“Villa Sandra”: a mass grave in Putumayo recalls Plan Colombia’s beginnings NGOs in league with… the paramilitaries?
Oct 272009
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.

6 Responses to “Follow-up on Soacha post”

  1. lfm Says:

    I hope Adam doesn’t mind me posting with regard to earlier threads. (Adam: if you read this and you DO mind, let me know). My experience is that once Adam does a new posting and old thread dies.

    Thanks to all those who are pitching in as I pass around my “epistemic hat” for morsels of knowledge. Let me try to hash out an idea and feel free to shoot it down. My interest is when, and under what conditions the paramilitary COIN works and when it doesn’t. I’m glad that Camilo Wilson’s diagnoses of the FARC coincides with what I’ve been thinking for a long while. Now let me take it a bit further. Kyle points out that in Putumayo the FARC were able to have their own “hearts and minds” campaign that actually worked. But there are other regions where the FARC have had “hearts and minds” and still go down to defeat. My hypotheses is this: if you have an economy based on, say, cattle growing or mining (Magdalena Medio), the FARC can try to become popular by claiming to defend the rights of the poor against the rich. But to deliver on this they actually need successes on the ground, say, winning strikes, land invasions, the works. If a paramilitary campaign targets their political arm, the delivery suffers and, given enough time (and deaths) they can lose out the region. Instead, if you have an economy reliant on drugs, the FARC are as much a business partner of the peasantry as anybody else (or even more). So, just by conducting their regular business operation they are already delivering. If, on top of that, they can stop fumigations and forced eradications, so much the better. In other words, they don’t need to create a lot of collective action to deliver. As a result, their “political muscle” by which I mean the one responsible for all the collective action work needed, while still important, is not vital to maintain legitimacy and popularity. This, in turn, gives them maneuver room to fight back when the paramilitary step in.

    I’m making this up from the comfort of my armchair so I could be wildly off base. Any comments?

  2. Camilo Wilson Says:

    Still not sure where you’re going with this, IFM. Can you simplify your hypothesis a bit?

  3. lfm Says:

    Let me try again. Suppose you want to sustain an insurgency in some place. You need both military and political strength to withstand a COIN operation coming your way. You try to gain political strength by being seen as defending your constituency’s interests. If you’re operating in a area of mining, for example, you try to partner up with the local trade union and intimidate nasty bosses so that they feel you’re on their side. If you’re operating in an area with lots of land tenure problems, you partner up with the peasants whenever they try to occupy a land plot to win them over and so on; the typical kind of thing that goes on in many insurgencies in many countries. There is one problem, though. This kind of thing requires collective action not only on the side of the insurgency, but also on the side of the constituency. As therapists would put it, the insurgency is trying to “help the locals help themselves.” That’s why insurgencies thrive in places where there are already lots of political organizations mobilizing. In Colombia, for example, Uraba and Barrancabermeja had already very militant unions before the guerrillas came in. All this is hard. You can only be seen as delivering if you keep winning these political battles. In this sense, you’re vulnerable to the terror campaign if and when it comes.

    If I’m right, a drug-based economy is different. The guerrilla is not relying on organizing people against some “boss”. It is, to a large degree, the “boss”: it is the one that purchases the stuff, it often plays the role of the state. In those instances, the guerrilla’s job is to defend the status quo and this, I surmise, is “easier” than trying to change it. By “easier” I don’t mean that it does not require fighting because it needs a lot of that. What I mean is that it doesn’t need to rely so much on dissident political organizations that can be destroyed by a “dirty war” campaign.

    Does this make it any clearer?

  4. Jaime Bustos Says:

    lfm still sitting in the comfort of your armchair? Why don’t you step up and come in the front door? :lol:

  5. Camilo Wilson Says:

    A bit clearer, IFM, but not as clear as I would like. I’m going to have to move quickly, so just let me add some thoughts from the top of my head.

    First, I think you’re looking for a “neatness” that you’re not going to find (Esa nitidez no hay respecto a las FARC.) Second, I would argue—and counterinsurgency experts like Kilcullen agree (“The Accidental Guerrilla”)—that you first have to draw conclusions and spin theories based entirely on facts and experience that apply to a given insurgent situation rather than mix facts and experiences borrowed from experiences that are alien to it. Once you have a good picture of a given insurgent situation (the one that interests you), then you can compare it to other situations and see if the comparison adds to your picture. To reverse this process—i.e., to start with other situations, or to mix them as you move toward the situation that is of central interest to you—is to distort the all-important picture that you wish to draw. All insurgencies are in some sense unique, and I would argue that the FARC insurgency is especially so. (I would add to this, following upon the observation that all politics is local, all insurgencies—and by extension counterinsurgencies—are also local. The Gringos seem to be learning this the hard way in Afghanistan.)

    Third, the FARC are rural in origin and experience, and this origin and experience still play an important role in their calculus and in their operations. They do not operate well in an urban setting (where labor unions typically operate), and so must link up with urban militias and other groups that do—even with urban delinquent bands. Some in the top leadership of the FARC are not from a rural milieu (they entered the FARC during the UP years, some fleeing persecution, others in order to pursue political agendas through the armed struggle), but rather are from the cities—e.g., Cano, Márquez, Granda, and others—and understand Colombia’s contemporary reality, especially a rural-urban dynamic, far better than Marulanda and some of the original peasant founders did. Cano and associates now have more influence, with a result that the FARC are now in transition, moving toward some union of rural and urban.

    Fourth, the rural character of the FARC enables them to operate well in coca-growing zones. This is the realm of peasant agriculture, and the realm of a rural population (an agricultural population) that has long been neglected by the State. The FARC toyed at one point with whether to get into drugs or not, and have lost support in some quarters, especially intellectual ones, because they did. But they were pressured to get involved by their natural constituency. Peasant farmers who before had never had anything now had something. And so the FARC fell into line. The FARC vis-à-vis drug crops is thus very unlike the paramilitaries vis-à-vis those crops.

    Fifth, nobody who is sympathetic to the FARC would dare say so, not even those on the extreme political left. The reasons are simple: physical security and political expediency. So many of the FARC’s links into organizations, especially urban ones, are necessarily clandestine.

    I could go on for hours, IFM, but simply don’t have the time. Good luck with your project.

  6. Plan Colombia and Beyond » 17 Soacha perpetrators are free Says:

    [...] time had run out. This issue had come up before, in October. At the time, a judge avoided letting the soldiers go free, giving prosecutors a 90-day extension. He agreed that most of the [...]

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