Apr 29

Last fall, I was part of a group that visited the Southern Command’s Joint Interagency Task Force that monitors suspected drug trafficking in Latin America and the Caribbean. We were shown a PowerPoint presentation that included maps showing the tracks of suspected drug-trafficking flights and boats. Officials denied our request for a copy of these maps.

These must not have been too secret, though, since they showed up yesterday in a presentation that Drug Czar John Walters gave to reporters at the State Department’s Foreign Press Center. Walters was arguing that Venezuela is now a key vector for cocaine trafficking between Colombia and Europe.

These and earlier slides indicate that U.S. radar images do not cover the eastern third of Venezuela, including the highly volatile Orinoco delta region. (Little cocaine moved that far east actually ends up in the United States.)

The map of suspect flights is nonetheless interesting, showing heavy traffic between Venezuela and both the Dominican Republic and Guatemala’s Petén region. Note the concentration of takeoffs from Venezuelan airstrips just across the border from Colombia’s department of Vichada. Venezuela clearly has a problem with control of its airspace.

Another story entirely is told by the monitoring of “go-fast” boats and other maritime drug trafficking – which accounts for a much higher portion of total drug trafficking. Here, the vast majority of suspect traffic originates from Colombia’s coasts.

Similar maps covering 2005 are in a long-ago post.

Apr 28

The Nukak Makú are an indigenous group of perhaps 600 nomadic hunter-gatherers who were first “contacted” by the outside world in 1988. Deep in the jungles of eastern Guaviare department, they have their own language and intricate set of customs. The men hunt monkeys and other prey with blowguns, the women weave intricate armbands and baskets. They have only a rudimentary knowledge of agriculture.

The Nukak somehow missed out on the Spanish conquest and all that came after it. This has meant no access to even the most basic technology – not even light bulbs or radios – and no knowledge of what the rest of Homo sapiens has gone through. (Imagine gazing upon the moon and not knowing that people had been there.)

On the other hand, it also meant no enslavement, no theft of their lands, and no involvement in the frequent armed conflicts that have marked Colombia’s history. But their luck is quickly running out.

Increased contact with the outside world has meant death by unfamiliar diseases for perhaps half the Nukak since the early 1990s. It has meant murder at the hands of landowners on whose property Nukak hunters have unwittingly strayed. It has meant coca growers encroaching on the land that the Colombian government “reserved” for the Nukak, cutting down old-growth rainforest in order to grow the lucrative crop used to make cocaine.

And now, perhaps inevitably, it has meant combat between the military and the FARC guerrillas in the territory where the Nukak Makú have ranged for generations. Many of the remaining Nukak, a peaceful people, have fled.

Now about sixty are in a settlement about ten minutes’ drive outside San José del Guaviare, a patch of land called Aguabonita that is the property of the mayor’s office. A shifting, leaderless group of displaced Nukak (they go in and out of the jungle, and in and out of the town of San José) has been in Aguabonita since 2006.

Journalist Juan Forero, then writing for the New York Times, visited the site in 2006, shortly after their arrival. He compared them to a second group of Nukak that had previously arrived at a settlement in Barrancón, to the east of San José del Guaviare.

What everyone agrees on is that the Nukak of Aguabonita must avoid the fate of the Nukak who came here in 2003 and now live in a clearing called Barrancón.

Now in their fourth year in the area, the Nukak in Barrancón lead listless lives, lolling in their hammocks awaiting food from the state. They do not work, nor have they learned Spanish. They also have no plans to return to the forest.

That, unfortunately, is a fair description of what I saw in Aguabonita in April 2008.

After driving through an expanse of cattle ranches, one arrives at a stand of trees, which opens up into a clearing of perhaps an acre. The ground is well-worn dirt, and dust coats everything. The Nukak live in a cluster of six or seven open-sided thatch-roofed huts strung with hammocks, an arrangement similar to what they would have in the middle of the jungle.

In the huts, cooking fires are always burning; instead of set mealtimes, a Nukak eats small amounts all day long. As hunter-gatherers, they do not work if food stocks are sufficient; they spend much of the hot day reclining in hammocks. Donated food supplies – most bearing the seal of the Colombian Presidency’s “Social Action” office, some with the USAID logo – are stacked overhead, on planks laid just below each hut’s roof. Despite the food deliveries, I saw at least two children with the light hair and swollen bellies typical of severe malnutrition.

(This basket, I was told, holds aid items for which the Nukak have no use, like lentils, pasta and toothpaste.)

When they want something other than the donated food, Nukak go back into the jungle to hunt. Monkeys in particular are a preferred food. When a hunter kills a monkey carrying offspring, the baby monkey is kept as a pet. Several young monkeys were living alongside the Nukak at Aguabonita, some adopted by children on whose shoulders they inseparably sat. Monkey and child even eat from the same bowl.

Though it was hard to get definitive information from a few linguistically difficult conversations, I gathered that the violence the Nukak have suffered has been principally at the hands of guerrillas. As “Plan Patriota” and similar military offensives have brought periodic sweeps into increasingly remote parts of Guaviare, the FARC, fleeing frontal combat, has moved into the Nukak Makú reserve.

Continue reading »

Apr 24

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 Joaquín Paris Battalion based just outside San José 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 Barrancón, along the river to the east of San José 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 Joaquín 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 Joaquín 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 Barrancón is an occasional site of U.S. training missions. The National Police have a new headquarters in the middle of San José 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 Barrancón to patrol the Guaviare River. And the Counter-Narcotics Police fumigation base in San José 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 Mapiripán massacre continues to halt aid to the Joaquín 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 Joaquín 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

Continue reading »

Apr 21

(This is the first of a few posts of my visit to Guaviare last week. All photos posted here may be reproduced without permission, with credit given.)

From April 14 to 16, I paid a brief visit to San José del Guaviare, a small city in Colombia’s vast, empty southern plains. I was the guest of the town’s new mayor, Pedro Arenas, a young, reformist politician from a social-movement background who has visited us in Washington several times over the past ten years.

I had not visited San José, the capital of Colombia’s department (province) of Guaviare, since January 1998. That was my first of what is now nearly forty visits to Colombia. On that initial visit, I was part of a delegation of non-governmental organizations. Pedro Arenas, then the head of the Guaviare Youth Movement, a local social service and advocacy organization, organized our stay in Guaviare, arranging meetings with everyone from the governor, bishop and military authorities to the region’s peasant and indigenous leaders.

I had not been back to Guaviare in the intervening ten years, in part because Pedro Arenas, our main contact there, spent much of this period in Bogotá as a member of Colombia’s Congress. During those ten years, however, the United States was quite active in Guaviare.

In a vain effort to stem cultivation of coca, the plant used to make cocaine, U.S. spray planes blanketed about 500,000 acres of Guaviare with herbicides. U.S. funds paid for the training and equipping of new military units headquartered in the area, and supported a massive, years-long military offensive – known as “Plan Patriota” – in Guaviare and nearby departments. But the department was almost completely left out of the U.S. government’s far smaller efforts to help Colombia govern its territory and lift residents out of poverty. U.S. economic aid to Guaviare over the past decade, in all forms, has totaled less than $1 million.

After ten years, what has been the outcome of such an unbalanced approach? Is the department safer? Are its rural areas more secure? Are guerrillas and paramilitaries weaker? Has the drug trade been affected? Has the department’s overwhelming poverty eased at all? Have repeatedly fumigated coca-growing families found other ways to feed themselves? Is the department’s huge displaced population getting access to basic services and a dignified existence? Are the conflict’s thousands of local victims learning the truth about what happened to them and their loved ones, recovering stolen property, or receiving reparations? After ten years, has U.S. policy helped this lawless, stateless, violent zone move at all toward good governance?

The answers to some of these questions, I found, was yes. To others, however, the answer was a clear, resounding “no.” In general, the security situation was better, though gains were mainly concentrated in town centers. Coca cultivation was still widespread but reduced; most of those interviewed gave the credit to more frequent military operations on the ground, not fumigation from the air. Rural areas remain nearly as violent and ungoverned as they were ten years ago; though the once-absent military is now a frequent combatant, the rest of the state continues to be absent. The region’s huge population of displaced people and other poor residents are getting a modest amount of attention in the larger towns, mainly from programs that offer cash handouts. Meanwhile, efforts to help victims of some of the country’s worst violence are barely underway.

Looking across the Guaviare River at Meta department.
Guaviare’s recent history

The department of Guaviare is one of several that make up a vast California-sized region east and south of Colombia’s Andes mountains. Flat and hot, this zone of dusty savannahs and dense jungles, ribboned by muddy rivers that empty into the Orinoco and Amazon rivers, is home to only about 4 percent of Colombia’s population.

This is Colombia’s coca-growing heartland, an area so far from government presence that some smaller riverside towns lack access to the central government’s currency, relying instead on grams of crude coca paste as a unit of exchange. It has also been the historical rearguard of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia’s oldest and largest (9,000-15,000 members) guerrilla group.

Like much of Colombia’s southern plains, Guaviare was settled in the past few decades by cattlemen and coca growers, many of them displaced by violence elsewhere. As recently as the 1960s, this was wilderness, settled only by a few rugged frontiersmen and outlaws – as well as nomadic tribes of indigenous hunter-gatherers who had been there for perhaps thousands of years.

Within the past two generations, outsiders began to arrive in greater numbers, either pushed out by violence or drawn by the possibility of land for the taking – the property of any who wished to knock down jungle and carve out a life on the “agricultural frontier.”

Continue reading »

Apr 18

Here is a video featuring Pedro Arenas, the recently elected mayor of San José del Guaviare, Colombia (someone we’ve known for a long time). Here, the mayor gives a tour of a public housing project whose scale dwarfs anything else in this town of 40,000 people.

Begun back in 2004, the project is an unfinished semi-ruin because corrupt authorities made off with the construction funds. Pedro Arenas’ administration is now trying to get the building job finished.

Of course, there is no shortage of government contracts stalled by corruption in Colombia and Latin America (or, for that matter, in the United States). What makes this particular case outrageous, though, was that the intended beneficiaries were 168 of the thousands of internally displaced families who have arrived in San José del Guaviare over the past fifteen years.

Apr 17

Hello from the Atlanta airport. Regular posting will resume soon. In the meantime, enjoy this quick passenger’s-window view of downtown San José del Guaviare.

The capital of Guaviare department about 200 miles south of Bogotá, San José has about 40,000 people in the town center and 60,000 throughout the Connecticut-sized municipality (county) of the same name. The town has grown rapidly over the past 15 years or so, due to coca, cattle ranching, and massive displacement from more remote areas.

And this is what it looks like from out the window of a pickup truck:

Apr 17

(I’m writing from the Bogotá airport, where I’m on my way back to Washington. Expect some posts over the next few days about my visit earlier this week to San José del Guaviare, the town in southern Colombia where the U.S.-funded aerial fumigation program began 14 years ago.)

The Colombian newsweekly Semana has posted to its website a remarkable and troubling PowerPoint presentation (PDF version here, accompanying an article here) from Colombian Senator Armando Benedetti. Though Sen. Benedetti is a member of the pro-Uribe “La U” political party, he is one of a handful of uribista legislators who have criticized the government’s handling of efforts to demobilize, prosecute and reintegrate former paramilitaries while attending to their victims.

Two and a half years after these efforts – known as the “Justice and Peace process” – began, Sen. Benedetti’s slideshow paints a distressing picture. Here are a few current statistics that should make you very angry:

  • 125,368 Colombians have registered as victims of the paramilitaries, seeking reparations, restitution of stolen assets, or simply the truth about what happened to disappeared and murdered loved ones.
  • Though Colombia’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s office (Defensoría del Pueblo) is required by law to offer legal assistance to the victims, only 13 percent of registered victims have come to the ombudsman for assistance. Only 9 percent of victims are represented by a lawyer. The Defensoría has assigned a total of 68 ombusdmen to assist paramilitary victims; they are present in three cities. That means each ombusdman has a caseload of 815 of the victims who have requested help from the Defensoría.
  • 15 victims inscribed in the Justice and Peace process have been killed under circumstances believed to be related to their claims. 92 have reported receiving threats as a result of their claims.
  • The Justice and Peace unit of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía), which is handling 3,257 cases of armed-group leaders accused of serious crimes, has 23 prosecutors.
  • The Justice and Peace unit of the Attorney-General’s Office (Procuraduría), which is supposed to oversee the prosecutions, has 12 lawyers assigned to it.
  • Of the 3,257 paramilitary leaders accused of serious crimes in the “Justice and Peace process,” only 127 have even begun the process of giving voluntary confessions, and only 4 have completed the initial versión libre (”free confession”) stage. At this rate, Sen. Benedetti estimates, it will take 2,157 years to complete the “Justice and Peace” judicial process.
  • 9,467 victims have come forward to denounce that the paramilitaries forced their displacement from their homes. (The actual number of people displaced by the paramilitaries is far higher.) But so far, paramilitary leaders have confessed to only 48 cases of forced displacement.
  • 91 victims have come forward to denounce that they were subjected to sexual violence by the paramilitaries. (The actual number of such victims is far, far higher.) But so far, paramilitary leaders have confessed to only 2 acts of sexual violence.
  • The Defensoría has only 12 psychologists on hand to provide psycho-social support to the 125,368 victims registered so far.
  • The Justice and Peace law requires paramilitary leaders to turn over all illegally required assets to fund reparations to their victims. So far, only 12 of the 3,257 paramilitary leaders have so far turned in any goods. (The list of goods, which includes 70 pairs of used shoes and a 29-inch television in bad condition, can be found here [PDF] as part of a scanned document from the Procuraduría.) The total value of cash and goods turned over by paramilitary leaders so far totals US$470,685 – or US$3.75 per registered victim.
Apr 13

I haven’t had much time to walk around, but here are a few pictures of northern Bogotá.

(This morning)

(This morning)

(This morning)


Apr 12

Good morning from Bogotá. I spent the entire day yesterday in a conference / strategy meeting attended by more than 100 human-rights defenders from all over Colombia. Though it was fascinating and informative, it did have a few slow moments, during which I wrote the following about this week’s fight over the free-trade agreement.

Many Republican members of Congress from blue-collar, swing districts no doubt breathed a sigh of relief yesterday. Thanks to the House Democratic leadership’s unprecedented change in the “fast track” rules, these vulnerable legislators would not have to cast a potentially damaging vote for the Colombia Free Trade Agreement before the November elections.

While opinions about the FTA diverge sharply, few members of Congress could have been anxious to debate and vote on a controversial free-trade agreement in the midst of an election year (an election year in which the free trade issue has already arisen a few times), while the economy appears to be in recession. In this climate, even an FTA with Canada or Norway would have been in trouble – and Colombia is not Canada or Norway.

Now that “fast track” is stripped out, though, what happens next? This week’s move in Congress leaves some key questions unanswered.

1. Is the agreement dead, or is the intention to bring it up in 2009?

While the White House and House Republican leaders clearly believe that the FTA was “killed” on Thursday, that is not certain. Some speculate that the Congress might try to vote on the FTA between the November election and the January negotiation. A more likely scenario could be that it comes up in 2009, with a new (presumably Democratic-majority) Congress and a new (anyone’s guess which party) administration.

Bringing up the agreement in 2009 would give Colombia’s justice system more time to reach verdicts in dozens – we would prefer hundreds – of cases against union-members’ murderers. A year to take a big piece out of the impunity that labor leaders’ killers have traditionally enjoyed. If that progress takes place, one of the Democrats’ main objections to the FTA would be weakened, and even a President Obama or a President Clinton might argue that their expectations for change in Colombia have been met.

2. Will the agreement have to be re-negotiated?

Even if Colombia locks up dozens of unionist killers by next year, however, the agreement will still be very controversial. The U.S. labor community will continue to oppose the FTA as another example of an objectionable “model” or “template” that dates back to NAFTA and CAFTA. Others will remain concerned about other aspects of the treaty like its effect on smallholding agriculture in Colombia or the impact of higher intellectual property standards.
Continue reading »

Apr 10

Forgot to mention that I am on my way to Colombia for several days. This will make for less frequent posting, but hopefully for more interesting posts, between now and the end of next week.

Apr 10

We had a too-brief visit yesterday morning from Fr. Mauricio García, director of the Jesuit-run Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP), one of Colombia’s oldest and best-known “think tanks.” For many years CINEP has closely monitored Colombia’s conflict and political violence, including management of an extensive database of reported incidents of violence.

Fr. García came armed with a few charts based on this information that were so illustrative of conflict trends that we asked permission to scan and share them. The images below are available as a single PDF here.

This chart shows the frequency of combat incidents that CINEP has registered since 1990, broken down by who initiated the incident.

The chart indicates that combat frequency peaked during 2001-2002, then declined steadily after Álvaro Uribe’s arrival in office. However, by CINEP’s measure this decline only brought the intensity of the fighting back to levels seen in the late 1990s, not exactly a golden age of peace and security for Colombia. And CINEP’s data appears to show a sharp increase in government-FARC fighting in 2007.

It is interesting to note the low incidence of paramilitary combat episodes. That is mainly because the paramilitaries rarely confronted guerrillas (and much less government forces) on the battlefield; their preferred method has been to attack civilians who live in guerrilla-controlled areas.

These and similar violations of international humanitarian law are documented in the next chart, which ends in 2006.

Here, a sharp decline in alleged paramilitary violations (yellow) – returning to mid-1990s levels – occurred after the 2003-2006 demobilizations of paramilitary groups. This, unfortunately, has been accompanied by a sharp rise in alleged violations committed directly by the government security forces (blue). This owes both to an increased frequency of government operations, and a very troubling increase in the army’s practice of “extrajudicial executions”: killing civilians out of combat and later presenting them as guerrillas killed in combat.

The decline in alleged FARC violations (orange) is largely due to the reduction in guerrilla kidnappings since 2002.

The following chart shows the number of Colombian municipalities (counties) that saw combat or international humanitarian law violations in each year. Colombia has about 1,100 municipalities.

Continue reading »

Apr 09

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) has just announced that she will take the unprecedented step of stripping “fast track” language from the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. This would allow the House to postpone consideration of the FTA for months – or indefinitely.

AP reports:

Pelosi said she will bring a procedural change to the House floor on Thursday that would remove the timetable under which Congress would have had to take up trade bills within 90 legislative days after they are received from the White House.

“The president took action” in submitting the Colombia free trade agreement to Congress on Tuesday, she said. “I will take mine tomorrow.”

Pelosi’s statement is here.

A January story from Reuters reporter Doug Palmer explained that the House Rules Committee has the prerogative to remove fast-track authority, but that doing so sets a precedent that may affect future trade treaties.

Now with the Doha round of world trade talks edging toward a possible conclusion, the fight between the White House and Democratic-controlled Congress over the Colombia deal threatens to unravel the inner workings of fast track.

On the surface, the law requires both houses of Congress to approve or reject a trade deal within 90 days of receiving it from the White House and without making any changes.

But ultimately, parliamentary experts say, fast track is a congressional “rule” for considering trade deals. Lawmakers can vote to change the procedures if they want or even exclude a certain trade agreement from fast track protection.

“The parts that deal with procedures in the House and the Senate remain exercises of the rule making power and subject to change by further rule making,” said a congressional expert on House legislative procedures.

So, if Bush submits the Colombia agreement to Congress over the objections of senior Democrats, it is possible lawmakers could create a new rule releasing themselves from the obligation of having to consider the pact.


In the long run that could be worse for U.S. trade policy than an outright rejection of the Colombia trade pact. It would destroy fast track as a procedure for getting trade deals through Congress, said R.K. “Judge” Morris, president of the Global Business Dialogue, a trade advocacy group.

“Once you have demonstrated that the law isn’t a law, in the sense that it can’t be tested by the courts and you can’t enforce it, then it loses value,” Morris said.

Apr 08

Here is an interactive Google Map of the Colombian military and police units approved for receipt of U.S. aid as of July 31, 2007. The data comes from a recent State Department memo (PDF) and the map was put together by CIP Associate Abigail Poe.

Click the images to view the map and list of units in each municipality.

Apr 07

As he sent the Colombia Free Trade Agreement to Congress this morning, President Bush painted a picture of the Colombian government’s human-rights efforts that sounded nothing sort of miraculous.

In discussions about the Colombia free trade agreement, some members of Congress have raised concerns about the conditions in Colombia. President Uribe has addressed these issues. He’s addressed violence by demobilizing tens of thousands of paramilitary figures and fighters. He’s addressed attacks on trade unionists by stepping up funding for prosecutions, establishing an independent prosecutors unit, and creating a special program that protects labor activists. He’s made clear that the economic benefits the agreement brings to Colombia would strengthen the fight against drugs and terror, by creating a more hopeful alternative for the people of Colombia.

If this isn’t enough to earn America’s support, what is? President Uribe has done everything asked of him.

This is a terribly partial portrayal, ignoring some huge concerns in order to portray Colombia’s rather ugly human-rights situation in the best possible light. While Colombia has taken some initial steps on crucial human rights issues, what remains to be done is huge, and the political will to do it is uncertain.

The Latin America Working Group Education Fund reminds us of this with a newly released, well-researched, balanced memo about Colombia’s human rights situation. Entitled “So Far to Go: Human Rights in Colombia” (PDF), the 17-page document adds a badly needed dose of perspective. No recent document produced by any group provides a similar synthesis of the very serious issues that Colombia is confronting, or failing to confront.

“So Far to Go” is a necessary accompaniment to the partial version of events one reads in the U.S. and Colombian governments’ celebratory statements. Below is an overview from LAWGEF Executive Director Lisa Haugaard.

A new report [PDF] by the Latin America Working Group Education Fund shows that on a variety of indicators, human rights problems in Colombia persist and in some cases are intensifying.  “So Far to Go: Human Rights in Colombia,” citing reliable nongovernmental, U.S. State Department, UN and OAS sources, reveals that extrajudicial executions of civilians by the Colombian armed forces appear to be on the increase, guerrilla violence continues, and paramilitaries, far from being completely disarmed, continue to threaten, intimidate and kill the civilian population, including human rights defenders and trade unionists.  The report shows, for example, that:

  • Colombia’s major human rights groups documented 955 extrajudicial killings allegedly committed by the Colombian armed forces between July 2002 and June 2007, compared with 577 over the previous five-year period, a 65 percent increase. The Colombian Commission of Jurists documents 13 cases in the first month of 2008. These cases, which are deliberate rather than cases of civilians caught in the crossfire, typically involve groups of soldiers detaining a civilian, who is seen by witnesses, and who later turns up dead, dressed in guerrilla clothing and claimed by the army as killed in combat.
  • From the start of the ceasefire agreement between the Colombian government and paramilitary forces in December 2002 until June 30, 2007, the Colombian Commission of Jurists documents at least 3,530 killings and disappearances by the paramilitaries (outside of combat). The guerrillas (FARC and ELN), who are not “demobilized,” and who have not signed a ceasefire agreement with the government, were responsible for 1,805 killings and disappearances of civilians during nearly the same time period (July 2002 through June 2007). Paramilitaries in a period of ceasefire and demobilization killed and disappeared nearly twice the number of civilians as the guerrillas who were still in active combat.
  • According to the government’s National Commission for Reparations and Reconciliation, paramilitary groups have killed at least 15 victims participating in the process and over 200 have received death threats. (“Nueva rebelion de los ex ‘paras’ profundiza rezagos en reparacion,” El Tiempo, 25 de julio de 2007)
  • “Although kidnapping, both for ransom and for political reasons, continued to diminish, it remained a serious problem. According to the Presidential Program for Human Rights, there were 289 kidnappings during the first eight months of the year, compared with 476 in the same period in 2006. The government’s National Fund for the Defense of Personal Liberty (Fondolibertad) reported 393 kidnappings for extortion during the first nine months of the year.” (State Department 2007 human rights report) The majority of kidnappings were carried out by common criminals and guerrilla groups.  Kidnap victims continued to be held for years in deplorable conditions. The release of a handful of high-profile kidnap victims provided one of the few rays of hope recently for kidnap victims’ families.
  • CODHES, the primary nongovernmental group tracking displacement, estimated that 305,966 people were displaced in 2007, a 27 percent increase from 2006.
Apr 07

The business suits worn by FARC leaders in this 2000 picture were put to the torch shortly afterward, says Jan Egeland (fourth from left).

I spent the day at Beloit College in Wisconsin on Saturday, where I spoke on a panel whose star attraction was Jan Egeland, until recently the United Nations’ coordinator for humanitarian affairs.

Before that, from 2000 to 2002, the Norwegian diplomat was Kofi Annan’s special representative for Colombia’s ongoing peace talks with guerrilla groups. That position put Egeland in more frequent contact with FARC and ELN leaders – including “Manuel Marulanda,” “Mono Jojoy” and “Gabino” – than nearly any other foreign citizen has ever had.

Egeland told a story from those years that I had never heard before; it appears in his newly published memoir, and he discussed it several days ago on “Democracy Now.”

He recalled the month-long tour of Europe that he organized for FARC and government negotiators at the beginning of 2000. Six guerrilla leaders, dressed in business suits instead of camouflage, went to Norway, Sweden, Spain, France and the Vatican. They were forced to share close quarters, and many meals, with Colombian business and government representatives. They hosted a parade of European politicians of all ideologies who explained to them that the Cold War was over and armed struggle made no sense.

As they went from city to city, the FARC leaders made public statements that sounded ever more moderate, conciliatory, and supportive of peace.

(Today, three of the six FARC leaders who took that trip to Europe are no longer with the organization. Two – FARC Secretariat members Raúl Reyes and Iván Ríos – were killed in March. The third – Simón Trinidad – was captured in Ecuador and is now serving a sixty-year sentence in a U.S. prison.)

Then, Egeland explains, the six FARC negotiators returned to the demilitarized zone that was granted to them at the time, where they faced Marulanda, Jojoy and other senior guerrilla leaders.

“The people went back, I think, pretty converted. They met their old comrades there, and they were asked to put all their clothing, all their belongings from Europe in a pile, and they—it was torched to avoid tracking devices. And then they were made to retort [renounce] all the conciliatory statements of Scandinavia.”

That’s right – they made them burn their business suits. And then, to recant any moderate sentiments they had expressed.

I found that story to be discouragingly instructive as we watch France’s audacious, last-ditch efforts to save FARC hostage Ingrid Betancourt hit a brick wall of guerrilla intransigence. The French government sent a planeload of doctors from Paris last week to provide emergency medical care to Betancourt, who is believed to be near death from hepatitis and other ailments after six years in captivity.

But that plane and its medical team are still in Bogotá, as the FARC have not responded to entreaties to allow them to visit their hostage. (My guess is that the guerrillas – ever paranoid about military intelligence following any outside visitors to the site of captivity – will not grant this access.)

On Thursday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, believed to be the outside actor with the most fluid communications with the FARC, lamented that he could do nothing to help Betancourt. As if in answer to the appeal we posted on Tuesday, Chávez offered support to the French mission in a televised address, but added, “I can’t do anything more. I’ve lost all contact with the FARC.” If the FARC are not even talking to Chávez, they may truly not be talking to anyone on the outside right now.

But they are, unfortunately, issuing communiqués like the one released Friday by Rodrigo Granda, the group’s so-called “foreign minister,” along with mid-level commander Jesús Santrich. Disregarding world opinion and Betancourt’s physical condition, the guerrilla leaders angrily refuse to release her or any other hostages unilaterally.

“Only as a consequence of a prisoner exchange will those held captive in our camps be set free. It is not acceptable that more peace gestures be asked of us.”

The FARC leaders who ordered the bonfire of business attire eight years ago – and who, more recently, rebuked “Raul Reyes” by email for having agreed to a hostage-exchange discussion in Venezuela last October – are plainly in the driver’s seat. While we must not abandon hope, it is very hard to be optimistic about the fate of those hostages whose health is failing.

We remind the FARC once more that the martyrdom of Íngrid Betancourt or any of the other hostages will bring a wave of national and international rejection far greater than any that has came before. While the group may believe itself impervious to public opinion, this rejection will cement its international pariah status, marginalize all who consider it necessary to negotiate with them, and hand an enormous political victory to the hard line of their sworn enemy, Álvaro Uribe.

If there is any glimmer of hope at all right now for Betancourt, it can be gained by carefully parsing Granda and Santrich’s statement. While the FARC leaders rule out a hostage release without a prisoner exchange, they do not specify whether this exchange would require FARC and government representatives to meet in a demilitarized zone.

The statement does call for a demilitarized zone if any talks take place, but perhaps it leaves open the possibility of an exchange without talks. This is what the French government and freed hostage Luis Eladio Pérez have been proposing, and what President Uribe made possible with a prisoner-release decree issued a week and a half ago.

Or perhaps the FARC mean to say “no” to that possibility as well. Their statement could just be poorly written.