Whenever Fernando LondoÃ±o publishes a column in Colombiaâ€™s newspapers, itâ€™s always worth a thorough read. Not because we agree with a word he writes, nor because heâ€™s a gifted essayist (which he is). Itâ€™s that nearly all of his columns offer an unflinching glimpse into what many members of Colombiaâ€™s governing class, and perhaps many members of the Bush administration, are actually thinking â€“ even if they wonâ€™t say it in public.
LondoÃ±o is a man of the extreme right; his writings go so far as to reveal an occasional hint of paranoia. But he is not a fringe figure in Colombian politics. For the first year of Ãlvaro Uribeâ€™s term in office, Fernando LondoÃ±o was Uribeâ€™s minister of interior and justice â€“ and thus one of the most powerful people in the country.
LondoÃ±o was driven out of office after fifteen months, consumed by scandals about shady investment deals and embarrassing misstatements (such as suggesting that Uribe, if denied a chance to run for re-election, would resign, call new elections, and run again). But he has not disappeared from public view. Almost every week, a column bearing his name appears in one of Colombiaâ€™s main newspapers.
Last Thursdayâ€™s column in El Tiempo was classic LondoÃ±o. If it is at all indicative of what many in the Uribe and Bush administrations really believe, the column shows how far Colombia has to go to become a democracy ruled by law, and how vital and necessary is the role of the countryâ€™s human-rights defenders.
LondoÃ±o begins by praising the sacrifice of the troops and police who marched in Colombiaâ€™s Independence Day parades on July 20. â€œThose men are not afraid of death,â€ he writes. But by the second paragraph it is plain that LondoÃ±oâ€™s praise is merely a preamble to another attack on human-rights defenders. â€œWhile they do not fear hatred, bullets, bombs, or cowardly landmines, they have asked themselves more than once if anyone remembers them when they fall into the talons of political persecutions, infamous legal processes, falsified investigations, and vile calumnies.â€
LondoÃ±o then offers a remarkable defense of military personnel facing prosecution in some high-profile recent human-rights cases.
- â€œNobody will remember the second lieutenant who killed three ELN guerrillas in Arauca, who were disguised as union leaders like all the guerrillas who break the law in that zone. Now, in prison, he pays the price of his burning love for Colombia.â€
When members of the Colombian Armyâ€™s 18th Brigade killed three unarmed union members last August in Saravena, Arauca, the militaryâ€™s initial version of events claimed that the three were guerrillas who had fired on them first. A month later, though, Colombiaâ€™s attorney-generalâ€™s office found that story to be false, and arrested a second lieutenant and two soldiers for murder. â€œThe evidence shows that a homicide was committed, we have ruled out that there was combat,â€ said Deputy Attorney-General Luis Alberto Santana. Fernando LondoÃ±o, however, has apparently not ruled out that there was combat.
â€œNor the corporal who commanded a small group of soldiers, which in the midst of the thick fog of the high plains of Cajamarca shot at who he thought were bandits but were in fact modest campesinos.â€
LondoÃ±o refers to the April 2004 incident in Cajamarca, Tolima, when a military patrol killed five people, including two children, in a car that was approaching them in foggy conditions. Threats have forced several witnesses in the case to leave their homes. Yet LondoÃ±o is indignant that the case is being tried at all.
- â€œNor the marines who tried to do something to avoid a massacre in Chengue, and who received in payment the destruction of their lives.â€
This is an especially novel interpretation of events surrounding the 2001 Chengue massacre, in which paramilitaries massacred twenty-six people with no interference from the marines operating nearby. Washington Post reporter Scott Wilson heard a much different account from the massacreâ€™s survivors when he visited Chengue shortly after the carnage:
â€œIn dozens of interviews, conducted in small groups and individually over three days, survivors said military aircraft undertook surveillance of the village in the days preceding the massacre and in the hour immediately following it. The military, according to these accounts, provided safe passage to the paramilitary column and effectively sealed off the area by conducting what villagers described as a mock daylong battle with leftist guerrillas who dominate the area.â€
- â€œNor will anyone know who is CÃ©sar Maldonado, the most decorated major in the Colombian Army, fodder for the hatred of the extreme left, and the trophy that Wilson Borja needed to change his case from a paramilitary crime to a government crime.â€
Maj. Maldonado was in preventive detention while investigators slowly investigated his role in a 2000 assassination attempt that seriously wounded union leader Wilson Borja, who is now a member of Colombiaâ€™s Congress. Last November, Maldonado somehow managed to escape from the military brig where he was being held. Note that LondoÃ±oâ€™s â€œdefenseâ€ of Maldonado doesnâ€™t refute the charges against him; nor does it respond to Borjaâ€™s speculation that the major may in fact have been â€œdisappearedâ€ to keep him from incriminating other officers.
â€œNor the worthy army officers condemned without trial or the right to a defense for the death of the contrabandists in whose memory, by order of the Inter-American Human Rights Court, Colombia will construct a monument.â€
LondoÃ±o refers to the July 15 finding of the San JosÃ©, Costa Rica-based court, which declared the Colombian government to be responsible for the 1987 paramilitary murder of nineteen merchants in Puerto BoyacÃ¡, BoyacÃ¡. LondoÃ±oâ€™s charge that the victims were involved in contraband is neither proved nor an adequate justification for their murder.
â€œAt some difficult moments,â€ concludes LondoÃ±oâ€™s column, â€œthere is no choice but to feed some prisoner to the hungry wolves. Nothing easier than to ask forgiveness and to condemn without law, before the sentence arrives. â€¦ For the beasts, a second lieutenant is sometimes enough. But they always come back for the rest.â€
In Fernando LondoÃ±oâ€™s world, the â€œbeastsâ€ â€“ human-rights groups both here and in Colombia, whom he believes to be allied with Colombiaâ€™s guerrillas â€“ are always on the prowl, trying to bring down the brave members of Colombiaâ€™s security forces.
Heâ€™s got it exactly wrong. By putting them up on a pedestal, and attacking all who would dare to criticize them, LondoÃ±o is actually doing harm to Colombiaâ€™s armed forces, and to the future health of Colombiaâ€™s democracy.
Though perhaps it seems counterintuitive, Colombiaâ€™s military is better served by those who criticize its violations, abuses and excesses. Its critics are doing the institution two enormous favors.
1. By calling for swift punishment of human rights abuses and corruption, they are helping to professionalize the military. When abuses happen â€“ and they always do in war â€“ they must be fairly investigated, judged and punished. That accountability is what distinguishes a democratic government from the irregular groups it is fighting. When LondoÃ±o opposes such accountability, he is holding the military to the same standards as the guerrillas and paramilitaries. By promoting this accountability â€“ by seeking to punish those whose actions damage the militaryâ€™s reputation â€“ the so-called critics are in fact strengthening the institution.
2. By calling for more investment in civilian governance, development assistance, and humanitarian aid, critics support a strategy that would in fact make the militaryâ€™s job easier. Colombia has been trying a mostly military approach for years, and has yielded nothing but a repeated pattern of military offensives that manage to hold on to territory only for as long as the troops remain present. Those of us who support a more balanced strategy want to guarantee that soldiers who risk their lives to re-take territory leave behind judges, doctors, teachers, roads and a viable economy â€“ and thus have not risked their lives in vain.
Those like LondoÃ±o, who would blindly defend the military institution and uphold the present strategy, are doing a disservice to the Colombian military. By finding abusers blameless and portraying those who disagree as â€œwolvesâ€ and â€œbeasts,â€ LondoÃ±o helps to cement in place a status quo that has failed. If LondoÃ±o and those who agree with him get their way, Colombiaâ€™s military will continue to be an institution with a severely blemished reputation, following a strategy that has yielded only marginal gains, measured either in territory or in enemy captures.
â€œWe donâ€™t understand why nobody defends the defenders,â€ writes LondoÃ±o. While he may seek to be the Colombian militaryâ€™s defender, LondoÃ±o is in fact a poor ally.