The scandal-plagued 3rd Division holds a change-of-command ceremony on August 24.
Conservative columnist Robert Novak may have been on to something in an opinion piece published Monday. He noted that the Colombian government forced several resignations in August of high-ranking army officers in and around Cali, following numerous allegations of collaboration with drug traffickers.
Novak argues that these moves are directly tied to Colombia’s free-trade agreement with the United States. Democrats in the U.S. Congress have made clear that they want to see much progress toward punishing corruption and human-rights abuse before they will allow the free-trade pact to come to a vote. The Uribe government is taking steps now – argues Novak – not because it is the right thing to do, but to placate the Democrats.
More military purges are on the way, he adds.
The forced resignation two weeks ago under pressure from President Alvaro Uribe of three prominent officers accused of drug trafficking is not likely to end the shake-up in Colombia’s army and navy. More heads will roll in a long overdue purge of corruption in the military. The credit has to go to the left-wing members of Congress who have taken over the Colombian account on Capitol Hill since the Democratic victory in the 2006 elections.
A conservative American with close, longtime ties to Colombia put it to me bluntly: “The firing of these officers is seen as President Uribe’s way of clearing the decks to make the Democrats in Congress happy, in order to secure the free trade agreement. There are plenty more generals and admirals to get the heave-ho.”
Meanwhile, the past week has seen more human rights or anti-impunity progress in Colombia than we usually see in several months:
- The Colombian government finally recognized something that was obvious to everyone: some paramilitary leaders are still conspiring to commit crimes, even while in prison awaiting light sentences under the “Justice and Peace Law.” Last Friday Carlos Mario JimÃ©nez (”Macaco”), the powerful de facto head of the paramilitaries’ Central Bolivar Bloc, was stripped of his “Justice and Peace” privileges and made available for extradition to the United States.
- On Monday a special “decongestion court” (that what it’s called) handed down 40-year jail sentences to four military personnel, including a second lieutenant, accused of the August 2004 murder of three trade unionists in Arauca department. This verdict, coming in one of the most blatant and high-profile recent cases, is very significant.
- On Wednesday two soldiers were sentenced to forty years for a drunken June 2007 massacre of six people in Balsillas, CaquetÃ¡.
- A week ago Thursday, the government’s Inspector-General (ProcuradurÃa) fired 141 soldiers and officers who, upon finding millions of guerrilla dollars hidden in a jungle cache in 2003, decided to keep the money for themselves. (A story told in the Colombian movie SoÃ±ar No Cuesta Nada [Dreaming Is Free].)
- Though not a human-rights matter, a strong signal in favor of Colombia’s institutional health was President Uribe’s indication yesterday that he may not intend to run for a third term in 2010.
The pace of anti-impunity progress has picked up notably, at least in the past few weeks. This is good news, even if the free-trade “carrot” is the reason for it. It will be even better news if the current pace can be sustained; there are hundreds of human-rights cases similarly stuck in Colombia’s judicial system, and probably dozens of high-ranking active officers in the security forces whose hands are not clean.
It will take more than this month’s moves to convince most congressional Democrats, especially in the House, to approve a free-trade agreement. No matter what happens, meanwhile, the Colombia FTA is unlikely to move at all until 2009; next year, with both presidential and legislative elections in the United States, promises to be too complicated for such a debate.
While not enough to move the FTA, the recent firings and sentencings might lead the State Department to issue a new “certification” of human-rights progress in Colombia. As required by law, this step must be taken to free up about $30 million in frozen 2007 military aid. There could be a certification, citing much of the above, before the U.S. government’s fiscal year ends on September 30.