May 30

  • The U.S. government has requested the extradition of about fifty leaders of the FARC – but apparently the guerrilla group’s new leader, Alfonso Cano, isn’t on the list.
  • Speaking of extradition, much praise goes to Human Rights Watch for leading the drive to press officials to allow Colombian prosecutors and investigators to access the extradited paramilitary leaders in U.S. jails. Last week the group appealed to Attorney-General Michael Mukasey and congressional leaders to take steps that would allow Colombian and U.S. prosecutors to hold the warlords accountable for their human rights crimes, not just their drug offenses.

In 2005, when it appeared that the very lenient “Justice and Peace” law would do little to dismantle paramilitary groups or help victims, HRW was a vocal proponent of extradition as a tool to get the paramilitaries to cooperate. That HRW opposed extradition now creates a seeming contradiction, which inspired attacks from the Colombian presidency and the Washington Post editorial page.

But there is no contradiction: HRW and most Colombian human-rights groups decided to give Colombia’s “Justice and Peace” process a chance back in 2006, after the country’s Constitutional Court toughened the Justice and Peace law significantly. Though the process was not going well, had it failed so completely that the extraditions were the only option? Were the extraditions a premature step inspired by concerns about what the paramilitary leaders might reveal? The only acceptable answer to that last question is a resounding “no” – but it will only be true if Colombian prosecutors and investigators get the access they require.

  • Speaking of the paramilitary leaders, perhaps the most remarkable story of the week is how the Colombian prison system mysteriously lost track of several of the paramilitary leaders’ laptop computers and cell phones on the day they were extradited. Now how will we ever learn about the paramilitaries’ ties to Venezuela?
  • In today’s El Tiempo, one of the best and most sobering analyses of Colombia’s conflict after Manuel Marulanda’s death comes from Rudolf Hommes, the finance minister in César Gaviria’s government, who generally supports the Uribe government’s security policies. Even if it turns out that Alfonso Cano is interested in peace negotiations, Hommes writes, “He cannot make a peace effort until he has consolidated his leadership, and it is possible that to consolidate it he will intensify the level of terrorist activity.”
  • Though Marulanda’s death lowered its media profile, many congratulations are due to Pedro Arenas, mayor of San José del Guaviare, and the numerous organizations who successfully carried out the peaceful “White Caravanmarch to El Retorno, Guaviare to press for the freedom of the FARC’s hostages.
  • The U.S. group Witness for Peace is organizing an ambitious delegation to Putumayo, Colombia on August 3-13, and has space for several participants. Read their delegation flyer here [PDF].
  • The House and Senate have both passed versions of the 2008 supplemental appropriations bill, which includes several hundred million dollars for Mexico and Central America. Both versions of the bill include human-rights conditions on the aid, similar to the conditions that have applied to Colombia aid for years. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) explained the rationale behind the conditions last week. But Mexican officials are now hinting that they might refuse the aid if it comes with human-rights conditions.
May 28

In the aftermath of the revelation that maximum FARC leader Manuel Marulanda died in late March, several questions arise.

  • How badly does Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos want to be Colombia’s next president? Colombia learned of Manuel Marulanda’s death not from an official government or guerrilla announcement, but from a few answers that Santos tossed off in an interview with Semana magazine reporter María Isabel Rueda.

This earned Santos a rare rebuke from President Álvaro Uribe: “I don’t agree with these kinds of things being revealed only to one communication medium.” Uribe was “the first one surprised Saturday morning with the announcement” by Santos, reported the Colombian daily El Espectador.

It is no secret that Santos, a veteran politician from Colombia’s most prominent newspaper-publishing family, hopes to run for president in 2010 – at least if President Uribe chooses not to seek a third term. Santos’s unorthodox announcement of Marulanda’s death must be viewed in this context.

  • On a related note, we can only imagine: what is the impact on the morale of the majority of FARC fighters who learned of their leader’s death not from their own organization, but from Juan Manuel Santos?
  • Did FARC leaders really approach the Colombian government with offers of surrender and freed hostages? That is what President Uribe said on Saturday. But there has been no news since. After the president’s public announcement, it is reasonable to fear that the FARC is taking extreme steps to root out any would-be deserters with responsibility for guarding hostages.
  • Is the FARC’s “political” faction ascendant? Many observers of the FARC argue that the group’s alleged internal divisions are overstated. Nonetheless, it is common to hear that the FARC has a “political” wing that is presumably more interested in ideology, concerned with public opinion, and open to peace talks, and a “military” wing that is more occupied with guns, money and territory at all costs.

For more than ten years – including the failed 1998-2002 peace process with the Colombian government – it appeared that the FARC’s hard-line “military” wing was dominant. The guerrillas’ military capabilities increased while their public support plummeted. Then, as the Colombian military’s own capabilities increased, the FARC have suffered more than five years of military reversals.

The “military” faction appears to be losing ground internally, if the new appointments to the guerrilla Secretariat are any indication. The FARC’s new maximum leader is Alfonso Cano, the group’s chief ideologue, long regarded as the head of the “political” faction. The new spot on the seven-person Secretariat has been taken by Pablo Catatumbo, another representative of the political line.

Is this an indication that the FARC is swinging in the moderates’ direction? Vice-Minister of Defense Sergio Jaramillo speculates in the Miami Herald that a greater presence of soft-liners may alienate the hard-liners and hasten the FARC’s fragmentation.

“Normally, they should have had a meeting of the central command to choose Marulanda’s successor,” Jaramillo said.

“That didn’t happen. There is no representation of the Southern and Eastern blocs — which are the hard core of the FARC and do most of the fighting — on the ruling secretariat. His own authority will be questioned. The election of Cano will widen the cracks in the FARC. We could see the fragmentation of the FARC.”

Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that the FARC video confirming Marulanda’s death and announcing Cano’s succession was recorded by guerrilla secretariat member Timoleón Jiménez, who is regarded as a representative of the FARC’s hard line.

  • Where was Jiménez’s announcement video recorded? The BBC, among others, notes that while Jiménez “signs off from ‘the mountains of Colombia,’ the vegetation observed indicates that the video seems to have been made in a warm climate zone.”
  • What does it say about Colombia’s conflict that so many of the guerrilla leaders die of old age? Marulanda joins FARC leaders Jacobo Arenas and Efraín Guzmán, as well as ELN leader Manuel Pérez, among those who lived lives of violence, only to meet non-violent deaths.
May 25

Alfonso Cano, the new leader of the FARC.

The FARC have just confirmed that Manuel Marulanda, who had led the guerrilla group since 1964, died of a heart attack at the end of March.

What does this mean for the conflict in Colombia? Though the crystal ball is hazy, three scenarios appear to be most likely. I offer my best guess – a gut reaction, based on having followed Colombia’s conflict for more than ten years – about the probability of each scenario actually taking place.

1. Disintegration (25% probability). Call this the “Shining Path” scenario: after the group loses its founder, it disintegrates. Discipline, command and ideological direction largely disappear with the maximum leader.

This scenario is unlikely for several reasons. Marulanda is one of many FARC leaders whose involvement in the group goes back to the 1960s or 1970s. The FARC’s rigid hierarchical structure, with apparent lines of succession and highly visible second-tier leaders, is unlike that of the Shining Path under Abimael Guzmán. Meanwhile, it is far from clear whether Marulanda himself had been actively involved in running the FARC in recent years – he may have been convalescing for some time, leaving most command duties up to other leaders.

2. Greater cohesion and increased military action (35% probability). For the FARC, Marulanda’s latter years have resembled Cuba during Fidel Castro’s last years in office, or China awaiting Mao’s death in the mid-1970s. While a new generation awaited its turn to lead, the aging founder continued to hold ultimate decision-making power, refusing to change course – and perhaps losing touch with reality – while his creation stagnated.

If Marulanda’s chosen successor, Alfonso Cano, is actually able to command the remaining top FARC leaders – a big “if” – the FARC could become more dangerous. If the group’s decision-making process becomes less hidebound and sluggish, it may pose more of a threat on the battlefield. If, for instance, Cano urges the group to attack vulnerable military targets more aggressively, or (as the group’s chief idologist) puts more emphasis on radical indoctrination of FARC fighters, thus making them more willing to risk their lives in military actions, the conflict could intensify.

It will also be interesting to see whether Cano, who is thought to lead the more moderate, “political” faction of the FARC, takes steps to improve the guerrillas’ image among poor Colombians. For years, the FARC has appeared to believe that drug money and military capabilities could somehow substitute for hearts and minds. Will Cano seek to reverse this by reducing the guerrillas’ international humanitarian-law violations, releasing hostages and being more open to political negotiations with the government? We can hope so, but it’s possible even the FARC leadership itself doesn’t know the answer.

3. Partial fragmentation (40% probability). With Marulanda gone, a power struggle could begin within the next tier of the FARC’s leadership. There may be purges and schisms as moderates and hard-liners vie for control of the group.

In such an internal power struggle, the hard-liners – such as Eastern Bloc leader “Mono Jojoy,” the FARC’s de facto military leader – would likely emerge triumphant. They are the leaders whose units are wealthiest from the drug trade, and as a result larger and better-armed. The group’s smaller, less hard-line units might wither away, leaving behind a hard-line, drug-fueled military rump.

Like bandits and drug cartels that came before, this rump would be easier for Colombia’s military to defeat within the next five to ten years. While this would not mean the end of violence in Colombia’s poor, ungoverned rural areas, it would probably mean the end of the FARC as a generator of that violence.

May 24

Here is the important part of María Isabel Rueda’s interview with Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos in tomorrow’s edition of Semana magazine. Here, Santos says that paramount FARC leader “Manuel Marulanda Vélez” (alias “Tirofijo,” or “Sureshot”) died in late March.

Is it true? Your guess is as good as mine.

María Isabel Rueda: And where is “Tirofijo“?
Juan Manuel Santos: He must be in hell.

M.I.R.: In which hell?
J.M.S: The one where dead criminals go.

M.I.R.: Where “Tirofijo” is going…
J.M.S.: The information we have is that he is already gone.

M.I.R.: What do you mean, “Tirofijo” died?
J.M.S.: That’s what a source who has never failed us tells us.

M.I.R.:Tirofijo” is dead?
J.M.S.: That is the latest information we have and that we are corroborating.

M.I.R.: Can I title this interview, “‘Tirofijo’ is dead”?
J.M.S.: The risk is yours.

M.I.R.: And when did he die?
J.M.S.: The intelligence tells us that it was March 26th of this year.

M.I.R.: And how did he die?
J.M.S.: We don’t know. During those dates there were three strong bombardments where “Tirofijo” was thought to have been. The guerrillas say it was a heart attack. We have no proof for the one or the other.

M.I.R.: And what other information do you have about his death?
J.M.S.: So far we only have those data.

M.I.R.: And do you know who is going to replace him?
J.M.S.: Everything indicates that it is Alfonso Cano [FARC secretariat member, head of the group's Western Bloc, a one-time college professor believed to be the guerrillas' chief ideologue].

May 23

At dinnertime this evening, I had just lit the grill when the phone started buzzing in my pocket. Two calls in a row from U.S. reporters.

How strange to be standing in my backyard, barbecue tongs in hand, answering questions about a criminal investigation of several colleagues and acquaintances. (I suppose, though, that there are many people here in Washington to whom this sort of thing happens all the time.)

Only a little while before, Colombian Prosecutor-General Mario Iguarán had announced that several Colombian politicians and peace facilitators, as well as a few citizens of Ecuador, Venezuela and the United States, were being formally investigated for ties to the FARC. The allegations are based on information culled from laptop computers and other media recovered at the site in Ecuador where, on March 1, Colombia’s army killed FARC leader Raúl Reyes.

While several of the names are unfamiliar, Prosecutor Iguarán’s list of those under investigation includes people who are well known for their efforts to convince the FARC to participate in negotiations. Because of their work, this weblog has interviewed or discussed some of them.

Those under investigation include:

  • Liberal Party Senator Piedad Córdoba,
  • Democratic Pole Party Congressman Wilson Borja,
  • Democratic Pole Party Congresswoman Gloria Inés Ramírez,
  • U.S. development consultant Jim Jones,
  • Colombian politician Álvaro Leyva,
  • Carlos Lozano, editor of the Colombian Communist Party newspaper Voz,
  • Telesur reporter William Parra,
  • Columnist Lázaro Viveros,
  • Liliana Patricia Obando, director of an NGO called Frunceagro [edit 5/27: the NGO is Fensuagro, the National Federation of Agricultural Farming Unions],
  • Venezuelan politician Amílkar Figueroa,
  • Ecuadorian politician María Augusta Calle, and
  • Iván Larrea, brother of Ecuador’s interior minister.

Beyond expressing relief that I’ve never written the FARC any e-mails, I found it hard to offer any useful observations in this evening’s phone conversations. (As evidenced here.) There is too much that we don’t know, particularly about what the computer files say, and what possible criminal charges these individuals might end up facing.

But we can speculate, which is still a useful exercise because it shows how complicated this issue is. Let’s start by asking: What, in the end, might these people be charged with?

  • Unauthorized contact with an armed group? If that is indeed a criminal offense in Colombia, they are all guilty, as is anyone else who has e-mailed, called or visited the FARC without express prior authorization from the Colombian government. If a law against such contacts exists, however, I have never seen it enforced before.
  • Offering material support, like weapons, money or protection? In the case of those under investigation whom I know personally, I highly doubt it. All of them are repulsed by Colombia’s violence and alarmed by the conflict’s degradation. I cannot imagine them doing anything that would add to the killing. (According to El Tiempo, though, the Venezuelan individual – whom I don’t know – may have been a go-between in the FARC’s efforts to get weapons from Caracas.)
  • Offering advice? Perhaps advice was offered, and this is where it gets tricky. Whether advice constituted support for the FARC depends on what kind of advice it was.

Tactical or strategic advice? This is unlikely – the list includes no military masterminds who would have much to teach the FARC about guerrilla warfare.

Political advice? Again, perhaps – but there are two kinds of political advice in question here, one malign and one benign.

  • Political advice intended to help the FARC achieve power, including local power, or to enter into power-sharing alliances? If the advice is found to fit in this category, those who offered it are in some trouble. This is the sort of support that many of the “para-politicians” are accused of providing. (Though of course many of them are accused of far more serious crimes like conspiring to kill or intimidate opponents, or to steal elections.)
  • Political advice to move the FARC’s thinking in a less militaristic, more flexible, more peace-friendly direction? Let’s assume the goal of a communication with the FARC is to encourage them to free hostages, be more open to negotiations, or simply to stop violating international humanitarian law. Clearly, one strong way to make the case is to convince the FARC that it is in their own self-interest to do so. That essentially means offering political advice.

Continue reading »

May 22

(Note as of 11:30 PM: the amendment passed by a party-line vote of 220-189.)

The House of Representatives meets today to debate the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 5658). There will be debate about an amendment [PDF] that would require the Pentagon to make public, upon request, the names of Latin American military and police personnel who “graduate” from the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), the successor to the U.S. Army School of the Americas.

The amendment is being offered by Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), Sanford Bishop (D-Georgia) and Joe Sestak (D-Pennsylvania). There will be 20 minutes of debate.

Knowing the names of graduates would seem to be a basic ingredient for effective oversight of the WHINSEC, an institution that has long been controversial because of the very poor human rights records of many of its graduates. Freedom of Information Act requests for graduates’ names used to be approved routinely, which allowed the grassroots group School of the Americas Watch to construct a database of graduates.

Since 2006, however, these requests have been turned down – or, more insultingly, met with pages and pages of blacked-out names.

We are hearing reports that WHINSEC is defending this sudden opacity – and opposing the McGovern-Bishop-Sestak amendment – by arguing that groups like Colombia’s FARC could use this information to target Colombian military and police officers and their families.

This is a very poor argument for denying such basic information, for a few strong reasons.

1. The FARC doesn’t need a WHINSEC document to get the names of Colombian military officers. Those above the rank of major are easily obtained – these tend to be the commanders of battalions, brigades and other units. To get names of majors and captains (who head battalions, companies and similar units) might require the guerrillas to do a bit more research in local areas, but it is hard to believe that a FARC unit would not know the names of the key authorities at the nearest military or police facility.

Even more quickly, the FARC can simply get a comprehensive directory or database access by infiltrating or corrupting someone in the Defense Ministry, the Fiscalía, the Procuraduria, the Defensoría, the Interior Ministry or a similar agency. Colombia’s military weathered a big scandal last year about a female FARC member who infiltrated her way to the highest ranks of the military. There are likely other “infiltrados” with ready access to lists of Colombian officers.

2. The FARC, as well as other Colombian narcotrafficking organizations that target Colombian security forces, have been around for decades. In all that time, we’ve never heard of either using U.S. trainee lists to select targets.

3. If successful in the case of WHINSEC, this argument can be abused to roll back transparency on all sorts of military programs (recipient unit lists, arms-sale data, priority zones for U.S. assistance). Monitoring the impact of U.S. assistance – especially the human-rights impact – could become nearly impossible.

May 21

On Sunday, Nelly Ávila (alias “Karina”) the head of the FARC’s once-powerful 47th Front, surrendered to authorities in southeastern Antioquia department. She appeared exhausted, underfed and thoroughly defeated, and called on other FARC members to join her in deserting the guerrilla group.

Her capture has triggered another round of articles in the media speculating that the FARC are edging ever closer to a military defeat. Most conclude that while actual defeat remains virtually impossible, the group is being driven out of key areas and may be fragmenting as units in different areas experience difficulty communicating with each other.

In the past twelve months, I count eight Colombian successes against FARC leaders at or above the level of front commander. (Let me know if any are missing.) Analyzing those events geographically shows a few things about the state of the FARC, discussed after the map below.

Actions against major FARC leaders since 2007

1. May 18, 2008: “Karina” (Nelly Ávila Moreno), head of the 47th Front, deserts.
2. March 7, 2008: FARC Secretariat member “Iván Ríos” is killed by his own chief of security.
3. March 1, 2008: FARC Secretariat member “Raúl Reyes” is killed about a mile inside Ecuador.
4. October 25, 2007: “Martin Caballero,” head of the 37th Front and a key member of the Caribbean Bloc, is killed.
5. February 26, 2008: “Martin Sombra,” one of the FARC’s oldest members and the “jailer” of many hostages, is captured.
6. September 1, 2007: “Negro Acacio,” head of the cocaine-producing 16th Front, is killed.
7. June 2007: “J.J.,” head of the Manuel Cepeda Vargas Urban Front, is killed.
8. July 15, 2007: Carlos Antonio Losada, a former FARC negotiator and high-ranking member of the Eastern Bloc, is probably wounded in an attack during which Colombian forces recover his computer.

  1. Units that were already weak are being hit hardest. The FARC’s regional blocs in northern Colombia have long been smaller than those it maintains in the south and east of the country. Blocs in the central coffee-growing region, the Magdalena Medio region, Antioquia department and the Caribbean have fewer members, operate in more densely populated areas, and have had to contend for more than twenty years with paramilitary groups, which originated in this part of the country.

Zones like southern Antioquia and northern Caldas – where “Karina” surrendered and where FARC Secretariat member Iván Ríos was killed by his own men in March – have been inhospitable to the FARC for a long time. For years they have been instead considered areas of strong paramilitary influence, particularly of blocs controlled by the recently extradited “Don Berna” and “Macaco.”

With added military pressure in these zones, it is no wonder that Karina’s view of the FARC’s condition is so dire. It is far from clear, though, whether FARC units elsewhere are in similarly bad shape.

  1. The FARC’s strongest units have suffered fewer reversals. The FARC’s Eastern and Southern Blocs (and to a lesser extent, its Western Bloc) are far larger and wealthier than those that have suffered the strongest blows. They operate in much more remote and unpopulated areas, including triple-canopy jungles, and they profit enormously from the coca economy and control of drug-trafficking routes. Their region is considered the guerrillas’ historical “rearguard” zone.

Continue reading »

May 20

Page 48 of a 2005 report [PDF] from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime features a remarkable table, reproduced to the right of this paragraph. (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

For each department (province) of Colombia with coca or opium poppy cultivation, the table offers an estimate of how much international donors were planning to spend on alternative development programs between 1999 and 2007.

Between 1999 and 2006, the UNODC tells us [PDF, page 97], the United States funded the aerial herbicide fumigation of 135,265 hectares (334,247 acres) of territory in Guaviare department. This made Guaviare the third-most sprayed of Colombia’s 32 departments.

But when it comes to alternative-development aid, Guaviare is in 21st place on the table at right, with only US$500,000 in assistance between 1999 and 2007. That’s about US$3.50 for every hectare sprayed, one of the lowest proportions in the country.

This all stick, no carrot approach is barely changing. Except for some so far very limited counter-insurgency economic-aid programs discussed below, Guaviare has seen a host of military and counter-narcotics operations, but very little investment in governance.

Unless this changes quickly, it will be a recipe for frustration. U.S. and Colombian government money spent on counter-narcotics and anti-guerrilla offensives will continue to be money wasted.

Colombian government programs

While U.S. assistance in Guaviare continues to be minuscule, some aid to the department’s citizens has begun to flow through the Colombian government’s own budget, particularly that of the Presidency’s powerful “Social Action” agency. While visiting Guaviare in mid-April, I heard principally about three initiatives.

  • Forest-Warden Families (Familias Guardabosques). Under this program, whose duration is only three years, selected families receive about US$265 per month simply to keep their land free of illegal crops. In exchange, the families must participate in training programs, and some get assistance starting sustainable productive projects.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has not supported this program, which critics have argued is an assistentialist, “money for nothing” effort that leaves behind little new capacity for long-term development. Its value as a counter-insurgency effort is likely greater, as it integrates rural citizens into a paid network of people in frequent contact with state representatives, with a strong incentive to report guerrilla activity on the lands they are charged with protecting from deforestation.

The Forest-Warden Families program has mostly ended in Guaviare, after aiding about 1,000 families and 1,000 individuals. Most with whom I discussed the program in Guaviare expressed doubt about its long-term impact.

  • Families in Action (Familias en Acción). U.S. officials have expressed support for this program, a centerpiece of the Uribe government’s social investment strategy. Like the Forest-Warden Families program, Families in Action provides conditional cash subsidies. In this case, poor families with children are paid a monthly stipend to keep them in school (or, if they are below school age, to ensure that they get regular medical check-ups).

This program covers a significant portion of Guaviare’s population – about 6,100 families in a department whose population barely exceeds 100,000 people. Of those families, 3,600 are in the departmental capital municipality, San José del Guaviare.

I heard two critiques of this program. First, it requires even rural recipients to report once a month to the county seat to pick up their subsidies. Given Guaviare’s non-existent road network, this can mean a day or two of travel for some families – and the expenditure of a significant portion of the subsidy on transportation costs. Mayor’s office officials told of lines stretching for blocks on “subsidy day,” with people routinely arriving a day or more in advance to stake out a place in line, and fights breaking out when some are accused of cutting ahead.

Continue reading »

May 19

After four days with us here in Washington, recently freed FARC hostage Luis Eladio Pérez, his wife and daughter left town on Saturday morning. They still seemed pretty energetic, even after two public forums, a press conference, several meetings in Congress, visits to the State Department, National Security Council and Pentagon, media interviews, and visits to think-tanks and NGOs. On Friday, an unexpected but welcome addition to our group was Íngrid Betancourt’s daughter, Melanie Delloye.

The visit took place during what turned out to be a peculiar week, with the extraditions of top paramilitary leaders and the Interpol certifications of the documents recovered from Raúl Reyes’s computer. This meant that Senator Pérez was in a Washington that was unusually attuned to what has been happening in Colombia, though quite distracted from the plight of the FARC’s hostages.

If I had to list the three most important things I learned while accompanying Senator Pérez last week, they would be as follows.

1. The hostages are avid radio listeners, quite informed about what is happening in Colombia and the world. Their guerrilla captors are unspeakably cruel, chaining the hostages by their necks, shooting at their feet to silence them or force them to walk faster, and denying medical care beyond provision of a single aspirin. They at least allow each to have a transistor radio to listen to the outside world, and provide fresh batteries every few weeks.

This allows the hostages to listen to Colombian radio programs that broadcast recorded messages from their relatives. Senator Pérez called these programs “a lifeline,” at times their only reason for staying alive. (While it is impossible for a chained hostage to commit suicide, Pérez said, he or she always has the option of dying quickly at the guerrillas’ hands merely by attempting escape.) One of the worst punishments Sen. Pérez recalls was having his radio taken away for three months.

So many hours of radio listening have made the hostages very cognizant of events in the outside world. They have been following the U.S. primary elections, the para-politics scandal, and the war in Iraq. Though I am only a very occasional guest on Colombian radio, Senator Pérez said he even remembered hearing me once, and wondering if I was related to Carolina Isackson, the wife of former President Virgilio Barco.

2. The three American hostages feel abandoned. Senator P̩rez was held on two occasions Рlate 2003-late 2004, and late 2006 until his February 2008 release Рwith Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves, three U.S. citizen employees of a Defense Department contractor who have been FARC hostages since their plane went down in guerrilla territory in February 2003. He spent most of the last year of his captivity attached to Howes by a three-meter-long chain.

According to Sen. Pérez’s account, the three Americans’ morale is low. They still suffer from untreated injuries resulting from their plane crash more than five years ago. They have battled jungle diseases like hepatitis, malaria and leishmaniasis.

Worse, they are convinced that their country has forgotten them, or somehow wishes to sweep them under the rug. Some of this owes to a sensible U.S. strategy to keep their profile low, in order to avoid encouraging the FARC to demand an even higher price for their release. But this strategy has gone so far as to exclude even any official greetings to fellow citizens who, it turns out, are closely following radio reports from their jungle captivity.

According to Pérez, the three Americans noted with despair that during their recent visits to Colombia, neither President Bush (March 2007) nor Condoleezza Rice (January 2008) included in their remarks any message of support or solidarity – “not even a greeting.” They are sadly correct: neither U.S. leader mentioned the men by name, and they only discussed their situation at all in answer to reporters’ questions.

3. A military rescue attempt would be disastrous, but it may be attempted anyway. One of Sen. Pérez’s main pleas was that the U.S. and Colombian governments not attempt to rescue the hostages militarily. The difficult terrain and the guerrillas’ rings of security around the hostage encampments, he explained, make the element of surprise almost impossible to achieve. Meanwhile, as has been tragically demonstrated before, the FARC have strict orders to kill their hostages at the first sign that a rescue attempt is underway.

Continue reading »

May 14

Because we’ve been accompanying Luis Eladio Pérez on his visit to Washington, we’ve had little time at the computer to analyze yesterday’s remarkable extraditions of most of the old AUC leadership. You, the reader, probably have a fuller idea of what has been happening during the past 24 hours.

Nonetheless, our initial take on the extraditions is: Whether this is good news or bad news hinges on the truth of one part of President Uribe’s statement yesterday.

The Government has asked, and the United States has accepted, that the State and People of Colombia may send representatives to the trials to be conducted in the United States, in order to continue the quest for the truth – the truth about the crimes investigated, most of them committed before this administration came into office; the truth  in relation to trials already in progress, propitiated by the firmness of our security policy.

Further, the judicial cooperation agreements with the United States will make it easier to exchange evidence, and for the Colombian authorities to obtain evidence in the United States. The United States has reiterated its commitments on these points.

Now that they have little to lose – and probably feel that they owe nothing to Colombia’s political and economic elites -  the paramilitary leadership may be more willing than before to talk about who helped them over the years, what their financial and logistical networks looked like, and perhaps what happened to their victims. From a jail cell in Miami with little hope of leniency, they have little incentive to stay quiet and protect those who helped them.

The question is whether those who wish to share such information will be able to do so. President Uribe and his government must be held to the statement above. Colombian investigators must have the access to the paramilitary leaders necessary to fully and aggressively comply with the “quest for the truth.”

If they have this access, and if the paramilitaries decide that they have no reason not to talk about those “on the outside” who helped them over the years, then yesterday’s extraditions are a triumph for the fight against organized crime and lawlessness in Colombia.

If they do not – if the paramilitary leaders, like most extradited narcotraffickers before them, are held incomunicado or remain silent in their jail cells – then it will be a tragic victory for the politicians, economically powerful individuals and military officers who made paramilitarism possible in Colombia. If that happens, we would find that President Uribe did nothing more yesterday than banish into a silent exile some of the star witnesses of the “quest for the truth.”

May 12

I’m going to the airport in a little while to pick up Luis Eladio Pérez, the former Colombian senator who was a hostage of the FARC between June 2001 and last February.

Senator P̩rez will be here in Washington for four days, through the end of the week. The purpose of his visit Рthe first from one of the six hostages freed earlier this year Рis to raise awareness about the need for a humanitarian accord to free the remaining hostages.

If you’re in the Washington area, I hope you’ll be able to attend one of the public events at which Senator Pérez will be speaking:

Wednesday at 12:30 – United States Institute of Peace

Thursday at 10:00 – House of Representatives (Room 210 of the Cannon House Office Building)

Members of the press are encouraged to meet Senator Pérez at a press conference that will take place at the National Press Club on Thursday at 12:30.

Here is the text of the media advisory we are sending out.

For Immediate Release

Contact: Adam Isacson, Abigail Poe
(202) 232-3317


Freedom, After 2,452 Days as a Guerrilla Hostage: A Visit from Colombian Senator Luis Eladio Pérez

Who: Luis Eladio Pérez was abducted by Colombia’s FARC guerrillas in June 2001. He was freed on February 26 of this year, after six years, seven months and seventeen days in captivity.

Of the six hostages whom the FARC liberated earlier this year, Senator Pérez is the first to visit Washington.

When: Thursday, May 15th, 12:30 PM

Where: National Press Club, Murrow Room

What: Today, the FARC continues to hold seven civilians and thirty-three Colombian military and police officials to pressure for the release of guerrillas in Colombian and U.S. prisons. Some have been hostage for more than ten years.

Of the seven civilian hostages, three are U.S. citizens. Senator Pérez spent most of the last year of his captivity in the same encampment as the three Americans. He also spent several years with French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, whom he last saw on February 4.

Senator Pérez will discuss his ordeal, give an update on the condition of the U.S. citizens and other hostages, and share his perspective on how the crisis can be resolved. His wife Ángela and daughter Carolina will join him.

His visit is sponsored by the Center for International Policy and the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Also: Senator Pérez will speak at two other public events:

  • At the U.S. Institute of Peace on Wednesday, May 14th at 12:30 PM; and
  • In the House of Representatives (210 Cannon Building) on Thursday, May 15th at 10:00 AM.
May 11

In a few days, Interpol will likely certify the authenticity of guerrilla communications from computer drives and other media that the Colombian military recovered at the site where, on March 1, they killed FARC leader Raúl Reyes. In advance of this announcement, the Colombian government appears to be rolling out new information by spoon-feeding leaks to selected media outlets.

Major new leaks appeared in the May 1 Miami Herald and on page 1 of Friday’s Wall Street Journal. The Journal piece made such a splash that it appears to have driven up the price of oil by more than $2 a barrel, as traders worried that new indications of possible Venezuelan aid to the FARC might cause the United States to add Venezuela to its list of terrorist-sponsoring states.

As before, the documents in question are communications between guerrilla leaders. Several offer accounts of meetings with officials of the Venezuelan government, some of them high-ranking. No documents or writings from the Venezuelans themselves appear; the FARC communications only reflect the guerrillas’ version of events.

The documents do hint that these Venezuelan officials may have been committing – or at least offering to commit – some very improper acts. In chronological order:

  • “A difficult guy”: Miami Herald: “The e-mails also suggest that as far back as 2005, the rebels attempted to win favors from Chávez, a man they characterized as ‘a difficult guy’ in charge of a country ‘with important reserves, useful for our purposes.’”

This seems to confirm that while the FARC had contacts with the Chávez government, they were not close – at least at the highest levels – until 2007.

By 2005, it was known that some Venezuelan arms were ending up in FARC hands and that local Venezuelan officials – probably more out of corruption than solidarity – were selling them weapons and allowing guerrillas to cross into Venezuela. Similar phenomena have been alleged in the remote border zones that Colombia shares with several of its neighbors. It is impossible to establish whether the permissive environment the guerrillas enjoyed in the border zone was the result of official Chávez government policy.

There appear to have been some closer contacts with the Chávez government’s top levels in early 2007, after Chávez’s December 2006 re-election, as he began a new term with a noticeably more radical program than before. These became far closer, of course, after August 2007, when Colombian President Álvaro Uribe “authorized” Chávez to serve as a facilitator of dialogues with the FARC.

  • Presence in Venezuela: WSJ: “[A]ccording to one 2005 email, from Jorge Briceño (known as Mono Jojoy, a top FARC military commander), the rebels at that time had some 370 guerrillas and urban sympathizers operating inside Venezuela.”

The figure of 370 FARC guerrillas and civilian sympathizers in Venezuela in 2005 tells us little about official Venezuelan support at the time. The guerrillas may have had similar numbers in Ecuador (which at the time had no leftist government), and perhaps smaller but significant numbers in Peru, Brazil and Panama.

  • Guerrilla warfare training: Miami Herald: “In an e-mail dated Apr. 18, 2005, ‘Iván’ writes to ‘Raúl’ that somebody he calls ‘Tino,’ who has a top responsibility for handling the Popular Defense Units — the armed civilian militias that Chávez created to defend his Bolivarian revolution — is interested in getting his troop leaders trained in guerrilla warfare with the rebels.”

This is genuinely troubling. Again, though, it is impossible to determine whether Chávez or any other top leaders were seeking this assistance, whether “Tino” was acting on his own, or even whether the guerrillas’ account of the discussion with “Tino” – whoever he is – is accurate.

  • Loan request: Miami Herald: “The Herald also has seen one e-mail dated January 2007 in which a FARC leader named Jorge Briceño, also known as ‘Mono Jojoy,’ writes to the Secretariat that he proposes to ask Chávez for a loan of $250 million, ‘to be repaid when we take power.’”WSJ: “In one document dated January 2007, one top FARC commander speaks of a ‘loan’ for $250 million to buy arms which the FARC will pay back once it has reached power. ‘Don’t think of it as a loan, think of it as solidarity,’ says Mr. [Ramón] Rodríguez Chacin, the interior minister, in another document.”

It hardly stretches the imagination that the FARC asked Venezuela for money, perhaps on repeated occasions. We still have seen no indication that the Venezuelans said “yes.”

On the other hand, Rodríguez Chacín’s alleged comment would indicate that, at best, the Venezuelans had not said “no.” (It was Rodríguez Chacín who, while helping retrieve released FARC hostages Consuelo González and Clara Rojas in January, told one of the FARC captors on camera, “We are following your struggle. Maintain this spirit, maintain your strength and count on us. … Take care, comrades.”)

  • “Bazookas”: WSJ: “In another email dated early 2007, FARC commander Iván Márquez describes meetings with the Venezuelan military’s intelligence chief, Gen. Hugo Carvajal, and another Venezuelan officer to talk about ‘finances, arms and border policy.’ Mr. Márquez relates that the Venezuelans will provide the guerrillas some 20 ‘very powerful bazookas,’ which Colombian military officials believe is a reference to rocket-propelled grenade launchers.”
  • Arms shipments: WSJ: “At the meeting with Gen. Carvajal, another Venezuelan general is described as offering the port of Maracaibo to facilitate arms shipments to the guerrillas. The general suggests piggybacking on shipments from Russia — from which Venezuela itself is buying everything from Kalashnikovs to jet fighters — to ‘include some containers destined to the FARC’ with various arms for the guerrillas’ own use.”

Continue reading »

May 09

Shortly after midnight Wednesday, Colombian authorities put Carlos Mario Jiménez, alias “Macaco,” on a DEA plane and sent him to the United States to face drug charges.

Jiménez was a longtime leader of the Central Bolívar Bloc, one of the most powerful, drug-money-fueled paramilitary groups. At least as recently as last year, he was perhaps the most powerful paramilitary leader in Colombia, controlling organizations in several regions all over the country. In 2007, the U.S. government requested his extradition to face drug-trafficking charges.

“Macaco” was kicked out of the paramilitary demobilization-negotiation process last year, when evidence indicated that he was conspiring from his jail cell to ship drugs and murder enemies. He will now stand trial in the United States on charges of shipping cocaine northward. U.S. authorities are also likely to press Jiménez for information: his knowledge of Colombia’s narcotics, organized crime, and paramilitary networks is no doubt encyclopedic.

Macaco’s extradition sounds like good news, and it mostly is. But it was bitterly opposed by advocates for the victims of paramilitary crimes. The arguments are strong on both sides, and they go something like this.


Sending Macaco to the United States sends a strong message to the remaining paramilitary leaders that they cannot continue to carry out criminal activities, in violation of the terms of the “Justice and Peace” law. When Macaco was ejected from the “Justice and Peace” process, he lost privileges like a reduced prison sentence and avoidance of extradition.


The U.S. justice system will be trying and punishing Macaco only for drug trafficking. He might never have to face a judge for the mass murder he has committed. With Macaco a continent away, his many victims will be unable to learn what happened to their loved ones. It will also be difficult to win back lands and other property he stole from victims, or to use his assets to fund reparations.


Colombian prosecutors and investigators will be able to travel to the United States to interview Macaco. Through an 18th-century law called the Alien Tort Claims Act, victims may be able to sue Macaco in U.S. courts. With Macaco’s threatening presence out of the picture, it may be easier to take back property he stole and return it to its original owners.


Investigators may visit Macaco, but probably only for a few cases. The Alien Tort Claims Act is rarely used, and has never involved hundreds (or thousands) of plaintiffs against one defendant.

Meanwhile, we will now be unlikely ever to find out what Macaco knows about who helped him over the years. In the past, Colombian narco-traffickers extradited to the United States have taken with them their secrets about past associations.

The “para-politics” scandal must be a tea party compared to what Macaco knows. Politicians, military officers, large landowners and businessmen who colluded with Macaco must have been relieved when he got on that DEA plane.


Did Macaco ever intend to talk about his outside support network? By some accounts, Macaco was enforcing a code of silence among the rest of the paramilitary leaders. Macaco and Salvatore Mancuso even came to blows over the issue, according to this recent Semana magazine interview with Davíd Hernández, a paramilitary witness.

Semana: Is it true that there was a fight between Macaco and Mancuso in the prison?

DH: Just after they were brought from La Ceja [to Itagüí], in the first meeting, Mancuso stood up and said, “After the way they took us here and to La Ceja, now is when we have to start throwing water at all those politicians, at all those military officers, at all those police.” Macaco opposed him, stood up and said, “You are a snitch, you can’t do that, I’m never going to do that.” And they grabbed each other and came to blows. Macaco punched Mancuso. Macaco has always said that he will not throw water at any politician, and so far he has been true to his word.

It is just as possible that, with Macaco gone, some of the other paramilitary leaders might be more willing to talk about their illicit relationships with powerful Colombians.

May 07

In Sunday’s edition of the Colombian weekly El Espectador, Iván Cepeda – a columnist who is also a leader of the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes – wrote the following column about a visit to the city of Montería. The city is the capital of the department of Córdoba, in Colombia’s Caribbean coastal region, which has long been a virtual paramilitary republic, for years strongly under the sway of Carlos Castaño, Salvatore Mancuso, and “Don Berna.”

Cepeda’s column inspired an enraged response from Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, which is excerpted and translated further below.

The Proof is Montería
Iván Cepeda Castro
El Espectador, May 3, 2008

This week I visited Montería for the first time. I did so by invitation of the Union of University Workers and Employees, Sintraunicol. The airport is near the city and adjoins the “El Ubérrimo” hacienda, which is the property of President Álvaro Uribe.

My companions spoke to me of the lawyer José Corena, who has been in charge of the President’s land business, and that of his cousin Mario Uribe [now in jail awaiting trial for collaboration with paramilitaries]. In the same region the Castaños, Mancuso and alias “Don Berna” have lands. A few kilometers away are the sumptuous neighborhoods of the region’s cattlemen and large landowners: El Recreo and La Castellana. In the latter, the Mancuso family has a large mansion. In the city are commercial properties which, everyone knows, belong to the paramilitary chief.

When I ask whether any authority has ordered the seizure of these lands and businesses, those accompanying me laugh. In that same zone are the social club and the open-air restaurants where the local high society meets. They tell me that at the parties one would frequently see the former prosecutor-general, Luis Camilo Osorio. We passed by the La Vittoriana restaurant, property of the brothers Jaime and José Maroso, partners and testaferros (property-holding figureheads) of Mancuso. This government named José to two diplomatic posts: one in Italy, the other in Switzerland. Now the paramilitary groups are led by Doménico Mancuso, cousin of Salvatore.

In the shadow of the bridge that President Uribe ordered to be built, and which goes to his hacienda, on the banks of the Sinú River, thousands of displaced people live in misery. They come from places like Tierralta and Valencia. The Civil Victims’ Committee of the department of Córdoba, Comfavic, is made up of 7,800 families. Many have more than one member murdered or disappeared by the paramilitaries. It is obvious that for anyone who lives in, or visits, the city or its nearby haciendas, it must be impossible to ignore the reality of these crimes. How can they not know that thousands of killings are being perpetrated, or not see the displaced people? How can they ignore who Mancuso and the Castaño clan were in a city in which everything is known and is commented in whispers?

Finally, we arrived at the University of Córdoba. The employees and students have begun a movement to demand the resignation of the current president, Claudio Sánchez Parra. They also demand truth and justice. Since 1995, 19 people belonging to the university have been murdered. On February 18, 2003, Mancuso called professors and employees to Santa Fe de Ralito [where the paramilitary leaders were gathered as they began negotiations with the government], and warned them that if they did not attend they should be prepared for the consequences. Present at the meeting was a delegate from the government, Félix Manssur Jattin. After reading the CVs of the professors, which had been taken from the University’s files, Mancuso introduced them to Sánchez Parra and said to them, “This person here by my side is my friend, and in the University I must have men that I trust.” The new president put Mancuso’s relatives in posts in the University leadership. Even though the Prosecutor-General’s Office and the Attorney-General’s office are carrying out investigations against him, he remains in the presidency. This week the Victims’ Movement will lead a petition of the government and will carry out an international campaign calling for his immediate firing.

Perhaps there are photos, witnesses or recordings of the meetings of the landholders, politicians and soldiers with Mancuso, while thousands of people were being killed or displaced. But beyond these elements of hard evidence, the whole social order, the nearness of the large haciendas and the centers of Montería’s high society show the reality of a criminal power: the city itself is the proof.

Excerpt from “Words of President Álvaro Uribe during the inauguration of the Montería Transportation Terminal
Presidency of Colombia, May 6, 2008

Let me touch on another issue. There are people in Colombia, like Doctor Iván Cepeda. They dress themselves up in the protection of victims.

Continue reading »

May 06

I’ve been grounded by illness since Sunday. Nonetheless I hope to have another big Guaviare post up by tonight, tomorrow morning at the latest.