Apr 30

Colombia’s president, Álvaro Uribe, arrives in Washington Tuesday evening. He will be staying until Friday. This will be the Colombian government’s big offensive of the year in favor of the bilateral free-trade agreement and yet another 80-percent-military aid package.

Uribe’s agenda is heavily weighted toward meetings with congressional Democrats, who hold the key to decisions on both of these priorities. Many of these legislators have opposed Plan Colombia’s military focus in the past, and are skeptics of the free-trade agreement.

In many cases, these congressional Democrats will be meeting with Uribe for only the first or second time. Most will have only a passing familiarity with what is happening in Colombia.

The picture they have of Colombia’s leader is probably confusing and contradictory. Some have likely heard glowing accounts of how much safer and prosperous Colombia has become under Uribe, and how he is one of the United States’ only friends in a politically tumultuous region. Others, on the other hand, may have heard Uribe described as a monster who has tolerated – or even fostered – paramilitary groups, and who is bent on strengthening an abusive military in the name of free-market orthodoxy.

I’ve met Álvaro Uribe twice, seen him speak a few times, and have read dozens of his speeches in the 1,727 days since he became Colombia’s president. After all that time, I think there is some truth to both of these impressions.

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Apr 27
  • Even if your command of Spanish is only partial, do look at the series of stories in Tuesday’s El Tiempo about the paramilitaries’ mass graves and forced disappearances. Colombia’s main newspaper is to be congratulated for an important and necessary piece of journalism. Let’s hope that this vivid reminder of the horror the paramilitaries perpetrated will help ease the polarization that the so-called "para-politics" scandal is generating.
  • The situation remains serious in Medellín’s poor Comuna 13 neighborhood, which the Colombian government liberated from guerrilla influence – but apparently not paramilitary influence – with a high-profile 2002 military offensive. (Allegations of paramilitary participation in that offensive have touched the head of Colombia’s army, Gen. Mario Montoya.)

On Monday, Comuna 13 community leader Judith Vergara, a member of the opposition Polo Democrático, was shot to death while riding a bus. Paramilitaries are believed responsible.

Medellín authorities note with concern that 15 people were murdered in Comuna 13 during the first two months of this year, compared to just four during the first two months of 2006.

  • In an interview last weekend, Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer asked several times, but was unable to get Colombian President Álvaro Uribe to promise not to seek a third term in 2010. Oppenheimer’s surprisingly ominous conclusion:

    If he doesn’t understand that the future of Colombia’s democracy depends on being able to continue without him, the difference between him and his messianic populist neighbors will begin to fade.

  • Fernando Londoño, a right-wing stalwart who was President Uribe’s first "super-minister" of interior and justice, had this to say about Colombian politicians and human-rights defenders who have traveled to Washington recently to educate about paramilitary power and the impacts of trade and aid:

    What’s happening in the United States is even more irritating. Those who burn the flags of the Union [the United States], those who receive that country’s president with bombs and insults, those who yell insults against the gringos in the Congress, those who make common cause with Hugo Chávez against them, have sought – and found, in clueless Democrats – an incredible alliance against the only sincere friend that the North has in these complex Americas.

Oh, those poor clueless Democrats. Who will keep them from falling under the spell of those wily Colombian politicians and human-rights activists?

  • Retired Colombian Army Col. Julián Villate, a former instructor at the School of the Americas, is now connected to three human rights cases. In August 2004, he was accused of masterminding "Operation Dragon," an operation that spied on – and allegedly planned to kill – union leaders in Cali. He worked as a security consultant for Drummond, the U.S. coal company accused of conspiring with paramilitaries to kill union organizers. Now, opposition Senator Gustavo Petro says that Col. Villate may be involved in a plot to assassinate him, which investigators in the attorney-general’s office uncovered earlier this year.

But it gets worse. The Associated Press reported yesterday that Col. Villate came to be employed by the U.S. embassy in late 2004. This was several months after his name came up as part of the Operation Dragon allegations. Why did the U.S. government hire someone who had been publicly accused of a very serious crime only a few months earlier?

  • Meanwhile, the office of the White House "Drug Czar" announced on Wednesday that it could not detect any increase in coca cultivation in Bolivia during 2006, Evo Morales’ first year in office. The surprising announcement sought to cast doubt on its own findings: "The accuracy of the estimate was degraded because of the extremely mountainous terrain in the largest single cultivation area, the Yungas."

No 2006 coca-cultivation figures are yet available for Colombia or Peru. El Tiempo reporter Sergio Gómez, however, had this bit of intelligence in a piece published on Thursday: "Official statistics about coca cultivation in Colombia for 2006 are still forthcoming, but according to what El Tiempo has been told, it diminished by nearly 10 percent."

Apr 26

In March 2006, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana) added $26.3 million in new military aid for Colombia to a bill adding “supplemental” funds for Iraq, Hurricane Katrina relief, and the “war on terror.” Said Burton at the time, “[W]e have to decide as a Congress are we going to continue to fight the war against drugs or are we going to start acquiescing? Are we going to start caving in?”

The funding, intended to give Colombia maritime interdiction aircraft, was to come from a cut to an unpopular program: prison construction in Iraq. It passed the Republican-majority House by a vote of 250-172. The Senate didn’t include the $26.3 million, so both houses ended up splitting the difference: the bill, signed into law last June 15, ended up adding $13 million to Colombia’s 2006 military and police aid total (about $600 million).

Almost a year has passed, and the aircraft purchase has not been finalized. Now, a much different, Democratic Party-led Congress has almost completed another “supplemental” funding bill for Iraq and the “war on terror.”

In a surprising move, this bill – as agreed to by the House and Senate – will undo last year’s Burton provision. The final bill adopts this language, which was proposed by the Senate:

Of the amounts made available for procurement of a maritime patrol aircraft for the Colombian Navy under this heading in Public Law 109–234, $13,000,000 are rescinded.

President Bush is likely to veto this bill because it sets a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. It will have to become law eventually, though, because the government needs the “supplemental” money. Once it passes, it appears that our estimate of 2006 U.S. military aid to Colombia will decrease by $13 million.

This is a small but significant step. It is the first legislative evidence so far that the new Congress intends to change course in Colombia.

Apr 25

While on Capitol Hill viewing yesterday’s House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Colombia, we started getting calls and emails. Colombian police were raiding the offices of Gustavo Petro, the opposition senator and nemesis of President Álvaro Uribe. This was happening a mere seven days after Petro’s congressional hearing on paramilitarism in President Uribe’s home state of Antioquia had transfixed the country.

It sounded like something a hack screenwriter would have written: the scene where the would-be dictator begins his crackdown on the opposition. By the end of the day, however, the episode – while troubling – appeared to be much less serious than that.

Two police delegations appeared at Petro’s office. One was there to discuss Petro’s own security, apparently with a prior appointment. A prosecutor had ordered the other – perhaps improperly – to obtain information from Petro’s records about allegations the senator had made regarding bribery of army officers in 2003.

The Uribe administration’s interior minister, Carlos Holguín, disassociated the government from the episode. Attorney-General Mario Iguarán, whose office is a separate branch of government beyond the president’s control, added that he had no role in the prosecutor’s decision to send police to Sen. Petro’s office.

The incident appears to have blown over. What happened yesterday was not an all-out frontal attack on President Uribe’s opponents. But it is still serious in the current context. Consider the following recent developments.

1. Espionage against the peaceful political opposition? In his extensive comments to the media last Thursday, President Uribe offered this startling piece of information.

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Apr 24

Here is our latest list of Colombian government officials and congresspeople facing accusations of assisting or associating with paramilitary groups. Most are members or supporters of the government of President Álvaro Uribe.

As it grows in size and complexity, this list is getting harder to maintain. Corrections or additions are most welcome.

Sentenced and in prison:

  • Rafael García Torres, former director of information services for the presidential intelligence service, the Administrative Security Department (DAS), who has since become a star witness against other officials.
  • Former Governor Miguel Angel Pérez Suárez of Casanare department.

Under investigation by Colombia’s Supreme Court, and currently in prison:

  • Senator Álvaro Araújo Castro of Cesar department (brother of former Foreign Minister María Consuelo Araújo).
  • Representative Alfonso Campo Escobar of Magdalena department.
  • Senator Álvaro García Romero of Sucre department.
  • Senator Dieb Nicolas Maloof Cuse of Magdalena department.
  • Senator Jairo Merlano Fernández of Sucre department.
  • Representative Erick Morris Taboada of Sucre department.
  • Senator Mauricio Pimiento Barrera of Cesar department.
  • Senator Luis Eduardo Vives of Magdalena department.

Charged by the attorney-general’s office, and in prison:

  • Trino Luna Correa, governor of Magdalena department.
  • Former Representative Muriel Benito Rebollo of Sucre department.
  • Edilberto Castro, former governor of Meta Department.
  • Departmental legislator Walberto Estrada of Sucre department.
  • Departmental legislator Nelson Stanp Berrio of Sucre department.
  • Departmental legislator Johny Guillermo Villa Uparela of Sucre department.
  • Departmental legislator Ángel Villareal of Sucre department.
  • Two mayors from Magdalena department.

Arrest warrants issued, still fugitives:

  • Salvador Arana Sus, former governor of Sucre department and the Uribe government’s former ambassador to Chile.
  • Alvaro Araújo Noguera, former senator from Cesar department and former minister of Agriculture, father of arrested Senator Álvaro Araújo and of Consuelo Araújo, who was forced to resign her post as foreign minister in February 2007.
  • Representative Jorge Luis Caballero of Magdalena department.

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Apr 23

The price of drugs on U.S. streets is a key measure of whether the “War on Drugs” is succeeding or failing. If drugs are getting cheaper, this means supply is satisfying demand more than it did before. Consistently falling prices are a sign of a failing anti-drug policy.

Where cocaine is concerned, street prices have told a tale of constant failure. The price of a gram of cocaine on U.S. streets has consistently fallen since U.S. government data-collection began in 1981.

In November 2005, though, Drug Czar John Walters called a press conference to make a big announcement: data were showing that the price of cocaine had actually risen between April and September of 2005. Walters presented the following graph, which was distributed at the press conference and on a new website that they called “pushingback.gov.” U.S. government officials have continued to distribute this graphic widely, even in response to recent inquiries from members of Congress.

Cocaine prices July 2003 - July 2005

The graph showed prices, as of September 2005, rising only to where they had been in early 2004. Still, Walters told reporters that it was an intial sign that “Plan Colombia” – and the concept of massive forced eradication and stingy alternative development – was working. “What we have shown today,” said Walters, “is those who have been preaching that this is not possible, those who believe that supply control is inevitably doomed to failure, those who have made the reputation of over years, saying that we ought to forget about trying to protect our citizens and live with the consequences of substance abuse are wrong.”

Walters’ defiant press conference was followed with… nothing. After November 2005, no new data on cocaine’s street price has been released. Until now.

The Washington Office on Latin America has just produced a memo (PDF) with new information, which the Drug Czar’s office had quietly included in a January 2007 letter (PDF) to Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). The new data spell more very bad news for the drug war: the price of cocaine in the United States actually declined further in 2006. Here is the updated version of the above graphic.

Cocaine prices July 2003 - October 2006

The price of a gram of cocaine appears to have dropped by about $30 – about one-fifth – in the year since Walters held his press conference. In July 2003, when the Drug Czar’s office hired a new contractor to measure price and purity data, a gram of cocaine cost more than $200 on average. By October 2006, despite years of Plan Colombia funding, aerial fumigation, forced eradication and large-scale incarceration at home, the price had fallen to less than $140.

Today is yet another bad day for the “War on Drugs.” How many more “bad days” must we endure before a change in strategy becomes politically possible?

(PDF) WOLA: “Connecting the Dots: ONDCP’s (Reluctant) Update on Cocaine Price and Purity”

Apr 23

Yesterday was a beautiful day here in Washington, but most of the city’s elite probably missed it. They were up very late Saturday night attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner – a glitzy, star-studded event that nobody at CIP has ever attended, or probably ever will.

After that, many of the powerful, well-connected guests went to one of four “after-parties” where the booze flowed freely and Hollywood celebrities mingled with Supreme Court justices. To our surprise, we read in the Washington Post, one of those late-night after-parties – hosted by Capitol File, an upscale Washington-gossip magazine – took place at the Colombian ambassador’s residence.

The ambassadorial residence is a gorgeous mansion a block from Dupont Circle, and a great place to host a party. Nonetheless, does it seem odd that Washington’s glitterati would be partying in the embassy of a country with a raging armed conflict, half its population in poverty, the world’s second-largest displaced population, and the hemisphere’s worst human-rights record? Only a humorless, scolding prig would point out something like that, right?

Apr 21

Former Vice-President Al Gore’s office confirmed yesterday that Gore dropped out of a Miami environmental conference simply because Colombian President Álvaro Uribe would be there. This is the strongest message Colombia has yet received about how seriously the rest of the world is viewing revelations of government officials’ ties to drug-dealing, mass-murdering paramilitaries.

It is important that Gore sent this message. But now that he has done so, the former vice-president must follow through in order to avoid doing inadvertent damage.

In a brief statement yesterday, Gore’s office explained that “until this very serious chapter in Colombian history is brought to a close, Mr. Gore did not feel it was appropriate to appear at the event.”

The problem with this wording is the expressed desire that this serious chapter be “brought to a close.” That desire is already shared by those implicated – or potentially implicated – in the “para-politics” scandal. President Uribe and his supporters would no doubt prefer to see the whole thing put quickly behind them, and to return as quickly as possible to business as usual.

Continue reading »

Apr 20

Gen. Mario Montoya, the head of Colombia’s army, continues to face questions of alleged links to paramilitary groups. These allegations, first published by the Los Angeles Times in March, are among the reasons why, according to Sen. Patrick Leahy’s staff, the senator decided this week to “re-freeze” $55 million in military aid to Colombia. (That aid had been held up by a law requiring the State Department to certify that the Colombian military’s human-rights record is improving; that certification was issued on April 4.)

The allegations about Gen. Montoya center on “Operation Orion,” a late 2002 military offensive in Medellín’s western slums that was seen as one of the first tests of President Álvaro Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policy. The Colombian Army’s 4th Brigade, then headed by Gen. Montoya, carried out several weeks of house-to-house fighting. When “Operation Orion” ended, leftist guerrilla militias had been expelled from Medellín’s Comuna 13 neighborhood – but the paramilitary presence remained.

More evidence is emerging about the role that paramilitaries played during the “Operation Orion” offensive that Gen. Montoya led. A disturbing new contribution appeared on Sunday in Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo. Here, thanks to CIP Intern Alessandra Miraglia, is a translation of testimony from one of the paramilitaries’ victims during the offensive.

“I saw my grave being dug”

Carlos Cano managed to escape from the paramilitaries, with three shots in his body, as they were about to put him in a grave. He currently lives outside the country. He is a witness to what happened in Comuna 13 after the military operation ‘Orión.’

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Apr 20

The new Congress will hold its first Colombia-specific hearing on Tuesday. The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere will be examining “U.S.-Colombia Relations” at 2:00 on the afternoon of April 24.

There will be three panels. The first – for some bizarre reason that has yet to be explained to us – will be made up solely of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois), a longtime proponent of the hard-line, military-focused U.S. aid program in Colombia. The next panel will be made up of administration officials, and the final panel will be three non-governmental analysts of U.S. policy: Maria MacFarland from Human Rights Watch, Mark Schneider from the International Crisis Group, and former Chocó governor (and CIP board member) Luis Gilberto Murillo.

Apr 20
  • Colombian President Álvaro Uribe said yesterday that he was snubbed by Al Gore at an upcoming environmental conference in Miami.

    They called me this afternoon to tell me that Vice President Al Gore’s office, in the United States, had informed them that Vice President Gore would not attend the forum because he could not share it with the President of Colombia, after the debates in Colombia against the Uribe Vélez family and against the President.

    Earlier – disturbingly, and while sharing the stage with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet – Uribe blamed his recent image problems in Washington on "friends of the guerrillas."

    I am very worried that the guerrillas’ political friends, who live here constantly posing as political enemies of yankee imperialism, frequently travel to the United States to discredit the Colombian government, for two purposes: the purpose of keeping the Free Trade Agreement from being approved, and the purpose of suspending the aid.

    Uribe continued, on national television, by charging that the recent accusations come from "friends of the guerrillas, politicians who want the guerrillas to triumph in Colombia, but lack the authenticity to call for it openly."

  • The José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, a prominent Colombian human-rights organization, has compiled the most comprehensive list to date of Colombian officials under arrest or under investigation for alleged paramilitary ties. Visit this page and download the Microsoft Word (.doc) files linked at the bottom. We will have an English summary available soon.
  • The Colombian government has given US$500,000 to the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission. This is being viewed by some as a show of Bogotá’s commitment to human rights, and by others as a naked attempt to influence the commission’s work. El Tiempo notes:

    The contribution of such a sum draws attention, since the annual budget of the IAHRC is between US$1.5 and $2 million. This means that Colombia’s donation equals almost one-third of this body’s annual budget. … The IAHRC is one of the international organizations that views the "Justice and Peace" law with a critical eye. And it is the tribunal that has in its hands transcendentally important cases of human-rights violations in Colombia. According to the Interior Ministry, there are 158 cases before the IAHRC that involve Colombia.

  • Bolivian President Evo Morales, visiting Venezuela on Sunday, had some strong things to say about U.S. aid. He complained that it is always conditioned on "the privatization of our natural resources, the privatization of state resources, or finally they ask us to fight terrorism … but there is no terrorism." He added, "The terrorists ask us to fight terrorism in order to give aid. For them, the terrorists are the social movements. How can we accept conditioned aid?"
  • Mostly off-topic, but here is an interesting map, based on a survey of several U.S. Wal-Mart stores, of where the discount retailer’s products come from. As you’d expect, China dominates. Colombia is one of only three South American countries to appear on the map at all.
Apr 19

On April 4, the State Department certified that the Colombian military’s human-rights record was improving. This triggered a provision in the foreign aid law that released $55.2 million in military aid that had been frozen since 2006.

On Monday, concerned members of the U.S. Congress reacted, using their power as appropriators to “re-freeze” the aid. Here is the release that CIP and several other groups put together yesterday in support of that decision. (Most of the work on this statement was done by the other groups, as I spent yesterday in Chicago.)

Press Release
April 18, 2007

Renata Rendón, Amnesty International USA, (202) 544-0200 cell (646) 269-1152
José Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch, (202) 612-4330 cell (202) 431-2471
Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, Washington Office on Latin America, (202) 797-2171 cell (202) 489-1702

Human Rights Organizations Support Congressional Hold on US Funding to Colombian Armed Forces

(Washington, April 18, 2007) — The U.S. Congress should maintain a hold on military assistance to Colombia until alleged links between paramilitary groups and state officials are thoroughly investigated, Amnesty International USA, the Center for International Policy, Human Rights Watch, the US Office on Colombia and the Washington Office on Latin America, said in a joint statement today.

Just 12 days after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice certified that the Colombian government and armed forces are making progress on human rights, the U.S. Congress, on April 16, put a hold on the remaining fiscal year 2006 funding to the Colombian Armed Forces. Congress has apparently placed the remaining funding of $55.2 million on hold out of concern about alleged links between the head of the Colombian Army and the paramilitary group known as United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.

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Apr 18

Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos yawns during Sen. Gustavo Petro's congressional debate yesterday on paramilitarism in Antioquia.Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos may look bored, but in fact there’s a lot going on right now. I’m in Chicago for a few events and meetings, which are going to keep me from writing much today. But I want to point to three things:

1. Senator Gustavo Petro held his long-awaited congressional debate on paramilitary-government links in Antioquia, a department that Álvaro Uribe represented as a senator from 1986 to 1994, and as governor from 1995 to 1997.

From today’s Washington Post:

Basing his accusations on government documents and depositions by former paramilitary members and military officers, Sen. Gustavo Petro said the militiamen met at Uribe’s Guacharacas farm as well as ranches owned by his brother, Santiago Uribe, and a close associate, Luis Alberto Villegas. “From there, at night, they would go out and kill people,” Petro said, referring to the sprawling ranch owned by Álvaro Uribe.

If you understand Spanish, you can view Petro’s presentation in its entirety on the website of his political party, the Polo Democrático. Here is other coverage:

2. Sen. Patrick Leahy has put a hold on 2006 military aid to Colombia that was “unfrozen” earlier this month, when the State Department certified that the Colombian military’s human-rights record was improving. This $55 million is once again frozen until Sen. Leahy – who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee in charge of foreign aid – gets a fuller explanation of how the State Department could possibly see things as improving right now.

3. The Colombian government and ELN negotiators finally sat down in Havana and began talks yesterday, five days later than the current round was scheduled to begin. The ELN has offered a partial cease-fire, which the government is unlikely to accept. Talks continue behind closed doors, but pessimism abounds.

Apr 17

In early 2004, colleagues at the Colombian human-rights group MINGA gave us a very interesting, and potentially useful, CD. It contained several videos of interviews with people in the southern Colombian department of Putumayo – farmers, indigenous leaders, teachers, health workers, alternative-development workers, a mayor.

They tell what happened to them and their communities after Putumayo – which in 1999-2001 was Colombia’s number-one coca-growing department – became the first battleground for the new “Plan Colombia.” With hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. funding, the Colombian government expanded its military and police presence, carried out several waves of massive herbicide fumigation, and hastily threw together some alternative development programs. Meanwhile paramilitaries multiplied their presence in the towns, competing with the guerrillas who had long carried out an iron-fisted rule.

MINGA gave us the CD three years ago with the intent that we distribute it far and wide, adding English subtitles to the footage. We made a few dozen copies and sent them to congressional staff, journalists and colleagues. It’s not clear how many of these very busy people – if any – took the trouble of inserting that CD into their computers, installing the special software needed to read the video’s unusual file format, and viewing their content. Judging from the lack of feedback, the number was small.

But that was in 2004, a long-ago, pre-YouTube era. A couple of weeks ago, we unearthed the CD of MINGA’s Putumayo testimonies, and found that they are still very much worth sharing and viewing. They are now available right here.

Take a moment to view some of these. They are quite typical of what we have heard in our own research in Colombia’s coca-and-conflict zones: indiscriminate fumigation, dysfunctional alternative-development efforts, and civilians caught in the middle of the violence. This glimpse into Plan Colombia’s first zone of operation makes pretty clear why the strategy has failed to achieve its goals.

2003 testimony from a woman in El Placer about being caught in the midst of conflict and fumigation:

2003 testimonies about U.S.-funded alternative-development projects being fumigated by U.S.-funded narcotics aircraft:

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Apr 16

Here, thanks to CIP Intern Alessandra Miraglia, is a translation of a very interesting strategic analysis of the FARC. It appears in the monthly newsletter of the UN Development Program’s Colombia office. Text in brackets is added to provide context.

The FARC, in the shadows?

Actions in different parts of the country raise questions about how long this guerrilla group will continue its strategic “retreat,” and what can be expected before the next [October 2007 municipal and departmental] elections.

What is the meaning of the military actions the FARC carried out in March? Are they coming out of their strategic withdrawal? What is expected from them in view of the next elections? What implications will their Ninth National Conference have? According to the analysts and experts who know the history and evolution of this guerrilla group, a change is currently taking place, and it should be taken into account.

During the five years in which the [Uribe government’s] Democratic Security Policy has been implemented, FARC military actions – such as kidnapping, illegal detentions and attacks –decreased significantly.

“If during Samper’s government the FARC implemented a war of movements and, during Pastrana’s, a war of position, during Uribe’s administration it went back to mobile guerrilla warfare, in which very small groups cause skirmishes. That is, it got back to its origin, to Che’s thesis”, stated Carlos Lozano, director of the weekly [Communist Party] magazine Voz.

According to Teófilo Vásquez, a researcher at [the Jesuit-run NGO] CINEP, “although the traditional variables with which to measure the conflict have decreased in some regions, it would be a mistake to state that the conflict in Colombia is close to an end. What is happening is that armed groups are functioning differently. The fact that they are militarily inactive does not mean that they are not socially, politically and economically influential. They continue to control people.”

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