Dec 24

The Colombian Embassy (its PR firm, anyway) has posted a lovely Christmas card, in the form of a photo montage of some of the country’s stunning scenery and biodiversity.

Enjoy it – and let’s all hope for a peaceful 2007 in Colombia. It would be great if this spectacular wilderness could actually be visited by tourists unafraid for their safety, not by U.S.-funded spray planes.

Meanwhile, posting to this weblog will be sporadic until the new year. Best wishes for a very happy holiday.

Dec 22

In the past week three critiques of the Chávez government in Venezuela have landed in my e-mail inbox. That is not unusual on its own, of course. In this case, though, all three critiques come from what is usually considered the "left." All of them warn of real – not imagined or hypothetical – concerns, and put the focus on specific and workable recommendations.

  • From the arms control community: the Federation of American Scientists’ Strategic Security Blog asks, "Who’s Watching the Guns?"
  • "It is time for the international community to speak up. Pressure from foreign governments, and particularly Venezuela’s main trading partners, could help persuade Chavez to moderate his small arms build-up and to beef up controls on military stockpiles. To that end, these governments should take the follow steps: First, they should make it crystal clear to Chavez that he should not arm civilians. The threat posed by the distribution of military firearms to the civilian population is far greater – to Venezuelans and their neighbors – than the phantom US invasion force they ostensibly would be used to thwart. Second, these governments should ask the Venezuelan government to brief them on its plans for preventing the theft, loss or diversion of the rifles and ammunition. The plan should be thorough and detailed, and should include physical security and stockpile accounting practices that meet international standards. Finally, the Organization of American States and Venezuela’s neighbors should monitor the regional trade in illicit small arms and alert the international community if Venezuela’s rifles start appearing on the black market."

  • From the human rights community: the Venezuelan Program for Education and Action on Human Rights (PROVEA) is one of Venezuela’s oldest and best-known human-rights groups, and it was always unsparingly critical of the governments that came before Chávez. It has just released its latest annual human-rights report, covering October 2005 through September 2006. The tone is very balanced, but still quite critical.
  • From the group’s press release: While there have been advances, mainly in the field of social rights, PROVEA expressed its concern for the enormous institutional weaknesses for preventing human-rights violations, investigating or punishing those responsible, or for creating favorable, long-term conditions for the enjoyment or exercise of rights. It highlighted the lack of political will, inefficiency and improvisation on the part of state agencies and bodies in the design and execution of consistent, coherent and integral policies to achieve an improvement in the country’s human-rights situtation.

  • From a prominent U.S. liberal think-tank: the Center for American Progress, headed by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, has released a new report, "U.S.-Venezuela Policy: A Reality-Based Approach."

    Reality makes it possible to largely ignore Chávez. Mutual Venezuela-U.S. energy-sector dependence, for example, undermines Chávez’s ability to access to oil coercively. Notwithstanding Venezuela’s massive oil industry, Chávez’s sphere of effective influence in the Americas and beyond is as overblown as his rhetoric. Profound changes are afoot in the Americas, but Chávez is neither their animating nor sustaining cause. In short, a Chávez-led Venezuela does not pose a national security threat to the United States at present or in the foreseeable future.

These critiques are very welcome. They are far more interesting than what is coming from the right ("he’s a thug, we must contain the spread of this cancer") and from the "Chávez, right or wrong" crowd. They actually offer suggestions for how Venezuela’s elected leaders can govern better, and recommendations for a more constructive U.S. approach.

Despite the extreme current polarization – which continues to make work on Venezuela resemble poking a hornet’s nest – lets hope that both Caracas and Washington take these suggestions in that spirit.

Dec 21

Colombia’s government reported yesterday that the country’s economy grew by a white-hot rate during the third quarter of 2006 (July-September). The country as a whole was 7.68 percent wealthier on September 30 than it was a year earlier.

President Álvaro Uribe and officials of his government are quick to point out that the country has registered increasingly impressive economic growth rates since Uribe took office in August 2002. Indeed, Colombia’s economy is about 25 percent bigger today, in constant dollars, than it was at the end of 2002:

(Source: Colombian government National Administrative Department for Statistics, DANE [Excel (.xls) file])

In fact, if in August 2002 – the month Uribe took office – you had invested $100 in a fund tied to Colombia’s stock-market index, it would have been worth $862 by the end of November 2006. Colombia’s stock market has been one of the world’s fastest-growing, and has nearly recovered all ground lost during a mid-2006 hiccup in worldwide emerging markets.

(Source: Colombian government, Bank of the Republic [Excel (.xls) file])

This is all great news. But here’s the problem: in one of the world’s most economically unequal countries, it once again appears that not everyone has been invited to the party. There have been improvements in conditions for the poorest Colombians during the Uribe years. But these improvements have been far slimmer than the overall, aggregated national statistics might indicate.

When Uribe took office during 2002’s third quarter, 51 percent of Colombians were either fully unemployed, or underemployed (scratching out a living in the informal sector of the economy). By June of 2006, this number had only dropped to 45 percent.

(Source: Colombian government National Administrative Department for Statistics, DANE [Excel (.xls) file])

Poverty has only gone down slightly as well. Government statistics show the portion of the population living below the poverty line dropping from 57 percent in 2002 to 49.2 percent in 2005. This represents only a recovery of levels last seen in the mid-1990s (49.5 percent in 1995) after a sharp economic downturn in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

(Source: Colombian government National Planning Department, DNP [Acrobat (.pdf) file])

In other words: the country as a whole is one-quarter richer under Uribe, and its stock investors are more than eight times better off. But its unemployed and underemployed population is only one-tenth smaller, and its impoverished population has shrunk by only about one-seventh. The macroeconomic news is welcome, but Colombia has a very long way to go.

Dec 20

Paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso did not reveal too much during his first day of testimony before special investigators yesterday, but his declaration is expected to take several more days.

The “Justice and Peace” law does not require Mancuso to talk about who supported him and his men, but only the crimes in which he himself was involved. Nonetheless, many prominent people from the regions he dominated are worried that his testimony may finger them as supporters of paramilitarism, which could lead to possible criminal charges.

Landholders in the cattle-ranching sector, particularly in northern Colombia, are widely seen as loyal supporters of paramilitary groups. Indeed 10,000 people from Caucasia, a longtime paramilitary stronghold in the cattle country of northern Antioquia department, signed a document last week admitting their role in supporting Mancuso’s and other groups, arguing that they had no choice in the face of guerrilla aggression and state abandonment.

But most ranchers still remain silent about their past ties. For instance, note this passage deep within El Tiempo’s coverage Tuesday morning of Mancuso’s imminent testimony.

And where is Jorge Visbal Martelo?

In spite of the statements made by the president of the National Cattlemen’s Federation (FEDEGAN), José Félix Lafaurie – who yesterday not only repeated that they had supported the ‘paras,’ but also said that they did not regret having done so – nothing has been heard from Jorge Visbal Martelo, who presided over the federation during the self-defense groups’ zenith and greatest period of growth.

Even open confessions from the cattlemen of Córdoba department and the bajo Cauca region of Antioquia [Caucasia and its environs] appear to have motivated him to break his silence. His closest friends have not been able to account for him.

This is a name I had not heard for a while. I first met Jorge Visbal in 1999, when we took a U.S. congressional delegation (one member and several staff) to the FEDEGAN headquarters in Bogotá. (We always try to ensure that all political perspectives are represented on trips like these.) Visbal spoke at length about the threats that cattlemen face at the hands of guerrillas, asked the delegates to support more aid for the Colombian military, and criticized President Andrés Pastrana for being too soft in his negotiations with the FARC guerrillas.

All of this standard for Colombia’s right wing, but near the end of the meeting Visbal said something remarkable. The subject of military collaboration with paramilitary groups came up. After affirming that paramilitarism was illegal and must be combated, the FEDEGAN president not only denied that military-paramilitary collaboration was common, but went on to contend that the paramilitaries did not even abuse human rights very often.

Continue reading »

Dec 19

At a market value of $35 billion per year – or $117 per American – marijuana is now the biggest cash crop in the United States, according to a study reported in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times and elsewhere.

[Study author Jon] Gettman’s report cites figures in a 2005 State Department report estimating U.S. cannabis cultivation at 10,000 metric tons, or more than 22 million pounds — 10 times the 1981 production.

Using data on the number of pounds eradicated by police around the U.S., Gettman produced estimates of the likely size and value of the cannabis crop in each state. His methodology used what he described as a conservative value of about $1,600 a pound compared to the $2,000- to $4,000-a-pound street value often cited by law enforcement agencies after busts.

The L.A. Times notes that "California ranked as the report’s top state for both outdoor and indoor marijuana production," and that "California also is among nine states that produce more cannabis than residents consumed."

Curiously, though, we haven’t heard any U.S. politicians proposing to hire DynCorp to spray "Round-Up Ultra" in Humboldt, Mendocino and Marin counties.

Dec 18

Analysts of politics in Latin America have not paid too much attention to civil-military relations in the last few years. For the most part, the region’s militaries are staying out of politics, rarely abusing populations, and in some cases weathering cutbacks to their sizes and budgets. Military coups are considered beyond the pale in several countries where they were once common.

Yet the dance between military and civilian leaders remains a delicate one. There are still areas where civilian involvement is clearly not welcome, and much remains to be resolved about roles, privileges, and reckoning with the past. Though flare-ups are rare, the debate is frequent, and civilian leaders still feel frequent push-back from the generals.

Here are four articles published this weekend in the region’s press. They indicate that much remains under discussion throughout the hemisphere.

  • Agénce France Presse, Chile: The high command of Chile’s army was to meet today following two high-profile expulsions from the institution in the wake of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s death. On Wednesday Pinochet’s grandson, Captain Augusto Pinochet Molina, was fired after his eulogy defiantly praised the general’s 1973 coup. On Thursday Gen. Richard Hargreaves, head of the division in charge of Santiago and number-seven in the army’s line of command, was dismissed after defending the coup in remarks to the media.

    "In tomorrow’s meeting, Gen. [Óscar] Izurieta [the head of the Chilean Army] will inform the high command about the reasons why he applied these sanctions, based on legislation that prohibits members of the armed forces from deliberating and issuing political opinions. … Among retired generals, who formed part of Pinochet’s regime, the sanctions levied by Izurieta were interpreted as ‘impositions from the government [of Socialist President Michelle Bachelet],’ in the words of the president of their organization, Jaime Núñez."

  • Perfil, Argentina: The paper reveals that, at the height of the country’s severe political crisis in December 2001, the armed forces were putting together a plan to fill the power vacuum.

    "While those directly involved insist that it was not a classic coup attempt, during the December 2001 crisis the maximum military authorities elaborated a "contingency plan" to take power after the fall of President Fernando de la Rúa. … ‘The armed forces’ hypothesis was that, if the Congress stopped working, it would produce a power vacuum and someone would have to take charge of the situation. Their idea was to act as the guarantors of last resort of national order and unity. But it was never proposed as a classic coup d’etat, with tanks in the streets,’ affirmed José Pampuro, the secretary of the presidency during Eduardo Duhalde’s government and former defense minister under Néstor Kirchner. … The proposal involved the mobilization of 9,000 troops, included measures to suppor the police and the Gendarmería, and the protection of strategic objectives like the Casa Rosada, the Congress, nuclear facilities, hydroelectric dams, and public buildings."

  • El Comercio, Ecuador: Ecuador’s congress is making amendments to the organic law governing the military. The debate has yet to touch one of the most contentious points: a proposed reform to the Ecuadorian armed forces’ extensive investments in the private sector. Through their pension and other funds, the military is one of the largest economic entities in the country.

    "This reform was included even though the armed forces have had investments for several years in several economic sectors, with more than thirty businesses, of which ten were liquidated last September. … Gen. (r) René Vargas Pazos participated in the consolidation of the concept of strategic investments. In his opinion, this is part of the military’s fundamental tasks of working for the country’s social development and defense. … On the other hand, Juan Aguilar, member of the Civil-Military Relations Foundation, sees no justification for the armed forces to have investments in economic areas unrelated to defense. ‘It is understandable for the military to have their own factories for weapons, uniforms and esplosives, but there is no reason for them to move into activities like shrimp-fishing, flower-growing and cattle raising.’"

  • La Nación, Costa Rica: At a meeting of Central America’s presidents, Tony Saca of El Salvador and Óscar Arias of Costa Rica disagreed openly about the need to have a military in the first place. (Costa Rica has been armyless since 1949.)

    "The job they do in the social area, against crime and against natural disasters ‘is very large,’ argued Saca after being asked about possible support for a reduction of Central American armies. Just as a journalist tried to ask a question about another issue, Óscar Arias turned on his microphone to speak. ‘A few words about this topic… it is immoral for the world to be spending more than $500 billion per year on weapons and soldiers.’ … ‘To me it seems unfair to want to eliminate armies from the panorama, because they do an extroardinary job,’ Saca affirmed."

Dec 15
  • Sixty-four members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Rice yesterday asking her to encourage the Colombian government to do more to protect threatened human-rights defenders. Many, many thanks to those who contacted their members of Congress asking them to sign the letter. The letter’s text, complete with signatures, is available as a PDF file.
  • Frank Bajak of the Associated Press has a good investigative piece about Juan Manuel Campo, a Conservative Party boss and strong Uribe supporter. It turns out that Campo heads an Urabá fruit-producing company, a supplier to Del Monte in the United States, that grows much of its crops on lands stolen from their rightful owners by paramilitary groups.
  • Journalist Sam Logan has put together a detailed report (PDF) on the FARC guerrillas’ activities in Colombia’s border zones and Mexico. The maps alone are worth a look.
Dec 14

In January, Colombia’s government acceded to a long-standing request from the government of Ecuador, agreeing not to carry out aerial herbicide fumigation of coca within 10 kilometers of the two countries’ common border.

This week, Colombia – no doubt under heavy U.S. pressure – went back on this pledge and started spraying in the immediate vicinity of the border.

Ecuador’s government – both current and incoming – is angry. AP reports that Foreign Minister Francisco Carrión "was deciding whether to lodge a diplomatic complaint or ‘even recall our ambassador because this is a show of hostility toward Ecuador.’"

Colombia’s media have not done any reporting from the border zone this week, but the Quito-based El Comercio does have a reporter in Lago Agrio, on the much safer Ecuadorian side. Here is a translation of a story in this morning’s edition. It’s a brief but interesting view of how the border-zone fumigations are being seen from the Ecuadorian side.

The sprayings arrive with a new exodus

The resumption of Colombian coca fumigation created problems among the residents and their traditional crops in the border area, on the international boundary of the San Miguel River.

That was made clear in the Salinas area of Lago Agrio. There, residents reported that the light airplanes fumigated within some 150 meters of the San Miguel River.

The fumigations did not come alone. Community leaders reported the arrival of several Colombian families. "They arrived with their livestock, asking for shelter in our farms," said Luís Ayabaca.

In this area there is fear for the effects on 45 schoolchildren and more than 80 hectares of corn crops, sugar cane, plantains, and coffee.

"In past fumigations the crops were lost. That caused a very strong economic crisis," said Carlos Condoy.

In Puerto Mestaza, the first fumigations changed the population’s routine. The port registered a larger flow of Colombians. "They crossed the border in order to avoid being reached by the fumigations," said Roberto Cruz.

In this sector, it is reported that the Colombian airships flew within some 200 meters of the San Miguel River. The campesinos in the zone canceled their workdays for community meetings.

This happened with the network of frontier communities in General Farfán. "We have more than 400 hectares of malanga, fish-farming, grazing land, and traditional crops at risk," said Segundo Zambrano.

The farmer stated that the new period of fumigations broke the optimism of campesinos who had refused to leave their lands in the face of the previous fumigations and the effects of the conflict. "More than 300 families have already displaced, and if the 10-kilometer fringe is not respected, it will be our turn," he commented.

In the meantime, the Federation of Campesino Organizations of the Border Area carried out a tour of the border and confirmed that the fumigations in several areas took place 100 meters from the San Miguel River.

Dec 14

On September 11, 1973, Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s reign of terror began in Santiago, as warplanes strafed the presidential palace and troops rounded up suspected leftists. 3,200 people would die, an incredible 29,000 (something like 1 out of every 500 Chileans) would be tortured, and as many as 200,000 would be forced into exile.

Since September 11, 1973 was only my third birthday, there is nothing I can say about Pinochet’s death that isn’t being said much better elsewhere. Though some very dumb things are being said, too, along the lines of “he wasn’t such a bad thug because he believed in the free market.”

Some of the best writing that I’ve seen:

  • Marc Cooper worked as a press aide for Salvador Allende, the elected president whom Pinochet deposed. He has posted thoughts to his blog, the Los Angeles Times, and The Nation. Of all the pieces he has published this week, though, my favorite appears on
  • A great first-hand account from Santiago is on the blog of journalist Tomás Dinges.
  • “Free-marketeers presumably do not believe that you need torture and murder and dictatorship to implement their policies,” writes Christopher Hitchens in Slate.
  • The Independent (UK) publishes an excerpt from an earlier reflection by Isabel Allende.
  • Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson recalls covering the plebiscite that brought the dictator’s reign to an end.

On the other side, the Washington Post editorial page, in a remarkably lame and lazy piece, contends that Chile wouldn’t be eating an omelet today had Pinochet not broken the eggs.

[T]he evil dictator leaves behind the most successful country in Latin America. … Like it or not, Mr. Pinochet had something to do with this success. To the dismay of every economic minister in Latin America, he introduced the free-market policies that produced the Chilean economic miracle — and that not even Allende’s socialist successors have dared reverse.

An eloquent rejoinder to that argument comes from none other than The Economist:

Continue reading »

Dec 11

A long and growing list of Colombian politicians and government officials face serious accusations of assisting or associating with paramilitary groups. The "para-politics" scandal continues to dominate Colombia’s political process.

So far, though, none of the accused are members of Colombia’s armed forces or police. This is not because the Colombian military has a long record of combating and refusing to collaborate with the right-wing militias. It is more likely that the scandal has simply not yet engulfed the security forces.

Witnesses – possibly including the paramilitary leaders themselves – continue to come forward. This makes it more likely that we may learn some disturbing, previously unknown facts about the role that key figures in the U.S.-supported armed forces played in the spread of paramilitary activity in Colombia.

There is no way to know when this information might begin to filter out. However, a look at recent statements from the paramilitaries and government officials indicates that it might be sooner rather than later. In the quotes below, note that President Uribe and armed-forces chief Gen. Freddy Padilla are both urging officers to come forward and say what they know about their institutions’ relations with paramilitarism.

It is likely that they are serious: if the truth is to begin seeping out, they would much prefer a more controlled flow of incriminatory information, instead of a chaotic free-for-all like the one we are seeing right now in Colombia’s congress. In particular, they have an interest in ensuring that new revelations of military-paramilitary ties emerge in a way that does not jeopardize U.S. assistance, particularly as more human-rights-conscious Democrats take control of the congressional purse strings.

Continue reading »

Dec 08

Wealthy Bolivians are up in arms about a new land-reform law that might allow the government to expropriate "unproductive" land from large landholders and distribute it to landless campesinos. The law is one of many grievances driving protests against President Evo Morales in Santa Cruz, Bolivia’s largest city and a center of cattle-ranching and conservative politics.

In that context, consider this article, published yesterday by the Bolivian presidency’s news service. In a ceremony attended by Bolivia’s high military command, Morales handed out 1,024 parcels of land to sergeants and other non-commissioned officers. Excerpts:

The president of the republic, Evo Morales, delivered this Thursday afternoon, in the zone of La Tamborada, south of the city of Cochabamba, 1,024 plots of land to sergeants and warrant officers of the armed forces.

Before members of the military high command and a multitude who gathered in the zone of La Tamborada, the president of the Bolivians said that in the coming year, housing policies will be much more aggressive.

… The commander-in-chief also commented that he had been in Trinidad the previous month to hand out land and housing for teachers; the same was done in Riberalta for the blue-collar manufacturing sector. "And now we are here, together with warrant officers and sergeants of the Armed Forces."

… To the members of the Landless Movement he explained that he handed over housing to members of the armed forces this Thursday because they are also sons of the pueblo (popular sectors), who are prepared to defend the fatherland, since in this government this institution no longer has a repressive face.

"It is also the government’s obligation to attend to the armed forces’ demands," he remarked.

Making the military one of the first beneficiaries of government land giveaways is a novel idea, though it is definitely not a step forward for civil-military relations:

  • It politicizes the military by encouraging it to buy into a domestic policy agenda.

  • It provides a material incentive for loyalty to the state and the constitution, when such incentives should not be necessary.

However, it is brilliant politics:

  • It seeks to convince Bolivia’s military – a mostly conservative institution which until about 25 years ago had a long history of coups – to keep out of politics and support a commander-in-chief from the left, even amid a serious political crisis.

  • It seeks to drive a wedge between the military and the Santa Cruz landowning elite.

In 1954, shortly after he began expropriating unused land from U.S. fruit companies and other large landowners, Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz was deposed by a CIA-sponsored military coup. Decades of horrific violence followed. Would the story have been different had Arbenz distributed some of the land to soldiers?

Dec 08

Today is probably the last day of the 109th Congress; they are expected to adjourn, finally, at some point this afternoon or tonight. This is not a reason to shed any tears.

Here are four quick points about Colombia and the Andes:

  • Mycoherbicides: Back in August 2005, we warned about a legislative provision that would have required the White House Drug Czar to study the use of mycoherbicides – spores and fungi – to kill coca plants. A section in the Office of National Drug Control Policy Reauthorization Act would have required the Drug Czar to produce a “plan of action” for carrying out scientific research about mycoherbicides, and a similar plan "to conduct controlled scientific testing of naturally existing mycoherbicide in a major drug producing nation."

    At the time, we speculated that this bill was unlikely to move toward passage, and we were right for sixteen months. Suddenly, though, we learned on Tuesday (thanks to the Drug Policy Alliance) that this bill had been revived. It was given a new bill number (H.R. 6344), harmonized with a similar Senate bill, and set up for very quick passage.

    The bill that passed the House on a super-fast no-debate voice vote yesterday, and will likely pass the Senate today, has a mycoherbicide provision (Section 1111). It is weaker than what appeared on last year’s House bill, though, as it only requires a study without a plan for testing in a drug-producing country.

    Not later than 90 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy shall submit to the Congress a report that includes a plan to conduct, on an expedited basis, a scientific study of the use of mycoherbicide as a means of illicit drug crop elimination by an appropriate Government scientific research entity, including a complete and thorough scientific peer review. The study shall include an evaluation of the likely human health and environmental impacts of mycoherbicides derived from fungus naturally existing in the soil.

    The pursuit of mycoherbicides as an anti-drug policy is a dumb idea and a waste of money, for the environmental and drug-policy reasons we laid out sixteen months ago. On the bright side, with a little cajoling we can all ensure that a Democratic Congress (a change we did not foresee back in August 2005) performs close oversight over this mycoherbicide study to ensure that it does not come up with spurious conclusions.

  • ATPDEA: It looks as though U.S. trade concessions to Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru under the Andean Trade Preferences and Drug Elimination Act are going to be renewed. This is a relief to these countries, which have entire industries that now depend on this special access to the U.S. market. However, the renewal is only for six months. Democrats are more ATPDEA-friendly than Republicans, so there is a stronger likelihood of another extension at the end of June 2007. But nothing is assured, especially for Bolivia and Ecuador, which have not signed a free-trade agreement with the United States.

  • Aid for 2007: Congress will be leaving town without approving foreign aid for 2007, even though the federal government’s fiscal year started back on October 1. The House has passed its version of the aid bill, but the Senate only managed to get its version out of committee. Before leaving town, the Congress will pass another "continuing resolution" – extending aid at current levels – and leave 2007 foreign aid up to the Democratic-led 110th Congress next year. A Democratic Senate, with Sen. Patrick Leahy as foreign aid subcommitte chairman, could make changes to the 2007 aid bill’s Colombia provisions.

  • McGovern-Pitts letter. Over fifty members of the House, from both parties, have so far signed a letter to Secretary of State Rice asking her to encourage the Colombian government to protect threatened human-rights defenders. This very good letter is still open for signatures; do take a moment and call your member of Congress – just request that the foreign policy staffer ask his or her boss to sign the letter.

    Instructions for how to make that call, and the text of this very good letter, are on CIP’s “Action Center”.

Dec 07

Iván Cepeda is the son of Colombian Senator Manuel Cepeda, who was killed in 1994 while in his car on a Bogotá street. Senator Cepeda was the last surviving legislator from the Unión Patriótica, a leftist political party started during a 1980s peace process with the FARC. As many as 3,000 of that party’s leaders and members were systematically assassinated during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Iván now directs a non-governmental organization that bears his father’s name. He is also a leading figure in the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes in Colombia, a group that formed during the negotiations with paramilitaries to advocate for their victims’ rights. You may also know Iván from his regular column in Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper, or remember him being escorted out of Colombia’s Congress in July 2005, after he interrupted an address by paramilitary leaders by standing up in the gallery and holding aloft a photo of his murdered father.

Iván and his compañera, Claudia Girón, get threatened pretty frequently, and they have a government-provided bodyguard and armored car. A more serious episode occurred about two weeks ago. Here is a translated excerpt of a recent alert.

Last Friday, November 24, at approximately 9:00 at night, men carrying long weapons, identifying themselves as members of police intelligence – the SIJIN – blocked the path of the vehicle assigned for the security of the "Manuel Cepeda Vargas Foundation," which usually carries its leaders, Iván Cepeda Castro and Claudia Girón Ortiz, who are also members of the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes, who had left the vehicle minutes earlier.

The men pointed their weapons at the driver and proceeded to verify the presence of any others inside the vehicle, asking the driver if he was traveling alone. Then, before the driver could show them his identification card from the Administrative Security Department – DAS [the presidential intelligence service] – they fled, visibly nervous.

According to police authorities, the SIJIN had no operations in the zone that day, which indicates the seriousness of this incident, especially taking into account that it happened one day before several members of the National Victims’ Movement were to travel to the municipality of San Onofre, Sucre department. They were traveling there to carry out, together with the Senate Human Rights Committee, a public hearing to listen to the clear denunciations from the community of residents of that zone about ties to paramilitarism, including those of that municipality’s mayor, Jorge Blanco.

San Onofre.

The San Onofre hearing, which took place on November 27, was by most accounts a success. San Onofre, Sucre, a county on the Caribbean coast in a region called the Montes de María, was under brutal paramilitary domination from the mid-1990s until a couple of years ago, when the local paramilitary chief, known as "Cadena," mysteriously disappeared. The marine officer in charge of security for the zone from 2004 to 2006 actively opposed paramilitarism (his brother had reportedly been killed by paramilitaries), which created space for witnesses to come forward and report on the existence of mass graves that held the bodies of their loved ones. The Colombian and U.S. media have since reported widely on forensic anthropologists’ grim work in the mass graves of San Onofre. Though fear of the paramilitaries has still silenced most, a few witnesses have also come forward with information about the paramilitaries’ close relations with Sucre’s politicians; their testimony helped to spark the current growing national scandal about legislators’ links to paramilitarism.

Continue reading »

Dec 07

Yesterday Colombia’s top paramilitary leadership, from their new quarters in the Itagüí maximum-security prison south of Medellín, declared that they were pulling out of their talks with the Colombian government.

It’s impossible right now to know if this is the final word, or what will happen next. Will there be an outbreak of violence? Will the Colombian government begin extraditing paramilitary leaders to the United States? Will the paramilitaries open up and identify everyone who ever helped them? All of the above? Or will they find a way to paper over this crisis and allow the process to continue limping along?

It’s anyone’s guess right now. Here is some of the coverage in this morning’s news.

The most thorough of today’s pieces was the "Durante tres horas" article in El Tiempo. Here is a translation.

December 7, 2006

For three hours, the "paras" did not allow Commissioner [government peace negotiator] Luis Carlos Restrepo to speak

He had not unloaded his papers in the dining area of cell block 1 in the Itagüí maximum-security prision, when the shouting of half a hundred paramilitaries stunned him.

Continue reading »

Dec 06

The Colombian government’s talks with the ELN are moving slowly, but they are still moving. Here is an update on this very complex situation from CIP intern André Guzzi.


An update on the ELN talks

Andre Cavaller Guzzi

One month ago, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Government of Colombia concluded a fourth round of “exploratory” peace talks. The ELN is the second-largest guerrilla group in Colombia, with approximately 4,000 members. Many experts contend that this group has a somewhat more political vision than the FARC – the largest guerrilla group in the country with about 16,000 members.

The exploratory stage of talks between the government and the ELN began at the end of 2005. Representatives from several countries (Switzerland, Norway, Spain, Venezuela, Cuba, Italy, Canada and Japan) and members of Colombian civil society – politicians, activists and representatives of the Catholic Church, among others – were invited to observe the talks, which have occurred in Cuba.

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