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.
Feb 11
U.S. oil prices since January 2007, from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In a February 7 piece on AOL’s DailyFinance blog, reporter Vishesh Kumar foresees a drop in world petroleum prices this year. Led by slowing Chinese demand, sluggish U.S. economic growth, and more production in Iraq, Kumar cites analysts who predict that oil prices could slump from their current $70 per barrel (closer to $75 today after U.S. snowstorms) to as low as $50.

Other analysts, particularly those who see a stronger U.S. recovery, aren’t as convinced that oil will drop so steeply. But whether the price drops or stays the same, there is a consensus that world oil markets are currently glutted and the price is unlikely to rise in 2010.

Kumar’s prediction would be a disaster for Venezuela, whose oil-dependent economy is already battered by a deep recession, water and electricity shortages, high inflation and scarcities of several basic foods. President Hugo Chávez is facing economic discontent as the country inches closer to September 26 voting to elect a new National Assembly. The Assembly elected in 2005, in a vote boycotted by all opposition parties, ended up being almost unanimously pro-Chávez, eliminating a critical check on executive power. There will be no boycott this time, so the next Assembly will have far greater opposition-party representation — perhaps even a combined majority if trends continue.

As Venezuela’s economic and political problems mount, President Chávez needs a fresh infusion of cash to keep his revolution going (dipping deeply into government reserves is a poor and risky option). In Venezuela’s undiversified economy, that cash can come from only one source: rising oil revenues.

But since oil prices don’t look like they’re about to rise, and may in fact fall further, we have to conclude that Venezuela’s 2010 outlook is bleak. The period between now and the September elections is going to be tense.

Feb 10

Washington has been hit by two big snowstorms in the past five days. Everything has been closed all week – the government, the schools, and CIP’s offices (everything is closed tomorrow too; the roads are impassable). On the bright side, being trapped at home gave me a chance to read three just-released books about Colombia. All of them are from careful, credible authors who happen to be very clear writers.

Law of the Jungle: The Hunt for Colombian Guerrillas, American Hostages, and Buried Treasure, by John Otis, published by William Morrow. (Official release February 23.) John Otis has reported from Colombia for more than a decade for the Houston Chronicle, Time, and the Global Post website. He spent much of that time in the field, covering the Pastrana government’s failed peace process with the FARC, the expansion of U.S. aid programs, the plight of guerrilla hostages, and other stories. Law of the Jungle focuses especially on the three U.S. contractors who were taken hostage by the FARC in 2003 and freed in 2008, and the Colombian military unit that came upon a multi-million-dollar cache of guerrilla dollars in the jungle in 2003, then got in trouble after spending it lavishly on themselves.

Otis’s book is written for an audience that is not intimately familiar with Colombia; he includes a lot of background information, vividly written. The book is fast-paced and peppered with anecdotes. Striking examples include a 2001 battle between the FARC and DynCorp contractors sent into the wilds of Caquetá to rescue the head of Colombia’s Counternarcotics Police, who was pinned down by guerrilla fire; and the too-slow response after Colombian soldiers caught a glimpse of the three U.S. hostages in early 2008. In general, the U.S. government is portrayed as lumbering, bureaucratic, and slow to learn. The Colombian military is portrayed as at times heroic — the case of Operación Jaque, the July 2008 ruse that freed 15 FARC hostages, is richly detailed — but at times abusive or corrupt, as in the case of the guerrilla cash find or former Army Chief Gen. Mario Montoya’s alleged collaboration with paramilitaries.

Otis includes some unvarnished quotes from people involved in the story; U.S. Ambassador William Brownfield even drops the “f-bomb” once or twice.

“No divulgar hasta que los implicados estén muertos:” Las guerras de “Doblecero,” by Aldo Civico, published by Intermedio. Aldo Civico, an Italian-born  anthropologist who heads Columbia University’s Center for International Conflict Resolution, was doing post-graduate research in Medellín in the early- to mid-2000s. He developed a relationship, with interviews and a long series of e-mail exchanges, with Carlos García, alias “Rodrigo Doblecero,” the leader of the AUC paramilitary group’s “Metro Bloc,” which for a time at the turn of the decade dominated Medellín and much of Antioquia department. By the time Civico met “Doblecero,” he was on the run from his former paramilitary colleagues (especially Diego Murillo alias “Don Berna,” now in a U.S. prison), from whom he had split out of disagreement with their increasing involvement in narcotrafficking. By then the paramilitary leader was fighting “Don Berna” and the military far more than he was fighting guerrillas. Cívico was in regular contact with “Doblecero” (who at the time was also talking to U.S. reporters) from mid-2003 until days before he was killed in May 2004.

Most of the book is transcriptions of emails from “Doblecero,” or his recorded words as Civico interviewed him. Much is autobiographical or explaining the origins of the paramilitaries, making “No Divulgar” an interesting companion book to AUC founder Carlos Castaño’s 2002 autobiography Mi Confesión.

His analysis of what is wrong with Colombia’s politics and economy makes “Doblecero” sound like a leftist: venal, corrupt elites and narcotraffickers, in his view, are strengthening a feudal system. But those he regards as the “true” paramilitaries are defending the interests of middle-class landholders, whom the guerrillas — in what he sees as a great miscalculation — began to target in the 1980s. “Doblecero” believes that the paramilitary cause went badly in the late 1990s, when leaders like Carlos Castaño allied with the country’s principal narcotraffickers, many of whom became top paramilitary leaders and amassed huge quantities of land. “Doblecero,” however, has very little to say to Civico about the massive atrocities that even the most “pure,” non-narco paramilitaries committed, including the bloody mid-1990s Urabá campaign in which he participated.

Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs, by Vanda Felbab-Brown, published by Brookings Institution Press. Brookings Institution Fellow Felbab-Brown traveled extensively to Afghanistan, Colombia and Peru to research a study concluding that U.S. “War on Drugs” programs badly undermine U.S. counter-insurgency goals. In countries where insurgencies draw support from the drug trade, one of the main assumptions underlying U.S. counter-drug policy has been that attacking drug production will take resources away from the insurgency, weakening it badly. Felbab-Brown dismantles that argument.

Instead, she argues for a “political capital” model, which considers how the U.S.-supported operation affects the population’s perception of the insurgents. If people in Colombia or Afghanistan live off of coca or poppy plants, an eradication campaign may modestly reduce the insurgents’ income. However, Felbab-Brown argues, the eradication will alienate the population from the government and increase their support for the insurgents, adding to their “political capital,” which gives them strong military advantages. Shooting Up makes an important, well-documented point, one that explains much of the frustrations of U.S.-supported campaigns in Colombia and Afghanistan during the 2000s (both of which left drug production unaffected while insurgent groups tenaciously persist).

Felbab-Brown’s model points to only one type of drug policy that can reduce both the insurgents’ drug income and their “political capital” simultaneously. This would be something along the lines of a “laissez-faire” approach, or even decriminalization and regulation, which would reduce the drug trade’s profitability while offering no political advantages to the insurgents. She acknowledges, however, that for now such approaches are “politically infeasible.”

Feb 08

The drop in aid to Latin America foreseen in the Obama administration’s 2011 aid request to Congress, issued a week ago, has caused a minor stir in the region’s media. Typical is this opening sentence in Miami Herald columnist Andrés Oppenheimer’s Sunday column.

If President Barack Obama’s foreign aid budget request for 2011 is a reflection of his priorities in world affairs, it looks like the president is saying “adios” to Latin America.

A look at the region as a whole does reveal U.S. aid declining sharply in the hemisphere, by 15 percent from 2010 to 2011. A region-wide view also makes 2011 appear to be the least militarized aid package since 2001; the ratio of economic and military aid would approach 2:1 for the first time in ten years.

(As always, do keep in mind that we’re looking only at assistance in the foreign aid budget here. The U.S. defense budget also provides military aid to the region, much of it for counter-narcotics programs, which normally increases the military-aid total by about one-quarter to one-third. The Defense Department does not have to report its aid expenditures, however, until the year after it spends the money.)

The picture changes dramatically, however, if you remove just two countries: Mexico and Colombia. These two countries:

  • are the number-one and number-two recipients of U.S. aid;
  • account for more than two-thirds of all military and police aid to the region;
  • have been the recipients of mostly military U.S. aid packages big enough to get their own “brand names:” the Mérida Initiative in Mexico, and Plan Colombia in Colombia; and
  • both would see aid cuts — with almost all of the reductions coming from military aid — as both “brand-name” aid programs exit their “delivery of big expensive helicopters and other military equipment” phase.

Here is the same chart as above, leaving out Mexico and Colombia. The difference is striking.

When Mexico and Colombia are removed from the equation, aid to the rest of the region follows a different trend.

  • Total aid actually increases from 2010 to 2011. The only reason 2009 is higher than 2011 is that it included the Millennium Challenge program, which provided much aid to El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras that year (despite cutoffs to the latter two) and has not gone on to aid other Latin American countries.
  • The aid is far less military in nature, with military and police aid making up less than one-sixth of all aid in the foreign aid bill. However, it becomes slightly more military from 2009 to 2011, with the economic-to-military aid ratio slipping from over 6:1 to just barely over 5:1. The main reason for this is the Obama administration’s launch of a new Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, an anti-crime and anti-drug program in the Caribbean.
  • The 2010 bar on these graphs will grow taller. Economic aid — and, as a result, overall aid — will grow by hundreds of millions of dollars once the administration requests, and Congress approves, a special “supplemental” aid appropriation to help Haiti rebuild from the January 12 earthquake. The amount of this additional 2010 aid is not yet known, as the request has not yet been issued.

Look at the aid this way, and it’s pretty clear that nobody is saying “adiós” to anybody. We need not lament that the tempo of helicopter-buying for Mexico and Colombia has slowed, and we note that economic and social assistance is holding remarkably steady despite the Millennium Challenge program’s decline in the region.

Feb 05
Jorge Noguera, President Uribe’s former intelligence director now standing trial for murder, testified that he gave information about labor union activity directly to the president.
  • We have added a podcast to the “Just the Facts” website. The first episode discusses the debate in Colombia over President Álvaro Uribe’s apparent desire to run for a third term in office, which just suffered a setback in the justice system. Download or listen to the 12-and-a-half-minute .mp3 file here or at our podcast page. Keep in mind that we’re new at this. They will get better.
  • Cambio, one of Colombia’s two main newsmagazines, is going to stop publishing on a weekly basis. Instead, it will be a monthly devoted to lifestyle issues. This is a loss for Colombia; in 2009 Cambio broke two big stories: the existence of military-base talks between the U.S. and Colombian governments, and the use of an agricultural subsidy program to give cash to some of the country’s biggest landholders. The “La Silla Vacía” website speculates that the magazine’s abrupt retreat owes to indirect pressure from Álvaro Uribe’s government.
  • The recently formed Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) will meet in Quito on Tuesday the 9th to discuss responses to the earthquake in Haiti. Colombia’s President Uribe, who doesn’t always attend these meetings, plans to go to this one. He is not expected to meet bilaterally with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, even though Colombia and Ecuador appear to be nearing the end of a two-year break in diplomatic relations. Though they’re unlikely to have a bilateral meeting, this will be the first time in many very tense months that Uribe and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez will be in the same room.
  • Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told a congressional panel that the Obama administration would “absolutely” work with Congress to pass the Colombia Free Trade Agreement in 2010. He was quickly contradicted, however. Reuters reports: “Both the Treasury Department and U.S. Trade Representative’s office later issued statements clarifying Geithner’s comment. They said U.S. trade officials still had to resolve outstanding issues with the three countries before Obama would send the FTAs to Congress for a vote.”
  • Columbia University Colombia expert Aldo Cívico interviewed Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) for Colombia’s El Espectador newspaper. English here, Spanish here.
  • Colombian police trained counterparts from 23 countries last year, including 4,500 Mexicans.
  • Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, spent three days in Honduras. At the end of his trip he told reporters he disagreed with the Obama administration’s call for the Honduran government to nominate a “Truth Commission,” which would investigate crimes committed since the June 2009 coup. It’s better to “close the book,” Rohrabacher concluded.
  • President Obama called Chilean President-Elect Sebastián Piñera to congratulate him on his recent election win. Piñera asked Obama for a bilateral meeting.
  • Ecuadorian authorities seized 63 tons of cocaine in 2009. That is by far a record, showing the country’s increasing use as a narcotrafficking corridor. By comparison, Colombia seized 203 tons in 2009 (Excel file).
  • Costa Ricans go to the polls Sunday for a presidential election. Laura Chinchilla of President Oscar Arias’s PLN party has a comfortable lead in the polls, though it is not clear whether she will beat the 40 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff.
Feb 04

At a site called “FedBizOpps.gov” is an interesting collection of 2009 documents from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The U.S. foreign aid agency discusses its experience with U.S.-supported “Integrated Action” programs in Colombia. It also offers a glimpse at the U.S. government’s plans for aid to Colombia as the annual amount becomes gradually smaller and somewhat more balanced between military and economic priorities.

Three documents in particular are worth a look.

1. PCIM Lessons Learned (Microsoft Word [.doc] format): This is an at times candid discussion of the U.S. government’s experience with the “Integrated Action” counter-insurgency program in the La Macarena region about 200 miles south of Bogotá, a program that has received over $40 million dollars in U.S. assistance since 2007. Some findings of our December 2009 report on this program are paralleled here, such as the challenge of corruption, the need to consult communities, and the need to speed civilian government involvement. Others, particularly concerns about militarization and human rights, are not.

The paper includes some language that would have been unthinkable in a public U.S. government document even a few years ago:

Government policies related to zero coca, and strict verification procedures, take a long time and limit the State’s ability to work with communities in transitioning from a coca economy to a legal economy.

When security and coca eradication are not synchronized with the arrival of socio-economic projects, the mood of a community can quickly become hostile.

The dismantling of illegally-armed organizations in an area is often accompanied by an increase in common crime and criminal gangs linked to narco-trafficking.  This situation can present a threat to the legitimacy of the armed forces in a region if not accompanied by the effective presence of the justice apparatus (fiscales and judges).

Some public agencies responsible for key services in the consolidation process have a history of corruption, which can paralyze decision-making, at the risk of being accused of more corruption.

2. CSDI Implementation Concept Paper (Microsoft Word [.doc] format): The “Colombia Strategic Development Initiative” or CSDI is the framework that will guide U.S. aid to Colombia over the next few years. While humanitarian projects (like aid to the displaced) will continue throughout the country, the plan is to focus security and development assistance in a few geographic areas. Though a bit heavy on the jargon, this year-old document is the most detailed description of the CSDI that we have seen.

USAID/Colombia will invite all eligible and interested parties to participate in full-and-open competitions for the right to implement this new approach. … Each organization will lead consortia or networks, preferably made up of Colombian entities, to provide the needed skills and systems required for results achievement. The process will result in awards during 2009-2010.  USAID/Colombia envisions a total combined ceiling of all awards of no less than $500 million but no more than $800 million.  The maximum life of the base period of any resulting agreement will be five years.

3. Briefing Presentation: Partners Meeting (PDF): This is a PDF version of an April 2009 PowerPoint presentation laying out USAID’s strategy from 2009 to 2013. It discusses the “Integrated Action” effort and the new CSDI.

It also includes this map of the U.S. government’s chosen CSDI zones. (While this map has been widely circulated, this is the only public copy we’ve seen online.) These are the geographic areas where the U.S. government will focus its military and development aid for the next few years, as overall aid amounts decline. Any zone outside these red ovals will receive humanitarian aid and little else.

Feb 03

Last Thursday we posted excerpts from two articles in Spanish-language media about a mass grave in the town of La Macarena. The grave is in the middle of a historically guerrilla-controlled zone in Meta department that, in the past five years or so, has been the site of several U.S.-supported military operations. The articles indicated that the La Macarena gravesite contains as many as 2,000 bodies, and that many of the bodies were deposited by the Colombian Army.

Though official investigations of the site won’t begin until March and we are, of course, not present in the zone, we’re following this closely. If true, these allegations could have strong implications for U.S. policy toward Colombia, which has included generous support for military units based in this zone. We have communicated with governmental, non-governmental and journalistic sources. Without violating these communications’ confidentiality, what we’ve heard can be summarized as follows.

  • Sources agree that the site in question is an official cemetery in the La Macarena town center, not a clandestine area where bodies were dumped.
  • The cemetery includes a large number of “NN” (name unknown) gravesites. The military recognizes burying unidentified individuals killed in the very frequent combat that has taken place between the armed forces and the FARC. The Army says that all of its burials have been duly registered with the Technical Investigations Unit (CTI) of the Prosecutor-General’s Office (Fiscalía).
  • Estimating the number of dead at these gravesites is not possible at this time. Official sources doubt that the number is anywhere near as high as 2,000, and it is unclear how the media reports derived that estimate. If even a fraction of that total were “NN” cadavers, however, it would still be unusually large, as the town center of La Macarena municipality  is home to only about 4,000 people.
  • The mayor of La Macarena, quoted in one of last week’s articles as saying “we became the site for the depositing of the war dead,” now insists that the cemetery is not a mass grave site. He says that the cemetery contains 1,000 human remains, many from nearby combat incidents, and that 346 are unidentified combat dead buried since 2004. The mayor’s remarks came yesterday at a press conference for reporters brought to La Macarena by Colombia’s minister of defense.
  • There is no clarity about the timeframe of the burials. Some sources contend that most of the bodies were buried before 2005, when the FARC had nearly uncontested dominion over La Macarena, which between 1999 and 2002 was part of the demilitarized zone where FARC-government peace talks took place. Bodies buried before 2005 would be considered more likely to have been buried by the FARC. The news reports, however, claim that most bodies are from the post-2005 period.

Much remains to be clarified. It will be especially difficult to determine whether any of those buried are “false positives” — civilians killed and claimed as guerrilla combat deaths — or others extrajudicially executed on suspicion of guerrilla ties. (Colombian human rights groups have documented a large number of “false positives” in Meta department.)

All of this will have to await further investigation, forensic and otherwise. Meanwhile, one source says, the people in the zone who had made the original denunciations about the grave — a group that includes employees of state institutions — are now too fearful to give any more information.