A visit to Guaviare (1) The Nukak Makú, caught in between
Apr 242008

This post continues the narrative of my visit last week to the department of Guaviare, in southern Colombia. This section gives an overview of the current security situation in the zone, based on what I learned from visits to one military and two police installations, and numerous conversations with civilian government and civil-society leaders.

I found a situation that probably describes much of Colombia today. The military and police presence is far greater. Violence levels are down significantly in town centers and along main roads. The security strategy is having far less success, however, in penetrating rural areas, where violence and illegal activity are near all-time highs. Increasingly frequent military forays into rural zones have knocked the guerrillas off balance and eased coca eradication, but have failed either to do long-term damage to the FARC or to make progress toward a permanent, non-military government presence. The combat has also brought a new wave for forced displacement. Meanwhile, re-armed paramilitaries are doing an active drug-trafficking business (at times with the FARC), and facing very little challenge from the security forces.

The military and police presence

Ten years ago, the presence of Colombia’s security forces was very scarce in Guaviare. The only army unit in the entire department was the Joaquín Paris Battalion based just outside San José del Guaviare’s town center. This roughly 400-man unit was a component of the 7th Brigade, which itself was based about 80 miles to the north in Villavicencio, Meta. Its members rarely left the confines of its base without a large display of force.

An Army Special Forces school had just been founded, with U.S. funding, in the town of Barrancón, along the river to the east of San José del Guaviare’s town center. The Special Forces facility was one of the largest outlays of aid to the military, at a time when most U.S. security assistance went to Colombia’s police.

A poster, which at first glance appears to show President Uribe taking aim at a helicopter, commemorates the Special Forces School’s tenth anniversary.

In 1998, the presence of police was minimal throughout the department, though the National Police Counter-Narcotics Unit was already quite active at its U.S.-funded base adjacent to the airport, from which fumigation missions flew almost daily. The rest of town was considered so dangerous, however, that the U.S. contractor personnel who flew and maintained the planes were confined to the base. A small group of contractors also operated a counter-drug radar facility on the grounds of the Joaquín Paris Battalion’s base, tracking the skies from a separate area behind tight security.

There had been a joint military-police counter-narcotics base in Miraflores, a coca boomtown in Guaviare’s far south, until it was overrun by a guerrilla attack in August 1998. The security forces pulled out of town, and the base was not rebuilt. Nine of those taken prisoner in that attack – five corporals, two sergeants and two lieutenants – remain guerrilla captives today, nearly a decade later.

Beyond that, there was no security-force presence in Guaviare. The municipalities (counties) of Calamar, El Retorno and Miraflores (after July 1998) had no permanent military or police presence at all.

Today, thanks in small part to U.S. funding and in large part to the Colombian government’s hugely increased defense spending, Guaviare’s military and police presence is many times greater.

The army’s Joaquín Paris Battalion now shares its facility with an entire mobile brigade, the 22nd (likely close to 2,000 men in five battalions) and – for the time being at least – the second battalion of the army’s Counter-Narcotics Brigade (about 600 members), a unit formed entirely with U.S. funds in mid-2000. (Mobile units, as their name implies, move around often: the U.S. State Department’s list of units approved to receive U.S. aid as of July 31, 2007 [PDF] lists a different mobile brigade – the 7th – present in Guaviare. At that time, the 22nd was at the Larandia military base to the southwest of Guaviare.)

The destroyed base in Miraflores has been rebuilt and is heavily manned. The Special Forces school in Barrancón is an occasional site of U.S. training missions. The National Police have a new headquarters in the middle of San José del Guaviare, and between 100 and 200 policemen stationed in each of the town centers of Guaviare’s other three municipalities. These police, however, rarely venture too deeply into the rural areas beyond the town limits.

With U.S. support, the Navy has set up an Advanced Riverine Post in Barrancón to patrol the Guaviare River. And the Counter-Narcotics Police fumigation base in San José continues to host very frequent missions: in Guaviare alone, the planes sprayed 15,000 hectares last year.

Assistance from the United States has contributed modestly to this increased security-force presence. The impunity enjoyed by those who facilitated the 1997 Mapiripán massacre continues to halt aid to the Joaquín Paris Battalion; the so-called “Leahy Law” prohibits aid to military units worldwide whose members have evaded punishment for gross human rights violations. Only a trickle of assistance has gone to the presence of non-narcotics-related units of the Colombian National Police. A greater amount of U.S. assistance, however, supports the counter-narcotics police, the Army Counter-Narcotics Battalion, the 22nd Mobile Brigade, the Navy Riverine Post, and the Special Forces School. The fumigation base continues to have nearly all of its expenditures covered by the U.S. government, and the U.S.-manned radar site remains in operation. (While the U.S.-aided units appear to have superior equipment, members of the Counter-Narcotics Battalion lamented that they still lack access to the Internet.)

Nearing the army roadblock on the main road by the Joaquín Paris Battalion’s base.

All told – and this is a rough estimate, because officials were reluctant to reveal force strengths – the combined military and police presence in Guaviare has increased from less than 1,000 in 1998 to at least 5,000 today. A very conservative estimate, then, would be a fivefold increase in the government’s armed presence in the department. This would mean that there is now approximately one soldier or policeman for every 30 residents of Guaviare.

I heard few denunciations that these forces were committing serious abuses against the population, at least not directly. The principal complaints – and these were general, with few specifics given – included continued toleration of paramilitary activity, and frequent use of civilian facilities, particularly schools, to shelter military personnel on patrol in small villages. Colombian human-rights groups have documented cases in Guaviare of the nationwide problem of “extrajudicial executions” – killings of civilians who are later presented as guerrillas killed in combat – though when I asked about such cases, local leaders instead cited more recent allegations of a rash of killings just to the north in the department of Meta.

The guerrilla presence

The presence of illegal armed groups nonetheless remains heavy in Guaviare, though it has undergone some changes over the past ten years.

Ten years ago, the FARC dominated the countryside, most towns, and much of Guaviare’s cocaine production. Though their urban presence is reduced, this assessment remains mostly accurate. Three guerrilla fronts, the 1st, 7th and 43rd, account for most FARC activity in the department, though others operating in neighboring departments are also present on occasion.

In 1998, months after the Mapiripán massacre, the guerrillas’ influence in the larger towns was being reduced as the paramilitaries poured in with the security forces’ acquiescence and support. Today, the guerrillas’ networks in the larger towns, including San José del Guaviare, have been weakened, and the FARC presence is concentrated in the more remote parts of Guaviare (which of course constitute the overwhelming majority of the department’s land area).

Though the guerrillas continue to rule the countryside, military offensives since 2004 have put them off balance. These offensives began in 2004 with “Plan Patriota,” a large-scale, high-cost, U.S.-supported military push across the FARC strongholds of Colombia’s southern plains, and they have continued since. The increasing presence of large contingents of military personnel in rural Guaviare, away from the confines of their bases for weeks at a time, has meant more frequent combat.

While “Plan Patriota” failed to capture top FARC leaders, it has forced the guerrillas, who normally avoid all-out confrontation with large numbers of soldiers, to re-deploy to more remote areas. When doing so, they often force entire populations in the soldiers’ path to displace themselves, in an effort to deprive the military of a potential source of support and intelligence. Whether forced out by fleeing guerrillas or caught in the crossfire, thousands of civilian non-combatants have been hit hard by the fighting that intensified in 2004.

At times, the Colombian authorities view this displacement of Guaviare’s rural residents as a sign of progress. In 2004, “Plan Patriota” managed to reduce the population of Miraflores – a town once so tied to the coca trade that its main street doubles as an airstrip – by about 10,000 people, or one half. The Colombian military viewed the depopulation of Miraflores as a victory, and indeed it may have done more to reduce coca cultivation than fumigation ever did. Nobody knew, however, where the displaced residents had gone, and very few social services were available to ensure that they could feed their families and avoid a return to the drug trade. Many are likely growing or picking coca somewhere else right now.

Despite the intensity of military operations, the guerrillas operate with considerable freedom in Guaviare’s countryside, maintaining roadblocks, exercising authority over and collecting taxes from rural dwellers. When the FARC unilaterally released hostages, in January and February, they directed the Venezuelan-ICRC rescue aircraft to pickup locations in central Guaviare.

In late March and early April, when escalating rumors indicated that French-Colombian hostage Íngrid Betancourt was near death and in need of medical care, attention focused on the village of El Capricho, to the west of San José del Guaviare’s town center, where she had allegedly been spotted. A French medical team hoped in vain for access to the sick hostage. Betancourt’s husband, Juan Carlos LeCompte, flew over the area tossing thousands of pictures of her children into the jungle in the hope that she would see one. (In a November 2007 “proof of life” letter, Betancourt wrote that she was having trouble remembering what her children looked like.) Mayor Pedro Arenas said he gave dozens of interviews to French journalists stuck in town with little else to cover.

Ingrid Betancourt’s husband has dropped about 100,000 of these photos of her children from aircraft flying over Colombia’s jungles.

Last week, I heard reports that military-guerrilla combat was heavy around the town of Tomachipán, in the southern part of San José del Guaviare municipality, spurring the arrival of newly displaced people in the county seat. It is in Tomachipán where, last November, Colombian military intelligence began tailing the guerrilla messengers who would later be arrested in Bogotá carrying proof-of-life videos and photos depicting prominent guerrilla hostages. Tomachipán is also near the sites where the guerrillas released their hostages earlier this year.

The local rumor mill was rife with tales of U.S. military cargo planes unloading equipment at the San José airport for several consecutive nights in March and early April, and speculation that the Tomachipán operation is related to the hostages. I had no way to verify either allegation.

While there has been a bit more investment in social services in the towns, the military’s forays into rural areas have been almost completely unaccompanied by any development or humanitarian aid – much less any attempt to bring the civilian government into rural zones. The result is often that once the soldiers draw down their presence in a specific rural zone, the guerrillas quickly return. Holding onto Guaviare’s sparsely populated, utterly ungoverned countryside is still a challenge toward which the Colombian government has made little headway.

The paramilitary presence

Right-wing paramilitaries have been active in Guaviare since the 1997 Mapiripán massacre. While they have undergone frequent changes in leadership and structure, the region’s paramilitary groups have consistently controlled lucrative drug-trafficking routes and have had little to fear from the security forces. At first, the military and police tolerated Guaviare’s paramilitaries because they viewed them as a brutally effective counter-insurgent force. Today, the toleration probably owes more to corruption, as the region’s “self-defense groups” keep officials in their pay even as they do occasional drug business with the FARC.

The paramilitaries responsible for the bloodbath of the late 1990s were under the direct command of Carlos Castaño and Salvatore Mancuso, the warlords from northwestern Colombia who at the time led the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUC), a national paramilitary umbrella organization. In 2001, the State Department added the AUC to its list of international terrorist organizations.

Sometime after 2000, Castaño and Mancuso “sold” the paramilitary franchise to Miguel Arroyave, a narcotrafficer whose AUC “Centaurs Bloc” came to control paramilitary activity in a vast region stretching from Colombia’s southern plains to the slums ringing Bogotá. Arroyave was among the AUC leaders who participated in demobilization negotiations with the government of Álvaro Uribe starting in late 2002.

In September 2004, though, Arroyave was ambushed and killed by his own men on a road in the department of Meta, just north of Guaviare. The deputies behind the killing set up their own, smaller paramilitary blocs. The “Heroes of Guaviare” organization came under the command of Pedro Oliverio Guerrero Castillo, a paramilitary member since the late 1980s who, at the time he helped murder his boss, was in his mid-thirties.

Guerrero is known by most as “Cuchillo,” or “Knife” – a name that apparently owes to his preference for stabbing his victims. He came to control paramilitary activity in Guaviare and much of Meta department. He and the “Heroes of Guaviare” resisted participation in the ongoing demobilization negotiations with the Colombian government until the very end; in April 2006, Cuchillo’s paramilitary bloc became one of the last to hold an official demobilization ceremony. Cuchillo’s status as a demobilized paramilitary leader apparently gave him the legal status that allowed him to pay a triumphant visit to downtown San José del Guaviare in November 2006 where, accompanied by mid-ranking military and police officers, he had dinner in one of the town’s few expensive restaurants.

Pedro Oliverio Guerrero, alias “Cuchillo”  (at right, with yellow shirt and towel), shares a stage with Colombian and OAS officials at the “Heroes del Guaviare” demobilization ceremony, April 11, 2006. (Source: Colombian Government High Commissioner for Peace.)

As part of an arrangement that would grant them light prison sentences in exchange for their demobilization, a few dozen paramilitary leaders agreed to concentrate in a former recreation center outside Medellín in mid-2006; at the end of the year, these leaders were abruptly transferred to a maximum-security prison, where most remain today. Cuchillo, however, was not among them – he remains at large.

His stated reason may be that he did not want to share confinement with former associates of Miguel Arroyave, the paramilitary boss whom he helped to kill 2004. In reality, though, Cuchillo has done quite well as the paramilitary master of Guaviare and nearby areas.

He and his men are enriching themselves through control of drug-trafficking routes stretching from Guaviare and Meta eastward into Venezuela, which has become an important vector for shipping cocaine to the United States and Europe. He has allied closely with alias “Don Mario,” a brother of demobilized paramilitary leader Freddy Rendón (”El Alemán”), who has become one of Colombia’s most powerful narcotraffickers. Like organized-crime leaders in many countries, Cuchillo also allegedly gets a stream of income through local corruption, winning contracts for public works and skimming from municipal treasuries.

Cuchillo continues to be an important factor of violence in Guaviare. Today, though, paramilitary violence is an order of magnitude less bloody than the butchery that came before: selective killings have come to replace wholesale massacres, and most of these owe more to disputes over drug-trafficking territory than to suspicions of guerrilla ties or leftist politics. While still no friend to the FARC cause, Cuchillo’s organization now routinely buys coca paste from the guerrillas and sells them precursor chemicals used to process coca leaves.

There are no paramilitary leaders on the local “most wanted terrorists” list.

Conversations with military and police leaders in Guaviare left a strong impression that Cuchillo and other powerful local organized-crime leaders do not figure prominently on their target lists. The focus instead appears to be overwhelmingly on the FARC. While the counter-narcotics police include Cuchillo’s organization on their local map of threats, no paramilitaries appear on posters of “most wanted terrorists” affixed in public places throughout San José. A senior Army Counter-Narcotics Brigade officer even claimed not to have heard of Cuchillo.

The big picture

The guerrillas have been pushed into less-populated areas, though they remain powerful. The paramilitaries are rarely challenged, but less murderous than their immediate predecessors. The military and police are present in greater numbers, generally behaving themselves but almost never punished when they do not. Coca-growing remains widespread but appreciably lower than a decade ago, while cocaine trafficking across the southern plains may have intensified.

Even with this complicated and threatening array of forces, the Colombian government can claim to have made Guaviare somewhat safer. The National Police counted only nine murders in San José del Guaviare’s town center in 2007; with an urban population of 40,000, this statistic yields a murder rate of 23 per 100,000 residents, a dramatically reduced figure that compares favorably with Washington, DC (45 murders per 100,000 residents).

Downtown San José del Guaviare is safer than it used to be. Outside the city limits, though, things get more complicated.

San José is now considered so safe that the U.S. contractors working at the fumigation base are now allowed off the facility. They are now routinely seen at the town’s bars and restaurants.

The murder statistic, however, vividly illustrates the inability of the Colombian government’s security policies to penetrate the countryside. In the rest of San José del Guaviare – the Connecticut-sized rural zone beyond the main town’s limits – the police report that violence killed 55 people last year. With a rural population estimated at 20,000 people, that yields a staggering rural murder rate of 275 per 100,000 – similar to Medellín at the end of Pablo Escobar’s reign.

Rural Guaviare remains besieged, with little improvement in sight, which explains the continued heavy flow of displaced people to the department’s main city. In just the first three months of 2008, the mayor’s office estimates that San José del Guaviare’s displaced population of 14,000 grew by another 300 people, while an unknown number of rural Guaviare residents relocated elsewhere.

The rural-urban security divide, the difficulty of exerting state authority and providing services outside the main cities, the guerrillas’ huge rural influence, the continued reign of paramilitary mafias, and the continued lure of drug profits – enhanced by widespread impunity – are the biggest security concerns in Guaviare today.

These concerns are serious and persistent. Even a more than fivefold increase in the security forces’ presence has had only modest success in confronting them, and most of this success has been felt in the town centers. Moving forward will require a strategy to increase the government’s presence and to reduce impunity. This effort will include, but cannot be centered on, the security forces who have received nearly all U.S. assistance to Guaviare over the past ten years.

Next: The Nukak Makú.

6 Responses to “Guaviare (2) – The security situation”

  1. Tambopaxi Says:

    Excellent piece, Adam.

    It’s clear that the GOC is working hard on project more of its security presence in Guaviare and that it’s succeeding to a certain extent.

    Still, in the context of continued national growth in presence (i.e., the ability of the GOC and protect and serve its citizens throughout its physical territory) your report does little to address the non-security/non-military aspects of the issue in Guaviare.

    Specifically, in addition to the increased military/security presence there, has Guaviare seen concomitant growth in provision of health, education and justice services? What about infrastructure? Are there more government built roads/bridges, etc.?

    Finally, what about legitimate economic activities in the Department? I recall your saying that the U.S. government has provided no alternative development assistance to Guaviare, so I’d guess that legit activity growth has been modest at best, but that’s a guess.

    En fin, what’s happening on the non-military side in terms of frontier development out there?

  2. Adam Isacson Says:

    That’s coming in my next post, and it’s a topic of great interest to us right now. I just had to break up the narrative somehow, these Guaviare posts are rather long.

  3. Tambopaxi Says:

    OK, great, I’ll look forward to the post. thanks, T

  4. Fefo Says:

    Excellent article. Thanks for informing the public.
    I have added this article to my favorites and spreading the word for others to see.

  5. Plan Colombia and Beyond » Friday links Says:

    [...] “Cuchillo,” the powerful fugitive paramilitary leader whose name I heard often on an April 2008 trip to Guaviare department, has offered to turn himself in to the authorities. He cites several [...]

  6. Plan Colombia and Beyond » Nuevo Arco Iris (1): Emerging Paramilitary Groups Says:

    [...] as [former “Heroes del Guaviare” paramilitary leader Pedro Oliverio Guerrero, alias] Cuchillo’s group in the Eastern Plains (Llanos Orientales); [...]

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