Dec 31

On this final day of 2005, here are thirteen things we expect to happen in Colombia in the next year. Most of these predictions are pretty safe, if not obvious. But not all of them. It will be interesting to look back on this post a few months from now to see which of these turned out be dead wrong.

1.      Alvaro Uribe will win re-election in May, but by a surprisingly thin margin. As the 2003 referendum and municipal elections made clear, Uribe’s high standing in the polls doesn’t always carry all the way to the ballot box. Uribe has a few Achilles’ heels: stubbornly high underemployment and poverty; the highly questioned talks with paramilitaries; the sharp recent increase in FARC activity gnawing at his banner security policies. Plus, he faces strong opponents: a unified left, former Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus, and a Liberal Party machine that still has some get-out-the-vote capability for its chosen candidate (who, unfortunately, might again be Horacio Serpa, Colombia’s Adlai Stevenson). Expect Uribe to win somewhere around 50 percent of the vote, not the 70-80 percent that his approval ratings might indicate. It’s even possible that Uribe might fail to win a majority in the first round of May’s elections.

Continue reading »

Dec 27

During the two weeks before Christmas, Colombia’s Congress quickly approved, and President Uribe signed, a very controversial “Forestry Law.” The bill, whose purpose is to regulate Colombia’s millions of acres of primary forests and timber plantations, looks like something Dick Cheney might have written.

“From a law whose purpose was to define rules and incentives for tree-planting, it has become a measure with a strong bias toward the timber industry,” reads an analysis from Bogotá’s University of the Andes and German development agencies. “It is not clear whether this is a forestry law or a clear-cutting regime.” Others are more blunt. In a December 15 editorial, El Tiempo said, “instead of a forestry law it simply seems like a timber-exploitation law.” Several Colombian environmental and ethnic organizations called it “a fatal blow to Colombia’s primary forests.” A December 20 article by Inter-Press Service – which appears to have done the only English-language reporting on the topic – cites environmentalists’ opinion that the law “will set the country back half a century in terms of conservation of forests.”

Continue reading »

Dec 21

This morning, I had the opportunity to participate in a great, well-attended press conference at the National Press Club about Bolivia’s elections, along with speakers from the Andean Information Network, the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, the Institute for Policy Studies and the Washington Office on Latin America. I learned a lot from my fellow speakers and I was grateful for the opportunity to participate.

Since this last week before Christmas is less busy than usual, I had a chance to prepare my four-minute remarks in advance. Here they are:

My name is Adam Isacson, I’m the director of programs at the Center for International Policy in Washington. For the last eight years I’ve run a small program that monitors all U.S. military assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean – arms transfers, training programs, deployments, bases, anti-drug operations, and similar things.

We’ve always had an eye on Bolivia. Since 1997, Bolivia has been the number-three recipient of U.S. military assistance in Latin America, with $393 million over 9 years. This puts it behind Colombia and Peru, but since Bolivia has less than 9 million people, only Colombia gets more military aid per person. Beyond Latin America, Bolivia is still one of the main destinations of U.S. military aid. By my best estimate of military and police aid worldwide this year, Bolivia is tenth in the world, right behind Poland and ahead of Mexico.

Between 2001 and 2004, the United States trained 5,689 Bolivian military and police, including about 300 at the former U.S. Army School of the Americas. Among Latin American countries, only Colombia had more trainees during this period. In 2004, Bolivia was fourth in the world in military trainees, behind Iraq, Afghanistan, and Colombia.

Our aid goes to specialized military and police units that interdict drugs, like the army’s 9th division and the Rural Mobile Police Patrol Units in the police force. It funds an army-police joint task force that forcibly eradicates coca plants and breaks up protests in coca-growing zones. In 2001 and 2002 it even funded a paramilitary “Expeditionary Task Force” whose sole mission was to break up protests; this unit was accused of several human-rights violations. U.S.-funded forces have faced numerous allegations of abusive behavior toward the population in the zones they operate, and this behavior has almost never been punished. A result has been greatly increased popular anger at the Bolivian government and at the U.S. government.

Now, even though Bolivia doesn’t host any groups on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, the U.S. government is making counter-terrorism more of a focus of its aid. The State Department’s 2006 aid request to Congress cites, as a main objective of its aid, “To ensure that Bolivia does not become an active transit point for international terrorism.” U.S. aid is helping to develop counter-terror units in Bolivia’s army, and earlier this year helped Bolivia’s police inaugurate an elite 700-man “counter-narco-terror” unit called the Special Operations Force or FOE. All of this, even though the only evidence of a “terrorist threat” that U.S. officials can cite is the booby traps that some coca-growers leave in their fields to harm eradication troops (remember that many of these people are former tin miners, and know how to use dynamite), and the social movements’ frequent protests and road blockages, nearly all of which have taken place without violence.

Now Bolivia also gets a lot of economic aid, about $100 million per year. However, keep in mind that much of this is humanitarian aid scattered across the poorest country in South America. In the parts of Bolivia that see the most U.S. military assistance – the coca-growing zones of the Yungas and the Chapare, which is Evo Morales’ home region – the economic aid ends up falling way behind the military aid.

Nearly all of Bolivia’s military and police aid is for drug eradication and interdiction – well over $370 million since 1997. But alternative development aid for places like Yungas and Chapare has added up to only $204 million. That’s close to a 2 to 1 ratio in favor of military aid in some of Bolivia’s poorest, most neglected regions. And the Bush administration’s 2006 request to Congress foresees a nearly 10 percent cut in alternative development spending.

Now let’s think about this. The U.S. government has chosen to favor the stick over the carrot in a part of Bolivia where people were already very poor and very angry at their government. The U.S. government let forced eradication outpace development in areas where much of the population is former unionized miners who lost their livelihoods when Bolivia opened up to the global economy. This very harsh mix of tactics did cause coca-growing in Bolivia to decline, for a while. (Not anymore though.) But it also radicalized a coca-growers’ movement whose leaders knew how to organize because of their past union experience.

If it weren’t for the U.S. government’s overly militarized approach to Bolivia, it would never, ever have made sense for someone to use a movement of coca growers as a path to political power. U.S. drug policy helped turn Evo Morales from a local advocate of coca-growing to a national political figure. And then, as the Bush administration refused to change course and failed to help Bolivia address its economic crisis, the United States helped propel Evo Morales to the presidency. Evo Morales is the natural and predictable product of twenty years of a militarized, failed U.S. drug policy in the Andes. The United States helped create Evo Morales. And now the United States has to work with him.

Dec 20

If you want to buy a copy of British investigative journalist Simon Strong’s out-of-print 1995 book about Pablo Escobar, you had better start saving up now.

As Gerardo Reyes reported in Sunday’s El Nuevo Herald, used copies of Whitewash: Pablo Escobar and the Cocaine Wars are going for $599.50 on Amazon.com. In a posting to Amazon’s page for the book, the author notes that the price had reached $937.10 earlier this month. (At Barnes and Noble, you can get it from a third-party seller for a mere $286.65. Alibris offers used copies at prices ranging from $271.95 to $1,989.90!)

Why so much for a book that, while well-received at the time, was not enough of a blockbuster for its publisher, MacMillan, to print more than 5,000 copies? Strong told Reyes that the online booksellers “have simply told me that is a question of supply and demand.”

“Flattering at it appears, I find it hard to believe this is the whole story,” Strong writes on Amazon.com. “For all I know, somebody whose name appears in the book dislikes the fact and has decided to put out a buy order!!”

That’s a good guess, but who is buying up all existing copies? I wish I had a copy of Strong’s book, so that I could see who in Colombia might be so keenly interested in keeping it out of my hands.

Reyes offers a hint in his article (my translation).

One of the book’s most controversial episodes identifies the current president, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who at the time was a senator, as “a young Liberal from Medellín, … accused of drug-related corruption as well as of collaborating politically with Escobar in the launch of what would become a successful political career.”

Strong dedicates a pair of pages in the book to a harsh exchange he had with Uribe during an interview at a Bogotá hotel in March 1994.

According to his narrative, Uribe reacted with visible anger to the reporter’s questions about his tenure as director of Colombia’s Civil Aeronautics agency [Colombia’s FAA, during the early 1980s] and his political support for Senator William Vélez, one of Escobar’s allies.

“This short-statured man jumped from his chair, furious, crossed the room between the waiters who were preparing for lunch, climbed the stairs, and did not stop until he was amid his bodyguards…” the reporter writes.

From there, wrote Strong, Uribe yelled several times, with rage, “I am honest.”

“I had not made any suggestion to the contrary,” Strong explained.

Following some other questions, the author adds, Uribe became even angrier, and with his hands jabbing at the reporter’s face demanded that he take back what he was saying.

At that point, Strong decided to suspend the interview.

Dec 19

No, that’s not a typo. Friday saw a rare occasion in which the U.S. government publicly differed from President Uribe, and did the right thing.

In a speech before the Prosecutor General’s Course on Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law, U.S. Ambassador William Wood brought up some concerns that have been important causes for U.S. and Colombian human rights groups.

Despite advances, the investigation and prosecution of past violations are still very show and complicated, while new violations continue to occur. For example, the kidnapping and murder of Afro-Colombian leader Orlando Valencia more than a month ago still has not been clarified.

Ambassador Wood also expressed important concern over the paramilitaries’ evident influence over next year’s elections (congressional in March, presidential in May) in much of the country.

Colombia still suffers from political violence and intimidation. This is not new, but it is serious. I recall the concern in the local and regional elections of 2003 at the number of unopposed candidates whose legitimate opponents had been corrupted, frightened away or, in some cases, murdered. There is wide concern that similar corrupt electoral practices may occur in the elections of 2006, notably by paramilitaries.

Last summer in the debate on the Justice and Peace Law, the embassy asked if an attempt to pervert the democratic process through corruption or intimidation by the paramilitaries would be deemed a fundamental violation and would remove all benefits. The negotiators on the law assured us that it would: we take them at their word. But we also want to make clear that we will urge the elimination of all benefits to any beneficiary under the Justice and Peace law who is involved directly or indirectly in corruption or intimidation in the elections.

Paramilitary influence over local politics and government is a big and increasing problem, despite the ongoing demobilizations that have dominated Colombia’s headlines. In a post last month, we discussed a congressman from the southern department of Guaviare who has been forced to withdraw his candidacy by paramilitary threats. Elsewhere in Colombia, particularly across the country’s northern tier, paramilitary dominance of politics is even stronger, and few candidates will be able to run for mayor, governor or congress without paramilitary approval.

One would expect the Uribe government, which is working so closely with the United States, to respond to the ambassador’s comments by recognizing that paramilitary power is a big potential problem, and by publicly committing to doing more to stop it (even if it has no real will to do so). That did not happen.

Instead, the Colombian government immediately released a curt three-sentence statement reminding Ambassador Wood that “the Colombian government does not accept foreign governments’ interference, even from the United States,” and that “Plan Colombia [that is, U.S. aid] cannot be used by the United States as an element of pressure over our country.” 

Wrong answer! The problem of paramilitary power over the elections is very real, and Bogotá’s statement does nothing to reassure us that the Colombian government intends to do much to stop it. (Yes, Friday’s response to the ambassador includes a flat statement that armed groups’ involvement in politics is illegal, violating the “Justice and Peace” law that governs the paramilitary demobilizations. Yes, we know it’s illegal. But lots of illegal things happen in Colombia, with impunity, all the time.)

The real message this statement sends is: the Colombian government rarely disagrees publicly with Washington, but is willing to go to the mat where paramilitary influence is concerned. That is a terrible message to send – if anything, international pressure like Ambassador Wood’s statement should be seen as giving the government welcome leverage in the difficult task of reducing paramilitary power. The message is especially grim at the end of a week during which paramilitary leader Iván Roberto Duque called for the creation of two unelected seats in Colombia’s Congress for “former” paramilitaries.

Since this posting began with praise for Ambassador Wood and criticism of the Uribe government, let’s end on another unusual note: praise for Álvaro Uribe the candidate.

As Colombia’s election season has entered full swing, Uribe has managed to convince the ELN to begin peace talks in Cuba, and is at least offering to pull the military out of small areas in order to talk with the FARC about a hostage-for-prisoner exchange. (Yes, the FARC is unlikely to settle for less than a demilitarization of two entire municipalities, so those offers may go nowhere – though they at least give the appearance of government action and flexibility.)

Critics charge that these peace gestures are a cynical election-year ploy to silence critics who charge that Uribe is only interested in negotiating with the paramilitaries. Indeed, the recent peace push may owe much to electoral politics.

But even if it does, it’s still remarkable. Uribe was elected in 2002 as the pro-war candidate who rose to national prominence as one of the harshest critics of then-President Andrés Pastrana’s talks with the FARC. By agreeing to enter into talks with the ELN without a cease-fire in place, and by offering demilitarized zones (however small) to the FARC, the 2006 Uribe is making moves that would have been repugnant to the 2002 Uribe.

With his approval ratings over 70 percent, he could have chosen to run with a Karl Rove strategy of rallying his hard-line base, avoiding any moves to the center, and opting for confrontation over consensus. Instead, Uribe seems to be moving in an Ariel Sharon direction – making peace concessions that risk alienating his traditional hard-right constituency.

Even if it’s just an election-year stunt, Uribe’s gestures toward the guerrillas are significant because of that they signal about Colombia’s national mood. Whereas talk of negotiations would have been a recipe for electoral defeat in 2002, even Uribe feels a need to establish his bona fides as a peacemaker in 2006. And that alone is a good sign.

Dec 15

Together with the Latin America Working Group Ed Fund and the Washington Office on Latin Ameiica, we held a press conference this morning to launch our newest joint report on U.S. military assistance to Latin America. Entitled "Erasing the Lines," the report lays out eleven trends in the U.S.-Latin American military relationship this year. You can download it as a PDF here (and here in Spanish), or just read a 3-page executive summary PDF here (or here in Spanish).

Meanwhile, here is the text of a handout we prepared for today’s event, which shows some interesting results from crunching the military and economic aid numbers for the region. Thanks to program intern Robin Rahe for adding most of these up.

Top Ten Lists
(From data compiled by the CIP-LAWGEF-WOLA “Just the Facts” project)

Western Hemisphere military and police aid recipients, 2004:
(millions of U.S. dollars)

1. Colombia

555.07

2. Peru

68.87

3. Mexico

55.48

4. Bolivia

55.07

5. Ecuador

35.81

6. Brazil

10.75

7. Panama

8.78

8. El Salvador

8.49

9. Honduras

4.61

10. Dominican Republic

4.14

Western Hemisphere economic aid recipients, 2004:
(millions of U.S. dollars)

1. Colombia

134.98

2. Haiti

131.58

3. Peru

116.39

4. Bolivia

102.72

5. Guatemala

47.78

6. Honduras

47.09

7. Nicaragua

42.49

8. El Salvador

37.09

9. Ecuador

35.90

10. Dominican Republic

31.00

Military and police aid per capita, 2004:
(U.S. dollars)

1. Colombia

12.92

2. Bahamas

9.17

3. Bolivia

6.22

4. Belize

3.15

5. Panama

2.89

6. Ecuador

2.68

7. Peru

2.47

8. El Salvador

1.27

9. Jamaica

1.17

10. Honduras

0.66

Economic aid per capita, 2004:
(U.S. dollars)

1. Haiti

16.20

2. Guyana

14.56

3. Bolivia

11.59

4. Jamaica

7.85

5. Honduras

6.75

6. Belize

5.78

7. El Salvador

5.54

8. Peru

4.17

9. Dominican Republic

3.46

10. Guatemala

3.26

Military and police trainees, 2004:

1. Colombia

8,801

2. Bolivia

1,975

3. Mexico

892

4. Argentina

679

5. El Salvador

415

6. Peru

402

7. Chile

369

8. Honduras

282

9. Paraguay

237

10. Panama

217

Military and police trainees as a percentage of total armed forces, 2004:

1. Bahamas

7.9%

2. Bolivia

6.2%

3. Colombia

5.8%

4. Trinidad and Tobago

3.5%

5. Honduras

3.5%

6. Belize

3.4%

7. Jamaica

3.0%

8. Guyana

2.5%

9. Suriname

2.5%

10. El Salvador

2.4%

Military and police aid from counter-drug accounts, 2004:
(millions of U.S. dollars)

1. Colombia

454.12

2. Peru

68.29

3. Mexico

53.69

4. Bolivia

50.06

5. Ecuador

35.39

6. Brazil

10.54

7. Panama

6.04

8. Venezuela

4.06

9. Haiti

2.93

10. Guatemala

2.82

Military and police aid from non-drug accounts, 2004:
(millions of U.S. dollars)

1. Colombia

100.95

2. El Salvador

6.63

3. Bolivia

5.01

4. Honduras

3.99

5. Dominican Republic

3.53

6. Panama

2.74

7. Nicaragua

2.53

8. Mexico

1.79

9. Argentina

1.78

10. Jamaica

1.53

Military and police aid as a proportion of national defense budget, 2004:

1. Bolivia

5:12

2. Colombia

1:6

3. Haiti

11:78

4. Jamaica

5:49

5. Peru

1:12

6. Nicaragua

6:73

7. Guyana

7:90

8. Panama

4:67

9. Ecuador

4:73

10. El Salvador

2:37

GDP divided by military and police aid, 2004:

1. Bolivia

418

2. Colombia

511

3. Ecuador

1,380

4. Bahamas

1,931

5. Belize

2,063

6. Peru

2,270

7. Panama

2,390

8. Haiti

3,323

9. Honduras

4,236

10. Nicaragua

4,668

GDP divided by economic aid, 2004:

1. Haiti

93

2. Bolivia

224

3. Guyana

261

4. Nicaragua

296

5. Honduras

415

6. Jamaica

522

7. El Salvador

885

8. Belize

1,124

9. Guatemala

1,289

10. Peru

1,343

Military and police aid divided by land area (square km), 2004:
(U.S. dollars)

1. Colombia

487.37

2. El Salvador

403.52

3. Jamaica

289.42

4. Bahamas

197.92

5. Haiti

132.07

6. Ecuador

126.29

7. Panama

112.23

8. Trinidad and Tobago

95.94

9. Dominican Republic

84.98

10. Peru

53.59

Dec 14

Bolivia’s highly contentious presidential election is only four days away, and cocalero leader Evo Morales continues to lead the polls with about 34 percent of the likely vote. The prospect of a Morales victory has many Bush administration officials in a panic.

A more immediate concern is that, under Bolivia’s system, when a candidate fails to win a majority the Congress – which is also being elected Sunday – gets to choose the president. The result, starting Sunday, could be chaos, or at least a major political crisis.

Since we focus on U.S. policy, especially U.S. military assistance, we’re not equipped to provide a thorough analysis of what is at stake for Bolivia in this week’s elections. But we are paying close attention, and reading as much as we can.

Here is a list, from Colombia Program Intern Robin Rahe, of the best recent English-language analyses of Bolivian politics available online.

  • Jim Shultz of the Cochabamba-based Democracy Center offers the best concise summary of recent struggles between the government and popular will, candidate platforms, and political considerations. (See also his “Blog from Bolivia,” a very useful resource. His November 28 entry gives an insider perspective into reasons Morales might not want to form a presidential coalition.)
  • In a lengthy article in the November 20 New York Times Magazine, David Rieff explores the validity of parallels between Evo Morales and Che Guevara. (Reposted at truthout.org.)
  • A thorough new report from the International Crisis Group makes specific recommendations to international and domestic actors for minimizing conflict in the formation of a responsive, legitimate government.
  • On the Foreign Policy in Focus website in July, Ronald Bruce St. John presents a historically-based analysis of social, economic, and political trends in Bolivia.
  • In the November-December NACLA Report on the Americas, Reed Lindsay chronicles the United States’ use of “democracy promotion” programs in Bolivia.
  • Kathryn Ledebur and Gretchen Gordon of the Andean Information Network proscribe U.S. intervention in Bolivia’s elections.
  • In a recent Christian Science Monitor piece, Kelly Hearn investigates the growing U.S. presence in Paraguay as part of a regional strategy with Bolivia in mind.
  • For a right-wing perspective, see Alvaro Vargas Llosa’s argument that Evo Morales’s grievances are the product of socialism and populism.
  • In a July speech, Roger Pardo-Maurer, the senior civilian official in charge of Latin America policy at the U.S. Department of Defense, warns that Bolivia is “the objective of subversion that Cuba and Venezuela are working on as a joint project.” (PDF format)

The following Bolivia-related blogs are updated frequently:

Dec 13

It is good news, of course, that representatives of the ELN guerrillas and the Colombian government will sit down in Havana later this week to discuss peace negotiations. But it will take a good deal of flexibility for these “exploratory dialogues” to avoid suffering the fate of earlier attempts to get talks going with Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group. Most of all, keeping the talks alight will require President Uribe to make some politically risky decisions in the middle of a re-election campaign.

The big decision to watch for – the one that will bring the most contentious debate within Colombia – is whether President Uribe will agree to the guerrillas’ likely demand for financial support during an eventual cease-fire. The idea of writing checks to guerrillas who want to overthrow you, even before a peace agreement has been signed, may seem preposterous on the surface – sort of like paying protection money to keep a cease-fire going – but in the case of the ELN it actually makes sense.

The ELN gets very little money from drug trafficking (though, as indicated in an earlier posting, that may be starting to change). As a result, the group funds much of its costs through acts of aggression against Colombia’s civilian population, particularly extortion and kidnapping for ransom. If the ELN were to declare a cease-fire including a halt to kidnapping and extortion, most of its revenue would dry up.

“Since the ELN has refused and will continue to refuse to involve itself in narcotrafficking,” top ELN leader Antonio García told a guerrilla magazine in April, “we cannot suspend our retentions and taxation [guerrilla terms for kidnapping and extortion], because we need to finance our social and political activities and the sustainment of our men.” Unlike the AUC paramilitaries, whose heavy reliance on narcotrafficking has helped sustain them through three years of a partially observed cease-fire, the ELN views a total cease-fire as tantamount to bankruptcy. Indeed, the ELN has never in its history declared a cease-fire (other than occasional Christmas holiday truces).

If President Uribe is to coax the ELN into a bilateral cease-fire, then, he is going to have to address the guerrilla group’s economic concerns. This issue has set back attempts to negotiate with the ELN in the recent past. A round of talks in Cuba with the outgoing Pastrana government fell apart in May 2002 after the guerrillas demanded that the government provide a $40 million stipend during a six-month cease-fire period. While this was likely just an opening offer – sort of like a tourist bargaining on a souvenir in a market – it was, for Pastrana and his lame-duck negotiating team, a political impossibility.

In April of this year, a round of contacts between the Colombian government and the ELN, mediated by the Mexican government, fell apart over the same issue. This time, the ELN refused to sign a cease-fire that prohibited kidnapping, again out of concerns for its income stream. (The discussions became stuck on this point, and the ELN withdrew completely after Mexico voted to condemn Cuba’s human rights record at the annual UN Human Rights Commission hearings.)

ELN leaders must have known in April that the Uribe government could not accept a cease-fire agreement that condoned the practice of kidnapping. Their request was no doubt an effort to pressure the Uribe government to consider financing the guerrillas during an eventual cease-fire. In July, President Uribe signaled, in an interview with a Spanish newspaper, that he would be willing to take this controversial step. “If they accept a complete halt to hostilities, the government has no problem in seeking funds to sustain the members of the ELN in a peace process as long as they do not commit crimes,” Uribe told El Pais. “It is the first time I say that in public.”

Let’s hope that, with elections only five months away, President Uribe has not changed his mind. Funding the ELN during a cease-fire will be politically difficult – once the topic comes up, we can expect to see a firestorm of criticism on Colombia’s right wing, including many members of Uribe’s traditional support base.

It is critical that this criticism be ignored and overruled: a few million dollars per month is a bargain if it buys a real cease-fire and a negotiation process that ends a decades-long insurgency. Besides, to require the ELN to cease fire without financing is to send a perverse message. The subtext will be that in order to insure itself against a failed negotiation, an armed group must rely on other illegal means of support during the truce period – especially drug-dealing.

Let’s hope that donor nations are ready to step in and help with the guerrillas’ financial support during the cease-fire period, thus taking some of the political heat off of Uribe. The PATRIOT Act would likely make it illegal for the United States to provide such support; as with much else in Latin America these days, other countries will have to take the lead.

Dec 08

The deteriorating U.S.-Venezuelan relationship has generated a lot of news items over the past two weeks.

  • Two members of the U.S. Congress, Bill Delahunt (D-Massachusetts) and José Serrano (D-New York), accepted an offer from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to provide deeply discounted heating oil, from the Venezuelan-owned oil company Citgo, to poor residents of their districts.
  • A delegation of U.S. congresspeople and staff visiting Venezuela, including the chairman and ranking Democratic member of the House International Relations Committee (Henry Hyde (R-Illinois) and Tom Lantos (D-California), respectively) was prohibited from leaving its airplane at the Caracas airport.
  • Bush administration officials described as a potential “destabilizing factor in the region” the Spanish government’s $2 billion sale to Venezuela of transport and reconnaissance aircraft and patrol vessels.
  • Bush administration officials criticized Venezuela’s Sunday legislative elections, from which nearly all opposition parties withdrew, citing the 25 percent voter turnout as evidence of “a broad lack of confidence in the impartiality and transparency of the electoral process.”

Venezuela’s government doesn’t come out looking too bad in some of these episodes. The cheap-oil deal is a brilliant public-relations maneuver. It is much smarter than anything the Bush administration – with its heavy-handed approach to free trade, steady reductions in economic aid, and unilateral “decertifications” for various reasons – has managed to pull off in Latin America lately. Plus, it will help thousands of poor people in Massachusetts and the South Bronx. The opposition’s decision to boycott Sunday’s elections was a mistake: not only does it give Chávez total control of the legislature, it leaves these parties open to charges that they dropped out in part because they were running behind in the polls. If the electoral system is hopelessly tilted in Chávez’s favor, a better strategy would have been to go ahead with the elections, then to discredit them by documenting all abuses. As far as the airplane incident goes – it looks like an embarrassing Venezuelan blunder, but the full story has yet to come out.

Because of everything else going on, that third story – the arms sale from Spain – did not get much attention. That is a problem, because this transaction badly deserves a closer look. We advocate demilitarization here at CIP (it’s right there in our mission statement), and there’s no way to view this sale as anything other than a major step backward for demilitarization in Latin America.

The United States often (and often deservedly) gets a bad rap for an overly militarized approach to Latin America. U.S. arms sales to the region almost always exceed those from other countries, as well as the world. But no U.S. arms sale to Latin America over the past twenty years even comes close to the size of the Spanish sale to Venezuela. At $2 billion, it is:

  • The largest arms sale in Spain’s history.
  • 50 percent more than all U.S. arms sales to every Latin American and Caribbean country in 2003 and 2004 combined (about $1.33 billion). (Incidentally, despite poor relations the United States sold, or licensed private sales of, $49.99 million of defense articles to Venezuela in 2003 and $38.91 million in 2004.)
  • Far larger than the controversial $500 million sale of F-16 fighter planes, and related equipment and services, to Chile in 2002. This was the first high-tech weapons sale to Latin America since 1997, when the Clinton administration lifted a twenty-year-old ban on such sales.
  • Seven times more than all U.S. arms sales to Spain in 2004 ($282 million).
  • Nearly half of what Colombia spends on its entire military and police each year (about $4.5 billion).

Venezuela is a sovereign country and can do what it wants with its money. Nothing about this arms sale violates international law. Cargo and reconnaissance planes are usually either unarmed or only lightly armed. And the sale will reportedly employ 1,000 people in Spain.

Nonetheless, we condemn this sale, just as we would condemn a similarly sized U.S. arms sale elsewhere in the hemisphere. (We are also concerned about Spain’s recent offer of 21 transport aircraft to Colombia.)

This $2 billion could have gone to social needs in Venezuela. While the Chávez government deserves strong praise for increasing social spending, it seems tragic to use $2 billion of Venezuela’s oil windfall on weapons when 38.5 percent of the population remains below the poverty line [PDF format].

This arms purchase risks an arms race in South America. While it may seem ridiculous for Venezuela’s neighbors to view this sale – or Venezuela in general – as a security threat, the region’s militaries think quite differently. Their job is to be on constant alert for potential external threats, and this large arms sale will have a significant effect on how they view potential threats, and the balance of forces, in South America. If anything, militaries elsewhere in the region will point to the Spanish sale to Venezuela when they pressure their countries’ elected civilian leaders for increases in defense spending and new arms purchases. This large arms sale, then, will have a ripple effect throughout the region: it could bring rising defense expenditures in many countries, and civil-military friction in countries whose civilian leaders are unwilling to spend scarce resources on big new arms purchases.

The arms purchase sets a bad precedent that the Bush administration might be encouraged to follow. Of course, the sale is more fodder for administration hardliners who want to take an even tougher approach toward the Chávez government. Meanwhile, by bringing Western Hemisphere arms sales to a new level, it could encourage the U.S. government to promote and approve similarly large arms transfers elsewhere in the region. The Bush administration already has a terrible record on arms control elsewhere in the world; the Spanish sale will only encourage them to extend that record to Latin America.

Dec 06

In his mid-30s, Pedro Arenas is one of the youngest members of Colombia’s Congress. He doesn’t belong to any party, though he usually votes with the Polo Democrático and other left-of-center parties. He represents the department of Guaviare which, though only 170 miles south of Bogotá (closer than New York is to Washington), is an isolated, neglected, impoverished zone overrun with coca, guerrillas, and paramilitaries. Guaviare is a key battleground for “Plan Patriota,” the U.S.-backed military offensive that has been taking place in southern Colombia for two years now.

I’ve known Pedro Arenas since the late 1990s, when he was the head of the Guaviare Youth Movement. (We came to know Pedro that long ago because, years before Plan Colombia came along, Guaviare was an important place to monitor the impact of U.S. policy. During the 1990s, it was the center of U.S.-supported herbicide fumigation, and most spray planes were based at the narcotics-police facility in the departmental capital, San José. Today, however, after ten years of heavy spraying, Guaviare is still one of Colombia’s principal coca-growing departments.) Pedro impressed me as a leader very committed to the community in which he was born and raised, known and respected for helping to organize a very dispersed, poor and threatened population through energetic advocacy, face-to-face contact, and creative use of community radio.

I was very pleased when Pedro was elected to Colombia’s Congress as one of Guaviare’s two representatives, in 2002. Of course, as a backbencher without a party and with no interest in corrupt dealmaking, he has had difficulty getting his point of view reflected in legislation. However, he has won disproportionate media attention, and appears to be popular in Guaviare, because he is outspoken and clearly does his homework. Pedro is what we in Washington would call a “policy wonk,” reading voraciously and constantly proposing new ideas. He even has his own blog. (He may also be the only Colombian I’ve met outside Washington who can name the chairmen of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittees of both houses of the U.S. Congress.) Pedro was our guest in Washington for a conference we hosted in October, where he gave a terrific presentation.

When he was here, Pedro told us he had been receiving threats from the paramilitaries, who had said that they would kill him if he ran for re-election in March 2006. I was very disturbed last Wednesday, then, to see him forced to announce that he was withdrawing his candidacy. “Due to the lack of security guarantees in Guaviare,” he told reporters, “I have decided that unless the government provides me with the security conditions necessary to carry out a campaign, I will not present my name for the House of Representatives.”

“Since October 2, I have been in this situation [of imminent threat], which is known to the president, the defense minister, and the interior minister. The president himself ordered that I be included in the [Interior Ministry’s] special protection program, but to date that order has not been followed.”

Pedro started receiving threats soon after taking his turn at the microphone on October 1, when President Uribe paid a visit to San José del Guaviare for one of his nationally televised town-hall meetings. Along with Guaviare’s bishop, Pedro publicly denounced the paramilitaries’ attacks on community leaders, their constant extortion of the population and the lack of government response. In a post to the Colombia Journal website, Mario Murillo recorded what Pedro told the president:

“If you have a pig, they charge you $5,000 pesos (about two dollars), if you have a few chickens, 2,000 pesos each. They charge you a tax on just about everything,” Arenas told the president in the nationally broadcast event. Referring to the president’s policy of “Democratic Security,” Arenas informed the president that it has not arrived in the region “because the paramilitaries control the town, have infiltrated local institutions, and make the people live in constant subordination.”

While his words made him popular among citizens of Guaviare – Pedro said people stopped on the street and applauded him later that day – it made things much more complicated for him. President Uribe publicly responded to Pedro’s words by ordering the authorities to crack down on the paramilitaries’ Guaviare Bloc, and in particular to arrest its leader.

One day later, Pedro started getting threats from that leader, Pedro Oliverio Guerrero Castillo, who goes by the alias “Cuchillo,” or “Knife” – a name that, according to a recent profile in the Colombian magazine Cromos, refers to his preference for stabbing his victims.

Cuchillo’s group, which dominates town centers in Guaviare and southern Meta departments, is not participating in talks with the government. It splintered from the powerful “Centaurs Bloc,” whose reach extended from Colombia’s eastern plains all the way to Bogotá, and which formally demobilized in early September. A paramilitary member since the late 1980s, the 37-year-old Cuchillo had been the right-hand-man of the Centaurs’ chief, Miguel Arroyave, who was participating in demobilization talks with the Colombian government. Cuchillo, however, had other plans: he played a leading role in the September 2004 ambush in which Arroyave was killed by his own men.

The Guaviare Bloc did not demobilize and is one of few paramilitary groups not participating in talks. Its members demand “tax” payments from nearly everyone who does business in Guaviare’s town centers, and are heavily involved in the drug trade. According to Cromos, “it is even rumored that [Cuchillo] has made deals with ‘Negro Acacio,’ the high-ranking FARC leader [of the 16th Front in Arauca and Vichada], to move drugs out of the region.”

Nonetheless, the local authorities have done very little to confront Cuchillo and his men. Plan Patriota has registered few if any combats with paramilitaries in Guaviare. Cuchillo’s men are the dominant force in San José del Guaviare, even though the town hosts an army base that has played an important role in the offensive. Pedro Arenas gives some credit to the local police for trying to arrest paramilitaries, but worries that the local branch of the attorney-general’s office (Fiscalía) may be compromised. “We are disappointed with the Fiscalía because this year the police have captured nearly 50 paramilitaries, and the Fiscalía has freed them almost immediately,” he said last week.

Pedro has moved his family out of Guaviare, and now travels everywhere with bodyguards. Cuchillo is still at large. He may not be in Congress a few months from now, and the paramilitaries’ candidate will likely sit in his seat, but Pedro will remain quite active. He hopes to expand his work as president of the Movimiento Comunal, the national network of Community Action Groups (Juntas de Acción Comunal), local elected advisory boards established by law in thousands of villages and urban neighborhoods.

Two days after Pedro suspended his campaign, President Uribe told naval officers at a promotion ceremony, “Our security policy is democratic because it exists to give equal protection to both the campesino and the agri-businessman, both the unionized worker and the big industrialist.” In practice, however, this protection doesn’t even seem to be available to independent congressmen in zones with a strong military presence.

Pedro is quick to point out, though, that the government is also failing to confront Guaviare’s guerrillas, despite the department’s inclusion in the “Plan Patriota” theater of operations. This failure became evident to all last Monday, when the FARC kidnapped twenty-two people at a roadblock they brazenly established just three miles from the San José del Guaviare military base, the headquarters of the Joaquín París Battalion of the Colombian Army’s Seventh Brigade. The FARC released fourteen of their captives; military leaders at first claimed that the fourteen had been rescued, but this was revealed (by Pedro Arenas, among others) to be a complete falsehood. The military’s embarrassing conduct – both in allowing the nearby roadblock and in lying about what happened – earned a strong reprimand from President Uribe.

On Thursday El Tiempo, Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, wrote an editorial about the kidnapping incident, asserting that “it makes evident the shortcomings in the army’s ability to secure free mobility in a region that the paramilitaries abandoned and that, according to the government, has been effectively re-taken by the military.”

Pedro Arenas sent to us this response to the editorial. Here is an English translation, which is worth a read. It vividly illustrates what is wrong with the current security approach in places like Guaviare.

To the El Tiempo editorial board:

I am Pedro Arenas García, congressional representative for Guaviare. It was I who made this news known nationally last Monday because, even though the mass kidnapping happened at 9:00 AM, even after 3:00 PM nothing more was known about what happened. I am pleased that you have called attention to the kidnappings in Guaviare and the attitude of the security forces. I want to present a few observations so that you may take them into account, although your editorial of course cannot be corrected now.

First: Along the road between San José del Guaviare and El Retorno, several months ago, there were soldiers at the points where it crosses the trochas [rutted, almost impassable dirt roads] the guerrillas had previously used. In recent months, though, the soldiers are no longer seen at these important sites. At Buenos Aires (where the kidnapping happened) the guerrillas have been appearing regularly during the last month, including 15 days ago when they briefly set up a roadblock. The inhabitants of nearby villages told the authorities on several occasions that the guerrillas were calling them to meetings and extorting them. Nothing was done to prevent this. [Note: even though local citizens freely provided this information and got no response, President Uribe on Thursday blamed the military’s failure in Guaviare on a lack of informants.]

2. I myself informed police authorities by telephone twenty days ago that the guerrillas were in those villages, and that they forced farmers in the zone to attend a meeting in Puerto Flórez (where the kidnappers and their victims boarded boats), where they extorted money from them for every head of cattle. It appears that the police informed the [army’s Joaquín] París Battalion, and that they informed the 7th Mobile Brigade, but none covered that zone. Either they didn’t find the information to be credible, or they failed to coordinate, or intelligence wasn’t gathered.

3. According to the (very credible) information I have, those who carried out the roadblock were not just 4 guerrillas but “almost 20” acting under the orders of someone named Willington. The roadblock lasted for more than half an hour. They had time to stop traffic, to burn a truck that carried precursor chemicals (not food), to block the road with a tanker truck, and to select the kidnap victims. Meanwhile, another group set up a roadblock in Guacamayas near the dirt road by which they escaped. There, with few words and in front of children, they killed a youth who, the local residents said, was carrying coca paste. Later they went to Puerto Flórez, where they abandoned the cars and boarded boats to Caño Mosco, two hours downriver, stopped at a house and had lunch, chose the group of people who are still kidnapped and let the rest go. When the freed group returned to Puerto Flórez and the army found them, it was almost 4:00 PM. There was neither combat nor military pressure. The reaction was very slow.

4. That region has not been abandoned by the paramilitaries, they are still there. Nor have there been demobilizations of paramilitaries, and it is not known whether Guaviare’s paramilitaries have had any contacts with the office of the [government’s] peace commissioner. In the zone of the kidnapping the “paras” have collected an extortion payment for each cow, and at that part of the road they would extort all public transport. What happened is that due to the local population’s complaints about these abuses, the “paras” had suspended their extortive activities for “three months,” according to various local merchants. The “paras” have not been pursued effectively, and in many cases they even sleep in the city [of San José del Guaviare]. The attorney-general’s office (Fiscalía) doesn’t function either.

5. The security forces continue to have problems of coordination and determination of jurisdictions. It is still not clearly known who is in charge of guarding the road and up to which kilometer-marker, and with so many units present the result is a confusion that nobody understands. All of Plan Patriota in Guaviare is focused on the department’s south, while the guerrillas move throughout the department’s east and west. The Plan pursues the guerrillas’ leaders and leaves unguarded the zones and roads where the guerrillas affect the population.

6. General Fracica [until very recently the commander of Joint Task Force Omega carrying out Plan Patriota in southern Colombia], a serious man, was bid farewell in a ceremony one day earlier in El Retorno, 20 kilometers from the site of the kidnapping. I don’t believe that someone like him would suffer from triumphalism. He would have no reason to, since the illegal armed groups still rule in Guaviare. While the security forces did establish themselves in the department’s four municipalities, their presence has not guaranteed full security: the “paras” rule in the town centers, along the cattle road that follows the right bank of the Guaviare River, and in southern Meta; the FARC rule in all other rural zones. The civilian population is left in the middle of this “sandwich.”

7. The kidnap victims are flesh-and-blood people just like any city-dweller. Among them are two civil-engineering contractors hired by the governor’s office, one of them the son of a fervent admirer of the president’s policies, who worked on his campaign, and who is the husband of a member of San José’s mayor’s cabinet. The rest are merchants from El Retorno. People who have lived in that region for many years. People who are well known locally. We all demand that the FARC respect their lives and liberate them immediately.

8. This is not an isolated incident, not just because of what you write but also because the guerrillas, for months now, have been burning tractor-trailers, trucks, taxis, microbuses, and public-works machinery belonging to the governor’s office, while frightening campesinos on the main roads, almost always at the same sites, few kilometers from the San José town center. All that is in addition to the dramatic situation of those of us who, through the political process, dare to denounce the corruption and lack of governance that exist there. It is not possible to participate freely in politics.

In Guaviare, we are living through something that has never happened to us before: the torture of those who must obey orders from two conflicting groups, to work for them, to follow their rules under penalty of being displaced or killed, while the security forces fail to prevent it, or do not react on time or later try to hide their errors so that the citizens do not demand accountability, and so that the president does not come to scold them or fire their commanders.

With all respect, Pedro Arenas
Representative to the Congress
President of the movimiento comunal

Dec 01

During its first 2 ½ years or so in office, officials of Álvaro Uribe’s government – including the president, of course – defended their hard-line security policies with a barrage of statistics indicating a sharp decline in violence: fewer murders, fewer kidnappings, fewer guerrilla and paramilitary attacks on both civilian and military targets.

This year, however, the barrage of “good news” violence statistics has died down. Officials have not been reciting numbers as frequently, because the record has become troublingly mixed.

The news is not getting better. For some rather worrisome findings about the current direction of Colombia’s conflict, consult the latest report from a new Bogotá think-tank, the Conflict Analysis Resource Center (CERAC). Two of the group’s researchers – Jorge Restrepo of Colombia’s Javeriana University and Michael Spagat of the University of London – have led an effort to compile a violence database, which now has 21,000 entries through June 2005.

For a while, Restrepo’s and Spagat’s data had been corroborating government figures showing a rather miraculous across-the board drop in violence since Uribe took office in 2002, with civilians becoming much safer and the military recovering the initiative. Their newest report, though, appears to show a significant slowdown in the Colombian government’s momentum as of mid-2005.

The most alarming finding is a very sharp rise in paramilitary attacks and killings in 2005, reversing the drop in paramilitary activity that followed the AUC’s declared cease-fire at the end of 2002. Just look at this graph:

The researchers find that the rise is not limited to groups that haven’t declared a cease-fire.

The takeoff in paramilitary activity is happening in many different places. We find a reactivation of paramilitary attacks and killings in 2005 in the Montes de María, in the south of Atlántico, in the east of Antioquia, in the west of Cundinamarca, in the Magdalena Medio region, in Meta, in Arauca and in the savannahs of Córdoba. This cannot be attributed to the few paramilitary groups that are not negotiating disarmament and demobilization with the government. On the contrary, this corresponds mostly with those areas where the negotiating groups are located.

Such a sharp rise in what are, in fact, cease-fire violations is more bad news for the AUC negotiation process, which is already becoming the closest thing Uribe has to a political Achilles’ heel as he launches his re-election campaign. (It will be interesting to see whether the highly questioned OAS verification mission documents a similar jump in paramilitary cease-fire violations.) The increase in paramilitary murders is not due to massacres; most of the incidents in the CERAC database are extrajudicial killings of one or two people at a time.

Led by the surge in paramilitary attacks, overall killings of civilians have increased sharply this year after declining during Uribe’s first two years. As a result, “civilian killings in the first half of 2005 are only about 10% below the rate in the last year before Uribe took power.”

The CERAC researchers note that “the guerrillas are not behind the increase in killings of civilians.” Disturbingly, they find that “there was an increase in government killings of civilians in the first half of 2005. This trend, although from a very low level, is worrisome, and the government needs to study in detail where these are occurring and why.”

A few other notable findings of the study (not even close to an exhaustive list – we again recommend visiting the CERAC site and looking over their findings):

  • “The number of clashes between the government and the guerrillas is very high, although it has been falling from its peak of 2003.” However, there has been “a shift toward big-casualty events in 2005.”
  • “The guerrillas are fighting less with the paramilitaries than they were a few years ago. In fact, the paramilitaries essentially ceased to be an anti-insurgent clashing force in the conflict beginning around 2002.”
  • “This government has actually been fighting with the paramilitaries more than previous ones have.”

It’s hard to know what to conclude from these findings, some of which – especially the spike in paramilitary murders – are quite surprising. However, as we see the gains of 2002-2004 level off – or even begin to reverse – the new data may be showing us that Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policy, as implemented, may have reached its limits.

A strategy that so overwhelmingly favors the military dimension of governance, relying heavily on tactics like offensives, informants and roundups of suspects, can only achieve so much. Unless it begins to address the weakness of Colombia’s civilian government in conflictive zones, and to punish abuses when they occur, we may be seeing Democratic Security “hitting the wall,” reaching the extent of what it can do to decrease violence.

 

Quote of the week:

“In revolutionary processes like subversive warfare, there are always ‘self-eliminations.’ This doesn’t mean that one commits suicide, but that there are people in the rear who have particular ideological instructions to shoot their own comrades in the back, in order to exacerbate the population’s anger and to create a political rallying point.”

- Gen. Marcelo Antezana, the head of Bolivia’s army, arguing yesterday that most of the sixty people killed during October 2003 protests were murdered not by the security forces, but by fellow protesters seeking to turn people against the military.

Dec 01

Last Sunday’s edition of the Colombian newsweekly Semana had a lengthy (1,900-word) and very informative analysis of the prospects for new talks with the ELN guerrillas. “Last week’s announcement that the [ELN’s] Central Command might meet with Álvaro Uribe’s government … appears to be the most important advance this government has made toward rapprochement with the guerrillas,” Semana contends.

The article offers the best current overview we’ve seen of the ELN’s current capabilities and possible interest in pursuing dialogues with the Uribe government. Here are some excerpts (just 1,000 words) translated into English.

On the ELN’s current military capabilities:

  • The ELN has never been a war machine. Its most prominent armed actions have been sabotage and kidnapping, rather than direct confrontation with the security forces. Even so, one combat per day takes place with this group, according to the Defense Ministry. The majority are initiated by the security forces. In the last two years, this guerrilla group has suffered considerable blows to its most important fronts. In Antioquia, Operation Marcial, which took place two years ago, practically annihilated the Carlos Alirio Buitrago front that operated along the Medellín-Bogotá highway, and whose principal activity was kidnapping. From a high of 300 men, today the authorities calculate that the front now has 40.
  • Despite their relative weakness, this is not a group that will be easy to dominate at the negotiating table. The ELN has been compared to the phoenix bird, repeatedly reborn from its own ashes. Despite the blows it has received, the desertions and the captures, the number of ELN combatants remains stable, according to the Defense Ministry’s statistics. It currently has approximately 3,500 members in arms. According to intelligence sources, while its financial situation does not at all resemble past bonanzas, its income from kidnapping, extortion, and its initial forays into narcotrafficking has been enough to survive, though not enough to fight a war.
  • Mass desertions have been another factor of weakness. Months ago, an entire column of the Héroes de Anorí front, which operates in northern Antioquia, turned themselves in to the army. Ramiro Ruiz, “Edward,” the head of this group, said at the time that “what the Coce [Central Command] is doing in the Serranía de San Lucas [the ELN’s longtime rearguard zone, a gold-mining region in southern Bolívar department] is resisting and defending themselves with what little accumulated military and political power it has left. But the fronts are in retreat, isolated and hungry.” … Luciano (name changed) is a leathery ex-guerrilla who commanded a column in Santander. “We had no money. I told them that the only way to sustain this war was by getting involved in coca, like the FARC, but they didn’t want to.”

On the ELN and the drug trade:

  • While it is widely held that the ELN has not involved itself in the narcotrafficking business, recent cases demonstrate that at least some fronts have indeed done so. It has happened for quite some time in Norte de Santander and Arauca [both in northeastern Colombia]. In Arauca, for example, 38 cocaine-processing laboratories tied to the Domingo Laín Front were found two years ago. Coca cultivations also explain the guerrilla group’s growth in southern Chocó, the coffee-growing heartland [Eje Cafetero], and in Nariño, along the border with Ecuador. For such a federalized guerrilla group, it is only a matter of time for narcotrafficking to extend to all of its fronts.
  • However, kidnapping is still its main source of financing. … This is why whenever a cease-fire is spoken of, the ELN either seeks to exclude kidnapping, or tacitly asks that its structures be financed while the truce is in place.

On the ELN’s relations with the FARC:

  • Juan Carlos Garzón, an analyst at the Security and Democracy Foundation, asserts that in many regions the ELN depends militarily on the FARC. That is the case in Nariño, Putumayo and Valle del Cauca [in southwestern Colombia]. It is well known that the [February 2005] attack on the Iscuandé base, on the Pacific coast, was a combined action between both forces, and the recent attack on a paramilitary encampment in the Cañón de Garrapatas, in Valle del Cauca, was also carried out jointly.
  • While the ELN acts together with the FARC in some regions, it would not be easy for them to end up completely unified. “They are like oil and water,” says one military intelligence analyst.

On the ELN and human rights:

  • But what has most weakened the ELN are its moral paradoxes. Though it has been seen as a less “hard” guerrilla group than the FARC, in practice it acts like the boy who cried wolf. In September they turned over the bones of Ancízar López, the political “patriarch” of the city of Armenia, who had died in captivity some time earlier. That same week they killed two priests on a road in Norte de Santander, an act for which they publicly apologized. But they made no commitment to cease carrying out such arbitrary acts. All this without mentioning that the ELN is the Colombian armed group that most frequently uses landmines.

On prospects for talks:

  • The ELN will not grow militarily, will keep on behaving like a guerrilla group that launches small attacks and hostilities, and – as defined by the sixth plenary meeting of its commanders – will make a priority of “a broad national accord with diverse political and social forces to unite the fatherland against uribista war-mongering and re-election.” This would seem to indicate that the ELN, which has sailed between two currents – those of lead [as in bullets, or violence] and politics – have decided to choose the latter. They are interested in the elections, though it is not very clear how they would participate in them.
  • It is known that behind the many letters which have been exchanged during the past few months, there have been serious offers from two European countries. One of these could be the site of the meeting [between government and guerrilla leaders], and eventually the details of financing a cease-fire could be agreed.
  • However, the government has to act tactfully, and must not confuse this negotiation with the AUC talks. That pragmatic model of disarmament without political reforms, taking place behind the backs of public opinion, will not work. The ELN is in no hurry. If it has survived three years of the uribista offensive, it can survive more. It will neither abandon its demand that civil society be present at the table, nor will it cease to discuss a political agenda.