In a feature that we hope won’t be a regular one, we present two recent op-eds that no newspaper was willing to publish. Though they’re now too outdated to re-submit, we post them here so that at least somebody gets to read them.
Neither Justice Nor Peace in Colombia
By Winifred Tate and Adam Isacson
Late July 2005
The president of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, will visit President Bush at his Crawford, Texas ranch on August 4. While the United States has given Colombia $4 billion in aid since 2000, Mr. Uribe will come to Crawford asking for still more.
High on his list will be a request for as much as $80 million to demobilize 20,000 fighters from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a powerful umbrella organization of private, pro-government militias known as "paramilitaries." On its face, this request would merit consideration. Uribe has been a staunch ally of the Bush Administration, and he claims that getting these fighters off the battlefield can help his government focus on ending its 40-year-old war against leftist insurgents.
But after more than two years of talks with the AUC, the process looks less likely to dismantle the paramilitaries than to "re-brand" them.
The paramilitaries are not freedom fighters keeping Colombian peasants safe from guerrillas. The AUC is a major drug-trafficking organization on the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs). At least eleven of its leaders, many of whom are sitting down with Colombian government representatives in a demilitarized zone, face indictments for shipping drugs to the United States, and the AUC continues to send tons of cocaine to our shores.
Diego Murillo ("Don Berna") is typical of the AUC leadership. Starting out as a mid-level bagman in Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel, Murillo went on to work for the Cali cartel, then led a band of hitmen feared throughout Medellín, before finding his way into the AUC in 2000 or 2001. In July 2004 a New York prosecutor, calling him the AUC’s "de facto leader," indicted Murillo for narco-trafficking.
On May 30, Colombia’s Attorney General ordered his arrest for planning a state legislator’s murder. Instead of being arrested, however, Murillo was allowed to "demobilize" and granted the right to pass his time in a rural estate, while he is likely to receive a light sentence under a so-called "Justice and Peace Law" passed in June by a slim majority of Colombia’s Congress.
This new law, which promises neither justice nor peace, is alarming to anybody who cares about human rights or counter-narcotics. It allows sentences – even for hardened criminals involved in hundreds of cases of murder and drug trafficking – of five to eight years maximum, which may be served in "rural estates." These penalties can be reduced to less than four years with credits for "time served" while negotiating.
After demobilized paramilitaries give voluntary statements – in which they are not required to reveal what they know about their leadership and support networks – the law gives a total of 20 prosecutors 36 hours to file charges, and 60 days to complete their investigations. Given that we are talking about hundreds of individuals and thousands of very serious crimes, the chances of adequate investigations are remote at best.
The new law would cripple the war on drugs, preventing paramilitary narco-traffickers from being extradited to the United States. The provision makes paramilitary activity – which almost certainly includes drug-trafficking to support the AUC cause – a "political crime," which under Colombia’s constitution cannot be subject to extradition.
Worse, the law does little to dismantle a paramilitary power structure that is increasing its grip over Colombia’s illegal economy and local politics. In most peace processes, it is safely assumed that the armed group in question will disappear – or at least stop killing people and breaking the law – after negotiations conclude. This is not a likely result of the AUC talks: the weak "Justice and Peace" law does not prevent the paramilitaries from transforming themselves into a powerful combination of mafia and death squad.
As AUC leaders receive clean slates and get to keep most of their power, Colombia will have taken a huge step toward becoming the "narco-democracy" that U.S. policymakers have feared for so long. The Bush Administration and Congress would do well to beware this Trojan horse, writing no checks for a process that promises peace but instead will make clear to Colombians that, in their country, crime does pay.
What are we certifying in Colombia?
By Robert E. White
Late June / early July 2005
(Robert White, a former U.S. ambassador to Paraguay and El Salvador, is president of the Center for International Policy in Washington.)
When Bill Clinton introduced "Plan Colombia" in 2000 – a $1.3 billion package of mostly military aid to Colombia – it was billed as a program to eradicate coca plants in order to make cocaine too expensive and hard to buy in this country. Many lawmakers had doubts, because the Colombian military was to be the main recipient of the package. Colombia’s armed forces have the worst human rights record in the hemisphere, with a long record of supporting paramilitary death squads that the United States lists among international terrorist groups.
But some doubters were appeased, because a portion of the military aid would be subject to the State Department’s certification, twice each year, that the Colombian government was vigorously prosecuting violators and breaking ties with paramilitary organizations.
Five years and four billion dollars later, the drug trade continues unabated. The price of cocaine on U.S. streets is even lower, and the number of users – including high school students – is higher.
The human rights situation remains critical, despite the State Department’s certification requirement. In the face of persistent evidence of collaboration between the Colombian military and paramilitary organizations, the State Department has regularly certified Colombian progress on human rights. But the accumulated evidence and events this year gave Bush administration officials hesitation.
On February 21, eight residents of San José de Apartadó, a community in a combat area that has publicly declared that it does not support any armed group, were brutally murdered. Residents stated that army troops committed the massacre, but Vice President Francisco Santos made public statements implicating guerrillas before any investigation had occurred. Meanwhile, at the crime sites, soldiers tampered with murder weapons in front of many witnesses.
To the west, in the Afro-Colombian region of Chocó near the Pacific Ocean, paramilitary forces operate freely, threatening communities in areas under ostensible military control. "We ask ourselves with more and more discomfort whom the Armed Forces protect and whom they fight," three Catholic bishops from the area wrote President Alvaro Uribe in April, "because we continue to suffer on a daily basis situations that would be completely unacceptable for a country with the rule of law."
The systematic nature of government-paramilitary collaboration can be seen in the Colombian law passed last week that defines Colombia’s future relationship with paramilitary commanders. It allows those who organized and committed massacres and other atrocities to serve little or no jail time, to keep lands they seized from their victims, and to go on without confessing to their crimes, which include extensive drug trafficking. Several of these terrorist leaders are wanted in the United States on charges of trafficking in tons of cocaine, but by classifying the commanders as "political" opponents, the new law exempts them from extradition.
The human rights conditions in U.S. law require the Colombian military to suspend soldiers or police credibly reported to have committed violations, but the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reports having no knowledge of suspensions for any serious human rights violations by security force personnel.
As a supplier of more than $700 million in annual assistance, the United States has enormous leverage to generate the political will needed to investigate and prosecute the men responsible for the torrent of brutal abuses of Colombian civilians. The United States should follow the law and decline to certify the Colombian military’s human rights record, withholding some $90 million in equipment until the law’s requirements are met. The pressure thus exerted could finally bring the Colombian government to take seriously the demands of ethics and law, to respect the victims of these crimes, and to prosecute the perpetrators.