Jul 31

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe “had a hellish week,” the Colombian newsmagazine Semana reported last weekend, “and had rarely been seen so upset.”

The magazine, among other Colombian media, was reporting on a change in the country’s congressional leadership last week, which unexpectedly benefited the opposition. This appears to have dashed President Uribe’s hopes to change the country’s constitution to allow him to run for reelection in 2010. The likelihood of the Congress holding a constitutional amendment referendum this fall has plummeted.

According to an excellent analysis in Semana, even the president’s supporters in Colombia’s Congress appear to recognize that the referendum – which was by far Uribe’s easiest path to re-election – is dead.

The proof that the referendum isn’t happening is that there is not a single Uribista in the Congress who privately believe that this dead body can be resuscitated. Until recently this is what only the anti-Uribistas said. Starting last week, this is what even the President’s most loyal defenders are saying.

“With the new congressional leadership, the environment is unfavorable. Now it is not worth the trouble even to propose the referendum issue, we have to focus on seeking an effective successor to the president,” pro-Uribe legislator Roy Barreras told the lasillavacía.com website, which published another very helpful analysis of the political moment. Uribe’s own closest advisors, says Semana, “have declared in private that if the Congress is unable to reconcile the referendum bill by the middle of August, the referendum option will have to be discarded.”

Jul 29

This is the first of a few posts that will look at U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” or “CCAI” programs in the Montes de María region of Colombia, just south of Cartagena near the central Caribbean coast.  These programs, which combine military and development assistance with the goal of “consolidating” government control of territory, are being billed as the future direction of U.S. assistance to Colombia.

U.S. support for this model has so far been concentrated in two zones: the Serranía de La Macarena region in Meta, about 150 miles south of Bogotá in Meta department; and – as of early this year – the Montes de María. We visited La Macarena in April and wrote about it in May. We visited Montes de María during the week of July 6-10.

This post gives a brief overview of the region, its recent history and current challenges. Subsequent posts will discuss the new aid program itself in more detail.

To the south of Cartagena, a port city of a million people, Colombia’s northern coast curves into a north-south line, with the Caribbean off to the west. Go a few miles inland and the land rises into a low mountain range, the Montes de María.

The surrounding region, 15 municipalities (counties) in the departments of Sucre and Bolívar, has some of the best land in the country. Farmers tell visitors that they don’t even need to use fertilizer, and that avocado trees, if left untended, grow wild and produce more than can be brought to market.

The zone is strategic, as it is rugged terrain, with lots of hiding places, sitting right between nearby coca-producing zones and the Caribbean Sea. While the Montes de María is not a coca-growing area, the Gulf of Morrosquillo, a bay scooped out of the coast south of San Onofre, has long been a jumping-off point for boats carrying tons of cocaine every year.

On either of two good highways, the Montes de María are a less than two-hour drive from Cartagena, Colombia’s fifth-largest city. Four hundred years ago, when Cartagena was one of the Spanish empire’s principal slave-trading ports, the region’s jungles and mountains were just far enough away for escaped slaves to hide. In fortified towns, or palenques, they resisted, maintained many west African customs, and became the Montes de María’s first non-indigenous settlers.

Most (though not all) palenques eventually fell to the Spaniards, who divided up land among themselves in enormous estates. Ever since, landholding in the Montes de María – as in much of Colombia’s north coast region – has been highly unequal. Agriculture has been the main economic activity, and small farming has been the norm, but most farmers have been tenants on vast tracts of land, in many cases owned by wealthy families who live in Cartagena or elsewhere.

Unequal landholding made the Montes de María a center of campesino protest in the 1970s, when a national movement, the National Association of Campesinos (ANUC), pressured for land reform with “invasions” of estates and other tactics. As a result, the Colombian government’s usually inactive land-reform agency, INCORA (since renamed INCODER), bought land from wealthy landholders in the 197os and 1980s and distributed it to thousands of families in the region, in most cases requiring them to borrow money to pay 30 percent of the sale price.

This was only a very partial reform, however, and large estates and tenant farming remain the norm in the Montes de María. This fertile region’s population is extremely poor: at least two-thirds subsist below the poverty line.  Though a relatively dense rural population has been there for generations, government neglect and absence are severe: alhough two highways run north-south from Cartagena, secondary and tertiary roads are very few, and most villages are still unserved by electricity or potable water.

As might be expected of a mountainous, strategically located region with a poor, aggrieved population, the Montes de María quickly fell under the control of leftist guerrilla groups in the 1970s. The FARC set up two fronts (35th and 37th), the ELN established its “Jaime Bateman Cayón” Bloc, and a smaller group, the Revolutionary Army of the Poor (ERP), was also active. All groups heavily extorted large landowners, charged levies on small businesses, kidnapped for ransom, and disrupted road traffic, including cargo moving between Medellín and Cartagena.

The 1970s and 1980s also saw narcotraffickers move into the area, buying up land and competing for control of lucrative routes for transshipping cocaine to the Caribbean. Figures from Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel were no strangers to the Montes de María; it was in Tolú, just south of San Onofre, where in December 1989 police pursued and killed one of Escobar’s most powerful lieutenants, Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, alias “El Mexicano.”

Rodrigo Mercado, alias “Cadena” (source).

From the 1980s on, narcotraffickers and large landowners organized small “self-defense” militias to protect them from the guerrillas. These militias carried out occasional executions and massacres of civilians, but posed little threat to the guerrillas’ domination of the region. That changed in the late 1990s, when the first national paramilitary network, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), expanded from its original strongholds just to the west, the department of Córdoba and the area around the Gulf of Urabá. Colombia’s Security and Democracy Foundation explains (PDF):

In 1997 there was a meeting between members of local elites and [Córdoba-based AUC leader] Salvatore Mancuso, where it was decided that they would form a self-defense group, which would start to operate with financing from payments made by landowners and cattlemen. Also, one must not lose sight of the influence of narcotrafficking on this dynamic.

The “Heroes of Montes de María” paramilitary bloc was born. Its three best-known leaders were Rodrigo Mercado, alias “Cadena” (”Chain,” who has disappeared, either dead or, as some insist, a fugitive); Edward Cobo Téllez, alias “Diego Vecino” (participating in the Justice and Peace process and requested in extradition by the United States earlier this month); and Húbert Bánquez, alias “Juancho Dique” (participating in the Justice and Peace process).

IMG_3267Montes de Maria trip - Colombia - July 2009
Detail of a “memory quilt” sewn by massacre victims, shown to us in San Onofre.

Starting in 1999, this paramilitary bloc launched one of the bloodiest campaigns in Colombia’s history, almost entirely directed at the smallholding campesinos who inhabited the guerrilla-controlled territories of the Montes de María. 1999 and 2000 alone saw 75 massacres, making notorious the names of small villages like El Salado, Chengue, Macayepo and Mampuján. More than 3,000 people were killed or disappeared, many buried in mass graves. More than 20,000 families – nearly 100,000 people – were displaced by the violence between 1996 and 2000, according to official data, many of them filling up the rapidly growing slums ringing nearby cities like Cartagena and Sincelejo.

The paramilitaries counted on generous support from local leaders. Sucre was one of the first to be hit by the “para-politics” scandal, which consumed the department’s political class. Reports the excellent Verdad Abierta (Open Truth) website:

In Sucre’s “para-politics” scandal, a total of 35 politicians have been investigated or tried for their ties with paramilitaries. 8 ex-mayors, 7 ex-councilmen, 1 ex-departmental legislator, 3 ex-governors, 3 ex-representatives to Congress and 3 senators elected for the 2006-2010 term, and 2 mayors and 5 councilmen elected in 2007.

Former Senator Álvaro García (source).

Evidence indicates that Senator Álvaro García even helped the “Heroes of Montes de María” bloc to plot the October 2000 Macayepo massacre.

The region’s security is primarily the responsibility of the 1st Brigade of Colombia’s Marines, a division of the Navy. At the time of the paramilitary onslaught, the brigade was commanded by Gen. Rodrigo Quiñónez, a now-retired officer who remains one of those most severely questioned by human rights groups. In a January 2001 front-page story on the Chengue massacre, the Washington Post questioned Quiñónez’s role.

Human rights officials say the described events resemble those surrounding the massacre last year in El Salado. Gen. Rodrigo Quinones [sic.] was the officer in charge of the security zone for Chengue and El Salado at that time, and remained in that post in the months leading up to the Chengue massacre. … El Salado survivors said a military plane and helicopter flew over the village the day of the massacre, and that at least one wounded militiaman was transported from the site by military helicopter. Soldiers under Quinones’s command sealed the village for days, barring even Red Cross workers from entering.

By 2002, security conditions in the Montes de María were so poor that newly inaugurated President Álvaro Uribe imposed virtual martial law in the region in September, declaring it one of two special “Zones of Rehabilitation and Consolidation” with a highly concentrated military presence, a military census of the population, and controls over road travel, among other measures. (The other designated zone was the oil-producing department of Arauca in northeastern Colombia.) The special “zone” status ended in April 2003, after Colombia’s Constitutional Court struck it down.

The increased state presence brought the region’s violence down a bit from its horrific 2000-2001 peak. The cease-fire that the AUC declared at the end of 2002, as it entered into negotiations with the Colombian government, also reduced the frequency of the paramilitaries’ violent actions in the region, though leaders like “Cadena” and “Diego Vecino,” along with their partners in Sucre’s political class, continued to exercise great power, even as their armed structure entered into a demobilization process that culminated in a July 2005 ceremony in which 594 members of the “Heroes of Montes de María” bloc turned in weapons.

Col. Rafael Colón (source).

The paramilitaries saw their power much more effectively reduced, and the region saw its security improve greatly, after the 2004 arrival of a much different officer at the Marine command once occupied by the notorious Gen. Quiñónez. Col. Rafael Colón had lost a relative to paramilitary violence, and during his two years at the head of the 1st Marine Brigade he ordered his troops to carry out a campaign against the paramilitaries. Reports the Security and Democracy Foundation (PDF):

The Navy carried out a series of operations that impacted the structures and finances of the self-defense groups. A series of searches, surveillance and intelligence operations allowed 3.5 tons of cocaine to be interdicted in the Gulf of Morrosquillo in less than a year. The first captures also occurred, among them that of El Oso, one of Cadena’s right-hand men. …

But Cadena had amassed such power that, faced with the offensive directed by Col. Rafael Colón, the commander of the Marines’ 1st Brigade, many of his political allies, influential personalities in the life of Sucre, began to ask through various channels that Colón be removed from the zone. According to [the weekly newsmagazine] Semana, they complained that the Navy only attacked the AUC and not the FARC – an argument that sought to decrease the pressure on the paramilitaries. Despite these demands, Colón stayed in the zone and the operations against the self-defense groups continued, which generated enough confidence that the local population began to denounce the abuses suffered under Cadena.

With the paramilitaries actually on the run from the security forces – a situation, sadly, not typical in most regions of Colombia, then or now – their victims became more vocal and organized. In the town of San Onofre, where Cadena based his operations at a huge farm called “El Palmar,” dozens of witnesses began to come forward revealing the locations of mass graves dug by the paramilitaries. Hundreds of bodies were found, and by 2005 San Onofre almost came to be synonymous with mass graves in the international media.

Alias “Martín Caballero” (source).

In 2006 and 2007, the armed forces dealt blows to the reduced number of FARC guerrillas who, weakened by the paramilitary onslaught, remained in the highest and remotest reaches of the Montes de María. An operation at the very end of 2006 allowed the escape of a Cartagena politician whom the FARC had held hostage since 2000; shortly afterward, President Uribe named Fernando Araújo to the post of foreign minister, where he remained for nearly a year and a half. In October 2007, a military operation in El Carmen de Bolívar killed Gustavo Rueda Díaz, alias “Martín Caballero,” the commander of the 37th Front and probably the most powerful FARC leader remaining in Colombia’s Caribbean.

Today, the guerrilla presence in Montes de María is negligible. During our July visit to the zone, we heard estimates of the FARC presence in the Montes de María today ranging from zero to 40 members, perhaps with several dozen undercover militia members. However, we heard rumors of a guerrilla attempt to regroup and to forcibly recruit campesinos – including children – in some of the zone’s most isolated corners.

For their part, the paramilitaries are less visible and less lethal, but they are very much present in the Montes de María, albeit in their fragmented, post-AUC incarnation. Groups include the Águilas Negras (Black Eagles, who have emerged in several regions of the country), the Paisas (a band that originated in the Medellín drug underworld), and the remnants of the paramilitaries organized by “Don Mario” (Daniel Rendón, a former AUC figure and narcotrafficker whom police captured in April). These groups are heavily armed and recruiting rapidly, though they rarely wear uniforms and often resemble urban gangs more than armies. For the most part, their leaders are former mid-level commanders who served under AUC leaders extradited to the United States since May 2008, and who are now competing to fill the vacuum.

Their principal motivation is narcotrafficking. The cocaine transshipment routes through the Montes de María continue to be much coveted, and violence is actually increasing as these “new” paramilitary bands fight each other to control them. The governor of Sucre, Jorge Barraza, told us that 106 people were murdered in his department during the first six months of 2009 – more than double the 49 killed during the same period in 2008. Fighting between “new” paramilitary groups was the principal cause.

Montes de Maria trip - Colombia - July 2009
Abandoned church in Macayepo.

Victims’ group leaders told us that, more than 3 years since the “para-politics” scandal first hit Sucre, many of the region’s mayors and councilmen maintain ties of corruption with the paramilitaries. The leaders also told us that in the first half of 2009 they suffered an increase in threats from the groups, particularly the “Águilas Negras,” in retaliation for their efforts to recover property, denounce corruption, and uncover the truth about what happened to their loved ones. Worsening threats forced Íngrid Vergara, an outspoken local leader in the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes, to leave the zone in late June. The Verbel family, featured in a 2005 New York Times story about San Onofre due to their leading role in organizing victims, continues to live under constant threat, with some members in hiding.

On balance, though, security in the Montes de María is better than it was in the 1990s and the early 2000s. As a result, the value of the region’s fertile land is skyrocketing. A hectare (2.5 acres) of land that would have sold for 200,000 pesos (US$90) in 2001 is worth at least 4 million pesos (US$1,800) today. Author and El Espectador columnist Alfredo Molano, writing late last year, described a phenomenon that we heard about in almost every encounter during our time in the region.

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

We heard that, in fact, threats against those who refuse to sell are relatively rare (though they do happen). Instead, landholders – especially those who received their titles from the INCORA land redistributions of the 1970s and 1980s – are either being enticed to sell by the attractiveness of the prices they are being offered, or – far more sinister – are selling because they cannot pay their mortgages after years of displacement from the zone. (Displaced people are supposed to have their debts frozen, but due to the bureaucratic difficulty of registering promptly as a displaced person, and the lack of communication between the parts of the government responsible for displacement and debt, this has offered little protection.) As a result, a wealthy land-buyer need only offer an indebted displaced person enough money to pay their remaining mortgage, plus perhaps several hundred extra dollars, to seal the deal.

The new buyers – almost universally referred to as “paisas,” or landowners from Antioquia, the wealthy department of which Medellín is the capital – are buying up small plots at a blistering pace. In the municipality of Ovejas, Sucre, El Tiempo reported in March, “Last year more than 3,000 hectares were sold, an amount that exceeds by more than 50 percent that municipality’s earlier annual average. The mayor, Antonio García, admits that people from the interior, especially Antioquia, came to buy at very low prices, taking advantage of the campesinos’ fear of returning to their farms.” The buying frenzy has reached the point where some local authorities are trying to implement a freeze on land purchases; in an August 2008 “town meeting” in San Juan Nepomuceno, Bolívar, President Uribe himself exhorted the local citizenry, “Don’t sell your land!”

In the midst of this improved security and huge sell-off, a few people displaced in the 1999-2002 period are returning to their land. Many more have not: some are now accustomed to life in the cities, while others are semi-displaced, working their land during the day but traveling hours to sleep at night in urban areas. We visited a few towns that had been emptied by mass displacements in 2000 – Chinulito, El Aguacate, Macayepo – and were told that perhaps one-fifth or one-quarter of the population had returned to their abandoned plots. Some had periodically returned to maintain their farms, while others came back after seven or eight years to find their plots completely overgrown and their houses empty shells.

With less violence has come more foreign assistance. Supported by Sweden, Spain and the Netherlands, the UN Development Program has implemented a project called Redes (Networks), which since 2003 has sought to improve local governance and support civil-society organizations, combining local conflict resolution and economic development. Redes assisted the creation of the Montes de María Peace and Development Network, a regional effort with heavy church involvement. The Network adapts the model of reconciliation and income generation first carried out in the Magdalena Medio region in north-central Colombia, where the Magdalena Medio Development and Peace Project has functioned since the mid-1990s.

The Montes de María Peace and Development Network, in turn, is the principal partner of, and executor of projects for, the “Laboratory of Peace,” the framework through which the European Commission provides much of its assistance to Colombia, with a principal focus on assisting civil society. Montes de María was designated the site of the third such “Laboratory” in 2005; funds started to flow in 2007. The plan is to invest about 24 million euros in Montes de María and Meta over five years, of which about 14 million would go to the Montes de María.

In 2007, the Montes de María also became one of the regions chosen as a focus for the Center for the Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI), the Colombian government’s military-civilian strategy, developed with heavy U.S. input, for bringing the government into zones where it is largely missing. The CCAI activities in the region were coordinated out of an office that by 2008 was being called a “Fusion Center.” The office’s head was Col. Rafael Colón, the marine officer who had won reknown for confronting the paramilitaries. The Center declared one of its main objectives to be assisting the return of displaced communities.

It also sought to involve the military in many traditionally civilian service projects, including an east-west road passing through the heart of the Montes de María between Chinulito and El Carmen de Bolívar, the first paved road to connect the two north-south highways that pass through the region. As Alfredo Molano noted in December 2008, “The military has begun to contract all infrastructure projects with the civilian sector, such as roads, bridges, schools, or medical centers; to carry out health-care brigades; to organize campesino associations; to entertain the campesinos with a traveling circus; and, though it may surprise the country, to give human rights workshops.”

In June 2008 Col. Colón, speaking before a gathering of 350 victims of the violence at an event organized by the NGO Redepaz in El Carmen de Bolívar, publicly begged the victims’ pardon for the Marines’ inaction during the worst years of the paramilitary slaughter. After delivering his remarks, Colón told El Tiempo, “If massacres were committed in Macayepo, Chengue and El Salado, and the victims demand that all institutions beg forgiveness, it is natural for me to tell them that, if for some reason, those massacres were committed due to carelessness or lack of attention on the part of state institutions, then I ask their pardon with much fervor and feeling.” Col. Colon was immediately rebuked by his superiors, and shortly afterward was relieved of the directorship of the Montes de María “Fusion Center” and sent to what El Tiempo called “an overseas military commission.” (Colón was promoted to the rank of general at the end of 2008, but has not returned to a post with responsibility for the Montes de María.)

The Fusion Center, based in an office building in Cartagena, is now under the command of a civilian, Juan Carlos Vargas. Inaugurated in its new location in early 2009, it has now become a focus of U.S. assistance to the “Integrated Action” or CCAI model.

Let’s leave the narrative here. The next post on this topic will look at what the Fusion Center plans to do in Montes de María, and how it differs from what we saw in La Macarena in April.

Jul 24

The House has passed the 2010 foreign assistance budget bill, and the Senate Appropriations Committee has passed its version.

Where aid to Colombia is concerned, neither house made fundamental changes to the Obama administration’s request.

Here are the numbers as they stand right now. For far more detail, including specific programs – and much improved legibility – download this Excel file (36KB).

Please note that this is not all aid to Colombia. Another $100-150 million in military and police aid will go through the Defense budget counternarcotics account (perhaps more, when we include money spent to do construction at the bases that U.S. personnel will be using). And another $5-20 million in economic and social aid may come through USAID’s Transition Initiatives account, the Defense Department’s “Section 1207″ transfer authority, and the State Department’s regional fund for Migration and Refugee Assistance.

Colombia 2009 Authorized Amount % of total 2010 Administration Request % of total 2010 Request minus 2009 2010 Passed by House % of total House minus 2009 House minus 2010 Request 2009 Senate Appropriations Committee % of total Senate minus 2009 Senate minus 2010 Request Senate minus House
Military and Police Aid 305,050,000 56.0% 290,606,000 56.6% -14,444,000 277,840,000 53.4% -27,210,000 -12,766,000 270,995,000 52.9% -34,055,000 -19,611,000 -6,845,000
Economic and Social Aid 240,000,000 44.0% 222,394,000 43.4% -14,340,000 242,160,000 46.6% 2,160,000 19,766,000 241,500,000 47.1% 1,500,000 19,106,000 -660,000
Total Aid Specified for Colombia in the
Foreign Operations Appropriation
545,050,000 513,000,000 -28,784,000 520,000,000 -25,050,000 7,000,000 512,495,000 -32,555,000 -505,000 -7,505,000

Sources used for this table and the Excel file are online and publicly available:

Jul 23

The situation in Honduras is taking a turn sharply for the worse. The Oscar Arias-mediated talks have hit another impasse. A general strike has closed schools and hospitals and blocked roads. President Zelaya is talking about crossing the border from Nicaragua as early as today.

I’ve posted an analysis of policy options over on the opendemocracy.net website.

The outcome of the Oscar Arias process is uncertain as this article is being written, though the reported rejection by representatives of the coup government and Manuel Zelaya confirms the gap between them. If the Costa Rican president’s initiative does not move the process forward, the United States government must follow through with even tougher measures against the coup.

Read the rest there.

Jul 20

  • A video released by AP over the weekend shows top-ranking FARC leader Jorge Briceño, alias “Mono Jojoy,” in a speech last year reading a final statement from Manuel Marulanda, the guerrillas’ deceased maximum leader. The statement makes a reference to “aid in dollars to [Ecuadorian President Rafael] Correa’s campaign and subsequent conversations with his emissaries, including some agreements.” (See the 6:23 minute mark in the video embedded here and point (i) in the transcript reproduced by El Tiempo. The statement about payments, which Correa denies ever occurred, have caused a political firestorm in Ecuador just three weeks after the president was re-inaugurated following a strong victory in April elections within a new constitutional framework. The revelation comes just two weeks after an Ecuadorian judge issued an arrest warrant for Colombia’s recently resigned defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, for his role in a March 1, 2008 raid about a mile inside Ecuadorian territory that killed FARC leader Raúl Reyes and, among others, an Ecuadorian citizen.
  • It has been two months since Santos resigned as Colombia’s defense minister, and Gen. Freddy Padilla, the head of the armed forces, has been sitting in the defense minister’s chair ever since, occupying both positions. This is the longest period in which a military officer has filled the defense minister’s position since 1991, when Colombia returned to having civilian defense ministers. (Generals occupied the position between the 1953 military coup and 1991.) With no successor apparent, it is unclear whether Gen. Padilla should still have the word “interim” in front of his title. Asked about this by El Espectador on July 11, the general replied, “This is not a transition from the military to civilians and back to the military. What is happening is compliance with the Constitution, which does not specify whether it should be a civilian or a soldier, retired or active-duty.”
    • Note as of 11:00 AM July 21: The “Confidenciales” section of Semana magazine has a brief note saying that the next defense minister will be Bernardo Moreno, the current secretary of the presidency and one of President Uribe’s closest advisors.
  • Colombia’s Supreme Court votes tomorrow to choose its preferred candidate, among the three proposed by President Uribe, to be the country’s next prosecutor-general (fiscal general), head of a separate branch of government who will serve a four-year term. This post is critically important because of the central role it will play in investigating scandals like “para-politics,” “false positives,” and the DAS wiretaps, as well as other human rights and “Justice and Peace” cases. The odds-on favorite by far is Camilo Ospina, Uribe’s former defense minister and OAS ambassador. Ospina is controversial because of his authorship of directives rewarding soldiers for high body counts, which may have contributed to the “false positives” scandal in which hundreds of civilians were killed and later presented as armed-group members killed in combat. Ospina also faces questions for his relationship with Víctor Carranza, a businessman who controls much of Colombia’s emerald industry and is very widely accused of being a principal supporter of paramilitary groups. It is possible that Supreme Court magistrates, concerned about Ospina’s closeness to the president, will reject him and the other two candidates by submitting a majority of blank ballots – in effect, a “none of the above” vote.
  • Addressing the issue of possible U.S. use of bases in Colombia, U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield told reporters that there are currently about 250 U.S. military personnel in Colombia.
  • Talks between Honduras’ coup government and ousted President Manuel Zelaya stalled on Sunday. The president installed after the military ejected Zelaya, Roberto Micheletti, rejected a seven-point proposal put forward by the talks’ mediator, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias. The U.S. government is supporting Arias and calling for a “Honduran solution” to the dispute. Arias is warning of “a civil war and bloodshed” if dialogues fail. The Costa Rican government says talks may resume Wednesday.
  • Meanwhile, the National Catholic Reporter reveals that although U.S. military aid to Honduras has been frozen, soldiers attending the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (to which Honduras is a top source of students) and other installations have not been sent home.
  • Mexico’s drug cartel violence is getting ever worse. Last week saw the grisly torture and murder of twelve police in Michoacán state, at the hands of a local cartel calling itself “La Familia.” This organization, media reports indicate, coordinates its violence for maximum impact, and at times resembles a religious cult, espousing evangelical Christianity and carrying out social programs in poor neighborhoods.
  • Nicaragua’s government celebrated the 30th anniversary of the July 19, 1979 Sandinista revolution that deposed dictator Anastasio Somoza. Much foreign press coverage focused on Nicaraguansdisaffection with the Sandinistascurrent hard line and consolidation of presidential power. President Daniel Ortega, who at age 33 was a top leader of the junta that took power in 1979, said that he might seek a public “consultation,” Manuel Zelaya-style, about whether Nicaragua’s constitution should be changed to allow him to run again in 2012.
  • The GAO has posted a report documenting increased cocaine trafficking through Venezuela at a time of decreased U.S.-Venezuelan cooperation on drug interdiction. The report was the subject of several articles in the U.S. and regional press, and generated an angry reaction from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez over the weekend.
Jul 16

This week, the United States is closing down its counter-drug operations at the Manta airbase on Ecuador’s Pacific coast. At the same time, it has nearly completed an agreement with Colombian authorities to use several facilities in Colombia. Colombia’s defense, interior and foreign relations ministers gave a press conference yesterday confirming this, after weeks of increasing speculation in the country’s media.

The Colombian facilities in question are:

  • Three air force bases that may host U.S. aircraft and personnel:
    • Alberto Powels, on the Caribbean coast in Malambo, Atlántico (basically, attached to the Barranquilla airport), headquarters of the Colombian Air Force’s 3rd Combat Command;
    • Capitán Luis Fernando Gómez Niño, in Apiay, Meta roughly 100 miles southeast of Bogotá, headquarters of the Colombian Air Force’s 2nd Combat Command; and
    • Palanquero, in Puerto Salgar, Cundinamarca roughly 100 miles northwest of Bogotá, headquarters of the Colombian Air Force’s 1st Combat Command.
  • Two naval bases that might receive more frequent visits from U.S. vessels:
    • Bahía Málaga, on the Pacific coast in Valle del Cauca; and
    • Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast in Bolívar.

The Colombian daily El Tiempo reports that “Colombia is also interested in seeing that presence in at least two more bases where U.S. personnel are already assigned: Larandia (Caquetá) and Tolemaida [(Tolima)].” Both are army bases.

Colombian officials contend that the U.S. troops stationed at the facilities will not play combat roles or be involved in hostilities. Those at the bases will more likely be technicians, pilots, advisors and intelligence personnel. Their mission will extend beyond counter-narcotics to include “counter-terrorism” – presumably support for Colombian military operations against guerrillas. Intelligence-gathering is likely a principal role for the U.S. personnel at the bases, and El Tiempo reports that “the accord contemplates that Colombia would have access to real-time intelligence information gathered by the planes that land at the three bases.”

The agreement establishing the U.S. presence at the bases would probably extend for 10 years or more, and could be signed in as little as two weeks, according to El Tiempo. The Obama administration’s 2010 Defense budget request [PDF] already includes $46 million to make construction improvements to the Palanquero base.

Replacing Manta

The new arrangement seeks to replace the U.S. presence at the Eloy Alfaro airbase in Manta, Ecuador, which is about to end as a 10-year agreement signed in 1999 [PDF] expires in November. The Manta facility was one of three that the Clinton administration set up to replace Howard Air Force Base in Panama, which closed when U.S. troops left that country in 1999. (The other two replacement facilities, which remain open, are at Comalapa, El Salvador and Aruba/Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles.) Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, who has famously pledged to “cut off his arm” before allowing the U.S. military presence to continue, refused to renew the agreement.

The U.S. facility at the Manta base, known both as a “Forward Operating Location” and a “Cooperative Security Location,” has hosted flights whose mission has been limited to counter-narcotics missions (and, as needed, emergency humanitarian or search-and-rescue missions). “Counter-narcotics” was defined to exclude missions targeting Colombian armed groups, and U.S. officials have told us repeatedly over the years that missions from the Manta base only overfly the eastern Pacific Ocean seeking to detect maritime drug trafficking.

The Manta Forward Operating Location consisted of 22 buildings on 27 hectares (67 acres) of the airbase, about 5 percent of the base’s total territory. The buildings, Southern Command reports, “include dining and lodging facilities, office buildings, warehouses, an aircraft ramp, hangar and fire station.” This zone was ceded exclusively to U.S. personnel, who under normal circumstances totaled between 200 and 300 people, most of them employees of private contractors.

How will the Colombian facilities be different from Manta?

We can’t answer that definitively yet, since we have no access to the draft agreement and are not privy to negotiations between U.S. and Colombian officials. However, three areas of apparent, and significant, difference from Manta are:

  • The number of bases, obviously.
  • The ability to carry out non-drug missions.
  • How separate the U.S. facilities will be from the Colombian units using the same bases. For force-protection reasons, it is likely that U.S. negotiators would prefer an arrangement similar to Manta, in which access to areas where U.S. personnel live and work is strongly restricted. It appears, though, that Colombia is seeking more control over the entry, exit and location of U.S. personnel on its bases. The nature of this arrangement is not yet clear.

What will the new, non-drug missions be?

Foreign Minister Jaime Bermúdez said yesterday that “the objective is the fight against, and the end of, narcotrafficking and terrorism.” Whether the mission definition will include only “terrorism” or will expand to include undefined “other” threats isn’t clear. It is likely, though, that U.S. aircraft and personnel will be involved in more missions against the FARC. Intelligence operations – particularly those targeted at the FARC leadership – could increase significantly.

How is this different from what U.S. military personnel are already doing in Colombia?

With U.S. trainers, advisors, intelligence people and technicians already making frequent, long-term appearances at bases like Larandia, Tolemaida, Tres Esquinas (Caquetá/Putumayo), Arauca and elsewhere, what is different now? The answer is: we don’t know.

One obvious answer is that the sorts of anti-drug surveillance missions that were occurring in Manta, involving sophisticated aircraft like P-3 Orions and E-3 AWACS, will now be originating in Colombia. Presumably, more planes and a slightly bigger footprint will mean more far more intelligence-gathering missions over Colombia than ever before, which may bring a notable increase in intelligence gathered about guerrilla locations and movements.

All of these airbases are on the other side of the Andes from the Pacific Ocean. How will the U.S. aircraft perform Manta’s mission of detecting and monitoring maritime drug trafficking in the eastern Pacific?

Again, we don’t know. The eastern Pacific, off the coast of South America, is a heavily used vector for getting drugs out of South America and into Central America and Mexico, as this 2005 map shows. U.S. officials claim that Manta has played a role in about two-thirds of drug seizures in that zone since 1999.

The new bases do not have the same ability to cover the eastern Pacific. Will the eastern Pacific then become narcotraffickers’ preferred route, with little chance of detection? No idea. Possibly.

Is this constitutional in Colombia?

Opponents of the base deal insist that it is not. Indeed, Article 173 of Colombia’s Constitution appears to require that the Senate “permit the transit of foreign troops through the territory of the Republic.”

What is the immunity issue?

The degree of immunity from prosecution that U.S. personnel might enjoy is, according to press reports, one of the stickiest points in the negotiations. The newsweekly Cambio explains


This discussion is not minor, and it was one of the points that justified Ecuador’s decision to close Manta. That country’s Constituent Assembly considered that about 300 irregular and criminal acts – illegal detentions and seizures of Ecuadorians and their goods, robberies, murders, injuries and paternity cases – are attributed to U.S. military personnel, and received no response from U.S. judicial authorities.

Should the neighbors be worried?

Foreign Minister Bermúdez, today’s El Espectador notes, “said that Colombia’s decisions to allow operations in Colombia have no reason to affect relations with neighboring countries, since all activities will be carried out in Colombia’s national territory.” Colombia’s neighbors, however, may not see it that way, argue critics like former Defense Minister Rafael Pardo, who said the deal is “like lending your apartment’s balcony to someone from outside the block so that he can spy on your neighbors.”

Colombia’s neighbors have seen the country nearly double the size of its armed forces in the past decade. They condemned the March 2008 incursion into Ecuadorian territory that killed top FARC leader “Raúl Reyes.” And they have noted frequent accusations from top officials, particularly recently departed Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, alleging that the governments of Venezuela and Ecuador are actively harboring and supporting the FARC.

In that environment, the addition of more military personnel from the United States will not be viewed as a regional confidence and security-building measure. To the contrary – it is more likely to add to tensions.

Will this be a backdoor for U.S. military assistance?

“Among [the Colombian government's] objectives is also to fill the gaps left by the eventual cutbacks in aid for Plan Colombia,” noted Cambio magazine’s recent cover story about the base negotiations. John Lindsay-Poland of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a U.S. advocacy group, worries that the bases will constitute an “end run” around significant cuts in U.S. military aid to Colombia since 2007.

They’re probably right. Base construction funding is aid. Provision of real-time intelligence is aid. An increased presence of trainers and advisors will mean more aid too. And the Colombian government may expect this show of “goodwill” to serve as leverage to prevent further cuts in U.S. military aid. However, the kind of aid that made up the bulk of prior years’ packages – grants of helicopters, expensive contracts to maintain Colombia’s own aircraft, aerial fumigation, and massive Special Forces training programs – will not increase as a result of the bases.

What will become of the troop cap?

Since 2005, the United States has operated within a limit of 800 military personnel and 600 U.S. citizen contractors who may be in Colombia at any given time. Congress required such a “troop cap” when Plan Colombia began, out of concern that Colombia’s complicated conflict offered a high possibility of “mission creep.” In recent years, now that U.S. personnel are not helping the Colombian security forces to set up entire new units from scratch, the U.S. presence has not approached the cap, and U.S. and Colombian officials insist that the presence at the new bases will not require an increase to the cap.

It is not clear, though, whether the “troop cap” will be enshrined in the two governments’ base-usage agreement, or whether it will remain simply a matter of U.S. law, which can always be changed.

What happens if a Colombian military unit stationed at the same base commits human rights abuses?

This is not wild speculation. For more than four years, the Colombian Air Force’s 1st Combat Command, based at Palanquero, had its U.S. aid suspended because of its failure to cooperate with investigations of a 1998 indiscriminate bombing at Santo Domingo, Arauca, that killed 17 civilians. What happens if U.S. personnel at one of these bases suddenly find themselves co-located with a unit involved in a similar outrage?

The answer to that question is a big “we don’t know.”

Jul 13

We got back from Colombia on Saturday. Between meetings and a bursting e-mail inbox, it may be a few more days before I post any substantial entries to this blog.

In the meantime, here is another video from last week in Colombia. 1:20 of footage of some of the houses abandoned in 2000 after the paramilitaries swept through the town of Chinulito, Sucre, which sits right on the main highway between the cities of Cartagena and Sincelejo.

Now that security conditions have improved, about one-quarter of the families who displaced from the area have returned. But most of the homes are still empty shells, a very stark image of what forced displacement looks like.

I apologize for the clumsy improvised narration, which ends up adding little. Also, the road goes east from Chinulito, not south as I say here. No chance for a second take, obviously.

Abandoned homes in Chinulito from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

Jul 10

Hi from Sincelejo, the capital of the department of Sucre, Colombia. We’ve had several tremendous days of interviews and site visits in the Montes de María region, which was hit hard by the conflict in the early 2000s and which is now increasingly a focus for U.S.-supported “integrated action” programs. Today we go to Montería, Córdoba, and then back to Washington.

Here’s a 100-second video I recorded from the back of a pickup truck on the road between Macayepo and Chinulito, both of them sites of massacres in 2000, and both of them experiencing a partial return of displaced people.

Some of you may recognize Nancy Sánchez of the Colombian human rights group MINGA (winner of the Institute for Policy Studies’ 2003 Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award). It may appear that I have Nancy in an affectionate embrace; actually, I’m clinging desperately with my free hand to the roof of the truck in order to avoid flying out. The road is in terrible condition.

On the road between Macayepo and Chinulito from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

On the road between Macayepo and Chinulito from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

Jul 02

IMG_4392.JPGWe just arrived in Bogotá last night, and will be here until the weekend. Next week, we’ll be visiting the Montes de María region, along Colombia’s Caribbean coast southwest of Cartagena, where the U.S. government has begun to support an “integrated action” security and development program with its own “fusion center” – the same model we discussed in a series of April posts from a visit to the Vistahermosa-La Macarena region in southern Colombia.

Expect less frequent posts because of time and Internet access. But hopefully more interesting posts. I promise not to write any more long, turgid analyses of the “integrated action” model – that part of the project is finished.

Jul 01

We are alarmed by news that on Sunday a FARC guerrilla unit ambushed the vehicle of Pedro Arenas, the mayor of San José del Guaviare, in the southern Colombian department of Guaviare.

Mr. Arenas is a longtime friend, a former social-movement leader known to many in Washington for his articulate critique of the aerial fumigation policy and his repeated calls for increased alternative development investment in his home department, which is one of Colombia’s principal coca-growing areas. (See posts from our April 2008 visit to Guaviare.)

The subject of two previous posts to this blog (2008 video, 2005 post), Mr. Arenas belongs to a locally based center-left political movement and has run afoul of both paramilitaries and guerrillas in the past. But this is by far the FARC’s worst-ever attack on him.

While nobody was killed, the president of San José del Guaviare’s town council, Marcos Baquero, is still missing. We condemn, and urge others to join us in condeming, the FARC for a vicious act of barbarism that will only serve to isolate them still further, both internationally and in the department of Guaviare. If the FARC are holding Mr. Baquero, we demand that they release him, immediately and unconditionally.

Here is a translation of Pedro Arenas’s statement on what happened. The attack also received coverage in Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper, and on the AP wire.

Yesterday [Sunday] at 11 AM, when I was going from San José to La Carpa (a town about 50 kilometers from the county seat), we were the object of an attack with bombs and gunshots. I managed to get out of the area in an armored truck, but a departmental legislator was wounded – we rescued him two hours later – and we lost the president of the municipal council, compañero Marcos Baquero, who belongs to the Green Party. Since then, we haven’t heard a thing from Marcos and we want him to reappear unharmed.

Guerrillas of the 7th Front of the FARC committed the attack. Several of them took our secretary of education and a reporter from the community radio for half an hour to the chief of their group, who presented himself with the alias of “Jesús.” He told the reporter that his attack was aimed at the mayor, and that it was a message to show that they were very much alive, and that – according to them – “nobody is speaking against the fumigations.” The reporter and the secretary were freed, the departmental legislator is out of danger.

In La Carpa we were carrying out an activity of the mayor’s office with the support of several government agencies, which we call “services fairs [ferias de servicios],” in the framework of a strategy of preventing displacement; we bring health, technical assistance, SENA [vocational training], SISBEN [central government assistance to municipalities], subsidized regime [central government health care], sports and culture among other social services, to help the campesinos in their places of origin. I left La Carpa in an army helicopter, after speaking to about 1,000 campesinos who gathered there. In the same helicopter were also five police who were in the caravan and who were “lost” for nearly 3 hours in the zone.

This time we have saved ourselves from an ambush, but our councilman has disappeared, and I ask you to raise your voice for his return. Marcos is a campesino, leader of an association of producers, student in the ESAP [national public administration school], and a member of our political movement. This is his first time in politics and he represents the very region in which the attack occurred.

It is quite curious that the FARC would carry out this attack against me, accusing us of saying nothing against fumigations, when the truth is that we have a lifetime of commitment with the campesinos and of denouncing the damages that the spraying causes to the local economy and the environment. For the past 15 years, every day we have asked for more commitment and investment in alternative development, in roads and productive projects to help the campesinos. I did it as a councilman, departmental legislator and representative in Congress, and now as mayor I have not lowered my guard on this issue. I am still working constantly to get decisionmakers to change this policy, and instead to carry out a program of integral rural development.

This is a tremendous error on the part of an armed organization that has attacked us, ignoring the fact that, perhaps the only voice that has remained alive and aloud about the damaging effects of the fumigations has been ours. It is absurd that they would try to do away with our political process in Guaviare and to silence our voices.