- Colombian authorities yesterday arrested retired General Rito Alejo del RÃo, charging him with complicity in the 1997 paramilitary murder of campesino leader Marino LÃ³pez. Ever since Colombia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office abruptly and controversially dropped its case against him seven years ago, Gen. del RÃo’s name has been synonymous with impunity for human-rights crimes.
Gen. del RÃo ran the Army’s 17th Brigade in northwestern Antioquia department’s UrabÃ¡ region from 1995 to 1997. During his tenure, the paramilitaries multiplied their presence in UrabÃ¡, carrying out one of the most gruesome offensives against civilians in recent Colombian history. (In Marino LÃ³pez’s case, for instance, paramilitaries played a soccer match using the local leader’s severed head as a ball.)Â Testimonies from demobilized paramilitaries have confirmed what witnesses – including other military officers – have long alleged: that Gen. del RÃo played a leading role in the paramilitaries’ campaign of massacres, torture and forced displacement.
(In 1999, after human rights allegations forced Gen. del RÃo to resign, Ãlvaro Uribe – the governor of Antioquia during the general’s tenure – was the keynote speaker at a BogotÃ¡ dinner held in his honor.)
- Threats against the Colombian human-rights group Justicia y Paz, mentioned in last Friday’s links post, grew more serious this week. Members of the group, which works with displaced communities in ChocÃ³ department, were briefly kidnapped and threatened by “new” paramilitaries, while two men were detected after midnight several days ago while en route to a house where several slept.
- You know things are bad when the president of Colombia’s Supreme Court says things like this in a public speech: “The Supreme Court will keep complying, with no fear, with the functions the Constitution and the law have assigned to it, despite the constant attacks that are coming from the government, which seeks to discredit and de-legitimize the ["para-politics"] investigations it is carrying out. Just as it did not allow itself to be intimidated by the violent groups who tried to silence it and consume it in flames more than twenty years ago, the Court will not do it now before those who intend to silence it in order that impunity may reign.”
- President Ãlvaro Uribe’s post-hostage rescue bounce in Colombia’s opinion polls seems to have faded, though his approval rating is still 78 percent, according to Gallup’s polling [PDF] of residents with telephones in Colombia’s four largest cities.
- Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave a measured speech at the every-18-month meeting of the hemisphere’s defense ministers, held this week in Banff, Canada.
[I]n areas such as law enforcement and public administration, civilian capacity may not match the expertise found in many of our armed forces. It is important that non-military capabilities receive adequate manning and funding â€“ a point I emphasize frequently with respect to our State Departmentâ€™s budget.
The meeting itself – the eighth since 1995 – got almost no attention in the regional media, mainly due to its remote location and its unambitious agenda (not much hope for consensus when the United States and Colombia are in the same room with Venezuela and its allies). The conservative Heritage Foundation’s Ray Walser argues that the ministerial summits have little reason to exist today, and that the United States should pursue bilateral relationships instead.
We would argue that while the meetings offer little hope of achieving regional consensus, there is a significant confidence-building and civil-military relations benefit to having the region’s mostly civilian defense ministers meet regularly. Also, these forums provide an increasingly rare opportunity for U.S. and allied officials to have exchanges, formally or informally, with counterparts from Venezuela and other countries whose relations with Washington have grown very distant.
- Interesting pieces this week in major U.S. papers. The Washington Post documents rising coca cultivation in the Andes and discusses Ecuador’s refusal to renew the U.S. military presence at the Manta counter-narcotics base. The Los Angeles Times writes about “new” paramilitary groups’ dominion over the northeastern department of La Guajira, Colombia.
- Beautiful column in the Los Angeles Times by author and former New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer, condemning the Ortega government’s judicial harassment of Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua. Cardenal, one of Latin America’s most celebrated poets, served with Ortega in the first Sandinista government (1979-1990) as minister of culture.
- Civil-military relations notes from around the region: The head of Nicaragua’s armed forces attacked human-rights groups who alleged irregularities in the military pension fund. Paraguay’s armed forces are openly quarreling with the new government about authority over promotions, nominations and transfers. In Bolivia, the Morales government is seeking to try the governor of Beni and the mayor of Trinidad in a military court, alleging that they were responsible for a protest in which an officer was wounded.
- Colombian soldiers forced Michael Fabricant, a Conservative Party member of the British Parliament, to eat several spoonfuls of non-dairy coffee creamer during a recent visit to Colombia. Fabricant thus proved that the white powder was not cocaine, though he did give himself a stomachache.