May 31

We’ve heard that the House Appropriations Subcommittee for State Department and Foreign Operations will meet Tuesday (June 5) to “mark up,” or draft, the foreign aid bill for 2008.

By Tuesday or Wednesday, then – a day or so before President Uribe arrives for another visit to Washington – we will know much more about how – or whether – the Democratic-majority House of Representatives will alter U.S. aid to Colombia.

Will it be cut or increased? Will it put more emphasis on economic aid, or will it be the same mostly military package as always? Stay tuned.

After Tuesday, the foreign aid bill is scheduled to go to the full Appropriations Committee on Tuesday June 12, and to the floor of the full House of Representatives on June 20th. These dates may slip, however, as delays are common. No word yet on when the Senate will begin work.

May 31

Last fall, I had the opportunity to visit five countries in Latin America, where I interviewed officials and experts about the current state of the Bush administration’s military-to-military relations with the region. The result is “Taking ‘No’ for an Answer,” a rather long – but hopefully very readable and thought-provoking – report. (It is available here as a 565KB PDF document.)

I focused on the impact of a controversial sanction in U.S. law: the “American Servicemembers’ Protection Act.” Congress passed this provision in 2002 to “protect” U.S. military personnel from the jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court in The Hague. Part of the law cuts much military aid to governments that fail to sign bilateral immunity agreements promising not to extradite U.S. citizens to the Court.

In Latin America, this proved to be a blunder. Of twenty-one countries asked to sign immunity agreements in the region, twelve refused. When sanctions went into effect in mid-2003, these twelve countries – among them several governments that Washington considers to be close friends – saw their U.S. military aid cut back significantly.

Over the next few years, we heard lots of complaints from U.S. officialdom about the damage the sanctions were doing to U.S. relations with Latin America. The International Criminal Court sanctions, they argued, were forcing them to lose contact with a generation of officers who would someday lead their countries’ militaries. The cuts, they added, were taking place at a time when third countries – especially China and Venezuela – were increasing their own military engagement in the hemisphere.

Ultimately, the Bush administration found itself forced to “take ‘no’ for an answer” from its Latin American counterparts. In October 2006, they relented, allowing most of the frozen military aid to flow once again.

The American Servicemembers’ Protection Act sanctions were unwise. But were their effects as grave as U.S. officials had warned? How much damage did they do to U.S. security relations – and U.S. foreign policy goals – in Latin America?

Continue reading »

May 31

Jorge Noguera, who headed President Uribe’s intelligence and security service (DAS) until late 2005, was sent to jail in February. He is to face trial for allegations that he worked closely with paramilitary leaders and narcotraffickers from his powerful office, even giving them lists of labor and human-rights activists to target.

Incredibly, Noguera was let out of jail in March on the barest of technicalities. (A document that should have been signed by the Prosecutor-General was signed instead by one of his top deputies.) Despite the seriousness of the charges against him, which caused the U.S. government to revoke his visa earlier this year, Noguera is a free man right now.

This display of leniency – for a man who was President Uribe’s campaign manager in the paramilitary-dominated department of Magdalena in 2002 – was viewed very poorly outside Colombia.

Now, Colombia’s José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective informs us, Colombia’s prosecutor-general, Mario Iguarán, “must decide in the next few days whether he will send [Noguera] back to prison.” They urge Iguarán to oversee the case personally so that Noguera’s lawyers can find fewer legal loopholes for their client to slip through.

The prosecutor-general is under a lot of political pressure, and his office is overwhelmed by the “para-politics” scandal and the “justice and peace” trials of demobilizing paramilitary leaders. The Jorge Noguera case, however, is an early and important test of the Colombian judicial system’s ability to deal with the power and influence of paramilitarism and organized crime.

Last week, President Uribe proposed releasing from prison all alleged paramilitary collaborators not accused of serious human-rights crimes themselves – a proposal he has since softened a bit. But Noguera is accused of serious human-rights crimes, so he doesn’t even fit the president’s initial definition of who should be let out of jail.

The former DAS director should not be at large right now. Let’s hope that Mario Iguarán is able to do something about it.

May 30

Ángela Giraldo was a dentist in Cali until April 2002, when the FARC kidnapped her brother Francisco and eleven other state legislators from Valle del Cauca department (of which Cali is the capital). The guerrillas have been holding them and about 45 other hostages – in some cases for ten years – in order to pressure for a prisoner-exchange agreement with the Colombian government. Three of the hostages are U.S. citizens.

Ángela has since become a leading voice among the hostages’ family members, who have organized to pressure both sides to negotiate a “humanitarian exchange” of prisoners. The governor of Valle del Cauca, Angelino Garzón, named her to the post of departmental peace commissioner.

Ángela Giraldo was in Washington last week to attend events hosted by the U.S. Institute for Peace. I sat down with her to talk about obstacles to freeing the hostages, and the important role that the U.S. government could play. Here is a five-minute video.

May 29

A big tip of the hat is due to the Center for Public Integrity and its International Consortium for Investigative Journalists. They released a report last week that is required reading.

Collateral Damage: Human Rights and U.S. Military Aid After 9/11” is the product of a team of investigators in the United States and several regions around the world (including noted Colombian journalist Ignacio Gómez and Gerardo Reyes from El Nuevo Herald). They worked for 18 months to come up with a thorough overview of U.S. military aid worldwide since the “war on terror” began.

The report juxtaposes this aid data with official information about the recipient countries’ human-rights records, and with amounts each country spent on lobbying and public relations in the United States.

The report ranks Colombia sixth in the world, and first outside the Middle East and Afghanistan, among the world’s U.S. military-aid recipients between 2002 and 2004. This sounds right – by 2005 we had expected Colombia to slip to number seven – though right now it is most likely back at number five, above Pakistan and Jordan. Of the top sixteen 2002-2004 military-aid recipients listed, five are from Latin America (Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Mexico and Ecuador).

In addition to the lobbying data, one of this report’s biggest contributions is never-before-seen information about aid that has flowed through some very un-transparent aid accounts in the massive Defense Department budget. The “Collateral Damage” website has a “document warehouse” page with the results of several Freedom of Information Act requests. Latin Americanists will find especially useful the country-by-country breakdown of aid that has flowed through the Defense Department’s counter-drug programs. These programs – whose aid amounts are very hard to uncover – account for about one-quarter of Colombia’s military aid (about $150 million) each year. And they are not subject to the human-rights conditions that apply to the rest of U.S. military aid to Colombia.

The only quibble with the report is that it overstates military aid by throwing in two programs’ economic aid. Economic Support Funds are in each country’s list of military-aid sources; while this aid sometimes does come in the form of cash transfers that offset military spending, it just as often pays for specific development programs and support for civilian institutions. The report also erroneously portrays the State Department’s International Narcotics Control program – which, under the guise of the “Andean Counterdrug Initiative,” is the biggest source of aid to Latin America – as an entirely military-aid program, though much of it also pays for programs like alternative development, judicial reform and aid to displaced people.

Overall, though, this is a stunning and necessary piece of work. It is a very highly recommended resource.

May 24

I’m rarely confused with José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, but it happened today.

This morning’s edition of Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo, led with the reaction to a controversial suggestion from President Álvaro Uribe. On Wednesday morning, Uribe said that politicians accused of helping paramilitaries, but not responsible for serious human-rights crimes, should not have to serve prison terms. El Tiempo reported:

[José Miguel] Vivanco said from Washington that the most important point is that the power of “narco-mafias and paramilitarism” be dismantled. “It could be that the best way to achieve this dismantlement might be to release the detained congresspeople, officials and military officers, once they reveal all that they know about the para-mafioso networks in which they participated, and the identities of their allies in the government,” he explained.

José Miguel Vivanco didn’t say that. He likely disagrees with it. I didn’t talk to him today – I spent my day on Capitol Hill. (Incidentally, we ran into Vice President Francisco Santos there, in the basement of the Longworth House Office Building. He – along with DAS Director Andrés Peñate and Colombian embassy officials – were lobbying so vigorously that, even though it was 3:30 PM, they hadn’t had lunch yet. They were forced to eat from vending machines.)

But I bet José Miguel is angry, because I said that, not him. El Tiempo ran a rectification later this morning. The article now reads, “President Uribe’s proposal was not well-received by the opposition, but the director [of programs] of the Center for International Policy, Adam Isackson [sic.], did not dismiss it.” Great.

Why, then, did I say that it would be all right to let paramilitary collaborators out of jail? Here is what I sent to El Tiempo yesterday after they requested a paragraph on the subject. Spanish first, then English.

Continue reading »

May 24

León Valencia is a former member of the ELN guerrilla group’s Central Command. After demobilizing in 1994 along with 730 other ELN members, Valencia has been one of Colombia’s most prominent analysts of the conflict and peace efforts. He heads a non-governmental organization called the New Rainbow Corporation, whose investigations of politicians’ ties to paramilitary groups get partial credit for the emergence of the “para-politics” scandal.

I cornered León yesterday at a U.S. Institute of Peace conference on peace initiatives in Colombia. He has been to Havana twice in the past month to accompany the ELN’s peace talks with the Colombian government, including a visit late last week. The message he brings is that a cessation of hostilities is imminent, and that the U.S. government should no longer keep its distance from the process.

(Valencia does not refer here to the ELN’s additional demand, announced late Tuesday, that a cease-fire be contingent on Colombia dropping its free-trade agreement with the United States. If this is a consensus position within the ELN – and that is not clear – it could be an obstacle to short-term progress because Bogotá is unlikely to yield.)

May 23

This from today’s Los Angeles Times:

Sen. Carlos Garcia, a presidential aspirant and leader of the largest bloc in Colombia’s Congress, said Monday in an interview that the failure to pass the trade accord could force the government to withdraw from Plan Colombia, which has cost the United States about $5 billion over seven years.

“If the U.S. Congress does not support Colombia in expanding its markets, there is absolutely no reason to accept Plan Colombia aid. That’s just one component of the solution. The best way out of poverty and the cultivation of illegal crops is the marketplace,” said Garcia, who heads Uribe’s Social National Unity Party.

The move would salvage “national dignity” and possibly prompt Colombia to move away from its close relationship with the United States and to closer ties with the European Union and Canada, Garcia said.

Asked whether he spoke for Uribe, Garcia answered, “I believe he feels the same way. It would be a logical consequence.”

Oh please. So if the Democrats say “no” to the present free-trade agreement, the Uribe government will pick up its ball and go home, forsaking U.S. aid and bringing U.S.-Colombian relations back to where they were when Ernesto Samper was president?

Talk about an empty threat. We wish Sen. García good luck in Ottawa and Brussels, where leaders are much more critical than their Washington counterparts about impunity for Colombians who support paramilitary groups and kill labor leaders.

May 22

The Colombian newsmagazine Semana has published a transcript of a December 2006 telephone conversation, illegally intercepted by Colombian police, between Bogotá’s foreign minister at the time, María Consuelo Araújo, and her brother Sergio. (The minister resigned in February because of allegations that members of her family, including Sergio, worked closely with paramilitary groups.)

After Ms. Araújo asks her brother to come to Bogotá to help her decorate her apartment, the conversation turns to a dispute brewing at the time between Colombia and Ecuador. The Quito government was blasting Colombia publicly for carrying out anti-drug herbicide fumigations along the two countries’ border, despite an early 2006 Colombian promise not to do so.

Sergio Araújo: How have things gone with those Ecuadorians?

María Consuelo Araújo: It’s that the Ecuadorians don’t understand… our territory, our coca, our glyphosate… and they don’t let us spray… the jodetería [f***ing mess] is purely pressure from the FARC… Look, in Ecuador’s banana crop they use 800,000 gallons of glyphosate each year.

Sergio: And why don’t you say that?

María Consuelo: I’ve said that everywhere.

When the Colombia-Ecuador fumigation crisis ended (if it indeed has ended), the two countries agreed to a visit to the border zone by Paul Hunt, a New Zealander who is the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the right to health. Hunt was in northern Ecuador last week; the Colombians denied him permission to investigate on their side of the border.

Hunt announced his preliminary conclusions at a press conference on Friday afternoon (MS Word .doc format). The UN special rapporteur’s words were strong, unequivocal, and contrast sharply with what Colombia’s foreign minister told her brother back in December.

They also contrast sharply with what the U.S. and Colombian governments have long insisted about glyphosate fumigation. The UN official has dealt a strong blow to the failed fumigation policy.

Here is the relevant excerpt, with emphases added.

Continue reading »

May 21

An alarming issue appeared in yesterday’s El Tiempo interview with Colombia’s prosecutor-general, Mario Iguarán. There is a real possibility that all of the Colombian politicians and officials currently under arrest for suspected paramilitary ties could be freed on a legal technicality at the end of June.

Iguarán: [I]n these investigations, the [Supreme] Court and the Prosecutor-General’s Office are working within the longer investigation periods allowed by the specialized justice system. But the Law of Specialized Justice, which gives much more time to investigate than the regular justice system does, expires soon, on June 30. That is why we have asked the Congress to approve, before June 16, legislation that will allow us to keep working within the terms of specialized justice. If Congress does not approve this law for us, our ability to investigate as we should will run serious risks.

El Tiempo: What risks?

Iguarán: That many people who today are being investigated and tried under the terms of specialized justice – for example, for conspiracy – will be let out of jail.

El Tiempo: They will all get out?

Iguarán: That is the risk. That is why I have sent official communications to the presidents of the Senate and House, and the bill has a “message of urgency” from the executive branch. It has passed in the committees, but has yet to go through the full houses.

El Tiempo: The congresspeople under investigation could also be freed?

Iguarán: The [Supreme] Court [which handles the cases against legislators] would also have its investigation periods cut back, because it is also working within the specialized justice system. That is what happened in the [César] Gaviria administration, when because the period expired, Prosecutor-General [Gustavo] De Greiff had to set Pablo Escobar free. In order to keep that from happening, Gaviria declared a state of siege.

In other words, Iguarán is saying that if the Congress doesn’t approve a bill in less than four weeks, the twelve congresspeople and various other officials in prison awaiting trial for helping paramilitaries could receive a “get out of jail free” card.

Is this likely to happen? Probably not – the bill to renew the “specialized justice” system appears to be moving, slowly but steadily, through the Congress. Its passage will keep the suspected paramilitary collaborators in jail. Nonetheless, the prosecutor-general is clearly worried that the bill could quietly fail.

Will the members of the pro-Uribe majority in Colombia’s Congress do the right thing and pass the bill? Or will they do a favor for their jailed colleagues – and for themselves, as many are also under a cloud of suspicion – by letting the “specialized justice” statute expire?

May 18

I got this in my email and had to share.


An engineer, an accountant, a chemist, an IT specialist and a Colombian senator were bragging about how smart their dogs were.

The engineer told his dog, “Protractor, show what you can do.” The dog gathered some bricks and boards, and built a small doghouse. All agreed that it was incredible.

The accountant said his dog could do better. “Cash Flow, show what you can do.” The dog went to the kitchen, returned with 12 cookies and divided them into 4 piles of three cookies each. That was pretty neat, all agreed.

The chemist said that his dog could do even better. “Oxide, show what you can do.” Oxide walked to the refrigerator, took exactly 500 milliliters of milk, peeled a banana, used the blender and made a smoothie. All agreed that it was impressive.

The IT specialist said he could beat them all. “Megabyte, do it!” Megabyte crossed the room, turned on the computer, checked it for viruses, upgraded the operating system, sent an e-mail and installed an excellent game. All knew that this would be very hard to beat.

They turned to the Colombian politician and asked, “And your dog, what can he do?”

The politician called his dog and said, “Paraco, show what you can do!”

Paraco jumped up, ate all the cookies, drank the smoothie, erased all the files from the computer, “disappeared” the other four dogs, declared himself to be an Uribe supporter, and took over the land title to the doghouse.

Afterward, the politician insisted that he had never met the dog, that he had never even seen it, and that a photograph showing them together was faked…

(OK, maybe it was funnier in Spanish.)

May 18

This was an even more eventful week than usual in Colombia. The three big stories were:

  • Para-politics – more members of Colombia’s Congress and a governor were arrested for paramilitary collusion. Then top paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso began naming some very unusual names – including top government officials, generals and major corporations – in his “justice and peace” confession. (NY Times, Miami Herald, Houston Chronicle, El Tiempo)
  • Wiretaps – Sunday’s Semana magazine published transcripts of “demobilized” paramilitary figures ordering drug deals and murders by telephone. These leaks revealed that police had illegally intercepted over 8,000 hours of telephone conversations over the past few years, including those of politicians, opposition figures and journalists. The national police chief and eleven police generals had to step down. (Washington Post, LA Times, Semana)
  • FARC hostages – Police official John Pinchao was 25 when the FARC took him prisoner in a December 1998 raid on the provincial capital of Mitú. Three weeks ago Pinchao, now 33, escaped his captors and found his way to freedom after 19 days in the jungles of Vaupés, near Brazil. Pinchao had news about the nearly 60 hostages whom the guerrillas have been holding to pressure for a political exchange. All are alive, including Íngrid Betancourt and the three U.S. contractors captured in 2003. But some are ill, and all are subject to cruel punishments if they attempt escape. (L.A. Times, AP, El Tiempo) The FARC rejected President Uribe’s offer – which seemed more spur-of-the-moment than well-thought out – to free dozens of guerrilla prisoners in Colombian jails. (Semana)


A cover story in Businessweek gushes about Colombia’s improved climate for foreign investors (there are even 5-star restaurants!), while the Economist takes a more sober view of trade-unionist murders.

A new round of talks began between Colombia’s government and the ELN guerrillas. This received little attention, and that’s a good thing – more progress can be made outside the spotlight.

The White House Drug Czar’s office found a likely increase in coca-growing in Peru in 2006. Colombia estimates are not out yet.

In Mexico, narco-related violence has claimed over 1,000 lives so far this year. A spate of articles in the U.S. press have questioned the Calderón government’s decision to deploy the military to fight drug-trafficking organizations. This decision has come under fire from Mexico’s human-rights ombudsman, who has issued two critical statements in the past week. (Chicago Tribune, LA Times, AP)

May 17

Frequent correspondent Chris Stubbert is just back from a visit to Cartagena, and sends this reflection on the stark social contrasts of a city that is both a top vacation destination for wealthy Colombians, and a prinicipal refuge for their internally displaced fellow citizens.

An update from Cartagena

If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin. - Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle (1839), Chapter XXI

Cartagena, a city with a population of around 895,000, is fast becoming the major tourist destination in a country where tourism has had a negative reputation for years. Cartagena is not your typical image of Colombia. There are no Andean mountains here, but a Caribbean coast. The weather is warm, but breezy, and the people – ‘Costeños’ – are distinct from those in other regions of Colombia.

Having just returned from a third visit to Cartagena, I think it’s about time to talk about the incredible social contrasts one finds in this city. Charles Darwin wrote the above quote in 1839, reflecting on slavery in South America, which brought millions of West Africans across the Atlantic from the 16th to 19th century. The legacy of that trade in modern Cartagena is still very strong. The contrasts of rich and poor, black and non-black are evident even when driving from the bus station to the center of the city.

Cartagena is currently constructing the tallest building in Colombia, named ‘La Torre de la Escollera’ at 58 floors. And as the skyline quickly fills with new apartment towers and hotels, and Donald Trump has even put his eye on the Caribbean city, one must wonder who is being left behind? With mayoral elections coming up on October 30th, Colombian media have reported that some mayoral candidates are being supported and funded by narco-traffickers and paramilitary elements, who wish to get a hand in the building contracts expected to be handed out in the coming years.

The Attorney General’s office has made it a ‘top priority’ to investigate the pattern of corruption in the lead up to the election. But Cartagena is and has always been the epicenter of this type of activity.

Continue reading »

May 16

The House of Representatives is currently considering the 2008 Defense Authorization bill, which governs programs in the Defense Department’s half-trillion-dollar budget. This bill includes little specific to Colombia or Latin America, though it does authorize funds for Defense Department counternarcotics activities in the hemisphere.

However, when the House Armed Services Committee finished work on the bill last week, it included this paragraph in the narrative report accompanying the legislation:

The committee is particularly concerned about the level of counter-drug support for the Colombian military. In March, 2007, the Department of State reported that some former members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a foreign terrorist organization, continue to engage in drug trafficking. There are also increasingly troubling reports of collusion between a number of Colombian military units and senior officers and elements of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.

This is the first time that a concern about the Colombian military’s record has appeared in a Defense Authorization bill committee report.

May 16

People who allegedly conspired with top paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso, according to Mancuso’s “Justice and Peace” testimony yesterday, which covered events up to 1997:

  • Vice-President Francisco Santos, who Mancuso says met with him four times and proposed the creation of a paramilitary bloc in Bogotá.
  • Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, who Mancuso says proposed a joint effort to overthrow then-President Ernesto Samper. (Santos told reporters that his 1997 meeting with Mancuso were part of a peace-building effort.)
  • Army Gen. Rito Alejo del Río, head of the 17th Brigade in the northwestern region of Urabá at the time of a bloody paramilitary offensive in the zone (and at the time that Álvaro Uribe was governor of Antioquia, the department that includes much of Urabá).
  • Army Gen. Martín Orlando Carreño, who succeeded Gen. Alejo in Urabá, and who in 2003-2004 was the chief of Colombia’s army. (Carreño told reporters yesterday that Mancuso was seeking revenge “because I dedicated myself to attacking the paramilitaries permanently.”)
  • Army Gen. Iván Ramírez.
  • Former National Police Chief, and current Ambassador to Austria, Gen. Rosso José Serrano: according to Mancuso, when he and top paramilitary leader “Jorge 40″ were detained by police in La Guajira, they were released after drug-trafficker and future paramilitary leader “Don Berna” contacted Gen. Serrano to request that they be freed.
  • Sen. Miguel de la Espriella and former Rep. Eleonora Pineda, both placed under arrest on Monday, whom Mancuso called “our congresspeople.”
  • Sen. Mario Uribe, the president’s cousin, who asked Mancuso to support Eleonora Pineda’s candidacy.

People revealed to have been subject to more than 8,000 hours of illegal police wiretaps over the past three years, in a scandal that emerged this week:

  • Carlos Gaviria, candidate of the opposition Polo Democrático party in the May 2006 presidential elections. Gaviria finished second in the voting to President Álvaro Uribe.
  • Paramilitary leaders currently in the Itagüí maximum-security prison near Medellín.
  • Many, many others. Defense Minister Santos said yesterday, “Many people had their phones intercepted, members of the government, of the opposition, public figures, journalists. … I saw a recording [of a conversation] between [television journalist] Claudia Gurisatti and Carlos Gaviria: that’s as far as we’ve read. I saw others, but it’s not worth the trouble to mention the names.”