Oct 31

We have just released a new twenty-page "International Policy Report" on Colombia.

Plan Colombia – Six Years Later (1.3MB PDF file) gives a look at conditions in Putumayo and Medellín, Colombia, as we saw them last July, six years almost to the date after President Clinton signed into law the first "Plan Colombia" aid package.

Regular visitors to this weblog may recognize some of the report’s pictures and prose. Four different blog entries in July and August served more or less as "beta versions" for this final product.

Here is the text of the release summarizing and announcing the new report.

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Oct 30

Arms transfers are a frequent topic in Latin America’s news lately, much more than we’ve seen during the past ten years or so. The United States – which often gets accused, correctly, of being the world’s arms supermarket – is only partially involved. A few examples that appeared in the press last week:

  • Argentina may buy planes from Russia and ships from France.
  • Venezuela may donate helicopters to Bolivia.
  • Peru is concerned about Chile’s purchases from the United States and elsewhere.
  • Venezuela, barred from buying from Spain aircraft that have U.S. components in them, is about to buy twelve transport planes from Russia. Caracas’ recent purchases from Russia include 53 helicopters, 100,000 AK-103 rifles, and 24 Sukhoi SU-30 fighter planes.
  • A conservative Brazilian military strategist warns that the region’s military balance has been upset, and urges the government to "revitalize our domestic armaments industry."

Meanwhile, the United States has been busy too. Whenever an arms sale exceeds $14 million, the Defense Department must notify Congress. The notifications page of the Defense Security Assistance Agency notes big sales to Chile (PDF), Colombia (PDF), and Brazil (PDF) since late September.

Oct 28

Perhaps someone more expert in Nicaraguan politics – especially Nicaraguan right-wing politics – can explain this one.

Most polls for Nicaragua’s November 5 presidential elections put José Rizo in third or fourth place with less than 20 percent of the vote. Rizo is the candidate of the right-wing National Liberal Party, which is still controlled by Arnoldo Alemán, a disgraced former president. Alemán today is under house arrest for stealing large amounts of money from the national treasury.

In 1999 Alemán signed a power-sharing pact with Daniel Ortega, head of the leftist Sandinista Front that held power throughout the 1980s. Since then, Nicaragua’s main right-wing party has been in what Reuters calls "a virtual power duopoly" with the Sandinistas – a party that the Reagan administration once went to great lengths to try to overthrow.

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Oct 27

Here, thanks to a FOIA request, is a list of US-funded base construction projects paid for in 2005 with Defense Department counternarcotics funds.

It comes from a report, required by Congress in the 2006 Defense Authorization law, that was supposed to total Defense-budget counter-drug aid to every country in the world. For some reason, the report only includes Defense-budget counter-drug construction aid, which is only a fraction of what most countries’ militaries get through the Pentagon’s budget.

Nonetheless, the Western Hemisphere section below is worth a look.


Bahamas (Caribbean Region) ($2.213M)

Company Housing and Furnishings/Facility Maintenance. Funding provided for company housing and the furnishings on an operating base in Georgetown, Greater Exuma Island. Also included is the maintenance of the operating facility. On this operating base, US. Army helicopter operations are conducted in support of Operation Bahamas Turks and Caicos Counter-drug. (PC2307) Total FY05 Funding: $2.213M Cost breakout is as follows:

  • Base Construction funding ($1,400K)
  • Operational funding ($312K)
  • Furnishings ($441K)
  • Facility maintenance/upkeep ($60K)

Bolivia ($0.590M)

Cochabamba Shoot House. Provided critical training facility for military and police CNT units undergoing U.S. training for operations. (PC9201) Total FY05 Funding: $0.06M.

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Oct 26

The State and Defense Departments have finally released, and posted
to State’s website, the Foreign Military Training Report covering 2005. There,
you will find out that the United States gave military, police, or defense-policy
training to 10,393 Colombians last year. That is over 1,500 more trainees than
in 2004, though short of the 2003 high of 12,947.

The report’s statistics portray Colombia as the number one recipient of
U.S. military training in the world.
The report, however, severely under-reports
training in Iraq and Afghanistan – either because training of those countries’
security forces is classified, or because budgeting does not separate such training
from the cost of U.S. military operations in those countries. So Colombia was,
in fact, the second or third largest U.S. training recipient last year.

Nonetheless, the report makes clear that no other Latin American country came
close to Colombia in 2005 (in fact, no other country in the hemisphere even
exceeded 1,000 trainees).

A big PDF file identifying courses given and recipient military units is available
by clicking on "Western Hemisphere."

Training 99-05

Oct 25

In a sit-down last week with reporters, the outgoing head of U.S. Southern Command, Gen. John Craddock, said that reductions in aid to Colombia were on their way. Added the Associated Press, "Craddock said Colombia’s defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, is in agreement with reductions in U.S. military funding."

This was the latest repetition of the idea that reductions in aid to Colombia – the first reductions in about fifteen years – would be forthcoming in the administration’s 2008 budget request to Congress (which comes out next February). We have been told to expect less aid in the 2008 request during recent meetings with U.S. officials, and we have read it in recent press coverage, including a piece in Saturday’s edition of El Tiempo:

An initial cut of a bit more than 50 million dollars is being discussed, which would go against accounts for the Police Carabineros program, the demobilizations and others. And while this is a small amount, compared to the annual total that is delivered (some 700 million dollars), it will increase with each passing year. In other words, from here to 2010 – the year in which Uribe will finish his second term – the country will be receiving a bit more than half of what it gets today.

And these are not speculations. The director of Narcotics Affairs at the Department of State, Anne Patterson, and the "drug czar," John Walters, said it in an interview with this newspaper. And the head of the Southern Command, John Craddock, repeated it this week.

The theory is that Colombia has begun "to turn the page," and that it is time for it to take on more responsibilities. "We have sustained aid levels for six years. It is logical to suppose, and this was the plan from the beginning, that we would arrive at a point where there would be reductions," says a source at the State Department.

Well, maybe not. It appears that plans to begin reducing U.S. aid next year have been shelved for now. That, at least, was the message of Nicholas Burns, the acting number-two official at the State Department, who is leading a seventeen-member delegation to Bogotá that arrived yesterday and leaves tomorrow. "’We intend to ask our Congress to maintain the current level of funding’ for 2007 and 2008," Burns told reporters yesterday.

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Oct 24

It has been interesting to see much recent speculation about Paraguay, a country that usually gets absolutely no attention in Washington. A series of unusual facts and unsubstantiated rumors have many Latin America-watchers wondering what is going on:

  • According to yesterday’s Guardian (UK), Paraguay is swirling with rumors that President Bush has bought a 98,840-acre ranch in the arid, empty Chaco region of the country’s northwest, not far from Bolivia. "Erasmo Rodríguez Acosta, the governor of the Alto Paraguay region where Mr Bush’s new acquisition supposedly lies, told one Paraguayan news agency there were indications that Mr Bush had bought land in Paso de Patria, near the border with Brazil and Bolivia. He was, however, unable to prove this, he added."

  • Earlier this month, Jenna Bush, one of the president’s twin daughters, paid a ten-day visit to Paraguay to learn about UNICEF projects there. From the Associated Press report: "’The visit is strictly private in nature,’ UNICEF announced in a one-page statement released by spokeswoman Natalie Echague. ‘She will get to know the UNICEF activities in Paraguay and some of the programs it cooperates in.’"

  • Since mid-2005, the U.S. Southern Command has been carrying out an unusual series of bilateral exercises in Paraguay. Some of these exercises have been humanitarian – building schools, providing health services – and others have been Special Forces Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) deployments for lethal combat and counter-terrorism training. (See a list of these exercises – and a transcript of the Paraguayan Congress’s debate about whether to approve them – here as a Microsoft Word document in Spanish.)

  • U.S. personnel are widely reported to have been using the Mariscal Estigarribia airstrip in the Chaco region, not far from Bolivia. In January, the State Department published a denial that the United States – as was widely rumored – planned to establish a military base there.

  • Earlier this month, Paraguay’s government surprisingly withdrew the immunity from prosecution that it had granted the U.S. soldiers present to carry out the exercises. As a result, the series of exercises begun in mid-2005 will end by December 1.

What does all of this mean? And why Paraguay?

I have no idea, and it may mean nothing at all. However, as part of another research trip to South America in early November, I will be spending 2 days in Asunción conducting interviews. (This will be my first-ever trip to Paraguay.) If I learn anything that helps to clarify things, I will post it.

Oct 23

If Spanish is your second language, President Uribe’s recent rants against the FARC – who may or may not have planted a car bomb at a Bogotá military facility last Thursday, causing the president to break off all contact – included many unfamiliar new vocabulary words. Add these to your deck of flash cards:

  • fantoche: "boastful nincompoop" – Yahoo Spanish dictionary. (Context: "What will the terrorist Raúl Reyes say – that fantoche terrorist of international appearances, vedette terrorist of the media, who hides, cowardly, in the Ecuadorian jungle, without Ecuador’s consent?")

  • vedette: "In the entertainment industry, vedette refers to a star performer of stage or screen." – Wikipedia. (Context: "Frontal struggle against the boastful nincompoop terrorist, vedette of the media, Raúl Reyes!")

  • asepsia: state of being uninfected or uncontaminated – Google. (Context: "Soldiers and Police of my Fatherland, high commanders: asepsia within and effectiveness without!")

  • mansalveros: I have no idea what this means. (It sounds bad, though.) Googling "mansalvero" and "mansalveros" only yields a handful of links, all of them referring to Colombia, and most of them quoting speeches from President Uribe. (Context: "These bandits should learn to be sincere. Because they are cold-blooded killers and they are liars, they do not look you in the eye, and they are boastful nincompoops and mansalveros.")

Oct 20

Yesterday morning, someone wearing a military uniform set off a car bomb near the Colombian military’s Nueva Granada War College in Bogotá. The explosion wounded twenty-three people. The head of Colombia’s army, Gen. Mario Montoya, was attending an event at the facility, but was unharmed.

"I imagine this has to be the FARC. I don’t see any other alternative," Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos told reporters shortly afterward. This morning, President Álvaro Uribe went still further. In response to the bombing, Uribe suspended contacts with the FARC, initiated weeks earlier, that were to lay the groundwork for a prisoner-exchange negotiation. The negotiations were to seek the release of sixty prominent individuals whom the guerrillas have held captive for several years. "The only way that now remains is to rescue the kidnapped people militarily," the president said.

But was the bomb truly the work of the FARC? It is certainly possible, but it doesn’t make sense for the guerrillas to carry out such a high-profile act at this particular time. In fact, there are good arguments to back up either hypothesis:

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Oct 18

It could happen so easily.

While in Medellín in July, I met with a representative of the ELN guerrillas. I also met with leaders of former paramilitaries, who may or may not have ceased to be members of what used to be called the AUC. Both groups are on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Suppose that, for some bizarre reason, I decided to give one of those individuals a twenty-dollar bill. For good measure, I had a picture taken of myself handing over the bill, and made that picture publicly available.

This would have been a strange thing to do, of course. But as of yesterday, it would also have given the U.S. government all the pretext it needs to lock me up indefinitely, subject me to mild torture, and secretly try me in a military court.

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Oct 16

Over the past few days, following my return to Washington, I’ve gathered and read through more than 130 articles that have appeared so far this month in Colombia’s press about the current movement toward dialogue between the Colombian government and the FARC. As mentioned before, Álvaro Leyva, one of the talks’ main facilitators, has publicly proposed a confidence-building role for the Center for International Policy in the process. The memo below, based on my reading of the situation, should be viewed as part of that role.

October 16, 2006

To: Interested colleagues
From: Adam Isacson, Colombia Program, Center for International Policy
Re: Next steps for talks with the FARC

In late September and early October, we saw a flurry of activity around the possibility of talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas. This activity raised hopes for a prisoner-exchange deal that might free about sixty politicians, military officers, and other prominent individuals whom the guerrillas have been holding in captivity for several years. While the FARC has kidnapped many more individuals for ransom, it has made clear that these sixty will only be released if Colombia frees about 500 guerrilla prisoners (and, perhaps, two guerrillas awaiting trial in the United States).

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Oct 13

While participating in a conference on drug policy in Buenos Aires last weekend, I had a chance to sample a can of "Coca Sek," the lightly carbonated soft drink made by an indigenous enterprise in Cauca, Colombia. It is being marketed as an energy drink, with coca leaves providing the kick.

Coca Sek is part of a larger effort underway throughout the Andes to promote legal, marketable uses of the coca leaf – used by indigenous groups in the region for centuries, if not millennia, before the Spanish conquest – and to distinguish it from cocaine. It received much media coverage when it was first marketed earlier this year, and this is the second conference at which I’ve seen the drink, though I have yet to see it for sale in a store.

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Oct 12

Travel, and a schedule full of meetings, certainly slows down one’s output. I left Nicaragua on Thursday, went to Costa Rica Friday and Argentina Saturday, and am only now posting the rest of my notes from the Nicaragua leg of my trip.

Note that these are impressions only, based on observations and many conversations, and I may have gotten a few things wrong. Though I have been to Nicaragua several times, this was my first visit since 2000, and our focus on Colombia has kept me from doing much more than monitoring the small amount of military aid that goes to Nicaragua, while reading the Nicaraguan papers a few times each month. Plus, I was only there for 2 ½ days.

With all those disclaimers in mind, here’s what I wrote in my notebook (I filled in some factual blanks later).

The city of Managua still bears deep scars from an earthquake that happened almost 34 years ago. Baseball fans might remember Managua’s December 1972 earthquake as the one after which Pittsburgh Pirates star Roberto Clemente, on a humanitarian relief mission, died in a plane crash. Nicaraguans remember it as a watershed moment in the political life of their country.

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Oct 09

Greetings from Buenos Aires. From here, I see that CIP has been showing up in the news in Colombia, in the context of our possible involvement in support of a possible “humanitarian exchange” dialogue between the Colombian government and the FARC.

Note that I used the word “possible” twice in the last sentence. It remains far from clear whether talks will actually take place, and regarding CIP’s role, if any – well, at this point, there’s not much to discuss. This is not because we’re being secretive, but because at this very early stage we haven’t taken part in any detailed discussions about what we might do, other than build support and urge patience.

Here is a statement we’re releasing today.

Álvaro Leyva, a former Colombian senator and minister who has been involved in his country’s peace processes since the 1980s, is serving as a facilitator for what might become a round of talks with the FARC guerrillas. These talks, if they occur, would aim to secure a "humanitarian exchange:" the release of 62 individuals whom the insurgents have been holding, in some cases for as long as eight years, in exchange for the release of FARC prisoners in Colombian jails.

We note that, in recent declarations before the Colombian press, Mr. Leyva has been mentioning a potential role for the Center for International Policy in this effort. For instance, the following is a translated excerpt from an interview with Mr. Leyva published in Sunday’s edition of the Colombian daily El Tiempo.

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Oct 07

(Written in my notebook on Thursday the 5th:)

Greetings from the Managua airport. I’m headed to Costa Rica today, where I’ll only be for about 24 hours before going to Argentina.

I’m doing research for a quick project about how countries in the region have been hit (or not hit) by the U.S. military aid sanctions in the American Servicemembers’ Protection Act (ASPA). That’s the piece of Republican-inspired legislation that cuts most non-drug military aid to countries that don’t give U.S. personnel on their soil special immunity from the International Criminal Court in the Hague.

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