Dec 23
Luis Francisco Cuéllar. (Photo from Semana.)

Colombian soldiers yesterday found the body of Governor Luis Francisco Cuéllar in a village outside Florencia, the capital of Caquetá department in southern Colombia. Cuéllar, the 69-year-old governor of Caquetá, was abducted from his home in Florencia late Monday by a guerrilla unit wearing army uniforms.

The brazen attack took place in a city that hosts the Army’s 6th Division and is a very short drive away from Larandia, the army base that hosts the Colombian armed forces’ Joint Task Force Omega. Larandia is one of seven Colombian bases to which U.S. personnel now have access under a new defense agreement signed in late October.

The evidence points to the FARC, which have been strong in Caquetá for decades. We condemn this crime in the strongest possible terms. Governor Cuéllar’s murder is a violation of international humanitarian law that none who value civilization can justify.

We are also concerned about what it means for the evolution of Colombia’s conflict.

The Cuéllar killing could have been a botched kidnapping. If the FARC’s intention was to hold the governor hostage, it might mean a shift back to the guerrillas’ early 2000s tactic of kidnapping prominent civilian leaders, holding them hostage to pressure for a prisoner exchange agreement. This tactic proved to be a spectacular failure for the guerrillas, who got nothing in exchange, earned near-universal international condemnation, and lost many hostages to a brilliant Colombian military ruse in July 2008. Today, the FARC hold no civilians to pressure for a prisoner exchange. (They do hold military and police personnel for that purpose, and many civilians for ransom.) It is not clear why the FARC would have sought to revive this disastrous tactic now.

It could be that the FARC meant to kill Cuéllar, whom it had already kidnapped for ransom four times since 1987. (Cuéllar is believed to have had trouble with paramilitary groups as well; the VerdadAbierta website noted in June that paramilitaries actively opposed his 2004 campaign for the Caquetá governorship.) The FARC maintains old feuds with Caquetá’s powerful families, and its intentions with Cuéllar may not have been abduction but murder, as in the killing of another prominent Caquetá politician, Diego Turbay Cote, and his mother almost exactly nine years ago. If assassination was the guerrillas’ intention, then it is urgent that Colombia’s government step up its protection of local officials throughout the country.

Above all, this and other recent actions are likely part of a FARC effort to undermine President Álvaro Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policy, five months before an election in which Uribe may be running for a third straight term. Actions like these certainly show the limits of Uribe’s reliance on military power. But by making Colombians feel insecure, the FARC are in fact helping the electoral prospects of the candidate with whom voters most associate the word “security”: Álvaro Uribe.

For his part, Uribe has promised to redouble the military effort against the FARC, ordering the armed forces once again to attempt the military rescue of all guerrilla hostages. This in turn caused the International Committee of the Red Cross to announce that it is suspending efforts to guarantee the FARC’s imminent release of two soldiers whom it has held hostage for years, including Corporal Pablo Moncayo, who just finished his 12th year in the guerrillas’ custody.

Dec 17

I had hoped to finish an entry about the 2010 foreign aid bill, which Congress passed over the weekend. But I’ve run out of time and must go to the airport in in a little while for a brief trip to Peru.

So, nothing new here. But on the website of Foreign Policy you can read a just-posted article based on our latest report on Colombia’s “Integrated Action” programs:

I hope to post from Lima if time and Internet access allow.

Dec 15

Last week, 53 members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed and sent to Secretary of State Clinton a strong letter [PDF] calling for significant change in U.S. policy toward Colombia, starting with the 2011 aid request, which the State Department will issue to Congress in two months. This is the letter discussed in a post here in mid-November.

Many thanks to everyone who made calls and otherwise sought to alert members of Congress and convince them to sign. Many thanks as well go to the letter’s initial sponsors, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), Rep. Janice Schakowsky (D-Illinois), Rep. Donald Payne (D-New Jersey), and Rep. Michael Honda (D-California).

As the letter notes, “This is the right moment to take stock and reconfigure both aid and diplomacy.” We hope that the State Department is working to do just that.

Dec 14

From their U.S. jail cells, top Colombian paramilitary leaders often write letters and give testimonies in which they claim to have had long relationships with top Colombian government and military officials. We discuss these allegations only rarely, because the sources are individuals with political axes to grind and little record of truth-telling.

The same standard does not apply on the ultraconservative opinion page of the Wall Street Journal. In today’s edition, columnist Mary O’Grady unquestioningly takes the testimony of a demobilized FARC fighter at face value. Her column not only fails to verify her source’s allegations: it gravely threatens the security of a community and the organizations working with it. This is shameful.

The Colombian government arranged for Ms. O’Grady to interview Daniel Sierra Martinez, a FARC deserter who went by the nickname “Samir.” He told her some very troubling things about the relationship between the FARC and the “Peace Community” of San José de Apartadó, a town in the northwestern region of Urabá that has tried to remain neutral, and as a result has had over 150 of its members killed since 1997 – most by paramilitaries, but some by the FARC.

[T]he peace community of San José de Apartadó, according to Samir, was not the least bit neutral. Rather, he says, the FARC had a close relationship with its leaders dating back to the early days.

Samir says that the peace community was a FARC safe haven for wounded and sick rebels and for storing medical supplies. He also says that suppliers to the FARC met with rebels in the town, where there were also always five or six members of the Peace Brigades International.

According to Samir, the peace community helped the FARC in its effort to tag the Colombian military as a violator of human rights. When the community was getting ready to accuse someone of a human-rights violation, Samir would organize the “witnesses” by ordering FARC members, posing as civilians, to give testimony.

Samir’s allegations are serious, but raise questions.

  • How does Samir respond to the San José Apartadó community’s vehement denials of his allegations, especially a list of people whom the community accuses him of helping to kill over the years?
  • What did this alleged “close relationship” with the leaders of San José de Apartadó actually look like? Did the FARC meet with them? To discuss what? What might the community’s leaders possibly have received from the FARC as a result of this association? (They clearly have received neither wealth nor protection.)
  • If guerrillas used the community’s territory (which includes many square miles of countryside beyond the town) for medical or supply purposes, did they do so with the community’s permission? With the permission of the community’s leadership, or just some rogue members? Was this permission given willingly? Or did they do so clandestinely?
  • Why mention Peace Brigades International, a highly disciplined, non-violent accompaniment group whose volunteers follow rigid codes of behavior and vetting of those they accompany?
  • The San José de Apartadó community’s declared neutrality has long irritated the Colombian armed forces and Álvaro Uribe’s government. Past efforts to accuse the community of working with FARC – including some rather ugly statements after a horrific 2005 massacre – have fallen apart as facts came to light. Is Samir telling the truth, or is he just agreeing to be part of a frame-up in exchange for a lighter sentence?

A real journalist would have sought answers to these questions, or at the very least provided more context, before giving Samir unchallenged access to the pages of the Wall Street Journal. But real journalism is not what Mary O’Grady set out to do. Her column, whose webpage bears the title “The FARC’s NGO Friends,” is a smear job that threatens the security of people working to defend human rights in a very dangerous corner of Colombia.

Dec 09

That is the title of a report released two weeks ago by the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, one of a small handful of security-focused think-tanks in Bogotá. It has received a lot of attention in the Colombian media because it warns of some bad news.

For the first time since Álvaro Uribe and his get-tough “Democratic Security” policy entered Colombia’s presidency in 2002, the country’s security indicators are headed in the wrong direction. Nuevo Arco Iris contends that the Uribe government’s policies are experiencing diminishing returns after a high point in mid-2008, when paramilitary leaders were extradited, hostages were freed, and top FARC leaders were killed.

Here are a few points that stood out in my reading of the report.

  • The FARC are more active. Nuevo Arco Iris registered 1,429 actions initiated by this guerrilla group through October 20, 2009 – more than 30 percent more than in all of 2008. Their increased capacity is most evident in the southwestern departments of Cauca and Nariño, the Orinoco-basin department of Guaviare, and the coca-producing Bajo Cauca region in northern Antioquia department. The guerrillas are relying ever more heavily on landmines – including the planting of enormous minefields – and snipers. This, Nuevo Arco Iris says, is part of the FARC’s “Plan Renacer” (Rebirth Plan) begun after “Alfonso Cano” took over the group’s leadership in 2008.
  • “New” paramilitary groups are far more active. In 2008 and 2009, Nuevo Arco Iris detected activity of “emerging criminal bands,” or groups including elements of the now-defunct United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), in 293 of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities (counties). They estimate 11,000 people belonging to dozens of such armed bands.
  • Crisis in Medellín. While a few years ago Medellín had reduced its murder rate to 32 killings per 100,000 residents, this year the murder rate has shot back up to 73 per 100,000 residents. Nuevo Arco Iris attributes the rise to violence between gangs, narcotrafficking groups and re-forming paramilitary groups, all of them trying to fill the vacuum left by the boss who had dominated the city’s criminality for much of the 2000s: paramilitary leader Diego Fernando Murillo, “Don Berna,” extradited to the United States in May 2008.
  • “New” paramilitaries are also increasingly active in Bogotá, especially poor and working-class neighborhoods in the city’s west and south. They appear to exercise significant influence in the city’s main food wholesaling and distribution center, Corabastos, and over the city’s semi-legal markets in untaxed and often counterfeit goods, known as “Sanandresitos.”
  • Judicial actions in cases of “false positives” or extrajudicial executions. Nuevo Arco Iris reports that Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía) is currently investigating more than 2,000 members of Colombia’s armed forces on charges of killing civilians and presenting them later as civilians killed in combat. Of this number, 476 are detained, a few serving jail terms and most awaiting trial.
Dec 07
Evo Morales was re-elected yesterday. (Photo source unknown, it came in our email.)
  • Recent articles in Time, the Wall Street Journal, and Reuters discuss Latin American disenchantment with the Obama administration following its handling of the coup in Honduras.
  • Citing poll data gathered in July and September, however, Gallup finds Latin Americans’ approval of U.S. leadership hitting a median of 51%, way up from 35% in 2008.
  • Evo Morales was overwhelmingly re-elected to another term on Sunday. The best overview we’ve seen is the 3-part series and wrap-up on the Democracy Center’s “Blog from Bolivia.”
  • The Government Accountability Office, the independent auditing arm of the U.S. Congress, issued a report [PDF] last week documenting very slow delivery of U.S. aid to Mexico under the “Mérida Initiative.” As the “Just the Facts” blog points out, the report bears some resemblance to a 2003 GAO report [PDF] documenting slow delivery of U.S. aid to Colombia under “Plan Colombia.”
  • The Fellowship of Reconciliation shares [PDF], and analyzes, the latest list of Colombian military and police units vetted and cleared to receive U.S. assistance.
  • Those involved in efforts to facilitate the next FARC unilateral hostage release in Colombia – which is to include Corporal Pablo Emilio Moncayo, whose father is a leading advocate of negotiations – say that they have entered the “logistical” phase. A good sign.
  • Two excellent discussions of Colombia’s agrarian “counter-reform,” and the central role of narcotrafficking and forced displacement, appear on the websites of Semana magazine and the CINEP think-tank.
  • Semana profiles the Colombian Army’s inspector-general, whose work on the “false positives” scandal is revealing strong divisions in the armed forces on the issue of human rights.
  • Colombia’s Supreme Court handed a 40-year jail term to one of the most prominent “para-politicians,” former Sucre governor and ambassador to Chile Salvador Arana. He was found guilty of helping form paramilitary groups and conspiring to murder the mayor of the town of El Roble, Eudaldo Díaz (the subject of a recent edition of the Contravía television program).
  • Sucre is one of several places where El Tiempo found that the relatives of convicted “para-politicians” are running to fill their loved ones’ former positions in the 2010 congressional elections.
  • Captured paramilitary leader and narcotrafficker “Don Mario” testified last week that Vicente Castaño, one of the most powerful paramilitary leaders long believed to be a fugitive, committed suicide in March 2007.
  • Citing multiple sources, Colombia’s INDEPAZ think-tank publishes a list [PDF] of 278 municipalities (counties, of which Colombia has about 1,100) that registered a presence of “new” or “emerging” paramilitary groups in 2009.
  • Hard-right Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady is the latest conservative U.S. voice calling on Colombian President Álvaro Uribe not to run for another term in 2010.
  • As Hugo Chávez moves drastically to cut off trade with Colombia, Venezuela in October ceased to be Colombia’s number-two trading partner (after the United States). China now occupies Colombia’s number-two position.
Dec 03

CIP is very pleased to share our new report on the Colombian government’s U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” or “CCAI” programs: a combination of state-building, counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics that is being viewed as the successor to Plan Colombia.

“After Plan Colombia” is the product of months of research, including visits to two areas where these programs are underway, which were documented on this blog. With lots of graphics and context for readers less familiar with Colombia, it totals 40 pages plus footnotes. Download a PDF of the report, or read the HTML layout version here.

Here is the summary statement we are sending out with the report:

“After Plan Colombia”: A new report from the Center for International Policy examines the next phase of U.S. assistance

Beyond deploying 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, President Barack Obama’s December 1 speech called for something that evokes the U.S. experience in Colombia: a “civilian surge.” This, he said, would be “a more effective civilian strategy, so that the [Afghan] government can take advantage of improved security.” Working hand-in-glove with military operations, increased U.S. economic aid would focus “in areas — such as agriculture — that can make an immediate impact in the lives of the Afghan people.”

A U.S.-supported “civilian surge” has been underway for a few years now in Colombia, Latin America’s third most-populous country, where an internal armed conflict has raged since the 1960s. U.S. officials say they hope to apply lessons learned from Colombia in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Misunderstanding these lessons, however, could bring disastrous results.

The program in Colombia, “Integrated Action,” aims to help the government function in zones controlled by armed groups. With U.S. support, a national agency — the Center for the Coordination of Integrated Action or CCAI — is to bring civilian government institutions, and basic services, into areas very recently secured by military operations. As in Afghanistan, agricultural aid and other quick-impact projects are priorities.

These programs are controversial, as they tread the uneasy ground between military operations, nation-building, development and human rights. Yet both the U.S. and Colombian governments view Integrated Action as the future of U.S. aid to Colombia, which since 2000 has been by far the world’s largest U.S. aid recipient outside the Middle East. Integrated Action is being viewed as the successor to Plan Colombia, through which the United States has provided $6.7 billion since 2000.

With so much at stake here, the Center for International Policy — which has worked on Colombia policy since the late 1990s — resolved to take a closer look at Integrated Action. This year, we visited the two areas where the U.S. government is most generously supporting the Integrated Action model: the La Macarena zone in southern Colombia and the Montes de María zone near the Caribbean coast. We carried out more than 50 interviews and meetings with more than 150 subjects, from government authorities and military officers to massacre victims and peasant associations.

We found a program that is an improvement over Plan Colombia: there has been learning from the mistakes of a U.S. aid program that, from 2000 to 2007, was 80 percent military and failed to coordinate security and governance. We conclude that the “Integrated Action” model should not be abandoned, which would do more harm than good.

But Integrated Action is not there yet. This experiment could still go badly wrong. A predominantly military program could give the armed forces dominion over all aspects of governance and development. Failure to address land tenure could concentrate landholding in fewer hands. Continued herbicide fumigations and mass arrests could undermine the population’s fragile trust in the government. Poor coordination between government bureaucracies could leave promises unfulfilled.

We recommend several changes to the U.S.-supported approach. These must be implemented before Integrated Action can be considered a model for Afghanistan or anywhere else.

The U.S. and Colombian governments must:

  • Civilianize the Integrated Action strategy as soon as security conditions allow it.
  • Coordinate cooperation between disparate government institutions, and give political clout to the civilian coordinators so that they can compel participation.
  • Consult with communities about every decision that affects them.
  • Work carefully with, and be prepared to say “no” to, local political and economic elites.
  • Act more quickly to resolve land tenure and property rights.
  • Quickly and transparently investigate and punish any allegations of abuse, corruption or predatory behavior.
  • Commit to sustainability by making clear that this effort is for the long haul.

The Center for International Policy is proud to present these recommendations in After Plan Colombia, a new report from our Latin America Security Program. This 40-page, richly illustrated report explains how the U.S. and Colombian governments arrived at this model, explores its design, and narrates “what we saw and heard” on our field visits to the La Macarena and Montes de María zones.

We expect our analysis to inform the lively debate about the future of U.S. policy toward Colombia, which is at a crossroads as the Obama administration reviews its approach. We also hope that After Plan Colombia may contribute to the debate over the U.S. role in Afghanistan — or anywhere else that we may be considering “civilian surges” into ungoverned areas.

Dec 02

Tomorrow we will be releasing “After Plan Colombia,” a lengthy report on the Colombian government’s U.S.-supported “Integrated Action”  or “CCAI” programs, which appear to constitute the next phase of U.S. support to Colombia.

One of the report’s recommendations is that far more must be done to speed land titling in the zones where these state-building-and-counterinsurgency programs are being carried out. Farmers in the “Integrated Action” zones are still not getting titles to their land, and Colombia’s Agriculture Ministry (whose policies, as recent scandals indicate, favor large landholders) is chiefly to blame.

This was a big issue on our April and July research visits. It was very discouraging yesterday to see this piece by John Otis yesterday on the Global Post website, indicating that even today, months later, not a single land title has been handed out in the La Macarena “Integrated Action” zone. This is stunning.

For the past two years, La Macarena and nearby towns have been the focus of a two-year-old “consolidation plan” that has brought together troops, drug warriors and aid agencies in an effort to drive out the rebels, undermine the cocaine trade and bolster the legal economy.

Alvaro Balcazar, who manages the program, fears that the security patrols, new schools and crop substitution programs may fall short unless local peasants are brought into the legal system.

“Land titling is what’s going to make the difference in whether or not we can consolidate security and the rule of law,” he said.

Yet over the past two years, Balcazar admits that he doesn’t know of a single case in which a small land-holder has been awarded title to his land.

The land issue is critical to the CCAI strategy’s success. If it goes unaddressed, especially in zones where land is being bought up rapidly, it will be a key reason for its failure.

“After Plan Colombia” includes a discussion of the land-tenure issue and the CCAI’s strategy. We will add a link and a summary to the report here tomorrow morning. (We note that the INDEPAZ website in Colombia already has posted an earlier draft, with several typos.) Here are the blog entries that served as a rough draft of our work, which has since been substantially edited.