Apr 29

Eclipsed by all the headlines of the past week – Condoleezza Rice’s visit, tensions with Venezuela, fighting in Cauca, paramilitary talks in trouble – is a surprising story about something that doesn’t happen very often in Colombia. For the second time in thirteen months, the people of San Pablo, a town in southern Bolívar department, have risen up in angry protest against the paramilitaries who dominate their town and the police who work with them.

An oil-producing port in the highly conflictive Magdalena Medio region, San Pablo is a tough place. It was an ELN guerrilla stronghold for much of the 1980s and 1990s. Those unfortunate enough to have seen Collateral Damage, the 2002 Arnold Schwarzenegger-versus-Colombian-rebels movie, might recall that Arnold’s character spends a good part of the movie trying to get to San Pablo, portrayed as the seat of rebel-held territory (when the CIA agent in the movie points to it on a map, he’s pointing right at San Pablo, Bolívar). This is wildly inaccurate, since paramilitaries took control of the town years before, during the late 1990s, as part of a bloody offensive that brought them control of much of the Magdalena Medio.

During failed peace talks with the ELN in 1999-2002, Andrés Pastrana’s government had agreed to an ELN demand to demilitarize San Pablo and two neighboring municipalities (Yondó and Cantagallo) and hold negotiations in the zone. The military fiercely resisted the idea, and the paramilitaries mobilized hundreds of people to protest any possible troop withdrawal. Pastrana was never able to demilitarize the zone.

The AUC’s Central Bolívar Bloc now runs San Pablo’s town center, coexisting with the contingent of police stationed there. The guerrillas remain nearby, relegated to the municipality’s rural zone, where they continue to compete for control of the local drug trade. San Pablo and its environs have been important to the narco business for a long time; they lie along a key transshipment corridor, and are not far from Puerto Triunfo, the site of Hacienda Nápoles, Pablo Escobar’s legendary ranch. Today, the countryside is a major coca-growing zone, and cocaine labs can be found in remote areas.

None of this makes San Pablo unusual. Colombia, especially north and central Colombia, has no shortage of violent towns in drug-producing zones where paramilitaries, with the security forces’ cooperation or acquiescence, have taken control. What makes San Pablo interesting is that the locals actually dare to vent their anger about it.

On March 8, 2004, paramilitaries killed a prominent local merchant named Fidel Peña. In an episode that the local press calls the “San Pablazo,” hundreds of residents, including some from nearby towns, responded with a peaceful protest that soon got out of hand. Though there were few casualties, enraged residents burned vehicles, motorcycles and five houses considered to belong to the paramilitaries.

They pelted the police station with rocks – a choice of target that indicates how completely residents take for granted that the local security forces are in league with the paramilitaries. (In a meeting this week with the governor of Bolívar, reports Bucaramanga’s Vanguardia Liberal newspaper, the government’s regional human-rights ombudsman [Defensor del Pueblo] “said he was concerned by the kind of complaints that had been coming from San Pablo in recent days, and he indicated that the complaints continue to have to do with a supposed collaboration between government institutions and illegal armed groups.”)

Nobody was ever arrested or tried for Peña’s murder. Then, on April 19 of this year, the paramilitaries struck again. Gunmen killed José Luis Pinzón, a 27-year-old merchant known to all in San Pablo as “El Chiqui,” in broad daylight in the center of town. According to José Otálora, the mayor’s secretary of government (sort of like chief of staff), Pinzón “was a very well-known kid, a fighter, a leader, a small businessman who was born and raised here in the town. That is why the population rejects [his killing] so strongly, because if it was him today, tomorrow it could be any of us.”

On the 20th, many San Pablo merchants shuttered their stores to protest the killing. A peaceful protest against paramilitary harassment and police-paramilitary collaboration was planned for the 21st, to accompany the funeral. “By 10:00 in the morning,” reports Vanguardia Liberal,

The town’s demands of the authorities were clear: “no more crimes by police personnel or friendships with illegal groups.” Almost at the same time, the Magdalena Medio police commander, Lt. Col. Jorge William Gil Caicedo, admitted to Vanguardia Liberal that paramilitary infiltration among the institution’s ranks is possible, and he indicated that an investigation will take place within the corps of police in San Pablo.

Again, the protest didn’t stay peaceful. Up to 500 protesters remained in the streets on April 21 and 22, throwing rocks at the mayor’s office and the police station. Police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The situation has calmed somewhat, and the Bolívar governor’s office and local military authorities have held meetings to hear the townspeople’s demands. The acting governor of Bolívar has proposed to take the San Pablo issue to the government’s high commissioner for peace, Luis Carlos Restrepo, so that he may raise it at the negotiating table with paramilitary leaders in Ralito. The killings of both Peña and Pinzón appear to be among hundreds of clear violations of the cease-fire that President Uribe had demanded of the paramilitaries as a pre-condition for negotiations.

Clearly, San Pablo’s street disturbances are not a model of nonviolent resistance to be replicated elsewhere. They are nonetheless noteworthy because of their very unusual targets: the feared paramilitaries and the security forces who coexist with them.

These actions could invite retribution; the paramilitaries are not known for tolerating opponents, especially in towns like San Pablo. We must therefore remain aware of what is happening in San Pablo and be prepared to respond to alerts about possible paramilitary attempts at “payback.”

In fact, alerts and early warnings shouldn’t even be necessary. After all, San Pablo is a small town that already has a significant police presence, plus marines on the river and army patrols throughout the zone. The Colombian government forces in San Pablo have to do their job and do more to protect the citizens from the paramilitaries in their midst. Collaboration with the illegal groups must be punished far more systematically than it is now. Those suspected of it must be suspended – the whole unit if necessary – and replaced with forces who are willing to confront the AUC.

So far, security-force officials are proposing to rotate new police into San Pablo (especially mobile, militarized carabineros) and to send troops to keep order. Let’s hope that the new arrivals are less inclined to support or tolerate the paramilitaries. There are no guarantees of this, though, since security-force personnel know that support and toleration are rarely punished. Let’s hope as well that Colombia’s creaky justice system manages to punish those responsible for the San Pablo killings. Continued impunity will only allow the paramilitaries to tighten their grip over San Pablo and many towns like it.

Apr 26

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Brazil, Colombia, Chile and El Salvador this week; she will spend a few hours in Bogotá tomorrow. CIP and the Latin America Working Group have distributed a memo making recommendations for the Colombia leg of her trip. Here are three more observations about other regional issues Dr. Rice will be confronting.

1. Venezuela. Hugo Chávez is legitimate, elected, and CIP firmly opposes anything that even remotely resembles a U.S. effort at regime change. We also applaud his channeling of Venezuelan oil wealth to badly needed social-services. Chávez is a complicated figure, though. Though he is usually called “leftist,” some of his government’s policies run counter to the goals of some important progressive causes.

  • Those who value press freedom should be concerned about a recently passed law with vaguely worded language allowing the government to close down media outlets deemed to be inciting violence or threatening public order.
  • Those who value demilitarization should be concerned about the host of new internal non-defense roles the new constitution has given the Venezuelan military, as well as President Chávez’s plan to create a 2 million-strong army reserve.
  • Those who value respect for human rights should be concerned about limits on freedom of expression and the independence of the judiciary, and about the role that “Bolivarian Circles” may be playing in intimidating dissent. The Inter-American Human Rights Commission and Human Rights Watch have already registered concerns about these issues.
  • Those who value equal rights and opportunities for women should be offended by President Chávez’s crude and suggestive comments about Condoleezza Rice in January.
  • Those who want to limit global small-arms transfers should be worried about the Venezuelan government’s latest weapons-buying spree, including the purchase of 100,000 AK-47 assault rifles from Russia. 

Press reports indicate that Dr. Rice will be discussing Venezuela during all four stops on her trip. It is perfectly acceptable for her to express concerns about human rights and democratic institutionality, on the diplomatic level, in discussions with other regional leaders.

Due to the immense amount of baggage in the U.S.-Latin American relationship, though, U.S. officials will do more harm than good if they choose to scold Venezuela unilaterally, as Donald Rumsfeld did on a trip to Brazil last month.

As the U.S. line toward Venezuela hardens (and vice versa), it does not make sense to pursue the strategies that have failed so miserably in Cuba, and have arguably helped to prop up Castro for almost half a century: diplomatic isolation, unilateral public criticism, assistance to opposition groups (who are then singled out for ostracism or harassment), or – and let’s hope that this isn’t being considered – the acts of sabotage and violence that used to be called “dirty tricks.” Even a whiff of suspicion that the United States is “bullying” or seeking regime change works immensely to Chávez’s political advantage.

(This, of course, applies well beyond Venezuela. Shortly before Bolivia’s 2002 presidential elections, U.S. Ambassador to La Paz Manuel Rocha warned that if Bolivians voted for cocalero leader Evo Morales – at the time not considered a main contender – the United States would cut its aid. The resulting tide of outrage led Morales to finish a close second in the first round of voting. Morales reportedly referred to Rocha as his “campaign manager.”)

It is still more complicated in Venezuela, though, as Washington is still trying to recover from the damage to its credibility inflicted during a failed April 2002 coup attempt. On that occasion, the Bush Administration and its then-assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Otto Reich, did not endorse an OAS resolution invoking the Democratic Charter until after the coup had clearly failed.

Because they will so quickly be viewed as the antagonists in the region, administration officials should avoid fire-breathing rhetoric. Indeed, the overall U.S. approach to Venezuela will require intense adult supervision – it cannot be left up to the ideologues and true-believers who occupy too many key posts in the Bush administration.

As it is, these characters can do enough damage from the outside. Look no further than Otto Reich, whose rigidly ideological pronouncements clumsily play right into Chavista hands. Witness this passage (one among many) in a recent Reich piece in the National Review.

Not only is Castro still in power, but he is being kept afloat financially by Venezuela’s oil-fueled charity; the Sandinistas are making a comeback in Nicaragua; and violent radical groups menace democracy from Bolivia to Haiti. In recent years, left-of-center leaders have come to power in Chile, Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, and Uruguay. Should we worry about these leftists? In general, yes. We know that socialist prescriptions do not provide a solution for the problems of developing nations-and as the chief importer of goods and of people in this hemisphere, the U.S. will pay the price of their success or failure. We would much rather pay the price in imported goods and services from successful societies than bear the cost of surplus populations, crime, and drugs exported by failed states.

Yes, that’s right: the Bush Administration’s last assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, a close friend of brother Jeb, thinks that any elected left-of-center government in Latin America is a potential threat we should “worry about.”

In her discussions of Venezuela this week, Dr. Rice would do well to distance herself from the views of the Otto / “New Axis of Evil in Latin America” faction. Only then will it be possible to get other moderate leaders in the region to help convey some very real concerns about freedoms and institutions in Venezuela.

Unfortunately, there are signs that the Bush administration may be headed further down the wrong path. Today’s New York Times reports that “the Bush administration is weighing a tougher approach [toward Hugo Chávez’s government], including funneling more money to foundations and business and political groups opposed to his leftist government.” That would be a disaster, virtually guaranteeing that the United States finds itself both going it alone and inadvertently strengthening the most hard-line elements in Chávez’s government.

2. Governance is expensive. According to today’s Miami Herald, Dr. Rice “is expected to send a clear message that reforms are needed to improve the lot of the region’s poor and make democracy work for the masses, according to U.S. officials. The top issues: development of civil society, more free trade, government transparency and the fight against corruption.”

This message – the need to undergo reforms and improve governance in order to make democracy work for the poorest – is excellent. It would be even better, though, if it came with some money to pay for it. Unfortunately, the Bush Administration’s 2006 aid request anticipates cuts in the sorts of U.S. programs that are designed to strengthen reform and good governance in Latin America. It foresees region-wide drops from 2004 levels in Child Survival and Health Programs (-16%), Development Assistance (-14%), and Economic Support Funds (-4%).

The deficit and Iraq are chiefly to blame, but there could not be a worse time for these aid programs to be moving in the wrong direction.

3. Don’t downplay Ecuador. While nobody was fond of Lucio Gutiérrez, especially after he fired Ecuador’s Supreme Court late last year, it is important that Dr. Rice make clear that the United States is uncomfortable with the way he was forced from power last week. It is hard to characterize his violence-inspired exit as a constitutional transfer of power. We second the recommendation made in today’s Miami Herald’s editorial: “At the least, changes of government inspired by violence should be condemned without mincing words.”

Apr 22

On Thursday the 14th, and again on Sunday the 17th, several hundred guerrillas from the FARC’s 6th Front and Jacobo Arenas Column attacked Toribío, a largely indigenous town of about 3,500 people in the mountains of northeastern Cauca department, about 40 mostly dirt-road miles from the Panamerican Highway between Cali and Popayán.

The guerrillas indiscriminately rained homemade gas-cylinder bombs on the town, damaging the police station that the Uribe government had installed, but also destroying a hospital and dozens of houses.

Ten hours after the April 14 attack began, the security forces arrived; several dozen police and soldiers were helicoptered into the town center, and the FARC fighters retreated to the mountains surrounding the town, from where they continued to launch mortars and shoot at the government forces. Military aircraft strafed guerrillas from the air, while FARC fighters took control of both roads entering the town, effectively isolating it by land.

Sporadic fighting continues as the town, protected by difficult terrain, has still not completely returned to government control. So far, the death toll has included at least five police and two soldiers, an unknown number of guerrillas, and a nine-year-old boy. Twenty-three civilians were wounded, some seriously, and nearly the entire popluation of the town has been at least temporarily displaced.

What this means for the Uribe government

The Toribío attack was brutal and showed no concern whatsoever for the civilian population, beyond a guerrilla warning issued a few hours before the shooting started. Violations of international humanitarian law, however, are something the FARC commits routinely. More about that in a moment.

Toribío was unusual, though, for its scale. During the first two and a half years of Álvaro Uribe’s term in office, the FARC simply did not attempt anything this ambitious – a takeover of a mid-sized town with a police station, using hundreds of fighters, that was clearly the result of months of planning.

The relatively low level of FARC activity between August 2002 and early 2005 caused a debate among security analysts about what was going on. Supporters of Álvaro Uribe and his “Democratic Security” strategy gave credit to the president’s tough policies, the military’s improved capabilities, and even U.S. military aid. Some even went so far as to predict the FARC’s defeat within a few years. Others noted that the military’s size and capabilities, though greater, had not grown enough to bring such a sharp drop in guerrilla activity, and speculated that the FARC – its leadership, fronts, and financing largely intact – had chosen to pull back, responding to the Uribe offensive with a “tactical retreat.”

It now seems apparent that the latter group was right. The FARC were capable of launching large-scale attacks like Toribío – and the only thing keeping them from doing so was that they chose not to.

In fact, it could be argued that a main reason why the guerrillas attacked Toribío – the latest in a wave of attacks on both military and civilian targets that began in late January – was to demonstrate that the Uribe strategy was not affecting the guerrillas’ ability to operate. Top FARC leader Raúl Reyes told an interviewer from ANNCOL, a Sweden-based guerrilla-solidarity site, that the Toribío action was “a blow to ‘Democratic Security.’ … After this action, the government looks silly when it asserts that it has the ability to force the FARC into retreat.” Reyes added that the attack disproves President Uribe’s insistently repeated argument that Colombia has no armed conflict, just a terrorist nuisance.

Indeed, Toribío was a blow to the Democratic Security strategy. It was embarrassing for Uribe and the high command to helicopter into the ruined town center on Friday the 15th, call the guerrillas “cowards” and assure the townspeople that they were safe, only to have the FARC attack again two days later. A cornerstone of the Uribe government’s strategy was to deploy contingents of police into all the country’s 1,092 county seats (cabeceras municipales). Actions like Toribío – in which the police station, in the middle of town, was nearly as vulnerable as the rest of the population – recall why the police were absent in the first place.

Toribío also calls into question the U.S.-supported “Plan Patriota” offensive, which has concentrated about 17,000 soldiers in the departments of Caquetá, Meta, and Guaviare, a longtime FARC stronghold a couple of hundred miles east of Toribío. Plan Patriota has required the deployment of troops away from the department of Cauca; Senator Luis Élmer Arenas, from the department of Valle del Cauca just to the north, said last week that the army’s 6th Mobile Brigade, which had been assigned to Cauca, was moved to the zone that had once been demilitarized for the failed 1998-2002 negotiations with the FARC, which lies in the middle of the Plan Patriota area. Arenas said that Cauca has been left with only four army battalions (a battalion usually has about 500-600 men), and these are mostly tied down guarding roads or – as “peasant soldiers” – other towns.

El Tiempo reporter Marisol Gómez speculates that the FARC are responding to the pressures of Plan Patriota by shifting their rearguard to a new “triangle” – the southwestern departments of Cauca, Nariño and Putumayo.

The attacks on Toribío could be part of a strategy to consolidate themselves in the Cauca-Nariño-Putumayo axis. Having lost their rearguard in Caquetá, Meta and Guaviare due to Plan Patriota, the guerrilla group may need a new one in order to provide security to its Secretariat. And what better than a strategic triangle like this one in the country’s southwest, which it has cultivated for years with its presence. Of this corridor, says analyst Alfredo Rangel, Nariño is perhaps the most important province, “because it has become the new center of coca-leaf production (it is calculated that there are 17,000 hectares planted there), because it offers access to the Pacific Ocean to get drugs out, and because the border with Ecuador eases the entry of munitions and supplies over land.” Cauca also has ocean access, and Putumayo, access to Ecuador. As a result, we cannot view as gratuitous the attacks on the Iscuandé (Nariño) naval base, in which fifteen marines died last February 1, and the ambushes in Santa Ana and Puerto Leguízamo (Putumayo) on February 2 and March 23, in which nine soldiers and eight marines died. This would also account for the assaults on Samaniego, Ricaurte and Guachavez (Nariño) and on Jambaló (Cauca) on the same day the Toribío attacks began.

Toribío also calls into question the effectiveness of the Colombian government’s U.S.-supported Early Warning System (SAT), which has already been criticized for past failures to respond in a timely way to warnings about imminent armed-group attacks. Representatives of the Defensoría del Pueblo (the Colombian government’s human rights ombudsman) say that the SAT failed them in the Toribío case. Due to a communications breakdown within the SAT the night before the attacks began, “we had to use other, alternative communications channels, because by morning the attack was to begin,” said Darío Mejía, the secretary-general of the Defensoría, adding that his office had been issuing periodic warnings since December.

Why Toribío?

Perhaps the most fundamental question about the meaning of the FARC’s latest attacks is: if the guerrillas’ goal is to undermine the Uribe government’s security policies, why choose to attack a civilian target? And especially, why choose a target like Toribío, which has become a symbol of non-violent indigenous resistance to the conflict? There are no good answers.

As much as 90 percent of Toribío’s residents belong to the Nasa or Páez indigenous group, one of the largest and most cohesive of Colombia’s dozens of native ethnicities. During the 1980s, Toribío was a center for an indigenous guerrilla group, known as Quintín Lame, that sought to resist both the security forces and the guerrillas before demobilizing in 1991. Later, in the 1990s, leaders chose a non-violent option, reviving the tradition of the Indigenous Guard – a “self-defense force” armed only with short ceremonial sticks called bastones. The guard now has over 5,000 members. The guard had successfully prevented FARC incursions in the past, including standoffs with the FARC in Toribío and Totoró in August 2002 and the rescue of Toribío mayor Arquimedes Vitonás, whom the guerrillas briefly kidnapped in August 2004.

This non-violent model has won praise for Toribío and the Indigenous Guard throughout Colombia. But the guard resists more than just the FARC. Toribío was a center of organizing for the massive minga, or gathering, of tens of thousands of indigenous people last September, who peacefully marched from northern Cauca to Cali to protest free-trade negotiations and the Uribe government’s Democratic Security policies. The community members have also been adamant opponents of Plan Colombia.

Clearly, on paper at least, the FARC shares a lot of those political positions. Why, then, would it choose Toribío for its most vicious attack on a population in years?

Part of the answer might simply be revenge for the residents’ past displays of resistance. Part of it might be the FARC’s stubborn belief that they, and only they, are the true expression of resistance to Colombia’s ruling class. Writes Colombian analyst Héctor Mondragón, a fierce critic of both Uribe and the guerrillas, “The FARC, now on the offensive, has been spectacularly dismissive of the mass movement of the popular sectors of Colombia. The FARC is uninterested.”

The FARC, like all of Colombia’s armed groups, has a terrible record of preying on indigenous leaders and activists. In recent months the FARC has kidnapped or killed members of indigenous communities in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta; Ricaurte, Nariño; and in northern Cauca. And we mustn’t forget the FARC’s murder of three U.S. indigenous-rights activists who were working with the U’wa people in Arauca in 1999.

Indigenous claims may be irrelevant to a group whose rigid Marxism allows only for the possibility of class conflict. But the FARC’s hostility to indigenous communities probably owes more to military calculations. It is possible that Toribío was targeted mainly because its location made it difficult to re-take militarily, because it lies along a key corridor across the Andes, and because it is part of an attempt to create a new “axis” in southwestern Colombia.

If the FARC is indeed still giving primacy to military calculations, it would mean that the group’s leaders have learned absolutely nothing during the past few years about the importance of politics and the support of local populations. The group’s image, both domestically and internationally, took a severe battering with the demise of the Pastrana peace process, and its continued resort to terrorism – defined as deliberate attacks on civilians – has made it a pariah nearly everywhere. Its attacks on organized critics of Uribe and the security forces – such as the Nasa in Toribío or the five members of the human-rights group Justicia y Paz who were kidnapped for two weeks earlier this month – show that even on the left, the FARC’s attitude is, “The enemy of my enemy is still my enemy.”

This lack of regard for popular opinion makes the FARC unique among guerrilla groups. In their dealings with the civilian population, most guerrillas have at least tried to follow the dictates of Mao Tse-Tung (“the richest source of power to wage war lies in the masses of people”) and Che Guevara (“Conduct toward the civil population ought to be regulated by a large respect for all the rules and traditions of the people in order to demonstrate effectively, with deeds, the moral superiority of the guerrilla fighter over the oppressing soldier”).

Instead the FARC, at least many of its fronts during the past few years, has maintained a predatory relationship with the civilian population, a relationship based more on fear than on trust. Some of its leaders (“Mono Jojoy” comes to mind) clearly believe that military advantages trump all political considerations, including any gains to be had from respecting international humanitarian law. Toribío indicates that these leaders are still hugely influential within the FARC, despite the group’s lack of significant military successes over the last five years or so.

The continued power of the FARC’s most militaristic, least political leaders probably means that peace talks are unlikely to happen anytime soon. But it also means that the FARC may be approaching the end of its existence as a cohesive guerrilla organization.

Ultimately, its illegal money cannot substitute for its lack of popular support. An army of violent resistance that attacks communities of peaceful resistance is on a self-destructive path. It is the FARC’s neglect of politics and popular support – not the U.S.-supported Colombian military pressure – that most threatens to bring the group down in the medium-term. Losing popular support is more than just a tactical disadvantage – it leads a group to lose touch with the pueblo in whose name it claims to fight. The likely consequence of that is increasing division within the group and gradual disintegration.

The Toribío attack also shows a far more effective model of resistance: the community that remains strong despite seeing much of its town center reduced to rubble. Three thousand Indigenous Guards, coming from throughout northern Cauca, are poised to enter Toribío. The residents’ opposition to Bogotá’s militarized approach remains strong.

To see how well-organized Toribío and neighboring communities are, how well-linked with national and international solidarity, look no further than the up-to-the-minute website of the Northern Cauca Association of Indigenous Communities (ACIN). There you find not only calls for humanitarian aid, local development proposals and expressions of support, but calls for alternatives to Plan Colombia and the Democratic Security strategy. This is a model of reform and activism many times more promising than whatever it is the FARC is offering.

Apr 19

Since the 1990s, it has been common for reporters and groups like ours to identify Colombia as “the third-largest recipient of U.S. military assistance.”

This actually has not been true for a couple of years. The Middle East has knocked Colombia out of the number-three spot since 2004. This year, if the Bush Administration’s supplemental request for Iraq, Afghanistan and its neighbors passes unchanged, Colombia will slip to number seven.

Here’s how we estimate that the military-aid rankings have changed since 2002. We do not provide numbers because we don’t have full confidence in our figures, but unless we indicate otherwise, our estimates show the countries listed to be at least $50 million apart.




2005, est.





























* Estimated aid is only slightly less than that for the preceding country.

2005 figures include aid in the Bush Administration’s emergency supplemental funding request for Iraq. The Senate has not yet passed this bill.

The decline in Colombia’s ranking doesn’t mean that military aid to Colombia has been reduced since 2002. In fact, our estimates show it to be significantly greater than 2002 levels, and has essentially held steady since 2003. The Bush Administration’s 2006 aid request would maintain current amounts, making Colombia one of the only countries in Latin America that is not expected to see a cutback.

However, if you accept the hypothesis that military assistance is a decent indicator of the Bush administration’s interest in a friendly country, the slippage in its ranking tells us that Colombia is a lower priority for the Bush administration than it was back in 2002. This is not news to anybody.

Meanwhile, it is still possible to say that Colombia is the number-one recipient of U.S. military assistance outside the Middle East. No other country comes close.

Apr 15

Last week, the Senate debated, but has not yet approved, a Foreign Relations Authorization Act for 2006 and 2007 (S. 600).

(If you don’t want to wade through a technical explanation, skip the next five paragraphs to find out what in the bill is relevant to Latin America.)

Full authorizations of foreign aid – as opposed to appropriations – happen pretty rarely. Unlike the annual appropriations laws, which lay out money every year for existing programs, authorization bills are an effort to rewrite the underlying law governing foreign aid. Written by the Foreign/International Relations committees, they create new programs, eliminate others, and change still others (altering, for instance, their priorities, their limitations, or their reporting to Congress). Appropriators are supposed to limit themselves to assigning money to previously authorized programs.

Many of the most familiar foreign aid programs haven’t been touched by an authorization bill for years – they’ve just run on autopilot, getting money appropriated year after year. That’s brought some odd results – for instance, the permanent law governing the IMET military training program still specifies the program’s funding levels for 1986 and 1987, and nothing after.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, acknowledged the problem during last week’s debate.

Since the mid-1980s, Congress has not fulfilled its responsibility to pass an Omnibus Foreign Assistance Act. … [I]n the absence of a comprehensive authorization, much of the responsibility for providing guidance for foreign assistance policy has fallen to the appropriations committees. Appropriators have kept our foreign assistance programs going, but in many cases, they have had to do so without proper authorization. In some years, the Congress did pass a State Department authorization bill, but that bill only authorizes about 35 percent of the Function 150 [foreign aid] Account. To fund the remaining accounts, appropriators frequently had to waive the legal requirement to appropriate funds only following the passage of an authorization bill.

It’s still not clear whether the Senate will remedy this problem this year; debate on the 2006-2007 authorization bill halted on April 6 and has not resumed. The House may write its own foreign aid authorization in May.

Though the Senate’s bill is not done yet, a few measures deserve to be highlighted now. They are nearly all modest changes, and many are worthy of support. Some, however, are troubling.

Colombia military aid

The State Department’s International Narcotics Control (INC) aid program includes the Andean Counterdrug Initiative, which provides the majority of Colombia’s aid. The section reauthorizing INC would extend through 2007 the “mission expansion” language specifying that counter-drug aid to Colombia may be used to fight guerrillas (and, presumably, paramilitaries). The authorization language calls for “a unified campaign against narcotics trafficking and terrorist activities.” Since 2002, similar language has been repeated on every year’s foreign aid appropriations bill.

The same section would extend through 2006 the current “troop cap,” setting a maximum of 800 U.S. military personnel and 600 contractors who may be in Colombia at any given time.

It would also condition aid on a requirement “that no United States Armed Forces personnel and no employees of United States contractors participate in any combat operation in connection with such assistance.”

It would extend through 2007 the human rights conditions that currently apply to Colombia aid, which hold up 25 percent of military aid until the State Department certifies that (a) military personnel suspected of involvement in abuses are being suspended and (b) investigated, prosecuted, and punished; (c) military cooperation with civilian prosecutors and judges on human rights cases is improving; (d) the military is making substantial progress on severing links with paramilitaries, and (e) is working actively to dismantle paramilitary leadership and financial networks.

The Foreign Relations Committee’s non-binding narrative report includes this excellent language about U.S. support for paramilitary demobilizations. It calls for the existence of a legal framework to govern the process – a law with strong provisions for asset forfeiture, reparations, confession, and dismantlement. The law nearing approval in Colombia’s Congress, unfortunately, doesn’t even come close to meeting the standards laid out here.

The committee notes its interest in supporting, through funding, a program to implement the demobilization of AUC paramilitary combatants, and that such a process be conducted pursuant to a comprehensive legal framework, as determined by Colombians through good faith negotiations with the Colombian Congress. If the United States is to fund a significant share of the demobilization program, however, it should meet certain minimal standards. The committee believes it imperative that any demobilization program bring about the full dismantlement of the underlying structure, illegal sources of financing, and economic power of the AUC, which have been designated by the United States as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). In this regard, the committee believes it is crucial that each paramilitary seeking sentence reductions or other benefits from demobilization be required to forfeit illegally acquired assets, confess past crimes, and fully disclose any knowledge of the operative structure, financing sources, and the criminal activities of the FTO and its individual members. Each demobilized AUC member’s benefits should be fully revocable if judicial authorities find that he has failed to fulfill these requirements.

The committee believes it is critical that the groups of AUC leaders who receive sentence reductions or other benefits fully demobilize and comply with the cease-fire. The committee also believes that all perpetrators of atrocities must serve a minimum number of years in prison for their crimes. The committee urges the Government of Colombia to put in place effective mechanisms to monitor demobilized individuals to prevent them from continuing to engage in organized criminal activity. Finally, the committee urges the Government of Colombia to devise a legal framework that can be equally applicable to other FTOs in Colombia, such as the FARC.

These requirements are in report language, not legislation. If the bill passes, the paragraphs above would not become the law of the land – but they do indicate a widely held view among leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If – as is likely – Colombia’s “legal framework” doesn’t meet the standards laid out here, the Bush administration would be going against the committee’s expressed wishes if it chooses to aid the paramilitary demobilizations. Rather than pick such a fight, the administration would probably choose not to offer the demobilizations a generous amount of aid.

Loosening the “American Servicemembers’ Protection Act”

The Rome Statute establishing an International Criminal Court (ICC) opened the remote possibility that U.S. military personnel and other citizens could be tried in the new tribunal for human rights crimes. The U.S. Congress reacted in 2002, passing the “American Service Members Projection Act” (ASPA). The law bans non-drug military aid to ICC signatory countries that do not sign an “Article 98” agreement – a document exempting U.S. personnel from the court’s jurisdiction. A 2004 amendment sponsored by Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Washington) broadened the ban to include an economic-aid program, Economic Support Funds (ESF).

Currently, at least eleven Latin American countries have their non-drug military aid (FMF, IMET, Excess Defense Articles) and their Economic Support Funds cut off because they have not ratified Article 98 agreements. (Colombia is one of a handful of Western Hemisphere states that has signed an agreement, allowing aid to keep flowing.) As a result, the number of military and police trainees from countries like Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Costa Rica and Uruguay has plummeted, as has attendance at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC, the former School of the Americas).

CIP has no position on this issue, which we see as a conflict between those who oppose the ICC and those who support maximum coverage for military aid programs. (Ironically, these are usually the same people.) We fit in neither category.

The Southern Command, which places a premium on the training of thousands of Latin American military personnel each year, is unhappy [PDF format] about the International Military Education and Training (IMET) ban imposed by ASPA. Its concern appears to be shared by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut), who announced during the April 6 debate that he would soon introduce an amendment to permit IMET for Latin American countries that have not signed Article 98 agreements.

While the amendment’s text has not yet appeared, we understand that its first draft does not undo the Nethercutt Amendment for these eleven countries, leaving the possibility that they could see their IMET unfrozen but still be unable to get Economic Support Funds (ESF).

That would be a terrible shame. The 11 countries currently banned do not get a great deal of ESF, but freeing up only the IMET sends a poor message. Take Bolivia, for instance, which has been getting some ESF for balance-of-payments support over the past several years. It looks awfully mean-spirited to keep that aid frozen while freeing up Bolivia’s military training funds.

New kinds of police aid

In 1974 Congress, moved by scandalous accounts of human-rights abuses committed in part with U.S. assistance, approved Section 660 of the Foreign Assistance Act, which banned aid to foreign police forces. Since then, Section 660 has been riddled with exceptions; police aid can now flow for many purposes, among them counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, post-conflict situations, democratic countries without a military, investigative techniques, and (as of this year) community policing.

Section 2220 of the Senate’s bill would add four more exceptions to Section 660, clearing the way for police aid (a) to fight corruption; (b) to provide “professional public safety training, including training in internationally recognized standards of human rights, the rule of law, and the promotion of civilian police roles that support democracy”; (c) to combat trafficking in persons; and (d) to give “assistance for constabularies or comparable law enforcement authorities in support of developing capabilities for and deployment to peace operations.”

These new police-aid authorities appear rather benign, though we need to look into the provision allowing “peace operation” assistance for constabularies. This term “constabulary,” meaning a police body organized like a military, applies to institutions ranging from the Chilean Carabineros to the Argentine Gendarmería to the Somoza family’s National Guard in mid-20th-century Nicaragua. We need more precision about this provision’s intent.

Database of arms transfers

The annual “Section 655” report on U.S. arms transfers to the world, required since 1998, is a very useful document, and we wholeheartedly endorse Section 2225 of the Senate bill, which would make this report’s contents much more accessible. The committee’s narrative report language explains:

In an effort to make the Section 655 report more user-friendly, this section requires the State Department to establish an Internet-accessible, interactive database, consisting of all the unclassified information currently available in the printed report. The database would be searchable by various criteria. Such criteria could include, among others, the recipient country, the United States Munitions List category of article or service provided, and the year of the sale or grant. With such a database, interested parties from academia, non-governmental organizations, the defense industry, and the Congress could access immediately cumulative data, cross-referenced among several categories. Because the Department already organizes the data in the Section 655 report through electronic processing, no new data collection will be required.

Apr 11

Last week, Colombia’s Congress narrowly approved most of the law that will govern the demobilization of paramilitary groups. A slight pro-government majority rejected nearly every attempt to make the bill tougher, for instance by making it easier for prosecutors to investigate crimes, by requiring full confessions in exchange for light sentences, by excluding narcotraffickers from getting amnestied, or by seeking to dismantle the paramilitaries’ underlying support and command structures.

The tougher standards foreseen in the bill proposed by Sen. Rafael Pardo and others – a bill that had the support of Colombia’s human rights community and many international observers – were eviscerated. The Uribe government – particularly chief negotiator Luis Carlos Restrepo, who had threatened to resign unless a lenient bill was introduced – got its way on nearly every point.

(In a press conference called in the Ralito negotiating zone on Sunday, paramilitary leaders insisted that even this “soft” bill was too tough on them, since it contemplated jail sentences of 5-8 years – or as little as 2 ½ to 5 ½ years, with good behavior and time spent in negotiations counted against the sentence. “If we have to decide to head back to the mountains, the first ones to feel sorry about this decision will be us,” said Central Bolívar Bloc leader Iván Duque. It is quite possible, though, that the paramilitaries are bluffing. They may be using the jail-term issue in order to distract attention from other provisions that are too weak, such as confession, seizure of ill-gotten assets, and dismantlement.)

The resulting bill is likely to make peace harder to achieve in the long term. It is a blueprint for a disastrously flawed demobilization process that simply does not deserve the United States government’s support. Here is what some participants and analysts – none of them radical firebrands – wrote or said last weekend, in the wake of Pardo’s legislative defeat.

Rep. Luis Fernando Velasco: “A bill will be approved but the negotiations will not advance. It is a bill to give favorable sentences to people who have committed very serious crimes, without asking in exchange for truth, reparations, or the effective dismantlement of the phenomenon that led them to commit these crimes. That is, it will end up recycling violence in Colombia.” 

Rep. Gina Parody: [Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo] “thinks that peace means handing in a weapon, taking a picture and playing the ‘Ode to Joy’ in the background. That is where peace, for him, begins and ends. In reality, it should be giving reparations to victims and building collective memory, and this is only done if they deliver us the truth.”

Sen. Rafael Pardo: “Let’s suppose that 1,000 men demobilize. The attorney-general (Fiscalía) has 20 prosecutors and 150 assistants. These 1,000 men will have to be investigated and the Fiscalía will determine whom it will forgive [those guilty only of sedition, a political crime] and whom it will prosecute [for involvement in atrocities] according to this law. Let’s take the case of one of those being prosecuted: the paramilitary member will have two alternatives: to admit or to deny his guilt. If he admits it, the Fiscalía must bring him to justice and sentence him in a few days, to a term of five to eight years in prison. If he pleads “not guilty,” the Fiscalía has 30 days to gather evidence and try him in court. But in 30 days one cannot do what couldn’t be done in ten years. And if the crime can’t be proven, the court must drop the investigation. This is a farce of justice.”

El Tiempo editorial, April 11: “The legal framework for the controversial paramilitary process has been a total imbroglio. … The result is rather unusual: other than the flimsy legislative majorities that [Interior Minister] Pretelt and Commissioner Restrepo have won in committee, few support the bill. Neither the victims and their spokespeople, nor part of the pro-Uribe bloc, nor the international community. The United Nations has drawn up a catalog of the bill’s judicial failings. The International Criminal Court announced that it is keeping an eye on it. And [U.S.] Ambassador [William] Wood issued a telegraphic warning about its lack of broad support. Even the paramilitaries and their friends in Congress say they reject it. Though it is worth asking to what extent this opposition is real … it is clear that the ‘paras’ know that this is the best deal they can get.”

Daniel García-Peña, former government peace commissioner: “While the world said farewell to the Pope, the Colombian Congress slowly and quietly was burying any possibility of a legal framework that might contribute to the overcoming and the dismantlement of the paramilitary phenomenon through truth, justice and reparations.”

María Jimena Duzán, columnist, El Tiempo: “It would be good if [Luis Carlos Restrepo] stopped writing columns – this takes a lot of time – and instead traveled through Atlántico, Magdalena, Cesar, Sucre, Córdoba, Bolívar, Urabá, the coffee-growing zone, Meta, Casanare, and Arauca. There, he would notice how the paramilitary phenomenon has taken over local politics, the health system’s resources, and the best contracts from the mayors’ offices.”

Michael Frühling, director of the Bogotá office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, cited in El Tiempo: “In a letter made public on Friday, dated March 30, [Frühling] said the term “inadvisable” was appropriate because the bill ‘is not in agreement with international principles and norms about the rights of victims of serious crimes, in accordance with international law.’”

Apr 06

Whether the United States or other donors should fund the Colombian government’s negotiations with paramilitary groups depends heavily on what kind of law the Colombian Congress passes to govern these negotiations and the groups’ demobilization.

Will this law include accountability for past human-rights crimes? Will it allow narcotraffickers to win amnesty by disguising themselves as paramilitaries? Will it allow victims to get back what was stolen from them? Will it actually dismantle paramilitarism, or will it allow paramilitary leaders to remain in command of powerful mafias and death squads?

The relevant committees in Colombia’s Senate and House of Representatives are considering the Uribe government’s draft law (known as the “Justice and Peace” bill). Our position – and that of most of the U.S. and Colombian human rights communities, as well as victims’ groups and even some business coalitions (see this consensus document) – is that this bill is too weak. It allows jail terms of as little as 2 ½ years for crimes against humanity. It does not require confession of crimes as a requirement for leniency, and thus will make dismantlement of paramilitaries more difficult. It fails to prevent narcotraffickers from escaping punishment for sending drugs overseas.

As it stands now, says Michael Frühling, who heads the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Bogotá field office, “It seems that too little of the advice we have provided so far has been taken into account” in the development of the Uribe government bill. “It runs the risk of becoming a legal framework that is incompatible with the rights to truth, justice and reparations.”

A coalition of representatives and senators, led by a former defense minister, Sen. Rafael Pardo, has been promoting a more strongly worded bill [MS Word format]. Many observers had hoped this bill would either pass or have a strong influence on the law that does get approved. Their hopes are being dashed.

The debate in the committees has been acrimonious, but so far the Uribe government has proven able to line up legislative majorities on behalf of its weaker law. On point after point, the tougher Pardo bill is getting steamrolled in committee. After a string of losses on Monday, Rep. Gina Parody, a co-sponsor of the Pardo bill, told reporters that “our bill has been defeated.”

One of the most stinging losses was a rejection of a Pardo provision that would have required demobilizing paramilitaries to confess their crimes and reveal what they know about their command and support networks. Without this information, it will not only be difficult to reveal the truth about past massacres, displacements and other abuses, it will also be harder to gain the knowledge necessary to dismantle paramilitary structures. While the Uribe government bill requires demobilizing paramilitaries to reveal what they know about their own involvement in crimes against humanity, it includes no punishments for those later found to have been lying or deliberately omitting information.

Another loss, suffered yesterday, should particularly bother drug warriors in the U.S. government and Congress. Legislators in both committees failed to remove the so-called “narcomico” (roughly, “narco-loophole”): a provision in the Uribe government’s bill that could allow narcotraffickers among the paramilitaries to avoid punishment for their drug activity, to keep most of their assets, and to be exempt from extradition to the United States.

Article 64 of the “Justice and Peace” law would define paramilitarism – an attempt to supplant the state, not oppose it – as “sedition,” thus making it a political crime. Colombia’s constitution says that those guilty of political crimes cannot be extradited. Article 20 of the Uribe government bill would make crimes “connected” to paramilitary activity – such as narcotrafficking – fit under the same umbrella, essentially making paramilitary narcotrafficking a non-extraditable political crime as well.

According to Sen. Rodrigo Rivera, a key opponent of the narcomico, “By giving them this status as political criminals, that is, those who commit sedition, their extradition for other crimes, such as narcotrafficking, is blocked, because the National Constitution prohibits extradition of political criminals.” Adds columnist María Isabel Rueda, “A door could be opening for narcotraffickers to launder their fortunes and, because they are supposedly carrying a ‘political’ flag, they could be pardoned by this law.”

The justification for the narcomico is that both guerrillas and paramilitaries have become heavily involved in narcotrafficking in order to pay for their weapons and fighters. But the past few years has witnessed a parade of “new” paramilitary leaders who have precious little experience fighting guerrillas – and in fact may be doing occasional narco business with the FARC. Individuals with long histories in Colombia’s drug underworld, facing U.S. indictment for shipping cocaine to the United States – such as Diego Fernando Murillo (“Don Berna”), Victor Manuel Mejía (“El Mellizo”), Francisco Javier Zuluaga (“Gordolindo”), Guillermo Pérez (“Pablo Sevillano”) and others – have bought or intimidated their way into the paramilitary leadership, where they now masquerade as comandantes in the hope of winning amnesty and keeping their illegal wealth.

Yesterday, Sen. Germán Vargas Lleras (a grandson of a former president, considered a leading figure on Colombia’s right, who lost his pinky finger to a FARC package-bomb a few years ago) introduced an amendment that sought to distinguish between the old-guard paramilitaries and the newly arrived narcos. The amendment had two parts. The first, which the Uribe government supported, would have excluded from the bill’s lighter jail terms any paramilitary leader who had engaged in narcotrafficking before joining the paramilitaries. The second, which the Uribe government opposed, would have declared ineligible any paramilitary leader who had enriched himself illegally while a member of the paramilitaries.

Even this attempt to exclude the drug lords failed, in both committees. The votes were close, though: nine to eight in the Senate, and 14 to 11 in the House.

Though the majorities were slim, the persistence of the narcomico makes it more possible than ever that some of Colombia’s most notorious narcotraffickers will evade prosecution and extradition – and maybe even get to keep much of their narco assets – just by donning a uniform and calling themselves “comandante.” According to Vargas Lleras, his legislative loss “could open the door … for the ‘paras’’ illegal fortunes to be laundered.” Added Sen. Rivera, “We have just approved the narcos’ inclusion within this law. Now all they have to do is confess in order to gain benefits [like drastically reduced sentences.]”

Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo, put it well in a March 11 editorial.

It is healthy and necessary to … find solutions that can demobilize the complex marriage between paramilitaries and narcotrafficking. But one thing is to recognize the need to put the issue on the table and another thing – unacceptable – is that narcotraffickers escape through the back door thanks to a poorly made law. The narcos’ lawyers, who know the halls of Congress well, must be sharpening their tools.”

All is not yet completely lost. There is a slim chance that the narcomico, the lack of confessions, and other weak provisions in the “Justice and Peace” law can still be turned back when Colombia’s full Congress debates the law. This is pretty unlikely, though, as President Uribe and his peace negotiator, Luis Carlos Restrepo, have lined up solid majorities on behalf of this too-lenient law.

If the law passes in something like its current form, the paramilitary talks will not meet the standards of truth, justice, reparations and dismantlement necessary for financial support – either from the United States or from any other international donor. As the law stands now, it carries too great a risk that demobilized paramilitary leaders will get to keep much of their illegal assets and continue to lead powerful political-mafia networks.

Postscript as of April 7:As this post was being added on Wednesday, Sen. Vargas Lleras won a partial victory, when the Uribe government granted its approval to include his anti-narco language in the case of individual demobilizations (such as deserters). However, the provision still does not apply in the case of collective demobilizations, which is probably the loophole through which the paramilitary leaders with long histories in the drug trade will still hope to pass.

Apr 04

Last Thursday’s edition of Vanguardia Liberal – the main newspaper in Bucaramanga, Colombia’s seventh-largest city – included an interview with Gen. Carlos Saavedra, the head of the Colombian Army’s Bucaramanga-based Second Division.

The general discusses “Operación Escudo” (Operation Shield), a large-scale military offensive just getting underway in the departments of Arauca and Norte de Santander in northeastern Colombia. The offensive, he says, can be considered a “clone” of Plan Patriota, the U.S.-supported military offensive that has been going on in southern Colombia for well over a year.

Arauca, of course, is the department where, since early 2003, U.S. military personnel have been training the Colombian military to protect an oil pipeline.

Here is a transcript of the interview translated into English.

Vanguardia Liberal: What are the Second Division’s current goals?

Brigadier General Carlos Saavedra Sáenz: The guiding direction of the Army’s command is to continue the campaign plan toward concrete objectives. In our case, that means guaranteeing the security of the country’s economic infrastructure in our zone: Caño Limón [the oil pipeline for whose protection the United States has provided over $100 million in military aid], the electrical grid…

VL: The feeling here in Santander [the department of which Bucaramanga is the capital] is that you have specific orders to focus on the border [with Venezuela]. How accurate is this?

BGCSS: Arauca is a critically important department. Obviously because of its strategic position, because much of the country’s economic structure is there, and it is where terrorist cells have grown, generating chaos and trying to sabotage our oil policy. This created a terrorist culture, a culture of violence, beginning years ago. While this has luckily changed, due to the state’s and all of the security forces’ efforts to eradicate them. An extraordinary job has been done.

VL: President Álvaro Uribe has denounced the infiltration of the zone’s political leadership [by armed groups]. What has happened?

BGCSS: Yes, it was like that, but this co-government, which made any development difficult, has ended. They stole not only the oil, but huge amounts of oil royalties. Now we find a department with legitimate government, legitimate mayors and people committed to development.

VL: Can it be said that Arauca has recovered?

BGCSS: Totally. There are outbreaks of violence like in all other parts of the country, but there is a commitment, we have a common vision.

VL: What is the situation of the fronts who remain there, the FARC’s 10th and the ELN’s Domingo Laín?

BGCSS: They have retreated in the strategic sense, not just the tactical. They still carry out criminal activities aimed at destabilizing, to try to do what they did before, to make the department’s situation seem uncertain.

The 10th Front has had to change its tactics and dedicate itself to massacring people, as occurred at the end of last year in Tame [when the FARC killed 16 people]. They know that it is not possible to confront the security forces and this way they hope to create an atmosphere of fear.

VL: What did they intend with that massacre?

BGCSS: To affect the self-defense groups’ movements, to try to take control of the narcotrafficking market. Because that is the true fight, over the coca-producing zones. For that reason, at some moments, the FARC and ELN even fight each other. The troops we have in the zone hear the fighting, which is sustained and very strong.

Wounded fighters who have escaped tell us that they are fighting for control of the drugs, because since the three armed groups have lost their co-government [from which they stole resources], they have had to turn to the drug trade. That is why Operation Shield has begun, and this is how we are going to get them out of there.

VL: What is Operation Shield?

BGCSS: It is a new strength that will give the army the ability to improve its mobility, such as the transport of troops, with the goal of reacting more rapidly.

VL: What will be increased: troop strength, technical equipment, tactics?

BGCSS: We are going to have more prepared troops, more immediate measures, we are going to grow to 12,000 to 15,000 men…

VL: Isn’t that a very large troop concentration for the region? Are the guerrilla fronts so large that they demand so many armed personnel?

BGCSS: No, it’s not that they are so large, it is that we need to do away with the problem more quickly.

VL: All of these troops just for Arauca?

BGCSS: And part of Norte de Santander, but Arauca is the epicenter.

VL: Is there still U.S. training involved?

BGCSS: Yes, they are giving training support to the men, above all in embarkation and disembarkation maneuvers [from aircraft, especially helicopters].

VL: It is said that there is a contingent from the U.S. Southern Command…

BGCSS: No, there are not that many of them, but we do have this aid, which has prepared many men, who have gone on to multiply the training.

VL: All are specialized in counter-guerrilla skills, or do they have other characteristics?

BGCSS: The units are counter-guerrilla units, some specialized in lowering aircraft, in rapid unloading… Nothing more. There are others specialized in providing physical security for oil infrastructure.

VL: Is it true that there is a plan to set up a theatre of operations in the zone?

BGCSS: No, in that sector it has still not been considered. Joint commands will be set up like in the south of the country and the Caribbean coast, but here, no.

VL: Will the Air Force be stood up in Arauca?

BGCSS: The aircraft that will be used there come from both the Air Force and the Army. We will surely have to buy others in order to improve troop mobility.

The plan is to carry out an effort in Arauca that can later be carried out in Catatumbo [a region in Norte de Santander department, to the north] and later in other regions. It is a fusion of men and machines to consolidate peace.

VL: In this moment Arauca is an experimental center for the strategy that will be carried out in other zones later on?

BGCSS: It already began in the south with our own resources [with Plan Patriota], now it is Arauca’s turn.

VL: Can it be said that it is a clone of Plan Patriota?

BGCSS: Yes sir, something like that.

VL: How many men do the guerrillas have in that zone?

BGCSS: Between the FARC, ELN and self-defense groups, there are no more than four thousand.

VL: General, the Army has always complained about the lack of resources to control the aircraft that come and go carrying drugs or small arms. What has happened with that?

BGCSS: The Air Force has done much to control that situation, without having to set up radars or use other more sophisticated measures. With the radars in Guaviare the control [of airspace] has been optimized; now there are no so-called black holes. The shooting down of aircraft making suspicious flights has increased.

VL: What is the situation in the rest of the [Second Division’s] jurisdiction?

BGCSS: In these moments in the Magdalena Medio region, the most critical issue is the theft of gasoline, as happens in Puerto Berrío. However, in the first three months we have reduced the theft of fuels by 67 percent in that region.

VL: What is happening in Norte de Santander?

BGCSS: There we are developing “Operación Fortaleza” (Operation Fortress). There have been some strong combats there, because both the ELN and the FARC think they will be able to take back territories that the self-defense groups have left behind [after the December 2004 demobilization of the paramilitaries’ Catatumbo bloc]. The quantity of landmines has been hard on the troops, but we are going to keep going, we are operating and fighting the FARC, who intended to take over those areas.”

VL: And in Santander?

BGCSS: In Santander we are basically dedicated to protecting the civilian population, because it is a region that is under control. However, we are working on the problem of extortion, which is growing in the cattle-raising zones, because as far as kidnappings are concerned there is luckily only one person currently being held captive.

We have been able to control the armed groups in Santander, thanks to prolonged work in past years. Control of the recovered areas must be consolidated.

VL: What is coming for the northeast, General?

BGCSS: Times of war are coming, because I’m not so used to being in an office. We are carrying out tough confrontations in Norte de Santander, and others in Arauca, on the highway on the edge of the jungle. With me it is pure war.

Apr 03

In Latin America, the word “terrorism” is coming to mean everything and nothing at all. Our latest example comes from Bolivia.

According to an article in Wednesday’s Washington Times, Fernando Rodríguez was denied entry to the United States a month ago, when he was to come to Washington to present a case before the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission. A co-founder of the Bolivian chapter of the Inter-American Platform of Human Rights, Democracy and Development, Rodríguez is a member of a commission that develops the Bolivian government’s human rights policy.

Though his visa was valid until 2014 and he has traveled here several times, Rodríguez was detained for six hours at Miami International Airport. According to the Washington Times article, he was “questioned by four officials, two from the Homeland Security Department and two others who identified themselves as members of an ‘anti-terrorist task force.’”

The officials stripped Mr. Rodriguez of his visa. The reason they gave, according to Rodríguez: he had met with “terrorist peasants.”

Wait a minute. Terrorist peasants?

Rodríguez seemed confused too. “There is no terrorism in Bolivia,” he told the Washington Times. “There are no guerrillas either. There is no armed struggle. So I have no idea what peasants they’re talking about.” Indeed, Bolivia has no groups on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations.

Some peasants in Bolivia’s coca-growing zones have organized protests and roadblocks. A very small number have gone so far as to stage ambushes or lay booby traps that have killed or wounded troops and police who were forcibly eradicating coca (Bolivia, like Peru, refuses to allow aerial fumigation). These activities, which are hard to distinguish from criminal behavior since the political goal is unclear, are about the extent of what might approach terrorism in Bolivia. Of course, the ambushers and booby-trappers are only a fringe of Bolivia’s broad and politically powerful cocalero movement.

The terrorist peasants of Villa Tunari

Don’t tell the Miami airport authorities, but I too have met with “terrorist peasants.” On a visit to Bolivia’s Chapare region last May, the Andean Information Network arranged a meeting with leaders of one of the coca syndicates in the town of Villa Tunari. Though its members chewed prodigious amounts of coca leaves during the meeting – a traditional use that is legal in Bolivia – their syndicate’s role goes well beyond coca. It carries out many local self-government duties, providing services and carrying out development projects. It coordinates these closely with the office of the mayor of Villa Tunari, who belongs to the MAS party, headed by cocalero leader and congressman Evo Morales.

Bizarrely, several of those at our meeting identified themselves as being “processed for terrorism.” Apparently, they have not been found guilty of anything, though cases are being developed against them. Because of their role in past highway roadblocks and other protests of forced coca eradication, they must check in with the local prosecutor’s office every few weeks. What a strange requirement for people suspected of a crime as serious as terrorism!

Apparently, Bolivia’s defines “terrorism” very differently than the United States does. Here, nobody accused of terrorism would be at large, active in local government and free to talk to visiting delegations. They would be locked away.

But U.S. policymakers make no distinctions. Terrorism is terrorism. The Washington Times article explains.

In Bolivia, U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee and his predecessor, Manuel Rocha, have alluded to links between the nation’s combative indigenous-based social movements and both narco-trafficking and terrorism. … Neither Mr. Greenlee nor Mr. Rocha have presented any evidence of such a connection between indigenous leaders and terrorism, however.

Counterterrorism is also a declared objective of U.S. military aid to Bolivia. The Bush Administration’s 2006 aid request to Congress reads, “We are working with the military to better coordinate Bolivia’s counterterrorism activities and enhance support for their operations and ability to respond to threats through the acquisition of specialized equipment, training assistance and infrastructure improvement.”

Add to this the denial of visas to those known to have met with cocalero syndicates, and you have a U.S. policy that has lost all sense of perspective about terrorism. This could have serious consequences, because there has never been a time that demands more clarity about who the true terrorist enemy is.

If we are too vague or broad in our definition of this enemy, the definition will expand. If allowed to expand unchallenged in Latin America, it may come to include not just coca-growing peasants, but political parties, journalists, labor and peasant leaders, and others who strongly express views that run counter to those of the United States or its allied governments.

We must guard against the politicized misuse of the “terrorist” threat in Latin America. Instead, as Mr. Rodríguez’s experience in Miami indicates, we seem to be encouraging it.

Postscript as of April 7: The Andean Information Network informs me that terrorism charges have since been dropped against the peasants with whom we met. Good!

Apr 01

After the February 21-22 massacre in the San José de Apartadó Peace Community, members of the community formed a commission to travel to the massacre zone to find the bodies and determine what happened. Community members believe that the Colombian Army, perhaps jointly with paramilitaries, committed the killing. The Colombian authorities insist that it was the FARC. President Uribe, charming as ever, has gone so far as to accuse the community’s leaders – who refuse entry to all armed groups, including the military and the guerrillas – of helping and protecting the FARC.

Jesús Abad is a respected Colombian photojournalist who accompanied the peace community’s commission to the massacre site. He published a record of his trip last weekend in El Tiempo. His account is highly disturbing, and appears to point both to military involvement in the massacre and a continued pattern of close military-paramilitary collaboration in the region.

Here are some excerpts, translated into English.


Four days in search of the bodies from the San José de Apartadó Peace Community massacre

El Tiempo (Colombia)
March 25, 2005
By Jesus Abad Colorado

I cannot remain silent. I spent four days in the San Jose de Apartadó Peace Community, where I documented, in photographs, the search for the region’s leaders and their murdered relatives.

Thursday, February 24h

On this night I receive an e-mail bearing the tragic news that seven members of the Peace Community had been murdered. The statement blames members of the Army for the deaths and announces the departure of a commission for the hamlet of La Resbalosa, nine hours from San José, to search for the bodies.

Since 1997, the year I got to know this town in the Antioquia part of Urabá, after the declaration of the Peace Community, I have seen the growth of the Monument to Memory, a memorial built of stones with the names of murdered residents etched into them. These have surpassed 150.

Friday, February 25

At 7:15 PM, we hear the noise of two helicopters leaving the mountain. We figure that they have finished an exhumation. Minutes later, we come across the commission that had departed at daybreak. They were about 80 people who, on foot and by horse, had stopped at the farm of Alfonso Bolívar Tuberquia, one of the leaders of the peace community who was killed, and in whose cacao fields were found graves with mutilated corpses.

Several community leaders inform us that five bodies have been found. “There were bullet holes in the kitchen, some words written in firewood ash and bloodstains on the floor. The bodies were in two graves, a few meters from the house in the midst of the cacao grove. There we found Alfonso Bolívar, his wife Sandra Milena Muñoz, and their children, Santiago (20 months) and Natalia Andrea (6 years). We also found the body of Alejandro Perez, who had worked picking cacao with Alfonso.”

Minutes later, another commission appears with news that they have found the site with the rest of the bodies. Luis Eduardo, Deiner, and Beyanira.

One of the women from the community, who says she was born in the zone, tells us that “until a decade ago, we were living, some 200 families, in all of the Mulatos Canyon. There were community stores, a school, and a health center, [but now] there is nothing but ruins. So many armed incursions and farmers’ deaths have emptied out our land. One year ago, there were close to 90 families [but] after an army-paramilitary incursion there were only 16 left. Now, who knows how many will stay.”

Other farmers point to the Mulatos Canyon and speak of Nueva Antioquia in Turbo municipality. “From there, the paramilitaries have organized many incursions and they coordinate them with the army. With the demobilization of the Bananero Bloc [of the AUC, in November 2004] and the arrival of the police in Nueva Antioquia nearby, other groups and encampments have been set up further into the rural zone, toward the zone that borders Mulatos, in a place known as Rodoxali.”

Saturday, February 26 – at the massacre site in Mulatos

At 5:15 PM, a commission of soldiers and police arrive.

The campesinos tell me that a soldier wearing no identification took away the machete that had been lying near Beyanira’s boots. The soldier cleans it and sharpens it against the stones. When he realizes that I am watching him, he turns his back. When the lawyer and the community representative return, they are told about it, and they go to speak with the captain. They ask him to tell his superior in the army “because this is a manipulation of evidence.” When we come back to where the campesinos are, they are even more fearful. “The soldier who grabbed the machete passed by us and without shame or pity for what we’ve been through, gestured and told us that this machete was the one they cut their heads off with.”

The representative of the community and the lawyer tell the official in charge, and his army counterpart, that the next day “the community will form two commissions, one will return to this same site to pick up the bodies, and the other will go to the hamlet of El Barro, nothing is known about what happened to the families there, even though they live so nearby.” The army officer responds that the army is in that hamlet and there are no families there. The community insists.

Sunday, February 27

It is 6:00 AM. The first commission departs with the lawyer for the site where the bodies of Luis Eduardo, Deiner, and Beyanira were found. The fourteen people leaving for El Barro ask me to accompany them. We follow the river downstream for twenty minutes. The procession stops for a moment. There is a roadblock with three men in uniform. They ask the campesinos what they are doing in this area. They explain. One soldier has an insignia on his arm that says “Battalion 33 Cacique Lutaima.” The other two have nothing. They ask who I am and why I am with this group. I tell them about my documentary work and the search for several families in this sector whose whereabouts are unknown after the events of Monday the 21st or Tuesday the 22nd. The soldier speaks with the other two and then goes a short distance away, where there are other uniformed men. He comes back and allows us to pass. He warns that a few meters further is a well where several soldiers are bathing. We pass and see them washing their clothes.

Just two blocks further are three wood houses with zinc roofs. On the first is graffiti written with ash from burned wood. “Guerrillas must go, your worst nightmare, El Cacique, says so”; above that can be read “The scorpion BCG 33.” There is nobody in the house. The people who live there are in the other two dwellings, very close to the first. Two girls throw corn to the hens and a pig. When they see the commission arrive bearing the flag of the community, they come out and greet us. An old man, seated in an armchair, closes a Bible and smiles. He calls two women who are in the kitchen. Behind the commission arrive three uniformed men who keep tabs on us from between the houses. Another man, wearing no shirt and a hat, enters from the bedroom and greets us very timidly. He is Rigo (name changed), say the campesinos.

The youngest woman nurses a baby and the grandmother speaks in a low voice. She wants to know when we arrived in the zone and if we came for them. She thanks God that this nightmare is going to end. “It began on Monday when they arrived and did not let us leave. They had detained Rigo, who lives nearby. They didn’t allow him even to go to his house which is across the way, on the other hill. His wife and children are all alone. They interrogated and threatened me, because they say that I am a nurse for the guerrillas. With them was Melaza, who is a paramilitary. This is the third time he has come to my house with the army. He said he is going to do away with everyone in the peace community because they are a bunch of guerrilla sons of bitches, and that if he has to, he’ll kill the foreigners too [the U.S. and European citizens from Peace Brigades International and Fellowship of Reconciliation who accompany the community]. He said that we are in a zone that belongs to them [the paramilitaries]. They have threatened to cut my daughters’ heads off when they go to the well for water. They have dug several holes looking for arms.”

One of the members of the commission says that they have been in the zone since Friday. First in La Resbalosa and later near Cantarrana, 30 minutes away. They say that several bodies still need to be taken away, those of Luis Eduardo, Deiner and Beyanira. The woman’s eyes fill with tears. She takes our hands and speaks more quietly: “so is it true that they killed them? Why did they do that? I told Luis Eduardo not to go that morning to the cacao fields to pick beans. We knew that they were carrying out a military operation. I did everything but beg him not to go to San José. … He didn’t heed me because he wasn’t afraid, and he needed the money to pay for his son’s schooling. He left that morning and was supposed to come back, but did not. These people [the soldiers] have not let us do anything but suffer since noon on Monday (February 21). We’ve been passing the time praying until today, when you came. They hardly let us pick a bit of corn to eat. On Wednesday, they told us that they had killed some guerrillas by the river, that one was with his woman and his child. And I said to them, “Could it be that you killed Luis Eduardo and his son? They are my family. Beyanira is his compañera. The soldiers changed their attitude and said no, the paramilitaries killed him.”

At 10:30 AM, the families are ready for their displacement. There is much sadness, but also joy. The uniformed men have erased the graffiti from the first house.