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Zuluaga/Uribe win first round of Presidential Elections – What next?

Last Sunday, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, the candidate of Alvaro Uribe’s “Democratic Centre”, won the first-round of the 2014 Presidential elections with 29% of the vote.

The President-candidate for the ‘National Unity’ party, Juan Manuel Santos, came in second place with 25% of the vote.

Over 60% of Colombian electors abstained from voting.

Martha Lucia Ramirez, the candidate for the Conservative Party and Uribe’s former Defense Minister got a little over 15% of the vote, as did Clara Lopez Obregon for the Leftist Alternative Democratic Pole. Former Bogota Mayor Enrique Peñalosa of the Green Party came in last place with around 8%.

The option of ‘voting in blank’, or opting to vote for none of the candidates in protest came last, although for sometime it was Santos’ main rival.

Since no candidate received a majority/plurality of votes, the two main contenders (Zuluaga and Santos) will square off in a second round/run-off on June 15th.

A re-election about peace?

The wedge issue between both candidates is the current peace talks with Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the FARC, in Havana. Zuluaga, representing Uribe’s hard-line military approach to ending the conflict, vehemently opposes the negotiations and if elected will probably call them off.

Santos in his concession speech on Sunday night again re-iterated that this is a ‘historic’ election about choosing between more war or peace (meaning to continue the seemingly promising negotiations through his re-election).

The FARC for their part have yet to comment on Sunday’s result. 

The issue at hand now is whether Santos will be able to convince the Colombian people of both the need for the current peace process, and if he will be able to attract the support of the other parties.

The significance of Zuluaga’s victory is that Uribe is still one of the most powerful forces in Colombian electoral politics. Uribe was able to take a candidate with little national prominence six months ago to first place on Sunday. The nearly 3.7 million votes for Zuluaga are no doubt a testament to Uribe’s popularity, but are also relatively small compared to Uribe’s results in 2002, 2006 and other elections.   Zuluaga, who is not particularly charismatic, is understood to be “Uribe’s candidate”; during his victory speech the crowd began chanting “Uribe! Uribe!”.

On the other hand, it is surprising that Santos lost. Incumbents are typically favoured in elections. Perhaps Sunday’s results show that many of the votes Santos won in 2010 (when he was framed as Uribe’s natural successor) were actually for Uribe. Moreover, one of the major deficiencies in Colombian democracy is the rampant clientelism.  Santos still lost despite having the entire State apparatus at his disposal with some saying that traditional political ‘machineries’/establishments will decide the second round/ the run-off.

The name of the game for Zuluaga and Santos now is to try and lure the votes from the other parties. However, discipline in Colombia’s political parties is not great, nevertheless these endorsements matter. Zuluaga recently received the endorsement of the Conservative candidate who urged him to be more “flexible” with the peace talks which she conditionally supported. However, the Conservative congressional caucus seems to be rooting for Santos, and the Party as a whole is still open to both candidates.

The Greens are telling their followers that they are ‘free’ to choose either Zuluaga, Santos, or to vote ‘blank’/for none.

Santos, with his flagship initiative being a call to peace, was hoping to attract liberal and progressive voters to his re-election campaign. However, the Alternative Democratic Pole or ‘el Polo’, the main Leftist party in Colombia, has said that it cannot endorse Santos. Jorge Enrique Robledo of the Pole, and one of the most popular Senators in Colombia, for example, says that he supports the process but that the peace talks cannot overshadow Santos’ acceptance of Free Trade Agreements, and what is seen as a harmful economic and social policy.

At the same time, other opinion leaders in the Centre and on the Left like former Senator Piedad Cordoba, Senator-elect Ivan Cepeda, and former mayor of Bogota Antanas Mockus are saying that they will ‘vote for peace’, a clear nod to Santos. Cepeda has additionally said that he is not a “santista”/Santos supporter, but that he wants his party to understand the high stakes in the election – that breaking the peace process may mean thousands of more dead and a Zuluaga victory a return of Uribe and ‘paramilitarization’ to Colombia.

The issue on the Left seems to be that, if people accept the credibility of the peace process (which is still an issue in contention), whether or not they are willing to accept a continuing economic liberalization/Santos’ neoliberal economic program in exchange for a potentially historic change (peace with the strongest insurgent group).

The different Colombias vote differently…..

Colombia, like most societies, is deeply stratified along lines of class privilege, region/geography, and race. The regions where the FARC are still a force to be reckoned with are rural areas outside the limits of not only Urban Colombia but also the success of Uribe’s counterinsurgency. Many of these areas are considered ‘peripheral’ by urbanites and elites  and in places like Cauca have large Afro-descendent/Black and indigenous populations.

It is important to note that these ‘peripheral’ regions where the active combat with the FARC is still ongoing,  Santos and the candidates most in favour of the peace process won by large margins, and little popularity for Zuluaga.

Zuluaga, by contrast won all over the country but also had extremely strong support in urban areas, and among the middle and upper classes.

This means that if indeed Zuluaga’s win on Sunday was evidence that people still love Uribe (and his hardline against the FARC), this perhaps maybe a sentiment coming from those who are probably not currently living with the war. The hard-line/war sentiment is therefore something that may be imposed on those who will actually bear the brutal consequences of rejecting a negotiated settlement to the war.

 

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The CIA’s support for Colombia’s counterinsurgency

A really informative (yet problematic) piece from Dana Priest, Elyssia Pachico and Jude Tate from the Washington Post, on the CIA’s covert support for Colombia’s smartbombing campaign against the FARC leadership.

The article makes some interesting points, but largely ignores the paramilitarization of Colombian democracy under ex-President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) who led this counterinsurgency, and seems uncritical or at least does not really mention the cruel repression and abuse inflicted on the Colombian population in the name of Uribe’s “Democratic Security” policy. For example, there is the case of the “false positives”, in which over 3,000 mostly young peasants were extrajudicially executed and dressed up as “guerrillas” so as to increase kill counts. There are also the chuzadas (wire-tappings) of opposition politicians, supreme court judges, and opponents of the government; it would be interesting to see how much the CIA knew about or enabled Uribe’s threats to freedom of speech, privacy, and other civil liberties.

The article also seems to lack a serious political analysis, and takes it for granted that the US’s support for Colombia was about mainly counter-narcotics, and not the War On Terror, nor about protecting American investments (such as the Caño Limón–Coveñas pipeline and other key pieces of energy infrastructure) from guerrilla attacks. A key myth this report buys into is that the FARC are the main narco-traffickers in Colombia (and that fighting the FARC is therefore fighting drug-trafficking). The vast majority of investigations and scholarship on Colombia has shown that the state-backed paramilitaries were much more involved in drug trafficking than the guerrillas (for example over a dozen paramilitary leaders are now the in the US facing drug trafficking charges).

This report also seems ignorant to one of the main dynamics of the war in Colombia -territorial control. Yes, the blows against the FARC’s leadership have been decisive (and are good for public opinion), however, what has really won the war for the State was the government-backed paramilitary expansion of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

In a similar vein, Priest is mute on the humanitarian crisis of internal displacement in Colombia. At 5.5 million displaced according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, Colombia has the highest number of IDPs in the world (to say nothing of those who have left). Many of these IDPs, most of whom are peasants, indigenous people, or Black/Afro-Colombian, have been displaced by the FARC, but many have also been pushed off of their land by the paramilitaries and the state in order to make way for economic projects such as agribusiness and mining. The idea therefore that the CIA contributed to a general improvement of security under Uribe by helping win the war against the guerrillas buys into the myth that “the problem” in Colombia was the FARC, and not a variety of violent actors, some of whom co-opted state institutions. This assertion also ignores the great human cost of these security improvements; what’s happened in Colombia over the last 10-12 years was more of a violent pacification than “peace”.

However, the report does shed more light on the extent of the US’s influence and support for Colombia’s counterinsurgency against the guerrillas, and how Colombia, after Afghanistan in the early 2000s, was one of the US’s security priorities.

An interesting addendum is that opposition congressman and human rights activist Ivan Cepeda is now asking the Colombian government to answer for the US’s support, so at least Priest’s findings have been put to good use.

This was originally published at the Washington Post on Dec 21 2013

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The 50-year-old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), once considered the best-funded insurgency in the world, is at its smallest and most vulnerable state in decades, due in part to a CIA covert action program that has helped Colombian forces kill at least two dozen rebel leaders, according to interviews with more than 30 former and current U.S. and Colombian officials.

The secret assistance, which also includes substantial eavesdropping help from the National Security Agency, is funded through a multibillion-dollar black budget. It is not a part of the public $9 billion package of mostly U.S. military aid called Plan Colombia, which began in 2000.

The previously undisclosed CIA program was authorized by President George W. Bush in the early 2000s and has continued under President Obama, according to U.S. military, intelligence and diplomatic officials. Most of those interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity because the program is classified and ongoing.

The covert program in Colombia provides two essential services to the nation’s battle against the FARC and a smaller insurgent group, the National Liberation Army (ELN): Real-time intelligence that allows Colombian forces to hunt down individual FARC leaders and, beginning in 2006, one particularly effective tool with which to kill them.

That weapon is a $30,000 GPS guidance kit that transforms a less-than-accurate 500-pound gravity bomb into a highly accurate smart bomb. Smart bombs, also called precision-guided munitions or PGMs, are capable of killing an individual in triple-canopy jungle if his exact location can be determined and geo-coordinates are programmed into the bomb’s small computer brain.

In March 2008, according to nine U.S. and Colombian officials, the Colombian Air Force, with tacit U.S. approval, launched U.S.-made smart bombs across the border into Ecuador to kill a senior FARC leader, Raul Reyes. The indirect U.S. role in that attack has not been previously disclosed.

The covert action program in Colombia is one of a handful of enhanced intelligence initiatives that has escaped public notice since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Most of these other programs, small but growing, are located in countries where violent drug cartels have caused instability.

Sources: U.S. State Department, Pais Libre, Colombian Defense Ministry and the Air Force. Research and data compiled by Elyssa Pachico. Graphic by Cristina Rivero. Map by Gene Thorp.

The roster is headed by Mexico, where U.S. intelligence assistance is larger than anywhere outside Afghanistan, as The Washington Post reported in April. It also includes Central America and West Africa, where trafficking routes have moved in response to U.S. pressure against cartels elsewhere.

Asked to comment on U.S. intelligence assistance, President Juan Manuel Santos told The Post during a recent trip to Washington that he did not wish to speak about it in detail, given the sensitivities involved. “It’s been of help,” he said. “Part of the expertise and the efficiency of our operations and our special operations have been the product of better training and knowledge we have acquired from many countries, among them the United States.”

A spokesman for the CIA declined to comment.

Colombia and the FARC have been in peace negotiations in Havana for a year. They have agreed so far on frameworks for land reform, rural development and for allowing insurgents to participate in the political process once the war ends. The two sides are currently discussing a new approach to fighting drug trafficking.

Police outside El Nogal nightclub after the FARC destroyed it with a car bomb in February 2003. More than 20 people were killed. The bombing further united Colombia against the insurgents. (Javier Galeano/AP)

Instability in Colombia

Over the past decade, many indicators of insecurity have improved . . .

. . . as terrorist group strength has weakened and extraditions to the United States for criminal trials have increased.

2004, 2005 and 2010 not available.

*Includes FARC-related kidnappings and killings.

Sources: U.S. State Department, Pais Libre, Colombia Defense Ministry, Colombian Air Force, compiled by Elyssa Pachico

On the verge of collapse

Today, a comparison between Colombia, with its vibrant economy and swanky Bogota social scene, and Afghanistan might seem absurd. But a little more than a decade ago, Colombia had the highest murder rate in the world. Random bombings and strong-arm military tactics pervaded daily life. Some 3,000 people were kidnapped in one year. Professors, human rights activists and journalists suspected of being FARC sympathizers routinely turned up dead.

The combustible mix of the FARC, cartels, paramilitaries and corrupt security forces created a cauldron of violence unprecedented in modern-day Latin America. Nearly a quarter-million people have died during the long war, and many thousands have disappeared.

The FARC was founded in 1964 as a Marxist peasant movement seeking land and justice for the poor. By 1998, Colombia’s president at the time, Andres Pastrana, gave the FARC a Switzerland-sized demilitarized zone to encourage peace negotiations, but its violent attacks only grew, as did its links with the narcotics trade.

By 2000, the emboldened insurgency of 18,000 took aim at Colombia’s political leaders. It assassinated local elected officials. It kidnapped a presidential candidate and attempted to kill a presidential front-runner, hard-liner Alvaro Uribe, whose father the FARC had killed in 1983.

Fearing Colombia would become a failed state with an even greater role in drug trafficking into the United States, the Bush administration and Congress ramped up assistance to the Colombian military through Plan Colombia.

By 2003, U.S. involvement in Colombia encompassed 40 U.S. agencies and 4,500 people, including contractors, all working out of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, then the largest U.S. embassy in the world. It stayed that way until mid-2004, when it was surpassed by Afghanistan.

“There is no country, including Afghanistan, where we had more going on,” said William Wood, who was U.S. ambassador to Colombia from 2003 to 2007 before holding the same post in war-torn Afghanistan for two years after that.

When Bush became president, two presidential findings were already on the books authorizing covert action worldwide. One allowed CIA operations against international terrorist organizations. The other, signed in the mid-1980s by President Ronald Reagan, authorized action against international narcotics traffickers.

A presidential finding is required for the CIA to do things other than collect and analyze overseas intelligence. Giving spy equipment to a partner, supporting foreign political parties, planting propaganda, and participating in lethal training or operations all require a finding and a notification to congressional intelligence committees.

The counternarcotics finding had permitted the CIA and a technical unit of the clandestine Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to provide support to the years-long hunt for Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, killed by Colombian forces 20 years ago this month. It also made possible CIA-supported operations against traffickers and terrorists in Bolivia and Peru years ago.

Under the Colombian program, the CIA is not allowed to participate directly in operations. The same restrictions apply to military involvement in Plan Colombia. Such activity has been constrained by members of Congress who had lived through the scandal of America’s secret role in Central America’s wars in the 1980s. Congress refused to allow U.S. military involvement in Colombia to escalate as it had in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama.

In February 2003, the FARC took three U.S. contractors hostage after their single-engine Cessna, above, crashed in the jungle near La Esperanza. A covert CIA program was launched to find them. (El Tiempo via AP)

The FARC miscalculates

The new covert push against the FARC unofficially began on Feb. 13, 2003. That day a single-engine Cessna 208 crashed in rebel-held jungle. Nearby guerrillas executed the Colombian officer on board and one of four American contractors who were working on coca eradication. The three others were taken hostage.

The United States had already declared the FARC a terrorist organization for its indiscriminate killings and drug trafficking. Although the CIA had its hands full with Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush “leaned on [CIA director George] Tenet” to help find the three hostages, according to one former senior intelligence official involved in the discussions.

The FARC’s terrorist designation made it easier to fund a black budget. “We got money from a lot of different pots,” said one senior diplomat.

One of the CIA officers Tenet dispatched to Bogota was an operator in his forties whose name The Washington Post is withholding because he remains undercover. He created the U.S. Embassy Intelligence Fusion Cell, dubbed “the Bunker.”

It was a cramped, 30-by-30-foot room with a low ceiling and three rows of computers. Eight people sat at each row of consoles. Some scoured satellite maps of the jungle; others searched for underground FARC hiding places. Some monitored imagery or the movement of vehicles tagged with tracking devices. Voice intercepts from radio and cellphone communications were decrypted and translated by the National Security Agency.

Bunker analysts fused tips from informants and technically obtained information. Analysts sought to link individuals to the insurgency’s flow of drugs, weapons and money. For the most part, they left the violent paramilitary groups alone.

The Bunker’s technical experts and contractors built the Colombians their own nationwide intelligence computer system. They also later helped create regional fusion centers to push tactical intelligence to local commanders. The agency also paid for encrypted communications gear.

“We were very interested in getting the FARC, and it wasn’t so much a question of capability, as it was intelligence,” said Wood, “specifically the ability to locate them in the time frame of an operation.”

Outside the Bunker, CIA case officers and contractors taught the art of recruiting informants to Colombian units that had been vetted and polygraphed. They gave money to people with information about the hostages.

Meanwhile, the other secret U.S. agency that had been at the forefront of locating and killing al-Qaeda arrived on the scene. Elite commandos from JSOC began periodic annual training sessions and small-unit reconnaissance missions to try to find the hostages.

Despite all the effort, the hostages’ location proved elusive. Looking for something else to do with the new intelligence equipment and personnel, the Bunker manager and his military deputy from the U.S. Special Operations Command gave their people a second mission: Target the FARC leadership. This was exactly what the CIA and JSOC had been doing against al-Qaeda on the other side of the world. The methodology was familiar.

“There was cross-pollination both ways,” said one senior official with access to the Bunker at the time. “We didn’t need to invent a new wheel.”

At the urging of President George W. Bush and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, left, the CIA program to find the U.S. hostages began targeting FARC leaders with U.S.-provided intelligence and smart bombs. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

A request from Colombia’s president

Locating FARC leaders proved easier than capturing or killing them. Some 60 times, Colombian forces had obtained or been given reliable information but failed to capture or kill anyone senior, according to two U.S. officials and a retired Colombian senior officer. The story was always the same. U.S.-provided Black Hawk helicopters would ferry Colombian troops into the jungle about six kilometers away from a camp. The men would creep through the dense foliage, but the camps were always empty by the time they arrived. Later they learned that the FARC had an early-warning system: rings of security miles from the camps.

By 2006, the dismal record attracted the attention of the U.S. Air Force’s newly arrived mission chief. The colonel was perplexed. Why had the third-largest recipient of U.S. military assistance [behind Egypt and Israel] made so little progress?

“I’m thinking, ‘What are we killing the FARC with?’ ” the colonel, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said in an interview.

The colonel, a cargo plane expert, said he “started Googling bombs and fighters” looking for ideas. Eventually he landed on the Enhanced Paveway II, a relatively inexpensive guidance kit that could be strapped on a 500-pound, Mark-82 gravity bomb.

The colonel said he told then-defense minister Santos about his idea and wrote a one-page paper on it for him to deliver to Uribe. Santos took the idea to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. In June 2006, Uribe visited Bush at the White House. He mentioned the recent killing of al-Qaeda’s chief in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. An F-16 had sent two 500-pound smart bombs into his hideout and killed him. He pressed for the same capability.

“Clearly this was very important” to Uribe, said retired Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who had taken over as CIA director just months earlier.

First, there was the matter of fitting the smart bombs onto a Colombian aircraft. Colombia did not have F-16s. Raytheon, the kit manufacturer, sent engineers to figure out how to mount the equipment on a plane. First they tried mounting it on a Brazilian-made Embraer A-29 Super Tucano, a turboprop aircraft designed for low-flying counterinsurgency missions. But affixing the cable that ran from the bomb’s computer brain to the cockpit meant drilling too close to the fuel cell. Instead, they jerry-rigged it to an older Cessna A-37 Dragonfly, a light attack aircraft first developed by the U.S. Special Operations air force for Vietnam and later used in the Salvadoran civil war.

Then the engineers and Colombian pilots tested the first of three PGMs in a remote airfield near the Venezuelan border. The target was a 2-by-4 stuck in the ground. The plane launched the bomb from 20,000 feet. “It landed about a foot from it,” the colonel said. The results were so good, he thought, “why waste two more kits?” The smart bombs were ready for use.

But White House lawyers, along with their colleagues from the CIA and the departments of Justice, Defense and State, had their own questions to work through. It was one thing to use a PGM to defeat an enemy on the battlefield — the U.S. Air Force had been doing that for years. It was another to use it to target an individual FARC leader. Would that constitute an assassination, which is prohibited by U.S. law? And, “could we be accused of engaging in an assassination, even if it is not ourselves doing it?” said one lawyer involved.

The White House’s Office of Legal Counsel and others finally decided that the same legal analysis they had applied to al-Qaeda could be applied to the FARC. Killing a FARC leader would not be an assassination because the organization posed an ongoing threat to Colombia. Also, none of the FARC commanders could be expected to surrender.

And, as a drug-trafficking organization, the FARC’s status as a threat to U.S. national security had been settled years earlier with Reagan’s counternarcotics finding. At the time, the crack cocaine epidemic was at its height, and the government decided that organizations that brought drugs to America’s streets were a threat to national security.

There was another concern. Some senior officials worried that Colombian forces might use the PGMs to kill their perceived political enemies. “The concerns were huge given their human rights problems,” said a former senior military officer.

To assure themselves that the Colombians would not misuse the bombs, U.S. officials came up with a novel solution. The CIA would maintain control over the encryption key inserted into the bomb, which unscrambled communications with GPS satellites so they can be read by the bomb’s computers. The bomb could not hit its target without the key. The Colombians would have to ask for approval for some targets, and if they misused the bombs, the CIA could deny GPS reception for future use.

“We wanted a sign-off,” said one senior official involved in the deliberations.

To cut through the initial red tape, the first 20 smart bomb kits — without the encryption keys — came through the CIA. The bill was less than $1 million. After that, Colombia was allowed to purchase them through the Foreign Military Sales program.

Secretly assisting Colombia against rebels

Raytheon’s Enhanced Paveway II is a laser-guided bomb upgraded with a GPS-guided capability, which works better against targets in the thick jungle. An encryption key inserted into the guidance system allows the bomb’s computer to receive military-grade GPS data used to guide a bomb to its target.

Anatomy of Lethal Air Operations in Colombia

First strike: In a typical mission, several Cessna A-37 Dragonflys, a light attack aircraft first developed by the U.S. Special Operations for Vietnam, fly at 20,000 feet carrying smart bombs. They can be launched once the planes get within three miles of the target. The bombs communicate with GPS satellites to know where they are at all times and to hit the target.

Bombardment: Several Brazilian-made Embraer A-29 Super Tucanos, a turboprop aircraft flown at a much lower altitude, follow the A-37s. They drop conventional gravity bombs in a pattern near the smart bombs to flatten the jungle and kill other insurgents in the FARC camp.

Gunship strike: Low-flying Vietnam era AC-47 gunships, nicknamed Puff the Magic Dragon, strafe the area with machine guns, shooting the survivors, according to one of several officials who described the scenario.

Ground units Finally, if the camp is far into the jungle, Colombian army troops are usually ferried in by U.S.-provided Black Hawk troop-carrying helicopters. Troops would collect the remains of the killed FARC leader if possible, round up survivors and gather electronic equipment like cellphones and computers that could yield valuable information about FARC operations.

A first strike

Tomas Medina Caracas, also known as Negro Acacio, the FARC’s chief drug trafficker and commander of its 16th Front, was the first man the U.S. Embassy Intelligence Fusion Cell queued up for a PGM strike.

At about 4:30 a.m. on Sept. 1, 2007, pilots wearing night vision goggles unleashed several Enhanced Paveway II smart bombs into his camp in eastern Colombia as officials in both capitals waited. Troops recovered only a leg. It appeared by its dark complexion to belong to Acacio, one of the few black FARC leaders. DNA tests confirmed his death.

“There was a great deal of excitement,” recalled William Scoggins, counternarcotics program manager at the U.S. military’s Southern Command. “We didn’t know the impact it would have, but we thought this was a game changer.”

Six weeks later, smart bombs killed Gustavo Rueda Díaz, alias Martin Caballero, leader of the 37th Front, while he was talking on his cellphone. Acacio’s and Caballero’s deaths caused the 16th and 37th fronts to collapse. They also triggered mass desertions, according to a secret State Department cable dated March 6, 2008, and released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks in 2010. This was just the beginning of the FARC’s disintegration.

To hide the use of the PGMs from public discovery, and to ensure maximum damage to a FARC’s leaders’ camp, the air force and U.S. advisers developed new strike tactics. In a typical mission, several A-37 Dragonflys flying at 20,000 feet carried smart bombs. As soon as the planes came within a three-mile “basket” of the target, a bomb’s GPS software would automatically turn on.

The Dragonflys were followed by several A-29 Super Tucanos, flying at a much lower altitude. They would drop a series of dumb bombs in a pattern nearby. Their blast pressure would kill anyone close in and also flatten the dense jungle and obscure the use of the smart bombs.

Then, low-flying, Vietnam-era AC-47 gunships, nicknamed Puff the Magic Dragon, would strafe the area with mounted machine guns, “shooting the wounded trying to go for cover,” according to one of several military officials who described the same scenario.

Only then would Colombian ground forces arrive to round up prisoners, collecting the dead, as well as cellphones, computers and hard drives. The CIA also spent three years training Colombian close air support teams on using lasers to clandestinely guide pilots and laser-guided smart bombs to their targets.

Most every operation relied heavily on NSA signal intercepts, which fed intelligence to troops on the ground or pilots before and during an operation. “Intercepts . . . were a game changer,” said Scoggins, of U.S. Southern Command.

The round-the-clock nature of the NSA’s work was captured in a secret State Department cable released by WikiLeaks. In the spring of 2009, the target was drug trafficker Daniel Rendon Herrera, known as Don Mario, then Colombia’s most wanted man and responsible for 3,000 assassinations over an 18-month period.

“For seven days, using signal and human intelligence,” NSA assets “worked day and night” to reposition 250 U.S.-trained and equipped airborne commandos near Herrera as he tried to flee, according to an April 2009 cable and a senior government official who confirmed the NSA’s role in the mission.

The CIA also trained Colombian interrogators to more effectively question thousands of FARC deserters, without the use of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques approved for use on al-Qaeda and later repudiated by Congress as abusive. The agency also created databases to keep track of the debriefings so they could be searched and cross-referenced to build a more complete picture of the organization.

The Colombian government paid deserters and allowed them to reintegrate into civil society. Some, in turn, offered valuable information about the FARC’s chain of command, standard travel routes, camps, supply lines, drug and money sources. They helped make sense of the NSA’s voice intercepts, which often used code words. Deserters also sometimes were used to infiltrate FARC camps to plant listening devices or beacons that emitted a GPS coordinate for smart bombs.

“We learned from the CIA,” a top Colombian national security official said of the debriefing program. “Before, we didn’t pay much attention to details.”

FARC commander Raul Reyes in 2002 in Los Pozos, Colombia. In 2008, Colombia, with tacit U.S. approval, launched U.S.-made smart bombs into Ecuador, killing Reyes, considered to be the group’s No. 2 leader. (Scott Dalton/AP)

Ecuador and the not-forgotten hostages

In February 2008, the U.S.-Colombian team got its first sighting of the three U.S. hostages. Having waited five years, the reaction was swift at U.S. Special Operations Command headquarters in Tampa, which began sending JSOC commandos down, said a senior U.S. official who was in Colombia when they arrived.

The JSOC team was headed by a Navy SEAL Team Six commander. Small units set up three operational areas near the hostages and conducted long-range reconnaissance, the senior official said. The NSA increased its monitoring. All eyes were on the remote jungle location. But as initial preparations were underway, operations were heating up elsewhere.

Just across the Putumayo River, one mile inside Ecuador, U.S. intelligence and a Colombian informant confirmed the hideout of Luis Edgar Devia Silva, also known as Raul Reyes and considered to be the No. 2 in the seven-member FARC secretariat.

It was an awkward discovery for Colombia and the United States. To conduct an airstrike meant a Colombian pilot flying a Colombian plane would hit the camp using a U.S.-made bomb with a CIA-controlled brain.

The Air Force colonel had a succinct message for the Colombian air operations commander in charge of the mission. “I said, ‘Look man, we all know where this guy is. Just don’t f— it up.’ ”

U.S. national security lawyers viewed the operation as an act of self-defense. In the wake of 9/11, they had come up with a new interpretation of the permissible use of force against non-state actors like al-Qaeda and the FARC. It went like this: If a terrorist group operated from a country that was unable or unwilling to stop it, then the country under attack — in this case, Colombia — had the right to defend itself with force, even if that meant crossing into another sovereign country.

This was the legal justification for CIA drone strikes and other lethal operations in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and, much later, for the raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.

So minutes after midnight on March 1, three A-37 Dragonflys took off from Colombia, followed by five Super Tucanos. The smart bombs’ guidance system turned on once the planes reached within three miles of Reyes’s location.

As instructed, the Colombian pilots stayed in Colombian airspace. The bombs landed as programmed, obliterating the camp and killing Reyes, who, according to Colombian news reports, was asleep in pajamas.

Above: The 2008 bombing of Raul Reyes’s camp in Ecuador sparked a diplomatic dispute. Ecuador moved troops to border towns such as Puerto Nuevo. (Rodrigo Buendia/AFP via Getty Images; Dolores Ochoa/AP)

Colombian forces rushed across the border into Ecuador to retrieve Reyes’s remains and also scooped up a large treasure trove of computer equipment that would turn out to be the most valuable FARC intelligence find ever.

The bombing set off a serious diplomatic crisis. Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez called Colombia “a terrorist state” and moved troops to the border, as did Ecuador. Nicaragua broke off relations. Uribe, under pressure, apologized to Ecuador.

The apology, while soothing relationships in Latin America, angered the small circle of U.S. officials who knew the back story, one of them said. “I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe they’re saying this,’ ” he said. “For them to be giving up an important legal position was crazy.”

But the flap did not damage the deep ties between U.S. and Colombian forces or deter the mission to rescue the hostages. In fact, the number of JSOC troops continued to mount to more than 1,000, said the senior official then in Colombia. Officials thought for sure they would be spotted, but they never were. A U.S.-Colombian military exercise provided sufficient cover when the International Committee of the Red Cross showed up at isolated bases and stumbled upon some burly Americans, said two U.S. officials.

After six weeks of waiting to find the hostages, most of the JSOC troops left the country for pressing missions elsewhere. One unit remained. On July 2, 2008, it had the role of unused understudy in the dramatic and well-documented Operation Checkmate, in which Colombian forces pretending to be members of a humanitarian group tricked the FARC into handing over the three U.S. hostages and 12 others without a shot fired. The JSOC team, and a fleet of U.S. aircraft, was positioned as Plan B, in case the Colombian operation went awry.

A Colombian pilot boards a Super Tucano in Bogota in 2006. Recently, Colombia has fitted smart bombs onto some of its Super Tucanos, which have been largely used to drop dumb bombs during airstrikes. (Jose Miguel Gomez/Reuters)

Santos continues the smart-bomb war

As a sign of trust, in early 2010 the U.S. government gave Colombia control over the GPS encryption key. There had been no reports of misuse, misfires or collateral damage from the smart bombs. The transfer was preceded by quick negotiations over the rules of engagement for smart-bomb use. Among the rules was that they would be launched only against isolated jungle camps.

President Santos, who was defense minister under Uribe, has greatly increased the pace of operations against the FARC. Almost three times as many FARC leaders — 47 vs. 16 — have been killed under Santos as under Uribe. Interviews and analysis of government Web sites and press reporting show that at least 23 of the attacks under Santos were air operations. Smart bombs were used only against the most important FARC leaders, Colombian officials said in response to questions. Gravity bombs were used in the other cases.

President Juan Manuel Santos, who was Colombia’s defense minister when the CIA covert program ramped up, has increased efforts to weaken the FARC. (Jose Cendon/Bloomberg)

Colombia continues to upgrade its air capabilities. In 2013, the air force upgraded its fleet of Israeli-made Kfir fighter jets, fitting them with Israeli-made Griffin laser-guided bombs. It has also fitted smart bombs onto some of its Super Tucanos.

Having decimated the top FARC leadership and many of the front commanders, the military, with continued help from the CIA and other intelligence agencies, appears to be working its way through the mid-level ranks, including mobile company commanders, the most battle-hardened and experienced remaining cadre. One-third of them have been killed or captured, according to Colombian officials.

The Santos administration has also targeted the financial and weapons networks supporting the FARC. Some critics think the government has been too focused on killing leaders and not enough on using the army and police to occupy and control rebel territory.

Killing an individual has never been a measure of success in war, say counterinsurgency experts. It’s the chaos and dysfunction that killing the leadership causes to the organization that matters. The air operations against the FARC leadership “has turned the organization upside down,” said a senior Pentagon official who has studied the classified U.S. history of Colombia’s war.

Some have fled to Venezuela. One member of the secretariat hides out intermittently in Ecuador, according to senior Colombia officials, breaking the important psychological bond with ground troops and handicapping recruitment.

For fear of being located and targeted, units no longer sleep in the same place two days in a row, so camps must be sparser. “They know the government has so much information on them now, and real-time intelligence,” said German Espejo, security and defense counselor at the Colombian Embassy. Worried about spies in their midst, executions are common.

The FARC still mounts attacks — a car bombing of a rural police station Dec. 7 killed six police officers and two civilians — but it no longer travels in large groups, and it limits most units to less than 20. No longer able to mount large-scale assaults, the group has reverted to hit-and-run tactics using snipers and explosives.

The weariness of 50 years of transient jungle life has taken its toll on the FARC negotiating team, too. Those who have lived in exile seem more willing to continue the fight than those who have been doing the fighting, said Colombian officials. The negotiations, Santos said in the interview, are the result of the successful military campaign, “the cherry on the cake.”

On Dec. 15, the FARC said it would begin a 30-day unilateral cease-fire as a sign of good will during the holiday season. The Santos administration rebuffed the gesture and vowed to continue its military campaign. Later that day, security forces killed a FARC guerrilla implicated in a bomb attack on a former minister. Three days later, the army killed another five.”

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Colombia: The Only Risk Is Having To Stay – Canadian Mining in the South of Bolívar and the Release of Jernoc Wobert

On Tuesday, August 27, Jernoc Wobert was freed by Colombian guerrillas. The Canadian geologist and Vice-President of Braeval Mining Co. had been kidnapped by the National Liberation Army (or El Ejército de la Liberación Nacional, ELN). The ELN had kidnapped him seven months ago with 3 other Colombians and 2 Peruvians.  The Latin Americans were released a few weeks after they had all been taken from Norosí in the Serranía de San Lucas in the south of Bolívar, but the Canadian remained.

As a condition to his release, the ELN demanded that the Canadian and Colombian government investigate the company in question for having allegedly taken land illegally from communities in Bolívar. On the other hand, the Colombian government, who has been negotiating a peace deal with the largest rebel group (the FARC), since November, predicated any negotiations with the ELN on his release. The ELN had previously expressed interest in negotiating with the national government, and the FARC had called on the government to also negotiate with the second largest guerrilla group. A few months ago when the eleños tried to enter the peace talks in Havana, they were turned away. Today, President Juan Manuel Santos announced that “everything is ready” for talks with the ELN.

Wobert’s release by the ELN to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC, who is a neutral party in most high-profile hostage hand-overs in Colombia), was seen as a “humanitarian gesture” on the part of the rebels in order to demonstrate good faith in what could be a peace process. However, Wobert’s kidnapping (and release) are actually microcosms of much larger dynamics of the Colombian armed conflict, and of the mining investment that largely defines Canada’s relationship to Colombia.

Who are the ELN?

The ELN began in the early 1960s by radical University students who organized peasants. They were inspired by Marxism, the Cuban Revolution, and Liberation Theology. The ELN, unlike the FARC, actually have been slow to get as involved in drug trafficking. Nevertheless like the FARC, they commit crimes against humanity and war crimes such as kidnapping and killing civilians, recruiting minors/practicing forced conscription, planting land mines (which is against the Ottawa Treaty) and forced displacement. However, the ELN are most well known for their attacks against infrastructure (particularly attacking oil pipelines), which have increased this year. They are Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group.

The ELN’s political discourse and military actions against multinational investment in Colombia, particularly in the extractive sector, is part of what scared foreign investment away during much of the 1990s when guerrillas retained significant control over large parts of the country.  Like the FARC, The ELN would charge “revolutionary taxes” on businesses (vacunas), threaten and kidnap large-land owners and company executives, and would carry out infrastructure attacks.

A significant proportion of the counterinsurgency campaign of the paramilitaries and the army directly preceding and during the government of ex-President Alvaro Uribe Vélez (2002-2010) was to “pacify” regions so as to make them safe enough to encourage foreign investment. For example, a main focus of Plan Colombia was securing the Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline which had been attacked on several occasions by the guerrillas.

The ELN is currently in dire straits; it was weakened by the counterinsurgency much more than the FARC and they have currently between 2-3,000 fighters. There are few parts of the national territory  where they are the dominant armed group (oil-rich Arauca, for example), and many see the ELN now as a spent force who is desperate for a negotiated settlement out of the armed conflict.

The Serranía de San Lucas, where Wobert was taken, has been disputed by the ELN, the army, and the paramilitaries for decades given its geostrategic significance.  Over at the Tyee, Colombian journalist Sebastian Salamaca writes:

“[The ELN] decided a good place to start a revolution was the Serranía de San Lucas. Its rugged geography and lack of state presence made it ideal for organizing and gathering strength.

It took 20 years for them to control the area. By the 1980s, the ELN dominated the region. Their mixture of Marxism, liberation theology, and community activism helped them win the partial support of the population. They also regularly violated international law by blowing up pipelines and taking hostages.

In the late 1990s the ELN faced a potent foe, as Carlos Castaño, head of the far-right paramilitary forces in Colombia, or AUC, made it his obsession to take back the territory from the guerrillas.

The AUC knew about the strategic importance of the Serranía: whoever controlled it would profit from the massive cocaine traffic to the Caribbean and the huge gold deposits that were being discovered. Moreover, seizing the Serranía would ensure access to the largest watercourse in Colombia, the Magdalena River.”

What is Canada’s history in the South of Bolívar?

The Coastal department of Bolívar

In an earlier post I remarked how the Canadian government, through funding the Canadian Energy Research Institute, helped re-write and liberalize Colombia’s mining code in 2001.

In Francisco Ramírez Cuellar’s “The Profits of Extermination”, he also outlines how in the Serranía de San Lucas in the South of Bolívar, in land that was initially titled to a local elite family, over 90 mining associations started to work the land through artisanal practices. Under Colombian law, if land is unused by the owner but is being used by someone else, technically, artisanal miners for example have up to two years to ask for titles to that land. Around the early 1990s, a Canadian mining company (then called Conquistador mines) became interested in the gold-rich area.

According to Ramírez, they hired a lawyer to negotiate the land with the small-scale miners on behalf of the Illeras-Palacios (the family who claimed the land). This same lawyer, interestingly, helped draft the 2001 mining code with CERI. After a visit from the Minister of mines, the artisanal miners backed away from negotiations and they gave the land to the mining company.

In 1997, the paramilitaries of the Peasant Self-Defence Forces of Córdoba and Urabá or the ACCU, who would later become the AUC, came to the Serranía. Their stated reasons for doing so were to control the mines, to get rid of miners who were “collaborating with the guerrillas”, and “guarantee the entrance of multinationals who would create jobs”. The paramilitary incursion destroyed over 10 towns in the region, massacred over 400 people, raped both men and women, and left several supposed “guerrilla collaborators” dismembered. Until 2008 over 94,000 people were displaced from the region because of the violence.

It is also worth noting that the Congressman representing the region at the time of the deal and the drafting of the new mining code has since been investigated for having ties to paramilitary groups.

Braeval and Conquistador mines are not the only Canadian companies with interests in the south of Bolívar. B2Gold, a Canadian gold company in the region, claims that it can only operate there with guarantees of security from the Colombian army. As mentioned in a report by Interpares and Mining Watch Canada, the Vice-President of B2Gold has said that non-indigenous communities have no right to reject mining projects on their territory, and alarmingly, that FEDEAGROMISBOL had been “contaminated” by guerrillas. As any student of Colombian history will know, these kinds of accusations can lead to violence against FEDEAGROMISBOL by state security and paramilitary forces (which is what has occurred).

What do the locals think? 

This informative report from Colombia Informa which interviewed community members and associations in the south of the Bolívar state gives an idea into what perceptions were on the ground of the kidnapping and the release of the Canadian executive.

The Agro-Mining Federation of the South of Bolívar (FEDEAGROMISBOL) is an umbrella organization which represents 34 associations of small-scale farmers and artisanal miners in the region has for years been stigmatized as being sympathetic to the guerrillas by the army and the paramilitaries (and has consequently suffered violence against its members). Nevertheless, the group actually had put out a communiqué which rejected the kidnappings carried out by the ELN of the miners and emphasized the release of the Colombians who appeared to be members of FEDEAGROMISBOL. They also said that the kidnappings were “a direct consequence of the indiscriminate natural resource exploitation policy  promoted by the Colombian government, affecting the south of Bolívar and of the handing over of our natural resource to large transnational capital”.

The locals they interviewed emphasized how the kidnapping of the Canadian by the ELN made life more difficult in the region as it invited increased repression from the government security forces. Some community members say that they supported the actions of the ELN, as it “halted the [government’s] mining development plans”, and who felt that this development plan is more for the benefit of multinational companies than their communities who have always been marginalized by the national government.

Other community members expressed their opposition to the kidnapping, saying that it furthers the stigmatization of local community organizing as being complicit or supportive of the guerrillas. Others mention how one of the reason two FEDEAGROMISBOL members were kidnapped was because they were helping the foreign miners behind the backs of the community.

Other community members mention how FEDEAGROMISBOL was able to win more than 10,000 hectares of land from the Lleras-Palacios (the local elite family mentioned earlier) through “pure social struggle”, but that speaking out was extremely difficult given the intense military and paramilitary repression to community organizing and dissidence.

Why was Wobert kidnapped and why does it matter?

Whereas the Colombians and the Peruvians were let free relatively soon, Wobert was kept by the ELN until Tuesday (he had been kidnapped since January), because he could have been a bargaining chip at any eventual peace talks (or even, the key to starting a dialogue). At the same time, the ELN rejects the presence of foreign extractive companies in Colombia, who they see as imperialists, and therefore wanted to retain Wobert until Braeval gave up its mining titles in the region.

Braeval actually has since renounced its four titles in the region; the company’s press release however did not mention the kidnapping.

The ruthless paramilitary expansion in the early 2000s in the region left many with the impression that the region had effectively been pacified, and that although in the most remote areas the ELN remained, the Serranía was perceived to be relatively safe for investment.

Despite the fact that a Colombian government report study which says that industrial mining should not occur in zones of armed conflict (such as the Serranía) junior-based mining companies (who are often Canadian, and are the most likely to take on very risky projects) continue to explore Colombian communities that exist in a context of extreme physical and social vulnerability.

The Canadian government, with its naming of Colombia as a priority for CIDA aid, and the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA), is keen on having a stable (or “pacified”) Colombian countryside in which our companies can extract resources without being threatened. By the same token, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos has made resource extraction a pillar of his national economic development strategy. Wobert’s kidnapping is  a reminder that despite the strength of the paramilitaries and the Washington-funded Colombian army, the guerrillas, despite their losses, can still be a threat to multinational investment, and that Colombia is not as “safe” or “open” for business as it might seem. Kidnappings did not end with Uribe’s “Democratic Security”, and they probably won’t end with Santos.

The logical inverse of this premise (that the guerrillas are still a threat to investment), is that more pacification/repression of the guerrillas is necessary. Indeed, when Wobert was kidnapped, the Colombian government responded by sending 600 troops to the region. Wobert’s kidnapping reminds us that the steps of foreigners in Colombia’s most fragile and violent parts may provoke actions and counter-reactions by armed groups looking to show their dominance in any given region. And more of then than not, these struggles will take place on the backs of civilians (and sometimes in the name or interest of investment). As this Semana report notes, they allege that some companies have signed security/protection deals with the Colombian army, and that artisanal mining opponents to the investment of multinationals, particularly members of FEDEAGROMISBOL, have been systematically murdered.

Therefore, in this context, it must be asked whether Canadian mining investment in Colombia is worth the risk both that it poses to the Canadians who go to Colombia in search of resource riches, but more importantly, to the Colombians who call those communities home and ultimately have to live with the consequences of the instability and repression that mining investment might provoke.

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Making A Killing: Colombia and the Canadian Military Industrial Complex

John Baird

A few months ago, I wrote to the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, John Baird about Canada’s decision to allow Canadian weapons manufacturers to sell arms to Colombia. Baird had put Colombia on the Automatic Firearms Country Control List (AFCCL),  a list of now 34 countries to which Canadians can get export permits for weapons. The weapons which Canadian businesses would now be able to export to Colombia, actually aren’t even legal in Canada (see below).

In a brief and polite response, Baird informed me there had been “broad consultation” with the Canadian public and  and different government departments which had informed the decision. Apparently, the consultation touched on “multiple issues” including human rights, peace, stability, the risk of diversion, and interestingly, “commercial opportunities for Canadian business” (emphasis mine).

To Baird’s credit, he did mention that each export permit is assessed individually, with particular emphasis on what the “end-use” of the weapons will be, and if they are in accordance with Canadian foreign and  defense policy, law, and “including the potential impact of export on human rights and armed conflicts”.

At the end of his correspondence, Baird listed off a myriad of highly problematic initiatives as part of Canada’s relationship to Colombia, perhaps trying to show some sort of misguided intentions to “help” Colombia; in particular Baird lauded the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement (FTA), and how Colombia has received benefits from DFAIT’s “Counter-Terrorism and Anti-Crime Capacity Building” programs.

 

Clearly all of these policies, but particularly for now the AFCCL, are very concerning and merit their own analysis. The larger point here is, despite Baird taking the time to reply, the decision of what will be a “risky” sale of weapons of mass destruction (automatic weapons)  to a country experiencing armed conflict and endemic levels of violence will be decided in Ottawa, with “commercial” interests in mind. This is all working under the militarist assumption that a country having a militarized society, or an extremely powerful military (especially with an ongoing civil war) is a desirable thing.

It goes without saying that the current Canadian government is accepting the Colombian government’s narrative that Colombia is a democratic, improving, stabilizing, and human-rights respecting country that is ready for foreign (Canadian) investment in order to “develop”. It’s important to note that, as Human Rights Watch has stated, the paramilitaries or “right-wing death squads” as others have called them, who are responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, operate like a “sixth branch of the Army”, and the Colombian army itself is often responsible for extremely egregious violations of human rights (forced disappearances, massacres, extrajudicial executions, sexual violence, etc), particularly to the civilian population it is supposedly defending. This is to whom the Canadian government thinks it is a good idea to sell guns to…..

It’s been long known that Canadian business and the Canadian government have at best been negligent to the humanitarian catastrophe of mass violence in Colombia, choosing to focus instead on promoting ‘economic growth’ through trade (which is often not unassociated). However, it now seems that, after Baird’s decision, the Canadian Military Industrial Complex will be able to directly make bank off of one of the bloodiest armed conflicts in the Western Hemisphere.

For some key points on armed violence in Colombia, check out my initial oversimplified letter below (which perhaps was a bit too charitable with the Minister). For more information on the Canadian Military Industrial Complex and how it is profiting from and exacerbating human rights violations the world over, check out this piece by Richard Sanders.

January 3, 2013

“Dear Prime Minister Harper, Minister Ablonczy, Minister Baird, and Mr. Hiebert,

I hope this message finds you all well after the holidays.

…I am an extremely concerned Canadian voter. This morning, it came to my attention that the Honourable Minister Baird, by amending the “Automatic Firearms Country Control” list, has removed the export bans on high-capacity magazines and assault weapons to my native Colombia. These same kinds of weapons are banned in Canada, as they are considered too dangerous to be on our streets. Moreover, these same kind of weapons are the ones which were used to murder over 26 innocent Americans in the Newton massacre last month.

Colombia, although much safer and less violent than in the last a decade ago, is still one of the most violent countries in the world. The homicide rate hovers at around 30-38 per 100,000, making at among the world’s 15 most violent countries. Approximately hundreds of thousands are displaced every year due to violence. Although the government is currently in promising peace talks with Colombia’s largest rebel group, the FARC, they continue to fight and terrorize local communities. This armed conflict is compounded by extremely high levels of urban violence, the ELN rebels, narcotrafficking groups, and the paramilitary successor groups or BACRIM/criminal bands which account for around a disproportionate amount of the violence in Colombia.

Colombia over the last decade has had over 200,000 murders. 75% of homicides in Colombia are committed by firearms. There are over 14,000 child soldiers in Colombia who are arguably forced to operate these kind of high-powered weapons. As per the Colombian army, it is estimated that from 2002-2006, over 3,000 young, mostly impoverished, male civilians were killed and made to look as insurgents by the Colombian army so as to increase kill counts. In Medellin a few days ago, an 11 year old girl lost her life to a stray bullet. She was only one of over 300 victims of stray bullets last year. Although Colombia is making great improvements in overcoming our violent legacy, human rights and violence are still clearly very important concerns.

I understand that in order for arms exporters to be issued a permit to export weapons under ACCFL, the government must review each case with ‘strict controls’. I also understand that Canada has been extremely generous with Colombia by making it a priority country for bilateral aid, and donating millions to support both the nascent peace process and the Land restitution law to bring growth and reconciliation to a country that has been too long plagued by violence.

However, given that Canada and Colombia’s relationship is, supposedly mutually beneficial, I fail to see the benefit that Colombia would attain from buying more arms during a peace process in which Colombian society is trying to turn away from guns. Gun bans have proven extremely effective in Colombia; earlier this year Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro banned handguns in the capital city, leading to the murder rate dropping to its lowest point in 27 years. Bogota is now safer than many American inner cities.

I am therefore extremely curious as to how exactly, beyond ‘market opportunities’ for Canadian arms dealer, your government has considered that allowing the export of extremely dangerous and deadly firearms into a very violent country like Colombia, will be consistent with your policy of creating a mutually beneficial relationship with both countries.

I would be very appreciative if I could please be informed as to your government’s rationale for adding Colombia to the AFCCL.

Please do not conflate ‘market opportunities’ for Canadians with the re-militarization of Colombian society; if this is not the case, then please inform me otherwise.”

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War is Development by Other Means: What the latest displacement numbers aren’t telling you

“If the war is a continuation of economics by other means…[then] in Colombia, arms, independent of who wields them, serve the promotion of a social logic of development…” –  Carlos Rosero

This week Colombia was back in the headlines, as a fact that was known nationally for a while now finally made it into the Anglophone mainstream. The International Displacement Monitoring Centre gave the South American nation the unfortunate distinction of having the world’s largest population of internally displaced people, at 5.5 million in its annual report in displacement. Another notable is clearly Syria, who has the fastest growing population of uprooted people, 3 million of the nations 22 million people, and the conflict in the eastern Kivu provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo which also displaced 2.4 million after an increase in violence last year that continues today.

The 5.5 million number comes from one of Colombia’s most respected national NGOs, The Consultory for Human Rights and Displacement known by its Spanish acronym CODHES. For decades, the government has claimed that the displaced population in Colombia figures between 3.5-4.9 million, and CODHES has claimed that this number is a gross underestimate, often citing the IDP population at 5.4 million since 2011. Nevertheless, the UNHCR and the Colombian government have slowly started to recognize the value of CODHES methodology, and in so doing their estimates of the IDP population have consequently increased.

These numbers speak volumes to the fact that forced displacement in Colombia, as one of the main forms of violence used by armed actors (and, to a certain extent, one of the few survival strategies of communities) is central to the Colombian conflict and cannot be seen as a consequence/collateral damage of a political issue (the war) but a political, social, and humanitarian issue in and of itself. The numbers also evidence the centrality of controlling territory to the strategies of armed actors (more on that below).

In their annual report, which has been picked up by some media, ‘Columbia’ receives a scant 6 pages despite having the largest population. However, IDMC does recognize challenges with the Victim’s Law (which is trying to provide land restitution to IDPs), and that 230,000 people were displaced last year/although far  from its peak of millions a decade ago, displacement continues to be a very real and present issue.

There is quite a lot that the numbers and supposedly expert analysis from the IDMC and the Norwegian Refugee Council aren’t telling you though.

Firstly, the numbers are somewhat meaningless in an international sense. There is no point in having a sensational “Displacement Olympics” in which Colombia is the gold medal winner and Syria is a rising contender. Although the country’s international image which in terms of security is largely constructed around drug trafficking and kidnapping makes displacement an invisible crisis, comparisons are a bit dangerous. For many years, Colombia was cited as having “the world’s 3rd largest” IDP population after Sudan and Iraq, and then the second only after Sudan, and now Colombia is the undisputed champion. In the early 2000s, when violence was at its height, being the nth country on the list in comparison to Iraq, Afghanistan, or Sudan would have been cold comfort to the millions of people who were violently being uprooted every year from their homes.

Any displacement is too much displacement and we have to think about the way we talk about nations in the Global South. If ‘just’ 50,000 were displaced by war next year in Canada, that would give a lot of people pause. Why are millions of displaced in countries/regions associated with war seen as somehow natural or different?

Secondly, the oft-cited 3.5, 3.9, 4.5, 5.4, and now 5.5 million figures when it comes to displacement in Colombia actually only begin counting from 1985 to the present day. This manifestation of war began in 1964. Therefore, there are literally 20 years of war whose effects on displacement we really don’t know about.

Thirdly, Colombia’s large (and sensationally constructed) displaced population often obscures the fact that between 500,00-1 million Colombians left the country as refugees mostly to Venezuela, Ecuador, Spain, the US, and Canada. If you count these, the number of people who have left their homes due to violence in Colombia is closer to 6.5 million.

Fourth, there is a much larger point about how we conceptualize and consequently prioritize certain kinds of violence. Countless not only Colombians, but Latin Americans, Africans, and many others are currently being displaced by the development of large extractive/mining projects and mega-infrastructure projects. Furthermore, the large amount of violence currently occurring in Mexico and Central America which has displaced thousands is considered criminal, and not political/not related to war. The neo-paramilitary groups, known by the Colombian government as “BACRIM”/criminal bands, are (in my view incorrectly) being framed as criminal actors, and not stakeholders in the political and social armed conflict, and therefore their victims are not entitled to the same reparations which people dispalced by the FARC-EP, ELN, or the Army are.  For example, all actors in Colombia’s conflict are involved, in different ways and proportions, to drug trafficking and mining.

So we have to ask ourselves, why are we being so narrow as to focus on “displacement caused by war”, as if we can define when political violence ends, and criminal and economic violence begins, and as if one is more pressing than another. Therefore, the numbers presented by IDMC represent only a very particular type, and fraction, of the general problem of powerful actors creating insecurity and fear leading to forced migration. Although they nod to the displacement created by these neo-paramilitary groups with an ambiguous political status, the media has framed these as displacements due to traditional understandings of what constitutes war or political violence.

IDMC’s analysis also features the gendered, racialized, classist, and anti-peasant dimensions of forced displacement. Displacement in Colombia disproportionately affects Afro-Colombians and  indigenous peoples (who live in rural areas, typically rich in resources and coveted by armed groups), people who are lower-class (94% of IDPs are poor, although many are impoverished due to displacement), people who are peasants or live in rural areas (although intra-urban displacement is becoming a growing phenomenon). Displaced people are disproportionately single women with children.

However, the report does not mention how many indigenous people are displaced to other indigenous communities, or in areas so remote, that their experiences are often not captured by official records. Moreover, the report, although recognizing that forced migration effects indigenous and Afro-Colombians in particularly, it does not mention the unique relationships of these groups’ respective identity to the territory in the rural context and how displacement from the rural land to the city is often also a process of cultural and social alienation, exacerbating the sense of loss in terms of identity, territory, autonomy, and culture. Furthermore, many Afro-Colombian intellectuals and activists have considered displacement not as a part of war, but as another manifestation of the violence of colonialism which displaced them from Africa, enslaved them in the Americas, and is now again displacing them for their territory in Colombia.

The number also isn’t telling you about how individuals who we have dehumanized under the decontextualizing, technical, and sanitized label of “internally displaced person” or “IDP” (desplazado in Colombia) are subjects with agencies and individual stories. Many Colombians have never been displaced. Many more have been displaced multiple times in their lives. For many, the word “IDP” or “displaced” leads to a stigma of being not only a victim, but associated with the war. In Colombia there is the very ugly prejudice that if someone was displaced, “it must have not been for no reason”. Many communities and people who are displaced, like all of us, have strong ties to their neighbours, friends, territory and social world in which they inhabited, all which are violently unmade by  displacement. Forced migration has to be understood as a very human process of displacement in which one’s social relationship  to geographic space and others is traumatically broken.

But the label is also dehumanizing in that it only sees the displaced person as an object to be effected by armed groups, an obstacle in the crossfire. Nevertheless, people in Colombia (and elsewhere) are subjects and many of them after being displaced actively advocate for their rights and demand justice. However, the demand for restitution of land by survivor’s groups coupled with the Colombian state’s denial of the continuation of paramilitarism has resulted in leaders and representatives of displaced communities being among the primary targets for selected assassination and threats by armed groups. Again, displacement is therefore an issue central, and not collateral, to violence. The IDMC report does mention that in 2004, the Constitutional Court considered the murder of these advocates to be ‘crimes against humanity’.

The final, and in my view, most important thing that forced displacement is about how the Colombian conflict is intimately tied to, some would even say caused, by a need to control land and the political and economic opportunity which it represents.

The report cites “internal armed conflict” and “criminal violence” as causing displacement, as if these do not intertwine and as if these exist in a vacuum isolated from the social world of politics, economic development, the interests of the plutocracy, social movements, and other factors.

Although forced displacement due to armed conflict becomes hypervisible to us in the West and Global North given its humanitarian (and sensational) nature, the root causes of much of this violence becomes invisible because it enables our economic development. The Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) invests in mining companies who are allied with neo-paramilitary groups who displace. Therefore, displacement is not a side-effect of a war which we seldom understand and only see glimpses of through our television screen in Canada, but it is actually necessary for our way of life.

As Colombian-American Anthropologist Arturo Escobar says, displacement is constitutive of capitalist economic development. More land is perpetually needed to fuel growth, and the people living on that land are an obstacle to that development if they are not aligned with it. It bears mentioning here that one of the “economic engines” of President Juan Manuel Santos’ development plan is mining, which has been very much tied to paramilitary displacement. Multinational corporations in the form of mining and agribusiness, drug traffickers, and cattle ranchers, all have a vested stake in having the Colombian land without the people on it.

Many rural displacements, which occur in ‘The Other Colombia’ where a lack of state presence led to the incursion of the insurgency, and then the counterinsurgency, are in areas where the state has only recently appeared, and now sees the riches which the land offer for ‘development’. Livelihoods and ways of being which are counter to the nation-building economic project, which perhaps benefits more Urban Colombia than Rural Colombia, such as fishing, subsistence agriculture, artisanal mining, are displaced to make way for large-scale mega-projects that fit within the logic and supposed rationality of extractive capitalism. Displacement needs to occur to let the nation-state develop since Colombia for a long time was an unconsolidated state; displacement is the violent resolution of the tension created by the different social philosophies of Urban Colombia and Rural Colombia.

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“It’s Colombia, Not Columbia” Viral Campaign – Positivity as propaganda?

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I recently noticed that a viral campaign called “It’s Colombia, Not Columbia”, started by a digital social media firm Zemoga and its Vice-President Carlos Pardo,  has taken the Colombian community on Facebook and Twitter by storm.  The campaign received a nod over at the Huffington Post, recognition by CNN,  has been endorsed by ultra-famous Colombian investigative Journalist Guillermo Prieto better known as “Pirry”, and has already come out with it’s own line of T-shirts.

It’s a positive development not only that our non-Colombian friends will be aware of the spelling mistake which irks all Colombians everywhere, but that young, dynamic, and social media savvy Colombians are trying to reject the negative and ignorant stereotypes that have far too-long defined the country internationally.

Much of what the campaign is espousing is true – both in terms of security and poverty reduction, Colombia has made huge gains in the last 20 or so years. The heart of the campaign has an extremely noble intention – showing the “good” side of Colombia, so that we can be known for our wonderful singers, artists, writers, and people trying to build peace instead of our drug traffickers and warlords. And (painfully) slowly, Colombia is indeed overcoming it’s negative legacy. The Colombia in the late 1990s and early 2000s had over half of its people in poverty (or at least how the government measures it), that number has gone down to a third today. In 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO) considered Colombia the world’s most violent country and it was spoke of in diplomatic circles as a “failed state” in the same breath as Somalia and the DRC are today. 2012, by contrast, saw one of the lowest murder rates in almost 30 years.  Also worth nothing, as Pardo himself mentions, Medellín, the 2nd largest city, went from being the murder capital of the world in 1993  to last year being voted one of the most “innovative” cities in the world.

The campaign is humble, and sensitive to the fact that far too many of us, and our family members, have very fresh wounds from the peaks of violence in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Pardo says that he does not want to “deny Colombia’s reality or its past but we do want to concentrate on the good things.”

Problemas – Who gets to represent Colombia? Who is responsible for the “recovery”?

However, Colombia, although a beautiful country with a resilient people and many, indeed “positive” things worth highlighting, is still a racist, violent, and extremely unequal society. Therefore, the need to be critical is manifest: What are the “positive” things that are being mentioned? What images and whose bodies are excluded? Not surprisingly,a long scroll through the campaign will only show the usual images of a “modernized” and “advanced” Colombia of mostly White and light-skinned Mestizo bodies, who are seemingly a part of the global and cosmopolitan urban middle-class, smart phones and all.

Colombia’s actual population, in contrast to what many within the country would like to project, is a bit more diverse. According to some estimates by the UNDP, Colombia is up to a 1/3 rural, and according to Afro-Colombian organizations such as El Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN), up to 20% Afro-descendant. Colombia also has a small yet not insignificant indigenous population, which is 3-5% of the population, and a population of Arab descent in the Caribbean coast, to say nothing of other ethnic and social groups that are not a part of dominant national myths; the 35% of Colombians who live in poverty, the estimated 4.6 million who live in extreme poverty (under $2/day). Where is the place of that Colombia, Colombia in its whole, the good, the bad, and the ugly, in that campaign? Is a Colombia where we show only “positive” things also a Colombia without ethnic minorities, rural people, people living in poverty?

Furthermore, this campaign is nothing new. Pardo recognizes the history of previous social media campaigns trying to restore the republic’s damaged reputation, such as One Million Voices Against The FARC (Un millón de voces contra las FARC) (OMVAF).

A bit of history on the movement:  In 2008, Barranquillero Engineering student Oscar Morales started the OMVAF campaign – a Facebook movement that organized protests against the Marxist insurgency who has been at war with the government since 1964, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – The People’s Army (FARC-EP), asking or an ending to kidnappings. Morales’ campaign was insanely successful with literally millions of Colombians of all walks of life out in the streets (protests in Colombia, aside from victim’s movements, are largely frowned upon by the upper and middle-classes). Morales, as documented by David Kirkpatrick’s must-read about Facebook, “The Facebook Effect”, became a key part of Mark Zuckerburg’s narrative of how Facebook’s openness can bring peace and social change to the world. What Pardo and Zuckerburg neglect, however, is that a campaign against one warlord is not a campaign for peace. OMVAF fight quite nicely into the ‘War on/of Terror’ dissident demonization discourse of former President Alvaro Uribe Vélez’s American-supported counterinsurgency campaign, in which any possible negotiation with the guerrillas was shut down in favour of a military solution to the conflict. OMVAF was also extremely useful for the state as it was silent on the crimes of the Colombian Army and the right-wing paramilitaries who have been often associated with the state’s pursuit of the guerrillas.

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In a similar vein, “It’s Colombia, Not Columbia” could be interpreted as basically free publicity for the Colombian government’s agenda. Within Colombia, it’s common knowledge that the government has hired a professional PR firm to create a Colombia “brand” in order to market the country as a viable option for tourism and investment, and trying to move out of the shadow of the FARC and Pablo Escobar.

The exchange below from the Huffington Post interview I think is telling

There are some people who’d say that Colombia may not be the paradise that the campaign paints it out to be. For example, despite the current peace talks, violence still exists by the FARC and ELN rebel groups and Colombia remains the largest supplier of cocaine in the world. So what exactly are the changes that you want the world to see in Colombia?
We want people to understand that Colombia is much more than what they see in the media. We want to balance out the message and tell the positive side. Today Colombia has a solid economy and investors are looking towards Latin America, especially Colombia because during the current global financial crisis Colombia has shown sustainable growth rates. I think Zemoga is an example of these changes, people think Colombia is a coffee exporter and it is but it also exports digital services to clients like Toyota, Nissan, BMW, Sea World.”

Again, Pardo is not necessarily wrong – Colombia can confidently claim to have one of the strongest economies in Latin America, if not the world, in this current Great Recession. What Pardo fails to mention is that, in line with the current President Juan Manuel Santos’ development plan for Colombia, natural resource extraction, not the knowledge and digital economy,  will be the engine of economic growth. With economic liberalization through Free Trade Agreements, and the (largely violent) ‘re-establishment’ of the state in formerly ‘marginal’ and guerilla-controlled,yet resource-rich, rural areas  thanks to the counterinsurgency, Colombia is for the last decade has become “open for business”. Indeed, during former President Uribe’s two terms, foreign direct investment in Colombia tripled.

My other wonderful country, Canada, has already begun investing heavily in Colombia’s mining sector, and a Canadian bank has now taken control over one of Colombia’s most important financial institutions. Allegations of connections between the mining industry, and large agro-business and neo-paramilitary groups are countless. I also have to mention how Drummond, an American multinational, has recently been responsible for a huge fossil fuel spill off of the Caribbean coast, and the workers of Cerrejon mine, the largest open-pit coal mine in the world which is located in one of Colombia’s ‘most indigenous’ and 2nd poorest state, La Guajira, have gone on strike asking for better pay. On the other hand, poverty has been reduced by 15% in a decade, although the GINI coefficient, measuring inequality for Colombia, has barely budged from a high of o.57 to a current level of 0.55, making Colombia the most unequal country in Latin America after Haiti and Bolivia, and one of the most unequal in the world.

To say the least, the foreign direct investment which this seemingly urban-produced branding campaign invites, is not without controversy. Arguably, it is taking the most, and giving the least, to those who are invisible and have been historically invisibilized in Colombian society – Indigenous people, poor people, Afro-Colombians, displaced people, and people living in the countryside or in “peripheral” regions.

In conclusion, as peace with the FARC approaches, Colombians must indeed re-conceptualize what “Colombia” is (and how its want to be perceived) so that we can move past (but never forget) the nation’s hyper-violent legacy. Will we create a new social deal, recognize the crimes of the powerful, and try and move towards a new, more diverse, and inclusive Colombia which does not reproduce the systems of inequality that fed the violence in the first place? Or will we continue to sustain the same narratives and power structures in which some are heard, many are silenced, and the country’s riches are sold off to the highest bidder with little consent from the communities who live on them, but where we criticize foreigners when they dare point out our shortcomings, and even worse, misspell “Colombia”?

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