Sep 29

After months of study, the Colombian government may soon announce that it will allow U.S.-funded counter-drug fumigation planes to spray herbicides over the country’s national parks. On September 15, Interior Minister Sabas Pretelt acknowledged that plans and guidelines for such spraying have been finalized. National Police chief Gen. Jorge Daniel Castro told the Associated Press this week, “We’re waiting for the order” to start spraying in the parks.

The same AP story estimates that 28,000 acres (about 11,300 hectares) of coca are planted in Colombia’s fragile nature preserves, where aerial spraying continues to be forbidden. That is a small fraction of all coca estimated to have been grown in Colombia in 2004: either one-seventh of what the UN estimated (198,000 acres / 80,000 hectares) or one-tenth of what the United States estimated (282,000 acres / 114,000 hectares).

But coca cultivation, pushed by fumigation elsewhere, is increasing in Colombia’s parks, causing Bush and Uribe administration officials to increase their calls for an end to the ban on spraying in parks. They argue that the damage wrought by the cocaine industry (deforestation, chemicals for processing the drugs) is greater than any damage the glyphosate-based spray mixture would cause.

That would be true if the spraying’s immediate chemical effects were the only impact it made on the environment. But it is not, and environmentalists opposing spraying in parks do not need to fund expensive studies to determine the impact of glyphosate on rainforest soils, water and species.

In fact, the worst environmental impact of fumigation is not the glyphosate mixture itself (though Roundup is far from benign, especially where standing water is concerned). The worst damage is done when fumigation encourages growers to plant more coca than they did before.

Nine years of steadily increasing spraying in Colombia has made brutally, abundantly clear that forced eradication, when not combined with alternative development, does not discourage people from growing coca. This seems obvious when coca is the most reliably profitable crop in remote, conflictive, neglected zones of the country. But the numbers bear it out.

  • The UN Office of Drugs and Crime, in its June 2005 Colombia Coca Cultivation Survey [PDF format], reported the remarkable statistic that 62 percent of the coca fields its satellites detected in 2004 weren’t there in 2003. The majority of coca plantings were brand new. Campesinos, undiscouraged by the spraying, were planting the crop in new places.

  • The State Department’s annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Reports tell us how much coca the Colombian government (with U.S. funds) eradicated each year, plus how much coca they estimate was left over afterward. Adding those two numbers together tells us roughly how much coca Colombian campesinos tried to plant each year. As fumigation has increased, the rate of “attempted coca-growing” has risen sharply.











Coca left over










Eradicated coca










Total attempted coca-growing










Change, 2000-2004




(All figures in hectares.)




As more is sprayed, more is planted – 36 percent more just since Plan Colombia began in 2000. Much of these new plantings take place in areas that had not known coca before: pushed along by fumigation, growers are cutting down new forest and planting in new departments, new municipalities – and new nature reserves.

Given that experience, it’s not hard to imagine what will happen when fumigation is extended into Colombia’s parks. Growers will move deeper into the parks and other pristine areas and re-plant again. When the other option is to face deprivation – either in an urban slum or in depressed rural areas beyond the reach of government and economy – it almost seems rational for growers to try and profit from another few harvests before the spray planes find them again.

Fumigation pushed growers into Colombia’s national parks. If it is allowed to happen within the parks themselves, it will push growers deeper into these and other unspoiled areas.

What other option exists? The Colombian government, with U.S. support, can work on the ground.

This means manual eradication. The Colombian police claim to have eradicated 17,000 hectares of coca plants so far this year, employing 1,800 people. That’s 50 percent more coca than is believed to be in Colombia’s parks, so we know that the capacity to carry out this eradication exists. (Colombia’s park service could do much as well, if it were not so woefully underfunded.)

Of course, the main reason why the United States supports fumigation in Colombia and nowhere else is security, the danger that manual eradicators would be subject to guerrilla or paramilitary attack. But even if the Colombian government cannot control its territory despite years of military aid and investment, it should at least be able to control its parkland for the periods when eradication would take place. “It is said that there are places where manual eradication is difficult due to security,” writes El Tiempo columnist Daniel Samper. “Of course it is difficult. One elects governments to solve difficult problems with imagination and without inflicting social damage. To choose a deluge of poison is very easy, something that would occur to an above-average private.”

But working on the ground also means helping people who are so isolated and economically desperate that they have chosen to grow coca in national parks. Just like ex-combatants, just like displaced people, these individuals and families need their government’s help. Nearly all of them will voluntarily pull up their own coca plants if they could live with some semblance of law and order, with access to medicine and drinkable water, with a hope that their kids might be educated, in proximity to a road that led to places where people might buy their legal products, and with credit and assistance to help them produce and market those legal products. Most would welcome regular contact with civilians who represent their government.

Instead, though, U.S. policy does not aim to improve the Colombian government’s presence on the ground. By working from the air only, the fumigation strategy will do nothing but drive coca-growers deeper into Colombia’s parks.

Sep 26

Whenever a government nominates a “czar” to take on a problem, it’s pretty safe to assume that problem won’t be solved.

Whether Reagan’s drug czar, Nixon’s energy czar, or Clinton’s AIDS czar (and probably Bush’s intelligence czar), the experience has been quite similar. Faced with calls to do something about a problem, a president nominates someone who, working from the president’s office, is charged with coordinating the slow-moving, often competing bureaucracies that have roles in fighting the problem. The “czar,” however, is not given authority over those agencies’ budgets, nor is he or she empowered to hire and fire key officials outside of his or her (usually small and underfunded) office. As the problem festers, the “czar” is reduced to being a figure who gives speeches and testimony, while his office publishes an endless stream of seldom-read reports and policy statements claiming progress.

A classic example is the Uribe government’s “corruption czar”. The last czar (czarina?), María Margarita Zuleta, resigned her position more than two weeks ago after just over a year and a half on the job, and now nobody seems to want to replace her. President Uribe has offered the post to both former Auditor-General Clara López Obregón and former Bogotá mayor’s office chief of staff Soraya Montoya, and both have turned him down.

Both claimed that they were too busy working on upcoming political campaigns to take the job. For her part, Zuleta resigned claiming that she had achieved the main thing she had set out to do: to draft a proposed government-wide anticorruption policy. However, after resigning in late 2003, Zuleta’s predecessor, Germán Cardona, offered a more compelling reason why nobody wants the job: the “czar,” he said, lacks “teeth” and should be abolished. ‘

The Presidential Program for the Fight Against Corruption is a small entity in the vice-president’s office. It has no power over key agencies with anti-corruption responsibilities, like the attorney-general’s office, the inspector-general’s office, or the Comptroller (none of which are part of the executive branch in Colombia). It has a budget of less than US$1 million per year. Its role and functions are poorly defined. As a result, said Cardona, the program is a place “where many speeches are made but few goals are scored.”

This is unfortunate because a truly empowered corruption czar would be one of the busiest officials in the entire Colombian government. Rampant, unpunished corruption is one of the greatest challenges Colombia faces. The government’s Comptroller (Contraloría) estimates that corrupt activity drains 14 trillion pesos per year from Colombia’s economy (over US$6 billion, or more than 5 percent of GDP). The last report of Transparencia por Colombia, the local chapter of Transparency International, found a sharp drop in its “Index of Integrity of Public Institutions” between 2003 and 2004, indicating that public perceptions of corruption are worsening.

Challenges like that require more than just a “czar” to give the impression that the government is serious about the problem. Corruption will continue to be a severe drain on Colombia’s government and economy as long as the corrupt continue to enjoy impunity. An investigative and prosecutorial effort that sends some of these thieves to jail would do much more to reduce corruption than another reshuffling of the bureaucracy or another declaration of anti-corruption policy. And we mean jail, not suspension from duty or administrative punishment. And we mean powerful thieves – people in positions of legislative, executive, military or economic power – not just “small fish.”

The corruption czars who have left after short tenures, and the would-be candidates who don’t want the job, have left or turned down a position that would be unnecessary if the Colombian government were showing the political will necessary to fight corruption. Instead, the figure of a “czar” has ended up being a substitute for that political will.

Sep 23

Here is a translation of María Jimena Duzán’s column in Monday’s El Tiempo, which provides an excellent early warning, in a few paragraphs, of the imminent rise of a bloc of politicians representing the interests of paramilitaries and drug traffickers.

It is an important reminder that, while the Colombian government celebrates the "demobilization" of paramilitaries and the Bush administration defends the so-called "Justice and Peace" law, the power of paramilitary groups is actually increasing right now in Colombia.

The New Political Class

By María Jimena Duzán
El Tiempo (September 19, 2005)

“The unnamable.” That is the term used today to describe the ominous shadow that ex-President Salinas de Gortari has cast over Mexican politics. From the fringes, he keeps trying to influence events, despite having left the way he did: accused of corruption and of having allowed the rise of a new political class closely linked to narcotrafficking and Mafioso practices. Why do I bring this up? Because after seeing the lists of congressional candidates that the pro-Uribe movements have presented for the next legislative elections [in March], one gets the impression that here in Colombia, we have our own “unnamables.”

To understand what I’m referring to, it’s not necessary to be a political scientist. It is enough to have read the “Teléfono Rosa” [gossip/society column] in yesterday’s edition of El Tiempo, which tells us that a group of VIPs from the Caribbean coast region, among them “several congresspeople,” had gone to visit [powerful Northern Bloc paramilitary commander] “Jorge 40,” who may have told them that he wants to involve himself in politics. (Note that this “para” chief hasn’t even demobilized yet.) And who are these VIPs and congresspeople whose names did not get published? Exactly that: they are part of “the unnamables.”

And who, in broad terms, are the unnamables? They are nothing more and nothing less than a new, emerging political class representing the narco-para-politics that are so in vogue right now in local and regional power circles. They are quietly going all over the country carrying out an underground political campaign, imposing their candidates. Yet complaints of this activity do not seem to reach the ears of “The Irreplaceable,” a term that today evokes, without needing to name him, the figure of our president Uribe Vélez.

Their presence is so strong that in some regions, the names of the senators and representatives who will win the next elections are already well known, and among those who feel that they have already lost, there is still hope that Minister [of Interior and Justice] Sabas [Pretelt de la Vega] will dare to make a public statement against the unnamables.

Meanwhile in the Congress, everyone knows their names, but nobody is able to take off their masks or even to single them out, for fear of becoming victims of their methods of persuasion, which don’t exactly resemble those of the Sisters of Charity. On the contrary, for quite some time, and on account of the “Justice and Peace” law and out of a general haste to reconcile with the paramilitaries, these “unnamables” have managed to locate themselves strategically on the various pro-Uribe candidate lists – on those of [prominent legislators] Germán Vargas, Mario Uribe, Juan Manuel Santos, Álvaro Araújo, Luis Alfredo Ramos, Carlos Holguín Sardi and [Carlos] Moreno de Caro – without having passed through any screening. In part, that has been possible because they have arrived on these lists duly “cleaned up,” so that – it can almost be assured – they will be the first to pass any ethical examination that might be imposed on them. This has reached such an extent that, as we have been seeing, many of them – in an act of sharpest cynicism – have given themselves the luxury of criticizing Eleonora Pineda and Rocío Arias [two congresspeople who have openly expressed admiration for paramilitary leaders], for considering that their sincerity regarding the interests they represent – that is, the paramilitaries –to be too crass.

Instead, the “unnamables” don’t allow themselves to be known. They go unnoticed. They don’t take pictures with “Don Berna” or declare themselves to be the number-one fans of Mancuso or “Macaco.” They, the “unnamables,” are the Rasputins of a narco-paramilitary power that is keeping its structures completely intact, despite the innumerable demobilizations and the much-celebrated Justice and Peace Law.

Sep 21

The State Department’s semi-annual human-rights certification process – in which some military aid to Colombia is held up until State affirms that five conditions have been met – is necessary and important, but it is frustrating for all involved.

Confronted with abundant evidence that the Colombian military’s human-rights performance is not improving – especially where impunity is concerned – U.S. diplomats have tended to delay their certification decision for months. Ultimately, though, pressures to keep the military aid flowing have forced them to yield in exchange for very minimal concessions, such as arrests of a few privates or sergeants in two or three serious cases of abuse. The Colombian military ends up benefiting the most from the whole process: it refuses for months to take steps to punish violators, then, in exchange for taking a couple of very small steps, it gets a document bearing the Secretary of State’s signature conferring a U.S. “seal of approval” of its human-rights performance.

Many of Colombia’s national human-rights groups have nonetheless taken this process seriously. They meet with U.S. embassy officials and offer documentation of cases in which military involvement in abuse appears likely, but the Colombian government has failed to investigate or prosecute those believed to be responsible.

The Colombian groups have expressed frustration that most of the evidence they present to the State Department does not appear to be considered when the certification decisions get made. “Though we supply information and cases about serious human rights abuses in which government security forces are involved, these are not taken into account at the moment in which certifications are considered,” reads a lengthy document [PDF format] produced by seven Colombian organizations in July 2005.

This document, which the Colombian groups produced specifically to inform the State Department’s last certification decision (made at the beginning of August) summarizes over forty cases of actual or probable Colombian military involvement in human rights abuse. It is not an exhaustive list of all allegations against the Colombian military; those listed in the July document are intended to be “benchmark” cases in which evidence is most compelling and government efforts to investigate and prosecute have been most lacking.

In August, the State Department issued a justification document explaining its decision to certify. This document also cites cases where State officials claim to have seen progress. Comparing the cases listed in the Colombian groups’ document with those mentioned in the State Department justification shows plainly that the Colombian groups have a point: the vast majority of the cases they present are not mentioned in the U.S. certification document.

The table below lists most of the “benchmark” cases presented in the Colombian human-rights groups’ document. (Consult the groups’ document to read more details about each case.) Of these, only nine are mentioned in the State Department’s justification, and only four of these mentions refer to criminal investigations or prosecutions – the rest are administrative investigations or dismissals, the dropping of cases, or the writing of a “risk report.”

Presenting the information in this format shows starkly how much alarming information the State Department had to overlook in order to issue its August certification decision. Before certifying again, State must take these other cases into account. At the very least, the department’s justification document must recognize these cases’ existence, and explain specifically why it chose to leave them out of its decision-making process. A lot of good work by brave human-rights investigators is being ignored.

(Many thanks to CIP Intern Robin Rahe for her help in compiling this table.)




Mention in State Department Certification Justification

1.  Santo Domingo Massacre

Tame, Arauca


State Department suspended assistance to Combat Air Command 1 of Colombian Air Force; trials for Air Force Captain César Romero Pradilla, Lieutenant Johan Jiménez Valencia & Technician Mario Hernández Acosta continue

2.  Extrajudicial executions in Las Palmeras

Mocoa, Putumayo



3.  Forced disappearance & execution of Nidya Erika Bautista




4.  Illegal wiretapping of NGOs

Medellín, Antioquia


Dismissal of Colonel Mauricio Santoya Velasco

5.  Extrajudicial execution of Uberney Giraldo Castro and Jose Evelio Gallo

La Galleta, Antioquia


Army Corporals Humberto Jesús Blandon Vargas and Sandro Fernando Barerro dismissed from Army on Nov 8, 2004

6.  370 Crimes in peace community of San Jose de Apartadó

San Jose de Apartadó, Antioquia


Administrative charges filed by Inspector-General (Procuraduría) against retired Generals Carlos Enrique Vargas Forero and Pablo Alberto Rodriguez Laverde, and Colonels Guillermo Arturo Suárez Forero and Javier Vicente Hernández Acosta for 2000-2001 killings; no assistance to 17th Brigade

7.  Torture and assassination of Wilfredo Quiñones Bárcenas

La Floresta de Barrancabermeja (Bucaramanga)



8.  Mapiripán Massacre

Mapiripán, Meta


Case against General Jaime Uscátegui moved from Villavicencio to Bogotá; on February 17 Colombian government acknowledged some responsibility for death of 22 civilians; Army Colonel Lino Sánchez sentenced to 40 years

9.  Assassination of Carlos Manuel Prada and Evelio Bolaño Castro




10. Assassination of three unionists

Saravena, Arauca


Charges of aggravated homicide against 4 soldiers;,Army Soldier Oscár Saúl Cuta Hernández Suárez indicted

11. Extrajudicial execution of Isnardo León Mendoza

Tame, Arauca



12. Operation Dragón (plot against union activists)

Cali, Valle del Cauca



13. Forced disappearances of Ángel Quintero and Claudia Patricia Monsalve

Medellín, Antioquia



14. Execution of farmers

Cajamarca, Tolima


Preventive detention against 7 soldiers of Army’s 6th Brigade

15. Execution of Francisco Guerrero Guerrero and sexual assault of Inocencia Pineda Pavón

Arauquita, Arauca



16. Execution of Geiny Jaimes Pinzón (committed by Brigades 18 and 21 of Natl Army)

Tame, Arauca



17. Los Tupes Massacre

San Diego, Cesar



18. Kankuamo indigenous group

Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta


“The Government of Colombia established a regional risk report for the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region”

19. Chengue Massacre

Ovejas, Sucre


Prosecutor General’s Office closed case against Rear Admiral Rodrigo Quiñónez

20. Assassination of Gina Paola Acosta

Cumaribo, Vichada



21. Murder of Aida Cecilia Lasso & Sindy Paola Rondon

San Alberto, Cesar



22. Attack against Rita Alicia Riveros de Ospina




23. Assassination of Oscar Orlando Zetuain Delgado




24. Mondoñedo Massacre




25. Extrajudicial execution and torture of Beidin Buitrago

La Virginia, Risaralda



26. Murder of Pedro Hernando Barrera Suancha and Guillermo Gómez Suancha

Mosquera, Cundinamarca



27. Murder of Héctor Harvey Valencia

La Unión Peneya, Montañita, Caquetá



28. Murder of José Albeiro Aguirre

Puerto Matilde, Antioquia



29. Murder of Arlinson Duque Flórez

La Laguna, Cartagena del Chairá, Caquetá



30. Wounding of minors

El Billar, Cartagena del Chairá, Caquetá



31. Woundings from attack in school

Lejanías, Meta



32. Extrajudicial execution of Elkin Arbey Ortiz and Jose Rodríguez Villamizar

Medellín, Antioquia



33. Torture of Gladys Rocio Cardenas Sanchez




34. Detention and death of Telso Barrera Acosta

Botalón, Saravena, Arauca



35. Extrajudicial execution of Fredy Humberto Gutiérrez Cruz and Rafael Antonio Triviño

Mesetas, Meta



36. Extrajudicial execution of Marco Antonio Rodríguez Moreno & Ricardo Espejo Galindo

Cajamarca, Tolima



37. Extrajudicial execution of Mileidy Dayana David Tuberquía

San Jose de Apartadó, Antioquia



38. Extrajudicial execution in Páramo del Sumapaz




39. Wounding of Joselín Carreño Jejen




40. Extrajudicial execution of Javier Correa Arias and torture of Nini Johana Oviedo Lozano

Buga, Valle del Cauca



41. Forced disappearance of Olga Lucía Ladino & María Graciela Rivera

San José del Guaviare



42. Military operation with paramilitary assistance

Remedios and Yondó, Antioquia



Sep 19

Here are three comments about Colombia that high officials, both current and former, have made during the past three weeks. There is almost no need to comment on them, other than to marvel at the extreme isolation from reality that these remarks reveal.

These statements appear to indicate that high-level U.S. policymakers from both parties (1) only get their information from Colombian and U.S. government officials, who depend on them for their budgets and have a strong incentive to defend the strategies they designed; and (2) are either unaware of, or broadly dismissive of, the mountains of contrary information produced by dozens of U.S. and Colombian scholars, reporters, activists and political figures. The result is that top leaders believe things that are patently untrue, these beliefs spread across the upper strata of government, media and elite opinion – and very bad policy gets made.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, interview with NBC Editorial Board, September 15, 2005: “[I]t took the Iraqis – they’re making some progress on the reconstruction front. They’re making quite a lot of progress in the building of their security forces. And they’re making real progress on the political front. And that’s how I would assess it. … There are other governments that have survived that and come out on top, among them the Colombian Government, as an example, which at one point, Colombia had 30 percent of its territory in FARC hands. One of the first things Uribe did was he said, I’m going to reestablish control over those areas that I don’t have control. And you remember, many of you who are foreign affairs reporters, you will remember that, what, Andrea, ten years ago, bombs went off in Bogotá every week.”

If Secretary Rice really believes that Colombia could be a model for U.S. operations in Iraq, the future in Baghdad is even bleaker than we thought.

The Colombia comparison is false. At least 30 percent of Colombian territory – most of it rural and sparsely populated, as before – is still in FARC hands. Remote municipalities several hundred square miles in size have not seen “government control reestablished” just because the Colombian government has sent a few dozen police to their largest towns.

Worse, Colombia’s guerrillas remain all too active. According to a recent report [PDF format] by Colombia’s Security and Democracy Foundation – not a left-wing outfit – guerrilla attacks against military and police targets were 69 percent more frequent during the first three years of the Uribe government than during those of his predecessor, Andrés Pastrana. And the frequency and scale of FARC attacks has risen dramatically since about late February or early March of this year.

Incidentally, the FARC have never had the capacity to set off bombs in Bogotá every week, as Ms. Rice claims occurred “ten years ago.” The Secretary was probably thinking about the Medellín drug cartel, which carried out an urban bombing campaign fifteen years ago to pressure against its leaders’ extradition. If anything, as the 2002 inauguration bombings, the February 2003 El Nogal bombing and other incidents have shown, the guerrillas appear to be bombing cities slightly more often than before.

Drug Czar John Walters, speech before the Hudson Institute, August 31, 2005: “In the course of wringing out that trouble, economic growth, better rights environment than I believe any nation on Earth, frankly, has had in terms of improvement in the last two years, have occurred. Yet the example of Colombia, as I say, is not talked about with, I think, the focus and attention it deserves.”

The State Department’s “Washington File” helpfully translates this statement as meaning “in the area of human rights, Colombia has witnessed more improvement over the last two years than ‘any other nation on earth.’”

This is inaccurate; in fact, the last two years have not been good ones for human rights in Colombia. The State Department’s own human-rights certification documents show that there has been no increased effort to suspend, investigate or prosecute military personnel for human-rights crimes, even though hundreds of cases remain unresolved (several dozen are documented in this recent report [PDF format] from several Colombian human-rights groups). Impunity remains nearly total for higher-ranking officers who may have ordered human-rights abuses or collaborated with paramilitaries. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ last report cited “[A]n increase in reports of extrajudicial executions attributed to members of the security forces and other public officials.” And a disturbing policy of mass, and often arbitrary, arrests has darkened the human-rights picture still further.

Former President Bill Clinton, interview with ABC News This Week, September 18, 2005: “When 13,000 armed guerrillas and paramilitaries in Colombia give up their weapons and rejoin civil society, and President Uribe, who’s been so tough on them, offers them a chance to reconcile, why are they doing that? Because they know they’re not going to win anymore, and they want to be part of a political process.”

It is encouraging that guerrilla desertion rates are up, though nearly all of those turning themselves in are very young, recent recruits – not leaders looking to participate in “a political process.” At the negotiating table, though, the Uribe government has made almost no progress toward peace with Colombian guerrillas. We can only hope that increased efforts with the ELN this month hold some promise.

President Clinton may have been thinking of the Uribe government’s talks with paramilitary groups, which have involved massive demobilizations. However, the paramilitaries are not turning in their weapons because they’ve realized “they’re not going to win” – after all, they claim to be pro-government. And it’s doubtful that the AUC chose to negotiate because the government was “tough on them”: in December 2002, when the paramilitary leadership declared a “cease-fire” and began the negotiation process, government attacks against the AUC were infrequent, perhaps a few dozen per year.

Before he once again sings the praises of the paramilitary process, we suggest that President Clinton – who was known as an avid reader – glance at one of the following reports.

Sep 16

In preparation for their upcoming demobilizations, paramilitary leaders may be selling off cocaine so quickly that the inflow of dollars is disrupting Colombia’s entire economy.

Associated Press reporter Kim Housego reported yesterday that the Colombian peso “has risen 17 percent against the dollar during the past 20 months amid a heavy influx of dollars.” The amount of dollars entering the country during the last eighteen months, El Tiempo reported Sunday, “practically equals the size of Colombia’s external debt [about $35 billion].”

The wave of dollars has strengthened the peso so much that Colombian exports might become too expensive to compete with those of other countries. In a vain effort to make dollars scarcer and thus weaken the peso, Colombia’s central bank has bought up billions of dollars, increasing Colombia’s dollar reserves to record levels.

According to Housego, the dollars come “from rising foreign direct investment, a trade surplus and more dollars being sent home from Colombians working abroad.” Colombian government officials are quick to add that President Uribe’s security policies have made the country far more attractive to investors.

These factors probably underlie some of the peso’s recent strength. But it’s likely that the flow of dollars also owes to something more sinister. According to El Tiempo, some financial analysts “believe that many of these new ‘investors’ come from Ralito (Córdoba), the zone where the ‘para’ chiefs are concentrated” as they prepare to demobilize under the new “Justice and Peace” Law.

The Associated Press reported on this phenomenon in June.

Navy chief Adm. Mauricio Soto said in an interview … that the paramilitary United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, is shipping an unprecedented amount of stored cocaine from the country ahead of their demobilization. … “[The paramilitaries] are desperate. They urgently need to sell what they have,” Soto said. “They need the money, because if they are going to demobilize, what interests them is the cash.”

El Tiempo added yesterday, “A high-ranking National Police oficial, expert in narco-trafficking, said that more drugs are being interdicted lately because the ‘paras’ who are negotiating with the government need to divest themselves of their drug stores. ‘They need cash, they need to have dollars instead of stockpiles of drugs, at the moment they demobilize.’”

(Some analysts cited by El Tiempo speculate that guerrillas too may be selling off stores of coca paste in southern Colombia, “in order to obtain resources and to finance their counter-offensive against the Army’s “Plan Patriota.”)

The paramilitary leaders are certainly in a hurry, as most are expected to demobilize at the end of the year. Under the so-called “Justice and Peace” law, they will be subject to jail sentences of 5 to 8 years (minus time spent negotiating: 3 ½ to 6 ½ years) for all of their previous crimes – including narco-trafficking, which they will argue was a means to fund the paramilitary cause. Between now and the end of the year, then, paramilitary leaders involved in the drug trade (that is, most of them) are in a race against time to unload their stores of drugs, hide the money and demobilize with what appears to be a clean slate.

As a result of the big selloff, cocaine seizures have increased dramatically during the past several months, as illegal shipments become larger and more frequent. Yesterday’s El Tiempo reported that Colombia’s police have interdicted 60.1 tons of cocaine so far this year, compared to 60.3 tons during all of last year. The Navy has interdicted 61.5 tons of cocaine, one ton more than during all of 2004.

Just this week, 2.5 tons of cocaine were found on a fishing boat near the Pacific port of Buenaventura, while another boat was found near the Galápagos Islands towing a metal “submarine” with 2.1 tons of cocaine inside. For every ton that is caught, at least an equal amount – possibly a multiple – finds its way to the United States, Europe and elsewhere.

Remarkably, some recent shipments have pooled guerrilla and paramilitary cocaine, such as a 15-ton cache found in May on the Mira River near the town of Tumaco. (Just last weekend, a guerrilla attack on the Mira River killed 2 employees of Colombia’s Attorney-General’s Office and 3 Colombian Marines.) Increasingly, the paramilitaries and the guerrillas have been acting more like rival mafias than like sworn enemies. As a May article in the Houston Chronicle reported, “‘These two groups rely on each other to see that (drug production) runs smoothly and that everybody gets their money,’ said a U.S. counterdrug official, who insisted on anonymity for security reasons. ‘Our intelligence tells us that this is happening at an increasing rate.’”

The paramilitaries’ big cocaine sell-off appears to be joined by a parallel money-laundering effort. The dollars flooding into paramilitary coffers are being hidden by investments in cattle, land and construction, contributing to a building boom in Bogotá and some other cities; use of other people’s bank accounts in exchange for commissions; or accepting lower rates in black-market peso exchanges.

A very large amount of money appears to be being laundered by mis-pricing of imports and exports. Normally, a strengthening of the peso should hurt Colombia’s export sector. But the opposite has happened: while the peso strengthens against the dollar, El Tiempo reports, non-traditional exports have increased this year by 27.8 percent. While some of that may owe to increased demand from Venezuela, which is in the midst of an oil-fueled boom, much of these increased exports may be fictitious. El Tiempo explains:

[Economist Javier] Fernández Riva says he has reason to suspect that something more is behind the extraordinary growth in some exports, at the same time the exchange rate has fallen sharply. And the authorities appear to prove him right: fictitious exports are considered a leading method of money-laundering. One of the exports that has grown the most are those of live animals (221 percent), which FEDEGAN (the Colombian cattlemen’s federation) attributes to differences in the exchange rate with Venezuela. But according to money-changers in the border zone, this is the activity that launders money most: “the tactic is to register the same transaction twice,” one of them explained.

Remember the paramilitary sell-off next year, when U.S. and Colombian officials announce dramatically increased amounts of cocaine interdicted in 2005. They may have simply found the same-sized portion of a pie that was made larger by the AUC leadership’s preparation for its imminent demobilization.

The question to ask now, not later, is: why is all of this being allowed to happen? The leaders of Colombia’s paramilitary groups aren’t fugitives – they are easy to find, usually in the Ralito zone, and they are in constant contact with Colombian government officials. It should be relatively easy to detect these leaders’ trafficking and money-laundering, and arrest them while there whereabouts are known. Even if that proves difficult, it should at least be possible to prevent Ralito from becoming the center of a money-laundering operation of historic proportions, on the eve of paramilitary leaders’ entry into a process that will allow them to keep most of their ill-gotten assets and avoid extradition to the United States.

But nothing appears to be being done to prevent the big cocaine sell-off. In particular, where is the pressure from the government of the United States, the country on whose streets much of this cocaine will soon arrive?

Sep 16

Normally, when President Álvaro Uribe cites reams of statistics about the seemingly miraculous success of his policies, it’s hard to contradict him, no matter how fishy the numbers sound. Who but Colombia’s government, for instance, is able to keep comprehensive data about homicides or attacks on infrastructure?

Occasionally, though, the Uribe government’s official statistics make no sense objectively, as in the case of numbers of guerrillas and paramilitaries killed, captured and demobilized. At other times, they contradict the findings of respected non-governmental organizations, as in the case of measures of new forced displacement, which diverge widely from the statistics maintained by CODHES.

Yesterday in Washington, one of President Uribe’s principal claims clearly contradicted the statistics maintained by both the U.S. government and the United Nations.

One of the Colombian Presidency’s press releases from yesterday reads, “According to the President, Colombia’s advancement in issues like eradication of illicit crops through fumigation has had such visible results as a drop from 180,000 hectares of drug crops at the beginning of his government in 2002, to 80,000 in 2004.”

We hope that President Uribe wasn’t making this astounding claim at all of his meetings on Capitol Hill yesterday, because it’s wrong. It’s not even close.

U.S. government figures (see our coca-growing data webpage for more information):









Hectares of coca








UN Office on Drugs and Crime figures (see our coca-growing data webpage for more information):









Hectares of coca








In Washington yesterday, President Uribe claimed a 56 percent decrease in coca-growing since his term began in August 2002. In fact, the U.S. government has registered only a 21 percent decrease, and the UN estimates show a 22 percent decrease. Worse, Uribe has presided over a virtual stagnation in coca eradication between 2003 and 2004 – the U.S. government figures found no reduction at all last year, and the UN found only a reduction of 6,000 hectares, accompanied by increases in Peru and Bolivia.

President Uribe is in fact presiding over the failure of a model based on all-out fumigation combined with woefully insufficient alternative development. That’s nothing to brag about.

Meanwhile, however, the fumigation strategy marches on. It was easy to miss this amid all the other U.S. policy-related news yesterday, but Cali’s El País is reporting this morning that “The [Colombian] government has finalized its plan to fumigate in national parks,” adding that while fumigations in parks have not yet begun, “the police are ready to carry out the plan.”

Sep 14

President Uribe will be here in Washington tomorrow, stopping by for the day on his way to the UN General Assembly in New York. It appears that he will be spending all of his time on Capitol Hill, meeting with key representatives and senators. We’ve heard that meetings include Republican leaders Rep. Dennis Hastert and Sen. Bill Frist, members of the House and Senate International Relations and Foreign Relations Committees and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittees, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and other House Democrats who have an interest in Colombia.

It is doubtful that Uribe will be making specific requests for new money (such as funding for paramilitary demobilizations or $150 million for new spray planes and helicopters); it would be rather crass to come here with shopping list in hand two weeks after Hurricane Katrina. His message, though, is likely to include (1) another sales pitch on behalf of the “Justice and Peace” law and the paramilitary process and (2) an effort to influence the House-Senate Conference Committee that will soon meet to reconcile both houses’ version of the 2006 foreign aid bill.

The Senate bill would require more economic aid and less military aid for Colombia, and would place several conditions on aid to the paramilitary demobilization process; the House bill contains no such requirements. It’s likely that Uribe will be encouraging the conferees to go with the House version of the bill’s Colombia provisions, instead of the much better Senate language.

Here is a list of possible questions for President Uribe that we’ve circulated to congressional staff whose bosses might be having brief meetings with him tomorrow. The goal of these questions isn’t to play “gotcha” – no member of Congress wants to hold a hostile interrogation session with a foreign leader. But none of these are softballs, either.

Drug-crop supply and eradication

Statistics published by the U.S. government and the United Nations indicate that, despite a record amount of aerial herbicide fumigation in 2004, Colombia saw little or no decrease in the amount of land planted with coca bushes.[1] U.S. government figures, meanwhile, show that cocaine has neither increased in price nor decreased in purity since Plan Colombia began.[2]

  1. Why, in your estimation, were the 2004 eradication results so disappointing?
  2. Is more fumigation really the answer, or should we consider a change in strategy? Given a limited amount of available funding, should the priority instead be interdiction, alternative development opportunities, or something else?

Talks with paramilitaries

In early August, more than 2½ years after launching negotiations with right-wing paramilitaries, President Uribe signed into law the so-called “Justice and Peace” law, which will govern the demobilization of members of paramilitary and guerrilla groups. This law has been widely criticized for failing to give Colombian government representatives the tools necessary to guarantee that paramilitary groups will cease to exist. “Access to the truth is not guaranteed,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted in June. “Without this, the illegal structures cannot be confronted adequately to guarantee their real dismantlement.”[3]

1. Dismantlement: In most peace processes, it is safely assumed that the armed group in question will disappear – or at least cease all illegal political activity – after negotiations conclude. It is not certain that this is happening in the case of the AUC.

  1. Do you believe that paramilitary groups are truly dismantling themselves, or are their leaders maintaining their power through other means, such as demobilizing partially, keeping most of their weapons, maintaining de facto control over zones they dominate, or even continuing to recruit?
  2. Do you believe that demobilizing paramilitaries are truly declaring all of their ill-gotten wealth and fully dismantling their networks of crime and violence?

2. Security: If paramilitary groups are truly dismantling, is the Colombian government truly able to fill the vacuum and guarantee security in areas that the AUC formerly controlled? Is there a danger that guerrilla groups will expand their presence in these zones?

3. Naming and punishing human rights abusers: The Colombian newsmagazine Semana recently published a disturbing article about the town of Chengue in northern Colombia, where a group of 80 paramilitaries massacred two dozen people in January 2001.[4] In mid-July, the paramilitary unit that included the 80 who carried out that massacre (the Montes de María Bloc) demobilized in a public ceremony. Of the 594 who turned in their weapons, all but nine were immediately absolved of any wrongdoing because they currently have no charges against them. These 585 individuals were sent home. Only the nine will face any likelihood of spending a maximum of eight years in jail.

  1. Is the Chengue case typical? Are the vast majority of those who demobilize being freed without any suspicion of involvement in serious abuses?
  2. Do you believe that current procedures are enough to ensure that mass murderers aren’t walking free, living among their former victims?

4. The big drug selloff: The chief of Colombia’s navy, Admiral Mauricio Soto, has said that paramilitary narco-traffickers who are about to demobilize have been selling off their drug stocks as fast as possible, flooding the market with cocaine. According to Colombian press reports, this big sell-off has brought so many U.S. dollars into Colombia that it has depressed the exchange rate.[5] How can this be happening, while the same paramilitary leaders are negotiating with the government? Are the Colombian authorities investigating this, and will arrests of paramilitary narco-traffickers result?

5. Extradition: On July 1, President Uribe told the Voice of America “in some cases, extraditions [of paramilitary leaders wanted for sending tons of drugs to the United States] will have to be suspended.”[6] What does President Uribe mean by this? Will paramilitaries who sent drugs to our shores ever face U.S. justice?

6. The case of “Gordo Lindo”: On August 27, Francisco Javier Zuluaga Lindo (“Gordo Lindo”), the “political chief” of the AUC’s Pacific Bloc, demobilized. Zuluaga is a longtime narcotrafficker: he was part of the organization of Medellín cartel figures Fabio and Jorge Ochoa in the 1980s and early 1990s. Later, after the Medellín and Cali cartels disappeared, he worked with Alejandro “Juvenal” Bernal Madrigal, one of the largest drug-traffickers of the late 1990s. Zuluaga narrowly escaped capture in 1999, when “Juvenal” was arrested in “Operation Millennium,” a major DEA-Colombian Police sting operation. Since then, he has been a fugitive, maintaining ties to the country’s largest drug organization, the Northern Valle cartel. In 1999, a court in Fort Lauderdale indicted him for narcotrafficking. About three years ago, just as the Uribe government was beginning its negotiations with the paramilitaries, “Gordo Lindo” became a member of the AUC. Speaking on the floor of Colombia’s Senate in August, Senator Jimmy Chamorro denounced that “Gordo Lindo” paid $5 million for his paramilitary status. He “opened his checkbook and bought a franchise to convert himself from a narcotrafficker into a paramilitary chief. This cannot be allowed.”[7]

“Gordo Lindo” now hopes to avoid long jail terms, or extradition to the United States, by demobilizing. What is President Uribe’s government doing to ensure that narco-traffickers like “Gordo Lindo” do not abuse the demobilization process to avoid strong punishment or extradition to the United States?

7. Senate conditions: The Senate’s version of the 2006 Foreign Operations Appropriations bill would only allow U.S. aid for the AUC demobilization process if Colombian law requires each demobilizing paramilitary member to offer “full disclosure of his knowledge of the FTO’s [foreign terrorist organization’s] structure, financing sources, and illegal assets.” Though this information is critical to any effort to dismantle paramilitary networks, the “Justice and Peace” law doesn’t require that this information be confessed, and President Uribe’s administration opposed legislative efforts to include this requirement in the law. Does President Uribe regard this condition on U.S. aid to be fair? Why did he oppose any requirement that demobilizing paramilitaries (or guerrillas) reveal information about their group’s structure, financing sources and illegal assets?

Recent dynamics of the conflict

We note with concern that the frequency and scale of FARC guerrilla attacks, on both military and civilian targets, has increased in 2005. (Prominent recent examples include a month-long siege of indigenous towns in northern Cauca department in April and May; several large-scale attacks, and a month-long stoppage of road traffic, in Putumayo department in July and August; and the murder of fourteen coca-growing peasants in Antioquia department in late August.)

  1. After two years of reduced guerrilla activity, is a FARC counter-offensive underway?
  2. Why are the guerrillas still able to launch attacks of this scale so frequently, even after several years of dramatically increased military expenditures and aggressive security policies?
  3. Why does the security situation remain so bad in Putumayo department, where U.S.-funded operations under Plan Colombia began in 2000-2001?

Peace with guerrillas

President Uribe has taken significant steps in the past few weeks to establish dialogues with the ELN guerrilla group, and to begin talks with FARC guerrillas about the release of hostages – including three U.S. citizens – whom they have been holding for years. How can the U.S. government be more helpful to this effort?

[1] - U.S. figure: 2003 = 113,850 hectares; 2004 = 114,000 hectares. United States, White House, Office of National Drug Control Policy, “2004 Coca and Opium Poppy Estimates for Colombia and the Andes” (Washington: March 25, 2005) <>.

- UN figure: 2003 = 86,000 hectares; 2004 = 80,000 hectares. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Colombia coca cultivation survey for 2004 (Vienna: June 2005) <>.

[2] Office of National Drug Control Policy data cited in Washington Office on Latin America, “Data used in ‘Are We There Yet?’ from the Drug War Monitor series” (Washington: WOLA, November 2004) <>.

United States, Department of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center, National Drug Threat Assessment 2005 (Washington: February 2005) <>.

[3] United Nations, High Commissioner for Human Rights Bogotá Field Office, “Consideraciones sobre la ley de ‘Justicia y Paz’” (Bogotá: June 27, 2005) <>.

[4] “La ley del embudo,” Semana 1216 (Bogotá: August 21, 2005) <>.

[5] “Parte de los 21.400 millones de dólares que circulan en el país viene de Ralito,” El Tiempo (Bogotá: September 10, 2005) <>.

[6] Presidencia de Colombia, “El Presidente en la Voz de América,” (Bogotá: Sistema de Noticias del Estado, July 1, 2005) <>.

[7] “‘Paras’ han convertido la extradición en ‘rey de burlas,’” El Heraldo (Barranquilla, Colombia: August 25, 2005).

Sep 12

Imagine having police or soldiers seize you while you are walking down the street, charge you with aiding terrorists, parade you in front of reporters’ cameras as a captured terrorist supporter, and throw you in jail. Imagine that your arrest was based on accusations from somebody whom you cannot question or confront (if you know who your accuser is at all). Imagine that, after a period of days, weeks, or months, you are released for lack of evidence and must begin your life again. 

Last month, several Colombian human-rights groups released a report [PDF format] documenting one of the most troubling aspects of the Uribe government’s security policies. According to Liberty: Hostage of Democratic Security, more than 6,000 people were arrested and charged with supporting guerrillas during the first two years of Álvaro Uribe’s term in office. Of those, 5,535 were detained in mass roundups of ten people or more. 

“In the framework of the struggle against terrorism, entire populations are being classified as dangerous, and as a result are exposed to the risk of administrative detention. The arrest of more than 2,000 people in Arauca city, Arauca, on November 12, 2002 is still the worst example of what a state should not do with regard to personal liberty. However, it is not the only one: between August 7, 2002 and August 6, 2004, the report states, 5,535 people were victims of arbitrary arrest in 77 mass-detention events, in which the number of people simultaneously arrested was between ten (for example, the May 22, 2002 arrests in Villa Hermosa, Tolima) and two thousand (for example, the Arauca arrests).” 

The prominent national organizations who collaborated on the report (Center for Popular Research and Investigation [CINEP], José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective, Colombian Commission of Jurists, Permanent Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, Humanidad Vigente, Freedom Legal Corporation, and Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners, in coordination with the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination [CCEEU]) define “arbitrary arrest” as one in which the detainee is not informed of the reasons for his arrest, he is not granted an opportunity to inform a third party about his arrest, or he is not presented before a judge.

The growing rate of arbitrary detentions coincides with the beginning of the Uribe government. Between August 7, 2002 and August 6, 2004, the report found that at least 6,332 people were detained arbitrarily in Colombia (including events in which less than ten people were arrested). During the six previous years, by contrast, 2,869 people were detained arbitrarily.

The investigators attribute this explosion of arrests to President Uribe’s active support for the imprisonment of “terrorist supporters” as part of his “Democratic Security” strategy. Speaking in December 2003 about the security situation in part of Colombia’s coffee-growing heartland, Uribe called for still more mass arrests.

"It may disgust many national and international observers, but it is a way of isolating the terrorists, of taking key supports away from them, of affecting their supply lines. Last week, I told General Castro Castro [the chief of Colombia’s National Police] that in this zone we cannot go on with mass arrests of 40 or 50 every Sunday, but instead 200, to accelerate the jailing of the terrorists and to deliver a blow to these organizations. Those captures have been massive, but not arbitrary." 

According to the report, these detentions unfairly target human rights workers and other activists, as well as farmers who live in zones traditionally controlled by guerrilla groups. As is well known, Uribe has said in public on several occasions that human-rights groups serve the interest of Colombian guerrilla groups, as “terrorist spokespeople.” As a result, Uribe’s plan to “isolate” terrorists by capturing their alleged associates puts human rights workers at particular risk of arbitrary detention. 

The majority of arrests, however, occur during military operations in which civilians are indiscriminately detained. A few examples from the report:. 

  • Operation Liberty, September 27, 2003, Qunchía, Risaralda,116 people detained. The operation’s mission was to arrest 60 people responsible for a May 2003 ambush by the EPL (a very small guerrilla group) that killed 3 police agents. Sixty-five people accused of aiding terrorists, including the mayor of Quinchía and four other public officials, were held without bond. Twenty months later, on August 2, 2005, all were finally released for lack of evidence. Despite charges of rebellion, extortion, and terrorist conspiracy, defense lawyers were never informed of linkages between the civilians and the EPL.  
  • Operation Sovereignty, September 7, 2003, Cartagena del Chairá, Caquetá, 74 people detained. Warrants had been issued for 94 people believed to be accomplices of the FARC. A few months later, a large-scale military offensive that continues today, usually known as “Plan Patriota,” would bring thousands of troops to Cartagena del Chairá. 
  • Operation Orion, October 16, 2002, Medellín’s Comuna 13 neighborhood, 422 people detained. The mass arrests occurred in the context of a military operation that evicted ELN militias from this hillside slum. The operation failed, however, to affect the paramilitary presence in Comuna 13, which has since been largely under the control of paramilitaries commanded by “Don Berna.” 

The report raises several tough questions not just about mass arrests, but about the “Democratic Security” strategy in general. 

What counts as a credible intelligence report? One of the Uribe government’s signature security efforts has been its “Network of Cooperators,” in which civilians offer tips to army and police officials, usually in exchange for financial compensation. But what is “suspicious” enough to warrant action? 

“It is suspicious to me if the person is not from this town,” one civilian informant from Cesar department told an interviewer for the NGOs’ report. 

"If a street vendor goes down the same street several times, I call the police right away. … If some guy is dressed like a campesino, he doesn’t know how to match his clothing, he puts on a red shirt with green and has scratches on his arms, right away I look at his waist [where a pistol might be] because he could be a guerrilla. … If he has tattoos or an earring, he could be a paramilitary." 

“Based on criteria such as these,” the report informs, “many people have been arbitrarily detained in Colombia.” 

In addition to civilian reports, the Colombian state relies on the testimony of “reinsertados,” former guerrilla members, who accompany the security forces on operations, identifying those who they believe are guerrilla collaborators. In some cases, suspected guerrillas have been arrested based on accusations from demobilized paramilitaries. 

How solid is the proof connecting those arrested to guerrilla organizations? Frequently, the report contends, those arrested are let go shortly afterward due to a lack of evidence against them. While it is unfortunate that the report’s authors were unable to give a more exact estimate of how many detainees are subsequently released, we do know that the case of Alfredo Correa de Andreís – a Barranquilla profesor arrested for being a FARC supporter in mid-2004, then released for lack of evidence – is not unusual. (Correa was killed, probably by paramilitaries, weeks after his release.) 

Investigators found various inconsistencies within the “solid” evidence underlying cases against detainees. For example, Operation Orion documents held that a single defense attorney was assisting different detainees in different places at the same time. In addition, various prosecutors were questioning and identifying people in different places at the same time. Police officials added to data provided by informants. Occasionally, “reinsertados” provided identical testimonies, altering only names, for different cases. 

Where does the “burden of proof” lie? The defendants are not given access to intelligence-based evidence against them. The defense must prove a negative – no ties to guerrillas – while testimony given by “reinsertados” is not submitted to a credibility check. 

Are some accusations coerced? In some instance, witnesses were trained and prompted before giving their testimonies. In fact, informant Jampiero Grajales Correa admitted in November 2002 that during Operation Orion he’d been forced to “identify” a man that he’d never seen before. 

In addition to these concerns we must add the rather obvious point that mass arrests on flimsy evidence are a terrible way for the Colombian government to win the population’s support. Many of the mass arrests have taken place during military operations aimed at re-taking territory that has been in guerrilla hands. The government has long been absent in such zones, and will need the population’s support in order to hold on to this territory. It is a mistake, then, to make its first appearance in the zone by antagonizing the population, locking up dozens or hundreds of citizens. In areas already under government control, the policy of large-scale arrests has a chilling effect on democracy and free speech, when so many of those detained are human-rights workers, activists and others who criticize the Uribe government. 

“How many more innocent people have to be arrested,” asked an August El Tiempo editorial, “before it is recognized that the costly and counter-productive strategy of mass arrests is a mistake and should be suspended?” The practice of mass and arbitrary arrests must stop – it is a black mark on the record of the Uribe government, and on its number-one supporter, the United States. The Colombian groups who authored this report deserve congratulations and thanks for making this information public.

(This entry was largely written by CIP Intern Robin Rahe.)

Sep 08

During last year’s presidential election, most of President Bush’s campaign appearances were closed to anyone who did not first sign a form declaring his or her support for the President. This ensured that there would be no unpleasant surprises amid the cheering crowds at pro-Bush rallies and the softball questioners at heavily scripted “town hall meetings.” President Bush was not forced to confront his critics, and nothing marred the image being presented for the cameras.

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe isn’t being quite that extreme. No loyalty oaths will be needed to attend the town-hall meeting (“consejo coumitario”) he will hold with Colombians living in the United States, in the New York suburb of Elizabeth, NJ, on September 18. (Uribe will be in the area after attending next week’s annual kickoff of the UN General Assembly.) The meeting is modeled on the nationally televised consejos that Uribe holds throughout Colombia, in which he answers questions or hears complaints from local citizens.

But don’t think that this means you can just show up at Elizabeth’s Ritz Theater and ask a tough question or make a critical comment. Taking a page from the Bush campaign’s playbook, the meeting’s organizers are carefully staging it.

You can only attend the event if you have first called [(212)798 9012, (212)798 9019 or (212)798 9041] and arranged to have an invitation mailed to you. You will only be allowed to ask a question if you have first faxed it in [(908) 245 6969] and had it approved.

The President’s handlers hope to project images of a can-do president spontaneously fielding questions from concerned citizens. But what they are putting together is a publicity stunt with hand-picked questions from a pre-arranged crowd.

Sep 07

“I don’t think we will put much energy into trying, the old saying, win hearts and minds. I don’t look at that as one of the metrics of success.” – Gen. Thomas F. Metz, a senior U.S. commander in Iraq, August 2004

In a recent meeting with a senior Colombian Army official, the subject turned to U.S. military assistance. He told me that he had found U.S. helicopters, equipment and intelligence to be useful – but that U.S. military training was of little benefit. “You [the United States] don’t know how to fight insurgencies. Look at Iraq.”

He has a point, but it’s not clear that they are having much more success in Colombia, where one military offensive after another fails to hold onto territory, and the FARC guerrillas have increased the frequency of their attacks, especially this year. The guerrillas have weathered the Colombian government’s U.S.-supported military campaign of the past few years, despite their evident unpopularity throughout the country.

In both Iraq and Colombia, the failure of counter-insurgency strategies is plain to see. Iraqi insurgents have not been weakened by the U.S. approach, which combines search-and-destroy military sweeps, detentions and interrogations, and excruciatingly slow investment in economic needs and civilian governance. Similarly, the U.S.-aided “Democratic Security” effort in Colombia – which combines large-scale military offensives like “Plan Patriota,” fumigations, informant networks, mass arrests and insufficient social and economic aid – is also getting bogged down.

As a result, military analysts of both Iraq and Colombia have been busily writing about how to fine-tune counter-insurgency strategies. U.S. trainers are trying to hand off more responsibility to new Iraqi forces, while urging the Colombians to work jointly and increase their mobility. The Rand Corporation [PDF format] and others urge a return to the “hearts and minds” efforts that marked counter-insurgency efforts of colonial powers half a century ago. Alfredo Rangel, the oft-quoted director of Colombia’s Security and Democracy Foundation, says that Colombia’s military should be fighting not in empty areas like the “Plan Patriota” zone, but to start by clearing the guerrillas from where people actually live. A similar strategy for Iraq is proposed in an article by Andrew Krepinevich in the current issue of Foreign Affairs; the author urges U.S. forces to expand the zone of security for Iraqi citizens like an “oil spot” expands on the surface of water.

One thing these critics have in common is that they all are calling on governments to do more to win the support of the people who live in the conflict zones. “Rather than focusing on killing insurgents, they should concentrate on providing security and opportunity to the Iraqi people, thereby denying insurgents the popular support they need,” writes Krepinevich. Cautions Rand’s Bruce Hoffman, “A supposedly well-known military aphorism asserts, ‘Ignoring the civil side of counterinsurgency . . . [is like] playing chess while the enemy is playing poker.’” Adds Rangel [PDF format], “Obviously, the Gordian knot of this conflict [in Colombia] cannot be untied exclusively with the policy of the sword, but it will also necessarily require the sword of politics.”

It’s refreshing to hear counter-insurgency experts admit that overwhelming military force alone won’t end the violence – that improving governance and building the civilian population’s trust in the government actually matter too. It’s good to hear them suggest that it’s not such a good idea for a government to introduce itself to long-neglected citizens by rounding them up and arresting them. It’s good to hear more talk about protecting citizens and providing basic services. It’s good to hear more of a recognition that poverty and lack of opportunity contribute to the problem. (President Uribe, on the other hand, has said on several occasions [like this one] that “terrorism” is the cause of Colombia’s poverty, and not the other way around.)

These critics are right when they point out that racking up body counts will never bring victory – particularly against a group like the FARC, whose fighters are at least one-third minors and 40% female, many recruited because they saw no other options, and who are easily replaced. They are right when they criticize a strategy of carrying out military sweeps through regions, leaving no part of the civilian government behind, only to see the armed groups return when the soldiers leave. They are right when they point out the damage done when military personnel commit arbitrary abuses (or tolerate paramilitary abuses) with impunity, and when government representatives establish an adversarial relationship with the population through searches, seizures, mass arrests and a general attitude of disdain and disrespect.

But these critics don’t go anywhere near far enough. They are military strategists, and while they write at length about the security aspects of ideas like the “oil spot” strategy, they are often frustratingly vague about what it means to win “hearts and minds.” For the most part, it’s hard to tell whether they’re calling for a big investment in civilian governance and a “Marshall Plan” for long-neglected zones, or whether they think the soldiers themselves can handle the problem by building a few wells and roads while being nicer to the local population. Counter-insurgency proponents rarely talk with any specificity about strengthening the non-military part of the government and helping to deliver services to neglected populations. That seems to be left up to the politicians.

Our side – the human rights community, the peace movement, advocates of economic justice – needs to take part in this debate. We have to take on the counter-insurgency people because they have got it completely wrong – after all, they’ve made counter-insurgency their main purpose. In fact, their narrow focus on defeating insurgents is a big reason why they are failing.

But our side has been too quiet – absent, really – in this debate. There is a good reason for this: terms like “counter-insurgency” or “expanding government authority” raise images of soldiers abusing civilians, people disappearing, and small economic elites expanding their stranglehold over unequal societies. Why participate in a debate about how best to use military force to preserve an unjust order?

Instead, we call for respecting human rights, increasing economic aid, and renewing negotiations. (In Iraq, we call for withdrawal, often without discussing what we would leave behind.) But we haven’t coherently framed it as an answer to the question: when armed groups are killing civilians, how do you propose to protect them?

We would answer that question by transcending the narrow, failed focus on counter-insurgency. We should put it as clearly as possible: in Colombia, the main goal is not to defeat the FARC. The main goal is to protect citizens, help them prosper, and give them a functioning government ruled by law. If progress can be made toward that goal, the guerrillas’ eventual decline and fall will be just one of many side benefits. Achieving this goal, after all, would require a revolutionary change in the way that Colombia’s government – and its small economic elite – relates to its people. (Not to mention in the way that the United States relates to Latin America.)

This doesn’t mean rejecting all of the precepts of counter-insurgency. It makes sense to focus on winning hearts and minds, and by recognizing that the mission is mainly political, not military. The “oil spot” approach is promising, too; it makes sense to impose the rule of law and to protect and serve the population over an ever-expanding geographic area.

But the effort must be mostly non-military, and most resources have to go to non-military needs. (By contrast, 80 percent of U.S. aid to Colombia since 2000 has gone to the military and police. This is terribly misguided.) Soldiers – when they act with full respect for human rights, and are punished when they violate them – do have a key role to play. They are needed to expand the “oil spot” initially. They must be seen as escorting the rest of the government into areas where it has not been present – and Colombia has an abundance of such areas. But the zone of government control will shrink right back unless the following happens immediately.

1.      Citizen security. The population must feel that the government can protect them, from armed groups as well as common crime. This means bringing in police who are trained in working with civilians (as opposed to military personnel trained to destroy an enemy). These security professionals must not only be equipped to respond to threats, but they must win the trust of local populations accustomed to living under the sway of illegal groups. This means punishing any abuses, corruption and predatory behavior in their ranks systematically, transparently and promptly. In day-to-day interactions, it means treating citizens as potential allies instead of suspected guerrilla supporters.

2.      Justice. In order to punish abuses and common crime, as well as to resolve disputes before they get out of hand, and to guarantee that citizens can exercise their rights (ranging from free speech to protection of their landholdings), the justice system has to establish a quick presence. Judges and prosecutors will need to be equipped to do their jobs, and will need decent security if they are to pursue cases against powerful defendants.

3.      Humanitarian assistance. The best way that the government can win the population’s support is by attending to its most urgent concerns beyond security: food, shelter, and health care. Most conflictive areas have a large population of internally displaced people, and nearly 85 percent of rural Colombians live in poverty. Emergency assistance to help meet these immediate needs will greatly increase the government’s credibility.

4.      Infrastructure and basic services. Efforts to meet urgent needs must be followed by efforts to make the region’s legal economy viable. This means getting power and clean water to areas that need them, paving well-traveled roads and extending the reach of the education and health systems. It means offering credit and technical assistance in exchange for voluntary eradication of drug crops.

This is the most expensive part of the entire effort. It’s the sort of thing that used to be derided as “nation-building.” That term has a negative connotation, however, only if it’s all happening with U.S. funds. If Colombian elites are contributing the lion’s share of the cost of building their own nation, the picture changes dramatically. The richest Colombians, who control most of the country’s wealth, must contribute much more. In turn, these resources are managed transparently, with swift punishment for corruption or mismanagement. It will require a significant improvement in local government’s ability to administer them. While expensive, these investments will do the most to build long-term loyalty to the government – and will deal the greatest blow to the insurgents.

Increasing the “oil spot” of civilian governance will require a sharp reordering of the U.S. and Colombian governments’ priorities. Resources must be channeled away from costly military offensives. But even with enough resources, it will not be easy. Even if all of the above efforts are made, the “oil spot” will shrink right back if these interlocking efforts don’t happen all at once, in a coordinated way. There’s no sense introducing the government into a zone if abuses aren’t going to be punished; that would just increase ill will and no citizen will turn to the authorities for protection. There’s no sense in building infrastructure if there’s no “sheriff” present to keep it from being sabotaged. But there’s no sense in deploying police if the illegal groups who kill cops are the only ones doing any hiring. And there’s absolutely no sense in antagonizing the population with mass or arbitrary arrests, fumigations or unpunished human-rights abuses.

This is, in very general terms, what our side would propose, instead of just “a new approach to counter-insurgency,” in Krepinevich’s words. Expanding the government’s non-military presence into new territories, enforcing the laws, providing badly needed services and punishing abuses when they happen, is not only the best way to govern Colombia, it’s the best possible way to weaken Colombian insurgents. A population that trusts its government and wants it to stay will offer intelligence willingly, and it will shun those who join or support violent groups. By contrast, a population that sees only its government’s soldiers and spray planes will take no risks and choose no sides, focusing merely on what it needs to do to survive.

Expanding the non-military “oil spot” would not only make Colombia more socially just and well-governed, it would deal a stronger blow to violent groups and the drug trade than Plan Colombia could ever have contemplated. But in order to promote an alternative to the failed strategy of the present, we have to start talking about it more coherently and consistently.

Sep 02

Here is part of President Bush’s defense of the federal government’s feeble initial response to Hurricane Katrina, in what The New York Times editorial page called “one of the worst speeches of his life”:

The Department of Transportation has provided more than 400 trucks to move 1,000 truckloads containing 5.4 million Meals Ready to Eat — or MREs, 13.4 million liters of water, 10,400 tarps, 3.4 million pounds of ice, 144 generators, 20 containers of pre-positioned disaster supplies, 135,000 blankets and 11,000 cots.

Does this sound at all familiar to Colombia-watchers?

Here’s one of many examples from Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s standard speechmaking, in this case a defense of his government’s social and economic policies, given in mid-April in the town of Toribío, Cauca, which was being besieged by FARC guerrillas.

You know that in this government we have increased by nearly 5 million the number of people covered by the state’s subsidized health program. In this government we have increased the number of spaces for public-school students (cupos escolares) by 1.1 million. In this government the SENA [National Learning Service, which offers vocational training] has gone from attending to 1 million Colombians per year to, in this year, over 3 million, and we hope to attend to 4 million next year.

In both cases, we see an attempt to mask a lack of results by offering a barrage of vague but impressive-sounding statistics.

We know that, on Wednesday, tens of thousands of Gulf Coast residents were being left to fend for themselves amid looting and rising floodwaters while the federal government – whose military was nowhere near using its enormous search-and-rescue, medevac, transportation and order-keeping capabilities – dithered. We know that the poorest Colombians – especially those in neglected rural areas where illegal armed groups are strong – have seen little or no increase in government services.

We don’t know whether the statistics our leaders are reciting are at all meaningful. Are 13.4 million liters of water and 11,000 cots anywhere near enough? Did the government have the logistical capacity to deliver these goods to those who needed them immediately, or are they still sitting in warehouses? Was it possible to deliver any of this aid to New Orleans when the law and order situation had clearly gotten out of hand?

Is the increase in people covered by Colombia’s health system accompanied by a similar increase in doctors and hospitals? Is the increase in spaces for students accompanied by a similar increase in teachers and schools? Did being “attended to” by the SENA lead many of these millions of people to get gainful employment using those skills?

When our leaders give us numbers instead of results, we need to ask more questions.