Sep 30

I’m leaving Washington today for a brief trip to Bogotá to speak at this event. This may make posting even more sporadic than it has been for the remainder of the week.

The rest of the program’s staff have been posting very frequently to the “Just the Facts” blog – it’s been very active – and they will continue to do so. Hasta pronto…

Sep 28

This is the third and final installment of posts about our July 2009 visit to the Montes de María region of northern Colombia. It wraps up a longer series of initial observations of Colombia’s U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” (or “consolidation” or “fusion center” or “CCAI” or “Plan Colombia 2″) counterinsurgency or state-building programs. These will be boiled down to key points, laid out and presented as a CIP publication within a couple of weeks.

Earlier posts about the Montes de María give an overview of the region’s recent history, and a narrative of what we saw when we visited. This post attempts to evaluate what is still a very new program in the Montes de María.

A less military program – but soldiers still play an outsize role

When we visited the Integrated Action “Fusion Center” in La Macarena in April, it was plain that we had arrived in the middle of an active military operation. With security far from established, and combat with the FARC frequent, the “Integrated Action” strategy was, as we noted, “a mostly military endeavor.”

That description does not fit the program in Montes de María. There is a significant military and police component, and there is strong reason to be concerned about the armed forces taking on roles that do not correspond to it. But the program’s design and makeup are fundamentally more civilian.

The reason for that is security. In La Macarena, the Fusion Center employs updated maps dividing the zone into red (too insecure), yellow (civilians with military accompaniment) or green (a security perimeter has been established) areas. Most of the map, beyond town centers and their immediate environs, appears red. The Montes de María Fusion Center sees no need for such a “stoplight” system; we were told that the entire region is now considered “green.”

As we have noted, the guerrilla presence in the zone is nearly zero since the late 2007 killing of FARC 37th Front leader Martín Caballero. The heirs to the paramilitaries who swept through the zone are strong, politically influential, and killing each other with increasing frequency, but the state does not regard them to be a threat significant enough to warrant a constant military role in development (more on that below).

There are exceptions, though. The most notable is the program’s largest infrastructure-building project: a badly needed road between El Carmen de Bolívar and Chinulito, Sucre. This road’s construction, ambitious because of the rugged terrain it must cross, has been left entirely up to the Marines (Infantería de Marina; as in many coastal areas, the Marines, a unit of Colombia’s Navy, play a far more prominent role than the Army). When asked why the military was given such a non-security job in a permissive security environment, military authorities contended that using the Marines was more cost-effective. Other Fusion Center personnel characterized it as the result of decisions made in 2007, when the zone was less secure and the CCAI was being established with an active-duty military commander (see below).

While the Montes de María program is a less olive-drab affair than its counterpart in La Macarena, the military component is still viewed as central. “The patrols are there to accompany the campesino,” a military officer expressed to us. A prominent social leader was more critical: “Whenever the guns come out, we’re the ones who get shot at.”

The Coordination (Formerly Fusion) Center

The Center for the Coordination of Integrated Action (CCAI) began work in the Montes de María in 2007. The modestly funded program was coordinated by Col. Rafael Colón, the Marine officer who had confronted the region’s paramilitaries during his 2004-2006 tenure at the head of the local brigade. (Col. Colón is discussed in an earlier post.) Colón was transferred to a post in Peru after a mid-2008 apology, on behalf of the Navy, to the victims of the Macayepo, Chengue and El Salado massacres, which earned a rebuke from his superiors. We heard little evaluation of Colón’s brief tenure during the CCAI’s initial period in Montes de María, other than that it appeared well-intentioned but took too long to get started, seemed to lack resources, and envisioned an oversize military role.

The Montes de María program was “reset” at the beginning of 2009, when the Colombian Presidency’s Social Action agency signed an assistance agreement with USAID. This allowed for a larger budget and, in February, the opening of a “Fusion Center” office to provide on-the-ground coordination of the program’s activities. By June, five such centers had been established throughout Colombia, though only the La Macarena and Montes de María centers had significant U.S. funding. That month, it was decided to change their names to the less bellicose-sounding “Coordination Centers” (a name we will use for the remainder of this post). The Montes de María Coordination Center is not physically based in Montes de María, however: its headquarters are in an office building in Cartagena, with a satellite office in Sincelejo, the capital of Sucre.

USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) is contributing modestly to this program – amounts likely do not exceed $3 million, though we’ve been unable to obtain an exact figure for this region – but the agency as a whole is planning to invest more heavily; a recent request for grant applications outlines an “Enhanced Livelihoods Initiative” that expects to spend $32 million in Montes de María over the next five years. A CCAI PowerPoint about its Montes de María program appears to indicate a total investment from all sources of about $43.3 million.

As was the case at the La Macarena Center and the CCAI headquarters in Bogotá, the civilian staff at the Montes de María Coordination Center was made up of able, energetic technocrats, most from the Social Action agency. Though Social Action is known mainly for clientelistic programs that hand out cash subsidies to millions, the Coordination Center staff we met were detail-oriented practitioners, not political apparatchiks.

The Coordination Center did not appear to be a tool for the Uribe government’s political machine. To the contrary, the worry would be the opposite: that this surprisingly small office (all CCAI coordinating offices were surprisingly small) is held at such arms’ length from the rest of “government as usual” that it may lack the political clout necessary to gain resources or to overcome opposition from reticent ministries, local officials or economic elites.

Returning the displaced

Unlike La Macarena, where the main goal is to build a state presence where none exists, the Montes de María Center’s main mission is to help displaced communities return to the area. While security and “consolidating governance” are big parts of the methodology, the objective is far more economic or humanitarian than the more counterinsurgent program in La Macarena.

(Click map to enlarge)

The Montes de María program focuses on only four of the region’s 15 municipalities (counties), making up roughly one-third of its land area: San Onofre and Ovejas, Sucre, and El Carmen de Bolívar and San Jacinto, Bolívar. As of early July, the Coordination Center was developing operational plans for each of the four municipalities, focusing on about 12 communities where displaced populations are returning.

As in La Macarena, the USAID/OTI funding was focused heavily on “rapid-impact projects” in and around these communities. These are small construction projects and other efforts designed to make a short-term demonstration that the state intends to establish a presence. They include:

  • Transportation projects like the El Carmen-Chinulito road discussed above, and a series of bridges in San Jacinto municipality being built mostly with funds from the government of Japan;
  • Assistance in restoring returned communities’ housing and neighborhoods;
  • Water and electricity projects;
  • Telecommunications projects like building up the mobile phone network, radio broadcasting (the Coordination Center staff said they sought to encourage community radio stations), and Internet through state-run “Compartel” access points in remote communities;
  • Construction and repairs to schools, though longer-term needs like teachers and materials, the responsibility of the Education Ministry, remained to be dealt with;
  • Construction of health posts in town centers, though the questions of doctors and supplies depend on the Social Protection Ministry. Some community members expressed concerns about providing care in rural areas with a lack of roads and ambulances, while others worried that these health posts, many of them managed by for-profit companies, were part of an effort to do away with public hospitals in municipal “county seats;”
  • Food security projects, with cacao and yuca the principal crops being encouraged. We were told that the Coordination Center’s projects were not encouraging cultivation of the controversial African oil palm, though the municipality of María La Baja, Bolívar, adjacent to the zone of the Center’s focus, is quickly becoming a center of oil palm production, and the crop is popular among many who are rapidly buying land in the region; and
  • Accompaniment of projects for the conflict’s victims, like mental health programs and historical memory efforts like the recent release of a report on the El Salado massacre, published by the Historical Memory Group of the National Reconciliation and Reparations Commission.

As “rapid impact” projects, most of these efforts will require a good deal of follow-up beyond the next two or three years before the Colombian state can truly be said to be present in the region’s historically neglected villages and rural zones.


Any effort to restore displaced farm families to their original communities must immediately confront Colombia’s unjust and intricately complicated land tenure system. In rural Colombia, land is equal to power, and competition for its control has driven the conflict for generations. This is especially true in the Montes de María, with its semi-feudal tenant-farmer past, the unusual fertility of its soil, its location among highly coveted drug-trafficking corridors, its high rate of internal displacement, and the extremely rapid land-buying rush underway today.

As a result of the violence at the beginning of the decade, we were told, as much as 150,000 hectares (375,000 acres) of Montes de María farmland is abandoned and uncultivated, “returning to the jungle.” But in many cases, this land is either in the hands of large landholders whose tenant farmers are not returning, or it is simply unclear to whom it belongs.

The Coordination Center plans to spend US$4.5 million for a range of land-tenure activities, including cadastral surveys, adjudication of disputes, compensation, certifying possession, legal protection for small landholders, debt freezes, freezing land sales in specific areas, and investigating suspicious transactions. The Center does not, however, plan anything as ambitious as a full plot-by-plot cadaster (mapping of landholdings) in all four municipalities, nor does it plan a massive titling of small landholders. Instead, they will focus on the roughly twelve returning communities they have already identified, taking an inventory of landholdings – “a snapshot of what landholding looked like when displacement happened” – and seeking to restore land to those who wish to return.

Even this more modest goal will require unraveling a lot of disputes. Did the landholder ever hold clear title? If they were tenant farmers beforehand, can they prove how much land they cultivated? If they owned the land, did they sell it willingly or under duress (either direct threat or inability to pay debt due to displacement)? Does the current owner of the land deserve compensation, and if so, how much?

The Coordination Center envisions “Municipal Committees for Attention to the Displaced Population” – a body made up of the mayor, the mayor’s first secretary, the International Committee of the Red Cross, police, military, church and community leaders – as the main tool for adjudicating such local land disputes. These committees’ effectiveness varies widely across municipalities, however, and some mayors have not even bothered to convene them.

In fact, these mayors, and local elites, may not share the Coordination Center’s enthusiasm for displaced farmers’ return. As mentioned before, with relative peace in Montes de María has come a sharp rise in land prices, and a bonanza of land purchases. As thousands of hectares change hands in each municipality, we were told, land is being concentrated in the hands of “paisas.” The term refers to people from the more populous, economically potent nearby department of Antioquia, and seems to indicate either large agribusinesses or narcotraffickers laundering profits through land purchases – or both.

Amid this backdrop, the deck is already stacked against small landholders, not to mention returning displaced persons. “As soon as INCODER [the government's troubled land-reform agency] identifies an unowned plot, a large landowner shows up to buy it,” lamented one community leader. Smallholders also have a much more difficult time meeting legal requirements, including the hundreds or even thousands of dollars in notarized documents and other official fees involved in registering even a small land purchase.

While purchases are difficult, the pressures to sell are enormous. “Who is selling their land? Indebted campesinos, campesinos who can’t get credit, campesinos who don’t want to return, campesinos‘ relatives who do not identify as strongly with the land, and campesinos who are threatened, who are told, ‘Either you sell, or I’ll buy it from your widow,’” one non-governmental organization director explained. A smallholder with a large-landholding neighbor who covets his land may be subject to even further pressures to sell, beyond his own indebtedness. The large landholder can affect his water supplies, cut off his road access, or simply “accidentally” leave an opening in his fence through which cattle can pass and eat the smallholder’s crop.

Is the local government an ally of the Coordination Center?

To overcome these extraordinary challenges, small landholders and returning displaced people would need active support from the state. The Montes de María Coordination Center’s plans indicate that they hope to provide that support, at least to the returning communities they have selected in four municipalities. But it is easy to imagine that, in doing so, the Cartagena-based Center will encounter fierce opposition from a constituency that is supposed to be one of its key partners: the local governments of the Montes de María.

Unlike La Macarena, the Montes de María are not a “vacuum” of state presence. The area has been settled for centuries, not recently carved out of the jungle, and most ministries of the central government have long had a presence in municipal capitals and the larger town centers. Mayors and town councils hold actual decisionmaking power, control resources, and often have the backing of regional political machinery.

Granted, this state presence has rarely bothered to penetrate into the rural zones that make up most of the region’s territory. But the point is that where governance is concerned, the Montes de María is not a “blank slate” to the extent that guerrilla-controlled La Macarena is. There is an existing power structure, with its power ratified by elections. As it works toward its principal declared goal of returning displaced populations, the Montes de María Coordination Center must work with – or around, or even against – local and departmental governments.

From Verdad Abierta’s Sucre page (Ex-Governor Salvador Arana is in the picture). Highly recommended.

The declared intention, of course, is to work hand-in-glove with local authorities. “In the consolidation zones, the primary civilian face of the State is the municipal and departmental entities – a point on which the CCAI is clear,” notes an August communication from USAID. “Strengthening local governance capacity – especially at the municipal level – has been a fundamental PCIM [La Macarena Integral Consolidation Program] focus and is now a primary focus in Montes de María.”

The question is to what extent the local authorities actually support the smallholding agricultural model, much less the return of displaced communities. As we have noted, Sucre and Bolívar have been hard-hit by the “para-politics” scandal: many local officials are in jail or under investigation for their support of the paramilitary armies that caused most of the massive displacement in the first place. Many local governments in Sucre and Bolívar continue to be tied to a nexus of large landholders, narcotraffickers, and political bosses who chose to rid the Montes de María of guerrilla presence by sponsoring paramilitary groups that, by overwhelmingly targeting smallholding civilians who lived in the zone, caused the depopulation that the Consolidation Center now proposes to reverse.

In Sucre department alone, the Verdad Abierta website (a project of Semana magazine and prominent NGOs) noted in July, “A total of 35 politicians have been processed for their ties to the paramilitaries. Eight ex-mayors, seven ex-councilmen, one former departmental legislator, three former governors, three former congressmen, three serving congressmen and 3 senators elected for the 2006-2010 period, 2 mayors and 5 councilmen elected in 2007.” Jailed mayors included the former mayor of San Onofre, one of the four municipalities chosen for the Coordination Center’s work, as well as the mayors of neighboring municipalities Colosó and Toluviejo. (Inhabitants of Chinulito, which is part of Colosó, also accuse former mayor Manuel David Arrieta of stealing funds designated for the town’s reconstruction.) Just to the east, in the vicinity of Magangué, Bolívar, the most powerful paramilitary-tied political boss was a woman: Enilce López, “La Gata,” now in prison, who also controlled much of the legal lottery along Colombia’s northern coast.

Colombia last held municipal and gubernatorial elections in October 2007. In several parts of the country, the para-politicians’ political machines suffered stinging defeats at the polls. This was not so in Sucre, Bolívar and the Montes de María, where associates of the jailed and arrested politicians fared well. In San Onofre, the newly elected mayor was a politician widely accused of paramilitary ties. The gubernatorial election in Sucre is believed to have involved fraud in order to keep the same political group in power, as Semana magazine reported at the time:

A point of uncertainty … is the citizen alarm after the partial triumph of “Tuto” Barraza – candidate of Congressman Carlos García, imprisoned for “parapolitics” – over Julio César Guerra Tulena, for governor of Sucre. Until just before eight at night Barraza was losing by 2,000 votes, when mysteriously the Registry’s data transmission system broke down. Shortly afterward, the Registry’s officials ordered the exit of all overseers and witnesses from the political parties. When the system went back online, Barraza was winning by 200 votes. The Registry (Registraduría) assures that it will investigate what happened, while the region’s voters recall that these were the same strategies by which García won elections before being sent to prison.

Also on a 2007 Semana list [PDF] of candidates with a “high risk” of paramilitary links was the elected governor of Sincelejo, the capital of Sucre, Jesús Antonio Paternina Samur. Meanwhile in Magangué, imprisoned regional boss “La Gata” scored another victory in early July 2009 when her approved candidate won a special mayoral election.

We obtained no smoking-gun evidence of current officeholders’ illegal activity. We note, though, that most are members of the same political groupings as the para-politicians who came before. As a result, even if they are not proven “para-politicians” themselves, they are likely to be representing the same sets of political interests and constituencies. And those constituencies have a record of being hostile to the interests of the small landholders and formerly displaced people of rural Montes de María. This concern is ratified by repeated testimony we heard about elected leaders’ utter lack of interest even in visiting communities of small farmers and returned displaced people.

Yet these are the elected officials with whom the Coordination Center – an entity dedicated to the viability of small farmers and the return of displaced people – must work. “They were voted in,” a U.S. official explained. “You do what you can and work with everyone.” The way to deal with the challenge of reticent local officials, officials told us, is to offer training and support to build their own management capacities; to strengthen the justice system so that official wrongdoing can be denounced and punished; to work with all social sectors, not just the local government; and to maintain a constant monitoring presence and avoid giving them direct control of resources. Local officials, we were told, are even expected to provide resources from their own treasuries in order to increase their “buy-in.” These officials, for their part, view this as an additional strain on tight budgets. “They [the Coordination Center] ask for resources, but there aren’t any,” Sucre’s governor told us.

The Coordination Center is involving local leadership through the signing of “Political Pacts” with the authorities and other “fuerzas vivas” (business, religious, and civil-society leaders) in each of the four chosen municipalities. The pacts include commitments for development projects in the entire zone, but their chief focus is the return of displaced communities.

These pacts are being drawn up with local institutions as they currently exist. If these institutions represent interests that favor large-scale agribusiness, do not view displaced communities’ return as a priority, and may be one or two degrees of separation away from the paramilitaries themselves, their partnership with the Coordination Center will be a very uneasy one.

In the best of scenarios, it could pit the central government, allied with USAID and Southern Command, against a local landowning elite. This would be an unusual match-up, and it would be interesting to see who would come out ahead. The determining factor would be the central government: will it ultimately back the technocrats of the Coordination Center, or would it back the local elite, which has been strongly supportive of President Uribe since his first candidacy? An unencouraging sign comes from the central government’s Agriculture Ministry, which has clearly favored the large-landholder model and has been notably slow to issue land titles either in La Macarena or the Montes de María.

The security challenge

Even if communities do return, and receive land titles, how will they protect their claims, and their lives, in a region considered strategic for drug traffickers and highly profitable for land speculators? Since Col. Colón’s tenure in the Marines’ 1st Brigade, the armed forces have been viewed as standing between the population and violent groups. But leaderships change, and protecting the population in a region considered “safe” is not a likely long-term military role anyway, even in Colombia. That responsibility will fall to Colombia’s National Police.

Currently, the police are responsible for citizen security in town centers, while the Marines handle the rural areas. We were told that a transition from Marines to police is likely to take place, though we heard little idea of a timetable. The United States is helping to set up mobile constabulary forces (Carabineros) and provide them with equipment in order to increase police coverage in rural areas. Still, the local police have yet to win the population’s trust. We heard several times that they are often regarded as too tied to local political elites, too corrupt, and too quick to treat the local citizenry with suspicion, including suspicion of helping guerrillas.

The towns, which are the purview of the police, have seen the greatest increase in activity by re-armed or “new” paramilitary groups, some of which are little more than foot-soldiers for drug trafficking organizations. The doubling of murders in Sincelejo from the first half of 2008 to the first half of 2009 owes almost entirely to internecine violence between groups competing for control of drug trafficking routes.

The “new” groups most frequently mentioned are the Paisas (related to the Medellín-based Oficina de Envigado narcotrafficking organization), the Rastrojos (the rapidly growing heirs to part of the North Valle cartel and the AUC’s Calima Bloc), and the organization led by “Don Mario,” a fugitive paramilitary leader and narcotrafficker captured in April. We also heard of the Águilas Negras (Black Eagles), a rearmed group whose name has emerged in many parts of the country, but the Marines told us that this group has not in fact appeared in the zone – it is a name used to intimidate, as when issuing threats.

A special prosecutor, operating from the safety of the 1st Marine Brigade’s base, was assigned from Bogotá early this year to investigate Sucre’s new groups, and between February and June his efforts had resulted in 28 arrests. However, the “new” paramilitaries are more active this year than before in the zone, increasing their recruitment, more visibly monitoring activity in neighborhoods they control, and issuing more frequent and severe threats against civil-society figures, especially victims’ leaders. Among the municipalities of the Montes de María, the armed groups’ violence appeared to be worst in San Onofre, where the victims’ leaders were seeing the worst threats, and where the new armed groups were estimated to have killed between 15 and 19 of each other’s members during the first half of 2009.

Amid this worsening panorama, concerns about the police force’s capacity to protect vulnerable populations, such as returned displaced communities, are real and will require attention.

Civil society

On the positive side, displaced communities are not returning to a vacuum. The Montes de María may have unequal landholding, an entrenched political class, and growing armed groups, but it also has a civil society. At least in the towns, there are organizations petitioning the state, denouncing wrongdoing, and exercising their rights as citizens: victims’ groups, religious groups, human rights groups, and active scholars, among others.

There is also a European-funded “peace and development” program seeking to combine economic projects with reconciliation and conflict-resolution: the Montes de María Development and Peace Network. Since 2005, this program has executed projects funded by the European Commission’s “3rd Peace Laboratory,” an aid program that intends to provide Colombia with non-military, civil-society-based assistance. The Network’s director, Father Rafael Castillo, spoke of building peace on the foundation of a “triangle of sustainability” uniting civil society, state institutions and the private sector. His program, he argued, promotes a model of “development based on rights, not needs,” avoiding an assistentialist, handout-based approach. And he made clear that the Network is more interested in building lasting “processes” through ongoing dialogue with communities than scoring quick, impermanent “successes” – which we interpreted to be a gentle critique of USAID’s “rapid impact project”approach.

Critics of the European-funded model contend that it moves too slowly and tentatively, making the larger community impatient to see results; that it does not distinguish clearly enough between effective civil-society organizations and “free riders;” and that its interactions with communities and the state too often ignore the power and influence of narcotraffickers. Still, the Peace Laboratory and the Development and Peace Network now have several years of experience and have put down roots in the community. The Coordination Center must make every effort to reach out to, and learn from, them. The same goes for the region’s other active civil society groups – especially the highly threatened and vulnerable victims’ groups who most urgently need protection.


The “Integrated Action” program we saw in Montes de María is too new to evaluate. What we saw, however, was a project with modest but mostly laudable goals, with a far better mix of civilian and military/police capacities than we witnessed in La Macarena. The better security situation should also contribute to better relations with the local population, as the security forces are not employing harsh measures like mass arrests or forced eradication.

We saw a model that may in fact encounter its greatest “pushback” not from the rural population, but from the large landholders and traditional political class in the towns and cities. Overcoming that resistance and helping the formerly displaced small-farmer communities chosen for assistance will require strong political support from the central government and an ability to resist the wave of buying and selling that is concentrating land in fewer hands. It will also require a more responsive, capable and professional police presence, a judicial system that can credibly punish abuse and corruption, and a relationship with civil society based on far more trust and communication than exist now.

It will also require that residents of Montes de María be convinced that a state – not local politicians captured by elites, but a state that enforces the law and provides basic services – is truly being established in the zone. This will require more than a few years of “rapid impact projects.” It will call for delivery of services and a constant state presence among communities that have never known one. It is a very long-term commitment.

Sep 22

The Washington Post today chose to publish an op-ed by the de facto leader of Honduras’ coup government, Roberto Micheletti. He makes a strong pitch for U.S. and international recognition of the country’s November 29 elections, which will be taking place under his regime’s auspices. This is something that the U.S. State Department and the Organization of American States have so far refused to do.

In making this sales pitch, Micheletti makes a number of unprovable, outrageous, or patently false statements. For example:

“Amid all of the claims that are likely to be made in coming days, the former president [Zelaya] will not mention that the people of Honduras have moved on since the events of that day or that our citizens are looking forward to free, fair and transparent elections on Nov. 29.”

If “the people of Honduras have moved on,” then the Honduran security forces would not have needed to disperse thousands of protesters this morning, using tear gas and rubber bullets, from the area around the Brazilian embassy to Honduras, where returned President Manuel Zelaya is currently taking refuge. The Micheletti government’s actions this morning earned a quick condemnation from the chair of the OAS Permanent Council.

And it is impossible to talk about “free, fair and transparent elections.” Even if the balloting is spotless, those who forcibly removed the last elected leader are in power, the ability of pro-Zelaya candidates to campaign freely is uncertain, and the leader of a powerful political current – the deposed president – is unable to be present in the country, much less campaign.

“On June 28, the Honduran Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant for Zelaya for his blatant violations of our constitution, which marked the end of his presidency.”

If that is all that happened, there would be little controversy today. Had Zelaya been arrested, replaced constitutionally, and put on trial with due process, it would have been politically tumultuous for Honduras but would not have affected foreign recognition or support.

But that is not what happened. Instead, the army awoke the President at gunpoint and forced him, upon pain of death, to board a plane and leave the country. This took place even though the Honduran Constitution guarantees due process for people accused of crimes, and Honduran law has no provisions for forced exile or stripping of citizenship. Later, in the legislative proceeding that named Micheletti the country’s president, the coup leaders distributed, and read in the national media, an obviously forged resignation letter allegedly written by Zelaya.

All of these actions – violation of due process, forced exile, fraud – clearly violate Honduran law.

“To this day, an overwhelming majority of Hondurans support the actions that ensured the respect of the rule of law in our country.”

According to what polling or other evidence? A July Gallup poll of Hondurans found that “Forty-six percent said they disagreed with Zelaya’s ouster and 41 percent said they approved of it.”

“Underlying all the rhetoric about a military overthrow are facts. Simply put, coups do not leave civilians in control over the armed forces, as is the case in Honduras today. Neither do they allow the independent functioning of democratic institutions — the courts, the attorney general’s office, the electoral tribunal.”

A coup is  an illegal, often violent removal of a head of government. It can take many forms. A uniformed officer need not carry the title of “president” for the event to be considered a “coup.” If anything, the June 28 coup in Honduras ejected a leader of whom the armed forces disapproved (and who, indeed, was likely issuing it illegal orders), and replaced him with a leader whom the armed forces found more palatable.

Of the independent institutions Micheletti mentions, the courts and the attorney general’s office both actively supported the June 28 coup. Of course their functioning hasn’t been affected.

“Coups do not allow freedom of assembly, either. They do not guarantee freedom of the press, much less a respect for human rights. In Honduras, these freedoms remain intact and vibrant.”

This outrageous claim contradicts credible reports about the human rights situation inside Honduras. See, for instance, reports produced last month by the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International. For concerns about press freedom, see the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Honduras page or this article by the Council of the Americas. These sources give the lie to Micheletti’s statements, which the Washington Post should have taken the care to submit to even the most basic of fact-checking.

The writer is president of Honduras.”

That line – which is how the Washington Post identifies Micheletti at the bottom of the column – may be the most misleading of the entire article. The Post failed even to insert the word “de facto” or “acting,” and thereby did its readers a disservice.

Sep 21

Deposed President Manuel Zelaya has surprised us all by sneaking back into Tegucigalpa overland, and announcing his return from the safety of the Brazilian embassy. (The embassy, according to reports on Twitter, happens to be next door to the residence of the de facto post-coup president, Roberto Micheletti.)

Zelaya’s return is clearly a shock to Micheletti, who responded to early reports of Zelaya’s return as “media terrorism,” insisting that Zelaya was “in a suite in a Nicaraguan hotel.”

As thousands of supporters gather outside the Brazilian embassy, the obvious question is: now what?

  • Micheletti is vowing to arrest Zelaya, but that appears unlikely since the President is technically on Brazilian soil and surrounded by a large number of supporters.
  • Zelaya is offering to negotiate; if Micheletti digs in his heels and refuses, the result could be a long standoff in the middle of Tegucigalpa – one that risks outbreaks of violence in the capital and elsewhere.
  • Unless, of course, the political ground under him caves in completely, and Micheletti has to give up power unilaterally – but that is far from certain given the solidity of elite and armed-forces support he appears to enjoy. For now, the coup government has the guns, and most of the political class, on its side.
  • The best outcome would be for Micheletti immediately to accept the dialogue offer and reach an agreement to restore democratic order. An agreement, perhaps, along the lines of the San José Accord, which allows for Zelaya’s return with no further re-election discussion and a mutual amnesty. (The latter is probably necessary because both sides can credibly be accused of having broken Honduran law.)

Achieving this outcome will require quick, unanimous international pressure. Brazil, the United States, Oscar Arias and the OAS – as well as Europe and the rest of the Americas – must make clear to Micheletti, the coup government, and their contacts in Honduras’ pro-coup elite that they are all alone. The game is over. They must leave power – and for them, the best exit is the one that passes via the negotiating table.

A long standoff, with a high risk of violence, is in nobody’s interest. It’s time to negotiate a deal that allows Honduras to return to legality and democracy. The president must finish his term.

Sep 17

Colombia has demobilized or arrested many of the country’s top narcotraffickers in recent years. The North Valle Cartel, which dominated the cocaine trade in the late 1990s and early 2000s, is almost fully dismantled.

Yet the amount of cocaine being produced in Colombia has barely changed. There are still criminal organizations and armed groups producing massive quantities of the drug and shipping it out of the country. But with the extraditions of top paramilitary and cartel figures in recent years, there are a lot of new faces. Some of those faces may in fact be Mexican.

In its edition published today, the Colombian newsweekly Cambio attempts to identify “the new drug cartels” dominating the trade. The image reproduced below is available as a much higher-quality PDF on their website. This rundown may be oversimplified and may contain inaccuracies because the fluid nature of the drug underground is difficult to pin down. Still, it is the most helpful guide to the “new narcos” that we have seen this year.

Click here or on the map to download the graphic as a PDF. Here is an English translation of its text.

  • Pale green in western Córdoba and western Antioquia: Los Urabaños”
    Chief: Juan de Dios Úsuga [pictured in upper left], “Giovanni,” successor of Daniel Rendón, “don Mario” [who was captured by Colombian police in April].
    Members: Between 1,000 and 1,500 men.
    Zone of influence: Urabá.
    Mexican partners: “Los Zetas” [also known as the Gulf Cartel or "La Compañía].
    Routes: Gulf of Urabá-Mexico.
    Transport: Riverine and maritime.
  • Mint green in the rest of Córdoba and Antioquia: “Los Paisas”
    Chief: Ángel de Jesús Pacheco, “Sebastián,” successor of Diego Murillo, “Don Berna” [an AUC leader extradited to the United States in May 2008]. In a dispute with “Beto” and “Valenciano.”
    Members: Between 400 and 800 men.
    Zone of influence: Córdoba and Antioquia.
    Mexican partners: The Beltrán Leyva brothers [a faction of the Sinaloa cartel], allies of “Los Zetas.”
    Routes: Gulf of Morrosquillo [coast of Sucre]-Mexico.
    Transport: Aerial and maritime.
  • Orange in Chocó: “Renacer” [Rebirth]
    Chief: “Raúl.”
    Members: Between 80 and 150 men.
    Zone of influence: Chocó.
    Mexican partners: Not known.
    Routes: Pacific-Mexico.
    Transport: Maritime.
  • Orange in Valle del Cauca: “Los Machos”
    Chief: “don H,” successor of the Calima Bloc [of the AUC].
    Members: Between 50 and 100 men.
    Zone of influence: Valle del Cauca.
    Mexican partners: Not known.
    Routes: Pacific-Mexico.
    Transport: Maritime.
  • Orange in Nariño: “Nueva Generación” [New Generation]
    Chief: “El Tigre”
    Members: Between 100 and 200 men.
    Zone of influence: Nariño.
    Mexican partners: Not known.
    Routes: Pacific-Mexico.
    Transport: Overland and maritime.
  • Orange in Cauca: “Los Rastrojos” [Literally, what is left behind in a cane field after harvest]
    Chiefs: Luis Enrique [pictured in bottom center] and Javier Calle Serna, successors of [top North Valle Cartel figure] Wílber Varela, “Jabón.”
    Members: Between 300 and 500 men.
    Zones of influence: Nariño, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Chocó, Norte de Santander, southern Bolívar.
    Mexican partners: Nacho Coronel, Vicente Carrillo and Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán [Sinaloa cartel].
    Routes: Colombia-Panama, and ports on the Pacific.
    Transport: Riverine and maritime.
  • Light blue in Meta, Guaviare, Guainía, Vichada and Arauca: “Ejército Revolucionario Popular Antiterrorista Colombiano (ERPAC)” [Colombian Popular Antiterrorist Revolutionary Army]
    Chiefs: Pedro Oliveiro, “Cuchillo” ["Knife," photo in lower right], and Daniel “El Loco” Barrera, AUC leaders who did not demobilize.
    Members: Between 700 and 1,000 men.
    Zones of influence: Meta, Guaviare, Vichada, Guainía and Arauca.
    Mexican partners: Nacho Coronel, Vicente Carrillo and Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán [Sinaloa cartel].
    Route: Colombia-Venezuela-Dominican Republic-Mexico.
    Transport: Overland and aerial.
  • Dark blue in the Magdalena Medio region: “Magdalena Medio”
    Chief: Ovidio Isaza, “Roque,” successor of Ramón Isaza [former AUC bloc leader] and Carlos Mario Jiménez, “Macaco” [AUC leader extradited to the United States in May 2008].
    Zone of influence: Madgalena Medio.
    Mexican partners: Not known.
    Route: Colombia-Venezuela-Caribbean islands-Mexico.
    Transport: Overland and aerial.
  • Dark green in Putumayo: FARC 48th Front
    Zone of influence: Putumayo.
    Members: Between 400 and 500 men.
    Mexican partner: Tijuana cartel.
    Route: Orito and San Miguel, Putumayo – Ecuador – Mexico.
    Transport: Overland and maritime.
  • Red silhouettes in Cauca and Valle del Cauca: FARC 30th Front
    Zone of influence: Valle del Cauca and Cauca.
    Members: Between 100 and 200 men.
    Mexican partner: Tijuana cartel.
    Route: Buenaventura-Ecuador-Mexico.
    Transport: Overland and maritime.
  • Dark green silhouette in Chocó: FARC 57th Front
    Zone of influence: Chocó.
    Members: Between 200 and 300 men.
    Mexican partners: Not known.
    Route: Dari̩n [Panama-Colombia border zone] РPanama РMexico.
    Transport: Riverine and maritime.
  • Light green silhouette in Meta: FARC 44th and 27th Fronts
    Zone of influence: Meta.
    Members: Between 200 and 300 men.
    Mexican partner: Tijuana cartel.
    Route: Colombia-Venezuela-Mexico.
    Transport: Riverine, overland, aerial and maritime.
  • Black silhouette in Guainía: FARC 16th Front
    Zone of influence: Guainía.
    Members: Between 50 and 100.
    Mexican partners: Tijuana and Federal District cartels.
    Routes: Cumaribo, Vichada-Ecuador-Mexico and Venezuela-Mexico.
    Transport: Overland and maritime.
Sep 16

In the wake of the latest State Department determination that Colombia’s human rights situation is improving, a piece in this morning’s Washington Times, a conservative daily, stood out in sharp relief.

Entitled “U.S. envoys hesitate to report bad news,” the article contends that since the Bush Administration but continuing today, U.S. embassies have actively discouraged any reporting back to Washington that reflects badly on governments that are considered friends of the United States. “Bad news” cables – for instance, about a country’s human rights record or threats to democracy – simply do not move up the chain, and foreign service officers practice self-censorship and avoid reporting events that do not fit within the reigning narrative of U.S. policy. Dissent is actively discouraged, with the result that decisionmakers in Washington end up acting on information that is skewed heavily toward the positive.

The article does not specifically mention Colombia. Nonetheless, it documents an alarming trend from which the U.S. mission in Colombia – where Álvaro Uribe’s scandal-plagued government is one of the United States’ only close friends in the hemisphere – may not be immune. Some excerpts:

U.S. embassies are discouraging or suppressing negative reports to Washington about U.S. allies, sometimes depriving officials of information they need to make good policy decisions, current and former diplomats say.

One diplomat told The Washington Times that he has decided to resign in part because of frustration with “rampant self-censorship” by Foreign Service officers and their superiors that has gone so far as to ban “bad news” cables from countries that are friendly with the United States. …

Current and former Foreign Service officers said the censorship reached a peak during the Bush administration. They attributed its continuation to a risk-averse institutional culture.

“Even in highly classified cables, people in the [Foreign Service] are very careful not to speak negatively about their host country,” said the diplomat, who is resigning after three overseas assignments. …

The resigning officer said that, during one of his tours, his ambassador, a political appointee of President Bush, “flat out banned any ‘bad-news’ cables, and made it known at all levels that we were only to produce ‘good-news stories’ about our [host] country,” a U.S. ally.

The officer said he had written “several cables critical of senior leaders” in his host country and about “interference by the government in the electoral process,” but many of them “were either quashed or radically altered.”

On the other hand, he said, negative cables are common regarding countries with strained relations with Washington, such as Burma, Zimbabwe and Venezuela.

Sep 15

The State Department’s report to Congress justifying its September 8 decision to certify Colombia’s human rights record is here [PDF].

The following are some initial reactions after reading through the 157-page document.

Impunity reigns: some arrests, but only a tiny handful of convictions

The certification document is unable to make the case that Colombia’s judicial system has improved its ability to prosecute and punish military personnel involved in human rights abuse. This is a major failing. During the 13 1/2-month period covered by the current certification, the State Department notes, “no members of the Armed Forces above the rank of major were sentenced for human rights-related crimes.”

The details of the report, in fact, show “no members of the Armed Forces above the rank of lieutenant.” Here is the breakdown of all the military personnel sentenced for human rights abuses between June 29, 2008 and June 15, 2009:

  • Private (Soldier) 22
  • Third Corporal 3
  • First Corporal 1
  • Second Sergeant 1
  • Sergeant 1 escaped, currently a fugitive
  • Sub-Official 1
  • Lieutenant 3 plus 1 contesting the verdict

This is evidence of a remarkable record of avoidance of punishment, especially given the number of outstanding cases, detailed in the certification document, that continue to drag on.

The certification document lists some important steps against impunity, but nearly all are arrests and indictments:

Despite the challenges it faces, the Prosecutor General‘s Office made several important advances in human rights cases during the certification period, which this report defines as June 16, 2008, to July 31, 2009, including:

  • Arresting four retired generals for collusion with paramilitary forces;
  • Reopening its case against retired General Rito Alejo del Río for his alleged crimes during “Operación Genesis;”
  • Reopening the La Rochela case – including investigations against three retired generals – and indicting ten members of the 17th Brigade for the January 18, 1989, massacre in which 12 investigators were killed in Simacota (Santander);
  • Charging five members of the Army‘s 2nd Artillery “La Popa” Battalion, including its commander, with collusion with paramilitary forces and the homicide of 20 individuals between June and October 2002;”
  • Charging ten soldiers from the 17th Brigade in the February 20-21, 2005, massacre of eight people in San José de Apartadó (Antioquia); and
  • Obtaining 30-year sentences against seven soldiers for the January 12, 2006, homicide of Edilberto Vasquez Cardona, a member of the San José de Apartadó Peace Community. …

In the past, NGOs have noted that while low-ranking officers may be held accountable in cases of human rights violations, commanding officers are rarely prosecuted. As listed in Annexes A through D, between June 16, 2008, and June 15, 2009, the Colombian government reported that among those detained by the Prosecutor General‘s Office were one colonel, three lieutenant colonels and two majors. The Prosecutor General‘s Office indicted at least one general, two colonels, five lieutenant colonels, and two majors. In addition, the Prosecutor General‘s Office continued case proceedings against at least four colonels, one lieutenant colonel and four majors. During the certification period, no members of the Armed Forces above the rank of major were sentenced for human rights-related crimes.

Extrajudicial Executions – fewer, but proving very difficult to punish

The number of new cases of extrajudicial executions, or “false positives,” committed by the military has declined in 2009. However, a year after the revelations of killings of young men in the Bogotá suburb of Soacha shocked the country and forced the Colombian government to take the issue seriously, there have been almost no convictions. This is despite a number of victims between 2002 and 2009 that, according to the certification document, ranges from a low official estimate of 551 to a high NGO estimate of 1,142 people murdered by the security forces. Despite a recent drop, these cases are simply failing to move forward in Colombia’s judicial system, the document acknowledges:

Overall, investigations into cases of extrajudicial killings are proceeding slowly. While some advances have been made in more recent cases, older cases continue to languish. The Prosecutor General‘s Office reports that its caseload dropped dramatically in 2008, tracking a similar decline in cases reported by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR), and most international and non- governmental organizations agree that numbers of extrajudicial killings have fallen substantially in 2009. However, it is unclear whether this reduction is an indicator that directives, training and disciplinary actions adopted by the Ministry of Defense are working. Some NGOs believe there may simply be a lag in reporting of cases, and that 2009 cases will be reported more as the year progresses.

The DAS wiretaps and surveillance: hard to be optimistic about investigations

The State Department document expresses strong concern about the ongoing scandal, about which details continue to emerge, surrounding the presidential intelligence service (DAS) and its practice of illegally wiretapping and following judges, opposition politicians, journalists and human rights defenders. The report devotes three paragraphs to the DAS scandal (which technically is not an armed-forces issue, as the DAS is not part of the Defense Ministry). It offers little reason to believe that this alarming practice is going to be thoroughly investigated and punished, indicating that the case is likely to drag on.

The Colombian government has denied official sponsorship of the alleged crimes, and offered a reward for the capture of rogue DAS officials it claims were behind the illegal activities. The Prosecutor General‘s Office continues to investigate the allegations, and it is unclear at this time to what level of the Colombian government any orders can be traced. The conclusion of Prosecutor General Iguaran‘s term in office on July 31, 2009, worries human rights groups, who fear this may delay the investigation.

The importance that the Prosecutor General‘s Office has placed on prosecuting these crimes is a positive step for Colombia. This investigation will likely be an ongoing concern in Colombia for some time. In fact, media reports allege that illegal wiretapping and surveillance by the DAS continues to date. It is vital that the Office conduct a rigorous and thorough investigation in order to determine the extent of these abuses and hold all actors accountable.

General Ospina is not incarcerated

The document mentions four retired generals now under investigation:

In 2008, the Prosecutor General‘s Office authorized the opening of investigations into four former Army generals for alleged collusion with the now demobilized United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Carlos Alberto Ospina (former commander of the Armed Forces), Julio Eduardo Charry (former Army commander in the Uraba region), Ivan Ramírez Quintero (former commander of the Army‘s 1st Division), and Rito Alejo del Río (former commander of the 17th Brigade) were all accused of having connections to the AUC and reportedly named in testimony (”versiones libres”) by former AUC leaders, including Salvatore Mancuso and Francisco Villalba. … The four retired generals are incarcerated, pending the results of the investigation, and have denied involvement with the AUC.

Some of the four may be incarcerated, but not all of them. In the case of Gen. Carlos Alberto Ospina, it could hardly be more to the contrary. He is currently a professor at the Defense Department’s Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies in Washington. (Staff listing / bio [PDF])

Case of Colonel Hernán Mejía

On April 14, 2009, five members of the Army‘s 2nd Artillery ―La Popa‖ Battalion (10th Armored Brigade in the department of César), including its commander, Army Colonel Hernán Mejía Gutiérrez, were indicted for colluding with paramilitaries in the homicide of 20 individuals in June and October 2002. … Criminal proceedings were begun in 2007.

The discussion of Colonel Mejía’s judicial proceedings fails to mention that key witnesses have been murdered, and others have mysteriously retracted their testimony, severely weakening the prosecution’s case.

A strong case for increasing judicial funding

The certification document makes several references to the weakness of Colombia’s judicial system. This is a serious problem, and the lack of resources for judges, prosecutors and investigators is a severe handicap and a significant measure of political will to punish human rights abuse. The difficulty of prosecuting military human rights abuse, however, is more than just a matter of resources; doing so requires going after some very powerful and often quite ruthless individuals. But the report makes little mention of this other set of obstacles that the judicial system faces.

Some excerpts referencing the judicial system:

[H]undreds more cases of extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses are awaiting resolution, but the Prosecutor General‘s Office lacks the financial resources and personnel to do so quickly. In fact, NGOs have criticized the impunity that results from the backlog of cases, and some worry that the departure of Prosecutor General Mario Iguaran as of July 31, 2009, will cause further delays. In 2008, the Colombian government increased the budget and personnel levels of the Office, which was a step in the right direction and an indicator of the government‘s commitment to ending impunity, but more trained investigators and prosecutors are needed to address its overwhelming case loads. To help address this need, the United States, through the Department of Justice, is providing training and equipment to the Human Rights Unit within the Prosecutor‘s General‘s Office along with other sections of the Office. …

The demobilization of over 30,000 paramilitary members between 2005 and 2006 was an important step for Colombia. However, Colombia now faces the challenge of delivering justice with respect to the crimes committed by these individuals. The Colombian government also continues to vigorously investigate and prosecute the parapolitical scandal, with 86 members of Congress, 34 mayors and 15 governors linked to crimes. These tasks continue to overwhelm the understaffed and underfunded civilian judicial system, though the government increased funding and personnel levels for the Prosecutor General‘s Office in 2008, and the United States is providing assistance to the Justice and Peace Unit within the Prosecutor General‘s Office to aid in the investigation and prosecution of crimes committed by former paramilitary members. …

Colombian funding for the [Prosecutor-General's Justice and Peace] Unit remains insufficient to respond to the workload. Though increased from 2007 funding levels (10.2 billion pesos = $5.1 million), the Unit‘s 2008 (15.0 billion pesos = $7.5 million) and 2009 funding levels (14.8 billion pesos = $7.4 million), 1.8 billion pesos ($900,000) of which is earmarked for a search project for the disappeared), must cover the personnel increase and infrastructure strengthening. This effectively makes these allotments a reduction over 2007 levels. 26 While U.S. assistance does not provide direct support for salaries or the hiring of new prosecutors and investigators, the United States does continue to fund training and technical assistance to help build the capacity of the Justice and Peace Unit.

There is much more that is deserving of comment, but this is what jumps out upon a first read-through.

Sep 13

  • The Defense Council of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) will meet in Quito on Tuesday the 15th. Mutual confidence-building measures will be high on the agenda. Confidence-building will be ever more important as South America embarks on a wave of arms purchases, including two big ones announced last week.
    • Venezuela announced that it will buy 100 tanks and an unknown number of short-range missiles from Russia. (The New York Times questions whether Venezuela will be able to pay: “[President Hugo] Chávez would have to find a way to pay for the missiles while he struggles to meet other obligations. With oil prices dropping sharply from their peak last year, Venezuela owes an estimated $10 billion to $15 billion to a wide variety of foreign companies, including suppliers of basic items like food.”
    • Brazil will make a multi-billion-dollar purchase of French fighter aircraft. Argentina’s La Nación says that Brazil’s recent purchases from France, including a joint venture for a nuclear submarine, will also help revive Brazil’s nuclear energy program.
    • Meanwhile, Bolivia plans to buy from Russia a new presidential airplane and about $70 million more in military equipment. For its part, Chile may move in the other direction: President Michelle Bachelet has submitted legislation to do away with a legacy of the Pinochet years: the automatic transfer of 10 percent of the country’s copper profits to the armed forces’ procurement fund.
  • In an unexpected move, Colombia’s acting attorney-general, Guillermo Mendoza, ordered the arrest of retired Gen. Francisco René Pedraza. He is charged with aiding and abetting the paramilitaries who carried out the horrific April 2001 Alto Naya massacre in Valle del Cauca and Cauca departments. Gen. Pedraza headed the Cali-based 3rd Brigade, which did nothing to stop Carlos Castaño’s AUC paramilitary organization – particularly Urabá-based paramilitary leader Éver Veloza, or “H.H.” – from forming the murderous Bloque Calima paramilitary front in 1999-2001. “The Sixth Division,” a 2001 report from Human Rights Watch, discusses the 3rd Brigade’s collaboration with the Bloque Calima.
    Note as of 8:30 September 14: El Espectador had this scoop late Friday: Gen. Pedraza was released, and the charges against him dropped, on Friday. It appears to be a technicality: “the prosecutor in charge of the case was not empowered to order his arrest.”
  • El Tiempo shares the proof-of-life videos of ten FARC hostages, military and police officers who have been held for ten years or more. The Colombian Army intercepted the videos by stopping the messenger – believed to be on his way to delivering the videos to Colombian Senator and frequent hostage mediator Piedad Córdoba – on September 5. Global Post has a video about the long struggle of Gustavo Moncayo, father of one of the FARC’s remaining hostages, who does not appear in the intercepted videos.
  • The Christian Science Monitor reports on the FARC’s increased use of homemade landmines, which has contributed to a 15 percent increase in Colombian military casualties since last year.
  • Bloomberg, The Economist, and Semana magazine all discuss the unprecedented recent steps that Venezuela has been taking to reduce trade and travel ties to Colombia.
  • Semana identifies Maximilano Bonilla, alias “Valenciano,” as the narcotrafficker seeking, through a wave of recent murders, to take control of the drug trade in a broad swath of northern Colombia that had been under the control of now-extradited paramilitary leaders.
  • On September 10, the Mexican daily El Universal reported, Mexico registered its 5,000th organized crime-related killing of 2009, reaching 5,018 by the end of the day. In all of 2008, the newspaper counted about 5,600 such murders – so 2009 is virtually assured to be even more violent than last year. On Monday President Felipe Calderón replaced embattled Attorney-General Eduardo Medina Mora. Medina’s appointed successor, former Chihuahua state Attorney-General Arturo Chávez, has come under fire from Mexican human rights groups and other critics for failing to address two phenomena that marked his tenure: the hundreds of disappearances of women  in Ciudad Juárez, and the growth of the Juárez drug cartel.
  • Two and a half months after the June 28 coup in which its military helped kick elected President Manuel Zelaya out of the country, the armed forces of Honduras are being excluded from U.S. military exercises and cooperation activities. These include the annual PANAMAX 2009 counter-terror exercise, which began September 11 (”Honduras withdrew from the exercise August 10″), and the August 17-21 Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program conference that U.S. Special Operations Command South hosted in Miami for Central American and Caribbean security forces.
  • “August 21 marked the second time an American has graduated from the Brazilian Jungle Warfare Instruction Center (Centro de Instrucao de Guerra na Selva),” reports the U.S. Southern Command.
  • Last Sunday, the UK’s Observer ran a series of 3 articles (1, 2, 3), one by former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, arguing that drug policy has failed in Latin America, and that a new policy is urgently needed.
Sep 11

The State Department has just announced a new certification that Colombia’s armed forces are improving their human rights performance. The September 8 action is the first such certification since July 28, 2008.

The certification, required by law, frees up 30 percent of military (not police) aid in the foreign aid bill (not the defense bill), which is put on hold every year until the State Department certifies that Colombia is improving its human rights record according to several specific criteria.

(To view the 2009 text of the law requiring a State Department human rights certification to free up aid, go here and scroll to [or search for] the text “(b) Assistance for the Armed Forces” .)

The amount freed up today, according to State Department sources, is $32.1 million – 30 percent of military aid in the 2009 State Department and Foreign Operations bill. This certification does not affect aid on hold from previous years. (Last time we heard – in early June – the amount on hold from previous years was $72 million.) Edit as of 8:45 September 14: a journalist source tells me that $53 million of that $72 million was “unfrozen” since June. The total of previous-year aid currently on hold is $19 million.

We’ve been promised a copy of the lengthy document that the State Department sent to Congress justifying the decision to certify, but have not received it yet, so we’re relying on today’s State Department press release to understand the decision. The release acknowledges that Colombia’s security forces face “several disquieting challenges” where human rights are concerned, particularly extrajudicial executions and revelations of wiretaps and surveillance by the presidential intelligence service (DAS). However, the document points to several recent arrests, and convictions in the case of the 2005 San José de Apartadó massacre.

There has been an increased number of arrests of military personnel for human rights abuse cases – especially extrajudicial executions – during 2009 (a few examples are linked here). Yesterday’s arrest of former 3rd Brigade chief Gen. Francisco Pedraza for aiding and abetting paramilitaries who carried out the 2001 Alto Naya massacre was another positive step.

However, we will be looking closely at the State Department’s justification document for examples of actual verdicts and punishments for military officers involved in human rights abuse. With the exception of San José de Apartadó, we know of no significant recent cases that have come to a verdict and penalty. While a large majority of outstanding cases are now being tried in Colombia’s civilian justice system – a positive step – nearly all are moving slowly, or not at all, toward resolution.

The difficulty of reaching verdicts, regular new revelations about the “big three” scandals (parapolitics, extrajudicial executions and DAS), and President Uribe’s ad hominem verbal attacks on human rights defenders combine to call today’s certification decision into question.

Sep 09

This is too funny not to share, so I’ve added English subtitles.

Appearing on the website of the Colombian newsweekly Semana, “Mr. Jones,” a puppet who speaks Spanish with an atrocious gringo accent, expresses his indignation that the Colombian presidential intelligence service (DAS) has been wiretapping the telephone conversations of officials at the U.S. Embassy. These new revelations appeared in Semana a week and a half ago. They come after months of scandal about DAS wiretaps and surveillance of opposition politicians, journalists, Supreme Court judges and human rights groups.

Wiretapped Ambassador from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

Sep 09

  • Today, 178 non-governmental organizations in 23 countries (CIP included) are launching a Campaign for the Right to Defend Human Rights in Colombia. “The aim of the campaign is to bring sustained and coordinated pressure on the Colombian government in order to achieve a positive lasting and significant change for the country’s human rights defenders,” because for Colombia’s non-governmental human rights workers, “things are getting worse.” See
  • The Colombia Support Network is asking U.S. citizens to contact their members of Congress to request that they sign a letter to President Obama [PDF]. The letter expresses strong concerns about the nearly signed deal to allow U.S. military personnel to use Colombian military bases.
  • A group of U.S. activists has responded to the Colombian government’s U.S.-based public relations effort – especially the installation of dozens of heart sculptures around Washington – with a parody website of their own, (”We’d be more than happy to arrange to have your conversations wiretapped and transcribed on your visit. Don’t worry about fees, we already get $500 million from the US government every year, and we’re expecting even more in 2010.”) It’s part of a counter-campaign called “No More Broken Hearts” –
Sep 07

Colombia’s media over the past few days are full of elite, “respectable” opinion writers using some unusually dire language to describe the state of their country’s democracy. The cause, of course, is last week’s bare-majority vote in Colombia’s Congress allowing a referendum to let President Álvaro Uribe run for a third term.

Some examples follow.

The future dynamic appears to be one of the enthronement of a plebiscitary democracy without counterweights. The political-institutional cost of this phenomenon could be incalculable. …

What I still cannot understand is the President’s attitude. That of submitting the country to this exhausting and disconcerting process and that of castrating any possibility of democratic alteration in power. That of not having sown, after seven years, the continuity of his ideas through so many uribista leaders willing to take his place. That of thinking himself, in the end, indispensable and irreplaceable.

This reveals an egoism that could devolve into a caudillismo that is indigestible and, in the long term, damaging to the country. What Uribe is proposing, without saying it (because he doesn’t speak of such issues) is that in today’s world things are different, and we must overcome all of these democratic scruples, all of this legal formalism and all of this institutional tradition in order to consolidate the politically correct ideas that he embodies.

A conviction that is no doubt sincere. Just as those of Chávez, Evo or Correa might be in their governing platforms. …

I esteem and respect President Uribe and I admire his capacity for work and leadership, which few Colombian presidents have shown. I supported his first reelection, but today it gives me the shivers to think that he believes that two were not enough and that he is seeking, at any price, a third term.

- Enrique Santos Calderón, co-director of El Tiempo and brother of Vice-President Francisco Santos, writing in El Tiempo.

This is not the moment to be complacent about Colombian democracy, nor with the will of the majority. It is time to pass from yellow to red alert. The government and its congressional supporters possess absolute power, and they have demonstrated that they will not be detained by legal or regulatory barriers, nor will they respect the Constitution. It must not be forgotten that the majority of coups d’etat have been directed by charismatic leaders – prominently that of Hitler in 1933 – … and that they are carried out with the collaboration or complicity of legislators who are captive, attracted, coopted or intimidated by the executive backed by the military or by popular majorities.

- Rudolf Hommes, minister of finance in the government of César Gaviria, writing in El Tiempo.

From this point forward I announce that I will not vote again for President Uribe, though I admire him and though I thank him for all that he has undoubtedly done for the country.

My complaint with Uribe is about what I consider to be the two largest failures of the sum of his two terms: his unwon war against corruption and his impotence when it comes to redistributing income among Colombians.

Doing away with corruption was even his campaign theme. But not only do we not breath any air of political or administrative health, many of the government’s attitudes – including the methods used to approve the referendum – are acting directly and publicly as terrible examples for the collective unconscious of the Colombian people, which already shows a propensity toward easy money and get-rich-quick schemes. I can’t remember the country ever having a worse atmosphere when it comes to the issue of corruption.

- El Tiempo columnist María Isabel Rueda, a professed supporter of Uribe since he was governor of Antioquia department in the mid-1990s.

Let’s see whether in twelve years the caudillo Uribe is able to beat the FARC, but maybe not four but eight more years will be needed, until 16 or 20 are completed (or perhaps 40 or 50, like Fidel and like Franco). Why don’t we just prepare another constitutional reform that will allow our Perón, our Porfirio, to govern until 2030? Or until there is a soldier for every coca plant and half the country’s budget is sucked up by a big-bellied army.

- Bestselling (in Colombia) author Héctor Abad Faciolince, writing in El Espectador.

Sep 06

Or, in English, “While Uribe breathes, may nobody else aspire [to be president].”

Noted by El Tiempo editor Enrique Santos (who attributes it to former Interior Minister Jaime Castro in a must-read column) and Semana magazine, citing Bogotá graffiti.

Sep 04
  • The Colombian newsmagazine Semana revealed that Colombia’s presidential intelligence service (DAS) is still spying on judges, journalists and opposition politicians. The shocking revelations come six months after these practices were first revealed. “The wiretapping and surveillance of members of the [Supreme] Court, journalists, politicians and some lawyers are still happening. And if that were not enough, they have extended to some presidential candidates, and, recently, to congressmen. ‘What is happening in the last few weeks that interests us? Simple: the [presidential reelection] referendum. We must know what the politicians are up to and what they are thinking,’ one of the people in charge of these monitoring tasks told Semana while he showed part of his labors. Surveillance using active or retired detectives, the use of vehicles disguised as taxis or telecommunications companies, and the use of wiretapping equipment not in official inventories are among the methods employed.” The response of former President and OAS Secretary-General César Gaviria was strong: “Uribe is a dictator who has turned the DAS into a criminal machine.
  • The Miami Herald ran a disturbing story Wednesday about the Colombian government’s inability to prosecute a U.S. sergeant and a contractor accused of raping a 12-year-old girl in 2007. “The suspects, Sgt. Michael Coen and contractor César Ruiz, were taken out of Colombia under diplomatic immunity, and do not face criminal charges in the United States in the rape in a room at Colombia’s Germán Olano Air Force Base in Melgar, 62 miles west of Bogotá.” Three weeks ago, the girl’s mother was denied the ability to testify about the case in Colombia’s Senate.
  • The head of Colombia’s armed forces, Gen. Freddy Padilla, told Colombia’s Caracol Radio that the presence of U.S. troops at Colombian bases would not increase the presence of U.S. personnel in Colombia: “There is a tendency to diminish because better technologies exist every day, and technology reduces the number of men [needed].”
  • The State Department canceled about $30 million in aid to Honduras yesterday, following a meeting between deposed President Manuel Zelaya and Secretary of State Clinton. My take is on the Huffington Post website.
  • The U.S. oil giant Chevron released evidence from a hidden-camera sting operation against the Ecuadorian judge trying a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit demanding that the company pay for Amazon-basin pollution left behind decades ago by Texaco, which Chevron purchased in 2001. In the recordings, Judge Juan Núñez appears to say “Si, señor” when asked by an American businessman whether Chevron will lose the case – even though the judge has yet to return a verdict. “In a newspaper interview, Nuñez denied that he told Hansen [the businessman] a predetermined verdict,” reports Time. “His supporters say it’s unclear in the videos, especially given Hansen’s tortured Spanish, what exactly Nuñez is responding to.” Don’t miss the excellent pair of editorials the Los Angeles Times published about the case last weekend.
  • Mexican President Felipe Calderón gave his third annual State of the Union address on Wednesday. Drug-related violence continued unabated, including the massacre of 18 people at a drug rehabilitation center in Ciudad Juárez. The U.S. government announced the release of $214 million in Mérida Initiative aid, including funds for five helicopters for the military. President Calderón’s approval rating stands at 68 percent, according to a poll published this week by Mexico’s Reforma newspaper.
  • Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is in the midst of an 11-day tour to Libya, Algeria, Syria, Iran, Belarus and Russia. All six maintain distant or unfriendly relations with the United States. Asked about the trip, a State Department spokesman said the United States “respects every country’s sovereign decision” to maintain diplomatic relations with other countries.
  • In Bolivia, three months before December 6 presidential elections, Evo Morales is polling between 41 and 52 percent, far higher than his divided rivals. An Equipos MORI poll revealed 41 percent of Bolivians ranked Morales as Bolivia’s best president since the restoration of democracy in 1982; Víctor Paz Estenssoro was a distant second with 24 percent.
  • Peru’s drug-funded and increasingly active Shining Path insurgency shot down an army helicopter this week. The incident spurred Defense Minister Rafael Rey to appear before Congress for a discussion of the group’s new tactics, which include “well-planned, strategically planned tunnels, bases for antiaircraft guns, and explosive traps.”
  • In Chile, a judge has issued 129 warrants for the arrest of members of the Pinochet regime’s internal security service, the DINA. They are to be charged with killings and disappearances of leftists during the dictatorship.
Sep 02
The Uribistas celebrate on the floor of Colombia’s House. (Picture from Semana.)

Only a month ago, Colombian politics watchers believed that the referendum to allow President Álvaro Uribe’s reelection was dead. A month of political strong-arm tactics revived it, and yesterday it cleared what might end up having been its biggest hurdle. Colombia’s House of Representatives, by a vote of 85-5, approved the referendum bill, sending it to Uribe for his signature.

Despite appearances, this was a very, very close nail-biter of a vote. Colombia’s House has 166 members. The entire opposition stayed out of the chamber – whether to abstain, to prevent the arrival at a quorum necessary for a vote, or both. The bill needed 84 votes to pass and only got 85. Not a ringing endorsement, but enough to gain full congressional approval.

Members of opposition parties insist that the needed votes were only gained through offers of political favors, like the ability to choose the next occupants of key government posts. “What has happened in the Congress is an embarrassment because every kind of corruption has been seen,” said former Medellín Mayor and independent presidential candidate Sergio Fajardo. Liberal Party presidential candidate Rafael Pardo, a former defense minister, charged today that recent shifts of mid-level positions in the national prison system may have been the result of such backroom dealing on behalf of the referendum.

The next obstacle the referendum faces is Colombia’s Constitutional Court, which must rule on the constitutionality of the law and the process by which it was approved. There is no fixed period for how long this process must take; El Tiempo estimates about 80 days, but also includes a chart of possible timetables that could have the court’s ruling as early as mid-November or as late as next April, a month before the May 30 presidential elections.

The Uribe government would ideally want to schedule the referendum before December – less than three months from now. A vote during Colombia’s long holiday period (mid-December to mid-January) is impossible, and after that, much focus will be on the March congressional elections.

El Tiempo discusses another, more chaotic possibility: holding the referendum at the same time as the March legislative elections, in the same balloting. This could happen if the pro-Uribe-majority Congress passes legislation changing a few deadlines – including the date by which Uribe would officially have to declare himself a candidate (currently November 30). If this strategem succeeds, Colombia could effectively be treated to a two-month-long presidential campaign: one that begins with a March 2009 referendum on whether Uribe can run, and ends with the May 2009 election.

All this assumes, though, that the Constitutional Court – once it rules – will rule in favor of allowing the referendum to go ahead. This is not a certainty. The list of procedural problems with the law is long, as this enumeration by Colombia’s El Nuevo Siglo newspaper makes clear. A former constitutional court justice, Clara Inés Vargas, told several Colombian radio outlets earlier today that the court’s approval would be difficult to obtain. However, the majority of the current court’s justices are now Uribe appointees, so things could be different now.