Sep 28

DMG is a mysterious holding company with branches in several Colombian towns known principally for coca cultivation and armed-group activity. In Putumayo department, DMG has offices in Puerto Asís, Villagarzón, La Hormiga, Orito, Mocoa, and Sibundoy. A DMG branch exists in the coca boomtowns of Llorente, Nariño; Granada, Meta; and Montelíbano, Córdoba. (Click on the Colombian flag at the top of their website and look at the map of their locations.)

Their business model sounds miraculous: you give them your money, they offer incredible rates of return – you can double your investment in six months. How is that possible? Where is DMG’s money coming from?

As with too many things in Colombia, nobody seems to be asking. Here is an excerpt from an article that appeared in August in the Colombian newsweekly Semana, which raises at least as many questions as it answers.

For the last two years, a unique economic situation has calmed the income anxiety of those who live in this distant zone of the country [Putumayo], which since the 1990s has based its economy on coca cultivation and harvesting.

It is called DMG. … Long lines along Villacolombia or Calle Mocha, in Mocoa, the capital, show the level of impact that this financial phenomenon has in this region’s society.

Many arrive as much as two days before the payment day. Months ago they had left millions and millions of pesos in DMG’s coffers. Some, all of their savings. Others, what they got from selling their house, their car or their farm. There are even some who have taken out bank loans in order to invest the cash in this magical way of increasing their capital. When they arrive at the branch, the person receives the “benefit” of his investment, as agreed in each contract. Interest rates of 10, 15, 30, 50 percent, and during “special offer” periods even 100 percent.

Ten million pesos in DMG’s hands for six months can be turned into 20 million. Or if you prefer a monthly payment, they will give you 100,000 pesos every 30 days. That is, 10 percent. [The author must mean a million pesos every 30 days.] One can choose whichever way one prefers. Either way it is well above what any bank would pay to a savings account holder.

… David Murcía Guzmán is the person behind this miraculous system. A young man of less than 30 years about whom little is known in the region. Only that one day he came to six of Putumayo’s 13 municipalities and set up his business.

The DMG offices, the local population says, have strong safes to hold the cash that arrives at the regional airports and is transported along the department’s awful roads by armored, escorted cars.

There is nothing clear about this business. There are no sanctions from the Superintendencia Financiera [Colombia's bank-oversight agency], there are no results from the preliminary investigations that the Fiscalía [Prosecutor-General's office] began at the end of 2006. But the business is so prosperous, that in a zone where the narco-economy led the parade for years, it is easy to imagine that something strange is behind this surprising way of getting many out of poverty.

But this matters to very few. In the region, people are so content with DMG that any politician who wants to campaign and win elections in Putumayo would do well not to get involved. “A legislator asked in public about the origin of this money and called for an investigation, and the next day he had thousands of opponents in the department. The people will not allow this subsistence source to be taken from them,” commented a departmental government official.

Writing in El Espectador on September 15th, victim’s movement leader Iván Cepeda saw no mystery about the origin of DMG’s funds. Continue reading »

Sep 26

Uribe and Sarkozy at the UN yesterday.

After meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in New York yesterday, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe made it known that he would not object to members of the U.S. Congress being present in Caracas at a meeting with Hugo Chávez and the FARC, as part of efforts to secure the release of guerrilla hostages.

I’ve reiterated my confidence in Sen. Piedad Córdoba, the facilitator, and in President Hugo Chávez. I told of my interest that some members of the U.S. Congress attend to accompany President Chávez in the meeting with the FARC and with Dr. Piedad Córdoba.

I said I’m not opposed, as long as the U.S. government accepts, and I said – and I will say it to Dr. Condoleezza Rice when I see her this afternoon – that if the U.S. government accepts, the government of Colombia will be happy to communicate to President Chávez that a bipartisan group from the U.S. Congress will accompany him in that meeting. …

If that delegation happens, if both parties come to accompany President Chávez, then it will affirm what all of us have sought, a bipartisan approach to Colombia. This relationship shouldn’t be party to party, nor government to government, but between the U.S. state and the Colombian state.

According to El Tiempo, Secretary Rice did not object. Yesterday’s announcements increase the possibility that a delegation of U.S. congresspeople – likely from both parties – may find themselves face-to-face in Venezuela with Chávez and representatives of the guerrillas.

This of course raises the question: why the devil would they want to do that? Why would members of Congress want to be guests of a leader who is arming his country against an imagined U.S. invasion, while his goverment’s democratic credentials come increasingly under question? And why would they want to be in the same room as individuals wanted in the United States for drug trafficking, who lead a group on the U.S. terrorist list that kidnaps for profit and political pressure?

Well, in fact they probably do not want to do this. But there are several reasons why members of Congress, from both parties, should swallow hard and go to Caracas anyway.

  • The Colombian government’s appointed facilitator, Sen. Piedad Córdoba, has requested their presence, and President Uribe has given a public green light.
  • Relatives of the hostages, both Colombian and American, have urged them to attend. If they believe that this meeting will be a step toward reuniting them with their loved ones, their request must be taken very seriously.
  • The guerrillas themselves, in a videotaped conversation with Sen. Córdoba, expressed a desire to talk to U.S. congresspeople in Caracas. A meeting endorsed by both the FARC and President Uribe deserves utmost consideration.
  • The French government has indicated that their presence would be helpful.
  • The Bush administration is being prudently, and helpfully, silent on the topic.
  • The Venezuelan government, which rarely seeks contact with anyone in the U.S. government, wants them there.
  • The meeting and the venue are less than ideal, of course. But any effort to advance dialogue between violent enemies always requires all involved to work outside their “comfort zones.”

These are very compelling reasons to attend the meeting. The tougher question to answer is, “how will this help free the hostages sooner?” Continue reading »

Sep 24

Lisa Haugaard, director of the Latin America Working Group Education Fund, gave the following presentation last week at a conference about Colombia organized in Washington by Lutheran World Relief. In remarkably few words, she lays out some common-sense – but not always followed – guidelines that should govern U.S. development aid programs and trade policy in Colombia.

Thanks to Lisa and LAWGEF for sharing this with us.

Trade & Development in Colombia:

Through a human rights lens

Lisa Haugaard, Latin America Working Group Education Fund

At Lutheran World Relief’s Forum on

“Conflict, Trade and Development in Colombia”

September 18, 2007

Colombia’s conflict has led to more than 3.8 million people fleeing their homes from violence in recent years, and has caught the civilian population in the crossfire.  Given this context, policymakers and donors should ask the following questions as they make decisions about rural development projects or trade agreements with Colombia.  This may seem obvious, but too often trade and development decisions are not examined in a “human rights and conflict-resolution” light.

Some key questions for any major development or trade decision in Colombia today are:

  • How will it affect human rights?
  • Will it help to reduce tensions or aggravate the conflict?
  • How will it affect the rural population living in poverty in the conflict zones?
  • How will it affect the livelihoods of farmers susceptible to growing coca and poppy? Will it undercut their food crops, leading them to shift towards or revert to illicit drug production, or become more vulnerable to recruitment by guerrilla, paramilitary or other illegal groups?
  • What guarantees are included to ensure this project does not favor criminal networks?
  • How will it benefit or harm the population—rural, poor, Afro-Colombian, indigenous, internally displaced—already most victimized by the conflict?

We can not assume that any development project or trade agreement, even if it looks to have an overall positive economic impact, will necessarily ease the conflict.  We have to examine the different impacts on particular sectors and geographic regions.

To take the most controversial first…

The pending free trade agreement.  Even the most vehemently pro-free trade advocate will acknowledge that some sectors may suffer impacts from trade agreements while other sectors benefit. Which sectors are least likely to benefit from the Colombian FTA, at least initially? A good guess would be, areas of the country without the infrastructure for successful exporting, and sectors of the population least prepared to take advantage of opportunities to export crops and goods favored by a trade agreement—and in particular, small farmers whose crops will not be able to compete domestically with U.S. exports. And these potential losers are likely to be located in Colombia’s conflict zones, and be the population already most victimized by the war, and most likely to be pressed into service by illegal armed groups or lured into illicit drug production. Continue reading »

Sep 21

There is still no way to tell whether the intermediation of Hugo Chávez and Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba is going to bring freedom for the FARC’s hostages any closer. Nonetheless, the video of Sen. Córdoba’s visit to top FARC leader Raúl Reyes in Colombia’s jungles last week (viewable on YouTube) offers some clues about likely next steps.

Here is a translation of the part of the video where (with much prompting from Sen. Córdoba) Reyes talks about timing. It is a bit surprising how often the United States comes up in this segment – both the possible participation of U.S. congresspeople and consultations with relatives of the three U.S. citizen hostages. The importance of Washington’s possible role is further underlined by Sen. Córdoba’s presence here in Washington today.

RR: I want to say that the letters we have sent, particularly the one from Comandante-in-Chief Manuel Marulanda, illustrate very well our will to work for this [humanitarian exchange] accord. This will imply, surely, several meetings, it will mean much time, much patience and perseverance, persistence. We have all of these, as do you [addressing Hugo Chávez] and the senator [Córdoba].

We want to talk to you, as we have expressed publicly and I repeat, that surely the conversation with Comandante Marulanda should happen at some time. But first, before that, we must have other previous conversations to clear the way and allow you to know the FARC and all of its proposals. That is why time will be needed, and we are willing.

PC: Would there be a preparatory meeting, Comandante Reyes?

RR: Yes, I think it is necessary to have one or two preparatory meetings. With members of the Secretariat or other cadres the commander-in-chief will assign for this mission.

PC: But could this preparatory meeting happen more quickly? It would be good if it could happen soon.

RR: We would like it as soon as possible, and we are willing to make it happen in the near future. However, it depends on many circumstances, but I think we can resolve that it not be too late. For example, a good date to meet with Comandante Chavez would be October 8. That is a historic date, the date that Comandante Ernesto Che Guevara was murdered in Bolivia.

At this opportunity I want to highlight the importance of a meeting with the Democratic members of the U.S. Congress, so that they can contribute to this objective of an exchange. I think that with the help of the international community, we can achieve the goal of a humanitarian exchange. And this could be the key, the entry point, the road, to move to the objectives of peace, to the political exit from the conflict. … Continue reading »

Sep 19

According to Proceso, Mexico won’t get any Black Hawks.

The following article was published almost three weeks ago in the Mexican weekly Proceso, but we’ve just seen it now. It’s still important enough to translate and share.

It presents more information than any other source about the mostly military aid package for Mexico that the Bush administration is likely to request of the U.S. Congress this fall. (The article in Spanish is available for a fee on the Proceso website.)

Among the information that is new to us:

  • The aid package (like the original “Plan Colombia”) will be for six years.
  • The total amount will be between $700 million and $1 billion over those six years, which is only about one-fifth to one-quarter the size of Plan Colombia.
  • Mexico will contribute another $200 million to the package.
  • The package will not include Black Hawk helicopters. (The 2000 Plan Colombia aid package had 18 Black Hawks, which cost about $15 million each.)
  • The Black Hawks, apparently, will be absent because of fears that the U.S. Congress would require stronger human rights conditions if they were included!
  • The main components of the package will be fast boats for drug interdiction; gamma-ray container screening equipment for Mexican ports; equipment to intercept phone and Internet communications; and lots of training.
  • U.S. government negotiators, led by Undersecretary of State John Negroponte, want Mexico to allow a larger presence of DEA agents on its soil.
  • The Bush administration’s goal is for the U.S. Congress to approve the aid package – which it has not even presented yet – by the end of the year.

Read on:

Proceso (Mexico), September 1, 2007

Bush’s support is delayed

WASHINGTON – The government of Felipe Calderón will receive from the United States a six-year package of financial support that could go from $700 million to $1 billion, to strengthen the militarized fight against narcotrafficking. Washington may condition this support on an increase in the number of DEA agents in Mexican territory.

“We are completing the last details of the negotiation. The accord will be announced at the end of September, or, at the very latest, during the first weeks of October, and it will have a budget of up to $1 billion for the entire six-year period,” a Mexican official involved in the talks with the Bush administration, who agreed to speak in exchange for anonymity, told Proceso.

“Mexico will contribute to this commitment of U.S. cooperation … another $200 million,” the official added.

In an interview with the El Universal newspaper published August 20, Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Patricia Espinosa Cantellano indicated that the U.S. anti-narcotics aid package could be $800 million, but she did not specify how the Felipe Calderón government would use the money.

“It is a proposal for which we will devise a general aid plan, which implies commitments from both parties about actions to be carried out in their own territories,” the foreign-relations secretary told the Mexico City daily.

Continue reading »

Sep 17

A 2005 drug bust in Jalisco, Mexico.

Last week, USA Today revealed the findings of a recently declassified Drug Enforcement Administration report on cocaine availability in U.S. cities.
Apparently, something has happened in the last year to reduce cocaine supplies and drive up the drug’s price.

As evidence of the short supply, prices have spiked sharply and purity has decreased since September 2006, says the analysis, which previously had not been made public. A gram of pure cocaine sold for about $118.70 in the spring, a 29% increase from last fall. Purity decreases when dealers add other ingredients, such as baby formula and sugar, to stretch the supply.

Cocaine prices are at their highest since the DEA began calculating the price and purity data in April 2005, when a pure gram of cocaine sold for $93.63.

Why might this be happening? Could it be that, seven years and $5 billion later, Plan Colombia is beginning to work?

Not quite, according to the DEA.

Analysts found that Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, the main source countries for the U.S. cocaine supply, are growing and shipping the same amount of cocaine as in previous years.

“There is not more or less cocaine entering the pipeline,” [DEA intelligence chief Tony] Placido says. Instead, he says, Mexican authorities apparently are stopping the cocaine before it gets to the USA.

DEA intelligence agents credit a crackdown in Mexico by President Felipe Calderón, who sent 3,000 troops to corral two drug cartels engaged in a violent turf war.

“This new Calderón government is really taking a tough stance, and it’s really taking its toll on the trafficking organizations,” says Tony Placido, the DEA’s intelligence chief. About 90% of cocaine reaching the USA comes via Mexico.

In other words, with a few thousand troops and mostly with his own budget, Mexico’s president has managed to do what 2 million acres of U.S.-funded aerial herbicide fumigation in Colombia have not: to create a serious disruption in cocaine’s price and availability in the illegal U.S. market.

In the long term, this sudden cocaine scarcity will probably prove to be little more than a hiccup in a larger, decades-long trend of steadily dropping street prices. Either Mexico’s drug cartels will recover from the blow President Calderón has dealt to their operations, or new crime syndicates will arise to fill the vacuum. The lure of enormous profits remains as strong as ever – especially now that the drug is a bit more expensive. “I would anticipate that over a period of time, like six months to a year,” the drug traffickers will “be back in shape,” criminologist Alfred Blumstein told USA Today.

Continue reading »

Sep 14
  • President Álvaro Uribe’s approval rating is back up to 72 percent in the regular Gallup poll of major cities, after dropping eleven points to 66 percent in July. Some credit goes to his recent displays of toughness against paramilitaries (kicking paramilitary leader “Macaco” out of the “Justice and Peace” process), and softness – or flexibility, at least – toward the guerrillas (allowing Hugo Chávez to play a role in prisoner-exchange talks).
  • President Uribe has begun to hint that he may, in fact, not seek a third term in office in 2010 – and that his “chosen successor” might be the thirty-something, ultra-conservative minister of agriculture, Andrés Felipe Arias.
  • U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutiérrez is leading a delegation to Colombia, Panama and Peru, including ten congresspeople and a senator, to promote approval of free-trade agreements signed with all three countries. The group, however, is mostly Republicans who already support the agreements.
  • U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Peter Pace also visited Colombia on a trip to the region. Part of his agenda, Reuters reports, was to seek a replacement for the U.S. “Cooperative Security Location” base in Manta, Ecuador. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has made clear that he will not renew the base agreement when it expires in 2009. According to Reuters, “Pace would not name which countries were in discussions, but U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity said earlier this year Peru and Colombia had approached them with offers. Both countries denied that.”
  • The new U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Bill Brownfield – whose last post was Caracas, and who was a deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Western Hemisphere bureau when Plan Colombia began – arrived in Bogotá this week.
  • Two top narcotraffickers wanted by the U.S. government – Diego Montoya, who was captured this week, and paramilitary leader Carlos Mario Jiménez (”Macaco”), who was ejected from the demobilization process in late August, are being moved to “prison boats” in the Caribbean and the Pacific. Apparently prison authorities accidentally moved another paramilitary leader as well – Medellín boss Diego Murillo (”Don Berna”). “Inexplicably,” writes El Tiempo, Colombia’s prison authority “confused the recently arrested most-wanted narcotrafficker with the demobilized paramilitary leader.”
  • The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Colombia told El Tiempo that internal displacement is getting worse in Colombia, and that aerial herbicide fumigation is one of the causes.
  • In Bolivia, the armed forces and the police are accusing each other of accepting aid from Venezuela. Most likely, they both did.
  • In December, Bolivia will start requiring visas of all visiting U.S. citizens, even would-be tourists. The visa requirements, notes MABBlog, will include a police report, a yellow fever vaccination certificate, proof of economic solvency, and US$134. The United States will be on the Bolivian Foreign Ministry’s “Group III” list, alongside Angola, Bhutan, Chad, Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia, China and Taiwan.
Sep 12

Sen. Gustavo Petro, a former member of the disbanded M-19 guerrilla group, is now a prominent senator from the Democratic Pole, Colombia’s united left opposition party. He has played a central role in the effort to expose links between paramilitaries and state officials.

His inquiries into paramilitary ties to President Uribe’s inner circle led Uribe to call Sen. Petro a “terrorist in a business suit” last February.

Now the hostility toward Sen. Petro is coming from the other extreme. On Monday, the FARC guerrillas posted to their website an attack on Petro written by Iván Márquez, a member of the group’s secretariat.

In open support of the U.S. Southern Command’s Plan Patriota, a foolish sniper shoots at the FARC from his fatuous trench, a demobilized M-19 member named Gustavo Petro. …

For a while Petro has been spraying around some truly stupid things about the FARC. We cannot feel resentment toward the admirable work of so many democratic and revolutionary leaders in the Democratic Pole. What we do feel is suspicion toward personalities like Petro.

The FARC are angry at Petro for several strong statements he has recently made about them. In early July, after news emerged of the death of eleven provincial legislators whom the guerrillas had taken hostage, Petro wrote a letter to Carlos Gaviria, the president of the Democratic Pole, suggesting that the party’s bloc in Congress hold a hearing investigating ties between politicians and the FARC.

I think that our position with respect to the FARC is not sufficiently clear before public opinion. Even though our statutes condemn violence as a way to resolve the country’s social and political conflicts, Colombian society has not totally and clearly defined the facts that separate us from the FARC. Despite the high number of militants of the democratic left whom this guerrilla group has murdered, the citizenry does not perceive our absolute and categorical rejection of that movement [the FARC].

Petro went further in an early September interview with the Colombian newsmagazine Cambio. Continue reading »

Sep 11

Yesterday’s capture of drug lord Diego Montoya, hiding in a pile of leaves in his underwear, was a huge victory for Colombia’s authorities. “Don Diego,” the paramount leader of the Northern Valle cartel – Colombia’s biggest drug-trafficking organization – was on the FBI’s ten most-wanted fugitives list, alongside Osama bin Laden. The FBI once estimated his personal fortune to be in excess of one billon dollars. The violence he employed to control drug-trafficking laboratories and routes killed thousands, and rendered ineffective local law-enforcement institutions in many parts of the country.

Is is remarkable that the Colombian Army caught Montoya without so much as an exchange of fire with the bodyguards and rings of security that the drug lord was thought to have. In general, it has been very encouraging to see more captures lately of high-ranking narco figures like Montoya, Hernando Gómez Bustamante (alias Rasguño), and Juan Carlos Ramírez Abadía (alias Chupeta). Let’s hope that more are to come.

But don’t expect cocaine to become harder to find in the United States as a result of yesterday’s arrest. During the 1990s, the killing of Pablo Escobar and the capture of the Cali cartel’s Rodríguez Orejuela brothers caused little more than a hiccup in the global drug trade. There is no reason to think that things won’t be different this time.

More frequent arrests of top narcos disrupt the drug trade, and increase the risks and costs of doing business, much more than any campaign to fumigate peasants with herbicides. But they are not, by themselves, enough to change the equation.

Not while addicts’ demand continues unabated. Not while unemployment and poverty make the drug industry appear attractive to too many. And not while an absent government, corrupted officials in the security forces, and ineffective judicial institutions combine to lower the risks that criminals face.

A few observations about the fall of the “boss of bosses”:

  • While it is good news for the authorities, yesterday’s arrest is also good news for Don Diego’s competitors – including other members of the Northern Valle cartel, a loose organization whose members have fought frequent internecine battles in the past. As Montoya leaves the scene, what is to become of the laboratories, transportation networks, money-laundering schemes, and trafficking routes he leaves behind? (The term “route” refers to much more than a road or a path – it also includes all the local officials who have been paid to turn a blind eye to narcotrafficking activities, and all the effort put into terrorizing the surrounding population into silence.) Chances are, we are about to see an unstable period of “changing of the guard” in Colombia’s criminal underworld, in which criminals compete – often quite violently – for control of all that Don Diego’s departure is leaving “up for grabs.”
  • It is interesting that yesterday’s operation was apparently led by Colombia’s Army, not by police. Efforts against Pablo Escobar and the Rodríguez Orejuela brothers were primarily carried out by Colombia’s National Police.
  • Continue reading »
Sep 09

Sen. Mel Martinez, author of the withdrawn Colombia amendments.

On Thursday, many colleagues and I were in Montreal for a Latin American Studies Association conference. While we were gone, the Senate debated and approved the 2008 foreign aid bill.

To our surprise, Senate Republicans introduced two amendments that would have reversed cuts in military assistance to Colombia, and weakened conditions on the fumigation program. Before they could come to a debate or a vote, though, the amendments’ Republican sponsors withdrew them.

Here is a very broad overview of the military-to-economic aid proportions in the House and Senate versions of the 2008 aid bill. All figures are in millions of dollars. They do not include about $150 million in additional military aid that comes through the Defense Department’s counter-narcotics budget, which is an entirely different funding bill.

Military aid Economic aid Total
Bush administration request 450.2 (76%) 139.5 (24%) 589.7
House of Representatives 289.8 (55%) 240.8 (45%) 530.6
Senate 359.5 (64%) 201.4 (36%) 560.9

The House of Representatives’ bill, which was passed back in June, goes farther than the Senate’s version. It cuts military assistance to Colombia by $160.4 million, and restores $101.3 million as new economic aid. The House also includes stronger human-rights safeguards and more stringent conditions on the aerial coca fumigation program than the Senate’s bill does.

The Senate still shifts the military-to-economic aid proportions significantly. The bill was principally authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) – chairman of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee and a long-time critic of the U.S. strategy in Colombia. Sen. Leahy and his staff did not go as far as the House bill primarily because his party’s majority is much slimmer in the Senate (51 to 49) than in the House (233 to 202). They did not want to provoke a “negative” amendment from the Republican minority seeking to undo changes to the Colombia aid.

Yet a challenging amendment came anyway. On Thursday, Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Florida) introduced 4 amendments related to Latin America: two on Cuba and two on Colombia. (Read page S11171 of the transcript.) Martinez had the approval of Sen. Leahy’s Republican counterpart on the foreign aid subcommittee, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-New Hampshire).

Martinez’s two Colombia amendments would have

  • Weakening conditions on aerial coca fumigation, allowing it to proceed with less-stringent tests for health, environment, compensation for mistaken spraying, access to alternative development, and consideration of manual eradication as an alternative.
  • Increasing the amount of money available for aerial eradication by $30 million, thereby reducing the bill’s military-and-police aid cut by half.

Sen. Martinez had this to say on his behalf.

Rather than hamstring and tie down the Colombian forces and eliminate eradication, we are changing the language to permit it where necessary, when to do otherwise would endanger the life of Colombians.

Drug eradication is vitally important. To allow the current language in the bill would diminish these important efforts so that we can eradicate drugs in the Colombian fields and not have to deal with them in our neighborhoods.

(Never mind that thirteen years of fumigation in Colombia have utterly failed to keep drugs out of our neighborhoods.)

Sen. Gregg added:

“I honestly haven’t understood what seems to be an antipathy from the intelligentsia in the United States, especially the Northeast intelligentsia, toward President Uribe and his government.”

(Yes, no doubt President Uribe was a frequent topic of conversation at dinner parties all over the Vineyard this summer.)

Had these Colombia amendments come to a vote, it would have been a nail-biter. Most of the 49 Senate Republicans would have lined up behind Sens. Martinez and Gregg (and, by extension, President Bush). They might have taken with them enough of the 51 Democrats (50 without the ailing Sen. Tim Johnson [D-South Dakota]) to win a majority. Unlike the House, where the majority of Democrats have consistently voted for amendments cutting Plan Colombia military aid, a significant contingent of more hawkish Democratic Senators have supported the “tougher” policy ever since Bill Clinton proposed it in 2000.

In the end, though, Martinez’s Colombia proposals did not come to a vote. A deal was cut. Martinez ended up withdrawing three of his amendments – one Cuba and both Colombia provisions – in exchange for Sen. Leahy agreeing to add his remaining Cuba amendment to the bill’s language.

The House and Senate have now both finished the aid bill. The House version, again, includes stronger changes to the proportion between military and economic aid, and stronger human-rights and fumigation conditions. If I had to make a prediction, I would say that the final bill will more closely resemble the House version – though of course I could be wrong, and the end result will be at a mid-point somewhere between both houses’ bills.

Sep 05

This column is a week old, but is still very much worth reading. It appeared in last Thursday’s edition of Cali’s El País newspaper, authored by Gustavo Duncan of Colombia’s Security and Democracy Foundation. Duncan is the author of Los Señores de la Guerra (”The Warlords”), a book published last December that, along with Mauricio Romero’s 2005 Paramilitares y Autodefensas (”Paramilitaries and Self-Defense Groups”), is the definitive study of the recent history of Colombia’s paramilitary groups.

Here, Duncan states that huge shifts are occurring in the structure of Colombian narco and paramilitary power because of the imprisonment of top paramilitary leaders, and particularly the surprising transfer of powerful leaders “Macaco” and “Don Berna” out of the Itagüí prison and into possible extradition on Friday, August 24. However, Duncan argues, these moves are not doing away with the phenomenon of drug lords and private armies in Colombia – they are merely changing the way they operate.

Here is a translation.

Friday was an important day

Gustavo Duncan

El País (Cali, Colombia)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

The transfer of “Macaco” and “Don Berna” to the Cómbita prison last Friday and their almost certain extradition, together with ever more insistent rumors of the death of Vicente Castaño, indicate substantial changes in the structure of paramilitarism and narcotrafficking. New leaderships, as well as new structures and organizational forms, are bound to appear in the evolutionary process of the nation’s drug trade. And even more importantly, they will manifest themselves in the power that extends from narcotrafficking into control of peripheral regions and into public offices, and, in general, in all the inevitable corruption necessary to maintain a criminal enterprise of such proportions.

What, then, is to come? It is difficult to predict the exact form that the new organizations will take, but several points have begun to become clear after what happened on Friday. In the first place, the power and reach of the former “heavyweights” of paramilitarism are now clearly in decline. It is only a matter of time before their influence over what happens outside their prison is reduced, or until some sort of judicial evidence brings them to a situation similar to that of the two leaders who were taken to Cómbita.

In the second place, beyond the questions of who controls the drug trade and the organizational form of the next generation of capos and emerging armies, it is clear that they will have to act within a context of public opinion that is much less tolerant of irregular armed structures than it was in past periods, when many viewed the FARC’s contention for power as more important than paramilitarism’s collateral effects. The new organizations will have to change their methods not because of changes in the local environment, but because of new demands and interference from national-level political power. And also because of the influence of the part of Colombian society that is at the margins of the power of narcotraffickers and private armies (national media, urban middle classes, NGOs, etc.), which is able to pressure both the security forces and national and regional political leaders. It is very likely that from now on we will see more discrete armed structures, focused on the control of specific spaces and transactions, appealing to the logic of clandestine infiltrations into power structures, instead of an overt military and political dominion.

And in the third place, the President’s action last Friday signals a definitive step for the government’s strategy toward what remains of the peace process with the “self-defense groups.” Its room for maneuver was shrinking until evidence from other branches of the state and from international security agencies demanded of the government a credible action against the paramilitary leaders imprisoned in Itagüí. But the problem is more serious than the retaliations that took place on Friday. Even if all of the paramilitary chiefs in Colombian jails today were extradited, even after the peace process with the “self-defense groups” ends, it will be clear that throughout the country – and probably even more intensely – the problem of narcotrafficking and private armies will continue to persist. As a result, for the government it is desirable to see the process all the way to its end with some ex-paramilitary commanders, in order to minimize the threat of the new generation of narcos and “paras.” And even then, the fundamental question will remain unanswered: whether it was worth it for Colombia to suffer the exhaustion and expectations of the Ralito process, if in the end there has been little real progress against the political violence caused by narcotrafficking.

Sep 04

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was scheduled to visit Bogotá for six hours last Friday. He ended up staying for nearly three times that long, finally departing for Venezuela at 3:00 on Saturday morning.

There is no real reason to be optimistic because Colombian President Álvaro Uribe accepted Chávez’s offer to help mediate a prisoner-exchange negotiation with the FARC. We must hope, though, that simply “because Chávez is asking,” both the Colombian government and especially the FARC might yield on some of their rigid pre-conditions for holding talks.

The ice has cracked ever so slightly during the past several days:

  • Chávez announced that he expects to meet soon with a senior FARC representative in Caracas. In an interview with journalist Jorge Enrique Botero in Mexico’s La Jornada yesterday, FARC spokesman “Raúl Reyes” even raised the possibility of paramount FARC leader “Manuel Marulanda” visiting Caracas.
  • “Raúl Reyes” told the Argentine daily Clarín that the FARC would consider holding prisoner-exchange talks in a venue other than the demilitarized zone they have been demanding. He added that the FARC would demand the demilitarized zone, however, for any eventual handover of hostages. The possibility of “negotiation in Venezuela and exchange in Colombia” is one that had not arisen before.
  • The FARC finally turned over to the International Committee of the Red Cross the remains of eleven departmental legislators whom it had been holding hostage since 2002; the eleven were killed in June under circumstances that have yet to be clarified.

This is all significant, but certainly does not represent the dawning of a new day. Advocates of negotiated peace in Colombia – and especially the relatives of the FARC hostages, who have been disappointed so many times before – have no reason to believe that a major threshold has been crossed.

It has been surprising, then, to see the optimism in Colombia’s mainstream media over the past few days. The coverage of President Chávez’s Bogotá visit was downright celebratory. Much of Colombia’s establishment dislikes Chávez, and suspects his motives. However, the Venezuelan president seems to have disarmed many of them with Friday’s charm offensive.

Witness this editorial in Moday’s El Tiempo:

Possibly, for Colombians there will be a Hugo Chávez before, and another after, the surprising and colorful press conference that he led with his colleague Álvaro Uribe on Friday night, … as part of a visit to Colombia that, seen from without, was extraordinary.

… There is no doubht that President Chávez’s charismatic and spontaneous personality had an impact on Colombians. And the enthusiastic and public way that he committed himself to collaborating in the search for peace changed the negative perception of him that many held. It could be that after this historic encounter, some true advances can be made toward the humanitarian exchange and, eventually, laying the groundwork for a negotiated solution to the armed conflict, and that some stupid provocation from the FARC might not suffice to undermine the constructive climate that has been created.

Noted El Tiempo columnist María Jimena Duzán:

There were no big “scoops” in the press conference. Instead, we were surprised by the tremendous voltage of his political charisma, able to overwhelm his firmest enemies. According to the phlegmatic [journalist] Félix de Bedout, Chávez is one of those personalities who is able to make people kill for him. It is certain that, next to such a high voltage, Uribe’s leadership appears small and wooden, even though both personalities are very similar.

Semana magazine added:

The fact that the FARC has three U.S. citizens among the group of kidnap victims makes it possible that the Republican White House and the Demoratic Congress may have to watch with sympathy, or at least with resignation, any contribution that their arch-enemy Chávez might achieve toward the hostages’ liberation. It remains to be seen how the unpredictable and passionate Boliviaran leader will play the valuable card that Uribe has put in his hands.

Some observers have maintained more skepticism. El Tiempo columnist Salud Hernández-Mora injected a dose of realism in a piece published Sunday. Continue reading »