May 31

It was surprising to see top paramilitary leader Diego Fernando Murillo (“Don Berna” or “Adolfo Paz”) ejected from negotiations with the Colombian government, then arrested on charges of ordering a murder in violation of a much-ignored cease-fire. After at least twenty years as an outlaw, in which he became one of Colombia’s richest and most powerful figures, have Murillo’s legendary survival skills finally failed him? Or is this just another obstacle that he will easily overcome?

Since his name started to surface around 2002-2003, Don Berna has been one of the AUC’s most powerful and feared leaders, despite a lack of experience fighting guerrillas. Instead, his resume includes time spent as security chief for one of Pablo Escobar’s henchmen; as part of a Cali cartel-financed operation to kill Escobar; and as a leader of Medellín’s largest network of hitmen-for-hire. Though he has only considered himself a paramilitary for four or five years, he now controls about 2,000 to 4,000 fighters and dominates Medellín’s vast slums.

Don Berna is emblematic of the new AUC leadership that has taken the place of top 1990s leaders like Carlos Castaño. Like the many drug figures that have become paramilitary leaders in his wake, Don Berna embodies the traits required to survive and succeed in an environment where laws are rarely enforced and government authority is arbitrary and corruptible. Like Pablo Escobar before him, Murillo is utterly ruthless, likely responsible for dozens if not hundreds of murders (including, allegedly, the April 2004 attack that led to the disappearance of Carlos Castaño). He has a related talent for quickly ascending the ranks of criminal organizations and maintaining himself there.

Unlike Escobar, Don Berna has shown a remarkable ability simply to survive – despite an unclear, probably drug-related attack in the mid-1990s that gave him seventeen bullet wounds and cost him part of a leg. He has always been one step ahead, switching sides several times to secure a place in whatever group was ascendant in Colombia’s criminal underworld.

His deft survival skills led the 43-year-old warlord to reinvent himself as AUC Inspector-General Adolfo Paz, head of several recently created paramilitary blocs (Héroes de Granada, Pacífico, Libertadores del Sur, Tolová, Nutibara and Calima). To much fanfare, the Nutibara bloc demobilized 860 members in Medellín in November 2003, a process that has been heavily questioned ever since.

Medellín’s El Colombiano reports that “the blocs under his command, according to the Judicial Police (DIJIN), receive up to $500,000 per month to guard Diego Montoya Sánchez, alias Don Diego.” Montoya, a top figure in the North Valle drug cartel, shares a top spot on the FBI’s most-wanted fugitives list, right near Osama Bin Laden.

Nonetheless, Don Berna easily secured a seat in paramilitary negotiations with the Colombian government in the Santa Fe de Ralito demilitarized zone. There, he stood a very good chance of avoiding extradition to the United States (a New York court has indicted him for drug trafficking), and serving only a few years in jail – at most – for all of his previous crimes. In the few interviews he granted, he spoke of pursuing a political career after the talks end.

To say the least, then, it was unusual to see Don Berna suddenly become the subject of a large-scale police manhunt in and around the Ralito zone last Wednesday and Thursday, then do a long “perp walk” before Colombian television cameras in the custody of Police Chief Jorge Castro and government peace negotiator Luis Carlos Restrepo.

Don Berna stands accused of ordering the April 10 assassination of Orlando Benítez, a provincial legislator who had committed the offense of campaigning in Valencia, Córdoba, despite instructions from Don Berna’s Tolová bloc that he not do so. (Intimidating opposition candidates is a key means by which paramilitaries are installing allies in governorships, mayoralties, and even congressional seats throughout Colombia.)

Prosecutors issued a warrant for his arrest during the week of May 16. This order could not be added to the pile of pre-existing arrest warrants that have been suspended while negotiations proceed. This time, the crime in question was committed after December 2002, when Don Berna and other paramilitary leaders agreed to observe a cease-fire, which was the Uribe government’s main pre-condition for starting talks.

Such cease-fire violations have been alarmingly common. The Colombian government’s human-rights ombudsman counted 1,979 paramilitary abuses in 2004, including threats and displacement as well as murders. In one 21-month period, December 2002 through August 2004, the Colombian Commission of Jurists counted [PDF format] 1,899 paramilitary homicides in violation of the cease-fire.

The Uribe government decided, however, that this particular violation mattered. On May 25, the government declared Don Berna ineligible to continue as a peace negotiator and ordered his arrest. An ensuing manhunt involved 750 police, supported by helicopters and planes.

Don Berna at first responded with a show of power, as the paramilitary groups he controls forced all buses in Medellín to stop operating, snarling the city’s transit. He was apparently unwilling to go back to being a fugitive, however. By Friday, he had negotiated a deal with government authorities that led to his surrender.

So what happens now? Is the previously untouchable Don Berna, stripped of his status as a negotiator, going to stand trial and face decades in jail for all of his previous crimes, both violent and drug-related? Is the Uribe government finally going to get serious and hold paramilitary leaders accountable for their blocs’ many cease-fire violations? Is a move afoot to roll back the wave of narcotraffickers entering the paramilitaries to avoid jail or extradition?

Not likely. As details about Don Berna’s arrest emerge, it’s beginning to look like he got a good deal for himself.

Upon turning himself in, Don Berna agreed to declare himself “demobilized,” no longer a member of the AUC. This is a largely meaningless step because, like AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso before him, it absolves him only of the crime of “rebellion.” Judgment of his more serious crimes against humanity must await passage of the so-called “Justice and Peace” law still working its way through Colombia’s congress. (Mancuso, in a legal limbo of sorts, is currently residing alongside non-demobilized AUC leaders in Ralito.)

If he is covered by this law, Don Berna will benefit greatly from the bill currently under debate in the legislature. He would have to spend a maximum of eight years in prison, and likely much less due to “good behavior” and credit for time spent in Ralito. He would not be penalized for failing to confess all of his crimes or to turn in all ill-gotten assets. He would likely emerge from the process with his powerful criminal networks intact. If the law determines that paramilitarism is a “political crime,” as is likely, it will be very difficult to extradite him to the United States.

There is still a chance that the “demobilized” Don Berna – who, after all, was stripped of his negotiator status last Wednesday – will not in fact be covered by the lenient “Justice and Peace” law. The attorney-general’s office has a ten-day period to decide whether to call for his arrest for the Benítez murder. If it fails to do so, El Tiempo reports, “‘Don Berna’ or ‘Adolfo Paz’ could possibly return to the negotiating table with no problems.”

No matter what, Don Berna is likely to remain in some form of state custody for some time, even if he is found to be covered by the “Justice and Peace” law. Today the Colombian government will determine how he is to be imprisoned. President Uribe promised over the weekend that Don Berna’s jail will not be luxurious. “Forget about this prison being like La Catedral,” he said, referring to the well-appointed one-man prison that held Pablo Escobar for about a year and a half. “The site that will be chosen by the peace commissioner, the prison institute and the police will be under the total control of the security forces, including the prison guards, and it will be open to the oversight of national and international opinion, have no doubt.”

El Tiempo columnist María Jimena Duzán has some doubts:

What he failed to tell us is that not only will “Don Berna” not be going to a five-star jail, he won’t be going to any jail. And that this episode cannot be compared to La Catedral for the plain and simple reason that it is worse and more shameful. This time, there won’t even be any jail during the investigation phase, since the government has already accepted Don Berna’s demand to bring him to some place that nobody can identify, so that, from his own realm, he can more easily talk to investigators. … If the Justice and Peace law under congressional consideration is approved, the most likely outcome is that he won’t go to any jail, not even a five-star one. After a number of months and without having dismantled his organizations, perhaps after a period in an “agrarian colony,” one will be able to find him out on the street. Does anyone have any doubt about who is winning?

Over the next month or two, expect little attention to be paid to Don Berna’s case. Instead, news about the paramilitary talks is likely to be dominated by another wave of demobilizations.

According to his deal with the authorities, as Don Berna “demobilizes,” so will a few thousand paramilitaries in the blocs under his command. As in past months, these demobilizations will be taking place in a state of near-chaos, as overwhelmed government agencies find themselves incapable of separating authors of serious crimes against humanity from the mass of young, suddenly unemployed fighters on their doorsteps. Those turning themselves in will not be asked about the people who commanded, funded and supported them, and many – though perhaps no longer wearing camouflage uniforms every day – may in fact remain under Don Berna’s command. They will be inserted into a reintegration program that has so far dealt poorly with the thousands who have already demobilized.

Yet this high-profile removal of combatants from the conflict is likely to get a lot of favorable coverage, boost President Uribe’s approval ratings, and be cited by Bush administration officials trying to aid the process despite congressional skepticism [PDF format]. The Uribe government is already exuding optimism: the coming demobilizations, says peace negotiator Luis Carlos Restrepo, will begin “the final stage” of the paramilitary talks, leading to the full demobilization of the AUC by the end of 2005, as foreseen in the 2004 Santa Fe de Ralito accord. Restrepo insists that the past week’s Don Berna episode has in fact saved the process.

Amid the optimism that is likely to accompany the coming demobilizations, do keep an eye on what is happening with Don Berna. If he avoids punishment for breaking the cease-fire and ends up being covered by a too-lenient “Justice and Peace” law, his case will send a message about how strongly the government cares about cease-fire violations, the entry of narcotraffickers into the paramilitaries, and the importance of dismantling paramilitarism. The credibility of the process will suffer a fatal blow. And Don Berna, who always seems to survive by staying one step ahead, will have done it again.

May 25

U.S. funding for the Organization of American States’ Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia (MAPP-OAS, the OAS mission to verify negotiations with, and demobilization of, paramilitary groups) will be up for renewal in June. This deadline offers an important opportunity to redirect U.S. financial support to strengthen the mission’s verification work, which is critical to the national and international credibility of the paramilitary demobilization process.

To date, the OAS mission has been the most visible indicator of international community support for the process. On January 23, 2004, President Álvaro Uribe and OAS Secretary General César Gaviria (a former Colombian president) signed an agreement, later approved by the Permanent Council, defining an OAS mission to monitor the process. Despite a severe shortage of funds and staff, the OAS announced its intention to establish monitoring offices in the region where demobilizations were to occur.

The mission has received much of its funding from the Colombian government (almost US$1.2 million), although it also receives approximately one million dollars from the Dutch government, and the Swedish government has funded a staff member and provided some logistical support. As of January, USAID had provided US$585,000; additional funds are “in the pipeline.” All U.S. funds are restricted to verification and cannot be used for the permanent staff presence that is observing negotiations in Santa Fe de Ralito.

The mission’s unorthodox creation, its reliance on funding from the Colombian government, and its lack of staff have all generated credibility problems. International officials from UN, U.S. and European agencies recognize the mission’s importance while expressing frustration with its failure to fulfill its mandate. “The OAS is not up to [international] standards,” one senior official told me. “They don’t have the resources – they haven’t verified anything.”

In addition to observing the discussions, the mission is charged with verifying the process and the paramilitary ceasefire. Verification at both ends of the process – demobilizations and cease-fire violations – have been extremely limited.

In conjunction with an International Organization for Migration program funded by the United States, the OAS mission ensures that demobilizing individuals match their official identification cards. However, there is no effort made to verify that these individuals – who are eligible to demobilize if they appear on lists created by paramilitary commanders – are actually paramilitary fighters.

In the first and most extensively studied demobilization to date – that of 864 members of Cacique Nutibara Bloc in Medellin in November 2003 – the International Crisis Group and the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (itself an OAS body) both reported that many of the individuals participating in the process were petty criminals, not hard-core paramilitary fighters. Local human rights groups, religious leaders, and the Campaign to Stop Child Soldiers all report recruitment of small-town youth specifically to pose as paramilitaries in demobilization programs in order to swell the paramilitary ranks, ensure that experienced combat fighters remain in active units, and to benefit from government subsidies. While verifying paramilitary membership would undoubtedly be extremely difficult, for the OAS mission to claim that it is verifying participants’ identities gives a misleading impression of certainty over who exactly is demobilizing.

Similarly, cease-fire violations are extremely difficult to verify. Some analysts point out that illegal groups escalate violent attacks in an attempt to negotiate from a position of strength. Cease-fire violations can also be viewed as failures of political will to negotiate in good faith, or lack of centralized control. Violence away from the negotiating table has been used in the past as an argument in favor of ending talks, including the frustrated process with the FARC.

AUC leaders declared a “unilateral” cease fire in December 2002. Despite this, paramilitary incursions have continued, including massacres and assassinations, generating real questions about the viability of the process. During the first months of 2004, the conversations reached a crisis point because of increasing domestic and international criticism of cease fire violations. The Defensoria del Pueblo, a government agency, released a report documenting more than 300 violations of the cease fire. The Colombian Commission of Jurists, a noted human rights group, has collected a list [PDF format] of 1,899 homicides allegedly committed by paramilitary groups between December 2002 and August 2004.

According to a transcript released by Colombian newsweekly Semana in September, High Commissioner for Peace Luis Carlos Restrepo told the paramilitary leaders his team had downplayed complaints of murders in the Ralito zone: “Homicides are being committed that compromise those who are inside the zone. It’s a matter we’ve handled very carefully to avoid a public scandal that would harm us.” Observers, including former Colombian Commissioner for Peace Daniel García-Peñ a, have a noted a similar reluctance on the part of the OAS mission to criticize the paramilitaries and investigate paramilitary violence.

In its yearly report, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ office in Bogotá concurred that “paramilitary groups failed to respect the cessation of hostilities.”According to the State Department’s annual assessment of the human rights situation in Colombia, paramilitary violence has declined. The report notes, however, that “paramilitaries continued to commit numerous political killings,” and went on to note kidnapping, torture, extrajudicial executions, the forcible displacement of thousands of “innocent civilians,” and “military operations that endangered civilian lives,” as well as attacks against human rights workers and journalists and the use of child soldiers.

New kinds of human rights violations, apparently designed to allow perpetrators to escape the scrutiny of international reporting, have been on the rise. These include incidents of “multiple homicides,” designed to prevent the label of a massacre (defined as the killing of four or more individuals in a single incident and at the same location), killing people over a period of several days, scattering the bodies or dumping corpses in different locations. Similarly, the issue of forced displacement has emerged as a central international concern; according to the U.S. Committee for Refugees, Colombia has one of the largest populations of internally displaced people in the world. In part in response to international attention, some communities are now reporting the new phenomenon of “confinement,” where paramilitary forces are refusing to allow community members free passage or travel, thus preventing international assistance from reaching these communities while consolidating their political control. Verification of any ceasefire agreements must include these and other new forms of political violence.

Credible verification of who is participating in the process, and of violence committed by participants, is critical for the long-term viability of the process. The renewal of funding for the OAS mission should not be a rubber stamp that throws good money after bad. Any funding for the OAS verification mission should be contingent on a thorough and independent review of the mission, its accomplishments to date, and the criteria for establishing credibility in verifying the current cease-fire agreements in Colombia. If the OAS is unable to meet the current requirements of its mission statement, its mandate should be adjusted to reflect the mission’s lesser capacity.

May 25

Álvaro Uribe has picked fights with some unusual opponents: human-rights groups, former presidents, and former guerrillas turned politicians, among others. One of his most surprising and frequent targets, however, has been the United Nations – an organization known more for caution and diplomacy than for stepping on toes.

The UN, several of whose agencies have a significant presence in Colombia, can’t do anything to please Uribe. The world body consistently finds itself on the other side of the Colombian government in what Uribe’s High Commissioner for Peace, Luis Carlos Restrepo, called a “war of concepts.” In a recent speech at Colombia’s military university, Resrepo laid out several fronts in this “war.”

Debates about whether or not an internal armed conflict exists; whether a cease-fire must be a condition to begin conversations with illegal armed groups; whether zones may be temporarily demilitarized in order to hold dialogues; the way in which a humanitarian accord [to free hostages] can take place; whether citizens must collaborate with the security forces or the possibility that civilians may declare themselves neutral before the state’s military actions; the status of international facilitators who help us to find peaceful solutions to our problems of internal violence; these are all authentic points of division, upon which much of the fatherland’s future depends.

UN representatives in Colombia, who have no choice but to make judgments based on international agreements which Colombia has signed, differ from the Uribe government on nearly all of these questions.

Whether or not there is an armed conflict

The UN firmly rejects the notion, repeatedly promoted by Colombian government officials, that the country’s violence, while a terrorist threat, doesn’t qualify as an armed conflict. This is not a semantic trifle. If Colombia works under the assumption that no armed conflict exists, Protocol II of the Geneva Accords (dealing with rules of war for internal armed conflict) goes out the window. Standards would be lowered for humane treatment of prisoners, separation of civilians from combat, and similar issues. In addition, to dismiss the existence of an armed conflict is to reject any negotiation of reforms or political questions, as took place in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1990s. If there is no armed conflict, terms of surrender are the only issues on the table.

Protocol II is quite clear, however, about what constitutes a “non-international armed conflict.” It specifies that it “shall not apply to situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature.” Instead, it defines internal armed conflicts as those in which a government confronts “dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups which, under responsible command, exercise such control over a part of its territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations and to implement this Protocol.”

It’s pretty clear that this language applies to the Colombian situation. The protocol doesn’t specify that the “organized armed groups” must have a high approval rating in national polls, and it doesn’t disqualify groups that wantonly kill civilians. While their behavior is murderous and their political judgment is poor, the FARC undeniably have a clear chain of command and have amply demonstrated their ability to carry out “sustained and concerted military operations” throughout the country. Colombia’s violence, then, meets the definition of an armed conflict.

As a result, even though it enrages President Uribe, the UN continues to use the “C” word to describe Colombia’s situation of violence. The UN Development Program’s 2003 National Human Development Report for Colombia – a must-read document that was well-received by most but blasted by Uribe government officials – was entitled “The Conflict: A Blind Alley with an Exit.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ excellent report on the 2004 human rights situation, published in March 2005, uses the term “armed conflict” thirty-six times.

During her visit to Colombia two weeks ago, High Commissioner Louise Arbour said several times that it is important to recognize that an armed conflict exists, given the “seriousness” of the violence and its effect on the civilian population. She added that the current four-year mandate of the High Commissioner’s Bogotá field office, as signed by the Uribe government in 2002, is “to advise the Colombian authorities in the formulation and application of policies, programs and measures for the promotion and protection of human rights ‘in the context of the violence and armed conflict the country is experiencing.’ And that is what the office is doing.”

This view of whether Colombia’s violence is a “conflict” is shared by most of the international community. The U.S. government, in its eagerness to support Uribe, has been shakiest on this question; while Bush administration officials haven’t gone out and repeated Uribe’s view that no conflict exists, they have been careful not to use the words “conflict” or “war” when talking about Colombia.

Negotiations with guerrillas

April 30 saw the formal end of the “good offices” role played by two special representatives of the UN Secretary-General, first Jan Egeland and then James Lemoyne. They were given the usually frustrating task of facilitating dialogues between the Colombian government and guerrilla groups. While Lemoyne played a key role in keeping talks with the FARC alight during the latter stages of the 1998-2002 peace process, his role was diminished after those talks ended. His relations with President Uribe – who was elected by a populace tired of the soft line toward guerrillas epitomized by press photos of Lemoyne embracing FARC leaders – were consistently difficult.

Lemoyne’s job was basically impossible during the Uribe years. A “good offices” mission requires the facilitator to be able to meet with both parties to a conflict. Yet the Uribe government, which denies the existence of a conflict in the first place, was reluctant to see Lemoyne meeting with FARC leaders, which it felt would make the guerrillas appear to be legitimate counterparts to the government. (There was nonetheless at least one attempt, a 2003 plan to meet in Brazil, with the Brazilian government’s permission. The encounter never took place for lack of a guerrilla response.)

In September 2003, Uribe said flatly that “the Colombian state can’t keep being put on the same level as the violent ones,” adding that “more effectiveness is needed in the good offices work. They should talk less and work more.” Added Luis Carlos Restrepo, the government peace negotiator, “We believe that the first task of a UN functionary in a good offices role should be to encourage an immediate cease-fire. Otherwise these armed groups’ actions end up being legitimized. … The United Nations cannot seek to be neutral before Colombia’s terrorist groups in order to build bridges to them. … There can be no neutrality in the face of terrorism.”

Restrepo’s position is misguided, Augusto Ramírez Ocampo, a former foreign minister and UN official, told Cali’s El País. “He confuses neutrality with impartiality. … The trust that so many have for the UN is rooted in its impartiality.”

Negotiations with paramilitaries

Lemoyne also earned Uribe’s ire by refusing to participate in the Colombian government’s talks with paramilitary groups, insisting that the AUC should not be recognized as a political actor.

The UN has played no role in the ensuing negotiations, though the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Bogotá office has done a superb job of explaining how proposals for dealing with serious AUC human-rights abusers fit within the scope of Colombia’s international human rights commitments.

Since the “Justice and Peace” law working its way through Colombia’s Congress is remarkably weak on crucial issues like impunity, reparations, and dismantlement of paramilitarism, this has required the High Commissioner’s office to point out the legislation’s inadequacy. During her visit, Louise Arbour was quite clear.

I share the concerns expressed by many others that the draft bill currently before Congress … needs to be strengthened with regard to the right to truth. Its current formulation provides no incentive to perpetrators who want to be eligible for benefits to come forward and fully disclose the crimes to which they have been party. Instead, the draft Bill induces them to disclose as little as possible as they do not lose any of the benefits granted if it later transpires that they have not disclosed the full extent of their criminal participation. In my view, the law should also provide better access to reparations to all victims.

Arbour also pointed out an uncomfortable fact about the talks that the Uribe government has consistently downplayed: the proliferation of violations of the paramilitaries’ declared cease-fire, which Uribe had required as a pre-condition for talks. She told El Tiempo, “I have been able to observe that the prerequisite of an absolute cessation of hostilities demanded by President Uribe has not been complied with as might have been expected, and there have been no concrete consequences for the AUC’s failure to comply.”

Contrast that strong statement with the five-paragraph discussion of cease-fire violations in the March quarterly report (Word [.doc] format) of the OAS “verification” mission for the negotiations (MAPP-OAS). “Although the AUCs [sic.] have not totally fulfilled the commitment to the cessation of hostilities,” the report reads, “in the areas where this force has territorial control there has been a marked decline in violations.” It then goes on to confirm only 31 cease-fire violations during the previous three months, and devotes much of the discussion to concerns that guerrillas may return to zones where AUC blocs have demobilized. The Colombian Commission of Jurists, meanwhile, has documented 1,899 in a twenty-month period [PDF format]; even if they are wrong about half of them – which is unlikely – it is clear that the OAS mission is either oblivious to, or deliberately de-emphasizing, a major problem. (Another branch of the OAS, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, has been much more forthcoming about what it characterizes as “constant violations of the cease of hostilities declared by the AUC.”)

Separating civilians from the conflict

The UN has also diverged from the Uribe government on the crucial subject of how civilians should relate to the conflict. Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policy is predicated on the idea that all citizens must contribute to the military’s war effort, primarily by serving as the security forces’ eyes and ears as “informants” and “collaborators.” According to the Colombian Defense Ministry’s guiding Democratic Security and Defense Policy document (PDF format), “Security is … the result of a collective effort by the citizens: it is the responsibility of all. Active citizen participation, co-operation in the administration of justice and support for the authorities all play a major part.”

The UN reminds the Uribe government that, in a situation of conflict where civilians are subject to retribution from armed groups, the level of citizen involvement must be limited. The “principle of distinction,” a core element of international humanitarian law, states that efforts must be made to exclude civilians from combat, and that they must not be compelled to take part.

UN officials, particularly those in the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, have expressed concerns that several of the Uribe government’s security policies may infringe on the principle of distinction. These include the creation of civilian informant networks; the passage of a constitutional amendment (later struck down by the Constitutional Court) allowing the military to detain, interrogate, and tap the phones of unarmed civilians; and the recent clampdown on “peace communities” that seek to prohibit entry to all armed groups, including the security forces.

Next target: the UN High Commissioner’s office?

It is likely that, as Colombia’s presidential (re)election year approaches, Uribe government attacks on the UN system may grow more shrill. While Colombian government representatives, after several days of negotiations last month in Geneva, ultimately accepted a critical statement from the UN Human Rights Commission, we can expect the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Bogotá field office to become a principal target.

The office, founded in 1996 at the strong urging of Colombia’s human rights community, has played a crucial role as an interlocutor with the Colombian government, a provider of advice, and a fair and balanced documentor of the country’s human rights situation. Three skilled, measured and careful diplomats have served as its directors: Almudena Mazarrasa of Spain, and two Swedes, Anders Kompass and Michael Frühling.

The office’s annual reports on Colombia’s human rights situation, which acknowledge problems with the security forces including continued collusion with paramilitaries, have often angered the Uribe government. Though the launch of this year’s report was calmer, some officials still complained in Colombia’s press that the UN office has not given them enough credit for what they feel they have achieved.

The High Commissioner’s office’s mandate must be periodically renewed, and expires next in August 2006, when President Uribe leaves office. While the Colombian government doesn’t plan to close down the office as it did with James Lemoyne’s mission, Vice-President Francisco Santos, the official who holds the human-rights portfolio in the Colombian government, has indicated that he wants to “re-evaluate” its role.

“The intention seems to be to lower the office’s profile, so that its work becomes more that of technically assisting the government and less monitoring [of the human-rights situation],” according to El Tiempo. “Santos alleges that improvements [in human rights] have been substantial, and that the UN must accommodate itself to the new prevailing winds.”

The UN agencies in Colombia are unlikely to bend to the prevailing winds, however, since their positions are based on some rather unambiguous guidelines in international law, and since their professional, experienced staff will continue to call them as they see them. This means that President Uribe, who is not known for handling criticism well from any quarter, is likely to continue to keep picking fights with the UN system.

May 19

(CIP’s Colombia Program welcomes a new Senior Fellow to its staff, Winifred Tate. This is her first posting to “Plan Colombia and Beyond.”)

In the past eighteen months, almost 5,000 people have participated in a series of collective paramilitary demobilizations. Despite this large number, plans for their reintegration remain alarmingly vague.

Members of the Norte Bloc await their demobilization.

The government promises legal identity documents, a two-year subsidy, and educational and employment opportunities to anyone participating in the process who does not face pending legal charges. Much of the international attention on paramilitary demobilization efforts has focused on judicial issues, and the lack of a legal framework to settle cases of serious human rights abusers. While these are obviously serious concerns, there has been little attention paid to monitoring the thousands of people who have already passed through the demobilization process.

Reintegration is the final phase of demobilization, and involves helping combatants (and their families) adapt to civilian life. Most reintegration programs involve some combination of economic assistance, job training and educational projects.

According to the High Commissioner for Peace, demobilized individuals are expected to travel back to their communities of origin. Programs to help these communities address the influx of demobilized individuals are still in the planning stage.

The High Commissioner for Peace has determined that each demobilized individual will receive a government stipend of 358,000 pesos a month (roughly US$155, slightly lower than Colombian minimum wage) for two years. They will also be eligible for subsidized classes through the SENA (the Servicio de Aprendizaje Nacional), a public technical training school offering classes ranging from basic construction to auto mechanics, and possibly future assistance with productive projects such as setting up small businesses. None of the private-sector employment projects have been implemented, however.

Benefits will be provided through Referral and Opportunity Centers (Centros de Referencia y Oportunidades, or "Reference Centers") set up in the communities where demobilized individuals live. Each Center has three or four people on staff who are responsible for dealing with hundreds, in some cases thousands, of demobilized individuals.

At the Montería Reference Center demobilized members of the Calima and Catatumbo Blocs wait in line to obtain legal identification cards.

To date, there is no way to track where demobilized individuals end up living, or what they end up doing. With USAID support, the International Organization for Migration has been developing a computerized monitoring system to monitor demobilized individuals and facilitate follow-up interventions, but the system is still in development and has yet to be fully implemented.

The Reference Center in Montería, capital of the paramilitary-dominated province of Córdoba, was opened on November 29. Charged with providing benefits and assistance to more than one thousand demobilized individuals, this center has four people on staff: the coordinator (a former businessman), an intake worker, a general assistant and messenger, and a psychologist.

When I visited the Center on January 17, the morning before the demobilization of the Norte Bloc, the Center was filled with angry, shouting demobilized men from the Catatumbo and Calima Blocs who had returned to their home communities in Montería. Because of problems during the demobilization phase, most had not received the proper identification paperwork and their benefits had been delayed. According to the men in the crowd, they had been told the previous week that the money would arrive before the end of the week, but now – on Monday morning – they wanted some answers.

The men gathered in a downstairs meeting room, and shouted demands at the Center’s coordinator. “You get paid on time,” one man shouted, “the government always sends your salary, you have money to pay expenses for your family, you have money to put food on the table.” Others contrasted their treatment while in the paramilitaries with their current conditions. “We got paid all the time, on time, before,” several exclaimed. “We had doctors to take care of us, and always got paid, not this red tape (papeleo), now we get nothing but problems.” Their discontent quickly translated into threats to return to fighting with the paramilitaries. “If things go on like this, and the government no doesn’t fulfill their promises, we’ll go back to the paramilitaries again,” several shouted. “Why would we stay here?”

The Montería Reference Center coordinator works the phones.

The coordinator calmed the crowd with promises that representatives from the SENA’s education programs would be there shortly. He later explained that he was not surprised by the crowd’s anger. “All the complaints are a normal reaction,” he said. “Given the people involved, it is not unusual that some would be discontented with the subsidy. There have been errors on all sides, we should have been more organized, and they need to understand that there will be issues in the process, issues that will be resolved.”

Because of the high percentage of members from Urabá and the northern Antioquia and Córdoba region (where the AUC was founded), towns in this area – including Montería – will receive a disproportionately high number of demobilized individuals. Hundreds of members of the Catatumbo Bloc and the Calima Bloc have returned to Montería, and the majority of the 936 members of the Norte Bloc will remain in town. During a visit to the Reference Center, several expressed concern about the town’s ability to absorb so many unemployed men. “The reasons we left, unemployment and no opportunities, have not changed,” said one demobilized former member of the Catatumbo Bloc.

One demobilized member of the Catatumbo Bloc described his history in the paramilitaries. He first got involved through his brother. With only a fifth grade education and three young children, he made between Col $600,000 (US $254) and Col $700,000 (US $296) per month in the paramilitaries. “So this Col $358,000 (US $155) a month from the government isn’t good enough, it is not enough to get by,” he told me.

He went on to note another issue with the demobilization: no one in the group had been aware of the high level negotiations arranging the process. “They just called us one day and told us,” he said. Internal dissent over the process went deep among the paramilitary forces. “Some are tired of the war and they want to get out, but a lot think the war should go on, that they’ve found their thing and are doing well. A lot will go back. Many already have problems. In Cúcuta, some have already been killed, I asked about a friend of mine, one guy, and they told me he was already dead.”

Comandante Andrés, a senior commander from the Norte Bloc, echoed these concerns in an interview in the pre-demobilization camp set up in Santa Fe de Ralito. “A big problem is the issue of salaries,” he said. “Before [in the paramilitaries], the lowest level of salaries was Col $400,000 (US $170) a month, the most was Col $2 million (US $847), there are different levels. From the government they only get Col $358,000 (US $155) a month, and that is all people get. So it is starting off bad, because people have problems, maintaining their families and paying for their needs. So if people are really going to stay out of the war, that is another issue.” He went on to question the lack of psychological preparation programs offered by the government. “I don’t think a short talk for one hour to send them off to civil society is exactly adequate.”

May 18

Take a look at this letter that four key Republican House members (all of them committee or subcommittee chairs) sent to the Appropriations Committee five days ago. They want the appropriators to find $150 million in the 2006 foreign aid bill to provide even more military and police aid to Colombia.

The letter basically transmits a request that President Uribe made to members of the House International Relations Committee on a recent visit. Through his congressional mouthpieces, Uribe is asking for four new spray planes (Colombia already has nineteen) and eight new helicopters (6 Huey IIs and 2 expensive Blackhawks). This equipment, which will be stationed at an additional fumigation base in southwestern Colombia, makes up the bulk of the request ($120 million). The request also includes two DC-3T aircraft for the Colombian Navy to perform interdiction ($22 million) and electronic interception equipment for Colombia’s judicial police (DIJIN).

This request – especially the $120 million for more fumigation – should be swatted down and forgotten, for at least three reasons.

  1. Fumigation isn’t working anyway. Every year since 2002, the ratio of acres sprayed to acres reduced has increased, meaning steadily less bang for the buck. We couldn’t even measure that ratio in 2004, because it’s mathematically impossible to divide by zero: record spraying last year failed to gain a reduction of even one acre of coca. State Department figures showed Colombia with 114,000 hectares (1 hectare = 2 ½ acres) of coca at the end of 2004, only 8,500 hectares less than in 1999, the year before Plan Colombia started. If fumigation is failing as a strategy, it’s madness to increase spending on fumigation by hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s time to alter the strategy.

  2. Who is making the policy? The left in Colombia often accuses the United States of acting imperialistically. If this request is granted, though, it should be clear to all that U.S. policy toward Colombia is now being made more in Bogotá than in Washington. The Bush administration has paid little attention to Colombia lately, while policymakers who work on Colombia have gone to great lengths to avoid any appearance of distance between themselves and President Uribe. This has led them to take positions that must make them uncomfortable, such as support for the paramilitary negotiations in their present form, or endorsement of Uribe’s view that there is no armed conflict, just a terrorist nuisance, in Colombia.

    The U.S. government can’t just rubber-stamp all of the Uribe government’s requests, especially if they don’t make strategic sense. This latest request offers a perfect opportunity to draw the line – especially since the Colombian government is pressuring the U.S. Congress to adopt this package even before the executive branch (the Bush administration) has publicly offered its opinion of it.

  3. Where would one find another $150 million? If the authors of the May 13 letter get what they want, 2006 aid to Colombia would be bumped up to nearly $900 million, nearly $750 million of it for Colombia’s military and police. Somewhere around $725 million would have to come from just one U.S. budget bill, the annual foreign aid (or, formally, Foreign Operations) law.

    The House Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee is dealing with a small enough bill already. It has been allocated only $20.3 billion with which to distribute aid to the entire world (PDF format), and it has a host of urgent priorities elsewhere, from the insufficiently funded Millenium Challenge and HIV-AIDS initiatives, to tsunami aid, to increased assistance to the Middle East. Most of Latin America is already facing declines in both military and economic aid for 2006. If appropriators were to accede to the Uribe-Hyde-Davis-Burton-Souder request, they would face the unpleasant task of freeing up $150 million by cannibalizing other programs elsewhere in the world. For this reason, we doubt that this request is going to prosper, though it’s conceivable that some elements of it might still get approved.

If appropriators do somehow find that they have another $150 million available for Colombia, there are many, far better priorities on which to spend it. There are millions of displaced people living in extreme poverty, a potential source of future violence; thousands of rural hamlets without roads, electricity, potable water or credit (but with armed groups and drug-traffickers always nearby); hundreds of judges, prosecutors and investigators in need of protection, equipment, computers and transportation; and thousands of young ex-combatants who, if it can be proven that they did not commit gross abuses, need help starting new lives.

That is just the beginning of a very long list. Colombia has many other needs that are more urgent, and more important to long-term U.S. interests, than yet another shipment of helicopters.

May 16

The Houston Chronicle put an excellent story on its Sunday front page about the twenty-five U.S. Special Forces troops supporting “Plan Patriota” from the Colombian Army base in Larandia, in western Caquetá department. The article offers a rare glimpse into the U.S. role in assisting the large-scale, year-and-a-half-old military offensive taking place in a large swath of southern Colombian jungle.

Few reporters, American or Colombian, have done any in-depth reporting from the Plan Patriota zone, and it has been difficult to get a sense of whether the offensive is having any success. It is worth noting that the Colombian defense ministry – which seems to put out a press release every time it captures a guerrilla – has kept its propaganda machine rather silent where Plan Patriota is concerned, offering only periodic glimpses that offer little new information. Meanwhile, articles on the website of the FARC and from outside guerrilla supporters (like this one, this one and this one) frequently proclaim that the offensive is failing, and the incisive criticisms of analysts like Sen. Antonio Navarro and the oft-cited Alfredo Rangel have gone unanswered.

Why the official secrecy about the biggest military offensive in the history of Colombia’s conflict? Consider U.S. operations in Iraq, where reporters from nearly all outlets – even Al Jazeera, to some extent – have been embedded with U.S. military units, often resulting in unabashedly supportive media coverage of that controversial war. By contrast, Houston Chronicle reporter John Otis could only get a few hours at the Larandia base, a visit that took some time to arrange.

By most accounts, the reluctance to share information about Plan Patriota comes from the Colombian side. The Colombian military is highly reluctant to grant journalists or outside observers any interviews, access to installations, or entry into theaters of operations. The most-stated reason is the need to keep sensitive tactical information from reaching the enemy – though it is hard to imagine anyone seriously believing that the Houston Chronicle might pass intelligence to the guerrillas if its reporters were allowed to see “too much.”

The more likely reason is nationalist sensitivity. Not only is the Colombian government likely to be unhappy about the prospect of foreign reporters sticking their noses into Plan Patriota, they are probably unwilling to make public the degree of U.S. participation in what they would prefer be considered a 100 percent Colombian offensive.

No matter what the reason, this level of secrecy is a mistake. It leads us to fear that things are going worse than they may in fact be going. It gives more credence to reports that as many as 1,000 Colombian soldiers have been killed, that they are bogged down and suffering from flesh-eating diseases, that they have done little more than capture relatively low-ranking guerrilla leaders and take over already-abandoned encampments, that morale is low, and that military operations have been accompanied by almost no social investment in these long-neglected zones.

This is fast becoming the mainstream view of Plan Patriota – a big, costly military effort that has yielded few results. Is this perception correct? Who knows. The only way we’ll find out is if the U.S. and Colombian governments stop neglecting public affairs and abandon their insistence on total secrecy.

May 13

Wednesday’s hearing of the House International Relations Committee didn’t leave very much to write about. The witnesses, all from the Bush Administration, and the Reps from the Republican majority stayed close to their script of unqualified praise for Plan Colombia. The several Democrats who attended offered polite criticism in the few minutes available to them, though they did offer several tough questions (i.e. why are there no fewer U.S. cocaine and heroin addicts today than there were when Plan Colombia began?). Let’s hope they follow up on plans to submit much more in writing.

From my notes, here are a few things that were new, or at least noteworthy:

  • The Committee Republicans, who had strongly encouraged the administration to give several old DC-3 airplanes to the Colombian National Police, now want to see those planes used to transport guerrilla and paramilitary deserters to sites where they will manually eradicate drug crops.

    The committee’s Chairman, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Illinois), Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana), and committee staff are pushing hard for this proposal. What’s stopping them is a still-unresolved debate between the State and Justice Departments about whether a program like this could be construed as “material support for terrorists” under current law (like Section 803 of the PATRIOT Act). This bizarre interpretation – which apparently considers ex-terrorists to still be terrorists – makes it impossible for the U.S. government to fund the demobilization and reintegration of any foreign terrorist group’s members, anywhere in the world.

    “Some in the executive branch hold the misguided view that putting defectors on these planes to engage in manual drug eradication would somehow constitute material support for terrorism,” said Rep. Hyde. This was never the intent of Congress. We are needlessly and unwisely tying our own hands. How could having former members of a terrorist organization eliminate the very drugs that help finance the terrorist organization they have turned against possibly constitute material support for terrorism?”

    We have no strong views about this proposal, and we agree that the current legal interpretation – which fails to admit the possibility that a terrorist can stop being a terrorist – is silly. We have four observations, however:

    1) A guerrilla or paramilitary considering turning himself in might be discouraged by the prospect that he may find himself forced to eradicate crops in dangerous areas dominated by armed groups.

    2) Proponents of fumigation in Colombia argue that the spraying is necessary because security conditions don’t allow manual eradication. So why are we proposing a big new manual eradication effort? Can we begin to reduce fumigation?

    3) Why can’t this program operate now, even in the absence of demobilized guerrillas or paramilitaries? Colombia has double-digit unemployment, greater underemployment, and a huge displaced population – probably hundreds of thousands who would gladly participate in a make-work project like this in order to feed their families.

    4) No matter what, forced manual eradication – just like fumigation – will fail unless it’s closely coordinated with a real effort to help the affected communities to make a living in the legal economy. Eradication without development assistance will increase rural residents’ anger at the state, push them into the arms of illegal groups, and lead many to re-plant after the eradicators leave.

  • The committee also appears to be pushing the administration to do more to interdict drugs leaving Colombia by sea, noting that “marine air patrols” in the Caribbean and the eastern Pacific slowed after September 11, when many patrol planes were called back to the “homeland.” It’s not clear what they expect the interdictors (mainly Defense Department, Coast Guard, and Customs) to do, since they are not appropriating money for those agencies to buy new planes.
  • House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois), who gave a statement as a witness but didn’t stay for questioning, made the remarkable claim that “Areas like Putumayo used to be like the wild, wild west…outlaw villages thriving off of the drug trade. Today, Putumayo has been reformed.” This is nonsense, and I address it in the last posting.
  • Rep. Burton pushed Drug Czar John Walters very hard on the issue of mycoherbicides – fungi like Fusarium oxysporum that kill coca plants. (Burton, however, called them “micro-herbicides,” both at the hearing and in a written statement published in the Inter-American Dialogue’s daily “Latin America Advisor” newsletter.) We have been concerned that the Bush administration would push to use these fungi in Colombia, with potentially disastrous environmental effects. We were pleased, then, to hear Walters strongly refusing to consider even spending money to test mycoherbicides. I’m paraphrasing here – taking dictation is hard – but Walters said “We’re not sure that the mycoherbicide is specific to coca. If we were to drop it [from planes], it could cause significant environmental damage.”
  • In his oral testimony, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Narcotics Jonathan Farrar said that fumigation was discouraging coca-growing. A minute or so later, he said that lots of new coca was being planted “as the narco-terrorists plant more plants in an attempt to negate our record spray efforts.” Well, which is it? Are the growers discouraged, or are they planting more than ever?

    If you guessed “more than ever,” you’re right. According to State Department figures, attempted coca-growing – the amount of coca eradicated plus the amount of coca left over – has skyrocketed in Colombia as fumigation has increased, from 166,000 hectares (415,000 acres) in 1999 to 251,000 hectares (627,500 acres) last year.

  • Farrar also defended the idea of spraying coca in Colombia’s national parks – a proposal that Colombia’s government appears to be on the verge of adopting – by estimating that 6,000 to 12,000 hectares of coca are grown in parkland. That’s 5 to 10 percent of all coca grown in Colombia.

    Why can’t this fraction be manually eradicated? Surely the government can maintain control over its own national parks long enough to allow manual eradication to take place instead of chemical spraying. Especially since, as indicated above, increased spraying has been shown to bring increased attempted coca-growing, which involves increased cutting down of forests – much of it, probably, in parks.

  • I was confused – no, disturbed – by an exchange between Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) and Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega. McCollum cited the arrest last week of two U.S. Special Forces non-commissioned officers for allegedly running guns to the paramilitaries. She then asked a simple question (I’m paraphrasing): “Can you categorically deny that no U.S. government agency is in contact with paramilitaries, or gives support to paramilitaries?”

    The correct answer would have been a flat “yes,” but for some reason – was he confused by the question? – Noriega never offered a denial. Instead, he gave an answer at least fifty words long, at the end of which (paraphrasing, again), he said that the U.S. government is “categorically” rooting out any activity that goes against U.S. policy.

  • In his testimony, Noriega indicated that, instead of committing itself to a multi-year Plan Colombia II, the State Department is keeping its options open post-2006: “We have made no decisions about specific funding assistance levels beyond FY 2006, but will continue working with the Congress as planning is further developed.”
  • It is interesting to note what was not mentioned. Nobody uttered the words “Plan Patriota” or referred in any way to that large, year-long U.S.-supported military offensive. There was almost no mention at all of the Colombian government’s request for $130 million to create a new herbicide-fumigation base in Nariño, complete with 4 new spray planes and eight new helicopters (2 Blackhawks and 6 Hueys), described in detail in Tuesday’s El Tiempo. Though Barbara Lee (D-California) asked about the human rights conditions on military aid – no approval has been forthcoming because there’s no human rights progress to certify – she hardly got any answer.
May 12

For years, we have made a point of paying close attention to what is happening in Putumayo, a Maryland-sized department (province) in Colombia’s far south, bordering Ecuador and Peru. We do so because Putumayo is where Plan Colombia truly began, and what is happening there is a good indicator of Plan Colombia’s impact.

When the Clinton administration’s big aid package was being developed, debated and approved in 1999-2000, Putumayo had more coca than any other department in Colombia. As part of the “push into southern Colombia” at the heart of the U.S. aid package, a 2,300-man Colombian Army Counter-Narcotics Brigade, equipped with donated helicopters, was beginning operations to introduce aerial herbicide fumigation to the zone. As we wrote four years ago, Putumayo was “Plan Colombia’s Ground Zero.”

Five years later, U.S. officials are claiming success. “Areas like Putumayo used to be like the wild, wild west,” Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert told the House International Relations Committee at a May 11 hearing [PDF format]. “Today, Putumayo has been reformed.”

We disagree. In fact, five years after the Clinton aid package’s approval, Putumayo offers a vivid testimony of Plan Colombia’s failure. The department does have less coca, after a relentless campaign of regular spraying and significant investment in alternative development. (It probably has less people too.) But it remains one of Colombia’s top coca-producing departments (fourth out of 11 departments that had at least 1,000 hectares in 2003, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime [PDF format]). Much coca-growing that was in Putumayo has simply moved to neighboring departments, with the result that State Department figures show Colombia as a whole with only 7 percent less coca today than it had in 1999.

Perhaps more troubling are indications that, despite massive investment in military and police presence, the activity of illegal armed groups is as intense as ever in Putumayo.

It is hard to get a decent picture of the department’s violence, since the media, human-rights groups and civilian government officials have little presence, particularly in the remote zones where much of the coca and the killing are concentrated, and where locals know that to stay quiet is to stay alive. The few reports from Putumayo’s countryside, combined with reports of what happens in town centers, depict a situation at least as dire as it was when Plan Colombia began.

Putumayo suffered a 19 percent rise in murders in 2004, according to government data compiled by Colombia’s Security and Democracy Foundation [PDF format]. Indeed, since mid-2004 there has been a noticeable increase in reports of paramilitary massacres, extrajudicial killings, and guerrilla attacks in the department.

The guerrillas

The FARC, pressured by the prolonged Plan Patriota military offensive taking place immediately to the north of Putumayo, has increased its presence in the department. The guerrillas have stepped up attacks on military targets, on small towns that they are seeking to re-take from military or paramilitary control, and key infrastructure, particularly the Trans-Andino oil pipeline that runs through southwestern Putumayo.

One of the hardest-hit zones has been the municipality of San Miguel bordering Ecuador, whose principal town is La Dorada. Fifteen minutes south of La Dorada, right across the San Miguel River from Ecuador, is the town of Puerto Colón (population about 1,000), which has been subject to a relentless series of FARC attacks that began on September 4 of last year. In that first attack, the FARC launched five homemade, notoriously inaccurate gas-cylinder bombs at the town’s anti-narcotics police station, but ended up destroying many of the town’s buildings. The guerrillas have hit Puerto Colón at least nineteen times since then.

The past few months have seen two major FARC attacks on military targets in Putumayo, which have taken the lives of eighteen soldiers. On February 2, guerrillas detonated mines just as a truckload of soldiers passed on the well-traveled road between Puerto Asís, Putumayo’s largest city, and the town of Santa Ana, which hosts a military base, about ten miles to the north. On March 23, guerrillas launched gas-cylinder bombs against a military patrol traveling between Puerto Leguízamo (home to a U.S.-supported Colombian Navy Riverine Brigade) and La Tagua, in a sparsely-populated zone of eastern Putumayo.

The paramilitaries

Paramilitaries, present in Putumayo since 1999 and currently under the control of the AUC’s drug-ridden Central Bolívar Bloc (BCB), continue to compete for dominance of Putumayo’s coca fields, as well as drug and arms-smuggling routes in and out of Ecuador. Though the BCB declared a cease-fire to satisfy the government’s condition for taking part in negotiations, paramilitary massacres and extrajudicial killings appear to have jumped in Putumayo. “The paramilitaries’ strategy in this zone is not exactly to combat or attack guerrillas, as there have not been any direct confrontations or fighting,” reports an excellent March 2005 overview by MINGA, a leading Colombian human-rights NGO [PDF format]. “Instead, it has involved attacking the civilian population, extorting merchants and maintaining control over the region’s economy, particularly through narcotrafficking.”

Reports of recent massacres in Putumayo resemble accounts of the tactics the paramilitaries used during the late 1990s-early 2000s period of AUC expansion that was overseen by Carlos Castaño: a group of killers, list of names in hand, slaughtering several people at a time, even using chainsaws or machetes. Individual killings appear occasionally to target those whom the paramilitaries believe to be guerrilla collaborators; many recent victims, however, are civilians who have tried to resist paramilitary extortion or local figures who, believing that Putumayo should have an effective government presence, report paramilitary activity to the authorities.

By gathering testimonies from local residents, MINGA has established that the paramilitaries carried out a major massacre in the rural hinterland of Valle del Guamuez municipality, just to the north of San Miguel. Between August 15 and August 20, about 200 uniformed men identifying themselves as AUC members passed through at least six villages, torturing and killing nine campesino leaders and forcibly displacing several families.

Shortly afterward, on September 4, a group of paramilitaries forced their way into a Pentecostal church in Puerto Asís, the largest city in Putumayo, while about a hundred people were inside attending services. The paramilitaries – apparently targeting the town’s notary, whom they had been threatening – fired indiscriminately at the worshippers, killing three and wounding fifteen.

Between November 7 and 24, paramilitaries – perhaps the same group that carried out the August massacre in Valle del Guamuez – killed thirteen people and forced the displacement of entire rural communities in San Miguel, along the Ecuadorian border. According to a witness interviewed by MINGA, “The paramilitaries traveled for fifteen days with a list in hand, telling people that if they were collaborating with the guerrillas they should leave, or else they would end up like the massacred ones.”

In late January of this year, citizens of La Dorada, the “county seat” of San Miguel, had had enough of the paramilitaries who had dominated the town since late 2000, but whose presence had been reduced with the arrival of more security forces in 2003-2004. As we discussed in an earlier posting, several La Dorada merchants, reacting to the paramilitary killing of a colleague, organized a daring protest. Hundreds of people blockaded roads and marched through La Dorada’s streets on January 28, carrying signs denouncing both guerrillas and paramilitaries.

The protest’s organizers, led by José Hurtado, an Ecuadorian citizen and longtime resident, convened the local military and police. They denounced the wave of paramilitary violence and the security forces’ apparent toleration of – or complicity with – paramilitary activities, including sightings of a military truck transporting paramilitary fighters between La Dorada and La Hormiga, about 30 minutes to the north.

The security forces asked the protesters for help identifying the paramilitaries in the town. Mr. Hurtado agreed, and led them to several residences and sites of paramilitary activity. The paramilitaries were quick to retaliate: they killed Hurtado on February 16.

On February 25, the paramilitaries called leading La Dorada residents to two meetings. At the first, a meeting with merchants at a nearby hamlet, the paramilitaries showed them a list of those they believed had organized the January protest, and told them that a town councilman and a local journalist “would not be pardoned.” At the second meeting, called with the entire community under the threat of a massacre if nobody attended, the paramilitaries made clear that they would “forgive” the townspeople of La Dorada for their protest, but repeated their threat against the councilman and journalist.

CIP staff have visited La Dorada twice. The first time, in March 2001, the paramilitary presence was very noticeable, including men with radio equipment taking up key positions at the town’s entrances, and few people on the streets. In April 2004, following the opening of a police station and a greater presence of security forces, the paramilitary presence was less apparent and the town appeared to be much livelier. Since José Hurtado’s murder, however, we understand that the paramilitaries have clamped down on the town, and conditions have reverted to something like what we saw in 2001.

Paramilitaries have killed at least three more local leaders in and around La Dorada, MINGA denounced last week. Two prominent campesino leaders, Abel Hómez Anacona and Abelardo Antonio Ocampo, were murdered on March 30 and April 4. On April 3 paramilitaries forced Carlos Evid Cuarán, who had participated in the January 28 protests, to leave a restaurant with them. Cuarán was taken to a nearby hamlet and killed. Meanwhile, faced with paramilitary threats, two La Dorada councilmembers have had to leave the town since March.

Where are the authorities?

This wave of violence is severe, though not unusual for a marginal zone of rural Colombia with significant narcotics production. But Putumayo is not typical of these zones: thanks in large part to Plan Colombia and tens of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid, the department has a heavy security-force presence. MINGA’s March report details this presence in two municipalities alone, San Miguel and Valle del Guamuez:

Starting with Plan Colombia, this region was strongly militarized. In Puerto Colón there is an Anti-Narcotics Police base and a military base protecting the ECOPETROL [state oil company] installations. This region is also within the area of the 27th Brigade’s base (with a battalion located in Valle del Guamuez). La Dorada has a permanent presence of the National Police, units of the 9th Infrastructure Protection Battalion and “peasant soldiers.”

To this must be added the frequent presence of units from the U.S.-funded Army Counter-Narcotics Brigade and Navy Riverine Brigade, plus dramatic improvements to military and police bases at Tres Esquinas, Puerto Leguízamo and Villagarzón.

Why, then, is Putumayo as insecure as ever, five years into Plan Colombia? There are several reasons. Many of these military units are specialized: their principal missions are protecting pipelines or assisting drug eradication, not patrolling rural areas to protect people from the badguys. In fact, rural Putumayo is still a place where military and police presence remains rare, and civilian government presence is rarer still. The state security forces are also crippled by difficult relations with local authorities and the silence of the local population, which offers little information out of distrust or fear of retribution from the armed groups.

The distrust owes greatly to a widespread perception that the security forces are either in league with the paramilitaries, or at least have no interest in fighting them. Our own research indicates that this pattern is mixed: the degree of paramilitary collaboration or toleration appears to depend on the attitude of the local military or police commander. This is why, for instance, introducing police made paramilitaries scarcer for a time in La Dorada, and why the La Dorada protesters saw fit to demand a greater presence of the security forces in their town despite problems with collusion. Though not uniform, military-paramilitary collaboration in Putumayo remains a problem, and it is rarely if ever investigated and punished.

Consider all of these reasons why Putumayo is still a mess, and the outlines of an alternative security strategy become clear – not just for Putumayo but for much of the country. Instead of specialized units like the counter-narcotics brigades, protection of citizens should be the local security forces’ main mission. In the rural areas where insecurity is greatest, much more investment is needed to bring the government into regular contact with citizens, through everything from policing to alternative development to infrastructure-building. It is crucial to coordinate this closely with local elected leaders, and to assiduously seek to win the local population’s trust. The locals must be treated not like potential narco-traffickers to be searched or sprayed, or potential guerrilla collaborators to be interrogated or intimidated, but instead as potential allies who desperately need basic security and economic opportunity. And by all means, it is imperative to confront the paramilitaries aggressively and to punish any examples of collusion swiftly and transparently.

Until changes like these are implemented and begin to take hold, however, the security situation in Putumayo will continue to be one of many stains on Plan Colombia’s record.

May 06

What better way to pass a dreary Wednesday afternoon than to stop by the Rayburn House of Representatives’ Office Building for “Plan Colombia: Major Successes and New Challenges,” a hearing being hosted by the House International Relations Committee at 2:00 on the 11th?.

The Republican majority, which is empowered to call the hearing and to invite all speakers, has lined up six witnesses. The six represent a broad range of views – from those who think that U.S. policy toward Colombia is going great, to those who think that it’s going super-great.

The first to testify will be none other than the Speaker of the House, Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois). Hastert took a strong interest in Colombia during the early to mid-1990s. During his days as a GOP backbencher, this former high-school wrestling coach became an energetic drug warrior, citing his desire to keep drugs away from kids like his former students. He traveled to Colombia frequently in those days, and was among a coterie of Republican representatives who (a) became quite enamored of the Colombian National Police (CNP), and (b) used the drug war as a weapon in partisan battles, frequently charging that Bill Clinton’s administration was too slow to send helicopters to the CNP and increase fumigation – and thus “soft on drugs.”

Now that those helicopters have long since been delivered, and fumigation has multiplied, you would think that Hastert and others would be chastened. After all, Colombian coca-growing is stuck at 1999-2000 levels, and kids like the Speaker’s former students can find Colombian cocaine and heroin just as easily now as they could during the 1990s. Yet Hastert will be present on Wednesday to testify in support of the current policy, repeating things that others have told him second-hand, since he has not visited Colombia for some time.

The real message of Hastert’s testimony is directed at congressional Republicans, who may be losing their enthusiasm for Plan Colombia. “If you oppose the current policy,” Hastert wants to make clear, “you are running afoul of the party leadership.” And the Republican leadership has shown itself willing to deal quite severely with any loose cannons among its ranks.

Next will be Drug Czar John Walters, prepared to give an objective evaluation of the programs that his own office has promoted and coordinated. In addition to cheerleading for Plan Colombia, maybe Walters will add to his string of predictions about when the price of cocaine is expected to rise.

  • July 2003: “We expect to see in the next 6 to 9 months significant disruptions in the purity and availability of cocaine throughout the world.”
  • August 2004: “These gains have allowed us to, for the first time, have intelligence estimates … that in the next 12 months we will see changes in the availability of cocaine in the United States.”

For the real story, look at the “National Drug Threat Assessment,” published in February by the Justice Department’s National Drug Intelligence Center.

“Key indicators of domestic cocaine availability show stable or slightly increased availability in drug markets throughout the country… Heroin is readily available in most major metropolitan areas in the United States, and availability remains relatively stable… [H]eroin availability continues to increase in rural and suburban areas.”

Walters will be followed by a panel of four representatives of agencies whose budgets and reputations depend on putting the best possible spin on events: USAID, the State Department’s Western Hemisphere and International Narcotics bureaus, and the Department of Homeland Security.

What about those who have a more critical – and more realistic – view of Plan Colombia, its results (or lack thereof), and what should be done instead? We’ll be there – sitting quietly in the audience of the hearing room, and talking to anyone who will listen in the hallway outside.

Why the lack of real debate on such a controversial policy? Who knows. Maybe they’re feeling insecure and need to reassure each other. Maybe they’re circling the wagons after a rash of bad news (no coca reduction, FARC counter-offensive, GIs arrested, etc.). Let’s hope that even though the deck is stacked, the many congressional critics – particularly Democrats on the committee – show up, make strong statements and ask tough questions. Unless Representatives who question the policy make a good showing, it promises to be a dreary afternoon indeed.

May 05

Today’s big story (Reuters – AP – LA Times – NY Times – Houston Chronicle – CNN) is the arrest, on Tuesday afternoon, of two U.S. soldiers in Colombia. Alan Tanquary and Jesús Hernández appear to have been caught red-handed by Colombian police with 32,000 rounds of ammunition. The Colombian authorities suspect that the materiel was probably destined for the paramilitaries.

For some, the episode raises the specter of Eugene Hasenfus, the U.S. citizen who was shot down over Nicaragua in 1986 while illegally supplying the contras for Ollie North. Are Tuesday’s arrests evidence of a secret U.S. plot to supply the paramilitaries, as a reporter asked during today’s State Department briefing?

Probably not. That doesn’t make much sense. Even leaving aside concerns like human rights, terrorism and narcotrafficking, as a counter-insurgency force the paramilitaries have proven to be erratic at best. Just like the five U.S. soldiers arrested in late March for trafficking drugs out of Meta province, Tanquary and Hernández were probably freelancing in order to make money on the side.

The more interesting question is: how did U.S. military personnel, confined to a military base and its environs and meant to be kept out of harm’s way, manage to make contact with paramilitaries?

The five U.S. soldiers arrested in March for trying to ship cocaine to the United States reportedly got the drugs from a Guaviare-based ring tied to the paramilitaries, while working at the Apiay airbase outside the city of Villavicencio. The two arrested on Tuesday were stationed at Tolemaida, the huge army base near Melgar, Tolima, where much U.S. training takes place and where many U.S.-donated helicopters are parked. (Paramilitary violence, incidentally, is common in Tolima province; last October Tolima’s local ombudsman said that the paramilitaries had killed 170 people since December 2002, when the AUC had declared a cease-fire. Is this why they need more bullets?)

How did the American troops manage to strike these deals? It’s not as though U.S. soldiers in Colombia are being pursued by members of the paramilitaries pestering them to run drugs and arms for them. This money-making opportunity will only knock if someone else first makes the introduction. Who, then, is helping the corrupt Americans to link up with their paramilitary customers? What bridges the two degrees of separation?

Obviously, the most likely "missing links" are the U.S. soldiers’ counterparts in the Colombian military, who are co-located with them on bases like Apiay and Tolemaida. Could it be that Colombian military personnel – members of U.S.-aided units that have supposedly severed their ties with the paramilitaries – helped facilitate contacts with "friends" among the local paramilitaries?

The coming investigations – which had better be aggressive, thorough and transparent – must reveal how U.S. personnel came to be in contact with AUC members. If it turns out that the Colombian military indeed played a role, this will make it even more difficult for the U.S. State Department to certify that Colombia’s security forces are actively breaking links with the paramilitaries. And without this certification, 25 percent of U.S. military assistance to Colombia must remain frozen.

May 03

Today’s El Tiempo features a very in-depth series of articles about “Plan Patriota,” the U.S.-supported military offensive in southern Colombia, involving nearly 20,000 troops, that began in early 2004. If you read Spanish, the articles are definitely worth a look. They offer much new information.

On El Tiempo’s “Conflicto Armado” page today, right next to the Plan Patriota series, is a link to coverage of yesterday’s FARC attack on “La Línea,” the pass through the Andes in Tolima that links Bogotá to Cali. Three policemen and a civilian were killed.

Tolima, of course, is not in the Plan Patriota zone of operations. Nor is northern Cauca, where the FARC have carried out a string of attacks on indigenous towns since mid-April. Nor are Nariño and Arauca, where the FARC have hit military targets several times in recent months.

While combat is no doubt constant in the Plan Patriota zone, little information about these FARC-military confrontations is being made public. What we do know is that the dramatic escalation in guerrilla attacks of the past few months is being felt, strongly, outside the area where Plan Patriota is taking place.

Here is a rough map, based on press coverage, sketching out some of the more significant incidents of combat between the FARC and the Colombian security forces so far this year. Though schematic, it shows that while the FARC is being pressured within their longtime southern stronghold, they are emerging from their two-year “tactical retreat” by launching attacks throughout the length and breadth of Colombia’s national territory.

This is very bad news, both for the Uribe government’s security strategy and for anyone who wants to see the killing come to an end. It also casts strong doubt on one of the El Tiempo series’ too-optimistic claims, that “both the government and the FARC recognize that the current moment is the beginning of the end of the war.” That’s far from certain, though the war is certainly entering a new phase.

(The map includes only confrontations between guerrillas and security forces. It doesn’t include confrontations between guerrillas and paramilitaries, such as the ongoing violence in southern Bolívar and the Atrato River region of Chocó. It doesn’t include guerrilla attacks on civilians, such as the bombing of RCN studios in Cali, the murders of councilmembers in Caquetá and Huila, and many others. Some dates are approximate.)

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Quote of the week:

“We’re not interested in anything like that. The dividing line is clear: between those who are democratic and those who are anti-democratic, between those of us who defend the Constitution and those who would do away with it. In this second group are – with varying interests – Uribe, the paramilitaries and the FARC.” – Representative (and former M-19 guerrilla) Gustavo Petro, responding to the FARC’s call to join forces against President Uribe’s re-election.

May 01

Colombia’s defense minister, Jorge Alberto Uribe, had an unusually bad week. A businessman with little prior experience in military affairs or politics, Uribe managed, in a few days, to raise the ire of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Colombia’s own foreign minister, much of his own high command, and several members of the Colombian Congress, who by the end of the week were calling for him to resign. Some of his difficulties were self-inflicted, but the minister was also caught up in a quiet but longstanding turf battle between Colombia’s civilian and military leaders. Meanwhile Uribe’s boss, President Álvaro Uribe (no relation), somehow managed to stay unscathed and above the fray.

On Tuesday, Senator Hernán Andrade leaked a secret memorandum the minister had sent to the congress in answer to several legislators’ questions. One of the questions had to do with Venezuela’s recent wave of arms purchases, including 100,000 AK-47s from Russia, an issue that Colombia’s government has officially sought to downplay. The minister’s memo took a different position, one which it’s easy to imagine reflects the true opinion of Colombian officialdom: “It is an undeniable fact that the Venezuelan re-armament deepens the military imbalance in the Andean region.”

The document, leaked the day before Condoleezza Rice was to arrive in Bogotá, ensured that U.S. relations with Venezuela would be on everyone’s minds during the secretary of state’s visit, even though Rice was taking pains not to criticize Caracas directly during her four-day swing through Latin America. On Wednesday, as Rice was on her way to Bogotá, Hugo Chávez responded to minister Uribe on Venezuelan television. “The imperial lady is traveling throughout South America, and a pawn has told the queen what she wanted to hear, to please the imperial lady, so that she might laugh and feel happy.” He added that “Nobody should act as a pawn of the empire, because that’s a pretty sad role.”

That same day, the “pawn” was publicly slapped down by Colombian Foreign Minister Carolina Barco, who made clear that the defense minister’s opinion was not the government’s position, and that she, not the Defense Ministry, is in charge of making foreign-policy pronouncements.

This was the least of minister Uribe’s problems on Wednesday, however. That morning, he had to fire (or force into retirement) four of the army’s top generals: Roberto Pizarro, the army’s second-in-command, Duván Pineda, the inspector-general, Luis Fabio García, the chief of operations, and Hernán Cadavid, the chief of human resources.

The reason given for the generals’ exit was their strong opposition to a U.S.-encouraged change in the way the armed forces work. All were against efforts to get Colombia’s army to work seamlessly with its much smaller navy and air force, particularly within so-called “joint task forces.” Two such task forces exist today: the Caribbean Joint Command in northern Colombia, and Joint Task Force Omega, which is carrying out the “Plan Patriota” offensive in the south.

The “retired” generals, speaking freely to the press, harshly criticized the joint-task-force strategy, but saved some of their strongest words for the defense minister. In this respect, minister Uribe may have been a proxy for President Uribe: according to today’s Semana magazine, “the generals chose him as their target in order to avoid tangling with the President.”

Minister Uribe’s bad week comes on top of a series of recent problems. The weeks-long confrontation in and around Toribío, Cauca, which still has not completely died down, has brought unprecedented questioning of the government’s security policy. In January, the minister was embarrassingly forced to admit that he had been publicly lying about ordering the abduction of a high-ranking FARC member who had been living in Venezuela.

Last year, Miami’s El Nuevo Herald reported that, months before becoming defense minister, the unmarried Uribe had paid conjugal visits to a woman serving a prison sentence for narcotrafficking. The Colombian media largely ignored the story; Uribe insisted that the visits were not in fact conjugal. Gen. Pineda, one of the four fired officers, recalled the allegations last week in a Colombian radio interview. He questioned the minister’s “moral authority,” adding that “if any of us had gone to visit a narcotrafficker in jail, we surely would have been expelled and an object of public scorn.”

The defense minister is being called to testify this week before Colombia’s Congress, where several legislators are calling for his head. This is an unusual area of agreement between two of the very few members of the congress with any military experience: Gustavo Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla, and Jaime Ernesto Canal, a former general and head of the Cali-based Third Brigade.

“The government tries to punish the military. First it insults them and later it fires them,” said Petro, who said last week that minister Uribe’s tenure is “unsustainable.” Sen. Canal – who, Human Rights Watch has reported, presided over the Third Brigade while the unit helped the AUC to set up its Calima Bloc in southwestern Colombia – added that “the minister should not continue in his position, because he had not efficiently served the fatherland. We all know that the minister has much business knowledge, but he has no aptitude for managing men in arms.”

“With regard to management,” added Sen. Luis Élmer Arenas, “the minister is very good and he knows what he is doing. But he doesn’t know military operations and he ends up being the generals’ ventriloquists’ dummy, transmitting their information to the President. This keeps good decisions from being made.” 

More criticism came from former military leaders. Retired Gen. Rafael Samudio went so far as to say that Uribe doesn’t reserve “the respect even of the lowest-ranking soldier.”

Samudio served as a minister of defense before 1991, back when the post was occupied by uniformed officers, not civilians. Though Colombia has now had nearly fifteen years of civilian defense ministers – during which ten individuals have filled the post – the job remains a difficult one. The civilian part of the ministry is small and must deal with a military high command that, as Cali’s El País notes, “still shows resistance to the orders of someone without a military background.”

The job is still tougher for defense ministers who seek to reform the way the military operates; that is when Colombia’s difficult civil-military relationship gives off the most sparks. This has been the case for both of President Uribe’s defense ministers. The first, Marta Lucía Ramírez, was forced out in November 2003 under intense pressure from top commanders, who bristled at her attempts to gain more control over military contracting and discretionary budgets – and at the idea of taking orders from a woman. Minister Uribe too, with his businessman’s approach, has stepped on a lot of officers’ toes, a colonel who asked not to be identified told Cambio magazine.

Little by little, each one of them [defense ministers] has taken a step forward, but minister Jorge Alberto Uribe, with his management experience, has sought to consolidate changes that were already occurring, and to introduce new ones, which without a doubt has won him enemies among some officers who don’t like the idea of civilians overseeing, controlling and improving the efficiency of processes that had been very confused and led to poor management.

One such process, of course, is the one that led the four generals to quit last week: something that U.S. defense planners like to call “jointness” and basically means making the army, navy, and air force work better together, and sometimes even take orders from each other. The U.S. military underwent this reform, somewhat painfully, in the late 1980s, after the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 mandated it. The change was resisted by those who did not want to find themselves taking orders from another service; this resistance is even stronger within Colombia’s Army, which dwarfs the navy and air force in size. Generals who have opposed this change, including Martín Orlando Carreño, who headed the army from late 2003 until being forced out in late 2004, have characterized it as something imposed upon Colombia by the United States.

For now, with the exit of the four generals, it appears that the “jointness” argument has been settled in favor of more reformist generals. But there will be other arguments, and Minister Uribe will no doubt be in the thick of them.

So far, it seems that minister Uribe is not going anywhere; President Uribe seems intent on keeping him. It may be, in fact, that the minister is playing a useful political role by diverting criticism away from the president. According to El País, “he could be playing a role that was filled in the past by the controversial ex [Interior and Justice] Minister Fernando Londoño Hoyos: to say in public what the President thinks in private.”

The bigger question, however, is not how much longer Jorge Alberto Uribe will stay, but how much longer Colombia’s defense ministers will continue to be civilians. “It is undeniable that we are at war,” argued Sen. José Renán Trujillo last week. “It is fundamental to return to a military minister, either active or retired, who knows the fundamentals about what it is to be in the military. The morale of the troops must be kept high.”

This is a terrible recommendation. The presence of a civilian defense minister in Colombia – however weak or frequently questioned – is an important sign of health for Colombia’s civil-military relations and for its democratic institutions. Just look at those meetings of the region’s defense ministers that have taken place periodically since 1995. Every few years there have been fewer men in uniform posing in the meetings’ group picture. That is a clear indicator of progress, and for Colombia to put an officer back into the defense minister’s position would be a major step backward. Minister Uribe’s troubles must not lead to this outcome.