Jul 31

(From Chris Stubbert, a periodic correspondent based in Bogotá, comes this interesting post about a small town in Meta that seems to be getting things right.)

Think of small-town Colombia and you might picture dirt roads, under-developed infrastructure, insecurity, corrupt local politicians, and poor-quality education and healthcare. Yet if you took a look at the April 30th publication of Revista Dinero, you might think again. Castilla la Nueva, located 3 hours from Bogota, in Meta department, is rapidly moving away from that image. With a population of just 8,500, this town in Colombia’s oil country is becoming a model for other towns that rely on a lucrative natural resource.

In 3 years Castilla la Nueva has made progress that normally takes decades in other localities across Colombia. With a computer network “connecting” the town, information has become a key ingredient in the glue keeping this town together. Eighty-five percent of the municipality’s roads are paved, and the main town boasts 100% wireless connectivity to the Internet. The irony, however, is that trying to get there takes a fair amount of local knowledge. Hidden away from the local department capital of Villavicencio, Castilla keeps its charm through its isolation. But with an expanding economy, the town wants to attract foreigners to this part of Colombia.

Another social benefit promoted strongly here is education. All children are provided with at least 2 hours of English classes per day. On entering the town, a billboard exclaims “Welcome to Castilla la Nueva, soon a bilingual community.” Mayor Edgar Fernando Amézquita is intent on providing free transportation for people who wish to take courses in technology or English. Health-care coverage is also 100 percent, claims the mayor’s office.

So how does a town afford this expenditure? 86 percent of Castilla’s budget comes from petroleum revenues, while 7 percent comes from the central government. The rest is collected from the local industries of palm oil, rice, and cattle ranching.

In other oil departments like Arauca, Casanare, and Putumayo, towns have suffered from bad government and mismanagement, not to mention outright theft of oil revenues. By contrast, Castilla has placed in the top 15 strongest towns and cities on the National Planning Department’s “fiscal performance index.”

Where organized crime, paramilitaries or guerrilla groups had beleaguered local communities in the above mentioned departments, Castilla la Nueva has been relatively immune from such influence. Castilla used to be under the influence of Manuel Arroyave’s “Centauros Bloc” of the AUC paramilitaries. Yet many believe that when Arroyave was killed by his own men in 2005, the paramilitaries’ grip was weakened.

Like oil producers Norway and the United Arab Emirates, Castilla la Nueva knows that its black gold is only here temporarily. Once it runs out there must be an economically viable backup for the future. With around 10,000 hectares of palm oil, this community is betting on the bio-diesel industry to continue its identity as an energy producer. It is also betting on creating an educated, technologically savvy generation able to earn a living at home instead of migrating to Bogota.

Is it possible for other small towns in Colombia to learn from Castilla la Nueva’s efforts in education, infrastructure, good government, and health care? Granted, money from oil revenue helps the local budget, but much credit should go to fewer than 10,000 people cooperating and carrying out a long-term plan for a sustainable future. Castilla la Nueva can be a good example for the rest of Colombia.

C.H. Stubbert
Bogotá, Colombia

Jul 30

Several years ago, somebody in Colombia – I honestly don’t remember who – told me the following rather grim joke:

If you’re ever on a road in Colombia and get stopped by an armed, uniformed man who isn’t from the security forces, you can usually tell what group he belongs to just by looking at him.

  • If his uniform, boots and weapon look shiny and new, he’s probably a FARC guerrilla. [The guerrilla group's stream of drug money keeps its fighters well equipped.]
  • If his uniform is threadbare, his weapon is old, and he looks like he hasn’t eaten well lately, he’s probably ELN. [The smaller guerrilla group, which takes far less money from the drug trade, has lost income, numbers and territory.]
  • If he is as well-equipped as the FARC fighter, but is also overweight, has manicured fingernails and an expensive wristwatch …he’s probably a paramilitary.

It’s a poor joke. But it kept coming to mind while reading some of the weekend’s news from Colombia.

First, from the interview with paramilitary leader Salvatore Mancuso that ran in Saturday’s New York Times, this description of the confessed mass-murderer’s cozy digs in the Itagüí maximum-security prison:

IN his prison cell here on the outskirts of Medellín, Salvatore Mancuso reads Gandhi and self-help books. He taps notes to his lawyers into a BlackBerry. He gazes at photos of his 19-year-old wife and 8-month-old son. He listens to vallenato music on his iPod.

… Under Colombia’s lenient rules, Mr. Mancuso could end up spending much less than eight years in a prison where he is already allowed amenities like satellite television in his cell, bodyguards, visits each weekend from his wife, Margarita, and their son, Salvatore, and a laptop computer with Internet access, said José Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch.

Then today, El Tiempo runs this EFE account of a weekend raid on two mansions in Medellín’s tony El Poblado neighborhood, with a combined value of US$12.5 million, belonging to fugitive paramilitary leader Vicente Castaño and his deceased brother, Fidel.

The operation was carried out jointly by the armed forces and the prosecutor-general’s office (Fiscalía).

According to the Noticias RCN television news program, “not even when the Medellín and Cali cartels were at their height were luxuries seen like the ones found” in the Castaños’ houses.

Vicente Castaño, alias “El Profe,” is a fugitive from justice, while his brother Fidel died some years ago.

Furs, imported crystal lamps, paintings, expensive and luxurious fixtures in the bathrooms, woven rugs and other decorations surprised the authorities.

As did the “landscaping” around the two houses, with vegetation befitting a tropical jungle and artificial streams running through.

Jul 27

ELN and government negotiators in Havana, October 2006In a video interview we posted at the end of May, analyst and former ELN guerrilla leader León Valencia predicted that the government and ELN would achieve a cease of hostilities by July. It is now July 27th, though, and there is no cease-fire agreement after seven rounds of talks. Government and guerrilla representatives are to sit down again in Havana on August 20.

“Distrust continues between the two sides,” reads a strongly worded July 24 statement from the ELN, whose leaders insist that they are ready to sign a cessation of hostilities.

The Colombian government, led by chief negotiator (or “High Commissioner for Peace”) Luis Carlos Restrepo, is insisting that the ELN concentrate its fighters in a specific zone or zones, so that the cessation of hostilites can be fully verified. It is “impossible to go forward with a process,” says Restrepo, if the ELN “keeps insisting on being a clandestine organization, which keeps financing itself through illegal activities and combining forms of struggle.”

The ELN refuses to concentrate its forces in an easily verifiable zone, which it considers tantamount to surrender. The guerrillas want a cease-fire that allows their organization to survive if talks should fall through. Should the negotiations fail, the ELN does not want to find itself trapped and surrounded by the security forces in its designated zone or zones, and does not want to have to recover control of territory that it vacated when it entered the zones. The ELN has reportedly proposed an alternative formula involving a series of zones throughout the country connected by “corridors” to allow mobility.

With its demands, is the Colombian government simply seeking to safeguard against guerrilla cease-fire violations? Or has it confused “cease of hostilities and political negotiations” with “surrender and discussion of demobilization terms”?

What the ELN says:

At the table, the ELN has clearly stated that it will not demobilize, disarm, or gather in a zone, in response to the government’s demands…

The ELN is willing to sign – in order to support an atmosphere of peace – a cease-fire and cessation of hostilities with verification, for a fixed period, on an experimental and bilateral basis. But at the same time it demands that the government similarly make contributions to generate an atmosphere of peace with real measures against displacement, measures that neutralize the persecution of political opponents and social leaders, measures that bring relief against the problem of forced disappearances – the last count registers 30,000 disappeared Colombians – and measures against mass arrests.

What the government says:

(The text below comes from El Tiempo’s explanation, published today, of the government position. The High Commissioner for Peace website also includes a very interesting draft of the framework accord for a cease-fire and launch of negotiations [PDF]. The draft indicates language proposed by the ELN and accepted by the government, and vice versa.)

The government is not yielding in its demand that the only way to guarantee a verified cease-fire is to identify ELN forces and concentrate them in a special zone. In addition, according to Restrepo, the ELN refuses to include its urban structures in the cessation of hostilities.

The ELN’s public statements make no mention of a desire to see separate treatment for urban militias.

Here are excerpts from a memorandum sent today by Luis Eduardo Celis, a trusted analyst from Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, the Bogotá think-tank headed by León Valencia. Continue reading »

Jul 25

The latest Pew Global Attitudes Survey adds some nuance to the dire headlines about the plummeting U.S. image in Latin America and elsewhere. Here is a guest commentary from Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin America Working Group Education Fund, who has written often about Latin American citizens’ perceptions of the United States.

LAWG-EF logoLatin America News & Views

An occasional series of viewpoints from Latin America

Latin America & the Pew Global Attitudes Survey

The new Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, “Global Unease with Major World Powers,” conducted this year and released June 27, sheds some interesting light on Latin American perspectives. The 47-country survey covered Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela within the Latin American region. The complete survey can be found at www.pewglobal.org.

Favorable views of the United States The study finds that views of the United States, as in much of the rest of the world, have deteriorated in Latin America in the last five years. The survey notes that since 2002, “the decline has been especially strong in Venezuela (26 points), Argentina (18 points), and Bolivia (15 points)” (p. 14). However, majorities in Mexico, Peru, Chile and Venezuela still have a “favorable” or “somewhat favorable” view of the United States. Forty-two percent of Bolivians and 44 percent of Bolivians view the United States favorably. “Very unfavorable” ranges from 41 percent in Argentina to 11 percent in Peru and Chile. Consistently, it is Argentine respondents who view the United States most negatively. “The balance of opinion toward the U.S. among Argentines (16 percent favorable, 72 percent unfavorable) is worse than in any country surveyed outside the Middle East” (p. 14).

In each Latin American country surveyed, more distrust than trust President Bush by two-to-one margins. A strong majority of Latin Americans surveyed expressed either “no confidence” or “not too much confidence” in President Bush’s ability “to do the right thing regarding world affairs,” ranging from 60 percent in Peru to 87 percent in Argentina.

Views of political leaders

To put Latin Americans’ concerns with the United States in perspective, the United States is viewed somewhat more positively in most of the Latin American countries surveyed than in Western Europe. However, countries in Africa view the United States much more favorably than those in Latin America.

Why the increasingly negative view of the United States? A large number of Latin Americans surveyed perceive U.S. policies as “increasing the gap between rich and poor countries,” ranging from 71 percent in Argentina to 48 percent in Venezuela. Latin Americans are also concerned that the United States acts in its own narrow self-interest; when asked, “Do you think the United States takes in to account the interests of countries like yours?” 70 percent of Argentines to 34 percent of Venezuelans said “not too much” or “not at all.” Most Latin Americans agreed with the statement, “The United States promotes democracy mostly where it serves its interest,” with the range of 83 percent of Brazilians to 69 percent of Chileans only somewhat less cynical than the 95-97 percent who agreed with this statement in France and Germany.

Continue reading »

Jul 24
Sen. Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez at her swearing-in
Sen. Gutiérrez being sworn in on Friday. (From El Tiempo)

In Colombia’s Congress, the presidency of the Senate is a one-year position, beginning and ending with each legislative session. The latest session began last Friday, July 20, and the Colombian Senate’s new president is Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez, from Cundinamarca, the department which surrounds Bogotá.

Sen. Gutiérrez is a member of the “Radical Change” party, which is part of the coalition – adding up to about 70 percent of Colombia’s Congress – which supports President Álvaro Uribe. The head of “Radical Change” is Germán Vargas Lleras, a right-of-center politician who occasionally shows disagreement with President Uribe.

For her part, Sen. Nancy Patricia Gutiérrez showed on Friday that she is not about to follow the Uribe line completely. President Uribe’s speech at the new Congress’s inauguration took a very hard line on prisoner-exchange talks with the FARC and declared that “Colombia has put paramilitarism behind it.”

Sen. Gutiérrez clearly does not agree. Her speech at the inauguration of the new Congress showed some real independence on the subject of negotiations with the paramilitaries, the ELN and the FARC. It is important that a prominent political establishment figure sent this message at this time.

Here is a translated excerpt.

Reconciliation will only be feasible if the justice system can manage to channel the government’s will, and the paramilitaries’ supposed motivation for entering into a peace process. This will cannot be an excuse to launder money, to legalize fortunes, to avoid being extradited, or to keep holding political power – whether through the power of bullets or, as today, through money. That is why it is up to the justice system, through confessions that reflect the reality of the facts, as hard as those may be. To reveal in the victims’ presence, and to their satisfaction, the true facts about what happened, one after another.

Economic reparations to the victims cannot be done with petty cash, or through the supposed surrender of broken, prehistoric aircraft. It must be done with the true amount of their fortunes. If not, these monies will end up like blank checks, translated into bought votes cast in contaminated ballots, and history will turn 360 degrees, repeating itself.

Reconciliation in processes like South Africa and Rwanda was achieved to the extent that atrocities were recounted in their totality, in all their detail. In many cases, pretentious excuses – like that of a sudden onset of Alzheimer’s [the excuse that elderly paramilitary leader Ramón Isaza used in his May confession] – were censured. Those who used them could not enjoy the benefits of these peace processes, and today are serving long and deserved sentences.

It is worrying that in two years only sixty of the nearly 2,800 people covered by the “Justice and Peace” law have been heard. At this rate how long will it take to hear all of them? If it continues like this, there will be nobody left to give reparations, or to make peace.

On the other side, it is encouraging that the ELN’s discourse contemplates tangible acts of peace. The recognition of a will to arrive at an accord, with an agenda that includes a cease-fire and cease of hostilities, as well as the proposal to return kidnap victims, is a significant step. The Congress of the Republic must take up and support the path cleared by the government and the ELN, through a proactive accompaniment like that which this insurgent group officially requested of us yesterday, for the building of a national agenda.

A contrary case, a discouraging one, is that of the FARC’s position. With the killing of the Valle del Cauca state legislators, this group has once again demonstrated its mute intransigence and its deaf [lack of] compassion. There is nothing; in 42 years of armed struggle they will be able to yield nothing to history’s conciliatory judgment, because after all these years there has only been blood, forced displacements, kidnappings, massacres, environmental destruction, narcotrafficking and ideological incoherence. The only thing on which they have been able to make the country agree is that we disagree with their methods.

However, the government cannot – not in the slightest bit – emulate the FARC’s conduct, not even in one of its aspects: its intransigence. Doing so will cause the government to remain – as it has been so far in the hearts of the victims’ families, in the international community that does not know the country’s reality, and in some sectors of opinion – a co-participant in the responsibility for every one of the FARC’s murdered victims. Of course this is an unfair accusation, since it is not the government that is kidnapping and killing.

The value, the motivation and the reflexive argumentation in President Álvaro Uribe’s determination is understandable, as is the justified fear that if a zone is demilitarized and the guerrillas give up some of their hostages, new ones will be recycled in and we could be facing the same perpetual problem. However, we must find a solution that avoids the kidnapping of more people and that achieves the liberation of those who are currently victims of this scourge. Perhaps the second, which is more immediate, we can achieve, if the President returns to the proposal of the friendly countries [the Group of Friends, Spain, France, and Switzerland, who have developed a proposed plan for hostage negotiations] – a proposal he himself supported in December 2005, to define an encounter zone with no armed presence, with international observers to guarantee compliance.

Jul 23
President Uribe speaking in Queens, New York, on July 22
President Uribe speaking in Queens, New York, on July 22. Democratic Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-NY) is second from the left, with Ambassador Carolina Barco.

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has a habit of making statements that seem so jaw-droppingly hyperbolic or combative that one assumes they were simply gaffes. Upon reading them, one’s first reaction is to think, “Wow, he really went off the reservation that time.”

But then, instead of going into damage-control mode, the Colombian Presidency will prominently feature these declarations on its website, as though they are serious statements of policy.

These non-gaffes have been coming at a rapid pace lately. Here are four examples from the past week.

1. “Colombia has put paramilitarism behind it”

At the opening session of Colombia’s Congress, July 20:

Colombia has put paramilitarism behind it. If by this is understood the organization of illegal armed groups to combat guerrillas, there is no paramilitarism today because combating guerrillas is now, in practice, the exclusive task of our democratic institutionality. If by paramilitarism is meant the criminal collusion of individuals in the security forces with these illegal groups, today there is no paramilitarism because these ties, which were never institutional, have begun to show categorical signs of ceasing to exist.

The re-formed paramilitaries, approximately three thousand, and those who have not submitted to the Justice and Peace Law, are dedicated to narcotrafficking, allied or competing with the guerrillas, and they are severely pursued by our armed institutions.

This is a remarkable assertion, bringing to mind Dick Cheney’s 2005 affirmation that the Iraqi insurgency was “in its last throes.” The most eloquent response I’ve seen comes from María Jimena Duzán’s column in today’s El Tiempo.

It is not true that the country has put paramilitarism behind it. To the contrary, what is growing day by day, at a dizzying rate, is the number of threatened victims, to such an extent that they have begun to avoid showing up at the [paramilitary leaders'] confessions. …

In several regions, the population still feels their intimidating presence. After a period of relative peace, things have begun dramatically to resemble the recent past. That has happened in Catatumbo, in Putumayo, in Chocó, in zones of Bolívar, Sucre, Cesar, Córdoba and the entire Magdalena Medio. All of this indicates that, despite what the government says, there is evidence that paramilitarism – far from being overcome – is recycling itself into new forms, ever more mafioso and less visible, as the last report from the OAS mission warns.

2. “Less budget should be given to fumigations, which should be just a marginal recourse”

At the opening session of Colombia’s Congress, July 20:

We are carrying out conversations with the United States about what would be the new stage of the “Plan Colombia” against illicit drugs. We believe that less budget should be given to fumigations, which should be just a marginal recourse, and much mroe support for manual eradication, which our government has introduced on a large scale and basically financed with its own resources. Manual eradication has produced excellent results.

At a “town-hall meeting” (Consejo Comunal) in Bogotá, July 21:

Yesterday I said that the new version of Plan Colombia is being negotiated with the United States, and that it is important to diminish resources for fumigation and increase resources for manual eradication.

Why did I say that? Because all of the last years have shown us that while fumigation may be necessary under some circumstances, in some areas, in the last three years our experience has made clear that manual eradication is more effective.

With fumigation we have observed that it is easier to recover the crops. With manual eradication, no.

With fumigation it is more possible for mistakes to happen with legal crops. With manual eradication, no.

When fumigation makes mistakes, instead of achieving Colombians’ support for drug eradication, it provokes complaints and reactions against drug eradication. We have observed that manual eradication makes communities more fully committed to eliminating drugs.

This is Uribe’s first clear admission that the U.S.-funded policy of aerial herbicide fumigation has not worked. It is welcome and necessary. No Bush Administration official has ever gone on the record so plainly stating the obvious about fumigation’s failure to reduce coca supplies.

3. “We can’t allow unionists to ally with the guerrillas”

Continue reading »

Jul 20
Broken lock at Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Bogotá office.

If you work at an organization that accompanies the victims of Colombia’s conflict, you had better protect your data with very strong encryption, and back it up remotely at least once per day. There is a good chance you might lose your computer – and all of your sensitive information – when you least expect it. And the authorities are unlikely to do what it takes to identify those responsible.

That is the lesson from a string of three late-night break-ins since June at the offices of small non-governmental organizations that work with victims of the conflict. The burglaries are the subject of a letter to President Álvaro Uribe from thirty-six members of the U.S. Congress, reproduced below.

In all cases, the thieves left most valuables and less-sensitive computers untouched, taking only the machines containing testimonies and other data about past abuses and property theft.

Equally disturbing is the apparent lack of energy with which the authorities – especially Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s office (Fiscalía) – have been investigating these robberies.

After the June 14 break-in at the Bogotá offices of the Christian Center for Justice, Peace and Nonviolent Action (Justapaz), police arrived promptly but agents from Technical Investigations Unit (CTI) of the Fiscalía – roughly analogous to the FBI in the United States – took 5 1/2 hours to show up. Reports Justapaz, “After the [CTI] officer examined the scene, he indicated there were no fingerprints and suggested that the responsible party had used gloves or wiped off the fingerprints, and therefore there was no point in a specialist gathering that information.”

The Fellowship of Reconciliation, a U.S.-based group that accompanies the San José de Apartadó peace community in northern Colombia, had a similar experience with the CTI after the June 2 break-in at their Bogotá offices. Justapaz employee Janna Hunter-Bowman, a U.S. citizen, notes:

As was the case with the attack on the office the Fellowship of Reconciliation on June 2, crime-scene investigators failed to collect physical evidence—blood samples, finger prints, a stray hat. Other similarities between the Justapaz and some earlier information thefts include the hours-long delay in a police response and the failure of authorities present to inform victims on proper procedures for case reporting and follow-up.

Justapaz says that “Eye-witnesses in the neighborhood reported that soon after the time of the break-in, police officers stopped two men carrying a computer, at the intersection of Calle 33-A and Avenida Caracas, near the office, but as of yet there is no information as to whether they are still being held or whether the police retrieved the computer.”

Representatives of the affected groups met on July 10 with government officials, including Andrés Peñate, the head of the presidential intelligence service (DAS). (Peñate’s immediate successor, Jorge Noguera, is currently in prison awaiting trial for collaborating with paramilitaries.) The next day, the DAS issued a short but helpful public statement.

For the moment, though, the weak link appears to be the Fiscalía, which in Colombia’s system is a separate branch of government, outside President Uribe’s direct control. The Fiscalía’s performance is generally improved under the tenure of Presecutor-General Mario Iguarán, who began his four-year term in 2005. But it is still notably uneven: too often, cases go forward or stall for political reasons, or for even more sinister reasons like intimidation by, or infiltration from, armed groups.

Right now, the Human Rights Unit of the Fiscalía is considered to be more effective, and less susceptible to outside pressures, than most other sections of the institution. As a result, the organizations who suffered break-ins are asking that thir cases be transferred to the Human Rights Unit. “We insist that they pass over to Human Rights,” Yenny Neme of Justapaz told El Tiempo yesterday. “If they investigate these cases as common misdemeanors, they’re never going to get anywhere.” The request for a transfer to the Human Rights Unit appears to be appropriate and necessary.

Trails go cold in crime investigations everywhere. But in Colombia, we have to be excused for wondering whether, in cases like these, they are allowed to go cold deliberately. These are not common crimes: their purpose is to spread fear and silence victims who might testify against powerful paramilitary perpetrators. Writes Hunter-Bowman:

We at Justapaz believe that those responsible are after the information we have been collecting, and that they may be seeking access to the international communication network that uses this first-person evidence gathered for policy education and advocacy purposes. I am concerned that they intend to silence the victims and repress our efforts to contribute to a culture of human rights and international peace building.

So far, none of these cases have moved. If this is the response when burglars hit Bogotá-based groups with good international connections, just imagine what happens to anyone trying to work with victims in more conflictive regions, where the power of armed groups – both active and “demobilized” – is so much greater.

(PDF version)

Congress of the United States
Washington, DC 20515

July 17, 2007

The Honorable Álvaro Uribe Vélez
Republic of Colombia
Palacio de Nariño
Carrera 8 No. 7-26
Bogotá, Colombia

Dear President Uribe:

We write today to express our deep concern regarding what appear to be politically-motivated burglaries targeting human rights and peace organizations. We recognize the many difficult challenges you face in strengthening the rule of law in your country during an ongoing conflict and were encouraged after your recent visit to Washington, D.C., where you reiterated your commitment to human rights. In light of your stance, we are taking this opportunity to call on your government to act on these serious allegations. Continue reading »

Jul 19
Iván Cepeda accepting the Baldwin prize last month.

Last December we posted translated comments from Iván Cepeda at an event in San Onofre, Sucre. Cepeda – the son of murdered leftist Senator Manuel Cepeda, a columnist for El Espectador and this year’s recipient of the Baldwin Human Rights Prize – is a leading figure in the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes in Colombia, which formed during the paramilitary negotiations to advocate for their victims’ rights.

San Onofre, on the Caribbean coast just south of Cartagena, is one of the first places in Colombia where victims came forward to tell the authorities about mass graves filled with the paramilitaries’ victims. At the victims’ rights event in San Onofre’s municipal stadium last November 27, Iván Cepeda publicly accused the town’s current mayor of having worked with paramilitaries. Here is what he said.

A first-order responsibility that has been exposed here is that of the current Mayor of San Onofre, Mr. Jorge Blanco Fuentes, who still has not renounced his post, but who should do it immediately for ethical, penal, and political reasons.

Mr. Blanco was the only candidate for the mayorship [in October 2003 elections] because of the pressure exercised by “Cadena.” His candidacy was launched at a public event in mid-2002, organized by this paramilitary leader at the “March 29″ cockfighting pit in Verrugas. Cadena’s crimes were clearly known by Mr. Blanco, since before he became mayor, at the apogee of the regime of terror, he was the municipal treasurer. Mr. Blanco also participated in other public events with the paramilitaries. His first decision as mayor was to fire, illegally, all the municipal government’s career administrative officials, and to replace them with the paramilitaries’ political appointees, while the paramilitaries also controlled the municipal council. Those dismissed could not claim their benefits and were compelled to sign resignation letters and acknowledgements of termination pay that they never received. Something similar happened to the personnel at the municipal hospital. Mr. Blanco attended a meeting on July 16, 2006 in which paramilitary leader Diego Vecino, various councilmen, and the ex-Congresswoman Muriel Benito Rebollo [currently in prison pending trial for paramilitary collaboration] also participated, with the goal of finding ways to pressure the population to guarantee that the ex-congresswoman’s brother, Edgar Benito Rebollo, would be the municipality’s next mayor. The meeting took place in the house of Mrs. Estefanía Balseiro, mother of the ex-congresswoman.

Mayor Blanco did not take these charges lying down. He got Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office to initiate criminal proceedings against Iván Cepeda on charges of slander and libel of a public official. (No such crime exists in the U.S. criminal code.) A prosecutor in Sucre’s capital, Sincelejo (a town also under heavy paramilitary influence), has been pursuing the case against Iván Cepeda with particular vigor.

This case is so bizarre that twenty-eight members of the U.S. Congress, from both parties, sent a letter on Monday to Colombian Prosecutor-General Mario Iguarán protesting the treatment that Cepeda is receiving. Here is the text of that letter, and the list of signers. (PDF version)

July 16, 2007

Doctor Mario Germán Iguarán Arana
Attorney General of the Nation
Ministry of Justice
Diagonal 22-B (Avenida Luis Carlos Galán)
No. 52-01
FAX: 011-(571) 570-2017

Dear Attorney General Iguarán: Continue reading »

Jul 18

The OAS mission (MAPP-OEA) verifying paramilitary groups’ demobilization and reintegration issued its ninth quarterly report last Friday. (The report is available here as a Microsoft Word [.doc] file; it is also available, along with all previous MAPP-OEA reports, on the mission’s website.) It’s not clear why they call it a “quarterly” report when it’s only the second one published in the past 10 1/2 months. But never mind that.

The report is definitely worth a close read. It documents a complex picture of new armed groups forming throughout the country, most of them hybrids of former paramilitaries and current drug traffickers.

Some of these groups are led by commanders of the United Self-Defense Forces [AUC] who did not heed the government’s call to participate in the process, while others reflect an alliance between former paramilitaries and drug traffickers. Moreover, it has been noted that mid-level AUC commanders are heading new illegal armed units.

The report documents this phenomenon in many regions of the country; the problem of so-called “emerging groups” is scattered throughout Colombia’s geography. Here, using Google Maps, is a synthesis of all the regions of emerging-group activity mentioned in the report. Moving your mouse over each marker will call up relevant excerpts from the report.

The best sources on the “emerging groups” phenomenon are this and previous MAPP-OEA reports, along with recent documentation from the Colombian think-tank INDEPAZ and the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. See also the Colombian Defense Ministry’s reaction to this week’s press coverage of the OAS report.

Meanwhile, the OAS report also expresses urgent concerns about the Colombian government’s programs to re-integrate ex-combatants, which are still struggling badly despite a greater effort to unify planning under a “high commissioner for reintegration.”

[T]he status of the reintegration process is a source of serious concern on the part of OAS/MAPP. Delays in strengthening the institutions in charge of this process together with the limited operational capacity and coverage of the program at present are some of the factors that are hindering the socio-economic reintegration of demobilized combatants. A weak reintegration process in turn poses serious threats to the peace process as a whole, since it does nothing to prevent the recruitment of the demobilized fighters by new illegal units, which are being seen in different regions of the country. …

The still limited operational and coverage capacity of the Program is compounded by the difficulty in establishing clear statistics. In general, there is a problem that has to do with the discrepancy between the number of demobilized combatants reported by the Government and the number located by the Police. The information provided by some local officials is far removed from reality. There is no clarity regarding the number of beneficiaries, or their location or mobility.

The two most worrisome issues are the productive or work projects and humanitarian aid, which are key benefits for the demobilized combatants. In the first case, OAS/MAPP has verified that, as a rule, people in the communities continue to have the impression that the program does not provide for the socio-economic reintegration of the beneficiaries, and this in turn could be the reason why they tend to go back to illegal activities.

Jul 17

It only surveys Colombians with land-line telephones in four cities. It’s impossible to tell if its findings represent a trend or just a blip. But the results of the latest Invamer-Gallup poll in Colombia are still very striking.

This is Gallup’s first poll since April. (Full results of the April poll are here, as a big powerpoint file.) We haven’t seen the entire results of this new poll, but summaries in Semana, El Tiempo, the AP wire and elsewhere tell us:

President Uribe’s approval rating fell nine points since April, to a still very high 66 percent.

The portion of Colombians ranking security as the country’s number-one problem nearly doubled since April, from 29 to 55 percent. Security knocked the economy out of first place for the first time since the August 2005 poll.

The number of Colombians approving of the government’s management of the guerrillas dropped 12 points, to 53 percent. Last month’s unilateral freeing of guerrilla prisoners, followed by the murder of 11 guerrilla hostages, did not cause Colombians to rally behind the Uribe government’s strategy.

The “para-politics” scandal is finally taking a toll. Approval of the Uribe government’s handling of “the paramilitary problem” fell from 60 percent in April to 48 percent in July. Continue reading »

Jul 16

Don BernaDiego Fernando Murillo (”Don Berna”), the dominant paramilitary leader in Medellín, is to begin his confession before Colombian prosecutors today, as required by the “Justice and Peace” law. A remarkable 13,000 victims have registered to view Don Berna’s testimony on closed-circuit television.

Though he has been in prison for two years, Don Berna is considered one of the most powerful people in Medellín. Whether he has truly demobilized is far from clear.

El Tiempo reports this morning:

“Don Berna’s” multiple dead, displaced and disappeared may not tangle him up as much as his risky past in [Colombia's narco-] mafia.

During the 1980s he belonged to the Moncada and Galeano clan, which did business with the Medellín cartel. Later, he joined forces with the narcos of Valle del Cauca in the “Pepes” [People Persecuted by Pablo Escobar] to combat Pablo Escobar.

The United States has asked for his extradition on narcotrafficking charges.

These unholy relationships continued until 1997, when he began to become part of the AUC and rose to the rank of inspector general.

He was the first of the big chiefs to go to the Itagüí maximum-security prison. “Don Berna” has remained silent and enigmatic.

Many still attribute to him an immense amount of power in the Antioquian capital [Medellín], and although the mayor’s office dislikes these claims, academic researchers insist that the city’s current calm owes in part to the former “para” leader having ordered his gangs to cease their violence. Continue reading »

Jul 15

Ten years ago today – July 15, 1997 – over 100 paramilitary fighters arrived in Mapiripán, a riverfront market town in southern Meta department, about 175 miles southeast of Bogotá. Many had come through a military-controlled airport upriver, where they arrived on two airplanes chartered from a paramilitary stronghold in Antioquia, in Colombia’s far northwest, whose governor at the time was Álvaro Uribe. The grisly massacre that took place over the next five days in Mapiripán would be the AUC’s first in southern Colombia.

Estimates of the number of dead in Mapiripán run from about thirty to forty-nine. The paramilitaries were able to take their time, surrounding the town for nearly a week and torturing their victims in horrifying ways, even though Mapiripán was less than 2 hours’ travel from significant-sized military bases, and even though town leaders appealed to the authorities for help.

Ten years later, very few people have been punished for what happened in Mapiripán. Nearly all of those who tortured civilians, chopped up their bodies and threw them in the Guaviare river are free, living among their fellow Colombians at this very moment. One colonel was jailed for allowing the massacre to happen. Another was jailed for the same reason, although he in fact tried to blow the whistle on his superiors. The trial of a general who allowed Mapiripán to take place continues to drag on, with the case’s judge in no apparent hurry to issue a verdict.

The Inter-American system has worked better than Colombia’s. In September 2005, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San José, Costa Rica, found the Colombian government responsible for the massacre and ordered it to compensate the victims.

An early-2005 post detailing what happened in Mapiripán is here. A harrowing account in English by journalist María Cristina Caballero is here. And below is our translation of an essay by the daughter of Antonio María Calle (nicknamed Catumare), one of the town’s founders and one of the paramilitaries’ first victims. Calle was a local leader of the Patriotic Union, a leftist political party originally founded by the FARC guerrillas during a 1980s cease-fire, and systematically exterminated over the next decade. The essay was posted on Friday to the website of Colombia’s José Alvear Restrepo Lawyer’s Collective.

10 years after the Mapiripán massacre: “We don’t even want you to bury this one”

According to what I heard, those gentlemen appeared at six in the morning on Monday, dressed like soldiers, so the town thought that the Army had arrived. They banged on the door looking for him by his nickname, “Catumare.” He didn’t want to open the door for them, and even tried to escape through the water tank in the bathroom. He had just bathed, he wasn’t wearing sandals or a shirt. They got him in his shop on the corner, while they looted everything there. They flipped over the sofa and turned everything upside down. Later they let him come in so he could put on his shirt and shoes – but not his sandals, because they were going to have to walk far. When he asked them to give back what they had taken, they told him that he wouldn’t need anything where he was going, not to worry, he should leave all that to the poor. That is how they took him away. Continue reading »

Jul 11

[Note as of July 12: The resolution passed late yesterday afternoon by a voice vote. Floor statements from several members of Congress can be read in the Congressional Record.]

Today’s House of Representatives calendar includes consideration of a non-binding resolution, H. Res. 426: “Recognizing 2007 as the Year of the Rights of Internally Displaced Persons in Colombia, and offering support for efforts to ensure that the internally displaced people of Colombia receive the assistance and protection they need to rebuild their lives successfully.”

The resolution has 42 cosponsors, and was approved by the House International Relations Committee two weeks ago. It should pass easily by a voice vote today; let’s hope that happens. Here is the text.

Whereas Colombia has experienced the internal displacement of more than 3,800,000 people over the past 20 years, representing approximately 8 percent of Colombia’s population;

Whereas Colombia’s internally displaced population is one of the worst humanitarian crises in the Americas, and the second largest internally displaced population in the world, after Sudan;

Whereas more than 200,000 people continue to be displaced internally every year;

Whereas Colombia’s internally displaced people are often forced from their homes multiple times, and fear repercussions if they identify their attackers;

Whereas the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Food Program have found internally displaced people in Colombia to be poorer and more disenfranchised than the general population, with 70 percent suffering from food insecurity, inadequate shelter, or limited health care services;

Whereas Afro-Colombian and indigenous peoples are disproportionately affected by displacement, representing almost one-third of the internally displaced;

Whereas women and children also comprise a large majority of the internally displaced;

Whereas very few internally displaced Colombians have been able to return to their original homes due to ongoing conflict throughout the country, and when returns take place they should be carried out voluntarily, in safety and with dignity;

Whereas, in 1997, the Government of Colombia passed landmark legislation, known as Law 387, to guarantee rights and assistance to its internally displaced population;

Whereas the Government of Colombia has expanded its ability to assist internally displaced people through its own agencies, and with the financial, technical, and operational support of the international community;

Whereas the Constitutional Court of Colombia has handed down multiple decisions recognizing the insufficient nature of the government’s efforts to meet the basic needs of internally displaced persons and upheld the importance of implementing law 387 in light of the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement;

Whereas the Constitutional Court of Colombia, in consultation with the Government of Colombia, civil society, and the United Nations, has developed an extensive set of measurements to ensure government compliance with Law 387;

Whereas the Government of Colombia, the international community, and civil society are engaged in the London-Cartagena Process to develop coordinated responses to domestic problems, including humanitarian assistance and internal displacement;

Whereas the Government of the United States provides valuable, but limited, humanitarian assistance to Colombia, and has programs targeted specifically for internally displaced people; and

Whereas the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, on a visit to Colombia in March 2007, urged greater attention to the issue, stating that it should be a `national priority’ and asked for `greater coherence’ in programs to address the needs of the internally displaced: Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That it is the sense of the House of Representatives that–

(1) the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Colombian Catholic Church, and the Coalition for Human Rights and Internal Displacement should be commended for their initiative to declare the Year of the Rights of the Internally Displaced People in Colombia;

(2) the Government of Colombia and the international donor community should be encouraged to prioritize discussion of humanitarian assistance and internal displacement with the international donor community, especially within the context of the London-Cartagena Process; and

(3) the Government of the United States should increase the resources it makes available to provide emergency humanitarian assistance and protection through international and civilian government agencies, and assist Colombia’s internally displaced people in rebuilding their lives in a dignified, safe, and sustainable manner.

Jul 10

We’re still awaiting final word from the Senate about its version of the 2008 foreign aid bill. In broad terms, though, it appears that the Senate bill makes changes to U.S. aid to Colombia that are similar to – but smaller than – those in the bill that the House of Representatives passed last month.

[Note added 7/11: the Senate Committee report - but not the bill text - is now available online. Note the big Colombia table under "Andean Programs" - it's easier to read in the PDF version.]

The Senate bill probably cuts military and police aid in the Bush administration’s request by about $90.7 million, to about $359.5 million; the House had cut military and police aid by about $160.4 million, to $289.8 million. The aerial fumigation program would be cut significantly, with an increase in funding for manual coca eradication.

It also appears that the Senate increases economic-aid programs by about $61.9 million over the Bush administration’s request, to about $201.4 million; the House bill would increase economic aid by $101.3 million, to about $240.8 million.

Overall, the Senate bill would decrease aid to Colombia by about $28.8 million, a slightly shallower cut than the $59.1 million foreseen in the House bill. The military-to-economic aid split would be 64 percent to 36 percent, compared to 76-24 in the administration’s request and 55-45 in the House bill. (As always, about $150 million in military aid from the Defense budget must be added to the final total.)

These numbers are not completely final, there may be – but probably won’t be – changes to the final bill once it’s made public. We have no sense yet, either, of how the Senate bill would condition or earmark aid.

Here is some interesting language from the Appropriations Committee report, though:

The Committee notes that after spending in excess of $5,000,000,000 in support of Plan Colombia since 2000, some areas of the country are safer and Colombia’s economic indicators are, for the most part, positive. However, reports of unlawful killings by the army have increased in the past 2 years, and impunity for such crimes remais the norm. After predictions 6 years ago that Plan Colombia would cut by half the amount of coca production by 2005, the avaiability and price of cocaine on America’s streets remain unchanged. There is no indication that the abilty of Colombian drug traffickers to meet the demand for cocaine in the United States and elsewhere has been appreciably diminished. Coca is now grown in small, hard to eradicate plots in every department of the country, as coca growers continue to adapt to aerial eradication and destroy more forest as they replant.

Continue reading »

Jul 09
President Uribe and military leaders in Chaparral, Tolima, July 5.

Here are a few revealing statements made in the context of last week’s marches and demonstrations in Colombia, as the country grieved for the murder, revealed June 28, of eleven provincial legislators who had spent five years as FARC hostages.

1. From a July 5 speech by President Uribe in Chaparral, Tolima:

“The country will not repeat that, we are not going to create new demilitarized zones. Imagine a demilitarized zone in Pradera and Florida, there on the other side of these mountains! [The FARC demands these small southwestern Colombian counties' temporary demilitarization to create a zone to host hostage-for-prisoner exchange negotiations.] For what? So that the criminal and terrorist guerrillas may take power over the citizens, so that the criminal and terrorist guerrillas may take refuge and avoid the security forces’ actions, so that they can have personalities from the country and the world come and pay tribute to their war crimes? No way.

… From here, we send a greeting full of affection to the citizens of Pradera and of Florida, reiterating that we will clear Pradera and Florida of terrorists, but we will not allow it to be cleared of institutions so that terrorism may take power over the citizens.

Imagine, Pradera and Florida as the new Caguán, the new throne of crime, with don Manuel Marulanda, the greatest criminal, sitting with that great lord of crime Raúl Reyes, hosting little chats, sitting in their easy chairs receiving homage from the pusillanimous ones [appeasers]! We have to choose between the appeasers’ connivance with crime, and the courageous decision of Colombians with character to oppose crime.

… Look what happened, they killed the deputies on June 18. That same day the FARC murderers, who committed this crime, were dialoguing with delegates of three European countries, whom the government had authorized to hold this dialogue. It was a dialogue for a humanitarian accord. What a farce! What hypocrisy!”

2. From a speech by Carolina Charry, the teenage daughter of murdered Valle del Cauca state legislator Carlos Alberto Charry. Ms. Charry was delegated to speak on behalf of all relatives of the eleven murdered FARC hostages before hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Cali on July 5th:

“I am Carolina, daughter of the deputy Carlos Alberto Charry, killed by the FARC with the complicity of the national government, which proved inferior to its commitment to bring them back alive.

Continue reading »