Jun 30

President Barack Obama and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe took a few questions from reporters after their meeting yesterday afternoon. The Washington Post has published the transcript. The record is mixed. A few quick observations.

1. President Obama should have made a clearer public statement of concern about human rights. Colombia’s community of human rights defenders feels increasingly intimidated by President Uribe and other members of his government, who regularly threaten their security with public statements alleging, without proof, that they are tied to guerrillas. They can derive little comfort from President Obama’s statement yesterday that “I commended President Uribe on the progress that has been made in human rights in Colombia and dealing with the killings of labor leaders there.”

Also confusing was President Obama’s reference to “steps that have already been made on issues like extrajudicial killings and illegal surveillance,” since President Uribe frequently makes statements seeking to minimize the extrajudicial killings problem and has said very little about the illegal surveillance carried out by the DAS, his presidential intelligence service.

It was good that President Obama voiced the concern “that it is important that Colombia pursue a path of rule of law and transparency,” but he then nullified the impact by adding, “I know that that is something that President Uribe is committed to doing.”

2. Human rights concerns were probably conveyed more strongly to President Uribe in private. We can infer that from President Uribe’s unprompted declaration that “We are very receptive to receive any advice, any suggestions, on how we are going to fulfill our goal of civil — civil violations of human rights in Colombia; about surveillance.”

3. The message on free trade is not new. Here is what President Obama said:

I have instructed Ambassador Kirk, our United States trade representative, to begin working closely with President Uribe’s team on how we can proceed on a free trade agreement.

There are obvious difficulties involved in the process, and there remains work to do. But I’m confident that ultimately we can strike a deal that is good for the people of Colombia and good for the people of the United States. …

I don’t have a strict timetable, because I’m going to have to consult with Congress, obviously, on this issue. We’ve got a lot on our plates, if you haven’t noticed.

And I think that the burden is not simply on Colombia. I think Colombia has done a lot of excellent work. It is a matter of getting both countries to a place where their legislatures can feel confident that it will be ultimately to the economic benefit of these countries.

I have noted a special concern that is bipartisan and shared both both by this administration and Congress that the human rights issues in Colombia get resolved.

Compare that with the statements of U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk after the Trinidad and Tobago Summit of the Americas more than two months ago, as reported by Reuters, and it’s clear that little has changed.

Kirk told reporters on Monday that Obama “is a great admirer of President Uribe and more significantly the very substantive work that he has done on issue of safety and protecting workers.”

“Having said that, the president has asked me now to follow up and take the lead in meeting with the Colombian ambassadors and others to map out a strategy to identify what remaining issues we have,” Kirk said.

4. The message on re-election was surprising, but welcome. Few observers expected President Obama to express an opinion on President Uribe’s possible pursuit of a third term in office. But his message, while qualified with “every country has to make decisions on their own,” was quite clear: two terms are enough.

We know that our experience in the United States is that two terms works for us and that after eight years usually the American people want a change.

You know, I related to President Uribe the fact that our most revered president, or at least one of our two most revered presidents, George Washington, part of what made him so great was not just being the founder of our country, but also the fact that at a time when he could have stayed president for life, he made a decision that after service he was able to step aside and return to civilian life. And that set a precedent then for the future.

But as I said, each country, I think, has to make these decisions on their own. And I think what’s ultimately most important is that the people feel a sense of legitimacy and ownership, and that this is not something imposed on them from the top, that it’s not — does not involve manipulations of the electorate or, you know, rigging of the electoral process or repression of opposition voices, but that whatever is determined is done in an open, transparent way so that people feel confident that whoever’s in power represents their voices and their interests.

Jun 29

First reports from this afternoon’s Uribe-Obama meeting indicate that:

  • Obama said he hoped that the U.S. and Colombian governments could “strike a deal” to help the free-trade agreement to move forward, although “there are obvious difficulties involved in the process,” particularly unpunished labor killings. This repeats the “we want to move forward but obstacles remain” tone that the Obama administration struck during the Summit of the Americas in April.
  • Obama unexpectedly addressed the re-election issue directly, saying that “two terms work well” in the United States and citing the example of George Washington, who chose to leave after two terms.
Jun 29

From the Presidency’s website, times not provided.

Monday, June 29

  • Meeting with Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (”drug czar”)
  • Meeting with U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk
  • Meeting with Commerce Secretary Gary Locke
  • Lunch with representatives of “think tanks” and political analysts
  • Meeting with President Barack Obama
  • Meeting with Larry Summers, director of the White House National Economic Council
  • Reception and presentation of medal to Tom Shannon, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs

Tuesday, June 30

  • Presentation at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
Jun 28

Congratulations to the OAS Permanent Council for producing a strong statement that does not mince words about what happened in Honduras today, correctly calling it a “coup d’etat” and “an unconstitutional alteration of the democratic order,” and making clear that “no government arising from this unconstitutional interruption will be recognized.”

Jun 28

From Reuters:

“We recognize Zelaya as the duly elected and constitutional president of Honduras. We see no other,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters in a conference call organized by the U.S. State Department.

Jun 28

Advocates of generous U.S. military assistance to the Americas insist that such aid fosters military-to-military ties that:

  1. Promote respect for human rights, democratic values and the rule of law; and
  2. Build fluid channels of communication with military officers from those countries.

A key test for these assumptions would be Honduras. As it is the hemisphere’s fourth-largest feeder of students since 1998 to the School of the Americas and its successor, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, Honduras would be almost a model case.

Consider a just-published AP report based on a Sunday afternoon briefing with “two senior [U.S.] administration officials” speaking “on condition of anonymity.” Here is the response that concerned U.S. officials got from a military that it has invested heavily in training and equipping.

“[T]he U.S. told Honduran military leaders and other power players there that the United States and other nations in the Americas would not support a coup. They say Honduran military officials stopped taking their calls as the crisis unfolded.”

The argument that military aid guarantees “influence” has been put to the test, and has failed.

Jun 28

Troops have arrested President Manuel Zelaya this morning, the day that Hondurans were to vote in a referendum to change the constitution to allow him to run for another term. The apparent coup comes four days after Zelaya fired the chief of the armed forces for refusing to assist in carrying out the referendum. Zelaya was reportedly put on a plane to Costa Rica, where he may be now.

[Added 12:15PM: Zelaya, now in Costa Rica, told CNN that he was "kidnapped," and that "at the moment of his detention, they aimed guns at his chest and head."]

The military claims it was carrying out an order from “judicial tribunals” to arrest Zelaya because of an apparent presence of Nicaraguan and Venezuelan political operatives in the referendum. Nonetheless, this appears to be the first military coup attempt since the April 2002 uprising that came close to unseating Hugo Chávez (unless one counts the forced resignation of Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador in 2005, in which members of the armed forces played a supporting role).

Regardless of one’s position on President Zelaya’s pursuit of a second term or his ties to President Chávez, the actions taken in Tegucigalpa this morning deserve universal condemnation, as they are an illegal disruption of the democratic institutional process. If the coup is allowed to stand and an unelected leader takes power, Honduras should be considered in violation of the 2001 Democratic Charter and the United States should support its suspension from the Organization of American States.

The European Union has already issued a statement condemning the coup. The OAS has condemned it and will hold an urgent meeting of the Permanent Council at 12:00PM EDT.

On Friday, the State Department called on Hondurans “to seek a consensual democratic resolution in the current political impasse that adheres to the Honduran constitution and to Honduran laws consistent with the principles of the Inter-American Democratic Charter,” and to involve the OAS. As of 11:45AM EDT, there is nothing new on either the State Department’s website or the U.S. Embassy in Honduras website. The U.S. government must leave no doubt about its position and raise its voice as well.

[Update 5:00 PM: Secretary of State Clinton released this statement, which sounds the right notes: "The action taken against Honduran President Mel Zelaya violates the precepts of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and thus should be condemned by all. We call on all parties in Honduras to respect the constitutional order and the rule of law, to reaffirm their democratic vocation, and to commit themselves to resolve political disputes peacefully and through dialogue. Honduras must embrace the very principles of democracy we reaffirmed at the OAS meeting it hosted less than one month ago."]

The Honduran military has been a heavy recipient of U.S. assistance for decades. A U.S. military unit, Joint Task Force Bravo, has been based at the Palmerola airbase in Honduras since the early 1980s. If the Honduran military persists in violating the country’s democratic order, U.S. military aid must halt and JTF-Bravo must leave.

Links to coverage:

Jun 26


Washington, D.C.,
June 26, 2009

President Obama Must Raise Human Rights Concerns with Colombian President

Opportunity to Show Human Rights are Important for Both U.S. Allies and Adversaries

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s meeting with President Obama on Monday comes at a controversial moment. President Uribe is embroiled in a number of human rights, corruption and abuse of power scandals. The Colombian President is seriously considering amending the constitution to run for a third term in office. Meanwhile, a free trade agreement remains stalled in the U.S. Congress.

“It is crucial that President Obama send the right message, with the right tone. Colombia is a close partner of the United States, which makes it all the more important that we voice concerns about human rights violations and the rule of law,” said Gimena Sánchez Garzoli, senior associate for Colombia, Washington Office on Latin America.

In a scandal even more shocking than Watergate, evidence continues to emerge that for seven years, Mr. Uribe’s presidential intelligence agency (DAS) engaged in illegal wiretaps and surveillance of hundreds of human rights defenders, journalists, labor leaders, opposition politicians, and Supreme Court judges. The presidential agency spied on their families, and even international and U.S.-based human rights organizations. Still worse, DAS agents reportedly sent a bloody doll to a human rights activist, threatening her daughter.

“Wiretapping is just the tip of the iceberg. Far from protecting human rights defenders, the intelligence agency has engaged in ‘intelligence offensives’ that included sending defenders death threats and initiating malicious criminal investigations against them for bogus links to terrorism,” said Andrew Hudson, senior associate, Human Rights First.

Some of the most frequent targets of the DAS spying have been Supreme Court judges charged with investigating widespread allegations of ties between the president’s political allies and drug-funded paramilitary death squads. The so-called “para-politics” scandal has put over 30 percent of Colombia’s Congress, and many governors and mayors, under investigation, on trial, or behind bars. Nearly all of the implicated politicians are members of pro-Uribe parties.

Meanwhile, months after Colombians were shocked by revelations that the army killed dozens of young men in a Bogota slum, government forces continue to murder innocent civilians with tragic frequency. Colombian human rights groups are still documenting new cases of extrajudicial executions and an alarming spike in forced disappearances.

“We now know of more than a thousand cases of innocent civilians killed since 2002. This is a systematic practice shrouded by impunity, as very few of these cases have resulted in convictions. This situation is aggravated by President Uribe’s insistence on downplaying the problem, or even implying that the accusations are a guerrilla strategy,” said Kelly Nicholls, executive director, U.S. Office on Colombia.

President Uribe exacerbates these problems by regularly labeling non-violent human rights activists as terrorists. For example, President Uribe recently spoke on national television about renowned human rights journalist Hollman Morris, saying that his journalism was “deceitful and a glorification of terrorism” and that it “is important to distinguish between friends of terrorists who act as journalists and those who are real journalists.” Such attacks endanger human rights defenders, publicly stigmatize them, unleash the intelligence services against them and result in a surge of death threats.

Colombia continues to be the most dangerous place in the world for labor activists. So far this year, 21 trade unionists have been assassinated. Efforts to bring perpetrators to justice are inadequate as 95% of labor killings remain unpunished.

For these reasons, it is imperative that President Obama, both publicly and privately, convey a strong message on human rights to his Colombian counterpart.

“President Obama should make clear that U.S. support comes with a price: respect for freedom of expression and other human rights. Right now, President Obama is being asked to raise these concerns more strongly with Iran. It is important that close allies hear the same message,” said Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director, Latin America Working Group.

President Uribe’s visit comes at a time when Colombia is awaiting his final word on whether he will run for a third term in May 2010, a step that will require the country to amend its constitution. If he runs and wins, President Uribe will face few checks on executive power, as his chosen political allies will be in control of all judicial and oversight bodies.

“Measures that affect democratic checks and balances or institutional stability, such as re-election, are Colombia’s internal business,” said Adam Isacson, Director of the Colombia Program, the Center for International Policy. “Nonetheless, while in Washington, President Uribe should hear what several U.S. editorials have already expressed: changes to the country’s democratic order can affect U.S. interests, and U.S. – Colombia relations.”


For further information contact:

Suggested questions and further background information

Uribe’s visit offers U.S. journalists an opportunity to ask President Uribe the following questions:

Why are labor union killings still taking place in Colombia?

Colombia continues to be the most dangerous place for labor activists. So far 21 trade unionists were assassinated in 2009 and efforts to bring perpetrators to justice are inadequate. The impunity rate in such cases remains 95%.

Why is the Colombian government undermining freedom of expression?

In a still-unfolding scandal, Colombia’s presidential intelligence agency (DAS) was discovered to be systematically conducting surveillance without warrants, which included tapping the phones and email of hundreds of human rights defenders, journalists, members of the political opposition and Supreme Court judges. More than just wiretapping, the agency was reportedly involved in sending death threats to defenders and fabricating intelligence for use in trumped-up criminal charges. This scandal constitutes a serious assault upon freedom of expression, association and privacy.  In addition, aggressive and unsubstantiated statements by high-level Colombian officials, including President Uribe, continue to undermine the work and safety of human rights defenders, publicly stigmatizing them, unleashing the intelligence services against them and putting their security at risk.

Why is it taking so long to clean up Colombia’s political institutions?

Today, 77 members of the Colombian Congress elected in 2006—more than 30 percent of the legislature—are under investigation, in jail or on trial for links to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitaries, a group considered a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the State Department. During the first part of this decade, the AUC was responsible for three-quarters of conflict-related killings of Colombian civilians. Most of these AUC-linked politicians represent pro-government political parties. Despite steps taken, including an ongoing investigation of President Uribe’s cousin and political ally Mario Uribe, the process is moving slowly.

Why do most extrajudicial execution cases remain in impunity?

Government forces continue to commit extrajudicial executions and other abuses, with the vast majority remaining in impunity. According to the Colombian Attorney-General Human Rights Unit’s own statistics, of the 1,025 cases of alleged extrajudicial killings assigned to the unit from 2002 to April 2009, only 16 have resulted in conviction.  UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston, who conducted a special mission on the issue last week, called the killings “cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit” and noted that while the most well-known “killings were undeniably blatant and obscene, my investigation showed that they were but the tip of the iceberg.”

For more information on this troubling crime see the U.S. Office on Colombia’s report, “A State of Impunity in Colombia,” released this week.

Indiscriminate use of force by members of the armed forces also remains a concern, especially in Afro-Colombian and indigenous territories. On May 3rd 2009 a Colombian military helicopter indiscriminately machine-gunned several Afro-Colombian areas in Lopez de Micay, in the southwestern department of Cauca. Among the victims was a thirteen year old boy.

Why is the humanitarian crisis increasing in Colombia?

Over 4 million Colombians have been internally displaced by violence, and an estimated 500,000-750,000 refugees have fled to other countries. Colombia has the largest internally displaced (IDP) population in the world, UNHCR recently reported. According to the Colombian group CODHES, 380,000 people were newly displaced in 2008, an increase of 24% from 2007. IDPs are not Colombia’s only humanitarian problem; a recent UNICEF report notes that landmines are found in 31 out of Colombia’s 32 departments. Colombia has more landmine victims that any other country in the world, one-third of them children.

Jun 23

Last Friday the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released its latest estimates of coca cultivation and cocaine production in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, the three countries that produce nearly all of the world’s cocaine. The UN agency’s findings were summarized in a single headline: coca cultivation declined sharply in Colombia in 2008, while it rose in Bolivia and Peru.

The UN agency found an 18 percent drop in Colombian coca-bush cultivation from 2007 to 2008, which it attributed to “the manual eradication of 96,115 hectares of coca bush (an increase of 44 per cent compared to the area eradicated manually in 2007) and the spraying of 133,496 hectares of coca bush in 2008.”

While the 2008 drop in Colombia is encouraging, however, it is not as remarkable as it sounds. It represents a return to the same levels of coca cultivation that the UN agency detected in 2003-2006, the years after Plan Colombia brought an increase in eradication, especially in the department of Putumayo, and the FARC guerrillas lost the free rein they enjoyed over five municipalities in western Meta and northern Caquetá departments during a failed 1998-2002 peace process.

This time last year, the UN was expressing “shock” about a huge increase [PDF] in Colombian coca-growing for 2007, a major departure from the steady 2003-2006 levels. This finding caused an outcry from the Colombian government and was not reflected in the U.S. government’s very different coca-growing estimates, which found only a tiny increase in 2007.

That 2007 increase has been reversed, and Colombian coca-growing has returned to what, when one removes the seemingly anomalous 2007 estimate, has been a stable level of coca cultivation. In five of the last six years, the UN has found Colombian coca-growing to be consistently within a narrow band between 78,000 and 86,000 hectares. The 2008 figure, 81,000 hectares, fits comfortably within that band.

This steady result comes despite a constant increase in the Colombian government’s coca eradication efforts. With U.S. aid, the Colombian government has increased by 58 percent the number of hectares of coca eradicated since 2003, only to achieve the same results as it did in that year.

Since 2006, interestingly, it has done so while reducing the aerial herbicide fumigation program, instead sharply increasing on-the-ground manual eradication, a method that was barely in use five years ago. Teams of manual eradicators ripped 95,731 hectares of coca out of the ground in 2008.

Despite this, the coca-growing result is steady, with the exception of 2007. This is because coca-growers are not deterred when eradication is not coupled with assistance or a real state presence: they simply grow again elsewhere. The UNODC’s report confirms this: 75 percent of the coca plots the agency detected in 2008 were not planted with coca in 2007. And 59 percent of them had no coca in any of the UNODC’s earlier surveys.

Why was 2007 an outlier year in the UN’s estimates? The areas that the UN found coca-growing increasing most robustly in 2007 were in Colombia’s Pacific coastal region (Nariño, Cauca) and paramilitary-heavy areas in the north (Antioquia, Bolívar, Norte de Santander). With the exception of Antioquia, these areas of sharpest 2007 growth did not experience significant decreases in 2008. In fact, cultivation is now so concentrated along Colombia’s Pacific coast that this increasingly violent region can now be considered the country’s coca heartland.

Instead, last year’s reduction occurred mainly in parts of the country that saw increased manual eradication: Putumayo, Antioquia, and the area in and around the “La Macarena Consolidation Zone” in Meta, Caquetá and Guaviare.

Though we have no statistical evidence yet to back up this prediction, CIP is concerned by reports that coca cultivation is increasing dramatically this year in Putumayo and Nariño departments, in southwestern Colombia. The reason is the late 2008 collapse of several pyramid schemes, including the notorious DMG corporation, which wiped out the assets of a large portion of the population in these departments’ traditional coca-growing zones. As a source of easy money, these schemes served as a sort of “alternative development program” in several of southern Colombia’s longtime coca boomtowns. Their sudden disappearance, which brought a financial meltdown in many localities, appears to be spurring a massive replanting, according to anecdotal reports that we have received from Putumayo and Nariño.

Here are a few other noteworthy findings from the UNODC report, with explanatory text from the report itself:

  • The agency believes that Colombian cocaine production fell even more sharply than coca-growing in 2008, from 600 to 430 tons. “[A]s a result of government pressure, coca fields are becoming more dispersed and smaller and, therefore, harder to tend, resulting in lower yields. The farm-gate value of coca leaf in Colombia is falling, making it less attractive for farmers. Indeed, 20,000 less households grew coca in 2008 compared with 2007 (a decrease of 26%).”

  • The UNODC’s estimate of the average farm-gate price of coca paste – the form in which most growers sell coca in Colombia – changed very little. It rose from US$943 per kilo in 2007 to US$968 per kilo in 2008.

  • Families that grow coca in Colombia do not make much money. The UNODC report cites a survey of coca growers in two regions of the country, in which respondents are asked about their economic reality. It estimates that the growers’ net income – after taking out all the costs of producing coca – was US$3,893 per year in one region and US$4,619 per year in the other. These income levels – between $300 and $400 per month – are above the poverty line, and by all estimates the majority of rural Colombians live below that line. However, the UNODC figure shows that (a) growers get a very tiny piece of the cocaine trade’s massive profits, and (b) the income they receive is so low that other, legal crops could realistically compete with coca.

  • As noted in the charts above, UNODC found small increases in coca-growing and cocaine production in both Peru and Bolivia.
    • Peru: “[I]t can be affirmed that the growth registered in both basins [Upper Huallaga and Apurímac-Ene] may have been facilitated by violence, which news media attribute to subversive [Shining Path] remnants. It would appear that in the past few years, they have become the armed wing of narcotrafficking gangs.”
    • Bolivia: “The area of greatest growth continues to be la Asunta, in the Yungas of La Paz, where neither erradication nor alternative development is carried out. … The government of Bolivia deserves praise for a significant increase in drug interdiction.”
Jun 20

  • After more than a year of consideration in Colombia’s Congress, Colombia’s Victims’ Law effectively died this week. The law, which sought to institute a special system of reparations, in line with internationally accepted standards, for the conflict’s hundreds of thousands of victims, went before Colombia’s House of Representatives for its final debate on Tuesday. While the version of the law that Colombia’s Senate approved a year ago made victims of all armed groups eligible for reparations, the House bill – changed under heavy pressure from the Uribe government – declared victims of the government security forces (a small fraction of the total) ineligible.

    The reason for the change was ideological: President Uribe argued that the military must not be placed “on the same level” as the FARC, ELN and paramilitaries. But the House version of the bill would have forced victims of the military – including the relatives of young men killed last year in Soacha – to wait many years for the responsible soldiers to be prosecuted in regular courts before receiving any reparation.

    There was a glimmer of hope on Wednesday and Thursday when the congressional committee reconciling the two bills’ differences chose to go with the Senate version, thus making all victims eligible for reparations. But then the Uribe government then sent a letter from Treasury Minister Óscar Iván Zuluaga arguing that the bill’s provision for full reparations would be too expensive to fulfill. This virtually guarantees that the majority uribista legislature will reject the final, reconciled bill. As Semana magazine put it, “The Government Left the Victims Without Their Law.”

  • Interviewed in Semana magazine, the chief of Colombia’s armed forces (and acting defense minister), Gen. Freddy Padilla, makes a revealing comment. Padilla blames Colombia’s difficulty in getting free-trade agreements approved in the United States and Canada not on Colombia’s human rights troubles, but on what he views as FARC guerrilla “diplomacy.”

Interviewer Gustavo Gómez: Are you concerned that the President has recognized that “false positives” have slowed the ratification of free trade agreements?

Gen. Freddy Padilla: There is a diffusion of information that hammers away at the international community’s mind, so that the so-called “FARC diplomacy” has to leave some effects. Canada is one of the countries that has allowed the greatest quantity of refugees. It is crucial to understand that many of them have ideological tendencies, and that is surely one of the means used by organizations interested in diffusing information against the government’s purposes.

  • The House Armed Services Committee has completed its version of the 2010 Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 2647). Section 2873 of that Act includes some intriguing language about the use of U.S. funds to make improvements to the Palanquero airbase in Cundinamarca, Colombia, where many U.S. assets based in Manta, Ecuador, are expected to be relocated.

(a) Congressional Notification of Agreement- None of the amounts authorized to be appropriated by this division or otherwise made available for military construction for fiscal year 2010 may be obligated to commence construction of a Cooperative Security Location at the German Olano Airbase (the Palanquero AB Development Project) in Palanquero, Colombia, until at least 15 days after the date on which the Secretary of Defense certifies to the congressional defense committees that an agreement has been entered into with the Government of Colombia that permits the establishment of the Cooperative Security Location at the German Olano Airbase in a manner that will enable the United States Southern Command to execute its Theater Posture Strategy in cooperation with the Armed Forces of Colombia.

(b) Prohibition on Permanent United States Military Installation- The agreement referred to in subsection (a) may not provide for or authorize the establishment of a United States military installation or base for the permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Colombia.

The Committee’s summary document [PDF] interprets (a) as requiring the Defense Department to certify “that an agreement has been reached with Colombia that does not hinder Southern Command from executing its counter-narcotics strategy for the region.” I don’t know yet what this means.

  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies has released an evaluation of the U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” state-building-and-counterinsurgency program in La Macarena, Meta – the subject of three rather long entries to this weblog in May and June. The CSIS report, which also recommends that the program place a high priority on becoming more civilian in nature, is highly recommended.
  • Victims’ leader Joaquín Emilio García Lopera was killed this week by a re-armed paramilitary group in Antioquia’s increasingly violent Bajo Cauca region. García led a group of victims of the Antioquia-based Miners’ Bloc of the former AUC, which was headed by now-extradited paramilitary leader Ramiro “Cuco” Vanoy.
  • The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report Thursday noting that “about 87 percent of firearms seized by Mexican authorities and traced in the last 5 years originated in the United States,” and that the United States, despite recent steps, still lacks “a comprehensive U.S. governmentwide strategy for addressing the problem.”
  • USNS Comfort, a U.S. Navy hospital ship, paid a ten-day visit to Tumaco, Nariño, as part of the U.S. Southern Command’s principal regional goodwill effort.
  • Chile is buying 18 U.S.-made F-16 fighter planes from the Netherlands for $270 million.” This is in addition to 10 F-16s that the United States sold Chile in 2005 and 2006. Global Post reminds us, “In addition to the regular annual budget for defense, 10 percent of all copper revenues are automatically transferred to a secret reserve fund for military purchases.”
  • Argentina has legislative elections on Sunday the 28th. Polls seem to agree that the pro-Kirchner Peronist bloc will lose its legislative majority – an outcome that President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner had sought to avoid by moving the vote ahead by four months.
  • The U.S. group Witness for Peace is taking applications for participants in what looks to be a fascinating visit to Guaviare, Colombia in August. (See blog posts from my April 2008 trip to Guaviare.)
Jun 18

Here are excerpts from today’s press statement from Philip Alston, the United Nations’ special rapporteur for extrajudicial executions. Alston just finished a ten-day visit to Colombia, where he investigated allegations of “false positives” and other killings of civilians by the parties to Colombia’s conflict. The headings are ours, not his.

The “false positives” problem goes beyond Soacha

[T]here are two problems with the narrative focused on falsos positivos and Soacha [the headline-grabbing scandal, which broke in September, surrounding military killings of young men in Soacha, a poor Bogotá suburb]. The first is that the term provides a sort of technical aura to describe a practice which is better characterized as cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit. The second is that the focus on Soacha encourages the perception that the phenomenon was limited both geographically and temporally. But while the Soacha killings were undeniably blatant and obscene, my investigations show that they were but the tip of the iceberg. I interviewed witnesses and survivors who described very similar killings in the departments of Antioquia, Arauca, Cali, Casanare, Cesar, Cordoba, Huila, Meta, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Santander, Sucre, and Vichada. A significant number of military units were thus involved.

Military denials or cover-ups

Some officials continue to assert that many of the cases were in fact legitimate killings of guerrillas or others. But the evidence – including ballistics and forensics reports, eyewitness testimony, and the testimony of soldiers themselves – strongly suggests that this was not the case. The “dangerous guerillas” who were killed include boys of 16 and 17, a young man with a mental age of nine, a devoted family man with two in-laws in active military service, and a young soldier home on leave. I cannot rule out the possibility that some of the falsos positivos were, in fact, guerillas, but apart from sweeping allegations, I have been provided with no sustained evidence to that effect by the Government. Evidence showing victims dressed in camouflage outfits which are neatly pressed, or wearing clean jungle boots which are four sizes too big for them, or lefthanders holding guns in their right hand, or men with a single shot through the back of their necks, further undermines the suggestion that these were guerillas killed in combat.

A further problem concerns the systematic harassment of the survivors by the military. A woman from Soacha described how, in 2008, one of her sons disappeared and was reported killed in combat two days later. When another of her sons became active in pursuing the case, he received a series of threats. He was shot and killed earlier this year. Since then, the mother has also received death threats. This is part of a common pattern.

Not just “a few bad apples”

The key question is who was responsible for these premeditated killings? On the one hand, I have found no evidence to suggest that these killings were carried out as a matter of official Government policy, or that they were directed by, or carried out with the knowledge of, the President or successive Defence Ministers. On the other hand, the explanation favoured by many in Government – that the killings were carried out on a small scale by a few bad apples – is equally unsustainable. The sheer number of cases, their geographic spread, and the diversity of military units implicated, indicate that these killings were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military.

The gap between policies and practice

Starting in 2007, the Government has taken important steps to stop and respond to these killings. They include: disciplinary sanctions, increased cooperation with the ICRC and the UN, the installation of Operational Legal Advisors to advise on specific military operations, increased oversight of payments to informers, the appointment of the Suarez Temporary Special Commission, the appointment of Delegated Inspectors to army divisions, requiring deaths in combat to be investigated first by judicial police, modifying award criteria, and creating a specialized unit in the Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalia).

These encouraging steps demonstrate a good faith effort by the Government to address past killings and prevent future ones. But there remains a worrying gap between the policies and the practice. The number of successful prosecutions remains very low, although improved results are hoped for in the coming year. Three problems stand out. The first is that the Fiscalia, and especially its Human Rights Unit, lack the requisite staff, resources and training. A substantial increase in resources is essential. The second is that in some areas military judges ignore the rulings of the Constitutional Court and do all in their power to thwart the transfer of clear human rights cases to the ordinary justice system. The transfer of information is delayed or obstructed, wherever possible jurisdictional clashes are set up, and delaying tactics are standard. Delays, often of months or years, result and the value of testimony and evidence is jeopardized.

The good news is that there has been a significant reduction in recorded allegations of extrajudicial executions by the military over the last 6-9 months. If this trend is confirmed, it will represent a welcome reversal of course, but the problem of impunity for past killings must still be addressed. …

Officials’ unfounded accusations against human rights defenders

[H]uman rights defenders (HRDs) are frequently intimidated and threatened, and sometimes killed, often by private actors. They have been accused by high level officials of being – or being close to – guerrillas or terrorists. Such statements have also been made against prosecutors and judges. These statements stigmatise those working to promote human rights, and encourage an environment in which specific acts of threats and killings by private actors can take place. It is important for senior officials to cease the stigmatization of such groups. …

A clear position on Colombia’s “Victims Law”

It is my understanding that the current draft law on victims’ rights – approved by the commission set up to reconcile the texts approved in the Senate and the House of Representatives – contains a definition of victim that includes victims of state agents and generally puts them on equal standing with victims of paramilitaries. It is imperative that as the draft law moves forward, that victims of both state and non-state actors continue to be treated equally.

Jun 16

From an investigative piece by Mark Bowden, author of the 2002 bestseller Killing Pablo, on the website of The Atlantic:

Both planes were initially operated under an $8.6 million Pentagon contract by California Microwave Systems of Maryland, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman. And they were being flown despite repeated warnings by veteran pilots that the mission was running untenable risks.

Those pilots, Paul Hooper and Doug Cockes, predicted that the single-engine Caravan would be unsafe for high-tempo missions over the Andes Mountains. After program managers on site in Bogotá dismissed their warnings, the pilots wrote letters in the fall of 2002 detailing their concerns to company officials, including Kent Kresa, then the chairman and CEO of Northrop Grumman. For their pains they were demoted, reprimanded, threatened with lawsuits, and, in their words, “pushed out” of the program shortly before their predictions came tragically true. They consider themselves fortunate. “The only reason those three Americans were captive on the ground for five years, and the reason why five of their colleagues are now dead, is the greed and incompetence of California Microwave and Northrop Grumman,” Hooper told me.

Bowden alleges that a U.S. company contracted to perform counter-drug missions in Colombia – California Microwave Systems of Maryland, a division of Northrop Grumman, knowingly used planes that weren’t fit for the job.

One crashed in February 2003, and 3 of the American contractors on board were held hostage by the FARC guerrillas until July 2008. Another crashed the next month while on a search-and-rescue mission looking for the hostages, killing everyone aboard.

Bowden notes that Kent Kresa, the chairman of the company at the time, who ignored the pilots’ letters, is now the interim chairman of General Motors.

Jun 12

The White House press secretary’s office today confirmed what the Colombian Presidency told us on Tuesday: that Colombian President Álvaro Uribe will be paying a visit to Washington on June 29, where he will meet with U.S. President Barack Obama. It will be the first private face-to-face meeting between the two presidents since Obama’s inauguration in January.

Here is what the White House statement says, and what it probably means.

President Obama will meet with President Uribe at the White House on Monday, June 29.

That is the Monday of the only week in June or July when Congress is out of session. Most representatives and senators will be out of Washington for the Independence Day “Work Period.” This will limit President Uribe’s congressional agenda.

Colombia is a close ally and partner of the United States, and the President looks forward to discussing a broad range of bilateral and hemispheric issues, including ways to enhance our cooperation on security and development challenges in Colombia and throughout the Americas.

That could mean just about anything. Move on.

The President also looks forward to discussing with President Uribe our economic engagement, including the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement,

The Free Trade Agreement, signed in October 2006, has not been ratified by the U.S. Congress. The agreement is controversial because of Colombia’s severe labor rights problems, among other economic, democracy and human rights concerns. There are several other reasons why Congress is not likely to take it up during 2009:

  • The legislative agenda for the months when Congress is likely to be in session (July, September, October, November) will be taken up by the Obama administration’s ambitious health care and climate change proposals, as well as the 2010 budget. There is little space to debate the Colombia agreement.
  • An “easier-to-pass” trade agreement with Panama is slated to come up for debate first, but even that agreement is awaiting action from Panama on labor and tax law issues.
  • It is very difficult politically to pass a free-trade agreement in the midst of a severe economic recession.
  • The likelihood that Uribe may seek a second re-election casts doubts on the direction of democracy in Colombia. Along with para-politics, “false positives” and the DAS wiretap scandal, this makes the agreement harder to sell in Washington.

Given all of these obstacles, perhaps at least President Uribe will gain some clarity from the White House about the Obama administration’s intentions over the next few months. In recent weeks, the message has been muddled:

  • After the Summit of the Americas in April, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said the administration plans to move forward with the Free Trade Agreement “sooner rather than later,” and that it sought to “identify and work through any outstanding issues we might have so we might move forward with that. And that process will begin immediately.”
  • On the other hand, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke told an audience in late May that “Colombia needs to address the issue of violence against union leaders before the U.S. Congress votes on a free trade agreement.”

and the long-term, institutional consolidation of security gains in Colombia through effective governance,

This appears to be a reference to “Integrated Action,” a series of programs in specific regions that have long been under the control of armed groups. The Integrated Action model intends to combine military operations with an effort to bring the civilian state into ungoverned territories. As mentioned in three recent posts, these programs show some promise, but are largely military so far and face significant coordination problems. They are, however, being viewed as the future of much U.S. aid to Colombia, and the United States has devoted significant amounts of resources to programs in the La Macarena and Montes de María regions.

In the past month, key Colombian government officials responsible for carrying out Integrated Action programs, chiefly the defense minister and the presidential advisor for “Social Action,” have left their posts. Before investing more in the Integrated Action model, the Obama administration may seek to gauge whether the Colombian government will be as committed to these programs in those officials’ absence.

as well as other ways to further strengthen the bilateral relationship.

This language, of course, is too vague to mean much. But it seems apparent that President Uribe’s principal audience for this visit is domestic. The Colombian president hopes to demonstrate that he enjoys a warm relationship with the U.S. president.

But the bilateral relationship and Colombian domestic politics overlap uncomfortably in one critical area: the president’s possible re-election bid. Uncertainty over whether Uribe plans to run again in 2010 will hang palpably over this official visit.

Non-involvement in another country’s electoral processes is a very strong principle, and we should not expect President Obama or any other administration officials to comment publicly on the re-election question. If Uribe decides to run, however, U.S. concern about democratic checks and balances in Colombia will have an undeniably significant impact on the bilateral relationship. It is up to the Obama administration to find a tactful way to communicate that.

Jun 10

This is the final “Integrated Action” post for now. I know it’s a bit long for the blog format. If you haven’t been following these programs in detail, it may even seem a bit boring. But these posts are helping us to process our own ideas and to engage in more conversations as we try to figure out what to make of these programs. And since we’re really looking at what may be the future of U.S. aid to Colombia, it is important that we get this right. Thanks for your patience.

This is the third of three posts presenting initial impressions of Colombia’s “Integrated Action” strategy and programs. (Here are the first and second posts.) These programs are being billed as the model for much future U.S. assistance to Colombia.

This post offers some initial conclusions and observations based on what we’ve seen and heard so far after a few months of documentary research and interviews, and a late April trip to the “Integrated Action” zone in Vistahermosa, Meta. We plan on traveling to another zone, carrying out more interviews, and publishing a fuller evaluation in September.

Again, these are preliminary conclusions. The caveats laid out in the first post in this series fully apply.

Our first conclusion is that, in its present form, Integrated Action is a mostly military endeavor.

The Colombian government’s new strategy is being billed as a “whole of government approach.” It is meant to have a civilian component from the very beginning, and it envisions the armed forces becoming almost a junior partner by its latter stages, when the state presence is “consolidated.”

So far, however, the armed forces are playing a dominant role. This is so even though the Center for the Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI) is located within a civilian agency, the Colombian Presidency’s Agency for Social Action (Acción Social). In the regions where the strategy is being executed, a clear majority of personnel involved are Defense Ministry personnel: uniformed military and police.

There is ample evidence of the military’s predominance.

The security forces make up the bulk of management positions in the Center for the Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI) structure.

As mentioned in the first post in this series, a March 2009 presidential directive (PDF) establishes a CCAI “Directive Council” (Consejo Directivo), sort of like a board of directors, to guide the effort. Four of this council’s six members come from one of the state security forces.

  • [x] Minister of Defense
  • [x] Commander-General of the Armed Forces
  • [x] Director-General of the Police
  • [x] Director of the Administrative Department for Security (DAS) in the Presidency
  • [ ] High Counselor of Social Action in the Presidency
  • [ ] Prosecutor-General [Fiscal General]

The military is performing duties that normally correspond to civilians, particularly development and humanitarian programs.

As Semana magazine noted in a recent article praising the model, “While the consolidation strategy is civilian, the military has a protagonistic role, from the engineer battalions that build highways, to the support for other Social Action tasks like the distribution of food and seeds.”

Military engineers are carrying out the bulk of construction projects in the CCAI zones. Juan Manuel Santos offered examples in early May, shortly before leaving his post as defense minister.

“Between 2009 and 2010, military engineers will spend the equivalent of more than 30 million dollars to build such important roads as the Montes de María Transversal [near the Caribbean coast, in the departments of Sucre and Bolívar] or road-paving in La Uribe [Meta] in the former demilitarized zone, a symbolic deed of greatest importance.”

The military’s role extends to heavy participation in, or even coordination of, meetings with communities to discuss development needs. “The military, including Southern Command, meets with communities, offering [productive] projects,” a community leader told me, as others nodded. “They’re involving the civilian population in a military dynamic.”

In fact, one of these programs’ key stated goals is to build communities’ relationships with the military, rather than having the military create the security conditions necessary to allow communities to relate to the civilian part of the government. “Since the last reporting period,” notes a 2008 field report from USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives, “target communities increasingly have been willing to accept assistance with their commitments from the military. This growing willingness demonstrates an increasing level of confidence in the military, and the cooperation this confidence generates is making these relationships even stronger.”

This high degree of military participation is probably not due to any military “power grab,” nor is it necessarily a result of the Uribe government’s evident predilection for military solutions.

First, the model originated with the military. As noted in the first post, the Integrated Action concept and the CCAI came from a series of discussions between Colombia’s Defense Ministry and U.S. Southern Command. This is naturally a recipe for a militaristic model. Beyond moving the model into the Social Action agency, it is not clear how much more has been done to “socialize” it among the civilian sectors of the government. Clearly, though, giving civilian agencies and ministries more of a leadership role than they have now would increase their sense of “buy-in.”

Second, due to security concerns, the military has to predominate during the plan’s earliest phases. If illegal armed groups are still present in large numbers, and killing people, in the zone, then it is hard to argue against a very strong role for the security forces.

Juan Manuel Santos had a point when he wrote in 2007,

“Finding the right balance between military and social effort remains difficult. Our experience has shown that without minimum security conditions, social efforts are fruitless. For that reason, the first advance is military. … [T]he military must establish the first strategy for consolidation which can be supported later by social activities.”

However, anyone who thinks that the main goal should be state-building and economic development may have trouble swallowing the rest of Santos’ argument: “Military criteria must continue to be the genesis of the consolidation. Selecting regions for consolidation must be based on a military strategy that will destabilize enemy plans and positions.”

Security concerns are helping to keep this a military-centered program. My strong impression from what I have seen so far is that the entire program is still in an incipient phase, with security conditions far from established outside of a few small town centers.

It is impressive that the effort has brought security to the town centers of the Vistahermosa / La Macarena zone, particularly the municipal “county seats.” These towns spent decades under uncontested FARC domination, and now they bear virtually no evidence of guerrilla presence.

But while efforts are ongoing to secure rural areas, this is proving to be very difficult. The security situation outside of the towns appears to be very precarious. The degree of FARC activity in rural zones was greater than I’d been led to believe by some of the triumphal rhetoric coming out of the Defense Ministry and the U.S. government. A few examples of that rhetoric:

  • Juan Manuel Santos, in May of this year: “[T]hese regions, which used to be refuges for terrorism and narcotrafficking, have been recovered for peace.”
  • And in February: “The people now reject the FARC in all of its manifestations, defend the state and support the security forces. They are seeing that after being submitted for so long to the FARC’s violence, now, hand-in-hand with the state, progress and development are arriving.”
  • USAID, in mid-2008: “Because of improvements in the security situation, which have come about much faster than anticipated, the consolidation effort is seeing opportunities in transition zones that are proving relatively secure but where a State presence is practically absent. Communities that were controlled by the FARC and dedicated to coca production 6 months ago now find that the Colombian military is providing security, and that coca production is no longer an option.”

To the contrary, the guerrillas were so active near Vistahermosa’s town center that, as discussed in this series’ second post, road travel was thoroughly discouraged. The Fusion Center territory’s rural zone was not what the development community calls a “permissive environment.”

U.S. documents quietly acknowledge that security remains a big issue. USAID recognized in a mid-2008 report, “Although the security situation is improving, it continues to complicate staff travel and program logistics.” That clearly remains the case. Reporting in October, the Government Accountability Office noted that security concerns in the rural zones are very real: “Security remains a primary concern for CCAI because it operates in areas where illegal armed groups are present. For example, CCAI representatives in La Macarena do not travel outside of a 5-kilometer radius of the city center due to security concerns.”

Among those with whom I spoke, there seemed to be a consensus that guerrilla activity in the area began to increase in March 2009. “The guerrillas are reactivating” was how one leader in Puerto Toledo put it. March 2009 was the one-year anniversary of the death of “Manuel Marulanda,” the guerrillas’ co-founder and longtime leader, and two other FARC secretariat members in unrelated incidents. As USAID put it: “The FARC called for a ‘Black March’ to commemorate the deaths and demonstrate its continued relevance after a year of setbacks. … There was an uptick in FARC activities throughout the country.”

In addition, a large-scale effort to capture or kill top-ranking FARC leader Jorge Briceño (a.k.a. “El Mono Jojoy”) has been ongoing on the western edge of the La Macarena zone. FARC activity may be increasing elsewhere in the zone because fronts have been pushed out of – or trying to draw troops away from – the area of heaviest combat.

Local leaders and human rights defenders told me of an increase in the guerrillas’ recruitment of children in the area. The local FARC fronts, they said, have lowered their recruiting age and are now taking away children as young as 9 years old. This, they said, is a reaction to blows the FARC have received from army. Also, the guerrillas consider children to be easier to control.” Guerrillas are “constantly present in schools” in the zone, and parents are pulling their children out of school in order to avoid their recruitment. (On the other hand, I was told of a heartbreakingly grim scenario: parents whose crops were fumigated and are going hungry will make the painful decision to hand their children over to the guerrillas or paramilitaries so that their kids may have enough food to eat. I got no sense of how common this is.)

It is impossible to determine with certainty whether the guerrilla presence in the Vistahermosa – La Macarena zone is a fading but lingering phenomenon, or whether the guerrillas are still the dominant force beyond the town centers. What is certain, though, is that the FARC’s influence has not been reduced to such an extent that the local population has been able to lose its fear of retribution for participating in “Integrated Action” program. The International Crisis Group, citing “local sources in Meta,” wrote in March that “some communities remain apprehensive about a FARC resurgence should the government fail to keep the CCAI promise of permanent presence.” In rural areas, where that presence does not reliably penetrate, the apprehension is even greater.

For their part, USAID and its contractors face their own security challenge: the imperative that they not appear to be participants in an ongoing military operation. A 2007 USAID document recognized the need to maintain some separation from the Colombian military effort, but then went on to say, in as many words, that USAID is there to support the Colombian military.

“The program needs, for security reasons, to maintain a credible space between program field staff and the Colombian military—while at the same time publicly including the military in the process as a representative of the State at events ranging from municipal assemblies to public inaugurations. Coming to a joint understanding on this point has required time and tact, but the process has helped build a strong positive relationship between the program and the Colombian military.”

A church official working in the zone was not convinced that USAID has maintained a credible distance from the military effort. “For us, USAID and Southern Command are the same thing,” he said matter-of-factly.

Beyond the security situation, there is another compelling explanation for the overwhelmingly military nature of Integrated Action so far: the lack of civilian government presence in the region to play the roles that a civilian government must play, and provide the services that civilians are expected to provide.

Many of the non-military institutions that are supposed to be governing neglected rural areas are not stepping up quickly. “[T]he civilian component of the state response can be slow and inefficient,” USAID acknowledges.

“It is apparent that administrative rigidity is a factor hindering the GOC’s ability to respond rapidly to opportunities as they arise. Difficulties arising in the transition zones provide clear examples. This rigidity is the consequence of 1) the normal bureaucratic processes inherent in any democratic government; 2) a history of corruption that has spawned layers of processes to combat that corruption; and 3) a political culture that is accustomed to using administrative infractions to punish political opponents. This rigidity manifests as an institutional reluctance to try anything outside of the clearly defined administrative box. To address this inflexibility, a “comfort zone” needs to be established where GOC employees are allowed to take small chances and adapt procedures so that processes can move forward in the transition zones where rapid and flexible responses are required.”

Much of the problem is a simple lack of civilian capacity. Local governments, USAID argues, simply lack the experience and managerial know-how to “absorb” and carry out ambitious development programs. An additional challenge to working with mayors and governors – one which AID does not explicitly mention – is the possibility that they may face questions for past or ongoing relations with armed groups.

At the national level, capacities and even willingness to participate are uneven. Cabinet ministries and other civilian state entities whose presence would be needed have not all jumped aboard at the same rate.

It is too early in this study to grade civilian government agencies’ contributions in the Integrated Action zones, or to have taken into account all of the reasons for inability or reluctance to participate. But I note that I heard much praise for the National Park Service and the National Learning Service (SENA), and generalized concerns expressed about the Interior and Justice Ministry and the Agriculture Ministry. The latter is a particular concern because of its responsibility for land-titling, which has been proceeding with excruciating slowness.

The performance of the Presidency’s Social Action office – the civilian entity in charge of the CCAI – is more complicated, and we’re not yet ready to evaluate it. Some concerns I did hear about Acción Social include:

  • A sense that the handoff of control from the Defense Ministry is not yet consolidated, and that within the rest of the government, Defense continues to be a more energetic backer of the Integrated Action program than Acción Social, the nominal “owner” of the program.
  • A sense that Acción Social, as an entity with nationwide responsibilities centralized in the Presidency, is more inclined to devote resources to more populated areas where needs are more concentrated, such as the slums that surround Bogotá and other large cities.
  • A sense that Acción Social responds significantly to political criteria. Many of its programs, prominent among them “Families in Action” and “Forest-Warden Families,” are quite clientelistic, as they distribute cash subsidies to grateful poor people. Viewed through the lens of clientelism and seeking political support for the government in power, the sparsely populated Integrated Action zones would be a low priority. They have few voters.
  • This week the Presidency’s longtime high counselor for Social Action, Luis Alfonso Hoyos, announced that he is leaving his post to become Colombia’s ambassador to the OAS. Whether that is good news or bad news for the Integrated Action model is unclear at this point. Hoyos, however, was viewed by some of my interviewees as an official who still “needed convincing” about Integrated Action, which was one of many big-budget programs his office managed. If accurate, this could be a potential explanation for some of the civilian government’s past slowness to get fully involved.

Persistent problems with inter-agency coordination also explain some of the lack of civilian involvement. Though this is something that the CCAI and “fusion centers” are designed to overcome, it is not a trivial task to get agencies with little history of working together to do so in a part of the country where none of them have been present. This is “not something that’s rocket science, but it’s a very, very difficult thing to actually do,” Susan Reichle, the USAID mission chief in Colombia, told the Washington Post last month.

While poor coordination was a frequent complaint I heard, at this point I do not have a lot of specific examples to enumerate. I do have one, though: the National Parks relocation program discussed in the last Integrated Action post. If we were witnessing a situation of effective inter-agency coordination, we would not see a group of trained ecologists – however able and dedicated – finding themselves performing nearly all the planning and logistics for a mass relocation program, complete with community organization, housing construction, and administration of sophisticated productive development projects. While I admire the work they were doing, the lack of coordination that led them to be doing it virtually alone was troubling.

Another reason given for civilian agencies’ reluctance to plunge fully into the Integrated Action model is the lack of a legal framework to give the CCAI statutory authority and permanence. The CCAI is a presidential initiative, not a legally constituted entity of the Colombian government.

While the March 2009 decree addresses this deficiency somewhat, it may not be enough to convince key government ministries to devote a greater portion of their meager existing budgets to priority Integrated Action zones like Vistahermosa – La Macarena. Especially when the decree itself expires at the end of President Uribe’s term, about fourteen months from now.

As a result, while the CCAI headquarters in Bogotá is universally described as a small but efficient office staffed by dynamic young officials who believe in the joint mission, in some cases those officials are operating with little political and financial support from the ministries they represent.

Doubts about the program’s long-term sustainability are also a barrier to fuller civilian involvement. The March 2009 decree only “institutionalizes” the CCAI until August of 2010, when President Uribe leaves office (unless, of course, he doesn’t).

The sustainability of “Integrated Action” is also more immediately placed into question by the very recent exit from government of some of the doctrine’s main architects and advocates within the Colombian government.

Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos was a persistent backer of these programs, and even sought in March to re-brand them as part of a “Strategic Leap” (Salto Estratégico) to make the Colombian state’s presence more permanent in conflict zones. It seems odd to declare a “Strategic Leap” in March and leave your job in May. But that is what Santos did, leaving his post after nearly three years in order to clear the way for a possible presidential bid.

With him, as appears likely, may go Vice-Minister of Defense Sergio Jaramillo, who has been the most active proponent of the Integrated Action model within the government. Jaramillo, according to several accounts, is the official who has done most to cajole and convince recalcitrant government counterparts – both military and civilian – to back CCAI efforts. If Jaramillo leaves the government, it is not clear who will play the active salesman/manager role that had been his.

For all of these reasons, I have to conclude that at this point in its development, the Integrated Action programs are predominantly military. However, it would be unfair to accuse the military of being “unable to let go.” The security situation is more precarious than official statements indicate, and civilian agencies have been very slow to fulfill their proper roles.

While Integrated Action is “predominantly military,” it could just as fittingly be called “insufficiently civilian.”

A second conclusion is that important human rights concerns require attention. I heard troubling human rights complaints during my visit to the Vistahermosa-La Macarena zone. At this stage in our research, I have not been able to verify claims or make specific denunciations of abuses. But it is important to note some trends.

The main problem I heard about in the zone was forced displacement.

The emptiness of towns like Puerto Toledo and (I was told) some of the countryside owed in some part to the collapse of the coca economy. Many who grew or profited from coca in the zone have simply moved elsewhere.

But economics are not the only – and may not even be the main – reason why, as a Puerto Toledo community leader put it, “Many people have had to leave.” The zone has seen frequent combat since 2002, when the last peace process ended and the military re-took the FARC demilitarized zone. Then, in 2004 through 2006, it was a principal theater of operations for the large-scale “Plan Patriota” military offensive. Displacement occurred as people were forced out by fighting, or pressured by the FARC to leave.

While the Integrated Action effort seeks to win the population’s “hearts and minds” with a softer touch, people with whom I spoke said that many local residents, particularly community leaders, had left in order to avoid being detained as suspected FARC supporters. I was surprised to hear fear of the Prosecutor-General’s office (Fiscalía), which has been brought into the zone to investigate and prosecute suspected guerrilla supporters, cited as a reason for displacement.

I heard reports that the paramilitary presence was increasing as the military chipped away at the guerrillas’ once uncontested dominion over the zone.

The paramilitaries in question appear to be those at the command of Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias “Cuchillo,” who now has influence in much of Meta, Guaviare, Casanare and Vichada. I also heard the name of Víctor Carranza, a Boyacá-based emerald magnate who has long been accused of sponsoring paramilitary groups.

Paramilitaries are showing up in town centers, occasionally uniformed but often in civilian dress. In some cases, they claim to be there “with the state’s permission,” and they often encourage or even obligate the population to grow coca. Cuchillo appears to be interested principally in narcotrafficking, rather than massacring suspected guerrilla collaborators. His men have reportedly won over populations by promising to be “less violent” than the guerrillas.

A significant number of paramilitaries, I was told, had taken over a former guerrilla encampment between the hamlet of Pi̱alito Рwhere a police station was recently inaugurated Рand Vistahermosa.

In general, local leaders characterized the military as being on generally good behavior, making an effort not to mistreat the civilian population. However, there were some serious complaints, none of which I have been able to verify. These included:

  • One case of a “false positive” during the second half of 2008, which I was told is already in Bogotá-based groups’ databases.
  • Military and paramilitary personnel patrolling together without insignias on their uniforms.
  • Four indiscriminate bombings so far this year, with no casualties.
  • Blocking trucks carrying food aid to populations, and stealing some of it for themselves. (Local human rights advocates reported raising this issue directly with the commander of the 12th Mobile Brigade.)
  • Obligating civilians to “demobilize,” even though they were not FARC members, using language like “either you demobilize, or we’ll arrest you.”
  • Aggressive behavior or harassment of civilians, including unfounded accusations of being guerrillas.
  • A perceived lack of will to confront paramilitary groups.

A third conclusion is that the military’s relations with the population have been strained by a belief or subtext that anybody who lives in the Vistahermosa-La Macarena zone is somehow a guerrilla supporter. This, at least, was a concern that local leaders expressed repeatedly. While the local population is distrustful of the state, it is interesting to note that they are also concerned that the state doesn’t trust them.

Vistahermosa – La Macarena is part of a zone that was ceded to the FARC for more than three years. Local leaders said they felt that anyone who remained during the entire “despeje” period is treated with suspicion by the newly arrived state authorities. “Of course people had to be with the guerrillas” during the time that the state vacated the zone, one leader said. “Should you accuse people of being guerrilla auxiliaries, then? You could do that with everyone here.”

I heard many complaints about the most aggressive manifestation of this mistrust: mass arrests. Local leaders said that security forces, accompanied by officials from the prosecutor-general’s office, were showing up in towns and rounding up citizens, usually local leaders, who had been fingered as likely guerrilla supporters. A representative of a humanitarian organization told me of arriving in one town in a white 4-wheel-drive vehicle, and finding the entire place empty. After a few minutes, townspeople emerged from their hiding places. “We thought you were the Fiscalía,” they said.

Overcoming distrust is a huge challenge in a region that has been FARC territory for decades, where much of the population was born into, and has never known anything but, living under guerrilla control.

Most of the population appears to be open to having the state protect them and provide basic services. But a small handful of the population is indeed working with the FARC. That is impossible to deny. If you are a representative of the state, this handful of people may help get you killed.

The Colombian government is still trying to figure out how to separate the hardened FARC cadres from the general population in which they are mixed, without alienating that general population. Clearly careful intelligence work and winning the population’s trust are key to this effort. But massively detaining social leaders seems counter-productive, due to the reaction it inspires among the people whom they led.

A fourth conclusion is that forced eradication continues to contribute to distrust. When coca eradication – whether fumigation or manual – is not accompanied by immediate food security and other economic aid, the result may be positive from a counter-narcotics standpoint (there is less coca, momentarily), but disastrous from a counter-insurgency or state-building standpoint.

When small-scale coca growers see their illegal crop destroyed, but are left with no short-term possibility of staying fed, they will react in a number of ways. One apparently common result is that they simply replant coca, or move elsewhere and replant coca. Their resentment of the Colombian government may increase, causing them to align more closely with the FARC or paramilitaries.

The Vistahermosa – La Macarena “Fusion Center” recognizes this dynamic, and has made a priority of following up eradication with quick delivery of food security and development assistance. However, I heard complaints about months-long lags between eradication and the first delivery of promised aid. Indeed, a USAID document notes that the Fusion Center staff are grappling “with the lack of a GOC [Government of Colombia] post-eradication program.” It is remarkable that no such program exists.

In addition, I heard complaints that the manual eradicators themselves are not always the Colombian state’s most diplomatic representatives when they interact with the population. “People fear the eradicators, they are abusive,” one leader told me, citing coarse language and theft of food and other goods.

Fifth and finally, another frequently cited suspicion of government motives is the belief that the Integrated Action policy will lead to a “land grab,” displacing peasant farmers in favor of large landowners.

Some of the more conspiratorial residents note that forced eradication, mass arrests, the arrival of paramilitaries, and displacement are happening at the same time that large oil palm plantations spring up in significant numbers right outside the zone. They then conclude that large landowners want the existing population out of the picture so that they can more easily appropriate their land. For those who harbor these suspicions which are easily spread by rumors – news that land values in the region are rising is a reason for alarm, not celebration.

To counter these rumors, it is important that projects be small scale, including the formation of cooperatives, and accompanied by rapid delivery of clear land titles, in order to disabuse people of the widely held “land grab” notion.

Despite these often critical problems, the “Integrated Action” effort has done enough in the Vistahermosa – La Macarena area to raise people’s expectations a great deal. There is a real desire to live in an area governed by a proper state, to feel secure, to have title to land, and to participate in a community planning process.

My initial impression is that it would do more harm than good to abandon or cease to support Integrated Action. But the model could go badly awry, with grave consequences, if it continues without a number of significant adjustments. These would include – but not be limited to – the following. (We expect our recommendations to be far more specific, detailed and comprehensive as our research advances.)

  • Increase the participation of civilian agencies and institutions. Give them a much greater decision-making and management role in the CCAI in order to encourage their “buy-in.”
  • Give more explicit high-level political backing to this more civilian CCAI, to decrease foot-dragging and make it a higher priority for the state agencies being asked to participate. Ensure that Acción Social provides sufficient funding for, and more active management of, the civilian side of Integrated Action projects, and that it does more to encourage other government agencies to establish their own presence in the priority zones as soon as minimal security conditions permit.
  • Use these added civilian resources to move beyond short-term demonstration projects and commit to larger-scale efforts, especially infrastructure and basic services.
  • Get the military out of non-security roles as soon as it is safe to do so.
  • Continue making improvements in coordination between state agencies, so that ecologists no longer have to oversee housing construction projects or help organize agricultural cooperatives on their own.
  • Ensure that development efforts are chosen by the communities themselves through a transparent process, so that the frequent criticism that programs were “designed at a desk in Bogotá” cannot stick.
  • Speed up land titling to reassure populations that they will not be victims of a “land grab.”
  • Quickly and transparently punish any examples of human rights abuse, so that impunity for abusers does not undermine trust in the state and intimidate citizens who should be participating in community planning processes.
  • Minimize harm to community relations by halting overzealous mass arrests of civilians suspected of guerrilla collaboration.
  • Aggressively confront any signs of paramilitary presence.
  • Eradicate coca only when immediate delivery of food-security and development assistance can be assured. Place a priority on programs in which eradication is voluntary.
  • Focus more on the sustainability of the effort. Integrated Action will not be credible to key constituencies – including civilian government agencies called on to take part in it – if it is in danger of ending in August 2010.

I would add a final, more conceptual, observation. Colombia and the United States have to decide whether Integrated Action is going to prioritize counter-insurgency, counter-narcotics, or state-building.

Defenders of the current program might argue that its brilliance lies in the manner in which it hybridizes these three strategies. Either they would prioritize counter-insurgency, or they would argue that all three are equal components that reinforce each other.

That is often untrue, however. Counter-insurgency undermines state-building when government representatives alienate community leaders whom they suspect of guerrilla ties. Counter-narcotics undermines both counter-insurgency and state building when forced eradication leaves peasants hungry and angry at the government.

In our view, state-building goals should be given priority over counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency. We will develop this more in our final report. But the success of Integrated Action will not be measured by the number of guerrilla attacks or the number of hectares of coca eradicated. It will depend on the extent to which these strategies build a functioning, mostly civilian state in vast areas of Colombia that have never had one. If Integrated Action focuses on meeting that good governance standard, it will leave behind territories that are infertile ground for armed groups, narcotrafficking or organized crime. Govern well – with a full state presence and low impunity – and the guerrilla and narcotrafficking problems will fade.

If Integrated Action can do away with statelessness and impunity in lawless regions of Colombia, it would offer the world a promising model. It isn’t there yet. But nor is a disastrous outcome assured. With important adjustments and corrections, and close monitoring of the programs’ execution, what has been started in Vistahermosa – La Macarena could turn out well.

Jun 09

This would be the first bilateral meeting between presidents Barack Obama and Álvaro Uribe since Obama was sworn in last January.

According to the Colombian government’s announcement posted a little while ago, “all issues are on the table,” including aid, free trade, counternarcotics and counterterrorism.

Uribe will also be in Providence, Rhode Island on Thursday and Friday to speak at the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. His agenda includes meetings with the new White House “drug czar,” Gil Kerlikowske, and Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D).