Jun 30

John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for the November presidential election, will travel to Cartagena, Colombia on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Why, in the midst of a hotly contested campaign season, might McCain want to leave the country and go to Colombia?

The most likely answer is one word: Florida.

Florida is the biggest “swing state,” as the world saw clearly in 2000. And one of its chief “swing” constituencies are Latino voters.

Many of these Latino voters are people who left their home countries after leftists came to power: Cubans who fled Castro; Venezuelans who flocked to Dade and Broward counties after Chávez was elected; even middle-and-upper-class Colombians who abandoned their country in the late 1990s, when the FARC’s strength made the security situation too precarious.

Needless to say, anybody who fits those descriptions likely adores Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, the polar opposite of Castro and Chávez whose policies have reduced the FARC’s ability to operate in populated areas. So if you’re John McCain, why not spend a couple of days with Uribe to win that voting bloc’s favor?

Plus, Florida is a state that trades heavily with Latin America. In Florida – unlike Ohio or Michigan – support for the Colombia Free Trade Agreement is high. For McCain, visiting Colombia is a sure way to distinguish his position on the FTA from that of Barack Obama, who opposes it, before a Floridian audience.

For Senator McCain, visiting Colombia is a smart electoral move.

His visit also reinforces Álvaro Uribe’s position as one of the last great hopes of the global right wing. In the United States, a mixture of military buildups and free-market orthodoxy has contributed to George Bush’s sub-30% approval rating. But in Colombia, a similar combination has propelled Uribe’s numbers into the stratosphere.

Over the years, Senator McCain’s office has not been particularly responsive to Colombia-focused appeals from organizations like the Center for International Policy. Senator McCain has declined to sign even the most respectfully worded letters and appeals expressing human rights concerns. When we have hosted visits from Colombian human-rights defenders, hostages’ families and others, his staff has never responded positively to meeting requests.

As a result, it makes little sense to recommend that Senator McCain, while in Colombia, express concerns about impunity, threats against human-rights defenders, para-politics, extra-judicial executions or the frustrating failure of counter-drug efforts. Since McCain has scheduled meetings with U.S. business and oil-company executives, his agenda appears to be quite the opposite.

There are, however, a few recommendations within the realm of what Senator McCain might follow. In particular, there are several ways that Senator McCain might send a message that his policy toward Colombia, and Latin America in general, will be more than just – as the Obama camp puts it – “Bush’s third term.”

Here are four.

  • Send a message of solidarity to the FARC’s three U.S. hostages. Keith Stansell, Thomas Howes and Marc Gonsalves have been in guerrilla custody, deep in Colombia’s jungles, since February 2003. According to recently freed Colombian hostage Luis Eladio Pérez, who spent more than a year chained with them in 2006-2008, the three men feel abandoned and forgotten by the U.S. government.

According to Pérez, they are avid radio listeners, and they took it hard when President Bush and Secretary of State Rice visited Colombia in 2007 and 2008 and failed to offer any message of support or solidarity. Neither U.S. leader mentioned the men by name, and they only discussed their situation at all in answer to reporters’ questions.

Senator McCain, please do not repeat that error. Mention the three Americans publicly by name, and assure them that they are not forgotten. They will hear you. Continue reading »

Jun 27

The final bill, now on its way to the President, includes $400 million for Mexico, “of which not less than $73,500,000 shall be used for judicial reform, institution building, anti-corruption, and rule of law activities.” An additional $65 million will go to Central America, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Human rights conditions over aid to Mexico were softened significantly, changed to be less stringent than either the House’s or Senate’s versions of the bill. The final bill does nonetheless require that human rights cases be investigated and tried by civilian prosecutors “in accordance with Mexican and international law.” The earlier language had triggered a “violation of sovereignty” outcry from the Mexican government. This morning, though, the Mexican government said that it found the final bill’s human-rights conditions acceptable.

    • In Colombia, President Uribe called a press conference at 11:15 PM last night. He was reacting to a decision by Colombia’s Supreme Court: a guilty verdict against Yidis Medina, a former congresswoman who had cast the decisive vote on constitutional reform legislation that made it possible for Uribe to run for a second term in 2006. It turns out that Medina cast her vote in exchange for promises of political favors, and will now spend 3 1/2 years under house arrest for accepting bribes. In the text of its decision, the Court seriously called into question the legitimacy of the process that led to Uribe’s re-election. Uribe’s reaction last night was extreme.

      I have wanted to fight for a safe, prosperous and equitable country. The trap of the power of terrorism in its death agony – to which justices of the Penal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice have lent themselves – does not appear to have a judicial solution.

      After saying on national television that the justices who questioned the re-election amendment process are doing the bidding of terrorists, Uribe called on Colombia’s Congress to schedule a national referendum to repeat the 2006 elections.

    • Against this backdrop, John McCain has provided more details about his planned visit to Colombia next week. He will be in Cartagena on Tuesday and Wednesday.
    • The Mexican polling firm Mitofsky has compiled a useful compendium [PDF] of recent poll results in the region. The approval ratings of 16 presidents in the hemisphere are as follows:
      1. 84% Álvaro Uribe, Colombia (3/08)
      2. 61% Felipe Calderón, Mexico (5/08)
      3. 55% Antonio Saca, El Salvador (5/08)
      4. 55% Evo Morales, Bolivia (5/08)
      5. 55% Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil (3/08)
      6. 54% Hugo Chávez, Venezuela (4/08)
      7. 53% Rafael Correa, Ecuador (6/08)
      8. 51% Martín Torrijos, Panama (4/08)
      9. 49% Álvaro Colom, Guatemala (3/08)
      10. 45% Tabaré Vázquez, Uruguay (3/08)
      11. 44% Oscar Arias, Costa Rica (4/08)
      12. 44% Michelle Bachelet, Chile (6/08)
      13. 38% Manuel Zelaya, Honduras (2/08)
      14. 34% Stephen Harper, Canada (3/08)
      15. 32% Alan García, Peru (6/08)
      16. 30% George W. Bush, United States (6/08)
      17. 26% Cristina Fernández, Argentina (5/08)
      18. 21% Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua (2/08)
      19. 5% Nicanor Duarte, Paraguay (3/08)
    • Colombia’s El Tiempo reported yesterday that Víctor Patíño Fómeque, a former top Cali Cartel figure extradited to the United States, will serve only six years in prison. After that, he and his family will be given new identities in the U.S. federal witness protection program. A source in Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) told El Tiempo that at least two of the top paramilitary leaders extradited in May are interested in getting this deal for themselves. “Diego Murillo, ‘Don Berna’ and Francisco Javier Zuluaga, ‘Gordolindo’, are aiming for a similar arrangement.”
    Jun 26

    “What I have here is the map of the imperial occupation of Bolivia,” said a high official of Evo Morales’s government, speaking at a conference in which I participated last week in La Paz. He held up a map of Bolivia depicting the country’s hundreds of municipalities (counties), which the majority of them shaded in. “The few white parts of the map are all that are left to us.”

    Was he showing us a map of U.S. military deployments, or security-force units that get U.S. aid? No. It turned out to be a map of  locations in Bolivia where the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has recently funded projects.

    USAID has come under heavy fire from the Morales government for allegedly channeling resources to the political opposition, and even to separatist movements in eastern Bolivia. Last week, Morales urged leaders of coca-growing communities to reject USAID funding: “It is not possible that some of our compañeros, former and current leaders are behind USAID when they have carried out a permanent campaign against Evo, against the government and against change.”

    Yesterday, leaders of the coca-growers’ federations in the central region of Chapare – where USAID has spent over US$100 million on alternative-development projects – took Morales’s advice. They announced that they would no longer participate in USAID programs, and set about taking down signs bearing the agency’s logo posted near development projects’ sites. (USAID was already drawing down its projects in the Chapare region anyway, while increasing its alternative-development expenditure in the Yungas coca-growing region, near La Paz.)

    The U.S. government has been generally restrained, but still has given the Morales government few incentives to moderate its tone. USAID programs in Bolivia do suffer from a lack of transparency about their final recipients, which has opened them to accusations that may or may not be unfounded. (Are these potable water projects, or “technical assistance” for opposition movements?) The agency’s handling of assistance to municipal governments in the Chapare, whose mayors are members of the ruling MAS party, has been ham-handed: projects begun with the mayors in 2004 had their funding abruptly frozen in 2006. Washington’s granting of asylum to former President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, who ordered a violent crackdown on protesters in 2003, is a key anti-U.S. rallying point for the Morales government.

    Even Condoleezza Rice’s recent words to the Wall Street Journal editorial board – “The Bolivian regime is the problem” – were a gift to the hard-liners in the pro-government ranks. None of this does anything to encourage or embolden moderates in the MAS who would support dialogue and cooperation with the U.S. government. Instead, it isolates them.

    From energy policy to Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to the drug war, there will be many issues distancing Washington and La Paz. Even against this contentious backdrop, though, Bolivia’s prioritization of USAID projects is still puzzling.

    Seen from Washington, it is an odd choice of target.

    If Bolivia wanted to break ties with the U.S. military and stop the flow of military and police aid, it would require a years-long struggle against stiff opposition from the Bolivian security forces and the U.S. defense establishment (among other U.S. agencies that carry out the war on drugs).

    By contrast, funding from USAID is far more fragile. With a little pushback, it could be zeroed out in little more than an instant as those monies are reassigned elsewhere in the developing world. Is this truly the outcome that the Bolivian government seeks?

    Jun 25

    The Colombian government this week scuttled a Jimmy Carter-brokered deal to set Colombia and Ecuador back on the road to diplomatic relations, which were broken following the Colombian raid into Ecuadorian territory that killed FARC leader Raúl Reyes. Here is an analysis, and a translation of Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa’s strong comments, from CIP Associate Abigail Poe.

    On March 3rd of this year, Ecuador pulled its ambassador from Colombia, halting diplomatic relations two days after the raid on a FARC camp in Ecuadorian territory that killed Raul Reyes and 24 others. At the time, it was not clear when diplomatic relations would be restored – but it would have been hard to believe that two and a half months later, relations between Colombia and Ecuador would still be broken off, and on the verge of getting worse.

    Tensions have stayed high, and the potential for restored diplomatic relations delayed, by documents from Raúl Reyes’ computer hinting that officials from the government of Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa maintained ties to the FARC. However, two weeks ago, with the help of mediation by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, Ecuador and Colombia agreed to restore diplomatic relations at the charge d’affaires level. According to the two governments, the restoration of relations at this level was to happen sometime this week.

    Over the weekend, though, the agreement to renew diplomatic relations between Colombia and Ecuador collapsed when Colombian Foreign Minister Fernando Araújo said his country would hold back its diplomats in responseto Correa’s “aggressive” comments published in an Argentine newspaper, Página 12, on Sunday. In the article, Correa stated that in order to reestablish full diplomatic relations with Colombia, the Colombian government would have to fully explain the March 1 raid, adding charges that the bombs used in the attack came from the United States.

    Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Maria Isabel Salvador, who told El Tiempo last week that the restoration of diplomatic relations to the charge d’affaires level was “only one step in the total re-establishment of confidence between the two countries,” responded to Araújo with a declaration that Ecuador has dropped plans to renew ties with Colombia and is considering limiting bilateral trade “if the situation does not improve, above all in Colombia’s position toward Ecuador.”

    Just last week, it looked like Colombia and Ecuador were on the path toward ending what has become one of the longest-lasting diplomatic standoffs in Latin America’s recent history. Unfortunately, today’s news makes it look like the bickering between two neighboring countries may continue for an indeterminate period, especially if Ecuador goes through with limiting trade.

    Here is a translation of a portion of the interview with Correa that inspired Colombia’s government to postpone the re-establishment of diplomatic ties once again:

    (From: “Ganar las elecciones no es ganar el poder,” by Mario Wainfeld, Pagina 12, 6/22/2008)

    - What is the current situation with Colombia, given last month’s international aggression?

    - We are the assaulted ones, we get to set the timetable. We have taken a step, to reestablish relations at the chargé d’affaires level. We have a very hot border, it is good to have fluid communications. But in order to establish full relations, we are going to demand that this attack be fully clarified. The bombs were North American and, according to reports by our armed forces, they could not have been dropped from Colombian planes. It is very probable that three of the wounded, according to forensic reports, were finished off after the attacks. The Ecuadorian citizens who were killed there died from blows to the neck and not from shots or bombs.

    - To what point can Ecuador control the border militarily?

    - Impossible. It is a very porous border. The United States can’t control the passage of immigrants to their territory and are building a wall. And there isn’t a jungle there. Here, there are 400, 500 kilometers of the Amazon jungle. The world has to understand that the problem is not Ecuador, that the problem is Colombia. And that each time a FARC patrol crosses into Ecuador, it means that it crossed out of Colombia. We have 13 military posts on the border, when we would need (in times of peace) one-fourth that amount. Colombia has two. Colombia’s strategy is to resolve the problem by removing forces from its southern border, they want to involve us.

    -T he hypothesis is that Ecuador is a kind of wall…

    - It is the Yankee strategy: they attack from the north to the south, leave the southern border unmanned so that we must make the effort. This also infuriates us. Do you know how many Colombian refugees we have in our country? Four hundred thousand Colombians, seventeen thousand with refugee status, there are many more requests. The problem is not with the Colombian people, the problem is with Uribe.

    Jun 24

    The city of Barrancabermeja, in Colombia’s Magdalena Medio region, is a strategic port, a center of oil refining, and for decades has been a center of labor and social-movement organizing. Barrancabermeja’s labor leaders and human rights defenders have long been in the sights of the powerful paramilitary groups who operate in the region.

    The paramilitaries took de facto control of the city through a campaign of massacres and selective killings in late 2000 and early 2001. While there was a relative lull in paramilitary activity after the AUC’s Central Bolívar Bloc demobilized in 2005-2006, the situation appears to be worsening.

    Last November, Yolanda Becerra, head of the Barrancabermeja-based Popular Women’s Organization (OFP) had her home invaded by thugs who told her to leave town or die. Now, six labor unions have received threats on letterhead bearing the logo of the “Black Eagles,” the name being used by a growing number of rapidly re-arming paramilitary groups.

    Here is a translation of a brief article about the new threats that was posted yesterday to the website of Colombia’s Semana magazine. Thanks to CIP Intern Stephanie DiBello for the translation.

    The ‘Black Eagles’ Threaten Leaders of Social Organizations in Barrancabermeja

    After two quiet years, new violence against non-governmental organizations raises alarm. In a pamphlet, the armed group Black Eagles lists six labor unions and human rights groups as “military targets.”


    Terror has returned to Barrancabermeja (Santander) after several years of relative calm. Six labor unions and non-governmental organizations that have worked for several years in the Magdalena Medio were declared military targets by the emerging group known as the ‘Black Eagles’. They all received a printed notification, with letterhead in color, directly accusing them of supporting the guerrillas.

    This pamphlet has worried the labor unions Asociación de Directivos Profesionales y Técnicos de Empresas de la Industria del Petróleo de Colombia, ADECO (Association of Professional and Technical Workers of Companies of the Petroleum Industry of Colombia); and Unión Sindical Obrera, USO (Workers’ Trade Union); and the NGOs Comité Regional por la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos, CREDHOS (Regional Committee for the Defense of Human Rights); Asociación Campesina del Valle del Río Cimitarra, ACVC (Campesino Association of the Cimitarra River Valley); Asociación de Desplazados Asentados en el Municipio de Barrancabermeja, ASODESAMUBA (Association of Displaced Persons Settled in the Municipality of Barrancabermeja); and Organización Femenina Popular, OFP (Popular Womens’ Association); all human rights defenders.

    The Black Eagles justify the threats by saying, “Once again we are being overrun with lowly guerrillas who, hidden behind crude and dirty deceptions, want to take control of the city in order to return to the old days when they only had extortions, assassinations, union workers, and NGOs at their disposition, to fulfill their revolutionary ends and look for ways to destabilize the State.”

    They continued on to warn that, “The guerrillas and their supporters have dared to set foot again in our Barrancabermeja, and our organization is not willing to allow them to enter.”

    They point out that the aforementioned organizations “are full of revolutionary union workers and guerrilla supporters who are instigating and financing the emergence and actions of these insurgent groups, which is why they are the declared enemies and military targets of this organization.”

    Continue reading »

    Jun 23

    When we found out in late May that longtime FARC leader Manuel Marulanda was dead, many observers predicted an upsurge in guerrilla violence as (1) the group sought to show that it was still militarily viable and (2) new leader “Alfonso Cano” sought to assert his authority.

    That prediction appears to be accurate, as the tempo of FARC activity appears to be increasing. Since the announcement of Marulanda’s death and Cano’s succession, the FARC have carried out the following attacks on both military and civilian targets.

    • Attacks with explosives in Norte de Santander department shut down the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline.
    • Four attacks with explosives in Bogotá, including one in a police station in the Suba neighborhood in the city’s northwest.
    • Combat forces displacements in Zaragoza, Antioquia.
    • Attacks on electric power pylons, trains transporting coal, and burning of trucks at roadblocks in La Guajira department.
    • An ambush on a police patrol near the border between Valle del Cauca and Quindío departments.
    • Army patrols killed by landmines in Antioquia and Quindío.
    • Attacks with explosives on police stations in Granada and Tarazá, Antioquia.
    • Attack with explosives on a police station in Caguán, Huila.
    • Attacks on electric power pylons in Patía, Cauca.
    • Five attacks on civilians and military personnel in Buenaventura, Valle del Cauca.
    • An attack on a helicopter in Puerto Guzmán, Putumayo.
    Jun 21

    Using data from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime report released this week, as well as earlier reports, here is a look at the ten departments of Colombia in which the UNODC measured the most coca under cultivation in 2007.

    UNODC found at least some coca in 23 of Colombia’s 32 departments last year. Nationwide, it found a huge leap in coca cultivation, from 78,000 hectares [193,000 acres] to 99,000 hectares [245,000 acres] – despite fumigation and manual eradication totaling 219,512 hectares [542,426 acres].

    1. Nariño
    Coca detected in 2007: 20,259 hectares
    Increase / decrease over 2006: +30%
    Fumigation + manual eradication in 2007: 51,087 hectares
    Fumigation + manual eradication as a multiple of coca detected: 2.52 times
    Total coca detected 1999-2007: 117,449 hectares
    Total fumigation 1999-2007: 254,607 hectares
    Total manual eradication 2005-2007: 27,529 hectares

    Nariño became a center of Colombian cultivation after Plan Colombia initiated massive fumigation in Putumayo, immediately to the east. Today, Colombia’s Pacific coast region is witnessing rapid expansion of coca-growing, despite some of the country’s most intense eradication efforts. The FARC and new, “emerging” paramilitary groups are very active in Nariño’s coastal zone.

    2. Putumayo
    Coca detected in 2007: 14,183 hectares
    Increase / decrease over 2006: +21%
    Fumigation + manual eradication in 2007: 51,228 hectares
    Fumigation + manual eradication as a multiple of coca detected: 3.46 times
    Total coca detected 1999-2007: 233,139 hectares
    Total fumigation 1999-2007: 213,771 hectares
    Total manual eradication 2005-2007: 31,123 hectares

    Seven years after Plan Colombia brought an intense focus on eradication, Putumayo has returned to the number-two spot among Colombia’s top coca-growing departments. This is despite one of the country’s highest proportions of hectares eradicated to hectares detected.

    3. Meta
    Coca detected in 2007: 10,386 hectares
    Increase / decrease over 2006: -6%
    Fumigation + manual eradication in 2007: 19,292 hectares
    Fumigation + manual eradication as a multiple of coca detected: 1.86 times
    Total coca detected 1999-2007: 113,462 hectares
    Total fumigation 1999-2007: 75,144 hectares
    Total manual eradication 2005-2007: 9,679 hectares

    Meta has remained remarkably constant over the years, in the 10,000-hectare range, despite varying levels of eradication. The Macarena National Park in western Meta has seen a great deal of coca cultivation, encouraged by the FARC. Fumigation and manual eradication efforts in the park have been intense since 2006, but reductions in department-wide cultivation have been modest.

    Continue reading »

    Jun 20

    I know I promised to post to the blog yesterday, but the Internet access was down in my hotel last night. It’s functioning here at the conference I’m attending. Here are a few pictures of La Paz, but for now I’d better go back to paying attention to the conference. Real posts will be on their way later.






    Jun 17

    I’m off to La Paz, Bolivia in a few hours to participate in a conference on regional security. I hope to post from there, but it is unlikely that anything new will appear on the blog before Thursday. Thanks for your patience.

    Jun 15

    Today’s edition of the Colombian newsweekly Semana reports that, here in Washington, extradited and convicted FARC leader Ricardo Palmera, “Simón Trinidad,” is being detained in the same part of the D.C. jail as many of the newly extradited paramilitary leaders.

    According to SEMANA’s sources,’Trinidad’ identified himself to his new neighbors and they did the same. Since then, without ever seeing each others’ faces since they don’t leave their cells, they have communicated by shouting. Although very little is known about the content of their chats, it is known that “Trinidad,” as an expert in the ways of the prison, helps his arch-enemies with some basic jail survival advice: the lawyers’ visits, how to get books, what to do if they feel ill, issues of daily life.

    Who would have thought: the voices that once gave orders to kill, kidnap, extort, massacre and submerged the department of Cesar and the country in a fratricidal war, today are only heard to instruct about how to care for one’s toilet paper, or how to protect oneself from the winter cold or ease the heat in summer.

    Trinidad and former Northern Bloc leader Rodrigo Tovar, alias “Jorge 40,” are both from the small elite of the northeastern Colombian city of Valledupar, Cesar, where they knew each other in the years before they joined their separate armed groups. Now they are together again – but only briefly, as Trinidad will soon be moved to a prison in Colorado.

    Jun 13

      In 2007, the UN measured more coca in Colombia than it had since 2002.

    • We’ve done a lot of work on the new CIP-WOLA-LAWGEF “Just the Facts” site, which monitors U.S. aid and other security issues in the region. Since the last time we mentioned it here, we’ve added reams of data, an image gallery, a calendar of events, legislative updates, and much else. There are still a few blanks to fill in, and it will get a design facelift before we launch it formally, but it’s already a resource that we ourselves are using several times a day. Pay a visit at www.justf.org; comments at this stage would be very helpful.
    • This morning’s El Tiempo has the first solid official statistics for Colombian land area under coca cultivation in 2007. The news is not good. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime, whose 2006 figure of 78,000 hectares (193,000 acres) was half the U.S. government’s estimate, detected 98,000 hectares (242,000 acres) in 2007 – 20,000 hectares or 26% more coca. While some of this increase likely owes to methodological adjustments, the figures make clear that narcotrafficking is one area where Colombia has made no progress since the “dark days” of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The UNODC data are not public yet, but will eventually appear here. No final word yet on when the U.S. government will release its (normally higher) coca-cultivation estimates for 2007.
    • John McCain will be visiting Colombia sometime in early July. For McCain, this is a smart political maneuver, currying favor with swing Latino voters – including more recently arrived Colombians and Venezuelans, who tend to be fervently “Uribista” – in key states like Florida. For the Colombian government, it’s a risky gamble. If Obama wins in November, the new administration might not easily forget that President Uribe held what amounted to a campaign rally with the opposing candidate. It will be interesting to see how the Uribe government handles the visit. “More doors must be opened,” warns former foreign minister Augusto Ramírez Ocampo. “All the eggs can’t be put in one basket.”
    • On Tuesday, the House of Representatives debated and approved a bill authorizing expenditures for the “Mérida Initiative” aid package to Mexico and Central America. It is important to note that this is not the bill that will send any money to Mexico and Central America. That is a separate bill: the 2008 supplemental appropriations bill, which would provide piles of money for Iraq and Afghanistan, includes the Mérida aid in a few pages. The bill that passed the House this week, by contrast, only authorizes this use of funds for Mexico and Central America, laying out a statement of policy and adding provisions to permanent law.

    In Congress, it is considered good practice to “authorize” appropriations like this before laying out money for them. But it doesn’t happen all the time; where foreign aid is concerned, in fact, “unauthorized” appropriations have been the norm since the mid-1980s. Though the House made the effort to pass authorizing legislation, the Mérida Initiative aid will be no exception: the Senate has no similar authorizing bill, so the bill that the House passed on Tuesday is unlikely ever to become law.

    The supplemental appropriations bill that will actually “write the checks,” on the other hand, is on a separate track: the House and Senate both passed it in May, and now they are working out the differences in the two bills. This bill would give Mexico less money, and include stronger human rights conditions on military aid, than what this week’s House authorization bill recommends. The Mexican government has loudly complained about these human-rights conditions, especially the more specifically worded ones in the Senate’s version of the appropriations bill.

    The New York Times reported – very briefly – on Wednesday that the House and Senate had worked out their differences and rewritten the conditions in a way that leaves them “intact, although softened.” The new text has not been made publicly available, but would appear here when it does.

    • Meanwhile, back in Colombia: another unpleasant chapter has been opened in the two-year-old scandal surrounding Jorge Noguera. For more than three years, Noguera headed President Uribe’s powerful presidential intelligence service (DAS). Today, he stands accused of using his position to help paramilitary leaders, including passing them lists of labor leaders and activists to be killed. For the second time, Noguera’s lawyers have managed to get him out of prison on a slim technicality (something involving the fact that a delegate of the prosecutor-general, and not the Prosecutor General himself, filed the charges – look it up yourself and try to understand it).

    Noguera is free, and prosecutors now have to file charges all over again. And once again we see how hard it is to prosecute the powerful and well-connected in Colombia, even when the charge is aiding and abetting mass murder.

    • We haven’t been paying close enough attention to the scandal involving allegations that President Uribe offered favors to an obscure regional congresswoman, Yidis Medina, in exchange for a crucial committee vote that allowed him to run for re-election in 2006. But it certainly turned weird this week, with Uribe, brandishing cellphone call records and posting a flurry of releases on the Colombian Presidency’s website, claiming that Medina had been trying to blackmail his family. “The confusion increases when President Uribe himself heads the curious media crusade,” notes a sober editorial in today’s El Tiempo.
    • In our 2006 report on Medellín [PDF], we discussed many analysts’ view that the city’s newfound social peace owed in part to the monopoly on organized crime enjoyed by former paramilitary leader Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna.” From his jail cell, many believed that Murillo continued to exercise control over much gang and narco activity in the slums tha surround the city, enforcing a sort of “pax mafiosa.”

    A month ago, however, Murillo was extradited to the United States. With the paramilitary “Leviathan” out of the country, the “pax mafiosa” hypothesis is now being tested. An article in this week’s edition of the Colombian newsmagazine Cambio is not encouraging. It notes that violence took ten lives in 24 hours on Monday, the highest single-day total since 2002 – which in Medellín was an especially grim year marked by daily battles between guerrilla militias and two paramilitary groups.

    • Rumors of an impending FARC hostage release – under varying possible circumstances – were raised several times this week. President Uribe says that guerrillas have called the current DAS chief to discuss conditions, such as a no-extradition guarantee, in exchange for releasing captives. Former hostage Luis Eladio Pérez told reporters Monday that “the country will soon hear the news” that the FARC are to release four more hostages unilaterally, including the son of “peace walker” Gustavo Moncayo. Journalist Jorge Enrique Botero, who has interviewed FARC leaders on numerous occasions, told a policy forum on Monday that the FARC may be reconsidering the whole idea of hostage-taking. Senator and former dialogue facilitator Piedad Córdoba said, “Íngrid [Betancourt]’s liberation is closer today. … But the next liberations are going to be absolutely difficult.” And even a Washington Post editorial speculated that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s new attitude toward the FARC may be relevant: “Perhaps, too, Mr. Chávez hoped to take credit for what some Colombian sources say may be an imminent move by the FARC to free hostages.”
    • Here are two videos worth viewing: an investigative report from Ireland’s RTÉ network on the drug war’s failure, and a vivid look at Barrancabermeja, and the brave members of that city’s Popular Women’s Organization (OFP), from former Peace Brigades International volunteer Taline Haytayan.
    • Many congratulations to Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), who was named yesterday to replace the late Rep. Tom Lantos as co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.
    Jun 12

    Here is the introduction to an astoundingly good new report by the Latin America Working Group Education Fund on the “Justice and Peace” process, the “para-politics” scandal, and the paramilitaries’ victims’ efforts to learn the truth and achieve restitution. It is available as a PDF file, and an Executive Summary [PDF] features recommendations for U.S. policymakers. Congratulations to the LAWGEF for this achievement.

    The Other Half of the Truth: Searching for Truth, Justice and Reparations for Colombia’s Victims of Paramilitary Violence

    The only way to change the nation’s destiny is to help the victims tell their story.
    – Colombian journalist Hollman Morris

    On February 4, 2008, Colombians marched in the millions in a powerful rejection of violence by the FARC guerrillas. It was an inspirational, authentic cry by Colombians weary of horrific guerrilla tactics, and a show of solidarity for the suffering of the many Colombians held for years as captives of the FARC. While the march was a citizens’ effort, the government supported it enthusiastically, and President Álvaro Uribe offered “our voice of gratitude to all the Colombians who today expressed with dignity and strength a rejection of kidnapping and kidnappers.”

    For many of the victims of paramilitary violence, the march’s enormous scale raised the question of why the same Colombian society that stood so united behind the victims of the FARC would fail to stand behind them. Why did so few seem to care about the families of the thousands of people who had been killed or disappeared by the paramilitaries, about the mass graves in the countryside, about the bodies that washed up on the banks of the rivers, or about the several million people forced to flee their homes, many by paramilitary violence? Why would the government lend support and credibility to this march, but remain mute about paramilitary crimes? Victims called for a second march a month later, to reject the violence by paramilitaries, as well as the actions of the soldiers and politicians who had supported them. As movement leader Iván Cepeda explained, victims wanted Colombian society to “offer a just homage to the displaced, the disappeared, the families of those assassinated or massacred… We don’t want just a moment of remembrance, we want solidarity.” Yet Colombian society was divided about participating, the government failed to support this march, and march organizers faced a wave of death threats and violence.

    The tale of the two marches helps to explain why a process that demobilized thousands of paramilitaries, members of a murderous armed group, would be so controversial. The victims, after an astounding period of violence, expect and demand not only an end to violence, but some tangible measure of truth, justice and reparations. But the victims of paramilitary violence are still waiting for the acknowledgment they long for, from the government and Colombian society: to recognize what they suffered, to admit the role of government officials, politicians and members of Colombia’s armed forces in aiding and abetting paramilitary atrocities, and to say: “Never again.” There is a palpable fear that the demobilization is a sham—with groups that never really demobilized, others rearming, and paramilitary power maintaining a lockhold over national politics and local communities.

    This report will examine the official framework for the paramilitary demobilization and the limited opportunities for truth, justice and reparations that it has offered to date. Then, it will highlight some of the often heroic efforts by diverse actors—human rights activists, journalists, members of the judiciary, and especially victims—to push the boundaries and wring, if not yet reparations and justice, at least a little more truth from this process.

    For the limits to the truth offered by the official framework began to unravel as many different actors in Colombia tugged at truth as if at a tightly wound ball of yarn. One hundred and twenty-five thousand people, far more than expected, attempted to register as victims with government agencies. Victims groups, many vociferously denouncing the official process, began to carry out their own truth sessions, mock trials and alternative registries of stolen land. Human rights groups assailed the obstacles to achieving justice through the demobilization law, and redoubled their efforts to document new abuses by the military and the rearming of paramilitary groups. Journalists published investigative stories and thoughtful opinion columns that sparked public debate on a subject long shrouded in silence. Colombia’s highest courts pried open the door to more justice than contemplated by the executive by setting some minimum standards for application of the demobilization law and hauling the politicians behind the paramilitaries into court. By the end of 2007, Semana columnist María Teresa Ronderos could say, “Like rabbits out of a magician’s hat came the names of businessmen, military and other accomplices of the paramilitary barbarie…. The truth that emerged this year has been sufficiently enlightening… that this year can pass down in history as the one in which we began to discover the truth.”  

    Download the entire report

    Jun 10
    The department of Casanare, Colombia, where Mary Anastasia O’Grady got cattle ranchers’ view of the security situation.

    Yesterday, recounting a visit to the oil-producing department of Casanare, Colombia, Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady wrote one of the most awful things I’ve ever seen published in a mainstream periodical.

    Today the paras [paramilitaries] are condemned by society because they have morphed into criminal gangs. But in their early years they did not suffer such disapproval. They were, instead, hero vigilantes who had the courage to push back against the reign of terror. Many of their members were relatives of FARC victims.

    People in these parts acknowledge that the paras cured FARC terrorism. One Colombian I know explains it like this: “The way I see it, the paramilitary was like chemotherapy. It makes you sick and your hair falls out but it saves your life.”

    Breathtaking. In Ms. O’Grady’s narrative, Colombia’s paramilitary groups passed through a gauzy golden age in which they were selflessly defending decent citizens from guerrilla barbarism. While the guerrilla barbarism part is undeniable, when was this golden age exactly?

    • In the early to mid-1980s, when drug lords were helping to form and finance the first paramilitary groups?
    • In the mid-to-late-1980s, when paramilitary massacres of innocent civilians grew so frequent that the Colombian government felt compelled to declare these “hero vigilantes” illegal?
    • In the 1990s, when the Castaño brothers and their associates in the newly formed AUC were killing and torturing tens of thousands of civilians, and displacing millions?
    • In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the paramilitary leaders themselves were some of the top exporters of drugs to the United States?

    Ms. O’Grady goes on:

    So how did the rule of law return? Locals give the credit to Mr. Uribe, who offered all combatants a deal to surrender. Here in Casanare the paras demobilized and ever since, the ranchers under the porch in the rainstorm tell me, the warring has ended and a high-profile police and military presence keeps the peace.

    How does she reach the conclusion that paramilitarism has been eliminated from the department of Casanare? The longtime leader of Casanare’s paramilitaries, Hector Germán Buitrago, alias “Martín Llanos,” has been weakened but remains at large, while a former governor and congressman are under investigation for colluding with him. Parts of southern Casanare today are under the dominion of Pedro Oliverio Guerrero Castillo, alias “Cuchillo” ["Knife"], a paramilitary narcotrafficker closely allied with drug lord Daniel Rendón, alias “Don Mario,” who in turn is the brother of one of the jailed but un-extradited paramilitary chiefs, former Élmer Cárdenas Bloc leader Freddy Rendón, alias “El Alemán.”

    Meanwhile, Ms. O’Grady misses the glaring fact that Casanare continues to be a key way station for the river of Colombian narcotics flowing into, and through, nearby Venezuela. With the guerrilla presence in the department so reduced, who controls Casanare’s drug corridors? By most accounts, it is the still at-large, still locally powerful paramilitaries, some of whom do drug business with the guerrillas.

    The quote above reveals the problem with Ms. O’Grady’s journalism. The only source she cites in Casanare are the ranchers, the large landowners in a department with poor land distribution. While there is no way of knowing whether Ms. O’Grady’s interlocutors themselves ever gave financial support to Casanare’s paramilitaries, they represent a sector of rural Colombia – large landowners and cattle ranchers – that enthusiastically backed the expansion of paramilitarism in Colombia.

    By consulting only this source and reporting her findings in one of the United States’ most-circulated newspapers, Ms. O’Grady gravely offends the hundreds of thousands of people who were murdered, had loved ones murdered, were tortured or raped, or had lands stolen by these “hero vigilantes.”

    As any of these victims could have told her, the paramilitaries didn’t lose their way when they “morphed into criminal gangs,” whenever exactly that was. They did so at the very beginning, when they started murdering, torturing, disappearing, and displacing their fellow citizens.

    Jun 09
    Chávez upbraiding the FARC on Venezuelan TV yesterday.

    “Uribe has made a winning bet,” the Colombian newsmagazine Semana wrote last August, days after Colombian President Álvaro Uribe gave Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez the green light to mediate hostage-for-prisoner-exchange talks with the FARC guerrillas.

    He delegates to Chávez the biggest headache of his second term [the hostage crisis]. If things go well for Chávez, the Colombian government will get credit for having sought the right facilitator. If they go poorly, the government doesn’t lose because it will confirm its position that the FARC are the real obstacle to an exchange.

    Perhaps President Uribe truly expected that the FARC’s excruciatingly slow, stubborn approach to negotiations would frustrate even Hugo Chávez, thus strengthening his government’s harder line on talks (”If even Hugo Chávez can’t talk to them…”).

    If so, it has certainly taken a long time for Chávez to show any signs of frustration. But he certainly did on Sunday. More than five weeks after publicly announcing that he would be playing a more active role in mediating hostage-for-prisoner talks with the FARC, Chávez had this to say yesterday on his weekly television address.

    I believe that the time has come for the FARC to release all the people it has up in the mountains unconditionally. It would be a great humanitarian gesture. … Guerrilla wars have become history in Latin America. … This far along in Latin America, an armed guerrilla movement is out of step, and that has to be said to the FARC. … The FARC should know this: you have become an excuse, a justification for the Empire to threaten all of us. You are the perfect excuse.

    These are not the words of a facilitator who believes that his efforts are bearing fruit. For a variety of reasons – chief among them the flap over the emails on Raúl Reyes’ computers – Hugo Chávez’s mediating role, for now at least, is diminished.

    This is not good news, because Chávez was one of the leading candidates in the search for an interlocutor who could help win freedom for the guerrillas’ hostages. And now, because of evidence on the recovered computers allegedly indicating that they were too close to the FARC, many of the most frequently mentioned possible mediators – Álvaro Leyva, Carlos Lozano, Piedad Córdoba and others – are facing the preliminary phase of a criminal investigation.

    With targeted efforts against top guerrilla leaders and generous treatment for rank-and-file deserters, the Colombian government is effectively closing off the FARC’s military options. At the same time, though, it is closing off the guerrillas’ options for a political solution as well.

    Would-be facilitators are being warned off. The paramilitary leaders’ mass extradition sent a message to guerrilla leaders that the “Justice and Peace” law will not protect them if they desert. A (probably growing) faction in the Uribe government is clearly convinced that a military victory is at hand – that the war is in the home stretch. They contend that any negotiation now would break the momentum, giving the guerrillas an undeserved pause and a chance to negotiate more than just surrender terms.

    For this faction, anyone promoting negotiations – even to free the hostages – is simply in the way. And the hostages – seven civilians, thirty-three military and police, and untold hundreds held for ransom – are as far as ever from freedom.

    Continue reading »

    Jun 06

    Here, written principally by CIP Associate Abigail Poe, is an overview of the increasingly acrimonious debate over the human-rights conditions in the proposed aid package to Mexico. Military aid to Colombia, Bolivia and El Salvador in the 1980s has all been subject to similar conditions in the past. The Senate language offers an important protection and should stay in the final bill.


    The Senate and the House both approved versions of the 2008 supplemental appropriations bill including the so-called "Mérida Initiative," hundreds of millions of dollars in new aid for Mexico and Central America.

    Both houses’ bills attached human-rights conditions freezing the delivery of some military assistance until the State Department certifies that they are being fulfilled. The Senate version of these conditions is more stringent and specific, however, so much that the Mexican government is threatening to refuse the aid. Mexican officials are claiming that, as written, the Merida Initiative threatens Mexico’s sovereignty and would require changes to the country’s constitution.

    These complaints appear to stem mainly from the provision that halts aid unless alleged human rights violations by soldiers are being prosecuted by civilian authorities rather than military courts, and a condition baring assistance to authorities involved in corruption.

    The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and its director, "Drug Czar" John Walters, argue that the aid should not be stipulated on human rights conditions and that Mexican authorities accused of human rights, corruption or other criminal violations should not be prohibited from receiving the aid. According to Walters, the human rights provisions are “counterproductive” and they risk “sabotaging” the cooperation between Mexico and the United States in the fight against drugs and violence. From AP:

    Walters denounced a "cartoon view" of Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s administration as "fighting and dying in order to get U.S. money so they can violate human rights."

    "That’s insulting and a grotesque lie," Walters said. "I don’t think any serious person believes that. And if somebody is making an argument on the basis of that cartoon, it’s about time we said stop it. There’s something serious at stake here."

    However, as Amnesty International has recently documented, Mexico’s military and police have a long history of human rights violations that have gone unpunished. And, as pointed out by Senator Leahy, in his description of the Senate version of the bill: “Since when is it bad policy, or an infringement of anything, to insist that American taxpayer dollars not be given to corrupt, abusive police or military forces in a country whose justice system has serious flaws and rarely punishes official misconduct?”

    A House-Senate Conference Committee is reconciling differences between the two appropriations bills, and could finish work well before the July 4th recess. The appropriators are under heavy pressure from both the Mexican government and the White House to pass the Mérida Initiative without human rights conditions. To what extent will they give in? Will the final result resemble the Senate version, which prompted criticism by the Mexican government? Or will it be closer to the less stringent human rights conditions of the House version of the bill?

    Will Mexico even reject conditions similar to the House version? If so, it should send up big warning signs about the proposed aid. As Amesty International’s Renata Rendón put it in today’s Chicago Tribune, "If human rights do sabotage this agreement, we should think twice about who exactly we are trying to work with."

    See below for a side-by-side comparison of the Senate and House versions of the bill for aid to Mexico.

    Breakdown of difference in human rights conditions:

    1. Police complaint commissions:
    1. House: Improving the transparency and accountability of federal police forces and engaging state and municipal authorities to improve transparency and accountability of state and municipal police forces through mechanisms such as police complaint commissions:
    2. Senate: Establishes police complaint commissions with authority and independence to receive complaints and carry out effective investigations
    3. Difference: Senate version is more straightforward about what must be done
  • Involvement of civil society in monitoring programs:
    1. House: Ensuring meaningful engagement with civil society to monitor efforts to combat drug trafficking and related violent crime, judicial reform, institution building, and rule of law activities to ensure due process and the protection of freedom of expression, association, and assembly in accordance with Mexican and international law
    2. Senate: Establishing an independent mechanism, with representation from civil society, to monitor programs to combat drug trafficking and related violence and organized crime, judicial reform, anti-corruption, and rule of law activities to ensure due process and the protection of freedoms of expression, association, and assembly and rights of privacy, in accordance with Mexican and international law.
    3. Differences: Senate version actually establishes a mechanism to monitor the programs, and adds the monitoring of anti-corruption activities and the protection of rights of privacy to the list.
  • How to deal with prosecution/punishment of police/military that commits human rights violations?
    1. House: two provisions:

    Continue reading »