December 2007 Peace Presence Update
Trees in the Forest: Emphasis on Humanitarian Exchange forgets Colombia's Ongoing War
Ingrid Betancourt's dramatic letter, along with the videos sent by some of the other political hostages held by the FARC as "proofs of life," in the aborted humanitarian exchange negotiations being brokered by Hugo Chavez and Afro Colombian senator Piedad Córdoba, caused a commotion both in Colombia and abroad. Such uproar resulted in new claims for a humanitarian accord that would result in swapping hostages for FARC's members who are currently in jail. Unfortunately, such momentum has not resulted in increased interest addressing the larger context and millions of other victims of Colombia's conflict.
During his six-year term, President Alvaro Uribe has shown no real interest in negotiating with the FARC. Looking at the failed effort led by Chavez and Cordoba, one could argue that Uribe has done everything in his power to ensure that any effort fails. Thus, charging Chavez and Cordoba to pursue a humanitarian accord could be seen as a strategy to diffuse international pressure, particularly from France. All this time, he has pressed for a hard line: a military rescue of the hostages, consistent with his Democratic Security policy under which he wages war against the guerrilla.
Preoccupied with scoring image points at home, the efforts by foreign leaders such as French President Sarkozy offer little help to the process: Sarkozy's televised address to the octogenarian FARC leader Manuel Marulanda "sure shot," calling on him to free Franco-Colombian Ingrid Betancourt or else "bear on your conscience [the burden] of her death," ignores the context in which the abominable practice of taking hostages takes place: the ongoing armed conflict. While undoubtedly a human tragedy, the guerrillas' practice of taking hostages at random or as political merchandise is one of many manifestations of a war that has claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians: some of them brutally massacred, over 3 million internally displaced and an ongoing humanitarian crisis. It is time to exert international pressure for a political solution to Colombia's armed conflict in all of its facets: not only a release of the hostages, but also reparations to the victims of the conflict, the truth about the thousands who have been massacred, assassinated and disappeared, support for the displaced to return to the land that is rightfully theirs, and justice in the cases that remain in impunity.
President Alvaro Uribe's alleged links to the Medellin Cartel surfaced again this month, according to legal documents obtained by the Miami based daily El Nuevo Herald. Only weeks before his death, former justice minister Lara Bonilla said, "President Alvaro Uribe and his father were models of how Colombia had been infiltrated by drug dealers."
Lara Bonilla's assertions were based on the fact that a helicopter belonging to President Uribe's father was found in a raid of a gigantic drug laboratory known as Tranquilandia. The raid of Tranquilandia was one of the largest hits against drug traffickers since the beginning of the drug war and Lara Bonilla feared backlash from the operation. Also as reported by El Nuevo Herald, Lara Bonilla told the police Col. Ramirez Gomez, who coordinated the Tranquilandia raid, that he feared the owners of the seized properties in that cocaine laboratory would attack him. When Ramirez Gomez asked him what he meant, Lara Bonilla responded, "the owners of the helicopter and the airplane you captured." Col. Ramirez was murdered a few months later.
Rodrigo Lara Bonilla unveiled Colombia's first Parapolitica
Justice minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla was not just another minister. Friend and political associate of later assassinated presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán, Lara Bonilla was a very courageous and principled man; he waged a crusade against the infiltration of drug money into politics by confronting drug lord Pablo Escobar, at the time a deputy member of the Colombian congress.
In April 1984, Lara Bonilla was shot to death by hit men hired by the Medellin Cartel. His death caused a big commotion and marked the start of a dark chapter of Colombian history in which the drug mafia used terror tactics, including widespread car bombings in Bogotá and Medellin to avoid Washington's proposal to solve the drug problem: extradition to the United States.
Number of Congress Members Involved in Parapolitica scandal Grows
The number of former and current members of Congress investigated under the parapolitics scandal has surpassed 60. This month, two current members of Congress were put behind bars: the Senator, and former president of Congress, Luis Humber Gómez Gallo from Tolima and congressman Gonzalo García Angarita, also from Tolima. Both congressmen were captured in BogotÃ¡ on December 10th and sent to La Picota penitentiary.
Colombia's main opposition party, the Polo Democratico, issued a strong statement against Plan Colombia. The communique is also a grim assessment of Alvaro Uribe's Democratic Security policy, heavily influenced by Washington. Among the critics of Plan Colombia, the Polo cites the increase of human rights violations and forced displacement among communities targeted for crop eradication. Furthermore, the Polo asserts that under Plan Colombia, paramilitary groups have strengthened, achieving greater political, economic and social control throughout several regions.
The Polo also underscores the tight links between the military component of Plan Colombia and the economic strategy of pressing for a NAFTA style Free Trade Agreement with Colombia: "the government's so-called war on terrorism incorporates the Doctrine of Integrated Action, based on the new (U.S.) doctrine of the Southern Command Partnership for the Americas, and seeks the coordination of military, political, security and defense actions with state civil actions."
The statement concludes saying "Plan Colombia Phase II, instead of helping to solve the conflict and bring peace to the country, comes as a war plan that will strengthen the dynamics of the conflict, with ever more blatant intervention by the United States in the affairs of Colombia."
On Thursday, December 13th an observer who works for an international body set up to monitor Colombia's demobilization process, received a death threat while visiting a poor neighborhood in Medellin, Colombia. Since 2004, the MAPP (Mission to Support the Peace Process), under the auspices of the Organization of American States, has had teams of observers in different parts of Colombia and produces periodic reports about the peace process. The member who was threatened in Colombia was in a meeting when a man on a motorcycle drove up to her car and told her driver that his boss would be killed if she failed to abandon her work.
This is the first time that a member of the OAS peace mission has received a threat, despite the fact that they have been monitoring the demobilization over the last four years and travel throughout many areas of Colombia. This threat not only puts this official at risk, but other international agencies as well, which have often been protected from the kinds of security risks that Colombian organizations and human rights defenders face daily. In an article by Human Rights Watch, Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at the organization says, "this threat suggests that armed actors in Medellin are becoming so increasingly bold that they now feel comfortable enough to intimidate even international observers. The government should respond unequivocally and conduct full and effective investigations to get to the bottom of this."
It is also significant that this threat takes place in Medellin, a city that has been lauded for its efforts to demobilize paramilitary fighters and bring down the levels of violence over the last few years. The reality of this death threat proves that Medellin is not safe: not for international peace observers and much less for Colombian organizations who continue to denounce the demobilization process with much stronger statements than the OAS peace mission.
In an interview on Radio Caracol, Sergio Caramagna, head of the mission, said there was a strange climate in the Medellin neighborhoods: groups of narcotraffickers and demobilized fighters from Uraba and North Valle department are fighting for territorial control. Caramagna didn't say how this struggle for control is connected to the death threat that one of the OAS officials received. He included that 750 demobilized paramilitaries have been assassinated since the process began.
You can read more in an article by the Associated Press, OAS Observer to Colombia Peace Process Receives Death Threats.
The Mission's X report was made public on Oct. 31st, 2007. The mission issues a report three times a year to reflect the progress and problems of Colombia's demobilization process. A few of the report's findings are that:
- Upon the demobilization of paramilitary groups, narcotraffickers saw the opportunity to take over areas with illicit crops.
- 22 re-armed illegal networks continue to exist, a number which was identified in a previous report.
- Progress has been made to "deligitimize paramilitarism."
- Although the authorities have detained mid-level paramilitary bosses, they are quickly replaced by others willing to do the job.
- There continue to be territorial disputes and vendettas among the new paramilitary organizations, which have resulted in "the assassination of the mid-level commanders and the death and displacement of the demobilized combatants. This happens in times of transition and ends when one of the rival gangs takes over the zone.
- The guerrillas have increased their influence in the wake of the paramilitary demobilization in specific geographical areas.
- Serious security concerns continue to affect the access that victims have to the Truth and Reconciliation process: "regarding the participation of victims in the voluntary statement hearings, despite the regulations issued, some problems have arisen in their enforcement. These relate to: victims' misinformation about the process; threats and intimidation; as well as some homicides; poor coordination between agencies responsible for guaranteeing the participation of the victims in the hearings; and insufficient economic resources for the victims to travel to the cities where the hearings are being held."
These are just a few of the report's 70 observations, which can be useful to understand the challenges that exist as Colombia continues with its demobilization process, but the OAS peace mission hardly takes a highly critical stance of the government's efforts. For example, in this X report, the territorial struggles between old and new paramilitary networks and narcos are mentioned numerous times as well as the risks that demobilized fighters run, but the report focuses too much on the fact that these old/new networks are mainly interested in controlling the drug business. They fail to mention that the paramilitaries continue to silence (through threats, intimidation, harassment and assassinations) those who speak out against human rights abuses, the illegal appropriation of land, victims' rights and links between the military and paramilitaries. For example, read the story about the Nuevo Herald reporter Guillen, who received 24 death threats in 48 hours while he was in Colombia two weeks ago for reporting on the links between Uribe and the narcos. Or consider the death threat made to the OAS official. Hardly aimed at controlling drug profits, these threats are carried out with political motives and intended to silence those who attempt to denounce the connections between the government and the paramilitaries.
The Rolling Stone article "How America Lost the War on Drugs After Thirty-Five Years and $500 Billion, Drugs Are as Cheap and Plentiful as Ever: An Anatomy of a Failure," is an impressive work of investigative journalism, because it looks at the war on drugs from many different angles: the helicopters in Colombia, the thousands of people who cross the US-Mexican border daily, the conversations behind closed doors in Washington and a couple of successful city-focused projects to combat drug-related violence. At every turn, and from every angle explored, the article demonstrates how US politicians have systematically turned away from an effective course of action and chosen to invest in continual failure.
The article begins with Pablo Escobar, a likely starting point, but not for the usual reasons of power, influence and smuggling impressive amounts of cocaine into the United States. It begins with him because beating Pablo Escobar (and a handful of other major traffickers) was considered to be the beginning of the end, a way of winning the war on drugs. And when the illusion of victory dissipated after his death as drug flow into the US went unchanged, the first signs of defeat were apparent.
The scene is set when the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) staff enters Pablo Escobar's ranch in Colombia. "Arriving after the kingpin had fled, [they] found neat shelves lined with loose-leaf binders, carefully organized by content. They were," says John Coleman, then the DEA's assistant administrator for operations, "filled with DEA reports" - internal documents that laid out, in extraordinary detail, the agency's repeated attempts to capture Escobar. Not that surprising - Escobar was surveilling the US government while they tried to capture him.
The point of the anecdote and a theme throughout the article is that just as police officers and DEA staff are trying to bust the drug runners, the drug runners become more savvy. Maybe more importantly, it is not only the dealers, but the business in general that becomes more savvy. The drug business is like any business - it responds to market trends and drugs are capital, which move according to the best market conditions. For example, bosses are laid off (or knocked off), but the product still needs to get from point A to point B, so whether it is Pablo Escobar or a thousand splinter groups, drugs find their way into the US. According to a veteran DEA agent after Pablo's death "what ended up happening was that the whole structure shattered into these smaller groups. You suddenly had all these new guys controlling a small aspect of the traffic."
There is not only competition among narco-bosses, but among countries that want to make more money in the industry. The article narrates how the Mexican upstart drug smugglers figured out their competitive advantage with Colombia: "A kilo of cocaine produced in Colombia is worth about $2,500. In Mexico, a kilo gets $5,000. But smuggle that kilo across the border and the price goes up to $17,500." As Tony Ayala, a retired DEA agent and former Mexico country attache, expressed "what the Mexican groups started saying was, 'Why are we working for these guys? Why don't we just buy it from the Colombians directly and keep the profits ourselves?'"
In sum, the drug business is a dynamic industry, with lots of people invested in making it function as a well-oiled machine and therefore all the more difficult to for the people who are trying to shut it down.
The article reviews a number of studies which have proven that certain approaches to fighting the war on drugs are effective, while others are not. For example, although the US spends millions to spray coca crops in Colombia, the RAND Corporation showed more than 15 years ago that funding domestic drug prevention and rehabilitation programs is more effective. The US government is spending millions to lock people up for drug crimes: nearly 500,000 people are behind bars, a twelvefold increase since 1980, but no discernible effect on the drug traffic. And the racism inherent in the incarceration rates is shocking: blacks, who comprise only fourteen percent of drug users, make up seventy-four percent of those in prison for drug possession. Ad campaigns were funded to encourage teenagers not to use marijuana, based on the theory that marijuana is a â€œgatewayâ€ drug, even though the Institute of Medicine researchers concluded that marijuana "does not appear to be a gateway drug" and the RAND Corporation found that the gateway theory is not the best way to explain the link between marijuana and hard drugs.
The reasons our policy makers choose ineffective ways to spend our tax dollars cannot be chalked up to ignorance or lack of better proposals. In some cases, there was a heavy lobby that stalled certain drug controls. In other cases, quality programs that showed real results were ignored, like the Boston Gun Project, which tried to break the link between the drug trade and violent crime. The project tracked a specific drug gang in Boston and after collecting extensive evidence, called the dealers to a meeting and offered them a deal: Stop the violence, or the police will crack down with a vengeance. "We know the seventeen guys you run with," the gang bangers were told. "If anyone in your group shoots somebody, we'll arrest every last one of you." The project also extended drug treatment and other assistance to anyone who wanted it. The results were impressive: the rates of homicide and violence among young men in Boston dropped by two-thirds. Kennedy, the Harvard academic behind the program, says the drug dealing didn't stop, but the gang put their guns down. Nevertheless, Kennedy's program was another missed opportunity in the War on Drugs and according to Rolling Stone, "an experience that made clear how difficult it is for science to influence the nation's drug policy."
This article is well worth the read and should have us incensed about the blatantly poor choices our government has made when it comes to fighting the war on drugs. While incarcerating African-Americans, ignoring addicts who need access to programs, spraying the pristine Amazon jungle with toxic chemicals and funding a military with the worst human rights record in the hemisphere (Colombia), the US government is wasting taxpayers' money with absolutely no results.
Letter from the (former) field:
In the Middle
By Sarah Weintraub
Up, up into the steep green mountainsides, on our way to Toribio, Cauca, our chiva was stopped again. The soldier held his hand up in the air, palm towards us, instead of the usual low flick of the wrist to let us through. "Another checkpoint?" people grumbled. We had already been stopped at a checkpoint fifteen minutes before and had to get out of the chiva while the soldiers looked through people's packages and asked for some IDs.
This time the soldier with his hand in the air said, "There's combat. You can't go through. They're shooting." There were seven other soldiers gathered with him, one aiming his machine gun up the road the way we wanted to go.
A few minutes later, the soldiers started to come down. They walked past our bus and back down the way we had come from. One after another after another. Some looked tired, red in the face from the walk; one had a battered, blackened cooking pot strapped to his backpack. Over two hundred soldiers passed as we sat there in our bus.
"We are right in the middle," a few people pointed out to each other. The guerrilla were up the road and the soldiers, one by one, were coming down, one by one putting our bus between themselves and the enemy.
We could hear the machine gun fire from up ahead on the road where the soldiers were coming from. A little girl burst into tears. Her mother held her closer on her lap and said to the woman sitting next to her, "They see the adults are scared and they start to cry too."
Sarah Weintraub was an accompanier with FOR for two-and-a-half years. This excerpt is from a work-in-progress about her experiences in Colombia.
Our upcoming youth delegation is an exceptional opportunity for youth organizers, conscientious objectors, vets and anti-militarism activists to meet their counter-parts in Colombia and exchange experiences, tools and strategies. However, many of the young people who would greatly benefit from this experience don't have $1,700 extra cash to fund their own way ($1,000 for the delegation and about $700 for the airfare). If you are someone who supports the FOR Colombia Program, who has been on a delegation in the past, or believes that young people should be supported as leaders in the struggle to create a better world, then please consider making a donation specifically towards our youth delegation. We are currently in the process of accepting scholarship applications and will do our best to stretch your donations so that they cover as much of the need as possible. Anything and everything helps! And we thank you so much for your support.
Click here to make a secure online donation to help make this delegation possible. (Please note "Colombia Youth Delegation" in the Special Instructions area.)