2010 aid to Colombia moves through Congress Uribe’s reelection, suddenly uncertain
Jul 292009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rodrigo Mercado, alias “Cadena” (source).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Former Senator Álvaro García (source).

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

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

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

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

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

Col. Rafael Colón (source).

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

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

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

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

Alias “Martín Caballero” (source).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6 Responses to “The Montes de María, a new focus of U.S. assistance”

  1. chris Says:


  2. Común Says:

    Does anyone know what has happened in the trial of Salvador Arana, ex governor of Sucre? See:


  3. Kyle Says:

    Good question Comun – I’ll search around. Also, Adam, phenomenal introductory post. Enough said.

  4. Adam Isacson Says:

    Our saved-news database only shows 2 hits for Salvador Arana in 2009:


    One of them, this Semana piece from May, says Arana is still “en juicio” – on trial.


  5. lfm Says:

    I love the vignette of Uribe trying to persuade the peasants not to sell their land. That´s a mini-portrait of the Administration. When it comes to human rights, social policy, peace, etc. you can always count on Uribe and (most) government officials to say the “right things” and to sound as reformists, even progressives. After all, Uribe knows how to play the bleeding-heart liberal. He used to be one himself. The interesting thing is that they often make all the “nice” statements after years and piles of policies, decisions and actions that have made sure that the situation on the ground renders the statements meaningless.

    I´ve never known whether Uribe himself is to blame for all the things the Administration does. (Well, it´s more like I think I know but have refused to follow my reasoning to its ultimate, frightening conclusion.) But, personalities aside, it´s pretty clear that there are very powerful economic interests behind this decades-long endeavor of blood-soaked land concentration.

  6. Plan Colombia and Beyond » Montes de María (2): What we saw and heard Says:

    [...] Here is another lengthy post – the second of what should be a three-part series on the Colombian government’s U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” programs in the Montes de María region of northern Colombia, which we visited in July. (The first post is here.) [...]

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