, who have embraced it as a model of non-violent resistance to war. Peace Brigades and the Fellowship of Reconciliation have maintained a volunteer presence for years. Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) has visited the remote town. Leaders like Luis Guerra have toured the United States and Europe, educating grassroots groups. The Peace Community has received provisional protection from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Just over a week ago, between February 21 and 22, a group of armed men detained Luis Guerra, his son, his partner and another person near the Mulatos river, several miles from the San José town center.

The two army brigades in the area, both of them signaled by different witnesses, have less-than-stellar human rights records.

  • The Carepa, Antioqua-based 17th Brigade gained notoriety for its role in the brutal paramilitary takeover of Urabá, which had long been a guerrilla-held banana and cattle zone, in the mid-1990s. Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, the head of the 17th Brigade 1996-97, became known on Colombia’s right as “the pacifier of Urabá.” Several witnesses – including Col. Carlos Alfonso Velásquez, Gen. Alejo’s chief of staff – testified that the general maintained contact with paramilitaries and ordered troops to cooperate with them while carrying out an antiguerrilla offensive, “Operation Genesis.” Gen. Alejo was kicked out of the army in 1999. (Shortly afterward, Álvaro Uribe, who had been governor of Antioquia at the time Gen. Alejo ran the 17th Brigade, was the keynote speaker at a Bogotá dinner held in the general’s honor.)

  • The 11th Brigade, meanwhile, is based in the city of Montería, the capital of Córdoba department, which has basically been an independent paramilitary republic since the rise of Carlos Castaño’s United Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU) a decade ago. The Brigade’s area of operations comprises the Santa Fe de Ralito demilitarized zone where negotiations with paramilitary groups are taking place. One of Montería’s most prominent citizens is Salvatore Mancuso. Except for a 2001 raid on Mancuso’s wife’s house – which caused such a stir that it helped force Carlos Castaño to resign from the AUC’s top leadership – the 11th Brigade has somehow proven unable to find or combat any paramilitaries. (Read the State Department’s human rights certifications CIP has posted [(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6)], in which U.S. diplomats must endeavor to find examples of military action against paramilitaries; Córdoba never comes up in the context of an Army action.) Unable to find paramilitaries in Córdoba? Call it the “Mr. Magoo” brigade.

To the best of our knowledge, neither brigade receives any U.S. assistance, though some individuals may be admitted to training courses.

According to an eyewitness who was detained and escaped, the armed men identified themselves as members of the Colombian Army’s 11th Brigade, which is based in Montería, Córdoba (San José lies near the border between Antioquia and Córdoba). However, other witnesses indicated that the army’s 17th Brigade – based in nearby Carepa, Antioquia – had been carrying out operations in the Mulatos area. According to Amnesty International, “Soldiers in the area have reportedly told local inhabitants that if the killings had not been reported, they would have killed more civilians. The soldiers have allegedly referred to the eight victims as ‘dead guerrillas’ (‘puro guerrillero muerto’).”

The detainees were taken to the farm of Alfonso Bolívar Tuberquia, whom Peace Brigades identifies as “a member of the Peace Council of the hamlet of Mulatos.” Neither the detainees, their families, nor Tuberquia was ever seen again. An investigative commission that traveled to the zone on the 25th found recently-dug graves with the bodies of five adults and three children, aged two, six and eleven. Among the bodies was that of Luis Eduardo Guerra, showing signs of torture.

While we do not know for sure who is responsible, the accounts of witnesses and accompaniment groups (PBI, FOR, Corporación Jurídica Libertad, Justicia y Paz) point to the military, as does the community’s own statement.

Colombia’s military, however, angrily denies any involvement in the massacre, stating that none of its units were in the zone at the time. The Defense Ministry’s latest declaration emphatically makes this point, and then makes some dangerous accusations of its own. Citing “a series of suspicious coincidences,” the document suggests that the Peace Community itself, acting in league with the FARC, had the eight people killed.

The ministry asks how a communiqué from the Peace Community dated February 23rd could have detailed information about the condition of bodies that were not exhumed until the 25th. (We have not seen the communiqué in question.) But the document goes further with the following allegations:

Witnesses exist who affirm that Mr. Luis Eduardo Guerra, who was murdered, had expressed his intention to leave the Apartadó community.

In addition, Mr. Alejandro Pérez, alias ‘Cristo de Palo,’ the head of guerrilla militias of the Cristalina region, who was also killed, had expressed his desire to enter the government’s demobilization and reinsertion program and had begun the process.

Meanwhile Mr. Alfonso Bolívar Tuberquia was being accused by the FARC of having served as an informant to troops in an earlier case in which a dangerous bandit named ‘Macho Rusio,’ the head of militias for the FARC’s Fifth Front, was killed.

The armed forces apparently continue to hold to the thesis that the Peace Community is some sort of guerrilla concentration camp from which citizens are forbidden to leave – an allegation voiced by Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora, at the time the head of Colombia’s army, in August 2003. In May 2004, President Uribe fueled these allegations by warning foreigners accompanying the community that they could be jailed or deported for “obstructing justice.”

Unfortunately, the Colombian military’s initial denials of involvement in abuses cannot always be taken at face value. Last August, when military personnel killed three union organizers in Saravena, Arauca, the Defense Ministry insisted that the victims had fired on troops who had found them meeting with ELN members, and hotly denied NGOs’ claims that the civilians were murdered. The killings, however, complicated the U.S. government’s plans: within a few weeks, the State Department had hoped to free up military aid by certifying to Congress that the armed forces’ human-rights record was improving. Under this urgent pressure, the cover-up ended, the ministry’s story changed, soldiers were arrested, and investigations began.

In that case, the much-derided human-rights conditions proved useful in stopping an abuse from going uninvestigated and unpunished. This legal tool could again make a big difference in the San José de Apartadó case.

Last week, before details of the massacre emerged, the State Department held its consultation with human-rights groups for its next certification. (The law requires State to consult with “internationally recognized human rights groups” at least ten days before making its twice-yearly decision to certify that Colombia is doing more to cooperate with human rights investigators, suspend and dismiss violators, and fight paramilitaries. Each certification frees up 12.5 percent of military aid destined for Colombia.)

During last week’s hour-and-a-half-long meeting, at which CIP was present, State Department officials indicated that they had yet to decide whether they could certify any improvements. Now that the consultation has taken place, however, the next certification can happen at any time.

Though it is entirely possible that the military did not commit last week’s massacre, it is impossible even to contemplate certifying military aid to Colombia until we know more. Civilian Colombian government authorities must first carry out a thorough investigation that takes into account testimony from witnesses and community members. If this investigation finds that soldiers took part, arrests and prosecutions must follow.

For now, any certification should remain on hold: it may offer the best hope for clearing up what actually happened last week in San José de Apartadó.

Mar 01

One of the thorniest issues the paramilitary negotiations must untangle is the question of dismantlement: how to guarantee that the AUC doesn’t emerge from a “successful” dialogue in some other violent and threatening form.

The group of Colombian congresspeople led by Senator (and former Defense Minister) Rafael Pardo at least tries to address the dismantlement question. The legislation they are promoting would require demobilizing paramilitary members to confess to crimes and to reveal what they know about who commanded them and who supported them. The bill would require investigations of demobilizing paramilitaries to “seek especially to know the structure, formation, command and systematic patters that the suspect’s group has developed, in order to establish the diverse and varied misconduct carried out in the armed group’s name.”

While this is far from a perfect tool for eliminating paramilitary networks, it is far more than what many in the Colombian government – including peace negotiator Luis Carlos Restrepo and Vice President Francisco Santos – would ask. This faction would only require demobilizing paramilitaries to provide their names, towns of origin and similar contact information.

If Colombia passes a demobilization law that fails to dismantle paramilitarism, it doesn’t automatically follow that the paramilitaries will reassume their present form. The era of militarized self-defense groups – with thousands of members wearing uniforms with armbands and insignia, carrying heavy weapons, and living in remote encampments – would probably come to an end no matter what. This model of violent territorial control may now be obsolete in parts of Colombia where landowners, ranchers, drug lords and other monied interests have used paramilitaries to push out guerrillas (Córdoba, much of Antioquia, Cesar, southern Magdalena Medio).

To see what the future might look like if the AUC is not properly dismantled, it’s worth reading (or re-reading) Hidden Powers in Post-Conflict Guatemala [PDF file], a late-2003 report that Susan Peacock and Adriana Beltrán wrote for the Washington Office on Latin America. The researchers painted a grim, scary picture of Guatemala seven years after the 1996 peace accord: a country where levels of political violence are again rising, and many forms of political dissent are growing riskier, because of a shadowy network of traditional-landowning-elite types, narco-criminals, former military officers and paid killers. Most of the network’s trigger-pullers have combat experience, particularly as former members of Civil Self-Defense Patrols (PACs), which were Guatemala’s notoriously vicious version of the paramilitaries.

Three representative excerpts from that report:

The clandestine groups do not act on their own, but at the behest of members of an inter-connected set of powerful Guatemalans. The individuals and groups that make up this secretive, amorphous network are known as the hidden powers. They oversee and profit from a variety of illegal activities that they carry out with little fear of arrest or prosecution. These illegal activities often involve the improper exercise of influence in the state – skimming at customs, bribery and kickbacks, for example – and include connections to drug trafficking and other forms of organized crime. Along with their influence in the state bureaucracy, the hidden powers have relationships with most of the political parties and actors in Guatemala.


The abuses are clearly targeted. While many appear on the surface to be acts of common crime, the number and patterns of the cases point to a systematic targeting of civil society actors and others involved in “anti-impunity initiatives” – both those who seek justice for past abuses (human rights groups, forensic experts, judges, lawyers, and witnesses) and those who denounce present-day corruption by state agents. Those who fight for economic and social rights, particularly land rights, and for an end to discrimination against indigenous people, are also singled out for attacks.


The term hidden powers refers to an informal, amorphous network of powerful individuals in Guatemala who use their positions and contacts in the public and private sectors both to enrich themselves from illegal activities and to protect themselves from prosecution for the crimes they commit. It describes an unorthodox situation where legal authorities of the state still have formal power, but, de facto, members of the informal network hold much of the real power in the country.

This sounds like parts of Colombia today, and it sounds like the situation that many analysts are describing when they voice concerns about the country’s creeping “paramilitarization.” In the past two or three years, a period in which the AUC’s blocs have made little effort to conquer new territories, paramilitary power has grown in other ways.

The groups get their chosen candidates elected to the legislature, governorships and mayoralties (often by threatening opposing candidates). Salvatore Mancuso famously bragged after the 2002 legislative elections that the AUC had over 30 percent of the Congress in its pocket. They siphon funds from state coffers, including municipal and departmental healthcare and pension budgets. They are reportedly increasing their share of both legal and illegal commerce. And they continue to target human rights activists, union organizers, independent-minded journalists, and other would-be threats to the status quo. (For more on the subterranean rise of paramilitarism, see the reports that Colombia’s El Tiempo and El Espectador published on the same day last September.)

If the AUC negotiations do not stop this diffusion of paramilitary power throughout society, Guatemala’s present could be Colombia’s future. The way to avoid it is twofold: governance and dismantlement.

It will be difficult for the Colombian government to guarantee security in zones where paramilitaries are demobilizing: 375,000 soldiers and police can only stretch so far. But the same powerful interests that supported and nurtured paramilitary groups for the past twenty years are not about to see their tightly run communities and properties fall to the guerrillas. If the Colombian state fails to step in with a significant, well-funded presence – partly military but mostly civilian – these regions’ “hidden powers” will have a Plan B of their own, and they will have hundreds of demobilized fighters on whom they can call. The state, then, cannot fail to step in and govern zones that paramilitaries would vacate after a demobilization accord is reached.

That accord, meanwhile, must include a thorough effort to identify, investigate, and dismantle the AUC’s sources of financial and logistical support, as well as its formal and informal chains of command. Of course it will be impossible to uncover all that is hidden. But the Pardo bill at least takes a step in the right direction.

Is this enough to avoid a Guatemala outcome? Perhaps not; much will depend on the investigators’ aggressiveness and the government’s political will to devote resources to formerly paramilitary-held zones. And of course, it will also depend on the Colombian government’s Restrepo-Santos faction not getting its way with a weaker version of the “truth, justice and reparations” law.