Aug 31

In a post to the Democracy Arsenal blog, I discuss USAID’s plans to ignore Caquetá department completely, even while the “Plan Patriota” military offensive continues there. It seems to say a lot about how little the U.S. government understands the challenge of dealing with insurgencies.

Does USAID really mean to say that it will only invest in zones where the economy is already viable and where guerrilla presence is low? Does the United States make similar choices in Iraq, too? (”Forget about the Sunni Triangle, let’s get the electricity flowing in the few towns where the locals are happy to have us.”) If so, that would explain quite a bit.

Aug 30

If you find yourself in New York on September 21 with $400 to spend, here are two options:

  • Buy one ticket and go by yourself to a luncheon at the Waldorf-Astoria’s Grand Ballroom, hosted by the Council of the Americas. The featured speaker will be President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia, in town for the UN General Assembly session.

Or,

  • Take a date and go see The Producers, orchestra seats. You’ll have enough money left over for dinner in a four-star restaurant.

Aug 30

We are alarmed to note that denunciations of human-rights abuses have been flooding into our inbox at a faster rate in the past several weeks. It’s nearly impossible to measure accurately, but there seems to have been a noticeable uptick, especially in extrajudicial killings, threats and government security operations against civilians.

We’re not sure why this is happening. President Uribe was sworn in again on August 7, and violence often accompanies presidential inaugurations in Colombia. Or it could be that the human-rights climate, which has been getting more tense in the past few months, is continuing to worsen.

Here are some of the alerts and denunciations we received just during the first three weeks of August. Note that this is not a comprehensive listing of everything that happened in Colombia during this period. Key parts of the country – particularly paramilitary-dominated zones throughout northern Colombia – appear as "black holes" from which information does not emerge.

Many thanks to CIP intern Christina Sanabria for compiling all of this.

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Aug 29

While driving through the troubled department of Putumayo in southern Colombia late last month, our group decided to branch off the main road to pay a quick visit to Orito, the main town in the municipality (county) of the same name. We had heard that one of the largest projects funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Putumayo, an animal-food concentrates processing plant in the town, was having some difficulties, and we hoped to be able to find out what was going on.

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Aug 26

Gen. PadillaOn August 15, newly re-inaugurated President Uribe made changes to the Colombian military’s high command. The new chief of the armed forces is Gen. Nelson Freddy Padilla, who has been in Colombia’s army since 1966.

A look at this 40-year career makes clear that Gen. Padilla won’t be receiving any human rights awards anytime soon.

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Aug 23

Whenever you see pictures of powerful, widely feared, millionaire paramilitary leaders being forced to do yard work, you know you’re not getting the entire story.

After months of reports of top paramilitaries – men wanted for murder and narcotrafficking – driving armored SUVs, going to discos and swanky restaurants, and shopping in upscale malls, President Uribe ordered last week that they be "conducted" to a facility in La Ceja, south of Medellín. There, they are to await investigation and sentencing to terms of up to eight years in confinement under the "Justice and Peace" law.

By posting these pictures to its website yesterday, the Colombian government’s High Commissioner for Peace clearly intends to demonstrate that the eighteen paramilitary leaders so far assembled there are not living in the lap of luxury. Instead of the splendor that Pablo Escobar enjoyed (briefly) in his personal "La Catedral" prison in 1992-93, and instead of the very comfortable conditions that most narcotraffickers in Colombian jails have come to expect, we see pictures of weedy patios, lumpy beds, and unadorned walls. Warlords who have long decided who lives and dies in vast territories, we are told, must now share one computer, and must help to clean up the grounds.

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Aug 23

Here are some excerpts, translated into English, from the shocking and sad cover story in this week’s edition of the Colombian magazine Semana. It tells of thirty-five retired Colombian military officers who were recruited to serve as security guards in Iraq.

A subsidiary of Blackwater USA, the major U.S. contractor whose private guards have even protected U.S. generals in Iraq, recruited the Colombians with promises of salaries of $4,000 per month – more than most doctors or lawyers earn in Colombia. After undergoing training on a Colombian military base (!), they were rushed off to Baghdad – where they found that their salaries would be only $1,000 per month. When they complained, the U.S. company took away their return tickets.

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Aug 15

This was my third visit since 2001 to Putumayo, a small department in Colombia’s far south, along the border with Ecuador. I’ve also taken two other trips very close to Putumayo, one to the Ecuadorian side of the international border, and one to a meeting of Putumayo community leaders just over the departmental border in eastern Nariño.

I keep coming back to Putumayo because there is no better place to gauge the impact, the success or failure, of U.S. policy in Colombia. This province of perhaps 350,000 people is where Plan Colombia basically got started, back in 2000-2001.

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Aug 15

I’m currently vacationing and Internet access has been scarce. Postings will continue to be infrequent until next week. Thanks to an ice-cream parlor with wireless access, though, I’m pleased to be able to upload the next post on my late-July visit to Putumayo.

Aug 03

Last year, Medellín’s murder rate totaled 37 killings for every 100,000 inhabitants. Suddenly this city – long considered one of the world’s most violent – has come to suffer fewer homicides than U.S. cities like Washington (45), Detroit (42) and Baltimore (42). Medellín today is about as violent as Atlanta.

Medellín’s dropping crime rate.

Everyone I spoke with during my few days in the city – right, left and center – was thrilled with the change. Being able to walk the streets without fear of kidnappers, the disappearance of hitmen on motorcycles, and the ability to enter any neighborhood without aggression from territorial gangs have given residents a greater sense of civic pride and has won high approval ratings for both President Uribe and Medellín’s jeans-wearing, left-of-center mayor, Sergio Fajardo.

People I interviewed were less in agreement, though, about why Medellín has become so much safer. Many credited President Uribe’s tough security policies, which have brought a greater police and military presence in the vast, lawless slums that surround the city. Many said that Medellín is more peaceful because "the paramilitaries won" – the right-wing groups ejected guerrilla militias, dominate criminal activity in the city, and are presently on their best behavior as their demobilization and reintegration process proceeds. Many also gave credit to Medellín’s city government, which has heavily invested its own resources in projects in poor neighborhoods and in programs to reintegrate demobilized paramilitaries.

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