Aug 29

If you’re still not angry yet about the incredibly lenient deal that Colombia’s paramilitaries are getting from the so-called “Justice and Peace” law passed two months ago, read the following story about the aftermath of the 2001 Chengue massacre, published eight days ago in Colombia’s most-circulated newsmagazine, Semana. (For more about this massacre, read Scott Wilson’s chilling coverage of it in the Washington Post shortly after it happened.) Every member of the U.S. Congress should be required to read this article before they vote on any request to aid the paramilitary process.

Actually, this article is required reading even if you are already angry about the “Justice and Peace” law. As you read it, keep in mind that massacres nearly on this scale are still commonplace in Colombia. Just last week in Puerto Valdivia, Antioquia – about 150 miles south of Chengue – the FARC’s 36th Front killed fourteen coca growers, shooting them at pointblank range. The guerrillas who planned and executed that crime must be pleased to know that, thanks to the current law, after some future peace process they need only spend a maximum of eight years – minus time spent negotiating – in comfortable jails. And that punishment won’t increase, no matter how many more massacres they carry out between now and then.

Here’s a translation of the article. Emphases are ours.

8/21/2005

Semana (Colombia)

The law of the fraud

It was 3:00 on the morning of January 17, 2001 when the residents of Chengue heard the noise of people rushing around. Eighty members of the AUC had entered the small village nestled in the Montes de María in Sucre. Kicking in doors, they removed the men from each house and gathered them in the plaza. Margarita Romero, who was 15 years old at the time, heard the noise and looked out her window. She immediately understood that the paras had come to keep the promise that had been heard so many times as a rumor: they came to put an end to the town.

Terrified, she sat and awaited her turn. Minutes later, two men entered her house and brought her to the plaza. There, 23 men of Chengue were lying face-down on the ground. They were the husbands, brothers, fathers of more than 50 women, all gathered before them. One by one the paramilitaries called them, made them walk to a street behind the plaza, supposedly to verify their names on a computer. But the silence of the night revealed what was happening. “The machete could hardly be heard,” said Margarita. Each man went to the execution site. They killed them with “la mona,” a club made to break stones. One clean blow was enough. There were no shots.

When dawn broke, the paramilitaries had almost finished their labors. They confined the women and set fire to everything they could. 25 houses in all. “Even that of don Evelio López, which was the prettiest, with a little lamp outside. They killed one of his sons, who was mentally disabled,” said one of the women.

The paramilitaries left with no trouble, taking the road to Macayepo, Chinulito, toward the El Palmar farm in San Onofre, where this horrendous crime was planned. Chengue died on that day.

Today, four years and five months later, of the 327 houses in that corregimiento [township] of Ovejas municipality, only ruins remain, and of the 120 families – almost all of them somehow related – only seven returned, because they could no longer stand the indigent conditions they were forced to endure in Sincelejo [the departmental capital] or Cartagena. The abandoned houses, the farms overrun with weeds, and a desolate road are the vestiges of a town that had dreamed of prosperity. “Every afternoon, when I sit with the guys in the corridor, I think of when Chengue was Chengue. When they had horseraces, when the bands came to play music. I remember each and every person that died,” says Margarita.

The paramilitaries who perpetrated the massacre laid down their arms last month. The majority are in their homes, with no legal charges against them. Only nine are in Santa Fe de Ralito awaiting implementation of the Justice and Peace Law, the legal framework for judging those who committed atrocities like the Chengue massacre.

The challenges that confront the government as it puts this controversial law into practice are immense. The Chengue case is a paradigmatic example of what truth, justice and reparation must mean for all of this crime’s victims.

The judicial truth

Days after the massacre, on February 9, Elkin Valdiris Tirado, a 19-year-old paramilitary who participated in the massacre, felt overwhelmed by the phantoms of death and turned himself in to the authorities. His story laid the groundwork for the subsequent investigation. Valdiris testified that the massacre had been planned by Rodrigo Peluffo, “Cadena,” a man born in Macayepo, a town neighboring Chengue, known to everyone there. “He would come to buy avocados. He was a butcher,” said Juan Carlos, a farmer who also escaped the massacre. Valdiris said the group that did the killing was headed by a woman: Íngrid Guerra Soler, known as “Beatriz.” The massacre – according to his testimony – was made possible by the complicity of members of the Navy. Valdiris accused Sergeant Euclides Rafael Bossa of having received money from “Cadena,” in exchange for weapons and munitions.

In the Chengue case file, which consists of 7,500 bound volumes, it has been established that “Cadena” ordered the massacre and that Carlos Castaño, at the time the AUC’s chief, was one of the intellectual authors. However, many questions still persist: Why was this massacre committed? Who were the other intellectual authors and accomplices? Which members of the AUC participated? How did they manage to pass so easily through the Police and Navy roadblocks? Were the armed forces complicit?

The unsworn confession that “Cadena” will give to investigators from the Justice and Peace Unit [of the Attorney-General’s office] in the coming months should clear up these questions. While the paramilitaries who committed serious crimes are not legally obligated to confess to all of their deeds, the quantity of evidence in this case makes it unlikely that “Cadena” will deny his participation in the Chengue massacre.

After this unsworn confession, the prosecutors have 36 hours to decide whether to open an investigation – something that, in the case of Chengue, will be unnecessary because a case has already been opened. Beginning at that moment, a special group of prosecutors will have 60 days to investigate the case and accuse “Cadena.”

As the attorney-general, Mario Iguarán, told Semana, the Attorney-General’s office is already building a database of all cases against the paramilitaries, in order to access this information when needed. However, given that the office of the High Commissioner for Peace [the government’s negotiator] has not sent them the list of those who will be covered by the law, they are currently gathering information only about the most serious cases.

Nobody has any illusions that the prosecutors will learn anything new about this massacre during these two months. Over these past four years, its investigation has been frustrated by the murders of two prosecutors assigned to the case, and of two technicians from the Technical Investigations Unit [CTI, detectives from the Attorney-General’s office]. The two months will be merely a process of verifying what the accused have already confessed.

Upon the investigation’s completion, an expedited trial will begin, at which victims may attend to supply information and evidence. This hearing for conciliation with victims could make the biggest difference, at least in terms of knowing the truth, but unless a large institutional effort is made, it is bound to fail.

For example, under the circumstances it is almost impossible for Chengue’s victims to participate in the process. Their whereabouts are mostly unknown: not even the seven families who now live in Chengue know where their neighbors are, because the massacre was so brutal that entire families disintegrated.

No effort to teach about the law has begun in that region. “As far as one understands, it is a way to defend them,” one of Chengue’s victims, who had learned of the law on television, said to Semana. And it is possible that even if they do learn about the law, many of these victims, who have devoted their energy to extensive declarations that never lead to justice being done, doubt that this time their “truth” will have much influence on the process. The distrust of the state is total. With bitterness, a resident of Chengue says: “While they throw us in jail, they take good care of those who did the massacre.” The reference is to three victims of Chengue who had returned, and last year were arrested by the Navy, judged and convicted of rebellion – unfairly, they argue. But the swiftness of justice in that case must be recognized.

There is also skepticism that the paramilitaries are really dismantling their criminal structures. In addition, they distrust the armed forces. “We don’t feel protected. When the Marines pass through here, nobody leaves their houses to work. They have stolen our hens and turkeys,” said one of the women of Chengue. If the law’s implementation is really going to depend on the victims’ participation, and especially if the investigations are to be carried out in the zone where the crimes where committed and where today the demobilized paramilitaries are hanging around, the government will have to guarantee better protection [for victims who wish to provide evidence]. It is still uncertain where the money to do that will come from.

Justice

The few residents left in Chengue look at each other and smile when the Semana reporters talk to them of justice. One by one, those implicated in the massacre have been exonerated. Of the nine investigated, only three still face charges: “Cadena,” Carlos Castaño and Úber Enrique Banquez, alias “Juancho.” “Beatriz” and the Navy Sergeants Rubén Darío Rojas and Euclides Bossa were absolved. The only person convicted is Valdiris, who received a reduced sentence of 45 months and 24 days for his cooperation.

Supposing that the Justice and Peace Unit of the Attorney-General’s office convicts “Cadena” for the Chengue massacre, he will get a maximum of eight years’ confinement. If he accepts having also committed the El Salado, Macayepo and Pichilín massacres, of which he is also accused, he will receive only the maximum penalty of eight years, since the law says they cannot accumulate as they do in the United States. And he will get credit for the time he spends in Ralito. According to an intelligence report, “Cadena” lives today with his family in the corregimiento of El Caramelo, “and constantly receives visits from Sucre politicians, residents and close collaborators.”

The country already knows this. But if “Cadena” eventually decides to name accomplices in his unsworn confession, it is still unclear whether they will be tried under the Justice and Peace law. Semana had a list of questions delivered to the paramilitary chief in order to know his position on the Chengue massacre and the Justice and Peace law, but at the close of this edition he had not answered it.

Nor is it known how it can be guaranteed that the other 80 paramilitaries who participated in the massacre will be tried. Last month, when the group to which “Cadena” belonged (the so-called “Heroes of Montes de María”) demobilized, only nine members – including chiefs “Cadena,” “Juancho” and Diego Vecino – were determined to face charges for unpardonable crimes, and went to Ralito to await the law’s implementation. Or that is what is believed. When Semana called to request an interview with the latter, the response received was that Vecino wasn’t in the zone.

It was also impossible to get a response on this issue from the high commissioner for peace, Luis Carlos Restrepo, even though Semana sought him for eight days.

It is possible that other members of the bloc that committed the Chengue massacre have also perpetrated unpardonable crimes, but that they have nonetheless preferred to return to their homes, trusting in the system being too inefficient ever to arrest them. To gather in Ralito is today an option that the paramilitaries choose in order to protect themselves from arrest, not a requirement demanded by the government, as the country has been led to believe.

If the armed forces’ complicity in the massacre – denounced by many of the victims – is proved, what will happen to them? The police, for example, were never investigated. But assuming that, for example, the unsworn confession of “Cadena” or “Juancho” implicates some police agents, these could end up paying sentences three or four times longer than those of the paramilitary chiefs. They would not be able to benefit from the Justice and Peace law, which only covers paramilitaries and guerrillas. Something similar to what might happen to General [Jaime] Uscátegui for the Mapiripán massacre. While the paramilitaries who killed 47 people could receive the benefits of the “alternative penalty,” the general, who is being tried for omission of responsibility, could receive more than 30 years in jail. Something similar will happen to the politicians, government employees and sponsors who, based on the paramilitary chiefs’ confessions, could end up being investigated by the regular criminal-justice system.

It is difficult to accept that men like those responsible for Chengue, who are accused of hundreds of deaths with extreme cruelty (the Attorney-General’s office has found the bodies of their victims cut into pieces), will receive at most eight years in jail in an “austere and secure establishment,” as the law says, which could well be the farms where they currently live. But the government’s bet is that public opinion will accept this in exchange for generous reparations to victims and a genuine dismantlement of their criminal structure. Nonetheless, it is still not known how reparations will function, and no dismantlement has been seen. According to the authorities, the paramilitaries’ businesses in Sincelejo are still booming, and the politicians elected thanks to their armed pressure are still governing.

Reparations

The law guarantees the victims the right to complete reparation. On paper. In practice, the challenge is daunting. After the massacre, Chengue disappeared. The 120 families who lived there, plus those in neighboring corregimientos, fled toward Sincelejo, Cartagena and Ovejas. There, the International Committee of the Red Cross gave them emergency aid for three months. To those who requested it, the Social Solidarity Network [of the Colombian government] gave them support for six months. Afterward, they were abandoned. Many old people began to die of sadness. “My mother couldn’t bear life in Sincelejo and the pain of her brother having been killed,” says Omaira. “In total, 32 of the displaced have died since the massacre,” adds Ramiro, another resident, who decided to return to Chengue due to the hunger his family suffered in Sincelejo. Others have had worse luck. Isbelia returned two years ago, and a week later an armed group came to her farm and shot her husband, leaving him near death. They had to displace themselves a second time.

The town of Chengue was never rebuilt. It is a monument to terror. Everything there recalls the night that changed its history forever. The presence of the government seems like a bad joke. Two years ago, those who returned managed to have a teacher assigned for the town’s 25 children. This year the teacher failed the Education Ministry’s quality test, and the post remained vacant for four months. In July, two residents of Chengue went to Ovejas to ask that a new teacher be named and, instead of getting a response, they were detained for several hours and interrogated by the police, due to the mere suspicion that falls on those who come from Chengue, which is still under guerrilla influence. That is why, when they are asked what they have received as reparation during the past few years, they reply, “the stigma.”

Will it be different this time? Everything depends on the Reparations Commission created by the law, which still has not had regulations written to govern it. There are many doubts. To establish something that sounds as simple as the number of victims to receive reparations will be a very difficult task. 1,300 people lived in Chengue. Do they all qualify for reparations? Should the relatives of the 23 people who died – who possibly didn’t even live in Chengue – also get reparations? Supposing that each victim gets a million pesos [US$400] (a fraction of the eight million that demobilized paramilitaries are receiving), merely the individual reparations in Chengue will cost more than 1.3 billion pesos [US$520,000]. But if it is done well, it will cost much more. The law requires complete reparations, which implies psychological assistance, rebuilding of the town, symbolic events and a guarantee that it will never happen again.

From where will the money come to comply with the law’s promises? It is supposed that the Reparations Fund will be fed by the goods that the paramilitaries turn over, plus international donations and the government’s budget. As a matter of common sense, the millionaire paramilitary chiefs have few properties in their own names, and have no incentive to turn in assets, especially when the law doesn’t penalize them for hiding properties. The most that they can hope for is that they return the lands that they shamelessly stole from the victims. The money from narcotrafficking, extortion and legal businesses, many created to launder illicit money, is very difficult to detect. The Fund will have to sustain itself from the existing national budget or from international donations, which will be difficult to obtain because there is a great deal of skepticism about the law.

Demobilized paramilitaries have had better luck. Despite the problems of the Reinsertion Program, they have a year’s minimum salary guaranteed, eight million pesos for a productive project, there are reference centers offering training, psychological treatment, affiliation with the social security system and legal advice. In addition, there are agricultural mega-projects supported by private businessmen to guarantee them a job. All of which is good, because it is the only way to keep them from returning to war.

But it is morally inconceivable that while the victimizers have better opportunities for the future, their victims have nothing assured. They expect so little of the government that the only thing they ask as reparations is that “the government leaves us alone,” as one of them said to Semana.

The debate about whether or not the law is the most appropriate is now closed. What is crucial is that its implementation guarantees that it will bring Justice and Peace. This demands an institutional, budgetary and political-will effort which, although the law passed two months ago already, still has not gotten underway. If the government and the judicial system do not take on this issue as a priority, the cost – in terms of human suffering and in money through lawsuits against the government – will be incalculable.

Aug 25

Yesterday, U.S. Attorney-General Alberto Gonzales was in Bogotá praising the Uribe government to the skies, calling Colombia a “beacon to the world.”

Gonzales emphasized the Colombian government’s increased willingness to extradite drug suspects to the United States.

Extradition is a critical tool for both our countries in the battle to ensure that criminals are brought to justice. The extradition partnership the United States has with Colombia is the best we have in the world. This important relationship enables both countries to deal effectively and forcefully with serious criminal organizations and individuals.

Well, not all serious criminal organizations and individuals.

At the same time Gonzales was making his remarks, the main front of the AUC’s Pacific Bloc was demobilizing, in a ceremony presided over by a longtime narcotrafficker who, though indicted by a U.S. court, is unlikely ever to face U.S. justice.

The front’s 150 members turned in 144 weapons Tuesday in the department of Chocó. They did so in the presence of their “political chief,” Francisco Javier Zuluaga Lindo, known as “Gordo Lindo” (which translates as “fat pretty man”).

Zuluaga himself will formally demobilize on Saturday. When he does, it will be a major victory for all Colombian narcotraffickers who joined the AUC in the hope of avoiding extradition to the United States.

The 35-year-old Zuluaga does not have a long history in the AUC, though he has been in the drug-trafficking business since the days of the Medellín cartel fifteen or so years ago. He was part of the organization of Medellín cartel figures Fabio and Jorge Ochoa. Later, after the Medellín and Cali cartels disappeared, he worked with Alejandro “Juvenal” Bernal Madrigal, one of the largest drug-traffickers of the late 1990s. Zuluaga narrowly escaped capture in 1999, when “Juvenal” was arrested in “Operation Millennium,” a major DEA-Colombian Police sting operation. Since then, he has been a fugitive, maintaining ties to the country’s largest drug organization, the Northern Valle cartel. In 1999, a court in Fort Lauderdale indicted him for narcotrafficking.

None of this stopped him from winning a position in the AUC. About three years ago, just as the Uribe government was beginning its negotiations with the paramilitaries, AUC leader Diego Fernando Murillo (“Don Berna,” another recently arrived paramilitary with a long history in the drug underworld) made him the political chief of the Pacific Bloc, which operates in the departments of Chocó and Valle del Cauca (from just south of Panama to just south of Cali).

Colombian Senator Jimmy Chamorro denounced this week that “Gordo Lindo” paid $5 million for his paramilitary status. He “opened his checkbook and bought a franchise to convert himself from a narcotrafficker into a paramilitary chief. This cannot be allowed.”

Zuluaga’s tenuous status in the AUC was evidenced by this bizarre exchange with Pacific Bloc commander “Johnatan Guevara” on Tuesday on Colombia’s “La W” radio network, reported by El Tiempo.

The man who answered the call not only denied having participated in the drug business but also denied that “Gordo Lindo” is the maximum leader of the “Pacific”: “Since the process began, many people who are commanders have come to Ralito [the zone where negotiations have taken place]. … We didn’t even know their names, and we’ve only seen them for the first time now.”

He added that “Zuluaga has not been in this zone. We have nothing to do with him. No narcotrafficking has happened here,” said the man, with a Chocó accent.

Minutes later, one of the reporters [from “La W”] received a call. It was “Comandante Johnatan,” asking to rectify the comments that had been transmitted over “La W” about the Pacific Bloc and its relationship with “Gordo Lindo.”

… “I think one of the muchachos who picked up my phone thought someone was playing a practical joke. He never thought that it would be the press, so he started to say stupid things,” assured “Johnatan Guevara,” military chief of the Pacific Bloc.

The new incident reinforced doubts about the status of Francisco Javier Zuluaga, alias “Gordo Lindo,” as a true paramilitary chief, instead of a narco-trafficker who “parachuted” into the ranks of the AUC.

… Another interview was arranged, which was to take place on the same cellphone. But the paramilitary chief never answered again.

As a demobilizing paramilitary, “Gordo Lindo” will benefit from the very lenient so-called “Justice and Peace” law that the Colombian Congress narrowly passed, at the Uribe government’s urging, in June. He will be required to confess to past crimes, including narcotrafficking, which he will argue was fundraising for the paramilitary cause. For his misdeeds he will be sentenced to 5 to 8 years – really 3 ½ to 6 ½ years, subtracting time spent negotiating – in a “prison” that might actually be house arrest at a rural estate.

Having paid this light penalty, “Gordo Lindo” may not be extradited, as under Colombian law this would be “double jeopardy” – being punished twice for the same crime. The “Justice and Peace” law also considers paramilitarism to be a “political crime,” which the Colombian Constitution states is not an extraditable offense; if Zuluaga’s lawyers can argue that his narcotrafficking was “connected” to the political crime of paramilitarism, he may not be extradited for his drug-dealing.

According to Senator Chamorro, with the cases of “Gordo Lindo” and other narcos-turned-paramilitary-leaders, “the government has made extradition into a huge joke.”

Yesterday, Colombian reporters did ask Attorney-General Gonzales whether the cases of “Gordo Lindo” and other paramilitary traffickers don’t call into question the U.S.-Colombian “extradition partnership” he had praised so highly in his comments. He responded vaguely: “Our general objective is to bring to justice any person who commits crimes against the American people, or who carries out criminal activities against U.S. interests.”

What is happening right now with “Gordo Lindo” and other demobilizing AUC leaders violates that “general objective” in both letter and spirit. Yet the U.S. Attorney-General, our maximum law-enforcement official, did not condemn it when given an opportunity to do so.

Why, then, did he bother to visit Bogotá?

Aug 23

Here’s an English translation of the op-ed that Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) published in the Colombian daily El Tiempo last Saturday.

El Tiempo, August 20, 2005

The U.S. Should Change Course in Colombia

U.S. Congressman James P. McGovern, Democratic Representative of Massachusetts

For the past few years, I have offered amendments in the U.S. House of Representatives to cut, limit or condition military aid to Colombia. My hope was never to walk away from Colombia, but to achieve a better balance in our failing strategy toward Colombia.

Colombia is not just the source of 90 percent of cocaine on U.S. streets. Many of your own people suffer from an intractable forty-year war with groups the State Department considers terrorists. Vast stretches of the national territory are totally ungoverned.

Yet Colombia was facing exactly the same set of challenges five years ago, when President Clinton signed into law "Plan Colombia." After five years and $4 billion, making Colombia the largest U.S. aid recipient outside the Middle East, little has changed.

This money has not paid for a balanced strategy. Eighty percent has gone to Colombia’s military and police. For every four dollars spent on helicopters, guns and military trainers, only one has gone to feed millions of displaced families, to make a broken judicial system function, or to help people in neglected rural areas make a decent, legal living.

The results in the United States have also been depressing but predictable. Not only is cocaine just as cheap and plentiful here as it was in 2000, but last year saw no drop in the amount of coca being grown in Colombia.

While President Uribe deserves congratulations for reducing several measures of violence, such as kidnappings, guerrilla groups remain far from the negotiating table, territorial gains have been very few, forced displacement is increasing, and recent months have seen a spike in guerrilla attacks. Worse, for the past two years the United Nations has documented an increase in human rights violations by military personnel. Meanwhile, President Uribe’s main step toward "peace" has been a likely deal with the paramilitaries that will allow them to pay brief sentences in luxurious jails despite having massacred thousands of innocent people, while avoiding extradition despite having sent tons of drugs to my country.

During his visit to Texas, President Uribe asked President Bush for additional funds to support this deal with the paramilitaries. He also asked for more military assistance and more planes to spray herbicides over coca-growing peasants.

Rather than more military aid, the United States instead should have offered more resources to help the Colombian government regain control of territory by utilizing all of the nation’s resources – not just soldiers but courts, schools, clinics and roads, and funds for the necessary teachers, health care workers, legal experts and construction workers. The United States should help demobilize the paramilitaries, but only if we can be confident that the process does not leave mass murderers in charge of politically powerful criminal networks.

Our drug policy could do much more if we reduced demand by providing treatment for our own addicts, while carrying out a genuine effort to alleviate the economic desperation that pushes poor farmers into the coca and poppy trade in Colombia. Sadly, President Bush chose to follow the status quo of more military aid, despite continued impunty on key Colombian human rights cases.

I have visited some of the poorest, most conflictive corners of Colombia. And as member of the U.S. Congress, I want to support a policy for Colombia that promotes stability, justice, human rights and peace. For that to happen, both the Colombian government and the U.S. government must change course. Immediately.

Aug 21

Media: When you said that Venezuela and Cuba have not been helpful, or their activities in Bolivia, can you be more specific about why or how or what way?
Rumsfeld: I could be, but I don’t think I will be.
- Secretary Rumsfeld Media Availability En Route to Paraguay, 8/17

Nine months ago, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went to Quito, Ecuador for a meeting of Latin America’s defense ministers. His message then was that the region had to cooperate and prepare for a fight against “terrorists, drug traffickers, hostage takers, and criminal gangs.” Many in the region bristled at the prospect of the Bush Administration exporting the “war on terror” to a part of the world with few terrorist groups.

Well, never mind that. On a trip to Paraguay and Peru last week, Rumsfeld did mention the threat of transnational crime and “antisocial behavior,” but his main focus was elsewhere, as the New York Times reported Friday.

Two senior Defense Department officials traveling with Mr. Rumsfeld said that post-Sept. 11, 2001, worries about Islamic militant groups operating in the so-called Tri-Border area, where the frontiers of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet, had receded. In their place, the officials said, is a more familiar set of concerns, including the Venezuelan and Cuban presidents. … Mr. Rumsfeld’s goal in Peru and in Paraguay earlier was to stitch together support for isolating Mr. Chávez, who has become bitterly anti-Washington. … The two American officials traveling with Mr. Rumsfeld said Mr. Chávez, sometimes with Cuban help, was quietly backing leftist movements in Bolivia and elsewhere in the region.

Faced with the growing appeal of Hugo Chávez and other populist leaders in the region, the Bush Administration sent its secretary of defense. It sent Donald Rumsfeld, one of the most visible faces of the globally unpopular Iraq war, and an unloved figure in Latin America.

Donald Rumsfeld who, by the way, is not the head of the U.S. diplomatic corps. He is the titular head of the U.S. military. Why is the U.S. Secretary of Defense traveling to Latin America to warn against a political tendency?

It may mean that the Bush Administration is starting to treat Hugo Chávez and what the Southern Command has called “radical populism” as a defense issue or a security threat. That would be a very bad idea. It’s important to say the following early and clearly:

  • The spread of leftist politics in Latin America is not something that should concern the U.S. military.
  • Confronting the spread of leftist politics in Latin America should not be a mission for U.S. military assistance to the region.
  • The U.S. government must not view Latin America’s militaries as a bulwark or counterweight against leftist political movements.

So far, the concerns about Cuba and Venezuela that dominated Rumsfeld’s trip have not translated into increased military assistance. In fact, both countries Rumsfeld visited have their non-drug military aid frozen right now, because neither Paraguay nor Peru has signed an “Article 98” agreement giving U.S. military personnel immunity from the International Criminal Court.

We think it’s important, though, to start talking about this now, because Rumsfeld and other officials are being so vague about the nature of the threat that they’re warning against. What exactly are Chávez and Castro doing to spread “radical populism” around the region? Donald Rumsfeld could tell you, but he doesn’t think he will. Just take his word for it.

The defense delegation did make clear, however, that it has its eye on Bolivia. Rumsfeld was hosted by two countries whose governments have both distanced themselves from Chávez-style populism, and who both share a border with Bolivia. (In Paraguay, in fact, the U.S. military has been carrying out joint military exercises, and rumors have been circulating about U.S.-funded improvements to a Paraguayan base in Boquerón, near the Bolivian border, which the U.S. embassy denies.)

Street protests have ejected two Bolivian presidents since October 2003: Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada, who had won with just over 20 percent of the vote, and his replacement, Carlos Mesa. In both cases, the protesters have been largely non-violent, and with the exception of the October 2003 protests, the state has not responded violently. The protestors have mostly been poor and/or indigenous Bolivians, whose political influence and organization have been increasing. Their demands include national control of natural-gas reserves, an end to hard-line coca-eradication policies, greater recognition of indigenous rights, and opposition to “neoliberalism” in general. Their main form of protest has been widespread road blockades, which usually means large groups of people in the middle of the country’s main roads, hauling in rocks and debris to prevent traffic from passing, and shutting down national commerce for weeks.

The Bush Administration seems to believe that this rise of poor and indigenous opposition is not a homegrown Bolivian phenomenon, that in fact it owes to meddling from the Cuba-Venezuela “axis.” A July 27 State Department letter to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) voiced concerns “that Venezuela is using its wealth gained from oil production to destabilize the country’s democratic neighbors in the Americas by funding anti-democratic groups in Bolivia, Ecuador, and elsewhere.”

The Pentagon-run American Forces Press Service goes further, citing “the menace Cuba and Venezuela pose to the region, and most immediately, to Paraguay’s neighbor Bolivia. A senior defense official told reporters traveling with Rumsfeld that Cuban ideology, backed by Nicaraguan financing, is targeting nations like Bolivia that are teetering between democracy and leftist governments and could go either way.”

Because of the deliberate vagueness of Rumsfeld’s and other officials’ statements, we don’t know what exactly the U.S. government thinks Chávez and Castro are supporting in Bolivia.

The distinction is important. Are they encouraging the spread of violence, insurgency, terrorism or assassination? If so – if the evidence indicates that foreign actors are encouraging Bolivians to murder Bolivians – then the Venezuelan assistance would be a regional security issue.

Or are Cuba and Venezuela merely supporting leftist political parties and non-violent social movements? For instance, though no proof has been presented, it would not be surprising to learn that Chávez is giving funding, and Castro advice (he has no money to give) to the MAS (“Movement Toward Socialism”), Bolivia’s leading leftist party, led by cocalero leader and congressman Evo Morales.

Though it supported the protests that forced the exits of Sánchez and Mesa, MAS is a political party participating in the electoral process, electing congressmen and mayors, and forging alliances with other, more moderate parties and movements. MAS has its sights on the early elections called for December 4, but Morales is polling only 21 percent, and the party performed disappointingly in late 2004 local elections, so it will need to do some coalition-building if it expects to make a good showing. It is a stretch to call a party that’s participating in its third straight electoral campaign "undemocratic."

Whether or not it exists, Cuban-Venezuelan support for MAS is not an issue for the Bolivian military, or any other military, to take on with U.S. encouragement. One of the most promising developments in Latin America since the Cold War ended is that most of the region’s militaries have not stood in the way of leftist parties and candidates who have come to power through elections. External support for MAS is not a reason to reverse this progress. It is not a reason to re-politicize the region’s militaries. And it is not a reason to increase U.S. military assistance.

Besides, funding foreign opposition movements is something the United States does all the time, including in Venezuela. When these movements aren’t violent, this aid usually stirs up only mild protest. If Chávez’s “meddling” merely consists of using his oil money to support like-minded political parties, the Bush Administration can do many things to express its displeasure. But there’s no need to involve either the U.S. or the Bolivian militaries.

Instead of blaming the rise of Bolivia’s leftist politics on foreign machinations, the U.S. government should alter its policies to address the reasons why the MAS and similar movements have won the hearts and minds of so many Bolivians. Jim Shultz, a U.S. citizen who runs the Democracy Center, a Cochabamba-based NGO, said it well recently in his excellent “Blog from Bolivia.”

Let’s be clear. Does the left in Bolivia have ties and kinship with Cuba and Venezuela? Absolutely. Are the influences from those two countries the reason for Bolivian political upheaval? Absolutely not. … I can tell you all – living here, not in the US second guessing at things from afar – that the political uprisings of the past five years in Bolivia are the product of genuine Bolivian movements about taking back control of the nation’s future.

The Bush Administration should forget about whatever support is coming from Venezuela and treat Bolivia’s populism as the homegrown movement that it is. If it wants to keep this movement from turning virulently anti-American, it will have to respond with more than just visits from Rumsfeld and gifts of riot gear.

At the regional level, nobody expects the Bush Administration to support the Chavista agenda for Latin America. From his expansion of military roles to his arms purchases to his elimination of checks on the executive branch, we have concerns about Chávez too. But if the Bush Administration were truly serious about the spread of Cuban-Venezuelan influence, it wouldn’t treat it as a defense or military issue. Presenting an attractive alternative to “radical populism” will require much more creativity than that.

It would mean taking some steps like the following:

  • Treat the spread of “radical populism” as a diplomatic issue, not a defense challenge. Hugo Chávez is constantly visiting his neighbors, listening to what they have to say, burnishing his image and opening channels of communication. By contrast, the United States cannot be said to be assiduously courting leaders and parties throughout the region. While U.S. officials have paid a few more visits this year, the high-level meetings and diplomatic initiatives are still quite rare, and the OAS is a vastly underutilized forum. Meanwhile, much of the region sees us scolding about counter-terrorism, counter-drug certification, and International Criminal Court immunity while reducing economic aid, budging little on debt relief or immigration, and giving little ground in trade negotiations.

  • Keep your mouth shut and don’t take the bait. In a letter to Rumsfeld last week, Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter wrote, “I suggest it may be very helpful to U.S. efforts to secure Venezuela’s co-operation in our joint attack on drug interdiction if the rhetoric would be reduced.” That’s good advice. Chávez and Fidel Castro thrive on public criticism from U.S. officials. Whenever Rumsfeld or another senior official criticizes him in public, Chávez invokes the stereotype of the big bully to the north, keeps his supporters on the alert and diverts the debate away from legitimate concerns like militarization, arms purchases, curbs on the media or persistent unemployment. By contrast, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earned praise for avoiding public name-calling during her April trip to the region.
  • Increase economic aid. If the U.S. government is truly worried about the stability of the region’s democracies, it will have to do more – and spend more – to help elected governments reduce popular disenchantment and frustration. More aid is needed to help democracies become more responsive, more accountable, and better able to deliver basic services. This is not happening. According to the Bush Administration’s last foreign aid budget request, nearly every country in the region can expect a significant cut to its development assistance, anti-disease programs, and economic support funds in 2006. Bolivia, which is expected to undergo a $4.6 million cut in alternative development aid, is no exception. While Bolivia is among the countries considered eligible to receive a large grant of economic aid under the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), its approval is far from certain, especially given this year’s political turmoil. The MCA isn’t designed to aid basket cases.
  • Do a better sales job. It’s not news that the United States’ image is suffering worldwide, in large part because of widespread opposition to the Iraq war and the Bush Administration’s unilateralism. That damage will be hard to undo. But more candor, less heavy-handedness, and much more investment in public diplomacy – the stuff that the U.S. Information Agency used to do before congressional Republicans closed it down – would make a difference. However, even a slick PR campaign from Karen Hughes will have little effect if poor Latin Americans continue to see the U.S. government as a bully, a scold, or an ally of corrupt local political elites.
  • Cut back dependence on imported oil. It’s ironic that even Hugo Chávez’s biggest detractors are increasing his revenue every time they fill up their SUVs – especially now, as oil closes in on $70 per barrel. If the Bush Administration really loathed and feared Chávez that much, it would reduce the flow of dollars to him by investing far more in developing alternative fuels and encouraging fuel conservation. Since absolutely none of that is happening, we can conclude that the administration’s concerns about Chávez and the spread of “radical populism” don’t go that far.
Aug 17

In a feature that we hope won’t be a regular one, we present two recent op-eds that no newspaper was willing to publish. Though they’re now too outdated to re-submit, we post them here so that at least somebody gets to read them.

Neither Justice Nor Peace in Colombia
By Winifred Tate and Adam Isacson
Late July 2005

The president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, will visit President Bush at his Crawford, Texas ranch on August 4. While the United States has given Colombia $4 billion in aid since 2000, Mr. Uribe will come to Crawford asking for still more.

High on his list will be a request for as much as $80 million to demobilize 20,000 fighters from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a powerful umbrella organization of private, pro-government militias known as "paramilitaries." On its face, this request would merit consideration. Uribe has been a staunch ally of the Bush Administration, and he claims that getting these fighters off the battlefield can help his government focus on ending its 40-year-old war against leftist insurgents.

But after more than two years of talks with the AUC, the process looks less likely to dismantle the paramilitaries than to "re-brand" them.

The paramilitaries are not freedom fighters keeping Colombian peasants safe from guerrillas. The AUC is a major drug-trafficking organization on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). At least eleven of its leaders, many of whom are sitting down with Colombian government representatives in a demilitarized zone, face indictments for shipping drugs to the United States, and the AUC continues to send tons of cocaine to our shores.

Diego Murillo ("Don Berna") is typical of the AUC leadership. Starting out as a mid-level bagman in Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel, Murillo went on to work for the Cali cartel, then led a band of hitmen feared throughout Medellín, before finding his way into the AUC in 2000 or 2001. In July 2004 a New York prosecutor, calling him the AUC’s "de facto leader," indicted Murillo for narco-trafficking.

On May 30, Colombia’s Attorney General ordered his arrest for planning a state legislator’s murder. Instead of being arrested, however, Murillo was allowed to "demobilize" and granted the right to pass his time in a rural estate, while he is likely to receive a light sentence under a so-called "Justice and Peace Law" passed in June by a slim majority of Colombia’s Congress.

This new law, which promises neither justice nor peace, is alarming to anybody who cares about human rights or counter-narcotics. It allows sentences – even for hardened criminals involved in hundreds of cases of murder and drug trafficking – of five to eight years maximum, which may be served in "rural estates." These penalties can be reduced to less than four years with credits for "time served" while negotiating.

After demobilized paramilitaries give voluntary statements – in which they are not required to reveal what they know about their leadership and support networks – the law gives a total of 20 prosecutors 36 hours to file charges, and 60 days to complete their investigations. Given that we are talking about hundreds of individuals and thousands of very serious crimes, the chances of adequate investigations are remote at best.

The new law would cripple the war on drugs, preventing paramilitary narco-traffickers from being extradited to the United States. The provision makes paramilitary activity – which almost certainly includes drug-trafficking to support the AUC cause – a "political crime," which under Colombia’s constitution cannot be subject to extradition.

Worse, the law does little to dismantle a paramilitary power structure that is increasing its grip over Colombia’s illegal economy and local politics. In most peace processes, it is safely assumed that the armed group in question will disappear – or at least stop killing people and breaking the law – after negotiations conclude. This is not a likely result of the AUC talks: the weak "Justice and Peace" law does not prevent the paramilitaries from transforming themselves into a powerful combination of mafia and death squad.

As AUC leaders receive clean slates and get to keep most of their power, Colombia will have taken a huge step toward becoming the "narco-democracy" that U.S. policymakers have feared for so long. The Bush Administration and Congress would do well to beware this Trojan horse, writing no checks for a process that promises peace but instead will make clear to Colombians that, in their country, crime does pay.

What are we certifying in Colombia?
By Robert E. White
Late June / early July 2005

(Robert White, a former U.S. ambassador to Paraguay and El Salvador, is president of the Center for International Policy in Washington.)

When Bill Clinton introduced "Plan Colombia" in 2000 – a $1.3 billion package of mostly military aid to Colombia – it was billed as a program to eradicate coca plants in order to make cocaine too expensive and hard to buy in this country. Many lawmakers had doubts, because the Colombian military was to be the main recipient of the package. Colombia’s armed forces have the worst human rights record in the hemisphere, with a long record of supporting paramilitary death squads that the United States lists among international terrorist groups.

But some doubters were appeased, because a portion of the military aid would be subject to the State Department’s certification, twice each year, that the Colombian government was vigorously prosecuting violators and breaking ties with paramilitary organizations.

Five years and four billion dollars later, the drug trade continues unabated. The price of cocaine on U.S. streets is even lower, and the number of users – including high school students – is higher.

The human rights situation remains critical, despite the State Department’s certification requirement. In the face of persistent evidence of collaboration between the Colombian military and paramilitary organizations, the State Department has regularly certified Colombian progress on human rights. But the accumulated evidence and events this year gave Bush administration officials hesitation.

On February 21, eight residents of San José de Apartadó, a community in a combat area that has publicly declared that it does not support any armed group, were brutally murdered. Residents stated that army troops committed the massacre, but Vice President Francisco Santos made public statements implicating guerrillas before any investigation had occurred. Meanwhile, at the crime sites, soldiers tampered with murder weapons in front of many witnesses.

To the west, in the Afro-Colombian region of Chocó near the Pacific Ocean, paramilitary forces operate freely, threatening communities in areas under ostensible military control. "We ask ourselves with more and more discomfort whom the Armed Forces protect and whom they fight," three Catholic bishops from the area wrote President Alvaro Uribe in April, "because we continue to suffer on a daily basis situations that would be completely unacceptable for a country with the rule of law."

The systematic nature of government-paramilitary collaboration can be seen in the Colombian law passed last week that defines Colombia’s future relationship with paramilitary commanders. It allows those who organized and committed massacres and other atrocities to serve little or no jail time, to keep lands they seized from their victims, and to go on without confessing to their crimes, which include extensive drug trafficking. Several of these terrorist leaders are wanted in the United States on charges of trafficking in tons of cocaine, but by classifying the commanders as "political" opponents, the new law exempts them from extradition.

The human rights conditions in U.S. law require the Colombian military to suspend soldiers or police credibly reported to have committed violations, but the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reports having no knowledge of suspensions for any serious human rights violations by security force personnel.

As a supplier of more than $700 million in annual assistance, the United States has enormous leverage to generate the political will needed to investigate and prosecute the men responsible for the torrent of brutal abuses of Colombian civilians. The United States should follow the law and decline to certify the Colombian military’s human rights record, withholding some $90 million in equipment until the law’s requirements are met. The pressure thus exerted could finally bring the Colombian government to take seriously the demands of ethics and law, to respect the victims of these crimes, and to prosecute the perpetrators.

Aug 15

It’s been about 20 months now since the Colombian Army, with lots of U.S. support, launched “Plan Patriota,” a major military offensive in a longtime FARC guerrilla stronghold in southern Colombia. Supported by U.S. logistics, planning and intelligence personnel, Colombian troops continue to fight in a broad swath of heavily jungled territory in the departments of Caquetá, Guaviare, Meta, and Vaupés (and perhaps others).

In part due to the remoteness of the zones where it has been happening, it has been difficult to judge whether Plan Patriota is succeeding or failing, and what impact it has had on the area’s civilian population. Colombia’s main newspaper, El Tiempo, has visited the zone periodically, offering valuable glimpses of what is going on – particularly a series that appeared in early May.

A new, and pessimistic, vision comes from a column published in Sunday’s El Tiempo. Its author is Alirio Calderón, a former mayor of Puerto Rico, Caquetá, a town in the midst of the “Plan Patriota” zone (and near the former FARC demilitarized zone). In late May, FARC members burst into a Puerto Rico restaurant and massacred several town council members.

Calderón argues that the Colombian troops in the Plan Patriota zone have had a rough time in unfamiliar terrain, and that they made a big mistake by treating the local population as potential enemies and coca-growing criminals. The column is worth a close read. Here is a translation.

El Tiempo – August 14, 2005

Plan Patriota, as seen from the south

Alirio Calderón

Among the most important components of “Democratic Security,” the current government’s banner policy, is Plan Patriota. The Plan has sent 17,000 men to the jungles of the country’s south. This is an area where the FARC Secretariat has long resided with few difficulties, and where it has maintained its armed structures unscathed, along with hundreds of kidnap victims whose return the nation demands with a tone of desperation.

But the intelligent and well-intentioned Plan Patriota strategy began in error, since the Amazonian ecosystem has peculiarities that make it unique from other regions: its topography, its humidity, its heavy rainfall, its tropical diseases, its coca-based economy and the total absence of the state. All of this makes Colombia’s Amazon basin a complex and dangerous place.

The first mistake was to bring combatants from different regions (the Caribbean coast, Antioquia, the central Andes) to fight against guerrillas who were acclimated to, or born in, this tropical region. This led to 30 percent of the troops being forced to leave the zone with illnesses (malaria, leishmaniasis, etc.), in addition to those killed or wounded in combat, as well as the natural demoralization of human beings subjected to such difficult and unfamiliar conditions. This, without a doubt, meant that from the beginning the Army lost at least 40 percent of its operational capacity.

In the second place, there was a failure to take advantage of the most important potential support the troops had: the civilian population, who were tired of the unjust and despotic treatment they had received from the guerrillas’ mid-level commanders. The guerrilla chiefs, infected by a mafioso attitude, would kill any citizen on the mere suspicion of wrongdoing, without regard to his support for the revolutionary cause.

The Army absurdly squandered this asset by operating under the false premise that whoever lives in a region under guerrilla influence must be a guerrilla ally. Abuses became a constant characteristic of the military operation. Just one ombudsman’s office, that of Cartagena del Chairá municipality, has registered more than 145 violations committed by members of the security forces. That doesn’t even count the famous mass arrest of 130 of its residents, of whom not one today remains in jail.

Finally, a serious mistake was committed by trying to fight guerrillas and cocaleros at the same time, because they are not the same thing. A cocalero is generally a campesino who has a family, and who has completely different dreams and aspirations than a guerrilla does. Of course his role in the coca business is also absolutely different from that of a guerrilla. But the chosen tactic [of across-the-board confrontation] ended up building a bridge between the two.

The right thing would have been to lead an attractive program of manual substitution of illicit crops. This would have avoided, in the first place, the massive exodus of the zone’s residents, something that will simply move the problem to some other zone.

In the second place, it would have permitted a friendly winning of the population’s hearts. It is absolutely certain that fewer bullets would have been fired, the costs would have been much lower, the list of dead and wounded men would have been much smaller, and important military blows would have been struck.

What the country must clearly understand is that Plan Patriota is a military operation just like so many others that have been carried out against the guerrillas in Colombia (Marquetalia, Casa Verde, etc.). While it is part of the Democratic Security policy, its success or failure will not determine the success or failure of the whole policy.

For the good of the Colombian state’s legitimacy and institutionalization, Democratic Security must contemplate many more elements that can make it into a permanent state policy with a satisfactory development and operation, with fewer glaring errors.

Aug 13

The idea of spraying spores and fungi over Colombia’s coca-growing zones is like one of those horror movie villains who keeps appearing to be dead once and for all, only to pop up again in the next scene (or sequel). Like a lot of bad ideas in Washington, the use of mycoherbicides – particularly Fusarium oxysporum – is still in play thanks to a small corps of House Republican hardliners.

Mycoherbicides popped up yet again on June 16, when Indiana Republican Reps. Dan Burton and Mark Souder slipped an amendment into the House Government Reform Committee’s draft of the Office of National Drug Control Policy Reauthorization Act (H.R. 2829), which makes changes to the law governing the White House Drug Czar’s office. (The text of the bill, as changed by the committee, is still not available online.) As part of a “manager’s amendment” – a series of changes proposed by the committee’s chairman – the mycoherbicide provision was subject to no debate and no separate vote.

The amendment would require the Drug Czar to produce a “plan of action” for carrying out scientific research about mycoherbicides, and a similar plan “to conduct controlled scientific testing of naturally existing mycoherbicide in a major drug producing nation” (such as Colombia, the only country that allows any fumigation at all).

In the two members’ press release, Rep. Souder insists that “mycoherbicide research needs to be investigated, and we need to begin testing it in the field. The potential benefit of these fungi is tremendous.” (Souder is also the reason why, as tens of thousands of kids have found, being arrested for drug possession means you’ll never get financial aid for college, no matter whether you’ve cleaned up your act. Bad ideas just seem to stick to him like flypaper.)

The bill probably won’t go anywhere; the Senate doesn’t even have a version of its own, and is unlikely to approve something so controversial anyway. But it’s still remarkable that this idea isn’t completely dead.

As herbicide expert Jeremy Bigwood (who maintains the mycoherbicide.info website) has thoroughly documented, there is good reason to be strongly concerned about the health and environmental impact of mycoherbicides. There is no guarantee, for instance, that they will kill only coca, how readily they will mutate, and how quickly they could spread into the ecosystem even if only tested.

Bigwood wrote a recent piece on the NarcoNews website recounting the history of attempts to push mycoherbicides both at home and abroad. It’s too much to summarize here, but it’s worth recalling that the fungi were briefly part of the original Plan Colombia law.

In the language of the original Plan Colombia appropriation back in 2000, Souder, Burton and a few other House Republicans had added a condition – in the same section as human rights conditions! – requiring the Colombian government to agree to a counternarcotics strategy including “tested, environmentally safe mycoherbicides.” The law allowed the Clinton Administration to waive the entire section of conditions – that is, to skip the whole process entirely, human rights, mycoherbicides and all – which it did immediately. Future human-rights conditions did not include a waiver provision, and the mycoherbicide language also disappeared.

The Bush Administration, too, is reluctant to support the idea. When Rep. Burton (calling them “micro-herbicides”) asked about the possibility of testing them during a May committee hearing, Drug Czar John Walters said no, citing “concern about other agents being introduced to the environment. The Colombian government has also said that it is not interested. Again, it is not clear that this particular organism is specific to coca… If you were to drop [spray] it – and it is not specific to coca – it could cause considerable damage to the environment which in Colombia is very delicate.”

While health and environment concerns should be enough to drive a stake through the heart of the mycoherbicide monster, there is an even more compelling reason why their use is a dumb idea. Mycoherbicides – like fumigation itself – are just another shortcut, another seemingly cheap, short-term fix to a problem that has much deeper roots.

Imagine that years and millions of dollars’ worth of research finally comes up with a fungus that somehow kills only coca, without mutating into anything else or doing any damage to human health or ecosystems. This magic organism would probably disrupt the cocaine market for several years, forcing wealthy drug lords to shift production to other countries, or to alter the coca genome to come up with some magic coca bush that resists the fungus.

For a few years, this disruption would likely take some money out of Colombia’s conflict. Guerrillas and paramilitaries – who currently get at least half of their funding from the drug trade – would be forced to adjust by increasing kidnapping, extortion, production of other drugs, or other profitable organized-crime activity. It would take the armed groups up to a few years to recover their earlier revenue streams.

That’s about all the impact this magic mycoherbicide would have, though. In the absence of social investment in Colombia’s neglected, violent rural areas, 85 percent of the population would continue to live in poverty as it does today. Rural Colombians would continue to distrust a government that sends soldiers and fungi in lieu of doctors, roads or teachers.

In fact, by taking away a crop that was feeding them and replacing it with nothing, the magic mycoherbicide would probably increase anger at the Colombian government, working to the guerrillas’ or paramilitaries’ advantage. It would be counterinsurgency in reverse.

Meanwhile, in the absence of investment in Colombia’s beleaguered and inefficient judicial system, impunity would still be the rule, and those who engage in illegal activity would have little to fear from judges and prosecutors whom they can bribe and intimidate. Violence and organized crime would still thrive, even if fungi killed all the coca.

Even the most perfect herbicide wouldn’t bring Colombia’s conflict to an end. Guerrillas and paramilitaries would still be able to draw on a reserve army of people with no other economic opportunities and no reason to trust their government. They, and those who support them, would still remain above the law.

The most perfect mycoherbicide would only eliminate coca bushes. It wouldn’t eliminate poverty, impunity, corruption, or the Colombian government’s inability to administer its territory. Even the most perfect mycoherbicide would be yet another misguided shortcut, a gimmick to avoid doing what really needs to be done. That’s why it’s a stupid idea. This particular horror movie needs no sequel.

Aug 10

Since September 11, 2001, and especially after the Iraq invasion, the Bush Administration has come to Congress once every year with additional budget requests – called “emergency supplementals” – to fund the “war on terror.” (H.R. 2888 was signed into law on September 18, 2001. H.R. 4775 on August 2, 2002. H.R. 1559 on April 16, 2003. H.R. 3289 on November 6, 2003. H.R. 1268 on May 11, 2005.)

These emergency supplementals have occasionally included funds for Colombia. The last two have not – but the next one probably will. The Bush Administration is likely to ask for more Colombia aid in its next request, which could come before Congress as early as this fall.

For the U.S. government’s budget, 2006 begins on October 1, when the new “fiscal year” gets underway. With a new budget year may come a new request, and Congress – undistracted by campaigning in a non-election year – will be around to consider it. Several sources have indicated to me that a supplemental request may indeed be on its way before the end of the year.

If that happens, we may see one or both of the following requests for Colombia:

1. Up to $150 million for new spray planes, helicopters, DC-3 aircraft and electronic intercept equipment for Colombia’s security forces. This request, formulated by President Uribe, was presented in a May letter to House appropriators from four prominent Republicans (and discussed by us here). The request went nowhere, largely because by May, the appropriators would have had to cut $150 million from other countries’ aid in order to fund it, and the State Department did not push for it.

But the push for the additional package continues. It was the subject of a syndicated column by Robert Novak (written with heavy input from Republican House staff) published Monday, and a letter last week from Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana) to President Bush. According to Novak and other sources, when Uribe mentioned this request to President Bush at the two leaders’ meeting last Thursday in Crawford, Texas, Bush turned to the State Department officials present and told them (paraphrasing) “to get Uribe what he needs.”

So expect this request, or something like it, to be in the next emergency supplemental. We, of course, oppose it. First of all, the request would really be more than $150 million: since the United States pays nearly all maintenance costs for the hardware it has already donated, the upkeep, parts, fuel and related costs – most paid to contractors, since Colombia has assumed little maintenance responsibility – will add another $10-20 million per year to future aid packages.

Second, most of the request will pay to expand fumigations, a cruel strategy that has already proven unable to reduce the availability of Colombian drugs here at home. If the United States really has an additional $150 million available to reduce drug supplies coming from Colombia, it should go to expand alternative development in parts of Colombia that have seen a lot of fumigation but almost no investment in economic alternatives, such as Nariño, Meta, Guaviare or Caquetá. $150 million in new economic aid would go far toward fixing our terribly unbalanced strategy in Colombia.

2. An unknown amount to support the paramilitary demobilization process. According to a Reuters report from yesterday, the Justice Department has issued a secret legal opinion that gives a green light to U.S. aid for the re-integration of demobilized paramilitaries. The opinion should end more than a year of bureaucratic wrangling over whether aiding former members of the AUC, a group on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, would constitute “material support to terrorists” under the PATRIOT act.

The Uribe government has been asking the Bush administration to aid this process, which CIP, many other organizations, and many key members of the U.S. Congress believe is going to trample victims’ rights, legalize stolen assets, and leave much of the AUC intact. The 2006 foreign aid request includes little or no money for U.S. aid to the paramilitary demobilizations. If the Bush Administration plans to fund the process, then, the next emergency supplemental will be its only opportunity to do so before 2007.

As we have recommended several times elsewhere, and as Human Rights Watch cogently argues in a report released last week, the United States should distance itself from this very flawed process. We understand, though, that the paramilitaries’ rank-and-file includes thousands of young men who have not committed “crimes against humanity” and now find themselves unemployed and with few opportunities. We are not opposed to aiding these individuals if – and this is a big “if” – the United States can identify ex-paramilitaries who (1) are not guilty of gross violations and (2) have verifiably cut their links with their old commanders, and are not part of new paramilitary structures.

However, the “Justice and Peace” law Colombia’s government is using to verify innocence and dismantlement is too weak. Just because a demobilized paramilitary has been cleared by the Colombian government’s rapid, disorganized verification process – which relies on voluntary confessions and a 60-day time limit for overworked investigators to do their job – does not give us enough confidence that he is truly innocent of crimes against humanity and has truly left the orbit of the AUC. If the United States is to provide any aid to demobilized rank-and-file paramilitaries, it will have to hold them to a higher standard of verification.

Finally, a note of caution about this posting. All of the above is a prediction, based on recent discussions, and it could be way off. It’s entirely possible that neither of these aid requests for Colombia will end up in the emergency supplemental. It’s even possible that there won’t be an emergency supplemental at all before the end of the year. But for now, we’re operating on the assumption that we’ll be facing another big Colombia aid debate this fall.

Aug 08

I apologize for the lack of postings during the past seven days, due to a long-planned week of vacation, with minimal Internet access.

I had thought that the first week of August – usually a slower-paced time in Washington, with Congress away and academia shut down – would be a good time to be absent. Instead, it turned out to be a very eventful week. At least six events passed me by:

1. Álvaro Uribe met President Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. And apparently nothing happened. The visit received surprisingly little attention. Of the top 25 most-circulated newspapers in the country, only the Miami Herald, Houston Chronicle, and LA Times reported on it, while the Washington Post gave it a few paragraphs in a larger story. Other papers ran wire-service accounts or nothing at all.

Why so little ink? Apparently, because there was little to report about. As he did on a brief visit to Cartagena last November, President Bush offered Uribe – one of his administration’s only firm allies in the hemisphere – strong words of support and declarations of a commitment to “stay the course.” But no new initiatives were announced, and neither president revealed significant details about their planned future cooperation.

So the media largely ignored the visit. Even many questions at the two presidents’ press conference had nothing to do with Colombia. (President Bush did, however, get a chance to refer to his Secretary of State as “Condoleezza Arroz.”)

If anything, the meeting makes it appear likely that next year, the Bush administration will once again request aid to Colombia totaling over $700 million for 2007. However, an unnamed State Department official told Reuters that a reduction may in fact be in the offing: “We would like them [the Colombians] to share more of the burden.”

The meeting left unclear how committed the Bush administration is to funding the demobilization of paramilitary groups. Officials like Ambassador William Wood and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns have defended the loophole-ridden law that Colombia passed to govern the paramilitary process. President Bush, however, was non-committal when a questioner gave him an opportunity to express support.

Likewise, it remains unclear whether the Bush administration will support President Uribe’s request for $150 million in additional spray planes, helicopters and other equipment, a request that several House Republicans had forwarded to appropriators in May, only to be turned down for lack of room in the foreign-aid budget. This request is clearly not dead, as syndicated columnist and live-TV-profanity-spewer Robert Novak – who gets input from House Republican staff for his periodic pieces about Colombia – today blames the State Department for blocking the additional funding.

2. The State Department issued its first human rights certification in eleven months. As we’d warned two weeks earlier, the State Department on August 1 fulfilled a legal requirement by certifying to Congress that Colombia’s human rights performance has improved. The decision freed up 12.5 percent of military aid for 2004, and another 12.5 percent for 2005, that had been frozen: a total of $70 or $80 million.

The State Department – which for months was simply unable to document any significant advances against impunity for abusers in the Colombian military – deserved praise for holding out as long as it did. But it got little in the way of human-rights improvements. In the end, arrests were made or charges brought against one second lieutenant, one corporal and eight privates for their involvement in two 2004 killings of civilians. No discernible progress has been made in dozens of other cases that remain in impunity, including nearly all of those mentioned in a July 1 letter to Secretary of State Rice from 22 senators [PDF format].

Without progress on human rights, the State Department should not have certified. To do so sends a poor message. It says that the United States cares about human rights in Colombia, to the point where it will freeze aid for months – but if Colombia’s military stands firm and refuses to punish abusers in its ranks, the United States will eventually give in and keep the military aid flowing. The incentive for Colombia’s military is clear: don’t give any ground, for there will be no sanction for inaction.

3. Former President Andrés Pastrana was nominated to be Colombia’s next ambassador to the United States. In July, Colombia’s longtime ambassador, Luis Alberto Moreno, was named to the presidency of the Inter-American Development Bank. Moreno – a tireless lobbyist who required his staff to meet as regularly as possible with congressional staff – is leaving a big vacuum, which President Uribe has chosen to fill with Pastrana, the man who gave Moreno the ambassadorship back in 1998. Pastrana, who has been a harsh and outspoken critic of many of Uribe’s policies, is an odd choice; Uribe, in true Machiavellian fashion, is clearly trying to “keep his enemies close” – but out of the country – as the re-election campaign approaches.

Congressional Republicans – who associate Pastrana with the “soft on terror” approach of having attempted negotiations with the FARC – have made their displeasure known. Republican staffers contacted Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper to make clear that “Uribe has the right to name whoever he wants, but he should not forget that U.S. support is not guaranteed and he will have to work for it.” Their protests run along the lines of a letter to the editor of the Miami Herald from a Colombian-American Miami state legislator, who wrote that “Pastrana, with his silver-spoon political pedigree, does not have the strength of character to make a difference.”

Never mind that Pastrana brought about Plan Colombia and oversaw an even bigger military buildup than what Uribe has managed. Right-wing Colombians and Americans simply don’t forgive him for trying to negotiate peace with guerrillas.

In fact, the real reasons why proponents of current policies should be worried are Pastrana’s lack of enthusiasm for many of Uribe’s strategies, and his general lack of dynamism. Pastrana has loudly criticized the paramilitary demobilization process, a process he will now find himself trying to defend, and to sell to skeptical congressional funders. The former president, meanwhile, is not known to be an indefatigable worker. While it would be unfair to call him lazy, his style is a contrast to President Uribe – who appears to work 7 days per week, 20 hours per day – and Ambassador Moreno.

4. The Washington Post echoed the Colombian government’s line in an editorial about the paramilitary demobilization process. The August 1 piece, calling on the U.S. government “to do what it can to give this crucial initiative by a democratic ally every chance to succeed,” contrasts sharply with a July 4 New York Times editorial condemning the process as a “capitulation” to the AUC.

The editorial board of the Post, a key voice of the Washington establishment, has a record of hawkishness and insensate pragmatism that includes support for both Plan Colombia and the Iraq war. Its members met with Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos during his mid-July visit to Washington, and the text of their editorial does not stray from the arguments Santos presented. (Compare the Post editorial, for instance, with the speech the vice-president delivered that week at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars [Word (.doc) format].)

5. Human Rights Watch produced an excellent report on the failings of the paramilitary demobilization process. Clearly the Post didn’t consider the arguments laid out in “Smoke and Mirrors: Colombia’s demobilization of paramilitary groups,” a devastating 60-page report released on August 1.

The document, HRW’s first major investigative report on Colombia in nearly two years, brilliantly presents the many failings of the Justice and Peace law, and the growing power of paramilitarism in Colombian politics and society. While much of that ground has been trod by other groups, “Smoke and Mirrors” adds a detailed, step-by-step look at how the demobilization process is playing out, clearly showing the many opportunities it affords paramilitaries to enjoy impunity for atrocities, to avoid paying reparations, and to avoid seeing their groups dismantled. The report, which draws from interviews with demobilized paramilitaries, is highly recommended.

6. Roger Noriega resigned his position as assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Noriega, the senior State Department official for Latin America, had held his post since July of 2003. A former staffer for retired Sen. Jesse Helms known for his archconservative views, Noriega was particularly known for his hard line on Cuba – which came to be accompanied by antipathy to Venezuela. He devoted relatively little attention to Colombia, visiting the country and speaking publicly about it only rarely.

Noriega’s resignation was not a major shock; he had a difficult tenure. The low point was probably the State Department’s repeated inability to win regional support for the United States’ favored candidates to the OAS secretary-generalship. Marcela Sánchez’s Washington Post column on Friday did not mince words:

As a Senate staffer, Noriega often complained about the lack of a comprehensive strategy toward the region. Unfortunately his words and actions during his two years as assistant secretary of state revealed a strategy whose only logic was its anti-Castro obsession. … His frequent miscalculations had exhausted the patience of officials in Washington, many of whom felt, as a Senate Republican aide said this week, that the role of the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America cannot be filled with someone who “only satisfies domestic political concerns.”

Thomas Shannon, a career diplomat who worked with Condoleezza Rice at the National Security Council, is Noriega’s likely successor. While his appointment won’t bring a 180-degree turn in the Bush administration’s approach to Latin America, it is positive that U.S. relations with the region will no longer be managed by individuals with political axes to grind, like Noriega and his immediate predecessor, Otto Reich.

Aug 01

When Plan Colombia began five years ago, it got underway in the department of Putumayo in Colombia’s far south. At the time, Putumayo had about half of Colombia’s coca, and was a guerrilla stronghold with a rapidly growing paramilitary presence. A big portion of the 2000 package of U.S. aid for Plan Colombia went to something the Clinton administration called “the push into southern Colombia”: the creation of new military units, construction on military bases and expansion of fumigation in and around Putumayo. By 2001, as a report we published that spring affirmed, Putumayo was “Plan Colombia’s Ground Zero.”

In April 2004, when I last visited Putumayo, things were calmer than they had been in years. The amount of coca being grown had decreased. The governor and the mayors of several towns, who had been elected at the end of the previous year, came from a progressive, social-movement background. Thanks to an increased military and police presence in towns and along main roads, you didn’t see uniformed paramilitaries in the town centers (though I saw some on the outskirts) and the guerrillas had been pushed back into the rural hinterland. You could even drive at night, which had been unthinkable.

Things were far from perfect, or even good. The paramilitaries still had a tight grip on most town centers, and the guerrillas still operated freely in the countryside, making travel between the two very risky. Everyone I spoke to insisted that there was more coca than official estimates indicated. Many speculated that the guerrillas’ relative inactivity was their own choice, a “tactical retreat,” not the result of Plan Colombia or President Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policy.

On July 13, 2000, President Clinton signed into law the U.S. aid package for Plan Colombia. As if to commemorate the fifth anniversary, the FARC have launched a large-scale offensive in Putumayo that vividly shows, to everyone’s dismay and alarm, how little Plan Colombia has really achieved.

Here is what has happened so far (I am currently writing without Internet access, so this information is 2 days out of date). On July 20, the guerrillas bombed electrical pylons, shutting off power to Mocoa, the capital; Puerto Asís, the largest city; and several other major towns in what had been Putumayo’s coca heartland and population center. On July 23, they destroyed the Villalobos bridge, on the only road that connects Putumayo with the rest of the country to the north.

The FARC then declared an armed stoppage (paro armado), prohibiting Putumayo’s 300,000 residents from traveling by road and burning the vehicles of those who attempt to do so. The Colombian military has so far been unable to break the stoppage, and transportation is at a total standstill.

Much fighting is taking place around Puerto Asís, the department’s largest city and commercial center (the town center’s population is about 40,000 or more). Puerto Asís is not a rural hamlet with one main street and a general store, it is a big town: many buildings are 3-4 stories tall, it hosts hotels, clothing boutiques, discos and supermarkets. But the town is currently cut off from the rest of the country, without electricity or fuel. Residents are hearing bombs and gunfire.

Meanwhile, the guerrillas have stepped up bombings of infrastructure: bridges, electrical towers, and especially the oil pipeline that runs through the zone. Combat is occurring between guerrillas and the security forces in several sites, with rural residents caught in the crossfire or unable to leave their homes. Others have managed to flee, with 500 displaced people arriving in the town center of Orito, 200 in Mocoa, and a large flow believed to be crossing the border into Ecuador. The colonel in charge of the Colombian Army’s 27th Brigade has asked to be relieved of his command.

The FARC carried out a similar armed stoppage between September and December of 2000, when Plan Colombia was just getting started. At that time, the Colombian military airlifted food and other supplies into the Puerto Asís airport. The airlifts have begun again, this time on a larger scale.

Though the FARC offensive roughly coincides with the fifth anniversary of U.S. aid to Plan Colombia, that is probably just a coincidence. The attacks are more likely the FARC’s response to Plan Patriota, the year-and-a-half-old, U.S.-supported military offensive taking place in a vast zone, about 150 miles to the north and east of Puerto Asís, that was undisputed FARC territory for decades.

Unable to operate unhindered in that zone (parts of the departments of Caquetá, Guaviare, Meta, and Vaupés), the FARC is believed to be beefing up its presence to the south and west, in Putumayo and neighboring departments of Nariño and Cauca. These three departments make up Colombia’s southwest corner; by dominating them, the guerrillas can control routes to the Pacific and into Ecuador and Peru. The frequency, scale and brutality of guerrilla attacks in these departments have increased sharply since February. Examples include the February bombing of a barracks in Iscuandé, Nariño; the repeated FARC attacks on Cauca indigenous communities like Toribío, Jambaló, and Tacueyó since April; and attacks on military targets in Santa Ana, La Tagua, and Teteyé, Putumayo. The Colombian military, occupied with Plan Patriota to the north, has been unable to respond to the increased guerrilla activity in and around Putumayo.

It is outrageous that so much investment in Plan Colombia has failed to improve security even in the very department where Plan Colombia began. Associated Press reporter Andrew Selsky, who has traveled to Putumayo periodically since 2000, put it well in a story dated July 29: “U.S. officials who began aerial fumigation of cocaine-producing crops in this isolated state almost five years ago believed then that the ‘outlawed groups’ that control cocaine production – leftist rebels and their right-wing paramilitary foes – would be long gone by now. The theory was that with the coca fields killed by herbicide, the gunmen would leave.”

That did not happen. There may be less coca, but there is not less poverty, and there is not less violence.

The immediate priority in Putumayo is to weaken the armed stoppage, get aid to isolated towns, and help civilians to escape the fighting. After that, though, the U.S. and Colombian governments must take a good look at the strategy that has failed so miserably in Putumayo.

The July armed stoppage shows that Plan Colombia – especially its “push into southern Colombia” – was unable to affect the FARC’s military capacity in Putumayo. Plan Patriota – the large offensive just to the north – has not stopped the FARC from increasing its attacks elsewhere in the country. What do the two offensives have in common? Both have taken place in zones that the Colombian government has abandoned, leaving citizens to fend for themselves. Both are little more than temporary – if sizable – increases in the presence of one part of the Colombian government: the military and the police. Eventually, the soldiers move on to somewhere else; when they do, they leave little behind.

The lesson of Putumayo should be that temporary surges in military activity, however ambitious, will not bring meaningful results on their own. If the Colombian government is serious about governing zones like Putumayo, the military action is only a small part of what is needed. Protected by the security forces, government representatives – from teachers to cops to agricultural extensionists – must be present in places like rural Putumayo, in regular contact with the locals and providing badly needed services. If the civilian part of the government is there and has the trust of the population, “armed stoppages” and other guerrilla actions will not take the government by surprise. In fact, they will be unlikely to prosper.

This seems rather obvious. But it hasn’t been tried in Colombia. Instead, the same mistake keeps getting repeated. The U.S. contribution is a shining example. Eighty percent of U.S. aid to Colombia since 2000 has gone just to the military and police. And this may change little, if at all, in 2006. This is very bad news for the residents of places like Putumayo.