Dec 23

Here is a translation from Friday’s column in El Tiempo by former Colombian Finance Minister Rudolf Hommes. He is part of a group calling itself “Citizens for Life” who have posted an online Christmas card in solidarity with the victims of the Colombian military’s extrajudicial executions. The card is at

We’re taking a few days off for the holiday, and judging from our website statistics, most of you have too. Posting will be infrequent for the rest of 2008.

Citizens for Life
By Rudolf Hommes

To judge by what stands out in the media, nothing other than money – like in the case of the pyramid schemes – or Uribe’s reelection seems to move the country. Cases keep appearing of murdered civilians who are classified as “false positives.” They kill the husband of an indigenous leader at 4:00 in the morning, when he is going to pick her up [at the airport after a trip to Geneva], and the discussion is limited to whether the civilian justice system, the UN or another authority should investigate the crime. The majority of our fellow citizens don’t seem concerned that Colombians, especially those with low incomes, young people in the large cities’ slums, union leaders, indigenous and campesino leaders cannot travel freely without fear of being killed, of being treated like suspects who tried to escape, or of having their bodies end up disguised, post mortem, as those of guerrillas.

The worst aspect of these repeated “false positives,” crimes that don’t even have anything to do with war and are committed with the purpose of inflating statistics that intend to measure the performance of those carrying out a security policy, is that the people who perpetrate those crimes feel supported by the bureaucracy, or even authorized by their superiors to carry them out. And in any case, society doesn’t pay much attention to these acts, even though they are an attack on society and against our youth. This situation is very similar to that described by the philosopher Hannah Arendt in her writings, particularly in her article about Eichmann’s trial in Israel, which caused the concept of the “banality of evil” to be popularized. It illustrates how common citizens, who in everything else follow laws and fear God and the State, are willing to commit acts of cruelty against other human beings, without pangs of conscience, when they believe that these acts have the support of a respected institution.

The publication of these articles coincided with a moving report in El Espectador about the mothers of the young men in Soacha who were killed so that their deaths could be registered as “false positives,” and the appearance in this daily of an article by Antanas Mockus [two-time mayor of Bogotá], who expressed alarm about the “undignified and unrestricted conversion of human beings into instruments to improve some statistics.” Mockus is concerned that, “as in times of German Fascism, human beings reduce other human beings to primary material for their will,” and this happens when society suffers from anomie, which is a “social situation that is produced when society inculcates (and celebrates) the achievement of results, without inculcating (or defending) at the same time respect for limits over the measures employed in the achievement of these results.”

At the end of the article, Mockus invites his readers to join together and act in support of life. He, Claudia López and I resolved to follow this recommendation and conceived the idea of publishing a Christmas card illustrated with a powerful photograph of Óscar Pérez – which eloquently expressed the pain of the mothers of Soacha and the dimension of the tragedy – to be massively distributed through different media. It invites readers to reflect on this situation during this Christmas, and to join in solidarity with the victims of this form of violence.

The response that this initiative has received has been very encouraging. It now counts with the support of numerous people of very diverse professional and political origins, among them distinguished columnists from this and other dailies, who have spontaneously congregated as Citizens for Life. Many of them had not fully realized the seriousness of what has been happening until we communicated the idea to them, and they reacted. The card is being distributed now through several media, and I hope that it might contribute to defeating indifference, so that the majority of Colombians might be Citizens for Life.

Dec 22

From Semana.

The pro-FARC website ANNCOL posted a communication from the guerrilla leadership yesterday announcing the FARC’s intention to release six of the twenty-eight so-called “exchangeable” hostages who have been in its custody for many years. (These are in addition to untold hundreds of hostages the group is holding for ransom.) Those to be freed include both of the remaining civilians on the list of those whom the FARC have long held as a brutal tactic to pressure the Colombian government for a prisoner exchange.

  • Alan Jara, former governor of Meta department, kidnapped in July 2001.
  • Sigifredo López, the only survivor among twelve Valle del Cauca departmental legislators kidnapped in April 2002. The rest were murdered in June 2007.

Though the FARC communiqué does not specify who the four non-civilians to be released will be, El Espectador reports that the four most likely to be let go are a soldier and three policement who have been held for less than two years. Most of the other security-force hostages have been in captivity for nine years or more.

  • Willam Geovanny Dominguez, soldier kidnapped in January 2007.
  • Alexis Torres Zapata, police officer kidnapped in June 2007.
  • Juan Fernando Galicia, police officer kidnapped in June 2007.
  • José Walter Lozano, police officer kidnapped in June 2007.

If correct, this list does not include Pablo Emilio Moncayo, one of the two longest-held hostages, who just completed eleven years in guerrilla custody on Saturday. Moncayo’s father Gustavo, a teacher from Nariño, has been one of the most active and highest-profile advocates of a solution to the hostage crisis.

The guerrilla announcement is a partial success for the so-called “Colombians for Peace” group, a collection of prominent citizens and intellectuals, including opposition Senator Piedad Córdoba, who began an “epistolary exchange” of letters with the guerrillas in September. The announced hostage release comes at the end of the FARC’s second written response to the group.

The success is only partial, however, since the group’s last communication to the guerrillas had asked for much more: that they release all of their hostages and renounce the practice of kidnapping. The FARC refuses to do that, returning to its insistence on a prisoner exchange.

The announcement nonetheless may contain a shred of hopeful news about what could be happening within the guerrilla leadership. We do not know if the FARC have been in internal agreement about whether holding civilians hostage for years was a strategy that made any strategic sense. Whether those who held this barbaric view were the entire leadership or just a powerful majority, though, one thing is apparent: another hostage release in exchange for nothing is a clear defeat for them. And that is good news.

Dec 19

  • Colombia’s House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday authorizing a referendum on whether President Álvaro Uribe can run for a third term. But the bill appears to allow him to run for a non-consecutive term in 2014, not in 2010. The Colombian Academy of Language was brought in to decipher the verb tense used in the bill (”a verbal inflection of a pluperfect participle”), to try to determine whether Uribe would have to wait for a third straight term. While Uribe has not yet announced his intentions, there are more indications that he has his eye on 2010, and the Colombian Senate could change the bill in his favor.
  • If Uribe cannot run again until 2014, Reuters provides a short list of political figures who could be leading candidates in 2010. The list includes both opposition leaders hoping for an upset victory, and pro-government politicians who would face a significant likelihood of playing Medvedev to Uribe’s Putin.
  • Leaders of 31 Latin American countries met in Brazil this week to discuss a range of economic and security issues. The United States was not invited.
  • Leaders present at the summit made interesting proposals. Bolivia’s Evo Morales called on the entire region to expel its U.S. ambassadors until the United States lifts its embargo on Cuba. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa called on President Obama to end Plan Colombia and the Cuba embargo. Hugo Chávez brought up the possibility of inviting the DEA back to Venezuela, after ejecting them in 2006. And Cuba’s Raúl Castro offered to release some political prisoners if the U.S. government freed five alleged Cuban spies in U.S. jails.
  • Brazil-based analyst Sam Logan published a very thorough overview of the Obama administration’s likely plans for hemispheric relations on the site of Switzerland’s International Relations and Security Network.
  • Ted Galen Carpenter of the libertarian Cato Institute pokes holes in the Bush administration’s claim that significant progress has been made on reducing cocaine availability in the United States.

And what was the sky-high street price of cocaine that justified such optimism? $170 per gram. Adjusted for inflation, that price was actually higher than the latest price spike to just under $183. Yet clearly that earlier alleged supply-side victory in the drug war was short lived. According to the DEA’s own statistics in the December 2008 report, cocaine prices had declined to a mere $96 per gram by January 2007.

  • In a very long interview with El Espectador, President Uribe’s chief peace negotiator, Luis Carlos Restrepo, says that the FARC are now highly permeable to government infiltration.

At this moment the FARC are a very porous structure. Not the closed, inviolable one that we knew until very recently. The number of people who have demobilized have allowed us to have communication channels to others who remain in the FARC, they allow us to know what is happening on the inside, so that our psychological actions are more effective.

  • The U.S. group Witness for Peace has produced a stirring 13-minute video on extrajudicial executions in Colombia.
  • “In my opinion, many of the recent acts with regard to human rights violations began before Uribe was president, when there was violence with impunity. He is trying to strengthen institutions like justice. Crimes must be investigated, among the military and in other places. That is being done, and nothing was done before. It is impossible to fix everything in eight years, but there have been advances.” – Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), interviewed in the Colombian magazine Cambio.
  • Panamanian police skirmished with a Colombian armed group on Panama’s soil a week ago. Ecuadorian troops keep finding FARC encampments in jungles near the border.
  • A delegation from China’s Defense Ministry paid a visit to Bogotá this week. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos visited Russia in October. It appears Colombia is no longer putting all of its military eggs in the U.S. basket.
  • Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega spent the week in Russia, where his plans may include a visit to the pro-Russian separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in Georgia.
  • Venezuela’s government expressed hope that the massive cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe “will not be used to destabilize politically” the authoritarian government of Robert Mugabe.
  • In Argentina, a court ordered the release on bail of 14 former military officers accused of very serious human-rights abuses during the military dictatorship that ended in 1983. They are still facing trial, but have been jailed for two years or more without trial. Among those freed, at least temporarily, is former naval intelligence officer Alfredo Astiz, the “Angel of Death” profiled in Tina Rosenberg’s 1991 book Children of Cain, convicted in absentia in France for the killing of two French nuns. President Cristina Fernández called their release an “embarrassment.”
Dec 18

Communiqué from the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC), Cauca, Colombia, December 16

At 4:00 this morning, troops from the National Army fired without pity upon a CRIC pickup truck, a vehicle that had been on a medical mission to the municipality of Inzá Tierradentro, driven by Edwin Legarda Vásquez, husband of the Chief Counselor of the CRIC, Aide Quilcué. Legarda was hit by two bullets, one on the right side of his chest, and he died at 8:00 AM in Popayán’s San José Hospital.

The CRIC vehicle, which is widely known because of frequent travels on this road, was attacked on three sides and had 17 rifle impacts, in a clear act of war on the part of the Colombian Army against the civilian population and, especially, against indigenous people. …

The CRIC Counselor, upon analyzing the circumstances of her husband’s assassination, has denounced this deed as a premeditated act in which she was the real target. Aida Quilcué has received multiple threats, and her risk increased after having made national and international denunciations [including in Geneva the previous week] about violence against indigenous people, and murders committed during the National Minga [indigenous protests that began in Cauca in October].

Statement from the Colombian Defense Ministry, December 17

The minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, denied that the death of indigenous person Edwin Legarda, husband of indigenous leader Aida Quilque [sic.], could have been premeditated, and expressed his conviction that it was an error committed by the troops, whose circumstnaces must be clarified by competent authorities.

“We have to clarify what happened, whether there was an excess of force or an irresponsible act, but I can assure you that the rumors about a premeditated action have neither feet nor a head,” the minister insisted, while affirming that the soldiers themselves reported the act.

Santos announced that personnel from the Army Inspector-General and from the 3rd Division had arrived at the scene of the act, and reiterated that he has asked the Prosecutor-General [Fiscalía], the Inspector-General [Procuraduría] and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to carry out the investigation to determine responsibilities.

Meanwhile he said that if punishments are established, they will be rigorously applied. “If this is the case we are willing to offer reparations to everyone,” the minister emphasized.

Finally, he said that there are no orders to shoot at vehicles at roadblocks and, to the contrary, there are established procedures for these cases. “If someone did not follow them he will be punished, that is not the policy.”

We join dozens of Colombian and international groups in condemning the killing of Edwin Legarda, and share our sorrow with Ms. Quilcué, her family and colleagues. Ms. Quilcué’s role as an outspoken human rights defender, and the unusual nature of the attack, certainly arouse suspicions of foul play. We strongly hope that Minister Santos’ words above mean that the investigation and prosecution of this incident will pass to Colombia’s civilian justice system. 

Dec 16

David Murcia Guzmán as a wedding photographer, a business magnate, and a prisoner (photos from Semana).

Imagine that you’re a narcotrafficker – or an associate of narcotraffickers – who needs to launder US$3 million. Why not go to a poor rural area – perhaps a remote coca-growing zone where you already have connections, and where the central government won’t notice you right away.

There, make an amazing offer to the local residents. “Give us your money,” you say, “and you can have it back, with 50% interest, in 6 months.”

Within 6 months or so, you have turned your US$3 million in “dirty” money into US$2 million in “clean” money: the contributions from thousands of grateful campesinos who magically increased their wealth. Minus, of course, the unknown amount you had to pay in bribes and lawyers’ fees to keep investigations into your finances from becoming too zealous. (Many local officials themselves become “investors” too.)

When asked how your business model can possibly work legally, simply explain that it is a “secret formula” like Coca-Cola’s recipe or Google’s search algorithm.

As long as nobody is asking, it’s a “win-win.” Colombia’s narcotraffickers, probably including demobilizing paramilitary leaders, have a trouble-free new way to launder their profits. And by spreading the wealth, you become something of a folk hero among the poor residents of forgotten corners of the country where coca-growing has long seemed like a rational economic choice. People are selling their farms to invest in your scheme. Everyone from churches to charities to soldiers is doing the same.

Eventually, members of the press and some activists become more insistent in their questions about where your money comes from. Your model becomes a bit more complicated, but also easier to access.

Participants can now put their money in prepaid cards, redeemable on purchases of appliances, motorcycles and other goods at super-stores that you’ve opened up throughout the country, including in Bogotá. Six months after spending their money on your heavily marked-up goods, they can get all of their original money back. You’ve basically just given them a free motorcycle, which you bought wholesale, in exchange for laundering enough of your money to pay for a heavily marked-up retail motorcycle.

This, of course, is an approximation of the story of David Murcia Guzmán, who until his arrest a few weeks ago was the 28-year-old head of DMG (his initials), a company founded in Orito, Putumayo in 2003. When he started the company, Murcia was working as a wedding photographer in southern Colombia’s coca heartland. By this year, DMG was one of Colombia’s 500 largest companies, with declared 2007 revenues of nearly $40 million, 60 offices nationwide and a presence in Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela. The skinny, ponytailed Murcia became a jetsetter frequently photographed in the company of models.

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Dec 15

Cover of the latest issue of Here is a translation of a piece about “what to expect from the new U.S. administration” appearing in the latest issue of Cien Días, published by Colombia’s Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP).

“Change is coming, but not drastic change” [PDF]
By Adam Isacson, director of programs, Center for International Policy

Once he is inaugurated as the next president of the United States in January 2009, Barack Obama’s first major foreign policy challenge will simply be managing the rest of the world’s expectations.

His historic victory in the November 4 presidential elections brought a huge sigh of relief from almost everywhere on the planet. In Latin America and other regions, there is a strong desire to see the United States abandoning the unilateralism and warlike behavior of the past several years, and a strong hope that the face the United States shows to the world will change radically.

Under these circumstances, it is virtually guaranteed that the new president will disappoint many. While there will certainly be less militarism and disregard for human rights, the change will not be as revolutionary as many expect. Colombia will be no exception.

Because Obama has never visited Latin America and – as of late November – he has not officially nominated anyone to a post with responsibility for policy toward the region, we have little information to guide us as we seek to guess how the Obama government would change Colombia policy. But given his first nominations, the positions of his advisors and the few statements he made about Colombia during the campaign, it seems most likely that his administration will not seek to change fundamentally the framework of bilateral relations established with Plan Colombia during the Clinton-Pastrana period, and strengthened during the Bush-Uribe years.

There will certainly be changes to the relationship, and some will be important. But they will not be drastic. With the objective of fighting narcotrafficking, weakening illegal armed groups and strengthening the state, Colombia will probably still be the main recipient of U.S. military and police aid in Latin America. There will still be a desire to maintain a strong and close bilateral relationship with the Colombian government, which will surely include a desire to avoid taking actions that antagonize President Álvaro Uribe. Nor is Washington likely to play any leading role in efforts to negotiate an end to Colombia’s armed conflict.

There are several reasons to believe that change will be gradual. First, the mere fact that colombia does not head the list of the United States’ current foreign policy concerns. During a long presidential campaign with many debates, press conferences and town-hall meetings, the issue of Colombia policy was hardly discussed, with the exception of a not very nuanced discussion of the free-trade agreement. As a result, it is quite unlikely that the Obama administration will seek to spend its political capital seeking profound change to Colombia policy.

A second reason not to expect large changes is the cohort of foreign policy advisors who accompany the new president. Candidate Obama surrounded himself with advisors with a more internationalist outlook and a stronger belief in “soft power” than those who came with President Bush. But the majority do not come from the left wing of the Democratic Party, which has more influence in the Congress. Some are former Clinton administration officials, present at the creation of Plan Colombia in 1999-2000 (Arturo Valenzuela, for example, was in charge of Western Hemisphere policy in the National Security Council during that period). Others worked for Democratic members of Congress known more for their foreign policy realism than their idealism (Daniel Restrepo, for example, was in charge of Western Hemisphere policy in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led at the time by Rep. Lee Hamilton [D-Indiana]). They are pragmatic experts, much less ideological than the Bush administration’s hard-liners. While they do recognize the importance of human rights and social justice, they are also guided by a conception that the U.S. interest must always come first.

A third reason why radical change is unlikely is geopolitics. While this owes significantly to serious errors that U.S. governments committed in the past, the reality today is that the number of Latin American governments seeking friendly relations with the United States is much reduced. Colombia is one of the few “friends” the United States has left in a region where the influence of “Bolivarian” leaders is on the increase. Even if the Obama government takes seriously its rather vague commitment to seek a “new alliance” with the region, it will be less likely pursue policies that jeopardize its friendship with the Colombian government.

Nonetheless, there will be notable changes in the policy toward Colombia. In fact, the center-left Obama administration will be starting from a position of little empathy with the government of Uribe, who is from the right and who left a strong impression of having supported John McCain’s election. And of course, since Colombia is a low-priority issue today in Washington, we can’t dismiss the possibility that this could allow the Obama administration to make significant changes without paying a high political cost. There will, therefore, be some changes during the administration’s first and second years. While these changes will not be of transcendental importance, they will represent a meaningful evolution away from the Bush era.

The Obama campaign’s statements made clear that the new president will follow the general framework of Plan Colombia. “When I am President, we will continue the Andean Counter-Drug Program, and update it to meet evolving challenges,” he said in May. “We will fully support Colombia’s fight against the FARC.” Colombia will thus probably continue to be the main destination of U.S. aid to Latin America, though Mexico – under the so-called “Mérida Initiative” – could come to occupy this position within a few years. And the truth is that even if McCain had won, reductions in aid to Colombia would have been inevitable.

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Dec 12

    One killed 3,000 people. The other inspires “impure thoughts.”

  • The DEA announced yesterday that its estimate of cocaine prices on U.S. streets has nearly doubled since January 2007. The agency’s release gives the credit not to coca eradication – the amount of cocaine produced in the Andes has changed little – but to increased law-enforcement activity against cartel leaders in Mexico and Colombia. Over the last year or so, Colombia saw a spike in arrests or killings of top narcotraffickers (Diego Montoya, Wilber Varela, Juan Carlos Abadía, the Mejía Múnera twins) and the extraditions of much of the top paramilitary leadership. The drug mafia is likely in a state of chaos, even if drug supplies are largely steady.
  • Here [PDF] is an English-language overview of the human rights situation in Putumayo, Colombia, prepared by the Colombian human rights group Corporación MINGA to coincide with the November 17-21 visit of a delegation of victims’ leaders from that badly battered southern Colombian province. The document asks how Putumayo’s humanitarian catastrophe – 3,000 people disappeared or killed over a six-year period – could have happened at the same time that the zone was the principal focus of U.S. “Plan Colombia” assistance.
  • On Thursday night Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) gave a strong speech on the floor of the House of Representatives about his mid-November trip to the Ecuador-Colombia border region.

As I traveled further north towards the border frontier, I found a growing humanitarian and security crisis. Eight years ago, the United States started pouring military aid–$4.8 billion of it–into Colombia, much of it focused on military operations in the violent coca growing zones just across the border from Ecuador.The result has been an alarming spillover of violence into Ecuador’s peaceful but impoverished borderlands. Over 200,000 Colombians–a number rivaling many refugee crises in Africa–have fled to Ecuador to escape the violence and intense fighting between guerilla groups, the Colombian military, and Colombian paramilitary militias.

As the GAO recently reported, harsh U.S. counter-drug strategies have failed to halt cocaine production in Colombia or ease the violence that comes with this illegal economy. Instead, organized crime has been pushed across the border into Ecuador.

Mr. Speaker, I stood on the banks of the San Miguel River, which marks the border between Putumayo, Colombia, and Sucumbios, Ecuador. Only a few hundred yards of water separate the two.

Mr. Speaker, Colombia’s war is literally bleeding, violently, into Ecuador, which has no history of illegal drug cultivation or insurgency from its own people. Tensions between the two nations are high and diplomatic relations remain cut off.

  • The Ecuadorian government took a surprising step against Colombian migrants this week: all Colombian citizens are now prohibited from entering Ecuador until they first furnish a certificate of their “judicial history.”
  • Ecuador meanwhile announced today that it will default on foreign debt it considers to be “illegal and illegitimate.” Also, President Rafael Correa received a US$40 million loan from Iran during a visit this week to Teheran.
  • The very useful Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris analyses of the current state of Colombia’s conflict, summaries of which we translated last week, are presented in more detail in the latest issue of the organization’s magazine, Arcanos.
  • In a report published last month, the human-rights group CODHES adds up all of the armed-group members that the Colombian government claims to have killed, captured or demobilized since the beginning of 2002, and comes up with the remarkable – not to mention improbable – figure of 114,259 people.
  • Opposition Senator Gustavo Petro denounced yesterday that a “political reform” bill in the Congress includes a section, proposed by pro-government legislators, which would exclude demobilized combatants from holding public office. If this section were to become law, Petro – a member of the M-19 guerrillas who negotiated peace with the Colombian government almost twenty years ago – would have to step down.
  • And finally, what list of Latin America-related links this week would be complete without a reference to Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina. Speaking at a tribute to honor dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet on Wednesday – the second anniversary of the despot’s death – the retired cardinal paused to denounce what he viewed as the real danger to morality: pop star Madonna, who was giving a concert in Santiago. “This woman comes here and in an incredibly shameless manner, she provokes a crazy enthusiasm, an enthusiasm of lust, lustful thoughts, impure thoughts.”
Dec 11

Authors Jorge Rojas and Iván Cepeda. (Picture from the website of Semana magazine.)

At Ubérrimo’s Gates is the name of a book released this week in Colombia, jointly written by two of the country’s most prominent human rights defenders: Iván Cepeda of the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes and Jorge Rojas, the director of the Consultancy for Human Rights and Internal Displacement (CODHES.)

The book’s title cites the name of the extensive ranch outside Montería, a small city that serves as capital of the northwestern Colombian department of Córdoba, that is the property of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe. Though he is from the neighboring department of Antioquia, where he served as governor from 1995 to 1997, Uribe owns significant amounts of land in Córdoba as well, and frequently receives visitors at El Ubérrimo.

The authors make note of this because Montería, and the department of Córdoba in general, are practically synonymous with the rise of paramilitarism in Colombia since the 1980s. By the 1990s much of the department was firmly under the control of the founding group of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the United Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU), led by Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso. The AUC/ACCU was headquartered in Córdoba’s Nudo de Paramillo region, it received generous and open support from Montería’s landowning elite and politicians, and its leaders were frequently seen in the city.

Cepeda’s and Rojas’s book is not principally about Álvaro Uribe. It contains no juicy “smoking gun” evidence that Colombia’s president has ties to paramilitaries and narcotraffickers. The authors’ focus is on the growth and pervasiveness of paramilitarism in a city and province that became a chief AUC stronghold, with local elites’ acquiescence and support.

The book goes on to ask how Álvaro Uribe could have spent years as a prominent public figure and landholder in Montería without showing any signs that he was uncomfortable with, or even aware of, the paramilitaries’ strong dominion over the zone. It also notes Uribe’s close relationships with Córdoba business and political leaders who have since become embroiled in scandal over their ties to paramilitary groups, among other corruption.

Here is an excerpt from the opening chapter of At Ubérrimo’s Gates, published Sunday by the Colombian daily El Espectador.

Excerpt from At Ubérrimo’s Gates, by Iván Cepeda and Jorge Rojas

Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s successful political career was bearing fruit. His name began to be heard in political circles as a card in the deck of aspirants for the Presidency of the Republic. Followers and regional leaders launched his candidacy. Shortly before he finished his term as governor [in 1997], representatives of Antioquia’s commercial, industrial and cattle-raising sectors asked him to resign the governorship and begin his campaign. As a show of their support, the business associations organized a public demonstration that gathered more than 3,000 people in the Plaza Cisneros, across from La Alpujarra, where the governor’s office is located. The media highlighted that among those headlining the event was found the head of the Ochoa clan [associates of the Medellín cartel], the horse enthusiast Fabio Ochoa. The Uribes and the Ochoas never hid their friendly relationship. The event closed with the songs of Darío Gómez, “the king of despecho music.”

In Córdoba, the cattlemen’s associations’ leaders saw in Uribe Vélez a politician inextricably tied to the department, as the owner of “El Ubérrimo” and other lands. His first public appearance in Córdoba as a presidential pre-candidate was to take place, with him as the central speaker, at an event in honor of Rodrigo García Caicedo, considered one of the clearest exponents of the self-defense doctrine, a confessed admirer of the Castaño Gil brothers [founders of the AUC] and the victim of a dynamite attack.

Last-minute difficulties kept the governor of Antioquia from attending. Among those attending the event were Jorge Visbal Martelo, who convened it, and the ex-commander of the [Montería-based] 11th Brigade, Iván Ramírez. A few months after the event, in May 1998, Gen. Ramírez would see himself tied down by a complicated situation, when the U.S. embassy decided to revoke his visa to enter that country due to presumed human rights violations committed when he commanded the army brigade in Montería. Upon learning of the decision, the general said that all he had done was fight terrorists for 36 years, and that it was an outrage that, near the end of his career, he would be treated like one of them.

It wasn’t until 1999 that the new candidate attended several public events in Córdoba that had an electoral connotation. He participated in the 39th Agricultural, Commercial, Microenterprise and Equine Fair and Exposition. The local media referred to him as “the owner of considerable extensions of land in Córdoba” and as one who “has been credited, during his occupation of the Antioquia governor’s office, with revitalizing the controversial Convivir [state-sanctioned self-defense militias], many of which later turned into paramilitary groups.” On the night of June 18, the ex-governor of Antioquia was at a cocktail party at this event. In the photos published in the social pages of Córdoba’s El Meridiano newspaper, Uribe Vélez appeared with Johanna Mancuso, the newspaper’s sales executive and the cousin of Salvatore Mancuso, who at the time was one of the AUC’s commanders. At the same event was Giuliana Mancuso, the national “cattle queen” and cousin of the paramilitary chief. The presidential candidate, who had known Mancuso years earlier, knew to whom the El Meridiano executive and the queen were related.

Along with the young Mancusos, the cattlemen’s fair’s social event counted with the presence of Róger Taboada, who at the time was the vice president of the Banco Ganadero. Months later, Taboada became treasurer of Álvaro Uribe Vélez’s presidential campaign. His friendship with Uribe led him to be Colombia’s consul-general in San Francisco, California. After his tenure as a diplomat, his legal problems began: the Prosecutor-General’s Office [Fiscalía] ordered his arrest for his alleged participation in a series of illegal operations that made up part of the multi-million-dollar theft from the Fond for the Financing of the Agrarian Sector, Finagro, of which he was president, which benefited the narcotrafficker Luis Enrique Micky Ramírez, a former partner of Pablo Escobar. The investigations indicated that Taboada may have given out 855 credits of 29 million pesos each [about US$14,000], supposedly loaned to cattlemen. The former official faced an arrest warrant for conspiracy, money-laundering, document falsification and procedural fraud. After being a fugitive, he was captured in June 2008.

Accompanied by two of the main signers of the Santa Fe de Ralito Pact [a 2001 mutual-support document signed by politicians and paramilitary leaders], Miguel Alfonso de la Espriella and Eleonora Pineda, candidate Álvaro Uribe traveled throughout Córdoba, held public events, spoke at conferences and spoke with the people. In ads and photos published in El Meridiano de Córdoba he appeared in a red shirt, hand on his heart, behind him the national flag and beside him the smiling faces of Miguel Alfonso and Eleonora. With them he went to Montería’s neighborhoods and spoke of defeating violence and corruption; he attended the demonstrations carried out in the zones of Bajo and Alto Sinú, San Jorge, Sahagún and Cereté. He met with young Córdoba university students, to whom he spoke of the need to “rebuild the Fatherland.”

Continue reading »

Dec 09

A U.S. Black Hawk helicopter on a May 2008 humanitarian training mission in Costa Rica. More Costa Rica exercise pictures are on our “Just the Facts” site.

Costa Rica has enjoyed uninterrupted democracy since 1948. Most Costa Ricans speak with pride of this stability, and of the decision that year – taken after a brief civil war – to abolish the country’s military. Costa Rica has a civilian police force that protects citizens and the country’s borders.

The U.S. government has respected that decision, and has consistently maintained cordial relations with Costa Rica.

Which is why I was surprised this morning, when going through a recent Defense Department required report to Congress on its overseas military-aid programs (PDF), to find this on page 67, in a listing of Pentagon-funded humanitarian-assistance programs in 2007:

Country: Costa Rica

Dollar Amount: $920,971

Type of Support Provided: Infrastructure – Rehabilitate or repair – School renovation/construction, Clinic construction, 4 Minimal Cost projects

Purpose: Improves U.S. image with a government with anti-military sentiment. Project showcases U.S. Military multi-mission capabilities. Promoting democracy, regional prosperity, and stability.

There is something troubling about the notion that

(1) the U.S. image in a traditionally friendly country like Costa Rica is so low today that improving it is a reason given for a nearly $1 million military deployment; and

(2) it is seen as somehow in the U.S. interest to counteract “anti-military sentiment” in armyless Costa Rica.

Dec 08

(Map source: Fundación Red Desarrollo y Paz de los Montes de María.)

Here is a translation of a troubling column by Alfredo Molano in yesterday’s El Espectador. Molano writes about the Montes de María region, along Colombia’s Caribbean coast southwest of Cartagena. He describes a war-scarred region where “strange personalities” in armored Hummers are buying up small farmers’ land, and where the government is carrying out “consolidation” programs that give the Colombian military a significant role in development projects.

Consolidation, Inc.
By Alfredo Molano Bravo
El Espectador (Bogotá), December 7, 2008

The four dead in El Pozón, a neighborhood of displaced people in Cartagena, didn’t merit anything more than small-type headlines in the newspapers and a brief reference on the radio.

In El Carmen de Bolívar, where the dead originally came from, the news spread quickly and opened up a debate. First in moderate tones and then little by little, as the weather grew hotter, an open discussion full of wounded cries about the post-conflict reality in the Montes de María. This is a mountain range that has been beaten down by violence since the 1950s, suffering the massacres of El Salado, Chengue and Macayepo, carried out by the paramilitaries under the command of alias Cadena and alias El Tigre, protected by politicians in the region and with the participation of some loose ends among the Marines.

After the death of [Caribbean Bloc commander] Martín Caballero [in October 2007], the FARC have continued to suffer blows and the security forces continue to advance. The result has inspired the government to proclaim victory, and to launch a military consolidation plan called the “Integrated Action Fusion Center,” which is nothing more than an updated way of carrying out military civic-action projects. The Marines are in charge of all government institutions, from [the presidency's office of] Social Action to the ICBF [child and family welfare institute], a coordination that ends up being authoritarian. The military has begun to contract all infrastructure projects with the civilian sector, such as roads, bridges, schools, or medical centers; to carry out health-care brigades; to organize campesino associations; to entertain the campesinos with a traveling circus; and, though it may surprise the country, to give human rights workshops.

The program is nothing more than the militarization of the state’s social programs. After the blood and pain of the massacres, after the military’s securing of the zone, now the way is open for a civilian operation in the hands of those in uniform. The people look on with skepticism. They have memories. The European Union, which financed much of the existing public works, is uncomfortable with its new partner, since its aid programs prohibit participation in military plans; and as if that weren’t enough, it is hard enough to get most public functionaries to do their own jobs.

The surprising “post-conflict” thesis has another dissonant note: for the past several months, strange personalities have come to the towns of the Montes de María in bulletproof Hummers to negotiate land purchases. (Hummers are combat vehicles from the Gulf War, today sold commercially and hated by environmentalists for the very high levels of pollution that they produce.) That is, they come to buy, at a low cost, small properties that have been foreclosed upon by the banks or by businesses. Or because they like to have their pistols seen and they don’t hide their bodyguards. Campesinos who have managed to come out of the war alive, or who have returned after being displaced to other cities, are the first ones obligated to sell.

There are chains of intermediaries who offer confidential commercial information and who pass through the small farms issuing “Águilas Negras” threats. It doesn’t stop there: large and recognized dairy, timber, and – of course! – oil-palm companies are those who end up buying these lands and making them into very respectable agro-industrial enterprises. It would all seem to be a perfect plan, were it not for the campesinos who have noticed “how the stream’s water arrives at the mill,” and who also know how to tell of the terrible roads they had to take to get to the notaries [to close the sales of their land]. The issue is so serious that the Bolívar departmental government has frozen land sales in the region.

Europe, which finances the social programs that the government is carrying out in the Montes de María and in the Macizo Colombiano (the mountains of southwestern Colombia), among other regions, cannot be indifferent to this huge institutional change. Nor can the incoming U.S. government: what Uribe is doing is getting out ahead of the likely reduction in Plan Colombia’s military aid and giving the military control over money spent for exclusively social purposes. This will allow [Defense] Minister [Juan Manuel] Santos to begin his election campaign and the military to continue enjoying preferential treatment in the budget.

Dec 05

This is the first Friday since October that program staff are (1) in Washington and (2) not preparing frantically for a trip or event. It’s nice to be back.

  • The collapse of pyramid schemes in Colombia, and especially of DMG – which appears to have been more money-laundering operation than pyramid scheme – not only threatens President Álvaro Uribe’s prospects of getting re-elected to a third term in 2010. It may also mean a resurgence of coca cultivation in southern Colombian departments (especially Putumayo and Caquetá) where much of the population had become dependent on these “easy money” projects.
  • Latin American drug lords are starting to take up residence in West African countries like Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone and Ghana, reports the UK’s Telegraph newspaper.
  • Excellent article by Los Angeles Times reporter Chris Kraul on re-armed or “emerging” paramilitary groups in the department of Nariño in southwestern Colombia.
  • CODHES, a prominent Bogotá-based human rights NGO, claims that 2,009 people in Puerto Guzmán, Putumayo, were forcibly displaced by aerial fumigation in their rural communities.
  • Colombia’s Police have manually eradicated a record 91,742 hectares of coca so far this year.
  • Here is a charming video of the outgoing chief of Peru’s army telling a roomful of people that “Chileans who enter will not exit, and if they do, they’ll do so in a coffin.”
  • The top officer in the U.S. Navy visited Chile this week.
  • For the first time since its annual poll began in 1991, a majority of Miami’s Cuban-American community favored lifting the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
  • U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield likes baseball, Cambio magazine reveals.
Dec 03

In a series of three articles posted to its website and to that of Colombia’s Semana newsmagazine, the Colombian think-tank Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris (which unfortunately translates as “New Rainbow Corporation”) provides a brief but excellent overview of the state of Colombia’s conflict at the end of 2008.

The picture is complex, but very troubling on balance. They reveal U.S. officials’ portrayal of Colombia as an “international model” of successful state building to be premature at best – if not completely misguided.

Here is an English translation (thanks to CIP Intern Anthony Dest) of the third of these articles, which focuses on the state of the ELN. The smaller of Colombia’s two guerrilla groups remains weak, as it has for most of the past ten years. But according to analysts at Nuevo Arco Iris – a group founded in the mid-1990s by a group of demobilized ELN dissidents – the guerrilla organization continues to survive and to pose a threat.

A Weakened ELN Tries To Rebuild

This guerrilla group eludes government forces. It appears to be a strategy aimed at preserving what little it has left: to sustain itself and to hide.

Militarily, in 2008 the ELN carried out what could be called a passive resistance. It lost personnel in a few regions such as Antioquia, Boyacá and Santander, but in others such as Nariño, it increased in power for two reasons: alliances with emerging criminal groups, and because the Armed Forces have concentrated more on pursuing the FARC (a strategy that has given the ELN some breathing room).

The study by Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris claims that, despite its position of retreat, the ELN continues to kidnap. Kidnapping continues to be one of the ELN’s primary sources of financing, in addition to narcotics trafficking in some regions.

Here are the principal findings:

  • Historically, the ELN has had an enormously decentralized and autonomous structure in which the organization followed dissimilar regional dynamics. It is divided territorialy into independent “war fronts,” in turn subdivided into fronts. The COCE [the ELN's 'Central Command'] continues to maintain control over the organization and keep it cohesive despite great difficulties.
  • The “Arauca, Boyacá and Casanare Corridor” group failed to consolidate itself. The project aimed to unite the Domingo Laín Front of the Northeastern War Front with the other groups from the region, along with two groups from the Central War Front that were very weak. However, the Laín is in a state of stark decline and currently has very little ability to attack the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline. There is a similar situation in Casanare, where the ELN suffers from a very weak structure.
  • The group from Magdalena Medio, which operates in Santander and part of Boyacá, didn’t increase in power either. The ELN was dismantled and lost its traditional bases of power in San Vicente del Chucurí and Barrancabermeja. The Manuel Gustavo Chacón Front in Norte de Santander and part of the Yariguíes Front [around Barrancabermeja], which is made up of no more than 20 combatants according to official information, continue to survive.
  • The group on the Venezuelan border, in the south of Cesar and in Norte de Santander, has been subject to paramilitary attacks and pressure by the Armed Forces. However, in the last two years the ELN has recovered a presence and increased its attacks and recruitment activities, as a result of increased narcotics trafficking in Catatumbo and La Gabarra, where coca crops flourish.
  • The Northwestern Group, originally intended to operate in Antioquia and parts of Chocó and Córdoba, was the ELN’s most ambitious project. After notable growth, the original front, the José Antonio Galán, consolidated its bases. However, the paramilitary groups took control over the region, and at the end of 2008, the 10 ELN fronts in the region fused into three. Among the combined groups is the emblematic compañía Héroes de Anorí with the Carlos Alirio Buitrago Front.
  • The ELN’s Industrial Group of Eastern Antioquia, a region characterized by the cement and hydroelectric industries and a complicated infrastructure of energy towers, was hit very hard. Only the three original companies survived; among them was the Carlos Alirio Buitrago Front, which currently doesn’t have more than 50 combatants.
  • Since 2000, the ELN has carried out fewer attacks and its military capabilities have been in constant decline. The stage of passive resistance began in 2005 as a result of the intensification of the government’s offensive.
  • As of the end of 2008, the ELN maintains its defensive tactics.
Dec 03

In a series of three articles posted to its website and to that of Colombia’s Semana newsmagazine, the Colombian think-tank Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris (which unfortunately translates as “New Rainbow Corporation”) provides a brief but excellent overview of the state of Colombia’s conflict at the end of 2008.

The picture is complex, but very troubling on balance. They reveal U.S. officials’ portrayal of Colombia as an “international model” of successful state building to be premature at best – if not completely misguided.

Here is an English translation (thanks to CIP Intern Anthony Dest) of the second of these articles, which focuses on the state of the FARC. The guerrilla group has been weakened by the Colombian government’s military offensives and its own internal troubles, but does not appear to be anywhere near a battlefield defeat.

The FARC Adapts to Remain At War

These guerrillas have retreated to the southwest of the country and toward the border with Venezuela. They continue their offensive with homemade weapons and cruel antipersonnel mines.

In October alone, the Colombian army confiscated 504 of the FARC’s hand-crafted bombs, and the mines they continue to deactivate (at a high cost in soldiers’ lives and suffering) are homemade.

This fact comes from recent research by the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris that combines official Ministry of Defense data with field investigation. The study reveals the extent to which the government has successfully blocked the FARC’s communications and clandestine businesses, impeding their ability to obtain professional weapons.

Despite their retreat, the guerrillas haven’t stopped fighting. They continue to attack, lay mines indiscriminately, and cause damage to the Army. Another tactic the FARC has frequently used throughout the year is aligning itself with criminal groups in the eastern plains and Caribbean coast.

These alliances are always made with groups even more involved in narcotics trafficking, or to resist attacks from and combat the Águilas Negras or other emerging criminal groups that have declared themselves paramilitaries.

These are the principal findings of the study on the FARC:

  • The last 10 years of the war against this group can be divided into three periods:
    • 1995-2000: A strong offensive by the FARC. It was characterized by what could be called a change from a war of mobile guerrillas to a war of positions (de una guerra de guerrillas móviles a una guerra de movimientos).
    • 2000-2005: The modernization of the Armed Forces’ military apparatus begins. Plan Colombia begins to be applied in October of 2000.
    • 2006-2008: A loss of territory for the FARC, constant desertions, tactical retreat and a restructuring of its military actions.
  • Thanks to Plan Patriota and Plan Consolidación, 2007 was the security forces’ year of best results. 2005, however, was the worst because the Armed Forces suffered from the most registered casualties and many important military setbacks that can be attributed to the lack of knowledge of the territory where the troops were stationed.
  • The past six years have greatly weakened the FARC. The guerrillas have had very few successes in recent history. One was in the Serranía de la Macarena where they successfully stopped the manual eradication of coca crops in 2005. It also had a few military victories in the region. In 2008, the FARC was successful militarily in Tolima, Huila and the Antioquian Urabá. The Bloque Oriental (Eastern Bloc) has also strongly resisted.
  • The guerrillas’ Eighth Conference in 1993 established that the high command would act throughout the country, while the blocs and fronts would have a shared command. However, communications problems have made it difficult for the FARC to carry this out on the ground, and central and mid-level commanders are disconnected.
  • The majority of those who deserted the FARC between 2002 and 2008 were recent recruits who had only been part of the organization for 3-6 months. Of every 10, only 3 were armed combatants while 7 were collaborators or sympathizers. Last year, 2 out of every ten deserters were armed combatants; that number increased to 3 out of 10 in 2008. In 2008, the profile of deserters also changed, with more desertions of mid-ranking members who had been in the organization for over 10 years.
  • The tendency of mid-ranking members to become corrupt or demobilize reflects a crisis at that level of the FARC. Holes have become apparent in the organization; what begins as insubordination within the FARC’s structure can reach the high command, as seen in the [March 2008] betrayal of [Secretariat member] ‘Iván Ríos.’
  • [Secretariat member Raúl] Reyes’ death [in a March 2008 attack] is the biggest blow to the FARC’s directorate, but it negatively impacted the FARC’s external image more than its internal organization. The consequences were external because his death projected an image of a defeated guerrilla group to the world. It also generated a loss of confidence and was demoralizing to the FARC’s troops.
Dec 03

View this map on the Nuevo Arco Iris website.

In a series of three articles posted to its website and to that of Colombia’s Semana newsmagazine, the Colombian think-tank Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris (which unfortunately translates as “New Rainbow Corporation”) provides a brief but excellent overview of the state of Colombia’s conflict at the end of 2008.

The picture is complex, but very troubling on balance. They reveal U.S. officials’ portrayal of Colombia as an “international model” of successful state building to be premature at best – if not completely misguided.

Here is an English translation (thanks to CIP Intern Anthony Dest) of the first of these articles, which focuses on the challenge of re-arming paramilitary groups. If Nuevo Arco Iris is correct, these groups’ combined membership probably now exceeds that of the FARC.

A Worrisome Increase of Armed Groups in Colombia

There are two types: The Águilas Negras (Black Eagles), who commit political violence, and other groups involved in narcotics trafficking and other illicit businesses. They hav gone from being in 115 to 246 municipalities [counties]. This is a finding of the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris as part of a research project on the state of the war in Colombia.

The result of the research by Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris is truly disturbing. Their research, which makes use of official data and field work, concludes that Colombia’s internal security is endangered by the existence of bandas criminales emergentes (emerging criminal groups).

Part of the success of the [Uribe government's] Democratic Security strategy, which has been defined by confronting and weakening the guerrillas and successfully demobilizing the the AUC, is now at risk in 246 municipalities where these emerging criminal groups are committing violence or other illegal operations.

“They destroy the social order in order to flourish,” León Valencia, director of the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, told “This is a huge security risk for all citizens because they attack the institutions, social leaders, honest politicians, and families close to organized workers.”

Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris’ study also included a run-down on the state of the FARC, ELN, and the parapolitics scandal.

Here are a few of the key findings on these emerging criminal groups:

  • The groups throughout the country are divided into 100 armed nuclei that use 21 different names and are committed to criminal activities, murders, and threatening the population.
  • These groups are present in 246 municipalities, and conservative estimates show that they include 8,000 members. The groups are mostly concentrated (40%) in the Atlantic coastal region.
  • There are three types of criminal groups:
    • the emerging ones, which is to say the new organizations like the Águilas Negras;
    • the rearmed groups, which are made up of previously demobilized paramilitaries, such as [former "Heroes del Guaviare" paramilitary leader Pedro Oliverio Guerrero, alias] Cuchillo’s group in the Eastern Plains (Llanos Orientales); and
    • the dissidents, ex-paramilitaries who left the Ralito [2002-2006 demobilization-negotiation] process or were never involved, like those of Don Mario [Daniel Rendón, a major narcotrafficker and brother of Freddy Rendón, alias El Alemán, former head of the powerful Elmer Cárdenas paramilitary bloc that operated in the northwestern region of Urabá].
  • It is believed that Águilas Negras, who are considered a criminal group, are present in 57 municipalities, the majority of which are in the Santanders, the north of the country, and southern Cesar.
  • It is interesting that according to the authorities, the Águilas Negras have been responsible for threats against union organizers, members of local governments, professors, journalists, and employees of the Personerías and Defensorías [government entities responsible for dealing with human rights denunciations and investigations]. “Are these activities exclusively criminal, or do they aim gain social and political control? There is no doubt that there is something more than just a criminal motivation in the operations that they carry out,” according to the researchers.
  • The Organización al Servicio del Narcotráfico (Organization at the Service of Narcotrafficking) is a criminal group that works with Don Mario’s organization, as evidenced by the close proximity of their areas of operation. It has rapidly expanded its activities throughout different parts of the country.
  • Some areas of paramilitary influence are within the 60 municipalities that make up the government program called “Social Consolidation of Territory” (Consolidación Social del Territorio), which intends to recover government control and institutions in conflict areas. The military pressure to pursue the “criminal groups” in these zones is not as intense as was the pursuit of the FARC under “Plan Patriota” [an ambitious 2003-2006 series of large-scale anti-guerrilla military offensives].
  • There are agreements between the guerrillas and emerging criminal groups to secure drug corridors or attack other groups in the southeast and southwest of the country. For example, in Nariño and Cauca, there is a cease-fire between the Rastrojos [which began as a private army of North Valle Cartel figures] and the ELN in order to traffic drugs. In Meta, the FARC and Cuchillo’s group, the Organización Libertadores del Llano, have similar agreements, although these groups have confronted one another in recent months. Interestingly, in Arauca, the FARC was the target of both the Army and the ELN; the FARC eventually left the region.
Dec 02

After President-Elect Obama revealed that Eric Holder would be his choice for attorney-general, several observers raised questions about the nominee’s role as a private lawyer defending Chiquita Brands, the U.S. fruit company. Holder helped Chiquita negotiate a plea agreement with the Justice Department for the years of payoffs that the company made to paramilitary groups in a part of Colombia where the right-wing militias massacred hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians.

Hofstra University’s Mario Murillo, writing for CounterPunch: “not one Chiquita official involved in the illegal transactions was forced to serve time for a crime that others have paid dearly for, mainly because they did not have the kind of legal backing that Holder’s team provided. … If the Obama Administration is seriously concerned about impunity and human rights in Colombia, Holder should probably step out of the way immediately.”

Dan Kovalik of the U.S. Steelworkers’ Union, writing in the Huffington Post: “Eric Holder would have a troubling conflict of interest in carrying out this work in light of his current work as defense lawyer for Chiquita Brands international. … Holder himself, using his influence as former deputy attorney general under the Clinton Administration, helped to negotiate Chiquita’s sweeheart deal with the Justice Department in the criminal case against Chiquita.”

Jason Glaser, writing in the Guardian: “Does Holder represent the change we need and the change we were promised? It is time that someone who chooses to represent and serve human beings over corporations holds the position of attorney general.”

    The story here is that after the Clinton administration drew to a close Holder, a former Clinton assistant attorney-general, went into private practice at the Covington and Burling law firm, where his clients included Chiquita. In 2003, Holder led the legal team that advised the fruit company to admit to the U.S. Justice Department that it had been making payments to the murderous United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) since 1997 – a relationship that started out as “protection” money but went on way too long. The payments, which finally stopped in 2004, totaled about US$1.7 million to a group that, as of September 10, 2001, was on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.

    Oddly, as the Washington Post has reported, despite the terrorism link Holder and Chiquita at first had difficulty even getting a response out of Assistant Attorney-General Michael Chertoff, who would later go on to be the Bush administration’s Homeland Security secretary.

    Eventually, though, with Holder’s assistance Chiquita and the Justice Department came to an agreement in which the fruit company would pay a $25 million fine – the price of the company’s sale of Banadex, its Colombian subsidiary – for having made payments to a foreign terrorist organization. The fine’s proceeds went to the U.S. Treasury.

    There is a widespread perception that Chiquita’s punishment was quite lenient given the link with a terrorist group responsible for mass murder. Notably, the Justice Department indictment makes no mention of a potentially more serious charge, documented in a 2003 OAS investigation: that Chiquita’s Colombian subsidiary helped run weapons and ammunition from Nicaragua to the AUC.

    How can we characterize the attorney-general-designate’s role? On one hand, Holder’s actions were commendable. Upon discovering that his client had broken the law, he advised it to go to the U.S. authorities. Notably, no other fruit company operating in northwestern Colombia’s conflictive Urabá region – and there are several – has come forward to admit to paying off armed groups. (It seems absurd that Chiquita would be the only one, and indeed demobilizing paramilitary leaders – including Salvatore Mancuso in a May 2008 60 Minutes interview – have alleged that they took payments from other companies in Urabá.)

    Writing for Salon, Glenn Greenwald meanwhile makes the point that Holder should not be criticized for defending for a client, since all accused people have the right to defense counsel.

    Attempts to criticize a lawyer for representing unsavory or even evil clients are inherently illegitimate and wrong — period. Anybody who believes in core liberties should want even the most culpable parties to have zealous representation before the Government can impose punishments or other sanctions. Lawyers who defend even the worst parties are performing a vital service for our justice system. Holder is no more tainted by his defense of Chiquita than lawyers who defend accused terrorists at Guantanamo are tainted by that.

    This is true, and Holder’s defense of Chiquita should not disqualify him from serving as the Obama administration’s attorney-general.

    Nonetheless, there are questions about Holder’s role that the Senate Judiciary Committee should explore before deciding on his nomination.

    • Did Holder benefit from his contacts with former colleagues at the Justice Department in a way that allowed him to achieve a more lenient plea agreement than would have been possible for a less well-connected attorney?
    • What role has Holder played in defending Chiquita from a class-action lawsuit filed in 2007 by 173 victims of paramilitary violence in the Urabá region? Has he advised his client to refuse any and all demands for restitution or reparations to victims? If so, how did he justify this position?
    • In general, does Holder personally believe that U.S. corporations that do direct or indirect harm to citizens of a foreign country need not be held accountable to those citizens?

    It will be difficult to get a definitive answer to any of these questions, and in fact the answer to all of them may be “no.”

    Still, the U.S. Justice Department is likely to be dealing with Colombian paramilitary groups in several contexts, including possible future actions against U.S. corporations that may have aided them, and of course the criminal cases against fifteen extradited paramilitary leaders in U.S. custody since May of this year.

    In private practice, Holder sought to downplay the severity of his client’s funding of Colombia’s paramilitaries and perhaps sought to prevent or minimize reparations to victims. As attorney-general, however, Holder can do great harm to U.S. credibility in Colombia and Latin America if he is perceived to be throwing obstacles in the way of the paramilitaries’ victims’ rights to truth and reparations. Because of his past work with Chiquita, his Justice Department’s actions with regard to future paramilitary cases will deserve extremely close scrutiny.