Feb 28

It was ten years ago Wednesday that paramilitary hitmen murdered Jesús María Valle Jaramillo, one of Colombia’s most prominent human-rights defenders, in broad daylight in his Medellín office.

Here are translated excerpts from two essays about Valle posted to the website of the Popular Training Institute (IPC), a Medellín-based human rights organization.

Where he most worked to pursue his humanist ideas and carry out his defense of the weakest was in the Antioquia section of the Committee in Defense of Human Rights, which he joined in 1978, the year it was founded, and which he presided since 1987, when he replaced Héctor Abad Gómez, who was murdered on August 25th of that year.

From the Committee, Jesús María Valle was one of the first to warn of the terrible effects of paramilitarism in the department, above all in the rural zones, where the consequences of their armed actions were devastating: mass murders, tearing of the social fabric among the campesino communities, forced displacements, destruction of the local economy and deepening of poverty.

In all his letters to the Antioquia governor’s office, at that moment headed by Álvaro Uribe Vélez, now president of the republic, and to the military and police authorities, he expressed his concern about the constant killings of campesinos, who were accused of being guerrillas, members of their support networks, or sympathizers.

At the moment of his death, Valle Jaramillo served as president of what was then called the Medellín Human Rights Committee. It was from that post that he denounced how a group of men from the now-defunct Peasant Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU), commanded by Salvatore Mancuso and supported by troops from the Army’s Medellín-based 4th Brigade, carried out incursions in the towns of El Aro and La Granja in Ituango municipality in 1996 and 1997, causing the death of at least 19 farmworkers and the total destruction of both town centers.

In his denunciations he warned of the complicity of the general who then headed the Army’s 4th Brigade, Carlos Ospina Ovalle [who went on to be chief of the Colombian armed forces between 2003 and 2006], along with Mancuso’s men. This led the high military official to seek his prosecution for slander. Valle’s complaints were also directed at then-governor of Antioquia Álvaro Uribe Vélez and his principal minister [secretario de Gobierno], Pedro Juan Moreno (R.I.P.), who downplayed the situation in the municipality, as Valle said to a regional prosecutor in a February 6, 1998 sworn statement.

“In a timely manner, I asked Dr. Álvaro Uribe Vélez for protection. I did so as a councilman from Ituango municipality, and as
a member of the Human Rights Committee, but I was never heard. Until the El Aro massacre took place, where fourteen campesinos were murdered, some tortured and all houses in El Aro burned down,” his declaration reads.

Continue reading »

Feb 27

A year ago, the FARC were believed to be holding 25 civilians hostage to pressure for a prisoner exchange. Then, last June, 11 of them were murdered. In early January, one (baby “Emmanuel”) was discovered to have been in government custody since 2005. Two were released unilaterally in mid-January. And four more were released today.

Our thoughts are with the families of Luis Eladio Pérez, Gloria Polanco, Orlando Beltrán and Jorge Eduardo Gechem, who right now are being reunited with their loved ones for the first time in more than six years.

That leaves seven civilians among the FARC’s so-called “exchangeable” hostages, and thirty-three military and police personnel. Plus approximately 700 civilians whom the FARC are holding for ransom, as a brutal fundraising tactic.

For most of those who remain, the prospects of a prompt release are bleak. Here is an overview.

3 Colombian politicians

  • Names and dates of capture:
    • Oscar Tulio Lozano, former congressman from Caquetá, August 5, 2000
    • Alan Jara, former governor of Meta, July 15, 2001
    • Sigifredo López, former Valle del Cauca departmental legislator, April 11, 2002
  • Likelihood of being released unilaterally by the FARC: Moderate. Like those who have been released in January and February, these are regional politicians with low national and international profiles.
  • Likelihood of release through an eventual humanitarian accord, should one occur: High.
  • Captivity is a violation of international humanitarian law: Yes. Depriving non-combatants of liberty violates international humanitarian law.

Ingrid Betancourt, French-Colombian citizen, former senator and presidential candidate

  • Date of capture:February 23, 2002
  • Likelihood of being released unilaterally by the FARC: Low. As she is the most prominent of all FARC hostages, with a high international profile, the guerrillas are unlikely to release her without seeking to exact concessions.
  • Likelihood of release through an eventual humanitarian accord, should one occur: High.
  • Captivity is a violation of international humanitarian law: Yes. Depriving non-combatants of liberty violates international humanitarian law.

3 U.S. citizens, employees of defense contractor Northrop Grumman

  • Names and dates of capture: Marc Gonsalves, Thomas Howes, and Keith Stansell, February 13, 2003.
  • Likelihood of being released unilaterally by the FARC: Low. As they are U.S. citizens captured while carrying out a U.S.-funded counter-drug surveillance mission, the FARC is unlikely to release them without seeking to exact concessions. The recent convictions of two mid-level FARC figures extradited to the United States further decrease the already small likelihood of any guerrilla “goodwill gestures.”
  • Likelihood of release through an eventual humanitarian accord, should one occur: Moderate. Their release could be complicated by a FARC demand that the U.S. government release the two convicted mid-level FARC leaders in U.S. prisons (Ricardo Palmera, alias Simón Trinidad; and Nayibe Rojas, alias Sonia).
  • Captivity is a violation of international humanitarian law: Yes, as the three contractors are technically civilian non-combatants. Even if the FARC would seek to identify them as combatants, however, the three hostages are not being held under conditions that meet the standards set by the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Their captivity, therefore, still violates international humanitarian law.

33 Colombian soldiers and police

  • Names and dates of capture: See the list maintained on Wikipedia. Dates of capture are December 20, 1997; March 3, 1998; October 14, 1998; November 1, 1998; July 10, 1999; November 16, 1999; December 9, 1999; and July 4, 2007.
  • Likelihood of being released unilaterally by the FARC: Low.
  • Likelihood of release through an eventual humanitarian accord, should one occur: High.
  • Captivity is a violation of international humanitarian law: Yes, because they are not being held under conditions that meet the standards set by the Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War.

Approximately 700 people held for ransom

  • Source for this estimate: Fundación País Libre, a non-governmental organization that advocates for the rights of kidnap victims and their families.
  • Likelihood of being released unilaterally by the FARC: Low.
  • Likelihood of release through an eventual humanitarian accord, should one occur: Low.
  • Captivity is a violation of international humanitarian law: Yes. Depriving non-combatants of liberty violates international humanitarian law.
Feb 26

That’s me, third from left, with (to my right) Caquetá Congressman Luis Fernando Almario, on a July 2006 panel discussion in Colombia’s Congress. Almario was arrested yesterday in connection with the “para-politics” scandal.

I first met Alvaro Araújo in 2000, after he sent me an e-mail asking to meet the next time I visited Colombia. Over the next year or two, we had coffee or breakfast on three occasions and traded periodic e-mails.

He was a young congressman – only three years older than me – from a powerful political family in Cesar department, in Colombia’s Caribbean coast region. He was ambitious and deeply conservative (though at the same time a principal backer of ownership rights for gay couples in Colombia). Attracting foreign investment in Cesar’s mining industry seemed to be one of his main priorities. But he was quite articulate and seemed to have a genuine interest in policymaking.

We disagreed on almost everything politically, and ended up debating each other, at times heatedly, every time we met. The last time, if I remember right, was in late 2001 or early 2002. I recall him being perplexed by my lack of enthusiasm for presidential candidate Álvaro Uribe, whom Rep. Araújo was backing while running for the Senate.

Both candidates won, of course, and I sort of lost touch with Sen. Araújo after that. Nonetheless, I was personally disappointed when, in 2006, my acquaintance’s name came up as an alleged sponsor of paramilitary groups in his home department of Cesar. Araújo is accused of helping the AUC’s Northern Bloc, then headed by Rodrigo Tovar Pupo (”Jorge 40″), to raise funds and to influence elections. Araújo may have even conspired with paramilitaries to kidnap a political rival.

Alvaro Araújo has been in jail for a year now, and his court case is ongoing.

In July 2006, meanwhile, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion, held in Colombia’s Congress, on anti-drug policy. The panel was hosted by Luis Fernando Almario, a congressman from Caquetá, a department in southern Colombia overrun by guerrillas, paramilitaries, and the coca trade. Caquetá has been heavily fumigated with glyphosate since the mid-1990s, with little alternative-development investment to go along with it. This combination of policies has had litle discernible effect on the amount of coca grown in the department.

Congressman Almario understood why fumigation was failing in Caquetá, he said, based on his constant interactions with his constituents. He said that nearly everyone in the department is angry about being sprayed while getting so little help from Bogotá and Washington. He conveyed demands for new social investment so that legal economic alternatives can take root. It was Rep. Almario who told me about the U.S. Agency for International Development’s decision to cease future investment in Caquetá and elsewhere in southern Colombia, showing me a letter from Colombia’s presidency explaining the decision. I reported this revelation in a blog post, which helped generate a few news stories in 2006.

About a year later, though, some very disturbing allegations about Rep. Almario began to emerge. Opposition Senator Gustavo Petro alleged in mid-2007 that the congressman had frequent dealings with the FARC guerrillas, including a possible conspiratorial role in the guerrillas’ brutal December 2001 murder of a political rival, Rep. Diego Turbay. Then, in October 2007, Colombia’s Supreme Court opened an investigation of Almario for alleged collusion with paramilitaries in Caquetá.

Luis Fernando Almario was placed under arrest yesterday.

Continue reading »

Feb 22

Miguel Daza with President Bush last March.

  • Breathe a sigh of relief: a civilian judge in Cali found Col. Byron Carvajal and 14 soldiers guilty Monday for the May 2006 massacre – likely at the behest of narcotraffickers – of an entire Colombian police anti-drug unit. Sentencing for the Jamundí case (which we have discussed before) will take place in less than two weeks.
  • The National Security Archive released a series of declassified documents raising questions about the relationship between top paramilitary leaders, including Fidel Castaño, and the U.S.-Colombian Task Force charged with hunting down Pablo Escobar in the early 1990s.
  • Miguel Daza, a leading alternative-development proponent from the Magalena Medio region, was murdered in southern Bolívar, apparently by guerrillas, last weekend. Daza was among a group of alternative-development practitioners who met with President Bush during his Bogotá visit last year.
  • In his “Justice and Peace” testimony this week, top paramilitary leader Rodrigo Tovar (”Jorge 40″) told prosecutors that after a December 1998 FARC attack on paramilitary headquarters in southern Córdoba, then-AUC leader Carlos Castaño ordered his men to kill 1,000 people within fifteen days.
  • An article in the Colombian newsweekly Semana, meanwhile, contends that top paramilitary leaders are negotiating with U.S. authorities to turn themselves in and face narcotrafficking charges in the United States. Why is the dreaded extradition option suddenly appearing tolerable for these mass-murdering drug lords? Semana says that getting a reduced sentence in the United States would be better than being killed by an assassin in Colombia, or being sent to the International Criminal Court to face human-rights charges.
  • The Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris has released an updated second edition of its landmark 2006 study of the “para-politics” scandal. The prologue, written by the organization’s director León Valencia, is on the website of Semana.
  • To hold the Colombian government responsible for paramilitary abuses, writes Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza in today’s El Tiempo, is “a maneuver by lawyer’s collectives and Colombian and foreign NGOs specialized in this type of juridical warfare at the service of the FARC.” Mendoza, a writer and friend of Gabriel García Márquez who went from being a left-winger in his youth to an extreme rightist in his old age, was the Uribe government’s ambassador to Portugal between 2002 and 2007.
  • Several of President Álvaro Uribe’s prominent supporters are publicly disagreeing with the gathering effort to allow him to run for a third term in 2010. These include his first defense minister, Martha Lucía Ramírez; Senators Gina Parody and Adriana Gutiérrez; pro-Uribe Semana columnist María Isabel Rueda; and right-of-center intellectual Eduardo Posada Carbó.
  • A delegation from the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere spent this Presidents’ Day recess week in three countries with left-leaning governments: Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina.
  • At the U.S. Army’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), the successor to the School of the Americas, the position of “assistant commandant” is reserved for a foreign officer. Bolivia’s army had asked to have one of its officers be the next assistant commandant, and WHINSEC agreed. But this week, days before Col. Darío Leigue was to assume his post, the government of Evo Morales prohibited him from going. (Col. Leigue is a former commander of the U.S.-funded Bolivian military-police counter-drug “Joint Task Force” in the Chapare region.)
  • Human-rights defenders worldwide were outraged last July when fourteen Salvadorans participating in a protest for clean water rights were charged with “terrorism” under a recently passed law. The story has a happy ending this week, as the charges were reduced, then ultimately dropped.
  • The U.S. government, meanwhile, deported 20,000 Salvadorans back to El Salvador in 2007 alone, reports San Salvador’s El Diario de Hoy. That means 1 out of every 350 people living in El Salvador today was put there by U.S. authorities last year.
Feb 21

Persistent U.S.-supported aerial fumigations in northern Antioquia department, a few hours’ drive from Medellín, have spurred thousands of campesinos to leave their villages and protest in town centers of municipalities like Tarazá and Valdivia.

The Colombian government’s response, so far, has been to send the security forces – including the National Police’s feared anti-disturbance squad (ESMAD) – and to deny requests for meetings with high departmental officials.

The Medellín daily El Colombiano sent a correspondent to the area, and this morning’s report is very much worth a read. Here is a translation.

Cocaleros are not opposed to eradication, only glyphosate

  • The situation was calmer yesterday and the dialogues with authorities continued.
  • In Valdivia, farmworkers await more aid before returning to their farms.
  • In Tarazá they are still waiting for the governor to come and hear them.

By Paula López, special correspondent, Tarazá

“We’re not against the government. We know very well that the logic is to eradicate all of the illegal crops, but we want them to understand us: we aren’t opposed to eradication, what we oppose is that little plane that passes over us every so often, burning out our yuca plants, burning out our pastures, burning our our plaintain and corn plants.”

“Until two years ago, we made our living in the mines. We worked with a tub and a pick, scratching away at the earth to see what we might find, but we tired of that so we began to work as day laborers in the coca fields. Months ago we tired of that and we bought ourselves some cattle and went back to planting pasture and yuca. On November 20, the plane passed over, fumigating, and within two days the yuca plants’ leaves fell off and the pastures turned brown. We had to sell the cows for whatever price we could get, and once again we ended up with nothing.”

This story from an inhabitant of Oco Alto village is repeated over and over again in Tarazá. For four days, 1,500 campesinos have been occupying the municipality’s sports coliseum, asking the government to please listen to their needs.

Yesterday they had hoped to speak with Antioquia’s governor, Luis Alfredo Ramos, but he did not arrive. Their disappointment almost generated another disturbance, like those of Monday night and Tuesday morning, which left 35 people arrested, 15 of them charged with disorderly conduct.

Sickly yuca

When listening to the liders of the 1,500 mobilized people, their arguments sound as coherent as the logic of officials at all levels, who insist on continuing coca eradication.

“What we want is a productive project. I have wanted to plant cacao, but that is expensive and we don’t have anything to start out with. The thing is that our situation is so difficult that we are buying yuca at 1,200 pesos a kilo (about 60 cents), whether it looks healthy or sickly, and buying a single plantain for 500 pesos (about 25 cents). Who could imagine a campesino having to buy his plantains in town?” asked one of the leaders of Oco Medio village.

Continue reading »

Feb 20

Fidel Castro’s resignation was the subject of a flood of reporting in the U.S. media today. (On the other hand, notes ReadWriteWeb, the "blogosphere" and "social media" websites did a poor job of covering or analyzing the story.)

The general consensus seems to be:

  1. Cuba’s system is unlikely to change as a result. Passing the baton from Fidel to Raúl will be like the transition from Brezhnev to Andropov, or from Kim Il-Sung to Kim Jong-Il.
  2. This may be a good moment for reform-minded leaders within Cuba’s circles of power. Raúl is believed to favor greater openness in the economy and a bit more tolerance for dissent. The hard-liners are more identified with Fidel.
  3. The United States could use this transition as a "handle" to grab – an opportunity to re-evaluate its spectacularly failed effort to open Cuba by isolating it. But the Bush administration is highly unlikely to seize this opportunity.

Here is some of the best writing about the Castro resignation that appeared in the U.S. press. A fuller list of links to coverage is here. Kudos in particular to CIP alum Anya Landau French, whose piece in today’s Washington Post thoroughly takes apart the reigning U.S. policy toward Cuba.

The succession

U.S. policy

Continue reading »

Feb 19

There are now fifty-five Colombian national political figures – nearly all of them supporters of the current government – under investigation, on trial, or already found guilty of collaborating with paramilitary groups. This list, compiled by the Colombian think-tank INDEPAZ, is current as of right now.

    1. Caquetá Representative Luis Fernando Almario Rojas
      Under preliminary investigation.
    2. Former Sucre Governor and Ambassador to Chile Salvador Arana
      Fugitive from justice
    3. Cesar Senator Álvaro Araújo Castro
      Detained, currently on trial.
      Resigned post to avoid Supreme Court jurisdiction.
    4. Tolima Representative Pompilio Avendaño
      Under preliminary investigation.
    5. Caldas Representative Emilio Enrique Angel Barco
      Under preliminary investigation.
    6. Bolívar Senator Vicente Blel Saad
      Under formal investigation (indagatoria).
      Resigned post to avoid Supreme Court jurisdiction.
    7. Magdalena Representative Jorge Luis Caballero Caballero
      Detained, under formal investigation (indagatoria).
      Resigned post to avoid Supreme Court jurisdiction.
    8. Magdalena Representative Alfonso Campo Escobar
      Detained, pleaded guilty.
      Resigned post to avoid Supreme Court jurisdiction.
    9. Former Meta Governor Edilberto Castro Rendón
      Guilty verdict returned
    10. Atlántico Senator Jorge Castro Pacheco
      Under formal investigation (indagatoria).
      Resigned post to avoid Supreme Court jurisdiction.
    11. Cesar Representative Alfredo Cuello Baute
      Detained, under formal investigation (indagatoria).
      Resigned post to avoid Supreme Court jurisdiction.
    12. Córdoba Senator Miguel De la Espriella Burgos
      Detained, under formal investigation (indagatoria).
      Resigned post to avoid Supreme Court jurisdiction.
    13. Córdoba Representative Musa Besaile Fayad
      Under preliminary investigation.
    14. Sucre Representative Jairo Fernández Quessep
      Under preliminary investigation.
    15. Sucre Senator Álvaro García Romero
      Detained, currently on trial.
      Resigned post to avoid Supreme Court jurisdiction. Continue reading »
Feb 18

Here is a quick overview of the utterly depressing scandal that, for the time being at least, has knocked Hugo Chávez off of Colombia’s front pages.

On August 8, 2004, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe announced that his government would liquidate Carimagua, an enormous state-owned hacienda in Meta department, in Colombia’s eastern plains. 17,000 hectares (43,000 acres) of land, Uribe told reporters, would be distributed to 800 families who had been forced off their land by violence.

This giveaway alone would have increased by one-third the 54,500 hectares of land that the Uribe government has distributed to displaced families since 2002. (This total, however, hardly makes a dent in the 2.9 million hectares that, the Colombian government Comptroller’s Office estimates, have been stolen from forcibly displaced Colombians during the past twenty years.)

Three years passed, though, and nothing happened with Carimagua. Not a square inch of the land has been distributed.

The Colombian daily El Tiempo revealed why in a story published February 10. At some point, the Uribe government changed its mind about Carimagua quite radically. In July 2007, the newspaper revealed, Colombia’s Agriculture Ministry decided instead to make the 17,000 hectares available to large agribusiness companies, promising a fifty-year lease to the highest bidder. The displaced families, who had been waiting for years, were not told of this decision.

This revelation has shed an uncomfortable light on the Colombian government’s agriculture minister, Andrés Felipe Arias, an ultraconservative young politician who is so close to President Uribe that Colombian commentators frequently call him Uribito.” Arias – who is known more for campaigning against demilitarizing territory for talks with guerrillas than for any rural development policies – defended the decision to break his government’s promise to the displaced families by arguing that Carimagua is not appropriate for small-scale agriculture.

Arias argued that the 17,000 hectares are poor-quality land (a claim that other experts have since disputed), far from transportation (though along one of Colombia’s largest rivers, the Meta), and that “nothing can be done with only 11 hectares per family.”

In an El Tiempo column, analyst Cristián Valencia responded to that last point, recounting conversations with displaced families he encountered trying to scratch out a living by selling goods at busy Bogotá intersections.

Continue reading »

Feb 15

Here are the slides from a presentation I gave this afternoon for some visiting high-school students participating in Georgetown University’s Model UN program. This was sort of the basic talk – “this is the FARC, these are the paramilitaries, this is what a coca plant looks like.”

Thanks to slideshare.net, you can view these slides without having to listen to me yammering away alongside them. (The odd-looking picture on page 6 is actually the first frame of a brief video, which unfortunately doesn’t work in this format.)

Feb 14

On February 4, Colombia’s nationwide – and worldwide – public protests against the FARC guerrillas were wildly successful. Much of that success owed to organizers’ efforts to stay “on message” and avoid politicization, which they mostly did. This guaranteed the largest possible participation.

Now, victims of Colombia’s other armed groups want a day of their own. Led by the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes, they are calling for a national and worldwide day to reject Colombia’s paramilitary groups and those who aided them. They are planning to convene on March 6th.

These victims too deserve a massive turnout. Even a quick look at today’s news from Colombia reminds us that paramilitary power and impunity are still at crisis levels.

  • Yesterday, in the comfortable cell block housing a few dozen paramilitary leaders in the Itagüí prison outside Medellín, a surprise search yielded a 9mm pistol, a grenade, and US$6,000 in cash.
  • In his “Justice and Peace” testimony yesterday, paramilitary leader “Diego Vecino” spoke – without naming names – of his deep and broad support for leading politicians in the Montes de María region of Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
  • The OAS secretary general, José Miguel Insulza, recognized that new paramilitary groups – many of them resembling mafias more than pro-government militias – are forming throughout the country.
  • Meanwhile, new testimonies are emerging about the Colombian military’s involvement in a recent rash of “extrajudicial executions” – civilians detained and killed, with their bodies later presented as those of guerrillas killed in combat. This week, a former paramilitary fighter gave evidence about cadavers presented as guerrillas in Antioquia in 2002.

The victims of paramilitaries and state actors did not have an opportunity to express themselves on February 4th, and they deserve a moment of their own with similarly broad participation. The conflict’s victims need to know that their fellow citizens stand with them, regardless of who victimized them. In exchange, the protest’s organizers must do their utmost to avoid seeing their own event become politicized – to devolve into an anti-government rally or something similarly divisive.

This would all seem to be uncontroversial – why shouldn’t the March 6 event receive levels of support similar to what Colombia saw on February 4th? Colombia’s mainstream media appears to be supportive; editorials in the El Espectador newspaper and Cambio newsweekly have already offered endorsements of the March 6 effort, reminding readers that “the country’s rejection of paramilitary violence is overdue.”

Yet the March 6 protest has become controversial, sadly, because of the virulent opposition it has inspired from the Colombian government. The Uribe administration, which enthusiastically joined the February 4 protests against the FARC, is rejecting the March 6 anti-paramilitary protests in the strongest possible terms.

“I personally will not participate, as I did enthusiastically in the march against the FARC,” was the response of José Obdulio Gaviria, a presidential advisor considered to be President Uribe’s chief ideologist. “It will be difficult for Colombian society to participate in this type of event, when we just finished marching against the people who are convening it.”

Gaviria’s words are terribly unfortunate. Not only does a top Colombian government official reject the March 6 protests, he alleges that its organizers, the National Victims’ Movement, are indistinguishable from the FARC. This is the worst sort of slander, and the Colombian government must not let it stand.

Before the February 4 march, an editorial in Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo, excoriated doubters who worried that the anti-FARC protest would become politicized.

The positions of those who have sought to disqualify the march, calling it “Uribista,” are cynical and shameless. As though only the uribistas have the right to protest against the FARC’s kidnappings, or as though doing so were an act of pro-government politicking. This is a sectarian and frankly twisted way to politicize an initiative that originated cleanly and spontaneously from common citizens.

Similarly, the doubters – including the doubters in Colombia’s government – should not get a free pass this time.

To paraphrase El Tiempo: Those who seek to disqualify the March 6 protest, calling it “pro-FARC,” are also cynical and shameless. As though only the FARC has the right to protest against the paramilitaries’ thousands of unpunished, unclarified abuses, and the powerful people who helped them occur – or as though to do so were an anti-state act. This is a sectarian and frankly twisted way to politicize an initiative that originated cleanly and spontaneously from common citizens.

President Uribe must not let his top advisor’s dangerous and irresponsible words stand as the official de facto position of the Colombian government. Instead, the Colombian government should join in support of the March 6 event, in order to demonstrate to the world:

  • That it cares just as deeply about the tens of thousands of Colombians who fell victim to the paramilitaries and to state security forces;
  • That it supports efforts to end impunity for decades of horrific abuses, instead of seeking to deny them or sweep them under the rug; and
  • That it believes all armed groups’ abuses – whether in support ofor against the state – must be rejected equally.

Colombians, no matter how they feel about President Uribe, should participate in the March 6 event, standing with the victims and with those who are trying to uncover the truth and win a measure of justice. Colombians should send a message to their government’s more ideologically inclined officials – a message that should be common sense: it should be possible to call publicly for justice without being tarred as a guerrilla supporter.

Feb 05

My wife just had a birthday ending in “zero,” so we’re going to celebrate with a 5-day vacation in Costa Rica. I’ll have very little Internet access, so there will be no new posts to this blog until February 12th at the earliest. Hasta la próxima semana.

Feb 05

The 2009 foreign aid request kept me away from the mid-day FARC protest march. However, Paola Castro, a CIP associate working with our Central America Program, was there. Paola, who is Colombian-American, came back with a very positive impression of the event.

As she notes below, the Washington protestors were careful to stay “on message” – condemning the FARC’s horrific abuses without straying off into more politicized territory (such as supporting government officials, directing ire at Venezuela, or intimidating the peaceful opposition). This deserves praise and congratulations.

Paola writes:

As a Colombian-American citizen I feel really glad that the pro-peace and anti-FARC rally went well today in Washington D.C. Around eight hundred people came together in Freedom Plaza [15th and Pennsylvania Avenues], with Colombian flags and a variety of signs. Interestingly enough, none of the signs were pro-government or pro-Uribe as some people predicted.

Civil pressure is exactly what is needed to confront all illegal armed groups that still exist in Colombia in order to force them to stop the atrocities that day by day they continue to perpetrate in the country, affecting all levels of society. I am 25 years old, I was born almost 30 years after the conflict started, and just in the last two years I have seen that for the first time civil society in Colombia is waking up and it is ready to let their voices be heard. I really hope that in the rest of the world where these rallies took place, the spirit has been the same (apolitical, peaceful and well intentioned.)

She took these pictures:

Feb 05

The State Department has sent Congress its foreign aid request for 2009, along with updated 2007 and 2008 numbers. We have added all of this new data to the ever-growing aid database located at www.justf.org. Several links below point to pages on that site.

The State/Foreign Operations budget appropriation request provides about 75 percent of the military and police aid – and 85 percent of the total aid – that goes to Latin America and the Caribbean. The rest either goes through small programs that can give aid “on the fly” (Excess Defense Articles, “Food for Peace” and others) or, for some types of military aid, through the Defense budget.

The 2009 request calls for a sharp jump in aid to Latin America and the Caribbean. The hemisphere received a total of $1.75 billion from Foreign Operations budget programs in 2007; the request foresees that rising to $2.30 billion by 2009.

Combining this with estimates of aid from other sources, we calculate that total U.S. aid to Latin America and the Caribbean would rise from $2.12 billion in 2007 to $2.67 billion in 2009. Total military and police aid would rise from $943 million in 2007 (44.5%) to $1.226 billion in 2009 (45.9%).

Here is what that looks like graphically, since 1996.

(The economic-aid spike in 1999 was Hurricane Mitch aid. The military-aid spike in 2000 was Plan Colombia.)

Why would aid levels bump upward in 2008 and 2009? This chart makes it pretty clear:

See that big purple bulge in the middle in 2008 and 2009? That’s Mexico.

Along with the countries of Central America, Mexico would see a huge increase in aid – most of it military and police aid – under the proposed “Mérida Plan” aid package. If the Bush administration were to get what it asked for – both as a “supplemental” addition to the 2008 budget, and as part of the 2009 budget – aid to Mexico and Central America would more than double.

Here is a breakdown of aid to Mexico and Central America, first by country and then by type of aid. Look at that increase.

Continue reading »

Feb 04

The State Department’s website this week offers an opportunity to submit questions online to William Brownfield, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia. Answers will appear on Friday. Let’s not toss him softballs!

Meanwhile the State Department will hold a briefing at 3:00 today to present the Bush administration’s 2009 aid request. We’re already getting calls and emails about what this request might mean for Colombia and Latin America; the answer is that we just won’t know until those numbers are made public here, which should be at around 3:00, though we’ll keep checking back all day.

Feb 01

  • Wílber Varela, alias “Jabón” (”Soap”), appears to have been killed Wednesday by hitmen in the western Venezuelan town of Mérida. Varela was one of the last remaining leaders of the North Valle cartel, Colombia’s largest of the past few years. After the September capture of his arch-rival Diego Montoya, Varela was the most notorious of Colombia’s still-at-large drug lords.

His feared personal army, the Rastrojos, exerts much influence throughout Colombia’s Pacific Coast, and he was believed to be making inroads in and around Medellín. Along with other at-large narco-paramilitary figures like Vicente Castaño and the Mejía Múnera brothers, Varela was believed to have been one of the main sponsors of re-armed “emerging” paramilitary groups in Colombia. While not a victory for Colombian or Venezuelan law enforcement, the death of “Jabón” is likely to cause a significant shake-up in Colombia’s narco-underworld.

  • Colombian media outlets published the disturbing testimony of a sergeant whose unit killed civilians and presented them as guerrillas killed in combat, in order to reap rewards. Sergeant Alexánder Rodríguez of the 15th Mobile Brigade told Semana, “at the beginning of November Sergeant Ordóñes went around collecting 20,000 pesos ($10) per soldier, to pay for the pistol that he had planted on the person they had killed … Ordónez said to them: ‘if you want to give the money, good, if not, let’s leave it like that, but remember that it means five days off [for every guerrilla killed]…’” Sgt. Rodríguez’s order from the captain who commanded him, he told Caracol, “was to clean up. What each unit was doing was supposedly cleaning the town of people who were guerrilla collaborators.”

Three days after testifying to authorities, Semana reports, “the whistleblower was punished: a committee of generals headed by the Army commander, Mario Montoya, decided to retire him from active service; meanwhile Col. Santiago Herrera, who commanded the Brigade where the acts occurred [in Catatumbo, in northeastern Colombia], was transferred to Bogotá to take up duties as Montoya’s own official aide.”

  • Monday’s Los Angeles Times tells the story of one of thousands of Latin American nationals recruited by U.S. firms to serve as private security guards in Iraq. Peruvian citizen Gregorio Calixto was wounded in Iraq while employed by a U.S. contractor called Triple Canopy. “He lives on $492 in monthly disability checks provided through the Triple Canopy insurance. But he says he doesn’t know how long that’s going to last. Nor does he consider it sufficient: The injury has severely limited his prospects in a country where the maimed can often be found begging in the streets. He also says he is owed two months’ back pay.”
  • On the Colombia free-trade front, President Bush mentioned the accord in his SOTU speech Monday, warning Congressional Democrats that failing to ratify the agreement would “embolden the purveyors of false populism in our hemisphere.” Key Democratic leaders made clear that they think the FTA has to wait. House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) said passage of the FTA is “doubtful,” while Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana), who was a bit more enthusiastic about the FTA last year, said Wednesday that the accord should not be considered until the administration first expands a program that helps U.S. workers who lose their jobs because of foreign competition. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, put out an eight-page letter to U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab recommending delay of FTA approval until a series of conditions are met.
  • The 2009 foreign aid budget request will be issued next week. Watch this space on the State Department website to find out whether or not Latin America will be cut back once again – and whether the Bush administration will seek to undo the changes Congress made to this year’s Colombia aid package.