Tag Archives: FARC

The Ghosts of War & Questions of Peace

I could not sleep last night. I edited this post throughout the day but wrote it in the middle of the night, unable to sleep without first writing something. I was truly struck, dumbfounded, by the news that both the government of Colombia and the self-styled Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia  (FARC) are asking the UN and the CELAC to help monitor a bilateral ceasefire and a definitive end to hostilities. 

 

The news itself is not shocking – the peace process in Havana between the insurgents and the government has resulted in periodical historical breakthroughs (a deal on transitional justice, unprecedented participation of various victims’ groups in a peace process, etc). However, the location of this event within the 51 year history of war between the FARC and the State gave me pause.

 

For the first time in a generation, the dream of peace with Colombia’s most important rebel group is no longer a fantasy, but a tangible, realistic possibility. Many Colombians, including myself, would honestly never thought they would live to see this. Too many have not. Perhaps Colombia is starting to deal with its figurative ghosts.

 

I offer some reflections on the history that is being made here, on the war. For Colombians, one’s social location defines one’s relationship to the armed conflict, and I write this from the relative comfort of the Global North; part of my privilege is that the war is fortunately not a lived reality for me, it’s not an inescapable totality ending or interrupting life but glimpses of a brutal phenomenon in a distant supposed “homeland” to be escaped by merely putting down the book, putting back the letter, clicking past the headline, or turning off the television. Indeed, reflecting on the precarity of other lives in this war is a luxury testifying to my privilege produced by the very same violence.

 

A final caveat – I cannot and hope not to speak to our personal ghosts of this war. The spirits, memories, hauntings, denials, or our personal stories of war, or our connections to victims, perpetrators, and everyone in between must be respected; collective processes of attempting to reconcile with a history of brutality cannot coerce, erase, or appropriate personal narratives. I want to address collective ghosts, if we can speak of such a thing.

 

My thoughts on this moment in – and making – history.

 

Gabriel Garcia Marquez ended his Nobel masterpiece with this:

 

“[Races] condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth”.

 

This passage marked me; haunted me. It made me think, uncritically and pessimistically (as One Hundred Years is all about pessimism) that perhaps Colombia was condemned to war. From the genocide of the Indigenous peoples in the Spanish Conquests, the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Africans brought to work in Colombia’s mines, the wars for the word (but not the true condition) of “independence”, and the later conflicts between various ruling parties (depicted in Colombia’s most well-known book) to the conflicts of the present, for the last 500 years, violence has been the norm and peace has been the exception. Peace has been an interruption.

 

Now peace with the most important insurgency in the country is within reach. A momentum is building behind peace that will hopefully make for a significant interruption.

 

It’s hard to say what “peace” is or what it can or will be. It is something that will have to be struggled, defended, questioned, and collectively built. However, it is clear to me what peace with this rebel group will not be.
Peace with the FARC will not mean justice for the over 7 million victims of Colombia’s internal conflict. It will probably not give new opportunities to the young rebels who were raised on waging war. It will not bring back the dead, the disappeared, or return the land to the dispossessed. It will not restore the ties of Afro-descendent/Black and Indigenous peoples to ancestral lands that have been severed by the conflict. It will not heal the injured or the maimed. It will not bring back the years lost for those kidnapped by the rebels. It will not bring truth, or any kind of agreement on what actually took place during the war. It will not mean peace with the other major insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN). It will not mean peace with the drug cartels, nor peace with the paramilitaries/private armies of landed elites that displace peasants. It will not mean an end to the “Dirty War” of selective killings of labour union leaders, community leaders, dissidents, or activists; most of the nation will only come to know its  leaders through reports of their deaths, and not engagements with their lives. It will not mean peace with the violences of inequality, economic exploitation, nor land dispossession by the multinationals. It will not end Colombia’s rampant classist, sexist, racist, transphobic and homophobic violences. It will not bring true democracy. And despite the undoubted prominence to come of this term if an agreement is reached, it will not bring reconciliation, and we will not all forgive each others’ atrocities.

 

 

A Colombia at peace with the FARC will only be a utopia in the marketing materials of the government to tourists and foreign investors.

 

Peace is not an answer. It may not even be an attainable or definable condition. However, if war has been the permanent answer that Colombia has had to many of its ills, peace can be an interrupting question.

 

Maybe – just maybe – some communities can – for the first time in over half a century – not wake up to another day of the horrors of of a conflict in which both sides wage war against them, and no side fights for them. For some communities, perhaps machine gun fire can abandon the soundscape, letting private whispers demanding justice to be cried out in plazas. Perhaps, for some, sophisticated American smart bombs and crude rebel landmines can stop dismembering bodies and communities. Perhaps womens’ bodies will no longer be soldiers’ spoils of war, objects attached to conquered territory. Perhaps “To Disappear” will be a verb with less currency in the popular lexicon. Perhaps some will no longer have to obey the gaze of the rifles. Perhaps, for some, declared neutrality or suspected partisanship will no longer invite destruction.

 

Perhaps the magnitude of risking one’s life will no longer be a spectre on the minutiae of necessary daily movements. Perhaps emptying territories of soldiers and rebels will allow communities to create ‘geographies without terror’. Perhaps some of the calm felt in the cities’ shopping malls and country clubs can leap through the social chasm to ‘The Other Colombia’, to the overexploited ruralities who have experienced the waves of massacres, bombings, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, militarized sexual violences forgotten or denied by the urban elite. Perhaps the urban elite can stop ‘discovering’ their own national geography by news of the most recent massacre in an otherwise forgotten and nameless small rural town. Perhaps we can begin to not only remember, but begin to know  these places by their names and complexities beyond the abjectivity of their tragedies. Perhaps comforting national narratives can be shaken by the impossibility of writing this history of war, perhaps – appropriately – history can become difficult to tell.

 

Maybe – just maybe – the entire country can follow the lead of many courageous movements and communities in the interminable work of demanding justice, of speaking of and to the unspeakable horrors, of confronting the incredibly present spectres of a past haunted by violence. Perhaps we can begin to engage our national ghosts. We may never exorcise all of them completely – nor should we; as memory can be act of resistance, and amnesia can dehumanize. But perhaps we can begin to learn how to live with our national ghosts, how to allow them to live with us. It will never be complete.

 

The armed conflict is irreducible to narratives, it is an extremely complex condition, however, these help motivate it. The war has not only produced hauntings, it has been produced by them.

 

Slavoj Zizek says that all revolutions attempt to redeem the ghosts of past failed revolutions.

 

The Marxist FARC insurgency has been haunted by the ghosts of dispossessed peasants and a repressed Left in the 40s. This spirit has been nourished by later State repression. The rebels’ religion of a people’s revolution against the owners and exploiters would be corrupted by the demons of drug trafficking, kidnapping,  human rights abuses, becoming more arrogant, and turning against the population they claimed to represent.

 

The State’s counter-insurgency is also motivated by spectres from Colombia, and from other lands. For Colombia’s patron, the United States, the spectre of another Cuban or Sandinista Revolution in “its backyard” is terrifying, abhorrent, unacceptable and impermissible. This spectre has gripped Bogota and Washington into a deep obsession: the aspirations of alternatives to their social orders were systematically disciplined by attacking the bodies who hold them. Rallying cries for change were muted by the roar of repression, imposing silences of terror. These suspicions continue today.

 

The peace process is trying to purge Colombia of these spirits. However, if they remain on the land, hungry enough, being able to feed on something, they may still haunt the future.

 

Therefore, perhaps this peace is an illusion; a disguise for a new war which is not yet visible. Maybe the foundational violences of colonialism and/or the social stratification of Colombian society will produce new militarized social, political or criminal conflicts. It could be that certain ghosts are not ready to be laid to rest. Perhaps Marquez is right about our condemnation to history.

 

As the great American street poet Tupac Shakur once said:

 

“We can’t have peace until we all get a piece”.

 

As they say, only time will tell. Hopefully the future will answer some of the questions of the past…(or better yet, question some of its answers).

 

Let me end by coming full circle with Gabo Marquez: One of the turning points in One Hundred Years of Solitude is the Banana Workers Massacre. This was an actual massacre that was perpetrated against a labour action by workers of the United Fruit Company in Colombia and between 3 and 3,000 people were killed in 1929. It is emblematic of a larger history  in Colombia of repressing organized labour through murder for the interests and designs of (usually foreign) capital. In Marquez’ fiction, only one member of the community knows about the massacre – everyone else in Macondo is told by the authorities that nothing happened. No one believes the survivor. Marquez himself has said that “perhaps only 3 or 4 people died”. Was it 3, or 3,000? Again, Marquez’s genius has much to teach the Colombian peace process. If war is a contest of soldiers, peace will be a contest of surviving memories. We may never have answers for our ghosts.

 

And like the silence in Macondo of the massacre, perhaps some stories will remain too true to tell………

 

 

 

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An Election For Peace? Four Key Developments in Havana and the Campaign Trail

Recent polls have shown that Sunday’s Presidential election run-off in Colombia is anybody’s game. President-canddiate Juan Manuel Santos is seeking a re-election and his challenger, Oscar Ivan Zuluaga is supported by Santos’ predecessor, the hyper-popular and controversial former President Alvaro Uribe.

Four recent developments have significantly shifted the narratives and political environment’s surrounding the defining issue in this election (the peace talks with the FARC in Havana). Zuluaga has moderated his position on the talks, but – echoing Uribe as President – he denies the existence of an armed conflict in Colombia. On the other hand, the FARC and the government in Havana have agreed upon a preliminary set of principles on the fifth issue on the table (Victim’s and their rights), and the leader of the FARC declared a ceasefire until June 30.

 

The FARC – preparing for President Zuluaga?

 

The FARC’s leader, Timoleon Jimenez (alias ‘Timochenko’) declared a unilateral ceasefire for the second round-off Presidential elections. Elections are on June 15, and the FARC declared a break from hostilities towards the Colombian Armed Forces and infrastructure from the 9th to the 30th of June.

Interestingly, Timochenko made the announcement in a letter directed towards Zuluaga exclusively. In the letter, the rebel leader tries to argue that in a recent confrontation in Chilvi, Tumaco, during the course of which the FARC  ‘supposedly’ threw an explosive that killed 2 children, had nothing to do with them.

Timochenko makes reference to Zuluaga’s assertion that the FARC have not shown any gestures of goodwill for peace; Timochenko said that this ceasefire is an example and that it is the government – who will not declare a bilateral ceasefire- who has not shown good will.

Given Zuluaga’s victory in the first round of elections, perhaps the FARC are trying to prepare for negotiations with a President Zuluaga but for now this is only speculation.

 

Zuluaga with the Conservatives – giving Peace a Chance?

 

Former Conservative Presidential Candidate Marta Lucia Ramirez – another Uribe supporter – endorsed Zuluaga for the run-off. As part of her endorsement, she reached an policy agreement with Zuluaga, moderating his position on the peace talks. Instead of now suspending the dialogues as soon as he would take office, Zuluaga says he will continue the dialogues but only according to certain conditions. If elected, Zuluaga will try and verify that within a month, the FARC are no longer recruiting minors, placing anti-personnel landmines (and letting the government know where they are), to end ‘terrorist attacks’ against the population, end war crimes, attacks against infrastructure, and for their to be a timeline on the negotiations. The agreement also calls on the FARC to honour their promises to no longer kidnap for ransom.

Uribe, Zuluaga’s mentor, has said that “Zuluaga was never against peace”, but was against impunity and a condition-less negoitation. Others have argued that this 180 degree turn-around on Zuluaga’s part is not to be trusted.   

Zuluaga’s significant change on an issue that arguably created a reaction which in turn created his party (Uribe’s ‘Democratic Centre’) can perhaps be read several ways. Zuluaga may indeed believe and respect the accord, and try to seek a negotiated settlement with the FARC in good faith. Perhaps then, the questions surrounding Uribe’s desire to stay central to Colombian political life are less about militarily defeating the FARC, and more about electing his candidate to the country’s highest office. Given how the tightness between the two candidates, that includes appealing to a broader base who may see some promise in the talks, and trying to disrupt Santos’ narrative that the President represents peace and that Zuluaga and Uribe are war-mongers.

Another potential scenario is that Zuluaga has no intention of continuing the Peace talks. His positions started from breaking the talks altogether, to suspending them, to now continuing them conditionally. According to this thesis, Zuluaga is seeking to have his cake and eat it too: He can this way be perceived as balanced, wanting a negotiated settlement over more war, but setting restrictive conditions that would amount to a de-facto suspension of the talks.

In response to whether his new position was ‘treason’ to his generally pro-military approach constituency, Zuluaga said that he is “opening space [in his campaign] for very important groups that represent millions of Colombians”.

 

There might be peace, but there is no war – Uribe’s War On Terror narratives on the campaign trail

 

The other important item coming from Zuluaga is his interview with alternative newspaper La Silla Vacia. Here, Zuluaga says that there is no “armed conflict” in Colombia, and instead that security issues are rooted in a “terrorist threat” (the guerrillas). He has repeatedly (and erroneously) called the FARC “the largest drug cartel in the world”. Zuluaga’s discourse is precisely how Uribe characterized the guerrillas during his presidency – as “narco-terrorists” who are not worthy of political status. On the other hand, in this narrative the Colombian State and its’ use of force is seen as legitimate. Uribe’s discourse clearly has spectres of the War On Terror in which the enemy is depoliticized and seen as a security threat to overcome, and not to reach a political negotiation with.

In a televised debate a few nights ago, Santos asked repeatedly whether Zuluaga considered Colombia’s situation to constitute an “armed conflict”, which Zuluaga dodged.

Finally, another term from Uribe’s language that Zuluaga has been employing is the juxtaposition between a legitimate democracy (represented, they argue, by the Colombian state) and the ‘authoritarian’ regimes in Cuba and Venezuela (referred to as ‘Castro-Chavismo’). Zuluaga contends that the FARC are a representation of ‘Castro-Chavismo’ and that the negotiations in Havana are subsequently ceding Colombia’s democracy.

This represents a key difference between Uribe and Santos – enshrined in the landmark 2011 Victim’s & Land Restitution Law- over a semantic question of immense political importance: Is there an armed conflict in Colombia? The Victim’s Law explicitly makes reference to one, which Uribe opposed when the Law was a bill under his government. This technical/abstract distinction affects the nature of the negotiations in Havana. Given the vehement rejection of most Colombians – particularly Urbanites and elites- of the FARC, Santos knows he does not have a mandate to negotiate at any cost. Nevertheless, recognizing an armed conflict between two belligerents logically precedes a need for a negotiation. The FARC, weakened but not defeated, see the process (or at least are trying to frame it as) a negotiation between equal parts. Zuluaga on the other hand, sees the FARC as terrorists who need to surrender to the legitimate institutions and justice of the Colombian state.

Some victim’s groups – who in discussions about the Law became political footballs for differences about the armed conflict definition – are therefore concerned that a Zuluaga Presidency  would roll back some of the gains made with Santos of recognizing a conflict (and therefore, that there are victims who have been abused by different perpetrators, not just the guerrillas).

 

Victim’s Tentatively Recognized by FARC and the government?

 

That was the other big news today. the FARC and the government negotiators in Havana have reached an agreement on 10 ‘principles’ surrounding the fifth item on the table – victims and their rights.

The ten points include a recognition of the conflict’s victims, and a commitment to not letting the negotiations result in “an exchange of impunities”.  The accord has commitments to responsibility, reparations, and a guarantee of protection and security. The deal also included a tentative commission to ‘clarify’ the historical truth of the conflict, a key demand of the insurgents. It will further include a gender sup-group.

Interestingly, the deal also includes something quite novel in peace processes – spaces for victims’ participation. Apparently a delegation will go to Havana soon, and several forums will be organized around the country in the coming month.

This point may be politically motivated (it cannot be a coincidence that this was announced a week before the Presidential elections). However, it also allows Santos to argue that the FARC are willing to recognize their victims, and that the State has also victimized.

Whether this will calm enough the anxiety of what exact balance between justice and peace is being struck in Havana, and be an example of supposed good faith between both parties, can’t be known until Sunday.

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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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Who is and is not a ‘paramilitary’? Erasing the changing nature of Colombia’s conflicts over land

A few weeks ago, Al Jazeera English’s “Fault Lines” program recently ran an interesting 20-minute investigative piece on the struggles of community leaders with respect to the Land Restitution process, which raises some questions about whether or not paramilitarism continues, or has changed in Colombia.

colombia-ley-de-tierras “Land & Life”, photo credit: InfoLatAm

Some context The Paramilitary Demobilization & Contested Narratives.

Since the 1920s (and arguably, since the 16th century), disputes over who owns land, whether land can be ‘owned’, who gets to benefit off of the land, have been deeply influencing Colombia’s armed and social conflict.

Although the FARC, the ELN, drug cartels, and the army/all armed actors in Colombia have displaced people off of their land and terrorized communities in order to exert social and territorial control over them, right-wing paramilitary groups working often on behalf of narcotraffickers and large land owners have been particularly tied to the question of displacement. Colombia is said to have the highest number of internally displaced people in the world (the Norwegian Refugee Council puts it at 5.5 million, and this documentary puts it at around 6 million). This is not  even counting those who were displaced outside of Colombia. Many in Colombia say that throughout the war, as much as 10 million hectares have changed hands.

What’s interesting here is that many analyses concerning Colombia’s Land Restitution Law follow a common, and relatively accurate, narrative – Colombia’s land restitution process is at serious threat because of the continued threats by armed groups to community organizers leading land claims. However, the Al-Jazeera documentary probes deeper into the ideological and semantic questions of these threats, which arguably, are of tremendous significance to the political moment in which the land restitution process occurs.

Firstly, the confederation of right-wing paramilitary groups known as las Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC, or the United Self-Defense forces of Colombia) demobilized in 2003-6 in a highly-criticized process which some victim’s groups saw as a granting of impunity    Many of the middle-rung paramilitary leaders who demobilized under the law (and were not extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges) will start to be released this year.

Thousands of the former paramilitaries granted legal benefits under the demobilization process with the previous government of Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), re-armed into groups that have been characterized by the government and some analysts as “criminal bands” or BACRIM, or armed groups that are primarily focused on narcotrafficking, and not actors in the armed conflict.

In the documentary, a functionary of the national government says that the BACRIM are not paramilitaries, for example, because they do not engage in combat with the FARC or the ELN.

Others, such as opposition Congressman Ivan Cepeda have argued that the BACRIM are neo-paramilitaries, or a continuation of powerful interests defending themselves with private armies. What is undoubted is that the human costs of paramilitarism, and the tactics of repression, threats, and cruelty imposed by these groups on the civilian population are very similar to the ‘old’ paramilitaries and are devastating. It is important to note however that the ‘old’ paramilitaries in the 1990s committed many large, atrocious massacres, and these are much less common now, although the selective murders of activists continue at an alarming rate in Colombia. It’s also worth nothing that violence perpetrated by the neoparas/BACRIM accounts for the majority of forced displacement currently.

At the heart of the question is what is the ideological motivation (if any) behind these paramilitary successor groups – if they have, like the Castaños – a clear anti-subversive, right-wing and seemingly fascist ideological motivation, or if they are “merely” criminal groups or drug traffickers and pistols-for-hire for powerful landed interests. This raises some questions about history – one of Uribe’s main challenges in beginning negotiations with the AUC in the early 2000s was that to do so they needed to have legally recognized political status (which they did not). Moreover, some have argued that even the AUC did not necessarily have a coherent guiding ideology as many groups were the private armies of (seemingly apolitical) narcotraffickers. However, in relation to land, it is clear that the AUC did have a clear pro-business, pro-land owner and anti-dissident agenda.

“Neoparamilitarism” in the Current Political Moment – Moving toward “peace”?

SantosRestitucion President Juan Manuel Santos Calderon giving land titles in Mampujan, Cesar at a land restitution ceremony. Photo credit: Caracol.com.co

The important point here is the political interests behind this seemingly abstract distinction – if the they do have an ideological motivation, then perhaps the “neoparas” are a continuation of paramilitarism in Colombia, but if they are not, this validates the official discourse that paramilitarism in Colombia ended in 2006 with the demoblization of the AUC. Under this logic, which is the government narrative and is often reproduced in Colombian media, the only groups left to negotiate with for “peace” in Colombia are the guerrillas.

Within this narrative is the conjecture of the “historic” 2011 Victim’s and Land Restitution’s Law and the current peace talks with the FARC guerrillas in Havana. Both initiatives by the Santos government are aimed at ending Colombia’s conflict (although, a conflict defined in certain ways) and providing ‘reparations’ for “moving forward” or establishing a so-called “peace”.

Although the Victim’s Law is a useful tool and has some interesting mechanisms for Victim’s (such as a reverse-onus for land-owners accused of having ‘dirty’ land to prove that they obtained it legally), the law, as explained by the Al-Jazeera documentary, is actually quite tepid in how much land can be redistributed, and in how much time (the law stops after a decade, and the backlog on land claims is enormous). Furthermore, according to one interviewee, the law won’t touch the land of large companies or land-owners who have their paper work in order. In other words, the Victim’s Law is not an agrarian reform to respond to not only the violent, largely paramilitary and narco-trafficker-driven, counter-agrarian reform/displacement crisis of the last 30 years, but it also leaves out the historic question of land inequality in Colombia (rooted in colonialism). Finally, there are questions about whether those displaced by the BACRIM/neo-paras (as these aren’t deemed as political actors in the armed conflict) will be eligible for restitution.

Therefore, the political categorization of Colombia’s armed groups in institutional and political terms shapes conceptualizations of the conflict, and subsequently, divergences between how the state wants to frame the war (or ignore it) and how people experience it in human and material terms (killings of leaders continue, land isn’t given back).

Ideologically, the Colombian state, the international community, and particularly academia, seems to prioritize political violence (as this threatens the state, and is more “sexy”/associated with mass and sensationalized violence). Prioritizing this violence also prioritizes its victims. However, that begs the question – what is an armed conflict, what is political violence, and what does it matter? Arguably, Mexico is currently experiencing a brutal civil war.  Politics also currently colours the mass wave of violence in Venezuela, which in recent years has had some of the highest murder rates in the world.

It makes little senses to create a hierarchy of violences, and of  its’ victims, according to rigid and problematic intellectual definitions of an ‘armed conflict’ needing to have a certain relationship to discourses (groups needing explicit political goals) and to the state (protecting or challenging its monopoly on violence).

Kyle Johnson in a guest piece over at Colombia Reports on the “neo-paras” offers a much more useful conceptualization:

The political at its root is the capacity to make and implement decisions that define, normally limiting, the rules of the game in society by imposing restrictions and permissions on certain actions; it is looking to establish a social hierarchy and decide who resides where in that hierarchy; usually the rules and hierarchy are reinforced through coercion and selected benefits for certain sectors of the population. This definition is far from most arguments about what constitutes political positions, political interests, etc. It is derived from classical political theory and some sociological concepts on political power, and it should be noted that one does not need a clear, well-developed ideological project to have a political side.

…..

Given the incredible historical importance that land has played in establishing the position of people in the regional social hierarchy, and thus the economic, social and political power large landowners have, the threats and violence against those who are reclaiming their stolen land back are effectively defining the place of certain actors in that hierarchy. …

Additionally, these coercive actions indicate that looking to gain stolen land back is not permitted in the areas under Urabeños’ control.

So in the Colombian context (and many others) the contention that is politics is largely rooted in land, and therefore the BACRIM/neoparamilitaries are definitely political actors as they are trying to close political space for actors wanting to claim it, using a language of ‘cleansing’ that harks back to the days of the AUC.   They also  seem to be in favour of business interests and against activists/community leaders and progressive sectors.

By re-defining the nature of politics to be something broader than explicit ideology or threats to the state, and armed political conflict, or by not creating a hierarchy of victims, hopefully this would open more institutional spaces for victim’s to have access to memory, reparations, justice, and restitution on their terms. However, as things currently stand, questions of whether paramilitarism continues in Colombia are seemingly being ignored by the state and some sectors of the media in their language and characterization of paramilitary successor groups as ‘criminal bands’ disconnected from the past paramilitaries. What the thesis of ‘neoparamilitarism’ does is throw a wrench in the the assumptions behind the Land Restitution process, the peace process, and notions of transitional justice in Colombia : the Justice & Peace Law was not just an abject failure in providing justice, but it also provided no peace and no transition. At a local level, conflicts over land continue in the same nature as during the height of the war and paramilitarism/paramilitarism was not stopped by the demobilization.

Validating the official discourse – that paramilitaries are over, land is being given back, and soon, the guerrillas and the war in general will be history, erases not only the current lived experiences of people in regions like Jiguamiando and Curvarado and the Urabá region, but also more structural, historical, and political underpinnings of Colombia’s conflict (land inequality and the brutal repression of peaceful dissidence). It also erases how Colombian democracy was shockingly co-opted by paramilitary groups, and that the alliances between certain businesspeople, politicians, and armed groups who displace and threaten peasants, Afro-Colombians, popular sectors, and indigenous people are something that has been overcome.

In other words, at this course, violence against Colombia’s peasantry will long continue after the FARC give up their arms, but the victim’s of Colombia’s war will be even more invisible; the war will be further denied.
PS – The International Criminal Court is looking at one paramilitary group, the ‘Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia’, popularly referred to as “Los Urabeños“.

Further reading: York University Professor Jasmin Hristov’s “Legalizing the Illegal: Paramilitarism in Colombia’s ‘Post-Paramilitary’ Era” is strongly recommended.

For another perspective, InsightAnalysis has a wealth of information on Colombia’s BACRIM.

At a local level, according to Ariel Avila,  it also seems that ‘parapolitics’, or alliances between neoparas/BACRIM are still occurring, reminiscent of the ‘parapolitica’ scandal that touched over a third of Congress, intelligence agencies, the military, and civil cervants.

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Filed under Colombia, Contradictions, English, Land/Tierra, Paramilitarismo, Transitional Justice/Justicia Transicional, War On Drugs, War On Terror

VerdadAbierta.com: “Justicia y Paz, en la recta final para llegar con macro-sentencias de ‘paras’ en junio”

Justicia apurada, justicia negada? Una importante noticia sobre el proceso de justicia y paz/justicia ‘transicional’

Publicado originalmente el el Lunes 13 de Enero en VerdadAbierta.com

“La meta de cerrar los procesos contra 16 ex jefes paramilitares y guerrilleros postulados a Justicia y Paz con una sentencia que englobe a todos sus subalternos antes de junio de este año ya va a mitad de camino. VerdadAbierta.com muestra el estado de esos procesos y los pronósticos que hacen fiscales y abogados de víctimas y postulados.

audiencia

Desde inicios del año pasado, la Fiscalía decidió cambiar la estrategia de Justicia y Paz, y darle prioridad a los casos contra 16 de los principales ex jefes paramilitares y guerrilleros postulados al proceso para poder conseguir sentencias definitivas en un menor plazo. Con la estrategia original, que pretendía juzgar a más de tres mil postulados a Justicia y Paz caso por caso, según ordenaba la Ley 975 antes de que fuera reformada, el cálculo daba que tomaría casi un siglo terminarlos, una contradicción en sí misma pues se trata de una justicia transicional. (Ver nota: El año decisivo para Justicia y Paz).

De ahí que se haya reorganizado el trabajo de la Fiscalía para sacar adelante inicialmente 16 macro-procesos – reducidos ahora a 13 para la etapa de juicio – encabezados cada uno por un ex jefe de los grupos armados que está postulado a Justicia y Paz, con el objetivo de que éstos terminen en 16 sentencias colectivas para ellos y quienes fueron sus subalternos, y en reconocimientos, colectivos también, a quienes fueron sus víctimas.

La meta de junio de este año no es gratuita; en ese mismo mes muchos postulados, incluidos jefes paramilitares, podrían comenzar a solicitar su libertad porque cumplen los ocho años de prisión, la pena más alta a la que pueden ser condenados en Justicia y Paz. (Ver nota: Así será la priorización de Farc y Auc en Justicia y Paz).

El nuevo método consiste en que primero la Fiscalía hace las imputaciones contra los postulados (las acusaciones por sus delitos) en audiencias preliminares frente a los Tribunales de Justicia y Paz, y luego, comienzan las audiencias concentradas, en las que se expone de una manera más detallada los hechos o crímenes por los que son juzgados los postulados; después, el incidente de identificación de afectaciones causadas a las víctimas, y termina con la sentencia y las posteriores audiencias de cumplimiento.

Hasta el momento, tres de esos procesos están por entrar a la última etapa de “audiencias concentradas”. Otros nueve macro- procesos se encuentran un paso atrás, en las “audiencias preliminares”, y los demás están en etapas anteriores.

El 9 de diciembre del año pasado, Juan Pablo Hinestrosa, director de la Unidad de Justicia y Paz de la Fiscalía, defendió en una rueda de prensa el trabajo de la institución: “en junio de 2014, postulados como Fredy Rendón Herrera, alias ‘El Alemán’, y otros postulados de mayor y menor rango van a quedar libres por el vencimiento de sus penas cumplidas. La apuesta que hace la Fiscalía desde que empezó esta administración es lograr que cuando empiecen a quedar libres estos postulados se tengan sentencias condenatorias para así cumplir con lo que se llama Justicia Transicional”, explicó.

La justicia transicional colombiana, que se ha aplicado en varios países como una manera de dejar atrás la guerra, buscó suspenderles las condenas por sus múltiples delitos atroces a aquellos paramilitares y guerrilleros que se comprometieron a dejar las armas en forma colectiva o individual, e imponerles penas de máximo ocho años de cárcel, a cambio de que colaboraran con la justicia, la verdad y la reparación de sus víctimas. Y este año se cumple esa pena máxima de ocho años para muchos de ellos.

VerdadAbierta.com consultó a fiscales, abogados de postulados y de víctimas que participan en el proceso y coincidieron en que no es muy probable que se consigan fallos condenatorios de los postulados y sus subalternos en los cinco meses que faltan. Además, algunos de ellos advirtieron que no sólo importa la celeridad con que se adelanten los procesos, si no que se cumplan los principios generales de la Ley de Justicia y Paz de responderle a las víctimas y a la sociedad con verdad y justicia y una reparación debida.

Las cuentas
Hasta diciembre del año pasado se habían realizado las imputaciones contra nueve de los postulados. Cada una de estas imputaciones incluye la descripción de la larga lista de crímenes que confesaron los ex paramilitares o ex guerrilleros y su grupo o que el fiscal del caso documentó, según los tipos de delitos que Fiscalía fijó como prioritarios. Estos son: violencia sexual, desplazamiento forzado, desaparición forzada, reclutamiento de menores y casos de connotación, que son delitos seleccionados por el fiscal de cada grupo como masacres, secuestros, extorsiones a gremios regionales u homicidios de minorías o líderes de la comunidad.

Los procesos que van más avanzados son los de las Autodefensas Campesinas del Magdalena Medio, el del comandante del Frente 43 de las Farc, ‘Martín Sombra’, y el del Ejército Revolucionario Guevarista. Las audiencias concentradas están fijadas para el próximo 20 de enero en los tribunales de Justicia y Paz de Bogotá y Medellín.

La diligencia que hasta el momento más retrasos presenta es la de Diego Fernando Murillo Bejarano, alias ‘Don Berna’, que iniciará el 27 de enero con la imputación de cargos por su participación como comandante de los Bloques Héroes de Granada, Héroes de Tolová y Cacique Nutibara. (Ver nota: Magistrados ordenan indagar sobre espinosas verdades)

Al hacer los cálculos hay que considerar que la Ley 1592 de 2012 que reformó la Ley 975 de 2005 o de Justicia y Paz, no establece ningún tiempo límite de duración de las audiencias preliminares y la concentrada. Los únicos plazos establecidos son los de los intervalos entre la finalización y el inicio de una nueva etapa.

A mediados del año pasado, cuando se anunciaron los primeros avances de la estrategia de priorización, la Fiscalía había anunciado que el 31 de julio de 2013 tendría radicados los escritos de imputación de cargos para que los magistrados establecieran la fecha de inicio de las audiencias. Sin embargo, los cálculos eran optimistas para el volumen de trabajo que esto implicaba y los fiscales sólo pudieron terminar estas imputaciones entre octubre y diciembre o apenas están por terminar. Un fiscal le explicó a VerdadAbierta.com que las audiencias concentradas podrían tardar un poco más que las imputaciones, pues la formulación de cargos es más detallada. “Se abordan todos los casos con más profundidad –explicó –, ahí debe quedar muy claro quiénes fueron los autores y si fueron materiales o no, y presentar todas las circunstancias de tiempo, modo y lugar”.

En el siguiente gráfico puede visualizar mejor cómo es el proceso de priorización y el estado en el que se encuentran:

Se recomienda ver la presentación en pantalla completa.
Dé clic en Start Prezi y luego en el cuadro de la parte inferior

 

Infraestructura
Uno de los problemas que más llama la atención de los defensores de los postulados y las víctimas es la escasa infraestructura y personal con la que cuenta la justicia para hacer esta inmensa tarea. La mayor parte de la responsabilidad para dictar esas 16 macro-sentencias recae sobre los seis magistrados de conocimiento de Justicia y Paz con los que cuenta el país (cuatro en Bogotá, uno en Medellín y uno en Barranquilla). Los fallos hasta el momento se refieren a 11 mil hechos que comprometen a 34 mil víctimas. A esto habría que agregar las demás diligencias que se derivan de los casos de otros postulados y estructuras guerrilleras y paramilitares que no han sido definidos como prioritarios, pero que aun así deben continuar.

Sobre esto, el director de la Unidad de Justicia y Paz, citó al Fiscal General de la Nación, Eduardo Montealegre, en una intervención que había hecho meses atrás diciendo: “señores Magistrados, el balón está en su campo, de ustedes depende que podamos sacar esta sentencias condenatorias antes de junio de 2014. De ustedes depende que este esfuerzo macro de la Fiscalía, Unidad de Justicia y Paz, no sea inocuo, que no estemos arando en el mar. Que realmente podamos mostrar que en Colombia no nos quedó grande la Justicia Transicional y que estamos en la Fiscalía General de la Nación, preparados para recibir un eventual proceso de Justicia Transicional que llegare de La Habana. Estamos demostrando que la política de priorización es un hecho, es un éxito. Que hemos cumplido, nos falta mucho por hacer, pero que lo que primero hicimos fue fijar una estrategia para poder evacuar en mayor medida toda esa cantidad de hechos y de víctimas que están reclamando justicia”.

No obstante, el trabajo de investigación de varias decenas de equipos de fiscales debe ser evaluado y sopesado por pocos magistrados con equipos de trabajo pequeños, para poder conducir adecuadamente la etapa de juzgamiento y dictar sentencia. Como dijo un abogado de uno de los postulados, “los magistrados no tienen el don de la ubicuidad”.

Explicó que “el deseo de todos es tener las sentencias, pero si uno ve el proceso desde la infraestructura es complejo, hay mucha distancia de lo que se quiere a lo que ocurre”. Además dijo que se requiere que colaboren también otras entidades como el Inpec, y las otras partes que participan del proceso. No obstante las dificultades, aseguró que “desde la metodología que se implementó con la priorización, en el último año por lo menos se logró algo que no se había obtenido desde el 2005: en un día se imputaron 300 hechos”.

Los aplazamientos han sido una de las causas en los retrasos de las audiencias. En los meses anteriores, entre julio y diciembre del año pasado, en los que la Fiscalía había programado la etapa de las audiencias preliminares, se han presentado retrasos por diferentes motivos que van desde problemas en el transporte de los postulados desde las cárceles, excusas médicas por parte de los postulados hasta simples trámites jurídicos o administrativos.

Otro jurista que defiende a un ex jefe paramilitar extraditado a Estados Unidos expresa que para este año también hay que corregir los problemas logísticos que se presentaron en etapas anteriores. Relata que hubo retrasos de días o semanas porque los dispositivos para hacer las videoconferencias se dañaban o el Inpec fallaba en el traslado de algunos postulados.

Una defensora de víctimas de varios procesos de Justicia y Paz, entre ellos el del Bloque Central Bolívar, coincidió con las contrapartes en que los magistrados son muy pocos para tantas sentencias.

La meta
Esta misma abogada advierte, sin embargo, que “no se trata de afanarse para mostrar resultados. La eficiencia y la eficacia no pueden ir por vías distintas. La celeridad no puede recortar la esencia de Justicia y Paz, es decir, debe quedar claro que para reparación debe haber verdad, y no hay verdad si no hay justicia”.

La defensora también señala que “las víctimas están esperando que desde hace 10 o 20 años se les cuente la verdad. Lo que puede salir en junio son sentencias parciales, es decir una verdad parcializada. Porque los delitos priorizados excluyeron en algunos casos torturas, secuestros o robos. Y antes de que una víctima fuera asesinada, años antes había pasado por todo eso. Hay que tener en cuenta la reparación”.

El abogado del ex jefe paramilitar manifiesta que “estoy de acuerdo con la Corte cuando dice que es imposible llegar a una verdad absoluta del conflicto. Pero estas macro-sentencias deben contar la verdad para garantizar la no repetición. Hay víctimas que a pesar de contar ya con las sentencias, no han sido indemnizadas después de un año, y también hay temor entre los postulados que después de tanto tiempo queden libres y no quede muy clara su situación. Hay que pensar desde ahora en las seguridades jurídicas”.

Hasta este punto del proceso es claro que lo que falta para terminar es bastante: de cuatro partes del proceso de juzgamiento se ha avanzado parcialmente en la primera y faltarían otras tres, que en la práctica serán más extensas. El reto de alcanzar las 16 macro-sentencias anunciadas por la Fiscalía en el tiempo en que se lo propuso y, al mismo tiempo cumplir con los requisitos de la Ley de Justicia y Paz, recae casi completamente sobre los hombros de magistrados y fiscales.

No obstante, la responsabilidad de que esta se logre se extiende a diversas entidades que intervienen en el proceso. Por ejemplo, tan solo que un postulado no vaya a una audiencia programada porque el Inpec no hizo el traslado, o que no se haga una transmisión de una audiencia ente víctimas en un lugar remoto por razones técnicas, puede retrasar un caso varias semanas.”

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Filed under Colombia, Contradictions, Español, Transitional Justice/Justicia Transicional

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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Hey, It’s Just Business: Canucks kiss up to Colombia’s paralilitaries

By Enzo Di Matteo, originally published in print NOW Toronto | May 3-10, 2001 | VOL 20 NO 3. Found here on web.

“[L]eaders at the [Q]uebec summit of the Americas talked often and loud last week about environmental and social protections being written into any future hemispheric free trade pact. But whatever safeguards politicos are imagining, anti-globalization activists and human rights groups maintain that such measures would do nothing meaningful to improve the lot of people in developing countries.

The track record of transnationals doing business in places like Colombia, where leftist rebels have been fighting a 40-year insurgency against the government, has been particularly brutal.

There, Canadian oil companies, responsible for their share of toxic spills, mass deforestation and the displacement of peasant farmers, are raking in record profits with passing regard for eco standards or human rights.

Take Calgary-based oil and gas giant Enbridge.

The company’s OCENSA pipeline runs for 675 kilometres, from the Cusiana and Cupiagua oil fields in the Andes to the port of Coveñas on the Caribbean coast. It’s the largest in Colombia, transporting some 500,000 barrels of crude a day. Enbridge, whose earnings from the pipeline topped $30 million last year, recently bought up TransCanada Pipelines’ share in OCENSA.

The company’s record profits were front and centre when investors gathered for Enbridge’s annual shareholders meeting in Calgary on Wednesday (May 2).

In 1997, however, the company was linked by Amnesty International to a Colombian military unit being investigated “for complicity in the massacre of 15 unarmed civilians… and with paramilitary organizations responsible for widespread human rights violations.”

OCENSA’s security head had arranged for the company to buy attack helicopters, anti-guerrilla weaponry and ammunition for the military unit, which was hired privately to protect its pipeline in the north.

A director of British Petroleum (BP), part of the OCENSA consortium told a committee of British MPs probing the incident that avoiding contact with the Colombian army is not an option when doing business in Colombia.

He testified that the only military equipment purchased by the company for the Colombian 14th brigade was night-vision goggles.

The OCENSA story, though, goes deeper. The British security firm in the company’s employ until 97 was covertly gathering intelligence on the activities of locals opposed to the pipeline. More alarming for Amnesty is the fact that the company turned this intelligence over to the Colombian military, “who, together with their paramilitary allies, have frequently targeted those considered subversives for extrajudicial execution and disappearance.”

Jim Rennie, Enbridge’s manager of public affairs, offers via e-mail in response to questions from NOW that OCENSA terminated its contract with the employee behind the scheme to sell arms to the Colombian military as soon as it found out about it. (According to testimony before British MPs, the individual in question was transferred to another operation in Venezuela.)

Rennie goes on to say that Enbridge’s relations with communities along the pipeline “have always been positive,” and that “OCENSA is confident in the professionalism of those soldiers assigned to the lawful protection of the pipeline.”

“We disagree with those who argue that non-involvement in countries with problems somehow helps resolve those problems. We believe,” Rennie says, “that safely operated, efficient and environmentally responsible pipeline operations benefit everyone, and that is something Enbridge brings to OCENSA.”

Others would take exception to Rennie’s characterization of OCENSA as “environmentally responsible.”

A joint report penned by, among others, U.S. Environmental Defense, has called OCENSA “an environmental and social disaster,” a project that demonstrates how “the lack of attention to social and environmental concerns results in severe political and economic risk.”

Indeed, it didn’t take long for tensions to blow up, literally, at OCENSA in May 1998. Back then, oil workers went on strike to protest the murders of 11 people by paramilitaries. The strike was soon followed by a leftist guerrilla attack on the pipeline that also wiped out a nearby hamlet, killing 56 people and injuring 100 more.

Since the OCENSA controversy, both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have called on oil companies operating in Colombia to adopt policies requiring military units defending their interests to abide by international human rights laws. Human Rights Watch estimates that half of Colombia’s estimated 120,000 troops are engaged full-time in protecting oil and mining installations.

Says Pablo Leal, a spokesperson for the Canadian Colombian Association, “If you geographically locate where conflicts are taking place on a map, you’ll see an enormous correlation, particularly with oil and mining activity and the movement of paramilitary groups.”

According to Amnesty’s, Keith Rimstead, “We’re not opposed to companies doing business in Colombia, but they have a responsibility to abide by principles set out in international human rights laws. If a company protecting its property hires people who then commit human rights violations, there’s a certain level of responsibility they should accept for that.”

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (composed of the world’s most industrialized countries) has drafted its own corporate code of conduct for companies operating abroad. Ditto for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International trade. But they’re only voluntary. In Ottawa, department spokesperson François Lasalle doesn’t foresee that they’ll become mandatory any time soon.

“There is a debate about balancing the moral aspects of trade with the rights of companies to handle business the way they see fit,” says Lasalle. But “this is still an open society where we’re supposed to be able to do the right thing without being forced to by government. It’s a difficult call to make.”

Colombia-watchers, meanwhile, fear that increasing North American reliance on Colombian crude, particularly in the U.S., will continue to h[e]ighten the conflict.

As well, some analysts see the $1.3-billion Plan Colombia military aid package, ostensibly aimed at stopping narco-trafficking, as part of the political calculus to protect American oil interests in Colombia.

Says Asad Ismi, author of Profiting From Repression: Canadian Investment And Trade With Colombia, “What we have to ask is, “Who’s making the money?’ These policies are being pushed by industrialized countries of the North and their extreme greed for resources. They’re literally sucking the life out of these countries.”

enzom@nowtoronto.com

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Putting Profits over People: Extractivism and Human Rights in Colombia

Originally published on Friday, 15 November 2013 12:56 at Upside Down World, and written by Mariel Perez and Dana Brown.

colombia_mining_violence

César García, a husband, father, and outspoken leader was assassinated on November 2 by a gunshot wound to the head as he was heading home with his wife and nine-year-old daughter after a day of work in his small-farmer community. Garcia led farm workers in brave and staunch opposition to a large-scale mining project in the Tolima department of central Colombia. Little more than one month prior, a similarly tragic story unfolded. On September 30, 36-year-old Adelinda Gómez left a meeting of her community’s women group, part of her countless efforts as a leader and human rights defender in the small agricultural municipality of Almaguer, in the Cauca department of southwestern Colombia. As she was walking home, she was attacked by two unidentified individuals, who shot her to death and left her 16-year-old son in critical condition. Just one month before her death, Adelinda had received an anonymous telephone call in which she was ordered to stop speaking out against mining or she would get herself killed. Adelinda and César’s tragic assassinations are sobering examples of the increasingly violent context surrounding large-scale mining and other extractive industry projects in Colombia.

 

When President Juan Manuel Santos took office in 2010 and declared mining one of the principal locomotoras or engines of the Colombian economy, communities and individuals like Adelinda and César strengthened their mobilization efforts to peacefully protest mining projects because of the serious environmental and human rights issues associated with the largely unregulated industry. Colombian human rights organization CINEP notes an exponential rise since 2008 in the number of social movements protesting extractive industries such as carbon, gold, and petroleum, seemingly in response to the increased economic focus on mining. In a manifestation of civil society’s mobilization in response to the serious problems caused by mining, communities and rights groups, organized under the Network of Solidarity and Fraternity with Colombia (Red de Hermandad y Solidaridad con Colombia), recently conducted a Juicio Ético or People’s Tribunal against transnational mining corporation AngloGold Ashanti, citing evidence of grave violations of human rights and International Humanitarian Law, including forced displacement, aggressions against community leaders, and lack of consultation of affected communities. This people’s tribunal concluded that transnational corporations as well as the Colombian government must be held politically and legally accountable to citizens, given the devastating human rights effects of the largely unregulated mining sector in Colombia. This rising trend in social unrest exposes how mining activities constitute an imminent threat to the livelihoods of local communities; human rights defenders and communities have had to organize in response to recent legal efforts to ease restrictions on mining and to combat the consequences of Free Trade Agreements (10 of which have been signed or negotiated since Santos began his presidential term), which ultimately prioritize transnational companies by imposing restrictions that make it more difficult for the Colombian government to protect its people.

 

The issues at stake are so pressing that the Colombian government’s own oversight institution, the Comptroller’s Office, dedicated a 200+ page report to the consequences of large-scale mining. In the document, the Comptroller warns of the serious human rights effects of unbridled and unregulated large-scale mining, using data to show how mining projects reward companies with accumulated wealth while leaving Colombia with only accumulated waste. The institution warns that current laws impose no limits on awarding mining titles for projects, they do not limit environmental licenses that permit mining activity, and they do not employ adequate enforcement mechanisms in terms of environmental impact studies related to mining projects.  Even more grave is the lack of appropriate consultation of Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities in regards to proposed projects, despite the fact that Free, Prior, and Informed Consent of these communities is enshrined in the 1991 Constitution.

 

Although Colombians are exercising their constitutional rights in mobilizing against these devastating large-scale mining projects, the deaths of brave defenders like Adelinda and César show the high risks involved in confronting the powerful economic and political interests at stake in large-scale extractive projects, as well as the State’s failure to protect and defend the rights of its citizens.

 

Mega-projects and Human Rights

 

The Comptroller’s report underscores the strong links between extractive projects and violations of human rights, underlining concern around the increased militarization and the exacerbation of conflicts that mining causes. The statistics presented in the report seem to justify these worries. For example, 87% of forced displacement originates in areas with mining and energy projects. Other numbers further cement this correlation: 78% of crimes against trade unionists occur in these regions; 89% of violations against indigenous peoples; and 90% of those against Afro-Colombians. In total, 80% of human rights violations in Colombia occur in zones contemplating or already hosting large-scale mining and energy projects. Civil society presented one example of this correlation during its juicio ético against AngloGold Ashanti; human rights defender Alejandro Uribe Chacón was killed by members of the military, who were assigned to the Sur de Bolivar region to protect strategic zones for mining. While this execution took place in 2006, the human rights problems persist in this economically strategic region. Just a few weeks ago, human rights groups warned of a plan to assassinate leaders in Sur de Bolivar who are mobilizing against mining projects in the area. The huge risks to the lives and livelihoods of those opposing mega-projects reaches beyond the mining sector. In the municipality of Ituango in the department of Antioquia, the Movimiento Rios Vivos, a rights group peacefully protesting the construction of a hydroelectric dam, denounces frequent threats and attacks against its leaders. Just last month, Rios Vivos leader Genaro Graciano was nearly killed after a small explosion was intentionally caused just in front of his home.  ASOQUIMBO, an organization protesting the construction of the El Quimbo dam in the southwestern Huila department of Colombia warns of a similar situation of violence, denouncing massive forced displacement of communities by the armed forces and violence against those peacefully protesting the dam project.

 

Colombian human rights organization CODHES also reports a relationship between occurences of forced displacement and regions or municipalities that are in the government’s Territorial Consolidation Plan, a plan that foments foreign investment in the extractive industries in rural regions. This correlation underscores the state’s support of transnational corporations over its own people. Further evidence of the state’s prioritization of transnational interests is the fact that the 2001 Mining Code, which is still in force, classifies mining projects as public utility works. This implies that national development projects will always take precedence over local interests. Given the current reality, this means that the government’s locomotora, or economic engine, legally trumps the human rights of its citizens.

 

The Comptroller’s office warns that human rights violations related to mining will become a bigger problem as the government grants more and more land titles to victims claiming their land rights through the 2011 Victims and Land Restitution Law. This is because almost all towns that are at the center of the government’s land restitution law are currently developing mining projects.

 

“Conflict Minerals”

 

In a sense, the increased link between the presence of extractive industries, megaprojects and violations of human rights seems to be reminiscent of the “conflict minerals” situation in certain African countries. Though in the Colombian case, it is important to note that mineral wealth not only lines the guerrillas’ pockets, but also those of state and para-state actors. While the FARC’s role in illegally mining tungsten ore is most visible at the international level, corporations, state agents, and paramilitary groups have also benefitted from a loosely regulated extractives industry. US coal mining company Drummond, for example, is known to have extensive links with paramilitary groups whom they paid to threaten and assassinate those contesting the company’s economic interests in Colombia. Furthermore, virtually the entire emerald trade in Colombia (which accounts for a whopping 80-90% of the world market) has long been controlled by paramilitary actors. The military’s 2006 assassination of human rights defender Uribe Chacón for the benefit of AngloGold Ashanti exemplifies the state’s direct role in fomenting conflict mining. A more recent example involves Colombia’s use of legal recourses to protect large-scale mining interests over the rights of Colombian citizens. In the municipality of Piedras in the department of Tolima, citizens held a popular referendum in which 2,791 individuals voted to reject mining projects in the region and only 24 voted in support of large-scale mining. While these mechanisms of participatory democracy are binding according to current law, the government directly undermined these rights in May of this year, enacting a decree that rules that citizens cannot halt the awarding of titles for mining projects, regardless of the degree of popular opposition. In effect, the state is legalizing conflict mining through its economic policies and through the use of legal recourse that benefits large-scale corporations, to the serious detriment of Colombian citizens.

 

While Santos agreed to put the land issue on the table of negotiation with the FARC, recognizing its role in the exacerbation of the Colombian conflict, victims of the armed conflict are not party to the negotiations and there are no discussions of mineral rights for communities, leaving dangerous room for loopholes that may allow corporations to continue to take lands from their rightful owners. Given Colombia’s increased economic aperture and the growing prominence of extractive industries and megaprojects, the government cannot expect to fully address the land issue without talking about natural resources.  A true political will for peace must go beyond demobilizing the guerrilla and address all of the factors and actors that exacerbate violence in the country.

 

A Lasting Peace in Colombia

 

This week we celebrated news of a new agreement at the negotiating table between the FARC and the Colombian government regarding political participation. This is an important step towards reaching a full agreement on the end of the armed conflict and a huge achievement for the negotiators. Nevertheless, Colombians know that much more than a signed agreement with the FARC is needed in order to bring lasting peace to Colombia.

 

In addition to the need to dismantle neoparamilitary organizations and negotiate with the other remaining guerrilla groups, a lasting peace in Colombia would require economic and social justice that includes equitable access to land and natural resources.

 

While the prospects for peace in Colombia seem grim given the increasingly violent conflict surrounding extractive industries and their so-called development projects, the tireless efforts of members of civil society cannot be overlooked. Recently, Afro-Colombian communities succeeded in legal action against the State, which had identified portions of their collectively-held land as strategic mining zones under a 2012 Resolution. The Court declared that the labeling of these areas as strategic mining zones violated Afro-Colombian groups’ rights to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent, a success in upholding communities’ rights over the rights of transnational corporations. Nonetheless, the Court failed to make a statement on other fundamental rights, including the communities’ rights to land and cultural diversity, and a healthy environment. As the shortcomings of the decision show, much work remains in ensuring the rights of Colombian citizens. Adelinda and César’s recent deaths are a testament to this fact. They are the devastating manifestations of the dehumanizing effects of uncontrolled large-scale extractivism and neoliberal development in Colombia and of the high costs of putting national and transnational economic interests before the lives and livelihood of the Colombian people.

Dana Brown and Mariel Pérez are human rights activists at the US Office on Colombia (http://www.usofficeoncolombia.org/) where they work to support civil society voices for peace with justice, an end to impunity and respect for human rights in Colombia.”

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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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Protecting the State from Refugees: Asylum Policy Towards Colombian claimants

Yesterday marked World Refugee Day.

In light of the observation, I would encourage people to check out the Canadian Council for Refugees and the work that they are doing to promote refugee rights, particularly in response to the ‘Refugee Exclusion Act’ or Bill C-30 and the cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Jason Kenney last year.

I also think it’s a good time to reflect on, both in the global and Canadian context, the ever increasing challenges and marginalizations which forced migrants are facing. Therefore, I wanted to share this little piece I wrote a while back about Canadian and Ecuadorean asylum policy and its increasingly restrictive nature. This is by no means an extensive review of the literature, ideas, challenges, or experiences which Colombian asylum seekers face, but just a brief reflection on what are (to me) some key issues. I encourage constructive feedback in the comments section.

A quick note on the numbers: When I wrote this, the International Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) took the CODHES number on IDPs in Colombia at the time, which was 5.4 million, and now the latest number is actually 5.5 million. The government estimates of IDPs also have since increased.

Protecting the State from Refugees: Canadian and Ecuadorean Asylum Policy Towards Colombian Migrants

Since 1964, my native Colombia has been at war with itself. This near 50-year conflict, and state-sponsored violence both under the auspices of the War on Terror and the War on Drugs created one of the worlds’ largest forced migration crisis. Official figures put the number of displaced Colombians at 3.9 million, making Colombia only second to Sudan in terms of internal displacement; non-government figures however, put the number at 5.4 million or over 10% of the entire population, and making Colombia the world’s leading country in internal displacement (IDMC).

Nevertheless, the violence of forced displacement is not contained to Colombia’s borders. During the height of the war, an estimated 300,000 to no less than one million Colombians are said to have fled due to the armed violence (Gottwald 517). Many of these refugees fled to Ecuador, who has been internationally lauded for its supposedly liberal and humanitarian policies for allowing Colombian refugees in. At the same time, Colombia has for over a decade been one of the top 10 source countries for Canada’s refugee system (Citizenship and Immigration Canada a). However, since 2012 in Ecuador, and since 2011 in Canada, both of these systems have come under  scrutiny for having become more restrictive and trying to defend themselves against refugees instead of trying to protect refugees from the forces which persecute them. Both of these developments are linked to perceived security concerns, and political discourses and narratives which securitize refugee policy and depend on characterizations of refugees as suspicious individuals abusing a generous system, and placing an unfair burden on the resources of the host country. In Ecuador, this is exacerbated by an association of Colombians with violence and drug trafficking, and regional interests in relation to how the Colombian armed conflict needs to be framed. In Canada, these concerns are part of a larger change in legitimating certain kinds of migrants (economic ones) and delegitmating the most vulnerable (asylum claimants, framed by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney as potentially being ‘bogus’ refugees) (Bradimore and Bauder 2011). Therefore, in both Ecuador and Canada, I argue that immigration policy is largely about image management and driven by popular perceptions of immigration, to the detriment of Colombian asylum seekers. Firstly, let me discuss both countries recent changes to their historically open asylum policies that have particularly benefited Colombians (first with Ecuador, then Canada), then a comparison of both, and finally a critique of how both are exacerbating the vulnerability of this already extremely marginalized and threatened population.

Ecuador, although not a ‘traditional’ humanitarian developed liberal democratic state receiving large amounts of immigration like say the United States, Australia, or Canada, is definitely a country that has been recognized as having received an enormous amounts of (forced) migrants. This  country has the largest amount of refugees in the Western hemisphere (Applebaum 2012). Over 98.5% of these are Colombians, most likely displaced by violence from Colombia’s armed conflict (Applebaum 2012). Ecuador is a signatory to both the 1951 Geneva Convention, outlining the traditional Cold War era-focused definition of a refugee, as well as the 1976 Protocol. More importantly, Ecuador is also signatory to the 1984 Cartagena Declaration on Refugees; this declaration, although not legally binding, set out a framework for Latin American asylum policy which was more sensitive to the needs at the time where civil wars in both Central and South America were at their height, and with a definition of refugee that was more relevant than the 1951 one. This definition included people who were fleeing ‘massive human rights violations’, ‘generalized violence’ and ‘disturbances to the public order’ (White 1).  From 2000 to 2004, Ecuador accepted 27,000 Colombian refugees, an unprecedented number in that amount of time, far surpassing the rest of Colombia’s neighbours (Panama, Peru, Venezuela, Brazil) who together with Ecuador have over the last decade received the bulk of Colombia’s externally displaced population (Gottwald 532). Many of these refugees were at first accepted prima facie in Ecuador under the definition outlined by the Cartagena Declaration which, true to its purpose, fits quite nicely with the context of people fleeing the Colombian armed conflict (Gottwald 531). For many Colombians fleeing violence from armed groups such as the paramilitaries, the Marxist guerrillas, and the Colombian army in the Pacific, one of the poorest and most conflict-affected areas of Colombia, going to Ecuador is an attractive option. This has raised dramatically the amount of Colombian refugees arriving in Ecuador; in 2000 Ecuador received less than 500 asylum applicants, to 45,000 in 2007 (Riaño and Villa 59). Ecuador is a key actor therefore in the issue of Colombian forced migration.

Given this escalating crisis, the overburdened and under-resourced Ecuadorean refugee system, although relatively liberal and generous compared to the rest of Colombia’s neighbours, the system began to become more restrictive in 2002 when the Cartagena Declaration definition was no longer applied (Gottwald 533). Moreover, Colombians would be arbitrarily denied refugee status because of stigma against them and, although recognized as one of the better options for Colombian refugees, only a third of asylum claimants would be accepted. Ecuadoreans would generally reject Colombians, except for mass displacements resulting from well-known, highly-publicized, and documented massacres (Korovkin 325). Therefore, Ecuadorean asylum policy may not be as ‘humanitarian’ as it may appear.

The most pressing concerns however, are related to recent changes and Ecuador’s political interests in the framing of the Colombian armed conflict. In 2012, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa issued Decree 1182, vastly restricting options for refugees in Ecuador in an effort to consolidate refugee laws and hopefully regulate the estimated thousands of Colombians who migrated, forcibly and voluntarily, and illegally. Decree 1182 cut down the amount of time for asylum claimants to submit their claims by half, and greatly reduced the time for refugees to organize and submit appeals to decisions (Littell 2012). Decree 1182 also begins to speak for the first time of repatriation, which would reduce the burden of hosting Colombian refugees, but would send them potentially back into danger (Litell 2012). The Decree also ignores the relevant Cartagena definition, opting for the Cold War relic of the 1951 Convention Refugee determination, focusing on individual persecution and not generalized violence.

This decree, and its associated problems and effects, are rooted in a very specific discourse around Colombian refugees in Ecuador. Firstly, with tens of thousands of refugees flooding into a relatively small and underdeveloped country, with an under-resourced refugee department and a weak UNHCR presence, the system is overloaded; moreover, it is in the interests of the Ecuadorean government and the Marxist FARC guerrillas, as well as the Colombian government itself, to downplay the transnational nature of an issue like forced migration (Gottwald 527). The Colombian government wants to keep the war a domestic issue that it can deal with within the auspices of its own sovereignty. Also, both Ecuador and the FARC want to downplay the fact that the FARC has been present in Ecuador for over a decade, being that the Ecuadorean government has been either unwilling or unable to remove the FARC from their territory (Gottwald 527). In a similar vein, this is part of a larger securitization of the refugee discourse and a militarization of the Ecuadorean-Colombian border as a result of the armed conflict that is part of a much larger pattern of trying to control the movement of drugs, arms, and people. The previous Ecuadorean  president Lucio Gutierrez and the former President of Colombia Alvaro Uribe Vélez, in an effort to curb illicit movements of people, arms, drugs, and insurgents, required a Paso Juridico, or a criminal record check at the border so that known ‘criminals’ would not be able to cross the border Riaño and Villa 62).

This discourse is motivated by a dual-interest in demonizing Colombian refugees. Firstly, already impoverished Colombian refugees are willing to work at lower wages than low-income Ecuadoreans when they arrive, causing resentment amongst locals (Korovkin 326). Furthermore, given the presence of the FARC and the somewhat lawlessness, despite militarization, of the Colombian-Ecuadorean border and of Ecuadorean communities along the border, violent crime such as murder has apparently skyrocketed in these communities (Gottwald 536, Korovkin 328). Many Colombian refugees have a well-founded fear that they will continue to be persecuted once in Ecuador, and that if they apply for asylum in Ecuador and are rejected, they will be deported back to Colombia (Korovkin 328). This coupled with a fear that many refugees do not want to be ‘traced’, and therefore do not want to document their movements into Ecuador, creates a high degree of under-registration, or what Gottwald calls “invisibility” of Colombian refugees (Gottwald 535); for example the Ecuadorean Minister for Foreign Affairs suggested that whereas official numbers of Colombians in Ecuador are around 50,000 (not all refugees, it must be mentioned), he estimates that the actual number maybe 10 times that, and perhaps even 1 million (Korovkin 325). Many Colombians also once upon arriving at Ecuador, do not have proper documentation or do not come into contact with authorities (given that they are coming from remote areas and through what is a jungle border), and therefore never have the opportunity to formally apply for asylum. So, increasing violence, a perception that Colombians are bringing with them their social problems (drug trafficking, the FARC), and abusing of Ecuador’s “generous” refugee system as well as living outside of it, has bred resentment among the local population in Ecuador who does not have direct family ties to Colombia. Indeed, in one survey, 52% of Colombian refugees in Ecuador felt that they had experienced discrimination based on their immigration status (or lack thereof) or there Colombian nationality (White 6).

The Canadian context is not much different in that a negative perception of refugees, that refugees are an issue to be ‘dealt with’ and not human beings entitled to certain rights and protection from the state as asylum claimants, drives immigration policy. In particular to Colombia, although not occupying a large space in the Canadian popular imagination, this nation has been one of the top 10 source countries for refugees for over a decade and has been in the top 5 lamentably since 2005 (Citizenship and Immigration Canada A). In 2006 for example, as a source country for refugees to Canada, Colombia was only second to Afghanistan (Citizenship and Immigration Canada c). Between 1995 and 2005, over half of all Colombians coming to Canada were refugees (Riaño and Villa 279). Interestingly as well, 90% of the Colombian refugees that are part of the Canadian government-assisted resettlement program are people who needed a Third Country after not being able to find adequate safety in Ecuador (White 8). Canada’s refugee program in Colombia, in which one can apply for government-assisted resettlement and asylum from within Colombia is the only program of its kind left in the country (Rico-Martinez 2011). Therefore, Canada and Colombia in regards to asylum policy are symbiotically significant to each other in that one represents a large part of its international humanitarian commitment to asylum seekers, and the other is one of the few viable options for escaping extremely high levels of brutal political and criminal violence.

Nevertheless, Colombia, although in real terms still a large ‘producer’ of refugees is slowly losing priority in terms of representation of ‘legitimate’ needs in Ottawa. In an interview with the Political Counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Bogotá, delegates from the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) recount how the Canadian government is taking at face value many claims about security which are part of the official government discourse in Colombia (Rico-Martinez 2011). These points are that in urban areas, particularly the capital, security has greatly improved and the armed conflict is almost non-existent. Other points are that that the Marxist insurgency no longer has a national reach and has been pushed back by an American-supported counterinsurgency of former President Uribe to marginal areas (such as those bordering Ecuador, which still produce regional displacement). And the final narrative which has been accepted is that the demobilization of the paramilitary groups which executed the counterinsurgency in a not-so-covert alliance with the Colombian military was successful, eliminating the threat from the ‘paras’ as well (Rico-Martinez 2011). In other words, options for Colombians fearing armed political violence are to move to the illusion safety of urbanity such as Bogotá, and that the paramilitaries and guerrillas, the main actors in the conflict, are no longer a ‘problem’. However, there is a perception among displaced Colombians, not ridiculous, that the Canadian embassy will share intelligence with the DAS (the Colombian intelligence agency) who has files on 28 million Colombians-the Army in Colombia is also one of the largest perpetrators of abuses, historically working with paramilitary groups to persecute  ‘subversives’ who could possibly be guerrilla sympathizers (Rico-Martinez 2011). Despite this context of extreme vulnerability for many Colombians, Canada has opted to get rid of the ‘Source Country’ class for asylum claimants, even citing Colombia as having low acceptance rates (less than 10%) and a reason for the class’s irrelevance (Citizenship and Immigration Canada b). Therefore, the fact that the Canadian and American governments are on extremely good terms with the current Colombian leadership who is forwarding a narrative that Colombia’s counterinsurgency has brought relative security to the country is perhaps effecting  the framing, if not the implementation of asylum policy towards Colombia.

In the more general context, almost identical to Ecuador, Canadian asylum policy is being forwarded by crises/migrations which happen to the host country, and an official discourse which frames refugees as a ‘problem’. Canadian policy has been arguably influenced, if not driven, by the arrival of Tamil asylum claimants on boats in 2009 (Bradimore and Bauder). Given an exoticization of these ‘boat-people’ in the media, and the discourse around them which used a language of security, and not humanitarian necessity or rights, the asylum claimants were framed in the popular imagination of Canadians as being potentially a security threat at worst, or at best economic migrants who were ‘abusing’ Canada’s ‘generous’ refugee system. This later evoked an essentialized image of the “bogus” refugee who threatened either Canada’s physical security which has much political currency in a post-9/11 world, or who’s place in Canada was illegitimate as the ‘bogus’ refugee is trying to ‘jump the queue’ past ‘legitmate’ immigrants and giving a bad name to ‘legitimate’ refugees. This was the narrative employed by  the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Jason Kenney, to justify the restrictionist changes to Canadian asylum policy under the auspices of Bill C-31, the ‘Protecting the Canadian Immigration System Act’ (MacIntosh 2012, Labman 57). Logically, this is somewhat contradictory as the immigration system and the asylum system, although both under Kenney’s mandate, are different. One is about Canadian interests, and the other, although clearly political and subject to the political interests of the governing party, should be about Canada’s humanitarian commitment to the Geneva Convention.

Ironically, Bill C-31 is actually much like Ecuador’s Presidential Decree 1182; the time for filing an asylum claim is reduced to 15 days; Canadian asylum applicants, many fleeing traumatic and chaotic situations in which documenting abuse is difficult, or dealing with literacy and language issues, must find proper documentation for their claim within 30 days. Other similarities with the Ecuadorean changes include a more stringent criteria of appeals (the Pre-Removal Risk Assessment period is shortened) (Canadian Council for Refugees). Also, in direct contravention to the Refugee Convention and further reinforcing the ‘refugees are security threats/criminals’ narrative is the fact that if the Minister of Public Safety deems that a refugees arrival is “irregular” (such as the boat incidents with the Sri Lankan migrants), the migrants can be detained.

Kenney’s extremely problematic discourse is politically useful. By framing refugees as a burden on a generous system, as having dubious legitimacy on whether or not to be in Canada and enjoy services while they await a decision on their claim, it becomes less politically costly to ‘deal’ with refugees in ways that are convenient for Canada (detaining them, deporting them, not paying for their healthcare temporarily) but violate the rights of an extremely vulnerable population who has few to no options to keep the government they are dependent on accountable. This discourse essentially absolves the Canadian government of its humanitarian duties and presents it instead as responsible, prudent, and looking out for the best interest of Canada when it violates the rights of refugees.

Colombians, although not having a particularly significant purchase on the Canadian perception of refugees in general, unfortunately fit well into this narrative as Colombia is generally constructed within popular imaginaries as a suspicious place of chaos which exports drugs, refugees, violence, and other social problems. Therefore, the Canadian government, through Jason Kenney and evidenced by the words of representatives of the Embassy sets up two contradictory narratives which are both at the service of a restrictionist immigration policy. One is that, potentially, many asylum claimants to Canada are so-called ‘bogus refugees’ who are really ‘just’ economic migrants or (in the case of Colombia) drug traffickers or FARC terrorists; the other is that the situation in Colombia has improved to a point where, although things may be bad, Colombia no longer needs to be a ‘Source Country of Origin’ and is perhaps even an example of why that entire special class of countries with respect to asylum policy is no longer relevant.

Minister Jason Kenney

It is difficult to prioritize one policy over the other, as both are extremely similar in their origins, interests, supporting narratives (refugees/Colombians are dangerous or freeloaders), and outcomes (restrictionism). However, purely in technical terms, Canada’s refugee system is somewhat, perhaps even negligibly, better than Ecuador’s.  Canada’s system still has a more equitable appeal system than Ecuador’s, which only allows for a few days for gathering appeals. Additionally, although the contexts are very different (Canada largely receives Colombians at ports of entry, most Colombians are ‘invisible’ to the Ecuadorean state), Canada does have a less chaotic, and more rights-guaranteeing asylum system then Ecuador, although this system is slowly being eroded. Ironically though, Ecuador has much more to win from restrictionism than Canada, and Colombians have much more to lose. As a frontier zone bordering guerrilla strongholds, Ecuador is a first-stop for Colombians fleeing coca fumigation, forced displacement, massacres, sexual violence, and many other kinds of depredations by armed actors. Canada, although economically and socially a much more attractive option than Ecuador , is not a viable choice for many refugees given the waning concern on the part of Ottawa for the humanitarian situation in Colombia  and the geographic distance. Nevertheless given the uncontrolled influx of an unknown number of refugees into what are already poor communities in Ecuador, Ecuadoreans bear the brunt of the refugee crisis in the Americas. A restrictionist policy, and popular support for it, are more politically viable in Ecuador. The millions of dollars that Canada in the long-run will ‘save’ on its humanitarian commitment (something that perhaps should not be the first place to look for budget cuts), are relatively insignificant, given what Canada spends on asylum. However, given the construction of refugees as an issue, and the hypervisibilization of ‘suspicious’ appearing refugees given the two boat incidents off the coast of British Columbia, politically, there is much to gain for the Canadian government from adopting restrictionist measures, although not necessarily the host society like Ecuador would.

This disturbing pattern of restrictionist asylum policies, against the spirit and even sometimes the letter of the 1951 Convention, closes a literal humanitarian space of potential safety for the millions of Colombians who have been, and continue to be, victimized by violence. Colombians will no longer just have a hard time finding refuge in Canada and Ecuador (two of the few countries who ever received many Colombians in the first place), but if they arrive there their situations will be more precarious, with less support from the state and a greater likelihood to be deported back to the civil war they fled.

The architects and executors of both Ecuadorean and Canadian immigration policy need to critically reflect on whose interests they are actually advancing by restricting the possibilities for Colombian asylum seekers. Ecuador needs to get rid of Decree 1182, and most urgently, needs to recognize refugees using the Cartagena Declaration definition, and not just the 1951 definition; ‘formalizing’ the tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of Colombian forced migrants living in the shadows in Ecuador needs to a process of humanitarian inclusion, and not convenient exclusion. In both Canada and Ecuador, asylum claimants should be given more time and resources to make their asylum claims, and there needs to be less of an emphasis on receiving forced migrants and their claims on the terms of government bureaucracies (an emphasis on documentation) and more on the migrants needs (for example, in Colombia some of the most affected by displacement fleeing to Ecuador are indigenous people who often may not have a working knowledge of Spanish, let alone French or English, to say nothing of being able to document the anarchic and traumatic nature of events like displacement). Canada needs to stop detaining refugees and understand that to arbitrarily deem some arrivals as “irregular” is problematic. Forced migration is an experience of literal and figurative displacement in which one’s place in the world is traumatically ruptured and survival is the key focus; there is little that is typically ‘regular’ about this for thousands of Colombians.

Most importantly however, given that both Ecuador and Canada are democracies in which public opinion (or what leaders perceive it to be, or help to make) heavily influences policy. In both countries, restrictionist immigration policy that would be otherwise controversial is supported if not driven by narratives and perceptions of (Colombian) refugees as being suspect, dangerous, and freeloading. The best thing that Canada and Ecuador can do for Colombian refugees is to hand them the microphone and let their respective publics understand them and the complexities of forced migrations on the Colombians’ own terms, and not on those of the governments who would rather protect themselves from them.

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