Aug 31
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 Jiménez (”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, Caquetá.
  • A week ago Thursday, the government’s Inspector-General (Procuraduría) 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 Soñar 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.

Aug 29

Russian police have arrested Yair Klein, a former Israeli army commando turned mercenary. Klein spent a lot of time in Colombia during the 1980s, hired by narcotraffickers to help form right-wing paramilitary groups.

Carlos Castaño, the longtime paramilitary leader who founded the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) in the mid-1990s, recalled Klein in his 2002 autobiography, My Confession.

[In 1987, Medellín cartel capo Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, alias] “El Mexicano” came to have 1,500 men at his service. He organized the famous course of Israeli and British instructors at “La 50,” that was the name of the ranch where it happened. That’s where I knew Yair Klain [sic.]. I attended that course because there were some spaces available for people who were not Rodríguez Gacha’s own men. The Castaños got five spaces, I occupied one of them. My nickname at the time was “El Pelao.” “El Mexicano’s” real purpose with these trainings was to prepare 400 men to attack La Uribe, where the government and the FARC were negotiating peace.

A lot has been speculated about that course given by Yair Klain, and I think that Klain was tricked into coming to Colombia, by Ariel Otero and two active and corrupt members of the Army. Ariel was a terrible man, he was the number-two man of [Medellín cartel figure] Henry Pérez. The Israeli instructor always thought that the Colombian government had hired him to give those courses.

I was very impressed by his concepts and I never forgot what he would say: “Don’t be afraid of being called a mercenary, if you are the mercenary of a state; states have to be defended, both within the Constitution and outside of the Constitution.” This was wonderful for me to hear!

The Colombian government has already asked Moscow to extradite Klein. Let’s hope the extradition and trial happen swiftly.

Aug 28

Mexican President Felipe Calderón.

The Bush Administration may soon introduce a big aid package for Mexico, with a lot of military hardware in it. Many thought it was going to be announced last week, when the leaders of Canada, Mexico and the United States met outside Ottawa. But no announcement came; it appears that the U.S. and Mexican governments are still working out the details of what everyone is calling “Plan Mexico.”

In a way, this feels like August of 1999. That is when Clinton administration officials traveled to Bogotá to tell President Andrés Pastrana that the United States was ready to give Colombia a generous, mostly military aid package – whose details were as yet unknown – once the Colombians devised some sort of “plan.” By September and October of 1999, the “Plan Colombia” document was circulating in Washington. By January of 2000, President Clinton introduced the Plan Colombia aid request as a supplemental appropriation, which the Congress approved in June of that year. Plan Colombia aid became law in July 2000 – eleven months after the U.S. and Colombian governments made it known that they were discussing an aid package.

At this stage, the discussions with Mexico are going on in secret, mainly between both countries’ executive branches (though some members of the U.S. Congress, like Texas Democrat Henry Cuéllar, have also been participating). We don’t know much about “Plan Mexico” yet. We are pretty sure, though, about the following.

  • It is likely to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
  • It is likely to be mostly military and / or police aid in the form of equipment and training. The Economist had a good summary:

    [T]he aid is likely to be concentrated on improving the mobility and intelligence capabilities of Mexico’s security forces, by providing aircraft, phone-tapping gear and training in infiltration and surveillance techniques. It may also include cash to supplement the miserly salaries that make it so easy for the traffickers to buy off provincial policemen and prosecutors in the often isolated areas they control.

  • The list of military hardware is once again likely to include Black Hawk helicopters, eighteen of which – at about $15 million apiece – were in the 2000 “Plan Colombia” aid package. In 2000, the Black Hawk orders heavily aided the company that manufactures it, Connecticut-based Sikorsky, from whom the U.S. Army had only ordered six that year. Things are quite different now, though; the Iraq war has made Sikorsky’s production lines far busier.
  • A key sticking point in the ongoing negotiations is Mexico’s strong reluctance to see a significant U.S. military presence on its soil, among other “meddling.” In Colombia the U.S. Congress mandated a “troop cap” – a limit on the number of U.S. military personnel and contractors who could be there at any given time – in the Plan Colombia aid package. (The cap, which was raised in 2004, is now 800 military personnel and 600 U.S. citizen contractors.) In the case of “Plan Mexico,” pressure for a tight “troop cap” is more likely to come from Mexico City.
  • The likely venue for an eventual aid package will probably come in early 2008, when the Bush administration will almost certainly ask Congress for another supplemental budget appropriation to pay for Iraq, Afghanistan, the “war on terror,” and other purposes. “Plan Mexico” would likely be one of those other purposes.

    <NOTE as of August 30: Yesterday’s Washington Post revealed that the Bush Administration is likely to ask Congress for more supplemental Iraq funding in September. We cannot discount the possibility that “Plan Mexico” might find its way into this earlier request.>

  • We’re not supposed to call it “Plan Mexico,” apparently. Officials assure us that it will be totally different from Plan Colombia…

Though we don’t know much about the coming aid package, it is important to be clear now about the following.

1. The United States should be helping Mexico to stop drug-related organized crime and violence. Mexico is facing a severe public-security crisis, with thousands killed so far this year. Much of the violence is taking place right near our border. (In Colombia, an example of a strategic drug-trafficking corridor is the Mira River in Nariño department. In Mexico, a similar example is Interstate Highway 35, which starts in the border town of Laredo, Texas.) Continue reading »

Aug 24

This morning’s big story is the sudden transfer of two top paramilitary leaders away from the Itagüí maximum security prison, where they have been held since December.

The Colombian government has asked that Carlos Mario Jiménez, alias “Macaco,” a feared leader of the paramilitaries’ Central Bolívar Bloc (BCB), lose his right to a lighter jail sentence because he has continued to traffic drugs and form new armed groups. (We alleged in a report last year that Macaco was probably still trafficking coca in Putumayo.) Macaco could be extradited to the United States, though Washington currently has no extradition request filed against him.

Macaco is being sent to the Cómbita prison in Boyacá, together with Diego Fernando Murillo (”Don Berna”), the dominant paramilitary leader in Medellín. “Don Berna” is reportedly being moved for his own security, not because the government accuses him of committing crimes. However, it will be interesting to see whether Berna’s widely alleged control over criminal activity in Medellín will weaken after he is moved from Itagüí, which is located in a Medellín suburb, hundreds of miles away to Cómbita.

A third leader, Francisco Javier Zuluaga or “Gordolindo” – who, like Berna, is wanted by the U.S. government for drug trafficking – will also be moved. Gordolindo will go to the Picota prison in southern Bogotá, apparently for security reasons as well.

The past week has seen two major natural disasters in the Americas: the devastating earthquake in Pisco, Peru, and Hurricane Dean’s powerful, but mercifully quick, passage through Mexico. Despite a chaotic aftermath in Pisco, the general consensus is that the Peruvian and Mexican governments handled both disasters far better than the Bush administration managed Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

  • AP on Dean: “It also helped that people heeded the government’s warnings, which were issued in Spanish and in Mayan languages.”
  • AP on the response of Peruvian President Alán García: “An Apoyo poll published Sunday gave the 58-year-old president a 76 percent approval rating for his conduct since the earthquake.”
  • Southern Command press releases indicate that U.S. personnel deployed to Peru and Belize in response to both disasters.

“Plan Mexico”: But not to Mexico, where sensitivity about the presence of U.S. troops on Mexican soil has traditionally been extremely high. (Who could blame them – U.S. troops helped carve off a huge piece of Mexico’s territory back in 1848.)

The presence of U.S. trainers and advisors appears to be a key sticking point delaying the announcement of a big aid package for Mexico to help combat narco-violence. We’re still seeking details about the sort of aid – and the amount – that is under discussion between the U.S. and Mexican governments.

We understand that it will be big, and probably mostly military in nature. We thought it would be announced at the summit earlier this week between the leaders of Canada, the United States and Mexico, but it wasn’t; U.S. officials only offered vague declarations. We do know, though, that they hate it when we call it “Plan Mexico.”

We’ll post more about this soon. Here is some initial coverage of this big aid package in the works.

Meanwhile in Colombia, President Uribe surprisingly authorized Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to attempt to contact the FARC to find a way to set in motion prisoner-exchange negotiations that could win freedom for the guerrillas’ dozens of hostages. Uribe also authorized one of his most vocal political enemies, Liberal Party Senator Piedad Córdoba, to serve as a liaison.

  • Manuel Marulanda, this is Chávez speaking: I don’t know you, but wherever you are, I’m waiting for a sign from you.”
  • El Tiempo: “It is important to be realistic and not create false expectations that could, in days or weeks, become another frustration.”

This seems right. There is little reason to believe that Chávez will be able to convince the FARC – where so many others have failed – to be more flexible about the type of demilitarized zone where prisoner-exchange talks could take place. This development is cause for only mild optimism.

It is far from clear, meanwhile, that President Uribe is changing course by agreeing to allow a role for Chávez and Córdoba. While the president takes these steps, his agriculture minister – the young and hyper-ambitious Andrés Felipe Arias, whom many Colombians call Uribito – has been campaigning throughout the country to “say ‘no’ to a demilitarized zone.”

Bush administration officials were in Bogotá yesterday for a conference at which they once again extolled the virtues of Plan Colombia and free trade. The Defense Department’s Stephen Johnson sounded alarms about the Chávez government’s arms purchases in Venezuela (including a new shipment of 5,000 sniper rifles from Russia).

Look at these two headlines. Could it be that these ambassadors got the same cable from Washington?

The New York Times published a tough editorial condemning President Chávez’s moves to allow himself to run for re-election indefinitely. The Chávez government responded that the Times is “nothing more than one of the Bush government’s media arms.”

In Bolivia, efforts to re-write the national constitution are in crisis. A fistfight broke out on the floor of the Congress yesterday.

Barack Obama published an op-ed in The Miami Herald calling for an end to the Bush administration’s travel restrictions in Cuba. Hillary Clinton said she wants to keep the restrictions in place.

In Colombia, President Uribe has named yet another director of his troubled presidential intelligence service, the DAS. María del Pilar Hurtado will be the first woman to hold the post.

“Para-Politics” news:

  • Magdalena congresswoman Karelly Patricia Lara is under arrest.
  • The trial of Senator Álvaro Áraujo has begun.
  • Former congresswoman Yidis Medina, whose committee vote was decisive in allowing President Uribe to run for re-election, is now a star witness against Sen. Luis Alberto Gil.
  • Congressman Miguel Ángel Rangel hired as his advisor the sister of Central Bolívar Bloc strongman “Ernesto Báez.”

Is “Tirofijo” dead? Rumors of the legendary FARC leader’s demise are almost as old as the conflict itself. This boy has cried wolf far too many times. Nonetheless, rumors – many involving “Manuel Marulanda” succumbing to prostate cancer – have been swirling with greater frequency lately.

  • El Colombiano: “Tirofijo, a ghost in the ranks of the FARC”
  • AFP: “Ex-Colombian minister challenges the FARC”

Aug 22

The Inter-Press Service news agency leans to the left, but is usually unimpeachably accurate. Yesterday, IPS published a plausible reconstruction, based on several sources, of the mid-June incident that caused the deaths of eleven state legislators whom the FARC had been holding hostage since 2002.

According to IPS reporter Constanza Vieira, the eleven were likely killed in the crossfire during a days-long battle between a guerrilla column and Colombian Police Jungla commandos on the Cajambre River, inland from the Pacific coast port of Buenaventura. The guerrilla column was transporting the eleven hostages by boat when the Junglas engaged them. The commandos were soon joined by other military units.

The motorboat pulled up to the bank to join the FARC land unit, and “two or three” military helicopters immediately brought in troops who joined the fighting.

“The shooting went on for three days, and the bodies were left on the boat,” said the source.

After three days, the Jungla commando and the guerrillas both took shelter on the steep hills of the Andean valley that the river runs through.

“The bodies were left there for another three days” before the guerrillas “returned to see what was left.” They were incommunicado, having lost their radio telephones, the source added.

The guerrillas were moving their captives to a new location, IPS reports, because some of those assigned to guard them had suspiciously deserted. The deserters – who may have even been infiltrated members of the security forces – likely informed the Junglas about the hostages’ presence.

The leader of the guerrilla unit, Milton Sierra or “J.J.,” was killed in the fighting. The Colombian Navy noted this on its website, says IPS:

A report on the Colombian navy’s web site dated Jun. 15 states that “in a joint operation between the army, the navy and the air force, the guerrilla leader….alias ‘J.J.’ was killed in combat while riding in a vessel on the Cajambre river, upriver from the town of Barco, in the department of Valle del Cauca.”

(See a similar June 15 report on the Colombian Presidency’s website. Also see this May 1 comment posted to the forums on the website of Cali’s El País newspaper, which reads, “Attention señores from the security forces: two hours from Buenaventura, passing by Punta Soldado, is a river called Cajambre. Upriver is a big FARC encampment, there are laboratories and coca fields. Alisa JJ has been seen there, so there may be kidnap victims. You should arrive by air and exterminate them.”)

While we still don’t completely know for sure, IPS may indeed have discovered how the eleven hostages were murdered.

If they got it right, however, the consequences would be serious. It would mean that the Colombian government has been lying. Continue reading »

Aug 20

This post could also be titled, “what I did on my summer vacation.” In my last post – 2 1/2 weeks ago – I had promised to post infrequently during my time off. Even that proved to be impossible; I ended up spending the entire time with absolutely no Internet access. I apologize for not posting.

During some of that un-connected time, I learned a bit of web programming, in order to get started with some of the website improvements mentioned in the last post.

The initial result is worth sharing already.

We spend a lot of time looking at press and other coverage of security issues in Latin America. We enter much of what we find into a database. Starting yesterday, this database of links to press coverage will henceforth be available online.

It only has sixty-six articles in it so far from yesterday and today, and it is still very much in “beta.” But you can already view a page with links to coverage from the past week (really, since Sunday the 19th). Go to the bottom of that page, or go directly to this page, and you can search for news with the form pictured here.

A search for all articles with the word “Uribe,” for instance, already yields 23 links to articles. Whatever your search terms, you can subscribe to an RSS feed of the past seven days’ articles that match them.

This is still very much in development: you may get cryptic error messages or other odd behavior (sorting of results is still a bit off, for instance). The domain name – justf.org, which may or not be the new domain for our joint “Just the Facts” military-aid-monitoring project – might not be the final permanent address. And I know that many of the colors are ugly.

Your feedback is very welcome, though. We plan to use a similar database structure as we improve the CIP Colombia and “Just the Facts” websites over the next few months, so all constructive criticism would be appreciated.

Aug 02

The view from my office window this morning.

It’s mid-summer in Washington, and things are quieter. Universities are out of session, the streets are emptier, and the phone rings less often. Tomorrow, the U.S. Congress will leave town for a long break. (The Senate will not debate and approve the 2008 foreign aid bill until after it returns in early Sepetmber.)

I will be on vacation for two weeks, starting this afternoon. Even though I’ll be away and Washington will be quiet, there is a great deal going on in Colombia, so I will try to post to Plan Colombia and Beyond as often as possible, despite limited Internet access. Posting may be down to 1 or 2 times per week, however.

During August, we plan to take advantage of the summer slowdown by making some long-overdue improvements to other parts of our website. We are overhauling our Colombia Program website and our “Just the Facts” military-aid database. The Colombia site was established in 2000, and “Just the Facts” back in 1997, and both are still formatted and updated 100% manually, just as they were back then. This is extremely time-consuming: we’re always struggling to keep up, and often falling behind.

This will soon change. This fall, both sites will become dynamically updated, database-driven, easier to navigate and far more up to date. This will make our job much easier, while making those sites much more useful resources for our visitors.

While this happens, though, those websites may see few updates to their content. This blog, however, will continue to be updated normally – except, of course, between August 2 and 17, when I will be on vacation.

Thank you, as always, for visiting and participating.

Aug 01

Last week, the demobilized paramilitaries’ leadership announced that they were freezing all of their required confessions and other participation in the “Justice and Peace” process. They would continue to withdraw, they said, unless the law was changed to allow their past crimes – other than crimes against humanity – to be characterized as “sedition,” a political crime.

Instead of insisting on the law being enforced, President Uribe shocked many – and engaged in a bitter public dispute with the head of Colombia’s Supreme Court – by taking the paramilitaries’ side, arguing that their crimes should be considered “sedition.”

This is a hard issue to explain to a U.S. audience, because the significance of this legal distinction is not immediately obvious. But everyone we’ve talked to in Colombia insists that it is of utmost importance.

For an idea of why that is, read this very brave column published in yesterday’s El Tiempo by columnist Claudia López, a Colombian journalist who deserves significant credit for breaking the “para-politics” scandal story in 2005 and 2006. Here is an English translation.

July 30, 2007

In exchange for what did you promise them impunity, Mr. President?

The President finally acknowledged the obvious: that he promised the paramilitaries he would treat them as political criminals, with all the impunity that goes along with it. And he continues on a personal crusade to comply with that commitment – even if he has to confront the courts, national and international opinion, to ignore the victims, to change jurisprudence and to obstruct justice.

It is not correct that the only way to guarantee legal benefits and reinsertion for paramilitaries who turn in their weapons is to declare them to be political criminals. There are other alternatives with less impunity, and with more consideration for victims’ rights and for all Colombians’ right not to see a mafioso regime legalized. But the President is not considering these options, because he has to deliver the impunity he offered, and not the reinsertion that is legally possible. Continue reading »