Oct 29

The parties in President Uribe’s coalition won governorships in less than half the country, and in only a few of the most populous departments. (Source: votebien.com, adding candidates from the Alas Equipo and “La ‘U’“parties.)

Colombia held municipal and departmental elections yesterday. The voting was mostly peaceful, though the past few months’ campaigning was quite violent, with dozens of attacks on candidates, the majority carried out by the FARC.

Here are a few notes about yesterday’s election results.

  • President Álvaro Uribe and his supporters cannot be happy about the outcome.

Candidates from the pro-Uribe coalition got more votes than any other single party, but failed to win the mayorships of Colombia’s three largest cities. Pro-Uribe party candidates won about 15 of 32 governorships, and the mayor’s offices of about 14 of 32 departmental capitals.

  • Independent candidates did well.

The term refers to candidates from neither the Uribista coalition nor either of the two main opposition parties (the Liberals and the Alternative Democratic Pole). Candidates from small, usually locally focused, political movements – many of them from the left – scored some key victories.

In Medellín Alonso Salazar, an expert on violence and gang activity who served as Secretario del Gobierno (similar to deputy mayor) under popular Mayor Sergio Fajardo, came from behind in the polls to defeat former mayor Luis Pérez by a comfortable margin. Salazar, from the same small independent left-of-center political movement as Fajardo, was polling in the single digits a few months ago, while Pérez had locked up the support of Medellín’s traditional politicians and much of its business community. Though not the most charismatic campaigner, Salazar was helped by his association with Fajardo and by a wide range of endorsements – from the pop singer Juanes to President Uribe’s wife Lina Moreno.

In Cali Jorge Iván Ospina, another candidate from a small left-of-center political group, surprised many by beating Francisco Lloreda, scion of one of the city’s oldest and wealthiest families. The 39-year-old mayor-elect is the son of an M-19 leader killed in combat in the mid-1980s.

Colombia’s traditional parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, had a hard time in Colombia’s cities. They remain quite strong in rural areas, though, judging from mayoral results in rural municipalities and gubernatorial results in more rural departments. The Liberals won nine departmental governorships (out of 32) and about 200 mostly rural municipalities (out of about 1,100); the Conservatives – part of the pro-Uribe coalition – took three governorships and about 200 mostly” rural municipalities.

  • The “united left” did reasonably well, but showed its weaknesses.

Colombia’s united left opposition party, the Alternative Democratic Pole, held onto the Bogotá mayor’s seat, which is often referred to as the second-most powerful position in the country. Samuel Moreno, with a come-from behind victory, beat former mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who was President Uribe’s choice. Moreno succeeds popular Alternative Democratic Pole mayor Luis Eduardo Garzón. Though Garzón did not support Moreno in their party’s primary election – the outgoing mayor is more politically moderate than Moreno – his high approval ratings (consistently over 60 percent) gave the candidate a boost.

In the days before the election, President Uribe gave Moreno a great political gift. On several occasions the president urged voters not to support Moreno and the Alternative Democratic Pole by implying that the party was tied to the FARC. On a visit to the Caribbean coast town of Algarrobo, Magdalena last Thursday, Uribe said, “Today Algarrobo speaks to Bogotá. May they not make the mistake there … of electing mayors supported by the guerrillas who also buy votes.” Uribe made similar statements on Friday and Saturday, and had his ministers of interior and defense do the same.

Continue reading »

Oct 22

Thanks for the bounce, El Tiempo.

This may be the last post for several days. I’m going to a conference in Quito later this week, and I still haven’t finished a paper for that conference on Colombian civil-military relations. (It was supposed to be turned in last week, but our accompaniment of Senator Gustavo Petro’s visit to Washington left little time for writing.) I hope to post again from Quito, if not before. Here are some belated links of interest.

  • A blog post eleven days ago about President Uribe’s recent “tantrums” was excerpted last Wednesday in El Tiempo, Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper. Normally, our blog exceeds 200 visitors on a good day. Thanks to the link from El Tiempo, though, that number spiked up to 5,322 last Wednesday.
  • Several U.S., Colombian and European human rights groups released a disturbing report last week detailing an increase in the military’s killings of civilians – in many cases presenting the dead as guerrillas killed in combat. An English summary of the report is available on WOLA’s website. The Miami Herald reported that the findings are “threatening millions of dollars in U.S. military aid and may raise further questions over a pending free-trade agreement.”
  • Citing the rise in these “extrajudicial executions,” Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issued a rare joint communiqué calling on the U.S. Congress to maintain a months-old “hold” on military aid frozen pending compliance with human-rights conditions in U.S. foreign aid law.
  • Rather than take the issue of extrajudicial executions seriously, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe in a July speech claimed that “the guerrillas have another strategy: every time there is a casualty in the guerrillas, they immediately mobilize their chorus leaders in the country and abroad to say that it was an extrajudicial execution.”

  • President Uribe took a similar tone last week before an unusual audience:
    the inauguration of a special session, in Bogotá, of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

    Here, each time the guerrillas and their echoes feel that they could be defeated, they appeal to the resource of [denouncing] human-rights violations. Actions against the guerrillas are advancing, so therefore any killed guerrilla is categorized as an “extrajudicial execution.”

  • Witness protection is absolutely critical if any effort to dismantle organized crime is to succeed. So it was very disturbing to read an article in last Sunday’s edition of the Colombian newsmagazine Semana about the terrible conditions in which one protected witness has found himself living.

    Pérez [the witness, who testified against paramilitaries], along with his wife, has been in the Prosecutor General’s witness protection program for four and a half years. During this time he has lived in eight different apartments. His daughter was born three years ago under lock and key, she has grown without having any social life and has not even had the opportunity to enter a preschool. “She has never had friends and the Prosecutor General’s office does not include her in the children’s events for the other kids who are growing up within the witness protection programs. But the worst is that my daughter is very malnourished,” said the witness, who showed SEMANA the moist, humid conditions of the dwelling they occupy, the clothes eaten by fungi. And, as though it were a jail, the apartment’s door, which is padlocked.

  • Last week the Institute for Policy Studies gave Colombian Senator Gustavo Petro its 31st Letelier-Moffitt human-rights award. The award was presented by Rep. Janice Schakowsky (D-Illinois). Pictures from the ceremony can be viewed here.

Oct 19

  • “This free-trade agreement is dead.”
  • “This free-trade agreement isn’t going anywhere.”
  • “The Colombia free-trade agreement won’t come to a vote [in Congress] while Bush is president.”

I heard these statements, or variations of them, several times while accompanying Colombian Senator Gustavo Petro on a series of meetings with members of the U.S. Congress this week. The general sense I got from House Democrats was that, due mainly to domestic political concerns, there is little that the Colombian government could do at this point to guarantee enough U.S. Congressional support to allow the current free-trade agreement to come to a vote. As the 2008 presidential campaign heats up, it will become even less likely that this controversial issue will be debated.

Notice, though, that the Democrats we spoke with were talking about “this” free-trade agreement – the accord that the Bush and Uribe governments signed a year ago, in its current form. “That” agreement indeed appears to be going nowhere.

Right now, in the House (and probably in the Senate, though I have less of a sense there), most members of the Republican minority would vote for the existing Colombia FTA. Among the Democrats, as with most things, the picture is more complicated.

  • A first group would join the Republicans and vote for the existing free-trade agreement. Members of this group, which is a small but vocal minority, tend to be quite supportive of Plan Colombia and President Álvaro Uribe’s security policies.
  • A second group would be unlikely to support this or any other free-trade agreement. Many members of this group, whose size is anyone’s guess, are motivated by concerns about declining wages and job losses in their home districts.
  • A third group opposes the existing free-trade agreement in its current form, but is also concerned about the negative message that a flat-out rejection might send to the rest of Latin America. Recognizing that a vote will be unlikely in 2008, they wish to spend the coming year trying to come up with a “better” model of what an FTA should look like. Members of this group asked Senator Petro questions along the lines of, “What would you want? How would you change this agreement? Should it be conditioned, and if so according to what criteria? How can we incorporate the concerns of sectors in Colombia who didn’t have a voice in the negotiations that led to the current agreement?”

I have no idea how many members of Congress are in each of these three groups. I also have little idea about the mechanism by which the trade agreement would be “improved” – whether this would mean starting from scratch, amending some of the most controversial sections, or simply attaching strong pre-conditions and benchmarks to the existing accord. It could be a combination of all of these.

The Colombian government has been lobbying Democrats very hard lately, with little to show for it. That will continue to be the case as long as they insist on trying to move them into group one above, because the FTA is clearly headed back to the drawing board.

Oct 16

Last week the largest party in the coalition backing Colombian President Álvaro Uribe approved a resolution calling on Uribe to run for an unprecedented third consecutive term in 2010. The “Party of the ‘U’” promised to gather the 1.3 millionsignatures necessary for a petition to amend Colombia’s constitution to allow Uribe to run again.

If Uribe’s popularity rating continues to hover at around 60-70 percent, as it has for five years, he very well could win again and serve until 2014. Though he hinted in September that he might not seek re-election in 2010, Uribe has been curiously silent about the “U” Party’s latest move.

There are many in Washington, CIP included, who believe that the United States has pursued an unbalanced, reckless, exceedingly militarized and ineffective strategy in Colombia. Most of us believe that as part of that strategy, the U.S. government has been too warm, unquestioning and uncritical in its public embrace of Álvaro Uribe.

If President Uribe wants to do us a great favor, if he wants to make our work in Washington far easier, he should absolutely run for a third term.

  • If he stays for a third term, Álvaro Uribe’s stock would drop dramatically in U.S. public opinion. By laying bare Uribe’s inability to loosen his grip on power, by highlighting his refusal to let Colombia’s institutions develop and do their jobs, a new re-election effort would leave a terrible taste here. Even if Uribe continued to position himself as a close U.S. ally, those in Washington who have been concerned about his authoritarian tendencies would have their suspicions confirmed.
  • Members of Colombia’s political class who have been waiting for Uribe to step aside and give them a turn would drop out of the president’s coalition – and become vocal critics with access to Washington opinionmakers.
  • Surely, some in Washington would continue to back Uribe, if only because he isn’t Hugo Chávez. But Uribe’s remaining U.S. backers would no longer be able to argue that the United States must support “Colombia’s Winston Churchill.” The more accurate analogy would become, perhaps, “Colombia’s Alberto Fujimori” – or in words attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt, “an S.O.B., but our S.O.B.”
  • Should a third term become a serious possibility, continued U.S. assistance to Colombia – even economic aid – would become a much tougher sell. By 2010, the United States will probably have given Colombia $7 billion since Plan Colombia’s inception a decade earlier. After so much investment in “South America’s oldest democracy,” such strong evidence of that democracy’s degradation would place the entire policy in doubt. Future aid near today’s generous levels would be unlikely.
  • And of course, if Washington is still considering a free-trade agreement at the same time Colombia is debating a constitutional re-election amendment, Uribe’s ambitions would only foster doubts about Colombia’s democratic credentials, working to the advantage of the agreement’s opponents here.

This scenario is still hypothetical – but the “U” Party certainly set it in motion last week. Let’s see where it goes.

Oct 12
  • In a brilliant column that appeared in Tuesday’s edition of El Tiempo, Claudia López laid out how a politician accused of colluding with paramilitaries can avoid a long jail sentence, even under current Colombian law:

    Though they have lost the opportunity to include themselves in the Justice and Peace process, the "para-politicians" could reduce their sentences significantly. The majority of the "para-politicians" will be judged for aggravated conspiracy, which carries a sentence of between six and twelve years.

    Surely they will receive an average sentence of nine years. If they plead guilty, they can have their terms reduced by one-third: they will only be in jail for six years. If they also confessed in their first declaration, one-sixth of the remaining sentence could be reduced – one year – leaving five years of jail. If they also collaborate with the justice system – for instance, supplying information about how relations between paramilitarism’s military and political wings operated and assisting in their dismantlement – they will receive another reduction of between one-quarter and one-sixth of the remaining sentence. That would leave only 3 years and 9 months in jail.

    In addition, for each day of work or study while in jail, they have the right to one day of freedom. assuming that they work or study from Monday to Friday, they would be in jail approximately 3 years and 3 months. Finally, when they have finished two-thirds of their sentences, that is approximately two years, they could be sent home under "conditional liberty." In conclusion, the initial 12 years could be reduced to 2 if they confess and collaborate with the justice system.

  • In Bolivia, Evo Morales announced this week that his government will no longer send soldiers to attend the U.S. Army’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC, the successor to the School of the Americas). Bolivia joins Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay and Costa Rica among countries no longer sending personnel to WHINSEC. Morales also indicated that Bolivia would stop accepting U.S. military aid – or at least ban the presence of U.S. military personnel on counter-drug missions. Whether this applies to DEA personnel or U.S. contractors is not yet clear.
  • The OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission yesterday released a quite critical report [PDF] about Colombia’s handling of the paramilitary demobilization process. We haven’t read it yet, but the press coverage (El Espectador / El Tiempo / AFP) indicates that the criticism is strongly worded.
  • A group of U.S., European and Colombian NGOs has issued a report documenting an increase in "extrajudicial executions" – murders of civilian non-combatants – committed directly by Colombia’s armed forces. The Colombian military’s share of these killings was quite low between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, when paramilitary groups were responsible for the majority. (AP / Reuters)
  • The New York Times published an editorial Monday advising congressional Democrats that this is not the time to approve a free-trade deal with Colombia.

    Only Colombia’s deal should be delayed. President Álvaro Uribe and his government have not done enough to bring to justice the paramilitary thugs — and their political backers — responsible for widespread human rights violations. Colombia is eager for the trade deal, and it has made some progress on human rights. But more is needed and withholding ratification can still be used as a lever to change Mr. Uribe’s behavior.

    The column enraged the Colombian government; a press officer in the Washington embassy accused the Times of being "cynical", "inhumane" and "hypocritical."

    Meanwhile Sen. Hillary Clinton, whose husband’s signature "achievements" in Latin America were NAFTA and Plan Colombia, surprisingly echoed the New York Times’ line in a Bloomberg News interview.

    "Colombia has a lot of problems that need to be addressed," Clinton said. "I want to see more explicit commitments and actions by the government to dealing with these ongoing violent actions that are often traced to people allied with the government."

  • Colombian opposition Senator Gustavo Petro, one of Colombia’s most dogged investigators of paramilitary influence on politics, will be in Washington next week. Petro will accept the Institute for Policy Studies’ Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award on Wednesday.
  • We still haven’t yet seen the Bush administration’s long-promised aid package for Mexico, which may still be presented to Congress at any moment now. Media interest in "Plan Mexico" and drug policy has increased, though. Laura Carlsen of CIP’s Americas Program in Mexico City (formerly the International Relations Center Americas Program) had a good quote in Saturday’s Washington Post, and you can see or read me talking about Mexico on Dan Rather Reports (just press play, it’s the first story) and in a Q&A that Newsweek.com published this week.
Oct 11

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has a famous tendency to fly into a rage when people ask too many probing questions about his past.

Perhaps the best-known example occurred during the 2002 presidential campaign, when Uribe stormed out of an interview with Newsweek reporter Joe Contreras.

Let’s not talk further. I see that you have come here to smear my political career. … I refuse to accept that you foreign correspondents come here to ask me these kinds of questions and repeat slanders made against me.

Or this 1994 interview with Simon Strong, author of Whitewash: Pablo Escobar and the Cocaine Wars, recounted by Gerardo Reyes of El Nuevo Herald.

Uribe reacted with visible anger to the reporter’s questions about his tenure as director of Colombia’s Civil Aeronautics agency [Colombia’s version of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, during the early 1980s] and his political support for Senator William Vélez, one of Escobar’s allies.

“This short-statured man jumped from his chair, furious, crossed the room between the waiters who were preparing for lunch, climbed the stairs, and did not stop until he was amid his bodyguards…” the reporter writes.

From there, wrote Strong, Uribe yelled several times, with rage, “I am honest.”

“I had not made any suggestion to the contrary,” Strong explained.

Following some other questions, the author adds, Uribe became even angrier, and with his hands jabbing at the reporter’s face demanded that he take back what he was saying.

At that point, Strong decided to suspend the interview.

Earlier this year, when Colombian opposition Senator Gustavo Petro announced his intention to investigate alleged links between President Uribe’s associates and paramilitary groups, Uribe called Sen. Petro, a former M-19 guerrilla, a terrorist in a business suit. Then during his early May visit to Washington, Uribe went after Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco at a dinner attended by several U.S. senators and congresspeople. “‘You’re biased to the guerrillas and everyone in Colombia thinks that,’ Mr. Uribe lectured, according to a number of people at the session,” the Wall Street Journal reported at the time.

In the past week or so, however, we have witnessed at least three new presidential outbursts.

  • Last week, Colombia’s media published excerpts from a book by Virginia Vallejo, a former newscaster who was drug lord Pablo Escobar’s girlfriend. The book indicated that Escobar knew the young Uribe. Bizarrely, the president chose to defend himself by lashing out at Gonzalo Guillén, a Colombian citizen who is a longtime correspondent for El Nuevo Herald, the sister newspaper of The Miami Herald. Guillén published an unflattering biography of Uribe earlier this year. “Behind this woman is Gonzalo Guillén, who has dedicated his journalistic career to slander and lies,” Uribe told a Bogotá radio program.Guillén, who said he had not even read Vallejo’s book, was forced to leave Colombia Saturday after receiving about two dozen threats.
  • Early this week, Uribe revealed that he had received a letter from an imprisoned mid-level paramilitary leader. The letter named one of the Supreme Court’s most effective investigators of the “para-politics” scandal. The paramilitary leader alleged that this investigator tried to induce him to testify that President Uribe had ordered him to kill another paramilitary leader in 2003. Though the charge sounded ridiculous on its face, President Uribe called the investigator directly, and made public calls for an investigation into the Supreme Court’s actions. The resulting war of words between the President and the Supreme Court has escalated all week.
  • Then on a radio call-in show on Tuesday, Uribe demanded that the hosts locate and contact Daniel Coronell, a columnist for Semana magazine and director of the Noticias Uno cable television program. Coronell, who has spent most of the past two years outside of Colombia because of threats, was just awarded the country’s Simón Bolívar journalism prize (Colombia’s version of a Pulitzer). In a column on Sunday, Coronell explored some of the alleged links between Uribe and Pablo Escobar mentioned in Vallejo’s book.Uribe shocked listeners of “La FM” radio on Tuesday, as he and Coronell engaged in a ferocious live verbal battle. “The only thing you do is shield yourself in your rights as a journalist,” Uribe told Coronell, “so that in my case you can wound me with lies. Enough of this cynicism behind your quote-unquote ‘journalistic ethics.’”

One wouldn’t expect going berserk to be a good strategy for deflecting allegations that, if proven, would shake the Uribe presidency to its foundations. For the most part, though, this strategy has worked. Though they fail to dispel all questions and allegations, Uribe’s fits have at least sent the message that “if you’re likely to send the president into public paroxysms of rage, you’d better have your evidence well in order.”

In fact, there isn’t enough evidence to prove conclusively that Álvaro Uribe spent at least some of his political career as an associate of narcotraffickers and paramilitaries. It’s all circumstantial, hearsay, or similarly flimsy.

But these allegations are a frequent topic of conversation all over Colombia, and throughout Colombia policy-making circles in the United States.

What exactly are Uribe’s detractors claiming? Here are some of the principal allegations. All of these remain unproven in any court of law, and denied – often quite passionately denied – by President Uribe himself.

  • Family ties: According to Time magazine, President Uribe’s father, Alberto Uribe, “was a friend of Fabio Ochoa, the late patriarch of the city’s notorious drug cartel (the two shared a love of horses).” (Ochoa and Uribe’s mother were cousins.) In a much-circulated 1985 photograph, President Uribe’s brother Santiago can be seen partying with Ochoa’s son.
  • Aerocivil: In 1980, a 27-year-old Álvaro Uribe was named to head the Colombian government agency in charge of civilian aviation, the analogue to the FAA in the United States. The agency director who preceded Uribe, who had sought to close airstrips used by narcotraffickers, was killed after twenty days in office. During Uribe’s tenure, according to Newsweek reporter Joe Contreras, “Well-informed sources say that a record number of pilot’s licenses and airstrip construction permits were issued by the civil-aviation authority, … a period when drug trafficking was on the rise.”A 2002 book that Contreras co-authored with Colombian journalist Fernando Garavito notes: “One year after Uribe Vélez left his post, the National Drugs Council [Colombian 'drug czar' office], presided by the justice minister, Rodrigo Lara Bonilla, ordered Aerocivil ‘to suspend narcotraffickers’ flights’ and indicated that in the past this agency had suffered from a passive and negligent attitude.”

Continue reading »

Oct 10

Historic cocaine prices: This is what a long-term trend looks like.

Investors’ Business Daily (circulation 210,708) called me out in an editorial last week, apparently for having the gall to question Bush administration claims that they’ve “turned a corner” in the drug war.

At the Center for International Policy’s Colombia Program, analyst Adam Isacson argued that the progress wasn’t real because new drug lords always replace the old: “My fear is, even if Mexico is quite successful at taking down the Sinaloa, Gulf and Tijuana cartels, something is going to replace them. That’s been the history of the drug war,” he told the L.A. Times.

Other groups, like the Center for Economic and Policy Research, the Washington Office on Latin America, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Drug Policy Alliance, all make the same defeatist claims about winning the war on drugs in the press and in studies.

Not surprisingly, many of these groups are funded by left-wing billionaire and Democratic Party influence George Soros, who’s made no secret of his opposition to the drug war. They form an unofficial network of NGOs that shape the news.

That’s a big reason why this victory is so muted in the press.

Apparently, had it not been for the work of nefarious, Soros-backed groups like CIP, the U.S. media would have spent last week celebrating the drug-war equivalent of D-Day. (The blog of the White House Drug Czar’s office linked to this piece, calling it a “great editorial.”)

Two points here, one minor, one major.

The minor point: The Open Society Institute, founded by George Soros, has supported CIP’s work monitoring military aid to Latin America. OSI funding supports the revamped website that I’ve been going on about lately, as well as two recent reports (PDF and PDF) on military assistance to the region. However, OSI has not supported any of CIP’s drug-policy work, nor our Colombia work. Our opinions and analyses of U.S. drug policy’s effectiveness are not products of OSI funding.

The major point: A periodical with a name like Investor’s Business Daily no doubt intends to guide investors’ decisions about what to do with their money. Surely, then, the editors of IBD are familiar with short-term hiccups and long-term trends. The U.S. stock market and U.S. housing prices have their ups and downs, for instance, but over the course of decades both have outperformed almost any other investment category.

Similarly, the street price of U.S. cocaine has had its ups and downs since measurements were first attempted in the early 1980s. But the overall trend has been downward, inexorably downward, as a failing U.S. approach to drugs helped make the stuff more plentiful.

When stock prices fell in the early 2000s, did the Investor’s Business Daily decide that a tipping point had been reached, and that it was time to abandon the stock market? When the real estate bubble burst last year, did the IBD conclude that a fatal corner had been turned, and that the U.S. housing market would never recover?

Of course not. Why, then, would the editors of IBD be convinced that a short-term spike in cocaine prices – similar to others measured in the past, and apparently due to a change in Mexican government tactics – indicates a “light at the end of the tunnel” in the drug war?

If the Investor’s Business Daily can’t tell a short-term spike from a long-term trend, can we trust its investment advice?

Oct 09

Here, from several Colombian non-governmental organizations, is a disturbing update about worsening security conditions along the Colombia-Ecuador border. The original Spanish can be read here.

Colombia-Ecuador Border Working Group

Situation of Risk at the Southern Border

Due to the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Colombia’s border departments with Ecuador (Nariño and Putumayo), the Borders Group, made up of national and international organizations, expresses its concern about repeated violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

During the past year the civilian population of the Colombia-Ecuador border has been affected by acts of violence, manifested in their utilization as “shields for attacks against military targets or to protect, facilitate or impede military operations” (No. 10 of the Guiding Principles for Internal Displacement).

The worsening of the humanitarian situation has been denounced by the Nariño departmental government, the Catholic Church through the bishops of the Colombia-Ecuador border zone, different social and community organizations of Nariño and Putumayo, national and local non-governmental organizations, and the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office [Defensoría del Pueblo] through its early-warning system, risk reports and defensorial hearings.

Nonetheless, in recent months the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Nariño and Putumayo departments has been marked by a series of actions that generate a situaition of persistent risk for communities.

In Nariño:

  1. From August 23 to 26, the county of San Lorenzo in Ecuador’s Esmeraldas province registered the arrival of approximately 1,700 people of Colombian origin, originating from communities along the Mira, Mataje and Nulpe rivers of Tumaco municipality, Nariño department. Simultaneously, the departmental government reported the movement of approximately 6,000 people from these communities toward the areas known as Vallenato, La Guayacana and El Azúcar, in the rural zone of Tumaco municipality. These people moved due to presumed pressures from illegal armed groups, with the supposed interest of impeding forced eradication operations against illicit crops. This situation was attended by the Ecuadorian and Colombian governments, civil-society organizations and the international community, seeking to mitigate the complex humanitarian consequences. On August 26, 2007, delegates of the Colombian government and some members of the local communities signed an accord for their return to their lands. So far there has been no known compliance with point 3 of the accord signed by the government delegates and the communities, which specifically concerns the re-starting of negotiations with the “mobilization of southwestern Colombia” [to agree on eradication and government assistance], begun in Nariño department in May 2006.
  2. Threats from illegal armed groups persist against community leaders who returned to their places of origin in Nariño.
  3. Pressures from illegal armed groups persist against the civilian population residing in ten hamlets along the Pasto-Tumaco highway in Nariño department.
  4. Since September 18 there has been combat between the army and the FARC-EP guerrillas during military operations launched by the security forces in the community of Inda Sabaleta, in the rural zone of Tumaco municipality in Nariño department. These hostilities forced the communities of Pilbizita, Sabaleta, Bajo Inda and La Victoria to displace to the Inda Sabaleta Educational Institution in the community of the same name, which is about 25 minutes by road from the town center of Llorente. On Friday, September 21 1,018 people had been displaced, out of 1,172 who live in the Awá indigenous reservation in Inda Sabaleta. Of these, 488 are minors, who remain concentrated in the educational institution. There is a risk that the populations of other reservations like Gran Rosario and Inda Guacaray may be displaced for the same reason.

In Putumayo: Continue reading »

Oct 08

Alfredo Rangel, an El Tiempo columnist, former Defense Ministry official, and director of the Security and Democracy Foundation, a Bogotá think-tank, is a firm supporter of President Álvaro Uribe’s security policies. Though he sometimes criticizes aspects of those policies, nobody would ever accuse Rangel of being a starry-eyed peacenik. But he is a pragmatist.

Which is why the column he published yesterday on the FARC prisoner-exchange dialogue process is particularly worth reading. Here is a translation.

Sunday, October 7, 2007
The “immovables” of the exchange negotiations
Alfredo Rangel
El Tiempo (Colombia)

Due to a few “immovable” issues, tomorrow’s meeting in Caracas [between FARC representatives and Hugo Chávez] has been postponed. In fact, the agenda is being filled to bursting with “immovables” – the word being used to describe the humanitarian accord conditions on which both sides have announced that they will make no concessions. This is normal: in the run-up to a negotiation, each side raises the stakes. In the end, each one of these “immovables” will move in some sense – as long as it is not seen as a concession to the other side, but as a contribution to the success of President Chávez’s humanitarian mediation. Let’s look at the possible scenarios for some of these “immovables.”

Safe-conducts. This is a minor procedural issue. It should not be an obstacle. The FARC negotiators will arrive in Caracas anyway, but the Colombian government should make a goodwill gesture and give them safe-conducts. It already did so with the ELN to facilitate peace dialogues. And if hundreds of guerrillas are to be let out of jail, why not give a pair of safe-conducts to those who will negotiate this release?

“Simón,” “Sonia” and the three U.S. citizens. The Colombian government should not be opposed to the United States doing the same thing that it already did, and will do to free its own citizens: let guerrillas out of jail. The argument that it will weaken extradition and promote the kidnapping of foreigners is not valid: the exchange in Colombia will also weaken the justice system and promote the kidnapping of Colombians. Pragmatically, Colombia should accept any agreement between the United States and the FARC. It would be best, in fact, to remove this issue from the table in Caracas. It is Phase II of the exchange. It will be afterward, subsequent and not simultaneous. The United States has shown that it is not rigid about negotiating justice: the mafioso Lucky Luciano was let out of jail in the United States after helping U.S. troops invade Sicily during World War II; the freedom of the hostages in Iran was negotiated.

The possibility of FARC prisoners re-joining the guerrillas. The Colombian government is right to demand that freed guerrillas not return to arms. That is why each individual’s release from jail should be conditioned on his or her signature of a commitment to that effect. Freed guerrillas who fear for their security after making this commitment should have their relocation facilitated, to another country that has expressed support for the process. That the commitment be individual – by the guerrilla himself – and not of the organization – the FARC – would facilitate an accord. Continue reading »

Oct 05
  • A big aid request for Mexico, which nearly everyone is referring to as “Plan Mexico,” is due to be rolled out at any moment. The details of the package are still not clear, though the most recent media reports seem to indicate a billion dollars (or more) over two (or more) years. (Washington PostReutersDallas Morning News)
  • The White House “drug czar,” John Walters, held a press conference this week to prepare the ground politically for the big Mexico aid request. Walters announced findings of a DEA intelligence study (which we discussed two weeks ago) indicating that, thanks entirely to Mexican anti-cartel efforts, the price of cocaine in many U.S. cities has spiked up this year. At his press conference and in materials [PDF] sent to the U.S. Congress, Walters neglected to mention a less convenient DEA finding: that seven years into Plan Colombia, cocaine production is unchanged in Colombia and other countries where the drug is made. USA Today caught it, though:

    [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.

  • Robert Gates paid his first visit to Latin America since succeeding Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense. In Colombia, the army made clear for him its opinion about ongoing efforts to negotiate FARC hostages’ release, treating Gates to a showy demonstration of a mock hostage rescue operation. Gates handled it prudently, though, the Associated Press reported.

    While Gates said he was greatly impressed by the exercise, he later said he would not readily advise using such an operation to rescue the three Americans currently being held by Colombian leftist rebels.

    “The first objective is the safe return of the hostages, and so I think that any attempt at a rescue would have to be very, very carefully thought through,” Gates told reporters later while flying from Colombia to Chile. “It’s a very iffy proposition. Everything has to be just right.”

    Gates’ visit to Colombia and other countries was rather low-profile, with little advance notice or press work done beforehand. Many speculated that he had come to talk to countries considered to be candidates to host a U.S. anti-drug base after 2009, when Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa says he will not renew the ten-year U.S. lease on an anti-drug “Cooperative Security Location” in Manta. Gates insisted, though, that he did not plan to bring up the subject during his visit.

  • An unnamed defense official accompanying Gates made one of the most open acknowledgements that an ominous policy shift is underway: the U.S. government is beginning explicitly to embrace a greater law enforcement role for Latin America’s armed forces. Reuters reports:

    The Pentagon sees crime, drugs and street gangs as Latin America’s top security problems and it wants the region’s soldiers, rather than police, to tackle them.

    The U.S. military is generally prohibited from law enforcement at home but for Latin America, where many countries have had periods of military dictatorship, U.S. officials view the armed forces as the only institutions capable of responding to crises and combating organized crime.

    “There was a line of thinking in the 1980s and the early 1990s that we needed to divorce militaries from police functions and try to push that within the hemisphere because the model that we have, of course, we believe is the model that everybody should have,” said a U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

  • If you care about citizen control over military assistance programs, read this required report to Congress that the Bush administration issued in July. It will make your hair stand on end. In the name of giving the president “flexibility,” it argues forcefully for fewer controls over U.S. military aid (like human rights conditions), and for reduced reporting to Congress and the public. We’ll post more about this soon.
  • We give our highest, utmost recommendation to read the WOLA-USOC-LAWG report on an August trip to Bucaramanga, Cali, Barranquilla, Medellín and Bogotá. Three of the country’s principal Colombia experts give a quick, readable but alarming summary of the troubling trends they discerned.
  • In Colombia’s Magdalena Medio region last week, authorities arrested several leaders of the Cimitarra Valley Campesino Association (ACVC), one of the region’s best-known non-governmental organizations, and have charged them with helping guerrillas. We are very distrubed by this news: while the ACVC is certainly known for its radical politics, it is absolutely not a guerrilla front. We fully associate ourselves with the words [PDF] of the widely respected Magdalena Medio Peace and Development Program (PDPMM).

    We want to make clear that the Cimitarra Valley Campesino Association, which among other has been freely critical of the PDPMM, has sought to defend campesino rights through legal channels. With the European Union and the United Nations it has carried out transparent human development activities. And its men have been serious workers for a political and negotiated solution to the conflict.

    We are worried by the political context of this arrest because the ACVC has been a great opponent, and a brave public and international opponent, of the paramilitaries. Their denunciations have angered the government and the security agencies.

  • After Bolivian President Evo Morales recommended that the UN’s headquarters be moved from New York, U.S. Ambassador to La Paz Philip Goldberg responded, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they also want to move Disneyland.” The Bolivian government didn’t think that was funny.
  • Speaking of Evo Morales: Charlie Roberts of the Washington-based Colombia Human Rights Committee is an incredibly skilled interpreter. And there he was last week translating for Morales on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” Stewart even poked gentle fun at Charlie on the next day’s show.
Oct 03

Search military training records

Late last week the State Department posted its latest report on U.S. training of foreign militaries, covering 2006. The Foreign Military Training Report is a very important resource for understanding the current state of the U.S. military relationship with the Western Hemisphere.

It tells us that last year the United States gave 13,426 training courses to 12,833 Latin American military and police personnel (including a handful of civilians with defense responsibilities). As in the past several years, well over half of those courses – 7,729 of them – were taught to Colombians. This is the lowest number of Colombian trainees since 2002.

Here’s a breakdown.

To see all countries, visit our “under construction” military aid database at http://justf.org/all_trainees_country.php. To see who was trained according to funding source, see http://justf.org/all_trainees_program.php.

We’ve added data from this year’s report to our online military-aid database, which represents a top-to-bottom overhaul of the joint “Just the Facts” military-aid monitoring effort, a project of CIP, the Latin America Working Group Education Fund and the Washington Office on Latin America. The “old” Just the Facts site is here; the new site – still an “alpha” version, very much under construction – is here.

To this new site, we have added all training course data from the Foreign Military Training Reports covering 1998, 1999, 2003 and 2006. (More years are coming.) Using the search form on the new site, we find that:

The following Colombian military units received the most training in 2006: Continue reading »

Oct 02

President Chávez with Colombian facilitator Sen. Piedad Córdoba.

There is about a week to go before a meeting in Caracas between the FARC, Hugo Chávez and who knows whom else (U.S. congresspeople? European officials? Colombian government representatives, even?). Events are moving quickly; if Colombia’s media offers any indication, the country is approaching them with a shred of hope and a large (and healthy) dose of skepticism about the guerrillas’ motives.

Some excerpts from the weekend:

Sunday September 30, 2007

Editorial: “The New York Marathon”

El Tiempo (Colombia)

Since taking the lid off this “Pandora’s box,” the international facilitation of a humanitarian accord with the FARC, Alvaro Uribe has been obliged to ride along with his own decisions. First, with the authorization given to Senator Piedad Córdoba with the most expanded powers ever granted in this area, according to the High Commissioner of Peace [lead government peace negotiator], Luis Carlos Restrepo. Later, with the showy entrance of Hugo Chávez onto the scene, including his public message to FARC leader, “Tirofijo,” on his weekly television program “Aló Presidente.” Then with the interest of French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and later with propositions from presidents Lula da Silva of Brazil and Rafael Correa of Ecuador, to play a role in the accord. Finally, there is the prospect that the U.S. Congress will send a bipartisan commission [to Caracas].

Beyond the good intentions that all involved surely have toward resolving the hostage drama, it is worthwhile to ask if such a diverse ensemble will be able to follow the same tune, or even play in the same orchestra.

…

The positive response by the relatives of the three U.S. contractors taken hostage by the FARC in 2003 is evidence that the Colombian president advanced a bit [toward supporting an accord]. The visit was also useful as a means to introduce Republican congresspeople to the subject. It presented a great risk that only Democrats, highly critical of Uribe in recent months, had been interested in the issue.

…

[I]t was important to Uribe that his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, understood [his opposition to a demilitarized zone] during the private meeting between the two in New York, and that he offered his public support for Uribe’s decision to deny a demilitarized zone, were the hostage negotiations to take place in Colombia. This, without a doubt, was the greatest success of Uribe’s three-day visit to New York [last week, to attend the UN General Assembly].

But beyond these specific points, this new period of international movement for a humanitarian exchange has yet to produce any concrete results. Instead, there are certain worrisome by-products. One is the political protagonism and level of international respect that the FARC has earned. It has done so without moving a finger and exactly after – what cruel irony – the massacre of the [eleven Valle del Cauca state legislators in June]. Another indirect result is how Hugo Chávez’s popularity in Colombia has surged; today he is seen as a friend and ally. But tomorrow? This all leads many to fear that Uribe will fall victim to the process he started. Or that his audacious games will end in an autogol [in soccer, kicking the ball into your own team’s net].

It is to be seen just what comes of the October 8 meeting between Hugo Chávez and FARC leader Raúl Reyes in Caracas. At this meeting, which may include a number of other actors – the French government, family members of the hostages, delegates from other governments in the region, as well as members of the U.S. Congress – it is almost certain that Reyes will once again raise the FARC demand for a demilitarized zone within Colombia. If this occurs, all of the efforts may return to the same dead point where they began, and the enormous international effort in support of the accord will be a new entry on the list of disappointments.

 

Sunday September 30, 2007

The FARC with New Oxygen?

Laura Gil

El Tiempo (Colombia) Continue reading »