This post continues the narrative of my visit last week to the department of Guaviare, in southern Colombia. This section gives an overview of the current security situation in the zone, based on what I learned from visits to one military and two police installations, and numerous conversations with civilian government and civil-society leaders.
I found a situation that probably describes much of Colombia today. The military and police presence is far greater. Violence levels are down significantly in town centers and along main roads. The security strategy is having far less success, however, in penetrating rural areas, where violence and illegal activity are near all-time highs. Increasingly frequent military forays into rural zones have knocked the guerrillas off balance and eased coca eradication, but have failed either to do long-term damage to the FARC or to make progress toward a permanent, non-military government presence. The combat has also brought a new wave for forced displacement. Meanwhile, re-armed paramilitaries are doing an active drug-trafficking business (at times with the FARC), and facing very little challenge from the security forces.
The military and police presence
Ten years ago, the presence of Colombia’s security forces was very scarce in Guaviare. The only army unit in the entire department was the JoaquÃn Paris Battalion based just outside San JosÃ© del Guaviare’s town center. This roughly 400-man unit was a component of the 7th Brigade, which itself was based about 80 miles to the north in Villavicencio, Meta. Its members rarely left the confines of its base without a large display of force.
An Army Special Forces school had just been founded, with U.S. funding, in the town of BarrancÃ³n, along the river to the east of San JosÃ© del Guaviare’s town center. The Special Forces facility was one of the largest outlays of aid to the military, at a time when most U.S. security assistance went to Colombia’s police.
A poster, which at first glance appears to show President Uribe taking aim at a helicopter, commemorates the Special Forces School’s tenth anniversary.
In 1998, the presence of police was minimal throughout the department, though the National Police Counter-Narcotics Unit was already quite active at its U.S.-funded base adjacent to the airport, from which fumigation missions flew almost daily. The rest of town was considered so dangerous, however, that the U.S. contractor personnel who flew and maintained the planes were confined to the base. A small group of contractors also operated a counter-drug radar facility on the grounds of the JoaquÃn Paris Battalion’s base, tracking the skies from a separate area behind tight security.
There had been a joint military-police counter-narcotics base in Miraflores, a coca boomtown in Guaviare’s far south, until it was overrun by a guerrilla attack in August 1998. The security forces pulled out of town, and the base was not rebuilt. Nine of those taken prisoner in that attack – five corporals, two sergeants and two lieutenants – remain guerrilla captives today, nearly a decade later.
Beyond that, there was no security-force presence in Guaviare. The municipalities (counties) of Calamar, El Retorno and Miraflores (after July 1998) had no permanent military or police presence at all.
Today, thanks in small part to U.S. funding and in large part to the Colombian government’s hugely increased defense spending, Guaviare’s military and police presence is many times greater.
The army’s JoaquÃn Paris Battalion now shares its facility with an entire mobile brigade, the 22nd (likely close to 2,000 men in five battalions) and – for the time being at least – the second battalion of the army’s Counter-Narcotics Brigade (about 600 members), a unit formed entirely with U.S. funds in mid-2000. (Mobile units, as their name implies, move around often: the U.S. State Department’s list of units approved to receive U.S. aid as of July 31, 2007 [PDF] lists a different mobile brigade – the 7th – present in Guaviare. At that time, the 22nd was at the Larandia military base to the southwest of Guaviare.)
The destroyed base in Miraflores has been rebuilt and is heavily manned. The Special Forces school in BarrancÃ³n is an occasional site of U.S. training missions. The National Police have a new headquarters in the middle of San JosÃ© del Guaviare, and between 100 and 200 policemen stationed in each of the town centers of Guaviare’s other three municipalities. These police, however, rarely venture too deeply into the rural areas beyond the town limits.
With U.S. support, the Navy has set up an Advanced Riverine Post in BarrancÃ³n to patrol the Guaviare River. And the Counter-Narcotics Police fumigation base in San JosÃ© continues to host very frequent missions: in Guaviare alone, the planes sprayed 15,000 hectares last year.
Assistance from the United States has contributed modestly to this increased security-force presence. The impunity enjoyed by those who facilitated the 1997 MapiripÃ¡n massacre continues to halt aid to the JoaquÃn Paris Battalion; the so-called “Leahy Law” prohibits aid to military units worldwide whose members have evaded punishment for gross human rights violations. Only a trickle of assistance has gone to the presence of non-narcotics-related units of the Colombian National Police. A greater amount of U.S. assistance, however, supports the counter-narcotics police, the Army Counter-Narcotics Battalion, the 22nd Mobile Brigade, the Navy Riverine Post, and the Special Forces School. The fumigation base continues to have nearly all of its expenditures covered by the U.S. government, and the U.S.-manned radar site remains in operation. (While the U.S.-aided units appear to have superior equipment, members of the Counter-Narcotics Battalion lamented that they still lack access to the Internet.)
Nearing the army roadblock on the main road by the JoaquÃn Paris Battalion’s base.
All told – and this is a rough estimate, because officials were reluctant to reveal force strengths – the combined military and police presence in Guaviare has increased from less than 1,000 in 1998 to at least 5,000 today. A very conservative estimate, then, would be a fivefold increase in the government’s armed presence in the department. This would mean that there is now approximately one soldier or policeman for every 30 residents of Guaviare.
I heard few denunciations that these forces were committing serious abuses against the population, at least not directly. The principal complaints – and these were general, with few specifics given – included continued toleration of paramilitary activity, and frequent use of civilian facilities, particularly schools, to shelter military personnel on patrol in small villages. Colombian human-rights groups have documented cases in Guaviare of the nationwide problem of “extrajudicial executions” – killings of civilians who are later presented as guerrillas killed in combat – though when I asked about such cases, local leaders instead cited more recent allegations of a rash of killings just to the north in the department of Meta.
The guerrilla presence
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