The JosÃ© Alvear Restrepo Lawyersâ€™ Collective (the â€œColectivoâ€) is a non-governmental group based in the Avianca building in downtown BogotÃ¡. It represents many of the victims of military and paramilitary abuses in Colombian courts and in international bodies. Its lawyers work closely with civil-society groups in some of Colombiaâ€™s most conflictive areas. Its lawyers are some of the most threatened human-rights defenders in Colombia.
Last week, the Colectivo invited me to participate in a very impressive conference-workshop attended by civil-society representatives from several zones hit hardest by violence and drug trafficking. Present at the two-day event were campesino, labor, indigenous, Afro-Colombian, human-rights and womenâ€™s group representatives from ChocÃ³, Norte de Santander, Arauca, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, BolÃvar, Cauca, NariÃ±o, Putumayo, Guaviare, and CaquetÃ¡. Many had traveled by bus for an entire day to attend, in some cases defying guerrilla orders to halt all road traffic. Also in attendance were representatives of many BogotÃ¡-based groups, as well as experts from Peru and Ecuador.
They had come to discuss conditions in their home regions, including the impact of Plan Colombia and shifts in the security situation, as well as to learn what U.S. policy currently looks like (thatâ€™s where I came in), to share proposals and to figure out how to coordinate their work despite being divided by Colombiaâ€™s far-flung geography.
For me, this was a great opportunity to get a sense of what is happening in a wide variety of regions of Colombia. Though Iâ€™ll respect the off-the-record nature of those discussions, here are a few things I learned. Note that what follows is based on anecdotal evidence from the eventâ€™s participants, not statistics or exhaustive data-gathering. In some cases I may not be successfully separating rumor from fact. But here, in summary, is what they were saying that was new to me.
1. The security situation in rural zones has grown worse in the past year or so, in fact worse than I had thought. In most zones, particularly in southern Colombia, Arauca and Norte de Santander, guerrilla activity has increased notably, particularly extortion, control of roads and rivers, and threats against local leaders (especially elected leaders). In others, the paramilitary presence has not changed at all despite the groupsâ€™ presumed â€œdemobilization.â€ Even after going through demobilizations, paramilitaries continue to mount roadblocks, carry out selective killings, demand extortion payments, and participate in the coca trade.
2. Some alleged that the post-demobilization â€œneo-paramilitariesâ€ include a lot of new faces; nobody could say where theyâ€™ve come from. Several also voiced a belief that most of the rank-and-file fighters who did demobilize appear to be truly out of the picture, at least for now.
3. Meanwhile, in several regions military-paramilitary collaboration is still taken for granted as an everyday phenomenon. This is the case even in places, like NariÃ±o and Putumayo, where the paramilitaries exist basically for the drug trade, suggesting that most military-paramilitary collaboration today is more a consequence of corruption than a counter-insurgency strategy.
4. Those from CaquetÃ¡ and Guaviare have experienced â€œPlan Patriotaâ€ more or less as follows. In its first phase, the Colombian military swept into FARC-held territory, while the guerrillas, fleeing ahead of them, forced several entire populations to displace and become â€œghost towns.â€ They mostly fled to the larger towns, whose centers have come under solid military control. In a second phase fumigations increased, causing populations in former coca boomtowns to plummet, while dozens of political, campesino and human-rights leaders were rounded up, imprisoned for several months on charges of â€œrebellion,â€ then freed for lack of evidence. (Some of those in attendance had spent time in jail in 2004 and 2005.) In a third phase that continues today, the military presence is confined largely to a few specific populations or checkpoints, from which soldiers carry out periodic sweeps, while the guerrillas have increased their activity elsewhere within the â€œPlan Patriotaâ€ zone.
For instance, while the military may have control over most towns and segments of key rivers, the FARC continue to control coca fields and have increased their attacks on local leaders. Several of those in attendance claimed that paramilitary elements have increased their presence in Plan Patriotaâ€™s wake, especially in Guaviare and central Meta, though the FARC has prevented them from getting a solid foothold in other areas (like most of the towns in the zone that was demilitarized for 1998-2002 peace talks). Social or economic investment in the zone, meanwhile, is almost totally invisible.
5. In the â€œPlan Patriotaâ€ zone and elsewhere, the most common complaint about soldiersâ€™ behavior has been rough and disrespectful treatment. Interactions with military personnel frequently appear to involve abusive language, veiled threats, long detentions and searches, and an overall sense that one must prove that one is not a guerrilla. This adversarial attitude only serves to increase the distrust of the local population, depriving the security forces of their best potential source of intelligence. (Without such intelligence, too many of the FARCâ€™s large-scale, thoroughly premeditated attacks on military targets end up being â€œsurpriseâ€ attacks.)
6. Beyond rough treatment, participants from several areas cited examples of military personnel killing campesinos, then dressing the bodies up in camouflage fatigues and presenting them as dead guerrillas. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rightsâ€™ last report on Colombia mentions this practice, which appears to be becoming more common as the Uribe government pressures the military to show ever more results against guerrilla groups.
7. Despite complaints about security, though, some displaced communities are debating whether to attempt a return to their zones of origin. Some are considering sending small groups to re-occupy abandoned properties, even though they know they will be unprotected.
8. Coca production is exploding, and dispersing. NariÃ±o may have the most in the country now; though fumigation in that department is said to be massive, participants said, it cannot keep up with cultivation, while re-planting proceeds and campesinos find new ways to protect the plants. Cauca and Meta also increasing rapidly. Some cited an increase in coca-growing in central highland departments that had seen almost no coca before, like Cundinamarca and BoyacÃ¡. (â€œYou can find coca less than an hourâ€™s drive from BogotÃ¡,â€ I was told.)
Several people alleged that fumigation is devastating the crops on which people depend for food, but only causing coca-growers to lose one or two harvests (coca leaves, unlike most food crops, can be harvested four or more times per year). For some coca-growers, fumigation has become little more than a nuisance, a cost of doing business. The reaction in coca-growing zones is to plant still more coca, take whatever partial loss fumigation brings, and hope that food can be bought with coca money.
9. Some evidence that fumigation isnâ€™t reducing coca is that the price of coca paste isnâ€™t rising in local markets (in Colombia, coca-growers rarely sell the leaves, they first extract a cocaine paste through a simple process using gasoline, cement and a few other chemicals). This may not be the most reliable indicator of supply and demand, however, since the FARC and paramilitaries are now buying it directly nearly everywhere, cutting out middlemen, so that the local coca-paste market is less â€œfree.â€
10. In several areas, particularly in smaller cities, wealthy newcomers are buying up property at rapid rates. People often refer to the newcomers as â€œPaisas,â€ the term for people who come from the paramilitary-heavy department of Antioquia in northern Colombia (including MedellÃn) and its environs. Several believe that these rich individualsâ€™ arrival and the demobilization of paramilitaries are related, that a new narco-paramilitary class is putting down roots.
I want to thank the brave people at the Colectivo for their important work and for giving me a chance to participate in last weekâ€™s excellent event.