Colombian Army push-polling An alarming report from the CCJ
Oct 212004

A poll released October 15 by Colombian media giant RCN contained some very bad news for Álvaro 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 doesn’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 – the cost of living, unemployment, and management of the economy – 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 Bogotá 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 – who assumed control over the AUC’s “Centauros Bloc” in Cundinamarca, Meta and Casanare in 2001, after serving jail time for narcotrafficking – 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 Castaño disappeared following an armed attack. (Castaño 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 Andrés Vélez, 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 Vélez 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 (Defensoría 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 – part of an ongoing war between drug traffickers in the area – appeared to involve paramilitaries. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Bogotá 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 – Vicente Castaño, Diego Murillo Bejarano (Don Berna), Lorenzo González Quinchía (Macaco), and Iván Roberto Duque (Ernesto Báez) – 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, Córdoba. Among them are no less than three of the twelve North Valle capos on the U.S. government’s “wanted” list. They include Víctor Manuel Mejía Múnera, 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 – about one-sixth to one-seventh of the AUC – 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 Medellín 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 Medellín 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 Medellín? 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 Medellín, 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 – if it indeed happens – 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.

2 Responses to “Uribe’s Iraq?”

  1. jcg Says:

    Instead of commenting on specific pieces of the article (a very detailed report, factually, though it could use some more context)….It’d be interesting to find out the CIP’s position on a)the proposal put forward by Carlos Alonso Lucio b)The recently revealed parameters under which the EU would consider any future support for peace iniatives in Colombia (with any of the “agents of violence”).

  2. Adam Isacson Says:

    Good questions.

    A week ago, Carlos Alonso Lucío, a former M-19 guerrilla turned advisor to the AUC, proposed that, should the paramilitaries complete their peace talks with the government, the bulk of the organization’s 20,000 fighters – those who don’t stand accused of human rights violations – should join the armed forces. “Consider that Plan Patriota is an offensive with 15,000 men in difficult territory, fighting the most experienced guerrillas in Latin America,” Lucio said. “To defeat the guerrillas in El Salvador, a territory as large as a single province of Colombia, a similar offensive required over 40,000 men. Where will the Colombian Army find 20,000 men to replace the self-defense groups [paramilitaries]?”

    We certainly oppose any U.S. support for such a proposal, and we’re surprised that Lucío, a participant in so much of Colombia’s recent history, willfully ignored it by suggesting that paramilitaries change uniforms and become soldiers. This is the sort of “recycling” that we’ve opposed since the talks began. Here’s an excerpt from a memo written in December 2002.

    It may be very tempting for the Uribe administration to “recycle” demobilized paramilitaries – thousands of unemployed individuals with combat experience – into the expanding armed forces or into the newly established citizen security structures.

    Ex-paramilitaries must have nothing to do with these structures. Placing these known violators under the state’s auspices, either as soldiers or as “informants,” would guarantee a sharp increase in direct state responsibility for shocking abuses. It would worsen the conflict with the guerrillas, and perhaps make Colombia’s government an international pariah.

    The United States must make clear that it will only support talks with the paramilitaries if their members are demobilized into non-military pursuits. Washington is likely to give Colombia’s police and military about half a billion dollars in 2003, an amount that will probably increase over the next few years. The U.S. government must ensure that its citizens’ money does not support a security force that includes, or has an institutional relationship with, thousands of pardoned drug-dealing, chainsaw-massacring terrorists.

    Our position has not changed since then.

    To those who would respond that illegal armed groups have joined the security forces after past peace processes elsewhere – El Salvador, Mozambique – we would respond that, in all such cases, this happened after the conflict was over. As it stands now, with neither the FARC nor the ELN anywhere near a peace agreement, demobilized paramilitaries who join the security forces would find themselves carrying out the same mission as before: fighting guerrillas (and, perhaps, those whom they feel are guerrilla collaborators). The likelihood of abuses, and the cost to the legitimacy of a military that merges with a force it had for years denied any links to, make this a very poor choice.

    On this issue, we agree with Gen. Carlos Ospina, the head of Colombia’s armed forces, who also rejected the idea: “They can’t go from being criminals to being in authority. That is totally incompatible.”

    With regard to your other question, the European Union standards, are acceptable though vague. The EU Political Commission stated that it will not offer significant support to the paramilitary peace talks and demobilizations until (1) a legal framework to govern them is put into place; (2) the paramilitaries really, truly respect the cease-fire they declared nearly two years ago; and (3) the paramilitaries cease their drug-trafficking activities.

    Unless we’re missing something – and we’re depending on Colombian press reports on this, there’s nothing new on the EU’s Colombia page – these standards seem largely reasonable. Without a framework in place, the parties in the talks will continue to improvise, greatly reducing any likelihood of success. And of course Europe shouldn’t support a process if the cease-fire isn’t honored and drug trafficking continues.

    The statement appears to leave out, at least for now, the question of whether the EU would support a legal framework that includes an amnesty for those who have committed serious human rights abuses or helped to send illegal drugs to Europe.

    While the U.S. government has made clear what it thinks should happen to paramilitary drug-traffickers (extradition), it too has yet to define whether it would support a framework that allowed human-rights abusers to go unpunished. Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering a 2005 foreign aid bill (frozen until after the elections at least) in which the Senate version – but not the House version – contains language prohibiting any support for demobilizations without “proportional” punishments envisioned for abusers. The U.S. position will become clearer once the House-Senate Conference Committee decides whether the Senate language stays in the final version.

    CIP’s position on the amnesty-versus-justice question is addressed in an earlier response to you.

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