Hollman Morris on “The Other Colombia” WOLA’s John Walsh on the cocaine price “spike”
Nov 092007

The editorial-writers at the Washington Post are usually a politically moderate bunch, but when the topic is Latin America they move to the right of Attila the Hun. Worse, they get sloppy, embarrassing themselves with ad hominem attacks and “straw man” arguments.

These pieces do a lot of damage, though, because they are widely read among Washington decisionmakers who, by and large, also pay little attention to Latin America.

We have two examples from the past three days.

On Wednesday, they had this to say about “Plan Mexico,” the supplemental aid request that the Bush administration sent to Congress last month.

Almost all of the funds would cover the cost of training police or supplying planes, helicopters, detection equipment for use by customs and communications gear. Mexican officials say that none of the U.S. aid would be in cash and that no new U.S. personnel would be deployed in Mexico.

The package nevertheless will probably become a target for leftists in Mexico and the United States who reflexively oppose any military or security collaboration between the two countries.

As we have pointed out, military and police aid do not make up “almost all” of the funds in the Mexico aid request. (This is what we mean by sloppy.) Such aid is just over half of the dollar amount, and nearly all of that amount is taken up by eight helicopters and two planes. Much of what is in the package – port scanning equipment, judicial strengthening assistance – makes perfect sense.

We know a lot of people whom the Post editorialists would consider to be “leftists,” and very few of them have any problem with a U.S.-Mexican partnership against organized crime. Of course we should have a discussion about whether the Mexican Army is the best tool for the job, about the missing U.S. response on drug treatment, money-laundering and cross-border gun control, and about whether some of the money going to those expensive helicopters might be put to better use on other priorities. Those who “reflexively” support the proposed aid package should be prepared to participate in this more nuanced discussion.

Today (Friday), the Post launched a spirited defense of the Colombia free trade agreement, repeating many of the talking points coming out of the Colombian government’s lobby firms (the murder rate of labor unionists is lower than the overall murder rate, et cetera). While CIP has not been a major participant in the free-trade debate, we found the first sentence cited here to be repugnant and offensive.

To make them wait indefinitely while Colombian authorities go through cold-case files would be to substitute some Americans’ priorities for those of the Colombian voters who reelected Mr. Uribe last year with over 60 percent of the vote. The United States should not write Mr. Uribe a blank check, but the appropriate means of pressuring him already exist in human rights conditions Congress has attached to Colombia’s military aid packages.

What the Post dismissively, repellently, calls “cold-case files” are the whole point. When the trail goes cold on nearly 99 percent of union-member killings, then we have no guarantee that the recent decline in these killings is going to last. If such killings are virtually certain to go unpunished, they can resume at any time.

One can even argue that a country that doesn’t punish union-member killings has an unfair competitive advantage over a country that does punish such killings. Wages and benefits will always be worse in a country where to bargain collectively is to risk being killed with impunity. Progress on punishing labor cases should be a sine qua non condition for U.S. ratification of the FTA.

Or could it be that the Washington Post editorialists have happened upon a magic formula for conflict resolution? Why don’t the Arabs and Israelis, the Albanians and Serbs, the Cubans in Miami and Havana just forget about those “cold case files” from the past, the same way that the Post expects thousands of slain unionists’ family members and former colleagues to move on?

And why don’t those victims and their U.S. advocates get out of the way of the more than 60 percent of Colombians who voted for Uribe? Does the Post editorial board believe the same logic applies to regime opponents in Venezuela (62 percent for Chávez in December 2006) and Bolivia (53 percent for Morales in December 2005)?

As for the human-rights conditions on U.S. aid, which the Washington Post editorial regards to be an “appropriate means of pressure”? A Post editorial in May criticized those conditions’ principal congressional proponent, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), for “reflexively resist[ing] U.S. military aid to Latin America.”

“Reflexively” – there’s that word again. And it’s an appropriate one. Where Latin America policy is concerned, the Post editorial-writers’ reflex is to defend the status quo, no matter how unsatisfactory it may be. The search for a better policy would be better served by reason and reflection, not reflexes.

12 Responses to “The Washington Post editorial-page reflex”

  1. Camilla Says:

    Adam, if you know who did it, can you please come forward? If you are sure it was the paramilitaries, can you say which one? If you don’t know, why would the Colombian cops on the cold-case file know? Would a killer make himself known to the cops? If he wouldn’t, why would the Colombian cops know? And why do you think police work is so easy and cops know everything and it’s only a matter of getting them motivated? Can you at least leave open the possibility that they don’t know who did these murders? Please come forward with names of who they should be rounding up.

  2. Kyle Says:

    Camilla, your critique here is almost deeming of no response. It is at best just strong skepticism, but overall is childish and unfounding. What you seem to have ignored is that while yes, the police may not know you killed someone, there is consistant and overwhelming documented evidence of Public Forces’ complicity in countless unionist murders, an intentional avoidance of carry out investigations fully and in some cases the intentional blocking of investigations by members of the Public Forces or the government of Colombia. The judicial system in Colombia is slow, under-funded and weak for a reason.
    My critique does show that it is possible that the investigators do not know who committed the crimes. But there are people out there who did, who should be talking now (i.e. paramilitaries) and who’s leads should be followed. It is not a lack of motivation, but a lack of people, man/woman-power and funding, all of which are intentional. The Police tend not to investigate these murders, and special offices or legal entities have so many cases on their hands, that priorities shove them into the background.
    What we do know is that paramilitaries and State military forces are responsible for the majority of unionist murders. Can we say which one? No. They should be saying sometime though in the versiones libres. Is Adam’s, yours or my job to investigate these murders though? No. Is there a reason why there is an impunity rate of 98% with these cases? Yes. Can and/or should that be changed? Yes.
    Simply by saying that it is tough to investigate and hard to know things exactly because killers don’t turn themselves in is not just a ridiculous and pointless argument but ignores overwhelming mountains of documented evidence on the issue.

  3. Camilla Says:

    Name one piece of this ‘overwhelming’ evidence. Be specific. Otherwise, you are just talking ideology.

    By the way, why do you think the police have no funding? Can congressional actions to cut off funds to Colombia, which your crowd has been instrumental in effecting, have anything to do with it?

  4. Robert Says:

    Why are you so nonchalant about a U.S.-Mexican partnership against organized crime? Have human rights conditions attached to Plan Colombia worked in that country?

    Aren’t you afraid of the threat that Mexican security forces armed with blackhawk helicopters, surveillance technology and shared military intelligence poses to Mexican human rights activists? Or the growing social movements targeted already by those security forces, and by Mexican lawmakers who would criminalize dissent?

    I don’t understand why you feel the Mexican civilian authorities (state of federal) would use this aid to fight organized crime when they don’t have the will to arrest low-level government officials who were caught on film killing U.S. journalist Brad Will barely a year ago and who were seen doing so by witnesses who bravely stepped forward:


    Isn’t your support for Plan Mexico (w/conditions attached and well-executed) a reckless gamble?

    We feel it is and are opposing this bill until tangible progress is made on the ever-expanding not-yet-cold cases of murdered innocents at the hands of Mexican authorities. Until then, we feel that even considering giving this lethal aid to Mexico sends a terrible message in support of impunity to thugs on the ‘left’ and ‘right’ who murder innocents under the color of law.

    Robert Jereski

  5. jcg Says:

    I don’t share the Post’s conclusions (there should probably be more and better, not less and worse, labor *and* human rights conditions, whether we’re talking about military aid or the FTA), but I think a few of their talking points do have some degree of merit, at least by themselves.

    Camilla: I don’t believe that those congressional cuts have been put into effect yet, since the red tape is still in progress, making their future consequences a matter of pure speculation right now.

    In other words, involving them in this discussion is useless at this point (though, theoretically, the re-arranged aid priorities could actually improve things on the justice and impunity front, ironically enough, if they work).

    As for evidence of proven or likely state complicity or omission regarding numerous (not all) crimes against unionists and others, you could try reading earlier posts here and human rights reports. Do you really need a pile of links or quotes?

    Kyle: While I agree with most of your replies to Camilla, let’s not forget that, since somewhere in the 1980s, the overall impunity rate for all crimes in Colombia shot through the roof to 80-90% or more, including crimes which the government itself (even at its most anti-union or anti-left) would presumably be interested in prosecuting and solving.

    This means that impunity wouldn’t be *exclusively* a matter of intentional underfunding and criminal complicity, which do exist and make things even worse for unionists as opposed to other victims, but a larger problem which includes additional elements (among them the effects of the drug trade, the activities of the cartels and other armed groups, as analyzed by Fabio Sanchez in the recent “Las cuentas de la violencia”, as well as other authors).

    Of course, this doesn’t mean that the government shouldn’t try (or be convinced/pressured into trying harder and more sincerely) to fight both overall impunity and that specifically related to the murders of unionists.

  6. Camilla Says:

    JCG: Leahy says the congressional cuts are in effect and proudly says he cut them himself. See here.

    To cut funds yet to simultaneously expect bigger and better quality law enforcement actions does not exactly make sense. Leahy, who does what CIPCOL tells him, is very proud of cutting off funds from Colombia. To my best knowledge, he hasn’t restored them, and probably never will, given Cipcol’s mission of pulling all military funding for Colombia, whether they realize it or not, to ensure a total FARC victory. The missing $55m had to come from somewhere, maybe it was slated for a helicopter, but if the helicopter was half built or especially needed, then something else, like law enforcement, needed to be defunded in its place because money is fungible. That’s how these things work, and yes, the money has been yanked. Uribe was very upset about it, probably because he did want to fund law enforcement. Leahy’s action ensured that he would lose either way.

  7. Kyle Says:

    Camilla, I am not talking ideology. Just an example off the top of my head, Amnesty International released a report this summer about trade unionism in Colombia. You can go check that out. There are other sources, but I’m not here to do your research for you.

    I shoud clarify that I am not necessarily talking about the Police themselves being under-funded in general. Their investigative branches are under-funded or neglected and the other entitites of the Colombian Government that do investigate these crimes have been under-funded and slow-going for years.

    JCG: While, yes, impunity shot through the roof to such levels in the 1980s. That is true that other factors had an effect. I thought I put that in there, but I guess not. If by what you are saying is that there is a prioritized investigating ability by whomever is doing investigations, then yes that is true. At the same time, the neglect of the investigatory powers of the Colombian government covered narco-trafficking and armed groups as well, showing overall problems in the system then as well. I have not read Fabio Sanchez’s book, so there are probably some points he makes that I am neglecting myself.

  8. Camilla Says:

    Kyle: Go to Leahy’s Senate site. He proudly describes cutting off funds to Colombia. Money’s fungible and powerful leftist lobbies are very good at persuading him to do what they say. Amnesty International is not without its biases, either, I don’t consider it an authoritative source. It focuses on Colombia’s trade union murders while ignoring the fact that the rate of murders of trade unionists is lower than that of the population as a whole. What does that say? it says ’special agenda.’ If they were a human rights group of probity, they’d focus on where most of the human rights violations are happening rather than those against a small special interest group like labor, which almost nobody in Colombia wants to belong to. Meanwhile, Amnesty is curiously silent and has said virtually nothing about all the dead Venezuelan trade unionists or the fact that the elected chief of the oil workers union is currently in exile in Peru. That says political agenda – Chavez has a politics they like, so the criticism is much lighter over there, even though the murder rate of trade unionists in the last couple years has skyrocketed. Maybe you should vary your sources beyond what NGOs with pre-fixed ideas claim. If Amnesty just focused on human rights without bringing ideology and favored special interest groups into it, I’d believe them. When’s their next criticism on FARC’s human rights violations coming out? Lotta rich material there they won’t make a significant issue of.

  9. Adam Isacson Says:

    Camilla, Colombia’s labor unions sat down earlier this year with the Fiscalia (who investigates these crimes, with the police in a supporting role) and agreed on a list of, I think it’s about 200 cases considered high-priority. High priority, in most cases, means that yes, there is compelling evidence pointing to a suspect (or armed group). The Fiscalia has a special sub-unit for labor rights that is moving on as many of these as its few prosecutors are able to handle.

    Progress on as many of these cases as possible is not too much to ask. For the Post to say otherwise, dismissing them as “cold cases,” is simply indefensible.

    Robert, there is much about the Plan Mexico proposal that concerns us, and the surveillance equipment is one such item. Keep in mind, though, that there is actually little military and police aid once you take away 8 Bell helicopters and 2 surveillance planes – which may not make much difference against drugs but also probably won’t lead to human-rights abuse.

    I say it probably won’t lead to much human-rights abuse because in Colombia, that has been our experience with the small minority of aid that has been aimed at taking down drug kingpins and stopping smuggling. That aid has gone mainly to elite police and naval units who have interdicted tons of cocaine and caught major capos like Diego Montoya. Those units have, for the most part, avoided scandal and abuse allegations. (And one was massacred last year by a military patrol apparently in the pay of narcotraffickers.)

    To the extent that aid to Mexico’s authorities resembles this anti-mafia aid, the main concern is not human-rights abuse as much as corruption and infiltration by the cartels themselves.

    Meanwhile, Plan Mexico’s military (as opposed to police) aid is almost entirely those helicopters for the army and planes for the navy. The army helicopters are a problem not because of the slim possibility that they will be used in human-rights abuses. The greater concern is that they are an endorsement of the overall model of using the armed forces to fight an internal enemy like organized crime.

    That larger model almost never works – organized crime is better confronted by police and judicial authorities who, with help, are up to the task – and it carries huge human rights and civil-military relations risks. While the proposed package actually doesn’t give much to Mexico’s army beyond helicopters, the endorsement of Calderon’s militarized model is unfortunate.

    So no, we’re not out there “supporting” Plan Mexico. But we probably do support more of what is in it (police anti-kingpin ops, port security, road interdiction, and especially judicial reform) than you do.

    Meanwhile, though, while the initial $500m looks relatively benign compared to Plan Colombia, we are worried about (1) the $900m that is supposed to come in subsequent years and (2) possible increases in Mexico aid through the Defense Department’s counter-drug account. We have no idea what might be in either one, but it could be nastier.

  10. Jaime Bustos Says:

    Camila please stop, you are only making a fool of yourself! :-)

  11. Kyle Says:

    Camilla, even if somehow that AI studies the situation of unionists in the country where it is most dangerous to do so (and for some reason Leahy boasting cutting of aid to Colombia is somehow pertinent (it’s not)) means they have a political agenda, then fine. I gave you just an example off of the top of my head. But it does show something. That NGOs, while obviously not my only source of info on Colombia, are really the only people driving these investigations forward, until recently.
    Also you state that almost no one in Colombia wants to be in a union. You have to think why that might be the case. Certainly, fear for safety is one of them. For many I would posit it is the leading reason why not, and for many others, there are other reasons.
    Lastly, you then go on to make a typical claim about FARC violations of human rights and NGOs. Oddly enough, I despise the FARC and consider them terrorists and narcotraffickers way way way above any sort of revolutionairy group. You can go to AI’s website and look at their statement against the killing of political candidates before the elections and then how they point to the FARC.
    Perhaps you should remember that just because you see this issue as one side versus another, that not everyone does. Also, just because AI does not report on union murders in other South American countries does not necessarily mean that they have special interests, though it still is a weakness in their work. They of course would report on the murders of unionists in the country where it is most dangerous to do so (and BY FAR). Most of their work though has focused on the civilian population, with also large reports on certain groups.
    I find this pertinent only because you would skew any lack of this being mentioned way out of propotion. I don’t like Chavez. He has some good policies, but overall, I’m not a fan.

  12. Robert Jereski Says:

    For useful contextual information on impunity for human rights abuses in Colombia and their increase under ‘Plan Colombia’, read joint statement and report here: http://lawg.org/

    Thanks for your response, Adam.

    Supporting Plan Mexico includes, in my mind, approving parts of it, while throwing up hands about it passing anyway without making strong demands to gut the worst portion of it or for the need to introduce a new bill with only the portions – police anti-kingpin ops, port security, road interdiction, and especially judicial reform – you support. I bet judicial reform is necessary and important. I’d like to see more details before acknowledging the need for such in the current context of this proposed pact. When x, y, and z (institutional reforms) in the pact are supported, while human rights, corruption, and the ‘larger model’/militarization ‘concerns’ with a, b, c are barely mentioned, the pact seems to get a boost in the public debate.

    Especially when a, b, and c, would consume the lion’s share of the funding (8 helicopters and two surveillance crafts) and x, y, z are items which should be supported in a separate earlier bill such that any (future) consideration of a, b, c would be made only with tangible results of reforms (an end to impunity) AS PRECONDITIONS.

    For me, it doesn’t as much matter which agency of the Mexican government is provided with the aid – civilian bureaucratic/administrative or enforcement; police or military. The problems afflicting the administration of justice, law enforcement and maintenance of public order in Mexico have little to do with capacity (and so training seems a quaint and symbolic exercise); Mexico is wealthy and has within its own borders the capacity to pass relevant legislation and enforce those laws protecting human rights. What seems lacking – and this is absolutely clear in the case of Brad Will – is the will – the political determination to apply existing laws (against murder, corruption, and cover-ups) to political figures implicated in such.

    For this reason, your microscopic examination of the precise mechanisms and institutions to be lavished w/$1.4 billion seems like so much political theater. You mention the ‘huge human rights and civil-military relations risks’ inherent in the u.s. endorsement of Calderon’s militarized model of ‘drug war’ fighting. But that’s what this bill’s supporters are endorsing and i see little fight being put up against it by some who should see this as a real risk. I’m glad to hear you share our concern with the surveillance equipment. I don’t know enough about the records of use by Mexican police and military of weapons and surveillance technology to be able to precisely evaluate your claim that the 8 helicopters and 2 surveillance planes would likely not be diverted for use in human rights abuses against civilians and participants in social movements.

    You site as evidence of this specific units in Colombia who have been shaped/created with Plan Colombia $. But then you qualify their records by pointing to interdiction and capture of cocaine and capos. But acres under cultivation in Colombia have increased every year for the last three. After a similar aid package was passed in 1999, w/yearly significant payments. And then you also qualify the records of these units by saying they have ‘for the most part’ avoided corruption and human rights abuses. You suggest only a ’slim possibility’ of human rights abuse. How much abuse is ok to support wa$teful failed ‘drug war’ policy? I don’t understand. When is tepid opposition to some parts of a terrible proposal really support?

    Who in the Mexican government is worthy of a collaborative role with the USG (and i’m not saying that the USG bares no culpability for human rights abuses etc)? But the Mexican govt. are the proposed recipients of this lethal aid (and i include ALL capacity building of the military or police (agencies wielding lethal force w/out accountability) as *lethal* aid). So looking at the agencies (the federal PGR; the AFI; the military) and at the personalities (Mora comes most readily to mind) NOTHING convinces me that adding to their prestige and administrative/executive power is morally responsible for the U.S. Congress to do. Not w/out palpable and important signs that impunity is ended.

    What in your experience of the Colombian people of Plan Colombia encourages people to accept lethal aid hand-in-hand w/reforms (granted PM doesn’t have u.s. soldiers involved and there’s no fumigation planned for mexico we know of)?

    This argument, of course, leaves to the side the major arguments against fueling the drug war which you don’t make much noise about. I agree w/the DPA’s take:

    “In one of the largest economic studies of the global cocaine market ever conducted, the RAND Corporation, working for the U.S. Army and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, found that drug treatment is ten times more effective at reducing cocaine abuse than drug interdiction, 15 times more effective than domestic law enforcement, and 23 times more effective than trying to eradicate cocaine at its source. Researchers concluded that for every dollar invested in drug treatment, taxpayers save an estimated $7.46 in social costs.”

    Supply side intervention doesn’t work.

    So whether or not u.s. taxpayers care about the likelihood of innocent (activist) Mexican casualties of increased lethal capacity b/c of this pact, they would certainly care about wasted billions in ineffective interdiction efforts. Why do you seem bent on accepting this pact as useful?

    FInally, *symbolically*, this pact – announced officially a year after Brad Will – a *u.s.* journalist – was murdered (in front of witnesses and on film) is a slap in the face at all who have been calling for an end to impunity. What are human rights activists or family-members of mexican innocents murdered by the police, paramilitaries or military supposed to make of this? Or of the fact that (some) U.S.-based human rights organizations are actually tepidly supporting aid to the agencies who could care less about their loved ones’ murders or are complicit in them?

    The position of some NGOs seems to gamble w/the lives of Mexicans. It evinces a similar disregard for victims of the Mexican security forces to that of the Mexican federal prosecutors office whose leaked report on Brad Will’s murder ten days ago – a year after he was killed – echoes the whitewash of the Oaxacan State PG Lizbet Cana.

    Trying to understand. Thanks for your thoughts. Looking fwd to more.

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