May 29

There were no surprises in yesterday’s electoral results. Álvaro Uribe’s 62.2 percent majority was higher than any U.S. president has won in the past 200 years, but it was right in the middle of what the last few polls of Colombian opinion had been predicting (they ranged from 57 percent to 67 percent). Any speculation that Uribe would be hit by low turnout and forced into a second round of voting was done away with very quickly.

The only interesting twist was the performance of leftist candidate Carlos Gaviria, who tripled his standing in the polls since March, ran a brilliant campaign, and ended up in second place with 22 percent of the vote. Colombia’s long-standing two-party system, which has pitted Liberals against Conservatives (at the ballot box and on the battlefield) for over 150 years, is nearly dead: Liberal Party candidate Horacio Serpa finished a distant third, and the Conservatives backed Uribe and ran no candidate.

So now Colombia looks forward to four years with an even stronger Uribe government. The president has a huge mandate for his policies and a congressional majority in the vicinity of 70 percent.

But that doesn’t mean Uribe’s second term will be easier than his first. To the contrary: between now and 2010, Colombians will discover whether their president has set the country on a permanent course toward security and development, or whether he has merely swept some of its worst problems under the rug for a little while, only to see them re-emerge – perhaps during the president’s second term.

Many of Uribe’s most serious challenges could be results of his own first-term policies. Like many second-term presidents worldwide, Uribe could find himself reaping a harvest of trouble from the very seeds that he planted (or failed to plant). Here are some examples.

Continue reading »

May 26

Washington DC has one of the United States’ most inflated real-estate markets. So when my wife and I decided in 2003 to buy a home, we found our choices limited by our two non-profit salaries. We ended up in a neighborhood that is "transitioning," as they say in the real-estate business.

"Transitioning" means that even as houses get renovated and new condo buildings sprout up, there’s still quite a bit of crime, most of it drug-related. We have a crew of tough-looking kids (late teens-early twenties) who camp out on our corner every few weeks for several days at a time. Addicts from nearby neighborhoods, and lots of cars with Maryland and Virginia plates, come by to do furtive business. Calling the cops is almost useless, even if we do see a "transaction" take place – response times tend to be poor, the dealers are always on the lookout for a coming police vehicle, and they are usually careful to keep their drug stash hidden nearby, not on their persons.

For their part, the dealers leave the neighborhood’s residents alone, and some neighbors even argue that having them there makes us a bit safer because it keeps out other undesirables. (Just as many Colombians in dangerous zones profess gratitude for paramilitaries’ protection.) Some even seem angrier at the local liquor store that sells single cans of beer.

Continue reading »

May 25

Here is where Colombia’s four principal presidential candidates stand on Colombia’s relations with the United States, especially issues like Plan Colombia, drug policy, and free trade.

Álvaro Uribe, Primero Colombia

Drug policy: (September 24, 2002) “Colombia has to destroy narcotics. This is the only way for us to take terror away from our country. I have supported Plan Colombia, because this is the first time we go from rhetoric to practical procedures, to practical actions. However, when Plan Colombia was put in place, the goal was to destroy 50 percent of Colombia’s production of cocaine. Our goal is to destroy 100 percent. … We will not stop. We will spray and spray. We will intercept. We will seize. We will do all the best every day and every night to destroy narcotics in Colombia. … We have to maintain Plan Colombia and to expand it.”

Continue reading »

May 24

Many questions and suspicions surround Monday’s tragic “friendly fire” incident between units of Colombia’s army and police. Members of the 3rd Brigade’s Farallones High Mountain Battalion killed ten members of an elite Judicial Police counter-drug unit, plus a civilian informant, in a 30-minute firefight near the town of Jamundí, just south of Cali.

The policemen – a ten-man unit that had captured hundreds of drug suspects, including twenty-three wanted by the United States – were acting on a tip indicating that 200 kilograms of cocaine were stashed in a nearby safe house. The cocaine reportedly belonged to North Valle Cartel leader Diego Montoya, one of the FBI’s ten most-wanted fugitives.

They were met by about twenty-eight soldiers, who opened fire and tossed grenades. A confidential source told Cali’s El País that only one of the policemen’s weapons showed signs of having been fired.

Continue reading »

May 21

The House Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee met early on Friday morning to approve their version of the 2007 foreign aid bill. This bill’s text is not yet available – there isn’t even a bill number assigned yet – and we probably won’t see it until after the full Appropriations Committee, which now must consider the bill, gives its approval. That is scheduled to happen before the end of the week, since Congress goes away Friday for a week-long Memorial Day recess.

We do know, though, that the House bill would make several changes to next year’s U.S. aid to Colombia. Right now, the best overview of these changes can be found in Sergio Gómez’s reporting in the Colombian daily El Tiempo (here and here in Spanish).

We know of three changes in particular.

Continue reading »

May 19

Last weekend, Colombia’s principal indigenous organizations announced that Monday the 15th would be a day of protest. Thousands of indigenous people and allied organizations were to gather at a “National Summit of Social Organizations.” Participants were to protest the free-trade agreement that Colombia has signed with the United States, and to demand that the Colombian government comply with previous commitments regarding land and indigenous rights.

Over 10,000 indigenous activists met at the La María de Piendamó reservation, along the Pan-American Highway in Cauca department, north of Popayán. Their demonstration, while largely non-violent, did include a blockade of the highway, stopping traffic along southwestern Colombia’s principal artery.

In a communiqué posted two days before the protest, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) had issued the following warning.

Continue reading »

May 14

On Thursday, the House of Representatives passed its version of the 2007 Defense Authorization bill (H.R. 5122). In addition to approving a budget of more than half a trillion dollars for the Pentagon next year, this bill solidifies the Defense Department’s role as a major and growing source of military assistance to Latin America and the rest of the world.

Two Defense Department counter-narcotics aid programs begun on a temporary basis in the 1990s would be made permanent and expanded in scope. The bill would also expand a counter-terror training program begun in 2002.

Why does this matter, you might ask? Shouldn’t the U.S. military budget provide U.S. military aid?

Continue reading »

May 10

Here is a translation of an e-mail sent Monday to the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, a prominent Bogotá human rights organization. Copies were also sent to the National Indigenous Organization (ONIC), the Latin American Institute for Alternative Services (ILSA), the CUT (Colombia’s largest labor union), and the Colombian Platform for Human Rights, Democracy and Development.

We have no idea whether this is a missive from Colombia’s lunatic fringe or a taste of what is to come for Colombia’s human-rights defenders.

May 8, 2006 12:59 p.m.
From: alberto gabriel palomino (
Subject: no more disguised lies

We view with great concern how you give protection to rebels who claim to be social leaders under the supposed coverage of international humanitarian law. It is not possible to give credibility to the supposed defense of human rights you claim to do when 70 percent of the country sees that what you are doing is to favor the insurgency’s interests, masquerading as [social] leaders.

Continue reading »

May 09

Greetings from the airport in San José, Costa Rica. It’s Tuesday morning, and I’ve been in the country since Saturday afternoon to attend the inaugural of President Oscar Arias.

Arias was president of Costa Rica from 1986 to 1990, and he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his efforts to bring Central America’s conflicts to a negotiated end. He used the prize money to start a San José-based foundation for peace, where I worked in 1994-95 before joining CIP.

Using the same dogged persistence that made his peace plan successful, Arias helped convince Costa Rica’s Congress to change the country’s constitution to allow re-election; he ran for, and won, a second term in February elections. Like many U.S. and Canadian employees and interns who passed through over the years, I happily accepted an invitation to Arias’ inaugural.

Continue reading »

May 04

This is not the website to visit for research and analysis of energy-sector economics. Neither I nor anyone else here at CIP is really qualified to comment on the economic impact of Evo Morales’ surprise nationalization of Bolivia’s extensive gas reserves.

But why let a little thing like lack of expertise keep us from commenting anyway? (This is Washington, after all.) And this issue, which has been dominating the news from the region this week, is very much on our minds.

The headlines following the nationalization are certainly alarming.

But let’s leave aside for now the questions that the nationalizations raise about Bolivia’s internal politics, its economic outlook, and its relations with its neighbors. Let’s focus for a moment on the bottom line. Will nationalization increase the amount of money Bolivia gets from its gas reserves?

Continue reading »

May 02

“[W]e have seen for the first time a decline in the purity of cocaine in the United States and an increase in price at the retail level … Roughly, in February of this year, cocaine availability in the United States, as measured in terms of purity and price, purity has gone down and price has gone up.”

Those were the words of White House Drug Czar John Walters six months ago, when he pulled together a press conference to announce new data showing that cocaine prices, as of September 2005, had risen to levels last seen in early 2004. Since then, Walters and other Bush administration officials have repeated that claim. (Recent examples include assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics Anne Patterson [PDF format], Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) official David Murray).

The price rise, they say, is a proud achievement of Plan Colombia and the U.S. counter-drug strategy in the Andes. This strategy, of course, devotes much more resources to military force, eradication and interdiction than to development or rule-of-law improvements. Groups like CIP and WOLA voiced strong doubts about the November cocaine-price figures, which only showed a small short-term gain and ran counter to many other indicators that supplies of the drug are stable or even increasing.

But when it comes to calling into question the Drug Czar’s triumphal claims, nothing we can say will ever carry as much weight as the words of a Republican senator with a long track record as an architect of U.S. drug policy.

Continue reading »