Backsliding on security? A really big arms sale
Dec 062005

In his mid-30s, Pedro Arenas is one of the youngest members of Colombia’s Congress. He doesn’t belong to any party, though he usually votes with the Polo Democrático and other left-of-center parties. He represents the department of Guaviare which, though only 170 miles south of Bogotá (closer than New York is to Washington), is an isolated, neglected, impoverished zone overrun with coca, guerrillas, and paramilitaries. Guaviare is a key battleground for “Plan Patriota,” the U.S.-backed military offensive that has been taking place in southern Colombia for two years now.

I’ve known Pedro Arenas since the late 1990s, when he was the head of the Guaviare Youth Movement. (We came to know Pedro that long ago because, years before Plan Colombia came along, Guaviare was an important place to monitor the impact of U.S. policy. During the 1990s, it was the center of U.S.-supported herbicide fumigation, and most spray planes were based at the narcotics-police facility in the departmental capital, San José. Today, however, after ten years of heavy spraying, Guaviare is still one of Colombia’s principal coca-growing departments.) Pedro impressed me as a leader very committed to the community in which he was born and raised, known and respected for helping to organize a very dispersed, poor and threatened population through energetic advocacy, face-to-face contact, and creative use of community radio.

I was very pleased when Pedro was elected to Colombia’s Congress as one of Guaviare’s two representatives, in 2002. Of course, as a backbencher without a party and with no interest in corrupt dealmaking, he has had difficulty getting his point of view reflected in legislation. However, he has won disproportionate media attention, and appears to be popular in Guaviare, because he is outspoken and clearly does his homework. Pedro is what we in Washington would call a “policy wonk,” reading voraciously and constantly proposing new ideas. He even has his own blog. (He may also be the only Colombian I’ve met outside Washington who can name the chairmen of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittees of both houses of the U.S. Congress.) Pedro was our guest in Washington for a conference we hosted in October, where he gave a terrific presentation.

When he was here, Pedro told us he had been receiving threats from the paramilitaries, who had said that they would kill him if he ran for re-election in March 2006. I was very disturbed last Wednesday, then, to see him forced to announce that he was withdrawing his candidacy. “Due to the lack of security guarantees in Guaviare,” he told reporters, “I have decided that unless the government provides me with the security conditions necessary to carry out a campaign, I will not present my name for the House of Representatives.”

“Since October 2, I have been in this situation [of imminent threat], which is known to the president, the defense minister, and the interior minister. The president himself ordered that I be included in the [Interior Ministry’s] special protection program, but to date that order has not been followed.”

Pedro started receiving threats soon after taking his turn at the microphone on October 1, when President Uribe paid a visit to San José del Guaviare for one of his nationally televised town-hall meetings. Along with Guaviare’s bishop, Pedro publicly denounced the paramilitaries’ attacks on community leaders, their constant extortion of the population and the lack of government response. In a post to the Colombia Journal website, Mario Murillo recorded what Pedro told the president:

“If you have a pig, they charge you $5,000 pesos (about two dollars), if you have a few chickens, 2,000 pesos each. They charge you a tax on just about everything,” Arenas told the president in the nationally broadcast event. Referring to the president’s policy of “Democratic Security,” Arenas informed the president that it has not arrived in the region “because the paramilitaries control the town, have infiltrated local institutions, and make the people live in constant subordination.”

While his words made him popular among citizens of Guaviare – Pedro said people stopped on the street and applauded him later that day – it made things much more complicated for him. President Uribe publicly responded to Pedro’s words by ordering the authorities to crack down on the paramilitaries’ Guaviare Bloc, and in particular to arrest its leader.

One day later, Pedro started getting threats from that leader, Pedro Oliverio Guerrero Castillo, who goes by the alias “Cuchillo,” or “Knife” – a name that, according to a recent profile in the Colombian magazine Cromos, refers to his preference for stabbing his victims.

Cuchillo’s group, which dominates town centers in Guaviare and southern Meta departments, is not participating in talks with the government. It splintered from the powerful “Centaurs Bloc,” whose reach extended from Colombia’s eastern plains all the way to Bogotá, and which formally demobilized in early September. A paramilitary member since the late 1980s, the 37-year-old Cuchillo had been the right-hand-man of the Centaurs’ chief, Miguel Arroyave, who was participating in demobilization talks with the Colombian government. Cuchillo, however, had other plans: he played a leading role in the September 2004 ambush in which Arroyave was killed by his own men.

The Guaviare Bloc did not demobilize and is one of few paramilitary groups not participating in talks. Its members demand “tax” payments from nearly everyone who does business in Guaviare’s town centers, and are heavily involved in the drug trade. According to Cromos, “it is even rumored that [Cuchillo] has made deals with ‘Negro Acacio,’ the high-ranking FARC leader [of the 16th Front in Arauca and Vichada], to move drugs out of the region.”

Nonetheless, the local authorities have done very little to confront Cuchillo and his men. Plan Patriota has registered few if any combats with paramilitaries in Guaviare. Cuchillo’s men are the dominant force in San José del Guaviare, even though the town hosts an army base that has played an important role in the offensive. Pedro Arenas gives some credit to the local police for trying to arrest paramilitaries, but worries that the local branch of the attorney-general’s office (Fiscalía) may be compromised. “We are disappointed with the Fiscalía because this year the police have captured nearly 50 paramilitaries, and the Fiscalía has freed them almost immediately,” he said last week.

Pedro has moved his family out of Guaviare, and now travels everywhere with bodyguards. Cuchillo is still at large. He may not be in Congress a few months from now, and the paramilitaries’ candidate will likely sit in his seat, but Pedro will remain quite active. He hopes to expand his work as president of the Movimiento Comunal, the national network of Community Action Groups (Juntas de Acción Comunal), local elected advisory boards established by law in thousands of villages and urban neighborhoods.

Two days after Pedro suspended his campaign, President Uribe told naval officers at a promotion ceremony, “Our security policy is democratic because it exists to give equal protection to both the campesino and the agri-businessman, both the unionized worker and the big industrialist.” In practice, however, this protection doesn’t even seem to be available to independent congressmen in zones with a strong military presence.

Pedro is quick to point out, though, that the government is also failing to confront Guaviare’s guerrillas, despite the department’s inclusion in the “Plan Patriota” theater of operations. This failure became evident to all last Monday, when the FARC kidnapped twenty-two people at a roadblock they brazenly established just three miles from the San José del Guaviare military base, the headquarters of the Joaquín París Battalion of the Colombian Army’s Seventh Brigade. The FARC released fourteen of their captives; military leaders at first claimed that the fourteen had been rescued, but this was revealed (by Pedro Arenas, among others) to be a complete falsehood. The military’s embarrassing conduct – both in allowing the nearby roadblock and in lying about what happened – earned a strong reprimand from President Uribe.

On Thursday El Tiempo, Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, wrote an editorial about the kidnapping incident, asserting that “it makes evident the shortcomings in the army’s ability to secure free mobility in a region that the paramilitaries abandoned and that, according to the government, has been effectively re-taken by the military.”

Pedro Arenas sent to us this response to the editorial. Here is an English translation, which is worth a read. It vividly illustrates what is wrong with the current security approach in places like Guaviare.

To the El Tiempo editorial board:

I am Pedro Arenas García, congressional representative for Guaviare. It was I who made this news known nationally last Monday because, even though the mass kidnapping happened at 9:00 AM, even after 3:00 PM nothing more was known about what happened. I am pleased that you have called attention to the kidnappings in Guaviare and the attitude of the security forces. I want to present a few observations so that you may take them into account, although your editorial of course cannot be corrected now.

First: Along the road between San José del Guaviare and El Retorno, several months ago, there were soldiers at the points where it crosses the trochas [rutted, almost impassable dirt roads] the guerrillas had previously used. In recent months, though, the soldiers are no longer seen at these important sites. At Buenos Aires (where the kidnapping happened) the guerrillas have been appearing regularly during the last month, including 15 days ago when they briefly set up a roadblock. The inhabitants of nearby villages told the authorities on several occasions that the guerrillas were calling them to meetings and extorting them. Nothing was done to prevent this. [Note: even though local citizens freely provided this information and got no response, President Uribe on Thursday blamed the military’s failure in Guaviare on a lack of informants.]

2. I myself informed police authorities by telephone twenty days ago that the guerrillas were in those villages, and that they forced farmers in the zone to attend a meeting in Puerto Flórez (where the kidnappers and their victims boarded boats), where they extorted money from them for every head of cattle. It appears that the police informed the [army’s Joaquín] París Battalion, and that they informed the 7th Mobile Brigade, but none covered that zone. Either they didn’t find the information to be credible, or they failed to coordinate, or intelligence wasn’t gathered.

3. According to the (very credible) information I have, those who carried out the roadblock were not just 4 guerrillas but “almost 20” acting under the orders of someone named Willington. The roadblock lasted for more than half an hour. They had time to stop traffic, to burn a truck that carried precursor chemicals (not food), to block the road with a tanker truck, and to select the kidnap victims. Meanwhile, another group set up a roadblock in Guacamayas near the dirt road by which they escaped. There, with few words and in front of children, they killed a youth who, the local residents said, was carrying coca paste. Later they went to Puerto Flórez, where they abandoned the cars and boarded boats to Caño Mosco, two hours downriver, stopped at a house and had lunch, chose the group of people who are still kidnapped and let the rest go. When the freed group returned to Puerto Flórez and the army found them, it was almost 4:00 PM. There was neither combat nor military pressure. The reaction was very slow.

4. That region has not been abandoned by the paramilitaries, they are still there. Nor have there been demobilizations of paramilitaries, and it is not known whether Guaviare’s paramilitaries have had any contacts with the office of the [government’s] peace commissioner. In the zone of the kidnapping the “paras” have collected an extortion payment for each cow, and at that part of the road they would extort all public transport. What happened is that due to the local population’s complaints about these abuses, the “paras” had suspended their extortive activities for “three months,” according to various local merchants. The “paras” have not been pursued effectively, and in many cases they even sleep in the city [of San José del Guaviare]. The attorney-general’s office (Fiscalía) doesn’t function either.

5. The security forces continue to have problems of coordination and determination of jurisdictions. It is still not clearly known who is in charge of guarding the road and up to which kilometer-marker, and with so many units present the result is a confusion that nobody understands. All of Plan Patriota in Guaviare is focused on the department’s south, while the guerrillas move throughout the department’s east and west. The Plan pursues the guerrillas’ leaders and leaves unguarded the zones and roads where the guerrillas affect the population.

6. General Fracica [until very recently the commander of Joint Task Force Omega carrying out Plan Patriota in southern Colombia], a serious man, was bid farewell in a ceremony one day earlier in El Retorno, 20 kilometers from the site of the kidnapping. I don’t believe that someone like him would suffer from triumphalism. He would have no reason to, since the illegal armed groups still rule in Guaviare. While the security forces did establish themselves in the department’s four municipalities, their presence has not guaranteed full security: the “paras” rule in the town centers, along the cattle road that follows the right bank of the Guaviare River, and in southern Meta; the FARC rule in all other rural zones. The civilian population is left in the middle of this “sandwich.”

7. The kidnap victims are flesh-and-blood people just like any city-dweller. Among them are two civil-engineering contractors hired by the governor’s office, one of them the son of a fervent admirer of the president’s policies, who worked on his campaign, and who is the husband of a member of San José’s mayor’s cabinet. The rest are merchants from El Retorno. People who have lived in that region for many years. People who are well known locally. We all demand that the FARC respect their lives and liberate them immediately.

8. This is not an isolated incident, not just because of what you write but also because the guerrillas, for months now, have been burning tractor-trailers, trucks, taxis, microbuses, and public-works machinery belonging to the governor’s office, while frightening campesinos on the main roads, almost always at the same sites, few kilometers from the San José town center. All that is in addition to the dramatic situation of those of us who, through the political process, dare to denounce the corruption and lack of governance that exist there. It is not possible to participate freely in politics.

In Guaviare, we are living through something that has never happened to us before: the torture of those who must obey orders from two conflicting groups, to work for them, to follow their rules under penalty of being displaced or killed, while the security forces fail to prevent it, or do not react on time or later try to hide their errors so that the citizens do not demand accountability, and so that the president does not come to scold them or fire their commanders.

With all respect, Pedro Arenas
Representative to the Congress
President of the movimiento comunal

One Response to “A good congressman, forced to quit”

  1. jcg Says:

    Definitely a shocking story. Hopefully nothing happens to Mr. Arenas and he can eventually run for the same or for another political office at a later date, though that might be asking for too much.

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