- WÃlber Varela, alias “JabÃ³n” (”Soap”), appears to have been killed Wednesday by hitmen in the western Venezuelan town of MÃ©rida. Varela was one of the last remaining leaders of the North Valle cartel, Colombia’s largest of the past few years. After the September capture of his arch-rival Diego Montoya, Varela was the most notorious of Colombia’s still-at-large drug lords.
His feared personal army, the Rastrojos, exerts much influence throughout Colombia’s Pacific Coast, and he was believed to be making inroads in and around MedellÃn. Along with other at-large narco-paramilitary figures like Vicente CastaÃ±o and the MejÃa MÃºnera brothers, Varela was believed to have been one of the main sponsors of re-armed “emerging” paramilitary groups in Colombia. While not a victory for Colombian or Venezuelan law enforcement, the death of “JabÃ³n” is likely to cause a significant shake-up in Colombia’s narco-underworld.
- Colombian media outlets published the disturbing testimony of a sergeant whose unit killed civilians and presented them as guerrillas killed in combat, in order to reap rewards. Sergeant AlexÃ¡nder RodrÃguez of the 15th Mobile Brigade told Semana, “at the beginning of November Sergeant OrdÃ³Ã±es went around collecting 20,000 pesos ($10) per soldier, to pay for the pistol that he had planted on the person they had killed … OrdÃ³nez said to them: ‘if you want to give the money, good, if not, let’s leave it like that, but remember that it means five days off [for every guerrilla killed]…’” Sgt. RodrÃguez’s order from the captain who commanded him, he told Caracol, “was to clean up. What each unit was doing was supposedly cleaning the town of people who were guerrilla collaborators.”
Three days after testifying to authorities, Semana reports, “the whistleblower was punished: a committee of generals headed by the Army commander, Mario Montoya, decided to retire him from active service; meanwhile Col. Santiago Herrera, who commanded the Brigade where the acts occurred [in Catatumbo, in northeastern Colombia], was transferred to BogotÃ¡ to take up duties as Montoya’s own official aide.”
- Monday’s Los Angeles Times tells the story of one of thousands of Latin American nationals recruited by U.S. firms to serve as private security guards in Iraq. Peruvian citizen Gregorio Calixto was wounded in Iraq while employed by a U.S. contractor called Triple Canopy. “He lives on $492 in monthly disability checks provided through the Triple Canopy insurance. But he says he doesn’t know how long that’s going to last. Nor does he consider it sufficient: The injury has severely limited his prospects in a country where the maimed can often be found begging in the streets. He also says he is owed two months’ back pay.”
- On the Colombia free-trade front, President Bush mentioned the accord in his SOTU speech Monday, warning Congressional Democrats that failing to ratify the agreement would “embolden the purveyors of false populism in our hemisphere.” Key Democratic leaders made clear that they think the FTA has to wait. House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) said passage of the FTA is “doubtful,” while Senate Finance Committee Chairman Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana), who was a bit more enthusiastic about the FTA last year, said Wednesday that the accord should not be considered until the administration first expands a program that helps U.S. workers who lose their jobs because of foreign competition. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, put out an eight-page letter to U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab recommending delay of FTA approval until a series of conditions are met.
- The 2009 foreign aid budget request will be issued next week. Watch this space on the State Department website to find out whether or not Latin America will be cut back once again – and whether the Bush administration will seek to undo the changes Congress made to this year’s Colombia aid package.