A poll released October 15 by Colombian media giant RCN contained some very bad news for Ãlvaro Uribe. The RCN-Yanhaas survey found an 18.2 percent drop in the president’s approval rating since August. Of those surveyed, 47.8 percent characterized his performance as “good,” 37.9 percent as “medium” and 12.7 percent as “poor.” This follows an October 8 Invamer-Gallup survey, in which the president’s approval rating fell from 78 to 72 percent (Invamer-Gallup doesnâ€™t offer “medium” as an option).
Though not catastrophic or irreversible drops, these represent the lowest points for Uribe at least since early 2003. For the first time in his presidency, Invamer-Gallup found that the number of people who think the country is on the wrong track (38 percent) nearly equals the number who believe things are improving (39 percent).
Keep in mind that this poll does not sample a cross-section of Colombian opinion. It only reaches Colombians (1) who live in the four to seven largest cities; (2) who own a telephone; and (3) who may be less than candid about their political opinions when speaking to a total stranger on the telephone. Nonetheless, even with a sample so skewed toward the wealthy, Invamer found three economic issues â€“ the cost of living, unemployment, and management of the economy â€“ to be the main reasons for the drop in approval.
According to the same poll, the fourth-most damaging issue for Colombia’s president is his “management of the paramilitary problem.” Indeed, the BogotÃ¡ government’s attempt to talk peace with the AUC have been unraveling in an atmosphere of secrecy, miscommunication, infighting and widespread concern about what might happen next.
Uribe and his peace commissioner, Luis Carlos Restrepo, have faced mounting criticism for launching the peace talks without a clear plan, devoting insufficient resources to get the job done right, failing to win the international community’s support, and denying, in the face of much evidence, that a fundamental change in strategy is needed.
Those same criticisms, of course, have also been leveled at the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq. In both cases, these self-inflicted wounds are doing significant damage to both presidents’ domestic approval ratings.
As bad news continues to flow out of Baghdad, the Uribe government’s talks with the AUC have generated their own torrent of alarming developments just during the past month.
- On September 19, one of the principal paramilitary negotiators, Miguel Arroyave â€“ who assumed control over the AUC’s “Centauros Bloc” in Cundinamarca, Meta and Casanare in 2001, after serving jail time for narcotrafficking â€“ was killed by his own men. Arroyave became the third top paramilitary leader, and second AUC negotiator, killed by fellow paramilitaries since April, when longtime leader Carlos CastaÃ±o disappeared following an armed attack. (CastaÃ±o is presumed dead; U.S. Ambassador William Wood revealed recently that the warlord’s 22-year-old wife was granted asylum and is currently in the United States.)
- On September 26, Colombia’s Semana magazine printed transcripts of secretly taped conversations between government negotiator Restrepo and AUC leader Salvatore Mancuso. In the tapes, Restrepo assured the paramilitary leader that he is trying to keep reports of paramilitaries murdering civilians in the Ralito demilitarized zone out of the media. He also told them they have nothing to fear from the International Criminal Court, even though Colombia is a signatory to the Rome Statute. It turned out that the leaker of the tapes was Mancuso himself, apparently making a heavy-handed effort to weaken Restrepo’s position. Restrepo offered his resignation, but President Uribe did not accept it.
While those revelations shocked Colombia, the impact was amplified by simultaneous reports that same September 26 in Colombia’s main Sunday papers. El Tiempo and El Espectador both reported on the paramilitaries’ growing influence in Colombia’s economy and political system, including a strong presence in 35 percent of the country’s municipalities (counties), close ties to many members of the Congress and local governments, and revelations of schemes to channel public funds into paramilitary coffers.
- On September 30, authorities arrested AndrÃ©s VÃ©lez, who served for months as the AUC’s spokesman at the Ralito peace talks, as part of a DEA-assisted operation to dismantle a money-laundering ring. Further investigation revealed that VÃ©lez played a role in a massive multinational scheme to bring drug money back into Colombia for the Centauros Bloc, the paramilitary unit headed by Miguel Arroyave until his murder less than two weeks earlier.
- President Uribe had made clear that he would not hold peace talks with any group that did not first declare a unilateral cease-fire. The paramilitaries declared a cease-fire in December 2002; while this has slowed the pace of paramilitary human-rights abuses, violations of the cease-fire continue at an alarming rate. On October 3, the Colombian government’s human rights ombudsman (DefensorÃa del Pueblo) announced that its offices had received 342 complaints of paramilitary cease-fire violations since December 2002. The statistic refers to records the ombudsman has kept in only eleven of Colombia’s thirty-two departments (provinces). In the department of Tolima alone, the local ombudsman announced on October 17 that the paramilitaries had killed 170 people since the cease-fire was declared.
- An October 3 massacre of at least 11 people at a resort in Candelaria, Valle del Cauca â€“ part of an ongoing war between drug traffickers in the area â€“ appeared to involve paramilitaries. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ BogotÃ¡ field office issued a statement noting that “this mass killing appears to constitute another clear violation of the commitments the paramilitaries have made at the Santa Fe de Ralito negotiating table.”
- On October 7, Colombian authorities arrested Gabriel Puerta Parra, alias “The Doctor,” one of twelve top North Valle Cartel figures the United States has sought to extradite since May. El Tiempo reported this week that in August, Puerta Parra had written to an unnamed top AUC leader asking permission to join the ranks of the paramilitary leadership in the demilitarized zone where talks are taking place. By becoming “Comandante Agamez,” the name he chose for himself, Puerta Parra hoped not only to evade arrest, but to negotiate a possible amnesty and a way to avoid extradition to the United States. Though his letter’s addressee apparently said no to this scheme, Puerta Parra’s text indicates that several top paramilitary leaders â€“ Vicente CastaÃ±o, Diego Murillo Bejarano (Don Berna), Lorenzo GonzÃ¡lez QuinchÃa (Macaco), and IvÃ¡n Roberto Duque (Ernesto BÃ¡ez) â€“ had already approved the idea. (The amount of money the AUC would have received in exchange is not discussed.) In the letter, the narcotrafficker reminded the AUC leadership of his eighteen years of financial support for paramilitaries in several parts of the country.
Though it didn’t work out for Puerta Parra, other narcotraffickers-turned-paramilitary-leaders have been luckier: they are currently serving as paramilitary negotiators in the demilitarized zone at Santa Fe de Ralito, CÃ³rdoba. Among them are no less than three of the twelve North Valle capos on the U.S. government’s “wanted” list. They include VÃctor Manuel MejÃa MÃºnera, nicknamed “El Mellizo” (”The Twin”) but known in Ralito as “Pablo Arauca,” the head of the AUC’s “Avengers of Arauca” bloc; Francisco Javier Zuluaga Lindo, known as “Gordo Lindo” in the drug underworld but in Ralito as “Comandante Gabriel Galindo,” the political chief of the Pacific Bloc; and Ramiro Vanoy Murillo, or “Cuco,” the chief of the Antioquia-based Mineros Bloc. (See this interesting list, in a recent issue of Semana, of narcos who have recently converted to paramilitarism.) The Uribe government did take the step of ordering the extradition of a mid-ranking paramilitary leader present in the Ralito zone, Juan Carlos Sierra (alias “El Tuso”), on September 26. Angry AUC leaders did not turn over “El Tuso,” who remains a fugitive from justice.
- U.S. support for the peace process continued to weaken. In an October 10 interview with Semana magazine, U.S. Ambassador William Wood again ratified the United States’ position that Washington’s support depends on paramilitary leaders’ submission to justice, “including the jailing of those guilty of crimes against humanity and the extradition of those who broke our laws.” He added that the paramilitaries “are not political actors. They are criminals, narcotraffickers, murderers and thieves.”
In the face of this punishing barrage of bad news, the AUC and the Colombian government have proposed a measure to try to shore up the talks’ flagging image: the demobilization of 3,000 paramilitary fighters â€“ about one-sixth to one-seventh of the AUC â€“ between early November and late December.
It is unclear whether the proposed demobilization is a show of paramilitary goodwill or, as some observers contend, a take-it-or-leave-it offer to accept thousands of fighters whom the paramilitaries no longer wish to pay. Peace Commissioner Restrepo, however, is seizing on the proposal as a sign of success. When El Tiempo reporters asked him on October 10 about his statements in the leaked tapes, he dismissed the issue: “The episode of the leaked tapes is, for me, an issue of the past. What interest me are deeds, and what is happening today [the AUC demobilization proposal] is a positive step. This is what definitely should be reported.”
With hundreds of young, unemployed fighters possibly ready to begin exiting the paramilitaries as early as two weeks from now, the Colombian government’s ability to ease their transition is a very urgent question. Right now, the Uribe administration appears to have neither the resources nor a solid plan in place for demobilization. Questions like financing, logistics, security guarantees, verifying weapons stockpiles, identifying known human-rights abusers, and the design of reintegration assistance all remain unanswered.
The November 2003 demobilization of 850 members of the “Nutibara Bloc” paramilitary group in MedellÃn does not offer a hopeful model. Though some in the U.S. media reported it as a hopeful step (a Miami Herald editorial at the time called it “a move in the right direction“), even peace negotiator Restrepo now acknowledges that this underfinanced, thrown-together episode was “an embarrassment.” Up to 70 percent of the young men who demobilized with much fanfare that day (handing in about 200 weapons, mostly pistols) were in fact street criminals rounded up at the last moment and passed off as paramilitaries. Three weeks of “reintegration” and a poorly-financed follow-up have had almost no impact; the “demobilized” young men continue to control the same poor MedellÃn neighborhoods, and many have been killed by internecine gang-fighting.
In an editorial, El Tiempo asks some difficult questions.
Is the government prepared and does it have the resources to handle the surrender of 3,000 men all at once? Have control measures been contemplated to avoid a repeat of the errors of the “Nutibara Bloc” in MedellÃn? How to make sure that young people aren’t recruited at the last minute and passed off as paramilitaries? What verification mechanisms will be applied to determine if the “paras” are complying? If it has been difficult in an urban zone like MedellÃn, how will it be now? And their security? With so many troops in the south searching for the FARC’s rearguard [in "Plan Patriota"], how will the security forces be able to respond in zones that the paramilitaries leave in their hands?
With answers to these questions far off, the upcoming demobilization â€“ if it indeed happens â€“ may end up being yet another liability to add to the long list of blows the paramilitary talks have suffered. As with President Bush and Iraq, the damage could come to extend well beyond President Uribe’s approval rating.