Oct 30

  • We’re all waiting to see whether the Honduran Congress (following an advisory opinion by the deeply anti-Zelaya Supreme Court) will approve an agreement reached late yesterday to allow Manuel Zelaya to return to the country’s presidency, four months after being deposed by a coup. The main points of the agreement between Zelaya and acting President Roberto Micheletti are laid out in Micheletti’s statement from last night. If the agreement is accepted, and Zelaya gets to serve out his term, the November 29 elections will receive international recognition. And the U.S. diplomats who traveled to Tegucigalpa this week to put pressure on both sides (mainly Thomas Shannon of the State Department and Daniel Restrepo of the National Security Council) will deserve a big congratulation. But let’s make sure this actually happens first.
  • In a private ceremony this morning, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield and Colombian Foreign Minister Jaime Bermúdez signed the “Complementary agreement for cooperation and technical assistance in defense and security,” which formalizes a U.S. presence at seven Colombian military bases for ten years. We still do not know what else is in this agreement, which was negotiated in secret and will not require the approval of either country’s Congress, though in the United States it will be shared with both houses’ foreign relations committees before it goes into effect. (We will add a link to the agreement here if we manage to obtain a copy.) Recent press reports include a few clues, however.
    • El Nuevo Herald: “U.S. government officials told El Nuevo Herald that it was the Colombian government that requested that the details of the agreement be kept secret.”
    • El Espectador, which had a chance to see the secret opinion filed by the State Council, one of Colombia’s high courts, reports that the judicial body found the agreement, “both in its objectives and in its obligations, to be very broad and unbalanced for the country [Colombia].” Other excerpts:
      • “The United States determines the activities to be carried out, and Colombia is only a cooperating party.”
      • The accord “mentions the use of, and access to, military bases, without determining the form and limits of either.”
      • “No valid reason exists for why the United States can establish satellite receiving stations for radio and television broadcasts, without any licensing procedures or concessions and at no cost.”
      • “In addition, the State Council characterized as ‘imperious’ the renegotiation of immunity terms, ‘whose inequality is derived from the offering of this immunity to U.S. personnel without discrimination.’”
    • Semana: “Asked what changes in U.S.-Colombian military relations would justify the signing of a new treaty, a Defense Ministry source said that operations will take place where they have never operated before, and there will be sharing of sophisticated equipment not included in the accords signed under the “Plan Colombia” umbrella.
  • Contravía, an investigative program on an independent Colombian television network, broadcast a show about Eudaldo Díaz, the mayor of El Roble, Sucre (in 3 parts [1 | 2 | 3]; part 1 is embedded below). At a 2003 televised meeting with President Uribe in Sucre’s capital, Díaz took the microphone to denounce that the paramilitaries, in league with many of Sucre’s top politicians present at the meeting, were going to kill him. A week later, Díaz was dead. The governor of Sucre at the time, Salvador Araña, is under investigation for allegedly ordering the murder. This week, days after the Contravía episode aired, a judge ordered that the chief of Sucre’s police at the time, Norman León, be investigated.

  • The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere held a hearing Tuesday about Iran’s role in Latin America. Bloggings By Boz tries to discern patterns in this subcommittee’s hearings since the Democrats took control of the House in 2007.
  • The Puerto Rican band Calle 13 had a concert in Manizales, Colombia cancelled after its lead singer showed up on MTV Latino wearing a T-shirt with messages accusing President Álvaro Uribe of supporting paramilitaries and criticizing Colombia’s U.S. base agreement. The band played Venezuela this week, where Hugo Chávez offered to sing with them. Politics aside, here’s a good song: “No Hay Nadie Como Tú,” by Calle 13 and the Mexican band Café Tacuba.

Oct 29

We’ve grown accustomed to hearing Colombian government officials accuse the country’s human rights organizations of supporting guerrilla groups. While they never present proof, the notion that human rights defenders are “spokespeople for terrorism” of the left is a regular theme in speeches by President Álvaro Uribe and others. (See examples in the section that begins on page 33 of this report, recently produced by a coalition of Colombian groups.)

But here is an accusation we’ve never heard before. This 20-second video shows Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos, in a Colombian television interview granted last Thursday. Santos is responding to news that Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) reopened an investigation into allegations that, ten years ago, he urged paramilitary leaders to set up a presence in Bogotá:

Santos seems to think that Colombia’s human rights NGOs are now in league not just with the guerrillas, but also with the right-wing paramilitaries – and that the judicial system should investigate.

Keep in mind that, in the Uribe government, the human rights portfolio is managed by the Vice President’s Office.

Oct 27
Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva on August 12, telling the armed forces that human rights prosecutions are the work of “enemies of the fatherland.”

On October 14, we shared an alarming El Tiempo article about an impending deadline for the prosecutions of seven Colombian army personnel accused of murdering young men in the slums of Soacha, a poor Bogotá suburb. In early 2008 the officers and soldiers allegedly arranged for the young men to be killed, and for their bodies to be presented hundreds of miles away as those of armed-group members killed in combat.

According to El Tiempo, Colombian military defense lawyers’ delaying tactics had brought both cases dangerously close to a deadline for deciding whether they must go before a civilian court or before a far more lenient military tribunal. If the October 22 deadline passed, the seven accused military personnel could have had the right to be freed.

We saw no further updates on these cases in the Colombian media, so we asked around. It turns out that the outcome is largely positive, so far.

The soldiers’ defense lawyers requested a hearing to determine whether the soldiers and officers could be freed. At that hearing, which took place on October 20, the judge refused to free them, arguing that the defense lawyers’ own tactics had caused the delays that brought the case up against the October 22 deadline. Shortly afterward, Colombia’s Supreme Judiciary Council finally gave the long-awaited order that the cases be tried in the civilian justice system.

One colleague in Colombia’s non-governmental human rights community affirms that the military defense lawyers’ delaying tactics, and the military justice system’s jurisdictional challenges, are very common in these “extrajudicial execution” cases. These tactics are likely to be strengthened by a newly created Military Public Defender’s system in the Defense Ministry, launched in August in line with a recommendation of the Colombian Defense Ministry’s 2008 human rights policy (PDF).

While a public defender program isn’t necessarily negative – most of the accused so far have been low-ranking soldiers who lack the resources to hire a lawyer – we must be troubled by the words uttered by Colombia’s defense minister, Gabriel Silva Luján, at the August 12 inauguration of the public defender’s office.

“May a colonel not tremble, may he have no fear before the codes [of justice], may a general or a soldier not tremble in the face of a [human rights] complaint, may their will to fight not be stopped by a judicial action by the enemies of the fatherland.”

Telling the assembled military brass that those who dare to try human rights cases are “enemies of the fatherland” is dangerous, irresponsible, and throws even more strongly into question the Colombian security forces’ commitment to end impunity for human rights abusers.

It also calls further into question the State Department’s September decision to certify that this commitment was somehow strengthening. And it makes Defense Minister Silva undeserving of the red-carpet treatment that the U.S. Defense Department and the Southern Command chose to give him during his visit to Washington and Miami yesterday and today.

Oct 26
On the road outside Puerto Asís. (I don’t have a Villa Sandra picture.)

The following two paragraphs come from a report (PDF) we published following a 2006 visit to the department of Putumayo, in southern Colombia.

A few miles north of Puerto Asís, close to the large military base in the crossroads town of Santana, sits “Villa Sandra,” a large compound with a big house, a pond and recreational facilities. Six years ago, during the paramilitaries’ bloody takeover of Putumayo’s town centers, and then during the beginning of Plan Colombia’s execution, Villa Sandra was the paramilitaries’ center of operations. Everyone in Puerto Asís – except, apparently, the military and police – knew that the paras were headquartered there, and that many who were forcibly brought there never left the premises.

During our 2001 visit to Putumayo, Villa Sandra was very much in use. When we returned in 2004, it was abandoned, and remains so now, its facilities in evident disrepair behind a high chain-link fence. Many in Putumayo believe that an inspection of the compound’s grounds would reveal much about the paramilitaries’ activities in the zone – including, in some likelihood, mass graves. That Villa Sandra remains untouched and uninvestigated is eloquent evidence of the paramilitaries’ continued influence over Putumayo, despite the recent demobilizations.

The existence of the “Villa Sandra” paramilitary base, right on the main road outside Putumayo’s largest city, was no secret in 2000-2001. At that time, the AUC paramilitaries were in the midst of a horrifying string of massacres of the civilian population in Putumayo, with no opposition from Colombia’s security forces.

Also at that time, the United States was just getting started with “Plan Colombia,” at the time a campaign of military and police assistance, purportedly for counternarcotics, whose “ground zero” in this initial phase was Putumayo.

As U.S. military money poured into Putumayo, groups like ours loudly denounced the local armed forces and police units’ quite open collaboration with the paramilitaries, even as the AUC carried out a bloodbath in the zone.

  • Human Rights Watch published an extensive investigation into paramilitary ties to Putumayo’s security forces, which mentioned Villa Sandra, the paramilitary base, by name.
  • We denounced the presence of Villa Sandra in two reports and in all interactions with U.S. government officials.
  • The BBC reported on how one could easily arrive at the base just by hailing a taxi in Puerto Asís.
  • Amnesty International mentioned Villa Sandra in testimony before a U.S. congressional committee.
  • On the floor of the Senate in October 2001, the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota) demanded, “Close Hacienda Villa Sandra, a base about one mile north of Puerto Asís, the largest town in Putumayo. Is this too much to ask?”

None of these efforts made a difference. U.S. military and police funding continued to pour into Putumayo, supporting a Joint Task Force headed by the highly questioned Gen. Mario Montoya in what the Clinton administration’s drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, called “The Push Into Southern Colombia.” The paramilitary campaign of terror proceeded apace, killing thousands, displacing tens of thousands, and – if the strength of FARC fronts operating in Putumayo today is any indication – doing little to weaken the guerrillas. And Villa Sandra remained open for business.

Last Wednesday, the “Verdad Abierta” website, a collaboration between Semana magazine and several think-tanks and international donor agencies, posted an article about Villa Sandra. Citing testimony from a demobilized paramilitary member, it confirms the worst about how the base was used, the number of bodies that are probably buried there, and the level of collaboration the paramilitaries received from the local military and police.

As you read these translated excerpts below, keep in mind that all of this was happening while a specially vetted Colombian Army Counter-Narcotics Battalion, set up in 1999-2000 entirely with U.S. funds, was operating at a base perhaps half a mile away.

Villa Sandra offers eloquent testimony to why assurances from the U.S. and Colombian governments that human rights protections are in place, and that the situation is improving, simply can’t be taken at face value. Such official claims must always be carefully and independently verified. Villa Sandra also reminds us that the victims of what happened during Plan Colombia’s first phase in Putumayo need far more truth, justice, reparations and protection than they are currently getting.

Investigation of possible mass grave with 800 cadavers in Puerto Asís

Verdad Abierta, October 21, 2009

On a farm in Puerto Asís, Putumayo, the paramilitaries apparently buried more than 800 people who were killed by the Southern Front of Putumayo.

The victims’ remains may be found at a farm called Villa Sandra, where the paramilitaries installed one of their bases of operations during their consolidation process in southern Colombia in January 1998.

This is according to testimony given to prosecutors of the Justice and Peace Unit [of the Prosecutor-General's Office] in Medellín by John Jairo Rentería Zúñiga, alias “Betún,” who was part of the Southern Front of Putumayo created in 1998 with members of the Bananero Bloc of the Campesino Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU) at the orders of paramilitary chief Carlos Castaño, and commanded by alias “Rafa Putumayo.”

“At that farm we had a permanent group, and that is where those from town brought the people they were going to kill, they handed them over, they executed them and they buried them over there. There are a lot of people in graves, I believe some 800 people,” said alias “Betún”…

According to the ex-paramilitary, this land was donated to the ACCU by its owner, so that they could install their base of operations there. Asked why they chose to bury their victims there, “Betún” explained that it owed to a suggestion from the Puerto Asís police: “They asked us the favor of not killing any more people in town, because it created problems for them, so they gave the order that anyone they wanted to kill should be brought to the farm and buried there.”

Dozens of victims who were killed at the paramilitaries’ hands were accused of being presumed FARC militia members or informants by the business owners of Puerto Asís: “They knew where we lived and they had our telephone numbers. They called us every so often to inform us that there were militias in town, so we captured them and brought them to Villa Sandra. The majority of the people who died in Puerto Asís were because of the local businesspeople.”

One of this paramilitary front’s most macabre actions was its compliance, without discussion, of orders to cut their victims up into pieces. “We had to dismember the people. First we chopped their hands off, later their feet and finally the head. Many times this was done while people were still alive. Nobody could be buried whole,” according to the former ACCU patroller. …

According to calculations from the Prosecutor-General’s Office, it is estimated that more than 3,000 people are buried in mass graves in Putumayo. …

The expansion of the Southern Front of Putumayo, according to Rentería Zúñiga’s testimony, had the help of the security forces based in the department. According to the demobilized paramilitary member, the police, the army and the navy involved themselves for several years with the paramilitaries, with the argument that “they shared the same cause.” …

“So we decided to coordinate with them. Initially, they told us to stay on the edge of town, later they told us that we could stay in the town, and we came in uniform. Also, they came to our base and rode in our cars, and we rode in their cars too,” explained the defendant, who insisted during his testimony that he did not remember names of officers or sub-officers, or of battalions or military units.

During their operations, he said, the army’s roadblocks were raised so that they could transit with no problems, and “When we needed some support, they were there, and when they needed support they’d ask it of us. Meetings were held with their commanders and our commanders, and we had our radio frequencies coordinated.”

The demobilized paramilitary fighter spoke of two helicopters, apparently from the Army, which several times supplied them with weapons, ammunition and uniforms in exchange for cocaine.

Oct 23

After several years of declining violence statistics in Colombia, we are seeing some very serious backsliding. The chief causes are the new FARC leadership’s shifts in strategy, and the proliferation of “emerging” criminal groups, the heirs of paramilitary groups whose leaders have mostly been extradited to the United States. This backsliding should worry both proponents and detractors of Álvaro Uribe’s hardline security policies.

  1. A Reuters piece published Tuesday and a CNN series [1 | 2 | 3] that ran last week attest to the severe wave of drug and gang-related violence sweeping over Medellín. According to Reuters, “The city’s murder rate has more than doubled since the [May] 2008 extradition of its main crime boss, [paramilitary chieftain Diego Fernando Murillo,] known as Don Berna, which left a power vacuum in the local drug and extortion rackets.”
  1. El Tiempo reports on the tense atmosphere in Sumapaz, a mountainous zone just to the south of Bogotá, from which Colombia’s army ejected the FARC in 2003 and 2004. Last Sunday, in broad daylight, the guerrillas killed two town council members in the zone (Sumapaz is part of Bogotá and Colombia’s Capital District).
  1. Herbín Hoyos, host of the Bogotá-based “Voices of Kidnapping” radio program, which broadcasts relatives’ messages to FARC kidnap victims, was forced to leave the country two weeks ago in the face of what Colombian military intelligence said was a recently uncovered FARC plot to kill him.
  1. In the oil-refining port of Barrancabermeja, 99 people have been murdered so far this year, 5 more than in all of 2008. El Tiempo places much of the blame on two “emerging” paramilitary groups, the “Rastrojos” and the “Urabistas.”
  1. Semana notes “three simultanous processes” of violence amid a counter-guerrilla military offensive in Cauca, in southwestern Colombia: “First, the alliance between the ELN guerrillas and a criminal gang known as ‘Los Rastrojos’ to fight the FARC; second, the military forces’ tendency to go easy on the ELN and Los Rastrojos, since the Espada II and III military operations have not touched them, and the whole offensive has been against the FARC. … The third process, however, is the strengthening of the FARC’s offensive military capacity in northern Cauca. So much that the guerrillas have attacked Toribío municipality on 51 occasions this year; the most recent attack was on October 7, which left two police dead and several soldiers wounded.” El Tiempo also reported this week on the ongoing Cauca offensive.
  1. This week the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo) issued “early warning” alerts about FARC threats against the population of Toribío, as well as that of the municipalities of Puerto Lleras, Puerto Rico and Vistahermosa, Meta. The Meta alert covers the heart of the La Macarena region, where a Colombian government “Fusion Center” has been carrying out a U.S.-funded counter-insurgency and “consolidation” program. In Puerto Rico municipality, Amnesty International reports, a FARC attack on the Guéjar river wounded Islena Rey, president of the Meta Human Rights Civic Committee.
  1. Elsewhere in Meta, authorities are concerned about a growing “war” between two powerful paramilitary chieftains who had been believed to be cooperating: Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero, alias “Cuchillo,” and Víctor Carranza, who controls a large portion of Colombia’s lucrative emerald trade.
  1. More than 220 people have been killed this year in the Bajo Cauca region of northern Antioquia department, where four “emerging” paramilitary groups are fighting to control the drug trade: “Los Paisas,” “Los Rastrojos,” “Los de Urabá” and remnants of the AUC’s “Bloque Mineros.”
  1. Two weeks ago in Arauca, a brazen ELN attack managed to free “Pablito,” who until being imprisoned was the guerrilla group’s maximum leader in the zone, one of its longtime strongholds.

All of these links are from the past two weeks. They indicate that Colombia’s government needs to refocus on its public security strategy, which may have reached the limits of what it can achieve. Significant adjustments are needed, particularly a renewed effort to protect threatened populations (instead of using resources on costly offensives) and a far stronger campaign against the “new” paramilitary groups before they manage to consolidate themselves.

But no adjustments are likely over the next several months, since Colombia’s President and its entire political class are likely to be focusing entirely on Álvaro Uribe’s attempt to win a third term in office.

Oct 22

Though El Espectador’s website shrinks it to the brink of unreadability, the graphic below reveals an unhappy fact about the Colombian government’s recently approved 2010 budget.

For the first time, the country’s defense and security spending will exceed what it spends on education.

The Colombian government plans to spend 148.3 trillion pesos next year (US$78.2 billion at today’s exchange rate). 14.2 percent of the budget (and not of GDP, as the article erroneously reports) – roughly US$11.1 billion – will go to the armed forces and police. 13.9 percent – US$10.9 billion – will go to educate young Colombians.

Oct 21
Picture from an excellent June 2009 El Nuevo Herald series on the Soacha murders.

Writing a few days ago in El Espectador, columnist Felipe Zuleta reported that mothers of young men killed by the Colombian military have begun receiving anonymous threats.

The mothers live in the poor Bogotá suburb of Soacha, where in 2008 elements of the Colombian Army abducted young men, killing them and later presenting their bodies as those of illegal armed group members killed in combat. When news of the Soacha killings broke in September 2008, the scandal forced the firing of 27 Army personnel. Murder trials have been proceeding very slowly, with an increasing likelihood that some of those responsible may not be punished.

Now, Zuleta notes, the situation has grown more shocking.

These young men’s mothers are being threatened with death, and also submitted to acts of violence. In the last two weeks, one of them was grabbed by her hair by someone passing by on a motorcycle without license plates, another has been getting death threats, and a third had a military belt with barbed wire hung on the door of her humble house.

This all began to happen, coincidentally, after the commander of the armed forces, Gen. Freddy Padilla, showed his face to them for the first time, in mid-September. … I’m not accusing Gen. Padilla, but I wish to call his attention to what might happen to these citizens, who are neither rich nor influential and live in misery, and who could become victims of the same crimes that claimed their sons.

I don’t know about you, but it enrages me that while many of these mothers owe millions of pesos to funeral homes, after having to pay for their sons’ cadavers’ transportation from far corners of the country, the government is dispatching billions of pesos to benefit its friends and presidential campaign contributors through the Ministry of Agriculture. [Zuleta refers to the "Agro Ingreso Seguro" scandal discussed in an earlier post.]

We call on the Colombian authorities to ensure that the Soacha mothers’ security is fully guaranteed, and to investigate and punish these threats as part of a larger effort to purge the armed forces of any elements that could possibly be involved in such behavior.

Oct 20
Francisco Santos. (Photo source and article link)

The former paramilitary chief [Salvatore Mancuso] stated that [Vice President Francisco] Santos … also met several times with the paramilitaries’ leaders and that “I was surprised because I noticed how much he identified with the cause” and because “he told [AUC paramilitary leader Carlos] Castaño that he liked the model (of self-defense groups) in [the northern Colombian department of] Córdoba and that he would like to see it repeated in Bogotá.” In one of these meetings, Mancuso continued, “Castaño proposed to Santos that he be the commander of the Capital Bloc, but he turned him down, saying that he did not know about such things.”

That, as recounted by Colombia’s Semana magazine in 2007, was the essence of a series of exchanges between Francisco Santos, Colombia’s vice-president, and top paramilitary leaders about a decade ago. At the time, Santos was an editor at Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper and a leading anti-kidnapping activist. The allegation that Vice President Santos, who holds the Uribe administration’s human rights portfolio, urged the paramilitaries to set up a unit in Bogotá, comes from 2007 testimony to “Justice and Peace” prosecutors by Salvatore Mancuso, a paramount leader of the disbanded United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Mancuso has since been extradited to the United States, where he awaits trial in a Virginia jail cell.

Santos insists that the comment was a joke – a joke in terrible taste. There is no known evidence that Santos followed up on his suggestion. Another top paramilitary leader, Freddy Rendón (alias “El Alemán“) has testified that while he met with Santos, he did not discuss the “Capital Bloc” idea. While a “Capital Bloc” of the paramilitaries later appeared, under the command of “Centaurs Bloc” leader Miguel Arroyave, it seemed to be largely focused on illicit fundraising: extortion and drug-dealing in poor Colombian neighborhoods, and involvement in sectors like bus transportation, food distribution and black-market items like pirated DVDs.

Still, Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía), which closed an investigation of Santos in August 2008, announced yesterday that it was re-opening its probe. The decision made headlines in Colombia yesterday, drawing attention to Santos, who said he would cooperate with the prosecutors’ investigation.

It is unlikely that the investigators will find that Francisco Santos was a mastermind of paramilitary expansion. It may find, however, that the vice president’s words and attitude toward the paramilitary leadership were friendlier and more supportive than he would ever acknowledge in public.

Just as 2007 photos of herself wearing a black beret and posing with FARC negotiators were a setback for leftist Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba, revelations of bonhomie and camaraderie with the mass-murdering paramilitaries could be deeply embarrassing to Francisco Santos.

Oct 16

(I’m spending Friday at a conference at Syracuse University. Meanwhile, we’re pleased to help get the word out about this important hearing Tuesday afternoon with Margaret Sekaggya, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. Read the statement from her September visit to Colombia, when she found that “patterns of harassment and persecution against human rights defenders, and often their families, continue to exist in Colombia.”)

Commission Hearing Announcement
Human Rights Defenders in the Crosshairs:
The Ongoing Crisis in Colombia
Margaret Sekaggya,
UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders
Tuesday, October 20
2 - 3:30 p.m.
Room: TBD

Please join the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission for a hearing on the situation of human rights defenders in Colombia. The hearing will be held at 2 p.m. Tuesday, October 20, (room: tbd). The hearing is open to the media and the public.
The ongoing 44-year-old armed conflict in Colombia has created one of the worlds most dangerous environments for human rights defenders, social leaders, labor activists, and journalists, despite some protection efforts by the Colombian government. During last year’s Universal Periodic Human Rights Review of Colombia at the United Nations, the subsequent Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review on Colombia (A/HRC/10/82; Jan. 9, 2009) reflected the global concern regarding extra-judicial killings and disappearances of individuals.
Recognizing the dangers that human rights defenders face from paramilitary, guerilla fighters and drug lords, the working group recommended that the Colombian government fully implement Presidential Directive 7 of 1999, and give stronger and unambiguous public recognition and support to human rights defenders.  The recommendations also included sanctioning those who make unsubstantiated allegations against human rights defenders and strengthening the protection program for NGO representatives. The report further recommended that the Colombian government fully investigate and punish crimes against human rights defenders to end the climate of impunity and called for the visits of all relevant human rights rapporteurs to Colombia.
Margaret Sekaggya, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders and former head of the Ugandan Human Rights Commission, visited Colombia last month from September 7-18 and met with the Uribe government, civil society, judicial institutions, diplomatic delegations, and authorities in Bogota, Barranquilla, Medellín, Cali and Arauca. Ms. Sekaggya will be joined by other human rights experts to present and discuss the findings of her trip.
Other witnesses include:·
  • Principe Gabriel Gonzalez Arango, Colombian Political Prisoners Solidarity Committee·
  • Reynaldo Villalba Vargas, President, José Alvear Restrepo Lawyer’s Collective·
  • Andrew Hudson, Manager, Human Rights Defenders Program, Human Rights First
  • Kelly Nicholls, Executive Director, U.S. Office on Colombia.

If you have any questions regarding this hearing, please contact Hans Hogrefe (Rep. McGovern) or Elizabeth Hoffman (Rep. Wolf) at (202) 225-3599.

James P. McGovern, M.C.
Co-Chair, TLHRC

Frank R. Wolf, M.C.
Co-Chair, TLHRC

Oct 14

El Tiempo reports today that Colombia’s judicial system is coming dangerously close to freeing army officers and enlisted men involved in the Soacha “false positives” case.

This serious human rights abuse case, revealed in September 2008, involved a group of military personnel who arranged for the abduction and murder of about 20 young men from the suburban Bogotá slum of Soacha, only to present the victims’ bodies hundreds of miles away as those of armed-group members killed in combat, a result that earned rewards like bonuses and time off.

The Soacha scandal forced the firing of 27 members of the armed forces in late 2008. But the judicial cases against the responsible officers have moved excruciatingly slowly.

Today’s El Tiempo piece reports on one case, in which the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) claims to have “solid evidence” that two officers and five enlisted men were involved in the murder of two young men from Soacha.

A year later, Colombia’s judicial system still has not decided whether their case is to be tried in the civilian criminal justice system or in a military court. Colombia’s military justice system has a long tradition of extreme leniency in such cases and is meant to try “acts of service,” not human rights crimes. Disputes over jurisdiction in human rights cases are supposed to be settled in favor of the civilian justice system. In this case, though, Colombia’s Supreme Judiciary Council (Consejo Supremo de la Judicatura), which is supposed to decide whether cases go to civilian or military justice, has still not produced a decision.

And time is running out. El Tiempo says that in seven days – October 21 – the deadline for deciding the defendants’ legal situation will run out, and they will have to be freed.

The same thing, on the same date, may also happen in a second case involving a sergeant, a corporal and a private linked to seven murders.

The article notes:

El Tiempo established that the Prosecutor-General’s Office has already sounded the alarms, as have the victims’ families. … Now, what is intended to be established is whether there have been any delaying tactics on the part of the defense of any of the soldiers.

“We believe that the delay in the Judiciary Council to reserve the jurisdictional conflicts is added to the fact that the military’s defenders are trying to entangle the process by making many absurd petitions, and the judges lack the character not to give the defense lawyers everything they ask for,” a high Prosecutor-General’s Office official told El Tiempo.

If soldiers accused of murder are allowed to walk free because of their defense counsel’s delaying tactics – as could happen in one short week, if nothing changes – it will be a blow not just to the victims’ families, but to the credibility of the U.S. government, which certified a month ago that “the Colombian Armed Forces are cooperating fully with civilian prosecutors and judicial authorities” in human rights cases.

Oct 13

Note added 10/13 – Claudia López writes:

I don’t have enough words to explain to you how absolutely surprised and disconcerted this reaction from El Tiempo’s directorship leaves me. It never crossed my mind that El Tiempo would fire one of their own columnists for criticizing the newspaper, even less that they would to so without warning, instead notifying me about it publicly, and even less without even offering a single argument to contradict the criticisms. I never imagined that the directorship of the newspaper would turn to someone in power, instead of journalism, to report or contradict its information or opinions.

There is neither trust nor conditions to keep writing in El Tiempo now. I can write somewhere else. I’m not worried about that. But I do believe that attention must be called to the excessive risk to Colombian democracy when the most important newspaper in the country refuses to debate well-founded criticisms about the risks and conflicts of interest between its business, political and journalistic activities.

El Tiempo rejects Claudia López’s statements as false, badly intentioned, and slanderous. The Directorship of this daily understands her strong criticism of our journalistic work to be a resignation letter, which we immediately accept.”

This is the testy, thin-skinned postscript that El Tiempo, Colombia’s most-circulated daily newspaper, added to the bottom of this morning’s column from Claudia López, whose Tuesday missives have consistently been among the paper’s most read and most commented contributions.

The columnist and think-tank researcher, who is spending this semester as a World Fellow at Yale University, is known for being a tenacious and outspoken investigator, and gets some credit for breaking the “para-politics” scandal in 2006. Her column has made her one of President Álvaro Uribe’s fiercest and best-known critics. We have cited her on a few occasions.

So what did Ms. López write that caused El Tiempo to give her the boot? She chose to turn her sights on the newspaper itself. She argued that El Tiempo has used the “Agro Ingreso Seguro” (AIS) scandal (the subject of Friday’s post), in which an agricultural subsidy program gave large sums of cash to some of the country’s largest landholders, to benefit the presidential aspirations of a family member.

“Unlike other written media, El Tiempo did not dig deeper into the AIS program, focusing only on the scandal’s political effects,” writes López, noting that the scandal was, however, broken by the weekly magazine Cambio, which is owned by El Tiempo.

But López goes on to argue that El Tiempo’s focus on the scandal’s political effects sought to harm the prospects of one 2010 presidential aspirant – former Agriculture Minister Andrés Felipe Arias – and explicitly to help another possible candidate, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos. (Both Arias and Santos have said that they will run in 2010 only if President Uribe is unable to run for a third term.)

López backs up the allegation of favoritism by citing a web forum on eltiempo.com, an article about comments in the forum, and a political analysis article contending, without citing poll data, that “Andrés Felipe Arias emerges weakened and Juan Manuel Santos is strengthened by the AIS scandal.”

Using subtle tools like a web forum and “political analyses” to benefit one candidate is a common charge leveled against media everywhere. But in this case, the candidate allegedly benefiting, Juan Manuel Santos, is a member of the family that owns El Tiempo. (Actually, since a 2007 sale to Spain’s Grupo Planeta, the Santos family shares control of the newspaper.) Candidate Santos is also a former editor at the newspaper.

López’s accusation is serious and documented, and her attack is strong.

El Tiempo’s journalistic quality is ever more compromised by the growing conflict of interests between its commercial purposes (to win a third television channel) and political purposes (to cover the Government that provides this channel, and its partner in the campaign), and its journalistic duties.

In this morning’s coverage, Claudia López accused El Tiempo’s management of benefiting a relative’s political aspirations, and demanded that it itself. Instead of an explanation, she was publicly fired.

This is extremely disappointing from a newspaper whose prominence in Latin America would lead one to expect that its columnists could cover any topic they choose. A newspaper whose editorial staff includes Enrique Santos, the current first vice-president of the Inter-American Press Association, a prominent press freedom association. And a newspaper that, every week, publishes the often hilarious fabrications of José Obdulio Gaviria, a far-right figure who until recently was one of President Uribe’s principal advisors.

Claudia López has lost her space in El Tiempo, but Gaviria, who frequently attacks her in his columns, isn’t going anywhere.

Oct 12
Picture from El Colombiano’s coverage of paramilitary properties in Urabá, Colombia.
  • Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will draft a new bill, H.R. 2134, the “Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act of 2009.” The bill would establish a blue-ribbon panel to rethink the U.S. approach to drug interdiction in Latin America and the Caribbean. The House committee will then hold a 2:10 PM hearingAssessing U.S. Drug Policy in the Americas.”
  • Three articles in three days last week covered Washington conservatives’ intense lobby effort in support of the June 28 coup in Honduras. In them, we learn that former Clinton counsel Lanny Davis has been paid at least $350,000 so far, and that former Bush official Otto Reich thinks Honduras is “not the first time all the countries in the world have been wrong.”
    • Most thorough is Art Levine’s piece on the Daily Beast site, which appeared October 10.
    • Mary Beth Sheridan in the October 9 Washington Post.
    • Ginger Thompson and Ron Nixon in the October 8 New York Times.
    • Opinion pieces in the Wall Street Journal from two of the coup’s allies, Davis and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina). Floor speech by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), who traveled to Honduras with DeMint in early October.
  • Al Giordano publishes the results of a poll of Hondurans showing overwhelming opposition to the coup, albeit with tepid support for Manuel Zelaya.
  • Charges that Honduran landowners have been recruiting former Colombian paramilitaries, presumably to defend the coup as mercenaries, first appeared in Colombia’s El Tiempo in mid-September, and were raised by a UN working group last week.
  • With five months to go for congressional elections in Colombia, Semana magazine reports on how legislators who have run into trouble for ties to paramilitary groups are planning to keep control of their seats. Many are arranging for close associates, often family members, to run in their place.
  • FARC leader Iván Márquez says that the organization will finally release two hostages – including Corporal Pablo Emilio Moncayo, whom it has held for nearly 11 years – “as soon as the Colombian government publicly ratifies that the guarantees and protocols,” presumably for security, are in place.
  • Highly recommended: this investigation, in the Medellín daily El Colombiano, of the lands owned by top paramilitary leaders in the northwestern region of Urabá, which was one of the AUC’s centers of operation a decade ago.
  • By a 44-24 vote, Argentina’s Senate on Saturday passed a controversial new media law tightening regulations on the press and limiting the number of outlets a single company can own. The vote is seen as a victory for President Cristina Fernández and a blow to the country’s biggest media conglomerate, the opposition-tilting Grupo Clarín.
  • Writing in Tal Cual, Rocío San Miguel expresses concern about a new paramilitary body, the “Bolivarian Militia,” to be created by a law just approved by Venezuela’s nearly unanimously pro-government National Assembly.
  • Venezuela is not allowing the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission to pay a visit to the country, despite repeated requests from the country’s opposition that the Commission report on recent actions that erode democracy. Leaders of President Chávez’s political party say that the Commission is not welcome in Venezuela as long as it is presided by human rights lawyer Santiago Cantón, whom they say supported the failed April 2002 coup attempt in Caracas.
  • “So how’s the uranium for Iran going? For the atomic bomb.” – Hugo Chávez, joking to his mining minister during a televised cabinet meeting last week.
  • Bolivia’s government says it has surpassed is 2009 goal of 5,000 hectares of coca manually eradicated.
  • U.S. oil company Chevron, which has been fighting an environmental contamination lawsuit from communities in Ecuador’s Amazon, is pushing to move the case from an Ecuadorian court – where it had been moved at Chevron’s request – to the World Court in the Hague. “This reframes the case as between Ecuador and Chevron,” writes a Los Angeles Times editorial. “And if it succeeds — shifting liability from the company to the Ecuadorean government — it could have a chilling effect on people all over the world who are engaged in legal battles with multinational corporations.”
  • From the New York Times, reason to doubt that the Obama administration plans any dramatic changes to Cuba policy: “The New York Philharmonic scratched its trip to Cuba at the end of October because the United States Treasury Department said it would deny permission for a group of patrons to go along. Without them and their donations, the orchestra said on Thursday, it cannot afford to go.”
    • Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) protested this outcome on the floor of the Senate.
    • Despite this, the Inter-American Dialogue’s Marifeli Pérez-Stable sees the United States and Cuba “inching toward each other.”
  • I just realized: we missed this blog’s 5th anniversary. The very first post appeared on October 6, 2004. You are reading post number 823. Thank you for visiting.
Oct 09

(This post written in collaboration with CIP Intern Hannah Brodlie.)

“Subsidies to the rich do help reduce inequality:
[former Uribe Agriculture Minister Andrés Felipe] Arias.”
(Photo source and article link)

Update 10/9: Colombia’s Contravía television program broadcast an excellent show about this very topic last night. It has been uploaded to YouTube and is very highly recommended (in Spanish).

Two weeks ago, the Colombian magazine Cambio broke a story about Agro Ingreso Seguro (Secure Agricultural Income), a seemingly benign program run by the country’s Ministry of Agriculture since its inception in 2007. Among the principal objectives of AIS are “to promote productivity and competitiveness, reduce inequality in the country and prepare the agricultural sector to face the challenge of the economy’s internationalization.”

The Uribe government billed Agro Ingreso Seguro as a program providing subsidies for smallholding farmers. However, it appears that many – if not the majority – of the program’s subsidies, particularly those designated for “irrigation and drainage” projects, have in fact gone to a few of the wealthiest landowning families. This is particularly true along Colombia’s Caribbean coast, arguably the part of the country where land distribution is most unequal. The cover story in this week’s Cambio explains how 25 billion pesos (US$13 million) in subsidies went to four rich families in Santa Marta, the capital of Magdalena department.

  • Each project may receive a maximum of 600 million pesos (about US$322,000) in subsidies. However, the Dávila family of Magdalena divided their land, much of it used to grow African oil palm, among individual family members in order to obtain 2.2 billion pesos (US$1.18 million). Juan Manuel Dávila Jimeno did so by renting parcels of his existing land to his wife, children and his girlfriend, a former beauty queen, for small amounts of money.
  • Subsidies totaling 3 billion pesos (US$1.6 million) were given to the family of Alfredo Lacouture Dangond, father of Maria Claudia Lacouture Pinedo, director of the Colombia es Pasión tourism-promotion and public-relations program that organized a promotional display of heart-shaped sculptures all over Washington in September. These 3 billion pesos, notes the Medellín-based Popular Training Institute (IPC), are equal to the assistance the Colombian government provides to 5,779 internally displaced families.
  • The Vives family, which is politically and socially influential in Magdalena department, received more than 13 billion pesos (US$6.9 million) from AIS last year.
  • Another AIS beneficiary – with 194 million pesos (US$100,000) in subsidies – is Ismael Augusto Pantoja, alias “El Negro,” a narcotrafficker requested in extradition by the United States since 2005. Pantoja received his subsidy in January 2008, was arrested in October 2008, and was extradited in September 2009.

The Inter-American Agricultural Cooperation Institute (IICA), an OAS-affiliated body, was contracted by the Agriculture Ministry to select AIS beneficiaries. Daniel Montoya, coordinator of Agro Ingreso Seguro in the the IICA, said that mistakes were made: “Many families obtained those subsidies because there weren’t established prohibitions, but today we see that the policy was badly designed.”

However, it is worth noting that the main link between AIS and the IICA was Carlos Manuel Polo, who in 2007 became head of the IICA “irrigation and drainage” program thanks to personal connections with former Magdalena Congressman Luis Eduardo Vives. The former congressman, whose family has received generous subsidies, was convicted in 2008 for ties to paramilitary leader Rodrigo Tovar (”Jorge 40″) as part of the “para-politics” scandal. Polo told Cambio, “I don’t deny my friendship with Luis Eduardo Vives. … That relationship does not compromise the interests of the Ministry and much less those of the IICA.”

Critics view the revelations as evidence of rampant cronyism, with the Uribe government handing out benefits to its wealthiest supporters from the public treasury. It recalls the 2008 “Carimagua” scandal, in which land set aside for displaced Colombians was instead leased to agribusiness interests. “The Uribe government loves to give public money away to the richest and collect heavy taxes from the weakest,” wrote former minister ex ministro Juan Camilo Restrepo in Medellín’s El Colombiano newspaper. Writing in the Bogotá daily El Espectador, former Central Bank Director Salomón Kalmanovitz added, “In Álvaro Uribe’s two terms, the largest agrarian counter-reform in the nation’s history has been consolidated.”

The AIS revelations are a political blow to Andrés Felipe Arias, the Uribe administration’s minister of Agriculture from 2006 until early this year, who championed the program. Arias, a deeply conservative young politician considered a strong presidential contender if Álvaro Uribe is unable to run, has been so closely identified with the president that Colombians frequently refer to him as “Uribito.” In an opinion piece in Thursday’s El Tiempo, Arias defended himself by arguing that AIS has benefitted 316,000 families in the countryside, 98% of whom are small and medium producers, who have received 88% of the resources. He also contends that AIS has generated 376,000 jobs in the countryside.

Cambio acknowledges that the program has generated employment, although not not as much as ex minister Arias and current Agriculture Minister Andrés Fernandez claim. Others dispute Arias’s claims about the distribution of resources. Rafael Pardo, a former defense minister and leader of the opposition Liberal Party, said that in 2007, the program gave out 114 billion pesos (US$60 million) in subsidies, of which 65 billion (US$34 million) ended up in the hands of only 103 beneficiaries.

Former minister Arias said Thursday that it would be a bad idea to end the AIS program. He justifies that assertion, oddly, by citing the Uribe government’s high poll numbers. “This is what only a few people want. Those who appear very low in the polls. When the polls go well for us, the debate is harder.”

Indalecio Dangond, one of the major beneficiaries of the AIS subsidies, wrote an opinion piece opposite former Agricultural Minister Arias’s in Thursday’s El Tiempo. He contends that “the beneficiaries are not to blame, rather the model of ex minister Andres Felipe Arias, who designed it to reach the rich and not the poor.”

According to Cambio, this year the program has approved subsidies for 100 projects, which include more than 1.57 billion pesos (US$840,000) for Magdalena. This year’s figure is significantly lower than in years past due to the fact that those who received subsidies in 2007 and 2008 could not present again this year. An AIS analyst explained, “they realized that the majority of the resources were remaining in the hands of a few, and that was disgraceful.”

Oct 09
Miguel Lapo (center).

We are enormously saddened to learn of the murder, by unknown assailants, of two Ecuadorian community leaders along the border with Colombia last week.

CIP staff met one of the two, Miguel Lapo, last November when we accompanied Rep. Jim McGovern’s (D-Massachusetts) visit [.pdf] to the Ecuador-Colombia border region. Mr. Lapo was a founder of the border town of Barranca Bermeja, Sucumbíos, Ecuador. Barranca Bermeja is right on the border: one can look across the river from the center of town and see see Putumayo, Colombia.

Though we only spent a couple of hours with him, it was clear that Mr. Lapo had the respect and affection of hundreds of people living in a zone battered by the conflict in nearby Colombia – a conflict that many had come to Barranca Bermeja to escape.

Here is a statement about last week’s murders released today by Rep. Jim McGovern. We join in Rep. McGovern’s strong call on the Ecuadorian (and, if relevant, the Colombian) authorities to identify, prosecute and punish those who ordered and carried out the killings.

Statement by U.S. Representative James P. McGovern (D-MA-03)
On the murders of community leaders Miguel Lapo and Miguel Pinzón in Sucumbíos, Ecuador
October 9, 2009

It is with deep sorrow that I learned of the recent deaths of two prominent community leaders on the Ecuadorian border with Colombia.  Miguel Lapo and Miguel Pinzón were murdered by unknown perpetrators on September 28th and September 29th.

Mr. Lapo was killed in Barranca Bermeja, Ecuador – a town just across the river from Colombia that he helped found 20 years ago. Mr. Pinzón was assassinated in the nearby town of San Martín.

I met Mr. Lapo in November 2008, when I traveled to Barranca Bermeja to learn more about the spillover effects of Colombia’s armed conflict into Ecuador.  Mr. Lapo had organized a community meeting for my visit, at which I heard heartbreaking testimonies of the challenges faced by Colombian refugees and Ecuadorians living in the border region – the people Mr. Lapo dedicated his life to protect.

Although my visit with Miguel Lapo was brief, it was clear to me that he was a dedicated, intelligent, and caring man who fought for peace and the rights of both Colombian refugees and Ecuadorians living in his community.

While we don’t yet know the killers’ identities, I fear that these murders are part of an effort – whether by Colombian armed groups or narco-trafficking organizations – to intimidate all independent social organizations in the region.

I call on the Government of Ecuador to fully investigate the deaths of Miguel Lapo and Miguel Pinzón. The Government of Ecuador has recently taken important steps to provide legal recognition to the hundreds of thousands of Colombians seeking refuge within its borders. Identifying and prosecuting those responsible for the recent murders is essential if Ecuador is to achieve its stated goal of protecting vulnerable refugee communities and encouraging good governance and development in border communities.

At this moment, my thoughts, prayers and most sincere condolences are with the families, friends and colleagues of Mr. Lapo and Mr. Pinzón, and my attention and solidarity are always with the many Ecuadorian border communities that have so generously provided shelter and welcome to so many refugees from Colombia’s violent conflict.

For more information, contact:
Michael Mershon, Press Secretary
Cindy Buhl, Legislative Director
Phone: (+1) 202-225-6101

Oct 08

In an interview with BBC Mundo published today, Colombian Vice President makes a novel argument. The main reason Álvaro Uribe should be re-elected to a third term, Santos says, is because Colombia faces “generic” threats from outside its borders. Excerpt:

BBC: “And you, as vice-president of Colombia. Are you in favor of Álvaro Uribe’s re-election?”

Vice-President Francisco Santos: “Look, I am in favor of Álvaro Uribe’s re-election, given the situation of the continent. A very complex situation in which the threat to Colombia has become ‘trans-border.’ The threat to Colombia is outside its borders. There is an urgent need to continue and put an end to criminal and terrorist organizations. I believe we are in a moment in which it is needed simply to keep pressuring. And I don’t believe Colombia should now be experimenting, making a change and having learning processes (…). A third term for the president would not affect democracy. Those who say it would do not believe in democracy (…).”

BBC: “You say that the threat to Colombia comes from outside its borders. What are you referring to?”

Santos: “The Colombian problem today has some connotations that generate complexities that you know well, you have seen them and reported on them. I don’t want to be specific in this sense so as not to generate diplomatic complications, but it is a reality that the world recognizes and that, for Colombia, brings about some political and, above all, diplomatic challenges to which it is urgent to begin to attend.”

BBC: “Might this concrete case [this week's Colombian Defense Ministry allegation that the FARC has encampments inside Ecuador] be what is being referred to when you spoke of trans-border threats against Colombia?”

Santos: “Essentially, no.”

BBC: “Then, what were you talking about concretely?”

Santos: “I’ll repeat. I prefer to leave that in generic terms, which is the best way to manage an issue as complicated as that (…), which is ever more clear about, that represents a threat to the continent, but for Colombia represents a challenge that is, above all, diplomatic (…).”

BBC: “You give the impression that you are making an indefinite accusation, like someone who throws a stone then conceals his hand, to say it flatly.”

Santos: “Well, this is what many do, and I believe that in diplomacy sometimes one has to talk to Juan so that Pedro understands. So I think it is important in that sense. But I believe that you as journalists who cover the world and reality, you know how things are.”

BBC: “You’re not willing to be more concrete.”

Santos: “No, no.”