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Colombia: a state of flux


By Adam Isacson*    

9 February 2012

adsm_isacsonAdam IsacsonThe approaching date of 20 February 2012 will be a frustrating anniversary in Colombia. On that day in 2002, following guerrillas’ kidnapping of a senator, the country’s then president Andrés Pastrana abruptly ended more than three years of stumbling peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia(Farc) guerrillas.

Over the nextten years, more than 22,500 Colombians died in combat involving the security forces. Many thousands more lost their lives in hostilities between illegal armed groups, and as civilian casualties.

At the end of this decade, the armed groups in Colombia’s nearly half-century-old conflict (the Farc, the smaller ELN guerrillas, and drug-funded “paramilitary” networks) look different, and are markedly weaker. But they persist, and threaten to be around for quite some time. Still, Colombians speak far more optimistically about their country’s prospects than they did in 2002. The president, Juan Manuel Santos, echoed their sentiment in telling a group of Brazilian investors that Colombia “has a new agenda. We are a country ready for takeoff.”

But are the optimists right? Is Colombia, its violence and drug-trafficking problems reduced to “nuisance” status, poised to follow the trajectory of Lula’s Brazil? Or do fundamental inequality, injustice, corruption and rule-of-law issues remain unresolved, threatening to pull the country back into the abyss at any time?

It could go either way. No matter what the issue in Colombia today, there is a glass-half-full and a glass-half-empty view – and both are based on measurable facts.

An elusive security

Take, for example, the country’s security situation. Here, the big-picture news appears good. The military’s offensive against the guerrillas, and a negotiatPresident Juan Manuel CarlosPresident Juan Manuel Santosed deal that demobilised – and withdrew much government support from – the paramilitaries, reduced violence sharply. Murders are down 50% since 2002, and kidnappings by 90 percent. This makes Colombia an exception in Latin America, where violent crime is rising almost everywhere.

The security forces have dealt monumental recent blows to armed groups. The Farc’s paramount leader, Alfonso Cano, was killed in November 2011. TheErpac, the neo-paramilitary group that dominates Colombia’s eastern plains, demobilised in December 2011, a year after its own leader’s killing. On 1January 2012, government forces killed Juan de Dios Usuga, one of two brothers who commanded the Urabeños neo-paramilitary group.

The more recent news, however, is far less encouraging. In response to Usuga’s killing, the Urabeños ordered all businesses to shut in a broad swathe of territory across Colombia’s north – a more ambitious “armed strike” than anything the Farc ever attempted. In 2011. Meanwhile, kidnappings rose 5%, and guerrilla attacks – most of them ambushes, IEDs, landmines, and sniper fire in remote areas – killed over 400 soldiers and police for the third straight year. In early February 2012, the Farc detonated bombs outside two southwestern Colombian police stations in two days, killing fifteen people, eleven of them civilians. The guerrillas attacked the security forces 132 times in the first twenty days of 2012.

The story of Colombia’s fight against drug-trafficking is similarly mixed. In the late 2000s, the country cut back on aerial herbicide fumigation (which had spread in the early years of the decade, under “Plan Colombia”) and increased manual eradication of coca plants. This appears to be reducing coca cultivation – to the point where Peru may have produced more coca leaf in 2011.

Daniel “El Loco” BarreraHowever, the country’s current crop of drug lords – figures like Daniel “El Loco” Barrera and Medellín kingpin “Sebastian” or “Don Mario”, who reportedly continues to order the Urabeños group from prison – remains wealthy and, by corrupting officials, politically powerful. More cocaine continues to be produced in Colombia than in any other country, and the vast majority of United States-bound cocaine leaves Colombian territory, either from the country’s coasts or into Venezuela and then by air.

A form of justice

For its part, Venezuela’s relations with Colombia remain calm and cordial. Lawless conditions on Venezuela’s side of the border, and Colombian accusations that Venezuela’s leftist government harbours the Farc, led to several very tense episodes between the two countries during the government of Colombia’s president from 2002-10, Álvaro Uribe. After he succeeded Uribe in August 2010, Juan Manuel Santos abruptly shifted gears towards a rapprochement with Hugo Chávez.

The thaw in Colombian-Venezuelan relations is also fragile, though, with allegations of Venezuelan support for the Farc presenting the greatest challenge. It did not help that the new Farc leader, Timoleón Jiménez (alias “Timochenko)” is based in the Colombia-Venezuela border-zone, or that Venezuela’s new defence minister, General Henry Rangel Silva, is wanted in the United States for allegedly collaborating with the Farc. Still, diplomats from both countries are endeavouring to keep things on an even keel, especially amid Chávez’s ongoing bout with cancer and Venezuela’s forthcomong presidential elections in October.

Colombia’s domestic politics have also changed after the hard-right Uribe government’s eight years. Though he served for three of those years as Uribe’s defence minister, Juan Manuel Santos has ended Uribe’s feuds with the justice system, and ceased public accusations that human-rights groups are tied to terrorists. His government has raised Colombia’s minimum wage and pushed for (and is now beginning to implement) landmark legislation to return millions of hectares of land stolen by armed actors since the early 1990s.

These developments have diminished former president Uribe (who disagrees strongly with some of his successor’s policies, particularly the rapprochement with Venezuela). He has been forced to defend himself and his political allies against investigations of several scandals involving corruption, spying on political opponents, and collaboration with paramilitary groups.

It is not clear, though, whether the Bogotá government will be able to see the land-restitution program through completely. Some of the areas where the most land was stolen continue to be either consumed by violence or under the influence of corrupt landowners who have supported violent tactics in the recent past. Since President Santos took over, more than twenty leaders of groups seeking the return of land have been killed; as the restitution plan gets going and actually tries to take away ill-gotten land, life could get even more dangerous for victims seeking to regain what they lost.

The security forces’ ability, and willingness, to protect victims will be vital. To ensure that restitution takes place (and that the Farc and “new” paramilitary groups do not get any stronger), the Santos government will need the cooperation of a military that is becoming increasingly assertive politically. With nearly 300,000 members (plus 160,000 police) and a large chunk of the national budget, Colombia’s armed forces have become a much more powerful institution than they were ten years ago.

And they are angry: in the past few years Colombia’s civilian-justice system has shown more independence and sentenced several top officers to prison for past human-rights crimes. The verdicts that have stung the military hardest have to do with abuses committed during what remains a super-sensitive case: the army’s overwhelming response to an incident in 1985 when a guerrilla group seized the palace of justice in Bogotá.

Some analysts of Colombia’s armed forces, including retired officers, claim that recent security reversals (such as the rise in Farc attacks) may in part be owed to discontented officers deliberately avoiding combat. In a sort of “sit-down strike”, they may be holding out for greater impunity by reminding civilian leaders that they need the military more than the military needs them.

During a debate in the legislature on constitutional reform in autumn 2011, the defence ministry introduced an apparent response to this “strike”: a proposed section that would send human-rights cases first to the military-justice system (where impunity in the past has been virtually assured) instead of the civilian system. This would be a huge setback for human rights in Colombia. It may be hard to believe so soon after the armed forces allegedly killed over 3,000 civilians and claimed their victims as armed-group members killed in combat, but the military may be about to win the right to try its own men for human-rights crimes.

Meanwhile, on the seemingly eternal question of prospects for peace in Colombia, the picture is less than encouraging, but also mixed. The armed forces believe that they are in the final, “mopping up” phase of their conflict with the Farc, and – along with perhaps half of Colombians – do not alt“Timochenko”favour peace negotiations. However, the Farc’s new leader “Timochenko” has been much more vocal than his predecessors; striking an almost conciliatory tone, he has indicated a desire to restart peace negotiations. However, in early February, amid much posturing on both sides and the defence ministry’s unwillingness to allow outside actors (including the Brazilian government) to help, the Farc rescinded an offer to release six security-force members whom it has been holding hostage for over a decade.

Washington’s role

Even before the last peace process ended, the United States has played a crucial role in all of the issues of war, peace, drugs and politics discussed here. Today the US’s role, too, is contradictory: both receding and important.

The reduction of US influence is palpable. Aid is being cut, to under $300 million in military and police aid in 2012 – a return to pre-1999 levels. Moreover, it is likely to continue shrinking in line with US budget cuts. In 2011, the US Congress at last ratified the 2006 free-trade agreement with Colombia, which now means less US leverage over Colombia’s human-rights and labour policies. Washington is also distracted by violent crises elsewhere in the hemisphere, especially Mexico and central America.

At the same time, the United States continues to play a determining role. Also in 2011, Washington approved $215 million in new Usaid contracts for a controversial military-and-development assistance scheme known as “Consolidation” across four zones of Colombia. And US aid to Colombia’s justice system, which has not been deeply reduced in the 2012 budget, is more important than ever before.

Whether the issue is human-rights trials, land restitution, efforts to curb organised crime or to clean up corruption, all roads in Colombia go through the country’s beleaguered yet independent justice system. The judiciary’s ability to do its job could spell the difference between Colombia deteriorating and Colombia being mentioned in a few years’ time in the same breath as Brazil. All in all, US support for Colombia’s judicial system is money very well spent right now – and far more important than more money for a war that may rage for at least another ten years.

*Adam Isacson is a senior associate for regional security policy at the Washingon Office on Latin America.

* This artilce was first published in OpenDemocracy

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