Nov 29

Many congratulations to School of the Americas Watch and the other organizers of the annual protest at Fort Benning ten days ago. A record number of people, 16,000 to 19,000, gathered to demand closure of the military-training institution that is now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).

Those kinds of numbers are usually unthinkable for an activist cause that is specific to Latin America, especially at a time when the news is overwhelming us with horrific accounts of U.S.-sponsored torture, indefinite detentions, secret prisons, white phosphorus, and civilian casualties elsewhere in the world.

Perhaps, though, all the bad news from the Middle East and beyond is the reason why Fort Benning is becoming more of a destination than ever. After all, you can’t protest at the gates of Guantánamo, thanks to the Cuba travel ban. You can’t really get a big group to go to Baghdad to protest the Iraq war – despite what the White House says, it’s just not safe there. We don’t even know the locations of the former Soviet prisons where the CIA is practicing “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” so on-site protests are out of the question. Meanwhile, most Colombian military bases where aerial fumigation planes operate, or where units with troubled human-rights records are trained, take place in rather dangerous parts of the country.

A much more accessible symbol of all that is wrong with U.S. foreign policy can be found at Fort Benning, in Columbus, Georgia on the border with Alabama. The WHINSEC offers protesters a military institution designed specifically to assist the militaries of Latin America – of all institutions in that region’s fragile democracies, the one that least needs assistance. WHINSEC offers protesters a U.S. facility that has yet to make an effort to come to terms with its nasty cold-war past. WHINSEC offers protesters a place where the U.S. government has committed mistakes in Latin America that it is now repeating elsewhere in the world, such as strengthening friendly dictatorships, teaching illegal interrogation techniques, or cultivating closer relationships with military leaders than with civilian ones.

The protesters’ main demand is that the WHINSEC be closed. The Bush administration, and even many moderate Democrats, unsurprisingly refuse. They argue that the School of the Americas reformed itself when it became the WHINSEC, an institution dedicated, as its website reads, “to promoting peace, democratic values, and respect for human rights through inter-American cooperation.”

The resulting debate has hardly budged during the last few years. One side cites the school’s many evil graduates and questions the need to give special attention to Latin militaries. The other side insists that the past has been abandoned and that the school now inculcates respect for democracy by developing relationships with key officers. The arguments and demands seem to be frozen in time, like a bug trapped in amber.

This may not seem like a big problem now, since the number of marchers and activists is growing every year. But if it doesn’t change, it poses a long-term challenge. It is hard to harness activists’ energy when your demands and arguments – however justified – remain unchanged for decades (ask anyone who has worked to end the 45-year-old Cuba embargo). In order to become “unstuck,” the close-the-SOA movement will have to at least address – if not answer – a few key questions.

1. Should nearly all energies still be directed at an institution that is a shadow of its former self? Though the movement has not closed the SOA/WHINSEC, it has had remarkable success. Constant pressure and scrutiny have brought about much more than a name change. Most of the old SOA’s combat courses, and all interrogation or “foreign internal defense” courses, have been eliminated (or taught in other venues, such as by teams of Special Forces sent to the trainees’ countries). With a few notable exceptions, most of the curriculum is now made up of non-lethal classroom education. All training has a human-rights component, unlike what is taught in most other U.S. military institutions. Unlike most facilities where U.S. military training occurs, the WHINSEC opens its doors to inquisitive visitors and its staff responds promptly to requests for information about what happens there.

Years of pressure to close the school have led to a strange paradox. While WHINSEC still remains open for business, it is now more transparent to citizen oversight, less lethal in its course content, and more aware of human rights than any other U.S. military training effort in Latin America. If only the rest of the U.S. training program operated similarly.

Meanwhile, though it is still a significant destination for Latin American military trainees, the WHINSEC today is not the center of the action. Its 800 or so students are just over 5 percent of the 15,000 or so Latin American military and police personnel whom the United States trains every year. Today, there are even fewer students at WHINSEC – not because of pressure from peace activists, but because of legislation promoted by conservative U.S. members of Congress. The “American Servicemembers’ Protection Act” has cut non-drug military aid to eleven Latin American countries (soon to include a twelfth, Mexico) that refuse to exempt U.S. personnel on their soil from the jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court. The result is a preponderance of students from countries whose aid is not frozen, such as Colombia, Panama, El Salvador and Chile.

If WHINSEC has become more benign and is no longer the “death star” of Latin American military training, will closing it make much difference? The close-the-school movement’s main legislative vehicle seems to be asking that same question.

The “Latin America Military Training Review Act of 2005” (H.R. 1217) would not in fact close WHINSEC for good. (This tactical shift may in fact be a bow to political reality in the hard-line 109th Congress.) It would suspend the school’s operations for two years while creating two bipartisan commissions. The first would evaluate the purpose of military training for Latin America in the 21st century. The second would be a “truth commission” of sorts, investigating and documenting the human-rights mistakes committed in the school’s past. If the commissions do not recommend that the WHINSEC be shuttered, it could re-open. Since it would force the U.S. military-training establishment to undergo two thorough internal reviews, one of the past and one for the future, the bill is very worthy of support and has well over 100 co-sponsors. It is likely, though, that if it became law, H.R. 1217 would end up calling for a series of reforms while neither closing WHINSEC nor limiting training of Latin American military personnel.

2. Is closing the WHINSEC the goal, or is the larger objective to stop all military training in Latin America (or worldwide)? That has never been clear, and in fact there is no consensus on this among those gathered at Fort Benning, who range from committed pacifists to plain old “liberals” outraged by the Bush foreign policy.

Either way, the idea of a cutoff in all military aid and training to Latin America is a very long-term goal. And it’s not necessarily desirable. The United States should be developing relationships with – and helping to strengthen – all institutions in democratic countries with whom it has good relations. That includes legislatures, courts, local governments, educators, central bankers – and also militaries and police.

Over the past century, though, a major failing of U.S. policy toward Latin America has been a neglect of civilian institutions and an overemphasis on relations with militaries. In the part of the world with the highest levels of inequality, the United States has routinely chosen to forge closest ties with governments’ repressive apparatus, the institution that has most threatened the work of would-be reformers in civil society.

Military cooperation has been so dominant, in fact, that the U.S. Army for more than half a century has maintained a special school just for Latin American military personnel. It is a shame that there is a school for Latin American militaries, but not one for Latin American judges or prosecutors (including those who have to investigate cases of military corruption or human-rights abuse), for Latin American congresspeople, for Latin American mayors and governors, for government health-care, education or social-service professionals, for energy, transportation or trade officials. Why is it that only the soldiers are elevated to this special counterpart status?

The U.S. government should treat Latin American militaries as only one of many institutions with which relationships should be developed and cultivated. The military should not be the main institution with which we interact, nor should it be the most important one. This means that there is simply no need to maintain a special school just for the region’s militaries.

On the other hand, since militaries are a part of the governments the United States works with, a total cutoff of military assistance is not appropriate (as long as the recipient country is democratic and does not systematically violate human rights). But this military aid should be reduced from today’s levels, it should be far less lethal than it is today, and it should be nowhere near as secretive as it is today. The military-to-military relationship should get far less emphasis than the relationship with civilian leaders.

3. If the WHINSEC did close, what would the next step be? It is reasonable to fear that if WHINSEC closed tomorrow, it wouldn’t make any difference for U.S. training of Latin American militaries. The numbers of trainees wouldn’t change, the course content wouldn’t change, and military-to-military relationships would remain paramount in too many countries. Only the location of the training would change. And Fort Benning would cease to be a destination and a symbol for a movement that has begun to take on a larger significance.

If WHINSEC did close, however, there would still be no shortage of targets for future protests.

  • Of the 95 percent of Latin American military trainees who don’t attend the Institute, roughly more than half get trained in their own countries by teams of U.S. military instructors. But the rest attend about 100 military installations in the United States (including two that teach in Spanish: the Air Force’s Inter-American Air Forces Academy and the Navy’s Small Craft school). For an idea of where Latin American military and police students have taken courses lately, visit the government’s annual Foreign Military Training Report, click on a year, then “Country Training Activities,” then click on “Western Hemisphere.” The resulting big PDF file lists all training events in that year, and includes the training location in the table’s third column.
  • There is no shortage of U.S. corporations that have profited from U.S. military aid to Latin America, such as contractors, arms manufacturers, or companies that have lobbied for military aid to help protect their investments in the region. Others have run into trouble for involvement in human-rights abuses, labor-rights violations, or environmental degradation.
  • Various parts of the U.S. government are worthy of outrage for their systematic neglect of non-military priorities in Latin America. In particular, the Congress repeatedly appropriates money for WHINSEC and other institutions, but does not offer similar educational opportunities to civilians in Latin America’s governments and civil societies. The U.S. Agency for International Development, for its part, must be encouraged to stick up for itself and demand greater resources to shore up democratic institutions and civil society in the hemisphere.

To those who made the trip to Fort Benning this year: congratulations, and please, keep up the pressure. Your work is extremely important and it’s sending a message about the centrality of human rights, overcoming inequality, and demilitarizing the U.S. approach to the entire world, not just Latin America. But while keeping your eyes on one building at Fort Benning, it’s important to have at least the beginnings of a strategy for dealing with the much larger problem it symbolizes. Moving on to the next step can happen now. It’s not something to put off until after the school finally closes.

Nov 27

Steve Dudley has a decent piece in today’s Miami Herald discussing the ongoing debate in Colombia about whether to expand the aerial fumigation program in the country’s national park system. (In another post, this blog argued that spraying in Colombia’s parks is a bad idea – not because of the potential harm that glyphosate might do, but because fumigation does not discourage coca growers: it has led them to cut down even more forest and attempt to plant even more coca.)

Juxtapose the Herald article with a short piece in today’s Washington Post, which notes that the United States has the same problem:

California’s national parks and forests have long been known as havens of wildlife and natural beauty. They are also, increasingly, the refuge of gun-toting drug cartels growing large tracts of marijuana. Authorities seized 1.1 million marijuana plants during this year’s fall harvest, nearly twice as many as last year, itself a record. Almost three-quarters of the marijuana seized was grown on public land.

We can’t help but note, however, that nobody is proposing to fumigate Sequoia National Park.

Nov 22

The Colombian human-rights group CODHES has posted to its website four remarkable letters from a November 10-14 gathering of indigenous and afro-Colombian leaders in Colombia’s poorest province. The 7th Assembly of the Chocó Inter-Ethnic Solidarity Forum gathered 300 leaders of indigenous reserves and afro-Colombian communities in Quibdó, the capital of the northwestern department of Chocó, to discuss solutions to the numerous common problems and threats that their communities face.

Chocó, the only Colombian department (province) with coasts on two oceans, covers a vast area stretching from Panama along the Pacific halfway to Ecuador. It is one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world, with enormous freshwater resources. It is also a very strategic region, offering armed groups many corridors for getting drugs out and arms into the country, extensive natural resources, and the potential for an Atlantic-Pacific shipping route to rival the Panama Canal. Despite all of that, Chocó’s largely afro-Colombian and indigenous population is one of Colombia’s most neglected, ignored by the central government and largely forced to fend for itself amid a lack of infrastructure and basic services – including security.

Due to its strategic importance and the government’s absence, Chocó – especially the Atrato River leading to the Caribbean and the banana-producing Urabá region near Panama – is one of Colombia’s most violent departments. Clashes between guerrillas and paramilitaries are common (such as the horrific battle that killed 120 civilians in Bojayá in May 2002), and the security forces have either been absent or accused of collaborating with local paramilitaries.

The Chocó community leaders who met in Quibdó ten days ago are justifiably angry about their department’s worsening violence, poverty and neglect. At the end of their recent meeting, they made public four strongly worded letters: one to the Colombian government, one to the AUC paramilitaries, and one each to the FARC and ELN guerrillas. The letters make clear that none of the four has come close to winning the population’s “hearts and minds.” To the contrary: to all three illegal armed groups, their message is: “we do not want you in our territories.” To the government, they say, “we need you in our territories, but in a much different way.”

Too often, Colombian authorities shrug off critical statements like these, claiming (usually mistakenly) that they are the result of manipulations by guerrillas. The Chocó leaders, however, reserve some of their strongest criticisms for the guerrillas. This cry for help should not be so readily dismissed. It demands a response.

Here are some excerpts from the letters:

To the paramilitaries, especially the Élmer Cárdenas Bloc, which dominates much of Chocó and is not participating in negotiations, the communities ask:

That demobilization and reintegration not take place on their lands, and that it really do away with paramilitary structures, a result that still is not certain.

  • We support the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration into civilian life of irregular armed actors, within a framework of respect for truth, justice, reparations and non-repetition. But in honor of our autonomy, we demand that this concentration and demobilization process not take place in our territories. More importantly, we demand that reinsertion not become a mechanism for the expropriation of our ancestral lands. Meanwhile, we express our concern that behind this reinsertion there may arise new forms of paramilitary structures in the region.

    To stop appropriating land for vast plantations of African Palm (an exotic species introduced to produce palm oil).

  • We reject the monoculture of African Palm, which endangers our collective land titles, affects the fragility of our ecosystem, damages our agrarian culture, affects traditional cultivations, creates an enclave economy, worsens the existing nutrition crisis, and brings with it a long process of capital accumulation that only benefits large investors, to the detriment of our own communities (making us peones of our own misfortune). African Palm crops, far from being an alternative for prosperity, represent a component of a counter-insurgency strategy that worsens the conflict in the department of Chocó.
  • We do not support the “development proposal” of the “Élmer Cárdenas Bloc” called PASO, because, after invading our territory and killing and displacing our people, they intend to impose a model that does not respond to our culture or our concept of ethno-development or our “life plans.”

To the FARC:

  • We reject the FARC’s intrusion into our Community Councils and Indigenous Councils (Cabildos), which compromises our autonomy and our cultural identity; impedes the free exercise of our daily activities; serves as a pretext for the absence of the social investments that the state should make; impedes the application of internal rules and regulations; and affects our own security. You threaten and stigmatize our people with unfounded accusations that cannot be contradicted, and you create a cloak of suspicion over those who travel to and from rural zones to municipal capitals (county seats), alleging that they are Army informants. For all of these reasons, we reiterate that you must not be present either in black communities or in indigenous reserves.

To the ELN, which is barely present in the region, the communities “reiterate that you must not be present either in black communities or in indigenous reserves.”

To the government of Álvaro Uribe, the communities ask:

To recognize the communal property model that has been the traditional form of property among afro-Colombian and some indigenous communities.

  • Since the 1991 Constitution the ancestral right to possess our territories has been recognized, and Law 70 of 1993 guarantees the granting of collective land titles to Community Councils and reaffirms these lands’ inalienable character.
  • The expropriation of 10,162 hectares of collectively titled land in Jiguamiadó and Curvaradó is a form of denying the existence of private property and violating these constitutional and legal measures. In addition, it is an aggression against the black communities of the department of Chocó.

    To break links that continue to exist between the military and paramilitary groups in Chocó.

  • We remind the president of the serious denunciations made since 2004 by the Inter-Ethnic Forum and the Dioceses of Quibdó, Istmina-Tadó and Apartadó about the collaboration between paramilitary groups and security forces that persists in the region.

    To take a very different approach to the coca planted in the region, which reflects the government’s failure to protect its citizens.

  • Since 2003, we have warned about coca cultivation in the department, the result of armed pressure, but the state has done nothing to prevent this situation. As a consequence, we cannot accept that indigenous and black communities be held responsible for crops that were imposed through violence, and we reject using this as a pretext for expropriating our territories.

    To use the security forces to protect people.

  • A serious humanitarian and human-rights crisis persists in the region, manifesting itself through displaced or confined communities, or communities that cannot return to their territories. We understand that security is not a merely military problem, and that it is associated with social investment. However, the government has offered a precarious and insufficient response to its duty to attend to and protect the population, which worsens the humanitarian and social crisis in the region.

All of the letters end with the following call, with which we emphatically agree:

  • We insist on a Humanitarian Accord in the department of Chocó that helps to overcome the serious humanitarian and human-rights crisis and clears the way for a negotiated, political solution to the armed conflict. The social and ethnic organizations in the territory feel that war is not the path and arms are not the solution, and we demand all parties involved in this conflict (the U.S. and Colombian governments, paramilitaries and guerrillas) to stop the confrontation, to begin serious peace talks, and to respect the civilian population.
Nov 19

On Thursday, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), the ranking Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee in charge of foreign aid, gave an excellent, detailed statement condemning the failure to clarify the February massacre in the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó. The Peace Community, in the Urabá region of northwestern Colombia, was founded as an attempt to shield residents from the zone’s out-of-control violence.

An excerpt from Sen. Leahy’s statement:

“This case presents the Bush Administration with an important challenge. It shows that despite billions of dollars from the United States and lofty rhetoric about human rights, the Colombian government’s initial reaction to this despicable crime was not appreciably different from what we saw years ago. They denied responsibility and blamed the victims even before an investigation began, and some of the key witnesses may not even have been interviewed eight months later.”

Sen. Leahy’s declaration is very highly recommended reading, and we thank him for making it. We wish that there were many more in the Senate like him.

We’re very sad to report, though, that just a few hours before Sen. Leahy said these words, yet another member of the San José community was murdered. A statement that the community released yesterday blames the army for the death of Arlen Salas David, who was killed by grenades and gunfire while removing weeds from a cornfield. Mr. Salas is the latest in a list of more than 150 community members murdered, by killers from all sides, since San José was founded in 1997.

Nov 17

I was perplexed when I heard that Drug Czar John Walters, in a press conference this morning, had announced a 19 percent increase in U.S. street cocaine prices and a 15 percent decrease in cocaine purity between February and September 2005. How could that be true when so many other indicators – coca acreage, coca-base prices, size and frequency of illegal drug-smuggling shipments – appeared to indicate that cocaine supplies were not reducing? Could it be that we’ve missed something, and that the deeply flawed U.S. approach to drugs in Colombia is finally working?

That, of course, was the main argument behind today’s press conference. But the Drug Czar’s office thoroughly undermined its own argument when it distributed – and prominently displayed on its website – the following chart to back up its claim. Look at it closely for a moment.

The big achievement being trumpeted here is that cocaine price and purity levels (about $170/gram and 65%, respectively) have been pushed back to what they were in… early 2004. Early 2004? A year and a half ago? That wasn’t exactly a golden age for drug supply reduction. And didn’t Plan Colombia start five years ago?

Holding a press conference to celebrate cocaine prices rising to 2004 levels reminds me of Lewis Black’s comedy routine making fun of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign boast that, as governor of Arkansas, he had moved the state’s educational performance from 50th to 49th place in the United States. (Paraphrasing: “Wow. What’s the miracle? Do they have pencils now?”)

The chart raises another interesting question: what happened in 2004 to make price plummet and purity increase? (We didn’t know about that remarkable hiccup until today, since until now the last year for which official data were available was 2003.) Why does the chart begin in July 2003, when Plan Colombia started in 2000? Some journalists with whom I’ve spoken today say that the Drug Czar’s data actually show prices declining and purities rising since 2002.

Put in this broader context, the rise in prices since April 2005 looks like little more than a very partial correction to whatever happened in 2002-2004 to glut the market with cocaine. While we can’t discount the possibility that it is a new trend of cocaine scarcity, it’s at least as likely to be a normal fluctuation within the same “band” of prices and purities we’ve seen since before Plan Colombia. It’s possible, then, that the Drug Czar’s office is making too much out of just a few months of data.

With so much confusion and evident fluctuation in the data, it is far too early to judge whether this is a trend or just a hiccup – much less what is causing it. I can understand the political pressures that might be motivating the Drug Czar’s office to rush these numbers out, but should prices start to go down again, they will have some very serious explaining to do. (Just kidding – there won’t be any explaining, just a period of silence with no releases of new numbers, which will end the next time they can show another few months of price increases.) 

P.S.: A more technical question. I have yet to learn why the price data presented today do not match what we have seen from the Drug Czar’s office before. Today’s chart starts with a sky-high estimate of $210 per gram of cocaine in mid-2003. This doesn’t correspond at all with the Drug Czar’s previously released historical cocaine-price figures, which the Washington Office on Latin America has done such a thorough job of compiling. Look at the table of official price estimates below, pasted from WOLA’s website (I used this table for the price data in Monday’s blog posting). According to WOLA, ONDCP estimated in June 2003 that a gram of cocaine was being sold for $106 – but the chart from today’s press conference has it at nearly twice as much. If I find a reason for this incredibly broad discrepancy, I will post it here.

Nov 14

While on a visit to Colombia last week, Drug Czar John Walters said that his office will soon announce data indicating that supplies of cocaine in the United States are going down. He did not indicate whether that means that prices have gone up and purities have dropped, or whether he is using some other measure.

This may be the case. The question will be: have prices risen above the levels they had attained in 1999, before Plan Colombia and massive aerial herbicide fumigation began? Or have we merely crawled back to where things stood when Plan Colombia started?

Here’s what I mean – the average price of a gram of cocaine on U.S. streets, according to figures compiled by the Drug Czar’s office (the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, or ONDCP), fell steadily from 1999 to 2003, even while fumigation was expanding rapidly. (Eradication presumably should make the product scarcer, and thus more expensive.)

Average price of a gram of cocaine in

1998: $132.09
1999: $135.51
2000: $161.28
2001: $168.39
2002: $124.54
2003: $106.54

That sharp drop in 2002 and 2003, quite frankly, doesn’t make sense. It’s never been clear why the price of cocaine might have dropped so sharply – to all-time record lows – in the midst of a stepped-up anti-drug effort. It’s reasonable to expect some correction in the market – a rise in price back to a level somewhere between 1999 ($135) 2000 ($160). If the Drug Czar’s figures do not show an increase beyond what we saw five or six years ago, then he has not proven that fumigation has had any effect on supply.

Drug Czar Walters said something else remarkable, though, that deserves comment. According to Agénce France Presse, while giving a joint press conference with Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos, Walters offered a defense of the U.S. policy of fumigating hundreds of thousands of acres each year with herbicides sprayed from aircraft. “Round-Up” – the mixture of the herbicide glyphosate with other chemicals to make it adhere to leaves – “is the safest herbicide in use worldwide,” Walters said. He added: 

There are two reasons why people are opposed to its use. First, because they are ignorant about this fact. The other reason why they say that glyphosate is dangerous is because they support terrorism and narcotraffickers.

Yes indeed: another gratuitious use of the terrorist threat to attack one’s political enemies. It’s not only offensive, it’s getting boring. But wait – was Walters referring to people like us?

CIP Colombia Program staff have spent years following the research on the health and environmental effects of Round-Up, including several visits to areas where people have been sprayed. So we can’t be ignorant. That must make us, according to the U.S. Drug Czar, supporters of terrorism and narcotrafficking. Mr. Walters didn’t allow for any third choice.

If only the picture were as clear as the Drug Czar makes it out to be. Since the spring, U.S. officials have been pointing to a U.S.-funded study carried out by the OAS counter-drug agency, CICAD, which mostly gives the fumigation program a clean bill of health. Never mind that Colombia’s National University and others immediately came out with strong critiques of the OAS methodology. Never mind that other recent science points to glyphosate doing great harm to amphibians. The message from the White House is: if you don’t believe the CICAD findings, you’re either a dupe or a willing accomplice of narco-terrorists.

My own estimation? I’m no scientist, but I have traveled to several fumigated areas (in Guaviare, Putumayo and Nariño), I’ve talked to people who have been fumigated, leaders of the communities they belong to (both elected and religious), and local doctors and health officials. From that experience, I’m at least convinced that fumigation is giving people severe gastrointestinal, respiratory and skin-irritation illnesses that last for a week or two.

Another unscientific reason why I suspect there may be something to the locals’ health claims can be found in your neighborhood garden store. This is a scan of a label from a bottle of Roundup I bought at my neighborhood Home Depot back in 2003. (It did a great job killing weeds that had sprouted in between bricks near the roof of our very old Washington rowhouse.) Note the parts highlighted in yellow.

Wash hands thoroughly after handling? Keep people and pets out of the area until the spray has dried? These are not anything like the conditions under which small farmers and their homes are sprayed in Colombia, where the herbicide mixture is several times more potent than what you can buy in a U.S. retail store. The planes come, and you had better get out of the way, if you can. The parts about avoiding drift and keeping the spray from water are also interesting. Even the OAS-CICAD study cites harm done by spraying the herbicide over shallow standing water.

But don’t take our word against Drug Czar Walters’. Instead, read some of the many reports questioning the program’s health and environmental effects that have been produced over the last few years. A big sample of reports that can be found online is listed below.

If the Drug Czar’s best response to these experts is to dismiss them as narco-terrorist supporters, then he has lost the argument, by a landslide. Unfortunately there appears to be quite a time lag between losing the argument and actually seeing a change in policy.

Nov 11

Five years ago right now, Plan Colombia was just getting underway. Hundreds of millions of dollars of recently approved U.S. funds were being spent on helicopters, spray planes, and new military counter-narcotics units.

Plan Colombia’s main geographic focus at the time was the department of Putumayo, along the border with Ecuador and Peru. Putumayo was the largest producer of coca in Colombia in 1999-2000. It was also one of Colombia’s most violent departments, with frequent clashes between guerrillas and paramilitaries and untold numbers of civilians murdered. During the fall of 2000, the FARC declared an “armed stoppage” that halted the department’s road traffic for months.

The U.S.-funded response was to strengthen Colombian military and police units active in Putumayo, including two brand-new units: an Army Counter-Narcotics Brigade and a Navy Riverine Brigade. The police fumigation program expanded dramatically throughout Putumayo. And a smaller, though significant, amount of investment in alternative-development projects gradually began to flow into the zone.

Did the strategy work? Five years later, what has been the impact of this mostly military investment on conditions in Putumayo? Is the department safer? Has the drug trade subsided? Are alternative-development programs bringing prosperity?

The answer to all these questions is an emphatic no.

While on a visit to Bogotá last week, I had a chance to sit down with Carlos Palacios, the governor of Putumayo. Palacios now has one of the least desirable jobs on the planet: trying to govern and represent a department that remains overrun by illegal armed groups – all of whom have threatened his life. Because of the threats, Palacios – a former priest and community leader – never goes anywhere without several bodyguards.

“This has been the most violent year in memory in Putumayo,” Palacios said. “Open combat has been happening daily.” In 2005 so far, more soldiers have been killed in Putumayo than in any other department of Colombia. The FARC declared another “armed strike” that paralyzed the department in July and much of August. Yet another attack on power pylons left eight of Putumayo’s thirteen municipalities (counties) in the dark last week.

The hardest-hit municipality has been San Miguel, in Putumayo’s far southwest on the Ecuadorian border, whose county seat is La Dorada. As in much of Putumayo, San Miguel still has extensive coca cultivations, control of which is disputed between the FARC and the Liberators of the South paramilitary bloc (a unit of the Central Bolívar Bloc of the AUC, headed by “Javier Montáñez” or “Macaco,” who himself once worked as a coca buyer / middleman in Putumayo). The FARC tend to dominate rural San Miguel, and the paramilitaries dominate the few town centers. In La Dorada, an effort by local merchants earlier this year to protest the paramilitaries’ presence was met with a wave of threats and selective killings. The governor’s office has counted 87 armed-group attacks in this small municipality since the beginning of 2004 – nearly one per week.

The violence has increased this year for three reasons, said Palacios.

  • The “Plan Patriota” military offensive taking place just to the north has displaced many guerrillas into Putumayo. This has been accompanied by an increase in FARC attacks and sabotage in Putumayo, in an effort to show that the guerrillas “are not defeated” and can still act at will.
  • The proximity of the border has drawn armed groups to Putumayo; there are numerous clandestine routes into Ecuador through which drugs exit and arms enter. The FARC, Palacios said, have taken to launching attacks from the Ecuadorian side of the border; they have encampments and “practically a base of operations” in the northern Ecuadorian province of Sucumbíos.
  • Strategically, Putumayo is still a very important zone. It borders Caquetá and Nariño, two key drug-crop producing areas. Several rivers in Putumayo are practically highways that lead to the Amazon basin, and control of river traffic is vital. Economically, Putumayo accounts for as much as 30 percent of Colombia’s potential oil reserves (though much of the oil is of a lower quality than that found to the northeast, in and around Arauca and Casanare).

The Colombian Army has moved 2,000 men into the department, but so far the violence has not subsided. Six official “early warnings” have been issued this year, but with no effective response. The Colombian Navy has a U.S.-funded Riverine Brigade, equipped with numerous well-armed boats, which has reduced FARC control of key rivers and riverside towns. However, Palacios notes, due to varying water levels, most rivers are navigable to the Navy’s boats only six months out of the year. During those six months, the rivers and nearby towns essentially return to FARC control.

Though Putumayo has been Colombia’s most fumigated department since Plan Colombia began, coca-growing persists and thrives in the department, governor Palacios warned. He estimated that there may be as much as 30,000 hectares of coca in Putumayo right now – far more than the United Nations’ 2004 satellite estimate of 4,386 hectares. The governor said that coca-growers are finding new ways to evade detection by satellites and aircraft – everything from very small plots, to new varieties that grow in shade, even to rumors of hydroponically-grown coca.

Governor Palacios opposes fumigation, which he sees as cruel and counterproductive. He points out that more than 16,000 hectares have been eradicated through alternative-development programs under the USAID-supported “early eradication” scheme, in which an entire community eradicates its coca in exchange for a package of projects and benefits.

However, Palacios says that he has been hearing more and more complaints about the “early eradication” aid. Communities, he says, were not asked what they would want to produce instead of coca, and instead had livelihoods assigned to them, such as raising pigs or growing fruit for a produce-concentrate processing plant in Orito municipality. Unfortunately, the pigs distributed with USAID funding mostly died of disease, as they were not well-suited to Putumayo’s climate and conditions. Of 152 pig-pens built throughout Putumayo, nearly all are now empty. The concentrates plant, which Palacios called “a white elephant,” is operating at a small fraction of capacity because it is offering very low prices to local growers.

Instead of dictating what people should produce, Palacios strongly suggests that USAID and its contractors do the following:

  • Consult closely with communities in the elaboration of their own development and business plans.
  • Make existing local organizations, particularly the juntas de acción comunal (elected “local action councils” that play an advisory role in governance), central actors in this process. This in turn will strengthen democracy, local participation and the social fabric.
  • Provide generous credit instead of small grants. To the greatest extent possible, credits should be given to organizations, such as cooperatives, instead of individuals.
  • Pave the department’s roads, which are in terrible shape if they exist at all. Putumayo’s roughly 200 kilometers of main road would cost about US$40 million to pave.

Governor Palacios has been seeking 30 billion pesos (about US$14 million) for an agricultural development plan for the department: a mix of credits and projects for goods that can get a decent price, particularly fish farming, small-scale family cattle breeding, and service jobs. But he has been unable to convince the U.S. or Bogotá governments to contribute.

Governor Palacios truly has one of the most frustrating jobs that one can have. It is worsened by the sad fact that, five years after beginning operations in Putumayo, Plan Colombia has done almost nothing to improve security, poverty and drug trafficking in the department. Halfway through his four-year term, Governor Carlos Palacios must deal with the disappointing aftermath. Still, we wish him the best of luck and look forward to talking to him again.

Nov 09

While I was in Colombia last week, the U.S. Congress quickly approved the final version of the 2006 foreign aid law, with both good and bad news for aid to Colombia. Here is an English translation of the overview I wrote in Sunday’s edition of the Colombian newspaper El Espectador.

A Setback in Washington

Adam Isacson

The U.S. Congress finally approved its foreign-aid bill for 2006. And the Uribe government can’t be happy.

They are by now used to winning their legislative battles in Washington, and in the new aid law, they did get nearly all they asked for. But their victory was very far from total. This time, the current policy’s critics managed to make a dent.

The overall amount of aid didn’t change: $483.5 million will go to Colombia through the "Andean Counterdrug Initiative" program, plus another $250 million or so in military aid through other accounts in the budget. But this time the amount includes a record level of social and economic aid, some $158.6 million – $6 million more than in 2005.

Of course, this is just a 4 percent increase. But this increase requires a similar decrease in military aid, something that has never happened. While this cannot be considered a change of course, it is certainly a brake on past years’ military-aid momentum.

The biggest defeat, however, had to do with the paramilitary process, which is still strongly questioned among members of both parties in Washington. It was known that the Uribe government hoped to win a contribution of up to $80 million for demobilization and reinsertion programs; according to the Interior and Justice Ministry, these efforts would cost $180 million (400 billion pesos) in 2006.

The Bush administration didn’t want to turn down a request from its closest ally in South America. But it apparently did not spend much political capital in its lobbying effort. The Congress ended up approving an almost symbolic sum of $20 million. While this amount sounds big, it isn’t: it equals the cost of one and a half Black Hawk helicopters (the United States has given Colombia more than 25 Black Hawks since 1999). It probably equals what Don Berna or Vicente Castaño makes in about three months. While it is possible that more aid to the process may come in 2006 through a supplemental budget request, few currently see that as likely.

The Uribe government’s defeat is put in sharper relief when one reads the text of the conditions that the Congress attached to these $20 million. While these conditions are less stringent than those that the Senate added to its version of the law in July, they are still quite strong. The Senate ceded to the House – whose version of the law did not include conditions – on the issue of human rights, abandoning the ban on aid to the process should those who committed crimes against humanity not receive "proportional punishment." But it remained firm on those conditions that had to do with the dismantlement of paramilitarism and the extradition of high-ranking leaders.

The law specifies that the $20 million cannot be spent on the demobilization of individuals until the State Department certifies that they "have (A) verifiably renounced and terminated any affiliation or involvement with FTOs [Foreign Terrorist Organizations] or other illegal armed groups, and (B) are meeting all the requirements of the Colombia Demobilization Program, including having disclosed their involvement in past crimes and their knowledge of the FTO’s structure, financing sources, illegal assets, and the location of kidnapping victims and bodies of the disappeared." Therefore, aid to the process will stop if evidence arises that ex-paramilitaries are participating in new violent groups or structures.

The conditions also require demobilized individuals to give a much more complete confession than that contemplated in the "Justice and Peace" law. The aid law prohibits the use of these $20 million until the State Department certifies that "the Government of Colombia is providing full cooperation to the Government of the United States to extradite the leaders and members of the FTOs who have been indicted in the United States." Yes, the language is vague. But it is difficult to imagine the State Department certifying that the presence of Don Berna in a suite at the Itagüí prison is an example of "full cooperation."

These conditions will be difficult to satisfy, and to do so will only free up a relatively small amount of money. The new aid law, then, cannot be seen as a major support to the process with the "paras." It is a nominal contribution to a process that still suffers from a lack of credibility.

Nov 04

The Defense and State Departments are pushing Congress to approve a last-minute amendment that, if approved, will quietly undo forty-five years’ worth of safeguards and transparency over U.S. military aid.

According to last Saturday’s Washington Post, “Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is pressing Congress to grant the Pentagon new authority – and contingency funds totaling $750 million – to bolster counterterrorism, border security and law enforcement forces in other nations.” In other words, the Defense Department wants to use some of its own $400 billion-plus budget to provide military aid worldwide. And it wants to do so without being tied down by all of the conditions, protections, public reporting, and State Department involvement that have applied to U.S. military aid programs since the sixties.

Pentagon officials have been persistent in their pursuit of this new military-aid authority. This spring, they tried to insert the same $750 million slush fund in the original draft of the 2006 Defense Department Authorization bill, but ran into resistance from the Armed Services committees and from other lawmakers, such as Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), who are uncomfortable with cutting the State Department out of such a big military-aid effort.

That did not stop them, however. During the summer, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith (a now-departed über-neoconservative about whom Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, recently said, “Seldom in my life have I met a dumber man”) drafted a letter to Congress asking that the slush fund be approved. In one of his final acts in office, Feith managed to convince Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to co-sign this letter, even though it meant that the State Department was ceding control over an important new military-aid program.

Congress appears about to respond. According to the Post, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) is to introduce the $750 million program with an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill, which is before the Senate right now. (Inhofe may have introduced the amendment on Thursday the 3rd; I am writing this from Colombia and am not completely up to date.)

If this amendment is introduced and approved, it will deal a severe blow to citizen oversight of U.S. military aid. Such oversight was a key purpose of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which put the State Department in charge of foreign aid programs, including military aid programs carried out by U.S. forces (FMF, IMET, the Andean Counterdrug Initiative, and several others).

Authority over military aid went to the diplomats because State’s job is to look out for all U.S. interests overseas, including political considerations like human rights and democracy. The Pentagon, by contrast, focuses more narrowly on security and strategy. Most of the time, there is little conflict between these sets of interests. But perhaps one out of every few hundred arms transfers or training deployments is controversial. When that happens, State usually gets the final say.

Foreign Assistance Act programs are subject to close congressional oversight by both houses’ Foreign Relations and Foreign Operations Appropriations committees. Since little foreign-aid money ends up flowing into members’ districts, these committees provide relatively close scrutiny, whether from liberals concerned about human rights or from conservatives skeptical of the whole foreign-aid enterprise. Far less scrutiny is to be expected from the Armed Services and Defense Appropriations committees, which must oversee the entire gargantuan Pentagon budget, are further distracted by wars in the Middle East, and whose members have an interest in steering defense-related jobs to their districts.

The foreign aid committees have spent almost forty-five years adding refinements to U.S. military aid law, including bans on aid to countries that consistently violate human rights; the Leahy Amendment cutting aid to military units that violate human rights with impunity; prohibitions on police aid; and bans on aid to governments that came to power in military coups, proliferate nuclear materials, or support terrorism. There are also right-wing “refinements,” such as bans on aid to countries “de-certified” for narcotics non-cooperation; countries that refuse to shield U.S. personnel from International Criminal Court jurisdiction; and countries that are “controlled by the international Communist conspiracy.” Military aid through Foreign Assistance Act programs is also subject to public reporting – it is relatively easy to find out how much and what kind of aid each country gets.

However, the past ten to fifteen years have seen a steady movement of military assistance away from the Foreign Assistance budget and into the Defense budget. While the Pentagon could always use its own funds for joint exercises and regional-command activities, the 1990s saw new military and police-aid authorities for counter-narcotics assistance and the Special Forces’ Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program. After September 11, a fast-growing Counter-Terrorism Fellowship Program sprouted within the Pentagon to provide military training. The new CTFP trained over 1,100 Latin American personnel in 2004. For the past several years, Defense-budget programs have funded the training of more Latin American military and police personnel than foreign aid-budget programs.

The Pentagon clearly prefers to use its own budget for military aid because it can operate more quickly (the foreign-aid budget process has become rather bureaucratic) and without having to deal with the State Department. It can deliver aid without regard to the human-rights and other conditions in foreign-aid law. (A weak version of the Leahy Amendment – with a waiver option – does appear in the Defense Appropriations bill.)

Defense-budget military aid gets delivered with almost no public reporting of what aid went to which country. We are still trying to get exact figures, for instance, indicating how much Defense-budget counter-narcotics military aid was to go to Colombia in 2005, and lack dollar amounts for most of the rest of the region since 2003. Getting information about how and where Defense-budget aid dollars were spent requires a lot of persistent asking, and answers usually come from some “unofficial” official source, such as a copy of some official’s PowerPoint presentation.

Is this the future of U.S. military aid – secrecy and the exclusion of the State Department? It may be, if the Inhofe amendment gets added to the Defense Authorization bill.

In order to avoid this outcome, we urge the Foreign Relations and Foreign Operations Appropriations committees to stick up for their jurisdictions. If military aid continues to move into the Pentagon budget, these committees will increasingly come to resemble irrelevant debating societies, while the real money flows through other channels.

We encourage the State Department to stick up for itself as well. If the Defense Department’s complaints are mainly about bureaucratization, then the process should be streamlined. But if the $750 million proposal owes more to a Pentagon effort to get State out of the picture, then the State Department must fight to keep playing the role for which it was founded. The State Department exists to manage the United States’ foreign affairs, and military aid is a key foreign policy tool. It is important, then that the changes made back in 1961 do not get reversed – at least not without a thorough, public, serious debate. Needless to say, that debate has yet to take place.