Apr 29

Last fall, Colombia was horrified by revelations that members of the Army – or criminals in their employ – had been luring away young men with promises of employment, killing them, then presenting their bodies as those of guerrillas or paramilitaries killed in combat. The dead were called “falsos positivos” – roughly, “false positive results against armed groups” – and the scandal forced the November 2008 retirement of Army Chief Gen. Mario Montoya.

The Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination, a network of Colombian human-rights groups, issued a report alleging that 535 civilians had been killed by Colombia’s security forces between January 2007 and June 2008, about one per day.

Colombian security and defense officials long denied that “false positives” were a problem. Now, they are insisting that they have put the problem behind them. Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos has said in at least two recent high-profile speeches that there have been no new cases of “false positives” since October.

We have had problems, as in the cases of extrajudicial executions or “false positives” that have been denounced, but we worked immediately, with all effort and rigor, and we can say that, since last October, no denunciations have been received about cases since then.

Is that correct, though? A recent report by the highly respected Colombian NGO CINEP and a new memo from the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination [PDF] both indicate otherwise. The CINEP report documents three possible new cases between October and December 2008 in Casanare, Cordoba, and Putumayo. The CCEEU memo mentions these cases, as well as a few others in which the victims were executed but not later presented as killed in combat – their bodies were disposed of instead.

The CCEEU argues that forced disappearance is replacing “false positives” as the “new modality” of military human rights abuse.

They seek to give the sensation that the order to end the executions is being followed, but continuing the same practice, only now placing special care in ensuring that the new executions are not reported (publicly) and the cadavers are diligently hidden, in order to leave no traces of the troops’ responsibility for these illegal acts.

Compounding the difficulty of judging the degree to which “false positives” continue is the way in which they are discovered. It may take several months to determine that the armed forces may have had a role in the case of one of the hundreds of people who disappear every year in Colombia. In the notorious case that brought the scandal to world attention last fall – the discovery of the bodies of missing young men from a slum near Bogotá buried in a province near the Venezuelan border – the lag between disappearance and discovery was at least six months.

An editorial in Monday’s edition of the Bogotá daily El Espectador looks at the issue and determines that, indeed, the Colombian defense minister may be speaking too soon.

We celebrate that the Army is carrying out a serious diagnosis to bring an end to this criminal conduct, that the investigations’ advances are communicated to public opinion, and that drastic measures are taken to restore credibility and trust to the institution. But the Minister should think twice before assuring that “false positives” are a thing of the past.

Apr 25

Below is a brief video update recorded Friday after a visit with community leaders in the village of Puerto Toledo, in the municipality of Puerto Rico, Meta.

Puerto Toledo used to be a big cocaine market town under solid FARC control. The town is now rather empty-looking. However, the FARC still appears to have a great ability to cause havoc in the area. We even had to leave without dawdling because the guerrillas had just attacked a team of coca eradicators, guarded by police and army, about 2 kilometers away. I was actually surprised by the level of guerrilla activity in the area which, according to all observers we interviewed, appeared to have intensified significantly starting in March.

Because of the security situation, which is clearly far from consolidated, we had to hitch a 15-minute ride on a Colombian Army helicopter to get from Vistahermosa to Puerto Toledo. The soldiers dropped us off at the edge of town and were nowhere nearby when we met with the community leaders. In the video, I am waiting at the pickup site on the edge of town, where a group of soldiers, most of them hardly a day over twenty, were encamped.

In this area, the soldiers are on their own. While there is an ambitious plan to establish a full state presence in the zone, being coordinated by a facility called a “fusion center,” headquartered in Vistahermosa, Puerto Toledo has seen little non-military presence or investment. The main efforts so far have been a refurbishment of the town’s bridge, with USAID funds, and a program, carried out by the National Park Service, to relocate 300 families from the fringes of the La Macarena National Park to new, titled landholdings with decent houses and no coca plants. The Park Service program is moving steadily, but slowly.

The 300 families, from Puerto Toledo and nearby towns, have been in negotiations for nearly a year with the directors of the “Integrated Action” program for support with productive projects and food security assistance. The communities have exchanged several proposals and counter-proposals with the Plan for Integrated Consolidation of La Macarena (PCIM), the entity coordinating the state-building effort in the region. The communities’ main reservations had to do with clauses requiring them to certify that they invited the presence of the security forces – an affirmation that, in their view, would have left them vulnerable to swift and cruel retribution from the FARC. Finally, a month ago, the PCIM told the communities that their most recent proposal was acceptable, but that the funding window had closed.

In general, my impression of the program is that its civilian component is still quite weak. This appears to be due mainly to lack of resources, lack of civilian agencies’ “buy-in,” and a security situation that appears to be far less permissive than I had been led to believe.

I’ll write more about this later. Please keep in mind that these are very raw first impressions from someone who just returned to Bogotá a few hours ago and hasn’t even reviewed his notes yet. I’ll post corrections if necessary.

Outside Puerto Toledo, Colombia from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

Apr 23

Traveling in Colombia leaves very little time to sit at the keyboard and write. Instead, here is a quick video update that I shot today during a free moment in downtown Bogotá. Yes, a large American spent two minutes walking down a busy sidewalk talking to a little camera in his right hand. Surprisingly few people seemed to take any notice.

Note: I’ve been reminded that I make a misstatement in this video. While I believe that we’ll be producing the first full independent investigation of the “Integrated Action” model, I am not the first independent observer to visit the zone. That title goes to investigator and author Garry Leech, who filed an excellent report to his Colombia Journal website back in February. Apologies to Garry – it turns out it’s hard to ad lib when you’re walking down the peatonal by Avenida Jiménez.

Hello from Bogotá from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

Apr 21

Apologies for the lack of updates to the blog. I’m writing from Bogotá, where I’ll be speaking later today at a conference on defense and security. It’s not my usual crowd, most of those in attendance are from Colombia’s armed forces. I’ve been having a lot of respectful but lively debates with fellow conference participants about issues like human rights and the role of the United States.

Later in the week, I plan to go to a region that has become a principal destination for U.S. assistance. More on that later after my plans solidify. I will post updates to this space whenever possible.

In the meantime, here is a picture from my seat in the conference I’m attending. In the shot I can identify the head of Colombia’s Army, Gen. Oscar González (second from left), the mayor of Bogotá, Samuel Moreno (4th from left), Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos (6th from right), French Ambassador Jean-Michel Marlaud (5th from right), Armed Forces Chief Gen. Freddy Padilla (4th from right), and Police Chief Gen. Oscar Naranjo (right).

Apr 17

Our thoughts are with the family of Pablo Moncayo, a Colombian Army corporal taken captive by the FARC guerrillas in December 1997. Early this morning, the FARC issued a communiqué announcing that it would unilaterally free Mr. Moncayo to opposition Senator Piedad Córdoba and to his father, Gustavo Moncayo, a leading advocate of a negotiation to free the guerrillas’ hostages. Senator Córdoba says the release could take place within twenty days.

Corporal Moncayo was 18 and engaged to be married when the FARC captured him during its takeover of a military base in Patascoy, Putumayo. He is now 30, and his ex-fiancee, whom he told in a proof-of-life video to “live her life” without him, is now married with two children.

Gustavo Moncayo, the hostage’s father and a soft-spoken schoolteacher from Nariño department, became known as the “peace walker” after walking the length and breadth of Colombia’s territory to raise awareness of the hostages’ plight. In all public appearances, Moncayo wears chains that recall those the guerrillas attach to their hostages at all times.

His advocacy of a negotiated prisoner exchange has earned Moncayo the ire of Colombia’s right wing. Fernando Londoño, President Álvaro Uribe’s first interior and justice minister, once wrote a column in the El Tiempo newspaper calling the hostage’s father of spreading “Marxist venom through Colombia’s veins.”

Gustavo Moncayo learned of the FARC’s announcement of his son’s impending release this morning, when a radio station called him in the northern Colombian city of Sincelejo. [MP3]

I think this is great news, I’m in Sincelejo, and I didn’t know this news. This took me by surprise, just a moment ago. I thank God for this infinitely big moment. The emotion is so great that it clouds my mind, my [inaudible]. We must fight for the liberation of all. And it hurts because I know that the soldiers and police are dying out there, and I will keep fighting for them.

In December 2001, the FARC refused the request of a boy dying of cancer to see his father, a police hostage. That they are now willing to reunite Corporal Moncayo with his father is a sign of progress, of sorts. We can surmise that at least some elements in the FARC leadership are conscious of the irreparable damage the group’s practice of kidnapping and hostage-taking has done to its reputation and credibility.

But nobody has anything to thank the FARC for. Even after they free Moncayo, the guerrillas will still be holding 21 police and military personnel hostage, many of them since the 1990s, to pressure for a prisoner exchange. They hold an unknown additional number of Colombian civilians for ransom.

It is important that the Colombian government be open to peaceful means to free the remaining 21 hostages, such as a humanitarian negotiation. But it is even more important that the FARC put a definitive end to the unspeakably cruel practice of kidnapping, once and for all, and release its remaining captives.

Apr 15

Colombian police this morning captured Daniel Rendón, alias “Don Mario,” one of Colombia’s top narcotraffickers and highest-profile alleged sponsors of “new” paramilitary groups. (See our brief profile of Don Mario here.) The arrest occurred in Necoclí, a town in the northwestern Colombian region of Urabá that has been under heavy paramilitary influence for a decade.

Links to initial coverage: BBC, AFP, AP, El Tiempo, El Espectador, Semana.

Apr 14

Here are our most up-to-date statistics on the War on Drugs in Colombia, looking at the past decade’s experience from several different angles. Click on each graphic to see a bigger version.

Aid to Colombia Since 2000:

  • Currently, roughly two-thirds of military and police aid is used for counter-narcotics purposes.
  • At least 53,888 military and police personnel trained (2000-2006).
  • Over 90 helicopters granted.
  • Over 20 spray planes granted.
  • 1,120,706 hectares (2,767,580 acres) fumigated aerially with herbicides.
  • 246,515 hectares (609,152 acres) manually eradicated (2004-2008).

The Counter-Drug Results:

  • Coca cultivation, in Colombia and the Andes, is little changed.

U.S. estimate of coca cultivation:

UNODC estimate of coca cultivation:

Eradication progress in one department is canceled out by increased coca-growing in other departments.

  • Cocaine production, in Colombia and the Andes, is little changed.

U.S. estimate of cocaine production:

UNODC estimate of cocaine production:

  • The estimated farm-gate price of coca base or coca paste has not increased.

UNODC estimate of coca paste/base prices:

  • The estimated price of cocaine sold within Colombia has not increased significantly.

Note: the perceived increase in 2007 owes in part to the U.S. dollar’s sharp devaluation against the Colombian peso in that year.

  • The estimated price of cocaine sold on the streets of the United States has not increased significantly. According to the U.S. government, reports of a price increase in 2007-2008 are not due to any reduction in Andean cocaine supplies. They have been caused by disruption of Mexican transshipment routes.

Sources: U.S. government data compiled by the Washington Office on Latin America and presented by the DEA . The U.S. government changed measurement methodology – and the contractor hired to measure cocaine prices – after 2003Q2.

According to the U.S. Justice Department’s December 2008 National Drug Threat Assessment:

The estimated amount of cocaine that departed South America toward the United States in 2007 was only slightly higher than the revised 2006 estimate. … Intelligence and law enforcement reporting indicates that the decrease [in U.S. cocaine availability] likely is the result of several simultaneous factors that obstructed the flow of cocaine from South America through Mexico to U.S. drug markets. The likely factors include several exceptionally large cocaine seizures made while the drug was in transit toward the United States, counterdrug efforts by the Mexican Government, U.S. law enforcement operations along the Southwest Border, a high level of intercartel violence in Mexico, and expanding cocaine markets in Europe and South America.

All of these metrics indicate clear failure, despite heavy U.S. and Colombian investment – in money and lives – in a decades-long effort to reduce cocaine supplies coming from Colombia. The argument in favor of a new drug policy could hardly be stronger.

Apr 14

Download the report: (PDF, 1.1 MB)

Over the past nine years, an estimated 300,000 Colombian refugees have crossed their country’s border with Ecuador, fleeing persecution, threats, disappearances, murders and deliberate displacement by the parties to Colombia’s long conflict. In November 2008, staff from the Center for International Policy accompanied Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) on a four-day visit to Ecuador’s northeastern borderlands. We found the humanitarian crisis to be more severe than anticipated, and the need for action – from the U.S. government as well as international humanitarian organizations – more urgent than is generally recognized.

The Center for International Policy’s new report, “Ecuador’s Humanitarian Emergency: The Spillover of Colombia’s Conflict,” documents the consequences of the spillover of Colombia’s conflict into Ecuadorian territory and the extent of the humanitarian crisis in Ecuador’s border provinces – Esmeraldas, Carchi and Sucumbíos. The Ecuadorian state’s presence historically has been minimal in the border region, yet the influx of hundreds of thousands of Colombian refugees – 85 percent of whom remain close to the border – has drastically worsened living conditions and stressed social services. And the fact that Colombian refugees live among the Ecuadorian population and not in refugee camps makes it difficult for humanitarian agencies, such as UNHCR, to extend their services to the entire population in need – not to mention the 250,000 Colombian refugees who remain “invisible” and therefore out of the scope of UNHCR’s assistance.

After spending time in Ecuador, Rep. McGovern told his colleagues on the floor of the House of Representatives that “Colombia’s war is literally bleeding – violently – in Ecuador.” The CIP report offers six short- and medium-term recommendations for addressing Ecuador’s humanitarian crisis and ensuring the well-being of both the Colombian refugees in need of protection and the Ecuadorian citizens living near the border. These recommendations include:

1) The international community, including humanitarian NGOs, UN agencies and foreign governments, including the United States, must provide immediate emergency humanitarian assistance to the refugee population in Ecuador.

2) Colombia must address the needs of communities being displaced by violence within its territory, through “integral reparations” for the conflict’s victims as well as through full compliance with the guidelines set out in Colombia’s Constitutional Court decision T-025.

3) Social and development assistance must be provided to entire communities that receive refugees in order to cover the urgent need, among refugees and residents alike, for basic infrastructure, health, education, and a state presence in general.

4) The United States should increase its commitment to Plan Ecuador and similar Ecuadorian governmental efforts through Economic Support Funds and Development Assistance.

5) U.S. contributions for Fiscal Year 2010 through the Migration and Refugee Assistance (MRA) program of the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), and through the contribution to UNHCR for the Western Hemisphere, should at least double over 2009 levels.

6) Assistance to protect populations from armed groups and crime, strictly conditioned on human rights performance, should be provided to the border region.

Apr 10

Carlos Lozano is the longtime director of Voz, a weekly newspaper in Colombia with historical ties to the country’s Communist party. Colombia’s right wing accuses Lozano of being a supporter of the FARC guerrillas. While he recognizes that he has had contact with the guerrillas – he has served as a facilitator for past attempts at dialogue – Lozano insists that his goal is to convince them to negotiate, to abandon the armed struggle in favor of practicing politics.

More recently, Lozano has joined Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba and other civil-society leaders in “Colombians for Peace,” an ad hoc group that has engaged in a series of public, written exchanges with the FARC. In more recent communications, the Colombians for Peace have called on the FARC to abandon the practice of kidnapping. The guerrillas have so far responded by releasing six hostages in early February, and by telling the group (falsely, most believe) that they currently hold only nine individuals for ransom.

Due to his pro-dialogue stance, which he has held in a high-profile way for decades, Lozano has rarely criticized the guerrillas directly. This in turn has fed accusations that he supports them. Because of that past, it is significant that Lozano has adopted a stronger, more critical tone against the FARC in recent days.

On March 29, Lozano wrote a letter to the editor of El Tiempo, Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, condemning in strong terms a reported FARC plan to assassinate the newspaper’s director, Enrique Santos, and his brother Juan Manuel, the minister of defense.

I reject with indignation any FARC plan against the lives of Enrique Santos or his brother. Such stupidity and absurd behavior go against the effort of Colombians for Peace to open favorable political spaces for the negotiated and peaceful resolution of the conflict. This degraded conflict already has enough horror and barbarism wihout the guerrillas resorting to personal assassinations. Nothing justifies it, and no rational person should accept it. Disagreements must be laid out in the battle of ideas, in peaceful and civilized ideological confrontation. A plan like this does a poor service to the cause of peace. I hope that this is a “false positive” [a fake plan thought up by Colombian intelligence], like so many that we have seen. I raise my voice in protest, and if the echo makes it to the deepest jungle and to the ears of [FARC leader] “Alfonso Cano,” of whom we expect a greater political accent in the FARC’s actions, that they reflect and abandon any violent act against his life and his family. Don’t even try it!

These were important words coming from one of the principal voices of Colombia’s ultra-left. Lozano repeated them in an interview with El Tiempo yesterday.

Q: Why such strong words for the FARC?

Lozano: The political solution of the conflict demands the will of the government and the FARC. We have to make opportune criticisms when the lack of will is most evident. The moment to negotiate has arrived, this can’t go on any longer. To insist on armed confrontation is irrational. We must be very incisive and critical with all parties, including the guerrillas.

Q: Don’t you think this demanding tone should have begun when the number of kidnappings exceeded 3,000 per year?

L: We have always been critical of the guerrillas. For example, on the issue of kidnapping the Communist Party and its directors have been critical and we have distanced ourselves from that. Perhaps we hadn’t done it as strongly and publicly as we do now.

Q: You have asked “Alfonso Cano” to adopt more of a political accent. What are you referring to?

L: The FARC have demonstrated in their most recent pronouncements that there is some interest in a political accent. Reality demands that much more political accent is required of the guerrillas to contribute to a political solution to the conflict. I hope that “Cano” and the whole Secretariat reflect on this.

Q: You said that Colombians for Peace must demand of the FARC a commitment with regard to kidnapping and use of landmines. What would that be?

L: The three letters from Colombians for Peace have in common the issue of the humanitarian exchange [to free FARC hostages], but also the issue of kidnapping. The guerrillas have to understand that the intensity of the conflict must decrease, especially issues that affect the civilian population like kidnapping and mines.

Q: Before any dialogue, should the FARC abandon kidnapping?

L: Of course, and the government should make commitments too. It is required that a peace process begin with commitments from both sides: no more forced disappearance, no more kidnapping, no more “false positives,” no more mines.

Q: President Uribe asks the FARC to cease [hostilities] for 4 months in order to create conditions [for talks]. Does that sound acceptable?

L: A cessation of hostilities on both sides sounds acceptable. We won’t get anything out of it if military operations against them continue. That would make compliance inviable.

The three remarkably new elements in Lozano’s analysis, which had never before been so clearly stated, are:

  • Recognition that Colombia’s Communist Party should have been more openly critical of kidnapping in the past.
  • The demand that the practice of kidnapping cease before new dialogues begin.
  • The tacit acceptance of President Uribe’s proposal for a four-month cessation of hostilities, as long as it is bilateral.

We have no idea whether the FARC will respond positively to any of this, especially as Colombia enters another election season and the issue of peace becomes very politically charged. But Lozano’s words – both because of their content and because of their messenger – are very welcome and a source of hope.

Apr 07

Not all House Democrats seek a range of views on the human rights situation, narcotrafficking, or the complexities of U.S. policy in Colombia. Here is House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland), speaking today on a visit to Colombia whose agenda consisted almost completely of meetings with Colombian government officials. (Audio here.)

It is hugely disappointing that a prominent member of Congress failed to use this forum even to say a sentence about the importance and legitimacy of non-governmental human rights defenders, journalists, and judges. Though Álvaro Uribe frequently subjects these individuals to vicious verbal abuse – including irresponsible accusations of support for terrorism – Mr. Hoyer warmly praised the “respect and protection” that President Uribe purportedly offers them.

Thank you very much, Mr. President. I am pleased, along with Mr. Blunt, to lead this delegation of nine members of the Congress of the United States. We have taken an opportunity over this break in the Congress’ business to visit Mexico, Panama, and Colombia, and we will be going from here to Medellín, and then to Brazil.

One of the focuses of our trip has been the critical importance of the partnership between the United States and our friends, to fight those who would undermine the health and security of our countries and of our people with narcotrafficking and terrorism.

The success that Colombia has had under President Uribe has been extraordinary and welcome. Plan Colombia has worked, is working, and we believe needs to continue to work.

We are pleased as well with the progress that has been made on human rights, with the commitment of President Uribe and his cabinet, to focus on making sure that every individual’s rights are respected, and protected. Whether they be friends, or whether they not be allies or friends. That all people deserve respect and protection.

We are also pleased to be joined by our ambassador, Ambassador Brownfield, and most particularly, by the ambassador of Colombia to the United States, Carolina Barco, who is with us as well, who does such an extraordinarily good job in representing the people of Colombia and the Uribe administration.

We obviously, as well, talked about the free-trade agreement that is pending. I am a supporter of that agreement, as is Mr. [Roy] Blunt [R-Missouri]. And we heard from the President, from the Minister of Labor, the Minister of Trade, the Foreign Minister, the Defense Minister, on how very important this agreement is, not only to the economic relationship between Colombia and the United States, but also to the people of Colombia. We will hope to return to the United States and to work with the administration to see this matter move forward.

I’m now very pleased to yield, but before I do that, as I said, we are going to Medellín, the city of the President’s birth. Medellín, where I have never been, but I am told is a striking example of the success, Mr. President, that you have had in reclaiming a city from narcoterrorists, providing security and safety for people, so the quality of life of your people has been enhanced very substantially. We look forward to that visit.

Apr 06

Scott Wilson is a first-rate journalist, fondly remembered for his time reporting from Colombia for the Washington Post (2000-2004). He frequently took to the field to cover Colombia’s conflict and human-rights issues in vivid detail. (A particularly stirring example was his 2001 investigation of a massacre by paramilitaries, while the security forces stood by, in the northern Colombian village of Chengue.) Wilson kept a consistently balanced eye on the delivery of U.S. aid and its effects.

He left Colombia in 2004, going on to cover the Middle East, but returned last fall for his first visit in four years. On page 1 of the “Outlook” section of Sunday’s Washington Post, Wilson published a lengthy piece about what he found.

Unfortunately, his analysis is surprisingly superficial. There is a growing genre of Colombia coverage in which a reporter who shows no evidence of having left Bogotá notes the prosperity of the capital (often including the great 5-star restaurants) and the ability to drive a car to Medellín in safety. The story will briefly note that “problems still exist” and that human rights defenders have complaints, then goes on full-throatedly to endorse U.S. policy and the Uribe government’s programs and behavior.

Wilson’s article engages heavily in that cheerleading, but goes further with a bold recommendation: the Obama administration should copy the Colombian model in Afghanistan.

If you want to roll back a homegrown insurgency inflamed by a pesky neighbor, millions in drug profits and a weak central government, Colombia offers a far better classroom for learning how to beat the Taliban.

Wilson then makes some recommendations that are actually very sound. In several cases, however, these recommendations bear little resemblance to what has been done in Colombia:

He recommends that strategists in Afghanistan put their focus on protecting people, not chasing insurgents all over the map. This is such common sense that it leaves one wondering why it was not the principal strategic goal from the very beginning. Wilson is correct that protecting the population has been a key objective of the Uribe government’s security policies, with their emphasis on expanding police presence in towns and getting the security forces deployed in population centers and along roads. Public security, however, has accounted for only a rather small fraction of U.S. assistance, which has focused mainly on counter-narcotics, oil pipeline protection, and supporting military offensives. Such “chase the guerrillas around the map” offensives, against which Wilson counsels, were a major element of what was attempted in Colombia over the past several years, particularly the U.S.-backed 2004-2006 “Plan Patriota” military campaign in southern Colombia.

Wilson recommends that the U.S. not internationalize the Afghan conflict by involving neighbors, particularly Pakistan, whose territory the insurgency uses as a safe haven. “Efforts to seal off border sanctuaries do not work and divert military resources from the central job of protecting civilians,” he writes. This may be sound advice, but the Colombian government has in fact sustained frequent arguments and occasional flare-ups with Venezuela and Ecuador about FARC presence in their territories – most notably, the March 1, 2008 attack that killed “Raúl Reyes” and the strong political disputes that followed evidence, recovered from Reyes’ computer, of contacts with neighboring governments. Colombia and the United States have, in fact, been quite interested in internationalizing the conflict. If anything, the Colombian experience proves Wilson’s point that a focus on border regions does not work.

Wilson recommends against forcibly eradicating poor farmers’ drug crops, whether opium in Afghanistan or coca in Colombia. He argues that “the administration should focus less on stopping the heroin trade and more on establishing functioning state institutions — from schools to health clinics.”

We applaud this recommendation as well, which we have found to be a very tough sell given the very entrenched hard-line attitudes toward international drug policy prevalent in Washington. But we’re mystified that Wilson believes that forced eradication is on the decline in Colombia:

Too often the government was present only in the form of U.S.-backed aerial herbicide spraying of coca crops, designed to eliminate the guerrillas’ main funding source. But it just ended up impoverishing the peasant farmers who grew the coca, as well as killing the small plots of food crops they planted alongside the drug-producing ones. So Uribe, despite U.S. opposition, scaled back spraying, too.

The Uribe government has in fact been an enthusiastic backer of spraying and other forms of forced eradication. Aerial fumigation in 2008 totaled 133,496 hectares in 2008, the State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report tells us. That is a reduction from a high of 171,613 hectares in 2006, by far the most intense year of spraying on record. To some degree, this has resulted from reduced congressional funding for the program. But 133,496 hectares maintains levels that prevailed during 2002-2005, the first four years of Uribe’s government, showing the higher levels of spraying in 2006-2007 to have been the anomaly. The Colombian government has, meanwhile, dramatically increased forced manual eradication of coca, which is rarely coupled with development or even food-security assistance, to 95,732 hectares in 2008 from 42,111 in 2006 – thus “impoverishing the peasants who grow coca” in a different way.

Wilson finally recommends that more emphasis in Afghanistan be placed on robust demobilization programs to lure the guerrilla rank-and-file away with promises of leniency, job training and income support, and reunion with their families. This recommendation does reflect an effort that has succeeded in Colombia, starting with programs adopted in earnest starting around 2004-2005. Convincing young FARC recruits that they would be well-treated if they deserted – instead of tortured or disappeared as in the recent past – has reduced the FARC’s ranks, attracted people willing to give useful intelligence, and helped bring several thousand rural youth into a system where they could receive state services for the first time.

Wilson’s brisk analysis, though, leaves several questions unanswered.

Are human rights violations with impunity to be tolerated? Wilson’s article makes some outrageous claims about the Colombian military’s human rights record, including its past relationship with paramilitary groups.

I’d watched the paramilitary movement expand to the point where it  controlled vast amounts of Colombian territory, had seized the guerrillas’ drug smuggling networks and had elected dozens of sympathetic local and national politicians. The Bush administration kept the money flowing to Colombia’s army despite evidence of its complicity in paramilitary massacres.

The argument at the time, always made privately, was that the paramilitaries provided the force that the army did not yet have. The group served as a placeholder for the more professional U.S.-trained force that would come along years later.

U.S. officials, Wilson asserts here, privately acknowledged that they knew the Colombian army was complicit in paramilitary massacres, despite loud public declarations – and required State Department human-rights certifications to Congress – asserting the exact opposite. Wilson claims that U.S. officials not only knew it, but somehow saw the paramilitaries as a necessary evil or a “placeholder.”

Wilson then offers this:

Although reports of his close association with the paramilitaries mar his human rights record, Uribe has largely succeeded in disbanding them and extraditing their leaders to the United States.

We are frequent critics of Álvaro Uribe, but we have no proof that he himself has been closely associated with paramilitaries. (Many of his close political associates, however, are widely accused of that.) Wilson here goes farther than most of the U.S. and Colombian human rights communities with an extremely serious accusation, then changes the subject.

These revelations, if true, are the stuff of front-page scandal, not insights to be casually tossed off deep within an analysis piece. And they certainly leave us wondering how human rights and international humanitarian law would fit, if at all, in Wilson’s vision for how the Obama administration and the new Afghan army should operate.

How demobilized are the paramilitaries? Wilson offers high praise for the 2003-2006 demobilization ceremonies that brought a formal end to the paramilitary blocs that made up the old United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).

The change that proved most important in reducing violence and undermining the guerrillas was his [Uribe's] decision to disarm the paramilitaries.

There is heated debate about whether the paramilitary demobilizations have done anything to “undermine the guerrillas” or has caused them to relinquish the “drug smuggling networks” and ties to “dozens of sympathetic local and national politicians” described above. Paramilitary leaders have relinquished almost no stolen land and assets as required by law, and mid-level leaders are re-forming new groups at such a rate that some estimates of their combined strength now exceed 8,000 members. Wilson’s piece does not even acknowledge this very troubling phenomenon.

Who is profiting from drugs in Colombia? “Colombia still produces tons of coca,” Wilson points out. What he does not mention is that Colombia produces at least as many tons of cocaine as it did when Plan Colombia began. Note this graph, from page 90 the last (June 2008) UN Office on Drugs and Crime report on Andean coca production [PDF]. (The UNODC, in a print error, reverses 2006 and 2007.)

If cocaine production has been stable, and prices have not dropped, who is getting the illegal profits? Paramilitaries, insurgents, a new class of narcotraffickers corrupting the state, or all of the above? What will happen if the same thing happens in Afghanistan? In Colombia, success against big cartels pushed the center of gravity of the most lucrative part of the drug trade – transshipment – into Mexico. The result has been an alarming spike in violence in Mexico. What would happen if U.S. anti-drug efforts similarly pushed Afghanistan’s huge heroin profits into another area of volatile Central Asia? Does it make any sense at all to replicate an anti-drug policy that has had this poor result?

Are the Taliban as weak as the FARC? I recently had a conversation with one of Colombia’s top security analysts, who is a strong supporter of Álvaro Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policy. I asked him why President Uribe had such quick success in reducing the FARC’s ability to kidnap, or to stage attacks on small Colombian police and military posts. His answer: “We were surprised too. It turned out that the FARC was weaker than anybody had thought.”

If the Colombian model is brought to Afghanistan, and the Taliban prove to be less of a house of cards than the FARC, what then?

What about intelligence? Wilson gives no credit to the quick results that Colombia achieved when it shifted more resources into intelligence against top guerrilla leaders. The Colombian security forces now have at least a rough idea of where many top FARC members are at all times, have captured or killed more top leaders since 2007 than at any other time, and have had great success in cutting off communications between commanders. The combination of demobilization programs for the rank-and-file and intense intelligence efforts to locate top leaders has been quite successful.

Would that work in Afghanistan? Can the intelligence capacity be developed to locate and isolate top Taliban leaders?

Shouldn’t there be a peace strategy? There is much debate in Colombia about whether the conflict with FARC can end with negotiations about anything other than surrender terms. Though negotiations of any sort may not happen in the next few years, the most likely end to the FARC conflict will be a negotiation that, in order to avoid prolonging a war of attrition for many years more, would include some political content, if only something along the lines of pledges for land reform.

Wilson, however, does not mention any role for dialogue or negotiations, either for or against. Whether talks make any sense in the Afghanistan context, then, is not clear.

Apr 04

Colombians are picking up on any detail that might indicate that the Obama administration is de-emphasizing the bilateral relationship. From the new La Silla Vacía website:

A curious bit of information that went unnoticed at the Inter-American Development Bank summit in Medellín was President Uribe’s [March 29] speech. Before investors, 47 governors from the IDB member countries, and some government representatives, including the president of the People’s Bank of China and the Prime Minister of the Bahamas, the Colombian leader chose to speak about local issues like Families in Action [an economic subsidy program] and successes against the FARC. After a few minutes, some of the meeting’s organizers observed with alarm that Timothy Geithner, the U.S. treasury secretary, chose to disconnect himself from the simultaneous translation feed.

Apr 03

Sometimes, reading translated transcripts isn’t enough.

Here is a video, with English subtitles, of some of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s more heated attacks on journalists and peace activists in Colombia. In many cases, the president accuses his targets, without evidence, of supporting the FARC guerrillas. The impact on press freedom of such words, from a popular president speaking on nationally broadcast television, is immeasurably chilling.

These clips come from a somewhat longer video prepared by several non-governmental Colombian human rights groups for presentation at the March 23 hearings of the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission. That video – in Spanish, with clips of interviews with experts and activists – is here.

Alvaro Uribe and Freedom of Expression from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

Apr 01

Here is a translation of the inaugural post that Álvaro Jiménez and I published to our joint blog about U.S.-Colombian relations, which is appearing on a new Colombian political news and analysis website, La Silla Vacía. The site’s name, “The Empty Chair,” refers to a political reform proposal, which failed in Colombia’s Congress in 2007, that would have left empty the congressional seats of legislators who lost their posts due to their ties to paramilitary groups.

Colombia, off of Obama’s itinerary

Look at this list of U.S. contacts with leaders from the region, all of them in a three-week period, with three weeks remaining before the beginning of the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. This list reveals an interesting pattern:

  • March 13: Obama places a phone call to President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina.
  • March 14: Obama hosts Brazilian President Lula in Washington.
  • March 18: Obama places a phone call to El Salvador’s president-elect, Mauricio Funes.
  • March 25-26: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Mexico.
  • March 27-28: Vice President Joe Biden visits Chile to meet with the leaders of Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay.
  • March 29-30: Biden visits Costa Rica to meet with the presidents of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Panama, and high officials from Honduras and Nicaragua.
  • April 2: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney-General Eric Holder visit Mexico.

The pattern? There is only one example of contact with Colombia during this period:

  • March 29: The secretary of the Treasury, Timothy Geithner, attends the Inter-American Development Bank summit in Medellín. Geithner holds a brief bilateral meeting with President Uribe at 7:30 that Saturday evening.

This represents a notable change from the last few years of the Bush administration, whose image in the hemisphere was so poor that it sometimes seemed like they were desperately clinging to the figure of Álvaro Uribe as the last good friend they had left in Latin America.

Obviously, after that experience, the Obama administration has a strong incentive to direct its energies toward other countries in the region beyond Colombia. The objective of all these trips and visits is, in a few words, to “re-start” many bilateral relationships that had become stuck like an old Windows computer.

For the United States, it is understandably desirable to have Colombia as one ally among several, instead of the only remaining ally in the entire region. But for Álvaro Uribe’s administration, this change is terrible news.

If Colombia is just “a” friend, and not “the” friend, the new administration in Washington will feel more comfortable distancing itself from those aspects of the Uribe administration that are troubling. Like the unpunished murders of unionists, extrajudicial executions, para-politics, the DAS wiretaps, and the president’s constant verbal attacks on his critics, whom he apparently cannot distinguish from terrorists.

And if, as everything seems to indicate, President Uribe is headed toward a second reelection, the relationship will become more complicated. Relations will probably continue to be cordial, but no high Obama administration official will enjoy sharing the frame of a photograph with a leader who has shown himself unable to part with power.

With their recent petulant calls for Colombia to distance itself from the United States, Vice President Francisco Santos and former presidential advisor Jose Obdulio Gaviria fed concerns in the United States that the current administration in Colombia lacks the necessary maturity and perspective to be a solid partner. These qualities can be found in greater quantities elsewhere, like in Brazil and Mexico.

But Santos and Gaviria are not entirely wrong when they talk about the need to de-emphasize the bilateral relationship with the United States and diversify Colombia’s friendships with “Europe, China, India and the Arabs.”

The reality is that the United States, for months now, has already been going around the region trying to do the same thing.