Syndicate content Link to our RSS feed / Link to our podcast feed

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Podcast: The week ahead: February 14-18, 2011

The Obama administration's 2012 aid request for Latin America. Two hearings in Congress this week about U.S. policy toward the region. A bizarre episode highlights problems in U.S. relations with Argentina.

Subscribe to the "Just the Facts" podcast here and on iTunes. Thank you for listening.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The 2012 aid request

Note: this post does not discuss all U.S. aid to Latin America. There are other sources, though the accounts in the foreign aid request discussed here make up 78% of all U.S. aid to the region, and 87% of all economic aid, since 1996. See the 3 important caveats at the end of this post.

As the Obama administration seeks to close the huge U.S. deficit without raising taxes, cutting defense or reducing entitlements, programs like foreign assistance are likely to suffer reductions. And foreign assistance to regions beyond the Middle East — like Latin America — is still more likely to get cut back.

That is exactly what the White House foresees in the 2012 federal budget request that it sent to Congress yesterday. The request for State Department and Foreign Operations assistance — the foreign aid budget bill, which accounts for most U.S. aid to Latin America and the Caribbean — is being cut deeply.

The request includes about $2.07 billion in new aid to Latin America and the Caribbean for 2012. That would be the lowest amount since 2007, and a reduction of 18.1 percent from 2009.

Since 1996, the year for which we began tracking aid for the “Just the Facts” project, U.S. aid to the Western Hemisphere has spiked twice. The first time was 1999-2000, when the Clinton administration provided a big rebuilding aid package to Central America after Hurricane Mitch, then launched “Plan Colombia,” a large package of counter-drug aid to Colombia and its neighbors. The second bulge in aid appears on the above chart in 2008, and is flattening now. That is the “Mérida Initiative,” the Bush administration’s big aid package for Mexico and Central America. An additional aid spike appears in 2010: the U.S. response to the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

The same chart without the Hurricane Mitch and Haiti earthquake aid shows clearly that the second aid “spike” is ending. Unless Congress provides a big supplemental package of aid to the region this year — which is unlikely — the wave of aid that began with Mérida in 2008 will have crested.

Looking at the first chart by type of aid, rather than by country, yields an interesting result: nearly all of the 2012 aid cut would come from military and police assistance. 23 percent of the aid in the 2012 request for Latin America and the Caribbean is military and police aid. That is a big change from 2007, when the Bush administration and a Republican-majority Congress approved a package of 40 percent military and police aid.

Military and police aid to the region through this budget bill would fall by 43 percent from 2009 to 2012. Most of the reduction would come from Colombia and Mexico. Military and police assistance to Colombia would drop by 91 million (31 percent) from 2009 to 2012.

Military and police aid to Mexico would drop even more steeply. 2009, the beginning of the Mérida aid package, was a year of big outlays for expensive military and police equipment like helicopters; military and police aid to Mexico totaled $387 million that year. With those big-ticket deliveries out of the way, the focus of U.S. assistance to Mexico has shifted to the long-term institutional strengthening that Mexico’s law enforcement and justice systems urgently require. This has meant less military-police aid: $112 million in 2011 and $102 million in 2012.

Though a smaller aid recipient, Bolivia is also notable for a sharp drop in U.S. assistance. Foreign Operations military and police aid to Bolivia, once regularly above $30 million per year, would barely exceed $10 million in 2012. This reflects the poor state of U.S. relations with Evo Morales’s government.

Removing Colombia and Mexico from the picture, however, reveals an interesting result: minus those two countries, military and police aid to the rest of the region actually increases from 2009 to 2012, from $185 million to $186 million.

Without Colombia and Mexico, the Andes, post-Aristide Haiti, and Central America dominate the military and police aid picture. The wars on drugs and organized crime are still the main missions underlying this aid.

Non-military, economic assistance to the region would also be cut in 2012, but far less than military and police assistance. The 2012 aid request foresees a 5.0 percent drop in economic and social assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean from 2009 levels. Development and institution-building aid to the region would be spared most of the budget-cutting pain.

A few additional observations:

  • Colombia: This may be the first Foreign Operations aid request we have ever seen that would provide Colombia with more economic and social assistance ($201.7 million) than military and police assistance ($196 million). (Whether this is truly accurate depends on how much of the “International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement” program would pay for military versus nonmilitary aid — the preliminary budget documents released yesterday do not specify. We estimate this by extrapolating from the proportions in the 2011 request, and come up with a minority-military aid request for the first time.)

  • Mexico: During her January visit to Mexico, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke of $500 million in assistance to Mexico for this year. That package does not appear in the Foreign Operations request, which would give Mexico $330 million in 2011 and $333 million in 2012.

Perhaps there is a big supplemental package of aid to Mexico in the works for later this year. Or it could be that the Secretary was including Defense-budget aid too, though this would have to increase substantially to bring the aid total to $500 million. Or maybe she was referring to aid appropriated in past years that is scheduled to be delivered this year.

  • Central America: Visiting Central America last week, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield pledged $200 million in new assistance to Central America. The aid, Brownfield said, would be part of the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), the Obama administration’s framework for law enforcement and administration-of-justice aid for the seven Central American countries. This $200 million, however, does not appear in the 2012 aid request, which includes $100 million in CARSI funds to Central America for next year. In fact, the Foreign Operations request appears to show assistance to Central America declining by about 12 percent from 2009 to 2012.

Caveat 1: Recall that this post only covers assistance to the region through the State/Foreign Operations aid bill. The Defense Department also gives aid too; reports about how this aid gets spent are hard to obtain, and only produced after aid funds have been spent. Actual military and police aid amounts may be as much as one-third higher than they appear in this post.

Caveat 2: This post also leaves out smaller economic-aid programs that aren’t reported by region in this preliminary aid request, like PL 480 (“Food for Peace”) and the Peace Corps. Actual economic aid totals may be about one-seventh higher than they appear in this post.

Caveat 3: All aid figures here are in nominal dollars. Adjusting this data for inflation could yield interesting results, but we did not do that here.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Week in Review

  • Colombia’s FARC guerrillas released hostage Marcos Baquero (kidnapped June 2009) on Wednesday. As of this writing (Friday), they have just released Armando Acuña (May 2009) and Henry López (May 2010). On Sunday, they are to release Guillermo Solórzano (June 2007) and Salín Sanmiguel (May 2008). While the unilateral releases have led some analysts to speculate about peace prospects, the FARC’s kidnapping of two paper-company workers on Thursday in Cauca puts a damper on things.

  • Meanwhile Colombia’s Free Country Foundation, an NGO founded by former Vice President Francisco Santos, found the first annual increase in kidnapping in the country since 2002: a 32 percent jump in kidnappings from 2009 (213) to 2010 (282).

  • On a visit to Central America and Colombia, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield spoke of a plan to provide Central American countries with $200 million in new assistance to combat drug trafficking and the influence of Mexican cartels. Brownfield also mentioned a desire to create “synergies” and a “single umbrella” to cover U.S. aid to Mexico (the Mérida Initiative), Central America (the Central America Regional Security Initiative) and Colombia (the Colombia Security and Development Initiative, a successor to Plan Colombia).

  • Speaking in Utah on Monday, the U.S. Army’s number-two civilian official was asked about America’s “strategic blind spots.” He replied:

    One of them in particular for me is Latin America and in particular Mexico. As all of you know, there is a form of insurgency in Mexico with the drug cartels that’s right on our border. This isn’t just about drugs and about illegal immigrants. This is about, potentially, a takeover of a government by individuals who are corrupt.

    After Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used the term “insurgency” to describe Mexico’s violence in September, President Obama walked back her comments a bit. Similarly, Army Undersecretary Joseph Westphal took back his statements the next day after they stirred an outcry from the Mexican government.

  • For the first time in years, Venezuelan authorities announced the national homicide rate: 48 murders for every 100,000 citizens. This is higher than Colombia (34) and about the same as Guatemala (46).

  • Brazil has long been considering a multi-billion-dollar purchase of high-tech fighter aircraft, which would be the biggest arms sale to Latin America since – well, probably ever. The Lula government had been leaning toward a purchase of French jets, due mainly to French promises of technology transfers. The new government of Dilma Rousseff, however, indicated to U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner – who paid a visit to Brazil Monday – that it was now leaning toward a U.S.-made model, Boeing’s F-18. Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim, who served under Lula but stayed in his post, is reportedly considering resigning out of disagreement with the new government’s preference.

  • Brazil may be near another big arms buy: a 2.9-billion-pound (US$4.64 billion) purchase of warships from the United Kingdom. This after a major deal from France last year, which includes a nuclear-powered submarine.

  • Sometime in the past 24 hours or so, the State Department posted to its website the Foreign Military Training Report for 2009 (see our post on the recently released 2008 report). At first glance, it’s a bit surprising to see no significant increase in training to Mexico. More details and analysis of this data-rich report will be coming soon.

  • A Republican push for ratification of pending free trade agreements with Colombia included a floor statement by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), a report issued by Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking minority member Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), and a hearing in the House Ways and Means Committee. At the latter, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk “declined to commit to bringing the Colombia and Panama agreements to Congress within six months.”

  • Meanwhile, because of a larger trade impasse in the U.S. Congress, Colombia and Ecuador are to lose their preferential access to the U.S. market when the Andean Trade Preferences and Drug Elimination Act (ATPDEA) expires this weekend. The longstanding measure, which is repeatedly renewed, is likely to be passed next week.

  • A summit of Latin American and Arab leaders is scheduled to be held in Lima next week, but may be delayed by the political upheaval in Egypt. (UPDATE: AP Andean Bureau Chief Frank Bajak tweets that the summit has been postponed indefinitely.)

  • “While drug violence continues to spread in Mexico,” reports NBC News, “White House officials have decided the situation doesn’t rank as an ‘emergency’ under federal rules,” because doing so would mean angering the U.S. gun lobby and requiring border-state gun shops to report large purchases of assault rifles. Thus this small measure to slow the flow of weapons to Mexico’s cartels will have to wait several more months.

  • Opposition legislators now have over a third of seats in Venezuela’s National Assembly. Things are so polarized that, even though the new legislature began in early January, this week saw a mass fistfight break out on the floor of the chamber.

  • Recommended (in Spanish): University of Miami Professor Bruce Bagley, a renowned expert on U.S. policy toward the Andes, has a two-part series about the war on drugs at the Colombia-based “Razón Pública” website.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Regional security and Venezuelan civil-military relations: Rocío San Miguel of "Control Ciudadano"

Here is a brief interview with Rocío San Miguel, coordinator of Control Ciudadano (Citizen Control), a Venezuelan non-governmental organization that focuses on defense and security issues. The conversation covers the state of defense relations in the region, and the challenges of civil-military relations in today's Venezuela.

Rocío San Miguel of Venezuela's "Control Ciudadano" from Adam Isacson on Vimeo.

This discussion took place outside the sessions of the Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas in Santa Cruz, Bolivia in November 2010. This was shortly after a top Venezuelan military official, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, told the press that Venezuela's armed forces would not tolerate an opposition victory in the country's 2012 elections.

"Venezuela currently lacks genuine democratic controls over the operation of the armed forces," San Miguel warns.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

From defense to internal security: an interesting change in Argentina

This post was written by Lucila Santos, a Regional Security Policy Fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America.

After five years as Argentina’s defense minister, Nilda Garré has been named to a new cabinet post: the Ministry of Security. The government of Cristina Fernández created this ministry after incidents in Buenos Aires’ Indoamericano Park laid bare problems within Argentina’s internal security agencies.

In December of last year, thousands of families illegally settled in the Indoamericano Park, an area of 130 hectares (330 acres). When the Federal and Metropolitan Police tried to evict the squatters, the result was a violent conflict that killed three people and injured many.

The incident revealed several issues within Argentine law enforcement. First, it showed that the Federal and Metropolitan police forces are unable to act jointly, and that their missions are not clearly defined. Second, decades after the end of military rule, police forces still maintain repressive practices, evidenced in the shootings and beatings at the Indoamericano Park, whose victims included many women and children. Third, police forces are not trained to act in social uprisings or to deal with social conflicts, as evidenced by their use of guns in a place filled with women and children. In Argentina, the role of police forces in social conflicts is still highly controversial.

The main result of the Indoamericano conflict was the creation of a new Ministry completely dedicated to public security (it used to be part of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights), headed by Garré. This is an interesting and positive change for several reasons.

First, having a specific Ministry of Security gives citizen security and law enforcement a higher standing in the public agenda, something that was pending given a recent rise in criminality in Argentina. The reform of law enforcement in Argentina is a long-overdue element of the country’s democratic transition. During the dictatorship, the police force was under the control of the military; the legacy of those times has been repressive and authoritarian police practices. Garré has committed to reforming the police forces by eliminating these oppressive practices and democratizing them.

In that sense, and the second reason why this is an interesting change, Garré comes with a background in defense policies. During her tenure as defense minister, she focused on transparency, accountability, and gender, as well as keeping the military out of public security and rationalizing the defense budget. This experience will be useful for Garré’s undertaking of law enforcement reform. Even though the military and the police have different missions and are completely separate institutions, many of the policies Garré implemented in the military system could be applied within the police force, especially those related to transparency, accountability and respect for human rights.

So far, Garré has publicly stated that her goals are: to have a higher number of officers on the streets; to combat narcotrafficking; to have a more efficient, professional and transparent security force; to move forward in the use of new technologies to combat crime; and to achieve a stronger coordination of the Federal Police, Gendarmerie, Coast Guard, Airport Security Police, and all other provincial police forces. Another fundamental goal that she will pursue is to improve the effectiveness of criminal intelligence, that is, to guarantee better access to information on crime and organized crime. On the fight against organized crime, the goal is to target the gangs involved in the drug business, human trafficking and auto theft. The idea is for all security agencies to share information on gangs, narcotrafficking, human trafficking, illegal junkyards (where cars are taken to be stripped and sold for parts), bank robberies, and road pirates (gangs that stop trucks on the road to rob the products they are transporting). Internal Affairs is also a high priority for Garré, especially since corruption is endemic among police officers.

Garré’s first measure has been an institutional purge of the Police Force’s highest-ranking officers. She has removed the head of the Federal Police, along with eighteen general superintendents, 22 high commissioners, and 17 investigative police inspectors. Many of these removals owe to political reasons – because they answered to other political leaders – but many are due to complaints of abuse of power or allegations of corruption.

While clearing the police force of corrupt agents is a logical step, Garré’s success will depend on her ability to move forward with policies that transform law enforcement in Argentina into an institution that confronts citizen insecurity in a way that respects human rights and the rule of law.

The challenges ahead are large. Argentineans today rank public insecurity as one of their main concerns. Although Argentina’s violence rates remain low compared to its neighbors, crime has been on the rise the last years, especially in robberies and kidnappings. The most conservative politicians demand iron-fisted approaches to crime, along with a lower age of legal responsibility for juvenile delinquents and harsher penalties for convicted criminals. The government and the most leftist and progressive sectors in Argentina have spoken against zero-tolerance policies and in favor of a more socio-economic approach to insecurity. However, seven years of kirchnerismo have not brought progress in the fight against crime, nor have they brought about a more democratic police force. In light of this, Garré’s appointment is a welcome step.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Six months in, Colombia's Santos faces a murky security situation

Six months ago Juan Manuel Santos was inaugurated as president of Colombia. Santos replaced two-term President Álvaro Uribe, who left office only because the country’s Constitutional Court prevented him from running again. Uribe’s eight years of high defense spending and tough security policies greatly reduced the intensity of Colombia’s decades-long conflict. Because of that, he left office quite popular.

Six months later, President Santos also enjoys approval ratings near 80 percent. Though he served three years as his defense minister, the new president has broken surprisingly with Uribe on many issues. In areas ranging from land tenure to human rights to relations with Venezuela, Santos has shown himself to be far more moderate than his deeply conservative predecessor.

Santos has maintained the core of Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policy, maintaining an active military-police offensive to capture guerrilla and paramilitary leaders and gain control over new territories. Colombia is the only country in the Americas to have registered a strong improvement in public security during the past decade; in recent months, Colombian police and military trainers have offered their services in Mexico, Honduras, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, among others.

Colombia’s security situation, however, was starting to become more complicated during the latter part of Uribe’s government, as most measures of violence ceased declining and some even increased. While things did not worsen dramatically during Santos’s first six months in office, the security picture is muddy. It is no longer possible to say with confidence that security in Colombia is actually “improving.”

Violence data

Official statistics did show a small decrease in Colombia’s homicides in 2010: 15,459 people were killed last year, over 3 percent less than in 2009, according to the police. This means a homicide rate of 34 per 100,000 people, lower than Central America’s “northern triangle” countries but far higher than Mexico.

But Colombia’s largest cities are becoming more dangerous. Bogotá saw a 5.4 percent increase in murders between 2009 and 2010. Murders in Cali are up 18 percent from 2007 to 2010. In Medellín, where as many as 5,000 young people are members of violent, drug-funded street gangs, the homicide rate dipped from 95 to 86 from 2009 to 2010, but only after shooting up from 46 in 2008 and 34 in 2007. Some local analysts speculate that Medellín’s 2010 improvement, which began during the last quarter of the year, may owe mainly to one criminal gang beating its rivals and facing fewer challenges.

In Colombia’s countryside, meanwhile, massacres (killings of three or more people) are on the increase. 2010 saw more massacres – 38 as of November, and 8 in one week in November – than any year since 2005.

“Emerging criminal groups”

Most of these massacres were the work of perhaps 6,000 armed men, operating in at least seven criminal bands in at least 17 of Colombia’s 32 departments (provinces). Most of these drug-funded “emerging groups” are headed by former mid-level leaders of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary group, which formally disbanded in 2006. A report by the Colombian government’s Reconciliation and Reparations Commission estimates that about 17 percent of their members are former AUC fighters. Taken together, these new groups now have almost as many members as the FARC guerrillas – and in some parts of the country they are collaborating with FARC fronts on cocaine production and transshipment.

The “emerging group” threat has received the most attention in the Caribbean coast department of Córdoba, a former AUC stronghold. There, fighting for control of trafficking routes between the “Paisas,” “Urabeños” and “Rastrojos” gangs killed 600 people last year, and 45 more in January. Though several “early warnings” had been issued about threats to Córdoba’s civilian population, the crisis there only gained national attention after the January 10 murder of two students from Bogotá’s prestigious Los Andes University, likely at the hands of the “Urabeños.”

In the wake of the double murder, the head of Colombia’s National Police, Gen. Óscar Naranjo, called the “emerging” groups “the greatest threat to security” in Colombia today. Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera made the surprising announcement that, while the security forces “would not neglect pursuit of the guerrillas,” they would concentrate their efforts on “emerging groups” and urban criminality.

In December, an elite unit of Bogotá-based police killed one of the most notorious and powerful “emerging group” leaders, Pedro Oliveiro Guerrero alias “Cuchillo,” in southeastern Meta department. Guerrero had controlled drug trafficking, and appeared to have no trouble evading the local security forces, in a broad swath of territory in Colombia’s eastern plains. His disappearance from the scene leaves a big power vacuum in Colombia’s underworld. It may be filled by the FARC – a police official who helped bring down “Cuchillo” speculated that the gangster’s men could join the guerrillas’ First Front, swelling its ranks to almost 1,000 – or by Víctor Carranza, the so-called “emerald czar” who holds sway in nearby territories.


The FARC, for its part, suffered perhaps the most severe blow of its history in September, when a raid killed the group’s top military leader, Víctor Suárez alias “El Mono Jojoy.” While the group is notably weaker, the death of “Mono Jojoy” did not bring a hoped-for wave of desertions from guerrillas in his zone of influence.

In a New Year’s video, the group’s paramount leader, Alfonso Cano, called for a “redoubling” of the FARC’s activities. The past few months have seen greater frequency of guerrilla attacks in Colombia’s southwest (Nariño, Cauca, Putumayo, Caquetá) – where today they are perhaps strongest – as well as in northern Antioquia and along Colombia’s eastern border with Venezuela, particularly Arauca. The guerrillas have also increased their use of improvised explosive devices: not just landmines, but roadside bombs like the one that wounded 30 troops in Arauca last week. Meanwhile large numbers of troops continue to pursue Alfonso Cano in and around the area he is believed to be hiding: the Cañon de las Hermosas, a region of extremely difficult terrain in southern Tolima department, roughly halfway between Bogotá and Cali.

Colombia’s smaller, but just as old, ELN guerrilla group continues to have influence over zones in the country’s northeast and southwest, though it is far less active than the FARC. Military sources cited in Medellín’s El Colombiano newspaper estimate that the ELN’s membership has shrunk from 8,000 to 1,800 members since 2002.

Hostage release and peace prospects

This week the FARC are to begin releasing five hostages whom they have held for as many as 3 1/2 years, but promised in December to release unilaterally. On Wednesday February 9 they will release Guaviare town councilman Marcos Vaquero (kidnapped in June 2009); on Friday 11 they will release Huila councilman Armando Acuña (kidnapped May 2009) and marine Henry López (kidnapped May 2010); and on Sunday 13 they will release Police Major Guillermo Solórzano (kidnapped June 2007) and Army Corporal Salín Sanmiguel (kidnapped May 2008).

As in past unilateral releases, the operation to pick up the hostages is in the hands of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the government of Brazil, and former Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba. Unlike its predecessor, the Santos government has cooperated fully with these releases, doing nothing that might result in delaying the procedure.

Sixteen more military and police officials remain hostages, forced to live chained in the jungle while the FARC pressure to exchange them for guerrillas held in Colombian prisons. Over the weekend, Senator Córdoba – who maintains contacts with the FARC – expressed her belief that all sixteen will be freed through unilateral releases between now and June. She gave no indication of why that might be.

In a communiqué about the hostage releases, the FARC said President Santos, “if he really is interested in seeking a solution other than war, should take advantage of this opportunity to begin a dialogue to allow a political solution” to Colombia’s conflict. The FARC’s true interest in a peace process at this point is hard to gauge, though as analyst León Valencia has noticed, this and other recent guerrilla communications have avoided language that directly criticizes President Santos.

The ELN made a similarly vague appeal for peace in October: a video in which leader Nicolás Rodríguez (alias “Gabino”) calls for a “National Accord for Peace” through a mediation process led by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). Vice-President Angelino Garzón, speaking for the government, has responded to both videos by repeating a demand that, before talks can start, the guerrillas must first cease hostilities, including crimes like kidnapping and use of landmines.

While this demand doesn’t necessarily preclude back-channel “talks about talks,” it sets the bar for negotiations far higher than it was during the failed 1998-2002 peace process, when talks took place amid intense hostilities. It is the same standard set by the Uribe government, and it is generally upheld by public opinion, which holds the FARC and ELN in very low esteem.

Human Rights

The Santos government has departed sharply from the Uribe government on the rhetoric it uses to address the country’s human rights situation. In particular, verbal attacks on human rights defenders, whom Álvaro Uribe frequently called “terrorist spokespeople” or worse, have ceased. Instead Vice-President Garzón, on a recent trip to Washington, pledged that his government would desist from public criticism of human rights groups, while a recent press release from Defense Minister Rivera stated, “The Colombian government considers the NGOs allies of the government and of Colombian society in the common purpose of ending all forms of violation of and abuse of human rights on Colombian soil.”

Similarly, the new government has ceased its predecessor’s confrontational relationship with Colombia’s high courts. President Santos has even said that while he believes President Uribe is innocent of ordering his intelligence service to wiretap and intimidate human rights defenders, reporters, judges and others, he will do nothing to block official investigations of the ex-president.

While the rhetorical change is important and hugely necessary, it is not yet clear that it has been accompanied by the very tough decisions that progress against impunity will require. For one thing, we do not know whether the Defense Ministry has resumed sending cases of alleged human rights violations to the civilian justice system, as Colombian jurisprudence requires. We await data to determine whether the defense sector is aggressively challenging most cases’ jurisdiction, in order to keep them in the lenient military justice system. This is what happened during the final year and a half of the Uribe government.

Impunity for even the most egregious past abuses awaits signs of progress. The practice of “false positives” – killings of civilians, their bodies presented as those of armed-group members killed in combat – has nearly stopped, with five to seven cases recorded in 2010. But investigating and punishing past cases, most of them from before 2007, remains agonizingly slow: a recent piece in the Colombian newsmagazine Semana found a verdict reached in only 5.7 percent of 1,487 “false positives” cases (with a larger number of victims) before the civilian justice system.

Even where military abusers have been successfully prosecuted, controversy arises. The brief January escape of Maj. César Maldonado, sentenced to a military brig for plotting a 2000 attack on prominent labor leader Wilson Borja, shed light on the easy terms of military imprisonment. Though he successfully escaped once before – from 2004 to 2008 – Maj. Maldonado enjoyed furloughs from his custody at the Tolemaida military base, as witnesses reported seeing him in the nearby resort town of Melgar. Another military human rights prisoner, Juan Carlos Rodríguez alias “Zeus,” even held parties at the Tolemaida brig, complete with liquor and prostitutes. (Similar scandal has surrounded a lavish party held on January 29 in Bogotá’s La Picota prison to celebrate the birthday of one of dozens of politicians jailed for collaborating with paramilitary groups.)

Progress has also been slow in investigations of wrongdoing at the Administrative Security Department (DAS), the presidential intelligence service. President Uribe’s first DAS director, Jorge Noguera, is on trial for “aggravated homicide” after allegedly conspiring with paramilitaries to kill labor leaders and other human rights defenders. Meanwhile several DAS directors and employees, as well as close Uribe advisors, are on trial or under investigation for ordering illegal wiretaps, surveillance and intimidation of human-rights defenders, opposition politicians, reporters and judges.

These investigations suffered a blow in October when one of the key suspects, former DAS Director María del Pilar Hurtado, fled to Panama (easily passing through Colombian migration, which is run by DAS), whose government apparently granted her asylum at President Uribe’s recommendation.

While the change in human rights rhetoric is positive, then, progress against impunity has not been registered yet. The Santos government is not principally to blame for this: Colombia’s civilian prosecutor’s office (Fiscalía) has fallen into serious disarray recently. President Uribe’s conflict with the high courts left Colombia without a chief prosecutor for nearly a year and a half; during this period of drift the institution suffered the loss of more than a third of its prosecutors, who were fired after failing a controversial 2007 aptitude test. Viviane Morales, the new prosecutor-general who began a four-year term in early December, must improve management over a system that currently has over three million cases in a state of “hibernation,” with no recent progress whatsoever.

Shifts in U.S. Policy

“After a decade of Plan Colombia, U.S.-Colombia relations are entering a new phase,” U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), a vocal critic of Colombia’s human-rights record, said in December. “While there will likely continue to be issues about which we disagree, I look forward to working with President Santos and his government on a wide range of issues of mutual interest and concern.”

Congressional critics of Colombia’s human rights record have softened their tone toward the new government, while Plan Colombia’s backers continue to hold the country up as a model. Still, it is anyone’s guess at this point whether the U.S. Congress will move this year to ratify the free-trade agreement that the Bush and Uribe governments signed in 2006. Concerns about impunity for labor killings, among other military and paramilitary abuses, remain paramount.

Meanwhile, U.S. aid to Colombia is destined to decrease in 2011 and 2012. The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives has proposed a 2011 budget that would cut the Obama administration’s worldwide foreign aid request by one-sixth. Even if the Democratic Senate softens this cut, a decrease for Colombia this year would still be likely (if, that is, Congress manages to pass a 2011 budget at all).

We will see what the Obama administration’s aid request for 2012 looks like when it is published on February 14th. Sources tell us that this request will include a significant cut in assistance. Colombian Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera has been hearing the same thing: in mid-January he said that, since Colombia must soon begin dealing with aid cuts – including having to pay for its own aerial coca-spraying chemicals – it would have to delay the creation of eight new army battalions that would have been deployed near the Venezuelan border.

Venezuela and Ecuador

In July, just weeks before leaving office, President Uribe was denouncing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez before the OAS for allegedly helping the FARC on its soil. Upon his inauguration, Juan Manuel Santos – a vocal Chávez critic when he served as Uribe’s defense minister – pivoted, moving immediately to improve relations with Venezuela.

The two presidents have met twice, re-established diplomatic relations, and pledged to improve counter-drug intelligence cooperation and carry out joint counter-drug operations. Venezuela has promised to send 15,000 troops to the border zone to help with security (we do not know if that deployment has occurred), and extradited three FARC and ELN members from Venezuela to Colombia in November. The Santos government, for its part, risked angering U.S. officials and congressional leaders by promising to extradite to Venezuela Walid Makled, a Venezuelan narcotrafficker also wanted by the United States for his apparent knowledge of narco-corruption in Caracas.

The improvement in Colombia-Venezuela ties has not yet led to a recovery in trade between the two countries, which fell to US$1.4 billion in 2010 from US$6.09 billion in 2008.

The Santos government has also patched things up with its other neighbor on the political left, Ecuador, which broke relations after Colombia’s military, in March 2008, raided a FARC encampment inside Ecuadorian territory. Ambassadors have been restored to the embassies in Bogotá and Quito, and Ecuador’s armed forces have deployed more forces to the border zone to make it less hospitable to illegal armed groups.

Land and Victims’ Law

During the 2010 presidential election campaign, Juan Manuel Santos had not made reconciliation with Venezuela and Ecuador a central part of his platform. Nor had he prominently featured what has become a banner initiative of his administration’s first six months: a law to grant reparations, and to restore stolen land to, hundreds of thousands of victims of Colombia’s long armed conflict.

This law is currently passing through Colombia’s Congress; it passed the House of Representatives in December and is now under debate in the Senate. It looks a lot like a law, championed by the then-opposition Liberal Party, that failed in 2009 when President Uribe opposed it, citing its cost and its inclusion of reparations to people victimized by government forces. The Liberal Party is now part of the pro-government coalition that makes up about 80 percent of the Congress, and made promotion of the Victims’ Law a key condition for its support of the government.

The most contentious debate so far has been over the date after which people can be considered victims eligible for reparations. In Colombia’s long conflict, the eligibility date could conceivably be set at 1964 (the year the FARC and ELN were founded) or even 1948 (when a decade of extreme violence, known as “La Violencia,” began). The House of Representatives’ version of the bill sets the date at 1991, the year that Colombia’s Constitution was ratified. Proponents of a stronger Victims’ Law, including key senators and Interior Minister Germán Vargas Lleras, ask that the eligibility date at least be moved back to the early 1980s, when paramilitarism began to gather power, land theft began in earnest, and the FARC-tied Patriotic Union political party, which had thousands of its members systematically killed, was founded.

An even more contentious debate over land may be coming. In addition to victims’ reparations, the bill includes a section governing restitution of land to those who were displaced by violence, or who had their land deliberately stolen by armed groups and their allies. Among many measures designed to return about 5 million acres of stolen land is a change in the law that will require current landowners in conflictive areas to prove that they obtained their land legally.

Last October, the government launched a six-month pilot project, which has come with several high-profile handouts of land titles and intends to give 800,000 acres of land to 130,000 families. However, at the plan’s three-month midpoint, it had managed to hand out 300,000 acres to 38,000 families – most of them unclaimed lands that had been owned by the government, not land taken back from narcotraffickers, paramilitaries and other land thieves.

Those who stole the land, and their political allies, remain a very powerful group in Colombia. One of the country’s principal land-tenure experts, economist Luis Jorge Garay, calls them “Those who follow the mafioso business model, everyone who was with narco-paramilitarism. Also, oil-palm interests, who need a lot of land for biofuels, large-scale cacao growers, and miners. We don’t know who represents the new mining elite.”

The landowners’ fight has not, tragically, been restricted to politics. An alarming 9 people have been killed in the past six months, in five separate incidents, for attempting to recover stolen lands in Antioquia, Arauca, Valle del Cauca, Bolívar and Tolima. In all cases, the killers remain at large.

On Santos’s right flank

Garay forsees a major political battle over land later this year: “Part of the pro-government coalition is totally opposed to this. The fight will be serious.” Those leading the fight against the land and victims’ legislation come from the right wing of the coalition, mainly from the “La ‘U’” and Conservative parties, who have the deepest roots among the landowning elites of many conflictive zones. This provincial sector of Colombia’s political elite, many of them from areas where paramilitarism was born and raised, has been almost totally excluded from positions of power in the new Santos government.

This sector is also the most energetic core of support for ex-President Uribe, and they are unhappy with, among other things, Santos’ pursuit of land restitution, his rapproachement with Venezuela, and his nominations of Uribe critics to key ministries (foreign relations, interior, agriculture).

Though he maintains a very vocal Twitter account, ex-President Uribe has refrained from criticizing Santos directly. The two men, who were never close, have made sure to avoid any intimation that they disagree, despite conflicting versions over how friendly a mid-January meeting between them actually was. “I say with all due respect to those who want to see us fighting: they are … not going to see us fighting,” Santos said in November. A Semana poll that month found only 4 percent of Colombians viewing Uribe as an opposition figure. Semana estimates that the real “acid test” of Uribe’s support for Santos will be Colombia’s October municipal and gubernatorial elections, in which Uribe – who has flirted with a run for mayor of Bogotá – may campaign mainly for those candidates whom he views as his own political base, even against members of other parties in the governing coalition.

The worst natural disaster in Colombia’s history

Juan Manuel Santos has departed from Uribe’s policies in many important, and welcome, areas. He is facing a security situation that is ever more murky and complicated. Prospects for peace remain distant.

But politics and security have not been the Santos government’s main challenge. In fact, the President’s first six months have been dominated by something unforeseeable and totally out of his government’s control: a slow-motion natural disaster that is now the worst in Colombia’s history.

A very heavy rainy season, widely blamed on global climate change, has caused widespread flooding throughout the country. More than 300 people have been killed, hundreds of thousands displaced and well over 2 million – one in twenty Colombians – has lost or sustained damage to their homes or property. Even as vast areas remain underwater, the rebuilding cost is estimated at US$6.6 billion.

As the waters recede and Colombians begin to reckon with the floods’ economic and human toll, Juan Manuel Santos will be spending the next six months seeking to fulfill, or at least to manage, the expectations that his first six months have created. The new government raised hopes in many areas: not just disaster relief but land, reparations, greater security, economic prosperity, human rights and reduced corruption. Fulfilling these hopes will require Santos and his administration to make tough choices and confront powerful interests. The next six months will be crucial for that.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Podcast: The week ahead: February 7-11, 2011

A guerrilla hostage release in Colombia. Upcoming battles over the foreign aid budget in Washington. Visits to the region from the Secretary of the Treasury and State's top counter-drug official.

Subscribe to the "Just the Facts" podcast here and on iTunes. Thank you for listening.


Monday, January 31, 2011

Podcast: The week ahead: January 31 - February 4, 2011

A visit from Colombia's defense minister. Cutbacks to control of arms smuggled into Mexico. Brazil's president visits Argentina, but America's president doesn't.

Subscribe to the "Just the Facts" podcast here and on iTunes. Thank you for listening.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Military and police training in Latin America, 1999-2008

After an inexcusably long delay, the Department of State last week released the Foreign Military Training Report (FMTR) for 2008. Added to U.S. law in 1999 and due on March 1 of each year, the FMTR is by far the best source of information about U.S. training of foreign military and police forces. Information from the FMTR forms the core of the Training section of the Just the Facts project database.

The report released last week was due almost two years ago, in March 2009. The report covering 2009, due in March 2010, is also very late, though officials assure us that its release is weeks away.

Because this newly available information is so old, it doesn’t reflect recent trends in training of Western Hemisphere security forces. In particular, it doesn’t register what is likely the most important change: the effect of sharply increased military and police aid to Mexico and Central America under the Mérida Initiative, which was barely underway in 2008.

Still, a look at the training statistics over time shows that 2008 was a year of decline. The 11,677 Latin American and Caribbean military and police personnel trained that year represented the second-lowest total measured since the FMTR began publication in 1999.

(To see the numbers underlying these graphics, view our tables of trainees by country and by aid program.)

The 2008 drop, however, owes entirely to a sharp reduction in training of personnel from Colombia, as the large-scale military assistance programs of the 2000s began the decline that continues today. Taking away Colombia reveals the number of trainees in the rest of the region – 9,700 in 2008 – to have been near the highest levels the report has shown.

With the drop in Colombian trainees came a drop in trainees funded by the Defense Department’s counter-narcotics budget. This account, known as “Section 1004,” has paid for the training of more Latin American personnel than any other U.S. aid program in the past decade. However, the Defense Department’s budget still pays for far more training than the State Department-managed foreign assistance budget. Of the programs that fund training of Latin American personnel, two of the top three, and four of the top eight, are paid for and managed by the Pentagon

Now that we have ten years of data to analyze, we can identify which countries have developed a tighter training relationship with the U.S. military, and which have grown more distant. Comparing averages of trainees in 1999-2001 and 2006-2008 yields the following results.

Of the five countries that are receiving proportionally more U.S. training, three are in Central America. Brazil appears because a large number of students educated by the Defense Department’s Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies in 2007 – many of whom were likely civilians – lifted the three-year average.

Panama +543.6% from 1999-2001 to 2006-08
Guatemala +286.3%
Bahamas +254.3%
Nicaragua +220.7%
Brazil +158.4%

The list of countries receiving proportionally less U.S. training than a decade ago is not surprising. Of the “bottom 5,” the bulk of the decline in trainees comes from Venezuela and Bolivia, two “Boliviarian” countries whose relations with the United States are poor.

Venezuela -97.8% from 1999-2001 to 2006-08
Bolivia -84.2%
Suriname -72.6%
Costa Rica -72.5%
Trinidad and Tobago -66.0%

The FMTR includes a good deal of detail, including the courses given, the military units to which trainees belonged, and the location of the training. We’re still entering this data into our database, but in a week or so you should be able to view and search data for 2008. For instance, information about what countries sent students to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation will be updated through 2008. (If you click on this link and get a strange response, refresh the page and it should work. The training database is large and can be tough on our servers.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Podcast: Secretary Clinton's visit to Mexico

Upon Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's January 24-25 visit to Mexico, Adam talks to WOLA's Maureen Meyer about U.S. assistance, human rights, Mexico's struggle against drug-fueled violence, and the long leadup to the country's 2012 elections.

Subscribe to the "Just the Facts" podcast here and on iTunes. Thank you for listening.