Mar 17

I’m back from Europe as of last night and will resume “real” posting tomorrow; there’s a lot to say about last weekend’s legislative elections in Colombia.

In the meantime, here in two parts is Felipe Zuleta’s recent video about the “False Positives” scandal in the poor Bogotá suburb of Soacha. CIP Intern Cristina Salas added English subtitles to the content by Zuleta, a Colombian journalist who ran unsuccessfully for a Senate seat on Sunday. Zuleta’s original unsubtitled Spanish videos are posted to YouTube here.

Part 1

Part 2

Mar 09

I’m off to France, to be a panelist at a conference on human rights in the Americas (PDF – and no, we don’t get a lot of invitations like these).

I hope to be able to post from the road, though I don’t know what my Internet access will be like. Regular posting should resume by Wednesday the 17th.

Mar 08

“Within the Armed Forces, some think that the battalions have been paralyzed by fear of ending up on trial, and as a result are not fighting,” noted Colombia’s main newsmagazine, Semana, last July.

This is something that we’ve heard too, in conversations with Colombian military officers and others close to the country’s defense establishment: the “false positives” scandal has left Colombia’s Army reluctant to leave the barracks for fear of being accused of committing human rights abuses, and ending up losing officers and soldiers to years-long legal processes.

The “false positives” scandal refers to members of the military, seeking to pad their results and win incentives, allegedly killing more than 1,600 civilians in recent years, presenting their bodies as those of armed-group members killed in combat. With more than 2,000 members of the armed forces under investigation, the argument goes, Colombia’s Army is now unwilling to go on the offensive and risk more prosecutions.

This argument was taken up in yesterday’s edition of Semana by left-of-center columnist María Jimena Duzán, a fierce critic of Álvaro Uribe.

After the successful Operación Jaque [2008 hostage rescue], which was preceded by a series of blows that pierced the innermost layers of the FARC, the Army has stopped combatting, and that decision has produced an increase in the FARC’s terrorist acts in some zones of the country. According to the government’s own statistics in the last year and a half, the most important attacks against the FARC have been the work of the Police and the Air Force.

The reasons for this stoppage in the Army have to do with protuberant flaws in the Democratic Security policy that the government has not wanted to accept. Flaws that allowed, for nearly six years, inhumane practices like camouflaging extrajudicial executions as acts against terrorism, murdering innocent campesinos to make them appear to be guerrillas killed in combat.

Is this true? Has the military really stopped fighting for fear of human rights trials? Probably not: the July Semana article noted that, in fact, the Army’s statistics for the first half of 2009 showed an increase in operations, as well as soldiers killed and wounded.

If it were true, though, it would be a historically foolish overreaction to a legitimate outrage. After the horror of the “false positives” scandal, the Army’s proper reaction would be to improve training in international humanitarian law and focus more strictly on the rule of law in military operations. And to do so while continuing its offensive against the groups that are killing Colombian citizens every day.

To instead leave Colombians unprotected, while quietly blaming human rights prosecutors for its inaction, would be the height of irresponsibility. Let’s hope this “soldiers paralyzed by fear of human rights trials” notion is just a red herring.

Mar 06

  • On her six-country visit to Latin America this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed support for Argentine-British dialogue over oil drilling in the Falkland Islands (a step Great Britain has resisted); failed to convince Brazil to cast a Security Council vote in favor of sanctions on Iran; and “un-froze” all remaining aid to Honduras, including military aid, that was held up after the country’s June 28 coup. The un-freezing occurred even though, as Human Rights Watch noted, violent attacks on coup opponents continued in the month of February.
  • A handful of articles about Chile’s devastating earthquake explore the meaning of sending out the Army on its biggest internal-security mission since Gen. Augusto Pinochet left power.
  • Spanish judge Eloy Velasco is accusing Venezuela of facilitating collaboration between Colombia’s FARC guerrillas and Spain’s ETA separatist group — both on the U.S. and EU terror lists — on a range of activities including plots to assassinate Colombian presidents on visits to Spain. The judge’s indictment (PDF) focuses on a suspected ETA member living in Venezuela since 1989, Arturo Cubillas, who as of 2005 was an employee of the Venezuelan government’s Agriculture Ministry. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez rejected the charges. The indictment, which relies heavily on files recovered from the computer of deceased FARC leader Raúl Reyes, isn’t clear about whether the Venezuelan government knew about Cubillas’ alleged activities. Colombian President Álvaro Uribe cautioned on Thursday against jumping to conclusions: “The fact that it’s necessary to investigate a government official for participating in terrorism does not mean that that government or that state, are terrorist, or that they are participating in terrorism.”
  • The State Department’s International Narcotics Control bureau released its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. The report only includes 2009 coca-growing data for Bolivia; Colombia and Peru will have to wait until later in the year. The report is strongly critical of Bolivia for an apparent 50% increase in coca-growing from 2007 to 2009. The blog of the Cochabamaba-based Democracy Center offers a succinct analysis. The report also criticized Colombia, but praised Colombia, Peru and Ecuador. Praise for Mexico was tempered by concerns about cartels’ continued strength and the likelihood that narco-crime is moving increasingly south into Central America.
  • “The Obama administration’s newly released 2010 trade agenda gives little indication that the White House will quickly advance long-stalled pacts with Panama, Colombia or South Korea,” says CQ Politics.
  • The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, released her full report on the situation of human rights defenders in Colombia (PDF). She wrote that she is “deeply concerned about the widespread phenomenon of threats being made against human rights defenders and their families.”
  • After more than 11 years in captivity, FARC hostage Corporal Pablo Moncayo may finally be freed between the 12th and 14th of March. Colombia holds legislative elections on the 14th, though, and Defense Minister Gabriel Silva says that the military will not cease activities in any part of Colombian territory while electoral activities are occurring. So Moncayo may have to wait at least a few days more.
  • Thanks for Foreign Policy for publishing on Thursday a piece I wrote about Colombian politics now that President Uribe cannot run for a third term.
  • A little-noticed constitutional change last year could be interpreted as prohibiting former members of guerrilla or other armed groups from running for public office. The National Electoral Council must decide next week whether Gustavo Petro, the former M-19 guerrilla leader running a distant second in a February 27 opinion poll (PDF), can continue his campaign.
  • The Venezuelan Violence Observatory (OVV) found that only 9 people were arrested for every 100 murders committed in Venezuela between 2007 and 2009.
  • Ecuador’s El Comercio ran a very interesting analysis of how drug-trafficking corridors are shifting along the violent border between Putumayo, Colombia and Sucumbíos, Ecuador.
  • The House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere will hold a March 10 hearing on  ”U.S. Policy Toward the Americas in 2010 and Beyond.” The commander of U.S. Southern Command, Gen. Douglas Fraser, will give his annual “Posture Statement” before the congressional Armed Services Committees next week; he will be in the Senate on the morning of the 11th.
Mar 04
Guatemalan National Police Chief Baltazar González was arrested Tuesday, along with the head of the U.S.-aided police narcotics unit, for plotting to steal cocaine. (Photo Source: El Periódico [Guatemala].)


“The Government of Guatemala (GOG) is actively working to strengthen its drug enforcement capability. Extensive training, and the provision of equipment and infrastructure for the Department of Anti-Narcotics Operations (DOAN), and the Narcotics Prosecutors, continues.”

— From the 2003 Congressional Budget Justification of the State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement bureau, released in May 2002.

“Corruption forced the dissolution of the Department of Anti-Narcotics Operations (DOAN), which was plagued by scandals ranging from extra-judicial killings in Chocon, to the theft of 200% more drugs than were officially seized by police. INL support for interdiction efforts will include the training of the new counternarcotics unit (the SAIA), as well as operational support and equipment maintenance. … After the dissolution of the DOAN, INL provided extensive training to the 400 new SAIA agents at the Regional Counternarcotics Training Center.”

— From the 2004 Congressional Budget Justification of the State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement bureau, released in June 2003.


“Three high-level members of the Guatemalan Anti-Narcotics Police (Servicio de Analisis e Informacion Antinarcoticos, or SAIA) have been arrested on charges of conspiring to import and distribute cocaine in the United States. … The three defendants named in the indictment are Adan Castillo Lopez, a/k/a ‘Adan Castillo Aguilar,’ Jorge Aguilar Garcia, and Rubilio Orlando Palacios. Castillo is Chief of the SAIA and the highest ranking anti-narcotics officer in Guatemala. ‘More than corrupting the public trust, these Guatemalan Police Officials have been Trojan horses for the very addiction and devastation that they were entrusted to prevent,’ said DEA Administrator [Karen] Tandy.”

— From a November 16, 2005 Department of Justice press release.


“FY 2010 funds will support GOG efforts to recruit and vet new SAIA (anti drug police) by providing polygraph examiners and investigative training, and training that incorporates an anticorruption component. INL provides equipment and logistical support for SAIA law enforcement and interdiction operations.”

— From the 2010 Program and Budget Guide [PDF] (successor to the Congressional Budget Justification) of the State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement bureau, released in late 2009.

“The director-general of the Guatemalan police, the chief of its anti-narcotics unit and a third official were arrested Tuesday as suspects in a case involving the theft of a cocaine shipment and a handful of dead policemen. … [T]he five murdered policemen, five more under arrest and the three detained commanders formed part of a criminal structure dedicated to stealing drugs. [Arrested National Police Chief Baltazar] Gómez was, at the time, the chief of the Servicio de Analisis e Informacion Antinarcoticos (SAIA), [Current SAIA Director Nelly] Bonilla the deputy director, and the ten policemen were investigators or agents from that unit.”

Associated Press, reporting the evening of Tuesday, March 2, 2010.

Mar 02

Apologies for the light posting this week. I’ve written two articles for two other outlets in the last two days, which has left no time for blog entries. (I’ll link to those articles when they appear.)

Instead, here is a cross-post of a Colombia-related podcast produced for the CIP-LAWG-WOLA “Just the Facts” program. It’s an interview with Roxana Altholz of the University of California at Berkeley Law School Human Rights Clinic, author of “Truth Behind Bars,” a hard-hitting report on 30 Colombian paramilitary leaders’ extradition to the United States, which has complicated efforts to win justice for their victims. (The report was summarized in a recent entry to this blog.)


Feb 26

Constitutional Court President Mauricio Gonzalez Cuervo announces its 7-2 decision: the constitutional reform referendum bill was unconstitutional because of the way it was approved. President Álvaro Uribe cannot run for a third term on May 30.

President Uribe accepts the court’s decision.

This is a very good step for Colombia. Its institutions, especially the balance between democratic powers, showed real strength today. Mature and stable democracies do not change their constitutions to benefit one individual, no matter how popular. Colombia is to be congratulated.

The court’s decision is also good news for the Obama administration, which certainly had no desire to work with an “ally” governed by a third-term president who proved unable to leave power voluntarily.

Feb 25

Yesterday the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has frequently been critical of the Colombian government, issued a very strong report finding fault with the human rights and democracy situation in Venezuela.

In response, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez called the report “pure garbage” and announced that Venezuela will pull out of the Commission.

The report itself is 300 pages long; here is a quick summary prepared by CIP Intern Cristina Salas.

Democracy and Human Rights in Venezuela

The last visit of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to Venezuela occurred in May 2002, following the attempted coup that occurred in April and at President Chávez’s request.

To follow up on recommendations made in the Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Venezuela, which was published as a result of that visit, the Commission has tried unsuccessfully to get the State’s consent to visit the country. The Commission does not consider that these denials prevent it from analyzing the situation of human rights in Venezuela. The report Democracy and Human Rights in Venezuela reveals that human rights protected in the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights are being constrained in the following matters:

Political Rights and Participation in Public Life

Among the factors that hinder enjoyment of political rights in Venezuela is the Comptroller General of the Republic’s administrative resolutions preventing opposition candidates’ access to power. These disqualifications contravene the Inter-American Convention, since they were not the result of criminal convictions and were ordered lacking prior proceedings. The State also restricts some powers of democratically elected opposition authorities.

The Commission notes excessive use of state force and the actions of violent groups to punish, attack or intimidate people who express dissent or demonstrate against official policies. Over the past five years, criminal charges have been brought against more than 2,200 people in connection with their involvement in public demonstrations.

Independence and Separation of State Powers

The independence and impartiality of the judiciary system is one of the weakest points in Venezuelan democracy. The vagueness of the Organic Law of the Supreme Court of Justice allows judicial officials to be appointed discretionarily and without being subject to competition. Also, since most of them have provisionary status, they can be removed if they make decisions contrary to government’s interests.

Freedom of Thought and Expression

Freedom of thought and expression is hampered by violent acts of intimidation committed by private groups against journalists and media outlets, by discrediting declarations made by high-ranking public officials against the media and journalists, and by opening administrative proceedings with high levels of discretion.

Serious violations of the rights to life and humane treatment in Venezuela as a result of the victims’ exercise of free expression include the deaths of two reporters. The report points out cases of prior censorship, the proceedings to cancel television and radio stations’ broadcasting concessions, and the order to cease 32 stations’ transmissions. The Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, which governs freedom of expression, is vague and metes out harsh punishments decided by a body of the executive. Moreover, the offenses of desacato (disrespect) and vilipendio (contempt) introduced in the Penal Code in 2005 impose criminal liability for the exercise of freedom of expression.

President Chavez relies on the legal framework to broadcast his speeches simultaneously across the media, with no time constraints. The duration and frequency of these presidential blanket broadcasts could be considered abusive as the content might not always be serving the public interest.

The recent Organic Education Law, meanwhile, gives the state broad margin to implement the principles and values that should guide education. The Inter-American Commission is also concerned about the possibility that authorities could close down private educational institutions.

The Defense of Human Rights and the Freedom of Association

Human rights defenders in Venezuela suffer attacks, threats, harassment, and even killings. Authorities have opened unfounded judicial investigations or criminal proceedings against those who have criticized the government. Witnesses and victim’s relatives are also intimidated if they denounce to state authorities. The Commission has knowledge of six cases of violations of the right to life of human rights defenders between 1997 and 2007. Furthermore, high-ranking public officials undermine defenders’ and human rights NGOs’ authority and deny them access to public information.

The Right to Life, To Humane Treatment, and to Personal Liberty and Security

Public insecurity is an issue of gravest concern for the Commission. In many cases, the state’s response to public insecurity has been inadequate or incompatible with respect for human rights. The Commission considers that citizens who receive military training should not be involved in domestic defense, as is done in Venezuela through the Bolivarian National Militia.

In 2008, the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman of Venezuela documented these staggering figures in relation to excessive use of state force: 134 complaints involving arbitrary killings, allegedly by state security agencies; 2,197 complaints of violations of humane treatment by state security officials; 87 allegations of torture; 33 cases of alleged forced disappearances reported during 2008, and 34 during 2007.

Homicides, kidnappings, contract killings, and rural violence are the most frequently security problems that Venezuela’s citizens face. In 2008, there were a total of 13,780 homicides in the country, an average of 1,148 murders a month and 38 every day. [That murder rate, 49 per 100,000, is higher than Colombia's - 34 per 100,000 - and one of the highest in the world.]

The Commission’s report also notes with extreme concern that in Venezuela, violent groups with police and military-like training such as the Movimiento Tupamaro, Colectivo La Piedrita, Colectivo Alexis Vive, Unidad Popular Venezolana, and Grupo Carapaica are perpetrating acts of violence with the involvement or acquiescence of state agents.

The report claims the main problems in Venezuela’s violent prisons include delays at trial, overcrowding, lack of basic services, failure to separate convicts from remanded prisoners, and presence of weapons. More than 65% of Venezuela’s inmates have not yet been convicted and remain in preventive custody. Impunity reigns in most cases of serious human rights violations.

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

On a positive note, the report highlights Venezuela’s achievements in ensuring the literacy of the majority of the population; reducing poverty, unemployment and infant mortality rate; expanding health coverage among the most vulnerable sectors; increasing people’s access to basic public services; and great progress toward attaining the Millennium Development Goals.

However, one issue relating to economic, social, and cultural rights is the constant intervention and political control of the State in the functioning of trade unions, hampering the right of free association.

Feb 24

Update as of 2:45PM Thursday: The “La Silla Vacía” website, which practices serious journalism and is unlikely to blow its credibility on a story likely to be quickly proven incorrect, is reporting that the referendum does not have the votes in the Constitutional Court and that “Uribe will not be able to run for re-election.”

Update as of 5:15PM: Rumor is that the court will announce its decision on Friday. No new information about what they might decide.

El Tiempo reports that Colombia’s Constitutional Court, in session right now, is near a decision on the legality of a referendum to allow President Álvaro Uribe to run for a third term. That decision could come today.

Sources in the Constitutional Court confirmed to El Tiempo that yesterday, in what was the fifth hearing about the referendum, a majority trend was revealed in favor of the position of Judge Humberto Sierra Porto, which proposes to reject the initiative.

The same sources even said that the court’s decision, which will resolve the greatest political crossroads of recent years, could come in today’s session, or next Friday’s at the latest.

If the court finds against the referendum, somebody other than Álvaro Uribe will be elected president on May 30 (or in a subsequent second round). Stay tuned.

Feb 22
When they ventured back into El Salado in November 2001, 21 months after the massacre, residents found their houses completely overgrown with vegetation. (Photo from the report of the Historical Memory Group of the CNRR.)

Ten years ago yesterday, paramilitaries finished a four-day massacre in the village of El Salado, in the Montes de María region near Colombia’s Caribbean coast. About 450 paramilitaries, unchallenged by the security forces, took control of the town and killed more than 60 of its residents. They did so without firing a shot, torturing their victims and using implements like knives and stones.

The massacre was one of the worst in Colombian history, though only one of 42 that the paramilitaries carried out in the tiny Montes de María region in 1999, 2000 and 2001. Of the 450 paramilitary fighters who participated in this act of extreme cruelty, only 15 have ever been condemned by Colombia’s justice system. Of the military personnel who allowed it to happen and possibly aided and abetted it, only four have been punished, with disciplinary sanctions.

Here is a translation of a column about El Salado by El Tiempo columnist Daniel Samper, which appeared in yesterday’s edition of the Colombian daily. Also recommended is the excellent report published last September by the Historical Memory Group of the Colombian government’s National Commission for Reconciliation and Reparations.

Colombia, an unlucky country
Daniel Samper Pizano
El Tiempo (Colombia), February 21, 2010

El Salado is a two-hundred-year-old village located in the Montes de María. 18 kilometers away is Carmen de Bolívar, which inspired the famous porro (folksong) of its most beloved son, the composer Lucho Bermúdez. At other times, El Salado was a prosperous town, known as the “tobacco capital of the [Caribbean] coast” and celebrated for its vegetables. 20 years ago it had large storehouses, good public and health services, a high school and 33 stores.

Now it is famous as the scene of one of the cruelest massacres in our history. Ten years ago today was the final day of an orgy of blood that had begun on February 16, 2000 in some nearby hamlets and, starting on the 17th, began on the streets of El Salado. During more than 70 hours, three paramilitary groups set up a machine of death in the town without being bothered by any authority. They had fought the guerrillas previously, and ended up fleeing, and so they fell upon the civilian population.

The Historical Memory Group’s report about these crimes (La masacre de El Salado: esa guerra no era nuestra, ediciones Taurus-Semana, 2009) affirms that the first troops, made up of marines, appeared on the 19th at 5 PM, “three days after the massacre had begun, and they only came by land, without air support, while two paramilitary helicopters overflew the territory of the massacre during at least three days.” While 450 men commanded by Salvatore Mancuso, “Jorge 40″ and Carlos Castaño committed all kinds of atrocities in El Salado, the Marine Brigade was off looking for guerrillas and cattle thieves in other zones. According to the Inspector-General [Procuraduría], the police and military “omitted the compliance of their functions.”

El Salado’s was a foretold massacre. Two months before, a helicopter scattered flyers over the town warning the inhabitants to eat, drink and celebrate the New Year because they had few days left. For years the town was a victim of the guerrillas’ merciless attacks and extortions, and now came the paramilitaries’ threats for supposed complicity with the FARC. Few inhabitants thought that the threats would be carried out. But in the course of four days the paramilitaries killed 61 citizens, among them three minors under 18 years old and ten elderly people.

Out of respect for our Sunday readers, I will abstain from describing the cruelties that were committed: from women impaled through the vagina to men beheaded with knives. At the end, 4,000 people abandoned the area, and only a few hundred remained in what became a ghost town. Thus began the interminable history of those displaced by violence in Bolívar. Many ended up begging on the street corners of the coastal cities.

15 paramilitaries — none of them of any importance in the hierarchy — were found guilty in trials related to the massacre, and four marine officers received disciplinary sanctions.

A few years ago, numerous displaced people decided to return to El Salado. They had, and continue to have, the generous support of several foundations, NGOs, authorities and private businesses. But upon returning, they discovered that the region’s lands, which had provided them with food, had suffered a reverse land reform: large investors controlled them, and a hectare [2.5 acres] that was worth 300,000 pesos (US$150) today costs ten times as much.

The case of El Salado was dramatic, and is still more so because it is a metaphor for what happens in Colombia. Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians get caught in between the opposing forces, and on occasion do not even have the authorities’ protection. The justice that comes later is slow and mean. And someone is growing rich through this war. The rebuilding of El Salado could be a note of optimism in a depressing panorama.

Feb 21
  • Take half an hour and watch “Colombia’s Cocaine Trail,” Matthew Bristow’s remarkable video about the drug war in Colombia, posted in 3 sections on the website of the British newspaper The Guardian. Over the course of two years, Bristow talked to everyone, from coca producers to FARC guerrillas to manual eradicators to members of the security forces. The Guardian doesn’t allow its videos to be embedded, so visit each link separately:
    • Part 1: The Farmers – In the first of three films, he meets the farmers, and looks at their battle with a government determined to eradicate the crop
    • Part 2: The Labs – Farmers often have little choice who they sell their coca paste to. The buyers take it to labs deep in the jungle to turn into cocaine, but anti-narcotics police are on the trail
    • Part 3: Patrolling the Coast – Colombian coastguards use intelligence to catch smugglers as they attempt to get cocaine out of the country and on to Mexico. It’s a risky business for all involved, especially the informants
  • Several compelling videos accompany the online presentation of Human Rights Watch’s recent report on Colombia’s “new” paramilitary groups.
  • Journalist Felipe Zuleta’s twenty-minute inquiry into the Colombian military’s “false positives” scandal, in which soldiers killed civilians and presented their bodies as those of armed-group members killed in combat, in order to reap rewards.
    • Part One
    • Part Two
  • Noticias Uno has chilling video about a memo from the Colombian presidency’s intelligence service (the DAS) giving instructions for how exactly to make a phone threat to journalist Claudia Julieta Duque and her 10-year-old daughter.
  • Independent journalist Hollman Morris talks with María Elvira Samper about the sudden closure of Cambio, a Colombian newsmagazine that had been carrying out some aggressive investigative reporting. Samper says she believes that the closure owed to heavy pressure from Álvaro Uribe’s government.
    • Part 1
    • Part 2
    • Part 3
    • Part 4
    • Part 5
  • Added 7:00 AM February 22: A campaign ad from Conservative Party presidential candidate Andrés Felipe Arias, President Uribe’s former minister of agriculture, presenting leftist opposition senators as FARC guerrilla supporters.
Feb 17


It’s been almost two years since the Colombian government extradited most of the old AUC paramilitary leadership to the United States to face drug charges. While it is positive to see these once-powerful warlords behind bars, they are here to be tried for narcotrafficking only — not for the thousands of murders and other human rights crimes for which they are responsible.

The extraditions have brought nearly two years of additional frustration for victims trying to recover stolen property or learn what happened to their loved ones; for prosecutors trying to dismantle the paramilitaries’ criminal networks; and for investigators trying to determine who in Colombia’s politics and armed forces gave the murderous militias support, funding and arms.

The Berkeley Law School’s International Human Rights Law Clinic released a report yesterday that is by far the best source of information and analysis on what has happened since the extraditions began. “Truth behind Bars: Colombian Paramilitary Leaders in U.S. Custody” (PDF) lays out the apparently inadvertent damage that the extraditions have done to the cause of truth and justice in Colombia. It also, however, recommends workable steps that the U.S. and Colombian governments might take to set things right.

Here are just a few excerpts from the report. Download the full 4.1MB PDF file here.

Most extradited paramilitaries have dropped out of the “Justice and Peace” process, and thus do not have to speak to Colombian authorities at all.

Only five of the thirty Defendants have continued their voluntary statements at the Justice and Peace hearings from the United States. Defendant Salvatore Mancuso participated in four version libre confession sessions from the United States, more than the other extradited leaders. During these sessions, he detailed several massacres and trade unionist murders. However, on September 30, 2009, Mancuso announced his decision to withdraw from the process. His announcement came three days after fellow extradited AUC leader Diego Murillo Bejarano made a similar announcement. In letters to Colombian authorities, both Defendants cited unexplained delays, the inability to confer with subordinates, and threats to family members in Colombia as the reasons for their decisions. Colombian authorities have confirmed the difficulties in securing the Defendants’ continued participation. Of thirty-nine hearing requests made by Colombian authorities during a five- month period, only ten were satisfied.

Victims are cut out almost completely. U.S. prosecutors have chosen not to apply the Crime Victims Rights Act (CVRA).

To preserve victim involvement in the Justice and Peace process, Colombian and U.S. authorities initially planned for Defendants to testify via video conference for viewing by accredited victims in Colombia. In practice, however, Colombian authorities have cancelled several transmissions because of lack of funds. Similarly, U.S. custody of Defendants has frustrated victims’ ability to question perpetrators directly, as stipulated by the Justice and Peace Law. …

Colombian victims have been unable to pursue economic redress against Defendants through the U.S. criminal proceedings. In theory, victims are eligible to collect compensation from Defendants and to inform the terms of a plea bargain and eventual sentence under the U.S. Crime Victims Rights Act (CVRA). However, U.S. prosecutors have opposed the efforts of Colombian victims to intervene and have refused to acknowledge them as victims under the statute. This approach prevents victims from even learning of the status of the prosecutions of Defendants.

The extraditions have effectively blocked other judicial investigations aiming to dismantle paramilitarism and punish collaborators, including the “para-politics” investigations. U.S. officials aren’t even responding to information requests coming from Colombian prosecutors and even Supreme Court justices. Those who helped the paramilitaries now have little reason to fear that the extradited leaders might reveal their identities.

Colombian investigations outside the Justice and Peace process have been stymied by the extradition of Defendants. At the direction of the United States, Colombia has forwarded all requests for judicial cooperation to the justice attaché at the U.S. Embassy. However, Colombian judges
and prosecutors report that U.S. officials have not been sufficiently responsive. Transmission of information has been delayed and cancellations of exchanges are frequent. In a May 21, 2009 letter to a Colombian non-governmental organization, the Colombian Human Rights Unit identified fifty-four unanswered requests for judicial assistance. … Colombia’s Supreme Court has encountered similar difficulties. For instance, since late 2008, the Supreme Court has made multiple requests to take statements from Defendants, including AUC leaders Carlos Jiménez Naranjo, Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, and Diego Murillo Bejarano. However, as of October 28, 2009, U.S. authorities had not responded.

The report has three recommendations for the U.S. government.

  • Create an effective and efficient procedure for judicial cooperation. The United States should review current policy to identify the cause of delays in responding to requests for cooperation. New procedures should ensure that U.S. authorities share information with and respond to requests by Colombian authorities in a timely manner to minimize any impact of the extraditions on open investigations in Colombia.
  • Incentivize extradited paramilitary leaders to disclose details about all their crimes and the identities of their accomplices in the military, government and national and foreign businesses. The United States should actively encourage extradited leaders to testify about their crimes and allies by conditioning sentence reductions or other benefits achieved through plea-bargaining on effective cooperation. Possible benefits of cooperation should include provision of visas to family members of Defendants under threat in Colombia. … The U.S. Department of Justice should reverse its current policy of taking “no position” on whether Defendants should cooperate with Colombian authorities.
  • Initiate investigations for torture committed by extradited paramilitary leaders. [P]ursuant to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which the U.S. has ratified, the State Party in whose territory an alleged torturer is found has a duty to either extradite that individual, or to “submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution.” This duty is also supported by U.S. domestic anti-torture legislation. … The United States should hold extradited leaders accountable for all their crimes under federal law, including torture, and promote justice for Colombian victims.
Feb 16

The department of Córdoba in northwestern Colombia, home to President Álvaro Uribe’s large cattle ranch, spent most of the past 15 years strongly controlled by paramilitary leaders. It was here that Salvatore Mancuso and the Castaño brothers formed the United Self-Defense Groups of Córdoba and Urabá, then later pioneered the AUC as a national paramilitary umbrella. With little of its territory in dispute, Córdoba under the warlords’ rule was relatively peaceful.

That is not so today. Violence is increasing in Córdoba, especially in the department’s southern half. The paramilitary groups’ heirs are fighting each other for control of territory, legal economic investment projects, and illegal drug trafficking routes. And the civilian population is caught in the the middle.

In October, three church-based humanitarian and conflict-resolution groups sent a delegation to Córdoba to evaluate the security situation. The Christian Center for Justice, Peace and Nonviolent Action (Justapaz), Lutheran World Relief (LWR) and the Peace Commission of the Evangelical Council of Colombia (CEDECOL) have produced a 5-page report (PDF) describing what they learned. The Colombian government must view it as a call to action. The “new” paramilitary groups are becoming a major security threat, and the civilian population is being victimized and requires far more attention.

Here are excerpts from the three organizations’ report.

The Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (best known by the acronym AUC) were officially demobilized in 2003. Since this time, there has been a dramatic difference between government proclamations of peace and the reality suffered by local communities. In Cordoba, victims and social leaders testify to violent actions by the rearmed paramilitary groups (Águilas Negras, Autodefensas Gaitanistas, Los Paisas and Los Rastrojos). These “new” groups dispute territorial control and use the same military modus operandi that the supposedly demobilized paramilitary groups used. This includes collusion with public security forces and some governmental agencies.

The four groups are independent of one another, but documented cases and testimony from local communities evidence collaboration between the Águilas Negras and the Autodefensas Gaitanistas on one side, and pitted against the Paisas and Rastrojos on the other. …

Residents of Córdoba explain that before the demobilization, while violence reigned, they at least understood who was in control, knew who to negotiate with when given the opportunity and, to a certain degree, could even predict when violence would strike and why. … With the absence of leadership, and inadequate state programs aimed at apprehending and truly reintegrating paramilitaries, former mid-level paramilitary leaders and foot soldiers regrouped. The lines of command are unclear, resulting in uncertainty and chaos for local communities in southern Córdoba. That said, land disputes such as that of the Quindio land tract and community illustrate military operations at the behest of large landholders seeking to extend their control. …

Confrontation of paramilitarism comes with a cost. Entire church communities fall victim to assassinations, threats, and forced displacement. … Between January and October of 2009, alleged rearmed paramilitary groups assassinated six evangelical church leaders in southern Córdoba and caused the displacement of five communities, forcing at least 265 families or 1,230 people from their homes. For many this was a repeat offense. …

Regional and church analysts cite economic interests that “demand” unfettered access to land currently inhabited by campesinos and indigenous communities as a driver of violence displacing people from their lands. The most often cited culprit is drug-trafficking. At least as insidious, however, is big business development in the region such as the cultivation of African palm, mining of coal, gold, and nickel and the earlier development of hydroelectric dams. …

The Justapaz and the Cedecol Peace Commission documentation project registered complaints of families displaced by rearmed paramilitary groups who were refused reception by the Colombian Presidency’s Agency for Social Action (Acción Social). The agency reportedly denied them the right to be recognized as victims of displacement for declaring that the responsible parties were new paramilitary groups. According to community testimony, this is a recurrent practice.

Feb 15
Medellín’s gang-ridden Comuna 13 neighborhood.

Note as of February 16: we’ve added a podcast about this topic to the “Just the Facts” website.


Only two or three years ago, Medellín was a showcase for Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s security policies. An 80-percent drop in homicides [PDF] brought new prosperity and confidence. A series of U.S. congressional delegations, organized by both governments to promote the free-trade agreement signed in 2006, toured the city to view the “Medellín Miracle.”

The progress owed in part to the Uribe government’s deployments of soldiers and police to the violent slums that surround the city, and in part to the municipal government’s heavy investments in basic services in those neighborhoods.

But another factor shared the credit: an unusually high degree of harmony between the drug-funded, paramilitary-linked gangs responsible for most of Medellín’s criminality. The members of this loose network of gangs, often known as the “Office of Envigado” — the name comes from the Medellín suburb where Pablo Escobar established a group of hitmen — feud as often as they cooperate, with very bloody results.


The unusual period of harmony owed to a monopoly. From 2003 until 2008, the barrios’ gangs were under the solid control of one man: Diego Fernando Murillo, alias “Don Berna,” a longtime drug-underworld figure who became head of the AUC paramilitaries’ “Cacique Nutibara Bloc.” Likely in cooperation with the Colombian Army, Don Berna pushed guerrilla militias out of the barrios. Then he pushed out, or coopted, all other paramilitary and narco-gangs in the city.

When the Nutibara Bloc “demobilized” in late 2003, the order went out from Don Berna: keep violent behavior to a minimum. The ensuing period of peace in Medellín has been called “DonBernabilidad,” a play on the Spanish word for “governability.”

“DonBernabilidad” ended with the paramilitary boss’s extradition to the United States in May 2008. With the leviathan gone, the fractured Office of Envigado gangs began fighting each other again. Crime rates began rising dramatically; in 2009 the number of murders in this city of 2.5 million reached 2,178, more than double the 2008 figure.

Seventy percent of those murders, by some estimates, owe to fighting between two main factions of the Office of Envigado: one headed by Erick Vargas, alias “Sebastián,” and one headed by Maximiliano Bonilla, alias “Valenciano.” Though imprisoned, both leaders continue to exercise very strong control over their factions, which together control about 80 percent of Medellín’s gangs.

The “Committee for Life”

For this reason, a committee of prominent Medellín citizens spent three months shuttling from jail to jail seeking to broker a non-agression pact between Sebastián and Valenciano. That pact was achieved on February 1, and the number of murders in Medellín is reportedly down since that date.

The non-governmental mediators, calling themselves the “Committee for Life” (Comisión por la Vida), were a diverse and influential group:

  • Jaime Jaramillo Panesso, one of ten members of the Colombian government’s National Commission for Reparations and Reconciliation, who served as the Committee’s spokesman;
  • Francisco Galán, until recently a leader of the ELN guerrilla group;
  • Monsignor Alberto Giraldo, the archbishop of Medellín; and
  • Jorge Gaviria, former director of the Medellin government’s program to reintegrate ex-combatants. Gaviria is the brother of José Obdulio Gaviria, who until last year was one of President Álvaro Uribe’s closest advisors, and who is now an ultra-right-wing columnist in the Colombian daily El Tiempo, where he accuses all of Uribe’s detractors, from NGOs to members of the U.S. Congress, of being FARC supporters. Both Gaviria brothers are first cousins of Pablo Escobar.

Who authorized talks with narcotraffickers?

As it carried out its prison negotiations between the Medellín factions, the committee counted with the Uribe government’s authorization. In November, President Uribe authorized the Catholic Church and civil-society groupings to initiate dialogues with criminal groups (not guerrillas) operating in their territories, for a three-month period, with the goal of convincing them “to turn themselves in to justice.”

When news of the Medellín “pact” leaked, however, Colombia’s media was immediately abuzz with charges that the government had authorized a “pact with narcotraffickers.” The Uribe administration backed off: Frank Pearl, the presidency’s “high commissioner for peace,” told reporters, “The members of the civil society commission had very good intentions, but it is possible that at some moment they lost sight of their goal, which was nothing other than the [criminal groups'] submission to justice.” For his part, Medellín Mayor Alonso Salazar, who has rejected negotiations with criminal groups but whose beleaguered administration could benefit from a break in the violence, said he was aware of the work of the “Committee for Life” but was not participating.

What did the gang leaders get in return for agreeing to the pact?

Committee spokesman Panesso insists that the Office of Envigado factions’ top leaders got no privileges in exchange for calling a truce. “It is an action of good will between them, at our request,” he told reporters. “We found that they are tired of war, that there has been a bloodletting that is not in their interest. And if it’s not in their interest, much less in society’s interest. They told us that what they needed was someone to mediate and help them come to an understanding.”

However, the Committee proposed that, “in order to continue its work,” the criminal bosses should all be transferred to prisons near Medellín — a step that would put them in much greater control over their syndicates. And indeed, it appears that a few key members of the Office of Envigado were recently moved to the Itagüí prison on Medellín’s outskirts.

A model, or a mistake?

For years, the Uribe government has prohibited, or limited very strictly, so-called “regional dialogues” with guerrilla groups about issues like hostage releases or limiting landmine use. It seems odd, then, that the government would so readily authorize citizen dialogues with imprisoned organized-crime leaders. (Even if the talks seek only to discuss “submission to justice,” the implication is that something will be offered in return.)

This inconsistency doesn’t mean that the “Committee for Life” was a loose cannon whose work should never have been authorized. Brokering a pact with imprisoned criminal leaders would be acceptable if:

  1. It truly brings social peace, measured in an immediate drop in crime.
  2. It truly happens in exchange for nothing. The leaders should not get any benefits from the state, since they are still running criminal organizations.
  3. It happens amid a concerted effort to strengthen the rule of law — and especially to capture the imprisoned criminal bosses’ commanders “on the outside” and dismantle their networks. The communications between the jailed leaders and their underlings should be a rich source of intelligence.

These pacts are not acceptable, though, if all three of the above conditions are not in place. The third one in particular seems to be badly absent right now.

Feb 13
Presenting his cabinet, many of them business leaders, Chilean President-Elect Sebastián Pinera hung a thumbdrive containing policy plans around the neck of each minister-to-be. (Article and photo source.)
  • Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva visited a snowbound Washington this week and was told that the Obama administration remains firm about cutting 2011 military aid, and that 2010 ratification of the U.S.-Colombia free-trade agreement is unlikely. “A high-ranking State Department official had assured him the reduction in aid was part of across-the-board belt-tightening in President Obama’s 2011 budget proposal,” Reuters reported. Democratic Senator Chris Dodd told Silva that the free-trade deal’s approval must wait because “this is a complex electoral year with a very heavy domestic agenda.” Meanwhile President Obama, interviewed by Bloomberg, “said he would press for passage this year of free-trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia, though he cautioned that ‘different glitches’ must first be negotiated with each country.”
  • Eight years is too little time for a country that has had only 47 years of peace in 200 years,” Colombian President Álvaro Uribe said Friday. But Semana magazine looks at what remains to be done to legalize Uribe’s candidacy for a third consecutive term, and concludes that he has run out of time, that “it doesn’t fit in the electoral calendar.” A Centro Nacional de Consultoría poll found 54 percent of Colombians now opposed to a third term for Uribe; this is the first poll to show a majority against re-election. Politically, the president has had a tough two weeks; Semana documents seven threats to Uribe’s continued popularity.
  • The VoteBien website is doing a solid job of documenting organized-crime influence and other irregularities in the campaign for Colombia’s March 14 legislative elections. Its latest report outs a Conservative Party senator whose office marked World Press Freedom Day by giving envelopes containing 150,000 pesos (~US$75) to twenty reporters in Meta department.
  • A group of prominent Medellín citizens, working with government authorization, brokered a truce between factions of the “Envigado Office,” the network of drug-running gangs responsible for a recent upsurge of violence in the city. The “La Silla Vacía” website worries that while the pact may reduce violence in Medellín, it may signal a return to the time when the government tolerated organized crime in exchange for social peace, as occurred in the mid-2000s when since-extradited paramilitary boss “Don Berna” ran the Envigado Office. It is unclear what the gangsters got in return for agreeing to the new pact, though El Tiempo notes that the group’s jailed top hitman was abruptly moved from prison to house arrest.
  • Laura Chinchilla, Costa Rica’s current vice president and a former security minister, was elected president Sunday with nearly 47 percent of the vote, more than 20 percent ahead of her nearest rival. Her party, the PLN, controls only 23 of 57 seats in the Congress, which means her political agenda may end up being modest.